21 April 2009

Horse manure

Today is horse manure day in the vegetable garden. The plot of land I'm working on, which is 4 m by 4 m in size (that's a square 13 ft. on a side), is one I tilled up two weeks ago. Since then, I gathered up a lot of sticks, twigs, and leaves from a couple of piles we had made last fall and covered for the winter. It was all pretty dry, so I made a big pile in the middle of the garden plot and set it on fire one afternoon last week.

A succulent that spent the winter indoors
is happy to be outside again.

Now I have a plot of soil covered with fine ash. To that, I'm going to add about 40 lbs. of composted horse manure (fumier de cheval) that we bought at the supermarket. And then I'll run the rotary cultivator through it all one more time to mix it all together well. That plot will be ready for planting.

One of our requirements when we left the city (San Francisco) and moved to the country (outside Saint-Aignan) nearly six years ago was enough land to have a respectable vegetable garden on it. When we cameto France to look at houses in 2002, we rejected a couple that were bigger (but not necessarily nicer) than the one we now live in because they were on land that were not level.

These I know to be plums. They are on a tree
in the neighbors' yard. They look like the ones I've found
out on the edge of the vineyard and that I'm keeping an eye on.

After living in San Francisco for 8 years, we knew about hills. Our house there was on 4 levels, from the garage down on street level up to the bedrooms and rear deck. It wasn't 4 stories, just 4 different levels offset by half a story. And the back yard — if you can use the word "yard" for a spact that was 25 ft. wide and 35 ft. deep — was actually on a fifth level. It was up higher than the highest floor of the house.

We did have a garden there, but we quickly learned we couldn't grow vegetables because of the cool, gray weather we had in summertime in San Francisco. Besides, since it was in a city neighborhood in the middle of a block, the only access to the yard was through the house. It wasn't easy to haul a lot of dirt or manure or dead leaves through the house up several flights of stairs.

Weeds are plants too.

Here in Saint-Aignan, we live in a house with a big flat yard. What we didn't realize when we chose it, however, was that the soil is very poor. That's why the land is planted in grapes all around us. Grape vines thrive in poor soil — clay with lots of rocks (flintstone) in it. Chalky soil. Sand. Gravel. Vegetable gardens would rather have rich, loamy soil that is well drained. We are trying to create those conditions for our tomatoes and eggplants.

That's why we are constantly working to improve the soil by mixing in composted leaves, ashes, and now, for the first time, horse manure. Composted horse manure, by the way, not the fresh stuff. Somebody warned me to keep the dog away from it anyway, because dogs love to roll in things that smell bad.

These orchids have come up as weeds in our yard.

This gardening thing is a lot of work. But it's important. In San Francisco, I used to say, my feet almost never touched real earth. I would go down the stairs to the garage, get in my car, drive 50 miles to work, park, walk on asphalt and concrete into my building, and spend the day indoors. In the evening, I'd repeat the trip in reverse order.

Here, I'm always scraping mud off my shoes — at least in springtime. We now live not to the rhythms imposed by an employer and the freeways, but to the rhythms of nature and dirt.

Grapes grow well in poor soil.

If the weather will just cooperate this summer, we will have a great 2009 garden. But there are no guarantees, despite the best intentions and a lot of hard work.


  1. I didn't know that grapes grew in poor soil. You must be improving your soil pretty well since your produce looks great to me.

    Since my Dad was a poultry dealer, he put chicken manure on our garden for a few years. I can still remember that bad smell! It came with a few feathers here and there, but the results were good.

    I guess the soil in Kentucky is better than yours to begin with. I think tobacco requires fertile soil. Tobacco farms start about 60 miles east of Louisville.

    I'm glad that you are now living close to the land even if that means muddy feet from time to time.

  2. Hi Evelyn, the soil down in the river valley is much richer than ours up here on the high ground. Down there it's sandy loam. Same over in the Sologne, just across the river and NE of us -- sand and loam.

    One day when I was talking to Patricia Denis at the winery down the road, she said our Gamay grapes around here, planted on clay/flintstone soil, give much better red wines that the Gamay grapes planted in sand just north of us.

  3. I know all about lousy soil. We're in the process of digging down 8 inch in a 12' x 12' area for a brick patio. We are sifting all of the dirt or pit soil (as they call it here) so we can use it in some flower beds. It's mostly rocks. It's hard and dirty work.

    I'm sitting in my computer room sipping a glass of homemade lemonade taking a break from the digging and rock sorting. I'm glad I have your blog to read everyday.

    Victoria, Bellingham, WA (Caseysworlds)

  4. Oh sure we can buy horse manure at our grocery store too!

  5. We "grow" horse manure. We are willing to share with anyone who wants to get it!

  6. It's probably too expensive to ship it, and I don't know what customs would think. Luckily, we can buy it at garden centers, hardware stores, and... our supermarkets.


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