Thursday, December 8, 2011

Liebster and Other Shouts

Our friend Cindy Conner labeled us lately as one of her five Liebster Award choices. For those unfamiliar with the movement, as I was till last month, it is a cross between an acknowledgment of your own reading choices, an advertisement to your own readers for those blogs, and a chain letter.

Recipients are supposed to link to the giver's blog, choose five of their own favorite blogs (having less than 200 followers) to pass the award on to, leave a comment in each blog notifying the writer that you chose them, and paste the award icon on your blog.I think this is a great idea for two reasons. Number one, it encourages me to do what I have wanted to do since starting this blog; namely, give credit to the people and organizations that I think people should know about. Number two, there are only six blogs I follow that I read to gain information beyond updates on friends and family, and the award was passed on by one of them.
So let the naming commence!I hereby dedicate as my Liebster Blogs The Gardenerd Blog, My Corner of Japan, Postilius, Turkeysong Blog, and Mojeji Farm's Blog. is a project (company?) of Christy Wilhelmi, who offers classes, consulting, garden design, garden maintenance services, and speaks at events. As if it weren't enough that she does all of that, she is also a prolific blogger, posting on gardening topics so diverse I dare not even attempt to outline the range. Some of her posts center on events and region-specific garden tips for southern California, but many are pertinent to any growing situation. She's a treat to read, and is an excellent resource through the information she provides.

My Corner of Japan is written by a guy named Eric who does some wonderful documentation of yet more wonderful homesteading projects in Japan. Have I ever met Eric? I don't think so... He posted a comment on a post of mine once, and I have been reading his blog ever since. Eric's writing also covers a wide variety of topics. There's the cob oven, the parabolic solar cooker, the rice paddy, the rocket stove, and, of course, the kusakariki, not to mention his family's experience with the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear reactor issues. His posts are short and to the point, but don't lack in amusement or lessons.

Postilius is written by a couple who are friends of my sister. I would describe it as more of a sociologists' kind of commentary, but with child-raising as the focus. Their child, specifically. And it is most interesting to me both because they have a similar philosophy of parenting and my kind of humor. A look at the Positilius "labels" sidebar gives a good indication of their subject matter.

Turkeysong is the name of a homestead belonging to friends we met during our time in northern California. Steven and Tamara are two of the most incredible primitive-skills practitioners I know, and seem driven to share the information they have. Consequently the Turkeysong Blog, written by Steven, is not a weak, trivial, or watered-down thing that only takes up space. His choice of topic and degree of detail are not for everyone, but when he chooses to write about something it is because he's either already very knowledgeable or is currently learning a great deal about it. It's like The Economist of my blogroll. With our little boy running around, I can't usually make it through an entire Turkeysong post at one sitting. One disclaimer - while Steven is a committed and experienced gardener, his leeks are of uncommonly notable size and he is quite proud on that point. You've been warned...

Finally, Mojeji Ranch is the home of two generations of our Schrock friends. Roger and Carolyn have been raising beef and goats for a regional market for many years. Jon and Janelle Flory-Schrock joined them in the past couple of years, expanding the herd (of cattle), brood (of chickens), flock (of goats), confusion (of guinea fowl), drove (of pigs) and whatnot that now call Mojeji home. Incidentally, out of all these blogs, Mojeji's location is the only one I've physically visited. They post somewhat sporadically, and I follow to keep up with what they are doing, but I think that collectively they would have a vast store of knowledge to share if they chose to put it down on the blog. And I think they should :)

Cindy, who passed on the award to me, writes a blog that goes by the name of Homeplace Earth. Cindy is a tireless educator, and her writings are always inspiring to me. She's been living the life we are working into for a good long time, and in that way sets a good example of a practical pace to maintain joyful simplicity. I'd pass her a Liebster, too, but she's already got one, you see.

There you have it - my choice of online reading for the topics of sustainability, farming, and simple living.

As for the other shouts, I'm taking this opportunity to initiate another set of sidebars [coming in the next couple of days] to list some websites and organizations that I find pertinent to our work. As I mentioned above, it's something I have been wanting to do for a while. One of the benefits of the internet is the ability to form loose and flexible affiliations, associations, and webs of knowledge that can build on and enhance a person's interests. On that note, I'll end with one of my favorite Indigo Girls quotes from their song, Tether:

"I see this world battered, but not broken. See, there's a fallow heart, and it's waiting on a sowing hand. You can grow what you want, but one day it's gonna rise up, so plant what you need to make a better stand."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

California, 11/11

We're still catching our breath from the trip west that we took towards the end of October. Since we left nearly two years ago we have been returning to the Willits area each March and November to teach at Ecology Action's Three-Day Workshop, as previously noted in posts last November and this past March. It's a great opportunity to teach and stay closely connected with happenings on site at Ecology and the Golden Rule Garden, but it's also a chance to see friends out there. In March the timing is tight; since much of our garden is in its infancy as needy seedlings in flats, we rush out to the workshop and back. But in November the winter crops are in, growth is slow, and we have more time.
So this November we decided to do the big trip, swinging through southern California where I lived for a couple of years and made friends that remain important to us. Then on the other side of the workshop we visited as many of our friends in the Bay Area as we could. In all, we were away from home for three weeks. We both imagined Alten would have a hard time with the trip, but he thrived on the time spent with folks we know well, who all wanted to meet him badly. A brief account follows:

First stop was LAX, that beast of an airport that is simply too big and busy to be pleasant. Luckily our time there was short, and our friend Robin (at right, giving Alten her watch) picked us right up. We had to wait on the checked bag, of course. I want it noted, by the way, that we had only one checked bag, two backpacks, and a car seat, for three weeks of travel with a 17-month-old. Thank you for your applause.

We stayed with Robin in Carbon Canyon, an unlikely piece of land in the LA area in that it is not completely encrusted with concrete. Her place is an approximately 575 ft² cabin which, having now experienced it, we consider to be a great size for a home. You can clean the whole thing thoroughly in an hour! Robin has noted that the same people who seem shocked at how small her space is also comment how much easier life would be for them if their own house were that size. She took us hiking, seeing friends, surfing, and hanging out. Alten is still talking about the surfing.

Then we stayed a few days with Shawn and Ryan, who pursue music, gardening, healthy living, and delicious food. While during waking hours Alten competed with their small dog Meeko for food scraps, they were seen to sleep happily together at nap time. And Alten got his first up-close look at a squirrel, which was in turn looking for food right outside the front window (at left are pictured me, Alten and Shawn). While there, we saw all our friends, rode motorcycles with Kevin, played volleyball, ate Mediterranean, had great conversation, and got to see our friend Frank Wayne's urban homestead in Cypress.. Alten would add that he saw a zebra truck (you can see the very one here), saw palm trees, and got to play on a slide for the first time.

