4/7/14

How Not to Be a Sucker... or at Least Not Get Bitten By One

Reasons to avoid mosquitoes are not difficult to find.  Their bite does not particularly hurt, at first anyway, but even one bite can become an itchy nightmare, and they seldom bite singly.  In addition to being a nuisance, these bites carry numerous diseases, not the least important of which is the dread West Nile virus, frequently the cause of an extremely uncomfortable illness, and too often fatal.

So, mosquitoes bad, no mosquitoes good, right?

Here is the point in a Big Myrtle posting where you expect us to whip out some kind of scientific explanation for why it is important to keep in balance, yada yada yada.  If that is what you are waiting for, you are going to have to keep on waiting.  On the subjects of fire ants and mosquitoes, we are not objective in the least.  We hate the little blighters.  And at least some scientists agree with us – a July 2010 article in Nature entitled “Ecology: A world without mosquitoes” posited that there would be minimal impacts if all genera in the family Culicidae were eradicated.  We don’t hold quite so extreme a view, but still, it’s nice to imagine.

So… what to do about them?

More on fire ants in a later posting, as they are the more difficult pest with which to deal.  Mosquitoes, for a resourceful gardener, are actually one of the easier problems to solve.  All it takes is some resource allocation (and no, we don’t mean money, though you may have to outlay some of that), and the sweat equity necessary to put things in their proper places.

The secret to fending off mosquito attacks is partially to be found in the advice given by practically every municipal government in the world – limit the availability of standing water in which the creatures breed – but more importantly to be found in limiting the spaces in which mosquitoes are comfortable.  Yes, the mosquito has a life cycle, and interrupting the larval stage of that cycle will reduce the overall population, but you still need to be prepared for the dangers represented by adult mosquitoes on the prowl, and the best way to do that is to design your living spaces in such a way as to make them feel unwelcome.

What do we mean by that?  Well, stop and consider how the mosquito spends its day.  A creature that small would rely very heavily on one sense above all others – smell.  Sight, they have… but they do not primarily rely on it to discern friend from foe, food from fen.  No, they spend their time sniffing out either the sweet, sticky smell of plant nectar (particularly of smoother grasses), or the telltale odor of mammalian perspiration.

There are a few other chemical markers they track, notably carbon dioxide, but the chief thing to note is, it’s their sniffers you need to attack if you want to make them leave you alone.

And the easiest way to mess with their sniffer is to create an environment in which their sense of smell is completely overwhelmed.  A pretty herb garden is not just pretty, and it’s not just useful for natural medicines or for culinary delights, it is also your first line of defense against biting insects.

As it turns out, you are orders of magnitude less likely to bit by mosquitoes when tending a bit of garden comprised of pungent plants like rosemary, basil, catnip, sage, lavender, oregano, fennel, anise, mint of all kinds… the smells simply overwhelm the ability of small insects to differentiate plant from person.  And if your garden is not monocropped, but is instead a healthier random hodgepodge, even better.  The more interspersed the smells are, the greater the effect.

We had read about this phenomenon before, of course, being English literature baccalaureates who don’t’ believe something exists unless it is in print, but experiencing it firsthand has lent us an air of expertise on the subject we might not otherwise have acquired.  We noticed several years ago that we were far more likely to get bit in the backyard rather than the front.  Numerous experiments reduced the possible number of variables to an acceptably low level to allow us the rather novel conclusion that, by jove, those organic gardeners know what the heck they are talking about.

The usual approaches to the art and science of repelling mosquitoes, of course, are the familiar bug sprays (both those designed to kill and also those designed to repel), in addition to the use of excluding or filtering spaces with screens and netting.  The limitations of these approaches are telling – sprays designed to kill end up poisoning more than just the bugs being targeted, while sprays designed to repel end up wearing off (particularly in water); and screens and netting, of course, limit your movement in addition to the movement of the bug – plus, once a hole in your armor is found, the bugs will simply pour through in an unstoppable wave.


The advantage of smelly herbs is that they are there year round (particularly the perennials, such as rosemary, lavender and oregano), and just so long as you plant enough of them all around your yard, they are effective all the time, everywhere, rain or shine.  If you happen to have a backyard pool, the effect doesn’t wear off after a dip, either. 

And then there is this ancillary factor – we think of mosquitoes as “blood suckers” but the truth is that mammalian blood is only one part of their diet; mosquitoes mostly thrive on nectar from their favorite plants.  A grassy field is their favorite abode (watch a squirrel or rabbit run through an open expanse of unmown grass and see the midges fly up from the ground if you want visual evidence).  By replacing their natural roosting and foraging grounds with pungent herbaceous plants which provide neither food nor shelter, you can reclaim your territory, enjoying it more on every level conceivable.

There are other advantages to this approach as well, most notably the idea that interspersed herb beds are an excellent exemplar of the forest gardening approaches favored by permaculturalists.  Edges are the microecological hotspots, and permanent herb gardens form an exceptional intermediate layer in this multilevel canopy approach to gardening.

We get requests for advice from all over, and one of the more common (and eternally surprising) questions is “How do you keep your rosemary from spreading too much?”  The answer, of course, is “Why would we want to stop it?”  As far as we are concerned, the rosemary, lavender and fennel can spread as far as they like.  Not only do we enjoy the smells…. we know from hard earned experience that mosquitoes don’t.

One final note, about that standing water idea.  We have heard numerous people comment on our rainwater collection ponds, saying they would be too nervous about mosquito control to attempt something of the sort.  This is a common misconception – the “dangerous” standing water to be worried about is in open containers – old tires, uncovered buckets, clogged gutters and the like.  As with so many things, manmade structures are the worst danger – places where mosquitoes might thrive, but none of their natural predators can get at them.

In a natural setting, there are few places less hospitable to mosquito larva than a well tended garden pond – in addition to natural predators such as fish, dragonflies, turtles, lizards, frogs, crayfish, and gude kens wha else, a pond tended by a careful gardener experiences enough maintenance that any mosquito infestation can be readily observed – and dealt with.  Baccilus thuringiensis dunks are available at practically every garden supply store, and even these may not be necessary, provided enough natural flora and fauna exist to keep larvae in check.

And, as it turns out… our ponds are not the source of the few mosquitoes we see each year anyway.  Scientists have a word for the nesting preference of the truly dangerous mosquitoes – “phytotelmata” is a fancy word for “natural reservoirs on plants” and it is here that the mosquitoes carrying disease are most likely to be born. 

Water standing in the stumps of trees, or in standing water in a clogged gutter, or in open buckets, old tires lying around with water in them, or open sewer drains are far more likely to be the cause of a rampant mosquito problem than ponds, creeks or even drainage ditches.  This is both because the presence of natural predators is inhibited in these out-of-the-way breeding grounds and also because these places are also the best environments for disease-causing bacteria and viruses to thrive, out of sight from cleansing ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which kills virtually all bacteria and viruses, given enough exposure time.

For those things you can control, like any containers on your own property that you can either remove or clean, or gutters on your own roof that you can clear of debris, the solution is straightforward:  clean it, clear it, remove it.  For those things you cannot control, like the cleanliness of your neighbors’ yards or gutters, the solution is smelly herbs.  Areas of your property where there is likely to be an incursion of visiting mosquitoes should be overplanted with every variety of pungent plant you can imagine – go wild.  A rosemary hedge can be a symbol of health and wealth, and a talisman against irritation.

So, as you prepare for summer, you can either get ready to smell like deet, or you can take Myrtle’s advice, and decide to smell like a lovely bouquet of mint, lavender and rosemary.  Our approach is more pleasant, we believe, but to each their own.


