13 September, 2012

In love with dirt, or: Becoming the Fungus Fairy

One of the amazing things about my life is the amazing people in it. Today I got a package of fungus spores from Bountiful Gardens (along with some seeds I had also ordered). These two things are intimately connected.

My friend Gowan, you see, is a Horticultural Oracle, and a great gift she has given me is to share her love of dirt.

Most of us don’t think to much about the dirt, really. It’s there, the plants grow in it and we walk on it, and some things burrow through it, but mostly we fail to appreciate that dirt is not a dead and inert mass of decayed organic matter and pulverized rock and whatever minerals are leached out of the rain. It’s a ginormous organism, teeming with life. Macro organisms like earthworms are there, sure, but also micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi, that work together with plants to make plants healthier and more efficient at extracting nutrients from soil and putting nutrients into soil. Beneath our feet are entire worlds.

Conventional farming kills these tiny, complex worlds. The plowing and harrowing and tilling break up the delicate networks of micorrhizae, expose tender bacteria to ultraviolet light from the sun and the drying air above ground. We plant our crops in soil impoverished by the death and destruction of the soil organisms, and as a result end up having to drench them in chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

So here I am with a back acre that was denuded of topsoil a decade or two ago by a rapacious former owner, goats and chickens to feed, and the excellent guidance of a Horticultural Oracle to lead me on my way. In hand I have packets of seeds — legumes, vetches, grasses — and packets of soil organisms. Also, I have a steady and reliable supply of chicken and goat manure, along with their used bedding, which is working on becoming compost (with help from the chickens themselves). But it would take a lot more compost than I’ve got to get the back acre turned from a desolate wasteland of thorny brush and invasive trash pines into good forage for the critters, hence the seeds and spores.

The goats have done a magnificent job of clearing away what dead growth there was and pruning back the pine trees until the plants that are there could get some sunshine. The chickens did some loosening of the soil surface but not enough, so I cheated and got my neighbor to run over the naked bits with his tiller just this once, so that my seeds and spores wouldn’t just slide off the compacted surface of the clay at the first rain. The chickens, helpfully, have been going over the tilled areas and breaking the big clumps of soil up, and also pooping and then tilling that into the soil for me, so there’s little pockets of plant nutrition here and there.

After this Saturday, the poor chickens will lose their liberty for a while. Hopefully I will sell off all the spare bantams, and then the chickens will be confined to quarters so that I can go traipsing through the tilled bits of the back acre, scattering seeds and spores and water without being followed by mob of ravenous feathery beasts intent on snarfing down my precious seeds. After that, it’s up to the seeds, the spores, and the good Lord’s inclination to give me lots of sunshine but just enough rain to germinate the little buggers. By springtime, it is entirely possible that the blighted back acre will be well on its way to an accelerated recovery of topsoil, helped along by the application of extra compost when available and deposits of used goat bedding and fallen leaves from the oak trees. With grace, the dead areas will turn green with clover and vetch and grasses and brassicas, and once the plant life is mature enough that it’s no longer primarily water, the goats and chickens will be turned loose to devour and turn the greenery into more compost, which will decay there on the dirt and provide food for yet more plants.

Some day, I may even be able to look back at that acre and see a pasture of amazing rich forage with nearly entirely recovered soil, and I won’t need to monitor it as religiously for a need for another application of seed or spores. All because Gowan shared with me a love of dirt.

14 April, 2010

Come squee with me, baby trees edition

The weather has been pretty good for baby trees lately. While I’m worried about the persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) that I planted, and the red mulberry (Morus rubra) that I planted last year is almost certainly dead, the baby pawpaws? They are growing like gangbusters. Also thriving are the trash pines (I really need to thin them) and the sassafras is doing spectactularly this year, for reals.

The main reason I have pawpaws is, let’s face it, the fact that when I was a wee girlchild my grandmother used to sing me a song:
Where oh where oh where is Andrea?
Where oh where oh where is Andrea?
Where oh where oh where is Andrea?
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!

