Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A New Future, Visible in the Distance at Monticello

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was already fretting about the localized changes to the state's climate, brought on by the clear-cutting of forested lands between his home and the coast.  Jefferson describes hazier, more humid weather from what he recalled from his youth.  At his mountain home, the man could see far and, whatever the foibles and contradictions of his personal life, Jefferson recognized far ahead of his time the changes humanity can bring to the land that should sustain us.

I suspect that the former President, buried just beyond the lawns at Monticello, is proud to see the annual Heritage Harvest Festival take place on his land. My wife and I have been going for several years, and 2014 proved one of the finest so far. The classes ran a bit short; I'd prefer 90 minutes so the presenters have enough time, but I got to attend one free and two paid events.

Here are a few highlights for this Tractorpunk.

  • Michael Levatino of Ted's Last Stand Farm (shown above) talked in detail about "The Sustainable Farm Lifestyle" for hobby farmers such as me or "sideliners" who make extra income, which is what I plan to be during retirement. I was impressed by the Levatinos' ability to find the right niche at their farmers' market, to learn the hard way the best practices for water use, weed control, and cool-season crops. Michael also alerted me to the free woodchips from tree companies. They work well in paths and build soil under the paths (that can be raked up onto raised beds on either side).
  • Given my larger-than-usual Fall food garden, I was an avid attendee of Pam Dawling's workshop on Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables.  Pam's excellent book Sustainable Market Gardening has been on my shelf for over a year, and this season I am starting to apply its lessons to our small crop. Next year, we plan a business license and first sale to a restaurant, so Pam's will be indispensable advice. Her remarks on using row-covers and hoop houses at Twin Oaks Community for three-or-four season production came in VERY handy.
  • Ken Bezilla of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange reinforced Pam's lessons and added more tips that I plan to use this year. He focused a free workshop on "Fall & Winter Vegetable Gardening," and, like Pam, discussed the cold-hardiness of various crops. I'm already thinking of ordering my big batch of spring seeds from these folks.

What I'm getting from these festivals is nothing less than the birth of a sustainability movement to bring local food and best practices to every corner of our state, a future beyond the Monsanto and Ortho hegemony of sterile seeds and pesticides. A future where local growers and consumers put as much back into the land as they take from it. In a time of accelerating climate change, such efforts may be too little, even doomed. Yet they come not a moment too soon.

Jefferson would be proud of another revolution, this time one fought with muskmelons not muskets, brassicas not bayonets, being dreamed up at Monticello.

Monday, September 1, 2014

No-Kill Fence?

After blasting four groundhogs and having Meatball the dog kill another while visiting with the owner of delli Carpini Farm, I figured that there must be a better way.

In the long run, a dog pen around the garden perimeter will accomplish a lot, as we plan to have herding dogs who live outside. They will go on walks to pee the perimeter, and this seems to keep animals away from gardens.

Now that we have chickens, too, there's the issue of predators after more than an ear of corn. I recently found a dead gray fox near our driveway, and that's a chicken-eater who can climb fences. I'd like to keep our wildlife alive, but at a distance. Killing everything simply seems wasteful, since we need wild predators and prey to keep the forest and field healthy. And of course such slaughter is impractical without poison baits or an army of hunters. I reject the former practice as evil and the latter as a waste of time and beer.

A mistake made in 2012 was in fencing. We have a fence that deer won't jump, thanks to height and some white streamers at 8' intervals, 8' off the ground. Ten feet would be ideal, but given that the garden is at the peak of a hill, it works. What has not worked is the game fencing itself for smaller animals. Field fencing consists of welded wire, with either with the same sized holes (usually 4 by 2 inches) or small holes at the bottom, larger ones up top.

No one but a hawk or barn cat will stop field mice, but groundhogs and raccoons can climb fences until they get high enough to slip through a big hole or go right over the top.

Thus, out come the rifle and live-traps. This year, however, I did more reading and discovered what some bloggers call "the floppy fence." I credit Debra Graff of Square Foot Abundance for inspiring me, as I found her post about fencing (ahem, a "fence post") and studied her design.

I have combined this fencing method with my technique of burying fencing to deter diggers and building everything around a firm barrier of 6' game fence. It works this way:
  • 4' chicken wire, with 1' laid flat on the ground away from the game fence and buried
  • Next 2' attached by wire and cable ties to the game fence
  • Final 1' left to flop outward (Ms. Graff uses 2 or 3 feet. Let's see if my cheapass version works)
When an animal climbs up such a barrier, it gets to the top-most bit to falls back and, one hopes, off the fencing. Several writers who have tried this report that corner posts and gates are weak points. I have fixed the corners with extra chicken wire, also flopping out.

Such a fence is expensive. We have sunk over 1000 dollars into posts, game wire, cement, and now, the chicken wire. I do build my own gates, so that saves a lot of money.  We have seen a great deal less pilfering this year, with only one groundhog caught and killed in the garden proper. Thanks, Meatball!