Stacking Functions Garden


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All plastic is oil: the movie Collapse

Collapse

The book that the documentary was based on.

I added the documentary Collapse to my Netflix queue at least two years ago, after a friend earnestly implored me to see it. It’s a profile of a guy named Michael Ruppert, whose blog/self-published newsletter predicted—with scary accuracy—the economic collapse of 2009. Back when the movie came out, I added his website to my RSS reader, but I had to stop reading after a while because I felt like I was going to have a panic attack if I read one more article about peak oil.

I was filled with dread at the prospect of watching the movie, but this weekend I finally got up the nerve. Honestly, it wasn’t that scary. As a matter of fact, as soon as the movie was over, Adam joked, “Wait, wait, don’t tell me, THIS is why you want to get chickens, right?”

If you’ve read about climate change, and if you’ve ever heard of the giant pool of money, most of the information that Ruppert presents is now old news. We’re probably past peak oil. Capitalism itself is unsustainable because infinite growth is not achievable on a planet with finite resources.

Honestly, this stuff doesn’t scare me that much anymore. I guess I’ve moved into the acceptance phase—I’m much more focused on what I can do about it.

Yet, I’ve also found myself slipping into old habits lately as our personal economic situation has improved. The kids are in school now; we’re not as desperately broke as we were when I first started writing this blog. For the past month or two, I’ve been noticing that our small “plastics” recycling bin has actually been full every time the recycling goes out. This is a clue that I’m not doing all I can to reduce plastic in my life. My goal is generally to only have to take the plastics bin out once or twice a year.

So I’m glad I watched this; if nothing else it was a good reminder that, indeed, all plastic is oil. Learning to live without plastic now will make it easier to adjust later when it’s no longer cheap and plentiful. Besides, given the facts that it’s nearly impossible to recycle AND possibly leaches chemicals into your food, it’s really not a great choice anyway.

I liked what Mr. Ruppert had to say. Yes, he’s a bit of a Lone Gunman, but he also advocates community building and local food networks and truly believes that we can confront this crisis if we change our paradigms. The revolution is at our doorstep—but it doesn’t need to be a violent one. We all need to quit wasting our time yelling about trivial political issues (related: turn off our TVs), and pull together to figure out how we survive the coming challenges. Planting a garden is a great place to start. I am IN. Are you?

(We’ll return to our regular posts about gardening and recipes later in the week, I promise!)


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Milkapalooza!

Yes, there is an event called Milkapalooza, and yes of course we went to it this weekend. It was a blast. Anneke, it turns out, is a natural at milking cows:

The event featured tours of the Minars’ farm, and I eagerly soaked up every minute. This was our opportunity to see where our milk comes from! And considering how much yogurt, butter, and ice cream we make with their milk/cream, a fair amount of our family’s daily calories come from this patch of grass and cows near New Prague, Minnesota. Here are some of the highlights from the tour:

Here’s the winter hoop house (not sure if that’s the right term) — it’s a simple structure where the cows go in cold weather. There is no barn for them to sleep in — this is it.  The bedding at the bottom is turned frequently, and as it decomposes, it heats up (this is all part of the process, as those of you who compost know). The heat is plenty for the cows, even in Minnesota winters.

The milk parlor was a little dark, so sorry for the low quality.  I’ve only seen a handful of milk parlors, including my Grandpa Rensenbrink’s very low-tech one, so this was very impressive. They can milk 32 cows at once!  Looking at the picture, basically cows would be facing you. The person goes down a set of stairs into a galley where they have easy access to all the udders to hook up the machines. It was pretty neat and efficient, and very clean.

The family raises pigs and chickens too, but not for commerce necessarily (that I know of anyway). Those were some darn happy pigs. Anneke naturally thought they were completely adorable and said that one in particular looked exactly like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.

Finally, the cows themselves. My, what beautiful girls. The milking herd is about 150 cows, which seemed like a small number to me (not really sure on that though). They have several different breeds including brown jerseys like this one. So, Cedar Summit Farms is different from conventional and even some organic dairies in several key ways:

1. The cows eat grass, and stored hay in winter. Quite a bit of acreage is required to grow that much “pasture salad,” as the tour guide called it.  Apparently when they switched from grains to grass, milk production went down.  But so did costs, so things balanced out in the long term.

