Harvest Day

Harvest Day
Winter crops

Monday, February 20, 2012

How'd they do that?

We planted potatoes this week, around 450 row feet of them.  In a few days, we'll plant that many more.  It's a rather big deal and involves some pretty intense labor, primarily in preparing the rows for planting.  In addition to plowing and harrowing, both of which are done with our little tractor, the rows have to be opened (again, with the tractor) and then compost and fertilizer laid down in the rows.  These "inputs" are then lightly mixed with the soil.  Meanwhile, in the house, the "seed potatoes" which are simply potatoes that have been inspected and certified to be free of disease, are prepared for planting.  Each potato is examined and cut into pieces with each piece containing at least 2 or 3 "eyes," or sprouts.  These cut potatoes are laid out on a flat surface and allowed to dry for a day or two lest they rot when put in the ground.  When all is prepared and the cut potatoes are dry, each piece is placed carefully, cut-side down, in the row and dirt pulled over them.  A layer of mulch is then placed over the dirt, irrigation lines laid over this, and we wait for them to grow.

Every year when we are planting potatoes, the conversation inevitably turns to yield.  Yield is the term used to describe the amount of crop that is ultimately harvested.  And our potato yield is typically in the 1300 to 1500 pound range.  That's a lot of spuds!  And THAT conversation usually turns to our frequent comment, "Man, we pull a LOT of food out of this little piece of dirt, don't we?"  It isn't bragging we are doing (though we are awfully proud of what we are able to produce), but rather our constant amazement at what is possible.

I am often asked how we manage to produce so much in such a relatively small space.  Our "farm" is a mere 2.4 acres, and most of that is taken by the house and various outbuildings along with 7 enormous pecan trees.  The areas that remain are sunny and have mostly been turned into garden space.  For ease of discussion, we call them The Front Garden, The Back Garden and The North Patch.  The Front and Back gardens are further divided into sections which we have numbered.  Sounds silly, I know, but when two people are involved it is necessary to know that you are talking about the same thing!   Additionally, these numbered sections are irrigation zones, also handy to have a reference when discussing.

When our CSA began, we only had the Front Garden, and it was much smaller than today.  We've expanded it twice and it now covers an area that is roughly 150 by 150 feet.  The Back Garden was added during our second year and a couple of small expansions were added to it also.  It is L-shaped and overall contains about 2/3 the planting space of the Front Garden.  The North Patch is a  rather small triangular space that was begun last year and has just been planted with its second crop.  It is about 65 feet at its broad end and the sides are maybe 50 or 60 feet long.

It is a lot of garden space for two middle-aged folks like ourselves to manage, but we somehow keep it all going.  We've learned a lot of tricks along the way and figured out ways to accomplish our goals with a minimum of labor and expense.  But the most important thing we do to keep the volume of vegetables up, is caring for the soil.  Our soil gets a workout, most of it is planted with 3 crops a year.  We try to "rest" each area for a season every couple of years, but it doesn't always happen.  Every time we plant, we add compost.  This is either compost we've made or mushroom compost that we've purchased.  We use no chemical fertilizers on our soil, only a mixture of cottonseed meal, bone meal, gypsum and lime along with foliar spraying with fish/kelp emulsion.  When an area is going to be planted with a long-season crop like corn, we will scatter chicken manure or cow manure prior to planting, and we do the same for areas laying fallow for a season.  Between the planting rows, we try to keep mulch on the soil--either ground leaves or grass clippings--that serves to keep down weeds, insulate the soil, conserve soil moisture, and enrich the soil as it breaks down.  In short, we feed the soil and the soil feeds us.

The other thing we practice that greatly enhances the yield from our gardens is companion planting and intensive gardening techniques.  For instance, lettuce plants are set about a foot apart and we usually plant them in double rows.  Between the two rows of lettuce, we like to plant onion sets which will be harvested as green onions.  They share the space nicely and the onions work to repel the slugs which like to feast on salad at night.  Then in the rows of lettuce, between the plants, we'll put a few carrot seeds.  They get such a slow start that by the time they need more space the lettuce has been harvested.  This method makes premium use of our fertilizer and compost, as well as our irrigation.  It also cuts our labor by allowing 3 crops to be grown with only one planting bed prepared.   Other combinations we've found that work well are spinach along the edge of the edible podded pea plantings, and radishes outside of cucumber rows.  Basil plants are nice between tomato plants and are said to enhance the flavor of the tomatoes they grow near.

