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.
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.
The big news on the farm this week is that we are starting a mini-CSA for the fall. Most farms with a CSA (community supported agriculture), enroll members in the winter before the growing season even begins. Members purchase a share of the harvest for the year upfront, and receive their portion of the harvest throughout the season. In this way, the shareholders help support the farm, especially by providing funds during a time of year when there are a lot of expenses on the farm (e.g., seed purchases, equipment upgrades and maintenance) but no income because there is nothing growing yet! At the same time, the farmer enters into a promise with the shareholders to provide the best of what the farm has to offer throughout the year. It is a fantastic way to build a relationship between a farmer and consumers and create a community that supports an individual farm and its farmer(s). As a shareholder, you are investing your money directly into a farm and farmer, and by doing so, you are supporting the farming practices that you want to occur on the land in your community, and subsequently the kind of food you want to eat. It is a great way to try out new vegetables and recipes, and to keep your kitchen stocked with the best produce throughout the growing season. As a farmer, growing for a CSA helps to streamline your yearly crop plan. You can plan out how many kale plants or heads of lettuce to grow to meet the needs of your CSA, and you can stagger out the crops so there’s always something new ripening each week. You can reduce the amount of time you expend on harvesting, transporting, and marketing your farm goods.
When I first moved home to Kentucky in January to start my farm, I really wanted to have a CSA. However, many seasoned and wise farmers advised me that doing a CSA in the first year is stressful. During your first year farming, you are learning about the soil on your farm, the growing conditions, the climate, the varieties of vegetables that perform well and those that don’t. You’re learning what people like to buy and eat from your farm. You’re learning which crops get hammered by pests and which thrive. All this “learning” is actually just you making mistakes and realizing what you need to do differently next year. The wise and all-knowing seasoned farmers cautioned me that it doesn’t feel good to look at your fields and realize that you don’t have enough vegetables to provide for your CSA members. Then you have to decide who gets a tiny or really awful looking head of lettuce and hope that particular CSA member doesn’t drop their share next year. So I heeded this advice and decided that the best option for selling vegetables during my freshman year of farming was to go to the farmers market. At the farmers market, I can take only the nicest vegetables from the farm and leave the ugly stuff behind to eat myself. It doesn’t matter if I have exactly 20 bunches of kale, I can bring as many bunches of kale I want! I can even come some weeks without kale if it looks horrible! This has been a fantastic way to get my feet wet this year. No matter what is happening on the farm, each week I bring the nicest, freshest vegetables and primp them up to look nice on my market table (If you’ve seen the multi-tiered burlap and wicker basket extravaganza that is our farmers market display, you know what I’m talking about). When you look at our stuff at the farmers market, you have no idea that we have a whole 150-ft bed of spinach that looks like crap back at the farm, because we don’t have to bring it to the market! You don’t get to see the 300 heads of radicchio that got eaten by deer, you only get to see the 7 nice heads of radicchio that survived. I have learned so much this year, and I am hopeful that my vegetables next year will be even better for all the mistakes I have made.
There is a drawback to selling at the farmers market, though, and I like to call it “The Bengals Effect.” To illustrate the “Bengals Effect,” let me just tell you a little story about two different Sundays at the farmers market in Cincinnati in September. On the first Sunday, the sun was out, it was dry, a few clouds in the sky. The high temperature was 79 degrees. Overall, it was the perfect kind of day to walk around and go to the farmers market. On this particular Sunday, the Bengals had a home game at 1PM, right during the farmers market. Now, if you don’t know much about the residents of Cincinnati, I will tell you that they love their Bengals. They love their Bengals just about as much as they love drinking beer and celebrating their German heritage. Well, it just so happens that Oktoberfest was also underway on this particular Sunday. So what was happening back at the farmers market? Even though it was a lovely day and our table was looking majestic, covered with colorful winter squash and beautiful leafy bunches of kale, and dozens of other fresh vegetables, no one was at the farmers market. We sold $342 worth of vegetables. The next Sunday, the weather was the same, sunny and beautiful, not too hot or humid. We had the same vegetables. We had the same set up. We sold $597 worth of vegetables. The Bengals had a bye that Sunday. Are you getting the idea here? Whatever the reason, a Bengals game, nice weather, crappy weather, a traffic jam, a big event in the city, it is very difficult to predict how many vegetables you will sell at any given market. No matter what, Chris and I go out and spend hours harvesting for the market and some days we come home from the market with armloads of vegetables, and others we come home with no vegetables and a nice wad of dollars in our pockets. On the bad days, you feel like you wasted a lot of time harvesting vegetables for the market that no one bought, and on the really good days, you kick yourself for not picking more!
