Archive for March, 2014


The Buzz: Beekeeping for Beginners

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Beekeeping has been on the rise in recent years, and Ross Conrad’s book Natural Beekeeping has become a must read for enterprising apiculturalists who want to learn how to care for bees holistically and organically.

This is the first of two adaptions from the revised and expanded edition of Conrad’s book, and offers beginners some key tips on what to do long before they buy their first bees as well as specific instructions on how to open and inspect a hive. The next piece will examine how to obtain bees and get your first hives started.

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SUGGESTIONS FOR BEGINNERS

When addressing beginner beekeepers, I like to emphasize the importance of not getting started in beekeeping unless they are ready and willing to fully commit to taking the time to properly educate themselves about honey bee biology and proper care. I also ask people to carefully assess whether they are ready to devote adequate resources of time and money to ensure that the hive will be properly cared for year after year.

What’s needed is an apicultural ethic that does not place the needs of the bees below human needs. I am not saying that beekeepers should put bees’ needs above human needs. Rather, let’s give them equal importance, striving for a give-and-take, a win-win situation where both parties benefit roughly to an equal extent. Following this approach, for example, one would not secure a hive of bees in the spring, rent them out for pollination, harvest all their honey, and then allow them to die in winter with the plan of purchasing new bees the following spring, simply because it is economically advantageous to do so.

The initial learning curve in beekeeping is fairly steep, so it is wise to start learning well in advance about bees and the role that a beekeeper can play. Beginning to read beekeeping books and journals and take beekeeping classes and workshops a year ahead of setting up your first hives would not be overdoing it. Joining your local or state beekeeping association can be a huge help in this regard too. Busy modern lifestyles often get in the way, and if you allow too little time for education beforehand, you may find yourself unprepared when your bees arrive. At that point, your first year of beekeeping will end up unfolding haphazardly, and you won’t have the kind of experience and good results you dreamed about.

Best Way to Learn About Beekeeping

The best way to learn about beekeeping is to work for a commercial beekeeper. I found out the hard way that it is much better to get paid to learn through an apprenticeship-type situation than to pay for the privilege of learning through a university or the school of hard knocks. If this is not an option, then it is very helpful if you can find a local experienced beekeeper willing to act as a mentor. A mentor can answer questions, guide you through the transfer of your bees into new equipment, and assist you with your first hive visits. Another recommendation I offer the would-be beekeeper is to start with two hives instead of one. Two hives are only a little more work, and not a whole lot more money, than one hive, and yet the benefits are substantial. Two hives help greatly with the steep learning curve all beekeepers must go through: it doubles your experience level and allows you to make comparisons between the hives.

Starter Hive

Another choice you’ll need to make in advance is which type of hive to use. I recommend that novice beekeepers begin with a Langstroth-style hive. After you have a couple years of experience under your belt, you may wish to experiment with other styles such as the top-bar hive or Warré hive (the Warré hive, also known as the People’s Hive, is a vertical top bar hive developed in France by Emile Warré and outlined in his book Beekeeping for All). There is much more information available on the use of the Langstroth hive than there is for top-bar hives or Warré hives, and there are far fewer beekeepers who have experience with the latter two options should you have questions or need the help of a mentor.

Whenever possible, it is advantageous to purchase local bees and even more important to buy types of bees that have some level of resistance to mites and diseases. And it is far easier to start with a nucleus colony or nuc, if you can get one, than to start with packaged bees. Due to the high demand and short supply of bees, it is a good idea for beekeepers to place their orders for packaged bees or nucleus colonies early to ensure that the bees they want will be available at the desired time. Since the advent of colony collapse disorder, many beekeepers are finding that January is not too early to place orders for bees for spring delivery. On some occasions waiting until January may actually be too late, because some bee suppliers sell out well ahead of time, and the best they will be able to do is put you on a waiting list in case they receive order cancellations, or place you on the list for next year. Whenever you place an order, please be sure to assemble and prepare all your equipment before your bees arrive. The experience of long-distance shipping or being crowded in a small nuc box is stressful for bees. To keep stressed bees contained for several more days or weeks while you rush to order, assemble, or paint hive equipment is not a good situation.

Final Thoughts

The final piece of advice I like to offer first-year beekeepers is to open up and check on their hives on a regular basis. Some beekeepers might tell you to leave your hives alone and keep colony inspections to a minimum. Back in the old days before mites, small hive beetles, and a host of honey bee diseases surfaced on the North American continent, this advice would have been appropriate. Today, however, the environment that bees have to navigate and the interior of the hive cavity have been so manipulated and changed by humans that in most of the country, to leave hives alone is more likely to lead to colony death than to aid in its ability to thrive.

I check my bees every 7 to 14 days. While doing so, I try to keep the disturbance of the hives to a minimum. Nevertheless, I encourage new beekeepers to open hives, remove frames, inspect the brood area, look for eggs, try to find the queen, and observe the levels of pollen and honey within the hive every one to two weeks during the first year. That’s right, every week or two if possible! Your goal is to get a sense of whether the hive is doing well and developing normally or not.

There is a limit to how much you can learn about beekeeping from classes, workshops, articles, videos, and books. In the end, to become a successful beekeeper you have to actually open hives and handle frames of brood and bees. After the first year of handling the bees regularly, you should not have to go through your hives and disturb the bees so frequently. Instead, you can limit your weekly or biweekly hive checks to simply taking a quick look under the inner cover.

Opening and Inspecting the Hive

Here are the basic steps to take, in the proper sequence, whenever you open a hive.

  1. Figure out why you are going to open the hive and what you want to accomplish.
  2. Don clothing and headgear that will make you feel comfortable working with the bees; then light your smoker.
  3. Approach the hive from the side or the back, not the front, where you may block the flight path of the foragers and make them defensive.
  4. Smoke all entrances. Allow the smoke to always proceed you and announce your presence prior to entering any part of the hive.
  5. Remove the inner cover, and always check it for the presence of the queen before you put the cover down. She could be anywhere!
  6. If you decide to remove a frame, make sure to choose one of the outermost frames (or one next to the outermost) first in order to reduce the chance that you will injure the queen.

Your goal is to be a beekeeper, not a bee haver. This is accomplished by working in partnership with the colony and never abandoning the hive to its own devices, which might result in the hive starving or dying from disease. The ancient craft of beekeeping can be incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable as long as one is committed to following through, overcoming the various frustrations that may be encountered, and persevering even when a task occasionally seems overwhelming or intimidating.

Garden Planning: 48 of the Most Promising Veggies

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Depending on the market and the climate in your area the possibility exists to grow anywhere from one to 70 or so reasonably common vegetable crops. With all these options to choose from, mastering proper planning and observation techniques are important to make sure your operating an efficient garden.

