Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Urban Homestead Tour: Day 1: Part 1

Gardens, chickens, ducks, doves, rabbits, cats, and a pair of very friendly dogs. All in one urban back yard.

Gardens, chickens, ducks, doves, rabbits, cats, and a pair of very friendly dogs. All in one urban back yard.

It was pure chance that I stumbled on the schedule for the first annual Urban Homestead Tour, but I’m so glad I did. Each homestead had a 45(ish) minute presentation staggered so you could attend all four of them each day. Each homestead was also open for four hours so that you could come before or after the crush if that worked better for you. It turns out the turnout was a bit more than expected. Next year, presenters, could you have the homesteaders do two or four presentations during the open house to spread out the mob a bit? It’s only going to get more popular, and some of the yards weren’t set up in a way to handle large audiences. That being said, even if I missed some parts of some of the presentations, each one gave me a good dose of information. So much, in fact, that you’re only going to get an overview here. You’ll have to come out next year to get the whole scoop.

It's a treadle sewing machine! That she uses!

It’s a treadle sewing machine! That she uses!

The first stop on the tour was Kathy Olson, formerly of Couch Comfies by Kathy. Her topic was fiber arts. She was a fantastic start because when she asked me if I was a homesteader and I demurred (I consider myself to still be aspiring to that title), she asked if I canned, or froze, or sewed? I don’t can at the moment, but I’ll get serious about freezing once my freezer arrives, and I do knit. I guess I do belong with these folks! She then described the best way to freeze herbs. Wash and dry them, lay them flat in a ziplock bag and squeeze the air out. Once they’re frozen, you can just open the bag to cut off what you need.

She made the bear when she was 12, and he's sitting on her first quilt and other samples of very doable quilting.

She made the bear when she was 12. He’s sitting on her first quilt and other samples of very doable quilting.

Once her talk started, it was pretty clear that her approach to fiber arts was both practical and welcoming. Quilting is basically being able to sew straight lines. But don’t be afraid to quilt something other than, well, quilts. She was wearing a pretty quilted vest, and she had several examples of gifts including pillows and wall hangings. She, personally, likes to knit hats and scarves herself to match them to her coats. As for practical, her biggest hint for quilting was that if it doesn’t work quite the way you intended, finagle it until it does work. The odds are that no one else will know that the pattern isn’t quite what you’d intended when you started. The other option is to box up “mistakes” to look at later. If you start an afghan today and get bored, you might be ready to finish it two or three years from now, so hang on to what you’ve done.

Yep, looks like homesteading to me.

Yep, looks like homesteading to me. Yum.

Did you know that Amish quilts always have a flaw because only God is perfect? They aren’t the only culture that has some variation of that idea. Did you know that if you get a genuine antique quilt, you’ll probably find an even older, worn out quilt inside of it acting as the batting? Waste not, want not, you know. Her suggestions for beginning homesteaders are to make it Convenient, Organized, and Not a Chore. The easier you make it for yourself, the more you can do. Also- patterns are really just suggestions.

Coooookies! (All American Sun Oven)

Coooookies! (All American Sun Oven)

The second stop was John and Louise Conner to learn about chickens. However, we were first greeted by the scent of baking cookies. The sun oven is so good that it even works in the winter, if you have enough sun. It’s a bit pricy, but apparently if you find them on Facebook, you can get some decent discounts on it. The other thing that greeted me was that the yard looked, well, normal. I could see having friends over for a picnic in that yard and not weirding out your non-homesteader friends. Of course, how the yard comes together does depend on how much you put in it and how it’s shaped, but it was nice to see the variety of possibilities.

It looks so normal . . .

It looks so normal . . .

He started off talking about reading a whole lot of books when he was thinking about getting into chickens. He read them, and promptly forgot most of the information. Most of what you will learn will be from experience, but knowing it’s in one of your books to refer to will be useful. His two favorite books are Keeping Chickens by Barbara Kilarski (a friendly intro to chickens) and City Chicks by Patricia Foreman (a more in-depth look at them). He also suggested backyardchickens.com, warning us that it’s got such a huge group of people that it might be a little intimidating.

. . . until you get to the cool part.

. . . until you get to the cool part.

The city rules are up to 10 hens and no roosters (although apparently you can have as many as you want if they’re under 6 months). He finds that four hens can be a bit excessive since it’s just he and his wife. During the summer, hens usually lay daily. They taper off in the winter unless you fool them with extra lighting. The city requires two square feet inside and four square feet outside per chicken. John (and other presenters) pointed out that if you give them more room outside, they can accept less room inside. They just come inside to lay eggs and sleep, generally. Most back yards aren’t big enough to have genuine “free range” chickens- particularly if you intend to do anything else with it. However, the more room you give them, the happier they will be.

That's a happy chicken.

That’s a happy chicken.