With a CSA, a farmer knows that she has to provide enough vegetables for, let’s say, 20 families. Then she can go out in the field and pick 20 bunches of kale, 20 heads of lettuce, 20 bunches of turnips, 20 bunches of basil, and so on. She doesn’t waste any time picking too much or too little of any crop. She takes the vegetables directly to the customers and they pick it up, even if it is rainy or the Bengals have a game! There is very little waste when farmers and customers enter into a CSA together. It is a beautiful thing, and that’s why we have decided to do a little trial CSA this fall. I have been looking over my fields this fall, seeing the abundance there, and wondering if I’ll be able to get those vegetables into the hands of people hungry for wholesome, nutritious food, and whether that depends on the Bengals’ schedule. Therefore, I have decided that with vegetables a-plenty, and the growing season almost at a close, it is time to give the CSA model a whirl. Chris and I will be delivering our first set of CSA shares this Friday, and we will do another delivery on Friday, October 17. We already have in mind what we will be putting in the shares each week, we know that those crops are thriving out there in the field, and we are excited to hand those veggies off to our CSA members. We hope that it works so well that we’ll do the CSA for the full growing season next year. We aren’t giving up on the farmers market, though. Even though sales aren’t stable through the year at the farmers market, we love being there. We love meeting new customers, seeing our regular customers, sharing recipes with people, talking to other farmers, and eating lots of delicious baked treats while drinking sweet tea (me) and lattes (Chris). We love being present at the market, getting off the farm, and talking to people who love food as much as we do.
Melon season arrived on the farm last week, and it seems like it will only last another week or so. It’s a flash in the pan, but a sweet and juicy flash in the pan. I have never grown melons before this year. In the Pacific Northwest, where I learned most of my farming skills, it was difficult to grow melons because they like prolonged hot weather. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about growing melons (both cantaloupe and watermelons) this year, mostly from screwing up, so I thought I would share my screw-ups with you all so you too can learn from my mistakes.
Lesson 1: Not all “cantaloupes” are technically cantaloupes
I thought any melon with orange flesh and tan, rough skin was a cantaloupe. That’s not true! Cantaloupes are a specific type of muskmelon. Other muskmelons include honeydew and Armenian cucumbers. The name refers to the fragrant odor that these melons release when ripe. Technically, the term cantaloupe refers to a specific type of muskmelon from Europe with orange flesh, but no ribs or netting. However, we have more recently accepted the term cantaloupe for all of the sweet, orange fleshed muskmelons with netting and ribs that are so popular in North America. Who knew? Not me, until I read the descriptions of muskmelons and cantaloupes in seed catalogs this winter.
Lesson 2: Bet on poor germination
I thought I’d get a leg up on getting my melon patch established, so I decided to start my melons as transplants in the greenhouse. I had heard that they don’t transplant well, but with the late frosts and freezes we were experiencing this spring, I thought it would be better to start them out in the greenhouse where it would be warm enough, then transplant them out in late May when the soil would surely be warm enough for these heat loving plants. I had flats with 32 cells, which are basically little plastic square shaped pots. On April 25, I filled them up with soil and placed a single cantaloupe or watermelon seed in each, watered them in and waited for them to grow. I always allow for 20% germination failure, knowing that some seeds are duds, so I planted 20% more seeds than I needed. When melons sprout, they have enormous cotyledons, which are the first two baby leaves that poke out of the ground, unfold, and start photosynthesizing to make the plant grow it’s first true leaf. Well, once my melons germinated, I noticed that I had barely a 50% germination rate. That meant that I wouldn’t have enough melon plants to fill out the beds where I intended to plant them. Ack! Next year, I’ll know to plant at least twice as many melon seeds, if not more.
Lesson 3: Don’t assume your melon patch will be weed free
Melons, like their cousins, squash and cucumbers, have very long vines with large leaves. These plants do a great job of spreading and making a canopy of huge leaves, under which weed seeds have a difficult time germinating. Assuming that my baby melon plants would take off and out compete the weeds, I put “weeding the melons” very low on my priority list. The result? My melon patch is the weediest spot on the farm. Name the weed, and I’ve got it in my melon patch. Every time I harvest cantaloupes and watermelons, I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt. As fun as that is, it probably takes me 5 times longer to harvest melons than it would if I could actually see them sitting on the ground.
Lesson 4: Deer love melons
My favorite variety of watermelon is a small little yellow-fleshed watermelon called Petite Yellow. They are so sweet, and just the right size for two people to eat in one sitting. Another bonus – they are almost all flesh with very thin rinds. However, their sweet aroma and thin rinds makes them prime candidates for a late night deer snack. Just before all my Petite Yellow watermelons ripened, deer wiped them all out…ate the whole things and left only a tiny bit of rind on the ground. I managed to salvage one Yellow Petite that was well hidden under my weed canopy, and a couple more have grown since the major deer attack in mid-July, thankfully. I’m saving these little jewels to eat myself!
