Its the bees! And the bees knees if you look close enough...
Today we went to two counties over to get some bee supplies for our hive. We got our first hive last year and they are doing great. We've all heard about the bee die-off and all the suspected reasons why....so we were very relieved when we checked our bees and they were booming.
We'll get some honey this year...but we really want the hive to build up its strength before we do any serious harvesting. We'll also plant a lot of flowering plants and trees where we put the hive. The hive is down by the pond, which is an easy water source for them. These things, no pesticide use, feeding with sugar syrup, and a sheltered location are all you really need. And you have to be really brave - I'm NOT the lovely assistant to The Big Man. Me and the dogs hide in the house while he suits up to go work on the bees. I have my limits.
Now about this soil improvement stuff...
When we got to this property we foolishly assumed that the soil was good because the surrounding farms all looked like they were really producing. But then we found out our soil is the crappiest, red, hard clay imaginable. So we started an aggressive campaign to improve it.
Storey's Country Skills Encyclopedia, Mother Earth News, and Small Farmer's Journal were great references to help us figure out what to do about our bad soil. Basically we need to break up the clay by adding tilth...that is, we needed to add a lot of organic material to allow the plants to develop deep root systems and allow those roots to take up the available nutrition. The first year was a disaster, the second year (last year) was better, and this year as we tilled up our winter cover crop of wheat the soil was... heavenly. We had gotten past dirt and moved squarely into soil. Soil is different then dirt. Dirt is just dirt. Soil is a living thing full of microbes and live and all kinds of good stuff.
Last year in the upper garden we planted potatoes which are a good starter crop for clay soil. They root well in clay and we use an easy-peasy method of planting that requires a lot of straw. When we harvested them we achieved two objectives - first such a dig-able crop made us turn the soil deeply. And then we left the straw to compost down which covered the dirt. The key tho was that we over seeded (just sprinkled on top of the straw) the area with winter wheat in the fall. The winter wheat is able to germinate at cool temperatures, go dormant when its really cold, then springs up as soon as there is a hint of warmth. After it grew out a bit, and about a month before we are going to plant, we mowed it down, tilled it up on a hot day...and now.. baby.. its actual soil not just clay.
Tilling (or weeding) on a hot day exposes the roots and such so they wilt in the sun and die and not re-sprout. Now all the dead 'green manure' can compost down into the dirt. This will provide space between the tightly packed grains of soil that make up clay as well as provide nutrients for the new plants. Then we added the lime which further breaks up the dirt particles. I hoed it lightly just to mix it up, then it rained like the dickens last nite and now we are ready for planting in a couple of weeks. I'll plant beans which are also easily rooted, easy to grow, and will "fix" nitrogen from the air into the soil. Next summer my tomatoes will be legendary.
Soil management is kind of demanding. Sure you can just go get a bunch of topsoil somewhere, or you can use chemicals, but with all the critters around here we didn't want to introduce any new pests or toxic substances. So we are 'old schoolin' it by adding as much organic material as all these critters can create. We tend to over straw the coops and pens so we have a lot of almost-composted-nitrogen-rich organic material.
To this we add a lot of leaves in the fall (the mold from maples is especially helpful for soil improvement) and just about anything else we can come up with. Tradition says to give it a year before its real compost... but we kinda fudge on that. Many times you can just make a lazy compost pile along the side or near the garden or over an area where you'd like to plant the following year. Maybe we'll do a post on compost.. humm.
Anyway. It will probably take a couple of years to get the garden really booming so everything we are doing, from deciding how much we will till the soil, to what we add to it, what we plant, and crop rotation is really important. At some point we will get the soil tested as we'll have to make adjustments. But for us this is working really well and honestly they would just tell us what chemicals to add.
We are really happy with the progress so far. We stood in the middle of the upper garden with the improved soil on one side, and the one small patch that we couldn't improve on the other and it was like looking at different planets. On one side the soil was light and fluffy and a light brown color (still not the desirable dark dark black) and the unimproved side was hard, red, and unyielding. We'll keep up our efforts until we get it right. Until then its me the garden trolley full of poop and a pitchfork...that's old school for you.