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Flying back to Colorado from Kansas City I passed over multitudes of squares, rectangles and otherwise straight angled pieces of land stretching across western Kansas and into Colorado. So much of that land is placed into grids through agriculture. But I couldn’t help but think about how the land was originally spanned out, laid out and created. Not in right angles and straight lines, surely; but in ever-shifting, inter-woven boundaries. Straight lines are mere walls to natural surroundings, especially in agriculture. When we plant in straight rows with so much space between plantings, we’re mimicking not mother nature and earthy wisdom, but control and temperance. But control and temperance only lead to dead spaces for noxious weeds, earth-compaction and necessary tillage. Just for the sake of beauty it seems, we mirror our gardens and our earth into boxes we would ultimately like to see around us for comfort’s (control/temperance) sake.
In his book, How To Grow More Vegetables, John Jeavons incorporates planting in such close spacings that the fully matured plants are allowed to touch; this provides a mini-climate if you will, and makes a living mulch out of the very plants themselves. It also controls weed growth and preserves moisture in the soil while creating less work and more efficiency. It also releases some of the mindset of wanted plants vs. unwanted plants in lessening the need to hoe a spaced area between plants and recognizing that all plants carry benefit in one form or another. Mother nature works in synergy through all her systems, they just might not be recognizable to the naked gardening eye. (But at the same time, if anyone knows any benefits to be had from such plants as morning glories, daughter or bindweed, feel free to let me know!)
Through utilizing heaving mounds of garden beds rounding down to small paths in between, one can make the most of square footage in the garden and plant along a rainbow pattern instead of individual plantings running in straight lines down the bed.
Thinning can be performed as required for health of tops and roots, and the soil in the bed will be less likely to be trampled which keeps it in tip-top aeration and tillage shape. (Note: If you do need to stand in the middle of the bed for some reason, you can place a board over the bed and stand on it – this will spread out your weight more evenly over the area so that less impact is made on a single spot.)
Granted some people might be gardening in communities where the appearance of the place makes all the difference in creating a welcoming environment – by all means, keep up the shape of your grounds and don’t make people have to scavenge through a forest of grasses to dig a carrot or bend and strain the neck reaching to the center of the bed just to gather a bunch of tat soi. But neither should we expect nature to look like city blocks. Sometimes a rogue tomato decides to grow in the middle of a bed of spinach, it’s up to you how you want to deal with it.
Fun Fact:If you really want to let the inner hippie in you come out to play for a while, try petting that tomato plant. Called the “Thigmo Response,” when the stem is swayed back and forth (as in the wind or a vivacious watering,) the plant produces a hormone that toughens it up and builds stamina by encouraging a shorter yet stockier stem. This helps the tomato to hold more of its own weight and leads to an overall more vigorous and productive plant.
Today we took a small field-trip off the farm to head about an hour Northwest to Salida, CO, to visit friends of Beki’s. This couple helped to start her CSA from the ground up – they organized a following in the Salida area of people who wanted a CSA program to eat from and support, contacted Beki just as she was moving back to her homeplace and starting the farming operation a few years ago and now she has anywhere from 20-34 patrons per season to sell her produce to. (She also has CSA pickups in Canon, CO Springs and Westcliffe at the markets.)
For starters, after getting a tour of their land (4 acres next to the Arkansas River) and seeing their in-ground, walk-in root cellar I now know that I will never be satisfied in life without one.
Having an outdoor stone fire place and chimney wouldn’t hurt lifetime satisfaction either. But seriously, their property was gorgeous. Having moved in only a year ago, they already have mounded garden beds, raised beds
lined with straw bales, 3 high tunnels with living mulches in place to aerate and prepare the soil for in-ground planting, a working compost pile, a chicken coop/barn and fenced in pasture sidling up to the river behind the house, which holds – in the living room – a mini-green house of sorts with a stainless steel shelving unit and fluorescent lighting. They’re also on their way to a perennial flower and herb garden as well as a hefty orchard of a side yard. Not only did I get a ridiculous amount of new knowledge and photos, but I’m also coming away from the experience with a new recipe for Chocolate Chocolate Chip Biscotti (via email in the next day or so……..Delish!)
