Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Finally, Finalizing Finely Spaced Spacers

If you remeber from yesterday's post, I made these three seed spacing tools. They are based on a tool made by Earl Fincher, a farmer in California, a long time ago. He made his with corks, but I have no access to corks so I had to make do with what I had.

Here's how they worked when I tested the idea in my garden. I needed to plant some more garlic cloves and beets and carrots. I wanted to plant them in evenly spaced rows but that takes some time.

First, I prepped the bed by removing the last plant stuff from what I had harvested. Then I raked the beds smooth. It just looks better to me when I'm planting if I start with smooth beds. It also helps me see where I have planted.
My plants are happier when they are grown in nice,
even and good looking grow beds. 
I used my one-foot marking stick against the front of the grow bed. Since I was planting garlic, I needed to plant them at 9/square foot. I pressed it into the soil in the bed. I didn't push too hard. I wasn't looking for it to dig a hole, just make an indentation. Success!

Sorry for the fuzzy photo. You can still see the 12" marking on
my marking stick.
When I pulled the spacer away, I could see all 9 indentations.

Evenly spaced impressions, ready for garlic.
Then I used my dibber to loosen the dirt for the garlic. Then I placed a clove into each impression, and yes, I made sure that I planted them pointy-side up. (Garlic does have an up and down.)

By placing the marker one foot above the previous one, I made the second impression, then the third, then I was off and running. I found that I could plant 27 cloves in the time it used to take me to plant less than half that amount. It was better than woodworking. I measured once and then planted 27 times.

When I had planted 10 feet of bed (that's 270 more garlic plants), I moved on to beets. For these I used the 16/square foot marker. I planted 4 feet (that's 12 square feet of beets) Then I moved on to the carrots and planted 4 more feet (for 12 square feet of carrots).

I planted nearly 200 beets and 200 carrots and 270 garlic cloves in less than an hour. I was most impressed.

Then I sifted some compost on to the seeds, covered the whole area in straw and watered it down. 48 square feet of garden planted with nearly 700 plants in an hour. Wow. I'm hooked.
Freshly harvested compost from my Backyard
Black Gold Machine.

Straw for mulch. I live in the desert. I can't
afford the water if I don't mulch.
Now, I'm going to finish planting my winter garden over the next two evenings. But at this rate, it may only take me one.

Total cost?  $0.00 I had everything on hand, left over from other projects.

Thanks, Earl Fincher. You're a genius. Can't wait to plant the rest of my winter garden this week. And my seed starts, and next spring's garden....

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Finally, Finely Spaced Spacings

Sorry about the title, I just wanted to use finely and finally in the same sentence.

I've become a big fan of the square foot concept of backyard gardening as developed and put forth by Mel Bartholomew in his great book, Square Foot Gardening. I have copies of each of his additions, I have proven to myself that his concepts work and I love the high yields that I get when I space my plants out acording to his directions.

However, with all of that, it can be a pain to implement. His books show wonderful little gardens that are 4-feet by 4-feet. That's...cute. It's easy to plant when you are only planting one square foot of radishes or onions or beets or corn or garlic or whatever. But his simple grid system and finger spacing just don't translate when you have larger beds. My beds are 3-feet by 75-feet. That can be a lot of scratching tic-tac-toe designs in the dirt. I needed something that was faster and just as accurate.

Last year I made a 3-foot-square frame and strung it in one-foot squares with a cord. That helped a lot and was much faster than my one-foot-increment sticks that I had previously used. It also kept the rows a lot straighter and neater.

But it wasn't enough. No, I wanted more. I needed it to be faster and simple and repeatable on a large scale. I don't have the budget to buy a mechanical like an Earthway or a Jang, although I would love one. My budget is roughly $0.00 right now and there are some other improvements I need to make before I spank out a hundred bucks for that. (One can always hope for the gardening fairy to magically drop one off. Christmas, anyone? My birthday is in February. Just sayin'....) Nope, I had to do something myself.

While I was viewing some online video of other gardeners, I came across some old folks who have been supporting themselves on a few acres by growing and selling food. They've been doing it for decades and are really good at it. They also had some great ideas that I can borrow.

