Tuesday, April 24, 2012

If the three varieties of squash I planted weekend-before-last were racing, "Pipian From Tuxpan" would already have a commanding lead with almost perfect germination, a super-brief germination period and an almost alarming rate of growth.  As a gentleman who values various flavors of oven roasted pepitas over almost any other snack (despite their tendency to cause digestional regret when consumed in quantity, as I cannot help but consume them), I already can't wait for fall.

These guys have just been sitting in my passively heated (i.e. whatever heat the house happens to absorb) dining room on the table by the window, and a little over a week later, they look like the photo above.

At the rate they're growing, I may already be regretting my decision to start them indoors this year (previous attempts to direct-seed squash in the field have proved entirely disappointing).  I also have a two varieties of summer squash seeded, but with no sprouts peeking out thus far from either one.

Normally I would have misgivings about growing a space and nutrient-demanding crop such as squash whose stated purpose is mostly the edible seeds it provides, but I'm hoping that hogs might be keen on the gourds' flesh even if I'm not.  As we don't yet have swine here (save myself), I may have to go find some folks that do for an entirely un-scientific experiment on how they do or don't favor this variety.

Why feed pumpkins to hogs, you ask?  Why, cause they're so damn cute when they eat them, of course.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Weekend update,

This weekend found me graced with the bounty of a house full of loved ones.  My sister and father were both up to visit/work from Cincinnati, and Leah came down from Kent.  The proliferation of people whose company I enjoy most took the edge of what would have otherwise been a somewhat dreary and unpleasant working weekend.

Despite temperatures consistently in the 40's, moist cold winds and occasional rains, my father and I prevailed as we could and managed some decent progress on the greenhouse front.

We installed almost all the interior skirting (pressure treated two-by-whatevers) which will serve to seal up the bottom edge of the building, which we built to be perfectly level but on un-level ground and thus has an increasingly large gap from along it's length from East to West.  The skirting will hold in the four inches or so of limestone gravel that we will be using as a flooring surface inside the greenhouse, and hold out the dirt that will be filling the raised perennial bed I plan to install around the perimeter of the greenhouse later this spring.

We cut the first of two twelve-inch ventilation openings in the uppermost corners of the building.  Depending on how well the building collects and retains temperature during the summer months, we may well need to install some sort of exhaust fan system at some point in the future, to keep the building as a whole from becoming a giant solar oven and killing the plants inside.

We also got the vinyl siding complete on the south-facing side of the building, and got a fair bit more siding up on the west side.  Custom-cutting lengths of vinyl siding that require a different angle on each end and a very specifically spaced gap in the middle proved somewhat difficult.  We called it a night after two unsuccessful attempts, but I know we'll get the hang of it.  After we're done with this, I will be able to rightly call myself a vinyl siding professional...

And, in case anyone ever asks, the best way to finish off a rough weekend is with homemade cream of sorrel soup, oven roasted jacket potatoes, "Knock You Naked" brownies, and a highly competitive game of Bananagrams.  Bliss!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

First sprouts in the garden...

During nightly watering rounds, I noticed a joyous thing(shown in blurry detail above)...  the peas I planted a while back in the garden are sprouting.  Significant action is visible from both the Tall Telephone peas as well as the Green Beauty snow peas.  Also seeing some sprouting love from my carrots and lettuce seedings in the shaded beds, but it's too early to tell who's who yet.  These are the first direct-seeded sprouts to emerge from the new garden beds.


Also, notably, the Aronia is in full bloom (for the first time since I planted it two years ago), which will hopefully result in me getting to taste aronia berries for the first time (if the birds don't get them first... which they probably will).

The yacon plants in the windowsill are getting big, by the way.  As in, every day I come home, they are noticeably larger.  If they keep this up I may have to upsize them to bigger pots before I can get them out in the garden.  Starting to understand how these things end up being six feet tall...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fuck the grass.

Given some water and strategic windowsill placement, the yacon starts have regained their proper appearance!  While I do enjoy getting healthy plants in the mail, I'm a little worried at how big they are already.  Hopefully I can get them through to this year's "safe from frost" date and into a garden bed before they take over the kitchen and start making demands.

Tonight I indoor-seeded some basil (Purple Petra, Genovese, and Tulsi) and squash (Lemon, Pen. Crookneck and Pipian from Tuxpan).  I've never had much luck direct-seeding squash, so I thought I'd try to remove some potential-for-error by starting it indoors.  My best sources say that this can work fine so long as you don't let the starts get rootbound or disturb the roots when you transplant them into the garden.