Happy farming!

4/5/14

Spring has Sprung... and Our Personal Hibernation is Almost Over

Spring has sprung in the Brazos Valley.  We have had a fairly eventful Winter, in which temperatures were yet again above the monthly 20th century averages (as they have been every month since the late 1970s), and yet… enough freezing events happened that we were worried for a good long while about our pomegranates, figs, and peaches.

We are pleased to report that all the fruit trees save perhaps one of our six peach trees made it through unscathed.  We lost a eucalyptus, but then, we never really thought of it as a permanent fixture anyway – it was always just a matter of time before it froze back.

Meanwhile… our overwintered crops are doing well.  Fava beans should be ready to harvest in a month or so, onions are blooming, and our garlic is as big as I ever remember it getting before.

And the inevitable signs of Spring are here, too.  Sometime shortly after the blue jays return in full force to our canopy, we know the blackberries will be in bloom, and the wild grapes will not only sprout plentiful foliage, but there will also be plenty of little clusters of baby grapes.

And the long, dark winter of the blog is hopefully over, too.  For plenty of reasons, we have not written much lately.  Knock on wood, that may change soon; we’ll certainly have plenty of things to talk about, particularly on the beekeeping front, as we have experienced our first tragic die-off… and have learned many, many things as a consequence.  Our new colony will be installed in May, and we should definitely have a lot more to say about bees leading up to that event.

In the meantime, enjoy some photographic evidence of Spring…











Happy farming!

10/6/13

On Myrtle's Preparations for the Coming Koala Invasion Apocalypse

Modern life – meaning life in the context we think of as modern, a distinction we are less and less certain has any significant meaning, really – allows very little time for reflection. As such, when we catch a hint of outside perspectives, a word or two from strangers about the impact our work has on them, it can tell us some very basic things about ourselves which, frankly, we should have already known.

A recent example at Myrtle’s place – a neighbor (probably a transplant from California) complimented us on our young eucalyptus tree. This having been the second such compliment received in a week… maybe we should pay attention, and stop to consider what the presence of this one individual plant amongst so many in our front yard herb garden might be trying to tell us about ourselves.

A bit of back story – we planted a couple of seedlings found in the discount bin at Farm Patch a few years ago, with faded tags reading only “Lemon – Corymbia citriodora”. And, yes, they smelled faintly of lemons, and we are always game for trying new things, so into the ground they went. It being a fall garden, and us not knowing what they were (though fully intending to eventually getting around to finding out), we mulched them, watered them, and then promptly forgot about them.


Chores, kids, day job, presidential elections, missing cat, found cat, oil changes on the Toyota… think of a distraction that came before looking up what the heck it was we had just planted, and said distraction surely took place. And over the winter, one of our nascent corymbia citriodora plants froze to the ground. The other didn’t look happy… but then, winter here is just harsh enough to kill lots of things that are tropical or semi-tropical, and just mild enough that a handful of such plants occasionally make it through. African basil, for example, will come back from its sturdy roots every spring.

So, we left well enough alone. We mulched it on a balmy January interlude between cold fronts, right along with our hardier perennial herbs (notably rosemary and oregano), and hoped for the best.

The best became apparent that March, when “Lemon – Corymbia citriodora” demanded to be upgraded to its more common nomenclature, owing to the fact that it sprouted up to a 3 ½’ height, towering above its neighbors in the herb garden, and threatening (if we were any judge of what the pinkish-green shoots at the top of each of its branches might mean) to keep right on growing. So, that’s when we finally gave in, and looked up what turned out to be our lemon eucalyptus tree.

Native to Australia, and not typically hardy below 30° fahrenheit (which explains why its sister snuffed it), there are nevertheless plenty of anectdotal examples of trees surviving frosts and freezes once they reach maturity. There are several examples scattered throughout Northern California, for example, where other varieties of eucalyptus thrive – which is, presumably, where our complimentary passersby became familiar with them.

And now, another winter has passed, and another spring and summer, and it now stands at 8’ tall, and is unmistakably a young eucalyptus tree.

We have no idea whether it will continue to thrive in the balmy Brazos Valley climate, though we are hopeful. The long range forecast is for the El Niño Southern Oscillation effect (ENSO) to remain stuck in “neutral” through at least Spring 2014, and the seasonal outlook forecast maps from the National Weather Service all show expected above average temperatures until at least then, so the odds of prolonged exposure to temperatures below 30° fahrenheit are somewhat low.

Assuming it survives to adulthood, this tree (which, remember, we thought was going to be a modest bushy variety like basil or sage) could conceivably be 30-40’ high by the time our daughter graduates college. It would, if this happens, tower over our driveway. Only a deep freeze, or an invasion of koala bears, could keep this from happening.

And as we reflect on the coming wave of unschedulable changes related to global warming, our lemon eucalyptus serves as something of a bellwether. Happy accidents of this sort will occur whenever and wherever folk are prepared to experiment – not blindly, but definitely wildly – with a wanton disregard for preconceived ideas about what must be put where, and what grows, and what does not.

There are some rules, of course, that will continue to be functional in the scary new world to come – mulch, for example, is always a good idea, as it helps plants retain moisture and self-regulate their tolerance to extreme temperatures – but not every rule handed down from master gardeners is going to continue to be valid, regardless of how “tried and true” that rule might be.

And not every experiment will end well. We are quite prepared for the possibility that we will have a freak snowstorm this winter (it happens every few years here in Bryan-College
Station, after all), and we will walk out to find an eight-foot-tall freeze-dried twig collection in our front yard, instead of a eucalyptus tree. We can’t count how many “fails” we have accumulated, in the form of plants that didn’t do well where we put them, or of arrangements that maximized thorns and fire ants and minimized fruit production and enjoyment.

We have also noticed, thanks to a competitive spirit, that when we compare our own garden to someone else’s, we are likely to notice only the flaws in our own, and only the advantages in theirs. Self-deprecation aside, we have met very few “proud” gardeners; they are generally sincere in their worries about problems of which they may be the only persons alive with even the slightest awareness. Yet, taken as a whole, there will inevitably be people in the community whose tomatoes are ripe when no one else can even get blooms, or who have pole beans so verdant they make they make the ivy covered outfield fence at Wrigley Field seem naked, or who in the midst of a valley-wide squash borer invasion, can grow pumpkins to make Linus and Snoopy blush.

Our hope is that people continue talking to each other, and listening to their plants – and the animals who live in, on, and around those plants – and continue adjusting as everything in that cluster of different entities continues changing.

Our own conversations with the admirers of the eucalyptus tree were short; they were, however, representative of at least part of who we like to think of ourselves as being. We are often out in the garden (though not as often as we’d like), and we often have time to stop and chat with those who are passing by. Our human neighbors know us, and some of them even approve of us. We hope we can say the same of our non-human neighbors.

It is the time of year when the planting calendar approach to gardening has most folk in the Brazos Valley scrambling to put in peas, and spinach, and broccoli, and cabbage and the like… and we will undoubtedly be doing some of that ourselves. Fava beans in particular are one of our favorites, as they overwinter well, and if planted now can conceivably become a forest of 4-5 foot tall heavy food producers (in addition to providing plenty of winter forage for our bees).

But the thing about which we want to be most aware is not anything marked on a calendar. We want to keep our eyes peeled for that next weird discount-bin type find – what is the next unexpected gem going to be? You can’t plan for it… you can only be patient and open to it.

Here’s hoping you find your own unexpected treasure this fall.

