Potato Prep

In the last post I showed the beds about 30% done. I have spent another 5 hours in them since then and the main, flatter bed is ready to plant, and the mound is about 75%. So after spending an evening putting the finishing touches on the beds with the kids {Mia was at a work dinner so they tagged along for 2-3 hours. Usually it is only Sprout, who is 6, is possessed of a healthy fear of getting lost, and is becoming self sufficient so we manage fine. Our daughter, Bird, is 4 and Knows No Fear. Numerous escapades ensued: the first started with the yelled exclamation “Look Daddy a Dead Bird” With my daughter holding up a distinctly un-alive and rather mauled robin. Guess its bath night!} We came home for dinner and after getting the kiddos to bed I hit the garage to prep the taters.

Prepping potatoes is simply sorting through them to make sure they are all ready for planting. This is the time to cull any “off” potatoes that are rotten or very soft. It is also the time to sort through them and cut up the larger ones. At left is a shot of my highly unscientific sorting process. Using my apple crates as a makeshift table, I went through my 200 lbs one tater at a time. True “seed” potatoes are shown at far left -golf ball sized with several eyes. At right are larger potatoes that could be planted, but most choose to cut in half to stretch the harvest. The trick to cutting is to ensure you get at least 2-3 “eyes” per half to ensure good growth. Last year when I only planted 4lbs that meant meticulously hand turning each large “Seed” to ensure proper placement. With 200lbs on deck and it being past 9 (I get up at 3am) effeciency ruled the day -I cut them in half, but if one end was sprouting I wne toff center to give the sprouting half a smaller chunk as I knew it had enough eyes.

Once you start cutting up seed potatoes you need to let them “scar”. This is simply storing them with decent air flow for a day or three to let the cut potato flesh to “skin” over. Last year this meant leaving them on the kitchen counter. With 50x the amount this year, I stacked them in bunches of 20-25lbs in apple crates and stacked the crates 3 high (at right) alternating them to allow each to breathe. I will start planting the Yukon Golds tomorrow as none of them needed cutting. The Carola’s, Green Mountains, and Butte’s will go in by Monday weather permitting.

Speaking of weather, it is freaky wet here. Maybe this is not much wetter than normal, but now that I need to be out prepping soil I am VERY cognizant of soil moisture levels. I will not be able to get into the true Market Garden plot for weeks since I will need to retill it knock the quack back. This all adds up to no carrots, beets, etc. not to mention the 800 lettuce transplants! Time for plan B.

Plan B makes so much sense it should have been plan A: All of the above will be planted in between the potato rows. I will stretch the rows out to about 18-24″ centers and run rows of lettuce and double rows of carrots/beets in the space. These will be out of the way by the time Potatoes shade them out. This is what they call intercropping, and its slick -if I can pull it off.


Sub Acre Ag: Bed Prep

I have spoken much about the fabulous compost mounds at one of the farms I will be at so I figured it was time to post some pics. At left is a shot of the mound I will be working. It was about 7′ tall about a month ago, and I hacked away at it for several hours with a rake and hoe to make it into the flat(ish) mound you see now. This is the newest mound on the site, and there are still patches of raw leaves mixed in. This mound had unstaked tomatoes on it last year with squash mixed in in no particular order. I have pulled off the top foot or so of compost which seems to have eliminated most of the weed seed -it has laid bare for 2 weeks with almost no new germination!

To give some perspective of the fertility Mecca I have stumbled upon, look at the sheer amounts of compost available at this farm. To think that 10 years ago it was perfectly common for leaves, the raw materials of all these mounds, to get buried in a land fill!! The mounds are spaced to allow the valleys in between to be flooded during the drier months from uphill ponds that have refilled with the spring rains. The mounds then self irrigate by capillary action. The owner seems to have read some Permaculture books!

In January, I had planned to use the tall mound that I leveled as well as the nearest mound in the background. That mound is being used by the super sweet (and helpful!) Hmong couple that also uses the mounds, but the owner gave me a second plot-I was a bit concerned at first… The pic at right about as close to a “before shot” as I can get. Imagine 1,000 more of those 8′ weeds covering a hodgepodge of moguls form 4′ to 6′ tall. The good news is that it is still compost -just 10 years old. but in the mean time it had hogs on it intermittently and sat fallow last year (hence the weeds)- both good for a fertility standpoint. The owner rough cleared the ground with a Skidsteer- honestly I don’t know how else it would have been made tillable. It was still pretty beat up, but the end product was very nice -hell its 3000 sq feet of compost 2′ thick!

