Monday, April 25, 2011

breaking ground

freshly spaded and raked garden bed
So it finally was warm and dry enough to get out into the backyard garden and turn over the soil.  We spent an hour and a half- two hours tops, turning it over and raking out the lumps.  It was incredibly satisfying, and not difficult, given this is the sixth time we've broken this particular piece of ground, and that each year we've make the soil darker and softer by adding leaves, grass and the stems of last years garden plants.

It was even more satisfying, given that until a few days ago, the garden area was covered with pieces of rock, now seen in the retaining wall in the foreground.  There are still plenty of pieces of rock laying about in the yard, but not on the garden bed.  Those will have to be dealt with evenually, but not right now.

My hope is to have a finished patio at the back of the retaining wall by mid-summer. Given all of the other projects we have going on, that may or may not happen.  I will post photos eventually, but until now, the whole project hasn't looked like much and I would have been embarrassed to post the photos as it was.

So the soil is broken, raked and ready to plant.  We tried going no-till for two seasons, and my dad has been experimenting with that as well.  The results have been mixed.  One the one hand, I like being able to simply rake off the detritus from last year's garden and plant directly into the untilled soil.  It's fast and easy and supposedly doesn't let the seeds from previous years germinate, since new soil isn't being exposed.  It certiainly was good for the tilth, or texture of the soil, since it seemed to hold up really well, except for the spots where we had garden paths.

And it was good for the mycelia in the soil, I think.  My initial reason for taking the no-till plunge was the discovery of morels in our lawn.  Yes- morels- the gold standard of wild mushrooms in our little city yard.  I couldn't believe it at first, and looked them up online, thinking that they must be false morels or some other horrible thing-- but no- we had 5 bonafide morels pop up in our lawn, and I (being the only brave one) at them in scrambled eggs and they were fantastic.

I don't think I would have believed anyone else if they had told me that they accidentally found morels while mowing their lawn in St. Paul, but it was impossible not to believe my own taste buds.  Since then I've spotted morels growing in the front yard of another house in our neighborhood-- many more than we found in our yard.  They never picked them, and they didn't appear in following years.  It presented a bit of a moral (sorry) dilemma.  Do I knock on the door of a complete stranger and inform them of what they have growing in their landscape bed?  Do I point out the fungus in their yard and risk having them spray fungicides and destroy the morel bed forever?  Would they not care and let me pick the morels for my own use?  I never found out- the morels just dried up and disappeared.  I never picked any, and as I mentioned, I haven't seen them again.  But I look for them every  morning on my way to the bus stop this time of year.  If I see them again, I may have to knock on the front door this time.

But back to no-till gardening.  The downsides were the actual appearance of more weeds than there were when we had tilled.  This may have to do with my applying compost that hadn't fully broken down and which was full of weed seeds the previous year *lesson learned* or not.  What was clear was that the weeds got an earlier start, and were way ahead of the seeds planted after they had appeared.  Gita called it "Tharu farming"- comparing it to the no-till farming methods of the native Tharu people in the region where her parents had moved to after leaving their village in the mountians of Nepal.  Her ethnic group used farming methods more familiar to westerners- tilling multiple times per year, and sucession planting a variety of crops in one year.  They farmed intensively.  The native Tharu people didn't till, and grew one crop per year.

Now, the Tharu have been farming the land of the Inner Terai for thousands of years and the newcomers have only been doing it for decades, so it remains to be seen who really has the best farming method for the region.  Given that it is a tropical climate, exhausting the soil is a real possibility- where that is less likely,or at least a longer-term prospect in Minnesota.  In any case, I will keep lightly tilling my garden soil for the foreseeable future, but being sure to till in lots of compost and uncomposted leaves and stems from last years garden.

our kids on an easter egg hunt at my parents' house
On a lighter note, the kids had a blast this weekend hunting for easter eggs at my parents house.  They weren't really eggs of course (what kid would be excited about finding an actual hard-boiled egg?) but plastic eggs stuffed with candy.  Their cousins were there, all loud and giddy and chasing around the yard and crying out when they found another one, and it felt like a fitting beginning to spring.

We were making muffins the day before- on Saturday morning- muffin morning- and my daughter asked me why our eggs were brown.  I started to say that it was because the eggs were organic, but stopped because that's not actually true.  Gita had bought the cage-free but not organic kind that time, and in addition, the color of the shell is an indicator of the breed of chicken, not the quality of the egg itself.  It's another of the kid-zen moments where a parent is confronted with a question that he or she has not asked for a long time and struggles to formulate an answer that is true, and also immune to small-child scrutiny. 

So we will continue to buy brown eggs and I will continue to consider whether or not we should raise chickens or ducks in our yard, then I will re-consider that idea when I think about how much work raising poultry is, and could we really handle another responsibility at this point in time?  Probably not.  I really enjoy reading about other people raising poultry in the city.  See one here.


  1. Jeff,

    I found two morels in my yard last year too, under the wild cherry tree, and under the eastern sand cherries. I didn't pick either. I took it as a sign from the Earth, like a smile, or a thank you, for the way I treat my yard. I didn't pick either. I put wood chips down, some of which I think were elm. I'm hoping for a bumper crop this year.

    No till is one of those intuitive styles that seems to make sense, as nature doesn't till the woods or the prairie. Until one trys to imagine planting vegetables in the woods or on the prairie. It's a reflexive style in opposition to the hideous way we treat the Earth generally, which is understandable, but not necessarily effective in practice, in most gardens. My garden ended up looking like a brownfield.

  2. Thanks William!

    I lack the sort of self-control necessary to keep myself from eating the morels. Normally I dislike mushrooms, but the morel is the one exception, and in a big way.

    I agree that finding morels is like getting a smile from Mother Earth for good stewardship- and I had smiles two years in a row- then two years without. We'll see if they come back this year. I tried to shake the spores out into every corner of the yard before cooking the morels, but I guess that must not have done the trick.

    I think the weather plays a big part. My dad has a friend that is a diehard morel hunter, and he says that the time to look for morels, is "when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear". I like that sort of advice- much better than saying to look the second week in May. If May is cold, better to look to a sign in nature- like the size of the oak leaves.

    I agree completely on your assessment of no-till. It's a great idea, but difficult in practice. I tend to try out every theory and keep what works. Maybe if I have a year where I have a lot of really good quality mulch, I'll try no-till again.


  3. I hope to be able to raise chickens some day, but it's hard in an apartment building. When we get a house maybe I'll give it a try...