Sunday, May 30, 2010

She's hoping

After sixty days and sixty nights of, mostly, rain, Risa's a month behind in the garden. Potatoes are up, and fava beans have done well -- The sunchokes at the ends of the beds are bullying the apple trees -- but most other things are Barely There, and this weekend is the big push to get the beans, corn, winter squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, cukes, zukes, eggplants, and the like into the ground.

Here, she's putting Helda green beans and scarlet runner beans along the peas, with the idea that they will climb up the pea vines and continue up the beanpoles -- the last three years this has worked well, so she's hoping.

She has a glove on her left hand -- it's the one with the arthritis flare-up, so she keeps it warm. With her left she makes a "nest" in the mulch and pats in a handful of planting soil mix, then puts in three beans with her right, eyes down, and with the left, dumps on another handful of mix, and on to the next spot.

In the corn beds, she's putting similar small hills of corn, corn, corn, butternut squash, corn.

These beds don't look like they're about corn and squash, though. They already contain potatoes, fava beans, bok choi, kale, collards, lettuce, and elephant garlic. Risa is interplanting in a plan known as polyculture. The idea is to mix everything together so that pests can't just pick their favorite thing and then follow it down the row. Also, different vegs' root systems bring up different nutrients, so intensive interplanting permits closer planting. And though Risa hasn't heard it mentioned, it seems to her that beds with mixed vegs don't need as much watering.

Taller and shorter plants don't seem to mind being together -- light comes in via the pathways -- and the beans give the kale's roots enough shade, and vice versa, to keep soil from drying out too easily, or overheating. Whether these advantages will play out this year, after such a cold spring, remains to be seen.

So ... she's hoping.

Weather means more when you have a garden. There's nothing like listening to a shower and thinking how it is soaking in around your green beans. -- Marcelene Cox

Saturday, May 29, 2010

You never know

The dining room table, which Risa built long ago and which can seat ten if those along the sides are kindly with their elbows, now generally fills up with guests once a year for sure -- Thanksgiving, and every other year, Christmas. It's mostly a desk for bill paying and a staging area for trips into town now.

Risa thinks a lot about the impact of empty-nesting on household routine. With no one to feed but themselves, she and Beloved have taken to using one corner of the big table as if it were a breakfast nook, setting two plates side by side, and watching the activities of the neighborhood songbirds through the window as they eat. Not only are they cooking for two, instead of five, but portions have shrunk as the fires in their muscles die down. Sixty may be the new thirty, but one does less and less, and eats less accordingly.

Risa has come to specialize in one-dish meals. Last night, for example, she pulled out a package of the lamb that was bought last year (local), and found it to be ribs. She cut up the ribs into individual pieces set them going, on medium low, in the ten-inch frying pan, then made up a barbecue sauce of salsa, home-dried tomatoes, soy sauce, salt, pepper, home-dried veg flakes, and molasses. Separately she steamed some grated walking onions and elephant garlic, combined this with the sauce, and slathered the faintly sizzling ribs with it, basting thoroughly, and kept it under cover, stirring things around a bit now and then with a chopstick.

Next, she took from the refrigerator a thawed packet of home-frozen broadbeans and, pushing aside the ribs, dumped the broadbeans in, salting them down a bit, then went out to the garden with a pair of scissors and came back with a large handful of kale, bok choi, chives, spinach, dandelion, and turnip greens, scissored all this up, and, pushing aside the ribs and the broadbeans, dumped the greens in, and covered again. As soon as the greens had wilted well (but not turned into moosh) she took the frying pan off the stove and set it on the square ceramic platter that serves for a hot pad, between the two place settings, and rang the dinner bell.

Beloved served herself, Risa served herself, they ate, maybe had a glass of water from the pitcher that stands on the table, and then Risa cleared away.

What 's significant about this is that the freezer container of beans was a six-ounce size recycled yogurt container, and the greens were about the same amount. The aim is to have no leftovers, and eat "fresh" at every meal. But, of course, there was too much lamb for that. Everything is packed by butchers and grocery stores for much larger portions or with the assumption of more people at the table, than is really typical.

"Serves four." "Serves six." "Serves eight." It's an issue, but less so if you do a significant amount of your own home preservation, preparation, and cooking. Risa now highly values the six-ounce and eight-ounce sizes of containers suitable for use in freezing. The other day, the ladies were looking over their pantry shelves, which are beginning to empty out as the long winter drags to a close, and it dawned on them that three-fourths of their canning jars are the quart size, and some of them are the two-quart size, when what's wanted are the pints and the half-pints.

"We'll keep our eyes open for a smaller canning kettle and the small jars."

