The first warm days of March have come. In with blustery rains, sunshine, one rainbow so far and of course my completely irrational euphoria. Despite telling myself that I am crazy and to stop it, I switch my internal control to 'spring.' A winter spent diligently, delightedly, reading my back issues of Mother and every homesteading memoir or how to book known to modern man; in two warmish weeks has given way to manic chronological list making. I am operating as if our McKinley expedition departs next week and I have the nagging feeling that I have missed some obvious key piece of the plan than success hinges on.
To be fair, planting seedings before the garden fence is up amounts to laying out a buffet for the deer. As I lay in semi sleep consciousness this morning berating the daylight savings system mentally and figuring out a way to start my year of regular running by facing the treadmill later in the week, fear crept in. Maybe it has been there ummmm, let me see, my entire life. Ok, a life of honesty and authenticity is what I work for every day so: I have been occupied with worry, doubt of my own worthiness and plagued by an inability, or at least unwillingness, to accept credit for my accomplishments for the length of my memory.
I choose to no longer agonize and dissect my childhood hurts and malformations, my years of miserable self destruction and its predictable results, but instead realize that for whatever reason my heart woke up one day. The spark of me never went out. It is the spark I recognize in my little boy, usually if I have been too harsh. I see that little light, asking for nothing but a little shelter from the wind and glowing steadily through all kinds of assaults. That unwavering warmth inside never leaving, just waiting patiently for a little tinder and recognition of its existence. My little spark refused to be damped. When I realized it was still glowing, all I know is my life turned into a quest to nurture that warmth and goodness. Clumsy at first, and often still, my actions and thoughts are part of a journey meant to shelter and celebrate that light. Not a candle lighting ceremony to celebrate the existence of me, but a kind ritual keeping of the flame to provide warmth and sanctuary to my community.
Living in harmony with and recognition of my spirit, values and without sacrificing those for a 'normal' life is what drives me. Now when a decision doesn't sit well, when money is tight(er) than usual and I look with panic at going back to work and utilizing daycare, when I semi wake in the weak March sunlight with unnamed weight pressing my chest down it's time to find a clear line of sight to my light. What is bothering me and why?
Funny how living your values and removing the distractions and energy drains of things not in line with your core values and mission makes the most profound self discovery almost commonplace. I lay there thinking 'Oh, I am worried about failing at growing our food, finishing all those projects, getting into financial trouble and losing it ALL because of no one but myself.' Well, better sort this out. I needed a mental slap, maybe gentler. Coffee. Coffee and a view of the ducks out being ducks. Maybe check in with Jenna Woginrich. Her blogs, though I am not as faithful a reader as I ought be, are the mix of practical advice, personal reflection and outright gumption in the face of failure that I craved. She reposted an older blog post in which she discussed failure. Not as something to avoid, but as in an inevitable part of dreaming big and going after it. She got me and was there for me.
I will fail, which isn't a failure if I am living this life. I made the list and have supplies. I will pick up side jobs to buy lumber and build a tiny savings. I will dig the flower beds and milk that future goat. I will order the damn chickens and bees before they are no longer available. I will not drag my feet to the point that failure is imminent. I am marching out, hoe in hand, to make this land ours. If and when I fail, it will not be for lack of trying. I will not cower indoors, making lists and plans, while my orchard dies off.
I know without a second thought this homestead is our place. I will walk barefoot among my fruit trees guided by the familiar feeling as an old woman. What I won't do is be an anchor around the neck of the world. Living a life that does not reflect my values, spending a life trying to buy happiness and acceptance rather than actively showing kindness to humans and making the planet a better place for all, pushing down externally generated self loathing in some pointless race to public superficial arbitrary 'success' is no life at all. Seed starting starts today, the chickens and bees are coming. Hello life, I am jumping in and promise only to be me, clumsy crying fighting passionate loving laughing bungling compassionate digging working authentically me. Thanks for having me, is it ok if I bring my chickens?
A long time I lived in Denver, Colorado, where the Italians told me that the Irish always planted their peas on St. Patrick Day. It sounded like a good idea and being a Mulligan on my Mothers side, I went along with it. It turned out those peas thought late March snows were like Manna from heaven and they flourished. Especially snow peas. Back in those days, the 1970’s, the morning temperature was below zero every day for the first two weeks of January.
