Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Back After A Season of Organic Farming

Before I give you an update on the home garden, I’ve got a lot of explaining to do. I know, I’ve disappeared - just for me, that’s normal. I assure you I got lost in the proper place, smack dab in the backwoods of Pennsylvania surrounded by 37 acres of certified organic vegetables being grown for the local community. And my job was simple – harvest those vegetables.

Harvesting vegetables for well over 300 members sounds simple written in a sentence. But after two weeks, a second set of knee caps begin to grow directly underneath the set given at birth. Some vegetables are best harvested on the knees while others are easiest and quickest on the feet with a bend in the back. Thank goodness that is the case because as soon as the knees need a break the back can be used and vice versa. I have to say it was a nice switch up from the usual pain that flares up in the wrists after using vibrational hand equipment all day, such as weed wackers and gasoline hedge trimmers, as is the case at my landscaping job.

Landscaping, a good rain will stop the work day. Farming, it means you’re soaked, muddy, and still working. I spent ninety bucks on some lightweight Columbia rain gear which saved my ass numerous times. But working on an organic farm means the weeds grow too. Hip-high pigweeds drenched in morning dew between the rows of vegetables means one thing – I, too, am drenched in dew up to my hips. Going from dry and comfortable to soaking wet and often chilly at 6 a.m. becomes the hardest part of the day. Once my pants become glued to my thighs with excess moisture and it saturates my socks and wets my toes, the rest of the day is a breeze. There is nothing left to fear.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. Somehow I was closer to nature and at moments I could feel time dematerialize and a joy-filled breeze of oneness consume everything that exists. Sometimes I even felt like a tribal aborigine, an Amish Christian, or a poor farmer in a third-world country – always hungry, working, and dirty. (I guess that happens in America too.)

I was also offered the golden opportunity to drive the old, yellow DHL truck-converted-to-CSA-mobile to Lancaster, Pennsylvania several times. Entering the richest Amish farming lands on this entire planet was like entering a portal where veils are lifted and on the other end was either heaven on earth or the inside of an old time children’s book brought to life with color and 3D animated pop-ups. Long farm roads with horses and buggies and Amish men on bicycles with coolers attached, older kids rollerblading as they carry their shoes in one hand, boys being initiated into manhood as they stand young, proud, and tall disking the field behind an army of horses, with off-the-grid farm houses periodically placed where the road meets the fields, each one with a front-yard kitchen garden maintained by the women who are watching their children as they play in the grass under the tree next to the clothes drying on the clothesline. Horse and cow manure dominate the nostrils yet lift the spirits and why is the grass so green, the sky so blue, and I can’t tell if I’m dreaming or not every time I enter Lancaster?

Other than the sheer beauty of organic farming in Pennsylvania, I have to be honest and say the pay was okay. In comparison to landscaping it was almost up there but there’s no such thing as time-and-a-half after 40 hours when working in the agricultural industry. There are 50 hour weeks waiting to be worked, just like landscaping, but I found it mentally difficult to motivate the body to work 50 hour weeks repetitively without the financial incentives. Fifty hours in, I’m usually not too fun to be around anyways, but I bet it pays off in the afterlife. I lasted the entire 22-week CSA season without calling off once or being (too) late. And who knows, I may do it again next year.

Despite the long hours spent harvesting organic vegetables 25 miles away from my home, the home garden managed to thrive. Minimal energy was placed into the garden once all the planting was finished in June. We had mass harvests of carrots, potatoes, rutabaga, dried beans, and beet berries and minute harvests of many other things. Unfortunately, I will not be able to go into greater detail at this moment and you will just be forced to tune back in soon. Until then, I’m exhaling deeply and saying, “Wow, what a season” as the images of the past 5 months mesmerize my brain.

Sorry, I didn’t take any pictures.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mad Berries at Mad Love Organix!

Strawberries, golden berries, beet berries, chokeberries, and beautyberries all are calling Mad Love Organix home. Four, 8-by-4 foot plots of vegetables just aren’t enough for this mad gardener. After a trip to the Rodale Institute on the first day of summer - two days before my birthday - a few native berries were calling me by name. “Erik! Erik! We are your gift. Take us home!” I listened.