Pipian From Tuxpan squash seeds are huge!
Today was a picture-perfect day to work outdoors, and sadly I had to spend it on routine lawn maintenance.  By the time I was done mowing the entire property (around 3 acres or 1.5 tanks of gas in the Ariens) and string-trimming around trees and garden beds, I was both plum tuckered and plastered with shredded plant matter (to which I am ironically allergic).  The itchy loss of an yet another otherwise productive day is but one of many reasons I loathe the American fetish of lawn cultivation.  Why, you ask?  Well, I'll tell you!

I can confirm that I killed two snakes and one frog today during my mowing excursion.  I spied their gruesomely mangled corpses strewn atop an even plateau of green as I rode my roaring mount around the required concentric paths... and I can only assume that I killed more whose remains happened to display less dramatically.

Now, here on the farm we have nothing if not plenty of frogs and snakes, and I'm not one to cry over every individual drop of milk (or, in this case, snake blood) that's spilled... but that's at least three distinct beneficial organisms that are now wholly removed (save for their decomposition) from my ecosystem... for no real purpose whatsoever.  They died, along with my usable work day, because somewhere down the line our society decided that everyone is supposed to have a lawn.

As best I can determine, our American fascination with lawns represents an ironic and masochistic impulse to symbolically and retroactively compete with the landed elites whose idiotic policies our ancestors braved a dangerous trans-Atlantic voyage to escape in the first place.  It's a holdover from the days when ownership of land was a sure sign of personal status, furthered by the means and willingness to arbitrarily maintain expansive areas of a variety of plant (whose natural height is several feet) at a  height of just under three inches tall.

This stunningly logical ritual comes to us from the same society that at one time saw the wealthy gentry building largely windowless mansions complete with the facade of previously existent windows because the presence of bricked-up windows was seen as a status symbol at the time.

The culture of lawns also plays directly into our delusions of power over nature.  The violent act of "cutting the grass" is in fact nothing more than a scheduled assertion of our dominance over nature, a flashing neon sign regularly reinforcing the idea that we alone control the land we own... not only it's borders and obvious contents, but also the exact manner in which the organisms within shall develop and exist.

But in this instance, as in all others where we imagine our human goals and methods to be superior to those of nature, we are humorously mistaken.  The poor bastard who is forced to spend his weekends shirtlessly riding a smoking machine in circles around his property (and I must unhappily include myself in this group) has found a master in the grass, and never himself becomes the master by doing so.  If I live to be a hundred and twelve, and mow it down until religiously until my last day alive, it matters not.  Given enough time, the grass will win.

So why do we bother?

The grass on my lawn does not provide me with anything.  It does not nourish enhance the soil in any way, and the meager benefits it does provide (aesthetic appeal, erosion control) could easily be achieved with a variety of other plants that would also provide a greater benefit besides (lawn-space lovers please note here that my primary gripe here is with the grass itself, not the usage of space).

Even the benign varieties of grass constantly fight and compete to choke out and kill any tree, shrub, or vine I attempt to plant in it's midst (and has succeeded on more than one occasion).  The more obnoxious strains (quack grass, for one) prove themselves on a daily basis to be a pestilent weed without equal.  

Due to the size of the lawn, I have been forced to spend thousands of dollars on specialized equipment and fuel to maintain it in the accepted way, a process whose accomplishment itself consumes not insignificant amounts of my quite meager (and thus quite valuable) free time.

So, in short... fuck the grass.

The only consolations during my long mowing expeditions are the fantasies I allow myself, of turning over large areas of what is now neatly mown grass to productive pasture, where some manner of mammal (I want goats, Leah wants alpacas, and I'm pretty sure we both want pigs) can make better use of grass' perpetual nature than I can on my own.  My mind dances and twirls with childish delight as I imagine a large auger bit tearing through the sod, the fence posts going in, and the fencing being pulled taut.  I plot out the fence lines constantly... which animals might fare best where, how many I can reasonably hope to support on the space I have, etc.  I picture stepping out the back door and towards the treeline... not into an endless flat lawn, but a pastoral pasture complete with a small earth-topped shelter to house my as-of-yet imaginary critters.

It is usually at this point that I am forced to stop the mower to scrub a loose fistful of airborne clippings from my eyes and mouth.  Even in it's temporary defeat, the lawn laughs at me.

A man can dream, can't he?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Yacons arrive...

Came home tonight to find a small box from Nichols Garden Nursery waiting for me.  Stuffed gently inside were three decently sized (and already off-and-growing) Yacon crowns.

