February 2008 Archives

Not the only ones

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Our Fedco seeds arrived today, along with a cheerful letter. Apparently it's a good time to be in the seed business:

Our customers have been thinking spring for a while. You have made the last four weeks unprecedented in our history. Over this span we've registered $403,000 in seed sales, more than 100K ahead of the corresponding period last year...

And why?

It feels like we are at the cutting edge of a sea change in people's daily lives. Maybe it is impact of record oil prices, the dawning of true acceptance of the possible consequences of global warning, the renewed interest in local foods inspired by Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Slow Foods and others, whatever the reasons, we have not seen growth like this since Y2K. And while I knew back then that the cause was ephemeral, I have a very different feeling about this surge of interest. Recent articles in the New York Times suggesting a renewed dedication to self-reliance and a sudden reluctance to continue going deeper into debt are resonating.

It's great to hear this, though I didn't really think we were joining a trend. Who knows?


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On Saturday, Angelika and I walked down to the Cornell Herpetological Society's show in Varna, and got to see some snakes, lizards, and frogs.

One of the more interesting creatures we heard about - but didn't see - was the red-bellied snake, which interested us primarily because it eats slugs. We have armies of slugs here, so slug-eaters, especially slug-eaters who don't want extra helpings of vegetables, are welcome.

We'll probably be adding some more rock piles to the landscape. Even if we don't attract red-bellied snakes, which I've never seen here, they'll be good for other snakes as well.

We have quite a set of predators here that we're hoping to encourage. The cats feast on various rodents. The dogs seem mostly good for scaring things off, like an occasional deer, if they're awake and notice. (Sprocket does help the cats sometimes, though.) We have garter snakes in pretty large quantities, and I remember seeing a big snake eating a still-kicking toad a couple of years ago. The chickens aren't vegetarian - they love eating bugs!

I'm also planning to finally get my bat box installed this spring, which will add some flying predators to the mix.

We do worry about predators who'd like to eat our chickens and ducks. We know there are foxes, skunks, opossums, and racoons around, and we hear coyotes occasionally. Bears have moved to within a few miles of us, and may prove to be a challenge eventually.

It's going to be an interesting ecosystem, and will probably give us the occasional headache - but it still sounds like a lot more fun than the usual just plain garden.

Somehow, the first set of seeds to arrive came from the furthest place, Territorial, out in Oregon.

I don't think any of these were seeds I was planning to start indoors, so they'll just have to be patient, but I now have wild garden mustards, New Zealand spinach, Italian dandelion, beets, and poppies waiting to grow.

I spent a fair amount of time last night reading more about ducks. I'm no longer convinced that the space I'm planning for the ducks is big enough to hold ten ducks without them wrecking the place, but I guess we'll see what happens, and whether I can move them around the yard and the garden some more. Apart from that question, and the need to ensure that they have fresh water all the time, ducks sound like a lot more fun than chickens.

(We might be able to move some of them out to the orchard, where there's a pond, in summer, but I don't think there's a reliable winter water source out there, and I'd rather have them here in any event.)

Ordering things to grow


I managed to order the list of seeds, plus a few extra ones. (I added a few items for a polyculture from Gaia's Garden that I'd forgotten to include.)

Total costs came to $21.25 for Territorial (though I added some flowers), $116.40 at High Mowing Seeds, and $30.40 at Fedco Seeds.

I also ordered two Mulberry bushes and three tarragon plants from Fedco Trees for $64.00, and asparagus, shallots, leeks, aronia, and horseradish from Miller Nurseries for $70.20. Those weren't on the seed list, because they're all plants. I still have to put together an order for St. Lawrence Nurseries, which will be expensive because I'm getting a bunch of lingonberries.

The nice thing about the non-seed purchases is that most of it (except for the shallots and leeks) is perennials, so these won't likely be recurring costs. I'll probably also visit The Plantsmen nearby for similar things. Eventually I'd like to know how to collect seeds to reduce the seed costs generally, but I don't think this is the year to learn. (I have too much else to learn.)

We also placed an order for ten Cayuga ducks and twenty-five chickens from McMurray Hatchery, for a total of $126.15. Six of the chickens are Buff Orpington hens for Mary Ann, sixteen are Silver-Laced Wyandotte hens, and three are Silver-Laced Wyandotte roosters. The minimum order for ducks was ten and for chickens, twenty-five. The ducks were the most expensive, at $4.11 for straight run, while the Wyandotte roosters were a mere $1.27 each. I'm expecting most or all of the Wyandottes to move out to the orchard later this year.

I'm also thinking that I should spend some time focusing on plants (like the mulberry bushes) that are largely for the chickens and ducks, because my local feed supplier warns of increasing prices. I can't imagine that that problem is going to go away, and I think it means we'll have to limit the number of birds we keep here. (Angelika can keep a lot more in the orchard, where there's room to pasture them.)

