Fruit in the Garden

One of my favorite writers asks ‘how shall we live?’ For me the answer is to live in a garden. And what garden would be complete without the great joy of growing fruit; the word itself comes from the Latin frui, meaning enjoy. During Spring, the fruit trees are full of promise. Not all promises are realized at present; my apple, mulberry, nectarine, citrus and jujube trees are what might charitably be said to be ‘coming along’.

Peach ‘Red Haven’

But two of my peach trees are loaded with peaches, full of color but not quite ripe. The variety, ‘Red Haven’ is so far resisting the multitude of peach diseases. These peaches are not large but have great flavor and I use them to make peach juice to mix with Champagne for Bellinis. I also grow the venerable peach, ‘Sam Houston’; it blossoms very late and sets fruit late; avoiding the destructive late freezes that can kill the blossoms of ‘Red Haven’. It is a wonderful tree.

Blackberry ‘Apache’

The next fruit to ripen will be the blackberries. I have planted at least a half dozen varieties of this berry and all have died with the exception of this beautiful plant named “Apache”, a thornless variety. Last year I bottled blackberry cordial but it was too sweet for my taste.

I plan to simply freeze them this year to put in homemade ice cream. The problem with the fruit is that it does not ripen all at once but it is easy to put them in a freezer bag as they come along.

Figs suffer from the same ‘problem’. They ripen a few at a time over weeks and weeks. This makes it hard to put them up. Otherwise, I love growing figs since they do not suffer much from pests. Now the figs are tiny and bright green. They will get fat and brown by midsummer.

Fig ‘Celeste’

I have a recipe for figs preserved in brandy I found in Paul Virant’s wonderful book The Preservation Kitchen. I will do what I can to assemble a couple of ripe quarts for Christmas desserts.

My “Santa Rosa” Japanese plum tree is not bearing as well as I would like. I have planted another plum, “Methley”, a reliable and beautiful tree (according to the plant catalogue).  I ordered it to provide extra pollination. Two plum trees, the Methley and the Santa Rosa should produce better than one, even if both varieties are styled ‘self fertile’. The little green plums should be fat and purple by June.

Grape ‘Black Spanish’

Another tiny green fruit: grapes. I grow the “Black Spanish” bunch grape and “Blanc du Bois” both resistant to Pierce disease and mildew that plague grapes here. Soon the birds will be planning to strip the vines of ripening grapes but I have netting ready to use this year. I plan to sew it closed around the grapes with a big tapestry needle threaded with twine. If I am successful (for the first time in this battle with the birds), I shall have grape juice for my holiday Sangria.

Kieffer Pear

The Kieffer pears won’t ripen until the fall, just when we need fresh fruit. I hope for a good crop this year, I planted a Sugar Pear last year for better pollination.

Another fall fruit is the Persimmon. When ripe, it is bright orange and this will be my first year to harvest these unusual fruits. My tree is covered with the most beautiful little green persimmons.

Persimmon ‘Fuyu’

When they ripen, I plan to make want the make

Creamy Persimmon Sorbet– recipe by Max Falkowitz Editor of Serious Eats: New York

Ingredients

4 to 5 large persimmons (about 20 ounces; see note above), peeled and chopped 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup very strong black tea, or water
1 teaspoon fresh juice from 1 lemon (more or less to taste) 1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Combine persimmons with sugar in blender or food processor and process on high speed until very smooth, about 30 seconds. Pour through a strainer to measure out 2 cups of purée, reserving remainder for another use.
  2. Transfer purée to a medium-sized mixing bowl and whisk in tea, lemon juice, and salt to taste. Chill in freezer until mixture is very cold, 2 to 3 hours.
  3. Churn in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Serve immediately as soft serve or transfer to an airtight container and chill in freezer for 4 hours for a firmer texture.

So I make promises too. I want to share a taste of warm weather with my friends and family when it gets cold this winter. It’s a way to live.

Snake. Yikes!