In this excerpt from The New Organic Grower, farming master Eliot Coleman outlines the 48 crops he thinks are the most promising and charts the harvesting seasons for each to help you decide when and what to plant.

For other gardening tips and techniques from Coleman, read his Guide to Great Compost and How to Start Seedlings in a Cold Frame.

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No Space? No Problem. Gardening Tips for the Urban Dweller

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Interested in growing fresh food, but worried about lack of space? Not a problem, according to author R. J. Ruppenthal.

In his book, Fresh Food From Small Spaces, Ruppenthal shows readers how to transform their balconies and windowsills into productive vegetable gardens, their countertops and storage lockers into commercial-quality sprout and mushroom farms, and their outside nooks and crannies into sustainable nurseries for honey bees, chickens, and more.

In this excerpt, Ruppenthal explains how choosing the right crops based on climate and light conditions, along with creating a companion planting strategy to prevent pests and attract pollinators, can help maximize food production with limited space.

For more information on proper seed selection, garden planning, and do-it-yourself tricks to help you grow your own food, check out these related posts:
The Seed Series: Choosing the Right Seed Crop
How to Plan the Best Garden Ever
DIY: Make a Self-Watering Planter


 

DECIDING WHAT TO GROW IN YOUR GARDEN SPACE

Those of us with limited space are forced to make decisions. How can I use my small space most productively? If I want to put in a small garden, what should I grow? You can experiment by growing a variety of different plants, or you may decide to focus on just one or two items that perform well in your conditions. There are good arguments for each strategy.

Growing a variety of crops is fun, and although it won’t provide you with huge amounts of any particular food crop, you’ll get some of many. This approach offers more balanced nutrition to complement your overall diet and the likelihood of a rolling harvest (with your plants producing food at different times, not all at once). However, you should also consider the benefits of focusing on a crop or two that grow well in your space. Why focus? Because some crops will do well in your area, while others will not. You may find it very easy, for example, to grow prodigious quantities of fresh herbs or leafy greens, but not have enough light to grow fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers effectively. Or you might decide not to garden at all, and instead perhaps cover your whole available space with a chicken coop. This is fine; specializing has its benefits too. With this focus on just one or two food crops, you may be able to meet all your family’s needs for fresh herbs or leafy greens or chicken eggs. And, if you have extra, you might sell or barter the surplus for something else that you can’t produce. This is free trade in its simplest, most elegant form.

When I started my first balcony garden, I tried to grow a little bit of everything. In a 10-foot-square area over a two-year period, I grew (or tried to grow) tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, cabbage, chard, beets, herbs, strawberries, cucumbers, and summer squash. I even had a scraggly little blueberry bush that gave me a few berries in its second summer. Experimenting with different crops was fun, and it helped me learn what grew best in my small space. Through this experience, I learned to focus on certain crops that I could depend on, thus making the best use of my space.

Due to differences in climate and the amount of light and heat that your urban garden area receives, you will be able to grow some crops more effectively than others. Through trial and error, I learned that my little garden could produce prodigious amounts of cherry tomatoes, green beans, peas, and chard. Unfortunately, I also learned that other things did not grow well in my space: strawberries and cucumbers were the worst performers, for various reasons.

Try to grow what your family likes to eat, but also be realistic in terms of the plants’ requirements. Peppers, eggplant, and cucumbers are basically subtropical plants that we try to coax into producing fruit in cooler climates. They need a lot of light, warmth, and long days. Squash is much easier to grow, but the plants take up too much space for small-scale container growing; they are great additions to a larger garden if you have a backyard. However, even container gardeners can grow compact varieties of summer squash (zucchini). An added urban challenge for squash, cucumbers, and melons is that they require bees or other insects for pollination of their flowers in order to be fully productive, and it’s not a given that your small space will attract the notice of neighborhood bees (though you will, almost inevitably, attract neighborhood pests). Although it is possible to hand-pollinate squash, cucumber, and melons, this requires the extra effort of waking up at dawn and transferring pollen from male to female blossoms with a paintbrush.

If you have the full day’s light and warmth that is necessary for squash, cucumber, and melons, and can attract pollinating insects (perhaps with some additional flowering plants or herbs), then you can try to grow them vertically by building a trellis and training their vines upward. Vertical gardening (described at more length in Chapter 4) saves you precious horizontal space and gives your plants the chance to be quite productive. A trellis can be made from wood, wire, string, or even fishing line; the point is to give the plant something to hang on to as it climbs. My balcony has a metal railing that I use as a trellis base for my tomatoes and pole beans; I extend it with string and bamboo poles, and affix the growing plants to this frame using twist-ties from the supermarket or small pieces of string. When plants begin producing heavy fruit, you also need to tie up or somehow support the fruiting branches to keep them from falling.

Some people find strawberries very easy to grow, and I encourage you to try them. Strawberries can be squeezed into very small spaces and even window boxes. A European species, Fragaria vesca, commonly called Alpine strawberry, is a hardy perennial and bears continuously from around midsummer to the end of the growing season. It is often advertised as a shade crop and has a truly magnificent flavor. If you enjoy eating strawberries, then they may be worth a try where you live, particularly because of the many different varieties that have been developed in recent years to suit different conditions. In terms of other berries, blueberries can grow in containers and produce well in certain climates, though most require specific soil conditions. You also could investigate blackberries and raspberries, which can be trained vertically to increase production and maximize your use of space. Currants and gooseberries grow well in some northern climates, and can fruit well even in partial shade conditions.

Beans and peas are wonderful additions to the small urban garden. I grow beans in the warm summer and peas in cooler weather. Both plants can produce high-protein shelled beans and peas, or they can be eaten in the young pod stage as a nutritional supervegetable. Both can be grown vertically and in crowded garden conditions, saving you space. Both plants are legumes, so they fix nitrogen in their root systems, making them a great companion plant next to other crops. Beans and peas (especially bush varieties) also can produce quite well in lower light conditions.

VEGETABLES FOR LOW-LIGHT CONDITIONS

For many people living in urban apartments and condos, lack of sunlight is a big issue. Your unit may face away from the sun or get only morning or afternoon exposure. Oftentimes, other buildings surround you and block much of the light. But do not despair; you still have space to work with. The good news is that cities are rarely dark; there is a lot of diffuse sunlight, reflected light off walls and windows, and warmth collected in the concrete and building materials. In the vertical gardening chapter, I cover some strategies for making the most of your light. Here, I’d like to recommend some different vegetable crops for areas with low light.

