The Joy of Seed and… Hope

My mailbox fills with seed catalogs this time of year. Dazzling pictures and promises of bounty, leading one down the garden path to the hope that ‘this year will be different.’

‘Cheddar’ Cauliflower

One of my favorite garden writers, Steve Solomon, advises that starting seed at home might be more trouble than its worth and he recommends looking for quality transplants instead. Lots of good local nurseries make this easy, although, I have to be careful of impulse buys in big box stores since they now have labels that announce their plants have been treated with neonicotinoids —a pesticide that will kill my bees. Unsurprising to fellow gardeners, Solomon is of two minds about transplants. The mind of a gardener is so often fractured. He writes that purchased transplants are hothouse grown and he believes sturdy little homegrown plants fare much better in the garden. I have found that to be true and I have settled on ordering from two seed houses this year: RH Shumway and Johnny’s Selected Seeds

I am thinking of breaking away from my preference for open-pollinated seeds (that I can save and plant next year) and ordering the F1 hybrid cabbage ‘Ruby Perfection’ from Johnny’s. This Maine nursery is not only highly rated by experts, but it arrogantly publishes the germination rate of its seeds. Red cabbage struggles in my clay soil and this one is said to mature just as summer begins, a good thing in my Southern garden. I imagine the beginning of summer is different in Maine, but this is all still imaginary anyway. I have settled, I think, on two heirloom tomato cultivars, ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Brandywine’. The first, Johnny’s says, is great for processing; the second, a slicer, is supposed to grow to a pound or more and is “rich, loud and distinctively spicy.” Three superlatives are nothing in the seed catalogue world where extravagant praise is the norm.

From RH Shumway I am considering ‘Early Copenhagen Market’ cabbage with heads that are “uniform, solid and superb.” See what I mean? And I will likely order an old favorite, ‘Goliath’ broccoli, that has not been in the trade for a while and is said, somewhat redundantly, to bear very large heads. I will try ‘Cheddar’ cauliflower because I like the yellow color, even though it is pretty indifferent to my attentions. I harvest about one small head for every four plants I put in. But January is the month of hope. And Shumway, a seed supplier since 1870, tells me this cauliflower is “packed with almost as much beta carotene as carrots” and that its flavor is fantastic and the “texture guarantees gourmet enjoyment.” So there.

The Moon. It Touches our Imaginations, but Can it Help a Gardener?

“Drink in the moon as though you might die of thirst.”― Sanober Khan

In earlier times many sophisticated societies such as the Greeks, the Romans and Native Americans considered the Moon central to their lives. They lived by a Moon Calendar — not the Gregorian Calendar we use today. The full Moon tomorrow night, our January Moon, was called the Full Wolf Moon by Native Americans because in this lean month, starving wolves howled around their villages. The hungry wolf along with the grim reaper are common images in our folk lore, representations of how bad things can get when food runs low. If starvation was the penalty for bad gardening, it is easy to see why our ancestors reached for the Moon as an ally.

Some of the best modern gardeners I know engage in the practice of Moon gardening. I have promised myself from time to time that I’ll try it. I haven’t yet for several reasons. First, critics grumble that there is no scientific evidence to support it. I would pity anyone trying to apply the scientific method to a garden; every year is so different. There is invariably an early killing frost, a tree-bud-destroying heat wave or some other variant that gardeners live with day after day, year after year.

There is also a long history of mistaken beliefs about the Moon. For example, the idea that the Moon causes insanity has been thoroughly debunked. Over 2000 years ago, Roman agricultural writer, Varro, wrote a lively and interesting treatise on country life, Res Rusticaes; but, unversed in genetics, he advises that cutting hair during a waxing Moon creates balding.

And my last reason for not yet gardening by the Moon, is simply that my life sometimes conflicts with the lunar planting calendar. Out of town for even a long weekend, I’ll miss a lunar window; or, unable to walk on my clay soil after many days of rain, I plant when I can.

On the positive side, and it is a big positive, gardening by the Moon connects us to the heavens. “We need emotional content….Don’t think, feel. It is a like a finger pointing the way to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Bruce Lee Enter the Dragon. Life seems awfully short to miss any heavenly glory we might find in a garden.

