So Sunday (the 15th of March) was a big day. I really wanted to go skiing, given that the Sierra's had received seven feet of snow in the past week. But I was OK staying at home given that the near-constant rains of the past month had let up and we were looking at a perfect weekend. I spent Saturday making raised garden bed frames for our anticipated shipments of potatoes and asparagus. Both are perennials and need lots of sun, so making new beds in the center of the garden was easier than trying to move the two beds we have to a new location. At least it seemed that way when I got started. I got the plans for the raised beds from Sunset; here's a link to their plans: Sunset Raised Bed Plan
So after constructing the beds on Saturday, I was ready to place them Sunday and begin filling them with dirt. Thanks to our recent Livestock and Land project, I have a huge pile of dirt and rocks to work with, but there's a lot of effort involved to sift out the rocks and get dirt that's workable for garden soil. And since our soil tends to get compacted when it gets a lot of water, it needs to be amended with a fair bit of compost.
As is my custom, I started the job of filling the beds with dirt and compost by doing something else... namely, turning the piles of horse manure I've been composting since last fall. As I stripped off the plastic covering the piles (to warm them and keep them from getting soaked by all the rain) I was excited to see that the first pile was ready to be used as compost. How did I know? I didn't really, except that as I worked the pile it smelled, looked, and acted a lot more like dirt than horse manure. As my old Nortel colleague Fred Manus would have said, it passed the "duck test".
You're correct: it's the sign of farmer geek-ness when you get excited about a pile of horse shit. I'm OK with that. I see it as another step toward a biodynamic farm--one where the farm and ranch wastes are recycled into nutrients for the next round of crops. Sounds pretty cool to me! It responds to my inner desire not to fill up landfills and my inner cheapskate--I don't have to pay to haul away the manure, and I don't have to pay to buy more compost. It's a win-win!
So I was able to start the new beds with a layer of compost from the erstwhile horse manure. Then I added compost from the pile of leaves and branches that is what our overgrown wysteria plant became. After that came calcium. Our garden muse, Cynthia Waters (aka "the tomato lady" and grower for Manresa Restaurant) recommends crushed crab shells, but given our family affinity for oysters, we opted for crushed oyster shells. After that will come more dirt, sifted out of the giant dirt and rock pile that, Doc has discovered, has become home to our resident ground squirrels.
Last year we started with three beds, about four by twelve feet each. These dimensions matched what we had set up in our Ben Lomond property. But while they seemed huge in that location, seting them in the middle of a 100 x 100 foot field made them look puny. Still, they were a start. And, since I had dug them by hand using a pick-axe and shovel in 95' weather, they were plenty of work.
But, as we set our sights on a greater amount and variety of vegetables (recall the OCD reference above) we wanted to expand. I started our original beds right in the ground because we couldn't afford materials for enclosed beds. Since then, I've developed a liking for working directly in the ground--it feels more like farming than gardening. So while I was happy to accommodate the OCD chicken rancher in our household with more raised beds, I was hankering to expand the in-ground beds as well. Happily, all the rains have softened up the ground considerably, so I discovered (after one go with the pick-axe) that I could turn the soil over using just a shovel. You may say "what's the big deal", but I invite you to come over and try turning over a shovel full of dirt once it warms up and the ground starts to dry out.
So I was able to extend each of the beds about another eight feet, and then amended them with compost and oyster shells like I did with the raised beds. Of course the chickens thought this was great--I'm now their worm-producing god, as they would run from one spot of freshly turned soil to another, looking for earthworms to eat. Hey, keep it biodynamic!
Now the beds are nearly ready for planting. Our asparagus and potato starters are being resent from the seed company we use in Maine, Johnny's Seeds, since the original shipment got held up in that bad winter weather in the East. We got tomato starters this past weekend, and have started some from seeds (my brother has outsourced his tomato growing to me, since he doesn't get enough hot weather to make it work). We'll be getting various greens (arugula being my favorite) in the ground soon, with peppers, tomatoes, beans, and other goodies to follow.
Check out the photo album if you want to see the beds in their various stages of progress. And if you're in the neightborhood, stop by for some free compost!