Please don’t use garden tools during thunderstorms.

29 03 2011

I realize that this should be common sense and that a directive ought not be necessary. Perhaps the infamous Darwin Awards crossed your mind when you read it, or maybe you’re expecting a horrific recounting of a farm tragedy. This blog is neither, so let me re-iterate:

Do NOT use garden tools during thunderstorms.

Now, you would think that gardeners would enjoy a rainy day off during the madness of spring lawn and garden work. Surely there must be laundry piling up, dust on the baseboards, and windows wanting washed. Perhaps the cupboards are bare and a trip to town for provisions is in order. A late lunch with a friend? A call to your sister? Wrapping up the fantastic book you’ve been working on? (“Of Flowers and a Village” a book of letters by Wilfrid Blunt, by the way. A real page turner!) These are all acceptable rainy day activities, and there are surely thousands more that don’t require the muddying of muck boots.

I was happy for the break from seedling duty–I’ve been potting up all sorts of things for the past two weeks: Eggplant, Fennel, Celeriac, Kale, more varieties of Tomatoes than I care to count. I’m particularly grateful for the respite from the Basil, which I never fail to over-sow in my seed starting trays. Current Baby Basil Count? 672. 6 different kinds. Pesto, anyone?

One thing I’ve learned at Meadowcreek is that there’s always more to do in a day than hours of sunlight. Slowly but surely I’m working out some inefficiencies in my daily routine–experiential learning, I think they call it. And that’s how I came to love building compost piles in the rain.

Technically, it’s a job that doesn’t require sunlight or low humidity, so it makes sense to do it on a wet day. I have a Honey-Do list a mile long for those dry, sunny days, and I’ve learned the hard way that laying tile and painting walls just doesn’t work so well when it’s raining. But, mostly, I build my piles in the rain because I’m lazy (err…rather, it’s more energy and time efficient).

I’ve recently changed the way I compost: I make refuse lasagna and just let it bake. For years I’d done the “throw everything into a bin, turn, and water” method, and it worked just fine. But as I’ve become more interested in BioIntensive gardening (a la the Ecology Action group), I’ve made a few changes. Starting with eliminating the Turn and Water steps.

Basically, here is how I build my piles:

I build a bin out of wood for mine, but you can use the framework you prefer as long as it’s at least 3’x3’x3′ to allow for adequate heat in the piles. 4′ is better, and I build my piles 8′ wide, 4′ deep, and 4′ high.

Start by using a pitchfork to loosen the ground where your pile will be.

If you have any cardboard boxes, branches, or twigs that you want to compost, make them your first layer as they take longer to decompose. Then put a layer of soil or existing compost over this layer.

From this point on, you’ll add items to your compost ACCORDING TO WEIGHT not volume. Often, your green layer will be more dense than your brown layer, and soil can be more dense than both. Here is the order in which you will add the materials:

Brown Layer
Green Layer
Soil Layer

You will want to make sure that you keep the pile evenly moist as you build it.

Your brown layer will provide the pile with carbon, which fuels the micro-organisms that break down the waste. “Brown” items include fall leaves, hay, straw, shredded paper (I love turning old bills and junk mail into dirt!), ashes from your fireplace or wood stove, and sawdust.

The green layer provides nitrogen. “Green” items are things like table scraps, weeds, grass clippings, poultry and livestock manures, and even coffee grounds. I also throw my bones in the compost pile, but never meat.

You always want to add your soil layer immediately after the green layer to keep odors from forming and attracting animals to your pile.

So, why do I do this in the rain? Well, that way I don’t have to worry about stopping to spray the pile down with water between layers.

I usually build my piles over time (but it’s best to get each pile built within 30 days, when possible). I end with the soil layer, and when it starts raining, I add the next brown layer (usually hay and manure from the goat barn).

I take a break for lunch to let the pile saturate (the hay also keeps the soil layer from being washed off the top of the pile in heavy rains). Then I add the green layer and soil layers, followed immediately by another layer of hay and manure. Then I’m finished with the pile until the rain stops. The rain will moisten the pile well, and without adding to your water bill! If it rains so much you start wondering whether you should build an ark, consider covering your pile with a tarp so that it doesn’t become over-saturated. Over-saturation causes the pile to cool off, thus halting decomposition.

