Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
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Gatlinburg Trip & Farm Updates

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It appears that spring has finally sprung in Southwest Michigan! There’s still a cool nip in the windy air, but the sun is shining and temperatures are reaching up into the sixties at midday. It’s a welcome sight!

I’m so glad that things have warmed up around here because after returning from a trip to sunny, spring-has-sprung Tennessee, I don’t think my heart could have handled super-cold and snow. We had a fabulous time on our family vacation to Gatlinburg and the highlight was our time spent enjoying nature at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hiked a couple of relatively easy trails (with an eight-year-old and two-year-old in tow) to see some gorgeous waterfalls and scenic forests. I’ve been studying permaculture a lot lately so I couldn’t help but make observations about the climates and microclimates we encountered. (Did I just hear you snore? Hang in there, I’m not going to get too scientific on you!) It was a pleasure to be there just at the cusp of spring because we were able to watch buds and leaves and flowers unfold as the week went on.

I felt like I had a front-row seat to watching the mountains wake up from a winter nap. What a joy to watch the ground go from nothing but moss and leaves to a sea dotted with opening spring flowers. And to see trees transform from barren sticks to branches of blossoms and tiny green, budding leaves. The intermittent rain showers came at just the right time so as to avoid ruining our plans while simultaneously stocking up the mountain streams for fantastic, fast-flowing water shows. I loved it!

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Another thing I enjoyed was encountering familiar or edible plants in the wild. I guess it’s a nerdy gardener thing, but it was fun for me to find a plant and know just by looking at it that it must be related to a strawberry, or a carrot or a sweet violet. I wished I’d remembered to take pictures of all these sightings, but here are a couple I did manage to snap.

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What a bright, sunny dandelion growing amidst the rocks!
Did you know that all parts of the dandelion are edible?

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We saw lots of wild onions throughout the forest.

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These were some of the largest onions I saw. I hope my leeks can rival these!

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I don’t know if these are violets or if they are edible, but they were so beautiful and they reminded me of the sweet violets that should be popping up at our farm sometime soon!

We enjoyed several of the area attractions, including Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze, the shops in downtown Gatlinburg, Wild Bear Falls Waterpark, Forbidden Caverns and the Arts & Crafts District near Gatlinburg. Even with all there was to do in the area, one of our favorite experiences was simply relaxing at our very private cabin.

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Staying here was an enlightening experience for us. It inspired us to live more simply. To be more specific, we realized that we could thoroughly enjoy ourselves with minimal “stuff.” Packing a Toyota Camry with everything four people need for a week (including a toddler’s stroller, pack-n-play and other bulky items) meant being nominal and creative about what we brought along. Our cabin had everything we needed, plus a few extras (like board games). We didn’t and don’t need the gobs of “stuff” we have at our home. Maybe this seems strange or like a common sense revelation I should have had years ago, but it was liberating to not have to pick up mountains of toys or wash billions of dishes or sort bundles of magazines and papers. On our first full day back from the trip, we started purging. I can’t wait to share that journey with you as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, Back at the Farm

Despite our absence, the farm chugged along. Fortunately our micro-farm means micro-sized-farm-sitter-duties. I’m so thankful that Papa (my father-in-law) was able and willing to feed our chickens, gather eggs, care for our bunny, gather our maple sap, take care of our dogs and miscellaneous other things while we were gone.

Maple Syrup Update

By the time we returned, our maple sap count had risen to just under 60 gallons. That’s about half of what I was hoping for… apparently my hopes were set a bit high. That makes sense since 20 gallons per tree in a season is pushing the upper end of the scale and we only have four trees. With all of the tiny-thaw/long-freeze weather we had this March, there were very few days where sap was actually running at our house. Oh well… I may not have a ton of maple syrup, but I’m still pleased to be producing my own!

