Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Still Life of a Harvest

Late last summer, I realized that I had put all of my thoughts and energy into setting up the kitchen garden but I neglected to thoroughly consider what to do with the food that it produced. I didn’t imagine growing enough food beyond the amount needed to supplement our meals, share with our friends and to enrich the compost.

9 Aug 2012
When the produce began to mature in August, I quickly understood that the two of us would never be able to consume it at the same rate that it was peaking. I started to address my dilemma by encouraging the curious people who stopped by to take a few tomatoes. Soon, no one left the garden without a bag of produce in hand. I had a couple of instances where people were bold enough to ask for some produce. They seemed a little embarrassed but I urged them to feel free to come back for more.

16 Aug 2012
Trading became another option to prevent waste. It started with a simple gesture to show my appreciation to my favorite vender at the Farmer’s Market. I offered them a gift bag of produce. They stubbornly insisted that I choose one of their native plants in trade. That transaction inspired me to venture into the trading business. I learned to bargain for my favorite locally baked bread and dairy products from the local goat farmer.

20 Aug 2012
I planned to use the pumpkins for the holidays thinking that they would remain on the vine until October. That assumption came from my memory of growing up in California. The problem of preserving the pumpkins until the fall season arose when I had to harvest my pumpkins early because the squash bugs and vine borers had their way with the squash plants. The challenge to store them for a few months led me to dive into the world of food storage and preservation.

24 Aug 2012
For someone like me, who grew up with food stored in refrigerators and canned food from the box grocery stores down the street, baby steps are required. I admit that I previously had an interest to learn about natural cold food storage. Our old mountain cabin in California has a cabinet in the kitchen that we believe was used for this purpose. I have a book about root cellaring but my brain begins to hurt when I attempt to think about applying the information to my home. The book did clue me in on the fact that the pumpkin’s stem should be left intact. From my research online, I learned to allow 3-6 inches of the stem to be attached to the fruit.

Moose & Squirrel Pumpkin Pie
My attempt to put the pumpkins through a curing process and providing a storage environment wasn’t nearly as precise as suggested. I placed them on our slatted porch swing for ten days after washing the dirt off (I used soap but not the drop of chlorine as was suggested). When the pumpkins ripened and developed a tougher skin, I placed them in a kitchen cabinet being careful to space them so that they did not touch each other. I left the cabinet door cracked open for air circulation. The key to success is to allow for the air to circulate around the fruit and provide a storage condition that is 50-55F temperature and relative humidity of 50-70 percent.

Even with the lack of a controlled environment, I was able to preserve enough pumpkins to make several pies and loaves of bread in the late fall. The tougher skinned white pumpkins are still looking good in January. I added a better storage solution to my 2013 projects list in which I could set them on a rack and at least monitor, if not control, the temperature and humidity.

13 Sep 2012
I singled out the prettiest produce for trading purposes. That still left an abundant amount of crop that wasn’t picture perfect. Besides, I was not always in the frame of mind for doing the business of trading. It occurred to me that I should start thinking about ways to enjoy some of the produce during the off-season.

Yellow Tomato Jam
For some unknown reason, canning always seemed like a really scary prospect for me. I guess that the fact that a spoiled vegetable provides plenty of obvious clues verses the invisible bacteria growing in a sealed jar played a part in my fears. I started by reading the how-to websites online. I made a point to seek out the videos featuring the senior generation. The videos are really a hoot but seriously they gave me enough confidence to just do it. I set the rule that if the food in the jars looked or smelled suspicious or worse, exploded when I opened it, it would be disposed of immediately. I caught the warnings that if you are in doubt, never try tasting it.

I never would have guessed that I would find everything that I needed to get started at the local hardware store but that is how easy it was. My first project involved making use of the, what seemed to be in the number of hundreds, yellow pear tomatoes. My foodie friend and acting editor for this blog, found the most interesting recipe for tomato jam. The trick is to find recipes which call for what you have in your garden. My garden had the tomatoes, basil and the chili peppers required. The jam is delicious on a cracker spread with brie, chevre or cream cheese. It also served as a fun gift during the holiday season.

8 Oct 2012

In the process of learning ways to preserve my harvest I realized that I should be a little more serious about selecting the vegetables to grow so that they complement each other for the purpose of preparing meals or canning. I was experimenting this year but my plan, moving forward, is to use only what the garden produces with an exception for the ingredients that are not possible to grow in my limited space or geographical area. This experience has encouraged me to plant the onions, garlic and shallots this fall. I also know I can improve on my ability to coordinate the harvesting dates for the produce required to make a favorite dish.

24 Oct 2012

I cannot express the pleasure I feel to be able to go outside and choose what I’m going to use for a meal. Even browsing through the kitchen cupboards has become a little more exciting. I love staring at all of the pretty colors in the jars of the canned food. Each bite of food grown in the garden has the full flavor and nutrition nature intended. The fears of pesticides, genetic modifications using viruses or fish genes, BHA, BHT, BPA and who knows what else are put aside.

1 Nov 2012

The kitchen garden project is continuing to push me to expand my knowledge and add an even greater appreciation for the cost of food. Raising and processing food is a slow and energy consuming activity. As a consumer, I'm suspicious of ridiculously low cost food and I avoid it.

I'm getting the impression that the kitchen garden is becoming more popular at the elementary schools. Both the local elementary school and my granddaughter’s school in California have raised beds to grow vegetables. I commend the teachers who I suspect take on additional hours to make the experience possible.

