Category Archives: Urban Farm

Potato Cages & Rain Reservoirs

Last year I really wanted to grow potatoes, but ran out of space in the garden. This year, as you can see on my garden plan, I made space for potatoes. I am not popping them into the ground or the straw bales, though. I read a few years ago about making cages for potatoes that are lined with straw and dirt. They don’t get great reviews for production, but I’m experimenting with them. They’re pretty simple to make so if I can strike the right balance between straw, dirt, and water (potatoes need to stay moist all growing season, which may make them less than ideal for our climate) then I think this will be the way to go.

You can read about how to make them here. As a side note this is a great site to browse around on for anyone interested in living on a tight budget. Here is the article from Oregon State about why potato cages don’t really yield great results. It’s a pdf and is well worth reading if you are interested in trying them out or need convincing not to. There is also a lot of good information about how potatoes grow and their requirements for getting a good crop of them. 

As I noted last month in my garden plan we went out and bought some enormous reservoirs to collect rain. 275 gallons each enormous. We tied them in with our gutter system and now the roof acts as a water collector. There are three reservoirs piped together in the front yard that will water the vegetable garden all summer long (hopefully). There is one along side the house that we are going to hook our hose up to for hand watering and then there are two more that we haven’t had time to hook up just yet, but will soon. 

Garden Plan 2016

I spent the last few weeks planning out the garden because, as it turns out, some of my seeds need to be started inside this week. We are very fortunate to live in a mild winter climate, meaning we are in the 50s during the day through the winter (with a few days in the 40s) and nights hovering in the upper 30s. Until a few years ago we seemed to only have a handful of nights that dropped to freezing or below, but I’ve noticed the last few years we’ve had a couple weeks worth of nights that drop down into the upper 20s. Brr! It does not snow where we live in California (although contrary to popular belief there are places it does snow in the state) so once the weather starts warming up in early March we are home free for planting. 

The bigger challenge for our gardening is how hot it gets in July, August and September. There are several stretches of days where temperatures reach 105 and while there is often a delta breeze to cool us off in the evening we have a week or two of airless days. This causes even some of the hardiest plants to wilt and requires a lot of extra watering to pull the food crops through. And water is scarce out here in the West right now. I’m hoping to get some rain barrels and fill them this winter (we almost never get rain in the summer months) to supplement. 

Last year we ripped out our lawn (too thirsty!) and put down bark and a number of other ground covers like lantana and various ornamental grasses. This also freed up space in our sunny front yard for a real garden. Our house faces due north and the backyard is blessedly shaded by an enormous fruitless mulberry all summer long. Excellent for cooling bills, terrible for vegetable gardens. I can grow cooler season crops in the back and occasionally I’ll get some sun-loving plants to limp along. We never got tomatoes. Last year, with the lawn gone, I tried out straw-bale gardening and it worked incredibly well. I’ve never gotten so many peppers and squash and beans and tomatoes. This year I want to expand it and plant more of the crops we tend to use while keeping a few crops and the bee hive in the backyard. 

Here are the layouts/plans for my front and back gardens (to see them larger and more clearly, click on the image to open it in a new page):

Front Garden Plan

Back garden plan

On Pets, Life and Death

This week we had to have one of our birds put down. It was, obviously, a sad event in our house, however I actually believe this is one of the most important lessons offered by having pets. 

Birds are very companionable animals and we love having them around for the company and for the breath of life they bring to our house. There is always squawking and singing, fluttering and rummaging going on. They do ridiculously funny things and also a lot of irritating things. But they’re our friends and family. I think this connection we have with these creatures is really important for Cam and I think it helps her develop and empathy for other animals, for the environment and for other people. She practices kindness with them daily by gently touching them or by learning to think of how they feel when she bangs on their cage. We recently went out and bought each bird a new toy and she was so excited that when we came home, she ran up to their cages and began telling them all about the toys she picked out.

Having pets also teaches her about caring for and being responsible for another being. At this point I feel she is too young to be in charge of any of the birds, but she sees me feed and water them everyday. She helps clean out their cages and pick out new toys for them. She also helps us interact with them and keep them company because as birds they need our company as much, or more, than we need theirs.  

But then there is the hard, hard conversation about death. Cam kept asking if Mango was going to be okay, clearly not grasping the finality of his death. But seeing it and experiencing it now will help her come to understand. We used the opportunity to talk about how we made an effort to ensure Mango had a happy, healthy life while we owned him (he was a rescue that came to us three years ago). We talked about what we liked about him and what we’ll miss.

Death throws life into sharp relief and I hope by beginning to understand it Cam will learn to live. She will want to do great things with her life and appreciate all the wonderful things she has. I hope it teaches her not to be afraid, either of the inevitable or of living. I hope it teaches her how to grieve and to know that despite the sadness she can be happy again. I hope it teaches her that a life with meaning has sadness in it and that this makes the good all the more sweet. This all seems a tall order for the death of one small bird, but it was the first friend she has lost and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think she will take pieces of this away from it all.  

Activity In the Hive: Baby Chicks

We are a family of pets, but not your usual ones. There are no cats or dogs here, nor will there be anytime soon. We have rabbits and a turtle, exotic birds and fish, and chickens and ducks. We originally got the chickens for fun and we haven’t been disappointed. They are ridiculous and most of us could watch them run around doing silly things for hours. Cam loves to chase them around the yard and pick them up. We are also pleased to get the most delicious eggs from them. We are not big egg eaters, but I haven’t had to buy eggs in a couple years and our neighbors and coworkers are always happy to receive a dozen fresh eggs.

About a week and a half ago we went to the feed store to get a new batch of chickens. This is the third time we’ve had baby chicks and I think there is something incredibly magical and special about having such new life in the house. It’s an incredible lesson for Cam in how fragile, delicate, and precarious life is. When we buy the chicks we buy several, both for company and because there is the distinct possibility that one or more will die. We have been lucky that this has not happened, but I think if it did (and even the discussion about the possibility) is a good experience for Cam. I know we have this innate desire to protect our children from all that is bad and scary and sad in the world, but I would rather Cam was exposed to some of that in a safe environment and that we show her how to cope well with it. The thing is, she lives in this world and she will experience these let downs and emotions and it’s important that she knows how to process those emotions and move through them without getting lost in them. I know the experience of a small chick dying while she is only three will not give her profound understanding of death or sadness, but it’s a step toward that understanding and a part of her long learning process. 

The baby chicks also grow incredibly fast and are surprisingly self-sufficient and capable even at a day old. It’s an amazing thing to see them get bigger so quickly and to marvel at how complex life is. It never ceases to amaze us that they just know how to be upon emerging from the egg and with no parental support. 

It doesn’t hurt that they are adorable either (click the image to see it larger):

New chicks