Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Under cover!

Yesterday (Sunday) we made huge progress on the high tunnel--with a great crew of 5, we not only got the second endwall covered inside and out with plastic, but we got the double layer of plastic put over the roof!

It looks more finished than it is, because the excess plastic from the roof nearly reaches the ground. This excess will be the subject of experimentation as integrated gutters to catch rainwater from the roof so that we can pipe it back under the tunnel. We don't want to go into the irrigation business just because we're putting a roof over the garden.

The big header across the north end, in the photo, will be the support for the roof of a tool shed along the outside of the north wall--only 2 feet deep, just enough to reach in and hang garden tools. The roof will be also serve as a permanent scaffolding to make roof replacement and repairs easier. And I'm looking forward to the view from up there!

This morning I was able to figure out quite a bit of the side curtain "theory"--I hope! Tomorrow if it isn't too rainy, we should be able to get those mostly in place, though the details of rigging the system to raise and lower the curtains may take longer. Many ropes and cables that have to link together "just so."

Doors are under way as well. I found some very nice new wooden screen doors at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, slathered them with linseed oil to help preserve them against moisture, and covered them neatly with left-over plastic. Hinged on the outer sides, meeting in the middle, they will form a 6' wide opening when both are open--ample for the garden cart--or we can just slip in one and keep the other tightly shut in winter. In spring the plastic can come off for ventilation, while still keeping cats & dogs out. An old screen door that came with the Brown Barn will be installed in the north endwall, so we'll have cross ventilation and easy access to the garden and tool shed from that end.

The photo shows a bit of the crops we have already planted inside, peeking out from under row covers since the day was warm. All our various crews have been super great about leaping over beds of seedlings and trying not to damage the crops. It takes constant attention, and quite a bit of acrobatics. I really appreciate that no one has whined about it, at least to my face. I had expected grumbling on that account.

But maybe the beauty and tastiness of the crops have convinced everyone that I wasn't crazy to go ahead and plant. We've been harvesting Wrinkly Crinkly Cress, Upland Cress, baby Bok Choi and Broccoli Raab, huge sweet Hakurei white salad turnips, rainbow radishes, green onions, frilly burgundy and chartreuse baby mustard greens, purple orach, magenta spreen, Tampequino Serrano hot peppers, chives, rosemary, sage, and various wild greens from the high tunnel beds already, for our Farmer's Market booth and for the local hospital.

And there's more to come. The chard is still small, but due for thinning this week or next--sweet tender salad greens now, then big lush tropical-looking leaves to steam or saute later. The rows of seedlings are stunning shades of magenta, green and chartreuse, with white, pink, yellow, and beet red stems. I've managed to keep a patch of burgundy green beans alive under the white frost blankets, and just possibly we'll have beans for Christmas. The carrots--old heirloom seed--didn't germinate well, but there are a few coming. The Bok Choi and Raab should be ready for the Farmer's Market Holiday Sale in a couple weeks, and then we have some "regular" broccoli plants that will fill out the space left when we harvest the Raab.

And we'll plant more things once we get the tunnel really done. Out in the garden, we've actually still got basil plants hanging on under layers of row cover...we'll try transplanting them to the high tunnel soon, and see how long we can keep them going in there. As we harvest things, we'll keep planting, moving on to things that are even more cold hardy like lettuce, spinach, corn salad, etc.

Everyone is invited to nibble as they work--our motto is "Feed the workers!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When It Rains, It Snows

The geese warned me last night: snow's coming! At that point, the forecasts I was reading just called for rain all week. But the skeins of geese flying high in the evening sky, honking their long-distance travelling song, clued me in. Not too many of them, and not many today: I think the snowy weather will soon pass, and we'll have another spell of mild weather.

No accumulation of snow yet; it's too warm. It was beautiful driving the bus in it today: big wet clumpy flakes thick in the air, like a cartoon. At night, with them plummeting wetly onto dark pavement, I was reminded of the importance of focus. When I looked at the flakes swirling towards the windshield, with a short-range focus, I was suddenly blind to the roads and traffic around me--a dangerous perspective. All I could see was the whiteness, even though it was of little real substance--all day we had only a little more than 1/2 inch of precipitation. Coming at me at frightening speed, it was entirely dizzying.