New Strawberry plot extending out of the garden fence.
We purchased three varieties of strawberries – earliglow, eversweet, and gasana. The earliglow and the eversweet have been planted in the ground in a slightly raised bed measuring 3-by-8 feet. The gasana was planted in the top section of a raised container next to the new strawberry plot located in the furthest south-facing area of the yard. Looking at the strawberry plot extending out of the garden boundaries and into the yard is exciting. Sorry dogs. It was only a matter of time.

After tasting locally grown strawberries through the CSA and thinking about how many frozen strawberries we add to smoothies on a year-round basis, it suddenly seemed like a worthy idea to add them to the home garden. I hope we can keep up.

An almost ripe strawberry from the Gasana plant.  
The chokeberry plants excite me the most. As do food forests. I feel I am on the food forest path to major home food production in a space 43-by-21 feet large. Or small – I don’t know. We bought one Red Chokeberry that will grow to cover a section between 6 to 10 feet, and we bought one Black Chokeberry that grows to cover between 3 to 5 feet. They are a shrub-like tree that puts out suckers to form a cluster of stems and branches.

Chokeberries are more commonly being referred to as Aronia, according to the New York State Horticultural Society (NYSHS), due to the unappealing sound of chokeberries and their increasing popularity. Aronia is a member of the Rose family and demands have been increasing in the United States since 2001, when a juice blend company began doing well at Costco Wholesale Corporation. However, the Aronia berries come with a steep price and most growers are located in Europe, according to the NYSHS New York Fruit Quarterly.

Black Chokeberry planted in yard with Red Chokeberry in background (left).
Cool, according to me. The perfect addition to a Pennsylvania food forest. A berry originally from North America, removed and cultivated in Europe, literally being brought back home. And they come with a high price! Oh, did I mention the Native Americans used them like crazy? Perhaps they were mad too.

The Native Americans used chokeberries to make sun-dried fruit balls, to spice their bison meat, and to treat a wide range of health conditions. Chokeberries, or should I say Aronia, are also supposed to make a beautiful addition to the landscape, displaying white flowers in spring while giving off an almond-like aroma - all according to the USDA, of course. Today these berries are commonly used to make jellies, jams, pie fillings, wine, sauces and more. My first move? Jelly, then wine.

American Beautyberry.
Another berry I plan on using to make jelly will come from the American beautyberry. This native perennial shrub is supposed to grow anywhere from 3 to 8 feet and will offer ripe berries through August and September. The placement of this plant in the yard will be the start of a pathway leading to the far end of the yard, which will be narrow at the beginning opening up to an area of edible plants. The narrowness will be a result of the beautyberry.

One idea I like about having an American beautyberry is the possibility of mixing multiple types of berries to make multiple types of jellies. Almost as much as I like the idea of food forests. Or me going mad in a forest of food. Or making mad jelly … strawberry and beautyberry jelly, red aronia and beautyberry jelly, strawberry with mixed aronia berry jelly … and the list goes on.  

Other than a food source, the American beautyberry was used by early 20th century farmers. They would rub crushed leaves on themselves and store crushed leaves under the harnesses of their farm animals to repel mosquitos and other bugs from biting, according to the USDA. Future scientific studies done by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) proved this to be true, after finding two compounds present capable of repelling mosquitoes. 

Beet berries in need of a home.
As for the beet berries, they are small and in containers. I sowed them in May and thought they never did anything. When something started growing I almost assumed it was a weed and pushed it to the side. Noticing plants a few inches tall with never-before-seen leaves a few weeks later led to an instant google search confirming their identity. Yep, beet berries.

Beet berry, also referred to as Strawberry Spinach or Indian Ink, produces a soft red fruit too delicate to make it to the farmers market. It grows like a weed and the leaves can be added to salads. I’m curious about trying the berry which is supposed to taste more like a beet than a strawberry, due to the plant being in the beet family. According to Horizon Herbs, where the seeds were purchased, the white and red marbled root is also edible and tasty.

Last, but not least, we have the golden berries. We grew them last year but started them late and did not get to taste its ripe fruit. This year we started them on time, then I cooked them on a tray with a dome lid placed on top on a hot day. Oops. Yet such a classic mistake. How sad I was.

