Growing cannas and giving cannas

The canna roots were in a box labeled “Free” along College Street. This was during the first year (1989) or so we lived in Virginia. We took some of the roots, (technically, rhizomes, but “roots” is easier to write) and off we grew.  After growing and dividing our small patch on Union Street, we took some of the roots to the Weavers Mennonite Church food pantry garden.  Then in 2000 we moved some of the roots to Upland Drive. Along the way, we shared the roots with others, too.

Food Pantry Garden Cannas

When Weavers Mennonite Church started a food pantry garden there were gladiolus in the garden. Since there so many glads, I took a bunch of them to Patchwork Pantry along with the vegetables. While I took the flowers for decoration, one of the workers took the flowers and divided them among some of the clients.  We had a good supply of glads, so we brought more the next week and later planted zinnias to extend the flower giving season. When glad production was slowing down, someone said, “Why not take canna flowers?”  So, we added canna flowers to the bouquets.  That continued for several years. 

The cannas developed vigorously in the soil enriched by bags and bags of leaves and grass clippings supplemented by gallons of coffee grounds from several convenience stores.  Soon we had too many roots.  To keep the roots from freezing over winter, our usual practice was to create a mound of dry leaves over the canna roots in the fall. When we had too many roots, we left one section of cannas uncovered.  That winter was a mild one and the cannas did not freeze. 

Cannas as fundraisers

Someone asked, “Can we sell the roots?”  So, we dug, divided, cleaned and took the roots to the local gift and thrift where they sold rapidly.  We wondered why they sold so quickly.  (I had priced them according to last year’s nursery prices.)  Later, I read that the area that usually grows canna roots had enough bad weather to significantly reduce the crop and drive up prices.  Maybe we should have raised our prices, too.

Caring for cannas

After the food pantry shut down, we continued to grow cannas in our garden.  The four foot by ten-foot patch made a striking sight in the far end of the garden from the house.  Sometimes they grew to more than ten feet tall as shown in the picture of me holding a yardstick over my head.  Often, we found enough dry leaves to raise a pile more than a foot high.  Sometimes, for additional insulation, we also put bags of leaves in the paths. 

Cannas above my head!

In April, we would remove the leaves from the bed.  Then some weeks later we would see the roots sprouting.  We would remove a good number of sprouted roots from the bed and leave mostly unsprouted ones.  Eventually, there always seemed to be enough to fill the bed.  Every few years the roots became crowded.  Sometimes they pushed out the sides of the bed boards.  The large roots with sprouts we potted for donation.  The smaller ones or ones without sprouts were placed in the shade until we were sure whether they would sprout.  Then several would go into a pot.  The ones that didn’t sprout in a reasonable period of time went into the compost pile, where they sometimes sprouted.  Some of the canna roots we gave to friends and some we donated to charitable plant sales and to Gift and Thrift. 

The less than a dozen roots we found along the street in the early 90s provided beauty for us at two homes, flowers for clients of Patchwork Pantry, and roots for fund raisers for several charities.  Now, after 20 years of growing cannas on Upland Drive, we are leaving the cannas for new owners of this property.  We hope that the giving continues.

Fallowing land, Jubilee year for land

 

Biblical principles and todays gardens?

middleeasternploughmangrimmversion2016From childhood, I have had the blessing of being immersed in scripture.  My parents regularly read the Bible and Bible storybooks to us.  My father had only one year of high school, but he had gone further in knowledge of scripture than anyone that I knew.  On Sunday evenings our small church frequently featured a Bible quiz.  Because he could answer quicker and more questions than anyone, a “Dean Alleman rule” was instituted:  When anyone answered three questions, that person was not eligible to answer again until no one knew the answer.  From that heritage, I have questioned why we don’t celebrate Christmas as the disciples and Paul did, wondered if it was significant that the only time in the Bible a man tells a woman “I love you” it is Samson to Delilah and raised the question of “fallowing”. I have known of the “fallow” year rule, but have never heard a farmer or gardener practice it or discuss it**.  After all, we eat pork, plant two kinds of seeds in a field (rye with clover) and wear cotton/polyester clothes. Fallowing fields is commanded by God:

Ex 23:11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unploughed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.  (See also, Lev. 25: 1-4)

 Interpretations of “fallow ground” law

To what extent is the ‘land rest’ command binding on the Christian today? What are the principles by which to interpret scripture on the matter of land rest?    Do we choose the general interpretation, looking for the principles behind the law?  This approach would conclude that practices like crop rotation, manuring the fields, composting and mulching meet the purpose of these regulations and are the equivalent of “rest”?  Or, should we follow the practice of some observant Jews who do not use the land at all during the seventh year. I read of some who lease their orchards the seventh year (to Arabs) to meet the requirement of the law of land rest?