I was a little girl on Pappaw’s lap the last time I rode a riding lawn mower in Bethel, NC all those years ago (I’ll be impressed if any of you know where the heck that even is!) All other mowings have been push or ruminant. But this morning I pushed in the clutch all by myself (my legs are long enough now,) geared her into 3 and took care of the overgrowth bordering the black raspberry and grape patch. This was done in preparation for some intense mulching; layer of compost, layer of cardboard, another layer of compost and finally a layer of straw. The jungle the garden patch looked like before looked tamed, beautiful and as darn near pristine as any gardener would hope to see. 12 loads of compost hauled by the trusty Rhino-cart (complete with a pair of hanging dice,) gave us enough to pile a good inch across the surface of the plot and in between the established canes and branches and the new growth that loves to pop up just out of reach of the trellising system. The cardboard will lock in moisture for the thirsty roots, suppress weed growth and decompose over the course of the growing season.
That was this morning. This afternoon found me harvesting wild mint from the banks of their irrigation ditches (more on this below!) It grows rampant in colonies about a foot from the ledge of the bank, smells crisp and cool, ‘pops’ with its vibrant, almost lime green skin and has shallow, side-reaching roots that make transplanting a breeze.
And finally…..asparagus! I’ve been waiting all Spring to have some asparagus – Pinwheel didn’t grow it, it wasn’t up yet in Harmony Village; ta-da! Now I have hoards of asparagus: in eggs for breakfast, sautéed with butter and lemon for lunch, in veggie stir-fry for supper. Asparagus (tainted urine aside) is hard for me to get tired of – perhaps that’s because I’ve never had a chance to get tired of it. It has only a very short growing season, takes years to produce an adequate culinary crop and a lot of farms just don’t grow it.
The secret is in the roots; the first year you plant, you’re supposed to just let it be, no picking no harvesting no nothing. Let it get tall, go to seed and die back the first year, the starches are then able to concentrate in the roots over the winter and store up enough energy to send some yummy edible stalks (leave the ones that are skinnier than your pinkie) up to you through your mulch of choice (I’ve only ever seen hay mulch used with asparagus.) According to the 2 patches we have growing here on Javernick Family Farms in Canon City, CO, it likes cow patties but doesn’t prefer to live with clover. And it definitely likes a sandier soil than most crops.
Now to the ditch irrigation. I’ve always heard about ditch-style irrigation, especially its use in places like Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona where water is in high demand and highly patrolled. First they dug 3 foot deep and wide ditches lining sides of all the roads and fields (miles and miles of ditches,) then a few metal plates bent to fit the curve of the ditches serve as dams, both temporary and easily moved. The water channeled from the Arkansas River is released by a valve set along the middle of the property to flow into the ditch of choice and slight indentions that line up with each tractor tire path allow the water to flow from the backed up ditch, down the paths and overflow to barely cover the seedlings/mature crops (2-3″ into the beds) when the water is cut off at the valve and the crops are good to go with a long, cool drink. This can take 1 -1 ½ hours during a hot, dry spell (the crust of the topsoil is so parched that the water merely slides over it before penetrating (which can lead to flooding in certain spots,) or up to 2 ½ hours when the tilth is decent.
Culinary adventures have hit a slow spot this time, as I’m sharing one small kitchen (with only 2 working burners, a limited supply of pots, pans and large bowls and only cloves, nutmeg and chili powder to call a spice collection) with 4 other people. Nonetheless, mini-strawberry-coconut-lime scones, sourdough starter and Spring garden vegetable stir-fry have come into being (and come into our beings) so far. Other highlights have been homemade guacamole (an abundance of cilantro in the greenhouse helped settle this) as well as a couple fresh pineapple choppings.
The stir-fry tonight was delightful – a shopping trip to the local health food store (the only bright light so far in Canon City,) procured coriander, ginger, paprika and soy sauce to go along with: Javernick asparagus, bok choy, garlic and beef loin steak. Carrots, celery and rice made up a good portion of the meal, all of which was topped of by a simple dash of vinegar and a spoonful of honey at the end and garnished with some Javernick cilantro for kicks (and taste, and happiness.) Mmm, salty, pungent, sour and sweet – another meal with applauding taste buds.
