Posts Tagged ‘nourishment’

Hanna Ranch Movie

I know I’ve been MIA for a while now, and I intend to update you on that and on some of the cool things happening in my life, but for the moment- this movie.

If you live in Southern Colorado (specifically Colorado Springs to Pueblo) or you have any interest at all in the plight of the family farmer or rancher- you have got to see Hanna Ranch. For the local folks, it’s going to be at Ivywild for a few more days. For everyone else, it’s travelling around a bit and available on iTunes. It should be showing up on Netflix eventually, too. It is one place, one ranch, and one family- but a story that I suspect a lot of the agricultural community knows in one way or another.

We need to support our farms. In 30 years, we’ve lost half-a-million ranchers (or farmers in general- can’t remember which) which is a problem. This film clearly illustrates why.

Bee School Part 1

If you live in Colorado, and you want to keep bees, the Bee School put on by the Pikes Peak Beekeepers Association is awesome. For what they’re charging, I’d consider adding a hotel bill if you’re travelling from a distance to still be a fair price. It is two days and a ton of information. They encourage questions during the breaks and make it very clear that they will be available for more questions as the season goes on and we get our own hives and colonies. 

The day started off, as they do, with some basic housekeeping information. There were two points that stuck out, though. The future of beekeeping is not one beekeeper with many hives. It is many beekeepers with one or a few hives. It’s much more stable that way. The other is that in Colorado Springs we can expect to lose 15-20% of our hives annually. In California, the expectation is 20-50% of the hives. Plant flowers and stop using pesticides, people. We are not ready to see what happens if the bees disappear. 

The history portion was fast, but it was enough to whet my appetite to learn more. The oldest recording of stealing honey is 15,000 years old. The Egyptians moved their hives for pollination purposes. Current bee laws are based on Roman bee laws. Finally, the honey bee as we know it arrived in America in 1622. It was dubbed the “white man’s fly” since the bees tended to precede the arrival of the white man in a given area. However, beekeeping couldn’t be really commercialized until L. L. Langstroth, the father of American beekeeping, came up with the Langstroth Hive in 1860. The standardization and ease of access to the hive made it possible to do on a large scale.

The next portion was talking about the agricultural benefits. Did you know that it’s a $200 billion industry world-wide with the worth in the US being around $20 billion? Of course, when 1/3 of our food depends on these little animals, it becomes less surprising. Though more disconcerting when you consider their fragility. Bees aren’t just good for food, though. There are 7-800 conditions listed in the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers. Half of them include honey in their treatment. There’s more to honey’s health benefits than just help with allergies. Even propolis, bee glue, seems to have health benefits as an antiseptic, antibiotic, and even an antiviral.

There were examples of the necessary equipment that were passed around  for us to handle. During that lecture, we also got to hear anecdotes about things that were learned the hard way. This was when we were told that if you ask 5 beekeepers the same question, you will get at least 6 answers. There is a lot of science involved, but there is also a lot of art. Once you have learned the basics, it is up to each beekeeper to learn the ins and outs of their colonies and the areas where their bees are kept. 

Currently, each plot in Colorado Springs is legally allowed one hive, assuming your HOA doesn’t object. They are working on getting it back up to two. That way if you lose one, you’re not out of bees until the new one is established. If you live elsewhere, though, check your local laws. Just down in Fountain, you can’t legally have a hive unless you have at least an acre of property. Of course, if you’re planning to flaunt the law, keep the neighbors well bribed with fresh, local honey.

Did you know that the queen bee rules, but she does not reign? It is the worker bees that determine when she needs to be replaced and they are the ones that choose the worker eggs to turn into little queens. Of course, once the first queen emerges, she promptly stings through all of the other queen cells to remove any potential rivals. The workers also take on every job in the hive at some point in her life. 

Did you know that when a bee colony is searching for a new home, they make decisions as a group the way our brain makes a decision. There was a Nova show on it. Basically, they do their waggle dance to tell their sisters the good news, but they aren’t above whacking a sister who is waggling for a different destination. In the end, whoever has the most interested sisters wins the vote. It seems that neurons in our brain send positive and negative signals to waggle or whack to influence the vote in the direction they want. Who knew?

