I tilled my garden this week. Before I turned over the dirt I took the trash, old tomato vines, pepper plants, tomatillos, weeds, horseradish tops, herbs gone to seed, and hauled them to my compost pile where I put them on the side. I’ll add them in slowly over the winter. My compost pile is surrounded by a woven wire cage. It was the cheapest of all the alternatives ten years ago, and it works fine. I slide long wires, which thread their way through loops in the front wire mesh panel and two sides of the square, up and out of the cage to get access to the compost inside. I take the fresh stuff off the top with a pitchfork-the insides of the pumpkins that became jack o’lanterns, banana peels, manure from my dog, the skins of the cucumbers that became bread and butter pickles, apple cores, coffee grounds from the stove top Bialetta and press pot, bad peppers, outside leaves from a head of lettuce, the skin of a rutabaga I ate two days ago-to get to the good stuff below. The good stuff below is everything I just listed from months ago and more, now rotted, resembling dirt, inhabited by worms: decomposed kitchen scraps, some leaves and twigs from the yard, an occasional red or blue twist tie or rubber band that ended up in the compost bucket under the sink. I pick out those foreign objects, and fill my wheelbarrow with pure, rich compost. It steams in the cold air.
I spread it on the end of the garden that I’ve extended over the years. When I first created the garden, in full sun by the garage, I added sand and mushroom compost to the soil. Each year for the first five years or so I put in one or the other to loosen up the ground, enrich it, fluff it up, make it better. We live on a hill where the soil is sort of timber clay. It doesn’t drain very well. Adding to the soil only makes it better, loamier, more porous, richer.
I put the compost on the end of the garden that didn’t get sand and compost originally. That’s where I’ve been planting the garlic. Garlic does better in loose rich soil. The garlic bulbs can expand better in compost enriched dirt than in straight clay, I think. I don’t exactly know. But it makes sense to me. I know I’m turning my kitchen scraps into soil, and putting it to good use where I’ll grow next year’s vegetables, and there is not a hint of chemical fertilizer involved. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and old vegetables feeding new ones. I like it.
After I plant the garlic, each clove planted around Halloween turning like magic into an entire bulb by the 4th of July, I’ll cover it with straw and throw the steel mesh over it. My friend who owns the tiller doesn’t do this, says it’s unnecessary. I do it anyway. Another friend gave me panels of rigid steel mesh, reinforcing rod for concrete projects I think, to use as a trellis for tomatoes. I stand it up and wire it to steel posts. It stands up better with tomato vines tied to it and weighing it down than the round wire cages I used in the past. I’ll lay cakes of straw over the soil that contains the garlic and throw the steel mesh over it, which will hold it down through the winter. I’ll take it off in spring when all danger of frost is past, and let the garlic sprout and grow. I ordered seed garlic to plant this year instead of saving my own. Couldn’t resist eating it I guess, and thought maybe I should give it a fresh start. I’d been growing and replanting the same garlic for a few years. I bought a hard neck spicy garlic with a purple tint and a bigger, whiter, more mellow soft neck garlic to get two kinds next summer. The white kind is better in buttery garlic mashed potatoes. The purple is better for everything else.
After that I’ll seed the rest of the garden with winter rye. I mentioned this once before on Face Book and someone asked me what I do with the rye. It never gets to be rye. In the spring before it forms a head of grain I till it under, with the help of a friend and his tiller, to act as green manure. It grows green during the winter and early spring, and then it’s gone. Nice stuff. If I was out on a farm and owned a still, and possessed both the knowledge of distilling and the courage to break the law, I’d make rye whiskey. But this rye is a whole different deal. It’s made to be plowed under.
I have a lemon grass plant I need to take down before the frost gets it all. I use the white insides of the biggest stalks as an ingredient in a sort of Thai style chili paste I make. The asparagus plants, which front the garden to the South in a long line, are tall and starting to yellow. I’ll let them stand all winter and burn them off in the spring around Easter, if it’s not too late, as my Mom did. I have a nice little volunteer oak growing up in the asparagus, which I want to transplant in the spring.
I have a big old oak in the yard that died. It’s OK, I need the firewood, but I tell you it’s hard to lose one of those old oaks. We’ve lived here with that beautiful big oak since 1987. It’s like a friend dying. When I first saw a branch dying out on the top years ago I felt real alarm, palpable fear. I didn’t tell anyone for a while hoping that one dead branch was an aberration, sort of like a pain in your own body that you keep to yourself hoping it goes away. My alarm turned to grief as the dead branches spread and I realized our oak was going to die. I was sick about it. It might have been hit by lightning. In addition to dead branches the trunk started to weep sap in the summer and the bark began to shrivel. Mushrooms sprouted at the base of the trunk. It has died slowly over years but it’s time for it to come down. Maybe I’m ready for it to come down now and needed this time to say good bye.
I’ll plant that young volunteer oak in the asparagus near the site of the dead one. Might add a ginko tree somewhere, and maybe a pine near the shack. Our trees are getting old, like us. We need to replace them both for us and the next people.
After I get this garlic planted, the straw put down, and the rye seeded in that’s it for the garden till spring. When it gets warm we’ll start over. My wife plants the flowers and I plant the food. In gardening you get a new start every year. Next year I’ll be fully retired at planting time for the first year and able to be more thoughtful, planning better, instead of just slamming plants in the ground before June. Each year I vow to keep up better on the weeds, and most years I fail to live up to my own expectations. Next year will be different. I’m confident.