Thursday, March 31, 2011

sustainable rural living in nepal

young men on a traditional hollow log boat in chitwan national park
As I tried to show in my post on sustainable living in urban Nepal- sustainability is not something that is consciously sought after in Nepal- at least not as far as I could see.  It just is.  There has never been an excess of fossil fuel, either extracted locally or imported, so the dependence on fossil fuel has never had a chance to become ingrained.

Contrast this with the US where it's not unusual to hear, or read of, people complaining that 'its too expensive' to go green or 'too difficult' to live in a sustainable manner.  The problem may just be that we're too spoiled.  When oil becomes less available, as it already is beginning to be, and it becomes unaffordable or impossible to do things as we've become used to doing them, we'll have to adjust quickly.  In rural Nepal, the change may hardly be felt.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

baby plants and iowa envy

Downtown St. Paul today.  From
Right now we have snow on the ground and the rivers are flooding.  So I can't walk to Harriet Island  on my lunch break in downtown St. Paul.  Looking at the NOAA map, it's clear that the snow ends pretty much exactly at the Iowa border.  It wouldn't be so bad, if it hadn't been like this all month.  So I assume that as soon as you cross the state line heading south, you'll start seeing green grass and leaves on the trees.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

sustainable urban living in nepal

Swayambunath- an ancient Buddhist temple seen from my brother-in-law's roof.  Note the water tank in the foreground

I promised in my comments on another blog (much better than this one) that I'd post some photos of sustainable urban living in Nepal- my wife's country of origin.  Specifically, photos of the solar hot water heater, since that was the topic of the John Michael Greer's posting this week.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

what goes on under the snow

snowmold growing at the base of a magnolia
 It wasn't easy waking up yesterday morning and seeing fresh snow on the ground, or watching it fall all day after that.  It looks like we got 4, maybe 5 inches of heavy, icy snow.  Sometimes I think snow shoveling is fun, but yesterday's wasn't.

Monday, March 21, 2011

happy spring equinox!

my kids watering the new starts
Really, yesterday was the spring equinox, so happy belated spring equinox.  We didn't do anything to celebrate, but we did plant our first seed starts of the year. 

My kids love watering them.  Right now these are some of the best watered seeds on the planet.  I think they've been watered 3 times in the last 24 hours or so.  But it's great to see them so excited about it, and really being interested in the cycle of life.  My daughter is learning about the concept of death- and asks a lot about it.  We took both of them to my grandma's funeral last fall, and it made a great impression on her, and has been the source of many questions.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

chop wood, carry water. grow tomatoes

I was doing some research on the phrase 'eighth acre farm' before naming the blog, and found a lot of interesting stuff.  There was an article claiming that a 1/8 acre would be sufficient area to support a human being if they were to farm it intensively and eat a vegan diet.   There was another attacking 'sustainablity types' for the notion that eating vegan or living on a "micro-farm" would save the world and going so far as to suggest that doing so would somehow be harmful to the actual remaining family farms as well as the notion of urbanism itself.

The photo at top is the produce I picked out of our garden on an average August day last year.  We had tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant (with some bug bites- but they're organic!) and cucumbers.  I probably could have included a massive armful of kale, but it's not quite as photogenic and my goal was more a pretty picture than an accounting of what we grew.

We won't ever feed our family entirely off of our backyard and our community garden plot and I won't save the world by trying.  Saving the world is becoming more and more difficult every week anyway.  Seeing the tsunami footage and watching the resulting slow-mo meldown of the nuclear reactors is horrifying. My heart goes out to the people affected.  I get the same familiar feeling of wanting to do something, and not knowing what.   There's the familiar request for funding for the Red Cross or any number of other agencies, some probably legtimate others not so much.

More satisfying by far would be to go there and try to help- but actually thinking through the consequences- and of how useless a white guy who doesn't speak Japanese in that situation would be- and even how counterproductive- brings me back to reality.  I had a co-worker express the same sentiment while we were driving to a survey site on Friday.  He said that he had the urge to (and I paraphrase) "just go there and help however I could- but I didn't do that during Katrina, and that was my own country- how could I think that I would be able to go to Japan?"  This guy wasn't a bleeding-heart liberal like me- actually more of a Tea-party sympathiser, but the sentiment was the same and it surprised me.