First, you should know that fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, squash) need plenty of light to set and ripen their fruit. Ideally, we are talking about 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight for these, though, as you will see in the vertical gardening chapter, there are ways to succeed with less light than this. Next among vegetables come those that will flourish in full sunlight, but also can set productive crops with partial sun. These include peas, beans, and root/tuber crops such as beets, turnips, carrots, and even potatoes. I have grown bush peas and bush beans in full shade with only 3 to 4 hours of indirect, reflected light. These plants grew more slowly than their counterparts in the full sun, but they had no trouble setting a crop eventually and the output (though a few weeks later) was nearly as good as that from plants grown in full sun.

If you like to eat peas and beans, they are some of the most rewarding plants to grow, even in partial shade or indirect light. When picked tender and eaten in the pod as green beans or snap peas, both are classified as nutritional supervegetables. Alternately, the same plant also can provide some amazing protein if you let the pods grow to maturity. You can then shell the beans or peas and cook them fresh or dry them for later use. Peas and beans make great complementary crops, as each one grows in a different season: Beans like the warmth of summer, while peas thrive in cooler temperatures and can make a great short-season crop in spring, fall, or even in winter in milder climates.

You will be more successful in low-light conditions if you select the right pea and bean seeds for growing. Do not buy nursery seedlings or use transplants for either one, since they grow far better when direct-seeded. When you buy seeds, you will notice that each variety of pea and bean is labeled as either “pole” or “bush.” Pole beans produce heavier crops over a longer period and are ultimately more productive over the same amount of space. So, if you have plenty of sunlight and a nice vertical space, then pole beans and tall-growing varieties of peas might work well for you. However, for low-light or short-season gardens, I recommend bush peas and bush beans. These plants are shorter, stockier, and essentially dwarf versions of the traditional pole beans and peas; they need very little trellising support and can be grown close together for maximum yields. They will produce a single crop (and sometimes a bit more) in short time frame, using less overall light energy than pole beans require. Depending on the variety of bush bean, it is not impossible to have a full crop of delicious green beans or snap peas ready to pick within 35 to 40 days after seeding. These plants also add some nitrogen to the soil, which means that they are a great rotation crop that will help build the soil for your next round of veggies. (This is particularly useful with peas, since they can grow in cooler temperatures.) When choosing seeds, also consider whether you would like to shell them or eat them in the pod, as some varieties are optimal for one or the other use. The best peas for eating in the pod are the sugar snap peas, which have peas surrounded by thick, edible pods, or the flat-podded snow peas so common to Asian cuisines, which can be eaten raw (some are as sweet as candy) or added to a stir-fry for a quick, delicious nutritional boost.

With root and tuber crops, you can do almost as well in low-light conditions, but you will need to experiment. In my opinion, the key to growing these crops is to realize that the beet, carrot, turnip, or potato we eat is actually the plant’s way of storing its energy underground. Therefore, the more light energy it receives, the better your chances of getting a nice big, sweet carrot or turnip. Luckily for urban gardeners, the amount of light per day is sometimes less important for these crops than the total amount of light that the plants receive during the entire season they are growing their roots or tubers. So you may be able to get a nearly full crop in partial shade if you wait a little longer to harvest. In fact, full direct sunlight may be too strong for beets and turnips anyway, so a little shade can even help. Also, each of these vegetables can be picked and eaten when small, so a row of plants that never reach their full height may still yield a bountiful crop of petite carrots or beets. For a potato crop grown in partial shade, the plant may only get around to flowering fairly late in the season, but this is a great time to pick the tender new potatoes that are prized as a gourmet treat.

Finally, leafy greens have lower light requirements than other vegetables because you eat the actual plant and do not need to wait for it to set seeds or fruit. This list includes chard, beet greens, turnip greens, spinach, lettuce, kale, cabbage, arugula/roquette, and other edible greens with similar characteristics. Some of these plants actually will wilt or burn in full sunlight and so they prefer some partial shade or reflected light. You can get a productive crop of delicious, nutritious greens without any direct sunlight, provided you have some indirect, reflected light for a few hours per day. Any of these greens are great plants to use in a small garden because you can choose to harvest them “cut and come again” style (a leaf or two at a time, which the plant will regrow) or else eat the whole plant at once, take it out, and replace it with something else.

One note on leafy greens, including beet greens and turnip greens: Try growing them almost any time of the year, provided the ground is not frozen. The cost of a handful of seeds is no more than a few pennies, and you will be amazed at the vigor of these plants. Although other books you read may discourage you from trying to plant a new crop in the fall or over a mild winter, many greens are pretty hardy, and can be given a few extra degrees of frost protection by growing them in a cold frame or under a heat-retaining fabric blanket, or “floating row cover.” (See “Growing in Cold Climates,” below.) At the very least, you may end up with a very short-season crop of baby greens for salad, soup, or stir-fry.

ADDING SMALL FRUITS AND BERRIES TO YOUR GARDEN

Many berry plants and small fruit trees can be raised in container gardens or in small patches of open ground. There are dwarf fruit trees and various kinds of berries that will grow in almost any climate and can be a nice complement to your vegetable garden. Most importantly for many urban gardeners, small fruit trees and berry shrubs can make the best use of your vertical growing space. Please see Chapter 6 for a more in-depth exploration of which types of fruits and berries to consider growing in your space.

COMPANION PLANTS FOR YOUR VEGGIES

Companion plants, many of which fall in the herb and flower categories, add beauty and diversity to a vegetable garden. From a functional perspective, these plants are important in preventing pests and attracting pollinators like bees to your vegetables. For both of these reasons, you need to incorporate some companion plants into your containers or ground-based beds. Most companion plants can be grown in compact form alongside your vegetables. Planting them can increase your garden’s productivity through better pollination and pest deterrence.

Some members of the mint family (Lamiaceae) serve both purposes, attracting bees and discouraging common pests such as aphids, whiteflies, and cabbage moths. Rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage are examples of plants that can improve your vegetables’ resistance while providing you with some tasty herbal additions to your culinary dishes. Try bee balm and hyssop as well. Nasturtiums, marigolds, tansy, and cosmos add beauty to your garden while discouraging harmful pests. Marigolds deter beetles and some soil-based nematodes. Nasturtium flowers and leaves provide a colorful, peppery accent to any salad and, like marigolds, their aromatic foliage can deter some potential pests. Although nasturtiums are frequently mentioned as a pest deterrent, I have found that black aphids in my garden really like them. This worried me at first until I noticed that all the black aphids gravitated to my nasturtium plants, and they left everything else alone. My nasturtiums were acting as a trap crop, and some gardeners plant such crops at a distance away from food crops, though if black aphids do not bother your garden, then nasturtiums would fit well on the edge of containers and tumble gracefully over the edges.

