Saturday, December 22, 2007

Time for a move

Hello everyone,

Please update your information. I know it is a pain, and I apologize. I have moved shop over to here:

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Greenhouse statistics

Cold day atop Mont Merde: the greenhouse is MUCH taller than it appears in this picture

Many have asked, so here it goes:

Coldframe, high tunnel, hoop house, polytunnel: we just call it The Greenhouse. Folks: It will add a zone and a half to your growing season. My 6B garden? An 8A, people...Panhandle Florida!

I got the greenhouse kit from an outfit in Tennessee called Grower's Solution. The guy on the phone was both supremely friendly and extremely kind, answering my myriad questions as well as easily and quickly supplying a hardware shortage (one measly part!). I had hoped to use a local manufacturer for my greenhouse, but my request was a small one, and the local outfit doesn't deal with little orders like mine. Sigh.

The goods: It's 16' wide, 20' long, about 9' high in the center, and is composed of six bows (arches) that are set in ground stakes 4' apart. For ease of shipping, the bows are in three pieces: you screw them together to create one bow. It has one central purlin (center pole) that ties the bows together. If it were self-standing and 4' longer, it would require more bracing; as it is, it relies on a building for its one end and it is free-standing at its door end. For ventilation, I purchased one hand-rolled side (it rolls the plastic up about 4' off the ground on one long side) and created one large gable vent above the door.

You are supposed to supply the ground boards and the end framing for the end wall (in wood); they supply the plastic to cover the whole thing, and the channels and wiggle wire to hold the plastic to the bows.

We (i.e., nonmotivated husband and myself) hammered in the ground stakes, screwed together and erected the bows, and attached the purlin in under two hours. It was Instant Gratification, I do not lie. But then it was my work from then on: I excavated the ground on 3 sides to both bury hardware cloth and the 2x8 wood ground anchor and then erect the 2x4 notched studs for the end wall/door framing. This actually took me two whole days to do...separated by a week, of course, because, really, who has two full days to work on anything?

Putting the plastic on was another battle with the husband (that is, getting his free time). He committed finally on a day that was windy: I advise you not to put plastic on a greenhouse in the wind. Ever. But that was our fate. We anchored the plastic to the endmost bow (against the building) and then went from bow to bow until we reached the door end, kind of like pulling pantyhose over a reluctant leg. That wiggle wire is quite amazing stuff. It really is great at holding down the plastic film. The film is graded to last of 6 years without significant UV decomposition: I have heard neighbors say they've gotten 8 years of use, which rather helps me, as plastic is not exactly the most eco-friendly of things. We held the plastic down to the last bow with some pre-soaked 1x2 furring strips.

I say this all with a rather blase' attitude. I here admit that I am a builder of many things: neither construction nor power tools intimidate me (hahahaHA), but, well, if you have never held a hammer nor worn a toolbelt, then putting up your own greenhouse could be a challenge. (Compared to building our coop? This was a walk in the park.) But I will say that Tom's purchase of a hammer drill greatly eased our pain: it helped put the bows together and helped put the channel atop the bows in, like, no time at all. I had gone along just fine with my 14 amp cordless drill for two houses' worth of renovations; Tom has helped me see the light with his 18a Drill of Pain. I admit, I was impressed. (I still like mine better.)

Am I saying you all need to go out and erect a hoop house in your backyards? Well, absolutely! (I'm getting salads and veggies out of my garden in late December, are you?) Just read this guy's books, read his wife's gardening columns and book, and yes, you too shall Sip The Kool-Aid.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Greenhouse in the plural

Tasty but rare

Getting the coffee going this gray, ugly morning, my husband and I were discussing full-spectrum lights. It seems one of our friends uses them to avoid S.A.D.

I told him I tend to just go into the greenhouse at midday, when I get a little tired of working. "I think it helps, just sitting in there for five minutes," I said.

"Yeah, I went in there too recently. It smelled just wonderful." (This from the guy who expresses zero interest in my gardening, except at suppertime.)

I told him I hated to be so stingy with all the greenhouse's contents. The salads we have had from there are positively heavenly, so tender and deeply colored. (FWIW, it is not fully planted: construction ran too late for some seedlings, and then an escaped chicken made a mess of my mache bed. It will be full when the sun swings back into our hemisphere, say, in February.)

