Posts Tagged ‘homesteading’

Bloody Butcher corn drying in the barn

If you’ve seen my video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden, you know that I grow Bloody Butcher corn for cornmeal.  I chose that variety because back in 1991 Mike McGrath made a big deal about it in Organic Gardening magazine. I liked the color and that it was an heirloom, so I grew Bloody Butcher the next year.  I also put in a variety of yellow corn that year and Bloody Butcher did the best.  I’ve been growing it and saving seed ever since.

Growing flour corn is similar to growing sweet corn—except you just leave it on the stalk to dry.  With sweet corn you are watching for just the right moment to pick it at its best.  There’s not so much bother with flour corn.  Nature protects the ears from the birds with the husks.  That doesn’t help against the raccoons, but in his book Small-Scale Grain Raising, Gene Logsdon suggests putting old socks over each ear to protect from four-legged predators.  I haven’t tried the socks.

corn ready for harvest

When it’s ready to harvest, the stalks will be mostly dry and often the ears will point downward, but not always.  Choose a dry day and pull off the ears, husks and all.  I pull back the husks on each ear and, using baling twine, tie the ears together in a long string, tying them where the ear meets the pulled back husks.  I hang these strings in the barn out of reach of mice and birds.  I usually do this in early September.  The corn would have been transplanted about May 21 .  The corn still needs to dry down a bit more after harvest, and I’m pretty busy anyway in September, so sometime in October I get around to shelling it.

corn sheller in action

Shelling corn is a lot of fun if you are using a hand-cranked corn sheller.  If you are using your thumbs it’s not so much fun and blisters form pretty quickly.  You can find a shiny new red corn sheller at Lehman’s for $239.  I see there’s one on the internet at Pleasant Hill Grain for $80.  I’m sure there are differences, but besides the color (red and green), the only difference I can see from the pictures is that you need to adjust a wing nut for cob size with the Pleasant Hill model.  The old ones I’m familiar with have a heavy spring that adjusts automatically.   My favorite place to find corn shellers is antique malls.  You can also find them on E-bay.  I prefer the antique malls since I can see what I’m getting.  No doubt, what you find will be rusty, but that’s okay.  A little wire brushing will clean it up, but it would work fine as it is.  Wood missing in the handle is one thing to look out for.  There are plenty of good ones out there, but if you do end up with one missing the wood, you could use a handle suited to putting on a file, as a friend of mine did.  You should be able to buy an old corn sheller for under $50 if you take your time and keep your eyes open.  A popular brand name is Black Hawk.  You need to attach a corn sheller to something, usually a wooden box that you’ve made.  The shelled corn drops right into the box and the empty cobs shoot out and away.  If you are really on a tight budget, you might want to go the primitive route and make a sheller out of a board and a few nails.  This 1983 article in Mother Earth News will show you how–http://www.motherearthnews.com/do-it-yourself/1983-01-01/a-primitive-but-free-corn-sheller.aspx. 

I wash the corn kernels as I did the wheat and you can check that out at my blog post Grains in Your Garden.  Once it’s dry, I store it in jars in my pantry, after I put it in the freezer for a few days first to insure against insect damage.  When I’m shelling, I take note of my best ears and keep that seed separate for planting next year.  I might keep that in the freezer all year.   

Bloody Butcher corn ready for the pantry

Corn feeds us and the soil.  Corn is an easy to grow grain that can be a staple in your diet.  People who have issues with gluten can enjoy eating corn. The stalks provide carbon to feed back the soil by way of the compost pile.  I chop them with a machete in lengths convenient for compost material.  Corn is one of the “five crops you need to survive and thrive” that Carol Deppe wrote about in The Resilient Gardener.  The other four crops are potatoes, beans, squash and eggs.  Deppe is a seed breeder and has developed certain varieties for particular uses and has come up with her own recipes.  Being gluten intolerant herself, she has included her recipe for corn bread that contains no wheat flour in the book.  Published only a year ago, this book is a “must read” for anyone wanting to grow a major portion of their diet.

You can find out how the Hidatsa Indians traditionally grew and managed their corn by reading Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden.  It also covers squash, beans, and sunflowers and is an excellent historical account.  With a little research you might be able to find out which heirloom varieties have been grown in your area.  Or maybe you might read an article about an interesting variety and start from there, like I did.  If you don’t want to have to grind corn and make cornmeal, but you would like the experience of growing corn and harvesting it dry on the stalk, grow popcorn.  You can shell out just what you need at the time and it won’t be too bad on your thumbs.  You could use the stalks for your Halloween decorations, then chop them for the compost pile.  Even a small amount would be fun to get started with.  I hope you keep corn in mind for your 2012 garden.


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sweet potatoes from one plant

If you planted sweet potatoes this year it’s about time to get them out of the ground, if you haven’t already.  That said, most of mine are still there, I hope.  The only pest I have with sweet potatoes are the voles and they may have gotten more than their share this year.  Voles are one of the biggest challenges in the garden.  One of these days I’ll have them in balance. 

