Anthony Valterra

Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem

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Part of last year's potato harvest.

By Anthony Valterra

Let me tell you a weird story about our cat. We had some problems with water seeping through our basement walls. When this happens, the water is muddy. Even if you clean it up, it leaves a very fine silt behind. One place that ended up having a pretty thick layer was behind the furnace. It was out of the way and hard to get to, so it just sort of built up. We fixed our gutters and created a water garden in the backyard. Our roof runoff fills some drums, and then when they overflow, it runs out to the water garden, as does a French drain to draw water away from the basement. After we did that, we haven't had any problems with water in the basement. But that silt just set back there getting dryer and dryer. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and finally found a nice pile of poop behind the furnace in that lovely soft silt. Well, I guess you can't really blame the cat. The silt is a soft as down, and the furnace makes that spot nice and warm. But still I had to clean up the cat poop and then clean up the silt. The cat went back to his litter box, and all was well.

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I ams what I ams, says the cat.

Now I tell you that story so I can tell you this one. We dug up our potatoes last year and had an OK crop. We really don't know that much about growing potatoes, so the soil was probably not the best. We planted on ground that the previous year had been lawn. I read that there is a pest that lives well in lawn and also loves potatoes. So, a lot of our potatoes had suffered a bit. But we planted a good variety, and some came through OK. It makes you realize how important it is not to monocrop when you are trying to grow organically. Anyway, we had enough potatoes to fill a few 5-gallon buckets and felt that we had not grown enough to carry us through winter but certainly enough to reduce our potato purchases. But how do you store potatoes?

Sadly, I should know this. I grew up with parents who backyard-farmed. My dad still grows corn, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. I should have paid attention growing up, but I didn't. I was too busy reading the latest adventures of Daredevil, Batman, or the X-Men. I had zero interest in gardening. So I started reading various blogs trying to figure out the best way to do it. It is surprising how many ways there are to do a thing. I might write a blog post about storing potatoes and put it in a form that would have helped me. Maybe it will help others.

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Into the bucket.

The method we ended up going with was to put the potatoes in a 5-gallon bucket in a layer. Then cover them with sand. Then another layer of potatoes and then another layer of sand until the bucket is mostly full. We read that the sand should be damp but not wet. That was likely a mistake. We think that that might make sense if you are in very dry environment, but it made our potatoes soften. I think this year we will cure them and then try the egg carton method (put the potatoes in egg cartons). We will try to keep the potatoes as cool as possible in the basement without going below 48 degrees. Likely it won't be cold enough for maximum life, but we will see how we do.

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Little did these potatoes know what fate awaited them.

But last year it was the sand-in-the-bucket method. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and... I'll bet you know where this is going. Yep, he was POOPING IN OUR POTATOES. If I didn't love the little beast, I might have strangled him. He was pooping and peeing in the buckets and had done a terrific job of getting all the potatoes well desecrated. After a very short debate, we dumped them all.

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The best-laid plans...

And that, dear readers, is how we lost our potato crop last year. I'm sure there is some deeper moral or philosophical lesson to be gleaned from all this. But I'm hornswoggled if I know what it is.

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Using the Japanese Art of Kintsugi to Keep Instead of Discard

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By Anthony Valterra

America - land of the free, home of the brave. America's myths tend to center around the idea of resistance. We see ourselves as the lone holdouts. The ones who will stand against tyranny and injustice. We are the brave soldiers of the Revolutionary War standing up to the tyrant King George the III. We stood up to the Nazis and then the USSR. We see ourselves as tough and unmoving. And that is still part of our culture.

This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world -- "No, YOU move.”

~Captain America~

Around the 1920's Western Civilization started discovering Eastern philosophy. A new way of dealing with events came into being. The concept was that the oak tree breaks in the storm, but the reed bends and springs back. This idea began to become more and more mainstream with the introduction of Confucianism and Taoism. But it really gained ground with the introduction of Eastern-style martial arts such as Tai-Chi, Wing Chun, and Bruce Lee's Jeet Kun Do.

