Posts Tagged ‘organic’

My Summer

I promised to update you on the interesting things going on in my life some time ago, and I haven’t. However, we are now at the time of year when students are all being asked to write about what they did this summer. It seems as good a time as any to finally follow through on that promise.

This summer I . . . weeded. I weeded a lot. I am now very, very familiar with bindweed in all of its incarnations. There was also a lot of planting in the spring and now we’re getting into the serious harvest times. In between, always weeding. I can tell you with confidence that weeding knives and hori knives are both wonderful inventions. This summer I also consistently underestimated how much work it is to be a farmer. I haven’t been updating my blog not because I didn’t have ideas or information to pass on, but because once I got home and sat down, my brain was as fried as my body.

This summer I got to be one of the interns at Venetucci Farm. I say “got to be” because nailing a paid position for a non-experienced person who wants to get into farming is hard. For the most part, they simply don’t exist. I’ve started asking about this, and Mike Callicrate shared that interns are more often than not an expense rather than an asset. After being one for about four and a half months, that makes a lot of sense. I haven’t looked at the books for the farm that employs me, it’s none of my business, but I do know from other research that the profit margins for small, organic farms are generally not impressive. That means that there is less room for the farmer to be able to handle things like an employee that moves slowly, or makes mistakes. Mis-seeding a 200-foot row is something an intern may easily do, and you can’t undo that mistake. That seed is now a loss. Spearing garlic heads during harvest is really easy to do, especially for the inexperienced, but every head speared is one more that can’t go to market to be exchanged for money. Even taking two hours to weed a bed that should only take one hour means that something else that is just as pressing may not get done. All of this cuts into the profits of the farm which cuts into the ability, and desire, to hire and train the less experienced.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to speak at church about my job. The woman who was running the service said I was the only farmer in the congregation and, as I clearly loved my job, it was an important job to hear about. That request got me to do some research to make sure I was giving the right facts. Only 2% of the US population calls itself a farmer according to the IRS. Only half of those claim it as the main income for the household. After growing up in farm country and talking to farmers around here, I bet the number that have it as the only household income is much, much smaller than that. As of 2007, the official average age of farmers in America is 55. I am quite sure that average has not gone down in the intervening seven years. I am including both conventional and organic farmers in this because I don’t know where to look for the minute numbers that would be the organic farmers and because conventional farmers still know a whole lot more about how to raise food than your average non-farmer. The point of these statistics is that a tiny and rapidly aging population holds the key to feeding a vast and still growing population, but there is no support for them to pass on that knowledge to the people that want to learn. Since I’m pretty sure you know that food does not just appear in grocery stores- though not everyone does- what happens when the last farmer dies?

Lucky for me, Susan Gordon is willing to take on the inexperienced each year to run Venetucci. I got to hear her speak to a group of college kids the other day, and it only confirmed that she can’t seem to do anything without pouring all of herself into it. It’s really inspiring, particularly in a job that can so easily overwhelm and beat down one’s spirit. Rather than throwing up my hands and vowing to never work anywhere but another desk, having her as a daily example of what I could be has given me a reason to work through the pain and exhaustion that is simply a part of this job. Instead of rolling with the idea that organic produce is a niche market and maybe even a fad, she helped to start both CFAM (Colorado Farm and Art Market) and later AVOG (Arkansas Valley Organic Growers) so that her friends and fellow farmers will be able to compete with conventional growers and food importers for their share of local food money. Trust me when I tell you that not shopping at Wal-Mart will not phase Wal-Mart in the least. However, spending that money on a local farm’s produce will make a difference for that local farmer. Yes, it is often more expensive. However, aside from the fact that you are paying for a more nutritionally useful item, you are paying the actual price for the item. Well, as close to the actual price as the market will bear, anyway. We have been trained for far too long to think of food as a cheap item, a small part of the budget. It shouldn’t be. Not if we’re actually paying the real price for real food.

Speaking of money, I am also lucky that I could take on a job that doesn’t pay a living wage. That lack of money is not the fault of Susan or PPCF by any means. My income reflects how we value farmers. We don’t. As a single, childless person with relatively little debt compared to others my age, I am willing to live on less than I made 10 years ago because that’s the price I had to pay to learn what I needed to learn. You can read all the books you want. The only way to really learn how to farm is to do. I happened to pair passion with relative financial ability to support it. I have run into a fair number of others that have the passion, but don’t have the financial ability to support the learning process. This is a problem. We need to be supporting our new and young farmers, not discouraging them.