According to the Rodale book How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method (1961), my favorite reference book, sweet potatoes need 175 frost-free days with warm nights.  When the soil temperature dips to 60 degrees the vines stop growing.  The vines die at a soil temperature of 50.  I want to dig my sweet potatoes before the frost so that I can have as much biomass for the compost pile from the vines as I can.  If you do that you don’t have to worry about soil temperature.  Sweet potatoes grow as a bunch from the base of each plant, not willy nilly under the ground.  You can see the harvest from one plant in the photo along with the garden fork used to dig them.  Garden forks have strong, flat tines as opposed to pitch forks which have round tines for forking hay and such.  Pitch forks are not suitable for digging in the soil.  You can see me digging sweet  potatoes in my video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.

Once the sweet potatoes are out of the ground the books generally say to cure them at about 80 degrees for a week or two.  They sweeten up during that time so you may want to hold off eating them.  Unless the house is 80 degrees, which it’s not in early October, my sweet  potatoes don’t get the heat treatment.  I bring them in, usually unwashed, and store them in the sunroom in a bushel basket or cardboard box, maybe covered with a newspaper, for at least two weeks before further handling.  We often just use them out of that basket.  Late in October I’ll sort them and put the ones I want to save for starts next year in a plastic 10-gallon tote with a lid, first making sure they are dry enough.  That plastic box has air holes drilled in it and goes into the crawl space under the house.  If I have extra Irish potatoes, they are stored the same way. When I retrieve any potatoes from a bin in the crawl space I peek at all the boxes to make sure none are rotting.  You could store sweet potatoes under your bed in a cardboard box.  Irish potatoes, however, need a little cooler temperature and higher humidity, so under the house in the ventilated plastic tote is best for them.  I store a good quantity of sweet and Irish potatoes in a lower kitchen cabinet for immediate use.  We don’t have a dishwasher, leaving plenty of space for things like that. 

sweet potato leaves

You can actually begin your harvest from the sweet potato plants much earlier by harvesting the leaves for your table.  We began cutting the tips of the plants this summer to add to a stir-fry vegetable medley.  I would go into the garden and get a little of this, a little of that, and some sweet potato leaves, add some onions and/or garlic and toss it all around in a pan with a little olive oil or bacon grease.  I would take the newest leaves on the end of each vine.  As you can see in the photo, they are brighter and slightly red veined.  I plan on doing more of that in the future.  Of course, you don’t harvest too much.  You would have to experiment to determine how much you can cut.  If small livestock are part of your food production circle you could harvest the green vines for them.  You’ll get the benefit back when the manure goes into the compost.  Sweet potatoes were part of the diet in the Biosphere II experiment, with the vines going to their goats.  I have heard that cutting the vines during the growing season would result in bigger potatoes, but I haven’t thoroughly explored that yet.

Sweet potatoes have the highest beta-carotene content of all the vegetables, even carrots.  Studies indicate that beta-carotene can help protect you from cancer, particularly cancer of the lungs, stomach, or mouth, which should be of particular interest to smokers.  In order for your body to make the best use of  beta-carotene, add a little fat to your sweet potato dish.  A pat of butter will do.  Sweet potatoes are healthy for you, taste great, and are easy to store.  All good reasons for you to have them in your garden plan.

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cold frame

cold frame

My first experience with season extension structures was a cold frame.  I have found cold frames to be of best use as solar powered plant starters.  I grow lots of seedlings in my two cold frames, beginning with brassicas plants in February and ending with brassicas plants and lettuce in September.  In September, I set out the kale, collard, and maybe chard plants into beds that will have a low tunnel over them for the winter and I space the lettuce seedlings around inside the cold frame.  I harvest the lettuce on a cut-and-come-again basis until about Christmas.  By that time it will have become somewhat tough and weathered, having been frozen and thawed many times, even with the glass lid on.  I leave it go and by about February 10 I clean out the cold frame and plant the first seeds for spring transplants.  One year I planted onion seeds there on January 10. I’d do that more often if I remembered to order the onion seeds in time.  Each time I harvest seedlings, some soil goes with them.  Each time I plant seeds, I add compost before planting.

Over the years, I have put collards and kale in the cold frames to harvest all winter.  That was okay, except for the fact that in February it is still there going strong when I need the space to start seeds.  I don’t start anything in the house anymore.  About the third week of March, and for sure by the beginning of April, I have set out the cool weather plants in the garden, mainly brassicas, chard, and lettuce, leaving room for the tomatoes, peppers, flowers and whatever other warm weather things I’m starting in the cold frame.  My last frost date is around April 25.  The soil will warm up in the cold frame with the lid on and those warm weather things will sprout.  I open the lid on warm days and close it at night.  You don’t want to have cool weather crops still in the cold frame when you put in the warm weather seeds.  By that time the lid needs to be off for the cool crops and it needs to be on for the crops requiring warmer weather.  If their occupation time in the cold frame overlaps, you would do well to have two separate cold frames.  Anyone who has started tomatoes and peppers at the same time knows that peppers take longer to germinate.  They also like warmer soil.  Usually I treat them the same as the tomatoes, but I’ve considered covering the pepper seeds with a cloche of some sort inside the cold frame to provide extra warmth.  When the tomatoes and peppers come out, the sweet potatoes go in to produce slips.  By that time the lid is put away for the summer and the cold frame is just a safe place to produce transplants.   There always seems to be something to put in there.

cold frame filled with seedlings

cold frame filled with seedlings

I used to start my tomatoes and peppers on March 1 in the house under lights.  They would require careful attention in the house, then more attention to harden them off so that they would be prepared for the elements when I set them out in the garden.  Starting the seeds in the cold frame is a whole lot easier.  The plants produced in the cold frame don’t need further hardening off.  If too many seedlings are crowded together, I might prick them out and put them in pots or flats to have some more space to grow before putting them in the garden.

