Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- Trenched, Decked Out

First, part of a fine crop of mushrooms that's been springing up in the yard this fall. I should know the name of this one. It's common enough, and I think it's the one on the cover of Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora -- but I can't find my copy right now. Still, they're lovely mushrooms, something like six inches tall or so:

And on with the garden. Doesn't look like there's much progress, but believe me, a lot of work went into it this weekend. I dug trenches under the circular paths in the middle and filled them with sand, and dug pits in the parts with the worst drainage, lined them with landscape cloth that I'd pierced with scissors, filled them with rubble, covered with cloth, and then buried under the topsoil again. All you can see of all that work is clods of clay on top of the beds. I also hauled concrete blocks that my mother had and didn't need. The teeny patio is laid, and next week I'll fetch the rest for the paths.

All that freshly-dug earth, and Halloween approaching... this suggested a certain something in the way of decor:

Including -- and it's a bit subtle because of the earth tones of the props -- a gardener who met an untimely demise, only boots and gloves sticking out, and a spade still stuck in the earth from doing the deed. I'll have to get out a candle lantern or two to illuminate the spot tomorrow night.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- Rock On, Baby

Monsoon season is upon us, and the skies have been pouring down rain most of the week. A few sun breaks allowed me to getou tand get a bit more done on the garden -- and to discover the quagmire in the middle. Not unexpected. After all, it's sitting on top of unimproved clay that had a couple of tons of concrete squashing it flat for years. When things dry out again and most of the water drains away, I'll pull the sandy topsoil aside in the paths and dig some drainage pits or trenches, fill them with gravel, cover with fine screen or landscaping cloth, and rebury them. That will give at least some of the water someplace to go. Now if only I could figure out a good way to save some of that water for later in the summer when drought season hits.

So here's what we have after this weekend's labors:

Rocks, rocks, and more rocks! I was able to stack a double layer in the main beds and fill the beds with topsoil and compost. Since everything is boggy in the middle, I think I'll leave it as it is for a while. If we get a dry spell it may drain enough to work with some more, but otherwise the beds are pretty much as I want them. I just need a little mulch on the paths, and I'll need to let them dry out and drain first.

Another view:

The basalt rocks look sort of raw and yellow still, but they'll mellow to a reddish rust color. The red is just on the surface where the iron compounds in the stone oxidize -- in essence, the surface of the stone rusts.

Next, I'll haul some concrete squares that my mom has and use them to make a tiny patio at the back, just big enough for a bench. The remaining squares will be stepping stones for the path around the garden. I'll also start moving strawberry plants from the patch where they are now up to the long bed in front, where they should get more sun. I may move the blueberries I have now, too, since sometime in the future I want to build a small wall along the access in the back, and I'd have to move them anyway.

Come spring, I'll plant two dwarf pears on either side of the teeny patio. By then I hope the dead tree will be gone, and I'll replace that with a small cherry tree, with a second cherry (since they need a pollinator) at the other end of the front garden.

Can't wait for spring to come. When this garden is overflowing with greenery, it'll be a sight to see.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day Post: Eating Locally

I'm getting in on the tail end of Blog Action Day, but that's all right. This is, after all, a gardening blog, and writing about environmental action is nothing new here! From turning a concrete pad into a garden (adding greenspace and forage for butterflies and bees) to reducing the feral cat population through TNR (trap-neuter-release) action and rescuing kittens, to gardening for birds and butterflies has turned up here.

Today, let's talk about food. Gardens are often about food, so it fits. I teach biology at the college level, and I've found over the years that very few of my students understand where their food comes from. They know better than to answer "The store." They have the vague idea that food comes from a farm somewhere. Somehow. And dirt is probably involved. Beyond that, not much of a clue. Hence I get some very interesting responses when I ask them about our place in the food chain, or what environmental effects there would be if more people became vegetarians (their visions of poor, overpopulated cattle starving because we're eating all the veggies just tug at the ol' heartstrings).

Amusing, yeah, but not so funny when we ourselves find out how little we know about our food, and with dire consequences. Who knew, for instance, that cat food contained wheat gluten, and that the wheat gluten came from China, and that some Chinese manufacturers were adulterating the wheat gluten to make it look like it had more protein? That took nearly everyone by surprise. But even innocent-looking whole fruit in the produce section can yield surprises. It came all the way from Chile? Really? Was it really cheaper to import a tomato from Chile? Do we know what pesticides are legal in Chile? And let's do the math: if it was cheap to get that tomato from Chile, what pittance what the poor Chilean farmer paid for it? Would he and his family be better off if they ate the tomato themselves?

But more than health consequences, there are environmental consequences. Shipping produce from third-world nations requires a whole lot of fossil fuel. Nature spent something like 300 million years sequestering carbon into the earth in the form of oil and coal. We humans have used up nearly half of that carbon in under 200 years. That's one huge POOF of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Every tomato that came from Chile instead of your own back yard has contributed to that POOF.

But okay, you say, growing my own would be great. I love fresh food, and the thought of what chemicals might be in or on imported food makes me shiver. But I don't live on a farm. All I've got is a little patch of suburbia -- or an apartment balcony.

I don't live on a farm, either. I've got an ordinary suburban lot, with some large trees shading more than half of it. It's enough for veggies -- and raspberries, strawberries, pie cherries, peaches, a few blueberries, currants... amazing what you can squeeze in. Still I don't yet have the space for all the blueberries I'd like to grow. So here's where I got my blueberries this year:

Just north of town there are several U-pick blueberry farms. In just a couple of mornings I picked and froze 60 pounds of blueberries. Yum! Now I've got locally-grown blueberries to go with my morning yogurt.

