Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Doing Today

What I probably won't have time for tomorrow. And the weather, you know, gets you looking for garden projects. I wanted to lay new wood chips down the paths before the season begins in earnest, so I headed to Greenwood to grab six full garbage bags worth. I shoveled to the music of bagpipes, the chatter of parrots, and the dull clanging of Greenwood's bell.

I cannot tell you how odd it is to find bright green feathers on the ground after 40 years of never seeing anything near that color in a bird feather. Occasionally, I hear the parrots chastising birds in the trees on my street, at least a mile from their cemetery perch. Their chatter is not particularly pleasant, I even think I prefer crows' caw to it.

Although I was close to the tower gate where many of the parrots live, the sound was louder than it should have been. I located new nests on this substation across the street. Take a close look -their brown, twig nests are near the platform.

At the beach farm, I worked alone, except for the helicopter in the distance and a constant parade of trucks. There was a large tent near the abandoned building, so clearly something was going on, but I left it alone.

I had weeding to do, and chips to spread. I spread pelletized lime and raked it in (recent soil test indicated a lower than ought-to-be pH), realizing how well garlic at this stage takes to the rake. I turned the tomato beds, raking them smooth, then planted a large handful of mesclun mix and other spring greens in one and snap peas in another. Cold still on the way? Who could care at this point? Although I did hold off on the head lettuce and fennel.

Allium sativum ophioscorodon var. Turban 'Thai Purple'

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Wine Libel

Last weekend I was out on the North Fork of Long Island with my brother. After doing what we needed to do, we stopped at five or six wineries. I had a long drive back, so wasn't up for much tasting, but just wanted to pick up some wine. I was a bit taken aback by the cost. Most were 18 to 25 dollars or more. At first I thought that these must be exceptional wines, until I tasted one producer's 26 dollar pinot noir that had me looking for water. Okay, okay, I was told that pinot noir grapes don't do well on the North Fork. So I tried the 38 dollar pinot noir -only slightly better, but sour still comes to mind. Let's go in a different direction, how about a merlot? Ack! Even at 18 dollars, it was far worse than anything I'd buy for $10 at a wine shop in NYC. The taste host (is that the name?) then told me they just got a new winemaker this year. Oh, so you know these wines suck. I honestly don't know much at all about wine, but I know when I want to keep drinking one. I suppose I discovered why this winery was offering its tasting for free.

We went to Pindar, probably Long Island's best known winemaker. A few years ago I saw a Pindar sign on some upstate vineyards, but the woman behind the counter insisted, at first, that when it says L.I. estate wines on the label, it's from the North Fork. I was asking because I wanted to know why we would be paying such high local wine prices if the grapes are being trucked in from who knows where. She later told me it could be 10% from somewhere else. I relented.

Here is where I show an amateur's connoisseurship. I couldn't stand the labels on the Pindar wines and I simply couldn't buy any that had those graphics (a good example). Probably stupid, but since all of their lower priced wines had these labels, I simply passed. I bought their most understated label Merlot at considerable markup, and have yet to drink it.

There has been research on how the suggestion of high quality affects people's positive reaction to the product. Label graphics are as powerful as someone's suggestion. Is that what is going on here? I have no idea how these wines taste, but my graphic taste simply refuses cheesy graphics. I find those above acceptable, if not absolutely favorable. I have yet to taste three of the four wines I purchased that day. Betsy and I did twist our tongues around the Pellegrini Cabernet which we thought was all tannin, needed to breathe heavily, and couldn't have been worth $25 a bottle but for the local price mark up.

Local doesn't always make better. Full disclosure: When I was in grad school I painted cheesy graphics on bottles of over-priced wine sold in a tourist town in New Mexico. I received two dollars a bottle and they went like hotcakes. The wine wasn't memorable.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Trouble At The Ranch

When I arrived at the beach farm the other day, the sun was shining, the wind not too blustery, and the garlic growing, ever so slightly. Not long after another gardener arrived, Wolf, and he was upset because of a letter he had received from the NPS. He said they were finally going to till the whole thing under. I had heard these words before from NPS staff, but they had always been more a registration of dissatisfaction than a real threat. He said that we would have to remove everything or see it put into a dumpster. We could hardly argue with some of the points about the nature of Ft. Tilden's community garden, but to till everything in March shows how little they know about the garden, including the thousand or so slowly growing bulbs of garlic between me and Wolf.

