Growing the good stuff in Athens, GA since 2006

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Plants, GA Organics, & Two Farmers Feeling Poorly

February 24, 2010

A week+ later, there's lots of news to report:

In the land of plants and planting . . .
--the kale and chard have germinated in the greenhouse
--lettuce has been seeded into soil blocks
--carrots got direct seeded into the hoop house
--beets and broccoli raab got direct seeded outside, under row fabric as of today

In the land of Georgia Organics being in town last weekend . . .
--we made over 100 carrot cake muffins for the farm tour
--and speaking of farm tours, ours went GREAT--we had two buses come by, about 40 people per bus, and we had a wonderful time taking them around the farm and talking about our operations. Or maybe I should say I had a wonderful time talking because I sure did a lot of it. Really, getting a farmer to talk about a farm is like getting a grandma to talk about her grandkids. You have to say "whoa" to get us to stop. But yeah, it went well. Got a lot of positive feedback from the tour participants. Apparently, they think we're doing a good job around here. Always nice to hear that.
--our carrots and our sweet potatoes appeared in the Farmer's Feast dinner
--excellent educational sessions were soaked up by us farmers
--we hosted the afterparty "Afterglow" at our house and they rocked it till the early morning

More recently . . .
Both Patrick and I are "under the weather." Apparently, it's an old sailor's phrase about going below deck to rest up when you're ill, which both of us are and are doing, but for different reasons. Patrick has a nasty head cold, while I, on the other hand, fell off my trapeze in class last week and landed on my head, which is a spinal no-no. FYI, if you ever damage your spine (whiplash, bad fall, etc.) you should immediately ice it, take lots of Ibuprofen, and call your chiropracter so s/he can put your body back like it should be. Otherwise, believe me when I say it is not a pretty sight or a pretty experience. I was jacked up like the hunchback of Notre Dame and finally relented and called in the doctor after I could no longer sleep laying down. Yikes. It's amazing how far denial of injury can go. So yeah. God bless the spine adjusters of the world and the magic of their skillfully applied knowledge and techniques. And god bless my skillful healer in particular.

All that to say that two under the weather farmers is much worse than one. One can still pick up work and organize the labor and get things done. Two is just pitiful. Yesterday, we were processing 150 lbs of carrots and each of us was stopping every 10 minutes to sit down, stretch, breathe, or otherwise pull it together to keep going until the all the "absolutely necessary" tasks were done. Pitiful. We didn't even equal one whole well person. When only one is sick, he or she can feel okay taking a break to rest up because there's the other providing support, but heck, when both are down, both have to limp it along because one ailing person just can't do it all. We've call in the troops for support to build hoop house #2 on Friday. I hope we're both feeling better by then.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hoop House #1

January 14, 2010

Despite the fact that the ground was covered in about 4 inches of snow, we decided to continue on with our plan to erect one of the two hoop houses on Saturday. Chris, Phil, Patrick, and I bundled up and braved the cold, new world for the sake of creating future warm, passive solar space. Hoop house #1, here we come.

18 hoops, 2 eye bolts per hoop, 2 cordless drills, 4 cold Roots Farmians, and 4 hours later, we broke for lunch. Minor speed bump: we discovered that each footer had to be pounded in a few more inches to get the eye bolts closer to the ground and therefore the plastic edges of the cover closer to the ground.

Post lunch, 2 1/2 more hours to attach wiggle wire channels onto each of the end hoops and then attach a purline along the length of the whole house via a bracket attached to each hoop. 18 hoops, 18 brackets, 2 bolts per bracket, 2 self-tapping screws per joint. 2 ladders, 3 farmers, 2 impact drivers, 2 1/2 cold hours. Hoop house #1 is well on its way. Skeletal frame of what will be.

As a side note, after these 2 houses are done, I hope it's a long time before I see a self-tapping screw again.

