Saturday, April 9, 2011

back in the soil

I leaned against the side of my truck and let out a very long, very tired, sigh. In front of me on a slight incline was 32 square feet of future vegetables. Just beyond the bird-netting covered bed was one of Lisette's lambs, watching me through the field fence. I raised my water bottle to her and took a long swig, wishing silently it was either Guinness or coffee. I needed some sort of pat on the back. I had spent most of my Saturday constructing two 4x4ft raised beds out of scrap lumber on sale in the back of Home Depot. Before the cordless drill had the chance to meet any of the 2x4's I reenacted a passion play I have taken part in every year since I lived in Idaho: breaking sod. With my brand new hoe I pulled apart the earth and discovered black foam and earth worms enjoying last years fingerling potatoes I had missed in the harvest. I broke a sweat and broke in a new pair of gloves. When about ten inches of soil was loose and free of roots and rocks I filled a wheel barrel of year-old rabbit compost from the barn. It was covered in decayed hay that was stained with pigs blood. Shit and blood are horrible things, but to a gardener they are poetry. Left alone to think about what they have done, they decompress into a potion so rich and beautiful it literally creates new life. I mixed in the horrible with the raw earth and thought about the rabbits, Pig, and the months of story that go into a bed of lettuce. What a thing, this wooden box.

I covered the earth and compost with 6 cubic feet of organic, black, topsoil I bought in bags. I made five long rows of mounds and planted the seeds a half inches or so below the dark earth. How odd to be engaging in such an ancient practice with heirloom seeds I had ordered online. This really might be the greatest time in our history to start learning older country skills. Between the internet and our gusto we can learn or achieve just about anything we are stubborn enough to attempt.

So why the heirloom lettuce seeds instead of my usual 6-packs of started Buttercrisp and Romaine from the local greenhouses? Well, this year I am trying to plant things now are sustainable; meaning vegetables that if I saved the seeds this fall I could plant them again in the spring and so on and so forth into eternity. Few folks realize that 99.9% of the vegetables grown in America can't be grown again from their own seeds. They have been genetically engineered into a hybrid form that produces just one generation of outstanding product. So if you want a garden that can feed you for more than one season, you need to dig a little deeper and plant seeds saved by folks who kept the old breeds of vegetables alive. Is it just me or do you find it kinda creepy that most vegetables can't be replanted? I think potatoes with eyes might be one of the few things we save from the grocery store we can actually resurrect...

In my lettuce bed I planted varieties called Amish Deer Tongue, Bronze Arrowhead, Red Velvet, Susan's Red Bib, and Speckled Trout Back. You can't find these in Spring Mixes at the grocery store, but you might find them at your local farmer's market. Or you could grow them yourself if you have the inclination and a 4x4 spot in the backyard that gets good sunshine.

I bought the Heirloom Seed Collection from Seed Savers Exchange and planted all of them (save for the Crisp Mint). Tomorrow I'll fill the second bed with Danvers and Dragon carrots and potatoes I had let go to seed in my kitchen. Talk about practical! Salad greens, carrots, and potatoes so far. Early and hardy vegetables I can start from seed outdoors right in the soil. I want to plant not only heirlooms, but heirlooms I eat a lot of. Every time I roast a chicken (and I have a lot of chickens...) I place them on a bed of potatoes and carrots. And who doesn't have a thousand uses for salad greens? Not very sexy, but a good start to real food right here in the backyard. And as the weekend's progress I hope to plant many more raised beds.

It feels good to be back in the soil again. I missed it so much.


Blogger Casie said...

I've planted Amish Deer Tongue for the last two years. It's really a great lettuce and the very slow to bolt.

April 9, 2011 at 8:35 PM  
Blogger Diane said...

I potted up my various heirloom tomato seedlings this week (Amish paste tomatoes make awesome sauce). The greens I planted in pots in the little greenhouse last weekend started peeking up out of the soil today (so far, just pac choi and yokatta na. spinach and kale are still asleep). On the porch, there is a box from Fedco containing asparagus crowns, various berry bushes and three (hopefully) cold-hardy peach trees. But the main garden area is still under a bed of snow, so that will all have to wait.

April 9, 2011 at 9:00 PM  
Blogger Kitchen Mama said...

The big topic of conversation around here lately is how our big, once green, grassy yard is looking like, well, a chicken run. Because of course our lovely chickens have the run of the yard, and we have gigantic, bright orange-yoked eggs to show for it. However, my husband, daughter, and son are missing the lush landscape of pre-chickens. The obvious answer--for me at least--is to put in gardens (carefully protected from the girls, natch). Unfortunately, this would require my family taking care of the garden for the 6 weeks I'm gone in the summer.... Not going to happen.

You see where this is going, a stalemate until either I stop working in Alaska, they start gardening, or we move the chickens into a tiny part of the yard.

So, until (hopefully) the first or second option happens, I'm going to live vicariously through your lovely garden, pig blood and all.

April 9, 2011 at 9:03 PM  
Blogger countrygirl said...