Here is the link to the video I watched:

Now, he made his to fit his seedling trays. I wondered why I couldn't make some to fit my garden when I was direct-seeding. I couln't come up with an excuse why I couldn't. So I did.

Last Saturday morning I went to the garage and cut three pieces of plywood at 12" square.
3/4" exterior grade plywood salvaged from another project.

I used Mel's spacing formula and marked one at 4/square foot, one at 9/square foot and the third one at 16/square foot.
Marked at 3" from the edges
and 6" from each other
Marked at 2" from the edges
and 4 inches from each
Marked at 1 1/2" from each
edge and 3" from each other

Then I cut some 3/4" stock at about 1 1/2" long. I cut one for each of the plant spacings.
A total of 29 for the project and a couple
extra in case I split some.

Then I drilled a hole into one end of each piece and a hole in each location on the 12" square.
I rounded over the non-drilled end to sort of a dull point.
I figured that a rounder tip might go into the soil
easier than a squared-off blunt tip would.

I drew out a handle and cut it out. Then I traced that handle two more times and cut them out.
I made these out of plywood. Don't. Use
a solid wood. Plywood splits when you
drive screws into the endgrain.

I needed a total of three handles. Remember,
don't make these out of plywood. I'm going to
have to replace them.

Then I sanded the handles down a bit to avoid splinters.

Then I mounted the spacing pegs and the handles to the squares with drywall screws.
Think about where you will put the handles and drill
those holes before you mount the pegs. You can see
how close these are to the screws for the handle.
It was only a problem on the 9-peg unit.

A sanding on the edges removed some of the roughness and helped to avoid spinters.
I hate splinters

Tomorrow's post will show how I used these in the garden.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Book is Coming! The Book is Coming!

Actually, two books are coming.

I have written two volumes on the subject of stealth farming and how I see it evolving in the world. These are not technical exposes of how to build certain aspects like wicking beds and raised growing beds and the like, although we discuss these. These are not page after page of 'How To' information about specific plants, although we discuss that a bit. These are books that describe the philosophy of producing fresh, tasty, wholesome food in an urban, suburban or peri-urban setting. I discuss more of the "Why do we do it?" concept rather than the details of how to do it. There are many great volumes that discuss that aspect.

I wanted to write and publish a statement of why I do it. In talking with some of my friends, I have decided to include a lot of why they do it. As we see the changes that are occurring in our world nearly every day and certainly every week, I realized that many people are in the situation that I was in just a short time ago. Realizing that our food supply has been unfavorably influenced by big business and that we are making a negative impact in our world by moving food hundreds and even thousands of miles from farm to table, I wanted to find out what I could do to make a difference in my life and in the lives of my children.

I also want to share how this philosophy developed in my head and how I see it developing around me. I want to share how easy it is to make minor adjustments to everyday activities and make significant and far-reaching positive impacts in what you do, how you think and how you view your world.

I will keep you posted on the progress of the books from time to time. I'm not sure about how I'm going to publish them, print or e-media or both, but I'm going to get the word out.

Sharing the Staff of Life

Sometimes, you happen to overhear someone when they share something about themselves. And sometimes, you can relate to what they say. I happened to overhear a friend of mine talk about how his breadmaker was a great new addition to their kitchen appliance collection and how much he loves the taste of fresh, homemade bread. (Who doesn’t?)

I asked him if he ever used whole wheat flour or if he only used the white flour from the grocery store. He told me that he had only used the white flour because that’s all they had. So when I asked if he would like some freshly milled, whole-wheat flour he got really excited. So last evening, I rolled the mill out on its cart from the store room and milled for him some hard red winter wheat into flour.

