Loaves and fishes in the garden

Part one:  Canna lilies and blackberries. (These plus shiso, miscanthus and forget-me-nots brought unexpected blessings.

After moving to Virginia, I wanted small fruit in my garden. Blackberries were familiar to me—eating them at least—from boyhood on the farm. At the nursery, the plants were something under three dollars. Real estate in Virginia was nearly three times the cost of that in Michigan where we had sold our previous home. Money seemed tight in 1989. But I splurged on three plants. Over several years, by rooting plant tips, I had enough plants to fill the space allotted to blackberries.

Several years later our church started a food pantry garden. The blackberries at home continued to set new plants, so I transplanted to the new garden enough starts over several years to fill two forty foot rows. One year we picked three gallons of blackberries from the patch. I made a new friend who moved to the area who wanted blackberry starts. He dug out a half-dozen or so.

By 2002 I had moved to a new location and was having a grape arbor built. I asked the builder if he wanted some blackberry canes. I had transplanted enough to fill my new thirty-foot blackberry patch. He said someone had given him some. When he identified the donor, I realized it was the same person who had gotten starts from me a number of years earlier.

From my extravagant purchase in 1989, we have eaten nearly 25 years of black berries—some years the birds got more than we did. The food pantry clients and the workers in the food pantry garden had the joy of blackberries. Friends gave bushes to friends from the starts I had given them. The loaves and fishes had been blessed.

Canna lilies fall in the same basket. I heard that someone was setting some canna lily rhizomes at the curb. I picked up a box with maybe a dozen roots. Planted several in my small garden, the rest at the food pantry garden. After daughter-in-law Karen used the canna’s red spike in a flower arrangement, we started taking the flowers to Patchwork Pantry for clients with the gladiolus and zinnias. The spreading cannas were taking more space than we wanted to give them. The next spring, the youth pastor and his crew dug out several bushels of canna roots to take to the Gift & Thrift store. I went to the local garden store to see what they charged for canna roots, they were charging $2.25 for scrawny dried out roots. I asked about them and was told that the primary growers in New England had significant losses of their crop.  Ours sold quickly at $1.50.!

cannas-corn-e1505829159295.jpgCannas are tropical plants requiring protection or inside storage for the winter in Virginia. We have found that heaping dry leaves over the stalks (chopped down to 6″) to a depth of 20” to 30” prevents winter kill of the rhizomes. One year the cannas had spread too far, so we did not protect one patch. That winter was mild and the cannas survived. More rhizomes to sell!

We cleaned up our rhizomes and took those with several eyes to the Gift & Thrift. The ones that didn’t look good were put in the shade, watered until they sprouted. Then we potted them for sale. One of my helpers, a student formerly from the Ukraine, said they ate the rhizomes where she came from.  In my surprise, I didn’t know how to ask if that was part of the normal diet.

Another year we stored rhizomes in vermiculite for winter storage. Funds from the sale of six or so boxes of rhizomes helped fund a trip to a youth convention that summer. Last year our small patch of cannas thrived, growing to over 8’ feet. Some rhizomes were 2”x6”. The growth was so strong the roots pushed apart the boards of the garden bed (held by 3 deck screws). It was time to harvest the rhizomes. I supervised the digging of a 4’X6’ bed of cannas, we pulled many loose roots plus a dozen or more pots to take to Gift & Thrift.  This was the 20th year of cannas.  (Shiso and forget-me-not in part 2)

“Bread of Life?” Too many carbs!

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How do carb hating Americans begin to understand Jesus’ words on “bread of life”? My mother baked bread. She encouraged Julia to bake bread and Julia has baked bread at nearly every other week for the nearly 50 years of our marriage. I really enjoy her bread. During tomato season a BLT, usually without the B, is a frequent feature of my lunch. Colder weather brings out my carefully seasoned cast-iron skillet for grilled cheese with the addition of mustard, then meatloaf or sprouts or Lebanon bologna or whatever compliment is available.

Until my Meniere’s was brought under control bread toasted was a first food welcomed after a bout of nausea. (That and Cheerios which I still associate the Biblical character Legion. After recovery from nausea, getting dressed and eating food again—Cheerios usually—I felt I, like Legion, was “clothed and in my right mind.”)