At right is what it looked like after about an hours work this past Sunday with the Grillo and Berta rotary plow. You can see the tilled soil on the right and my “test” trench on the left. The Grillo is every bit as good as I’d hope. As it turns the soil (albeit this soil is DIVINE!) it fluffs it remarkably -the end product is essentially a double dug (first you throw it out to make a trench, and then throw the soil back on top) 18′ deep and amazingly light. Doubt me? If I stray into the tilled soil when I was walking behind the Grillo and I sank almost to my knee! I finished this plot tonight -with some double work to try to level it a bit better it took only about 3 hours to till up 3000 sq feet with a novice operator. In that time I only used about a third of a gallon of diesel. I want to switch to B99, but I can’t use enough fuel to refill the tank! Working the Grillo is certainly much easier than using a pitchfork, but its not a spectator sport. The Grillo and plow weigh in almost 350lbs, and you have to steer it -manually. Both times I have tilled I have needed to stop after about 90 minutes as my arms were shaking with fatigue and I was dripping in sweat despite the 45 degree temps.

Here is a better shot of the tilled ground. Fluffed, light, and over a foot deep!

There are some hazards of working at the farm. First off its wet. Here is one of the chickens making the most of it:

Next there are geese seemingly everywhere -the flock is over 24 and growing. At almost every turn there is literally a mother goose hissing you warning for being to close to her clutch of eggs! If her warning is unheeded, Daddy goose is on his way to give you the old “What for”!

The Insanity of April is behind me. I am out of Rain Barrels until late May (I have picked up, built, and delivered 69 in the past 6 weeks- that is over 160,000 gallons saved annually!!) and the speaking engagements are behind me. For the next several months I will be able to focus on parenting and husbandry (both agricultural and otherwise). Looking forward to it!!

I have about 4 posts in the queue- hoping to catch up this week. In the mean time, the moral of this post is that NONE of this would be possible if I hadn’t reached out and started to work in the community on Sustainability issues. If I hadn’t become active I never would have found this resource in unused and freakishly fertile land



Funny thing happened on the way home from my 6th, of 7, deliveries to my Big Rain Barrel Account.

Wonder what this could be...

Yep! The Grillo is here!

I was concerned that it was still in the box -Joel at Earth Tools had said it would be “ready to go”… No worries though:

From box… to this in about 20 minutes -including mounting the rotary plow-look at the teeth on that thing! The wheel in the back is for transport, and can also be set a depth gauge. Perspective in this shot is difficult -trust me, this thing is BIG!

Earth Tools does a hell of a job, the tranny was full of grease and oil, and there was even a gallon of diesel in the tank. You could literally have this dropped off at the job site and been “in the dirt” within 20 minutes. Nice! Course I had to try it out. I quick dug up a chunk of the backyard, you know, to test it out 😉 Once I figured out how to shift it and engage the PTO (new square cut gears=rough shifting) enough not to embarrass myself I loaded it up to take out to the Market Garden to play.

The shot at right gives a better sense of the size of this tractor.  The trailer has a 5×8 bed with 2′ sides…   The owner was stoked to see what it could do, so we did a test run in the garden plot with the rotary plow.  Unfortunately, it is still a bit wet, so no pics of that yet.

But, he needed to till under a section of their garden for their onions so we swapped on the tiller implement: changing implements is straight forward -you need a 19mm box end wrench and the ability to dead lift a hundred pounds. It really only takes 2-4 minutes like they claim.

I bought the tiller implement to turn under crops and prep beds for seeding with an Earthway Seeder. Here you can see the fine work it does on precut beds. In the pic, I am going back over my first tilling so you can see the difference. The inital till was perfect for transplanting, the second till leaves an incredibly smooth tilth that an Earthway would be a breeze to push through. I was very pleased and the farm owner was impressed at its precision in working in the planted beds in the background. On these long rows I was glad I got the locking differential: get it pointed straight, lock the diff and you can follow along with one hand -the locked diff keeps it arrow straight. 1st gear is a very slow walk, 2nd gear is a steady/fast walk. 3rd gear (8mph) ripped the tractor out of my hands and engaged the auto kill…

A better shot of the tilth after a second light tilling at it shallowest depth.

Very excited to put this to some real work in this week if the rain holds off. After my initail trials, I think the rotary plow will make a wicked good potato planter- it digs a 10″ wide furrow 8″ deep and throws the soil 18″ to the right. I think I will be able to cut a row, plant it, turn the tractor onto the next row and throw that soil onto the first. MASSIVE time saver. I am stoked!!

