Friday, September 30, 2011

"Lobbying" Victories for Victory Gardens

Growing our own food anywhere we can on our own property should not be against the Law. Here's a few recent cases where public outcry and support has helped return "Common Sense" instead of "Jail and Loss of Gardens". In effect, it's public lobbying... free, and in support of our rights, as opposed to those $$$'s lobbying congressional lawmakers in the name of profit.

Adam Keeps His Front Yard Garden!
Memphis high school teacher, Adam Guerrero, was ordered to remove his garden or face legal action.  After a social media outcry to the tune of thousands of supporters, and even some national media attention, Guerrero's story moves toward a happy resolution: He will keep his front yard garden, although better trimmed, install a bubbler and introduce mosquito-eating fish into his existing backyard pond, reduce the number of on-site worm bins, and install mesh covers on his rain barrels to keep mosquitoes out. 

And it gets even better because the city of Memphis was so impressed by the support Adam and his garden received that it's going to help him locate a lot in his neighborhood for a new community garden. (Source)

Michigan Woman Faced 93 days in Jail for Front Yard Garden: Charges Dropped!
According to Mrs. Bass' latest post on her blog, the misdemeanor charge against her for growing vegetables in her front yard has been dropped. Her attorney went to the courthouse earlier today to file a motion to dismiss the charges, and was told that the charges had already been dropped. However: the ordinance has not been changed, and Mrs. Bass still has her garden. We'll be keeping an eye on this story for further developments. (Source)

Toronto Changing Ordinance; Will Allow Front Yard Vegetable Gardens
Last summer, the Oliveira family of Toronto planted a front yard vegetable garden. Their four children loved it, the neighbors admired it, and the Oliveira family enjoyed harvesting home grown food from their yard. The city of Toronto's Traffic Planning Department did not share their enthusiasm.

They issued a letter telling the family they had to remove the garden.

Local newspaper columnists and media picked up the story. The family received support from all over the world. Letters and phone calls poured into the Traffic Planning department.
And the city saw the light. As of this spring, they're rewriting the city ordinances! Previously, sod was the only acceptable material for the front yard of a residence. The city is now adopting an ordinance which will permit the use of "soft landscaping" -- plants other than grass, including flowers, shrubs, and -- (yes!) vegetables.

A combination of media coverage and the support of people from around the world made the difference for the Oliveira family and their garden. Here's hoping the same is true for other gardeners dealing with overzealous city bureaucrats, intent on maintaining the status quo rather than adapting to a new reality. Growing our own food was once common, and it is becoming more common again. We should have the right to grow food, regardless of what bureaucrats and nosy neighbors think. (Source)

British Columbia Man Faces Six Months in Jail for Growing Food

I haven't seen any updates on this case. Does anybody know?

Of course, it isn't all that way... 
Wisconsin Judge Patrick J. Fielder recently said:  "no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to consume the milk from their own cow;"

And in a kind of exclamation point, he added this to his list of no-nos: "no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice..."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Check Store-bought Cantalopes carefully!

Deaths From Cantaloupe Listeria Rise

At least 13 people in eight states have died after eating cantaloupe contaminated with listeria, in the deadliest outbreak of food-borne illness in the United States in more than a decade, public health officials said on Tuesday. 

The cantaloupes were grown by a Colorado company, Jensen Farms, which issued a recall earlier this month. The melons, a type marketed as Rocky Ford cantaloupes, named after a region in Colorado, were sold around the country. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that since the outbreak began in late July at least 72 people had fallen ill in 18 states. 


Half-Hugel or Hugel-Edge (Hugelkultur)

Just Beginning to build a Hugelkultur "edge"

Hugelkultur beds are an amazingly simple concept, used across the pond for ages but fairly new in the US. The beds are made by piling partially-rotted trees, limbs, trunks, leaves and other garden woody waste thickly, and covering it with mulch and soil. The name comes from the German hügelkultur, which translates as "hill culture". 