"What shall we do with the big ones?"

"Stash them somewhere, of course. You never know when somebody might have to move home -- then the big size would come in handy again."

Simmering ... ranks as one of the most important moist heats. The temperatures range from about 140F to 185F. Simmering protects fragile foods and tenderizes tough ones. The French verb for the slow simmer is mijoter, and the French engagingly refer to low simmers -- between 130F and 135F -- as "making the pot smile." Rombauer and Becker, Joy of Cooking

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Days to maturity


j. s. bach
She turned up the weeds without pity, spreading
their roots before the sun. Most of them died,
though a few tenacious grasses rolled over

when she was not looking, and sucked earth
till she found them skulking about, and banished them
to the heap with the egg shells and old tea leaves.

Returning to the scene of the massacre, she placed
a five tined fork before her, pointed toward
the earth's core. On its step she placed her boot's

sole, and drove its teeth home, tearing living soil.
She did this many times, and in her hearing,
the dark loam whispered in protest. But what

was she to do? One must eat, and the white seeds
in their packet were waiting for the sun.
She carried a blue denim bag at her side,

zippered it open, feeling about in its depths
like the housewife at the station platform
seeking her ticket for the last train--

Seizing her prize, she held it in a soiled palm,
reading the runes of inscription:
"Date of last frost"; "zone three," "days

to maturity." How many days now to her own
maturity? Not to be thought of. Her hand
trembled. Tearing the thin paper rind,

she tipped out contents: a shirtfront
of buttons. Five seeds to a hill she counted,
pinching their graves over them: three hills.

And on to other tasks. The rainmaker
whispered over hilled earth all
the zone's days to maturity, and the date

of first frost held true. Almost forgotten in the rush
of gathering in others: beans and corn, tomatoes--
she sought them last in October, the golden

fruits of that planting. Her other crops
talk to her; the Hubbards never do. (What are they
dreaming at, over there? She brings out the knife.)

Now it is March, she remembers having gathered
the silent, sulking Hubbards. How are they faring?
A look into the pantry reveals them,

dour and uncommunicative, all
huddled like bollards on the high shelf.
She chooses one to halve on the kitchen block.

Scooping out seeds to dry and roast later,
she bakes the halves till soft, slipping off skins
per Rombauer and Becker. "Dice them,

and in a mixing bowl add butter, brown sugar,
salt, ginger, and move the lot to the mixer,
remembering to add milk." With a bowl

of silent Hubbard thus richly dressed,
she goes to the living room, asking blessing
of the gods of the steel fork and the weeds,

the rainmaker, the packet of white seeds,
booted foot and blue denim bag
and the longtime summer sun, eating,

listening to a fugue by J. S. Bach.

Depth of planting depends upon the size of the seed, the consistency of the soil, and the season of the year. The usual rule is to plant a seed four times its diameter beneath the surface. This rule is modified by soil -- heavy clay soil will be more damp and it will require less of it above the seed to maintain the proper amount of moisture necessary for germination. -- Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Grateful after all

Want some rain? Got lots.

We've been waiting for three grueling weeks for weather that actually will let us into the garden.

When it's not actually bucketing down like Niagara, it's pouring white gravel that cascades down the roof and heaps itself up along the walls like winter snowdrifts. The chickens are on strike and spend the whole day indoors on their segregated roosts, the Reds glaring at the upstart Americaunas and vice versa.

The ducks -- not the brown ones, who parade up and down proudly with the geese in all weathers, but the white ones, who appear to think of themselves as fair weather foragers -- huddle in their inner pasture and shovel through the same mud over and over and over, till they look more like feathered nutria than anything else.

Under these conditions, housebound Risa is going slowly berserk.

She understands it's not Nashville, but gratefulness is maybe more work than she's up to. Both hands are very arthritic this May and self-pity was always one of her talents.

She did try to do a little broom-pulling down at the park.

In enough rain gear to probably rubber-band the cuffs and sleeves and go exploring on the moon.

She waddled out to the edge of the area of infestation and took out her frustrations on the Scotch broom, feeling her way through the job in her steamed-up glasses.

The broom fought back, of course, and it was a bit of a draw. Some of the invaders lay, roots up in token of surrender, in the rain, and Risa retreated, frazzled, broom-slapped and blackberry-bitten, to her truck and steamed up the windows instead. Her gloves lay huddled on the truck seat, shivering. It took awhile for her to pull her self together enough to drive home.

The park rangers didn't show. Whether they had enough to do on one of the other parks, or, like intelligent life, had looked out the window and remembered the paperwork needed catching up, she couldn't say.