The current plan is to utilize Papa’s evaporator early this next week to process our liquid gold pronto. The weather is warming up and since sap can spoil at warm temperatures, I need to get to it as soon as possible. Unfortunately I don’t have space to refrigerate 12 five-gallon buckets, so they’re hanging out in the shady, cool garage for now. Because I love a good experiment, and I want some insurance against spoiled sap, I am also considering an experiment: Freezing the sap. There’s a generally held principle that the water in sap freezes but the sugar content does not. When you freeze a container of sap, supposedly the ice can be discarded because it has no (or minimal) sugar content and would just have to be boiled off in the evaporation process anyway. If this is true, freezing sap, discarding the ice and then boiling what’s left should significantly reduce the amount of fuel and time needed to make syrup. I’m going to give it a whirl – but only with a portion of our supply. I love a good experiment, but I love maple syrup more!

Seedlings Update

While we were gone I also did a hands-off experiment. The moon-favorable time to plant many of our seeds (such as broccoli, kale, lettuce and chard) would have expired by the time we returned home from vacation. I didn’t want to wait a full month before starting these seeds so I started them the night before we left. Most seeds take 3-5 days to germinate any way so I knew my seedlings would be very small by the time I returned, if they existed at all. I planted my seeds in trays of garden soil and made sure they were very (very) moist. Then in each tray I created a make-shift olla using a small clay pot. I placed the pot down into the soil and filled it with water. Because the soil around it was already saturated, the pot did not leak water from the hole or the sides. Like with real ollas, the idea here is that as the moisture level in the surrounding soil is reduced, the moisture inside the terra cotta pot (or through the hole in the bottom in this case) will be wicked out by the soil and used by the plants. I used ollas both for my newly-planted seedlings and for existing green babies that needed to survive a week without me.

I’m pleased to report that everything survived! A couple of newly planted seeds had not yet germinated by the time we arrived home. Hopefully they will emerge soon and are just slow (perhaps not enough warmth?) and not drowned.

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This tiny clay pot worked perfectly as a mini olla to keep our seedlings watered while we were on vacation.

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The mini-olla also worked to water emerging seedlings that were germinating while we were away.

I was also pleased to see that our gingerroot also decided to start sprouting while we were away!

Chitting (Sprouting) Potatoes

The last little update I want to share with you has to do with our potato seeds. While we were away I laid the seed potatoes out in trays beneath a semi-sunny window. (I was fearful that if I left them in some of the sunniest locations the dogs would eat them. This window was in a closed bedroom.) The ideas behind chitting potatoes is that exposure to sunlight causes them to begin sprouting and that pre-planting sprouting results in a faster harvest. I had a good success with the process last year.

Here’s what he potatoes looked like when we left. (Pardon the poor lighting… it was very early in the morning).

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Here are our seed potatoes at the beginning of the chitting (sprouting) process.

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We left them near a sunny window while we were gone on vacation.

And here’s what they looked like when we returned.

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These are Desiree Red seed potatoes from Seed Savers Exchange.

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These red (new) potatoes didn’t sprout as much as I’d hoped, but they did better than the yellow potatoes.

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These German Butterball seed potatoes from Seed Savers Exchange hardly sprouted at all while we were gone!

They didn’t progress along as far as I was hoping, but this is still good. I gave them a couple more days of sunlight before planting them.

Now that we’re home and the weather is warm, I’m up to my eyeballs in chores and impending projects. There’s so much to share, but I’ve already blathered on enough for one post. Stay tuned – there’s more coming soon!

 
 

Container Gardening Tips

Plants in a WindowThe more I learn about sustainable living, the more convinced I become that everyone can grow fresh food at home. Not everyone can have the same 1,500 square feet of garden space that we have here at Arcadia Farms, but even renters and apartment dwellers can grow a significant amount of food in a container garden. Container gardening is also a great place for reluctant homeowners to start. If you’re convinced that growing some of your own food would be beneficial but are hesitant to rent a rototiller and start digging up your backyard, consider starting with a container garden. Today I want to share some tips with you on how to make your container garden a successful one.