The layers break down slowly, creating rich humus over several years. As the years pass, the deep soil of the raised bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets - so your hugelkultur bed becomes self tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm the soil, giving a slightly longer growing season in temperate and cold climates. (Source)

There are many designs and methods and they all work; the actual design is usually based on the particular needs in the garden. Some are just a foot or so deep and 2-3 feet wide, while some are several feet deep and wide. Some folks dig a pit in the ground, add the waste woody material, and use the removed soil to cover the pile. Some just start directly on the ground, and then cover with mulch and soil. I've even seen photos of hugelkultur beds using enormous tree trunks piled 6 feet high and 40 feet long. Here's a link to a photo illustration of the general concept.

What the rotting wood does is sequester moisture like a sponge in the soil, negating most if not all the need to water plants in a hugelkultur bed. As the woody waste decomposes, the humus created feeds soil life, which in turn feed the plants that feed us.

While my new planting area is much too large for me to physically tackle as one enormous hugelkultur bed, I decided there are enough benefits to make what I'm calling a "half hugel" or a "hugel edge". The area I am sheet mulching is on a gentle slope down to the creek, and I am using hugelkulture concepts to build up the lower edge which runs parallel to the creek and perpendicular to the slope.

I'm not particularly attempting to level out the slope, although some of that will happen just by soil movement via gravity down the slope, esp. when it rains. Rather, I'm aiming for a water reservoir effect. The upper edge of this area will have a shallow swale dug, which will slow down runoff from above it, and retain moisture that will be released slowly into the garden area below it.

I will continue to post on this 'half hugel' as I get more put in place. In the meantime, here's a link to building a hugelkultur bed of your own, and here's another link showing how they age, with photos of real beds being built at the bottom of the page.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sneaking GMO corn to the dinner table

Monsanto’s newest GMO sweet corn scheduled to be sold directly to an unsuspecting public. This experimental corn will not be labeled, so consumers will not know when they may be eating a GMO food that contains a toxic pesticide in every bite. 

Monsanto’s corn is a new GMO variety that has been genetically modified for three different traits: to resist two different insects and to withstand heavy spraying with Monsanto's toxic Roundup herbicide. 

Because there are already untested varieties of other insect-resistant and Roundup-Ready varieties on the market, federal regulators are not requiring ANY approval process—which means NO public comment on its introduction into our food supply.
~Center for Food Safety

There is genetically modified produce in a lot of the processed food you eat, but this is the first time that Monsanto is taking fresh GM produce from the ground straight to your mouth. If it works out, there will be plenty more.

Almost all non-organic, multi-ingredient, packaged food sold by major retailers contains unlabeled genetically engineered ingredients. Anything that is derived from non-organic corn, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets or alfalfa is likely genetically modified.

The worst genetically engineered ingredients are high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oils and milk, eggs and meat from animals raised in factory farms on a diet of GMO grains.

Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, is known for developing engineered crops (i.e. corn and soybeans) that end up in many of the food products found on grocery store aisles, as well as in fibers and animal feed. Up until now, the company’s GM crops have only been available in processed foods–in other words, in little bits and pieces. But now Monsanto is making a move into the consumer market with GM sweet corn, which will be found in a supermarket produce bin or farmer’s market near you starting this fall.

There  is a good chance you’ve already eaten GM sweet corn: Syngenta–a Monsanto rival–has been selling it for a decade. And Monsanto already sells GM squash developed by Seminis, which the company bought in 2005. So why is Monsanto’s sweet corn a big deal? This is the first consumer product actually developed by Monsanto. 

While previous industry attempts to introduce GM consumer-oriented vegetables in the 1990s failed miserably (see Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomatoes), Monsanto may be warming up to the idea. “I think Monsanto is trying to test the waters here,” says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety. If GM sweet corn works out for the agri-giant, we might see even more GM produce on our supermarket shelves.

