Archive for January, 2012

Newspaper

I just started getting the Colorado Springs Gazette. What can I say, helping the papergirl get free college classes sold me. I’m a sucker for affordable higher education. Once I realized that I did like the coupons, but there wasn’t a chance I would read a daily newspaper, I switched to just the Sunday paper. Unfortunately, I didn’t do it quickly enough, and I had a pile of newspapers to deal with.

Somewhere along the line I had heard that you shouldn’t compost colored ink. Dutifully, I went through each paper, pulling out the pages that had just black ink. I was left with a very small pile of paper that could be composted or used to make paper seed-pots. Fortunately, this was addressed in the class about making the most of your garden. It turns out that if your newspaper uses soy-based inks, you can compost the colored ink as well, as long as it is on regular newsprint. With a quick e-mail to the Gazette’s customer service folks, I confirmed that they use soy-based inks. Now all I have to do is re-sort to take out the glossy pages and I will have a much bigger pile that’s safe for garden use and doesn’t need to be recycled.

It turns out, colored ink was a problem, once upon a time, and may still be for the parts of the newspaper that might not be printed in America. The inks were petroleum-based, allowing all sorts of nasty things to build up in your soil with repeated use. However, the bulk of newspapers have since moved to soy-based inks as they are safer for the people that are on the printing floor. You will want to contact your newspaper to confirm, but the colored inks are probably not a problem. They are still made with some heavy metals, but as one post pointed out, the amount in the ink really isn’t going to be noticed by someone gardening in an urban setting. Not with all the other contaminants to worry about. The glossy inserts, however, still need to go into the recycling pile, as they undergo extra processing and may not be printed in the United States, so their ink composition can be harder to pin down.

Now that you’ve supported your paperperson’s educational goals and sorted the newsprint from the glossy parts, what do you do with it? One of my first interactions with gardens and newspapers was as a layer of mulch. There are a couple of ways to do this. If you have a garden that is set up to be a few plants with mulch between, a thick layer of well-overlapped newspapers will let you keep the potentially pricy mulch to a minimum while still suppressing the weeds. This technique could also be used to line garden paths or mulch around large plants such as potatoes. You will probably be using rocks to anchor the newspapers in the vegetable garden instead of purchasing mulch, unless you prefer the aesthetics. I have also seen newspaper used to kill grass in an area that will be turned into a garden. If you are just going to turn the grass into the soil right there, depriving it of sunlight for a while weakens it and makes it easier to cut through.

Another way to use the newspaper is in your compost pile. It counts as a “brown” in an outdoor compost pile, and vermicompostors use it as bedding for their worms. In either case, it does need to be shredded first, as flat sheets of newspaper compact and don’t let in the air necessary for breaking it down. The more finely it is shredded, the more easily it can decompose. One person even mentioned that they feed their worms their shredded mail. I don’t know how mail compares to newsprint for composting, but it would be the most secure way to dispose of information that I have ever heard of. As an apartment-dweller I am very curious about vermicomposting, since it can be done inside. Regular composting, of course, is a great way to make the most out of what you pull out of the garden, be it weeds or the leftovers from preparing your vegetables to eat. Both will be getting posts in the future to explore them further.

If you are starting seeds, you can also use newspaper to make biodegradable pots. These would be a less expensive alternative to peat pots for plants that don’t like to have their roots disturbed but need to be started inside like  cucumbers. If you aren’t good at origami, a tool like this can help.

Newspaper is one of those things that you don’t look at and think “garden.” Well, most people don’t, anyway. But it can actually be pretty helpful in degrading your kitchen scraps back into rich compost or keeping the weeds from where they shouldn’t be growing. We are being encouraged to recycle, which is a good thing. But reusing and repurposing can actually be even better, since it seldom requires another input of energy outside of a little creativity.

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Priorities

Who doesn't like perky ears in the morning?

I have been struggling lately with priorities. The obvious definition of your priorities is what you do. After all, why would you do whatever it is if it’s not important for some reason? My struggle has been that my intellectual and emotional priorities haven’t been borne out by my action priorities. Coming home and eating dinner in front of a movie doesn’t get gardening books read or walks taken. It doesn’t get stories written and I can rarely even claim I’m watching them as research for any of my various projects. I’m getting better about working on my beading project or redesigning my garden spaces while I’m watching, but even with that, I can’t pretend that I’m actually putting my time to good use.

