Gardening Year-In-Review: 2014.

So after about a week of bitter cold temperatures, it’s safe to say that the gardening season is over for me.   I like to take some time at the end of the year and reflect on the things that went right and wrong.   Overall, this year was better than the past two years but some things could’ve been better.

I put in several dwarf trees in the ground, as opposed to trying to grow them in containers.   This year I added a plum, nectarine, apricot, two apples, a crabapple and a cherry in addition to the cherry and peach I already have established.   I’m working on creating dense guild systems with vines growing up the trees, which will be surrounded by shrubs.   So far, so good.   I put in a few more aronia bushes, currants, gooseberries, serviceberries, gojis, sea buckthorn and probably something else I’m forgetting.     This is something that I hope to round the edges off over the next couple of years to build a sweet food forest.   So far, so good.   I filled in spaces this year with annuals like tomatoes and pumpkins.   The pumpkins did great and it was kind of cool to have our own instead of buying them from where ever.  I think I ended up with seven or so rouge d’vif pumpkins.

I would *like* to put a brick path through the yard around these trees.   We’ll see…   I’d also like a water feature but I don’t know about that.      Either way, I think the food forest is off to a good start.

I harvested quite a bit of aronia, which was pretty cool.   Got my first kiwi too.   Hopefully next year my vines will be loaded with them – they really took off this year.   I’m a little worried that they’re too wound up in themselves because I had a hard time keeping them trained.   No blackberries or raspberries this year, which was kind of odd.   I have no idea why.

I didn’t do too hot over the winter, but I was able to establish stuff very early on and had enough spinach, arugula, cilantro and lettuce in the spring.   Beets and turnips did ok.  I had enough tomatoes to eat fresh and have the occasional marinara, salsa or chili.   Pretty weak showing on the peppers, but probably enough jalapenos to last the year.

I grew a “three sisters” bed, which was alright.  I got some corn and sunflowers out of it.   Even if I don’t use the sunflower seeds, that stuff is still cool to look out and see.   I didn’t do so hot with squash and cucumbers, but I’d get the occasional one.

Green beans did great.  I harvested a ton of them and even developed a mild case of tendinitis snapping them and missed about a week of work.   I saved a bunch of Kentucky Wonder, Sultan’s Crescent and purple beans to plant next year.      Tomatillos did really well too, but they’re kind of a pain in the ass because there’s only one thing I know how to do with them (salsa).   I think sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re *really* ripe too so green salsa can be hit or miss.

Something new to me that panned out well were jerusalem artichokes.   I planted a 4′ x 4′ square of them and probably dug up 50lbs of them.   I’ve been frying them in bacon grease, which is pretty damn tasty.    Like sunflowers, they look cool growing and I ended up getting spaghetti squash growing up them (and got a good crop of that).

I acquired a shit load of wood chips this year…because the city decided to cut down my ash tree before the ash borers got to it.   They threw the branches in the chipper and I had the guys dump about a quarter of the truck in my driveway.   Someone a few houses down got a huge load from their tree too, so I took about 10 wheelbarrows full from their pile too.   I have everything mulched real well and was able to throw a lot of chips down around my garden beds.   This should help keep things neat and tidy…and less muddy in the spring.

I couldn’t get much established for the fall, even though the weather was decent.   I’ll chalk this up to being busy with other stuff at key times.   Lots of little projects happening due to the upcoming baby, merging families, etc.    I’ll just try to get an early start on things next year.

Next year I’d like to have more herbs and I suppose I should cater to the kids’ tastes on what I plant so what I grow can be used instead of it being pretty much just me that eats everything.

I figured I’d take the year off from bees since they died and see where I’m at in the spring to see if I want new ones.   As of right now I’ll pass.   It seemed easier when there weren’t kids to worry about.   Plus I think I went into it a little half-cocked.   Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, but last year I figured I’d learn as I went but ended up getting sidetracked by life.    I’d like chickens, as I have more or less everything in place for them.

I say this every year, but I’d like to do a better job remembering what I planted where.   I think if I did some planning I would be able to better manage things and do a better job.   Although it wasn’t a bad year, it could’ve been a lot better.

So we’ll see what next year brings…   I’d like to have my backyard production account for a bigger percentage of my diet so hopefully it’s the best year yet.

