It was Bernd Heinrich who introduced me to corvids.

Bernd Heinrich is the kind of guy who makes you feel crappy about yourself because anything you can do, he can do better. He’s a biologist who has made serious contributions to our understanding of birds and insects, but that’s not the half of it. He’s written some umpteen books in clear and elegant prose – despite the fact that English is not his mother tongue (he’s German).

Bernd Heinrich (photo borrowed from the University of Vermont)

He’s also an ultramarathoner. He set many records in those absurdly long races that most of us can’t even imagine running, let alone running fast, and he was less than a minute from making the US Olympic marathon team. He’s now over 70, but he still holds the American 100-mile track record, with a time of 12:27:01. That’s 100 seven-and-a-half minute miles, back to back.  Anyone who’s ever run understands that, for mere mortals, that’s just not possible.

But wait, there’s more.  When he was doing the research for his most excellent book, Ravens in Winter, he hauled carcasses weighing hundreds of pounds up a Maine mountainside in the dead of winter, just to see what the birds would do. He camped out near the site, sleeping in an unheated cabin and sat in a tree, motionless, for hours during the day. 

I can barely stand a deer blind at 25 degrees for two hours.  He sat for days, below zero, in a tree.

Corvids – the family of birds that includes ravens, crows, jays, and magpies – are interesting enough to make that kind of sacrifice worthwhile. They’re widely believed to be the smartest birds going. They don’t just use tools, they make them; crows have been observed to form wire into a hook to retrieve food otherwise inaccessible. Ravens have been known to work cooperatively with wolves; the birds alert them to the presence of prey so they can share in the kill.

They also play. My mother’s uncle Frank, a subsistence farmer in central Minnesota, reported that, in the winter, crows made a slide in the snow on the roof of the chicken house, and lined up to take turns going down it. Lest you doubt Uncle Frank, I can assure you that other, credentialed sources have confirmed corvids’ propensity to do things for the sheer joy of it.

Corvids are also known to be easily distracted by bright shiny objects. They steal them and put them in their nests, apparently for no other purpose than to admire them and impress their fellows. Magpies, particularly, have been known to go to great lengths for a button or a ring. A mechanic in the UK reported catching a magpie in the act of trying to drag a wrench out of his garage.

It was the magpie that I thought of when Kevin and I visited Sprout Farm, in the neighboring town of Mashpee. As those of you who visit here regularly already know, gardening has been much on my mind. I’m trying to figure out what’s missing from our soil, how to make up for it, and which crops I’d have the most luck trying to grow.  Kevin and I have been weighing the pros and cons of raised beds, considering the merits of the no-dig strategy, and pricing topsoil.

And then we visited Sprout Farm.

We went because of an advertisement for a yard sale with “marine items,” but before we even entered the greenhouse that housed the for-sale items, our attention was caught by a field of kale in pots stacked five high.

I’d never seen anything like it. The stacks were about three feet apart, and the pots were made of Styrofoam. They were square, and each was offset 45 degrees from the one below, so the corners stuck out. In each corner was a denuded stem of kale; twenty plants per stack.

We had to find out about that, so we sought out the farmer.

Turns out Sprout Farm got its name not from its nascent crops but from its proprietors, Jay and Phyllis Sprout, who’ve been growing vegetables for nigh on thirty years. Jay was good enough to tell us about his kale.

It was a technique he’d seen several years back, in Florida, used for strawberries. (The materials are sold by a company called Verti-Gro.) The idea is simple. It’s a hydroponic system, with a mix of perlite and vermiculite as potting material. All the nutrients are delivered in the water, which is pumped through a tube and drips into the top pot. From there, it works its way down through the stack.

Jay took us into his greenhouse, and showed us stacks of eight pots, with the remains of kale and chard. That’s 32 plants, in the greenhouse space normally occupied by one or two. The plants in the very bottom pot didn’t seem as robust as the ones nearer the top, but it still seemed like an unbelievably efficient use of space.

It’s hard for gardeners with a small hoophouse and crappy soil to see the downside. Okay, Kevin doesn’t really like kale, but we can use it for other things as well. Herbs, lettuce, peppers, even bush tomatoes.

We haven’t actually taken the step of buying the equipment, but we’re this close. We’ll go back to see Jay and try and figure out what we’d need to make it work. We’ll read about the experiences other people have had with the system, and price out the components. We’ll figure out how we can Rube Goldberg a variation of our own.

Meanwhile, I’m getting our soil tested, because I’m not giving up on growing food the old-fashioned way. It’s just that I’ve been distracted by a bright shiny idea.

If you’re missing a wrench, don’t look at me.

11 people are having a conversation about “Corvidity

  1. Seems like a good idea … imagine a wall of (cheapish) terracotta pots[1] cascading with strawberry plants. You could even mount them up against a sunny wall. That way your chickens wouldn’t have to fly so far to eat every last one.

    [1] I always think in terracotta, it sucks with watering, but polystyrene is evil. And chickens don’t eat terracotta.

  2. Thanks for telling us about corvids; we get both crows and jays in the yard, and I won’t look at them the same way again. I could see in my minds eye crows lining up along the ridge pole of a roof to take turn sliding in the snow. That was a pretty cool mental image.

  3. In Russian the word for crow is suspiciously close to the word for thief, though I’m told there’s no direct etymological connection. Hard for me to believe. And despite my affection for word meanings, it doesn’t make me any fonder of crows when they pull my corn sprouts out of the ground. Grrrr. Still, I do acknowledge that they’re fascinating creatures. I heard that someone trained either crows or magpies to put quarters into a machine that dispensed food to them for each coin. Then they stopped supplying the quarters, so the birds scrounged change all over town to keep getting the treats. Imagine a flock of birds scouring the city for you, day after day.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen something like that stacking system for potatoes, though not hydroponic. I just can’t remember where. Pretty cool idea. What’s the Bro-K value there?

    So Kevin doesn’t like kale, huh? How does he feel about other brassicas? Has he tried Tuscan kale? I know there’s no disputing taste, particularly if traumatic childhood events are involved. But I’ve found Tuscan kale to be a fairly easy sell to kale skeptics, especially with potatoes, as in colcannon. or a nice hearty soup.

  4. One of the best “Tom Swifty” stories I’ve heard in a long time.

    I love spotting examples of what I call the “Tom Waters principle,” after the noted stream ecologist of that name. And here’s a story that features corvids, farmers, and a guy named Jay Sprout. It’s a double!

  5. Richard Mellott says:

    Thanks for sharing the stacking garden tip. When I’m in the position to have a garden, which may be where I teach, I’ll try to write a grant to buy one of those systems.
    Also, I’ve read about ultramarathoners; some of them have to carry three pairs of shoes, in gradually increasing sizes, as their feet swell from all the pounding. I imagine that he’s a pretty tough dude!
    I’m missing a wench, have you seen her?

  6. when I was last in SF, I visited this amazing place called Flora Grubb. They had all these amazing vertical garden tools, which they were using mostly for the purpose of succulents and ferns. However, in looking today, I discovered that as I suspected, these methods could be used for any kind of gardening…

    mostly made of recycled items….. hmmmmmm.

  7. The BRO-K looks prohibitive to me, unless you can free-cycle, re-cycle, and spend enough time tinkering to make it work for a high value crop (like strawberries in the week between Christmas and New Years), or you just wqant to do it for fun. I’d do it for fun unless it cost me too much to have any fun with it.

    Very cool post.

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