Notes from Windward: #71


Creating Space for Winter Squash

January 17th 2011


     It never ceases to amaze me how much my body and energy level, the pattern and pace of my thoughts, and how I desire to spend my time are impacted by the weather. Those who have lived with me can attest that most of the year I have a really hard time sitting down for extended periods of time. The possibility of sitting and reading a book for a few hours on a sunny afternoon rarely enters my mind. Certainly when the days are hot and long and there seem to be an endless number of physcial tasks, I too need to find some time to rest in order to maintain a certain clarity of thought and enthusiasm for the project at hand. But often just fifteen minutes of lying down will suffice before my body pops up from whatever horizontal surface I have been resting on and craves physical movement.

     However this winter I have been hibernating in a way unlike winters past. Perhaps it is because this winter has been particularly cold and snowy, which makes outdoor work both inefficient and rather challenging. Or perhaps its because all the work, both the inner work and the work in the physical world, that has been occupying my time over the past year has indeed taken its toll and I just needed to rest in a deep and prolonged way. But in any event, I have begun to internalize the rejuvinating aspects of winter and have taken quite keenly over the past several weeks to cuddling up with a blanket and a book by the wood stove for hours at a time. I am actually surprising myself with a new found capacity to sleep for 10+ hours on regular basis, when 6 hours seems more like the norm, and not have my body upset with me for day dreaming for a few hours in front of the fire about the soil environment in the wild fruit forests of Kazakhstan.

     Since the middle of November, it seems we have seen the grass only a few times and for a day or two at most before the next blanket of snow falls. I have noticed that during these brief moments when the ground is no longer fully white, I suddenly awaken from my hibernating tendencies and am urged to tend to the various life forms that have been patiently waiting under the snow.

a buttercup squash‒one of our favorites

     Indeed this article is about preparing a new winter squash bed, for we have entered into a lengthy stretch (4+ days) of days with temperatures reaching into the 40s and night-time lows that are well above freezing. And my body's response, apparently, is to dig. The soil in the garden is actually in quite a good condition for digging‒early spring digging can sometimes be very challenging because the soil is so wet it sticks to the shovel. However, the soil in this particular never-been prepared part of the garden it is still partially frozen, but not too frozen, so its pretty easy digging.

     As many know, winter squash have a tendency to grow into as much space as you will give them. This past season, we had a bountiful winter squash crop and are finding winter squash to be an important component to providing sustained nutrition throughout the winter months, so we want to continue to increase our squash production. This means creating a space where the squash can grow to their hearts content without interfering with more reserved garden crops, like carrots and leeks that tend to just stay where they are put. While eventually I would like to create an additional terrace for the garden, it is a significant amount of spring labor and I think that energies would better be allocated in another directions this year. But we still need more growing space for annuals and need it to be loose, fertile soil and retain moisture well.

three sunshine squash plants

     So the current plan is create a mound that extends the 80 foot length of the beds with a downward slopping bed on the uphill side of the mound. The idea being that moisture will be trapped in the valley that is effectively created between the natural downhill slope of the land and the mound created by human hands. To further increase soil moisture retention and nutrient availability, we are adding bedding straw recently excavated from the goat barn (and so full of nitrogen rich manure) into a furrow dug where the mound is to be located. In theory the increased organic matter will hold moisture longer into the droughty months and the plant roots will be able to access both the moisture and the nutrients without going too far.

The completed mound, and yet
to be completed planting bed

     So the process works like this: dig a trench (about 10 inches deep and 10 inches wide) the length of the bed where the mound is desired; fill this trench with straw, being sure to compress the straw as much as possible; then pile the dirt excavated to make the trench back on top of the straw and voila! there is a mound. This is about how far I have gotten so far. The next steps will be to prepare the beds on the uphill side of this mound, likely by removing some of the clay soil and adding it to the mound and replacing it with compost and other organic matter so that by late spring it will be ready for planting. In this new location, the winter squash will be able to stretch their tendrils far and wide without threating other plants.

Pip and Barabus like to keep me company while digging

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71