2. Calves get to stay with their mother for 4-6 weeks after birth. Apparently you get much healthier calves this way.

3. The cows live a bit longer than they would if they lived on concrete, inside, their whole lives.

4. The cows still become hamburger, after 5-6 pregnancy and lactation cycles.  Sorry, but it’s true.

I know very little about dairy farming. But I liked everything I saw and heard at the farm this weekend. There were so many things to think about — and I’ve already gone on and on about how much healthier grass-based dairy products are.

This is going to sound a bit melodramatic, but I looked at this farm and saw a way to save the rural America I grew up in and love.  By making farming a bit less efficient, you instantly need many, many more farmers than we currently have.  Farms get smaller again.  Families can be supported by a smallish farm.  Rural communities have an economy again.  Everyone wins.  You can set aside the health, environmental, and animal welfare implications of “agribusiness” as we know it, and the bare economic facts point to smaller, greener farms being much better for people and communities.

Now the challenge: how to talk people into making the switch to milk that costs twice as much. And, how to get the government to subsidize farm programs that actually benefit real farmers instead of corporations — because conventional dairy farming, like so much else in our society is partially a product of subsidies both to corn and oil. It’s not sustainable. Things have got to change.

[ Blushes, thanks you very kindly for reading this far, and steps off soap box ]


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Design with Nature

I just signed up for the Design with Nature conference later this month!  I’m super excited.  I’ve been wanting to learn more about landscaping.  Naturally, I’ll take copious notes and report back to you all what I learn.

The conference is February 26 at the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.  Read all about it.


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Winter Bike Commuting

I’m going for it this year!  I invested $130 in a new setup that has gotten me through all kinds of ice and snow in the last two weeks with no problems whatsoever.  Will I make it all winter?  Hopefully, but only time and Paul Douglas will tell.  Here’s my ride:

Safety tips so far include: wear reflective vest in the evening, take it slow, and, as per my usual advice, take the back roads whenever possible.  Also, I really like the ski goggles that Adam got me as an early Christmas present, though they’re not 100% necessary.

As usual, we tried to be as thrifty as possible, so here’s the cost breakdown:
$50 complete Nishiki Uptown bike in working order (via craigslist)
$65 set of Innova Tundra Wolf Studded Snow Tires
$15 set of SKS Beavertail fenders

The Nishiki Uptown was a great find.  That thing is a tank.  Added bonus: it has horizontal dropouts so after I trash the components this year, Adam could potentially convert it to a single speed or fixie for winter 2011-12.

Update, 12/27/2010: Boy, did I pick a great year to commit to winter bike commuting.  We’ve had 33″ of snow so far this December, on our way to a record (more is expected later this week). But I only wimped out and took the bus a total of 3 times so far.  I will, however, amend my earlier advice about only taking the back roads.  During a snow emergency, you’ll want to stick with main roads and try to leave just a little before or a little after the main rush hour.  I’ve been taking Bloomington Ave when the side streets are impassable and it’s been mostly pleasant.


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Book Review: Build Your Own Earth Oven

So it’s been over six months since my last book review (and my last few reviews were pretty lame).  I went on a total fiction binge this year.  I can now say I’ve completely exhausted any need to read about vampires for a very, very long time (at least until the sequel to The Passage comes out).

Anyway, so here’s a little non-fiction book that I picked up on impulse from the library a few weeks ago:

Build Your Own Earth Oven
A low-cost, wood-fired, mud oven simple sourdough bread, perfect loaves
by Kiko Denzer with Hannah Field

Ever since I tasted pizza from my friend Robin’s wood-fired pizza oven, this idea has really intrigued me.  But why build it out of mud?  Well, firebrick is pretty expensive — $2-$3 a piece.  Denzer’s ovens use a handful of firebricks for the oven floor, but they are mostly built out of mud.  He gives seven basic reasons to use mud: it’s fun, fast, artistic, cheap, builds community, is adaptable, and finally — the most compelling reason of all — it turns to brick through the heating process.