I've been known to plant watermelons along with eggplants, the vines and huge leave of the melons shading out weeds around the tall eggplants, and both loving the same hot temperatures.  We've all heard of the Native American method of planting "The Three Sisters" which are corn, beans and squash in the same space.  I don't do this, however, since modern sweet corn bears little resemblance to the maize grown by the Natives and it must be fiddled with throughout its growing season--hilling, fertilizing, etc. done for the corn would interfere with the other two sisters.

We produce several tons of vegetables here each year and deliver them to the eager hands of our CSA members.  In addition to more than a half-ton of potatoes, a typical summer will see 700-800 pounds of summer squash, 500-600 pounds of tomatoes, a couple hundred pounds of green beans, several hundred watermelons, at least 1,000 ears of sweet corn, and I won't even venture a guess how many eggplants and peppers.  Many hundreds of pounds of leafy greens leave here each fall, along with thousands of carrots, radishes and turnips.   We eat pretty well, also!

The soil is rich, crumbly and produces vegetables with full dark coloring and intense flavors.  The healthy soil is home to healthy organisms that play a major role in maintaining a balance of good vs. bad bugs.  The birds are free to hunt in the gardens, and between the eastern bluebirds and the mockingbirds, thousands of pest insects are eliminated each season.

We've learned to carefully nurture this little piece of dirt and avoid doing anything that would harm it.
We are cautious about introducing mulches or composts from unknown sources for fear that we might contaminate our precious garden space with unwanted chemicals or pests.  We try to work with nature rather than against, understanding that it is all about balance, rhythm, restraint, and a clear understanding that while we may hold the deed to this property, it is only truly being borrowed for a short while and must eventually be returned in the same or better shape than when it was loaned.  As a result of having learned these simple truths, our CSA members are able to rely on a steady supply of abundant and tasty vegetables throughout 3 delivery seasons each year.  And because we've allowed ourselves to fall into the rhythm of growing, we find that these same principles are replicated in the rest of our life.  And there, my friends, is the true magic to be found in working this land.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

February Made Me Shiver

I'm sitting at my dining room table, enjoying a cup of coffee while I listen to the wind whistling around the eaves of the house.  It is racing out of the northwest bringing some of the most frigid temperatures of the winter so far.  I'd like to say I have no worries about it despite last week's work of transplanting most of our spring garden into planting beds.  I'm not TRULY worried, just a bit concerned.  I assured Will this morning that I would never plant tender plants at the beginning of February and that all these crops are designed to weather the late winter cold, but after several weeks of what felt like spring weather it's hard not to have a twinge of anxiety about all the little seedlings out in this brutal chill.  Deep down I feel like they'll be okay.  And, the worst thing that could happen is that we would have to replace the ones lost--an expense to be sure, but not a deal breaker.  So, I sip my coffee and listen to the wind whistle.

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My friend, Alexis, gave birth to a baby girl this week.  She's in Washington, D.C. and this fresh bit of life is far from my reach, though my arms ache to hold her.  Her pictures online only hint at the softness of her delicate skin and that smell that only a new baby has, but it is enough to evoke all my grandmotherly longing for this tiny girl to hold while I rock.  And as I walked the gardens this morning, noting the tiny cabbage and lettuce plants bravely facing up to the wind and the fledgling onion plants, lined up as stiff as newly recruited soldiers, it was hard not to feel the parallel with Alexis' baby girl.  Every fiber of my being wanted to find some way to safeguard these baby plants, try to secure their future--just as I know Alexis would like to enfold her new daughter in a secure and guaranteed blanket of safety.  And just as I know there is no guarantee in this life, I also know that you make your best decisions and then you live with them.
The plants will stand a good chance against two nights of frigid temperatures because I planted them at the proper time and this weather is typical for this time of year.  And as for Alexis' baby girl?  She'll stand a good chance in life too because she has been born to a healthy mother in good circumstances and because she has two brilliant parents who will dedicate their lives to keeping her safe.

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Five days ago, I planted tomato and pepper seeds in small seed trays and was delighted to find that many of them had sprouted yesterday.  This is where being a plant-nerd comes in:  I find myself running back to the guestroom where my lighted seedling rack sits, looking at them every couple of hours to see how many have come up since the LAST time I looked.  There are no peppers up yet--they always take a good bit longer--but quite a few tomatoes are up.  We are only waiting for this cold snap to be over so we can begin planting potatoes.  The spuds can take the cold okay, but the farmers prefer to work in warmer weather!  And we have a beautiful flat of Swiss chard plants ready to go into their new garden home.  The snow peas and sugar snaps are looking spectacular and will not notice this cold front.  Baby spinach and baby beet plants will nestle down under frost blankets for the next couple of nights, along with some tiny, hair-like carrot seedlings.  Four days ago I sowed seeds of salad turnips, radishes, bok choy and broccoli raab.  They are safe underground, not sprouted yet.  So, despite the fury of a February cold front, the spring and summer gardens are well underway!

