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This weekend had some fine day time temps. Mid 50’s. Sunny. No wind. Very nice. Absolutely perfect, and almost spring like, for which to do work in the garden.
Your probably wondering what I planted since as most know I live in a quite southerly position of the U.S., but alas even in my climate zone it is to early to plant anything new out.
However beautiful temperatures like this allow me to get out and do the important but sometimes overlooked part of gardening: working my soil. No I am not tilling but I am building it up and adding more organic matter while I am doing other maintenance issues like cleaning up.

I know, I know your thinking this subject again (!) but I just have to bring it up because in my very recent past I have stumbled on two people….both “newer” gardeners….but both with some experience….that still don’t understand this very most important part of gardening. The part that is all work and not quite as much fun. They talked about low yields, bugs/diseases and the sore muscle factor of digging and working the soil….all by products of bad soil structure. Something that requires work, and lots of it in the beginning, but the payoff is supreme.
No matter how many plants you put in your garden, or how many different types you try, or even how many years in a row you do it….you will not be successful, or as successful, if you don’t improve your soil. Every year. It is a must. And no matter how you do it….you must do it.
As one person asked me “ I just need to get some fertilizer don’t you think?”
Though fertility is a need for plants…poor soil structure, especially in the organic garden, will influence your plants more. In my garden I do fertilize but I also build soil. Every year, all year and anytime I get a hold of something to do it with. Newspapers, hay, compost,manure, cardboard, leaves and on and on. I am always on the lookout for free or low cost supplies for this purpose. Building soil in and of itself will create fertility in the garden whether or not we add kelp or green sand, blood or bone meal—all much more expensive items. All those guys are good helpers, and yes sometimes needed, but an icky soil is an icky soil. Remember nature knows how to care for herself and she builds soil above and beyond anything else.

I have added a few pictures of some of my soil for you to see. I apologize since it is raining this morning as I took them. One of the photos has hay in it. I have been gardening in this spot with the hay for 3 years now. Lift the hay and even now in the winter there are bunches of worms and bugs working away while the hay protects the soil from erosion and weathering during extreme rains. You can see that the heavy layer of hay in this area is still quite thick and not broken down yet. The flakes, pulled off of the wet partially rotting bales in November, probably won’t finish composting until later this summer which is fine as it helps keep the bermuda grass that tries to creep into that area under control (I am slowly eradicating it but it has been an ongoing battle). I still have some bales lined up out of the picture that are slowly being moved around permanent plantings like my artichokes and berry plants. I work on it every time I get a chance.
My neighbor asked me what I could possibly grow this spring with it still like that and this is what I said: potatoes or tomato plants or squash or soybeans or sunflowers or a new row of asparagus. The list goes on and on. Really all I have to do is part the soil (I mean hay chunks) exactly where I will put the seed or plant and I am in business. And though while the plants grow they may need a boost of nitrogen ( blood meal, cottonseed meal, urine, manure, etc) to help while this stuff breaks down ,weed competition should be almost nil or at the most very easy to uproot. Oh by the way, any hay will work for this but less seedy is best. This is some alfalfa mix hay we had left over and so I should get not only soil building but some good organic nitrogen when it finishes decomposing.

The next picture is of the area that, since the end of the growing season last year, has not yet had any soil amending. Part of it did have peanuts grown and tilled in but not all of it. This is where the last of my leaves from the city composted down and you can see the soil is fabulous. Digging in it is no work at all…really. The work is easy and goes quickly here. Even though it is raining you can see the soil isn’t clumpy like wet clay but when it hasn’t rained it still does not need the same amount of watering as some areas not as improved. Quite a bonus really. My plants that grew here last year where fabulous and required just a bit of nitrogen since the leaves where not fully finished decomposing but where pretty maintenance free other than that. This area is nothing like it was when we dug (or should I say chipped) our first hole into it when we moved here almost 5 years ago. This area has been under serious cultivation for about 3 years also. Rotating into this area in the early spring will be my potatoes. I am going to try a technique I read about in an old Organic Gardening Magazine from the 70’s that should give me more pounds harvested and build my soil at the same time. The idea is to dig a trench(s), which I dug this weekend, put about a tablespoon or two of cottonseed meal in the bottom alternating with seed potatoes, then cover with sawdust. The potato is not placed directly on the cottonseed meal but alternated evenly potato,meal,potato,meal. The cottonseed meal will add the nitrogen the decomposing sawdust will steal from the surrounding area while it breaks down. I am hoping I will get nice clean potatoes that grow well. Supposedly the author’s yield was quite a bit better than he had experienced before he began with this technique and lowered his incidence of potato scab in addition. I have an abundance of sawdust from a local mill which will be a good opportunity to use a waste product that’s cheap to acquire. And of course as I mentioned I get a two for one deal: potatoes AND soil building with the same work. Leaves and hay will also work (add a bit of nitrogen with these also since they will steal it too) but as I mentioned the sawdust supposedly helps with scab which is a ph problem.

