Saturday, May 23, 2009

Woodland versus Poblano

If my city block represents a small subsection of the American populace following economic collapse, the demographics look like this: employed single mother of 2; single 27 yr. old homeowner/art teacher with bartender boyfriend; biracial umarried couple and two children, ages 12 and 2; young woman homeschooling unctuous boy; blue collar 30-something year old male with streaming assortment of loud friends, maybe his mother living there, too; downtown bar owners from New Orleans, moved here after the storm, continue living by New Orleans hours (i.e., waking at 11 am most days, productive outside conversations at 2 am, drinking wine when I'm driving to work); retired woman on disability payments, owner of fat dog Molly's age; young couple with random pieces of furniture and plastic toys littering the front yard.

But of these neighbors, half of them have replaced a small patch of turf with small vegetable gardens. The light availability for vegetable gardening is excellent in every yard on the block but my own which is populated with roughly 30 trees of various ages and size classes. Upon moving here, I decided to manage the yard as a woodland, my rental property an unmowed tract of land devoid of turf grass but weedy natives instead. I've been pleased with the results of the bush honeysuckle removal project and the effects of several small prescribed fires applied in February and March. Several bird species have visited my yard in recent days, from scarlet tanagers and a wood thrush to a whip-por-will, whose persistent "whip por will! whip por will!" one afternoon forced me to place a frantic call to my colleague, shouting excitedly into the phone "I have a whip-por-will!" A very exciting day, indeed.

Eight species of sedges sprouted up after the fire, four species more than were present before the burn. I'm pretty sure most, if not all of them are species which "respond positively to mowing," much like Carex socialis. I imagine the yard had been maintained by mowing for many years before my landlady bought the house; she explained her hands- off management upon initial contact, a management plan which encouraged a whole little grove of redbuds and grape vines to sprout up under the stately, 150 year old chinquapin oak. Nevertheless, the sedge fruits haven't matured yet, so I haven't been able to key the plants besides C. blanda (which is very pretty, and likes mowing as a disturbance factor). I love the backyard, a tiny patch of land teeming with insect life, nesting birds, and snakes, though trilling American toads and the street's resident rabbit notably absent.

But my neighbors are trying to grow food and I can't. Last year, I tended a small plot in a community garden nearby, but the garden closed, the land sold to a homeowner. In New Orleans, I managed a few small plots in a community garden located a short bike ride away in the Bywater. Named DeLaSoil, pictured, the garden provided me with lots of basil, tons of peppers, eggplants, cut flowers (namely zinnias and sunflowers...how I love zinnias), string beans (Blue Lake Runners, especially), okra, cilantro, broccoli, cauliflower, and so forth. In New Orleans, a gardener could plant a seed every day of the year and produce an edible crop, thanks to a year-round growing season. Everyone grew their own food in New Orleans, even though good produce was really cheap in grocery stores.

On my block, I think growing food is a new project, a project that, perhaps in light of increasing food prices or a desire to connect with the natural world, many others outside of my block are embarking upon. My next door neighbors, for example, spent two weeks tilling up a nice big section of their yard, creating wide rows for tomatoes, basil, strawberries. So I couldn't help it. I had to see what they were growing. The concept was great--interplantings of nightshades with basil for pest control, a handful of marigolds to invite pollinators. But, sadly, I don't think their garden is going to produce the bounty they planned for: their plants too close together (15 basil plants in an area the size of a quarter). Tomatoes three inches apart. The clay-based soil not amended well enough to support healthy plants. Fragile little root systems can't break through our clay. Two weeks after planting, the plants are showing terrible signs of deficiency (purple veins in the tomatoes, yellow leaves on everything else, basil giving up the proverbial ghost). Their arugula is doomed, too. I'm not going to offer advice, of course, because (for starters, I've never met them. I gave them pumpkin bread at Christmas, but I don't know their names.) I'm not a nosy neighbor, but I hope they consult gardening books or something so they don't give up their project. Their garden desperately needs my mother's compost, some two year-old leaf mold, and replanting. Down the street, the same story: zucchini plants crammed into clay under a sprawling sweetgum tree.

So next door to their garden I have this little ersatz woodland with birds and butterflies and big fat rat snakes, but not enough light for a row of Thai basil. Do I take out some of the junky catalpas and plant row crops? Throw bags upon bags of compost, peat, manure, blood meal and bone meal to make the compacted soil fertile enough for Ichiban eggplant, thereby displacing the Geranium maculatum and phlox? No, instead I've identified three small, disjunct sunny-ish spots in the yard where I will place large pots of peppers, basil, and mint (for tabouleh and mojitos!); when the sun shifts, I'll move the pots to insure they receive a solid 7 hours of full sun. [Last year, I depended on peppers from the farmer's market and was repeatedly disappointed (not hot enough, not flavorful enough, tasted like water and chlorophyll)]. It's a little manic, I know, but I want the woodland and hot peppers this year. Looking across the yard from my Adirondack chair, I pine after all that sunlight next door until I hear the summer tanager's unmistakable call from the hickory tree.

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