Friday, January 30, 2015

Tales from the Past

This past weekend a distant colleague, a woman I've never actually met but share farming as an occupation, posted a request on an all women's farmer forum I belong to. She was asking for examples of how others found ways to re-energize their farming spirits when circumstances seemed to drain the enthusiasm out of them.

She'd fallen on some tough times, (it's the dead of winter, and she farms in the North for one thing), and was in need of some encouragement. Finding encouragement is something that can really make or break farmers when the odds seem stacked against them.

Gratefully, I'd had a particularly uneventful weekend myself, for the most part. In as much as, no one had broken in to the (now, after 2 break ins, emptied out) yurt at the back of the property; tried to steal the storage shed, (again); cut through the fence and driven across it in a golf cart to get to their stash of stolen vehicles on a neighboring property (they'd finally been busted); or been blasting heavy obnoxious unfamiliar music at night so loud even my computer's volume in my house, couldn't drown it out - a multiple times a day daily occurrence with the new Zumba studio rocking out next door.

No, this past Sunday in fact, I mentioned while it wasn't a dull moment by any means, was relatively calm only having had to make 2 trips to the big box "hardware" store for a hand tool I rely heavily upon; break up a hen fight between some newly introduced, (one disabled), hens in the herb area; break up a cat fight between one of the escapee house cats and a neighbor's barn stray; and first thing in the morning, discovered the presence of a broken water pipe that would now need to be located, dug up and repaired - forcing me to shut off the water to the barns used to water the animals - until I can find time for that unscheduled project.

But other than that, it was a relatively quiet day, for Life on the Farm.

One of the other ladies on the forum, in offering her support to this colleague, posted a most wonderful read. A series of letters written by a woman who, along with her husband, held down a farm of hundreds of acres for 28 years in Oklahoma. Now that in and of itself can be filled with a bit of strife as we all know the weather there can be a great challenge during any given year. But add to it that these letters were written in the mid 1930's, during the worst, (to date), "drouth" and historical (hopefully never to be repeated), dust bowl era.

It made for an interesting read and put any of my worst days on the farm back into perspective, not only for a daily blessing check, but for the potential that we may be heading back into another climatic event such as what brought many farmers to their knees - and ultimately, out of business, and even ending in death for some who couldn't escape the ill health caused by the dusty air.

The author speaks in these letters about the "new" methods of farming on contour lines, water-catchment techniques and rotating crops and cover crops for erosion control. These are methods, among others, of the permaculture techniques that I and many of my colleagues are quickly, if quietly, embracing. In fact, many are preparing now for the potential worst to come of water rationing; much more restrictive than what we've seen in our lifetimes. Water rationing that pretty well put many garden centers and landscape contractors either out of business or nearly so, back in the early part of last decade. 2005 saw some municipalities outlawing the installation of seasonal, annual (read, water thirsty) color flower change outs on residential or commercial properties. I know it severely hurt my fledgling garden center business with a store-front full of flats of beautiful color plants without new homes to go to. We have flirted with various restrictions each summer since. No one sees it getting better soon.

So, I share with you now, for reflection as well as for insight, the link to those letters written back in the 1930's. May her words prove both inspiring as well as encouraging and informative to us as we march forward looking at another "climatic change" in our earth. Regardless of what you think is causing it, it's happening. And if we're to continue eating, we need to learn from the past, and embrace some new - old ideas.

Now go eat your food, and get your hands in the dirt - Naturally!

PS; Since originally composing this blog, my farm adventures escalated in losing at least a half a day's work trying to fill-in and getting the tractor really good and stuck in an over-sized hole, courtesy of the utilities company truck, at my pasture gate - with more rain on the way; a hawk lunching on one of my little bantam chickens; and not getting my transplants in - because I couldn't get the right equipment out to the field to finish prepping the beds - thanks to the sinkhole at the gate! Still - nothing compared to life in the 30's on a farm.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Back to the Ground - Part II

Last post I mentioned that I’d share some gardening tips with you. Since I started gardening back in the 80’s, a lot of new things have come to market, but for organic gardening, it’s pretty much the same story – feed the soil. But what if you are starting from scratch – in other words, starting from a lawn - how do you get started?

I wish I’d learned about permaculture a long time ago because my farm, and previous yards, would look a lot different. But, we learn and implement what we do as information becomes available to us and from that, we often grow. In this case, literally!

So I’m going to share with you a bit of a modified version of how I used to suggest starting a garden from an existing lawn area. And this is true even if you just have an overgrown patch of weeds, too. But many reading this are converting lawns to gardens – and YAY for that!

I generally start out my gardening classes with the disclaimer that my way is by far not the only way and that I don’t hold all of the answers. 

Much of what I have learned and apply today, was learned by listening to others who have much more wisdom and experience than me. I always try to remember my sources to give credit, too. That way you can look up more information or clarify something I’ve said. 

In this case, the method I’m going to share with you is part of a permaculture technique called “Sheet Mulching”. This technique has been called a variety of things and is taught by many others in various forms, including brilliant homesteader and wonderful gardener and author Ruth Stout who wrote How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.

Toby Hemenway is the author of an awesome book called Gaia’s Garden. If you’ve not ever read it, I’d really suggest picking up a copy. It’s a great resource guide that I was told about while taking a permaculture class given by Larry Korn, who studied under another great teacher, farmer and author of yet another great book, called One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka. So what I’m going to share with you, is nothing new, but it’s certainly revolutionized many people’s gardening attempts, and it seems permaculture is making a broader appearance lately. 