So, to sum up my post I just want to point out that soil building is a year round thing: springs, summer, fall or winter, but within just a few years you will see obvious differences in bugs, yields and your back.

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Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina 

shawnee-smiles-024

Sorry for this poor photo, we have lots of snow!

In what could tentatively be called our front yard, about dead center, are two curious tree stumps. At some point in time, one of the former occupants of the land cut down the box elders for reasons unknown. In the years following the felling, the trees have sent up what biologist term “epicormic shoots”. The curious part is that someone very carefully tied all the shoots upward with twine.

Now I suppose the person could have just been tired of being smacked in the face by one of those branches as they mowed. Maybe they had plans to take the chainsaw to the shoots and thought tying them up would make the job easier. However, I personally like to imagine that these tangles of stems were purposely tied up as a woodland management technique known as coppicing.

Coppicing is an ancient forestry technique (still in practice) whereby a hardwood tree is cut down near the base during a dormant period (i.e. winter). Consequently, the following spring, the tree regenerates itself by throwing up shoots. In forestry terms these shoots are called the underwood of the tree and the stump is called the stool. Granted enough time to grow, this method allows a tree to be “divided” into many trees to harvest in succession over the following years. With good management practices, the underwood trees could live longer than the original tree would have without cutting. If the shoots are then cut in the dormant period, another round of shoots will be regenerated to take their place. Closely related, pollarding involves harvesting trees in a grazing area 6-7 feet above the ground in order to keep the shoots out of the animals’ reach. Eventually the trees grow new tops.

There are several benefits to coppicing a tree or creating a rotational forest of coppiced trees (known as a copse). The most obvious gain, from a sustainability point of view, is that by employing this technique to a felled tree, one can create a way to harvest a woodlot rotationally for firewood or poles for years to come. Some species are rather quick growers (e.g. willow) and can be harvested every 3-4 years. Ash, one of the best species to grow for firewood, can be harvested every 10 years. Others, such as oak, would not be as efficient in this area as it would require 50 years for the next harvest round, but it would be great for insuring future generational harvests.

Today coppicing is considered inefficient for large logging practices (too laborious they claim) and is now mainly used for creating pockets of biodiversity in a forest or for conservation of both flora and fauna. However, I believe that with the resurgence of wood burners as a resource for heating and cooking, coppicing could be a great sustainable way for small woodlot owners to use their habitat’s trees. Even if you live on a small urban/suburban lot, consider coppicing if you find you need to remove a tree (e.g. need for more light in the garden). Depending on the species, you may be able to harvest poles for fencing or a trellis in just a few years. It is simply a way to stretch that one tree into more firewood or building materials down the road.

This winter I plan to cut a few of the stems out of that box elder underwood . The ropes have created nice, straight poles. I hope to build a wattle fence around my garden and the shoots are now the perfect size or I can let them grow larger. Eventually, I want to remove some of the damaged trees from the woodlot on my property and encourage epicormic growth. My ultimate goal is to create a sustainable method of harvesting wood from my small property.

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Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina

The big day after Christmas, I wandered down to the mailbox. The box was packed brim to the gills with the 2009 season’s seed catalogs. I excitedly gathered them up and ran back up to the house. ’Tis the season I’ve been waiting for since the first dark night of winter.

Now you may or may not have noticed here at the Dabbling blog, but we actually have structured weeks. One week is dedicated to food, another house and farm, one revolves around garden…this is not that week. If you haven’t noticed this pattern just chalk it up to us being a bunch of undisciplined abnormals who have a really hard time sticking to a syllabus. (Fortunately, we are quite flexible here!) Or maybe it’s just that most of our topics can easily fit into any of the broader categories.

This week, or the ’fifth” week of the month, we have declared to be craft week. This is not a good week for someone so incredibly uncrafty as myself (I covered this already!) I like to think I am okay in the food department and fair to good in the gardening and homesteading department, but that I come up empty in the craft department. So I have decided to think a little crafty in my own way which means I will be sneaking in a little seed and plant porn instead.

This time of the year I am full of thoughts about my upcoming goals. I am looking at my calendar, counting the days until I start seeds again. I am grateful for the returning sun. I write and draw up plans for the garden space and ponder what I want to plant and hopefully harvest. The other thing that floats between the garden rows in my mind is the fact I want to simplify my life…more. This means I will once again resolve not to spend, be thrifty, Reduce & Reuse, simplify, tread lightly, lower my carbon footprint, moe self-sfficiency…on and on. My general goals have been the same since about Y2K!

