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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Sun rays for winter days

Have you read Frederick, a picture book by Leo Lionni? Frederick is a mouse poet who doesn’t join in when his mouse compatriots are harvesting seeds in summer to eat during the winter. 

     He tells them, “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” He stores up impressions of the warm months. The other mice think he’s a slacker, but when the bleak winter comes, they are sustained by his stories as they huddle inside a stone wall.

    I find myself thinking about Frederick at this time of year. I too have wanted to store sun rays to get me through the winter, to buoy my spirits and also to make things grow next spring. 

Paperwhite narcissi bring some stored solar energy indoors in January

     The sun’s rays are embodied in the basic components of my gardening activity. The brown leaves and needles lying on the ground now, the gray trunks and branches of trees and shrubs, all represent the sun’s energy, captured through photosynthesis and stored in plant tissue. 

    In aiming to garden sustainably, I’m trying to keep that stored energy in my yard instead of sending it away. That’s why I ask the lawn service to let clippings lie on the grass to compost in place. It’s why I chop fallen leaves and use them as mulch. Both add organic material to the soil, which means keeping solar energy here where plants and animals can use it. As one of the resident animals, I want that energy to go toward growing garden plants I love.

    It would be even better if I could keep twigs and branches from trees and shrubs in the yard to make compost, mulch, or brush piles to shelter wildlife. So far I haven’t found ways to do that. Oak branches would take decades to decompose unless I chopped them into chips, which I’m not able to do. On a third of an acre lot, I begrudge space for a brush pile.

     My “sustainable-enough” approach has been instead to send out woody prunings to the city’s composting operation with the yard waste and use wood chips kindly delivered by a local arborist, Kevin Newman, for mulch.  This exchange means that the mulch doesn’t originate on my land, but it doesn’t incur much carbon cost for travel—the chips are from nearby trees. 
     It was nice to learn that trees aren’t totally locked in suspended animation during the winter months. They’re dormant, with slowed metabolism, but they’re poised to take up water when soil temperatures are favorable, between approximately 32 and 41 degrees.

This white pine appreciates snow cover
    A consistent insulating layer of snow can keep the soil in this temperature range. The snow allows evergreens to keep their needles from drying out and enables all trees to send out new roots in early spring by holding a little of the sun’s warmth in the soil.  Sort of like Frederick’s stories.

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