Frustration, Patience, Hope, Success

Thank you for putting up with so many book reviews in this blog. Now it’s time to return to the backyard and rejoice in a good year of yard work and gardening.

Frustration

In 2017 we had a bad infestation of grubs. The first creature to discover the infestation was the resident skunk. He excavated large sections of the front and back lawns over the course of several nights in his quest for his next meal. When the leaves began to fall on the lawns and raking was required, the rake easily disturbed chunks of the remaining lawn as if they were fragments of a shag carpet.

The previous owner of our house probably had the lawn sprayed for grubs and other insect pests. We were contacted in the spring of our first year in the house by the company that had the contract for the spraying. Petrochemical pesticides have a tendency to kill beneficial insects as well as pests, so our weapon of choice for treating grubs is milky spore. I had begun application of the milky spore last autumn, so it is frustrating to see that the grubs had returned this year. It is also frustrating to see the repeat of a serious weed infestation this year.

red_pepper
One of the many red bell peppers that will be ready to pick soon.

Patience

Restoring health to any ecosystem takes time. According to recent article about the New Jersey Meadowlands, cleanup efforts began in the early 1970s. They continue to this day and must continue for many more years, but they have yielded remarkable results. A suburban yard is not an ecosystem, certainly not on the scale of the Meadowlands, but it can include enough biodiversity to yield observable results for a cleanup effort.

Weeds present a different challenge. The weapons of choice are my hands, used to pull the weeds, and corn gluten, which retards seed germination. Two applications of corn gluten did little to stop the appearance of crabgrass this year, but maybe I need to do a better job of timing the applications so that I will catch the peak weed germination times. It’s also clear that some sections of lawn might need to be dug up and reseeded, but timing is important there because this year’s weeds have already seeded the ground for next year’s crop.

Hope

Milky spore requires multiple applications over a period of two to three years to be effective. So even though it’s disappointing, it isn’t surprising that there are still grubs attacking our lawn this year. I am encouraged that some of the grubs I am finding this year are showing signs of milky spore disease, which means that there won’t mature into adult beetles next summer and lay new eggs for a new infestation.

The best hope for reducing weed infestations might lie in replacing more of the lawn with garden. Since moving into this home we’ve replaced about one hundred square feet of lawn with a vegetable garden. On the other side of the backyard about twenty square feet is occupied by pollinator-friendly perennials: raspberries, purple coneflowers, milkweed, and black-eyed Susans.

The raspberries in particular are popular with bumblebees, honeybees, and even wasps, and we’ve seen skipper butterflies, black and tiger swallowtail butterflies, and a monarch or two on the raspberries and other perennials. This year we also observed a clouded sulphur butterfly for the first time, and a goldfinch checked out the coneflowers one evening while we were enjoying dinner on the deck. Just below the deck a short stone wall encloses a new patch of blueberries and strawberries.

new_garden
Our new strawberry and blueberry patch. Yes, the lawn needs help; we’re working on that.

In terms of overall biodiversity there are encouraging signs. The first year we planted a vegetable garden we saw few earthworms. Now they appear regularly whenever we disturb the soil. We see lots of fireflies throughout the summer; fireflies are often victims of the sprays used to eliminate insect pests. As I said earlier, a single suburban yard is not an ecosystem, but these signs and sightings give us some hope that our efforts are paying off on a small scale.

Success

For the fourth summer now we have enjoyed a fine harvest from our small vegetable garden. In May and June we had fresh salad greens almost whenever we wanted. The brandywine, Juliette, and grape tomato vines have provided ingredients for sauce, Greek salads, tossed salads, and caprese since early August. We’ve enjoyed some green beans, lots of basil, some beautiful red bell peppers, and even a few yellow onions and green onions. The freezer is full of garden produce that we will be enjoying well into winter. We might even have some late-season broccoli in a few weeks.

