Gardening & Agriculture Archive

Even Earthworms Are Bad Now

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I am having trouble with one of the latest scientific findings. Some researchers are saying that earthworms are bad for forests. The new data claims the worms, which are mostly non-native species, gobble up too much of the leaf litter, leaving the forest floor bare and compacted. Wildflowers like trillium and bloodroot and even maple seedlings disappear, according to these scientists.

I know it is impertinent for a non-scientist to argue with the experts, but their conclusions in this case run counter to my experience in my tree groves and to my sense of logic. First of all, since the earthworms being discussed mostly came from Europe, why didn’t they destroy any forests over there?

For sure, my woodland is loaded with earthworms, especially night crawlers. I find their little piles of castings (I guess that’s what they are) on my way to the barn every morning. The woodland floor however remains six inches deep with leaf litter throughout most of the year, breaking down to about three inches by fall when a new layer of leaves drop. There certainly is no bare, compacted soil anywhere except on the lane to the barn where I drive truck and tractor.

Furthermore, the trillium and bloodroot that I have started in the woods proliferate except where deer nibble them. And as for maple seedlings, they grow up everywhere like weeds.

Furthermore again, the worms turn the leaves they do eat into rich humus and tunnel up and down in the forest soil, keeping it permeable and water-absorbing, a far, far cry from a barren, compacted soil surface.

I think scientists should turn their attention more to deer. Where plant life seems to be diminishing in woodland, deer are often to blame. When experimental fences are erected in forests to keep out deer, plant life proliferates, offering a stark contrast to the grazed portions outside the enclosures.

Visit Gene's blog to read the rest of his thoughts on the so-called earthworm phobia.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

A Farmer Who Actually Farms

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Life is so much a matter of contrasts. Last week I wrote about a large scale farmer of several thousand acres who drives his computer 9 hours a day while his brother and hired help to the actual farming. In stark contrast, shortly after I talked to him, an old friend stopped by to tell me that, after nearly forty years, he was retiring from small scale dairying. He tried to be upbeat about it but I could tell that he was sad too. He will keep on farming his 200 acres and maybe raise a few steers. Old dairymen never die, they just quit milking cows.

I’ve bragged in my writing over the years about Steve and Pat Gamby way more than they wish I would. Against all economic expertise, they have made a success of small-scale commercial farming and of life. They are very devoted to each other. They’ve raised three children anyone would be proud of. One of them, Rebecca, just finishing up college, happens to be an outstanding athlete also. She was playing last week with the USA national women’s softball team that would be our USA Olympic team if women’s softball was still in the Olympics. She played with and against the best softball players in the U.S. (actually in the world) and did all right for herself.

Her father did all right for himself in sports too, having played professional baseball in the minor leagues before he decided he’d rather stay home and milk cows. That’s how I got to know him. When I found out there was a former minor league ballplayer in our neighborhood, I courted him shamelessly for our softball team. He decided to play, against his better judgment, I think, because softball tournaments can play hob with a milking schedule. Oh, those were the days and I could tell you stories.

If there were an Olympic team for dairy farming, I’m fairly sure Steve and Pat would be on it. They have just done everything right by my idealistic standards— and they did not start out with inherited money either. As soon as the organic farming wave of interest started washing up on commercial agriculture’s shores, they were surfing it. That has meant, in addition to all the environmental advantages of good organic farming, that they have been getting considerably more for their organic milk than regular dairies get. While industrial farming boasts of corn prices in the $6 range and soybeans in the $14 range, organic corn and soybeans have been selling for almost twice that amount and Steve has some to sell now that he won’t be feeding a dairy herd. Oh, by the way, he seldom looks at computers. (He makes Pat do that.) He has rarely milked more about 40 cows, maybe 50 on occasion, but usually around 35. The experts at Ohio State, studying their computers, say that a herd that small is not profitable.

Now that Steve’s dairying is winding down, Pat’s lifetime interest is coming to the fore. She is a talented artist and has always been able to sell paintings of farm life when she could find time to paint them. Now she and Steve are building an attractive artist’s shop right there on the farm where she plans to devote more or less full time to her painting (when not going to Rebecca’s ballgames or baby-sitting grandchildren just across the fields). The fact that a farm can be the locus for many other small businesses and hobbies along with farming has always been one of its unsung but important advantages.