Soil Blocks, Snow Day

January 14, 2010

Last Friday we seeded our first plants of the season. We make soil blocks, which is an Eliot Coleman (New Organic Grower) idea that we've adopted. And to make soil blocks, we mix our own mix. Our current recipe:

3 buckets peat
1 cup lime --> mix
2 buckets sand
9 cups fertilizer
2 cups greensand
2 cups rock phosphate
1 cup kelp meal
4 cups bat guano --> mix
1 1/2 buckets compost
1 1/2 buckets soil --> mix

We sift all these ingredients through a small screen first, then add them together and mix them on the concrete basement floor using a straight-edge shovel and a traditional hoe. I like to mix clockwise to infuse the blend with good juju, adding some soil love. After it's all mixed up good, we take the hose to it.

You have to wet the mix quite a lot to make it damp enough to stick together, and peat sure can hold a lot of water. So this step is a combo of someone spraying the pile of dirt down with a water while another person mixes to get an even damp consistency. You know it's wet enough when you can squeeze a fistful and produce a drop or two of water. I also like to take the block-maker and make a few, then toss them in my hand to see if they hold together. Then, the blocking commences.

Our soil blocker makes 4 blocks at a time. The trays we have hold 8 or 9 rows of blocks for a grand total of 32-36 blocks/tray. Friday, we seeded 37 trays, or about 1200 blocks. Takes a while to make that many blocks, but thankfully, we borrowed Jim's soil blocker and got 2 going at once. Thanks Jim! Now, we have 800 or so kale seeds (2 kinds!) and 500 or so chard seeds tucked into their little soil block homes, soaking up dampness and preparing to sprout.

A note on chard seeds. FYI, swiss chard and beets are really closely related. Chard has been cultivated for the greens while beets have been cultivated for the roots. Both are biennial plants, producing seed in the second year. The seeds, though, are actually fruits! Hard, small, weirdly-shaped fruits. So if you ever wondered why you planted one seed in that cell and 2-3 plants appeared, it's because each chard/beet "seed" was actually a FRUIT that contained a number of seeds. Yet another agricultural riddle explained.

Back to soil blocking. Big seeding day Friday. Also big snow. They had been predicting 80% chance of snow Friday. I wasn't convinced. But the sky that morning was thick and grey, and sure enough, around 2pm the flakes began to fall. A mild dusting at first, followed by bigger, sticker snow. We sat in the garage, plugging away at making soil block trays, watching the world outside get whiter and whiter. Around 4pm, we decided that the best way to celebrate was with a round of frisbee golf after work. Patrick was particularly excited about the winter fest, native of Southern California that he is. Snow rookie. Not like I'm much more than that being from South Georgia and therefore privy to about 1 light snow every 5 or 10 years, though we have seen a decent snow almost every year since I moved to Athens. Anyway. We gathered up Chris and Phil and tossed discs until it got too dark to find them anymore. Then we retired inside for tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Happy snow day everyone!

The Genius of Geometry

January 14, 2010

Last Monday we decided that, instead of building more hoops, we would create the squared foundation for our hoop houses. Rain was in the forecast for later in the week, and the foundation footers needed to be set before soppy wet weather set in, so we gathered together our tools and made our way to the field site that is the future home of 2 giant, 120' x 28' hoop houses. Actually, Patrick gathered the tools and I gathered the tractor because the field currently had quasi-set rows and we were about to radically alter their configuration. Therefore, we needed to flatten out the rows first. You know, start the new houses on a clean slate. Practically, the flattening was also helpful for setting the footers in level-ish ground. So flatten I did, courtesy of the double-discs.

Now that we were flat, we needed to establish square. Okay, so I don't know about you, but I've never built a structure. Structure Building 101: make your area square. Otherwise, you get something that is catawhompus at best, unstable at worst. To square a structure, you need 3 points of contact (wow, kinda like bouldering). One set corner and two variable points. You can use a "3-4-5" principle, where you make a triangle and the length of one side is a multiple of 3, the other a multiple of 4, and the diagonal a multiple of 5, which we didn't do. Or you can set two sides and pull a line diagonal, then make sure the diagonal line is the same length for the other cross-ways, which we did do. Imagine a rectangle with a big "X" in the middle--both legs of the "X" have to be the same length. If they are NOT the same length, you have a rhombus instead of a rectangle. And rhombuses do not make good long-term hoop house foundations. So okay. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well it may sound simple, but 4 hours later, we were still shifting lengths and then 2 sides would be right and one diagonal, but not the other, and then one side would be longer than we made it originally somehow and it was like garden gnomes were wrecking havoc on our spacing and tape measuring. Yikes. I felt like an 8th grader with a learning block. How could it not be working? It sounded so simple.

