Thursday, September 24, 2009

Backyard Herbal

In my successes post, I wondered whether it would be “cheating” to include herbs because I've had more experience growing them than any other type of plant, and because they are fairly easy to grow (sure bets, in other words). Later I realized I shouldn’t downplay herbs. They are essential to a Backyard Nest Egg due to their multiple contributions: culinary, nutritive, and medicinal.

As everyone knows, herbs can improve the humblest of fare. Today, for example, we’re having meatloaf and potatoes. Ho-hum. But the meatloaf is a Bobby Flay recipe that incorporates lots of finely chopped, sautéed veggies, as well as fresh thyme and parsley. The potatoes are our own homegrown German butterballs, roasted with olive oil and rosemary. Suddenly, our simple menu sounds like something a waiter in one of the better restaurants could wax eloquent about when taking your order.

Rosemary and thyme are among my favorite herbs for cooking. Thyme improves any beef dish and enhances just about any vegetable dish as well. Rosemary is a marvelous addition to many dishes, especially poultry, lamb, and potatoes. I also love rosemary baked into a hearty bread. These woody perennials are easy to grow and dry, and I’ve never had a problem with rabbits going after them!

However, here in Wisconsin, it’s impossible to overwinter rosemary outdoors, whereas thyme will survive as a perennial. If Thanksgiving doesn’t fall too late in November, and we haven’t had extremely cold weather yet, I still have fresh springs of rosemary, sage, and thyme for stuffing the turkey (together with onion and lemon – I bake the bread stuffing separately.) But that’s the absolute latest in the year I can hope for fresh rosemary from the garden.

Rosemary also takes a bit of time to get going in the spring. So my practice now is to plant one rosemary and one thyme seedling in pots in the spring. At the end of the summer, I bring the pots in. They don’t grow much, so I can only snip limited quantities of the fresh herbs over the winter. But in spring, I have a good-sized rosemary plant with an established root system. I plant it in the garden, together with several small purchased rosemary seedlings. The overwintered plant has a head start, so I get more fresh rosemary earlier. At the same time, I plant another small seedling in a pot, to take inside during the following winter, and provide a larger plant for the garden next spring.

I’ve only recently started thinking about the nutritive value of herbs. I was astonished to learn that parsley contains twice the iron of spinach and three times the vitamin C of oranges (by weight)! Parsley is definitely worth growing for those reasons alone. Parsley also enhances the flavor of many dishes, and complements other herbs as well.

Grown from seed, parsley is an herb that teaches patience and faith. Germination is slow, and no matter how I try to manage the seedlings, they are leggy and limp by the time I plant them out. They (and cilantro) look like the weak sisters of the herb garden, and it seems hard to believe you’ll get much out of them. But soon, parsley seedlings take off and produce lush, abundant foliage.

Before supermarkets shipped in out-of-season produce from distant locales, people in northern climates eagerly sought the first greens of spring for their nutritive properties. Chives are an easy-to-grow and versatile source of early greens in spring for the Backyard Nest Egg. Chives can survive the harsh winters of Wisconsin and are the first herb in my garden to send up green shoots in the spring. Chopped fresh chives are a great finish to many types of dishes – including soups, salads, and cooked vegetables.

Finally, as we all know, herbs have long been valued for their medicinal uses. In fact, it’s likely that some herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, and parsley, became popular culinary herbs because of their medicinal properties. Historically and today, rosemary, thyme, and parsley are considered beneficial as digestives and carminatives (a carminative is something that relieves flatulence). Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs identifies rosemary as a liver and gall bladder stimulant, and thyme as a liver tonic, while Michael Tierra (The Way of Herbs) describes thyme as an important parasiticide, useful for treating intestinal worms. (Contemporary research indicates that rosemary and parsley also have antioxidant properties.)

One of my goals for my Backyard Nest Egg is to expand my knowledge and use of homegrown herbs for medicinal purposes. I have used some simple preparations for minor complaints for years. For example, I always dry lots of sage for use in treating congestion in the head or chest in winter. Basically, I throw a handful of dried sage in a bowl of just boiled water and take in the steam with a towel over my head. (Rosemary is also a great expectorant and decongestant, but sage is more abundant in my garden and I find a little goes a long way in cooking. So I use the sage for colds and save the rosemary for cooking.) I find both peppermint and parsley tea refreshing and good digestive aids, and parsley to be a useful diuretic.

Other herbs take more time and effort to process. Echinacea is one of my favorite native flowers and I’ve grown it for years, when I lived in Nebraska and here in Wisconsin. But for medicinal purposes, I always use commercially produced preparations. I want to learn how to dig and process the root myself. Next year I plan to add Black Cohosh, another native plant to my garden. Like Echinacea, the root is the part used for medicinal purposes.

But our first experiment with processing root will be horseradish. (An upcoming post will focus exclusively on this herb.) Rick loves horseradish as a condiment and suggested we add it to the garden last year. The root is harvested the second year, so in a few weeks we’ll be digging it up. It got so big last year, we had to move it out of my backdoor herb garden to it's own place of honor in the larger garden. We must have left a piece of root, because as you can see in the photo above, there is a small horseradish still in the herb garden. Medicinally, as anyone who has eaten it knows, horseradish is great for clearing sinus congestion.

As food and medicine, for pleasure and health, the herb garden is obviously essential for any Backyard Nest Egg.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We're Waiting, Girls...

Today we are officially on egg watch. Our chickens, two Barred Rocks, and two Rhode Island Reds, are 18 weeks old today. Some sources say they start laying at between 18-20 weeks. Other sources I’ve read say 4-5 months, which works out to 21 weeks maximum. So, technically, it could be any time now.

