All posts by strawberrymoon

How To Choose A Garden Tool That Will Last A Lifetime: The Top 5 Questions to Ask Before Buying

Spring is here, and so are the 1,000 trees I purchased to plant here at Strawberry Moon. Of course, my favorite digging tool broke after planting the first 50 trees. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I bought that spading fork before I knew what made a good, durable tool.

Broken Spading Fork

Death By Clay

It’s not the first tool that has perished at the hands of my Indiana clay soil. I broke my first garden tool in my second year of growing.  It was a hoe.  The metal hoe flew off the wooden handle, and that was that.  Nothing I tried could reattach the handle securely enough for it to function as a hoe again*.  Since then, there have been many other casualties of the trade: leaky cheap hoses, cracked plastic watering cans, bent cultivator tines and splintered wooden handles.  Poorly made tools waste your time and your money, waste our precious natural resources, and could even cause injury.  I understood this then as well as now.  Some of these broken tools came with lengthy warranties, none of them were the cheapest tool at the box store, and they all looked and felt sturdy at the time.  So if you are willing to shell out the extra cash for a top of the line tool, how do you find the right one?  How can you tell if a tool is really built to last a lifetime, or just overpriced to give the illusion of quality?  Here are some criteria I’ve found to be important in choosing my tools.

1. The #1 most common problem I have experienced with long handled tools is that the handle separates from the metal tool head. When choosing a new tool, look at the attachment between the handle and the metal implement. If you see that the metal is crimped around a handle and expected to stay on by tension alone, don’t buy the tool!  Buy one that is attached with removable screws, or all one piece. Not only is this type of connection more secure, but it is user serviceable. If that handle detaches or breaks, you can replace the handle without having to buy a whole new tool.

Garden tool with improperly attached head

This tool head is not sufficiently attached to the handle. The handle will separate from the head.  Even if you manage to reattach it, the same problem will likely reoccur repeatedly.

Garen Tool With Rivet Attached Head

This tool head is securely attached to the handle with a rivet fastener, but if the handle rots or breaks, it may be more difficult to remove the rivet than a simple screw or bolt.  However, I am told it can be done.

Garen Tool With Screw Attached Head

This tool head is securely attached to the handle with a removable screw. It should stay securely attached, and if the handle does break, another can be easily installed.

2. Look for good quality metal. Research the type of metal used in the tool you are considering to find out if it’s strong enough to resist bending and denting, reasonably easy to sharpen, and able to hold a sharp edge well.  Hoes, knives, spades, and scythes all require periodic sharpening to perform their best.  Hand cultivators and spading forks should be thick and very strong.  All metal tools should be reasonably rust resistant.  Care for your metal tools by keeping them clean and dry.  If light rust does occur, you can scrub it away and apply oil to prevent it from returning.

A rubber mallet with a broken handle

I bet this never happened to Thor’s hammer.

3. The handle must be strong. I once bought a rubber mallet with a cheap wooden handle. Eventually, the handle broke in half, rendering the entire tool useless. If you are buying a tool with a wooden handle, Ash is the ideal wood. It’s what baseball bats are made of.  When buying knives, look for a full tang (the blade runs through the entire length of the handle as one solid piece of metal).  Care for your wooden handles by rubbing them with walnut oil or mineral oil annually or more frequently as needed.

4. Ergonomic design is also extremely important for any tool you will use regularly. Is the tool comfortable to hold? Does it utilize your biggest muscle groups (arms rather than wrists, legs rather than back)? Can it be used in multiple positions to prevent overuse injuries?  Can it be used while your back is straight?  Protect your body. It’s the best tool you have, and it’s irreplaceable.

5. Company reputation and warranty sometimes indicate long lasting products. If a company has been in business a long time, has a good reputation, and stands by their products with a 10 year or longer warranty, then they probably made a good tool.  That said, the broken spading fork that inspired this article came with a 25 year warranty, and only lasted a few seasons.  It appears to have been attached by setting the metal “stem” in some sort of resin or concrete-like substance.  The molded base cracked, setting the fork free from the handle.  Yet another decapitation victim!  So while a long warranty period is definitely a good sign, it’s not necessarily a guarantee that the tool will last.

