|Plant in Beauty; Eat in Peace;|
Saturday, March 3, 2012
GLIMMERS OF GARDENS
BIRDLAND HAS A DAMP CHILL, BUT THE CHICKENS DON'T SEEM TO MIND IT. Yesterday the door to their coop somehow blew shut, and at dusk I found half of them circling the coop, trying fruitlessly to join their friends inside. Those outside were wet and bedraggled. They didn't seem to mind that much, but they were glad to go inside to the coop. I keep a light bulb burning in the winter for warmth, and I imagine it helped them dry off once they went in. On warmer days, I turn off the light, but last night it made the plastic covered chicken yard glow like a lantern.
This morning they are roaming the yard, looking for snacks. My chickens have a varied diet. I take a scoop of food out to them each morning, but they don't spend much time in the coop. They are more interested in what they can scratch up in the yard. My red rooster has found some kind of treat. He bobs his head, clucking excitedly and three of the hens come running. He is chivalrous, as most roosters are, and steps back to allow the hens to snap up the delicacy—maybe the light winter has allowed some grubs to survive and the damp weather encourages them to come up to the sunlight. Either way, my chickens seem to enjoy living off the fat of the land.
The varied diet of my hens (greens, grubs, seeds, even small mice when they can find them) gives their eggs the rich yellow yolks and sunny flavor we enjoy so much. I've been listening to an audiobook of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, and he makes some sobering points about what we eat. In our agricultural practices, we have gotten really good at maintaining levels of macro-nutrients in the soil (Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus) simply by adding them. And by keeping those levels constant and in balance with scientific testing, we can produce big yields. I've lived on a farm long enough to be able to tell when the corn is low on nitrogen—it gets that sallow, yellow color you sometimes see at the edge of the rows. But we also have need for micro-nutrients in the food we eat—things like zinc and selenium, and I've never heard of a truck spreading selenium on a field. Pollan explains that the nutritional makeup of common foods, like apples and broccoli, is going down, so that we have to eat 2 apples grown today to get the amount of some important nutrients in an apple grown in the 1950's. If you think about it, if micro-nutrients are absent from the soil, how can they possibly end up in the fruit grown on that soil? The best way to get these into the soil is via organic methods—the slow breakdown of organic matter in the soil is so complex that we can't really understand, let alone replicate it. Somehow that process adds hundreds of complicated chemical compounds. Years ago, a friend who was studying soil science told me that soil, like us, is an organism. Like us, it can be healthy or sick; in balance, or out of whack.
All this thinking about good food has me planning my garden. Because of my school schedule, I tend to get a late start on gardening. The past few years my “garden” has been mostly a dependence on the generosity of others. But today, I'm determined to revive the garden coop—the frame house with the chicken-wire walls that we built to keep the chickens from pecking holes in my tomatoes and cucumbers, to keep them from shredding my lettuce and chard. I'll plan to order heritage varieties—those vegetables that were bred before the agricultural industry started breeding for things like shelf life and size of harvest (which Michael Pollan points out often comes with a nutritional trade-off). But for today, I think I'll pull out some leftover seeds and plant a few pots of lettuces and herbs for the window sill. In a few days the seeds will sprout and green will show, a promise of the spring to come.