It’s been hard in our neck of the woods. We had 0.69 inches of rain this month. Not even one inch. The Department of Environmental Protection has issued a “Severe Drought Warning” for my county. Thunderstorm after thunderstorm has  evaporated, glanced off or split around our area. The Wundermap shows their tragic course all too well: other places get the rain, here we get a drop or two, some damaging, desiccating wind, but no relief. I’m looking at the map now: a massive system is bringing rain in the west, but it will pass just south of us, again.

Our town has instigated a partial watering ban (irrigate between 7 pm and 7 am, every other day), which I suspect will soon become a full ban.  The farm three miles from us, from which we get our CSA box, is postponing further plantings until their irrigation ponds and brooks have been replenished. That means we may not get fall produce from them.

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My gardens, annual and perennial, are hanging on by their fingernails – it sometimes literally looks like that, with the leaves on trees and bushes standing up, showing their paler undersides, like hands reaching up into the sky, begging for a drop (they’re actually orienting their leaves for minimal evaporation and solar exposure). Even though I water every other day, all are thoroughly stuck in a vegetative state. Green beans have been harvested (haricots verts smaller than I usually harvest them, but they failed to grow bigger) and this year there will probably not be a second harvest, which is usually more abundant, because they’re not making new flowers. The tomatoes plants which had grown so many large, plump fruits are not ripening them at all. We’ve been stuck at code green for weeks now and the tomatoes are starting to take on that bloodless, necrotic look. The equally thirsty critters, chipmunks and squirrels mostly, have been eating away at the sour fruits. Few flowers appear and they die off without setting fruit, and it’s not for lack of pollination as I shake them all the time, and the bumblebees have been abundant.

The gardener too suffers. I’ve never been good in the heat, and these 95F-100F (in the shade!) days are brutal. I hand water every other day, in the early morning or later evening and it’s about all I can do. And so my poor (or should I say, lucky?) bees have had to do without my constant interference. They beard or “hang out on the porch,” as we say, by the thousands, even at night to relieve the temperature inside the hive. The nectar flow seems to have slowed down considerably.

The chickens are doing quite well, finding shade and clean water. But for the broody one, who insists on sitting on a pile of straw in the hot nest box all day. Her comb isn’t full and dark like the other ones. During the hottest time of day I open the nest box and pour spoonfuls of cool water into her panting beak.  I hope she stops being broody soon. Egg production is down somewhat.

Rain dance, anyone?

I visited the two buckets of FAA today – they’re nicely tucked away in the cool, dark basement. Amazing how it doesn’t smell awful or even fishy at all, since it’s just fish and sugar, and some apples. The apple smell dominates, along with a sweet fermented smell. The top of one had a lot of mold, which I just scooped up and fed to my compost bin buddies.

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Underneath that layer the liquefying action is well and truly happening. Basically, only the big fish heads are left. This is what it looks like after a stir:

 

 

 

Meanwhile, outside, this, in case you too were wondering where some of those sumptuous ripe peas went (click to enlarge):

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Another oft-used (and used in quantity) cohort of living allies in Korean Natural Farming is  IMO: Indigenous Micro Organisms.  The IMO “input” is made in several steps, from IMO 1 through 4.  IMO 1 is the “catch” of said microorganisms, and in each subsequent  step you get to culture these, growing their quantity until you potentially end up with a big pile. The first step, where you trap the organisms, is proving tricky for me. My first attempt got eaten and soiled by a mouse or some such; it went to the chickens. My second attempt at IMO 2 looked like this:

Closer, but that too isn’t going to cut it; it went into the steaming, youngest compost pile.

The recipe for the “bait” is pretty simple.

  1. First soak a carbohydrate like rice for 24 hours.
  2. Hard-boil it with a ratio of 1:1.5 cups (rice:water). The rice should be dry and fluffy, not wet and soggy. Let cool.
  3. Put the cooked rice in a wicker basket like mine, or in  any container, wood, glass, plastic, porous like the basket, or not, as long as it is open up top and allows for half of its volume for head space. Place a cloth or old t-shirt or paper towel over it so no dirt can fall in, but it is not sealed, and optionally cover it with a metal  mesh to keep mice out.
  4. Bury this container in the leaf or compost pile, or under the duff in the forest, under an old tree.
  5. After 4 to 10 days, depending on the temperature (colder = less microbial activity), dig up the basket.

You can find anything in your trap. What you want to find are certain aerobic microbes – hence the need for a fluffy rice with air pockets and head space for them to colonize. When you collect in a forest, among the leaf litter, you will catch mostly fungal hyphae. Among grasses, you will trap a more bacterial crowd. If you want to grow grass or grains, go for the latter. For growing veggies and perennials, the fungal stuff is the thing, because fungi are great companions for plants.