We then traveled to Willits via Amtrak, which involved a two hour bus ride, five hour train ride, then another three hours on the bus. So, really, only slightly different from Greyhound. It was an exhausting day, but we did get where we were going. Ellen Bartholomew picked us up and took us to Christ's Church of the Golden Rule, where we had lived for the second two years of our time with Ecology Action.

Our trips to Willits are always full with visiting friends, so on this one we scheduled an extra few days to slow the pace a little. Despite that our time quickly filled. Tuesday night of our visits always means Aikido at the Willits dojo, and Wednesday is Aikido at the Ukiah dojo. We have meals with the Golden Rule community, Carol Cox, the Jeavons', our Willits Spinning Guild people, and a few other friends. We stop by Bountiful Gardens, we try to see our Quaker meeting friends, the head librarian of the Willits branch, and our good ol' dentist's office. And this time we added to the mix a trip up the road a ways to Polcum Springs, an intentional community that seeks to nurture the natural world as well as its own members. We visited a friend who lives there, and through the tour and explanation of its history were impressed with the creativity and forethought that has been a part of its foundation. And next time we go we will follow the advice of the hand-painted sign posted as you turn off of Highway 101: "Use 4WD. If you don't have it, buy a truck that does."

Throughout the visit we got to spend time here and there with the current Golden Rule Garden interns, Fernanda, Luke, and Rashid, and the field coordinator and his wife, Randy and Amy.

Then, of course, comes the workshop! I can't speak highly enough of the participants in general, but the attendees of this workshop, specifically, were incredibly positive. It is always a joy to interact with folks who are all there to learn more about treating their own piece of land better. There are beginners, there are folks working in other countries, there are entrepreneurs, and there are experienced gardeners who'd like to learn more about GB. And their energy always leaves me empowered to continue our work here with renewed vigor.

I'd post photos from the workshop, but our camera was out of commission just then. If anyone wants to send some of their own, I'd gladly post them :)

After the Three Day Workshop we had a few more days planned to visit friends in the Bay Area. First came Bridget, who has a boat in Oakland. It's beautiful inside and out, and inspires me to sail around the world. Unfortunately I could only spend about 20 minutes on it at a time before feeling quite ill from motion sickness. The next day we got a chance to meet Samuel Nderitu, Peris' husband. He was attending the Community Food Security Coalition conference, where he accepted an honorable mention for the 2011 Food Sovereignty Prize on behalf of G-BIACK. It was great to meet him, and encouraging to hear how active G-BIACK is and how much more they will be doing in the coming year.

We headed over to visit our friend Tina for the next evening, and spent some relaxing time talking and singing with her. It is a mark of how familiar we are with her space that, though the BART roars past less than a block away, we slept fine.
Finally, we traveled (by that very same BART) to Pacifica/Monterra to visit Loretta and Alan, who have active roles in the Pacifica Gardens project (above). I am inspired by the accomplishments that have come from its 3½ year history, and can't wait to see what the next few years bring. The project just had its 3rd annual "100-Mile Meal" fundraising dinner, which is a big hit, and which I wish I could have attended. The nasturtium-leaf pesto alone would have been worth it.

As a bonus trip, mere days after returning, we left for northern Ohio to attend a camping conference. Among the highlights of that trip were 1) hand-cranking ice-cream, 2) presenting a 2-hour class on Grow Biointensive and the relevance of a functional garden to a camp, and 3) visiting Lehman's Hardware and Appliances, which was about five times more overwhelming than their mail-order catalog. As part of our class we had participants come up with creative ideas for designing sustainable gardens with summer camp applications (pictured at left).

Now, with our travels behind us, we are left to contemplate the rest of our winter season. Before the ground thaws out in the spring we hope to have formed the bones of a 10-year plan for Circle of the Sun, including housing, water, land use, educational program, garden expansion, and perennials. Whew! Hope this winter is a long, harsh one...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Composting 102

This post is meant to follow Composting 101 . Originally published in the Golden Rule Garden blog, it's been updated for Circle of the Sun.
Alright, now for some application of the principles. First, where does one acquire such copious amounts of mature and immature material? There are three options: don't worry about it and build piles with what you've got, scavenge from your neighborhood or surrounding land, or plan to grow enough of what you need. Each option has its upside and downside.
Using what you have available is easiest, but does not always end in a balanced pile. Usually you will be heavier on the immature material, unless you buy a bale of straw, which leads to the second option.
Scavenging from the woods, fields, lawns and farm supply stores can also lead to an unbalanced pile, but that is less likely. The only three objections I can think of are that it might cost money, the material may have qualities you don't want to introduce to your system (like pesticides, weed seeds, etc.), and you would technically be stealing fertility from another source. Granted, the local coffee shop may only have one other outlet for all those grounds (the trash) but you are still importing it to your system. Obviously this last objection is more philosophy than practicality. The farmer we learned from in our first internship made a deal with the township that, when they went around in the fall collecting leaves from curbs, they would dump them on his farm. He would then mix these massive piles with some nitrogenous material (horse manure) and let it compost. Often, when spreading this compost, we would find little plastic toys that got raked up with the leaves. It kept us amused... and sometimes made us wonder what else the leaves carried with them. But this farmer had found an incredible amount of mature material, delivered right to his farm, for free. And you can't really argue about the practicality of that. He was farming on a market scale, though, where most of the farm's nutrients are being exported as food. You have to balance things somehow.
Ok, so addressing the first point of the second paragraph: a pile that is unbalanced, favoring the immature. For the record, "unbalanced" is completely relative here, because things will compost no matter what. But when we are trying to get the best possible result, we should keep an eye on what goes in. Allow me to dig briefly into the biology of the compost pile: Once you have built it, the microorganisms in the environment go to work, assuming there is enough moisture. They consume, among other items, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Unless the pile is too wet, in which case the pile turns anaerobic, meaning the microorganisms doing the work operate without oxygen. This will smell bad, your neighbors will resent you, and the finished product will not be so pleasant. I speak from experience.
But assuming it is aerobic, meaning oxygen is involved, your compost will smell nice or not at all. As the microorganisms go to work their metabolisms rise and with it their temperature, so much so that the temperature of the whole pile rises. Eventually it will get too hot for the active population of microbes, at which point other populations will become active. This continues until the material available to the microbes is consumed by them.
How hot does it get? That depends on the food you are presenting to the microbes. Two things will affect temperature most: the amount of immature material and the amount of oxygen. If you build a pile only out of grass clippings your pile may get quite hot, upwards of 180° F. If you forget to apply water to a pile of grass clippings and chicken manure (which is HIGH in available nitrogen) it can conceivably get hot enough to combust. Don't try this at home, kids. When a pile gets turned, oxygen is brought into the system in new quantities, which will cause the microbes to become active again, heating up the pile.
Heat is beneficial, to a degree (ha!). It means things are working, and at a faster pace than if the temperature were lower. But at a certain level heat becomes unproductive, causing some of the nutrients to which you'd like to hold on turn into gases and exit the pile. Additionally, high heat will kill populations of microbes. Which is actually the point in some composting schools of thought. If you can get your compost pile to reach 160° F or more it will kill most of the disease-causing microbes and many of the seeds that made it into the pile. The downside is that, along with most of the pathogens, all of the beneficial microbes will be killed off. And what holds your garden's diseases in check? Beneficial microbes. So all you have left in your pile is the most tenacious population. In Grow Biointensive we aim not to eradicate negative populations, but keep them balanced by the beneficial populations.
What, then, is the ideal temperature? We aim for no higher than 140° F. Oops! How did that picture get there? We have compost thermometers with 18" probes to get to the middle - a very handy educational tool. This pile got a little too warm by our standards. The photo at right showcases a more reasonable temperature.
These are both examples of classic late-spring piles. Our mature materials from the year before are almost used up, but we still have immature cover crops to pull out. These immature crops are becoming more and more mature in quality, but still have that slightly higher nitrogen content. So the piles, like the days, tend to be warmer. In the fall we have lots and lots of mature material but not much immature. They tend to be cooler. The air temperature plays a role, too. If it is freezing outside you probably won't have a 140° F pile.
As to the turning, it is a trade-off. Some nutrients will be lost in the turning, it's true, but if you don't turn it at least once the materials on the edges of the pile will not break down. We generally compromise by turning each pile once. (For the uninitiated, turning involves taking the pile, fork-full by fork-full, and rebuilding it in a neighboring location. Not flipping it over all at once.) There are contraptions called "Compost Tumblers", which are drums that pivot on a horizontal axis. They allow you to put your materials in and turn them as often as you like. Once again, more oxygen, higher heat, and cured compost faster. With greater nutrient loss.
What is turning into a series will probably wrap up with the third post, which will cover manure, undesirable material, compost quantities, and miscellaneous other. Enjoy!