And what about the connection plants might have with the moon? Humans do not have an exclusive claim on emotions; animals have rich emotional lives and I believe plants do too. Plants are sentient beings…I think so anyway, and I’ll post at length on that subject one day. But sentience aside, a powerful reason to believe that plants and the moon have a sophisticated and complex relationship is that plants have been around for 450 million years. We, “modern” humans, have been around for arguably about 200,000 years. Humans feel the mystery and magic of the Moon and we should at least entertain the idea that there are mysteries and magic going on between plants and the Moon that are beyond our comprehension.

In the end though, magical thinking is not necessary for Moon gardening; the practice has been boiled down to some very practical observations.

I am supposed to plant root crops from the day after tomorrow’s full Moon to the day before the new Moon on the 27th. This is lucky advice since I have carrot and beet seeds I had already planned to plant directly in the garden this week. The carrot seeds were purchased, I am sorry to say, from the grocery store rack (such a busy Christmas this year); the beet seeds are left over from the spring when I ordered from my favorite seed house, Johnny’s Seeds. I read that the gravitation pull is high during the full moon, creating more moisture in the soil; further, that when the moonlight is decreasing over the next two weeks, energy will flood the plant roots. This is a happy idea since root vegetables struggle in my clay soil.

Above ground crops should be planted after the new Moon. I am advised to plant such flowers and vegetables when the Moon is waxing. I have spinach, lettuce and snapdragon seed that I was planning to germinate in my kitchen this week. But the Moon will be waning beginning tomorrow; and I should wait and plant these seeds following the dark nights after the new Moon. When the Moon is new it is in line with the Sun and Earth and the gravitational pull of the Moon is at its height. The lunar gravity pulls water up and will, theoretically cause my little spinach, lettuce and snapdragon seeds to swell and burst. My problem is that January 27th, the date of the next new Moon, is a little late to start spinach and lettuce seeds. Of course, December would have been a better month to get the process started; and I have to laugh thinking of getting out the potting soil and seeds two days after Christmas, just before the new year celebrations.  Food shortages much less starvation is not an issue for us in our privileged world, but I imagine Moon gardeners in the past got their seeds going during their winter celebrations without a lot of complaining and hand-wringing.

The above and below ground instructions and many other more complicated concepts on Moon gardening are available in hundreds of books and on dozens of websites. Nifty apps for your phone remind you when to plant what.

Skeptics explain that Moon gardening works because it forces gardeners to plan ahead, to order early from a highly-rated seed producer instead of grabbing seeds off the rack at the grocery store. Moon gardeners are tuned in and think carefully about timing and that produces good results. Skeptics also suggest that if I have a really good crop this year, I may be enjoying the pleasures of Confirmation Bias. When a superstition interfaces with careful and attentive gardening or studying hard for a test or hours of practice before an important game, we see success. Confirmation Bias runs through our lives like a comforting song. We can relate success not only to hard work but to some token like a rabbit’s foot or some special routine or to the Moon. I am a lover of skepticism, but I am skeptical that Moon gardening is a superstition.

Even the New York times writes seriously, if not uncritically, about the practice. “Moon planters believe that the same gravitational force that pulls the tides, the same cosmic rhythms that draw a horseshoe crab ashore to mate, also cause crops, especially those that bear above ground, to leap right out of the earth. And conversely, when the moon is on the wane and its light and gravitational pull are on the decrease, the earth’s gravity kicks in again, and roots burrow happily into the ground.”

While staring at the almost full Moon last night, it occurred to me that Moon gardening will lead to a relationship with the Moon. I would have to keep track of it; its movements will pop up on my phone. I think it would not be so bad to have the movements of a heavenly body pop up on my phone; to have a heavenly body in my day to day consciousness. I like the idea that when the new Moon comes around in a few weeks, it will raise the tides, millions of gallons of water; but it might also raise the water in the soil containers on my kitchen counter and bring the little seeds there to life.






Yaks, Fiber and Matresses

So many fibers. And all with a story. Cotton, of course, so cozy, so comfortable but burdened by its history of human suffering. Silk, made by worms, luminescent, beloved by royalty for thousands of years. Wool. Europeans and sheep breeders all over the world have worked to make wool that sits like gossamer on our skin. They succeeded too. But you have to pay the price. There is no forgetting the ubiquitous acrylics and polyesters. They are petroleum based, made from trees and plants that sank into the earth millions of years ago and with time, compression and heat produced the black gold that powers our lives. The venerable linen, made from flax, a plant that was spun, dyed and knotted by humans living in Southern Russia 30,000 years ago. That is not a typo; apparently even 30 millennia into the past, humans have wanted cute things to wear.

