Posted by: Bill Stoneman | April 9, 2013

Family Day in the Garden

We’re getting together this Saturday, April 13, at the school garden and hope to repair some of the structures torn by the wind. We call this Family Day in the Garden on the theory that bringing parents, students and staff together for an event where they’re all of equal status could be a good thing.

It has worked out reasonably well the couple other times we’ve tried this. But it would be great if anyone actually told us ahead that they’ll be there. Can’t have everything. But at least we’ve pestered everyone on an e-mail list we’ve built for this purpose.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | April 9, 2013

From field to table 2013

            A small backyard success is worth noting. We harvested a ton of spinach the other day – April 6 to be precise. It wasn’t the first harvest this season. And so it surely wasn’t the earliest. But it might have been the earliest we ever got this much and leaves that looked and tasted as good as they did.

            As always, the process was simple: We put seeds in the ground in late August. We covered plants with cold frames in late October. The plants went dormant around Thanksgiving and then started growing again in February as the daylight got longer.

            A next step, maybe, could be installation of a thermostatic device that automatically raises and lowers the glass panel that allows light to reach our plants. Bright sunshine on an 60-degree April day could raise the temperature inside the cold frame to the point that spinach leaves fry. Developing a more reliable mechanism for opening a vent than human initiative would definitely extend the lives of our plants farther into the spring.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | April 9, 2013

Winter’s damage


            Our luck ran out by February. We have a windy site. And the wind gradually pulled apart most of our greenhouse-type structures at the school garden. In time, they ceased to provide the protection that even hardy greens need to make it through the winter. To  the extent that we are learning together, it’s fine. We will learn how to build better, and especially how to secure the sheet plastic skins of each of these enclosures.

             But to the extent that we’d like to demonstrate, at least to our closest friends, the possibilities of winter harvesting, it was a disappointment. Among our goals is drawing teachers to our garden, with the hope that some will treat what we have built as a tool for their hands-on instruction. That, of course, will work better when we can invite folks to visit our lush microclimate on a freezing day maybe in February.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | April 9, 2013

Teaching others about extending the season

            We’ve taken much of our energy over to Myers Middle School since writing last, slightly embarrassingly three and a half years ago, where we created the Vegetable Project at Myers Middle School ( The idea is to create hands-on learning opportunities that involving subjects ranging from scientific process to nutrition to environmental stewardship to entrepreneurship. As one might imagine, four-season growing is even more important at a school. The main Upstate New York growing season is still too short. And students are not even around when things really get going.

             So we have built a variety of greenhouse type structures – cold frames no larger than a basic window frame, small hoop houses that look rather like covered wagons crossing the Great Plains and a hoop house that rises nine feet at its center.

             Winter harvesting looked really good early on this past winter. Thanks to mild weather, we left root vegetables in the ground nearly right up until Christmas. We produced sufficient greens for salads in December and January. At least a few of our volunteers were impressed with the possibilities.Image

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | September 10, 2009

Looking forward to a productive new year

Happy New Year! We’re starting the 2010 growing season today in our backyard in Upstate New York.

Sure,  the calendar says the new year is three and a half months away. And we understand the raised eyebrows about planting as the days get shorter, the nights get cooler and memories of snow drifts return. Our new year, however, starts today.

More specifically, we’ve sown spinach seeds with the expectation that we’ll get hardy plants going before it’s really too cold, we’ll protect them in cold frames over the winter, we’ll see growth resume in mid-February and we’ll be harvesting in mid-March. And we’ll get a few other hardy salad greens in over the next couple of days.

We know from last year’s experience that this can work.  We still have plenty to learn, however, before we can claim that it makes economic sense.  At the hands of unskilled carpenters who waste lumber with each mistake, cold frames cost about $25 in materials.  It remains to be seen how many seasons they’ll last.  We added piles and piles of organic material to our heavy clay this summer in preparation for this day. But perhaps more would have been better.  The spot we picked gets a pretty lot of sun. But more certainly would be better.  Having neglected to procure more seeds until calling an expensive mail-order place the other day, we’re starting with seeds left over from last year. They may still be fine. But then again, they may not be.  And although we’re starting two weeks earlier than last year, still earlier might have been better.

The challenge is getting the most out of soil where growers can’t count on more than 120 days between the last frost in the spring and the first one in the fall. Success would mean a bit less reliance on an energy-intensive agri-business system that damages the environment with its heavy use of fertilizers and that sells us produce containing pesticide residues.  The difference may be tough to quantify, but getting ourselves outside and eating locally and organically grown food ought be good for us and our surroundings.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | September 8, 2009

Fall project on the workbench

Cold frame buildingThe woodworking project pictured here is construction of a couple of cold frames.  Basicially, they’re really small unheated greenhouses made out of boards and old windows.  The overall purpose is to extend our brief growing season.

Sun shining through the windows on a bright day will warm the soil inside quite a bit.  The structure won’t retain heat after sundown, but it still will protect plants from harsh winds, standing water and a bit of freezing and thawing.  Enough, in our experience, to get spinach through the winter. Our plan is to get some planted any day now.

