Friday, December 11, 2009

Finally, A Real Minnesota Snow!

I love it when the big snow storms come because just about everything STOPS. The streets grow quiet, the schools close, town meetings are cancelled and rescheduled; it snows and it snows, and the sounds grow muffled and the streets and drives fill up, and people listen to radios wondering what will happen next. They have a few drinks, watch TV, read, play on computers, cook and then sit around with their families and eat.

A daughter may come home from Colorado--perhaps on a broom--the storm following in her wake. Her mother may realize she has given birth to a Goddess.

Upon waking at noon on a day when just about everything will continue to be closed, one hears the muffled groans of snowblowers, the growling of plows, and people are clutching brooms and shovels up and down the blocks, talking, digging together. Everybody comes out to dig; it is a great digging celebration.

And that's when we confront the things that did not yet get done: bicycles that didn't get put away, and slung over them, garden hoses, that now cannot be touched until they thaw. . .which could happen in five days or five months. Who knows? (Many say, "Wait five minutes.")

And the world becomes so lovely. Designs a person never noticed are suddenly embossed. The garden hose has been laying in such attractive coils. . .

and the bittersweet is frosted,

and the potted plants have all put on Russian hats,

and every single little bell--a nation of little bells--wears a crown.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Garage to Greenhouse: A Photo Essay

"Turn the garage into a greenhouse?" my dad asked. "Where the hell are you going to park the car?" Well, I thought to myself, at least this year the garage will have a GOOD reason to be too full to fit the car in.

"You turned your garage into a greenhouse?" a farmer friend said, "What in the hell were you drinking?"

I'd been wanting a greenhouse of my own for 20 years, and for the past two years I had been eyeing up my garage. So, this year I hired one of my daughter, Holly's, friends--Joseh Hanna--to help and the first thing we decided to do was strip the garage down to its studs and beams, which, yes, required renting a couple of dumpsters. A funny thing I learned about renting dumpsters is that my neighbors wanted to contribute to filling it. It was a very slight feeling of "familial" annoyance and, oddly enough, warmth.

It was a scary feeling. Not only was I stepping off the edge of a cliff into a dream, but, like my dad pointed out, I was drastically altering a major structure. And where was I going to park my car anyway? Once the building was stripped down, however, I knew there was no turning back, and it began to feel exciting.

Around here (Southeastern Minnesota), you can't just run over to Menards or Home Depot and find the materials you need to turn your garage into a greenhouse. And the guys at Fleet Farm don't have any good advice to offer. You are on your own. I researched greenhouse supply companies on the web and, keeping my eye out for local businesses, I found Jr. Johnson Supply in Roseville, MN. That's where I found the materials for this polycarbonate roof. I rented a truck and we went to the Citie's "burb" to get it. My only other option would have been to order it from Washington (state), and the shipping cost more than the product--which, itself, was pretty expensive.

I used the internet a lot. I also looked things up in books. A good book for someone who is constructing a greenhouse is The Greenhouse Gardener's Companion, by Shane Smith. To convert the garage, I had to "imagine" what I was doing, rather than "know." Joseph, who worked for me, also had to have a pretty good imagination. I really lucked out with him.

These next few photos are of the inside of the greenhouse. The walls did end up coming from Washington, from a company called The Greenhouse Megastore that is a distributor for the Solex company, and that's is what I call the material on the walls--solex. It is a very thick double-layered plastic that arives in a roll. The green table in the middle of the room helped Joe and I get the plastic positioned. We stood the table near the outside corner of the greenhouse, put the four foot roll of solex on top of it, and then I held the roll steady while Joe pulled the end of the solex around the building. The material is held to the studs with neoprene screws--not cheap, and we bought every box Ace Harware had on stock to get the walls up.

Like most things, the solex is pretty easy to work with once you get the hang of it. I would recommend it to anyone who is building a greenhouse and wants a good plastic wall covering.

There is snow on the roof at this time. Once I start to heat the greenhouse, the snow will melt and the roof will be clear.

The solex is white and lets in about 75 percent of the sunlight. The clear polycarbonate on the roof lets in 90-95 percent. Eventhough the polycarbonate is clear, it is not a material you can see through, nor is the Solex. . .which means that if I put a hook lock on the door and keep a bathrobe handy, I can be in there naked--except for shoes, of course. Always wear shoes in the greenhouse. In the future, I will get a large cattle watering tank and fill it with water; thus, the greenhouse will also be a bathhouse. The water will help heat the building, and if I use biodegradable soap, I will also be able to serve the water to the plants.