I used Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman as a guide for my cold frames.  A friend gave me two 3’x6′ pieces of glass, so I made the cold frames to that size.  The low side is from a 2×8 and the back is from a 2×12.  I took Coleman’s suggestion to add a 2×2 along the bottom so that when it starts to rot, I could replace the 2×2.  My cold frame sits on solid cement blocks that serve to raise it a bit and to protect the bottom from rotting.  My cold frames are made of untreated pine and painted with latex paint.  The 3’x6′ wood-framed glass lid is heavy and it takes two of us to put it away each year.  I notched a 2×2 to lift the lid for venting, as shown in Four Season Harvest.  I never hinge a lid to the frame.  If you do that, the only way you can vent it is to lift the lid.  Sometimes on warm days it needs to be removed completely.  Cold frames can heat up quickly when the sun is shining.  Sometimes it is to your advantage to just slide the lid one way or another to vent slightly to keep from overheating.  Rather than have a large lid I think it is better to have two or more lids that can be stacked on the cold frame to allow venting, but still provide some protection.  When they are removed in the garden temporarily, or stored away for the season, they wouldn’t take up so much room as one large lid.  When one of my glass lids broke I used 2′ wide pieces of twinwall panels, also a second-hand gift from a friend, resting them on the cold frame and shifting or stacking them as needed.

low tunnel

low tunnel

Although I would like to not have any plastic in my garden, most years I use a low tunnel made from plastic hoops covered with greenhouse plastic to protect collards, kale, and chard over the winter.  At 2 1/2′ tall it allows more space for the greens than the cold frame.  I can usually harvest once a week, skipping a week in the coldest times.  Here in zone 7, I’ve found that I don’t have to close the ends, although I keep a piece of plastic handy to put over the ends if it really gets cold. This structure protects the plants and doesn’t need as much attention as a cold frame.  I transplant the winter greens in early September, but they don’t need to be covered until late October or early November.  You want the rodents in your garden to find cozy homes elsewhere before you put the cover on.  You can use regular construction plastic for the cover.  It’s best to make sure it’s 6 mil thick.  There are clips made especially for attaching the plastic to the hoops and I recommend them.  I only need them for the ends.

greens for winter harvest

greens for winter harvest

My low tunnels have a ridge pole along the top, attached with a screw at each hoop.  The hoops are no more than 4′ apart.  I use 8′ lengths of plastic pipe to cover a 4′ wide bed.  The ends of these hoops fit into pieces of larger diameter pipe.  This larger size pipe is cut to 2′ lengths and is put one foot into the ground with the other end sticking up for the hoops to fit into.   I put screw eyes (going through both pipes) on alternate hoops along each side to slide the nylon cord through that I use over the plastic to hold it to the hoops.  With this method I don’t need to use any weights, rocks, boards, etc. to hold the plastic down and it is easy to raise it up for harvesting or for venting.  To the screw eye on each end, I attach a bungie cord that the nylon cord is tied to.  This provides tension to hold things tight.  In the summer, shade cloth can be exchanged for the plastic.

collards in mini-greenhouse

collards in mini-greenhouse

These low tunnels are nice, but in the spring the winds can be pretty strong.  When the sides are raised for venting, the winds can be harsh and I thought that being able to keep the sides closed and opening the top to the rain would be nice.  Of course, that sounds like the cold frame, but I wanted a taller structure.  I have used 2′ tall mini-greenhouses that I made from chicken tractors that were no longer useful in the field.  I installed vents in them that open at 70 degrees and close at 40 degrees.  They are the same kind of vents that you can use in the crawl space of your house.  In the home building stores you would probably find them near the cement blocks.  For a 4’x8′ mini-greenhouse I made two 2’x8′ lids hinged together.  I could just fold one over the other to vent or remove the whole thing and lean it against the mini-greenhouse.  When the lid was on it was held to the structure with hooks and eyes.  I enjoyed using that to harvest winter greens out of.  It had fence wire under the plastic covering, so that I could take the plastic off and the wire would still protect the plants from rabbits.  The mini-greenhouse has a lot of advantages.  Leaning into it to harvest greens was no problem, however it was inconvenient to plant seed seeds or do close weeding. Rather than the 8′ long lids, a series of 2’x4′ lids would be better, hinging 2 panels together and folding one on top of the other for venting. When they are removed they can be stacked to take up less space.