Happy farming!

4/30/13

The Pie of a Thousand Grapes Begins With a Single Vine

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
We are looking at a bumper crop of muscadine grapes this year. Every bit of literature you will ever find on the wild grape of Texas will tell you that they do not bunch – the fruit hang singly, not in clusters. Well, judge for yourself from the photo evidence; these may not be traditional clusters like you will see from table grapes or champagne grapes… but that, my friends, is a boatload of “singly” hanging grapes.

These grapes are on a trellis on our back porch; they come from a vine which volunteered from a huge cluster of vines in the part of our yard we have historically referred to as “The Faerie Ring”, though it is now known as “The Bee Yard” (more on bees in a future installment, we promise!)

For the first three years in which we got serious about the business of growing grapes, our harvests have consisted of a few fistfuls of fruit – delicious, to be sure, but not particularly prodigious. We blamed drought and birds, but the truth was something far more mundane – impatience. We simply hadn’t allowed for the necessity of the two key ingredients to a long-term project: the amount of utterly mind-numbing maintenance necessary for success, and the passing of time.

We have not trained our vines the way vintners do; rather than limiting ourselves to two branches on a T-shaped vine with a limited height, we have “limited” ourselves to a more fantastical assortment of four or five branches, some of which go overhead to form a living roof over our pseudo-porch. Instead of the wooden deck we had originally envisioned, we have opted for a living, breathing space where wooden benches define the area as “useful”, but green grass at our feet, and wild tangles of grapes above our heads and all around us serve as walls.

Decorative, yes. But we did it this way because it’s less work. And because the vines absorb summer sunlight which would otherwise hit our windows, and since it’s a southern exposure, and this is Texas… that is kind of a big deal.

Meanwhile, this is the fourth year in which we’ve been scratching and clawing to get a grape harvest. And it looks like the first time we will be able to brag about having done so. This leads to our favorite pastime – self-reflection. Philosophical navel-lint-picking would be another way to describe it. However one chooses to characterize our musings, though, this whole journey-of-a-thousand-grapes-starting-with-a-single-vine thing is right up our alley.

There are all sorts of other projects at Big Myrtle’s place which either have taken a long time to come to fruition, or are taking a long time. Our rainwater collection pond took three years to reach its current depth of 8 feet; our second such pond will probably take two more years to get there.

We have been building our privacy fencing in piecemeal fashion, and it will be six more months before we are done. Our raised bed vegetable garden is only about half installed, with ten beds at present; we will probably take another year to get the rest put in. Our pomegranates may produce fruit this year; our olives might produce fruit in another year or two. We are going to plant a good 15-20 more fruit trees (plums, apricots, almonds, huckleberries), all of which will take a good 2-3 years minimum to start giving us a return on our investment.

And then there’s the bees. We installed a package of buckfast bees from R. Weaver apiaries this past weekend. Mr. Myrtle Maintenance may have messed up the queen cage by damaging the bottom cork – we won’t know for sure for another week or so – but even if he blew the curve and completely messed up the installation, it won’t really matter, long term. Our decision is firm: we are going to build more top bar hives, and buy more bees, and we are going to produce honey. This year? Probably. Next year? Definitely!

Successes are welcome; mistakes? They are nothing more than another squashed grape in the must. And you can’t make muscadine pie without squashing a lot of grapes. Whatever mistakes we make with the bees will fall into the same category as all the mistakes we have made with the grapes… the veggies… the herbs… the chickens… And we will keep right on keeping on, because we can’t think of anything else we’d rather be doing.

Happy farming!

3/21/13

Those Darned Kids....

"If you are like me, and you certainly must be, you are appalled and shocked at the weird, unnatural things going on tonight."
--Sam the Eagle
Seldom has there been a time in history when one part of the world has not looked at the other parts of the world and shaken either their heads or their fingers.  While we at Myrtle’s place cannot imagine a bigger waste of time than worrying about how someone else chooses to live their lives, we must admit that we, too, sometimes fall into the trap of worrying too much about those other people, and not enough about the state of our own tail feathers.

To that end, as part of our ongoing improvements to the homestead this Spring, we are extending the fence around our back yard, providing more privacy vis-à-vis the rent house to one side.  Along our back fence, which divides our plot from a row of rental duplexes one street over, we are planting a stand of phyllostachys nigra, a variety of medium-to-tall height timber bamboo, with unique black canes.

Privacy was not really much of an issue when we first moved into our little patch of heaven.  The rental duplexes behind us were one-story bungalows, shielded from view by a long stretch of tall yaupon; the rental house next door was occupied by a group of quiet, studious girls from a service sorority, who had handed down the lease from one sister to another for the better part of a decade.

This past Fall, however, the duplexes behind us were demolished to make way for a two-story quadruplex, with upstairs balconies looking straight down into our vegetable plot, and the line of sorority sisters next door ran out, leaving us with somewhat more rambunctious male renters in their stead – not really knuckledraggers, mind you, just typical college boys… the nightmare of cranky codger homeowners everywhere.

Our sense of quiet in the middle of the chaos of city life was somewhat shaken.

Where there is a will, however, there is a way.  We could complain about the beer cans thrown over the back fence – and we have; we could complain about the motorcycle parked in the backyard next door, whose light shines through our living room window – and we did.  But more than complain, we could – and can – act in accordance with our own needs and in line with our own principles.

When Robert Frost said that good fences make good neighbors, it was in observance of the unity provided by the act of mutual maintenance of the boundary between two co-equal neighbors – there is a real and palpable difference, though, when the context is as different as it is in our own case.  We are not really seeking much of anything from our temporary neighbors – just their silence, their lack of intrusion, and their adherence to standards of civility. 

Living as close as we do to a major university, it is inevitable that we will on occasion be surrounded by those whose lack of experience, lack of discipline, and (frankly) lack of good parenting have left them a bit lacking in manners, as well.  And in such circumstances, a good fence can make for good neighbors in an exclusive sense not considered by Frost – what we don’t see won’t annoy us.

There are other benefits to be derived from our new arrangements, and in keeping with our long history of multi-functionality, we are hopeful that we can maximize these other things and minimize our emphasis on keeping the damned kids off our lawn.

First, we are attempting to surround our property with muscadine grapes, which were growing wild here before we ever moved in.  The added support on our western fence line will allow those vines to reach a height of about eight feet.  They will be decorative and fruitful, and should dramatically increase our berry harvest each summer.

Further, we will no longer worry about the incursion of stray dogs into our backyard.  Most have been deterred by our 3 foot tall wire trellis system, but we have had the occasional jumper.  Neither the chickens nor Kitty Purry are amused.

Then there is the bamboo.  Our friends up the street have bamboo, and have advised us most ardently and strenuously not to get it ourselves.  They echo the timeless complaint of homeowners everywhere who struggle mightily to contain this most invasive of canopies. 

What they fail to realize, however, is that we don’t want to contain it.  The wilder and crazier it gets, the better.  Why?  Because we have plans for it.
  • Bamboo shoots are tasty and nutritious.  A crop that is impossible to kill is right up our alley when it comes to food sources; stir fry with bamboo?  Oh, yeah, we’re all over that.
  • Timber bamboo provides the only possible regenerating privacy screen for our configuration.  Unless the foliage is complete from roughly five feet off the ground up to about twenty feet off the ground… nothing will shield us from the prying eyes of our neighbors to the rear.  We don’t want to see them in their bedrooms; we don’t want them to see us on our back porch.  This solves both problems.
  •  Timber bamboo is just that – timber.  There are all kinds of projects – both in terms of carpentry and also in terms of arts-and-crafts, which will be greatly served by having a ready supply of black bamboo.  We are salivating at the thought of the day when we can spend our free time creating things no one else has yet thought of.
Sure, it will require spending time digging up invasive shoots when they get too close to the vegetable beds or the tool shed… and sure, it will require work clearing felled timbers and pruning dead branches… but that just means more mulch for the garden, and more greens for the chickens.  We don’t see how this is a bad thing in any way, shape or form.