Actually, there are still lots of successful small dairy families and I just can’t believe that they will vanish before this latest wave of landed oligarchy and plutocracy run by computers. Plutocracy (feudalism is a better word for where big time farming is headed, as readers here have pointed out) always collapses and small enterprises continue to start up, right? Please tell me I am right.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

What Is The Secret Of Parsnips?

Friday, June 15th, 2012

Whenever I go to a big supermarket that carries fresh food, I always find these long, wrinkled, ugly, rooty-looking things called parsnips on display. Someone must like them or they wouldn’t be there, but I can’t find anyone who admits to eating them, or anyone who knows what the attraction might be. It certainly isn’t phallic, as carrots sometimes get portrayed.  What is the allure of parsnips?

We grew parsnips once. They were slow to germinate so weeds got a head start on them. As for taste, I am not saying they weren’t edible if cooked with enough butter, but that is kind of true of cardboard too. Parsnips are “best” in early spring after having spent the entire winter in cold or even frozen soil. The cold enhances their taste which tells me that in the fall they must taste terrible. Nowadays, marketers sometimes refrigerate fall-harvested parsnips before selling them.

Parsnips have been cultivated and cherished at least back as far as ancient Roman times. The most obvious reason for their popularity is that they are available to eat before any new growth arrives in spring, a real advantage before modern storage methods came along. But there are other roots in the ground that also survive winter. Why parsnips?  Help me out here.

What little solid history I can find about the parsnip only increases the mystery.  In Gardening For Profit, an interesting old book by Peter Henderson, first published in 1867, the author goes to great length pointing out that parsnips are not a profitable crop for market gardeners to grow. But then in an about face, he tells about a year when for some reason a shortage of parsnips occurred in early spring when they were most in demand. The price rose so high that Henderson and his crew of workers actually used “crowbars, picks, and wedges” to pry the roots out of the half-frozen ground. He sold $800 worth of parsnips from less than an acre. Remember, this was in the 1860s! How much money would that be today? Normally, an acre of parsnips sold then for around $200.  My question: who liked parsnips enough to pay that kind of money for them?

Read the rest at Gene's blog, and find out what his other readers have to say to his root-vegetable cynicism.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Money Doesn’t Grow On Trees and Trees Don’t Grow On Money

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

I was so gratified to see Wendell Berry’s remarks in a recent interview (“Wendell Berry: Landsman” with Jim Leach in Humanities magazine, May/June 2012) where he makes a point about economics that is overlooked in these days when divisiveness rules the political roost. The general view is that the economic battle is between capitalism and socialism, but as Wendell observes, “both are industrial systems and they have made the same mistakes in some ways.”  Both have ignored “the propriety of scale and the standard of ecological health.”

Yes, yes, yes. But I would like to go farther (probably too far) than Wendell did. Both capitalism and socialism are similar industrial systems basically because both accept and practice the industrial idea that the fundamental tool to “growing an economy” is the ability to borrow money at compound interest rates. I certainly would be foolish to deny the effectiveness, maybe the necessity, of being able to borrow money. We borrowed to buy our first house and car. But seeing how borrowed money nearly ruined people I knew when I was growing up, I was determined never to borrow again if I could avoid it and I never did. Repaying a loan over a long period of time often means buying the house or car twice and if one carries credit card debt all the time, to paying for stuff more than three times.

Somehow this kind of insanity has become sanctified in our society as if it were holy scripture. The phrase “free enterprise” is uttered by its high priests with all the fervor of a biblical evangelist uttering “the Lord Jesus Christ.”  I remember the first time I confronted this kind of reverence and realized with a shock, that “free enterprise,” guided by what its followers called an “invisible hand,” was almost a synonym for God.

Read the rest at Gene's blog.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Chickweed May Not Be The Worst Weed, But…

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

I don’t want to call chickweed the worst weed in the garden because I think it is trying to teach us a lesson about sustainable farming. But in its selected field of operation, the rich organic garden, chickweed is almost indestructible.  Oh, you can blot it out with a thick layer of mulch for a whole year. But look out when the mulch decays away. The chickweed comes roaring back.

