July 31, 2010
The two cats whose house I live in sometimes like to follow the dog and me out to the garden when I make my early morning rounds. The fat old calico soon tires of it all and sneaks off to hunt bugs in the wilder parts of the yard on the north side of the house. The smaller, white fluff ball that we named, appropriately, Little Cat, likes to wander around the garden checking it out from her own unique perspective while I pick vegetables or pull a few weeds. I rarely get down on hands and knees any more in the garden – too hard to get back up these days. Yesterday, I did, while chasing down a frisky tomato that had leapt from my hands to hide somewhere among the, now, over five foot tall asparagus fronds.
Little Cat, surprised by my daring, I suppose, slipped over to touch noses with me, as if to say, “It’s about time you got down here at my level to see what’s really going on in this garden.”
And there certainly was, I found out, a lot going on. Gardens are living communities, each plant with its own likes and dislikes, as Louise Riotte wisely pointed out in her wonderful gardening book, Carrots Love Tomatoes. I’ve tried to keep those likes and dislikes in mind when I choose where to plant what. But, there are other members of the community, too, some which are welcome and some, not so much. I found the hole of a garden spider covered by its thin, dewy web and some lady bugs – not enough to be a colony, but enough to be colony scouts, checking the garden for aphids and other unwelcome pests. I found the bodies of three small, ugly-looking shield shaped bugs on the lower leaves of my bean plants. I haven’t identified them yet, but with rather long suckery looking noses, I presume they had come to suck the life out of my beans and wound up with a deadly snoot full of neem oil. I saw a few small green grasshoppers – the kind that Little Cat loves to stalk. Yes, they leave small holes in the big leaves of the cucumbers and squash, but – unlike their monster large cousins – do little real damage. So, I leave them to the cat to keep in tow. A few small wasps still buzz around the tomato blossoms. I hope they’re the kind that lay their eggs in the bodies of the tomato cutworm larvae, but I can’t be sure, though I’ve had lots of little wasps, but no tomato cutworms in the years that I’ve had the garden. Perhaps that’s why.
Gardens are adaptable communities, too. Most all of the heirloom vegetables I plant started out as wild plants somewhere in the world, competing for survival with grasses, small shrubs and those plants we now designate as weeds. So, this year, I decided to bank on that adaptability and try something different. You see, I’m in a period of adaptation, too. I do love to garden, but the older I get, the harder it is to spend hours pulling weeds and hoeing grasses, even in the relative cool of these July and August mornings.
With that in mind, last fall – after I’d cleaned out the garden and the asparagus had died back to its roots – I covered the garden area with a tarp for a couple of months to kill off the grasses with deep roots and long runners, being careful to ventilate the strip where the asparagus bed lay. After I pulled the tarp, I covered the garden with about a four inch layer of the last of the dried, mowed grass for the winter.
It seems to have worked. When I turned over the soil with my hoe this spring, the dead grass and its long roots came up easily. I kept the garden weeded through May and early June to give the seedlings and transplants a good start, but by late June, as even the early mornings heated up, I began to let the grass grow back. Instead of fighting it, I’ve kept it pulled away from the plant stalks in about a foot in diameter circle and just kept the rest of it mowed or weed-whacked. It’s not difficult now to keep those circles cleaned out. The grass and weeds that I do keep pulled seem to have shallow roots and runners that come up easily. I do keep a dried -grass mulch around that circle of dirt under the squash and melons. My operating hypothesis is, that the grass forms a layer of living mulch and, like any other mulch, will help the soil retain water and keep it cooler in the upcoming dry August heat. So far, the stems and leaves look healthy all the way down to the soil and I haven’t noticed any dip in productivity although the vegetables seem to be ripening a little later. Of course, that may be because I got them planted a little later, due to heavy rains in May.
I’m going to repeat the cycle this fall and see what happens next year in the hopes that I’ve hit on a way to prolong my gardening years as I age. As I’ve said before on this blog, we are embedded within nature and, as a part of nature, we adapt just like the rest of the natural community, but that means, if we work within it, that community will adapt for us, too.
At any rate, keeping up the garden has become much easier. And, I got a new perspective on the garden this week – a cat’s eye view, if you will. From what I can tell as she lies on the soft, moist grass under the asparagus fronds, Little Cat approves.