Small Batch Garden

Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Permie Looks at 42

Douglas Adams fans will understand why one of my favorite numbers is 42, and I just turned 42 a couple of days ago, on a blue moon no less!  So I expect a lot out of this coming year.  Bless you, Douglas Adams!  Wherever you are now.  To kick my next circumnavigation of the Sun off in the right direction, how about this: last week I renewed my drivers license with the same address for the first time in my life.  Since I turned 16 I've never lived at one address for 5 years.  OK, admittedly I still haven't.  My 5 year Georgia drivers license started in Macon early in 2010, then moved to Tifton the following new year, and then to Ellijay 16 months after that.  And OK, the remaining 39 months are also split roughly down the middle, when you consider the 3 month co-farming fiasco of fall '13, where we briefly lived at a different address (though we still owned our place and never changed the address on our IDs)!  Yes, yes, the point is, it's the first time that's ever happened!  As far as signs go, I think it's a good one ;p

But I have to dig my roots in deeper, of course.  The upcoming decades might prove to be a rough time to be a rolling stone.  And gathering moss is at the top of my to-do list.  Just above planting apples, and peaches, and plums, and raspberries, and blueberries, and shiitakes, and, well, you get the idea.  Make haste slowly.  I have a hard time envisioning life on the road as adaptive in an era of volatile energy prices, contracting resources and budgets, and increasingly local economies.  But hey, if riding the slide on a sailboat's your thing, bon voyage.  Who am I to judge?

Speaking of plums, plums make me think of the late English author P.G. Wodehouse.  I have a book, a really nice edition actually, called "The Plums of P.G. Wodehouse," who was, in my opinion, a brilliant social critic, all too willing to discuss the cultural landscape of an empire in decline.  We'll be seeing more of that in the upcoming decades on this side of the Atlantic, too, I think.  The Brits are just way ahead of us, on average, in coming to terms with contraction.  Most people here in the States can't yet even entertain the idea that the period of explosive economic and technical (and growth!) growth - growth growth?  yeah, why not, it fits - of the post WWII era (the official transfer of power from the British empire to the American one) in this country is temporary and self-terminating.  Much less that we could already be firmly entrenched in the pattern of decline on the far side of the peak.  Still, the great god Progress will no doubt think of something to reverse that trend, and lay waste to that pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics...

[Tongue, cheek, yes?]

Back to Wodehouse, over the years of being married to my amazing and Anglophilic wife I've become a big fan of the British ITV show Jeeves and Wooster from the early 90s, which was based on Wodehouse's writing.  In one of my favorite episodes, Jeeves and Wooster find themselves in coastal Devonshire on Lammas Eve.

"Don't be out late tonight," the hotel manager admonishes the guests on their way to dinner, "Ol' Boggy walks on Lammas Eve."

That was the first I'd ever heard of "Lammas,"  But like the other quarter days, Lammas makes sense, has its place in the natural cycle, and recommends itself for observance, even if only because of its calendar position.  But more than that, traditionally Lammas was the deadline for wheat deliveries to the baron.  Then, as soon as the landlord was satisfied, it was also the Feast of August, always heavy on the bread from the recent wheat harvest, which had probably just replenished some pretty sad larders.  It was a time to celebrate the grain harvest and the feeling of security a heaping helping of starvation insurance like that must have delivered to the village.

Today is Lammas, and with my birthday so close by, I feel a certain natural connection to it.  If nothing else, it's a good excuse to keep my birthday celebration going for one more day!  Yeehaw!!  But you know, every year I get a little closer to a life that recognizes and appreciates things like Lammas, makes a special mead to tilt the next time it rolls around, and just rejoices in being alive and healthy.  And well-friended.  I am thankful.