When it comes to housing, he suggests keeping it close to the house since you will be going out twice a day in any weather- letting them out in the morning and locking them up at night. However, you will need around a 10’X10′ space that gets sun in the winter which may determine where the coop goes. He purchased plans for the coop- the Playhouse coop– but the run was constructed from broken dog runs. Freecycle, Craigslist, and dumpster-diving seem to be a part-time job for most of the homesteaders, but you get some pretty awesome results from re-thinking how to use cheap to free objects. When you’re placing and building your chicken coop and run, you need to bear in mind that chickens will probably destroy the ground in their run- they love to dig- and we have a lot of predators. Even if you don’t have a neighborhood bear, you will be dealing with foxes, coyotes, birds of prey, cats, and dogs. This is why you lock them up overnight. It’s easier to make a perfectly secure coop than a perfectly secure run. The other thing that you need to think about is having enough ventilation but no drafts. If you get it right, chickens don’t need a heater in the winter. He also chucks in old leaves for them to shred and peck at. Once they’re broken down, he’ll scrape the top layer out of the chicken run for lovely compost.

The world would be a better place if more street corners looked like this.

The world would be a better place if more street corners looked like this.

He doesn’t like using the word “sustainable” for homesteading since it’s been co-opted. He’s got a good point. These days, it’s about as meaningful as “organic.” The word he likes is “resilient.” During the Black Forest Fire, one of their major concerns was the fire getting to the highway and shutting it down. Not because of the commuters to and from Denver, but because most of our food comes via Denver. It would be possible to find other ways to get the food here, but it would be a lot further and a lot more expensive. As I mentioned in my last post, most cities have about three days worth of food. However, if you have a garden and a couple of chickens, a hiccup in the food supply isn’t that big of a deal. Heck, if you’re also canning and freezing, you might not even notice that the stores are short on stock.

Summer

I apologize to my readers for not being around much this summer. I’ve been a little busy, and my depression has been kicking my butt. Between the two, I just never made it on here to post anything.

My depression is actually part of my interest in food, gardening, and nutrition. I have been working with a book called The Mood Cure by Julia Ross. Her basic premise is that a large number of our mental and emotional health problems are actually due to being malnourished. Our brains aren’t being given the amino acids, among other things, that they need to function correctly. The explosive increase in problems is linked to the increasingly un-nourishing food we eat. It sounds silly to say that Americans are malnourished, considering how large we have gotten. In fact, Colorado (the thinnest state) is now fatter than Mississippi (the fattest state) was in the early ’90s. However, obesity is also linked to malnourishment. A body will eat until it gets what it needs to maintain itself. What it needs is more than the almost pure calories that so much of our food has become. If it only needs 2,000 calories worth of food to get the necessary macro and micronutrients, it will be able to stop there. If it can’t get the nutrition without eating 10,000 calories worth of food, then it will remain hungry until it gets them.

I feel confident saying that without supporting links, because in my own n=1 experiment, the more nourishing my food, the less I eat. The more I adhere to the eating guidelines and supplementation from The Mood Cure, the more balanced I am. “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” Hippocrates, 400 B.C. For some reason, the medical profession has forgotten this little gem. Can we drug it? Can we cut it? Can we tell the patient that they’re imagining things? If one or more of those work, why would the food they ingest even be considered? Granted, there are mental and emotional (and physical) problems that do require the intervention of drugs and surgery. However, drugs and surgery should be used for what they are- treatments for acute and severe dis-ease. They were not designed for (and often don’t work well for) the management of chronic or mild problems. Of course, there would be much less money to be made in the medical industry if patients could manage and cure their own problems by changing what they bought at the grocery store or picked out of their gardens.

On a lighter note- here is a brief overview of what I’ve been up to this summer:

Ranch Rodeo 065

 

I went to the local ranch rodeo. Real cowboys doing the sort of things they do in their daily lives. The other rodeo, Pikes Peak or Bust, is pretty cool- but not as cool as this one.

Ranch Rodeo 056

A pirate and a cowboy. Game over. He wins.

Ponies, garden 008

Yep- I get to live here. This was from a hike on the West side of Pikes Peak.

Ponies, garden 006

I did some weeding for a client.

Ponies, garden 007

It gave me a whole lot of time to think. And to realize that having Hotel California stuck in your head is a major bummer when you don’t know the whole thing. I can’t wait to see what it looks like, though, when the grass finishes filling in.

Ranch Rodeo 003

Lastly, I’ve been spending time at Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue. This is Mack making sure we don’t forget his noon meal. He’s more accurate than the clock.

Ponies, garden 033

These two, Olive and Olivia, went to their new home on Labor Day. Olivia took forever to be born, but she was pretty independant from the moment she hit the ground.

Ranch Rodeo 067

Also- chaps and wranglers.

Transplanting 2

It needs some help.

It needs some help.

The same day I planted the RCG bed, I also stuck a few things in the ground in Showcase 2. The last post was getting a bit wordy, though, so they are being posted separately.

It doesn't look bad . . .

It doesn’t look bad . . .

The bed that was the potato bed last year had been pretty neglected. I planted the garlic in the fall, after digging out the potatoes. Not all of them came up, but it’s not a bad crop considering the level of neglect they suffered over the dry winter. At this point, I’m not gardening as my main food source, so anything I get is mostly a bonus. I’m still too early in the learning stages to depend on it totally, though that is the direction I want to go.

 . . . but this looks better.

. . . but this looks better.

