Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Newest and Hottest

Winter often brings with it a desire to be somewhere warm, dry, and cozy. We live in a farm house that was built sometime in the second half of the 1800's and, though its 18" thick brick walls make it far from drafty, one needs a good way to heat it.
The house was built with one big chimney through which passed the exhaust from three fireplaces, one in the basement, one on the first floor, and one on the second floor - all directly in line vertically. When Mom bought the house the second floor fireplace had been removed, leaving the lower two. And we were soon surprised by the reality that when we lit a fire in the living room the basement would get smoky. Upon professional inspection it was found that the flues had been designed to join into each other. The chimney sweep had never seen anything like it before, and subsequent professionals we've had out think we're pulling their legs when we tell them about it.
But that problem has long since been fixed, and a few years back we had a liner put up the chimney and a fireplace insert installed in the living room fireplace, which is the one that gets regular use. Those familiar with wood heat, thermodynamics, and/or general trivia know that fireplaces are pretty, but absolutely impossible to heat a house with. Almost all of the heat generated goes straight up and out the chimney via hot air, creating low pressure in the house, which in turn pulls air (that would be cold air) from the outdoors through any crack available. The result is a beautiful visual feature warming those directly beside it, paired with a constant draft in other parts of the house
A fireplace insert is a like a woodstove that only has a nice-looking front, since the rest is nestled into the fireplace cavity. The advantage over a free-standing woodstove is that it takes up less space. Both are designed as chambers that burn wood more efficiently (and distribute heat much more efficiently) than a fireplace. We got one called the Clydesdale, made by Hearthstone.
In terms of wood-burning efficiency it worked fine, but in the heating department it came up way short. Inserts depend on a fan (see the electric cord off to the right of the stove) which blows air through channels that go behind, around, and back out the front of the exterior of the stove - that's how the heat radiated by the insert gets moved from the fireplace cavity to the room you're trying to heat. The problem with the Clydesdale was that the fan didn't work very well, and was very noisy. Then the thermostat element in it broke, then the function that lets you moderate the fan's speed broke.
This year we decided that the insert just wasn't doing it for us. For all the heat it produced it could not heat the house, and for it to even work as well as possible it needed this fan on that often made listening to conversation or music difficult. We wanted something that could radiate its heat without use of any fan, and that meant a free-standing wood stove. An added bonus was a surface we could conceivably cook on, heat water on, warm socks on, etc.
We consulted a great fireplace shop in the Richmond area, actually The Fireplace Shop, and settled on a soapstone stove (for soapstone's many wonderful characteristics). While waiting for delivery, we thought maybe we'd prepare the way by getting the Clydesdale ready to depart. Inserts, it turns out, are stuck in the cavity and surrounded by insulation, then a collar is put over what remains of the gap between the fireplace front and the insert. That's so you can't see the ugly back. Once we took the collar off and the insulation out, we found that the heat truly poured forth. It was pretty amazing. To make the thing really effective the fan still needed to be on, but even without it there was A LOT of heat. If we had only known that we might not have gotten a new stove, but since it was on its way already, and because of the new stove's attributes, we stayed the course.
Because it sticks out further than the insert we needed more insulative material, so we got a piece of limestone (set on two pieces of Mycor) to match the existing hearth. So here is our beautiful new stove, the Hearthstone Heritage (my, aren't we refined?). It is a hit with the cat, the laundry, and the rest of us, and we all look forward to figuring out how to maximize its performance and charm.

The Clydesdale will find a place in the workshop, and possibly eventually in another home. I have fantasies about using it in a cob-masonry stove kind of application in the future.

To the credit of Hearthstone, this was one of the earliest versions of the Clydesdale, one with a few design flaws. When we went in to look for a new stove the folks at the Fireplace Shop asked us what we had.
"What? You have a Clydesdale? Why would you want to replace that? Oh, it's the old one. Never mind."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Emancipating the Potatoes

While we were having Thanksgiving in northern Indiana our garden received the biggest rainfall since we began recording it in mid-April of this year. It won't be a surprise to folks in this area to know that the season's record breaking amount was only 1.85", and that fell over two days. (The next greatest two days were the 9th and 10th of July, adding up to 1.3".)
But it was enough. Anyone who asked how the garden was doing in the past three months heard "It looks like our sorghum did really well. The last thing we have to harvest is the potatoes, but they are locked in our brick-like soil. It's going to take a good rain to be able to get them out." People quit asking about the garden after awhile.
Now I have been volunteering, triumphantly, that the potatoes have been freed. We got back Sunday, and Monday's first order of business was to dig as much of the remaining potato area as possible because of the rain scheduled for Tuesday. (At left are the seed potatoes cut, ashed, and ready to plant, back in April.) We had planted 245 square feet of potatoes, and between July 20 and September 23 I dug out 143 sq ft of them. Mostly coinciding with one of our measly .1" rains. And the most area I managed in a day was 55 sq ft, because the ground was so hard.

