Gardening in the Dark

“That night was the turning-point in the season. We had gone to bed in summer, and we awoke in autumn; for summer passes into autumn in some imaginable point of time, like the turning of a leaf.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I love the seasons.  Each one is a gift in its own right.  To live in a part of the country where you can experience all four of the seasons with its unique activities and contributions is a gift.  Autumn is always my favorite and then spring, winter and summer.  Or is it spring, autumn, winter and summer?  Anyway, I love them all.  Most people it seems don’t like it when daylight savings time ends, but I do.  To me it has its place and I can be found in the dark working on something while holding a flashlight.  I will admit that during the first couple of weeks of standard time I feel like I’m supposed to go into hibernation.  It’s easy to shuck work and head to the sofa with a glass of wine and watch Danish crime thrillers on Netflix.  And yes I watch them with English subtitles, but I can detect a bit of the German dialect in some of the words too.

Different types of weather don’t stop me from working in the garden and neither does the dark.  The weather last weekend was a mix of freezing rain, sleet and snow and I was out early trying to get a number of chores done that just had to be finished.  The temperature at 7 a.m. that day was the warmest it would be for the next three.  Before the light rain started I managed to move about 17 bags of leaves from the side of the house to the backyard, toss them wherever the dogs run, and get three compost piles going.  There I was turning, watering and building compost piles while light sleet had begun.

This autumn I collected over 40 bags of leaves from coworkers.  They brought them into the office or dropped them off at my house.  I also raked up leaves for a neighbor down the street and brought home one tarp full and four separate trips with a stuffed 96-gallon trash bin.  All those leaves came from one tree in her yard.   Her roommate did rake up part of them and left them piled in the street and last Friday evening I wandered down and brought the rest home.  There I was standing in the glow of the street light shoveling leaves into the bin.  The winds picked up on the second trip and it seemed they were making their way up the street faster than I could get them home and with little effort from me.  A neighbor behind me has also saved his leaves and will toss another seven bags over the fence when he gets around to it.  I’ve collected the leaves for a number of projects:  mulching the garden and wildflower beds, sheet mulching new beds and composting.  It also keeps them out of the landfill and I am building better soil systems in my yard.  The rest are piled up in the corner for composting over the winter and into next year.   While others are busy raking and removing leaves, I’m taking them and dumping them all over my yard!

I checked the compost piles on Sunday after the thunder, freezing rain and snow storm the day before and the snow in the center of one had melted.  It’s cooking!   I love seeing the steam rise when you pitch your hay-fork down into the pile and turn it over.  Composting can be work or it can be just a matter of tossing things into a pile and letting it go.  It depends on how fast you want compost.   I prefer the work side of composting. I enjoy mixing the pile, watering, turning and watching it change its composition.  I want my compost to be ready by spring, so I will work it through the winter.  And for me, it’s garden therapy.  It takes my mind away from the crap of the day and lets me feel connected with the earth.  I love feeling that earth connection!

Last week, a good friend of mine who has horses gave me three 50-lb. bags of horse manure and collected two 50-lb. bags of alpaca poop from one of his neighbors.  On Saturday before the snow I spread one bag of alpaca poop throughout my wildflower beds, around the apple and cherry trees, the main garden and layered some over the cardboard for the second garlic box.  I had already layered shredded leaves in all these areas and after spreading the poop, I added more.

This week the temperatures were in the upper 50’s during the day.  So that meant it was still warm enough at night to complete some tasks in the garden before the ground totally hardened.  On Tuesday evening, I managed to twist in a new mailbox post (the Spin Digger) before a hard freeze and finally finished the second garlic bed.  I layered the cardboard with more leaves, horse manure and soil.  I then mixed up several more layers of this earth potion and then finished up the bed with several inches of top soil mixed with shredded leaves.  In the dark, I broke apart the garlic and planted about 14 rows of Silver Rose softneck.  I then mulched it with several more inches of leaves.  This is my version of sheet mulching.  Instant garden beds with not that much effort built in the dark with a flashlight dangling precariously between my neck and left shoulder.  I’ll remember this next June or July when I harvest the garlic too!  Good food should be a celebration of life and that which you grow yourself makes it much more special!

Sheet mulching was part of my first Permaculture class a couple of weeks ago (it was the second class weekend but I missed the first one in October).  While listening to the lectures and watching and participating with the sheet mulching demonstration, I realized I have done some sort of sheet mulching for several years now.  About 7 years ago, I covered up a huge bed in the backyard that was full of sand with newspaper and cardboard and mixed up soil and compost and planted wildflowers.  The soil in this bed is dark and loaded with worms now.  It’s been through several iterations where at one time I covered it completely with small river rock.  The golden yarrow has found its way through the rock and has filled out the bed almost completely.  There are other areas in my yard that I used newspaper and cardboard and mixed up soil on top too.  Sheet mulching that I learned in class began with building a new bed by outlining it with river rocks, then layering with manure, cardboard, a layer of straw and more manure, leaves, manure, more leaves, soil and compost.  We then planted spinach, hens and chicks and garlic and covered with a layer of straw.  Easy peasy jumping easy.

Tonight on the way home from work I stopped at REI and bought a headlamp.  When I told the store clerk what I needed it for she stood there staring at me for a few seconds without saying anything.  I wasn’t sure what might be going through her mind.  She was either thinking I am some sort of nut or maybe she was trying to figure out the proper headlamp for night gardening.  Anyway, she suggested the right one because I tested it out tonight and there’s a lot more I can get down in the evenings.  I’ll find some time to hibernate, I’m sure of it!

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