Friday, October 26, 2012
Rain Gardening Or Perfect Beets, Carrots, and Turnips
It had been hot. But on this particular day, I can't remember which day, except to say that it was not Friday or Saturday because we were not at the farmer's market, it had started to cool down a bit. It was probably in the high 80s that day, the humidity broke, and a slight breeze started to evaporate the sweat from my skin. The white linen shirt I was wearing suddenly felt cold as the breeze swept across my shoulders. My big Tula straw hat was soaked around the band and I took it off for some relief.
Our garden is located at the bottom of the hill there on Shamrock and Thistle Farm, a five thousand square foot rectangle that over 10 years of limited tilling, massive amounts of organic matter, and manual weed and insect control was becoming a fertile swath of food growing excellence (FSFGE). It lies upon a north - south axis with the north end pointing towards Harris Brake Lake and the south end pointing towards Thornburg mountain. To the east is ToadSuck Bridge which crosses the Arkansas River into Conway. To the west is Petit Jean Mountain, my daddy's home town of Charleston, then Ft. Smith, and then the map, at least for me, shows the barren waste which is commonly called Oklahoma, Kansas, and beyond. It is to Petit Jean Mountain, the west, to which the thunder calls my attention. I am facing south and turn my head to the left in anticipation of much needed rain and the cooler weather the first large weather front of late August/early September usually brings. I look towards the ridge that lies on the western boundary of our property and see just the tops of dark clouds looming what looks to be just next door. I continued to work, hoping, to "get caught" in a rain shower, just to cool myself down, if for nothing else. This front is a little early in coming, I think. But I'll take it for sure. In west central Arkansas for the first 5 years of our time on the farm we could count on September 14 of each year to be the day, thereabouts, when the first big cool down would happen. Workers would arrive at work in the morning in short sleeve shirts, the front would push through during the day, and then they would freeze to death on their way to their cars at quitting time. This would not be that day. Nor would Sept 14 that year. In fact, that big cool down day seemed to be more and more delayed each year for the past three. This year it would be well into October before the semi-permanent relief of an Arkansas Autumn made its appearance.
The wind picked up as the storm grew closer. I stopped my weeding and looked at the clouds again. The air was noticeably cooler - in a fit of whimsy that I am normally devoid of - according to many that know me - I took off my muck boots and socks and continued barefoot, feeling the clay and soil and mulch squish between my toes as I walked up and down the rows. I could picture the rain coming down over Blue Mountain, Mount Magazine (Arkansas' highest point) and heading this way past Paris, Branch, Booneville, Russelville, picking up speed over Pottsville where he have our livestock butchered. Here it comes up on the west side of Petit Jean Mountain, the long sloping bank to this oddly out of place flat topped mountiain along the banks of the Arkansas, amidst the flat to rolling hills of rich river valley farm land. Oppelo is next then Perry, then Perryville, then Shamrock and Thistle Farm and then on to Wye Mountain, Lake Maumelle, and then the Queen City of the Midsouth - Little Rock.
I remember as the storm passed through, the winde nearly knocked me over at first and then settled to a steady breeze, late summer leaves, dried from the heat and lack of rain, began loosening their holds on mother tree, wiggled, then waggled, and with a rustling crescendo turned loose and rode the wind in swirls up into the dark sky and then back down onto the pasture, the road back to the lake, or the wilderness across from it. It was after this first gust that Ole Blue and Beowulf, and Golly all ran into the barn for cover. So did the chickens and geese, there normally deafening clucking and honking now drowned in the locomotive sounds of the wind. The goats layed down in their stalls - they don't like the rain - and I, well, I just kept on working, waiting for the first rain drop to fall down the neck of my soaking wet shirt.
I have no delusions. I am not Mr. Darcy emerging from the lake of his estate, in a sheer, water-soaked linen blouse. I am the guy in a linen shirt that used to be white but is now covered in mud created by nicotine stained sweat and the dust August in Arkansas produces in normally fertile soil. I had a long beard and long, shoulder length hair, sweaty, greasy, unkempt, the picture of Nordic Manliness, as my son Mason would say.
I had finished the weeding and was about to move on to my next project - thinning. Now that I could see which plants were plants, and which plants were weeds - are not weeds just largely misunderstood plants? (this is the subject for another time) I had only to thin the little sprouts of beets, radishes, turnips, and carrots out a little so there would be more room for the roots to grow down and out.
It was then I had a thought. I knew that root crops did not like to be transplanted and I had read (or had my own theories why) thy did not. The root has such a demand on the plant itself, that once it is established it requires a constant amount of water to produce the end product. This is why carrots, and beets, and other root crops grow down at a higher rate than they grow out. They are thirsty for water. And, this is, by the way, why a carrot looks like a carrot and not a bean. Anyway, back to my thought. If I were to transplant these sprouted beets and carrots, instead of thinning them for salads or to feed the goats, or more likely, to throw in the bed for their eventual nitrogen benefit, and I did this in the middle of a rain storm when they would have as much water as their little beet hearts (pun intended - I actually went a long way round to fit this one in) could want what do I have to lose? I was killing innocent beets anyway, why not liberate them from the confines of their overcrowded planting prison, and give them a chance to thrive? That all anyone wants right? A chance?
