Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Starting the 2015 Growing Season

Planting season is upon us!!! It's like a race to see who can get out of the starting gate first!

We have the raised beds on the lot in shape for planting! We also just planted some herbs up at the house; dill, basil and rosemary; which we got from the 26th Annual Asheville Herb Fest on May 1st - 3rd. In the two large raised beds at the house we have random lettuces, water cress, garden cress, beets, chard, collards and kale planted. This is all sprouting and coming up quickly! Except for the chard. I personally feel like that bed is a dud....

Chicks! These three were supposed to be a Heritage breed..but they are looking more and more to be Bantams... Oh well! 

We do the "lasagna" style of getting our garden beds read for the season, AKA Layers! Cardboard, wood chips (Free 99!), coffee grounds, leaves, stump grindings, then top soil. Here's the progression:
Wood chips. Vital. These will decompose quickly!
Also, to get them for free or really cheap, contact a
local company that cuts down trees. They will be
more than happy to get rid of their chips!

Leaves from the previous fall - collect everyone's and put in the compost! I guarantee you will NOT regret it!

Stump Grindings. I found sooo many amazing worms
in this stuff! I got it from our local tree chopping
company for FREE! 
The final product. Topsoil on top of all the layers
I have no doubt that we will have some amazing produce
out of these beds! 

The ducks decided to help out with the garden beds as well!!! They did such great work! Probably eating all my harvested worms!

We lost hives this winter. Thankfully we have a hive left!
They are super duper busy bees! 

Who doesn't want some awesome worms in their gardens!

Well that's all for now! We will be posting more updates in the near future! Onward with Urban Farming!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Liquid Gold of Urban Beekeeping - Munchies

Pretty interesting video over on the Munchies YouTube channel about urban beekeeping.  I highly recommend checking out Munchies for anything food related, they've got some pretty entertaining videos and are a good source of inspiration for foodies of all types.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Emotions of Urban Farming

I started on this whole journey of cramming agriculture into the context of cities after becoming involved with a policy effort to allow backyard chickens in Asheville.  I was fortunate enough to be in an urban planning program at the time and was able to look at the things that I had grown up with (keeping chickens and growing food) as something that could be beneficial even in urban areas.  What I’ve found since I started is that I wasn’t prepared for the tremendous amount of work that it can be coupled with the emotions that come when things don’t always work as expected.

As we muddle through the winter, waiting to transition into the growing season when things are pretty and less muddy and there’s more visible productivity, one of the things that I’ve struggled with is the inevitability of loss and the ever looming potential of failure.  Just today, this was brought home when I opened up a bee hive (which appeared to be thriving just weeks ago) to find that the hive had been lost.  A few days ago, when cleaning up after our new baby quail, I found that one didn’t make it.  A few weeks ago, during the height of the cold, we had to move a young hen to a new part of the farm, while the other hens braved the cold, she was unable to take the stress of the move and the loss of her companions (one rooster had to be rehomed, one choose to brave a night outside the coop and met death at the mouth of an unknown predator)  And at the beginning of the winter, we had to euthanize a duck (who we had hatched from one of our own eggs) after she was unable to recover from a leg injury.  This isn’t even accounting for all the untold plant losses which we’ll discover in the spring as a result of the record cold.

Urban farming can be particularly traumatic because the micro-scale highlights the intensity of life.  The animals usually have names (although I haven’t named our bees), and they’re individually counted before they go to bed each evening.   The “farm” becomes an odd hybrid of hobby and work… of raising livestock and keeping pets.  It’s bizarre to think that for the first time in my life, I grew attached to a box of some 30,000 bees to the degree that I was saddened by their passing.  Even something as simple as a dead tree becomes more intensely meaningful when you’re made aware of your dependence on it (I’ve spent the last two year cultivating a fig tree only to have the trunk explode during our latest cold snap).  Each time something dies, be it mammal, bird, insect, or plant, I’m forced to wonder if it’s my own lack of caring that some how caused its passing.

As a result of this adventure, I’ve become more aware of the successes of agriculture (you know the simple things – eggs that have their full shells, plants that actually grow, animals that produce more value than they eat, etc.).  I’ve also become painfully aware of societies lack of knowledge regarding the failures of agriculture.  When we go into a grocery store, no matter how green and sustainable it is, we are surrounded by the misnomer that agriculture is a win-win proposition (farmers grow food, we buy it).  The reality is much more complex than that, agriculture is not only hard work… it’s emotional work that forces us to deal with the idea of loss and not succeeding on a routine basis.

So… as I continue on my journey, I have to learn to deal with loss and negative emotions as something inevitable in my struggle to learn what the hell I’m doing.  I have to learn that success doesn’t come in isolation; it’s the culmination of experience and learning to embrace the opposite of success as I work to put systems into place that brace for the mistakes of the past.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Microgreens Update

So an update on my original post where we were trying our hand at microgreens indoors.  For all intents and purposes, the experiment has worked out great.  There were a few hiccups, but thus far, we've had source from which to supplement our fresh greens for about a month now.

This picture, taken on December 2 (about 14 days after planting) shows how things started out.

These early pictures were shot before the application of any fertilizer.  It's hard to see from the picture, but the greens (with the exception of the Mibuna) came up pretty spindly (with the lower stem structure actually prutruding from the soil).  Also while everyone recommended using covers, I caution use vented covers or leave the covers off for a few hours a day (at least in this climate where our humidity is most always in excess of 50%).  Letting too much moisture form created some minor surface fungus problems which were corrected by allowing the soil to dry some.  The greens were ready to eat at this stage, but there wasn't much substance to them, so they were more of a flavoring agent than anything substantial.  The microgreens need to be watered each night, although that had to be adjusted depending on the humidity level.

