Monday, July 16, 2012

Tidal Beds

Low Tide

Back in March, I briefly referenced sunken garden beds, and just the other day I railed against the false wisdom of raised beds. The more I think about it, the more it seems like the garden wisdom takes a while to play out, and favors an oscillation, an ebb and flow, rather than zealous favoring of one level or another.

If you read the raised bed rant, you may have figured out that many of the problems stem from inflexibility: the unchanging, unyielding perimeter with a static elevation. Horizontal extent of a garden bed may be constrained by your available space, but still the bed (or at least the weeded portion thereof) should be able to grow over the summer, and perhaps retreat during winter.

Rising Tide
You can play around with elevation a lot more, though. Some plants like to be in mounds to begin with. You've heard of a 'hill of beans," right? My cukes start out in ringed hills worthy of Celtic chieftans. Then of course there are the potatoes and other plants that benefit from having more and more soil piled up around them as the season progresses. Meanwhile, blueberries and mints like the low wet ground, sopping up whatever water runs from the hills. Within a given bed, highs and lows occur across space and through time.

This attitude is especially well suited to my local soil, which is a fairly sandy loam borne of glacial retreat. It's easy to work. I dig out lawn and sculpt to the levels I want. Or give the bed a tilt. Banking a bed high to the north and low to the south creates a small advantage to crops in northern climes, bringing the ground a bit closer to perpendicular to the lines of photons coming from the sun, fooling seeds and starts into thinking they're a few weeks closer to summer. The same aspect that makes Washington's Columbia wines more famous than Oregon's--a southerly slope to the river--can be replicated on a small scale in my yard with just a shovel and garden rake.

The plants themselves add to the effect, and so planning is important. Put the raspberries and pole beans to the north, and work your way down to the ground-huggers at the south. A big plant at the south snags the photons, relegating anything north to a dank dark pit. Fine if you want ginseng and miners lettuce, but not so good for your garden variety plants. Knowing how early and how fast things grow matters, too; you can plant greens that rise early or late in the shadow of a mid-summer monster, since the don't much care for solstitial high noons anyway. Knowing when and how quickly each plant will grow and fade allows a gardener to overlap to a degree, getting more out of every inch of garden space.

Any one variety of plant ebbs and flows, and likes to be high and drained or low and sodden. Your whole bed may start small and grow over summer, flooding south, toward that that photosynthetic sunbilical, only to retreat again. I use this knowledge to be a little lazier, dispensing first with those heavy, labor intensive (and pestiferous, don't forget) walls. I may be still digging bigger well after the solstice if some plant or transplant could use the ground; no need to cram a Summer's worth of work in March. Go with the flow.

And don't fight the flow. Why would you want boards or bricks or railroad ties blocking your garden's roots? A single-level bed works fine for a monoculture, but not much more. Roto-tilling a big bed for a few tiny starts and seeds invites a flood of weeds. A rectangle of introduced 'soil' intensively cultivated, watered, and fertilized year after year is great, if your aim is to create pest habitat.

Summer's tide pulls high only once a year. Long northern days feed photons aplenty to the plants that ride this one big wave. Growth crests, and drops off when the clouds show up or the days just get too short. It's a good ride, and sooner than you'd like you slide into Winter, where there's time to reflect and maybe even think ahead.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Riposte Repost, or A Lamentation about Consumeration*

The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money
from "White Man in the Hammersmith Palais" by Joe Strummer

The clogged blogosphere of foodies, locavores, urban homesteaders, DIYers, and OTHers** renders my offerings invisible. I could try to gain a wider audience by joining the pinterested, or by linking to one of the other sites that aggregates such blogs, but I am too lazy and egotistical, not to mention dis-inclined. The ramps to fame, or at least garnering large numbers of eyeballs, prove too steep for my shiftless self. Make a logo, develop a not-off-the-shelf design, pay for a domain, suck up to corporations so they'll give me some swag to review or re-gift, and most dangerous of all, fall into the pond of self-deception, in which this platform can somehow become a revenue generator or a stepping stone to a book contract. 

Among my bookmarks is one such site, where people turn in their recipes, DIY tips, and so on. There's actually some useful stuff there, and I do check it out fairly regularly. The name of it is "Punk Domestics," which appealed to me before I really began to understand what it is. The name, which rings oxymoronic to begin with in my book (I grew up in a time and place where "domestics" were servants, usually darker than the, uh, dare I say, masters?), also fails to live up to anything like the spirit of punks, much less the "hardcore" ethos their blurb claims they embody. 

For starters, to submit anything, you're supposed to log in, get your ID, join the queue. And yes, submission is the name of the game, oddly enough, for any posting must comply with a list of rules. You are then encouraged to get a Punk Domestics "badge" to display on your blog, so you can funnel eyeballs to their site, which has a lot of ads, including irritating pop-ups that you have to click out of the way.