Watered them and put them up by the window and they can get on to the business of straightening themselves out...

I'm quite excited to try growing these things this year.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Planting in the working week...

The days are just now getting long enough that I have time after I get home from work to dabble a bit in the garden before true darkness.  I also have about half an hour in the morning.

I'm running a bit behind on direct-seeding in the garden, so I've been using this time this week to try and play catch up (Heidi the dog wishes I'd drop the mucking around outside and play Spitty Ball instead).

So today I managed to plant two full raised beds (the most tree-shaded ones) with a companion planting of various lettuces and carrots.

Every time I go out to plant lettuce I can't help but think about how all winter long I was weeding out self-seeded lettuce volunteers from the gravel in between my raised beds.  As odd as it sounds, lettuce grows great in limestone gravel (even with thick/quality landscaping fabric underneath), even over a winter with no real protection from the elements.  I have no idea why this is.  Maybe some special concentration of certain nutrients?  Residual warmth from the day's sun absorbtion?  Excellent drainage?

I feel that I should be able to put such information to a very practical use, but I haven't figured out how to do so yet.  A small frame filled with gravel?  I also never got around to tasting the lettuce that grew... it may well have proven bitter.

Next up are spinach, radishes and beets.  I can't find the packet of German Giant radish seeds I thought I had, and all the radish seeds I can find are more autumn varieties.  May have to scramble and find a packet of red radishes somewhere locally.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

When the living ain't easy, and nothing com-frey...

Photo via growsonyou.com
I have a terrible garden confession to make.

Many an otherwise viable root crown, tuber, or seed has gone dry, dead or rotten because I didn't get it in the ground in time.  Two years ago, a bag of asparagus crowns got misplaced and forgotten till they were crispy.  Last year, a bag of jerusalem artichokes got put off until they turned to moldy mush.  Some otherwise lovely fruit bushes have been slowly neglected to death while waiting to find a spot in the ground.  It's a not-infrequent problem.  My garden aspirations consistently surpass my available time and opportunity.

But after I goofed up and hurriedly planted a bunch of jerusalem artichokes (the second bunch after I destroyed the first) in the middle of the damn yard earlier this year, Leah gently suggested that I review the decision making process that determines where vigorously spreading large perennials might go when I do manage to find the time to plant them.  Valid point, I said.

Thus, it was with such considerations in mind that I jumped out of my car tonight upon my arrival home, desperately trying to squeeze enough workable daylight out of the evening to get some of my freshly arrived 'Bocking 14' Comfrey root cuttings in the ground.  I wasn't going to let them spoil!

My "better judgement sense" was already tingling... while almost supernaturally beneficial/useful, comfrey propagates easily from root cuttings and is almost impossible to kill/eradicate once it establishes without the use of extreme measures or nasty chemicals.  Each plant can also grow to several feet across and can be quite tall.  I needed to plant it carefully.

I ended up installing half of my supply of root crowns in two different locations: first in a generally weedy corner along the backside of two of my outbuildings (near the loosely encouraged Stinging Nettle plot), and secondly just outside the edge of the back lawn in a low moist area of low scrub below our Black Hawthorn tree.

Both locations feature at least half-day sunlight and soil that tends to remain generally moist, and are far enough out of the way that the plants can grow and spread without displacing anything important or causing an eyesore.  It actually kind of felt like I was hiding them.

As comfrey makes an excellent companion plant for a lot of edibles, we will no doubt end up planting it in other places in the future.  But for now I merely aim to establish a "mother patch", from which I can pull and distribute viable crowns and root cuttings as needed.

Now I just have to figure out where I'll be putting the second half of the order... with ten more to plant, I know there's still time to make a terrible mistake.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"Vinyl siding is the mulch of buildings..."

"Vinyl siding is the mulch of buildings." - My Dad.

Truer words were never spoken.  On the mend from a uncharacteristically debilitating shoulder-injury, this weekend found my father back in action up at the farm, if not exactly 100%.  Despite having only three good arms, our goal was to get as much vinyl siding up on the greenhouse as possible.  The materials were already on-site.  The weather seemed ready to cooperate.  As usual, I did most of the work but he's the only one in the pictures because he's terrible at operating any form of camera device..