There is Angora from rabbits, cashmere from goats, but today’s story is about fiber from the Yak.

Yaks are beautiful animals, important to the nomadic herders of Tibet producing the majority of their needs as did the Buffalo for the Native Americans. Only recently, the soft undercoat shed by baby Yaks was discovered to be a source of high-end fiber now made into clothing, bedding and yarns.

Italian fiber artist, Paola Vanzo spent 20 years working with the nomadic herders of the Tibet. She and her company use small artisan mills in Italy to process the Yak fibers from Tibet.  Paola’s yarn, pictured here, is available at a wonderful Texas yarn shop where all products are highly curated—meaning sourced from suppliers who care about water, animals and the human beings who originate the fibers used.

The Tibetan herders are paid much-needed cash for the fibers shed by the baby Yaks and Paolo believes she is helping build a future for one of the world’s most ancient ways of life. The Yaks currently supply their human herders with very rich milk, horn, hair for tents, ropes, rugs and meat said to be of incomparable quality. As my readers may know, I believe domesticated animals adopted humans and not the other way around. The Covenant of the Wild, Why Animals Chose Domestication, Stephen Budiansky. I assume a Yak would have no better luck surviving the wild plains of Tibet than my little cow would have if she were loosed to fend for herself. But such an extreme interdependence between one animal and humans is hard to picture–for one’s life to revolve around one thing and to use every part of that thing is waste management at its zenith. Paola finds that after processing the baby Yak hair in Italy, she has a high percentage of waste product. She sends it back to Tibet. The Tibetans use it to stuff mattresses.

How would we even begin. To use everything we have, then use the waste.


Seasoning the Garden with Poetry

The animals, trees, insects, winter-garden plants, soil and all microbiotic life are oblivious our calendar changing next week to 2017. And correctly so–the change is a human convention with flaws that sophisticated use of math and astronomy can’t help. The Mayans, the Egyptians and pretty much every human civilization have resorted to the use of extra days or months every few years to sync their calendars with the Earth’s rotation and orbit around the Sun.

We start 2017 with the leap year behind us; we start with the adjustment made for the imperfect 365 days in our calendar. The 365.25 rotations of the Earth as it circles the sun ends each year with about a quarter of the final day still “on the books.” Until this past February we had been slowly moving out of sync with our seasons, out of sync with reality.

And in our hurry scurry lives, we are unlikely to consciously perceive this quarter of a day difference in the seasons. In the New Year, I intend to pay much more attention to the seasons and to play with them a bit. I am inspired by the ancient Japanese who named an astonishing 72 seasons in their year.

If we were living in Japan several centuries ago, the season of “self heal sprouts” would be just behind us and we would be in the season of  “deer shed antlers.” Looking forward we would have the season of “wheat sprouts under snow”, “parsley flourishes” and “pheasants start to call.” The ancient Japanese got their list from China and revised it to conform to their climate and geography. I plan to take this idea and start a list of 36 “seasons” that conform to my little world.

I am challenged by giving the number four another look. Worldwide the word, season, is flexible indeed; they have six seasons in parts of India and Australia. Two seasons, wet and dry, function well in many places, primarily near the equator.

My challenge will be to not name my seasons after the negative things I encounter in the natural world, such as, “the descent of the stink bugs” or “the fire ants cometh” or “the invasion of the prairie grasses”. Not a single one of the 72 Japanese seasons has a negative name. The link above lists them all if you are skeptical that gardeners can break a year into 5-day seasons without any whining. I will try to publish my list of “seasons” in January of 2018. To follow the example set by the ancient Japanese I must look more mindfully into the positive and the beautiful. I am doubtful that I can touch the poetry of the ancient Asian gardeners, but I think it will be fun to try.






Bees-Part 2

I had planned to use bees as a springboard to talk about human excess and then I had to laugh at myself when I read the final sentence of last week’s post expressing my desire for more, more, more honey.

Photo by Laurie Chessmore

We have much in common with bees; they, too, indulge in excess. They will overcrowd a hive until it is intolerable, at which point many of the bees leave looking for a new place to live. They apparently do not consider living within the means of the hive or ceasing to make new babies. Like humans. Many scientists and other imaginative people now puzzle how to leave Earth to populate Mars or other planets. Books, movies and TV routinely tell stories about humans escaping an overcrowded, ravaged Earth. At the same time, we stand by while 40% or more of our bee population dies annually to produce our food.