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Adventures in Solar Cookery

This summer with Peris and Mary we explored a subject that has great potential in Kenya, as it does here: solar cooking. In Kenya a significant amount of time and/or money goes into fuel for cooking. Either you pay for coal, gas, or wood, or you wander far and wide (and risk assault) looking for a source of wood, which is scarce in the largely deforested country. The capacity of sunlight to heat a surface offers an endless supply of energy which, when used passively, doesn't even require much in the way of raw materials to harness it.
Much credit for spreading the word about solar cooking must go to the organization aptly named Solar Cookers International. Former Ecology Action Garden Manager Carol Cox was fascinated by their work, and taught many years' worth of EA interns how to make simple and cheap cardboard box cookers. Which is how we, in turn, learned how to share the low-tech, high efficiency tool with others.
Our first foray into the world of solar cooking actually came in the form of a wedding present from our friends Sarah and Jim. This Sun Oven is a portable, high-powered solar cooker that involves a collapsible reflector, adjustable prop, and and a few other features that even make it possible to bake bread (at left) on a clear day.
The one Carol taught us to make, while not as powerful, is still capable of cooking grains, potatoes, meat, etc., pasteurizing water, and canning fruit and tomatoes. It involves two cardboard boxes, some glue, aluminum foil, silicon caulk, and a piece of glass. Plans can be found on the SCI website in book form for a mere $7. The book includes recipes and principles of using the box cooker.
Last but not least, the product of another gift... The Jeavons' gave me a book called The Solar Food Dryer which, among other things, gives plans for building an entirely passive-solar food dehydrator (no electricity involved). Aficionados of the Golden Rule Garden blog will undoubtedly have read my post on constructing it back in 2009, but for a much clearer explanation of the process check out the Gardenerd blog post on the topic. After building a third iteration, pictured at right, I only have a couple points of advice to add to the dialogue. First, the book recommends using stove paint on the metal heat collector. While this paint is good to 1,200°F, it is faaar from environmentally friendly. Plus it's $13 a can. This time I used a few coats of black tempura paint, which is not as durable, but is much cheaper and much less toxic. Second, this time I had to actually go out and buy a piece of metal for the heat collector, and found sheets of galvanized steel for something around $22. But galvanized ductwork was more like $13 for the same area, so I got that and banged it flat. And finally, the screen that the food sits on to dry: I like cheap, but this time I bought the stuff that the book recommends instead of using free (but icky) aluminum or fiberglass screen. And you know what? The dried food comes off like a dream! Well worth the $18-$20.
Without going into great depth on cooking pointers, the basics to solar cooking are as follows: It generally takes more time to cook with the sun, and this is the only downside. The upsides are many. Since there is no danger of your food (or your house) burning if you leave solar cooking food unattended, you can put out a dish in the morning and leave it till lunch or supper. Because of the nature of solar cooking your food will not dry out, and will often be much more moist and flavorful than food cooked on a stove or in a standard oven. And the cardboard box cookers (at left) are very inexpensive to build, so by making a few of them you'd have the capacity to cook for a great many people at once, with no fuel, while you are yourself working somewhere else the whole day long! Even in our climate, with the presence of cloudy days, solar cooking is tremendously practical. It merely takes an understanding of the principles and a willingness to work with the weather.
The solar food dryer, too, is dreamy. In its very first batch, our new one simultaneously dried tomatoes, basil, and bananas (see the close-up at top). The tomatoes and basil have been gracing our sourdough bread for the past couple of months, but I must confess that the bananas didn't last a day before being consumed. I don't have as much experience as others in its use yet, but the aforementioned Gardenerd blog has advice on making Flax Chips and Kale Chips, and drying mint and leeks with the solar dryer. I can tell you, though, that even in this humid climate this simple dryer works well.
I'd encourage anyone interested to give it a shot. In the worst case you'll come out with a conversation piece. In the best case you will change your diet, cut your fuel costs drastically, and become a calmer, happier, and more charmingly eccentric person!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bracing for Reentry

It has been a whirlwind of a summer, which officially ended last Friday with both Autumn Equinox and the last day of the internship we were leading for Peris and Mary. Two days later we took them to the airport, and two days after that we got word that they had arrived safely in Nairobi. Big sighs of relief all the way around.
As a result of our combined attentions we dug all that could be dug in the garden, kept weeds at bay, harvested reliably, threw a great garden tour, built a solar food dehydrator, built a solar box cooker, and froze, canned, and dried food. The rest of the workday was spent with lecture time, discussion, presentations by Peris and Mary on the topics we were covering, and working through the 10 forms Ecology Action has devised to bind diet, sustainability, and income together (quantitatively) in a small area.
Outside of garden time Peris and Mary had the opportunity to experience many potlucks, share their traditional food with the friends they made, speak to a number of groups about the situation in Kenya and the work of G-BIACK, play cornhole, visit the Great Darke County Fair, tour a few market gardens and a conventional farming operation, see an Aikido ranking, and read just about every book on the topic of agriculture available in the Dayton Public Library system (thanks to Zach and Wendy). As I mentioned in my last post, I plan to write more about some highlights in the future.
The internship took nearly all of our energy, but was extremely rewarding in that Peris and Mary both feel better prepared to work against the poverty, sickness, and food insecurity that are a constant pressure on Kenya. We, in turn, have learned effective techniques to care for certain crops, concepts in water efficiency, and countless other pieces of wisdom to help us run the garden better, to say nothing of the inspiration we were given every time one of them would say "Just wait, in ten years this place will be beautiful. It will be worth all the hard work you are doing now."
So now, as we face a short Fall of corn and sorghum harvest and grain and cover crop planting, then a long winter of planning for next year, we'll also be looking back in gratitude for the time we've had with Peris and Mary. If you have a moment, please take some time to consider the state of the world, and be grateful that there are people like Peris and Mary out there working tirelessly on a community level to make it better.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Happened to July?