We keep it on a rolling cart that is easy to
maneuver and easy to clean.
  Here is the mill. It’s an older model of the Magic Mill brand with stones that do the serious work. It was my parents’ mill and I’ve had it for nearly 35 years. They had it for at least 15 years before that that I can remember so I pretty much think it qualifies as an antique. I’m OK with that because it has never required much in the way of maintenance, has never broken down, and always delivers a great product.
If you leave your scoop in the bucket, you
won't have to search for it when you need it.
The grain goes into the hopper under the top lid. The hopper holds about 6 to 8 cups of grain and you can keep the mill running while you fill the hopper. We keep our wheat in large 5- or 6-gallon buckets. You can go through a lot of wheat if you do a lot of baking. Since wheat doesn’t store a long time as flour, the oils in it will make it rancid, we mill when we are getting ready to bake. You can keep it in the refrigerator between baking sessions. But since it’s so easy to make, we prefer to do ours at the same time.
The motor and the stones are not quiet. Ear protection
is always a good idea. It's not bad and the
newer models are much, much louder.
The vibration keeps the wheat berries
moving on the plate. You just have to direct them at the end.
As the mill operates, it funnels down through the center hole in the metal plate. This allows and directs the grain into the corresponding hole in the stationery stone against which the rotating stone operates.
The one on the right spins. The hole is angled
toward the gap in the center. Don't set them too close
together or you can break your stones.
This shows the stationery stone, the one with the hole, and the moving stone. The gap between them determines the degree of fineness of the grind. Since we use this mill to turn wheat into flour that is the setting at which we leave it. We have changed it for cracked wheat cereal, and for fine pastry flour. But this grind is great for wonderful bread.

As you mill, the wheat berries flow down the hole from the hopper. The only thing the operator does is make sure that all of the wheat makes it to the hole. A gentle sweeping toward the center accomplishes this. No tools required. This is a good job for a grandkid. Unless they stick their finger down the hole, or something else, they can’t go wrong. (Hint: never turn your back on grandkids when milling flour.)

It's almost impossible to NOT pinch the flour between
your fingers. It's a great way to feel the texture of the
grind to make sure it meets your needs. Plus, it's fun.
The flour falls down into the metal pan directly below the stones. When the mill has been turned off, you can remove the pan and access the flour. You don’t want to do that before you turn the mill off because you will make a mess with all the flour dust.

The flour will be warm to the touch. Apparently, crushing and grinding wheat between stones creates some heat by friction. If you are making bread right away, you will want to let it completely cool before you add it to your yeast or you might kill off your yeast. Good way to make crackers instead of bread. When giving away flour, I put it into a gallon-sized zipper-top bag and put it in the refrigerator to cool overnight.
A gallon bag holds enough flour for several loaves
of bread, a couple batches of wonderful pancakes,
thickening material for gravy and lots more. It's
a lot of flour.

Once we have milled all the flour we need, cleanup is fast and simple. You simply brush all the flour that might stick to the sides of the inside of the mill down into the pan. Run the motor for a moment to make sure that no wheat is inside the stationery stone. Brush out or wipe out the metal pan. A small vacuum cleaner can also be used to tidy up the mill. It’s important to keep everything dry. Flour and water make a great place for insects and mold to thrive. Plus, it makes a form of concrete that is hard to remove from your mill. A simple brush is fine.

Since we keep our mill on a rolling cart (it’s kind of heavy, motor, stones, etc.), it’s very simple to roll it back into the store room and park it next to the wheat where it waits until the next time we need it. 
Buy your wheat by the ton, it's cheaper. You can
also buy it already sealed in buckets so it will last.
Right now, I'm using wheat we bought 5 or 6 years
ago. If stored properly, wheat can stay viable for
centuries. I don't plan to live that long.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Black Gold Factory In My Back Yard

I’m a big fan of both compost and mulch. Since I live in the Las Vegas desert, I have to do things that will keep the water I spend so much money on in the soil instead of allowing for evaporation. I plant close together so that the leaves of the plants will form a green shade on the soil. I use straw to cover the dirt between the rows and plants so that until the leaves grow in, the sun won’t have anything to heat up. I use a lot of organic matter in my soil and add to it every year so that it becomes more sponge-like and holds more water. You have to do what you have to do in the desert. King Midas couldn’t afford enough water not to guard what he puts into his garden and I’m no King Midas. But I can cook compost.