Garlic, onions, leeks, scallions, and chives are wonderful additions to any garden, whether grown for their bulbs or for their green stalks. Also, these plants deter aphids and other harmful insects. Interplanting them with other vegetables may confuse pests or throw them off from the scent of your sweeter-smelling crops. For example, two good companion plants are carrots and leeks: Leeks repel carrot flies, while the smell of carrot plants is strong enough to confuse the onion fly and leek moth, two common pests. However, members of the onion family (Alliaceae) should not be planted in the same container or bed with peas or beans, as they tend to stunt these vegetables’ growth.

The topic of companion crops is a larger one than can be fully addressed here. Although I have focused on a few useful pest-deterrent plants, there are also many useful planting combinations for vegetables themselves. The most famous of these is the Native American and Mesoamerican “Three Sisters” combination of corn, beans, and squash. Corn is a nitrogen-heavy crop, while beans fix nitrogen in the soil. The stalks of corn, in turn, provide support for the climbing beans, while the squash plants provide a thick groundcover of living mulch, preserving moisture in the soil. These plants also come from different families and have different root structures, so they do not compete heavily with one another for nutrients, and their combination in a garden can throw off potential pests of any one crop. To learn more about which vegetables complement each others’ growing habits (as well as the few combinations you should avoid), try doing an Internet search for “companion crops.” For more in-depth reading, Louise Riotte’s Carrots Love Tomatoes provides a nice overview of companion vegetable and fruit plantings.17 Although some companion plantings have proven themselves over many generations, others are more controversial, and there are ongoing debates within the gardening community about the success of certain combinations. It seems that what works for a gardener in one region and with a particular soil type will not necessarily produce the same success elsewhere. If you are interested in this subject, research it, learn what you can, and try some combination plantings that have been recommended by others to see what gives you the most success.

The Ultimate Raised Bed: How To Make An Herb Spiral

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

The herb spiral: A beautiful year-round focal point for your garden that is easy and fun to build and saves both space and water. In Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist, author Michael Judd walks readers through step-by-step instructions on how to create this edibles-producing superstar.

In addition to herb spirals, Edible Landscaping covers food forests, raised-bed gardens, earthen ovens, uncommon fruits, outdoor mushroom cultivation, and much more. A how-to manual for both the budding or experienced gardener, it contains everything you need to transform your yard into a flourishing, edible landscape—the perfect way to have your yard and eat it too!

To get started with planning, or building, your own herb spiral, check out the following excerpt from Judd’s recently-released book.

 

A Conversation with Gene Logsdon

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Author Gene Logsdon appears to be picking up steam as he rolls into his ninth decade. He has developed a prolific body of work as a writer, novelist, and journalist on topics ranging from a philosophical look at woodlands (A Sanctuary of Trees) to the higher calling of manure (Holy Shit), and his ever-popular contrarian look at life and farming (The Contrary Farmer).

In his latest book, Gene Everlasting: A Contrary Farmer’s Thoughts on Living Forever, we find Logsdon at the top of his game as he reflects on nature, death, and eternity, always with an eye toward the lessons that farming taught him about life and its mysteries.

We asked Logsdon some questions about his latest book, recurrent themes in the book and whether or not immortality is overrated. Enjoy.

 

Q1: The subtitle of your book is “thoughts on living forever.” So, after writing the book and thinking about it: Is immortality worth it? Is it overrated?

I wanted to come up with a book sort of making fun of the concept of immortality, one that would be critical of conventional religious views but not showing the kind of atheistic righteousness you see in books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on this topic. I more or less agree with them, but found them a little too angry and strident for the religious believers I grew up and belonged to — too nasty. I used to be angry that way, but I got over it. That kind of approach just makes religious believers all the more convinced that they are right.

But it’s a tough subject to write and talk about without irritating someone. Ideology starts dominating the talk right away. Discussion quickly comes down to ‘my religion versus your religion’ or ‘my lack of religion versus your lack of religion.’ We’re all so filled up with such fear of the unknown about this topic. Even atheists can get religious once in a while, and by that I mean too fervent about their beliefs. As can those who believe that science has all the answers. I have made snide remarks about black holes being quite a stretch and in doing so irritated scientists. I see where the famed scientist, Stephen Hawking, who started the monstrous notion of black holes now says they don’t exist.

To answer your original question, I’ve come to realize that it’s really not worth it — immortality, that is. Ask yourself: What time of your life would you like to immortalize? I know that I don’t want to be immortalized in this winter; this has been the worst damn weather I can remember.

I think even religious people can chuckle about that – what time of life in which you’d like to be immortalized. That kind of mild humor is what really guided me in the writing. I wanted to write about all the Great Notions in a gently mocking way that didn’t irritate people too much — or maybe each side a little bit, both those who believe in science and those who believe in religion. In the end I think I irritated everyone.

 

Q2: Birds are a recurring animal in the book—killdeer, bluebirds, and even buzzards to which you devote an entire chapter. How come buzzards have such a bad reputation?

I’m an avid birdwatcher and have been for years, and often in the wintertime I don’t want to go outside and so I watch birds come to the feeder. And we get hundreds of them.

You don’t often see raccoons, coyotes, or wolves, but birds are always around and so I suppose that birds more often sink into my subconscious. But buzzards would anyway— they are the creepiest looking things. Society has demonized buzzards and bats because they look so ugly, but when a buzzard is soaring in the air it’s a very elegant thing. And bats in motion are awesome too.

I describe in the book, the time I saw buzzards circling over the pasture and I knew they had come across a sheep carcass. I sneaked over the hill very slowly so they could only see my head, and there were about 10 of them on the ground wrestling over the carcass, and six of them were on separate fence posts sort of overseeing the carnage. When those six black birds with their red heads saw me they all spread their wings wide, each a six foot span— it was quite a sight. I defy anyone who travels to the farthest regions of the world to find anything more awesome than that, and it was right here close by.

Buzzards are a symbol of death in many cultures and the more I thought about it, the more angles I found to write about—Andrew Wyeth painted them, and a friend of mine and his wife had one as a pet if you can believe it. This is what often happens to me, this kind of serendipity where a subject will become interesting to me in a very tangential way and then feed into my writing.

 

Q3: You talk about a lot of non-farm topics in the book, the Higgs boson, compound interest and even death cafés. What exactly is a death café and do they serve organic food?

That would make a great article — Menus for a Death Café. Perhaps it should include a bowl of cherries. I’ve never been to one, but as I understand it a group of people get together, drink a little truth serum—alcohol—and tell each other what they really think about dying and death.

