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Archive for March 15th, 2007

I was out in my vegetable garden this afternoon getting ready to plant the carrot seeds.   There is a section of the garden that I have sort of ceded to the chicory/endive family.  It is off in a back corner, and every year for the past five years I have sort of just let these very hardy plants “own” that part of the bed.   There is a whole lot more of these bitter greens growing in that area than I would ever need for any salad I would ever concoct. 

These plants seem to be rather closely related to dandelions.  They have the central whorl of leaves, many of which are toothed and divided.   They sport very long, deep tap roots that exude a milk when broken.  If you are trying to get rid of them, and leave even a little tip of the tap root behind, like dandelions they will grow back from it.   The flowers are very similar in form to dandelions, only they are bright sky blue.  They re-seed themselves freely, with abandon, even.

The  reason I allow them to keep homesteading that part of my garden is the bees, tachnid wasps, butterflies and hummingbirds find the pretty blue flowers to be a valuable source of nectar and pollen.   The plants seem to be happy to coexist with aphids and whiteflies, and so the wren finds them to be a valuable forage source also.  In the fall, the finches find the seeds tasty.  

I have planted my peas (which are 1/2 inch tall now!) at the east end of the bed in which  this pioneer plant community has established itself.   In between the end where the chicory group is and where the pea patch ends, there is just enough room for my carrot planting.  The wild patch has expanded its territory over the past couple of years, so I decided that it was time to sort of beat it back into its corner.

I was out with my fork, loosening the soil and removing the encroaching greens.  I also worked in the patch, loosening the soil there, thinning it some as well.   I was thrilled by the deep, loose soil I was finding.   All through the area were the tunnels created by the earthworms as they wended their way through the root mass.   Every time I turned up a forkful of dirt, there were ten or twenty worms wriggling around.  Jim called me in to lunch half an hour ago, and I’m sure that while I was enjoying the sausage rice casserole, the robins were out investigating the bonanza of freshly revealed worms I left behind.

As I was doing this job I started reminiscing about other digging jobs I have done in the past.   In particular, I bethought myself of the weeding/mulching task Jim, Jesse and I performed at Jim’s mother’s house around 1997 or 1998.   It was after Jim’s dad had died, and Jim’s mother had been diagnosed with a terminal abdominal cancer.   His brother and brother’s wife were living in the family home along with Mom to make sure there were caretakers available for her. 

For 45 years, Mom and Dad had maintained their home place almost completely organically.   They used mulch to control weeds, and hoed and pulled the ones that mulch did not put down.   They did spray their roses every spring with nicotine to control the aphids out there.   The place was equipped with extensive drip irrigation systems.  Every year they grew vegetables; there was an almond tree, apricot, Santa Rosa Plum, apples, peach, pear; extensive flower beds with a large collection of fuschias.

The front yard was an absolutely amazing rose garden.   There were 48 different roses out there, some of them were over 40 years old.   As Mom grew weaker and less able to tend the roses, they began to suffer from weeds.   The Caretaking Couple were much too busy with their own things to be bothered with the long loved rose garden.   The weeds bothered Mom, and so the CC decided to control them by spraying them with RoundUp.  So easy, you know.

We have all heard all about how safe RoundUp is, and how it breaks down in the environment and goes away.   We hear this from Monsanto, who has a vested interest in seeing this substance used in gardens and farms all over the world.  They make tons of money selling this stuff.   It does kill weeds, IF you spray them when they are actively growing.

The studies carefully run by Monsanto show that there is no pesticide residue left in the soil after a few days.   Their studies also show that the herbicide is not toxic to worms and other soil creatures, or to birds or mammals after it has broken down.   Unfortunately, independent studies have indicated that the chemical does not break down the way Monsanto says it does, and you find toxic residue for months afterwards.  While it does not kill the worms, it does kill the soil fungi and bacteria that are an integral part of healthy soil.

What we found in Mom’s rose garden was startling.   There were no living weeds, they had been sprayed to death.   Contrary to my experience, the dead plant material had not broken down at all.   Leaves, stems, roots were all there, dead and dry, making a rather ugly layer of dead weeds all through the garden.   Even the roots had not started to break down, which made getting rid of the dead weeds quite difficult.   They were not decomposing because the bacteria and fungi that do this job for us were all dead.   In addition, there were no earthworms present anywhere in the garden, or any other bugs, for that matter.  Needless to say, there weren’t any bug-eating birds around either.

Five years ago we had a neighbor who occupied the house next door.   He was way too busy to do anything in his yard.  He subscribed to TruGreen ChemLawn (what a concept!), who would come by his place every other week and spray whatever substance they felt was necessary all over his lawn.   Every two weeks, the lawn would sport a subtle little sign in the corner by his driveway warning you not to allow pets or children to play on the lawn until it was totally dry.  Every Saturday morning,  my neighbor would hop on his riding lawn mower and mow it down to 2 inches high.  

One fine spring morning, I awakened to a heck of a racket out my bedroom window.  I got up to see what was going on, and a large flock of migrating robins had arrived.   I counted 500 of them before I quit trying to enumerate them.  They were hopping about on my lawn, and on the lawn of the house across the street, and out in our field, scrounging around in my flower beds, talking and singing and chirping.   Hundreds of robins were in the area, but there was not a single bird on the TruGreen ChemLawn next door.   If one landed there, it would spend as much as 15 seconds on that lawn, and then immediately fly over to my yard.  Coincidence?  Or TruGreen ChemLawn?

The irony was, in spite of all the expensive chemicals thrown at it, the neighbor’s  monoculture lawn had many bald spots and was not healthy looking at all.  My yard looked better than his did, stayed green even in the heat of August because of the hardy broad leaved weeds that populated it.  It drove him nuts. 

It has been three years since he moved away and TruGreen ChemLawn stopped maintaining the yard next door.  The birds still do not utilize that yard, the grass is sicker than ever.   I wonder how long it will take for the soil to become healthy again?

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