You probably won’t find any top quality tools at your local box store, and I haven’t had much luck at my local garden centers either.  If you’re lucky enough to live near a hand tool specialty store like Earth Tools**, then you’ll be able to try out various high quality tools in the store, and ask the experts your questions.  Farm and garden conventions also often offer a nice selection of hand tools in the vendor hall, and of course pretty much everything is available online.  There are a lot of great brands out there, but I’ve become somewhat smitten with the DeWit** line.  They have some really inventive designs, and the quality seems to be top notch.  I’ve only been using their tools for a year, but I haven’t managed to break one yet.  Regarding the aforementioned plastic watering can, I replaced it with a nice metal one by Haws**.  I’m so far extremely pleased with the build quality and ergonomic aspects, but time will tell if it was actually worth the exorbitant price tag.  I don’t consider myself an expert on hoses yet, but in general, the really heavy, thick ones last a lot longer than the lightweight flimsy ones.

*I threw that broken hoe into the trash can at the community garden space, and a fellow gardener rescued it and reattached the head by welding. So if you have welding equipment, a detached tool head might not be the end of the day for you! I still recommend the screw attachment heads, because a projectile hoe head can be dangerous and decidedly inconvenient.

**Suggestions, NOT affiliate links.  I was hesitant to include any links because I’m not here to sell you stuff, but I thought they might really be useful to you.  Live your life according to your own purpose, think for yourself, own your own choices, and shop wherever you want.

Resolutions and Accomplishments

Crimson Clover

Crimson Clover after one month of growth (9/2/16)

Last year was my first year of farming here at Strawberry Moon, and it was a great one.  Sorghum-sudangrass flourished in our fields, loosening the soil and covering it with a thick layer of mulch.  In September, crimson clover was overseeded into the sorghum-sudangrass, and we are hoping for a breathtaking, honeybee-luring carpet of blossoms come spring.  I also attended several conferences and workshops to learn more about beekeeping, permaculture, winemaking, grape growing, and small scale farming.

Inside the house, all 58 incandescent and halogen light bulbs were replaced with energy efficient LEDs.  Drafts were blocked, insulation was installed.  DH even completed a training course to become a certified solar panel installer, so we can build our own solar energy system at a substantial savings.  All these things will help us achieve our goal of a self-sufficient, eco-conscious farmstead.

Last year was an important and necessary foundation-building year for the farm, but this year I want to see some real action.  These are ambitious goals for someone with a full time desk job, and I’ll need help if I’m going to pull this off.  With a little but of luck and a lot of hard work, it will happen.

  1. 1,000 Trees!
      To jumpstart the edible riparian buffer project, we will plant 300 elderberry trees and 300 wild plum trees in our wetland!  These will comprise the majority of the understory in that area.  Additional edible tree and shrub species will be added to the wetland later, when seedlings become available.  On higher ground, we will plant 100 Norway Spruce trees for an edible windbreak (needles and new growth “tips” have culinary and nutritional value), 100 red oak trees as a short term timber crop (we will later grow mushrooms on the cut logs), and 100 each of pawpaw and persimmon to kick-start our orchard.
  2.  Honeybees
      Before winter is over, I intend to build two top bar bee hives and four swarm traps. If we are lucky, some wild honeybee swarms will find our clover fields, and then decide to stay.
  3. Chicks
      I’m nearly finished building the first coop and brooder, so I’ll be ready whenever our chicks are born. I expect a call from the breeder in April, but the exact arrival time is unknown.
  4. Solar Panels
      If all goes as planned, we will install an array of solar panels large enough to cover most or all of our electricity usage. Although solar energy is not a vegetable, it is nevertheless a valuable resource we can harvest from our farm.
  5. More Cover Crops
      Last year, I had planned to grow a third cover crop of tillage radish. This didn’t work out because the sorghum-sudangrass never stopped growing! Rather than kill the sorghum-sudangrass with chemical sprays or risk re-compacting the soil with heavy tillage machinery, I let it grow until the killing frost. That meant I couldn’t plant the radish seed I had already purchased, but it also meant we received extra value from the sorghum-sudangrass. Since I already had the seed, and I believe tillage radish will greatly benefit our soil, I decided to extend the cover crop project by one year. After the spring bloom of crimson clover, we will grow a short summer cover crop (probably buckwheat), followed by the radish in August. The pasture grass will be postponed until next year.

The Quest For The Cruelty-Free Egg: Five Easy Steps To Happy Chickens

As a lifelong animal lover, I try to be a kind, respectful farmer.  And while I once thought it would be easy to identify the most compassionate farming practices, some choices prove to be more complex than they seem.  Case in point: welcoming chickens into the farm ecosystem.  While you might have some preconceived ideas about how chickens should be housed, raised, and fed, there may be more to consider if you’re truly invested in raising cruelty-free food.  Here’s a list of five things to think about before adopting your next flock of chicks.