But bread “of life”? For the first century citizen, according to a bit of research I did, bread made up a third to a half of the diet by volume. On this year’s Thanksgiving Feast table, I am not sure I saw any bread—there was some in the stuffing/filling/dressing. Probably the five loaves and two fishes the boy carried in his bag would give us a volume of ten to one or so. He probably ate the dates his mother packed.

In an era when Wonder Bread was first introduced, Consumer Reports experiments determined that rats could not be kept alive with the bread. How can we gain any sense of Jesus’ “bread of life” saying? Even with the vitaminized version of bread today “in a healthy diet” as the bread loaf label says, do Jesus’ words have any clarity? Has this rumination brought me any closer to a first hearer’s understanding of Jesus’ words? Can the tools of historians and cultural anthropologists cut through the veil of 21 centuries to open up the truth of what Jesus was teaching? Will eating a Biblical diet bring me closer to Jesus?

 

 

Grace for the journey

Do “Marvelous grace” or “Wonderful grace of Jesus” aid us in living as Christians?

Much-loved songs like the ones mentioned above celebrate one kind of grace. Being ‘saved by grace’ is often thought of as referring to a past, usually datable event (at least in my upbringing). “Marvelous grace of Jesus” jumps from the initial experience of grace to the final grace of God’s presence. As joyful as it is to sing, “Wonderful grace of Jesus” wouldn’t it be good if it had a verse celebrating grace for dealing with the issues of life? Due to the familiarity of Eph. 2:8 “By grace are you saved through faith…” grace is most associated with the initial saving event in our lives. Perhaps the importance of grace to that event cannot be overemphasized. But does grace stop there? In the songs referred to above there is a jump from that initial event to heaven. This is the common pattern in many songs and hymns. * A notable exception is the verse from “Amazing Grace” that concludes “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” “Open the wells of grace and salvation” comes close. Without mentioning grace other gospel songs reflect the spiritual pilgrimage. But what pattern do we find in the use of grace in the Bible?

Definitions

The word ‘grace’ (NIV) occurs 116 times. Some of them refer in general terms to the goodness of God or signs of the goodness of God, such as in Luke’s account of Jesus: (“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”; or the description of Stephen in Acts 6:8.) “Grace” and “saved” or “salvation” occur together frequently and are synonymous at places. Salvation, too, has a continuing aspect. While we were saved (past), we are being saved (present), and we will be saved (future). The middle tense of saved is ‘grace connection’ for this essay.

Grace for weakness

Paul in a very familiar passage connects this aspect of God’s goodness to a weakness in his life when he reports that God has told him:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Would it be appropriate to conclude that whenever we become aware of a weakness in our lives, God’s grace is already available to deal with that weakness?

Grace for growing

Beyond using our gifts, especially in giving, God’s grace is available to us for growing as Jesus’ disciples:

“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)

An important part of that growth is seeing the pattern of attitude and behavior of those around us who are not followers of Jesus and determining to live as God created us to live.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, (Titus 2:11, 12)

Avoiding error by learning more about Jesus will keep us growing.

Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

Grace and generosity

Paul seems to see a special kind of grace that leads to generosity with gifts of money.

But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us —see that you also excel in this grace of giving. (2 Cor. 8:7)

Grace gifts

Another part of ‘grace for living’ is “grace gifts”. (The word in Greek for grace is charis, and charismata for grace gifts.) Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:1-14 give us lists of ‘grace gifts’ that all Jesus’ followers have.

In Hebrews also we are encouraged to use these gifts of grace.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. (Heb. 13:10

How is God’s grace working for growth in your life? What songs and hymns have been of help to you?

 

*I would be glad if anyone would bring to my attention songs that include something about ‘grace for living’.

Saving more books

New treasures at Booksavers of Virginia

“It was a dark and stormy night . . . “ lines often parodied which began Edward Bulwer-Lytton (English novelist) 1830 novel Paul Clifford.

Last week I researched a book with these lines:

“Who could think of love within the haunt of the temple of  ‘That Nympholepsy of some fond despair’ and not feel that love enhanced, deepened, modulated into at once a deepened desire.” (Godolphin, p. 183, 1833 published by Carey)

These stirring lines were from the first edition of the novel. This edition was published just after the English Reform Bill of 1832 was passed. This bill reduced the power of the noblility by extending the voting franchise. Lytton’s satire was highly critical of the actions and views of bill’s opponents. He later revised the novel (1840) to soften the portrayal of the nobility. It took me some searching to determine that the Carey edition was different than the later ones for which there are many publishers. No other vendors offered a copy for sale. I had to guess on a price for the quarter leather bound volume with marbled covers and darkened pages. Value? Somewhere between $50 and $300. (I put a conservative $69.)