The weather has been slightly unarguable everyday so far; warm yet extremely windy the first day, chilly and overcast the second, gusty again the third, and today it’s rained non-stop all afternoon. However, I’ve gotten in some good bike rides, explored the (miniscule) downtown area, gotten connected into the local library system and am enjoying being enveloped on all sides by majestic, red rock mountains with a few distant snow caps hovering just above in a couple of directions. The terrain of Colorado blows me away again and again. Besides the sky seems bluer, the clouds are definitely closer and the sun sets streaks in my hair a little bit faster.
Sudden, spontaneous showers today interrupted a fun project only a couple of times; painting recycled newspaper stands for the CCFA (Central Colorado Foodshed Alliance) Food Guide distribution in a few towns around this part of CO. Spray paint, some sticky stencils and a few vegetative objects (kale leaf, chive blossom and stem, a few seed-head grasses, tomato and arugula leaves) turned shocking green into stellar, layered, collage art. Art with a message if I’ve ever seen it.
…..And other vaca….I mean adventures in community gardening.
So to begin with, this week has been amazing. Working in the dirt with a published author, retired EPA-worker, environmental film documenter, co-housing pioneer and seasoned gardener of 25 years in a beautiful and well-established acre of garden beds, an orchard and solar-powered water pumps has proven to be a little fairyland Mecca of Colorado gardening.
I crossed an invisible boundary line when I drove across western Kansas last week. In his book, The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West, Dave Wann highlights the incredible differences that the soil and climate hold here in this western region of the country a mile above sea level.
For starters, they almost never have to amend the soil with lime (to alkalinize it) because it’s so rich in rocks and mineral-matter that it’s naturally above 6.5pH (considered “sweet,” or alkaline by many veggie standards) most of the time. What he has spent the last 10 years amending the soil with is well-rotted compost to build up the organic matter of the clayey-type ground under foot, as well as add some acidity. (Of course, all farmers/gardeners would benefit immensely from adding organic matter in the form of compost since it also offers a host of macro – worms, red wigglers – and micro – good bacteria! and beneficial microbes and fungi – organisms to the soil that help break down nutrients for plant use, aerate the soil, provide carbon matter that helps the soil hold onto water like a sponge, and keep some diseases at bay. Think of it as probiotics for your garden.)
The way we incorporate it into the soil is by placing a thin coating over the top of the area to be “bedded,” and then turning it under in a semi double-digging fashion (look up “biointesive gardening” as practiced by John Jeavons in Willits, CA. His book is: How to Grow More Vegetables (And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine) Dig a slice with your shovel, turn it over an place it right next to the spot from whence it came, move on to the other side of the hole and procure another slice and place it all topsy-turvy into the first hole; continue on down the bed and around until you’ve hit every shovel-sized space. You can then go over the entire bed with a hoe to break up any large clumps, and then rake it over to smooth the top. At this point the bed is dark and rich-smelling from all the compost and slightly “raised” due to freshly-incorporated air space. It’s also neat to think of the microbes in your compost and soil acting as the “yeast that makes the soil rise.”
Carrots, nasturtiums, sweet basil and radishes and a few strategically placed onions were sown into the first raised bed I tilled. Everything was seed except for the onions which had been started in flats a month or so ago and housed in the cold frames on the West side of the garden. Lettuces, spinach, broccoli and some herbs also live in there right now. We’ve been closing it up at night (and stuffing blankets in the crack-spaces due to the wood warping over the years,) and re-opening it in the morning as soon as the chill is out of the air and the sun is adamant that she’ll be seeing us through another bright blue Colorado day.
And what would gardening be without some weeding? Hand weeding is actually one of my favorite things to do in the garden. Want some instant gratification? Work down a row of salad mix lettuce pulling out lamb’s quarters or shepherd’s purse, or a row of tiny, helpless carrot seedlings facing the giants of fescue, Timothy or pigweed and you’ll receive immediate satisfaction in having done a major ‘clean up’ job, gotten a little sunshine, exercise and some well-deserved dirt under those fingernails! The raspberry patch next to the stream is a case in point. Along with all the goodies the alpaca manure Dave got from a local farm provided, thistle seed must have been hiding in the mix because it had sprouted up, settled in and called all its friends and relatives telling them what a wonderful spot it had found. Enter WWOOFing Weeder extraordinare – give me a tap-root prying tool and some gloves and I’m ready to go to town on some thistle. Getting it in this stage (early and little, that is, and WAY before going to seed) is the best time for such an endeavor. Also – after a rain or watering is a great time to try to pull weeds as the ground is a bit looser, especially for those plants with long taproots such as dock, thistle and dandelion.