Hey Jenna!
I know what you mean.I look forward to my garden every year.I am planting Cherokee Runner pole beans and some luffahs from seeds I saved last year.The tomatoes are from a friend who grew them from seed.
I have not had much luck with lettuce.It seems to bolt before I know it.
I seem to get quite carried away with my garden!

April 9, 2011 at 9:09 PM  
Blogger Kimberlie Ott said...

Our sod is turned, just waiting for a couple drier days so it isn't so compressed........oh I adore planting......all the lil starts from inside have been hardening off during the day :) It is sooooo wonderful to dream of veggies from that garden! Go Jenna!

April 9, 2011 at 9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to start my garden finally! My Dad and I are going to do raised beds, although we cannot dig down in like you described, since we have a layer of limestone about 5 inches down! It sounds like you had a fulfilling day.


April 9, 2011 at 9:53 PM  
Blogger CJ said...

I have a small roadside stand that I sell seedlings from. This year I decided to go half heirlooms (Seed Savers also) and half hybrids to see if there is any interest in the heirlooms. The heirlooms I chose where the bigger seeded varieties - tomatoes, peppers, melons, pumpkins, squash in addition to the other items I sell. I don't think I have the stamina for lettuce or carrot seed saving.

I am going to try sugar beets for seeds as I have big plans for the end product.

April 9, 2011 at 9:55 PM  
Blogger NancyDe said...

The Big Island is having so much rain, I am quite behind in my gardening. I do have things starting in the greenhouse, but the garden and parts of the farmyard are ankle deep in mud.

April 9, 2011 at 9:56 PM  
Blogger Tami said...

Amen! Yesterday was filled with ammending soil, transplanting and trying to save plants the hens feasted on, cleaning coops, tending to the blackberries, planting potatoes and garlic, playing in the compost pile and working on tearing apart the back deck (it's huge) in order to use the wood for future vegetable beds. Yesterday...yesterday consisted of yard work, playing a bit in the garden and jamming on the banjo on the front porch. This was the first time ever of stopping work, mid work, and just putzing around a bit on the banjo. It felt SO good.

April 9, 2011 at 10:18 PM  
Blogger E said...

I, too, want soil so fluffy that it could be called "black foam" ;)

April 9, 2011 at 10:28 PM  
Blogger Maria said...

I'm hoping to plant as much as I can in pots in my back yard this year. There is a UK outfit called Real Seeds which sells heirloom varieties. Crisp Mint and Bronze Arrowhead, yes, here I come

April 10, 2011 at 5:56 AM  
Blogger Phiddy said...

Are you using row covers or, cloches in case of late freezes or, frosts? I am just wondering what zone you are in?

April 10, 2011 at 6:21 AM  
Blogger doglady said...

At this point, half of my garden is still under snow but its coming. I have peat cells with heirloom tomatoes started along with a few other things. I agree that saving seed from heirloom plants is the way to go and I'm going to try it in the fall. I have read, but I can't tell you where, that planting grocery store potatoes will not give you what you're expecting and that it shouldn't be tried. All winter I've been dumping the contents of rabbit cage trays onto my garden. Will I get that lovely black soil this year? I sure hope so.

April 10, 2011 at 6:24 AM  
Blogger daisy g said...

It really warms the heart to grow your own. I am not always successful in my growing, but these things come with experience. Enjoy every tender leaf, every savory sweet bite that you have worked hard to nurture. Happy planting, Jenna!

April 10, 2011 at 6:37 AM  
Blogger City Sister said...

I love anything that I can grow tastes so much different from the picked green taste of store bought...We've planted lots of heirlooms this year and some that we saved from last year. Nothing like the history and frugality of it all.

April 10, 2011 at 8:24 AM  
Blogger Toni aka irishlas said...

Flashy Troutback is like velvet on the tongue. Pure heaven.

April 10, 2011 at 9:06 AM  
Blogger Tara said...

I'm with E. I wish I could break my ground with a hoe. :) That's so exciting. I've been working my butt off in the gardens trying to get everything in on time - I hope to get the last of it in today - beans, peppers, a few herbs and a few odds and ends I still have hanging around. I put in a drip irrigation system yesterday, and only wish I had done that two years ago!

Home grown lettuce is like nothing else, subtle, delicate and buttery! If anyone here finds themselves in a hot climate, I recommend Asian Red lettuce from Baker Creek. It's become my summer standby, as it's the very last one to give up the ghost and the last one to bolt and turn bitter. It also resists wilting in our extreme heat. Oh, and it's lovely!

April 10, 2011 at 9:09 AM  
Blogger Debi said...

Seedlings(mix of heirloom and conventional) are ready to go in the ground, but the phone company is taking it's own sweet time getting out here to mark it's lines....very frustrating! But, on the brighter side, we should be picking up our very first trio of chicks today! Soon I may actually be able to refer to myself as an urban farmer!

April 10, 2011 at 9:15 AM  
Blogger JenB said...

I love seeds savers and bought WAY too many seeds this year for our homestead. So far, I have had an amazing germination rate - which I never had with Burpee seeds. I am so excited about this year's harvest - and all the canning.