In conclusion, my summer has been exhausting, painful, sun burning, financially frustrating, and the best summer I’ve had in years. I have learned so much about farming, and about myself (turns out I can take a tan if I spend enough time outside), that I wouldn’t trade it for all the health insurance and retirement accounts in the world. I have learned so much that I want to pass on to you folks. Hopefully I will have a post up at least once a week for the rest of the season to pass on at least a few of the lessons I’ve absorbed along with the dirt that has taken up permanent residence under my fingernails.

Bee School Part 2

Bees mean flowers. Flowers often mean herbicides and pesticides. Whether you have bees, your neighbors have bees, or you just want a flower garden for yourself, what you put on your garden and lawn will affect the bees and other pollinators. It seems that Bayer products in particular tend to have systematic pesticides. They stick around for a lot longer and have a tendency to build up in the wax and pollen. It’s a possible reason for Colony Collapse Disorder. One of the worst is the neonictanoids that Europe has found to be an unacceptable risk. America, of course, prefers to test chemicals on the general public until they are proven to be a problem, rather than restrict them until they are proven to be safe. This means that the flowers you just bought for the garden may have been treated with neonictanoids as seeds. This means you’re importing a very pretty poison to your bee yard. Be careful.

The next class was about diseases and pests. Right off the bat we were told to never buy used equipment. You don’t know what diseases might be lurking in the wood and any leftover wax. The odds are, it’s not worth the money you save considering the colonies you could lose. The first disease was a perfect example. American Foulbrood pretty much can’t be treated. It is possible to salvage the honey, but after that you have to burn not just the hive, but the bees as well. You don’t want to spread it to other hives if you can help it. If the person selling the cheap, used hive has no idea what happened, but his colony died? This is what you could be housing your new colony in. At around $100 for a box of bees, that’s an expensive experiment. Most of the rest of the little pests and diseases could be managed with a healthy hive and requeening as necessary. The bees should be keeping themselves clean and managing almost any health challenge.

Larger pests can be a bit more of a problem. Mice like to live in the corners of hives that are abandoned by the bees in winter when they cluster around the queen. They will do quite a bit of damage to your frames and the comb. It seems that metal mouse excluders are the best bet, since they have been known to chew openings in wooden ones. Skunks are another challenge. They will sit right in front of a hive and snap up the bees as they fly out. A board with nails stuck through it, or very sharp tacks, should keep them far enough back to let the bees angle away before they get eaten. Bears . . . well, bears got a class of their own.

Winnie the Pooh lied to us as children. Bears really don’t care that much about honey. What they want is the fat and protein of the brood. (Marmalade, however, I am sure is still a favorite.) Because of this, unlike skunks, mice, or raccoons, if a bear gets to your hive, kiss it good-bye. The brood is in the center of the bottom, and that’s where the bear goes, destroying everything else in the process. They also learn, so if you feed a bear a hive, they will keep coming back to see if there’s more to be had. It can take up to 30 return trips for them to figure out that you’re not giving them another hive. That’s a lot of time for a bear to be in your yard. There also really isn’t any part of town that can feel safe from bears. Whether you’re butting up to the mountains or snugly downtown, put serious thought into bear fencing. It’s expensive, but so is buying a new hive and colony.

If you have three or more hives, you can ask the Department of Parks and Wildlife for the materials to build a fence. Since that’s more than you’re legally allowed to have in the city, you’re probably stuck building your own. The three main points are for it to be stout, easy to access, and safe for both you and the bear. Stout is easy- bears are strong, smart, and big. If it’s easy to knock down, they’ll do it. Easy to access makes sense, too. If it’s hard to get in there, you won’t get in often enough to take good care of your hive and make the most of it. The safety aspect was the most interesting. Safe for you- of course. But when it really comes down to it, we don’t want to damage the bear. It’s not the animal’s fault that its home has been taken over by hysterical two-legged creatures that shove food in its face and then kill it when it tries to eat the food. We need to try and be civil neighbors, at least.

