Tuesday, November 28, 2006

21st Century Gardening

I am just recently recovering from my latest bout with agricultural ague. See periodically, I am all but overcome with the desire to unplug from The System and go reap the benefits of immense toil in the soil. This time I had the deck stacked against me. I was researching a series for my other blog, and was spending a lot of time reading about small scale pastured livestock farming-especially Joel Saladin's works, and then to top it off I finally got around to reading Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower. Coleman is the all but uncontested modern guru of the organic market garden, and I am fairly sure Salatin is persuasive enough that I think he could convince Cheney that petroleum was a losing venture. Both works were designed for those, like me, who are interested in getting into farming-despite that fact every sane person knows that farming is a losing venture. And it is, under the current industrial paradigm that focuses on quantity over quality. Both authors stress what readers of this blog already know-that educated consumers are literally hungry for local, incredibly high quality fresh foods. Both authors lay out their ideas in a well organized, can do fashion, but don't pull any punches. You will never get rich farming. You will not have more free time. And if you are wanting to farm based on a negative reaction to something (job, city life, stress, etc) you are doomed because idealism is clouding your judgement.

What pulled me out this time, as usual, was Mia and her gentle reminders, as well as our current fiscal reality. Now is not the time to take on additional tasks or expenses, and I still have 1/8 acre of under utilized garden space (read: lawn) in the backyard. Also important in this recovery was the sermon this week on gratitude. I find that counting your blessings has an immense grounding effect on me. I have so much, and wanting more is, well, greedy.

Coleman's system for market gardening is brilliant. With his plan-which took him 20 years to design- you can farm 2-3 acres of very intense vegetable production per worker and support 20-40 people with their annual vegetables. That doesn't sound like much land, but put it in perspective. Eliot builds his fields into beds 5' x 100'. That means all 5 of my 7 beds would equal one of his. Then he leaves a 10' path for his equipment, and starts another bed, so each acre is 2 beds wide. Here is the kicker-they are 40 beds deep-so he gets 80 beds per acre: Coleman farms almost 300x the space than I do. That's a lot of hoeing! Think of the thousands of transplants alone, or spreading 100,000 lbs of manure by hand. Every year. And that is just for one acre! Coleman has lots of gee whiz ways to improve your efficiency, but it is still immense.

But my concern with his system (and yes I realize that I am critiquing a master) is that he is still operating in what I am beginning to think is a dated, and potentially unsustainable system. He tills the land up to 6 times per year thereby destroying much of the soil life. In his book Coleman spends a very brief time on no till gardening which he began using in one of his greenhouses. He concedes that after 2 years his plants under the no till were outperforming his other beds, but he did not know how to accomplish it on the scale he was currently working under. That is my new mission.

To that end I am sourcing books on no till, or mulch intensive gardening. I am currently convinced that this is the future of gardening and perhaps agriculture. Read old time farming books and they are unanimous that the best time to plant corn (which needs high nutrient soil) is into a field that has been left to hay for 2 seasons. As Permaculture texts expound-no one has to fertilize a prairie and it will produce as much biomass as a forest. Classics such as Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution, and Ruth Stout's No Work Garden also stress that nature knows best. My own results this year when I redid my wood chip paths only to discover a 1" layer of humus underneath, after just 18 months, are also playing heavily into this. What could be accomplished if I actually intended to compost in place instead of just dumping a chunky carbon source on the ground? There are hundreds of permaculture gardeners out there running these experiments, and I plan on joining their ranks and adding to the literature on the topic here and on One straw.

2007 will see a significant rise in the amount of space I am dedicating to perennial food crops such as small fruit and orchards, deep mulched and under-sown with perennial legumes. In my 7 annual vegetable beds I will be applying the results of this winter's research to limit my tilling to only what is necessary to get the seeds and transplants into the earth.

Stay tuned!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Eco Vegetarianism

Just wanted to drop a line to redirect those interested to a brief series I am doing on my other blog. Based on some recent reading I am writing a very high level overview of sustainable agriculture-starting from the the fact that I turned vegetarian mainly due to the unsustainability of raising meat in our country today. Am I still right?

Vegans won't like my conclusions.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Winter Market

Today was the first day since cooler weather arrived that the Madison Farmer's Market moved indoors. The indoor market is in beautiful Monona Terrace, where they also record Michael Feldman's "Whaddya Know?", for you NPR fans out there. Yesterday we got our first real taste of snow, so it seemed especially fitting for my very first trip to the indoor farmer's market. I must say, the indoor market is absolutely delightful. We quickly circumnavigated the room to find out favorite vendors, then moved back through to get what we needed. It was so much quicker than transversing the capitol square. For all of the wonderful aura of the outdoor market, I must say, this was much more efficient. It was more like a grocery store where you paid each farmer for their own wares. Plus, the warm, dry atmosphere was quite an improvement over our last visit which was 36 degrees and steady drizzle. There was much more at the market, but here's what I took home this second week of November:

  • 1.5 pounds of assorted heirloom carrots
  • 1 pound of brussel sprouts (The farmer was quite impressed that Sprout asked if we could get some!)
  • A lovely bag of baby spinach (So much tastier since truly cool weather arrived!)-A bag of salad greens
  • 10# of IPM apples (The apple stands are more sparse, so I need to stock up!)
  • 3 Sweet Potatoes
  • 1 pound of broccoli
  • A giant frosted cookie (Okay, that didn't make it home in one piece!)
  • 2 pints of strawberries! (I asked the farmer, she said she has a greenhouse and everbearing plants)
  • French Style Feta Cheese
All of this was grown within an easy drive from my house, and if not certified organic then at least grown with no (or in the case of the apples-minimal) spray/chemicals. My total expenditure was $45. Considering that apples alone are $2-$3 a pound at the grocery store, I think I'm economically in the win.

It's certainly more of an effort to make the 30 minute drive to the market and spend time collecting my needs than it is to go to the grocery store, but on my in to Madison this morning, I was struck by the feeling that I was hitchin' up the wagon and heading into town for the weeks goods. I'm glad that Maddy challenged Beo and I to doing this blog, because I've always cut off the Farmer's Market after October, and this was definitely worth the effort. What lovely local salads we'll have this week--in November! I expect we'll even have them from our backyard if our cold frames continue to hold up. That's this week's update from Wisconsin.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


When I was in high school I bought a dehydrator to make camp food for my backpacking and ren fair trips. Lo and behold, my mom and sister were able to find it in their basement and brought it out to me. It arrived none to soon, for I found the first "bad apple" in the 35# crate we purchased. Every apple got processed that day. I made a pie for Thanksgiving, dried two rounds of apples in the dehydrator, and used all of the peels and cores to make jelly. Now that's the way to do the jelly, by using the scraps instead of actually using whole apples. I had to re-process the jelly because it didn't set the first time, but it did end up working just fine.

I have mixed feelings about the dried apples. First of all, they take about 8 hours in my little dehydrator to get completely dry. Once they've been dried, they don't look to amount to much. However, they make a simply wonderful snack, and they haven't stuck around long enough to find out how well they might keep! The first batch dissapeared by the end of the next day. It is nice to be able to just grab a handful of dried slices, and I do that when I wouldn't have stopped to mess with washing and dealing with a juicy apple. The verdict? I don't know that it's the best preservation method, but it works, and I'll experiment with it more next year when the garden is in full bloom. I'd like to try making soup mixes with veggies and herbs!