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Leonard Moorehead, The Urban Gardener: Let’s Go Green

Saturday, March 11, 2017

 

Another day? Another week? Why not this week, this day, how about this hour? Intermittent sunshine tantalize us. We dance for joy as days approach the equinox. Hope soars. Glaciers retreat drop by drop, the sun stronger than snow. Last year’s mulches are swollen and moist. Sponge like soil absorbs soluble nutrients for greedy bulbs, roots, and our friends, the micro-organisms ever more abundant. Our gardens are fascinating cycles. Snow is like the departing child. Missed yet it’s time, the time for green sprouts, tightly woven red tulip leaves somehow overlooked by squirrels. Have you seen the first crocus? How about golden wood hazels, delicately fragrant? A patch of green is all we crave. Greedy, we rejoice as the snow retreats before the stronger sun. 

Gird your loins

Gird your loins, urban gardeners, now is the time to beat swords into ploughshares. One gentle persuasion I use may be helpful to you as well. One resource on the gardener’s must have list is a bale of peat moss. Don’t be deceived. The typical 3 cubic foot bale is densely packed. Always, unless deeply discounted, purchase an intact bale. Peat absorbs moisture and swells. Soaked peat is hefty. Store peat covered, large inexpensive trash barrels with a good lid are perfect. A bale will go a long way and is virtually indestructible kept dry.  A “proto-coal”, peat is legendary. 

Unbeatable 

The history of Ireland cannot be understood without discussing peat, its formation has preserved structures and the bodies of Neolithic people from the very beginning of agriculture. As an amendment for soil, it is unbeatable. Far from being obscure, peat retains important moisture long into the dryer summer seasons. Those of us who mix potting soil by the wheelbarrow use peat mixed into compost for our containers. This 100% organic material is easy to work with, an eye to the wind is important, and a pleasing dark brown. Impervious to cold, peat absorbs solar energy much faster than snow. A domino effect gives muscle to peat strewn over snow. Slightly warmer peat melts and quietly expands with snow melt to form ever larger, warmer, surfaces. 

Short work

To snip open a bale, usually stood up-ended for the back’s sake, with your Christmas garden shears is only a heart bet away from use. I scratch the surface with a trowel and fill a large old Maxwell House coffee can with the surprisingly flour like peat. Sometimes a twig or two will remind us of peat’s cold northern wetland origin but peat generally has great textual consistency. Hand labor is one of the urban gardener’s joys. Wear your old garden clothes. Old woolen herringbone jackets tolerate peat just fine and perpetuate the eternal Irish bog trotter’s look. Gardening marries people to the soil, it teaches the young to nurture life and learn the source of good nutrition and exercise. With a can full of peat moss it is time out from traffic jams, sirens and potholes. Rather, cardinals sing to future mates, sparrows squabble in the shrubbery, we quietly, at one with time and place, scatter the peat over the snow. Take your time. The dusting is fun to do. Try not to walk and compact the snow, these foot prints will endure longer, icy clues to season’s past. If any hour, why not this hour? If this week, why not this week? Why bother? 

Change of pace

Get outside. Breathe fresh air. Listen to birdsong. Feel the sun, wind, maybe fog and rain. If these dividends are tame, the low tech chemical free impact upon planting beds and turf is great. Underneath is discovery. A layer of peat doesn’t hesitate long on the soil surface. Rather it continues its warm harvest and brings up soil temperatures. The garden plot becomes a massive solar energy sink. Long dormant bulbs easily emerge through the brown cover. Hard indeed is the heart that doesn’t rejoice as last fall’s bulbs push upwards towards bloom. Turf relishes a top dressing of compost and peat serves in the same army. Soon, seed orders will arrive or if you’re like me, I stall in front of seed displays and pick up yet another packet of kale, mustard, cress, mesclun mixes, and succumb to another sack of bulbs for the warm days after the expected last frost. Hmm, maybe Dutch Iris, its thickset ways a distant memory. 

Folk wisdom

Folk wisdom is replete with fine advice and some head scratchers. Tradition and more liturgical calendars note saint days: plant peas at St. Patrick’s Day is one I learned as a child and betrays culture more than climate. Where I garden, winter’s grip is more fickle. Forever associated with the shamrock, St. Patrick’s Day hints at pre-Christian fertility worship. Surely, the equinox beautifully celebrated with stone megaliths oriented to the sun and moon, loomed over the saint. We have deep roots. Within the fibers of our being are responses to seasons as profound as any other creature. Green is associated with growth. The cool six weeks before the last frost in many regions are perfect for fast growing and much needed local nutritious food. Water cress will quickly grow in the soaked peaty seed beds. Presto! 

Dearest Kale

Kale germinates when soil temperatures reach 45 degrees. Turf grows at the same temperature, keep an eye on the lawns. You can confidently cultivate marvelous salad greens in pace with local turf. Your local micro climate has many natural barometers for gardeners and gives nuance to your particular plot. Naturalized in many areas, Water cress grows quickly grows in soaked seed beds. 

Walk carefully

Avoid walking upon any planting area and resist the urge to cultivate. Rather, pull mulches aside and plant in the exposed topsoil. Have some fun with this. Tear toilet paper into ribbons , dot glue (a floury water paste works)  at the specific seed intervals usually found on any seed packet, pick out your seeds right while seated at the kitchen table and put one or so, many can be fine, on each drop of your glue. Fold over the toilet paper and press together to form strips. Moments later when dry, keep varieties separate enough to identify and you’re ready to plant. The strips require gentleness and patience not tedium. 

Endless possibilities

The possibilities are endless. There is no dictate to form perfect squares or long lines. Foil pests and varmints by weaving plant varieties into your own design. Colors, such as red lettuces compliment bright green Black Seeded Simpson lettuce. Consider circles, squares or cross hatching sketched with malleable seed strips.  Pull back mulch, lay down the chosen strips as pleases. Cover the toilet paper pastiche with a light top dressing of compost or your improved soil. A couple weeks later and your efforts will be richly rewarded. Our medieval ancestors planted “knot gardens” into herbs and shrubs, spring greens are ephemeral plantings that provide as much visual pleasure. I once knew a hippie guy who planted out lettuce peace symbols to be flush on Earth Day. Greek keys fit raised beds nicely. Color, varieties, and height are all opportunities.  Plebian? Yes. Practical? For sure. Common, no. 

Advantages?

Take advantage of cool weather plants. A bumper crop of salad vegetables thrives in cool weather. Many plants prefer cold soils and cool temperatures. A longer winter forces a pause before planting sugar snap pod peas. They are among the first to go into the ground. To salve the soul, I will enjoy the supreme goodness of those harvested and frozen moments later last year. 

New to town?

Perhaps you’re new to town or disappointed to live without a garden space. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest community garden site. Sign up for a plot. Meet new people who share your enthusiasm. Plant as soon as possible and enjoy the first planting. When warm weather rolls around and snow is forgotten, your first harvests will open space for the late spring garden and warm weather sowing. For example, I grow peas up a clad wire trellis. As I pick the peas late in May or into June, I plant French horticultural pole beans among the pea stalks. The beans clamber over the peas to yield abundant crops from the same space. The scarlet blooms are a bonus. There are many variations on this theme to provide family and friends with plenty. What are you waiting for? Adieu snow, spring is around the corner. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.

 

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