Has Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden project had any national effect? I had hoped that President Obama’s administration would have ushered in more improvements toward our food system before now. I wonder sometimes what his wife thinks about the situation. Given the fact that the current First Lady is a terrific speaker, educated, intelligent, a mother, attractive and has the media’s attention, I think that she would be a perfect spokesperson for progressive changes. She proved herself to be a powerful motivational force when she stepped out on the campaign trail. If I had a minute of Michelle Obama’s time I would say, “Come on Michelle, your girls are getting older. You’re a mother who understands the basic need to provide nourishing food for your family. Shame the industry for using suspect chemicals and questionable technology on our food and in its packaging. The young, the old and everyone in between are suffering from the direction our food system has headed. You want to support your husband in his effort to keeping the costs of health care down, right? A shift in the values within our current food system could address climate change, farm worker safety, and health care costs. Push the idea that the farming subsidies need to move away from the Wall Street investor mega-farms and be redirected to support the local organic farmers who have an invested interest in their community. There is also an opportunity to address the plight of the invisible migrant workers who endure near slavery conditions. Frankly, we all resent being used like guinea pigs. We need a 21st century version of Eleanor Roosevelt.”

28 Nov 2012
Stepping away from my frustration with national politics, I take heart in the ways that I can personally influence change. My aspiration for this year is to get involved in the local school gardening project and to find an avenue to share healthy food with families struggling with poverty. I’m even considering applying for a seat on recently city council approved commission for Community Sustainability. Our new Mayor proposed the new commission as her first order of business after being sworn into office. 2013 is going to be a busy year.

Happy New Year.

Additional Information & Recipes:

Plastic Free Times: Health News

GM Free Schools

Harvesting and Storing Pumpkins, Winter Squash, and Gourds

Theresa's Pickled Eggplant

Fried Eggplant – My grandfather’s recipe and family tradition.

Peel and slice one large eggplant to make rounds roughly ¼ inch thick. You will develop your own preference for thickness in time.

Dip each slice of eggplant in a shallow bowl with 2 beaten eggs then in another shallow bowl with about a cup of fine ground cornmeal loosely mixed with a handful of flour and flip over to cover both sides of the slice. I keep the cornmeal and flour handy in case I need more as I proceed.

Fry the slices until golden brown in very hot but not smoking light vegetable oil (note that the cornmeal will start to cause smoke after the first batch so use your overhead fan or crack a window). My current favorite vegetable oil is sunflower and I use an iron skillet for frying. I put enough oil to brown the sides of the slices. You will know when it is time to turn them over when the sizzling action mellows and the edges turn golden. Once you turn them over and the vigorous sizzling has subsided it is about time to remove them from the oil. I lift the slice with a fork high enough to allow the excess oil to pour back into the pan and place it on a paper towel with the hottest side facing up. Salt to taste. Layer with another 2 sheets of paper towels and fry another pan full. Repeat. Eat the fried eggplant the moment the temperature becomes safe to do so.

The History of the Yellow Pear Tomato

The Yellow Pear is known to have been cultivated in Europe as far back as the 17th century. Renowned biologist and taxonomist Christiaan Hendrik Persoon first recorded it in his Synopsis plantarum in 1805.

The variety spread to North American fairly quickly.

1825: The Hudson Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, though the headquarters of the Northwest fur trade, also operated a farm with vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers and sold Yellow Pear Tomatoes. 

From The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest by Carol W. Costenbader.

4 c sugar
3/4 c water
6 c. yellow pear tomatoes
3 jalapeno chilies, seeded and finely chopped
3 T chopped fresh basil
3 T fresh lemon juice
2 T distilled white vinegar

  1. In a 6-quart saucepan combine the sugar and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer until the syrup reaches 234 F on a cooking thermometer. 
  2. Remove from the heat and add the tomatoes, mixing well. The syrup may change consistency, but continue stirring and eventually the tomatoes will mix evenly. 
  3. Return to the heat and add the chilies, basil, lemon juice, and vinegar. Simmer, uncovered, on very low heat until the mixture thickens, about 1 1/2 - 2 hours. Stir often, being careful not to burn. The jam will darken.
  4. Ladle into clean jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Cap and seal.
  5. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water-bath canner.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Garden Tour

In September, we participated in the local Bisbee Bloomer’s garden tour. I admit that I have never attended an event like this before so I really didn’t know what to expect. I worried that my unfinished garden project would pale in comparison to the well-established gardens also included on the tour but I was in for a pleasant surprise.

The beauty of my community’s reputation is that we are an eclectic group. I pacified my insecurity by thinking about the opportunity to share my ideas behind the garden project. The tour was going to bring in a varied group of people, all whom have a common interest in gardens but who also might have different ideas about what an ideal use of a garden might mean. The event gave me another forum besides blogging to share my experiment with growing a kitchen garden and a water-wise flower garden in an area that has challenges with climate, soil and insects.

After saying that, I confess that I did push the project to complete more than I intended for the first year. In the months leading up to the date, my partner was amazingly supportive to set aside his own projects to assist me on mine. We dug out two more areas of Bermuda grass and set down fresh straw bales since the original set of straw bales had pretty much composted down to the point of being unrecognizable. I started planting the first of the winter crops for sake of illustration (I still had trouble convincing some people that the soil that the summer vegetables are growing in started off like the new straw bales). The task of re-painting the pergola, interrupted by the monsoon season, was completed. Several more loads of rocks, bricks and wood chips were gathered from our local resources and incorporated in our garden space. We also hired our favorite local stonemason to create a new mailbox. My partner installed a cement border that I jokingly refer to as the China wall to create a barrier between my neighbors creeping Bermuda lawn and our rock garden.

Finally, the time came to put all of the garden tools away in the garage for the first time since I started the project last year. We felt ready for the garden tour. 

Ready for the Garden Tour

Backing up a bit, the word spread about the straw bale kitchen garden. I was contacted by a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson to explain more about it. Since Bisbee is a popular destination for Tucsonans and vice versa, many events are shared between the two communities despite the 90 miles that separate us. To my delight a picture and a quote about my humble straw bale garden experiment was included in the article describing the garden tour event. The curiosity about this relatively novel approach to gardening grew beyond the notice of my immediate neighbors.
Bloomers Garden Tour #10During the event, I fielded many questions about how straw bale gardening works. We discussed the challenges of the insect pests, especially the unusually high number of grasshoppers this year.  I didn’t know why my garden was spared total decimation. I did have plenty of grasshoppers happily feeding on my plants. I stressed the fact that the garden was a product of organic gardening methods and I wouldn’t think of using a pesticide to control them. I spoke about how the plant grouping was designed to practice crop rotation next year, the advantages of polycultures and the philosophy of permaculture. My guests were enthusiastic listeners and not surprisingly some had more insight than I on these topics.

