Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why I love the "Lambada"

(L) Sandwich Loaf. (R) Raisin Loaf
It's snowing right now. Just a little bit. It's still odd to me that snow in March is not a normal thing... Growing up in Denver, March was traditionally the snowiest month, and April the third snowiest month. That didn't mean they were cold months, but heavy, wet snows were common. I'm glad it's snowing, even lightly. It's been cool and dry for a week. They've forecasted rain and snow multiple times, and the most we've gotten has been some occasional flurries. Anyway, I don't want to talk about the weather today. I was in the kitchen, Kerouac-dog underneath me, kneading some dough. I'm making two loaves of bread today: one sandwich loaf and one raisin loaf. (I'm using the book that taught me how to bake bread: "Homebaking" which is unfortunately possibly no longer in print. I put a link to it on the book page here. If you can get a hold of it, it is truly an amazing book.) As I'm kneading, I had a song in my head: Jennifer Lopez' new single, "On The Floor". Part of its chorus comes from the 1989 dance classic, "Lambada" by the band Kaoma. (A French band singing in Portuguese!)  I love that song. It's not that I think it's a great song, but it reminds me of a wonderful time in my life. I was a student at the Goethe-Institut in a little German town in the foothills of the Alps called Prien am Chiemsee. My dorm room was in a 16th century hunting villa above town. It was a wonderful two months in Germany: clear, warm days; foggy nights. The long way into town took us through kilometers of farmland. I was in love with that farmland: the small stone fences, the sound of the bells on the goats and cows, the farmers gathering hay without the use of tractors. The late summer flowers shining brightly in the sun. I was a 19 year-old American kid just beginning to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had an idea I'd live in Europe, study languages, perhaps teach. If I didn't live in Europe, I'd need to visit frequently for my important job. The German countryside had a timeless appeal to me, as it does to many people. But things were already changing. Not too far away from our little Bavarian village was a large camp for refugee East Germans who'd made the track through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria into their West German brotherland. And in a few short months the Berlin wall would fall down... History was being made, but I never forgot the sounds, sights and smells of that countryside: those ancient farms where the traditional way was still the only way. I never forgot how fresh that sausage tasted, or how delicious were vegetables grown without chemical pesticides and harvested and served when ripe. That was the first year I really learned what eating in season meant, and came back confused and no longer taken in by American grocery store shelves that sold everything anytime. So here I am, this morning, standing in the kitchen in a farmhouse in Central Illinois, singing a song in Portuguese, kneading dough, thinking there is no where I would rather be. In the garage, the onions, cabbages, broccoli and greens are growing steadily under their lights. Outside, the birds are singing. Inside the dogs are hoping for whatever manna may fall from the counter. This afternoon, the overgrown garden is going to be mowed. This weekend, the garden will be turned over by one of our neighbors. Here, too, history is marching on. And while not on the scale of the events of the autumn of 1989, on a personal level, this is a momentous day. Three Persimmon Farm will be one step closer to reality!

Monday, March 28, 2011

A few bits and pieces on a sunny & chilly day...

Possibly a portal to the underworld.

The garden as of this morning.
Yesterday and today have been sunny. Such bright and deceptive days, since the air underneath these bright blue skies is cold. But it was nice enough to spend some time outside today, checking out the crocuses blooming in front of the yard and to pick up glass. The earth seems to be pushing broken glass. It seems that every day I find more broken glass scattered throughout the yard. No idea what happened here before, but I do worry for the dogs' feet.

We've got these crazy new hills spouting up in the yard. I'm not sure what kind of critter is making them, but they remind me of ancient burial mounds. But with a hole in the middle. Once they're built up, they're hardening (more proof of the clay make-up of the soil here) into small towers about 6" high. I'm fascinated by them, and equally fascinated by the fact that the dogs don't seem to even notice them. Not even to pee on!

So here's what the garden looks like, as of this morning. Almost all of the onion unfurled last night, in some synchronized movement I missed. The cabbages and broccoli are all developing a second set of leaves, and looking quite robust.