Rick finished building the nest box a week or so ago, complete with a removable tray for easy cleaning. As I wrote in an earlier post about our coop, the original design included plans for a nest box inside the coop, but we decided to build one that hangs on the outside, to increase floor space inside the coop. I asked Rick to have it ready in early September, because I’d read that a few weeks before they start laying, hens start scoping out good places to lay their eggs.

They have actually started a new behavior. In the past, they only ever went into their coop to sleep. Now, I’ve noticed that they occasionally go back in for awhile, individually, sometimes scratching a depression in the pine shavings and sitting in it for a bit. Is this a “nesting behavior” I should be looking for? Or, are they just bored? I have no idea. I’ve read or leafed through many backyard chicken books and articles, but rarely find the kind of detailed information I’m looking for. Once I learn what I’m doing, I may write a book myself, for people like me who need DETAILS; lots and lots of details and concrete examples.

After Rick installed the nest box, I filled it with straw, and Rick placed a couple of old golf balls in the nest. I felt a little silly about the golf balls. The goal with these, according to my reading, is to encourage the birds to lay their eggs in the nest box and not on the floor of the coop, their pen, or other places where they could get damaged or dirty. Whatever works, I guess.

But it’s hard for me to imagine that traditional farmers back in the day put golf balls or plastic eggs filled with sand (another suggestion I read) in nest boxes. Our city chicks have no older hens to learn from, so maybe this little device is useful. But I can’t help wondering if it’s more of a ritual than a necessity. Kind of like when ancient people drew pictures of animals they hoped to bag in a hunt on the walls of caves; we put golf balls in nest boxes hoping for eggs.

So, all the preparations are made, and now, we wait. I think we’ll be waiting at least a few weeks because, as you can see in the photo above, the girls do not look fully mature yet. Amelia, the Barred Rock in the foreground, appears to be the closest to a mature hen. Red, fully developed combs and wattles are an indication that they are about to start laying. So we expect Amelia to produce the first egg.

As an aside, Amelia is the sweetest and friendliest of our chickens and Rick’s favorite. She’s less aggressive than the other girls, so when Rick gives them Japanese beetles he’s collected, he makes sure she gets her share. He named her Amelia because she was the first and best flier of the group. When she was less than two weeks old, she liked to fly up on top of the waterer to perch. She looked adorable there, but we had to shoo her off, so she wouldn’t poop in the water and sicken everyone. We put small, overturned clay pots in the brooder for them to perch on instead, and they loved those.

Another way to determine whether they are ready to lay that I’ve read about is to check the separation distance of the hen’s pelvic bones (near the vent). When they’re ready to start laying, the bones will separate to 2-3 fingers width. We’re not on such intimate terms with our chickens! I suppose maybe we should be, to check them over from time to time and ensure their health. But they have never liked being picked up, so we don’t force the issue.

I know that some people handle their chicks a lot when they’re little, so they’ll be tame and allow petting and holding when they’re older. We only picked ours up when we needed to. They’re not afraid of us; they run up when they see us and like to hang around near us when we’re in their pen. They tolerate very limited petting. They don’t run off afraid, but they do shrug off our touch and move away. My feeling is that if they want to be left alone, we should leave them alone. Checking the separation of the bones near their vents won’t bring eggs any faster. Might as well be patient.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Food News Round-Up: September 12, 2009

Biddy Martin: UW invites you to sift, winnow on food this fall
First-year UW-Madison students received copies of this year's choice, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." The author, Michael Pollan, is best known for his perspectives on a safe, healthy food supply and for his criticisms of food production methods in the U.S. and around the world. In his book, Pollan explains what he believes to be problems with the "Western diet" and the "nutritionism" or food science that supports it.
This book was chosen because it raises issues of interest to faculty, staff, students and community members from a variety of backgrounds. The issues are of particular importance in Wisconsin, where the economic impact of agriculture is almost $60 billion a year.

A lot meant by an allotment
It is almost 70 years since the nation was encouraged to use every available piece of land to Dig For Victory. It’s now high time the Government repeated that green-fingered campaign in a bid to ensure there’s enough food on our plates, argues AM Leanne Wood.

Regenerative Agriculture: The Transition.
In the face of peak oil and in order to curb carbon emissions, methods of farming that depend less on oil and natural gas, respectively to run machinery and to make synthetic fertilizers, must be sought. Such options are to be found within the framework of regenerative agriculture, but the transition from current industrialised agriculture to these alternative strategies will prove testing.

Plans for White House farmers' market move forward
The quiet revolution spreading steadily across the US in the way Americans produce and consume food is about to acquire a powerful endorsement in the form of a farmers' market planned for one of the better-known corners of the capital. It will be sited a block away on the north side of a large white house and will have the backing of its occupier, one Michelle Obama.

Michael Pollan: People Are Finally Talking About Food, and You Can Thank Wendell Berry for That
Certainly these are heady days for people who have been working to reform the way Americans grow food and feed themselves -- the "food movement," as it is now often called. Markets for alternative kinds of food -- local and organic and pastured -- are thriving, farmers' markets are popping up like mushrooms and for the first time in many years the number of farms tallied in the Department of Agriculture's census has gone up rather than down. The new secretary of agriculture has dedicated his department to "sustainability" and holds meetings with the sorts of farmers and activists who not many years ago stood outside the limestone walls of the USDA holding signs of protest and snarling traffic with their tractors.