Bloomers Garden Tour #2 I will acknowledge that I felt slightly embarrassed when some of the garden tourists looked to me for expert advise. I admitted that I am just beginning to learn how to put some of these approaches into practice. But my guests would have none of that talk and pointed to the health and the size of my plants. They said that I was doing something right and they wanted in on it.

Bloomers Garden Tour #5 My impression during the garden tour event was that the interest in straw bale vegetable gardening did not solely stem from the seasoned gardeners but also from the people who do not identify themselves as such. I would guess that several of the curious people were intrigue with the idea of producing healthy food to put on their tables. I hope that my project made it appear that it was possible for even the inexperienced gardeners to achieve a level of success in growing their own food at home.
I would like to think that the level of excitement over the kitchen garden is reflected from the broadening public awareness of our food system and how it is not working in our best interest. Is this a sign that there are an ever growing number of people who no longer trust our government to insure food safety? I live in a relatively conservative area. Is the shift toward producing food at home becoming a less radical hippy thing to pursue in suburbia?  The subject of food security in the wake of climate change was brought up more than once in our conversations. Remember, this event took place in September, before the hurricane Sandy wake up call. I feel a food revolution coming on.
On that note, I kept a close watch on California’s proposition 37 to label GMO food during this recent election and I was very disappointed that it failed to pass. I understand that the corporate money flooded into the media to discredit the merits of the proposition but all the same I was hopeful that enough people would see past the food industry’s deliberate obstructive tactics. Oh well, the fight to hold the food industry accountable continues on. Just Label It is now refocusing on securing a Federal mandate and addressing the language in the current draft of the Farm Bill that would strip the authority of federal agencies to regulate GE crops. I’m not discrediting these important actions but in my mind it seems like a disproportionate struggle for such a small step forward within the big picture.

Bloomers Garden Tour #3

Although most of the visitors during the garden tour were excited about the straw bale kitchen garden, I want to point out that the native and water-wise plants outside the fence also played an important role in the success of my experiment. They attracted the pollinators after the sunflowers (leading attractors) faded. One fun instance that I want to share was when a visitor was surprised to recognize a wild plant, the red spiderling (Boerhavia coccinea), included in a formal rock garden setting. She said that it was a weed that grows in the arroyos near her home. Beyond attracting the pollinators, many of the wild plants are edible, medicinal or both; for example, the “so called” weed plantain (Plantago lanceolata) sprouting in my garden.

Bloomers Garden Tour #1

It is a rare occasion that I expose myself to public comment. It did occur to me that placing the kitchen garden in the front yard would attract some attention. The outpouring of positive responses during the progress of my garden project was amazing and provided sustenance for my soul. The crowning moment, as a follow-up for the garden tour event, a picture of my garden was placed directly under the title of the community section in our local newspaper. To be embraced in this way renewed my hope that the trend toward sustainable food systems is spreading beyond the interest of the usual suspects.

Links for further reading:

Forbes: With California Prop Defeated, GMO Labeling Proponents Look to Farm Bill

Praireland Herbs: Plantain

The Bisbee Chamber of Commerce: The Bisbee Bloomers 

Arizona Daily Star: 3 tours may spark ideas for your yard

Sierra Vista Herald: Bisbee Bloomers Garden Tour

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Amazing Straw Bale Garden

“That’s amazing”! The words I most often hear when someone first walks through the gate. The interest in my straw bale gardening project began in earnest in mid-June when the vegetables reached a size that could be seen from the street. Countless visitors would start off with the phrase “I just had to stop by and find out what you are doing” and then they would repeat the comment “it’s amazing”.

I’ve been asked, “How did you do it?” by enough people to feel that it would be useful to chronicle my steps from the beginning in a single post with the benefit of the perspective that goes with having had the experience. Remember, I’m sharing what I did during my first experiment with straw bale gardening and what I learned along the way. This is by no means the best and only way to practice straw bale gardening. During my online research period, I discovered a variety of successful approaches and was forced to pick and choose ideas that seem to be aligned with my experience with gardening in the southwest high desert location.

First, I want to encourage those who want to try growing in straw bales to apply what you know about gardening in your area and your unique location. If you think you don’t know enough, ask those you think who would. During the course of setting up this project, I have been comparing notes with the local farmers at the farmer’s market, picking the brains of the knowledgeable staff at the local nurseries and listening to the old time gardeners who have knowledge about gardening in my area.

Since I was starting this garden on a property that was new to me, I took the time to make mental notes about the course of the sun and the wind, the temperature and precipitation during the seasons, and the possible interference of the observed wild animals before I broke ground. I have always had the best results with locations that receive the early morning sun and in turn get the first afternoon shade so I designated the location on the property (east), designed the orientation of the straw bales (east to west) and the placement of the plants (east shortest to tallest west) in the straw bales accordingly.
Rainbow Swiss Chard

Straw Bale plot - 5 Jan 2012
5 Jan 2012
The way straw bale gardening works is that the straw composts at a fairly quick rate and in doing so the composting straw provides the necessary nutrients for the plants concurrently as the plants reach maturity and begin to go into production. Even though the straw bales will start to compost without any human intervention, for the purpose of starting a new garden, it is practical to help the process get a jump start. Nitrogen is a key ingredient for composting materials. The most accessible, organic, and free source of water-soluble plant nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is in the urea from human urine. Adding a healthy donor’s urea topped with compost (carbon) and keeping the straw bales moist for at least 10 days is the basic method to activate the straw bales to compost. I never found an exact formula for the amount of urine per bale. The first set of straw bales received a splashing that covered the top surface. The second set received a bit more measured amount, a half a gallon. After a few weeks, the strawberries in the second set of straw bales are already happily setting fruit.

