June 13, 2019

Living in the Shadow of the Rain

Summer in my part of the country usually includes at least one long, hot dry spell. Our recent one started mid-May, with no rain and highs in the 90s F (lower 30s C) for three weeks. None of my summer crops are mature enough yet to have good, deep root systems, so if it hadn't been for our rainwater tanks I would have lost much of my garden. I used 1650 gallons keeping things alive before it finally rained again last weekend. We were blessed with about five inches, which was enough to refill our 1500 rain tank.

To water my upland rice, I figured out that if I put the hose into
the watering can, it was more efficient than the irrigation pipe.

That dry spell was so early this summer that I can't help but wonder if we won't get another one this year. Climate change aside, part of the problem is that we live in the rain shadow of the Appalachian Mountains. Most of our summer weather systems come up off the Gulf of Mexico and travel in a northeasterly direction. Depending how far west they originate, they travel up the west side of the mountain range. As the moisture laden air rises to pass over the mountains it cools, condenses, and rains on the western side of the mountains. By the time it passes over the mountains and gets to our side, it's all rained out! This is called the orthographic or rain shadow effect, and is why there are often deserts on the inland side of mountain ranges.

Rain Shadow Effect. Graphic courtesy of Meg Stewart. 
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

It's no fun to live with! Fortunately, we get enough rain (roughly 50 inches per year) so that we aren't in a desert. But we get enough hot, dry spells that it warrants paying attention to and planning for. My preparations are three-fold: immediate intervention with collected rainwater and mulch; long-term with soil building.

Soil building because some soil holds moisture better than others. Thriving soil microbiology is key. Mycorrhizal fungi produce a sticky substance called glomalin. Glomalin glues together soil particles, minerals, organic matter, and nutrients to form soil aggregates. Aggregates reduce water and wind erosion, reduce compaction, increase nutrient cycling, and increase water filtration and moisture retention around plant roots. (A detailed PDF can be found here.) The healthier the soil, the better it can retain moisture during dry spells.

Last weekend's rain revived the garden and cooler temperatures have followed. What a relief! The first thing I did was get my sweet potato slips planted. The poor things had been sitting in jars of water and were beginning to look soil starved.

Newly planted sweet potato slip.

Transplants struggle under the best of conditions, but hot and dry is the worst. Having the ground moist and workable again was perfect, especially with cloudy, cooler weather in the forecast.

I have a lot on my to-do list now, especially more mulching to keep the moisture from evaporating out of the soil. It's also a wait-and-see time, because some of my seeds seem to have been on hold while the ground was hot and dry. Hopefully, I'll have a thriving garden to show you soon.

June 9, 2019

Checked Off the To-Do List: New Clothesline

One of the things on our summer to-do list is "new clothesline." I've had the old one since 2009.

umbrella clothesline with drying laundry
My original umbrella style clothesline when it was new.

After ten years of use it certainly looks like it's seen better days.

Sagging and broken lines

Held together with duct tape and baling twine.

I never actually intended to have the umbrella clothesline for so long. In fact, seven years ago I bought a new pulley style line from Lehman's.

Originally, I wanted to run it from the back porch to the barn. I loved the idea of simply stepping out the back door to hang laundry. But because we were planning to build a new barn the new clothesline got set on hold. With the new barn now built and the old clothesline ready to topple, it was time to finally put up the new line.

But where? The problem with running it from the back porch to the barn was that it would partially obstruct the driveway. The line is 75-feet in length, so we would need a good clear stretch for it. We finally decided to hang it behind the carport.

The chosen spot for the new clothesline.

From the pecan tree on the right to the utility pole near the corner of the barn (next to the white downspout) would work. That meant we'd have to clear out the shrubs and vines you see, plus move the garden shed.

Getting ready to move the garden shed.

The shed holds potting equipment plus all of the original windows we've replaced in the house. Eventually, we plan to use the old windows to build a greenhouse. I cleaned it out and Dan set up a new base for it. Last time, he dug out and leveled the ground. This time, he used pallets.

Empty, it wasn't difficult to move. Now we could get the new line up.