When it comes to season extension you need to think through exactly what you want to do.  The 12-Month Gardener by Jeff Ashton has a lot of good ideas for cold frames.   Consider carefully the plants you put in them.  Although these structures provide some protection, you will be growing cold hardy, not tender crops throughout the winter.  Four Season Harvest can help with crop choices and timing. Territorial Seed Company pays particular attention to crops for winter harvest.  They even put out a winter catalog in July.  There are many ways to extend your gardening season.  I hope you make use of some of them so that you can eat from your garden all year.

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Aladdin lamp

Aladdin lamp lit up our evenings

Earthquakes and hurricanes!  Some of you from far away may be wondering how we’ve fared with the earthquake so close and Hurricane Irene coming past on her way to Vermont.  First, about that earthquake.  Here in Ashland, Virginia we are about a 45 minute drive from the epicenter.  Out there it did considerable damage in places, closing two schools that may have to be rebuilt.  I was sitting on the back porch and suddenly felt the house shaking behind me.  Some people who were walking or driving in Richmond at the time may not have felt a thing, but if they were in a building they did.   It was big excitement for sure around here, but no damage at our place.  People needed to check their plumbing and chimneys to make sure nothing shook loose.

We also escaped damage from the hurricane.  We can count our blessings that the only disruption for us was that our electricity was out for four days.  Many big trees came down in the area, some on houses, but I remember much more damage from Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  At that time we lost power for 5 days and some lost it for two weeks.  Say a prayer for the people in Vermont who suffered so much flooding from Irene.  Since our electricity was out, my access to the news was limited to what was in the local paper, so I’m not up on the details.  I just know things were pretty bad up there.  All of this has made me really think about our food supply and general household management.  If a tree falls on your house or a flood washes it away, you have way more problems.  My thoughts here are about managing without electricity.

So far, when the big power outages have come, they are expected in the form of snow and ice storms and hurricanes.  I make sure the laundry is done up and the house is clean, since I wouldn’t be able to vacuum.  I would already be thinking about emptying the refrigerator.  What I’m worried about is that there will come a time in the not so distant future that the power grid will go down SUDDENLY while we are all about our everyday lives.  After a few days, and for sure, by the end of a week, the challenges of a sudden change in lifestyle begin to take their toll.  Those with no thought or preparation for these changes are hit the hardest and even twenty-four hours without electricity is stressful enough for them.

For us the biggest challenge is water, since we have a well with an electric pump.  We have some rain barrels so there is always water available for toilet flushing, even without warning.  Anticipating a power outage, I fill lots of containers with clean water in the house to use for cooking and drinking.  For Irene, I thoroughly cleaned four five-gallon buckets and put them out to catch rainwater (after the roof was washed from the rain) and used that water for washing dishes and ourselves.  We used it conservatively and only needed two buckets before the power was restored. A hand pump on our shallow well would be a good thing to have. 

Refrigeration is probably our next biggest challenge.  In 2001 we were gone for two weeks for the first time ever.  We returned home to find that our freezer filled with meat had stopped working.  At one time we had a milk cow and raised our own beef.  We sold the cow in 1996 and began buying beef, a year’s supply at a time, from a friend.  However, by 2001 there were farms where we could buy grass-fed beef by the cut.  Besides that, we were eating less meat and concentrating on eating more in season from the garden all year.  We decided not to have the freezer repaired and make do with the freezer on the refrigerator.  Also, if the power would ever go out, I didn’t want to have to worry about keeping a freezer going.  Many people have generators, but my husband and I really dislike the noise they make.   Power outages often push people outside, with the TVs and computers turned off.  It is a nice time to sit on the porch in the evening or eat dinner at the picnic table in the fading light.   The noise pollution from the neighborhood generators, however, makes it not so nice.  Without a separate freezer we only had to worry about the fridge in the kitchen.  We ate a lot of food and put the rest in a cooler with ice.

preparing beans for salting

My food preservation methods are drying, canning, and fermenting so what I had put up was safe.  In fact, during the time the power was out, I salted down beans from the garden in a crock and dried tomatoes and peppers in the solar dryers.  In case of flooding it is advisable to keep all your stored food off the floor.  You can elevate crocks at least an inch or two by putting them on rolling platforms, which makes it easier anyway when you have to move them.  In case of shaking from an earthquake, it is advisable to have the shelves firmly attached to the wall and to make sure they are strong enough to hold what you put there.  I will be speaking about Low Energy Food Preservation at the Heritage Harvest Festival on September 17, 2011.  Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, will also be there.  Find more information at  http://www.heritageharvestfestival.com/  I’ll also be giving a presentation on garden planning.   

Kelly Kettle for boiling water

Kelly Kettle for boiling water

To cook our meals we used the solar oven and gas grill.  The grill is my husband’s domain, so it was kind of nice having him make oatmeal or pancakes in the mornings.  I would not want to depend on the gas grill for an extended period, since the fuel could be hard to get when there are shortages and everyone is after it.  Besides, it depends on fossil fuel and I’m trying to move away from that.  I used a Kelly Kettle to boil water for tea.  That is really great to have and works well with the dried food.  You can boil water using sticks as fuel!  Using the same principle is the rocket stove.  I didn’t need it for this disruption, but I have one that I should use more often so that it becomes another way of life.  This summer the solar oven has gotten a good workout.  One thing about hurricanes, usually nice sunny days follow.  We have a wood stove in the house and in the winter I can use that to cook on and heat water if necessary.  Otherwise, I would use the rocket stove much more.  You just need sticks!  You can find directions to make a rocket stove at http://www.aprovecho.net/offerings/publications/.   Download the publication Capturing Heat II and check out the rest of the website.  To make my rocket stove I used a lard can that I purchased at a hardware store.

rocket stove

You can build a rocket stove!

