Sunday, May 29, 2011

Planting begins

A momentous occasion at Chalupy Acres began on Friday -- putting in the transplants. Then we have the stuff we grow from seed, but that's another post.
The extreme left row (row 0) is the herb bed. It isn't even prepped yet. I ran the tiller over it. Next one going left to right is row 1, and so forth. Today I finished row 2. You will observe the cloches. This is a French word meaning "bell." Around the turn of the 19th century, French market gardeners used bell-shaped covers as portable greenhouses to prolong growing seasons; indeed they grew crops in cloches year-round, since in those days none but the rich could afford greenhouses. My cloches are made from apple juice containers, top and bottom cut off. They protect from a frost, and empirically, they lessen the transplant shock. My transplants, like Louis in Casablanca, have informed me that they are shocked -- shocked! Also, the cloche protects from wind. And wind sucks heat away from your tender seedlings. But I have run out of cloches. Fortunately I have a large number of containers waiting to be transformed to cloches.

So tomorrow we will fire up the bandsaw and make some more cloches. Like money, love, and friends, you can't have enough. Cloching is very labor-intensive. Each plant gets its private cloche. If I were a market gardener I couldn't do it. I would have to spend money on hoops and row covers instead.

Most people in Alaska start planting on Memorial day -- tomorrow. It is always a gamble, of course. So far, the date of last frost is June 5 here at Chalupy, in 2007 I think. But the last two years it has been around May 15. However, not 6 Km away at Corner Farm (as I call it) my friend Don informs me that it froze solid two days ago. It's microclimate stuff.

When one peruses the gardening books, one is advised in great detail on the tools one should have. My advice to gardeners: get a thermometer. Get one that does minimum and maximum temperatures. The electronic ones are cheap. Log min/max every day of the year. Put your thermometer in the shade. If no shade is available, build a coop for it, like a birdhouse, because otherwise it will heat up directly from radiation and not give you air temperature. Drill lots of holes in the coop. Get to know your microclimate. Your thermometer will also advise you of the day of the first frost in fall -- another important number.

And Greenhouse 2.0 is taking shape. But that's another post.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Leeks: the survivors

I have a great many books -- every one I ever ran across, in fact -- on gardening in Alaska. Not one of them even whispers about leeks. I love leeks. Ah, vichysoisse! Basically leek-and-potato soup, but what a soup! The reason these veggies are not mentioned is because they are biennials. That is, they set themselves up the first season and complete their growth in the next. And in the meantime there is winter, an Alaska winter at that. But I read Eliot Coleman's The Four Season Harvest and was blown away. He grows stuff in the inhospitable climate of Maine. Could I do it? So last year I planted about a meter of one row in leeks. They grew to about the size of large scallions. So I pulled a few and ate them anyway. Then I improvised a plastic tunnel and shoveled in a million or so fall leaves in. Soon it was covered by snow. Excellent. Snow is a great insulator. When the snow melted there they were!
You can see my methods are hardly high-tech. Alder hoops, visqueen cover, lots and lots of birch leaves, and nothing else. You will also see some Rebel Dandelions. As Darth Spader would say, we shall soon put this rebellion down.

Something ate the tops o' the leeks. Maybe a vole, or maybe the cold. But I have overwintered leeks in Alaska, and it might even be a first.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Agricultural Report

Mary, Mary, quite contrary... I don't know about Mary, but contrary is a fine description for an Alaska spring. We have had about a whole week of above-zero days, 0C of course and there is a temptation to rush out and start planting. But I have seen frost in early June. So all this sunlight, as my friend Don said today (he is a market gardener with much experience) and we can't use it. If the wind don't get you the frost will. So we are focused on preparing the garden. Memorial day is the target day. Anyway, there is prepping to be done.
We actually have things growing. Under the hoop are leeks. They overwintered successfully and and will now hopefully grow up to be larger leeks. Leeks, you see, are biennials -- take two seasons to grow. In fall I mulched very heavily and put up the hoops. The tops were a little burned by the cold, but they are green and seem happy. Behind the leeks are artichokes. Artichokes are really biennials, but (thanks to my extensive reading) they can be vernalized. That is, you put them out very early. This tricks the artichokes into thinking that they have been through the winter. Will it work? No idea. Artichokes are not, apparently, as smart as leeks. I put them into my fruit-juice container cloches. I am a big fan of cloches. Too labor-intensive for market gardeners, but not for me.

