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One of our first attempts at container gardening

One of our first attempts at container gardening

Walking through the garden the other day, examining my raised beds and my containers I realized for like the one millionth time, how much I prefer containers to either the raised beds or to a traditional tilled garden spot.

I use a variety of containers: buckets, flower pots, Earthboxes, and Rubber Maid Stock Tanks, plastic barrels and IBC totes. Some of my older buckets and pots are pretty traditional, but my newer ones and all the other containers are set up as either wicking containers, DWC hydroponics or Aquaponics systems.

I use different methods for the simple reason that if something isn’t working, another style probably is. For example, my raised bed zucchini did not do well this year, but in wicking buckets it thrived like never before. On the other hand, my pole beans did so well in a raised bed I didn’t bother with any other ways. My hydroponics kale has outperformed that grown in either raised beds or buckets. Gardening is full of surprises, so variety really is the spice of life.

Please don’t get defensive if you’re a raised bed or tilled bed gardener. I don’t disapprove of them, I’ve just gotten better results (mostly) from other methods. Your experience may be totally different.

There are three primary reasons I like containers: Mobility, simplicity, and Spontaneity.  Let’s dive about two inches into that and let me explain.

  1. Mobility – We live in NW Georgia right on the edge of Zone 7 a/b. and we have a medium sized greenhouse (40’ x 24’). Our great weather allows us multiple growing seasons already, but by combining the benefits of containers and the unheated greenhouse I can get a very big head start in the spring and extend the season in the fall dramatically.
Earthbox wicking containers

Earthbox wicking containers

I plant many of my varieties in January, and by mid-April they are already quite large when I move them outside. I’m usually harvesting snap peas, cabbage, Jalapeno peppers, kale, bok choi and lettuce long before most of my neighbors. By growing Parthenocarpic zucchini and cucumbers, my wife and I were enjoying them in March.

Similarly, when night temps begin to drop, I can move containers from the garden back to the greenhouse and continue to enjoy fresh peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, etc. until very nearly Christmas. Greens will keep growing all winter.

Even before we had our greenhouse, I would take my hot pepper buckets and set them up against the south side of the house to keep them producing even after the garden was getting regular frost.

I could never do that with my raised beds. For example, I have some very healthy roasting pepper plants in a raised bed that I’m going to have to make a cover for because I can’t get the bed into the greenhouse.

Even the hydroponics and aquaponics systems can be emptied and moved relatively easily. Because I use compact systems that don’t have a great deal of complex plumbing, it’s mostly a matter of emptying the beds and tanks, then reassembling them inside or outside as need requires.

  1. Simplicity – Containers are uncomplicated. There is very little preparation or space required. It’s a matter of filling with your favorite planting mix, inserting your chosen seed(s) or seedling(s) and you’re gardening. There are no special tools or groundwork required. The most important decision is the size of the container. You wouldn’t want to put an indeterminate tomato in a window box, but that container might be just fine for cilantro.

Weeding is a snap, as is mulching. Watering is generally required more frequently that with raised beds or tilled gardens, but wicking containers can mitigate the work load, as can automated watering systems.

  1. Spontaneity – If I get impulsive (which happens to me a lot) and want to try a new variety or increase number of plants after my garden is already planted, containers allow me to simply grab a new bucket and try it. Similarly, if a plant is not thriving, I can pull it up and begin again without the risk of damaging the plants around it. When plants are getting ready to flower, I can decide at the last minute to isolate one or two for seed saving by moving the container a little and using row covers for protection. This is especially useful for peppers and tomatoes.

Container gardening is an outstanding option for beginners and gardeners with small spaces. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can repurpose buckets and flower pots you already have around, or you can buy very inexpensive ones from your local Big Box Store or online.  Let’s face it; you can buy a lot of containers for the cost of buying and maintaining a rototiller.