We spent Saturday morning fighting off the frosty air by bending and installing a whole bunch of garden trellis supports on the raised beds.  I learned how to consistently bend 1/2" emt using a conduit bender for the first time.  So now, by the time this year's peas and beans are poking out, they'll have an 8'x6' span of netting to climb to their little heart's content.  Speaking of, I managed to plant 16' of Tall Telephone Peas (which might be one or two generations away from deserving their own varietal name as I've continued selecting out for the huge mutant peas/pods that began appearing last year) and a first-attempt 8' row of Green Beauty snow peas from Adaptive Seeds, especially notable for being a true vining variety.  They're going in awfully late for peas, but we only got the raised beds filled last weekend.  What can I say?  We're doing the best we can.

The properties of vinyl siding are deceptively ingenious, and the stuff goes up relatively quickly once you get the hang of it.  By Sunday night we felt like siding pros, and had managed to get the entire north side of the greenhouse and most of both of the ends covered in the stuff.

The hardest part is successfully tacking it in with short little roofing nails in a manner that doesn't involve smashing your fingers with the hammer.  I got better at that too as we went along, but the middle finger on my left hand remains sad nonetheless.

Due to some warpage of posts and boards (lord, how I loathe pressure treated pine for this reason) our walls were not plumb-straight, but the application of the vinyl siding really smoothed things out visually.  One more good working day, and we should be done with the vinyl and on to the really intimidating part... installing the polycarbonate panels.

Monday, April 2, 2012

We all have lives that we are owed...

"We both have lives that we are owed.  You can own an acre, but not what it grows." - J.Tillman, Diamondback.

We spend a long and strenuous day Saturday working on the annuals beds.  We hand-pulled large patches of well-established turf and weeds out of the raised beds where the cardboard I applied last fall had failed to hold them down.  We shoveled a seemingly endless parade of wheelbarrows full of topsoil and compost and dumped them into the beds.  We planted some the fruit trees from Stark Bros (a sweet pit apricot, a nectarine, a peach, a plum, and an almond).

On Sunday we re-installed a few rain barrels to help temporarily stay the soil runoff problem that occurs when water runs off the roof into the perennial/herb beds.  Still trying to devise a good passive long-term solve for the roof runoff...

While cleaning out one of the octagonal annuals beds, we came across a juvenile snake beneath a sheet of cardboard.  Not being an expert yet on matters of local snakes, I have been working from the general rule that one should pay attention to the shape of the snake's head... they that have a slimmer head more in line with their body are generally harmless, while those that have a more protruding, arrow-shaped head are more likely to be venomous.  This one had the arrow-shaped head, and seemed far more aggressive than the snakes I'm used to seeing in the garden, coiling up, spitting, and even striking at the cardboard.

Leah happened to have her camera, so we photographed it, but we weren't sure we would have time to go inside and positively ID it before it disappeared... if it did turn out to be venomous it could be a problem as I've still got lots of tall grass around the garden beds and we had a fair bit of work left to do in the garden that day.

I respect snakes and the function they perform in the local ecosystem, and have even gone out of my way to provide habitat for them in the garden beds and around the house... but I don't want venomous ones taking up residence around my garden... if somebody got bit and injured while helping me I'd feel terrible.

So we made the call to kill it.  I dispatched it quickly with the blade of my shovel.

Upon later research online, we sadly discovered that it had indeed been a variety of garter snake that does happen to have a more triangular head when small (they grow into them later), and can occasionally be aggressive when confronted or surprised.  My heart sank.

I do not take easily to harming or killing living things.  The decision to remove life cannot be revoked.  In discussing it later, Leah and I were both of a mind to better learn the characteristics of the snakes in this area, so as to not make a similar mistake in the future.

If I can, I'd like to make a small physical reminder to place in the garden bed where this occurred... not because I'm so distraught at the loss of a single garter snake, but more as a learned reminder that unfounded fear of something unfamiliar is no excuse for causing same.  "Let not my ignorance be cause for harm" seems fitting in this case, and looking back on some of the mistakes I've made here on the farm since I moved here, it's a lesson that bears repeating.

The more I learn about what's happening around me, and find myself more aware of multitude of natural exchanges and tiny interactions that get made constantly in any natural ecosystem, the more I am humbled.  By and large, things which have no place or purpose in nature do not exist, and if I cannot see the place or purpose they hold, the fault for such a failure is most likely my own.

On a lighter note, I'm beyond plussed to report that the farm will be acquiring it's first (under our ownership, at least) chickens in early May.  I found a breeder and poultry concern up the road who hatches Buckeyes (the heritage, cold-hardy dual-purpose breed that originated here in Ohio).  This will be my first time having chickens, so we're going in small at a straight run of 6 chicks.

We're just hoping not to get all roosters.