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 rediculously hot summers we have here in Las Vegas. I have gone from twice daily waterings to daily waterings (50% reduction) to every other day waterings (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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Apple In The Hand....

Last week my wife and I stayed with a friend and his wife in their house in a little town in the mountains of southern Utah. We had gone to see a play at an outdoor theater and then had driven up to their house, about 30 minutes away. It was well past dark when we got there. The sky was lit up with the Milky Way and billions of stars that we don't see because of all the light pollution we have here in Las Vegas. (It's Vegas, Baby!)

The next morning we noticed that his two apple trees had put on quite a crop of apples this year and they were all red, ripe and delicious. Don't know what kind they are, but they are sweet with enough tart to keep you eating them. So we all started picking them. My friends are extremely generous and insisted that we take a bunch home with us. We filled every bag we could find a big box and even a huge cooler. We almost had to sit on our overnight bags to make sure there was room in the SUV to fit all the apples. We ended up with at least a bathtub full, if not more. And we didn't get but a little over half of the apples on the two trees.
Here's my wife picking apples.

If you look closely, you can spot the Royal
Bluecrested Apple-picker, a rare bird indeed!
On the way back, we stopped at a kitchen store to get some parts for my wife's bread mixer. (We don't have that kind of a store in Las Vegas, but they do in Utah.) While there, we picked up a water-bath canner and a marvelous food strainer and some other things like this gadget that peels, cores and slices apples as you crank the handle. Managed to squeak out of there for a little over $200.

The kids loved the apple slicer and actually got busy eating apples, as long as they could slice them with the gadget. But even with 15 people living in my house, we were never going to take care of that many apples before they went bad. So Saturday morning, we started canning.

And canning.

We set up a camp stove on the patio and fired up a pot of water to sterilize bottles and another pot to cook the apples a bit to soften them. We also set up a pot to cook apples in the kitchen as well as the water-bath canner. Then we installed the strainer on the island.
First, we washed the apples.

We washed bottles and sterilized them, then we packed them full of yummy applesauce that we had run through the strainer. Once full, we put the lids and rings on and processed them through the canner. And repeated. And repeated. And repeated. For eight hours.
Then we cut them up into halves or quarters depending on
what size they were.
We used a lot of the grandkids, too. They would help to crank the strainer, fetch more apples to wash, cut apples, fill the jars, get the bubbles out and things like that. Tough to keep them from licking their fingers all the time. The stuff was just too yummy! (Yes, I said yummy. Deal with it.)
Then we cooked them in boiling water for a few minutes to
soften them up. Not too much, don't want really runny applesauce.
Next we dumped them into the hopper of the strainer. This machine is a miracle.
Crank the handle and applesauce comes out.
We went through every pint jar we had and I went to a couple of stores for more lids. Then I went back to the stores and got more lids and more jars. We didn't realize how many jars that many apples would produce.
Sometimes you have to help move the apples into the grinder chute.
This is the applesauce as it comes through the strainer screen. The size
of the holes determines the coarseness of the applesauce. You could
just eat it by itself (and we did!!). We did all of these apples
without the addition of sugar or cinnamon. You can always add
those later if you want, but you can't take them out if your recipe doesn't
call for them.
The exit chute of the strainer had the skins, the seeds, the stems all mushed up and ready
to feed chickens or put in the compost pile. The good stuff goes into the other bowl.
The water-bath canner holds 8 pint jars at a time. They took 15 minutes to process once
they water got to boiling at the right temperature.
8 hours later, the house smells wonderful and we have more than 100 pints of
delicious slightly tart applesauce ready for the pantry.
You know, looking at the big pile of jars on the table, you would think that it's a lot of applesauce. Well, for most families it might be. But the very next day, we had our kids over for dinner and went through several jars. With 12 kids, assorted spouses and nearly 20 grandkids, we'll be lucky if there is any left come spring. But that's what it's for.

