Monday, June 24, 2013

The Most Glorious Window

Our dear friend Stephanie Podulke surprised us with the most incredible piece of art yesterday -   a large stained glass mandala depicting our Squash Blossom Farm logo!  Here it is, set in the west window of the living room set, with light streaming though as the sun began to set.
And here it is in the north window where it will be hung. Stephanie chose opalescent glass so the colors will be vibrant even when the light is not shining directly through -- she knew that we watch the sunrise from the east windows and the bird feeding activity from the west windows, so would probably hang it in the north window.  Plus, when this  beautiful mandala fills the north window, it is what you see across the room as you enter the front door of the house.

Stephanie designed the window and cut the glass, and her key assistant at Rochester Stained Glass, Darin Smith, constructed it. He framed it in the twisted lead edging that was one of Mike Podulke's innovations -perfect for a vining squash blossom design!

We are so thrilled to have this spectacular work gracing our home. Thank you, thank you, Stephanie and Darin! Wow. Just, wow.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Ironing out the Aquaponics Chemistry

Since connecting up the growing towers over the past week, the algae bloom in the pond has dissipated, thanks to the plants taking up the nutrients. Now you can see the fish again! The water is reddish-brown, however, because Chris added chelated iron to satisfy an iron deficiency for the plants. The brown color will eventually clear as the water is replaced with water from the roof water catchment system. These fish are tilapia, but they look more like goldfish in the reddish water. Starting a new pond is always a challenge, getting the ecosystem in balance.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Grandma J.

I just came in all sweaty and dirty from a long day gardening in the humid weather, thinking about my grandma, Bertha Johnson. This is her on her 80th birthday. She lived to be 92 and was vibrant  and independent until her last few months. She traveled to New Zealand - the final destination on her dream travel list - when she was 90. 

My grandma was an irrepressible gardener and I learned to love digging in the dirt from her. I was so lucky to grow up with two grandmothers nearby, my paternal grandma living next door throughout my teenage years (she was more of a houseplant gardener), and Grandma J, my maternal grandma,  just a short walk away on Lake Bemidji.  

Grandma J. had me working with her in the garden even as a very young child.  I would help her start tomato seeds, in eggshell halves set in the egg cartons, in her little screened-in porch that served as a greenhouse.  My sisters and I cultivated the rows of carrots and other veggies, walking backward so as to not leave footprints, and she was patient when we accidentally weeded out the starts. I learned to soak and inoculate bean seeds before planting.  She paid me a penny per dandelion dug from her yard, as long as I got the entire root. We planted sweet corn the Native American way, in hills of four seeds with a fish buried beneath.  Occasionally in the  evenings  Grandma would take me fishing for little perch in the weedy area of the lake in front of her house, not to eat, but just to bury in her garden and enrich the soil.  

She and my grandpa built their house on the lake when I was in  kindergarten, and for the rest of her life she worked to transform what was essentially beach sand into rich garden loam by adding tons of  compost, sheep manure and mulching with her former neighbors' grass clippings and leaves. She watered her gardens with warm, nutrient-rich lake water. She worked out a deal with the resort owners up and down the lakeshore--they would haul their guests' fish cleaning guts to her garden daily during the summer  and dig them in wherever she directed them. 

Her garden was spectacular, a show-stopper, but always a work in progress. She called her style "hodgepodge" - vegetables mixed with abandon with bulbs, berries,  fruit trees and flowers.  And weeds. Always more weeding to be done.  She read Organic Gardening magazine and once told me that she didn't know what the hoopla was about organic gardening, that was the way she always had gardened.  She planted by the moon and also used companion planting strategies. Although she really did not like earthworms, she appreciated them in her garden.  She disliked rabbits. She collected rain water in a barrel on the corner of her house - good soft water for watering her seedlings.  I realize now she was using permaculture techniques!

Another trait I must have inherited from Grandma J was a love of reuse, recycling and repurposing. Her garden was full of garage sale  finds - old birdhouses, wicker chairs, benches - that she repainted and refurbished decades before Flea Market gardening was a hot garden trend. She saved boxes of salad dressing and ketchup bottles for  "vases"  that we grandkids would clean out every summer by swishing a bit of pea gravel and vinegar water inside.  She would sometimes take my sisters and me to the Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone,  but then ask us to fish out the plastic dishes from garbage --the sundae cups were great for starting seeds and the parfait glasses were perfect for  putting stems of flowers in for the county fair.  