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

~Bruce Lee~

Maybe we have reached the point in our culture where it is time to start looking at a new metaphor. The oak, no matter how strong, can break. And the reed can only bend so far, or it can be cut. In the end we may need to realize that anyone, and anything, can be broken. And once broken, some things can be repaired. But even the best repair will leave evidence of the break. Then what do we do? Right now our culture tends to see the broken and repaired as either something to be ignored, pitied, or tolerated. But what if we saw this process as a natural thing? Everything and everyone will be broken at some point. Nothing is immortal. Nothing is perfect. Perhaps there is a beauty in this process. 

I first encountered the Japanese art of Kintsugi while reading Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan by Azby Brown. Purely by coincidence, Lisa and I  vacationed at the Pacific Coast, and I got to see an example of the art form. It was amazing. I was entranced by what looked like a bolt of gold lightning flashing across a beautiful ceramic bowl. I also loved the idea that what was broken can be mended and be all the more beautiful for enduring that process. 

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. 

~Ernest Hemingway~

Personally, I tend to see the path that our world is on as "unsustainable." Kintsugi touched me on a number of levels all at once. I decide I wanted to share this idea with Lisa. And what better way than giving her an example of the art. Now, I am no artist. But I can "Google" with the best of them, and I found an artist who could do the work. I got Lisa this bowl.

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It is gorgeous. And being a wise and sensitive soul who has had more than her share of brokenness, she loved it. So, much so that this year, when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said she wanted the broken pestle of a marble mortar and pestle she owned repaired using the Kintsugi method.

You see... you get something started, and then it's on you to keep it going. But now I was in a pickle. When I bought the bowl above, the artist supplied both the bowl and the repair. This was a particular and personal object. And try as I might, I could not find an artist who would do a commission for anything less than a small fortune.

Remember how I said, "I'm no artist?" Well, needs must. I bought a clear epoxy that was designed for use with stone. Then I bought "gold" metal fine powder. Not real gold. I would have bought real gold, but I couldn't find it in powder form. I mixed the two together, glued the pestle together, and... taa-daa!

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It's not perfect. It has a bit of a junior-high-school-girl-taking-a-home-crafting-class look to it. But Lisa loved it. Because she is wise and sensitive. And because all of us are broken, but when we are repaired by love, we end up all the more beautiful for having undergone that journey.

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Hügelkultur - More Than Just a Pretty Word

Hugelkultur

By Anthony Valterra

Ah, the Germans, a lovely people with a lovely language. For example, did you know the German word for daisy is "gänseblümchen?" It just rolls off the tongue. The Germans created a method of gardening in which they cultivated plants on top of a constructed mound made up of logs buried in the earth. They call it hügelkultur - literally mound or hill culture. The theory is that as the logs decay, they provide nutrients to the plants growing on top of them. In addition, the mound shape provides a sort of natural rain drainage. Plants on the top that need less water get less, and those nearer the bottom get more water. You can also use the hill shape to vary sunlight. Plants on the sunny side get more light; plants on the opposite side a bit less. Finally, the hill itself is supposed to provide a bit more growing space. Imagine the mound as half of a sphere. If the mound was not there, you would be planting in a circle with an area based on the diameter of the sphere. But with the mound, you have a planting area half the surface of the whole sphere. Assuming a mound with a 10-ft. diameter, you are roughly doubling your growing space (if I did the math correctly).

Above is our first try at hügelkulture, as it stands today. We decided to make it an herb mound. It could just as well support other plants, but an herb mound is a common choice. As you can see, we did all right. We have good growth from the sage in the foreground, the marjoram at the top, and the grey santolina to the right of the marjoram. There are also a couple of young oregano plants tucked between the sage and marjoram. Not shown: the reddening lepiota mushrooms, which grew prolifically all over the yard including on the mound - delicious! More about them in this post here. Herbs that did not make it on the mound (this year) were all sown as seeds, a tough go for non-native perennials, especially here in the beginning before the logs beneath the earth had a chance to decay.

How do you make one of these mounds? I'm sure you are thinking it requires elaborate planning, detailed construction, and a great number of resource inputs. Or maybe you're looking at it and thinking, "It's a hill; how tough can it be?"

Herb mound hugel

If you have read about my squash tunnel here, and its tragic demise here, then you know I am a big believer in scavenging for resources. Fortunately, we live in the Midwest, where the same storms that brought down the squash tunnel regularly bring down trees in the neighborhood. And when workers are cutting up those trees, they are usually very happy to have you help them out by hauling off some of the debris. That's how we got the logs for the base of our hügelkulture.