Step #1: Selecting A Breed
Although you could choose a breed based on which chick is cutest, you’ll have more success if you carefully select a breed that suits your climate, lifestyle, and goals.  A chicken who was born for life in the tropics will not be happy or healthy in a climate with harsh winters.  Likewise, a cold hardy breed may not thrive in a region with sweltering summers.  Next, think about how you will interact with your chickens.  Are eggs your only goal, or are you willing to sacrifice a couple of eggs per week in exchange for friendlier personalities and beautiful feathers?  Are you willing to choose a healthy, strong, all purpose heritage breed, even if they eat more than some of the less hearty breeds?  If free range chickens are important to you, look for a breed that knows how to forage, fight, and hide.  If your chickens will have less free space, look for one that bears confinement well.  Selecting the right breed for your situation gives you and your chickens every chance of a successful partnership.

Step #2: Placing An Order
After you choose your breed, you’ll need to find a place to buy chicks.  Mail order hatcheries seem to be the most common choice, and for good reason.  Hatcheries are cheap, convenient, and offer a wide selection of many different poultry breeds.  They’ll even ship the chicks to your door.  However, despite the convenience, hatcheries may not be the kindest source of chicks.  Some hatcheries are factory operations, which employ some of the very same cruel practices you may be trying to avoid by raising your own chickens.  Hatcheries also favor volume over quality, so you may not receive the strongest, healthiest birds when ordering this way.  If you choose to breed your chickens, the offspring from hatchery birds may sell for a lower price than those from a top quality breeder.  I chose to order my chicks from a well respected home breeder, who breeds show quality chickens.  Although I don’t intend to show my birds, I love supporting small farmers with ethically sound practices.  Plus, since I selected a heritage breed in threatened status, it is important to me to support those who are working to preserve and improve the breed, and for me to pass on the best possible traits to future generations of chicks born at Strawberry Moon Farm.

Hatcheries offer a choice between sexed chicks (all male or all female) or “straight run” (a random mix of male and female chicks).  Most people will order only female chicks, since they’re all that’s necessary to harvest backyard eggs. However, if you don’t take the male chicks, no one else will either.  More information on this here:  Where Do All The Roosters Go.

Step #3: Adoption Day
It is a common practice to ship chicks through the mail.  However, chicks sometimes die, or are lost in the shipping process. Even if they arrive safely, I wonder whether this is a kind and respectful way to treat a newborn living being.  The breeder I chose agreed to let me adopt my chicks in person, rather than sending them on a harrowing journey through the postal service in a dark, cold box.   This spring, I plan to take a road trip to a neighboring state, equipped with a heater, food, and water for the chicks to enjoy during the five hour journey home.

Step #4: Living Space
I had always taken it as a given that when I had chickens, I would allow them to free range.  I believe it’s important for chickens to engage freely in their natural behaviors, to soak up the sunshine and forage for insects and fresh plants.  They also benefit the land in many ways. But after hearing all-too-common stories of entire flocks being massacred in a single day by a single stray dog, I began to have second thoughts.  We live on the edge of a woods, in the company of many predators from foxes to dogs to bald eagles.  I have also learned that chickens find fruits and vegetables even more delicious than bugs, so it may also be advantageous to limit their access to the food crops.  My revised plan is to build an extra large mobile chicken coop, connected to a movable covered aviary and totally surrounded by a very spacious portable electric fence.  The entire setup can be moved as needed to circulate the chickens around the property, and will provide ample space for the chickens to play.  This system will provide good protection for the flock, while still offering most of the benefits of free ranging.  If you do choose to contain your flock, keep in mind that tight spaces encourage pecking, fighting, and other nervous behaviors.  Each full size chicken will require four square feet of coop space to stay happy, plus a spacious outdoor run.

Step #5: The Retirement Plan
After 2-3 years, a hen’s egg production will begin to decline.  Since I choose not to slaughter my chickens (except in cases when it is the only humane choice), I am committed to caring for them even in their old age.  This will reduce profits, but even old hens are good partners.  They will probably continue lay an egg from time to time, and they can still turn food scraps into wonderful fertilizer, prepare new vegetable beds, and serve on the insect control squad.  Not to mention the value of their wonderful company!

Conclusion
Though the quest for the cruelty-free egg is proving to be more nuanced than I once thought, I look forward to this challenge.  It is an opportunity to become more connected to our food, to learn more about our world, and to enhance the land and the lives of a few lucky birds.