The beds have been spaded. The B(ack) beds, which got the rough and ready tiller treatment last year, got the de luxe treatment: went through by hand and pulled out roots, old boots, and dandelion shoots. Also added some organic matter from a nearby discard heap. All my front beds need is a surface till. Then we spread manure -- bought, I don't have a horse or a steer -- and the last step is to rake it all in. Not yet.

Now the heavy work. I took Manfred the Red Baron out of hibernation and off he went.
On soil this rough, it is rough going for Manfred. And even rougher on the operator. There are any number of pictures on the 'net and elsewhere of people driving these things with one hand. Hah! Yes, after you've tilled it a few times. But it gets stuck -- big root in the way. Or it can't get traction. So horse it by brute force. It has just dawned on me that the "till" control bar is split. Could there be individual wheel drive? Got to try that. Anyway this is the site of the future greenhouse. Manfred also did the herb bed and a bunch of stuff intended to keep the weeds at bay (hopeless, but at least the till helps).
And at the end of the morning we have a lot more arable land. Actually tilled land. The operator was a basket case, and spent the rest of the afternoon taking it easy. And I will not comment, yet, on the new greenhouse.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Moose in the garden

It is almost time to plant. The traditional time to do this in Alaska is Memorial day, so I am hastening to prepare the beds. I am working on what I call the "back rows," which I opened up last year. They need an awful lot of work. The tiller did the hard part; but now I have to go through, supplement the soil, remove many roots, and add manure to it. So there I was, spading, when this guy (or gal) wandered up to my operation.
A very young one. Looks like one just cast off by Mommy. And since Mommy is not around to tell him (her) not to talk to strangers, s(he) is quite fearless. It was clearly hungry. But, alas, not much to eat around my place.
Poor moosey. Cast off cruelly by its mother. Perhaps Ma was rather premature. However, the laws of nature are not always comprehensible to us, and believe me, they were not set up by Walt Disney (Bambi comes to mind), but instead by Darth Vader. For this young one, it is sink or swim. I hope it learns to swim, of course. Fortunately in a few weeks, all will be green and moosey will have a full menu to choose from. In the meantime it must be rough. Not a thing I can do about it. You can't, for example, put out hay for the moose. They can't digest it. So we wish you well, moosey; nothing else we can do.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Beryozova Shkola Graduation 2011

The annual momentous village event, the Beryozova School Graduation, took place on May 12. The graduation followed the traditional pattern, with speeches, promotions, awards, and a play. Our students range from the very small...
to the somewhat larger... the almost grownup:These kids are all reading above their grade levels, are advanced in math, and in general are a credit to both their parents and the three ladies who staff the school. The young lady in the red dress is Lukia. She came to my house long ago now, a child, and at that time I was impressed by her faultless manners. This year she participated in the Russian language Olympiada, a nationwide contest of Russian Language reading and writing, won a Gold Medal in the essay category, and will probably be published soon. Not bad for the Alaska bush. The young man in the black shirt towards the right, Ivan, walked off with so many awards that his parents should consider bringing a wheelbarrow to graduation! His sister did just as well.

Academics out of the way, we proceeded to the play. which (in my opinion) was the best they have ever done. This time they did it in English, which is nice for me because my command of Russian is less than Tarzan's idea of English. (I can read cyrillic -- but I have no idea what most of the words mean). Anyway the play concerned four Princesses, a King (daddy), some suitors, and a mystery: how did the princesses wear out one pair of shoes per day? Here, for instance, we see the Princesses, the King, and an unsuccessful suitor at left.
Alas, this suitor (the baker) fell asleep and couldn't solve the mystery. No princess for the baker. Eventually a knight in shining armor showed up. Being a soldier, he knew better than to fall asleep on watch.
Observe the guards at left, ready to defend the King. At right, the knight. He solved the central problem: the Princesses were traipsing off to an enchanted castle in the woods, and dancing the night away. Their shoes weren't up to this gig, so they wore out. With the secret out, the princesses danced some more for us.
And so the Knight won one of the princesses, the King was enlightened, and they all lived happily ever after (to coin a phrase).