When we boxed it up and put it on the shelves in the pantry, the shelves just sort of swallowed them up and made it look like that day's work wasn't so much. But we know better.

It's wonderful to have food put aside for later. It's wonderful to have projects in which many members of the family can participate. It's satisfying to look on the shelves and know that there is great-tasting applesauce waiting to be eaten. 

But it's even more wonderful to have friends like Rick and Patty who are so generous and kind that they gave us all those wonderful apples. Makes me want to go back up there and help him prune and trim his trees. A simple "thank you" just doesn't seem sufficient.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Back in the Garden, Again (Still!)

With apologies to Gene Autry for the title, I am announcing that I am back to writing about my stealth farming again. I didn't quit farming for the last bunch of months, I just stopped writing about it.

Have you ever done something that was fun at first but then began to be a chore so you stopped it only to realize that doing it was actually rewarding and now that you stopped it you realized that you missed it? Well, blogging about my farming was becoming that and I realize that I have missed it for several reasons.

I missed it because it pushed me to do something regularly. Routine can be a good thing; it's how habits are formed. If it's a good habit, something that is beneficial, you want it to be regular and almost routine. By forcing myself to write about my gardening, I also forced myself to look at my garden in a different light or from a different perspective every time I worked in it. As I would be weeding (not a big chore, just a regular one) I would view in my mind how I wanted this to look on the blog.

As I would be thinning or harvesting or shaping or pruning or trimming or any of a dozen other farm chores, I would imagine writing about it and think about how I would tell someone about what I was doing.

And I got to take photos of my garden. That's fun because you get to make your garden look like a total success without any failures and without any weeds. Close-ups of bees and other critters are fun, so are flowers. Photos of my garden are fun for me to look at  because I get to remember the good stuff. Looking at a rather empty bed in the winter can be almost depressing. Looking at a photograph of that same bed all green and lush and productive is thrilling and makes me want to plan and do more.

So, for those reasons and for others, I'm back to writing about it.

There will be a few changes, though. I'm going to include more entries about home production and storage, not just the gardening. I'm going to have some commentary on why I do this and why I think others should (or should not) do it. I'm going to put more effort into the concept of the Stealth Farming to explain that more as I think it's not only a good idea, it's a very fun concept, too. And I'm going to discuss some other aspects of this concept like solar cooking and finding space to grow and wise water use and mulching.

I have been talking with folks who keep bees in my area. Now, in my area, bees are illegal in you backyard. (I wonder how they enforce that law to all the wild bees in the area?) We've decided that we want to push that issue to amend the code so that beekeeping is more acceptable and accessible to us. And, we're going to push the issue on backyard chickens, too. My particular neighborhood is an island of chickenlessness in a sea of availability. That's going to be a challenge, I'm sure. (My son lives a mile away and he is in an area that can have chickens. So he has one. The eggs are great.)

So I'll keep you posted on all of these developments as they work out. And I'll share more about growing food in the desert. Since I can grow all year long without a break, I don't think I'll run out of things to write about.

Living in a Desert Island

I live in Las Vegas, Nevada. Yes, that Las Vegas. No, I don't visit the casinos or the hotels or travel down the "Strip" or even cross it any more than I have to. It's not that I have anything against it, it's just that I live in the "other" part of Las Vegas, the real Las Vegas. It's the one that you see as you fly into town to visit those casinos or that you pass as you drive in on the Interstate and wonder, "Who would actually choose to live in the desert?"

In some ways, most of us who live here actually like the idea that the 34 million people who visit our city each year for vacations, fun weekends, conventions, weddings (yep, that's a big deal here, too), or just coming to take part in some world-class rock climbing, do so in a relatively small area of town. Very few of our visitors actually take the time to venture out into the suburbs, which start about a block off of the strip in any direction. That makes for a relatively quiet city.