Or, I should say "fairs." Grandma entered every county fair in northern Minnesota every summer and she strived to have an entry in every category of flower, vegetable, herb, berry, jam, jelly, pickle, and flower arrangement. Back then you would win $1 for a blue ribbon, $.75 for red and $.50 for white. Maybe $5 for a grand champion purple!  She had a closet full of boxes full of ribbons from all the fairs over the years. I told her it would be so cool to wallpaper her house with her ribbons! She earned enough money from her fair winnings and from selling plant starts (dug from her garden) at the end of her driveway each spring to pay for her world travels each winter.

When I am gardening now, trying to figure out what to plant where or how to tackle a problem with weeds or insects or soil, I often find myself  thinking "What would Grandma do?"  When I hear the chug-a-chug-a-p-r-r-r-r of the lawn sprinkler, I often flash back to  gardening with her.  Wearing my cropped pants, sleeveless blouse, plastic shoes and gardening gloves, I  realize I am wearing pretty much her exact summer attire. When I come up with an innovative  garden repurposing idea I think how she would appreciate it. Oh how she would have loved having a high tunnel to extend the northern Minnesota growing season and get a head start for the fair! I wish, wish, wish she could see my farm and gardens and know how much all those summers gardening with her influenced me and how much I love growing things, thanks to her. 

Several years ago, Rog and I were on a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.  Being in such a vast, quiet place without the constant bombardment of radios, phones, computers and other such stimuli, we all found ourselves having very vivid dreams.  One night, in the wee hours of morning,  my grandma appeared and said "I am so proud of you." That was all.  It felt more like a visitation than a dream.  So maybe she does know. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Aquaponics and Other Planting Strategies

The aquaponics system is nearly completely set up! Last night, Chris began planting the towers with little starts he has been nurturing under grow lights in his basement.
Each zp-start tower has a vertical slot into which two layers of rather coarse fiber growing medium are slid. A felt-like polyester fabric is sandwiched between the layers of growing medium to wick the water, which I presume would  flow through the medium very fast otherwise.
Then the seedlings are sandwiched in and slid into the slot.
This morning when Chris stopped by on his way to work the seedlings (assorted lettuces and basils) he planted last night looked very happy to be out of those confining starter trays and stretching their  leaves and roots.

Already overnight, the seedlings had begin to turn and grow upward. As they get larger and heavier,  gravity will  counteract the upward reaching and they will grow more sideways.
Here is a view of the growing tower system in the greenhouse so far. Eventually  towers will hang along the entire center aisle of the greenhouse.  It will shade some of our growing area, but hopefully we can still grow some plants such as lettuces  there. It is all an experiment!
When the  plants in a tower are ready to harvest, the entire tower will be removed and set up in the produce section of a store. Customers will clip off the still growing bunches of greens (about as fresh a you can get!)  When they are all harvested, Chris will switch out the towers for new ones and replant the harvested towers. He expects to have produce ready for sale  in July!
You can follow Chris's progress at his website and blog, Fresh With Edge.
AS Chris was working on the aquaponics system, Rog was  working on installing  gutters along the south side of the barn for a water catchment system. It will provide water for the pond/aquaponics/greenhouse and  even better, prevent so much water from draining into our sacrifice pasture (see previous post about mud!) Before hanging the gutters, Rog had to cut off a strip of the metal roof with a sawzall, working on a tall ladder.  I could not even watch this scary procedure!
In other gardening news, Cadence's  squashes and melons in strawbales have sprouted. They line the west edge of the greenhouse and the idea is to train them to grow over the edge onto the ground outside the  high tunnel. Planting them in the strawbales is our strategy for dealing with such unbearably wet, heavy soil this spring. As cool as the spring has been, we thought they would also appreciate the added warmth of the high tunnel.
We have now had three days of warm, sunny weather (knock on wood) and the tomatoes are responding exuberantly. I think they have at least doubled in size in those three days.
MIraculously, the potatoes did not rot in the saturated ground and  also look healthy. (So do the weeds.)
The raspberries are smothered with buds, just beginning to flower. Fingers crossed for a bumper crop!
This morning at 8 a.m. when I took this photo, the bushes were already  buzzing with honeybees working the berries.
Which reminds me, I  must do a little beekeeping this afternoon.
P.S. Thank you to  all the wonderful folks who stopped by yesterday to  visit the farm, shop in the store and at the artisan booths, listen to music, and/or eat pizza with us!