For the most part, growing veggies in containers is the same as growing them directly in the ground or a raised bed. One obvious difference is that you have less soil to work with. With less soil, you’ll need to pay close attention to your plants nutritional needs (small space means soil nutrients can be used up more readily). You’ll also need to keep a close eye on moisture (it’s easy to over or underwater a container garden). Let’s talk about those two factors – and a few other things you should keep in mind.

1. Give Your Plants Nutrients

raw egg fertilizer

{image Credit}
www.redbookmag.com

To make sure your plants get the nutrients they need, I recommend starting with good quality compost. Because the soil in your container is more likely to become compacted over time, mixing in some vermiculite would also be preferable. There are also many ready-mixed organic garden soils that provide a good supply of nutrients while still being lightweight.

After your plants are established (are showing their true leaves), you’ll want to give them with a natural fertilizer. Good choices are fish emulsion (diluted in water per the bottle’s directions) or an organic soil amendment (such as Jobes organic tomato and vegetable fertilizer.) Fertilize every 1 to 2 weeks after your plants begin to show their true leaves. Here’s another idea for fertilizing your container: A whole, in-shell, raw egg. Warning: I’ve never actually tried this myself, rather, I found the idea on Pinterest. The idea is that the egg will decompose slowly and add nutrients to the soil as it does.

If you intend to use the same containers over and over again, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to soil fertility. First, you should add new organic matter every year. Fall is a good time to do this so that the materials have time to breakdown over the winter. You can accomplish this by adding grass clippings, shredded leaves, table scraps, store-bought or homemade compost. The second thing to keep in mind has to do with crop rotation. Just like an in-ground garden, plants of the same family ‘eat’ certain nutrients in the soil. If you continue to plant the same type of plant in the same container, over time the nutrients necessary for the healthy growth of that plant will be depleted. To avoid this issue, rotate similarly sized containers through various crops of different plant families. If your season and container are conducive to this, consider sowing some manner of nitrogen-fixing crop after your summer veggies are spent. This cover crop will keep weeds from inhabiting your container over the cooler months and will also add nitrogen to the soil. For a list of nitrogen-fixing cover crops, click here. In general, any legume will do the trick, such as peas and beans.

You can also add nutrients to your container by adding a layer of woody debris – such as broken branches, twigs or even small logs – to the bottom of your container. As the wood breaks down it adds nutrients to the soil, among other benefits.

2. Manage Moisture

{Image Credit} www.amazon.com

{Image Credit}
www.amazon.com

Another benefit of adding woody debris to your container is that it helps to retain moisture. As wood breaks down it acts like a sponge, attracting water and then releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil as needed. This is the primary function of wood in hugelkultur – a system where raised bed gardens are built over piles of well-rotted (spongy) wood to help retain moisture and reduce (or eliminate) the need for irrigation. You can put this hugelkultur benefit to work for you on a container-sized scale. I even read that one blogger found better success with logs placed vertically than horizontally, essentially because the grain of the log acted like a straw for moisture to move up and down. (As soon as I can re-find his post I will link to it here!).  Keep the following tips in mind when selecting wood for your container:

  • Avoid wood so large that will interfere with the growth of root crops (i.e. carrots)
  • Avoid treated lumber
  • Avoid wood from plants that contain natural herbicides, such as black walnut
  • The more rotten the wood, the better
  • Fresh wood that contains a significant amount of tannin (i.e. pine) should be avoided until the wood is older (6 months old at earliest, just my opinion)

Don’t feel like you need to use a giant log in your 12” pot – just a handful of fallen sticks from the yard will help! These sticks will also help provide some air pockets for drainage at the bottom of the container which is of critical importance in container planting. (You don’t want to drown the roots of your plant – they need air too!)

Because containers can dry out easily, try mulching the top to keep the soil cool and water from evaporating. If your container is large enough, you may consider using an olla to reduce the amount of time you spend on watering.

And lastly, because moisture management is so important in container gardening, you’ll want to invest in a moisture meter. For $5-$10 you can find something like this (image above) which takes the guesswork out of whether or not to water – just stick the probes into the soil and you’ll find out how much moisture is already present.

