This week has come with a lot of rain, which has restricted what we can do in the garden, but saves me from running irrigation systems. It means the weeds are growing too well, and there is no chance to hoe: the soil is too wet, the weeds won’t die, just re-root. We’re about 40% down our 265′ long carrot rows (15 of them), weeding, but the weeds are now bigger than the carrots. Meanwhile, other timely tasks are going begging. probably we’ll have to draw a line in the mud and give up on the lower part of the carrot patch. Too bad.
Farming is completely non-linear! You don’t finish one task, then start another. Every day involves a juggling of priorities. At this time of year, harvesting takes a lot of time. And naturally, it’s very important to do it! After all, why grow food if you don’t harvest it? An added challenge this year is that for most of the summer crops (tomatoes, beans, eggplant, squash, cucumbers), it’s better not to touch the plants while the leaves are wet. Fungal diseases spread easily when it’s warm and wet. Many mornings the dew is heavy, so we start our shifts with some hoeing (if the soil and the forecast are dry enough), or carrot weeding (most days). Our next priority, after harvesting, is planting. “Prioritize planting during the planting season!” is one of our mantras.Here in central Virginia, the planting season runs from mid-February to the end of September (ignoring the garlic planting in November).
Yesterday we caught our eleventh raccoon in the sweet corn. We’ve probably lost close to 2000 ears of corn to these pests this year. (Two whole sections 6 rows x 60ft with a plant every 8 inches, plus serious inroads in three other sections.) We’re looking at installing an electric fence, but several crew are unenthusiastic, foreseeing problems with the fence shorting out on the grass, and inconvenience working around it. We need to do something different. This morning both raccoon traps had the bait eaten, but no captives. One trap was open and on its side – have the beasts figured out how to turn the trap and get the food out without springing the trap? The other was closed but emptied. Perhaps we have a giant raccoon that uses its butt to keep the door from closing while it eats the bait?
On a more cheery note, here’s two books to look forward to before next season. (People looking for gifts for gardening friends, take note).
Ira Wallace, from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Acorn Community, has written the Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. It will be published in December 2013. The write-up says “Growing vegetables requires regionally specific information—what to plant, when to plant it, and when to harvest are based on climate, weather, and first frost. The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast tackles this need head on, with regionally specific growing information written by local gardening expert, Ira Wallace. This region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.”
Ira’s book is for new vegetable gardeners, or ones relocating to the southeast. It includes month-by-month planting recommendations, skill-building tips, a primer for beginners and an A-Z meet-the-vegetables section. Paperback, 256 pp., 7½ x 9 in. (230 x 190 mm.), ISBN: 9781604693713. It will sell for $19.95 and I recommend you support your local writers in the same way and for the same reasons we support our local farmers – buy direct from them and don’t line the pockets of the big corporations. Those places that sell books at big discounts don’t contribute much to writers and publishers! Southern Exposure will be selling the book through their catalog and at events where they have a booth.
Cindy Connor has written Grow a Sustainable Diet, which will be published by New Society in Spring 2014. Read what she has to say to introduce it on her blog Homeplace Earth. Cindy says: ” This book is for folks who want to grow all, or a substantial amount, of their food and do it in a way that has a small ecological footprint. Particular attention would need to be paid to crop choices for your diet and for feeding back the soil . . . If you wanted, you could use the information from this book to plan a complete diet of homegrown foods.” Or you could choose which bits best fit your life and use her worksheets, diet planning, garden planning and information on cover crops, livestock, food storage and preservation,sheds and fences to help you provide more of your own food. And you can enjoy her stories.
I haven’t yet got the price for Cindy’s book, or the ISBN, or a firm date, but check her website regularly or subscribe to her blog (which is always packed with good information). I will post more information as I get it. You can bet Cindy will be selling the book directly, and that SESE will also carry it.
In line with my advice in the August issue of Growing for Market magazine, we are working on our First Chance to start again with the spring and fall crops. We sowed beets, and I found out I meant to order more seed before this point. In spring we sowed our beets with the Earthway seeder, rather than our more usual manual sowing of lightly soaked seed. I was working on my own and rain was approaching, so I just used the seeder with dry seed. The radish plate was best for the Cylindra beets, if I remember right. Consequently I used more seed. We’ve managed to sow of the three beds we intended.
I put in a hasty online order to Fedco. After clicking Send I remembered we need more carrot seed too. Argh! Happily the people at Fedco are so helpful that they agreed to my email request to add carrot seed to the order. We love buying from Fedco. They don’t waste our money on glossy catalogs. They offer great bulk discounts. And the newsprint catalog is full of pithy comments on food politics. Fedco is one of the main three seed companies we buy from – along with Johnny’s and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
We did have enough carrot seed to complete our large fall planting (3 beds of five rows at 265′ – almost 4000ft). But we want to try a slightly later bed of carrots to overwinter. It worked well last year – the voles stayed away. Last August I blogged about fall carrot planting in my post Risking zombie carrots. The year before we ended up not managing to weed all our fall carrots, so we mowed them for weed control, then left them overwinter. We were able to harvest them in the early spring.