Lighting was taken care of mostly with our Aladdin lamp, which was a Y2K purchase from Lehmans.  It gives enough light to read by, which we did in the evenings after dark when we weren’t playing Scrabble or Dominoes.  We also used candles and flashlights when necessary.  The oil in the lamp was Ultra-Pure oil which is liquid paraffin.  The candles were beeswax.  In fact, we made more candles during the power outage by melting wax in the solar oven and pouring it into molds.  The wax was saved from the cappings gleaned when we harvested the honey in June.  Longer term accommodations could be made by adjusting our activities to make the best use of the daylight both inside and outside the house.  A more major adjustment might be skylights.

How can you prepare for similar disruptions?  Think of challenges as new opportunities.  Learn new skills and begin acquiring the tools you will need.  Even if you never have to use them in dire emergencies, it will give you peace-of-mind to know you can.  During the power outage, my grandson and I visited Monticello, a trip we had planned for weeks.  I couldn’t stop thinking of how that whole place was run without electricity back in the day.  We can learn a lot from history.  Once you have the skills and tools, you will have already begun transitioning your life to a new one.  I have not read it, but there is a book called Transition Handbook which has spurred the Transition Town Movement.  You can find more information at http://www.transitionus.org/.  If we really want to transition away from a fossil fuel economy, we need to think about it as communities. Yes, we need to stock our pantries, have food coming from our gardens year-round, and look to the needs of our families.  At the same time, we need to support community efforts toward taking care of everyone.  If you know something, teach it to others who want to learn.  It will take some time, but we can make changes that will benefit our families and communities for the long term, no matter what happens.  Enjoy the journey!

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winterkilled oats

winterkilled oats

If you have been following along these past couple posts, you probably have some questions about choosing which cover crops to plant and where they should go.  In order to know what to plant in a certain spot now, you need to know what is planned to go there after that.  I hope you’ve made a map of your garden showing all your beds, drawing it to scale on graph paper first, then making copies to play with.  Now is the best time to be planning your garden for 2012.  If you know what your main season crop will be, you can better plan the preceding cover crop, which you will be planting soon. 

Common choices for fall planting in my area in zone 7 are cereal rye (often referred to as winter rye), winter wheat, crimson clover, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, radish (oilseed, forage, or daikon), and oats.  You can find information about all these crops and more by reading Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd edition, published by SARE.  I don’t sell this book from my website, but I do have copies for sale when I have a booth at events.  I like having a book-in-hand, however this one is available FREE online at http://www.sare.org/ so you have no excuse for not using it.  Check your seed catalogs for their selections of cover crop seeds and read the descriptions carefully to see if they will do well in your area.  In the mid-Atlantic region we have Southern Exposure Seed Exchange to look to.  Become acquainted with the seed companies in your region.  Ask about cover crop choices locally, maybe from the farmers at the farmers markets, and check with the Cooperative Extension Service in your area.  Their publications are online so you should be able to find appropriate information for your state.  I know I have some readers out there from beyond the U.S.  Welcome!  I’m thrilled to have you along on this journey.  It would be great if any of you, no matter where you are, would add a comment to this blog telling us where you live and what cover crops you find helpful.

Gather all the information about the cover crop choices for your area and put it in a section of the garden notebook that you would have made if you’ve been studying my garden plan video.  That will be an easy reference to go back to. Now, for choosing which goes where. 

oilseed radish in early fall

oilseed radish in early fall

Cereal rye is my favorite cover crop because of all the biomass it produces both above and below the ground, but it’s not appropriate for everywhere.  If you want to get an early start next year with sugar snap peas, onion sets, and lettuce planted in early March, you are going to want that bed to be ready to plant then and not have a thick crop of rye growing there.  If you are in an area where oats will winterkill, like I am, you could plant that in late August or early September.  Another good choice is radish–oilseed, forage, or Daikon. You would want to plant that in late August or early September, also.  These two crops need to grow a lot of biomass in the fall.  They will succumb to the weather in January in my area.  In the case of the radish, you want the plants to have the opportunity to grow large radishes that will poke good-sized holes in your clay.  When it winterkills, the radishes compost in place and give back to the soil, leaving holes for air and water to come in.  The leaves dissolve on top and the bed is soft and ready for your next crop.  If you wait too long, Mother Nature will plant her own crop of weeds, so use these winterkilled crops where you are planting something early the next year.  By the way, you can harvest the radishes for the table or fermenting crock until about New Years in my area in Zone 7.  I mentioned clay soil, but cover crops are equally good for building up sandy soil.  No matter what you have, clay or sand, adding organic matter is the solution to soil building.

