Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Ground: Making a New Garden Bed

To begin with the end, a sunken raised bed, canted to the sun.

 2012 was a rough year in many ways, including gardening, but the world did not come to an end, and so another garden begins. Only a mile north of the last one, and in the same sandy loam glacial outwash soil, it's basically in the same ground. The main difference is that there is less shade, and should work out better for growing food.

With several days of rainlessness and the earth not frozen, I went out and started a new bed. I've explained before why I don't go for raised beds penned in by boards or stone, and attempted to explain why a sunken raised bed works better, but this post dispenses with the arguments and gets to work. Read on to learn how to start a garden bed and harvest some sod in the process.

10 AM. Ignore the row for beans at the right; the new bed is just a few lines cut through the sod at this point.
This yard has the advantage of a solid half day of sun, level ground, and not a bunch of trees or shrubs in the way, but the distribution of lawn is not what I'd like. The best garden spot is covered in grass, and an area where I'd like some grass is bare. So one objective here is to redistribute some sod. I know, redistribution is a dirty word to free market folks, but I am an unrepentant sodcialist. 

To harvest some sod means that just ripping away is not the way to go, and so I adjusted how I start the garden bed to yield pieces a bit over a foot wide, with enough roots to survive. The diagram below gives an idea of the sequence. 

The bed may expand later, but for now it's 25 feet long and 3 wide, and this image is looking end-on. First, I take the shovel and cut four lines down the length of the bed, as deep as the blade will go. Then, I take a pickax and peel back sod from the center section, cutting mats of sod about 18 inches square. If you want more, skip the middle two cuts and peel off the entire surface. Take the time to yank dandelions free as you harvest the sod; this job will never be easier.

As the green peels away, shake free some of the topsoil and earthworms (grass does not need them the way your garden does). I also chunk out some fo the soil beneath with the pickax to loosen it up, but because the soil is not too clayey and I hate cutting worms to pieces, I don't work too hard at it and this middle section is not cultivated as deeply as the side sections will be.

Speaking of which, the digging on the sides is done, and after you've skinned whatever sod you want, the work consists of shaking soil (and more worms!) free of the grass. I try and keep dirt toward the center of the bed. The grass will go in a heap in a shady part of the yard to slowly rot, or become a berm, or whatever. I am a miser when it comes to organic material, and will not put it, weedy as it may be, in a city greenwaste bin. In my old yard, I piled years' worth of grass by the fence, and eventually it became a berm where I planted berries.

2 PM. Done, with a side of sod.
At this point, all that's left is to go through with a garden rake. Lap after lap, I work up one side and down the other. First, the aim is to break up clumps of soil and remove roots and grass. Then, the job is sculpting the earth. I keep a bit of ditch on either side, and slope the bed surface down to the south to gain a few degrees advantage in soaking up sun. 

Blessed with nice easy soil, no rocks, and no freeze, the whole process took no more than 4 hours. The result is a bed the length of one soaker hose, amenable to making a hoop house (how? look here), and ready for planting. I'll probably toss in some early greens just to make use of the ground, but later in the spring, I'm pretty sure this will be the tomato bed. It may get wider to accomodate carrots or somethign else that doesn't need hoop house cover, or it may just stay the way it is. That's the beauty of working with this soil and not boxing myself in with a raised bed.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Recycled Christmas Tree Post

Every year before Christmas, newsrooms in cruise mode revive the great Real Tree vs Plastic Tree debate. Every year as Hannukah kicks off, my college room-mate attempts to understand why so many goy insist on killing a fir tree every year. After all, Jesus only killed a fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22), and didn't do it again every year.

In terms of appeal, fake trees win only among the extremely fastidious and the lazy, for whom cleaning up a few needles is too much of an imposition, so the articles in recent years have often focused on the environmental aspect of the debate. Initially, the ersatz Tannenaum contingent had the upper hand, asserting that cutting a tree down every year damaged forests, whereas plastic trees last forever. 

But nearly all live (then dead) trees now come from farms like this one, just outside of Olympia. People like me come and cut trees, and the farmer plants more. A recent study shows that if the tree farmers don't kill the groundcover plants between trees, such farms are good for carbon sequestration--not as good as a forest, but still significantly better than fields of annual crops or pasture lands (and bonus: no cattle farts), which is what most Christmas tree farms were previously.

In my case--recognizing that this will not be true in all parts of the country--there's the added benefit that the round trip to get the tree consumed less than a gallon of gas. Plus, I'm supporting the local economy, helping a farmer make ends meet, and helping forestall the loss of farmland to development. Because this is an ongoing operation, new trees replacing old every year, it's a relatively stable habitat for birds, deer, and other critters that like something between grassland and forest. No, it's not pristine, but it has some ecological value, and it beats the hell out of a lot of the alternatives.