I said those words. "Here Lord, if you want me, here I am , hit me with your lightning, right in my nose.
"the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet." - Nahum 1:3. My favorite Bible verse.
He didn't take me - I think He knows me that I wasn't being proud - I was being humble. I was putting myself in correct relationship with Him - something I rarely do for some reason.
It started out an abruptly pelting rain, large drops, the kind you can almost see your reflection is as the fall before your face and splatter into the ground. In fits and starts a sheet of it would come down, like God, instead of striking my nose with a bolt, decided to have His fun and dump a bucket - a very large bucket- of cold water on me. Eventually, I am sure I smiled, a big grin that I am capable of but rarely find opportunity of, using. Here it finally comes. There was no calm before this storm, no gentle rain slowly building in its intensity. This was a good old fashioned, Western Arkansas Hill Billy Gully Washer and with the last fit and the last start it poured and poured, a steady grey sheet of big bullet sized rain drops fell without ceasing. These water-bullets rapping the aluminum roof of our newly built barn, the oaks and hickories, and elms bent over, what I remember being, almost double so that their tops reached to the ground. The animals were hid away for the duration and making no noise.
Within minutes a wall of water rushed down the ridge of our farm and into the garden. Pathways between rows filled up with this water, and since they were still mostly clay, they held the water on the surface and I found myself, shoeless, up to mid calf in muddy water. The raised beds were also initially underwater but the loosely packed dark soil soaked that rain up like a 15 pound Huggies (The Huggies brand is a trademark of the Kimberly Clark Corporation) on a newborn.
I dropped to my knees, now I am thigh deep in mud- because I am on my knees, I sank into the water between the rows. At first I lightly pulled up one of the crowded beet sprouts which retained a healthy coating for wet, muddy soil around its roots. I would then look for an empty space where my hand sowing laid them sparsely just 15 days before. I plunged my thick Hutchins fore-finger deep into the earth up to the back of my fat Hutchins hand. I picked up the seedling with the two or three tiny green, oblong leaves at the top and the long spindly deep red root trailing off below and with that same fat finger I pushed the beet root deep into that hole and with no little amount of pressure I packed the mud and water tightly around the stem.
That was easy enough but I'll be here all day at this rate. I could drown...
The next pass through the bed I decided to gently pull up a small handful of beet seedlings- 20 or so. I laid them, again gently as I could, into a standing pool of water. In the space I had just cleared I poked 20 holes into the mud with my finger and placed an uninjured seedling into each one, packing it firmly into place. Within about 10 minutes I had the first row of beets done; within the hour I had finished all five 20 foot rows of beets and with it still raining heavily I started on the one row of carrots. I only planted one row because I have never been able to grow long thick carrots in our dry compacted soil - didn't want to waste the space, the time, or the seed this year too. The carrots took longer because the seeds were much smaller to begin with. I ended up tossing more of the seedlings than I wanted because I did not have open rows to transplant them into.
I was a mess by the time I finished the job. And the ensuing weeks, with the plants evenly and graciously spaced I was able to mulch around each one with straw, leaves, and weeds that I had pulled. By harvest time I had 5 thick rows of healthy beet plants and 1 row of thick bushy carrot plants. I did not have to water for the rest of the summer or winter. The soil had stored enough water, the roots did the same. The thick mulch kept the ground soft and moist. And the plants grew like I had never seen them grow before.
I could tell they were ready for market because the tops of the roots had widened to the point that they were pushing themselves up above the layer of mulch I had put down. I could barely stand the anticipation as I pulled my first carrot of the year - a 7 inch long white French variety (I am an admitted Francophile). The beets we sold that year and in the suubsequent spring markets were the largest most colorful we had ever grown. Customers were infatuated with the large white fodder beets that looked like rounded off daikon radishes, the deep read heart shaped bull's blood, the cylindrical golden beets that resembled a pontoon, and the striped bull's eye beets on display at the markets we attended. We rarely failed to sell out of them before the market closed. And if they didn't, we didn't mind. We ate them ourselves.
Now there is some risk to gardening in this fashion. If one is not in good standing with the Lord, one risks a lightning bolt to the nose. So unless one is ready to meet one's maker, one should not attempt this at home. This paragraph is for potential lawyers to argue over in any potential lawsuit brought by any potential readers that potentially have the potential to try rains storm gardening.
I was feeling rather proud of myself for this discovery and told everyone I met that I had successfully pulled off transplantation of a root crop but as it happens to me quite often - God looked down and decided to put his friend Boyd back in his place.
Patt attended an earth day celebration in Little Rock that following spring and found a booth displaying beets that had been started in a flat and then when quite young as seedlings, were transplanted into prepared soil by some guy at the Heifer Project Ranch in Perryville named Ryan. I was disappointed. But validation is validation and we ended up catering his wedding a year later. But this is a story for another day...
So the next time a thunderstorm comes around and you lament that you will not have an opportunity to work in your garden; if you are brave; if you will not bring suit; put on your muck boots and use the bounty nature is giving you - see the mud, feel the mud, be...Billy...be the mud... (Paraphrasing a line I remember from CaddyShack).