Thanks for taking a little stroll down the virtual street with me.
Tripp out.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Summer Solstice Salute - Photos of All Projects

Happy Summer Solstice...a little late, but it was Father's Day, big market day, and Summer Solstice, all rolled into one!  Oh, and then Monday was Oliver's 5th birthday, and Tuesday was my garden day at the local Montessori school, where we built a big solar oven in our garden this week (more on that below).  So I'm going to just pick up where we left off last time, and run through a bunch of photos.  There are some nice garden shots, some new self-reliance measures, there's a tour of my elementary school project, and a wrap-up at the new organic cider orchard that a couple of my buds and I have been working on.  Let's go, starting with my place:

The ol' fire pit doing its thing, on May Day evening where we left off last time,  Raised my glass of mead to summer, as promised, grilled a little local grass-fed ribeye, some garden 'taters and root veg, sauteed kale from the kitchen garden, and enjoyed the fire with my family. 
Built a small front porch, which is about to get its roof. 
My daughter Ella turned 7.  Nice tea set from my mom, huh?  Ella loves wearing fancy dresses and setting out tea. 
Out to the garden, the comfrey that occupied the space in the lower-middle-left of this shot was harvested, for the second time this season, to help repair an orchard problem I'll get to in a minute.  The more established comfreys are really starting to produce some high-quality fertilizing biomass.
First-year plum guild starting to settle in.
View through nectarine polyculture across the strawberry-rhubarb bed.  Pinching the strawberry flowers for the first round, like the pros suggest, definitely paid off, with bigger, stronger plants that are now producing large, sweet berries as they peter out for mid-summer downtime. 
Separated the rooster from the hens while I introduced the spring pullets to the laying group.  Just as easy to build garden beds with chickens as with rabbits, probably easier - just have to wait longer to plant in it. 
There's a uglier side to this update, too, I'm afraid.  Boo boo #1.  I left a couple sheets of rockboard leaning against the adjacent fence while I was gone one day, wind started blowing, blew the rockboard backwards into this little peach tree, and made a mess of its trunk.  As you can see, though, medicine arrived quickly.  I slathered the wounds with the comfrey cream we make, to fight off microbial infection in the bare inner tissue, and harvested a mess of comfrey leaf to feed the soil around the tree.
I've never met an organic treatment that has more positive effects on fruit trees than the chop-n-drop comfrey strategy.  I've used it for years now on all kinds of problems, with excellent results. 
This nectarine is our first fruit tree to reach 12'.  Probably time to do some heading cuts on it next major pruning session. 
Second growth on this comfrey, following a fat harvest.  The rest of the guild is coming along nicely, the greens are productive, and some young tomatoes are settling in. 
Lavender, like comfrey, is another one of those plants that I couldn't do without.  Took us some time to figure out how to grow it here, though.  We babied it too much before - composting, mulching, putting it in a prime spot.  No, that's not what it wants. It wants to grow in the dry gravel along the path, and get kicked now and then for good measure!
Found a Cherokee arrowhead out in the garden recently.  Super cool.  Also found out that I have some Cherokee blood as well, which might explain the feathers in my hair.  Er, wait, that's probably just dirt and chicken feathers.  Maybe I just need a shower...
Also got a newer car since my last post.  The morning after May Day, we were in Atlanta for a big craft show, and got rear-ended on the off-ramp...sitting still, waiting for the light to turn green, a nice Mercedes slams into a GMC truck, who slams into us.  (I bet the guy was texting!)  Anyway, we had enough other problems cropping up with the old Camry, and unfortunately can't live without a car at this point, so we broke down and bought a newer one.  I hate having a car payment, even a small one, but she sure is niiiice.  I'm hoping this car will take care of us as well and as long as the last one did. 
This one's here to help balance out the utter dependency of the last photo!  We're finally catching some rain.  I mean, when it rains again. 
Moving on to my Montessori project.  This is the top side of our Mike Oehler-style earth-berm greenhouse.  This is the first thing you see when you walk into the play yard/garden at the school.  The little sign tacked to the right corner of the eaves says "Please excuse our goat-ravaged garden."  I'll get to that in a sec.  To the right... 