The class on hive assembly just talked about the Langstroth Hive, as that is what 90% of the beekeepers use. There are other options, like the Kenyan top-bar hive or the Warre top-bar hive, but they don’t have the same following. At least, not yet. I am starting with a Langstroth Hive, since I can easily get my hands on a kit, but I think I will eventually have at least one Warre hive. The Kenyans are more of a warm-weather construction and probably won’t do as well in our cold winters.

We watched a video on how to move your bees from their shipping package to their hive. It was helpful to see live bees being handled. I think that will make it a little less intimidating when I get my own buzzing box. A little. After the film, though, the instructor went through a couple of points of disagreement (we don’t need to medicate them- it’s been handled before they shipped) and some Colorado-specific points. Don’t do it on a windy day. They’ll blow away.

When it comes to managing our bees, we need to think of ourselves as bee assisters rather than bee keepers. The bees do 99% of the work. We just need to keep an eye on them and help out if they need it. In fact, our only job during the first summer is to feed them and make sure they’re strong enough to survive their first winter. Once they are an established colony, though, handling them is far from a daily task. However, when they are handled, don’t forget to forgo your perfume, aftershave, or scented deodorant. They will try to figure out what kind of flower you are and if you’re good to eat.

The rest will need to go in a second post, as this one is getting a bit long.

Starting Seeds

I really need a potting shed. On the other hand- it's nice to sit inside and watch a movie when it's snowing outside on a planting day.

I really need a potting shed. On the other hand- it’s nice to sit inside and watch a movie when it’s snowing outside on a planting day.

On March 11, I started my second round of seeds. I also repotted my first round of young plants. I still have a lot to learn.

I have been interested in the idea of starting my own seeds for a while. It’s less expensive than buying plants, and you can grow more exotic varieties. It’s also the only way to grow things like tomatoes from seeds you have saved. However, it can be a bit pricy to start. There isn’t a single south-facing window in this house, and I’m not sure we’d get good light even if we had one. That means I have to buy and somehow set up grow lights. The house isn’t kept all that warm, since it’s more energy efficient, but that means I really need a warm spot to help the initial germination. I also needed to buy a couple of seed-starter flats along with starting medium and potting soil. The lights in particular add up fast.

Squash seeds are so much easier to photograph than tomato seeds.

Squash seeds are so much easier to photograph than tomato seeds.

I did decide to start plants this spring for a couple of reasons. I had bought and hung a grow light in my bedroom for my own mental health. The combination of a gentle wake-up, since the light is on a timer, and the guarantee of at least a little full-spectrum light has helped to temper my seasonal issues a bit. Since I had made the first big purchase for the project, why not put it to more complete use? The plant heater is also doubling as a worm heater. My African nightcrawlers are not happy with a cool house, and there just aren’t any warm spots to keep them. I am also hoping to make at least some of my investment back by selling some of the plants that I don’t need for my own garden. (Let me know if you want to buy any . . . )

Too long in the starting medium plus erratic watering means that I don't think all the squash will make it.

Too long in the starting medium plus erratic watering means that I don’t think all the squash will make it.

Pro Tips:

  • Don’t start small perennials and large annuals in the same flat. You have to raise the light too fast for the perennials to keep up as they are slower to germinate and, in my case, just shorter.
  • Water daily. Check on them at least twice a day. Once they flop over, they may not recover.
  • Have enough lights to give even light to all of the plants. More plants means more or bigger lights.
  • If you write out a schedule, mind it.
  • Don’t wait too long to transplant out of the starting medium. It doesn’t have many nutrients.
  • If you live with a dog that eats anything and your potting shed is the living room floor- make sure you don’t have to dash to the store for more potting soil in the middle of the planting project.
  • Make sure you have enough pots for all of the plants.
  • Be willing to thin the herd if some of the plants aren’t up to snuff. (I need to improve on that.)
  • Start more than you need. They won’t all make it.
  • Just because the top of your seed-starter is all fogged over, it doesn’t mean the soil is all evenly moist.
  • Lable! New England Sugar Pie and Watham Butternut look a lot alike until they set their fruit!
Apple trees start pretty well in egg shells in the fridge.

Apple trees start pretty well in egg shells in the fridge.