hairy vetch flowering with butterfly

hairy vetch flowering with butterfly

My last frost date here is about April 25, so keep that in mind and adjust accordingly when figuring your times to plant.  If you want to have the bed ready for your main season crop about April 1, three or four weeks before the last frost, that rye is still not going to be at a good place for you to work.  Those beds are where you might want to have hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas or crimson clover growing.  These crops can be taken as biomass for the compost pile at any point in April and into May.  If they are flowering, you can likely cut the plant and leave the roots in place.  If they aren’t flowering yet, pull them out, roots and all, for the compost.  That will insure they won’t grow back.  The soil will be nice and friable and ready for the next crop.  These crops are legumes, plants that pull nitrogen from the air and accumulate it in the nodules on their roots.  They make a short-lived mulch if you should try to just put it back on the bed, so better to add it to your compost.  Better yet, make sure you are also adding some carbon to the compost at the same time, such as stalks or straw saved from other crops.  Some people like to plant hairy vetch in a bed where they will have tomatoes go in the following year.  I often plant Austrian winter peas that will be followed by potatoes.

Now, about that rye.  Any plant is going to be at its most biomass when it’s flowering.  After that point its energy begins to go toward making seeds.  At my place the cereal rye is flowering (shedding pollen) around May 7.  In the beds I am going to plant soon, I’ll cut the rye then, leaving it lie right there for two weeks to settle, then transplant into it.  Keep in mind I said transplant.  The roots are decomposing enough to transplant, but the bed is still too rough for sowing seeds, unlike the conditions left after the legumes or those winter killed crops I just told you about.  Suggestions for crops transplanted into these pre-mulched beds are corn, tomatoes, peppers, and winter and summer squash. 

garden in June

garden in June

If you want to grow the cereal rye or wheat out to seed, the harvest is not until mid-June.  At that point the plant has fulfilled its duty producing seed and is on its way out.  I cut the plants with a sickle near the ground and my harvest is seed (to eat or to plant) and straw for the compost pile.  The roots decompose rapidly and you can make a furrow with a hoe right in the stubble and plant the next crop immediately.  This is the time to plant the hot weather crops–those that enjoy soil temperatures of about 65 degrees, such as cowpeas.  It is also a good time to put in a second or third planting of zucchini, cucumbers, or snap beans.  Or maybe you’ve designated this bed for carrots and beets.  I usually broadcast wheat and rye when I plant in the fall, but if I’m going to follow it with carrots and beets, I’ll plant it in rows close together.  When the grain is cut, the stubble is in rows and I can easily make a furrow with a hoe between the rows and put in the seeds for the root crops.  The stubble gives a little protective shade to get started.

Your timing and crop choices are likely to be different than mine, but this should give you some idea how it all works.  As you work with your choices on your garden map, keep in mind rotations and put the arrows on your map showing the direction everything rotates.  It all becomes sort of a juggling act.  In order to get oats or radish in by early September, the previous crop needs to be finished by then.  A bed where tomatoes or peppers are in there until frost is not a good choice.  In my video, Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan , I take you through a four bed plan, explaining the rotations and crop choices, including cover crops.  The beds are full all twelve months.  The companion CD, which has all the planning worksheets, also has a seven bed garden map that is based on the garden I show in the video.  That map is for you to study to give you another example.  Originally I wanted to use that one in the video, but it would have taken too much time to explain it, so we gave it to you on the CD.  In my video, Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden , you see my garden from March through November as I explain how to work with these crops.  

The management techniques that I propose use only hand tools.  The crops are carefully planned so that the harvest of one crop prepares the way for the next.  People who use tillers do not have to plan quite so closely.  They just churn everything up and go on to the next crop.  That harms the soil structure, creates hardpan, and lets loose more nitrogen than the soil can handle at one time, losing nutrients.  If you are late getting the cover crops in, cereal rye and Austrian winter peas are your best choices for a late planting.  My first expected fall frost date here is in mid-October.  I prefer to have everything in by the end of October, but I’ve planted these crops as late as mid-November, when necessary.  It takes some practice learning which crops to plant and how to follow the growing rhythms .  Once you learn the dance, you will see great changes happening in your soil.    

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wheat with winter peas

wheat with winter peas

Now that you are all aware of the dangers of bringing outside inputs into your garden from my last post, you are probably wondering just how you go about growing enough cover crops to make all your own compost to feed back the soil.  Cover crops are crops grown specifically to feed the soil, although some also produce food for people in the process.  According to GROW BIOINTENSIVE (GB) methods, you would have to plan to have these crops in 60% of the garden for the year.  Keep in mind, however, that I’m talking about the whole year.  Many people only grow things in their garden from spring till fall and at the end of the growing season they just leave things as they are until the spring clean-up.  I’m talking about keeping your soil active and having something in there for all twelve months.  For those of you who want a biblical fallow year every seventh, that is easily arranged with this system. 

