The Milkweed Diaries

Monday, February 23, 2009

One Silver Lining of the Economic Black Cloud

Seed Sales Are Up

From USA Today of all places:

"Amid the Washington talk of "shovel-ready" recession projects, it appears few projects are more shovel-ready than backyard gardens. Veggie seed sales are up double-digits at the nation's biggest seed sellers this year."

Click here for the full article

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Exciting New Tool and Further Reflections on Not Tilling

Last week our broadfork was delivered, mysteriously arriving in several pieces brought by different carriers (the base came via Fed-Ex and the oiled ash handles by USPS). It's a big 7-tined, 28-inch-wide beast of a tool.

Before now, we had been borrowing a smaller broadfork from a neighbor, but now we have our very own!
The 727 Broadfork from Johnny's

We ordered this fabulous tool from Johnny's Selected Seeds, a worker-owned company based in Maine. CF, a consumate tool nerd, spent a lot of time researching different broadfork options, and decided that this one was the best quality and price. Johnny's broadforks are designed by Eliot Coleman of Four Season Harvest and New Organic Gardener fame.

So why are we so excited about this tool? The broadfork, also known as a U-Bar, is an old French gardening tool known in French as a Grelinette. By any name, it is a low-tech, human-powered tool that deeply aerates the soil while preserving soil structure and microbial life. We are using the fork to cultivate permanent beds without tilling.

With tilling, there is a short-term microbial die-off which might actually add to short-term soil fertility, but degrades the soil over the long term. Soil structure and living organisms in the soil are disturbed, and soil health is compromised.

CF works the fork.

Unlike a tiller, the broadfork does not harm the microscopic web of life in the soil, and it is also far less likely than a tiller to kill worms, mole salamanders, and other critters that contribute to healthy soil.

Here's an article from The Modern Homestead on why broadforking is better for the soil than tilling, and another on tilling vs. broadforking to create new garden beds. The Modern Homestead (Harvey Ussery, proprietor) has a lot of great info on tools and methods for human-scale food production, as well as information on soil ecology and how to preserve it. A disclaimer: several of the methods Ussery suggests are counter to my experience of what works in the garden. For example: I have not found that plants thrive when planted into un-cultivated ground through holes cut in cardboard sheet mulch.

To cultivate new beds, we use the broadfork in combination with sheet mulching. The sheet mulching encourages microbial life and worm activity, especially if you load on the organic materials --we use rotted leaves and straw piled on top of cardboard. With heavy sheet mulch kept relatively moist over 3-6 months, the soil is already pretty "worked" before we even touch it with a shovel or fork. And it contains a teeming community of life that is mostly invisible to the naked eye. We always find an abundance of worms when we pull up the remains of the rotted cardboard, and often there are also tunnels made by rodents and mole salamanders under the mulch too. The microbes, the fungi, the worms, the rodents, and a host of other creatures all contribute to breaking up and aerating the soil, making less work for us!

After the well-rotted sheet mulch is peeled back, the broadfork loosens the soil even more, and allows air and water to penetrate the soil deeply, promoting plant growth. With the fork and shovels, we create raised or mounded beds which will never be walked on and permanent paths for foot and wheelbarrow traffic. The beds are disturbed as little as possible after they are built.
We use heavy mulches in the beds year-round to retain soil nutrients and moisture and to protect all of the life in the soil. With mulch, occassional top-dressing and digging-in of compost, and broadforking before each planting, the goal is to build the soil with every growing season. This fall, we'll begin adding cover-crops as a further strategy to sustain soil health.

All of these methods combine to build a thriving soil ecology, and healthy soil stucture to support ongoing food production. Needless to say, these strategies are starkly different than typical large-scale farming practices which leave the soil more depleted after every season--and more and more reliant on petrochemical fertilizer inputs.

The god of small things in his broadforking outfit.

For more on the broadfork and related matters:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Bee School

We just finished Bee School , an annual intensive sponsored by our local bee club.  It was a veritable jamboree of all things apian.

This Spring we'll set up our first hives, facing southeast toward a beautiful red maple tree a short distance from our kitchen garden.  We won't be using any chemicals in the hives, and after the first year we plan to feed the bees only with their own honey (rather than the white sugar or corn syrup that are often used).  

Rather than attempt to summarize the many hours of bee-knowledge that we took in, here are some great links for bee information and inspiration:

Every Third Bite:  A really wonderful 9-minute documentary about bees, food, and life.  I love this little film for a bunch of reasons, but one thing that's great about it is that it showcases not just country bees, but urban and suburban beekeeping operations-- including the Chicago Honey Co-op and a New York City beekeeper who has hives on rooftops all over Manhattan.  

WNC Bees dot org:  The fabulous Buncombe County Bee Club's excellent portal to a wealth of bee-knowledge. 

Wild Mountain Apiaries:  We are buying "nucs" this Spring from this local supplier.  "Nuc" is short for "nuclear colony" -- a small honeybee colony created from a larger colony, and the easiest way to get started in beekeeping.

The Honeybee Project:  A locally-based initiative to raise awareness about the importance of honeybees.

Bee Guardian: Committed to working to help honeybees survive and thrive.

Long live the honeybees!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Spring Vegetable & Flower Starts

Hillbilly Flame Tomato, one of the heirloom varieties of which we will have seedlings available for sale this Spring.

For a complete listing of Vegetable and Flower Starts available for Spring 2009, email: milkingweeds [at] gmail [dot] com.  

In my experience, there is no better time than February to fantasize about gardening and green growing things. In that spirit, I'm posting a link (above) to the list of starts that we are planning to have available from our greenhouse this Spring.  

We created this list for friends to peruse for pre-ordering purposes, and if you're local, feel free to let me know if there's anything on the list you'd like to purchase.  

All of our starts are grown in our homemade super-starter soil and we plant only heirloom, open-pollinated varieties unless otherwise noted (this year there is only one exception, noted in the listing, Sungold cherry tomato, a hybrid).  We use certified organic seed whenever it is available, and guarantee no GMO seed and no Monsanto seeds. Starts will be available for purchase in early May.

Monday, February 2, 2009

One step closer to a Victory Garden at the White House?

Back before the election, I posted about Michael Pollan's open letter to the next president, and about the movement to plant a "Victory Garden" on the grounds of the White House.  

I read an article last week about the Obamas bringing a chef to the White House who it turns out is involved in local food circles.  This very hopeful news in terms of our new president's awareness about issues related to food, hunger, sustainability, and the politics of food, and buried in the article is a mention of the possibilty of a kitchen garden at the White House:

"Mr. Kass’s appointment signals changes at the White House that should please chefs like Alice Waters, who have lobbied the Obamas to set an example for the rest of the country by emphasizing food that is healthy, local and sustainable. It further suggests that a vegetable garden on the White House grounds, another of Ms. Waters’ dreams, could be on the horizon."

Symbolic though it may be, having someone cooking good food in the White House and maybe even growing food on some of that copious lawn is good news for all of us who care about where food comes from; who has access to good, clean, healthy food; and changing the culture of eating in the U. S. of A.