Heading out Monday afternoon I dug the remaining 103 sq ft in an hour and a half, which is a testament to the qualities of perfectly moist clay soil. Not too mucky, not too dry, and the fork pulls them 'taties out like a dream. Well, almost.

We planted these potatoes in April and May, and I think the May plantings had just gotten their tops all established when it quit raining. Our yields reflect that we're working heavy soil that has had its fertility pillaged.

Just a hint of what I'm talking about: the May planting, our worst yielding, was 65 sq ft of Kennebec potatoes, and we got a total of 4 lb from that (Margo and Alten weigh them on our itsy-bitsy scale at right). It works out to 6.2 lb per 100 sq ft. For all of you commercial potato farmers out there (and I know you're reading my blog) that works out to 1.34 tons/acre. For the rest of you, it works out to .13 lb of harvested potato for every pound planted. Which is what we call deficit spending.

It is easy, at this stage, to look at our potatoes and declare failure, commencing to plant petunias next year instead. But I maintain that failure is important, and I routinely tell folks that in classes. When someone wants to know the most important thing to master in gardening I answer "observation." Paying attention to the processes in your garden means the difference between learning from your mistakes and suffering from them time after time. Also important (when discussing failure) is perspective. This is our first year here, and we hope to be producing all of our food within a few years. Is it better to have crop failure in one of our most important foods when we are getting on our feet, or to experience it when we are depending on that crop?

So what went wrong with our potatoes? There were two obvious culprits, which I have already mentioned. First, our soil is heavy clay, and little organic matter remains from its previous 20 or more years of being gardened. Root crops don't like that. They aren't allowed to expand, so they grow small and in funny shapes. The second was the lack of water, which we were counting on as rain (the healthiest form of irrigation for crops and soil). Additionally, we planted them about a month later than we wanted. Earlier planting would have given them quite a jump on growth before the hot (and dry) weather of summer hit. Quality of seed potatoes may have played a role, but most of ours looked very good. The first three variables are so overwhelming that smaller ones, like varieties planted, pest damage, and availability of micronutrients wouldn't add up to much.What will we do differently to address these troubles next year? Well, we'll start by getting a bigger scale, cause weighing even a small potato harvest 1 lb at a time gets tedious. Seriously though, we plan to post production of compost as a top priority, and though adding compost will probably take years to make an impact on this soil we're committing now. We saw that most of our crops needed at least twice as much water as they got which, though that wouldn't really be much water in the big picture, it is way more that we can store currently. So we'll add some rainwater storage and water more than just the newly planted stuff (and, of course, hope for a different weather pattern next year). We'll be as on-schedule as any farmer ever is next year, since we'll be starting out with more than practically nothing. And, finally, we'll watch and see what happens in the completely different conditions that next year will undoubtedly bring.
Until then we will be a little short on the homegrown mashed potatoes...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

3DW, 11/10

Ecology Action holds its Three-Day Workshop (aka 3DW, as opposed to WD-40) twice a year, usually the first weekend of March and November. It is intended as an opportunity for folks who have read about, practiced, or heard of Grow Biointensive to learn more through lecture, discussion, and hands-on practice. Not only is is it an educational experience for the participants, but for those of us who attend many times as presenters or support staff it is an inspirational event.
This time over 50 people (some of them Ecology Action interns) came from California, Utah, New York, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Missouri, Manitoba and Alberta, Canada, and Ecuador to attend. Most of them had great gardening-related projects in the works, and all of them had fascinating work beyond gardening.
When we arrived the workshop presenters were John Jeavons (above and below, leading the participants down to EA's garden) and Ecology Action Garden Manager Carol Cox. Margo and I began doing some of the hands-on instruction after our first summer as apprentices, and began presenting during the lecture time in our third year. When Carol retired from EA last year we picked up the most of the classes she taught and created a couple of others. No comparison to the instruction she could give after 20 years of experience, but she was very encouraging to us, as was John. (At left, me workin' the overhead while teaching garden planning).
We decided that Alten was too young yet to hit the cross-country Amtrak circuit for this workshop, so I went alone this time and taught for both Margo and myself. And while the opportunity was a great one and I had a wonderful experience, I will be glad to have Margo back when we teach in March 2011.
So come and see us!
(By the way, one of the participants was Matt Harnack, a documentary filmmaker and co-coordinator of the Common Ground Demo Garden in Palo Alto, CA. All of the photos in this post were taken by him. Thanks, Matt!)