Monsanto, which already controls 60% of the U.S. corn market, is including traits in the new sweet corn that make it resistant to both Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and to insects (through the inclusion of Bt toxin, a trait that disrupts insect digestive systems and eventually kills them). 

At least 21 weed species have become resistant to Roundup. And Bt toxin may have negative health effects–a recent study found the toxin in the maternal and fetal blood of pregnant women, though the implications of that aren’t known quite yet…. Source

(You didn't really think I'd let this pass without comment, did you?)

If GMO labeling matters to you, please use the search engine of your choice for the "Millions Against Monsanto" petition and add your name.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sheet Mulching for Food Forest Farming


First portion of the sheet mulched area; much more ground to cover
I'm totally revamping my lawn and garden areas, moving away from the fairly traditional ways I've always planted things, and more into what is considered "food forest farming". Part of the changes include getting rid of more of the area I have to mow, and moving the food garden areas up higher away from the creek to avoid flooding. It also entails integrating fruit and nut trees with vegetables, bulbs, flowers and herbs into "guilds" that supply the needs of each other. It's a very ambitious project, and cannot be done in just a year or two.

Unfortunately, the new area is all green stuff called "lawn" (I have way too much lawn to maintain anyway!) I have neither the stamina to dig all the grass out, nor the money to hire it done... and I do not want it plowed, which only brings up more weed and grass seeds to deal with in subsequent years.

So I'm starting with deep sheet mulching (per Gaia's Garden) an area about 24' x 50' if my energy holds out. Next year I hope to double it in size. The general idea is to put down a layer of cardboard or newspapers, then cover with about a foot of mulch and wood chips. On top of that, I'll put a couple of inches of topsoil. By spring it should have somewhat decomposed and be ready to plant at least a few things.

My sister can get used cardboard where she works; all I have to do is split the boxes and remove any staples and the tape which will not decompose. 

Partially mulched starting area of 16' x 24'

I bought several bales of alfalfa hay because: 1) it was the same price as straw bales, and 2) straw bales have lots of grass seed heads in them. I'm hoping the alfalfa seed heads in these bales won't be as much of a problem as the seed heads in straw. I made the mistake with straw once before. It was mostly grass/grain seed that sprouted the next spring, but just one single mature Redroot Pigweed that could have been in any bale would contain at least 35,000 seeds that are viable for 60 years. Regardless, I sure had a mess of weeds from the straw and hope not to repeat it.

Plus, alfalfa is a legume containing lots of nitrogen, and is also high in protein, calcium, a few other minerals, and vitamins B, C, E and K. That should help feed the microbes and other soil organisms that will break the sheet mulch down over winter!

I plan to broadcast  Greensand over the alfalfa to add some trace minerals, which will also help loosen the heavy clay underneath the cardboard once the cardboard has all decomposed. (Greensand is generally Broadcast @ 50-100 lbs. per 1,000 square feet.)

After the alfalfa has had a few days of rain on it (the weatherman says this week), I will probably have to add another layer of alfalfa as it has settled. Then I'll add a layer of willow chips on top of the alfalfa. The chips are left from last year's tree work, so they are partially broken down already. I also have some of my own garden compost to add, but not nearly enough to cover much of the entire area. Stubbornly, I refuse to buy bagged compost because I don't trust what might in it... so what I have from my garden will have to do.

I will post more about this big project as I work on it, plus ideas to hold water for this new area. In the meantime my time is parsimonious, between starting this new garden, making the garden hoops with row cover for fall plants, and the house projects... all of which need finishing before cold weather.

Do I sound overwhelmed? I am!!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Renovating the back porch

This has been my biggest time-consuming project in a long time, taking up much of September, and it's not quite finished yet. The back porch was just a deck before we bought the place, and somewhere back along the line someone added an almost flat roof over it. Then 2-3 years ago, I closed in about 2/3 of it with insulated walls and a temp door, for junk storage space.

