Archives for posts with tag: ditch digging

Today, more digging.

Each time I pull out the shovel, I hope that it will be the last time. However, I must face this cold, hard fact: In the garden, there will always be digging to do.

For those who have not already stopped reading, I’ll skip the griping and keep it positive. We’re working on the planting area for the cucumbers which last year, we grew behind the west planter. This year, we’ll plant behind the east planter in what passes for crop rotation around here.

As noted in one of last season’s recaps (see January 15, 2014), our hypothesis for why the cucumbers underperformed is that we did not provide them with enough fertile soil in which to flourish (well, that’s one reason anyway). To test this theory, we’ll dig a continuous trench this time instead of the discrete pits we dug last year. This will result in more new soil available to each cucumber plant.

And it turns out that this also results in easier digging. Yes, we still encountered numerous rocks and boulders (I didn’t say that it was easy digging) but the elongated shape of the trench reduced the confinement of the rocks within its depth. Knocking them free with the shovel required half the effort needed for a small, circular pit.

Digging the trench also required half the time and we were done by noon. After a quick break for lunch, we filled the trench with soil; see May 11, 2014 for a description of that process.

To complete the setup, we installed stakes and chicken wire against the pool fence. I had expected the most difficult part of this task to be driving the stakes. However, as we learned last year, pre-drilling the holes with a steel rod and sledge hammer greatly reduced the necessary effort. No, the most difficult part was unrolling the chicken wire (which we purchased last year and which had been stored in the workshop since) and keeping it flat.

The area is now ready for the cucumber seedlings and we’ll set them out tomorrow. If they do better this year than last, we’ll plan on digging another trench behind the west planter next year. As I said, there will always be digging to do.


Knowing that it will be difficult to find the time during the coming (short) week, we got out of bed a little earlier this morning and came down to the garden to finish planting the squashes.

It’s a nice time of day to work:  The temperature is much cooler and the garden is not yet directly in the sun (which is still behind the trees to the east).  On the other hand, it is very buggy this early.

Yesterday’s picking and shoveling were good practice and we dug the four remaining holes fairly quickly.  We started work at 6:30 am and were done with our digging by 7:30 am.

I underestimated the amount of compost we would need (I calculated the volume of the mounds as cones and did not include the pits below grade).  Luckily, we had a bag of potting soil on hand and we added it to the mix.

It took another half-hour to mix the soil, dump it in place and form the mounds.  By 8:30 am, we had set the other two squash plants in the ground and we had sown seeds (three each) for the two types of winter squash.

I’m excited about growing the winter squash this year.  We are starting the seeds at Memorial Day (which is summer in the social sense but actually late spring) and the squash are not expected to mature until Labor Day or later (fall, at any rate).  Their development will be a visual track of the summer’s progress.

I hope they don’t grow too quickly…

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

One of the things I like about traveling west is that the time difference actually works in my favor.  I’m an early-to-bed/early-to-rise kind of guy and when I visit California, my 6:00 am to 10:00 pm day becomes 3:00 am to 7:00 pm.  This means that I can get up late, at 4:00 am say (7:00 am at home), do a workout, have a cup of coffee, and still have an hour or two before meeting the family for breakfast (not usually before 8:00 am).

Those early-morning hours are useful for touching base back home (where the workday is just starting) and also great for writing.  It is quiet, there are not a lot of people around and the phone does not ring.  The only downside (and it’s a small one) is that it is usually dark (so outdoor activities are limited).  The Saturday we were in California (October 20, 2012), I sat down in the morning to write some further thoughts about our visit to Glynwood Farm (I misplaced the pages when we got home, hence the delay).

During more stressful times, I often joke about chucking it all in and getting a job as a ditch digger.  The impulse is partly about doing something mindless—in the sense of no thinking required—but it’s also about doing something that is more physical than intellectual, activities more connected to the land (and animals, too) than to the intangible concepts on which I labor in my mind.  Our visit to Glynwood touched on those feelings.

The people who work there have definitely made a connection to nature.  Many of their day-to-day activities are governed by what is happening with the weather, their vegetables and their livestock.  They are constantly responding to their environment.  (Their work requires a lot of thinking so it does not qualify as mindless.)  They make an immediate and positive impact on their surroundings and by doing so on a daily basis (farming is a seven-day-a-week occupation), they extend their influence (through example and outreach) to a larger area over a longer time period (indefinitely, theoretically).

As mentioned before (see October 12, 2012), Glynwood has a CSA program.  They also sell their meat and poultry at local farmers’ markets and are considering the formation of a community-supported butchery (like CSA, the program would supply a weekly share of animal products for a fee paid at the beginning of the season) as well.  As described in a recent New York Times article, the community-supported approach has been applied to fisheries with additional benefits to both the suppliers and customers and, of course, the environment.

The fisherfolk commit to low quotas on popular species (such as cod) that are in danger of being depleted.  To supplement their catch, they focus on plentiful but less well-known species like redfish (their motto might be “one fish, two fish; red fish, blue fish”).  On the other side of the transaction, the customers have to learn how to cook varieties of seafood that they might not have even heard of before.  The CSF helps by providing recipes and giving lessons in filleting (give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to cook fish and he is a customer for life).

A similar tack could be taken with Glynwood’s CSB.  The types of meat—beef, chicken, pork—are well-known but instead of mass-market varieties (according to Glynwood’s Farm Manager, a conventional chicken is hardly recognizable as such), lesser-known heritage breeds are raised.  And although most cooks know what to do with a chicken breast, ribeye steak or pork chop, fewer would have any idea how to prepare chicken hearts, beef kidneys or pork chitlins.  A key to the responsible eating of meat is avoiding waste.  Using every part of the animal is the only respectful and sustainable practice.

I think the folks at Glynwood get this.  Now, I wonder if they need any ditch diggers?