Coffee Grounds
After a large apple and a tear of fresh bread from Wolf's trunk, we got on with the work at hand. I was at the garden to dispose of 6 months worth of studio coffee grounds. I also needed to do some winter chick-weeding, the most pervasive at the beach farm mid-winter.

The next day I received my letter from the NPS. I understand their complaint -Ft. Tilden is a mess, the people have no idea how to compost as a group, several plots are completely weed-filled, the boundaries are sloppy, the water system is galvanized and rusting, the fence falling over, and I could go on. But, on the other hand, my plot looks good, and so does Wolf's, and a number of others. If they till, they are going to till in all those weed seeds that Betsy and I worked so hard to eliminate from our plot. Don't even mention the little pieces of mugwort that will make their way to us. They plan on putting in PVC irrigation pipes, and that is smart, because the old galvanized system is rotting and leaking and generally wasteful of water. That said, I have an irrigation system in place and I would hate to see them set things up in a way that limits my ability to water automatically.

But all that, all that, is nothing compared to this: they want us to organize. Yep, but I think they will get the most push back on this because its our lack of organization that makes Ft. Tilden the place it is -at least for this crowd. Its casual. Yeah, you have to deal with weedmeiser next door, and the people with four plots to themselves, and the trash, and the plant in May and never return, but on the other hand, if you have some initiative you can pop open the pipes, install your own automated drip system, grow outside of their coordinated "garden season," and generally come and go as you please. But the NPS wants to put the community back into the community garden - they want us to do whole garden time, they want organized composting, they want signs on every plot, they want a leader (I'm hiding in the tomatoes), they want meetings.

I am happy to say that they are not planning on tilling now, which is a great relief and shows some insight into gardening. They are planning for October one, a month I am still growing, but I can plan around it. As for the rest of the changes, we can only wait and see. Organization means more rules, or at least, more following them. No organization means suffering the lameness of others but also increasing your awesomeness as you see fit.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Beautiful Warm Weather

...has me thinking of all the bugs.

Like these future Katydids.

And those February aphids! Alive and well.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Here Comes Goliath

Doing some research on rooftop farming and I came across this Times article about rooftop greenhouses. Given how capital-intensive growing on rooftops is, is it too hard to imagine a future where we are complaining about corporate rooftop farms? One venture capitalist involved projects a billion dollars of sales by 2020. Imagine feeding the entirety of NYC with hydroponic rooftop greenhouses. Will it remain the urban dweller's farm utopia? If the profits are as some are expecting, its hard to imagine the family farm on a rooftop. Local, land-based farming remains possible by lowered shipping costs and raising the price per pound along with some subsidies via agricultural conservation easements. Corporate mega-rooftop greenhouses may drive the price too low for local land farmers and those early sky-farmers to survive. So, must we keep our romance with the rural dirt farmer, or do we not care as long as the tomato tastes good?

Bright Farms Hydroponic System
Brightfarms is the major capital behind this idea.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The North Fork

I was raised in Suffolk county, mostly, in the nowhere city of Centereach. As soon as I could drive I began heading out to the North Fork to photograph (my Minolta x-370 and black and white film) the old barns, decaying farmhouses, rusting implements, and the sea. There was, then, hardly a place to eat and no one on the roads. Sometimes I would go with a couple of friends, at night, to hang out at Orient Point. I could drive the car to very near the island's tip, where we caroused while the light house rotations metered our movements. Those were romantic times.

I went out there this weekend with a different kind of eye and another twenty years of life behind me. The weather was spectacular and the wineries were omnipresent. Limos cruising the two laners, Mercedes passing into oncoming traffic. Finally, the Hamptons overflowed to the North Fork. It was inevitable -growing is cool, land prices are high, and the tasting room is the hippest product of the two.