Fast forward to 2012, Kansas City. It just didn’t feel right. Yes, that’s what Permaculture is teaching you; to get a feel for your environment and to observe the sky, wind, rain, and ground. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was going to be a warm spring so I started measuring the soil temperature. Peas like soil temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Above 60 degree soil temperature the germination rate plummets.
Measuring Soil Temperatures
I decided to record the soil temperatures with an old fashioned analog Soil Test Thermometer. In this picture soil temperature was a midsummer 80 degrees.
I took measurements as best I could 3 times a day, morning, noon, and night. I started a month before St. Patrick’s Day and immediately decided to get the peas in the ground. The measurements below show the rate of soil temperature increase over a course of a month. As can be seen, the ground was soon 20 to 25 degrees above the optimum temperature for planting peas. I had excellent germination and the best bunch of peas in years.
Plant Hardiness Zones
Now, this little exercise, which is a good way to introduce kids to the concepts of temperature measurement, graphing, and seed germinationa all at once, got me to thinking about how fast the climate is changing. The Plant Hardiness Zone maps at The Arbor Day Foundation show the changes that occurred between 1990 and 2006. When you click the play button, you can see that the Zones seemed to have moved north 100 miles in 16 years.
The Trillion-Dollar Question
"How fast will the climate change?" and "How far north will my descendants and I to more in order to keep farming and gardening?" are two questions that bear your attention and examination. In a previous post, Why Life Exists on Earth, I explained why climate change in inevitable and why the temperatures will continue to rise.
Right now, it’s snowing; 3 degrees, which is about 60 degrees colder than it was in 2012, and I need to shovel the driveway. In Part 2 I will fill continue this discussion.
Thanks for listening and remember,
In the future,
We will sit on our front porches
With family, friends and neighbors,
Singing and playing acoustic music,
Until the stars come out and shine down upon us,
Undimmed by the fires of fossil fuels.
I am spending 2014 making active changes in order to live in line with my values. I am cutting out most all non locally grown, humanely produced, and fairly traded foods. I am not putting in to me anything that does not make me better. Food will be happiness, fuel, strength, disease fighting and my vote. What do we do more frequently than eat, more public, more symbolic, and yet so many of us attach so little value to this frequent vote casting. If every one of us just did not buy or consume that calorie of lost principles the world would shift. I value my principles and think it disingenuous to live my life at odds with them.
What you eat, buy, grow and feed your family has the power to be your vote for what is safe, right and important. Local food for me encompasses all of that. Less oil used to transport food to you saves the environment from damage and will help foster less political instability. Organic growing methods again saves oil use, protects the earth from chemical toxicity and your body from filling with synthetic chemicals. Buying local puts something like $4 for every $1 I spend into the hands of people living, paying taxes and shopping in my town. And I like thumbing my nose at Monsanto and other HUGE corporations bent of profit at the expense of the entire world and our collective future, often funded by my own tax dollars.
After a death of a fairly young family member (whom I mourn more for the loss my loved ones are feeling, as I did not know this person-long story) this week; I am more committed to change in a visceral, hands in the dirt, what am I doing right now in this every day activity to change way(?) than ever. I want to fill my family with health. I want to nurture our land to feed us well and improve with the passing years. I want to cut medications, chemical, and the eroding effect of living an unprincipled life out of myself. I added to my grocery list, slashed some items, cleaned out the cupboard a bit and will order a few more seeds to grow this year. As with all change, the idea itself is monumental but living with different habits and goals actually liberating.
So we have stopped planning change and have jumped. A used chicken coop gifted from friends no longer in need of it is drying in the garage, waiting for a new metal roof and the four laying hens another friend must jettison. Local food is coming home to roost at the Pomponio Homestead. As a planning list maker type, often I am surprised when I just go out and do something. I think my planet, family, heart and principles will be happy that I am just going out and doing this. This eating local shall be grown from our good intentions, nurtured with conscientiousness, and reaped thankfully by our healthy hands.