There's a surprising amount of life to the garden, in spite of these conditions. No one in their right mind would reach for a trowel and the summer starts (tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers in our case), but the garlic, onions, bok choi, cabbage, kale, collards, peas, and favas are resolutely chugging along. And you should see the sunchokes!

For dinner last night, Risa cooked up some canneloni in a saucepan and reserved the water for yeast starter for today's baking. At the chopping block she cubed tofu, grated elephant garlic and walking onions, chopped sun-dried tomatoes and bok choi, kale and spinach leaf midribs. In a preheated iron skillet, she sauteed them in oil, tamari sauce and cheap sherry, and then served over the canneloni with choice of spaghetti sauce, medium salsa, or both. Salad on the side.

The salad, shown in progress here, is the soft parts of the bok choi, kale, and spinach leaves with two kinds of romaine lettuce and lots of fava leaves, scissored, with some onion greens, chives, chive blossoms and fresh marjoram scattered thoughout. Beloved likes hers with raspberry vinaigrette. Risa simply adds hers to the tofu layer over the canneloni.

Maybe she should be grateful after all.

The coldness soaked into her. -- Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A job half done

Risa thinks maybe a white roof will lower temperatures in the house in summer without resorting to air conditioning. She's also pretty sure the elastomeric membrane will seal down the edges of the roll roofing somewhat, and add to the life of the roll roofing. She's realizing she's laid her last roof, so she wants this one to get some TLC now, while she can still oompah her way up the ladder with a five-gallon bucket of goop.

The trick is to extend the ladder so that its feet can be propped far enough from the roof that the bucket will rest on one step at a time without trying to shove her off balance. Not that she's not holding on, but these buckets can be mean once gravity gets a hold on them.

The roller work is very slow. So she listens to Beethoven and Schubert sonatas and gets into it as a kind of meditation. She can spread five gallons in a day. It looks like it's going to require eight gallons -- two coats -- to do the house.

In full sun the roof is unbelievably bright with just the one coat. Risa thinks it looks pretty good the way it is. Maybe just four buckets and call it finished?

She shows it to Beloved. Of course the clouds have come, so that all the roller marks show.

Ugly as sin.

Beloved looks at Risa with her hopeful, trusting eyes. "Do you think ..."

"Yes, yes, " she rushes to reassure. "Two coats. Wouldn't think of leaving a job half done."

Whose is that long white box in the grove? -- Sylvia Plath, Ariel.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Distributed Capability

When your garden is too wet to work in, and you are between indoor projects, just run down to the park and pull Scotch broom. For now.

Risa hasn't been able to do much besides harass invasive plants down by the river, or run out to the writing shed to work on her "blovel." On Monday she went to see her electrologist, get a blood draw done at the clinic (part of her annual checkup) and buy some plants and tools. Combining trips was a very good idea, as the short journey consumed eight dollars' worth of gasoline.

The truck is hungry today, and this morning she strategized aloud about the fuel situation:

"I know the BP is closer; but I'm put out with them. I think I'll throw the last lawnmower gas into the truck and go over to Sequential for a fillup, and take all the cans with me. I've got some stabilizer and can put some in each can; that matters more with all the regular at ten percent corn whiskey now. At least Sequential gets all theirs from in-state sources."

"I'm sorry about that truck; I know you wouldn't have chosen one that big." (As American pickups go, it's the second smallest size.)

"Or an automatic. But we couldn't turn down a freebie."

Nothing hurries the future toward us like gasoline. If the price rises to four dollars again, Risa will be effectively grounded, except to go get increasingly costly straw and chicken feed. She'd replace the chicken feed with homegrown feed if she could, but the gardening is limited by available water supplies, even with the two wells, and by the increasingly uncooperative weather.

There's more energy in the atmosphere. This seems to move air currents farther north and farther south, as when a river digs farther into its bends during a flood. Heat waves and cold snaps are more sudden, and continually catch our weather mavens off guard. So we are having hot Februaries, really hot Augusts, strong winds, extra cold Decembers, cold Aprils: a jumble. In May it can be 28F at night and rise to 77F during our days. Officially we're in a drought, and the reservoirs are having trouble filling, yet cloudbursts are sogging the soil and swelling the creeks. Germination, growth, fruit set, and harvest are all affected.

So we fall back on accumulated food supplies for ourselves, including grains shipped for our own consumption from South Dakota, which we could conceivably have to share with the poultry. If we were truly isolated, we'd have to cut down the flock.

There are so many birds at Stony Run because Beloved has egg customers in town. She works there. On the outside chance that the much-welcomed eggs will help with her "public relations," for networking purposes in case the money for employment dries up, we raise surplus eggs and try to at least break even on them. But it does result in hidden food miles. Eggs are only truly local if you can maintain them on a local diet. Stony Run isn't quite there.