Taproots are common root systems pretty much the country-over, but their prevalence is very apparent here in the mile-high foothills of the Rockies. It makes complete sense, being so high above sea-level, that for plants to survive and get enough to drink they’d have to have roots they can send downdowndown to reach some ground moisture. None of those wimpy, topsoil layer, lateral root systems in these harsh and high plains!
Actually, if you want to talk about some very-not-wimpy lateral root systems, you could bring up Johnson grass and send any experienced gardener running with their hands in the air. Johnson grass = the devil. It sends out branches and branches of side shoots about 2 inches beneath soil level and they are strong! And persistent; able to re-root themselves and send up more grass if you don’t get every last piece of the root clinging to the plant you pull up. Like the strawberry patch here in Golden, Pinwheel Farm in Kansas had some patches of Johnson grass and it was there that I was taught that it’s much better to pull the soil away from the roots than to pull the roots away from the soil, meaning; dig up a clump of grass with a spading fork or other tool and lash at the root ball until you loosen all the soil, sprinkling it back down into the bed. That way you know you’ve unearthed all the roots and shoots instead of breaking some off underneath the soil when grasping a clump of grass and pulling from above. This method also does wonders for soil tilth and aeration.
Besides weeding, we’ve been doing a lot of looking at what it would take to get a more permanent irrigation system set up inside the garden. Various connectors and lengths of hose, drip-tape, soaker hose and supply-line all give my head a whirl. It’s like mapping out a maze within a maze: Should the connector coming off the main line have 2 or 3 lead outs? Are we able to get drip-tape lines out to all the garden beds as they are currently set up? What about still being able to hand water as needed? And what portions of it would need to be trenched or left above-ground? It’s a exercise in systematic, logical thinking – not my forte’ admittedly, but a good exercise nonetheless.
Capturing run-away raspberries and potting them up in garden soil for a fellow gardener was a fun activity. Digging with a trowel to unearth shortened year-old cane with vibrant new leaves coming out of the base in promise of this year’s cane, I secured them in half gallon plant pots ¾ full of soil from a recently tilled bed. These got a good dose of water to settle them in and will be on their way to a new home shortly.
As another weed to highlight: shepherd’s purse is a wonderful edible, both for humans and animals (at least sheep, duh) alike. It’s growing rampant in and around some of the garden beds and paths, just starting to set seed, so I harvested a bit for my lunch, pulled the rest and sent them to the dumpster (composting plants you don’t want in the garden is fine as long as their seed heads haven’t formed.) Shepherd’s purse is a member of the mustard family (all members of which are edible) and resembles the “Tendersweet” variety of cultivated mustards.
Its leaves can look somewhat like dandelion, but it soon bolts its way up from the ground, sends out staggered, oblong leaves along its stem and forms a pretty white flower on its tip top before setting small, flat, heart-shaped seed pods just under the blooms. It has a strong mustard flavor and is quite tender, especially when the plant isn’t more than 6 inches high. It therefore makes either for a great salad or potherb. (Potherbs are cooking greens that are too tough for raw consumption and benefit you most from a few boilings in different waters before the final cooking and flavoring to finish it up.) Shepherd’s purse doesn’t necessarily need multiple waters, in fact I just steamed it up real quick in an oil/water mix in a small sauce pan and it was good to go with a little salt.
Compost Tea is another solid piece of experience I’m walking away with. I’ve heard of it and know it in theory, but have never had the priveledge to work under someone who used it. Dave simply takes a 5-gallon bucket, fills it half full with compost then fills it the rest of the way with water. After some simple stirring he leaves it to soak in the sun for a couple of days, then pours off the water into a pitcher or watering can to then distribute around the sides of some of the babies in the beds. He uses the same compost to make 3 batches of Tea, then incorporates the brewed matter into the soil for conditioning. I’ve heard tell of some people using oxygenaters in large drums or vats of water and letting the compost steep up to a week before straining and distributing it – but this is a much more simple, straightforward process. And makes the plants just as happy.