For the past week, each night has been spent at Eastern Illinois University's Tarble Arts Center, in tech rehearsals and then weekend performances of "Driving Miss Daisy". I'm not in the show, but am running the lights. The show is put on by the Charleston Community Theater, one of two different community theater groups in town. This is the second time I've done lights for them, the last time was back in January, when "Tuesdays With Morrie" played. It is so much fun to work with these folks. If you're in Charleston, come see the show this Thursday, Friday or Saturday!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spring Takes a Step Forward and a Step Backward

 This morning while walking the dogs, I ran into our neighbors, Dick & Gail. We chatted for a few minutes, as you do. We talked about the lovely weather. (It's been really nice for a number of days, temperatures in the lower- to mid-70's, at times sunny, at times breezy, with little periods of rain.) We talked about how we're not looking forward to the weather beginning Thursday, when a prolonged period of below-normal temperatures (even record cold) rain and snow is forecast. They mentioned that they'd seen I'd pulled out the irrigation tubing. They gave me the location of a place in Terre Haute that will recycle any kind of plastic. (Good to know!) I told them that I was surprised to find that the irrigation tubing didn't have soaker hoses at the end, but instead the tubing appeared to be just for ferrying water deep into the garden. They were surprised by that as well, and Gail added, well, the guy who lived here before was (pause) a unique individual. They asked what I planned on growing. And I told them. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, they nodded in excitement. Gail asked if I was going to attempt lettuce. (And here is where the fear began to seep in...) I said yes. They then said that the soil is so clayey, greens and root vegetables have a hard go of it... Dick also cautioned me against growing corn. He said the raccoons just go nuts over corn, if it's sweet corn and not the GMO stuff everyone else grows around here. He said that folks have had to resort to using electric fences to keep it safe. I told them that I couldn't find any evidence of a fence around the garden, and wonder if deer were a problem. They said there's never been a fence around the garden, and other than the coons, they'd not heard of any problems. Dick then told me that because he likes me, he'll let me in on a secret. There's a vigorous patch of wild asparagus at the end of our garden. He said I'm welcome to have some of it, but asked me to save some for him. They both suggested I just burn the weeds on a calm day, and get one of the neighbors to till the garden over for me. They both said folks'll be happy to help. Then they went on their way, walking down the road, picking up stray trash, and I went inside and began to fret.

Clay. From the little bit of digging I've done in the garden proper, I know this is soil unlike any I've ever seen. Thick, full of worms and organic matter. Soil that is obviously alive. It did appear to clump, and is fairly waterlogged, but I attributed that to all the rain and snow we've had. Not knowing what the previous tenant worked into the soil to lighten it up, I'm going to be guessing here. I spent a few hours this morning researching, and gradually talked myself off the ledge. I am planning on planting not in long mono-crop rows, but rather in small (perhaps 10 x 8) areas. Within each area, I plan to plant a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers. Companion planting. Intensive gardening (planting them closer together to minimize the need for weeding). Ideally with the smaller areas, it will be more manageable for me to work compost, sand, or manure into smaller plots that will need it. For the root vegetables, the herbs, the greens. I am hoping that by breaking up the very large garden plot into a number of small, mixed variety plots I'll make it not only more manageable for me to work the garden, but reduce the amount of weeding, and hopefully confound and frustrate the pests who will surely be working against me. It will also allow me to see which varieties grow better here, which seed companies I prefer, which plant combinations work over others...

So after a few hours, I had regained some of my confidence and hope that this isn't some fool's folly. My largest obstacle right now is turning the overgrown weed garden into workable soil. With renewed hope, this afternoon, I stepped outside with the dogs and we took a stroll through the yard. Kerouac was frustrated that I didn't let him into the woods, but I've picked ticks off him the past two days, and don't want to do it again. I saw a lot of buds: a bush on the edge of the woods, all the lilac bushes, the apple trees, the pear tree... not full leaves, but the swollen ends are turning the barest of whites or greens... And out by the barn, I was glad to see the first two flowers. Both crocus. Both from bulbs I planted in the fall. And voila! Spring! Even as the first wind-blown raindrops from the first of a two-day series of storms that will bring five days of cold weather, I felt the hope of spring. The frogs were croaking. The birds were singing and chirping. The dogs were rolling in the grass that is turning a very definite shade of green. Ah, yes.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fog and Frogs

Wednesday, March 16, 7 a.m.
Wednesday morning I woke at 7 and was very excited to find the world outside pressing against the windows. Fog. I do love fog. I padded down the hall, picked up my camera and took a couple of pictures, knowing that when I woke up again later in the morning, it should be gone. (It's Rich's spring break, so I get to sleep in, too!) And a couple of hours later, the morning was as bright and sunny as if this fog had never happened.