Farming is tough business. Whether you are growing in fields or raised garden beds, anything dependent on the weather itself is going to be tough. There are just too many variables. The soil must be the right temperature, there has to be just the right amount of sunlight and limited exposure to strong damaging winds. The odds are against us and we need to use all the tools we can to help us succeed. One simple idea, if used properly, can be one of those tools.
A Micro-Climate is what you would consider to be the small differences throughout an environment. On a miserably hot sunny day you can find it degrees cooler under the shade of a big tree. UV light sensitive bugs and organisms find it beneficial to live under a rock where the soil is cool and moist. Certain snakes may in turn lie out on top of the rock to absorb the warmth throughout the day. Different organisms need different environmental conditions. In the world of plants, they need a combination of sun, heat, wind and rain to survive but too much of any of them spells disaster. Micro-Climates can be used take the edge off the harsh weather outside so that whatever could thrive there, can thrive. By influencing the climate or weather of an area surrounding your crops, you can help their chances of survival.
“What sort of voodoo is this that controls the weather?” you ask. It is much easier than that. If you know me at all by now you know that I look for techniques that make my life easier. Micro-Climates can make it easier, but it’s not just something you do, it’s a way of thinking.
Creating a Micro-Climate, Step 1
I used to struggle to keep any houseplant alive. I used to either water them too much, or not enough, or maybe just the right amount and they would still die on me. Now with my forty something houseplants I know that it’s as much the right spot as it is the right ingredients. Some like the early morning light in the front window while others enjoy our low lit kitchen. Some don’t mind being in a drafty window and a few don’t seem to like it anywhere (reality showing its ugly face). In order to keep your plants alive you must know them. Watch them, and pay attention to signs of stress.
We have quite a few Aloe plants that we grow inside. Most do fine in our front windows under direct light but the small ones struggle in it. We notice they start turning a darker color than the brilliant green of our healthy mama Aloe. But move them to the banister about five feet away and they pop right up. Like a sick child that suddenly starts feeling better, you see the vibrancy in it and you just know that it’s going to be alright.
This is the first step to creating a micro-climate. Watching for signs of stress and changing the conditions to best suit the plants. This doesn’t work with just decorative houseplants but should be applied to beneficial plants grown inside as well. Most of our starts for the spring garden begin in the house. I use no heating pad or grow light. I find the best spot for those little seedlings to germinate and get as strong as they can before I send them outside.
This technique can also be used in the fall. I had been working on pepper plants for over three years in myPacific Northwest climate and when I finally had a good looking Cayenne plant I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. Before fall really kicked in, I pulled it from the ground into a pot and brought it inside to ripen the peppers. Keeping it in my bedroom window, it started growing new shoots all winter long and before February arrived, there were new flowers starting to bud. I gave the plant a different environment and it not only did great all year long but now has the best head start for next year. This is a plant that is considered an annual in cooler climates. I changed the climate and kept it going.
Many plants can be grown in conditions they are not typically grown in. Most herbs can be grown and harvested all year long inside. You just need to experiment, pay attention and keep looking for new ways of making the micro-climate better.
Creating a Micro-Climate, Step 2
The other step to creating a micro-climate is just that; create one. In Mother Earth News’ August/September 2013 issue we met blogger David Goodman who grows tropical key limes, pineapples, guavas and lemons which would be impossible in his part of Florida. He grows them against his house on the south side and the thermal mass of the structure radiates enough heat to keep them alive through the winter. I tried this approach with my garlic. I planted them in October in the bed against my garage. Even with the angle of the sun low behind my neighbor’s house most of the day, this bed was the only uncovered bed that didn’t freeze. With our two stretches of freezing temps lasting continuously for a week or more each time, this bed remained warm enough to make me wish I had planted more.
The other thing you can do if you need more protection is to cover them. I built a hoop tunnel this year with the hopes of harvesting greens all winter long. Easier said than done but what I did learn was even if the temps weren’t noticeably warmer inside, the protection from the heavy wind and rain kept everything in there looking fantastic all winter long. All my mint plants and lemon balms that I had in big containers over the summer went in there for hibernation. I had parsley and chamomile growing outside the hoop tunnel and some inside but only the ones under the tunnel are still alive and looking great. It shows you that it’s not just the temperature that can kill plants but exposure to the elements is often the stronger accomplice.