I've been asking myself the same question.
The answer explains a lot in terms of the absence of blog posts, given the number of 11:30 pm bedtimes, 6 am wakeups, and days scheduled completely full.
Literally, the answer is Interns.
In partnership with Ecology Action we are hosting two women from Thika, Kenya for a nearly 3-month internship in Grow Biointensive agriculture. Both are connected with Grow-Biointensive Agricultural Center of Kenya (G-BIACK), which is an incredibly productive non-governmental agency that serves as a resource for orphans, individuals with AIDS, and the elderly as well as local and regional farmers. I recommend checking out the G-BIACK website and this 12-minute video about their work. And, actually, you should send links to any friends or family who don't think anything good is happening in the world these days, because this organization's efforts are truly noteworthy.
The two women who are joining us are Peris Wanjiru and Mary Wangui. Peris (at left) and her husband, Samuel Nderitu, who have been teachers and practitioners of Grow Biointensive for thirteen years, are the founders of G-BIACK. Mary (at right) is one of the extension agents G-BIACK employs to travel locally and regionally teaching sustainable farming techniques.
Naturally we are honored to be sharing our knowledge with two such motivated and committed women, and have been gaining plenty from our side of the relationship.
You'll see a lot of them in the coming months' posts.
We learned early on that the range of temperatures they generally experience is from 60°F to 77°F. So the brutally hot and humid weather we had during July was especially difficult for them, and they get high marks for acclimating as well as they have so far. (For the record, our daily schedule has us in the garden during the morning, lunch around noon, and class in the afternoon under a tree.)
Needless to say, the garden is in excellent shape. We are right around 83% completion of the total area, with our sights set on around 4100 sq ft by the time Peris and Mary leave (the final 100 sq ft have a poison ivy infestation that is waiting for winter). The Garden Stats at right will reflect this when I get the numbers crunched.
So fear not, constant readers! We have not evaporated or succumbed to heat-stroke. We've been up to some great things, to which future posts will attest...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Spring 2011 Wrap-Up

I intended to publish this post last weekend, but the same storm that changed our moisture situation sent a lightening bolt from the very heavens to fry our modem, router, and desktop computer. The Time Warner guy just came out today to fix the problem. So here's the post, updated and modified...
Solstice is less than a week away, and spring feels quite over. We'd been facing temperatures just grazing 100° F the week before last, and the sogginess of the excessive rain had long since worn off by the Thursday before last. In fact, for the first time this year it was too dry to dig. That's a problem we didn't face until mid July last year. Additionally, our 330 gallons of rain catchment were almost gone from watering seedlings.
That said, we were already in a much better place than we were this time last year. In fact, in terms of area dug and planted, we were in a better place than we were by the end of last season. As of June 7th we had completed 1,852 ft2, 44.1% of the total, which exceeds last year's approximately 42%. As of the 8th we passed the halfway mark, which, though it is only symbolic, is a great boost to morale around here. And by last Thursday, the 16th, we had 62.8% of the garden prepared and planted!
How is it possible that our completed area grew so rapidly? It's all because Margo was off doing good works for days at a time, Alten dutifully by her side. They were off site for about 8 whole days, and that allowed me to obsess about how much work there was to do in the garden. Most of that amounted to bed preparation, compost sifting, and miscellaneous projects like putting up fencing and a tool rack. It has, of course, been good to have them both back. Margo returned to plant flowers (our first nasturtium bloom is at right), harvest our alfalfa and clover, build compost, weed, and remind me of the order of priorities.

Weatherwise, in the past month we've had 8 days in the 90's, and a concurrent run of 13 days with no more than .25" of rain, which is only a problem because we have so many young plants out right now. That spate of dry was broken by the aforementioned storm, which dumped 1.7" on us. A bit much all at once, but far better than nothing. We are now up to a titch over 28" for the year, with more rain in our near future.

Most of the garden is doing very well. We were a bit late in planting our sorghum, amaranth, tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini, but they look like they are catching on well. The large sections that need to go in yet are sweet potatoes, sweet corn, 300 more ft2 of flour corn, and the dry beans that will be interplanted with that and the rest of the corn.

We've learned a few things already this season. We always try to keep experimenting in the garden, and often the experiments are results of compromise between what would be best for the plants versus what is possible for us. Our parsnips, for instance, which we flat and transplant. It would have required 10 or more flats for the area we planned, and we didn't have that many. We decided to plant 2 flats and broadcast the rest directly on the bed. It is clear at this point that we will get great results from the ones we flatted and transplanted, while the broadcast section has not come up well at all and is much weedier. At left are this year's flowers from last year's parsnip planting (since they're biennial), attracting beneficials.

Another lesson was compost in the flat soil. We don't currently have enough compost to either mix our ideal flat soil for all the flats or apply compost to all the beds, so we decided to use it on the beds that will produce our major biomass, like corn, millet, and sorghum. But it was becoming clear that our germination was suffering for the lack of organic matter and humus in the flat soil, so we started mixing it in for at least some of the important seeds. The result was much better germination, better drainage for the flats, and greater ease in removing seedlings when transplanting.

Along with flatting and transplanting, we have gained more insight into when seedlings have gotten too big to plant.

We learned the importance of cover-cropping, too. The one bed that was prepared last year but not cover-cropped for the winter has significant weed issues, in contrast with the cover-cropped ones, which have relatively few weeds.

The last example of lessons learned follows along with cover-crops. Our overwintered cover was a broadcast mix of wheat, rye, and Canadian field peas, the latter of which died without any significant growth. The wheat and rye, however, looked great (notice the yellowing band in the photo at top). So great, in fact, that we decided to leave many of them to grow to maturity. The learning is related to timing. The best-looking CC'd beds were planted on time. The beds we planned for winter grains, however, were planted very late. As a result the CC grains got a big boost and are healthier and fuller-looking (yield data will tell the whole story) than those planted specifically to harvest for grain.

And we came out of dandelion season with $116.46 worth of fictitious "Dandy Dollars", wherein each head plucked is worth 1¢ and each plant pulled is worth 10¢. Whew!

