Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sun Oven

It's way too hot outside. There may be extra humidity, but it feels like I get slapped in the face with heat when I walk out the door. Of course I choose this moment to want fresh bread...

I refuse to turn on the oven during the summer. I doubly refuse to run the AC and the oven on the same day, and since the oven adds heat to the house, which would force the AC to come on earlier, I don't bake during the summer.

Last summer I bought a Sun Oven, an outdoor oven designed to use the sun's heat for cooking. I didn't use it, beyond one trial run to see how hot it would get.

It was a scratch-and-dent, so I expected some problems when I tested it. The latches are difficult to turn because of the way the frame is bent, but it still works.

A few weeks ago I decided I wanted zucchini bread, so I pulled out the sun oven. I've been using it ever since. Zucchini bread, banana bread, fresh wheat bread. Lunch.

I'm really enjoying the fact that I can whip up a batch of something and stick it in the oven, without being concerned about the extra heat.

The image isn't very clear, but the temperature is just over 350. The bread has been in the oven for a little under half an hour.


1 Use oven mitts or hot pads! The outside of the unit (reflectors, glass) gets HOT!
2 Plan ahead. The best time to use (i.e., cook with) the oven is when the sun is directly overhead, most likely between 11 and 2. You'll want to allow time to prepare, and preheat prior, then cook during this period. If you plan on having lunch ready at noon, it needs to be preheated by 11, so set up by 10.
3 It won't work well on cloudy or overcast days. Even a few minutes of shade will bring the temperature down noticeably.
4 Be aware that if you need to tip the oven (for instance, if you need to begin cooking at 10:AM) the inside will be slanted. You may need to even out whatever you're cooking to avoid spills. My oven came with a leveler rack that I can't find.
5 You'll need a relatively large space, five feet across at a minimum. You want to be able to walk all the way around the Sun Oven without bumping it.

If you have space for a permanent installation (I don't, so I went for the Sun Oven) these are relatively simple to build.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Forest Garden Update

It's only the beginning of June, and up on the hill the plants are already struggling. Rhubarb has died. Aronia are trying their best but their leaves are curling up and drying out. The apricot tree still looks good, but it's surrounded by other plants specifically to keep the root-zone cool. I couldn't do that with all the plants.

I was going to put two more dwarf fruit trees up there this spring but I couldn't justify the cost and my experiment failed miserably (I didn't get the serviceberry seedlings I expected, so no grafting of fruit-trees onto serviceberry rootstock).

Once the canopy is in place it should bring the temperature down considerably in that area, which will allow more plants to thrive. I covered the whole thing with mulch last fall, and it worked for a while, but in certain areas the bare soil (sand) has been uncovered by the wind and in other areas the water doesn't spread.

I am learning about berms and swales firsthand. Namely, any bump or crevasse in the ground will STOP the water flow. I didn't even out the area up on the hill, didn't dig or really change the topography in any way, so there are rocks that divert the water, patches of tree roots that divert the water, places where the water pools rather than flowing because of soil composition. The path I put in, paving stones only two inches thick, stops all water flow. So either I can remove the path (which I don't want to do) or I can plant much more drought tolerant plants on the downhill side.

It's a work in progress. I dug up the elderberry and planted it in a pot so it can recover. It was literally dying up there, and when I dug down to take it out I learned why. I'd deliberately planted it right by a bunch of logs, under the assumption that the logs would hold water and feed it back into the soil as the soil dries out. Unfortunately what seems to be happening is that the logs absorb all the water from the surrounding soil (they're covered with fungus hyphae) and never give anything back. There are also rocks, so the rootball of the elderberry was crammed into this tiny little space less than 6 inches across in totally dry soil.

It occurred to me this morning that the majority of what I have up there right now are spring plants--greens, rhubarb, etc. Most everything can be expected to die back by late spring/early summer, leaving the soil (again!) unprotected from the worst of the sun. I need to plant summer and fall food bearing perennials (if I can afford any) so the space fills in when the spring plants die back in the heat.

This week I'll transplant a couple of echinacea seedlings and scatter beans around. And melons. And nasturtiums. Maybe that will help.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Seed float test

I've always been told that if seeds are viable they will sink, if not they will float. For most things this seems to be accurate, probably due to the fact that a dead seed will have more air and less water inside.

I have a bunch of leftover (?!) fruit seeds this spring, so I decided to test it.


17 floated, 14 sank (in the shell):
3 floated when in the shells and when I cracked them
---One sprouted on 4/4
14 floated when in the shells but sank when I cracked them
---One sprouted on 4/2
---One sprouted on 4/20
8 sank both times
---One sprouted on 4/2
---One sprouted on 4/3
6 sank when in the shells but floated when I cracked them

No visible difference. I separated the seeds into those groups.

After soaking 24 hours I filled the bottles with sphegnum moss to soak up the water and create the ideal microclimate for the seedlings. All of the seeds appear to be healthy. One of the sank/sank batch split within 24 hours.

They've been in the refrigerator all winter so I think the "cold stratification" criteria has been met.

As if 4/28, all the remaining seeds are still firm but no more have sprouted. Based on this test I don't see any difference in sprouting rates between the seeds that floated and the seeds that sank. The others could probably sprout eventually, but this test is over.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Food Forest #3

The idea behind a food forest is to create an artificial forest, which functions as a forest with little or no input, and which provides food for humans, birds or wildlife. Mine is intended to provide food primarily for humans, but I'm sure the birds will get their share.