About 1 hour in the soil and by eye balling it, I used about a cup of diesel fuel.

I like my new toy.

Will have more posts soon as cut the garden in earnest (it is over 50% quack grass- damn it!) and start planting the 40# of potatoes (Green Mountain and Butte) and 400 onion sets that showed up from Fed-Co today. Saturday I pick up 100#’s of Carola and 50#’s of Yukon Gold. I hope the furrow trick works!


Good Energy, Please!

Just putting a call out for some good energy, I will be talking to a group of up to 1000+ at Operation Adaptation tonight on “Eating Like You Give a Damn“, kinda a Think Global, Eat Local manifesto in 30 minutes or less.

I have never come close to talking to this many people at once… I wouldn’t say I have stage fright (yet!) but I just don’t want to blow it. My talks on Wed. to the 4th graders went fairly well (all the 8 yr old girls in the first class wanted my autograph after, but that had to do with my being named after the poet), but this is a teensy bit different.

Then off to pick up 140#’s of local seed potatoes (Carola and Yukon Gold) at the Madison Farmers market’s first outdoor event of the year tomorrow, run home, and prep for my afternoon talks on Rain Gardens and Victory Gardens. Sunday is making 23 rain barrels and helping Mia in hosting our annual Eat Local, Earth Day Dinner Party, and then Monday is delivering said 23 barrels. Then things (finally!) slow down slightly and switch from rain barrels to market gardens. The 400 onion sets and the remaining 40#’s of potatoes (Butte and Green Mountain) arrive from Fed-Co Monday or Tuesday, and The Grillo arrives Wed or Thurs, I have another presentation on 4/26 and if the ground dries out enough:


Be the Change!


Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -Be The Change

We are big on the 3 R’s of course. But every now and then we have a particularly poignant example. Like after the first month of our Big Push to reduce and we went to only taking trash out every other week -and even then only due to odor, and never due to volume.

Today we had another one. Our daughter had a toy that she had broken beyond repair.

“But Daddy, where can I put it?”

“We have to put it in the garbage, sweetie”

Bird proceeds to walk around house for several minutes looking in rooms…

“Um, Daddy, where’s the garbage?”

We use it so infrequently that our 4.8 year old doesn’t even remember where it is!

Living Green is a huge thing, taking others with you is even more critical.

Happy Earth Week!

Be the Change!


A Prayer in Spring

A Prayer in Spring

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

Robert Frost

I came across this today in our Unitarian hymnal and it struck a chord with me.  As the last post attests, I am  a little stressed at the moment, but things will work out.   My prayer for myself and us all is to:

“keep us here,  All simply in the springing of the year…

And make us happy in the happy bees,

April Insanity: Wk 1

Posts will be even less frequent this month as I am pushing my self beyond what most would consider sane. Here are some Highlights for my April Insanity

  • Build and Deliver 50 rain barrels by 4/21. Considering I only did about 120 barrels in ALL of 2007 this is extreme. 21 barrels (3 loads) takes about 10-15 hours of work when you factor in sourcing, manufacturing, and delivery.
  • Give 4 presentations/speeches for various Earth Day Related Events. These range from 4th Grade Classes to a Rock Concert (seriously) so each will need new material and outlines. Very honored to have been asked for this, but dang.
  • Build and Deliver 2 complete “prototype” Earth Victory Gardens. This is about 50% done but the first ones need to be done by 4/19 and we are redoing our Compost bin Plans to use reused materials.
  • Prep the Beds at the Market Gardens, all 7500 sq ft of them. They are currently pasture…
  • Plant 200#’s of seed potatoes
  • Harvest Spinach/mache/claytonia weekly
  • Work 50hrs a week at my Real Job -I am running out of vacation time.
  • Be a father and husband in some meaningful way.

There is technically enough time for this in April (I think). But it means that most days start at 3:45 and end at 9pm with me stripping off the Carhart Overalls covered in oak saw dust and/or manure and falling asleep within 1.5 pages of whatever Sci-Fi book I am reading. Ag/Eco research has completely stopped.

The upside is that there is an immense about of really cool things that I will want to share on this blog, but finding the time to do it will be tough. I’ll try to take good notes! Some really good things are happening too: the apple crates are fabulous, and I have clinched the deal with the Guinea Pig Manure. 250 gallons delivered to the market garden weekly. I am torn with either windrowing it (likely) or building a 11 bin wire fence system with one 50′ roll of wire fencing and 18 stakes. It looks like it will take 3 weeks to fill 2, 1 cu yard bins. It is really good stuff -50% hay with 50% straw bedding all glued together with turds and urine. It should get hotter than heck -just add water! Also, my news tools from Earth Tools are great. The Bed Rake is perfect for pulling off debris w/o moving soil (like on a compost berm) and the 8″ scuffle hoe takes down weeds like a subsoil scythe. Nice! Tomatoe and lettuce seedlings look great, and the peppers are coming up too. To top it off, eating fresh spinach every other night makes this worth while.