Big Food vs. Big Insurance
The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care. The president has made a few notable allusions to it, and, by planting her vegetable garden on the South Lawn, Michelle Obama has tried to focus our attention on it. Just last month, Mr. Obama talked about putting a farmers’ market in front of the White House, and building new distribution networks to connect local farmers to public schools so that student lunches might offer more fresh produce and fewer Tater Tots. He’s even floated the idea of taxing soda.
But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet.

The way we eat is trashing the fragile conditions that make human life possible
Producing and distributing lots and lots of calories, leveraged by fossil fuel and synthetic fertilizers and poisons, may solve certain short-term problems; but the practice also creates long-term ones that won’t be easily solved.

In June, a study emerged showing that so-called inert ingredients in Roundup, Monsanto’s widely used flagship herbicide, can kill human cells even at low levels—“particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells,” reports Scientific American. This is an herbicide that’s used on virtually all of our nation’s corn and soy fields, covering tens of millions of acres of cropland. (It’s also widely used by landscapers and on home lawns.)

Feeding the future: Saving agricultural biodiversity
(CNN) -- When the chips are down, the world may one day owe a debt of gratitude to a group of potato farmers high up in the mountains of Peru.

Thanks to a new $116 million global fund established this summer, the Quechua Indians are being paid to maintain their diverse collection of rare potatoes and ensure that they will be available to help the world adapt to future climate change.

Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya's Hopes
A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land.

The twin hearts of Kenya’s economy, agriculture and tourism, are especially imperiled. The fabled game animals that safari-goers fly thousands of miles to see are keeling over from hunger and the picturesque savanna is now littered with an unusually large number of sun-bleached bones.


The Ultimate in Eating Local: My Adventures in Urban Foraging
Rabins is another breed, and an older one -- he doesn't grow food, he finds it, and he does so mostly around the city of San Francisco and its neighboring towns and shores. He's also among a growing band of urban foragers who have been sprouting through sidewalk cracks all across the country as the economy tightens belts and the local-foods movement gains popularity. And thanks to Rabins, I got to spend a day seeing what's it's like to start looking at your neighborhood as a potential meal.

Warming turns global poor's staple into poison
SYDNEY: Cassava - the staple of 750 million impoverished people in Africa, Asia and Latin America - is turning more toxic with much smaller yields, thanks to global warming and carbon levels.

Monash University researcher Ros Gleadow and her team tested cassava and sorghum under a series of climate change scenarios to study the effect on plant nutritional quality and yield.

India food prices surging on poor monsoon
New Delhi: Indian food prices surged nearly 15% in the year ended August as a poor monsoon hit crops, but analysts said moderate price pressures elsewhere in the economy meant an interest rate rise was unlikely for now.

The annual change in the overall wholesale price index was negative on 29 August for a 13th week, although a return to inflation looked imminent in September as the effect of last year’s high fuel and commodity prices fade out of calculations.


The Food Wars
Neither the recent global food shortages nor the impending world energy crisis will be unfamiliar to readers, yet the link between the two has only recently been discussed.

Walden Bello, renowned activist, academic and voice of the global South, situates the origins of the current food crisis within the neo-liberal reforms occurring on a global scale, describing the marginalization of the peasantry by global systems of production and distribution that service mainly the world’s middle class and elite.

When Cocaine and Monsanto's Pesticide Collide, the War on Drugs Becomes a Genetically-Modified War on Science
At the intersection of cocaine and Roundup in rural South America, Monsanto and the U.S. government are struggling to keep up appearances. That's becoming more and more difficult as the unanticipated hazards of genetic modification become clearer.

Back in April, Argentinean embryologist Andrés Carrasco gave an interview with a Buenos Aires newspaper describing his recent findings suggesting the chemical glyphosate, a chemical herbicide widely used in agriculture as well as in U.S. anti-narcotic efforts, could cause defects in fetuses in much smaller doses than those to which peasants and farmers in his country were already being exposed. Loud calls for a ban on the substance were issued by Argentinean environmental lawyers, and the country's Ministry of Defense banned the planting of glyphosate-resistant soya crops in its fields:

Cornucopia Blues
When in 2003 famine pushed 14 million Ethiopians to the brink of starvation, it did so despite the fact that Ethiopian farmers had recently reaped a series of unprecedented bumper harvests . . . Drought was the proximate cause of the 2003 famine, but the true culprit, as Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman make clear in Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, were the policies known as "structural adjustment" that Western governments--under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank--have forced on Africa since the 1980s.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ruth Stout: Queen of Labor-Saving

As I wrote in a post in July, I’m gradually developing a set a principles for gardening as a nest egg, or an investment in food security. These include things like minimizing purchased inputs, planting what I call “sure bets,” and finding and developing methods for simplifying the work, or labor-savers, so that even into old age, one can continue to garden.

In the seven weeks since I started this blog, I’ve written about four times as much on minimizing purchased inputs and sure bets as I have on labor-saving. But that’s not because labor-saving is less important to me. In fact, labor-saving emerged as the primary issue for me when my health problems came to a crisis point a couple of years ago. Although I have made steady, if slow, improvement since then, I could not continue with this project if I thought that it would be impossible for me to garden five, or even ten years from now, let alone in old age. What kind of a Backyard Nest Egg would I have if I had to abandon gardening in a few years because it was physically impossible for me to do the work?

Labor-saving strategies enable one to build and maintain a Backyard Nest Egg not only in old age, but also when physically limited by pregnancy or ill health, while working a full-time job, or to simply free up time for other activities. (Truthfully, part of the pleasure of a garden for me is just sitting in it, perhaps in a chaise lounge with a good book, drifting off from time to time, luxuriating in the sounds, beauty and warmth of a summer day.)