Today we sowed winter radish and two beds of Vates kale. Next up are turnips and more kale. We sow two beds every four days until we have enough established. The rain today is perfect. I think the first two beds should have no problem germinating. The rain will also help the big carrot planting. I have been running a sprinkler overnight on them, but it takes five nights to get all the way to the bottom of the patch. And one night the well meter stopped working and it stopped the water running. So that night was a loss as far as irrigation went. We did the pre-emergence flame-weeding of the carrot beds on Saturday, thinking they might germinate Monday (and no-one wanted that flaming job on Sunday), but in fact they only started germinating this morning.
Our evening transplanting shifts have gone very well. If it isn’t raining too hard this evening, we should be able to finish tonight. That’s a mere ten shifts. Sometimes it takes us a lot longer. The unknown is how much time we’ll need to spend replacing casualties, but I think 3 evenings max. We have run the drip irrigation every evening while we are working there, and some more on dry days. We’ve had some rain too, which helps. I haven’t had a thorough look under the rowcovers, but there are shadowy green things in most of the right places, so I’m optimistic. The peculiarly mild temperatures have made transplanting the overgrown plants easier than it could have been. Feels like we are making up for lost time.
The weather outside is still full of rain, but I’m optimistically starting growing our own sweet potato slips. Surely it will dry out by May?
Sweet potatoes are related to morning glory, in the genus Ipomoea. They are not yams, even though they are often called yams! True yams are a tropical species of tuber (genus Dioscorea). Sweet potatoes are roots, not tubers, and will not even cross with yams. So forget yams. Unlike white potatoes, which have the annual plant sequence of vegetative
growth, flowering and dying back, sweet potato plants would continue growing forever if the weather was warm enough.
The mystique of sweet potato slips
Sweet potatoes are not grown from seed or from replanted roots, but from “slips,” which are pieces of stem with a few leaves, grown from a mother root. We used to buy bare-root sweet potato slips to plant, believing growing our own would be very tricky. The collapse of our supplier and our desire to have organic plants (plus a need to reduce our expenses one year), pushed us into growing our own. We had some problems initially, so I can warn you about how not to do it. Now we have a system we really like, and we’ve found several advantages of homegrown slips over purchased ones.
With purchased slips, we had to specify a shipping date months ahead, then hope the weather sprites would be kind. We had to jump to when the plants arrived, and get them all in the ground pronto, to keep them alive as best we could (because their roots needed moisture). We accepted as normal a certain amount of drooping. We can have late frosts, spring droughts or El Niño wet springs, and climate change is only adding to the uncertainty. With homegrown slips we can delay planting if that seems wise; we can plant them in stages rather than all on one day. The transplants don’t wilt. We can grow them big and plant them with three to five nodes underground, giving more chance of survival in heat or frost. We can keep some spares on hand to replace casualties. The sturdy plants get off to a strong start, which could be an even bigger advantage further north where the season of warm-enough weather is on the short side for a 90–120-day plant. And we are self-reliant — we never have to spend money on them.
Figure out your ideal planting date and work back to find your starting date. Planting is usually done about two weeks after the last frost. The soil temperature should reach at least 65°F (18°C) at 4″ (10 cm) deep on four consecutive days. For us, that’s around May 12. It takes eight weeks to grow the slips, and the roots produce more slips if conditioned for two weeks (or even four), before you start to grow slips. So start ten to twelve weeks before your planting date. We now start March 1. Here’s where I made my first big mistake — following directions written for much further south, I tried to start growing slips in mid-January. Dismal fight against nature!
If you want to get the best yields from your mother roots, first test the roots in a bucket of water — the ones that float are said to yield better and produce better-flavored roots. Next, test for viral streaking — also known as color breaks or chimeras, where paler spots or radial streaks appear in the flesh — and discard roots with pale spots or streaks wider than a pencil lead. Cut a thin slice from the distal end of each root — the stringy root end, opposite the end that was attached to the plant stem. All the sprouts will grow from the stem end, so don’t cut there! If you can’t tell the difference between the ends, you can ignore this step and plan not to propagate your own slips for more than a couple of years (so the virus load doesn’t get too high). Or if you are a home gardener dealing with a small crop, you could keep the slips from each root separately and cut up the mother root before planting and then discard the slips from streaked roots.
Conditioning (Also Optional)
Put the chosen roots in flats, boxes or trays, without soil, in a warm, moist, light place for two to four weeks. Ideal conditions are 75°F–85°F (24°C–29°C) at 95% humidity. This can double or triple the number of sprouts the root will produce in a timely manner. We use our germinating chamber, which is an old glass door refrigerator heated by a light bulb. See the photo above. Conditioning after testing allows the cut surfaces to heal before they are covered by compost. The environment for sprouting the roots is similar, so you can probably use the same location.
