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!