So when I happened to stumble on the writings of Ruth Stout and her ideas for “no-work gardening” I felt truly empowered to take on my Backyard Nest Egg project. Well into her 80s, Stout produced in her garden all the vegetables she, her husband, and her sister required. Born in 1884, Stout lived to the age of 96 and wrote many articles for Organic Gardening magazine in the 1950s and 1960s, where she expounded on her labor-saving ideas.

Stout’s key strategy for her “no work” method of gardening was to apply a year-round thick mulch of organic material – primarily hay. Why go to all the trouble of building and turning a compost pile, she reasoned, when one could just throw kitchen vegetable scraps directly into the garden, cover them with a layer of leaves, pine needles, straw, hay – whatever combination of these you had to hand – and allow them to decompose where they lay? Stout especially favored “spoiled hay;” that is, hay no longer suitable for animal feed, usually due to mold, and therefore inexpensive. Whenever the mulch became thin, and/or weeds poked through, Stout advised adding a few more armfuls of hay onto the mulch.

One spring, when she grew impatient waiting for someone to till her garden so she could start planting, she found that the layers of decaying mulch had created soft rich earth into which she could directly plant her seeds. Thereafter, she eliminated tilling from the usual list of garden chores. She even skipped digging trenches for crops like potatoes and asparagus. Instead, she recommended laying seed potatoes on top of the previous year’s mulch, covering them with about a foot of loose hay, and “and later simply pull[ing] back the mulch and pick[ing] up the new potatoes.”[1]

Gardeners are usually advised to dig trenches 8 to 10 inches deep to plant asparagus, but Stout turned that received wisdom on its head as well.

Since I long ago lost faith in so-called experts, I bought two dozen asparagus roots a few years ago and decided to try planting them by just laying them on top of the ground (in a bed of peonies) and tossing hay on them. And I have had a fine crop from these roots every season. You see, I had noticed that in a dozen or more places – in the meadow, by the woodshed, and around – asparagus plants are more luxurious than those in my regular asparagus bed (emphasis in original).[2]
What I most appreciate about Stout is her curious, critical mind. She read many articles and books on gardening, and asked advice of many extension agents, always trying to glean some information that would improve her techniques. Yet she also relied on her own observations and critical analysis. In her No Work Garden Book, Stout has a bit of fun deconstructing a pamphlet entitled “Science Versus Witchcraft” the aim of which is to debunk organic gardening and includes sentences such as “Organic matter is neither essential nor necessary for plant growth.” She also discusses a magazine article in which the author insists that “Plowing IS Important.” The article, she says gives her some satisfaction because, she reasons, they wouldn’t be publishing it if there weren’t a trend to give up plowing. “Merchants who sell fertilizers and plows and so on,” she noted, “aren’t in sympathy with my ideas of gardening.”[3]

Stout reports that early on, she also used manure to fertilize her garden, but later found she didn’t need it. She also claimed that after building her soil for a number of years, she no longer needed to rotate her crops or attend to soil pH for blueberries. She wrote:

My plot has become so rich that I can plant very closely, and I don’t even use manure now. The garden is one-eighth its original size and so luxuriant that in the fall we call it the jungle; one of my carrots, sweet and tender, was large enough to serve five people. My sweet Spanish onions average a pound apiece; some weigh a pound and a quarter.[4]
Finally, in addition to eliminating tilling, hoeing, weeding, building and turning a compost pile, Stout’s heavy mulch method also drastically reduced the need for watering. Since her household relied on water from their well, she was forced to use it wisely, especially during droughts. Before the term “grey water” came into existence, she kept a large watering can by her sink, and saved all the water she used to rinse dishes and vegetables, and any other “waste water” that did not have grease or too much soap in it, for watering what she called her “pet;” her flowers. She claimed never to have watered her peppers and tomatoes and always to have produced good crops of these. She added:

Many people have asked me if mulching adequately protects my flowers and vegetables from a severe drought. The answer is yes; through eleven seasons of year-round, over-all mulching, with several serious droughts, the only crop I have lost has been one late planting of corn. Now I believe I could have saved that, too.[5]
Stout’s advice for when drought is expected:

• Plant seeds further apart than usual, water well, and mulch thickly.
• Don’t plant pole beans, but instead plant successive crops of bush beans, after soaking the seeds overnight.
• Avoid mid-season varieties of corn and plant quick maturing varieties instead. Soak the seeds overnight before planting.

Following Stout, we went out to a farm last week-end and bought ten bales of hay. Because I believe in using what you have, and minimizing purchased inputs, I had originally planned to just use the fall leaves that are so abundant around here for mulching the garden and building the soil. In his Book of Compost, Mike McGrath advocates fall leaves as the best dry material for making compost. He points out that leaves are “filled with trace minerals and nutrients the tree’s roots have extracted from deep in the earth, minerals and trace nutrients essential for plant health” (p6, emphasis in original). He adds, “None of your ‘dry brown’ alternatives are anywhere near as rich in trace minerals and other nutrients as leaves” (p8).

So last fall we shredded and bagged every single leaf that fell in our yard; loads and loads of leaves; ultimately ten large paper yard waste bags of them. (Which is more than it sounds, because the leaves were shredded.) These made a wonderful mulch – but ten bags were not enough. I was forced to spread them a bit too thin, and when they decomposed, I had no more to add.

Also, however much I admire Stout, I don’t plan to throw vegetable scraps and other things I use for compost, like egg shells and coffee grounds, directly into the garden. We have enough varmints around here as it is, and I prefer the garden to look attractive. However, last year, when I grew impatient waiting for compost to finish in the Earth Machine composter (I’ve written about the problems with this composter here), I did put partially finished compost around some ailing peppers and they perked up almost immediately. After that, I decided that as soon as I couldn’t recognize a vegetable peeling or eggshell, the compost was done enough to mulch the garden and finish decomposition there. (Now that I have chickens, I compost their manure as well.)