So, what started as an irritation… those darn kids… is likely to end as a major upgrade to our homestead.  One step further away from being just a utilitarian plot of ground, we are slowly but surely inching up on also being an aesthetically pleasing garden retreat.  We all have a little bit of Sam the Eagle in us; rather than giving in to the bitter emotions which seem native to that spirit, however, we implore you to consider: 

When life hands you a bunch of lemons, you’re still screwed until you add sugar

Don’t just accept bitter circumstances – use them.  Shape them to your will.  Make them not just palatable, but delicious.  A rowdy set of neighbors is not just an irritation – it is also an opportunity.  What else bugs you?  There is the sand where you should dig for pirate booty.

Happy farming!

2/23/13

True Grime... er, Grit... Oh, Never Mind. Just Garden!

"Truth-tellers are not always palatable. There is a preference for candy bars."
--Gwendolyn Brooks, 'Song for Winnie'

“If it comes from a plant, eat it.  If it’s made in a plant, don’t.”
--Michael Pollan

The amount of gloom-and-doom available in whatever may be your media of choice is almost limitless.  Likewise, the amount of doom-and-gloom conceivably constructed from one’s own observations of the world around them is limited only by one’s own imagination.

We try to avoid despair and negativity at all costs – not because we don’t want to know about what is wrong with the world, but because we would rather have problems presented to us as challenges instead of as insurmountable obstacles.  We may not be able to solve every global crisis by playing in our garden or spending a meditative morning watching our chickens be the bird-brains they are… but we like to entertain the notion that playing in our garden and musing with our chickens are helpful things, and that pleasant notion is never more at hand than it is with the coming of Spring.

We have begun our full-on assault on the lassitude of Winter in the last couple of weeks, and hope to completely reinvent our garden by the time tender vegetables go in the ground some time in the next couple of weeks (depending on the long-range forecast).  With this in mind, we would like to express our hope that the truth-telling Gwendolyn Brooks speaks about as a goad toward unhealthy self-medication can be somewhat assuaged by growing and eating healthy and tasty plants in our very own backyard.  The news (however acquired) is much less noisesome through this lens, even when it is entirely unpalatable.

As an example, January 2013 is officially the 2nd hottest January in the records dating back to the mid-19th century for the contiguous United States, and ninth highest for the planet as a whole.  Global warming is real, anthropogenic, unavoidable, and increasing.  While petrochemical robber barons choose to bury their heads in the tar-sand, the rest of us (who opt to be honest with ourselves) know that things will never again be the same, and that some of the consequences of this change will be devastating and catastrophic.

However….

On the bright side, “planting season” comes earlier and earlier each Spring.  Of course, we put quotes around this phrase for a reason – every season is time to plant something.  Still, Spring is the time people traditionally think about when discussing the first part of the cycle of life for garden vegetables.  Mention that you have a vegetable garden, and Texans immediately think of tomatoes, peppers, corn and squash.  Even carnivores and junk food addicts recognize these foods as basic staples, with perhaps a smattering of other favorites thrown in (cucumbers, melons, etc.), and know – more or less – that a Texas gardener should start think about putting these plants in the ground some time in March.

What they may not realize, if they do not themselves have their hands in the dirt every year, is that it isn’t really “March” which marks the beginning of the time to plant these crops.  Instead, it is the onset of warmer weather and in particular warmer soil which determines when these tender vegetables should be planted. 

There are various tables and charts available if you do enough research showing the warmth the soil needs to reach before certain crops can go out safely, and depending on what you want to plant you may wish to google this information.  It will certainly be more accurate than relying on the “When to plant” chart on the back of most commercially available seed packets. 

We have seen suggestions, as a “fer instance,” that Spinach ought to be planted in April in Texas, and we wonder what planet the seed company executive who signed off on that ridiculous suggestion might have been living on… We suppose if you want to harvest precooked spinach in May and June, you could plant it in April…  but for most of Texas, spinach is a Fall and Winter crop, which is harvested from November through April.  If it comes from Texas anywhere from May through October, you can be sure it was grown in an air-conditioned greenhouse.

Be that as it may, even when the timetable oriented charts are relatively accurate (meaning the actual temperature requirements of the plants really do coincide with the suggested planting dates), the dates are getting earlier and earlier.  Some plants have higher success rates than others outside of their comfort zones, and can be planted at earlier dates than other plants sharing the same optimal range – as a consequence, things like cucumbers and some kinds of squash can survive at slightly lower temperatures than other tender veggies like maize or nightshades, or even hot weather herbs like basil or lavender. 

And the only way to know for sure what category things really fall in is to experiment, which we at Myrtle’s place are far more than happy to do.

We have discovered, for example, that amaranth (one of our favorite all time crops) will not thrive unless the soil is at least 70° when the seed sprouts.  As it turns out, in the Brazos Valley, that can happen as early as the middle of March, or as late as the middle of April.  We have also discovered, much to our pleasure, that if we put the seed out in early March, most of it won’t actually sprout until nighttime air temperatures are in the low 60°s… and looking at the long-range forecast this February, we have decided we can go ahead and seed our amaranth beds now. 

We have better-than-even odds of not having any more freezing weather, and better-than-even odds of having soil temperatures in the 70°s as soon as mid-March, a full month earlier than the suggestions in planting guides written back in the dawn of time by experts who thought the climate was less variable.

This means there’s nothing wrong with pushing up the planting dates for a whole host of different veggies – cucumbers, summer squash, amaranth, etc.  One doesn’t usually find these crops going in alongside things like leeks, onions, garlic, spinach or broccoli, but that is exactly what is happening this year, and is likely to happen on a more regular basis as the years go by and the planet heats up.

We don’t pretend that putting in raised beds for our vegetables to give us more control over drainage and soil temperature, and planting crops earlier and earlier each year thanks to warmer soil and air, and a host of other adaptations we are making in our garden to environmental changes we observe through the cycle of each season, are in any way “solutions” to the crises presented by global climate change.

What we are suggesting, however, is that our individual adaptations can and should be part of a global chain of cumulative adaptations, none of them individually making much of a splash, but all of them together making a tidal wave of evolutionary change in the fate of our species (and hopefully the fate of some of our fellow species, as well).

Ultimately, this approach is simply an equal and opposite reaction to the initial chain of unhealthy actions which got us into this mess in the first place.

The heating up of the global climate, after all, is not due to a few isolated decisions made in the course of human history – or even just a few decisions made since the onset of the industrial revolution.  Reading the daily headlines it would be easy to demonize the petrochemical industry and the internal combustion engine, for example, since those are the two greatest contributors to greenhouse emissions over the past 150 years.  But the story actually goes back much further than that.

The Anthropocene (the geologic era demarcated by the time when human inhabitants of planet Earth first started changing our climate) is generally granted to have started at the end of the last great glacial ice age, some 10,000 years ago.  Truth be told, the invention of agriculture, which began shortly after the ice retreated, was in and of itself humanity’s most invasive and consequential attack on the natural world; Gaia has been on the ropes ever since we first started tilling the ground.