Grapevines at Pellegrini
My brother, who came with me on this scout, suggested that I grow grapes, but I feel there is no money in grapes -only wine. I'm certain there isn't enough land on the fork to be a serious wine producing region, although I believe there are serious wines being produced there. What remains is a showcase and social scene of drinking suburbanites and city slickers. Yet I suppose that is what it takes to conserve agricultural lands in a market consumed by housing development, and we'll take it.

I wasn't sure that I found the actual farm site, although the address was right and the sign for the trust was on the door. Farmers are listed as growing there, but I could hardly see the evidence of a season's work. There was a handful of cows and a lone man worked the roof of a new barn. With my shoe, I scraped the sod of winter weeds and grass, then knelt to dig my finger into the roadside soil. The gritty sand and iron-yellow clay mixture was damp, cool and smelled earthy. A gentle slope descended toward the Peconic Bay, which was just over the southern boundary road and close enough for me to call this another beach farm. This was not the place, as seemed all too obvious at the time. I later found the address of the place I meant to visit, a few more miles to the east, on Google. Another trip is needed.

Not the farm
I am reminded that I am not a farmer. Yet, somewhere in my lineage there are German farmers. When they came to America around the turn of the century, most headed to the Midwest where many Germans congregated and farm land was available. A small group decided to stay in New York City and I am descended from them. My grandfather had a small vegetable plot in his suburban, Long Island yard. Around the age of 75 he bought a neighbor's excess land to grow even more vegetables. He did this until his death at 91. It is from him that I got the taste for fresh green beans and probably the knack for growing them. He never grew flowers -that was my grandmother's work.

I admit that I have a romantic vision of days outside, digging, plowing, and weeding. But there is a lot more to farming than that. Sales and marketing, accounting and record-keeping, business plans and competition. A month to go before my deadline, I am now putting together my plans, researching the competition, building the low-cost, blogger-based website, writing the copy, calculating the costs, guessing the sales forecast (I'm better at weather!), figuring the earning potential, tossing around marketing, and desperately waiting for something to do for my upstate garlic which really needs no help from me at this hour.

Have any of you sought seed garlic on the internet? What was your experience? Was price not an object? Retail on line sales of seed quality garlic are quite high (but, of course, that's the only way to make a living). I am now looking into what the retail market for kitchen garden garlic can bear. Most on line sources sell out by September. Hmm, only time will tell.

Monday, February 20, 2012

College Try

I receive a number of hits for soil testing services and I think that's great. It's an important part of growing in urban areas. I would like to include more information on soil testing, and link to the Cornell's labs, but I find their website absolutely cryptic -I cannot figure it out! I would also use their services, but I cannot find my way to a simple description of garden soil testing with analyses for pH, N-P-K, micro-nutrients, and heavy metals.

This is the main reason I have continued to use Brooklyn College's ESAC, even though I've had to wait a very long time for the results. Has anyone had the experience of using Cornell's services? Can you provide a link that goes right to what a typical gardener would be looking for?

Grocer Garlic

I shopped at a grocer on Long Island this weekend after going out to the North Fork. When I was a kid, this same store was oriented toward working class Italians, and today it is still that, but also reorienting toward Asian and Central and South American food products. It is where I saw my first sheep head in cellophane for sale, complete with eyeballs and brains.

In the produce aisles they had plenty of net socked Chinese garlic for very little. But they also had this very novel specimen for the usual $3 per pound. It didn't state where it originated, but it appears to be an Asiatic or Turban variety, not unlike the cultivar 'Tuscan' that I am growing now. Nice purple mottle, large size, and a ring of large, tawny rose-colored cloves around the central stem. Very unusual for an ordinary grocer.

Smooth Operator

Recently I began using a mobile device and that has made me much more conscious of the look of my blog via mobile. Today's stats show that 48% of my page views have been on an iphone or ipad. That's high, it's usually closer to 5%, but even that has grown in the last few months from only 1%.

I've been communicating with Marie of 66squarefeet about the seamlessness of her blog's mobile appearance. I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. This morning, I thought I figured it out.