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We've been rehoming our chickens.  After 5 years of their daily needs taking precedence, we made the decision to find homes for them all and stop providing eggs with our CSA deliveries.  Though the decision has been a mixed bag of feelings, we are quite excited about not having that responsibility any more.  Aside from the time factor, there is a bit of expense that goes along with keeping a large flock of birds and it would be awfully nice to put those funds toward some other things.  And finally, the two chicken coops are strongly built structures that could be handily repurposed and add tremendously to our farm activities as a barn and as a potting shed.  Eight birds went to new homes today, four more will go tomorrow.  An additional six have been promised to someone else and I think the rest will be offered for sale.  Hopefully, we'll realize a handy little "nest egg" (haha, get it?) from their sale and can use it toward converting the two coops.  Every day now when Will sits down to clean the eggs, even though he still does this dirty task willingly and cheerfully, I know he is counting the days until he won't have to do this any more. He has done this close to two thousand times, and I think he is tired of it.  It has been a fun adventure to have this many chickens, and it has been rewarding on so many levels, but when it is time to move on it is best to do so.

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Though it was a bit disheartening to learn that we would have another bout of freezing weather before Spring, especially after all the balmy days just past, there is something comforting about being in our old house while the wind blows round it.  This house has seen 108 winters and feels as solid as any structure I've ever lived in.  Though there are some drafts and we must dress warmly thanks to the lack of insulation, it is cozy in its own way and feels like home.  Days like this make me want to cook--soups, pies, bread, pots of beans, pans of cookies.  Those aromas wafting about say "winter" to me, and winter is always a time in my life to plan for spring.  As surely as the cold drafts swirl about my sock-clad feet, the pear tree will bloom again, the dogwoods and azaleas will put on their show, and the spring garden will be filled with its verdant abundance.  All too soon we'll be longing for some relief from the relentless heat of summer and look back on days like today with fond regret.   Another layer of winter clothing might be in order before our day-end chores are done, but I'm going to allow myself to enjoy the biting feel of cold on my cheeks and try to remember the sensation so that come July I'll have a small haven in my mind to retreat from the sweltering heat.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Farm Work Day, February 2012

Yesterday we held our Farm Work Day for the upcoming Spring season.  Considering that our membership is mostly made up of working folks, I think we had a good turnout for a Saturday morning.  Several had been to prior workdays, a few were visiting the farm for the first time.

Our order of seedlings had arrived on Wednesday and were at a prime size for transplanting into the gardens.  Will and I worked pretty hard earlier in the week, preparing the garden beds with compost and fertilizer and laying the drip tapes.  When the members arrived, we were ready to go to work.

Several people went right at it, having done this before.  They set out brussels sprouts and cabbage plants in the North Garden while the children and their mothers planted potatoes in the Front Garden.  As soon as the spuds had all been set in place, the youngsters and some of the parents moved to the back garden and began putting in lettuce plants by the hundreds.

While all this was happening, Will and several of the other men moved our greenhouse.  We'd decided recently that it should be moved to a different location, both because the new spot would be more suitable for growing and also because we wanted to reclaim the old spot for another use.  Will worked for two days, between all his other chores, readying the house for its move.  Abandoned from use a couple of years ago, it had become overrun with weeds and had sort of become a catchall for empty planting flats and pots.  Also, the uprights were anchored in the ground and had to be cut loose.  Then, he strapped the whole business to our little tractor, put round fence posts under the house to use as rollers and it was ready to go.  We put weedblock fabric down where the house was going to be set and waited for helping hands!

Being the nervous nelly that I am, I couldn't watch the process and foolishly sacrificed the chance to get photos of the whole thing or even video!  I'm slapping myself for that!  Anyway, the move went very smoothly, no one got hurt and it went according to plan.  As the tractor pulled the structure along, the helpers moved the rollers from back to front and progressed across the yard and into place.  Now, we can re-cover the house, revamp the door, run power to it and I'm ready to grow our summer tomatoes, peppers and egglants!  So exciting!