So my idea for next spring is to put partially composted material on the garden, cover it with hay, and when this settles a bit, top with shredded fall leaves. I tried hay mulch in a few places this summer, but decided that shredded leaves are more aesthetically pleasing. This fall, I’m spreading the hay we just bought in all of our beds. I also plan to place stepping stones in the large landscaped area so that we don’t compact the soil. The raised beds are easy to work in without walking in them. But our largest planting area (previously professionally landscaped with perennials and shrubs by the prior owners) is not a square plot, like Ruth Stout’s, with regular space between rows in which to walk. I keep telling Rick (since he does nearly all the heavy digging for me), that soon, SOON, there will be less work. I’m counting on it, Ruth.


[1] The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book. Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence. Rodale Press, 1971:p16.
[2] 1971; p13.
[3] 1971; p59.
[4] 1971; p4.
[5] 1971; p32.


More articles on Ruth Stout:

Ruth Stout, The No-Dig Dutchess
Ruth Stout, Gardening Gadfly
Ruth Stout's System

Books by Ruth Stout are out-of-print, but you may be able to find used copies or borrow copies from your library. The titles I know of are:

The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence.
Rodale Press, 1971.

Gardening Without Work for the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent

How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Food News Round-Up: September 5, 2009

Officials want to make Madison a fruit gleaner's paradise
Madison is no Big Apple, but it soon could be filled with little ones, along with pears, plums, cherries and - big surprise - nuts.

Spurred by an interest in sustainable, local agriculture and expanding the city's arboreal variety, City officials are working on a plan to plant apple, pear, cherry and other fruit or nut trees at parks, community gardens and other city-owned properties around town.

Love-of-land connection
RICHLAND, Iowa - He quit his job and drove his wife and their four young daughters across country, a 21st-century pioneer lured to these faraway farm fields by the promise of a life-changing deal with an older stranger.

Isaac Phillips always wanted to be a farmer. But when he revealed his plans to some friends and colleagues at the Utah jail where he supervised inmate work crews, they said: a) don't give up a steady job, b) you're making a big mistake, and even c) you're crazy.

Chicken-keeping finds its place in our front yards
PORTLAND, Ore. — North Williams Avenue is a street with a soundtrack like most any other in the neighborhoods of Portland. There’s the swishing of bikes, the rustling of leaves, the whirring of motors.

But then there’s something else under those familiar notes: a tiny warble of clucks coming from a chicken coop set in a front yard.

Newspapers across the country have been splashing urban and suburban chicken-keeping across their front pages. It’s the latest thing, they said. But in Portland, it’s old hat. For the past few years, chicken keeping has found its place here.

Gardening 101: How do I become a no impact gardener?
Not all gardeners are no impact gardeners. Organic gardeners do their best to leave a positive impact on the environment. There are many ways of working toward leaving no impact. Here are just a few green gardening suggestions. Try to think of your own ways to leave no impact in the garden as well.

U.S. farmers warm to community agriculture model

* More than 12,500 U.S. farms trying new model

* Farmers see more secure revenue stream

* Consumers like quality, connection to seasons

As he finished packing corn, tomatoes and blueberries into shopping bags at a Massachusetts farm, software engineer Alex Lian said his new shopping habits had changed his attitude to food.

"As a city person, I've never had this much connection to the seasons and eating things as they're picked," the 32-year-old said as he looked out over fields at Tangerini's Spring Street Farm where his produce had been grown.

$300 a Night? Yes, but Haying’s Free
This is essentially how we talked ourselves into spending a long weekend at Stony Creek Farm in Delaware County, N.Y., a part of the Catskills so rough that most everyone who grew up there describes it as “two stones to every dirt.”

Sleeping and eating on a farm is a common way to vacation in Europe, where the ties to farming are strong and motels are few. It’s rare but not unheard of in the United States. Stony Creek Farm is part of a new way to get hay in your hair. Call it farm stay 2.0.

The owners are often young, recent converts to farming, with few acres and strongly held beliefs: animals should be raised on pasture, vegetables should be grown without chemicals, and America needs to be re-educated about food.

The promise and limits of local food
EATING LOCAL is all the rage. As someone who dropped out to become a community farmer in the 1970s, and still farms, I am delighted. As someone who later dropped back into academia to become an environmental historian, I have my doubts about how much we can grow in New England. Watching some of my best students head down the same path, I feel I owe their parents an explanation.

Farmers warned to get ready
RALEIGH -- Even if global temperatures rise slowly, climate change could slash the yields of some of the world's most important crops almost in half, according to a new study co-authored by an N.C. State University scientist.

The study, recently published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at three frequently used scenarios for global warming. It found that the average U.S. yields for corn, soybeans and cotton could plummet 30 percent to 46 percent by the end of the century under the slowest warming scenario, and 63 percent to 82 percent under the quickest.

"There are some caveats, but this is a real cause for concern," said Michael Roberts, an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at NCSU.

Organic Farmers Seek Healthier Future
The hills of northeastern Maharashtra are normally green and lush during the annual monsoon season. But this year's spots of brown are a sign of a trouble.In this region known as the suicide belt, the combination of poor rains, high production costs for farming, low crop yields and crippling debt can be fatal. Some 16,000 farmers commit suicide every year in India, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau. About a quarter of them are in Vidarbha. In July alone, 36 people died here.