It’s worth noting, however, that at about $20 in lumber and hardware, coldframes only are economical if they’re built well enough to last a few years. It was great picking spinach in March, April and May of this year.  But we didn’t get that much. Note also that the back is higher than the front. The idea is to capture as much sun as possible. The back of the box will lie to the north and the front will lie to the south.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 25, 2009

Expanding the food supply tomorrow or today

A couple of items in The New York Times in the last few days acknowledge one of the important reasons for planting vegetables in our backyard, but suggest very different paths to addressing the basic challenge of feeding the world’s growing population.

Monsanto, the big agrichemical company, says in a big image advertisement, “Non-irrigated agriculture produces 60% of the world’s food. It will need to do more.” The company explains that forecasters believe we’ll need to double food output by 2050 to keep up with population growth and that increased use of irrigation is unlikely to play a big role. That’s because irrigation for agriculture already consumes two-thirds of the world’s fresh water. The solution to a fairly real concern about food shortages, according to Monsanto, is development of plant varieties that don’t need as much water. Leave it to the scientists to figure out how to do that, the ad more or less says. Now, some would argue that some  of the great scientific developments in agriculture, like chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, have either produced or contributed to some rather troublesome unintended consequences, like nitrogen-induced dead zones in our oceans, heat-trapping carbon concentrations in the atmosphere and tomatoes that don’t taste like tomatoes in January. But the ad doesn’t suggest any reason to be concerned about anything like that.

Then, Columbia University professor Dickson D. Despommier wrote the future of farming is in urban hydroponics and aeroponics in specially designed high-rise buildings. We’re talking about growing plants without soil.

For all we know, one of these approaches may work. Let it be said, however, that we’re contributing today in our backyard, where the tomatoes look beautiful and taste like tomatoes, and where the squash and cucumbers and beans and carrots and potatoes are flourishing. On top of that, we don’t even have to wait 20 years to find out if the scientists can prove that it works. We didn’t need a Ph.D. And other than cold frames made from old windows and boards, we haven’t done any construction. The sunshine is free. The compost takes labor. Buying seeds is optional.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 19, 2009

‘Sustainably grown’ lettuce in the supermarket

There is a growing view that sustaining our food production and distribution system is going to get difficult in the years ahead – that energy prices or environmental degradation or safety issues or nutrition concerns are going to undermine a system in which food in mainly produced on very large and very specialized farms that make great use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides then is trucked as far as necessary to reach our supermarkets. If you buy this line of thinking, you might appreciate the Close to Home program at Hannaford supermarkets, a chain that serves a bit of Upstate New York and a big swath of New England.

Here’s what the company’s president and chief executive, Ron Hodge, says in a flyer about the program: “Not only does [sourcing produce close to home] help us discover and share great local legends, it lets us do our part to reduce our carbon footprint. By sourcing more local products, we reduce our emissions and contribute to a better planet. When you shop Close to Home, you support our local businesses and reduce your impact on the environment.”

Shoppers will decide for themselves whether the company’s actions match its words and whether the cost is worth it. We thought, however, it would be interesting to simply take a look at the produce section in mid-August, when New York and New England farmers are really humming.  We’ll try to take a look elsewhere as well in the next couple of weeks. And we note that Hannaford, owned by Belgium-based Delhaize Group, is one of two big chains in Albany, N.Y., where our backyard vegetable patch is. The other, Price Chopper, actually is much larger and makes its home around here.

The closest table to the door at a spacious Albany store seems to represent the Close to Home selection. Nice looking apples from a farm just miles away are in homey-looking paper bags. Beautiful basil from two counties away nearly shouts, “buy me.” Tomatoes, green and yellow squash, eggplant and green peppers sit here, too. This table might be 5% of the produce section. But then again, it might be less.

As for the rest of the produce department, organic labels are all over the place. A handful of products seem to be grown within perhaps 200 miles of here, like some grape tomatoes from Chelsea, Mass. Most, however, and remember, it’s mid-August, not January, are not from anything remotely close to home, to the extent that it’s possible to find information at all.  And some packaging claims might raise a few eyebrows. The paper label on the hard plastic box holding Tanimura & Antle lettuce, shipped in from Salinas, Calif., says “sustainably  grown.” And perhaps it is.  One might ask, however, about the sustainability of thick plastic packaging and cross-country shipping.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 13, 2009

Getting ready for Halloween already?

First pumpkin of the season

First pumpkin of the season

August 13 seems early for the big orange object to the right, which was discovered in the backyard farm this morning.  More evidence probably  that the weather has been really unusually this so-called summer.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 6, 2009

Keeping an eye on those tomatoes

Green tomatoes Aug. 6, 2009Hope we don’t jinx anything by giving the world a peek at these plump green tomatoes. We’re watching nervously for signs of late blight, which is destroying tomatoes throughout the Northeast. And it’s been so cool and wet that we wonder if these will even ripen.  Seems like it’s already getting late in the season without many tomatoes in our yard turning red. But they are big and we have some on so many plants that we’re feeling just a little bit hopeful.

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