I had the same feeling reading every day about the rebel advances in Libya- wanting to go there to be with the rebels and make everything right.  Even more of a pipe dream- I know, but it's hard seeing people in the situation that they were in, and not wanting to do something.

Now our government has sent in the fighter planes and missles and it has the feeling of something that was grassroots and positive which has been co-opted by something less pure. 

I'm glad that the Libyan rebels are not being slaughtered, but I'm sure I'm not the only one to wonder how this is going to end.  Particularly given how all the other actions in the Middle East in my lifetime have played out.

As the western world seems to tip into a slow sort of decline, building a little homestead, a little island within it becomes a sort of lifeboat.  Read Dmitri Orlov's "Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century" for an illuminating, and a bit frightening account of the fall of the Soviet Union and how regular people dealt with it.  The interesting thing to me about the account of how people lived, is how much the little things people did to adapt and be self-sufficent mattered.  Having a backyard garden made the difference between being able to stay in place or having to become a refugee in one's own country.  Something as simple as gathering mushrooms and pickling them to make comfort food made life more tolerable.  People found ways to muddle through, and I assume that many have found a new sort of equilibrium in their new post-empire country. 

I'm not a fan of pickled mushrooms, and I know I can't feed a family of four off 1/8 acre, but we can grow a surprising amount of food with what we have.  From May to November, almost all of the vegetables we eat are from our yard.  We freeze and can the rest, and eat it most of the winter.  As our fruit trees grow, I expect we'll be able to add fruit preserves to the root cellar.  Right now, it's a way to save money, but it may become more important as time goes on. 

I don't believe that an apocalypse is on it's way, though I enjoy reading blogs like James Kunstler's anyway.  It seems like we're in the middle of something more like an unwinding,  the slow decline of a large and powerful empire, that can subsist on its past greatness for years and decades before finally accepting that it's best is behind it.   I was talking with my wife the other day- and remarked that England is about 70 or 100 years past the peak of their empire, and England today isn't a bad place to live at all.  Same with Italy- maybe 2000 years past their peak?  But definitely in a sort of equilibrium now- after hundreds of years of booms and busts and successive building and crumbling of mini-empires and principalities.  The transition may be difficult, but a post- empire may turn out to be better to live in than the empire itself.

Friday, March 18, 2011

the first green of spring

Really I saw the first green of spring on my way home from work.  I caught the express bus which drops me off on Snelling Avenue, then I walk past O'Garas to get home.  Saint Patrick's day gets bigger every year there- now there are porta-potties in the street and cars parked in strategic places with ads for energy drinks near the tents in the parking lot.  Lots of people with green wigs and leprechaun hats too.  I didn't get out to join the fun last night- but I did spot the first little tulips poking out of the ground.  I guess they're more red than green, but it's green enough for me.

Most of the yard near the south side of the house is melting off.  It's not pretty.  I started a retaining wall/ patio project in the back yard last winter, and it snowed early in November so my work stopped suddenly.  I found my winter hat that's been missing since then and my son's toy firetruck yesterday.  I also see that I still have a lot of work to do.
But at least the snow is melting.  This map is from NOAA's snow analysispage.  The red is melting snow.  For a while it seemed that the snow would only melt just south of the Iowa border.  I checked the maps on the NOAA page most days this March, and it just confirmed what could see out the window.  The snow was still there.   It kind of looked like a glacier was forming over the upper Midwest, but fortunately now that's on its way out.

Today's sunny, dry weather must not have been good for sap flow, however.  The maple sap bucket was bone dry when I came home.  Not a drop.  I don't know if I can blame the squirrels- do they drink maple sap?  Would the birds migrating back be stopping for a sip?  Is it just that the maple tree is getting old and didn't like the weather today?  I don't know, but I was bummed out that I wasn't going to get to add anything to our little mason jar of syrup we're filling in the fridge.  I'm hoping that this weekend's weather- more warmth, a little rain- will get it going again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

making maple syrup

I was able to collect almost half a gallon of maple sap today!  I have it cooking on the stove top right now.  It's been maybe 45 minutes and it has boiled down to about half the original volume.

Contrary to what some people say, silver maple syrup is actually pretty good.  The sugar content is lower, but that just means it takes more sap to produce syrup.  The small amount of syrup we made yesterday a very distinctive maple syrup flavor- with a bit more of a nutty flavor than the commercially available syrup I've had.