Bees have been around much longer than humans, 150 million years more or less, but they share with humans and with cockroaches and sharks, the ability to survive disaster and to adapt. When all the flowers and trees died during desertification in an area, they moved, when glaciers moved into tropical Europe, bees moved. Some bees adapted to cold weather, others to hot weather. They traveled the globe as opportunists, changing as necessary to fit the climate, the water supply and the food sources Like humans.

Photo by Laurie Chessmore

Historically, we love bees. Napoleon made the bee a national symbol, the bee as a metaphor for human society crops up in Aristotle, Plato, Virgil, Shakespeare; ancient Greek and Hindu writings imagined honey on human lips as a conduit to eloquence; the Quran includes a chapter entitled, “The Bee”; bees signified immortality and were used by royalty of ancient Italian houses and the Franks.

Now we are working honey bees to death and poisoning them.

The annual honey bee loss is called Colony Collapse Disorder is reputed to have unknown causes. These losses are considered business as usual; just another part of American agriculture on a grand scale. Commercial honey bees lead grinding miserable lives; they are raised in factory farms to make up for the losses, then loaded onto trucks and used for pollination again and again. In conjunction with wild bees, these traveling honey bees pollinate about 80% of U.S. crops—value: $40 billion annually.

For almonds alone, more than a million bee boxes ship into California from all over the country on thousands of trucks. Other bees travel by truck to pollinate cherry, plum, avocado and apple trees; alfalfa, sunflowers, squashes, citrus, cranberries and blueberries– countless vegetables.

The migratory practice shown in the picture guarantees the spread of viruses, mites and fungi between the hives; using the bees on a single crop limits their nutrition needs and exposes the bees to a wide variety of pesticides. The traveling bees have abnormal gland sizes, lowered protein in their heads, low lipid content in their abdomens and a high mortality of older bees.

A study has found 35 pesticides and fungicides, some at lethal doses, in the pollen collected from bees that were used to pollinate food crops in five U.S. states. The British have linked neonicotinoid pesticide use and honeybee colony collapse. Neonicotinoid pesticides are banned in Europe but used widely here although these chemicals are highly toxic and will kill bees even in tiny amounts. Many of the plants at my Home Depot are marked as treated with neonicotinoids, which would, if I bought them, be a danger to my bees.

So a mortality rate of 40% or more of honey bees each year is not really very mysterious. This death and misery is to produce our fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains; 30% to 40% of this food harvest is not consumed, but becomes food waste and ends up in the garbage dump.

Human excess. You can’t make this stuff up.


Bees– Part 1

Until about a year ago, when I thought “bee”, I thought “honey bee”. I had no idea North American bees did all the pollination on this continent until the Europeans arrived with honey bees, nor did I know honey bees aren’t very good at pollinating tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkins and watermelons, blueberries and cranberries, also natives. Native bees live in the ground, in logs and swamps; the majority are solitary. When I wrote in my earlier post, The Living Soil, that walking on the earth was walking on many forms of underground life, I had not thought about bees, who drill down and feed their babies in underground tunnels.

Of course, native bees are stressed by plowing, clear-cut logging and draining swamps. Along with their cousins, the honey bees, they suffer from toxic chemicals. Honey bees also currently endure disease and overwork when they are loaded on to trucks to provide pollination to big corporate farms–a discussion saved for Part 2, next week.

This week, I have to confess that my attempts to keep honey bees have not been a great success. Even though humans have been keeping bees for over 20,000 years, I have no feel for them, no instinct for their needs. I think I have more in insight into the needs of handful of dirt than a bee. After losing several hives, I now have a beekeeper, Tara Chapman

Tara said this past week that my current hive is very vigorous and the bees have plenty of honey for the winter, but none to harvest. In October, she casually handed me four full frames, I stood each frame in a bowl, cut through the wax honeywith a butter knife and waited for the honey to flow out. Then I strained it (large strainer to leave in the pollen) and put the “raw” unfiltered, unheated honey in jars. Lovely. A gallon and a half.