A year like 2012 seems to tell us that chickweed will be with us always. The winter never got really cold where I live. Chickweed, which can grow when the temperature gets above about 50 degrees F., never slowed down much, even in January. In all the garden plots where I thought I had obliterated it, it spread like the plague. By the end of February it was ready to go to seed, guaranteeing immortality.

Then March came and with it weather that we usually get in May. The ground was soaked; the air was warm. Chickweed switched into super-NASCAR growth speed. By the time the ground was dry enough to cultivate, the weed had formed a four inch thick mat and of course was blooming.  Have you ever tried to take on a carpet of four inch thick chickweed with a garden tiller? Might as well try to chop up a mattress with a hoe.  The tiller just bounced off the stuff. So I sharpened my hoe to a razor’s edge and attacked. Chop. Bounce. Chop. Bounce. Chop. Bounce. I knelt down and started ripping great gobs of the green hellion out of the ground with my bare hands. Where it was really rooted down, I didn’t have the strength to pull it out. Where I could get it loose, it came up in great gobs that removed two inches of topsoil with it. I finally got out my big field disk and tractor and ripped through the mat. Then the garden tiller would, in three or four passes, make the stuff turn brown in big gobs that I could remove by hand or manure fork.

Weedkillers will turn the green mattress into a yellow one. The yellow, half dead growth is just as hard to till through as the green stuff.  And soon, oh so very soon, new green troops arrive at the scene.

I haven’t tried it yet, but other gardeners tell me that the best control is a flamethrower. I am not kidding….

Read the entire story over at Gene's blog The Contrary Farmer and hear about Gene's latest plan for immortality!

Editor's Note: The satisfaction of blasting weeds with a flamethrower cannot be overstated. It's awesome.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently,

A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Writing A Sanctuary of Trees

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Writing books is a precarious business. I’ve been foolish enough to do it now about 28 times and I never know what is going to happen. I expected to get scolded for my novels (too irreverent about religion) and for titling a non-fiction book “Holy Shit.” But oddly enough, most readers seemed amused, as I had hoped, rather than irritated in these cases.  Much to my surprise church ministers who responded were especially positive in reaction to my criticisms of institutional religion. Obviously there is a great upheaval bubbling up right below the surface of traditional religious sects of all kinds. A professor of theology and stalwart defender of Christianity at one of our leading universities, after reading my irreverent novel, “Pope Mary and the Church of Almighty Good Food,” which he says he enjoyed, now calls me, not altogether jokingly, “one of the good atheists.”  In return I call him “one of the good Christians.”  We get along wonderfully. This is precisely the kind of relationship that I think is becoming more the norm.  You must remember how bad things used to be. When I was a Catholic kid seventy years ago, we were told it was a sin to go to a Protestant church service. Although there is still much conflict between various religious groups, and between religion and non-religion, more and more I see a joining of hands to get to the real work of keeping our civilization plodding along.

So I wrote “A Sanctuary of Trees” and even in such an uncontroversial book (I thought), I am getting scolded more than from previous books. My underlying intention in everything I write is to try to show, in what I hope to be a humorously wry way, the direct connections between agriculture and urban culture as human activity plays itself out in history. In the first part of “A Sanctuary of Trees,” I conjoined silviculture with my early years in a Catholic seminary studying for the priesthood. What I learned from the forests surrounding the several seminary locations I attended influenced me more than what I was hearing in the classroom. What I learned in both places led me eventually to choose the forest and leave the seminary.

Now I am being taken to task for rejecting my “call from God.” I am surprised since I thought this was a minor part of the book. But that’s okay because it is another indication to me of how closely culture and agriculture can be linked in the human mind, even if presently they usually are not. In our present traditional society, becoming a priest is a “call from God.”  Becoming a forest-loving farmer instead should be a “call from God” too, and that is what I hope traditional religion will in the future readily recognize.

Farming is more than a commercial business. It is a religion also, using the term in its broadest sense, and I think society is coming to realize that concept more and more today.  Whether one believes in calls from God, or from Nature, or from both, or from neither, it is much more than a “call from Money” as it is now so often considered. There is a spiritual side to good food production that if ignored leads to bad food production and the downfall of civilizations.  Food and its production are pivotal to all forms of religion and all forms of non-religion. The god-fearing farmer and the godless farmer have much in common even if they use different words to express that commonality. In the current overwhelming trend to local food production and markets, I see old culture joining hands with new culture and to me that is tremendously promising.

