Saturday, October 20, 2007

October preparations for spring

This is the time of year to take two steps to start (or continue!) a garden next spring.

(1) Collect leaves! People kindly put them on their curbs, and it is legal to relieve municipalities of the expense of carting them away. Fred brings me home about 100 bags of leaves each fall. At 20 lb. a bag, that's a ton of leaves that have disappeared into our property each year for over two decades. They are a major source of what we eat. :) The only other off-site items that I have used for more than a decade are grass clippings, wood chips, and commercial seeds.

(2) If you are going to start gardening next spring, now is a good time to double dig the promising plot. Remove the topsoil from a plot about 2' x 2' and put it on a piece of plastic. (I use old plastic bags in which we have taken others' leaves.) Then dig a second layer, adding organic matter --leaves if you don't have compost. Then you move along, putting the topsoil of the next spot on the "empty" spot where you just worked (instead of on a plastic bag) so you can dig the second layer there.

The books say to drag that first clump of topsoil to cover the last place, but I go around in circles so it's easy to dump when you get back "home." A much more detailed description of "double digging" is in John Jeavons' book HOW TO RAISE MORE VEGETABLES THAT YOU EVER THOUGHT ON LESS LAND THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE. It should be in your local library; if not, order it. Or maybe you want to buy this excellent paperback book.

Excavating in Montclair has its interesting aspects. There are plenty of stones, of course, of varying sizes. About a foot down below my yard was a nineteenth century cement floor, which I dug into the soil to combat its acidity. I was told that ours was the depot for milk delivery at some time, but a map of the 1870's doesn't show that. Maybe earlier? Tools, vases, and toys are other occasional artifacts.

These days there are 2"-5" holes amid my plants. They are dug over night. Bob, the more experienced gardener across the street, tells me the diggers are skunks and I should be grateful because they are eating slugs that I don't need. Mostly the diggers are very considerate of the plants I cherish, but they goofed one night this week and dug up some small green lance seedlings that I had put out from my greenhouse windowsill. Maybe they seemed too small to be worthy. Everyone makes mistakes.

It's harder to explain why the lettuce I sowed two weeks ago outside with 2007 seeds has not germinated. The lettuce I sowed from the same packet a month earlier in the window germinated fine and thrives outside now; we ate some for dinner last evening. Gardening is full of puzzles. I suspect we are not supposed to know everything. "We see through a glass darkly," says the Good Book, a sentiment I find consistent with my observations. Still, I miss that non-germinated lettuce! My own patience seems not to be unbounded, as hard as philosophy and religion try.

Good news includes the fact that Fred and I each enjoyed 13 raspberries this morning for breakfast -- not as many as two weeks ago, but still delicious.


Read More......

Monday, May 7, 2007

Lawn Care Without Poisons, Chemicals, Power Machinery or Watering

Michael Pollen wrote that a lawn is land "under totalitarian control." We Americans are control freaks, and one thing we can control is our lawn. It never talks back.

Still, I find myself wondering why I, like almost all Americans, care about my lawn so much. Why not just let it grow wild? Someone asked me shortly after I moved here how nice I wanted my lawn to look. I heard myself say, "A little bit better than the worst lawn on the block." I was raising children. Why should anyone with such an important activity care about raising a lawn?

Then the kids left and I felt a calling to demonstrate how good a lawn can look without poisons, chemicals, power machinery, or watering. Now, why would I feel THAT calling? Anyway, if you want a carefully thought-out summary of my approach to lawn care, or want a flyer to disseminate my suggestions, you can click on "lawns" on the homepage of my website, most easily accessed via a Google search on "Pat Kenschaft," The short version is mow high, let the grass clippings drop to fertilize the lawn, and NEVER use power machinery or water the lawn. When there are doubtful places, hand-scatter compost that you have made yourself. I've found that fixes the problem; I don't have to ask questions or do tests.

There are socially acceptable alternatives to lawns. Maxine Hoffer, my wonderful creative writing teacher at Nutley High School, had a ground cover through which marvelous daffodils arise each spring. "I fertilize it by never raking leaves," she told me. She died a few years ago at a venerable age, but I see that her successors have not destroyed her good property care ideas, so you can see it at 27 Stuart Avenue in Nutley on the corner of Passaic Ave. In her waning years the property required no care, and it continued to look spectacular every spring.

During my empty nest summer, I took my garden cart to the front yard after dinner in August and hand-pulled weeds. After three weeks of filling a garden cart each evening, the yard was weed-free, but a bit empty. I bought "lawns alive" from Gardens Alive, and that's the only time I've put anything commercial on my lawn -- 20 years ago! Those seeds thrived.

Since then I have spent about five minutes several times a year removing dandelions from my front lawn, and that seems enough -- less than a half hour total per year. Once you get them out, they don't come back...much.

Not watering means that the roots go deep. The lawn survives dry spells better than most. When a water ban arrives, my lawn still has a bit of green. When the rain finally comes, mine is the first to be truly green.

The United Nations predicts that 21st century wars will be fought over water, and I've read that 30% of the household water in eastern U.S. is used to water lawns.

Children and dogs that play on lawns with pesticides have higher rates of disease, especially cancer, than those who don't. can provide you lots of alarming statistics if you want to read about them.

Leaf blowers destroy lawns, and give landscapers an excuse to charge more money to repair them. Shrubbery needs leaves as natural fertilizer; it especially distresses me to see people blowing under shrubs. I've been told that the main reason they are used off season is to increase the number of hours for which the landscapers can charge the property owners for "care" but one can't be sure of other people's motives; it's hard enough to know one's own.

A distinctive problem this year has been the many baby trees planting themselves around. Fortunately, they come out far more easily than dandelions. Working with two hands, I can remove often two per second, which is more than 100 a minute. Apparently, I've removed thousands in the past couple of weeks, with thousands more to go. Anyone know WHY we have this new abundance this year? I hear it's not just my property.

I spend far less time on my lawn most weeks than the landscapers spend on my neighbors' lawns. Mowing the front lawn typically takes 12 minutes with my human-energy-powered push mower. This week it took only ten minutes.

Someone borrowed it last May and found it took her LESS time than her power mower because she didn't have to be so careful going around the edges. It provides healthy exercise, is safe with children around, and you can talk with passers-by as you mow. When I was a child, Daddy's lawn mowing time was also child time. Human-powered lawn mowers cost about $100, and don't involve the time, money, and global warming acceleration of fuel.

It's a beautiful time of year. Enjoy caring for your lawn...if it's worth having a lawn!


Read More......