Come on, girls, let’s go find her
Come on, girls, let’s go find her
Come on, girls, let’s go find her
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!

It’s got the same tune as “Ten Little Indians” and it’s the sort of repetitive song that little kids like to sing endlessly to drive their parents nuts but for me it is warm fuzzy memories of getting to spend the night with my grandmother.

And now, I have a pawpaw patch:
A shot of a clear space, with some tall oak trees in the near background.  There may, if you squint just right, be some saplings in there that are pawpaws.

All right, fine, they’re not huge yet, so here are some individual pictures. Please keep in mind that healthy leaves on a pawpaw look all floppy and wilted.
One:
A baby pawpaw tree, slightly out of focus and maybe 18 inches tall, but even with the poor photography you can see it is bravely putting out leaves and growing its little heart out.

Two:
This baby pawpaw tree, about a foot tall, is a straight stick crowned with a little clump of longish, floppy green leaves.  It looks like the tree equivalent of a muppet.

Three:
This baby pawpaw tree is shot from above and arches up toward the camera.  It is pretending to be a dead stick, but if you look down near the ground you can see it has put out two branches with brave little leaves on them.
That’s the one I planted last year, and it looks as if it’s opting for the “shrub” version of pawpaw growth patterns. I’m OK with that, just as long as it doesn’t die.

Then there’s the baby sassafras trees, which I deeply adore as their little leaf clusters look like green rose buds. Also you never know what kind of leaves you’re going to get from a sassafras tree, they come in solid, “mitten”, and trefoil shapes, often in the same leaf cluster. If you happen to bruise their leaves (which I try not to do on the babies) then the sweet smell of root beer wafts into the air. Before the link between safrole (the aromatic oil the tree produces) and liver cancer was discovered (although it is disputed by some), the roots of the sassafras tree where what gave Root Beer its name.

Here’s leaf clusters that haven’t opened yet, plus flowers, on an adult sassafras tree (only adult trees think about grown-up tree things like flowers):
A collection of branches against the sky.  The branches are studded with what look like green rosebuds, about 2 inches high and tightly furled.  At the base of these clusters are rings of little non-descript flowers.

Here’s a baby with just a single leaf cluster that’s just starting to open:
A leaf cluster, shot from above.  The center is still tightly furled into the faux-rosebud, but four leaves have opened enough to see that they're all the solid kind, shaped like an almond, sort of.

Here’s a slightly older baby sassafras, unfurling its leaves. You can see all three types of leaf in this particular cluster:
A cluster of six sassafras leaves.  The three outermost are all solid.  Two of the innermost are trefoil, with a largeish central point and two smaller points, one on each side.  The other inner leaf is a mitten shape, but you can't really tell because the photographer got a crappy angle.

Oh there we go, the photographer got her act together.  This is the same cluster of leaves, this time shot from above so you can see the mitten-shaped leaf more clearly.

Finally, I could not resist this gang of juvenile sassafras trees, all hanging out together. They’re probably skipping school or something:
Four adolescent sassafras trees hang out together.  They look, if it is possible for trees to have an expression, as if they are up to something shifty.

There’s a saying in the south, used to refer to land exhausted by farming or other maltreatment: too poor to grow sassafras. Sassafras grows anywhere, and is often the first tree to move in when land is clear-cut. If your land is too poor to grow sassafras, you are in deep trouble. So it gives me a little thrill to see that the back acre, though damaged and blighted, is at least not too poor to grow sassafras. Get on with your bad selves, little trees.

Oh and because a) I can’t possibly walk around my massive 2.5 acre property without a bodyguard and b) she needs the practice standing still while I take pictures, Zille came along. I think she had fun.
Zille, a sable German Shedder, smiles into the camera with bright eyes, ears up, and lolling tongue.

9 April, 2010

Someday I will breathe through my nose again.

