Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Snails and slugs and moles, oh my!

After clearing, spading, hoeing, raking and fertilizing the large space where I want to plant my farmer's garden enclosed by boxwood, I first sowed lupins of an annual variety as green manure to fertilize and loosen up the soil.

Every morning I anxiously went out to the garden to water and see if there was any sign of growth. After about a week I was delighted to see that delicate reddish green sprouts were pushing up all over the plot!

But THEN I had the kind of shock that many gardeners go through at some point in their career: one morning many of the shoots had been eaten right down to earth level with a telltale trail of slime leading back to the undergrowth on the edge of the plot. It was definitely the slugs that are rampant here. And most likely the invasive species of Spanish slug (Arion lusitanicus), which is slowly driving out the indigenous German red slug. The Spanish slug is so robust that it often survives standard snail pellets, and is avoided by many natural predators due to its bitter taste.

Whatever - the incident filled me with irrational blind rage and lust to kill. I remembered someone telling me about setting beer traps (scroll down to the disgusting picture) for snails and slugs, so tried that. It at least seemed better than what our predecessors in the garden had done: they sprinkled poisonous pellets everywhere and had rusty pairs of scissors deposited all over the garden for cutting the slugs in half. But I found I couldn't stomach either beer traps or hands-on murder of the creatures.

Once again, I turned to that incredible repository of knowledge, the internet, and ended up ordering two wonderful books that changed my view of things and have led me to try a new, more pacifist approach to the slug issue.

The first book (in German), is entitled "Snail Whispering instead of Snail Pellets", by Hans-Peter Posavac. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that you don't want to spend your time in your wonderful peaceful garden, where you're trying to be at one with nature, being filled with hatred and murderous thoughts towards snails/slugs, much less devising gruesome ways to kill them, so why not try a different approach and learn to live with them. He describes his own odyssey through various campaigns - never really successful - to kill off the slugs in his garden, and his decision to try a new approach. The first thing he did was to find out all about these wondrous creatures, who have been on earth practically unchanged for millions of years, and themselves are completely peaceful, slow, persevering, and goal-oriented in survival. Then he started to practice what he calls "snail meditation", i.e. look for a snail or slug in your garden, then sit down on a mat nearby and just watch it. He found that doing this had a relaxing effect, also making him feel fond of the creatures. Then he started to talk to the snails in his garden.

However, talking to them was just part of an entire routine he developed to get the local snails/slugs (here it's mostly slugs) used to the fact that they should eat somewhere else, not in his flower and vegetable beds. He gathered them all up gently in a flat pan at dusk when they typically go foraging, admonishing them not to eat his plants, and carried them to a prepared feeding place with plentiful nourishment of the kind they prefer such as wilted lettuce, citrus peels, wheat germ, etc. He claims that after a few weeks they gave up and went directly to the feeding station. He also claims that due to genetic collective memory, subsequent generations showed the same behavior.

I'm not sure whether I'll actually begin to talk to my slugs, but I was so impressed by the book that I wrote to the author and offered to translate his book into English. The slug/snail problem is universal, after all. No reply yet. I'm not holding my breath, oh well.

The second book I bought, also in German, has the somewhat cumbersome title "Plants that snails like or avoid and tips for combating snails: The ecological solution to the snail problem - pleasure in your garden instead of snails devouring your plants", by Susanne Sailer. There are also many books and websites in English on this topic, see for example here, or here. Ms. Sailer has written a great book with comprehensive lists of plants that slugs usually avoid, including photos and useful information on planting, colors, height, etc. She did it by conducting an empirical survey of professional gardeners and gardening schools. She also has other good tips on how to lessen your slug problem without resorting to mayhem.

BTW I found out by reading her book that lupins are one of the most preferred meals of slugs. Here are some other things I won't be planting: marigolds, lettuce, radishes, zinnias, petunias. But I can have them on our roof-top patio at home. At least I haven't seen a slug up here on the sixth floor yet! (Click to enlarge.)

And what about moles? Well I mostly put them in to conform to the "Lions and tigers and bears" chant in "Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz", but ominously enough, our predecessors in the garden had installed mole deterrents, i.e. some kind of battery-powered contraption which supposedly sends out signals that moles don't like. Haven't seen a mole or molehill anywhere around, though.

What to do about human urges

Our garden colony is not electrified, and not connected to city water and sewage. In the middle of the colony there's a building housing a restaurant/beer garden, the association offices, and restrooms that gardeners can use, but the building is frequently not open, and it's a long trek from my garden.

