Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nitrogen Fixing Nodules

The fava bean forest got cleared out today to make room for tomatoes. When I pulled up the towering plants I was glad to see that the root clumps are festooned with clusters of nitrogen-fixing nodules. That means that these fava plants, like all hard-working legumes, invoked their magical powers of pulling nitrogen out of the air and storing it in tiny sacs strung along the root systems.

Actually, the whole story is more complicated. The fava roots exude sugars into the soil to attract a particular type of bacteria which attach themselves to the roots. These bacteria are able to convert nitrogen from the air into a form that the plant can use. What the plant can't use right away is stored in the nodules. (I don't really understand this part. How does the nitrogen get to the bacteria way down on the roots?)

Here are the sturdy stalks and root clumps ready for the compost pile. If I were able to leave all this material in the bed and dig it under so it could break down right in place, the nodules would enrich the soil with their stored nitrogen.

Also, if I had dug in the plants before they formed their ample harvest of beans, there would have been lots more stored nitrogen and lots more enrichment. Unfortunately, none of these "ifs" are going to benefit the tomato seedlings which need to go into this bed right away.

But the extra nitrogen won't go to waste and will eventually make its way back to the garden as compost.

Meanwhile, here's a link to a great little video where a couple of enthusiastic agricultural scientists explain nitrogen fixation on soybeans. After listening to these guys, you just can't help rooting for roots! Yay roots!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tomato Guild

The permaculture concept of planting in communities or "guilds" has intrigued me ever since I first learned about it. Today I put together a permaculture-for-dummies installation including tomatoes (the tomatoes were already there) and a few of the beneficial companions said to enhance their growth: marigolds, basil, parsley, and nasturtiums. Whether the purported mutual benefits are science or merely lore, I do not know, but it makes an attractive grouping and I look forward to seeing how it fills out.

Here are the members of this guild, nestled together in a nine-foot-square raised bed:

1. Better Boy hybrid seedlings from Garden Crossing mail order nursery (Better Boys, B.'s favorite, are getting harder and harder to find. This is the first time we had to resort to online shopping to locate some.) The tomatoes are the lead plant in the guild. These were planted out May 9.

2. Queen Sophia marigold seedlings from Natural Gardening. The roots deter nematodes.

3. Genovese basil seedlings from Natural Gardening. Who could imagine tomatoes without basil! It's said to improve flavor not just in the kitchen but in the garden too. The flowers attract beneficial insects. It's edible. Being pesto lovers, we grow it as a crop in its own right. B.'s most frequent comment on the garden: "Not enough basil!"

4. Italian Flatleaf parsley seedlings from Natural Gardening. I'm not sure what parsley does but it's always on the guild lists for tomatoes. Edible.

5. Moonlight nasturtium seeds from Renee's Garden. Nasturtiums deter pests, draw beneficial insects, and are edible.

As I understand it, a true guild is based on perennials and ideally starts with trees, but hey, you garden with the plants you have, with the materials at hand, and with the time available. I've discovered that the best way to learn new things in the garden is to start some small scale experiments and see where they lead.

Tucked in with all the seedlings and seeds in this bed are two sunken clay pots filled with water and covered with the pot's own drip dish turned upside down to form a lid. This was an experiment from several year's back that has yielded good results. The pots provide a steady water supply close to the root zone as the water slowly seeps through the clay walls, responding to the moisture level in the surrounding soil. I think the plants like this system because when I pull the pots out at the end of the season the hole is lined with a thick netting of pale roots.

Here's hoping this tomato installation becomes a happy little cul de sac in the larger garden community.

Friday, May 13, 2011

In Praise of the Elder Mother

The Elderberry bush is starting to bloom. There are clusters of tiny, ivory-colored florets dotting its voluminous dark green surface.

Friday the 13th is a good day to pay a tribute to the Elder Mother, since both the day and the bush represent ancient earth powers which have been made malevolent for reasons too deep to speculate on here.

Friday is "Frigga's Day," the Teutonic goddess of love, marriage, and fertility. And 13 is not an unlucky number in the old reckoning of goddesses, since there are 13 moon cycles in one journey round the sun -- each 28 day moon cycle evoking the normal menstrual cycle, also, of course, closely linked to fertility.

The lore surrounding the Elderberry bush seems to come mostly from Europe, where peasants were careful not to arouse the ire of the rather cranky Elder Mother by clipping her branches without a really good explanation. In a well tended hedgerow, Elderberry bushes were allowed to sprawl, and were considered places of mystery -- an opening to other dimensions. If you fell asleep under an Elderberry bush on Mid-summer's night you might well see faeries and elves celebrating.

And the most powerful and dangerous wand in the Harry Potter saga is the Elder Wand, made from a branch of the Elderberry.

Personally, I prefer a practical, modern approach and look upon the attractive shrub in our backyard as the Western Blue Elderberry, Sambucus cerulea, with beautiful flowers and dark blue berries that draw the birds. I have no intention of falling asleep under there, especially since C. is fond of that spot for his doggie ablutions.

However, I do let it grow unchecked, and I do find it very interesting that the rising sun of the summer solstice hits the fence right where the Elderberry bush opens its curved branches, forming an entrance to the mysterious green cave of light underneath.