Learning to be more gentle and cooperative in our attempts to coax nutrition from the soil is the choice we need to now make, one backyard, porch, windowsill and vacant lot at a time.  We will undoubtedly assault the agribusiness paradigm more fully in the future, dear reader, as we believe the large scale farm to be the cause of hunger and malnutrition throughout the world, not a potential cure for those maladies, but for now we wish to extol the local virtue, not the global vice. 

No one individual family in Bryan/College Station, Texas, nor in Macon, Georgia, nor in Baden-Baden, Germany, nor in the Faroe Islands or in Sri Lanka, can by themselves reverse the harm we have done to the environment over the last ten millennia, but then, we can’t collectively solve our global problems without the contributions of each of those individual families, either.

Only by each of us as individuals deciding to take care of that part of the environment within reach of our own arms can we collectively hope to one day say “Insurmountable problem – mounted!”  As such, we invite all those who find themselves overwhelmed by stories about rising oceans, and dropping water tables, and e-coli infestations on the produce in markets worldwide, and all the other ills inundating our senses every day, to turn off the television, step away from the computer, put the cellphone on idle, and go get dirty.  Put your hands in the soil, smell it, sift it, get to know it.  Listen to and watch all the critters, whether no-, two-, four-, six- or eight-legged who call it home.  Do your own experiments.

And, a little less stressed and a little more hopeful, eat the results.

Happy farming!

1/20/13

How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Frying Pan

"Be prepared to appreciate what you meet."
--Fremen proverb, Frank Herbert's 'Dune'
With very little fanfare last November, the International Energy Agency announced that by their calculations (which we at Myrtle’s place believe are conservative by an order of magnitude), the point of no return for avoiding a 2° Celcius increase in average global temperatures is coming in the next five years -- that we are on a collision course with having over 420 parts per million of the atmosphere, at all levels, comprised of carbon dioxide, and that due to qualities of persistence, at that point there will be nothing we can do to stop a host of negative consequences:
  • Melting of all arctic sea ice every summer and possibly not completely freezing over in winter, either
  • Sea level increases sufficient to swamp low-lying islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but also negatively affecting to one degree or another numerous low-lying cities in the developed world, including New York City; New Orleans; Houston; Miami, and on and on
  • Persistent drought from which places like the American Southwest, and the central plains (particularly those areas fed by aquifers like the Ogallala) cannot recover, in any way
  • Extreme events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, on a more regular basis and with more intensity when they do occur
  • Shorter growing seasons in many locations due to extreme heat, particularly high nighttime low temperatures which thwart set of many different types of fruit and vegetable crops
  • Reduced chilling hours required by many varieties of stone fruit and other plants requiring vernalization
  • Extinction of many plants with narrow temperature tolerances… examples include coffee and chocolate trees
  • Shortages of water not just in drought-prone areas, but also in coastal areas where rising sea levels also mean a rise in the salinity of the water table

We could go on, but, really, do you want us to?

While we are astonished on a regular basis that there are still folk out there too dense to pay attention to what is happening, the fact is, it really is too late to bother with trying to convince people about the danger of our addiction to fossil fuels – we can no longer prevent global warming, nor can we mitigate it all that effectively, either.

No, what we are left with is learning to adapt.

Fortunately, coming from a long line of Celtic forebears on both sides of our family tree, Myrtle Maintenance Personnel are that wonderful combination of foolhardy, optimistic, and stubborn.  We feel quite ready for the challenge, and on some twisted level, we are even looking forward to it.

So, what, exactly is the challenge, and why do we feel optimistic while going into it?

In a nutshell, the challenge is to adapt to a world in which the difficulty of several elements which we currently take for granted will constitute the rule and measure of personal and social success – and to globalize from that level, the success of our whole species.

What do we take for granted now that we will soon no longer be able to take for granted?

·    Availability of nutritious food
·    Availability of clean potable water
·    Ability to keep cool in summer and warm in winter
·    Ability to get from here to there in a reasonably affordable manner

Those are challenges enough to be going on.  There will be others, of course, related to the shifting of societies and economies northward, and away from our current form of resource consumption towards something new, but we’re thinking here on a micro level, the level of homeowners and families struggling to survive, rather than on the macro level of urban planners figuring out how to provide livable spaces for millions of people at once.

So… what are we prepared to do about these challenges?

Availability of nutritious food

This is probably the easiest challenge posed by climate change for most people in the developed world.  There are exceptions, of course, based on local variables, but in general it is possible to grow enough food for the typical family of four on as little as a quarter acre of ground.  In some places, even less space than that would be sufficient.

In addition to the typical vegetable and herb garden, use of spaces currently taken up by purely aesthetic plants or knick-knacks can be replaced by productive plants – citrus instead of decorative ficus on a porch or in an alcove; rather than a hanging pot of bouganvillia, a hanging industrial pickle bucket with holes cut in the side for tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers to descend; or (one of our favorites, popular in many African cities) a burlap sack with holes in the side for potato plants to poke out.  In short, on just the typical balcony, or in the typical urban window, there is enough light and moisture to grow a much larger percentage of the typical diet than is generally appreciated.

A relatively small chicken coop with a relatively small run (say, six feet by six feet) would give three or four hens far more space than their factory farmed compatriots ever dream of getting; three or four hens could supply the entire protein needs of a family of four without even counting in however much protein they might acquire from vegetable sources (which, frankly, typically exceeds the protein needs of practically anyone practically anywhere – protein deficiency is a vastly exaggerated nutritional problem).

And dwarf varieties of goat need less space than many of the dogs currently occupying so much space in our currently underutilized backyards.  We don’t know about you, but we’d much rather milk a goat than a dog.

In short, the availability of nutritious food will only be a problem for those who simply refuse to take advantage of their opportunities.

Availability of clean potable water

Water fit for human consumption may well be the greatest challenge faced by humanity in the coming decades.  Already, vast numbers of people in the developing world live without sanitary sources of water for drinking, cleaning and cooking.  The single greatest inducement for migration in the coming century of climate change will be the search for water.

In the developed world, we have come to take clean water coming out of our faucets so much for granted that it is difficult for many folk to fathom the possibility that even here, clean water is not a given.  However, the cold, hard facts are these:  many areas are served by water pumped from sources which cannot indefinitely support the demands currently placed upon them, let alone the increased demands which will be placed upon them by the joint pressures of increasing temperatures and increasing populations.

The two primary examples are the desert Southwest and the central plains served by the Ogallala aquifer – Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California all draw water from rivers and reservoirs which are shrinking even in wet years, and those years are becoming fewer and further between.  Northern Texas up through the Dakotas are served by pumps tapping into an aquifer which is only very very slowly refilled by rainfall, which is increasingly rare for the region.  When these sources are no longer available, these regions have no other sources to which they may turn.

Even areas with plentiful moisture, however, are not immune to the effects of climate change.  New York City, as one example, is served by sources of fresh water which are not likely to dry up any time in the next several tens of thousands of years – unfortunately, though, those sources are likely to be increasingly tainted and less and less fit for human consumption.  The entire Hudson River valley is slowly but surely increasing in salinity because even small changes in sea level create drastic changes in the chemistry of the water table, often tens or even hundreds of miles inland.  Houston, New Orleans, and many other Gulf Coast communities are also subject to this phenomenon.

So what can we do about this problem?

For one thing, collect rainwater.  The runoff from a ½” rainfall event on a 1,000 square foot roof (smaller than most American homes) will easily fill a 100 gallon tank.  Even in a relatively dry location such as West Texas, where rainfall is often in the 10” per year range, that means that the typical family (living in a 1500 square foot home) should be able to collect somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 gallons of rainwater to supplement whatever other sources are available (well or river water, most likely).

