A little over three weeks ago, I planted some radish and arugula seeds in the ground. With a little more sunshine and rain, those crops will be ready to harvest in a couple of weeks. They were the final seeds put in the garden for consumption in the 2014 growing season. They were not, however, the final seeds to be planted in the garden. In October, I sowed several rounds of cover crops in the garden. These “crops” aren’t meant to be consumed this year, but they serve an equally important role in the garden. Each time I finish harvesting a given crop in the field, any remaining plant material gets mowed down, then tilled shallowly so the debris can break down and rot into the soil. Most of the microorganisms that do the work of breaking down crops live in the top couple of inches of soil, and you certainly don’t want your micro-organisms, plant debris, and loose soil to wash away now that the soil lacks plant roots to keep it in place. Enter cover crops. Cover crops, as they are aptly named, cover the spaces in your garden that have opened up once you are done harvesting. On a huge farm, whole fields may sit in cover crop while others are used for growing crops for consumption, then they are switched back and forth each season. Because my farm is only an acre, I used every available inch to grow crops this year, but I will have cover crops do their work over the winter. Cover crops will survive cold and even frigid weather, and keep soil anchored through rainstorms, wind, and snow melt. In the spring, they will recommence growing and provide luxurious greens that can be mowed and tilled in to build the soil and provide organic fertilizer for the spring edible crops. This year, I have chosen to use a mix of plants to act as my cover crops.
Clover and Austrian Winter Peas are cold hardy legumes, plants that can take nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil where it can act as a fertilizer. These plants will vine and spread to cover the surface of the ground. In the spring, they will make beautiful blossoms that will attract pollinators to the garden, and the tender tips of the pea plants can be eaten in salads or used in stir fry. Tillage radishes and brown-seeded mustard are both in the Brassica plant family and serve different purposes. Tillage radishes make long, skinny roots which will rot away in the spring and thereby help break up soil compaction and allow air and water percolation through the soil. The brown-seeded mustard plants will make edible greens in the spring, but they will also send up large stalks that will provide vertical structure for the peas to climb. The seed from these plants can be harvested to made spicy brown mustard! Winter rye is the most cold tolerant plant in my cover crop mix, and even if we get another frigid winter this year, it will survive and grow again in the spring to provide lots of biomass that will be cut down and added back to the soil. Over the winter, its deep roots will keep the soil in place. Buckwheat is a plant that is often grown as a summer cover crop because it grows rapidly in the heat and is quite sensitive to cold and frost. I had some buckwheat seed laying around and I sowed it in with my fall cover crops. I know it will die back soon, maybe even tonight with our first freeze, but in the meantime it has grown quickly and is no doubt helping keep the soil in place. It will die off just as the cool-loving crops want more space to spread out. Finally, there are a lot of volunteer cover crops doing their work out in the garden. Some people might call these plants weeds, but I look at them as a free cover crop. Mostly I see henbit or purple dead nettle (I have a hard time telling them apart when they’re little) just starting to leaf out. These are low-growing plants that will act as nurse crops, filling in the spaces between the intentional cover crops. What I’m hoping for this winter is a lush, green carpet to cover the bare soil. In the spring, I look for the green carpet to give rise to a beautiful stand of plants with low growing vines, lots of vertical structure, and flowers aplenty. At the moment, our green cover crop carpet is well underway, and with the rain we have been receiving for the past week, it is glowing and growing before my eyes. These plants are happy to be out in the cool weather and are saying, “bring it on!” to the winter. So am I.
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.
A few weeks ago, Chris and I came home from our Sunday market, unloaded the truck, and jumped in my car to make a quick trip to Nashville to visit Chris’ sister before she moved from Nashville to Denver. Just as we were making our way through Rabbit Hash on our way to the interstate, we turned on NPR and caught the tail end of an episode of On Being, a radio show about what it means to be human. Broad subject, right? This particular episode featured Dan Barber, an award-winning chef, author, and advocate for good farming and the farm-to-table movement. I was so intrigued by what he had to say in the last 10 minutes of the show, that I decided that I should get online and listen to the full episode. Of course, it took me a few weeks before I could sit down and listen to the full 50-minute show, but I did, and I was so inspired by the conversation between Dan, the show’s host, and the audience, I thought I would share a link to the episode. Fifty minutes is the perfect amount of time to cook a meal or sit down and eat while you listen. The show covers so many important topics like the link between the flavor and nutrition of food and how it was grown, our modern disassociation with food and where our ingredients originate, the cost of eating locally, and more. I especially appreciated how often the link between ecology and food came up. As an ecologist turned farmer, I see the tight and intricate link between ecology and agriculture, but it is sometimes difficult to articulate that connection, especially when we are used to seeing our food packaged up and on display in a sterile grocery store instead of growing in the soil of a farm surrounded by a living environment. It makes perfect sense to me that if you treat the place where you grow your food well, your plants will thrive, contain more nutrients, and be more flavorful. Really great chefs understand this, and it is why the farm-to-table movement is growing.
