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Archive for the ‘tools’ Category

Cornstalks and Machete

Use a machete to cut corn stalks into manageable lengths for the compost pile.

As you harvest the last of your summer crops, realize that the steps you take now are the beginning of next year’s garden. You could just leave everything as it is, looking not so good through the winter. Mother Nature likes to keep things green, so will provide her own seeds to fill in the space if you don’t. That’s where the unwanted weeds come from. The spent plants from your summer crops are actually valuable compost material at the ready. Harvest them for your compost pile as you clean up your garden. Next year this time the compost you make now will be available to spread as fertilizer for your garden. If you have grown corn and sunflowers, those stalks are wonderful sources of carbon for your compost. Some folks till all their spent plants, including cornstalks, into the soil. However, since I advocate managing your garden with hand tools, I chop the stalks down and cut them into manageable lengths with a machete, as shown in the photo. The cornstalks then go into the compost pile with all the other harvestable plants, plus some soil. You can see me in action chopping cornstalks and adding them to the compost in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. When you look at the plants in your garden, make sure to recognize their value as a compost material.

Winte killed oats in late February.

Winterkilled oats in late February.

After you clean up the garden beds by harvesting compost material, you will need to plant cover crop seeds. If you have beds producing food through the winter, that’s great. It’s the rest of the garden I’m talking about. The crops you plant now will determine how each bed is to be used next year. If you intend to have bed space devoted to early season plantings, such as peas, lettuce, greens, and onions, you want the cover crops to be finished by then. Cereal rye, often called winter rye, is a great cover crop for winter. However, it is not so great if you are managing it with hand tools and you want to plant those early spring crops. The rye will have put down a tremendous amount of roots and be growing vigorously in early spring. Options to plant now in those beds destined for early spring crops are oats or Daikon radish, two crops that will winterkill if you get severe enough winter weather. Here in Virginia in Zone 7 we usually have weather that will cause these crops to winterkill, however I remember a few mild winters when they didn’t. I also remember a winter I planted oats in a bed that had compost piles on the bed just to the north of it. The compost provided enough protection to keep the oats growing into the spring.

If you choose the route of planting crops to winterkill, you need to get them planted early enough so that they have a chance to produce a large volume of biomass before the weather turns cold. If you don’t already have these crops in the ground, the time to plant them is NOW. Actually, anytime in the past three weeks would have been better. Another alternative for that space for early spring crops is to mulch it with leaves for the winter. The leaves will protect the soil over the winter and when you pull them back in early spring you will find a fine layer of compost where the leaves meet the soil. The worms would have been working on those leaves all winter. Pull the leaves back a couple weeks before you intend to plant to allow the sun to warm the soil.

Rye and vetch cut at pollen shed.

This rye and vetch cover crop was cut at pollen shed (May 7) and will dry to become a mulch for the next crop.

You want a thick cover of plant growth with any cover crop. Planting at the right time will encourage that. The legumes, such as hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian winter peas are often used as fall cover crops. It is best to get them in about a month before your last frost to ensure a good stand. That should encourage you to begin cleaning up the parts of your garden that have finished producing. Not all your garden beds will be host to the same cover crop, so you can do it bed by bed—an advantage over working on the whole garden at the same time. These legumes will begin to grow and will provide protection for the soil through the winter. In early spring they will take off, growing to their full capacity by the time of your last spring frost. You may have seen crimson clover flowering in garden beds at that time. You can cut this biomass with a sickle and add it to the compost pile. It would be a nitrogen component. You could lay it down as mulch right in the bed, but it would soon dissolve into the soil and not last as long as mulch that has more carbon. The advantage of the legumes is the nitrogen they leave in the soil from the nodules on their roots. If you should need the bed sooner than the date of your last frost, you could easily cut the legume a little early, leaving the roots. They are not so tenacious that you can’t plant into the bed soon after cutting.

The winter cover crop that will produce the most carbon for your compost and/or mulch is the rye that I mentioned earlier. It is also the crop that you can plant the latest into the fall and still have a good stand; making it a possible choice after things like tomatoes and peppers that produce until the first fall frost. You can let it grow to seed and cut it in early summer (mid-June here), giving you seed and mature straw. Or, you can cut it at pollen shed (about May 7 here) and leave it in the bed as mulch. Wait two weeks before planting to let the roots begin to die back. The bed would be suitable for putting in transplants, but not for seeds at that time. Often rye is planted with a legume. If you are planting late in the season, choose Austrian winter peas as a companion.

