Tuesday, April 24, 2012

being here now

Evans bali cherry in full bloom

Of course, where else would I be but here now?

I suppose there are places I could say I'd rather be, or other lives that I might prefer living, given all that has happened in the last few months, and particularly in the last two weeks.

But the truth is that I feel lucky to have the life I have- with a kind and beautiful wife and two children that I love more than I can say.  

My garden-- I'm grateful to have deep, dark organic soil there- even if it is fantastic at producing weeds.  Because it's fantastic at producing fruit and vegetables too.  More weeds, given my recent lack of attention.

To everything there really is a silver lining.  I am still looking for the silver linings in some.

lilacs in full bloom too.
This week Gita had a mastectomy. 

She made it through 8 difficult rounds of chemotherapy with flying colors.  The nurse practitioner who saw her on a regular basis was impressed with what she was able to take, as only half of all people who have this chemo regimen make it all the way through, and most are not in as good of condition at the end as she was.

So surgery was the next thing to do.  I knew that it would be difficult, but wasn't prepared for how debilitated she would be in the immediate aftermath. 

She came from the recovery room, with teary eyes, delusional and drifting in and out of consciousness.  The nurse on duty explained that I'd have to 'strip her drains'- pull on the drainage tubes that led to three grenade shaped plastic bottles full of blood and pus- three times a day, and taught me how to do the procedure and measure and record the fluid output.   I stayed with her in the hospital room the first night, hoping that things would be better the next day.

And they were.  She's a strong woman, and now, a week later is back to her normal self, minus some body parts.  Our one-week follow up was today and the prognosis is guardedly optimistic. 

I'm grateful that we live so near the Mayo clinic and for all the good work they've done and how well they've explained all that they've done.  Without them, this would have been much more difficult. 

Strangely enough, the parts of three days we spent in the hospital were some of the calmest days I've had in the last 5 months or so.  I don't normally like hospitals, so I was expecting to really dislike being there.  But it was nice.  Partly, it was because the hospital was better designed and friendlier than the average hospital, and partly it was because there was nowhere else to be at that particular time.  There was nowhere to be but with Gita, in our little room, talking with her while she was awake, and looking out the window at the clouds when she wasn't.

My parents and Gita's sister were watching the kids, so there were no kids to take care of, lunch and dinner were at restaurants or the hospital cafeteria.  Since we were in Rochester, there was no way I was going to go to work or do any gardening.  It was a mandatory vacation from all of the things that eat up my time these days.

While I didn't think that spending time in a hospital would feel like a vacation, it sort of did.  I was glad to have the time to simply be with my wife, listen to some relaxing music, and reflect on the past few months, without being immersed in all of the things that have made the last few months stressful.

We came back home Thursday afternoon.  Early Friday morning we got a phone call letting us know that water was coming through the ceiling at our rental place.  I scrambled to find a plumber on short notice.

Then a little later Friday morning I got an email from the new community garden's contact with the city giving me notice to 'stop all work on the garden' until a new situation is resolved.  The department of transportation for our state is now considering denying all new permits for community gardens in their rights-of-way.  This could potentially make a year of hard work by me and a group of other gardeners amount to nothing. 

I'm still looking for the silver lining on that one.  
gita asked them to do an 'armani pose'

Monday, April 9, 2012

to till or not to till

she prefers getting a ride on the trike over riding her bike with the new training wheels

That's the question.  Now that it's really spring, and even though it's supposed to freeze tonight, most if not all gardeners around here have either begun digging up their gardens or are thinking about doing so really soon.

Whether or not to till has become far more controversial than I ever thought it would be.  Tilling, generally meaning turning over the soil with a rototiller or other machine, that is. 
I subscribe to the comgar listserv, sponsored by Gardening Matters (they're on the sidebar, a non-profit and a good source of community garden information by the way) and have been following a thread on the merits or demerits of tilling a garden.

On the merit side is the fact that it's quick, it de-compacts a new garden which is starting with compacted or otherwise difficult to dig soil, it kills off weeds if done repeatedly, and causes a 'flush' of nitrogen by way of suddenly exposing the soil organisms to lots of oxygen.  It also leaves the top of the soil looking nice and neat.

On the demerit side is the inconvenient fact that repeated tilling breaks down the structure of the soil and eventually leads to new compaction, due to that lack of structure, or tilth, as well as the weight of the machine.  The flush of nitrogen turns into a nitrogen deficit, and some say that there will be more weeds as a result of tilling, as this exposes buried seeds to light. 

So do I till or not?

Some of my earliest memories are of watching my dad till our backyard garden.  We had a large backyard when we lived for a while in a northern suburb of Minneapolis, and I remember how excited he was to get his new red  rototiller.  It was probably 1975 or 76, and there weren't many people around with their own tiller.  There weren't really even that many people in our neighborhood with vegetable gardens.

 It was a massive thing that sat in a corner in the garage for 363 or 364 days a year.  The neighbor kids were fascinated by it and came over to look at it.  One kid fell on it and cut his head, and had to go to the hospital for stitches.  The tiller was interesting, and a little bit scary.

The day or two that dad used it though were fun ones.  It was loud and smelled like gas and he walked it back and forth across the garden a few times.  Watching it rip up the sod or last year's brown plant leftovers was fun in the same way that watching construction equipment was fun, except that the construction was taking place in our yard.