I've written lately about how the air has been smelling different lately: alive with mud and growth. That statement is even truer today. After two warm and mostly sunny days, today is cloudy. Rain is in the air, but closer to the ground, the air is full of so much life. Flies. Lots of flies. And those Asian Lady Beetles that sought refuge in the house are almost all awake now, trying to get out the windows. And bees. Yesterday I saw two red and black wasps scouting for a new home. Lots of little dirt spiders. And the air has another quality to it now, something harder to identify. Fuller. Two of our trees put forth red flower buds overnight. I hadn't even realized they were the same type of tree until working beneath them yesterday and realizing they bear the same flowers. The lilacs are putting forth leaves. Wild onion and garlic are everywhere, providing two of my favorite scents.

For parts of the past two days, we've been working in the yard. Moving rocks to repair borders, or create new ones. Thinning out some of the rocks in some of the beds so we can plant more herbs and flowers close to the house. Raking up dead leaves and discovering more bulbs growing. It's been fun, heavy work. And we've been working to a singular soundtrack: frogs. Late last summer I learned what frogs sound like (I'd never really heard them before), but there were so many birds and insects making noise that it was sometimes hard to single out a frog sound. But that is not a problem right now. Even though there are a lot of birds around, and the flocks of blackbirds that hang out in the yard are very loud, the frogs have become a constant sound. Last night was particularly striking. On the south side of the house I could hear coyotes howling in the distance, and nearer, dogs barking. But as I rounded the house, there, slightly to the northeast, in the direction of our pond: frogs. Multiple voices, many different sounds. But all frogs. It is a sound I can't really describe adequately in words. Luckily, Rich walked down to the pond yesterday and recorded them in all their amphibian symphonic glory.

It is now noon. A thunderstorm has crept up on the late morning, black to the southwest. Perhaps only thunder can overshadow the sound of the frogs...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Under The Lights

Grow Light Set Up
I am not known as a very mechanically-inclined guy. Nor am I known for my prowess with a hammer. So it is with a touch of pride that I completed a wood-working project yesterday evening. Granted, Rich did the cutting for me (I think he's more afraid of me cutting myself than I am!) but I did the rest. And the rest was building a wooden frame from which to hang the fluorescent light fixtures I'd purchased and then to put the seedlings, which have mostly sprouted and seeking for the meager light available to them. Luckily there are piles of wood surrounding the barn, so I had my choice of old wood. It's not the best wood, a little damp and a little warped, but for this purpose, it's just fine. The lights hang from the chains they came with, and as the plants grow, I can raise the lights to keep just a couple of inches above the tops of the plants. I'm using both cool and warm tubes, as I've read that the combination of the two does wonders for plants. I've never grown seedlings under lights before. While living in Denver, I always had either south- or west-facing windows with adequate light to work out alright. But here, we don't really have good south-facing windows (and it's a lot cloudier here than in Denver), so lights are a must. The project took me about two hours to complete, and this morning, I transfered the seed flats to the lights. Hopefully they'll grow nice and strong. A few of the early-germinated ones were beginning to look a little leggy. 
Seedlings under the lights.
The weather has been cold and cloudy the past few days. Not well-suited for prolonged time working outdoors. We got just over half an inch of rain last night, and it's been cold and foggy today. But there's a warm-up in the forecast for the week, and I'm hoping to get some time outside getting the raised beds cleaned up. I think they're still too wet to plant seeds in, but I am ready when the soil is. Of all the varieties of plants I started last week, only the dandelion, purslane and one variety of onion have yet to push their little heads above the soil.  I'm not too worried yet, as I know onions take a while to sprout, and I've never grown the other two plants (but assume since I have always known them as weeds that they'd be quick to shoot up).

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A recent evening.
Tonight daylight savings time starts. I was always one of those weird people who kind of dreaded the time change. I just didn't see the point in making it darker when I got up in the morning. But I am really looking forward to it this year. The change to summer time means that this garden is about to become a reality.

This afternoon I noticed that I've got cabbage sprouts coming up in the seed trays I started last week. It looks like the seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange are the first ones to climb above the surface of the soil. Hopefully in a few short weeks, they'll be going into the ground.

