Thursday, May 14, 2009

One Dove, Four Finches, Fat Hen

These are the things my garden showed me yesterday. The songbirds showed up as I was making my early morning inspection. Just after moving and feeding the girls, the garden beckons. Each day there is something new now, in this season of rampant growth. More seeds sprouting, seedlings getting taller, butterflies showing up, tender crops already under assault from hungry insects. The finches are merry, brassy little wights. They flit and twitter, and have a go at each other now and then. They like to creep around the mounds I've built up for the squash and melons, just as much as they enjoy the view from the top of my bean poles. They don't mind me as I move slowly around the outside of the garden. Not so the dove; she's a nervous, flighty thing, cautious and easily spooked.

Even though my first response is anxiety that these birds might pluck one of my coddled seedlings from the ground, I like seeing them in my garden. My second and more reasoned thought is that they are allies who are searching out insects on which to break their fast. I take their presence as a sign of health in my yard. If there were no life in my garden soil, there would be nothing to interest these birds. But I see the life there, centipedes, salamanders, worms, spiders, and bugs, each time I open the soil to place a seedling. I see the mushrooms fruiting from last year's hay mulch, and I take it as encouragement that a diverse ecosystem occupies my little patch of earth. As improbable as it may sound, this is deeply important to me.

I had a Duh! moment yesterday afternoon. I've been working so hard at all the tasks that need doing that a nap was inevitable. I'd been telling myself too that I should find a little time to peruse the weed book I got at weed school back in February. Weeds of the Northeast is a heavy volume with detailed pictures and descriptions of all the common weeds of the northeastern US. I've never been very good at identifying weeds, and I figured there was a decent chance that at least a few of the things I've regarded as weeds out in my yard were actually useful plants.

As my eyelids grew heavy, I turned to the page on lambsquarters, also known as fat hen. There on the page was one of the most common and prolific weeds in my garden. I stuck a bookmark in the page and drifted off for a solid snooze. I awoke groggy and staggered out to the garden and the hens, with the book in tow. Sure enough, there was the weed, which matched right up with the picture in the book. The real test, of course, was to see if the hens really would eat this stuff. I'd given them quite a lot of mustard greens right before my nap. But I tossed in some fat hen, and watched delightedly as they took right to it.

I didn't know whether to feel triumphant or chagrined. It's great that I now have another free green to give the girls, and I'll be especially thrilled if fat hen lives up to its name. Even we could eat this leafy plant if we chose to. On the other hand, I can't tell you how many of these plants I ripped out of the ground over the last few years. It's good to be relieved of my ignorance. Another instance of finding the value right under my nose. I'm going to have to devote some more time to reading that book.


Maya said...

We have a ton of lambs quarter every year in our backyard. We share with the girls (the chickens) but consume quite a bit of it ourselves as well. It is great tossed in a salad or quickly wilted. Treat it as you would spinach. Good stuff and apparently thrives on neglect!

el said...

OOo I love lambs' quarters! It and pursulane are the two weeds that regularly make it into the salad bowl. It even steams well, like spinach. Just don't let it get too big, or if you do, use the shoots only. It can get to be 6' tall, or at least it does in the weedy areas of my garden...but like you, Kate, I have no problem ripping it out. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Sue said...

Early mornings in the garden are the best, aren't they? :)

Kate said...

Maya, and El, you are giving me the motivation to eat this stuff. Now that I know what can be done with lambsquarters/fat hen, there suddenly doesn't seem to be enough of it around. I may add some to a dish of pasta tonight. We'll see!

Sue, yes, morning garden perusal is one of my favorite moments of the day - even if I did find a few too many slugs this morning.