Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Boone St. Garden: Week 2

Last Saturday 3/26 was week two at Boone St. garden. We tilled!

That's a "front-tine" gas powered roto-tiller that we rented from our friend Dale (you can see photos of his Greenmount West garden in March 2011:Getting Started). Sharing tools and other resources is a great aspect of the growing network of Baltimore urban farmers. It doesn't make sense for each small farm to purchase the same piece of large equipment when we could easily share one for less.

The rows are about 100 feet long and about 3 feet wide.

It's pretty funny because we were checking out a catalog that morning full of interesting non-electric toys and tools, but tilling this ground by hand would certainly not have been a good time. Maybe if we had a horse! Electricity and gas power can be a beautiful thing, as long as we are being conscious of the resource we are using.

As you can see, we are using burlap sacks between rows to create walkways. The burlap also kills the grass and will prevent it from crowding out the food crops. Coffee roasters are a great resource for free or very cheap burlap. Straw or wet newspaper also work, but I think burlap is more durable and also looks nice.

It took a few passes over each bed to rip up the grass, and a pickax and shovel are still going to be really useful for taking out the big clumps of roots. Tiring work, but I know we'll be glad we did it in a few months when we don't have to constantly weed out the grass.

We're not going to till every single row. I hope to get two or even three rows of my "Three Sisters" experiment where usually corn + beans + squash are grown together as an inter-planted system.

Instead of corn though I hope to grow sorghum, since corn always gets devastated more by insects. I also wanted to try making sorghum syrup, but it looks like pressing such a small batch might not be worth it. But using the sorghum grain will still be good for extra chicken feed, an alternative type of flour and maybe even beer!

Instead of beans I think I might try to grow peanuts since they also are a legume and provide the same function of fixing nitrogen in the soil. I'm worried the soil is still too compacted to give the peanuts enough space to grow underground, but I'll break up the soil a lot and mulch with straw so we'll see.

For the squash part I'm planning to grow red hubbard squash which is my favorite since the flesh is sweet and not very watery.

I'm hoping this experimental "Three Sisters" method will let me simply pickax a large hole in the ground every two feet or so, and then I can plant three crops in the same hole. Instead of tilling all 100 feet and ripping up the grass, we'll only have to break up about 1/3 as much ground. I'll probably put the seeds in around May 1st, and then everything will be ready to harvest in August/September.

In the Boone St. Garden: Week 1 post, I mentioned the cucumbers, melon, tomatoes, and peppers we started for the community garden. I forgot that Cheryl and I also started about 100 tomatoes, 50 pepper, and 50 marigolds for the farm side of Boone St.

What's the difference between the community garden side and the farm side? The community garden side is to give neighbors a place to grow their own vegetables and learn more about urban gardening. The farm side will have food grown for purchase and distribution as part of a CSA, so that all of Boone St. will have some funds for construction materials, seeds, plant starts, tools, etc. to continue operating and growing.

In addition to the plant starts, we also direct seeded radishes, peas, carrots, and beets for spring crops. It's supposed to rain today and tomorrow and for once I sincerely hope it does, since we don't have a water hookup yet!

In addition to water, getting an enormous amount of compost is the next big step. We are working on that piece by piece, and hopefully everything will be worked out by this Saturday. Last week I did drive out to a dairy in Harford County and got one load of compost, but my new pickup would have to carry about 20 loads of compost to get enough to cover Boone St.

At least I got to eat Broom's Bloom apple pie and vanilla peanut butter cup ice cream and see some cute cows.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Building Hutches and Coops + Egg Candling

Chicken Man got a lot of work done on the new rabbit hutch over the last weekend.

We're going to have to separate the little bunnies soon, plus at some point there will be kits (baby rabbits), so its fantastic that the structure can hold four cages. Covering the entire surface of the cages in 1/2 inch hardware cloth is an essential part of the project to prevent rats from chewing away the plywood. The wood is being recycled from old pallets.

Rabbit hutch in the morning, a little brunch of sourdough and coffee, then we went to visit some friends and help out building a chicken coop. Or rather, Chicken Man helped build it, and I pulled a few nails out of old boards and then spent time at the Boone St. garden. Stay tuned for a post about Week #2 at the garden!

Here's the foundation of the coop:

And there's more backyard livestock breaking news: we have recently acquired six fertilized duck eggs. That's right.