The information in my DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan and my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, helps you to determine how to plan these cover/compost crops into your crop rotation. In the DVD you see me explaining a four bed rotation as I fill in the crop selections on a whiteboard. The book has three sample garden maps accompanied by explanations. The sample garden maps in the DVD and in the book have crops filling the beds for all twelve months of the year. Knowing how to fit enough cover crops in your garden plan to provide all of your compost and mulch material is definitely a skill that takes concentration and practice to learn. I hope the educational materials that I have produced will help many gardeners along that path. The most important thing is to just get started and plant something. Make note of your planting time and watch how it grows. The learning is in the doing.Homeplace Earth

 

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Master Nut Cracker1-BLOG

Master Nut Cracker

                                                                                                                              We have a couple of black walnut trees near our driveway. Until 2008 I had only paid passing attention to them, never taking the time to harvest the nuts at the right time. To do that, every day or two I would have to pick up the green balls that fell from the trees and throw them in the driveway. Driving over them would remove the green husks. Then I would gather the nuts to air-dry and store for later. If they weren’t gathered from the ground in a timely manner, I would find worms in them. Shelling them was a challenge. I tried cracking them using a hammer and by squeezing them in a vice. Both methods were unsatisfactory. You can find information about these methods and more at http://www.nemahaweb.com/blackwalnuts/crackers.htm. Black walnuts are much harder than the English walnuts you would find in the grocery store and regular nutcrackers won’t work for them. Finally I called my friend Margaret to borrow her black walnut cracker.

Margaret and Jerry moved to their 50 acre farm in late 1982. They had black walnut trees in the yard and intended to make use of them. When Margaret told me of her search for a suitable nutcracker, I told her of an article I had recently read in the December 1983 issue of Organic Gardening magazine. I located that issue on my bookshelf while preparing to write this post. It still contained a note to Xerox the article for Margaret. (Back then we didn’t copy things, we Xeroxed them.) The article profiled four nutcrackers suitable for hard-shelled nuts—hickories, butternuts, and black walnuts. The Potter nutcracker was one of them, and the one owned by the authors, Mike and Nancy Bubel.  At the time, I had also checked my copy of Home Food Systems which listed the Potter as the “largest, heaviest, most powerful nutcracker we tested.” Home Food Systems was published in 1981. Margaret bought one and has used it all these years.

Potter nut cracker-BLOG

Margaret’s Potter Nut Cracker

Our black walnut trees seem to bear every other year, so I didn’t throw myself into thinking about black walnuts again until the fall of 2010. The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe was hot off the press and the green balls were, once again, raining down. Deppe talks about gathering nuts in her book, specifically the need to get them off the ground promptly. I borrowed Margaret’s Potter nutcracker again. However, the best way to store nuts is in the shell, with the cracking done as needed. It became clear that I should have my own tool. With the harvest skipping a year, there were no new nuts to crack in 2011, but I still had some left from 2010 to play with. I had my eye out for a used Potter, since they aren’t manufactured anymore. What I found is the Master Nut Cracker, similar to the Potter.

My husband gave me a Master Nut Cracker for Christmas last year. It is the one in the top photo and it came with a bag of black walnuts. It was just what I needed for my black walnuts—and as I found later—for the hazelnuts (filberts) and peanuts. My husband had also given me small vice grips to use for the hazelnuts, an improvement over my other methods. I thought my hazelnuts would be too small for the Master Nut Cracker, but I found that it cracked all but the very smallest. Eventually I realized that I could shell peanuts with it, also.

This nut cracker lives up to its expectations for cracking black walnuts. If you see advertisements for nutcrackers, read them carefully. If they list walnuts (rather than black walnuts), they mean English walnuts, which are easier to shell. One of the great things about this nutcracker is that it has a second set of anvils. You can see these in the picture. They’re inserted into their storage holes to the right on the board. Just unscrew the larger anvils and put these in and you’re all set to crack smaller nuts. These smaller anvils are what I put on for the hazelnuts. The anvils are concave, allowing you to crack the shells without smashing everything together, which is what happens using the hammer method.

