Friday, October 31, 2008

Balmy Hoophouse Thoughts

I ducked into the hoophouse today to check on things and warm up a bit. We're waiting on a part for our new woodstove, and so the house is chilly. A little work in there seemed like a good choice.

Once inside I found it was a balmy 65 degrees and climbing. Everything looked great although it was a bit dry. There is a fair amount of condensation on the plastic, but it isn't enough to really water the plants. I did a little watering and planted a nice little row of bok choi seeds. They should germinate, but we'll see how quickly they actually grow in these short hours of daylight. Then it was a little weeding, and plucking cabbage worms off the kale and calabrese plants. No sign of the praying mantis, but there was a lovely little ladybug wandering around.

While in many ways I had been more than ready for the garden to be done, I am so glad we have the hoophouse. Not only is it a cozy spot, but we have a ready supply of tasty greens and herbs. The beets seem to be coming along nicely, and once we finish working on the adjacent bed I'm going to put in some more kale, transplant some volunteer lettuce, and see what else I can try my hand at.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hoophouse Updates

We've learned a few fascinating things about hoophouses since we've constructed ours.

1. It's easier the second time around. We helped our friends Bryan and Aimee at Ambry Farms construct a hoophouse the next day, and the four of us finished up in just over an hour.

2. It works! We checked the temperature the next day in ours, and by noon it was at 106 degrees. The praying mantis and cabbage worms seemed very much at ease. Yikes!

3. Keep an eye on the structure. We found about a day or so later that one of the ribs disconnected from the ridge pole. Bryan and Aimee had the same issue, but came up with a good repair. (It happens to be the same one that the original designer came up with when he encountered the same problem.)

4. Less light gets through. I felt like a real rocket scientist when I realized that (duh!) less light was getting through to my plants. Things seemed a little wilted and not so colorful. Since the sunlight comes through the plastic now there is a fraction less of already short daylight coming to the plants. I'm still pondering this one.

5. Be careful how you seal it. Our sides are not as well sealed perhaps as they should be. We haven't lost anything to frost, but I think it might be a bit chillier than is ideal. We'll be addressing that today when we work on reinforcing the overall structure.

6. Be careful with the clamps. While making our adjustments to the hoophouse this afternoon, we (ok, it was actually me) moved one of the clamps by sliding it down. It sliced the plastic open resulting in an unwanted vent. We fixed it with tape, but we'll have to keep an eye on it the rest of the season. (And I'm not allowed to touch the clamps any longer.)

7. Plan a party! We're having a Hoophouse Hoopla this Friday. We can't really let folks in after a certain period as we'll have to close the doors for the night, but we are so excited we thought it would be a good thing to share. Any excuse for a potluck and bonfire...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Hoophouse Is Born

We talked about it, looked at books about it, and today we're building it! The forecast is for a low of 20 degrees tonight, and if we plan on eating any of our own kale, swiss chard, parsley, beet greens, and calabrese this is it.

We looked at a number of different plans, and finally settled on this hoophouse plan from the Westside Gardener. We bantered about plans using fencing, hay bales, plastic roofing, etc., but decided for ease of access and long-term use this is the one to go with.

We measured the size we wanted using a garden hose to roughly sketch the shape. Then we removed the pallets we use for paths to clear the area for planting the stakes. Some need to be replaced anyway, and the set on the right of where the hoophouse will go I wanted to replace with boards to make a narrower path. One of my other beds is much too narrow, and this is as good an excuse as any to expand it.

We finished up around sunset, and closed everything down tight for the night. We covered the swiss chard as we were concerned we hadn't retained enough heat to protect them ultimately. They most likely would have been fine, but we were feeling paranoid.

All in all, we're really happy with the space. It's larger than we expected, and so we're going to experiment with growing various things, starting some seeds, and even installing a cold frame inside to see what difference that will make. According to Four Season Harvest (a great book on growing year round), that gives even greater protection and expands your veggie options.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Frosty Night

Frost came in the night to coat everything with its thin layer of white. Luckily, I picked a good deal of Swiss Chard and cooked it up for freezing. I covered nothing in the garden. It was so cold and clear last night that I should have realized we were on the brink of a frost. I only remember looking up at the stars and thinking how nice they seemed, and how nice it would be to sit out under them. Then I remember thinking nothing at all except how to most quickly get in bed. It was that kind of day.

