Monday, April 06, 2009

Dirt



Blogging holds an attraction to me, but apparently it's not at all addictive. I seem to be writing posts that don't really come together on a theme. I still have some ideas about that; Buddhist economics, religion, social change, etc. But not tonight.

The news of the shooting deaths of three Pittsburgh police officers has made national headlines. Much has been made of the paranoid politics of the shooter. The attention seems a good thing in as much as we're infamous for The Paranoid Style in American Politics and the economic situation increases my worry about it. The fact of the matter is when it comes to tragedies that get a lot of press, I know that I have to step back and put my toe in the water gradually. I avoided TV Saturday, even still I heard the TV footage of the gun fire. Skimming the paper today I was moved to tears reading about the slain police officers. So I went outside to play in the garden.

The daffodils are in full bloom. This particular picture is from last year about this time, but there are daffodils all over. Most of the daffodils come from digging bulbs from that patch, remnants of a garden planted long before my time at this place. In the summer that patch grows up to bramble and golden rod, but underneath it all is a carpet of Ornithogalum or Star of Bethlehem. those bulbs spread wildly and so at various times I've not been too fond of them. Now I sort of marvel. I suspect just a few bulbs long ago came in the mail and were planted. Or perhaps it was a friendly gift; either way the vast territory now covered probably began with just a few bulbs.

Last Spring I dug a bed along the front of the property. While I had long wanted to plant along the front, I hadn't until then. My father never wanted me too, in part because he thought the surveyors hadn't allowed enough space in the front and the fields. Last year they planted corn in the field right in front. When the farmer plowed he turned the tractor on our plot when he plowed and left deep ruts. I mow--as much grass as there is to mow--with a walk behind mower and ruts are a pain in the neck. So I cut the sod off all along the front. I dug up some lilac suckers and planted them at the front edge of the bed and seeded the rest with sunflowers, flax and some other stuff. What I seeded in didn't thrive, especially the length near the corn planting. I think the run off form the rains simply compacted the soil too much. Nevertheless I was please to discover this Spring that every lilac sucker had lived.

Over the years I've grown various sorts of ornamental grasses on the property. So I thought to dig those and make a hedge on the field side of the line. That's been slow going. Really it seems I can only manage to dig one large clump, divide it up and plant it a day. I'm almost done, just another 15 or 20 feet to plant. But in the meantime I also have to attend to the bomb craters left where I've dug the grasses. Oh and there's plenty more transplanting to do.

Over the years I've worked in my dear friend Cora's garden too. Cora is such a delightful person I simply enjoy visiting her. There's also something very special about the place where she lives, it's enchanted. Always there seems a bit of magic interacting with that space. For one thing there's a steep gorge with a small creek that runs hard in the rain, so there's a lot of stone around. I like rocks.

Sometimes when people visit my place they ask where I got all the rocks. I dug them up. The back part of the property is very rocky ground. For many years I cursed the rocks because it makes any digging very slow going. Still over the years seeing how nice stone walls as stepping paths are, now I only wish I had the gumption to dig more. I don't really, only what's unavoidable, well then of course when I come upon a rock. I say the rocks sing to me, but it's not as if I hear a tune, rather it's more thinking of a spot where the rock would fit well in the garden.

I had arranged to meet Cora in her garden on Friday afternoon. It rained hard on Friday so I went anyway. Cora's husband had used a back hoe to dredge the creek bed in a stretch to lower the water table near their garage. Cora reacted with some disturbance. In part because a nice stand of Forsythia lay mangled under the soil from the creek bed.

The soil around here can be quite heavy with clay in parts. The area right around where I live was known for its pottery making in earlier days. In places in my back garden, in between areas of very stony ground, are veins of clay quite suitable for making pots. That's true of Cora's garden too, although her place is close to the Allegheny river and the clay is of a different sort than by my house.