A different kind of snowblind.

Alarmed at being briefly hypnotized (even though I was safely at a l-o-n-g stoplight), I blinked and shook my head, and refocused on the darkness beyond the tumbling snow. When I focused on the background, the snow became transparent again, faded from view, and I could plainly see the roads and traffic again--the things that were of real substance.

That's a lot like other things in life. When everything comes "thick and fast and more at last" (is that Lewis Carroll?), it's easy to get caught up in focusing on the little temporary "crises" hurtling at me, rather than the long-term, important things that will be there through thick and thin.

I found myself getting grumpier and grumpier this evening.

Well, it WAS late and I got little sleep last night. I stayed up late preparing my written comments on the Northeast Sector Plan which is being drafted by the Lawrence/Douglas County Planning Department with input from the community (http://www.lawrenceks.org/pds/draft_plans).

With Toss gone, it was a good time to catch up on cleaning. Threw in a load of wash (rugs), tackled the dust bunnies in the entry way with broom, vacuum and mop...oh, that little rug in the basement would work well here...I go down to get it just in time to hear the sound of water cascading from the washing machine drain, drenching the washer which is just days back in service after the motor board went out last week (about $300 all told). Stray water is a known enemy of this expensive part. Because the drain was backing up before it went out, I called the drain cleaner first, then the appliance repair guy. Now all of that seems to no avail. Which means it's probably time to dig up the septic tank...ugh.

Big bills, but small stuff in the grand scheme of things. I unplug the sump pump, shut off the washer, turn off the light, and walk away. Nothing to be done tonight.

Grumpier and grumpier. I try to sweep under the computer table. You would think all those snake-like cords would eat the dust bunnies, but no. They shelter the dust bunnies. Suddenly I despise electrical cords as much as I do garden hoses. Grumpy, grumpy. One of those times I'm really grateful to live essentially alone.

Talking with Mom and Dad earlier, they mention attending a memorial at their church for someone barely older than me, who was a somewhat removed role model for me...an environmental activist credited with some significant feats of conservation in the state. Someone who made a lasting difference for many, many species. I reminded them of another mentor of mine, someone who pushed me to grow and develop new skills as a shy high school junior, who died this summer. The obituaries are vague, of course, but it is clear that each took her own life.

And suddenly I realize--this is the source of my grumpiness. In the midst of little frustrations-- not being able to control a handful of computer cords, seeing my washing machine/drain repairs all to naught--reflecting on the lives of these strong, courageous women whom I personally knew for many years, and knowing that at some point they decided it just wasn't worth it any more. What does that mean for me, just a few years younger than they?

I can imagine something like that if I were ill to the point of no reasonable hope for meaningful recovery. But these creative, dynamic women were still creating, still active, still making meaningful contributions to their communities.

We can never stand in another's shoes and know what they were thinking or feeling. But in this moment, I remember my experience with the falling snow. If I focus on the little, insignificant things coming at me thick and fast, I will lose my sense of perspective, and I will be overwhelmed...and I could come to a point where it seemed just too difficult and pointless to continue.

So I renew my resolve to keep my focus on the big, important things beyond the little daily burdens of plumbing and appliances and phone companies that keep billing me for services I didn't order.

The important things are, I think, these: God, and my faith in Him; my family and friends, and my relationships with them; the farm, and my relationship with its Community of Life.

But these things can come thick and fast too. I tiptoe away from the edges of the the thoughts, "What if they decided that all this ground around me can be developed into industrial parks and tract houses?" "What if they annex the farm?" That way lies madness.

Comfort comes in a quote someone posted on a listserv:

"Not one of us will live long enough to see a fraction of the difference we make, but it is essential that we pursue our ideals anyway. Many of the first Quakers never saw freedom of religion come to England. Most of the original suffragists never got to vote. The murdered civil rights workers did not get to see racial tensions ease. Few idealists live long enough to see their dreams made real, and yet their influence lives after them, and their dreams do, sometimes, come true for others."