Meanwhile, fake trees are made of petrochemicals and metal ripped from the earth, processed in factories that consume more oil and create toxic waste, packaged in cardboard boxes (killing trees! the horror) and more plastic, and shipped from China the trucked to your locality. The carbon footprint is large, and the sequestration value zero. If these trees lasted forever, the footprint might be amortized, but fake trees make their way into landfills, not from generation to generation. 

[A Digression: The same goes for ornaments on the tree. If you are stingy and nostalgic like I was this year, then you have ornaments that have somehow stayed out of landfills for decades. A bunch are made from Christmas cards and chicken pot pie tins recycled when I was in second grade, waylaid from the waste stream for twoscore years.] 

All this should be famliar to those of you who reard or read reports on the Real vs Fake theme before Christmas, but what about after? Fake ones go back in a box or into the garbage, so making them less environmentally harmful is a matter of holding on for as long as possible before trashing them.

For real trees, the environmental impact can vary a lot depending on what you do after the holidays. At one end of the spectrum, you  could burn it. Torching a dry fir can be a great show, but it exhales the carbon it breathed in from the atmosphere for years right back into the air in a few minutes. You could douse the flame before it consumes the wood and bury the charcoal, in which case the carbon could stick around for tens of thousands of years. 

Many counties and municipalities have programs to mulch Christmas trees. Olympia even comes around to pick them up. The chipped trees become mulch in parks and in some cases may be sold or given to citizens; this extends the useful life of the tree, provides a local source of mulch with a lower cost and fuel use, and ends up in the soil. Sequestration time varies depending on conditions and from needle to branch to bole, but again something is better than nothing, and the breakdown feeds soil microbes, fungi, arthropods, and so on--it is carbon recycling, not emission. 

I'm stingy with biomass, and would no sooner give the city my tree than I would my compost. At some point in January, I take the tree outside, stand and all. This being the maritime Northwest, it can stay there looking green and alive until April or May, and in years past I have placed to to seem like part of the landscaping. Some years, as Spring comes round, I cut off the boughs and lay them among the blueberries as a nice acidic mulch; I may come back the next year and toss the skeletal branches aside. The trunk gets tossed in back for the native blackberries to clamber over, and eventually to return to the soil. Other years, I remove the stand and toss the whole tree in back. Birds hide in it, berries climb through, and the soil beneath gets better year by year. 

I rationalize habitually, but in this case I really do think that my choice of tree and my treatment of it after the holidays is as good a way to go environmentally as most of the alternatives. A live tree, planted out after Christmas, would be better, but I don't own any ground to plant in, and I don't know many people who have the space to do that year after year. No tree at all could be better, maybe, but it sounds like no fun. Besides, I want my local tree farm to stay in business.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Garlic Winter

If you tuned into the Garlic Calendar, then you know that the cloves sense the Winter Solstice, and commence to sprouting, threatening your year's supply of homegrown flavor. But I'm such a procrastinator that I cannot follow my own advice, and it was only in the new year that I got around to peeling and storing the dozens of cloves that were sitting in the garage. Just these couple of weeks had the garlic doing this:

Hot hot garlic porn, or just reproduction?

While they're starting on the new cycle that would birth a new plant, the cloves are not yet too far gone (besides, I kinda like the look of slices with the green circle in the center). But before the sprouts get as long as the cloves from which they spring, before the flesh gets soft, before pungent aroma becomes putrid regret, I need to somehow stop the process. In years past, this has been a matter of dropping peeled cloves into a jar and drowning them in olive oil. I did that again, but this time I'm trying a couple of other methods.

Salt and the earth.
Here's experiment #1. Good old fashioned salting. Pour pickling salt into a jar, put in a layer of peeled cloves, then bury them in salt, then more garlic, more salt, get the picture. The cloves are firm, and I did not irrigate, so I don't expect osmosis to create a saline slush, but it's an experiment. For reference, the majority of the cloves in the first photo and a bunch of salt filled a pint jar. I'll check back in later to let you know if this is a fail, but I suspect that what will happen is that the cloves stay intact, and I get a batch of garlic salt.

Experiment #2 is yet to be done. I had a bunch of large-cloved heads of garlic this year; some are elephant garlic, but not necessarily all. The plan is to roast them, smoosh the result, spread it out on parchment paper, and dehydrate it. I'm aiming for something like fruit leather, a hide of garlicky goodness that I can snip into strips or drop into the pot whole whenever I want that twice-roasted garlic flava.

And then there's this, the old standby: cloves in oil. Chopped or pureed garlic tastes harsh and goes bad quicker. Drowning while cloves in oil and keeping them out of direct sunlight seems to halt the sprouting process. I'll remove the rubber gasket from the jar above so that the occasional fermentation fart can escape. In time, the cloves will soak up the oil and become beautifully translucent, edible amber. 

There are other ways to preserve garlic, but I don't like them (pickling? I just throw some in the cuke pickles I make, and that's plenty for my taste), or I don't know them. If you want to write in with others, I'll listen.

So if you have not yet dealt with your garlic, do it now!