This is the best greenhouse design I've ever seen.  Thank you, Mike Oehler!  Although his is buried even deeper in the ground.  I only had so much hill to work with, and didn't want runoff water, nor cold air, pooling in the greenhouse as the low spot.  It's buried deep enough, though, and has enough masonry thermal mass in the north wall, that I had tender young lettuce plants make it through a 5 degree night without any doors on...and one of the highest windows was out, being reglazed.  It holds some heat.  But because of the earth connection and open doors, doesn't get as hot as you'd think in the blinding summer sun.  I've built this particular greenhouse to accommodate the flow of young children.  During the heat of summer we're not growing anything in it, but it's a perfect place for my garlic to dry.  Everyone seems to dig it!
Speaking of digging it, how about Boo boo #2? 
Some great and giving folks, parents of one of my students, contributed a dump-bed load of composted horse manure to our garden efforts.  You might as well have dumped a load of gold doubloons in the garden, I was so happy.  Well, turns out the horse manure compost had a persistent herbicide from the hay (thank you, Gilmer County Master Gardeners!).  Graze On would be my guess (thank you, Chris!).  What a mess it's made of our school garden!  The tomatoes are stunted, curled up and really ugly.  Some of the fruit trees don't know what to do.  I spread that stuff everywhere.  At my house too.  At this point the strategy is to try to remove as much of it as is feasible, spread some untainted compost on all the offended areas, inoculate with mycorrhizae, mulch with straw, and water thoroughly.  ??
The tea garden at school - various mints, lemon balm, bee balm, self heal.  The kids usually pick and make tea once a week. 
Alright, Boo boo #3.  A giant billy goat at the farm next door to the school broke out of his fence and into our garden a few weeks ago.  He broke fruit trees, munched raspberries down to stubs, and clipped this herb row down hard. 
Things are starting to recover, like these young peaches, but man, between the billy and the tainted compost... 
This is the new raspberry row, on a hugelkultur mound on contour.  It was bushy and loaded with ripening fruit, just in time for summer camp-ers, when the billy broke in and demolished it.  It's slowly recovering, though.  I think we lost one Asian pear tree for good, but I think everyone else will recover.  The owner actually sold the billy goat on account of this.
This is our rabbit/worm compost factory.  Clover gets tons of attention from the kids, and tons of fresh greens to eat; they even let her out to roam now and then.  The rest of the time, she's busy feeding the vermicompost bin below her with her droppings and food mess. 
This is another of last summer's projects.  We dismantled an old dilapidated play set, and reused the materials to make a chicken tractor!
Food door below, egg door above.  Kids take care of them full time - feed, water, collect eggs.  And they've collected LOTS of eggs.  Usually once a week, eggs have to get used before they take over the kitchen!
The kids even move the tractor.  See, we used an extra swing as a harness, chained to the bottom of the leading end.  It takes two of them to pull it in the harness, so it also fosters teamwork.  They all love the chickens, and almost no one minds getting stuck with this detail for the week.
This photo makes me happy and sad.  Happy because we built a nice little school orchard - 6 pears, 6 apples, and another peach - on the cheap, and sad because our orchard was only cheap at someone else's expense.  A friend of mine, too.  Ran one of the great southern fruit nurseries, and went out of business 01JUN.  By mid-May, we were buying trees for $5 each, as he liquidated the entire nursery.  That's about half of what he had in them.  Good for us; bad for my friend.
Just yesterday we built this baby!  A nice solar oven, big enough to hold and heat lots of corn dogs and leftover pizza.  Got this pan of cold water to the edge of boiling in about 45 minutes.  Unlike most Americans, I don't think microwaves are good things, so I'm trying to encourage the kids to use this instead.  There's a false bottom, stuffed with insulation underneath, the seams are taped up tight, and the joint between the box and the window top is weatherstripped.  I think I'm going to have fun playing with this, and can't wait to build one at home!
The Other Other project.  A buddy of mine has a great little homestead to the north of us a little ways.  He's not there much.  He's off somewhere else making lots of money.  We have another friend, though, who actually lives there, and sort of takes care of the place and does some publicity work for the owner friend.  He's from Seattle, but wants to slow down and work on a farm.  So we're building one.  Starting with shifting the horse pasture, and planting the first 70 apples trees of our organic cider orchard.  This is where my friend's nursery business closing really helped out.
The lower tier has the first 25 trees, and a bunch of elderberry that definitely has a home in our orchard.
The upper tier has the other 45 trees.
We've had a little deer pressure, but a dowsing around each tree with a solution of Irish Spring "soap" seems to be working.

