Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Farm Trilogy

I spent the past weekend having an absolutely fabu time visiting various groovy farms around the bay area. There are so many exciting things happening in the world of urban farming that I often become overwhelmed with emotion about it all. But instead of getting all mushy and weepy or drowning us all in sentimentality, I thought I'd give a snapshot of some of the super cool folks who are getting their farm on in our neck of the woods.

Dog Island Farm

I had never met Rachel before heading to her house in Vallejo for a backyard BBQ. We knew each other in cyberspace only, through her blog (full of great urban farming tips and which I can't recommend enough - it's over in my blog roll) and Facebook. I had been eager to see her digs and thought this the perfect opportunity, even if I am a bit shy at these kinds of things (you shut up Tina, I am too!).

Wow, what an incredible patch of terra firma! After seeing Rachel and her husband's place, I've come down with a pretty severe case of garden envy. These guys had corn, beans, and tomatoes all towering above my head, not to mention miles of volunteer squash vines meandering all over the place. Do you know how big my squash plants are right now? I don't even want to talk about it. They've got a spacious set-up with plenty of room for entertaining, a little pool, a HUGE veggie patch and orchard, bees, chickens, and goats. Their animal area is about four times the size of ours here at Itty Bitty!

Rachel has pygmy goats, which are different than our Nigerians. They are a dual purpose miniature breed from Africa that can be used for both dairy and meat. Rachel says she plans to eat the male offspring, which is something we are also considering. There's just not enough demand for bucks and wethers out there. It's one of the realities of practicing animal husbandry; if you want milk, you've got to make choices. I'm hoping that I can find some courage from Rachel to "do the deed". I know I'm going to need a lot of hand holding. I hate the killin', which I suppose is as it should be.

The shindig itself was great fun. Rachel and her husband roasted an entire pig for the event, which they told me took them two and a half hours to get the lady skewered and then over half a day to roast her. That's some commitment to the pork! But boy was it worth it. That meat was so juicy and succulent, I could have sat there all day noshing.

Ute spent her time with the kids in the pool as it was a hot day over in Vallejo. Thank you Rachel for inviting us, serving up all the yummy treaties, and getting us out of the fog for a day.

The School Farm at the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the School of the Arts

As the new garden coordinator for Monroe Elementary, my daughter's school (did I tell you I volunteered for that last minute?), I have had the chance to meet the lovely people over at ECOSF who helped set up Monroe's garden. One of the projects that they are working on right now is a little farm on a high school campus at the top of Glen Canyon. On Sunday, Ute and I grabbed our work gloves and went up there to help plant some native trees and bushes that will provide a windbreak for the veggie garden.

Sam, Davin, and Tori, the team behind ECOSF, have got some big dreams for this place. Their vision is to
create a vibrant outdoor learning space including a food producing research farm with a diversity of fruits, vegetables, herbs, native habitat, and urban livestock, on-site compost production, greenhouse nursery operations, rainwater catchment system, an outdoor classroom/kitchen powered by solar energy and small, functional examples of natural building techniques and appropriate technology from around the world.
So far they've got a bunch of beds for veggies, a cob oven that we ate yummy homemade bread from, a cob brick and woven wood chicken coop that is still under construction but looking beautiful already,

and a straw bale classroom amphitheater that will double as a windbreak and which is just beginning to take shape. Eventually, they hope to add other animals like pigs and goats to make it a real working farm.

They often hold volunteer work days at the school farm and if you live in the area, I highly recommend that you take a few hours out of your busy schedule to stop by and lend a hand. It's an exciting project run by some wonderful, generous, genuine, and knowledgeable folks. Davin and Sam are walking encyclopedias of plant knowledge and they can identify almost anything you hold under their noses. Tori raises chickens down in Half Moon Bay and can tell you all about owning cluckers. Volunteering with these guys can give you some real hands on, practical experience with all kinds of gardening, farming, and environmentally sustainable projects like building with cob, constructing rainwater catchment systems, and creating structures with straw bales. And if that doesn't entice you, the potlucks at their Baker's Alley events are filled with scrumptious homemade goodies like fresh baked bread and pizzas from the cob oven. Yum. You can find their schedule of events here.