The interesting thing I learned about death cafés – or death dinners that people are now holding – is that far from turning people off, the subject makes them perk up their ears. People want to know more.

This is not about ushering off a dying person with a party, although I think that would be a good idea too, but people just hanging out and talking about what they think is going to happen when they die. The point that I think needs to be brought out and what motivated me to write about this topic, and this book, is that younger people are not at all satisfied with what their religions have taught them about death. But there’s a hesitancy to start a conversation about it. When you get a dozen of them together, they feel freer to talk.

If you can bypass traditional ideological mindsets and just talk, then that’s when people begin to open up. That’s also where the humor can come in and that was part of the challenge of this book — writing about death lightly without being flippant.

 

Q4: People often play the games of whistling past the graveyard or holding their breath when they drive past one. Are cemeteries good for something more than just interring our dead? Should we be viewing, and maybe using them differently?

We’re missing an opportunity to use graveyards for a lot more than just burying people. First of all, we should be viewing them as arboretums and nature preserves rather than just a vacant park. A good place to go bird-watching. Sometimes in old cemeteries you can find native plants that have been all but destroyed elsewhere. Cemeteries can also be gathering places. I’ve read about a cemetery in Washington DC where some of the tombstones are shaped like park benches and people are encouraged to come in and eat picnic lunches there. I think that’s a neat idea.

I like cemeteries. They are so quiet and you are usually allowed to go in them without asking permission.  Why not plant apple trees, pear trees, hickory trees for the express purpose of producing food. People could come in and harvest them and remember that this tree or that tree is growing right over Grandmother’s bones. She made the best pies with these apples. Trees could be grown for the wood too and if all of the cemetery caretakers got together and planned out a schedule for timber harvesting, they could change the places into an ongoing source of lumber  and wouldn’t that would be fantastic. The trees are going to get old and die anyway, so why not use them? Make coffins out of them.

 

Q5: On a serious note, you write, “There is no such thing as vacant lots or abandoned farms. Nature will always fill them with life.” This is a consistent theme in the book and seems to be a core realization as you came to terms with your own mortality. Why do you think people focus too often on the vacancy rather than what is filled around them?

Nature abhors a vacuum. Yes, this is a very important part of my thinking. There is no such thing as something empty or vacant in nature, and the fact that we tend to look at nature and see emptiness or vacancy is an example of how our education so often is failing us. All around us all the time are marvelous wondrous things happening—like buzzards. We’re so eager to tell people that excitement comes from looking at the Seven Wonders of the World, or to get into an airplane and go far away. It’s just not so and leads to many misunderstandings about nature and reality.  People think that travel will relieve boredom, but boredom is a problem inside the mind, not outside it.

And this idea of there being nothing ever empty was a key inspiration for me because it led me to decide that matter is eternal. There never was nothing. This is where I upset both my religious and scientific friends. To my religious friends, God is eternal, and for scientists every effect must always have a cause. If matter is eternal, they are both wrong.

Deciding that matter was eternal, that the universe in some material form was always going to exist, was electrifying to me because it got rid of all those haunting questions about how life got started. To me the Big Bang theory is as ridiculous as a god hauling off and creating the universe from nothing. When I first thought of this I thought I was brilliant. Or nuts. Then I learned that people have had this thought for thousands of years, and they call it Taoism. That made me feel a little bit better, because I felt that if I’m nuts, then at least I’ve got a lot of good company.

This gets us back to this idea of immortality — that there’s no such thing as an empty place and never will be. Time is only the overflowing NOW. Couldn’t this be the most uplifting notion of all? That the key to immortality lies in mortality? That in nature there is not death but only a change of form.

Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Great Compost

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Compost is the key to a lush, abundant garden. Do you know how to turn kitchen scraps and yard waste into fragrant, crumbly, plant food? If not, your garden is missing out, and you are missing out on one of the most exciting and profound lessons organic gardening has to teach: the simple fact that in the circle of life, all waste is food.

Learn the basics of making compost from four-season gardening guru Eliot Coleman, and open a new door into the joy of growing your own food.

The following is an excerpt from Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman. It has been adapted for the Web.

****

Fertile soil is the key to growing garden vegetables

So often, the obvious solution is right at our fingertips, but it looks so simple that we fail to notice. Generations of gardeners have consistently come up with the same chain of logic: a fertile soil is the key to growing garden vegetables; compost is the key to a fertile soil. The first step in the four-season harvest is learning to make good compost. It’s not difficult. Compost wants to happen.

Compost is the end result of the decomposition of organic matter. It is basically a brown to black crumbly material that looks like a rich chocolate fudge cake. Compost is produced by managing the breakdown of organic material in a pile called a compost heap. Compost enhances soil fertility because fertile soil and compost share a prolific population of organisms whose food is decaying organic matter. The life processes of these organisms help make nutrients from the organic matter and the minerals in the soil available to growing plants.

A fertile soil is filled with life. Compost is the life preserver.

Gardeners are not alone in their reverence for compost. Poets have found it equally inspiring. Andrew Hudgins, in a poem titled “Compost: An Ode,” refers to the role of the compost heap in uniting life and death: “a leisurely collapsing of the thing into its possibilities.” John Updike reminds us that since “all process is reprocessing,” the forest can consume its fallen trees and “the woodchuck corpse vanish to leave behind a poem.” Walt Whitman marvels at how composting allows the earth to grow “such sweet things out of such corruptions.”

Good compost, like any other carefully crafted product, is not an accident. It comes about through a process involving microorganisms, organic matter, air, moisture, and time that can be orchestrated in anyone’s backyard. No machinery is necessary, and no moving parts need repair. All you need to do is heap up the ingredients as specified in the next section and let nature’s decomposers do the work.

Compost Ingredients

The ingredients for the heap are the organic waste materials produced in most yards, gardens, and kitchens. That is what is so miraculous and so compelling about compost. If you pile up organic waste products they eventually decompose into compost. There is nothing to buy, nothing to be delivered, nothing exotic. This acknowledged “best” garden fertilizer is so in harmony with the cyclical systems of the natural world that it is made for free in your back yard from naturally available waste products.

The more eclectic the list of ingredients, the better the compost. That is only logical. The plant wastes that go into your compost heap were once plants that grew because they were able to incorporate the nutrients they needed. So don’t pass up any weeds, shrub trimmings, cow pies, or odd leaves you can find. If you mix together a broad range of plants with different mineral makeups, the resulting compost will cover the nutrient spectrum.

I suggest dividing your compost ingredients into two categories based on their age and composition. The two categories are called green and brown.