I’m not alone in this, though. After all, look around. What are the priorities, or actions, of so many other people? Eating dinner in front of the TV is hardly exclusive to me. Nor is eating easy, convenient, frequently microwaved foods. When many people go home after work, the first thing on their to-do list is rarely to work on their novel or go out in the wood-shed to see if the coat of varnish on their hand-built table is dry yet. Their priority, my priority, is to be entertained. We consume, we are entertained, we are passive. We don’t create, we don’t entertain, we don’t do. Believe me, my finger is pointed at myself on this one. I am just mentioning that I might not be the only person who should be doing that.

My intellectual and emotional priorities are more and more strongly telling me that I really need to be doing. Learning, creating, moving- it doesn’t matter what, really, as long as it’s doing. I’m happier that way, and more productive. The struggle is, how do I get the intellectual and emotional priorities to become action priorities? Like so many people, I have a day job. It’s easier than some, it’s harder than others, but it eats up 40 hours of my week and more than its fair share of brain cells. By the end of the day I’m tired. Like most people. I don’t have a permanent answer for this question, but I hope I will soon.

In an effort to find that answer, I have been expanding my blog-reading. Today, I stumbled across A Brief Guide to World Domination. It is written with a sense of humor, but it is also something that I intend to go back and read again. Several times. There was one part, though, that is currently sticking in my head. It’s the Ideal World exercise.

The short summary is that you think through your idealized, perfect day in great detail, beginning from what time you get up and what you have for breakfast all the way through what you do for each hour of the day and who you talk to. Then you begin to make plans to adjust your life to get closer to the perfect day you’ve designed for yourself.

As I was reading the summary about what you do when you get out of bed in the morning, a picture flashed though my mind. I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t make it up, so I have to believe that it has at least a fair amount of truth to it. I saw myself rolling out of bed and into jeans so I could shuffle out and feed the chickens. (The mental picture was later amended to include feeding the horses. There will be horses.) Some people would probably see themselves rolling out of a bed with silk sheets in a mansion, or dressing in Armani, or even opening up their e-mail from a kid who could finally go to college. Me, I want chickens.

One of the other exercises is to immediately write down three things you can do now to work toward your goals. 1- Write to you. After all, part of being independent is to have your priorities in order. Maybe someone else can benefit from the musings in this post. 2- Dinner will be eaten with a gardening book instead of a movie. 3- Dinner will also be well-made and delicious. Intellectual priorities realized as action priorities.

What are your priorities? How well do your actions match what you want them to be? How do you go about getting them closer together?

Class: Getting the Most Out of Your Home Garden

I spent this afternoon at a class up at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This was the first of what I expect will be many classes up there.

The class was taught by Sundari Kraft. I haven’t had a chance to review her Web site or her book, but after the class, I’m quite sure both will prove to be fascinating. I can tell you that in person, she’s very interesting and engaging, and she’s very willing to answer questions. It’s clear that she wants to spread this information. There was a lot of information that she shared, and anyone who happens to be in the Denver area should consider signing up for one of the classes that is being offered later. The information wasn’t at all season-specific, so I can’t imagine it will change much, if at all, between this class and the ones later in the year.

Obviously, I can only share some of what she taught us, but there were a lot of interesting pieces of information that will be helpful in steering my own learning. Like, we have the same hardiness or growing zone as south-eastern Maine. Despite the differences in weather patterns, it looks like Denver and Colorado Springs share zone 5a. Our growing season, fortunately, is longer than Maine’s, with the last frosts being around the beginning of May and the first to be expected around the beginning of October, giving us about 150-160 days. It’s not a long season, but it could be shorter.

When she was discussing where to plant, obviously there are a lot of factors to consider, but two jumped out at me. You should start small and you should plant the garden where it’s both visible and convenient to you. Starting small might be hard for the ambitious beginning gardener. I know I’ve bitten off more than I could chew more than once. But she made a very good point. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard to add more space later, but starting too big might overwhelm you. The other point is that it needs to be visible and convenient. At one point in time, kitchen gardens were all but actually in the kitchen of the house in question. The mother or cook had to take all of three or four steps to get to it. That makes it easy to monitor and easy to pop into to pull this weed or hill up that potato plant that you happen to see needs care. We’re busy, so making it something that we see on a regular basis will, hopefully, keep us from forgetting about it.

Sundari works in an urban setting, so small spaces are what she knows best. The class started, however, when she realized how many people had really limited space, but didn’t know how to utilize it for the most effective yields. What she finds to work is a variety of techniques. She prefers a version of companion planting rather than monocropping, beds rather than the standard rows. She also uses biointensive planting techniques to both make the most of the space and make the most of the water and natural weed control along with succession planting. One of her other gardening techniques is that instead of bare, dirt paths, she grows clover. She stressed several times that it needs to be seeded lightly, but the clover both crowds out the weeds that would grow in the path and it fixes nitrogen into the soil. The following year, the beds will be dug so that each path is now part of a bed, giving that bed nitrogen-rich soil without having to add anything.