"Maybe we should build another one, then," he said.

And here I was, wondering how the heck I was going tell him I think we should build a second one next year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Moving away from this site

Hey, I need some input from you non Blog**er people out there. Where should I go, type8pad, word8press? I am looking to free sites, so any input would be appreciated.

OH, and the reason I am considering a move? COMMENTS! It's hard to do here! So email me or, if it is not too arduous, leave a comment.

the email is fastweedpuller at gmail dot com.

Thanks in advance, kind readers!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Orcharding, or, Greater Field Domination

Soon, poor neglected tree, I will bring you friends!

'Tis the time of year for lots of planning. Right now, I am planning my first orchard.

'Tis true, I have apple, plum, (and one) peach trees extant on this farm already. I've got currants, gooseberries, blueberries and strawberries, and that elusive lingonberry, too. And I am in the Fruit Belt, which means that relying on others' efforts to sustain our fruit habit is actually a very inexpensive endeavor: I can get bushels of fruit for an eighth of what you all are paying for it, or less, with no exaggeration.

So I will let the Fruit Belt sustain us with the genus Prunus persica (peaches). Peaches are beautiful but fussy things, well suited to folks with deeper pockets than my own. And I'll look elsewhere for blueberries, though we have them too here on the farm; for vast quantities, I easily can just go to a friend's farm, or, if lazy, I will go to the fruitstand and shell out a whopping $18 for 10 pounds. Yea, people: behold, the Promised Land of fruit production.

(I once went apple searching when I lived in Minnesota. They wanted--I shit you not--$48 for a HALF bushel of McIntosh. It was dispiriting, and it factored in to my desire to move here. Apples should not cost $2 per.)

Why plant my own, if not doing so is so cheap? Oh boy, if you have to ask that question, well, you've only started reading this site then. Let's just say I ADORE a challenge, and am very interested in permaculture. So I am platting my land for the fruits of the genus Malus domestica (apples, baby. Lots of apples: twelve varieties to complement my native two). Pears as well: these are always welcome. Oh, and apricots and cherries. These latter fruits are bird-prone, and will be put at the north of the main garden to act as a windbreak, but also to help me keep away the birds. Throwing nets over them will help.

There are also plans for an arbor of just hops. (Beer.)

Of course, I am looking long-range: I won't harvest my first apple until probably 2010. Do I mind this? No, I do not. My first pawpaw will be harvested in 2019! My first wine grapes (the ones I planted in 2005) in 2009! In other words, if you're planning an orchard, you are planning to stay put and, uh, put down roots.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

More on seed-saving

Very dear to me

The tone of my most recent post was rather flip. Granted, I do cast a jaundiced eye on most of the world, particularly the world of commerce (in this instance, seed catalogs), but on occasion I actually am reverential.

And today, I revere my seeds. Today I am back in my cold basement, cleaning and sorting seeds, shelling dried beans and the like. I look at what is in front of me and I feel positively giddy.

Especially with the winds howling and the snow blowing outside, I feel like I am the keeper of a vast store of botanical wealth. Seed-saving, like bread-baking and vineyard maintenance, are three very particular activities which connect me with the past. My great-great grandparents would know this feeling, and would know the value of saving the seeds of this year's harvest. They'd know the love and the satisfaction that goes into kneading and forming loaves of bread. They'd have enjoyed the small labor that is vineyard and orchard maintenance, especially considering the vast reward found in a successful harvest. They would be appreciative, in other words.

I will tell you this: there is not much in this world for which I would trade my hills of beans.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

On seeds and seed-saving

'Mama, these flowers don't smell': the kid with the parsnip umbrels last spring: as you can see, I'll have enough parsnip seed next year

It's happening earlier every year: this inrush of seed catalogs into our mailboxes. Is it a good thing?

I wonder. I suppose the earlier they show up, they've got the advantage that we haven't wholly forgotten the previous garden season (and then buy accordingly). But then I wonder about this, too: I would think that a forgetful gardener, snow-deadened late in the winter season, would be the best customer. So happy for greenery would he or she be, the orders would be flying. I am quite sure, though, they've market tested all of this, and have decided the holiday stressed gardeners out there need to spend their money on seeds TOO.