ISIS and Gold Backed Currency

ISIS Going Back To The “Gold Standard”

This is another story that is probably more style than substance, but ISIS is talking about introducing a gold-backed currency into a consolidated Islamic State.   They’ve released some images and plans for the different denominations so it’s a little more tangible at this point than just an off-hand comment.

I know turmoil in the Middle East is par for the course, but I don’t think the world quite anticipated a group like ISIS.   Middle Eastern governments are on thin ice, ISIS is gaining power, Turkey isn’t sure how to handle this (issues with the Kurds – long story short, they’re holding their own and it’s increasing chances of Kurdish secession), the West doesn’t know what to do, ISIS has a shit load of oil at it’s disposal.    There are a lot of wild card factors in this story and I don’t think anyone knows for sure how it’ll play out.

A gold backed currency would fit in with their plans of removing themselves from the world’s current financial system and still have a means to trade for the one thing they have, oil (oh, and concrete, dates and carpets.  Ha ha. ).    However, I think worrying about minting coins is a few steps ahead of where they are…or would it fast track them to some legitimacy?    We’ll see…

Star’s Reach: A Novel of the Deindustrial Future by John Michael Greer

I’ve seen John Michael Greer’s name around and have probably heard interviews with him before, but this is the first time I’ve read one of his books.    A couple weeks ago I heard him on the Kunstlercast talking about his latest book and decided I’d check it out.

The story takes place about 400 years in the future in what the author describes as a period that would be towards the upswing of a Dark Age in America where society gets more stability and things are starting to look up.   The industrial age is long dead and climate change has radically altered the land.  The protagonist is a “ruinman”, one who makes their living disassembling the wreckage of the ancient (see: modern) world who finds a document that could uncover the mystery of “Star’s Reach”, a place where the ancients may have talked with aliens.   A quest begins to figure it out with all the usual trappings of a quest story.

The story itself is pretty good but what stuck with me about the book is the ideas in the way of language, mythology, culture and even astrobiology that the author weaves into it.    I think this book will stick with me for a while because of this.

The story mainly takes place in the Ohio River valley and the place names have changed but are still mostly recognizable.   If you think about it, a lot of our place names come from Indians and mean nothing to us except that specific place and the words we use have probably morphed a bit from their original pronunciation to suit our needs.    What’s an “Ohio” or “Cincinnati”?   I live in Des Moines, Iowa.    It’s two French words, but not pronounced like someone from France would and they don’t have any meaning to the people who live here.   “Iowa” is the name of a long-gone people who inhabited this general area.    I did feel kind of stupid for not getting one place described as a great center of learning from the ancient times name, even though it’s the city technically my degree was from (did it online so I never stepped foot in “Belumi”).

I also thought some of the mythology was cool, especially surrounding what we know today as the Washington monument.   We don’t always understand why people in the past did they things they did and do our best to explain them.    There’s a few instances in the book where seemingly trivial things from the modern world pass on into the future, especially circus related stuff (which is kind of funny, since a lot of that is holdovers from the Roman era).    It’s kind of interesting to think about what can be lost by time and what can make it through.    I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but we have tons of sayings, customs, etc. that we do today that come from the past that we don’t associate directly with their older meanings.

Greer predicts some major climate change to this patch of land we’re sitting on – modern day Arkansas becomes a jungle, Kansas a desert and the Ohio River Valley gets a rainy subtropical climate.  The coastline changes drastically to the point that a lot of the Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard is underwater.     The major shifts in climate and the end of the current era leads to new religious movements and new holidays based around the weather patterns (as ours are today if you look back).   I didn’t know that Greer was a big shot in the druid world while reading this, but it makes sense now and that kind of earth-based spirituality runs through the book.

He also brings up a lot of interesting thoughts about astrobiology and who the aliens that humans may have contacted would be.

I read one of his books, “Not The Future We Ordered” after this one.   Interesting guy.   I’m going to have to pick up a few more of his.