A YouTube video uploaded by an experienced straw bale gardener described how he starts conditioning the straw bales in the winter (he is in northern snow country). I kicked it into high gear to dig out the Bermuda grass so I could allow more time for the straw bales to start composting before the spring planting season began.

Straw Bales - 19 Jan 2012
19 Jan 2012
There is a whole lot of discussion online about straw verses hay. Hay was $18 dollars a bale compared to straw at $7.50 so I opted out on trying hay in my first experiment. Online, there is the general opinion that a lot of unwanted seeds will sprout from the hay bales while others reported that hay bales, by far, produce the healthiest plants and largest produce imaginable. What was passed on to me from a local resident about straw bales is that the time of year the straw material is harvested and baled has something to do with the amount of seeds contained within the bale. Another tip about straw bales that I found interesting is that corn and linseed (flax) bales are not recommended. I ran across a person who reported that nothing grew in his straw bales and when he gave up and used the straw throughout his garden it in turn damaged the plants there. It was suggested to him that his straw bales was barley. I doubled checked online and I found that barley bales were suggested for gardening. Maybe the problem was his straw bales were made of flax, which has an oily residue. It might be a crapshoot with our supplier because they never suggested that we have a choice. So far I haven’t had a problem but I did noticed that the straw bales purchased in July were made with a much rougher straw, lighter in color and had less seed sprouting from them then the straw bales purchased in January. I couldn’t tell the difference between a rye and an oat straw bale if my life depended on it.

The orientation of the straw bales is another consideration. It is suggested to set the bales where the straw is oriented in a vertical direction. I experimented with the straw oriented in each direction and both directions gave the same final results. I noticed that the straw bales set with the straw in a vertical direction were easier to soak compared with the bales that were set with the straw in a horizontal direction. The water had the tendency to run off the sides of the bales set with the straw in a horizontal position rather than soaking in. That was when I was watering by hand. Once I installed the soaker hose system and the straw bales were well into composting mode, it really didn't make much of a difference.

I set the straw bales roughly 3 inches into the dirt for stabilization. The bricks were placed more for decoration at this point but they still provided additional stabilization for the tall straw bales. Their main purpose is to hold the remaining composted straw bales at the end of the season. 

I tried an experiment with three straw bales in April, just before the 2 driest months of the year. I worried that it would be difficult to maintain enough moisture for the conditioning period this late in the season so I set them deeper (half way down) into the soil. That worked as well as setting them down 3 inches and they held enough moisture between the watering schedules to grow the plants. I noted that they composted down below the ground level within a couple of months. I added topsoil over them to bring up the soil level when it was necessary. 

I was not aware until recently that our neighborhood has a burrowing animal problem. The culprit has not been identified yet but I have noticed about a month ago that it has discovered my garden. The holes look suspiciously like a mole’s handiwork but my neighbors report a ground squirrel infestation. Laying down wire screen or fencing before you set your straw bales is recommended as a preventative measure.

Straw Bales - 19 Mar 2012
19 Mar 2012
I was fortunate that the east location on the property was the second best side of the house for wind protection. Still, I invested in metal hoops and frost protecting covers in preparation for the wind and any possible unexpected lows in temperature that the local old-timers reported to be possible in April and May. The warm weather in late March led me to believe that the coldest part of the winter season was over. I sowed the seeds and sprinkled the appropriate amount of amended soil that was recommended in the instructions for seed planting depth. I had lovely seedlings by mid=April.  

I realized quickly that hand watering the seedlings became not only a chore (unclipping the covers sometimes twice a day) but the pressure was also disturbing the seeds and soil. The water spray, even at the lightest setting was washing away the little bit of soil on top and exposing the seedling’s roots. Since I noticed seeds from the inside ring of straw bales were sprouting in the outer ring and seedlings growing between the bricks and bales, I could only imagine that the water pressure must have caused the seeds to bounce off one straw bale onto another and rooted. My tip for you is to set up your automatic watering system before or immediately after you sow your seeds. I used a small diameter soaker hose system and set the schedule for twice a day. The key to success is to never let the straw bales dry out. I also recommend buying an extra straw bale. I used loose straw to fill in the gaps between the bales and to spread around the base of the plants as needed.

Straw Bales Covered - 11 Apr 2012
11 Apr 2012
Another thing you will notice is mushrooms popping up all over the straw bales. This is a sign that your bales are composting nicely and providing fertile ground for your plants. At times I felt that they were getting out of hand, sprouting up at the base of my seedlings. The fact is I had more seedlings than I was going to keep so, in the end, it did not interfere with the final results of the project.

I had my first minor setback in early May. I made the mistake of uncovering the straw bales for some anticipated rain but we received a freak hailstorm instead. The young plants were battle worn but all of them fully recovered to my great surprise.

Straw Bales with Hail - 9 May 2012
9 May 2012
At the farmer’s market a local farmer expressed frustration with the evening temperatures averaging around 50F. I learned from him that the tomatoes and peppers prefer temperatures closer to 60F. The low temperatures may have explained why the growth rate came to a halt in May. Another explanation presented itself when I discovered that some of the straw bales were composting rapidly in the center as well as from the bottom like I had anticipated. When I dug a hole to place a tomato starter plant in the straw bale, I unexpectedly found a 6” deep empty cavern just below a couple of inches from the top. I imagined that the growth rate could be attributed to the plant roots receiving little nutrients beyond watering. I couldn’t find any discussion on this subject online. Out of desperation I first tried to fill in the caverns with dirt and straw from openings I made next to a plant. I was worried that this method was disturbing the roots too much. After noticing that the top of the straw bale would sink down if I put my weight on it, I decided to gently and as evenly as possible push the top of the straw bales down until I met resistance. This method worked best if I timed it just after watering.