The green ingredients include mostly young, moist, and fresh materials. They are the most active decomposers. Examples are kitchen wastes such as apple peels, leftovers, carrot tops, and bread, and garden wastes such as grass clippings, weeds, fresh pea vines, outer cabbage leaves, and dead chipmunks. The average house and yard produce wastes such as these in surprising quantities. National solid waste data indicate that approximately 25 percent of household trash consists of food scraps and yard waste.

The brown ingredients are usually older and drier than the green ones, and they decompose more slowly. Examples are dried grass stems, old cornstalks, dried pea and bean vines, reeds, and old hay. The brown category is usually not well represented in the average backyard. To start, you may want to purchase straw, the best brown ingredient of all. Straw is the stem that holds up the amber waves of grain in crops such as wheat, oats, barley, and rye. After the heads containing the grains are harvested, the straw is baled as a byproduct. You can purchase straw a few bales at a time from feed stores, riding stables, or a good garden supply store.

The advantage of straw as the brown ingredient is that it will almost guarantee the success of your composting efforts. When home gardeners encounter smelly failures in their attempts to
make good compost, the fault usually lies with the lack of a proper brown ingredient. In years to come, when you become an expert at composting, you may choose to expand your repertoire beyond this beginner’s technique, but it is the most reliable method for beginners or experts.

Building the Compost Heap

Pick a site near the garden so the finished compost will be close at hand. Whenever possible, place the heap under the branches of a deciduous tree so there will be shade in hot weather and sunlight to thaw the heap in spring. A site near the kitchen makes it convenient to add kitchen scraps. Access to a hose is handy for those times when the heap needs extra moisture. If the site is uphill from the garden, the heavy work of wheelbarrowing loads of compost will have gravity on its side.

Build the compost heap by alternating layers of brown ingredients with layers of green ones. Begin with a layer of straw about 3 inches deep, then add 1 to 6 inches of green ingredients, another 3 inches of straw, and then more green ingredients. The thickness of the green layer depends on the nature of the materials. Loose, open material such as green bean vines or tomato stems can be applied in a thicker (6-inch) layer, while denser material that might mat together, such as kitchen scraps or grass clippings,
should be layered thinly (1 to 2 inches). These thicknesses are a place for you to start, but you will learn to modify them as conditions require.

Sprinkle a thin covering of soil on top of each green layer. Make the soil 1/2 inch deep or so depending on what type of green material is available. If you have just added a layer of weeds with soil on their roots, you can skip the soil covering for that layer. The addition of soil to the compost heap has both a physical and a microbiological effect: physical because certain soil constituents (clay particles and minerals) have been shown to enhance the decomposition of organic matter; microbiological because soil contains millions of microorganisms, which are needed to break down the organic material in the heap. These bacteria, fungi, and other organisms multiply in the warm, moist conditions as decomposition is initiated. If your garden is very sandy or gravelly, you might want to find some clay to add to the heap as the soil layer. As an additional benefit, the clay will improve the balance of soil particle sizes in your garden.

Tree Sap: Nature’s Energy Drink

Monday, March 10th, 2014

There’s nothing better than kicking back after a long day with a nice cool glass of tree sap…wait, what?

Sounds sticky, I know, but you might be surprised to hear that sap from maple, birch, or walnut trees is comprised mostly of water with 2 percent or less sugar and loaded with minerals, nutrients, enzymes, antioxidants, and more—an incredible, all-natural beverage.

Whether the resulting product is sap, syrup, or some other delicious treat, The Sugarmaker’s Companion by Michael Farrell, documents the untapped potential of American forests and shows how sugaring can turn a substantial profit for farmers while providing tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction.

According to Farrell, fresh sap is the most valuable product you can get out of a tree. Learn more about its market potential in the following excerpt adapted from The Sugarmaker’s Companion. After reading, you may find yourself scouring the aisles of your local health food store for this nutritious elixir, or tapping trees to start your own sap beverage business.

*****

The first year I tried making maple syrup was pretty much a disaster. My father, brother Jeremy, and I tapped several trees on our property in Lake George in an attempt to produce maple syrup. We didn’t do nearly enough research beforehand and consequently burned many of my mother’s favorite pots. To say that our syrup took on a smoky flavor would certainly be an understatement! The lone bright spot in our adventure was discovering how delicious the sap was—fresh from the tree or partially boiled down into an even sweeter, golden liquid. After several failed attempts at making syrup, we gave up on that aspect altogether and just drank the sap. Whatever sap we didn’t drink fresh got boiled down for 20 to 30 minutes on the stove until we had created “Adirondack Sweetwater.” While I certainly love pure maple syrup, drinking the sap is what really got me hooked on sugaring.

Drinking Sap: Fresh or Pasteurized

Some people enjoy drinking sap fresh from the tree, while others prefer to boil it for a brief period to kill any bacteria or yeast. Since it is certainly possible for harmful bacteria to be found in sap, the cautious solution is to pasteurize it before drinking. However, this will kill all the bacteria, both good and bad, thereby precluding possible consumption of probiotics that are important for human health.

It is worth noting that maple sap is basically sterile inside the tree; it is not until it is exposed to the atmosphere or comes in contact with collection equipment that it picks up various strains of bacteria. Luc Lagace, a maple researcher with Centre ACER in Quebec, has spent considerable time and resources along with his colleagues identifying the bacterial communities commonly found in maple sap. They recently used advanced technology to identify a wide array of bacterial communities found at the taphole, with Pseudomonas and Rahnella the most commonly occurring genera.10 Although it is possible that probiotics could become introduced into the sap, it is also possible that harmful bacteria could make their way in. For this reason, I always recommend filtering and pasteurizing the sap before drinking—just to be safe. In the same way that municipalities implement a “boil water” policy whenever there is a water main break, I also always recommend sterilizing the sap before drinking. I would feel terrible if someone wound up with contaminated sap (based solely on their collection practices) and then became ill themselves or made other people sick by serving contaminated sap to them. While there is a good chance you could drink raw sap your entire life and never get sick from it, when you are serving sap to other people (or recommending them to try it), it is always best to err on the side of caution.

Carbonated Sap

If you are a fan of carbonated beverages, you can make a fresh maple seltzer simply by using maple sap instead of water in a home carbonation machine. There are plenty of different models on the market that are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Simply substitute maple sap (or birch or walnut sap) for water and use the carbonation machine as directed. With your own carbonator, you can control the level of fizziness in your seltzer and make it fresh whenever you want. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes carbonated beverages. As an added bonus, you’ll also be able to make your own maple soda (as described in detail in chapter 11).

