Today was my first full day working from home. I thought it would be great--sweatpants all day, lots of time to think and do things on my schedule. Man. I feel delirious, can't focus anymore, and my relationship to food really changed. Truly eating out of boredom and distraction.
The fact that it's a brand new job (like, second day) probably makes it a little harder. But I understand why so many people are going for walks. I have to get outside now. Good thing I have a huge wood chip pile to move.
I swore that we would never again get free wood chips. I would pay to have the amount I wanted delivered. No more giant wood chip piles in the front yard.
Well, these were free. They were Adam's idea and he is being Very Nice to me because he knows this is more than I want. He is also moving them all. He was out until dark this evening.
He's doing a mushroom project, growing three different kinds of oysters and a winecap, and he needed fresh hardwood. He's going to do a guest post here at some point because I don’t know what he’s doing.
It’s going to be very cool because we will have culinary mushrooms enriching the soil and creating diverse habitat.
Still, I can't believe we have wood chips again.
We’ve got invasive jumping worms in our yard. They are voracious eaters who strip the soil of nutrients, therefore damaging surrounding plants. There are a few ways to identify them, mainly from the smooth band near their head and the distinctive way they move. They writhe faster than any other worm, usually in an ‘S’ shape, flipping back and forth. They live on the soil surface, which is another way to identify them.
I discovered them in the wood chip pile when it was delivered, but I can’t figure out whether they were here already or somehow came with the wood chips. Either way, they’re here and we’ve got to figure out what to do. Most people say that there’s no way to get rid of them. Picking them out and killing them doesn’t work; they lay huge amounts of eggs so they always replenish themselves. Animals won’t eat them because it’s suspected that they retain metals. When I find them, I put in them in a jar of water to drown, and it takes DAYS.
Last year, the manager at Natureworks applied a bunch of biochar to a vegetable bed that had the worms, and by fall there were none. This spring, as I spread biochar on areas where I saw baby jumping worms, I decided to try a controlled environment.
The first image is pure biochar. It killed the worm very quickly. The second image is a small amount of biochar mixed with soil, which also killed the worms. Sorry the pictures are gross and sorry the experiment is gruesome, but I had to know.
The lingering question I have about biochar is: what effect does it have on other life forms? Maybe other worms live deep enough below the soil surface, but what about the robins who pick at the soil? Also, in a large area, I don’t know whether you need to apply biochar to the whole area or simply the places you see worms. So far I have only done places where I’ve seen the worms.
I also noticed that jumping worms were not living in areas with heavy mycelium. (Fungal growth that appears on wood chips). The worms I put in the jar with this mycelium also died, though not as quickly.
One other environment where I witnessed an absence of jumping worms was place I’d smothered with cardboard with wood chips on top in the fall. In one such area I had seen a jumping worm last fall, and I kept expecting to see them in the spring. None so far. I think the cardboard pressed tightly to the ground deters them. I also do not see them in the grass.
So it seems that these worms’ favorite environment is open, disturbed soil with some organic matter available, such as leaves, wood chips, or straw. An area smothered heavily with cardboard does not seem to support them. I feel better having discovered a few ways to deter them from a location, though there seems to be no perfect silver bullet.
The whole gardening year lies ahead of us and it’s really getting cranking! The soil is warm enough for many types of seeds and transplants.
A note on transplanting seedlings vs. planting seeds:
The case for transplanting vegetable seedlings as opposed to planting seeds directly in the garden was made best in the book The Market Gardener: seeds take up valuable garden space while they grow. If you plant already-growing plants, you’ll maximize your garden production space. If you have indoor growing space, you can start these seeds in cell trays indoors. If you don’t, buy seedlings from a nursery. (Professional growers really know what they are doing, so you’re going to get the best results from professionally grown seedlings.)
Some things are just better planted as seeds—root crops like carrots, parsnips, and radish don’t love transplanting.
You can plant both seeds and seedlings at the same time, by sprinkling seeds around the transplants. A great example of this is lettuce; a week or so after you plant lettuce seedlings, sprinkle 10 lettuce, arugula, or radish seeds around them. The lettuce will get harvested and new ones will be growing in its place.
What you can plant now, in mid to late April
Our last frost date is coming up; optimistic sources suggest it’s late April. Conservative sources say it’s May 15th. It will likely be somewhere between those two. There’s really no need to rush it and plant tender seeds like beans and cucumbers. Even if our last frost is genuinely in late April, the soil will likely be too cold for warm-season vegetables and the seeds will rot.