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We took some of the logs and arranged them in a circle with the diameter we wanted for the mound.

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Then we buried them and placed more logs on top. Repeat this process until you have a mound - easy peasy!

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Once we had the mound shape, we covered it in cardboard, a layer of mulch, and planted herb starts.  As I said, they did pretty well. But in theory each year that goes by, they should do better and better. The buried logs will decay and provide nutrients to the planted herbs. The first year the logs barely had time to start the decay process so the herbs were more or less relying on the soil covering. After this winter, the logs should be breaking down nicely, and I hope we will see a much more robust hügelkultur herb mound next spring and summer.

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Tragedy Strikes the Squash Tunnel

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By Anthony Valterra

Yes, that is the tragic remains of the once... well, "glorious" might be a bit strong, squash tunnel (which included beans and cucumbers as well). Regular readers might recall the post about the construction of the tunnel - How to Build a Squash Tunnel out of Bamboo - for Almost Nothing. Ah, yes, those were times of innocence. As one can see by the above image, the squash tunnel is no more. The Midwest weather decided to toss us one of its regularly occurring storms, and the high winds did in the bamboo. I know, I know, you're thinking, "Isn't that the point of bamboo? It's supposed to bend in the wind?" Apparently, even bamboo has its limits. Ironically, before the storm hit, I was about to put together a post critiquing my own design. I'll do that briefly just in case someone else wants to tilt at this windmill. 

The first mistake I made was in scavenging the bamboo and leaving it out for a week before starting the construction. When bamboo is green, it bends very easily. And if one bends it when it's green and then lets it dry, it holds its shape pretty well. But if you wait until it has started to dry and then bend it, it becomes brittle. And then when weight (or a strong breeze) is applied to the bamboo, it is in danger of splitting.

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As one can see in the above photo, the bamboo was changing from green to yellow/brown. In other words, I was using this bamboo "too late."

My second mistake was attaching the side poles too far apart. I think the correct way to do it would be to have the first side pole about 6 inches above the ground. And then double the distance for each additional pole. So, the second one would be a foot above the first pole, the third two feet above the second, etc.

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As you can see in the above photo, the first pole is about two feet above the ground, and the second four feet from the first. This wide distance meant that the plant vines struggled to reach up the sides of the tunnel. When they did reach up, they often tangled in the small shoots that were left on the poles. Which brings us to my third mistake, leaving the small shoots and leaves on the bamboo poles. My thought was that this would be both attractive and practical in that the vines from our squash would have more to which they could attach. 

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The leaves on the tunnel are attractive in the above photo. However, they are ephemeral. In a couple of weeks, they will dry and fall off, leaving only the twig-like shoots coming off the bamboo poles. This would be fine, but there was an additional problem. The vines would attach to the twigs, but rather than the vines pulling themselves up, they pulled the twigs down. the result is that the vine would grow back towards the ground, rather than up the sides of the tunnel.

Even with all of those mistakes, we did have some success.

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Look at those gorgeous butternut squashes hanging in the air! It wasn't perfect, but it still had some great visual appeal. And in the end, we've concluded, that is the main value of squash tunnels - they look cool as heck. Oh, sure, they do create a bit more growing space. After all, the tunnel is over a cement path. But really the amount of room saved is pretty slight.

After the devastating collapse, my very smart and resourceful wife quickly scavenged the bamboo scraps and set up small tripods for the vines to grow on.

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Not as fabulous, but guess what? The squash did just fine on these tripods. In fact, the beans and the cucumbers seemed to prefer them. I don't think we will do another squash tunnel. Midwest storms are just too strong and too common. But we still think bamboo is a great building material for a garden. Especially if you have a neighbor who needs to regularly get rid of poles, and you can get them for free. But next year I think we will focus on smaller, more practical designs.

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Arch_Anthony1

By Anthony Valterra

My father is a very handy man. He's the type of guy who sees a brick patio and thinks, "I could do that." And then he figures out how to do it. And actually does it. And it looks awesome. As his son, it is both heartening to see what can be done and discouraging when you see how often your attempts at doing something awesome falls short. But as my grandfather used to say, "It's good enuf fer who it's fer." It took me years to translate that from his Oklahoma twang to my more prosaic American standard into, "It is good enough for whom it is for." I always liked Grandpa's attitude towards life.