We are one of the only creatures on Earth who changes its environment as drastically as we do. It’s time to take that ability and add it to our knowledge of plants. We can grow a hedgerow along our garden to block heavy winds; plant near a slope so the cooler, heavier air moves away from the plants; use buildings, rocks, ponds, rain barrels or other thermal mass for growing plants next to. Any extra help we can get should be added to our survival tool kit and learning to create micro-climates is definitely that.
We have decided to start our permaculture garden with mounds. We can build these almost anywhere in the garden. We have chosen to start small, developing different areas so that we will be able observe what works and what doesn’t
The first project was to build a keyhole mound between the existing fruit trees. This is not ideal…the trees should be planted as you build, but ours were already there and growing so we improvised.
The idea is that you have a trench (or lower level) to catch the rainfall. This then seeps slowly into the mound watering the plants. Since it doesn’t rain that much here we have decided to put in a watering system (drip feed) to help the plants out in the Summer. This will be placed on the top of the mound and at each side.
The mound itself is made up of layers. Wood is the starter. This we collected from the land at the side of us. Pruning’s of olive and almond trees have been left on the land. We collected them, trimmed them into different sizes and laid them on the ground in the shape of a horse shoe. Largest to smallest. The wood breaks down over time, releasing it's nutrients into the mound and so feeding the plants growing there.
The next job was to dig out the trench around the outside and inside of the wood. This soil was put on top of the wood. There should be no sign that the wood is inside when the mound is finished. If there are twigs sticking out the water will run along them and out of the mound. Water will always find the path of least resistance in which to flow.
Since our soil is very poor, we placed sheep dung on the top. A layer about an inch thick all over the mound. The drip feed system will be placed on top of the dung and the pipes will be covered with straw to reduce evaporation and to add more organic material to the soil.
The lighter straw is where the trench was dug out and where we can walk to harvest and look after the plants.
We are planning on planting strawberries, peas, beetroot and radish on this mound. It’s still a little chilly at night here (February 2014) but by the end of February our seedlings will go in and so will all the seeds.
As couples discover that a wedding with all the traditional frills can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, many are looking for DIY wedding ideas. Brides, grooms, and their families are taking on tasks that previously were hired out, everything from designing the wedding invitations to baking the wedding cake. For experienced gardeners, the DIY wedding can include growing your own wedding flowers.
I’m in the midst of that process myself right now, for my son and his fiancee, who are getting married in four months. I’ve been a commercial flower grower for more than 20 years, so I know just what to do to ensure I have a good selection of gorgeous blooms on the big day. In this article, I’ll break it down for people who don’t have a lot of experience with growing flowers for events. Let me repeat, though, this should only be attempted by the accomplished gardener; wedding flowers are not for the inexperienced.
Pick Your Wedding Flowers
Color and seasonality are the two most important considerations in choosing what to grow. The easiest choice of colors is whatever is blooming; you might call it the “wildflower” look — though you’ll actually be using carefully cultivated garden flowers. It’s an immensely popular look right now, and it certainly takes the pressure off the flower grower when the bride is going to be happy with any and every color of flower.
But it’s not that much more difficult to grow a specific color theme such as peach and coral or blue and yellow. Many good cut flower varieties are available as individual colors, so you can tailor your planting to your bride’s preferences.
Seasonality is little more tricky. As an experienced gardener, you will have a general idea of when certain flowers bloom in your garden — which bloom in spring, summer, or fall. Choose varieties from those broad seasonal categories and don’t try to force them out of season; for example, don’t count on zinnias for an early June wedding because they may not bloom till mid-June. Peonies are an exception to the rule because they can be held in cold storage for up to two months after they bloom. You can read more about holding peonies here.
Schedule Your Seed Starting
Here I’m going to send you to Johnny’s Selected Seeds for two crucial ingredients. First, Johnny’s is one of very few seed companies that publishes the average days to bloom for flower varieties. These are ballpark numbers at best because bloom times can be affected dramatically by weather. Still, they give you some guidance.