As my last gardening contribution for my time here at Harmony, I transplanted cilantro babies into 2″ square pots to store in the cold frames til ready to plant more permanently in garden beds. Some seed from last year’s cilantro over-wintered in the soil and sprang up from dormancy once temperatures became obliging. That little surprise of seed sleeping all winter only to pop up and cheer us with hopes of salsa and guacamole is truly one of the reasons I’m so confounded and attracted to the earth and its bounty, but even more so to its Creator and Provider and will gladly immerse myself in what wisdom mother nature has to share.
Aside from the gardening hours I’ve been putting in here (really just morning hours, then I’m free the rest of the afternoon and evening to play!) I’ve logged numerous miles on my bike (my sore quads can readily attest to that! Biking in Golden is a whole ‘nother ballgame than the flat, steady ground of Lawrence! But, at least I have the comfort of knowing the rooftop hot tub is just waiting for me each evening as I get back from my ventures.)
A ride to the base of the mesa followed by a good 6-mile round-trip hike across the top of it is how I spent most of my day yesterday. (When I got back, not only my hair but my reddened face attested that I was going for the rather ‘windblown’ look.)
The vegetation was low, but indeed not sparse! Lots of grasses and dry bush, a few dandelions even in the mix. But the most exciting part was amid all the rushing herbage the rattlers were letting me know they were around – all around! Between the cacophony of crickets, grasshoppers and rattlers, the multitudinous mariachi band surrounding me sure made me watch my step! But I caught sight of nary a snake my entire hike, though I had my camera at the ready the whole time.
Golden also has a wonderful (yet small) array of local businesses including great and eclectic coffee shops, some consignment stores, a great used/new bookstore and a couple of local breweries (Coors being local yes, but I opted for the Golden City Brewery’s ‘Mad Molly’s Brown Ale’, delightful chocolate tones over a smooth and light, malty intro.) The library is very accommodating and set up in a beautiful location next to the river where kayakers, sunbathers and dog-lovers congregate. Golden is quite a haven for those outdoorsy types, those co-housing types, and these farm-hopping types.
Check out some of Dave’s books:
Simple Prosperity: Finding Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle
Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
Biologic: Designing With Nature to Protect the Environment
There’s a gardening term known as ‘heeling in.’ It refers to temporary planting of a plant to protect it from the elements until it can be more permanently rooted.
Natalya recently brought back bunch of transplants of Variegated Vincas from her parent’s greenhouse, for use as an eye-pleasing ground cover for the front of her suburban property. As she’s not able to get them into their permanent home ground right away, she used a temporary vessel (aka, kids’ sandbox creature) as a heeling in home for the Vincas, covering their bare roots with rich compost and mounding them in in tight rows.
In a similar fashion, during this year of WWOOFing, I’ll be constantly heeling myself in, being fostered by many communities and families as I learn and experience their techniques and unique practices and lifestyles. Until I’m settled in ground of my own, I’m just temporarily giving my bare roots some nutrients to strengthen them for their more permanent future home.
But in some ways, little bits of my roots will cling to the soil I’m fostered under. Little bits of legacy will touch the dirt in various places and remain there. In Lawrence, I’m an Elberta Peach tree planted in the up and coming orchard just East of the garden beds. Natalya took me to Pine’s Garden Center early Friday morning before we began work to let me pick out a perennial fruit of my choice to leave behind as a tribute. As I’ve always been rather partial to peaches – and being from the South – the hardy Elberta I found at the back of the stand of fruit trees outside seemed to reach its buds out to me. It’s tight green buds of promised fruit were numerous on the branches, and though normally one wouldn’t choose an obviously fruiting tree as a first-year transplant, in hopes of solidifying my return to Lawrence sometime this year we chose that particular tree. Perhaps in late July to early August, Pinwheel will be rewarded with succulent, yellow-fleshed, sweet fruits to eat in my honor.
The volunteers that showed up Sunday morning to give me a final going-away/ planting ceremony all pitched in with the carting, digging, planting and mulching of my tree (which also included a tomato plant and pea plant harboring soil in the same pot; apparently I’m a package deal.)
