Most anyone interested in agriculture (industrial, organic or hobby), the world’s food supply, or nature conservation all agree that one of the biggest obstacles we face in feeding the world’s critters, be they wild, domestic or human, is fertility. I’m talking Mother Nature’s fertility, the ability of the earth to support and sustain life. Sustaining life on this planet is a complex system but at the heart of the system lie soil fertility and pollination.
Now that we’re full time residents on the farm, we want to build a family tradition of recognizing Earth Day by engaging in a project or activity to make a small difference on our tiny corner of the planet. It seemed appropriate for this year’s Earth Day activities that we focus on methods to help improve the fertility of our farm and its complex natural ecosystem. A series of earlier activities and events led to this year’s themes. In March the wife and I attended a Beginning Beekeeping Course from the West Central Ohio Beekeepers Association (WCOBA), and I read Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening.
During the beekeeping class we were introduced to the basics of beekeeping along with some basic scientific research on the challenges and possible solutions facing our nation’s most underappreciated farm hands. According to the information presented in the course, the number of bee colonies in the state of Ohio has dropped dramatically by over 90% from the peak in the 20th century, with similar decreases across the country. My grandfather lost most of his colonies during the mite infestations that hit late last century. I was also aware of the ongoing Colony Collapse Disorder losses creating a crisis for beekeepers. What surprised me most was the impact this is having on the portions of the agricultural industry that rely on pollinators. It turns out that there aren’t enough bees in the valleys of California to pollinate the almond orchards. There aren’t even enough bees in the state of California to pollinate the almonds. In fact, it takes half of the managed bee colonies in the entire United States to effectively pollinate California’s almonds. The almond industry and beekeepers collaborate to ship bee colonies from all over the country to place in the orchards for the month that the trees are in bloom. While we’re not attempting to save an industry here on our farm, we have noticed that our orchard trees have poor fruit set, our cucumbers are shaped like something from a Pablo Picasso painting, I can’t get a pumpkin vine to set to save my life, and I’ve resorted to hand pollinating some of the wild native fruit trees in the forest. All are indications of insufficient or ineffective pollinators. (My hand pollination efforts are both insufficient and ineffective.)
Our first project was to get homes ready for our pending prolific pollinators. We’ve finished the class, joined the local beekeepers club, read Bee-sentials by Larry Conner, and purchased our equipment. Our mentor in the club loaned us a few swarm traps to attempt to capture any feral swarms that emerge from the neighborhood forests and set us to task getting our equipment prepared for new residents. Yours truly engaged in copious hours of priming and painting boxes, my wife set about building frames and wax foundation (in a cashmere scarf no less, always important to be warm and fashionable) while the kids provided decoration and flair to finished supers.
The second activity involved planning and preparation for a future vineyard. Yes, I have unrealistic dreams of establishing a few plots of vines for wines here on the south facing hills. Rieslings and Pinots will grow in our climate, but the soil on those hills is a long way from having enough fertility to support a vineyard. So I plan to unleash the goats on the invasive honeysuckle, trim what they can’t reach, plant lupine and white clover as a green manure crop. Once the goats have finished their work, I may be able to rotate the ponies and chickens through to add their contributions. Building soil using this method may take several years, but according to Sepp Holzer this builds a natural, healthy, fertile soil that will outperform any chemically doctored plot.
We’re hoping to capture a swarm this spring. If we do, the colony will get to move into a well adorned pollinator palace thanks to my daughters. If our traps aren’t successful, we’ll plan to purchase a few split colonies from one of the mentors in the beekeepers club come June. There will be lots of learning and rookie mistakes trying to get them through the winter, but I’m hopeful we’ll have better fruit set, normal cucumbers and perhaps a pumpkin or two by next summer. In the meantime I’ve got portable goat fence to move, brush to clear and lupine/clover to plant to build some soil while I dream about that future vineyard.
Last fall I was introduced to the concept of German raised bed gardening known as Hugelkultur when a friend on the west coast installed a few hugel beds. Not being one to miss an opportunity to explore something innovative, I spent some free hours over the winter researching the concept. Paul Wheaton’s website has a great overview of hugelkultur at http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/
Hugelkultur raised beds are constructed by building hills of logs, brush and sticks and covering the hill with soil and compost. The raised bed can then be planted with your annual or perennial fruits and vegetables, trees and other garden goodies. The most notable benefit of a hugelkultur bed over a traditional garden plot is the reduced need for irrigation. The buried wood works much like a sponge, soaking up excess water during periods of heavy rain and releasing water slowly into the bed during dry periods. The taller the hill, the longer your hugel bed can withstand lack of rain or irrigation. Some sites indicate that a six foot tall bed can go months or even an entire growing season without rain, supplying all the water necessary for your plants from the stored water in the wood. The wood will slowly decompose providing an embedded source of humus for your garden. Other benefits include improved aeration in the bed, improved drainage, heat generation from the composting process (the first few years) and a productive way to make use of those fallen branches and brush littering the property.