We haven’t had a tilled garden since 2001, when we lived in Iowa. With our busy schedule and my ADD that option just wouldn’t fly. We have a few raised beds, most of which are being converted to growing berries.  We have many dozens of containers. If you consider aquaponic and hydroponic systems as containers (which I do) then our garden is 90% containers. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Are you a container gardener? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your experiences. Please share. I value your opinions. Besides, we’re all in this together.

 

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logoIt sure seems like my posts are getting further and further apart. You have my humblest apology for not keeping you better informed, but my silence has been due to many changes and perceived changes around here.

First, we thought we were moving across the country, but that didn’t happen. Still, I had shut down most of the operation in preparation for selling you, so there wasn’t much to write about.

Now, we are staying put here in NW Georgia, but we’ve gone through a rethink of all of our operations, and lifestyle. These changes will dramatically affect East of Eden Farms and Our Edible Suburb.

As for the farm, we are going back to subsistence farming/homesteading, which means a big reduction in livestock and garden. Over the next few months we’ll reduce our flock of chickens to less than a dozen and our rabbit herd to around 6.  The quail are still in the testing phase, so their future is uncertain. We plan to add a pair of dairy goats back in next spring, but only a pair. The pigs will all be processed this fall. We may add a feeder calf in the Spring, or we may just barter pasture land for meat. Stay tuned.

The garden is being transitioned into a testing and education space. I’ve become passionate about helping people feed themselves and want to create different kinds of experimental soil, hydroponic and hydroponic growing systems for observation and learning. I intend to develop some gardening coursed along the way. I’m especially interested in growing methods for developing countries that require minimal inputs yet produce maximum results.  Eliminating hunger and malnutrition matters to me. And doing so using methods that enhance the environment rather than destroy it also matters. So watch for more information on these subjects, too.

Because I hope to document my experiments on video, you should look for more of my updates to be found here and on my youtube channel, “Our Simple Sustainable Life”

Thanks again for not giving up on me. I’m looking forward to getting the fall garden in place. Let’s do this!

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gmo-tomatoI totally, positively, completely hate GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). And I hate it when defenders try and cloud the issue by claiming that hybridization is Genetic Modification. That is playing a game with words. It’s the kind of argument that is born of Legal, Public Relations and Marketing minds spending time together behind closed doors. It is a diversion tactic, a classic case of spin doctoring to muddy the water. I’m not sure how these people sleep at night.

Hybridization, most commonly seen in cross-pollenization in plants and selective or, cross breeding in animals, is using natural processes, sometimes encouraged, sometimes accidental, to create new strains, or varieties of the same organism.  It’s why we have dozens of varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and the like. Its the same way we got all the dog breeds we have in the world.

GMOs are something different. These happen in a laboratory where scientists tamper with genetic material to create a desired trait, like Round Up Ready corn and soy beans, salmon that grow faster and larger, or goats that produce silk in their milk by adding silk spider DNA.  These are not natural. This is The Island of Dr. Moreau.

I don’t buy the, ‘it’s perfectly safe’ argument either; especially when much of it is brought to us by the same people who gave us ‘Agent Orange.” Just ask any Vietnam veteran, who’s Autumn years are clouded with Parkinson’s Disease how that one turned out. These GMO organisms are already creating super weeds and super pests. What are they doing to us that we won’t realize for 30 or 40 years?

I truly believe the science is incredible, even fascinating. I don’t think all the people working hard to find ways to increase crop yields and feed more people are evil.  I do, however, find the spin and deceit practiced by some of the big corporations to be spawned in dark places of the soul. For example, using the argument that labeling will only confuse and frighten the masses is condescending and insulting, as is the notion that package labeling will be cost prohibitive for the manufacturers. Pure poppycock.

Having said all that, I oppose mandatory labeling. My opinion stands me in somewhat of an awkward position with many of my dear friends and farmers, as well as with some of my heroes in the “good food movement” like, Michael Pollan.

Some of my reasons for opposition are political, some are ethical, and one, economic (and a bit self serving).