A. J. Trask   Music [Selections of piano sheet music from 1840-1860]

When I saw the large, worn leather bound volume, I knew it would be a problem. The title, stamped on the front, was a name: A. J. Trask. This was a collection of piano music. Several pages were sticking out beyond the others and page edge trimming was irregular. On opening the volume, I found no contents page. Paging through the book, I found many tears from probably resulting from the quick turning of pages as the pianist played—they were about 1/3rd of the way up the page.

But then I recognized some of the titles, especially those by Stephen Foster. The volume contains around 40 pieces of sheet music including:  “Song of the robin” and “Romance”, George William Warren;  “The last rose of summer : with an intro./ brilliant variations for the piano forte”, Firth, 1856?;  “The last waltz of a lunatic”,  Beyer, Ferdinand,  New York : Firth, 1850s; “The rainbow schottisch”, H Kleber;  “George W Quidor”, Firth 1854; “Gentle Annie  ballad”, Stephen Collins Foster, 1856 [1st ed.]; also, “Camptown Races”; “Ethiopian Melody. As Sung by Christy Minstrels”, “Nelly was a lady”.  Firth, 1849(?); “He doeth all things well, or, My sister : a ballad”, I B Woodbury.

I had trouble putting a price on this. I knew it could be worth more than the $25 I put on it.

—I posted it to Amazon and found out that it sold the next day. Did I put too low a price on it?

 

 

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The Methodist Episcopal Hymnal (1852) has solid leather covers with some wear and cracks at hinges.  Gilt lettering and design on spine is easily readable.  On front are the words  “Cool Spring M. E. Church FROM Mamie Dashiell”.

On the fly in pencil (faintly):  “This book belongs to Thomas R. Gentry  I bought it of a lady at Lincoln Station and give $5.00 dollars in Confedret (sic) money” [according too?] Phebe A Gentry This book was bought November 28, 1862.  Thomas Gentry died in 1881 at age of 43 according to a slip of paper inserted in the hymnal.

(Methodist Episcopal Hymnals for this period are not expensive ($15-$25). How much does the note on the fly add to the value?  I was unable to locate a “Cool Spring M. E. Church” with a limited search.)

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Adam’s tiller vs the microherd Or building soil God’s way

 

Soil building activists tend to be divided into two camps: some want to move stuff down and others want to build it up, although I suppose some of us have a dirty shoe in both garden beds. Here is how I explain to myself, and anyone who will listen, my approach.

Penn State helps promote an “Ag Progress Days” near Tyrone, Pa each August. One of the times (more than thirty years ago) I attended with Julia’s farmer father I went to a session on something new: no-till planting into a green manure crop. (Not sure what they called it.) The expert there stressed the importance of chemicalizing the green manure crop that was in place before proceeding with the planting. This was important to avoid depriving the new plants of nitrogen (and other nutrients) while the green manure crop was decaying/decomposing.

I wondered how that would work out in my more or less organic garden. I used a weed chopper and mower to cut down the rye I had planted. Then I spaded a shovel wide furrow into which I planted corn. Between the corn rows I dumped enough leaves to suppress any regrowth of the rye. As soon as the corn was six to eight inches, I pushed the leaves closer to the corn to suppress any weeds that might challenge the corn. I didn’t see any sign yellowing of leaves or stunting of stalks or any other signs of nutrient deficiency in the corn. The crop of sweet corn was normal. Didn’t plant a control plot since I was planting like I had in other years.

I had faith in the microherd (although I did learn that term until some years later). With the help of maintenance personnel of the local educational institution, I had been dumping a lot of partially shredded leaves on the garden for several years. I planted the rye because I thought the corn might need extra nitrogen! But with the leaves cover was heavy enough to keep the ground from freezing in the Michigan winters.  A healthy microherd had developed that was able to quickly go to work on the rye without taking nitrogen the corn might need. That’s my assumption. I do not have the biological knowledge to explain what has happened.