Some of them survived after a state of suspended shock and started growing and looking healthy again. How happy I became. Then they got hit with Colorado potato beetles. As the potato beetles ate the leaves, the golden berries became sick looking. Ouch, the sadness.

Golden Berry plant next to blooming Buckwheat plot.
After reading an article on Mother Earth News about controlling these hungry beetles, I learned that buckwheat attracts predatory insects, especially when in bloom. Luckily, there is an 8-by-4 foot plot of buckwheat in the garden. I moved the few containers of golden berries around the plot of blooming buckwheat and in a few days all happiness returned. They are now forming healthy-looking flowers.

Recently, I ate a piece of dark chocolate with dried golden berries in it. I will be growing these plants for a long time is what that experience taught me.

Yard before berries.
Added to the existing vegetable garden, we now have a full season’s worth of native berries making themselves feel at home. The yard has been blocked off by the dogs since early June when we added topsoil infected with spider mites and planted clover seeds to fill the lawn. After two weeks of time, poor germination results, and the application of predatory mites to eat the spider mites, we planted more clover seed. When that started to come in, we added grass seed mixed with clover seed in one last desperate attempt to have a yard thick and green that will not burn out from dog urine.

Yard after berries.
It’s still blocked off. Once these new plants are established in the ground and the last of the clover and grass seed grows the yard will be theirs again. Or will it? We – the dogs, us people, and the plants – are now forced to share. With the addition of native plant species followed by an increase in both bad and good insect populations, I suppose it will never be theirs again. Then again, this style of thought may be an example of organic living - a life where the art of allowing nature is instinct.

And nature can be mad crazy.

 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Colored Versus Natural Mulch In a Landscape Setting

Mulch can be a beautiful addition to the landscape of a home, pleasing the eyes of passerby’s while increasing the value of the property.

While mulch may be aesthetically pleasing, only some mulches please soil life giving the flowers, shrubs, and trees a chance to reach their full potential.

Other mulches tend to be less generous, taking rather than giving. Dyed colored mulches made from dried wood are one of the less generous mulches.

Colored mulches are made from wood that must be dried in order for the water-based colorant to hold, according to Nature’s Way Resources, an organic-based landscaping company in Houston, Texas.

The dried wood has a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, resulting in the nitrogen and soil microbes being pulled from the soil to break down the dried mulch. Eventually it will lead to starved and weakened plants, according to John Ferguson, owner of Nature’s Way Resources.

“It doesn’t stimulate the biology of the soil,” said Ferguson.

Beneficial soil microbes are used by the plant to help prevent diseases. When they become busy decomposing dried wood, “you get more insect and disease problems,” Ferguson said.

Another factor to consider is where the wood comes from. Wood used for dyed mulch may come from old pallets, mill waste, or construction scraps, according to Nature’s Way Resources.  If the wood comes from construction scraps, it may contain chromated copper arsenate, or CCA-treated wood, meaning it may have toxic levels of arsenic.

CCA-treated wood is considered a hazardous waste if not being used for its intended end use. Because the intended end use is for building materials, CCA-treated wood is not for manufacturing mulch, according to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in a memorandum put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to place importance on diverting CCA-treated wood from entering mulch manufacturing.

Also, the dye ingredient used to color mulch may not benefit the fertility of the soil. One ingredient used to dye mulch black is carbon black. It is a by-product of the petroleum chemical company and a known carcinogen, according to Ferguson.

Carbon black is formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass, according to the EPA, and is emitted directly into the atmosphere in the form of fine particles.

“A lot of people think the black is good,” Ferguson said. “It’s practical for the people selling it. Since it makes the mulch black, they buy it.”  

Another form of carbon black comes from charring organic materials such as wood or bone, according to Ferguson, who recommends asking the mulch vendor for a material safety data sheet (MSDS) to be sure which one is used.

Although colored mulch may not be good for horticultural reasons, it does serve a purpose. It works great for temporary work areas, pathways, and playgrounds, said Ferguson.

At Edwards Garden Center, located in Forty-Fort, Pennsylvania, a variety of playground mulch is available. “We have dyed brown, dyed black, and dyed red,” said Joe Janov, garden center manager.

Other than dyed playground mulch, Edwards Garden Center also offers a natural mulch made from a mixture of hardwood and bark. “It’s aged, so it takes a little longer to develop,” Janov said. “And it is dark brown colored naturally.”