Last night I was looking through a few of the new catalogs and thinking about my mother’s birthday which is in a few short weeks. I want to make her something, but I have that problem with not even being able to cut cloth straight let alone sew it (this is on my skill goal list for 2009). Suddenly, my brain thoughts collided with what my eyes were looking at on the page in front of me: gourds! One of the varieties I spied was called a “snake gourd” and it literally looks like a coiled, twisty snake. How cool (remind me to tell you the story of my mom and the western garter snake I caught her at 13 someday)! Smiling, I put a little X next to it and added it to the seed list.

Do you make this same goal as me at the New Year? The one that claims you are going to handcraft all your gifts this year?

Well, if you are still learning how to be crafty (like me) or you are too busy to do totally homemade (like me) or lack talent in this area (like me) here are just a small sampling of simple gift ideas that I came up with straight out of one the seed catalogs:

*Art Gourds

*Think Outside the Typical Jam Box

  • Ground cherries
  • Sour cherries
  • Plum
  • Rhubarb
  • Edible Flowers
  • Kiwi
  • Fig tree
  • Roses

Scents

  • Lavender
  • Sage
  • Mints

Spices & Herbs

  • Lemon grass
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Chamomile

Spirits

  • Peach Wine
  • Grapes
  • Dandelions

 

 

Wait a minute, I can’t plant a tree, harvest fruit and make jam by the end of the year. No, you’re right, however, thinking about future gifts from the garden will allow the time needed to get that tree to a point that it is fruiting and eventually the gift you dreamed up now just may become a tradition to give years down the road. Some, provided we are all blessed with a good growing season, you will be able to gift next winter if you plant them this spring. Many require a long growing season, so starting seeds early will really help out (e.g. some of the gourds are 120 days or more).

I have already penciled in some possible locations around my place for a kiwi vine and some of the gourds (also vines). If you are growing in a small space (or even a larger space that happens to also house livestock, thus making it a small space), think permaculturally. Where can I squeeze in a gift-bearing vine that is atypical to the rest of the garden. I bet you can find room (a shed wall, behind the garage, on a fence…). Think horizontally and go for one of the birdhouse gourd vines. I am also planting ground cherries to can for my mother-in-law who search high and lo at the farmers’ market this year and finally bought 1 pint for $8. They are easy to grow!

Despite the fact holiday fatigue set in a week ago for me, I am actually excited about my next year’s (or two or three) gifts. This New Year, I am once again looking at my goal to give all homemade gifts, however, I am challenging myself even further: I plan to grow most of the material.

Happy Seed Catalog Season, Everyone!

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Jack and I had to take an obligatory out-of-town trip to the doc’s yesterday, and afterward we had some time to linger in the area.  Fishing a crumpled piece of paper from the inner recesses of his wallet, he headed out to what he told me was “a farm someone told me about.”  I thought maybe he was meaning some neat little family-owned farmette with goats and chickens, which would have been great.

Instead, as we arrived,  I realized he had found a global sustainability Demonstration Farm called ECHO.  We were too late for the tours, and only got a glimpse of what lay behind the roped off areas shrouded by glorious stands of native trees and test clumps of bamboos.  But we did find the bookstore and reading room, and as soon as we walked in, I could just about hear the angels singing.  There in front of us, in a fairly small area, were walls and racks, floor to shoulder, of books on every subject any local sustainability or homesteading-minded  freaks like us  afficionados would swoon over…wooo hooo!!  I tried to maintain some dignity, but it was hard not to squeal at each new find. 

Thankfully, my husband is used to this tendency in me, and he was pretty excited himself, so we were like two kids in a candy store.  On the shelves were books specific to every sort of animal, no-till farming and management, agroforestry, unusual-to-us plants and fruits suited to our climate, reports on field trials of some particular ones, instructional DVDs, practical kits for things such as learning how to do your own tree grafting, top bar beehive books, instructionals for tropical/subtropical/arid&more climates, about 100 Storey Guides on every subject imaginable, cookbooks, plant-related crafts, actual seed packets…and the list could go on and on. 

We stayed an embarrassingly long time 😉

I love when we discover unexpected finds like this!

One of the things we were excited to note during our Book Glut Free-for-all was more than one book on the subject of a particular subtropical tree, Moringa oleifera.  Our hearts skipped a beat…this is a tree we had researched earlier in the year and, with some difficulty, finally found a supplier.  We went on a day trip a few months back just to purchase one — as an experiement.  We had run across mention of Moringa when looking for plants good for permaculture, and having seen something in print on the internet somewhere on this tree, had noted it was being used effectively as an animal forage plant — something we’re very interested in.  2007 had been a year of extended drought in our area of Florida, and because we’re aiming to have our own piece of land someday, we’d like to think outside the box as far as future sources of livestock feed supplementation.  Trees often fill the bill for that situation in other parts of the world, with plants such as poplar trees (the leaves in particular) doing extended duty as both windbreak and drought-tolerant fast-growing animal fodder.

