Saturday, June 28, 2008

Compost is the Answer...

...or at least it's a gardener's very dear friend. Compost adds organic matter and nutrients to soil, helps build soil structure, and increases the amount of water the soil can hold by an order of magnitude.

Here is a shot of the two compost piles we have underway so far, with a stack of hay in the foreground. We layer kitchen scraps and some carbon sources (paper, wood chips, and whatever else we can scrounge) in the hay and let it rot to make compost. In time we will add a third pile. The walls for the piles are just some shipping pallets that the previous owners left us.

Like all startup operations, we are compost poor this first year. We should have some finished compost by the middle of August, so that will be a start. Next year we will be in much better shape.

Our source for the hay is the grass from the pasture (most of our land is open pasture). We cut it with the sickle bar attachment on the Grillo. (The tiller attachment is the green thing parked to the left.)

The sickle bar works pretty well, though grass does tend to bunch up around the axle. The blue PTO shield needs to be a bit wider in order to lay the grass more to the sides. If I run out of things to do I'll add some arms to the faring.

In addition to composting the hay, we also apply it directly on the garden as a mulch, as this image shows:

Mulch suppresses weeds and slows moisture loss while it slowly breaks down (rots). All good stuff. In really weedy areas we lay down a layer of cardboard first and then pile the grass on top of that.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summer, Sawdust and Skillsaws

One of the high points of 2008 has been my opportunity to enroll in a program for Construction Skills for Women sponsored by Vermont Works for Women. I found out about it when I interviewed at the Department of Labor for a spot in the Step Up to Highway Construction program. Vermont Works for Women, a non-profit based in Winooski, VT, provides training and workshops for women exploring careers considered traditionally "male." In addition, VWW provides classes for girls to build their practical skills, express themselves creatively and expose them to professional female mentors.

Construction Skills for Women is really the title of a series of classes; the specific course that I participated in was for carpentry. The moderators of the program displayed high expectations for class participants. Each of us had to interview for the program twice, explain clearly in each interview why we thought we'd be good candidates for the program, and make a commitment to finish the program. Despite the sort of pedagogical spin with which I may have flavored this description, our program coordinators Rachel and Kristen showed uncanny insight in handling each woman's personal situation. I was repeatedly impressed with their "people sense" and ability to manage "situations" gracefully.

The educational aspects of these classes were most valuable. Though most of us hadn't really had much professional experience as carpenters, it became clear that all of us had little fear of getting our hands dirty. Classroom time Tuesday and Wednesday evenings broached topics such as what to expect from the construction trades, workplace environment, self-employment and job-finding skills. Fairly confident in my interviewing skills, I most appreciated the number of professional business owners, mostly women, who participated our class panel discussions. This generous gift of time gave me a lot of personal satisfaction. Women may not be common in construction or carpentry, but we do have a presence. Fab. I'm not ruling out power tools for Christmas yet.

In addition to great speakers, we also had the opportunity to accept on-site placements known as "job shadows." For one day (sometimes a few hours, depending on the work being done) we were allowed to work on active construction sites. I was able to do this three times during the course of the classes. Each time, I had access to a different aspect of the trade. My first placement was on site for a new bank building in Colchester. At this site, I got to use a drill, a circular saw, use a Paslode cordless nailer to set siding and operate a pneumatic lift. I also spent the second half of the day working with a really cool woman named Sylvia who had been in construction for about 14 years.

My next placement was in a private home in Addison County helping two guys finish remodeling work on an old Vermont home. That day, I got to cut and measure drywall, spray foam insulation, and briefly handle a Sawzall. I liked this job shadow for the opportunity it gave me to talk to the other guys on the job about their experiences in the field. It also pointed out to me how differently one has to behave in a domestic environment vs. a regular construction site. Navigating some of the upstairs rooms while wearing a full tool belt and work boots was a special sort of ballet.

The third job shadow I took had me working with the foreman installing cabinets in a new home. This was my first experience on a sustainable build, and I got to ask a few questions about standards, power usage, and materials. This crew was great. The camaraderie was palpable, and I never felt blown off or excluded. In fact, the day went by so fast at this site, that I was actually surprised to hear someone say that it was 4:00 pm! Never had a desk job like that.

