Don’t be so quick to clean up

A lot of magic happens in the “dead” parts of a garden. Flowers gone to seed feed birds. Dead stalks support important insect life–from spiders to pollinators. Fallen leaves and sticks give habitat to lizards and toads and mushrooms and myriads of invisible creatures.

Yet dead growth is not attractive to the human eye, and around about this time of year we’re all itching to make a clean sweep of all that brown stuff. I know I am, but this morning I was grateful that I’ve procrastinated thus far, because I saw a flock of tiny little gnat catchers (adorable!) feasting on whatever tiny bugs live on the scraggy stand of fennel standing in our front yard, and a couple of hours later I found a flock of house finches enjoying the withered heads of our long, long dead sunflowers. I almost cut those stalks down yesterday, and am so glad I didn’t.

It’s a balancing act. If your garden is in your front yard you pretty much have to be tidy to appease the neighbors. If you have a small back yard, like we do, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to clear the decks, because everything is right in your face. Blessed are those with big yards, because they might have the option to keep the areas closer to the house tidy while allowing the “back 40” to go to seed.

I guess all you can do is keep the little creatures in mind and put off the clean up as long as you can. Leave dead leaves and sticks on the ground year round. Designate small corners as wilderness. The more you support all levels of life in your garden, the more your garden will thrive.

New Zealand Spinach is the New . . . Spinach

Spotted in a neglected corner of our backyard: New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides). What’s interesting is that it self-seeded and grew with no supplemental water in the middle of summer in lead and zinc contaminated soil.  We’ve never been able to grow regular (and unrelated) spinach here. But there’s no stopping the New Zealand spinach. Due to the heavy metal problem we won’t be eating this particular specimen, but when I build our new raised beds you can bet I’ll sow some New Zealand spinach for next year.

Five Lessons We Learned About Lead in Soil

As regular followers of this blog may recall, we did some soil tests last year that revealed elevated levels of lead and zinc in our backyard. The cause? Most likely, paint from our 92 year old house and nearly a hundred years of auto exhaust and dust from brake linings.

Applying a little alchemy to turn lead to gold, I think the most productive thing I can do is to help get the word out about lead soil and how common this problem is in urban areas. Towards that end I though I would share five things that we learned from our backyard lead crisis:

    1. Buyer Beware. When you are shopping for a house do multiple soil tests. Once you buy the house it’s too late. Real estate contracts in California (and I suspect elsewhere) have been loaded up with disclaimers about lead and old houses. I’m no legal expert, but I suspect it would be difficult to go after the seller given the lead clauses we signed in our ignorance.
    2. The dirt on soil labs. Choose a soil lab that gives detailed results and is willing to do some phone consultation. We used to recommend the cheap tests form UMass, but their results were significantly different than Timberleaf Soil Testing and Wallace Labs, which were more in line with each other. Both Wallace and Timberleaf give you more detailed reports and are both willing to chat on the phone. They cost more but are worth it.
    3. Raised beds.  Not much else to say other than those two words if you want to grow vegetables and have a lead problem. Right now I have a big compost pile going that I made with hay, straw and horse manure. I’ll use this compost along with imported soil to fill the raised beds that I’m going to build this winter. And you can bet that I’m going to test that imported soil first.
    4. Philosophical lesson. The future health of the human species requires us to be a lot more conservative in the use of chemicals. Lead was known to be a problem since the Romans, but we went ahead and used it anyways in paint and in gasoline and the results have been tragic. Nassim Taleb has written eloquently about the need to approach complex systems like nature and the economy with an attitude of humility and admit our ignorance. When we fool around with complex systems we’re asking for trouble.
    5. Rhetorical lesson. There should be a logical fallacy called the “appeal to technology.” It’s the idea that there just has to be a technological solution to every problem. This is a very common fallacy in our age. Some people have suggested that I try phytoremediation, the process of growing plants like sunflowers that accumulate lead. At the end of their growing cycle you pull the sunflowers and send them to a toxic waste dump.  Sadly, this is just not practical in a residential yard. I would have to pull every living thing, including a mature avocado tree, and grow nothing but sunflowers for the next 20 years. Others have suggested mushrooms as a remediation technique, but they don’t grow well in this dry climate.  Lead is an element and it simply doesn’t go away. Once it’s in the ground it’s in the ground. The best way to deal with it is not to use it in the first place. The city of Oakland is trying a more practical solution to deal with lead: applying fish bone meal to lead contaminated soil. Fish bones contain phosphates which bind up lead and make it less bioavailable to plants. Our soil tests indicate that we already have lots of phosphates in our soil, so I’m not sure if adding more would help.

    Of all of these points I think the first is the most important. I’ll repeat it again, if you are shopping for property get a soil test.

    Quebec Kitchen Garden Saved

    From BoingBoing, an update on the Drummondville, Quebec kitchen garden, seen in the time lapse video above. City officials have backed down on asking for the garden to be removed.

    Drummondville town officials announced the decision [Link is in French] this week during a special session of the Municipal Council to discuss the case. The decision could create a ripple effect in other cities worldwide as zoning laws are a constant debate in urban environments. Roger told us, “The Drummondville case was one of the highest profile examples of a local municipality challenging the right to grow food in one’s own yard. While it took place in Canada, it quickly attracted international media attention because of the garden’s beauty and productivity. The win is significant because it helps establish a precedent that other urban and suburban gardeners can refer to when similar challenges arise in other parts of the world.”

    What Do Microbes Have To Do With Homesteading?

    So what are the activities that microbes make possible around the homestead? To name just four:

    • Fermentation
    • Beekeeping
    • Soil Fertility
    • Human beings

    Pretty important stuff. In fact, new systems thinking, applied to our natural word, is demonstrating that things like human beings are really just symbiotic sacks of microbial life. An article in the Economist, “Microbes maketh man” discusses just how important microbes are to human health:

    The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

    Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has made the same argument about bees. Elaine Ingham has emphasized the importance of microbes in soil.

    Mess with the complex interdependent relationships between microbes and people, soil etc. and you’re asking for trouble. This, for me, is the argument against things like GMOs, Miracle Grow or conventional chemical beekeeping. We don’t know enough, and probably never will know, how 100 trillion bacteria will react to our latest innovation. Best to be conservative when it comes to microbial life.

    Looking forward to seeing more of this microbial paradigm shift in science.