Is Bigger Better?

It’s October.  I just stopped at a restaurant with a chalkboard menu adorned with fake cobwebs and spiders.  Folks are taking cornstalks from the field and bundling them up on their porches to adorn their doorways.  Everywhere I look there are big orange pumpkins waiting to be carved into jack-o-lanterns.  When I was a kid, I loved carving pumpkins as much as anyone, but now that I’m a farmer, sometimes I look at those huge pumpkins and wonder, “Is bigger really better?”  I’m not trying to be the grinch that stole Halloween, but I think about growing vegetables ALL THE TIME, and because jack-o-lanterns are vegetables, I contemplate the cost of growing these huge veggies.  I’m not talking the dollars and cents it takes to grow mammoth-sized pumpkins, I’m talking about the cost to the fertility of the garden.

Pumpkins are squash, and they belong to the family Cucurbitaceae along with cucumbers, melons, gourds, and zucchini.  All of the cucurbits require a lot of room to grow because they have sprawling vines, and they are heavy feeders, meaning they require soil that is rich in many nutrients.  You can think of them as plants with big appetites.  Oftentimes, fertilizers, either synthetic or organic, are used to provide extra nutrients for pumpkins and their squash relatives.  Most fertilizers include the three big plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  Nitrogen, in particular, promotes rapid growth of plants, which is why plants grow so quickly after the application of nitrogen-heavy fertilizers.  Along with big appetites, pumpkins get thirsty, and to grow a prize-winning big pumpkin, you need a lot of water.  One source I found quoted 89-134 gallons per day for a 1000 square foot garden.  This is especially important if the pumpkin is growing rapidly because of the addition of extra plant nutrients, like nitrogen.  So what do all these fertilizers and gallons of water give us?  Well, besides an awesomely huge pumpkin to look at, a watery pumpkin. Pumpkins are 85-90% water, so a medium-sized jack-o-lantern pumpkin at 18 lbs is around 15-16 lbs of water and 2-3 pounds of fiber and nutrients. Pumpkins are a good source of beta-carotene, they have a lot of fiber, the seeds are high in zinc, which is great for your immune system, and they contain a lot of vitamins and trace minerals.  If you eat your pumpkin, you absorb many of those nutrients in your body, and a short time later, the fiber and metabolites go elsewhere (that’s the polite way of saying that they go down the toilet).  If you don’t eat your pumpkin, the nutrients end up in a rotten puddle on your front porch, or maybe splattered on your sidewalk if there are marauding teenagers in your neighborhood.  I would almost guarantee, though, that the nutrients don’t go back to the field where the pumpkin grew.  Instead, there is now a nutrient “hole” in the garden, leaving fewer nutrients behind where the pumpkin was heavily feeding on water and soil nutrients all season long.

Before you get depressed and swear off jack-o-lanterns forever, there are some ways to grow pumpkins and keep your garden healthy instead of depleting it of nutrients.  First, or last depending on how you look at it, instead of letting a jack-o-lantern go to waste at the end of the year, try composting it.  A home composting system is easy to set up (you can check out my home composting system in my “After the Market” blog) and allows you to cycle the nutrients from your leftover vegetable waste back into your garden.  Simply take finished compost from your pile and put it in the garden where your pumpkin was growing.  Adding a nitrogen-fixing cover crop like clover, vetch, or field peas to your pumpkin patch can also help put nitrogen back in your garden by converting nitrogen from the air into nitrogen in the soil that plants can easily access.  These nitrogen-fixing cover crops do this trough a symbiotic bacteria present on their roots.  Amazing, right?!  You can get free nitrogen for your plants from the air!
In my garden, I didn’t add extra nitrogen-rich fertilizers to my pumpkins and I didn’t irrigate them.  I did give the baby pumpkin plants a little bit of compost, which helped to replace some of the nutrients removed by the previous crop taken from the garden.  Otherwise, the air, sun, and rain provided everything else the pumpkins needed.  Without excess nitrogen, they didn’t grow rapidly, and they didn’t put on excessive water weight as a result.  Admittedly, I wasn’t trying to grow prize-winning huge pumpkins.  I wasn’t even trying to grow jack-o-lanterns.  Instead, I grew pie pumpkins, which are for eating even though they look pretty enough to be decorative.  Pie pumpkins are smaller than jack-o-lanterns, and this year, my pie pumpkins averaged around 4 lbs each, which provides enough pumpkin flesh to make 1-2 pies.  I didn’t want huge pumpkins because I didn’t have a lot of room for them in my 1-acre garden and I wanted the flavors and nutrients to be concentrated, not watered down.  In my mind, it’s the best of both worlds – a vegetable that is delicious and healthy, albeit small.

