Sunday, June 20, 2010

In praise of poo?

A few weeks ago, I stood with half a dozen fellow Rotarians beside a large hole in the ground into which a young tree was being carefully lowered. Around the circle there were murmurs of doubt: The soil was sandy … would the sapling thrive without added fertilizer? “Well,” I remarked, “I suppose one of us could poop in the hole.” The wide eyes and gaping jaws that greeted this suggestion reminded me of two things:

1) Rotary is perhaps not the best venue for scatological humor; and

2) not everyone appreciates the value of good organic compost.

It has not always been thus. Agriculture was invented about 12,000 years ago, and it surely wasn’t long before someone noticed the barley grew tallest over the top of last year’s privy. Humans have been using dung – human and otherwise – to promote vigorous plant growth ever since. Indeed, by the 17th century, sh*t-picking had evolved into a legitimate profession. These “gong farmers” or “night soil men,” as they were called, cleaned out the cesspits of the city folk and hauled it out of town to spread on farmers’ fields. As urbanization increased, these entrepreneurs actually made quite a tidy living. Gives new meaning to the expression “the smell of money,” doesn’t it?

With the advent of modern sewage systems (hurray!) and invention of chemical fertilizers, use of “humanure” in agriculture fell off precipitously. However, like bell-bottomed trousers or the mullet, a cultural phenomenon this distasteful must inevitably stage a comeback. Spurred by concerns about the environmental impact of artificial soil additives as well as strains on waste treatment systems as population density increases, some people are taking the concept of individual recycling to the next level.

Like so many innovations of fashion, Scandinavia has led the way. According to the website Composting Toilet World (!), our Nordic friends originated commercially designed composting toilets in the 1960s (though primitive “earth closets” were available in this country as early as the 19th century; three cheers for American ingenuity!). As far as I can tell, composting toilets are not yet available at Ikea, but surely it's only a matter of time.

While manufacturers promise that their sleek, ultra-modern composting commodes are safe, clean and virtually carefree, those who use them concede that things can go wrong. In an article titled, “Composting Toilets, Pasteurization and Permits,” writer Ron Sutcliffe says, with some understatement, “An unhappy compost toilet will let you know of problems in potentially unpleasant ways.” Happily, he provides a “major problem default sequence” to use if you determine the contents of your compost toilet have become “a threat to your health and the health of the community.” This involves sealing the um … “problem” in steel drums, leaving it in a sunny place for a year, then burying it. Simple and effective! Still, I suggest you decline the invitation to host the neighborhood block party during this 12-month decontamination period.

Commercial composting toilets range in price from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If you’re really frugal, a website provides plans to construct your own unit, using pop bottles and plywood, for about $25.

While I’m all for saving the planet, I won’t be installing a composting toilet (or squatting in the backyard) any time soon. Cleaning out the cat boxes is quite distasteful enough. No, I guess I’ll stick with the sort of all-natural fertilizer that comes in brightly printed bags from Fleet Farm. There are times when doin’ what comes naturally seems like kind of a crappy idea.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Just Say NO to Grass!

I am opposed to grass. I refer here to Kentucky Blue, not maryjane (though, being a prude, I am also opposed to that). I should clarify that my dislike of the lawn is confined to my own; I harbor no ill-will toward the neighbors’ patches of green.

It appears that I am not alone in my anathema. A google search of “why lawns are bad” produces more than 16 million sites. Most of these object to the lawn’s negative environmental impact: they require unconscionable amounts of watering; the chemicals needed to produce a lush look leech into the aquifer and poison the planet; the toxic fumes from the equipment used to manicure them will eventually kill us all.

I don’t care about any of this, much. The reasons for my own distaste are as follows:
1) The relentless stretch of green (or in the case of our lawn, patchy brown) bores me;
2) I hate wasting time mowing, when I could be tending my perennial bed;
3) I hate starting mowers.
4) I hate mowers that don’t start (a chronic seasonal problem for us).
5) I hate the sight of my 83-year-old mother weeping because the mower doesn’t start, even though she just paid the neighbor boy $50 to fix it.

To escape all this animosity, which can’t be good for my blood pressure, I have a grand plan that involves systematically ridding the property of every blade of grass, and replacing it all with lovely flowers and ornamental groundcovers.

My mother is not on board. She declares her great love for a “lush carpet of velvet green.” The fatal flaw in her argument is that we have never HAD a lush carpet of green, and never will. When our home was constructed in 1960, my frugal father threw a few handfuls of grass seed over the existing sod and called it good enough. That set the standard of lawn care for the next half century. We do not aerate. We do not feed. We don’t even water until we’re so deep in drought that the lawn has assumed the color and texture of the Colonel’s famous extra-crispy wings.

We also have a preponderance of trees (another natural enemy) that keep the lawn in a state of perpetual twilight, scar the surface with shallow roots and suck every drop of water out of the soil.

The result is a densely compacted expanse of turf that resembles a toddler’s ratty old security blanket left out in the elements. Patches of moss and swaths of crabcrass and dandelions compete for supremacy with areas of bare ground and the rare specimen of actual grass. As my nephew once remarked, “If you kill all the weeds, there won’t be any green left.” So yeah - our lawn sucks.

We have decided to compromise this year. My mother has been allotted the front yard, to fertilize and kill weeds and strew grass seed to her heart’s content. Every day she’s out with the manual dandelion remover, engaged in a fruitless battle to vanquish them. I have the backyard, where my perennial and bulb and annual beds are proliferating. Time will tell which of us is most satisfied at season’s end.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Man Hunt

As a 40-something spinster, I pride myself on being independent and self-sufficient. I rarely lament the lack of male presence in my life … except at this time of year. A poet once wrote, “In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” In my case, the spring turns my fancy to thoughts of gardening. And I have to admit that a fella would be handy in four key areas of this pastime: startin’, fixin’, totin’ and killin’. Let me expound.