On the next sunny day, add your green layer and soil layer. Then just wait for another rainy day to add on to your pile. You can turn your pile in about 6 weeks if you want, but just letting nature take her course results in a higher grade of compost in just a little extra time. And aren’t there things you’d rather do than turn compost?

I know that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll try to find someone with a video camera so that we can post an easy-to-understand demonstration of this method. Or you can visit Meadowcreek on a rainy day and see how it’s done!

Meanwhile, don’t be afraid to try composting–whether you do it in the rain or sun. But please don’t use garden tools during thunderstorms.


It’s thyme!

15 03 2011

Spring has a way of creeping up on us–appearing seemingly out of nowhere like chickweed in freshly prepared garden beds (but thankfully more subtle than the sprawl of mint left unrestrained!) There is always so much to be done in these final weeks of winter, especially for the gardener. Seeds must be started, tools need to be sharpened, and beds ought to be made…the kind for planting, at least: if you garden and manage hospital corners past April 15, my hat’s off to you!

It’s my first Spring in the Spring House, so I was eager to see what might pop up in the existing garden beds out front. Luckily for me, a splendid display of miniature Tete a Tete daffodils now graces the front lawn, a convenient foreground for the new strawberry beds. They caught the eye of my neighbor Maureen, who requested a few for her yard–quite a compliment to the Tete a Tete’s, as Maureen and her mother are both accomplished planstwomen. Upon closer inspection of the daffodils, Maureen uncovered a patch of thyme in the walkway of the garden. Today I discovered more of the wiry stems wandering along the border of the rock beds, covered in leaves that are not only wonderfully fragrant, but GREEN!

There’s something enchanting about the re-emergence of perennials after a cold winter, whether the yellow splash of narcissus brightening otherwise drab lawns or the more subtle revitalization of the herb garden. Even when the chills of winter still inhabit our toes, the return of life in the garden hints at days full of warmth and energy to come.

The seeds have begun to germinate, the garden’s been plowed (many thanks to John North), and the tools still yearn to be sharpened. Spring is just around the corner, and I’d better get that mint under control while there’s still a chance! See y’all in the garden!

The Road Less Traveled

25 08 2010

The road into the Meadowcreek valley is usually pretty quiet. Limited to the neighbors and a few locals who enjoy nearby swimming holes, traffic is usually drowned out by the chirping of birds and buzz of insects. Most of the time we can even tell who’s driving down the mountain by the sound of their car. If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning of “tranquility”, just move to a rarely traveled road for the best definition.

I was turning my compost pile in the front yard this morning as the caravan of vehicles made its way down the mountain. From the air, I imagine they must have looked like a colony of termites slowly working their way through the woods, twisting and turning along the steep and cumbersome (yet oh-so-charming!) dirt road. Had I not known they were coming, the shiny white government vehicles might have been cause for alarm. Instead, I was ecstatic to see them, but not because I knew who they were and why they were coming. Rather, I was excited because for the first time since beginning my residency here, PEOPLE WERE COMING TO THE VALLEY TO LEARN!

The Ozark Highlands Office of The Nature Conservancy was hosting a workshop on the maintenance of dirt and gravel roads, and let me tell you, they could not have chosen a better site for a demonstration! Meadowcreek is a great destination for quaint country sight-seeing but the road that seems so idyllic to Sunday Drivers can present a challenge to daily commuters. If there’s a malady that can affect a rural roadway, we probably have it. Luckily, The Nature Conservancy arranged for the Stone County Street Department to bring their graders down for the workshop.

Arrangements for the workshop attendees and sponsors to have lunch at our dorms had been made, and I headed down to make sure the facilities were in order. (A big thank you to Sage Holland for the use of her vacuum and donation of her superb mopping abilities, as well as to Kaylee Tejeda for his plumbing know-how!) After some tidying up and re-arranging of furniture, Meadowcreek was ready to host our 25-30 guests from across the state of Arkansas.

Honestly, I was unprepared for the enthusiastic questioning from some of the diners. I’ve talked about Meadowcreek in casual conversation before, and I have most of the “History of Meadowcreek” from the website memorized, but I’d never had such a captive audience! How motivational and invigorating it is to have people show interest in a project you are passionate about. “This place has so much potential” seemed to be the mantra of the day, an affirmation of why I am here.