Because my desktop mac computer has a 20 inch screen, I designed my blog around it. Mobile has taught me that this was a mistake. I like the look and worked hard on hacks that allowed my blog's appearance long before blogger allowed three column templates, etc. etc. And when blogger allowed extra large images I decided that was a good thing too.

But, now, I need to revert back to their default large image size if I want the mobile appearance to be seamless. When the original size or extra large size is selected, the mobile processor cannot handle it and the pictures are super large compared to the mobile screen. Basically, it's a mess. Now, Marie has extra large images on her blog, so what's the difference? I think it may be the three column hack in my design template html that is keeping the images from shrinking to fit in the mobile template, but that's just my guess. Using only the large image size seems to fix my blog's mobile appearance.

Any new pictures on my blog will be the smaller large size, where old ones will remain their original sizes. But, as always, if you want to see them in their original size, just click on them to open. I am turning off the lightbox slideshow thing because it doesn't agree with me and because it is often useful in a garden blog to see the image in its original, super large size.

update: I see that none of this is true when I use the mobile blogger app on the device. In other words, when I mobile blog, it does not matter if I even use the medium size image setting, the picture is still too big. I now blame blogger.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hay Wain

Is it auspicious if one finds themselves behind a pickup carrying hay on the BQE on one's way to look at farm property?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sex In The Garden

A few thought people having sex in the garden was unlikely, but, finally the evidence is in - condoms and napkins in proximity. I gotta get me one of those pickers we use in the park.

On a good note, the crocus are blooming.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Desire To Take This And Not Throw Away That...

...Is the way to lose that and not gain this.

:Yoshida Kenko, no. 188, Essays in Idleness

Some of you may know that I've taken up garlic growing this past year. My plot upstate is a borrowed one, and as such requires less commitment than one for which I could be paying. In other words, in Kenko's words, I get to take this and keep that. This weekend, I am about to challenge my commitment, as I head out to my former haunt on the North Fork of Long Island to look at farm land for rent. It's hard to imagine how, just three summers ago, staring at a desolate and weedy community garden led me to the point where I may actually be renting farmland. What? When I say it, it sounds off the wall. Then, I think of the admonishments of Kenko.

As you may also know, I am not only a guy who can't seem to get enough growing. I also paint. So how is it that a guy with a day job can also find time to paint and farm a field of garlic (and what else)? Maybe the more pointed question is this: how can I be thinking of committing to another financial loser like farming (assuming that you knew painting was a money loser)? The USDA points out that farm households that generate between $10,000 and $250,000 in sales receive about 4% of their income from their farm. For those who sell less than $10,000 worth? Well, they are actually net losers of income by about 13 percent.

Farming is a passion, a lifestyle, a heritage, and folly. These days, unless you are a mega-corporate farmer, passionate and penniless farming may lead to little more than a hobby.

Those who make a business of any art or trade, even if they are unskillful, are always superior when compared with skillful persons who are amateurs. The reason for this is the difference between never relaxing one's care and being always earnest in the one case, and being entirely one's own master in the other.

:Kenko, no. 187

The middle of winter sows doubt. The thought of renting, and, mind you, the opportunity is good and affordable as land goes, leads me to feeling willful and clever, not unskilled and earnest. I am an amateur.

...We should weigh in our minds which is the most important of all the things which we would desire to make our aim in life, and having decided which is the first thing, we should abandon all others and devote ourselves to that one thing.  When in the space of a day, nay, even of an hour, a number of tasks present themselves, we should perform that one of them which is even by a little the most profitable, and neglect all others to hasten on the important matter.

:Kenko, no. 188

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Waste Not

Last autumn I was on a garlic seed production research tear. I came across a company in china called Pretty Garlic. Log onto their website to read the mythical origins of pretty garlic -something about a sick girl saved by garlic. In reading their how-to-grow garlic page, I was a little surprised by the frank use of the term "human wastes" as supplement to growing garlic. Right click this screen-capture image so you can read it in full. After reading this, it was easy to see how American farming has been consumed by public relations, because I honestly don't think conventional farms are operating much different here than they are in China.