This is an overly long post. Thank you for your patience if you’ve read this far. We are very grateful for the opportunity to exercise stewardship over a small corner of the natural world. We are very grateful for the visual pleasure and small amount of food it provides us. We are very grateful that we’ve been able to learn and put into practice a few steps for restoring the health of the soil and the environment in general. God is very good to us.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

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Richfield Farms

Richfield Farms is nursery and garden center in Clifton, New Jersey. They raise  vegetables on approximately two acres and sell them on site. Their total property comprises just under five acres. They are faced with a large property tax bill, which they struggle to pay, because their property is not large enough to qualify as a farm and therefore a reduced tax rate. This week an article appeared in the Herald News and the Clifton Journal describing an effort that the City of Clifton is making to resolve the dilemma.

The rest of this post is the the text of a letter to the editor that I had drafted in response to the article. The Herald News asks that letters to the editor be kept to 250 words or fewer, and this draft is much longer, but it includes observations that I still wish to make.

Late season lettuce.

It is heartening to see that the City of Clifton is willing to help Richfield Farms stay solvent without having to sell property to a developer. Matt Fagan’s fine piece from Thursday, June 21, mentions several options under consideration. Might a land conservancy or other nonprofit also be interested in purchasing part of the property and leasing it back for a nominal fee so that it could continue as farmland? If the city or another nongovernmental organization takes ownership, the property is removed from tax rolls and taxes may increase for other Clifton property owners. For this Clifton property owner, it’s worth the investment.

Deborah Morton and her family might be inclined to scale back or eliminate the farming operations at Richfield Farms. It should be their prerogative to do so. Farming, even on a small scale, is hard work. Farming and running a retail nursery and garden center has to be an exhausting way to earn a living, but if the descendants of Leenhardt Van Breeman wish to continue raising vegetables on some of their acreage, that would be a very good thing.

First, although nostalgia and romance are important, there is more at stake than the nostalgia and romance associated with a century-old business such as Richfield Farms. When family-owned and operated businesses thrive, the community around them thrives. Big-box retailers that provide the same goods and services provide jobs and tax revenue, but the profits don’t stay in the community. If a big-box store thrives, the local community doesn’t necessarily thrive with it.

Second, small local farms can be part of a food supply that is more resilient in the face of climate change. Third, and related to the second, Richfield Farms, along with other local farms, is in a position to model sustainable and even regenerative growing techniques for local gardeners. By such practices as composting on site and planting cover crops in the fall they are helping to nourish the soil. Through social media and other advertising they are encouraging local gardeners to do likewise. Recent coverage of soil science in the The New York Times, in The Atlantic, and on NPR point out that such practices can remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. Such practices also foster biodiversity, which is important for a healthy planet.

Best wishes to Clifton’s city officials and to the Morton family for success in this enterprise. Clifton will be a better community if Richfield Farms can begin its second century with solid support from city officials and the community at large.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: The Art of the Commonplace

The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian EssaysThe Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry

Norman Wirzba edited this collection of essays and wrote the introduction. Mr. Wirzba himself has written and edited books, essays, and articles on caring for creation, living in harmony with creation, food and faith, and related subjects.

Wendell Berry’s writing is a joy to read. In it we find such sentiments as these: “It is not from ourselves that we will learn to be better than we are.” (from the essay “A Native Hill”) and “Respect, I think, always implies an imagination—the ability to see one another across our inevitable differences as living souls.” (from the essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.”)

Wendell Berry’s writing is difficult to read. His writing is prophetic; he does not write to make his readers comfortable or to make his readers feel good about themselves. He hands down indictments of many institutions that are embedded in Western culture: consumerism, corporate greed, and the leisure and entertainment cultures.

Not everyone who reads Wendell Berry holds him in high regard. Allen T. Stanton, a Methodist pastor, wrote Why I Hate Wendell Berry for Duke University’s online publication Faith & Leadership. The argument is easy to understand. Wendell Berry’s writings, especially his essays, are seen as idealizing, or romanticizing small-town and rural life. Those of us who’ve never lived in a small town or spent time on a farm often buy into the idealized vision. If we’ve read enough of Berry, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals), or even Ragan Sutterfield (Cultivating Reality), we assume that we know how to fix America’s agricultural and food systems.

It brings to mind this quote from Meaghan Hammond in This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm: “This second-guessing of basic animal husbandry, often to satisfy a grocery shopper who has never been on on a farm, is a sore point for almost anyone engaged in raising livestock these days.”

