Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hoophouse Update - Maturing Manure

So far, so good. The smell is not overwhelming when one enters, and there is a pleasant sort of humid feel in there when you enter. The overall draftiness of it is still slightly problematic in terms of keeping the temperature high enough for the plants. They are starting to show a bit of wear and tear from the low night temperatures we've been having. I think we need another load. I'm giving serious thought to bringing in some tires, stacking them, and filling them with fresh manure. It would be an easy way to contain the manure, and still get the benefit of its decomposition.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Power of Poop

We're hopeful it's powerful, anyway. Things are a wee bit chilly in the hoophouse these days since winter started really moving in, and a neighbor suggested manure for a bit of a heater. The relatively fresh and therefore "hot" manure will give off heat as it decomposes. It will nourish the soil (depleted by our lovely tomatoes and eggplants this summer) at the same time it helps keep our swiss chard, broccoli, kale, and parsley cozy during these long winter nights.

Since this is an experiment, I mixed some in with the soil and some I left only lightly mixed in to the soil. Some we plopped in a corner. And since it's horse manure there's plenty of straw still...well, visible...so that may help with composting/decomposition. Horse manure is not the ideal choice for your garden it should be said. Word has it that since many things (i.e. seeds and grains) simply make their way through the horse and out again that you end up with lots of extra weeds. I do battle some weeds I have seen in the horses pasture at our friends house, so I suspect there is a grain of truth in this.

A book I'm reading at the moment talks about how fresh manure gives off amonia as it decomposes, but my thought is that the hoophouse is fairly well ventilated by nature of its construction it shouldn't really be a problem. We use this practice for our chickens to help them stay warm through the cold weather. We just add a fresh layer of litter periodically to keep things fresh for the girls, and the heat given off by the composting process of their droppings and the bedding keeps them snuggly. And since the door is open all day while they roam there is no risk of anyone getting asphyxiated.

We'll see how things fare. When I went in today to get some greens and check on the plants I did notice that things looked like they were suffering a bit from the cold. Hopefully, this helps until we get the cold frame built.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In their gardens, they are home.

The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst (2006), Beacon Press.

"In their gardens, they are home." are the final words of The Earth Knows My Name and sums up in a few words the richly told stories of ethnic peoples - first-generation immigrants along with Native Americans and Gullahs - and the meaning they and their families harvest from their gardens. Compelled to write this book and search out the stories that fill its pages by her own family's migration to this country and subsequent assimilation, Klindienst presents a book so full of passion and life told so powerfully that it will be difficult for me to give this back to the library. (I'm at my renewal limit so back it must go.) Eloquent thoughtful writing surrounded by the words of mostly first-generation Americans bring these people and their gardens to vivid life. It is nearly impossible to not be transported to each garden and feel the joy and pride each gardener feels as they work their bit of earth.

One gardener says of her family farm in the southwest "Here we're making an honest living doing something we truly enjoy from the heart. We're teaching other people the importance of good food. I never realized how much I knew until now. And we're keeping our heritage by keeping our food. It's a way of life for us, our food." (pg. 31)

Klindienst delves into the history of each people and place to help portray the context of their gardens and the reason they migrated to America. War, work, and hope brought many of these people here to forge new lives for themselves and a better future for their families. Other groups - Native Americans and a Gullah community - garden and farm land that has long belonged to them, and is so deeply a part of them and their traditions that they cannot imagine life without it.

Ralph Middleton, a gardener in the Gullah Community of St. Helena Island states : "We feel that we are part of the land," he says in his deep, calm voice. "This is where we've been, where we've worked, for generations. You know your grandparents and great-grandparents planted here. We have memories about the land, about what they did here. So it's important. It's sacred." For Gullah's, the land is freedom. It is the ground of their dignity and the reason they have endured." (pg. 37)

I found myself wanting to weep, laugh, and stand up to shout for joy (often in the same chapter) as I read. The poignancy and power with which these people spoke about their gardens and why they need them was terribly moving. An organic vintner on Bainbridge Island, Washington powerfully links food to place to community "Food ...because it's the last thing we lose, because it's the thing that controls our lives - though we like to think it doesn't in modern life - is a key to finding the place we live in and finding the people around us. If we all eat from a place, if we all live in love with that place, then we all live in love with each other." (pg. 100)

The garden also links immigrants to the other half of themselves that remains deeply rooted in a place, history, and with people they may never see again. And it is a place where there is no confusion about custom or language, and where they can see, smell, and taste their culture in a way they can nowhere else. "The sorrow in Sokehn's voice reminds me that for every gain these immigrants make in America, there has been an attendant loss - of language, landscape, kin, and culture, the deepest meanings of home. You can be free and marooned at the same time. (pg. 127)

Again and again the power of the immigrant experience was brought home to me - loss and gain, hope and despair, risk and safety - that I could not help but think of my own family's journey to these shores. Yes, it was three generations past, but their experience must have been similar in so many ways. I wonder what they grew and why, the foods they prepared with it, and the customs they brought with them that I still practice to this day.

Referenced throughout are books, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, films, and speeches that illustrate the depth with which this work was researched; however, this research never overtakes what is pivotal to each chapter - the words of each gardener and the story they tell through their gardens.

