Monday, February 1, 2016

Lower Savanna Project

So, we’ve been talking about this thing called The Lower Savanna Project wherever we go, all over town and on the Internet, for the last 6 months or so. But, we haven’t explained exactly what it is. Here it is folks...

Wolf Gardens has partnered with two local charities to help feed people. We’ll grow the crops, and they’ll distribute the abundance.

See, it works like this: I have these permaculture, homesteading, and general gardening students who need projects to work on. I also have a few acres of land that needs attention in order to serve as demonstrations for future students. The charities need suppliers to help feed people. Basically, I have a farm that grows food, but I don’t want to get into distribution right now. They have food distribution programs, but their current suppliers are drying up for various reasons. So, I’ll grow it and they’ll sell it or give it away.

Now, it’s actually a little more complicated than that, but before you can understand the details you need to know  a little about these charities. They are both programs that we, as both a family and a business, feel very passionate about.

Valley NAZ $10 Food Box Program

The Valley Community Church of the Nazarene here in Chino Valley has been running an affordable foods program for a few years now. The flagship of this program is simple: pay $10 and get a box containing $30 or more worth of fresh foods. No canned goods, few processed foods, mostly fresh vegetables and a little bit of meat.

YCA Food For Veterans and Children

The Yavapai County Angels are a group of volunteers who work secure the needs of vets and families with children who are in desperate need. In these parts they are best known for their Adopt-A-Vet programs over major holidays, like Christmas and Easter. But the group, which I am a member of, does a lot more than just the adoption programs. We run drives for the specific needs of various individuals and families for things like firewood, clothing, and yes, food. Our other charity partner, Valley NAZ, has even partnered with us to get food boxes and such to some of our recipients in the most need.

So, these two highly deserving charities have already been working together to what they can for people in the area.

The problem, now that we come to it, is that the main supplier for the $10 Food Box program is drying up. It is a central food bank distribution center down south that has been relying on... wait for it... WalMart for the food it distributes to various food banks and programs all over Arizona.

You see the problem with this? It’s right there in that one word: WalMart.

Over the last year problems have been creeping into the supplier. First it was certain months there would be no food, or not enough. Then the quality of the food they got started going down hill. This last fall and winter has been horrendous. They’ve had no food for their food banks at all.

I started talking to Valley NAZ last year, in order to try and cover those “certain months” they expected not to have enough food to fill their boxes. The deal was for two months. I would help supply crops for the two months they expected not to have any food. The idea was that between Wolf Gardens and a few other farmers and gardeners in the area we could get the boxes filled and get everyone fed.

Then the quality of the food coming up from the distribution center started dropping, and we hit on the idea of growing for them on a more permanent basis. Just enough to compensate for the stuff that might have to be rejected. They knew the center was doing it’s best, and that it was not their fault.

But, then the bottom fell out and the food stopped coming up here altogether.

So, now we’re in overdrive. The church is most likely going to have to suspend their affordable food program until it can be revamped to run in a more independent way. This also affects the YCA program that several vets and low-income children have come to depend on, since Valley NAZ was supplying YCA with a little food every month free of charge.

Now we can get into the details of the Lower Savanna Project!

The southern end of the Lower Savanna on oddly foggy morning in 2014. We had already begun stacking slash there to break down for the anticipated food forest. 

Here at Wolf Gardens we have this 1-acre front yard that is the bottom of a bowl, where every nutrient on the front half of the hill has a tendency to eventually find it’s way to. We call it the Lower Savanna. There is very little planted in this area right now, just some grapes, lilacs, and a few trees of various types. Nothing terribly productive at the moment. But, that is about to change.

We plant to plant a food forest here. We plan to turn the Lower Savanna into the Lower Jungle over the next 5 years. The problem, as it sits now, is that this area was over-cultivated (to no good end) before I took over the farm. There are lots of nutrients in the Lower Savanna, but very little carbon, and soil biota is all wrong.

This, however, can be fixed by taking advantage of this El Nino year (and the subsequent following wet year) by planting in a carefully managed maincrop, aka: an annual food garden.

A maincrop, planted in polyculture, rotated properly, done in a chop-n-drop no dig style, can fix all of the problems with the Lower Savanna that is currently keeping productive trees from taking and growing.

Epic pile of herbivore poo, the first of many, donated by a local micro-ranch for the Lower Savanna Project.

So, we are dedicating the entire project to the benefit and use of our charity partners. My students and I will grow the food, and they will distribute it. Moreover, we’re setting up a scholarship program for recipients of the YCA program, and bringing in the volunteers from the Valley NAZ program in order to train them up, all bright and shiny, so they can grow their own food, and maybe help supply the network.