Over time, the roof leaked and everything in that room was a moldy mess and a haven for mice. (I never was out there again, as nothing of mine was stored in the space... so I didn't know it leaked.) In early September, my sister and I decided to renovate it properly so we could actually use the space, plus put both freezers out there, freeing valuable floor space in the house. 

That meant throwing out ruined stuff, cleaning up all the mice mess and mold, fixing the leaky roof, cutting a hole for a window, putting in new vinyl flooring, wiring it for a light and receptacles for the freezers, sealing everything tightly against mice, installing an operable window for both ventilation and daylight and a good insulated door... then painting the wafer board walls. That wafer board stuff really sucks up paint! In the photo above, the end wall and half the left wall both have 3 coats of paint; the lower half on the left only has 2 coats in the photo.

Money being tight, I bought an insulated window sans frame at the Habitat Restore, and enough finish lumber to build a frame to make the window operable for summer ventilation. I haven't gotten to that task yet. Nor have I crawled under the house to run power to the new wiring. There never seems to be enough hours to do all the tasks.

My roof repair was: remove old shingles that had decomposed, put down a layer of new felt, and new flashing, plus roofing cement at the potential leaky places. Unfortunately, It still leaks in the open porch area, but thankfully not in the renovated room! By Spring we should have enough money to buy rafters, plywood and shingles to add a properly pitched roof over the flat roof. I think I still remember how, although the prospect does not thrill me.

Meanwhile, the smaller but still leaking area has a shower curtain fastened to the underside of the porch ceiling to channel the drips out over the railing. It's a Rube Goldberg attempt, but so far it works fairly well. I just want to get it all finished so I can get back to my fall garden projects.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Too soon old, Too late smart"

Recently that phrase really hit home, via a gardening book of all things! Ack! Can you believe that?

The revelation hit me smack-dab head-on as I reached about page 100 of Toby Hemenway's book, Gaia's Garden. If I had been taught these very basic and logical fundamentals years ago, I would have a very different garden (and a very different mindset about a lot of other things long before now)... I'd have a garden that would be nearly 100% self-sustaining AND with such rich, balanced, living soil that it would supply almost all of my produce food needs, as well as sensual enjoyment of aromas and color in flowers! But I still couldn't grow olives and lemons here without a greenhouse...  :(

I was a little bit angry about the hindsight; maybe I still am a bit. Why isn't this stuff taught to everyone, and especially all school kids? Then I wondered if I was perhaps / maybe I was taught some of it in dribs and drabs (like in 8th grade biology, or freshman geology) but never connected the dots? Or is it just how Hemenway lays it all out together, so that it makes perfect sense?

Or is it like the old Zen saying goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." ?

At any rate, this book is now helping me towards a new (and/or better) understanding and pathway to garden self-reliance and the connectedness of all things. To put it another way, it feels like (re)integrating myself back into the "real, natural world".

If I can only afford to buy ONE book in the next year or even five years, it will be this one! The paperback copy I am reading is on inter-library loan, and apparently well-read as it's pencil-marked, creased and tattered. I'm glad to see it has been used a LOT because it means others are on the same path!

(There will be some posts soon about implementing some of the book's ideas this fall. I suspect it will take 5 years for my garden to begin to function fully in this manner.)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

My BIG Tomato

Largest Tomato, 2.27 Pounds!

If you have been reading along in this blog all summer, you know my tomato plants were all sandwiched in among the flowers and herbs, rather than in the vegetable garden. Most were volunteers, along with half a dozen gifted plants.

The main thing this accomplished was a serious reduction in damage from the Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs. Oh, I still had some losses (more in the paste tomatoes)... but nothing like last year when the entire crop was a loss.

It is now the middle of September and cooling off. About half the tomatoes are still green on the vines, but I'll still have plenty more yet to put up for sauce and paste. I was rather surprised at the large tomato in the photo above. It weighed 2.27 pounds!

The flower-herb beds have not been well amended for a couple of years, and it shows in the low Brix of the tomatoes. That is fixable, once the bed is cleaned up this fall of all plants that do not have seed heads for the birds. The beds need minerals, biochar and compost, plus I really need add some EM's (Effective Microbes) once they have a food source!

