Saturday, February 22, 2014

Yardening and Food Forests

While we've been seeking permanence at the Fairgrounds, it seemed appropriate to begin a demonstration project at home. What better way to invest in your future than to plant fruit bearing trees and bushes! Fortunately for us, our house sits on approximately 5 city lots. I'm not sure what that is in terms of actual acreage, but we've got plenty of space for an urban food forest/farm.

Strangely enough, I met the landowner before I ever had any intention of living here. At that point in time, she had placed one hugelkultur bed and a handful of fruit trees, which included two apple, two peach, and two plum trees. There also existed on site, two extremely old apple trees, a crab apple tree, an abundant plum tree, a choke cherry, and a handful of lilac bushes. To my surprise, I was offered space to grow edible crops, and jumped at the opportunity - mind you, at this point in time, I was living in a studio apartment and had only a 15X15 rented garden space.

Hugel bed #1, after 2013 fall planting
I immediately focused on the hugel bed. What is a hugel bed you might ask? In the simplest of terms, a hugel bed is a raised garden bed filled with rotting wood. The rotting wood provides nutrients and organic matter to the soil and ultimately raises the water holding capacity of the soil. The greater the water holding capacity of the soil, the less irrigation necessary. That being said, I quickly identified and purchased four cold tolerant blueberry species, one gooseberry bush, and a few raspberry roots. Blueberries prefer a rather acidic soil ~ 5 pH, so before planting, I tested and amended the soil pH. Here in the Missoula Valley, our soils are typically on the basic side ~ 7.5, thus, we addamendments of sulphur, coffee grounds, and compost to help pull the pH down.

Also on the property at this time, in addition to a handful of tomatoes and peppers we planted, were rhubarb, horseradish, garlic and raspberries. That's how the plot stayed for the next two months, until the previous renters decided to move and I decided to move in. The first thing we did after moving in, was to remove a row of ornamental juniper trees between our property and our neighbors to the east.  We then covered this area in wood chips and let it rest. At this point, it was September and the leaves were beginning to fall. After the garlic was harvested from a garden plot on the north side of the property, we began hauling as many of the fallen leaves into the area as possible. The idea was to bring in as much organic matter as we could, and let it compost over the winter and into the spring. After filling the garden space with roughly 3 feet of leaves, we laid our shovels and rakes to rest for the season.

Come February, things began falling into place. We received a clutch of chickens from a friend who could no longer care for them. The most natural place to house the birds was in the garden area where we had stocked with fallen leaves - suddenly we were adding nitrogen to our carbon supply and the compost engine was started.  Bear in mind, for efficient composting, we must have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 30 parts Carbon to 1 part Nitrogen, otherwise written as 30:1. Now in addition to a completing our compost circle, we also had a bi-product of eggs!

The next step for planning our urban food forest/farm was to map out our available area. Once mapped, we were able to identify space for new fruit trees, shrubs, and hugel beds.
The first map of our urban food forest/farm - the original is drawn on graphing paper and each square is equivalent to 4 feet
When I drew up the original diagram above, many of trees (circles) did not exist. Once I had diagramed where everything was in the yard, I began proposing other trees/shrubs to plant, drawing a circle to represent their canopy. The idea here was to fill the vertical top of my growing space with fruit producing tree canopy. As the trees grow, we can manipulate them through pruning - creating space for sunlight to shine through, prompting some trees to grow taller and others to bush out more, whichever the circumstances call for. With the new plantings suggested, the next step was to identify which species we would purchase.

On the issue of plant selection, we must consider our climate. The USDA has designated hardiness zones which outline the average lowest temperatures for a given location. For instance, here in Missoula, they've identified -15 as our lowest average temperature. Thus, when selecting plants, we need to make sure they'll survive temperatures as low as -15. Fortunately, many nurseries will have this information and can help you choose the right plants. Perhaps the best case scenario for obtaining new plants is to chose a nursery close to your location.  For us, that nursery was Cloud Nine Farms. Due to their proximity and location, they were already producing cultivars that were tolerant to our climate, which made our selection super simple. By spring, we had obtained and planted another 16 trees/shrubs, including Seckel Pear, Pioneer Chinese Apricot, Pipestone Plum, Golden Currant, Saskatoon Juneberry, Jostaberry, Northland Blueberry, Red Lake Currant, Patriot Blueberry, Consort Black Currant, York Elderberry, Pixwell-Green Gooseberry, 2 American Hazelnuts, and 2 Lewis' Mockorange to help entice pollinators.  The diagram above includes all of these.
Hugel bed #2, after the wood has been buried

Once the new plants were in the ground, we began to scheme. We wanted more hugel beds, but needed the supplies.  Slowly but surely, we were able to acquire logs from around the neighborhood throughout the summer.  By late summer, we were on our way to digging in the second hugel. When it was complete, we decided to identify more plants for a fall planting. This time around, we worked with Blackfoot Native Plants and paid particular attention to pollinator plants.