So after the millioneth time walking 120 feet down and 56 across and like, 133 diagonal and still not creating a square structure, I called in reinforcements--i.e. our neighbor Jim. Now Jim was an engineer once upon a time and is frequently my idea-guy when it comes to working with things mechanical, technical, and logistical. He's pretty much always got a good idea for me and either way can always be counted on for a smart-ass commentary if nothing else. Jim proceeded to tell us that yes, indeed, our structure was catawhompus. The missing gem of inspiration was the idea that all we had to do was shift 2 of the sides the same amount to make it square. Like a beam of light shining from heaven. 10 minutes later, we were ready to set footers.

Footers are steel posts, about 3 feet long in our case. And to set them, we had to pound them with a post-pounder about 2 feet deep. The soft ground was working in our favor, so setting them was really not so bad. 32 footers for each house, 64 total, for a total pounded depth of 128 feet. I think that's how deep our well is. Anyway. 4 hours to make it square, 45 minutes to pound 32 footers 2 feet deep each. Hour and a half of pounding time. I swear, it's always the thinking time that takes the longest.

Thus, the genius of geometry comes to visit. Pay attention you 8th graders, you can actually use this stuff.

Friday, February 5, 2010


February 5, 2010

So we've made our decisions on what the details of our 2010 season will look like. 19 weeks, mostly full shares with a few half-shares available to test out that potential. Veggie varieties are chosen and ordered, and most of the seeds have already arrived. Fliers are posted in town, emails are going out, and the Flagpole magazine has been given a listing. Now we wait in faith while moving into action. Trust that the CSA will fill. Build our hoop houses and plant our seeds.

Hoop houses. We started construction on Wednesday. Each house is 28' wide and 120' long and has 18 hoops. Each hoop is made of 6 pieces. Each piece gets a self-tapping screw. The steel these hoops are made of is thicker than any I've used before, and the effort to drill through them is not insubstantial. I was using a system of kneeling on the hoop with one knee while holding the drill in both hands and bracing my right arm against my right thigh for extra leverage. Who knew using a power tool could still be so exhausting? Powerful pecs, here I come! And the drilling part is just one of the puzzles we've had to solve. The other is that these hoops really should be built on a flat surface to keep them all straight, which is important for structural integrity. Being that they're made of 6 pieces, the potential for lopsided wiggle is very real. Unfortunately, the availability of flat space on the farm is pretty slim. The garage, the road in front of our drive, and the top of our flatbed trailer are about it. So far, we've been using the top of the flatbed trailer, plus extra props, and a level. Is it working? I guess we'll find out.

As far as plants to plant, we've put in an order for broccoli and cabbage starts from a greenhouse grower in North GA and next week we'll begin our own first flats of seedlings. Kale and chard, here we come. This is a big step. The beginning of maintaining the greenhouse again. Once we start, the wheel is in motion and we don't stop it until June. That's 4 months of daily, and I do mean daily, attention. At least now we've got an automated thermostat to control the fan coming on so the plants don't roast. But we still do all our watering by hand, at least once a day. A new routine is about to begin. Am I ready? Guess I'll have to be.

But that's next week. Today is about deciding crop rotation, ordering compost, taking inventory of our irrigation supplies and ordering new ones, and beginning the process of uploading my backstock of recipes onto our website. That's the ambitious list. I'll most likely only get one of the four accomplished, maybe two. So it goes. One step at a time. I'm grateful that it's rainy out so I can work on some of these more office-oriented tasks without feeling guilty about neglecting an outdoor job to be done. Like screwing together 6 pieces of steel, and 6 pieces of steel, and 6 pieces of steel . . .