I am starting plants on the early side for two reasons. One- we have a short growing season and I want them to have as many productive days as possible. Two- people like to buy bigger plants, so bigger ones should sell better. To set up my schedule, I went by the days to maturity for each variety. It broke them up nicely into a logical progression. The first to go in were squashes. The last will be my peppers. Tomatoes happen in between. Things like herbs and flowers  can be started on a less stringent schedule, so they can be fit in around the food plants.

Gently crush the shells so the roots can grow through. Starting them this way leaves a calcium source right at the roots.

Gently crush the shells so the roots can grow through. Starting them this way leaves a calcium source right at the roots.

My squash  went in right on schedule in early February, sharing the flat with some chives and calendula. I think the chives will be ok, but the calendula are so leggy that I don’t think many, if any, will recover. I’m going to need to just try them again. The round currently sitting on the heater should have been planted around February 25. Being two squash and two tomatoes, they should grow at a similar enough rate to share the flat. The moment they’re well enough sprouted to go under lights, I need to plant the round that should have gone in around March 5. If I’d done them as planned, it would be much less rushed. However, scheduling them as early as I did also gives me some leeway for being slow. The last round will also be a bit behind, as the heater won’t be ready by March 19th. If I get a chance, I also want to do a round of herbs and flowers sooner rather than later to give them a decent head start.

Before my next round of transplanting, I need to do a bit more planning. Specifically, finding a bunch more pots for the 36 seedlings that will need a new home!

The Farm Bill

Yet again the brilliant minds in DC are stumped while the rest of the country waits for them to decide to just screw us, or screw us over completely. What I’m talking about is the farm bill. I think everyone knows that agribusiness is pretty heavily subsidized by the government (using our tax dollars). Those subsidies were supposed to end in September of 2012, so they were working on a new set to use going forward. (Better late than never?) However, it appears that Christmas Break can’t be put off for details like whether our farmers can rely on the government to back them up if their crops fail next year or if/how the food stamp program will continue. Petty concerns, you know.

I specified that it was agribusiness, not farmers, that are subsidized by this for a reason. Here’s an overview of what they are hoping to include in the bill and a general overview of what is included. Basically, if you aren’t a huge farm growing commodity crops, you pretty much don’t count. The heavy subsidizing of grains then supports cheap meat and dairy when those animals are finished on grain. There’s a reason that grass-fed beef is more expensive than grain-fed, and it’s not the cost of land. It’s because we don’t see the whole cost of grain-fed beef at the grocery store.

This post mentions the probability of milk going up to $7 a gallon if Congress can’t get their act together. I admit, I’m rather torn about that possibility. On the one hand, a whole lot of the 99% are having enough trouble putting food on their tables, and I really don’t want to see it made more difficult. On the other, I’ve been looking at non-conventional milk sources and they all cost at least that much. The non-conventional milk sources (cow shares, owning a goat, buying from a friend under the table) actually reflect the real cost of producing milk. Small dairies, particularly ones that want to produce raw milk, don’t have the support from subsidies that are given to the dairies that sell to the grocery stores. They can’t hide their costs using our tax money.

Americans have gotten used to cheap food. We’ve had it for a couple of generations, now. Using such a small portion of our income on feeding ourselves is one of the reasons we have so much . . . stuff. We don’t have to choose between a Wii and dinner for the next month. Maybe, though, we need to rethink that. Consider this- if the crap milk sold in the grocery store cost almost as much as the milk from the farmer down the street who lets you pet his cows and walk his pastures, which would you end up buying?

Food Choices and Vegetarianism

Norway is imposing Meatless Mondays on their military. I am not ok with this.

Cultures of all shapes and sizes have food limitations. You don’t go to India and expect to eat beef. You don’t go to Muslim countries and expect to eat pork. I don’t really understand the Jewish rules of mixing meat and dairy, but I know they exist. Meeting a Mormon at a coffee shop is maybe not the best idea. (I tried this once. Oops.) Some religions and social groups expect or demand vegetarianism or veganism to participate. I am perfectly ok with all of that.