The leaves of the chard, kale, parsley, and broccoli are heavily coated. I'm waiting for the sun to swing around and show me what has really transpired.

Later that same day...
I ventured out again to mourn my plants and tidy up. Miracle of miracles! They were all fine. Parsley, kales, and swiss chards stood in the sun like nothing had happened. I was duly impressed.

To market, to market

While it was still fresh in my memory, I wanted to recount a usual trip in to the Farmer's Market as a vendor. It's been a great summer, and market is easily one of my favorite parts. While I did tire at times of people asking for plastic bags to go in their canvas bags or wincing at a fair price for an organic potato, I still loved it and am a little sad I won't be going next week. It's an amazing experience and so much fun.

I get picked up a little bit after 5am in the rumblely truck, and we make our way in to the city. The soft glow from the dashboard gives a bit of light to our faces as we make our way from dirt to pavement, and then carefully calculate the turns so as not to spill things from the shelves in the back. Conversation is challenging at that time of the morning, and floats along streams of the ridiculous, mundane, or onto any random story that comes to mind. Anything to keep the driver and passengers awake enough to function when we finally arrive at the market.

Tall yard lights illuminate barns and buildings, and the occasional yellow of a lamp fills a farmhouse window. Old people who cannot sleep and young people who rise to do whatever chores need doing move in the light. We finally greet another vehicle when we hit pavement, but often only one or two. The closer we get to the Interstate, the brightness heightens signifying commerce – gas stations, billboards, parking lots – and the few homes that are visible are dark. The Interstate is busy with other morning travelers. Once we near the city, darkness becomes a soft roof supported by streetlights and stoplights. The mostly empty streets are visible.

As we turn onto the market street, the pavement fills with cars, large and small trucks, and people moving quickly and purposefully. The cobblestone street is narrow here and vehicles and people line both sides. The stalls are lit and the bustle of vendors setting things out and preparing for the customers that will hopefully find their wares and prices irresistible. We move slowly as we circle the block.

Each week backing the truck in presents a nuanced challenge. The puzzle of vehicles – trucks, station wagons, vans, and sometimes garbage and recycling bins left outside too far from the building by the restaurants inside the small shopping center the market rests against on one side - varies in difficulty. I leap out to help guide the driver all the way back to the corner, moving bins and helping position the truck for easy unloading and loading and to not block a footpath. After what feels like forever and always with my heart in my mouth, the ignition is switched off and unloading begins.

Boxes of lettuce, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, salad mix, three kinds of kale, collards, celery, peppers sweet and hot, potatoes, winter or summer squash, yellow and green beans, cucumbers, carrots, four different kinds of basil, two kinds of parsley, sorrel, arugula, dill, cilantro, sometimes mint, strawberries in June, corn in August and September, heirloom tomatoes from late June through early October, and average tomatoes, and swiss chard. Oh, and garlic, leeks, onions green and storage. And cabbage – green, red, and Chinese. Bok choi, too.

Then come the tables, and the milk crates for making a main table, the side table when we need it, and the stocking table in back. Bags paper and plastic, and the scale. Two signs – one that hangs and one that sits behind against the tree – to signal our presence and our practices, and finally us. Pint and quart containers are filled with potatoes – red and white, tomatoes regular not heirloom, beans, summer squash, and carrots. Greens go on the far end with their bunched stems to the customer for easy picking – curly, dinosaur, then Russian kale, swiss chard and then collards - followed by beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery – plant or root, if we have it. Then quarts of beans nearly overflowing but not quite, line up and are stacked to tempt with their bounty, pints and quarts of potatoes red and white, large and small, followed by summer squash and cucumbers in season. The peppers jumble together here, too, with their greens, reds, and yellows, while the habeneros, cayennes red and purple, seranos, jalapenos, and tiny Thai burn quietly in a quart for 25 cents each. The watermelon sit heavily in back sending forward only one or two representatives.

Multiple varieties of lettuce heap onto the table and drip down the sides. Buttercup, oak leaf red and oak leaf green, rose lipped green ruffles, and romaines all ready for the taking. The herbs go next to them, sometimes identified with signs, and sometimes without. (Each Saturday Italian parsley has an identity crisis as many people assume it is cilantro, and then set it down again when they hear it is not.) The fish bowl of salad mix signals the freshly snipped tubs are still full, and then the garlic hugs the corner of the table. Heirloom tomatoes, stem end down, array themselves – Striped Germans, Brandywines, Roses, Purple Cherokees, Black Crim, Green Zebras, Amish Pastes, Voloklovs – to tempt and delight the curious and the connoisseur. (These are all but a bittersweet memory now.)

