Monday, June 4, 2007

Dig it!

A friend called this morning and wanted to come get some "farmercize" of the digging sort. She is especially fond of digging, and loves my delightfully dig-able stoneless soil.

I, myself, am not so fond of broad scale digging, either as a way of engaging in physical activity or as a means of managing a patch of ground. Therefore I am always grateful to receive this sort of call from her. However, sometimes I have to re-envision how various goals around the farm can be achieved, in order to come up with a worthwhile application of her passion for digging.

One of the legacies of the tenants' lack of weed control in the garden is that a number of beds--including several that are slated to be planted with tomato plants ASAP--are badly overgrown with tall fescue. Had it been carefully hand weeded when it was small, it would have pulled up easily after rains like we've had lately. But now the clumps are several inches in diameter, and the flower stalks are reaching for 3' tall in places. Pulling them is more back breaking than digging, so here's a task well suited to her desires.

But we had (yet another) torrential downpour last night, so the dirt doesn't shake easily from the fine, dense root masses of the fescue. In fact, it doesn't shake at all. And scraping mud out of roots is a bit beyond her definition of pleasurable digging. Tomorrow (assuming no more rain) would be perfect dirt-shaking conditions, but today is the day she is here.

We decided the best approach was for her to dig up the clumps and turn them over to dry out a bit, then the next day I would shake them out. But it was soon apparent that the clumps of grass were indistinquishable from the grass-less dirt, once they were upside down. The chances of leaving a vigorous upside down clump to be mulched over, only for it to spring back and engulf a tomato plant a few weeks later, were unacceptably high. Fescue is a durable and determined grass.

The solution turned out to be a pile of used galvanized corrugated roofing I recently acquired from the local metal recycler. By happy coincidence, the sheets are the exact width of the paths between the beds, and the length is such that two of them nicely overlap to border an entire bed from end to end. We placed them along the bed she was digging, where they will also hopefully smother out the fescue clumps in the path, in due time. She turned the clumps upside-down onto the metal, and we left them in the sun all day.

Tonight there was a bit of twilight left when I got home from work, so I checked the situation out. The dirt was fairly dry, and shook out very nicely with a couple of whacks of the root clump on the edge of the roofing. Using this method, the dirt removal took a fraction of the time it would have taken earlier. The volume of the clumps was reduced by well more than half, with that much dirt going back into the bed rather than on the path or wherever the fescue ended up.

A subtle but serious drawback to the common practice of hand weeding well-grown weeds and placing them on the paths between the beds is that over time, much dirt (as well as the organic matter of the plant, though that is a much smaller volume) is transfered to the paths, resulting in rising paths and sinking beds. If I throw the weeds over the fence to the sheep, the sheep pen rises (not necessarily a bad thing) but the bed still sinks. Though not much of a problem in our well-drained soil, it's good cultural practice to avoid reinforcing habits that create a sunken bed, since we aren't raising rice. There is always a chance I might end up gardening in less perfect soil elsewhere someday. Also, I want to teach the farm volunteers and visitors principles and methods that are generally applicable in a variety of soils. In a soil with a higher clay content, a sunken bed would invite rot and drown small plants on a regular basis.

Tomorrow, I'll finish shaking out the dirt from the other half of the bed, and mulch it immediately to retain moisture and prevent new weeds from germinating. I've found that maybe as much as 90% of weeding is wasted effort if the area is not mulched within a day or will simply have to be done again and again. So I try hard to never weed without following it up with a good mulch. It's so much quicker than weeding again and again.

However, I probably won't plant this bed immediately after mulching. It's along a lane, and the next two beds north of it need the same treatment. If I plant the tomato plants right away, I'll have to work around the cages to mulch the other beds...making the work slower. Being able to wheel the cart across one mulched bed to reach the next without regard for tiny plants will speed the mulching considerably.

It took my friend perhaps an hour to dig the clumps out, maybe less. I spent less than half an hour shaking out dirt on half the bed. It will take perhaps 2 hours to thoroughly mulch this bed with waste hay, set out 10 tomato plants at 24" spacing, put cages on them, and tie the cages down. So a total of about three hours will be invested in this bed of tomatoes prior to harvest. From planting until harvest, the only work in these beds (if they are properly mulched to start with) will be walking through weekly to check for morning glory seedlings.

Morning glories come up continuosly all season through any mulch and are a serious nuisance as they climb cages and entangle plants. These habits have long earned them a place on the "Pinwheel Farm Noxious Weeds" list. Pretty pale blue flowers do not redeem them, I'm afraid; the seeds can remain viable in the soil for decades. If other weeds appear, there is a weak spot in the mulch that needs to be mended with more mulch.

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