Maple Vanilla Pumpkin Pie, With a Real Pumpkin

Maple Vanilla Pumpkin Pie

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  Today, my family will sit down together to enjoy some heirloom recipes passed down from my grandmother, some of my mother’s exquisite culinary creations, and my contribution to our table, a Maple Vanilla Pumpkin Pie.  Most of the ingredients in this pie are available fresh right now in our part of the world, and one day soon I hope to grow these ingredients for a true farm-to-table pumpkin pie.  The fresh baked pumpkin and dark maple syrup combine to make this pie a truly unique, hearty, seasonal delight.  Try it for yourself!

Filling Ingredients (inspired by this recipe):

  • 1 pie pumpkin
  • 1 TB coconut oil
  • 2 cups fresh milk or 1 12 oz can evaporated milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup of the darkest maple syrup you can find.  None of that light amber stuff!
  • 1 heaping TB all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Crust Ingredients (inspired by this recipe):

  • 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 stick butter (4 oz), cold and cubed, plus more for greasing the pie plate
  • 1/4 c ice water

 

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F.
  2. Slice the pie pumpkin in half lengthwise (such that you cut around the stem).  Cut out and discard the stem piece.  Use a spoon to scrape out and discard all the seeds and stringy parts from the inside of the pumpkin.
  3. Grease a baking sheet with coconut oil.  Rub the rest of the coconut oil into the insides of the two pumpkin halves.
  4. Place the two pumpkin halves cut side down on the baking sheet.  Bake until you smell a delicious caramelized pumpkin scent.  This takes about 30 minutes, but it could take longer depending on the size of your pumpkin.  When done, the pumpkin skin should be bubbled and the flesh should be very soft and fork tender.  Cooking too long is better than not enough, but take care not to burn it.
  5. While pumpkin is baking, combine milk and maple syrup in a small pan.  Simmer over medium heat while stirring occasionally until reduced to 1 1/2 cups.  If using fresh milk, this will take more time than if using evaporated milk, but the end result will be similar.
  6. While the pumpkin is baking and the maple milk is simmering, make your crust.  See directions below!
  7. When your pumpkin has finished cooking, and has cooled enough to handle, scrape out the flesh and pack tightly into a 1.5 cup measure.  Set aside any extra pumpkin flesh for pumpkin soup, smoothies, or another pie.
  8. Reduce oven temperature to 350, to prepare it for the pie.
  9. Add pumpkin, maple milk mixture, flour, salt, vanilla, and cinnamon to a food processor or blender.  Puree until very smooth.
  10. In a mixing bowl, carefully beat eggs until thoroughly mixed, but try not to whip any air into them.
  11. Pour pumpkin mixture into eggs.  Mix thoroughly.
  12. Pour pumpkin mixture into the prepared pie crust.  Bake uncovered at 350°F for 70 minutes, or until firmly set.  You should be able to insert a toothpick into the middle of the pie, and see that it comes out clean.
  13. Cool, chill, and enjoy!

 

Pie Crust Directions:

 

  1. Pulse flour, salt, and butter in a food processor until blended.  If you don’t have a food processor, you can mash by hand with a fork.
  2. Slowly add the ice water while the food processor continues to run until a cohesive dough forms.  If mixing by hand, try not to knead this with your hands if possible.  It’s important to keep the dough cold, to create a flaky texture in the finished crust.  If you do have to knead it with your hands, then cover the dough and stash it in the freezer for 10 minutes before rolling.
  3. Liberally flour a pastry board, and roll your dough lightly until coated in flour.  Smash the dough down with your hands until it is about 1.5″ thick.
  4. Working from the center of your dough towards the edge, roll the dough flat with a rolling pin.  Bring the rolling pin back to the center of the dough, and this time roll the dough flat in the opposite direction.  Lift the dough, flip it over, and rotate it 1/4 turn.  Repeat until dough is round, about 1/4″ thick and sized to line your pie pan.
  5. Grease your pie pan with butter or coconut oil
  6. Lay your pie crust over the pie pan, and press it gently into place.  Using a sharp knife, trim away any pieces of dough that drape more than 1″ over the edge of the pie pan.  Roll the rest of the excess dough back towards the pie plate and crimp into place for a classic pie crust edge.  Cover and store in the refrigerator if you are not going to bake right away.

 

Where Do All The Roosters Go?