This is easily one of the best books I have ever read. Put it on a gift list and insist that everyone you know who is even remotely interested in gardening read it. It is no surprise to learn Klindienst won the 2007 American Book Award for it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Food Saves Town

This article about a small town cooperating to revive itself around food production actually appeared in early October in the New York Times, but I kept a copy of it around. It appealed to my community development side along with my hungry gardener side. It just feels so darn hopeful and sounds like so much fun, that it provides (my new favorite phrase) literal and figurative food for thought.

These days we are all thinking probably a bit more about where and how we spend our hard-earned money, about a lack of jobs, about our homes, our neighbors, and our towns. Stories like this one coming out of Hardwick, Vermont further encourage me to give my money to my neighbors for their vegetables, meat, cheese, and eggs. It encourages me to eat not at that chain restaurant, but at a locally owned place that might be a little more expensive. My dollars go further in my local economy than if I give them up to a big chain to save a bit. That seems worth it when I can look my neighbor in the eye to thank her for the eggs and know my money keeps that land as open space.

And we're not alone in this strategy. Friends, neighbors, and total strangers are out shopping with the same objective of buying local whenever they can. I won't (and can't) say that the Wal-Marts, Kroger's, and Pamida's of our area are short on business, but I can't deny that we nearly thumb wrestle for that last carton of our neighbors eggs. We gladly pay more to know who raised the chickens that laid the eggs, and what those girls ate before and after settling on the nest.

For me it's about knowing where my money is going, helping keep a local farm going or jump-started, and about bringing a sense of community to our table. I don't just mean the community that comes from sharing a meal, but that which comes from knowing that what you are eating comes from someone or somewhere you know. And if I can get all that from a carton of eggs, a bunch of kale, or some ground lamb then it's well worth the money I paid.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gardeners Save the World

Ok, that's a bit over the top, but this little piece about choosing heirloom and organic seeds that I heard this morning on The Environment Report on Michigan Radio makes me feel like I should wear a cape and a leotard with a big G emblazoned on the front whenever I head to the hoophouse.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Outwitting the Potato

I'll confess that I have a love-hate relationship with potatoes. I enjoy eating them, but not very often. I even like growing them, but I don't enjoy harvesting them. How the heck can you ensure that you get every last one?!? They are so well camouflaged in their dirty little coats (especially the blue ones), and those tasty little ones are so hard to distinguish even by feel from little clumps of dirt.

Let me just say I ended up growing potatoes in the same bed two years running, and not on purpose. And the ones I harvested I put in a picturesque bushel basket in the basement. And promptly forgot about them.

They sprouted, of course. Doing what every potato wants to do come spring, they sent up spectacular roots in an effort to carry on their legacy of potatodom and world domination. (Ok, maybe not world domination as corn seems to have achieved, but we can't deny that they must have colonialist visions since they effectively left South America.)

What could I do when presented with these little forlorn potatoes reaching up so hopefully from the depths of the basket? How could I deny the hope embedded in these little ones? I planted them, but this time I decided to do so on my terms rather than that of the potato.

My sister-in-law suggested planting them in stacked tires filled with dirt. The idea is that you save garden space, but when it's time to gather your potatoes you simply pull away the tires and plop! there are your potatoes. We also saw rhubarb growing in stacked tires when we visited The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales this past March with friends. (See cute photo at left.)

In they went (with the help of the chickens, of course), and we waited. Lush plants blossomed, and died back. And now, I've got a washtub full of potatoes large and small. The soil was beautiful, and I saw some of the biggest earthworms I've ever seen in my life! I will for sure do this kind of planting again...although I still suspect there are potatoes sitting silently in there waiting for spring. Damn their eyes...so to speak.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Few Reviews of Food Preservation Books - Gift Recommendations

I've been trying to explore a few different books about preserving and storing fruits and vegetables even though the harvest season is winding down and snow is beginning to fly outside my window. I'm hoping to have a stable of reference materials I can rely on for next season, and a bundle of new recipes to try out.

The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest by Carol W. Costenbader, 1997, Storey Communications, Inc.
Recipes for drying, canning, and freezing vegetables, fruits, and herbs harvested throughout the season. Simple drawings illustrate some procedures and accompany step-by-step instructions that the first-time as well as the experienced preserver will find handy. This would make a good gift for someone just embarking on the food preservation adventure, but check before purchasing it for someone more experienced.

Preserving Summer's Bounty: A Quick and Easy Guide to Freezing, Canning, Preserving and Drying What You Grow edited by Susan McClure, 1998, Rodale Press.
Quite possibly a new favorite book for me that is chock full of recipes and instructions for preserving fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Great illustrated instructions, step-by-step procedures, and great tips on storage make this one another terrific choice for a gift or basic building block for a food preservation library. This is one I could see referring to over and over again throughout the season.

