Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gratitude for a Good Harvest

It's a blue-sky fall morning and from my vantage point where I can see the lovely garden space below, I'm awash with gratitude for the unbelievable experience this first year of the new garden has provided. Some words of thanks are in order, but will surely be insufficient to the task!

Most of all I've enjoyed the opportunity to do so much of this with Kristin. She's an odd one, my kind of girl, the type that gets excited about a pickup load of manure, the whorl pattern of an echinacea flower head, or saving seeds. I hope we enjoy many future seasons of gardening and canning and that we have the opportunity to create many more gardens together.

Many neighbors and friends have been super. Some mostly remind me that there's stuff that needs eating. That's fine! Others pick up shovels and rakes and whatnot and dig in. Stormi has been a great friend to the garden in that regard. Lynda (aka "Queen Basilica") got some good digs in too.

I'm also fortunate to know a couple of what I'd call 'hard hitters' in the making-gardens-happen world. My young friend Andy has energy and muscles and a work ethic that I can only vaguely remember. He's awesome! Andy moved probably as much earth and rock as I did this year. Go, Andy! I hope you have a lifetime of pleasure growing things! Loren (also endowed with admirable git-r-done qualities) put a lot of path in with me and did a ton of work on the concrete beds. I am always amazed at how much he can accomplish in a short time. Loren has a great knack for making beautiful things from whatever's at hand.

In May, a whole tribe of workshop participants converged and really got the growing side moving with a weekend of planting. I was away at the time in a very hot and dismal part of the world, so returning to their verdant handiwork in mid-June was almost miraculous. I have not even met most of them in person, but I owe them many thanks.

Now, I also and perhaps most importantly need to thank my bees, snakes, ladybugs, nematodes, wasps, birds, various mystery soil denizens, unbelievably indolent house cats, plants, sun, rain, and wind for doing all the hard work. This last shout-out may strike some people as frivolous, but a single honeybee, you should know, produces only about one-eighth of a teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime. I am certain, on that account, that I will never show as much dedication myself to such a beautiful enterprise, and so I am grateful for theirs.

Happy Fall!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where there's beer...

Beer is such a powerful attractor that even the mere possibility of even a draught in the distant future draws people.

I learned this earlier in the week as a couple of college guys ambled down the alley, stopped at the garden, and made no attempt to hide their interest in my hops. Even before they accosted me as I grazed on a row of spinach, I knew where this was going.

Their timing was impeccable. Just that afternoon I'd been fretting about how to harvest all of the various things that needed bringing in: tomatoes, basil, cukes, hops, pears, etc. Rain was coming and time was short.

In no time flat the two fellows had morphed into four and all five of us were sitting on my back deck around a three foot high heap of Willamette hop vines, shucking the perfectly ripe blossoms into grocery bags. And, bless their party-loving hearts, they were kind enough to bring along some very nice beer to help the work go...well, if not more quickly, at least more smoothly. My harvest worries soon faded entirely.

In about two hours we'd filled four grocery bags brimming with green hops. Once dried the harvest came to about two pounds in all. They took half and I've got the other. Mine are now vacuum sealed and awaiting a brewing adventure planned for mid-month.

Here's to the amazing phenomenon of the ad hoc community garden!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Here's a mid-summer view of the new space, with the just-completed concrete bed. I'll post a more current one soon showing the truly spectacular Fall garden now fully up and producing.

The next step will be an enclosure for the right (east) end of the concrete bed to enable winter gardening.

For a first year space, this one has produced handsomely: we've been eating like people ought to for the past four months and have canned about 300 pounds of various things for later in the year. There's much more to go!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Official Food, Inc. Movie Site - Hungry For Change?

If you care about the food you eat, about the environment, or about the people who feed you, then you owe it to yourself to see the movie, "Food, Inc."

It's an unsparing, honest, and disturbing short-take on a topic that literally involves everyone.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Compost Report: A Note from Down Under

I have unbridled enthusiasm for compost. It's totally nutty and weird, but when it comes time to harvest compost I put my hands in the stuff, sniff it, turn it over again and again. My cats look on with suspicious interest. My friends (thankfully a forgiving and understanding bunch) watch with amusement.

For my gardens which cover the better part of two lots, I have two 4X4X4 piles. I harvest about two times per year. I get about two cubic yards of super good stuff per harvest. It's full of worms.

In truth, I'm not a very good composter. I do layer, but should really turn more frequently, water better in the summer, etc. Nonetheless, compost is forgiving: even my slacker style composting pays off in good measure.

One issue I've recognized however is that my starting notions of the scale on which I should compost are no longer suitable for my goals. My original notion was just to compost, e.g. have a compost pile. Super. Did that. Seems to work.

But, now I'm trying stop hauling stuff (soil, manure, etc.) into my garden from without and I'm trying to stop hauling stuff out of my garden (cuttings, sticks, weeds, etc.). Composting is clearly the answer, but I need to improve my technique and probably change the scale of my operations somewhat.

I currently haul out about 3 pickup loads of biomass each year. Most of this is material I currently deem to be non-compostable. That includes invasive species, big woody stuff, and whatnot. I want to eliminate those loads this next year.