Monday, November 1, 2010

The Garden Is Dead

Long Live the Garden! (Our Fall garden is pictured above)
Our first frost happened on October 16, and didn't mess around. The low was 28° F, effectively ending our main season. Basil was the only hot-loving crop we still had in the ground, and had long passed its productive leaf stage. And that was good, because it is not made for 28°. We did manage to get some seed from it, and will test its viability after we clean it.
The only crop we have to harvest yet is our remaining ~140 sq ft of potatoes. Our lack of rain keeps us from that harvest. We know they grew fairly successfully, but the nature of our soil means they are locked in the ground until we get a couple of good rains in a row. The last time that happened was the 9th and 10th of July.
Potatoes excluded, we have now entered the stage of the garden that a lot of folks around here skip: the late-Fall and Winter plan. Our original idea was to plant the currently double-dug beds into cover crops, and prepare previously un-dug beds for our wheat, rye, and garlic plantings. Again, we needed some more rain to pull that one off, so we now have planted 600+ square feet of a wheat/rye/canadian field pea mix (on the left), 200 sq ft of cereal rye, 150 sq ft of winter wheat, and about 40 sq ft of garlic. And that's where we'll likely finish for this year.
Compromise number one was planting our wheat, rye and garlic in previously dug beds. Compromise number two was the nature of that planting. Garlic is garlic, and that simply involves separating cloves, and planting the choicest (the first sprout is pictured on the right). But the wheat and rye, which we want to bring to full maturity next summer, would normally have been transplanted on 5" centers. A combination of travel and lack of rain made that difficult, so we decided to just bite the bullet and broadcast. The only thing desirable in that choice, though, is the ease of planting. Weeding will be much more difficult, coverage will not be as thorough, and yields will suffer. Our final compromise was not so much a decision we made as a matter of indecision. Because we were so far behind, we gnashed our teeth about planting and digging options, and whether or not it would rain for us. As a result everything has been planted a month or more late.
But farming is about learning from mistakes, right? And by all accounts it has been a doozy of a season for all the farmers and gardeners around.
Since the 16th of October we have had frosts of 28, 32, 27, 24, and 23°, and when I left from watering the garden at 7:00 last night the temperature had already fallen to 39°F. I think it's time to hibernate.

This week brings a trip to California to teach at Ecology Action's 3-Day Workshop on the 5th, 6th, and 7th. It is always inspiring to get to meet so many motivated gardeners, share knowledge with them, and learn what they have to offer. Plus maybe I can bring some of the copious amounts of rain they're getting back home with me...


Friday, October 15, 2010

Alten in October

We have this great calendar that was given to us at a baby shower for Alten. It is a thirteen-month calendar where you can write down firsts, cute things done, weights and sizes, and paste current pictures. We've done an ok job of recording everything except the photos. To date, we haven't actually printed any of the pictures we've taken of him (though grandparents have). All our copies are stranded on this laptop in front of me, which is already been resurrected once.With this in mind (together with the many friends and family too far away to visit regularly), I'll post as many pictures as I can on the blog :) Because one computer may die, but the web is forever, right?
The top picture shows Alten's first interaction with a cat, specifically Grandpa and Grammy Royer's Sphynx. Our cat here at home will have nothing to do with him.
At left, Alten believes it is time to start solid foods. In this case a ceramic bowl. The scrambled eggs inside weren't apparently all that interesting.
And at right we have Margo and Alten decked out in cool rainy-day garb.

Above is Alten's first soccer ball, with which he is enamored. It was sent as a gift from good friends up north. At left Alten holds Sophie the Giraffe, which is natural latex with food based paints, and has lots of great things to chew on.

