Reading About Growing

The Resilient Gardner, by Carol Deppe

The Resilient Gardner, by Carol Deppe

Spring is in the air, almost, and I’ve been reading lots about agriculture lately, researching what varieties of plants grow best in my climate. The best-written resource I’ve read lately is The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe. She’s fiesty and opinionated (don’t get her started about her bad back), but I’ve never read a book about gardening before that was written with such wisdom, passion, and command of subject matter, all delivered in a tone that feels like a conversation with a neighbor over a fence on a cool summer morning. Her insight is scary and her methods practical. The only issue with the book is that it’s all based on her local climate in maritime Oregon, so the knowledge it contains doesn’t directly transfer to Southeast Wisconsin. Her approach however is what I will emulate.

Her insight is scary and her methods practical.

For resources closer to home, I just stumbled upon an amazing collection of publications provided by the UW-Extension system. It’s a huge selection of freely-downloadable PDFs on everything from growing grapes and tomatoes, to raising goats or chickens. You can purchase hard-copies, or just download them as needed. Very handy and makes me proud that my tax dollars are going towards such valuable resources.

Enough reading for now. I’m headed out to plant the first lettuces and spinach of the season.


Time to Power Down the Death Star

One of the quickest ways to cut your energy usage is to find all of the power vampires in your house and shove a stake through their greedy, lifeless hearts. Cell phone chargers, entertainment centers, computers – many of these draw significant power even when turned off. As a starting point, I’ve decided to tackle my entertainment center.

Belkin Conserve Insight

The Belkin Conserve Insight

The first step in reducing your energy usage is actually figuring out just how much you’re using. Yeah, you can look at your monthly electric bill, but that just doesn’t give a granular enough view of what’s sucking power like a drunk at an open-bar wedding. I just ordered a Conserve Insight from Belkin. This handy little device is a less-nerdy, better-designed version of the tried-and-true Kill-a-Watt. Basically, you plug it into your socket and then plug anything you want into it. It will then measure approximate dollars as well as CO₂ or watts used by that item. After you figure out what the major drains are, you can do one of two things – replace them with more efficient versions or find a way to turn them off. Like, really off. Not, I-still-have-a-red-LED-light-on off.

That just doesn’t give a granular enough view of what’s sucking power like a drunk at an open-bar wedding.

Our entertainment center is the Death Star of our home. An HDTV, modem/wireless router combo, DVR, Xbox, Wii, multifunction printer/scanner/fax, and network backup drives are all packed into a quite warm, but tasteful, modernist box that is powered by single power strip. To power down the shield I plan to order a power strip that will turn off some, but not all of my gadgets. (I’d like the router and DVR to remain powered while everything else goes dark.) Not sure which one I’ll order yet, but Belkin’s Conserve Switch is a leading candidate right now. It even comes with a handy remote so I don’t have to dig into the heart of the Death Star every time I want to power it down.

Never thought I’d be measuring the power usage of every item in my home. Dear lord, I’m turning into my father. (Dad, if you run across this you can tell me, “I told you so.”) It’ll be interesting to see just how much energy I’m wasting in a daily basis. Count on an updated post about this.


Winter Wonderland


Winter Wonderland


Reap what you sow. But how?

Lately I’ve been planning/fantasizing about owning a small hobby farm. A place with some acreage to have a big garden, raise some chickens, a goat or two, and maybe some bees. A place for my daughter to connect with nature. All this got me thinking about growing grain – wheat in particular. How hard could it be, right? I mean, it’s the nutritional backbone of a huge portion of the world’s population. Turns out it’s pretty easy to grow (sow). Where it really gets tricky is harvesting and processing it. In the modern age it’s even simpler; plow the field, lay down petroleum-based fertilizer, lay down seed, irrigate and then harvest with a huge combine. Combine? What the hell kind of name is that? Well, a pretty logical one. A combine is a machine which combines the reaping and threshing stages of harvesting.

You do this by pummeling it, by hand, with a tool called a flail, which is essentially a giant set of nun-chucks.


Take that, grain!

In the olden days (a century ago), the process of harvesting wheat was different. Once wheat was ready to harvest, it was cut by hand (reaped) by laborers with large sickles or scythes. It was then bundled together and set in the field to cure, or dry. Once it was ready, it was time to separate the grain from the stalk through a labor-intensive process called threshing. Threshing totally sucks. You basically beat the hell out of the grain to separate the wheat from the chaff. You do this by pummeling it, by hand, with a tool called a flail, which is essentially a giant set of nun-chucks. Some folks had their cloven animals just walk all over the grain until it separated. However it was done, it was really labor-intensive and you can see why machines were invented to do this task.

Threshing totally sucks.

The invention of the tractor revolutionized agriculture. Not only could it plow the land, but you could hook any number of implements up to it, including a mechanical thresher. What once took countless man hours was reduced to a simple process of feeding the wheat stalks through the thresher to separate the grain. Threshers came in all sorts of sizes and capacities, including small models that could be the backbone of a small farm or homestead. Enter the combine.

After WWII, agricultural machinery grew in complexity and capability, along with the birth of “modern” agricultural techniques. As a result, the cost of machinery grew as well, as did the cost of entry. Today in the U.S., if you or I wanted to grow just a single acre of wheat and then harvest it, we’d be hard pressed to be able to accomplish the task. No one makes an affordable small-scale thresher anymore because there’s no money to be made there. Some people have resorted to converting wood chippers to do the task. Other’s make their own based on trial and error. And then there’s those that just go to town with an old shoe.

You’d think if we could put a man on the moon that we could create a low-cost way to harvest wheat, the backbone of the Western diet. I guess I’ll just need to grow corn instead, which is infinitely easier to harvest. Problem is I’m lukewarm to cornbread.