Saturday, October 10, 2009

Odds & Ends: Seed-saving, Compost, & Eggs

Seed saving. There’s a terrific post and comment thread over at the Oil Drum on seed saving. It’s a goldmine of tidbits on hybridization versus open pollination, sources of information on how to save seeds, which seeds you should save (e.g. vegetables or staple crops?), the benefits of slips over seed potatoes for that crop, and experiences and techniques of people who are actually doing it. I was especially intrigued by this method of saving seeds (in a comment sent via email to the original poster):

You can take fruits (like squash, melons, tomatoes, etc.) and bury them in your garden to sprout in the spring. This approach not only saves you the effort of saving seeds (collect, clean, label and store) but also of planting. When the time is right, they will sprout and you will get plants.
What a great labor-saver! Especially given that saving seeds from tomatoes is a bit of an involved process. Ruth Stout would have loved it. The comment from which that quote was taken included a website with more information and videos:

Speaking of Ruth Stout, several comments in the Oil Drum thread mentioned Masanobu Fukuoka’s book One Straw Revolution. I’ve requested it from the library, but haven’t received it yet, so I don’t know first-hand what exactly is his method. But apparently he developed a method similar to Ruth Stout’s (that I wrote about
here) – a no-till, no weeding, year-round mulch system that produces high yields. (Stout called her method the “no-work garden;” Fukuoka called his the “do nothing” technique.) One poster included links to YouTube videos of a garden inspired by Fukuoka’s methods that so impressed me I want to include them here:

I’ve already taken lots of notes from the Oil Drum thread, but there’s more to glean, so I’m planning to go back through it sometime this week-end. It’s really that useful; I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in gardening.

Update on compost tumblers. I’m currently taking some specialized training for master gardeners in backyard food production. It’s a mixed bag – some useful information and some frustrating limitations. Last week’s training on compost is a case in point. The instructor discouraged the use of tumbling composters (that I
advocated in an earlier post). He instead advocated building compost piles directly on the ground, so that the multitudes of beneficial micro-organisms and nematodes (including worms) could access it.

Someone in the class pointed out that the reason people liked the tumblers was the ease of turning the compost. Were there no beneficial organisms in the finished product? he asked. There were some, the instructor conceded, but not as much as one would find in compost from a pile built directly on the ground. You need the full diversity of organisms to make great compost, he insisted.

Couldn’t you just include a shovelful of soil in the compost tumbler, to achieve that goal? another master gardener asked.

Well, maybe, the instructor allowed. But you don’t know how good the soil is that you’re putting in there. It would have to be high-quality soil.

Which led me to wonder, how well would we know the quality of the soil upon which we’re to build the compost pile? He’d already told us that he had an advantage, since he could look at samples under the microscope and see whether all the desired micro-organisms were there in sufficient quantity.

The only compost he felt he could ethically recommend, he said, was, coincidentally, I’m sure, made by a company he was affiliated with. He even discouraged us from using free compost from the county because it was improperly made. He correctly pointed out that their piles were built in such a way that they over-heated, and that compost was taken from those piles for use before it was finished.

One woman asked whether she could take free compost from the county and tweak it somehow to improve it? She was in the process of building a large system of raised beds and could not possibly afford to buy the amount of compost she needed from the company he recommended.

No, he said, that could not be done.

He was so rigid in his quest for the scientifically perfect compost that his recommendations were impractical for most people. He then instructed us on the proper construction of a compost pile, although, he said, we could never produce in our yards all that we would need for our gardens. We were to start with a bottom layer of twigs. The next layer would be greens – garden trimmings. Next layer – browns, dried oak leaves were his preference. Next…

At this point I was wishing Ruth Stout was alive and sitting in the class so I could get her reaction. I imagined she’d nearly fall down laughing. Then, she’d dry the tears of laughter from her eyes, and patiently explain in her Quaker way, how to avoid all that senseless work, and still get high yields from your garden.

I think her spirit was in the classroom. Someone asked, if the bottom layer is twigs, how do the beneficial fauna get up into the compost pile?
Well, he explained, they were already on the twigs and branches. Then wouldn’t they already be on twigs and branches thrown into a tumbling composter, I wondered?

Why bother to make all those layers, another master gardener asked, when they’ll all be mixed up the first time you turn it?

Our instructor admitted this was true, but had no good answer to the question.

My take-away from all this? If you’re using a tumbling composter, make sure to add a shovelful of good soil, including worms, to ensure the best product. That’s it.

Eggs! We’re getting eggs regularly now, although I’m pretty sure only two of the four are laying. I do know that the Rhode Island Red our granddaughter Alexis named Tracy, and that we thought would be one of the first layers, is in fact laying eggs. I saw Tracy go into the nest box to do the deed the other day.

We’ve eaten some of the eggs already. We cracked the first one open into a glass dish so I could look it over before we cooked it. The shell was stronger and slightly thicker than those we buy at Whole Foods. The yolk and white were perfectly formed, so Rick scrambled it and we shared it. It was delicious – richer and creamier than eggs from the store.

But here’s the thing: I’m having a little trouble eating those eggs. I have to swallow them down fast and try not to think about it too much. Not because of the flavor or texture – those are just fine; excellent, in fact. I guess it’s just knowing where those eggs came from. I don’t know how to explain it, and I know it’s illogical.

It’s especially surprising, considering I’ve eaten eggs from backyard hens before. Years ago, when we lived in England, a friend of mine kept chickens and gave me eggs from time to time, and I had no problem eating those. But I never took any interest in those chickens or even really came into contact with them. So I guess I could disassociate those eggs from their origin. I think I’ll get past this soon; I sure feel silly about it. But there it is.

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