Garden Notes : First stirrings
The bull briar is greening and high overhead the twig ends of trees, especially red maple, are coloring significantly, highlighted by the new strength in the sun's rays. Misleadingly, it feels like spring.
Late February does provide, however, many pleasant opportunities to work outside, being useful. In the more wooded parts of the Island there has been a constant rain of limbs, branches, and twigs this winter. Wind and snow perform nature's pruning, and attentive gardeners collect the damage as a supply of humate. It readily breaks down being halfway rotten already, and inoculates compost and leaf piles with more agents of breakdown and digestion.
Raised vegetable beds are probably cleaned up and seemingly ready to go, although even this system of very controlled gardening environment can always be improved and perfected. Has there been compaction or settling over the winter? Is the mulch topped up? Do the beds drain well? Has the soil been tested and amended recently?
If gardening in the ground, there is probably plenty of junk to be cleaned up, exposed by melting snow, even if the garden was in good shape when it froze. Rock, stones, and pebbles come to the surface through frost action. Leaves blow in but not out. Mats of chickweed have grown to cover a surprisingly large area. (Harvest and wash chickweed to augment winter salads, if you feel like something different.)
I have rough compost and a winter's worth of henhouse bedding to spread. It is too soon to work the soil without damaging its structure, but the material can be laid, ready to incorporate. I will turn the hens in there soon and then broadfork the soil later.
Some may be planning to reactivate weedy gardens that have been fallow for a time. I would recommend carefully spreading dark plastic tarps and weighing them down to cover the plot from side to side and end to end, ASAP. Use planks, brick, cement blocks, whatever to keep the tarp in close contact with the soil surface. Doing this now helps to subdue weed growth and has a conditioning effect at the same time. Even more ideal, if there are no raised beds or hidden objects: run a lawn mower, wheels set high, over the weedy area, before covering closely with tarps.
What is in bloom currently? My ground is so cold that the list is limited to Ericas (winter blooming heather), red or swamp maple, frozen buds of Cyclamen coum and winter-blooming witch hazels. Snowdrops were reported blooming weeks ago elsewhere on the Island, but here it will be weeks more before that happens.
In a quote attributed to Dr. Jonas Salk, of polio vaccine fame, it is claimed, "if all the insects on earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on earth would disappear. If all humans disappeared, within 50 years all species would flourish as never before." The late-winter (i.e., early) flowering plants are very important. They support the early insects that are in turn available as food for the wintering and early migrating birds.
The witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.) provide the material for the familiar astringent preparation and other medicinals. The flowers are fragrant and the fall foliage often quite colorful. When there is snow on the ground, as now, the delicate flowers of the winter-blooming witch hazels show up particularly well. Some varieties have more scent than others and provide welcome and unexpected fragrance at this time of year.
It is interesting to me that the Slow Food movement is widespread in European countries, while here it is often viewed suspiciously as silly sounding, elitist, or precious. Also interesting is the European resistance to the inroads of industrial foods, most notably in Italy and France, but generally quite widespread relative to the U.S. and despite the best efforts of multi-national food giants and modern advertising.
In contrast, Americans exhibit a gee-whiz acceptance of food manipulation, the "better food through better chemistry" school. As a child in the post-war era, it was many years before I saw coffee or tea made in any way other than Nescafe or teabags, in anyone's kitchen. Miracle Whip was held to be such a great improvement over mayonnaise. Anything promoted as instant sold well.
Was it really because no one could taste the difference? For whatever reasons, and there is a long list of extenuating circumstances, Americans went along with the debasing of their food, until even those who had not been hoodwinked were having difficulty sourcing good groceries. Everything sooner or later was altered to fit the industrial paradigms of shelf-life or cheap-to-produce.
A recent lengthy article (Atlantic, March 2010, on a different topic) contains the line, "the most recent research suggests that poor health is prevalent among the [American] young, and endures for a lifetime." Taking their line, this "suggests" to me that for all our advantages, something is wrong with our lifestyle. Slow Food MV and Slow Food USA have developed mission statements that support individuals' attempts to improve their lives and communities.
The Slow Food USA Mission:
We support and promote:
Educational events and public outreach that encourage the enjoyment of pure foods that are local, seasonal and sustainably grown;
Caring for the land and protecting biodiversity for today's communities and future generations;
Identification, promotion, and protection of fruits and vegetables, animal breeds, wild foods, and cooking traditions at risk of disappearance;
Respect and advocacy for artisans who grow, produce, market, prepare, and serve wholesome food;
The revival of the kitchen and the table as centers of pleasure, culture and community;
A slower, more harmonious rhythm of life.