When I uncovered the bed, it was still a little higher than the path, indicating that it still had quite a bit of space for air and water to wend around the roots. This was, in part, because it was pretty thoroughly dug over when I was digging out the potatoes right before I put the garden away for the winter. However, it is still a young garden, and the exercise is good for me, so I double-dug everything but where the garlic was growing. Just fyi, barefoot shoes are awesome for everything but double-digging. When I discovered a section the dog had clearly lain on when she broke in, I think I might have bruised a bone or two from jumping on the shovel. However, in the end, it did look and feel a lot nicer after I was done.

I'm still figuring out what I want to grow in the blank spaces.

I’m still figuring out what I want to grow in the blank spaces.

This garden bed got fewer plants. I wanted the parsley to be close to home because I love parsley, and it’s convenient to have it in the back yard. I also picked up one pumpkin and one butternut squash. They both like to sprawl, and Showcase 2 has more room for that than the RCG bed. They are also something that gets picked later in the fall, possibly after I am done with the RCG bed, since it is mostly hot weather plants. Will the marigolds get swamped by the squash vines? Yes. But until then, they’ll add a splash of color to the garden. If you’re picking a pumpkin, bear in mind that some varieties are more suited for cooking, and some are more suited to becoming jack o’lanterns. If you don’t know which is which, do what I did and ask someone that works at the greenhouse. If it’s a good one, they’ll be able to tell the difference. I was rather surprised that the “Cinderella” pumpkin was good for eating, but that’s why I asked instead of guessing.

The perennial garden. Maybe.

The perennial garden. Maybe.

The last bit I put in was some thyme and flowers. There is a wire buried below that line of rocks that I discovered last year. (Don’t forget to call 811 before you dig. I’m lucky I didn’t electrocute myself when I discovered it the hard way.) Rather than leave this section bare and boring, I’m planting thyme, which is a perennial, and marigolds and violas that may reseed themselves next year. This section was not dug over first, but if the plants decide they’re happy enough to grow this year and come back next year, the roots will help to loosen the soil that I can’t loosen with a fork. The benefit, aside from herbs and flowers, is that I am making that much more soil a little more inviting for decomposers.

The plants should make a bigger impression once they've grown some.

The plants should make a bigger impression once they’ve grown some.

Setting the plants in depressions and re-covering the bed with straw is even more important in Showcase 2 than in the RCG bed because it does not have an automatic waterer. Therefore, when I do water it, and if it ever decides to rain again, it is even more necessary to funnel the water to the plants and shade the soil to preserve the moisture. The potatoes, as you can see, are quite happy with the arrangement.

Happy 'tater plants.

Happy ‘tater plants.

Definition of Diet

It’s almost that time again. New Years, the end of the holidays. What gets us through late winter and early spring is thinking about bathing-suit season, right? Right. I doubt it is eager anticipation of being seen in a bathing suit that drives so many to begin their perennial diet on January 1.

I just watched the documentary “Hungry For Change.” It had an agenda, but it also had a lot of rather profound things to say. One of the most profound was “Obesity is not the problem, it is the solution.” In other words, one does not become obese or overweight just because. One becomes obese or overweight for a reason. Your body is trying to tell you something. That changes the entire question about how to lose weight from a matter of sheer willpower to discovering why a person is overweight to begin with. It might be physical, or it might be mental/emotional, or it might be both. In any case, difficulties in losing weight are no longer a matter of being weak-willed or lazy, but a matter of having unsolved problems.

If high numbers win, I’m currently at a personal best. It’s not that I don’t know how to eat well and exercise. I do. In fact, I know a lot more about it now than I did in college when I weighed what I’d prefer to weigh. I know what it feels like to be strong. I’ve been relatively lean. Being as weak as I am at the moment, with the levels of body fat that I have is neither normal nor enjoyable for me. I don’t like my body not working right. Why am I telling you this? This isn’t a blog about dieting or weight loss or strength-training. It is, however, tangentally about health. While I don’t qualify as sick, I would say I have less than optimal health right now.

In my personal journey, I have never been a serious dieter. It always seemed like too much work for not enough payoff. Also, I like food. A lot. The dabbling I have done, though, had shown me that if I was in a good place mentally, weight would come off. If I wasn’t in a good place mentally, there was no point in trying because weightloss would be a lost cause. The documentary reinforced that stress in particular, but mental or emotional disorder in general, has a physical manifestation. When we are not happy, we seek comfort foods. Generally, those are the kinds of foods that stick to your hips, not your ribs. More than that, though, is that the body is also holding calories in the form of fat so that you will have the energy to deal with whatever it is that is stressing you out. Unfortunately, our bodies have not caught on that the stress of being stuck in gridlock doesn’t need the same caloric support as the stress of being caught on the wrong side of a rockslide.

Something that I have been lucky enough to dodge, but many people haven’t, is having a very thrifty body. In other words, a body that needs a smaller number of calories than average to function so that it can ferret away the rest to be used later. I don’t know what all of the causes of this are, but at least one is the environment training the body to expect starvation. In fact, this training can happen before birth. In 1944, when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, they starved the local population. The children of women who were in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy during the famine grew up to be more prone to obesity, among other illnesses.