It was also a good day for networking, both with The Nature Conservancy staff and government officials from various towns and counties in the region. I’m looking forward to learning more about Project Wet, Project Wild, and Project Learning Tree, which one attendee noted would be excellent programs for Meadowcreek to offer. And perhaps The Nature Conservancy will keep us in mind as a meeting facility if they offer more workshops here in the future.

In other news, Meadowcreek has two major projects in the works. Charles and Shirley Rosenbaum, with the assistance of John North, are working with the Humane Society on a Horse Rescue Mission to aid in the rehabilitation of neglected and abused horses. Country Oaks Bed and Breakfast in nearby Mountain View has generously donated hay to help with the feed needs of the rescue horses. Horses may be sponsored by individuals or groups to help provide for the veterinary, grooming, and other needs of the horses. Lodging is available for those who would enjoy extended visits with the horse(s) they sponsor, and riding is permitted.

Bev Dunaway is actively pursuing funding opportunities for the construction of the Meadowcreek Greenhouse. We already have a greenhouse frame, it just needs to have new ends built, center support posts added, and a cover put on. The completion of the greenhouse will enable Meadowcreek to provide a variety of gardening and agriculture-related programs during an extended growing season. I’ve been working on a budget for a “dream greenhouse” that we can use as a demonstration model for market gardeners and folks with an interest in year-round harvesting.

If you plan on being in the area and would like to stop in to see our progress, feel free to drop me a line. We’ll even let you go for a ride on our brand new tire swing while you’re here!

We’re Sitting on Go!

17 06 2010

Just a quick note to share some exciting “news”. I’ve been pondering the possibility of programs well-suited to the environment and facilities that Meadowcreek has to offer. I believe that we have, hands-down, the most beautiful site in the state for a variety of educational opportunities. The serenity students find here serves as a catalyst, opening their minds to new knowledge and experiences. No matter your background, vocation, or aspirations, attending a program at Meadowcreek precipitates a paradigm shift.

For those of you who’ve tracked Meadowcreek over the years, you’re familiar with the various challenges we’ve encountered. Funding and organizational structure have been at the forefront of those obstacles. As I delve further into the “solution finding” phase of my residency, it has become clear that these two elements are intimately intertwined. Like the age old chicken-egg dilemma, I’m constantly wondering “which comes first, the programs or the infrastructure/assets?”

I’m looking forward to fund raising: As surely as I believe that Meadowcreek is worth my time and energy, I am certain it deserves the financial support of donors and foundations who share our principles of education, sustainability, and leadership. But the question that begs to be answered is “What are we funding?” It’s an inquiry I ask of myself, and one that grant makers expect I will be able to answer.

Finally, I have a feasible program concept. Bev Dunaway, one of our amazing board members, is also the Stone County Farmer’s Market manager. She recently introduced me to Dustin Black, a young man full of energy, enthusiasm, and ambition during the Market.

Dustin recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute in Orlando, Florida, and has started a grass-roots business called Ozark Mountain Foods. He’s working with Stone County farmers to turn their surplus produce into value-added products with mass appeal. His goal is national distribution of wholesome, hand-crafted provisions that benefit both the consumers and the farmers.

As I’ve been working tirelessly in the garden (and looking forward to my first day as a Farmer’s Market vendor!), it seems that horticulture has permeated all aspects of my life. I have seedlings growing behind my shop in town, can be found perusing farm supply catalogs behind the cash register, and exhibit the tell-tale “dirt under my nails” when I show up to work directly from the garden. This has led several of my customers to inquire, “How do you know how to do all that?” While gardening is by no means “easy”, it’s something almost anyone can do and enjoy. Eventually, I found myself brave enough to answer, “Well, I’ve just moved out to Meadowcreek, and I’ve been thinking about offering classes…” This has been met with a resounding, “That would be wonderful, please let me know when you start!” on several occasions

So there I was, pulling weeds and mulling over curriculum ideas. Then, the epiphany: What could be better than learning to not only grow your own food, but also how to prepare your garden vittles? Not much! And so the vision was born. This evening I ran it by Dustin who agreed it would be an outstanding collaboration.

