Monday, January 30, 2012

Garden Report 2011

Every winter we crunch our numbers and do a write-up that summarizes the garden's experience and progress in the past year. (Our 2010 report was posted January 13, 2011.)

Circle of the Sun’s 2011 growing season was a welcome contrast to 2010. We got sufficient rainfall for most crops, welcomed two interns from Kenya for three months (see the November 2011 issue), brought almost the entire 4,200 square feet into cultivation, built enough compost piles to meet our bed amendment and flat soil needs, and started expanding into the corner of the neighboring field.

We noticed a big difference in soil structure this year, in terms of ease of digging, between beds that were dug last year and those dug for the first time this year. We expect the 2012 addition of compost (at the rate of one 5-gallon-bucket per 100 sq ft) will also be a big help to the soil, both in terms of drainage and ease of working. We also found that, despite the heavy rains we had early in the season, our garden drained much better than the surrounding area. Our conclusion, then, is that double-digging alone is quite helpful to a heavy clay garden simply through the creation of pore space, which benefited the root systems of our crops in addition to the advantages already listed. And now, thanks to the “jar test” method, we can give an objective description of our heavy clay soil. During the internship each of us chose a spot in the garden, took a sample, and ran the jar test. The outcome ranged between 73% and 84% clay, 15% and 26% sand, and no silt registering whatsoever. That’s what they call “heavy clay”.

Weather was much more pleasant than last year regarding rainfall, erring slightly on the side of too much. We received 58.35” of rain in 2011. Readers may remember that we put our rain gauge out in 2010 mid-April, so we can’t compare last year’s reading directly with this year’s. But taking that into account, between April 15 and December 31 of 2010 we received 22”, compared with 45.75” for the same span in 2011. Wow! The National Weather Service states our average annual rainfall as 39.58”, so our reading this year registers as nearly 20” above average. Most of that rain came at convenient times, filling our rain barrels just as they became empty. And our crops were grateful for the regular water, giving us generally much better yields than in 2010.

Our temperatures were not notable, with the exception of two-and-a-half weeks in July when the highs stuck in the upper 90’s (a nasty shock to our interns Peris and Mary, who had just arrived from a more moderate climate). It was hot enough that beans had trouble pollinating, and the price of green beans doubled. We were glad, when we asked around, that we weren’t the only ones suffering from that problem! Our highest temperature of 2011 was 102° F in August, our lowest was -16° F in January. Last frost was 30° F on May 5, and our first frost was a hard one, 25° F on October 22.

Our season got off to a great start with timely flatting, thanks to an early spring project. With scavenged lumber and used windows from other people’s renovations, we framed out the south-facing garage door in an out-building and covered it in glazing. As a result, we had a place to put our seedlings that got good sun and never fell below freezing.

Our tally of crops this year looks much better than last year. I’ll start with our two big successes: kale (at left), and sorghum, which also did well last year. Our kale yield astounded us - our 20 ft² area gave us a total of 34.78 lb in its six-month life. That works out to 173.9 lb/100 ft², which is well over the Grow Biointensive high yield! With sorghum we exceeded the intermediate yield again for air-dry biomass, with 52.03 lb/100 ft², and raised the seed yield from last year’s 7.43 lb/100 ft² up to 12.8 lb/100 ft², halfway in between beginning and intermediate yields. Sweet potatoes also performed much better for us this year, the best section of which produced at the rate of 101.9 lb/100 ft². That puts it slightly higher than beginning yield, but more notable yet is that it marks the first time we have successfully grown sweet potatoes bigger around than our thumbs (some this year exceeded 1lb in weight). Also worth mentioning is that the most successful of our varieties came from a friend whose family has been cultivating it locally for over 100 years. That’s acclimatization.

Our other root crops - potatoes, carrots, onions and parsnips among them - continue to have difficulty thriving in our heavy soils, though we expect they will perform better as we add compost.

Cereal grains were a mixed bag in 2011. We grew out seeds from Bountiful Gardens’ rare-seed collection of barley and spring wheat, planting 4 ft² sections of each variety. While some sections only amounted to 7 or 8 plants, we managed to bring all of them to maturity and end up with 3 or 4 times the number of seed we started with. Our winter wheat and rye were a disappointment, maturing to give us well under beginning yields for both seed and biomass, and we attribute that to last year’s drought. We were not able to dig or transplant due to the hard dry soil in October and ended up broadcasting the seed, doing our best to chop it in with a rake.

Many experiments in the garden are devised as a matter of circumstance, and so it was that we decided to do a test comparing transplanted vs. broadcast flax and parsnips. Transplanting the entire sections of each would have required more flats than we had built, so we transplanted half of each crop and broadcast the other half. The results were noteworthy - poor germination and difficulty weeding their random spacing meant total failure of both broadcast sections, while the transplanted sections flourished. It may be worth doing the same comparison each year, simply for the dramatic visual during garden tours.

As part of the Grow Biointensive method we grow open-pollinated varieties of our crops, and put some energy into saving seed from year to year. With beans and wheat that is a simple matter, since the same thing we are saving to eat is what we will plant. Other crops are a little more complicated, but worth the effort for the satisfaction. This year, in addition to the crops whose seeds we eat, we saved from our lettuce, tomatoes, basil and squash plants, and from last year’s parsnips and parsley (at right) which, as biennials, had to survive winter to produce seed. Additionally, we went to great lengths to save seed from two varieties of flour corn. Corn crosses very easily, and our garden had GM corn planted within 20 feet of it this year, so we practiced our hand-pollinating skills and taught Mary and Peris how as well.

