Archive for July, 2013

home-hhf-2013There are two exciting events coming up in September that I want to tell you about. I’ll be at both of them as a speaker and in the Homeplace Earth booth. The 7th annual Heritage Harvest Festival will be held at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia on September 6 and 7, 2013. The Mother Earth News Fair will be at Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania September 20-22.

The Heritage Harvest Festival is hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in partnership with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. On Friday September 6 all the activities take place at the LEED-certified Visitors Center. On Saturday September 7 the action is at the Visitors Center and up on the mountain on the grounds surrounding Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. Jefferson was a champion for small farmers and for innovative ways. What an appropriate place for such a celebration!

At the Heritage Harvest Festival you will have an opportunity to learn about many things, listen to some great music, and mingle with like-minded folks. There will be workshops and presentations on growing food, fermentation, seed saving, homestead animals, and other topics of interest for people seeking a more sustainable lifestyle.  Some of the authors who will be speaking include Pam Dawling, Patricia Foreman, Ira Wallace, Harvey Ussery, and Barbara Pleasant. The title of my presentation both days is Grow a Sustainable Diet. There is a seed swap that you can participate in even if you don’t bring seeds to swap. One of the varieties of cowpeas that I grow originally came from there one year. There will be booths from vendors and organizations. Look for the Homeplace Earth booth in the large Master Gardeners tent.

MENFairLogoThis is the fourth year for the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania. In 2013 Mother Earth News has also held a fair in Puyallup, Washington in June and will hold one in Lawrence, Kansas in October. You will find workshops and presentations on animal husbandry, green building, modern homesteading, natural health, nature and community, organic gardening, real food, and renewable energy. My presentations will be on Grow a Sustainable Diet and Solar Food Drying. Some of the presenters are authors of books from New Society Publishers, Storey Publishing, Timber Press, and Chelsea Green. There are many more presenters who, although not authors, have interesting ideas to share. You will find vendors here, of course, giving you an opportunity to see products you may only have read about and to talk with people who know about them. The Homeplace Earth booth is #2209. When I’m not speaking, that’s where I’ll be.

There will be thousands of people at both of these events. If you are planning to attend either one, and need lodging, it would be wise to make your reservations now. It is exciting for people like me, who are presenting, to meet so many people eager to hear what we have to say. Likewise, it is exciting for the people who attend to have the opportunity to meet so many people all in one place who they may have only read about. Yes, you can read the books and blogs and watch YouTube videos for hours, but actually seeing someone in person talking about what they do is inspiring. You can really connect with their passion when you attend their presentation or talk with them in their booth.

Most people I know are watching their pocketbook and trying not to spend more money than they have to these days, and there is a cost to these events. Considering how much you could learn in a weekend, however, these events are a bargain. If you feel the need to economize, pack a lunch. Check out the schedules ahead and plan your time carefully. You can pre-order tickets to the Mother Earth News Fair to save a few dollars.

Over the years I have learned so much from others by reading their books and magazine articles. I have valued the opportunities to meet them in person and hear them speak, adding another dimension to my learning. The diversity of ideas and people floating around at these events are something you don’t want to miss. See you there!Homeplace Earth

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cucumber plants surrounded by water

cucumber plants surrounded by water

This year hasn’t been one of favorable weather, as far as gardening is concerned, with warm weather slow in coming in the spring. Now, here in Virginia, we’ve had a wet summer. The water table tends to be high at our place. That means that in the low spots, there will be standing water when we have much rain.

My garden slopes to the northwest corner. The west side of the garden is the wettest in this kind of weather, particularly in that northwest corner. I decided to check just how much the drop was on the north side of my garden from east to west. I ran a string from one side to the other, using a level to align it correctly. The string was 12” above ground on the east side and 24” above ground on the west side—a 12” drop! The bed in that corner is good in the drier years, but marginal at best at other times. I’ve ignored it for far too long and have decided that I should address this problem this year.