Straw Bales with coffee Sacks
31 May 2012
In my opinion, growing plants from seed directly on the straw bales required more care and attention then placing young plants in the bales. At the end of the season both methods produced an abundance of produce so I can’t say one way is better than the other in that regard. Growing from seed provides more options for heirlooms and native varieties. Buying young plants from nurseries to get a jump start in the spring is convenient, especially when one doesn’t have a green house. But is it a sustainable system? I'll leave it there for a discussion in another post.

Straw Bales - 1 Jul 2012
1 Jul 2012
From seeds I planted the mustard, corn, swiss chard, basil, eggplant, sweet peppers, chili peppers, pumpkins, bush beans, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes. The bush beans withered once the heat of June arrived but just recently I discovered a young plant hidden under the basil. A couple of the sweet corn plants grew ears to a respectable size. Since I didn’t plant the corn in rows to promote wind pollination the product was inedible. I planted rainbow Swiss Chard, Pear and Better Boy tomatoes, yellow onions, Guajillo, Anaheim and Poblano peppers, desert king water melon, cilantro and parsley as young starter plants. All of them thrived in the straw bales. The cilantro immediately went to seed but new seedlings are sprouting back up from the straw bale.

To plant a starter in the bales, create a hole using a spade. Sometimes a pruner is necessary if the straw is tough and you need to transfer a plant from a quart size pot. I pushed the straw down using my fist until I felt resistance. I made a hole at least 1" larger in diameter and 2" deeper than the pot that the starter plant came in. I poured 2" of enriched soil in the hole, nestled the plant in, added the soil to fill in the extra space and spread the straw I removed from the hole over the base. I used the soil from my garden mixed with organic compost. As a side note, I discovered later that this is not recommended as you run the risk of adding harmful viruses or plant-parasite nematodes from your garden’s soil. I didn’t have any problems that I’m aware of so use your best judgment.

Straw Bales - 29 Jul 2012
29 Jul 2012
I learned from the experience of one person in the area who had tried straw bale gardening before me that the straw bales need some type of support as they break down or they are likely to tip over with your plants. My solution was to tie used coffee sacks made of jute fibers together and secure them to the metal hoops that were used for the covers. The sacks contained the straw bales as needed and are composing along with the straw bales now that they are at a safe height. I noticed that the coffee sacks served more than its intended purpose in suppressing the sprouting grass and mushrooms on the sides of the straw bales and slowed the rate of evaporation.

August Rain Shower - 3 Aug 2012
3 Aug 2012
Some gardeners report that they are able to use the straw bales for two years. By August, my straw bales composted down to 6 inches from the original height of 21 inches. I plan on using them for the winter crop but I think I may have to start with new straw bales for planting next spring.
The challenges with nurturing the kitchen garden had more to do with the factors any gardener would face and were unrelated to the straw bale gardening method. The straw bales provided the necessary nutrients and then some. Although a variety of garden pests arrived; vine borers, squash bugs, flea beetles, locusts, hornworms and leaf-footed bugs, the plants held up against the onslaught remarkably well. I attribute this to the fact that the plants were strong and healthy, living in the rich environment that the composting straw bales provided. The swiss chard reached science fiction proportions.
I feel a sense of validation when several visitors expressed the desire to try straw bale gardening after seeing my results. In fact, my partner was told, "You must have started something", from the feed store employee who remembered us buying straw bales for gardening earlier in the year because they were currently sold out of straw bales with the demand coming from other gardeners in the area.

Straw Bales - 11 Sep 2012
11 Sep 2012
From my perspective, what is amazing is the excitement generated from my little straw bale garden experiment. Although there is no denying that I did put a lot of physical and mental energy into setting up this project, the rewards for my effort go beyond measure. Something as basic as a front yard kitchen garden provided me with the opportunity to share my ideas, to share my food and to share my love for this planet. In return my community has given me a definitive thumbs up. I haven’t felt this much joy in a long time.

Links for the straw bale gardener:

No Dig Vegetable Garden 

Straw Bale Gardening: Start to Finish (YouTube Video)

Daves Garden: Strawbale Gardening Forum (subscriber membership fee)

Monday, July 23, 2012

“Hey, what’s that bug?” - Children in the Garden

Aiyana WheelbarrelIn the past month, my days have been filled with the awe and sensation that young children naturally bring into every new situation.  
Having a child playing in the garden offers a refreshing perspective. Since young children are fascinated with life and death, the garden sets the stage for exploring those events in action. Scores of moths were rescued from the wading pool. Sunflower seeds were planted in a clear container to provide a window to the underground activity of plant life. Daily observations were noted in the sunflower journal to keep record of the seeds progress. Since the hot and dry June days triggered the spring flowers to produce their seeds, the hollyhock seeds was enthusiastically harvested, bagged and labeled by my granddaughter.

2012 Sunflower Journal
Pages from Aiyana’s sunflower journal

Dominick Aiyana Wheelbarrel
Dominick & Aiyana
A few weeks later, we had another young guest for a week. Because I was told that Dominick loves bugs, I knew that I should caution him about handling unknown creatures. Arizona offers several stinging and biting creatures that are not found in his neck of the woods.

It rained on Día de San Juan, which traditionally means we are going to have a good rain season this year. With the rain, the monsoon season unleashes a battalion of insects. The beetles were just making their debut and they drew the most excitement from Dominick. Before long, our daily routine included looking for new insects. I tried to identify them and learn what it was that attracted them to my garden. I collected the images of the insects they discovered and compiled them into a book for the children to take home as a souvenir. Since my interest has been piqued, I have continued documenting the insects. The slideshow shows some of the creatures I was able to capture with the camera. If you are interested reading more about one of the insects you can hit the pause button and select “show info” at the upper right menu.