The cottage on our garden lot has a separate small room with it's own outside door where our predecessors had a chemical camping toilet. But that is a hassle, since it has to be emptied into a dumping station, for example at a campground, or taken home and emptied into the toilet. And you have to put toxic chemicals in it if you want to use it more than once. Some of the gardens have flush toilets with illegal cesspools, but I definitely didn't want to go that route either. Outhouses are absolutely taboo in this water protection area. Who would want one anyway?

So I started searching the internet for ideas, and lo and behold, there's a whole community out there discussing composting toilets, aka dry toilets. There's even an entire online book on the subject, The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, which I found so convincing and informative that I decided to go that route. Thank you, Joseph Jenkins, for your great book!

There are two basic kinds of composting toilet: simple ones that consist of a collecting receptacle that you then have to frequently empty onto your compost heap, and more complicated ones for heavier duty use that compost the waste in a compartment under the toilet. In our case the first kind seemed like the practical thing to do, seeing as we have more than enough room for nearby compost heaps. After browsing several forums I decided to buy a "MiniLoo", and following several weeks of use it's turned out to be exactly the right choice. Here's a picture.

Under the seat there's a bucket, which you line with a biodegradable bag and fill with a few inches of tree bark mulch before using. After each use, enough tree bark is sprinkled on top to cover the waste. Experience has shown that after about 6-8 uses (urine only), it's ready to be emptied.

The receptacle can be lifted out and fitted with a lid to carry to the compost heap. After depositing the bag and all there, possibly in an indentation, you pile enough fresh composting material (cut grass, branches, leaves, etc.) on top to cover it up. After about a year it is completely composted, faster if using a thermo composter.

And amazingly: just as the proponents claim, it does *not* stink at all, neither in the toilet room nor in the receptacle, nor in or near the compost heap. No flies either. The only thing that is recommended is not to use the compost on vegetables, just in case any bacteria might have survived. For that reason we have three compost heaps: one out of wooden slats as daily collecting receptacle for green waste, one lidded thermal composter for the vegetable beds, and one lidded thermal composter for the composting toilet and the flower beds.

So I'm sold! Highly recommended for light occasional use with easy access to plenty of compostable material and compost heap.

Inventory in our new garden

First of all, the garden was full of roses, roses, roses. Our predecessor was a rose enthusiast and collected old varieties. But I soon decided to get rid of some of them to make room for a little more lawn and for some other perennials and shrubs I want to have. But some of the roses are indeed beautiful and I'll be trying to learn how to tend them. Here an impression, still blooming late in September (click to enlarge any photo).

Near the patio the garden has a gorgeous stand of zebra grass (Miscanthus zebrinus strictus), which has now formed feathery tassels, something it only does if it feels very happy.

The garden also has remnants of a traditional farmer's garden, bordered by boxwood. My most ambitious first plan is to reinstate and enlarge this by planting a geometrical pattern of low boxwood hedges to enclose flower, herb and vegetable beds. This tradition is still alive in cloister gardens and also in gardens in rural areas of Europe. See links at end of post.

Here are the boxwoods still in the garden. In the background you can see the various compost containers, more on that in another post. Between and behind the boxwoods are many perennials. In the foreground were vegetable beds of wax beans, tomatoes, zucchini, celeriac, peppers, chives, garlic, lovage. Much of this I've already cleared out to plant green manure (lupins) in preparation for enlarging the boxwood enclosure.

One perk of being in a gardening colony is that you're likely to have wonderful gardeners as neighbors. One of my neighbors has gorgeous asters and dahlias right along the border to my garden, and they delight me everyday. The asters especially attract bees and the whole area hums!

Along the borders and in two patches our garden has a wealth of perennials. Since we acquired the garden in the late summer, we won't know exactly what we have until spring. Can't wait. But a few treasures are late bloomers, here are some impressions:

Two other great features of the garden are the row of espalier fruit trees, apples and pears along one border, and the blackberry vines enclosing the perennial bed next to the cottage. Here you see my husband cutting back the blackberries for the winter, and a view of the espalier trees behind my daughter, who is busy planting pillow asters (Aster dumosus).

Here are some links to the kind of geometrical farmer's garden I want to create, albeit on a more modest level.