Everyone else around here is on much the same footing. Big-box stores, grocery stores, agricultural co-ops and feed stores receive constant deliveries, from trucks and trains, of out-of-state feedstock, grain, seed, supplements, medications, tools, electronics, all made from, mined with, grown with, packed or assembled with, or shipped on, coal, natural gas, and petroleum, or with electricity, only a small percentage of which comes from hydroelectric, wind, and the like, even here, in the land of big hydro and big wind.

And petroleum, the weakest link in that chain, is currently in use at four times the rate that it's being found. That's why we're dinking around looking for the stuff at depths which confound our understanding of physical limitations.

The first place that you or I notice the strain is at the pump, putting a little extra stress on our doctor visits and shopping. But it's everywhere; when the planes, trains, ships and trucks run into trouble at the pump, so do factories and farms.

Little farms like ours feel it. How much more so the ones owned and fed entirely by industrial oligarchies? Oligarchies whose whole aim appears to be the destruction of distributed capability, in a scheme of domination which runs almost entirely on fossil fuels (with, perhaps, fission)?

The phrase "distributed capability," which Risa likes to think she has coined, is related to a concept of Fritz Schumacher's, which he called the Principle of Subsidiary Function. John Michael Greer paraphrases Schumacher's rule thus: "the most effective arrangement to perform any function whatsoever will always assign that function to the smallest and most local unit that can actually perform it."

With distributed capability as a goal informing our actions, we can delegate to the states that which the federation does inefficiently; to counties that which a state does inefficiently; to municipalities and unincorporated communities that which a county does inefficiently; and to neighborhoods that which a city does inefficiently. "But wait!" say the oligarchists, through lobbyists, commercials, and media spinmeisters. "That's exactly backwards. We enclosed the commons in order to introduce economies of scale."

Yes; that's true. Which is why it rings true in media and think-tank pronouncements. But only in the presence of surplus energy. Once demand exceeds supply (and it will), the Schumacher will be on the other footing.

Sorry, yes, that was bad, couldn't resist.

Adoption of distributed capability is what happened at the end of the Roman Empire. As the continent-wide infrastructure collapsed, local communities reverted to local agriculture, local manufacture, and local building materials, with as little reliance as possible upon trade, and local defense as well, with the size of the independent political unit somewhat determined by the time it took to bring the harvest (and the harvesters), when necessary, to safety within the fortress. If your farm was too far from the fortress, you and your grain fell into the hands of the invader.

And there we have the Middle Ages; with all its cruelty it was a time when the ideal farm depended very little upon trade of any kind; almost all the skills and supplies and labor were found on-site, and this was rightly seen as maximizing security and minimizing risk through smallest-possible-unit resiliency.

Think of this: the county in which Risa lives is thought of as resource-rich: wood, water, and agricultural lands are abundant. But if outside supplies fell to a trickle through some persistent disaster, the present state of local agriculture, even if brought to the fullest possible productivity (i.e., abandoning the ever-popular grass-seed industry), could at best feed fifteen percent of the people that live here. Think of the likely implications!

Meanwhile, a county that can feed sixteen percent of its citizens rather than fifteen may have taken a step in a useful direction. A difficult step, with corporations and corporate-supported politicians shouting continually in its ear to go in the other direction, but not an impossible step. A sudden sharp rise in the number of farmer's markets could be an indicator.

At Stony Run, thought about distributed capability runs in several channels, most of them household-level. Mobility remains a concern, as we are too far from services, on which we are dependent, to give up gasoline. So we buy lots of it and store some, stabilized, as a hedge against interrupted supply or soaring cost. Food for ourselves and our stock, and for family and friends in a pinch, we buy ahead and grow what we can, trying not to depend too much on the freezer. Our water, fetched by an electric pump, is vulnerable to interrupted service and so we have put in a hand pump and are looking out for rain barrels. Our house, old and cranky, is being slowly retrofitted for resiliency against cold and heat and other stresses. We make an effort to grow our own heating fuel, though there is not much land for this at present, and we use and maintain, to the extent possible for us, a range of good hand tools.

Of course, all this is a bit moot for the Stony Runners as we are around sixty. Should the "middle ages" come, it will find Stony Run so nearly unprepared as anyone else as will make no measurable difference -- for one thing, by no stretch of the imagination will it ever be a "fortress."

But Risa thinks, rightly or wrongly, that there might be something "measurably" ethical about the effort. When developing a distributed capability, a society must begin somewhere. So why not here? The skills that will be needed can be taught. So she writes.