Country Harvest: A Celebration of Autumn by Linda Burgess and Rosamond Richardson, 1990, Prentice Hall Press.
This is a book I would LOVE to get as a gift, and a more experienced food preserver than I would also enjoy it immensely. Recipes for food preservation but also for baking, cordials, vodkas, chutneys, and cooking share space with some of the most inspiring photographs I've seen in some time. What I really liked about this book were the unique recipes - sloe gin, damson jam,
rowan jelly (those berries on that decorative mountain ash seen in many a front yard), windfall jams - that make you see food where you never thought it would be.

Hitting the Sauce

We came home tonight after a good afternoon of working over at Ambry Farms in search of something hot and tasty. Some of our first snow fell today along with icy rain and our hands were nearly numb as we left the barns and farm. I whipped out a jar of Barbara Kingsolver's Family Secret Sauce and popped it in a pan thinking the spicy tomato sauce would be an excellent soup to go with some bread I baked earlier in the day.

Tasty and spicy it was. So spicy it nearly blew our tastebuds off. There was a batch that I overshot the pepper on, and this may be one of those. Warmer we were by the time we got to the bottom of our respective bowls, and we know that next time we will cut it with a bit of our straight-up tomato sauce in the future. Yikes!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Jot it Down!

William Moss of Moss in the City - a fantastic little e-newsletter I get from the National Gardening Association about urban and small space gardening - had a great article about reviewing your year in gardening. It's a great suggestion, and I confess that geek that I am I keep a garden journal - complete with diagrams, thank you very much - that catalogs what I plant and roughly when, how it goes throughout the season, and an end of the season wrap-up. It's nothing fancy - just a notebook with graph paper marked pages for easy diagramming - but it helps me keep track of what's happening. It's also fun to look back and see what worked, what didn't quite go as planned, and just remember.

I've done this since my first garden at the first place we lived here in Michigan, and it has helped me rotate crops (or at least know when I have NOT rotated crops), remember what I grew that I liked, how it did in a particular location, and what pairs I created.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Bok Choi in the House!

In the hoophouse, that is. I suspected two days ago that I saw little sprouts, but yesterday I spied a sweet little row of those first leaves - the cotyledon - that begin the process of photosynthesis. (Hope you don't have to squint too much to see them in the photo!) The unseasonably warm weather the past few days, I am sure, was quite helpful in getting things going. Things are meant to become a bit more wintry now, so we'll see how the remaining seeds do.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Monty the Praying Mantis

Monty, our Praying Mantis, is enjoying the hoophouse. My hope is that he's snacking on all those dastardly cabbage worms that we are currently sharing our kale and broccoli raab with. He (only my assumption that this is a male) is tricky to see due to his clever natural camouflaging. The photo at the left illustrates this fairly well, I think.

A praying mantis is a good sign for any garden as it is a natural predator for some of those nasties that you don't wish to share your harvest with, i.e. cabbage worms, aphids, tomato hornworms, etc., and saves me the gross job of picking them off and then feeding them to the chickens.

I also thought it was a good sign that I found a praying mantis egg case (see photo at left) on the bottom of one of the pallets we used for garden paths. Come spring the little ones will emerge bearing a striking resemblance to their parents, and their first meal may well be one of their siblings. Yikes.

Planting and Transplanting in the Hoophouse

Seeds of corn salad, russian kale, spinach, and two kinds of heirloom peas, along with two broccoli plants from the summer are snugly settled in the hoophouse even as I type.

Aimee and I put down pavers left over from our patio reconstruction and at her suggestion I made a straight path. This means that both beds got expanded - one in a much needed way - and that compost and composted manure got hauled in to do so.

No sign of the bok choi sprouting yet, but my fingers are still crossed.

Monday, November 3, 2008


I look up from my reading to look out the window of our dining room door. Golden yellow leaves of the sugar maple by the lower woodshed contrast with the dark green of the spruce planted by the previous owners. The tops of the grassy field south of the house that we have let grow up wave a bit, but what really catches my eye and my fancy are the goldenrod.

True to their name miniature golden blossoms lined the stems of these tall plants this fall. Bees swarmed them cheerfully, and the praying mantis in the backyard walked the canopy they made. Leaf-tying caterpillars wove their way through their leaves as it ate. They appear to be the first to move in if one chooses not to mow. Encroaching from the fenceline, they dot our yard everywhere much to my delight.

The variety of goldenrod is tremendous - shaped like actual rods, clumps, or branching like tree tops - they grow in shade, sun, woods, prairie, wet, and dry. Their leaves vary along with their blossom shapes, and their height ranges from just to my shins to my elbow and above. Often confused with ragweed, the goldenrod is blamed for the increased sneezing some experience along with itchy eyes and runny nose. The pollen from goldenrod is too heavy to move about much, and they rely on bees, butterflies, moths, and birds to help pollinate them. (Ragweed gives its pollen up to the wind, and hence it lands in our noses and eyes resulting in a boon for the tissue industry.)

Often considered a weed, the goldenrods in our yard are welcome additions to our landscape. Along with the asters (relatives of the goldenrod) and milkweed the goldenrod brings pollinators and welcomes predators to my garden. Its deep roots stabilize the soil and absorb rainwater. It signifies an ecosystem continuing to return to health. Perhaps selfishly, it brings me joy each time I see it. Joy to know the insects in my world have a place to eat and feed their young. Joy to see the yellow blooms in autumn light.