So enjoy the season. No need to rush it.
Indoors in cell trays
The only things you’re going to be planting indoors in pots now are warm season transplants, such as:
Seeds you can plant directly in the ground
If you bought them, or grew them yourself and they have their first true leaves.
Let’s be honest—it was my first time planting any fruit trees for the first time. I ordered three apples, one peach, and one bush cherry from Fedco Trees, all bare root. Here are my thoughts:
Other thoughts on my experience—it was very exciting getting them. You can’t really get a good look at them in the package because their roots need to stay moist and bundled in their wet newspaper. So when I went in to get the first tree after Adam and I had dug the hole for it, I had the distinct feeling that I was going in to wake my baby up from a nap. But I had never met my baby before. Fun anticipation.
Then I planted the trees too high. All of my horticultural education has harped on the dangers of planting trees too low. I planted them so the graft (the nubby bit on the stem) was eight inches above the ground. Later I realized it’s supposed to be 2-3 inches. So we replanted two of the trees and added soil to the bases of two others. I also packed the dirt too tightly around the roots by walking on it after planting. I thought you had to do that to eliminate air pockets around the roots, but I think I overdid it. In our sandy soil that is not a problem (though I did go out later and used a garden fork to loosen the soil) but if your soil was clay or loam, walking around them as much as I did may have compacted the soil.
Let’s talk pruning. I’m following Anne Ralph’s Grow a Little Fruit Tree method, so the initial pruning is crucial. And It is extreme. You prune to knee high, and no more than 24 inches tall. Branches will grow out of the dormant buds on the stem. Fruit bearing will be delayed by such a dramatic cut, but it will result in a tree that is much easier to maintain.
Here’s what my trees looked like when I got them, versus what they looked like when I was finished. It took me two hours to muster the courage to cut them back this hard. But she says that fruit trees are vigorous and most people wish they had trimmed theirs back harder upon first receiving them.
All this is to say that if you have the desire to plant a fruit tree, you should do it! You might make some mistakes, like I did, but there’s nothing un-correctable.
Here is a picture of some land at dusk that has been relatively unvisited today by the human who loves it.
And that’s fine. Plenty of other creatures are enjoying it.
I just wasn’t into it today. I had low energy and some puzzles are confounding me to the point of inaction. Where to build my proper compost pile? What to do with all the bare soil around the planted trees? (I know that bare soil attracts weeds and erosion. My current plan is to apply biochar to kill the invasive jumping worms, a thin layer of compost to add life to the soil, and then do a stale seedbed. That means allowing weeds to germinate and grow a tiny bit, then wiping them out and putting in desirable seeds/transplants. It depletes the seed bank and leaves the coast clear for preferred plants to grow. Way too long of a comment for parentheses.)
I just didn’t feel like doing anything out there today, and at times it bugged me, but I have made my peace with it. Not every day will be spent outside, as much as I’d like to.
In other news, I was absolutely delighted to see Chickadees nesting in a birdhouse I put up. It is on the fence to the left of this photo. I put it near a shrub because I’ve noticed that birds like to land somewhere before they enter their house. I will move the bird feeder closer to it. The feeder is full of great sunflower seeds but no one ever eats from it. I don’t understand. It is right in the middle of the lawn, so maybe birds don’t like the exposure? I’m not sure. Maybe the Chickadee family will enjoy it.
The fruit trees arrived in the mail in a giant box on Thursday. They are bare root, which having now dealt with them, is a giant pain in the neck. I would do it again, but I’m grateful I did not order more than four trees.
Fedco catalog gravely warns that they must be planted within 48 hours of receiving them and that the roots cannot dry out. Friday we dug holes, Saturday (today) we planted them, and then I realized we planted them too high! So tomorrow we will have to reposition them. All of my horticulture education warns against planting trees too low, so I erred on the opposite side and the graft was about 8 inches above the soil, when it’s supposed to be 2.
We are tired and delirious. Trying again tomorrow!
I am fascinated by the plants that come up in my yard, and sometimes they mystify me. So, in case you feel the same way about your plants, here's an ID rundown of some plants you might have in your yard right now.
Getting there! The first two pictures are the front yard. The vegetable bed is done. (I might mix in some regular potting soil, since it is pure compost at the moment). The cute windy path in the front garden is done. I decide to spread a thin layer of compost over everything in order to get some life into the soil.