Our long-term goal with the orchard is a permaculture-type mixed yield polycultural "farm."  (Farms used to all be polycultural, but that's not the image associated with the word today).  We're brewing a steady supply of mead now, and more cider every season, and we intend to keep increasing our production, adding more cider trees, berries, grapes, honeybees, herbs, and so forth, every season.  Disc golf course might have to move...

With school, my youngest is now 5, and they can stay at Montessori until at least 12, by then probably all the way through, so it's my intention to keep trading my organic garden-herbalism-permaculture course for their education.  We'll see after that.  I might have too much to do at home by then;)

So I have our low-impact off-grid homestead and developing food forest "Rivenwood," our herbal business, Small Batch Garden, the school project, and the cider orchard.  That's four part-time jobs, a wife, and two children.  There's always something to do.  And I hope you've enjoyed this more comprehensive photo tour of my projects, 'cause, I gotta run!

Be back around Lammas.
Until then, 
Tripp out.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Honey Wine - Mead Philosophy

In the comments section of my last photo update I told a commenter that I was making mead that afternoon - whole hive mead, specifically.  The whole hive version is still on my list, I'm afraid, 'cause I just made plain ol' mead.  But plain ol' mead is a beautiful thing - as much medicine as it is an adult beverage.  (And I imagine the whole hive version is even more so.)  All indigenous fermentations, like wild mead, are taken very seriously by everyone in the community, and they are always wild fermentations.  And in areas of the globe where people don't have constant access to a wide variety of foods from around the entire planet, wild fermentations often serve the role of transforming a less nutritious food into something far more substantial.  B vitamins in particular increase significantly in many indigenous brews, but the concentration of protein and other important nutrients rise as well.  If you drink it whole, that is, as a living beverage.  Not filtered, pasteurized, and zapped for good measure before being sold by the case to people who don't have any connection to the drink.  I personally think that the more you remove yourself from the substances you put in and on your body, the more likely they are to hurt you.  Drinking cloudy beer on its lees that I made fosters a wholly different attitude in me toward the drink than swilling a six pack of Budweiser purchased at the local stop-n-rob.  For a really interesting read on this subject I recommend Stephen Harrod Buhner's book on herbal beers.

In my experience (admittedly only 2 years) the imbibing of mead is self-limiting, too.  It delivers a light, comfortable, and somewhat dreamy buzz, and cuts you off when you've had enough.  It's a lot like eating really nutrient-dense organic food (from your garden of course;) - you tend to not need to eat as much because your body obtains the vitamins and minerals it needs a lot sooner.  I strongly believe that nutrient-density (or the lack thereof) is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic in the United States.  But that's another discussion.

For now, let's just talk about mead.

At my buddy's cabin putting a new batch of mead on.  The bucket on the counter is the last of the previous round, and is mostly good for inoculant at this point. (Although, believe me, I didn't let anything I considered drinkable go to waste.)  I've made six generations of mead on the same lees, and at this point I think about it as something more like a sourdough, something alive, that I feed and maintain.  It's always been fermented with wild local yeast and bacteria that blew in the window while I was making it, and, like sourdough, the suite of microbes selects itself to optimize the fermentation of its substrate, in this case honey water, generation after generation.  This mead is still not for the unadventurous, but the flavor and fermentation qualities have gotten better every generation, and now I'm ready to tighten up the product a little.

So I just warm up enough water to dissolve all the honey (1 qt honey/gal of finished wort), and make it easier to pour into the carboy.  I'm not pasteurizing here.  I want the microbes in the next round of raw honey to try to add something that might fit in with the resident fermentation ecology.  I think when you wild ferment you stop thinking of yeast as an ingredient, to be controlled, and start thinking about it more as an ally, or group of allies - something you want to take care of and propagate, like a sourdough starter, something to be coaxed into participation instead of ordered about.