Not just any old mud will do, however.  You need mud that has high clay content.  This generally involves digging down a couple of feet past the topsoil.  The easiest way to tell if your soil has enough clay is to pick up a handful, roll it around in your hand into a ball, then squeeze it into a snake shape.  The longer and smoother “snake” you can make (with no cracks), the higher your clay content.

Most people (theoretically) should be able to find soil with high enough clay content for cheap or free, even if they don’t have it in their own yard.

So you build a foundation (Denzer gives multiple options here), lay a couple firebricks, and build a mud-based (also called “cob”) dome top.  While that dries you make a nice neat little oven door.  And… you’re done.  Denzer claims the whole thing can be done in a 1/2 day.  I am skeptical.  Up here in the north country you also definitely need some sort of shelter to put this in: nothing fancy, just a simple structure to keep the rain and snow off.

The chapter on sourdough baking (with recipe) was interesting, but I’m not ready to pick that thread up again for a while.  There are multiple right ways do bake sourdough bread — I just have to [someday] figure out the one that works for me.  Maybe someday if I am lucky enough to retire from full-time work…

If we ever get around to building a wood-fired oven, I will check this book out again.  These things are way cool, and they churn out some really delicious pizzas and breads.  They can also be a neat work of art — here’s some inspirational imagery for you.

My ultimate fantasy: to have a building that somehow incorporates a root cellar, a chicken coop, a garden toolshed + potting bench, and a sheltered but open area with an earth oven.  And then to be able to play there all day every day!  (In my fantasy world, obviously, winter doesn’t exist…)


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No-mow grass

A few weeks ago, I took a mid-summer Master Gardener refresher course at the Minnesota Landscape ArboretumBob Mugaas, the awesome turf-grass guy from the U of M, gave a presentation about new no-mow landscape grasses that the university is developing.  Some are already available commercially.

The implications of this are incredible.  Imagine not having to mow your lawn.  Imagine all the oil and emissions that could be saved if people mowed their lawns only 2-3 times a summer at the most.  For us, our yard is so small, and we use a reel-type mower, so it wouldn’t be a huge savings in time or money.  But if I had a huge suburban yard, I’d be all over this.

The main no- and low-mow turfgrasses that are available commercially today are fine fescues, such as red fescue, chewings fescue, and hard fescue.  These can look a little floppy — because of their finer grain they don’t stand straight up like ye olde Kentucky bluegrass.  So adjust your expectations, yo.

Here’s an article from Extension with much more information as well as resources on where you can order low- and no-mow grass seed mixes.  Alas, I think you’d most likely not be able to find sod, because this is all still too new.

The Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series also has some good information about maintaining a healthy lawn and when to plant, etc.  A couple notes, whether you have a low-maintenance lawn or whether you mow every week:

1) The best time to seed and the best time to fertilize are both in the early fall.
2) When watering, think deep & infrequent during the spring and fall, and more frequently but not so deeply in the summer.  This is because the root systems of grass plants typically die back quite a bit during hot, dry weather, but grow deeper during cool weather.
3) Setting your mower an inch or two higher will result in cooler, happier root systems and healthier grass.  If you are trying to achieve a putting green for a yard, your mower is set WAY too low.


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Okra

Ever wondered what an okra plant looks like?  We’re growing it in our Hennepin County Master Gardener demo plot at Sabathani community garden this year.  I love the leaf shape.  Check it out (click to enlarge):

4-5 okra plants, from above.

Lots of baby okras coming in.

Another view.  The plants are about 2.5 feet tall right now.  The seed packet said that they would be 4 feet tall, but I don’t know if that’s possible in Minnesota (okra is a tropical plant).  We direct-sowed seed and also put in a couple of plants that we had started inside, and there is very little difference between the two right now.  The seed packet also said to stake the plants, but I haven’t found that to be necessary yet.  I love to eat okra, so I might try it in my own garden next year.  My recommendation would be to find room for at least 6-7 plants, if you’re going to grow it.  The production has been a little uneven so far, and some pickings have only resulted in 2-3 pods.  Not really enough for a meal. That looks like it’s going to change soon, though.

If you’re ever near 38th St. and 35W in Minneapolis, I highly recommend visiting the Sabathani garden (behind the community center).  It is a really cool place right now; lots of innovative gardening going on there.