Set up a place with light, humidity and ventilation at 75°F–85°F (24°C—29°C) and with about 12″ (30 cm) of headroom. Plant the selected roots almost touching each other, horizontally in free-draining light potting compost in flats or crates. Water the boxes and put them to sprout. Once again, we use our ex-fridge germinator. Using boxes is much more manageable than having the roots loose in a big coldframe. Indoor spaces are much easier to heat than the great outdoors! Boxes can be insulated and put on a bench at a decent working height, with lights or heat lamps over them. Keep the compost damp, and if your planting medium is without nutrients, give liquid feed occasionally once sprouting starts. For small quantities of slips, it is possible to sprout the potatoes half-submerged in water, either in trays of water or by suspending a sweet potato impaled on toothpicks, resting on the top of a glass of water. For larger quantities I recommend our method.
Cutting and spotting the slips
After 5–7 days, the roots will begin to produce slips. Ideally, wait until the slips are 6″–12″ (15–30 cm) tall with 4–6 leaves beginning, then cut them from the root and stand them in water. If necessary, cut them a bit shorter. Some people pull or twist the slips from the roots, but this could transfer diseases by bringing a small piece of the root with the sprout. I cut the slips daily, bunch them in a rubber band and stand them in a small bucket of water. The slips will grow more roots while they are in water for several days, which seems to be an advantage. Once a week I spot (plant) the oldest, most vigorous slips (with good roots) into 4″ (10-cm) deep wood flats filled with compost. The spotted flats require good light in a frost-free greenhouse and sufficient water. If you are two weeks away from your planting date and are short of slips, you can take cuttings from the first flats of slips that were spotted, to make more. The slips planted in flats become very sturdy, allowing flexibility about planting dates and a longer slip-cutting season. About ten days before planting, start to harden off the flats of slips by reducing the temperature and increasing the airflow. It’s also possible to skip the spotting stage and transplant the slips outside directly from the water, but I don’t think this is as good as spotting them into flats of good compost for a few weeks.
From Sustainable Market Farming, (c) Pam Dawling, New Society Publishers 2013
Here is our task list for the Twin Oaks Garden in March. We’re zone 7, our average last frost is April 20. You’ll need to adapt this information for your climate.
Lettuce factory during March: Transplant 1/3 bed each, for sowings #1, 2, 3. Cover. Sow #5, 6 this month.
1st March: chit seed potatoes in flats for 2-4 weeks with bright light in basement.
Check irrigation and hoses. Buy replacements as needed.
Buy twine: make up to 6 binder and 2 baler twine.
Inventorycover crop seeds, buy buckwheat, sorghum-sudan, pearl millet, clover or other summer cover crops.
Compost needed in March: 6-9 tractor buckets for beds, 8-20 to disk in.
Compost and till raised beds for April plantings – carrots #4 & 5, lettuce 4-6, beans #1.
Sowradishes, (spinach), turnips, scallions #2 and cover. Last date for sowing fava beans is 3/14. Sow peas only 1/2″-3/4″ deep. Cover.
Transplant fall sown onions ½-3/4” deep, when no thicker than pencils; cabbage #1, lettuce #1.
In greenhouse sow peppers, eggplant, hoophouse squash, Alyssum, bulb fennel, broccoli #3 (1 week after #2, quick, heat tolerant varieties). Test and condition sweet potatoes for 2 to 4 weeks at 75- 85°F, 95% humidity.
Cut seed potatoes and heal for three days: two buds on each piece, one for insurance. Ginger too.
Plant potatoes when the weather becomes suitable (when daffodils bloom.). Reduce sprouts/piece to 2. See Perfect Potato Planting card.
In greenhouse: sow main crop tomatoes, lettuce #5 [sesame]. Protect cabbage and broccoli at 5-8 true leaves from cold stress (<40°F for a few days, or longer at 50°F).
Plant sweet potatoes in flats in glass door germinator cabinet.
Transplant collards, kale, kohlrabi, senposai,lettuce #2, scallions #1, mini-onions. [spring-sown onion seedlings in clumps @12″, 1/2 to 1” deep].
Till raised beds before weeds seed, and sow oats (by 31st) if not needed for 6 weeks or more, (eggplants, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, celery, later lettuce). Sow clovers until 3/15 for long-term cover; or winter rye to wimp out (it does not head up in warm weather).
#2 Spring Tractor Work Mid-March – Disk area for corn #1&2,
Late March: [side dress garlic & onions with compost]
In greenhouse: sow Roma tomatoes, lettuce #6, nasturtiums, chard and leaf beet in soil blocks or plug flats; squash #1 & cukes #1 in blocks or plug flats (not before 3/25). Spot eggplant. Sweet Potatoes: Cut slips at 6 to 12”, put in water. Once a week, plant rooted slips in 4” flats. Plant ginger in flats or crates.