Pollinator plants, or flowering plants, are essential to any farm operation, as they usher pollinator insects onto the farm, and ultimately increase production. The trick with pollinator plants is to make sure you've got something flowering during every moment of the growing season AND to include as many colors as you can. While this seems easy enough, it does call for some research. Fortunately, Blackfoot Native offered a complete list of every plant they had in stock, including flowering times and colors.  This made our work extremely easy!

Our last planting of the 2013 growing season included our purchases from Blackfoot Native and a handful of perennial herbs, which we started from seed.  These include: Anise Hyssop, Flat-leaf Parsley, Monarda, Sphmun, Bear Grass, Oregon Grape, Sage, Georgia Sunshine, Clematis, Mountain Big Sage, Smooth Blue Aster, Yucca, Yellow Praire Coneflower, Great Basin Wild Rye, Bitterroot, Little Bluestem Grass, Rubber Rabbit Bush, Blue Grama, White Prairie Aster, Fringed Sage, Tufted Hairgrass, Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Pulsatilla, Lucifer Crocosmia, Silky Phacelia, Colorado Columbine, Yellow Agoseris, Lewis Monkeyflower, Chives, Roundleaf Alum Root, 2 Thimble Berries, Rigid Goldenrod, Canada Goldenrod, Chocolate Mint, and a handful of Raspberries.  You can imagine our feeling of accomplishment as we wound chicken wire around our beds, finding that we had just enough to keep those wonderful birds out of our freshly planted areas!

As the growing season came to a close, we continued the leaf gathering practice we had began a year prior. This time, however, we gathered enough leaves to cover the chicken/garden area AND the entire food forest/farm area. As the final loads of leaves were brought it, snow began to fill the air and eventually cover everything we had planted. The true test of our labor will be successful growth during the 2014 growing season.  As the snow melts away, we'll measure our placements and note our progress on the yard map. Once the plantings of the 2013 fall are documented, we'll identify more planting locations and set in on more shrubs, hugel beds, perennial leaf vegetables, and perhaps a few more trees.  As always, we'll bring you along on our journey! Thank you for reading!
Urban Food Forest/Farm after fall planting, before leaf speading

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Indoor Gardening

Here in Montana, once October rolls around, our greenery begins to fade away. A few growers will have small stock piles of kale, arugula, spinach and other cold tolerant edibles, but for the most part, the average person must rely heavily on the grocery store rather than the local food grower. What do you do if you don't have an opportunity to build a large project demonstrating year round food growing? You build a smaller food producing system in your house, of course! The purpose of this blog entry is simply to offer you an alternative to grocery store dependency.

In-wall shelves converted to plant starter center
When Chris and I began brainstorming our venture at the Fairgrounds, we decided that first and foremost, we needed a place to start seeds and store our plants until temperatures rose and we were able to move plants outside. Fortunately, I had some unused storage space in the basement that fit the bill.

We began with a set of in-wall shelves. I knew I'd need to run wires from the top to the bottom of the unit, so I cut a narrow opening from one side to the other on each shelf. This created an opening for wires, as well as, a void for air flow and hardware for hanging lights. I then strung a length of wire from one end of the void to the other. I attached chain to the wires, which allowed me to hang light fixtures. We decided upon single bulb T5 light fixtures, as they offered the necessary light spectrum at a reasonably low electric requirement. With lights in place, the last item to install was a combination thermometer/hygrometer.  This is incredibly important as plants tend to thrive at temperatures between 70 and 75 degrees F and humidity levels between 40% and 60%. Another aspect plants appreciate is a slight dip in nightly temperature. We were able to meet this demand by simply placing our lights on a timer.
This void allows air flow, wire passage, and room for hardware
During the day, when the lights were on, the growing space achieved temperatures upwards of 80 degrees F and humidity levels remained nearly constant at 55%. During the night, when the timer turned the lights off, we noticed temperatures dropping into the mid sixties with humidity falling approximately 10%. As a result, we had amazing growth and incredibly healthy looking plants.