Next, I need to figure out what infrastructure I'm building this year - trellises, hutches, coops, cages, fences, and so on. Josh had an idea for a greenhouse that's especially intriguing. Again, at least that stuff lasts a while!

I just realized that the title of this post has a couple of meanings, and I remember a Frog and Toad story in which Frog tells Toad that he's frightening his poor seeds in an effort to get him to be patient about them coming up. Toad, of course, goes a bit overboard, but everything works out in the end.

Latest list


Here's where we are after a long time with the earlier list and seed catalogs:

Onions - greenHigh Mowing (HM)Evergreen Hardy2670
ShallotsHMAmbition F1 Harvest2690
CarrotsHMScarlet Nantes2340
TomatoesHMCosmonaut Volkov3060
Green beansHMBlue Lake Pole2155
Lima beansFedcoJackson's Wonder Lima311JW
PeppersFedcoPurple Beauty3722PB
PeppersFedcoJimmy Nardello's OG3730JO
CornFedcoSilver Queen6585SQ
Squash - winterHMDelicata2950
Squash - winterHMSpaghetti2945
Corn SaladFedcoVerte de Cambrai3102VC
Corn SaladFedcoLarge-Leaf Round3114LL
CabbageHMRed Express2369
CeleryFedcoRedventure OG3630RO
CeleriacFedcoDiamante Celeriac3644DC
EndiveFedcoTres Fine Maraichere3644DC
ChicoryFedcoDella Catalogna2046DC
ChicoryFedcoPan Di Zucchero3048PZ
CressFedcoWrinkled Crinkled Crumpled Cress OG3056
CucumberHMGreen Finger2425
Italian DandelionTerritorialCatalogna FrastagliataMS587
KohlrabiFedcoEarly White Vienna3475WV
ParsnipFedcoHarris Model2310HM
Hamburg ParsleyFedcoHamburg Parsley2301HM
Peas/Snow PeasHMSugar Daddy2764
Snow PeasHMOregon Sugar Pod2750
Radish - daikonHMMiyashige White Daikon2862
SpinachHMBloomsdale Longstanding2880
SpinachHMGiant Winter2885
ChardHMRainbow Mix2350
Summer SquashHMYellow Summer Crookneck2910
Bok ChoiHMPrize Choy2513
Tat SoiFedcoTat Soi OG3245TO
French SorrelFedcoBroad-leaved3192BL
New Zealand SpinachTerritorialNew Zealand SpinachMS489
MustardTerritorialWild Garden MustardsMU527
NasturtiumHM"Dwarf Jewel"7160
SunflowerHMAutumn Beauty Mix7096
CalendulaHMFlashback Mix2850
RadishHMCherry Belle7096
LettuceHMGourmet Mix2610
BeansHMGold Rush2232

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle


Angelika and I took a short trip to Corning today to give a talk on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life at the Southeast Steuben County Library's Books Sandwiched In program.

I started out by talking about the book, and a bit about related books. I probably talked too much about making food central in life and central in culture as a food center, but overall I think it went pretty well. (I've put my notes in the extended part of this story.)

I like the book as a whole, though I can see where it rubs some people the wrong way. It's not exactly a novel, not exactly a gardening book, not exactly a cookbook, not exactly a nonfiction book on food. It's not where we got the idea of eating locally - that was Deep Economy - but it's a good place to look if you're thinking about it.

After talking about the Kingsolver experience, we talked about the St.Laurent experience. We hadn't particularly planned out what we were going to say, but our improvisation worked out pretty well. I think the most interesting part was realizing that most of the things it seems like we should have missed, we really don't miss. We've had a few problems finding things like NY or PA oils and oats - I need to try looking harder - but the one and only thing that's proven genuinely impossible to substitute for is chocolate. Nutella, especially, but being able to gather chocolate only as a gift from other people has really changed the way we relate to it.

One fun part was a bit of a shift from talking about our gardening (we passed around pictures of the chickens, and currants, and other fun things) and eating to talking about Angelika's plans for the orchard. That attracted a lot of interest from the audience.

In questions, people were interested in a lot of specific things, like which seed catalogs we'd recommend, and I meant to bring a pile but forgot. I did bring some books to share. There were a lot of questions about fruits and nuts, which Angelika was better at answering.

Since the talk, I've been thinking about a question we had about what we'll do when the year is over. I don't think we'll change much, though I doubt it'll be formal rules. We're eating better and more diverse food than we were before, and I've learned a huge amount about what I like to eat that's going to find practical implementation in our garden. Moving explicitly to things that can grow around here changes the way I think about food, but more specifically the way I think about my own garden plot. That list of possible things to plant includes a lot of things I hadn't considered in the past.

It was a lot of fun to get to talk about gardening and local eating in the place where I first felt like a local, and who knows? Maybe there'll be more blueberry bushes and nut trees springing up around Corning.