Basic principles

What is the basis for the Christian taking this scripture literally?  First, I assume that the Gen. 2 instruction to Adam to “serve and preserve the land” provides the basis for interpreting this passage.  Second, Jesus (Mark 2 23-28) tells us that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  From this I conclude that the Sabbath rest was made for human benefit in three areas: 1. Observing the Sabbath and the Sabbath year was commanded the Hebrew people as a symbol of their trust in God to provide for them.  Letting the land rest for the seventh year demonstrated their trust in God.  2. Resting the land from cultivation during the Sabbath year provided for rejuvenation of the land.  3. Sabbath rest for the land was one way of providing for the poor.  These three principles stand behind the literal application of the fallowing law (as it does the related practices in Leviticus).

Trust in God

How do Christians demonstrate their trust in God for provision of food?  Trust in God for provision of food seems even more distant in a society where most do not have gardens, get their meat and dairy products from the grocery store and buy their orange juice from Brazil and more distant sources.  Gardens, however small, give parents and children a way to experience dependence on God.  Even when the water comes from a faucet and the fertilizer comes from a bag, there is realization that some part of the growth is beyond our control.  Organic practice seeks to feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant.  Here the dependence is a bit clearer.  With the use of permanent mulch, the work of worms and their allies to convert leaves, grass and kitchen trimmings to “new earth” is evidence of God’s creative work on our behalf.  The third principle, providing for the poor relates closely to this one.  Giving a portion of our garden production to the poor acknowledges that we rely on God to provide for us.  However, one benefit that observing the Sabbath rest demonstrates, trust in God, is difficult to provide for in modern agricultural practice.  Is it possible that returning to a literal “fallowing” would be an opportunity to increase our trust in God?

Rest and renewal

What contemporary agricultural practices provide for the land to get rest and renewal?  While the “rest” part may be difficult to understand in modern practice, the renewal part is clear.  I believe that the organic standard of “feed the soil, let the soil feed the plants” comes close to replicating the benefits of the Sabbath year.  Jesus words that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath establishes the principle.  The practice of agricultural Bible-believers to exempt farmers, especially dairy farmers and poultry farmers from the “no work on Sunday” rule is a tacit recognition of this principle.   The agricultural practices seen in the Bible such as those required by the fallowing rule were reflective of climate and soil conditions typical of the Middle East.  Stiff soils and dry climates where there are two crops per year taking off the land, lose fertility faster than in temperate zones where the soil lies dormant from Oct. to April (or is covered with a “green manure” crop of rye, vetch or a combination of plants.

The renewal of permanent mulching is apparent at the garden I worked with.  The red clay ridge had probably been stripped of most of its fertility before the slaves were freed.  With the application of six inches or so per year of leaves, hay, grass and the addition of coffee grounds, what had been “waste” became soil amendment: “fertilizer”, if you please.  (Due to the pressure of companies producing nitrogen fertilizers using fossil fuels, organic gardeners/farmers are not permitted to call these ingredients “fertilizers”.) Over a period of ten or so years, three to six inches or more of organic matter has turned to black soil—the original red mineral portion of soil (subsoil) is still below it.  The soil tests completed (at conventional agricultural laboratories) show that all nutrients are well above optimum for nourishing crops.  A soil scientist told me that if I were a farmer with a soil management plan, I would not be permitted to add even compost to the garden.  So, does this restoration of land (and the rescuing of organic matter from the landfill) equal the Biblical requirement of renewal? If all of creation is good, then the worms, sow bugs and microorganisms that process leaves, grass and coffee grounds into soil are an important part of creation.  When the right conditions are created, these creatures transform raw organic matter into compost or humus which is the plant and animal part of soil (the rest being primarily mineral).  By mixing carbon and nitrogen materials, reducing the particle size and maintaining a good moisture level, worms and the microherd can convert several feet of “yard trimmings” (wastes) into “new earth”.  Is this part of God’s work to bring about a new earth/reverse the degradation of land by erosion and overuse? Extending the idea of shalom to all of creation is a continuation of this understanding.  The good or best of conditions for organic matter processors is the “shalom of the microherd”.  Mulching creates a suitable environment for sow bugs and worms.  Letting the worm created channels for moisture and nutrients function in the intended manner creates soil creations that permit plants to be at their best:  part of the creation God declared was good.