What, then, is the point of reading agrarian writers or those who write on related subjects? It is to try to understand what has been lost in our relationships with the food that we eat and to try to find ways of restoring a proper relationship with food and with those who produce it from wherever we are in the food supply chain.

If Wendell Berry’s writing is nothing else, it is  call to action for thoughtful readers. In that spirit, please consider these action items from the final essay in this collection, “The Pleasures of Eating,” which also appears in his collection What Are People For?

  1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it. Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer. Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again. You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life.
  2. Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of “quality control”: you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat.
  3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.
  4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. All the reasons listed for the previous suggestion apply here. In addition, by such dealing you eliminate a whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers.
  5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. What is added to food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions?
  6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.
  7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

I have not read many collections of essays, and I would imagine this is true of other essayists: All of the essays in this book have also been published in other collections. Each of the following collections of Berry’s essays includes at least two of the essays in The Art of the Commonplace:

  • What are People For?
  • Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community
  • The Gift of Good Land
  • The Unsettling of America
  • Home Economics

Wendell Berry might have mixed thoughts about this observation. On the one hand, if your public library consortium has a fair collection of Wendell Berry’s works, you can probably read all of essays without buying any of his books of essays. Patronizing a community resource such as the library is certainly in the spirit of the lifestyle that Berry advocates. On the other hand, he earns an income from the sale of these collections and other works. My first choice is always to borrow books from the library if I can.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Buy Local, Give Local

Thanksgiving is followed quickly by two important days: Small Business Saturday (Saturday 25 November 2017) and Giving Tuesday (Tuesday 28 November 2017). Intelligent readers will have no trouble deciding what to do on either day. For Giving Tuesday in particular I thought it might be good to highlight some of the small nonprofit organizations that I’ve had contact with this year.

market&allwood_web

I haven’t donated cash to or volunteered with all of these organizations. In fact I’ve volunteered with only two; three if you count playing in the Bloomfield Civic Band as volunteering. The point of this list is to encourage you to think about the charitable organizations in your own local area and think about ways that you can support them on Giving Tuesday and throughout the year.

What I would also like most of all is for you to comment with suggestions for local charities in your area that deserve support. Updates will be posted to my FB page and Twitter feed as they come in. If you and I are friends on FB or Twitter your friends will see the posts and may also be prompted to take action. I do not plan to filter any suggestions out unless they happen to be for some organization that most readers would find abhorrent. Please supply a URL along with the name of the organization.

I look forward to hearing from. Now, here’s my starter list:

Urban Farming, Sustainable Agriculture

Environment

Autism Awareness and Advocacy

Services for the Homeless and Other Neighbors in Need

Welfare of At-Risk Moms and Children

Music Education and Performing Arts

Miscellaneous

  • Friends of the (your town name here) Public Library

From Andy Walsh  (Mostly Pittsburgh Area)

  • Light of Life Rescue Mission serves the needs of the homeless and others in the Pittsburgh North Side community where I work; in fact, their newest facility will be going up where I used to park.
    https://www.lightoflife.org/
  • The Watson Institute provides services for many individuals and families with special needs, including those with autism spectrum diagnoses. The organization has a rich history, having previously served polio patients and working with Jonas Salk in developing the vaccine.
    https://www.thewatsoninstitute.org/

Final Thoughts

It should be clear to any observer, regardless of their political leanings or affiliations, that the current philosophy and actions of the U.S. federal government will make the need for private charitable enterprise much greater for the foreseeable future. Whether the enterprise is care for the environment, care for people who have fallen on hard times, or any of the dozens of other social concerns we could name, private individuals and small organizations will have a greater role to fill to meet the challenges of the coming years. Some may think that is as it should be. No matter; the needs will be there and they will be substantial. This Giving Tuesday I hope we can all stretch our imaginations and our budgets a little to stand in the gap.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

The Dirt on Soil

Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon CountryGrass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country by Courtney White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a pleasure to read. The title suggests that the material might be dry, but Courtney White’s writing keeps the reader engaged. The journey metaphor, though hard to follow at some points, manages to create a usable framework for the several stories.