Nevertheless, this aspect of the book should not overshadow the main theme: the enjoyment and sustenance that woodland lovers can derive from their own little groves of trees. For reasons that seem to have little logical explanation (a call from Nature?), I have spent much of my life among tree groves— unwittingly at first, intentionally later on. In many ways the groves were not only my sanctuary but my sanity and salvation. I just wish everyone could experience that kind of paradise and that is the main reason I wrote the book.

Originally posted here.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Erratic Effects of Spring Frost

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Here are two stalks of asparagus growing just a foot apart. Both are of the same thickness and height. After an early morning temperature of 28 degrees F, one stalk is frozen and one is not.  I have seen this happen many times. Anyone know why?

This spring, when temperatures went from ridiculously high levels much of winter and early spring, and then plunged on some nights in late March and early April as much as fifty degrees in 24 hours into the twenties, fruit farmers are at their wits’ end. Early warm weather usually means lots of killing frost later on. One market gardener told me a month ago while we were both enjoying our lovely blossoming trees that I could kiss my peaches goodbye for this year.  I thought so too, but strangely, against all odds including at least seven nights of below freezing weather since then, I still have peaches. Trying to figure out why provides a whole bunch of observations about frost, none of them suggesting anything conclusive except that official weather reports of the highs and lows for the day don’t always apply equally to every local area within the reported area.

So many factors influence frost killing that I doubt actual official temperatures are very meaningful. Sometimes the slightest little change in one farm’s micro-climate compared to another can make a huge difference. I don’t know for sure why my peaches survived. First of all they got through winterkill, the usual destroyer of peaches here, when a couple of warm days in January or February can cause buds to swell. Then really cold weather kills them. Having survived that, most of all because it never got really cold, these peach trees came into full bloom in early March, a month ahead of schedule. The warm spell lasted six days, enough so that the flower petals began to fall, and the tiny little peaches form.  These little peaches, however tender, can withstand a degree or two more of below freezing weather than open blossoms. (Professional peach growers say, even in bloom stage, a peach tree can handle 4 hours of 27 degree F weather but no lower or longer.) Not all the peach blooms survived. Some died and fell off, but the trees were overloaded with blossoms anyway, so that was good.

My trees are surrounded by large forest trees and grow next to the barn buildings. The trees can keep the temperature a degree or two warmer in their immediate surroundings, so experts tell me. Also barn buildings give off a bit of heat during the night that they absorbed from a preceding sunny day.  That’s why some gardeners espalier peach trees to the sides of their houses or against rock walls. Another frost protector is wind. Wind motion can literally blow frost away which is why in eastern Pennsylvania you find commercial peach orchards on steep mountainsides where one would think frost would be inescapable. At night, cold air sinks pulling warmer air higher up the mountain slope down through the orchards to fend off frost. In my situation, a northerly wind at night can sometimes keep frost away even at below freezing temperatures. Another frost defense is a large body of water nearby. Fruit orchards flourish along Lake Erie because the lake effect can keep the frost away that causes mischief farther south. I wonder if fruit trees avoid frosts if grown on the banks of farm ponds.

Frost effect can be exacerbated by mulch. In my earlier, innocent days I over-mulched part of my garden too early in the year—in May. Sure enough we had a late frost and it killed the squash plants that were heavily mulched but not anything where I had not yet mulched.  The mulch had prevented the warmth of the soil from rising up and fending off the frost.

All well and good, but none of that explains one frozen spear of asparagus just a foot away from an unfrozen spear. I like the mystery of it. If we knew the answer to everything, life wouldn’t be fun anymore.

Originally posted here.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Nature’s Promises Kept Again

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Every year in the brown, sere days before the great greening in spring, I begin to have doubts. Will the flowers come again?  Will the birds return? Will the trees leaf out? With all the despair and calamity rife in the world, the ancient fear that the end is near is as believable as ever.

Perhaps global warming will burn us up.

Oh no, it’s global cooling on the way. Watch out for glaciers.

No, no. The real fear is bombs and chemicals.

Not to worry. Disease outbreaks will get us before that.