When people talk about backyard chickens, they almost always mean backyard hens.  Many people think of their hens as pets, and enjoy watching them scratch around their back yards, turning weeds and grubs into cruelty-free fresh eggs.  Home-grown food is a beautiful thing, and providing a happy life for any living being is a kind and worthy endeavor, so I am not here to dissuade anyone from welcoming a few hens into their lives.  But have you ever considered, where do all the roosters go?

Roosters are one of the most unwanted, unloved, and unappreciated creatures on our planet. They don’t lay eggs, so it is hard to justify the cost of their upkeep.  They can also be noisy, aggressive, and even destructive, so some city ordinances and homeowners associations prohibit roosters. Since male chicks are unlikely to be adopted, most are killed soon after they hatch.  The others are usually slaughtered for meat before they reach adulthood.  If I wasn’t such an animal loving vegetarian, I might be okay with raising roosters for meat.  But since I am, I much prefer not to kill my animals if there’s any other choice about it.  While some people will keep one or two roosters in their flock, it is nearly unheard of to keep them all. In fact, it is so uncommon that I have only been able to find one non-rooster-killing homesteader in the whole wide web.

They may be hard to love, but roosters are far from worthless.  They are exceptionally beautiful, often possessing showy, multi-colored feathers.  Roosters are also valiant protectors of the flock. If kept with hens, they will raise the alarm when a predator is near, warning the hens to take cover. If push comes to shove, a good rooster will do battle with a predator, often sacrificing his own life to protect his hens.

The general consensus is that if you do decide to keep a few roosters with your hens, there should be no more than one rooster per twelve hens.  Otherwise, the hens may be injured from too much mating, and the roosters may fight (think: cock fights).  However, I don’t want to keep just one rooster for every 12 hens.  I prefer to keep all of my roosters, and statistically that means about one rooster for every one hen!  Although this is a very uncommon practice (almost nonexistent), I have developed a plan that just might work.  Maybe it will be successful, or maybe not, but either way I expect to learn valuable lessons, which I can then share with you.

I will define success based on three markers:

  1. No rooster should become overly aggressive towards other animals, such that the life or emotional welfare of another animal is threatened.
  2. No rooster should attempt serious harm towards a human being.
  3. Rooster upkeep must be affordable, or offset by products and services received from the roosters.

My plan to achieve these goals is as follows:

  1. House roosters in their own coop and run, apart from the hens.  Preliminary discussions with experienced chicken keepers indicate that roosters will be less inclined to fight if there are no girls to fight over.
  2. Provide ample space, food, and entertainment.  Chickens are less likely to engage in shenanigans if they are happy, healthy, and busy doing something more interesting than pecking each other.  I’m starting out with a much larger coop and run than they need, and I will move it every couple weeks to provide a continuous source of fresh plants and bugs.
  3. Select a docile breed, and certainly not one that was bred for cock fighting.  Rather than choosing the best egg layer or the breed I found most beautiful, I tried to choose the friendliest chickens.  Luckily, the Faverolles breed appears to possess very good egg laying skills, excellent winter hardiness, and beautiful feathers to go with their calm temperment.  Many people say this is the only breed of rooster they trust with their children.  I also love this because it is a rare heritage breed in threatened status.  I hope to play a role in preserving them for future generations by starting my own small breeding program.
  4. Let no talent be wasted.  Although they don’t lay eggs, roosters can still provide great fertilizer, work shifts on pest control duty, clear new vegetable garden beds, and clean up dropped fruits from the orchards.  Many roosters, including Faverolles, grow long, colorful feathers which fall out naturally during the annual molting period.  I plan to make art and jewelry out of these feathers, which can be sold to help pay for the cost of rooster food.  Most jewelry feathers aren’t obtained in such a patient manner, so I look forward to offering a kinder product.

I’ve been told that even if I do everything perfectly, there may come a time when one or more of my roosters becomes unacceptably aggressive. If the health and safety of the other animals are threatened, then I will make the kindest possible choice.  Maybe I can find a new home for the problem rooster, or rework his living situation.  Even if all else fails and a life must be taken, at least it will have been a good life. Unlike the day old male chicks thoughtlessly massacred at hatcheries, or the adolescent cockerels slaughtered while their meat is still tender, these birds will have lived a long, full life.

I am in the process of building two movable coops in anticipation of the 12 baby chicks who are scheduled to arrive in the spring.  Stay tuned for more chicken news!

