Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Whatever it takes

We (Oregon and Washington) are the cool spot in the lower forty-eight, and, no, I don't mean by that what a hipster might mean by that. With more energy in the atmosphere than in, say, the last century, the winds have been roiled and we're. locally, faced with lower temperatures in June as a result of -- yep -- global warming. Just look at temperatures anywhere but here in the northern temperate zones to get some idea of what some folks are going through. But we do usually manage to reach 100F for a day or two most years even here, and the lead-up to that can be a week in the 90s. Plus, the winds could change again, and my valley could be the next Colorado Springs. In fact, in 2002 we had a 500,000 acre (that's right, five hundred thousand) fire just a ways south of here.

We keep our bug-out gear in order for that, and try to maintain a clean zone around the house. But this post is about just trying to stay comfortable if a) like us, you have no air conditioning and don't plan to get any or b) the power demand for AC in your region just blacked you out, and they're saying it could take days to get it back (and you forgot to stash gasoline for the emergency generator, and didn't get solar power back when the Tea Party hadn't killed the retrofit money yet). And you're on a budget, a really serious budget.

So, how to keep a coolish house under the circumstances? You can insulate the attic some more, but that's out of the budget just now. You can grow shade trees, but you didn't think of it twenty years ago. You've heard about heat exchangers, but now is just not the time to look into that. In a drier climate than ours. you might look into a swamp cooler, and sure, you have fans, but remember, we talked about a blackout.

There are, assuming you own your own home or have a really really relaxed landlord, options. heat gain in homes in summer is mostly from light. Here, we painted the house white for reflectivity, then bought ten five-gallon cans of white goop intended for sealing leaky camper trailers and broomed it over the whole 1850 square feet overhead. Aside from helping with leaks and extending the life of the roll roofing, this turns away a good part of the spectrum of light from overhead. It's cool to the touch even with an air temperature of 100F, and the attic gains heat much more slowly, radiating less into the house in the evenings.
    With the white roof, if we close the windows and doors first thing in the morning, by afternoon, it can be as low as 82 inside when 100 outside. A big help. The other thing we do, every year nowadays, is block the sun from the windows. Not by drawing the curtains, but by taking the curtains outside. We buy burlap coffee sacks from a coffee shop for fifty cents each; they have many uses, but some we cut open and staple to a piece of lath to use as curtains on cold winter nights (storm window outside the window, burlap inside). The lath is suspended from a couple of pegs (4" drywall screws work very well). In anticipation of summer heat, we take these outside, tack them upside down in the window frame (the lath serves as a weight to reduce wind issues), covering the whole window with a somewhat reflective shade that also admits a little attractive lighting.

  You think this is fugly? Well, sure. But this is how one sixty-three-year-old lady with diminishing carpentry skills tackles a problem with fifty cents worth of materials. Your mileage may vary. 

From inside, it can look downright classy. Anyways, we think so.


One resident of the house wants to see a little better from her office. So we did this:

Now, that's fugly. I suppose I should scissor those straggly strings at least. But it works! You see how the shade slants across early in the day. During the hot afternoon hours, there will be good coverage. Notice too some paint has been brushed across the screen to add some extra reflectivity. Inside, there's a humongous house plant by the window; it gets enough light to live on, and adds yet more shade without totally obstructing the view.

Add some kiwis and figs trained to a window, and a shade maple just getting big enough, after twenty years, to start making a contribution, and things really get shady around here.

Not that the house can't get stuffy. After four or five days of a heat wave, each evening the system seems to help a little less. We open up at night and run fans (blackout? we're hoping to go off grid again in a few), and as soon as the outside temperature is the same as inside again in the morning, say 65/65F, button up again. And avoid cooking on the range. It's good enough for most heat waves.
But if all else fails, we'll head for the same place everybody else around here goes for relief. And sit around in the pools until sundown. Whatever it takes.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

No-Till Polyculture

I am one of those who think no-till has a lot going for it, in conjunction with mixing vegs in the bed (polyculture). This way, worm activity is not devastated by tillage. Roots of weeds, starved by the mulch of sunlight, rot in place, adding to the capillary action of worm (and assorted bug) tunnels. The variety of vegs means that their rooting action will vary in depth and in nutrients sought out. It's harder work for plant predators to find what they are looking for (and when they get there, it's healthier than they'd like), so there is little or no need for chemical applications. The mulch, at our place, typically consists of cardboard (tape removed), straw, leaves, grass clippings, compost, sawdust, barn bedding, chopped cornstalks -- almost anything we can get our hands on that's organic -- even twigs -- applied in the fall, and weathered down a bit -- through which we plant.