Going into March I am gripped by a madness that has nothing to do with basketball. I am torn between despair over a political process descending into lunacy and an economic process that guarantees only an ever-growing poverty class.  I am glad I do not know how to tie a rope into a noose.

Then I look out the window one morning and see the great miracle. Snowdrops are blooming by the house wall. I blink my eyes and shake my head. They are still there. In a few more days they are joined by winter aconites, merry yellow jewels against the melting snow. Slowly but surely all the spring wildflowers return— actually this unusually warm spring, they came fast and furiously— and I feel that great uprising of joy and hope once again. Nature does not renege on her promises. . . .

Gene explains the wonders of springtime and how they renew Nature's promise over on his blog.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Hail, The Mighty Pocketknife

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Time was, a farmer would feel naked without a pocketknife in his bibs. Even today, it is the handiest tool of all. There is always a bale twine to cut, a splinter in the skin to remove, a fingernail to trim,  a scion to be grafted, a hoof to be cleaned, a pig testicle to be removed, a marshmallow stick to be sharpened, spark plugs to be scraped clean of carbon, an apple to peel, a hide to skin, a seed potato to cut, a lid to pry open, a beer bottle cap to pop off, string holding a sack closed to sever, a hole to be poked in fabric or rubber. It would be fun to hold a contest to see who can come up with the most uses for a pocketknife on the farm.

As boys, we used our knives mainly to play a game we called “mumblety-peg.”  (I have a hard time believing this, but Merriam-Webster says the first known use of that word, mumblety-peg, was in 1647, and that it first referred to what the loser in the game had to do— pull a peg out of the ground with his or her teeth.) The essence of the game was to stand the open knife vertically on arm, head, knee, whatever, and flip it so that the blade stuck in the ground. That’s how I learned that any knife will fall, end over end, and stick into the ground every time if allowed to fall from the right height using only gravity without any extra push or flip. Experienced mumblety-peg players knew that and had rules about how the knife was to be flipped or not flipped. Often it had to be flipped from between two fingers, going consecutively from one pair of fingers to the next. Off an arm, the player might have to execute a double flip before the knife stuck in the ground for the maneuver to be legitimate. We also spent a lot of time throwing our knives at trees so that they would stick like in Tarzan movies. This was a good way to ruin a pocketknife in a hurry.

Pop on over to The Contrary Farmer, Gene's personal blog, where you can read the rest of his musings on pocketknives.

sanctuaryoftrees Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently, A Sanctuary of Trees: Beech Nuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions

Can A Godless Farmer Be A Good Steward of the Soil?

Monday, February 6th, 2012

There is a growing realization in organized religion that something is awry in our industrial food delivery system. Churches are actively urging their members to become more involved directly in local and family gardening and farming. This is great news for those of us who have been fighting this battle for a long time. Organized religion can be a very powerful force in getting society’s feet back on the ground (literally) and we welcome all the help we can get.

But I am not sure how this is going to turn out. Hardly a week goes by now that someone doesn’t send me a book about church involvement in food production or I am not invited by a member of the clergy or a professor at a Christian college to give a talk, which pleases me deeply. But it also causes me a problem. I hardly qualify as a Christian anymore. I don’t know what I am. Sometimes I lean toward Buddhism but then I read a little more in that direction and don’t much agree with that either. I sort of envy Christians and Muslims because they believe in something so fantastically wonderful as an eternal life of utter bliss. I’ve tried to believe. Just can’t. Sorry.  So anyway when I am asked to give a talk about farming at a private religious college or, horrors, in a church, I get nervous. If the inviters knew that I was a godless contrarian, would they really want me to speak? America is a place where “godless” suggests “sinner” or certainly not saint. So I retreat into hypocrisy, giving my talk while cagily hedging my words so that I do not sound too heretical or hypocritical.

Last week when a professor of religion at a private college wanted me to give a talk, I decided it was time to be honest. I told him he might not like what I would say especially about how religious institutions so often glorify rich industrial farmers who practice destructive farming but who give generously to the churches. I told him I was sort of a godless heathen. Did that bother him?

Find out the answer on Gene's blog, The Contrary Farmer!

holyshit Gene Logsdon is the author of, most recently,

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind