art + ag collective residency debrief

Several members of the Arts and Agriculture Collective at Hampshire shared a residency here at Denniston Hill last weekend.

It'd be difficult to account for the array of mischiefs that the collective members engaged in individually; there was ample time given for people to wander and do as they pleased. But there were a number of concerted, collective efforts that also took place.

The first frost of the season arrived October 9, the eve of the Oktober All Saints Fest at the Church of the Little Green Man. It seemed an appropriate convergence of occasions, with the last harvest of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchinni and basil followed by a night of celebrating the dead, the shifting of the seasons, and the last days of traditional reaping.

There was a bit of foraging. Evan brought us back a mushroom that only grows on living birches, and made us a fine tea. A few of us went out foraging for the last gasps of the goldenrod, some of us even enjoying the frigid waters of the nearby river as we did so. Basil was hung to dry, dispersed, some of it made into a pesto. Lots of mint and thyme were harvested, along with the last of the sage, all tied and hung to dry. Pumpkins were carved for the Church of the Little Green Man, and seeds were roasted. Folks made sourdough bread and sourdough pancakes, and every morning Kara made a soup for folks to enjoy throughout the day. We ate dinner collectively.

Tripplebrook Farms over in MA had given Kara and other collective members some very handsome gifts :: three chestnut trees, two paw paw trees, and four hardy kiwi plants. The collective brought them to Denniston Hill, met to discuss where these new creatures should go, and then planted them. A chestnut tree was planted over at John's, the other two planted on the southside meadowed slope alongside the driveway and road, with full access to the sun. A paw paw was planted along the roadside bit of wall in front of the house, and the other closer to the porch. And the hardy kiwis were planted so that, over time, they will form an edible arbor of sorts for folks on their way to the pond, the pool, or the woods.

We did our first round of sheet mulching! The last day of the collective's stay several of us got together, and having shoveled more of Josh's generously donated shit the day before, laid down the sheet mulch layer by layer. We broke up the soil that was already in the greenhouse, soaking it deep and long as we did so (it took a surprisingly long amount of time), then lay down fresh cut vegetation from the nearby meadow and pond, covering that with the former horse manure, followed by about eight inches of fallen leaves, followed by four inches of compost and older garden soil, and topped with straw, soaking every layer as we went. In the upper four inches of soil we planted some lettuces, spinach, etc for a late fall/early winter harvest. There was concern raised about the degree of activity happening beneath the top layer of soil, and whether or not that would hinder the growth of these plants, so it'll be interesting to see how it all plays out. Regardless of how well the seedlings end up doing in the long run (they've already begun to come up), we have certainly contributed a lot for the growing of good soil (and, in a roundabout way, raised beds) in the greenhouse.

There was also plenty of loafing, reading, swimming, walking in the woods, storytelling, and live music to boot, with wandering violins, accordions and their players. 

The day the collective left they were sent off by a gentle, rolling storm of electric pink lightning and smooth, drawn out thunder. A very pleasant way to see the collective off and reflect on their residency.

The next day Kara and I set to pulling up the plastic between the beds of the gardens. We want to experiment with a green carpet for the paths, a carpet that'll include elfin thyme, purslane, clovers, roman chamomile, lady's mantle, dandelions and whatever volunteer plants that want to make a home there. I've been making my way along the paths since, prodding the ground with a pitchfork to break its surface up just a little, to help the soil breathe in preparation for the laying of seeds.

Today I sheet-mulched a bed in the garden that had been given over to weeds/volunteer plants. I simply slashed them in place, grateful for the work they'd been doing to feed and break up the soil, and for the work they will continue to do as their aerial and root systems break down and are eaten by the other communities of the soil. I poked up the ground a bit, soaked it all deeply, lay down manure over the slashed weeds, soaked the manure, and then laid down eight or nine inches of fallen leaves, soaking them as well before topping them off with some soil and the last of the straw.

I also planted garlic at the foot of the tomato/basil/carrot bed, among the carrot patches alongside the shrub beans, and among the fully grown collards, kale and cabbage beside the eggplants. 

Kara and I'll be buying some seeds this week. There's a number of medicinals I'd like to find a home for in the meadowed hill where we planted the chestnut trees. Kara and I've come up with a list of perennial vegetables we'd like to experiment with. I had a mind for making an edible wall of perennial vegetables around the garden, with the taller plants surrounding the northeast corner. We've also got the seeds for the green carpet to look forward to, and a few more varieties of mint I'd like to plant along the meadowside of the garden to ward off mice.

Then it's sheetmulching further, a bed at a time, fixing up the fencing, and planting some of those perennials.


More experimental eggplants

These eggplants had prickly leaves

Chinese experimental eggplants


october eighth

Kara's Arts and Agriculture collective/class is coming later today, and much of what I've been up to has been about preparing for their arrival.

We're going to be doing a lot of dirty, exciting things, foreseen and unforeseen. Aside from participating in the Oktober All Saints Festival at the Church of the Little Green Man (more on that later), we'll be laying down sheet mulch in the greenhouse (which we're gonna be treating like any cold-frame this Fall and Winter) to build up the soil there, and potentially sheet mulch another bed or two in the garden if we have the capacity to do so. We'll also be laying down seeds (however belatedly) for a Fall and Winter harvest. We'll be harvesting, preparing, and enjoying what the garden's providing us these days, and I have a mind for people to do a collective weed walk in the garden, discussing the volunteer plants we recognize and which ones are edible or medicinal. Perhaps some folks will want to take it a step further and include some of these volunteer plants in our food this weekend, or begin to make medicine with them.

I've gone through the seeds we still have at Denniston (and there are a lot - I'm very excited about next Spring's seeding), setting aside those that we'll be planting this weekend. We're gonna map out the lay of the greenhouse/cold-frame together before setting to work.

I've been spending time in the garden, cleaning up here and there and getting to know the plants a little more. I feel very lucky to suddenly have so much basil in my life, and in such variety too. 

And I'm glad to see that many of the weeds I can recognize in the garden are edible and medicinal. Most of what I recognize is plantain, clover, and dandelion. 

I've applied a freshly-chewed pumice of plantain to a skin sore before, and the soothing and healing effect it had was pretty remarkable. And plantain is in copious supply. It's also been used for coughs, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, and toothaches. 

From the Peterson Field Guide to Central/Eastern Medicinal Plants and Herbs, I learned that red clover, which we have sprouting up here and there throughout the garden but all throughout the yard as well, has been used to treat, among other things, "asthma, bronchitis, spadmodic coughs; externally, a wash has been used as a folk cancer remedy, including the famous Homsey treatment, and for athlete's foot, sores, burns, and ulcers. Flowers formerly smoked in anti-asthma cigarettes." 

And, though perhaps more known as something to toss into salads, dandelion also has medicinal qualities. Its leaves and flowers are rich in vitamins A and C, its leaves have been used as a folk laxative, and its roots have been used, fresh and dried, to treat problems of the bladder, kidney, gallbladder, and liver, and "as a tonic for weak or impaired digestion, constipation."

On the northeast corner of the garden, outside of the fencing, are a variety of mint plants that seem to be very comfortable. I've already used some fresh mint leaves in a tea to soothe some stomachaches and alleviate a slightly sore throat. Something we might try and work out this weekend is whether or not to plant more mint on the southern side of the garden fence. That's the meadowside of the garden, where plenty of mice have been making their home, going for raids in the compost pile (I accidentally killed on while shoveling the compost with Kara the other day - about four or five of them soon came writhing out of the ground and ran away). Apparently mice don't take too well to mint plants, and they have provided effective non-toxic, edible barriers against mice for other people's gardens. 

There's also quite a bit of thyme growing between the deck surrounding the pool and the pond, over where people hang their laundry to dry, and that has medicinal properties too, though I didn't learn that until this week's research. It's used for the treatment of viral and bacterial upper respiratory infections, and staves off cough and bronchitis.

On Wednesday I went over to Josh's to gather some horse manure for the weekend's mulching. The folks who lived on the land he's on some fifteen years or so ago had horses, and left behind an ample field of the stuff for us to enjoy. When he took me out back to find it, however, I had a hard time at first figuring out where to look. Gesturing broadly to the lush, diverse near-to-meadowland before us and telling me to go for it, I didn't really know what to say or do. He then led me over to a nearly waist-deep pit and, jumping in, started hacking away at the edges with his shovel, drawing the rich, dark soil out from beneath the riotous green happening above. I recovered from my momentary confusion and began to do the same, marveling at the beauty and aliveness of the stuff we were digging. 

There's been some skepticism voiced about just how useful this stuff is, but my suspicion is that it'll do plenty more good than harm for our sheet-mulching and the building up of our own soil, whether it could still be considered manure manure or not. 

While we dug in silence, carrying buckets of it over to the bowl of tarp set up in the Subaru some ten, fifteen feet away, my thoughts turned to soil as the symbol and the literal embodiment of transformation that it is. It was one of those moments of seeming clarity, where I felt I could discern, however hazily, the continuities between "life" and "death" that were at play in the soil before me, and that together composed the soil itself. To my eyes there were merely fleeting snatches of this play, the more humanly-visible spiders and worms and sowbugs scattering everywhere as I disrupted their living and dying places, but I knew there was a lot more going on than I could ever hope to see. 