The Flow of Permaculture

When people find out I’m starting a farm, the first question they usually ask is, “What are you going to grow?”  After I’ve told them about the extensive gardens, orchards, vineyards, woodland crops, wetland crops, animals, and honey bees in the plans, most people respond with a comment along the lines of, “that sounds like a lot of work”.  And yes, farming is undeniably a lot of work.  But raising a wide variety of crops can actually make the small farm more efficient.  By strategically designing a self-sustaining ecosystem, the farmer harvests more, wastes less, and diversifies her workload rather than increasing it.  Take a look at the flow chart below, showing the complex relationships between the various crops and animals planned for Strawberry Moon.

Permaculture Farming Flow Chart
In the system above, the farmer does a wide variety of jobs, but each task sets multiple other tasks in motion.  I personally find it more enjoyable to spend small amounts of time doing many different things than to spend a large amount of time doing one thing.  Additionally, many of the least desirable jobs can be delegated.  For example, look at how the chickens fit into the farm ecosystem.  The farmer does spend time and money buying food for the chickens, caring for them, and building a safe shelter for them.  However, in return, the chickens will prepare new garden beds, provide fertilizer for the crops, control insect pests, clean up and “compost” damaged fruits and vegetables, and as if that wasn’t enough, they also reward the farmer with eggs and feathers!  And if you are someone who eats chicken meat, then that can be another benefit as well.  Even if the chickens did not provide eggs, they would still be valued partners on the farm.  Now, take a look at the chart below.  This shows a less complex system with fewer elements, but notice the additional tasks that now fall to the farmer.

Non-Permaculture Farming Flow Chart In the first chart, the farmer was responsible for 13 tasks, but some of them were one-time jobs such as building shelters for the animals.  In the second chart, the farmer is responsible for 13 very significant, ongoing tasks.  Yet, the farmer no longer receives wool, milk, honey, wax, eggs, or feathers.  The farmer is not purchasing chicken feed, however the farmer is now purchasing fertilizer and pesticides.  The farmer is not responsible for caring for the sheep, but she must now spend hours per week mowing grass.  By omitting the farm animals, the farmer must do the animals’ work*.

This method of designing an interdependent, self-sustaining farm ecosystem is called permaculture.  The concepts of permaculture are based in nature and in traditional family homesteads.  If your great-grandparents farmed, they may have used some of these techniques.  Permaculture farming is less common in modern times, perhaps because modern farming is usually done on a very large scale in which machines are necessary to keep up with the work.  It would be very expensive to maintain factory grade equipment for so many different crops and animals.  However, on a small ten acre farm such as Strawberry Moon, where we do our work with hand tools anyway, this is a compelling farming system to consider.  In addition to optimizing the rewards for the farmer’s labor and purchases, this farming style is incredibly earth-friendly and sustainable.  How would you rather spend your Saturday afternoon: watching some fluffy little sheep chow down on your orchard grass while you refill their water trough, or breathing in diesel fumes from your noisy lawn mower?  I definitely know a few people who would prefer the mower, but for me and my farm, I choose the sheep!

* Please keep in mind, farm animals are living beings.  It is a great responsibility to enter into a partnership with an animal, so first please be sure you can accommodate their needs appropriately.

Growing Great Soil With Cover Crops

My first garden at the Greenwood Community Garden

My first garden was far from perfect.  It was a rented space in a community garden, with hard, rocky, clay fill dirt that caused most of my neighbors to abandon their own plots by June.  I stayed and gave my heart, soul, and sweat to that soil for three years before I ever reaped a decent harvest.  Each year, I spread several truckloads of mulch, pulled thousands of weeds, and cried over the deaths of drowned plants, frozen plants, sick plants, trampled plants and nibbled plants.  But eventually, the garden became healthy and fertile.  I wouldn’t change a thing about my first garden, because the lessons it taught me have served me well.  The most important thing I learned was that good soil is absolutely essential to a successful organic garden.

If you are gardening on a small scale, you might be able to bypass your soil all together, by growing food in containers or raised beds filled with store-bought perfect soil.  Or, you might be able to make enough compost to sufficiently enrich the soil you have.  But what if you need to fix acres of hardpan clay soil?  It would take decades for one person to make that much compost, and many thousands of dollars to build acres of raised beds.  An excellent solution can be found in cover crops.