So, it is with this familial background that I announced with a casual and cavalier attitude that I would build a squash tunnel for the Dragon Flower Farm. I had no idea how. But we have the Internet, and I undertook some research. These days, however, it seems like there is nothing you can't buy pre-made. 

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This one is available from www.gardeners.com. No, we don't have any kind of arrangement with them. I'm just offering this as an example of a squash arch that's pre-made.

But with a limited budget, and with a DIY attitude, we decided to forego purchasing in favor of building. Most people build squash tunnels from things like cattle panels. Here's a step-by-step guide for doing that over at Jobe's. 

The cattle panel versions seem to be very functional, and we were leaning that direction for some time. In fact, we may have used that method if the shelter-in-place quarantine had not occurred. We were about to pull the trigger and go to our local big box garden/home supply store, buy some cattle panels, and go for it. But once the virus hit, we avoided going out to large, crowded stores, and the whole thing became a bit trickier and more DIY. One solution is the rustic, "let's-tie-some-sticks-together" look.

That one struck me as just a bit too rustic. I was hoping for something in the middle. Lisa and I were out for a walk, and we passed by one of our neighbors, who has a large grove of bamboo growing on the side of his property. Bamboo grows really fast. So, he has to cut it back a couple of times a year. He just has the city come and pick it up as yard waste. We'd already snagged a few of his excess bamboo canes previously, using them as tree stakes. And then the light went on - bamboo is great building material! He has all kinds of lengths and thicknesses. And since the shutdown, yard waste has not been picked up (with reduced staff and more garbage and recycling material being produced by everyone staying home, the city's workers were overwhelmed, and so they temporarily suspended pick-up). Well, talk about your win-win. He was thrilled to have us haul away all of his bamboo, and we got free building material.

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You need close to 30 canes to do this right. Any leftovers can be repurposed as garden stakes.

Now, all I had to do was figure out how to build a squash tunnel using bamboo. No biggie, right? Here is what I came up with. Will it work? I guess we will all find out by the fall. It will either collapse from the weight of the plants on it, be blown away in a storm, or be standing and provide some lovely images. Stay tuned to find out which scenario plays out.

First things first - what tools and supplies did I need? Well, other than the bamboo itself, this is literally all I needed.

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Saw, tape measure, twine, hand cutters, and a rubber mallet.

So the arch, all total, can be had for the cost of twine, provided you get the bamboo for free and already have these tools. Now here's how I built it.

I laid out two bamboo rods that were going to be my base supports to get an idea on the length of the tunnel.

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I then cut 6 pieces of bamboo into one-foot lengths, with a sharp 45-degree cut.

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These were going to become my stakes. They were surprisingly easy to drive into the ground. Using my hand and bodyweight, I could push them 6 inches into the ground and then use the rubber mallet to drive them down until about 2-3 inches stuck up above the ground. I then lashed the base supports to the stakes with the twine.

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Then I cut the side vertical supports the same way I cut the stakes - with a 45-degree end. This allowed me to drive them into the ground using just my bodyweight next to the stakes. 

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Overhead view - the sharp end will be driven into the ground next to the stake.

Once the vertical supports were in place, they were strengthened with horizontal supports on each side, which was lashed to the standing vertical support.

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Here you can see the vertical support driven into the ground and tied to the stake at the bottom and the horizontal support lashed to higher up.

All that was left to do was to bend the vertical support bamboo to form the arch and tie them together. If there is a place where this falls apart, it is here. I wish I had started this project as soon as I had the bamboo when it was still green and very supple. But I waited a few days and the bamboo had begun to dry out and become more brittle. It still bent, but I think it might be more likely to break.

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The full arch. I put another horizontal brace at the very top where the two sides of the arch meet for more support. We chose to leave some of the leaves on because we thought they looked nice. But as the bamboo dries, they may just fall off or be stolen by birds for their nests. We'll see. The real question is... will it support our squash? That is unknown. It also might be that the horizontal bracing is too high off the ground for the squash to reach, and there may just need to be more bracing on the sides for the squash to grow on. But that will be an easy addition if needed.

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Lisa inside the tunnel. This clearly shows the first horizontal brace might be too high up. It is about thigh-high on Lisa. We may need to put another one below it about halfway to the ground. And perhaps one above it as well. Stay tuned!

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