So we continue plugging away, proud of ourselves (and our cabbages) for the successes we're experiencing and the failures we're learning from.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Barrels of Fun

One of our site challenges is a lack of on-demand water. As you might note from the earlier post, there is plenty of water, but it is either falling from the sky or stuck in the ground. Or flowing across the ground, in which case we're not usually thinking of irrigating.
For all those other times, though, we need a source from which we can fill our watering can. Eventually we hope to get a well, maybe even a wind-powered pump to go with it. For now we can make use of one of our site advantages: an equipment shed with a footprint larger than the garden (upwards of 5,000 sq ft) and the roof that covers it. This means that for every inch of rain we get the roof can collect about 3100 gallons of water. Wow! Specifically, the downspouts at each corner spit out 775 gallons of water for each inch of rain. Doesn't that sound enticing? It did to us, too. So Margo and our friend, Knoll, went to a Rainwater Harvesting workshop at the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District this time last year.
They came away with two blue 55 gallon drums and some PVC accouterments. I put them up in relatively short order (made slightly longer by the fact that I lack the appropriate tool for cutting aluminum downspouts efficiently - you have no idea how a hacksaw will make them screech!) and was dazzled by how little rain it took to make them full to overflowing. In order to get the most out of each rainfall I put them on different corners, propped up on boards.
Now 110 gallons is a lot of water if you have an aquarium or a houseplant, but it doesn't go far if you have a garden, so we planned expansion. Being cheap, I didn't want to have to buy a plastic 55 gallon drum when there are certainly enough of them in existence already. Online I found a website, Rain Reserve, which sells rain barrel systems, but also has a page giving tips on how to find free or cheap barrels. So I went with that, and found a wonderful source, which I hesitate to divulge. But here's a clue: soda pop bottling plants get their concentrate in 55 gallon drums, and they can't reuse them. So we got four that smelled like Mountain Dew. A few weeks later I had a conversation with our southern neighbor, telling him about my big score. "What?" he said. "If you need 55 gallon drums come over to my place. I've got plenty." It turns out he already knew my source, because he'd gotten a large number from there for his daughters' equestrian practice.
Step two was adding my new barrels. I only managed to set two more up last year, one more on each corner. Since PVC was the going style, I decided to connect each pair with more PVC. This involved a lot of envisioning, and about two hours at Home Depot staring at all the large and small pieces, trying to figure out how I would fit them together. I settled on an upside-down U-shaped concoction to connect them, consisting of two right angles, a number of pieces of pipe, and a larger number of indescribable pieces to get a tight fit between the pipes and the barrels. At the bottom of the new barrel I simply added another valve. The whole picture was functional but clunky, and I found myself wanting something a little less obtrusive and a little more simple. And long-lasting.
So in May I set up both remaining barrels on one of the previously occupied corners. If you're having trouble visualizing it, there are now four barrels on one corner and two on the other.
This time I eschewed the PVC for brass hose adapters, plastic Y-connector valves, and garden hose (whatever that's made of). The result is a little more complicated to envision and carry out initially, but will last longer and look less industrial.
There are a couple of ways to connect four barrels, and I equate them to the little I know of connecting electrical "stuff", that is, in serial or parallel circuit. Since only one barrel is receiving the downspout's torrent, I thought it would be best to give it the maximum number of paths (making this a pseudo-parallel circuit). So I drilled one hole in the upper wall of each barrel, and screwed in a brass fitting that is threaded on one side and barbed (to receive a garden hose) on the other. I cut a piece of hose long enough to go from the barrel to the point between all four, and attached those to each brass barb. I connected the hoses from each pair of barrels with a Y hose connector, then cut a piece of hose to connect the two Y's. It's kind of hard to take a photo of the setup, 'cause it's in such a tight place, but I'll try with text:

O________-----------________ O
--------------- ->------<

Hmmm. Sorry, I guess I missed out on those wonderful years of drawing pictures with keyboard characters. But hopefully you get the point. The O's are barrels, the lines are hoses, and the <> thingies are Y connectors.

For the output valves I only had to worry about the new barrels, because the earlier ones already had their PVC valves. I drilled one hole towards the bottom of both new barrels, put in the brass thread/barb piece, put hoses on each one, and connected them at the front of the whole mess with a Y -valve connector. So I can turn on one barrel, the other, or both.

Someone pointed out that I could have saved resources by passing on the top connection and connecting them all at the bottom. Then I could use that as the drain valve, too. The trouble with that, as I see it, is that if one barrel gets a leak it will drain them all overnight, and if it can happen, it will eventually.

What I didn't mention before were the "hose repair" pieces, which allowed me to attach cut hose to all the threaded Y connections. Very similar to the brass barbed pieces (except that they are plastic), they have a barb on one side with a two-piece clamp to hole the hose on, and a male or female connection on the other side.

All in all this project used 6 brass fittings, two Y connectors without valves, one Y connector with valves, 8 pieces cut from a veeery long damaged garden hose, six female hose repairs, and three male hose repairs. Whew! At least I'll know what I am doing for the next few barrels!

So I have a lot of experience now (the kind that makes me cringe a little bit to consider). But there are many ways to skin a cat, I'm told, and so if anyone else has a suggestion I will probably take it into account.

(When scrutinizing the photos, most of the PVC can now be ignored. Like a certain structure in Alaska, it now leads nowhere.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Grand Inundation

The news here, which isn't really news if you are in the midwest or have watched tv or heard the radio this spring, is that we have had lots of water coming down from the sky. In light of that, the good news is that we are not in a low-lying area and are not bordering the Mississippi. So while we do have a large creek that runs through the property year-round, the foresightful ones who situated this house 160 or so years ago had the good sense to leave a healthy distance, both vertically and horizontally, between any of the structures and the creek. In contrast, over at the garden the water table has been within a foot of the soil surface for the past month or more. That's despite its placement at the top of a hill, which says a lot about how long it will take the conventional farmer to get his equipment in the field at the bottom of the hill a few hundred feet away.
We like data here, and everyone likes sensational data, so here are the details: we received 10.05" of rain in April. Not impressed? Keep in mind that we recorded 20" for all of last year, from April 15 (when we put up the rain gauge) to December 31. Still not impressed? How about the fact that from January 1st through May 3rd we have received 22.45"?

It's true, we missed out on recording rainfall from Jan 1 to April 14 last year, but one of our nearby market-farming neighbors can vouch for our missing time: He keeps a rain gauge that tracks rainfall through the whole year. It's a straightforward design, a clear 1½" diameter tube stuck vertically to a white board. He puts marks on the board to indicate where the rainfall was at the end of each month, then empties it at the end of the year (leaving the marks to compare to the following year). He showed us the evidence when we went over a couple of days ago, and pointed out that by the end of April his place had received as much rain as it had by the end of November 2010. He's never seen anything like that, and he's been paying attention for decades now.