And then we wait. In the lull we greet those in the stall next to us, talk with other growers, and run to the restroom. We drink the last, cooling dregs of coffee or tea. In summer, the sky is already lightening, but now the darkness hangs over until nearly 8am.

As the light increases, so does the flow of people. Early morning shoppers are more intent, quiet, and tend to be a bit older. Later shoppers float along to find a good price and see what the market offers, but our regulars simply arrive and move along the table filling their bags. New buyers come when they see something interesting like celery or celery root, and they suddenly must have it. Beets enjoyed a burst of fame this summer after good press in the New York Times, and we still struggle to keep the table stocked with them. Carrots, too, fly off the table, and curly kale almost never returns to the farm. Garlic, onions, leeks, and broccoli are never seen again along with the beans and strawberries.

Our speed also increases as the morning moves along, until we do nothing but stock the table, tally numbers, fill bags, and make change. We hear how someone cooks something (like celery root, my latest mystery vegetable) or discuss how to cook something they have never seen before but are still drawn to purchase. But mostly we are steady movement, flowing from table to table, task to task, and somehow never much running into each other or knocking down boxes.

The light increases and the air warms. The sea of people flows around us with apples, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, pears, watermelon, flowers in bouquets or pots, coffee, pastries, eggs, and meat. They leave the stream to stop and look, ask for something to be identified and about prices. Some wince in what appears to be near physical pain, others voice their disgust at the cost. Others feel no qualms in telling us about their dissatisfaction with the appearance of a vegetables natural growth pattern – the bulging of a tomato so full of sun and rain that it’s skin can hardly contain it or the embrace of a carrot so vigorous in growth that it wrapped around itself – that I wonder what it is they hope for. Others laugh out loud at the potato that looks like a face and marvel at the brilliance of colors in the stalks of swiss chard. Many return to say they never tasted a lettuce so wonderful or made such fine pesto. Many buy multiples to freeze or can so that the sweet taste of summer is carried to dinner on a cold winter evening.

Our stock dwindles and so one table and then two disappear. The last lettuce sits lonely and limp with a few stray parsley, and pints of potatoes and a small herd of peppers. Bits of the salad mix – stray violas, now flat radicchio, a last curling bit of endive – are scattered about the ground. The truck is again full, but this time of mostly empty boxes and tubs, unless the tomatoes are in full swing. Then the flats of tomatoes seem endless, and return to the shelves if they ever even left initially. Women with heavy accents come to barter. The food we grow moves on to be eaten and enrich the lives of those who purchase it. Ultimately, one of our goals is achieved.

Sleep scratches the edges of our eyes as we sweep up and begin the drive home. Conversation about the market, food, the day, and anything that springs to mind again fills the cab. Hot sunlight pours in to roast us and help sleep try to find an advantage. Turns are not always so carefully made and the spill of boxes is often audible. The tomatoes remain, mercifully, fixed in place and safe.

City streets turn to Interstate to state highway to country roads paved and then dirt. Finally, in a cloud of diesel and waking exhaustion, I spill out the door to the end of the driveway where it all began. Despite the late afternoon hour, I feel as though I just left and the day is just beginning.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Inventory of Summer's Harvest

The other night we inventoried our stock of preserved food. Various fall fruit sauces are still underway, along with apple cider and dried beans, but we wanted to see where we stood for the coming winter months.

Apple sauce (spiced, plain, chunky and smooth) 12 pints and 8 half-pints
Pear sauce 15 pints
Peach sauce 8 pints
Cherries in medium syrup 5 quarts 10 pints
Blueberries in light syrup 8 pints
Raspberries in light syrup 3 pints
Cherry juice 3 pints

Tomato sauce (Barbara Kingsolver's recipe) 13 quarts 17 pints
Tomatoes plain 11 quarts 17 pints
Pickled beets 11 pints
Pickled zucchini 8 pints 24 half-pints
Dilled green tomatoes 7 pints
Green beans 17 pints
Sauerkraut 4 quarts and a crock still cooking away

Blueberry 14 half-pints
Black raspberry 10 half-pints
Victoria sauce 11 half-pints (more like a chutney and made with rhubarb)
Red raspberry 4 half-pints
Strawberry 5 half-pints
Peach 17 half-pints

A selection of herbs - parsley, sage, and rosemary - are drying still as are some of the hot peppers. Pesto and some of the other peppers - Hungarian, Banana, and Poblano - are frozen and ready to be bagged. The potatoes will need to be dug out of their beds before too long, and the popcorn hung to dry once again, too.