April 10, 2011 at 9:15 AM  
Blogger Janet said...

I was a young adult during the previous back to the land movement when hippies and communal living advocates arrived en masse in my province to get a stake in the very cheap land that was available here then. These folks for the most part were very well educated, but urban raised and most failed at their endeavour. I think more would have succeeded in these days of fast and easy spread of knowledge. The folks who were local were able to hang on and many are still out there on the land today and being joined by more and more - yeay! I think the time is right this time.
I know the feeling of planting and eating my own seed. Wish I were up for it now.

April 10, 2011 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig said...

Sounds like a great and productive day. We set posts for a garden fence keep the very destructive chickens OUT. And they now have their very own little yard...with a nice, high fence to keep them IN.

I had plans to start from heirloom seed this year...but ended up with pneumoina. So 6-packs it is...something is better than nothing.

As you write about dirt and compost and animal droppings I am once again amazed at how it all works together so perfectly.

April 10, 2011 at 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here in TN we are expecting our second 90-degree day in a row today. The lettuce I started is starting to think about bolting (already?!) except the Jericho, bred in the Middle East for its heat resistance. I haven't even had my first harvest! Oh, how I long for trout back!

My strawberry plant has almost more blooms than leaves this year, always a happy portent.

I have two 4x4 sections slowly breaking sod via the lasagna method for next spring's garden. This year I'm content with just containers again. My guinea pigs provide me loads of used hay for composing. They're so good about that.

April 10, 2011 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger KnitItBlack said...

It's finally both warm enough AND rain-free today here - I'm out to the garden, too. I've already planted onions and peas, but I need to get the parsnips, potatoes, turnips, and carrots in. And I need to get the fence back up - my dog has been digging in there, thankfully where nothing has been planted yet. It's a wonderful day for gardening! I buy all my heirloom seeds from - they're a great website with lots of varieties!

April 10, 2011 at 11:13 AM  
Blogger Tara said...

@localnourishment - I feel you! We're expected to top 90 again today. Boo.

April 10, 2011 at 11:31 AM  
Blogger Cindy said...

I miss my lovely raised beds! We've had so much rain here in the NW that I'm late getting the garden going. We've had very few breaks from the rain.

At least the chickens have helped make it a fertile area, since they spent the winter tilling and fertilizing it.

Here's my little garden so far:

April 10, 2011 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger Aaren said...

FYI: Heirlooms are great because they are diverse and usually taste better than commercial varieties. BUT-hybrids are not genetically engineered. They will produce viable seed that can be planted, but will revert to either parent and not look like the veg you grew the first year. Heirloom seed will cross pollinate with all other members of its family and will also not likely look like the veg you grew this year, unless you isolate it, keep it away from bees and other pollinators and/or cover it with row cover and hand pollinate with a paint brush.

April 10, 2011 at 2:00 PM  
Blogger Alix said...

We started 3 flats of soon-to-be-seedlings yesterday, in preparation for a late may/early june planting (the disadvantages of living so far up north!). This will be our second urban garden, and we're waiting anxiously to hear if we're getting a second plot at another location. Spring is slowly but surely coming!

April 10, 2011 at 2:02 PM  
Blogger homesprout said...

Lettuce? Plan on some row covers! It's a bit early for lettuce around here - mine is still in the greenhouse. Try peas...

April 10, 2011 at 3:53 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Just a what-for - I don't bother deliberately saving my lettuce seeds. When they bolt, I just let them self-seed. I've had Trout Back/Forellenschuss and Red Sails coming back now for about 5 years without fail. Of course, if you want to sow them deliberately in another site, you could save the seeds - or you could just transplant some of the zillions of seedlings that come up.

Also - although aged rabbit poo is fine, you don't *have* to compost it. It's just about the only poo that can be used immediately without burning plants or their roots. And that's a good thing, since the rabbits make SO MUCH OF IT! I just built a potato bed this weekend using rabbit manure....

April 10, 2011 at 9:41 PM  
Blogger Lydia said...

My husband could not believe I spent $50 on seeds for Seed Savers Exchange - then he read the history of the seeds (he's a history junkie) and got all excited. We are working on getting our raised bed done this week so we can finally get our peas in, my 5 varieties of tomatoes are sprouting under the grow lamp ... happy days!

April 11, 2011 at 9:23 AM  
Blogger Meredith said...

"This really might be the greatest time in our history to start learning older country skills."
WELL said, Jenna.

April 11, 2011 at 1:09 PM  
Blogger farmgirljen said...

When I read your lettuce varieties, it reminded me of my Seed Savers seeds from last year. This year's packets came in the mail a couple weeks ago and I'm itching to plant. One year, my husband and I went up to Decorah to visit SSE and I got in on the heirloom tomato tasting. Nirvana! This is when I say I'm lucky to live in Iowa and be so near such a great place as Seed Savers (if you call a 3+ hour drive "near").

April 11, 2011 at 9:16 PM  
Blogger Jay said...

Love SSE. I went together with some friends and we are planting a 50' by 35' garden this year! Can't wait.

April 12, 2011 at 11:07 AM  

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