I have found that the more compost and organic matter I add to the soil in my garden, the less I have to water it, even in the ridiculously hot summers we have here in Las Vegas. I have gone from twice daily watering to daily watering (50% reduction) to every other day watering (75% reduction) simply by increasing the amount of organic stuff in the soil. When I added straw the first time, I cut that down to half again. In the area where I have added wood chips, I'm averaging less than once a week, or about every 10 days. And my plants are healthy and have no water stress. (More on the wood chips later.)

I have a concrete pad where I hope to build a shed one day. It’s about ten feet by six feet. On this, I have built a three-sided enclosure to hold my compost materials. The ends of the enclosure are a couple of pallets. The front is a frame of two-by-fours with some pickets made from some other pallets. There are spaces between the pickets and, of course, in the pallets to ensure a lot of airflow into and out of the pile. The forth side is a cinderblock wall. This is where I cook my compost.
The 4' x 10' Compost Factory on the 6' x 10' concrete pad.

I put together a lot of organic materials into a big pile and add some water and some of last year’s compost for a starter and off it goes. I keep it covered with a blue tarp so it doesn’t dry out too fast. I turn it periodically when it cools off, add more water to it, cover it again and it heats up again. As it cooks down, its size reduces and I get more room in my compost bin. After a few weeks, and a couple more turns, it’s small enough to add more materials, wet it down again and cook it some more. I do this several times during the year.
The day after I turned it. If you put your hand down into that hole,
you will notice how hot it is. I couldn't hold my hand in it and
that's just after about 14 hours.
 Once a year, I pull out the pile and sift it through a screen I made from a wooden frame and some ½-inch hardware cloth. I find that I can put all of the other, larger materials back into the pile and cook it some more. It’s an ongoing and continuous process that I don’t think will ever end. It’s a lot of work, but it provides me with a lot of composted materials to add to my garden.

About 2 feet by 3 feet. Any bigger and it gets too heavy
to shake back and forth to sift. I put it on the wheelbarrow
and do my sifting into that. 
Here’s the recipe that I use. It varies depending on what I have available. The important thing is that I keep putting in stuff and it keeps putting out compost.

I’ve mentioned before that there is a guy near me that has horses and he gives me horse manure. I drive my pick-up truck to his yard and he uses a small tractor to pull it out of the stalls and dump it into my truck. I don’t even have to load it. Free and he does the hard work. How cool is that? I do have to wheel barrow it from my driveway to my back yard, but that’s not bad at all. It’s easy to pull it out of the truck.

I have way too much grass in my yard so I have lots and lots of grass clippings each week. That really heats things up during the summer, especially if the grass is green. Once it turns brown and dries out, it isn’t as much a nitrogen ingredient as a carbon ingredient, but it is bulk and does add a lot to the pile. Again, it is free. If it’s free, it’s for me.

We put a lot of kitchen scraps into it, leftovers from processing our meals. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting some grocery store waste from the produce section and adding it. I wonder how much I can process in my pile. I’m sure a store would produce much more than I can handle on a normal basis.
Every fall, I rake the leaves from my trees and my neighbor’s trees and put them into the pile. 
Eventually, I’d like to get a power shredder and grind them up into a fine powder before I add them. That would break them down much faster. As I dig into the pile and turn it, I still find leaves from the previous fall well into each fall. Plus, I want to harvest some of the leaves from a landscaping area near where I work to add to the mix. I figure I could fill my truck bed up four or five times from that spot after they are shredded. That’s a lot of leaves.

I add straw from the feed store. Originally, I got several bales of straw from a church that had a harvest festival celebration one fall and they advertised on Craig’s List that anyone who wanted it could come and pick it up. I got about a half dozen or so that time. It works great as mulch and great in the compost pile.
Just waiting to be mulch or compost stuffing or worm food.
Pretty versatile stuff.
I like to put it in as mulch first and get a season or two use out of it in that form and then as it has broken down some, I throw it into the compost bin. It’s light and airy and adds a lot of oxygen to the pile. Really lets it breathe. I have found that the pile gets very hot when it has access to lots of oxygen.

