a carrot grows in ypsi

My new obsession is gardening. All the time that it wasn’t raining this weekend, I was outside with Clementine, clearing weeds and turning over the soil in our backyard. My hope is to start putting vegetables in the ground next week. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Kunstler lately (see previous posts), but I’ve become convinced that at some point in the very near future, most of us who aren’t wealthy are going to have to start growing at least some of our own food. (Kunstler, for those of you who haven’t read The Long Emergency, maintains that once worldwide oil production begins to drop, we won’t have the ability to either operate farm equipment like we do now, or ship produce across country — at least not inexpensively. He also points out that since agricultural fertilizers are petroleum-based that we’re likely to see crop yields drop considerably. Taken together, this means more local growing has to take place (which will be difficult in the places where suburban sprawl has replaced farmland). I disagree with Kunstler on a few points, but I think that he’s probably right about this.)

So, a lot of my time this weekend was spent trying to learn some of the things that would have probably come to me naturally had I been born 60 years ago or more… My family, like most, has its roots in farming. (I believe I’ve read that in pre-1900 America, 90% of all adults made their living in agriculture-related endeavors.) But, as none of their knowledge trickled down to me, I had to spend lots of time reading this weekend. I also spent quite a bit of time outside, in the dirt, thinking about my ancestors and how thoroughly ashamed they’d be if they could see me now, pacing back and forth, trying to come up with a plan for feeding my family with this little, postage stamp-sized plot of ground.

It’s truly amazing how much know-how can be lost in just a few generations. Granted, my great grandparents would be completely lost if they were forced to live my life, behind a desk with a laptop, but that doesn’t make it any less embarrassing, or depressing. It’s terribly sad to think that everything they knew, that had been handed down over countless generations, is now completely gone.

So, now I’m thinking that I’ve got a short window of time in which to try to learn everything there is to know about subsistence farming. (I suspect that, living in a community surrounded by farmland, regardless of how poorly things go in the coming decades, that I’ll have the opportunity to buy produce at a farmer’s market (if I have money), but I’d like to at least get a little practice with growing and canning now, while it’s not quite so imperative.)

We’re also looking into the possibility of joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) endeavor. (More on that someday soon… In the meantime, here’s a list of Michigan CSA’s.)

And, before anyone asks, no, I don’t think that we’re becoming survivalists, or anything like that. We aren’t hoarding weapons and stockpiling dried meats. It’s just that, after years of talking about trying to be more connected to the land, we’re taking a few small steps toward that goal. What that means in everyday practice is that we’ll be eating more locally-grown produce, and trying, as best we can, to eat foods that are, geographically speaking, in-season. (So, for example, we may not be buying as many bananas this winter.) It means we’ll be growing what we can and trying to buy what we can’t from the co-op or local farmers. It also means working more aggressively toward reestablishing a thriving local farmers’ market. (More on this later too.)

So, I’m sorry if it bores you, but I might be writing a little less about Katie Holmes’ placenta and a little more about heirloom seeds, victory gardens and general garden envy, at least until this fall. (Unless, of course, something else comes along to distract me, in which case I’ll likely abandon the garden, like I did two years ago when Clementine was born.)

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  1. dorothy
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    i worry about the collapse of everything civilized and have formed a loose network of people we’d like to form a community on our farm. they include an md, two rn’s a veterinarian, an engineer, two pharmacists and a forrester. everybody’s got some sort of talent. this summer, like you, my husband and i are going into gardening in a big way. we also have a spring, a small creek and a community of amish dutch nearby, in case we have to go back to horse and buggy days. nothing like being prepared. you’re invited to join up if everything goes to hell in ypsi. good luck!

  2. Stella Magdalen
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    If your available plot is small check out French Intensive

  3. Tony Buttons Esq.
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    The chances are probably fairly slim, but It’s possible that vegetables grown in the toxic soil of Ypsilanti could give you and the family super powers!

    (It’s probably more likely that they’d give you cancer though.)

  4. murph
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Mark –

    And just what’s wrong with being a survivalist, eh? You got a problem with surviving? Oh well – more for the rest of us, I suppose.