We had a bit of a problem yesterday with bark and other debris falling into the open top of the bucket, as well as the rain that was sprinking on and off.  So I looked around the garage to see if there was anything that might work as a 'roof' for the pail.  There in the corner were a couple of lawn signs for political candidates.  I put up one or two every couple of years and never know what to do with them after the election.  Well-- here's a good use!

Many thanks to Betty McCollum for her contribution to our maple syruping effort!  And's she's not a bad legislator either.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

last year's garden

This time of year I crave pictures of green- of color- of leaves and flowers and vegetables. 

The most notable thing about the Twin Cities' landscape in March is the lack of color.  Gray snow, gray sky, gray streets.  The thaw is here-  highs predicted in the 40s and 50s all week.  The maple sap is flowing and the snow is melting, but it's still going to take a while before we see anything green.

So I go over last year's garden photos.  It helps with the garden planning, but mostly it's a kind of color therapy- as well as a chance to remember what being outside without a jacket feels like and to remember the smell of something other than diesel exhaust.

Here's a good one of what I think is one of the most underrated plants for Minnesota:  The Winnipeg Parks Rose.  It was developed at a research station in Manitoba and is tough to zone 2 or 3 depending on who you believe, so even the harshest Minnesota winter won't kill it.  In addition, it's not very thorny, has red-tinged foliage, and the color of the flowers will burn your retinas.  Maybe it's too garish for some, but I love it.  I'm glad I planted a bunch when I did, because they seem to have been taken off the market.  If anyone knows where they have gone, please let me know.  I ordered them bare root, I think through Jung seeds, but Jung has discontinued them. It's a shame, because these deserve to be planted more often.

Also, I mentioned Danvers carrots in a previous post.  Here's what you get when you plant Danvers in full sun, in soil amended with wheelbarrows of compost, and you weed out (by accident) the competing carrots.  This is my son holding a monster that measured over 4 inches wide at the top.  It's by far the biggest carrot I've ever grown, and I wasn't even trying.  We made a pot of carrot soup from this one alone, and even tasted pretty good.

Today, we boiled down the first of the maple sap- about a cup or maybe a cup and half of it- and ended up with about a teaspoon of syrup.  But it tasted great!  I hope that the warmer, wetter weather means we'll be getting more sap.  I see that some is leaking from the bottom of the spigot- I wonder if it's in right, and if anyone knows what the best course of action to take is, if the spile isn't fitted correctly.  Is it better to remove it and re-place it, or just leave it be?  I'm open to ideas.

Monday, March 14, 2011

tappin' it

I've wanted to try making maple syrup for years.  This spring I finally made the effort to find the equipment I needed and tap the 36" diameter silver maple in our side yard.  

It doesn't take much.  I was able to find a spile (the little spigot thing) at Fleet Farm, and bought a wood boring drill bit and metal pail (with cool logo on the front) at the local Ace hardware.  It took maybe 5 minutes to bore the hole, hammer in the spile and within a few minutes, sap was flowing into the bucket.

There wasn't a lot of it.  We left to go to our daughter's preschool parent-teacher conference (I didn't think we'd have to do these for preschool, but what to I know?) and when we came back there were a few ounces of sap in the bucket, maybe enough to fill half a shot glass.  If I'm lucky.

It's going to take a lot more than that to keep us in syrup for the year, but I'm hoping that the warmup that's predicted for this week will kick the sap flow up a notch.  The spring weeks with above-freezing days and below-freezing nights are supposed to be the best time to do this, and it looks like that's going to be our weather pattern for the next week or two, so I'm excited to see what's going to happen.

My son thought this all was pretty cool.  Any time I get out power tools, he gets excited, and that includes the cordless drill I used to drill the hole.  I actually have an old manual drill I bought years ago at an estate sale that I thought I might use, but I couldn't find the bits, and really, the cordless is a lot faster anyway.  

