Thursday, October 29, 2009

Morning Dew

We were treated to a nice show of mist, dew and spider webs this morning.

There were several types of spider webs in the garden. In some places stands of webbing crossed spans of 20 feet or more between trees!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Feeding the Hawk

Farming takes a certain amount of arrogance. The basic assumption of agriculture is that we can create a more productive environment than native ecosystems. While we might be able to produce more human food than the natural system, it is not always an easy interaction between the managed ecosystem and the larger ecosystem around a farm.

One of the most common issues a farmer encounters is that wildlife doesn’t distinguish between our “human” food and “wild” food. In the last week we fed the hawks of Bluebird farm. We lost two chickens in two days to a beautiful red-tailed hawk. The third day we didn’t give it a chance.

Our chickens have been staying inside their coop and Petunia has been put to work. Fortunately, the coop is open bottomed-so with daily moves the chickens continue to have access to fresh pasture. Meanwhile Petunia has been spending her days inside the electric netting formally used for the chickens’ day range.

Petunia learned to watch for birds as “bad” animals in Colorado. In Colorado the Black-billed magpie is an extremely common bird. This cousin of crows, ravens, and jays is extremely intelligent. In Colorado they quickly learned Petunia’s feeding schedule. If there is one thing Petunia can’t stand its other animals eating her food. So she learned to watch the sky and bark at all manner of birds. This habit has yielded humorous results from chasing speeding barn swallow in tight circles to ferociously barking at a paraglider in Telluride (a bird that big would steal her whole bag of food!). Now her bird chasing skills are coming in handy.

It’s always a balance to produce people food in an environmentally friendly manner without simply feeding it all to the rabbits, deer, hawks, foxes, and insects that enjoy vegetables and livestock as much as we do. But maintaining the balance between our managed world and the wilder world around us is part of what we love about farming. We get to keep learning and experimenting all the time to keep producing delicious food.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October update

We have been busy here at the farm. Plants and animals have been growing over the last few weeks.

In the garden the cover crop is coming up. The mixture of grains, clovers, and peas will hold the soil, provide nitrogen, keep weeds from germinating, and add organic matter in the spring. The recent rain has helped the plants sprout to new heights!

The baby chicks continue to grow. We are letting them out of the coop now. Unfortunately, they are still small enough to squeeze through the holes in our electric fence. Many are so small that they don’t even notice they are walking through a barrier. So they exercise under our supervision and the watchful eye of Petunia the Great Pyrenees.

Petunia thoroughly enjoys watching animals of all kinds. She readily distinguishes between domestic and wild animals and has never attempted to chase a domestic animal. The chicks are wary of her, but don’t mind her presence-until she barks.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Breaking Ground

The past few days of wonderful fall weather has been perfect for our latest project-expanding the garden.

There has been a garden for many years at the house. This fall we are using the existing garden to grow our fall greens. However, we have already outgrown the 30’ x 90’ garden plot. We need a place to plant alliums: garlic, onions, and leeks this fall. Garlic is traditionally planted in the fall. Onions and leeks will germinate, grow a few inches, then sit dormant for the winter. In the spring their fall growth allows them to quickly restart growing for an earlier harvest. We are also preparing ground for early spring plantings of greens. We are doing this now because in the spring the ground is often too wet to be worked up very early.

This fall we have opted to prepare out ground with no motorized tools. The principle tool we are using is an “Italian Hoe.” This heavy, long handled hoe is lifted to about hip height then dropped into the grass with a satisfying “thunk.” We have broken ground on seven new beds with this tool.

The next step is to fork the bed with a digging fork. This is a wonderful all around garden tool for stirring compost, preparing soil, weeding, or harvesting root crops. The fork allows us to work the soil deeper than the how alone. It also breaks up the clods left behind by the hoe. The last step is to prepare the seed bed with a metal garden rake.

Preparing our beds by hand may take longer, but it has several important benefits. First, it is cheaper. The tools only cost about $125 and will last for years if properly cared for.

Second, tillers and plows leave a “pan” of slicked over clay just below their tines or plow shovel. This pan becomes nearly impervious to water and plant roots, effectively limiting the soil available for food production. Also tillers and plow are potentially highly destructive to soil structure. Soil is a complex world of solids, air, water, and living organisms. Soil organisms are adapted to very specific depths. Some need the more steady temperatures found at 6 inches while others need more air found at the surface. Plows in particular completely invert this ecosystem. It can take soil years to recover from being flipped upside down. Another aspect of tillers and plows is that they are always attached to heavy machinery. The weight of machinery compacts the soil, especially if it is wet; counter acting the very purpose of tilling or plowing. For a general discussion of soil management including the effects of tillage see

Third, the area we are preparing is relatively small (maybe a ¼ acre) and I enjoy hand work-so why not? Avoiding motors means I can hear the birds or have a conversation while we work.

Finally, hand tools avoid the use of fossil fuels. We must learn to produce our food without the use of fossil fuels. Currently we use from 3-10 calories of fossil fuel energy to place one calorie of food energy on our plates (it depends on the food-vegetables take less, meat more). This is an energy equation that cannot continue. Whether we have 5 years or 100 years of fossil fuels available does not change the fact that they are a finite resource-they will run out. Additionally, their continued use has led to a variety of environmental and health consequences ranging from an increased CO2 concentration by over 30% over stable levels to through the roof asthma rates in and around cities. For more information on energy use in agriculture read

We have curved our garden beds to try to follow the contour of the hill while at the same time orienting them east to west. This allows southern light to hit the long side of the beds. We have left the grass in the paths to prevent erosion over the winter. Another technique we will use to prevent erosion is to plant a fall cover crop. This mixture of clovers and grasses will hold soil in place with their roots, soften the impact of any winter rains, and hold soil nutrients that would otherwise leach over the winter. Most plant nutrients are volatile and do not just sit around in the soil. If a plant does not use them, rains easily wash them deeper or down slope. Erosion of soil nutrients is now one of the leading surface water pollutants leading to a host of environmental and public health problems.

With hard work and care these beds will provide a bounty of beautiful and nutritious food for years to come-without depleting our ability to continue growing food in that location.