Wednesday, July 27, 2016

On The Country's Own Terms

I ran across an antique postcard (remember them?) today. A couple has walked out of a country house and needs to visit “the Necessary.” That means crossing a moonlit yard to a little building labeled “this is it.”  Just don’t drop that lantern and spill the oil. The Honeypot might go right up in flames.

Having recently visited a preserved 1930 Farm at Peaks of Otter, VA, I have to say “that was not so long ago.” Yet trips to the outhouse are forgotten. So is carrying a lantern. So are my rituals of country life, including, as I recently discovered, always double-checking for snakes.

The country slowly makes you live according to its terms, though on a beastly hot and humid day like today, I am very grateful for air-conditioning. The router is unplugged for a passing thunderstorm, something we never did in town, but otherwise we might be in the middle of a city.

Until you step outdoors.  When I did that the other night, about half past nine, I stepped on or just beside a poisonous snake stretched out on our kitchen steps.

Fate was kind to me; either the Copperhead struck and missed (they do miss sometimes) or chose to slither off. I heard the sound and figured it to be a black snake. That elicited only a gasp of surprise and a loud curse, as I’m accustomed to the non-venemous snakes that eat our mice and live in barn and garage to festoon the rafters with their shucked skins. A bite would mean a tetanus shot. I did not let fly a blood-curdling scream, as it might had I spotted the markings on the serpent’s back.

Then I did see the snake clearly. It was a steamy night, but suddenly I felt very, very cold. My wife grabbed a flashlight and spotlit the intruder against a cement wall—no place to fire a shotgun— while I got the longest-handled garden hoe in the shop. Several chops later, I was more than certain it was dead. It’s possible our snake was heading for a White Oak to eat cicadas. Copperheads like to do that between dusk and midnight in the summer. I’m going to check at the base of the tree (from a safe distance) with a spotlight to see if I find a snake party.

Once I refused to kill a Copperhead my late father-in-law turned up when he moved a fallen branch way back in the woods, where part of a tree had fallen across a farm road. It was a tiny thing, perhaps a foot long. It just looked up at us, not coiled.  He walked on and I caught up. He said “kill it?” and when I said no he asked why. “We’re in his house back here,” I said. His reply, with a glare, was “this is MY house.”

I still could not have killed that snake unless I had to. But in or by my house? Every single time, just as I’ve sent to their just rewards chicken-killing possums and raccoons. Just as I've dispatched dozens of garden-ravaging groundhogs.

These are the terms of the country. Not all wildlife is cute close up. Watch your step. Keep the grass short near the house. Sweep up the maple leaves falling early in the mini-drought we get every July. Copperheads are marked to look just like those leaves.

Never forget the above. Never. Yet when suburbia overtakes rural areas to ruin them, the newcomers (and I’m a newcomer of a different sort) clear, mow, poison, pave until the Wild is at such a remove that it will not come back, at least until our unsustainable civilization wises up to the need for living in harmony the Wild or collapses into a new Dark Age.

In a way I’m glad for that snake. He can stay in his house, and even cross the grass to the oak tree. I use a flashlight at night in the yard. But the step? Too close.

I tell city people “you could not live out here happily.” First, they’d not be able to wear flip-flops in the yard. Even the mention of ticks terrifies. Have you noticed how often in home-improvement stores and advertisements for home products that the white suburban families cavort on their hardwood floors or lawns barefoot?

Do not try that here. Ever.

Now I check the steps with a flashlight when I go to bring in the dog from her guard duties, thankful of all the places too far for commuters to drive to jobs, places where agriculture is still viable on scales large or small, places that cannot be so easily tamed into “Deer Run,” or “River View” or whatever place or species has been ruined to leave only a name.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

No Till? I Think Not.

I've been fascinated by small-scale successes with no-till gardening, such as lasagna gardening, but so far on our little farm, it is simply not working for commercial growing. I have 7000 square feet of raised beds now, and more on the way. In time, however, I will greatly reduce tillage. I cannot even fathom how my friend Dominic would manage 3 acres without tilling. He uses a cultivator on a row-crop tractor.

In my case, the tractor goes into the field once, when I first busted the sod. First I plowed, then harrowed. To get raised beds ready, I tilled, then amended the soil before planting and mulching. Since we use no herbicides, the weeds still creep in, particularly Cynodon dactylon, AKA wire grass, AKA Bermuda Grass and, yes, AKA Devil's Grass. It grows up and through the wire mesh we keep around our raised beds and colonizes new areas but growing roots from its runner through layering.

You cannot get rid of it without chemicals. On our patio, far from our food, I do spray Roundup on calm days. I've used it concentrated and carefully for years on stumps of Tree of Heaven.

In the garden, however, poison is out of the question. So I reach for the tiller whenever I replant a bed.

Wire grass can be reduced or even killed by shade, but that's no help in a sunny vegetable garden. Some plants form a dense canopy, such as sweet potatoes or our big crop of Thai Peppers, but the wire grass is still around, biding its time even under 6 inches of wheat straw mulch.

We own two tillers, a walk-behind with rear tines and forward and reverse gears. It's a beast. I use it for new beds or those badly overgrown by wire grass. For other beds during rotation, I use a handheld tiller to break the weeds' hold on the soil, then rake out with a for-tine cultivator or field rake. I then add amendments, usually four parts of our homemade compost, one part rock dust, one part fireplace ashes. That yields the holy trinity of gardening: Nitrogen, Rock Phosphate, Potassium.

I call this method "low till" and it does keep weeds manageable.  I try never to till too deeply.

But who wants to live on a golf course? No one that I'd want to drink with. Or have as a neighbor.

My method of low-till cultivation has kept weed pressure manageable, though I have to go around after rain and pull long runners of grass out of and around our beds.

Nature will win this battle in the long run. So be it. Wire grass is excellent in lawns and shakes off drought and even dog-urine attacks that leave brown circles in our field.