During their visit, teaching them to respect living creatures became a personal challenge for me. For example, I expressed disappointment when Dominick deliberately stomped on a stinkbug (Pinacate beetle) after being told to let it be. Later that day, I realized that I’m a hypocrite when I deliberately pinch the flea beetles from the eggplant leaves. In my mind, I justify my actions because I want to defend the eggplant (that will produce something I would like to eat) from a predator. I don’t think my justification is all that more sophisticated than young Dominick testing his power to be able to squash a bug. Although, I educated the kids about the different helpful and destructive insects in the garden, I privately question the ethics of selecting certain insects to be terminated. Oh well, at least the subject of sex wasn’t brought up.

In the midst of all of this activity, my partner and I celebrated our 5th year together. It just so happens that the lovely hand painted bug shirt by Poe Dismuke fits perfectly with the theme of this post.

Just to show that we honor the inner child, here is a home video of our participation in the annual Rolling Arts Transport Society (B. R. A. T. S.) artist derby.

If you want broader overall experience of this event check out Al Loneprotestor’s movie.

Now that I have highlighted my most recent experience with young children (or acting like one), I would like to remind everyone, especially the global leaders: ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN. In Robert Fulghum words:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school. These are the things I learned:
  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don't hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don't take things that aren't yours.
  • Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.

Finally, two more favorite quotes:

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”.

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them”.
Written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Translated by Katherine Woods.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Jute Sacks and Abandoned Kitten

Are there times when you look at something that you use in your home and wonder about the people who labored to produce it and deliver it to you? I caught myself having that thought recently and decided to take it further.

I have been collecting coffee sacks from Old Bisbee Roasters to use around the house and garden. I use the sacks made of jute fiber to haul wood chips from the recycling center and to collect and move yard waste around. They do not easily tear like plastic bags and hold up for repeated use. In winter, I roll them up and place them at the base of our doors to block the drafts. Recently, I came up with another purpose.

The weather temperature has been steadily in the 90s and is speeding up the decaying rate of the straw bales I’m using for my vegetable garden. You can read about that here. Some of the straw bales are beginning to lean significantly enough to prompt me to consider ways to prevent them from toppling over into the pathway. I needed to line them with something in addition to the adobe bricks. I thought that the natural fiber used for the coffee sacks, labeled food grade, would be a perfect material to line the straw bales.

As I’m sitting on the porch unthreading the sacks by hand for this purpose, I wondered about the places the coffee came from and whose hands touched the sack before mine. Some clues are printed on the sacks marking the origination of the beans; Indonesia, Ethiopia, Honduras, Costa Rica, etc. Some labels tell me that they went through the port of Oakland, California before making their way to Bisbee, Arizona. Inside the jute sacks, I found the manufacturer labels telling me they were produced in India. Digging deeper on the Internet, I developed a better sense about the anonymous hands that touched the sack sitting on my lap.

I found the manufactures of the sacks that I was using on this site: Jute Mills in Bangladesh. I learned that the mills are divided between government operated and privately owned companies. The government set the standards that both agencies have to abide by.

Cultivation & Growing of Jute - Sowing to Fiber Extraction
This short documentary shows how the jute is cultivated. The footage contains information of jute cultivation from sowing to fiber extraction. This low quality video is the best I could find but you can get the idea. Below is another video (from a manufacturing company) showing the process from harvest to manufacturing the jute twine.

Facts About Jute from Victoria Jute Mill
"India is the largest producer of raw jute and jute goods. This Golden Fibre is grown in the Gangetic Plain with alluvial soil, supported with adequate rainfall which are the ideal location for its growth. The major Raw Jute growing area in India are the states of West Bengal, Assam and Bihar. 
This green plant is dipped in water, essentially in rivers, and allowed to be remained there for a period of 2 weeks to 3 weeks. The above soaking is necessary to loosen the fibre from the pitch and also to remove the skin from its surface. The fibre is then peeled out and cleaned. The peeled and cleaned fibre is dried in the sun. They are then segregated into ‘Top’ , ‘Middle’ & ‘Bottom’ portions and then graded according to quality. The quality-wise segregation is bundled into ‘Morahs’ and baled for transportation."

"Victoria Jute Mill, Chandernagore, West bengal, India. Established in the 1880's by the English after the 1857 revolt as an economic measure for improving the economic condition of Bengal so that there is no repeat of the 1857 revolt against the British Empire."

During my research, I found myself distracted with a folk song. I was fascinated by the woman who wrote it and the working conditions for the women (cheap labor) who worked in the jute mills in Dundee, Scotland. From Wikipedia:
Dundee Jute Barons
The entrepreneurs of the Dundee jute Industry in Scotland were called The Jute Barons. They generally traded in finished products made from jute. The industry was the gateway for jute products in Europe for almost half a century, starting from the early 19th century to the middle of 19th century. The Dundee Jute Industry started to fall when the Jute Barons started to invest money in setting up jute mills in the Indian sub-continent, making the products cheaper by utilizing cheap labour of India.