How to Grow Democracy
"Food democracy" has become the rallying cry of an emerging grassroots movement. It certainly sounds good--but what exactly does it mean? "Eating local," as more and more people strive to do, is part of it. At the most basic level, though, food democracy requires a transformation of the food industry, so that workers and consumers can exercise control over what they produce and eat. As the Small Planet Institute defines it, "Food democracy means the right of all to an essential of life--safe, nutritious food. It also suggests fair access to land to grow food and a fair return for those who labor to produce it.

Food democracy concerns itself with the future as well: It implies economic rules that encourage communities to safeguard the soil, water, and wildlife on which all our lives and futures depend." The vision is compelling, but how can it be made concrete? What are the obstacles to democratizing the food system, and how can they be overcome? For this forum, we asked five leading figures of this country's food movement to reflect on how food democracy can be achieved, here and now. Their responses follow.

My Introduction to ‘Local Food: how to make it happen in your community’
September 17th sees the release of the first in a series of ‘how to’ books published under the imprint of ‘Transition Books’ (due soon, guides to money, working with local government and cities). Entitled ‘Local Food: how to make it happen in your community’ it is the work mainly of Tamzin Pinkerton (who was recently interviewed here at Transition Culture) with bits from me, and it is really quite brilliant. Rather than being an intellectual exercise, it is really about the nitty gritty of setting up local food projects, drawing largely (but by no means exclusively) from the successes and failures of Transition initiatives around the world. It is packed with examples, tips, links, ideas and inspiration for rebuilding food resilience where you live.

Drought Withers Iraqi Farms, Food Supplies
Iraq has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, but it's running out of another valuable commodity: water.

Iraq's ancient name, Mesopotamia, means the land between two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates, which flow into Iraq from Turkey and Syria. But water is now so limited for agriculture that Iraq imports 80 percent of the food Iraqis eat.

During the holy month of Ramadan, traditional foods that typically come from Iraqi farms are getting harder to find.

Four crucial resources that may run out in your lifetime
We're living in lucky times. Living standards - in the Western world, at least - are the highest in history. It's an era of relative peace and plenty that would amaze our ancestors. But it's not going to continue forever; we're already stretching many of our natural resources to their limits, and the world's population will jump from 6.5 billion to around 9 billion over the next 50 years. Get ready for a painful correction - here are four interconnected resources that are headed for a catastrophic squeeze within our lifetime.

US families turn to food stamps as wages drop
The number of working Americans turning to free government food stamps has surged as their hours and wages erode, in a stark sign that the recession is inflicting pain on the employed as well as the newly jobless.

While the increase in take-up is often attributed to the sharp rise in unemployment – which on Friday hit 9.7 per cent – the Financial Times has learnt that some 40 per cent of the families now on food stamps have “earned income”, up from 25 per cent two years ago.

It's time to get serious about food security in Surrey
The problem here is twofold. First, British Columbians cannot grow nearly enough food within our own borders to feed ourselves. Second, the conversion of agricultural land goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of suburban sprawl.

Our vulnerability to food insecurity becomes a problem if we run into peak oil and food becomes extremely expensive to transport over long distances, or if an international crisis sparks the closure of borders, making it difficult to import food.

Study: 1.6 billion face water, food threat in Asia
KATMANDU, Nepal – Effects of climate change including the melting of Himalayan glaciers threaten water and food security for more than 1.6 billion people living in South Asia, according to a study released Wednesday.

India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Nepal will be most vulnerable to falling crop yields caused by glacier retreat, floods, droughts and erratic rainfall, said the study financed by the Asian Development Bank.

Big stores counting the cost of ban on GM food
Britain's food giants have privately warned that they are struggling to maintain their decade-long ban on genetic modification and called for the public to be educated about the increasing cost of avoiding GM, The Independent reveals today.

As major producers such as the US and Brazil switch to GM, supermarkets are now paying 10 to 20 per cent more for the dwindling supplies of conventional soya and maize, according to a report by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Friday, September 4, 2009

Neighbors and Pests

She gives with one hand and takes with the other. One day I’m waxing lyrical about the unexpected gifts gardens give; the next I go out and find the late blight that’s been plaguing much of the country this year on my tomatoes. I could have cried. We’ve had plenty of little Juliet tomatoes already, but the cool summer slowed the ripening of the bigger tomatoes. The Amish paste and Beefsteak were just getting going. I canned a small batch of salsa a couple of weeks ago, and have saved up about what I need for a large batch of pizza sauce.

(I’ve learned, by the way, that the Amish paste are far superior to the Viva Italia I had grown in previous years. Large, rich red, meaty, and aromatic, with the additional advantage of being an heirloom cultivar, Amish paste are now my top choice for canning sauces and salsas.)

So we rescued all the tomatoes that were starting to ripen on still healthy vines (at least six or seven pounds) for further ripening indoors, and bagged up everything else. Pounds and pounds of green tomatoes. Meanwhile, our neighbors across the fence reported that they, too, suspected they had late blight on their tomatoes. But, unsure whether it was late blight, and enjoying a beer while they strolled through their garden, they had little inclination to rip out diseased plant material that evening.

“I hope it doesn’t get on my potatoes,” I said, trying to hint, in my usual unsubtle way. Their tomatoes are just a few feet away from my last potato patch, much closer to my spuds than my own tomatoes. They hadn’t heard of blight on potatoes, and stared at me in disbelief when I mentioned that potatoes and tomatoes were both in the solanaceae, or nightshade family. Patiently, my neighbor pointed out that “one is a fruit and one is a vegetable.”