She gave us the example of a 256 square-foot garden. That is 16X16 feet. Not small, but not outlandish by any means. Excluding the necessary paths, she had 192 square feet of growing space. That space could potentially yield: 10 tomato plants, 25 pepper plants,12 eggplants, 10 summer squash, 6 winter squash, 172 peaplants, 108 kale, 208 lettuce, 263 arugula, 526 spinach, 172 beets, 86 turnips, 490 turnip sprouts/greens, 150 carrots, 383 radishes, 483 radish sprouts, 416 scallions, and 38 perennial herbs. That is a lot of food. I know it’s going to make me re-think my little 4X8 foot bed to see how much more I can fit in.

The rest of the class discussed preparing the space, starting seeds, composting, and so on. All of which I will cover in more detail as I learn more about them. One of the last things we went over, however, were resources. She provided Web sites, books, and local resources. I was very happy to see that a book I picked up today at a book sale for all of $2 was on the list. Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. So far my reading has been eclectic as I have a lot of just the basics to really understand, so I have been picking up books almost randomly at thrift stores and book sales. However, this list will help me narrow down my selections to the more pertinent ones. I expect to be doing reviews of the ones I find the most useful in the future.

Plucking Birds

My main focus right now is gardening. However, part of my general focus is the attempt to become more seasonal with my life. As anyone who has lived seasonally knows, you can plan and plot and decide all you want, but in the end, you take what the season gives you.

Some time ago, there was a thread on a forum I frequent, asking if there was anyone interested in extra game meat. Her husband was such a good hunter that he could bring home more than the family needed. In order for him to hunt as much as he would like to, she needed to find homes for the extra game. The game would be “as-is” so whoever wanted it would have to clean it or have it cleaned themselves. I don’t have a truck for transporting or a chest-freezer for keeping game of any size, but I volunteered to take any fowl off her hands.

I’d almost forgotten about it when the first e-mail came to let me know that there were birds to be had in early December. I picked up four lesser-Canadian geese. I wasn’t sure I could handle that many, but she assured me that once I got them cleaned they’d pack down to a much smaller size.

How they arrived.

At her suggestion, I YouTubed “breasting out” geese. I also looked up cleaning them, but breasting them out seems to be the preferred method, as the breast meat is by far the bulk of the meat to be had. I plucked one for roasting just to see if I could do it, but I was on the deck and losing sunlight, so I breasted out the other three. I also pulled out hearts, livers, and feet. The feet are for broth, they help it gel, and I keep trying to convince myself that I need to learn how to eat offal. The hearts didn’t look to scary or weird and liver is, well, healthy. I ended up with one (slightly dilapidated) roaster, six breasts, four hearts, four livers, and eight feet. She was right, they take up a lot less room that way. Also, as a hint, plucking them inside a trash bag will keep the neighbors from complaining. Feathers still got everywhere, but in a somewhat lesser volume.

It's a messy process.

I was surprised at how un-squeemish I was about the whole thing. Aside from biology classes, I haven’t made it a habit of dissecting things, and I had been concerned that I wouldn’t be able to.

But it gets tidier.

That would seriously undermine my ability to eat meat once I became self-sufficient. However, after cleaning them, I had no qualms about tossing one of the fresh breasts into the frying pan. It cooks like chicken, but it sure doesn’t taste like it! It’s better!

Goose and kale- easy and delicious!

On Christmas Day, she gave me four mallards that were in need of similar treatment. They were done in two batches and were easier to pluck. Possibly because they were soaked a little in warm water first, at the suggestion of my uncle who has chickens. Two of them got plucked this time, and one was roasted for dinner that night.

A new plan . . .

I’m glad I started with Canadian geese. I don’t like them. Never have. That made it easy to dismember them and make me realize that I can do this.

Yes, I did figure out how to remove the neck prior to roasting. I think I want a cleaver for next Christmas, please.

The mallards, however, were a little different. I don’t have anything against them. In fact, I rather like them, so it was a little harder to pluck and dismember them. Unfortunately, that made the question of whether or not I could eat a chicken I’d raised a little less decided. I still don’t know if I can kill them, but my cleaning skills seem to just need practice. This also reinforces my desire to learn to hunt. Goose is good!

Food

What is food? Logically, that should be a simple question, right? You eat it, it gives you energy, end of story. Not quite.

