Mother Earth Gardener

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Thank you for your responses to the question of why you garden! Vera Sue wrote “Gardening gives me peace when I go out to tend to the garden, it is just my two dogs and me.” I definitely agree that that gardening can be meditative, particularly in the early morning when all the songbirds are tuning up, or just as the sun is setting and the swallows are darting about hunting insects.

You may have noticed that my bio pic includes a rather large sheep, a Clun Forest cross named Snowdrop. We have sheep. Over the past six years, that statement has been given in response to a number of different questions, including the doctor’s visit for treatment for various orthopedic injuries. Not that sheep are inherently dangerous creatures; they are, in fact, quite gentle and much prefer to flee than fight. It is the taking care of them that increases the odds of injury – incidents that come to mind are stepping into a woodchuck hole while setting fence; wrenching my back while carrying a hay bale, and my personal favorite, tripping over my shoe laces while walking backwards in front of the sheep while training a border collie.

Snowdrop and her feline pal Zinnia prefer to hang at the barn on a hot day.

I received my first four sheep as a Christmas present and they have proved to be the gift that keeps on giving. They’ve given new life to the old horse barn, beautiful fleeces each year, and quite a lot of manure. Theoretically, the sheep were to wander the pasture and the hill above the orchard, spreading their own droppings while they grazed. In practice, they go out to graze for a bit, then return to the barn for a nap – and to poop so periodic barn cleanings are necessary. While sheep manure ranks fairly low in nutrient content, we have seen quite an improvement in the quality of the garden soil since we have begun to till in the mixture of manure and straw from the sheep pen though we’ve never applied it in a thoughtful, systematic manner.

Practicing sheepdogging skills with Brodie.

One of my favorite garden books is The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots. I own the 14th edition, published in 1908. The 16th edition is freely available on Project Gutenberg and on Google Books. Published by Sutton and Sons (now known as Suttons Seeds), an English seed company established in 1806, this gardening guide is meant for the professional gardener. The book offers specific guidelines for raising popular vegetables and flowers from early forcing in glass houses to planting out and harvesting the produce. Each variety is introduced with the utmost enthusiasm. Potatoes, for example, are described as the “King of the Kitchen Garden” and are given no less than eleven pages of detailed instructions on cultivating “this useful root”. The entry on strawberry culture, which explains that early forced varieties benefit from pollination with “a camel’s hair pencil” at mid-day, is one of many that indicates the book was written at a time when the grand English estates such as Chatsworth employed an army of gardeners working in expansive glass houses and walled kitchen gardens. The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots makes for wonderful reading when it is too hot, too buggy, too cold, or too wet for a reluctant gardener to venture outside. Where else would I find instructions for establishing and maintaining a grass tennis court?

The author, greenhouse garden, 1961.

More practically, nearly every entry in The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots offers guidance on the correct application of different kinds of manure in various stages of decomposition or as a tea. Lime, bone meal, worm castings, and ashes are also occasionally advised. The book depends on only a few artificial additives such as superphosphate, nitrate of potash and sulphate of ammonia. There is also very little in the way of artificial pest and disease treatments. Most of these problems are addressed preventatively through the control of temperature and humidity in the glass houses and hand removal of pests. Chimney soot is employed as a deterrent for snails.

As we move away from a big, traditional garden to a combination of raised beds and hydroponic systems in a high tunnel, I am finding The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots a valuable resource for growing intensively and for pushing the season in a high tunnel. We’ll be able to continue to use our “gift” from the sheep more efficiently both in the raised beds and in plantings of fruit trees and flowering shrubs. And I will say, a pinch of chimney soot scattered around cabbage does wonders as a deterrent for snails! Finally, the book takes me back a bit, to that wonderful big glass greenhouse and the realization that Grandmother Warner’s recipe for potting up tomatoes for sale was very equal to Sutton and Sons – well composted cow manure mixed with loam and a pinch of bone meal in each pot. Suttons Seeds continues to offer gardening advice through its website and a collection of gardening manuals. The company does not ship seeds and plants to countries outside of the European Union.

NOTE: Organic garden operations often depend on composted manure to enrich the soil and the USDA strictly regulates the application of manure in commercial organic operations as well as the applications of artificial fertilizers, including those mentioned in The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots.

  • Published on Aug 15, 2016
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