Tara attends to the bees in jeans and a flannel shirt with her bee hat and gloves. The bees circle her benignly. It’s fun to watch someone Who Knows What They are Doing. You can see her pulling a frame from the hive here that is covered with bees. tara-with-full-frame

Do not imagine that I recommend anything other than a full bee suit for going into a hive. The favorite bee here and in Europe has been the Italian bee, docile and a producer over a long season. I have seen people caring for Italian bees in shorts. But in the 1980’s the tracheal and varroa mites began to decimate the bee population. That issue for me is mitigated by buying my bees from  BeeWeaver Apiaries, based in Texas. In the 1990’s BeeWeaver found their bee stock had been significantly affected by African bees, who were able to fend off these terrible mites. The trade-off was that the “africanized” bees repel mites who come into their hive, but also humans who do so. BeeWeaver and other apiaries are breeding for a gentle bee that repels mites.

I have found that unless someone is going into their hive, my bees are perfectly good farm residents. Before I got my full bee suit, I was stung on several occasions going into the hive and did not find it to be a big deal; fire ant stings are much worse. My goals now are, first, to learn enough to be able to go comfortably into the hives and understand what I am looking at. Second, Tara and I have agreed that I have space for two more hives and she will set those up in the spring. If I have multiple hives I have to mark each with a symbol or paint each a different color so the bees will not mistake their home hive. I imagine pink and blue and yellow hives; maybe green. Carribean colors. And honey, I imagine lots of honey.

Note: Here is the website of a neighbor, very interesting and informative:

Winter is Coming


Putting plants in the garden in September for winter harvest seems crazy. What seems natural and right is to put down mulch and put the garden tools away, then sit in the warm house, read or sew or knit or play music or otherwise party until spring. Fortunately, there is a string of celebrations that last all winter

I suppose my European roots are showing. My Texas grandmother only put in one garden a year. Her summer vegetables wound up in canning jars on the shelves of her pantry: corn, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, green beans, tiny little potatoes and more. Only she would have had the patience to scrape all those new potatoes; we put them in what I know now is called bechamel sauce–we called it white gravy of course. Her maiden name, Henderson, is Scottish and my grandfather’s name, Miller, English/Welsh. He used the pronoun “he” for his grandaughters, a subject of some disapproval by city folk; but it turns out that “she” in Welsh is spelled “hi” and pronounced “he”. Old language and traditions stick, including the idea that planting one garden a year is quite enough.

Red Cabbage

I have grown three winter gardens since I came back home to Texas from the North, and if I had to choose, I might give up summer gardening in favor of winter. My Brassicas: cabbages, cauliflower,broccoli and brussel sprouts survived a hard freeze of 27 degrees last week.

Why go to the trouble? Why is right. 

Characters in need of food pull them from their gardens in movies like Dr. Zhivago and Little Women and the Cranford series on BBC. But all the Brassicas are available, even organic ones, for only a few dollars at the grocery store. So there is no need. Most children are indifferent at best to these vegetables and it’s hard to convert adults to the taste, if they are not already a fan. No amount of bacon or cheese will help either. But I like seeing the cabbage get round and heavy, watch the cauliflower turn into a beautiful white lumpy thing—not a flower at all; it’s broccoli that will flower fast if you don’t keep an eye on it.

It’s fun. Not party fun; but it’s like looking into a fire for hours or looking at the moon rise. Deep in our hard wiring, or at least mine, is great gratification at watching a tiny seed produce these beautiful plants.


My beekeeper is here in a couple of days and I’ll try to make a movie for my post next week. I am hoping she will let me harvest some honey, but I know her priority is the bees and whether or not they have enough honey to last them over the cold months ahead.

Winter is Coming.


Giving Thanks

We’ll sit down at our feasts tomorrow inspired by the First Thanksgiving in 1621.

The Pilgrims landed in November of 1620. Half died of disease and starvation before the famous harvest of 1621. They were likely joined by thanksgivingthe Native American tribe, the Wampanoag. This tribe had been infected by the bacteria, leptospirosis when European ships had visited in 1616. This disease, thought at various times to be typhus or small pox, killed 90% of the Wampanoag people by 1619. A microbe. Invisible to the human eye. The most horrible, horriblest-ever human invader would stare in amazement at such a death rate.

These grieving people gave thanks and, no matter how much controversy swirls among historians of the “real” truth of the event, we should hold the idea of peace between diverse peoples and thanks born of suffering as sacred. Worth remembering and celebrating after hundreds of years.

