Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring in Missouri

It's been busy ever since we got back as things are warming up and we are gearing up for the gardening and building season. I have a long to do list and with the help of a couple of work exchangers I have been ticking things off. It's really nice to have another person around to help me with gardening so I can focus on other projects.

My little starts have been going for awhile now. In the absence of power for flourescent lights and a greenhouse I have been using a simple coldframe to start my seedlings and it seems to be working great so far. I put the plants out in the coldframe on warm days and bring them in on nights when it is supposed to freeze. The only problem I've had is mice or rats or something coming in and eating a bunch of the brassicas. Fortunately I had already planted out most of the ones I wanted, so it wasn't a total loss.

While my work exchanger, Adam, was working in the garden, I was busy last week building a chicken tractor for my chicken experiment. I plan to put the chickens in the vineyard to naturally fertilize the grapes. The chicken tractor is just a mobile chicken coop. You move it daily so the chickens can fertilize a new area every day. Moving them also allows them to graize new pasture and forage for bugs. Because the chickens are foraging they don't require as much feed and the food they get is much more nutritious. If you've ever had farm fresh eggs, you may know that eggs from the grocery store are literally pale in comparison. When chickens eat bugs and graize pasture, they get all the vitamins and minerals they need to make bright orange yolked eggs that are much more nutritious than factory farmed eggs. The taste is also starkly different. I probably won't be keeping my chickens until they are able to lay eggs because I don't have anywhere to overwinter them yet. I plan to eat them all before winter, that is if something doesn't come and eat them first. In the future if raising chickens seems worth it, I will keep them over winter and get eggs in addition to manure.

We thought that maybe the rain wasn't going to come this spring, but after getting a few garden beds worked up and planted. the deluge came. The village turned to mud and made us all want to speed up the roads project which will turn our wood mulch roads to gravel and grassy pavers and divert rainwater in a more intentional manner. But for the roads project to begin, the rain has to stop for a good while.

The garlic has been growing swiftly and the peas, spinach, and lettuce are up. The strawberries I planted last spring are flowering abundantly and little fruits are forming. I can't wait to have fresh salad and strawberry-rhubarb treats. We will probably make jam.

This season I decided to really raise my garden beds up to combat the spring monsoons. I'm using old barn beams to divide the beds and give me something to walk on. With the help of my work exchangers Adam and Charles I have been adding topsoil and composted manure to the beds. The topsoil scraped off the ground during the digging of the foundation has been sitting in a pile on my warren for a year and a half and I'm determined to get rid of it this season by redistributing it to other places. That will free up the space in front of the foundation for construction. The gardens look great now that the spring rains have taken a rest for a bit and we've been able to work up the remaining beds. I'm finding that the garden is too small for what I want to plant so I'm going to be renting additional garden space for the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squash. It seems like a lot of space, but the additional space will be gardened using a no work system that involves sheet mulching and planting directly into the mulch. I'll be explaining this system when I get to it later in the season.

The perennials I planted a while ago are coming back again this spring and flowering, making the house look even more quaint than it already does. I love how the irises smell.

Mary Beth and I have gone out morel hunting a couple of times already and found a couple dozen altogether. They are best sauteed with garlic in butter (cream from the local dairy hand churned in our butter churn).

I've been experimenting a little more lately, this time with refrigeration. I've built a strawbale icebox, so we can keep our food cool in the summer. It's just a wooden box, surrounded on three sides with strawbales, and a door insulated with light clay straw like the kind used in the walls of Wisteria Lodge. We get blocks of ice from the butcher and put them on the top shelf. I'd left the bottom open to the ground but now I'm realizing that the ground is probably sucking the cold out of the icebox and I plan to insulate the bottom too. Another improvement will be foil on the inside to reflect radiant heat. Hopefully with these improvements the icebox will retain cold better.

The grapes in the vineyard are popping up with renewed vigor. After getting established last year, they have plenty of roots and are ready to go. I'm giving them a little help by protecting them from deer grazing with chicken wire cages. I haven't been able to determine the survival rate of the vines from last year to this, but it is very high. I counted around twenty vines out of about 200 that may not have made it. I say may not because with grapes you can't always tell. When I came here I brought a lot of grape plants with me, too many in fact, and I ended up giving them away. Someone here took a bunch and kept them in a shed for a few weeks before planting them out. They waited and waited for weeks and there was no sign of life. It must have been about a month and a half later that a really strong shoot poked out from underground.