One of the other major points that this documentary speaks to is malnutrition. We are, in fact, starving. Just not for calories. If my body determines that it is not being fed enough nutrients to carry out the necessary functions, it will assume it is starving. When my body starves, it will keep a white-knuckled hold on fat stores. After all, who knows how long the famine will last. I’m also hungry. I want to eat more to try and find the missing nutrients. So much modern food, specifically the kind with a shelf life, is mostly or totally nutritionally void. I can eat it until the cows come home and my body won’t get what it’s missing and therefore won’t willingly release my excess fat.

The solution to this is simple. Replace nutritionally void food with nutritionally dense food. Unfortunately, the solution is not necessarily easy. Vegetables are more expensive than Ramen Noodles. When you’re cooking for one, as I do, they can also seem like an awful lot of work for each meal. There are even people that don’t really have access to vegetables due to food deserts in cities. When you get into sourcing healthy meat and dairy, it only gets more expensive and inconvenient. However, every time I have done this in the past, my body has willingly let go of excess fat. With all of the nutrients my body had to work with, I also looked forward to physical pastimes that resulted in building strength and being generally more functional.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of diet is: a : food and drink regularly provided or consumed b : habitual nourishment c : the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason d : a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight <going on a diet>

Now that the holiday indulgences are over, like so many others, I am going to have diet on my mind. However, I am not going to use definition d. I like definition b. As the year turns to the new one, I am going to be changing my habitual nourishment for my mind and my body to provide the nutritional and emotional building blocks that will make 2013 a much healthier year than 2012 was,

Things You Can’t Control: Hail

Not what I was expecting when I came out to water that day.

According to the life-philosophy of the Stoics, there are things that you can control, and things that you cannot control. Long story short, figure out which is which and put your efforts into what you can control. What you can’t will take care of itself. Hail is one of those things I can’t control. What I can control is my response to it. It is part resignation, part curiosity, and part thinking about how to minimize the damage next time.

Mental note: tomatoes don’t like hail.

I was not unaware of the possibility of hail. However, I understood it to be of less threat than it is in, say, Wyoming. It could happen, but wasn’t necessarily something to take a proactive stance on like deer or rabbits. However, after the storms last week, I think I do need to be more proactive. About a week and a half ago Showcase 2 and the RCG beds got flattened by a charming combination of torrential downpours and sizeable hail. Fortunately, Showcase 1 is tucked close enough to the house to have been mostly sheltered. The next night brought a second storm that had a tornado watch out east of town. It was the worst hail since 2004 or earlier, so I will accept it as a fluke. However, given what weather has been doing in the last few years, knocking together something for hail protection will fall under “better safe than sorry” for Showcase 2 at the very least. I was told recently that it appears that even years tend to be hail years, so these storms may well not be the last of it. The resignation is that I was aware of the possibility and chose not to take steps as the monetary cost of setting up some sort of shield appeared to outweigh the probability of serious hail damage.

Potatoes, fortunately, are slightly more forgiving.

Hope for recovery.

My curiosity is wondering what will recover and what will not. When I first looked at Showcase 2, I thought that the peppers were all stripped to their stems. A day or so later when I took a closer look, it appears that each has at least one leaf and the stems remain green. My fingers are crossed that they have enough photosynthetic surface areas to recover. The tomatoes had fewer leaves, but they also have stems that are insisting on remaining green, so we’re giving them the benefit of the doubt. The ‘tater bed is in tatters, but they fared the best of all, as they have had months of vigorous growth. They went from a bed of solid green to being able to see the individual plants, but I expect them to be fine. The obnoxious part is that the turnips and radishes no longer even have stems, let alone leaves. I haven’t quite decided whether I want to see if they’ll try again or if I want to give up and just replant.

Water damage. That had all been woodmulch.

I spent a couple of hours the following Saturday afternoon helping out in the food bank beds at the Ranch Community Garden. Aside from my root vegetables being shorn and the flowers showing the insult of the deluge, my pepper and tomatoes were still small enough that they seem to have weathered the weather fairly well. There wasn’t much to do. However, some kind soul donated gobs of tomatoes and assorted other plants to replace the abused ones in the beds and they needed to go in the ground. I noticed that the foodbank beds weren’t the only ones getting a significant re-do. My understanding is that given half a chance, plants will do their best to recover from a hailstorm. However, seeing the bedraggled state of most of them, I can understand the desire to replace them with a plant that is immediately more vigorous. My fingers are crossed partially because I want to see what they can do for themselves, and partially because I would hate to replace my own heirloom plants with whatever is left over at the garden centers after half or more of the gardeners in Colorado Springs have replaced their plants.

My poor turnips. That had been 16 healthy little plants in tidy rows getting ready to give me some tender greens.