I’ll wrap up with one of the highlights of the growing season, which was our first garden tour. We intend to make it an annual event, open to the public, but tested the waters this year by inviting all of our friends and family. Over 50 people came to share food, get guided tours of the garden, hear our vision for the farm, and play in the sun. We look forward to an annual event that showcases the potential for small-scale sustainable agriculture to feed households and neighborhoods in our community.

Many thanks to all who helped to make this season a success for Circle of the Sun through organizing and funding the internship, hosting and supporting interns, coming over to work with us, and giving us advice and encouragement.

Time to set our sights on 2012!

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Perfect Shoes

I've had many different styles of shoes that I can recall in the past couple of decades. I really started caring in middle school and dove in full-tilt with L.A. Gear high-tops, using the two sets of six-foot-long laces per shoe they provided (in lieu of a photo of my shoes, this one is a good example of their version for girls). Then I moved on to Nike Air, retaining my preference for fluorescent colors with successive generations of the Agassi (at left), named for the tennis star.
But pretty soon, and before I finished high-school (though I'd have to consult my yearly photos), I moved on to Adidas Sambas. I'm not sure why, since they are about as far as I could get from my previous choices and still be in the mass-produced mainstream sportish shoe market (they're number two in this blog's list of "Four Essential Pairs of Shoes and Casual Trainers"). But I think I was growing into myself more, wanting less attention and more simplicity. These shoes have been made in the same style since the 50's - they're just black and white, have a half-inch or so of sole, are relatively cheap, and last for a good while. I would milk them for two years before they would be worn through, then I'd buy another pair. I had at least three, maybe four pairs.

Once I got a pair of Adidas' Campus shoes, which were similar in design but were suede. They tore through the toe within a month, but the store wouldn't take them back. So after I wore them long enough to feel like I'd got my money's worth I went back to the Sambas. Ironically, the defective Campus pair got a much longer second life as garden shoes after I cut the toe and heel off - as seen in EA's harvesting and threshing video at a little past the five-minute mark - nice!

During our first year at EA I got frustrated with the idea that, once my shoes were really shot, they would have to go into the trash. I decided that, from then on, I was going to buy shoes that were made of natural materials (as much as possible), looking specifically for hemp or leather. We went out to the town of Mendocino and visited a store called Mendo Twist where they specialized in "natural" things, and I settled on a pair of La Fuma shoes with hemp uppers and natural rubber soles (at right, threshing). They were on discount. While I believe in the relative strength of hemp, these shoes were not a great example. They wore through, unraveled, and shredded within a year, so I took them back and traded them in for a pair of leather Patagonias. The soles were synthetic, but Patagonia is well known for good sourcing and good treatment of their workers and the environment so I went with them anyway.

They were also more expensive, but in the years since college I have realized that cheap in the short-run can easily be pricey in the long-run. If I pay $35 for a pair of shoes, that seems great. But if they only last one year through my hard labor, I am better off buying the $80 shoes (which is what the Patagonias cost) if they are going to last 4-5 years, which they did. Then they end up costing $16-20 a year, and I save $60 or more over their life by investing up front. But like all things, they do eventually wear out, and these particular shoes were not made to be re-soled. So this fall, after stepping in puddles only to wick water through the holes in the bottom of the shoes into my socks, I started looking again.

Now I was ready to make a bigger step, beyond generally simple, natural, and environmentally thoughtful. I wanted to find something endlessly repairable and completely natural. Repairable, so the shoe doesn't need to be discarded when the sole finally wears through, and natural so that, if it ever does fall completely to pieces, it will break down and not need to be stored till the end of time in a landfill. If a shoe is natural and repairable, I came to believe that it must be leather. Achieving this conclusion, I realized I was going to need to look for the shoes they made "back in the day," when my current criteria were the only way it was done anyway.

I dug up two options. The first were modeled by a friend who does livestock on an 1880's-era working farm north of Dayton, the Carriage Hill Metropark. His shoes, he confessed, are actually the style of the 1860's, which are reproduced in large quantities for Civil War reenactment. They were Brogans, made of leather stitched together with wooden pegs to hold the soles on. Very cool looking, and very durable. He got his from C & D Jarnagin Company, if you want to see the goods.

The second were moccasins, in the general style of any native American culture. I ran into a friend who had gotten a simple pair from Minnetonka Moccasins, and she used them sock-less in all weather to great effect. The advantage of moccasin over brogans is that you can feel the ground underneath you. Alternatively, you can't do digging in them, because the shoulder of the shovel won't feel so good on your foot.

To make a long story - a few months of hemming and hawing, then another month of deciding where to get them - somewhat shorter, I decided on the moccasins. I have some old hiking boots I can use for digging. I went with the Arrow Moccasin Company and got a pair of lace boots with a double sole (at left on my feet, and at right on Alten's). They are expensive to me (having never "invested" in those $170 Nike Air Force 180 Pumps back in 1992) but they will last years before the sole wears through, and then the sole can be replaced.

Being leather, there is a little break-in time required. For the first 10 hours or so these were the most painful thing I have voluntarily done to my feet, short of removing splinters. Since then they have become the most comfortable shoes I've ever owned, and they are not even fully broken-in yet.

Of course, I intend to wear them while working, playing, and walking through mud, but like any new shoe I will be treating them very nicely till they get the first scratch. You will see them on my feet in many photos to come!