Sorry for the short post... I'm up to my eyeballs renovating the back porch and it's leaky roof into a storage room that will also hold my 2 freezers.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My Favorite Nuclear Reactor

"I'm a large proponent of nuclear power; we have a very safe reactor sited 93 million miles away, it's called the Sun. That's my nuclear reactor." -Ed Begley, Jr

Since the mid-1970's I have been interested in passive solar energy (that means FREE energy directly from the sun) for heating, cooling, cooking, drying and even supplying my Vitamin-D! Back in those days there was a real movement by individuals and small groups to design all kinds of solar things, from 'breadbox solar collectors for hot water' to New Alchemy Institutes' solar aquaculture to passive solar houses, where none of the primary goals were corporate profiteering. 

It was a time of Trombe walls developed as an architectural element by French engineer Félix Trombe, and owner-built roof ponds for solar evaporative cooling. A time of walls built with wine bottles and beer cans in them for insulation, heat gain and pure visual interest; a time of tall cylindrical tubes filled with water to store heat gain through the south-facing windows. 

Most of the wonderful, creative solar ideas of the 1970's and 1980's came from tinkerers in their backyard workshops and garages, and groups of passionate environmental thinkers who came up with things like Zomeworks' Beadwall (where styrofoam pellets were blown into thick window cavities during the day to block heat from the sun, or blown in at night to prevent heat loss) and architects like Malcolm Wells and David Wright designed amazing homes. (Remember, this was also the era of Steve Jobs' inception of Apple Computer in his garage.)

Earth-sheltered or Earth-bermed (not totally underground) homes just needed better materials for waterproofing, and better windows for natural lighting and heat control. We have those materials available now, but not the interest (or mortgage money available) for energy-saving earth-bermed homes. The first house I built other than for myself was only a  1 bedroom home and no mortgage company would lend money for one-bedroom homes in 1975. I hacked the space to make it 2 bedrooms, and it sold almost immediately. (That house I built was published by Fine Homebuilding, in the inaugural issue.)

Some of the early ideas worked quite well, and some weren't very practical at all, although most worked in theory. Some solar ideas were cheap to build, while others weren't. Still, we were definitely on the right track and only more tinkering was needed...

After just a very few years, the whole bootstrap solar trend faltered when the government removed rebates for improving energy conservation in our homes, and backed the "acquirement" of cheap foreign oil instead. All that survived was the corporate interest and investment in solar electric and heating systems like photovoltaics, where only the manufacturers and utility companies make a profit. Homeowners now can buy and install very expensive solar PV panels and deep cycle batteries for energy storage, but can only sell the excess generated energy for mere pennies, if at all. (Many utility companies will not buy the excess under any circumstances.) It's comforting to be off the grid and self-sustaining, but it's also a very expensive proposition.

Geo-thermal was in its infancy in those years, and held great promise. Micro-hydro was being seriously explored during that era too, and is still pursued in third world countries by small local native cooperatives. It hasn't been as feasible here because it's difficult to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers (government) who control ALL waterways. On my own property here, mini-hydro is possible by harnessing the energy from my very small spring. It wouldn't provide enough electricity to run the whole house, but it would sure augment it.

The years between 1970 and 2011 could have been exceptionally fruitful for architects and home builders (and benefit us as well!) if more of them had addressed the simple tenets of passive solar design. IF you orient a home to the sun (and also consider prevailing wind direction), design the windows for maximum solar gain and minimal heat loss in winter, minimum solar gain in summer with proper convection for ventilation and cooling, insulate heavily and weatherstrip properly, it is possible to have a home that is a living joy, and easy on the pocketbook. Instead, we still orient our homes to the street, and we are still stuck on our houses looking "conventional" like every other house in the neighborhood!