3. Choose the Right Container (Size, Shape & Materials)

When it comes to container gardening, bigger is generally better. That’s because you have more moisture-retaining, nutrient-rich soil to work with. But that doesn’t mean a small container can’t be just as successful! In Mel Brook’s Square Foot Gardening method, nearly everything can be grown in soil that is just 6” deep.  (Root crops will need a minimum of 12”.) The necessary width of your container will depend on what you’re growing – tomato plants do best with at least 2 square feet of space while one head of lettuce requires only 12.5% of a single square foot. Use these plant spacing rules as a guideline for container planting.

Tall or vining crops (such as cucumbers and tomatoes) will need a trellis. Does your container have enough space to hold both your plant and your trellis? Or will you use an external trellis near the container such as a fence or a porch railing? Here are some ideas for container-gardening trellises. Click on the image for more info and image sources.

outdoor trellis string trellis simple diy copper trellis raspberries trellis sapling green ladder trellis

Also consider the material makeup of your container. You’ll want to avoid containers from treated materials, ones that may leach chemicals into your soil or that previously held harmful chemicals/materials.

4. Location, Location, Location

This isn’t real estate, but location is still pretty darn important! The closer your containers are to the house, the less likely you’ll be to neglect them. Plus if you have easy access to your cherry tomatoes and snap beans, you (and your family) will be more likely to grab a few for a snack or dinner than if you have to wander far from the back door.

When choosing a location for your container garden, sunlight is another huge consideration. In general, you’re looking for a location with as much sun as possible. However some plants benefit from a little shade. To determine the best location for each crop, check out the info on the back of the seed packet. Once you’ve identified your shade-loving plants and your sun-loving plants, you can devise a plan for each group. You may even be able to use your large sun-loving plants to provide shade to your shade-loving plants. Shade-lovers staged on the east side of sun-lovers will get plenty of morning sun but will be shielded from harsher afternoon rays.

And when you place your containers, keep pests in mind! Do you have deer nearby? You may want to keep your containers in a fenced area. Is the sunniest spot in the yard also in the path of your pets and kids – you’ll need a plan to keep them from being toppled over. Another way to keep bunnies and other critters away from your veggies is to interplant smelly things to deter them – chives, garlic, marigolds and rosemary are good options.

Inspiration

As you ponder how to incorporate these tips into your own container garden, click here to take a peep at some of these neato ideas for inspiration.

I’m working right now on a custom container gardening plan for growing lots of things like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, carrots, potatoes and herbs. I hope to share that with you soon!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  

 
 

Olla Irrigation for a Market Garden

An olla buried in the garden.Image fromhttp://www.apartmenttherapy.com

Clay olla buried in the garden.
Image from http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/olla-gardening-the-original-dr-78565

It’s January. And it’s cold. And I’m glad… mostly. I’m not a fan of cold weather, but I’m hoping a cold, snowy Michigan winter means a drought-free Michigan summer. Cold weather also means I have some time to create plans for making our 2013 season even more successful than 2012. I’ve been doing research on irrigation systems for our 2013 garden and I’d like to share the results of this research with you this week.

A major component of my irrigation plan is hugelkultur. If you’ve been following this blog than I’m sure you’re sick of me throwing that term around. If you haven’t been following my German-term throwing antics, then I’ll just let you know briefly that hugelkultur (“mound culture”) is a gardening method that has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries and is essentially a sheet-composting method that involves burying woody debris (logs, branches, sticks) and other organic matter under a mound of earth to add nutrients to the soil and retain moisture. For more on my adventures in installing hugelkultur beds, click here.

I sincerely hope that hugelkultur will reduce our irrigation needs but I’m not quite optimistic enough to trust that it will eliminate the need to water. So I’ve set out to develop a sustainable irrigation system that minimizes labor, reduces costs, avoids overhead watering, and stores extra water while maintaining aesthetics appropriate for our suburban setting. I want the system to minimize reliance on city water. And I’d like fries with that too, please.

Click here to read the rest of this article, including:

 
 
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