Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The War on Weeds

Our most beautiful hen--and the meanest by far.
Just like that girl in junior high.
It’s been a long time, we know. It’s not that we’ve been slacking—au contraire. We’ve been busy as ever, digging and planting and cooking and making ambitious plans. After a long winter that weighed heavily, we’re heaving a huge sigh of relief that spring is in full bloom. 

Kate made Mark pinky-swear that he would not launch a huge new project this year. So far, so good. Instead we’re trying to improve the garden we have. The greenhouse is a godsend, the perennials we started four years ago are now well established—mature asparagus, rhubarb, peonies, blackberries, and gooseberries around the perimeter, plus some obscure sea kale, turkish rocket, ramps, and hyssop in the hugelkultur.

Mark planting peas in double-dug beds
with his little helper mugging for the camera.
The objective this season is weed control. We don’t use herbicides, and we keep the tilling and gas-powered machines to a minimum (in fact, we haven’t done any this year besides mowing the lawn once). Considering the battle we continue to wage in the garden against thistles and mugwort, which has completely taken over, this means many, many hours of hand-weeding. That’s one reason Mark became enraptured with double digging—the other being his obsession with nurturing the soil food web. And indeed, double-digging does result in gorgeous, aerated soil free of rocks and deep-rooted weeds (for the time being, at least). This video showed us just how easy it is! Except . . . it’s not. It’s difficult and slow, especially if you pull out all of the weed roots you encounter as you go. What an opportunity, though, to not only loosen the compacted soil but to attack the weeds right at the source! And at the end of it, we have the beautiful, high, mounded, well-aerated beds we’ve always dreamed of. The beauty of the tilth is enough to make one swoon. These days, early in the morning, you can find Mark outside in his pajamas and muck boots digging just a few more trenches, getting one more bed prepped before going to work. That’s how good double digging is, if you have the time and energy.

Busy hens in the chicken tractor.
Another weapon in the War on Weeds (just as futile as the War on Drugs or the War on Terrorism) is laying down 20-year greenhouse-quality weed blocker in the pathways. Kate has mixed feelings about this, since she has a vision of the garden as wild and free and able to breathe, and she worries that the weed blocker will harbor disease. Plus it’s kind of ugly right now since we haven't had a chance to dump any mulch on top. But she will certainly not be complaining when we don’t have to beat back the weeds on the pathways, and covering the pathways will placate her aesthetic concerns.

This first rhubarb became syrup for iced
black tea with star anise and cinnamon.

Finally, the most fun way to combat weeds—the chicken tractor, which is truly as cool as we hoped it would be. We carry a few girls from their yard out to the garden, put them inside, and they happily peck and scratch at the dirt all day, eating weeds and bugs that will end up producing more luxurious eggs for us. Closing the loop like this—making energy out of waste matter like insect pests and weeds, plugging that into our little ecosystem—feels SO SATISFYING. We’re perpetually working on becoming more efficient like this.

Some of the other topics we’ve been talking a lot about at Markate Estates are mulching, foraging, pushing our permaculture principles even further, and establishing an orchard. And Kate is obsessed with making bitters (and consuming them, of course), while Mark is content to simply remain bitter. More on that later.

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