Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Dry farming (in a sense)

I try to grow most of what we eat. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of them health related. Argue as you will, our water, air and soil is scarcely healthy and we add stuff to them that makes it worse. When I plant, I know precisely what is going into my plants, into my soil and into my mouth.

I can't grow it all at this point, but I'm working on what I can.

Part of the problem with growing in this area is water. I use far too much water for thirsty lawns (which will be going away at the first opportunity!). Other than that my major water use is for food producing gardens, fruit trees, and grape vines. Unfortunately, municipal water is well known for harboring such gems as pharmaceuticals, industrial byproducts and agricultural waste. Then there's the nasties that we ADD to the water to make it "Safe." Right.

The best option then, would seem to be to produce only what I can grow without municipal water. Or maybe not. That would be a yard full of sand and rock, basically. I've done work to make the area more self sufficient, but it works to a certain point and then I have to look for something else that take me that tiny step closer to my goal.

I started doing some research on dry farming, farming that relies only on the water available on a site rather than irrigation or municipal water. From my research it appears that dry farmers fit primarily into two categories.

1) Farmers who farm during the growing season in areas with high humidity, low seasonal temperatures, mild winters and deep, rich (primarily clay) soils. The information I've been able to find indicates that soil between 6 and 8 feet deep is ideal, deeper is better. It must be a mix of sand, clay and organic matter to hold the water with no impermeable or partially impermeable layers to stop water flow.

2) Farmers who leverage mild winters and plant their primary crop (often winter grains) when the rains are falling (September through May) then harvest in the spring. These farmers can grow on poor soils, have low humidity, but also low seasonal temperatures and mild winters with little or no snow.

I do not fit in either category. My soil is straight sand, with a layer of rock underneath. Temps consistently get up into the 100's in the summer and below freezing in the winter. On the other hand, I have grapevines and fruit trees that have thrived with little water for 30 + years, digging their roots deep. So it is possible.

Additional research brought up a third group, farmers who grow in arid to semi-arid lands, in areas that have harsh winters and brutal summers. In fact, the original definition of "dry farming" included only those areas that got less than 20 inches of precipitation per year. By this definition, #1 up above isn't dry farming, or only in the loosest sense, in that they do not use irrigation or municipal water.

So with dry farming defined, how do I use it?

The basic principles of dry farming seem to be:

Keep the water in the soil
Soil treatment
Choose crops that work
Plant drought tolerant varieties
Fallow season
Plant spacing

Water can be kept in the soil through a variety of techniques--mulching (either dust mulch, organic mulch, or rock mulch), covering the soil, shading the soil, controlling wind, and controlling temperature. Water primarily leaves by going up or down--evaporation or dripping down to the water table. By choice, if you must have one or the other, water table is probably best since the roots can chase it down. Evaporation can be used, providing you have sufficient ground cover to catch the evaporating water and return it to the soil. Ideally the soil should be a clay loam, but we're not doing "ideal" here. High organic matter is of utmost importance. If you start with poor soil, work to amend it until it can be used.

Soil is a loose web of particles of various sizes. Water is a perfect (liquid) crystaline matrix. Through adhesion it will try to fill the space with itself, climbing up through the soil if there is a path for it. That path is created by the density and makeup of the soil. By lightly packing the soil under a seed, you create the path for the water to fill that space, wetting the soil if there is any water in it. Traditional dry farming uses multiple implements to bring the water up from deep underground. It also pulverizes the soil on the surface to prevent evaporation in a sort of dry (or dust) mulch. Originally it appears that this process was used because organic mulches were not available in the areas where dry farming was pioneered. Even now, organic mulches on the scale required by a dry farm are impractical at best.

Choose crops that create a large root system. Many "modern" varieties have very little root, since they're intended to be grown under irrigation. Primary crops for dry farming must be able to chase the water, rather than having it come to them.