And special thanks to the musicians - The Nodding Wild Onions, Cadence  and Israel, and Jon Sievers!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Quagmire

I am sitting here writing this post, and relaxing with a well-earned glass of white zin and a few crackers with hummus. I just removed these very muddy boots after spending the entire afternoon dealing with the Quagmire, the deep muddy area at the intersection of our upper and lower pastures and sacrifice pasture (which, I hasten to add, means the grass is sacrificed, not the cows.) Oh man, my back and elbows are  tired.
The entire sacrifice yard is a mucky mess (note the green standing water), but this is the very worst spot, between the gate and post. It is the place where I sank in deeper than the top if my muck boots a couple weeks ago and wondered if I would be able to extricate myself,  and where  the poor  cows have been sinking past their knees. Yesterday when I moved the cows to the  front yard after a couple days' sunshine, Cadence and I were horrified to see LaFonda sink up to her shoulders in this spot!  She could get hurt - or even stuck, and then what would we do? So last night I made the cows stay in the  front yard all night, not wanting to risk them sinking in the quagmire.

Today was nice but a storm is forecast for tonight, I wanted to deal with this somehow and allow the cows back to the  lower pasture so they can access the loafing shed if it is a severe storm.  First, I  removed a section of fence so they  could get to the lower pasture without having to walk through the gate and deep mud.
I had researched online what to do to resolve the problem of deep mud inthe  sacrifice  yard - the most  definitive answer was to  clear away the mud, put a layer of geotextile material, and then layer sand or other ground over it. This was not the  best solution for us because who knows when this earth will ever dry out enough to layer geotextile fabric over the pudding-like surface? Another  idea was to cover with deep mulch - I had already dumped several 50-lb. bags of wood chips on and they just disappeared into the depths. Yet another suggestion was to add organic material, and since I had a big pile of half-composted chicken bedding nearby, this is the strategy I selected.  Last month, Cadence and Israel did the spring cleaning of the  chicken coop forMothers Day  and because the wheelbarrow could not make it through the muck, had piled the winter bedding (fine-shredded pine, straw and chicken manure) along the south side of the pasture fence. So, for three hours I moved the pile, scoop by scoop, to the  muck. All in all, I  put about a foot deep of half-composted chicken bedding into the mud and stepped it in.

I have a few scenarios of what might happen next:
a) as the chicken bedding  decomposes it will leave little air pockets which will allow worms and/or roots to establish and create openings for the water to flow through the heavy clay for drainage,
b) when the sun comes out and dries up the water, the heavy  clay soil with fine pine bedding in it will bake into some sort of adobe-like material and harden, allowing the rain to run over  the top, not sit on the  surface,
c) the bedding will just disappear into the clay and not make any difference,
d) the pine beddig will absorb water and expand, causing the area of the ground to get higher and essentially dam the drainage from uphill and exacerbate the problem.

Being an optimist, I choose a or b, but I respect the law of unexpected consequences, so it could be none of the above. I realized as I was shoveling that we may have actually inadvertently caused the quagmire to be worse when we hired our neighbor to scrape away the  mud layer and pile it in the  southwest corner of the loafing shed yard.  Perhaps  that contributed to the  pooling of water at the gate that would have otherwise drained gradually down the slope. In a more typical season we probably wouldn't have had an issue but in this year of unrelenting rain,  having heavy, non-draining, clay soil is sure challenging. It would be helpful to have a civil engineering degree to be a farmer.

I closed the gate and barricaded the old route to the lower pasture with two long criss-crossedboards quickly set in place (I did not dare to step into in the muck for more than a moment or I might have sunk to my waist.) I figured the cows would not choose to go through the deep muck if they had an alternative, but I figured wrong.  Even after I had guided them through  the new route once, both  LaFonda and Jitterbug waded through the thigh-deep deep muck(so at least I had improved it some--before they were sinking chest-deep) and climbed over the barricade rather than taking the new route -such is the power of routine for a cow.  However, a short time later, they both came running joyously through the new, opening in the fence, kicking up their heels - they seemed happy to have an alternative to the  quagmire, and LaFonda even came over and licked me as if to say thank you. I am relieved that  if we get that big storm tonight my cows may not get stuck in the muck,.
A couple of sweet items from the past week: The CSA Box-  a bit slender in quantity but a nice variety of  veggies, including wild morels.

The peonies are  loaded with buds
and the buds are about to open.
The first two blossoms did open today and smelled absolutely divine--that vintage peony fragrance.  I picked them and brought inside to perfume the house.  Hoping tonight's  forecasted storm doesn't flatten the peony bushes..
This floribunda rose in the new bee and butterfly perennial garden is  exuberantly blooming.
The backside of the  flower petals are nearly white, which  makes the rose look like the petals are outlined. Sweet!