Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's Been Hot

And dry.

Ok, so it's not saying much to note that this is the hottest summer since we've been keeping track, but we have had some hot weeks. The area farmers we've talked to attest to the fact that, though the season started out very promising, this has been one of the driest mid and late seasons they've had. Since their corn loved the heat and was able to cope with the lack of rain it doesn't look too bad. But the soybeans committed to many pods full of peas, which then didn't have the resources to develop into an ideal size. So while they are worth being harvested, they're disappointingly small.

The man who farms the land surrounding our garden also grows for the local farmer's market. When he's by looking at the fields we chat by the garden in that uniquely farmer-ish way. He said it has been a terrible year for produce, and most of the other market-gardeners he's talked to say the same. We had been feeling disappointed by the lack of time we had to give our garden this Spring and Summer, but he made us feel a little better by laughing and saying "You sure picked a year to start out! Whew!"

But of of course, what is talk without numbers?
First the temperatures:

Our last hard frost was the 28th of April, and our last light frost came May 10. It didn't reach 80 ° F in the garden until May 23rd, but that may have been a fluke.

Before I go any further, I have to explain our thermometer placement. When we first set it up there were no fenceposts, so we used a huge ornamental pear tree directly north of the garden. I was a little paranoid, I admit, that someone would steal our precious min/max thermometer, so it was buried thick in the foliage. We realized by July that the placement was seriously affecting our high temperatures, so we moved it to a box on a prominent fencepost on the 26th of that month. So all I can talk about before that point are trends, that one week was hot and another one cool.

Which is, really, what happened to screw up a lot of the serious market gardeners. For instance, the week after Alten was born the highs were in the mid-70's. The week after they were in the the mid 90's. Ensuing weeks were in the 90's, then low 80's, then up to the high 90's, then low 80's or high 70's. And, of course, you don't remember the cool reprieves. The hottest it got for us was 100° F, on August 13. I wish we had a humidity gauge, because I think those numbers would really impress you all.

The daily low temperatures are as interesting as the highs, maybe more so. Back at Ecology Action we talked a lot (covetously, mostly) about the optimal growing range for plants in general, which is 60° F to 95° F. Below 60° F most plants slow down their processes, and above 95° F as well. At the research farm and at the Golden Rule garden summer days would not uncommonly top 95°, and summer nights would rarely stay above 60°. It's a pretty big handicap to have your plants shutting down twice in a 24 hour cycle. So we would keep track of the number of nights in a summer that stayed above 60°. The first summer we were there was very hot, and yielded 16 nights above 60°. The next summer there were none.

This place is a different story. Tomatoes seem to gain a foot and a half overnight, and if you sleep outside you can hear the corn growing. June through August gave us 74 nights above 60°, 13 of which were above 70°. Which is only good for plants, being a little warm for the farmers.

And since Alten is going to be working in that sun and heat with us, I made him a little sun-hat for his own...

Now rainfall:

Between April 16 (when we put up our rain gauge) and the end of June we received 12" of rain, on the dot. Then the tide turned. July totaled 2.45", and early August rains totaled .55". We haven't gotten more than a hundredth of an inch since then, and that is too little for our gauge (or our soil) to register. Luckily, our rain barrels are attached to a roof so large that a hundredth of an inch can fill them up. So we've made the 110 gallons of stored rainwater last the two weeks or so between brief spates of precipitation.

Rain would be good for the crops, but it is absolutely necessary for bed preparation. Our soil is quite clayey and severely lacking in organic matter. The best time to dig has been two days after a good rain of between .5" and 1.5". Earlier is too muddy, later is too dry and brick-like. What happens, then, when you haven't had any rain of note for a month and a half? Well, you water the soil heavily if you have water. If not, you hope it rains before you need to put in Fall crops.

The good news is that yesterday we acquired four new 55 gallon drums from our local soda pop distribution facility, which will triple our capacity for storage.

Of course, they won't do any good without some rain...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Composting 101

Today brought us our first batch of compost! While Margo and Alten built a new pile, I broke up the finished one and sifted the cured compost from the un-decomposed material. It looks great, smells great, and marks the beginning of our garden's trip toward soil rejuvenation. Hurrah!
In honor of the occasion I am reprinting here the first of three compost-related posts I wrote for the Golden Rule Garden blog in May of last year...