Buy seed potatoes for June planting, and refrigerate them. Keep at 40-50°F in the dark, until 6/1.
Sowleeks & other little alliums in seed bed, update map; carrots #4 outdoors. Sowkohlrabi if transplants fail, thin to 6” later.
Compost & till beds for late April planting: cucumbers #1, edamame #1, squash #1, peanuts, celery, parsnips, chard, cowpeas #1, (sesame). Can sow oats till 3/31 in beds not needed for 6 weeks.
Work on thePerennials in March: Really finish weeding, fertilizing and mulching them! Early in the month plant new blueberries, grapevines, raspberries, strawberries if not done in fall. Divide and replant rhubarb if needed. Water if needed, especially new beds. Set up irrigation and ropes where needed. Put up ropes for raspberries, mow between grapes. Maybe till up aisle in grapes and sow clovers & grass.
The February 2013 issue of Growing for Market magazine is now available, including my new article Making Good Decisions Under Pressure. This is the fourth article in my series about being resilient, understanding what’s going on with the plants and the weather, and knowing when to take action, is about tools to help busy farmers with complex decisions that have to be taken quickly. The middle of a hot field in mid-afternoon of the day you need to plant is not the best place to make a hard decision. It’s better to have a framework in place to lean on when the going gets tough. I talk about various decision-making techniques, clarifying whose job it is to make each decision, what resources are available, and what the impacts of the decision might be.
If that sounds abstract, I also include our sad chart “Can’t Do It All 2011”. In early March that year, we realized we had nothing like enough experienced workers. We were looking at an overwhelming amount of work. We made a list of labor-intensive crops for possible cuts. The main point was to save us time, not just cut crops we personally disliked! We noted the decision date by each crop on the list. As each date approached we reviewed our situation. This method enabled us to make one decision at a time, in a straightforward way, and not go insane. Such a list is helpful for many types of calamity. It leaves the door open for possible upturns of fortune later in the year. It’s less distressing to take one bite at a time than to take a big decision when you already are struggling to cope with some big bad thing having happened.
This issue of GfM also has these articles:
• Lettuce varieties that tolerate heat and cold By Lynn Byczynski
• Book Reviews: The Organic Seed Grower (John Navazio) and The Art of Fermentation Sandor Katz) by Lynn Byczynski
• A new meal-planning service keeps CSA members happy by Lynn Byczynski
• Capturing information in the field to help with recordkeeping, by Chris Blanchard
• Plans for farm-built pallets that make it easy to move transplants, by Chip and Susan Planck
• What the proposed federal produce safety rules mean to you, by Lynn Byczynski
• An urban flower farmer builds a flourishing business in weddings, an interview with Jennie Love by Erin Benzakein.
Also newly arrived is the Report Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation (USDA Technical Bulletin 1935). I wrote about this in my post following the CFSA conference in October, where I attended a gripping workshop by Laura Lengnick, one of the authors of this report. It has 193 pages, and when I’ve read it, I’ll review it. Chapters include An Overview of U.S. Agriculture, An Overview of the Changing Climate, Climate Change Science and Agriculture, Climate Change Effects on U.S. Agricultural Production, Climate Change Effects on the Economics of U.S. Agriculture, Adapting to Climate Change, Conclusions and Research Needs, and various appendices.
Planning: Week 1: Revise Crop Planting Quantities chart, Perennials worksheet, Harvest and Food Processing Calendars, Veg Finder, and Phenology Chart. Week 2: Revise Fall Brassicas Spreadsheet, Onion Plan and Log, Sweet Potato Plan. Revise and post Paracrew Invitation. Week 3: Write Seed Saving Letter. Revise Blueberry Map and Log, Grape Map and Log. Week 4: Revise Crop Planting Specs sheet, revise Garden Planning Calendar, File notes, prune files.
Lettuce Factory: Sow lettuce #3, 4 in flats (short-day fast varieties, every 14 days).
Spread compost & till beds for spinach, beets, favas, lettuce, onions, little alliums, turnips, senposai, kohlrabi, cabbage, kale, collards when soil dry enough. Till beds for carrots 1-3, with or without compost.
#1 Spring Tractor Work –Compost and disk areas for broccoli and potatoes when dry enough, or till.
Early Feb: in greenhouse sow: cabbage, collards, senposai, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli #1, celery, celeriac
Sow spinach outdoors if Jan sowings fail: 4oz/bed pre-sprouted. Transplantspinach from hoophouse [or flats].
Sow fava beans (seed is in peas bucket). Plant small potato onions if not done in January.
Mid-month:in greenhouse: Sow lettuce #3, and resow hoophouse peppers as needed. Spot cabbage,lettuce#3, hoophouse peppers, kale, collards, and harden off.