Before I tell you what I’m going to be doing with the bed in that low corner, I want to tell you what I’ve already done in my garden to help with such issues. Although we have too much rain right now, more often, the problem is too little rain. The best place to store water in your garden is in the soil. Double digging the beds when you establish your garden will open the soil and give water a place to be. Of course, if your garden is in the low spot of your yard and you double dig your beds, you might have to dig a trench around your garden to route the extra water somewhere else to hold it for awhile in times of heavy rainfall. Double digging is a job for when the soil is dry, not something you would be doing if you currently have standing water. I know some of my readers are in drought prone areas and find it hard to imagine too much water. If that is you, kindly forward this post to folks you know in wetter areas.

Having permanent beds and permanent paths is a help. The beds are double dug to start and then not walked on. Your feet are confined to the paths, which can be mulched. Not wanting to find mulch materials for my paths, I’ve gone to growing white clover in them. When I formed my beds I dug out the1½ ft. wide paths between them and put that soil onto the garden beds. It gives the impression of raised beds without using any materials to frame them. You can see the benefit of that in the first photo. Extra rainwater can drain from the beds and slowly seep into the soil in those paths. The cucumber plants you see in that picture did fine, once the weather evened out. When that photo was taken we had had 6.25” of rain in seven days.

garden-august 2008-combined-BLOG

garden with permanent beds, cover crops, and compost

Organic matter helps hold nutrients in reserve for your crops, otherwise, too much water can wash them away. You can build organic matter in your beds by growing cover crops and by adding compost. I have cover crops in my rotations and regularly add compost to my beds. If you are not familiar with gardens with permanent beds and permanent paths, compost, and cover crops, you might want to watch my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. You can see a preview of it here. Having enough cover crops in your rotation to use them as compost material enables you to avoid bringing in compost materials that might be harmful to your garden. Find out more about that issue in my post Killer Compost.

If you’ve done all of the above and your garden, or places in it, are still too wet, use this as an opportunity to explore new things. Take a good look at what is going on. It might be that you are still building your soil and things will get better. However, if you know this is a recurring problem, reconsider what you’ve been doing. You could change the crops you grow there. In 2004 I grew rice in my waterlogged corner and was successful with a harvest of 8 pounds per 100 sq. ft. However, I learned that rice needs to be hulled and I never got around to doing that. Maybe I should try that again. I could have a rotation that includes rice in several beds in that area, separate from the rest of the garden rotation.

Knowing that is the wet corner, I have basket willow and hazelnut (filbert) trees planted in that area of the garden. Take time to research plants that do well in wetlands or rain gardens. In my smaller garden I was happy to acquire some Siberian irises for the wet area when a friend was giving some away. During one year of heavy rainfall, cattails showed up uninvited in a wet area. These things are great for my borders, and I believe having a wetlands is good for any ecosystem, however, I would really like to get some vegetable production out of that garden bed in the northwest corner of my garden that is 12” lower than the other side of the garden.

I am considering building the height of the bed with hugelkultur. Hugelkultur is basically a compost pile with a thick base of wood, sequestering carbon in the soil for the long term. Sepp Holzer promotes this technique in his book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening. I wouldn’t want to use wood big enough to burn in our wood stove, but we have some brush piles around here—a result of some much needed pruning of our bushes and trees. I could move that brush to the low bed, adding garden weeds and other green material as I go along. Some soil will most likely go into the building, but most of the soil will be on the top layer. Hopefully, this summer or fall we’ll be digging out the area where the garden washing station is and putting down pavers. I’m not in a hurry to do this work (on the garden bed or the pavers), so whenever (and if)  it happens, the soil will go to the brush pile/compost pile that is on the low bed. I already build compost piles on some of my beds with the finished compost being distributed each season. What goes into a hugelkultur bed stays there. I would have to build the pile much taller than I want the finished height of the bed to be. Just as a compost pile is reduced to a lower level in the process, this bed would become shorter, also.

