August 2018 – Crop of the Month
Green Bean – Scientific Name: Phaseolus vulgaris
Family: Fabaceae (the Legume family)
Even though it is hot and dry this time of the year, gardeners are gearing up for their fall gardens – this is actually a really exciting time of the year leading up to the fall, which in my opinion provides the best growing conditions for us here in Central Texas.
One of the most resilient, fastest growing, and highest yielding food crops that can be planted directly by seed in late August and early September is the tried and true green bean, also referred to as the snap bean, or the string bean. The green bean is native to Central America, and was in use as a food crop in Mexico and North America by the time that the Spanish arrived in the late 1400’s. The Contender variety of the common green bean does exceptionally well here in Central Texas. The Contender seed variety is available from Willhite Seed, Inc., and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
– Planting Tips –
Direct planting green beans from seed is easy. It is a large seed which makes it easy to handle, and it has a high germination rate. Since beans are legumes, they have a symbiotic relationship with the rhizobia bacteria which can be applied to coat the seeds. The bacteria will help make nitrogen available to the plants growing in your garden beds. To get the bacteria on the seeds, wet the seeds you are about to plant, put them in a paper bag, and sprinkle some of the rhizobia inoculate (a black powder) into the bag. Shake the bag well. Now you are ready to plant. Then, in a 3-foot-wide garden bed of loose soil with hopefully 3 to 5 percent organic matter in it, make a shallow 1-inch furrow with a garden hoe. Drop the bean seeds in the furrow 2 inches apart, no thinning should be required. Cover the furrows with an inch of soil. Two rows 1 foot apart can be planted along a 3-foot-wide garden bed. Repeat this process again after 14 days in order to increase and extend your harvest.
Keep the soil moist to encourage germination and establish your seedlings. When the bean plants are 6 inches tall, add 2 inches of fine mulch. Once it gets cooler and starts raining in mid late September very little if any irrigation should be required. Your green beans ought to be ready to begin harvesting in about 45 days. Harvest them while they are green, plump, and tender.
Keep an eye out for spider mites and damping off (a fungus), which are a couple of the main pests that plague beans. A soap and water spray should be applied to the underside of the bean plants’ leaves if spider mites are present, and well drained beds and drip irrigation, rather that overhead irrigation, will reduce damping off and rust (another fungus).
This is a crop that you will want to involve children with. Beans are often used in biology class projects to show kids how a seed germinates and transforms into a plant that we can eat. Planting bean seeds with children is fun and easy, and so is looking for the bean pods to harvest when they are ready. I remember well removing the strings and snapping green beans with my great grandmother when I was very young, then my grandmother would put them on to cook with some bacon drippings in them before we left for church service.
Building a DIY Power Plant
Written by: Woody Welch
Photo Captions by Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2018
Stacking Functions is a term used in Permaculture to describe the process of getting several functions out of any one structure or project as opposed to only building for one function or use. For example – you could build a roof just for protection from the elements, or you could build a roof that is designed to protect, capture rain water, heat water, grow food, create a space to sunbathe, or a small green space in an otherwise urban void.
Building a stacked functions structure out of repurposed wood, which costs 20 cents on the dollar, that produces more power than one can use is extremely rewarding. By intentionally designing a structure to serve more than one function you can get more out of your time and investment, as well as the opportunity to harness the natural elements and energy that mother nature provides. I wanted to redesign my carport as a structure that was going to protect my vehicle from the elements, create shade and provide a cool space in the summer, collect rain water and look good while producing plenty of power for my 1800 square foot home and 400 square foot shop on a half acre homestead.
I have been designing and building repurposed wood structures for over 20 years. They always pose challenges but I would argue that the rewards are well worth it. I am also a professional photographer and artist by trade working almost exclusively in the sustainability field. I have always dreamed of having my very own power plant. When I looked around my 1950’s era homestead in New Braunfels, Texas and asked “What is the worst thing on my property and how can I turn it in to the best thing?”, I looked to my cheaply built 1970’s era aluminum and styrofoam low hanging carport. At only 7 ft. tall, it swayed in the wind, looked like a sore thumb and provided shade but leaked heavily through the styrofoam seams during storms. Turning this liability into an asset while stacking as many functions as possible was an obvious choice.