Sowcarrots #1 outdoors with indicator beets. Flameweed. Finish planting spinach, (direct sow if not enough transplants).
Buyseed potatoes mid-month and set out to greensprout (chit) before planting: 65°F (19°C) and light.
[Strawberries: plant new bought plants, if applicable.]
Late Feb,sowcarrots # 2 (flameweed);
Really finish transplanting spinach. If needed, presprout 4oz/bed spinach for 1 week before sowing.
Till and sow areas for clover cover crops (eg grapes, eggplant beds), or oats, from 2/15.
Transplant fall-sown onions ½-3/4” deep, when no thicker than pencils. Weed over-wintered spinach, kale, collards.
In greenhouse sow broccoli #2 (2 weeks after 2nd), (shallots), lettuce #4, hoophouse cukes.
Perennials: Finish weeding. Give compost, if not done in fall, including strawberries and grapes. See list for January. Transplant bushes, canes, crowns if needed. Mulch. Finish pruning blueberries, ribes. Prune grapes before 3/21 – see last year’s log notes about replacement limbs needed, etc. Summer raspberries: cut out old canes. Install irrigation. Prepare sites for new grapevines, if needed.
Yes, really! On January 17, I sowed flats of cabbage, lettuce and mini-onions (cipollini), and the cabbage and lettuce are already up. Onions usually take 10 days, so I’m not surprised not to see them yet. It’s fun to see new seedlings, even though my energy isn’t ready for taking on another growing season yet. I’m still enjoying hibernation!
The cabbage varieties are Early Jersey Wakefield, a quick-growing small pointy-head open-pollinated variety, and Faroa, a quick-growing fairly small round hybrid that has been very reliable for us. These are for a bed of early cabbage, to eat after our stored winter cabbage is all gone. We’ll sow our main-crop cabbage on 2/7, in much bigger quantities.
I sowed two lettuces: reliable old Salad Bowl and the unusual Cracoviensis, a pink veined sturdy leaf lettuce, that we have found is only useful for us at this first sowing. It bolts too easily once it gets even faintly warm. It tends not to get bitter even when bolting, but our diners aren’t going to believe that!
We’re also still busy with various stages of our garden planning. yesterday I updated our harvest calendar, which tells our cooks which crops they can expect when, and also our food processing calendar to tell the food processing crew when to be ready to tackle large amounts of broccoli, beans or paste tomatoes, for example. I’m part way through revising the document we call our garden calendar, which is really a month-by-month task list. If you were following this blog in the fall, you’ll remember some of those monthly garden task lists. We’ve planned which crops are going in which of the 60 permanent raised beds and identified the ones we need to spread compost on and till first. And then we twiddle our thumbs – lots of rain last week (and a bit of snow) mean it will be a couple more weeks before the soil is dry enough to till.
Here’s our short Twin Oaks Garden Task List for January:
Planning: Prune the catalogs, do the filing, consolidate notes on varieties and quantities.
Week 1: Finalize seed orders, if not done in December. Revise Seedling Schedule using seed order.
: Revise Outdoor Planting Schedule. Plan labor needs for the year.
: Revise Raised Bed Planning Chart. Plan raised beds for Feb-June.
Week 4: Revise Garden Calendar, Lettuce List and lettuce Log.
Order Bt, spinosad and predatory beasties, coir. [sweet potato slips for shipping 5/12-5/17 if not growing our own] Repair greenhouse and coldframes and tidy. Check germinator-fridge and heat mat. Repair flats, and make new if needed. Make stakes. Clean labels.
Check equipment: rototiller, discs, and mower – repair or replace as needed. Repair and sharpen tools.
Freeze out greenhouse to kill pests, or spray with soap or cinnamon oil every five days. Import ladybugs. Check potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash in storage.
Mid-Jan: In greenhouse sow lettuce #1, early cabbage, mini-onions, early broccoli, onions.
Late Jan: In greenhouse sow lettuce #2, scallions #1, spinach, tomatoes, peppers for hoophouse Plantsmall potato onions, 4-5″ apart, ½-1” deep, in a mild spell. Remove mulch to plant, then replace it. Plant shallots & mulch.
Perennials (see November list). Weed blueberries, raspberries, asparagus (spread compost), grapes, rhubarb, strawberries. Add soil amendments, fertilize (not strawberries) and mulch. Prune blueberries, (take cuttings if wanted). Fall raspberries: cut all canes to the ground, remove canes from aisles. Summer raspberries: remove old fruiting canes & canes from aisles.
I feel drawn to autobiographies of women farmers, and Kristin Kimball’s story of growing food for a hundred people particularly appealed to me. I grow vegetables and some fruit for a hundred people at Twin Oaks Community, and our farming as a whole provides meat and dairy products too – what would be the points of similarity and of difference?