Our Piracicaba broccoli seeds arrived today, by the way.  Since Fedco was sold out, I ordered them from Hudson Valley Seed Library, and they arrived within a few days!  I should have ordered more from them.  Thanks fellas!  Not that I'll actually be able to plant them anytime soon, but it's nice to have all of my seeds here so I can start planning where everything will go.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

ready for a thaw

I've been gardening all of my life.  I have a photo of myself as a 4-year-old holding huge winter squash that I grew (with some help) in a corner of my dad's garden.  As a kid, most gardening was involuntary- pulling weeds and picking beans in my dad's garden.  I wasn't so keen on it then, but it was the start of an addiction.  Now I get impatient waiting for the snow to melt.  I order my seeds from Fedco and get a rush from opening the box and seeing the new seeds for this years garden.

The seeds came last week and the rush has come and gone and the snow has stayed.  15F this morning and it's mid-March.  So instead of gardening I write about gardening.

Every year I say that I'm going to keep a garden journal like every book and website says you should, but every year I either forget or put it off, and by the time it's planting season, I haven't done it, and soon it's October and I wonder what that spinach variety was that I planted and that tasted so good.  One of my resolutions this year (too late for a new years' resolution-- maybe for Chinese new year) is to keep a journal and to do it online so I actually have to keep up with it. 

My wife and I and two young kids live in Saint Paul, on a eighth-of-an-acre lot.  We've been here 5 years now, going on 6, expanding our little veggie plot every year.  We've slowly added fruit trees, a few berry bushes and a grape vine.  Last year we leased a plot at the community garden near our house, and got another 10' x 15' plot with full sun, which we lack in our backyard.  We had an bumper crop of okra and tomatoes and butternut squash with the hot weather last summer and will try to do the same thing this year, and grow watermelon as well.

The seeds we ordered from Fedco this year included:
Windsor Fava Bean - an awesome producer, and delicious- our third year growing them
Shirofumi soybeans - first time with these
Oregon Giant Snow Peas - the seeds are huge- first time with these as well
Cream of Saskatchewan melon -  a yellow watermelon that should grow in Minnesota if it's able to make it in western Canada
Telegraph Improved European Cucumber- sounds like a variant of the English cucumber my wife likes
Danvers Carrot- We've grown this one for at least 4 years now-- tasty and super-productive in our shady garden
Green Meat Radish- another new one.  It sounds like a small Daikon variation.  We've tried the bigger daikons and had success the first year, then bad luck every year after.  Not sure if we have some sort of fungus or nematode affecting the daikons, but hopefully green meat won't be affected.
Space Spinach- sounded good in teh Fedco catalog
Mustard Mix- a mix of the south asian greens my wife likes so much
Pung Pop mustard- see above
Piracicaba broccoli- Was sold out this year at Fedco!  I was so bummed out-- I special ordered it from another company- we'll see if it arrives.   Piracicaba has been one of the best plants we've ever planted in our garden.  Small florets of really tasty broccoli all summer and well into fall.  Besides the kale, this is the longest lasting thing in our garden.
Nero di Tuscana kale- we ususally order two varieties of kale each year- a Russian kale, usually a purple or multicolor kale, and a lacinato, or dinosaur variety .  This year, we're sticking with lacinato only.  As wonderful as the kale is, it tends to take over the garden.  We end up with a forest of kale by the fall, and the Russian kale just isn't as tasty as  the lacinato. 
Cajun Jewel okra.  We've ordered it in the past and it was sold out.  This year we got it!  Supposedly it's better adapted to our cooler climate and shorter growing season.  Last year I planted Clemson spineless (I think that was the name) from the hardware store, and it did well, but that had more to do with the hot summer than anything else. I'm keen on seeing what Cajun Jewel does in our community garden space.
Jaluv An hot pepper- a jalepeno variety that does well in northern climates
Garden Peach tomato- I planted this 10 or 12 years ago and loved it.  It really is peach-like.  Sweet, slightly fuzzy and fruity.  Hard to believe it's real.  I think the kids will like this one.
Opalka paste tomato- We make salsa every year and go through a lot of tomatoes during the growing season.  I'm hoping this is a good one.  The write-up in the catalog looked good.  Will it deliver?
Sweet Basil- for the pesto we make and freeze in the fall.  We couldn't go without some basil in the garden.
Caribe cilantro- we still have wild cilantro coming up from some we planted 5 seasons ago.  But this is supposed to be more robust and slow-bolting.  The opposite of the stuff we have volunteering in the garden right now. 

That's all the seeds we have now.  I'll probably buy or trade some starts at some point.  More about that later.