To make the natural mulch, it is ran through a shredder twice. “To age it properly they have to keep rotating it,” Janov said. “So it’s actually breaking down.”

The dyed mulch is shredded 3 times, then dyed, according to Janov. By the time the natural mulch is done aging it becomes a finer, less-coarse product than the dyed mulch. “I would say that the natural mulch is more of a, closer to being a compost than the dyed mulches are.”

And according to Ferguson, “composted tree trimmings is the highest quality mulch. Period.”

Tree trimmings consisting of mostly hardwoods and brush with a small amount of bark, also referred to as native mulch, encourage the biodiversity of beneficial soil microbes, according to Nature’s Way Resources. In return, they feed the plants while preventing both plant and soil diseases. Once native mulch becomes aged, or composted for 15 months, the quality becomes even greater, concentrating nutrients and stabilizing nitrogen in a form beneficial to plants.

Other than benefitting soil and plant life, aged mulch is also a recycled product. “It’s a material that would normally go to a landfill,” said Ferguson.

At Edwards Garden Center, they receive their mulch from a lumber company located in central Pennsylvania. Specializing in log cabin homes, they make mulch from their scraps, according to Janov.

However, the lumber company refused to comment.

As for the most popular mulch, “Our natural brown mulch is the biggest seller,” said Janov.

During spring, mulch sales are the highest, according to Janov. “It’s usually when people want to freshen things up because it’s weathered through the winter.”

But beware around July Fourth with fireworks around dyed mulch, according to Ferguson. “It’s more flammable than other types of mulches. It will burn a lot hotter.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Planting Potatoes and Carrots

Potatoes and carrots were planted last Thursday, filling in our 8-by-4 foot bed for root vegetable crops this season. Tending the soil, cutting potatoes, and sowing carrot seeds that evening before the heavy rainfalls was a special gift from the universe.

We dug an 8-inch furrow with the hoe to plant potatoes
spaced 12-inches apart.
Through life’s trial and error, hustle and bustle, and wear and tear of complicated modern living, joy seeps in at the perfect moment. Time immersed itself in timelessness as my girlfriend and I received the opportunity to let go with our hands in the soil. So cold, so warm, so wet, so dry, so dirty, so clean. Joy is so simple immersed in oneness.

Once again we have purchased German Butterball potato seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange. My memory reveals a yellowy, creamy, almost candy-like potato flavor. For the past two weeks our potatoes have been “chitting” in a south-facing window.

Chitting refers to the process of exposing seed potatoes to light to develop shoots, according to The Complete Gardener by Monty Don. Although potatoes are destined to grow, Don adds a helpful reminder to the gardener who wants “short green sprouts that will initiate fast growth when they are planted” rather than “long white tentacles.”

Potato seeds cut into pieces.
The carrot seeds were a mix of Dragon and St. Valery, or a purple skin and an orange skin variety. Now that we have made some progress with growing carrots and potatoes my goal this season is learning better storage techniques. It’s one thing to grow food but once something is harvested the work is not done. There’s still storage, prepping, and eating and this year we’ll be on top of it all. Last year I seen too many soggy carrots to not plan well now.

We planted rows North to South. In one 8-by-4 foot bed we fit one row of potatoes. A row of carrots were planted on the edge of the bed with one more row planted a little more than a foot in. As the potatoes grow and as we mulch up and around them we will have to make sure not to smother the carrots. I believe a few posts and a make-shift fence will prevent that from happening.  

Small drills for carrot seeds.
This season’s bed for root crops was the only bed we did not plant cover crops in over the previous winter. Romanesco and broccoli filled the bed until early winter and I never got around to it. That’s too bad considering the cabbage worms feasted here successfully all fall long. This time we have some tricks up our sleeves. And a bag of high-quality organic soil to mulch the potatoes with.

Until then … all of our plants and seeds will be in the ground and in containers through this week with a deadline set for next weekend. And I know time will stop to invite us to garden.     

 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Making Soil Blocks for Local CSA

Become Active in Local Agriculture
Tray of Blocks
Becoming active within local food systems can be as easy as mixing soil and water. It can also be a great way to meet local farmers, reduce CSA membership fees, and learn about organic gardening.