Boy, I sound bitter. This is not the case. I enjoy getting these catalogs (within reason). Mainly, I enjoy getting them and huffily sniffing at them that "I would never plant THAT," and various forms of the same.

But over the last two years, I have become a seed-saver. This started small (as all bad habits do: it's just a little bit of cocaine, officer) and now, well, now I am a bit overwhelmed. I undertook the task of placing the darned things in some recognizable order last night, down in the chilly basement, accompanied by loud music and a big mug of wine. I'll say it was fun, but that may have been the wine talking. I will say I probably don't NEED to order any seeds this year, I have done such a good job preserving my last harvests. That is gratifying, but not...satisfying.

So, I will give in, probably in January, and order more seeds. In this, our hyperconsumerist culture, I could always...use...more.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

On seasonal food preferences

Big bowl of yum

When the days start getting shorter, I notice lots of changes in my habits. I'd like to think that moving to a farm and actually being outside for some period of time every day has tuned me in more to the tilt of the planet, but I think it's more ingrained than that. I think it's biological in nature. Evolutionary biology, to be exact. Bear with me here. As far as I can trace them, my forebears came from either Ireland or France (and many more from the former than the latter). Both of these places see lots less light at this time of year than my little farm does, which, latitude-wise, is as far south as Rome. I have no known biological ties to Russia, but that is where my thoughts go at this time of year.

It is usually in November that I pick up a particularly long book to read, sometimes Russian; this year it's the Oxford imprint (Maude translation) of War and Peace. Maybe it's the early, Doctor Zhivago-inspired visions I had of an icy dacha, but I adore the good long slog in a sledge that a Russian novel reliably provides me at this time of year. It's colder there than here, I tell myself, and darker too. So I tend to put the child to bed and then climb into bed myself, armed with my book, quite early in the evening.

And it is this time of year that, if given the choice, I will always choose a starch over any other food form. Bread, yes, of course; but also potatoes and (xoxoxo) beets, as I love them so. So I read an article like this one with interest: perhaps starch is just something I have been adapted to crave to, uh, tide me over until spring comes again. It's a nice rationalization, really, as I grab my third beet of the week (and these the size of grapefruit).

But think about it. What DID people eat three hundred years ago to sustain them through a long winter? (In places where winter is an issue, that is.) And the answer, reliably, is starch: starch in the forms of roots like rutabagas, turnips, and sugarbeets. And potatoes, that new world wonder.

So bring on the borscht, baby.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gardening and the theory of Always

Maybe next year

If all these years of dirt-digging have taught me anything, the one thing I can definitely say is the word "Always" has no place in the garden.

I think there is something very gratifying in this statement, even though it's a statement of insecurity. If there were an always, or a never, we would not try to plant things outside of our hardiness zone, or we would give up after one failed crop.

But it is a truism that pisses me off sometimes. I went into the main outdoor garden on Saturday, scissors and colander in hand, to retrieve some lacinato kale and parsley. I had a big pot of my navy beans boiling on the stove inside and needed the greenery to add to make soup. And lo, in the snow-covered garden, I was met mush. What happened? This has never happened before, I have ALWAYS been able to harvest kale and parsley all year!

There is that word: always. It is humbling in its absence.

It also means that three seasons in one garden does not a pattern make, four is better and 15 better than that: I will know, in 2019, if I can expect kale and parsley to be reliably hardy. It means I have a lot of growing to do, too.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Another non-gardening post

Hey! Allow me a bit of spousely bragging. My husband's book came in as book #100 of Amazon's Best Books of 2007!

My comment: "Somebody had to be #100."
His response: "Better than #101."

FYI: it's an art book, in a toddler's board-book layout. Uh, it could be considered a bit too naughty for your average toddler, but our daughter has taken it to school at Show and Tell (and she's pushing 4). You can see more of Tom's work here.

Friday, December 07, 2007

This really should just be a garden blog...

Not edible, but pretty

...but I seem to have other food-related interests, though, especially during the non-food-growing winter months. Could it be I simply have more time on my hands?

Anyway, I thought I would share some "food activist" things I have been doing.