But this spring is similar to the last in that we've gotten a LOT of rain over a short period of time, leaving us to wonder if the sky might dry up for the second half of the year, like it did in 2010. We're hoping not, but we're also doubling our rainwater catchment just in case.
The last time I got in the soil to dig was over a month ago, so we are in a tricky place for our planting schedule. The alfalfa, parsley, parsnips, onions and leeks would like to go in now, and we're staring at the corn planting date and wishing it a little further off. But the soil will probably be an absolute bog for at least a week after it stops raining, and the end is not in the ten-day forecast.
This causes us to question our assumed timing. For instance, should we double-dig before our main-season crops go in (between March and June), or should we perhaps dig before the winter cover crops go in (September to November)? Of course, if this year goes as last year, digging would be as difficult in the dry, dry fall as it would be in the wet, wet spring.
Oh, yeah - the other good news is that it was a fabulous year for digging dandelions and finding morel mushrooms.
I'll take one last moment to describe the photos here. At top right is a trench I started for a new bed, interrupted by weather. It's important to note that the trench didn't simply catch rainwater. If you dig a hole anywhere around the garden these days it will fill up with water whether it is raining or not. Next photo down, on the left, is a lakeside dandelion patch, which in dryer times is actually a path. Third, the 2010 parsnips that we replanted for 2011 seed. On close inspection you can make out water running from the further side of the bed to the closer. The fourth photo is of the biggest morel I have ever seen, found by friends while pulling honeysuckle in our yard.
And, last but not least, Alten has been preparing to deal with any water issues in the house. Routine inspection, he assures us...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Beautiful, but Deadly

Ok, maybe just dead-smelling. The first tree-blossoms we see at the garden are from the ornamental pear on the north side, pictured here. And this morning was the first time this spring that I caught a whiff of its flowers, which reek like week-old carrion. My first thought was that something must have crawled up to our garden fence and died. Then I remembered the duplicitous nature of this tree, which smells terrible for about two weeks, but provides wonderful shade for at least eight months...
My third thought was that I should write it down on my calendar. Now before you start wondering what kind of calendar this might be, I'll tell you that I keep it for objective reasons.
It wasn't too long after we started our first internship with Steve Moore out in Pennsylvania that I realized the natural world has a lot to say to a seasoned farmer. Signs after the manner of Punxutawny Phil, but much more accurate. One crop would go in the ground when the daffodils bloomed, some things would get started when the walnuts leafed out, and a number of roots would get left in the ground til after the first frost. Whether these were statements about warming soil temperatures, some critical amount of light in a day, or the edibility of certain crops, farmers who knew would swear (and plant and harvest) by them.

And so, when we knew we'd be in Willits for a few years, I started keeping track of different annual mile-markers, like the buckeye trees blossoming and buckeyes dropping, the first rainfall after summer, the first salamander spotted, and so on. Of course, we'd need to have been there much longer than we were to have made any sense of these events.
Now, however, we plan to be in one place for a good long while. I already have recorded the lilacs leafing out (4/3, at left), the first morel spotted (4/11, courtesy of our 80° Sunday last weekend), first tree swallows in the garden (4/13), and first dandelion flowers out (4/10). The next step will be to try and remember what I noted the year before...

Anyone who has been to a class I've taught will tell you my biggest piece of advice for any gardener or farmer: observation is vital. Pay attention to what you're doing and what you see happening; it's the only way to learn, and the only way to salvage a failure. Otherwise, you have no idea why a crop succeeds or fails to thrive, and it is impossible to recreate excellent outcomes reliably.
In this case, as I noted, it will take a long time and a lot of experiments before we can put our fingers on what the natural world is telling us about the coming season. But we don't have anything better to do anyway...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Multi-Purpose Mill

It has been a little under three months since we unpacked the GrainMaker mill, and it has not has not ceased to please, or even to dazzle us with its many talents.
Yesterday was a particularly fine one for the GM's facets to shed their ever-multiplying vermilion beams upon my admiring and upturned visage... Ok, I'm overdoing it a little, but read on and see that there is reason to seem so pleased.

The first of two experiences I had was with our 2010 flax crop (flowering flax pictured at right, dried flax plants below left). In its processing I got as far as combing the seed bolls from the top of the plant and bundling the stems together for later fiber-separating. But for the past six months we've had a big rubbermaid bin of the loose bolls rolling around, waiting for me to figure out how best to crush them into seed and chaff. Yesterday I got out one of our sieves, put a handful of bolls in it, and ground them with my thumb, which worked great. For a small amount. But it would have taken me an hour or more just to crush them all, and then I would still have to clean the chaff away.

This is where the GrainMaker came in. I thought perhaps if I loosened the burrs to the point where there was a significant distance between them (enough that the seed itself wouldn't be crushed) I could do the work much faster. I put in the auger that cracks bigger seeds, threw a big handful of the bolls in, and cranked. It worked great! With a little adjustment, and 5 minutes of time, I then translated the whole ~6 cups worth of bolls, extra plant pieces and all, into seed and chaff.

With a little more work to winnow and separate I'll be finished with them! Just in time to flat this year's crop, which was really the incentive to finally get that task done.

The second experience was in grinding peanut butter. I had done this with other mills, and had indeed done it once or twice with the GM, always resulting in an ultra creamy variety. I've never really liked creamy peanut butter, and the only thing that made it acceptable is that I had ground it myself. The long and short of it is that yesterday, inspired by how well the flax bolls did with the burrs separated by as much as an eighth of an inch, I ran the peanuts through. I was rewarded with a fabulous chunky PB, and just in time to spread it on the waffles we were making.

Now I admit that, while hulling flax may be a rare occurrence in the world of grain grinders, making peanut butter is certainly not. It's just that I had never done it to my satisfaction before, and now I do feel quite satisfied, I assure you.

So there you have it, yet a little more shameless praise for the GrainMaker.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Equinox 2011

Whew! This post marks a little over one year since we moved here, started up the garden, and began this blog.
What do we have to show for ourselves? Well, naturally a few gray hairs. I won't be writing a retrospective of the past year; the blog speaks for itself on that count. I will, however, wrap up the winter and declare our course for the season to come.
First of all, while pictures and an account of Alten have been sadly lacking, he has not been idle. In the past month, really, he has taken up crawling, climbing on things, showing comprehension of some of the sign language we've been using with him and, ta-dah! He has produced two teeth! The latter was especially exciting to us since he seemed to be working on them from around month four. He's been sleeping a little better, took a 2-hour-long uninterrupted nap the other day, and is eating rice like there's no tomorrow. As to the crawling, he says it's only truly useful for getting to things upon which one might pull one's self up.
Equinox was spent visiting my brother, Chris, who had a mishap on his bike a couple of weeks ago (those of you who know him have probably already seen the x-rays on his facebook page). He's up in the hills of West Virginia at the Mountain Institute, which is beautiful and more than an hour from the nearest emergency room. We had intended to walk all over tarnation with him, but he was in some pain, so we hung out and stayed warm instead. The pictures on the site above are bewitching, but they still don't do full justice to the peace and magnificence of the area.