Now to the proactive part. None of the gardens I have been working with are producing food that is a requirement for the family’s table. All of them are simply an appreciated supplement. However, I do need to think about this as both a supplemental food source and a main food source. Eventually, I hope to be able to feed myself primarily from my gardens and I would like to help people that have limited access to good produce if they don’t grow their own. Good food, after all, should be a right not a privilege. I have a lot to think about. Hardware cloth seems to be the protection of choice, since it is very permeable for light and rain, but less so for hail. If I had my tomatoes in cages, I could just give each cage a roof and call it a day, but the ones under my protection are all on trellises. Do I build permanent structures or things that I bring out when hail threatens? This storm gave warning that it was going to be ugly, but not all of them do around here. Do I build something that is strictly for hail, or should I just go ahead and build multi-purpose structures? How much of the garden should I cover? The place the peas are growing is not going to lend itself to protection, and the potatoes seem to be doing fine without it. Should the structure have a flat roof (easier) or a peaked/rounded roof to help shed the ice? At what point should I bow down to local circumstances instead of insisting on getting what I want? Naturally, the grasses and lambs-quarters are doing just fine. Fortunately, I hear lambs-quarters make excellent salad greens. I will keep you updated as decisions are made and plans are put in place.

As every gardener knows, weeds always survive . . .

Class: How to Hire a Landscape Professional plus the Denver Botanic Garden’s Spring Plant Sale

There are mountains over there. Somewhere.

As I was driving up to the Saturday class this past weekend, I was noticing the change in perspective that low clouds can cause. Our landscape is dominated by the mountains that we live in the shadow of. On the rare occasion that they disappear, all of a sudden the foreground is visible. On the drive, I saw buildings and shapes in the landscape that I had never noticed before because my eyes are usually drawn past them to the mountains. I also noticed that the horizon-to-horizon gray had a different effect on me than it did when I lived in Maryland. In Maryland, the effect is just depressing. Part of that is probably because it may stay that way for a week or more. Out here, I got the impression of a fuzzy, comforting blanket. This may or may not have been influenced by the fuzzy fleece I was wearing and the fact that the car heater was on to combat the chill. However, it was good to know there was moisture in the sky and that the low clouds were keeping the sun from immediately drying the rain that had fallen the night before.

I loved the wagons. It was just like going to an Amish market with my Mom when I was growing up.

When I read the description for the class, I got the impression that it was someone who had been burned by a landscaper and they were trying to keep others from suffering the same fate. I felt like I was taking it under false pretenses, as I intend to be a landscaper of sorts but I wanted to know what questions might be asked. I clearly mis-read the description, though, because it was presented by Curtis Manning, one of the partners of the Arcadia Design Group, a design and build landscaping firm. He decided to give this class because when it comes to landscaping, design in particular, the market doesn’t understand the product. The class is to help educate homeowners so that they have some idea of what to expect from a landscaper and how to communicate effectively with the person or firm they choose to hire. While he conceded that there are some bad apples in the industry, like every other industry, most of the problems are caused by lack of understanding or insufficient communication between the firm and the client.

I like this idea of using food plants as ornamentals. It’s both decorative and useful.

The two major points I got from this presentation were budget and details. Know your budget. How much are you willing and able to spend? If you are not willing to provide a hard number, at least provide a range so that your landscaper doesn’t plan a $50,000 overhaul when you have $10,000 to spend. Details came up over and over again. The more detailed you are in describing what you want, the more information the landscaper has to work with. They, in turn, should be able to provide you with details about timing, materials, and how to contact them with questions. Woven through this was the idea that a good company will work with you. They want you to be happy with your investment just as much as you do. While it is a job, and they do have to make a living, for many it is also a passion.

Your budget can actually affect a fair number of pieces for this puzzle. The amount of money you have to spend can help you narrow the choices of firms. What is too large or small for one firm to be able to handle might be exactly what another firm is set up for. If you have a particular firm in mind but have less to spend than their usual clients, you may need to wait for a slower time of year for them to fit you in. The other thing to consider is whether the budget is all you are willing to spend on the project or if you might have assets to spend on it in the future. Curtis, and other landscapers I have been taking classes from, are generally happy to phase in a project over time if that is how your budget can support your dream.

I think this modest selection showed remarkable restraint. It’s also supporting a good cause.

When Curtis was discussing what to look for in a design, he showed us a couple of what I hope were unusual examples first. They lacked detail and explanation. If the company that is doing the design is also doing the building, they can omit some minor details if certain things are always constructed a certain way. However, if it is a stand-alone design that you are taking to a different company to build for you, the construction company should not have any questions. Then he showed us one of his. There were multiple views and so many details that it looked like a building blueprint or electronics schematic. While his company both designs and builds, his designs are sold separately from the building bid. On the off chance that the client liked the design but chose to go with another construction firm, all of the details the other company would need will be in the design. The contracts should have a similar level of detail so that it is very clear who is responsible for what along with how and when it will be completed.

The short version of the class is to be an educated consumer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and follow up with references. There are nearly as many kinds of landscapers as there are landscaping businesses. During the busy season, which is now, they are very busy and may not be able to answer your questions immediately, but a good firm or individual will answer your questions. The class was slated for one hour, but took about two because of the amount of information he had to share and his willingness to answer our questions. I am going to blame mulling over the information for distracting me and causing my window-shopping at the end of the plant sale to turn into actual shopping.

Class: Understanding Front Range Soils

“Soil is precious and we treat it like dirt.”