Adding their own brand of coaxing, my children are calling in the brewing man to activate the fresh wort, get it "boiling."  (Then we explain in simple microbiology terms how the yeasts do their work...but the brewing man always has to be called!)  They really enjoy the mead-making process and like to check on it when fermentation is just getting going, watch the bubbles get faster and faster.  (When they start to slow down they lose interest and stop checking on it...)

Quietly working its magic in the cool (this time of year) wood stove corner.  The old batch behind is tilted in advance to settle the lees, and give me just a little more of that sweet nectar before I have to go into a waiting period for the new batch to get ready.  Now that I have a tasty and reliable starter, I plan to brew a 5 gal carboy like this every month.  Should be enough to satisfy us and (for now) the growing number of our compadres who enjoy a glass as well. Making mead has significantly cut the amount of alcohol we buy, as well as slashing the overall volume of alcohol imbibed.  Win-win.

Mead is the oldest fermented human beverage - made for at least 10,000 years, and possibly 30,000.  But 10,000 years is long enough to contribute a very similar word for mead in all Indo-European descended languages. From Scotland to India and Russia to Greece and Portugal, mead, or something sounding a lot like "mead," is our traditional drink.  Like most cultural treasures, the industrial version of us has neglected and marginalized mead, tossing one more really wonderful thing into a growing hole in our homogenized hearts.

Tonight, on May Day, I assure you I will lift a glass of wild mead in honor of the summer and a new growing season!  And then I'll load up a wheelbarrow with compost and go plant tomatoes...

Happy May Day.
Tripp out.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Three Years at Rivenwood - A Spring Photorama!

Let's start with Easter...

This is Tyson.  He was a gift from some new friends just a day or two before he met his demise...

This is also Tyson, a couple of days later.  He was a really fat turkey, but made fantastic stock.

This has nothing to do with Tyson.  These are chicken eggs being dyed for Easter with natural vegetable dyes, these with boiled onion skins.  I traded a couple dozen strawberry crowns for a pile of white eggs from some homesteading friends nearby.  We normally don't have white eggs, so the timing was perfect.

Here's the finished product.  What great variation compared to the FD&C-approved version!  The red-brown ones are the onion skin dyed eggs, the purple ones were done with beets, the blue with purple cabbage, and the gold with turmeric.  All in a grapevine basket made by my grandfather.  The variation within one color was due to trying a brown egg with each dye, and the botanical prints were just random things collected from the kitchen garden held fast with pantyhose.

First spinach thinnings of the season were combined with early wild spring greens and edible flowers to round out our dinner offerings to the potluck with friends.  (Forgot to take a picture of the finished product unfortunately...)  That Grandfather sure makes some nice baskets!  And the young spinach was top shelf.

Wide overview of the developing kitchen garden.

Asian pear, rabbiteye blueberry, rhubarb, horseradish, and comfrey polyculture below the bath house.  Strawberries would probably match up well here too, as a groundcover, but the terrain is too steep for the tedious picking involved.

A view to the south-southwest through the woods.  The chicken tractor has been picking its way along new paths all winter, and will hopefully arrive on the other end of the kitchen garden just in time to join the new spring pullets in an as-yet-unbuilt coop and yard when the latter are big enough to defend themselves against the old broads!

View through the Asain pear-blueberry polyculture back across the bottom of the kitchen garden.  White flowers in the background are native dogwoods toward the end of their bloom. We are fortunate to have lots of them. 

New white-fleshed peach polyculture under development on the near end of a strawberry-rhubarb patch.

Trusty old low tunnel hoops that will be packed up for the season by the next post.  The Swiss chard in the middle of this bed made it through a pretty harsh winter undercover.  The near greens are the remaining spring spinach seedlings that didn't get pulled for Easter potluck.  To the left is another peach-centered polyculture, this one planted last spring.

My favorite!  Dinosaur kale.  Or Tuscan kale...or Lacinato kale...whatever you want to call it.

