May 24, 2007

To Market, To Market

It's official: Palo Alto will get our second farmers' market, opening Sunday, June 3 just steps from my office on California Avenue. It may be slightly more slickly produced than the Saturday downtown market, but can you really have too much?

My three favorite reasons why farmers' markets are great -- apart from the camaraderie and the quality of the food:
1) When else do you get the opportunity to actually talk with the people who grow the food you eat? The corn doesn't come from some faceless Nebraska corporation, the bread isn't shrink-wrapped. Wondering how to know when a persimmon is ripe? Ask the grower. These people are genuinely excited about what they have produced. Somehow, that makes their food taste even better.

2) They are a wonderful way to get in touch with the seasons. No plums, Pluots® or Apriums® in March, please -- not even organic ones. The bad news is, this will shake you out of your comfort zone when you can't buy asparagus in August. The good news is, this will shake you out of your comfort zone when you get to try cardoon in August.

3) What's more exciting than trying new food? By definition, small local farmers have small local farms. And they're not going to waste their resources trying to compete with the big farms that grow big quantities of the most common fruits and vegetables you'll find shrink-wrapped in Safeway. Thus, cardoon. And homemade marmalade. And heirloom eggplants. And purple cauliflower.

(By the way, kids often enjoy this kind of diversity -- give 'em a few dollars and let them choose their new favorite vegetable for tonight's dinner -- and it's nice to learn that food comes from the Earth, not the aisle.)

I hope I'll see you on California Ave. on June 3!

May 16, 2007

Go Outside and Play

When you were a child, was there a favorite place in nature you loved to play? A seminal, memorable moment spent outdoors? Did some way of being in contact with nature help make you the person you are today? Without that contact, who will today's children be tomorrow?

Richard Louv's fabulous article from Orion magazine raises big and important questions regarding our children and nature. It's not a "how to" piece. It's why to. And after reading the article, you'll agree it's not even a question.

May 14, 2007

If I'm In The Shade, This Must Be Monday

Photo ©Chris Neale

As we approach the summer solstice, it can become difficult to design to your yard's patterns of sun and shade: more specifically, it's very easy to over-estimate just how much sun a given site receives. I've certainly planted vegetable beds in "full sun" locations this time of year, only to find them in permashade as the equinox rolls on by.

If you're only planting tomatoes or other summer annuals, such an impending lack of sunlight may not be a big deal. But if you're designing a comprehensive landscape -- and particularly if you haven't lived at the site for a full year to see the change of light and seasons first-hand -- it pays to figure out when, and where, the light will retreat.

To the rescue comes the U.S. Navy, which kindly publishes a calculator to determine the altitude (angle above horizon) and azimuth (angle east of true north) of the sun at any minute of any given day. Combined with a shadow length calculator, this data should help you determine the boundaries of your shady areas throughout the year.

Thus, if you know that you live in a 20-foot tall house in Palo Alto, CA, you can calculate that on June 21 of this year (the summer solstice), your home will cast a 5-foot deep shadow at solar noon. However, on the winter solstice six months later, that shadow will extend about 36 feet!

It's most useful to calculate shadow points for the most massive things on your property -- usually structures like houses and detached garages, but also evergreen trees, fences, and neighboring buildings -- on the two solstice and two equinox dates. If you're really persnickety, you can forecast shadows not only at high noon, but also three or four hours on either side of noon, since "full sun" plants typically want 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day (don't forget to shift the shadow angle to the west or east appropriately).

If you map all these points onto your site plan (I find using different color pencils for the different dates helps), you can get a pretty clear picture of where to plant what (or where to site that winter sun-pocket bench). Plus, you'll have a sense of what you might need in the way of lighting or heating throughout the year, and create separately-switched circuits based on what the darkest/coldest zones will be during the times of year you plan to be outside.

I know, it's all very geeky... yet somehow strangely exciting, no?