Sorghum-Sudangrass Cover CropA cover crop is a plant that is grown specifically for the benefit of the soil.  There are many kinds of cover crops, each with its own magical power.  There are crops that create nitrogen from nothing but air and bacteria, crops that mine minerals from deep within the ground, crops that smother weeds, and crops that control pests.  These crops are chosen for their ability to grow vigorously even in poor soil, and for their ability to leave the soil better than they found it.  The specific problem at Strawberry Moon Farm was compacted clay soil.  The soil was hard, and rainwater stagnated in puddles for days rather than soaking peacefully into the ground.  So I selected sorghum-sudangrass, a crop with five-foot-deep roots to break up the soil.  As a bonus, it also has ten-foot-tall foliage, which will provide plenty of mulch at the end of the season.  The sorghum-sudangrass has performed extremely well so far, even with no fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation.  You can learn more about the types of cover crops and how they work from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).  I plan to invest in a few more cover crops to reap still more benefits for the soil at Strawberry Moon, to give our organic orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens the best possible chance to thrive.

Cover crops are extremely useful for building great soil on a large scale, and they are just as useful for small gardens.  Consider growing a quick midsummer crop of buckwheat between your spring peas and your autumn radishes, or maybe a spring crop of alfalfa before you plant your tomatoes next year. It’s an affordable, easy, and effective strategy to boost production in your vegetable garden and on our farm.

 

Farming The Wetland

Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse

Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse

My husband and I looked for our farm for 18 months.  He only wanted a beautiful house, but I only cared about great land.  When we finally found something we could both love, we were both willing to make a few compromises.  I had been looking for a flat, sunny, well-drained, rectangular field; a blank canvas I could transform into my vision of the perfect fruit-filled paradise.  But this land had woods.  It had hills.  It had a flood plain.  It had its own plans.

We ended up with 10 acres of incredibly diverse land.  About 3 acres were wooded, and about 1.5 acres were in a flood plain.  The low land was classified as a once in 100 year flood plain for the adjacent creek, but after we moved in, we realized that a more accurate classification would have been three floods every single year.  Later, we learned that this part of our farm was a natural wetland, a former creek bottom.  I’m not easily discouraged, but this news was disappointing at best.  I didn’t think any useful or edible plants could be grown in this type of environment.  Luckily, I was wrong.

A creek overflows, creating flooded corn fields and road floods

Our natural wetland, flooded by an overflowing creek

As it turns out, wetlands can be beautiful, productive ecosystems capable of producing food, filtering flood waters, and sheltering wildlife.  If you’re trying to turn land like this into a corn field (which the previous owners were), you’re going to be sorely disappointed.  But if you protect the soil and encourage permanent, water-loving trees and shrubs, you and the land will be very happy together.  Pecans, maples, willows, and elderberries are just a few of the species that can thrive and produce in this type of environment.  By working with the water instead of against it, you can build a lush food forest that nourishes you at the same time as it drains and cleans the flood waters.

The reason why it’s a bad idea to till up a flood plain field and plant it to row crops like corn has to do with erosion.  Erosion occurs when water or other forces remove topsoil from the land and move it elsewhere.  Usually, this topsoil ends up someplace it isn’t wanted, like in a waterway.  The nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediments from the displaced soil disrupt the balance in the water.  This can kill fish, and generally damage the ecosystem.  Meanwhile, your land grows poorer and poorer as all its nutrients and topsoil are stripped away.  When you till, or when you leave bare soil exposed, the soil is vulnerable and easy to wash away.  But when it is densely covered with plants, myriad roots hold that soil in place.  The plants shelter and protect the topsoil, and when floods come, the water is absorbed into the root system or filtered through aerated soil into the groundwater table.

There’s a thing called a Riparian Buffer.  According to Wikipedia:
“A riparian buffer is a vegetated area (a “buffer strip”) near a stream, usually forested, which helps shade and partially protect a stream from the impact of adjacent land uses. It plays a key role in increasing water quality in associated streams, rivers, and lakes, thus providing environmental benefits. With the decline of many aquatic ecosystems due to agricultural production, riparian buffers have become a very common conservation practice aimed at increasing water quality and reducing pollution.”

My plan is to create an edible Riparian Forest Buffer.  The goal is to have all the benefits of soil and water conservation, but to also harvest and use something from each of the plants and trees in the buffer.  Strawberry Moon is not the first farm to try this, but it is not yet a ubiquitous practice.  I hope that this riparian buffer project will encourage more people to try this ecologically sound farming style.  If farmers can increase yields while at the same time protecting the environment, why not do this?  There is even financial aid available from some government organizations to make the transition from conventional farming to riparian buffers easier.  I’ll post more about that later, when I have all the facts.  Meanwhile, spring is coming.  Be ready!