Grow room complete with grow tower

Once our seeds had sprouted and grown for a week or two, it was time to transplant them to larger pots.  We then realized we needed more room! Next we converted an area adjacent to the sprouting closet and affixed a halogen grow light system. We piled in as many shelves as we could find to utilize vertical space, and just for fun, we set up a grow tower! This allowed us to move mature plants into a separate growing space, while freeing up seed starting space. Before long, we had more plants than we knew what to do with - some we ate, some we sold at a winter farmer's market, and others we held on to for personal use and transplant into cold frames at the Freedom Gardens. All in all, we were growing enough edible green leaves, tomatoes, and beans to fulfill our winter salad needs, while creating a sellable surplus, which helped us subsidize the additional electric charges.

Habaneros, beans, and duck weed for my fishies

This does bring a very important topic to, pardon our pun, light! With any type of indoor growing operation, there will be electrical costs associated. We noticed our additional electric pull added approximately $40 to our monthly statement. However, we were also selling roughly $20 worth of plants each weekend, so all in all, our sales paid for the electric and added to our soil and pots fund. With a little more space, one could reasonably produce enough edible greens to supply their family and create a sellable product in addition to plant sales. While you wouldn't necessarily get rich from such a scenario, you could certainly pay for the additional energy AND save money on groceries.  Saving money is pretty close to earning money, isn't it?

Two more notes worth mentioning. My new common mantra is this - fish are to indoor growing as chickens are to outdoor growing. More on the chickens laters, but plenty of folks will suggest that you need some type of fancy store bought fertilizer to get the best plant growth and production. I beg to differ. The fish tank featured in the Graywater/Aquaponics Innovations blog entry has served as a wonderful resource for plant water. I feed the fish, the fish excrete waste, which I then suck out of the fish tank to keep it clean. This fish bi-product is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and other essential nutrients for plant growth. In fact, it is the very reason why aquaponics works! It's no wonder then that pouring this fish wastewater on plants is a great idea. Add to this the fact that we include worm castings in our potting soil mix, and we've created a soil ecosystem rich in microorganisms - a living plant medium for a living plant!

The other mentionable point regards pests. Unfortunately, we acquired two rosemary plants that apparently contained aphids! These little pests soon began to inhabit many of our plants and two options of containment arose - pesticide or alternative treatment. We chose a combination of the two. At first we utilized neem oil - an organic pesticide derived from the neem tree.  Then we brought forth the faithful lady bug. Together these two methods kept the aphids at bay; however, I did make one startling observation. As with any insect, once you have enough of them, reproduction is inevitable. We began to notice lady bug larvae on our plants - Great! The downside, however, came with the neem oil.  Neem oil coats plant leaves, which herbivore insects eat, causing eventual death. The ladybug larvae spend their time on these same leaves, eating the aphids which have ingested the neem oil.  Guess what happens next. They died too. Our take home lesson - choose one or the other and remain vigilant. I believe we could have continued to add lady bugs to the room to gain control over the aphids rather than utilizing the spray. In this manner, we could have promoted lady bug reproduction and perhaps eventually maintained a population by which to control future aphid infestations. This will be our method the next time the aphids present themselves.  As always, we'll be sharing our findings with you! Thanks for reading and happy seeding!

An evening salad brought to us by our productive basement

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

2013 Growing Season Overview

When we began this blog, we wanted to be truthful and accurate in our statements.  Our goal is to share our successes and failures in such a way that you the reader have a firm starting point should you find yourself with plants on the brain and shovel in hand.  With this in mind, we share with you the synopsis of our 2013 growing season:

The largest hurdle of the 2013 growing season was securing permanent placement at the Fairground. Any farmer knows that planning, preparing, seeding, and harvesting takes a substantial amount of time.  Add to this, the fact that the soils on our site are mediocre at best and must be amended prior to planting, and one quickly realizes the necessity of permanence. This being said, we continued toward our goal of installing 450 square feet of cold frame space, complete with a conservative irrigation system, without any proof that we would be able to utilize the space in the following year.  Fortunately our perseverance paid off and we were able to secure a three year commitment in late August.  Our foot is in the door and we hope to establish true permanence through collaboration with our local county extension office.  Until this permanence is gained, we will continue to install movable infrastructure by which to increase growing space and soil amendment capabilities.

