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.)