I walked into the barn to gather eggs last weekend and stared with amazement when I saw a very large snake in one of my nesting boxes. It was too big too be all the way in the box and at least three feet of its tail hung onto the floor. I don’t like snakes. They scare me. Even when I know they are benign, they give me the creeps. I didn’t see a rattle on the tail and saw no red or yellow in any configuration so I decided I did not need to call for help with a venomous snake.

Bullsnake

My inner cave woman clicked in and with murder in my heart, I grabbed a large shovel and opened the back door of the barn for better visibility. This is surely a libel to cave women since any respectable cave woman would probably know which snakes would be a threat and which were benign and knew how to deal with each kind. I sank the shovel into a spot about six inches from the snake’s head and, even with my not inconsiderable weight, I had absolutely no impact on the skin or bones. Cutting through a snake’s skin must be a job for a very sharp knife. A big knife. The snake flattened itself on the bed of hay in the nest and slithered toward the open door. I made one more attempt with the shovel which he evaded and he dived out the door and under the ramp.

I headed to the house and the internet to figure out what to do. Comparing internet photos and my memory, I decided I had acquired a bull snake (pictured above), a rat snake or a king snake. All three of these snakes are considered benign to humans and believed by most ‘authorities’ to be a beneficial on a farm since they eat mice, voles, gophers, rabbits and squirrels. All three are four to six feet long and all like chicken eggs.

Rat Snake

I hope I don’t have a bullsnake. They also eat bird eggs and birds, climbing into trees to get to the nests. On the other hand bullsnakes are said to eat rattlesnakes. Bullsnakes can also be aggressive when attacked and my snake didn’t want anything to do with the ‘shovelcreature’, he headed for the door as fast as he could.

 

My snake had some pink on its sides and stomach so I am inclined to think that it was a rat snake. They like areas near water and I have a pond and a creek. They like barns and outbuildings and are the most common snake in suburban areas. But they pretend to be dead when attacked which my snake did not do. So, perhaps I have a kingsnake.

Kingsnakes also like water and trees. They are active during the daytime, particularly the morning. They eat copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes and are resistant to the venom of pit-vipors. What a formidable creature!

Kingsnake

Most ‘internet’ advice was that I should keep my snake. I can certainly use help with the mice and squirrels. One chicken-keeper said if you have a snake in your nests, you need better chickens. I am doubtful that anything that would dine on rattlesnake meat would be afraid of my chickens, but I spoke to the chickens about this failing on their part. I haven’t seen the snake again and don’t know if it is fearful of the shovelcreature or the chickens. I also cleaned the area with bleach so it may not like bleach.

I seem to be missing one or two eggs a day, but we have been experiencing a great deal of rain and the chickens don’t lay as well during these downpours. But, the creature may just zip in for an egg or two when I am not around. I don’t really mind if the snake helps with mice and squirrels.

I have decided to keep the snake for a while. My friend at the feed store said that is a good idea, but sometimes snakes develop a voracious appetite for eggs and will clean the nests out and also, that sometimes snakes will reproduce and I’ll wind up with three or more snakes. Then I’ll have to ‘do something’. Excess. An old friend– I complain about it almost every week. It’s what gets us in the end.

Improvements

I attended a beautiful performance of music this week in a church built in the 1850’s after the flood of Anglican immigrants into Texas. Loaded with architectural features, perhaps too many, I picture the enthusiastic new settlers, determined to improve on the old Spanish Mission Churches. But the old mission churches have a kind of grace that cannot be topped by enthusiasm and wealth. The Spanish monks had come here to improve Native Americans when Spain was conducting its religious Inquisition. Imagine. The desire to improve leads us all down difficult paths.