Bathing requirements might have to change, but not radically; most water usage would not need to change much, if at all.  Obviously, xeriscaping would be preferred to the planting of lawns in such a scheme… but that is true already, given how expensive lawn maintenance can be in areas where rates for city water supplies are high due to laws of supply and demand.  Industrial use of fresh water will have to be radically altered – cooling stations, for example, need to be re-engineered to make use of briny waters unfit for human or animal consumption (this is a difficult task, but not an impossible one, once the necessity for change forces us as a society to think seriously about it).

In places where rainfall is more hospitably reliable, rainwater can easily supply all needs potable and otherwise.  It is easier to filter or distill water for one family than it is to do so for an entire city; as a consequence, it just makes more sense to collect water from as local a source as possible – and nothing is more local than one’s home – and treat it there.  The salinity of the water table therefore ceases to be an issue.

Some places, of course, will still be impacted beyond help, but as most people do not live in Yemen, Turkmenistan or rural Arizona, we will have to merely sympathize from a distance and wait for those folk to migrate to relatively wetter climates.

Ability to keep cool in summer and warm in winter

In the Brazos Valley, we really don’t have too much to worry about in terms of keeping warm in winter – all three days of our typical winter are perfectly comfortable, provided one stays out of the wind.

Keeping cool in summer, though, is another matter altogether.

We have written before about the wisdom of painting one’s roof white as a means of reflecting heat-generating sunlight in summer.  Obviously sufficiently insulating one’s attic is another necessary bit of home maintenance in preparing for the brutally hot summers we will be facing in the decades to come.  Other forms of weatherization for both cold and hot weather should be looked into as well, such as adding good weather stripping to doors and windows, and replacing merely decorative curtains with more functional tapestries which keep heat inside in winter, and reflect heat back outside in summer.

Landscaping, too, can assist in temperature control – if you don’t have tall shade trees on the western exposure of your home, it’s a good idea to look into planting shade trees or a tall arbor of some kind on that side of the house.  A tall trellis, or even vines grown directly on a brick wall are exceptional heat barriers; the green leaves of an English Ivy, or of any variety of grape, or of a half-dozen other decorative or fruiting vine, can reduce the temperature in western-facing rooms by as much as 10-15° Fahrenheit.

Additionally, two different though related considerations of economy must be evaluated when planning for future cooling technologies.  We will likely see (and soon, at that) increasing stretches of consecutive 100°-plus days; it is simply not tenable for the very young, very old, sick, or disabled to survive in this sort of climate without some means of staying cool and hydrated; air-conditioning is the single most effective means of surviving extreme heat.  However, air-conditioning is likely to become increasingly expensive both in terms of personal economy and also in terms of ecological impact.

Both of these factors need to be resolved as we embark upon our future in the age of global warming.

The biggest cost savings are likely to come from changing our sources of electricity from our current emphasis on burning fossil fuels to wind, solar and geothermal sources of energy.  In particular, home cooling systems dependent upon geothermal energy are already increasing in popularity, and improvements to the technology mean that soon, over the lifetime of the components of the system are likely to be much less expensive than conventionally powered air conditioning systems.

Solar powered A/C units are also increasing in popularity, particularly because these units allow a homeowner to maintain most of their current electrical infrastructure, only changing out an isolated portion of their home grid (albeit the most expensive part!), thus avoiding complicated power load calculations.

For those whose homes are not so large (increasingly another good idea, by the way, since smaller homes are easier and cheaper to heat in winter and cool in summer), it might be possible to shut off a few rooms during the day, and only cool one or two rooms with either a window unit or a standalone A/C unit.  Many mainstream architects scoff at the notion… but that is because their frame of reference is the mainstream American desire for a large home.  One of the biggest benefits of the “microhome” revolution is not just that folk with tiny houses can take advantage of the best interior design ideas available at IKEA; it is that for just a tiny fraction of the cost of a central heating system, they can cool their entire houses with just a $100 window unit. 

It is entirely conceivable that a small home-built solar array smaller than the roof of a typical carport could be used to provide all the power necessary for such a small-scale A/C system, which means not only would all the comfort of 20th century American decadence still be available, but at an almost microscopic percentage of the historical cost of such comfort.

One thing is certain, however:  such comfort cannot be maintained with the status quo.  A 2,000 square foot home will no longer be within the purview of the average family’s budget simply because few will be able to afford to cool such a home in summer the way they have always been used to doing.

We at Myrtle’s place do not believe this is a bad thing.  It’s time to simplify anyway; this is just one more excuse to do so.  And, frankly, our European and Asian guests have always expressed quiet amusement that we describe our own 900 square foot home as “small”… because by comparison with what they are used to seeing, well, it might not be as gaudy as most American homes… but it’s still pretty big.

Ability to get from here to there in a reasonably affordable manner

One of the more amusing internet memes we have seen recently was a quote attributed only to “the Mayor of Bogota”; which mayor, we can only guess, but even if it was made up by some guy in Peoria, it’s still a pretty good slogan:  “A developed nation is not one in which the poor have cars; it is one in which the wealthy take public transportation.”

Barring the sudden onset of wisdom necessary for an immediate decision to build useful infrastructure, however, we foresee the need to rely on other trends to bring American transportation habits into line with future needs.  For several years now, the trend has been for the typical American driver to put fewer and fewer annual miles on their vehicles.

As petrochemical scarcity becomes a problem over the course of the next few decades, this trend is likely to continue, even with the advent of alternative fuel vehicles.  The dirty little secret of electric, hydrogen fuel cell, and liquefied natural gas vehicles is that even if the fuel is not petroleum, the components used in construction of the vehicle still require a lot of natural resources which are either scarce in and of themselves, or which require the use of increasingly scarce fuel sources in their acquisition.

There are several strategies to mitigating the high cost of getting from here to there, though, so we are not particularly worried about the fact that these costs will likely only continue to rise.  First and foremost… stop going from here to there.  A disturbingly large percentage of the travel we are currently addicted to undertaking is simply frivolous.  There is no reason other than vanity to buy a home thirty or forty miles away from our workplaces.  There is no reason other than vanity to vacation a thousand miles away from home.

Likewise, there is no reason to transport goods halfway around the world when they can be produced either at home, or only a few miles away from home.  We have already addressed the notion that self-sustenance vis-à-vis food security is a simple undertaking; in addition to providing  a source of fresh and healthy food, however, growing our own fruits and vegetables would go a long way to reducing transportation costs.  Currently, the average item of produce travels more than 1,000 miles from the farmer’s land to our kitchen table.  Little wonder, then, that the resources involved are the object of high demand, driving prices ever higher as the supply dwindles.

These costs, though, go away if we listen to the Buddhist maxim:  “Don’t just do something… Sit there!

Cautiously optimistic for most folk

There are accidents of birth and station which are simply unfair, and have always been so; global warming will make the unfairness of the rich-poor divide even worse.  There is no sugar coating the fact that untold scores of people will suffer, and often die, as a direct result of the thoughtless consumption ethic which has dominated the industrialized world – indeed, predating industrialization, though only reaching its current nightmarish peak with the advent of centralized wealth which came on the heels of capitalism – and there is no escaping the negative consequences of the reckless behavior of our forebears, not to mention ourselves.

However, all is not doom and gloom.  The original strengths of our species are still with us – hominids were never the biggest, nor the strongest, nor the swiftest.  We have almost always been the most adaptable species on the block, however, and we will soon be facing a new test of that adaptability.