On the right is our currently 14 lb 12 ounce boy, no doubt watching the window or the ceiling fan (both of which provide endless fascination).

And last but not least, an action photo. Alten dearly loves chewing on anything that gets close enough, including my chin.


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.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August Smiles

Well, about a week ago Alten started smiling with a little more intention. As the book told us, earlier on babies do smile, but they are inside smiles, inadvertent and reflective of a sense of inner peace. Which we could all use, I'm sure. And we were always delighted to catch one of those, most of which happened when he was asleep. But there is something special about having a little baby (especially one's own) looking into one's eyes and smiling.
Back by popular demand, then, are some pictures of Alten.

At left is one of our recent trip to Mojeji Ranch, where Margo had business with the Youth Peace Travel Team, and Alten and I got to tail along and visit our friends, play games, camp in a tent, pick beans and tomatoes, mock guinea hens, and drive cattle.

And here is Alten after a bath, which is quite the popular time with him.

And finally, patient Mama took a wonderful video exhibiting the smiley boy.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Carrying On

Since we have the blessing of working at home most of the time, we get to be around Alten as much as we want. Which is, of course, constantly. The only downside is that, at best, you have one free hand. When holding such a young baby, though, one must support the head as well. That leaves one able to walk around freely, but not actually do anything.
Luckily, humanity solved this problem tens of thousands of years ago (if not earlier). The solution is to tie the baby to yourself! Gently, of course. We came across plenty of examples before Alten's birth, from reading Continuum Concept to talking with friends to seeing strangers in health-food stores. We were convinced even then that we were going to give it a serious go, with hopes that we would be able to work with our baby in the garden from the beginning.
The internet was, as always, our resource for what is possible. We found many examples, and put our favorites on our baby shower lists. To date we have three that we've tried and liked. And please remember when viewing the pictures: we haven't mastered them yet, so if the setup looks a little awkward it's because we're not pros. Yet.
Our first carrier was the of the "mei tai" persuasion. Its origins are Chinese, and it is basically a square piece of cloth with a fabric strip coming off each corner (here Margo is hiding the lower strap with her arm). Ours came from Mei Tai Baby, and was a gift from our former garden manager, Ellen. It was the first we tried Alten in, and it is how we found out that he reeeeally doesn't like being restrained. Initially he was fine in it while asleep, but if he awoke in it there was hell to pay. He's getting much more used to it, though. It's Margo's current favorite.
The next is a Baby Björn carrier, which was a gift from friends in Lakewood, Colorado. It's high tech, with metal and plastic and fabric and cool snapping things. It was the first one we could successfully keep him happy in, and is pretty easy to pop on and off. I have sported Alten around the grocery store a couple of times in it. I have also worn it in the woodshop, where it was comfy enough for him that he went to sleep while I was banging on the loppers that I'm trying to repair. The downsides are that it can only be worn on the front and that if you bend way over it feels like the occupant can fall right out. But it's great for walks and shopping.
Finally, my current favorite, the baby wrap. It was introduced to us by our friend Rebekah who, when we visited her family in February, gave us a complete workshop in which baby products and philosophies they found helpful. The baby wrap is a simple piece of fabric, in our case about 24" wide by 15' long, which you tie around yourself in processes reminiscent of origami. I was hooked by Rebekah's demonstration. Of further inspiration was the website, which gives instructions for more than 15 ways to tie your baby to you.
I like this one best at the moment because 1) Alten seems to tolerate it well, 2) it holds him very close to my own center of gravity, which is good for my back, and 3) he doesn't sway around in it as I walk.
We now feel confident in forging ahead with baby-wearing, and look forward to becoming more comfortable working in them.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Another Glorious Tool

We're building our tool base bit by bit. First came our spades and forks, both from Bountiful Gardens. Next, I am pleased to say, came our metal Haws watering can, also from BG. Pleased, because during Seed Propagation classes I would haul out the can and talk about what a great tool it was and that, despite its expense, it would be the first garden purchase I would make after spade and fork. (Then I would use it to water the flats we had just pricked out into, and everyone would ooh and ah.) There followed a string of other tools, like a rake, trenching spade, kama, pruners, sickles (which deserve their own post), and bow saw.
But the most recent is another classic in the small-scale world. Hula hoe, scuffle hoe, stirrup hoe; call it what you will, it fills a void. Once you start getting tools, you'll probably end up getting one of these. We use them to great effect one soil that needs a quick clearing of weeds or a little loosening up on top, and in between crops to take care of light weed troubles quickly.