On the political side, I already believe Government is way to big and intrusive.  Every time we open the door to more oversight and regulation, we lose a bit more of our freedom.  Sacrificing liberty for the feeling of protection is making a deal with the devil and cannot end well.

Ethically, I have two big grievances with mandatory labeling. The first is, it exempts consumers from personal responsibility in knowing what we ingest and from whom we buy. I find that selfish, and being redundant, irresponsible.  “I don’t want to think or behave like an adult, so I’ll let Nanny take care of me,” is pretty immature and narcissistic.

A second grievance with mandatory labeling is the forcing of my will and opinions on those who differ from me in opinion. I find that arrogant and bordering on hubris. It reeks of, “I know what’s best for you and I know more than you do, so I will force my choices on you, regardless of how it may affect you and your family economically.”

Finally, I have a personal, economic, self serving grievance against mandatory labeling; it takes the high ground away from me. If I voluntarily label and/or promote my products as “GMO Free”, I set myself apart from the competition both nutritionally and transparently.  I like being able to promote my Unique Selling Proposition and my openness.  We proudly label the products we sell.  I don’t want anyone to take that away from us.  The air is clear up here on the high ground.  I respect anyone, GMO opponent, or supporter, who has the integrity to voluntarily promote what is, or is, not, in her or his products. Coercion never won over a single heart.

Most people don’t read ingredient labels, anyway. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. If we read labels, we wouldn’t buy much. The majority of consumers go by their senses; Does it look good?  Does it taste good? Does it smell good? Did a celebrity endorse it? Does it fit my budget?

Mandatory labeling is a placebo. If I voluntarily label, I am focusing on my target audience; those who take their food chain seriously enough to read.  I’m also working on getting the right products at the right price point for the masses who are budget conscious.

There you have it. Politically, ethically and economically (mine), I cannot get on board the “Mandatory Labeling”, bus.  Here I stand.

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Organic_logoOne of the most frequently asked questions we get is, “Are you ‘certified organic’?”  I almost hate answering it, because it’s so loaded.  I put that question in the same category as “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Every answer is wrong. It’s a no win scenario.

The simple answer is, “No”. The longer, more controversial answer is, “I wouldn’t even consider the idea.”

Most of the time, those who ask the question do so with good intentions.  They want to ensure they are buying produce and meat that is healthy, natural, has no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and is GMO free.  That’s a noble and reasonable desire.

Giving the shorter answer implies (wrongly) that we don’t meet those criteria (when we do), and can lead to people writing us off as a source. The longer answer can sound offensive or condescending to the one asking and could sound offensive to  those who have chosen to seek certification. I never want to sound that way and I would never intentionally denigrate another farmer’s decision in this regard.

The simple fact, though, is; we will never seek a Govt. sanctioned certification, of any kind, ever.  Let me explain.

First, in my opinion, organic doesn’t mean what it used to.  The word still connotes something natural and sustainable, but the reality is, the actual legal practices allow for ‘fudging’ around the  edges, as it were, so the certification doesn’t necessarily match the connotation.

Most ‘certified’ farms are legitimate, but the rules leave the door open to cheating by the less scrupulous. I don’t want to take the risk of being lumped in with cheaters. Some very good farmers don’t mind taking that risk. I have nothing but respect for them.

Secondly, “Certified Organic”violates one of my political core values. I’m a small Government Libertarian and believe Govt. should stay out of my (and your) business. Once one opens themselves to Government oversight in any form, they control you. There are no free lunches.  I truly believe it is not in anyone’s best interest to ask for any Govt. certification.

Instead of certified anything, we opt for transparency.  Our customers, potential customers, and even the merely curious are welcome to visit us. Since we started back in 2009 (yes, we’re still farming adolescents), we’ve had many individuals and groups come to see what we do. We even hosted a group of environmental educators back in 2011 and had a blast with them. They spent the day working with us, touring the place and left praising our operation. Some even recommended us to their friends. We are an open book. I’d much rather have the approval of our customers than that of the Feds.  To channel an oft heard radio commercial in metro Atlanta, “That’s the biggest no brainer in the history of earth”.