    Our household of 8 had a share from Tantre Farm, near Chelsea, last year. We’ve still got pickles I made out of the 30lbs of u-pick cukes @ 50 cents/lb. This year, our household of three is taking the ambitious step of getting the same size share (Tantre doesn’t do official half-shares) and eating/preserving every last scrap of it. Stockpiling vitamins for the winter months.

    Regardless of how much one believes /agrees with Kunstler (and I do on at least several points), I think growing one’s own / eating local is a good plan. Tasty, nutritious, good for the local economy (and boy do we need it), and just generally bad-ass.

    Let me know if you want some pepper seedlings; I don’t think our yard will support as many as I’ve started in the seed tray. I’ve lost track of which half are hot and which half sweet, though, so you’ll just have to take a few of each and wait and see.

  5. DM
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 11:42 am | Permalink


    It was common practice years ago to burn “trash” and spread the ashes to increase the ph of the soil and to compost the “garbage”. The practice kept going as the compostition of our trash changed. The area in my backyard that I cleared had a layer of about 4 inches of ash with all kinds of good stuff in it. I ended up removing about 7 cubic yards of crap and backfilling with compost. The garden appears to be fine now.

    I also sorted out rocks down to 3 feet with a 3′ x 4′ frame and 1/2″ wire mesh and tilled in compost down to 3 feet similar to the french intensive method. I found a lot of nails and broken glass this way. Gardeners apparently added these at one time to deter moles.

    My biggest problem was that my soil is sandy and the water disappeared quickly. I can’t remember if the soil in your area of Ypsi is sand, clay or loam. I would guess sandy loam. Using 3 inches of straw or some other mulch will really help with keeping the roots cool and moist, and will save you from having to water often. The ideal system would be drip irrigation on a timer under the 3 to 4 inches of mulch. A really easy drip irrigation is to put old yogurt containers ( made of HDPE ) that have many small holes in them in the ground at strategic locations and just fill them on occasion.

    Mulch and compost you can get from either the Ypsi or the Ann Arbor dump. I believe that both have composting programs. They probably offer delivery too.

    If you feel uncertain about the soil, you can get a test done at the University of Massachusetts. They test for metals, pesticides, trace nutrients, organic materials, and the levels of nitrogen, phosphate and potash. Or you could go the easy and safe route by buying a few yards of topsoil and building raised beds with cmu blocks 3 high. making raised beds this way also makes it easy to make either a polyethylene cloche or a cold frame with old windows to trap heat in the cooler months and extend the growing season.

    Out of all the vegetables we grew, we ate lettuce the most. It only requires about 6 square feet to grow a patch that will continue year round. You just pinch off a few leaves and they grow back. Once the lettuce starts filling in, it acts as its own mulch. Zuccinis and Summer Squash with Oregano were the second most popular. Tomatoes are nice, but they are space hogs and have a very short window of opportunity. I ended up donating about 80 pounds of tomatoes last year to the food bank. Carrots are nice because they eventually act as a mulch and can be left in the ground out here year round.

    Another interesting issue that I have heard recently but know very little about is the chemicals that are made when chlorinated water reacts with organic material. I don’t know if this is an issue for gardening or not. I suspect that it is marginal. Rain water may be an alternative.

    One last thing. Use Polyethylene sheets for barriers and cloches. PVC is nasty stuff and has plasticizers in them that will leach into the soil. Same goes for irrigation and rainwater collection. I don’t trust the new pressure treated wood either. It will kill beneficial insects. It contains the disinfectant that is used in lysol to prevent the natural biodegrading of the wood. A 6 x 8 x 12 Concrete Masonry Unit ( not Cinder blocks which are made of coal by products) is only 89 cents at Home Depot and as far as I know does not contain any plastic additives.

    The part of gardening that I have been enjoying the most is improving the soil. We compost our kitchen waste and have our neighbors contributing theirs to the mix. I have a population of red wigglers that do a very quick and efficient job of breaking this stuff down into very nitrogen rich compost. I also have been composting yard waste and adding it back into the soil. When I started my garden there were no worms or insects. The place is crawling with them now.