There are also a few other food ministries and gardeners in the area that have signed on to help supply said network, thus broadening and stabilizing our ability to both feed people and educate people on how to feed themselves.

So, there you have it folks, The Lower Savanna Project. To find out  more or keep up to date on what's going on follow us on Facebook.


Monday, January 4, 2016

5 Gardening/Farming Terms I Get Asked About.. A LOT!

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about basic gardening and farming terminology that were, once a upon a time, considered common knowledge. But, like most things that were considered common knowledge “once upon a time” they weren’t written down commonly, and so the meaning is lost to the average modern person. Now, most people ask the question (what does this mean -or- what does that mean) and stop themselves, assuming that this is the kind of information I charge for. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Information like basic terminology is something I think should be given away for free. I actually believe that this is the very kind of thing that should be taught in public primary schools so that all children grow up with a basic understanding of how to grow their own food. Or, at least, what goes into growing it.

Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail in my explanations of each term. That would make this post entirely too long and mind-numbing. Besides, each term deserves it’s own day in the sun, and can be expounded upon in future posts that focus on just them.

Anyway, here is a list of the 5 most common terms I get questioned about:

1. Kitchen Garden: Sometimes called a Truck Garden; a kitchen garden is a garden that serves the kitchen(s) of the site it’s grown on.  Think of it as the farmer’s personal garden where he/she grows their own veggies for their own use. This is also usually very close to the house, where the cook can just step out and pick a tomato or a sprig of herbs as they’re cooking. If your mother or grandmother had some tomato plants and a couple of salad greens growing just outside their kitchen door, that was a kitchen garden.

But, kitchen gardens can also be very large. My own kitchen garden is 1/8 acre, and that’s just for the veggies and annuals. I grow most of my herbs and perennials in another garden, that’s also close to the house. I have friend who runs a local food ministry farm who grew up with a 5-acre kitchen garden.

2. Main Crop (Maincrop): A maincrop is where you grow the produce you intend to sell or trade. Again, a maincrop can be anywhere between a small garden to many acres. In modern society we’re used to thinking of this in terms of fields. Acres upon acres of monocropped corn, wheat, tomatoes, or what have you. But, this is a relatively new way of doing things, just since the invention of the industrial tractor. For thousands of years before that maincrop fields were smaller, easier to work by hand, and more diverse. The practice of polycrops was not uncommon.

3. Polycrop: Poly, meaning many, crop, meaning.. well, crops. Manycrop. A polycrop is several different kinds of plants, or guilds, being grown together. Your average kitchen garden is grown in this manner. The more common term for it is “companion planting.” Plants are grown together with other types of plants that make for good companions. Space isn’t wasted in a polycrop, and the guilds (collection of plants that grow well together) are made up of plants that each offer some benefit or another to each of the other plants in it’s guild. For instance, tomatoes and basil are commonly grown together because they are chemically compatible and offer benefits to each other. A more famous guild is the “3 Sisters” guild: corn, pole beans, and winter squash.

4. Crop Rotation: Crop rotation means just that. We rotate our crops every year. If one guild is planted in one bed one year, then another guild will be planted in that bed the following year. The planning for crop rotation is more complex than that, but that’s basic gist.

5. Sacrificial Plants/Crops: Sometimes called by other names like Trap Plants, Windwalls, Barrier/Anchor Plants, and Cover Crops.

  • Trap Plants are plants that are planted in order to lure bugs away from other plants that you want to protect. It’s not uncommon to plant a few isolated soft-bodied summer squash on the edge of a pumpkin patch in order to draw bugs away from the pumpkins. Squash bugs love pumpkins, but can’t resist a nice tender yellowneck squash if it’s available. So, the sacrificial yellowneck is planted as a trap plant to protect the pumpkins.

  • Windwalls are tall plants, such as corn, pole beans on a trellis, grapes, etc which can be grown to form a living wall that protects other plants from wind damage. Windwalls are to wind what a gabion is to water. They slow and calm the wind coming through the area. Not to be confused with a Wind Break, which is usually tall trees or bushes planted very close together in an effort to stop wind almost entirely. Windwalls are typically temporary living structures designed to live for no more than 10 years, while a Wind Break is designed to be far more permanent, living 50+ years, sometimes hundreds. 