Lesson 5: Don’t get antsy and pick melons too soon
In mid-July after the deer attack on my Petite Yellow melons, I was gripped with fear that the deer would eat all of my melons, so I decided to start harvesting them. After all, if the deer were sniffing them out, they must be ripe, right?! Wrong. I picked two Sugar Baby watermelons and cut them open. One was completely white inside and the other was barely pink. Interestingly, they were still sweet. Not as sweet as a fully ripe melon, but still very edible. I decided to wait a couple more weeks, keep my fingers crossed that the deer would leave them alone. Luckily, the deer ignored them and I started finding ripe watermelons about two weeks ago. Of course, I had to taste test them before I brought them to market, so I didn’t begin selling any until last week. I have learned a few tips for identifying ripe melons. Watermelons have a little curly tendril that grows across the vine from their stems. When this tendril dries up and turns brown, your melon is likely ready, but you still want to look for a yellowish spot where the melon sat on the ground, and listen for a hollow sound when the melon is thumped. When all three of these signs have coincided, I have found nicely ripe melons. For cantaloupe, you can sniff the melons, and a strong sweet scent indicates they are ripe, plus they will slip right off the vine with barely any pressure. I have noticed that size doesn’t indicate ripeness; I have found large under-ripe melons, and tiny fully-ripe melons. It seems that size may have more to do with how much water the plant received than ripeness. I didn’t irrigate my melons at all, and they are smaller than average, but REALLY sweet, and still juicy. I think the lack of irrigation helped to concentrate the sugars rather than making a huge, watery melon.
Lesson 6: Ripe cantaloupes don’t last long
Because I wait to pick my cantaloupes until they are super sweet, fragrant, and slip right off the vine, they have a very short shelf life. They seem to develop soft spots overnight. Although this makes them difficult to sell, I have found that they are still very good, and only need a little of the soft spots cut off. Even so, I haven’t been selling any of my cantaloupes that have bad soft spots. Instead, I have been eating them and giving them away to family and friends. In fact, I just cut up two of them and am trying out a recipe for melon sorbet. It calls for vodka. I’m not sure if that helps the sorbet reach the correct consistently, or it’s just to add a little livelihood to my dessert, but I didn’t question it, and I now have vodka-y, lemony, melon puree in my refrigerator cooling before I put it in my ice cream maker. You can try it out with watermelon too, or a mix of cantaloupe and watermelon. Cheers!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I wanted to give y’all a little update on last week’s discussion of cabbage moths and their caterpillars’ never-ending appetite for my cabbages and kale. WASPS HAVE ARRIVED! There are several species of predatory wasps that can help control cabbage moth populations in the garden. Depending on the species of wasp, they may eat the caterpillar to feed to their wasp babies, or they may lay eggs on the caterpillar, then the wasp larvae emerge and consume the caterpillar. This past week, I have noticed quite a few wasps flying around the cabbage patch. Upon closer examination, they were crawling around, looking for and consuming cabbage moth caterpillars. Nature at work! Chris and I have seen fewer caterpillars this week, perhaps due to increased wasp dining, but also perhaps due to the rainy weather, which keeps the moths (actually, they’re really butterflies) from flying around and laying their eggs on my brassica plants (kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, collards). Either way, the caterpillar damage seems to be less at the moment, and I’m glad that I have wasps around the garden helping out!
Today, my mom, dad, and their friend, Ric, came down to the farm to help out. I’ve had a new car canopy sitting in it’s box in my living room for the last couple of weeks, intending to put it up over the area where I wash vegetables, but unable to find the time to actually put the thing together. While I was out picking veggies for Sunday’s market, my parents and Ric put together the canopy and re-arranged the wash station so that I now have everything under the cover of the canopy. This will be so helpful for keeping everything shaded and free from tree debris and rogue bird poo.