Every good idea should be tested and applied, so I spent several weekends in March building a test hugelkultur bed on the farm. With over 20 acres of forest we have an ample supply of fallen trees and branches. A few online articles and blogs raised a concern that the wood would rob nitrogen the first few years as the composting process got cranked up. I can understand the point and decided to dump a few tractor bucket loads of horse manure, from those compost machines in the barn, on top of the wood. My neighbor has a trucking and excavation business and he dropped off a load of topsoil that went on the top of the manure. The photo series at the bottom of the post showcases the progress. These were taken late in the evening after each day's additions so but I don't think the long shadows mask too much detail.
After completing the bed and letting it sit for a few weeks it was time to get planting. I am a big fan of perennial crops (aka lazy gardener). Unfortunately, most of our soil is better classified as dirt. I have tried a few times to establish beds for rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries and strawberries but failed to get a thriving plot established. My first hugel runs east to west so I decided to plant the rhubarb on the south side, asparagus down the top, strawberries as a ground cover, and the raspberries on the north side. As the canes get some height they should peak over the top of the bed reaching for the sun. I also had a few pounds of seed potatoes I planted into the east and west ends of the bed.
The dimensions on the hugelkultur bed measure 12 ft. long, 4 ft. wide and 4 ft. tall. This is quite a tall and steep raised bed. It takes some adjustment to viewing and planting. At several points during the process, I questioned whether this would really work, but I had to give it a try. My plot is out of sight of everything but the wildlife, but I could see why some people may have concerns over appearances in a suburban setting. You still achieve some of the benefits of the approach on beds as short as two feet tall, which may be a more practical approach for many gardeners.
If this test bed is a success I hope to build several more for next year. I will post some update photos once the growing season gets into high gear. In the meantime, I found a toad lounging on the steep banks of that hill this week. I view that as a very positive sign for a fruitful future.
It's been a few weeks since my last post. My career took me out of the country for over a week, and shortly after my return my paternal grandfather passed away. This is the same grandfather that loaded the pony carts of coal that I mentioned in my last post. I have a lot of memories and thoughts on "pawpaw", as grandfather's are often called in Appalachian culture, but I'll save those for a future post.
My journey to the mountains provided an opportunity to reconnect with distant family, the mountains and the culture of my roots. Twenty years ago I bid farewell to Appalachia, and following university I left with a one way ticket to the high tech fields of California. I have been fortunate to have a career that has offered me the opportunity to experience many different countries, cultures and perspectives on life. While I realized as a teenager that I wanted to experience more of the world, I have viewed those mountains and their culture as the context for my personal story. This particular journey brought a few of those embedded traits to the surface.
As I've aged I've developed a increasing connection with the plants that share and support our life on this planet. Every spring I order and plant a diversity of native tree species on our 40 acres. I'm sure my my wife and daughters have often questioned my grip on sanity. Most years I transplant over 30 seedlings. Many of these trees will not reach maturity until I'm well into my twilight years, if I'm so fortunate. Perhaps it's an instinct to create and leave a legacy on this earth.
In our own attempt to establish the connection from generations past and future, my family has sought an answer in the plants that have shared our lives. The treasures I inherit from my ancestors are not financial but horticultural. We pass on these little botanical bits of legacy, each holding a connection with our past. This week I planted rhubarb that has been split several times from one grandmother, a June sour apple tree sprout from the other grandmother (I can still conjure the memory of that applesauce), splits from one great grandmother's rose bush, and lilies from a great-grandmother that passed when I was an infant. As I planted each of these into landscape bed, orchard, and garden, my heart was warmed with hope for the future and reverence for the past.
I've heard of the Italians and French passing old grape vines across generations. Maybe this isn't unique to my family or culture. My wife has a Christmas cactus growing in the corner that originated with her grandmother, with starts passed on from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Perhaps it is instinctual to tie our heritage and future to the plant life that provided us with sustenance and pleasure. I hope my transplants survive the spring and I can one day share them with my daughters. I'll be out next weekend planting several dozen trees on this rough piece of land so that someday my grandchildren can get a start off my pawpaws, persimmons, shagbark hickorys, northern pecans or dogwoods. Maybe.
If you have plants passed on from past generations, please share in the comments section. We would love to hear the stories behind your own horticultural treasures.