Learning how to make a soil block is a simple skill capable of permitting one to become involved within their local CSA or farm and may be used as a key to open doors to other food systems, local or worldwide. Once making a soil block is learned, it can go on the resume and traveling by organic gardening may one day be an open door. Or the next family trip.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Planting Has Started at Mad Love Organix

Planting has started at Mad Love Organix and we’re right on schedule according to our 2014 Garden Plan. April 1st-to-date has been a blur of sore joints, jello muscles, and long days as the warming temperatures wake up the plant kingdom and put me back to work. I live off plants man!

Golden berries have sprouted on the heat mat in the south-facing window of our home. Last year we started them late and did not get the opportunity to try them but this year we’re not making the same mistake.
 
Some of the golden berries starting their journey!
Our first planting of spinach poked its way out of the soil a few days ago. Last week the real feel temperature dropped down to the single digits after the spinach was sowed. Hopefully that was the last of those temperatures this winter. (At work when we decided to put the snow equipment away I couldn’t help but imagine plowing in July. Hey, it may happen.)
 
'Bloomsdale' Spinach.
The German Butterball potato seeds have arrived and I was hoping to plant half of an 8-by-4 foot bed with potatoes and carrots on Easter day but have not had the time to finish constructing the new garden fence. If the dogs see us digging they think they can too and without a fence they will. In the meantime, we are “chitting” the potato seeds in the window next to the golden berries to give them a head start.
 
German Butterball Potato Seeds.
This new fence set-up is also the new compost area. The compost has been moved from the compost alley and we built a multi-section compost area out of free pallets. One section is almost full with compost, although it’s sure to sink, and each section holds one cubic yard of compost which is recommended for the compost to heat up appropriately.
 
Above view of compost pile. A whole world is alive below the surface!
We did lose some garden space in the front yard by moving the compost but that’s O.K. I think the dogs know they’re eventually going to lose the yard. I shouldn’t feel bad about it either, we go for walks. I’m excited about finishing the fence. It happens a half-step at a time right now and at the same time, we still have time. No hurry, but hurry. I want to get out there!
 
New fence leading to the garden. A work in progress.
On Easter we sowed some Romanesco (a type of broccoli). Now I need to prepare for cabbage worms. Last year they hit hard. Fall plantings of broccoli did not make it and we harvested only one head of Romanesco. More on that later.
 
Nothing yet! Romanesco soon to come.
We also have a chrysalis of a black swallowtail butterfly saved in a 5-gallon fish tank outside. It formed a chrysalis in fall, froze in ice, got buried in mud, and looks like it will do something any day now. We’ll have to wait and see. I swear I can see it’s alive as if I can see individual cells functioning, moving, and forming. And I can.

Chrysalis of a Black Swallowtail Butterfly.
I think my girlfriend likes growing butterflies more than carrots. I prefer the carrots, but this is cool.
The aeroponic system if free of leaks and up and running. Some lettuce is growing in it now, although it’s still small. The south-facing window it is placed in is designed to blur the object on the other side and I wonder if it weakens the sunlight coming through. I plan on taking it outside soon. 

'Green Towers Romaine' Lettuce.
There’s still a lot of work to do, a lot of plants to sow, and some basic things to acquire. With the start of the landscaping season in full force I struggle with basic living skills, such as cooking dinner and walking the dogs. But who cares? Not me. The garden has started and it will lure me in. At the same time it hasn't even started.

A few more photos:

Winter Rye planted last fall growing tall.
The garden beds are still sleeping from winter.
Without a garden fence blocking the dogs, Sidekick enjoys snacking on the winter rye as if she's livestock.
Aerial view of the yard.
I really suck at growing grass. I'd rather grow veggies anyway!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Composting: Carbon and Nitrogen

Compost happens, yes. But if food scraps are thrown into a pile and left to rot, a hot smelly mess may be taking over. That’s because the process of composting is a symbiotic relationship between carbon and nitrogen. Or at our home, cardboard and food scraps.
Black Crumbly Compost

In order to end up with a pile of black, crumbly, rich scented, compost filled with fully charged micro-organisms capable of generating life-giving forces willing to build soil fertility worthy of growing nutritious veggies, one must understand the role of carbon and nitrogen. At least a little.

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