My personal thanksgiving goes out to the Native American who planted my 300 year old tree mott..The huge Live Oak has an Elm tree in its center. I understand that the Native Americans planted these trees together. It is horticultural genius, since the shallow roots of the Live Oak are held in place by the deep roots of the Elm, and the tall and brittle trunk of the Elm is protected from our sometimes ferocious winds by the Oak. After a storm, giant Live Oaks will be lying on the ground throughout my neighborhood, their roots exposed; and not 50 feet from my front door a 60-foot Elm (not protected by its own Oak) cracked in half last year during a terrible spring wind.

Comanche woman
Comanche woman

Back in the 1800’s a the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes lived near my home.

The Comanches had come tearing down from the Pacific Northwest, drove most of the Apaches out of the Southwest and were putting pressure from the west on the Tonkawa by the 1800’s. The Tonkawa, called the “original people of Texas”, were pressured at the same time from the east by the white settlers. But some skilled horticulturist from one of these tribes likely planted my combination tree.

Of course, hunting and meat eating were important to the Native Americans, but both the Comanches and the Tonkawa commonly ate corn; roots like potatoes, prairie turnips and onions; vegetables such as spinach; and also wild berries and fruits.

Colin Tudge and other scientists believe that agriculture began after the last Ice Age. Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers:

Tonkowan John Rush Buffalo
Tonkowan John Rush Buffalo

How Agriculture Really Began, Tudge. That is another post, but the idea is that, although remaining on the move, ‘hunter-gatherers’ had sites where they promulgated and cared for plants and trees. It is not hard for the Plantswoman to believe that people who could drive Mastodons over cliffs or shoot Buffalo from horseback were horticultural experts who could gather some seeds from a favorite herb and plant it or, when digging onions, notice that the clumps made up of many tiny onions could be divided and planted for gathering the following year. It is likely they cared for fruit groves, cleaning them up, propagating new starts. Easy stuff compared to tanning a hide and sewing beautiful clothing with a bone needle.

In any case, it is not only the horticultural expertise of the Native American who planted my tree mott that I admire. I am amazed, humbled at his or her long view. This person was creating shade, not for his or her generation, but for generations a hundred and more years away. Oak and Elm are slow growers, planted for great grandchildren. The tree mott may have been 10 feet tall in by the late 1800’s when the American army ‘relocated’ the Comanches and Tonkawans to Oklahoma. Now it’s 50+ feet tall and my grasses, microbes, chickens, sheep, and I seek the shade of this tree on hot days. And we give thanks.



Chickens, Dinosaurs, Why I have a Rooster

First, while I have made it clear that I believe non-humans can be sentient beings, I don’t really think mushrooms are on the intimg_0761ernet.   img_0763 But last Wedimg_0762nesday right after I published the mycelium essay, dozens of mushrooms popped up everywhere. The three photographs here were all of different kinds and there were more, many more! I assume they are on the mycelium network. Which leads to the issue of plowing; whether it is better to break up the mycelium or leave it in tact. I had several lively responses about plowing and about the joys of turning the earth. I rode with my Grandad on his tractor mile after mile under a little canopy with big jugs of cool water to drink when we got hot and thirsty. It was a great pleasure. But Edward Faulkner in his 1943 book, Plowman’s Folly, set off what has been called an agricultural bombshell blaming the plow for the Dustbowl and the destruction of soil in general. My grandfather, in the prime of his life in the 1940’s would have considered Faulkner’s ideas great nonsense. One day something is not only a fact, but part of the fabric of your life. Next day or year or decade we’d best be ready to open our minds. As we had to do with chickens.

In the 1990s, dinosaur fossils were excavated in China with plumage, quills and……… well, feathers! So it turns out that birds of today descended from theropods, two-legged dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptors.

I was floored by this idea until I started keeping chickens and their exalted lineage is pretty obvious. They really think this farm is run entirely for their benefit. Not that they don’t work hard all day long, searching out bugs and heaven only knows what else. They are omnivores, and like us, and eat almost anything.

Despite the activity, I am getting very few eggs because we are in the dark days of the Solstice. They will begin laying in earnest again when the days get longer in January. I could rig up auto lighting to trick them into thinking spring was on its way but it sounds like a lot of work and some part of me does not approve even though it is considered a fine idea by many chicken people.