It is definitely spring in Virginia. You can tell because everything that has been outside for more than two minutes has turned yellow under a thick coating of pollen. There’s flowers all over the place but mostly it’s the trees doing it. I have been living on Zyrtec for a month now, y’all, and am anxiously awaiting actual summer when the trees will stop with their airborne romance.

Speaking of trees, I have planted three more here at the Manor: two pawpaws (Asimina triloba) and one American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). One of the best places I have found for baby trees is Edible Landscaping. I’ve bought several from them, including two pawpaws that were casualties of a buck whitetail that lives or lived in the area, and they’ve all arrived in great condition and established themselves with a minimum of tending from me, which is exactly what I want in a tree. This is also, not so coincidentally, why I strongly believe in planting native species of tree, and did the research to find out what snack-producing varieties are native to my particular neck of the woods. Many of these native trees are also having a hard time, because their fruits are not commercially popular, or invasive imports are taking over their habitat, or in the case of the red mulberry (Morus rubra) the invasive white mulberry (Morus alba, from Asia) is taking over its very genome, since they can hybridize.

So here I am on the Manor, doing my part to save obscure native trees like the pawpaw. Odds are you have never heard of a pawpaw, unless a) you live overseas where the word pawpaw refers to another fruit entirely or b) your grandmother used to sing the pawpaw song to you like mine did. However, it is a nifty little tree that lives in the understory of the forest. It’s endangered in New Jersey, threatened in New York, and “vulnerable” in Ontario, Canada. The leaves contain a natural pesticide that keep bugs off them with the notable exception of the zebra swallowtail butterfly and the pawpaw sphinx moth, for which it is the larval host. The fruit feeds birds and small mammals. Weirdly, it is pollinated by blow flies, which normally feed on carrion, which means its flowers smell like dead rotting things, and if you want to improve your fruit yield you can hang chicken necks from the branches of the trees to rot. Yum. Wildflower.org has great information on the pawpaw and lists it as a PlantWise native alternative to Russian olive. Compounds in the seeds of pawpaws show promise for chemotherapy against prostate and colon cancers. How much more useful and cool do you need a tree to be, seriously? The problem, of course, is that the fruit does not ship well, and therefore it doesn’t have much commercial potential. As an understory tree, it’s also losing habitat as Americans cut down forests and put in housing developments.

You may have seen fruits of the Asian persimmon varieties in grocery stores. American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) produce much smaller fruits that are horribly bitter and sour until after the first frost hits them. It is a hardy little bugger of a tree, able to handle high sun and low water conditions. Abraham Lincoln had one at his home in Illinois, even! Like the pawpaw, it’s a hardy native tree whose fruits just happen to be not as commercially viable as the agricultural conglomerates would like, so it’s listed as “special concern” in Connecticut and “threatened” in New York. Confidential to New York State: WTF are you guys doing to your native trees, yo?

Still in the plans for this year are a couple red mulberries (Morus rubra) as I think the one I planted last year did not survive the apocalyptic winter, and some hazelnut bushes. I also need to replace my butternut sapling that got mowed down by the neighbor I pay to do my lawn last fall. Meanwhile, I also need to go savage some damn Paulownia that have sprung up on the back acre, thin out the pine saplings from around the sassafras seedlings to give them room, and otherwise continue the grand re-treeification project.

Also, confidential to the person who got here googling “how to sneak up on a spring peeper”: If you find out, let me know! But I am inclined to say that it is impossible, because the little buggers will always hear you coming and shut up. The only way I’ve found to get a good look at them is to be out driving in the rain in the spring and summer, in the dark just before dawn. You will often see them hopping across the road and if you’re very swift and conditions are safe you can stop the car, leap out, and intercept one before it disappears into the ditch on the side of the road. But please don’t take them from their natural habitat, frogs are having a hard enough time out there. If you’re in an area where there are Spring Peepers and you’d like to have some around, may I suggest constructing them a little pond to hang out at?