This was Chicken-Man's idea, of course. One of the Orpingtons (the big white birds in the photo below)has gotten what's called "broody." Which means she won't leave the nest, she just keeps sitting on the laid eggs trying to hatch them.

The eggs will never hatch of course, since we don't have a rooster and they aren't fertilized. When this happened with another chicken, we segregated her in a small cage until she calmed down, which took about a week.

Of course, we don't have an extra cage anymore since we got the little rabbits. I'm sure we could have sequestered the Orpington anyway, but Chicken-Man decided to make use of the situation and get fertilized eggs for her to hatch. More poultry, why not!

Luckily we have about three weeks until the eggs hatch, and then they can stay in a little area of the chicken coop for a while when they are still tiny. This is going to be so adorable, but we're definitely going to have to expand the coop space!

Sunday evening we had a fun science lesson with the eggs.

A new friend of ours works at the Baltimore Zoo with the exotic birds, and she got very excited about the fertilized duck eggs. She showed us how to tell if the fertilized eggs are healthy or no longer viable by shining a dulled flashlight onto the eggs. This is called "candling."

Her hand is held in front of the flashlight bean to dull it, then she shines it on the egg and looks for a few clues.

The main clues she was looking for were that the egg was warm to the touch, and a horizontal line somewhere around the tip of the egg which indicated the small sac of air that is held there.

Turns out only one of the eggs was no longer viable, and two eggs may be slighter younger than the others, but in about a month we may have six baby ducklings!

In sadder Baltimore backyard livestock hobbyist news, Sunday night Cheryl and I saw a pigeon coop being taken away by the city.

Image taken from this link to Current's footage of Baltimore pigeon racing (the video wouldn't load for me but maybe it will for you?):

I wish I took some photos before the coop was taken. Pigeon keeping is such a uniquely urban hobby, and I was excited to have the as a neighbor to the Boone St. garden.

As I learned a few weeks ago by visiting the coop's owner, pigeons are mainly kept for flying. The tipplers fly extremely high, rollers perform somersaults in the air, and the better-know racing homer are released and timed on their homeward flight. They are specially bred pigeons, not captured from from the street (which I had always wondered about.)

I hope to be able to do something to remedy the problem, and have to do more investigation about why the coop was taken away and what the best avenue would be for replacing it.

Not sure what the city was going to do with the pigeons they hauled away with the coop.

If you have any experience/advice for working with the city on this, I'm happy to hear from you!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Day 1: Boone St. Garden

*click on the photos to enlarge*

Last Saturday - 3/19/11 - was our first day breaking ground at the Boone St. garden!

Special thanks to our friend Lowell Larsson, a member of the Greater Greenmount Community Association, who took many wonderful photos at the event and has been a huge source of support for the garden in general. You can check out all of his photos and write-up about the day on the community's website here.

Sandra Coles is President of the Greater Greenmount Neighborhood Association, and she has also been so supportive (in the photo above she's the one gesturing on the left).

Cheryl and I originally planned to spend the day tilling, but we weren't able to rent the powered tiller from Dale in time. Luckily there were plenty of other things to do!

The day earlier on Friday, I drove up to Harford County to fill up the truck with two year old compost from a dairy farm. It was a beautiful drive, and I got to have ice cream at Broom's Bloom Dairy. I got apple pie flavored and a quart of vanilla peanut butter cup to take home. Mmmm.

Sadly, we're going to need about twenty pickup loads of compost to fully cover the amount of land at Boone St. Thanks to Lowell we have a company willing to drive a dump truck for us. Now we're working on a source for a dump truck load worth of compost.

We couldn't till, but we have enough compost to cover one 100 ft row in about an inch. As you can see in the photo above, we measured out the row location with string. Burlap bags donated from a coffee bean roaster will kill the grass and make walkways.

Once the row (singular, but at least it's 100 ft long!) was marked out, I still wanted to break ground and get seeds in. So we made a semi-circular bed around the base of one large tree. A pickax makes a perfectly good tiller in small doses!

I made three small sections in this perennial bed, and chose plants that are usable, hardy, will easily spread out to cover more ground each year. Sorrel is planted in one third, Mountain Mint is on the other side, and I went for an interesting but not so well-known flower in the middle with Foxglove.