After digging our first potatoes and harvesting our first grains we realized it was time, right then, to acquire our hoe. I went online looking at all the big chain stores in the area, like Lowes, Home Depot, and TSC (none of whom will I deign to hyperlink), trying to find the best deal to pick up on that day. Margo was on the phone catching up with our friend Elaine, who runs the butt-kicking CSA Everblossom Farm out in Adams County, PA. I was getting a bit overwhelmed, not finding a great looking specimen, so I had Margo ask Elaine where she'd go.

"Unless you have a really good hardware store, I'd buy from Johnny's. They sell great, sturdy stuff."
And I said "But we need it now. We'd have to wait to get it shipped. Where would you go if you wanted it now?"
"I'd order from Johnny's and wait. And then, later, I wouldn't be disappointed, because the tool wouldn't be crap."

While Elaine has many excellent qualities, two of the things I appreciate most about her are that she's straightforward and she has good judgment. Her advice carried, and soon after we ordered the 7" Stirrup Hoe from Johnny's Selected Seeds (and employee-owned company). And today it came!

Elaine's advice was really a reflection of our own tool-buying philosophy, which I had temporarily put on hold due to a feeling of urgency. When buying tools, only buy what you need. And, if possible, buy the best you can get. The best isn't necessarily the most expensive, but it will certainly not be the cheapest.

Our rationale is this: with a good tool you will work more efficiently and be a better steward of your resources Most of us nowadays don't have the skills to repair tools we break, but a good tool will 1) be less likely to break in the first place, 2) not be too flimsy to repair, and 3) will be worth the time, energy , and/or money to repair. Digging spades make a great example. We got a Clarington Forge spade for ~$70, which will last until the metal wears away, 30 or more years. If the handle breaks it can be replaced. It would be cheaper to buy a Craftsman digging spade from Sears for $25. They have a lifetime warranty, so when it breaks, which it will because the metal is pressed instead of forged, you just take it in and they'll replace it.

On the work end of things, a good tool allows you to accomplish your tasks with confidence in your tool. With a cheap tool you worry more about its limitations, and are not allowed give a task your all. The cheap tool will break more frequently, causing frustration and costing you time and possibly money.

On the resource end, a good tool may consume more resources or energy in its construction than a cheap tool, but the cheap tool will have a short lifespan. Then you'll need another, then another again. I note that fiberglass handles are quite popular, being more durable than wood. But when wood breaks it can be burned or cut into another handle. When fiberglass breaks it becomes trash and a health hazard. A future post will illustrate this reality with some personal experience...

So friends, buy worthwhile tools. Cast not thy talents into the abyss of cheapness.

I have been prevailed upon to include recent footage of Alten. This one highlights his cute hiccups.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Introducing Alten Lee!

I've been meaning to get to this post for at least a week, but have been somehow distracted by something cute and cuddly in the next room over...
Meet Alten! He was born in the wee hours, 3:57 am on June 28th, weighed in at 9 lb 9 oz, and was 21" long. He got a 9 on his 5-minute Apgar, for those of you who put stock in early standardized testing. Though he went a week and a half past his due date he came out with all the signs of being right on time.

The weeks leading up to his birth were getting more and more uncomfortable for Margo. We who once said "The baby can come whenever it wants" began saying "Ok baby, we are ready for you now."

In planning for the pregnancy we knew we wanted a home-birth if possible, and started seeing a midwife in California before we left. Between December and April we had no appointments, because we hadn't yet decided where we would be living. As soon as we set down our roots here in Ohio we started asking around, not even knowing if home-birth was legal in the Refined East. By grace we stumbled onto a home-birth midwife who is professional, knowledgeable, gentle, and inspires confidence and calm.We did end up birthing at home, in our bedroom, in a peaceful, safe atmosphere. It went beautifully, and I was grateful for the presence of our midwife and her team.

Above right shows Alten one day old on a changing pad made for us by friends in California. He's swaddled in a receiving blanket made for us by our Aunt in Florida because, as she said, "They just don't make those blankets big enough anymore."

At this point I would like to say that, from the time we announced the pregnancy up to this day, we have felt surrounded by the love and support of our friends and family everywhere. We've been given patience and understanding, money and gift cards, clothing and accouterments both purchased and hand-made, and words of wisdom and encouragement. We expect we will need a lot more of those last two, especially. Many, many thanks to all of you who kept us in your thoughts and/or prayers. Alten has a ton of aunts and uncles out there, and we tell him all about them :) And now for a bunch of pictures!