A Fruity Harvest

There are a lot of reasons why I grow my own food, but the biggest reason is to eat it.  Here are some of my successes from the past year.

2 Violette de Bordeaux Figs, freshly picked from a potted fig tree.

These two figs ripened in late August.  I sliced them in half and ate them drizzled with cream.  Amazing!

2 Violette de Bordeaux Figs, freshly picked from a potted fig tree.

Giant Meyer Lemons shown in my hand, for scaleOn Christmas day, I ate the first ripe fruit from my Meyer Lemon tree.  I waited two long years to taste these lemons, but meanwhile I have been enjoying year-round greenery and fragrant blossoms.  This tree would be worth keeping even if it didn’t make fruits.  But it did make fruits, and I did eat them.  As for their fate, I first removed their zest using a vegetable peeler.  I packed the yellow strips into a small jar, and covered them with strong grain alcohol.  I hope to turn this into a tiny batch of Limoncello in a few months.  Next, I squeezed 1/2 cup of juice from the first lemon, and immediately drank it straight from the measuring cup in a joyous frenzy of excitement.  The other lemon was turned into delicious lemonade popsicles.

Two ripe Meyer Lemons hanging from an indoor citrus tree

The Quest For Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)

What I love most about gardening is eating what I grow.  Especially when I get to eat something that can’t be bought.  Case in point, the dragon fruit.  Have you ever seen or tasted a dragon fruit (a.k.a. pitaya/pitahaya)?  The bright pink fruits are shaped like small footballs and adorned with lime green “fins”.   The variety occasionally available (for $5 a piece!) in specialty groceries is called Vietnamese Jaina.  Though it’s generally regarded as the dragon fruit with the least interesting flavor, it is as refreshing as it is beautiful.  Imagine how good the best flavored varieties must taste!  I did imagine this, and then I ordered some vine cuttings.

A pitaya cutting planted in soil

Dragon fruits come in at least four main types.  White flesh with pink skin, white flesh with yellow skin, red flesh with pink skin, and purple flesh with pink skin.  You can grow some varieties from seeds, root any variety from cuttings of a living vine, or purchase plants.  Though sometime I would like to try growing pitaya from seeds, this time I opted to try rooting cuttings from named varieties.  Cuttings are surprisingly affordable, and I ordered 3 for $10 from ebay.  One white flesh type called Guyute, one red flesh type called American Beauty, and one purple flesh type called Purple Haze.  Information about many named varieties of dragon fruit can be found here: Pine Island Nursery

A dragon fruit (pitaya) cutting, unrooted

This is essentially what the cuttings looked like when they arrived. The arrow points to the top of the vine, as it was on the mother plant. Put the opposite end in the soil.

I ordered my vine cuttings in early April, set their bottom ends (there is a top and bottom, and the vine should be marked when you receive it) into individual pots of organic soil in my kitchen window under some grow lights.  I watered once every three days per the instructions, and I waited, and waited.  Once a week I pulled each cutting out of the soil to check for roots, and each week, nothing.  Eventually, my Purple Haze cutting started to rot.  It became infested with some tiny white worms, and turned mushy beneath the soil line.  Not willing to give up on the variety I was most excited to taste (it’s described as having a grape-kiwi flavor), I cut off the affected part of the vine and left the rest of it it to dry on my kitchen counter for about a week.  After a good callous formed along the cut edge, similar to what I had seen on the vine cuttings when they first arrived, I replanted it and hoped for the best.

A purple haze dragon fruit cutting planted in soil

The ‘Purple Haze’ dragon fruit cutting is much shorter than the others, because I had to remove the rotten part and start over. It still rooted, though!

In mid-may, the weather finally warmed enough to move the vines outside.  None of my pitaya cuttings had rooted yet, but I was determined not to give up on them.  Finally, after a few weeks in the sun, the Guyute vine sprouted roots!  I suspect the hot weather encoraged it to grow.  This week, the Purple Haze cutting sprouted roots too, and Guyute has already begun producing new top growth!  I can almost taste the juicy unknown flavors.  If all goes according to plan, I expect to harvest my first home-grown dragon fruits within 1-2 years.  Of course, this tropical cactus will have to be grown in a pot and moved indoors for winter.  Supposedly they like these conditions, and even thrive in a root-bound situation.  More dragon fruit updates to follow!

Dragon fruit cutting beginning to sprout new green growth

Guyute Dragon Fruit sprouting a new vine