Homeplace EarthOn the other hand, cattails would be at home in that spot, just as it is, and wouldn’t involve nearly so much energy on my part. There are always choices and things to learn in a garden.

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Why You Should Save Seeds

saved seedsI assume everyone has their favorite seed company, or several favorites. However, as good as these sources are, they might not always be there for you. Even if the company exists, the varieties it carries might not. If they don’t grow the seed themselves, their suppliers, even if they are excellent farmers, could suffer crop failure from time to time. Or, the variety is dropped from the catalog due to low sales. What do you do then, if that variety was the pride of your garden? Did you ever consider saving seed yourself from the varieties you grow? Providing what we are talking about is open-pollinated varieties, you could have grown out a portion of your crop to seed yourself, insuring future harvests.

Open-pollinated varieties are those that breed true, providing they have not cross-pollinated with something else. The parents are the same variety. You would have trouble saving seed from hybrid varieties, but not because they won’t germinate and grow. The parents of hybrids are from two different varieties, crossed to produce an F1 (first generation) variety that has specific characteristics. With the mixed genetics, the offspring of these plants may not be the same. Remember the heredity diagrams from biology class in high school? There are dominant and recessive characteristics that may or may not appear in one generation, but pop up in another. It takes seven years of careful selection to de-hybridize a hybrid variety. In those seven years, you could have been working with an open-pollinated variety to get just what you want.

Getting just what you want to survive in the micro-climate of your garden is what you are after. If you buy seeds that are grown far from your garden year after year, it is like starting over all the time. If you save the seeds of what does best in your garden, you will be developing a strain of that variety that is particularly suited to your place. Personally, I’ve been looking at peppers that do well being started in a coldframe, rather than the warmer conditions indoors.

Worchester Indian Red Pole Lima Beans

Worchester Indian Red Pole Lima Beans

Some folks begin to save seeds when they are passed on to them by family, particularly when that family member has kept them alive for many generations. Saving seeds from one year to the next was once a way of life. When the immigrants came to this country, they often had seeds with them. I would think that the growing conditions would be different from where they came from. The seeds and plants that survived would have gradually become acclimated to the new land.

Saving money is as good a reason as any to save seeds. Not only is the cost of seeds going up, but so is the shipping. A few packets of seeds when you are starting out doesn’t put too much of a dent in your pocketbook, but as you begin to grow more of your food, you will need more variety and a larger quantity of seed.

If you have been gardening for awhile, maybe it is time to expand your gardening expertise and learn new skills. When you save seeds, you have to be aware of which varieties will cross, the timing of the harvest for seeds, how to get the seeds from the plant to your seed-saving container and how to store them so they will be viable for as long as possible. Learning new things keeps life interesting.

The last reason I have for saving seeds is a biggy. You’ve probably heard that major chemical companies, such as Monsanto, have taken a huge interest in having the rights to seeds so they can patent the genes. They have also bought up seed companies, then discontinued varieties, particularly the ones of regional significance. The major focus of these companies is to breed varieties that do well when used with their chemicals. They even change the genes, inserting genes that may not even be plant genes, let alone a variety of the plant that they are working with. These genetically engineered seeds may result in plants that are able to withstand being sprayed with herbicide or may resist predation by certain insects. This has resulted in weeds and insects that are resistant to their efforts; so around and around it goes. Any toxic effects all of that has on humans has not been considered as well as it should have.

These efforts by the chemical companies have nothing to do with flavor or nutrition; things you would be looking for in plant breeding for your family dinner table. As far as dealing with weeds and insects, if you have developed a sustainable, organic system, you already have those things under control. If you save seeds from your best plants, they obviously have survived the weed, insect, and climate pressure in your garden. Take a look around your garden now and decide what seeds you will be saving. Educate yourself from the many books available on the topic, so you will be ready when the time comes this year.

Enjoy the adventure!Homeplace Earth


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