Our construction timeline began in April when we purchased our triple layer polycarb.  Our first pilot cold frame was created by the end of April and we began building the joists for the frames at the Fairgrounds.  During this time, we ordered 15 cubic yards of moo poo - a double digested cow manure product - for use in soil amendment.  By the middle of June, we had installed the base of the cold frames and prepared the soil within.  We quickly got to work building our irrigation system, and by late June, we finished working out the kinks.
Chris giving transplants initial irrigation

By July, we were ready to plant and given the name of our project - Freedom Gardens - found it appropriate to place our first transplants in the ground on July 4th.  Our first round of planting included the southern-most mound and the cold frames.  We planted various tomatoes, green and purple basil, endive, purple and green okra, rutabaga, leeks, various hot peppers, and various lettuces inside the cold frames - all of which we began ourselves from seed!  As noted in our previous blog, we seeded daikon radish, clover, and bunch grasses on the southern mound.

Just a few comments before diving into each of these individually: we did not complete the cold frame lids before planting, which ended up creating a height problem when we did place the lids in October.  By not having lids in the summer months, we were able to circumvent temperature complications inside the boxes; however, we quickly realized that our plants were succumbing to the intense summer sunlight - our well watered babies appeared droopy and generally overheated.  We were able to solve this problem by placing shade cloth over the cold frames, which we left in place until the creating of the lids.  With the shade cloth in place, our plants quickly bounced back and grew vigorously - in fact, the shade cloth helped keep our basil tender and delicious throughout the growing season, but more on this later.

Now for the fun part - how did everything grow!?  Well, to be honest, we seeded the southern mound too late in the season.  Perhaps our construction priority distracted us?!  Regardless, by the time we dropped seed in July, the rains of June had nearly ceased and our seed germination rate appeared hindered.  However, as our "Big pile of dirt" blog points out, we did observe quite a few of these seeded plants maturing into seed bearers, thus offering the potential for self seeding in 2014.

We planted our various tomatoes in the back of two boxes in an effort to utilize vertical space.  The plants faired well, but we did observe some herbivory to the fruits.  While the culprit was never identified - rabbit, mouse, or rat? - we believe the problem may be solved now that lids cover the cold frames.  Our tomatoes continued to provide fruit throughout the growing season and into November, however, once temperatures reached the lower forties, our tomatoes reached their demise.  In this case, the cold frames would be perfect for early planted tomatoes that would be removed before November, but we may simply save the tomatoes for the terraced space we plan to create this spring.
Tomatoes and basil on the first day of planting

Our basil flourished especially well once we placed shade cloth over it.  While we are unsure of the volume yielded, we can certainly attest to harvesting tender, tasty basil throughout the growing season.  Unfortunately, our procrastination in lid development led to an untimely demise of our beautiful basil plants, as the first frost of the season was more than they could bear.  We'll have to see how the lids alter their longevity this season.

We knew we would have some extra work on our hands with the endives.  Ultimately, endive must be clumped or tied at the bottom with soil mounded around the base to create that tender while leaf we've grown accustomed to; however, we never quite grasped when to perform this task.  Perhaps we grew the wrong variety?  At any rate, our endive was quite bitter and grew rather unruly.  They were perhaps our greatest failure of the 2013 growing season, as the growth was primarily wasted.  If we decide to try again, we'll need to brush up on our research, but rest assured, we'll share whatever we learn with you!

Who knew okra grew so beautifully and produced such a harvest!  As stated above, we planted two different species of okra - one purple and one green.  Both performed marvelously and yielded fruit clear into November when the cold moved in to stay.  We learned a couple very important lessons with the okra in 2013.  Okra will grow very tall, 3ft+, if you allow it to - this in mind, we'll be keeping it out of the cold frames in 2014.  Okra fruit also grows quite woody, or fibrous, if allowed to grow longer than two inches (we're currently running an experiment to see if fermentation will break this woodiness down).  I believe that we will see larger plants and a greater harvest in 2014 by cutting fruits when they are 2 inches or less in size.  I know we'll have more edible okra, by doing this!

We began the rutabaga from seed in the cold frame.  Our method was to spread the seed, moisten the seed and soil, and then place shade cloth directly on top of the seeded soil to decrease water loss from evaporation.  While this proved to be a very successful seeding method, we did find that our close spacing led to smaller root harvest.  Ultimately our harvest was small and the big take home lesson for rutabaga was space.  For this reason, we'll keep rutabaga out of the cold frames in 2014. That being said, we were able to harvest tasty rutabaga leaves into December, but once temperatures began staying below 30 degrees F, the leaves were quick to wilt away.