Care for the poor

How do contemporary gardening practices provide for the poor in the way that gleaning from volunteer grain or other plants might provide during the fallow year?  The garden referred to in the previous paragraph raised produce and flowers for a food pantry.  If there was a practice comparable to carbon sequestration/carbon banking which permits those adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to pay, for instance, forest owners a fee to continue to pump out excess amounts of carbon.  Forests sequester or capture “excess” carbon and give off oxygen.  So, food pantry gardens can be a “bank” for agricultural practices, which do not of themselves provide for the poor.  Since 1995 the Garden Writers of America/GardenComm (a secular organization) have promoted their “plant a row for the hungry” program where the extra rows of produce can be taken to the local food pantry.  Again, this is a way that gardeners can meet the principle of “providing for the poor” while continuing to use the land.  https://gardencomm.org/PAR Can permanent mulch, minimum and organic gardening fulfill the purpose of the Sabbath rest for the land?  If the poor are fed, the land is improved and trust in God for provision is taught and experienced, then one can say that there is some accomplishment of the principles behind fallowing/Jubilee year.

(Whether conventional gardening practices accomplish God’s purpose in giving the fallowing command can be investigated by someone else.)

 

**Two later references (Jeremiah 4:3-4a, Hosea 10:12) to “break up your fallow ground” are sometimes interpreted to mean ‘stop sinning.’  But since God instructed the Hebrews to let ground lie fallow, normal “fallowing practice” would not constitute sin.  Ploughing previously fallow ground would begin the next cycle of creation and renewal.  That seems the most likely focus of Jeremiah and Hosea.

 


 

Ultimate Composting: Our experience with “no-till” gardening

 

Our first attempt at a “no-till” approach to gardening in Virginia came when we arrived for a quick visit to Virginia to complete a purchase agreement on a house in June.  We purchased a sheet of plastic to cover a garden space currently in grass.  When we completed our move in mid-July, we began preparing raised beds to be ready for Fall planting.  Neighbors later told us that the former owners had spent considerable time getting the grass started during a dry period the previous year.  When we expanded the garden, we put down leaves to kill the grass.

At our current residence the grass in the backyard was in good shape.  I worked in a library giving me access to a steady supply of newspapers.  Two convenience stores and a college dining hall produced fifteen to thirty gallons of coffee grounds plus filters per week.  (Some of which was used on another garden.)  Wasteful city residents placed bags of compostables (grass clippings and leaves) at the curb for me to pick up.  (When looking for grass clippings, I watched for clover and dandelions–indicators of no weed spray.)

A fellow worker moved to a farm with a barn housing a quantity of old (5 years plus) hay.  He would drive my pickup with a rack home on Friday and return it Monday full of hay.  (Julia once said we had a yard full of hay and no cow.)  Five or six loads of broken bales of hay with the other organic matter gave us a good start on “ultimate composting”.

All of these ingredients permitted us to enrich the clay ridge we lived on.  The top soil that may have been there was probably gone before the slaves left the area.  Now there are five garden beds of sixty-six feet down to thirty feet of black soil on top of the clay.  The technique we used to improve the soil is similar to what has been called “lasagna” gardening.  The book with this title came out about time we were refining our practice of soil preparation and helped us to systematize our practice.  However, “stew” gardening seemed a better label.  My reasoning?  Mixing the materials as is done in a compost pile helps the microherd.  The microherd have little mouths/teeth and little feet.  Having both nitrogen and carbon mixed together as throughly as possible helps the microherd (bacteria, yeasts and allies) start converting the organic material into soil.  Below is a summary of the procedure which I have used with workshops on this procedure.  We used this procedure with several flower beds and to expand a food pantry garden.  The food pantry garden included patches of wiregrass which provided a constant battle during the 8-10 years of using that patch of ground.

