“Why,” people ask, “if you have so much space available on the property do you grow in raised beds instead of directly in the ground?”
This is one reason.
Really, when it gets down to it, it is THE reason. This is a cross section of the soil here. This picture was taken when I was digging out holes for the new grapevines to be planted. What you can see is a thin layer of sandy soil, a large layer of clay, and at the bottom is an even larger layer of thick sand – think wet beach sand. If I had dug a bit further down, I’d have hit the hardpan. There are problems with this sort of ground: there’s little in the way of nutrients for plants, and most would be unable to break their roots through the layer of clay. This means you can start something from seed or even a small transplanted seedling, but it will reach a certain size and then stop, not being able to get the food it needs or get its roots deeply into the ground. The other issue is water.
If it rains quite a bit – 3.57 inches in 24 hours in the photo here (March 2014) – the water has nowhere to go. It can’t filter down into the ground because the clay layer refuses to let it pass. If we planted directly in the ground, every time there was any significant rain, we’d lose whatever was in the ground. So, we use raised beds for planting. The water may flood some of the walkways, and we may need to wear our muck boots to work, but the plants themselves, save the random sweet potatoes that escape and decide to grow in the ground outside the frames, are safely above it.
The first of two nights that we will feel more north than south: lows in the 20s, which likely means upper teens here inland. That means putting the headlamp on and heading out to the far reaches of the property to get the taps started. Inevitably, you’re going to get wet as you make the trek to each one, then go back after getting them all on, to make sure they’re flowing hard enough to keep the wellhead motor cycling and keep the lines from freezing, but low enough that you’re not spewing a hundred gallons an hour on the ground. In an hour or so, go back out and recheck to make sure they all have a good flow still going. Tuesday is not supposed to get out of freezing until around noon, and then only for a couple of hours before plunging again in the night, but at least here we only have to live with this for very short bursts, and not months and months at a time. If I wanted to deal with that sort of thing for extended periods, I’d just move up north instead of (impatiently) waiting for “winter” to be over.
The cycles of the ranch remain the same, no matter how many years come and go. We’re in the strange holding pattern of “winter” in Florida, such as it is: too chilly, and too close to the infrequent freezes we get over the span of a few months to plant out anything that is tender. So, we (or I, rather) work on the things that keep our seasons and our production moving: cleaning up, creating new rows, hauling dirt and poop, planning when to start flats and what will be put where, fixing irrigation lines, checking timers, pounding t posts in as permanent fixtures, repairing fences, and so on. In particular, all the little things that can be done/addressed/repaired that can be will save time and aggravation later, so it’s good to get those done and out of the way so we can focus on the growing and harvesting.
During the pregame shows, they’ve been showing Green Bay, where it is practically a blizzard. And 20 degrees (or so). Here, it’s been a lovely, if overcast, day, and it’s about 80 degrees with a bit of a breeze as we await a cool - not cold – front to come in. That means it’s a perfect time to get a few chores done!
I ran the irrigation to the new row I built and filled last week, so it is ready to go.
Since the weather here is incredibly unpredictable, I put some test seed down: about half a row of kale and at the near end, carrots. We are unlikely to see any freezes during the remainder of the month, based on the forecast, and hopefully they’ll germinate by the time we move into the heart of our winter, where we are likely to get at least a couple of freezing nights, and the question is: will they be able to stand it, and bunker down to ride it out? We’ll see.
Also on the list for this morning: hauling some sorghum stalks out to the chickens to let them scratch up and break down, and general cleanup duties – including repairing the kitchen faucet, which suddenly decided NO WATER FOR YOU!! and stopped working. Fortunately, it was just gunk from the aerator that needed to be cleaned from the screens in the bell, but that also added another chore to the list: figuring out a way to clean the aerator outside and repipe it. That’s going to be quite the job.
For the remainder of the day, it looks like I’ll be taking it easy and watching football, because the spasms in my side are keeping me from moving too much. That just means working on the redesign for the sites of the companies we’ve absorbed, and planning out the spring garden/planting/seeding schedule. Not a bad way to relax a little.
It’s another gorgeous day at the ranch. Perfect for pounding in t-posts to begin the redo of the rear garden fence.
That’s seven today, which is indeed a good start, especially on this side of the garden where the fence was looking a bit ragged and beginning to lean terribly. The spasms I’m subject to started yammering at me toward the end, so I called it quits at that bunch for the time being so as not to set off anything really terrible that would sideline me for the rest of the day. A little later, I’ll test the waters again and see if I can get one or two more in the ground and the fence drawn to them from the existing poles.
Something else done today: a haircut for my hippie cover crops, which are enjoying the rather pleasant weather we’re having for “winter” here – they survived the couple of random freezes we’ve had as well, and some of the beans in the mix even began to flower.
