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May’s Progress, June’s Possibility
Calendula, cover crop, and free pumpkins in spring
When thinking of how to describe this part of the year, the phrase “in the thick of it” comes to mind. We’ve been impatiently waiting for the Oklahoma weather to cooperate so that we can get things into the ground and all of a sudden, in early-mid May, it felt too late. It definitely wasn’t, it just feels that way because of temps hovering around the upper 80’s and low 90’s and the prolific grasses; Made it feel like the garden should have been growing abundantly too. One night there was a hoard of june beetles clinging to various spots on the front porch though, which means summer is almost here, at least as far as the weather is concerned.
The other week, I was wandering around the garden lamenting that “nothing is grown except for cover crop!” Don’t get me wrong, cover crops are vital, beautiful, and useful, but damn, didn’t we plant tons of radishes, peas, lettuces, and more? I felt discouraged. Is this going to be another impossible year due to uncooperative weather? But by the first weekend in May, with some sunshine following heavy rains, the garden started to shape up. Since then, we’ve been enjoying radishes, peas, and fresh greens daily. There’s a lesson here about patience and relinquishing control to the natural world somewhere.
I have written a bit about how we do our garden beds using a mostly no-dig approach. Since we’ve got chickens now, we’ve had lots of good compost to add in, as well as chop and dropping the cover crop (clover, oats, hairy vetch, wheat). What that looks like is, over the winter and early spring we grow the aforementioned cover crops. Their roots and general presence helps to build nitrogen in the soil, making it more hospitable for annuals vegetables and herbs we’ll grow in it in spring. When we’re ready to plant seeds or transplant seedlings, we chop these cover crops at the base, cut them into small pieces, and put them back on the soil. This adds more nitrogen to the soil as they decompose, and it serves as a living mulch, protecting the microbes in the soil from the elements. The mixture of the chopped cover crops and chicken manure compost is helping to feed the soil and the plants that will grow in it.
One weekend in mid May, the weather was finally favorable enough to plant the tomatoes, peppers, and marigolds that had outgrown their indoor soil blocks. We have a good amount of Cherokee Purple tomatoes and a few Brandywines, some bell peppers and serranos. These are heirloom varieties from which I’m going to save the seeds. I’ve not done much seed saving up to this point because it’s intimidating to me, but I’m making it a priority this year. Saving seeds means we won’t have to buy more next year. It also means that we can save the seeds from the most successful plants, increasing plant health and yields for garden seasons to come. My grandma recently told me it’s as simple as lying out tomato seeds on a paper towel and forgetting about them until next season, or ideally, putting them away after they dry. With her confidence, I’m giving it a try. I will provide an update at some point, even if it’s next spring when I find the forgotten dried seeds on a shelf somewhere.
On a warm Sunday morning, we got started working in the garden with sun hats and bare feet. We planned to chop and drop a section in one of the beds, but when Damien took his sickle out to do so, he noticed one of the guinea fowl all nestled in the cover crops. We had laid some chicken wire over this section of the garden specifically to keep the guineas from munching on the seeds we planted, but this one had found her way in any way and was sweetly sitting on a nest of eggs. I got excited that perhaps she had found a safe place to work on hatching out some babies.
We worked around her, listening to music, hollering at each other from opposite ends of the garden, etc. and she never flinched. We even turned on the sprinkler to water the garden and despite being moderately showered, she didn’t budge. Unfortunately, a few hours later, she began calling out to the rest of the gang, who joined up with her and went on about their guinea business. I guess she won’t be hatching any keets any time soon, but I’m keeping my hopes up that it happens eventually.
On the subject of cover crop: before chopping and dropping the clover plants in one section of the garden, I harvested its flowers to use later in a tea blend. If you haven’t had clover tea before, it tastes like sweet, floral honey and is super delicious. All you have to do is dry the flowers (you could use them fresh too though) and infuse them in nearly boiling water, as with any other tea, then strain the tea. Clover has calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, and vitamin C, and having it iced with honey is delightful on a warm spring day. Just make sure the clover you’re harvesting hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals!
Besides encouraging guinea nesting and harvesting weeds, we have been working on building the health of the soil in the garden by adding in compost and mulching around the seedlings. Last year the county was clearing some tree limbs from the roadside, and Damien was able to flag down the truck and convince them to drop the *entire truckload* near our driveway. This load of chips has been so incredibly useful for us. Damien has been working on mulching the garden paths so we don’t have to keep mowing them (it grows so fast– the most prolific thing in the garden by far!). The difficulty is that our chip drop is in front of our house, and the garden is way out in the back field behind our house. But hey, what we save in money for the chips, we pay in labor.
Then there’s the labor of protecting the garden from wildlife. Though we’d love to not have to construct more fencing, the end of last garden season was rife with creatures munching on our veggies before we could pick them. So we constructed a light-duty fence with hog wire, poultry netting, and metal posts around the garden to keep the wild creatures out (including guineas, deer, hogs, raccoons, possums, foxes, rabbits, etc.). It was pretty devastating to lose food to the wilds after a months-long drought and generally uncooperative weather, so here’s hoping our little fence is effective.
One of our most important goals, besides feeding ourselves and our community, is to regrow the natural ecosystem as much as possible. This is the second growing season since we moved in, and it’s incredible to see the diversity this year compared to last. The field behind the house is bursting with various milkweeds, yarrow, wild onions and garlic, all kinds of creatures in the daisy family, and so on. There are *so* many bugs and birds. Most evenings we sit on the back porch and talk over a drink, and we’re constantly distracted by “oh, did you see that bluebird?!” and “hey, there’s the fox!” and “what’s that sound, is it a whippoorwill?” and “what bug is making that sound?” because there is so much activity. Of course there was some activity last year as well, but the abundance of it this year is striking. I can’t say for sure that it’s because of letting the field go wild, but I hope it has helped facilitate this year’s turnout.
Essential and beneficial creatures need meadowlike spaces to live, grow, and eat. A lot of us know that spaces like this are diminishing due to classically maintained lawns, development, and climate change, which means that any amount of yard or field you return to its wilder state has a massive ecological benefit. Wild spaces can still be somewhat controlled in order for humans to enjoy it. For example, we mow a path that winds through the field, leading from the backyard gate to the forest so that we can walk through and enjoy the wildlife without disturbing them too much. There is so much to say about this and it’s such an important conversation that I could write pages about my thoughts and concerns, but for now I’ll pause here.
Other farm victories: Most of my calendula flowers are blooming, we successfully butchered a rooster ourselves (I cried a lot!), the flock is thriving, we’re taking a vacation soon, and last, free volunteer pumpkin (or squash, or mutant hybrid?) plants, thriving despite a lack of any sort of tending.
Gardening is hard, farming is hard, being alive in this world is hard. I’m proud of all of us for doing any of it. Happy June, happy Pride month, and a happy summer to y’all.
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