Kristin is a freelance writer from New York City. She interviews an energetic young farmer, gets pulled into joining in his work, and then moves from the city to start a new life with him. After some time looking for suitable land for free, they find the deeply run down Essex Farm. This book is the story of their first tumultuous year at Essex Farm (2003), operating a Full Diet CSA.
For farmers, this book will not be a cozy read – you’ll be on the edge of your chair! I probably got over half way through the book before I had any hope that they could succeed. Kristin and Mark’s success defies the quantity of hard work, the number of disasters and arguments, and their opposing strongly held opinions. And yet I know they succeeded, because several years have elapsed since the book was written and they are speaking at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in February 2013. But my goodness, in the early days, they seemed doomed to fail.
Their Whole Diet CSA model is revolutionary not only in the range of food provided, but also in the radical distribution method, which is simplicity itself: “Take what you need.” They provide vegetables, fruit, herbs, maple syrup, flours, dried beans, eggs, milk, beef, chicken and pork, for $2900 (in 2010), on a sliding scale. The members can show up every Friday afternoon to collect what they need from what’s available. Some members live pretty much on the food from Essex Farm, and others also buy elsewhere. There were about 100 members in 2010.
Kristin starts from being a very soft-handed non-farming townie in tight jeans and heeled boots. She has a lot to learn! How will it ever work? Especially as Mark is experienced at farming and seemingly obsessed with working long hard hours in top gear. We don’t hear so much from Mark’s perspective, but Kristin does tell us that he avoids the word “work”, preferring to say “I farmed for 14 hours today.” I like that approach. Mark is an excellent cook as well as a very good farmer. Early in their relationship he kills a deer and cooks dinner. Kristin says “I fell in love with him over a deer’s liver.”
Mark has all the farming knowledge and plenty of opinions besides. He believes he has a magic circle around him, and that good things (such as a free farm) will manifest. Naturally enough, this is exasperating for Kristin, who is accused of draining the magic with her negativity. The clash of the earnest woo-woo hippie and the middle-class lover of manicures and foreign travel doesn’t look promising. Mark tells Kristin to give away her beautiful bed rather than bring it with her to the farm, as he will build a more beautiful bed. They sleep on a mattress on the floor for a very long time. How is this all going to lead to a thriving farm and two thriving farmers?
They (led by Mark) decide to farm in ways they enjoy even if they are less efficient: working horses, hand-milking, no fussing over picayune pricing of individual products. They move to Essex farm in early winter. There are tenants in the farmhouse, so they rent a place in town and commute to milk their cow, feed their chickens and restore the outbuildings. Meanwhile they make plans. Their plans are way beyond reasonable. In one week in February they intend to plan and build a greenhouse. The next week they will cut and split the whole year’s supply of firewood. They planned to hold their wedding in October, coinciding with 50 chicks arriving. Their honeymoon week they would also be extracting honey!
Kristin gets library books about construction and plumbing. She realizes how wrong her prejudice was, that manual workers are stupid and lazy. She gets herself through this big change in lifestyle by pretending she’s visiting a foreign land and will one day go home. She enjoys the present, the everyday, but doesn’t consider the hard work in the dirt and cold as a long-term lifestyle. She doesn’t want the emergencies – runaway cattle, freezing pipes, work at all hours, endlessly.
Despite the ill omens, they survive the winter (and we’re talking a long Northern winter here). “March was a tense and slightly dangerous time, like a border crossing between two conflicting countries. It’s not the deprivations of winter that get you, or the damp of spring, but the no-man’s land between.” The unpredictable weather, the dull and depressed fields. This resonated for me. When I lived and gardened on the Yorkshire Moors, I felt like this in March. Winter seemed endless, but it didn’t help to expect spring in March, because it just was too early. Now I’m in Virginia and we have weeks of work behind us by the end of March – winter is so much shorter.
During the maple syrup run, Kristin finds her feet, a job she excels at: evaporating the sap. She begins to love the work, seeing the connection between her actions and their consequences, believing in what she’s doing. She and Mark still argue a lot, with their different styles (passive-aggressive grudge-nurturer versus dog-like shaking of the issue.) Kristin sees that their arguments come from their two different basic fears: hers of poverty, debt and being enslaved to repayments; his of ruining themselves with overwork: “the farm gaining mass and speed until it ran over the farmer and squashed him.” He worried they’d be overwhelmed and life would not be fun anymore. Both problems are certainly deserving of fear. Organic farms fail most often from burnout or divorce. Kristin comments that they were fighting so much they could reach divorce before even reaching marriage.
Which farmer will not relate to this, my favorite quote from the book: “A farm is a manipulative creature. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only things that must be done now, and things that can be done later. The threat the farm has got on you, the one that keeps you running from can until can’t, is this: do it now, or some living thing will wilt or suffer or die. It’s blackmail, really.”