The fungal hyphae with which your rice is now “contaminated” should be white and fluffy and have a sweet smell. The stuff in my basket was predominantly red, yellow and black, and it smelled moldy, because I had caught mainly molds – which are also fungi, but not the kind you want (FYI, check out this amazing video on mold growth). I think this was because the rice was too wet.

The next steps, which I’ll write about as I get to perform them once I’ve managed to trap the IMO, are basically to feed  this handful of organisms so they multiply to greater and greater quantities. To summarize, the IMO first colonizes 1 cup of rice (IMO 1), then rice and as much brown sugar (IMO 2), then 150 lbs of wheat bran (IMO 3), then all of the above plus as much garden soil, totaling over 300 lbs (IMO 4), at which point it is ready to be brought, with much fanfare, into the garden. (Go here for a nice reportage, with photos, of a workshop by Aaron Englander, similar to the one I took. It covers IMO 1- through 4.)

The whole point of IMO is to trap indigenous organisms, because of the ecological and economic advantages of closing the loops by not using imports, and because these indigenous micro organisms are already acclimated to the general environment where you want to put them to use – though of course it would be more accurate to say that they made and make that environment. So if you can, it’s best to look for them in the duff in undisturbed areas under the trees, at the bottom of an old leaf pile, or in a mature compost pile on your own property, or in the vicinity. The farthest distance the IMO travel is, in my case, about ten feet.

Notice the words old, mature and undisturbed. If your garden is a place of disturbance by digging, tilling, and applications of antibiotic chemicals, then the soil there will be “young” or “poor” at best, dead at worst. You want to bring in the robust, mature, complex life that has evolved to the most it can be in nature, away from modern man’s interference. And once you’ve brought in this life, you want to keep welcoming it by minimizing disturbance by going no-till, chemical free.

Ideally, as you let the IMO colonize more and more substrates, the garden itself becomes the IMO 5, as it were. But even the least disturbing farmers, treading the most gently on their soil, still have to dig for those potatoes, tuck in a seed or  seedling, pull the occasional weed. Therefore IMO 4 is applied regularly on farms and in gardens. The poorer your soil, the more disturbing your gardening practices, and/or the further away your IMO was collected, the more it will need to be applied.

I made three more batches of rice and buried them in different places:

  • IMO 1 a. The same place as the failed one, just to try again with drier rice. It’s in a decomposing wood chip garden path where the King  Stropharia likes to show itself, the duff there is shot through with mycelium.
  • IMO 1 b. In the oldest leaf pile on the property: the leaves at the bottom are about four years old, with successive layers for each year.
  • IMO 1 c. Under one of our biggest trees, in a shady spot where no one but the chipmunks go, where the soil is dark and springy.

This way I’m hedging my bets and, in the spirit of diversity, it makes sense that combining microbes collected from multiple sites will make for a more robust culture. Stay tuned.

Back in winter, my friend Alex and I were planning on starting a mushroom farm on the property. Unfortunately our calls for logs (oak, birch, beech, etc.) didn’t produce any, and so the inoculation season passed us by. But all was not lost. In  2010 I bought and planted mycelium of King Stropharia.  Stropharia rugosoannulata, also known as the wine cap stropharia, “garden giant” or burgundy mushroom, never materialized in the bed where I planted it, but a couple of years ago he started making regular appearances, all over the place, also in my vegetable garden. He did so again on April 5 after it had rained for a couple of days, and I was ready!

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King Stropharia is easy to identify by the wrinkled, almost gilled ring around its stem – hence “rugosoannulata,” meaning “wrinkled-ringed”.

Alex and I had planned to buy spawn, but this was better. This was not some sterile, mamby-pamby lab-grown weakling but a rugged, over-wintered, tried and tested Stropharia who was already at home in my garden! I plucked some of the mushrooms (left some in the ground too) and collected the spores from several of them. Others I fried up with some onions, salt and pepper, but not before I cut off their stem butts and planted those in between two sheets of wet cardboard.

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Gorgeous mycelium!
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Several stages of maturity.

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Spore prints. I scraped these off the paper with a sharp knife, into a tiny box that now contains millions of spores. They will keep for years. I plan to make a spore slurry with them.

I put the butts in plastic boxes which I kept in my “cool closet,” where I keep all the medicinals. The mycelium grew steadily and today they are as ready as I’ll ever know they’ll be. Paul Stamets says something like: the mycelium runs and if you don’t let it, it will die. It is also overcast and threatening to rain, so the weather too said, let’s run with it!

