Friday, March 29, 2013

Farm Science in the News 03/29/13

A couple of really neat pieces of news came out recently that may be of interest to the knowledge-thirsty home gardener.

Firstly, research done in Canada shows that plants that are "siblings" don't aggressively compete for resources with each other, and may actually cooperate to some degree... resulting in healthier individuals and a more developed fungal network between them.

This makes sense from a viewpoint of genetic self-interest.  The plants want to see their own genes continue on into the world, even moreso than just their own species.

The implications of this for the home gardener, and especially the seed saver are obvious.  Someone who actively selects for healthier plants and saves seeds from year to year is much more likely to be growing plants that are "related" than someone who buys a new packet of seeds from the store each year.  From the plants' perspective, it means your garden each year will be more like a family reunion and less like a train station full of strangers.

Secondly, NPR reports some interesting news about a recent scientific study done on the quantity and variety of bacteria that live on the surface of the plants we most like to eat.  From the article:
It turns out the invisible communities living on our food vary greatly, depending on the type and whether it's conventional or organic. 
Mung bean sprouts, for one, harbor very different bacteria than alfalfa sprouts. Grapes, apples and peaches house a greater variety of bacteria than veggies. And mushrooms are living in a microbial room of their own, sharing very few bacteria with the other foods tested. 
That's quite different from strawberries, tomatoes and spinach. They had similar surface bacteria, with most coming from one family, the Enterobacteriaceae. That family includes E. coli but many, many other harmless and perhaps beneficial bacteria, too. Enterobacteriaceae was also the most common family, accounting for about one-third of all the microbes overall. 
The good news: Most of the bacterial horde is benign.
That last sentence may be one of my favorite from any news story, ever.

And last (but potentially most importantly), scientists are beginning to unravel some of the myriad ways that a commonly used class of pesticides negatively impact bees and other crucial pollinating insects.  From the article:

Bees are crucial pollinators for much of the world’s food supply. And even low doses of these pesticides – called neonicotinoids – have been linked to a sharp decline in bee reproduction. 
Now a new study seems to have found out why: the pesticides seem to make bees forget the smell of food.
Neonicotinoids (a mouthful, I know) are a widely-used in the US, Canada and Europe.  There is currently a lawsuit in progress against the EPA in an attempt to ban them in the US.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Revising the Long Beds (Day 3) and Misc. Sunday Work

Bleary weather returned today, blech.  But we started off our Sunday the best way we know how... by going to an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast!  Our local (just down the road on the way into town) Fire Department was having one as a fundraiser, with the pancakes made by Chris Cakes (he throws them to/at you).  Also ran into our ex-next door neighbors.  He's a volunteer firefighter there and they're awesome folks.

While we ate, we game-planned an idea Leah had come up with regarding a potential alteration to the long bed plan... namely that of opening an aisle down the middle of the rows, in effect making 8 rows instead of 4.  We discussed the addition of some sort of arched trellis or pergola over the gap between rows to create a nice focus for the garden area and better access to the beds.  We agreed that this was a good idea.

Wanting to keep on-schedule with our garden this year (which might actually be possible without the greenhouse construction hanging over our heads), we also started our first seeds indoors today.

We seeded cabbage, collards and leeks, and set them up under some grow lights in the garage where temperatures will hopefully be in the correct range for them to germinate.

I went out and made quick work of making our aisle down the middle of our long beds.

Also did some more weather sealing in the greenhouse... filling more gaps with Great Stuff and sealing the areas where the polycarbonate panels meet our windowsills with silicone caulk.  Due to the extreme angle produced by the sill and panel, I had to modify each caulk tube by taping a piece of tubing to extend the nozzle.  This worked like a charm to get the caulk where it needed to go, but unfortunately it meant I couldn't use my Ryobi 18v Power Caulker (one of the best tools ever... I'll do a post one day on how awesome it is) and now my wrists are busted.  But my greenhouse is more airtight than it used to be!