The plants I chose should do well in this area. They're all relatively drought tolerant, and anything that doesn't make the cut will be weeded out eventually. I need this area to be self sustaining, and to require nothing from me. Once the trees are mature they should provide all the leaf litter necessary to sustain the reaction. Other plants will attract pollinators, protect the trees, fix nitrogen in the soil, etc. The fungus will break down the leaf littler.

Over time I will introduce other pieces of the balanced environment, until the food forest can thrive and grow without my help. Once established that area will provide me with various fruits, root vegetables, grains, edible mushrooms,and seasonings. It will provide food and shelter for birds, a refuge for beneficial insects, and a more sheltered environment for plants that wouldn't necessarily grow in this area.

The goal is to eventually turn most of the yard into a food forest. But I start with this little space to figure things out before I start the rest.

It's a long term project, but it's necessary.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Food Forest #2

A forest doesn't require fertilizer, it doesn't require additional water, it doesn't require any form of human intervention. Plants cluster where they fit and create their own planting zones. They naturally cluster with other plants that keep critters away. They build the perfect environment for OTHER plants and protect each other in a symbiotic fashion.

Forests exist all over the world, except in the worst cold and the worst deserts. They thrive where human thought says they should die. I think part of that is the human expectation that everything NEEDS them. Nope. Sorry. Here's your sign.

A forest naturally has seven layers.

Under Canopy
ground layer (creepers and such)
Climbing (vines)

All niches are filled. You seldom see bare ground in nature. It's always covered by something. The forest goes down just as far as it goes up, and that area is also full of life.

In creating my food forest I wanted to cover those same bases. My canopy isn't 30 or 50 or 100 feet over the ground, so I cut out the under canopy. My canopy is the trees that would be an under canopy in a normal forest.

Canopy: Three dwarf fruit trees
undergrowth: Aronia, gooseberry, currant, elderberry
ground layer: tarragon, rue, dill, potatoes, tansy, fennel, herbs, grasses, sage, yarrow
vining: honeysuckle, luffa
root: potatoes, horseradish
fungus: winecaps (planting this year)

I'll be planting melons and nasturtiums up there as groundcover. This year is to see how everything gets established. Next spring the real fun begins.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Food Forest

I walked up onto the hill a few days ago and just stood there, looking down over my garden. I love this time of year, when everything is fighting to live again.

I sometimes wish I had an even higher place, where I could see the hill as well--that's going to be my food forest.

The "forest" was once a very steep hill. The neighbor behind us had a child in a wheelchair so when he built his fence he built it at the top of the steep hill rather than the bottom.

A few years ago I was in the difficult position of needing to relocate my herb garden, and the only place available was this hot, dry area where nothing grew. Not even weeds. It's straight sand, there was no water in place, wind blasted through there and blew away anything that did manage to grow.

Needless to say, the herb garden didn't do well. Rue, tarragon and feverfew thrived. Everything else died.

Then I made a discovery. That area is consistently 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the rest of the yard, even during the winter. The snow up there melted off a full month ahead.

Essentially I have a solid 1 planting zone jump, IF I can keep the wind from blowing the heat away during the winter, and IF I can control the heat during the summer. Not many plants can handle a range of 120 to -10 degrees fahrenheit.

Since the space is about 3 meters by 10, I decided that three dwarf fruit trees would be sufficient for the canopy layer. Eventually that will be one apricot and two cherries, which will help with transpiration and create shade, thus bringing the temperature down to a manageable level during the summer. By putting up a vine trellis along the east end the wind should be cut down summer and winter. So that takes care of two problems.

The other was the soil. It's almost straight sand, in spite of assertions that compost has been put up there. A few pounds of composted steer manure and a few buckets of garden soil are not sufficient. So last year I put in mulch. I buried the whole area in grass and leaves. I also spot-treated with whey when the plants appeared to be struggling. That should introduce the beneficial bacteria needed to actually build soil rather than the whole thing being just a few inches of leaves over dead sand.

I've been rewarded this year by everything coming back strong--even some I thought had died last summer! The next step will be introducing fungus. I found a few mushrooms up there last year, which I've never seen before, and this year the soil is thick with worms. Progress, right?

Monday, March 20, 2017


I mentioned in an earlier post that the celery was a wash. I planted a whole bunch (in moss, sheltered, under grow lights) and not a single one came up.

Thinking my seeds were perhaps to blame, I did a germination test. I scattered a pinch of seeds in a plastic bag on a wet paper towel. It took a while, but every single silly seed sprouted. It was like the celerypocolypse, with zombie celery popping up everywhere.

Celery is notoriously picky, and if I manage to grow this stuff I only want the strongest. I want the plants that will spit "not good enough" back in my face and grow in spite of my neglect. I stripped the seedlings from the paper towel with my fingers, scraped them all up and unceremoniously dumped them into the moss where I tried to start seedlings the first time. They did OK, a little yellow. When they had seed leaves I took them out of the moss and plunked them in the dirt.

So far, so good. I can see half a dozen that are sinking their roots into the dirt and laughing at my attempts to kill them. This is good. I'll try harder next time. :)