Letter from Birdland: I'm dreaming about bushels of ripe fruit

Letter from Birdland: I'm dreaming about bushels of ripe fruit

It is mud time in Birdland. Or it was until this morning, when the temperatures dipped down below freezing again, and the mud became solid. The wind blows in from the east, which is unusual here, and it's bitterly cold.

The chickens fluff up their feathers and sit hunched under the ornamental quince. I carried a bowl of scraps out to them and saw for the first time a cluster of daffodils just breaking the ground from below. It took me by surprise for some reason, though they usually emerge long before late March.

I didn't even look for bulbs pushing up out of the ground in last week's thaw, though I saw a whole flock of robins together in the snow on my walk to campus a few weeks back, and a reader sent me a picture of 11 robins clustered in a tree (thanks, Mike). The forecast is for warmer weather tomorrow, and I hope it's right.

Over the weekend, I got a chance to learn about the structure of soil and about pruning fruit trees at an Illinois SARE class. SARE stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (http://www.sare.org).

We learned that soil itself is an ecosystem, and the best way to sustain that system is to attend to the health and structure of the soil.

Increasing the balance of organic matter is a good habit to cultivate. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Our lecturers told us about using cover crops to maintain soil structure, one mentioning, especially, rows of kale with white clover planted between the rows.

I begin to daydream about a long row of kale east of the house, but wait, why not make a pathway between two raised beds of kale and white clover between them? The path could wind a little, no need for straight rows here, where we work mostly by hand and not with tractors.

I ask for more details and our teacher tells us to wait until the kale is 8 inches tall, and then sow the white clover between the rows. He cautions me to weed before planting the clover, but when the clover is established, it should help with weed control.

We were sitting in Turner Hall, and one teacher told us that its namesake, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, had championed osage orange hedges on Illinois farms.

We have a few hedges around here, but most of them were cut long ago when farms hereabouts went to more mechanized practices.

He told us that even when they stopped planting hedgerows, osage orange was still prized for fenceposts, but you always had to plant the posts upside down, even 6 months after they were cut, to keep them from taking root and growing back into a tree.

Next we would head out to the University Student Sustainable Farm after a quick lunch and a walk around the ACES Open House.

By the time I finished my sandwich, I only had time to get to the Stock Pavilion, where I got to milk a cow and see chicks hatching. Then, on to the Student Sustainable Farm, south of campus (thefarm.illinois.edu).

There we saw high tunnels (I would have called these plastic covered greenhouses if I didn't know any better) with long beds of salad green seedlings. These will be served in the dorm cafeterias and sold at the farmers' market on the Quad (on Thursdays, May through November).

Some of the beds had a second layer of protection from the weather in the form of "low tunnels," a light covering laid over a row of semicircles arching over the seedlings. It all made me hungry for a little greenhouse here at Birdland.

Then, on to the orchard, where we had lessons in pruning apple and peach trees. Some of the same basic rules apply, only apples have a central trunk, and peaches want to have a hollow, basket shape.

The day was pretty warm and sunny then, and I stood in the orchard with pruning shears in my hand, trying to decide what to cut and what to let grow, and imagining bushels and bushels of fruit on a warm summer day.

Prune in beauty; cultivate peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in all the cycles of the year. You can read more about Birdland and see pictures at letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com.

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