To plan for this 60%, you would first need to know the area of your actual planting space.  If it is divided into growing beds of equal size then you already know how many beds you have.  Each bed has twelve Bed Crop Months (BCM)–twelve months that a crop could be grown there.  If the space in your garden is divided into planting areas of different sizes, you would need to work through this exercise using the number of square feet being planted, rather than the number of beds.

The cover crops you would be growing might include cereal rye, wheat, clovers of any kind, winter peas, spring field peas, buckwheat, sunflowers, and Jerusalem artichokes.  Some of these crops might be cut early to lay down as mulch and information about that is in my videos and my post on 5/17/11.  Some crops such as rye and wheat are grown for their straw for compost and food for the table.  Corn, sunflowers, and Jerusalem artichokes also provide much needed carbon for the compost pile with their stalks.  The clovers and peas would provide nitrogen for the compost with their biomass.  In GB terms, they are the immature crops and the straw and stalk producing crops are the mature crops.  I have a worksheet that will help you figure how to get that 60% of soil building crops.  You can access the worksheet at BCM worksheet and it is available on the resource page of my website.  For those of you with dial-up internet, it is a form with four columns labeled:  Bed #, Crops, 60% Crop BCM, and 40% Crop BCM.  To help you with this project, you should have a garden map with every bed filled in with what’s growing there for the entire year and the dates those crops occupy each space.  Make sure each bed is labeled with a number.

Determine the total Bed Crops Months (BCM) for your garden by multiplying the number of beds times twelve.  60% of that number would be the target for cover crop/compost crop BCM.  Compost crops are cover crops grown specifically for the compost pile, but I’ll just refer to all these crops as cover crops.

Now, referring to your garden map, list all your crops on the worksheet beginning with everything that is in Bed #1, then  Bed #2, etc.  If it is a cover crop, including those grown for food such as small grains and corn, work out the equation (# of beds X # of months in the bed = BCM) in the 60% BCM column.  If the crop is not a soil building one, work the equation (# of beds X # of months in the bed = BCM) in the 40% column.  Total up the BCM in each the 60% column and the 40% column. If the whole bed is planted in the same thing, the # of beds in the equation would be one, of course.  However, you might have several crops growing in the bed at the same time.  In that case, the # would be the portion of the bed in that crop.

If you presently do not have your garden filled all twelve months of the year, it should be interesting to figure everything just the way you have it planted now.   Divide each total by the total BCM for your garden to find the percentage of each.  If your garden is not full for the year, combining the totals for the 60% and the 40% crops won’t add up to 100%.  The percentage that it would take to reach 100 is your opportunity to fill it with cover crops.  Then, with some adjusting with your present crops, you will probably discover that it’s not as hard as you thought to reach 60%.  Remember, if your garden beds are different sizes, instead of BCM you would be working out your calculations using square feet rather than beds.

compost pile

compost pile in the garden

These crops are going to be feeding back the soil by their roots being left to decompose, by composting in place, and by being made into compost to be put back onto the beds.  If you are short on cover crop BCM you might plant red clover (different from crimson clover) or alfalfa and have it grow in an area for two years, taking cuttings both years for compost material. If you really insist that fallow means nothing is cut, you could designate a bed in your rotation to hold your compost. It’s not technically part of your 60%, but it wouldn”t be growing anything else and it would accumulate nutrients by whatever leaches from the compost.  The next year the compost rotates to the next bed.

An example of all this is a bed which has tomatoes in it from May through mid-October.  The tomatoes, a 40% crop, would have 5.5 BCM, which is 45.8% of the 12 BCM for the year.  If the other 6.5 months are filled with cover crops, that would be 54.2%, a little short of the target of 60%.  That means that other beds in the garden need to make up for that.  However, if you had corn in your rotation, with a cover crop before and after, the corn being a mature carbon crop for the compost, you would have 60% crops for all twelve BCM. My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden shows you how to cut corn with a machete for the compost pile.  If your garden consisted of only those two beds, it would have 24 BCM (2 beds x 12 BCM) with 77% of the garden in 60% crops for the year, leaving you with some leeway for a third bed.

For some of you, this is all way too much information at this point in your gardening journey.  If so, that’s okay.  At one time, it would have been overwhelming to me, too.  Just know that the information is here when you need it.  For those of you who have been waiting for just this kind of information, you may be interested in reading the GROW BIOINTENSIVE material published by Ecology Action.  Booklet #32  GROW BIOINTENSIVE Composting and Growing Compost Materials,  Booklet #31 Designing a GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-farm, and Booklet #33 Grow Your Own Grains;  Raising, Harvesting and Uses are all available through Bountiful Gardens.  Growing cover crops on this scale will do wonderful things for your soil, not to mention the terrific compost you can make, right IN your garden.

buckwheat flowering

buckwheat flowering

Make your garden map and work through the worksheet.  You will now know what possibilities await you for your garden planning.  In my next post on 8/23/11, I’ll help you choose which cover crops to plant where.  For now, as your crops begin to fade, or suddenly die as zucchini is prone to do, harvest them as compost material and toss some buckwheat in their place to keep the weeds away. It will do good things for your soil and provide important nectar for the bees with its flowers in about 30 days.  That will give you time to decide exactly which cover crop will go there for the winter.