The tree is a good anchor point, but Dan didn't want to nail the pulley to the tree. So he strapped it instead.

Dan added a hook on the bottom to hang my clothespin bag.

The height of the second pulley was based on the length of the line. It's 75-feet long, so the pulley ended up pretty high on the pole.

The last two parts are the pole and the spacer.

These keep the line from sagging and separating.

On my next laundry day I was able to give it a test drive.

The bench accommodates my laundry bag.

At this point I was wondering if all the laundry would fit.

I was happy that it held an entire load of laundry. I was equally happy to retire my old clothesline! Dan was happy to clear out some of the wild growth behind the carport, and Meowy was happy to keep me company.

I found the umbrella line to be slow because it had so many short spaces that I would have to dig around in my laundry bag to find pieces to fit. So hanging laundry went more quickly, as did taking it down. I especially like that it's shaded there most of the day, because that means I don't have to work in the hot sun. It was well worth waiting for.

Another project checked off the to-do list! Any one else making progress on theirs?

June 5, 2019

Stewardship, Sustainability, and Woodchips

One of our homestead goals is stewardship. I know that word is tossed about in various ways, so to clarify, when I speak of stewardship this is what I mean.

"Stewardship evokes a sense of responsibility ... It implies the supervision or management of something entrusted to one's care. It implies not only responsibility but also accountability. We believe that one day, we will be accountable for how we lived our lives and for what we did with the things in our possession."
5 Acres & A Dream The Book, Chapter 2 "Defining Our Goals,"
pages 23 to 24

One of the things we feel responsible for is the renewable resources on our property; in this case trees. I recently blogged about how we manage our trees ("Spring Chores: Trees"). In that post I mentioned that twigs and small branches from downed trees are chipped. Thanks to having our own source of chips, we've been able to address several problems we've had with a "work smarter not harder" solution.

Initially, I used our wood chips as mulch in the garden but found that they work better as long-term mulch for perennials. For annuals, they must be raked away when it's time to plant again, because they are slow to decompose. That's not necessarily a problem, but it made me wonder if there wasn't a work-smarter way to mulch. This past year we've worked out a routine that is that and more.

That routine starts with a chipping day. I started to use fresh wood chips in the goat corral, because when it rains a lot, the corral gets very muddy. Add manure and urine and it becomes a mucky mess. The chips really help with that, plus keep the dust down during a dry spell.

The goats' hang-out area.

Eventually, the chips accumulate manure and absorb urine, so they must be removed. When that happens, it's time to make fresh wood chips. Chipping day begins with shoveling out the old urine soaked chips and manure, and then dumping them into the compost bins.

The chickens love chipping day. 

I've found that woodchips make a very nice compost. They supply carbon for the compost, and the manure and urine supply nitrogen. We regularly add kitchen, canning, and garden scraps too. What the chickens don't eat adds to the compost.

While I'm doing that, Dan fires up the chipper.

WoodMaxx WM8M PTO-powered wood chipper.

Our chipper was a good investment because we have so many trees. Definitely not cheap but indispensably worth it. Our first year here we bought one of those little YardMachine chippers-shredders off Craigslist. It proved to be worthless for our need: slow, limited to twigs and leaves, and sprayed the chips all over the place. (Dan later converted it to a wheat thresher.) So every year we would rent a large industrial chipper for several hundreds of dollars per day to deal with our numerous brush piles. Obviously, that wasn't cheap either!

The fresh chips are spread out in the cleaned-out goat corral.

New wood chips

For garden mulch, I now use composted wood chips. After the chickens have done their magic on the old chips in the compost bin, it's gorgeous.

Wood chip compost

The chips aren't completely decomposed, but I like it that way because I've observed that mycorrhizal fungi love wood chips on or in the soil.

Mycorrhizal fungi growing on wood chips.

Mycorrhizae are the subterranean nutrient delivery system of the plant world. They form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, exchanging liquid carbon from the plants for nutrients harvested from other areas. The nutrients are transported to the plant because the mycorrhizae extend the root system with filaments known as hyphae. Through the hyphae, the fungi network with one another to extend their resource harvesting to areas covering acres and miles.