As I was pickaxing the perennial bed, Cheryl held a seedling workshop, which we had been announcing at the Greater Greenmount Community Association meetings for the past two or three months. Everyone was really excited (especially at the thought of the cucumbers, watermelons, tomatoes, and canteloupe to come!)

We met a lot of neighbors, made plans for the future like playing music and bringing snacks, and are going to try to meet up every Saturday!

A lot of trash was cleared out of the lot as well, with more to go. And the new truck came in handy yet again for hauling all those bags of trash to the dump!

City Council President Bernard 'Jack' Young even stopped to visit!

We ended the day by getting rid of the last of the rabbit compost. We layered it with cardboard and old leaves to make a future bed for perennials in the community garden.

And a nice addition to a garden day that went as well as I could have hoped: we found out last week that we got our Parks and People grant!

Now we can afford things like lumber and hardware for raised beds, large amounts of compost, hoses, etc.

Hurdles to come include finding a source of compost that can get us enough to fill a dump truck, building raised beds for the community garden, and hooking up the water supply. I think ideally those things should be done by mid-May, so we do have about a month and a half. It's big, but doable!

My goal is to keep a diary of the garden so we have a record to look back on for next year.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Belizean Chicken

This past Sunday I used the special Belizean spice mix from our recent vacation to cook up the last of the roosters we had in the fridge.

Rooster meat is rather stringy, so a nice long stewing process helps tenderize the meat. The secret Belizean spice mix is called ricardo. It contains annatto, and results in a dish that's mildly spicy and fragrant in a paprika sort of way.

This post on a Savannah News food blog gives a nice description of making the recipe.

The chicken is chopped up into ten to fourteen pieces. You then wash the meat in lime juice and water to clean it, and rinse well. I used white vinegar instead of lime juice.

According to the recipe we were given with the spices, here is the marinade for the meat:

- One onion
- Two "shilling-size" balls of the ricardo spice
- A teaspoon of soy sauce
- Three "plugs" of garlic

(Can you tell that Belize was formerly known as British Honduras?)

The marinade also called for Season-All and a sweet pepper, but I didn't add those because I didn't have any. The Savannah News recipe linked to above adds a little vinegar and lime juice to the marinade. So play around! I think the ricardo spice is the most essential part.

Another secret step to this recipe: the sauce begins by browning sugar in oil. Yum.

As soon as the sugar begins to turn dark and bubble, coat the chicken in the browning sugar. Brown chicken on all sides.

Once the chicken is brown, add the leftover marinade and turn the heat to low. I think I added a dash of water since the marinade seemed pretty dry. Simmer everything down until the chicken is tender (I think I did mine for half an hour, but for more stewed chicken maybe an hour? Experiment.)

The chicken didn't turn out quite as "stewed" and tender as what we had in Belize, but it was still good. I think I'm going to try cooking on even lower heat for a longer period of time, and maybe adding a little lime juice to the pan to add moisture.

In addition to rice and beans, I also made a simple and healthy coleslaw side dish:

There was a lot of stewed meat and rice and beans in Belize. It was yummy, but I really craved some vegetables!

I wanted the cabbage to retain its fresh crunch but not be completely raw. You can heat the vinegar dressing up, pour over the sliced cabbage, and let it sit so it barely wilts. Or if you prefer the slaw more well done you could always simmer it for a minute or two in the dressing.

For one head of cabbage:

- 1/2 cup of rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup of water
- 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of sugar

Mix ingredients together and simmer until bubbles just begin to form. Pour over sliced cabbage and let sit for 20 minutes.

A great warm weather barbeque food, or a good way to pretend you're in the tropics on a cold day!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Getting Started! March 2011

Feels good to be back!

I missed you all, but boy I needed that R & R. Get ready for a lot of photos and updates!

In addition to the day job craziness which is thankfully coming to an end, my friend Cheryl and I are planning our first big urban farm. Lots of seed shopping, planting schedules and starting seedlings, going to community meetings in Greenmount West, figuring out where we're going to get a tiller, researching grants, etc. etc. etc. It's going to be a big summer.

This all got very real to me when I went ahead an traded my Toyota Corolla in for a truck.

I won't lie and say I didn't get stomach butterflies making such a big life change. But with all this compost, straw bales, lumber and more to haul around, the truck is really going to come in handy. As I said, I'm realizing that it's time to make big plans to move forward.