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DSCF7390 I chose a spot underneath a small oak and my largest hazel (mushrooms and hazel nuts, can you think of a better combination?), carefully scraped off and set aside the top inch of duff/soil, then lay the cardboard mycelium down. Then I replaced the soil and added a healthy cover of decomposed leaves, then watered, with rain water, of course. Let’s see what happens!

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If you want to know why he’s called the “Garden Giant,” check out this mushroom, which popped up in wood chip heaven, that is, our front yard.

And this wasn’t even the largest one of the clutch. Am I concerned about fungi all over my vegetable garden? No, on the contrary, Paul Stamets has shown that  many fungi, among them King Stropharia, are great companions to plants!

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Four times 275 gallons. The two closest empty as yet. Peas in front.

From the beginning (2008), I have gardened organically – better than “organically,” actually. For instance, I always refused to use the hose, that is, tap water, in my gardens. Even as the garden grew larger and more labor intensive, I insisted on watering with buckets and watering cans. Some relief came when I installed drip in my big vegetable and berry gardens two years ago. And whenever I ran out of rain water, earlier and earlier each year even as I added more and more catchment, I still refused to use that tap water. That is because, in our town, the tap water is full of chlorine and fluoride, which are detrimental to the life in the soil.

And so, year after year, usually in August, I “lost” my gardens. Vegetables didn’t grow so lush, fruits didn’t ripen, berry bushes stayed small, hunkered down. But I insisted: the soil is more important than the plants that grow in it, because the soil is the long-term bank account, the wealth of nutrients, life and diversity that makes the plants possible in the first place.

I realize that I have the luxury of other food sources (our CSA, mainly) that make this attitude possible, and I am well aware that such a situation can make a body complacent.  Truth is, I’d rather be a good tender of the soil and a good farmer/gardener, to triumphantly raise a handful of dark, thick, sticky soil shot through with worms and mycelium and a plump, juice, deep-red bell pepper or even a five pound water melon.

My first concern (but only for starters) was water. Our droughts have been getting worse and none of us expect it to get any better. So a friend and I arranged for another order of those second-hand 275 gallon IBC totes ($75 each), and soon other gardeners, schools and churches got in on it. One day a month ago a big trailer pulled up to my house and we shoved no less than twelve of those massive, ugly totes onto my driveway (the neighbors are used to it.) We rinsed out the left-over vegetable oils and then they were picked up, one by one, till I was left with four. We installed two of those next to my original two, making for 1,100 gallons of water storage. I plan to add a couple more smaller rain barrels in several places. As for the other two totes, the idea was to use one as a watering tank, the other as a dunking tank for mushrooms – about which later – but the mushroom inoculation season escaped us while we waited for logs to become available. I may hook them up into another tower in the chicken yard… One can never have enough rain water stored away!

{UPDATE 5/28} One can have as much storage as one wants, but first of all it needs to rain! Since I wrote this post, no rain has fallen, and I am down to 1/8 of the first lower barrel. Tomorrow let’s dance for the rain gods.

 

 

A commenter asked if things are growing. Are they ever! Winter ended quite suddenly, with feet of snow melting away in a matter of days. So it was time to get growing.

Here are the seedlings in the basement:

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If necessary (I’m also growing seedlings for friends and school gardens), I can add an extra shelf below.

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Some are hardening off on the porch:

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In the garden, the sorrel was the second to look all alive and ready to go:

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First were the onions, overwintered. They looked so dreary and slimy emerging from the snow, but then:

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I’ve got gardening nails again:

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The day before yesterday was a cruel and beautiful day. Temperatures rose to 50 F and the sun was ablast. The perfect day for going out there in the garden. But the garden is still nowhere to be seen. You walk on/in this snow and one step you’re on top of it, two feet taller, the next you’ve sunk in deep enough to get snow in your high boots..

I did what I could, digging out the hay and scaring the hens half out of their minds laying it down in their muddy run. I rearranged tarps over firewood stacks and… that was all I could do. So Amie and I started building a fort out of the wet, sticky snow. It was good to get all tired out, but it will be better to finally start gardening.

We also celebrated because the 2 to 3 feet thick sheet of ice and snow finally came off our roof. It was pretty scary and I wouldn’t have wanted to be under it. It raged in one thundering avalanche and the force of it actually bent our sturdy copper gutter. After exclaiming we celebrated, for finally, after over a month, we have solar again, both PV and water!