A nectarine polyculture holding down the north end of the strawberry-rhubarb bed.  So far I've companion-planted my Prunus species fruit with comfrey, valerian, sweet mint, lemon balm, sage, self-heal, and perennial onions around the base to repel voles.  Left to add this season are yarrow, bee balm, Fanny's aster, and black-eyed Susans.  You can see the first comfrey tops of the season cut and laid down as a fertilizing mulch to the right of the rocked off area.  We'll get much larger dressings of comfrey later this season.  I just wanted to remove flowering tops for now, until they get bigger.

More of last spring's peaches and plums, with spring pullets in the little tractor in the middle ground, and pink native azaleas in the background outside the kitchen garden.

The new girls.  They are the first stage of any new garden bed 'round here.

My doe rabbit trio in the process of building a new large bed above this Asian plum.

A new Euro plum whip backed by those pretty native azaleas I mentioned earlier.  We now have quite a collection of colorful plums, and I'm just getting started...

You gotta have nuts too.  I mean, in the garden.  (Or to do what we did in the tent.  Either way.)  This is a Chinese chestnut holding down the hillside above the near-future chicken yard.  I'll be adding in some blight-resistant American chestnuts soon, a pair of pecans and an almond or two to try out in this climate, a bunch of hazelnuts, and nut pines in the dry spots. 

Bridging kitchen garden and big garden tours, I've included one shot of hard structural changes.  We added in a 120 gallon propane tank last fall that supplies a gas cooktop and a space heater to back up the old wood cookstove (which worked brilliantly all winter, by the way, for heating and cooking).  I also moved the water tank from below the house to this spot above the house, trying to get more pressure to garden hoses (and potentially a kitchen sink).  It's now ready to be plumbed into the near side of the roof for rainwater collection, which should happen pretty soon.

Picture's a little shaky, sorry, but you've seen this garden before.  Only, each year it moves more toward perennial fruit and herb production, and away from veggies.

Elephant garlic, old raspberries, comfrey, new raspberries, and a whole bunch of garlic (and a few vagrant broccolis that didn't get the message about the fruit/herb thing).

35' of raspberries in their third season.  Should get a full yield this year, and last year's wasn't bad...raspberry jam for Christmas anyone?  To go with the blueberry and blackberry of last year?

This is 35' of new raspberries planted last fall out of the other bed.  (Recently weeded, so a bit ugly, sorry.)  This will give us a summer raspberry snack while they get established.  We hacked the old crop back to get one big fall crop out of this primocane variety, instead of the summer crop it bears on old wood and fall crop on primocanes.

We're slowly building up stocks of the herbs we use most, and comfrey deserves its spot at the top of that list.  Despite recent FDA propaganda (don't worry, if you haven't heard the new slander of comfrey from the establishment, give it time), comfrey is one of the most useful plants on Earth, and one of the brightest stars in our herbal lineup from Small Batch Garden.  Lavender, garlic maybe, few plants should be loved more.  I hate the FDA.  With all my heart.

Speaking of garlic!  I'm growing a whole bunch of 3 varieties this year.  More than I probably should, considering my limited space.  But we should have an ample supply for my garlic-loving household to eat (children included), to plant next year, and to sell some for seed stock.  Funny thing, I planted exactly 365 cloves.  Accidentally.  

Big sweet blackberries coming along nicely, already in flower.  I should be doubling or tripling them this season.

Lots of great blueberries.  But this is not the big crop!  This is the snack aisle...
There's a long mound of strawberries to the right, and a long mound of asparagus to the right of that.

Aren't these pretty?  Just some native woodland irises.

View of the 'stead from down the hill.  We haven't made a real impression on the landscape yet, but we're getting there.

And that's a wrap!
I got mono a month ago - worst thing ever - and it set me back hard on spring preparations.  One more reason to focus on perennial food crops!!  I'm just now beginning to feel better, but I have every intention of kicking a lot of ass the rest of this year.  So much to do, so I better get to it.  But I'll stop back by and catch you up again as soon as I can.

Happy Spring!  Enjoy those gardens.
Tripp out.