They somehow continue to build up the farm and by the time the ground has thawed [I wonder when that is in the Lake Champlain area?], they have seven paid up members for their CSA, and tensions recede. They have direction, purpose and a weekly goal. Neighbors and friends rally to help. The first week of their CSA they offer milk, meat, eggs, maple syrup and lard.
Once they reach June, the peak of the farming year, they are starting work at 3.45am and not finishing till 7pm (and even then they still have to lock up the chickens). Kristin even falls asleep on the seat of the cultivator. Mark seems to have “diabolical energy” and exuberance. Kristin is happy, working alongside Mark and walking the fields in the evenings, making more plans.
Kristin realizes “the things I admired most about him [Mark] in the abstract were what drove me nuts in the specific.” His beliefs were informed by his experiences and his research. He was uncomfortable with anything where he was unable to know and measure the impact – he wanted no part of it. He tried hard to live by his beliefs of low consumption, handmade items, responsible decisions. Kristin, for her part, was a hedonist with no particular ethic. Mark’s unbending strength carries him and the farm through very hard times. Unbending strength = rigidity = inflexibility = stubbornness. Kristin accommodates to Mark’s beliefs (perhaps another example of Mark’s good luck – without a partner like Kristin, flexible, hardworking, accepting, he would not have made it)
The CSA membership reaches 30 by late summer. They realize the house will not be all fixed up in time for the wedding. Their “To Do” list includes “Find tables and chairs. Slaughter bull for ox roast. Butcher chickens for rehearsal dinner. Write vows.” Kristin is still unsure she wants to marry Mark: “Poverty, unmitigated hard work, and a man whom, for all his good points, no reasonable person would describe as easy to be with.” She is very candid, very open about her doubts, to a level I feel uncomfortable with – it feeds my near-certainty that they’ll never make it. She is also very perceptive: “Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat goodbye.”
In October the wedding does happen (in case you too, were wondering), despite Kristin having flu and the baker having gone AWOL. It was a reflection of their farming: “exquisite, untidy, sublime and untamed”. I don’t know if the chicks arrived the same week, as originally planned. One month later, Kristin is on a two month writing assignment in Hawai’i. She feels a need to anchor herself by doing some farming, so she visits a vegetable grower. She is taken aback by the leisurely pace of harvesting, and records that that was the moment she made the emotional commitment to her marriage. She realizes the difficulties in her chosen life are hers by choice, and she can’t wait to get home.
When she gets home, Mark has settled into his own rhythm, and they work together looking for harmony, not for conflict. But this isn’t the sugar-coated happy-ever-after ending. Their marriage remains fiery. They engage a few interns each year, and employ some of the local people. CSA membership grows to a hundred. In year 4 their daughter is born and they buy part of the farm.
Kristin leaves us with these words of wisdom: “in my experience, tranquil and simple are two things farming is not. Nor is it lucrative, stable safe or easy. Sometimes the work is enough to make you weep.” And yet “A bowl of beans, rest for tired bones. . . . these things. . . have comforted our species for all time, and for happiness’ sake they should not slip beneath our notice. Cook things, eat them with other people. If you can tire your own bones while growing the beans, so much the better for you.”
Phew! It worked out! Who needs suspense novels for winter reading when there are farming tales as gripping as this one? to read more, go to her website.
This week I’ve been marveling at Ruby Streaks, a beautiful ferny dark red leafy salad vegetable growing in our hoophouse. It brings a smile to winter salad mixes, a refreshing change from all the earnest shades of green. It’s beautiful, fast-growing, productive, easy to grow, cold tolerant, sweet-tasting,slightly pungent, and the seed is not expensive, what more need I say?
Ruby Streaks is so much more colorful and interesting than actual purple mizuna. For the botanists of Asian Greens among us, Ruby Streaks is a Brassica juncea, not B. rapa var japonica, like actual mizuna.
It can be grown and used as a microgreen (cut at small seedling stage), or a baby green after 21 days, and full size after 40 days. You could lightly braise it if you wanted it cooked. The leaves are finely serrated at the baby size and very similar to mizuna at full size. The stems are green and the leaf color ranges from dark green with red veins in warmer weather, to dark maroon in winter. Right now the color is incredible.
We harvest full size leaves by “crew-cutting” one side of each plant with scissors, then chopping them into short lengths. The plants regrow quickly.
It germinates quickly. Fedco warns that it bolts more readily than mizuna. We only grow it in the winter, when nothing is inclined to bolt, so this hasn’t been an issue for us. If you want to sow for spring, I’d recommend starting early in flats or pots indoors, and then transplanting at 4-5 weeks of age, about a month before the last frost date. Use rowcover for a few weeks.