I'm excited about the potential for the vineyard. I also plan to visit another Missouri vineyard in June to take cuttings of two varieties I have had difficulty finding from a nursery. I want to add a couple more rows this year.

The clover I planted last fall had trouble getting established, but I replanted it a few weeks ago and it is taking over. I expect the vineyard rows will be carpeted with clover by the end of the season. This cover crop is part of my effort to improve the soil in the vineyard, which before I began was pretty depleted. Decades of conventional corn and soybean farming on the rolling terrain led to erosion and a basically lifeless soil. It will take time to restore fertility and the balance of microbes and fungi. We just got some composted manure from a local farm and dressed the vines to give them a little boost. I will probably get some more and spread it throughout the rows later in the season.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Winter migration

As I usually do, this winter I left the snowy blustery northern winter for a break in the southern snow free warmth. Mary Beth is not crazy about winter either, being from Florida originally. In the past I've gone to Texas or the southwest and the cool desert regions instead of the subtropics. But since Mary Beth has many Florida connections, we decided to go there for most of our winter getaway. For me Florida is not the top choice, only because it makes me sad that such a once beautiful place has been turned into suburbia and strip malls that make it look like every other place in this country. But there is the ocean, and the gulf, and despite the efforts of developers to ruin those natural wonders, they still retain some charm. It's not all bad news in Florida as there is some indication that people are trying to recognize the natural world and accommodate it. Where we spent most of our time, in Mary Beth's home town, we were able to find a few nature preserves and a botanical garden in short biking distance, and even a CSA farm that we could volunteer at in exchange for fresh local vegetables and fruit.

That was another great thing about Florida-- the fresh fruit. We drank fresh grapefruit and orange juice almost every day that came from an orchard nearby. We picked key limes off a tree in the front yard and enjoyed lime water and pie whenever we could. On the bike ride to the preserve and the farm we picked coconuts that we cracked open for the milk and meat. The CSA farm gave us fresh grapefruit, oranges, and carambola, or starfruit, that came from a tree in a neighbor's yard. If only we could have that kind of fruit here. Well, I plan to eventually keep a lime tree in a greenhouse.

Our plan had been to try to make some money while in Florida so that we could bring it back to spend on our projects here at DR for this season. Mary Beth had some connections from her work at restaurants in the area and was able to get a job bussing tables at one of the fanciest, most expensive restaurants around on her first attempt at getting a job. After working there for a couple of days she found out the restaurant was looking for a valet. So despite living in an ecovillage where we aren't allowed to own a car, I found myself parking other people's really expensive cars. It was a strange world to have ended up in, but we were able to make a little money. Unfortunately, the economy was affecting even the rich, and the restaurant was not as busy as it normally would be at that time of year, so we weren't getting as much work as we might have otherwise. We were only really making enough to pay for our expenses and for doing some fun things like going to a winery, the Mote Marine Aquarium, Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, and a number of other Florida site seeing adventures.

We also made a few trips to see my Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zeke, checking out the Dunedin farmer's market and the brewery. Zeke and Elizabeth also fed us stone crab claws and took us sailing one day. It was nice to be so close that we could visit them on a whim and hang out.

After a while we got restless and planned a work exchange on an organic farm in Live Oak Fl. The farm had goats, turkeys, and chickens. We were looking forward to learning about livestock because we have some interest in getting some kind of livestock here at DR in the near future. Unfortunately, after staying at the farm for a few days, we realized that the farmers weren't really a good fit for us, so we went to Gainesville, where Mary Beth went to school and still had a number of friends.

Gainesville was a really fun town, with a farmer's market, an independent film theatre, and a lot of the culture you'd expect to find in a progressive college town. We also checked out the springs in the area, and were able to go on a canoe trip down the Suwanee River, which was beautiful. Had it been warmer we could have gone swimming in the springs, but we'll have to save that for another time.

Our next adventure was to Georgia, which we found to be sort of the bizarro alternate universe to Florida.
Our destination was the Hostel in the Forest, where we'd arranged another work exchange. Different from other hostels, this one is in a forest, and guests stay in treehuts instead of rooms in a big building. Also different from other hostels, there are chickens running around everywhere, and fresh eggs to be eaten every morning.

They had some quaint cabins and there was a lot of focus on aesthetic beauty. It inspired us to want to bring some of this back to DR with us.

We volunteered there in exchange for being able to stay there for a couple weeks. While there we built this bamboo fence around the herb garden.