Sure, there are architects in the US and around the world who are designing passive solar structures and passive solar enclaves, with some designed inside atmosphere-controlled domes; most of them are very expensive. A good US example is Dennis Weaver's Earthship home that was for sale for $3.75 million in 2005.  His Earthship home's monthly electric bill was reported to be around $50, an incredibly low figure for a 10,000 sq. ft. home.  Personally, I believe that Earthships can be effective living spaces and they are made from mostly recycled materials... but not at those prices.

Given the dismal economic conditions of 2011, it is not likely many of us can start from scratch building a passive solar home. However, we can take lots of baby steps using solar energy and reducing our overall purchased energy consumption. We can build solar cookers and solar food dryers... I've seen plans for solar cookers that hang on an outside wall and are accessible from inside the kitchen. We can build and install movable insulated panels or "curtains" to reduce heat loss through our windows at night in winter. Windows that get fierce summer sun could have Bahama Shutters installed outside, and/or deciduous trees planted that will shade them only in summer.

We can learn to conserve our electric use, and unplug our phantom electric drains like chargers and ready-on TV sets when we are not using them. We can add more insulation to our attics, and add better weatherstripping around doors and windows. We could add a solar greenhouse to the sunny side of some of our homes depending on their design, allowing free heat gain in winter AND a source of fresh produce all year. (Architect David Wright designed lots of those years ago.)

What it takes to do any of this is simply a change in mindset, and personal intent. My sis (who shares this house) cannot be bothered to unplug her TV, dust-buster or cell phone charger when she's not using them even though it would cut the energy costs considerably. Unfortunately, we split the electric bill so I end up paying for her care-less-ness.

I'm pretty handy and for around $250 (I think) I can build and install a breadbox solar water heater, one we would use only during the year when the water won't freeze in the pipes. To build one with a heat exchanger that transfers heat captured via a chemical compound that doesn't freeze (like water) would cost probably twice as much, but it's still very possible to have hot water all year without any operating cost except a booster for rainy periods. 

When I was growing up we had our hot water tank in the attic under the simple solar collector (glass covering copper water pipes) mounted on the roof. You just have to use hot water for laundry and dishes later in the day after the sun has heated it, although an insulated water storage tank can keep it pretty warm overnight for morning showers.

We are hoping to afford a new roof next year (going from crappy, worn-out and maybe leaky fiberglass shingles to a metal roof), and after that I will seriously consider solar hot water. This summer we added R-30 insulation to the attic, on top of what was already there. (I wanted to add R-38 instead of R-30 but it was twice as much money in material cost to add just another R-8.) 

We need better insulation installed under the floors, and a new vapor barrier on the ground under the house. It's amazing how effective a mere cheap plastic vapor barrier can be in reducing heating costs! I'd love to replace the windows but we need other things first. So for now, movable window insulation is in order. (I have the 1980 Rodale Press edition of this re-issued book.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A gift of Babington Leeks!

I am SO excited! One of my gardening friends just sent me a handful of bublets to start some Babington Leeks! (Bublets are what's grown from the flowers at the top of the stalks, whereas bubils come off the root.) The most important thing about them to me besides edibility... is that they are perennial!!

Now, this is NOT a leek in the traditional sense. It is more of a Wild Leek, but not to be confused with the N. American Allium tricoccum of the same name, and more commonly known as ramps. In tidewater Virginia, this plant is commonly known as the “Yorktown Onion.” 

The Babington leek has many uses... the greens can be harvested and cooked during winter, tasting a bit like shallots. The bublets taste more like leeks, and the bulbs and bubils (underground) taste more like garlic. Medicinally, Babington Leeks have about  same properties as garlic.

It will take 2-3 years to get these established to edible size in my garden but I'm really looking forward to them! (Assuming I don't kill them while I'm trying to sprout them.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

D. Landreth Heirloom Seed Company needs YOUR HELP

This is an appeal posted on another blog, and I'm asking you to go there for information and links to help keep America's oldest heirloom seed company in business. As poor as I am, I scrounged up $5!!