Difficult terrain


I spent yesterday's garden time in a somewhat different style, reading an article in the April 1999 issue of New York History called "Farm to Forest," by Sally McMurry, a professor at Penn State.

I'd been looking for this article for a while, and finally found the issue kind of buried in a bookcase. It looks at the detailed diaries of Theobald D'Allarmi's farm in the northeast corner of Oneida County, on the edge of the Adirondacks. D'Allarmi, a wealthy immigrant from Bavaria, moved to this spot and set up a farm. His diaries include descriptions of what grew and where, as well as detailed maps. (He didn't, unfortunately, report much on the people he employed.)

D'Allarmi's story is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. First, of course, I'm jealous of his ability to create maps and keep track of what he was doing from season to season. That's something I definitely need to work on.

What I'm most interested in, though, is his focus on a piece of land that we would today consider marginal at best. At the time, though, it seemed attractive enough:

the United States in the mid-nineteenth century was an agrarian nation whose population placed few limits on the future of agriculture. It was generally accepted, for example, that forest cover alone was no reason to judge land unfit for cultivation. On the contrary, people believed that tree cover indicated fertile land; thus the prairies were for a time thought to be barren. In forested areas, oak, chestnut, walnut, and hickory were thought to signify good soil. Otsego County promoter William Cooper, author of A Guide in the Wilderness, regarded bass, butternut, maple, elm, red beech, and hemlock as signifying "good soil for both grain and grass," but warned prospective emigrants to avoid land with a preponderance of "mossy-beech", pitch pine, birch, and black or white oak.

Neither was a hilly location regarded as a great impediment to successful farming. Early settlers on the hill farms of New England, for example, had many reasons to prefer upland farm sites. Forested hillsides were not impenetrable as was the dense lowland cover, and drainage was better on the slopes. Some people believed that high sites were healthier. Hill country trees furnished fuel, charcoal, potash, maple sugar and syrup, and mast for roving hogs. In the early nineteenth century, irregular topography was not the liability it would become later, since hand tools did not present major problems on slopes. In an agrarian system not yet fully market-integrated, neither was access to transport as critical as it would later become. (125-6)

Even just looking around about Dryden, this is important on a number levels. The early pioneers saw this "dense forest mostly of hemlock and hard wood timber, liberally sprinkled with large trees of white pine" as a place of opportunity, and they weren't just logging here - they were farming as well.

Today it seems easy to look at where the forests are as a sign of land with problems, but that's substantially the result of human activity. We didn't try to sustain the original forests - we chopped them down and replaced them with pastures, and when the stumps finally disappeared the soil flowed downhill. The pocket of relatively good Class III soil that I'm sitting on lost its top 4-6 inches of soil earlier, and knowing that the steep forest behind me used to be an open pasture makes me wonder just how much water used to pour off of it. We used up the land and then let the trees come back to it.

At the same time, though, while I can't share my predecessors enthusiasm for clearcutting everything to create open spaces, I can't help but share their interest in working on land that clearly isn't perfect. D'Allarmi came to his land from a place that was reasonably similar:

This site possessed the same fundamental characteristics as the place where D'Allarmi was born and raised, the little Bavarian village of Bernried am Starnberger See, about forty-five miles southwest of Munich. There, too, the settlement practically spills into the lake; there, too, it occupies a slope leading up and away from the water. Bernried's elevation of 1,960 feet and latitude of 47 degrees 52 minutes are not too different from Round Lake's 1,400 feet and 48 degrees 20 minutes.... In 1857, he had little reason to think that his selection of land was a poor choice. (127)

Of course, his land turned out not to be ideal for the kind of crop-farming he wanted to do, and his reporting gets bleaker about his crops while his interests turn to more successful reforesting, making it look more like Bavaria, and to hosting visitors. He wasn't alone in this:

This discouraging experience was widely shared all over the Northeast, and indeed many up-country farms were being abandoned. The very attributes which had made hill farms attractive in the settlement period became liabilities in the age of railroads, mechanized farming, and capitalist methods. Remote from markets and unsuited to mechanization, many hill farms reverted to forest and the people migrated to cities, to valley farms, or westward. (133)

There's a lot to think about here. On the one hand, the story this tells is a common one, a warning not to try to grow food on hillsides. On the other hand, looking at D'Allarmi's maps of neat fields, I think it's reasonable to wonder if much of his problem was trying to grow crops in a way that was very different from what the land had supported previously. I'd be interested to see his diaries to see if he paid much attention to soil, whose eventual collapse is noted in the article. He did have kind of an advantage for a while, though, in not really needing to be connected to broader markets that demanded mechanized efficiencies that his farm couldn't support.

Sometimes there just isn't a clear message. I guess we'll find out how this story compares to the story of my smaller plot when we find out how my story finishes.

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