— Kate Maloy in A Stone Bridge North

I have to look not just beyond the falling snowflakes, but beyond the traffic as well, to the larger community of which the traffic is but one manifestation. The traffic appears to me as a different hypnotizing flow, one that has more substance than snow, but is equally detached from me. Yet from within itself, it is far more than a river of cars. It is others like me, working, dreaming, planning supper, meeting loved ones. And I must always remember, I am part of it. What I do as a driver affects the flow of the traffic, and that affects the lives of each fellow member in ways I will never, ever know.

Faith is knowing that it is so, even though I will never, ever know. Faith is my lifeline into the future, beyond myself.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Toss Travels Solo

Well, not really. Someone else was driving, of course.

But when the opportunity arose for her to sojourn at a friend's home for a few days, basking by a wood stove with a frequently-played grand piano nearby, and someone who loves her spending a lot of time at home, I was quick to gussy her up with a--gasp!--bath, and pack her overnight things.

I didn't really feel a difference this afternoon. I was working on the high tunnel and barn, in a cold drizzle, and Toss would likely have been lounging alone in the house anyhow, by choice. In her advancing years, she enjoys the comfort of her own personal PWF machine-washable sheepskin, and doesn't feel compelled to be front and center in every project out on the farm.

But tonight, coming home after an evening with friends, I notice that the house is perceptibly quieter. It's after midnight, and she hasn't come padding into my room to lay down with a slight huff, as if to say, "Aren't you going to bed yet?" In her working days, I called her the "beddy-bye dog" because she got so drowsy around 10:00 each evening, like clockwork. She would still follow me around the house as I moved from room to room, but she would flop as soon as she caught up with me, give me that little huff of disapproval at my wakeful ways, and close her eyes until my next foray into another room.

I suppose the cessation of the following behavior was an unnoticed casualty of her increasing deafness, as well as a touch of stiffness. She didn't so easily notice, with her eyes closed, when I left the room.

But missing her is ok. Practice for the inevitable. When Ambrosius passed away, I found I was grateful for his habit of "going walkabout" for weeks at a time, because I was used to him being absent. It makes his permanent absense more familiar-feeling.

And I think Toss well deserves some of the finer things in life that I can't give her, like lots of free concerts on her own private grand piano, and someone with more time to take her for walks and pamper her.

The house isn't quite empty, though. Mike the cat is curled on the bed. His buddy Stanley went back to his old home after spending a couple months here, the same place Toss is sojourning. They will all come here when my friend travels, giving everyone a little change of pace.

Although Mike had been quite nasty to Toss, and never really accepted her presence in his new world, he wandered around the house as if looking for her.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Question of Scale

Catlady's comment jogged a few brain cells just now. They are having temps in Winnipeg (85 miles straight north of Pinwheel Farm) that are 10 degrees--CELSIUS--above normal!

Based on what little media stuff I hear, the climate change scientists have been looking at long-range variations in the average temperatures: a few degrees average increase will cause melting of polar ice packs, etc., etc. Well, that's all well and good, and meaningful in a broad way.

But if you're a plant, things look a lot different. Averages from year to year may not make much difference if you're an annual. Averages within a year can make a HUGE difference.

Location is important too, as anyone gardening in a low spot can tell you. The frost comes days earlier to certain microclimates, even across the farm. One of the guessing games I play in siting any new infrastructure or planning my crop arrangement is trying to guess at all the factors affecting microclimates within the garden.

I'm sure our average temperature this year is WAY below average. But the current week of extremely unseasonable warm weather is likely shifting that annual average. A mild winter might make this a more typical "average" year. Yet, no hard long freeze could enable pests to overwinter that usually don't--as well as extending my gardening season nearly around the calendar.

In many instances, it's the daily fluctuations that set the limits for plant growth and reproduction. Tomatoes allegedly won't set fruit above a certain temperature, even though the plants will thrive (mine haven't seemed to mind the hot days, as long as their roots are in soil kept relatively cool by heavy mulch). One hour of frost is the boundary for the squash plants, no matter what the average for the day, week, month or year is. What date contains that hour of frost is what determines the length of the growing season....

For some plants. Some simply need a total cummulative number of hour or days of warmth (corn) or cold (apples and tulips).

Some plants thrive on day/night temperature differences...either large or small.

Some really only care about the hours of daylight--something that will be largely unaffected by climate change.