At about 3 weeks, I started applying Bio Vega twice weekly (also purchased on clearance for less than $10 at Fifth Season.  The price tag for Bio Vega is high, but you only use about 8mL per gallon of water, so you get about 125 gallons of ready to use fertilizer per liter of concentrate solution.  I also started out using a mister for watering, but after about 4 weeks, I found it necessary to switch to a small watering can in order to prevent leaf rot.

At this point (about 6 weeks in), we've moved beyond microgreens and into the baby greens phase (with the exception of the Arugula which is full grown).  We've been harvesting about once a week and four flats has produced quite a bit of leafy material.  We usually harvest about a gallon bowl of greens each time.  They are best quickly sauteed and added into soups or used as a condiment on tacos.

Some of my lessons learned include:

  • Be very careful of watering levels, this is more art than science, so you have to spend some time adjusting to the growth medium.
  • Harvest carefully, if you cut below the main stem, you get tough, unchewable bits.  If you harvest about 1cm above the main stem, most of the greens will regenerate.
  • As you can see in the picture, some of the leaves yellow... It's not a huge deal and I feel this is normal as the lower leaves die off as the plant grows.
  • My best experience has been with the Bak Choi, it grows quickly and has the most substance (but it is the least flavorful).  The Fenugreek also grows well, but it has a bitter, sprout like flavor so it can only be used sparingly.
  • If you are going for baby greens, then use more conservative spacing between the plants, they are difficult to harvest if packed in too tightly.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Look what the opossum dragged in...

So not too much to this post.  I went to go take care of our ducks and chickens on "the lot" (which is a vacant lot located one house down a hill from ours in a strange little gully) this weekend and snapped this picture.  As I went to step over the fence, I noticed the weird looking duck pictured below.  He was actually quite polite around the whole ordeal and very non-confrontational.  The chickens roosting above him sleep on the fence every night until I come to tuck them in and the ducks were in their (open) house about three feet away.  He had no interest in eating the birds and the ducks (who freak out about the wind blowing too hard) were not phased leading me to believe this wasn't his first visit.  I waited a while until he lumbered off.  Personally, I struggle with trapping them and moving them since obviously by the size of him and his crossed eyes (I've always been told their eyes cross as they age), he's been living in the neighborhood for a while.  I've heard several sources claiming that opossums kill chickens, but from experience, I've never seen it.  We actually have a baby opossum that runs wild in the upper yard and he's not done anything other than terrorize the front yard.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Worm Farming...

So in working on the microgreens, and just container gardening in general, a concern that I've developed is an appropriate means of recycling the growth medium.  Many times, I've found that after I grow something in a container, the substrate is too matted with roots and other biomass to be put to immediate use... so off to the composter it goes.  Fortunately/unfortunately, we use a relatively quick method of composting consisting of 55 gallon trash cans and black soldier fly larvae.  Pictured below just to freak people out.  The picture doesn't do it justice, but we were converting about 5-10 lbs of food scraps daily to a secondary compost product (in case your wondering - chickens love black soldier fly larvae).  The little specs you see up the sides of the trash can are the black soldier fly larvae.

The issue with our current composting process was that it went far too fast and it produced a sludgy by-product that had to be worked into the soil separately with other more stable substrates (namely leaves, straw, and wood mulch).  It was by no means suitable for indoor use.  Thus under our current compost regimen, we would lose our soil substrate to become general garden soil after each crop tray (a very expensive prospect over time).  I wanted to develop a method that was capable of handling less intense composting needs (such as our trays of used soil) in a way that would allow for it to be cycled (quickly) back into indoor use.

After researching composting techniques a little more, I decided to make an indoor vermicomposter using a combined design from two videos (Video 1 and Video 2).  The overall cost is around $50 ($20 for containers and screening, $30 for around 1000 red wigglers).

I had trouble finding the worms initially, but Villagers (an urban homestead shop) was nice enough to refer me to Garden Tea Company (who not only sold worms, but delivered them to me at work at no additional charge).  We prepped the vermicomposter using a combination of shredded newspaper, leaves, and vegetable scraps over the weekend (wetting it generously using a mister and leaving it time to sit).

Today, when our worms arrived, we were able to add the worms to their new home.  Updates to come on how they like living with us.  The biggest concern at the moment is any smell issues as well as being able to maintain the temperature necessary.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Moving Indoors for the Winter

At this point, we've been forced to surrender to the frost, and, with daylight savings time having firmly set in, we've got more time for indoor activities.

I checked out two books on microgreens from our local library, Microgreens: A Guide to Growing Nutrient-Packed Greens by Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson  and Microgreens: How to Grow Nature's Own Superfood by Fionna Hill, and have been working to set up our own experiment with microgreens.

We started out with two trays (standard 10" x 20" flats with no holes) with FoxFarm's "Ocean Forest" and two trays of "Light Warrior".  We also planted a small tray (10" x 3") that we received as a gift.  Right now we have the following planted:

We used a mister to thoroughly soak the soil over night while also leaving the seeds to soak as well.  We applied the seeds on top of the soil (which was difficult after soaking as they were all clumped together).  We placed paper towels (two per tray works great in standard flats), misting the towels to soak them thoroughly.  We covered the trays with shallow plastic domes and put them under a Sunblaze 44 with no heat mats.  The plan is to keep the greens under lights for about 18 hours a day (give or take, it gets crazy here).  We also are trying to start quince from seeds we saved from an organic fruit; we planted those with FoxFarm's "Ocean Forest" as well in 4" pots.

I'll post updates as progress happens, but this is our first attempt so I expect there to be some trial and error.  If you are in Asheville, I highly recommend Fifth Season Gardening as a source to put all your supplies together.  I apologize for all the hyperlinks, but after hours of fruitless searches on the internet, I figured that I would post our sources to make the process less complicated for other folks.