For much of my life I've regarded soil as an inert, static substance, more of an empty vessel or perhaps, in the language and spirit of the prevailing industrial, mechanistic paradigm, a factory through which creatures and materials and elements come and go. Though clearly the potential cradle of abundant communities of life, it has often seemed to me to be another place where living and dying happens. It's only in recent times that I've come to understand soil as, wholly and entirely, the chaotic and dense composition of these processes. The soil is somehow an embodiment of, somehow the riotous and anarchic unfolding of living-and-dying itself. Sometimes, when I understand and experience soil in this way, I have this moment where I can feel the dichotomous demarcations between life and death that I often uphold straining to fall apart and fall away. 

Very recently a young friend of mine died, and before his body was committed to the soil that inspired him (he was a grower of things, an activist and organizer whose work centered around food justice and sustainability), there was an open casket wake. It was very hard to accept the fact of his body, in the coffin, at the end of the room before me. Among the things that passed through me was the impossible feeling that his body didn't look at all like him. I couldn't bridge my memory of him with the body before me. 

Offered all around me were the familiar, muttered affirmations that he had gone to a better place. Personally, I've felt a spectrum of things when it comes to all this talk of soul and whether or not life as we think we know it can be said to have a beginning or an end, and I've come to no stalwart or fundamentalist positions about any of this, save to assert the fact of my own ultimate ignorance. In more recent times I've tried to not conquer, in thought or speech, what I deem to be the ineffable, radical mystery of this place that we're unfolding in, and I don't think I'd find much comfort or solace in doing so.

As I sat with my friend's body there was a particular word that kept coming to me :: dispersal. It was clear to me that whatever forces had animated his eyes, his lips and his hands, were no longer present, or at least not present in the way that they'd been. And the unseeable communities of bacteria that once blossomed and composed the life of his stomach, where were they? Had they gone dormant, left? Would they now turn to feed on the matter of his body, from within? Or had they died out entirely, and wouldn't they have left something of themselves behind? I'm sure the most nuanced and detailed explanations and mappings abound out there, but I guess I am less interested in what those mappings have to say. During the time of his funeral and his wake, and some two or three weeks later as I shoveled fifteen year old horse shit into buckets with Josh, it felt enough to know that somehow there was transformation, that somehow there was dispersal, however inadequate or shortsighted any particular mappings of that transformation and dispersal may be. 

These aren't always easy perspectives to sit with, and sometimes I can hardly bear the fear that such mysterious company sets to flare within me, but for now at least, I feel committed to stoking my courage, and committed to not try and banish my fears, but to listen for what these fears of mine have to teach me.

I'm looking forward to our weekend with the Collective, and will be writing about what we get into shortly. 


Garden Residency

Hey folks ::

My name's Aidan, and I'm gonna be posting here at watchthegardengrow very frequently during the coming months.

I just started the pilot for a garden residency here at Denniston Hill. A while back I approached Kara and other members of the Garden Committee with a proposal :: that I'd help take care of, plan, and develop or expand Denniston Hill's garden in exchange for the ability to do some projects of my own making here at the site. Concomitantly, I'll be apprenticing with a couple of permaculturists who live down the road a ways, Andrew Faust and Adriana Magaña of the Center for Bioregional Living. 

The three proposed projects were 

1) research and documentation of the ecology of the site, the lay and history of the land, to be used as a reference by the Garden Committee and as a tool for any potential future permaculture designs for the site. 

2) an ongoing foraging project. I'm interested in wild medicinal and edible plants and the practice of foraging in general. My plan is to harvest as many things as I can, to process and store wild foods for the winter, and to craft tinctures, oils, and salves from the wild medicinals I gather. Thanks to the work of L. Mazzarella, we already have a substantial list of identified wild medicinals growing in the area to start with.

3) an expanded compost/soil-building project. I'm still getting a feel for the scope of what's possible for me to do here, but the initial idea I had would be to build relationships with local restaurants and other local producers of organic waste and see if I can't truck some of that refuse home to grow compost for us as well as a free resource for people who are gardening in the area. 

I'm interested in the idea of soil stewardship as a fundamental and base practice of gardening. I've only recently begun to learn about the ecology of soil life, and the importance of nurturing a diverse and robust base of soil communities as part of a larger practice of growing things. I'm looking forward to taking that on.

The proposal was recently approved by the Board and I moved here this past Friday. Needless to say, I'm very excited to be here, and have already found quite a bit of joy in the work that I'm doing. 

And Kara and I got to work right away.