As I mentioned earlier, part of my interest in becoming independent is my dawning understanding that most of the food these days would be more accurately labeled as “food” or a food-like substance. I’m not talking about what’s sold by cartoon characters or with the query about your desire for fries with that. Most people know they don’t qualify as “healthy food.” I’m talking about the outside of the grocery store- the produce section, the meat counter, the fresh fish.

I would like to note that I am aware that some of my readers will be vegetarian or vegan (veg*an). I am not, but I know it is a or the answer on many searches for health and environmental responsibility. Many of the things that I am learning apply to everyone from carnivores to frugivores if not in detail than at least in broad strokes. I am not interested in a debate on the ethics of using or not using animal products. I am interested in sharing what I know and what I learn with anyone that can use it. That includes learning from other points of view to fill out my own.

Food, to me, is what nourishes you. Whatever the details of your dietary habits are, the gist is the same. There is the biochemical nourishment. You have to provide both the raw calories and the basic building blocks for your body to function and repair or grow depending on your stage of life. There is the mental and emotional nourishment. A thoughtfully and well-prepared meal, even if it’s just for one, is delicious proof that you are cared for. There is also social nourishment. Greeks and Italians tend to be the first to come to mind when it comes to social events and food, but they aren’t the only ones. Historically, proof of hospitality has frequently centered around the sharing of food.

So what happened? Lots of things happened on lots of levels, but let’s focus on the biochemical nourishment. My favorite description of grocery-store tomatoes is that they are a memory of a tomato. For a long time, I wondered why I didn’t like tomatoes anymore. I didn’t think people usually lost the taste for produce they liked as a kid. Then I visited my parents during tomato season. It wasn’t nostalgia that made that tomato taste good. It was the fact that if had been plucked off the vine that morning and was still warm from the sun when the wedges landed on my lunch plate. It was grown in soil that had been cultivated by my family for decades. It hadn’t been dyed and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles. It had no experience with pesticides and automated or immigrant harvesters.

Emotional appeals aside, the actual nutrient content of our food is diminishing. The link will be added as soon as I find it again, but it is USDA research comparing nutrients in the 1960s to 1991. How did this happen? We wore out the soil. We take, but we don’t give. Modern, industrial fertilizer is referred to as NPK. Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. A basic understanding of biology would tell you that the tomato we pull out of the field, even if it is just the memory of one, is more complex than that. The NPK does get used up the most quickly, so it makes sense that it is replaced in the highest volume, but the trace elements that the plants use are not being replaced at all.

Historically, complex foods were removed from the fields and complex nutrients were returned. This was frequently compost and/or animal manure. You may remember from early American history that the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to plant the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash, together with fish in each mound. This returned not just what compost or manure could give, but helped to return the nutrients that had washed into the water, much like the silt and dead fish left by a flood would do.

So what do we do? We do it ourselves. We feed the ground with complex nourishment- our table scraps and manure from the back-yard horse down the road. We spend some time in the sun with our hands in the dirt bending and moving and caring for these plants. We feel the fresh air on our cheeks and drink out of the hose when we’re watering the plants. By the time the juicy, red tomato is ready to be picked, the biochemical nourishment will just be the icing on the cake.

Rookie Mistake: Neglect

I believe that there are a lot of people that are going to need to learn how to garden in the next few years, and most of them haven’t had the benefit of growing up surrounded by gardeners. There are a lot of blogs and books that cover the more refined aspects of gardening, but I think one of the things that needs to be covered is the mistakes we all make. As Anne Shirley says, ” That’s the one good thing about me. I never do the same wrong thing twice.” With any luck, I’ll make enough rookie mistakes that you will be saved most of the trouble of making them yourselves.

Neglect is a mistake I’ve made many times. Back east it just meant losing the ground I’d cultivated to weeds. Depending on what I’d planted, and how long I’d paid attention before forgetting about it, the plants might or might not survive. Out here, the implications are a little more serious. Technically, we live in a desert. Most of the vegetables, herbs, even shrubs and trees, that we want to grow are not desert plants. That means that neglecting to water in most cases, and in others neglecting to give appropriate shelter, may easily result in a total loss of the crops in as little as a week.

Clearly I’m a natural gardener . . .

