Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Tree Hugging Dirt Worshipper"--NOT!

Yesterday's Thursday Seminar was a good example of "stream of consciousness"teaching.

EF arrived before JR, and so I was hanging around chatting and watching him fill the front stock tank while we waited--the farm equivalent of the office-worker cliche of "hanging around the water cooler". It had been a busy day, and I hadn't had much time to think up a good topic for the weekly teaching session. But I've learned I can always find something to babble about in great detail for an hour, while demonstrating and then getting others to do some "hands-on" learning (i.e., work).

While I was standing there, I reflected on the tentative nature of some of the wooden posts. That fence is one of our first fence-building efforts, with all wood posts, and they were pre-used treated line posts (that was a BAD idea...always invest in posts you think will outlive you). Some have rotted off completely and are braced by t-posts; some are supported mainly by the woven wire (which is a bit slack). High on the list of fencing priorities...when I can afford some really nice fence wire and do it right in this high-profile area.

In other areas I would worry more about the poor condition of the fence, but here there isn't much on the other side, for the most part. We try (with varying success) to keep the "orchard strip" between the fence and the driveway weeded and mulched so that it isn't obviously greener on the other side of the fence, from the sheep's perspective.

One way to buy some time on this particular fence is to be extra diligent about keeping the ground clear on the outside of the fence. If there isn't anything tasty in reach, the sheep and llama won't try to reach through/over the fence. Such reaching is a significant factor in "livestock pressure", which can cause serious damage to fences and lead to catastrophic failure.

"Livestock pressure" is the fencing equivalent of water pressure in plumbing. The strength of containment needed depends greatly on the amount of pressure it needs to hold. The "livestock pressure" exerted by a flock of sheep can be almost nothing on a fence along a paved area, and something like a killer crowd at a soccer game or Christmas sale if there are tasty treats in reach. During early spring, the pressure can be extreme as the animals try to reach those first few lush blades after a long boring winter of dry hay. Livestock pressure is also higher anywhere animals are confined more densely--a small corral for working sheep needs to be a lot stronger than a pasture subdivision fence.

In building fences, it's important to understand what sort of livestock pressure will be applied in various circumstances. A fence that will easily contain a contented flock of ewes and suckling lambs for rotational grazing may not be strong enough to separate those ewes and lambs for weaning, or to keep the rams separate before breeding season. The goal is to build fences strong enough but not to overbuild...fencing is expensive stuff.

As I stood at the proverbial water cooler, I noticed that there was a distinct line on the ground outside the fence that demarcated the distance the sheep could reach. Looking closer at that line showed that there was a big patch of smooth bromegrass starting to sprout up in the area--grazed on one side of the line, ungrazed where they couldn't reach.

So we started digging up the brome, back well beyond their reach so they would get no reward for pressing harder, and would quit trying. We'll mulch the area along the fence very heavily with wood chips and keep it weeded. This will also make it easier to walk along the fence to check lambs when we start lambing, if we have ewes in this front pen. While we usually lamb mainly in the barn, this pen is often used for segregating ewes needing special feed or other attention.

Weeding out the brome was also a good study in plant morphology. In the garden, brome often grows very densely in the rich soil. Here, heavily shaded and competing with other creeping plants like gill-over-the-ground and Indian strawberry, as well as with numerous trees with thirsty roots, it has long runners between shoots. The shallow roots were easy to pull out.

The soil was in perfect condition for this task--not too wet, not too dry. And at this stage in the spring, the brome's energy flow is UP. The plants are drawing energy out of the roots to push up the new sprouts through the dry mulch of last year's growth. This depletes the roots, and they really are easier to pull up. In a month or so, the brome will start to replenish the nutrient reservoir in its roots, making them fatter and stronger, and it will also start to thrust out new runners on every side. It will be much harder to pull up, and the pieces remaining will resurrect themselves much more easily.

But what about the tree-hugging, you may be wondering.

At the edge of the brome was a particularly annoying clump of saplings. Digging out saplings is another good impromtu lesson. JR hasn't learned all the shovels by name, so EF went with her to fetch the sharpshooter. The catalogs don't call it that, but that's what they are in this region: a short "d" handle on a long, narrow blade good for digging deep holes. I keep the edges as sharp as I can for this exact use: severing saplings just below the soil level, below the junction between the root and the trunk.

Most trees, when severed here, will die. If simply pruned or broken off above the crown, they will probably resprout unless they are conifers.

We had a brief intro to the distinctive features and physics of our favorite loppers (unbreakable, non-splintering,low-maintenance metal handles; anvil blade; lots of leverage for larger branches or roots) and pruners (pocketable "hand extensions" with by-pass blades that can cut, reach, and grab with one hand--Felco #2s and a cheap but identical knock-off). Then we demonstrated on the clump of saplings, just to be able to get to the ground they were growing out of.

Only, on closer inspection, pushing away the drifted leaves, we find that this is actually ONE "sapling" someone (almost certainly me) pruned above ground level many years ago. It has grown to be a stump about 10" in diameter, with sprouts all around the rim, and some of those have been pruned and grown their own rings of sprouts, ad infinitum. A formidable mass, and a great lesson in doing it right the first time and making sure it doesn't regrow...or doing it right the second time...or the third time...instead of just re-pruning it as the stump grows and grows.

We attacked. With something like this, you just have to go at it a little at a time and keep changing your tactics and tools as you go. We pruned everything we could, then started digging around it. When we found roots we could cut with the shovel or loppers, we did so--not just cutting them off the stump, but pulling them back and cutting them a foot or so away from the stump to remove a section. That gave us room to dig some more.

A couple roots were huge--3-4" in diameter. Back to the shed for a bigger tool--the handle on the small ax broke, so we laid into the root with a shingling hatchet: an acceptable and safe use of the "wrong" tool.

Green wood is generally buttery-soft and really kind of fun to chip at with an ax. But it does involve muscles we don't always use a lot. Mid-way, I asked JR if she was ready to go build a log cabin with an ax like the "pioneers". She laughed.

When we finally severed both these large roots, including digging out around them even more, we gave the stump a good thump with a foot. It didn't even budge! Close inspection showed a root going down vertically from one of the root stubs. That's going to take a saw because of the angle...and more digging to make room for the saw...and all of this is just to get CLOSE to the taproot to assess it!

And so it goes.

To be continued....

So when I see the bumpersticker that says "Tree Hugging Dirt Worshipper" I laugh and shake my head. I love trees, I've been hugging trees since I was a kid. Literally. I still do sometimes.

But I am a tree murderer. Mass murderer, in fact. I have the sap of thousands, if not millions, on my soul.

Some trees are just the wrong kind, or the wrong place, or too many (reminds me of some people...). Nothing personal, but they just need to give me some space, and I've got an opposable thumb and I know how to use it. Ditto the saw manufacturer, the ax grinder, etc. who unknowingly aid and abet me.

What gives me the moral right to make those decisions about which trees should live and which should die? Some might say God did, in Genesis. I dunno. Maybe my rights in this are entirely legal and traditional, and not the least bit moral or ethical. I'll never really know whether that was God's very favorite tree or not (at least not in this lifetime). But, I'm human and hopefully if I goofed that's the worst decision I'll ever make. And God knows the other elms are blooming enough to make enough seeds to strangle the whole earth with trees. And this one seems to be in the way of my carrying out what I belive to be a God-given mission to be a wise steward of this fledgeling farm.

Dirt worshipper? No, I don't worship my dirt, I worship its Creator by trying to be a good steward of it.

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