When you've chosen your crop, choose varieties that are specifically drought tolerant, and that doesn't mean drought tolerant under irrigation. If it can't thrive under those conditions, it doesn't deserve to be planted. Look for phrases like "prone to cracking" or "don't water too much" because these indicate a variety that may do better with less water. Heirlooms are likely to be more drought tolerant than "new" varieties.

In arid areas it is necessary to let the soil moisture build up over an extended period of time. Every other year planting is ideal, but at minimum every four to five years the soil should rest and collect water. Letting an area "lie fallow" also increases fertility, particularly if you cover crop or have animals on it during that period. Taking into consideration that a cover crop (according to the information I found) will use up part of your stored water.

And last, plant spacing. This seems to be key in dryland farming, and this is where I have the hardest time fitting my head around it. With the basic principles of dry farming, plants are to be given a great deal of space. The idea seems to be that with less competition the plant roots will spread further, with more space to take water from, and produce more. This may be the case. I don't know, as I've never tried it. I have a 30 x 50 foot garden and planting five or ten feet apart simply isn't practical. With pumpkins or other squash I can almost see it, since they spread to fill the available space. But corn? Beans? Tomatoes? Potatoes? In fact, the information I read said potatoes should be spaced even further apart than that. Supposedly, without the competition of other roots in "their" space, the plants have more available water in the soil.

I'm not sure this plant spacing business makes sense, but I'm going to try it next year in a small area and see what happens.

On my scale I have no problem finding organic mulching materials, and dust mulch might as well be Santa Claus since I have no clay in my soil. I can plant under and around trees, create windbreaks, and plant in partial shade. I have plants I think will work for waterless planting and I'm going to try deep watering, watering through a pipe to force the plants roots deep.

Every outside input becomes a handicap if it's ever unavailable. Right now that means I need water independence, so that is what I'm working toward. Maybe it'll never happen, but each failure and success brings me closer to the ideal.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Adaptation

I harvest my own seeds. It's been a while since new seeds came into my yard, but this year I had a friend who wasn't able to have her own garden so I have several varieties of "new" tomatoes, as well as various summer and winter squash and pie pumpkins. It almost feels like I'm being invaded. :) By seeds and plants, not by people.

I don't want anything in my yard to be genetically modified, and as we move more and more toward a Monsanto controlled and owned food supply the list of things being genetically modified grows every year. Apples, sugar beets, corn, wheat. Several hundred varieties of GMO potatoes were approved a few years ago, and while they are currently "not available to the public" I would prefer not to chance my stocks being contaminated. There are a number of reasons for that, but it comes down to unproved safety, the litigious nature of Monsanto, and distrust of a government supported monopoly. They want complete control of our food supply and I'm not going to participate in that.

The only thing in my yard that could possibly be GMO is the corn, because of pollen drift. Everything else is hand pollinated and bagged, or it's built in such a way that accidental crossing is unlikely/impossible (beans, peppers, tomatoes). I've had most of these seeds for upwards of ten years, and some all my life. Others were gifts from people I know back before those particular items were approved for genetic modification.

My days of indiscriminately collecting seeds at every opportunity are over.

Then there's a little quirk of my property that just seems to kill everything. Seeds don't germinate, or they germinate and die, or the bugs get them. First generation I think I probably have a 30% success rate for most things. Some things grow but never flower. Others flower but never fruit. Some don't grow at all.

I've learned to live with it. It's just one more reason NOT to introduce new plants, because it's the first generation that's like this. If the plant grew on my property and I got seeds, the 2nd generation plants will be better. Third generation seeds will thrive.

I've been growing some unknown variety of watermelons for about five years now. Saved from a watermelon we had at a family gathering when I was maybe fifteen, it has adapted quite well. This year I planted several other varieties and waited anxiously to see the female blossoms. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Then, before I'd even seen female blossoms, I had three fruit four inches long on the plant from my own seeds. The others were weeks behind.

Adapted. Someday all my food will be adapted to my soil, my wind, my air. And it will be A. Maze. Ing.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gluten addiction and overdose

I was talking to a friend earlier and we got on the topic of gluten intolerance.