Leah and I also discussed adding a visual feature in the raised bed along the greenhouse where our new aisle ends.  We both think this could be really awesome.  I've done a little photoshopping below to illustrate a few examples of how awesome this could be, exactly.  My favorite is the last one, for obvious reasons.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Building the Long Beds, Day 2

The weather held out for us today, and it was a gorgeous day to be outside.  The redwing blackbirds on the property are in rare form, and were up with me and the sunrise, perching amidst the buds in our maples and making their twitter-screeches en-masse.

We got out early and got working.  Last week served us well as practice to hone our technique, and we hit our stride early.  The rows went down a lot more quickly this weekend than they did last Sunday.  I think the weather helped a lot... it was a lot more pleasant to be outside today.

We had run out of landscaping fabric last Sunday, and so we also needed to extend our area of coverage to get the full four beds installed.  Fortunately, the wind kept to a minimum.

Around 2pm, we heard a plane in the sky, and saw it coming towards us flying low.  I had a sneaking suspicion that it might actually be friends of ours... my coworker Meg and her boyfriend Grant like to take his plane up on the weekends, and I knew they had tried to fly over the farm before.  Sure enough, the plane banked around and circled the farm several times.  

We waved a lot.  It was pretty neat.  We've never had friends visit us in a plane before.  Meg was even nice enough to snap us some aerial shots of the farm!

We kept working, and working, and working.  Soon all the blocks seemed to blur together... at some point we had lunch.  At some other point Leah went inside and took a nap.  At some point I finished the fourth row, and voila!  We're ready to add soil and gravel.  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Building the Long Beds, Day 1

Despite soggy ground, overcast skies and temps in the mid to high thirties, Leah and I bundled up in layers of work clothes and headed outside  Sunday to lay the groundwork for what will become a series of long concrete raised beds that will run parallel to the greenhouse on it's North side.

Situated as such, anything planted there should have some decent protection from the wind (even moreso with the potential addition of a hedge running perpendicular to the beds and greenhouse on their East side... still considering that one).

The first step was a barest-bones attempt at leveling the area by filling in the most obvious holes, year-old tire ruts and low spots with topsoil.  The area as a whole still slants noticably, but at least we wouldn't be turning an ankle stepping in any holes.

Better planning would have seen us waiting to install the landscaping-block wall around the north side of the greenhouse (visible above) until after we laid the landscaping fabric, so the edge of the fabric could tuck under the wall and provide a most effective barrier against weed growth.  Suffice to say, this did not happen, and we were left with the somewhat less desirable (but waaaay more fun) option of blasting all the weeds along the north concrete wall with my big propane torch.

The weather was perfect for this part, at least (cold and wet) and I managed to accomplish it without setting fire to anything important... I think.

Next we laid and weighted down the landscaping fabric, heavy-duty 5-mil stuff from DeWitt.  We've used this before, under the gravel around our other raised beds and in the greenhouse.  It's good strong stuff.

I miscalculated how much we'd need, and we ran out before covering the desired area-to-convert in full.  We weighed the rest of it down with some rocks, scrap lumber and cinder blocks (it gets pretty windy in our neck of the woods, and I didn't want to end up chasing this stuff across a muddy field).

We took some measurements, pulled a taut mason line across the expanse of black fabric, and began laying the first bed.  I hauled blocks and caulked the edges while Leah placed and leveled the blocks.

We managed to get one entire bed done... well more than I thought we'd be likely to accomplish in one day.  We ended the day tired, somewhat cold and wet, and pretty darn sore (though that was mostly me... Leah is apparently tougher than I am when it comes to a day of working with cinder blocks...)

Once we get them built, our goal is to use these beds to efficiently grow row-type crops (peas, beans, etc.) in a way that allows us a decent amount come harvest-time (one eight foot row of pea or bean plants doesn't yield much), while simultaneously giving us some more raised bed space that we can use to interplant other annuals or herbs alongside the main row crop.