This is how Alten and I relax best.

And this is what a well-fed Alten looks like...

He has started training in his parents' disciplines. Here is some deep yoga (we think this is the one he has been rumored to practice for months at a time).

And here he is practicing his Aikido tenchi-nagi.

And finally, here's the whole family...
I think it is safe to say there will be more of this kind of thing in coming posts...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

First Fruits (and vegetables)

I'll begin by letting you all know that the baby hasn't come yet - we have a long list of folks to notify, and probably all of you are on it (unless we don't know you personally). You ought to know within a day when it arrives. We remain grateful for all the thoughts and prayers coming our way, and we tell the baby all the time that it is expected, with love, by many.
So that said, we have harvested the very first products of our garden labors. Margo's coveted Schweizer Riesen snow peas and our dear Red Russian kale came of age today! They were both featured in a lentil dish that Margo concocted for dinner.

In the interests of data collection we plan to weigh all of the harvests out of the demonstration garden, which is the 4,000 sq ft area we are starting with. And in the interests of juggling our numbers with greater ease (as almost everyone else in the world does) we will be using the metric system in our garden, for weights at least. Anyone who has frequently had need to do calculations using pounds and ounces will understand, as will anyone who has tried to teach someone from another country how to do calculations using pounds and ounces.

This has long been our plan, and a friend who used to teach middle school science and recently retired scored us a metric triple-beam balance to aid us in our quest.

Today we recorded 60.7 g of kale and 117 g of snow peas (photos pending). I feel like a world citizen already!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Confusion and the Art of Tractor Maintenance

We have this classy old Ford 2000 tractor that does all of our big mowing and pulling around of heavy things. To look at a clean one you can click here. It's a small tractor, easy to use, and has the bare minimum of parts. When something goes wrong, then, it's about as easy as a thing can be to fix. Provided you know what any given part does, what its name is, and where it can be found. Two out of three isn't good enough - but that's what friends are for!
It hasn't been starting well for the past six months, and sometimes hasn't started at all. Most recently I was mowing pretty far out and turned it off so I could sit in the shade for a bit and breath clean air (it smokes out the bottom of the engine pretty good sometimes, but I am assured that isn't fatal). I got back on to take it home, turned the key, and got nothing but a clacking noisemaker sound. Repeated attempts yielded similar results. I went to get the truck to jump it, but to no avail.
Luckily the husband of one of Mom's egg cartel friends does tractor maintenance, among many other things, so I called up Larry. He's very knowledgeable, kind and compassionate, which is a great set of traits. It means he won't laugh at me if I sound unintentionally foolish, and treats me as if I know what I'm doing.
Larry suggested that if the battery was alright (or jumping it didn't work) then it was probably the solenoid starter or the starter motor. Both of which I had heard the names of before. I even knew what the starter motor was for. He said "The solenoid will have four posts on it, two little ones and two big ones. One big one is from the battery terminal, the other big one goes to the starter motor. One little one goes to the ground, and one comes from the ignition." I can't remember if I had found the solenoid by this point.
"To see if it's the ignition that's the problem you can just create a short around that. You want to get a screwdriver and touch it to the big post coming into the solenoid and the little wire going to the ignition." I never understood the principle of hot-wiring before, but this kind of explains it. You bypass the ignition by sticking a conductive device across the contacts the ignition itself is supposed to connect.
We hung up and I looked for the solenoid. It took longer than necessary, but I did find it. I found the big posts and the little posts, and tried the hot-wiring. It didn't work at all, so I called Larry back.
"Well if that doesn't work" he said," it means the ignition isn't the problem, and the solenoid might be bad. So then you'll want to try bypassing the solenoid by making a short between the main posts. But you'll want a big screwdriver for that." Unfortunately the posts are on opposites sides of the solenoid, and I don't have a screwdriver shaped like that. Larry suggested that I use a wire, but a big wire, because it would be taking the whole load of the battery.
I didn't have anything big, but I did have some electric fence wire. I figured three strands would be good enough, so I twisted them together, bent them in a U, and held them onto the posts with rubber-handled pliers. The three strands lit up on the ends like a light bulb and commenced to actually burn. That's about when I remembered I had jumper cables in the truck. Those elicited a pleasant spark, but nothing else. Larry's reaction was that it may be the starter, but that starters don't often just completely quit working - they wheeze, grind, or otherwise attempt their job. His last suggestion was to get the solenoid and starter tested.
The solenoid was easy to remove, so I did that first. I took it in to the equipment repair place where we get everything smaller than a tractor fixed, and the guy tested it. It looked fine to him, and his only advice was to rub off any corrosion and make sure it made good contact to the tractor frame where it bolted on. Apparently every electrical component on this tractor is grounded all over the place.
I scrubbed it, stuck it back on with all it's wires, and turned the key... Click. At least it wasn't the clacking noisemaker. I was inspired to try jumping it again, and this time it coughed to life. I did not turn it off until it was safe in the barn. Once there, it refused to start again.

