Sunday, March 29, 2009

Of Bears, Opossums, Asapargus and pH

What with the confrontation between dogs and bears and the opossums eating the chickens, it was a very busy week for farmer Lee Hauter.

An unholy row forced Lee out of bed one night. A bear he recognized from last fall apparently had risen from its long hibernation and approached the farm looking very skinny and hungry. Lee's two big Pyrenees dogs, fierce defenders of the property, rushed to inform the bear he was not welcome.

Fortunately, dogs and the bear were separated by a fence. After some fierce gnashing of teeth and viscious snarling, the bear departed back into the woods.

Then on Friday night Leigh awoke from a dream in which raccoons were eating his chickens. He shook it off and went back to sleep. But now he regrets not following his inner voice. That night with all the rain a section of the movable electric fence that surrounds one of his chicken broods collapsed. Opossums--not raccoons--took advantage and killed five of Leigh's chickens.

Wait. Opossums eat chickens?

"You can tell it was opossums," Leigh said, "because they suck the innards right out."

Good to know.

Besides these flirtations with the wild animal kingdom, Leigh did have some business to take care of--like the hoop houses that needed building, and bees that needed feeding, the 600 asparagus roots that needed planting, the 300 raspberry brambles that arrived and the 100 horseradish roots.

I was particularly interested to hear about the asparagus because my wife and I have our eyes on a patch of yard where we plan to put our own asparagus. Of course Leigh works on a much larger scale. About four years ago he planted 1,500 roots for Bull Run Farm's CSA subscribers. The 600 he ordered this year were meant to replace some plants that had been lost in the intervening years.

For the asparagus, Leigh pulls a bottom plow behind his tractor creating a trench about 10 inches deep. In the past he would toss horse manure into the trench and lay the asparagus roots on top. Asparagus can also be grown from seeds. But most growers prefer to buy the root stock. It takes about three years for the asparagus roots to become firmly established before you start harvesting the delicious stems.

Horse manure sounded familiar. That's precisely what my wife had proposed to do: dig a big hole and fill it with horse manure to rot while the asparagus was establishing itself. But Leigh says his grower now advises very firmly against horse manure or even compost until the asparagus is actually growing. Leigh says the issue is creating a soil that is too acid. Asparagus prefers a pH in the range of 7 to 7.2. So instead of tossing horse manure into the trench he added some bone meal.

"Bone meal is more expensive than lime," Leigh said. "But I'm going for the extra nutrition."

Leigh said that over the years he's become especially aware of his soil's pH. A soil's pH--a measure of less than seven indicating acidity, more than 7 indicating alkalinity--governs a plant's ability to take up nutrients through its roots. Some plants, such as blueberries and potatoes, like an acid soil. Other plants, such as cabbage and other brassicas, prefer a more alkaline soil. Most vegetables, in fact, prefer a soil that is slightly acid--somewhere in the range of 6.5 to 7.

"I test the soil around the farm all the time," Leigh said. "I'm a lot more concerned than I used to be."

What really focused Leigh on soil pH was a particular field on his farm that never seemed to perform up to par. No matter what he planted there, the yields were never good. "It always seemed to look parched," Leigh said. Finally he sent some of the soil off for analysis and learned that it was too acid. The lab gave him a specific recommendation for how much lime to add to balance the acid.

After that, Leigh stopped at the farm supply and purchased his own pH measuring tool. "I spent a couple hundred bucks on it," Leigh said. Apparently, that would be $200 well spent.


Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

when I dug my asparagus bed a few years ago, I dug it down to 12 to 18 inches - depending on the slope and until I reached clay, mixed the excavated soil with copious amounts of horse manure (some composted, some not), garden compost and ash from the wood stove (to raise the PH and for potash). Piled it up another 12 inches on top for raised bed. Let it age through the winter (it was dug in the fall). Trenched in March. Planted the crown in April. Every winter it gets a covering of compost, sand and wood ash. I have never looked back. The asparagus went gang buster. Of course I only have 25 crowns - not 1,500!!! But asparagus season will be upon us SOON - as well as morels. Yeah!

You're welcome to visit anytime during asparagus season.

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, I think what you've described is exactly what my wife has in mind. Not laying the horse manure directly under the roots, but farther down in the soil and letting it rot as the asparagus grows its roots. I'm not entirely clear on the acid issue with the horse manure. Leigh seemed to think it's more of an issue if the manure includes sawdust bedding. Any experience with that?

Kevin said...

My parents had a 30 foot long asparagus bed. One year they were in Europe during asparagus season - and I was their house-sitter. Talk about pig heaven!

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Not sure about how acid horse manure is. But it has plenty of salts and minerals (which asparagus enjoy). So much in fact that it's often recommended not to use (horse) manure in polytunnels because salt will buildup (no rains to leach them) and some crops can't handle that. In addition, ashes from my wood stove (no chemicals/lighter fluid ever used) is here to bring the pH up (in addition to potassium and other minerals). "In the old days", asparagus beds were built using plenty of manure, so that the "recipe" I followed. I intended to build the asparagus bed once - not every then years!

Ed Bruske said...

Kevin, I hope they left adequate butter in the fridge to go with all that asparagus.

Sylvie, I am looking forward to seeing your asparagus. I think my wife would like to talk to you about it as well.