Here I sit, in the shade, sipping cold kombucha in the midst of our first 100° F days of the year. What topic could be hotter than compost? Or more appropriate, given that it is Spring and we have an abundance of weeds, cover crops (which we refer to instead as "compost crops"), and all the dry, stalk-y, crunchy mature material we saved from last year.
Michele, of the Rabbit Wrangler Ranch in Idaho, posted some questions after reading my admittedly vague reference to our composting in the Happy Spring Equinox post. Hopefully this will answer your questions and bring up a lot more.
I often feel like most of my experientially-oriented posts should start with a disclaimer, so here's this one: there are many ways to compost, many books written on the topic, and many, many products sold to help you compost. This is how we do it here, and how it is taught in Grow Biointensive agriculture through Ecology Action's courses.
The recipe is fairly simple: 4 parts mature material, 4 parts immature material, one part soil. Add water. Sounds easy, right? It is. And the details aren't even very devilish.
Mature material, popularly referred to as "dry matter", consists technically of any plant matter that has achieved full maturity. The easiest example is straw, which can come from rice, wheat, rye, barley, oats, and so forth. Also included are corn stalks, quinoa stalks, sunflower stalks, amaranth stalks... You get the picture. Essentially anything that is tough and crunchy. Tree leaves that fall of their own accord count. Burnt bacon doesn't.
Immature material, popularly referred to as "green matter", is basically anything that has not gone to maturity. Slug-eaten lettuce, grass clippings, most kitchen waste, weeds (which you hopefully got before they went to seed, because then they'd be mature material with a dark side), and anything else you pulled out before it completed its life cycle.
The reason for the revised terminology is that the common terms are deceptive. Grass clippings that have been sitting on the lawn for a week can certainly be dry and brown. But that does not change their composition, except that there is less water in them. And it's all about the composition.
I will oversimplify to illustrate my point: for our composting purposes, anything you put in your pile is made up of carbon and nitrogen in varying ratios, and the carbon involved varies in its density. The mature material we use is relatively higher in carbon than the immature, and the carbon is denser. Because of that fact the organic matter from composted mature material will last much longer in the soil, which is what we want. But if you build a pile only of mature material it will take years to break down completely.
The microbes that will decompose your pile want appreciable amounts of both carbon and nitrogen, which is where the immature material comes in. Though its carbon is less helpful to us in the long run, immature material is relatively higher than mature material in nitrogen, and its presence in the pile will help the microbes do their job and give you lots of nice, long lasting compost (human-encouraged organic matter), which in turn makes your soil system healthier which makes your plants more productive and pleasing to the eye, and eventually culminates in world peace.
Soil is the last ingredient, and we add it in small quantities for a couple of reasons. It's true that adding soil inoculates the pile with helpful microbes (which would have happened eventually anyway), but more importantly it helps the pile maintain moisture and moderate its temperature. This may be less necessary in a cooler, moister climate than ours, but is vital here.
Now you know the ingredients, so here's how it goes together: Choose a spot to build your pile, preferably in direct contact with soil, and possibly on a garden bed you can spare. The liquid that leaches out will do great things for the soil underneath, and direct contact will also aid microbes coming and going through your pile. It should be a minimum of 3x3', which will help maintain the core temperature and moisture of your pile. It can be bigger if you like, but not smaller.
Stick a fork in the soil to loosen it where the pile will go, then lay down a few inches of rough mature material. This is a different category of mature, things that won't break down easily. Like tree branches. The point is to allow air to enter the pile and excess moisture to leave. It also creates a definable bottom to the pile.
Now you start building, adding a layer of mature, a layer of immature, and a layer of soil. We use 5 gallon buckets (not sustainable, no, but plentiful, free in any quantity, and standard in size for measuring). One layer for us is two buckets of mature, two buckets of immature, one-half bucket of soil.
Oh- and we build them as square as possible. This makes the most efficient use of space and materials. Plus they are aesthetically pleasing...
At this point, having not answered more than one of Michele's questions, I am going to end this post. The next, Composting 102, covers a little bit of the what's, why's, do's and don'ts of the process, hopefully answering some of the questions that this post generated.