Step 1, in my opinion, is to start small. Seriously. Once you get an idea of how much time the upkeep will take you for the size plot you start with, you can gauge whether or not you’d like to increase the size the following season. But let's not bite off a huge chunk and let it get away from us the first season. It's not really difficult to grow some of your own food, but it will take some time.

Plot location is as important as plot size in that you need to have at least 4-6 hours of (preferably) morning sun. Afternoon sun really doesn’t benefit growth as much do the sun’s rays during the early part of the day. There are some plants that can grow without much sun, and if you’re patient, you can still have a garden with only 4 hours of morning sun. But let’s hope you can find a corner or plot somewhere with a bit more than that. 

So, now let's say we’ve selected a nice, manageable slice of land that gets at least 4 hours of sun.
Here’s the abridged directions of what Toby calls the “Ultimate, Bomb-Proof Sheet Mulch”;

I would change one thing around, just to make it a bit easier, and that is to mow grass/weeds low before you start, rather than after his step 1, as he outlines in his book. Leave the clippings on the ground.

  • Water area to be prepared the day before – or better yet, plan to do this the day after a good, soaking rain.
  • Add any soil amendments needed for your soil type. Such items would include, lava sand, rock phosphate, perhaps some kelp meal. We’ve discussed soil amendments a few times before (or you can check the web site for more info.)
  • Loosen heavy clay, using a garden fork. You are not digging or turning the soil. Just push the garden fork in and rock it back and forth a bit, all around the site. This adds air to the soil and allows amendments to soak in faster as well as give soil critters some wiggle room. 
  • Add a thin layer of a source of nitrogen. You can use a general organic fertilizer like Texas Tea or Lady Bug, cottonseed meal, feather meal or even some decomposed farm animal manure. Horse and chicken manure is in abundance here, so that’s generally what I use.
  • Layer with several sheets of newspaper, or, much easier to use, large pieces of cardboard. Be sure to overlap the edges by about 6 inches, to block out light. That is KEY! Newspaper needs to be about ¼ - ½ of an inch thick. Weeds can push through otherwise. Wet each layer thoroughly as you lay it out. Hopefully, you saved some rainwater from the last rain event.
  • Sprinkle another thin layer of the nitrogen source over the “sheet” layer.
  • On top of this, add 8-12 inches of a bulk mulch material, like finely ground tree trimmings, leaves, (abundantly available this time of the year) or even old straw bales. Be careful NOT to use old bales of Bermuda grass hay. It can have seeds in it and we don’t want to go “there”!
  •  Wet this layer down well. It will encourage rotting of any weed seeds that may be present and help material to break down faster. The consistency of a wrung out sponge is what you’re looking for.
  • Now, add a layer, about 2 inches thick, of compost. Homemade is the best, but if you’re just starting out, you may need to buy some. Give me a call and I can order it bulk for you and have it delivered to your house. I have a favorite source I’ve used on and off for many years back when I was doing landscapes and had a more active garden center. They test their compost regularly and it’s safe for use in a vegetable garden.
    • (Before you partake in any “free” compost, ask questions.
      • What is their source of raw materials?
      • Do they test it for herbicides? (You don’t want to apply some kind of herbicide ridden compost to your new garden. Not only would it defeat the organic component, but if it’s got a broad leaf weed killer present, you’ll also damage your desired plants’ growth.)
  • If the compost isn’t moist, wet it down.
  • Top off with a nice clean, weed free layer of shredded mulch. I like to get free mulch from local tree trimmers. You can also use a thick layer of leaves, however when they dry, they tend to blow around. Mulch’s job is not only to provide a nice, finished look, but to help reduce erosion. 
Note; You may choose to edge your garden plot with metal edging, some decorative bricks, non-treated lumber, or, just give it about a 12" mulched border between any remaining grass and your first "row". That way, you can keep the weeds and grasses from sneaking over into your garden across the mulch more easily. 

That’s it! You now have a garden in the making. Go back inside, make some hot tea, look at some seed catalogs and dream!

The winter rains will help break down the layers of newspaper or cardboard and all of that yummy organic matter will be creating a wonderful, living layer of topsoil, complete with earthworms and other beneficials, and a growing bed for your new spring garden, while you wait out ol’ man winter.

You actually can plant sooner, if you want to, by slicing open the newspaper/cardboard and setting weather appropriate seeds or transplants over the openings.

Onions are not fans of weeds and this type of weed free garden bed may be a super easy vegetable to start with. “Onion Sets” are available here at Eden’s as well as in most other garden and feed stores. Look for “short day” varieties.

NOTE: I suggest waiting until about mid February as onions are biennials and can be “tricked” into their 2nd growing season by our topsy turvy temperatures. But many people have planted early and get a decent to very nice crop planting at various times. There’s no hard and fast rule with onions and when you’re not planting hundreds of row feed, you can afford to take a few risks. But just a word of caution; if planted too early, some may begin to flower before they finish making a full sized bulb under ground.

If you’re a rookie, you may want to start with transplants this spring for things like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, which can be a bit tricky starting from seed.
But for squash, melons and other larger seeded veggies; go for it! Direct sow them, according to directions on the seed packets or our spring planting guide (available at the shop), and get ready to watch them come up.

The roots of seeds or transplants will find their way into the nice, rich and weed free plot you’ve created without breaking your back, a shovel, renting a sod cutter or hiring a crew to dig up the grass.

Git Yer Hands in the Dirt & Eat Your Food - Naturally!