I have a number of friends/family members who can't tolerate even the slightest amounts of wheat. I had a friend over a few years ago and we were walking through my yard--her son couldn't even touch the wheat stalks. There are a number of problems, though.

Wheat, in its natural form, is very filling with a lot of nutrients.

In the mid 1900's, scientists began deliberately crossing wheat with other grasses in order to make it more economically feasible--shorter stalks, less bulk, more energy put into wheat production rather than leaf and stalk, more wheat per stalk, resistant to fungus and disease, etc.

One side effect of these changes was a massive increase in the amount of gluten in the wheat, which made it rise more easily and with less effort. Demand for the altered wheat increased, to the point that the majority of the wheat commonly used today is descended from these crosses. You can still get "heirloom" wheat, but it's more difficult to find. It also won't rise as well. Some older grains have as little as 3% gluten, while modern bread flours have many times more.

The habit of adding gluten to baked goods is an additional risk. Many flours have gluten added as part of processing, and people add gluten in the form of "dough enhancers" when they bake.

This results in something I call gluten overdose.

The human body is designed to function on a hunter-gatherer diet--lots of exercise, plain water, meat, herbs and seeds. This includes the ancient relatives of wheat. We are supposed to eat this stuff. It's part of our makeup. But if your diet was 90% meat, enhanced with protein powders, protein drinks and protein supplements, you wouldn't stay healthy for long. The body is simply not designed to handle overdoses on that level.

If your diet was 90% watermelon, supplemented by green food powders (not so many options in this direction, but you get the point) you wouldn't stay healthy for long.

And yet we seem to think that we can live majority on grains that have been supplemented with a product nature doesn't produce in those quantities and it won't affect us, our digestive systems, or our genes.

Our society, in my opinion, suffers from a gluten overdose. Those sensitive to these substances are getting sick, and it's gumming up the digestive systems of the rest. Depressed immune systems because of bad dietary choices result in even more, and more violent, "allergic reactions" to the substances causing the problems.

Celiacs is real. Gluten intolerance is real. What I think we've mostly been missing is the link between quantity and overdose.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Updates

Watermelon:

I have 2 Orange Glow, 5 Sugar Baby, and 4 that may be either Congo, Jubilee, Ali Baba or my own saved seeds (variety unknown). I'm hoping for one of each, but that's unlikely. At least three of the four, anyway. This year I'll be mixing them all to try to come up with a variety that does well here. Later years will focus on cold, drought and heat tolerance, but right now I need to start the process. I'll keep pure seeds of each variety, but mostly plant from my mixed variety for my own use. The larger plants already have male blossoms.

Beans:

I planted green beans (our own heirloom), kidney beans, pinto, hidatsu shield, black turtle, great northern white, yin-yang and hidatsu red. So 7 varieties of dry beans, and one of green. Only about a dozen plants of the green beans survived, so those will mostly be kept for seed. Kidney, Hidatsu Red, Hidatsu Shield, and pinto are runner beans, while the rest are bush. This year I'm just testing to see what we get the best yield from, which don't survive in our yard, etc. From this year's harvest we'll try the taste, then likely plant the four or five that do the best. Kidney is already a problem--as far as I can tell none came up so I'll probably try that one again next year in a more controlled environment--meaning that rather than just scattering it in various areas of the yard I'll put it in the main garden with the rest of the beans.

Fruit:

We lost almost the entire almond, peach and nectarine harvest with that late freeze. I think there are maybe a dozen almonds on the tree, but no peaches or nectarines. Not a big deal, as we still have peaches and nectarines from previous years. No walnuts, either. The grapes got bitten by the late freeze as well, but they've recovered well. It appears that the fruit won't be affected, particularly for the green grapes. I'm pulling several grapevines out this year, as they don't fruit at all. One is in the raspberries so there are other reasons for pulling it. So I'll "lose" three (non-producing) grape vines and open up that space for other things.

