Tuesday, March 13, 2007

We planted lettuce today....

I very often use "we" instead of "me", and people ask, "Who is 'WE'?"

"WE" is me and God. It's me and the Border Collies (Luna, LIE DOWN RIGHT THERE, you've blown most of the circuits in your brain already today from staring at the chickens! Take a break!). It's the people from my sort-of-recent past who contributed to the farm in some manner while they were living or regularly visiting here. It's the people from my distant past who, in so many ways, shared their skills and enthusiasm for gardening/farming/sustainable living/etc. with me. It's the visitors and volunteers who come for a few minutes or hours...both those from the past, and those who will come in the future.

It's also wider than that. It's the people who supply the essential ingredients of the farm...hay, feed, seeds, equipment, supplies, services, etc. It's Raymond the hay guy, Premier 1 Supplies, Perry Milling, Dr. LaRosh the vet, M&M Office Supplies, Rich Johnson Automotive.

But really, more than all the people put together, "WE" is me and the other beings with whom I share the farm. It's the mosquitos, and the goldfish in the stock tanks that eat their larvae, and the bats and purple martins that eat the adults. It's the billions (trillions? more?) of ants, and the dragonflies and swallows and gulls that eat them when they fly up to mate in August. It's the fungi and bacteria, the nematodes, the earthworms, and other soil-dwellers (mustn't forget the moles) that work ceaselessly to refine the structure of this wonderful soil. It's all the arthropods, taking their places throughout the food chain: isopods, insects, arachnids, centipedes. It's the mammals, both wild and domestic: mice, rabbits, sheep, skunks, foxes, coyotes, dogs. It's the plants, from tiny chickweed to huge cottonwoods, from delicate seedlings to death-defying Johnsongrass (bare rhizomes left to bake in the sun in a bucket for 4 months last summer still began to grow again when the fall rains came). "WE" is all of God's creation that lives in and around the place I call Pinwheel Farm. Day by day, I seek to listen more humbly to the wisdom of the rest of this "WE". I'm hardly the boss, or leader, or owner of any of this..."steward" or "servant" better describes my relationship with this Community of Life.

"WE" is also an invitation, a wide-open door. You are part of "WE". You can write your own job description for your position in "WE". You can express your membership in many ways, through sending me encouraging messages, through physical involvement at the farm, through participating in our food chain by eating our vegetables, eggs, and meat.

Anyhow, WE planted lettuce today, Border Collies in the lane, sheep patiently waiting for the pulled weeds to be thrown over the fence.

I can tell by the sound that my neighbor is working in his garden far across the street. All he hears is his tiller... using only hand tools, I hear him, the neighbor kids, the sheep, the new pair of white geese, the blackbirds (blackbirds!) in the distant wetland, a dump truck dumping fill dirt in the floodplain, the fire trucks going out from Station 1 bound for another wreck at Midland Junction, I suspect.... I stop and call the Zoning office about the filling; I stop and say a prayer for the people involved in the wreck, and their families and the emergency workers.

I've noticed that folks with rototillers tend to till more than they can plant at one time, "while they have the tiller running". So the surface dries out amazingly fast, all fluffed up like that...and if it rains before they can plant, then they have to till again because it compacts. I prepare one bed at a time, seed it, mulch it, then start another. The soil is bare to the sun less than an hour, so little moisture is lost. I never water the newly seeded beds. I rarely turn the soil--in this fine sandy silt loam, that's like punching down the loaf of bread right before you bake it. I want all the carefully engineered worm and ant tunnels to be preserved, to provide vital aeration and drainage.