Requirements for Long-Term Vegetable and Fruit Storage

This is a list from a great root cellaring book I've owner for nearly 30 years. It was written by Mike and Nancy Bubel, and Rodale published it in 1979. A newer edition is still available in paperback (and I highly recommend this book). The information below is from my copy and provided here for educational purposes only, which the copyright law allows.

The Bubels cover many, many good ideas in their book from designs and personal observations to timely planting, harvesting, and which varieties store best. This list below is the general storage requirements for some vegetables and fruits.

Cold and Very Moist (32-40ºF and 90-95% Relative Humidity)
Chinese cabbage
Winter radishes
Broccoli (stores short-term only)
Brussels sprouts (stores short-term only)
Jerusalem artichokes (aka Sunchokes)
Parsley root

Cold and Moist (32-40ºF and 80-90% Relative Humidity)
Cauliflower (stores short-term only)
Grapes (need 40ºF)

Cool and Moist (40-50ºF and 85-90% Relative Humidity)
Sweet Peppers (45-55º)
Eggplant (50-60º)
Ripe tomatoes

Cool and Dry (32-50ºF and 60-70% Relative Humidity)
Garlic (keeps better at 50% RH)

Moderately Warm and Dry (50-60ºF and 60-70% Relative Humidity)
Dried hot peppers
Winter squash
Sweet potatoes
Green tomatoes (up to 70ºF is okay)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Root Cellaring

One of the attractions to this house when we bought it 6 years ago was the root cellar. I never had a root cellar before, and only a general idea of all the ways they could or should function. Now that I have used it increasingly more every year for several years, I have learned some short-comings that should be improved if I am to depend on it for storing more than a few foods over winter. 

I thought I'd pass on my thoughts here since a lot of folks seem to be considering longer-term perishable food storage as our economy tanks. Food storage doesn't have to be a separate building... it could be part of a basement, or garage, or a closet in a cool room. It could be a stack of straw/hay bales covered with a tarp, or garbage cans buried in the ground. There are many possibilities, but the requirements are all pretty similar where the food is concerned. The faults in my root cellar may be helpful if you are planning a food storage area.

Some known problems with my concrete block root cellar:

1. There is no constant air exchange; fresh air only enters when I open the door. All perishable foods need some minimal air circulation, and especially so in more humid environments. Air exchange is easily accomplished by a low pvc pipe to the outside, and a ceiling height pvc pipe to the outside on the opposite wall; natural convection does the rest. Be sure to screen the pipe from bugs and critters.

2. There is only one humidity range: moist ...or even somewhat wet when rain runoff seeps down and into the back wall at the concrete floor joint. Most vegetables require different humidity levels for optimum storage and well-planned storage areas are generally zoned. Plus, any foods in my cellar that are dried have to be in sealed glass jars to prevent dampness seeping in. (I seal them by dipping the lids and jar necks in melted paraffin unless the jars have an old-fashioned rubber ring seal.)

I'll do a follow-up post on some requirements for different foods. The "zones" are cold and very moist, cold and moist, cool and moist, cool and dry, and moderately warm and dry.

3. Too much natural light. The window and the glass in the door let in enough light to allow potatoes to sprout in early spring, long before it's time to plant potatoes. The light also robs vitamins/nutrients from all the visible fruits and vegetables, or any ferments stored in clear glass jars.

4. No provision for preventing summer heat. Nothing much has frozen inside my cellar in during winter since it's built partway into the hillside. However, as the weather starts to warm up in late spring, so does the root cellar. Any foods remaining decline rapidly. They would be still edible for longer if the building had some insulation besides the dirt mounded mostly up the rear wall and barely up the side walls.

5. It is not varmint-proof. I see signs of field mice nesting inside, and I saw where they munched on apples over this last winter. There is a gable roof over my cellar and the ceiling above the cellar is not sealed well, so that's an entry point. Also, the door weather-stripping has failed, and field mice can get through amazingly narrow openings!