I'm actually thinking of pulling out the filberts and replacing them with something else. Research indicates that the catkins and flowers are sensitive to frost and emerge in March. I'm not sure--I've never seen blossoms at all--but that would definitely be a problem. At the moment I'm leaning toward pistachios, but I want to do more research. Some plants simply do not do well in my yard, and there's no way of knowing until I try.

Squash:

Most of the squash were planted at random around the yard. 4 zucchini under the walnut to see how they handle the juglones. They look good so far. The winter squash are struggling, likely because of lack of water and too much heat. I planted two blue hubbard seeds, but one has indented leaves and the other entire leaf margins so I'm guessing there's some crossing going on. If both grow blue hubbards, great. If not, I have a surprise coming. I have two spaghetti squash, three small (pie) pumpkins and five large pumpkins. Dad insisted on the large pumpkins. Other squash are either cucumbers, yellow crookneck, yellow straight-neck, spaghetti squash, cantaloupe or honeydew. I'm keeping a map and I'll keep seeds from each. I plan to throw out or give away the "parent" seeds, since seeds grown in my own yard seem to do much better. I haven't decided whether I want to do crosses on the squash.

Other:

The greenhouse is the major project for this year. It needs to be finished ASAP so I can start the late season crops there before planting out. I need to be able to record the temperatures so I have a better idea of what can grow IN the greenhouse and what needs to be brought back inside for the winter. I'm hoping (unlikely, but hoping) that I'll be able to leave the citrus in there over the winter.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Tomato update

This year I've been keeping a lot of records so I have a better idea of what I have before I start changing things.

Well, realistically I've already started changing things, but I'm still keeping records so I know where I'm headed.

This year I have 15 tomato plants from my seeds and 5 from other sources in the main tomato area. I also planted two varieties in the main garden (since research showed they were exceptionally large) and one under the almond as a test. The one under the almond is a Japanese Black. The two in the main garden are Copia and Kellogs Breakfast. All three are heirloom varieties.

Those scattered around the yard haven't started blooming yet so I'm not including them in this update.

"My" tomatoes are the result of many generations of taking seeds off of whatever came up. So some are probably recognized varieties while others are mutts. I don't care what they are or where they came from as long as they grow and thrive in my yard.

All of the fifteen were cold tolerant, although one struggled. I planted seedlings in early April and replaced those that died in the cold even with protection. Seven bloomed before the end of May. All fifteen now have fruit on them. One appears to be heat tolerant and just started fruiting as the heat hit.

Of the fifteen, three have heart-shaped fruit and one (the possibly-heat-tolerant) appears to be paste. I've never kept any seeds from a paste variety, so that one is either a fluke/sport or a descendant of a hybrid that had paste in its ancestry. The rest are round.

The additional varieties added this year are Arkansas Traveler, Black Krim, Pink Tiger, Amish Paste, Copia, Kellogs Breakfast, and Japanese Black. Copia, Kellogs Breakfast and Japanese Black are just starting to bloom. The others haven't bloomed yet. Last year I added an heirloom Italian variety, and the year before I started saving seeds from Mortgage Lifter.

Black Krim will most likely be eliminated as a seed donor, as it is still the same size it was when it was planted a month ago.

I'm deliberately crossing the "new" varieties into my lines. I'm also deliberately crossing each of my plants with others in my lines so there's more genetic diversity. I'll plant more tomatoes next year than usual because I don't know how many of the crosses will carry the cold tolerant gene. I'll continue to plant out in April to select for that, and eliminate anything that doesn't thrive.

I am NOT crossing the new varieties with each other. Either they're bred into my lines or they're left alone. I'll keep seeds for each variety in storage, but mostly plant my own genetically diverse lines for my own use. Once I see how that's going I'll have a better idea of what I want/need to keep.

I am specifically looking for cold tolerance and heat tolerance in a beefsteak type tomato.I won't know how it's going until at least the year after next. Next year will be the first generation hybrids. The following year will be the first stable varieties (although I'll probably still be doing some crossing) and then by 2020 I'll finally be able to see how things are working.

None have ripened yet, so I'm still waiting anxiously for that milestone.

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.

Notes:

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.