Little City Gardens

I am in total awe of Caitlyn and Brooke, a couple of gals who are testing the viability of running an urban market garden as a means of making a living. A couple of years ago they began farming a lot in the Mission district, with the permission of the landlord, and selling the greens and herbs that they grew to a local restaurant and a few caterers. Recently, they have expanded and acquired another spot near Itty Bitty. We were thrilled to hear that we now have more urban farmers in the hood!

We know how tough it is to massage a weed clogged bit of earth into a thriving garden so we offered any help we could provide to our new neighbors. Fortunately one of the things they needed was cinder blocks. Lord knows we've got plenty of those to spare.

I also volunteered on Monday to put my shovel to the plethora of fennel plants that they've got over there. I fear my efforts were a tad lame as I had less than an hour to spare, having spent the morning putting up cherries from the farmers market and making a quiche with the never ending river of eggs that flow through our doors. But I'll definitely be back to help out as much as I can.

Though we are traveling different paths, both Itty Bitty and Little City Gardens are heading towards the same goal of reinventing the way we live and eat in urban areas, bringing our food sources closer to our front doors, and constructing more sustainable ways of providing sustenance for ourselves and our communities. We wish these ladies the best of luck with their business and ask that you consider supporting them as well. We need more of these kinds of ventures in our cities.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Pinching Plants

What? You don't pinch?
What do you mean "pinch"? I retort with a touch of haughtiness in my voice.
You know, pinch plants? If my grandmother were here she would already have her pockets full.
You mean take pieces off other people's plants? Isn't that like stealing?
No! That's called propagating. You can't call yourself a gardener if you don't pinch.
Won't people get mad? I'm shocked by my friend's directive and am a little perturbed that she is challenging my gardener street cred.
Well they shouldn't. Though there is nothing a botanical garden's groundskeeper fears more than a bus full of old ladies with sharp thumbnails. We'll get Nona to give you a little lesson in propagation.
My dear friend Kd, with whom I had the above conversation, was recently in town visiting from her homestead in New Zealand. I've mentioned her before on this blog. She's the granddaughter of the grandparents I adopted, Nona and Poppa. We had a swell time visiting and I got the added bonus of a garden lesson with Nona.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know about pinching. Of course, not all plants can be pinched and regrown, but succulents are excellent for this technique. And boy, does Nona have one incredible succulent garden. That lady has obviously been pinching for years. This is the boon I've been looking for as the DF is a huge fan of succulents and I had been planning to plant him a little garden.

Nona brought me out to her large raised bed crammed full of every kind of succulent and cactus you can imagine. She apologized for it's shabby appearance, but I thought it looked wonderful for a garden that she couldn't tend as often as she would like. Nona showed me how to get a bit of stem, if possible, under the leaf structure with a clean snap or cut.

She then instructed me to let them dry out for a few days so that the cut could scar over and not rot in the ground. I was told to pop the stem into damp soil, NOT WET. On this point Nona was adamant. If the dirt is too moist, the plants' roots will decay.

I walked away with over 20 different plump and juicy cuttings. Now I have to figure out where to put them. There is always that to consider.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


We've returned from "the happiest place on earth", which really should be called the most over-stimulating place on the planet, ready for the peace and routine of life on the urban homestead. If nothing else, we could all use a good cleanse in the culinary department after the all-you-can-eat junk food binge we've been on. I know I don't seem the type to make a pilgrimage to the Babylon ruled by a talking mouse, but my philosophy on life is much like the Zoroastrians: all things in moderation. Including hedonism.

I, myself, have extremely fond memories of Disneyland from when I was a child: the dizzying rides, the mountains of treats, the garish mechanical puppets. Though the sweltering heat and hoards of mouse eared devotees stewed in a landscape of over the top commercialism can feel much like a descent into hell, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time. To be sure there was unpleasantness to be tolerated. But I tell you, there is little that can top the expression on my child's face when after flinging pennies into every damned body of water on Disney property, wishing each time that she could fly, and then seeing her step off Space Mountain beaming "That was awesome! It was like we were flying through space!"