In the U.S., we come up with all kinds of euphemisms for human waste, so why wouldn't we do the same when talking about sewage-based agricultural products. I believe Biosolid is the preferred term, apparently generated by a focus group or PR campaign some years back to improve the image of sewage sludge.  See the EPA website for their bland assessment of applied sewage sludge products. The FAQ that most concerns me is this one:

11) Are there regulations for the land application of biosolids?
  The federal biosolids rule is contained in 40 CFR Part 503. Biosolids that are to be land applied must meet these strict regulations and quality standards. The Part 503 rule governing the use and disposal of biosolids contain numerical limits, for metals in biosolids, pathogen reduction standards, site restriction, crop harvesting restrictions and monitoring, record keeping and reporting requirements for land applied biosolids as well as similar requirements for biosolids that are surface disposed or incinerated. Most recently, standards have been proposed to include requirements in the Part 503 Rule that limit the concentration of dioxin and dioxin like compounds in biosolids to ensure safe land application. (Italics mine)
I'm not interested in using biosolids or sewage sludge-based compost on my garden mainly for the questions that the above answer dredges up. Questions like: how come we can spread dioxins, currently, on agricultural fields? There are limits for heavy metals contamination in agricultural fields, so wouldn't the annual application of cadmium, for instance, increase the load of contamination year to year? 

Someone can make the argument that it is completely unknown what quantities of heavy metals in garden or agricultural soils it actually takes before human health is affected. I concur. We have no idea. Lead, for instance, is limited to 400 ppm in NYS restricted residential soils (not intended for gardening), but Minnesota limits it at 100 ppm, while background levels appear near 20 ppm. Try to find scientifically studied limits for Cadmium, chromium, aluminum, zinc, molybdenum, mercury, etc., etc.

Last summer I smelled something near awful around my father-in-law's garden. I didn't know what it was until I later spotted him spreading grains of something all around his flowers and shrubs. In detective mode, I searched out the bag he had used and opened it up for a whiff. Yup. Milorganite. Something I had heard of, but given little thought to. Retail-branded sewage sludge from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 
 My problem with municipal treatment is its catchall process. In other words, anything your neighbor drops down his sink, toilet, or catch basin, finds its way into your treatment plant. Are they really capable of eliminating all the contaminants from that pool? What about industrial wastes flushed into the system?

We do have to do something with all the waste we generate. But what? In the mid-19th century, after several outbreaks of cholera and other infectious diseases, Sir Edwin Chadwick proposed a sewage network for London that included the collection of human wastes for dispersal on farm fields, but this part of his plan was unfeasible and the sewage ended up in the Thames until sewage treatment plants became viable.

In our own time, sewage treatment based products are spread onto farm fields. Some municipalities pay farmers to take their waste. Some municipalities pay private companies (like Synagro) to collect and dispose of the sludge in various ways. Some municipalities create product, like Milorganite, for sale to the public. No matter which way you do it, Chadwick's original idea has come to pass, but a lot more goes into our sewers now than in his day.

What do you think? Have you already spread 'biosolids' onto your garden, knowingly or not?

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission had in past years delivered free 'organic compost' to any citizen of the city who wanted it. The scandal that ensued was called Chez Sludge because of the involvement, however indirect, of Chez Panisse's Alice Waters, famous for her promotion of organically-raised produce.

In another more horrifying scandal, the backyards of poor black families in Baltimore were covered in sewage sludge in order, said those responsible, to protect the children from seriously high lead levels in their backyard soils. I believe the term for this theory is "Sludge Magic," promoted by a former EPA scientist and USDA official (Read this document). In short - the theory states that once soil contaminated with dangerous levels of lead is mixed with 'highly processed' sewage sludge it is safe for children to ingest. Really? By the way, excuse the low-rent links, as there was no media attention to this story.