Chris and I do most of our vegetable picking in the morning when the plants are cool(er) and moist. Once the veggies heat up, they respire faster, which leads to wilting. We want the vegetables we sell at market to look nice and perky and to last longer in your refrigerator, so it’s imperative to get them out of the field in the morning when their respiration rate is lower. Once they are picked, almost all the veggies get sprayed off by the hose on a wire mesh spray table or dunked in water to remove dirt from the field. My dad helped me construct an elevated stand that holds a bath tub that I can fill with water for cleaning the vegetables. The dirty water is easily drained out of the bottom of the tub, then it gets cleaned and sanitized before the next round of vegetables comes in to be cleaned. Once the vegetables are rinsed, they are organized in plastic totes and placed into our awesome veggie cooler trailer and kept at 39-40 degrees F until they go to market. I have several bottles of water that I freeze before the market, then place inside the totes once we open them at the market. That helps hold the vegetables at a cool temperature inside the totes for the 3-4 hours we’re at the market. Keeping the veggies fresh and clean looking is definitely time and energy consuming, but I think the end result is worth it – several customers have told me how long their Dark Wood Farm vegetables last. Even though Chris, my mom, and I spend a lot of time cleaning the vegetables, I always suggest that you wash again at home. We don’t use any sprays or dangerous chemicals on your veggies, so you don’t need to worry about that. However, an extra rinse with cool water will help remove extra dirt that didn’t come off in the first rinse and help alleviate any wilting that happens during the time between buying the vegetables and getting them in your fridge.
Last week was big for me and my fledgling farm. It was my debut at the farmers market, and the first time I could put a little bit of money in the bank after many months of preparation. With warmer weather and a little bit of rain, all that prep work is paying off – vegetables are growing by leaps and bounds every day. But the work isn’t over by any means! Now that the threat of frost is over, I will be planting warm weather crops: tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, okra, beans, and basil.
Once all of these crops are in the ground, my entire 1-acre field will be filled. That doesn’t mean that I can just sit back and watch the plants grow. As the weather steadily gets warmer, all my cool-loving plants like radishes, lettuces, and spring greens will begin to finish their life cycle by going to seed. At that point, they are no longer tasty, so I will mow them down, till them back into the soil, and rotate a new crop into that location. In this way, I will get almost two crop cycles out of my 1-acre garden, making it kind of like a 2-acre garden! To guide me in this process of cycling crops through the garden, I created a crop plan back during those really cold winter days. So far, the plan is pretty much on course, but I’ve had to adapt a little by pushing back my planting dates due to the long and cold winter this year. One crop that has been waiting patiently to go in the ground are my onions. I seeded them into flats that lived inside my house during February. In March, they went into the greenhouse, but still had to survive through some cold nights – you all remember those 16 degree nights, right? My hope was that they’d be big enough to plant out in the field by the end of March, but not so! They are still sizing up in my greenhouse and will hopefully go to live out in the garden in the next week or two. On the flip side, I started some brussels sprouts at the beginning of April thinking they would be planted out into the field around June 1.
Well, they’ve been growing like crazy, so I planted them out in the field this week. That’s how it goes – the plants do their thing according to their own schedule and the weather, and it’s my job to observe them and adapt my plan as necessary to make sure they have the best growing environment possible.
This weekend marks a momentous occasion for me and the farm – my first trip to the farmers market! Four busy months have passed since I moved onto my little piece of leased land down in Belleview Bottoms, and now it’s time for the vegetables of Dark Wood Farm to make their grand debut and start filling the bellies of folks around Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. On Sunday, May 4 from 10AM-2PM, I’ll be bringing lots of spring greens to the farmers market at Findlay Market. Spring greens are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which improve digestion and help your body detox after a long winter of heavy, fatty foods. As a bonus, most spring greens will enliven your taste buds with a spicy kick, bold nutty flavor, or bitter bite.
Most of the greens I’m bringing to market this week are in the mustard plant family, including arugula, french breakfast radishes, and Asian salad greens including mizuna and tatsoi. They went into the ground as seeds on March 24 and have grown happily through the cold, wind, rain, and even heat over the past 6 weeks. Their only nemesis during the spring months is a small, black, jumping insect called the flea beetle. Flea beetles emerge around the same time that the redbud trees bloom here in Kentucky, and when they start looking for food, they LOVE the spicy flavor of plants in the mustard family. Left unprotected from the flea beetle, spring mustards would look like they were blasted by a shotgun, with tiny holes all over the leaves. Some farmers prevent flea beetle damage by applying weekly doses of insecticides, but I don’t want to eat raw greens covered with chemicals, so I use fabric row covers to cover the vegetables that are most susceptible to flea beetle damage. Even so, some flea beetles find their way under the fabric and leave their trademark holes on my spring greens.
Since I cut spring greens by hand, I can check for flea beetle damage as I harvest. Really holey leaves get tossed on the ground become compost and feed the soil, but I do keep some leaves that have minimal damage from the flea beetle. The holes do nothing to affect the taste and quality of the vegetables, so if you find an arugula or radish leaf with a hole or two, don’t worry – in fact, rest assured that your veggies are free from chemicals and safe to eat.