The interesting thing about Moringa is its many other uses.  The more we read, the more we realized we’d love to see if this tree would thrive in our location.  Some of the many advantages it is reputed to have are:

1.  Fast growth.  About 7 full cuttings per year can be had from managed plots of mature plants.

2.  Its ability to incorporate into a permaculture plan — it makes a great partial shade plant under which to nurse other plants to maturity.

3.  Its leaves are edible for humans and  some animals alike, namely most livestock.  They can be eaten raw or cooked.  Incorporating them into the diets of beef and dairy cattle increases birth weights, milk production, and weight gain. It’s pictured below (the leaves at the top of the pic)

4.  It has traditional medicinal uses, and is being researched heavily.  It is utilized by relief workers in underserved areas of the world to address malnutrition, especially in expectant and nursing mothers and at-risk infants and small children.  It is heavily promoted in such areas as a critical and cheap native source of concentrated nutrition, and is regularly added to local foods to amp up the nutritive value.  (This is cost effective in comparison with having to purchase additional supplements) Unlike some other plants, Moringa has been well-received by the native residents as they are educated about its multiple uses, and it is being further incorporated worldwide into local cuisines.

5.  Its edible parts include not only the leaves, but also the pods, seeds, bark, and tips of new branches.

6.  It can be incorporated into the construction of living fences.

7.  It can be used as a green manure crop if tilled under at a young stage.

8.  It can be easily propagated from seeds and cuttings.

9.  Its seed powder can be used for effective and inexpensive water treatment.

10.  Fresh Moringa juice contains a naturally-occurring growth hormone which can increase plant yields 25-30% for many well-know crops.

11.  As a medicinal, there is anecdotal evidence of its use for treatment and alleviation of blood sugar issues, hypertension, cancer prevention and tumor shrinkage (and many more…)

We were delighted to see this plant being promoted, and to find more literature besides what we’d read on webpages on the internet.   Moringa is known worldwide by many different names, over 400 to be exact, as it’s been used through the milennia by many cultures.

Its leaves are easily dried and powdered, and the pods are said to have an asparagus-like taste when cooked. The flowers are not edible raw, but are incorporated into meals usually by frying or sauteeing, and are said to have a mild mushroom taste when cooked. The green leaf powder has been described as having a mild green flavor, sometimes tending toward bitterness depending on varying factors. It’s often used in soups, sauces, dips, noodles and flours. The fresh, attractive leaves are stripped of their stems and  used raw in salads or slaws, whole or chopped in entrees/egg dishes/vegetable dishes.

There is not a lot of documentation of Moringa’s use in the United States, but it is grown in some parts of California and Florida on a limited scale.  It is said to be hardy in areas that don’t have really hard freezes, and is adaptable to many colder areas if raised in a pot and kept indoors during the colder months.

In our short experience raising a single Moringa in a pot, it seems to be a pretty hardy plant, and doesn’t like a lot of wind. It also prefers some shading from direct sunlight.  It would be much more comfortable if planted in-ground, we think, here in our climate…we’ll do that as soon as we decide where we want it permanently. I’ve tasted the leaves, but have yet to cook with them. They are delicate-looking, but quite hardy, and should be harvested when they are green, but not yellow.  We have experimented with drying some of them, and they dry easily if left in a shady place simply exposed to the air. It only takes about three days for them to dry by themselves, after which time they can be rubbed across a screen to separate the small stems from the leaves that easily crush to powder.

Here are some internet links, all sorts, to learn more about Moringa, for those who might be interested:
http://www.moringa.net/recipe.htm

http://74.125.45.104/search?q=cache:lDdg7m3vG3EJ:www.echotech.org/mambo/index.php%3Foption%3Dcom_docman%26task%3Ddoc_download%26gid%3D170+echo+technical+note+on+moringa&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us

http://74.125.45.104/search?q=cache:3W7ucQMoPZoJ:www.echotech.org/mambo/images/DocMan/MorWaterTreat.pdf+echo+technical+note+on+moringa&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us

http://etherwork.net/blog/?p=520

http://www.moringasupreme.com/about_moringa_uses.html

Click to access MoringaR.PDF

http://www.treesforlife.org/our-work/our-initiatives/moringa

http://morselsandmusings.blogspot.com/2008/02/moringa-omelette.html

http://www.miracletrees.org/moringarecipes.html

http://www.moringafarms.com/growing_it.htm

http://crisonthesidelines.wordpress.com/2008/07/08/malunggay-noodles-how-to-make/

Seed Swamp Reminder: Howling Hill is doing her annual seed swap, so stop in at her link (sidebar) to sign up and swap 🙂

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