The soil from the creek bed was rocky and full of shale in some parts, and the ground upon which it was laid quite sticky with clay. It might seem that trying to grade the area and untangle the broken bushes buried under soil in the rain made little sense. But once I began the wet almost seemed an advantage. The ground was so soft that as I pulled the rocks out I could chuck them to the stream embankment and they stay put. There wasn't enough stone to make a proper wall, but enough to secure the stream bank so the soil wouldn't erode right away back into the stream. In between the rocks will provide good spots for planting. Once I had gotten the bigger rocks out in a small section I used a grape hoe to grade throwing the smaller rock on top of the larger ones. I was covered in mud from flinging rocks and soil. To my amazement I was able to grade the whole length, probably 75 feet or so long, before dark.

I was pleased.

Back at home one of the areas where I gathered ornamental grasses was along a section of the back boundary planting behind an old stone barn foundation. Years ago I'd planted three lilacs and a line of Forsythia. Outside the barn foundation, a dairy barn, they must have dumped stones and cinders for years to keep the mud down from the cows. So there was a long section between the lilacs and the Forsythia I hadn't planted to shrubs because the digging was so rough. I had wanted to extend the lilac hedge between the existing lilacs and the Forsythia. First I had to dig up the grasses and then also attend to dividing perennials planted too just to get the soil reasonably level. It's been probably six years since I dug in those beds to any extent.

People often say you can improve the soil. Here in the USA the approach is very often to buy bales of peat moss. I've bought many bales of peat moss over the years. I'm not sure it's really a very environmentally friendly thing to do as the bogs the peat comes from are sensitive ecosystems. But the truth be told the real reason I don't use peat moss anymore is I could never afford the money and time to incorporate it into the soil in the quantities needed to really make a difference. The best way to improve the soil I've found is to grow a variety of plants in the area to be mended. Digging in the back bed after six years I was impressed with how much more friable the soil is after six years.

So finally today I'd prepared the soil enough to gather a batch of lilac suckers to plant. Earlier in the week I had also dug up some Forsythia suckers to lengthen that section of hedge too. The suckers are small, so it will take a few years for them to grow into size. I've been spreading the perennials about. Years ago I got a packet of Rudbeckia seed--All Sorts--from Thompson and Morgan. They were pretty Black-eyed Susans, but only one of the species in the mix lasted over the winters. I think it must be Rudbeckia fulgida, I'm not certain however. They bloom a week or ten days later than the Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' I've planted and are taller. 'Goldsturm' is a selection of Rudbeckia fulgida, and the differences between the plants makes me think my identification might be wrong. Whatever the species is, it spreads. While Black-eyed Susan's may not be my favorite flower the great drifts of them in bloom really are pleasing. So in my lilac garden I dug up some plants. I didn't think there were so many there, but in no time I had a big arm load which I carried up to the front boundary. It seems a bit boring to pull apart the older plants, but I must have planted over five hundred in the front bed. I know from experience that these little divisions establish quickly.

I used to start lots of plants under lights to set out. One of these years I'll get back to that because I always enjoy having the variety, I especially find it nice for vegetables. Alas, for the last few years I haven't bothered. One of the discouragements was I was getting acquisitive and planting seeds for plants needing more care than I would give them. So the variety of flowers I'm growing now isn't as diverse as I want. For the last few years I've planted more and more beds with plants that grow with little care. Still the list of species like that is long and I've been busy spreading plants around.

So for the last few weeks I've been delighting in the dirt. The frogs at my little pond are peeping. These are little tree frogs, we call them Spring Peepers. Later in the season Green Frogs will sing. In the Spring I seem to have endless ideas of things to do in the garden, but by June I'm worn out. The pace of growth accelerates and by June it's a verdant season of grass. Ah but the Spring puts on a splendid show here in Western Pennsylvania. Sometimes, especially when the trees are in bloom,it's excruciatingly beautiful.

3 comments:

Pingting said...

lovely post john!
worth reposting over at incompetent gardener : )

DaisyDeadhead said...

Did you get lost in the garden or what? :P

Mary Q Contrarie said...

I am always amazed that when we use the correct type of garden hoe like a grape hoe for grading. How fast and pleasantly the work goes by. I often think people that get sick of gardening and working out in the dirt are tired because they are using the wrong tool for the job.