The central conceit, and not to be overlooked as the reader takes the journey, is that building, restoring, and maintaining healthy soil is an essential component of global ecology. A two percent increase in soil carbon could offset “a large percentage of greenhouse-gas emissions going into the atmosphere.”

The journey itself takes the reader through Marin County and The San Joaquin river delta in California. The reader visits an organic farm in New Hampshire and an urban backyard in Holyoke, Massachusetts. On to Logan, Utah, Emporia, Kansas, New Orleans, and a rooftop farm in Brooklyn, New York. The author also spends time close to home in New Mexico, while planning a visit to a sheep farm in Australia.

Grass is the title floral character. Fauna include beavers, sheep, spiders, cattle, bees, chickens, and of course soil microorganisms. All of them are partners in the work of soil building.

Michael Pollan wrote the foreword. Courtney White’s other inspirations are Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, and Wendell Berry. Like them, she approaches her topic with a mixture of scientific and philosophical analyses.

Two other titles on the subject are waiting on my to-read list: The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet and Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. The author of the former, Kristin Ohlson, also has also had an article published in the April/May 2017 issue of National Wildlife magazine: http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines….

Keep the conversation going.

View all my reviews

Caterpillars, Compost, and Natural Cycles

Recently our parsley patch hosted some black swallowtail caterpillars. At least two were observed over several days. A family member suggested that we remove them and display them in Jody’s first grade classroom. The expectation was that they would soon enter the chrysalis stage, and would subsequently emerge as adult butterflies.

Continue reading

Wildlife in the Local (North Jersey) News

The Herald News for Sunday, 10th January, offered two pieces about local wildlife:

The Bergen County Audubon Society advocates for smarter gardens.

A pair of bald eagles, residents of Ridgefield Park, are given some space by a local developer.

A third article about Ivan Kossak of Lincoln Park, a birder and an environmental activist, appeared in the print edition but is not available on line.

It’s great to see the local news media giving such extensive coverage to local wildlife. Enjoy! And thanks as always for stopping by.

Open the Pea Pod Bay Doors, HAL

On 12th May 2015 an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia. Eight passengers lost their lives. Most of the other passengers were injured. As the details of the crash spread through news channels, many reports featured discussions of an automated system known as Positive Train Control (PTC) which, it is believed, would have prevented the accident had it been in use on that stretch of Amtrak’s route.

It is reasonable to believe that with PTC been in place the accident might not have happened. Still, thousands of trains, driven by hundreds of engineers, have safely negotiated that curve without PTC or anything like it. The engineer involved in the accident himself was fully capable of safely negotiating that curve.

At the time that the details of this accident were becoming public knowledge I also happened to be reading Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. A few hours spent reading that book and his earlier work, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains are hours well spent.

Although it is wise to read his work with one’s critical thinking skills engaged, Nicholas Carr is not a 21st-century Luddite. He would observe that both the Internet and automation have tremendous value from which he and we benefit every day. Nonetheless he does question the value of automation in certain specific applications, such as autopilot systems on commercial aircraft, driverless cars, electronic medical records and diagnostic systems, and GPS systems.

Carr begins The Glass Cage by citing an FAA SAFO, or Safety Alert For Operators, issued on 4th January 2013: “This SAFO encourages operators to promote manual flight operations when appropriate.” In other words, commercial pilots should be encouraged to switch off the autopilot system from time to time to maintain their skill in responding to changing flying conditions.

He cites examples such as the crash of Continental Airlines Flight 3407 in Buffalo in 2009 and the introduction of GPS navigation among the Inuit residents of Igloolik Island in far northern Canada to support the argument that heavy or total reliance on automation is not necessarily a good thing.

In the chapter on GPS systems he cites research in neuroscience that suggests exercising the areas of the brain involved in navigation is critical in maintaining the ability to remember things in general. “It may well be that the brain’s navigational sense—its ancient, intricate way of plotting and recording movement through space—is the evolutionary font of all memory.” One neuroscientist he cites even suggests that letting the brain’s navigation center atrophy could result in a “general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia.”

