The year in review; plans for the year ahead

A frost on September 12th damaged the Lakewood farm gardens, though some outdoor plants and the greenhouse continue to produce well, as the weather has continued warm. We have started cleanup, and will be rebuilding many of the beds. We have also planted some fall crops.

At our planing meeting a few days ago, we discussed many topics, among them the following.

Sheet mulch works really well here. It seems to hold water, once it get really wet. If it is built dry, it can stay that way. It also does a lot better if it is started a few months before planting. Some seeds seem to need mineral soil on top, not just compost. Greens are difficult to start in a rough mulch. Paths should be raised up to form borders around the mulch beds, especially on a slope, to keep water in. Chunks of wood and sticks seem to improve a mulch. The mulch should also be deeper the a foot, more like two feet. By spring, the foot of mulch we laid had turned into something more like six inches.

Our labeling system (plastic with permanent marker) broke down. Even if the marker was permanent the labels were not and they soon disappeared in a jungle or got pulled out. This lead to a number of problems: difficulty in seed saving, inability to harvest green when ripe tomatoes, difficulty telling if a bean was a green bean or a dry bean, or if a squash was a winter or summer variety. At very least, different types of the same plant should be segregated, so as to avoid this problem.

To solve this problem, we will be spending some winter meetings inside wood burning labels into some stakes.
Cherry tomatoes were a waste of time, since they were too difficult to pick and ended up smashed on the way home.

Planting a second batch of zucchini and cucumbers in July is well worth it.
Watering by hand was a huge chore. Pulling the hoses around ran the risk of damaging plants and was a big hassle. As well as increasing water storage in deeper mulch, we may switch to using an oscillating sprinkler on a tall pole for most of the garden. If the pole is seven feet high, it will clear trellises, tall plants, etc. This would only require one hose and could easily be activate and left on for the required amount of time. For many plants in an arid climate, overhead watering is beneficial. Tomatoes, dry beans, and some seed crops will need to be watered from below. For these, we will be setting up soaker lines. This would also eliminate the problem of over and under watering.
We really need trellises for tomatoes. Without them, the plants did wonderfully, but finding the tomatoes was so difficult that many rotted on the ground or were eaten by slugs.
The farm was not set up so that members could come and help out on their own schedule. We will be having a numbered sign in each bed, with a corresponding white board chart in the shed, showing what is planted in each, and what has to be tended, harvested, etc. We will also set up a logbook for member’s use. This will greatly increase our efficiency in use of volunteer hours.
Distribution of produce was more difficult then we thought it would be. We need drop-off/ pick-up points, each with an evaporative cooler or refrigerator. That way members could pick up produce on their own schedule, while avoiding spoilage. This will be important if we grow more greens, which members have requested. At the same time, each pickup point would have a member in charge to inventory produce and send out alerts as to the amount on hand. One member voiced concern as to a child potentially getting stuck in a refrigerator. To avoid this we would lock any refrigerators.
We have many projects planned, among them the following:
Mushrooms started in our sheet mulches would improve the conditions for our plants. Fall would be the best time to do this, and we will probably use oyster mushrooms, which have the best symbiotic relationship with garden plants.

Over the winter, we can get our beehives and swarm traps finished and set up. We will continue to salvage wood for these. If we build enough, we may try selling them.

We will add thermal mass and insulation to our hoophouse to extend its useful season. One of the members can get bubble wrap for this.

The members want to raise more flowers in the gardens next year. There are many edible, medicinal, and habitat providing flowers for us to use.

We may start raising geese on the Lakewood farm, rotating them through cover cropped sections of the garden.
There are lots of indoor building type projects we can purse over the winter, such as solar applications, aquaponics setups, alternative cooking devices, and many more.
Bare root fruit bushes, grape vines, asparagus, and other perennial plants can be installed this fall. Geese are used as weeders in orchards and strawberry fields, and thus fit in well with this.
Next year, if we are more organized, we can save more of our own seed, and work on breeding our own plants.
To get our Lakewood farm ready for next year, we have many things that need to get done this Fall. Among them are: starting some big compost piles; rebuilding all our sheet mulches so that they are two feet deep; building our shed; setting up an irrigation system and trellises; upgrading some of the fencing; general cleanup; and reworking our entrance area. We will probably use concrete reinforcing wire for tomato trellis.
We will be hosting an Advent wreath crafting event at OLMC parish in Littleton to raise funds for the SIS. This will be held towards the end of November.
And finally, we have a new farm site in Littleton, near Broadway and Littleton Boulevard. If you want to come and help please contact me for the address.

Notes from the meeting of January 11th/ Swarms and Swarm traps

Honey bees (and their wild relatives) are in a lot of trouble. Beekeeping has never been easy, and is now extremely difficult. We hope to be part of the solution, by keeping bees naturally, thus reducing the stress they are exposed to. Of course, this will not help if they are poisoned by the dangerous chemicals our society is addicted to. (See this post.)

At this meeting we started work on our swarm traps. Swarm traps are a method of getting a free swarm of bees. Also, the bees in a swarm might represent valuable genetics. There is no guarantee of this, but at least they represent a cultivated or feral hive which was strong enough to overwinter successfully in the local area. To explain how the traps work, I will have to go into how a beehive works.

A beehive for all practical purposes is one organism, composed of a queen, who lays the eggs for the colony, drones, which are males, and workers, who run the hive and only live for a few months at most. (The queen lives for several years.) An individual worker (or queen for that matter) are helpless on their own. If there is good weather in the spring, a strong hive will raise a few new queens. The old queen then leaves with a large group of workers, known as a swarm, while the remaining bees rebuild their numbers. The swarm finds a convenient branch or post to settle on, and forms itself into a “ball” of bees. Then scouts head out in a five mile radius. They inspect cavities, looking for a new home. They then return to “report” to the swarm, in a special “dance.” The swarm then leaves their temporary resting place and flies to best of the cavities found by the scouts, where they began building comb, in which they store honey and the queen lays eggs.