There is a perk to going all-out for bear fencing. If it keeps out bears, it keeps out dogs, skunks, raccoons, and curious children. If any of them run into 10,000 volts, they probably won’t come back for seconds. This will simplify your large pest control issues. I plan on planting mine with pretty herbs and flowers that would be a waste in the main yard because of the dog. No reason not to make the most of it.

Obviously, these two posts are just an overview of the classes. Aside from wondering if my brain might melt from over-use, I couldn’t be happier with what I got out of it. The cost of the fencing that I’m once again convinced I need to have is making me wince, but other than that, the class was great for pointing out the possible pit falls while still encouraging anyone who really had an interest in it. I recommend it.

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.

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?

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.

Losing Topsoil

The other day, I was on a bodybuilding site reading through a comment battle between vegetarians and vegans versus the meat eaters. Yes, this is a form of entertainment for me. One of the commenters pointed out that veganism isn’t the solution since we may well run out of topsoil in 60 years.

WHAT?

Running out of oil makes sense. So does running out of potable water. But soil? Ok, so I guess I knew that it was being degraded, but it’s really scary to think that I might live long enough to see the end of enough topsoil to support agriculture. With only a moment of research, Time magazine supported that assertion for me. The article goes on to point out that what is missing from the soil will be missing from the plants grown in the soil. So even before the soil is considered to be unusable, it’s already being less useful to those of us depending on it. Another point the article makes is that degraded soil doesn’t hold water. The worse the soil is, the less effective irrigation is.

First- why are we destroying our soil? The short answer is, we are taking and not giving. When we do give, it may well be poisoned. On most conventional farms, they’re simply too big to do things like till in nicely decomposed manure in the spring, or spread fresh manure after harvest in the fall. Spring in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was invariably announced with the smell of manure. The Amish farms would start their field prep by spreading the manure from their cows on their farm fields. Given a choice, Amish fruits and vegetables were the way to go when we were growing up, when we didn’t get enough out of our own garden. However big the Amish farm is, though, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to the operations that supply grocery stores. A family-sized herd of cows won’t give nearly enough manure to replace the organic material carted away to ship to the store. Their animal counterpart, CAFOs, can’t really be used, either, since the waste they produce is pretty much toxic. In short, we are pulling out organic material, vitamins, and minerals, and all we put back is “NPK.” Because, given no other choice, plants can more or less be grown on primarily nitrogen, phosphorus  and potassium. While organics are a step up from conventional produce, if you’re buying them from a big company, they’re probably still guilty of taking without giving. They just leave less poison behind.

Second- how does this affect me? When it comes down to it, I admit that what gets me moving the fastest on an issue is if I know it will have a major impact on me. This will. Already, conventionally grown vegetables (and the meat that is grown on conventionally-raised grains) offers me less vitamins and minerals than it could. Than I need. As the population grows (seriously, enough already, people) and the arable land shrinks, food prices will go up. Which means I will be paying more money for an increasingly inferior product. The more soil we lose, the more potable water we lose, since degraded soil just can’t hold on to it. I think everyone can recognize how bad that is.

So now what? I don’t own a farm that I can convert to something more sustainable. (If you do own a farm, though, that is something to keep in mind.) I do have a back yard, though. Along with the garden, I can build soil in the rest of the yard by creating a place where native plants and grasses can grow and do their thing. Going native generally means fewer chemicals (if any) and once it is established, way less upkeep. Having a healthy lawn also means that when I’ve had it with food prices, it’s much easier to convert to a healthy garden. I will already be working on the topsoil, including encouraging the growth of all the creepy-crawlies that keep a garden healthy. I can also make a more concerted effort to support those that support our soil. Buy local, buy organic, and buy from small producers. 100 acres is much easier to take good care of than 1,000. 10 acres they should know even more intimately. Buy grass-finished meat. Not only is it better for you, but it is a lot better for the environment. If you live in an apartment, ask a friend if you can help in their garden, or hijack a corner of their lawn to start your own. There aren’t many that would turn down help with pulling weeds or free, fresh veggies.