What would the Chinese gardeners who improved the beautiful Wisteria sinensis hundreds of years ago think if they learned this grand plant is now banned in many American states. It is listed as an invasive, swallowing trees and clogging waterways throughout the American South. http://www.texasinvasives.org/plant_database/detail.php?symbol=WISI

I dutifully planted Wisteria frutescens, (pictured above).  It is a pretty lavender color with 6-inch racemes and no scent. But the Chinese plant is the most vivid purple or blue with racemes at least 12-inches long. It grows lushly and smells heavenly. I long for one, but resist.

I like improvements. I bought an ‘improved’ Kieffer pear tree two years ago. Pear trees, especially the Kieffers, used to be rock solid, a touch of disease maybe here and there, but entirely reliable. My grandparents had two huge trees with fruit crowding the branches. Then fire blight moved in and pear trees were devastated. I have tried pruning off the blackened branches that occur when the bacteria strikes and aggressively used the strongest organic sprays I could find. I even poured bleach around an infected tree as instructed. What I do now when I see a blackened branch is spray with Neem Oil up to half a dozen times during the season. Neem Oil is pressed from the fruit and seeds of the Neem plant, native to the Indian subcontinent. It is one of my favorite organic controls. My Kieffers, the improved and unimproved are able to recover with this gentle assistance. Both trees are equally beautiful so I am waiting to see the difference–cheering for the little improved tree to pull ahead since, I am, after all, a modern woman.

Modern or not, my head spins when I read seed catalogues and I ordered a corn seed hybrid last year called “Gotta Have It” from Gurney’s. You would think the name would have been a warning. Gurney’s treats its corn seeds and promises a half dozen improvements. The seeds arrived and looked like pieces of the ‘fiery’ Cheetos for sale in gas stations. Since the catalogue did not give specifics, I called the nursery to make sure these seeds would not hurt my bees or earthworms. Given some sketchy, if reassuring answers, I planted the things and they did not do any better than the old fashioned varieties like “Silver Queen.” The corn story is a future post; its greedy nature, the chemicals used in its production– and corn costs about 30% more to grow than its sale price. I admit to having issues with growing corn at all; I only have room for about a dozen plants and they need more hand germination than I have provided in the past so I get ears full of kernels. But the plants are beautiful in the garden and my cow and sheep consider a freshly pulled cornstalk the equivalent of dinner in Paris.

 

 

 

The Pleasures of Herbivores

I am dedicated to improving my soil. I have a fair amount of caliche and two to four feet of Blackland Prairie clay sitting atop about 400 feet of limestone. Early on I decided to introduce good grasses and herbivores to break up the clay, enrich the caliche and thereby develop verdant pastures teeming with microorganisms, dragonflies, butterflies and birds.

This plan is working out. Plus herbivores are fun to have around. My neighbor was surprised one day seeing my cow jumping and running and kicking up her heels. She said she always thought cows were slow, sedentary creatures. Today I arrived with a new round-bale of hay and the cow began running circles around the truck, diving between gates and kicking up her heels; all of which would have been more entertaining if I had not been negotiating a 1000 pounds of hay through the gates.

Perhaps my cow is so agile and active because of her small size. She is a Dexter and weighs only about 500 pounds while a ‘normal’ cow weighs in at about 1300. Or perhaps, she is just naturally high-spirited and leads a happy life here with me–spoiled rotten really. In any case her calf stood and stared at her antics, I didn’t actually see any eye-rolling but the calf made me think of a human teenager embarrassed by a parent. Her eyebrows definitely lifted.

Dexter Cow.

Controlling herbivores is important: they can destroy good land as we can see in the deserts of Pakistan or the bare Greek hillsides. One control I use is to rotate my sheep and cow between three small pastures. First, the grasses need to regenerate after they have been ‘mowed’. Second, worm larvae deposited in the animal manures, hatches and crawls up grass to be eaten, thereby gaining entrance to the digestive systems of stock. The result is debilitation of the grazing animal. Fortunately the life cycle of the these digestive track worms is 21 days, so if the pasture is not used for 21 days, the worms die. Rotation has worked for me and I have never had to treat an animal for worms.