 

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Ultimate Composting a.k.a. “lasagna”/stew gardening or  sheet composting

Why should I sheet compost?

* Enrich the soil in your garden by composting on site

* Superior to bin composting for improving soil

* Save money — purchase less topsoil, humus and peat

* Reduce tax-funded yard waste processing costs

* Protect water quality by increasing the efficiency of water and fertilizer use

What is compost?

* Dark crumbly material like top layer of soil in a forest

* Produced naturally by microbes and compost worms feeding on compost pile materials, including leaves and yard wastes from your own backyard

* A soil amendment that will improve clay or sandy soils

How does composting work?

* Composting is microbe and earthworm management

* ‘Feed’ for compost critters is material rich in carbon–fallen leaves, straw, even newspaper

* Microbes also need a source of nitrogen–green garden trimmings, manure, alfalfa, etc.

What do I need to begin?

* Manure fork or garden fork

* Newspapers soaked in water (if a new garden or if you have lots of weeds)

* Composting materials (dry leaves, garden waste, coffee grounds, peat, straw, hay, other materials)

* May need to add water

How do I begin?

Collect materials including carbon (leaves, wood chips) and nitrogen (grass, coffee grounds, manure)

  • Place 6 or more sheets of wet newspaper overlapped on sod. Cardboard can be used for fall application. (Cardboard is hard to get fully wet and to get to conform to shape of ground so that there are no spaces for weeds/grass to grow around/through.)

Spread up to 1 ft of leaves and grass clippings, shredded, packed down or up to four inches of green wood chips (in dry weather, water each layer.  2 bags leaves to 1 bag grass)

* Mix with nitrogen-rich material:

~1/2 ft or more green garden wastes); OR

~1-2 inches manure; OR

~A scattering of alfalfa meal (rabbit pellets); OR

~a few cups of organic N fertilizer (5-2-2)

[leaves alone will decompose eventually.  I am assuming you want faster breakdown]

* Add a sprinkling of finished/mature compost.

* Water to consistency of wet sponge

*Microbes get full diet quicker if you mix the different materials.

*Some recommend covering the area with porous material–burlap is best–until planting time.  (Google “Interbay” method.)

What stays out?

* Cat litter and dog droppings

* Sick plants

* Pesticide and herbicide treated plants

* Petroleum products

* coal ashes (wood ashes are good)

* Noxious weeds and weed seeds

* Oils, fats, large amounts of dairy products or meat

What about kitchen trimmings?

* Must be covered to avoid smell, insects and attracting animals.

*May introduce seeds—cover with leaves or hay to control sprouting seeds from trimmings

* Contribute valuable micronutrients to the pile

* Reduce organic wastes going to the landfill

* Add any amount on an on-going basis to composting material.

* Dig a hole or trench and put in scraps, cover with at 6″—8″ of leaves, hay, and grass, shredded paper

* Next visit, dig the hole in a different spot or cover with more dry material

 

When may I start planting?

*Best to start sheet composting in summer or fall for the next year.

*You may begin planting immediately–especially plants. Monitor plants to see that the mulch around them does not decompose and let them “high and dry”.

*You will need to put down mature compost or potting soil (soil pockets) to plant small seeds or plants.

For more detail:  https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-make-a-lasagna-garden-2539877

See the book Lasagna Gardening by Lanza (published by Rodale Press)

Also at gardenweb.com there is a lasagna gardening forum.

 

 

 

 

Loaves & fishes in the garden, part 2

Shiso, forget-me-nots and purple sweet potatoes

Annual forget-me-nots ( Myosotis) annual forget-me-notare a bit like rhubarb. They stand out as the first of their kind, overshadowed by later beauties or in the case of rhubarb,  delicacies. Although sporting bright little blue flowers, they were weeds in my hoop house (greenhouse). Then a chance conversation I overheard alerted me to some people’s love for the little blue flower. So, rather than toss the weeds on the compost pile, I potted them. Since weeds come up early in the hoop house so my “flowers” were available before they started blooming elsewhere. We sold 4” to 8” pots filled with annual forget-me-nots for $0.75 to $2. at the local gift & thrift store. ( Gift & Thrift )