Yesterday I got the potting bench and the seedling bank with the heat mat and the lights back into action. It was a chore, because all winter long the basement has been the repository of empty canning jars, tools, cardboard boxes, crafting materials, etc. But we’re in good shape now, and as soon as my seed order from Fedco arrives I’ll sow the earlies, the onions, leeks and parsley.

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Lastly, we have a a couple of live and dead creatures added to the menagerie. In the fridge: a newly planted sequoia seed going into dormancy. In the freezer: a dead sparrow a friend rescued and brought over. In the living room, in a small plastic carrier: a wild field mouse I rescued from the bottom of the trash can. So far the poor thing hasn’t even touched the small piece of bacon we put in there.

Oh, the answer to the title question? No. Not yet. We’re getting freezing rain tomorrow.

Homeschooling is going even better than I had expected. We are sticking to a strict schedule in the mornings, with a steady core curriculum in math and language arts. In the afternoons we do Latin and, after that, we launch into our history/science module. I’d say the last one is our favorite along with logic, Latin and word roots. This is the pile of books accumulating in the subjects we’ve chosen for our science/history module:
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Yes, I know. But Amie and I both agreed we couldn’t start “History” with written history, or with the first humans, or the first life, or even the formation of our planet and so… we began with the Big Bang. And obviously we can’t do history apart from science. So: wonderful stuff!

Our first home school field trip was to the NOFA Mass Winter Conference. During lunch Amie went shopping at the stalls, all by herself. She had $5. After chatting with each farmer and herbalist and activist and whatnot, she got some fancy lip balm. We also bought bumper stickers. This one is her favorite and ended up on her cello case:

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On Friday we had our next field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, which has a great homeschool program. I got to walk the halls for an hour and a half, and located this poster:

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Soon we’ll have to open those seed catalogs and start planning the garden. At the NOFA conference I picked up a lot of information on trace minerals. We went with a group and divvied up the workshops among us. Next week we meet to discuss the many gardens now in play: our personal gardens (about four, some of them quite large), three large Community Garden Plots, and some School Gardens as well. These come with town-wide compost systems that take in scraps from the schools’ lunchrooms, pounds and pounds of coffee grounds from a local coffee shop, and now, also, kitchen scraps from the local Whole Foods. Lastly, the surplus goes to Food Pantries and shelters in the neighborhood.

I’ve not had time to write much here, but please stay tuned!

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Here it is, finally done, the new patio!

You may recall the old one, which was too small to be of use but, more importantly, installed so that with each flash rain that overflowed the gutter the rain was funneled into the basement. As a result, when the thing was demolished, we found a rotten sill. It turned out well, however. The rot didn’t extend to the rafters, didn’t even affect the entire sill, and there was no sign of termites. In fact, we got to meet a local, well-thought-of contractor who operates on his own: just the right man for several other jobs.

One of those being replacing the front door, the siding, and the big picture window, possibly with french doors.

But over the winter now (hard to think of winter since it’s 70 F outside) the main job is to design the front garden. I have a good idea of the desired effect (cf. this blog post). We also let the guys divert the roof runoff into an underground pipe, which exits at the spot where we’d like a wetland/pond, so we’re set up for that as well. And I’d like to better incorporate the apiary (all the way in the back left) and the veg garden (right of that). Then there is the trellis which will be built into the patio in spring.

I’m looking forward to having this extra “positive” space a a place of beauty, peace and gathering.

Well, 17 lbs is not bad for one and a half beds (4’x12′ total), in the shade and without topping up soil (I ran out). The red fingerlings were a bust, the yellow fingerlings did well, the idahoes did best. All seed potatoes were supermarket bought (organic) or came as sprouted (organic) potatoes from a friend.

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All laid out:
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A couple of weeks ago I had a nasty surprise. Workmen installed new oil tanks in our basement (one had started leaking; we have no gas on the street, and we heat very frugally with oil, but mostly with efficiently burned firewood). All was well. A week later I opened my freezer: everything was defrosted! The men had unplugged the freezer! I lost some meat and fish, but the hardest to lose were the soups, sauces, pesto and frozen dinners I had made with produce from the garden. I never really trusted freezing, and apparently I don’t need another power outage to confirm my apprehension. So, when I had all these surplus tomatoes, I decided to dry them in my ten-tray Excalibur.

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I dry them beyond leathery to crispy. Amie eats them like candy, while she will usually only reluctantly eat a cherry tomato. The taste is super concentrated.

A friend called me up this morning from the orchard and asked if I wanted peaches! A peck of seconds for $8? Sure! I got two pecks and will be making peach butter and peaches in syrup.

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