“From Home Grown to Home Made” That’s our working title, and I’m a little bit proud of it. What do you think?

The project is in its infancy, of course, and I’ve yet to pitch a proposal to the Board of Directors. There’s still a syllabus to write, marketing to undertake, and facilities to prepare. But if rehabilitating Meadowcreek were a race, initiating a successful program is the starting line. Slowly, steadily we will overcome hurdles, passing the baton of knowledge from resident instructors to students. The finish line is inconsequential; it’s the journey that matters.

Time flies when you’re having fun!

19 05 2010

It’s hard to believe it’s been 6 weeks since my last blog post!  Spring is such a busy time down at Meadowcreek, and I am still so excited to be a part of the action.  

meadowcreek fence

I’ve been spending most of my time in the garden, having never outgrown my “loves to play in the dirt” phase.  There is something so relaxing and fulfilling about nurturing things to life and watching them grow.  A garden is also a huge commitment, a literal putting down of roots that keeps you from wandering too far for too long, nature’s way of keeping us grounded.  And, of course, it’s work.  I call it “exercise with a purpose”, having found aching muscles I’d forgotten existed over the last month. 

I also have a tan and a sunnier disposition:  Last year I eliminated all animal products and processed foods from my diet in an effort to become healthier (drastic times=drastic measures).  In doing so, I also eliminated all the foods fortified with Vitamin D.  In fact, the only natural vegan source of Vitamin D is mushrooms (and believe me, I ate TONS of mushrooms over the winter).  Luckily, the human body synthesizes Vitamin D after exposure to UVB rays.

This isn’t to say that you should spend hours upon hours basking in the sun poolside as you recline in a chaise lounge as a pool boy tends to your every need.  (In retrospect, that doesn’t sound so bad…)  The same rays that we need for Vitamin D synthesis can cause skin damage and often-fatal melanoma skin cancer.  On the flip side, Vitamin D has been shown to reduce the development of breast, colon, and ovarian cancers as well as cardiovascular disease.  So while some physicians consider a healthy dose of sunshine therapeutic, they all agree that a sunburn is never good. 

Vitamin D has also been linked to lower incidences of depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Personally, I’m not sure if it’s the sun or just doing something I love that’s made a difference, but I am certainly chipper these days! 

Just this morning, at the crack of dawn, I found myself in love with life as we walked to the garden.  The fog was lifting off the creek, a background of bluffs framing the tendrils of mist as they reached towards the clouds.  The serenity of these moments humbles me as I realize that I am a small and insignificant part of this much larger world, a reminder that being in this valley is a gift rather than an entitlement.  As I wielded my hoe in the garden this morning, I was even grateful for the blisters rising on my palms.  You see, those blisters represent progress.  A well-tended garden may not be much, but it’s one more step towards Meadowcreek being ready for the rest of the world again. 

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood!

9 04 2010

April 5, 2010

I woke up early this morning to put the first coat of paint on the dining room walls. There was nothing really wrong with the color of the walls, though they were slightly dirty and had a few nail holes that needed to be patched. Since this room needs the least work to be presentable (some paint, new baseboards, and new flooring, plus a thorough window washing), I decided it was a great place to start.

The Eating Cave

Even with the full morning sun coming through the window, it still looks so dark in here!

This should brighten things up!
New dining room wall paint

I had work at my shop in town today, but decided to call someone in to work tomorrow and Wednesday so that I can spend a few more days working on the house. Bev dropped by the store to chat and I asked her what was happening with the Meadowcreek garden and who was in charge of it. She told me to talk to John and the other residents and for us to figure it out amongst ourselves, but that we each needed to have our own separate plots.

This was good news for me: I have about a hundred baby kale and lettuce plants waiting to be transplanted, and it would be great to get them all in the ground tomorrow. This would give me a chance to meet the rest of the residents, as well.

After work we loaded up the car for a 3-night sleepover in the Valley and headed down to meet the Hermansen family. Bev had called ahead to let them know we’d be dropping by to talk about the garden. The Hermansens consist of John and Debbie, their son, Debbie’s brother and mother. Only John and Sonny were home, and we shared a nice long chat. They’re occupying the lower dorms while they renovate their house.