I also add coffee grounds from work, weeds my neighbors pull from their yards, bad food from the refrigerator, just about anything organic that I can shove into the pile. This is a small percentage of the bulk, but it all gets cooked down quickly.

I also add a liquid nitrogen booster in the form of, well, pee. I keep a gallon jug in my bathroom and use that instead of the toilet. I dilute it with water to fill the jug each day and add it to the pile early in the morning. Several gallons of nitrogen booster goes into the pile each batch, almost a gallon each day. I’ve read lots of material that shows how beneficial it is, but what I have found for myself is that it really gets the pile cooking hot. The hotter the better.

Yesterday, I turned the pile and watered it down. It was quite cool, as if the bacterial action had totally stopped. Today, it is really hot again. All fired up. Plus, the pile is about a foot shorter than it was yesterday. Some of that is from settling, but a lot of that is a direct result of the cooking down of the materials and the breaking down into its component parts. In a month or so, I’ll pull it out, sift it and apply it to the garden. Then, I’ll get some more manure, rake up the leaves and start all over again.

It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Looking Over the Fence.

Don't you just love the internet? I mean, in a few minutes, I can do as much research as would have taken me days in the library. (Yes, I still use libraries. I'm old like that.) And it's usually better research, too. There are photos, references to dozens of other sites and documents, videos, how-to directions, just anything you want.

You can also find conversion factors easily, tables, charts, help to solve problems like "What kind of bug is that?!" or "Why are all my leaves turning that color and falling off?" We have at our fingertips the entire world of knowledge. And some cat videos, too.

Recently, I was looking at ways to improve my onion growing skills so I turned to the internet. I read a number of blogs and some Extension Service publications, watched some country farmers who do this for a living and browsed through some commercial offerings from companies who want me to buy things from them. (It's amazing to me how many great ideas you can 'procure' by looking at catalogs. If you're not afraid to get your hands busy and build something, you can save a lot of money, too.)

I still love to get catalogs in the mail. I love the enthusiastic descriptions that the authors put next to amazing photographs of incredibly productive plants that will never quite look like what I can produce in my garden. But I still love to get them and literally read them cover to cover. Lots of good information there.

I love to get out my gardening reference books and read and research and re-read them. I can't remember all the information that's in those books that I've already read and re-read, so I go back to them time and time again. They're like old friends on whom I can rely to give me what I need to know.

I like all of these sources of information and I use them, too. But they aren't my favorite single source of information. I like to hear from people who are actually doing it. I want to rub shoulders with folks who are productive in their backyards, front yards and in buckets in their driveways.

I like to listen to them tell stories about how they outsmarted the weather and beat that early frost by getting the row covers on ahead of schedule. (I know what frost is, but we really don't have a problem with it here in the Southern Nevada desert.) I like to share their emotion when they tell stories about how the weather beat them, too.

I love to see their tricks and schemes and ways to coax more production out of a favorite tomato plant or how to extend the season a couple of weeks.

I love to hear how they were eating fresh tomatoes from their gardens on Thanksgiving Day. (I've done that!)

I love to share in their joy as they want to give me some seeds from a treasured variety that I don't have. And then let them 'help' me plant them in my garden.

I want to hear them brag and moan and whine and complain and celebrate and laugh as they talk about what they've grown, how they did it and how good it all tasted. That's my favorite part of Stealth Farming.

It's about the people.

I've just made some plans to attend the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California next September 8 through 10. I love the fact that it's on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That gives me a day to drive there (little over 600 miles, I can do that) and a couple of days to drive home. Since there are a couple of options for routes, I might take one way up and one way down.

I want to meet the people who are doing these kind of projects and the people who are supporting them. I'm going to take some seeds to swap and see what I can learn. The whole expo is only $25 plus gas to get there and back and the cost of food. Since I can live in my truck for a week, I won't have to rent a room. I should be able to do the whole thing for under $500. I'm excited.

Now, all I have to do is convince my wife that this is a good thing....

I'm open for suggestions.

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