One thing that you'll notice if you do fly into town is that we don't have any agricultural areas surrounding the urban area. You won't fly over big, green fields of grain or alfalfa or farms of vegetables or ranches or even those big wheel irrigation fields that dominate the western farming landscape.
This is a great view of Las Vegas with Mt. Charleston in the background (Elevation nealy 12,000 feet) and Lake Mead with Hoover Dam in the foreground. The dam is at the bottom. All brown, tan, empty desert as far as the eye can see.

No, you'll see only tan and brown desert interspersed with the occasional beige-to-white dry lake bed and broken up by north-south mountain ranges. That's it. And it's those colors because we don't grow anything in the area. It's a desert which, by definition, means we have a dearth of fresh water available. The whole state gets only an average of about 7 inches of rain a year. Doing a flyover will show some disks of green near some of the underground aquifers and some green in the bottom lands near those same water sources, but by and large, it is not a garden state by any means.
This is Red Rock, just west of town. Still brown.

We have about 2.75 million folks in the state, with about 1.9 million in Clark County, where I live. That makes for a very sparsely populated state.

But since we don't produce food here, how do we feed the 36 million mouths that annually come to my town?

It's easy, we bring it in on trucks. Everything comes in on trucks.

There is one road coming into Las Vegas from the north or south. That's Interstate-15. We're 4 hours from Los Angeles which means we have close access to everything that California produces. It just has to get put on a truck and it's coming up the road. We're 6 hours from Salt Lake City, which means that anything produced in the intermountain region is coming down the same road. US 95 joins us with Phoenix, also about 6 hours away, but less comes in from that direction than from California and Utah.

A precarious position to be sure.

This past several weeks have been interesting. We had about a 2-hour rain storm hit just north of town and it took out I-15. Literally washed it away. No traffic was moving. It took several days to get that road open again for car traffic and a couple more for the trucks to be allowed on it. In the meantime, trucks had to take a detour that cost a lot in time, fuel and drivers. They had to detour around the mountains and up some older roads to get around the disaster area.
That nice new river bed in the center of the picture used to be a divided, 4-lane highway. Now it's just sand and chunks of asphalt.

Normally, the route from Las Vegas to Cedar City, Utah is 177 miles along a fast-moving interstate. That would normally have taken about 2 and a half hours. The route they had to take was up US 93 and then across the US 56 to Cedar. That was more than 4, closer to 5 hours or double the time for just that short distance. Many trucks were cancelled until the road opened again.
This is looking north about 45 minutes north of Las Vegas. Nobody was getting through at that time.

Now, we don't get nearly as much food into this valley from the north as we do from the south. California is a much larger trading partner, if you will, than is Utah. So what would happen if the same thing were to occur in the other direction?

Well, depending on where the break happened, it could completely shut down vehicle traffic as I-15 is the ONLY road in some places between here and there. That would mean that traffic would need to detour as much as 300 miles to make the trip, over much slower roads. If that corridor were to be shut down for a week, there wouldn't be much on the shelves of the grocery stores.

I've mentioned before in this blog about a truckers' strike that happened more than 30 years ago and really crippled this town. The supermarkets were empty in 3 days. Not even bug spray was left on the shelves. It was all gone. No food, no paper goods, no cleaning supplies, no toilet paper. Nothing. It was scary.

Now, once the strike was settled, which happened in a week or two, it took another two or three weeks to stock everything back up again. People still bought everything in sight. Fear is a powerful thing. It was a couple of months before people stopped panic buying.

Now, this year's floods didn't have that kind of impact; the damage was in the wrong area. But it could have very easily. Good thing home production and storage is a good concept to live by.

I'm glad we live that way.

This last weekend, it rained again. Took out I-15 just north of town. Again.

Who knew it could happen twice in one month?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Where Do You Hide Your Food?