In summer we continue adding these layers -- to the paths. The worms appreciate it, the garden needs much less irrigation in dry conditions, and the paths are in this way made productive. The resulting "sheet" compost, next spring, can be raked up into the beds. Ultimately you get raised beds without having had to build walls for them.

This garden is nineteen years old. The soil, practically a brickmaking clay when we came to it, has improved every year, despite its having never been fallowed. It stands as a proof that farming need not deplete soil, adding a burden of silt and life-snuffing chemicals to a watershed. Monoculturists hooked into the Monsanto system of GMO seed, tillage, chemical soil prep, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and farmworkercides cannot agree with this, as they can see it's too labor-intensive -- or, as I would put it, provides too many jobs. But I know of no reason why joyful farming (which no-till polyculture can be) should not attract a new generation into the fields.

Here I've run out of cardboard and resorted to burlap (which we buy for 50 cents a bag from a coffee shop) to finish out my last path. Burlap, commonly made from jute, will do the job but lasts too long -- it will have to be taken up at the end of the season and stored somewhere, by which time it will be messy.

I'm aware, too, of the deficiencies of both straw and cardboard. The wheat grass that will sprout doesn't bother me -- I'll just flip over the straw. But what chemical residues might there be in it -- and in cardboard? Don't know. I'm taking my chances here, reflecting that the food I'm growing is in all likelihood better than I can get at the supermarket and way less expensive than if I tried to get straw or its equivalent only from organically certified sources, or got all my food from the "organic" stands at the farmer's markets. Everyone has to draw their own line on safety, although, from things I've read, governments all over are increasingly interested in enforcing safety standards designed to squeeze small and subsistence farmers out of business in favor of the Monsanto model.

I remember reading that a mid-sized farm (not strictly organic but very progressive) uses a system somewhat like mine, but with rolls of unbleached kraft paper, which they unroll and spread over both beds and paths every year. Same chemical questions occur to me over this paper as over the cardboard.

What I'd like to see is the return of industrial hemp. Yes, I know it would be a monoculture, but it would be a great improvement over mowing the forests and digging or pumping black poison from the earth in order to get the products that could be made (in many cases bettter made) with hemp. You may grow it any way you like, but I will patronize you if you 1) grow it organically, and 2) set up a mill (a very small one, served by happy cooperative owners, will do) to make a kraft paper in rolls, in, say, 36 and 48 inch widths, cross-marked and punched for grid planting, and certified by a cooperative tilth organization to be just right for mulching smallholder or cooperatively managed organic polycultural subsistence, CSA or market farms.


Featured in the photographs: rhubarb, Golden Bantam corn, assorted green beans, red, Yukon Gold and German Butterball potatoes, rhubarb, sunchokes, raspberries, pumpkins, climbing cucumbers, runner beans (hopelessly hybridized Scarlet and Hungarian). Not shown but present: elephant garlic, hard-necked garlic, Egyptian onions, white onions, leeks, yellow and green zucchini, four varieties of indeterminate tomatoes, spinach, many kinds of lettuce, delicata and butternut squashes, kale, bok choi, collards, beets, eggplants, basil, chives, oregano, parsley, celery, rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, poppies, four kinds of mint, blueberries, comfrey, dandelions (encouraged), goumi, blackberries, hops, quince, and assorted cherries, apples, pears, peaches, mulberries, grapes, hazelnuts, kiwis, chickens, ducks, geese, grass pasture, rose hips, and a coppice woodlot. Some years also sunflowers, broccoli and tomatillos. We are not regarded as a farm by the authorities.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Grassroots Garden

We went to see Grassroots Garden, where Young Son has put in many, many volunteer hours. A lot was going on, though it was very quiet and peaceful. They provide over 50,000 pounds a year of fresh local food to the hungry through Food for Lane County. Here's what they say about themselves on their website
Volunteer Hours
May through October, regular volunteer hours are Tuesday through Saturday 9 am - 2 pm. November through April, regular volunteer hours are Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday 9am - 2pm.
The GrassRoots Garden is a 2.5 acre garden that includes a City of Eugene compost demonstration site and a full outdoor kitchen. FFLC staff and OSU Lane County Extension Master Gardeners offer workshops to the public and maintain the garden with help from thousands of children, youth and adult volunteers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

June at Stony Run

The fruit trees in the chicken moat have been painted white up to about "hopping" height. Bugs climbing up the trunk face stiffer opposition from the hens against the white background. Also, I think, the coating lowers temperature in the cambium on hot days and conserves moisture.