  • Barrier/Anchor Plants are plants that either form a barrier between two zones in order to divide them, or create an anchor point that brings two zones together. These are usually multi-purpose plants that not only provide a physical or visual barrier or anchor between two different areas, but may also offer the area biochemical advantages to the soil, structural advantages, or offer specific properties for attracting beneficial bugs (like bees), or repelling unwanted bugs (like cucumber beetles). Barrier/Anchor Plants can also be used as a kind of cover crop to suppress weeds. 

  • Cover crops have many advantages for everyone from the small-at-home-gardener to the large industrial farm. The most common cover crop is the legume (beans, peas, etc), which infuses the area with beneficial bacteria that converts the nitrogen in the atmosphere into usable nitrogen in the soil. This process is called “nitrogen fixing”. But, cover crops do more than just fix the soil’s chemical structure, they also aerate the ground with their roots, hold the topsoil together during rains and winds, and protect the topsoil from too much sun exposure. In dryland areas, such as mine, they also act as living mulch to help the ground retain moisture and stay cool.  

So, there you have it. The brief definitions of the most common gardening/farming terms I’m questioned about. I hope that helps some of you out there in cyberland. Please feel free to leave questions in the comments section.

Friday, December 18, 2015

What Permie Farmers Do In Winter

The number one question I get asked in the winter is "What do you do in the winter? How do you keep yourself busy.. when you're not planning gardens, that is?" This is usually followed by a quip or comment that I must have a lot of time on my hands.

Here's the deal, Folks. Running a farm, especially a permaculture farm, is not a "summers only" job. It is a 24/7/365 job.

Winter is when the large heavy work gets done. Engineering, building, earthworks, etc. There are a lot of things that have to get accomplished when there aren't any plants in the ground or torrential rains flooding down from the sky. No, it's not fun trying dig in frozen ground, but it's really bad idea to dig during the summer monsoons. Your work washes away even as you're doing it.

Winters are spent with CADD programs active, because, for me, planning a garden is not as simple as doodling out a map of where I want this or that to go. I plant in guilds, on slopes, among trees and established perennials. My plans don't cover the next season's plantings; they cover the next 3-5 seasons plantings with active notations for 5, 10, or even 15 years down the road. The scope of some projects can cover up to 100 years, and I have to know what I'm doing each step of the way, and make sure everyone ELSE knows what I'm doing. After all, I don't expect to actually be here in 100 years to explain to my grandkids why I did this or that and why it matters to them now. There has to be an in-depth record.

Many things change on the farm in winter. Fences change locations. Live-stakes are propagated. Plants are divided. Ground is cleared. New swales are dug, and old swales refreshed. Runnels, ditches, and driveways are sculpted or resculpted. The carpentry shop is busy building things to be used in summer. The machine shop is busy fixing and/or servicing machinery. Tools are refurbished. Buildings are built. (Newbies to the neighborhood are often surprised to see barns and sheds going up in December and January, but cold weather is a much better time to build a barn than monsoon weather. Trust me.)

And, believe it or not, the winter crops have to be tended. Yes, I grow year-round. No, not with only the help of my greenhouse. I grow "snow plants", as in things that grow in frozen, snow-covered ground. LIke arugula, parsnips, garlic, winter breed onions, etc. And yes, there is still the greenhouse to take care of.

This year we are starting a new long-term project called the Lower Savanna. But, that's whole different blog post. In short, we're taking a mostly unused portion of land, a little over an acre, and beginning a large time-stacking project on it. For 3 years we will grow food crops for our church's affordable foods program. Then we'll be putting in pioneering trees and pants. Then begin staging in a food forest. The Lower Savanna will  act as a prototype demonstration plot that others in our area can learn from and on, then duplicate.

To sum it up, there is a lot to do in the winter. On top of this, there are those full-time jobs my husband an I have, as well as the holidays, and just trying to stay warm. 

It is, after all, winter. 


Friday, July 11, 2014

How to Counter Top Compost

I've been making counter top compost for years. Since I cook almost everything from scratch I tend to use more of my food stuffs than other people, but I always have things that can be used to make compost. Coffee grounds, banana peels, the occasional pile of potato skins. These are all food waste that flowers, trees, and vegetable plants love.