I'm finding it increasingly interesting to think that my city's major source of food is the grocery store chains or the warehouse chains. I recently spent some time looking around my neighborhood on Google Earth looking for gardens in people's homes. I found a couple but they were hard to find. I found lots and lots of swimming pools, lots of grass, and lots more concrete but hard to find a garden. I have to come to the conclusion that most folks in my neck of the woods don't grow food. I may be wrong, but you would have to provide proof to the contrary.
Our city is in the desert in the Southwest. Everything comes in by truck from somewhere else. We don't even have rail service anymore for non-industrial materials, and that's rare, too. Everything comes to us from one of three directions over the highways by truck. The bulk comes from California north up I-15. Some comes from Utah and points north via the same road in the other direction. And some comes up from Pheonix from the southeast. We might get some from the northeast, but I haven't seen much in the way of truck transportation from that direction. I would estimate that 75% comes from California.
I remember a bunch of years ago when there was a trucker's strike. Truck transporation all but stopped into town. Those that did arrive, didn't go to the grocery stores, they went to the hotels and casinos and their distributiors and suppliers. They knew how their bread was buttered. I lived at that time across the street from a Safeway store that has since closed and has been torn down. When the strike was announced, there was a run on the store and within 24 hours you couldn't even buy a bag of water softener salt. The shelves were completely bare. It was scary.
Be sure! What a great insurance policy against
just about anything: empty shelves, strikes, disasters,
or any other disruption of the fragile and delicate
system we have. It's a good hedge against rising
fuel costs, too. As diesel prices increase, food
prices increase. There is a direct link between the two.
We didn't suffer too much because my folks have always been prepared for things like that. That came from growing up in the Depression and was reinforced by the teachings of preparedness that my church does. They were ready long before it happened. But my friends weren't. I was in high school and when I took my lunch of huge sandwich on homemade bread and some veggies, my friends offered what was for us a huge sum of money for my lunch. After the first week, I had people waiting in the parking lot to be the first to bid on my lunch. I was actually afraid to sell it to anyone for fear that I would upset the wrong people so I ate my lunch in silence. There was food, just not as much as normal and not the variety that we were used to.
Some folks actually organized caravans of cars to drive to Southern California to buy food in bulk and bring it back to town. You could go to Utah and buy all the fruit you wanted from the farmer's markets, too. It was there, it was for sale, they just couldn't ship it to Las Vegas because of the strike.
I wonder if something like that could happen again? We certainly haven't changed our way of doing things in this town. We still don't produce food in any quantity. There aren't any farms or food processing plants of significance here. But there are a lot more people.
A garden will make your rations gor further, or
your paycheck last longer, or you health improve,
or....well, you get the idea.
Oh, we have grocery stores in abundance and Costco's and Sam's Clubs and other food warehouses. But it makes me nervous that the bulk of the food in town is not in people's homes or pantries or gardens, it's in these stores. I've seen how fast they can empty out. I spent 5 years working for one and I know how much food they shipped out daily. We had trucks replenish every night and Costco gets several trucks daily. So the system is working, for now.
We've come a long way from the days of the Victory Gardens. We've come a long way from a time where people accepted at least a part of the responsibility for providing for themselves. We have worked ourselves into a situation of "I work at my job to be able to buy stuff from your job." And although this is a workable situation, the more complex the system becomes, the more opportunities it has to break down. The farther away from the earth we become, the more dependent we are on others to provide the basics to us.
That doesn't make me feel comfortable. That doesn't make me sleep well at night. What does allow me to sleep is the knowledge that I am doing everything I can to produce as much as I can for my family. It may not be much right now, and we wouldn't be able to live too comfortably on what I can grow yet, but I'm getting better, my soil is getting better, I'm learning more and more and I'm trying.
A phrase I learned a long time ago fits this. "All you can do is all you can do but all you can do is enough." All I have to do is all I can do. But, I have to do all I can do. I can't slack off. I can't do less than all I can do, but I'm finding that the more I do, the more I find I can do, and the better I'm able to do it.
That makes me feel good.
It's nice to see our Super Heros are on board
with this. Truth, Justice and the Victory Garden!

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