Posts Tagged ‘weather’

Farm Lesson: 1+1 =/= 2

We live in a very linear world. The only right answer for one plus one is two. Given how our world is constructed, it really has to be that way. If one plus one sometimes equals 11, well, the cogs that make the widgets work might not fit. Farming, however, is not linear. Not even if you’re good enough to be able to plow straight lines. Sometimes it’s a good thing- one doe-goat plus one buck-goat tends to equal one to four kids. On the other hand, one lettuce start plus one lettuce start planted in the same hole will get you, at best, two half-heads of lettuce. Half-heads are fine of you’re just growing for your dining room table, but they don’t sell very well at market. You have the same problem with onions and garlic- only you’ve invested many more months of labor to get two half-bulbs.

What’s the point of this lesson? Farming is as much an art and craft as a science. There is a lot of information out there to be found, and most of it is very, very helpful. However, it’s too easy to rely on someone else’s answers that are presented as “the answer.” If you take a strictly science, linear, only-one-right-answer approach, you might be successful for a while. Maybe. But I am willing to bet that you won’t be making the land entrusted to you the best that that land can be. As a former Girl Scout, I do feel that we should be leaving things better than we found them, not worse. It isn’t until we embrace the art and craft of farming- and really embrace our piece of the land- that we can listen to what the land is asking us to do.

Where it’s wet, the land often asks for lime because the soil is too acidic for a lot of plants to really thrive. Most farming and gardening books are written by people in wet environments. After all, most of the food and ornamental plants we grow originated in Europe and passed through the East Coast to get to Colorado. Taking the books at their word and adding X amount of lime to your soil on an annual basis is, probably, not a terrible thing to do if you live where it rains quite a bit. If you do that in a dry place, like the Eastern Slope of Colorado, you will ruin your land in very short order. There is a reason that it’s almost impossible to grow blueberries around here, but lavender tends to grow like a weed. It is too dry to have the acidic soil blueberries need, but your lavender will almost never be over-watered. Which is a good thing. You can even talk about grass in these circumstances. There is absolutely no reason you can’t have a very pretty green lawn. However, all of the water and chemicals that have to go into keeping a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn green are because the land around here simply cannot support a grass that was bred in and for the well-watered South-East. If you found a local grass (or even better, grass mix) that you found attractive, you could cut your watering in half or better. You would also be promoting healthier soil because you could reduce or eliminate chemical additives.

I really enjoy reading Joel Salatin. I think he’s got a lot of good things to say, and he’s really not afraid to go against convention. However, he lives in Virginia. I was reading one of his writings and he insisted that the water laws out West are ridiculous. There’s no such thing as not enough water. It’s all in how it’s managed. In Virginia, that’s true. It’s about getting rid of excess water more than anything. However, I know people who have what are called “junior water rights,” or newer water rights on their property who have not had access to water some years. Yes, they bought the rights that were available (that’s often a separate transaction than purchasing the land), but the senior water rights in the area had first dibs on what was available. If it’s a dry year, the availability might not trickle down to the junior rights. This is a problem that is specific to dry areas of the country, so it is not really addressed outside of the areas to which it applies. Therefore, the statement that he is so sure about cannot actually be applied to this area.

How the land needs to be managed is more complicated than wet versus dry, north versus south, sea level versus altitude. It comes down to each individual property- and even each area within the property. Did you know that in the Andes, there is a type of potato for each direction a slope can face at each altitude? We’ve forgotten how to think like that in a country that only grows french fry potatoes. However, if we can re-learn that our front yard has different circumstances and therefore different needs than our back yard, we may not have identical landscaping to our neighbors, but we can have landscaping that works with our land instead of against it.

As an aspiring farmer, I am having to nurture my inner artist as well as my inner crafter. It’s the artist that can look at a property and see that with this elevation, that soil type, and so much shading, 1+1= purple. It is the crafter that can take the answer of purple and turn it into the plants and animals that will not just survive, but will potentially improve the piece of land. My land is not the same as your land, so your answer may be mauve, or teal. Or 42. The only thing I can tell you it won’t be, not exactly, is what that book or podcast or YouTube video says it has to be.

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Feeling Like Cassandra

I’ve been watching Hercules. The Kevin Sorbo one- sometimes you just need some silly in your life. It can get preachy on values and such, but sometimes it really whips out a gem. I’m not sure how intentional it was, but “Atlantis” is an amazing parallel for those of us that see our blue island in the solar system as sinking.