And when inspiration fails her, there is always the park. She can take out her frustrations on the encroaching Scotch broom. For now.

An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth -- in short, materialism -- does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited. -- Fritz Schumacher

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Pass them with a good friend

Risa has just come in from putting out forty-five tiny, tiny transplants -- cauliflower, kale, cabbage, collards, bok choi, and lettuce -- and wishing them well. She's told there may actually be a frost tonight, so there are many things she'd like to be planting. But mama Nature sez, good luck with that.

We had a very springlike February, and March was like May. Then the horrible winds, rains, and frosts began in April and they haven't let up.

To give you some idea, here is the present state of the garden at Stony Run.

Not bad, you say? Well, there is some food out there and that beats what some people around the world are going through right now, so -- Risa's not going to complain. Much. But she remembers May last year:

See? And that was after a hard winter.

Today is one of the ... umm ... good days. The storm cells are only a couple of miles in diameter.

They march along with their wild hair -- updraft anvil heads with streamers -- reaching up into the stratosphere. They dump downdrafts, rain and hail -- at higher elevations, snow and hail -- as they go: half an hour of misery and then the sun's out. So one plans one's activities around them.

Risa has been practicing for a kayak event with her friend the Cowboy, so, earlier in the afternoon, she drove over to the Reservoir to wait for him. It was bright and sunny, but with a streak of gray all along the ridgetops to the northwest.

Cowboy came along in his ancient diesel wagon with the Poke Boat on the roof, and as he arrived, all the young trees that had been planted along the boat basin parking lot bent almost double, and hail pummelled the vehicles. He jumped into the truck.

"Do we call it off? I dunno, it was sunny at my place when I left. Seems like it's always a hurricane over here!" He had to nearly shout to be heard.

"Well we are closer in to the mountains, and they shake this stuff loose. But I'm thinking it will be great again -- for awhile -- if we sit tight till about two."

So they sat, and talked over old times, and the sky lightened, and then there was a ribbon of blue along the ridges --

"Let's book!"

"You got it!"

They had an hour's lovely paddling, and a trout was hauled in right at the end, just to round off the perfection.

As they neared the landing, a towering mass of black cloud threw a leg over the horizon in its seven-league boot and slapped the boat basin silly. Two figures, hunched over in the hail, dragged their boats past disconsolate geese huddling beneath picnic tables, put their boats away, and sat and talked in the truck some more.

Really, such days can't go badly when you can pass them with a good friend.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Another (almost) weedless year

So, Risa's out of cardboard boxes and she finds newspapers unsatisfactory, and she's unwilling to try to hoe in the heavy clay. What's a girl to do about spring weeds in the paths or the blueberry patch, around fruit trees and grapes, or along the kiwi and hops walls?

Feed sacks! Must be a hundred of them around here. But they're a bit heavy going for the worms if laid out on the ground as is, and there are things to watch out for.

Our feed sacks come in three flavors: single ply plastic, triple ply brown paper with a plastic liner, and triple ply with no plastic at all.

She doesn't really want plastic in her garden -- when all the paper is gone, there it is, and it doesn't biodegrade. It lies in the ground for practically forever, blocking the passage of water and nutrients and worms, and where it comes to light it becomes brittle, shatters into tiny bits, and begins its dreadful journey toward its version of Heaven -- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it adds to the already immense stress on the marine environment.

So she cuts up each bag and lays it out flat. If it turns out to be single ply, she folds it and sets it aside for other uses around the place, such as drop cloths. If it's triple ply, she peels apart the layers, and the one coated with plastic goes in the single ply pile. Triple ply paper is the jackpot -- all three sheets can go in the garden.

We'd love to see feed sacks with no plastic in them at all, but it's not an option here, and we're not to the point yet where the poultry can get by on what we can scrounge for them on site. Growing a quarter-acre of buckwheat or barley would certainly make a difference.

In the blueberry bed, Risa spreads out two or three sheets over the weedy straw, leaves and grass clippings already present, toward the next bush, and if there's overlap with the stems, she just rips the edge of the paper a bit and tucks it around the bush, then laps another sheet over the edge and keeps going. It all gets covered with enough straw to hold down the paper, and keep it out of sight.

After the next rain, the worms will begin converting the feed sacks to compost. But meanwhile it's another (almost) weedless year among the blueberries.

If you have the soul of a gardener, not for anything would you work with gloves on. The feel of the warm earth, not too dry, not too wet, is something no one can ever describe to you if you don't get it, yourself. The smell of it and the unassuming wonder of what it accomplishes fill you with a kind of faith. -- Ruth Stout, Gardening Without Work