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.





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!





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)





This Will Be My Labor of Love

3 04 2010

April 1, 2010

Who knew “roughing it” could be so comfortable!  I slept like a dream last night, right through my first wake-up alarm, in fact.  Despite my late start, I was able to get in a couple of productive hours before I drove into town for work.

John (the resident who helps maintain the property) stopped by to see how things were going and discuss some of the major issues with my residence.  He’s going to turn my water on this afternoon, which will be great!  We so often take running water and indoor plumbing for granted.  There’s actually an old wooden outhouse in my backyard, a reminder that modern conveniences were slower to arrive in this part of the country than others.

One “amenity” that never quite made it to my house is city water, and what a blessing it is to be without that “necessity”!  The reason my residence is called the Spring House is because there’s a natural spring that flows from the side of the mountain into my back yard, running down a small stream until it reaches a beautiful private pond in the front.  The spring also provides my house with all of its “tap” water, meaning that every faucet I turn on yields crystal clear H2O, every bath I take will be chemical-free, even my clothes and dishes will be washed with spring-fed water.  Eat your heart out, Daniel Vitalis!

The obvious question is, “How does the water get from here:

Mouth of the Spring

The namesake of the Spring House


to my illustrious indoor plumbing?”  The simple answer is:  A RAM pump moves the water from the spring to a holding tank located further up the hill using the power of gravity.  You read that correctly: UP the hill using ONLY the power of gravity, no power source.  For a more complex explanation about how it works (and instructions on how to build one for around $50), check out this Off-Grid article.

Because my house is located at the bottom of the hill, gravity pulls it from the tank, through the plumbing, and out whatever faucet I have turned on. Hot water is currently heated using an electric hot water heater, but a woodburning outbuilding stove is on my wish list. While they require a bit more effort than just setting a thermostat, they conveniently heat your water AND your house (and your barn…and your greenhouse…) efficiently. The woodburning stove that’s in the house no longer functions, so I say, “Why not kill two birds with one stone?” (Am I allowed to use that phrase now that I live on a Wildlife Preserve? My PETA friends are free to come up with a PC alternative!) Also, we had an ice storm that felled a lot of trees a couple years back, so it’s feasible that I could collect cords of firewood for several years without having to down a living tree.

Of course, there are plenty of home improvements that take precedence over my dream heater. I have a roof to replace, a dangerous tree that’s leaning against one side of the house, a busted toilet, holes in the hardwood floor (but at least they’re hardwood, right?), the entire porch ceiling has to be ripped down and redone.

Not to mention missing outlet covers and switch plates, cracked linoleum, dirty walls, absent light fixtures, misshapen lavatory necessities, totalled trim, gaping screen windows, and truant door knobs.

Then there’s the barns to shore up, the front facade of the house that has decayed to the point of necessary replacement, which will mean a whole lot of painting, all of which could have been avoided had the gutters been cleaned out. Oh yeah, can’t forget new gutters!

So, this will be my labor of love. That’s how much I love this water.

Spring House Water

Crystal clear water/Emerges from the mountain/Dappled by sunlight

And it’s not just the water. I’ve loved this valley, the dream, these days full of wonderment at Mother Nature’s whim for years before I knew the spring existed.

Wind Chime

Hanging a windchime in the front yard as world renowned beadmaker and former Meadowcreek resident Sage Holland looks on.

And though we say that love is blind, I have no illusions with regards to the task ahead. It’s a full-time job to be accomplished in part-time hours. I still have to run my shop in town to support my Meadowcreek habit. Progress will be slow, but steady, and for now I will celebrate the small victories. This morning I changed the locks on the door, hung a windchime, and added a little flair to the front porch. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Birdhouse Perched on Porch

After I hung this birdhouse on the porch post, I realized that the color scheme might work well when I repaint. What do you think?