There are counter top compost bins you can buy in high end kitchen and garden stores, but I've found the following tools work much better.
Large Steel Bowl
Old Food Processor, or Juicer (that's lost it's basket)
Sturdy bowl scraper
Bag of peat most
The idea of counter top compost isn't to make super rich soil or basic fertilizer, like with regular compost. It's to make plant food that you can give to your plants and trees on a daily or weekly basis.
The point is to make a mild plant food that uses up at least the majority of the raw food waste that your kitchen produces in a day. There are certain things you don't want to add to counter top compost, like seeds. Things with seeds can be added to regular compost because it takes time to mature the compost, constantly turning it every day, so that the seed ends up wasting it's sprout before it takes root. The aborted sprouts then become nutrients for the soil.
With counter top compost, however, there is no daily turning to keep the seeds from successfully sprouting, so we don't add them.
Keep the steel bowl in a well ventilated area that is easy to access. I keep mine on a small end table in the corner of my kitchen, and store it's food processor underneath.
As you go through your day toss in usable food waste, like used coffee grounds and tea leafs, potato skins, banana peels, wilted salad greens and other vegetables, used herb sprigs, etc. Every time you add something use the bowl scraper to mix it up.
At the end of the day, or if the bowl fills up, run the contents through the food processor, making a course mix. Toss in a handful or two of peat moss, and mix. The peat moss helps the counter top compost become adsorbent so that it doesn't dry into moisture-resistant clumps around your plants when the first hot, dry day comes up. In arid regions like here in Phoenix that is an extra special concern. Coffee grounds and tea leaves are fantastic for plants, but they can dry into lumps that shunt water away from the roots of you plants. The simple fix is to add a small amount of peat moss.
There will be things that work better when added after the grinding in the processor is done as well. Egg shells should be smashed up and added to the counter top compost post-processor. This allows the egg shells to act as organics that help funnel water through the plant food, keeping it moist as it feeds your plants. Hair should be added afterward, simply because it will clog up your processor if it's added before. Snip the hair into short lengths so that it mixes easy.
10 Great Things to Make Counter Top Compost Out Of
1. Coffee Grounds - nicely acidic, with a perfect base texture for solid plant food.
2. Tea Leafs - usually acidic, packed with antioxidants that will keep your plants healthy.
3. Banana Peels - Full of minerals and other elements that help flowers and fruits grow well.
4. Wilted Salad Greens - rich in heavy minerals that plants need lots of, but in a completely consumable form.
5. Potato Peels - one of the best, and well rounded food waste items for any form of compost.
6. Clean, Untreated Hair - human and pet hair is full of nitrogen that releases at the right speed to help plants grow strong roots.
7. Egg Shells - number one calcium supplement for plants that also acts as a great texturizer to help with water flow.
8. Used Herb Sprigs - even after they've been cooked herbs like rosemary, parsley, and sage are packed with vitamins that help plants grow strong stems.
9. Vegetable Trimmings - carrot tops, celery leafs, and other vegetable trimmings give plant food a well rounded nutrition content.
10. Flat Beer - Yes, beer that's gone flat and warm can be added to plant food for an extra punch of vitamins. The darker the beer, the better it is for plants.

What You Should Know About Oregano

The most common mistake people make when buying or growing fresh oregano to season things like pizza or red sauce is getting Italian oregano. Most people get it home, or into the kitchen, then find out that it doesn't taste quite right. In fact, Italian oregano tastes a lot more like mint. But, it says it's Italian oregano, so what went wrong?

The problem is that the taste we look for when we choose to use oregano is actually found in the Greek variety, not the Italian. In truth, Italian oregano isn't even Italian. It's native to North America, and is more closely related to peppermint and marjoram. Which is why it tastes like an extremely mild version of them. Which way the taste leans depends on the climate it's grown in. In more humid climates it will taste more like marjoram, and if grown in arid climates it will taste more like peppermint.
True Mediterranean cooking is done with Greek oregano, which has a very different, and far sharper flavor. Also in the mint family, it has a robust, peppery flavor which goes well with vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms, which is why it's used as a key spice for many Mediterranean recipes, which call for these ingredients. In America we most frequently use oregano in pizza. It's the second most important ingredient in the sauce, right behind tomatoes.
Over the centuries, Greek oregano has also been used medicinally for calming indigestion and treating coughs. When combined with other herbs, such as horehound and lemon grass it can be used as a tea to treat dry, scratchy throats and settle upset stomaches. There are a lot of health benefits in eating Greek oregano as well, since, like most herbs, it's packed with antioxidants.
So, what can you do with the minty Italian oregano? Believe it or not, it combines well with other 'desert' mints, such as spearmint and chocolate mint to flavor teas. It also pairs well with lemon grass, grape leafs, and raspberry leaves. For desserts Italian oregano can been used as a background flavor in heavy cream sauces that call for the zest of citruses such as lemon or lime.
If your Italian oregano tastes more like marjoram it can be used to substitute for it in recipes. Italian oregano has a far milder flavor, however, so one should double the amount called for when using it as a substitute.
Most prepackaged oregano that you find in stores, whether fresh or dried, is going to be Greek oregano, even if it's labeled "Italian". But, if you're planning on growing your own make sure the package says "Greek". Even then, sometimes it will be mislabeled. One sure fire way to know it's Greek is to get cuttings instead of seeds. Italian oregano reproduces via seeds, but not cuttings. Greek oregano reproduces both ways, but the seeds tend to be weak and are hard to propagate. Cuttings for Greek oregano tend to grow more easily.
So, next time you open up the oregano and find it tastes like mint, don't despair. You're not crazy. Just pop it into the tea kettle instead.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Let it rain!