While carpooling to Aikido with a friend who had been a master mechanic (not that you'd have to be for this observation) I was told "You need a new battery. It could be the generator, but you definitely need a new battery." So I got a new battery, and I'll hook it up today. (At right is the solenoid, featuring big copper posts on left and right).
You might say Larry gave me misleading advice, but this is what I appreciate so much about Larry: he took me at my word that I jumped it correctly (which I didn't) and that we could rule that piece out. He then led me through further troubleshooting. He didn't say "I know you tried jumping it, but I still think it's the battery," and he didn't say "are you sure you jumped it right? Try it again and do it this way. Maybe I should come over and make sure you know how to jump your own piece of equipment." That would have been aggravating. So he let me make my own mistake. Which, incidentally, was attaching the cable to the negative battery post on the tractor instead of the frame when jumping it. This tractor just doesn't swing that way...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wiggles and Giggles

A complete change of subject matter is in order as I, Margo, compose my first blog entry. I’ll have you know I’ve already created several in my head, so you’ve enjoyed various imaginary-entries on topics ranging from garden planning, tough choices in a first season, using the goods in the kitchen, and rain water barrels! I hope you’ve enjoyed them.

But now, I’ll just make a quick note about the most prominent reality of life: PREGNANCY! We are now at 40 weeks. The counting is a little strange, basically this means full term, at our “due date,” and very large! I’ve now gained 30-35 pounds, surpassing Dan months ago and full of baby.

Little Royer-Miller has several baby names on the list for selection when we meet him/her and some pet names we use now. I oscillate between Little Munchkin, Wigglet, and Babilicious.

Movement is one of the most amazing things, the baby moving I mean. (Though my movement at this stage is notable.) It started as butterfly flutters in my belly in January and has now progressed to major kicks with tiny feet sticking out of my belly on the left side. Leg action just under my ribcage is visible to family members sitting across the table. And the little butt is probably the cutest thing ever on my right side, sometimes it rolls around as the feet move. All of this is totally miraculous and periodically sends me into giggle fits. Will I giggle as much at her/his every move when in front of me instead of inside? Only time will tell.

Last note, as you can see from the previous pictures I continued to work in the garden, transplanting and weeding on hands and knees, through 8 months. At this point my body doesn’t like it. So I prepare for the baby at home, room prep, cooking, napping, grounding, etc. while Dan prepares by getting as much done in the garden as he can. All his work feels so important and special to me right now, not being comfortable there myself. It is his gift of support and keeps us moving forward on our path as we wait for the new arrival to grace our lives and join the journey.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cleansing Our Pallets, Part II

The internet will back me up on this: there are endless uses for the ubiquitous pallet. And, in this case, necessity is the mother of invention. My necessity was to get rid of extra pieces of pallets that wouldn't work for building flats. Believe it or not, all those "waste" stringers I mentioned in Part I were the perfect material for something else I didn't even think about needing: tables to put the flats on! Construction was very simple. Each table requires 11 stringers, which you can get from three or four pallets (depending on their design). I started by removing the extra wood and nails from them. This step isn't absolutely necessary for the legs and top surface, but it looks much nicer and you won't have nails grabbing you as you walk by.
I had removed the boards for flat material by cutting right along each stringer with a circular saw. That left the stringers you see in the photo here, complete with pieces of board still nailed in. I found I could break these off of the nails easily with sideways hammer blows. I was left with nails that could not be pulled out. Most would allow themselves to be hammered in, some were bent and hammered flat.