Similarly, this year I have hauled in a massive amount of soil, manure, etc. Almost all of that has been associated with a one-time build-out of new garden space over a short period of time. If I'd been in less of a hurry, I could plausibly have built using my own compost, but if my math is correct that would have taken me about 10 years. To put it bluntly, I'm too old for that shit. (Sorry, couldn't resist!) Next year (after my new raised beds are filled), I won't bring anything in.

So, the challenge is really about finding a compost solution for the 3 pickup loads of biomass I produce annually. I think this is a realistic goal. I don't know what the solution will look like exactly, but here are a some starter observations:

  • Sizing a compost pile is a critical part of garden design. It's not trivial, especially if you want more than just 'token' compost. I've learned a lot about the amount and type of biomass my lots produce over the years. I'm doing things to alter those patterns. That learning is telling me the most basic things about how big my compost solution needs to be.
  • Location. Location. Location. Making compost involves lots of schlepping of stuff. Putting a pile in the right place make a huge amount of difference. Locate near gardens, near kitchen, near animals like chickens.
  • Mastication may matter. My lots produce quite a bit of woody stuff. I'm learning to re-use some of that for fuel and for garden supports. The rest has to go somewhere and takes a very long time to compost. Having some means of grinding can accelerate radically. Manual chopping is OK, but time consuming. I'm exploring neighborhood scale solutions, e.g. shared shredder, large long-term piles, etc.
  • Maintenance can speed cycle time quite a bit. My piles go super fast in the summer months. Winter is slow. I could probably get a third harvest in by doing better with maintenance. If so, that's 2 more cubic yards of compost per year...probably a good portion of the pickup loads I'm trying to eliminate.
Stay tuned for solution decisions and notes!

Sustainability: Getting to Basics

Recently I had the pleasure of reviewing architecture student midterm garden design projects. The assignment was geared for sustainability. The projects I looked at revealed a high degree of variety and creativity. Some were quite lovely.

One thing that struck me, however, was how differently the students interpreted what 'sustainability' means. As I realized this, I began to prod a bit by asking questions: "What does sustainability mean?", "What were the sustainability objectives for your design?"

Their good work notwithstanding, the answers given by the students were surprisingly vague and gave opportunity to reflect on how I consider and pursue (or don't!) sustainability in my own garden. The conversations which resulted surfaced a couple of basic things perhaps worth sharing here.

First, sustainability is about balancing inputs and outputs. Better still, it's about zeroing out inputs and outputs within a defined space. If I'm dragging lots of materials into my garden (guilty as charged!), then I'm not balanced. If I'm hauling out lots of materials, I'm not balanced. If I'm consuming more food than I'm producing, I'm not balanced.

I realize this is not a very forgiving definition of sustainability, but it is simple, direct, and measurable. The latter qualities make it a sturdy guidepost for design choices, lifestyle choices, etc. Not to be harsh, but it strikes me that without such a clear and basic way of talking about sustainability, the word and the concept become mostly about style and intentions and not much at all about creating lasting ways of living.

Second, and in a related sense, sustainability always has a specific scope. There's no such thing as generic 'sustainability'. Scope defines the specific realm within which inputs and outputs are zeroed out. It can be thought of both in terms of what things it covers (e.g. soil, water, food, tools, etc.) and in terms of the geography (garden plot, neighborhood, city, region, etc.) which bounds it.

So, I could aim for soil sustainability by reprocessing garden waste to create all of my own amendments such as compost, manure, and the like. I could go for water sustainability by capturing and storing all the water I require. I could go for food sustainability by growing all I eat. But I could also scope my sustainability efforts around soil, water, and food to extend throughout my neighborhood (by trading with neighbors), my city, my region, etc.

In a very practical, daily sense, being able to spell out my sustainability objectives in terms of what they cover and over what geography they apply is helpful to me in identifying specific courses of action that make more sense than others. There are lots of things I could do. Knowing this year, for example, that I want to stop removing large quantities of biomass and bringing in similar quantities of soil amendments gives me something specific to work on around compost, mulching, etc. Next year it could be about seed and start sustainability. Recognizing the geography within which I intend to zero out tells me who I need to help and get help from.

I live a long way from sustainability. Recognizing that makes it clear that getting to sustainability is not just about lifestyle. There's really no daily solution that'll get me there. Rather, a lot of my 'infrastructure' is just plain wrong. That means re-design. Which brings me back to the wonderful and creative design students I had the pleasure to meet recently. They enjoy super opportunities to shape spaces in ways which can actually enable or enhance the likelihood that people will live in sustainable and durable ways....or not. Clarity about what that actually means is a good starting point.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Come See For Yourself!

On May 23rd-24th, we'll be hosting a permaculture workshop at the site for persons interested in some hands-on, expert-guided (not me!) experience creating a permaculture-based urban micro farm.

Read more about it and register here:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Raised beds are underway!

Huge progress! Dug out and poured footings for the raised beds along the north border. These will hold about 400 square feet of prime space for annuals and will enable me to do three and four season gardening. You can read the details here.