John has a few plants started in the dorm, having rigged up an ingenious indoor mini-greenhouse. I think the bulk of his gardening will be staples like corn and potatoes, and canner-friendly beans, peas, and cucumbers. And no Arkansas garden would be complete without peppers and tomatoes!

I actually didn’t have to broach the topic of the garden myself; John H. had just gotten off the phone with Bev when I arrived, and it was the first order of business. He envisions more of a “single plot community garden” rather than a “separate gardens with a cooperative effort” model.

So, here are few talking points on both sides of the debate, and I’m not going to tell you which one I’m leaning towards. See, I’d hate to bias your opinion, which I hope you’ll share in the poll and comments section below.

Single Plot
A single plot would allow for growing entire rows of a single crop, with each family designating how much of that crop they need. Days of responsibility could be assigned to each family so that individuals didn’t have to work in the garden so frequently. People could just pick whatever they wanted and take it. The garden would look more organized. It would encourage a sense of community instead of separation. No concerns about whether the garden space was divided fairly. Group gardens cannot sell at the Farmer’s Market.

Individual Plots
Individuals would be able to sell excess produce at the Farmer’s Market or share/trade with other Meadowcreek residents. Gardeners could grow a wider variety of crops that suited their particular needs. More individual time committed to gardening tasks, less flexibility in schedule. Each person could use their own gardening methods (organic/conventional, green manuring/crop rotation, mulch and fertilizer preferences). No disputes about whether the harvest was distributed fairly.

Of course, there are many other pros and cons of both arguments. I’d love to hear your feedback on this issue. Which arrangement do you think work better? Which is the most fair to all of the residents? Why?

So while my baby greens remain homeless, I did manage to get eight raspberry plants put in my front flower bed. I’d call the day a success.
One of 8 Raspberry Plants in the front flower bed

Time is of the Essence

9 04 2010

April 4, 2010

So I’d been dividing my “to do” list into categories, specifically: “Things I Can Do without Electricity” and “Things to Do before the Snakes Come Out”. Knowing that snake season is encroaching, the latter of the lists commands priority.

Now, I have no problems with snakes. I grew up with them, both in our yard and in our house (caged, most of the time). I’ve always found them fascinating, regarding them with caution and respect. My favorite is the King Snake, and I would consider myself lucky to have a nest of Lampropeltis living in my crawl space. They not only eat mice and other household pests, but they’re the best Organic Snake Deterrent on the market: They eat poisonous snakes for lunch, and the other serpents know it.

When I attended the Meadowcreek Weeks camp here, a herpetologist from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission did a snake presentation, complete with live specimens. She put a King Snake in one pillow case and another (non-venomous) variety in a separate one. Then she put the two pillowcases next to each other: the second snake went crazy, writhing about, trying to get away from the King.

King snakes, while not dangerous, will bite if thoroughly provoked. They don’t have fangs, but rows of short, sharp chompers instead. They’re chewers, and if you harass one into biting you, good luck getting him to let go. The best thing is just to leave them alone (by all means, don’t kill them) so that they can continue hunting for the critters you really don’t want around your house and garden. But if you ever come upon a King Snake eating a copperhead, take a few minutes to watch without disturbing the process; it’s pretty awesome.

I’d decided that cleaning up some of the lumber piles and debris in my yard should be the first task on my “Before the Snakes Arrive” list. I think I can salvage enough lumber to build a Wood and Wire Three-Bin Turning Compost Unit for the hay and manure I’ll need to clean out of the barns, and maybe even a Worm Composter for my kitchen scraps. I like the design of this worm composter because it will keep the ‘coons and armadillos from scavenging for treats.

Keep the Critters out of Your Compost!

I have nothing against scavengers, either, but it would be nice if some of my kitchen compost made it to the garden a la worm castings. I think this should do the trick!

Low and behold, as I approached the first pile of yard debris and construction cast-offs, a solitary serpent slithered from the fallen leaves and sought shelter beneath a nearby rock. The first snake of Spring, though suggested it may have been a lizard (and we do have a species of legless lizard here in the Ozarks), has graced us with its presence. It seems my Snake-Free window of opportunity is quickly closing.

Note to Self: Print a “Snakes of Arkansas” guide to have on hand for future encounters. (You can find one here, if you’re interested)