So I rake last year's brome hay mulch to one side. Then I place the stakes and strings that outline the bed. I go over the bed with the Valley Oak Wheel Hoe--an 8" wide slender blade that slices under the soil surface. The motion reminds me of vaccuming a carpet--forward and back, active but not terribly strenuous. With the right soil moisture (and my magic soil is nearly always right), the soil above the cut naturally crumbles into a nice seedbed. If I'm adding lime (the only amendment I regularly use; essential for spinach and other greens in this soil), I sprinkle it on top, then mix it in with an ancient "Ro-Ho" cultivator. Then I rake the bed as smooth and level as I can, ready for the "7-Row Furrower." This wonderful tool was invented by my friend Melissa, who took a heavy 4 x 4, 3' long (my standard bed width) and put 7 evenly-spaced wooden pegs in, at an angle. An eye bolt at each end holds a loop of baling twine. I place it carefully at one end of the bed, pegs angled towards the other end of the bed. I straddle the bed, one foot on each side, about 4' away from the furrower, and hold the twine loops. Gently, carefully, I pull it along the soil surface, skootching my feet along the bed edge. Soon there are 7 perfect, even furrows the length of the bed.

For the first lettuce bed, I mark off 4 sections, and thinly sprinkle a different lettuce seed in each furrow of each section. First Black-seeded Simpson. Then Ruby Red. Then Green Salad Bowl. Then Red Salad Bowl. Alphabetical, so I can remember to write them down in the right order. Alternating colors, so I can tell them apart at the transition points. These are the cheap seed, bulk seed from the neighborhood family-owned garden store nearby...just in case there's a spell of bad weather yet to come. This is the "risky" bed. A little later I'll plant the valuable seed...new varieties ordered from Johnny's Select Seed, heirlooms from a friend, etc.

Finishing the bed is just as important as preparing it. First, I gently drag the back of the garden rake the length of the bed, brushing the tops of the ridges into the furrows, over the seed. I do this carefully so as not to disturb the seed in the furrows. I like to see the sprouts come up in nice, straight rows, and the rows are far easier to weed and mulch than broadcast. Then I tamp the soil over the seeds with the rake held vertically, quick little taps of the tine backs on the ground. Up one side, down the other, then the middle. This ensures good soil-to-seed contact--how the seeds get their moisture to germinate. And why I don't till the soil deeply--fluffed up, the soil loses its ability to hold and "wick" water. Last, I spread a "germination mulch" on the bed. Today, that was just a loose, light scattering of the previous year's hay mulch. Sometimes, it's crumbled autumn leaves, or dried grass clippings. The purpose is to shade the soil surface and keep it moist, while allowing the young plants through. It also discourages the cat from digging and birds from foraging. Then a heavier mulch is added between the rows as the seedlings grow. I've learned that no, I won't get around to mulching the path later, so I do that right away, too.

Then hopefully I clean the tools before the dirt dries and sticks to them. Any dirt left on a tool holds moisture onto the metal, and it will quickly rust, shortening the life of the tool and making it harder to use. When I first started Pinwheel Farm, my neighbor Frank, then in his late 70s, taught me to use an old burlap sack to brush off the tools. His ancient shovel gleamed like stainless steel, polished by years of use and care. A smooth, sharp tool makes the work much easier. I am still learning to practice this discipline, a particularly (for me) difficult form of meditation....

From start to finish, it took about an hour to completely plant this 23' x 3' bed of lettuce, which will be harvested "cut and come again", 1 side (3 or 4 rows) of the bed each week so a 2-week rotation. Other crops planted this way include arugula, spinach, mizuna, tatsoi, bokchoi, kale, endive, turnips, radishes, carrots, cilantro, etc.

It's a good feeling to have the first bed of lettuce planted. But the Border Collies could care less.


Catlady said...

Now that I've read the rest... You know I had to laugh out loud at your first paragraph - Luna sounds so much like Bear, they *must* be related :)

Carol said...

I've come here because of your mention of an ancient ro-ho cultivator. I have one, too, and put pictures of it on my blog. Perhaps they are the same? http://maydreamsgardens.blogspot.com/2007/07/hoe-and-harvest-update-from-may-dreams.html

Carol at May Dreams Gardens