Sunday, February 8, 2009

Things I Learned at the Conference

I'm back from the PASA conference, and feeling very happy to be home. My cat is delighted about our return too, and has been sucking up to us shamelessly since last night. I learned a lot, but being away from home takes it out of me. I missed my bed, our well water, easy control over my own diet and meal times, and hanging out in my comfy pants as long as I wish in the mornings. Home is best.

But the conference was great. I learned a lot, and felt enormously encouraged by the energy generated by 2000 other gardeners, homesteaders, sustainable farmers, ethical seed vendors, and concerned eaters. There was a palpable buzz to the assembly; I could just feel the exchange of information and ideas happening among the members during breaks between sessions. My husband attended an IPM (integrated pest management) workshop and has returned home particularly fired up about planting things to provide habitat and food for pollinating and predatory insects. There was a speech by a local level politician who seemed to get it on issues of farmland preservation and government incentives for sustainable farming practices and small scale sustainable energy production. Raj Patel gave a good keynote address, and I picked up coupons for organic foods and free shipping from Johnny's Seeds that will probably save me more than $50. We bought three sustainably produced Pennsylvania cheeses at the cheese tasting put on by PASA member farms.

The conference furthered my progress on two of my goals for 2009. I happened to meet the woman who coordinates the Master Gardener Program for our county. She gave me the skinny on when the program will start up, when the classes will meet, and how the pre-test works in terms of selecting participants. (It doesn't; it's only a tracking metric for student progress.) It was nice to get a chance to schmooze her. And I got containers of compost worms from two different members, in exchange for some of my homemade bread. Settling the worms into their new home is on the agenda for this afternoon.

Here's a representative sample of random information I picked up at the conference. Almost half of these things were learned outside of a formal session or workshop. Many of them came from networking with other members in casual conversation.

There is no inspection of and no regulation over the sale of rabbit meat in the state of Pennsylvania.

It took Joel Salatin (the "high priest of pasture" at Polyface Farm) quite a while to figure out how to raise meat rabbits on grass, but apparently he did it, recently. No, I don't have the details just yet, but I'm working on that. (Update: follow the link for the details.)

Pretty much nothing will grow with less than 10 hours of daylight. At my latitude that means no growth from November 11th to February 1st. No wonder my hayframe arugula has gone nowhere these past few months. (Run the calculations for your own latitude here. You can get your coordinates off google maps, by the way.)

Many weed seeds require a light flash to germinate, which puts the old-timer practice of tilling the fields or planting at night into a different perspective.

We're probably best off cutting down that young white pine tree in our back yard if we want to maximize our edible landscaping. Not even the blueberries (which can tolerate soil pH as low as 4.5) will do well planted as close to it as our space constraints will require.

Celery is a good crop to grow in a persistent damp spot, if you have one in your yard.

When trying to eradicate a well established but unwanted plant, cut it to the ground when the plant has set buds but not yet bloomed. The energy stored in the roots will be lowest at that point, though really tenacious plants may still require a few rounds of cutting.

"Primocane" refers to the new growth canes on berry plants which form leaves but do not fruit in their first year. "Floricanes" are canes in their second year of growth which bud and set fruit. A few blackberry (and possibly raspberry) varieties have recently been developed in which the primocanes manage to set fruit.

In favorable conditions, it will take about 15 years to produce tree canopy over a denuded stream bed in Pennsylvania. The forested border around waterways should be at least 50 feet on either side, and 100 feet when the sides are steeply sloped.

You can identify blackberry canes damaged by frost by scraping the skin of the cane. Undamaged canes will show a bright green layer around a bright white core, even in winter. Damaged canes will reveal a brownish green coloration.

CR Lawn (of Fedco Seeds) is a hoot, and wields a respectable vocabulary. He can toss off the word "chary" in extemporaneous conversation and use it correctly. He can also give a cogent presentation without Powerpoint, and he can handle lots of questions. Among his competitor seed vendors he praises Southern Exposure, Turtle Tree, High Mowing, Johnny's, Territorial, and Baker Creek.

Farms that follow organic practices and use compost often have soils with an excess of phosphorus. The longer organic practices have been in place, the higher the chance of this imbalance occurring.

Timberleaf Soil Testing provides soil tests better geared to the backyard gardener than does Penn State Extension.

Sunflowers are a great asset in a garden for attracting bees and other pollinators, but they have significant allelopathic properties, and should be planted in the same part of the garden every year so that they do not retard the growth of other crops. I've had them on the north edge of my garden, and planned to keep them there. Still, it's good to know why my plan was a good one.

It's time to give John Jeavons' writings on bio-intensive gardening a fair shake, even if I don't plan to pursue this method. Jeavons alleges that rutabaga, parsnip, and leeks can all produce more calories, acre per acre, than potatoes.