The weather was glorious, shining rays on us as we worked ground in the orchard, then sending a smattering of rain drops only minutes after we had the tree secured in the ground and under a layer of mulch. But the rain cloud was quick to pass and the sky remained glorious for my departure after many hugs and farewell letter exchanges. As an added bonus, the rose bush that normally doesn’t flower until late May, decided to gift me a going-away present with its first bloom of the year!
(To back-track at bit, the public hearing on the CUP for Pinwheel Farm went great! Lots of support was garnered; many people showed up in league with the farm and we as a farm crew constructed small origami pinwheels for supporters to wear to the meeting. Points were made on both sides of the fence regarding camping allowances and ‘beautification’ of the front of the property next to the street. After 3 ½ hours of public comment and presentations, the topic was deferred to next month’s meeting with the suggestion of giving more solid verbiage and wording to some of the camping guidelines, and also as a grace period to clean up the front of the farm visible to drivers-by.)
Pulling out of Lawrence headed West, you pass through the Flint Hills of Kansas – small mounds of greenery and pasture-land, reminiscent of the taller glories of my NC home. Lots of flint and limestone make the surrounding soils slightly alkaline and quite fertile.
Once you pull farther out past Topeka the plains become flat, spacious and wide open. Windmills and tiny stubbles of trees dot some of the landscape but it’s mostly the clouds that imprint themselves on your vision during this drive. The layers and shapes and clusters and varieties of clouds.
I wish I could say the trip proved uneventful, and for the most part it was. But upon passing the border into CO, about 3 miles past the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado!” sign, I drove straight into a thunder and lightening storm, where my car decided it didn’t want to continue on E any longer (normally I can get away with that for a good while.) And I had to sputter over to the side of I-70 and call AAA to get some fuel brought to me. But 30 minutes later I was back on my way, passing through the magical landscape of CO. Dips and curves of highway, majestic views of miles and miles of rangeland, rolling clouds and rippling landscape conjured up visions of angels descending, centaurs emerging, and unicorns and white buffalo stampeding across the land at any moment. Just the poignant and righteous panorama laid out before me caused my chest to rise and fall a bit heavier and longer than normal; having to take it all in required not only my eyes, but nose, lungs, ears and imagination.
And I wasn’t left lingering long in this quasi-ethereal state before the distant mountain ranges started whispering their outlines into my line of vision. First so faint, almost transparent blue beneath the rumbles of muscular clouds above. But low and behold, they were indeed mountains waiting to greet me as I passed through Denver and through the outskirts into Golden. Here I am enveloped by rocky, bare and sparse rises in the land. Sheltered here in the valley is Historic Downtown Golden and Harmony Village – the place I will be staying for the next 7 days while working a few hours a day in the neighborhood’s new Community Garden venture.
Trenching for irrigation and hardening-off of trays of plants along with weeding thistles out of the raspberries, harvesting massive amounts of lemon sorrel and some rhubarb are all candidates for first day tasks. Double-digging and incorporating compost into the raised beds, transplanting broccoli, direct seeding carrots, radishes, onions and basil are also on the agenda. Until then (and in-between!) lots of hiking trails, coffee shops, the library and biking paths will keep me occupied; the rooftop hot tub of the common house where I’m bedding down will help fill in some of my down time as well!
The community meal we all shared in the common house this evening was great for meeting members of the community – many of which were the pioneers of the project back in the mid-90’s. They’ve had WWOOFers here for 2 years now and a most of the neighbors are more than happy to introduce themselves and are supportive of the program – but once again, fear of outsiders has a few of the neighbors upset and demanding background checks on all workers passing through and offers a general uneasiness about the nature of people who travel around just to work on gardens or farms. Do we see a pattern forming here? Let’s hope not, and hope that the vast majority of communities and townships will be welcoming and inviting to someone who wants to come take care of their land and crops by working long hours of physical labor.
And as a final farewell and thank you to all my friends in Lawrence, KS: You’ve made my time there amazing, welcoming and something to miss. Picnics by the lake, Reiki sessions, parties and good food, potlucks, dancing, sharing your home and kitchen, an incredible music list (Songs to Shepherd to!) and your smiling faces I will miss. But it won’t be the last time we cross paths.