Will any or all of this fix the mess we’ve made of our farmland? Not hardly. But the less we rely on conventional farming, the less affected we will be when it collapses. The more we support responsible and sustainable farming, the more it will be seen as a viable option for those conventional farmers that just can’t do it any more. I doubt there is a single farmer out there that actually wants to destroy their fields. It behooves us to make conventional farming less profitable than sustainable farming. Help the farmers help the soil. We can’t live without it.

Class: New Gardener Boot Camp

This was a full day of classes designed to get us set up for the upcoming growing season. There was a huge number of gardeners there, so it was set up like school, where you had a schedule and the instructors were each teaching their class several times that day. Apparently the instructors had been told they would have more time than they did, so the classes were all kind of rushed. However, as usual, they did their best to give us the information we needed to be successful.

Being the clever girl I am, not only did I arrive a little bit late, I then proceeded to lock my keys, and membership card, in my car. I missed most of my first class, Beginning Vegetable Gardening taught by Betty Cahill. What I caught at the tail end was interesting, and I did get some good handouts to study, including lots of reference material. She also pointed out that the lettuce we harvest will hold up better in the refrigerator if we don’t wash it until we are ready to eat it.

The second class, Annuals and Perennials for Color in the Garden with Marcia Tatroe wasn’t at the top of my list of things I was looking for that day, since I’m mostly interested in food, but I got some very good concepts. Things like, the only things that you can read off the label and be sure of are the dimensions of the plant and the color. Everything else should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if the plant wasn’t raised locally. Most green-house plants are raised on the West Coast due to their mild climate. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prepare them for our harsh sun and less-than-mild weather. Just because a plant is a perennial somewhere else does not mean that it can be a perennial here. Even more to the point, the instructor’s gardens are at an elevation just 800′ above Denver Botanic Gardens and she has to grow as annuals some of the things the Botanic Gardens grow as perennials. One point that applies equally well to vegetable and flower gardeners is to not be afraid to be harsh with and even kill your plants. They aren’t puppies! In other words, pulling out mis-placed volunteers and thinning young plants to the mature spacing isn’t just necessary, it’s actually good for the garden as a whole. If you are working with xeric plants, you also want to be sure to treat them in a way that they have evolved to handle. That means that amending your whole bed into rich, black, highly organic soil might actually kill the local flora. On the other hand, if your yard has a sandy patch and a clayey patch and a low, wet patch, you can grow a wide variety of plants.

Lunch was burritos from Chipolte and Gorgeous and Easy Container Gardens with Susan Evans. I think my favorite part of her lecture was the idea that you should build your gardens to your preferences, not to your neighbors or for the cars on the street. Your neighbor might look out their window at your front lawn every day, but that doesn’t mean they get to dictate what is in it. There was a lot of discussing how to put things together and classic design concepts. However, in the end, it is yours. Make something you like. She discussed fragrance gardens. She has one at nose-level beside her favorite chair and she suggests having one on the way to the car. That way you can pluck off a piece to lay on your dash as a non-toxic air-freshener. When you are picking your pots, plastic is probably the best bet. Clay is pretty, but it wicks water out of your plants. Given our dry climate, that’s a problem. You should also consider larger rather than smaller pots, as they also hold water better. She is an herbalist, so she gave us some tips on them. Basil and cilantro don’t dry well, so both of those can be pureed with a little olive oil then frozen in ice cube trays. The rest of the herbs can be cut, bunched, and hung to dry. However, she reminded us several times to remember to take the bunches down for storage. No one likes peppermint and cobweb tea. The herbs should be stored in glass and as whole as possible, as you lose the essential oils when you chop or crush them too early.

My next class was Soils and Composting 101 with Carl Wilson. This was the only class that didn’t feel rushed, but I got the impression that not much could rush him. I finally got definitions of silt and loam in this class. Silt is mineral particles that are mid-way between sand (large) and clay (very small). Loam is unlikely to be found around here, but it is about 20% clay, 40% sand, and 40% silt. Clay is so dominant that at only 20% of the amount, it has a significant impact on the texture. Given a choice between sand and clay, clay is actually preferred. It has a charged surface, unlike sand, so it holds the nutrients that you add far more easily, keeping them within reach of plants. However, if you go significantly in either direction, the mineral content can give you challenges to work through. I thought it was very interesting that managed Western soil is only 5% organic matter at the most. More than that and you can have trouble with the nutrients actually getting to the plants and not being stuck in the soil. A big part of that is having enough organisms in the soil to break down what you add to things that the plants can use. He also discussed the fact that residential soil, what most of us are working with, is not the same as agricultural or native soils. The top soil has often been removed during the building process, removing those microorganisms and hundreds or thousands of years worth of their work. That means that before anything else happens, that somehow needs to be replaced. For compost, he mentioned that most residential piles don’t get hot enough to kill seeds and disease. If you have diseased plants or weeds that have gone to seed before you got to them, it may pain you, but they need to go in the trash. Animal products in general aren’t added, but a lot of gardeners add eggshells. Given the naturally high lime- calcium carbonate- content of our soils out here, you may want to think twice before you add them. It does, of course, also depend on the makeup of your particular soil.