In the hustle and bustle of your summer, remember to take time to smell the flowers and to sit and listen to the sounds of nature around you.  We can learn much from quieting ourselves and observing the gifts that are right in front of us every day.

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Beware of bringing outside inputs into your garden!  I began to hear about problems with persistent herbicides in compost that were causing crop damages when gardeners applied it to their gardens in 2001.  It used to be that good organic gardeners gleaned compost materials from everywhere they could.  They took in leaves and grass clippings from their neighbors and gladly hauled stable bedding from wherever they could find it.  Even if these materials had been produced by conventional methods, rather than organic ones, it was thought that whatever residual chemicals might be left would break down in the composting process.  Not anymore.

There is a 21st century problem of herbicides that can survive the composting process and still be active enough to cause herbicide damage on your vegetables.  These herbicides target broadleaf plants and are used to produce weed-free lawns and weed-free hay and grain.  If you used grass clippings or hay and straw from treated areas as mulch, you could find yourself with herbicide damage to your garden.  Furthermore, if an animal ate the hay from a treated field and the manure was composted, that compost would still contain the active herbicide.

The first chemical I heard about was clopyralid, marketed by Dow AgroSciences.  By 2004, the label had been changed to try to keep the clippings from treated turf out of the compost stream.  Until 2007 I was reading about places far from my home.  Then the September 2007 issue of Growing for Market published the article Contaminated hay ruins crops.  The folks at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, VA had experienced herbicide damage on their tomatoes and squash as a result of applying hay as mulch.  They had bought second quality hay, as usual, from a farmer they’d been dealing with for five years.  Unfortunately, that farmer had begun using an herbicide containing picloram on the fields he cut.  The herbicide salesman did the application and the farmer never saw the label, which stated not to use the hay from a treated field as mulch.  At that time, September 2007, we were deep into working on our video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.  I had long since stopped using outside sources for compost and mulch materials as I concentrated on GROW BIOINTENSIVE  methods.

cover crops in winter

cover crops in winter

If I did not already have that knowledge of how to use cover crops, I would have felt completely helpless.  I was very sad to learn what happened at Waterpenny, knowing it would also be happening to countless others.  On the other hand, our new video would show people how to raise their own compost and mulch materials as part of building their soil fertility.  I was happy to be able to offer a solution.

For some updated research for this post, I headed to the library at the Western Campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College where I used to teach.  That library has the best selection of sustainable ag books I have ever seen.  It also has BioCycle magazine.  Sure enough, the June 2011 issue of BioCycle had the article  Dupont Label Says “Do Not Compost” Grass Clippings  by Dan Sullivan.  It seems that this problem is never-ending.  DuPont now has the herbicide aminocyclopyrachlor which has been marketed as Imprelis to the landscape industry–people who need a pesticide license to apply it.  However, Scotts is going to be adding it to a product for homeowners– people who don’t have a pesticide applicator license.  Watch for it in some of the Scotts Miracle-Gro weed control products in a garden center or big box store near you!  Aminocyclopyrachlor will replace 2,4-D and atrazine in these products.  Just two weeks ago, Barbara Pleasant wrote about aminocyclopyrachlor for Mother Earth News at http://www.motherearthnews.com/grow-it/imprelis-killer-compost-zb0z11zrog.aspx, including problems of Imprelis with trees and shrubs.

These companies know of the damage that can occur when these chemicals persist through composting and end up in your garden.  They feel they are doing their part to keep them out of your gardens by including on the label instructions to not use what is taken off the fields or landscapes in compost or as mulch.  In the real world, however, these things DO end up as compost or mulch.  To protect yourself you would have to be able to go to the farmer and ask what has been applied to the field and search the label yourself.  The feed store that you get your hay and straw from may have run out of their local supply and brought some in from far away.  The place you got that truckload of compost from may have many input sources.  Good luck!  If you already have a problem with contaminated soil, learn all you can.  You will have to play a waiting game for a few years for the herbicide to no longer be effective, but you can grow grass there.  Barbara Pleasant reports a way to test for these chemicals by soaking the materials and using the water on pots of beans at http://www.motherearthnews.com/ask-our-experts/simple-compost-test.aspx.  For more information on this issue, google  “killer compost”.

You could forget about those other sources and only use what you grow yourself.  Besides, bringing materials from outside your boundaries depletes the soil where they are grown.  What is going to feed back that area?  We have to look at the whole picture–the complete cycle.

make compost IN your garden

My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden takes you from March through November in my garden and shows you how to manage those crops using only hand tools. My video Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan shows you how to plan those crops into your rotation.  Choosing the right crops and planting and harvesting them at the right time takes some practice.  My blog will give you help along the way with posts such as Cutting a Rye Cover Crop at Pollen Shed and Grains in Your Garden.

It appears there will be persistent herbicides with us for quite awhile.  Rather than try to learn the chemical names and the products they are used in, it is best to avoid any herbicide use altogether.  Think of your property as one living organism.  Whatever is done to one bit of it affects the rest.  Learn to manage your soil fertility with cover crops and you and your garden will be much healthier.   Happy cover cropping! 


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