My daughter goes to a private school. There is no lunch program, so lunches are up to a child's caregivers, but snack (yes, snack) is up to the school. Last year and the year before that, I worked with a friend of mine to do an organic box scheme wherein we got lots of California veggies and fruits and sold them, in boxes, to some interested families in the school two times a month. This was fun, but...let's face it, it wasn't local, so I felt pretty guilty about those boxes. Our reason for doing was twofold: any profit we made went right back into the snack program, AND our buying power enabled us to buy the kids lots of wonderful fresh fruit and veggies for their midmorning snack.

So this year, well, we kind of dropped the ball by dropping the box (scheme). And now? Now the kids get things like knockoff Chex mix for snack. Chex mix, and #10 cans of pears. (Egads, how far we have fallen.)

This made us a little angry. We're now back at it, this time by starting a Slow Food Convivium that is centered in the school itself. It seems there is a convivium already in our area, and that it was actually the first one in the U.S., but their mission (dinners and wine) and ours (child/parent nutritional education) is different. So, starting in January, we'll be doing Slow Snack two days a week.

Another thing I have recently done is start a buyers' club. A local buyers' club! One of the places we get things from is a new co-op in Grand Rapids. It is a virtual farmers' market: there is NO bricks-and-mortar store. Monthly, members simply order their items online and then pick them up about a week later at a warehouse. This co-op is fascinating, as it is ONLY LOCAL ITEMS from local farmers; grass-fed meats, organic veggies and fruits, home products, knitted goods, soaps... And, get this: they thought I lived too far away!!! So I said the magic word ("buyers' club") and bingo, I am now a member. I place orders with 4-5 of my friends.

Other places we're getting our goodies from are an organic farm near Lansing that mills their own grains, grows their own beans, etc. (They have been my primary source for flour for a while now.) We can still use our California organics source for things like kiwi, avocados, and citrus fruits. And we also "know a guy" (always helpful) who roasts coffee as a hobby, and is able to get fair-trade organic coffee at the fairly traded price, thus charging us only $6 a pound.

Again, my point in telling you all this is to give you some ideas. Child nutrition is a no-brainer in my mind. That my child doesn't know what a marshmallow or a hotdog are is something I'm proud of, frankly. And as for the buyers' club, it helps to pool resources, I think, as there's lots more purchasing power in big orders. (By getting flour delivered to my house in hundreds of pounds, for example, I am able to save big bucks than if I only bought 25 pounds of the stuff.) And as you all know, I think food is very, very important: especially good food. So I put my money where my mouth is.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Life in the batting cage

Phyllis in a more lushly feathered phase

The hawk (a hawk?) came back, and attacked poor Phyllis, our sole Ameraucana (blue/green egg layer). Luckily, I was around, and chased the bird off. What a horrible potential death, though: and yes, don't chide me about the "circle of life" and all that: the chicken doesn't die immediately, it gets ripped apart, bite by bite, while the hawk straddles its neck and tail with its talons. Ouch.

So she's missing a few feathers now, and is a bit more of a chicken chicken. The attack led me to move one fence line in about 30'. Their run is now about 45' wide and maybe 50-60' long. And I undertook a big crafting project: I covered the whole thing with deer netting, and sewed the 7.5' wide pieces together.

Ice caught on the deer netting at the coop's eave

Thus, the batting cage (thank you, Tom).

He suggested making a chicken wire geodesic dome, a la Bucky Fuller: hey, El, we could electrify it, he said.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

On eating local in a Michigan December

I'm so pretty: Treviso-type radicchio in the cold, cold ground

Remember One Local Summer? Well, one brave soul decided to continue the idea of producing, eating and then posting one locally sourced dinner per week over the course of the winter. Laura at Urban Hennery has found more willing folks who are also giving it a try: go check out the Dark Days Eat Local Challenge.

I did not do this challenge. My reason for withholding is simple: with all food in our larder locally produced, there isn't much of a challenge to be had. This sounds like bragging. It's not: it's just me being single-minded. Admittedly, I thought ahead; this wasn't something I just started to do. I just wanted to show you that, with a little forethought, you might be able to do the same.