I am not a vegetarian, but I have friends and family members who are. There are things in the vegetarian and particularly the vegan movement that rub me the wrong way, but I accept that they are allowed to have their own opinions. I might think you’re wrong, but I defend your right to be so. One of the things I really like about the vegetarian movement is that it promotes thinking about your food. I, personally, don’t agree with the conclusions they have come to, but I applaud the fact that they are coming to any conclusions at all.

My problem is that the military is not a religious, cultural, or socially-motivated group. I don’t know the rules of entering and leaving the Norwiegan military, but I’m pretty sure that not having the option of meat one day a week isn’t going to be an acceptable reason to drop out. People join the military for dozens of different reasons. I’m willing to bet that stopping climate change isn’t usually very high on the list.

I have become pretty convinced that my body does not accept plant protein as protein. Most people can handle it, but there are some that lack the enzymes needed to make the conversion. This means that the most perfect balance of beans, grains, and legumes will mean nothing to my body. If I were meatless once a week, I would have to increase my meat intake on the other six days to make sure that I averaged out at the necessary protein levels. In a job that requires both physical and mental growth and sharpness, dropping my protein level means that I might not have the physical or mental ability to, say, keep the people in my unit from getting killed.

I’m afraid I don’t have a link to back me up, but once upon a time, prisoners were fed on bread and water because it helped to keep them docile. What does bread and water lack? Primarily protein. I’ve also heard that monks used vegetarian diets for much the same reason. Again, I don’t have a link for that one. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not sure that docility and religious devotion is what one should strive for in a military force.

My final problem with this is that it is promoting the idea that a vegetarian diet is a solution to global warming and environmental degradation. It’s not. I agree 100% that modern meat production practices are very, very bad for the environment. I do not agree in the least that meat production is bad for the environment. It is possible to raise meat animals in a way that increases biodiversity and topsoil in their fields. It’s not done very often at the moment, but it does exist. As an aside, animals raised in this manner are better for the people eating them, too. Producing grains and legumes, however, pretty much requires destroying both biodiversity and topsoil in their fields. Even if you grow them organically, you have to remove the native plants and animals from that section of land. If you don’t grow them organically, the impact just gets worse. After all, it wasn’t the ranchers that caused the Dust Bowl.

I believe that people should be given choices. I believe that a military is required to provide vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and kosher meals in addition to their usual fare. What I do not believe is that they have any right to dictate what food choices their members make. If a person is placed on a diet so they can meet their physical requirements, that’s one thing. Deciding that everyone will eat a certain way is another. After all, imagine how it would go over if they instituted Fish-only Fridays?

Tomato Soup Base

Before the frost.

Before the frost.

Fall has arrived. It’s snowed a couple of times, and the frost has taken out 90% of what was left in the garden. Fall also means finishing the harvest and socking the last of the summer produce away in the freezer (or with another form of storage).

After the frost. Poor peppers.

After the frost. Poor peppers.

One of the first things I did was to start turning my tomatoes into soup base. It’s a recipe my mom uses as an easy way to get extra tomatoes from the vine and into the freezer with as little fuss as possible. It’s also a good way to use as many of the damaged tomatoes as you can. After all, once it’s pureed, you won’t be able to tell that half of it got cut off to remove the bad spots. Come winter, I can have nice, vine-ripened tomatoes in my soup of the day for a burst of flavor and nutrition.

Minies, soup base 017

What you need are tomatoes, basil, parsley, and a food processor. Chop the tomatoes up a bit, removing any yucky bits, and fill the food processor up about half way. (I did a bit more than half because I only had enough damaged tomatoes for one round and I was planning on eating the whole tomatoes.)

Minies, soup base 018

Add to that a handful of parsley and a handful of basil. My parsley was smothered by weeds, so I had to buy that, but the basil is from my garden.

Minies, soup base 021

Puree it until you reach the desired consistency. Also- take time to admire the colors. In just my soup base I will have red, yellow, green, and purple. As I add other stuff to the soup, I’m just improving an already fairly spiffy nutritional profile. If you’re doing multiple batches, pour each lot into a pot before divvying it up to freeze. Mixing them together will give you more consistency in taste and texture since it’s not an exact science.

Minies, soup base 022

You can store it in anything you would like for the time spent in the freezer. If you’re using glass jars, don’t forget to leave room at the top for the food to expand as it freezes. That’s also why you want the wide-mouth jars- there aren’t any shoulders for the freezing food to run into and crack.