What I've seen in the day-to-day weather at the farm these past few years is increasing drastic swings and unseasonable temperatures--cooler as well as warmer than usual. This makes it a very, very challenging "climate" for production farming.

I think the successful farmers in this coming time will be those who are willing and able to try new things, take risks, and follow "gut feelings" about what to plant and when to plant it. The calendar printed on paper won't work anymore. Paying attention to and understanding the seasonal rhythms and complex interrelationships of the natural world will be critical to making day-to-day farming decisions.

Perhaps it is ridiculously obvious that in order to notice the complex interrelationships of the natural world, we have to first allow them to exist--stop the herbicides and pesticides, stop cutting shelterbelts, etc.--and then we have to nurture them through every means we can. That means allowing habitat to shelter a diverse array of creatures, and food for them as well. Sometimes that means growing parsley for the butterflies, instead of for the table. And resisting the temptation to make every corner of the farm neat and tidy.

In our corner of the world, neat lawns and tidy trees are the norm. They do look nice this time of year. It's tempting to "subdue creation" at this time of year, to get everything clean and tidy and "put to bed" for the winter. But the untidiness is the home of our climate change indicators, in their various and diverse forms.

I'll poke in a few (hundred) spring flower bulbs in the front yard to pacify the neighbors--at least a little. But a lot of leaves will lay where they fall, and a lot of weeds will stand through the winter, keeping the mantis nests safe, hiding the sparrows from the little hawk that hunts here, slowing the wind and trapping whatever snow may fall, securing the blowing leaves so that they mulch the soil and keep it warmer.

Besides, if it stays generally as warm as it's starting out, we may be too busy picking vegetables to get the farm cleaned up this winter.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Climate Change Craziness

I don't call it "global warming"; I call it "global weirding".

When we had a run of hard frosts and cold, wet weather on the early side of normal--early October--I heard a lot of mumbling from folks predicting an early, long, hard, cold winter. But I didn't bat an eye...I just had this hunch that it would warm up again and we'd have a gorgeous "Indian Summer" with weeks of bright, warm sunny afternoons.

And so we have it. I'm very glad I followed that hunch and planted a bunch of crops in late Sept. They are growng very quickly now, and we're starting to harvest new beds of arugula, kale, tat soi, mizuna, and salad turnips, with bok choi and lettuce soon to come.

How did I know the weather would do that? A little bird told me--or rather, a lot of birds of all sizes.

In August and Sept., I didn't see the usual huge flights of migratory birds, either while driving the bus or while working on the farm. No vast miles and miles of starlings and grackles and blackbirds, swirling from fields to trees to telephone wires in fascinating amoebic clouds. No thousands of brilliant gulls soaring high in the sky, almost invisible, so that the more you look the more you realize are there. No stately undulating V formations of hundreds of white pelicans, drafting each other like bicycle racers, flap-flap-flap gliiiiiiiiiiide. And no geese.

When we had the cold spell, there were no geese flying south in front of the cold weather.

When I mention this to other people, they stop and think a moment, then say, "You're right--I haven't seen them either, I just didn't pay attention or think about what it meant."

I pay attention to things like that. It's an effortless, ingrained habit now, after several years in the distant past of living in very primitive conditions, and after the past 12+ years on the farm. I give the same attention to the various aspects of the natural environment that most folks give to television or radio. It's in the background; mostly you're not even really "paying attention" to it...but sometimes something catches your attention, and you shift your focus there without even thinking about it. But the whole time, you're aware of it, and if something is unusual, or if it stops, then you notice the change right away.

It is a very strange season, actually, right now. It seems more like spring than the conventional Indian Summer. The plants are confused; insects and frogs are confused. The "spring peepers"--Boreal Chorus Frogs--were actually calling their spring call not long ago. There are violets blooming in the sage bed, and the little plant I call Veronica is strewn with gleaming blue flowers. I've seen some Shepherd's Purse blooming, and other small spring wildflowers. The robins sound like spring robins, singing their song for April sunsets but it's November. I saw a nest of winged ants today...usually an August thing, though usually it's the red ants that I see fly.

Confused? Or maybe they know something we don't. Could there be a winter without winter?

Friday, November 6, 2009


The best thing about farming is the distractions, sometimes.