This class was taught by Jean Reeder, Ph.D. soil scientist. She spent 30 years with the USDA ARS, the agricultural research service. Since retirement, she is now a consultant for the CSU Soil Testing Lab and she is one of the instructors for the Colorado Master Gardener program. She has also discovered that she didn’t really understand the soil in her own back yard. Of natural, agricultural, and urban soils, urban soils are the most complex and the least understood. She has begun applying her skills to changing that.

Anyone who lives in Colorado knows that we face a lot of challenges. Our semi-arid climate is cool with a short growing season, dry, and highly variable in both temperature and precipitation. However, more than 80% of plant problems are because of the soil. It is the fundamental component of the landscape. That makes it the biggest challenge. However, it is also the least understood. We have even less information to go on than most of the country, as our soil is as different as our weather. Where most soil is more acid, ours is alkaline. If you find a native soil around here that is 2% organic matter, you’re doing really well. In Iowa, 6-7% organic matter is perfectly normal. We also have free lime. She told us about one woman she knew that preferred to send her soil samples to a lab in Missouri to be tested. They never tested for free lime, since it isn’t an issue in Missouri.

There were a few main points I got from this class. The first is, test your soil. The old saying is “feed and nurture the soil and the soil will feed an nurture the plants.” That’s true, but how do you know how to nurture it if you don’t know where it is now? Sending off samples for testing is a bit more expensive than picking up a soil test kit at the store. However, you get a lot more information and a lot more accuracy. The other thing is to get it tested locally. I use the CSU service. Granted, the lab is in Fort Collins, which is not exactly around the corner from Colorado Springs, but they know Colorado. They know about free lime and our increasing problem with salt in our soils. They can tell me how to manage it in a way that will work here. The kits you can pick up at the store are apparently usually calibrated for acidic soils, which makes them worse than useless in our alkaline soils. They also don’t come with instructions for fixing any issues you have.

Once you get your test results back, there are a couple of things that it is best to just make peace with. The pH and the texture are almost impossible to change, and any changes may have other consequences. Our soils tend to be more clayey. One apparent solution is to add sand. Aside from the fact that you have to add too much sand for that to be practical, the recipe for concrete is lime and sand. It’s not a guarantee, but if you’re unlucky, you might end up with a concrete slab where you had intended to put in a garden. As for pH, our soils are very well buffered, so they resist being changed. One possible change is to add sulfur. However, if you have a high-calcium soil (lime is usually calcium carbonate), you end up making gypsum. Gypsum is used in places as a fertilizer. However, it is a salt, so you will be increasing the salt content of your soil. The only way to change the pH with any hope of permanence is to manage the garden correctly and consistently for about 50 or 100 years or move to the mountains. There are some old gardens and gardens in the mountains that are slightly acidic. However, those are the exception not the rule.

The result of squished roots and a rough spring.

Now that you have made peace with your texture and pH, it’s time to talk about amendments. All amendments are not created equal. In fact, all compost is not created equal. We do not have naturally saline soils. However, the application of high-salt fertilizers, both organic and not, is turning salt into a problem. There’s a reason people used to salt the fields of their enemies. You can’t grow anything in salted soil and, unless you have massive amounts of high-quality water to flush the salts through the soil layers, it is almost impossible to fix. She did a study of bagged, commercial fertilizer. However, it never got published because the only consistency was that animal-based ones had very high salt content and plant-based ones tended to have merely high salt content. Other than that, there was no telling what would come out of a particular bag. Even if you go natural, there is still a huge variation in what you can get. She showed us numbers of actual fertilizers she had analyzed from non-bagged sources. The numbers were all over the place. Including two that ended up with toxic amounts of trace minerals and several that were going to cause salt issues if they were used with any regularity. If you are considering using your neighbor’s horse manure, she mentioned that what they are fed affects the quality of the manure. The quality of what goes in affects the quality of what comes out the other end. Think about that for a minute. I sure did.

This one isn’t too happy with it’s placement either.

The last major point is compaction. I have run across this as being a problem in gardens before, but she took it to another level. Compacted soil means that the aggregates in the soil, the structure made from the mineral content and the organic material, have been destroyed, which means that there are few if any pores in the soil for air and water to penetrate. If you live in an urban area, it’s best to assume that your soil is compacted. If you are able to do so, you will want to fix that before you put down lawn and gardens, as it is almost impossible to fix later. If your soil has no, or few, pores with air and water, roots will not have anywhere to go, or a reason to go there. The smaller and more restricted a root system is, the smaller the above-ground part of the plant will be. I have notice small trees in “hell strips” between the sidewalk and the road recently that are only leafing out on their lower branches. This is apparently a result of restricted root growth combined with a dry spring. The upper branches had to be sacrificed because the limited roots couldn’t support them in the rough conditions we have had this spring. If it wasn’t trapped between the compaction under the road and the compaction under the sidewalk, the roots would be able to spread out, giving them half a chance to support the growth that had gone on before conditions got bad. When you walk across wet, loose ground once, you just compacted that ground by 75%. If you walk across it four times, now it’s 90% compacted. Now think about the damage a bulldozer or crane will do while the house is being constructed.

