Friday, May 24, 2013

Soil Not Dirt

Soil not dirt.  One of the first lessons my not very jocular master gardening instructor taught us.  Of course it became a source of chronic joking among students and is pretty good for a chuckle among beginning gardeners everywhere.  So it came out of the bag of conversational tricks on my recent trip back to Chicago.

My daughter and I had walked a couple miles north and west of her own neighbourhood garden patch to help at another spot being transformed from empty lot to community garden plots, or allotments in British English.  Allotments and community gardens have in common that the land is not owned by the folks gardening it, and the land is set aside by folks who organise it specifically for folks to garden.  Because I think this is a wonderful idea and I have met and like the people behind it on a previous trip, I was delighted when my daughter said that they were looking for volunteers to help fill the beds in a newly created community garden, Ashlandia.

Because the garden plots are on a corner lot in a busy residential neighbourhood in Chicago, the soil had to be deposited on the street next to the raised beds waiting to be filled.  It gave an extra urgency to the project, but the collection of volunteers was good natured, and fortunately a few were sturdy as well as enthusiastic.

Now back on the different soil of north Scotland, my gardening soil adventure for today is to prepare the two bags of rotting leaves in  compost bags with the diluted comfrey juice provided by my gardening friend.  Soil needs structure as well as organic content and the leaf mould created from this mixture will enhance my own raised beds next year or the year after.  Soil can't be hurried.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Dig for Victory; Dig for Survival"

Another out of season photo, but today as the wind blows the leaves off the trees before they are fully open, I need to believe in a harvest, a good outcome.  These are some of the bales on my friend and neighbour's field nearest the road into the village.  When I passed it by last year at the end of the season, I took comfort in it.  A seasonal marker. An indication of abundance, of hope against the coming dark times.

When I first saw such giant round bales rather than the more manageable rectangular bales I had actually handled, I was with my brother in the back seat of a car. I don't know how young I was, but young enough to be young rather than old or older, and he called them giant shredded wheat--our favourite breakfast cereal at the time--and we laughed thinking how big a bowl you would need.

When I lived at Isauld, I walked among the bales, pushing them, getting the actual measure of them.  If we are lucky or curious or intellectually honest, we can trade our childish notions for more mature, more seasoned ones.  If we are very very lucky, we can keep the whimsy of our childhood and marry it to the more seasoned, more accurate perception.

The title for this post comes from a quote from the current Farming Minister, David Heath. In full as it appeared in yesterday's Press and Journal:

Once we used to "Dig for Victory".  There may come a time when we have to 'Dig for Survival'.

 I only saw the brief quote because it was on the same page as the crossword puzzle.  I have lost faith in our politicians because so few of them have upgraded their childhood, whimsical notions of shredded wheat in the fields. A quote passed around anecdotally among farmers here is attributed to the Minister of Agriculture under the Blair administration. She is alleged to have said that we had no need for farming in Britain because we could import our food more cheaply. Fortunately for us all, her stint as Minister of Agriculture was brief.  More importantly,  while she clung to her childish notions, folks who knew better went on about their business.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cold North Wind

My daughter has said that it is already too hot for cabbages in her garden in Chicago.  The day here began with a north wind.  We know the winds by their family, and a wind of the North family is sharp and wet and always cold.  I sometimes still think I can out fox the wind, but the wardrobe cover put on the line with more pegs than a hedgehog had danced into the willow tree by the time I was back indoors, so I accepted defeat as gracefully as possible and got myself and the damp cover into the house just before the black cloud coming from the west dumped a plump of hail on the deck.

It was too cold to stand in the wind today to photograph the black cloud on the horizon, so I offer this photo from earlier this year.  Today's black cloud and this one with its tail full of snow give us fair warning of what is coming if we can read it.  I am usually apt to look more at the blue sky around the cloud than the cloud itself or what it portends.

This blue-sky perspective can be an asset, but learning when to focus on clouds is important for my wee garden hopefuls. I won't be planting out my herbs today even in the comparative shelter of the raised beds, but tomorrow is another day for me and my basil.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Back to the Garden

Biblical, hippie, homage to Alice Walker's brilliant essay, inspired by my daughter, saving the planet, being frugal, remembering loved ones, and of course, Candide, all bubble around through my head as I plant a row of peas.  My late brother in law, complete with Tennessee accent, which oddly does not seem out of place in my little raised bed in the middle of what I hope will be a sun spot, keeps me company as I plant out pea seeds.  It is way too late, he chides me, and the seeds are old, but I grin up at his imagined self and shrug as I poke each seed knuckle-deep into the soil.

At the end of each row, I put in 2 seeds for luck--a gift from a woman I met when she was too old to garden herself, but her wisdom had been passed along.  'Why?' I asked my friend.  'Because my grandmother did it like that.' Much of gardening is lore.

Peas, I recall, are fairly agreeable companions in the garden (unlike onions), so I think they will not mind sharing this bed with cabbages.  I could not resist the cheery dark purple seedlings at the crowded garden centre on the first bright sunny day after a too-long, too-grey, will-it-ever-be-spring season. So in recogniton of the traditions in my new country I can call this raised bed a kail yard.  More lore appropriated for a wee patch of veg.

Because I love the bright colours of Swiss chard, I planted several seeds in my flower bed.  The red-yellow-green of their stems and leaves will, I hope, complement the flowers. If not, I'll happily eat my mistakes. Many folks in the states are facing fierce opposition when they try to plant veg in their front yards.  Chard like mine are soldiers on the front lines of a war to bring land out of the outmoded model of bland grass. It seems such an unlikely thing to come between neighbours.

I have come out of retirement as a veg gardener because my daughter has taken up gardening--especially veg.  I was delighted to be back in Chicago in time to help her lay out her first veg patch in the American equivalent of an allotment.  She is using a kind of  intensive planting called square foot gardening and also taking advantage of companion planting, laying out her plants as carefully as one arranges a dinner party.