I have about six feet of fencing between my back and middle pastures that is not entirely secure. My Great Pyrenees is able to dig a hole under this section of fence and both of my dogs can then move from pasture to pasture. We had a coyote eying the lambs for breakfast last weekend so the dogs were able to guard the entire perimeter without my having to go out and open gates. But this convenience has ended.

Almost unbelievably, my sheep seem to have commando skills and can drop to the ground and crawl under the same hole in the fence used by the dogs. Yesterday, trying for a third time to stop this ‘security’ breach of my pasture rotation plans, I stacked logs on one side of the fence. The Pyr walked back and forth on his side of the fence sizing up possibilities for his next hole. The sheep stood close by watching him with absolute approval. The cow hates the sheep to be anywhere she cannot go and she bellows constantly when they shimmy under the fence. As the dog was investigating flaws in my barricade, she walked up to him, put her nose gently under his stomach raised him in the air and deposited him five feet away. Did I mention herbivores were fun?

Living with Raptors

I have a family of Red-Tailed Hawks living in one of my trees. The baby hawks are tearing across the sky, diving and screeching –learning their role: Predator.

Baby Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawks live comfortably with humans and we have been very comfortable together year after year. When I looked up the formal name of the birds, Buteo jamaicensis, I stumbled across the information that hawks, as well as eagles, vultures, falcons and owls are generally referred to as raptors.  Raptors. The dinosaur heritage. The name raptor is apparently applied to birds with strong sharp talons for picking up and carrying away prey and who have hooked bills for tearing their prey to pieces.  http://www.10000birds.com/

As fearsome as these Red-Tailed Hawks might be to rabbits, squirrels, rats and mice, they are homebodies at heart. They like to make a home in one place, long term. They are monogamous and generally mate for life. Both parents incubate the eggs that are laid in a big stick nest.

I have always thought my guardian dog and rooster protected my chickens from the resident hawks. The 100-pound Great Pyrenees will jump and snap at the birds when they fly too low. But it turns out Red-Tailed Hawks don’t care to eat other birds, although I think they like to tease my dog. Other hawks, like Cooper’s Hawks, prey on birds: robins, sparrows and chickens. A friend regularly has to watch as one of her chickens is carried away by a hawk. Farmers used to shoot them all but the decline of farmers has resulted in an increase in the hawk population, including my Red-Tails who were shot out of ignorance and the usual human tendency to overkill.

They are welcome residents here although my blood runs a little cold when I hear one of them has made a kill. As they carry their dinner skyward, they let out the most piercing shriek, full of triumph. Raptors.

 

 

 

 

 

Birds Everyday

Peregrine Falcon

I love the birds I see everyday in my little corner of the world.

They are not not exotic, only one I have appears on any of the ‘lists’.   For example the list of the fastest birds includes geese and ducks who fly 70-90 mph; but the fastest is the Peregrine Falcon clocked at 242 mph; not only the fastest bird but the fastest living creature on the planet.

 

More subjectively, the list of the most beautiful birds include the predictable Peacocks, Wood Ducks and Flamingos, but number 1 is the Golden Pheasant. This ‘beautiful’ list is made up of highly colorful birds making me think of Louis XIVth’s court at Versailles where everyone was dressed in the brightest possible colors. Perhaps elegance and good taste are overlooked.

Golden Pheasant

Not that I don’t love this website and it lists: www.https://themysteriousworld.com/.

The House Sparrow is Number 8 on the site’s list of the 10 best singing birds. The House Sparrow. I have those–everyone does– and I think their quiet coloring is beautiful. I will now listen more carefully to their songs. Number 1 of songbirds is the Common Nightingale. “Common”. The arrogance of humans is amazing.