Verticillium wilt, a fungal disease of the tomato and its solanaceae relatives, can be combated by planting fava beans in the same bed, chopping the bean plants into bits, and working the residue into the soil. Severe infestations of the fungus may require several years of this treatment. Any tomato plant with this disease must be destroyed rather than composting it, or the disease will spread with the compost.

Though utility companies are required by Pennsylvania law to "buy" electricity generated by alternative energy installations at private residences, they are not required to pay the homeowner anything, only to reduce the electricity bill for the residence to $0. Thus, it is important to know our true electrical needs when sizing a solar or wind installation, as there is no financial incentive for producing more than we need.

There is a company called Cold Brand that produces sunflower oil in New Jersey from sunflowers grown in Pennsylvania. I can't find any further details on availability though. It would be nice to know more so that I could source cooking oil from relatively nearby.

In principle, it's possible to transplant fully mature asparagus plants during their fall/winter dormancy period.

Here's a list of the books we heard about at the conference that we're going to be requesting through inter-library loan:

Our Next Frontier: A Personal Guide for Tomorrow's Lifestyle, Robert Rodale
Photovoltaics: Design and Installation Manual, by Solar Energy International
The Winter Harvest Handbook, and The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman
How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, by John Jeavons
Biological Control of Insects and Mites, by Daniel Mahr

And here are some few pictures from the conference.

Weed School. We were given taxonomic keys and magnifying loops, and asked to identify these twenty invasive weedy plants common to Pennsylvania.

In the second half of the day, we had a demonstration of how several different tractors and tillers can be used for weed control.

The PASA Benefit Auction. There were some lovely items donated by sponsors and members to raise money for PASA. This corner cupboard, salvaged from an old farmhouse caught my eye, though we have no room for it. And the basket of handspun yarn looked beautiful as well. But I know my habits well enough that I couldn't justify bidding on knitting supplies.

The only auction item I actually wanted was a small hod basket from Johnny's Seeds, paired with a log inoculated with shiitake plug spawn. I coveted the coated wire basket, which would be ideal for harvesting potatoes. A gentle shake, and much of the soil clinging to the spuds would fall right through. Other vegetables could be hosed down, right in the hod basket. This was a "bag" auction, which meant we couldn't bid on it, but instead had to buy raffle tickets and take our chances with everyone else who wanted it. I put all $10 worth of my tickets in that bag, but didn't win. I may succumb to temptation and add a hod basket to my forthcoming order for row covers from Johnny's, taking advantage of that free shipping.

In general, it was a nice feeling to wander among lovely products and be able to admire them without feeling any tug to acquire them. The craftsmanship was often amazing, but these items aren't needed in my life.

On the other hand, we felt good about supporting Pennsylvania dairy farmers with cold hard cash.

Pennsylvania cheeses. Wallaby, a Monterey Jack type from Keswick Creamery, Fat Cat, a "blue-less blue" from Birchrun Hills, and Mountain Valley Sharp Cheddar from Goot Essa , a co-operative of Amish dairy producers.

All in all, it was a great four days of meeting interesting people and learning. It certainly gave me a lot to think about, and plenty of contacts and resources to follow up with. Should be a good year for the garden.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a lot of good information got tossed around! Lucky you, Kate.

I like Jeavon's methods and have all of Coleman's books. Like anything I guess I am selective in my information harvest: a good tip here, a great idea there...I would make a lousy follower of any one principle, I guess.

I'm glad you posted the daylight link. The whole light thing is pretty important as far as really understanding plant growth. (It's one of the tough pills to swallow too for anyone who tells me I need to heat my greenhouses: it ain't the heat, folks!) But now that there's lots more light outside we'll all be happier harvesters. But it's still a long time until spring planting :(

Anonymous said...

As a semi-pro chef, I really have quite a lot of interesting things in this post. Thanks.

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Anonymous said...

It looks like you had a great time and got lots of good info, thanks for sharing. The cheese looks yummy, its probably what I would have purchased also. I agree with you that there's no place like home, no matter how good a time you had.
Tonight I made the pasta you had on tuesdays post but I used butternut squash instead of pumpkin since thats what I grow, and it turned out great. My husband and I will be having it for lunch tomorrow, can't wait.

Anonymous said...

Cool link! Apparently I can grow stuff anytime here in So. Cal! (doesn't quite make up for the high cost of living, but nice to know)

Please post more about rabbits on grass!

Kate said...

El, I think I'm with you on the cafeteria style of picking and choosing my gardening principles and habits. My impression of the bio-intensive method is that there are some places in the world where it makes sense to double dig a bed down to 36", and leave the beds in cover crop more than half the year, and compost our own poop. I don't think I'm in one of those areas though.

Anon, thanks for stopping by.

DiElla, I'm thrilled you tried the recipe and enjoyed it. Thanks for letting me know.

Jessica, I'm astonished to hear that southern California gets at least 10 hours of daylight all year round. I thought one would have to be much farther south to enjoy that luxury.

I will definitely post more about rabbits on grass as I learn more and begin my experiments with them.