Following directly on the heels of that trip I got in the garden to dig, and prepared 150 ft² for the Kamut wheat we had flatted already and the collection of other spring wheats that we had some seed for. Related to this, I've updated the Garden Stats in the sidebar with this year's figures. The current figure of 449 ft² includes fall-planted wheat, rye, and garlic, and the perennials we started last year, namely alfalfa and clover. I'll finish planting the Kamut today and update the number. It doesn't include all the cover crops that we started last year to keep the soil happy over winter - those will get ripped out in the next month or so.

Last year we finished out at a little over 42% of the total area getting dug and planted. We are already a month ahead of last year, so I am optimistic we'll get it all in, and in good time.
So far we have flatted parsley, celery, wheat, parsnips, leeks, onions, kale, cabbage, lettuce, and probably something else I'm forgetting.

Other projects we have to complete before the season gets into full swing are flat-building, fence-finishing, compost-bin-constructing, and erecting some kind of temporary housing on the site. Each will probably get its own post except for flats, which already got covered in a previous post. I will say, however, that most of our pallet-flats survived well enough to head into a second season. We'll just need twice as many to meet our ambitions this year. Our sister-in-law Rachel came over from PA the week before last to lend a hand tearing up pallets and translating them into flats, so we're full of appreciating for that...

In early March we kicked-off our year's teaching schedule by heading out to California to present at Ecology Action's Three-Day Worshop. We taught classes on sustainable diet design, bed preparation, seed starting, compost, compost crops, garden planning through the Master Charts in How to Grow More Vegetables, and a few others, and John Jeavons taught the rest (for pictures of the one in November see this post). Just last Saturday we taught a class locally on starting seedlings. Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm's Center for Lifelong Learning has a very active education program for children and adults, and we are on the list this Spring teaching the seedling class and a day-long class on soils and compost (which will be April 9, if you're in the area). The seed-starting class went very well - it is always a treat to teach, and I always come out learning more through the experiences participants share. Among other prospects this year we'll be back at Aullwood to teach Fall classes on grains and seed saving.

In miscellaneous other news, the county decided that the bridge on our road (and bordering our property) is not in great shape, and needs to be replaced. See photo at right, where the blotches down the center lane show the surface damage to be reminiscent of tooth decay. Too bad Google Earth couldn't get a side shot - rebar was actually falling out of the concrete underneath. Of course, we'd prefer they just tear it down and dead-end the road, but they weren't interested in our opinion. The upshot, since they weren't going to listen to us anyway, is that they had to cut a bunch of trees down to make way. These were cut into 18" lengths and filled Mom's large pickup truck six times. Thus we have heat for next winter. The workers also ground up the tops and gave us two dump truck loads of wood chips. Sadly, Alten is too young to fully appreciate the dump trucks, excavators, bulldozers and such.

So here we go! It's officially Spring, the days are getting longer, we're getting marginally more sleep, and the garden calls...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Everything Old is New Again

I'm a big fan of taking that which has been used and making it useful once more. Especially when it can be turned into something I reeeeeally want. Pallets have done a lot for us in the past year but, though they are versatile, they couldn't help me on this project.

What was on the docket in this instance?
We were spoiled in many ways being on established farms, and one of the greatest elements they each offered was season extension. Particularly in the area of seed-starting. We'd been wishing all last year for somewhere to put our starts that would be out of the excessive cold, heat, rain, snow, and such, but didn't have enough acceptable indoor window space.While I would like to have a greenhouse (ideally one big enough to house a full-grown avocado tree) we didn't have the supplies on hand for that. In fact, at the onset of winter, which is project time, all we had was the hoard of windows that were removed from Mom's house when she put in energy-star windows. And the old ones were the original single-pane variety, most with original glass, I imagine. And, greedy me, I wanted something that wouldn't let all the hard-earned warmth seep out.

This is where our contractor friends came in. They build, they renovate, they remodel, and they replace old windows with new ones. A lot of times, they told me, the old windows aren't all that bad. Over the course of a month, then, I got: one 6'-wide sliding glass door, very nice; a 6'-wide hinged glass door, somewhat nice; four double-glazed windows, two without their frames; and a transom window, which I didn't use. Margo's dad has done the same project at their house, so I got four more windows from him. All free, and diverted from a landfill. Margo's dad would probably have found a good use for them, but our other two friends assure us that that's where most casualties of remodeling go.

For a greenhouse I would need three or for times as much glazed surface as this, plus the thought put into corners, a roof, and an independent structure to support the whole thing safely. In the meantime, though, I had already found what I thought would be the ideal temporary situation: Mom has a shed at the end of the drive, and that shed has a south-facing garage door. I figured I could just frame the opening of that and put the doors and windows in, which I proceeded to do.

Other, more experienced individuals might have jumped right in and gotten the whole thing done in a day or two. I, however, have no particular experience with this kind of thing, and took it slow. I also have an 8-month-old, so that made things a little slower yet. But with advice from Margo's dad, and a little physical help from my friends, I got the whole thing assembled. The results are very pleasing: on average the temperature inside the shed is 12°F warmer than outside, with the added benefit of sunlight and shelter from the wind, rain, snow and ice that have since bombarded it. The kale, cabbage, alfalfa and clover are up, and the leeks and onions are starting to pop out. Hurrah!

There were a number of steps after the windows and doors were procured. After measuring the size of the opening and the dimensions of the windows I made little paper cutouts of them all, then played Tetris with them. This part would have been extra work, except that a few of the pieces weighed 100 lb or more in real life. Easier to move around paper cutouts. Once I found a setup that worked, I marked the area out on the shed floor, put the windows and doors down, and measured to see if it really worked out. It did, mostly.

What I didn't have yet was the lumber to frame it, but I had a contact for that, too. Our family doctor, who lives a few minutes down the road, had a new office built a while ago. She said the construction crew had this big dumpster, and she was amazed at the things they threw in there. So she would often check it and take out any wood she thought might be useful. She invited us to take anything we might need. Between that and some scrap barn wood, I had all the 2x4's I could use. So I measured once, twice, sometimes thrice, and cut. Again, it worked out mostly, and any mistakes were readily corrected with a chisel.

It was 9' high, 16' wide (but not soft as a downy chick) and just a little too unwieldy for me to manage alone, so I called up a couple of friends to help me move it into place. Zach, Seth, Mom and I got it moved where it should be, "finessed" it into place with a mallet, and finally screwed it to the opening.

Over the course of the next week or two I seated each of the windows and fixed them with beveled trim (thank you, table saw) to hold them in place. I have some silicon to seal the cracks, but I'm not sure if that will really make a difference.

As I said, the whole process has had a good result. Better would be if the shed were insulated - it has plywood exterior with vinyl siding, no ceiling, and vents in the "attic" space. But it works good enough for starting plants, has opening windows on all sides to keep moisture from rotting things, and is sturdy. So I'm not complaining.