But I’m really not growing these for any harvest, so I got out the hand trimmers and started chopping off the tops of the crops in two rows as a test – mostly to see if they will grow back or if they will die back, at which point I can pull the irrigation lines out and use the stirrup hoe to chop everything down for mulch through the winter. I am finding the odd weed here and there, but pulling three or four that were likely left behind at the last mega weeding session is better than having to pull weeds everywhere out of a row.
Today I started pulling the sweet potato vines – the earliest ones have leaves that are turning yellow, and the nights are getting cooler, which means it’s time. We probably should have started digging them a couple of weeks ago, working from the earliest vines and moving toward the newer vines, which have taken over the rows on either side, but other things took priority. The end of the season is nigh, however, and the time has come.
The thing about sweet potatoes is that they can be invasive, for lack of a better word. As you pull the vines from the frames themselves, you’ll find the tips of potatoes where they’ve started to heave themselves out of the soil.
This is, incidentally, how to determine where to start digging for the sweet potato bonanza: the potatoes will create mounds in the soil as they grow and displace the dirt. They’ll grow elsewhere too, of course, but the mounds are like the ancient Indian burial grounds that people build houses over: you know there’s something there, only in this case, it’s much more benevolent and will not suck your entire neighborhood into the netherworld a la Poltergeist.
Because the vines have run rampant – why not, since we really had nothing else in that area? – when the vines crawled out of the rows in which the slips had been planted, snaking into the walkways and then into the rows on either side, a slow but steady takeover, they rooted down into the walkways as well as the rows. Leave them there, and they produce tubers in the walkways just as well as they do in the rows, as sweet potatoes don’t seem to care all that much about where they grow. As I pulled vines, the lumps in the walkways revealed themselves to be potatoes, grown right through the mulch and the plastic barrier. Some of them came up with the tugs on the vines.
Some had to be cut out from the plastic barrier, as they’d grown too fat after the neck of the potato to come out easily.
Still others wound up growing sideways under the plastic, requiring a complete excavation.
Keep in mind, this is just the beginning of the preliminary vine pull, and all of these potatoes were pulled from the walkway only, not the frames. In fact, these all came from the walkway two rows over from where the sweet potatoes were originally planted. Before it started raining, I’d pulled a pile of vines and came away from about 10 pounds of potatoes that were useless – they’d heaved out of the walkway and were scalded by the sun, rained on then dried, or eaten into by critters – and sixteen pounds of usable potatoes just from one area of one part of one walkway.
This is going to be a banner year for the sweet potato haul, and that’s saying something as they’ve always done well here, even in poorer soil than this.
Progress: three blocks cleared of asparagus and replanted in the new long row. There are two more 4x4s that need to be cleared – one is full of plants, the other sparsely populated, but between the two of them, they’ll likely fill a lot more of this row. The other asparagus bed, to the right of this one, is a 16×2, and I’ve decided instead of digging all that up, I’ll build a frame around it and year by year add more soil to it as it grows and we harvest, so the plants will force their way to the top and use the middle layers for rooting instead of the dense bottom where they’re punching through to the clay-like soil underneath (as that has no nutrients to speak of). Yes, that will be a bit of a long process, but farming teaches patience in a lot of ways. Once the remaining two 4x4s are cleared, I can finish off the first new N-S row, get it filled, then start on the next two in the same way.
I also decided that if I am crazy enough to expand again – if the CSA idea takes off, for instance – and we run more raised beds, we will not be hauling all the soil by hand. We’ll build out a row, and either with our own tractor (one day!) or a rented one, fill that row, then back out, build the next, fill it, etc., until it’s done. There is something to be said for the manual work of hauling all that soil, but it also takes quite a bit of time that could be spent on other things.
Every season, there is some kind of disappointment at the ranch. Sometimes, it is the entire season, like 2010, lost to cancer and surgery. Other times, it is low output, like 2012. This year, it was the tomatoes being flattened, although we still had a fairly good harvest, all things considered. This year’s major disappointment, however, is the bees: two swarms that were captured but did not stay, one swarm that was seen far too late to do anything about, one hive completely absconding without a trace of anything left. This afternoon, heading out to feed the bees, I tapped on the sides of the hives, and once again, it sound completely hollow on one and nearly so on another, so my fear is another hive absconded, and possibly two. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this would be. The state apiary inspector was here two months ago, and all four hives were just fine, and buzzing (no pun intended) with activity. Today, there is next to nothing in two of the hives. Tomorrow, if it’s slightly warmer and a lot less windy than today, I’ll go into the hives and see what’s left in each one. Hopefully, they’re all still home, just bundled into a ball against the chill. Otherwise, it will be yet another package order from a supplier – although perhaps it’s time to find another supplier, given the history of bees from this particular supplier.