Minies, soup base 001

I picked the basil a few days before I needed it, and our kitchen was being worked on, so I stuck it in some water and left it in the bathroom. It turns out, purple basil is pretty, smells good, and matches our bathroom decor.

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.

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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.

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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.

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,

Dirty Minds

I may have overestimated how much we needed.

Wait- is this a family-friendly blog? What can I say, I’ve had dirt on the brain recently. It’s probably because I had too much fun playing with manure over the weekend.

Unless you are dealing with hydroponics, you have to think about your soil. Even the water lilies that float on the top of a pond have their roots in soil. Without good soil, it is difficult to impossible to grow good vegetables. At least not the vegetables we tend to think of as “standard.” I believe yucca would be pretty ok with just being plopped in the ground out here.

What makes good soil? At the moment, I still only know the basics, but basically: the sand or clay base, organic material, and things to break down the organic material for use. Preferably, you are looking for a pretty good balance between clay and sand. Clay packs tight, so it can hold water, but it can also inhibit drainage and pack into a hard surface. Sand doesn’t really pack at all, so it helps drainage, the water slipping easily between the large granules. However, that can also mean that the water doesn’t stick around long enough for your plants to use it. I have heard some thoughts on both sides of adding clay or sand to balance the soil you have. I will need to look further into that before I address it here.

Slightly.

Whether you have clay or sand soil or a pretty mix of both, organic material can improve it. It loosens clay, allowing it to drain better and keeping it from baking as hard. It helps sand hold water better and helps it pack a little better to support plants. Compost is the epitome of your organic material. It helps the texture of the soil and offers a bioavailable source of nutrients. Manure is right up there, too. Different ones need slightly different treatments. Hot manures like horse, which is what we are using on Showcase 1, and chicken need to be composted so you don’t burn your plants when you apply it. Cool manures like alpaca or goat can actually be applied directly. Other options, like peat, offer soil improvements, but not so much of the nutritional improvements.

The one that often gets overlooked is what breaks down the organic material so that your plants can use it. We probably miss them mostly because we don’t see them. I was reading a book about Rocky Mountain gardening at one point. It was one of the first specifically for this part of the country. It is old, but it still has a lot of valid information. It also has some that made me chuckle. Like that you should purchase a “lady-sized” shovel to encourage the wife to get out in the fresh air. Also, it told you how to kill earthworms because the casings they leave behind are so unsightly. I believe it was the same day I read that information that I saw bagged worm casings for sale in a garden store.

Worms are one of the more visible decomposers. They not only eat fine materials and excrete some of the best fertilizer you can find, they also aerate the soil in their underground journeys. However, being big enough to see means that they can navigate in and out of your garden more easily than some of the others. This means that if you don’t create an environment they like, including lots of delicious organic material in worm-bite-size pieces, then they don’t have a reason to stick around. Assuming they have enough around to eat, bacteria are a little easier to keep corralled. Manure can offer a good inoculation to a new or barren garden. So can a scoop of soil from your neighbor that just seems to be able to grow anything.

When you are setting up your soil for gardening, however, you need to bear in mind what you are growing. If you are growing plants that originated in Europe or the East Coast, meaning most “vegetable garden” vegetables, you need to build the kind of soil they have. If you are growing plants that are native to this area, less preparation is necessary. I have a friend in Maryland who’s property is incredibly lush. I have never seen land with so many earth worms. In fact, her struggle tends to be that too many things grow. Except for lavender. Neither of us had any idea why this one plant just refused to grow. It turns out that lavender, being from the Mediterranean, prefers soil that is stony, sparse, and well-drained. Who knew that moving out here would actually be preferred by some plants?

Prettiest dirt I'd seen since I moved out here.