All of the stringers were 48" long, so I let that dictate the length and width of the table. Two stringers would form the crosspieces, making the table 48" long, and five stringers would be cut in half to make ten surface pieces for a 24" wide table. The legs were cut to 37" to create a reasonable height. I chose the six straightest, flattest, and strongest stringers for the legs and cross-pieces.

I assembled the surface first, laying the 24" surface pieces flat on the cross pieces and nailing them. The gap between each was something like 1½". Then I upended the surface and attached the legs with screws. I spent some time making sure they were square before affixing them, but it turned out not to make a clear difference. They were a little wonky anyway.

When I righted the whole thing it was obvious that it was not so stable, so I added the diagonals you see in the photos. They were scrap flat material.

I needn't state that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that function often comes before aesthetics for me. If I find that Warren Buffet writes me into his will I may commission an Amish cabinet maker to fashion me some nice mahogany flat tables. Until that point, though, I will be very pleased with these. They are sturdy enough to jump up and down on (our seedlings do a lot of that), durable enough to last at least a few seasons, and were free wood.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

You Think YOU Have Problems?

Just imagine how this guy felt.
When Margo was walking through the dog room this morning she noticed that we had a guest. "Hey Dan! Come here. There's a chipmunk stuck in the window." I'm not sure what I heard her say, but it wasn't that, because I stayed at the table eating my oatmeal. At her insistence I came to look, and was surprised. And, of course, went to get the camera.
Some folks use video to make an educational impact. I can already tell that, on this blog at least, it is going to be reserved for entertainment. Here's the main idea: this chipmunk is in between the window and the window screen. How did it get there? Who knows.

We just know how we wanted to get it out.

It would have been pretty easy to remove the screen and let it jump the five or so feet to the ground, but then it would have had to face three dogs who were anxious to make its acquaintance. So we got it out the other way, and got another priceless photo.
I think the whole operation will go smoother the next time this happens. If only we had gotten to practice first on a sloth...

Baby spinach, anyone? It's organic!

Monday, May 10, 2010


That would be the state of contentment with one's ancient wheat. We finished our spring grain planting a week or two ago, spotted any damaged or disappeared plants last week, and can now settle in for the joy of watching it tiller and grow. While we're doing everything else, that is. You can find the varieties we planted below in The First Transplant. Next year we will put in some less common varieties of barley and spring wheat that we ordered from Bountiful Gardens to see how they do in our climate.
But back to our featured star. Kamut, like an ancient anything, is kind of a funny bird. Its past, previous to its appearance in the US in 1949, is foggy. A concise assessment of the story can be found here. And a briefer one follows: A US Airman stationed in Portugal was approached by a man who offered him 36 grains of this wheat, telling him it was found in a pyramid tomb in Egypt. He mailed them home to his grain-growing Dad, who grew them to great satisfaction.
It makes for an entertaining story, which could be embellished (but not verified) to a great extent. Without knowing more it could be taken as a complete hoax. But Kamut, compared to modern improved wheat, has a much larger kernal, and despite its 30% higher protein content it doesn't illicit a reaction from many who have wheat allergies. Adding that its DNA is different enough from modern varieties that geneticists have had a hard time figuring out its definite origins, you have a compelling case that it has remained out of breeding circulation for a long time.
(Here are images comparing Kamut with a variety of hard red winter wheat. I would have taken them myself, but, um, we planted all of ours. These are from and, respectively.)
And don't bother looking it up on wikipedia. As of this posting the entry for Kamut looks like it was written by the company that holds its patent. What? It's patented? Yes, I was skeptical too, but I can see where they are coming from. They got the patent in 1990, which made it one of the only 5 non-genetically engineered patented plants (there were already 65 patented GE plants by then). The company gives their explanation on the "Why a Trademark?" portion of their site. And, I have to say, it seems like an ok idea. Especially because Kamut is already in wide circulation, its growing is not in any way prohibited, and the trademark seems to be applied only to the marketing of it. As opposed to Monsanto, who might sue you into bankruptcy for unknowingly having one of their patented seeds in your field. Instead, it seems that Kamut International is trying to maintain the purity of seed claiming to be Kamut. Which is fine by me.

We were aided in our planting by my sister Anne, who was visiting for a few days. As you can see, we were all working together on a strict timeline. That's me, behind, double-digging the bed just before they move their digging board back. Not standard operating procedure. But good, wholesome, community agriculture fun all the same!