Perennial forget-me-nots (Brunnera) have several leaf types and much more vivid flowers than the annual. About 10 years ago I saw a 3-gallon pot at a garden store at a price I thought would shock my gardening partner. Soon after Julia was touring neighborhood yard sales with my sister, Lois. One of the yard sellers had Brunnera and Julia commented on them. The neighbor said “Help yourself, they are spreading too far”. We dug out several and planted them. Since then our original site has increased from probably 3 plants to plants scattered over 2’x8’. But from that area we have transferred some to another spot where there now plants spread across a 12′ area. In addition for the last 5 or 6 years to have given away or contributed to fund raisers up to a dozen potted plants a year. That neighborly gift was multiplied greatly.

shiso with beets

Purple weeds stand out. Bringing other people’s leaves, grass and other yard wastes for my composting passion brought in weeds. A thorny version of pigweed/amaranth is one example from the last five years. One visitor that proved positive was shiso. At first we thought it was a coleus. But this plant (before “sun-loving” coleus) loved the sun. Eventually we identified the plant as the red version of shiso or Perilla. A bit of research revealed that it was a culinary herb. None of my gardening acquaintances had heard of shiso. My gardening partner insisted it was a weed. But each year a dozen or more shiso plants offered for sale at Gift & Thrift have sold quickly.

Rod called about 15 years ago and said he had a clump of ornamental grass he wanted to reduce in size. I had wanted a tall ornamental grass, so I went to help. I identified this grass as miscanthus—probably the most common type of miscanthus. Digging out the grass was a challenge. Cutting the clump of grass required jumping on the spade. First, I planted two dinner plate sized clumps in my yard.  Then I used a hacksaw to cut up the rest of the clump into small enough pieces to put into pots. The potted clumps grew nicely. Several months later the church youth fundraiser quickly sold 11 pots of the grass. Five or so years later Wayne told me he had a clump of grass he had dug out—did I want it? The clump was large enough that he had used his tractor scoop to dig it. He dumped it on my pickup. The source of his grass? The youth fund-raiser! It took an ax and the hacksaw again to reduce the clump to pot size.

img_2703.jpgThe bright yellow of daffodils have been a favorite part of my favorite season, spring.  Friends asked if we would like to renovate their daffodil bed for a share of the bulbs.  Some of the bulbs would be for us, some to be put back into the bed and some to be given to Gift and Thrift for sale.  We agreed to the project.  In doing so, we made 2 initial mistakes.  We didn’t ask how long the daffodil bed was (70 feet).  And, second, we waited until October to start digging the bulbs.  Unfortunately the bulbs had started to grow and they were not saleable.  We spent a day and a half digging and replanting bulbs.  When we were finished, the bed was twice the width it had been before.  Then!! we had eight — five gallon buckets full of bulbs left over!  More than enough to spread around our yard and we gave many away.  Some covered a bank (above), more were planted in our back yard.

Sweet potatoes, estimated by some to be among the tops in nutrition per square feet among garden fruits and vegetables, are not among my favorite vegetables.  But I persuaded  myself to start growing them when we were offered some starts by Esther Shank (compiler of Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Country Secrets) who worked with Julia at Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg.  Esther had enough starts from the “mother” sweet potato, so was giving “her” to me rather than “terminating her”.  (See my earlier blog on “Terminating mother”.)  This sweet potato was a split-leaf type (not heart-leaf) with pink skin and pinkish/orange flesh, not real big with moderate long vines.  Maturity was medium length, probably around 95-105 days.  Esther did not know the heirlooms origin, simply that she had gotten it from an Old Order Mennonite some years earlier (1950-1970).

Being inquisitive, I wanted to know the name of the variety.  I found that Mahon was a well-known split-leaf variety in this area.  Then I learned of Sand Hill Preservation Center.  They list many split or cut leaf varieties.  Those with similar vining, skin, flesh and maturity date characteristics numbered around 6.  So, I am still not sure what variety I have.

I gave the mother the first year I had starts to Brian across the street.  He started keeping a root for a starter.  One year my starter/mother didn’t produce good shoots and I was without sweet potato slips.  But, Brian to

IMG_4519
The gardener with purple and Shank sweet potatoes

the rescue.  He had plenty to share with me.  Later I had plenty of slips and Brian ask me if I had to share.  He told me that the garden at Eastern Mennonite University wanted sweet potato starts.   I passed on the “mother” and some starts I had potted.  Esther Shank’s heirloom had blessed another generation.