The overarching concept from this class is that, with two exceptions, less is more. On average, it takes about 150 years to build an inch of topsoil in nature. Colorado would need more time than average. Therefore, taking 10 years to slowly build a to-die-for garden is still well above average. The fewer amendments you use, the less likely you are to make a mistake. If you salt your garden or add toxic levels of a nutrient, you will be spending a lot of time and money to fix it. Along the same lines, once our native soil has been disrupted, she let me know that it is very hard, very expensive, and often heartbreaking to restore it. The less of the native landscape we disrupt, the less we will have to painstakingly restore. Tilling and other machines tend to break up soil aggregates, affecting the soil structure. Hand-digging is far less likely to do so. What we need more of is patience and knowledge, hence the slightly lengthy post. Your soil is unique. The more information you can gather, and the more time you can spend with it, the better equipped you will be to know how to nurture it.

Classes: Herbal Mother’s Day Gifts and Herbal First Aid Kits

Bath tea on the right, extra supplies on the left.

I took the Herbal Mother’s Day Gifts some time ago, but I wanted to wait to post it until the birthday presents I took it for were already in the mail. Due to my impressive promptness with making them, I managed to take Herbal First Aid Kits in the meantime. Both were given by Christina Blume of Blume’s Farm. She actually began her fascination with herbs due to the need in grad school to have one more advanced anthropology class. She chose a class on medicines in other cultures. The herbs spoke to her, causing her to change paths and travel the country learning everything she could. Both of these classes were on the expensive side for the Denver Botanic Gardens, but I did come home with some pretty cool loot.

The first class, Herbal Mother’s Day Gifts, was a fairly small group, which was probably a good thing considering the hands-on nature of the class. Christina handled the preparations that were melted, but we made our own spritzer/cologne and “Easy Bath Bombs.” It turns out that balsam fir and lavender make a sharp, refreshing spritzer. The bath bombs will require a little more practice. The dry and liquid ingredients need to be mixed carefully so they don’t fizz before you drop the finished bomb into your bath. Practice will help me develop the feel of the mixture to pack into the molds. Any failures will still work very well to keep my skin soft in the meantime. While we were working on the bath bombs, I got to chat with the women I was sharing my batch of ingredients with. It turns out they like to learn various crafts together and then use what they learn to make gifts for friends and family. The gifts are pretty universally well received. I’m going to need to remember this next time it’s time for presents.

It smelled slightly of peanuts. Looks pretty though.

The second class, Herbal First Aid Kits, offered more practical goodies for an accident-prone person like myself. Christina showed us a couple of preparations, although there were too many people in the class for us to get to do things ourselves. She also gave me permission to share a recipe from the class. I chose the herbal bactine, or Echinacea Plus Tincture, because of it’s general usefulness internally or externally.

2-3 chopped, fresh Echinacea flowers or 2 tablespoons dried Echinacea root

A small fistful of fresh Calendula flowers or three tablespoons of dried flowers

3 tablespoons of dried Oregon grape root

2 tablespoons dried myrrh power

Grind the herbs in a food processor or blender. Pour into a jar with a tight-fitting lid and cover with Everclear to one inch above the herbs. Put a layer of waxed paper between the jar and the lid. Shake once or twice a day for two weeks. Strain through a cotton cloth and store in a dark bottle with a tight-fitting lid. This can be used on any cut, scrape. or wound as a disinfectant and anti-microbial. Due to the alcohol content, it will sting when applied. Internally, take 1/2 a teaspoon in a small amount of juice every two hours the first day.

I need to work on my straining skills.

The Everclear is needed for the myrrh. As a resin, it needs a higher alcohol content to actually make a tincture. Most of them work very well with cheap vodka for a lower alcohol content. However, it is also one of the best antimicrobials there is. Apparently, its use for embalming protected the embalmers in the Middle East during times of plague. You may want to make the Echinacea tincture separately as well. With most, tinctures, the alcohol will extract the pertinent parts of the herb. For Echinacea, however, the polysaccharides, which don’t come out with alcohol,  are also pertinent. After you strain the solids out of the alcohol, you will want to simmer the solids in water to extract them. When you add the second extraction to the first, the amount of 50% of the water portion will also need to be added in additional alcohol.

Between the two classes, there were lots of interesting tidbits. Most of her salves are made with olive oil, but the “Sole Softener” recipe calls for castor oil. It is far more penetrating and healing on its own. Given the tenacity of it while I was making the sole softener, I’m not so surprised that a god was named after it. It gets on everything, but my hands felt great afterward. I also found out that essential oils are not necessarily a good idea for use by expecting mothers. For those gifts, you might want to stick with whole herbs, as they don’t have the same potency while still being useful. If you need comfrey root, leave the grinding to the professionals. Apparently it will destroy regular kitchen utensils.

Cooled and ready to be mailed. The one with the fingerprint and the poor straining will be staying with me.

I need to weigh which classes I can afford to take this year and which ones I really should put off, but she has a class for a full home kit coming up that I think would be a good investment. Now that I know where to find my herbs, Mountain Mama’s, although I hear that Vitamin Cottage is also really good and found outside of Colorado Springs, it’s something that I want to play with more. Next time I pick up bits and pieces at the grocery store, however, I might opt not to pick up a saline laxative (epsom salts, great bath salts) and a liquid laxative (castor oil, for the sole softener) in bulk at the same time. The cashier was clearly wondering if my day was going as badly as it appeared.