There is a company in Vermont that has been instrumental in commercializing the concepts discussed above. Brothers Bob and Rich Munch applied for and received a patent in 1995 to create the products that they market through Vermont Sweetwater Bottling Company. Their patent covers the methods of pasteurization, filtration, concentration, and bottling of carbonated maple sap. A 2009 article in The Atlantic featured their successful business, which now sells roughly 10,000 cases each year.11 In addition to carbonated maple sap, they also make a pure maple soda and several other flavored soft drinks. Although not all of their beverages utilize maple sap and syrup, these two products provided the impetus to develop their thriving company.

Commercializing Tree Sap

To date there has been much more commercial activity with bottling and selling birch sap than there has been with maple sap. A quick Internet search for “birch sap” reveals a wide variety of purveyors throughout Europe, Russia, and Asia. There are many websites where you can buy pure birch sap or other beverages that utilize birch sap as the main ingredient. Most of the products use citric acid to preserve the sap, and many come with added sugars. The main obstacle that most companies encounter is preserving tree sap for year-round consumption while still maintaining the flavor and health benefits of fresh sap. The other challenge is trying to supply a market for 52 weeks when the sap is only running for less than a month. This requires a lot of warehousing and strategic planning to ensure a steady supply at an affordable price. It also requires a great deal of marketing and outreach to teach the public about maple and/or birch sap. Most people are originally skeptical of drinking tree sap, so you need to offer samples and do whatever outreach is needed to get people to understand why maple and birch sap are incredible, all-natural beverages. Once people taste the sap and discover that it is just like pure water with a hint of natural sweetness, they will gladly buy it. However, if you just put it on a shelf somewhere and hope somebody will try it, chances are you won’t sell much.

Maple Sap

The last few years have seen a surge in activity with bottling maple sap. In 2009 Keith Harris retired from his corporate job and started Troll Bridge Creek Inc. with his wife, Lorraine, in Ontario, Canada. Keith decided to use his science and business background to start an entirely new venture in bringing maple sap to the marketplace as an all-natural, healthy beverage. Within a year Troll Bridge Creek Inc. developed the KiKi Maple Sweet Water brand and bottled thousands of gallons of maple sap in 12-ounce glass bottles. They have since greatly expanded production and branched out to include blueberry-, strawberry-, and cranberry-flavored versions that have pure fruit juice added to the maple sap. For a couple of years they also had lemon-ginger and lemon-mint flavors, but these were not as popular so are no longer offered. The response from health food stores has been remarkable; over 150 outlets across Canada now carry their products. Keith is also in conversations with a number of Asian businesses to export their maple sap to Korea, China, and Japan. Over the past year he has been working with researchers at Conestoga College in Ontario to develop additional processing techniques to preserve maple sap for year-round consumption. The idea is to then license this technology to others so that sugarmakers throughout the United States and Canada could also bottle and sell pure maple sap as a healthy beverage. Stay tuned for further developments in coming years.

Not all of the maple sap commercialization is happening in Canada. Here in the United States, I have come across several restaurants and health food stores selling maple sap in various forms over the past several years. Most notably, in 2012, Feronia Forests, LLC, a sustainable forestry company and certified B-corporation with timberland holdings in Massachusetts and New York State, started researching various processes to extend the shelf life of maple sap. After positive developments in their first year, Feronia bottled enough maple water in a shelf-stable manner to run a regional test market in the summer of 2013. They are planning a commercial launch of maple water in the spring of 2014 under the label Vertical Water. Feronia’s Vertical Water will soon provide added growth to the subsegment of all-natural functional waters category, much in the way coconut waters have done over the past few years.

Birch Sap

Rather than being processed into syrup, the majority of birch sap collected in the world is used as a beverage. Most of it is converted into what’s known as a “Forest Drink” (or a similar translation) that involves adding sugar to the sap and preserving with citric acid and/or heat treatment for year-round consumption. Although there is a good market for this type of beverage, a company in Finland is taking a different approach. Susanna and Arto Maaranen have developed a unique method of preserving birch sap without having to heat, freeze, or refrigerate the sap. Their company, Nordic Koivu, is able to keep the birch sap in a natural state and therefore maintain all the health benefits of fresh birch sap for everyday use throughout the year. They have not yet patented their technology, because doing so would reveal the trade secrets that they have spent years of research and development to discover.

The temperatures are usually much warmer when birch sap is flowing as compared with maple. Therefore the sap is more likely to spoil and needs to be collected and processed carefully and quickly. Nordic Koivu has developed a custom-made sap collection system, utilizing stainless steel and a special type of plastic that allows the company to maintain the highest-quality sap for as long as possible. They are also working on a project to have subcontractors collect birch sap, which they would then deliver to the plant for processing and bottling. They originally experimented with having another company collect sap for them; once that proved successful, they have expanded to include another four or five sap collectors. This allows them to focus on processing, bottling, and marketing the sap without having to worry about gathering it. By having trained people gather the sap with customized and specific materials, they can also ensure a high-quality product.

Final Thoughts

Whereas commercializing tree sap for year-round consumption is a difficult venture, you may have better luck marketing sap as a seasonal product with a limited shelf life. Our relationship with seasonal beverages in America is highly varied. Some beverages are seasonal even though they don’t have to be; others should be seasonal but are now produced year-round.

As our food system has evolved over the past century, many of us have lost touch with the seasonal nature of food. However, since tree sap only flows during a limited time of the year and is difficult and expensive to preserve, it may work best as a seasonal product. With the rise of CSAs, year-round farmers’ markets, and other venues for local food distribution, getting fresh, minimally processed maple sap to the market is much easier than it used to be. There are many people who would love to drink sap as a seasonal “spring tonic.” If you can find a way to supply fresh, properly processed and packaged sap to them in an economical manner, then you can certainly develop a successful business.

 

Garden Planning Sale: 25% Off All Gardening Books

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Want a great garden?

It all starts with a good plan. You’ll find growing is easier than you ever imagined.

To help jump-start your garden planning we’ve included some tips and inspiration from our expert authors; from planning the best garden, to starting your seedlings right and how to pick the best crop for your garden.

Keep checking our website for the month of March with more posts as part of our “Garden Series” for planting tips and tricks for the coming gardening season. We’ve also put all our gardening books on sale for 25% off until March 31st.

Happy reading (and planting) from your friends at Chelsea Green Publishing.

P.S. In case you missed it we’re partnering with Whole Earth Summit - a free on-line 3-day seminar (March 11-13th) with some of the world’s leading activists and on-the-ground leaders. Hope you can join us!