An online collection about An Amazing Woman: Mary Brookbank 1897-1978

From Union Songs A song by Mary Brookbank
O, dear me, the mill is running fast
And we poor shifters canna get nae rest
Shifting bobbins coarse and fine
They fairly make you work for your ten and nine

O, dear me, I wish this day were done
Running up and doon the
Pass is nae fun
Shiftin', piecin', spinning warp, weft and twine
To feed and clothe ma bairnie offa ten and nine

O, dear me, the world is ill-divided
Them that works the hardest are the least provided
But I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
There's no much pleasure living offa ten and nine
First recorded by Ewan MacColl: Steam Whistle Ballads

Mary Brookbank herself a jute worker wrote:
"The life of the women workers of Dundee right up to the thirties was ... a living hell of hard work and poverty. It was a common sight to see women, after a long ten-hour-day in the mill, running to the stream wash-houses with the family washing. They worked up to the last few days before having their bairns. Often they would call in at the calenders from their work and carry home bundles of sacks to sew. These were paid for at the rate of 5 pence for 25, 6 pence for a coarser type of sack. Infant and maternal mortality in Dundee was the highest in the country."
When folklorist Hamish Henderson asked Mary Brookbank how much of the song came from mill workers she replied:
"Only the ditty, 'Oh dear me, the mill's gaen fest, the puir wee shifters…' The verses are all mine. And that verse, 'to feed and cled my bairnie' was brought to me by a lassie who was worried. It wis hard lines if she, ye hid an illigitimate child and you had to pay for it aff that meagre wage, you know what I mean, and she used to say, oh I wish the day was done. And eh, tell me her troubles, her trackles, what she hid tae dae for her bairn and that, nae help that sort o' thing, and that brought that tae mind. And then I used to think on my own aboot how ill divided the world wis.

Getting back on track, I focused on the story of the jute sacks in connection with the coffee industry. I want to share with you part two of a three-part video series. You can find part one and three on the side bar at YouTube.

The Mexican Coffee Company founder Rafael takes us to the streets of Yahalon to show us how he buys his coffee from independent farmers offering them a direct payment. He tells us about the delicate balance between wanting to improve the lives of the people here and maintaining perfect quality in his coffee at all times.
While I’m on the subject, I want to promote awareness about Fair Trade USA movement. Fair Trade Story video.
I have been concerned about product packaging for some time. The practice of using plastic for packaging must be addressed. The little knowledge I have gleaned from the Internet about the process of making a natural packaging product also gives me pause. Are today’s jute mill employee’s working conditions any better off than their predecessors’? Shouldn’t there be a system in place to reuse the coffee sacks since they usually have enough strength for more than its initial purpose? The balance between the resources used to produce a coffee sack and the life span of its intended use does not seem appropriate to me.

My grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, influenced me to reuse many things considered to be one-use products around the house. Just to give a couple of examples, she used coffee cans for storage, saved paper that had a blank side for notes, and pie pans to catch excess water from watering potted plants.

Over 20 years ago, I made it my business to know how meat came to my plate. It didn’t take very long before I knew that I didn’t want to eat it any longer. I believe that if we all knew more about the process that brings to market the things we consume we would demand a more sustainable solution. I would also go so far as to suggest that this would be an appropriate subject to be included in the curriculum within the education system.

Garden with coffee Sacks

While I was working on this project an unexpected event diverted my attention. It was on a blustery evening when I heard a kitten howling for help. I followed the sound of the desperate meowing to see what the problem was. At first I didn’t see anything, until what appeared to be a white rock in the road, darted directly toward me. Looking down at my feet, I realized it was a tiny kitten looking straight at me and pleading for assistance. I looked around for any sign of its mother or its siblings but neither was visible. I decided that I had better bring it inside and attempt to comfort it. The kitten was famished and I did the best I could with what I had on hand. Surprisingly, the kitten seemed to understand a human could be a friend and that solid cat food was to be eaten. The next morning, I walked around looking for any evidence that would explain its predicament. The only thing I found was a baby crib sheet in the water canal, not too far from the road. These facts put together lead me to question the idea that a feral momma cat lost or abandoned her baby.

Did someone wrap the kitten in swaddling clothes and abandon it in the ditch? The Internet can’t help me with that question. I will never know how the toddling kitten came to be in the street outside of my home.

The kitten's eyes were caked with crusted dirt from an oozing eye infection that made it appear more like something the cat dragged in rather than a cat. We have determined that the kitten is a male so I call him Yoda, because he was the spitting image of the Star Wars character. Of course, I became attached to the little guy so my partner and I have accepted him into the family. Moonshadow, our one-year-old cat, acts anxious about Yoda’s cries but on the other hand is exhibiting signs of jealousy too. He will need more time to adjust to our decision. For now, we are keeping them separated until Yoda is infection free.

We are fortunate that our community offers choices for folks who cannot care for an animal. The obvious choice would be the animal shelter but there is an even better option with the local volunteer operated Border Animal Rescue. They publicize their services using all of the community avenues. I have noticed posters on the bulletin boards, notices in the local newspaper, and they are visible at the Farmer’s Market with their cages of animals ready for adoption. The dedicated volunteers provide an important service for our community so there is no excuse for someone not to take advantage of their services when the situation demands it. It is a shame that there are still uneducated people who think that their best option is to abandon their animals at roadsides, leaving them to their fate.

We can take the responsibility for the hands and hearts of the workers living in poverty that produce the things we consume by striving to be ethical consumers through our purchases. We can also reuse and avoid waste whenever possible. We can also assume the responsibility for the care of a precious soul that the hands and mind of an anonymous person was capable of leaving behind in the dark of the night.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” — Dalai Lama XIV

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Spring Planting

The spring season requires the art and/or experience of knowing when to sow the seeds or transplant the starter plants. I lack both when it comes to fruit and vegetables in southern Arizona so I let the growers at the Farmer’s Market indicate the timing. The fruit trees were set out for sale in mid-April so I interpreted that to be my cue.

Apple tree in the background
I'm on the right
I chose the apricot because I have noticed several mature trees around town. The local grower pointed out that the Royal varieties bloom late and have a better success rate in our climate. Bisbonian's heart was set on apple trees. We both have fond childhood memories related to apple trees. I hope my granddaughter will remember these trees with the same nostalgia that we have about our childhood apple trees. about our childhood apple trees.

Michael Pollen’s Botany of Desire has a fascinating chapter about the history of the apple in America. This video will give you a taste of his presentation.

The seasonal wind has increased since the fruit trees were transferred from the pot to the ground. The Granny Smith succeeded in producing a single apple and the Royal apricot is taking the transition in its stride. On the other hand, the Jonagold appears to be under a lot of stress.