I was so busy this summer that I didn't get out and do a lot of fruit picking like I sometimes do. When I was a kid, we picked and canned cherries, peaches, and pears. We grew corn and froze it. We'd find abandoned apple orchards and make applesauce. We'd grow blackberries, boysenberries, and raspberries for the freezer. To this day I can't stand the taste and texture of store-bought canned peaches, which are usually canned while green so they have that stiff, plastic-like texture. Nothing like the ambrosia of home-canned peaches.

Nevertheless, I did get at least some of my produce locally:

And I wish I had a picture of the place where I get my eggs: a little house that I pass on a country road on the way to and from work, where hens run around freely and every few days there's a little cardboard sign out that says "Eggs."

Even if you can't garden, even if you don't have a balcony for container garden, you can usually find a source of local produce, be it a fruit stand, a farmer's market, or a locally-owned supermarket that buys from local farmers. Eating locally often means eating seasonally, unless you have the means for putting up produce and the space to store it. But if you can eat locally during your own growing season, give it a try. At the very least, you'll get the best in fresh, fresh produce, and if you've got kids, they'll know for sure where their food comes from.

Y'know, I wish I could require my students to grow a garden for a season before coming to my class. I'll bet they'd understand the ecological concepts a whole lot better.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- A New Garden Takes Shape

Progress! The transformation of the ugliest corner of my garden continues. I spent several hours yesterday and today schlepping rocks and shoveling dirt. Using bamboo to outline the beds, I smoothed out portions of the newly-spread dirt and carried rocks up, bucketful by bucketful, from the back yard where I'd piled them (the rocks came from excavations for a new subdivision a few blocks away).

First I outlined the outside walls of all four rectangular beds and the bed along the sidewalk in rocks. After filling the long bed along the sidewalk with dirt saved from making the flagstone paths earlier this summer, I finished outlining two of the beds with more rocks,and began the filling process. First, a layer of used shavings from the guinea pig pen, then a layer of the sandy topsoil. Then some half-finished compost from one of the compost bins, then some more sandy topsoil. That filled the first two beds to the level of the first layer of rocks. Here's where I left off today:

And from another angle:

I'll need to shift the pile of topsoil a bit to do the other two beds. By then the pile should be small enough to mound up in the middle, where a center circular bed will go. Once I've done one layer of rocks, I'll stack the next and fill in some more with the remaining topsoil and compost.

Hooray, hooray, I'm finally going to have what I've been wanting for a long time: a neat little potager, a French-style kitchen garden. When the dead crabapple comes out, I'll plant some semi-dwarf fruit trees near the house. The long bed is for blueberries, cordon apples, and strawberries, with flowers next to the sidewalk. The rectangular beds are for veggies, and the circular bed is for herbs and flowers to attract butterflies and other beneficial insects.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Review: Naturalist by E. O. Wilson

Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson (Island Pess, 2006).

"Most children have a bug period," Wilson writes. "I never grew out of mine."

Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson tells his life story in this lively autobiography, tracing his path from the small child poking in mud puddles, to becoming one of the world's experts on ant biology, to developing a new science of sociobiology and receiving several prestigious science and literary awards awards. His choice of insects as the subject of his live study, and especially ants, came about quite by accident: as a child, Wilson was fishing on a dock one day, and as he hauled in a type of fish called a pinfish, one of the spine on its aptly-named dorsal fin pierced his eye. The eye became inflamed, leaving him blind on that side. This left him able to study things he could bring close to his face. Insects filled the bill. Knowing that ants had been studied little, giving him scant competition in the field, Wilson devoted his live to the study of ants, racking up discovery after discovery, new species after new species, in some of the most remote places on earth.

Wilson's honesty and candor bring to life the world of science, from productive partnerships to ego-filled infighting in the halls of Harvard. His frank opinions of James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, give a whole new insight into the story as Watson tells it in The Double Helix. Wilson rubs shoulders with many big names in science: George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and others, yet never loses his Southern small-town charm.

I had the pleasure of attending a talk that Wilson gave at the centennial celebration of Willamette University's Biology Department last month. The talk centered on biodiversity and the importance of preserving endangered habitats, and his involvement in the ambitious Encyclopedia of Life. Wilson gave a similar, though shorter, talk when he received the TED prize. See the video here. Happily, I got my copy of Naturalist autographed!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- the Transformation Begins

Only a gardener would get all excited about a pile of dirt:

The bark dust company delivered that this morning -- okay, several hours after they were supposed to have shown up, but it finally came. That's eight cubic yards of a light sandy topsoil, which looks like mostly mineral soil. That'll be fine, especially for the paths between the beds. I have compost cooking away that I'll mix in when I start forming the beds.

After two and a half hours, the pile looked like this:

And I went indoors for some ibuprofin, a hot bath, and a bit of a lie-down.

Back at it tomorrow...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Garden Rant has a challenge for you

The ladies over on the Garden Rant blog set up a challenge on DonorsChoose.org. Check out the Garden Rant Global Garden Blogger Challenge to raise $10,000 for garden-related projects in low-income schools. I've added my donation for Walk in the Wild, and outdoor learning garden that a school in Louisiana is hoping to construct. Who else would like to step up and contribute?