It is our opinion that knowing your farmer and seeing where your food comes from is even better than certifications. When we say we’re a ‘local farm’, it means something. In short, we are way beyond organic and we’re  way too proud of that to step down to the Government’s level.

Oops, did I say that out loud?

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Given the title of Jake Meader’s article on the Christianity Today website, “Did we love ‘God Made a Farmer’ Too Much?” my expectations were pretty much below ground level when I read it.  Even with the bar set so low I still feel he fouled off the pitch at best.

I realize his target was the modern ‘factory farm’ movement, consumerism and a potential misunderstanding of scripture rather than those of us who are small, diversified farmers, and that’s why I give him credit for making contact even if he didn’t quite put the ball in play.  I would encourage him, though, to watch the ‘game film’ and reconsider his conclusions.

Most Americans have no idea where their food comes from.  For them, it’s all neatly packaged at Kroger, IGA or one of a thousand other chains.  So for one fleeting moment, America’s attention was drawn to the men and women who make Kroger possible.

Yes, too much of our farming is industrial and destructive of God’s creation.  Yes, monocultures of flora and fauna are a detriment rather than a blessing to the earth we’ve been commanded to steward.  The American Industrial Farming industry needs to be outed and corrected.

The commercial, though, highlights those of us who are trying to bring balance back to an industry and a world that desperately needs balance.  America, and many other parts of the world, has multiple thousands of farmers exactly like the ones in Paul Harvey’s poem.

My wife and I are among that army of farmers, who rise early and rest late.  I remember staying on the phone with my bride as she helped pull a lamb when the mother couldn’t do it alone.  The late winter wind howled and the actual temperature hovered around freezing. By the time I raced across town from my day job, she had pulled the lamb and stripped off her own jacket and sweatshirt to dry and warm it, giving no thought to her own comfort.

I have searched pastures in the darkest nights during driving rain to find goats born in the storm.  I have buried them deep inside my shirt and wrapped my coat around us all to warm them and give them a chance at the life they were born to live.

We have labored day and night to save a hen with a gangrene leg and I have wept man sized tears over creatures I’ve had to put down to end their misery.

While our friends and neighbors slept late on their Sunday mornings, we have been up at zero dark thirty, so the goats could be milked, the animals fed and watered as well as the garden tended to so we could be ready for me to teach an 8:30 a.m. Bible class.

We have fought droughts and battled floods.  We’ve seen bumper harvests and withered fields.  We have savored the birth of countless animals and have awakened to find flocks slaughtered by predators the previous night.

My wife can decorate a table as fine as the fanciest establishment in New York City and she can build a stall in a barn as well as any carpenter.  Her dairy goats follow her like she fell from Heaven and they may just be right.

We know no greater joy than when our friends and customers (those are synonyms by the way) tell us that our eggs, milk, yogurt, chickens, beef, pork, vegetables or fruit are the best they’ve ever had.

We go to bed at night knowing that our farming methods are helping feed the world while we heal the land.  We are stewards of God’s creation and we take our responsibility seriously.  We are not alone.  We know many more like us, most of whom are far more skilled than we.

Last week I had serious neck surgery.  The nurses stuck me in 5 different places before they found a vein into which they could place my IV port.  The head nurse said, “I’m so sorry to do this to you.  I don’t mean to hurt you.  Your skin is very thick. You use your hands.”  I beamed.

During the Super Bowl, in an attempt to sell trucks, Dodge drew the world’s attention to a subculture often overlooked and under-appreciated.  My email inbox was full the next day from people saying, “I thought of you.”