6. It is not large enough. Well, it was when I first began using it, but as I'm learning what all can be stored successfully, it has grown too small! To be fair, it also houses the spring water pressure tank that I use for the garden, and now also houses my cheese cave and the mini-cheese cave for blue cheese. 

In previous years it has been useful to store potted perennials like my 2 fig trees, a patio peach which I just gave away, and 3 blueberry bushes... but now those will have to go in the ground before this winter. (The blueberries were only potted because I have been acidifying a proper place to plant them. The figs will freeze to the ground here but should come back each spring.)

Even without the potted plants, the cellar is now too small to store as much variety as I have discovered I can safely store. The shelving (which is only on the back wall and one side wall) runs from waist-high up to the low ceiling, and is filled with jars of dry goods that will not be harmed by freezing... things like pasta, beans, rice, powdered milk and home-dried vegetables that won't fit in my pantry in the house. Below the shelving is all the space  I have remaining for vegetables (3' tall x 1' deep x about 11' feet in length), leaving a narrow walkway in the center; the cheese caves and water tank take up the opposite wall. I try not to store anything near the doorway since that uninsulated wall no doubt allows some freezing temps inside a foot or more during winter.

With more storage area, I could keep and easily access several containers of carrots, beets, rutabagas, sunchokes and parsnips, etc. stored in slightly damp soil or sawdust. Potatoes I can store loose in a bin, but not with apples in the same room. The ethylene gas given off by apples causes the 'taters to sprout, and affects the storage life of some other vegetables. Last year I stored 3 bushels of apples but I didn't have any potatoes to store. I did have winter squash that didn't keep like they usually did before I started storing apples. I threw away over a bushel of butternuts that rotted. I don't know if it was the apples or not, because it was so moist in the cellar last winter. (Winter squash and pumpkins need fairly dry storage conditions.) 

With more storage area, I could also keep 5 gallon buckets that were "early fall planted" with carrots, Belgian endive, celery, lettuce and other greens. All I'd have to do to use the celery and greens is bring a bucket inside the house to natural light for a few days, and harvest. Carrots and Belgian endive would be harvested right from the buckets in the cellar.

The seemingly simple solution to most of my root cellar problems would be to add a drier room onto one side, and insulate what's already in place. However, the land falls off pretty steeply on one side, and heavy equipment cannot access the other side to dig out the rocky hill. Tearing it down and building it back with a bigger footprint and better design would be too expensive, although the smart thing to do if I could afford it.

Some remedy will come to me, sooner or later. In the meantime, I hope my observations have given you some ideas to consider.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Medicating my cat

The hazards to my thigh when putting flea meds between the shoulder blades of my older cat. I think forensics would find it easy to identify her!

(I'm still out of town, this was just a trivia post for the schedule... )

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Amazing "Solar" Student

I may have to revise my thoughts about US education approaching failure mode. Whether it's due to the schools... or his parents and environment, a Middle School boy has discovered how to increase solar energy collected by flat panels, and has been granted a provisional patent for his work.

Middle School student Aidan Dwyer applied the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical principle widely occurring in nature, to solar panel arrays in a months-long backyard experiment. He found that small solar panels arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence found in tree branches produced 20 percent more energy than flat panel arrays, and prolonged the collection 'window' by up to two and a half hours.

Here's a news story about the lad:
Here's an in-depth report about his research, and both the above photos are from this site, posted here for educational purposes:

I've been intrigued by the Fibronacci sequence for a long time, and a few years ago I designed a house modeled on the Fibronacci sequence in a Chambered Nautilus shell.

More information on Fibonacci Numbers in Nature:

Friday, September 2, 2011

Long Weekend - and Medical Time Off~

No posts from me until after the long(er) holiday weekend... I'll be back sometime next week, after my semi-annual visit for medical tests at UVa. up in Charlottesville. (There will be a couple of "filler" posts while I'm away. Hopefully they will be interesting.)

Y'all have a fun weekend!!