The pots in the front contain herbs that grew outside all summer: calendula, chamomile, chervil, parsley, chives, sweet marjoram, lavender, and just a bit of rosemary. Amazingly, all of these herbs have frozen solid repeatedly, but once they thaw, you could never tell. As long as they thaw, they will keep growing.

Here are some photos of the outside of the greenhouse:

As for heating the greenhouse, that will be another "inventive process" because rather than slapping in some kind of furnace, which would take about a day, I will be building a solar radiant system myself with only a vague, general blueprint to follow. I already know that I will need some kind of gass or kerosine heater in the meantime, because it could take me a year to get the solor system running, but once it's in, I will be able to enjoy years of heat that I will not have to feed continuously at a high and unpredictable cost.

To build this system, I will need to install a double layer of R-20 insullation four feet up the sides of the walls. Then I will front that with a thin layer of plywood or some other material. Attached to the plywood between the studs I will run a zig-zagging line of high pressure hose. The hose will be attached to a 20-30 gallon hot-water heater "storage" tank on one end, and to a solar panel on the other end. (The solar panel will be located on the front of my house, facing south.) The water tank will also be attached to the solar panel by high-pressure hose. The solar panel heats a solution that is stored in the tank, and the solution is pumped throughout the lower walls of the building, producing heat. The system can be automated by a thermostat. I will likely have a couple of back-up batteries to store energy (generated by solar panel) for the days, and weeks, of overcast skies that we generally have in the winter here.

The greenhouse will need to be ventilated, and my plans are to install both north and south-facing, 16" exhaust fans near the roof peaks to blow hot air out; intake vents near the floors on the east and west-facing walls will bring fresh air in. This system can also be automated with a thermostat. A ceiling fan will be located in the center of the greenhouse to pull cool air up in the summer, or blow warm air down in the winter. A good ventillation system is extremely important in greenhouses to prevent diseased plants and/or dehydrated crops.

Urban Homestead

I am pretty new to blogging, so what I have learned, and what it might help you to know, is that the posts that appear on December 5th, 2009, are actually backwards. For instance, I intended to put summer photos before winter ones, but that's not how it turned out. What appears below is a collection of photo essays about what I have been doing instead of keeping up with this blog as well as a lot of other things.

Now that things have died back and there is a smattering of snow on the ground, it's easier to see the layout of the place. The picket fence was added this summer and it separates what is lawn from what is garden. In the foreground I have started to plant (and transplant) herbs. What you see at the bottom of the photo is very close to the street. If a car pulled up to the curb and the passenger open his or her car doorall the way, it would come almost to the edge of the garden. Also in the foreground is an apple tree. Neighbors do help themselves to it as well as passersby. People with young children stop and ask if the child can pick an apple. That makes me feel good. Kids can see where apples come from.

Here is a side/angle view of the garden in winter. The middle section was the original garden. You can see I have been redefining it. We were lucky with a very late freeze this year, but frozen soil is going to put a stop to my redefinition activities for now until spring thaw.

This photo and the one below is what the yard looks like from the lawn side of the picket fence.

Summer Garden

This is a trellis that I added to the yard this summer. In the photo you can see the tomato plants working their way to the top of it--which means the tomatoes are nearly 8 feet tall. Which is nothing, really--not to brag, but when I grew them in my friend Virginia's green house, they got to be 12 feet tall. In places where the glass had broken out of the top of the roof, they went through and kept on climbing. Fantastic. Last year before the freeze (I'm in Minnesota), I picked all my green tomatoes and they were still ripening into December. It's wonderful to have fresh homegrown tomatoes that late in the year. . .in Minnesota.
Here's me in late summer: the happy-half-Mexican-garden-Goddess with my arms full of French tarragon and fresh basil that I have just harvested from the garden. I will hang the herbs to dry for winter use or sale, as the occasion calls for.

Yeap--eggplant. I love the close-up of the rich, black soil in this photo. That soil was made on our own place and consists of a year's worth of kitchen scraps, oak leaves, pulled weeds, and last year's garden refuse, as well as additions from my neighbor's cut grass.