So when I started my garden here in 2006, of course I figured I needed to at least borrow a tiller.  So I did.  My sister had bought a used one years before so I borrowed it and proceeded to tear up a portion of our new backyard, probably to the neighbors' horror- though nobody said anything at the time.

What I found out, was that tilling wasn't easy at all.  It was a lot of work, and not really fun work at all when I'm the one behind the tiller, trying to keep in going in a straight line and breathing gas fumes the whole time.  And they're loud.  Louder than a gas lawnmower, and potentially more dangerous.

The tiller stopped working part-way through, and I finished digging up the garden with a shovel, which was quieter and really not a whole lot more work.  I struggled to load the tiller back onto the truck I owned at the time and wondered why I had bothered.

turnips and spinach popping up in the (sort of) tilled soil
That same spring, I was surprised to find morels growing in our lawn, cut down by our gas lawnmower and scattered over the lawn like torn kleenex.

I thought that there must be a better way.  I had heard of no-till gardening, and decided that the next year I would try it- to avoid the hassle of tilling, and to hopefully preserve the mycelium in the soil that were sending up the morels.

scilla and fern-leaf bleeding heart blooming near the rain garden
That year, and the year after, I not only didn't till, I didn't even spade the soil over to aerate it, choosing only to cut off last year's top-growth from the veggies with a garden hoe and leave the dead roots of the plants in the soil to stabilize it.   In theory, the roots would decompose and feed the new plants.  Mulching the top of the soil would hold in the moisture and keep the weed growth down.

However, it didn't quite work out that way.  The morels went away, despite the lack of tilling, and the weeds were abundant.  The tilth of the soil may have been good, but it didn't do the plants many favors.  Gita dismissively called it "Tharu gardening" after the no-till methods used by the native Tharu people, which are less effective, at least in the short term, than the 'green revolution' methods used by the more recent settlers in the Inner Terai region of Nepal.  And she had a point.  Our no-till garden of years two and three was nowhere near as productive as our tilled garden the first year.

After the second year of experimenting with no-till gardening with lackluster results, I decided to go half-way back and turn over the soil, but only with a shovel, and incorporate as much organic matter as I could in the process.  I wasn't too thorough in my shoveling, so some soil was left undisturbed. I also made sure that lots of leaves and old plant matter were dug back into the soil, then raked off the rough stuff remaining on top to make a smooth surface for planting.

And it worked!  The garden had the vigor that it had had the first year, and fewer weeds, though I continued to mulch as well as I could.

I've stuck to that method now for the last few years, and it continues to work well.  And I enjoy the process.  After years of working organic matter into the soil with a spade, the soil is black and rich.  I don't have to wrestle with a loud smelly machine, and the total time I spent this year preparing our 400 square foot veggie garden bed came to about an hour and a half of shoveling and raking.  Not bad by my way of figuring.

his tree is a autumn brilliance serviceberry
I've been heading up a group this year working to start another community garden in our neighborhood.  Our current community garden is slated to be used as a construction yard by the city of St. Paul for the 2013 and possibly 2014 growing seasons.  So we've just received approval from our district council to go ahead and start gardening this year on some public land near the interstate highway.

And of course, one of the most controversial questions is whether we will till, or not till.

Right now (and this may be a reasonable way to start) lasagna gardening is the way many of the gardeners are leaning.

I have no experience with it, but apparently it's a method involving laying cardboard or multiple layers of paper over the existing grass
it flowers just after his sister's tree and bears blue berries in june
or other vegetation, then piling layers of leaves and/or other compostable matter on top, in the manner of a lasagna hot dish.

It's an interesting idea, and a great way to use a lot of materials that might otherwise go to waste.  In theory, with the cardboard keeping the soil moist, the worms go into overdrive and begin tilling the soil with no effort required by the gardeners.

I don't know if it will work out
budding lilacs indicate a soil temperature around 55 degrees
that way, but for a group just getting started, and with little money for tiller rental, it may be an ideal solution.  I hope that it works better than my early not-so-successful attempts at no-till gardening.

The site has sandy, gravelly urban soil, full of the remains of a building and possibly a parking lot, having been bulldozed in the 1950s or 60s when the interstate was pushed through the middle of the city.  It's a tough site to test this sort of thing on.  If it works, I suppose it'll make a believer out of me.

Until then, I'll turn over my own plot every year with a sharp shovel.

---------and by the way---------

If you happen to live in Saint Paul or Minneapolis and have bags of leaves that you raked last fall or this spring still sitting behind your garage, please consider dropping them off on Saturday April 14th at the new Merriam Station Community Garden at the corner of Prior and Gilbert streets, just north of I-94.  We'll be using the leaves as a sheet mulch this year and compost the next.  We have a massive area of mowed grass to convert to garden plots, so please grace us with your bags of leaves yearning to become sheet mulch.

Bags of leaves will be accepted from 10AM to 2PM and I will personally be there on site until about 11:30.  Please don't drop bags of leaves off afterward, as the city is a bit particular about that sort of thing, so we have to be careful to make the whole thing look nice until we get around to using all of the leaves.

If you'd like to learn more, visit the Union Park District Council website and click on "Merriam Station Community Garden" on the left sidebar.

Thank you in advance!