Stay tuned for more news about Boone St. garden!

Special shoutout to our friend Dale in Greenmount West for showing us around his land in early March. Dale has been farming in Baltimore for over 20 years. You can see Greenmount Cemetery in the background behind his newly tilled ground:

His awesome chicken coop:

Greenmount West mural nearby:

March is a great time to purchase your seeds, sketch out your garden layout, test your soil, break ground, and throw on the compost. Growing season is coming!

In addition to the urban farm, Chicken Man and I are still keeping the small raised bed in Remington for our own food needs.

Last week in the hour of daylight after work, I quickly put in carrot + green onion + pea + baby bok choy seeds. Topped it all off with lots of rabbit poo and straw. The rabbits provide perfect compost because you can put it directly on the ground without over-fertilizing the plants. With all the rain we've been having, the seeds were happy and germinating while Chicken Man and I went on vacation!

Where did we go? Belize!

It felt really great getting away from the computer and cell phone and just traveling around for five days. We traveled around different parts of the country near Belmopan, San Ignacio, and Belize City so we got to see a lot of the rainforest and mountains and a little bit of the coast.

We even toured a few farms, of course. Check out these cabbages growing in the shade of banana trees!

There were bananas, papayas, custard apple, plum and other fruit trees on this property- really nice diversity. Growing crops around trees is a great way to prevent your crops from scorching in the hot sun, plus you get a wider variety of food. We even saw fields of teak and mahogany trees, which can take 50-100 years before they are harvested. It was a lot of fun seeing all those different crops.

It is a little sad to think about all the rainforest that was destroyed for orange groves and other monocultures of crops, but I can understand that people have to make a living, and only certain crops enable you to get money for things like school, health care, etc.

One of the places did have a trail with traditional medicinal plants of the rainforest, so we got to see things like allspice berry trees and wild yam plants, which apparently spawned the development of birth control.

Speaking of trees, March is also a great time to start some tree cuttings of your own! This is my first time experimenting with tree propagation, and I hope it works.

Our neighbors have several large fig trees, so I am trying to propagate cuttings from them. There are a few ways to do this.

The easiest method is to cut off about 10-12 inches of a branch and put it in a pot of damp sand. However, I have read that this method isn't always effective. We did dig up a nice shoot coming out of the ground (instead of a clipping from the end of a branch) and put it in a pot of soil outside, so we'll see if it works.

The method pictured above is a low branch that I pulled down until it touched the ground. You can pile up soil around the branch. The rock is holding the branch down so it doesn't spring back up. Supposedly the part of the branch under the soil will grow new roots! This is supposedly a more effective method because the branch is still connected to the live tree. I'll check back in about a month and a half and we'll see if there are roots.

There is a third way to propagate fig trees from cuttings, where a bag of soil is tied around a branch, instead of the branch being covered with soil near the ground. Feel free to do more research on that if you are interested!

The last bit of big news has to do with the rabbits, and if you are sensitive to animal issues, you could probably stop reading here.

Remember how I kept talking about our difficulties breeding Fred and Ethel?

Well, it turns out things were more effective then we thought. As Chicken-Man was showing our neighbor how to care for the rabbits and chickens while we were on vacation, the neighbor pointed into the cardboard box in Ethel's cage and asked, "What's that?"

Turns out she had recently given birth to three "kits," or baby rabbits. Unfortunately, the kits had not survived the birth. Nature happens.

Ethel seems to be doing fine though. Actually, she has been seeming noticeably more happy and animated, but I don't know if that's a result of the pregnancy, spring coming, or the steady supply of cardboard boxes which she loves. Seriously, I had no idea how much rabbits love cardboard boxes!

We will probably try again in a few weeks and see what happens. In a weird way, the death of the baby kits made me a little more okay with raising the rabbits for meat. It sounds cliche to say that death is a part of nature, but knowing that baby rabbits can just die makes it seem less of an issue to raise one for meat.

So as you can see, February and early March have been quite the busy time. I can only imagine what the growing season will bring.

If you haven't had enough of BaltimoreDIY yet, feel free to check out a book review I wrote for Matte Resist's new book How and Why over at the Red Emma's website. As if I didn't already have enough project ideas!

Hope everyone is having a fun early Spring!
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