 If I’m honest about it, the problem with that picture is basically neglect. The succulents on the right, you’ll notice, couldn’t be happier with dry air and the occasional soaking. Although the jade plant could use a trim. It’s the more delicate vegetation that doesn’t care that I have other things on my mind when I get home, distracting me from the regular watering it should be getting. It’s an easy mistake to make. We’re busy, we have other priorities, and the plants aren’t very good at reminding us. However, if I plan on eating anything out of that window box, I basically have to start over. What managed to sprout is unlikely to mature, and even if it did, it’s not enough lettuce to grace a sandwich, let alone make a salad.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when you are considering neglect. The biggest is making sure that the plants have the moisture they need to grow. This is particularly important when seeds are trying to germinate or after something is transplanted. In both cases, it’s not strong enough to go searching for water like an established plant. If the water isn’t readily available, it won’t have the strength to send out deeper roots and will probably die. Watering is so important out here that I know it will have posts of its own. For the moment, let’s just say that forgetting to water is a bad idea. However, there are plants out there that are perfectly happy to be watered when you remember and otherwise left to their own devices. In a garden, those are generally called weeds. Weeds will compete with the desired plants for food, sunlight, and water. Unless you are cultivating native plants, the weeds probably have the advantage of being accustomed to this climate, giving them a distinct advantage over what you are growing. There are two main ways to combat weeds. You can remove them or you can cultivate such strong, healthy plants that the weeds just don’t have a chance. The first is almost inevitable, but with any luck, the second will help out as the season goes along and your plants mature.

There is one other point of neglect that gardeners face. They neglected to do their research. Gardening is something that you can just do- but the results tend to be better if you have some idea what you are doing. Particularly out here where the conditions are harsher than the lusher parts of the country. Learning how to keep water in the soil without oversaturating it, learning which plants can handle the heat and dry air, learning how to baby the ones that can’t but you want to grow anyway, will help make the garden successful. Much of my own research will be on native and foreign plants that actually like the conditions we have here so that watering and weeding require less work. After all, most people who are starting gardens out of self-defense, or even just for the superior food, are probably working 40 or more hours a week and only have so much time to devote to the garden itself. Time spent reading could potentially save time spent watering and weeding.

In my case, I expect the blog will help to keep me from neglecting my garden to any major extent. After all, I don’t want to have to publish pictures of a shriveled, brown garden that was made that way through very avoidable mistakes. For you, it could be anything from the meditative calm of the morning while you’re tending to it to the ever-rising grocery bill that keeps you from neglecting your garden. My hope is that this is a rookie mistake I won’t make again and you won’t have to make in the first place.

Denver Botanic Gardens

I spent Saturday at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Since I had to go up to Denver to pick up a kit for soil testing,and it’s not exactly around the corner from the Springs, I decided to make a day of it. Next time, I’ll have a   camera, enough layers, and won’t schedule it on a day where snow is expected so that I can spend the time it deserves. That place is awesome. As in awe-inspiring and so very cool. Cool, of course, being a relative term, since the outside gardens were verging on chilly and the inside ones tended toward hot and humid.

The Rainforest in Denver

I will be going back to study each bit in more detail and to take some of the many classes they offer. At the moment, I just want to gush over the general amazingness of it. The first place I went was the Tropical Conservatory. One of my friends had worked there and recommended it highly. She was right. It’s an indoor rainforest where the paths and stairs were as organic as the tropical plants. There were even a couple of ducks and some poison-dart frogs to bring a little fauna to the flora. Just on the other side of the windows from the lush rainforest was a desert garden. They are testing different local, desert fauna to see what species can be used to bring “green roofs” to the harsh environment of Denver.

After that, I started wandering the outside gardens. I only managed to see about a third of them before I got cold. I’m not sure what I was thinking, not dressing for spending the day outside considering it was about gardens. However, I did see enough to know that I’d be back to study each section in more detail. Even with snow on the ground and the sky becoming overcast, it was beautiful. There were so many different ways to look at gardening, from the Victorian garden, to the Asian gardens, to the rock gardens. There was even one overlook that could have been in Maine, if one ignored the slight differences in rocks and trees. I recommend walking shoes. There is a lot of ground to cover, and not all of it is paved.

It's hard to see, but being winter, the evergreens all got Christmas-lighted.

The special event that day was a look behind the scenes of the Herbaria. They have two Herbarium, one for plants and one for fungi. The plant one is apparently unique in its focus on the prairie part of Colorado. The real focus is grass and sedges. Just in case anyone was wondering what the difference is, apparently “sedges have edges.” We got to see some specimens from each Herbaria. The fungi used to be pressed, but after a while they decided that the shape is changed too much by that preservation method, so now they are dried. The plants, however, are pressed and mounted as they have been for hundreds of years. The oldest specimen that they have is actually from India and taken in the 1830’s. It looked no different than the modern ones except for the type-face and the slightly yellow paper. People have been collecting and categorizing plants in Colorado for over a hundred years, but they still come up with about one unknown species per year. This has nothing on the as-yet-unknown fungi in Colorado.

Overall, I had a great time. I expect to go back often to see the changes with the seasons and to take their classes. After all, no reason not to learn from the best, since I have the opportunity.