Gardening Notes for July
We keep sheep in the lower garden during the winter so that their manure is deposited in a handy place, and worked into the soil as it decomposes. Since the sheep are off in the summer pen, hanging out among the shady oaks, this is a good time to use the front bucket on the backhoe to scrape up the improved soil, haul it to the upper garden and use it to fill a few more of the huge equipment tires we use as raised-earth beds.
It's a chore to haul dirt but it's less of a chore to haul it down hill than up, so using the backhoe as an overgrown, self-propelled wheelbarrow is one of the ways that we make sustainability sustainable. By investing capital in equipment that facilitates what we do, we make it easier-and more fun--to insure that our goals are accomplished. A key principle that we try to apply to everything we do is that if it's not fun, it's not sustainable. By working together as a team, we were able to move almost two cubic yards of prime growing soil fifty yards uphill and use it to fill three new grow beds--all in less than a hour.
Today we pruned the tomatoes for the first time this summer. In growing tomatoes weíre trying to emulate the techniques of Charles H. Wilber, who was the person who appeared in the 1987 Guinness Book of World Records for the most pounds of tomatoes per plant. Using only organic methods he was able to produce tomato plants producing upwards of 350 pounds of tomatoes! Luckily, Charles wrote a book called "How to Grow World Record Tomatoes" so his secrets are not lost to time.
Earlier this summer we planted tomato plants in loose compost rich soil with flakes of hay around them. Since it doesnít rain much during this time of year, any method that will save water is appreciated, so the flakes of hay help to keep the soil moist so that less water is needed. Additionally they block weeds from forming. We then made cages for the tomato plants out of 5'x8' concrete reinforcement panels using hog clips to form them into cylindrical cages. We attached each leaf of the tomato plant to a side of the cage to encourage it to grow upwards. This method has the benefit of producing a funnel of sunlight in the middle of the plant so that a maximum amount of sunlight is able to reach the plant. When we pruned the tomato plants we removed the suckers that were smaller than an inch from the stem. We did this because any sucker that is not removed will grow into a leaf, which will focus the plants resources away from the other leaves that are already established.
We water the tomato plants with soaker hoses that are set to timers which have the benefit of using less water than regular hoses while letting the water soak in to the soil more. Also, this technique lessons the amount of time someone has to spend watering which frees up time for other endeavors. How can sustainability work for busy people? For people who have a small garden and want to maximize efficiency? For areas with minimal water?
Windward aims to produce working models to show how these things can be achieved.
As we get deeper into the dry season, the garden needs more and more water to keep going. In order to reserve our potable water for human consumption, one of the steps we take involves switching various systems over to using water from our dug well. A dug well is considered to be an "open source," and therefore not for human consumption, but it's fine for the animals, gardens, laundry, etc.
The ducks have been really enjoying their access to the 1,250 gallon tank that will be the heart of our mid-size aquaponic system, so much so that we've taken to refering to that system as our "Duckponics" system. Providing the ducks with access to that water will allow us to get the mid-size system up and running without having to rely on fish to add nutrients to the water--which is good because getting a system that size up and running usually involves swings in pH and nitrite/nitrate chemistry that can kill a goodly number of fish. That's one of the reasons that aquaponic students refer to themselves as "serial fish killers."
The pic shows how we've rigged a siphon to the duck tank so that we can draw off water for the garden. As the garden crew drains water from the tank, we'll replace it with fresh water from the dug well. That way the ducks get cleaner water to play in, and the garden gets water that's nutrient rich. We don't talk about "killing two birds with one stone" around the ducks--tends to make them nervous--but this double-use is a good example of how we strive to use the output of one system as the input for another.
We're very pleased with how the new mulch system is performing. In the past week summer weather has finally arrived with afternoon temps in the high 90's, and the heat has really done wonders for the corn. The traditional standard for corn is that you want it to be "knee-high by the fourth of July," and while the Oxacan corn is running about a week behind that standard, it's still doing better than any corn we've worked with before. The traditional wisdom is that you can't grow corn around here, but we're starting to hope that we've worked out a procedure that will allow us to add corn to our sustainable diet options.
One of the key points in sustainable gardening is to keep the amount of work needed to store what you grow to a minimum; process-intensive crops are less sustainable than crops which "store themselves." For example, while both are good to grow, having a lot of winter squash is going to work out better than having a lot of green beans.
In the "Three Sisters Guild," squash's role is to provide those easily stored calories while creating a shade canopy around the base of the central actor; i.e. the corn, the fruit tree, etc. that forms the center of the Guild. In our case, we're using lots of compost mulch to keep evaporation down, and soaker hoses under the mulch to deliver water to the roots without wetting the leaves or losing most of the water to evaporation, so the shade function isn't critical.
This year we're seeing some very impressive growth on our fruit trees using the mulch/soaker-hose combination, and the squash is looking lush. The bean plants aren't doing well though--primarily because we're behind on our butchering and a pair of yearling lambs that should have been invited to dinner months ago have been out looking for tasty morsels, and bean sprouts are definitely on that list.
Becca describes harvesting garlic:
A few weeks before harvesting itís important to stop giving water to the garlic. This is because garlic is especially prone to diseases, and a wet soil increases the chances of the garlic developing some. When the garlic is ready to be harvested (around the time that the garlic is bending over and theyíre only a few leaves at the top that are green) if the soil is loose you can reach down and pull out the bulbs, if itís not a flat bladed shovel will do the trick.
Itís important to be careful to not puncture the garlic since that increases the chances of it becoming moldy. If it is accidentally punctured it should be put aside to be eaten soon. Once the bulbs are removed from the ground they should be removed from the sun since the sun can damage the flavor to the garlic. Next with fingers or a scrubber brush the dirt should be removed from the garlic. Itís very important not use water to remove the dirt since that also increases the likelihood of the garlic getting moldy.
The next step is choosing a way to air out the garlic. My research yielded mixed messages on this one, some sources said to wait a week and let the garlic dry out and then braid it, others said to braid it immediately so that the stems didnít become too brittle. After talking with a neighbor who grew garlic for a CSA, he confirmed the latter.
For some reason everyone said to let the roots dry out before cutting them off, so we braided the garlic stems with the roots on and in a week will chop them off. Braiding the garlic is convenient since it provides lots of air circulation for the garlic which prolongs their life. For a good link on how to braid garlic, Click Here
We have apricots!
Apricots, given our elevation and latitude, are one of the more difficult fruits for us to grow, and indeed even when our trees are established, it's not reasonable for us to expect to harvest apricots every year because they flower early and are vulnerable to a late frost. We originally planted four trees but only one of them survived (water issues primarily), and for apricots, one is a very lonely number indeed since they have to have a pollinator in order to set fruit.
Last year we planted four more apricot trees--Click Here for article. Unfortunately, two of them did not survive the cowardly Attack of the Range Cattle last summer--Click Here for Wanted Poster--but the good news is that two of them did survive, make it through their first winter and bloomed this spring. At that point the only remaining unanswered question was whether the two types of apricots had bloomed within a tight enough time window so that the pollen from one would set fruit on the other.
While the few dozen apricots we'll harvest this summer aren't a lot, they are important to us in that they're a promise of fruit to come as our trees mature. Once we have trees that are adapted to our site, we can use our nifty new propagation greenhouse to produce lots of them so that we can grow all the fruit we want thereby increasing the no-tillage capacity of our land to provide a healthful and varied diet.
Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 67