Having been in the field and spending many hours in a helicopter, documenting solar power plants around the globe, I knew well that the technology had not only come of age but that the price per kilowatt had become competitive enough to directly compete with even the cheapest of fossil fuels. In 2016, the cost per kilowatt to produce solar power vs. natural gas met parity and solar is only getting cheaper as Moore’s Law and Economies of Scale kick in. After doing some calculations and adding the fact that we are collectively not paying for the pollution of burning fossil fuels (effectively avoiding true cost accounting) I looked to solar power as one solution to these growing challenges and unintended consequences of so-called “cheap fuels”.
Combing through craigslist for materials, I found a listing for “big wood” with many photos of large stacks of dimensional lumber. I set out immediately to Buie Lumber company in Boerne Texas, where to my surprise, I found mounds of returned overstock and weathered (just like I like it) lumber for the picking. After several trips, many photos, and back and forth conversations shared with my architect I made the leap to purchase about $18,000 worth of wood for just $4000, delivery included. And although we had to “field mill” some of the larger timbers in my driveway and wrestle with making sense of non-matching, far from perfect wood, my master carpenter Kirby Fry and I finally started making sense of how we would get this done.
Hiring a carpenter that is flexible, open-minded, and creative is paramount for a project like this and makes working through the challenges fun and even invigorating. Kirby Fry of Southern Exposure was the perfect choice.
When we finished with the structure, or “mount” as it is called in the solar industry, we capped it with a high quality standing seam metal roof installed by the experts at Varni Roofing. The “standing” seams are perfect for mounting solar brackets and the surface is preferred for rainwater collection. The material is known to last for over a hundred years, which is backed up by a recent University of Texas study.
We woke up to three inches of snow on the day scheduled for installation, but Freedom Solar was not deterred! They promptly swept and sprayed the snow off the roof and within 6 hours I had 15/345 watt SunPower panels installed on my Tesla Port and wired into the grid. Working around some upgrades to my old electrical riser, we were still able to get the system installed in what seemed to me like record time.
Six months later the system is producing 127% of my energy needs. That extra 27 percent is going to my neighbors to help with peak use times. I have a $2100 rebate/credit on my utility bill that will pay for my trash/recycle/water/sewage for the next 6 years and I am awaiting the arrival of a Tesla Model 3 so I will literally have sun-powered transportation very soon. We estimated and designed the system to be perfectly tailored for my particular needs and hit the proverbial nail on the head.
After $7500 federal tax credit and an additional “friends and family” cash rebate my total out of pocket for the system is under $4000. The carport itself cost around $10,000 to build but I estimate it added $20,000 of value to my home.
It’s hard to quantify how it feels to be part of the solution to what I consider being some of the larger challenges we face as a species but I can tell you this – I do sleep a little better at night knowing I have invested wisely in a system that is smart, valuable, redundantly capable, durable and more powerful than I ever really imagined.
I highly recommend imagining a solar power plant of your very own.
July 2018 – Crop of the Month
Okra – Scientific Name: Abelmoschus esculentus
Family: Malvaceae (the Mallow family)
If you are still putting annual vegetable seeds into the ground at this time of the year, early summer (June 21 through July 21), then okra ought to be on your list. It is one of the most successful annual vegetables that can still be planted in July, and though it requires a little bit of “dressing up” to be more palatable to eat, it is hardy, nutritious, and does well in our summer’s high temperatures and high humidity.
Okra can be planted by seed after soil temperatures have gotten above 65 degrees (mid to late March), and then be planted by seed through the first part of August.
Like most annual vegetables okra also does really well if the soil has been turned to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Soils can also be conditioned with sheet mulching rather than turning, which I do recommend, but sheet mulching requires more lead time. A late spring, early summer bed needs to have been sheet mulched and kept moist since the previous fall for best results.
Okra seeds should be planted 1″ deep 4″ apart in a row. The rows should be about 36″ apart.
As we have noted before, it is a good practice to put out at least 2″ of compost over your garden annually, if not biannually. I would do this in the spring and in the fall. Organic slow release fertilizers should be put out under your compost, or in and along side each seed in order to help your vegetables along.
I like the organic Bio-tone products.When you harvest okra, harvest it while it is still small and tender, less than 4″ long or so, while still green and tender. You should wear long pants, long sleeves, and gloves when harvesting as okra has spicules on its surface that will irritate your skin. Collect it in a wicker basket or paper bag and then refrigerate it as soon as you can.