And speaking of the interface of birds and humans, it is generally agreed that birders are ‘crazy’; to see a bird they hang on ropes from cliffs or stand in their waders in icy water for hours. They seek not the garish or the fast, they seek the new experience as in the following example: “…all of a sudden I heard him violently inhale with utter desperation as he looked out the windshield of my vehicle.  Thinking that I was about to run over an innocent woodland creature, I slammed on the brakes only to see him point and say, “Look!  A magpie!” as if this bird was some mystical creature that was equivalent or somehow more remarkable than sighting a unicorn – with rainbows, sparkles, celestial light, and all that other stuff that goes along with unicorns. https://thebirderswife.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/why-yes-birders-are-crazy/

The Magpie is a small bird found all over the globe, related to crows. But valued apparently. I almost gasped yesterday when I looked out of my window at the gray branches of my apple tree on a very gray day and saw a blood-colored object. My double-take revealed only one of my Cardinals. The Cardinals, Sparrows, the Titmice, the Mockingbirds are busy making nests and feeding babies. The hummingbird-feeder awaits my dear Hummingbirds, who will make homes and feed babies very soon I hope. Every Day stuff. Perfect.

Flight

Flying. What an amazing thing. Weighed against all the achievements of mammals, even philosophy, art, literature, engineering, Colin Tudge believes that flight, standing alone, makes birds “superior creatures”. The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live 2009. Birds pay a heavy price though for the gift of flight, they must remain relatively small, never achieving the grand size of say, elephants. Humans, naturally, believe them to be less intelligent since, brain size and body size have a rough correlation.

The intelligent-looking, bright-eyed creature above, a Robin, flies 100 to 200 miles a day during migration. Some travel thousands of miles, from as far north as Vancouver to as far south as Guatemala using navigation skills we can only dream of and with a kind of courage and purpose we we admire in our best stories. When the ground freezes in the North, they strip the bushes and trees of fruit and head south. Robins can read the weather and they like to fly ahead of warm fronts and arrive just before the rain, ready for their favorite food, earthworms, to come to the surface. The backyard of several friends has been a stopover for flocks of 50 or more Robins during these past weeks. Robin migrations are flexible: they follow the food. Robins breed, eat, drink and, when the ground gets hot in the south and the earthworms go deep, they move on.https://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/robin/facts_migration.html

Now it’s time to get out the hummingbird feeders. The Hummingbirds arrive next week, in a dozen varieties. They, too, travel thousands of miles. The drawing to the left depicts the migratory route of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird that flies 26 hours nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico.   The beautiful Black-chinned Hummingbird typically makes it home with me all summer.

Black-chinned Hummingbird–photo by Diana Black

To travel so successfully, birds use visual landmarks: mountains and rivers, they use changes in air temperature and humidity; they have an inborn compass sense and can relate a release point to home whenever necessary.

All of which brings me back to the issue of superiority. We can only imagine a debate between humans and birds. Naturally the human debate team would point out the highways, bridges and other engineering marvels. The bird debate team would simply say, “but we can fly.” The humans point out our ships, trains, aircraft and cars…but the birds respond that they can, well, fly… so have no need. “We can blow up the world,” the humans say, “why would we?” say the birds. The birds concede that humans have writing but regarding music, make no concessions. “The everyday Cardinal in the Plantswoman’s garden sings beautifully and is not even considered a songbird,” say the birds. Our civilizations have been rich with beauty and glory say the humans. But, say the birds, your civilizations only last a few thousand years; our ancestors dominated the world for 65 million years. They were dinosaurs.

To Thin

I hate thinning seedlings. Germination was really great this year in my 4 inch pots. Try as I might to plant only three or four seeds per pot, I had a little forest of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and tomatoes appear in almost every pot. Without thinning, The Tragedy of the Commons would occur in my little 4-inch plastic pots, each tiny seedling acting as an individual, using as many nutrients as possible for its own benefit. Without thinning: sickly, stunted plants emerge. So I discard the extras since I have no room for them. The little dying Broccoli bodies pictured here bother me, make me sad, break my heart.