Our lives are not romantic, they are real. Did we like “God Made a Farmer” too much? Maybe Mr. Meader surmises we did, but I’m thinking, that thousands of others thought a Super Bowl ad finally hit the right note. Y’all decide.  I’ve got chores to do.  I’m a farmer. And I thank God every day for the privilege.

 

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I watched from the other side of the room as Brittan tried hauling herself from the comfort of the bed to face another early milking call.  Sunday mornings are particularly rough, because we have to get the chores done and get cleaned up in time for Church at 8:30.  We can’t really be late, because I’m the Bible teacher for the 8:30 class and apparently everything runs more smoothly if the teacher is on time.

Apart from the early hour, there is really no difference between Sunday and any other morning for chores.  The grunts, groans, creaks, pops, spasms, grimaces, aches and pains are the same 24/7, 365.

On this particular morning, B’s heel, hip and back are especially disgruntled at being forced to participate in the morning’s adventures.  Still, after muttering something incoherent, and possibly irreverent, she puts on a brave face and forges ahead.

I couldn’t help but chuckle just a little.  Not so much at her pain, but at the situation.  You see, Brittan is not alone in her war with the human body.  We’re in this together.  Between us, we are living examples of the first two laws of thermodynamics.  Summary: The universe tends to age and deteriorate.

Not a day goes by that one or both of us doesn’t come home without a new cut, scrape, gouge, pierce, poke, bruise, twist, strain or sprain.  Our cuts and scrapes bleed freely and mingle with the mud, muck and manure.  Our immune systems have undoubtedly been tested to the limit.  We’ve endured and fought off more infections that we can count.  Brittan quipped yesterday that she might just be walking antitoxin for every known infection short of snakebite.  In case you’re wondering, I concur.

In my case, it’s easier to identify joints and muscle groups that DON’T need attention, than ones that do.  Both my elbows have tendonitis. To be fair, that originally developed back in my dog mushing days and only recently reappeared with the frequency of hauling buckets of water to animals or plants that need hydrating.

Both of my rotator cuffs pretty much hurt all the time.  Raising my arms up over my head is fast becoming something I USED to do.

I’m pretty sure I will need my left hip replaced sometime in the future.  The pain in it is frequently almost too much to endure.

Both of my knees have been twisted and hyper extended so many times that on certain days it’s difficult to find a position that doesn’t hurt.  And I think I damaged the ACL in my right knee last week when I slipped in the mud.

Moving downward, both ankles really need to be taped daily because they’ve had so many sprains and get ‘turned over’ almost daily.  They have virtually no strength at all.

We won’t say much about the gout in my right big toe or the carpal tunnel in my wrists, because neither of those is related to farming.

Talk about a walking disaster.  Most of the  Zombies on TV are in better shape than I am.

Brittan sports a new bruise almost every day.  She’s been head butted by so many goats,  sheep and bulls over the last three years that I’m sometimes surprised she can walk at all.

The other day, I queried her regarding the blood running down her arms and she said, “I have no idea.  I was at the farm, what more is there to say?”

The woman is gorgeous, but I’ll bet you that under an x-ray, she has the knees, hips and heels of a woman three times her age.  She sure walks like one some mornings.

Yes, sports fans, we are the walking dead.  And we love it. I would not trade a single ache or scar, because the same activities that gave us pain also brought so much joy and pleasure.

When customers tell us how much they love the milk, eggs or hot peppers, the aches start to disappear. When they refer friends and family, it has more healing power than any antibiotic or analgesic.

We’ve participated in the births of animal and fowl of all kinds.  We’ve played with them, bathed them, nursed them and cursed them.  Our fridge is full of milk, our freezer full of meat and our larder full vegetables.

Sure, we could get everything right down the road at a supermarket and it would hurt a lot less. But the food we eat and serve to family and friends is not just groceries. It’s a part of us. And we are part of it.

Ok, symbiosis hurts a bit, maybe a lot, especially in the morning. But it’s a hurt that makes you smile. At least when you’re not grimacing…

 

 

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