Do you notice the soil around you? Or is it just dirt? Some days it is more apparent than others that I come from a family that gardens. My parents take pictures of flowers. I took a picture of dirt. I had been driving up through northern Colorado and Wyoming for hours at this point, seeing little more than sandy, arid, poor soil and the occasional surprisingly blue body of water. All of a sudden I came across the prettiest soil I’d seen since I moved out here. It was in the middle of Shoshone National Forest just pushed to the side during the road construction. I’ve gotten the impression that Wyoming is considered to be a pretty barren state by most. The question is, how did an arid, barren state produce such rich soil? The answer is that it is in a National Forest. That means that instead of being subjected to various forms of human interference, nature is more or less allowed to do what it has been doing for, well, a very long time. That means that generations of trees have fallen to be eaten by even more generations of earthworms. The available nutrients are then used by the younger trees that will then eventually die to feed the younger worms.

The pertinent question, of course, is how to get soil that is that good-looking in your garden. Unless you are building some sort of a bed that you will fill with an ideal mix of soil, a part of the answer is still time. First-year garden beds are seldom as rich and biodiverse as more mature beds. However, we don’t have to move at the same speed as a forest. We can kick-start the process by adding ingredients to our gardens that will encourage worms and other decomposers to move in and stick around. Once they are established, all you need to do is keep them fed and safe. Luckily, that doesn’t include setting out a fresh bowl of food each day like you do with your pets. As long as you are adding fairly regular doses of organic material in the form of compost or manure and you are using little to no pesticides, organic or otherwise, a healthy population should be pretty well able to care for itself. As far as the worms and bacteria are concerned, the benefits to your garden are really just the result of a happy home.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

A couple of weeks ago a friend handed me Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Since it’s winter, it’s the season of reading and learning more than doing. I have been pouring over all sorts of non-fiction gardening books that focus on “how to.” She handed me this one to help remind me of the “why.” Why is a question we don’t ask often enough after we get out of the perpetual “Why?” stage as children. I am actually considering re-aquiring that phase. There are altogether too many answers that we’re given that should be challenged with a five-year-old’s tenacity.

The story is about a family that moves to Appalachia to grow their own food for one year. They aren’t new at this. In fact, they’d been gardening in that particular farm for years during the summer as a break from their lives in Tucson, Arizona. It wasn’t just gardening and hen-raising that they were already familiar with. The family hadn’t been eating CAFO meat for years by the time the story started. Barbara has a degree in evolutionary biology. Her husband, Steven Hopp has a Ph.D. in animal behavior and has taught everything from ornithology to natural history. Their older daughter, Camille Kingsolver, was, at the time of writing, in college for biology, anatomy, and dance. She also had the benefit of being raised by a family that took food and science seriously. The younger daughter, Lily, has fewer titles, given her age, but the story wouldn’t be the same without her.

The bulk of the story is told by Barbara. It is nonfiction, but she does have a flair for making it a story anyway. Gardening and eating what they produce is not a totally new concept, but they learn a lot along the way. Things like, when to start? After all, the beginning of the calendar year is not the beginning of the growing year. Steven adds more scientific and factual asides. Camille offers a young adult’s prospective and quite a few recipes for each season. Each person, including Lily who wasn’t old enough to actually contribute to the writing, added skills and insight into the whole process. At the end is an impressive list of additional resources.

The book was a great read. I intend to pass it on to my mother because I think she will get a kick out of the story, having fed a family out of a vegetable garden herself. The story also made me seriously nostalgic for the family meals that I don’t have any more and probably didn’t appreciate enough when I did. It made me think about the bar Mom put in when she redid the kitchen. That way everyone could still gather there like they always did, but she would have space of her own for the cooking and other kitchen chores that seemed to be neverending. I used to bemoan the fact that my mother’s world seemed to revolve around food. Feeding a family of six on home-made meals will do that to you. Now I’m beginning to think that there are far worse things for a world to revolve around. After all, how else would you aquire memories of the women in the family gathering in the kitchen for canning and gossip?

I will say that by the end of the book, with her descriptions of the trials of her breeding-stock turkeys, I am thinking about possibly starting with turkeys for my own fowl experiments. After all, they did almost become our national bird, so they shouldn’t be allowed to die out. If all else fails, they taste good, too.

“How to” is very important. I will continue reading up on that, but it’s good to be reminded of why we need to learn how. The end result. While I don’t have the need, or at the moment the ability, to harvest 400 pounds of tomatoes, I do have the need to be reminded that food grows in dirt and that tomatoes are best eaten during tomato season.