Rounding out the classroom discussions and exercises, Saturdays during the course we worked on an actual construction project. As a class, we built a garden shed under the fearless supervision of Amy Judd, proprietress of Plane Jane Builders. Gotta love anyone who'd ditch the office in order to contribute to the skyline of Essex Junction, VT. Amy is not only a confident carpenter, but she is a gifted teacher in numerous ways. Most valuable is her talent for maintaining an active work site where everyone, regardless of personality type, feels at ease. She is also super at letting everyone discover their strengths, not just their weaknesses. Amy was really clear about everyone jumping in and "getting out of their comfort zone."

In any event, it was a great experience. Although I haven't landed a carpenter's assistant position yet, the experience I've had working with others in construction is invaluable. I will be spending two days (Saturday July 5th and Monday July 7th) on a Habitat for Humanity build in Milton. I am scheduled to go back again on August 16th, and look forward to sharing my time and energy with the volunteers on site. While I search for a job, the opportunity to lend my arm to building homes for others sure seems like a fair trade.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bees Galore!

The bees are doing well. This frame has lots of empty cells where new adult bees recently hatched out. Looking through the hives yesterday I saw lots of fuzzy bees. When bees first hatch out they are much fuzzier than the older adults. It will be another 3 weeks before our newly hatched bees actually start flying.

The populations of both hives look good; both "Thelma" and "Louise" seem to be laying well. Thelma's hive has a slight edge in population, and I saw two drone cells on Louise's comb. In about 3 more weeks all the original worker bees that came with the packages will have died off, and our new bees will take over all the jobs in the hive. We expect the population to spike upwards soon -- from the approximately 3,000 that came in each package to the full strength of 50,000-60,000 per hive.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Crap. No Raspberries.

So now we know what the Mystery Shrubs weren't. However, it's not all bad news. We seem to have a kind of old-fashioned, culinary style rose known as rosa rugosa. So, for the time being, raspberry jam: no. Home-made rose water: yes.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Hits and Misses

Here is some of our first harvest. It's a mixed bag of bolting spinach, red Russian kale and mizuma. Mmmmm. Stir fry! The kale and mizuma have been cut for thinning purposes and should continue to yield in quantity for months to come. The spinach is another matter:

Near the center of this image you can see the flower stalk starting to form. It's been quite dry and the spinach has decided the top priority is to reproduce while it still can. Doh! It's not the end of the world, but the greens do tend to get bitter when the plant goes to flower. So we're cutting those that have started to bolt and using them immediately in salads and stir fries. We've planted more spinach next to the strawberries (which are now up), so that will be along in 6-8 weeks.

Here's a shot of the bok choi which has also bolted and is very leggy (that's red clover on the right). The small yellow spots are the bok choi flowers. It still isn't too bitter, but it's never going to amount to much now, so we'll cut it out and replant it. A total loss, but that's the way it goes. This year is for learning. Well...every year is for learning, but this year especially so.

What's in a name?

We've gotten some feedback that we should rename this blog to something indicating that we're now "farming". Well, not quite. We're sort of "pretty serious gardeners" now. Farming will ramp things up about another order of magnitude. So we're going to keep the blog name for the near term, at least until we sell something.

Bee update

No images on this, but the bees are doing very well. We've dubbed the two queens "Thelma" and "Louise", and both seem to be laying well. We've seen eggs, larva, and capped brood in both hives. This Monday we took a look inside we saw several bees doing the waggle dance to indicate the location of a nectar source. That was very cool! The bees are very gentle, and don't seem to mind us handling them. In temperament our Italian bees are to bees as black labs are to dogs. The only issue with them is their burr comb production. That seems to have mostly settled down, but we still call them our bauhaus bees when we find new, creative features to their comb.

By the way, as many of you know, bees are responsible for at least a third of our food supply. And it's the best tasting third that they contribute to: fruit, nuts, berries, and some veggies like tomatoes and squash. I read recently that a melon farm will produce 80,000-90,000 pounds of fruit per acre when bees are available to pollinate the flowers. Without bees the yield is 10,000-12,000 pounds per acre. That's a really good reason to keep bees!