Once the greenhouse project was complete, some of the guys began mulching in the Back Garden while the others helped Will erect a fence around the North Garden.  This is only it's second season of use, we grew the winter squash there last summer, and they did fine without a fence.  Now, with the tender cabbage and brussels sprouts tempting the neighborhood rabbits, we weren't willing to take further chances.

By the time all this was completed, we were all hungry so we put tables under the pecan trees and pulled out our lunches for a delightful bit of happy fellowship.  Everyone went home with eggs and vegetables shortly after. The children were tired and dirty, their sweet faces pink from the sun and the romping, proud of having helped so much (and they did!).  We kicked back to rest, pleased that everyone had fun and that so many wonderful tasks had been completed.  I think our spring season is off to a fine start!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Winter into Spring

I don't quite know where January has gone, it seems to have evaporated amid a post-holiday, between-season lethargy that has taken over our house.  Down times are so rare in this life of ours that when opportunity presents itself for some old fashioned laziness, we take full advantage.  Oh, we've stirred around and done a few things, there is never a time that we are completely without chores that must be performed.  But, the period between the last of the fall garden and the hardcore spring and summer planting is a delightful time of few pressing issues.

All good things must eventually end though, and today finds us gearing up in a major way for the upcoming weeks.  Our first Member Work Day of the season is a short 3 days away.  Fedex is due to deliver more than a thousand baby plants today.  There is compost to be spread, driplines to be laid out, the house to be spruced up a bit and what seems like an endless sheaf of notes about what to do next.

I'm really looking forward to our work day on Saturday.  We've done this before and it is always great fun. The members who want to participate show up on Saturday morning, eager for some country air and to get their hands dirty.  We'll try to have things ready for them to go right to work and everyone will stay busy for several hours on their assigned tasks.  There is much laughter, gentle teasing, and always a bit of fumbling around as these hands accustomed to clean, office work remember the feel of a trowel or rake.
When midday rolls around we'll drag all our tables out under the pecan trees, grab chairs from the porches and pull out brown bag lunches and enjoy a leisurely well earned break.  By then, kids are starting to get cranky and some folks begin to pack up for the drive home.  A few hardy souls will no doubt hang around for another work session after lunch and gradually the day will wind down.    Once the members have all left, we'll marvel at their enthusiasm and the amount of work they've saved us.

Hot on the heals of the work day we'll begin preparing potato beds.  I've already purchased the seed potatoes, they are stashed in the foyer beside my seed cabinet, waiting patiently.  Regional wisdom dictates planting potatoes on Valentines Day and we usually try to comply.  A couple of days before planting, I'll take the potatoes out of their burlap bags and cut each one into egg-sized pieces and lay them out on newspapers to dry a bit.  It's an ornery and dirty chore and I rather dislike it but it must be done.  A couple of weeks after the pieces are nestled into the soil of their planting rows, we'll be astonished, as always, by how rapidly they grow, seemingly going from green sprout to robust and surprisingly beautiful plant in a short few days.

We'll begin deliveries for Spring the first week of March and by then we'll have all the tender, early spring crops making a spectacular show in the garden.  The radishes, so humble, are amazingly beautiful in the first warm days, along with arugula, baby turnips, spinach, lettuce, carrots, bok choy, and green onions.  The sugar snaps and snow peas will have scrambled up their trellises and I'll be eagerly searching for their first blossoms.  The beets will have gotten tall and sturdy and the bulbous roots will begin to swell.  And the pear tree will be in spectacular bloom, a huge white cloud alive with honeybees, drunk and frenzied as they gorge on its nectar.  And amid all this beauty, there will be not a single second to spend admiring it all for this is the time of planting for summer.

Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings will need to be watered and misted daily, beans and corn will need to be seeded along with squash, melons and cucumbers.  Cabbage, brussels sprouts and swiss chard will be well on their way to maturity and late winter weeds will be making a valiant attempt at taking them over.  Will's wheel barrow will make trip after trip to the compost pile, hauling an endless number of loads of the crumbly, black gold to nourish the ground in the gardens.  It will all be so glorious!

But for today, most of it is a dreamlike plan and a pile of lists.  Crop rotations, companion planting notes, seed orders, garden diagrams, and to-do lists.  My clipboard seems to be a part of me and each night before slumber I find myself going through the mental list of it all, reassuring myself repeatedly that I've not forgotten some major task, that all crops have been planned for, and that through the sheer force of determination we will once again pull several tons of top quality nourishment from this little two-acre piece of Georgia dirt.

The last of the broccoli is calling for harvest today and a flat of lettuce plants is bound for the garden this afternoon, so this day's post comes to an end.  I'm ready to get started.