And it's not just ads. Entire blog posts are plugs. Like the William Sonomas give-away. A post waxes eloquent about how this upscale purveyor is embracing the DIY movement with darling canning jars and such, marketed as the "Agrarian" line. [Clever name, I will admit, harkening to a simpler time, a garden-ey feeling, and of course for the  baby boomers with fuzzy memories and their kids with vague historical understandings, it evokes the rhyming Aquarian age.] All you have to do to win it is drive up the site's numbers with comments, or post something on twitter or pinterest, whatever it takes to increase revenue at Punk Domestics, which just happens to admit that they've "done some copywriting for Williams-Sonoma, including for the Agrarian line." If you can stomach it, visit the offending link 

About 200 people fell in line to enter, and two won. I'd rather wallow in non-commercial, self-righteous, obscurity. Even if the readership consists mostly of myself, trying to recall how I made that meal or canned those things, it feels better than shilling for a company catering to privileged dilettantes. Those who have people to cook for them, and mostly only take it upon themselves when it will create a show. I'm more interested in food, basically.
* This post originally appeared at Mocavore.
** Other Things Homespun-ers

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Railing Against Raised Bed Orthodoxy

Earlier this year, I said something about un-raised beds. At the time, no allusions were made to the religious overtones--phoenix, messiah, or otherwise-- of the "raised" bed, and there will be no comment here other than to say I like the bumper sticker, rarely and courageously displayed in Born Again counties, that says "No thanks, I was born OK the first time."

Because today, sisteren and brotheren, let us instead turn our eyes to the earth, humble ourselves, and ask, "What do we when we pen our gardens in raised beds?" The answers speak to the soil, the people who would control it, and to their politics. That's right, this siblinglish English seeks not to sweet-talk your sacred center, it's after your political skin, the dermal you that touches the world, what everyone else is gonna see and feel.

In this physical plane, we can be good animals who adopt and adapt, or crazy ones who try to control, and end up starving. Not you personally (maybe), but the species at some point. When human populations reach a certain density, misery ensues on the coat-tails of a flea or a leader of men or maybe just a drought. 

Before the fall, we convince ourselves that we are smart enough to avoid the fate of the desertified Fertile Crescent and pauperized Aegean soils, or the overtaxed Yucatan and raped Rapanui palms. We thing that agriculture is better than nature, and never learn that as soon as we seek to select, to replace god or evolution with human intellect, things spin out of control, and one day land at a place where we humans are screwed if we cannot go elsewhere. Especially when we reach too far; take as an example the corporate American agricultural ideal: a single genetically-modified strain drilled into fumigated soil, fed aquifers, augmented with chemical feed and protection. What could go wrong?

All of which is my long-winded, overly-dramatic, tired-as-shit, fingers-doing-whatever-they-want on the keyboard way of saying that raised beds fool a lot of gardeners with promises of miracles that will one day be ground into the dirt.

Why would I besmirch the sterling reputation of the raised bed? People love 'em, and talk about getting great production, the ease (it's getting hard to concntrate here with a Cobain crazed jam going on).

By way of answer, this list of the characteristics of raised beds that you are not likely to see in the article with all those pretty pictures urging you to get out there and raise a bed (or better yet, buy one):
  • Use untreated wood, and you'll be repairing the thing every year. Seems like a waste of wood, unless you pulled it from a demolished building (in which case, watch out for the lead paint), which leads me to
  • Use treated wood, and you're putting your gardening taste (and quite possibly your desire to cut corners) above the health of the soil that you are asking to feed you. And, therefore, your health. This is especially troubling because
  • Most raised beds don't last more than a few seasons. I admit that this statement is not backed up with data here, but there are a lot of neglected, abandoned, and ultimately forgotten raised beds. 
  • When a raised bed dies, it often becomes a nursery for invasive weeds. They spread into the driveways and roadsides, and into neighbor's gardens. The un-tended raised bed often becomes a haven for weeds because
  • Very few people make raised beds using the native soil. Often as not, they dump "soil" that fails to meet the actual definition of soil, comprised hereabouts of composted wood and food, bearing no relation to the stuff under the grass in your yard. Even if it does not carry a crop of weed-seeds, it is just what the invasive weeds want. You know why a certain wine appellation or coffee estate can make genuine claim to excellence? It's the soil there, the delicate balance of microbes, worms, and arthropods that stir it up. That does not come in a dump-truck.
  • Speaking of arthropods, every time you install a rectangle of cinderblock or boards, you create ant havens. By way of thanks, they will repay you by opening aphid dairies on your plants, sucking honey shit from bugs sucking your plants dry. 
  • Not speaking of dry, those same boards and masonry create slug havens as well, and I'm assuming you know that that ain't good for a garden. IF slugs are a problem, it's good to lay a board down in the path and turn it over once in a while to dispatch a few slime-bellies, but don't build a freakin bed for them.
  • This idea of an unchanging perimeter is hardening, not gardening. My bedds ebb and floww with the seasons. As plants grow, I dig out more grass so they can expand. If you hill up potatoes in a raised bed, you either have to bring in more fake soil or pull it away from the edges, which end up being pointless free-standing walls.
  • Not only is changing the size of a raised bed difficult, so too is moving the damn thing when the neighbor's tree grows and puts the original location in shadow.
  • ...  
There are plenty more reasons, but it's late and even though the music is done I am getting no better at concentrating. If you are not convinced by now, you're probably not reading this far anyway. If you are, stay tuned, because next time I'll get back to the benefits of another approach to garden beds. Much better than that March post, I promise.