Folks keep asking what we'll do with everything before we head to Japan. Quite simply, we're going to eat it. The whole point of all of this work was to enjoy it over the winter, and see how much we would not have to buy. We've already been enjoying the pesto and jam, and I know the cider we can will be ever so tasty with a meal or two. There is great satisfaction in seeing the shelves slowly switch from some brand name item to mason jars with fruits and vegetables we grew, harvested, or purchased from a nearby farm or orchard. The goodness of it spreads not just on my morning toast, but into the community, too. I intend to board that plane for Japan full of our good food and fond memories of the summer spent growing, harvesting, and preserving it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Rural Renaissance in Review

Along with weeding in the field, bunching herbs and vegetables for market, and snipping salad mix at Frog Holler Organic Farm this summer I've been doing some reading. Pretty much any book related to gardening has always interested me, and now I find that I am also drawn to books that talk about living closer to the land, food preservation, and, of course, gardening. I've decided to begin reviewing some of the books I read to organize my own thoughts and share with others my impressions of them.

Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist. New Society Publishers, 2004. 265 pages.

Rural Renaissance is the story of one family’s transition from very urban living in Chicago as advertising executives to life as innkeepers in a small, rural Wisconsin town. The book tells how they formulate and achieve various tenents of “right living” – living lightly on the earth; community with nature and their neighbors; working for themselves on projects for organizations that hold similar values.

Offering readers something of a how-to through the telling of their own journey, Rural Renaissance is inspirational. To anyone even vaguely leaning toward or having an interest in heading “back to the land”, having chickens, moving a bit more off the grid, or producing their own food, this book would remain appealing and interesting. Their choices in how to construct their house, feed themselves and their guests, and generally interact with their community would draw in anyone who has ever fantasized about such things on any scale.

There is ample and good reflection on how the process went and goes, how it feels, how they have grown personally, professionally, and as a couple, and what they juggle to keep this reality alive. What I wished for were a few more details, i.e. what is that exact recipe for jam, tomato sauce? What is the layout of the garden and the vegetables they grow? What is the blueprint for the straw bale greenhouse? How much savings did they have when they moved and purchased the land? What sort of financial precautions did they have to take? I'll confess that it may seem lacking because it doesn’t tell me exactly what I need to do. If the book is meant to serve as an inspirational jumping-off point for one’s own transition to a journey closer to your heart and convictions, then it is absolutely fine. However, as someone somewhat living this change myself I found I wanted a bit more information.

I found this book better and more useful than my initial impression of it boded. When I first started reading I expected it would be more of the same – a story of those who found “salvation” in country living and wanted to evangelize others to the same lifestyle. While this theme is surely present, there is also a great deal more that I found useful. The list of resources, good quotes from relevant authors, and some of the diagrams were quite handy.

Clearly, not everyone can or is interested in following this same path – well-paid ad exec in the city to B&B owners in the country now establishing their own non-profit – but it is inspiring and thought-provoking to read why the authors so diligently reuse and recycle; why they had a child ; what it means to them to build a straw bale house. One cannot help but look more closely at your own life and wonder about freezing tomatoes or searching out a local seller of eggs. Better yet, maybe someone might decide to look into their city’s chicken ordinance – or lack thereof – and get a few hens in for fun and the best eggs ever.

The lack of exact detail wasn’t a deterrent. This is not a “how to live in the country” book . Other authors have done that and done it well, i.e. Emery, Storey, and Kingsolver, to name but a few. Ivanko and Kivirist offer hope that such a life is possible, comfortable, and satisfying. Their object was not to create a cookbook (although I would not be at all surprised to see one sometime in the future) or a construction manual (they know the limits of their handiness), but rather, I think, a jumping off point for others.

Despite what sometimes felt like a too conversational, too simple presentation Rural Renaissance is still a compelling read. I remain undecided as to whether or not I would purchase the book versus getting it out of the library. It’s slightly out of date and not quite complete enough for me to justify spending money on, but it is worth reading. Ultimately, it will depend on how many times I end up recommending it to others or checking it out from the library.