Expatriates: A Novel of the Coming Collapse by James Wesley Rawles

Total CEO Calls for Bigger Euro Role in Oil Payments

Total CEO Calls for Bigger Euro Role in Oil Payments

I’m a couple weeks behind on this one.   It’s been a busy month.  Recently French-owned Total CEO Christophe de Margerie made public statements about his desire to use Euros in oil transactions instead of/in addition to US dollars.   At the face it sounds unassuming enough, but if Total and others begin moving away from using the US dollar in trade it means a lower demand for the dollar.   That means our dollars will be worth less in the world.   There will be a lower demand for our debt abroad, which means borrowing at higher rates and the potential for government debt held to come back home and cause inflation.     While this one situation doesn’t exactly spell doom and gloom, there are a handful of other things going on in the world right now that are a threat to the US dollar’s hegemony in the world and the petrodollar system….and this could be one.

For as important as the petrodollar system is the US economy and as much understanding it explains things about the world economy and US foreign policy, I’m surprised we don’t hear much about it.     Jerry Robinson at Follow The Money ( put out a great write-up about the petrodollar system and overall does a great job keeping up on current events that relate to the petrodollar system.     Find the report here



GMO Corn and The Effect on Tires

 Where Ag Tires Fear to Tread

The debate/discussion about the effects of genetically modified crops on human health and on the environment is well-worn territory, but last night I heard about an effect of GMO corn and soy that’s new to me – it’s causing a lot of damage to tractor tires.

Corn and bean stalks have been genetically altered to be sturdier to withstand wind and insect damage.   Machinery has also been cutting stalks closer to the ground (perhaps to get a little bit more for the ethanol industry???) which means that the tires are usually going over the stubble rather than knocking it down.   The article describes the short and hard stalks as like pieces of rebar in the ground that will occasionally chip and even puncture a tractor tire.

If you’ve never seen a tractor tire up close they are very, very dense and it’s not easy to puncture one.    Corn stalks are normally fairly hard and when you have a short piece sitting in the ground stabilized by the root system for a 6′ stalk, yeah, that can be pretty formidable.

The ag tire industry is kicking around ways to strengthen tires, such as kevlar, new synthetic rubber compounds and steel belts.   People will pay for quality, but these things will add a lot of extra costs to the tire.  Remember we’re talking about something that weighs 300lbs and up, so there’s a lot of raw material costs plus labor – the process of making one of these tires is probably a little more involved that most people would imagine.  I suppose if it works it beats buying more tires that don’t last as long.

I’m not sure what the economic impact of damage to agricultural tires actually is, but it should be taken into consideration when looking at the pro’s and con’s of GMO’s.      Not only are we creating “super bugs” and “super weeds” by the widespread use of GMO’s, looks like we need to create “super tires” too.

Solving The World’s Food Dilemma in Five Steps

Solving The World’s Food Dilemma in Five Steps

No shit!

Ok, so this article is a summary of five points and I’m sure that a lot of the meat & potatoes (or, uh, whatever the efficient foods going forward will be) of the original author’s papers have been omitted for the sake of brevity.    My first reaction was that it reminded me of one of those “10 steps to save money” articles full of no-brainers like “pack your lunch”, “stop going to Starbuck’s” and “cancel cable”, but I know that’s an unfair assessment and a lot of people might not understand these ideas at first, even if they seem obvious.

A little more brief:

1.   Freeze agriculture’s footprint

2.  Grow more on what we have

3.   Use resources more efficiently

4.   Shift diets

5.  Reduce waste

All valid points and they tie in with each other.

#1.    The solution isn’t plowing up more land and keep on the same track.   There’s not a lot of land left (in general) and when we destroy wilderness areas we lose the biodiversity that’s necessary to life and can even affect climate patterns (see:  desertification).   Doing more of the same isn’t the answer.

#2.   Grow more on what we have.   My backyard garden has much more food value than a similar patch of corn or soybeans.   A LOT can be done with a little.  It just takes a bit of creativity.   Although industrial agriculture is based on maximum efficiency, it really isn’t.  If we hit a situation where we can’t rely as heavily on the mechanization of agriculture, we’ll find that out quickly.    Check out a permaculture food forest, Native American “three sisters” gardening, square foot/biointensive gardening for examples of making the best use of space and human energy.

3.  Use resources more efficiently.   The demand for food is rising as the world’s population rises, but we’re not seeing a corresponding increase in energy production, mineral mining needed for fertilizers and water availability (see: aquifer depletion and again, desertification).   It seems like there’s a good case for just about every resource that we’re hitting a peak.   Peak everything.   We’re going to have to learn to do more with less.   I’d really recommend the documentary “The Power of Community:  How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” to understand this challenge.