It occurred to me later that one topic I’ve rarely seen covered in the flurry of articles about backyard food production is the complication of near neighbors and their gardening practices. I’ve seen many that focus on chicken-keeping; I can’t recall any that focus on gardening. We’ve been blessed over the years, in the many places we’ve lived, to have had many, many good neighbors. The type of folks who will, unasked, run out with a shovel to help dig my car out of the pile of snow left by the plow at the end of my driveway when I foolishly forget to look before backing out. Who will offer to haul loads of free bark (as my neighbor with the suspected case of blight did), from the nearby city park when Rick’s out-of-town and my hip’s acting up. Who, in many ways, big and small, generously help out, often unasked, whenever we need it.

It was a neighbor, in fact, who got me started on my first garden. Back in 1981, we lived in base housing at McChord Air Force base in Washington state. Our neighbors and friends down the street dug up a section of their back lawn and planted a large vegetable garden. Inspired by them, Mother Earth News magazine, and the “back to the land” movement of the late 1970s, I decided I wanted to start a garden, too.

Rick was opposed because base regulations required submitting a written plan in advance and signing an agreement to replant grass over the plot before we moved. He didn’t want to replant grass, especially if he got orders to another base on short notice. So, naturally, as soon as he went out-of-town on another of his many TDYs (temporary duty at another base), I had our neighbor (coincidentally, also named Rick) come over and rototill up a section of the lawn.

By the time my Rick returned, we’d been ticketed for an unauthorized garden, but he was able to smooth that over with the authorities fairly easily. (I could write a whole post on the troubles I caused that poor man with the military authorities over the years, but I digress. Suffice to say, I’m lucky he’s still with me!)

In that first garden, I grew tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, peas, and some other things I can’t remember. What really stands out for me are the peas. I’d hated peas when I was growing up. Mom had a rule then that we couldn’t have dessert until the vegetables were finished. So around and around the table that bowl of peas would go, each child (eventually, eight of us) taking just a few and hoping that by the time the bowl returned to him or her, the peas would be gone. Of course, those were canned peas. Until I grew my own, I’d never tasted a fresh pea. And they were delicious. The goal was to freeze some to save on grocery bills, but we ate most of them fresh. Huge mounds of them, lightly steamed, with butter and just a little salt. They were a revelation.

The other thing I remember about that garden was the lack of pests. We had no fences around our yards in base housing, and never put one around our vegetable garden. No rabbits feasted on the fruit of my labor, as in later gardens. I don’t even remember any major insect problems.

I didn’t realize how easy I had it until I lived other places and struggled with various pests. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether some chemical or other had killed off any pests. Military installations have been (still are?) notorious environmental polluters, dumping all sorts of industrial waste into the ground. McChord AFB, in particular,
contaminated public wells adjacent to the base at the time we lived there. Those “organic” vegetables I thought I was growing were probably a lot less healthy than I realized.

Things were different at the first house we owned in Omaha, Nebraska. Insects weren’t too bad, but we did have a few rabbits. In the beginning, this wasn’t much of a problem. We, or our neighbor Jerry’s dogs, could chase them off fairly easily, and we didn’t lose many vegetables or flowers. Then one summer, we were overrun with rabbits. They razed everything I planted to the ground. They were everywhere and they were bold. When I ran at them yelling and waving my arms, instead of scampering off as in the past, they just sat and stared at me.

Jerry, sympathetic to my plight, and with a little time on his hands (he had no garden to defend; he discouraged his wife from planting anything in the yard because he didn’t want anything to “get in the way” of his mowing), was eager to assist. “Want me to get my gun?” he asked helpfully. “I have it handy. Why don’t I go get it now?”

“Uh, no thanks, Jerry,” I replied. “I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.”

Earlier that year, a family with an eight-year-old girl had moved in next door. She and her dad Craig stopped by my garage sale during the summer of the rabbit scourge and I engaged in what I thought was neighborly commiseration about the varmints. “You know,” I said to the father, after detailing my complaints, “Jerry keeps wanting to take his gun to the rabbits, and I’m about ready to let him!”

Craig fixed me with an icy stare. “My daughter loves the rabbits,” he said coldly. “She feeds them every day.” He put his arm around her protectively. “C’mon, honey, let’s go.”

Great. Now I knew why the rabbits had proliferated and I had a rep as a bloodthirsty bunny killer.

A few days later, I was aghast to see my neighbor Murray, who lived behind us and the rabbit-lovers next door, spraying something from a tank on Craig’s woodpile. Murray spent many a summer evening strolling through his beautiful perennial garden spraying some chemical or other on anything that moved.

What are you doing?” I asked.

“That’s where the rabbits live,” he said matter-of-factly. “Will it kill them?” I asked, wondering what the hell he had in that tank. It seemed unlikely that a bug spray would kill rabbits, unless it was a slow death. “I don’t know, but I’m sick of these rabbits!”

We bitched and moaned for awhile before I raised my biggest concern. “Well, I wonder whether that wood will be safe to burn? Whether there will be some kind of toxic fumes from that spray?” Murray didn’t know, and didn’t seem too worried about it.

Eventually, we got the rabbit menace under control by attaching chicken wire to the lower foot or so of the chain link fence that surrounded the yard. Would that pest control could be as easily achieved in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve said over and over to anyone who will listen (and many who were trying not to) that I thought I was a pretty good gardener until I moved to Wisconsin.

We figured we knew how to deal with the rabbits. Rick put up a picket fence and attached two feet of chicken wire to the bottom. But as we stood admiring his handiwork, we were astonished to see a rabbit leap gracefully over the chicken wire and through the pickets. So he went back and stapled-gunned two more feet of chicken wire to the fence.