Homemade pumpkin pie.  The canned stuff just doesn't compare.
Homemade pumpkin pie. The canned stuff just doesn’t compare.

​If you come visit my stand at the farmers market, you may notice that some of my veggies are on the petite side.  That’s because I use my “little pumpkin” philosophy all throughout the garden.  My celery is small.  So are my eggplants, beets, cabbages, and a bunch of other vegetables.   Sometimes it’s because I grow small varieties and plant things close together so I can fit a lot of vegetables in a small space, but oftentimes it’s because I don’t use fertilizer and extra water on the plants.  I believe the result is nutrient-dense and flavorful (and not watery) food.  Sometimes bigger isn’t always better…sometimes good things come in small packages.

Juicy and sweet little single-sized baby cabbages were a hit at the market this year.
Juicy and sweet little single-sized baby cabbages were a hit at the market this year.
Of course, not everything we grow is petite.  We had jumbo chard in July!
Of course, not everything we grow is petite. We had jumbo chard in July!

After the Market

The past few weeks at the farmers market have been the busiest of the year.  There are a few factors contributing to this, as far as I can tell.  With cooler-than-normal temperatures this summer, folks have been out enjoying the weather and spending a little extra time at the market, especially now that it’s corn, tomato, and watermelon season.  There are so many beloved summer vegetables ripe and ready right now that it is truly the best time of year to visit the market.  Chris and I have spent some long days harvesting in preparation for the busy July and August markets, and every time we pack up the truck to head to the market, I am amazed that we are able to fit everything.  We like to keep our booth stocked for the duration of the market, rather than run out of things early, which means we often come home with leftover vegetables.  When I worked at Local Roots Farm in Seattle, leftover vegetables weren’t a problem.  We had an honor system farm stand on the road where we could sell nice leftover vegetables, and anything that was wilted could go to our laying hens or pigs.  Here at Dark Wood Farm, I don’t have a farm stand, and we don’t have any farm animals except for Smudge the cat, and she’s not too keen on leftover chard.  So you might be wondering what we do with our leftover veggies, and the answer is – we do lots of things!  Chris and I both love to cook, so in the days following a farmers market, we prioritize cooking with the items left over from market.  For example, today I used up one bunch of sorrel, a bunch of chard, three onions, some leeks, a tomato, and several peppers, and that was only for one meal – lunch!


Tomato Salad
​Part of our lunch today: heirloom tomato, bell peppers, and seared padrone peppers with sea salt.


Whatever we don’t eat either gets stored, sold, donated, composted, or preserved.  Here’s a little bit about each of these avenues:

Some leftover items, like potatoes, will store perfectly fine until our next market in a few days, so we hang on to those.  The tricky part about holding vegetables until the next market is finding a good place to store them.  Each vegetable has a preferred temperature and humidity, so you often can’t store everything in one place.  Some veggies need to be refrigerated, some don’t.  Most of them need to be kept out of the sun and out of the reaches of rodents or other animals looking for a feast.

Some of the higher demand items get sold to friends, family, and neighbors, especially the ones that live along the road between the market and the farm.  From time to time, the Rabbit Hash General Store, just 3 miles down the road, will sell some of my nice leftover goods.  We also donate lots of greens and other perishable items to a food pantry run by CAIN – Churches Active in Northside.  They pick up the veggies right at the end of our Wednesday market in Northside, then stock their pantry for guests on Thursday morning.