If you asked people whether or not they would be inclined to compost their own feces and urine to spread on their vegetable garden, I think many would say they would rather not. Yet, somehow, once it becomes a product, it is then acceptable. Maybe it has something to do with what I call the bologna effect. If you had to make the bologna yourself, you might just not want to eat it, but since it comes in that nice roll at the supermarket, it's not so bad with mustard on bread.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I've seen these a lot lately. Do not know what they are. Seems birds have little interest in them, despite their location behind the Audubon Center in Prospect Park.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

You've Seen It

I've seen it. Last night was the first time I chose to picture it -daffodils well-suited to the mid-March-like snowfall we had. Two weeks ago I saw yellow daffs in the children's garden at BBG.

Monday, February 6, 2012


There isn't one ounce of my being that believes this new USDA garden zone map has been developed for political reasons. I also don't believe that climate change is political, but the pundits have been successful at branding it as such. The climate is ours, all of us, and therefore is not subject to politicking. It is either one way or the other, or variable, but never is it the agenda of individuals. Denying climate data, or screaming apocalypse are political acts, however, because those acts are tools of ideologues and vested interests.

Garden zones? No, those are just the facts, ma'am. Any NYer will tell you, this ain't no zone 6. Can we have a zonal 6 night? Yeah, sure, it's possible, but unlikely. The zone maps deal in averages after all, and I feel confident that my garden's micro zone is closer to 8a than 7b. Temperature data for these maps is collected at several points in any given area and will tend to quash extremes. On average -that is the USDA zone map agenda. To give you, the gardener, a sense of low-temperature averages in one simple product.

The most important aspect of the new map is in the presentation: it's downloadable, it's large, it's state selectable. These are important developments! Now I've taken it upon myself to rebuild, via the magic of a very popular image editing tool, the USDA zone map so that we can see, in proximity and quite large, the tri-state NYC metro region's zonal configuration. If you right click the image and then click open link in a new window, you will be able to see the full-size image. That'll make it easier to locate your place on the map, especially if your location is near a zonal boundary. 

What would be really great, now, is for us to collect garden/temperature data in our NYC boroughs so that we can generate a localized micro-zone map. And mine is 8a or higher.

For  links to the current USDA zone maps, click here.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Corporate Pepper

I stepped out this morning and discovered the white foam perishables container on my step. Already -they've arrived. I hadn't informed the Sunset produce representative who contacted me that I had blogged about the episode after I lodged a complaint that their peppers tasted like mothballs. Poor form? Maybe, so I won't be able to relay our exact conversation, but I think I can deliver the gist.

First contact was the rather stiff, corporate kind. The rep called it an 'off-flavor' and appreciated that it was brought to their attention. They wanted to have my number for a phone conversation and the original packaging. I couldn't deliver either, so I forwarded the rep a hi-res photo of the package that I used for the last blog post.

Sunset Inc.'s style of communication became a bit more conversational after I sent them the image. Afterward, I was told they were able to get any important information needed from it so that they could do a 'full product trace.' They did believe the incident was 'isolated,' however, they would be contacting the grower to ensure that 'best practices' were 'occurring at the farm level.' They assured me that no other complaints of this kind had been filed.

To 'reaffirm my confidence' in their product, they politely asked if they could have my address so that they could send me a complimentary package of Ancient Sweets. I cannot say enough how much that name gets under my skin, but still I said yes. There was no way they were going to send me another mothballed pepper. In fact, they probably have a locker full of the biggest, cleanest, sweetest, bestest long red peppers just for this type of problem. I placed the quarter at the bottom so you could see how large these peppers are. Incidentally, this new bag of peppers was grown in Mexico, not Nicaragua, as my original package had shown.

In the final communication the representative thanked me for 'allowing them to show their gratitude' and apologized for the 'inconvenience' and 'off-flavor.' Their 'Procurement Team' had been in contact with the grower yet found nothing outstanding that would lead to that taste. New peppers are just about out the door of their 'facility' and I should expect them shortly. And the last sentence from the last email regarding my mothballed peppers:

'As a reminder, always wash your produce with cool potable water before consuming.'

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

There's That Really Warm Day In February

And it usually comes later, but it will probably be today. Although that's not saying much given how warm this winter continues to be. I'll be indoors today, but you, if you can, should get out there!