In back we have a few hugelkultur mounds, which are logs covered in wood chips, leaves, then soil and compost. The wood decomposes over time into very rich soil. The mounds are planted with seeds which will eventually grow and hold the soil down. I used red and white clover, phaecelia flower, and, honestly, a few packets of microgreen seeds because I ran out of the other stuff and just needed a bunch of seeds to throw on them.
A hose is laying out a path in the backyard. I was going to dig it down and put woodchips in it, but I might just leave it as a grass path because I’m too lazy/focused on other things. A woodchip path is way nicer to walk on if some soil is removed before it’s laid, as opposed simply piling woodchips on top of the grass.
Found invasive jumping worm babies in several places. This was very gloom-inducing, but when I start to feel bad about macro-level things like uncontrollable invasive species, I remember to trust the mysteries of the universe, vow to do the best that I can with what is within my control, and then go think about something else. There will certainly be plants that survive an environment overcome by these voracious worms, and I will have to find what they are if I can’t find a way to control the worms.
Alternate title: You Can’t Sit On The Couch For A Week And Think You Can Move Compost All Day. And Then Again The Next Day.
We got a delivery of four yards of compost from Grillo Services in Milford. I’m very glad we had it dumped on a tarp, but I wish we had gotten it on the driveway.
I moved compost for hours the first day we got it. And then I iced my arms and back, rubbed Arnica gel on them, put heat on them and then ice again. ...And then heat again.
And then I shoveled again the next day because compost weighs 2,000 pounds a yard and that was four yards sitting on my worm-filled vegetable bed. I did not want to crush those babies. By Day Two I felt good. At the end of Day One, I felt really discouraged in a way I think is worth sharing.
They way I felt about the giant pile of compost in our front yard is similar to how I felt about the humongous pile of wood chips we got last fall. (See the third photo for reference.) Defeated, embarrassed, and unsure. Compost is easier to share, though, and we’ve made some neighbors very happy.
After hours of moving compost, I started to make choices I was worried I would regret, and it’s possible I have created extra work for myself. The explanation is too long and stupid, so just trust me. Making bad choices bothers me. I made a careful plan, I spent lots of time reading so as to avoid making mistakes. But there are so many variables that it’s hard to make decisions, and I often end up doing extra work, or doing things in the wrong order. I am not a perfectionist, but I grew up getting 102s on spelling tests and I just want to get a 102 on everything in life. But I’ve never done anything on the scale of this yard project before so I can’t get a 102. Probably not even a 90.
Adam gave me some wonderful perspective when we talked about it that first night at dinner. He said it would take “freakish luck” to do a yard project like this without making any mistakes. He also reminded me of the platitude that mistakes are how you learn. I have a hard time accepting that because I do NOT want to learn my lessons in our front yard for the whole neighborhood to see. And that’s sort of why I haven’t shared this blog widely. It’s mostly just friends who read it, and almost exclusively my Nana and Granddaddy who make comments. (Thanks, guys!).
In my heart, I know that this is the most interesting stage of the project. The messy stage, when you don’t know how it will ever come together. The drama of mounds of organic material decomposing everywhere to feed the soil. The mystery of what the neighbors think of you. The suspense of not knowing whether you will achieve your vision. This is the stage everyone will go through if they plant a large garden on a budget, and it’s valuable to show, even if it’s messy. Especially if it’s messy, because everyone will know it doesn’t have to be perfect, and you’ll get somewhere beautiful eventually. It’s boring and it’s cheating to just unveil a perfect yard. It shows no respect for the process.
Shoveling compost today, I thought about how new ideas are only weird until everyone adapts them. Sure, people are building edible landscapes in rural areas, but it hasn’t really happened in the suburbs yet. And it needs to. Our millions of suburban yards have to turn into pesticide-free habitat for wildlife and food-bearing plants. I genuinely believe that the fate of life on earth depends on it. Not ONLY on that, on lots of other things too, but a collective mindset shift towards environmental consciousness would work wonders. Maybe in ten or twenty years yards like this will be commonplace. Then my anxiety will have been put to good use— helping pave the way for people to feel comfortable doing what I’m doing.
As Adam says, “people are ready for humility.” Well, this whole project is humbling to me. I hope to continue to report on it with humility, reflection, and a respect for the process of learning.