    Getting the NPK balance and ph right for the vegetables you are growing is important. I ignored this when I was a kid and did ok. I’ve been told that compost and manure are a slow release fertilizer and that additional fertilizers need to be added. This seems to be the consensus. I think that the midwest soils do not require liming to increase the ph, but you’ll likely have to add something for NPK.

    Heirlooms are nice. I have collected seeds on and off. Some are easier than others to collect. Letting some of the plants go to seed can be a tedious process and the space required may be prohibitive.

    Good luck with the gardening Mark, and feel free to conatct me if you think I might be able to help answer questions.

  6. DM
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I forgot to mention CSAs and Farmers Markets. We decided that a lot of produce is cheaper to purchase at the Farmers Market, and we can find it there ripe and ready when our garden still has only seedlings of the same vegetable. Buying shares in a CSA is nice too, but we found that we ended up with too much leaf vegetables ( which are easy to grow year round) and other things that we had no interest in – like fennel.

    If we did a CSA again, we would pay closer attention to the produce selection and our likelihood of eating it all.

  7. chris
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    oooooh! Gardening! I love it! I do tomatoes, they are easy. So are raspberries, kale, chard, sweet peas (though you may have missed the planting time depending on your zone), and cukes.
    Oh yeah! and haricot vert.
    Be very careful of garden porn as you will never be able to produce the way items are displayed in the burpee catalogue. Beware the three fruit tree. But if you do plant a fruit tree try peaches.

    Obviously something I get very excited about.

    Yeah farming is our national heritage but big ag made sure that we would be dependent on them as long as possible w/ their superfarms.

  8. Cammer
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Apparently we have had the same idea. After reading the Kunstler book and some other articles on Peak Oil I got the bright idea to start a garden plot this spring. I took a Certified Organic Gardening class here in Seattle (www.seattletilth.org) and I’ve been opened up to a world I didn’t know existed. It’s a interconnected world of people who are cautiously trying to make a difference through sustainability, organic gardening and permaculture, recycling and community cooperation. I ride a bike to work now, I spend hours every weekend turning compost, building raised beds and volunteering with local permaculture organizations. It’s very fulfilling and I feel like I’m learning alot. Even if all the harbringers of doom don’t come true (let’s hope!) it’s a great way to psychologically help address your fears while providing a positive influence in the world around you.

    I started planting a month ago here in balmy Seattle and we already have lettuce, onions, peas and carrots popping up. It’s very exciting and rewarding. Good luck Mark, and contact a local tilth organization today!


  9. Hillary
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Might want to wait on the vegetable planting. Rich Luterman is forcasting frost in some areas this week.

    We are still eating the $8 bushel of tomatoes we bought at Eastern Market last summer. You are welcome to join us this year for trickled down farm knowledge, including a few canning methods not approved by the USDA.

  10. mark
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Unorthodox canning methods? An offer to join post-apocalyptic community in rural Pennsylvania? A step-by-step tutorial on how to build raised gardening beds? The prospect of super powers? What a great, fucking thread.

    I will respond to each of you individually.

  11. Stella Magdalen
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    My Mother insisted to the day she died, that the day to put plants out was Mother’s day, no sooner, unless definitely frost resistant.

  12. murph
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    DM mentions the eclectic selection of a CSA share – personally, I consider that part of the charm. You learn a new appreciation for parsnips, I tell you what, and getting random, foreign vegetables gives you a reason to seek out new recipes – without such prompting, I’d probably just eat the same half-dozen dishes for the rest of my life, and die of some weird minor nutrient deficiency.

    (Though, honestly, Tantre gave us about ten times as much kale as we could want. After several attempts to use it in various ways, we ended up just chopping most of it into stews for bulk, or chopping/blanching/freezing for same use in winter.)

    I got a coupla bushels of apple seconds from the A2 farmers market (seconds = not advertising porn perfect in appearance) last year and made gallons of applesauce and some dried apple rings. And pie. Lots of pie. I think it came to $12/bushel, which I estimated at less than half the cost of Kroger Red Delicious for one million times the awesomeness.

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