Bear with me here for a minute. Hercules’ ship is struck by lightening and goes down. He’s found washed up on the beach of Atlantis by a kind and, of course, beautiful woman named Cassandra. She knew he was coming because she has visions. This is also how she knows that something terrible is going to happen to Atlantis. The legendary Cassandra was actually born of Troy and was cursed by the god Apollo to be able to see the future but never be believed. There may or may not have been a broken promise on her part, but mostly it’s because she turned down his sexual advances. The parallel is close enough for the show that was using it.

This Cassandra knows she sounds crazy- and people think she’s crazy- but she also sees how the garden her father raised her in no longer produces as it should. Rather like the people that are recognizing that even with increased use of chemicals, our food yields are not rising and are, in places, falling, despite the fact that no one in a position of authority would ever admit to it. Of course, Cassandra can actually see this because she lives outside of the city. Like a crazy person.

She doesn’t live in the city because she doesn’t want to be homogenized in with the rest. She feels no need to “keep up with the Joneses” and even believes that the myths of the gods are true. (Hercules was very confused to find himself called a myth.) As someone who grew up in the country and has been forced to live in cities due to circumstances, I sympathize with her. Each life makes its own demands on a person, and you need to pick the life whose demands you can actually accept. However, most of our world, and her world, are wholeheartedly city people. At one point, she mentions that the birds are gone which is a sign that whatever will happen is imminent. How many city people would know that little fact?

The entire city is run on the power of crystals- I wonder if that’s where the cartoon Atlantis got the idea or if that’s a “known” fact by people that study Atlantis? It gives them crystal-wave ovens (and annoying salesmen to go with it) and flying machines. Even street lamps. Not at all a blatant parallel to electricity, I’m sure.

While Cassandra is given the chance to speak, along with a back-handed insult, she is cruelly rejected by everyone when she can’t produce hard facts to back up her assertion that they are in danger. The problem with climate change is that it is not really happening on a human scale. I remember the snows we had when I was a kid in Pennsylvania that they don’t have now. The difference isn’t just because I was shorter. It’s the difference between being able to sled down our hill for most of the winter or only a handful of times during the winter. Looking around at the size and severity of storms on the rise is concerning, but hard to point to as a hard fact. Memories can be wrong and Katrina, Sandy, and this late-season hail storm were flukes, not the new normal don’tcha know? I cannot say that 2014 is x degrees warmer than 2013 and 2015 will be y degrees warmer which will cause z, and you’ll see it no later than 2016. The planet works on her own schedule, and it’s not a human one. There will be ups and downs, good years and bad, but the trend is not going in a good direction if you can look past what it means to next week’s stock prices. Not to mention the fact that there is no real historical precedent for this, so it’s really hard to predict what we have no basis for.

“In Atlantas, order and progress are supreme. You might say they’re our religion.” Replace “Atlantis” with “US” and, well, you get the picture. There is a constant theme with the Atlanteans that technology will solve all of their problems and to live anywhere else is to live among savages and uncivilized people.

Another parallel is invisible slaves. No, I’m not talking about oil, though that is part of it. I’m talking about the actual humans that were hidden under Atlantis to mine their crystals and the actual humans hidden in third-world countries to make our stuff. The sailors that had been with Hercules hadn’t all died as he’d feared. They’d been collected off the beach by the king’s men and put to work in the mines so that the citizens would have no idea there were slaves on the island. Ok, so technically we have moved beyond barbaric things like slaves and colonization in these modern times, but try telling that to someone who works 10 or 12 hour days to make not quite enough to feed their family. At least when we owned slaves it was in our best interests to keep our investments alive and more or less healthy.

I was wrong about what finally does the island in. I thought it was going to be the sky-scraper proposed early on that had a remarkably familiar shape . . . It’s Hercules, so jealous gods doing a Tower of Babel on it would be pretty much par for the course. But it wasn’t. It was the very human folly of mining under more of the island than the island could support and not listening to the warning signs that the invisible slaves and Cassandra were seeing. Kind of like burning too much fossil fuel for our oceans and atmosphere to absorb and not listening to the scientists and citizens that were noticing the early warning signs like increased storm activity and increasingly acidic oceans.