We went out to the garden a few times this past weekend, harvesting some tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, squash and zucchini, and just assessing the overall situation there. We discussed what had been doing well, and what hadn't, and we referenced a previous map plan for the garden and talked about how things had played out in terms of companion planting and the timing of seeding. We figured out what we still had left to harvest up until the first frost, and what would persist on post-frost and continue to be productive in the late fall/early winter. 

We discussed what could happen with the garden from hereon. Use of the greenhouse structure as a cold frame is going to be a priority. We'd both like to see more greens, especially in the early spring and in July. We'd like to see more companion planting occur, and to figure out some strategies to protect the kale and collards from the critters that seem to be having a good time eating them. 

We also discussed some aspirations I'm particularly excited about. I'd like to sheet mulch (basically, compost in place) as much of the garden as possible, to build up the soil and the communities of life that are in it. It'd be great to cover crop this winter, of course, and we talked a little bit about what that could look like. I'd like to experiment with the use of a perennial green carpet for the pathways that can mulch in place and develop the soil and, ideally, provide some sustenance. 

I'd also like to experiment with the intentional use of weeds next season. I've been reading "Weeds: Guardians of the Soil" by Joseph A. Cocannouer, and I highly recommend this book. It certainly is an unorthodox position to take by many people's standards, but the author discusses how the intentional, managed use of weeds or volunteer plants can do tremendous things for the soil and the other plants in it :: by providing mulch material above and below ground, and by digging deep into the subsoil with their roots to loosen it up, conducting nutrients and water up to the topsoil, and leaving behind them paths for our more traditionally cultivated plants to do similarly. All that generous work aside, there are many so-called "weeds" that are edible and/or medicinal, and have historically provided sustenance for many communities the world over, including Native communities here.

Lastly, we discussed the idea of having more insectary plants throughout the growing season next year, as a strategy to waylay the various pests that are out there. 

Aside from all this scheming and dreaming, Kara and I went to work on the compost pile we got going alongside the garden. There had been at some point the idea of having three piles, side by side :: one ready to use, one cooking, and one fresh pile to give new materials to. Over time there's been less distinction made between what's cooking and what's cooked, so Sunday we decided to get a little dirty. We used shovels to push the cooking layers of material to the side, and shoveled as much of the fully cooked stuff into a pile in one of the less human-used beds of the garden (the weeds have been making plenty use of it, and from what Kara told me it sounds like the weeds and the shizo planted there have done some beautiful work for the soil). The idea is to use this cooked compost for sheet-mulching the inside of the cold frame this upcoming weekend, when Kara's Arts and Agriculture class over at Hampshire shows up for a few days of dirty romping.

Sunday was also a beautiful day for foraging. I've been meaning to harvest the bountiful droves of goldenrod growing everywhere for some time now. However, it's often occurred to me to do so when I've spotted goldenrod butting up against a frequented roadside, and I'm not too keen on the idea of turning to such places for my medicine. Fortunately, here I don't have to. The meadows alongside the river back behind John's place are still popping with delicate, aptly-named goldenrod. I gathered as much as I could, taking cues from all the pollinators to determine which plants were the freshest, most recently bloomed. Though the goldenrod community didn't seem to be facing any risk of subsiding or falling behind in the meadow scheme, I made a point of only harvesting a little here and there, taking from robust clusters and leaving behind the more isolated, exploratory plants making their way alone. Now they're hanging in my room to dry. Once they have, I'll be making some tinctures for the treatment of urinary tract infections. Basically it has the ability to sooth the entire genito-urinary tract, and is a diuretic and antiseptic for treating kidney or bladder infection. It'll make a good gift for some of my friends who are plagued with the like.

 Yesterday, Monday, was mostly about research. I read up on a plan for an Appalachian Solar Dehydrator I'd like to build this week, to take advantage of the last of the season's tomatoes etc. and dry some food for the winter. The folks with the best design I could find predict a total cost of materials at $150, more than a little beyond my current means. But I suspect there are plenty of scrap materials to be found in the area that I could use, and today I'm going to begin looking for them. 

I also researched potential cover crops for the winter, some dynamic nutrient accumulators that could be useful to plant throughout the garden next season, and some edible insectary plants that could be planted next season to encourage the presence of beneficial, predatory insect communities. 

Lastly, I took to organizing and cleaning up the mudroom/summer kitchen/harvest processing space, and decided to process as many of the tomatoes as I could. I oven candied, with olive oil, salt, and dill, a bunch of tomatoes from the DH garden to enjoy this week, and then took tomatoes from the garden here as well as from Hampshire Farm and made them into a very rich sauce, which I then canned for the winter. 

Among other things I'll be up to this week :: planning and scavenging materials for the building of a solar dehydrator and for the laying down of sheet mulch this coming weekend.