One would hope that learning from our mistakes would be one of the adaptations we adopt in the near future; necessity is sometimes a cruel teacher, but we at Myrtle’s place are hopeful that her lessons will be taken to heart.  We believe it is likely that most people around the globe will have the opportunity – and hopefully the wisdom – to move away from our historically destructive disregard of the world around us.

Now then… if you’ll excuse us, we’re going back outside.  It’s almost Spring planting time.

Happy farming!

1/18/13

Hot Times, Winter in the City....

"Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he's been given. But up to now he hasn't been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life's become extinct, the climate's ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day."
--Anton Chekhov, 'Uncle Vanya' (1897)
For the better part of two months, ever since in late November/early December 2012 it was announced with great fanfare by the National Climatic Data Center that 2012 was officially the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States, right-wing conspiracy nuts went to great lengths to say “See?  It’s a hoax!  They talk about global warming, and then only produce local data!”

Well, brace yourselves.  Yes, the unexpected has happened.  The global data has been released, and sure enough, 2012 was not the warmest year on record for the entire Earth.  It was only the 10th warmest.  Aren’t we all feeling relieved now?

Snark intended.

Alarmingly, in addition to being a top 10 year for warm temperatures, 2012 was the warmest “La Niña year” on record.  Usually, La Niña cools global temperatures slightly, which suggests that if it were not for sea surface temperature anomalies in the Pacific Ocean, last year would have been even more of a scorcher than it already was.

Other highlights from the NCDC report:

  • 2012 was the 36th consecutive year with global temperatures above the 20th century average.  “The last below-average annual temperature was 1976.”
  • Most of North and South America, most of Europe and Africa, western, southern, and far northeastern Asia all experienced above average temperatures; Alaska, far western Canada, central Asia, and a few island nations experienced cooler than average temperatures.
  • Ice melt in the Arctic was not only record breaking, it was record shattering; peak ice melt is usually measured in late September, but the record was broken by the 3rd week of August.
  • The global annual average temperature was 0.90°C (1.62°F) above the 20th century average.  Contiguous U.S. temperatures were 1.0°C (1.8°F) above the long-term average, and we beat the old record for hottest year (1998) by 0.6°C (1.0°F).
  • While precipitation averages were almost exactly statistically normal… extremes were more common, with some parts of the world experiencing extreme drought, and others experiencing record flooding.
The upshot, of course, is that global warming is real, and continuing.  Denialists will continue to spout nonsense every time a scientific survey is released, but we ought not to allow the background noise to drown out the cold (hot?) hard truth.

Meanwhile, there are numerous means of adapting to the warmer, more turbulent era upon which we are embarking, and this weekend we will elucidate on some of the reasons to be optimistic in the face of climate change.

Seriously, there are some reasons.  Unless you are from Vanuatu or Bangladesh, in which case, sorry, you’re fighting a losing battle, and will undoubtedly have to migrate soon.  Most of the world, though, can make some lifestyle changes, and live comfortable, productive, and even happy lives in the hot new world.

More on that later.  Anton Chekhov was not alone over a hundred years ago in seeing the danger of human disregard for the environment; unlike Russian novelists, though, it is our job to paint a picture of a more hopeful world, even if the facts are bleak.  We accept that challenge.  We’ll explain how after we finish our weekend chores.

Happy farming!

1/13/13

The Fine Line Between Blind Tradition... and Blind Innovation

"What was life like in the colonies? Probably the best word to describe it would be 'colonial'."
--Dave Barry
We tried to come up with a more polite way to say it, but there just isn’t one:  practically everyone (ourselves included) is a hypocrite when it comes to thinking about the past.  To be fair, it is rather difficult for anyone to escape an uncomfortable disjoint in perspectives about the past – a nostalgia for the mud embodied in talk of “The Good Old Days” juxtaposed with a belief that history is an arc of progress wherein things must necessarily be getting better and better.
Everyone is prone to one extreme or the other.  We at Myrtle’s place tend to get lumped into the former point of view rather than the latter, based on the fact that we are trying to restore some fairly traditional parts of daily family life to our own little corner of the world.  Growing as much of our own food as we can, raising chickens, even drying our clothes on a line outside instead of in an electric clothes dryer, these are things that some folk would point to in justifying their belief that we are “traditionalists”.

On the other hand, we have absolutely no desire to return to the living conditions of our forebears.  The last three to four decades or so have seen air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution, light pollution, etc. ad nauseum, coupled with atrocious dietary, sleep, work, and play habits in the industrialized world which have started to eat away at the improvements we made in personal health and hygiene in the 20th century, but make no mistake – those improvements were real, and they were impressive.

And “The Good Old Days” just weren’t all they are made out to be.  Around 1900 C.E., New York City was one of the filthiest places on Earth, with smoke and soot and grime everywhere, mounds of animal feces in the streets, no clean water, no clean food, half-hearted and occasionally absent sanitation workers, toxic fumes in every home, lead paint on every wall.  Even the wealthy were living amidst vermin, contagion, and grime.  And food?  It came carted in from the countryside, covered in flies, and of questionable origin and healthfulness.  Late night comedians notwithstanding, modern New York is spotless by comparison.

But that’s just the big city, right? 

Wrong.

Not only did every major municipal center suffer the ills aforementioned, but country life was pretty unpleasant, too.  Indoor plumbing was only just becoming possible, let alone popular, which meant that outhouses had to be built for every farmhouse dotting the countryside.  All too often, these buildings were constructed with convenience (particularly mid-winter convenience) in mind, rather than sanitation.  Frequently, well water was drawn far too close to barns or latrines – just imagine the number of wells placed in between the outhouse and the barn!  Little wonder, really, that so many folk died so young back then.

The more common (and less unpleasant) nostalgic picture of the idealized past does, however, point towards some important truths about how we ought to be trying to live our lives now, even if it does not provide an accurate blueprint on how to live up to those truths.

For one thing, nostalgia almost always focuses on small themes – home, community, friends and family – rather than grand themes such as arcs of history.  Outside of a few grandiloquent politicians, nobody really wants to spend all their time focused on Manifest Destiny, or the White Man’s Burden, or Noblesse Oblige, or any of the other big themes which in the past fueled American culture and caused so many boring debates at so many stuffy cocktail parties.

No, what most folk think of when they think of the past at all is rocking chairs, garden fresh watermelon, innocent romance, picnics in the park, family and friends, somebody strumming a guitar or a banjo in the background, and most of all, nothing disturbing to think about

It is far too easy for nostalgic persons to fall into the trap of never trying to solve problems simply because they refuse to recognize that those problems exist – it is equally true, though, that the healthiest, happiest people are those who find some kind of equanimity in their lives.  Remove turmoil, and we go a long way towards making things better, first for ourselves, and then for those around us.

In context of olde tymes and new epochs, what this means is that we ought not deny our problems exist, nor should we allow solving those problems to lead us to traumatically undo the fabric of those things we have decided we care about.  Translation?  When fixing systemic problems, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

An excellent example, and one which makes our point (and yes, we do have one) best, is the destruction of an entire small-town, agriculture-oriented way of life, which came as a result of a solution to a problem ironically based entirely on questions of agricultural efficiency.  How to feed a hungry planet has been – justifiably – one of the principle concerns of leaders everywhere, for all of recorded and most of unrecorded history.  And in the 20th century, the so-called “Green Revolution” appeared to  solve this problem in unprecedented fashion.