My rooster and his coterie of 7 hens remind me of some colorful 18th century court with their beautiful feathers and chatty ways. calico-and-his-hensThey have much to say to each other. There are two hens who are loners and don’t travel with the rest. This is typical of any flock and it is accepted that the best hens are the hens who flock together with the rooster, but I have great sympathy for my two hens who prefer their solitude.

My rooster, The Calico Kid is of course noisy and his romantic demands are seen as somewhat over enthusiastic by some of the hens. Still, he will find a treat, a big worm or something and instead of gobbling it down, he calls his hens over to share. I have a family of hawks in my big trees; there must be half a dozen circling on some days. The Calico Kid has big spurs and if the hawks dive he spreads his wings and stares them down.

He is not really necessary since the hens can find their own bugs and my Great Pyrenees dog loves to chase the hawks. But the Kid is so beautiful. Gertrude Jekyll, a much revercalico-kided gardening writer in the late 19th century created dazzling gardens and she would agonize over allocating space to one plant or another. She was drawn as we all are to some sturdy plant with a long season of bloom. But, if a plant was supremely beautiful, she gave it space no matter how much care it needed and how short its bloom period. So the Kid gets space on our little farm because he is supremely beautiful.

Our Living Soil

“When you thrust a shovel into the soil or tear off a piece of coral, you are, godlike, cutting through an entire world.” Edward O. Wilson

Good soil is alive, a small pail of soil has more microscopic organisms than there are people on earth. For the gardener the most magical of these tiny organisms is mycelium—fungus.

paula-flynn-iowa-state-universityFungal mycellium is a web. It is called “the neurological network of nature”. It is believed that behaves like a “sentient membrane” channeling information about nutrients and disease across a garden, across a prairie, across miles of forestland. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets. I’ll say it again and again, it is clear humans do not have a corner on the sentience market. Stamets’ book is a rocking good read, and in addition to his theories on the communication skills of underground mycellium, the book contains a thorough description of the many forms of fungus that appear above ground: mushrooms, the poisonous, the hallucinogenic, the edible.

Two things are necessary to encourage mycellium in the garden where it protects plants from disease and helps them take up nutrients. The first is a practice of no-till gardening, the second is adding as much organic matter to the garden as you can get your hands on.

No-till gardening is far from an accepted practice. I am pretty sure that the spade, the rototiller, the plow break up the mycelium networks that protect plants from disease and assist plants in the uptake of nutrients. Edward H. Faulkner shocked the farm and garden world in his 1943 book, Plowman’s Folly, arguing, in his charming sort of grumpy writing style, that “no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.”

It seems logical that friable, loose earth would allow roots to spread evenly and to proliferate, and short term, this is indeed the case. But in the long term, tillage has a disastrous effect on fungi as it physically breaks up the mycellium network.

I have dutifully plant my garden to avoid disturbing the mycelium. But gardening is not all smooth sailing. I recently planted garlic in a 4×8 foot raised bed making small holes for each clove. My guardian dogs, given access to the garden for the benefits of their predator scent, have now converted this little area to a kind of dog lounge with their big paws, digging as deep as a foot within the cedar planks that surround the “garden” bed. dogs-in-gardenI explained to the dogs that they had torn up my mycelium that helps decompose organic matter; that the mycelium improves soil structure and has a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, called mycorrhizae. I went on to tell them that many kinds of plants require mycorrhizae in order to absorb the nutrients they need for healthy growth. These relationships between fungi and plant roots have developed over MILLIONS of years. The dogs were indifferent to all this science and very proud of their new doggie lounge.

Setbacks aside (the dear dogs are up all night these days driving away foxes, coyotes, cats, raccoons, skunks and heaven knows what else; all born in the spring and present now in my little canyon in great numbers) it is the time of year to add organic matter to the garden so it can decompose over the winter and the hot summer days ahead. This can also be called ‘making compost’. I. I layer the summer waste: melon vines, tomato greenery and grapevine leaves with cow and sheep manure, hay and soil from the stock pen. This creates a little mound about 2 feet tall and 3 feet across. Next September, I’ll rake it out and have a lovely planting space for my 2017 winter garden. Composting always sounds complicated, huge piles, turned by a tractor, measured by a giant thermometer. Or expensive, purchased at nearby nurseries. But it can just be making a layer cake of what’s on hand and being patient. The mycelium love my little garden layer cakes of organic materials. I can tell since small mushrooms (nonedible) tell me so by sprouting up all over the place.