Four years ago Roger handed me two purple sweet potatoes.  Eat one, he said, and then if you like it, start some next spring with the other one.  He had purchased the sweet potatoes while on a trip to  South Carolina.  The purple sweet (I wasn’t given a name) had dry flesh, but the bright purple made it desirable on the table.  But it came with a surprise.  When Julia made muffins with it the first time, they came out a pleasant lavender color.  But she tried another recipe and the muffins turned GREEN.  As treats at Gift & Thrift they were less appealing, especially when one of the workers said “They look moldy”.  A chemist friend explained that baking soda in the second recipe resulted in the green muffins.  (Google “using baking soda to keep vegetables green’.)  As you see in the picture above, the purple sweet gets large.  The vines are very vigorous and overrun the other sweets.  So, the purple is a mixed blessing.  But Julia’s purple sweet potato pie was a delicious and colorful surprise!

A number of years ago a friend said he had some grass he wanted to reduce in size.  I had wanted a tall ornamental grass, so I went to help.  I identified this grass as miscanthus—probably the most common type of miscanthus.  Digging out the grass was a challenge. We jumped on the spade to cut a section of grass for me.  How do you cut miscanthus planted two dinner plate sized clumps which required a hacksaw to cut up the rest of the gift clump to pot.  The potted clumps started growing.  Several months later the church youth had a fundraiser to which I contributed 11 pots which sold quickly.  Five or so years later someone told me he had a clump of grass he had dug out—did I want it?  The clump was large enough that he had used his tractor scoop to dig it.  He dumped it on my pickup.  The source of his grass?  The youth fund raiser!  It took an ax and the hacksaw again to reduce the clump to pot size.

miscanthus '17 at fence

Forsythia, nandina, Oregon grape holly, kerria japonica, Lenten rose, and lilac are other plants that have multiplied for sharing with others.

“Loaves and fish” 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)

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”.

 

 

Basil bounty, plundered peperomia My plant rescue hobby

At the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale you can buy plants people donate.  Some plants come unlabeled or lose their labels.  Others are lack appeal (poorly presented, not healthy looking, etc.).  Plants that do not sell by Saturday afternoon are sent to Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg .  I have been offered peace lilies, wax plants (hoya), peperomia and others that are unlikely to sell at the store.  I get a lot of satisfaction in restoring these to health.

Last fall the peperomia (couldn’t tell what it was when I first saw it) had two leaves at the top of a 6″ stem.  There seemed to be life in the plant.  So, I cut off one stem just above what appeared to be a bud and put the the stem in water to root.  Soon I had plants that looked like the picture on the left.  When the stem sent out a new shoot, I cut off the other one and placed it in water also.  A month later the plant looked like the picture on the right.  I sent the picture to Garden Web where I found out that I had a peperomia.  The first plant has gone to Gift and Thrift for sale, the second from the rooted cuttings is still in my sun room.

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Basil bounty

The plant sale was over.  Upwards of 20 dozen 4″ pots of basil plants remained.  Since the Community Center did not want to care for them or have another sale, they chose the compost pile solution.  I determine to rescue as many as possible..  I took 3 or 4  flats and prepared them for the Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg where I volunteer.  When these were nearly gone, I went back to Our Community Center and they still had 3 or 4 more flats of basil plants.  I called Gift and Thrift and suggested they reduce the price.  Then I started cutting out all but one plant in each pot (there had been 5 or more) and fertilizing the plants.   When sales nearly stopped, I still had around 7 dozen plants.  So, I gave some to neighbors, then took some to church to give away. I heard a group was starting a community garden.  They accepted nearly 4 dozen pots.  Now, 6 weeks after the sale, I am down to 5 dozen pots of 6″ plants.  Of those,  21 will go to Patchwork (food) Pantry next Wednesday.  Then I will only have 42 plants left!

A bee in my bonnet

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Bee balm

The small plant in a big pot stumped me for the first year.  I set the pot in a sheltered place for the winter hoping it was frost hardy.  The second year in the pot it had one small bloom which I did not recognize.  Since it was growing well, I set it in the ground the next spring.  By mid-June I had the plant you see above and a friend helped me identify it as a new type of dwarf bee balm (Monarda).  A nice reward for patience (perhaps a balm for my impatience).