Starting Seeds was taught by Patti O’Neal that I had taken a class from earlier. Apparently the 10 easiest plants to start from seed are beans, cucumbers, radishes, pumpkins, cosmos, peas, lettuce, squash, sunflowers, and zinneas. There were a lot of definitions in this class, but one of the comparisons that stood out was hybrid versus heirloom. Heirlooms have been around for a long time. The minimum time for a plant to have been reproducing reliably to qualify is about 50 years. Hybrids, on the other hand, are a first-generation cross that won’t reproduce true to the plant you saved the seeds from. My main interest is heirlooms, but apparently hybrids are often easier for beginning gardeners as they have had disease resistance and other perks bred into them. I may have to rethink my stance on them. She also strongly suggested that, as in most crafts, you plan twice and plant once. This includes reading all the information provided on the seed packets to know when, where, and how to plant the seeds. When you are saving your seeds, as they can last from year to year, you need to make sure they are cool and dry. She uses a coffee filter with kitty litter as the desiccant in her glass seed-jar. You will have better success if you store them in a cool basement rather than a garage that will heat up in the summer. After all, it is warmth and water that cause germination. To start your seeds, what you need is a tray to catch the water, something to hold the seeds, and a cover. This could be like the spiffy, professional seed tray we were given, or it could be reclaimed materials. She likes strawberry boxes and toiletpaper rolls for kid’s projects. Bear in mind that the “biodegradable pots” that are popular right now will not biodegrade in our soil. She noted that if you are “gardening in Iowa in devil’s food cake” they work fine. However, as noted above, we have a low level of organic material which means fewer of the organisms needed to break them down. The seeds will need warmth of some sort and the seedlings will need light. If you have good windows, that can work, but they tend to grow better if you actually have a light installation. It can be affordable fluorescents as long as you get one warm and one cool to capture the full spectrum. The goal is to get short, stocky, bushy plants in varieties that you can’t find at most nurseries.

This post turned into something of an epic. I apologize for that, but I only scratched the surface of what we were given. Between those classes and some others that I will be writing about when they finish, my head might just explode from the information being stuffed in. However, it is all so very pertinent that I couldn’t be happier with finding the Botanic Gardens for classes. I knew I needed a sharp learning curve to get up to speed with local conditions and helping others learn the basics, and this is giving me that flood of information.

Square Foot Gardening

At the moment, if I was asked to recommend a book for a beginning gardener, it would be Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. (I read the original not the all new ones he’s got for sale.) Like any book, I have some disagreements, but the way he outlines the whole process makes it very accessible and worth the effort. It is a thicker book, but he covers everything from plotting and preparing the soil to some basics of harvesting and storing what you grow.

The premise is that rather than working in rows, you work in beds. His twist on the bed concept is that you function on a square-foot grid. This means that you only have to think about a single square foot at a time. By thinking on such a small scale, any chores are kept at a reasonable level. He came up with this from watching people in community gardens just get overwhelmed as the summer went on by weeds or watering or even harvesting. However, once you have weeded, watered, planted, or harvested one square, you have a solid accomplishment in a short time which makes it easier to move on to another square.

He is all about continuous and reasonably sized harvests. He does discuss the logistics of planning a large, one-time harvest if you are planning on preserving food for other seasons. However, most of it is about how to plan your garden so that you can harvest what you need and plant the next round with as little fuss as possible. One square holds 16 carrots. Since you probably don’t want to harvest more than that at once, you plant one square of carrots, wait two weeks, then plant another square. This gives you a clear progression for harvesting, once you get to that point. Once the first square has had all of the carrots harvested, it is ready to be turned over with some compost and replanted with the next crop. This keeps you from being overwhelmed by needing to spend a full day planting or harvesting. It also helps even out the “boom or bust” that most garden crops have if they are planted all at once.

