Category Archives: Methods and Techniques

Out of Water (almost)

As most of you are probably all too aware, we had the driest January – March in recorded history for the county.  As a result, our well has been running at about half of its usual capacity since April, and now is producing around 1,200 gallons a day.  To make up the shortfall, we have been pumping out of our rain catch basin.  That ended about a week ago, when the level of that pond was so low that the pump is now starting to show.  It’s a little hard to see in this picture, but you can get a little sense of the scale by lookin at the car in the background.

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Photo credit: © L. butler

The pond is about 80′ across and about 16′ deep. There’s still a few thousand gallons left, and we will get that out by siphoning with a garden hose if we need to.

Fortunately, we have another pond – our meadow pond. We’ve never used it for irrigation before, and it has grown into a rather lush environment with lily pads, duck weed, and even willow trees – not bad for a plastic lined pond! I think there’s enough water in there to take us into November, assuming the well still holds up to its reduced volume. We can all hope we get rain by then, because if we don’t, we are out of options.

Getting water out of the meadow pond turns out to be an interesting exercise in jury rigging. I put together a siphon line and ran it downhill to our spring pipe, which already had a pump in place. The siphon puts the water into the pipe, and the pump takes it up to our holding tanks. The only challenge is keeping our makeshift filter clear of algae. Still, it’s working well enough that we can keep the crops watered, and that’s what matters.

Pray, dance, sing, or shout for an early rain.

–posted by Steven

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How we Dry Peppers

We dry peppers in what I call our solar dehydrator.  What’s that?  It looks like this, which is just a little greenhouse.  What makes it a little different is that we block off the sunlight (and thus the UV rays) from the inside.

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PHoto credit: © S. Butler

It gets quite hot, around 130F, which is just what we were looking for.  We circulate air on the inside with a couple of fans, and vent the moist air out the top.  To keep moisture from forming overnight, we run a small heater.  It works very well.

These pictures were from last year, when we first built it.  You can see the start of the racks inside.  We have added quite a few more, both sides top and bottom.  Why not just sun dry?  I think the color and texture of the dried peppers is much better when they haven’t been exposed to a lot of UV light, and using the greenhouse keeps things clean and insect free.  We try really hard to keep the color, texture, aroma, and flavor of the peppers as vibrant as possible.

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Photo credit: © S. Butler

Before this, we tried to dry everything in this dehydrator:

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Photo credit: © S. Butler

which theoretically can hold 24 trays, but with peppers only 12, and it was really hard to keep up with the harvest.

–posted by Steven

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Tomato Grafting – Side by Side Comparison

We tried something new this year – tomato grafting.  pHred Molnar, our longtime friend and drop-off location owner, grafted a variety of heirloom tomato scion seedlings onto a special root stock tomato plant – Maxifort F1, and then generously donated them to the farm.  The idea is that this root stock is highly disease resistant and can protect the grafted top, which will bear the true heirloom tomato fruit.  You can read all about this technique as Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

The results thus far are impressive:

photo credit: L. Butler

As you can see, the grafted plants on the right of the pepper row are nearly double in size from the ones grown on their own roots.  The cages on both rows are about 7′ tall.  These were planted at the same time with starts that were the same size.

The final test, of course, will be in the quality and quantity of fruit.   We’ll keep you posted.

–posted by Steven

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Pepper Trellising

Most commercial farms grow peppers in rows in open fields.  They seem to get about 1.5 to 2 feet tall.   I think our average size is closer to 3 feet, and some will grow to over 5.  Thus, they have to be supported or the weight of the fruit will break off the branches.

In past years, we’ve used cages made from concrete reinforcement wire (similar to tomato cages, but not as tall).  You can just barely see some in the photo below on the far right.  The new system we are trying this year is using a product called hortonova:

photo credit: L. Butler

We can add new layers as the plants get taller.  Aside from a lower cost, we think this system will give the plants more breathing room (they really get closed in with the cages), will be easier to harvest, and the system breaks down and will be much easier to store.  As it is, we have several hundred cages we have to store each year.

–posted by Steven

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Permaculture Sheet Mulching

Today we used a permaculture method for readying beds for planting.  We are in the upper bed of our greens garden (also known as the Gather Garden – since there is where we grow much of the specialty greens for Chef Sean of Gather Restaurant in Berkeley.  In this first picture, you see Hailey raking unsifted compost over a recently harvested lettuce bed.  She’s raking the compost right over whatever was left in the bed – weeds, bolted lettuces, whatever.  You can also see in this photo behind Hailey a bed that is nearly finished being refreshed in our traditional no-till way – by removing all of the crop remains and weeds, applying a think layer of sifted compost/native soil mix, and raking it smooth.

Here you can see how that sifting is done.  On a frame of 1/2″ hardware cloth, we dump aged compost and our native “soil”.  Yup, that light stuff is our native soil – it is pure, white sand.  We make the mix for this application pretty rich – about 1/3 sand to 2/3 compost.

Here Quinn is finishing the operation.  As you can see, this is quite labor intensive.  The finished mix is carried down to the beds in 5 gal. buckets.  You saw how it was used in our traditional no-till beds in the first frame.  Now, back to the Sheet Mulching:

Hailey has been laying down the cardboard atop of the unsifted compost.  Mandy is spraying it down until it is wet all the way through, and  Quinn has been dumping the sifted compost/native soil mix on top.  It then gets raked smooth.

This is the last step before planting – Hailey and Mandy are spreading straw over the beds.  We are using old, rain-soaked straw that has seen prior duty as potato mulch and who knows what else.  You can also use leaves, which is pretty common in permaculture.

What’s next?  Planting, which we will show you in a future post.  We plan to plant the same crops side-by-side in this bed so that we can compare the two techniques.  It should be interesting!

–posted by Steven

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