English knot garden
kitchen garden blog
picture of German Bauerngarten

Monday, September 28, 2009

How I found my garden

Since various friends of mine in Mannheim have or had allotment gardens, I was aware of some of the colonies, and knew that some of them were not really what I wanted. For one thing, they are sometimes located in somewhat undesirable areas such as along railroads, near the autobahn or the airport, etc. And I knew I wanted silence if possible. Also, it was to be as close as possible to where I live, and ideally accessible on foot, by bicycle, and by public transportation. So I narrowed my search down to two colonies in the South of Mannheim, one in Mannheim-Mallau, and one in Mannheim-Neckarau near Stollenwörthweiher (see picture below, that's the Rhine River in the upper left).

My 16-yr-old daughter agreed to accompany me (amazingly enough), so off we went. The first colony, in Mallau, turned out to be in the middle of a very industrialized area, full of huge electronic and consumer supermarkets and building supply places, and right next to a quite lovely large cemetery.

We looked at two available gardens, and I wasn't too impressed. They were pretty run down, and the surrounding industrial area was visible from almost everywhere. Margo told me that some of her school friends had gardens in the colony in Stollenwörthweiher, and that it was much much nicer there, so we drove right over and walked around, and it was indeed in a beautiful location with very nicely landscaped public areas.

So we went over a couple days later during office hours and applied. The association officers gave us a map showing 12 available gardens out of over 900 (!) gardens in the colony. I later found out that this was the second largest garden colony in all of Germany, second only to one of the original colonies in Leipzig. And what I really liked about it was the location: right next to one of Mannheim's most beautiful parks and the protected natural habitat Reisinsel.

Also, it was right on the Rhine dike. On the other side of the dike is the traditional Mannheim Rhine River beach, no longer used much for swimming, but still visited by many sunbathers and strollers, with snack bars and beer garden.

To make a long story short: we picked out one of the gardens, one that was right on the Rhine dike, and the association then gave us the name of the current owners. We got in touch with them, and took over their garden. They had had it for over 35 years and had to give it up due to their age (the man was 86). It works like this: you pay the previous owners for everything "above ground", i.e. the buildings, the plants, the trees, the paths, etc. The price for these things is estimated by the garden association and is fixed. On top of that you can negotiate with the previous owners about taking over their garden tools, lawnmower, furnishings of garden house, etc. So this we did, and ended up gladly paying 5000 Euros to the previous owners. We had to sign a contract with the garden association on paying the (piddling) 150 Euros per year to cover lease, water, and association fee. And then it was ours! Here are a few pictures of what the garden looked like when we bought it (please click to enlarge):

More on my first more exact assessment of the garden, and what needed to be done in my next post.

Looking for a garden - how it began

With retirement looming I decided that I really wanted to have a garden. Since we love our downtown apartment in Mannheim and don't want to move to suburbia or the German equivalent thereof, I decided to look into getting an allotment garden. That seems to be the English, or at least British, translation for a German institution known variously as "Schrebergarten", "Kleingarten", "Koloniegarten", or "Laube".

In Germany, the Schrebergarten movement, named after the Leipzig physician Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, began in the second half of the 19th century. Some of Schreber's ideas were bizarre and pretty abominable really, but what he's remembered for is being the namesake of the movement to provide the working population in the industrial age with cheap lots for gardening, growing vegetables, and getting exercise out in nature. Today, most German cities lease land, often quite close to city centers, to gardening clubs, which in turn lease individual plots to members and attend to administrative and organizational matters.

Cities like Mannheim, with its long industrial and workingman's tradition, often have quite a number of gardening colonies. I know of at least 10 in Mannheim. A typical plot is between 200 and 500 square meters in size (i.e. 2000 - 5000 square feet). In Germany that's quite a piece of property. Due to the dense population, purchasing a house with a lot that size near any major city is beyond the budget of most people, so leasing a plot in one of these colonies can give you the best of both worlds: remain in your urban apartment with all the advantages of access to utilities and public transportation, and have a garden the size of a suburban yard for a tiny fraction of the price.

Garden plots usually include a small building and a shed, often of strictly regulated size, and depending on the colony may or may not be electrified or offer access to city water and sewage. It's not allowed to live in the colonies, and whereas at the beginning of the movement and certainly during and after the world wars their main purpose was to enable the population to supplement their diet with home-grown produce, they have now become a free time activity for Germany's myriads of enthusiastic gardeners. It's hobby number one for both males and females here.

In my next post I'll describe my adventures in trying to find a garden plot to lease.

Some interesting links in English about German Schrebergärten:
Article in English version of Spiegel
Food for All - Applying the Schrebergarten idea to impoverished countries
Paper delivered at a conference of the American Community Gardening Association