Surprisingly, when all is said and done, we have very little vegetable matter leftover to compost.  I started two compost bins when I moved onto the farm in January.  They are simply cylinders of wire mesh with a few support poles.  They are each three feet tall and a foot and a half wide.  I dump vegetable scraps inside the cylinder and then top it with a handful or two of carbonaceous or “brown” material like dry leaves.  Lately, I have been using some of the chaff I winnowed off of my mustard crop mixed with some cocoa bean husks that I picked up from the new chocolate shop at Findlay Market, Maverick Chocolate.  These dry materials help balance out the wet, nitrogenous food and veggie scraps and keep the compost smelling pleasant.  I’m 8 months in, and the first cylinder is only about 60% full!  As all the microbes and insects quickly work their way through the compost during the heat of the summer, the volume compresses, even though Chris and I are adding a couple bowls of fresh material every day.

Compost bin
One of our compost bins, holding 8 months worth of compost!

For me, the most exciting aspect of market leftovers at the moment is the opportunity it provides to squirrel food away for the winter.  This past winter, when I first moved onto the farm, my pantry was bare except for a few winter squash, shallots, garlic, and root vegetables that I stowed away in little nooks and crannies of my car when I left Local Roots and moved home to Kentucky.  Luckily, I quickly befriended some local farmers including Barry at Red Sunflower Farm, and he was kind enough to share some frozen beans, squash, and canned tomatoes to help me get through the winter until the first asparagus and rhubarb peeked through this spring.  Now that my farm is in full abundance, I intend on stocking my pantry for the winter so that I can eat some healthy farm foods even when the ground is frozen.  A couple weeks ago, I wrote about drying herbs and saving mustard seed, and I mentioned how I had been putting off canning because of how hot it makes the kitchen.  Now that tomato season is here, I’ve had to suck it up and deal with the heat in the kitchen.  At the end of each market, I normally have some dented and bruised tomatoes that didn’t survive the truck ride to the market, so they have been going into the canning pot then onto my shelf for making chili and tomato-y beans and greens this winter.

cooking a pot of tomatoes
​A pot of roma and heirloom tomatoes cooking down before being packed into jars for canning.
​Pulling finished jars of tomato out of my great grandma's pressure cooker from 1961.
​Pulling finished jars of tomato out of my great grandma’s pressure cooker from 1961.
Summer in jars - my mom's canned green beans and my canned crushed tomatoes.
Summer in jars – my mom’s canned green beans and my canned crushed tomatoes.

I am growing a small Italian heirloom tomato called Principe Borghese, which no one seems to want to buy.  I decided to try growing it when I read in the seed catalog, “used for sun-dried tomatoes as it has few seeds and little juice.” Sun-dried tomatoes! YES! I love sun-dried tomatoes, so I was sure that several of my market customers would be excited about a tomato that is exceptional for drying.  Well, my instincts perhaps were wrong, because I normally bring home 75% of the Principe Borghese tomatoes that I pick.  I’m not worried about it, though, because it takes me about 10 minutes to cut up the leftover Principe tomatoes and put them in the dehydrator, then in 48 hours I have a jar full of aromatic sun-dried tomatoes.

​Sun-dried Principe Borghese tomatoes bound for some winter pasta and pizza.
​Sun-dried Principe Borghese tomatoes bound for some winter pasta and pizza.

My latest experiment in food preservation is homemade hot sauce.  I am bringing two types of hot peppers to the market currently: green jalapenos and fish peppers.  They have been selling so-so, and after Wednesday’s market, I had a pint of each that no one bought so I decided to try making green hot sauce.  Following this recipe online, I chopped the peppers in my food processor with some salt, then transferred the hot pepper puree to a jar to ferment overnight.  The next day, I added vinegar, and I am currently letting it sit for a week to develop flavors before I will sieve out the pepper chunks and put the liquid hot sauce into a bottle.

 ​Jalapeno and fish hot peppers; hot sauce in the making!

​Jalapeno and fish hot peppers; hot sauce in the making!


Hot peppers pureed with salt, fermenting into hot sauce.
Hot peppers pureed with salt, fermenting into hot sauce.

​Instead of looking at my leftover market vegetables as a burden, I choose to look at them as a challenge.  How can I find more outlets for my vegetables, how can I improve my composting system, which new recipes can I explore, and how can I preserve these vegetables so I have food from my own farm when fresh vegetables are out of season?  I am learning so much from these challenges, and setting myself up to have a winter with fewer trips to the grocery store, so I am thankful for the overabundance.