Some set backs are expected -and the first is here. The fabulous 6′ tall berms of 5yr old leaf compost that were to be my potato gardens are not to be. Oh, the Berms are still there -I spent half of Sunday clearing them, but due to some communications breakdowns one of the other tenants on the farm will be using them instead. This family is a sweet Hmong couple in their early 60’s/late 50’s that have farmed/gardened on this land for years, and they also butcher all the landowners chickens. They have the right of first choice. But that also means I have $300 of seed potatoes w/o a home. The landowners have an alternate site, that also was once compost, but it is 10+ years old or so and is currently covered in 8’+ weeds. It will need allot more work to get them prepped, and the potatoes will be here on 4/19. I am kinda bummed, but even the pasture land on this farm is more fertile than any soil I had previously seen so it is still going to be fabulous.

To handle all this soil prep work, I bit the bullet and bought the Grillo. While the barrel sales were not high enough to immediately pay for the tractor, I got a bonus at work that more than covered the difference solving my “no new loans” mandate. It will be here in about 10 days. Expect pics soon!

Break times over -time to put 20 spigots on!


Providence… Again.

The bid came back and the decision is made.  The order came in at “only” 45 barrels.  This is hands down a princely sum, I remember how ecstatic I was when I sold my first six less than 2 years ago, but it is also 40 barrels short of getting the Grillo.  While quashing the dream of owning Italian crafted steel, I hope that it allow me to focus on letting the dream be the driver of the year, and not the worry about justifying (and paying for!) a very expensive piece of equipment.  Making 100 barrels in April, already a month overbooked, would have been very hectic.  Am I disappointed?  Yep.  Do I feel incredibly arrogant and spoiled for that?  Yep.  Am I human?  We all are.

Letting the Dream lead the year means getting back to basics.  My first hand tool order of the year came in today from Earth Tools, an 8″ scuffle hoe from Rogue Hoes, and two DeWitt tools: a very heavy duty 16″ garden rake with widely spaced tines thick enough to punch holes in concrete for clearing debris without moving soil, and a 4″ “half moon” hoe similar in use to Coleman’s Colinear Hoe (the Razor on a Stick) but with a bit more meat to handle thistles and other perennial weeds I am likely to encounter this summer.    Without the Grillo sucking up funds I will be placing orders soon for my other dream tools: I will finally have my Scythe!


I have wanted one of these for years and now it is time.  I still need to call for a consultation, but I am thinking a 22″ ditch blade will fit the bill handily, with perhaps a 18″ bush blade on hand for taking down corn and sunflowers.  I can’t wait to feel this piece of New History sliding almost effortlessly through a stand of Rye/Vetch or Sorghum/Sudan grass!  And I just happen to have 5#’s of seed for each sitting in the garage!

Also on deck will be a 727 Broadfork from Johnny’s Seeds.  I plan on making the beds about 32-34″ and the 727 is 27″ wide and will fit perfectly.  In year one it will most likely see most use as a potato and carrot harvester.


With these under my belt I am very close to having the complete hand tool arsenal at my disposal -hell I have just about bought Earth Tools’ entire catalogue!  I might also pick up a Vermont Cart or harvest wagon of some sort to help bring in the 600#’s of tomatoes, and come fall there will be various tools for drying the dozens of pounds of beans and such.  And I have my eye on a Hoop House that is twice as big (15×50′) as early Spinach is getting $8/lb right now, but time will tell.

With Scythe in hands I will be growing much more cover/mulch crop to cut and smother between the rows to keep my weeding chores down, and will be cutting down on the planting density to allow spacing for wheel hoes into the more sensitive crops like carrots.   This will hurt yields but save sanity and morale.

I have not given up on the Grillo and may be reinvesting much of April’s earnings into buying a truckload of Wine Barrels, renting some warehouse space, and taking an ad in the Sustainable Times to see if I can’t earn the money anyhow.   Just as likely I will let things take their own course and focus 2008 on the Market Garden and learning the ropes of marketing local produce to my neighbors and restaurants.

For now I am heading out to get cracking on barrels, I have 12 in the garage and my drill’s a callin…

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