The final and best, or worst depending on your view, parallel is the chaos and deaths of ordinary citizens because they trusted their king to take care of them, not realizing that their king’s interests were in keeping the status quo while Cassandra just wanted to save people. Our “king,” be it government, industry, the stock market, has a vested interest in negating the words of our Cassandras for as long as they can. Their reigns were build on the world as it was, not the world the Cassandras know will be, however imperfect their visions are. The question is, who do you trust, and will you decide before the island disappears?

Farm Lesson: Weathah

I had another idea for the first lesson, but part of farming is the ability to roll with what life throws you. That means that this lesson is currently more important.

In my family, we recognize two kinds of weather. Weather is sun, rain, clouds, snow- no big deal. Weathah, on the other hand, is when you batten down the hatches and put on your sou’wester because the nor’easter is going to beat the tar out of you. Not being a coastal state, Colorado doesn’t really go in for nor’easters, but we do have our own versions of weathah. One of the worst types for farmers being hail. Overnight between August 25 and 26, the farm got nailed by hail. The hail itself wasn’t so big, but it just kept coming until most of our plants were little more than stems, their leaves all shredded. This would have been bad if it had happened in spring or the early summer when most hail strikes, but because it hit at the end of August, it’s devastating.

The reason that this hail is devastating rather than just a royal pain is because it’s too late in the season for most of the plants to recover. Many of our crops have already set the fruit they were going to set and don’t have time to set new. This is particularly true of the winter squash that I’ve been looking forward to since May when we planted them. We are able to start harvesting many of them anyway, but we found very few that look like they’ll be able to keep the way they usually should. I’m starting to think of things in terms of self-sufficiency, and having squash that won’t sell well is one thing, but if this were being harvested to be our carbs for the winter, we’d be in serious trouble. Our potatoes are in great shape, since they were hidden underground, but just potatoes for carbs gets pretty boring.

The other aspect of this is that we went from too many jobs and not enough hands to not enough jobs and too many hands. If the farm weren’t backed by PPCF, most or all of us would have been out of a job on the 26th. As it is, our hours are being cut because there just isn’t enough to do. As a farm employee, I knew that the work would go from crazy to nothing pretty much overnight, but that wasn’t supposed to happen for another month and a half or two months. However, I also know that this is a job that tends to be feast or famine. Rather literally. When you can plan and prepare for the down times, they can be a wonderful break from the intensity of the work. However, this wasn’t in the plan. Having some extra time of is pretty nice, but it’s going to be less nice when I get the smaller paycheck.

We are telling our customers what happened and that we will have less to offer for the rest of the season, but I got the impression that only some of them realized what this actually means. I think most of them are so accustomed to going from farm stand to farm stand at the market and then picking up anything else they need at the grocery store on the way home, that our lack of produce means very little. They’ll just get it somewhere else. It’s not their fault, we’ve been conditioned this way for 50+ years. However, something like this could spell the end of a small farm, which would mean one less producer of local food. You can only always get it “somewhere else” as long as food is being brought in from “somewhere else.”

What this lesson is really driving home for me is the fragility of our food system. Whether you “believe” in climate change or not, I think it’s getting pretty clear that weather is getting more extreme. It’s not going to be long before weathah is as common as weather, and that’s a problem. For the time being, we can import what we need, but what happens if California dries up or, worse, falls into the ocean? What happens when gas gets so expensive that it’s not worth shipping food half-way across the country- or world- to us? How are we going to handle an already delicate food system that is going to be battered by too much need and not enough predictability of growing conditions? I don’t know, but we need to figure it out.

Why Grass?

Step 1: Pull the weeds. Preferably barefoot.

Step 1: Pull the weeds. Preferably barefoot. You won’t get them all, but this will give the grass seed a fighting chance.

Iiiinnnhale. Duuude.

Wait- wrong one. Don’t know all the rules about that one, so it’s on hold. Too bad, too. Hemp happens to be a super useful material as anything from clothing to supplemental animal feed. Selling the buds would really just be a bonus income. However, lawn grass happens to also be good for more than just ornamental purposes.