This year, I added five new raised beds along the edge of the original garden plot (pictured below). And that's one reason why I haven't written on the blog for so long. Here is one of the raised beds. You can see that it is growing yellow peppers and marigolds. The box in the back (you can't see the frame) contains brocolli and leaks. Bursting out from the original garden on the right, you can see nasturtiums. You can also see that I have been putting woodchips on the ground. Part of my yard is a lawn, but in the garden I put chips between all the garden beds, and that way I don't have to mow or weed there.
In this photo, Sohi's acorn squash overtakes the native prarie wild flower garden. The wildflowers occupy a central place in my front lawn. They attract the birds, bees (and yes, humming birds) who pollinate the plants in the whole garden. My neighbors stand in awe, watching those humming birds. They have been hanging plastic sugar-water containers in their yards for the humming birds, but if you were a humming bird, where would you eat? It's a little like us--eating at MacDonalds, when we really crave steak. . .or buffalo. . .or, by God, fresh tomatoes.

The is a view of the "original" vegetable garden in my FRONT lawn (yeah, "Food, Not Lawns"--that's me). This is a, roughly, 27 by 14 foot plot. Here, at the height of summer, it is in full bloom. Now that it's December, my daughter and I are making paths back to the grocery store--something we seldom do in summer. I have noticed that when our fresh supply of food dwindles, our garbage increases dramatically--because of all the packaging of factory food, of course. This year, however, I canned, dried, and froze more food than I have in past years, so we are making fewer trips to the store than in most Decembers. Oh, and yes, I have more money in my pocket. That helps. Anyway, in what you can see of this garden, there are tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers, a few beets, one squash, and a variety of herbs.


Where have a I been? Have I foresaken this site? Why no! I have just been living life in such a focused way that I forget about writing blogs. . .for one: calling people, for another, leaving home, reading newspapers, checking email, answering phones--for others and others. Here I am, pictured at the end of summer in the vainglorious garden. My daughter, Sophi, planted these morning glories and the minute I got in front of them with a camera aimed at me, I just started letting my hair down, so to say. I guess it's amazing what a few blue morning glories can do for a woman! I know I NOT all that, but I'm definitely feeling pretty sensuous here.

You must bear with me though, because I cannot seem to get them positioned in the correct sequence on the page.
For photos of the how the garden turned out, keep reading.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The First of May, Two-Thousand and Nine: A Moment in Flight

In May that lusty season
To gather the flowers
Down by the meadow's green
A bird, it sang on every sight so merrily
It joyed my heart

(A chant from Renaissance England)

May Day. I need to write something in its honor. This particular May began cool and overcast in the tender grays of spring. By now the sky is blue and against it the year’s new buds glow the brightest green. In my own yard lilac and boxwood, red twig, apple, cherry, plum and oak push and their new leaves out, like wings flapping open and shut as they unfurl from within themselves under the big star. The air is alive with birdsong, and if I had time to pay attention—just a handful of days culled from all of my years--for perfect stillness, I know I would learn to tell time by their songs, by the opening and closing of flowers, by the streaming and gliding positions of the leaves of the trees. Is it so much to ask?
In kindergarten our teacher taught us to honor this day by teaching us to weave baskets from strips of colored construction paper. We stapled construction paper handles to the baskets and drew and cut out construction paper flowers that we pasted together and put in the baskets. Then we took such joy in walking through the halls of the school and hanging them on classroom doors. We took them home for our mothers. I don’t remember the teacher’s name—Mrs. Hellewig?—but I have never forgotten the day. Bless her. Bless any teacher that has her brood spend a whole afternoon in the deep and nurturing concentration it takes to weave a basketful of flowers.

Cookoo, as I mee walked in a May morning I heard a bird sing!
(Another chant from Renaissance England)

Rita's poem

After reading my last entry, Rita, my friend of 27 years, sent me this poem. She says it's about me, but I think it's about us--it's about women and the questions we ask of ourselves.

Ode To My Friend
By Rita Adkins

Your life was so much better than mine
I dreamed of adventure and you lived one
Raised your kids alone, neither asking for or getting help
I had someone but he might as well have been no one
For all the good he did me
But I am needier than I am adventurous
I opted for the safety net
And while you built your life, he tore mine down

Got angry sometimes because I stood still, pining for the adventure, yet
Waiting for someone who was standing right in front of me
Offered advice and a shoulder from three hundred miles away
Understood what would keep me from the life you had
But wondered why I was afraid to live without
And you soared while I remained behind
Building my life back from the ground up
And dreaming still of the adventure you lived

But there is no adventure in conformity
And I rooted myself too deep to ever break free and fly like you
But if I asked you, you'd tell me
That adventure had little to do with it
You lived off the land because the land asked no questions
Sustained you when no one else would
And gave you courage to soar higher

...I still want to be like you...

Love always,