Rain! We finally got rain... and hail. While the rest of the country was pretty much snowed in and frozen over, the American southwest has had an unusually warm, dry winter. While this is cause for happiness in suburbia, it’s reason for farmers to become concerned.

Last year’s drought was a nightmare. 2013 was a bad year for Arizona’s natural disaster crews. First, the drought dried everything out. Then lightening set everything on fire. And then the monsoons rolled in and flooded everything. All the burned areas and dead tundra became churning rivers of debris.

There was a lot of damage done last year, and only a hard, cold winter could make it right. But, we never got that winter. In fact, it was like winter never came. We saw a few freezes, and few light snows, but nothing remarkable. And they were broken up by exceptionally warm spells that tricked the trees and perennials into waking up just long enough to think it was safe. Then another 'cold snap’  would hit and make everything sick.

But now, we have rain and hail in the middle of Spring. This is a good thing. We desperately need the precipitation. As long as the hail doesn’t become dangerous (or snow) we’re good to go. A nice 3-day storm is just what we need to get everything kick-started on the farm and surrounding wild acreage.

A good greening will help the world from catching on fire again this year and hold the soil together when the much heavier monsoons do come in mid-late summer.

So, here’s to the rain and the hail. May it stick around for a few days and make our world brighter.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tabletop Greenhouses: Burpee or Bust

Several people have asked me what I think of the little miniature seed starting greenhouses, AKA: tabletop greenhouse. My answer to this is simple: If it’s not a Burpee brand greenhouse it’s not worth it. Every other brand I’ve tried has been an exercise in frustration. The Burpee brand “Ultimate Growing System” on the hand, is fantastic. Here’s why...

Other brands don't work the way Burpee does.

Other brands, like Jiffy, don’t actually use a self-regulated watering system. They use a submersed irrigation system that inevitably doesn’t water your seedlings evenly or regularly. You have to keep refilling the tray, depending on where you live that could be several times a day. Here in Arizona, where it’s extremely arid, even in the colder northern regions, you have to hover over the trays to keep the water level right.

Also, when you do add water to these things, it trickles through channels, flooding some seedlings, and leaving others dry. I actually had to use a squeeze bottle to water these things when I tried them, just to get the irrigation even.

And then the seedlings sit in the excess and runoff from the watering, increasing the chances of drowning and root rot.

How Burpee tabletop greenhouses work:

The Burpee tabletop greenhouse, by comparison, uses an automatic, self-regulating watering system that takes advantage of the siphoning abilities of good seed starting mixes that are typically high in peat moss. In other words, they suck, but in a good way. The Burpee system pulls the moisture up from a mat that in turn pulls moisture up from the cistern, which is below the seeding trays. The seedlings never sit in pools of water, so the chance of them downing is completely eliminated, and the chance of root rot is reduced so much it seems like it’s eliminated.

With the Burpee system you only have to fill the cistern at most once a day, and vent the greenhouse every so often. There’s no hovering involved. Even when I lived in Phoenix I only had to top-off the water in the cistern once a day, usually in the mornings, and vent it once in the afternoon. Because the seeding trays are elevated, venting is as easy as taking the clear top off for 5-10 minutes and letting the plastics and little baby leafs dry out. As soon as the condensation is gone you pop the top back on and go about your merry business.

Also, with the Burpee system you can buy replacement parts, while the other brands tend to make you by whole new kits. This comes in handy if your cats discover the joys sucking on the thermal watering mat like mine did. And, because the Burpee greenhouse uses actual pot cells you can use your own seeding mix if you want.

One would say that the only drawback to the Burpee Ultimate growing system is it’s price. And once would be wrong. Yes, you can get a Jiffy greenhouse system for $5 on sale at WalMart, but this is an instance where you get what you pay for. Actually, it’s been my experience that this would be $5 wasted. The $20 you spend on a Burpee system will get you a few years and several hundred seedlings, while the other brands usually don’t give you anything more than a headache.

For tabletop greenhouses my recommendation is Burpee or bust.