If you are thinking of getting a Master Nut Cracker, be on the watch for the Duke Nutcracker. The Duke is a Chinese knock-off and of lesser quality, according to what I’ve read. Often Chinese look-alikes are inferior and will soon break or be less than enjoyable to use. Do your internet homework and order from Gerald Gardner, developer of the Master Nut Cracker, himself. You will have to send a check to him and the address is on his website, along with the story of how it all came to be. You might want to put a Master Nut Cracker on your Christmas wish list, like I did. Happy cracking!

 

More about my experiences with the Master Nut Cracker at http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/master-nut-cracker.aspx

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Tools I Use

spade, garden fork, mattock-BLOG

spade, garden fork, mattock

Since I advocate managing your garden with hand tools, I thought I would show you what hand tools I use.  When breaking new ground a mattock is great for taking off the existing vegetation.  Let the weight of the tool do the job for you, sliding the head under the sod and lifting it off.  It might be necessary to mow the area before you begin, depending on what is there.  You can find a mattock in your local hardware store.  Often the head and wood handle are sold separately.  The heads come in different sizes and weights and some heads have a sharp point (pick) on one side.  Make sure you are buying the style and size you need for the job.  If you were digging out bushes, you would find this extremely useful.

To double dig the beds I use a garden fork and spade.  Directions for double digging are in the book How to Grow More Vegetables.  My beds were double dug when I established them years ago and now the roots of my cover crops keeps them friable.  So for me, the spade gets used edging the beds and the fork is used for digging potatoes and sweet potatoes.  Sometimes I use the fork as a mini-broadfork to loosen the soil.  The fork has thick flat tines.  Notice the length of the handles.  Some people may find the tools available locally to be too short.  If you are over 5’5” tall, you may want a spade and fork that is 43” long.  Bountiful Gardens carries good quality forks and spades in 39” and 43” lengths.  My fork is from Bountiful Gardens and my spade was bought locally.

trowel, soil knife, Trake, Cobrahead-BLOG

trowel, soil knife, Trake, Cobrahead

For transplanting I use a trowel or a soil knife.  Good quality trowels are easy to find.  Poor quality trowels are even easier.  Choose a sturdy one that will hold up to lots of hard use.  I have a Lesche soil knife that I like to use when transplanting into the cover crop residue.  I got mine from www.waycooltools.com.  I also have a Trake that is pretty handy. It’s a trowel on one end and small cultivator on the other.  It was a gift from my aunt many years ago.  I’m sure there are sources on the web.  Colorful handles help ensure that you will find these small tools when you lay them down in your garden.  Once I had a trowel with a black handle that spent most of its time lost in the grass.  If you find that you are always losing your wood handled tools, you could paint them a bright color.  It might look gaudy, but it definitely makes them easier to find and distinguishable as yours if you take them anywhere.

cultivator and collinear hoe--BLOG

cultivator and collinear hoe

I use a long handled cultivator that I purchased at our local feed store.  It is a good sturdy tool that I use for incorporating broadcast seeds and for mixing in compost.  The hoe I’m currently using is a 7” collinear hoe.  Most often I turn it on its 1″ edge to make furrows or to weed among closely spaced plants. I also like a 5” wide trapezoid hoe.  Both hoes are available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  Johnny’s is a good source for many tools for market growers.  Another cultivating tool that I really like is my short handled Cobrahead.  I use it for both light work and to chop out something tough.  It’s available many places, but I got mine from the folks who produce it.  You can find them at www.cobraheadllc.com.

sickle and machete--BLOG

sickle and machete

For managing my cornstalks, I use a machete.  It is available from Northern Tool+Equipment for $8 and even came with a cotton sheath to hang on a belt.  The Japanese sickle I use to cut rye and wheat is available from Hida Tool & Hardware Co., Inc.  I wrote about the sickle on May 17, 2011.  A less expensive model is available from Way Cool Tools.  You can see the sickle and machete in action in my video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.

I hope this is helpful to you.  If it’s not too late, you might want to put something here on your Christmas list.  You could email this post to your Santa.  My Santa loves it when I give him suggestions including links of where to get them.  No doubt you will find many other items to put on your wish list when you browse these sources, but these are the tools that get me through the gardening year.

Anyone else have a favorite tool they would like to tell us about?

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