Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Grow where you're planted

"So, you just throw the oats out onto the top of the dead grass and that's it? Why do other farmers spend so much time out in the fields with tractors turning their soil and discing, then?

.... started cleaning out the round garden bed for lettuce and onions. I'm not sure just throwing out the lettuce seed on top of the weeds would work....."

Reading assignment: Daniel Quinn My Ishmael, chapter entitled "Tunes and Dancers"; Edward H. Faulkner Plowman's Folly (published in 1943 and certainly long out of print, but worth tracking down).


Why, indeed, do farmers plow and harrow? How often in ALL aspects of our work and lives, we just do things the way they've "always" been done, forgetting that "always" can't have been "forever" because tractors and discs are, after all, pretty modern inventions. OK, so the plow's been around a lot longer...but still, the moldboard plow that turns the soil over, rather than the ancient bent-stick affair that just sort of scratched the surface, isn't exactly prehistorical.

And then, because we are DOING them, we look for ways to do them "better, faster, easier, deeper, bigger..." which allegedly leads to "progress"...i.e., $$$$ in the pocket of someone who wasn't involved in the production process before. It's considered lazy to look for ways to NOT do things...not to mention bad for the economy, i.e., anti-American.

The farmer is locked into paying for the tractor (and maybe the land, too...plus of course the seeds & other inputs) so he HAS to maximize the output of his land, and minimize the risk. I have nothing to lose on seeding oats this way except the cost of the seed, if that flock of grackles this morning was very thorough (we did get a good steady rain this afternoon, surely enough to knock the oats down through the weeds where they will be more vulnerable to rodents but will also contact the moist soil and germinate.) So I can take a greater risk.

Through family and peers, the farmer has learned to like to plow, to base his self-esteem on his plowing ability and the appearance of his fields. I bet it WOULD be fun to drive a tractor and plow up ground in nice straight rows...but I would be thinking about all those disorganized ant hills, mangled worms, compaction, organic matter buried where it can't decompose as naturally as it would on the surface.

A middle ground would be to drill the oats into the untouched soil using a "no-till drill". But that's a very specialized tool...most farmers don't own one; there are various agencies that will loan or rent them. The farmer has a plow and disc already, for his corn and beans which are more risky planted this way.

Also, I'm not worried about a weed-free stand to harvest for grain, though if it does well I might try harvesting some to "play" with...or for seed for next year. Oat hulls are harder than wheat hulls to remove from the grain, so probably not really useful for home cooking.

It probably WAS necessary to turn the sod under to farm the virgin prairie here--the grasses grew 8-10 feet tall, and the sod was so tough it was cut into building blocks for homes. But then it became "how things are done" and "what we have equipment for", and never questioned.

But the harvested oat field, if left unplanted, will naturally sprout up again in oats from seed that falls to the ground during harvest...same with just about any crop. Same as lettuce in an area on my farm that was planted by an acquaintance and then abandoned. It was many years before lettuce stopped growing on that piece of land every spring...actually, I'll be looking for it this year. It gets harder to find because that plot has been overtaken by saplings and dense brome grass.

Last year I had some lettuce seeds get wet, and several days later I found the soggy packages of seeds with tiny white sprouts. Too fragile and clumpy-wet to plant by my normal methods, I didn't have time to prepare a bed, they were in imminent danger of drying out and dying. I raked the mulch off an old bed, leaving some clusters of sprouting weeds, and scattered the seeds as evenly as I could. I strew a light covering of hay over them. "If I don't plant them, they certainly won't grow."

I think every seed grew! I had more cut-and-come-again mixed leaf lettuce than I could market from that bed! It was a little annoying to harvest, because the rough hay mulch would end up in the cut greens and I had to sort it out...and different areas grew faster than others depending on how dense the plants were. Some was so dense that it rotted or was vulnerable to insects; I could have thinned it to solve that but didn't have time.

So you could simply plant through the weeds, if they are dead weeds, and expect a crop. If they are green, sprouting annual weeds, you could just hoe them down to give the lettuce a bit of a head start. If they are dense perennials...well, probably some serious bed preparation is needed.

Whether the garden would meet your aesthetic standards...maybe not. Whether it would be more work to thin and harvest than neat rows...maybe. But it would almost certainly grow.

Of course, with a seed crop like oats, the odds are a bit better because the plant's instinct is to reproduce itself no matter what. With greens, in stressful conditions (not enough water or nutrients, or too crowded), the plants may bolt to seed prematurely. Spinach, especially, is prone to bolt if the soil is too acid.

The plants don't read the seed packets. They don't know they're suppose to be planted in a finely-prepared seedbed, in nice straight rows, at a certain spacing. They don't know the exact numbers of N-P-K or pH they are supposed to have. Their wisdom is: grow where you're planted. Just do what you can with what you've got.

And I guess that's what I'm doing, since I'm lacking the money it would take to buy a tractor and plow and enough ground to make the money....

Plants really are pretty smart, when you stop and think about it.

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