But who would plant grass during drought conditions? Despite the flooding up in Boulder, most of the state is still under some sort of drought condition. In fact, the drought conditions are part of the reason the flooding was as bad as it was. Water slides right off the surface of baked-hard ground. The reason I am planting grass now is, in part, to do my part to reduce future droughts and flooding. A lot of people assume that xeriscaping and other water- and environmentally-responsible landscaping techniques require scraping off your grass and installing rocks or concrete slabs. At best you get some scrubby-looking native flowers. That’s not necessarily true.

Step 2: Dig the ground over. I did it one shovel-full deep, but the further down you loosen it, the easier it will be for the roots to grow.

Step 2: Dig the ground over. I did it one shovel-full deep, but the further down you loosen it, the easier it will be for the roots to grow.

When you want to fill a bowl with water, you pour water into it from above. If you put a plate over the bowl, you catch a little water in the plate, but the rest of it ends up on the counter, completely bypassing the bowl. If you cover the bowl with a sponge, though, some of the water lands on the counter, but some of it does make it into the bowl. More soaks through if the sponge was damp to start with.

Our bowl is the aquifer that provides the water in our wells. We’re close to the Ogallala Aquifer. By putting in rocks and concrete, we are creating a plate-like surface which shunts the water off into streams rather than giving it a chance to soak into the ground. Water that ends up in the ocean does us as much good as water that lands on the counter. The dirt that is either left totally bare or covered with rocks quickly becomes about as permeable as concrete, so not actually pouring the concrete on it doesn’t give you much advantage. Healthy plant life, on the other hand, has roots that break up the solid soil. They also tend to keep at least some water around their roots, given half a chance, so you don’t just get a sponge over the bowl, you should have a damp sponge. This is the best we can hope for, since we can’t pour rain directly into the aquifer.

Step 3: Add the grass seed. Note that the ground is uneven. That helps the water to stay  long enough to soak into the ground.

Step 3: Add the grass seed. Note that the ground is uneven. That helps the water to stay long enough to soak into the ground.

Note that I said “healthy plant life.” Putting in a lush, mono-culture of Kentucky Blue Grass will pull more water out of the ground to keep it growing than it could hope to help return. It also tends to demand more fertilizers, herbicides, and maybe pesticides. Those kill off the fauna in the soil that help keep the soil permeable to both water and roots. You don’t necessarily have to plant local flora, though I would suggest it, but you do need to think about what flora will actually do well locally. Colorado is a harsh state. The details of why it’s harsh depends on your location, but all locations have pretty serious problems when it comes to growing plants.

Step 4: Cover with several inches of straw or clean leaves. This will keep the seed moist until it can get roots established.

Step 4: Cover with several inches of straw or clean leaves. This will keep the seed moist until it can get roots established.

Planting a variety of local grasses in your yard might mean that it’s not as perfect as the Jones’ yard, but it gives you a few advantages over them. For starters, you can spend less time watering, weeding, and fretting about it and more time enjoying it. You won’t have to keep your pets and kids off of it after chemicals are applied. It will also be able to handle more abuse from said kids and pets. When you plant plants that want to be here, they will grow willingly. When you plant a variety, the particular type that does well there will thrive. This means that you might have different grasses in the sun, the shade, and that weird dry spot, but you should have grass in all of them. Healthy grasses also out-compete most weeds. They may need some help in the first year or two, but after that, the grasses should take care of their own weeding.

The stepping-stones are so I don't walk on the new grass. I'm only doing a section at a time since the ground is hand-turned. Also, I don't want to steal too much of the dog's yard at a time.

The stepping-stones are so I don’t walk on the new grass. I’m only doing a section at a time since the ground is hand-turned. Also, I don’t want to steal too much of the dog’s yard at a go.

Possibly the most important reason for planting healthy, non-chemically-grown grass in your yard is that you are creating top soil for future use. Once upon a time, people grew a large percentage of their food right in their own back yard. When Big Ag fails- and it will- we will need to start doing that again. If you start creating a healthy soil now, you’ll have less work to do later to put in a garden. In the meantime, you could also experiment with eating the leaves of any dandelions or lambs-quarters that happen to shoulder their way into your lawn.

Going back to the original question- Who plants grass in the middle of a drought? Maybe you should.

Plant between August and October so cool-weather grasses sprout in the fall. This gives them a head start on weeds in the spring. You can overseed with warm weather grasses in the spring to keep your lawn green all year.