Tilling Adam’s way

What does this have to do with Adam’s tiller? My earlier thinking about the command to Adam to “till the soil” led to a vision. Due to my lusting after a mechanical device to ease my garden labors, I imagined a naked Adam violating virgin Eden with a mammoth, red TROYBUILT ROTOTILLER tearing that resistant sod into soft plantable soil. Rereading the Genesis passage reminded me that the couple had already been outside the garden at the time of the “till the soil” command. (Then was Adam’s possession of a tiller due to sin?) But, as explained to me recently, the word “till”, means, “care for”. When God is said to care for humans and this same word is used. (Off stage sounds of big red tiller fading.)

About this time in my life I was learning the Joy of Composting. Shifting compost was great exercise.   Bin composting was satisfying and somewhat useful. (See earlier blogs on “Composting and Grace” and “Three bags of leaves, two of grass”. I began to understand what I labeled “Ultimate Composting” (I was fascinated by all things Frisbee at the time) an imposing term for what others called “permanent mulch” or “lasagna gardening” or other terms. This is how I applied that understanding.

My current garden

Seventeen years ago we moved to a Shenandoah Valley ridge at 1300 feet with a southeastern orientation. Most topsoil had been liberated from the ridge before the slaves had been liberated from the area. The previous owner liked grass. We quickly smothered the grass with wet newspaper, leaves and some of the 15-30 gallons of coffee grounds per week I picked up from local convenience stores and a nearby college. A friend moved to a farm with an old barn with hay more than five years old. He would drive my pickup home and bring back a load of old hay. Julia said at one point that we had lots of hay in the back yard and only needed a cow.

We started spreading out these ingredients and had a good garden the second year. The third I began setting up raised beds with board sides. The steep hillside required some protection for the beds. Even with heavy mulch rain would shift everything down hill. Every year we have dumped leaves, some grass clippings (when we can find un sprayed yards) and coffee grounds on the beds in addition to much of the garden’s plant wastes. I am continually amazed at how much organic matter disappears into the beds. When you build up a microherd population, they work hard. The micro herd feeds the soil which the feeds the plants.

Building soil up

Finally we come to the wild claim that I know the way God does soil building.  This did not come by divine revelation.   I did not discovered on my own.   Many have contributed to what I have learned over the past thirty or more years of “organic” gardening. As a church-goer and follower of Jesus I cringe at all the things for which people claim God’s authority or attribute to God’s preferences. I do work at not demonizing those viewing soil building differently than I do. Double diggers puzzle me.  I remember creating straight lines of lovely black sod bottoms with the moldboard plow as a teenager less fondly now than I did when I mastered the skill.  My anxiety intensifies when I hear the sound of the ferocious mechanical devices churning through the soil cutting up the bodies and homes of the worms and the micro herd.

How has God been making new soil? In the prairies, grasses grow, die, decay and eventually become new soil. In the forest leaves fall, decay and become new soil. Trees die and turn to new soil. (Not sure what the natural rate of temperate zone soil development is.) God builds the soil up. Now, God is a bit slow. But, then, God has a lot more time to work. We don’t. That’s why we do in-the-garden composting, find combinations of ingredients to speed decomposition, do lasagna gardening or permanent mulching. Composting in bins permits faster building of new dirt to be added to a garden. Much of these “new” techniques imitate the “natural” process of soil building. (Machine aeration and mechanical turning of piles may represent a major extension of the natural processes.) Many of us see building the soil up and relying on worms and the microherd as man’s effort to imitate God’s way of building soil.

 

 

 

Two bags of leaves, one of grass

Learning about composting inputs

Can you imagine building a compost pile 8 feet high? That’s what I built my first compost pile. My memory might be a bit vague on that. The work was done more than forty years ago. Not too many years later I had a bit more space and my pile was only five feet by ten feet and not so high. I tried to shift these piles at least monthly between the southern Michigan spring thaw and the freeze in early December. Now, my pile may be turned only once a year. Along the line, I learned that I needed to balance “greens” (nitrogen) and “browns” (carbon). The input guide was two bags of leaves to one of grass.

Learning a bit

Now in my seventh decade and after two back surgeries I balance the compost inputs differently. First comes the collection area where we dump dry material until rain comes. Green material goes into the first bin. I no longer brag that I can compost anything and only collect chopped or small stuff. Friends bring me coffee grounds from the nearby convenience store or the dining hall of the local educational institution so that I have a strong nitrogen component. The first bin is usually full by the end of the summer. Then I find a younger person, often from a youth/student fundraiser, to shift to the second bin where I add slotted drainpipe to help the microorganism keep air-healthy and working. Progress from first bin to finished compost in the third bin may take more than a year.