This project, from supplies to advice to labor, could not have been done without the community of friends and family that I can claim. Or, rather, it could have been done for a moderate expense. But all I bought were screws and nails, and that was it. And, while Zach and Seth were over helping, their families, plus Margo and Alten, were in the warmth of the house enjoying cheese, crackers, and play-doh. It was like a very small barn-raising :)

For anyone else out there interested in building with windows and doors, my main advice is to find a company or individual who does renovations. I understand they are happy to have a positive use for the windows they remove; they feel good about not throwing away perfectly good windows, but are also saved the expense of hauling and depositing them at the dump.

As a side note to any of you serious writers and editors out there, you may have detected my relatively frequent use of the consummate (though nebulous) semicolon in this post. In the same way that I hope to have built a pseudo-greenhouse that won't fall apart, I hope I applied the semicolon appropriately. But then, if you don't try, you'll never learn!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Measuring Up

There were three tools that we needed to complete our data from the past season, and all three were scales.
We already owned one, the triple-beam balance pictured in the potato post of a few months ago. It serves many purposes, not the least of which is the fact that it is in metric.
Now the subject of which system of measurement is best can certainly be argued, but there's no denying which one is easier.
As an extreme example, imagine that you have an intern from a country that uses the metric system (which is actually every country except Myanmar/Burma, Liberia, and the United States). Now picture explaining to them how to calculate how much alfalfa they need to spread on 60 ft2, when we're applying it at the rate of 2 lb 7 oz per 100 ft2.

Ok, how many ounces are there in a pound? No, that's how many ounces are in a gallon - we're talking about pounds. Right, 16. So start by multiplying out our rate to get it all in ounces. 2 x 16 is 32, plus 7 makes 39 ounces. That's for 100 ft2, and we want it for 60 ft2, which is .6 of 100 ft2, so multiply the 39 ounces by .6. Yes! Very good, that's 23.4 ounces. No, we're not done, now we have to convert it back to ounces and pounds. So divide 23 by 16, then you know how many pounds, then multiply the decimal by 16 to figure out how many ounces. Or subtract 16 from 23.4, and that's one pound, and the remaining numbers are ounces. Which makes 1 lb 7.4 ounces.
Now explain it 5 more times if the intern is mathematically inclined, or 100 more times if they're not. Or just use the metric system, which would be more like this:

Ok, we need to apply alfalfa to 60 ft
2 at the rate of 1.1 kg per 100 ft2. Since 60 is .6 of 100, we'll multiply 1.1 kg by .6. Yes, that would be .66 kg, or 660 g. Which I don't have to explain to you, because you are familiar with the metric system.
Doesn't that sound easy? Less steps, less to screw up. It's nice and simple. And that's why we're going to weigh with metric in our garden.
Ok, admittedly we will continue using ft2 instead of m2 for area, Fahrenheit instead of Celsius for temperature, and 5 gallon buckets instead of liters or m3 for volume, but you see how it's all convenient, right? People know what you're talking about, or at least you know what you're talking about.
Incidentally, our other two scales are in English units, but it will be a matter of quick conversion to fix that. I may even write the metric units on the face of our mid-range scale...
So as I was saying up at the top, all this is to announce that we now have our full complement of scales to weigh everything that goes in or comes out of the garden. With a couple of purchases last month we added to our previous 600 g /21 oz triple-beam-balance capacity, and now have a 25 lb/ 11 kg medium scale and a 600 lb / 270 kg BIG scale.
Since I think I've beaten the metric topic to death by now I'll say a little about our mid-range scale. Mostly good for all the stuff that isn't itty-bitty, like seeds, and isn't huge, like corn stalks, compost, and luggage. The mid-range scale, then, is actually very helpful in day-to-day harvesting, and we were really missing it last season, especially (as noted in the aforementioned potato post) when weighing potatoes out 1 lb 5 oz at a time. This one is bland, but high enough quality to be reliable. As you can see, the brand is Pelouze, which seems to be owned by Rubbermaid, for what that's worth. It was about $60 with shipping and all.

And for the grand finale, our new (very old) Fairbanks scale. At the Golden Rule garden I got hooked on huge platform scales that weigh a ton, both figuratively (because they're mostly cast-iron) and literally (since some of them have a 2000 lb capacity). Neat, huh? Apparently they are frequently found at farm auctions, where you can buy them for $5 and up. I wasn't in the know on that point till the past few weeks, and the $60 one posted on Craigslist was pretty enticing. Especially because all the other ones on Craigslist were $100-300. The greatest things about this kind of scale are that 1) they are virtually indestructible, 2) they have a large surface (~18"x 24") upon which to pile that which you wish to weigh, and 3) they can weigh incredibly heavy loads very accurately. You really can't beat that combo.

The scale is based on the design of Thadeus Fairbanks, who patented it waaaay back in 1830. They have a great history written up on the company's website. Ours dates back to the early 1900's. I'm sure it has seen a long, dull life, and we can't promise it much excitement, but we'll at least keep it indoors where it won't rust more than it already has.

My photos don't do it justice, but they give a good impression of the beast. At left is the full body shot, featuring cast-iron frame and wheels, wooden pillar and, gallows? I don't know what you'd call that thing. Below is a photo of the "user interface", which is brass. It goes up to 50 lb, then you can add extra weights (those disks off left) to the dangling fixture (on the right) to increase to capacity. We talked a little about going digital, but figured it was much better to steer clear of the electronics. They may be faster and easier not to botch up, but they also have shorter lives (I doubt any of the digital stuff I'm using now will still function in 20 years, let alone 100). So we've got it made! At least until we need to weight something under .05 grams or over 600 pounds...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


That's the sound of the Dan working on the Kidney Stone.
Since not everyone comes from a medical family I will spare you the most vivid and fascinating details, which are available by request.
Skipping to the exciting part, at about 6 o'clock Tuesday morning I began having pain in my back below my ribcage. It rapidly got to the point where I asked Margo to call 911. That alone is saying something, because I have a healthy (and sensible) fear of being in the business end of a hospital. The great crew of Trotwood Rescue arrived, packed me up, and hauled me into Good Samaritan, our closest hospital.
I was then promptly loaded up with IV fluids and pain meds, which allowed me to take a good, deep breath and be grateful. Mom was waiting for me when I got there, and she was able to hang out with me the whole time. I got a visit from our pastor, Paula, who was at the hospital to visit someone much sicker than me and just happened to hear that I was in, too.
By about 1 o'clock I was checked out and on my way home, where I proceeded to sleep a lot.
That is the general idea.

Folks say that passing a kidney stone is one of the most painful experiences that one can have, on the order of childbirth. I guess I'm glad I can say I have lived through it, then, and have all the more respect for Margo having gone through childbirth without any pain medication.

I am grateful for everyone who made it an easier time for me, from Margo and Alten to Mom, the paramedics, nurses, techs, Paula, and the doctor who oversaw my case.

I feel like I am in a club, now. And now that I've done it, I'd like to cross "kidney stone" off my list and not have another one.