A swarm trap provides an attractive location for a swarm to start building. It contains top bars, which are interchangeable with those in the top bar hive, for the bees to build on. It has only one easily closable entrance. They are generally hung in trees, and often contain lemon grass essential oil, which attracts bees and make them feel at home.

Once the bees move into a swarm trap, and have built some comb, the entrance is blocked at night, when all the bees will be at home, and the trap is moved to the location of the hive. Then the top bars are placed into the hive. The bees will stay with their comb, which forms the ‘skeleton” of the bee hive super-organism.

To improve our chances of getting at least one swarm, a large number of traps must be placed.  Of course, with the bee population dwindling, it is likely that even with a good number of traps we will not get any swarms. In which case we will buy a nucleus or a split to get started.

Notes from the meeting of September 2nd

At this meeting we got the two beehives for OLMC finished, except for painting. I will post pictures when the painting is finished.

We also discussed the possibilities of selling top bar hives to pay for the Lakewood farm project. If we do this, then the hours spent building beehives would also count towards the minimum required to get a produce share from the farm.

Notes from the meeting of August 7th

This meeting was held on three quarters of an acre owned by a member in Lakewood. They will let us use the land as a community farm or garden.  We walked the land, and then had a discussion about our course of action.

We are looking for woven wire fencing, round or square posts about eight feet high (to allow them to be buried) and cardboard. Cardboard should be in large sheets, such as the boxes appliances come in, should be free of holes, and should not be glossy or highly colored. All staples and tape should be removed, and boxes should be folded flat.

We decided that no member must contribute to any project on the land which they are not interested in. Labor can be easily devoted to whatever members are most interested in, and nobody has to give money (except perhaps to pay for the water.)

The owners will have final say on anything which happens on the land. They will let us use municipal water and electricity, if we pay  them for their increased bill. We may also be helping them with various projects around their property.

Several members have told me that they could give between four and six hours a month, some on weekdays and some on weekends. So I think the minimum should be set to four hours a month. This counts family hours. For instance, if four family members come and work for an hour, that would be your monthly share.  Also, shares time can be paid in money or materials. We have not yet worked out the exact equivalence between them.  Time requirements may be waived for a number of reasons.

We hope to have three or so coordinators eventually, even though we put off making the decision. We need something like this for two reasons; first of all, for security, and to answer to the owners. The coordinators will have keys to the land, and will set up work times, so that the owners can be sure that only people who belong on the land end up there. Secondly, to  make day to day decisions on the ground and direct labor.

The conclusions in the previous two paragraphs have not yet been finalized.

We got a basic idea of where we would put various elements on the land. It is too vague to draw a map, but it is good enough for now, and will let us get to work.

We also decided not to limit operations to any particular size; rather, we would get started, and see how far the available time, labor, and materials get us.

Here is a list of the projects/ ideas which members proposed and the group adopted.

Growing flowers for the parish altar. One of the members is also willing to do this in their yard. This is important, as flowers cost a lot of money, and are generally treated with extremely toxic chemicals, since they are not for consumption and have to look perfect.

We will build a greenhouse if we have enough money and labor. This will give us a stable, sheltered microclimate. It will be mostly or completely heated by solar gain. We will try to keep the cost low, perhaps as low as six hundred dollars.

We will start an orchard, as the owners kindly offered to pay initial costs for a few trees. Obviously, this means that they can decide what kind of trees and how many are planted. It is important to plant trees as soon as possible, even though we will not permanently control this piece of land. This will give us time to experiment and find out which trees work best, and then if we acquire a permanent site, we won’t have to try and figure it out there. Instead we can use grafting stock right off our original trees.

Keeping chickens for egg production is not possible on this property. However, another member may be willing to start a chicken farming project on their land. And we can keep other poultry, both for meat and for their beneficial effects on the land. The owners have kept geese in the past.

We can compost on the land, so long as we keep it neat and contained, away from the owner’s house, and don’t compost food scraps. We will probably build a straw bale bin composting container.

One of the members suggested protecting young seedling beds with straw bales and simple hoop house structures, which sounds like a good idea.

We will use several garden styles on the land, to find which works best for each plant. However, the first style will be sheet mulch or wood chip gardening, in which a layer of cardboard is laid down to suppress weeds, and then wood chips and other mulch is laid on top. In the spring, vegetables are planted straight into the mulch. No weeds, very little watering, and no digging. We can probably get wood chips for free. Other styles may include raised beds, hugelculture, waffle garden, and french intensive or Biointensive gardens.

We will be keeping bees in top bar hives. If individual members want a Langstroth hive, they can certainly procure one and place it on the land.

We will be building aquaponics systems in our greenhouse. Aquaponics combines a tank for fish with a gravel filled grow bed full of pants, which filters and aerates the water. It is the best use of greenhouse space, as it produces two to three times the amount of vegetables a soil garden produces, and the fish are an added bonus. We could raise tilapia or trout. We could also use one or two of the units to raise koi or fancy gold fish to cover costs. The style of aquaponics we will be using is fairly cheap, as it depends on salvaged elements.

One of the members suggested raising and selling ducklings in the spring. We could also do this with rare breeds of chickens. (No collecting eggs; they could be hatched by the chickens if we chose the right breeds.)

Down the road we may use solar panels.

Our first projects are sheet mulching the garden area and rebuilding the fence.