The advent of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides increased the scope of farming in our heartland by orders of magnitude.  Bushels-per-acre for everything from alfalfa to zucchini increased ten-and-twenty-fold.  And in the process, we created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, where effluvium sucked all the oxygen out of the water, and fish and coral died off and are unlikely to ever return.  And we drove small family farmers out of business, and automated practically everything, increasing small town unemployment and unemployability.  And we created a massive healthcare headache with millions of immigrant farm laborers suffering from a lifetime of chemical exposure.  And by feeding the bones of discarded animals to their next of kin, we created new nightmares like bovine spongeiform encephalopathy (BCE), better known as “Mad Cow Disease”.

Much of the developing world viewed the good which came from the Green Revolution – and it is hard to argue that large surplus supplies of grain were not largely “good” – with understandable envy.  Hollywood melodramas aside, most of the world’s leaders are in their positions not because of a lust for power, but instead because of a genuine concern for the welfare of their people, however well or unwell their applications of those concerns may manifest themselves.  And leaders in places like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Chad, Eritrea, or Sudan, just to name a handful, would obviously want to bend over backwards in order to achieve the degree of food wealth which the United States has enjoyed for almost a century now.  Food security and water scarcity (a topic worthy of its own future posting, we promise) are more important to large portions of the world’s population than practically any other considerations.

We are hopeful, however, that they employ a more thoughtful and sustainable approach than the one our own country embarked upon in the wake of the Great Depression.  Squeezing the land for every ounce of nutrient content has filled our grocery shelves, but it has also made us fat, lazy, diseased, arrogant, and unconnected.  We talk on phones we would not have the first clue how to build on our own, drive in heavily computerized automobiles we can no longer fix ourselves, and eat food which comes from God only knows where, grown God only knows how.

It does not have to be this way.  Every year at Brazos Valley Pulletpalooza, we find that pretty much all of our visitors have their own chicken stories.  This is because until just two generations ago, practically everyone in this country had chickens.  The vast majority of folk also used to grow their own fruits and vegetables, too.

And not just country folk, and not just homeowners.   Most tenements in most big cities had rooftop vegetable gardens, though they were limited by the availability of water, and time (particularly before the Progressive Era, when thanks to labor unions, the average workday shrunk from as much as 12 to 16 hours down to a more manageable 8-10). 

The move completely away from self-sufficiency did not really begin until the post-World War II era, when the ideal home stopped being a place where food was produced, and started becoming a box in which goods could be stored.  When we moved to newly built suburbs, away from both the city center, and away from the countryside, we got rid of our chickens.  We spent our time driving to and from work, instead of kneeling in the garden, tending to our crops.

A lot more was lost in this transition, too.  Not only did we stop being responsible for our own food, we stopped spending as much time together as families and communities.  And while we had heretofore depended on shipped in food to supplement what we grew ourselves, we were suddenly depending on large agribusiness to provide all our nutrient needs.  Suddenly, farming had to be big business.  Which meant that even more people would move away from the countryside. 

Small town America is the essence of an idealized picture that cannot exist, given this vicious circle.  And ironically, those who champion the small town most are frequently part of the very industries and political movements which have doomed that lifestyle.

A move away from luxury and back towards subsistence is, in our view, the best solution to many of the problems we created in the last half of the 20th century.  The best part is, it isn’t even that hard to achieve.  We love our land here at Myrtle’s place, because we have a full half-acre to play with; not only do we have the chicken coop, but we also have roughly 2,500 square feet of garden – including the herb garden – and also not one, but two rainwater collection ponds, and a bunch of fruit trees and vines.  All that having been said, you don’t need any land in order to start transitioning to a simpler subsistence-based economy. 

In Nairobi, for instance, there are entire apartment buildings where you will see a huge potato sack hanging from every balcony, full of dirt, and with vegetables growing from slits in the sides.  Guerilla gardeners have laid claim to alleyways and any public patch of dirt, to grow corn, amaranth, and practically anything else they can think of to sell in inner city farmer’s markets.  One can prepare a year’s worth of meals there without buying anything that came from a traditional “farm”.

And really, when you think about it, all gardening is “container” gardening.  Whether your container is a 9” clay pot sitting on a windowsill, or a 5’x5’ raised bed in your backyard, or a 1,000,000 hectare wheat field in the countryside, there is a measurable quantity of soil to be maintained, which will yield a measurable amount of produce. 

Most of the problems related to poor soil tilth – including not only the failure of a given plot of ground to produce after it has been overfarmed, but also the problems for the neighboring environment related to runoff from the container – are actually much easier to handle when the scope and scale is smaller.  Raised beds in the backyard, much like the clay pots on a balcony, represent spaces in which the addition of nutritious compost is relatively easy, and the possibility of runoff into neighboring watersheds is also relatively simple to control.

What we are talking about, then, is scaling back the nature of “farming” to be less about feeding hordes of people on a few large, extensive plots of land, and instead feeding smaller groups of people on many more, but much smaller, containers of soil.  Change the scale, and the practices can be made healthier without damaging the communities involved.

Subsistence farming has traditionally gotten a bad rap – so much so that children’s history textbooks frequently speak of the “improvement” of moving away from subsistence based economies.  And in some palpable senses, there is truth to this prejudice.  Slash and burn techniques, for example, are contributing to deforestation in the Amazon; nomadic herding led to desertification in much of central Asia; the list of other ills encumbered by subsistence lifestyles throughout the world is lengthy.

However, what we are talking about is a new model for subsistence.  We are not talking about some 40-acres-and-a-mule government sponsored restructuring of society, whether American or otherwise.  We are talking about collectively taking individual responsibility for our own nutrient needs.  The Nairobi model, in particular, is inspiring, because Nairobi, Kenya, has so many other problems.  It is really one of the last places around the globe where you would expect folk to be blithely self-sufficient, and yet, many of them are. 

Faced with immense population density, and most of the troubles which face most of the other large cities in the developing world, a solution to this most basic of problems – how can I get enough to eat – has been propounded not by any international agency, but by a few hardy inner city pioneers.  In the face of global warming, air pollution, water scarcity, etc., however, they do not have enough wherewithal to solve even their own problems, let alone those of other people susceptible to want and hunger.  Everyone, everywhere, can do something, but no one, anywhere, can do everything.

Government must get involved at some point if in no other way than to clear obstacles to personal responsibility – laws such as those in some U.S. communities against growing vegetables in one’s front yard, for example.  Or restrictive ordinances on backyard chickens.  Subsidies for agribusiness, too, tend to depress the availability of resources for small-scale producers.  And protection of insidious organizations like Monsanto, whose patents on their invasive varieties of genetically modified crops, also tend to squeeze out smaller producers in favor of factory farms.

On the whole, though, it really is up to individuals, whether living in College Station, Texas, or Mt. Union, Pennsylvania, or Tokyo, Japan, to take back control of the production of what we consume.  In the Colonial era, North America was dotted with small towns and villages where virtually all needs were provided either by oneself or one’s neighbors.  Ships and wagons brought luxuries from other places; what went on one’s plate came from “out back” or “across the way”.  Much the same has historically been true everywhere in the world; and the solution to the ills created by getting away from that model is also the same pretty much everywhere.

Growing more of our own food, whether in garden plots, or in raised beds, or in containers on porches and window sills, increases food security, decreases pollution, improves personal economies, and improves nutrition.  We can get back to the ideal food production model without also bringing back cholera, witch burnings, and bad fashion.  Well, okay, maybe not without bringing back bad fashion.  But two out of three ain’t bad.

Happy farming!