Peace with the cat

I am a peace advocate. and I like peace lilies.  When my last peace lily looked good, I reluctantly donated  it to the  Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale.  I was pleased it brought a good price.  The next year three single stem peace lilies came to  Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg from the sale.  I dumped out the three, preparing to create a new potting.  They had been potted in clay and none had good roots.  I set them in a 6′ pot.  After a period, two of them died.  So I repotted the remaining one in a smaller plant in a better potting soil (after checking the Internet).  After “sulking” for awhile on a shaded patio for the summer, it finally began growing.  Two years later it is a healthy looking plant and I expect a white spathe any time.  The plant would look better if our daughter’s cat had not nibbled on several leaves.  I have talked to several cat owners who have agreed that peace lilies may be especially tasty to cats.  Now to find a way to make peace between the plant and Feliz the cat!

 

 

Terminating mother

Having all the sweet potatoes slips I need signals the end of main planting season.  Now I must decide what to do with the “mother” that has produced all the sweet potato slips.

Sweet potatoes are not one of my favorite foods. I grow them because I have read that they are one of the most productive of nutrients per square foot.  Further, they are satisfying to grow:  seeing the rapid sprouting of new slips from the “mother”, watching the running of the vines and then lifting the orange or purple tubers in early October (we are in zone 6 at 1500 feet in western Virginia).  The June 10 late planting date approaches.  The tub of moss and vermiculite that I buried the tubers in proved a good incubator for all the new plants I need.   I have the two dozen or so plants potted for myself, plus more to sell at the local Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg.

Sweet potato slips may be purchased at the local hardware store and some greenhouses or ordered from a number of sources.  Common varieties available are Beauregard, Centennial, Georgia Jet and Porto Rico.  The Sand Hill Preservation Center carries many more, listing white, purple, yellow, orange, short vine, long season and other types of  sweet potatoes.  I have been growing a split leaf variety of sweet grown and preserved for many years (she didn’t know how many) by Esther Shank, compiler of Mennonite Country-Style Recipes.  I got the sweet potato slips from her when we worked together at the Gift & Thrift store.  To try to identify the Shank heirloom, I have worked through the Sand Hill online catalog and located six split leaf sweets of the right vine length, season length, and with orange skin and flesh.  I can say they are a tasty sweet potato that keeps well.  Not as large as Beauregard, perhaps, but sufficiently productive to keep us in sweet potatoes until May.

Ending the first planting season

Sprouts are still emerging from the sweet.  How do I give thanks for the mother tuber’s productivity of slips but by finishing the job and moving on to the potting?  I had buried the sweet in vermiculite and moss producing good “dirt roots”.  So why, one might ask, is potting necessary?  I have relatively limited space, so I have a form of double cropping.  .  As peas—planted in the middle of my four-foot wide beds—are declining, I push aside the mulch nearer the edges and set in the sweet potato plants.  Planting is usually two weeks later than if I had enough space to plant peas and sweet potatoes in separate beds.  So, the potted sweets have good roots when set in the ground and take off with little stress.  This year we were traveling until March 6, so did not get our peas in the ground early, so there is even more overlap.

Corn’s up, the snap peas are reaching the top of the fence, pole limas show the first signs of “running”, green beans look ready to send out blossoms, first tomatoes are swelling, peppers have blossoms and cabbages are big enough to cut.  It’s the lull before produce starts becoming the “burden” we love.  The heat this week will wilt the lettuce, send the arugula and mustard to flower and turn the spinach bitter.  We will still have Swiss chard, though, and maybe the “summer” lettuce can be shaded and watered enough to show its superiority to store-bought.

This year I don’t have someone else to give the mother to.  Why do I find difficult slicing   the “Original Sweet Potato” in pieces?  Partly because there are still a number of new sprouts showing on the tuber.  Terminating the mother, even more than giving her away, sets the end to the main planting season.  Then, too, I enjoy the starting of plants and of the garden, more than the maintaining.  This “pioneering” inclination of mine is an annoyance to my gardening partner.  She would like to see me equally engaged in the watering, weeding and harvesting aspects of gardening.

Giving thanks to God for the soil, the rain and strength to plant.  Looking forward (with a non-ground hog summer) to a bountiful sweet potato harvest.