One of the most interesting points is how very space-efficient this is. I grew up with a row garden that most people are familiar with. It turns out that long, thin rows aren’t just since the advent of tractors. I ran across an old instruction to make your garden long and thin rather than lots of short rows because you would spend significantly less time turning your plow horse or team. On our property, we had the space and rototiller that made a sprawling row garden logical. However, if your space is limited or you just don’t want to turn over that much land, by eliminating the walking path between each crop row, you save on a lot of things. You have less bare soil to keep weeded and watered. You also have less compaction from walking so close to each plant. The plants themselves even help with weed reduction and water retention as they can grow close enough to shade most of the soil in their square. His estimate is that you can grow the same number of plants in only 20% of the space of a more conventional garden.

His covering of pest control is interesting as well. Not only is not using chemicals healthier, but it’s easier. His solution for caterpillars is to pluck them off and crush them. For cutworms, you dig in the ground around the freshly felled seedling to uncover and crush the guilty party. The reason this works is because you have such a tiny space to monitor that you will see most changes caused by pests before more extreme intervention is necessary. In later chapters he goes over other information like season-extending and setting up boxes for patios and rooftops. He even offers some recipes to help you manage your bounty. It is a very complete look at having a garden.

I do have a few points to pick at. After all, does one ever agree with everything? For one thing, raw veggies are not more digestible than cooked ones, no matter how young and fresh they are. Also, you might also only turn over the full garden once per year, but renting a shovel because you only use it once per year? I agree that you can do away with most of the fancy tools, but a shovel is just a practical thing to keep around.

Overall, it is a very practical book, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to others.

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.

Why Gardening?

I want to know everything. I want to have one of those old-fashioned farms where little needs to be bought and nothing is wasted. I want to have a negative carbon footprint. I also want a million dollars to appear in my checking account so I can do that. It’s good to have dreams.

My initial focus is on gardens because everyone can do it. For example, I have some bedraggled lettuce and a sprouted clove of garlic in a windowbox right now. I come from a long line of gardeners and I grew up with garden-fresh vegetables. Having plants around just feels right.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear. I am not a gardener. Yet. Apparently the familial green thumb comes with age. I’m still not sure whether the sad state of my lettuce indicates that the seeds were too old or I’m still too young. This question may be answered in my first garden attempt in years in the new Ranch Community Garden.

Clearly I’m a natural gardener . . .
 

So what kind of gardening are we talking about? This is about independence, so my main focus will be on what’s edible. A lot of people like the word organic. It is a useful way to differentiate it from the pesticide and oil-heavy modern agricultural practices. However, I will be calling it what my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents called it. Gardening. After all, prior to the 1950’s, that’s what everyone called it.

I will also be focused on native plants and heritage breeds. I remember the excitement every winter when the Burpee catalog would come in the mail. Page after page of fruits, vegetables, and flowers in every variety from black tulips to white pumpkins. The problem with seeds that are so very available commercially is that they are just that- commercial. They have not been bred for the desert like the local fauna. Nor have they stuck around for multiple human generations like the heritage breeds. Between my desire to grow what’s supposed to be here and my intent to learn how to grow and harvest my own seeds, the Burpee catalog is one gardening ritual I will have to allow to fall by the wayside. I am discovering, however, that there are other catalogs that will be available to take its place.

One other benefit to gardening is that I will be reinserted into the circle of life. Eventually, there will be chickens and pigs to help me with the kitchen scraps. Until then, I can’t wait to get the go-ahead to start contributing to the community garden’s compost pile. There will be that much less clogging our sewers and landfills and that much more becoming the rich, dark soil that will feed the plants that will feed me.

It’s winter now. Down-time for most gardeners. In the past, the cold and lack of sun made this a time to be indoors. It is a time of reflection and stories, reading and dreaming. As the sun begins to return, however, gardeners will begin to warm with the land, getting ready for another growing season. For this budding gardener, that means learning in theory what will soon be tested in practice.