Today, like every single Thursday since mid-spring, I spent picking and packing the vegetable order for the hospital. The past few Thursdays have been cold and rainy, not ideal weather for this kind of work. You know it's about time to quit for year when the wash water (straight from the well) feels WARM.

Not today. Glorious, bright, warm cloudless day, a day fit for May or even June! Just enough breeze to be annoying--blowing row covers back at me while I picked from under them. Warm enough that the veggies were just a trifle soft as I picked them, and perked up a lot in the rinse process. Yet cool enough that they stayed nice and crisp after that as I packed them.

Ah, distractions! First, it's always tempting to pull that annoying weed while I'm picking. but then I want to pull the next one, too...and the next...and there just isn't time on a picking day when I'm doing the whole order myself.

Then there are all the edibles. I snack my way through the day, both "weeds" and crops.

Sometimes I just have to sit and look around at all the beauty. It's different now that things are under row covers--I can't so easily admire the luminous beds of red and green lettuce. And the winds of the past week have stripped most the colorful leaves from the trees. But the neat rows of white covers have their own beauty, and the dog's coat glistens in the sun, and sky is so incredibly blue, and the willows are so graceful in the breeze.

There are still enough insects about to be distracted by them...and in this season the distraction is in admiring an unusual pygmy grasshopper, rather than swatting a thousand mosquitos.

Those are just the ordinary distractions.

After I showed apprentice E. how to screw in the hooks that are part of the high-tunnel side curtain "rigging", I wandered off towards the lemon balm to pick a few more sprigs to make the needed weight for the order. I noticed something moving in the lane north of the sheep sheds. A skunk! We often see their diggings along the lane, but I've never actually seen the skunk there. This one's tail looked pretty thread-bare, so it may have had mange. It was entirely unconcerned when I called E. over and we walked as far as the gate...about 50' away from the skunk. It just wandered on down the lane away from us, occasionally stopping to dig-dig-dig-dig-dig like a very quick dog. Skunks hunt for grubs and worms by digging little holes and rummaging under things. If we had cows, we would know skunks were at work when we saw all the cow pies turned over.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Hip Board's Connected to the...

...bow, which is connected to the purlins, the roof braces, the other bows by way of the purlins, etc.

So getting the posts to be VERTICAL meant loosening a lot of the screws that had been accidentally tightened too much in putting up the side purlins Saturday.

But by the end of a couple hours, we had all the hip boards up. These are the 2 x 8 boards at the top of the walls, to which many things will attach: pulley system and winches for the drop curtains, retaining cords to keep the curtains from billowing, gutters, and eventually the c-channels that will hold on the 2-layer plastic cover.

The instructions for the greenhouse say in bold type at the top: WARNING! Use of AQC ["treated"] lumber will void the warrantee on the greenhouse film ["plastic"]. So we bought beautiful Western cedar boards for 3 times the cost of regular treated lumber. THEN a last glance over the section on hipboard placement brought to light an inconspicuous note that mentions as an aside that treated lumber can be used for the hip boards...sigh.

I have to say that the cedar was wonderful to work with--much lighter to handle than treated would have been, and probably straighter and less knotty. And smells good. And more environmentally benign.

A couple tricks really made this task go smoothly. One was to start by cutting the 2 x 4s that will serve as nailers on the corner posts, fitting between the base board and the hip board. These gave us our standard measurement for placing the hip boards...we tied them onto the posts we were going to attach a hip board to, and then they held the hip board at just the right height while we attached it.

For posts that needed to be adjusted to be plumb, I leaned a long 2 x 6 against the side the post was leaning towards, with the other end resting on the ground near the baseboard, wherever it ended up. Then I pushed a piece of re-bar into the ground at the end of the 2 x 6 to keep it from sliding along the ground. Leaning or hammering on the 2 x 6 easily pushed the post into adjustment and then held it there while we fastened. BUT--first we had to make sure the purlin wasn't attached too tightly, or it would prevent the bow from moving into proper position. One of our last tasks will be tightening EVERYTHING.

Pictures would be a nice touch, wouldn't they? But for a construction project like this one photo just doesn't seem to cut it, and multiple photos won't load, and even loading one photo is terribly tedious. I need a computer person to figure out a system for this and teach me! Or better yet, just DO it for me!