For all of you who only remember the Space Mountain of the 70s, let me assure you that it is nothing like that old rickety you-can-see-the-tracks-with-a-bunch-of-specks-that-kinda-look-like-stars roller coaster. The ride thrusts you into pitch black with a dappling of light flecks too dim to illuminate anything, as blaring video game-esque music pumps out of each car that twists and turns you through this simulated outer space at neck-breaking speed. We all gave it two thumbs up.

While we were away, my dear friend Julia kept the farm in tip top shape. We returned to find all living things happy, healthy, clucking, bleating, hopping, and growing. Here is an update on the various farm entities:


Lucy has become intensely "frisky" as her pregnancy progresses. I fully understand what those hormones can do to a lady, but poor Ethel has been taking a real beating, especially when it comes to food. At chow time, Lucy will do anything she possibly can to keep Ethel away from the grain, including headbutting with such force that it knocks Ethel clean off the deck. Lucy's high spirits aren't just reserved for her pal. She has given the chickens plenty of what for, but fortunately they are quick to scurry off. I, however, have not been as lucky. While attempting to get Lucy on her back for some hoof trimming, she gave me a blow to the noggin' using the side of her rock hard skull. I swear I felt my little mass of gray cells slam against the opposite side of my head. You won't be surprised to hear that I had a headache for the rest of the day. And to all you readers who may recall my pregnant hormonal episodes, just remember I never headbutted anyone... even if I did feel like it.


Other than the a few scuffles with Lucy, the chickens are doing swell. I did hear that Eggo gave the farm sitter a hard time, refusing to go back into her coop at dusk. All the other hens were being good girls and going to bed on time, but Eggo just wanted to hang out with the goats to try and score some leftover feed.The goat food is like crack to the chickens.

Bunny Love

Julio is happy here on the farm, probably because I let him run around the yard eating all the dandelion greens he can stomach. His eye isn't getting any better so I think I'll have the vets do a tear duct flush when we have him neutered in a couple months. I can't wait to move him into the Green Bunny Playhouse, which will hopefully be done in the next couple weeks. Did I already tell you all about this project? I'll give a full debriefing when it's finished.

The Garden

I think the plants grew nearly five inches while we were on vacation, which is good because that's what is keeping them ahead of the rats. Those pesky little varmints are about to send my blood pressure into the stratosphere. They've figured out how to hop over the electric fence and have started in on the peas again. I've made some adjustments and that seems to be keeping them at bay for the moment. I'm not going to sit on my laurels too long as I've heard from my hubby that those assholes can chew through concrete. Some old fashioned snap trap reinforcements are going in at the weakest points of our electric barricade and around the chicken coop (sometimes when I'm out closing the coop door, I spot a couple pairs of beady eyes tucked under the lip of the nesting boxes).

Most of the veggies I've attempted to grow have done well, if they haven't succumbed to the rat invasion. However, there are a few exceptions like the chard which is getting wilty and brown and then being eaten by ants, the watermelon radishes which I've found some kind of creepy crawly on the bulb that looks like maggots (since these are growing fairly close to the chicken house, they may well be maggots), and the spinach which has a touch of powdery mildew (at least I think that's what it is). But damn, can I grow me some kale. I've got that stuff coming out of my ass. Even the bunny is getting sick of it.

The worst gardening blunder has been with my tomato and pepper starts this year. The seeds all sprouted nicely and then suddenly their growth was stunted like a malnourished child's, except the StupiceAnnie's Annuals and Perennials (an awesome nursery and definitely worth the trip, though I recommend going with a friend). I felt a bit ashamed at my botched job of seed starting, but as my friend Kd says "The only shame is not having any tomatoes at the end of the season." I kept those words close to my heart as I handed over a good chunk of change for some quality heirloom varieties. This year I'm growing Stupice, Thessaloniki, AAA Sweet Solano, Snow White, Black Cherry, Spike, Spain, Principe Borghese, Michael Pollan, Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying pepper, Gypsy Pepper, Rocoto, and Mulato Isleno. They're all on my front patio in a variety of types of self-watering containers. Keep your eyes peeled for a future post on the construction of these bad boys.

(P.S. I promise to keep up with posts this summer as there is a lot happening around here that I want to share with you all.)