It seems like they are odd bedfellows, weeding and meditating. They aren’t really, and it’s just the sort of mindless chore that lends itself well to allowing your mind to drift, to let it seek out whatever might be puzzling you. In my case, a couple of plot points and if the sequence of events that I believe to be the right ones to go from chapter one to the end in the book I am not working enough on is correct – or at least workable.
Beyond that, it’s a good chance to see deep down and closely what’s happening in the garden. This season, now, we are heading into the couple of months where we will have a winter and the cover crops will kill off, while the leeks and carrots will soldier through and be ready to complete their growth by the time the soil and air warm enough to begin planting peas. It’s also easy to let yourself get ahead, to spring, making mental notes about what will be planted where, and when. But today, my friends…today the primary thought on my mind while pulling weeds was dingleberries.
People with pets (or certain livestock) know what dingleberries are: those are the pieces of poo stuck to the fur around the animal’s butt, which has to either be plucked off by hand or the area shaved. Why then, you ask, if I was pulling weeds, did I think of dingleberries?
The weeds seemed to have segregated themselves: plain old grass there, purslane hither, pigweed yon, and garden spurge and gripeweed – both of which I personally think should be renamed to “what the hell is this pain in the ass, invasive crap that can seemingly grow anywhere, even when other weeds cannot”, but that’s probably too long and would not translate into Latin well – everywhere. One row in particular, where the cukes had been, but where nothing had taken their place when they had exhausted themselves, was overrun with purslane, pigweed, spurge, and gripeweed. Despite that row not having been intentionally watered, the weeds were growing rather vigorously. I suspect these are weeds the Republicans would approve on, given their bootstrappy nature of overcoming poor situations and making their presence known. The simplest way to get them out was to trowel under them and lift with one hand – to make sure the root system would be plucked out as well – while pulling a bunch off them with the other hand. There is a great deal of cow poop in the soil mixture of the rows. It’s great stuff. But just like the plants I intentionally grew, the weeds love it too. And they show their love by rooting right into poop clumps, so when the weeds are extracted, roots and all, clinging to the roots: dingleberries. Like this:
Since we need to keep as much of the poop in the rows as possible, weeding then becomes a multistep process: trowel under them, pull them, then knock off as many of the dingleberries as possible. Toss the weeds into the bucket and move on. Repeat until the bucket is full and needs to be emptied in the bag. When the bag is full, tie it closed and smile, because you are keeping yard waste pickup crews employed. Prepare a new bag. Repeat the entire process.
In the end, what you have is a good day’s work, and progress on getting more rows prepped to hold cover crop seed – hopefully completing the rest of the rear garden by tomorrow, as we are expecting rain on Saturday if the forecast holds. The first row in this picture is the cover crop coming in.
The middle row in this picture is not weeds, as it happens. Those are the late planted tomatoes and peppers. Unfortunately, it appears I either lost that page of my notes or forgot to write down exactly what kind of one pepper was transplanted. They are robust, sturdy, thriving plants, heavy with fruit. I don’t have any earthly idea what type they may be (not bells, that much I know), but they’re beautiful.
Cover crops? In frames, you say? Yes. Cover crops have been used for eons, to keep the soil friable for the next planting, to prevent soil erosion, to add organic material back into the soil, to act as a natural mulch, and as weed suppression – for no-till farmers, an essential part of maintaining and caring for the soil. Some no-till large scale farmers even plant their corn directly through the debris of the cover crops as they are cut down at the roots. For us, on a smaller scale, we are of course no-till – that would involve backbreaking turning of the the soil in each frame by the shovelful, and that prospect is not terribly exciting. We also have a huge weed problem here, because it is rarely cold enough for long enough to put the weed seeds out of commission. Plus, I’d prefer not to have to truck in loads of dirt and poop.
So, as we head into fall, I’m putting in cover crops in the frames, and they’ll get a foothold before the lower temps slow their growth. I’ve done two so far in the past few days, clearing the weeds, breaking up the soil, spreading the seed, scuffling up the soil a little to partially cover the seed so the birds don’t eat all of it, then relaying the irrigation lines in the frame. At the end, it’s nice and neat and looks like the photo.
In a few days, some of the mix will start germinating, and by the end of a week, all the the various seeds in the mix should be popping up. The only trick will be to make sure that none of it gets to the seed stage, as we don’t want it to reseed itself: just stay there long enough to grow into something that can be sheared off and left as mulch through which to put the transplants when they are ready to go (and hopefully to keep the weeds down). The mulch will eventually decompose, and be taken back into the soil to help get nutrients back into the mix.