How to Plan the Best Garden Ever

Growing your own food is hard work, but with a few easy tips and techniques you can make it a lot easier. It all starts with a good plan. Carol Deppe shares her labor-saving tricks for your best garden yet. Plan it »»


Start Seedlings in a Cold Frame

Are you ready to get a start on the gardening season? With a cold frame you can jump in now.

Farmer Eliot Coleman is the master of growing vegetables year-round, and he has some simple guidelines for using cold frames to start seedlings right. Grow it »»


Choosing the Right Seed Crop

Ever wonder what crops will grow best on your land? Well, learn from award-winning author John Navazio about the right questions to ask.

He guides you through the characteristics of the most cultivated crops so you will get a better feel for which crops are best suited for you, especially when growing them from seed. Grow it »»


~ ~ Gardening Savings: 25% Off  ~ ~
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Four-Season Harvest
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This Organic Life
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The Organic Seed Grower
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Market Farming Success, Revised and Expanded EditionRetail $29.95
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Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier LandRetail $29.95
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The Grafter's Handbook
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The Seed Underground
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How to Graft the Perfect Fruit Tree: Five Grafting Techniques

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Before we know it the growing season will be upon us, so now is the perfect time to take care of any pre-season grafting. Learning the art and science of grafting fruit trees can give an old tree a new life, or perhaps give some continuing life to a variety you love.

The Grafter’s Handbook by R. J. Garner is the classic reference book for this time-honored skill. First published in 1946, and last revised in 1988, we’re pleased to publish this sixth revised and updated edition. Revised and updated by respected horticulturist Steve Bradley, this  indispensable manual will remain the go-to guide for a new generation of orchardists.

In the excerpt below, Garner outlines basic concepts and details five key techniques for grafting established trees, such as cleft, oblique, rind, veneer, crown and strap grafting.

And the book covers many more aspects of grafting, everything  the dedicated amateur, student or professional horticulturalist wants to know.

Grafting Established Trees – An Excerpt from The Grafter’s Handbook by Chelsea Green Publishing

Gardening Tips from Eliot Coleman: How to Start Seedlings in a Cold Frame

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Are you ready to get a start on the gardening season? With a cold frame you can jump in now.

A cold frame, essentially a garden bed surrounded by an angled frame and covered with glass, is a simple way to harness the heating power of the sun to get seedlings going before it’s warm enough to plant them outside unprotected. Everything but the most heat-loving vegetables (tomatoes and peppers) can be started this way. Plus, a cold frame has the added advantage of getting your plants into the real soil right away, instead of constricting their roots in trays, which can leading to unnecessary stress.

Farmer Eliot Coleman is the master of growing vegetables year-round, and he has some simple guidelines for using cold frames to start seedlings right. If he can do it in freezing coastal Maine, you’ve got no excuse!

* * * * *

The following excerpt is from Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman.

Your cold frame can serve as a greenhouse for starting seedlings

You can use it for all seedlings that are transplanted except the early-spring sowings of heat-lovers such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. They should be started in a sunny window in the house. For all the others, the cold frame is an ideal place to start growing. Once you begin raising seedlings in the cold frame, you will find it so simple and successful that you will never go back to flats on windowsills. Here’s how to do it:

Spread potting mix about two to three inches deep in whatever part of a frame you wish to use for seedlings. Lay 3-inch boards around the edge as a border, then treat that area as if it were a flat: make furrows, drop in evenly spaced seeds, cover them shallowly, mark them with name and date on a small stake, and water them lightly with a fine sprinkler. The rows can be as close together as they would be in a flat. Space seeds evenly in the seeding row so they won’t be crowded. We always try to avoid plant stress at all stages of growing. It takes a little more time, but the results are worth it.

Cutting the Seedlings into 3-inch Blocks Inside the Cold Frame

When the seedlings are up, move them to an adjoining section of the frame, which also has a 2 inch covering of potting mix over the soil. Do this as soon as you can handle the seedlings. Within reason, the younger you transplant a seedling, the better. Dig under each one with a small, pointed dowel, lifting and loosening the roots as you extract them from the soil. Always be gentle with seedlings. Hold them by a leaf, not the stem, so you don’t crush the vital parts if you squeeze too hard.

Poke holes in the potting soil of the adjoining section with the dowel to make space for the roots, then tuck them in lightly. A good distance for all seedlings is 3 inches apart. When they are large enough to transplant to the garden, use a knife to cut the soil into cubes with a seedling in the center of each. It is just like cutting a tray of brownies. If you make sure the soil is moist (sprinkle if necessary before cutting), the blocks will hold together nicely. You can use a bricklayer’s or right-angle trowel to slice underneath each cube, lift it out, and set it in a tray for transport to its permanent garden home.

There are many advantages to growing seedlings in a cold frame

Scooping the Seedling with the Transplanting Tool

No flats are necessary. There is no potting soil mess in the house. The seedlings will be hardy because the cold frame is not artificially heated. Any additional hardening off is easily accomplished by opening the lights slightly wider.

Finally, watering is more forgiving, since your seedlings are connected to the earth and they can’t dry out as quickly as they can in the limited confines of a flat. Thus, an occasional lapse in watering is not disastrous.

The intermediate transplanting from the seedling row to the 3-by-3-inch spacing makes transplanting seedlings a two-step process. We think it’s worth the effort because the intermediate step has been found to stimulate increased root regrowth, resulting in slightly more vigorous transplants. You can do it as a one-step process by simply starting out with the 3-by-3-inch configuration and planting three seeds in each square. After they emerge, you thin to the best one in each square and proceed as before.

Planting a Seedling in the GardenWith some crops, we use a Dutch idea called multiplants and sow four or more seeds in each square with no intention of thinning them. This allows us to grow transplants in groups rather than as singles. The onion crop will serve as a good example of how to go about it. Sow five seeds together. Plan for four of the seeds to germinate. When the onion seedlings are large enough to go to the garden, cut out the blocks as usual and set them out at a spacing of 10 by 12 inches.

If you were growing single plants in rows they would be set 3 inches apart. Four plants in a clump every 12 inches in a row is the same average spacing as one plant every 3 inches. Each onion is allowed just as much total garden space,and the yield is the same. The onions growing. together push each other aside gently and at harvest time are lying in a series of small circles rather than single rows. If all the seeds germinate and there are five onions in each clump, that’s no problem.

In addition to onions, you can use the multiplant technique for early transplants of beets, broccoli, cabbage, leeks, scallions, and spinach. Not only is this system more efficient because four plants can be transplanted as quickly as one, but it also can be used to control size when desired. A clump of broccoli, for example, will yield three or four smaller central heads rather than one large one. For many families, the smaller unit size is more desirable.


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