The leeks have proven to be the most tolerant plant of the 2013 growing season.  Planted when extremely small, they have grown to inch diameters at the base.  The cold has not seemed to effect the plants, as we still have quite a collection of them inside the cold frames.  To date, our Montana climate has dipped below zero degrees F for at least two full weeks and still our leeks stand tall and green.  In fact, the leeks seem to grow sweeter and sweeter as we move into the 2014 growing season.  We'll definitely be planting more of these come spring!

What can be said of the lettuces - they seem to grow like weeds no matter where you plant them! We grew lettuces throughout the 2013 season and have successfully kept a few throughout the winter. The cold frames seem to be the perfect habitat for head lettuces.  We were able to harvest a head or two every week clear until we had harvested all of them.  Lettuces did so well, that we decided to plant more at the end of the season to see how long they could battle the Montana cold, but more on that later.

Hot peppers on the day of transplanting
Last but not least, my favorite, hot peppers.  We transplanted white habaneros, culinary thai, long cayenne, bird's eye piquin, and scotch bonnet, which we grew from seed.  All grew amazingly and seemed to relish the hot summer sun!  These plants grew healthy and tall, but quickly succumbed to cooler temperatures in September.  It seems that as soon as the cool fall temperatures set in, chili leaves droop and drop. Fortunately, their fruits can be harvested at this time and thanks can be given to the dying plant. We'll probably place hot peppers in the cold frames for 2014, but we'll have to keep their heights down by pinching the tops.
A collection of harvested hot peppers

We spread arugula seeds in late August, utilizing a method to that of the rutabaga mentioned above. Once roughly 75% of our seeds sprouted, we removed the ground level shade cloth.  The arugula performed similar to the lettuces and basil, yielding several harvests before succumbing to sub-zero temperatures in December.  One change we'll make in the 2014 growing season concerning arugula, is spacing.  While we were able to harvest large quantities of arugula, we were not able to do it quickly or efficiently, as it was spaced too closely together. Unfortunately, we did not bear this in mind when spreading the seed, because we were more focused on maintaining a high germination rate.  One effort we could have made would have been to completely remove harvested plants to make more space for remaining plants to fill.  As it was, we simply cut the tops of all the plants and allowed the bases to sprout more leaves.  Our 2014 attempt will limit the number of seeds we spread in an effort to keep spacing a little wider.  With greater spacing, we should observe larger plants and a quicker, more efficient harvest.

Cold frames in October, during the day of lid placement
Our lid template was completed by mid September, just as the frosts were moving in.  By October 4th, the lid frames were completed and we began attaching them onto the boxes.  As you can see in the picture below, however, many of our plants were taller than the cold frames and had to be cut back. At this point the frosts had begun wilting the tomatoes, basil, and hot peppers.  In fact, the basil had completely died by late October, followed by the tomatoes and peppers by the middle of November.  I believe the okra harvest could have continued longer than October, but cutting the plants back seemed to place a great toll on the plant and they too where completely dead by the end of November.

Our last planting of 2013 occurred in the middle of October.  We planted green butter crunch, red butter crunch, blue scotch curled kale, bell isle cress, red chard, baby choi, a fall seed mix, broccoli de. cicco, and collards.  Now was our chance to see the true effects of the cold frames.

To date - bear in mind, we've had at least two full weeks of sub zero temperatures - it appears as though the red chard, baby choi, broccoli, and collards have succumbed to the cold.  That being said, it appears as though some of the butter crunch, kale, cress, and something in the fall mix has survived even the coldest winter temperatures.  Our immediate observation after proof of life is that the plants are not growing much at all.  We believe (confirmed by Elliot Coleman in Winter Harvest Handbook) that the lesser angle and lack of sunlight is to blame.  Perhaps our fall planting should occur earlier so as to have more mature plants heading into the grip of winter, thus increasing our harvest season, rather than increasing the fall to winter growing season.  The next observation we've made is that the cold frames appear rather dry inside by late January - this is another potential problem we'll have to address in the coming growing seasons.

Oh the joy of farming!  Every year holds a new lesson to learn as we make our way to a more resilient and self sufficient lifestyle.  We hope you enjoy your journey with us as we progress further into the creation of an abundant food system and successful classroom experience.  Thank you and stay tuned!
Fall planting in the evening sunlight