Class: Botany

This is the first class I started with Sheridan Samano, and the most recent one that I finished. It is usually held over an eight-week period, but with her more intense travel schedule, it was condensed to eight classes in four weeks. To be honest, two classes each week probably helped me on the quiz we started each class with, since it hadn’t been a full week since I had learned the information.

This class, even more than the ecology class, felt like a college class. There was a lot of information to cover, and we even had a text book. I recommend Brian Capon’s Botany for Gardeners to anyone that is interested in the why behind the how of gardening. It is accessible without being shallow, and is small enough to not intimidate. There were a couple of corrections to the book that we got in class. The favorite color of bees is yellow, not purple and blue, and there are more than four hormones that we now understand. We talked about a fifth, briefly, but apparently the number keeps growing.

Botany is an under-studied and under-researched field. Sheridan herself got into it kind of sideways, since her first interest is birds. She started learning about botany to better understand the birds’ locations and habits. Being a botanist isn’t a show-stopper of a career like a marine biologist or an avian biologist. After all, they’re just plants, right? How exciting could that possibly be? It turns out, even if you don’t take into account carnivorous plants, it can be quite exciting.  Everyone should remember from their middle-school and highschool science classes that plants are the primary producers. They are the organisms that take sunlight and make food that every other organism uses one way or another. The ways that they have found to survive and thrive in all sorts of environments to continue to do so are fascinating.

We all know that plants have been around for a long time. There are four classes of plants: Bryophytes (moss), Pterophytes (ferns), Gymnosperms (“naked seeds”), and Angiosperms (“vessel seeds”). Bryophytes, or non-vascular plants, are the oldest. Angiosperms are both the newest and the most prolific. They are also mostly what we use in our gardens. After all, the bulk of gardening is done for flowers and for fruit (technically just a fertilized ovary) which are only found in this class.

The variety found in plants is both fascinating, and potentially challenging. Anyone who gardens has run across the fact that some things just won’t grow in some locations. With this class, those locations have gone from large areas to very small ones. Don’t plant native Colorado plants in what used to be your vegetable garden. Their death will have nothing to do with elevation, water, or sunlight. It will have everything to do with the fact that they are designed for a harsh environment, not the lush richness required by vegetables. Don’t plant broad-leaved, shade-loving plants in a sunny spot around here. That death will have everything to do with the sun. When choosing indoor plants, bear in mind that most commercial houseplants are tropical plants that grow in the shade. They can handle the limited sun of a house without growing toward any sun they can find.

As with anything, the more I learn, the more I find that I don’t know. However, this class was a fantastic start to understand the whys behind so many gardening hows. Also, as long as you aren’t a Poison fan, here’s a conversation-starter for you. Every rose does not, in fact, have its thorn. They have prickles.

I have worms! In a good way.

About 100 worms. Smaller than I expected.

Yep, I now have pets. I picked them up at a local store and deposited them in their newly-crafted home. When I got them I stuck my nose in their little carrying cases and it was so nice to smell honest-to-goodness dirt! I started with a little over 200. They were pricy, and I could have done better online, but I wanted to pick them up instead of having them shipped. My mail has a bad habit of languishing in my mailbox for a day or two before I pick it up, and I didn’t want to lose any to frostbite. I also decided that as quickly as they breed, it was probably best to start small rather than risk being overwhelmed in short order. Apparently your population can double in 90 days.

Importing plants and animals should be done with care. After all, dandelions were once imported on purpose because they were pretty. I hesitated over purchasing this fancy, European worm for that reason. However, they like temperatures above 55 degrees, moist conditions, and they like to stay in the upper portion of the soil. If they decided to escape on me, I don’t think they’d last long enough to be a genuine problem around here. That,

The latest in sustainable chic.

and they live for eating compost, unlike nightcrawlers that need more actual dirt in their life. As long as their environment doesn’t dry out, they shouldn’t have any reason to want to leave their comfy little box where they get their food hand-delivered.

I got my worms about a month ago. In that time I’ve learned a couple of things. The tray under the box is less to deal with water and more to hold onto the worm casings that fall out every time you move it. Like so many other things around here, they dry out quickly. Don’t underestimate your needed number as badly as I did. Particularly if you have some very sad vegetables in the refrigerator that are more suited to worm food than people food. They don’t, quite, keep up with my current scraps which means that they’re no help when it comes to cleaning out the fridge. I have also discovered that if you don’t overfeed them, their home smells nice and earthy. Chopping your veggie scraps into smaller pieces helps them eat it, and it’s not that hard to rinse out egg shells to dry and crush for their grit/calcium supplement. Apparently worms have crops like a bird that requires grit to grind up the food.

Given a choice, they're mostly camera-shy.

I have been tossing around the idea of supplementing my worm count so that I can stop sending vegetable scraps down the trash disposal, but at this point I think I’ll just be patient. They are doing a number on their bedding and the food that I do give them, and I don’t have a place to use the casings just yet. I am pretty excited to see how much they can produce for me, though, when I start eating out of my garden and I have more vegetables for me and scraps for them.