As an editor and a wannabe writer I rely on automation and digital technologies, including the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary, search engines, and sophisticated  word-processing software. For all of their power, however, digital technologies can’t replace the very basic knowledge and skills that help me correct poor syntax, recognize when “form” has been typed when “from” is needed, or write a cohesive and coherent paragraph.

As a hobbyist gardener I also rely on digital technology to help with some things, such as figuring out why my dieffenbachia plant is failing, researching recipes that make use of garlic scapes, or deciding what native plants to include in my garden plans to attract pollinators. However, even though it might be possible to build a robotic system to till the soil in the spring, turn in the compost in the fall, or pull out the sorrel and lamb’s quarter in the summer, those are still tasks that will be done manually, with tools powered by carbohydrates and not hydrocarbons, in our garden.

squash plant and garden trowel
A manual planting device and an analog squash plant.

Concluding his discourse on automation, Nicholas Carr turns to Robert Frost. Quoting the next to last line of “Mowing,” Carr observes “Labor, whether of the body or of the mind, is more than a way of getting things done. It’s a form of contemplation, a way of seeing the world face to face rather than through a glass [as in a glass cage].”

 I am encouraged that among the readers of these posts are people who enjoy physical activity and some forms of manual labor. They know that they need to put away the keyboard and screen, the tablet, or the smart phone, if only for a few minutes, and go out and dig in the dirt, look for the bugs and the birds, or follow the red blazes to the summit. Best wishes to all of you for an active, healthy, productive summer 2015.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Lettuce Alone (Maybe With Spinach or Peas) for a Successful School Garden

The school garden has grown in popularity in recent years, whether it consists of a few plastic containers in the corner of a paved school yard, or a group of raised beds on the school lawn. There are many vegetables and herbs that will grow and yield a harvest in even the most modest of gardens. There is also no end to the list of lessons that teachers, students, and parents can harvest from a garden.

Basil in a container.
Basil in a container.

Because the school year ends in May or June in most of the United States, a school garden presents a timing challenge to the teachers, students, and parents who plant and maintain it. Many of the popular vegetables that do well in small gardens, from beans to broccoli, from tomatoes to collard greens, mature later in the season. This means that the students who plant the tomatoes often don’t get to enjoy the tomatoes.

A raised bed garden at a suburban school.
A raised bed garden at a suburban school.

Here’s how one school met that challenge. A K-2 school in northern New Jersey has had a school garden for three years. At the suggestion of one of the first grade teachers, who is also a home gardener, the garden includes lettuce. By the end of May this one school garden can yield two or three harvests of salad greens with still more to come.

Lettuce seeds can be planted in the school garden early in the spring. Lettuce grows best in the cooler weeks of April and May. Best of all, with lettuce the whole plant above the root is edible. That means that the smaller lettuce plants can be harvested, cleaned, and eaten as a means of thinning the garden. Think baby mixed greens. As the remaining plants continue to grow, the leaves can be harvested and the plants will continue to grow new leaves. Take care to wash the greens thoroughly. A salad spinner will remove the water after each washing.

Although it might seem improbable, the lettuce from this garden is a real crowd-pleaser. Even in this suburban setting the children and some of the adults who sample the harvest are surprised by how much flavor fresh-from-the-garden greens can deliver.

What kind of lettuce gives you this kind of harvest? Look for mixed greens, sometimes called mesclun. Read the package to see what varieties you will get. You might be surprised to find things like mustard greens and dandelions in the mix. Don’t worry; the dandelions are different from the ones you pull out of your lawn and they won’t infect any nearby turf unless they are allowed to flower and go to seed.

Are there other crops that can be planted and harvested in the spring before school lets out for the summer? Spinach fits that description. In northern New Jersey spinach seeds can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked. Mid-March is not too early. Peas also thrive in cool weather; look for varieties of peas with edible pods. Ask your local garden center staff for their recommendations. Feel to post your own in the comments section of this post!

The school garden season is winding down for this school year, but it’s not too early to plan for next year, or even to think about some fall plantings. Best wishes for success with your own school or home or community garden.

With a tip of the hat to Jodi Mattock Walsh for suggesting this post, thanks as always for stopping by!