And after, the Village mothers served up the traditional Russian food -- marvellous. A good time was had by all,

And now that it's summer I expect the Russian kids to show up at Chalupy Acres for more education. I show them how to make things with their own hands. I think this is a valuable bit of their education, even if it is somewhat erratic, since I don't control when they show up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Grappa and the Alder Subway

I put in a big order to Lehman's non-electric, non-power emporium. Among the items I ordered was a big heavy Italian-style grape hoe. This is no wimp. The head weighs in at a Kilo and a half (3 lb.) and it has a hickory handle. Although the blade is made in distant China, it is modeled on the Italian style -- so it has been dubbed Grappa. (An italian brandy made out of grapes.) Now, when I cleared the pasture with the scythe, perforce I left a whole bunch of stumps, scrub birch and especially alder. I would deal with these later, said I. Well, later has arrived and I have put Grappa to work.
Here you see Grappa and one of his early victims. I actually had to chop out the root of the thing. You can see it, extending from the center towards the southwest of the picture. It is thicker than my arm. If the ground were not frozen below 10cm (4") I would have followed it down to see how long it is. More hoeing on other clumps revealed roots more than a meter long; not quite as thick as the monster above. I have a veritable alder subway running into the pasture. Fortunately Grappa is sharp, and I help it along. A hoe has to be sharpened just like any other cutting tool.

I must say this is very heavy work. I have since learned to carry a pruning saw. This makes cutting up the roots a little easier. But still, there is nothing like agriculture for sheer undiluted manual labor. When the soil warms up, I will try the tractor on some of these stumps. The size of the clump has nothing to do with the size of the taproot. Some tiddly little clumps have arm-size taproots.

Birches are much easier. The root doesen't go as deep. I think we are missing a bet. We should train alder roots to go in desired directions. The chunnel (Channel Tunnel) would be a breeze for these alders.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Farewell, Greenhouse 1.x

The old greenhouse collapsed this winter. It was not entirely a surprise, and I am astounded that it lasted as long as it did. So I finished it off today.
When you have what I call a direct-plant greenhouse -- that is, you plant directly into the soil inside the greenhouse -- you must rotate the location periodically. If you don't, the soil gets exhausted no matter how well you fertilize. There is something about fresh air, or maybe simply the pull of the seasons. See Eliot Coleman's invaluable books. Last year the greenhouse did not do well. It was an old sandbox, built by the previous owners of Chalupy acres. The rotation was overdue. So I have a new design in mind, Greenhouse 2.0, but I refuse to comment on it until I get it built. There is a Venezuelan expression for this: pava. This unique expression (means litererally "female turkey") means something like bad luck, jinx, hex. So it is pavoso to comment before the thing is up and running. Me, superstitious? Never! As an old friend of mine used to say, of course there is no such thing as witches. But nevertheless they fly (las brujas no existen, pero de que vuelan, vuelan!). Thanks, Kotic.

Anyhow I tried to dig postholes for GH 2.0 but the ground is frozen 10 cm down. I amused myself and indeed got some work done with my new toy, the grape hoe. But that is another post.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bare Ground!

Readers in more temperate climates may wonder what the big deal is. But up here in Willow, this is major news stuff. We have bare ground along the driveway!
That brown stuff is bare ground. We haven't seen it since October last year. As you can see there is still a lot of the white stuff, AKA snow, but it is actually melting. I drove to Anchorage this weekend; from Big Lake south there are just a few patches of snow; none in Anchorage. Gosh! Golly! The ground, of course, is frozen after a few cm deep. But we are getting there. My shop door is clear; I can get in without ice axe and shovel. Double gosh and golly. And I got into my driveway today without engaging four-wheel drive. Triple gosh and golly. It happens every year; one would think one could come to expect it, but it is always a minor miracle.