This is the first year the pears have set some fruit. They were planted two winters ago. Most look okay, but one variety seems to have a rust disease. We'll put a watch on that.

This bed is the Three Sisters. Corn (Golden Bantam) hills are interspersed with pumpkins; a couple of weeks later, green beans are added to chase after the corn and climb it, while adding nitrogen.

The Scarlet Runners have sprouted. In case they didn't show, we also filled the bed with potatoes and trellising cucumbers. It will be interesting to see how that goes.

Foreground, tomatoes, mostly Stupice, I think, with maybe a Roma there; behind them, leeks, rest of the bed, Red and Yukon Gold potatoes.

Green beans have mostly survived the slugs and are ready to take over their pyramid.

Peas have reached the beginnings of the eating stage. It's five years since we've seen them climb like this; a welcome sight.

Gardener snaps herself as she goes past the garden mirror. That quizzical but satisfied expression may have to do with some tart pie cherries she's just eaten. She's on her way to the firepit to set up some wood for a Midsummer's Eve gathering tomorrow night.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A boon in drought

Ducks need water; their beaks will gunk up from shoveling mud, and their breathing depends upon open nostrils, which are on the upper beak. If you have two or three, they may live quite happily with access to a regularly changed five gallon bucket, but their complete well-being calls for a swim. We have ten ducks and a goose at the moment, so there are in the poultry yard several kiddie pools which, believe it or not, have to be changed out and washed twice a week. The water becomes quite brown and rich within minutes of the first swim, and in high summer also supports an explosion of algae. The mixture is too rich and questionable to apply directly to vegetables, but can be dumped around the roots of fruit trees, and is a boon in drought. This is why you have an orchard.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Everything grows

We "sheet mulch" with cardboard (tape and plastic removed) in the fall and hide it with straw. Come spring, what's left of it (worms love the stuff) is mushy enough to plant seedlings right through it, then we layer on grass clippings. Unsightly bits such as tea bags are tucked UNDER the cardboard (winter) or go to the compost heap (summer) with the barn bedding (which, if hot, as in full of poultry manure, must age before going to the garden).

Here there is cardboard across the whole garden, paths and all, cleverly hidden beneath straw and autumn leaves. The leaves are on the beds, on top of a general layer of straw. Worms move freely underneath and find plenty of work to do.

Seedlings may be set out directly through the mulch and the softened cardboard in spring. I prefer a right-angled trowel, or Korean hand hoe, for this work. At 63, I find a kneeling bench indispensable as well.

Keep lots of planting soil mix on hand, homemade or commercial (organic preferred). To sow seeds directly, pull aside mulch and wet cardboard to expose mineral soil and throw in a handful of mix.

You can do rows; I tend to put everything in hills, putting different kinds of stuff side by side to confuse pests. Sow seeds, toss on a bit more mix to the correct depth for planting, tamp gently, move on. Come back with the hose and offer enough water to get things started.

As things put on size, add more mulch. Everything grows and gets a head start on the weeds without cultivation. If wet weather ensues, you may find a lot of slugs*. Hand pick aggressively and give them to the poultry to boost egg production. 

Wheat sprouts in our straw; when this happens, we give it a week or so and then flip it over. Weeds will figure out this system by late summer but can be selectively beheaded with a sharp hoe. If they get ahead of you in patches, bring more cardboard, hiding it under straw as you did last fall.

We find that a garden grown in this fashion is much more resistant to disease, insects and drought than a tilled garden, even here in the Northwest. No poisons or commercial fertilizers required. "Your mileage may vary."

* Yes, we are Oregonians.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Judo in the garden

Gardeners: move hay or straw with care. I'm 63, and a ninety pound (40+ kilo) bale is too much for me to throw around any more -- so I use a combination of judo and a hay hook to wrestle them onto and off a stout hand truck. When the hook is in transit, turn it outward, as you would an ax blade, to avoid unscheduled trips to the emergency room at your friendly hospital. Straw beats hay in the mulch garden: fewer seeds, more hollow stems (these aerate soil). If you get a lot of seeds in wheat straw you can let chickens pick through it before use as mulch (they'll add nitrogen, too) or just let the stuff sprout and then flip the sheaves upside down.