Saturday, November 22, 2008

Living with The Rain

If there is one defining characteristic about the Northwest region of the United States, especially on the coast, it is this:  it rains a lot here.  This is both good and bad, from a farmer's perspective. We save a lot on irrigation, for one thing. And our often foggy coastal climate makes this an ideal place to grow things that like it on the cooler side.  Leafy greens, salad greens, your cool weather loving brassicas- we have a great relationship.  The heat lovers like tomatoes and basil?  We struggle in our dealings with one another, but as long as we are both willing to compromise (I give them a greenhouse to live in, they don't complain too much about the acidic soil), we manage to work things out.

Rain in the kind of quantity we receive it can be challenging, but we have found ways to deal with it that are helping to make growing things here easier.   The first obstacle to really successful vegetable and flower gardening is that our soil here is very acidic, because of the heavy rainfall.  Some of our soil on the farm tested at 4.6 ph when I first dug into it- that is a long way from the 6.5-7.0 range that most vegetables and herbs prefer.  So the first thing you learn about in the Northwest is lime. 

 "Lime sweetens the soil" is a phrase you hear a lot around here.  I've often wondered, why sweet?  Is it because sweet is the opposite of acid?  Anyway, what lime does is raise the ph level in the soil. It makes the soil less acidic, and contributes calcium to the soil, which is essential for healthy plant growth. This does not happen overnight, it takes years to really shift your soil's ph level. And then, you have to remain vigilant because, just like compost and other fertilizers, the stuff breaks down, plants absorb it, it all gets used up and then it is gone and you're back to acid again.  Lime actually takes a long time to break down and become available to plants, which is why Fall is the best time to apply it.  By the time Spring rolls around, and the plants are waking up and reaching around in the soil for calcium and other minerals, the lime has done its work and the plants are much happier.

There are two main types of commercially available lime:

Agricultural lime

Agricultural lime is finely crushed limestone, pure calcium carbonate.  It is a very fine grey-white powder; do not mistake it for powdered sugar. Or anything else, for that matter.  This is the most widely available lime, and the cheapest. It also breaks down and is absorbed fastest.

 Prilled Dolomite lime

Dolomite lime comes from dolomite rock, naturally, and contains magnesium in addition to calcium.  This is good if your soil needs magnesium, which many northwest soils do. (Heavy rain leaches out everything. Except slugs, damn it.)  It is often available in a prilled form, which means the powder is formed into small pellets by a process known as 'prilling'.  An interesting word, and one which I have not yet been able to find an origin for.  I mean, why 'prill'?  Is that the sound the material makes when you roll it into little balls?  I cannot help but be curious.

So, prilled Dolomite lime is just easier to spread than the powdered form.  It is usually more expensive (more processing) but I think it is worth the cost if you can afford it, as it is so much less annoying to use.  Some people only use dolomite lime, but if your soil has enough magnesium, you can actually make it toxic to your plants by adding more. 

One of the best explanations I have read about The Lime Issue, especially as it applies to us here in the northwest, is in the classic 'Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades', by Steve Solomon.  He recommends using a half and half blend of the two limes mixed into a regular fertilizer blend.  However, before you go dumping huge amount of lime on your garden, I really recommend getting a soil test done.  This is not a hard thing to do, but it does involve a wee bit of time and expense.  Your local extension office can help you do it right, and help you understand what the hell it all means when you get back the results.  Soil tests are not just for farmers!  If you are a home gardener, and if you plan to build a long term relationship with your garden, it is very helpful to understand the soil you are working with.  That way you know more accurately how much fertilizer or organic matter it actually needs added to it.  More is not always better, in fact it rarely is.  Get a soil test.  Trust me, it's worth it.

After the lime, the next best thing to do in the Fall to deal with the effects of the rain is sow a cover crop. This is really only for those beds where you grow spring and summer annuals, and where the beds lay dormant in the winter.  I have learned the hard way that our  heavy rains wash away a lot of soil, and those carefully built up beds can be eroded and beaten down, as well as full of winter germinating weeds, by the time I am poking my head out the door in March to see if it is warm enough to sow peas.  

Cover crops are also known as green manures; they are a crop that you grow just to chop down and dig into the soil.  Essentially, you are growing your own compost.  However, while the crop is growing it is also doing a lot of other things, like reducing soil compaction and erosion and, if the crop is a deep rooted one, helping to loosen heavy soils and improve the soil's tilth.  Cover crops can also help to capture nitrogen and other nutrients that would be washed away by the heavy rain; these are returned to the soil in the spring when you chop down the cover crop and dig it in.