To start in summer for a fall outdoor crops, you could again use flats, or you can make an outdoor nursery seed bed, protected with hoops and rowcover or ProtekNet insect netting from Fedco or from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland. In hot weather it’s easier to keep outdoor beds damp compared to flats with a small amount of soil in them. We start ours 6/26 – the same dates we use for sowing fall broccoli and cabbage. The last sowing date is about 3 months before the first frost date. Transplant at 3-4 weeks of age, preferably not older. We haven’t tested out the cold-hardiness of Ruby Streaks, but I would expect it to survive at least down to 25F (-4C), the temperature mizuna is good to.
But the hoophouse in winter is where Ruby Streaks really shines! Double layers of inflated plastic provide enough protection in our climate for Ruby Streaks to grow all winter. And I do mean make actual growth, not just rest up waiting for spring! For winter salad mixes, we sow on 9/24 in an outdoor nursery bed, then plant into the hoophouse 10/24 (4 weeks old). We harvest that 11/1-1/25, by only cutting down one side of the plant at a time. After we clear that crop, we sow radishes in the space. We sow a second round of Ruby Streaks and mizuna inside the hoophouse 11/9, thin it into the salad, and then harvest from it 1/27-3/6.
I’ve been busy putting our seed orders together. As we grow so many different crops, it’s quite a time-consuming process. And I hate to buy too little and be out in the field on planting day, looking at an almost empty packet. Equally, I hate to buy too much, which either wastes money (if we throw the extra away), or else causes us to risk sowing seed that really is too old, and won’t do well. I keep a chart of how long different types of seed last:
(From Sustainable Market Farming, (c) Pam Dawling, New Society Publishers, 2013)
“Opinions vary a bit about how many years seeds of different vegetables are good for. The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. You can make your own decisions, weighing up the information supplied, your knowledge of how carefully you stored the seeds, the information on each packet about percentage germination when you bought it, and the economic importance to you of that particular crop. If you always transplant lettuce, as I do, you can risk one of your four varieties in that sowing coming up poorly, and just plant out more of the other three if it fails. Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook.
Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce). Other seed contains compounds that inhibit germination. These can be flushed out by soaking in water for about an hour (beets).
Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts. Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops.
Our main seed suppliers are Fedco, Johnny’s and Southern Exposure. Fedco has great prices, especially on bulk sizes, great social and political commentary in the catalog, and no glossy pages. Johnnys has some good varieties that Fedco doesn’t, and a ton of useful information tucked away on their website. Southern Exposure is best on southern crops and heat tolerant varieties which we can’t expect seed companies in Maine to specialize in. Plus, SESE are my friends and neighbors.
This year we are trying some new varieties. Generally we like to have some reliable workhorses that we know well, and trial a few new things, especially if we hear our favorite varieties are no longer available. Last year our Nadia eggplant couldn’t cope with the heat. For a while in early summer they didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit. So next year, alongside Nadia I’m trying 3 that should deal better with heat. Florida Highbush is open-pollinated, from the Seed Savers Exchange. Epic and Traviata are hybrids from Osborne Seeds.
I also bought some Sugar Flash snap peas from Osborne. We have been big fans of Sugar Ann, but I’ve heard Sugar Flash is even better on flavor, yield and harvest period. We’re going to find out!
For a couple of years we really liked Frontier bulb onions as a storage variety for this climate and latitude (38N). Frontier disappeared from the catalogs of our usual suppliers and we tried Gunnison and Patterson. This year – no Gunnison! And we didn’t get a good test of Patterson last year, as we failed to weed our onions enough, after an initial enthusiastic good go at it. We were looking again at Copra, one we grew some years ago (before we found Frontier). I lucked out when I decided to see if Osborne had Gunnison, while I was shopping there. they didn’t, but they had Frontier! And then when I was shopping at Johnny’s, I found they did have some Gunnison for online sales only. So I ordered those too!
We’re also trying Sparkler bicolor sweet corn from Fedco and a drying bean I won’t name, as the seed is in short supply. And this year we’re hoping Red Express cabbage will prove to be a reliable little worker. We used to like Super Red 80, but had several years of poor results. Since then, none of the other red cabbages we tried have satisfied us in terms of size, earliness, productivity and flavor.
After a few years of poor pickling cucumbers, we’re going outside the box and trying West Indian Gherkins from Monticello, where they were grown by Thomas Jefferson (and some of the enslaved people, no doubt). These are not closely related to actual cucumbers, but are used similarly. I saw them growing in the Monticello garden when I was there for the Heritage Harvest Festival in September, and they are certainly robust and productive in hot humid weather. We’ll see how the pickles turn out!
My only other “impulse buy” was the Salanova Lettuce new at Johnny’s. They are 6 varieties of head lettuce designed to be used for salad mix at a single cutting. Quicker than snipping rows of baby lettuce with scissors. More fun than plain lettuce heads. They are loose heads of small leaves in various shades of green and red, and two “hairstyles”: frizzy and wavy.