 The name, Tragedy of the Commons, originated in 1833 in an essay by economist William Forster Lloyd that featured a common resource: grazing land. Individuals acted for their own benefit; too many animals were grazed and the pasture was destroyed. In 1968 the idea of overuse of shared resources like a pasture was revisited by Garrett Hardin and is now discussed in the context of our atmosphere, lakes, rivers and soil. A famous modern example of a tragedy of our commons occurred in Canada. The Cod fishers on the eastern coast had fished for 500 years and believed that cod would always be there. But advancements in technology in the 1960’s made catching cod in enormous numbers easy. So easy that the entire industry collapsed in the 1990’s.

I have written often about the sentience of plants but have to say that this does not lead them to have any more regard for restraint than twentieth century cod fishers or eighteenth century shepherds. Plants merrily reproduce until drought or disease or lack of some specific soil nutrient kills them. It’s not hard to believe that we share about 18% of our DNA with plants, they are our cousins. https://www.koshland-science-museum.org/sites/all/exhibits/exhibitdna/intro03.jsp

And plants are as relentless as any human. I am constantly confronted with overcrowded beds of vegetables, irises and lilies; presented with fruit trees that sucker or grow too tall. I cut back, dig up and discard–thin out. Thinning extends to my livestock and my chickens. Country living seems to require as much taking out as putting in and this requires some steel in the soul of the gardener/farmer. I have to face the fact that overcrowding hurts us all and I thin. But that’s only on my little patch.

I have no idea how to think about this issue Worldwide. Human population was approximately 600,000 in 1700, and now it exceeds six billion. With factory raised animals and corporate farming, we have plenty for each and every individual. For now.

Electric Wonders

I had intended to write about the use and destruction of soil by ancient civilizations for another couple of weeks, but the stories will still be there next month; I think I’ll take a break from farming follies.

A big thunderstorm hit last night. I forgot to bring my trays of seedlings indoors and expected them to be beaten down this morning; but the tiny plants were fine. Perky. Lightening is good for them; they like it, like I like expensive cheese or fine chocolate. Can’t live on it– but it makes life better. Plants probably know electric and magnetic energy surround us and use it when they can.

Charged particles are a part of the air we breathe. We live in a gigantic magnetic field that extends from Earth’s interior into Space. This field protects us from the solar winds, cosmic rays, ultraviolet radiation and certain destruction. Beyond are the Van Allen radiation belts, pictured to the right– “giant swaths of magnetically trapped, highly energetic charged particles that surround Earth.” Getting through these belts is a big problem for NASA. http://www.space.com/33948-van-allen-radiation-belts.html.

Within our magnetic soup bowl, lightening forms. It produces hot electric charges in clouds; then Nitrogen and Oxygen come together to make nitrogen oxides that descend on their own or in raindrops. Although Nitrogen is all around us, (almost 80% of the atmosphere) plants can’t use it until lightening works its magic.

I don’t like this diagram, it makes a series of grand events look banal. But I love circles and the circle below describes Nitrogen’s trip through our soil and back to the heavens.

Gardeners are always anxious about the nitrogen in the soil. Other elements stick, but not Nitrogen. And atmospheric nitrogen fixation that occurs during thunderstorms only contributes 8% or so of Nitrogen used by our plants, but we are greedy and take what we can get. I think all these charged particles created in a rain storm have value beyond the quantification of 8%; that soil and our plants might engage in activity we don’t understand–yet. I am by no means the craziest gardener on the subject of electricity in the garden.

We are counseled to drive wooden stakes into the garden and run copper wire around them to attract static electricity. Another suggestion to attract static electricity is to use metal stakes for plants like tomatoes and to tie the plants to the stakes with pantyhose. Since pantyhose were undoubtedly developed in some dark place in the underworld, it makes me happy to picture them on a stake in the hot sun. http://www.veggiegardener.com/how-lightning-benefits-your-garden/

Like I said, gardeners take what they can get. I wrote last week about the Chinese at the turn of the 20th Century. No labor was too hard, no conservation too extreme if it improved their soil. They added their clothes to the compost pile. Considering all the work and aggravation associated with improving soil, it is a wonderful thing to sit on the porch and watch a storm. I like to watch the lightening improve my soil while gently moving my rocking chair and sipping a glass of wine.