Our usual blend- rye, vetch and peas

There are a lot of things out there to use as cover crop.  One of the most popular in our area is crimson clover, but as the whole point of a cover crop is that you don't let it go to seed, it is a hard one for me to use, as you have to chop it down just as it is looking its most beautiful. We use a combination of rye, vetch and winter peas, and it seems to do the trick for us, and I can joyfully hack down in the spring with no regrets. 

I am hoping someday to have a patch of ground where I can just sow the crimson clover and let it re-seed over and over, as I love to see those deep garnet-red flowers swaying about in spring. On the 'someday having a patch of ground' issue, which I really don't want to talk about anymore for a while, the latest in our Looking for a New Farm ongoing saga is that we are pretty much on hold.  It is a combination of lack of appropriate land at a price that makes using it for a farm realistic, with a  big dash of 'Loaning Money to Small Farms in an Uncertain Economy' Fear from banking institutions.  We actually had a very good meeting with the USDA Farm Loan agent, but in the end we can't apply for a loan from them if we can't find a piece of land that can be farmed, that we can afford.  So we are still looking.  There is possibly another creative option in the works, but I can't talk about it, because it is very uncertain.  Fortunately, we have the option to go through another growing season on the farm we are on now, so while it may not be the ideal solution, it is at least a solution that keeps us farming for now.  There will at the very least be heirloom tomato plants and flower bouquets next year, and probably much more than that.

To follow up on my last post, wherein the possible addition of a new farm crew member was discussed, it has now been made official, as we were unable to locate anyone who wanted to claim the little cat we found.  We struggled with what to name her- all the names we have tossed about over the years for what we would name a new cat if we had one just didn't seem to work for her. And we couldn't keep calling her 'Squeaky Cat', as that just seemed too ridiculous a name.  Then one day Packy was listening to our Blind Pilot cd, and decided that she should be named 'Jojo', after a reference in one of their songs. (Blind Pilot is a  band co-founded by our friend Israel Nebeker- we both like them very much, which is unusual as our musical taste does not always overlap.)  'Jojo' met all of the requirements- easy to remember, snappy, cute- but not too cute, and so on.  But it still felt like a nickname, so we thought we would call her Josephine, and Jojo for short.  And after all of that dithering, we find that what we actually call her most of the time is still 'Squeaky'.  So be careful with those first nicknames- they can really stick. Come to think about it, that's how Packy ended up being called Packy, so I suppose it's a family tradition.

 Squeaky and Eddie negotiating hunting rights on a newly cleared hillside

So Jojo Squeaky is doing much better after several very expensive trips to the vet, and the consumption of a lot of cat food.   We have yet to have her fixed even, that is next on the shopping list. She is a very expensive free pet, but fortunately is quite charming and affectionate, which goes some way to make up for the drain on the farm finances.   She likes to sleep by the fire a lot, (who doesn't, this time of year?)  and then explode and chase things, and then sleep more.  Eddie is getting used to her, and for the most part she is fitting in fine. 

Unfortunately when she does venture outside, she rather likes to hunt, and has very proudly brought in several field mice, some that were as big as her head.  It would be ok if she just brought them in and displayed them for approval, but she is not so far off from fending for herself in the great outdoors, and so has a tendency to start to eat them, which just gets disgusting.  Immediate intervention is desirable. Now that the weather has turned chilly, I am hopeful that the snakes will be hibernating more, as she also brought in a couple of those while Packy was out of town recently, and I really do not do well with snakes. I mean, I love them in the garden, I know they are great pest control, I admire them when they are sunning themselves on the rocks, but I      just  cannot   pick    them   up   with    my     bare    hands.  Not sure what it is- they move too fast?  Too slimy?   There ended up being some creative work with a bamboo stick, a dustpan and a re-useable grocery bag that did the trick.  It is nice to have a good division of labor on a farm, and Packy makes a fine head of the farm's 'Wildlife Rescue/Release and Dead Animal Clean Up' department. He just may not ever be allowed to leave town again.

It is a frosty morning here on the farm- the last couple of nights have been clear and cold, with barely a sliver of moon showing in the sky.  It is in its final waning stages, and will be new again on Thanksgiving, a somehow appropriate bit of timing.  I am always thankful to the moon for gently reminding me that everything moves in cycles, and that when you are working with nature, it is best to respect its pace, and not try to impose your own upon it.  

One of our very favourite seasonal cycles has come around again here on the farm, as coho salmon have begun to return to Neawanna Creek.  But I will leave that story for next time.

Fortunately we love lettuce, because lettuce loves the Northwest Coast

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the lessons on Lime. I just got a bag to help my hellebors and peonies but will share it with my friend for her veggie plot AFTER we get the soil tested. Patrick