Second, Johnny’s has on its website a Target Harvest Date Calculator that I created several years ago when they hired me to produce useful resources for growers. I love this calculator for weddings because you can type in the date of your event, the flowers you want to grow, including the catalog’s estimated days to bloom, and a few other factors and -- voila! -- you have your seed-starting date.
Start Seeds and Plant Out
As an experienced gardener, you don’t need the details here. But I will caution you to do it right. Don’t take chances with sloppiness or shortcuts. Buy fresh seed and new potting mix, clean your seed-starting flats, use a heat mat and grow lights. Transplant promptly and fertilize appropriately. Harden off before you plant outside. Be prepared with row cover and hoops if there’s any chance of a frost. Observe all the best practices — then stand back and watch your flowers grow!
Have a Backup Plan
Things can go terribly awry in the garden, as you undoubtedly know. So be prepared to buy flowers in case you don’t have enough of your own. Find a local flower farmer at your farmers market or on www.SlowFlowers.com or LocalHarvest.org. As a last resort, ask a florist or supermarket floral two weeks ahead of the wedding to special order for you. (Ask for American-grown flowers — and be part of the movement to bring back our domestic cut flower industry!)
Learn to Make Wedding Bouquets and Boutonnieres
Okay, this part is a pitch for my new book, Fresh from the Field Wedding Flowers. I wrote the book to encourage the use of local flowers for weddings. My co-author, Erin Benzakein, is one of the top farmer-florists in the country, and she presents 75 minutes of video tutorials showing how to make a bridal bouquet, boutonnieres and corsages, a tall arrangement, and a low centerpiece. The book has photos from dozens of real local-flower weddings to provide design inspiration. However, if you feel intimidated about floral design, consider hiring a pro to do the "wear and carry" flowers including the bridal and maids bouquets, boutonnieres, and corsages. Then focus your own efforts on centerpieces, altar flowers, and other decorations.
Lynn Byczynski is the editor and publisher of Growing for Market, a magazine for market gardeners, and the author of The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers and Market Farming Success.
If you love fruit like I do, you'll soon realize that you could break the bank buying enough plants to fill your belly. Luckily, many fruiting trees and bushes are very simple to propagate using no equipment except some potting soil and a heating pad (or even just a garden row). In fact, if you follow the techniques below, you can get a handful of cuttings for free from a friend during pruning season and end up with a whole homemade orchard.
Grapes are the first easy species on my list because they will grow in most parts of the U.S. and are a breeze to root from hardwood cuttings. (Hardwood cuttings are pieces of one-year-old wood taken in the late winter before the buds start to swell.) You can read my easy rooting method here, or, if you want to put in a little more effort and get even higher success rates, you can use the fig technique listed next.
Figs are just as easy to root as grapes, but I put them second on my list because northerners will have a hard time keeping the plants alive. (If you live partway north, you can grow figs as long as you choose a cold-hardy variety.) My method of rooting figs from hardwood cuttings is nearly as simple as the one I use for grapes, but I use a heating pad for figs to jump-start the process.
Gooseberries are simple because they just about root themselves. If you allow (or force) one branch to trail along the ground, then cover part of the branch with mulch, roots will grow on the submerged portion. Cut the stem free next year and you'll have one or more gooseberry plants to set out elsewhere. In case you're curious, this technique is called tip layering.
Hazels and rabbiteye blueberries are examples of another kind of self-rooting plant. After a few years, both of these bushes will begin to send up suckers from near the base. The suckers that are at least a few inches away from the parent plant will generally grow roots a year after emerging, at which point you can dig down until you've found several roots, clip the sucker off below the rooted area, and then prune the top back to match the amount of roots you found. In fact, if you're careful, you can propagate figs this way as well.
This is far from a complete list of the easy-to-propagate woody plants found on the homestead, but it should get you started. Soon you will have filled up your whole homestead and will be giving away baby figs and gooseberries to your friends and neighbors. Enjoy!
As a side note, if you're expanding your chicken flock as well as your orchard this spring, our Chick Bundle is on sale for 20% off right now - get them while they're hot!