4.  Shift diets.   California lettuce and Chilean grapes in the winter aren’t sustainable due to #3.   We should be eating closer to home and with the seasons.   Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy coffee, chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, cotton, bananas, oranges, rubber and all kinds of other things can’t grow in Iowa as much as the next guy but we could do a much better job of producing things locally if we as consumers opened ourselves up to these things.   In the realm of fruit there’s enough variety that could be grown here that would cover basically the whole growing season.    Most people only have a few vegetables they’ll eat and are unaware/uninterested in things that do well around them.   In the world of meat, most Americans would turn up their noses at eating goat, although that’s extremely efficient (and quite tasty, might I add).   To steal a thought from Joel Salatin, the idea that you can get a chicken breast sandwich with lettuce and tomato on it on almost any busy intersection in the country at any time of the year should be a little troubling.

5.   Reduce waste.   Yeah, we throw away a lot of stuff that we shouldn’t.   Right now food is so cheap, plentiful and easy to procure that we really don’t think twice about throwing something out.   As the world’s food dilemma starts to become more visible in the good ol’ US of A for the above-mentioned reasons, we might start having to consider making the best use of what we have.   This starts in the kitchen and a curse of the world being so damn convenient for us is that we’ve lost these skills.  Milk is about to go sour?  Turn it into yogurt.  Have some chicken bones left over?   Soup tomorrow night.   Stale bread?  Bread pudding.  The list goes on.    This will also take a huge effort from institutional food providers and restaurants as well as a paradigm shift from the patron/diner.   There’s a fly in your soup?  The waiter will fish it out for you.   Watching the amount of food that gets thrown away at a restaurant, cafeteria, etc. at every meal is staggering.   I always think of things in terms of resource inputs, so this really blows my mind sometimes.

So let’s hope that these five steps that seem like they should be obvious become obvious to everyone.   After writing this it looks like a lot of the changes that need to be made really start with the consumer and the household in our eating habits and our attitudes towards food.   It’s easier to make the transition now than to be forced into something worse later.



Recounting The Horrific Last Days of My Bees

So the other weekend I spent a few hours scraping comb out of my hives, washing them and sitting them out in the sun.   It’s a job I’ve put off for a few weeks because well, it’s not a very rewarding one.   Maybe it’s the “walk of shame” for a beekeeper.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s estimates that 70% of the state of Iowa’s commercial beehives (and who knows about the wild bees) would die off this spring due to the harsh winter and all the complications that brings.   I figured that 70% was about right when one hive died and the other one looked like it was hit hard, but still alive.   After a week or two, that other hive died.   I was hoping it would pull through so I could build back up both hives over time.

Anyways, it looks like the final days for both hives were pretty grim.   They had a disease called nosema which is basically like dysentery for bees and would be pretty common in a year like this.   A healthy hive can get over it, but it can take down a weak hive.    Kind of like how diarrhea is a big deal in parts of the third world but not so much here.

Last year wasn’t exactly a banner year for collecting nectar, so I don’t think the hives grew as much as they should’ve.   I did some supplemental feeding, but I probably should’ve done more during the year.   It looks like starvation was also a problem.   Both hives had honey stores left over at the end of the year, but I read that the weather was causing the bees to break their cluster during the winter and get separated from the food supplies.   I imagine this took a toll on both hives.  I found dead bees inside empty combs, which is usually a sign of them trying to get the last bit from the comb.

I’m sure mites added to the misery too.  Kind of like with nosema, it’s not as big of a deal when everything else is going fine but in the weakened state, they can really wreak havoc in a hive.

Right now I’m saying I want to try again next year, but we’ll see how things pan out.   They were fun to have around and having bees is a hell of a conversation piece.

On the subject of bees dying, I’m still not seeing anywhere near as many bees as I used to and right now my garden looks like a pollinator’s paradise.   I should take some pictures, I love when it looks like it does now.   I’m curious to see how things are going to turn out (squashes, tomatoes, etc.) with so few pollinators out right now.