I made a video to share our wind experience with you. My granddaughter and I spent part of her last visit learning the lyrics to Listen to the Wind Blow. I included it in the background since my simple camera can’t record the wind well. I’m likely breaking a copyright law so SesameStreet.org can have me arrested if they want to. Credit to Buffy Sainte-Marie is at the end of the video (at least I give her full name). Peace.

It so happened that I had three bales left over from the two trips to the feed store back in January. BTW, the answer to “how many bales can you fit in our 1971 VW bus” is nine. I decided to place the left-over straw bales around the Granny Smith apple tree. I divided them in half to create the flower design.
Granny Smith apple tree.

I improvised a needle and thread system as a way to divide the straw bales. The “needle” was a rubber-coated stake with picture hanging wire wrapped on one end to serve as the eye. The stake was driven through the center of the bale at the points just below the preexisting main line. Bisbonian, the knot maker extraordinaire, handled the task of tightly securing the six new lines. He cut the original binding string and the bale easily broke apart.
I also "sewed" the hoops to the bales at the end of the row. The strength of the wind was causing the hoops on the ends to lean.

Moonshadow thinks this project is working out perfectly, but I’m not so sure. Let me bring you up to date about my experiment with growing from seed using the straw bale gardening technique.

The seedlings in the bales that I conditioned in February are giving me some concern. The fact is their growth rate has declined severely. Here are some of my observations:

Hand watering, even using the finest spray setting is inefficient. If you direct the water in one area for any length of time the water rolls off the bales rather than soaking in. I discovered that not only the soil bounced off the straw bales from the pressure of the water hitting the surface, but some of the seeds as well. Moving the water spray back and forth to prevent the water from running off the sides added to the problem. I now have lettuce growing between the bales and the adobe bricks. That’s cool but mysteriously, there are eggplant seedlings growing in the adjacent row of straw bales from where they were placed. It became apparent that I needed to install a watering system.

If you live in a historical home you can bet that when you embark on an improvement project there will be unexpected obstacles. This is a perfect example.

I was determined to place the hose lines under the ground at least a few inches to eliminate the aggravation of trying to prevent tripping over hose lines. To do this successfully, the hose needed to be threaded under the cement pathway in two places. Bisbonian immediately voiced concern and tried to discourage me.

Well then, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered a garden tool, an auger that fits onto a hand drill, designed for the purpose of tunneling under sidewalks. I merrily returned home thinking I found a way to do it all by myself. I was feeling like a kid about to do something that my parent thought I shouldn’t do. I started to dig a trench, assuming that the cement would be about 5” thick. We all know where assumptions get us.

The cement pathway was four times deeper than I expected. This is where the phrase “welcome to Bisbee” comes into play. At this point, Bisbonian took pity on me and offered to relieve me from the heavy work necessary for the project to proceed. I swallowed my pride and welcomed his participation. I also think that trying out the new auger got his interest.

The auger tool worked as advertised and Bisbonian was able to drill under the walkway near the faucet after digging a 20”D x 1’W x 3’L trench.
The walkway in front of the house added another level of complexity. This time the phrase “welcome to Warren” was more appropriate. After digging further down than the other site, we discovered plumbing embedded in the cement. I convinced Bisbonian that this plumbing is probably historical from the time when the Warren suburb was developed. 
Calumet & Arizona Mining Company piped in water from their mining operations to provide water for the landscape, without charge, to the residences within the Warren town site. I believe that it was part of the strategy to sell the company owned town lots. Old-timers remember when Warren was lush with vegetation before the water was cut off from the mine.

I reminded Bisbonian that he had sawn off some of that historical plumbing sticking above ground just another 5 feet along the walkway. To be absolutely certain, he continued digging the trench until we could see the plumbing under the path connected to the plumbing he cut previously. Bisbonian removed a section of the pipe on both sides of the walkway to allow the hose to be threaded through. Time for a beer, eh?
I installed a 1/4 in. porous soaker hose on top of the row of straw bales. I hadn’t used this product before but it seemed perfect for my project. It comes in a 50’ role and connects to ½ inch tubing by a barbed connector. I learned that using all 50’ didn’t work well. After adjusting the system by shortening the hose to 25’ and running two separate lines off the mainline it worked well enough. There is still a problem with an inconsistent dripping rate along the lines. Nevertheless, the seedlings seem to be satisfied because their growth rate has dramatically improved.

Another discovery about straw bale gardening is that the straw bales’ (my bales anyway) density is not consistent and therefore the composting action is inconsistent as well. In the process of carving out holes for the starters, each hole revealed varied degrees of straw decomposition. The most troubling fact is that some of the bales have completely hollowed out from the process of composting within the center of the straw bales. Three inches under the mixture of soil, compost and straw, the young plant’s roots are encountering empty air pockets. Ugh. Maybe that would explain the decrease in plant growth as well. I discovered this phenomenon while thinning out the pumpkin mound so I carefully filled the empty pockets with straw and conditioned soil. The singled out pumpkin is showing more life now.

It is always difficult for me to choose the healthiest seedling and sacrifice the others. I tend to side with the underdogs in life. In this case I decided to move the other pumpkin seedlings to the new straw bales around the apple tree and see how they do.

As I was working on this post, an expected thunderstorm rolled in. What was unexpected was the hail that came with it. I'm afraid that I intentionally left the plants exposed to receive rainwater. Once I realized the extent of the storm, I was not willing to try to replace the soggy covers that would require extensive clipping to secure them when the lightning flashed overhead. So I captured the event on video and let nature take its course.

Here is a slideshow showing the plant's progress from April to May (includes the damage from the hail storm).

Even though I have some setbacks, the project offers me a great deal of satisfaction. As far as predicting the weather and the seasons, I think we are entering into an era where everything that has been known up to now will be invalid. We are living in interesting times. In the midst of all the greed, politics and denials, I will continue to strive to be a good steward for the dirt I occupy.