Balancing compost inputs

Earlier the major input was my labor. Exercise was good. Now the major input is time. I increase the nitrogen input if possible to reduce the need for more time and shifting. I cover the second pile either to hold moisture and/or avoid leaching of nutrients. So, I have six or so inputs that I vary depending on the circumstances: carbon, nitrogen, water, air, labor, and time. Probably should add space. If I had plenty of space and an abundance of organic matter, I would start a pile and continue to add to the end of it. When the beginning of the pile was mature, I would start harvesting.

Composting inputs, Part 2

Composting at a Community Center

Working with the local community center with required a difference balance of inputs. Donations of vegetables and fruit were unpredictable. One might describe the quality of much of the fruit and vegetables at near the peak of ripeness when donated. The kitchen folk found using all these donations was a severe resource and time management challenge. The result was often a lot of spoiled fruit and vegetables. For a number of years a hog farmer had picked up kitchen trimmings. Unfortunately he was not as regular in picking up the trimmings as summer heat or freezing weather required. Our small garden needed compost. I had an idea that if horticultural therapy worked, then why not composting therapy. My motto was “If life brings you garbage, make compost.” (or, if you’ve made the mess, it still works). I had little success getting that message across, but we still made good compost.

Since we had an abundance of high nitrogen material, we needed to find sources of carbon. At first, the city allowed us to get partially shredded leaves at their collection site. Then they contracted with the landfill to use the leaves as cover for methane generating trash site. We started contacting tree-trimming firms and they provided us with wood chips to mix with the spoiled fruit and vegetables. A local butcher shop asked us to help remove some of the manure from their holding pens which turned out to be mostly sawdust. This additional source provided us with a good balance of carbon and nitrogen.

Workday procedure changes balance

Our community center hosts unemployed and homeless people and people doing community service instead of jail time. Tuesdays are workdays, so some labor was available for the composting project. There were five bins. 1. A materials collection bin (mostly carbon materials). 2. Collection bin (kitchen trimmings, plus bakery waste from a local business). Bins 3 and 4 were “cooking bins” with pipes added for air. Bin 4 was mostly finished compost from which compost was moved to the sifting machine.

A fifth pallet bin was used to store sifted compost under cover for sale. Using woodchips for carbon and bulking required extra labor, but two friends designed and crafted a rotating drum compost sifter to speed this process. A fuel tank from a Volvo truck, was cut open with a half-inch screen added inside,  Two windshield wiper motors turned the drum from Volvo trucks. A nearly exhausted Volvo truck battery drove the motors. Some of the compost was used on the garden. The drum rotated to sift out the wood chips and any stones and uncomposted clumps.  Sifting the compost made it more appealing for sale. Usually, several pickup loads, plus bags of compost were sold at the yearly plant sale.

The labor input was expected to be high here with each workday helping to shift and sift compost. That didn’t happen. So, to get air into the piles, we started adding pipes with holes in them and using a rod to poke holes in the pile (poking down from the top) when new pile first started to cool. Sometimes the piles sat for several weeks, other times, service groups would come in and the labor input would be high—higher perhaps than the process of composting would warrant. Infrequently we covered the piles to conserve water and sometimes to prevent leaching of nutrients during heavy rains.  On rare occasions we watered with city water while turning the piles.

Input summary

The inputs were the same in the different situations, the balance very different. The inputs were: 1. Carbon (browns–like leaves); 2. Greens (like—grass clippings); 3. Air (pipes, poking holes with rod); 4. Water; 5. Time; 6. Labor. (Of course, we didn’t have the mechanical power that is usually substituted for labor in larger operations.)

Why do I compost (in piles)? Why not do “ultimate composting”—composting in place—on the garden? I have been told there is scientific evidence for the superiority of this approach. Most of my home garden and the community center’s garden are generally covered with leaves or chips. When we lack these, we use unsifted compost. But, at the community center we wanted to have compost to sell. Sifted compost looks much better. Two additional reasons for bin composting: One, I like to have compost available to set plants in when I plant them, sifted compost to cover seed with and for making potting soil. Two, I like to make compost, to see the transformation of organic matter. See my earlier blog “Composting and the Grace of God”.