Composted wood chips mulching pumpkin seedlings.

Partially composted wood chips not only work better than uncomposted wood chips, they also work better than compost made from dirty straw and wasted hay from the goat barn. That's because the old straw and hay are loaded with seeds (even though technically they shouldn't be.) Too many of those seeds survive the heat of composting and invariably start growing in my garden - as more weeds. (Ditto using old straw or hay as mulch). Counterproductive! This wood chip composting and mulching system is definitely work-smarter-not-harder gardening.

What do I do with the old straw and wasted hay I clean out of the barn? Now, I put all that directly out on the pasture where it can build pasture soil there. (Read about my modified Fukuoka method of soil building here.) Let the straw and hay seeds sprout where the goats can benefit!

Obviously, our system isn't feasible for everyone, because everyone's practical specifics aren't the same as ours. But my takeaway point isn't so much what we're doing and how, but that we've worked out a system that works for us. We analyzed our problems in the light of our goals and available resources, and then experimented until we worked out satisfactory solutions.

  • alternately muddy or dusty goat yard
  • compost loaded with weed seeds
  • poor soil needing improvement
  • never enough mulch 

  • stewardship
  • sustainability

  • tree "waste" (overabundant twigs and branches) turned into
  • wood chips
  • chickens (for composting)
  • goats (for manure)
  • humans (for the work of making and moving the woodchips)

No waste, just multiple uses of a renewable resource in a sustainable cycle. What could be better than that?

June 1, 2019

Potted Potato Harvest

The potatoes I planted in pots a couple months ago were dying because of blight. So I harvested all but the healthiest one.

The harvest from six seed potatoes.

It was a modest harvest. Even so, I figure I tripled my planting investment. For six potatoes that isn't much, but from all the teeny baby potatoes, I figure I would have gotten more if the plants had been able to mature on their own.

I'm thinking potato salad.

As an experiment, though, I was pleased. Planting in pots was very easy, as was the harvest. No digging! All I had to do was dump out the contents in the wheelbarrow. The hardest part was remembering to keep the pots watered. I will definitely plant potatoes this way again!

I know a number of you plant potatoes in containers; what kind of containers do you use? Any tips?

Potted Potato Harvest © June 2019

May 25, 2019

What's Growing, What's Not

Daylilies have just begun blooming.

May has been a month of harvesting the last of the winter garden and planting for summer. The fall and winter garden have pretty much wound down.

Garlic has been harvested

Multiplier onions are next

Sugar beets and kale are still growing.

The kale is Lacinato, an heirloom variety and new for me. A keeper!

It's mild, tender, and tasty. Here's some sauteed with carrots and onions.

I don't remember what lettuce this is. but I
want seed from it because it never got bitter.

For the summer garden I've been busy getting growing things in the ground.

I had about three dozen tomato starts.

They've all been planted and most are doing very well. 

I transplanted pepper starts too.

Do you remember the survivor strawberries Dan found last January and I transplanted in the hoop house?

My one little bed has done very well.

We didn't get many, but it was enough for a
couple of batches of strawberry pancakes.

Some of my potted potatoes.

Potatoes plants grown from grocery store organic potatoes.

I planted cowpeas in the potato bed.

My rice is doing well, though I admit I pamper it. I worry that our current hot, dry spell may be unhappy for it.

Loto rice, a short variety.

Cho Seun Zo Saeng grows taller.

Other things that are doing well:


Starks Moonglow Pears. They are sweet and spicy.

Hops. I say it's doing well but I lost 2 out of 3
plants. Here's hoping this one is a female!

One of our hay patches with sorghum-sudangrass. 

Some things haven't done very well.

Only a couple of cucumber plants came up so I replanted.

I had to replant my corn too.

Still to plant:

Sweet potato slips. They'll go in soon. The potted flower
was a mother's day gift from my oldest granddaughter.

This one was from my youngest granddaughter.

I don't know what they are but it's perfect to grace my barn bench.

So there's what's growing (or trying to grow) around our homestead. How about you?