Dick's Birdfeeder loaded with peanutbutter lard.
Rich just brought me a cocktail. Sheer decadence; it is a de-luxe wine spritzer. I'm not sure what makes it de-luxe, but it sure is delicious. We spent the afternoon outside for the most part. First we walked around the property, finding all the spots bulbs are coming up out of the ground. They're all over the place. This doesn't happen very often: to be completely surprised by spring. Since we don't know what's been planted or where, it's all new to us. Then we walked the length of the garden, checking out all of the useful items scattered around the acreage: piles of lumber, stacks of metal and wood fence posts, piles of old nylon line (for fencing? for trellising?), piles of very professional-looking irrigation tubing. Out behind the barn we discovered the crumbling concrete foundation of a small building. Inside of it, the burned metal frames of four pieces of lawn furniture among charred wood. Rich said it was like an archaeological excavation. In the barn we discovered a room we hadn't seen before, as well as piles of pots and seed trays, good wood for building cold frames and raised beds, and who knows what else. Behind the barn, near the now-gone building, we found piles of plastic berry crates, piled up next to what we determined to be one of the many blackberry brambles. In between the garden and the woods we finally located the raspberry bushes, planted in neat rows just now visible among all the overgrowth. We walked down through the secret gates to the creek. The woods are amazing to me, used to pine forests as I am, these are unlike anything I've seen. Such thick growth, with trees young and old, fallen, upside down in the creek, resting on others, covered in vines whose roots are as thick as my arms. We realize we won't be able to walk through the woods so easily in a few months' time. But right now, it's quite pleasant. We walked down to the pond. The frogs are so loud right now. We could hear them the entire time we worked outside. But as we neared the pond, we could really hear them: dozens of the little guys who, as we approached closer, grew silent. Only the wet plop as they jumped into the water. Once we were there for a few minutes, they started in again, a little more tentatively. I am looking forward to making an area to hang out and enjoy the coolness of the woods and the pond. Our neighbor says the folks who lived here back in the 80's, the Bakers, grew hay behind the barn, and they used to have cocktails every Friday by the pond.

After walking around today, Rich & I went to Rural King. A couple of bags of fresh popcorn as we walked around the store, looking at stone pavers to build a patio off the kitchen, watching the baby chicks and baby rabbits for sale. I really love this store. I bought some twine and two fluorescent light set-ups to grow my tomatoes and peppers and other plants next month. We bought a new kitchen rug that Rich says kind of looks like a large dish towel (probably why I like it).

Well, folks, the sun just set. It was another glorious sunset: a large cloud recently formed to the west, and as the sun set, suddenly its seam was lit up in an almost neon pink. The rest of the cloud turned purple and the sky around it, a baby blue. We stood in the kitchen, watching it slowly fade, and realizing we are very lucky indeed.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The First Seedlings Started

Chives or Ramps?
As the first drops of rain begin to streak my office windows, and through the closed windows I can hear the noise of the flock of blackbirds hanging out in the trees and yard outside, I sit down to write. I've got fresh dirt under my fingernails. The garden has begun! Actually, I'm not so sure it deserves an exclamation point. I started two flats of seeds today: three kinds of cabbage, two kinds of onion, and one kind of broccoli. I dropped in about 25-50 of each variety, and have them under plastic, one flat in the bedroom, the other in the downstairs bathroom. I expect to plant these little guys into the garden in about a month or so. I also started some dandelion and purslane. I am very excited about growing these two varieties of greens. I remember living in Greece and eating fresh dandelion greens, stewed with a little vinegar, olive oil and lemon... so delicious! And I've been reading about purslane for years, have never tried it, but ran across an Italian heirloom with large green leaves, so figured I try it out. I'm starting just a few plants of each, and am going to grow them indoors over the next month to see (1) what they look like coming up (so I don't accidentally weed them in the garden!) and (2) to try them out in recipes so I can give folks recommendations at the farmers' market.