But fences will not keep out chipmunks and squirrels. We had squirrels in Nebraska, but none ever came on my deck and dug fresh plantings out of pots as they do here. We start all our container plantings now with domes of chicken wire to protect the seedlings.

Last year was the year of the earwigs in the bed alongside the garage. I’m sure those bugs must exist in Nebraska, too, but, they weren’t a problem for me there. Apparently, they are impervious to insecticidal soap. They devastated my Savoy cabbages and bell peppers until I learned to set out traps made of tuna cans with a little oil in them. We must have emptied hundreds and hundreds earwigs from tuna cans last year.

The worst scourge of all is the Japanese beetles. I never even heard of a Japanese beetle until I moved to Wisconsin. Nothing kills them except heavy duty chemicals, which we are loathe to use. (Where is Murray when I need him???) We tried Neem oil spray, but that just deters some of them for a day or two. Insecticidal soap is useless. Rick spread milky spores on the ground, but that just kills the grubs. The bugs can fly in from miles away. Only neighborhood cooperation can get them under control.

Last night, while talking to the neighbors behind us about late blight on tomatoes and potatoes, we noticed Japanese beetles on their roses – just a few feet from our cherry trees. We engaged in a little friendly finger-pointing about whose shrub they originated from. Maybe they’re right, and the beetles did originate from our trees. And maybe when I’m not looking, they are diligently removing beetles. What I do know is that Rick is the only one who uses milky spores, and the only one I ever see collecting beetles every evening.

Our neighbors, who are generous and decent people, appear to have given up doing anything about their beetles. Usually I see them look at the beetles, sigh, and look away. They’ve told us we’re welcome to come over and shake beetles from their roses to feed our chickens. We’ve got plenty of beetles for our chickens in our own yard, but maybe we should go pick theirs, if only to diminish the numbers in our vicinity.

In a way, I don’t blame them. It’s a never-ending and seemingly impossible task to get Japanese beetles under control. Plus, neighbors on either side of our house have two birch trees each, which are also Japanese beetle magnets. Even if we and the ones behind us attack the beetle problem, we’ll make little headway without our other neighbors, who are wonderful people, but mostly disinterested in gardening.

So, in addition to the challenges of growing sufficient food in small spaces, and coping with local ordinances and homeowner association rules, we urban farmers will also have to learn how to enlist the cooperation of near neighbors, whose gardening practices directly impact our own efforts. Larisa, if you’re reading this, that lone homestead looks mighty tempting at the moment!

On the other hand, if I were a lone homesteader, who would dig my ass out of the snow the next time I need it? And who would I help, to make my life useful? Who would I talk to and laugh with? Maybe I ought to end this ramble, and go out to help my neighbor pick the beetles off her roses after all.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Garden Gifts

Lately, I’ve been feeling a little blue. In part, it’s because summer is ending, and that warm September I heard we would get does not feel like it will materialize. I do love autumn; in fact, it’s my favorite season. I love the crisp mornings, the leaves turning. Especially beautiful are the trees whose leaves turn shades of yellow, so the sun shining through them as they fall gives the appearance of a gentle shower of gold. However, there is that moment, as the season turns, that I feel a little sadness at the death of summer.

Writing the post
about this year’s gardening failures was necessary but also a little disheartening. Wouldn’t you know, the year I decide to write a blog about my grand project, we have an unusually cool summer, even setting a record low high in July. That’s Mother Nature for you; always letting you know who’s boss, whenever you get a little cocky.

But she can also reward you with unexpected gifts that lift your spirits just when you need it. Two summers ago, I lost my job at about the same time that two health issues came to a crisis point; one I knew had been brewing for a long time, the other a surprise. I hadn’t yet started my food production project, but I did have a few favorite perennials I was nursing along. After my surgery, I was unable to work in my garden. I could only limp outside from time to time to survey the ongoing deterioration of it - the insect damage, the dying leaves, the weeds rapidly reclaiming the bed - before retreating in defeat.

The following June, on the anniversary of the day I lost my job, I was working out in the garden and pondering the significance of the day. I weeded around the bleeding heart that then hid the compost bin. It had grown large and was crowding everything around it. I pruned all around the plant, and found underneath the front, a delphinium I thought had died the previous summer. Two large stems were coiled on the ground. The heavy rain had splashed soil all over the leaves, but otherwise it looked in good shape. I drove a couple of stakes into the ground, tied it up, and mulched it. I felt kind of like Charlie Brown, rescuing that sad little Christmas tree.

A few minutes later, while weeding further along the bed, I found my liatris, about eight inches tall, healthy and perfectly formed. It was another plant I thought had been lost. The summer of my surgery, rabbits chomped much of it down, after which the bugs had their fill. Yet here it was the following spring, back healthy and sound; a native plant I’d always wanted to grow.

Since I’m given to seeing meaning and symbolism in just about everything, and gardens especially, I “took heart,” as they say in the old novels. On the surface, it might seem like everything had sickened and died, but the roots were strong and healthy, and the plant regenerated beautifully. It seemed like a good portent for my own life. Be patient. Growing conditions were poor last year, but this year you’ll come back strong and blossom.

Yesterday, as I was still feeling a bit disheartened about this summer’s unsuccessful plantings, I went to take another look at my, so far, virtually fruitless squash. I was amazed to find a perfectly formed scaloppini ready to harvest and another one growing! How I could have missed seeing the now full-grown one before, I do not know. I’ve checked and checked under those leaves for weeks, months even. Further, the lone, tiny spaghetti squash had grown to six inches! I realized I may yet get one full-size squash from that plant.

Another great gift, just when I needed it, among many I have received from various gardens over the years. Garden gifts are the best kind of gifts - unexpected, life-affirming, and joyous.