On another note of declining insect populations, I have a bunch of family in town from Nevada right now.    The last time a cousin (or whatever she is) was in Iowa was probably in the late 80’s and one of the memories we both have from her visit was catching lightening bugs….and there were a shit load of them lighting up the sky back then.  They don’t have them in Nevada, so it was quite the novelty.   She brought her 6 year old daughter with her this time and told her about the lightening bugs.   They actually had to look hard for them where they used to be impossible to miss whenever you’d step outside around dusk.  I’m not seeing anywhere near as many of them as I used to.   I’m not sure exactly what niche they fill in nature, but I imagine some of the same factors that are taking a toll on the bees are working on them too.   Kind of a scary situation when you look at what’s going on in the insect kingdom.

Growing Kiwis in Iowa

photo(1) photo(3)

Most people think that kiwis are a tropical fruit, but really they come from the temperate part of Siberia (think North Korea and the northern part of Japan).   New Zealand, famous for kiwis, isn’t even a very tropical place.    There are varieties that are better in warmer climates, but also a few that thrive in cooler climates down to USDA Zone 3, like Arctic Beauty (which are what mine are).     I’m in the middle of Zone 5.

I believe this is their fourth season.   Under ideal conditions they would have produced fruit a year or two earlier and have more growth but we had some late frost the past couple of years that stunted them.   This year they’re going nuts with growth.   So far it’s been a good spring as far as rainfall and temperatures go, so pretty much everything is doing fine.

There’s only a handful of kiwis on the plant.  I suppose I should say that the kiwi on the left is male and the right is female.  Only the females  produce fruit, but you need a male for pollination….and I suppose I should say it’s been a really bad year for pollination because both of my beehives died and I’m not seeing anywhere near as many bees as I normally do.   The male is a little bushier in its growth habit, but part of that is the fact there’s a raspberry plant that decided to grow there and it makes it look like it’s bushier.   That raspberry is a volunteer from the guy across the fence’s plants – they’re really good black raspberries.   I planted another female Arctic Beauty kiwi on another leg of that pergola a month ago.

I think growing stuff like this is fun to grow because not everyone has kiwis in their backyard and I’ve been playing around more lately with things that are suited for this climate but not widely grown (aronia, seaberry, gojis, etc.).   Really it’s kind of sad that most people usually only eat a handful of different fruits that usually come in from thousands of miles away when there’s a ton of things that can be grown locally if we A. grow them and B. open up to the idea of consuming them.    Don’t get me wrong, I like bananas and other things that come from the other side of the world, but I think we would all be better off in a lot of ways if we would open up to some of the things we can grow close to home.



That Bowe Bergdahl Guy

So the story of “Sergeant” Bowe Bergdahl has been all over the past week or two and it’s one of the more bizarre ones to come out of the Global War on Terrorism experience.    No need to rehash the details.    I would actually think about this guy every so often and I’m surprised that the bullshit flag never really went up for me on this story.    You’d think that if this guy was really legitimately captured and held by the Taliban, they would turn it into a bigger deal a la the Jessica Lynch deal during the invasion instead of just mentioning him in passing once every year or so.

Anyways, a few random thoughts on the situation

–  Yeah, the guy sounded like a weirdo.

–   I doubt that Obama had much to do with it other than saying “uhh, yeah, ok” and I’m sure motives were more political than anything, but I think the this-guy-for-five-Taliban-guys swap reflects well on the US Armed Forces.   It sucks that this is how they had to do it, but at the end of the day they got him back, even if he was a shithead.   Instead of saying “fuck him, he’s a deserter/traitor”, they’re upholding their end of the bargain and not leaving him behind and reviewing the case instead of just taking it at face value and leaving him with the wolves.    If it turns out his conduct was correct (which I doubt), on with life.   If not, administer justice.    Sometimes all the little things that we would say make us exceptional as Americans (in this case, due process, innocent til proven guilty, value of the individual, etc.) aren’t comfortable but that’s when these things matter the most.

– There’s something out there about how this guy was teaching the Taliban bomb making and infantry tactics.   Bullshit.   There’s nothing this boot knew that they didn’t.

–  Part of what apparently made him snap was the treatment of Afghani nationals by American/Allied personnel.    Yeah, I can definitely empathize with that one.    Sadism runs rampant in these situations and I’ll just leave that one there.


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