Plant between August and October so cool-weather grasses sprout in the fall. This gives them a head start on weeds in the spring. You can overseed with warm weather grasses in the spring to keep your lawn green all year.

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.

It Never Rains . . . But It Pours!

Step one: Check out these photographs: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=82090 and Step two: After you put your eyes back in your head, here are a few numbers for you: http://krcc.org/post/high-costs-colorados-high-water-numbers Step three: After you put your eyes back in your head again (really, it’s not good for them to do that), here’s a video from down by me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_Hgcl2ltSg Colorado Springs wasn’t hit nearly as hard as they were up north, but it’s been rough. Manitou Springs has been dealing with flooding all summer because it was built on a flood plain (not so smart) and is now downhill of the Waldo Canyon burn scar (not so lucky). All of those trees and plants that got burned are no longer able to slow the flow of water down the mountain. They’ve also been having trouble in both burn scars with flood mitigation. Because they’re in the mountains, they simply can’t get the big machinery where it needs to be. While there are some amazing people doing amazing things to protect both the mountain and those of us at the bottom, they are limited if they only have the tools they can carry in.

Black Forest Fire- The Wind-Down

The cable for the cable car fell into the gorge, but the swing that goes over the gorge is still in good shape. Come visit- your dollars will help us rebuild!

The cable for the cable car fell into the gorge, but the swing that goes over the gorge is still in good shape. Come visit- your dollars will help us rebuild!

The Royal Gorge Fire is now 100% contained, and they just announced the birth of a white buffalo. Maybe this is like a rainbow at the end of a storm. An indication that Mother Earth wants to give us a break, if we’ll let her. On a human note, the 41 year-round employees at the park have retained their jobs, but the seasonal ones had to be let go until it is rebuilt.

Our fire, up in Black Forest, is at 75% containment, and they are letting more people return home. They are hoping that the people in the hottest zones will be able to go home for a visit tomorrow, even if they can’t yet return permanently. The houses lost are holding steady at 482, and the fire hasn’t grown in a couple of days. We have had a thunderstorm every afternoon, once they started, which is helping to smother the fire. Unfortunately, thunderstorms come with lightening, and I just heard that there might be a new, small fire east of town. Even with daily rain, it is still very, very dry.

Pretty, rain-bearing clouds.

Pretty, rain-bearing clouds.

Containment, however, does not mean it’s out. It just means that they are pretty sure it won’t cross the established fire line. This fire was apparently a “dirty” fire, in that it didn’t burn out all the fuel in the section it went through. That means that there are untouched trees and houses within the containment area. In other words, it doesn’t have to get any bigger to do more damage. The way this fire burned, it was snaking along the ground through the duff under the trees as often as it was hopping from tree to tree. The hot spots are harder to see if they’re buried in the pine needles and such that make up the duff under the trees. The firefighters will be making three “cross-hatches” across each area before it is declared safe. To do so, they will be literally walking across the area in a line, then moving the line 90 degrees to walk across it a second time in a new direction. That is one cross-hatch. The plan is to have a new set of firefighters do each check just so that nothing is missed.

During the updates, it was pointedly noted that the houses that had “defensible space,” as had been requested, were more likely to be saved. When I have been up in Black Forest, I couldn’t help but think that it felt like Maine without the water. “Without the water” is important. I love living under trees, and you can get away with that in Maine or in other places where the average water content makes fires rare. Around here, as too many homeowners discovered the hard way, living right under trees means that it is way too easy for the fire to jump from a highly flammable tree to a highly flammable house. As much as firefighters want to save every structure, they have to weigh their own safety and the likelihood of success before they enter the fray. If the fire is up in the trees, and there’s no space between the trees and the house, they simply cannot do anything about it.

As people move in from the coasts, they have brought in the trees and grasses that they know best. What they couldn’t bring was the moisture. A development here looks depressingly like a development almost anywhere. Unfortunately, this lulls people into forgetting that the environment in Colorado is harsher than many other places. I was looking at the scar from the Waldo Canyon fire when I was out doing errands, and I couldn’t help but think that while we want to think we can bend the world to our will, in the end, the world will only be bent as much as she allows. She may have reached her limit for Colorado.

The burned trees right beside the unburned trees are a stark reminder that fire is part of our world.

The burned trees right beside the unburned trees is a stark reminder that fire is part of our world.