Irrigation Tubing I pulled from the garden.
Over the past few days, I've been devouring organic gardening books. I feel like I'm cramming for an exam, which as a dear friend said yesterday, "you are." I think I've got my timelines down: when to plant the seedlings in the starter soil, when to transplant them to the garden, when to direct-seed other varieties. Of course I know all of this is at the whim of the weather. We're supposed to get another night of rain and thunderstorms tonight and tomorrow, with snow tomorrow night and Thursday morning. It's still too early to plant outside. But that doesn't mean things aren't growing outside. Every morning not only are there more birds in the air (this morning I could hear at least three woodpeckers out in the woods) but there are more plants coming up around the yard. I have discovered what appear to be chives growing in a few spots in the yard. I tasted some yesterday and they had a distinctly garlic taste. Are they ramps? I hope so. I've noticed whole areas of bulbs coming up, not only in the flower beds, but in the grass on the west side of the house. It's exciting, as this is our first spring in this house, and every week will yield new discoveries... how many other folks who've lived here before have planted bulbs, and what kinds? It's very exciting! And it highlights how much I have to learn... the difference between chives and ramps. What does baby poison ivy look like? Where are these mythical raspberry and blackberry brambles in the garden? Are these red and thorny bushes berries or weedy roses? And what creatures are making so many holes in the yard? I now know the mole-paths in the yard, but every morning I find more, and frequently larger, holes coming up out of the ground... One night last week, we heard the frogs from the pond for the first time. We haven't heard them since, but it has been rather cold each night again. And the birds! This morning I saw flocks of blackbirds along with multiple woodpeckers, cardinals, robins (they're so large here!), grackles, meadowlarks, tufted titmice, among others I haven't learned to identify yet. It's a birder's paradise!

On the other side of paradise is the irrigation tubing I pulled from the garden last week. It's still lying in the yard because I haven't figured out what to do with it. I pulled out about a dozen 200-yard long sections of tubing. They'd most likely been placed directly on the ground two summers ago, but left in the ground since. They were underneath overgrowth that stood, at times, over eight feet tall. I had to tug and pull and rip them out. It was a fun project, but every time I look out in the yard, I'm reminded that it's a project unfinished. I plan on checking them to see if I can use them again, and will likely end up putting them someplace near the barn until I figure out what to really do with them.

I've had this dream for so long: to live on a farm and grow produce to sell at the farmers' market and to can and provide for my family year-long. I am having a hard time believe those first seeds are now in the ground!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The First Day in the Garden

The view from my workspace!

Overwintered yellow tomatoes.
Yesterday, March 2, was the first day I spent in the garden. It was a sunny day and I spent some time just walking the garden, seeing what's going on in there, before I did some clean up work. I need to get all of the non-plant materials out of the garden before our landlord comes and bush-hogs and tills the garden areas. As I was walking the length of the garden (about the size of a football field, or slightly less) I grew both nervous and excited with each step. Nervous because it's so large, and although I have gardened for many years, I've never done it on this scale. And nervous because the most of the plant material I was stepping on was weeds, and seeds were just flying freely. Weeding is going to be a major issue this spring. But excited as well... it's so large, and there is so much possibility. And I have so much to learn. As I walked around the garden, I wished I knew the names of all the plants I saw. Especially the pockets of red-limbed thorny brambles. Every time I see brambles, I think of berries, but as one of my neighbors pointed out, they could also be weedy roses. There are other, less thorny, slightly brown and thicker-stemmed brambles on the edges of the garden. I hold more hope that those are some of the berries... As I walked, in the sun, with nothing but a background of woods rustling in the wind and birds singing (and the vultures checking me out) and rabbits running from cover, I realized that this is possibly my most fantastic workspace yet.
Last fall we found tomatoes growing all over. The most accessible ones were the cherry tomato plants growing in an old pig pen, and some larger types growing in the barn. There were cherry tomatoes growing near the old burn pile, and yesterday I discovered waves of yellow cherry tomatoes in the garden. They must have grown all summer, and nothing ate the fruit. It got me thinking that this is a whole new type of environment for me: one in which plants can grow unbidden, unwatered, and still thrive.
The secret gate to the garden...
I spent a few hours pulling out old irrigation lines. These plastic lines run the length of the garden, and were likely placed directly on the ground to provide an extra boost of water. But since the garden went wild last year, these lines are trapped underneath piles of wind- and snow-blown weeds that stand, at times, eight feet tall. Pulling out the lines was exhausting, but exhilarating. I found old seed flats that I can reuse to start new seedlings in. I found an old rusty bucket that's going to become a planter. I found piles of wooden posts for fencing, an old gate, a hidden entrance to the garden from the far southeast corner, coming from the bottoms near the creek, along with rediscovering the joy of working outside.