Working from the ground up

April 29, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Vera Videnovich

“Money is like manure. You have to spread it around or it smells.” —Jean Paul Getty

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Last year I was working in ground so dry that my tiller wouldn’t go past the sparse green growth. I was basically tilling green mulch with no soil getting disturbed. Nothing that a good rainfall won’t cure.

This year the ground is too wet.If you tinker in the garden you know working with wet soil can create cement when it dries. It’s even worse if you have a clay-based Chicago plot. Try making a ball with it. . . it should hold its shape without falling apart or turning into a Dali-esque sculpture. Solutions? Add water. Or wait. Add compost either way. When I was a renter on Addison my next door neighbor, Nan, lent me her front and back yards. I dug small trenches and added kitchen scraps and covered them with dirt. It didn’t take long to break down and I didn’t have to look at it or smell it. Kept the rats away, too. Oh, and for Pete’s sake, don’t plant too early! The average last frost date is May 15 so wait to plant those tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Also some seeds don’t like cold soil so they’ll just sit in the ground and rot (white-seeded green beans, anyone?). I work on a larger scale on the farm, of course. If I were to plant too early I lose hundreds of dollars worth of seeds (and greenhouse propane, water, potting soil. . .).

On the topic of composting, I still throw everything into giant piles. . . leaves, sticks, paper, kitchen scraps (eggshells!) and add generous amounts of sheep manure. Last week I turned a few piles and was amazed that all of last years twigs had broken down to a light brown powder. I stood on the pile with a pitchfork and turned and loosened the pile. I’m planning on using this “black gold” as side dressing in my garden once the plants get going. One year, when my garden was smaller, I dug trenches along the plant rows and added well-rotted sheep manure then covered them back up. In theory, as the plants grow their roots reach into the natural fertilizer. I had the best beans that year. . . and the “salad” garden behind the house had the largest spinach I had ever seen. With my garden growing in size every year I’m reconsidering adding even more labor-intensive activities.

In addition to the compost piles I also have a manure pile. This week I was digging into last year’s with a shovel and filling a rusted wheelbarrow with it to spread into the larger garden. What I wouldn’t give this time of year to have a mechanized manure spreader and an ATV. . . . It’s been a little wet and the pile is at the bottom of my field, a low area that’s a bit swampy and my boots and the wheelbarrow made slurpy sounds in the muck. I was not happy.

If anyone’s thinking of farming with animals this is something you should think about before investing. . . you have to do something with their waste and there are safety precautions and regulations to think about. Manure has to be “incorporated” within 48 hours of application, that means tilling it under. Manure can’t be stored near common water sources (ponds, wells, creeks, etc) because of run-off concerns. Remember the big stink about the government stimulus package earmarking $1.7M for hog odor research? If you lived near a large pig operation in Iowa (pigs outnumber people in that state by 8:1) you’d want somebody working on that issue. Most of that cheap bacon in the grocery store comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and their waste has to go somewhere and there are limits to how much can go into a nearby field. Not to go too far into the politics of farming, but if the six million plus people that live in Chicago want to eat three meals a day, cheaply, it has to come from somewhere.

Of course I’d like to feed as many people as possible with my small garden. The work I do is labor-intensive but I was brought up to think taking care of my animals and working the farm without taking short-cuts. There is no shame in work. At this point it’s also keeping expenses low in hard economic times so I can keep my CSA shares at last year’s prices. You can also buy from me, a la carte, at the new Andersonville Farmers’ Market. I’ve been accepted as a vendor at their Wednesday market which runs 4-8pm, June 24-September 9, 2009 and am looking forward to being a part of this great neighborhood.