My weekly meals rely fairly heavily on making fresh, filling breadstuffs, and on the contents of our freezer/root cellar/canned goods. Lunches are usually leftover dinner. I try hard to mix up the vegetable offerings, but mostly I use up what is fresh first before moving into the deep freeze stash of last summer's veggies. Most of our salads nowadays are fruit-focused, with lots of apples and pears mixing it up with the heartier cabbages, fennel, celeriac and radicchio fresh out of the gardens.

So here's a sample of this week's local eating at Chez El.

Eggs and toast for brunch, with jam (strawberry or Damson plum this week)
Dinner (with company!) of minestrone soup, frozen from August's beany bounty; roast chicken with potatoes and carrots in the roasting pan; roasted beets; oaty whole-wheat bread and a fennel/bosc pear salad

Oatmeal for breakfast with applesauce for the sweetener
Lunch of either a cheese or chicken sandwich on the oaty bread; apple
Dinner of biscuits and gravy (with pan drippings from Sunday's chicken dinner, as well as a few pulls of leg meat in there too) with a salad of "hot" coleslaw (think warmed spinach salad); dessert of cranberry muffins (10 lbs. of cranberries from Thanksgiving: luckily, we like them! I've frozen them in 2-cup portions)

Breakfast of cranberry muffins and applesauce
Lunch of biscuits/honey, fruit, and cheese
Dinner of Michigan-made spaghetti and a jar of tomato sauce

Eggs and toast for breakfast
Leftover spaghetti for lunch with apple or pear
Soup night: either something with the stock made from Sunday's chicken or potato/leek or potato/kale soup. New whole-wheat loaf, salad from the greenhouse.

Eggs and toast for breakfast, with jam
Lunch of leftover soup, cranberry muffin and apple
Dinner of vegetarian chili with cornbread: my beans, peppers, tomatoes; local Bloody Butcher cornmeal; canned peaches for dessert

Cornbread with honey and homemade yogurt with fruit for breakfast
Cheese sandwich or leftover chili for lunch with yogurt/apple for dessert
Dinner of root mashers with steamed cabbage thrown in: think Colcannon without the cheese; salad of shaved celeriac and apple; toast with butter

Porridge (5-grain) for breakfast with fruit
Quick soup for lunch (either out of the freezer or off the shelves downstairs: tomato, eggplant/tomato, or something bean-y) with bread
Dinner of leftover lunch soup, herbed omelet, pan-roasted potatoes, roasted cauliflower; apple tart for dessert

What this weekly sampling kind of tells you is we've got lots of variety. Olive oil and butter are my big out-of-foodshed weaknesses, but lately, I have found a local source for soybean oil, and it is okay, especially for baking. The spaghetti and the cheese were the only things I purchased that were "ready-made," all else is just stuff I chop up and have either cooked and canned/frozen earlier, or am chopping and cooking for the day. Bread gets made about 3-4 times a week, with quickbreads like biscuits or cornbread filling in the gaps. I am not a maniacal breadmaker, though; I often rely on some slow-rising sourdough or a variant of the no-knead method. We free-range on apples and pears in the winter; our root cellar is fairly full of these fruits now. Not much goes to waste, certainly. The chicken carcass always becomes soup or stock, cooking all night and then refrigerated in the morning to be picked over later. The stock is usually then frozen with the meat, sometimes without, it just depends. I also am VERY stingy with the greenhouse greens! Those babies need to grow a bit so January and February aren't so dire. I am also, for some unknown reason, saving all my winter squash. Maybe it's because I am the only one who really truly loves it in the household...who knows.

If this helps just one person think about how he or she can eat closer to home, I will feel gratified. And if anyone would like my sources or recipes, please let me know. Local winter eating can be done, and I swear it doesn't have to be boring!

(Luckily, though, we do like pears and apples.)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Thoughts for Monday

For $1.98 per seed pack, these too can be yours!

"Eat responsibly. [E]ating is an agricultural act....(consumers of food) must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.... This is a simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex. To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as one can, this complex relationship."*

Wanna commit an agricultural act of your own? Our mailbox has already seen a couple of seed catalogs this year. When they arrive at your place, do a little bookmarking, and do a bit more mental gardening for next year: how about more vegetables? It will be so fun, and so very good to eat! And, well, it might just make you feel a bit more connected with your world.

*What Are People For? by Wendell Berry (New York: North Point Press, 1990)