Dirt–Can’t Live Without It. Part 2

I don’t see farmers growing food on terraces. We don’t have to plant on hillsides, since, something over 300 million of us rattle around in our enormous country. We can leave scrub lands to the deer. But in China, the population count has been biting hard for hundreds of years. So we find extensive use of terracing there. The photo above is of the remarkable Dragon’s Backbone Terrace built by hand 650 years ago to grow rice.

Asian farming practices, such as terracing, are described in by F. H. King in Farmers of Forty Centuries, a book that proves the dullest subject can be a rippin’ good read in the hands of a real storyteller. To say King was wildly enthusiastic about Asian farming would be an understatement. He was a highly regarded soil scientist in the early 1900’s and he strongly believed farmland could be healthy only if nutrients were replenished. He worked for the USDA Bureau of Soils and the head of the Bureau, Milton Whitney, insisted that soil was indefinitely productive and natural processes would maintain soil’s good health without additives. Refusing to be associated with what he believed to be heresy, King resigned and traveled to the East.

I will focus here on King’s writings on China. There, he found farmers who added everything they could get their hands on to keep their soil productive — as they had for 4000 years. They used chaff from harvested grains, cuttings from vegetables and fruits, rotting trees and plants, human excrement, animal excrement, clothing. King watched human waste from Canton and Hong Kong applied in diluted form to a field of leeks at a rate of 16,000 gallons per acre–all carried on the shoulders of workers in pails. Another laborious practice was the exchange of soil between mulberry orchards and rice fields since this increased production of both plants–all done in buckets by hand.

I first encountered the Chinese devotion to their fields in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. It is the only movie I have ever seen that was better than the book. I watched 20-year old O-lan bear her first child, strap him to her back and go back to work in her field. There are no words. So many people on so little arable land.

According to King, it was common to see three crops on one field, one ready to harvest, one just up and one in growth. In other areas, fields which had matured two crops of rice were planted with grain, cabbage, peas and beans, producing three or four crops a year. This intensive, continuous cropping can work only by heavy fertilization and irrigation.

China at the turn of the 20th century had at least 200,000 miles of canals for irrigation. The canals also provided fertilizer, the nutrient rich mud was removed from the bottom of the canals and put on fields–at a rate of about 70 tons an acre. I have a creek and a pond, but have never considered using the rich mud to fertilize my pastures. What an undertaking that would be, but King observed that, in China, no labor was too much to keep food on the table. Waste was brought from stables, allowed to percolate in the canals and then dipped out of the canals to fertilize plants. Clover was planted in pits dug three feet deep and when it blossomed, it was cut and stacked, allowed to ferment and then spread on fields. The photo here is of a levee made of sausage-shaped baskets of woven bamboo filled with stones held in place by wooden tripods.

King writes, that he walked by a pigpen with  a smooth, well-laid stone floor. It had just been washed scrupulously clean, like the floor of a house. “I have little doubt” he says, “that the washings from this floor had been carefully collected and taken to some receptacle to serve as a plant food.”

Of course, now, China uses the practices of Big Agriculture. Most of the ‘civilized’ world shares the practice of drenching our soils with herbicides, pesticides and petroleum based fertilizers. Not that there is anything wrong with a bag of high quality organic fertilizer used in combination with organic matter like manure. Pest controls used thoughtfully are a good idea. The question is the same one raised by King. Can we kill our soil? Do we need to consider aeration, texture and the microbes? Or will it regenerate indefinitely. It’s only dirt.

There is a scene during a famine in The Good Earth when hungry bandits see smoke from O-lan’s chimney. They burst in, see the children at the table, rush to the cooking pot and leave disgusted.What was cooking was dirt.