As in lawnmowers, chain saws, cultivators and other equipage that require pulling hard on cords to get them to start. I don’t like pulling on cords. It’s hard, and often results in jammed fingers and sore arms, and is more often than not entirely futile. Because small engines break. A lot. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a weed-whacker start two times in succession. A lawnmower will spontaneously fall apart just sitting in the shed. And when that happens, a man can be useful for …

It seems men like to take things apart. They like to study oily sparkplugs and filters and belts and decide which of them is faulty. That provides a reason to go to the kind of store that carries such items, a source of pleasure in itself, apparently. Every small engine repairman I’ve ever heard of has been, well, a man. On the other hand, every small engine repairman I’ve ever dealt with has been as unreliable as the machines they service. So a mere interest in fixin’ isn’t really enough to tempt me from my single life. However, I could be tempted by a man who’s into …

Gardening involves quite a lot of this. Totin’ heavy bags of mulch from the car to the garden. Totin’ pavers and bricks and other bits of hardscaping. Totin’ wheelbarrowsful of compost or gravel or shrubbery. Totin’ is hard work, especially if you are soft and puny like me. It’s good to have a burly man to do these thing. Especially if he has a totin’ vehicle as well. Ultimately, though, a testosterone-intensive type may be most needed when it comes to …

I am a committed pacifist. I don’t kill anything – not mice, or rabbits or snakes or even bugs. This does not mean, however, that I don’t want these things dead. Fortunately, most men seem peculiarly inclined toward slaughter. Many of them even spend large amounts of time and money engaged in stalking and killing things on land, air and sea. Sadly, the lusher your garden, the more attractive it is to horrible things. Did I mention snakes? Any latter-day St. Patrick who promises to rid my land of serpents could easily sweep me off my feet.

So there you have my criteria for the perfect – albeit seasonal – man. Unfortunately, my theory of “things men are good for” has not actually been borne out by evidence or experience. In fact, all the men in my own family have chronic bad backs, zero mechanical ability and are more terrified of things that slither than I am. And those men I’ve encountered who might have those sterling qualities seem more interested in playing golf or watching sports than in serving as a garden helpmate.

In the end, then, though I concede that there may be some small value to the Y chromosome, I’m content to tough it out on my own. My little slice of Eden might be overrun by unwhacked weeds and swimming in snakes, but it’s all mine.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Snakes in the Grass

According to the Department of Natural Resources, there are 16 species of snake indigenous to Minnesota. I have only encountered one: the humble, harmless, very common garter snake.

Garter snakes are the most widely distributed genus of reptile in the United States, Wikipedia says. As anyone who has ever read a horticultural magazine knows, garter snakes are beneficial in the garden, as they consume large quantities of insects, slugs, rodents and other pests. Many books and websites offer helpful hints for how you can attract garter snakes to your yard. After all, Mr. Garter Snake is a gardener’s best friend.

How I hate him.

Living on the margin of our small town, surrounded until fairly recently by wetlands, meadows and fields, I have encountered snakes in the backyard my whole life. Yet though we cohabit the same half-acre of land, and both appreciate my gardens in our separate ways, Mr. Garter Snake and I will never be friends.

However, I am a confirmed pacifist. Since I can’t bring myself to kill even a snake, I have tried by other means to discourage them from setting up housekeeping in my flower beds. Mothballs, pepper spray, even a rather expensive commercial application called Snake-B-Gone – all have been employed to no effect. My mother, who does not share my scruples about snake assassination, favors stronger deterrents. Waging vigorous chemical warfare, she has encircled the perimeter with lime, lye, ammonia and even oven cleaner. I believe our property could accurately be declared a toxic waste dump. Though 83-years-old, she is not averse to hand-to-snake combat; I have seen her wield a hoe against a garter snake with a frenzied blood-lust that would impress a Viking. Many a reptile has met a grisly fate at her hands. But there are always others to take their place.

As the weather warms, my pulse quickens. Snake season is nigh. Though I can hope this winter was at least as hard on the snakes as it was on the human population, I have no real hope of a snake-free summer. Perhaps God places a serpent in every Eden to remind us that, however we may seek to remake our environment to suit ourselves, in the end Mother Nature always wins.

A Rose (Garden) by Any Other Name

In the newest issue of one of the half dozen gardening magazines I subscribe to, a columnist suggests that every garden should have its own proper name. It sounded like a good idea, and would at least make garden record-keeping more succinct and efficient. (My plant database currently assigns individual specimens to “the big garden,” “mom’s old weed patch” and “that new bed where the neighbors think we hide the bodies.”)

Each garden has its distinct personality, the writer argued, and deserves a name befitting that uniqueness. A garden’s name should be descriptive, yet intriguing. It should convey the essence of the plot while preserving a sense of mystery and romance.

With these criteria in mind, I sat down to ponder the possibilities. My first notions tended to be apt, but unappealing: “Snake Haven, “ say, or “Diminishing Returns.” I‘ve considered names that acknowledge the inevitable (“Bunny Buffet”) or provide full disclosure (“Overdraft Arbor”). I could go with something grand, like “Eden’s Acres” -- the kind of name likely to get you mentioned in the local tourist brochure. However, since even my biggest bed is only 40’x10’, it’s an appellation that could be challenging to defend in a court of law.

A shrewd businesswoman could, I suppose, take a cue from professional sports teams and offer a name in exchange for sponsorship: “Fleet Farm Farm,” perhaps, or “Tastefully Simple Beer Beds.”

For now the quest continues. If anyone reading this has an idea, feel free to pass it along. Or, for a small sum (just $1,000 or so!), you could have a patch of weedy ground named for YOU. Get ‘em while they last!