During the show, a couple of authors were mentioned: Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. Before I ever became a farmer or even dreamed I would be growing food for people, these two authors changed the way that I ate. I was already interested in organic food, but after I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma andIn Defense of Food by Pollan, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Kingsolver, I began to realize the importance of eating locally and seasonally. I also began to wonder where the heck my food was coming from. It was this curiosity that led me to grow some of my own food and meet local food producers. I highly recommend the three books mentioned above, plus Michael Pollan has several other non-fiction books out about food, plants, and cooking that are worth checking out. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite fiction writers, perhaps because she’s from Kentucky and was at one time a biologist! I could add a long laundry list of other food and farming books that I love, but I will restrain myself and stick to the ones above, the ones that put me on the path to eating well and growing my own food.
Yesterday evening I decided it was time to harvest my patch of storage onions, so I hunkered down and spent about an hour and a half harvesting the onions and another hour and a half carefully laying them out to cure in the greenhouse. The time had long come when I needed to harvest the onions, and with an abundance of rain lately, I was worried about the onions rotting in the field and weeds completely taking over the patch, making it much more difficult to find the onions come harvest time. So with a dry afternoon on hand, I knew it was time to dig in.
This year, I planted two 150-ft beds of onions. Each bed was 4 feet wide and contained 2 or 3 rows of onions. One bed was devoted to “fresh eating” onions, as I like to call them, and the other was set aside for storage onions. The fresh eating onions were onions that I harvested with green tops. They don’t have any of the papery wrappers that you’re used to seeing when you buy a net bag of onions at the store. Instead, they are intended to be eaten fresh, no peeling necessary, and therefore, these onions won’t store long. Generally, they are varieties that are sweeter, containing more sugars, which contributes to their inability to store for a long time, but also makes them delicious raw and helps them to caramelize beautifully. In the fresh eating onion bed, I also included my summer leeks, which take fewer days to reach maturity than fall leek varieties, and are planted closer together so they remain small and slender, never getting bigger than a thumb’s width.
My storage onion bed contains five varieties of onions, all of which store well, according to my seed catalogs. Storage onions tend to be more pungent and less sugary, they make lots of layers of papery wrappers, and they can be cured then stored for months. Some storage onions can even make it through the entire winter if stored properly. The telltale sign that the onions are ready to harvest is when their green tops begin to brown and flop over. The onion is effectively curing itself by sealing off the watery sugars and starches in the bulb by creating a little pinched off crook in its neck where the tops fall over. This way, the green tops won’t transpire water out from the onion bulb.
Most of my storage onions had their tops flop over a couple weeks ago, but a few stalwart onions continued to have perky leaves. I picked all of the onions that had flopped and shriveled tops and laid them out in my greenhouse to continue drying for the next week or so. In the greenhouse, they will be protected from rain and receive plenty of heat to ensure their papery wrappers are good and dry for storage. The onions that continued to have perky green tops were all from one variety, Rossa di Milano, a beautiful Italian red onion variety. I decided that the Rossas with green tops would become subjects in my first attempt to make a braided onion rope. Braiding is another option for curing onions, especially if you don’t have a lot of horizontal space for curing. By braiding the onion tops, you effectively make that little crook-in-the-neck seal that would naturally form when the tops flop over in the field. There are lots of videos online to help you learn to braid onions, and I watched a few before diving in. Basically, you braid the onions like you would braid hair, and you include some twine in the braid to help stabilize everything and to give you a loop to hang the braid from a hook or nail. My Rossa di Milano onion braid is currently hanging from the rafters of my front porch where it will get a little breeze to help the curing process and be protected from the rain.
In seed catalogs, onions are classified as short, intermediate, or long day length onions. You must choose the right type for your spot on the earth. Farms in northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere have long summer days so they should grow long day onions. Farms in southerly latitudes have shorter summer days, so short day onions are most appropriate there. Here in Northern Kentucky, I am almost at 39 degrees latitude, which is the southern edge of the long day onion zone. Most long day onions switch from growing green tops to making big bulbs once there is at least 14 hours of day length, and at my latitude that occurs after May 6 and lasts until August 5. That isn’t as large of a window for bulb formation as Maine or Washington, but it’s still three months, and my onions seem to be small to medium in size, accordingly. The problem with growing short day onions here is that they may bolt (i.e., go to seed) before forming a bulb. Overall, I am happy with the varieties I grew this year, and I will continue to try different long day onion varieties. I wish I had started my onions earlier, tended to them better when they were little baby onions in the greenhouse, and got them transplanted in the field earlier, but even so, I have a lot of onions to show for my efforts this year.
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!
My friend, Morgan, had Chris and me over for dinner last night, and she put in a special request that we bring over some heirloom tomatoes. I was happy to oblige; we have plenty of them at the moment, and we are excited to share them with our friends and family. I brought over several varieties and we taste tested at least three, all of which where juicy, dense, and sweet. Morg asked, “Why do heirlooms taste so much better?” and I thought y’all might have the same question, so here’s my answer in several parts:
Let’s start by discussing just what the heck makes a tomato (or any other vegetable, for that matter), an “heirloom.” Do any of you have an old piece of jewelry or antique passed down through your family? When I turned 15, my aunt, Jennifer, gave me a little gold ring that she had received on her 15th birthday from my great grandmother, Mutzi. In turn, Mutzi had received the ring on her 15th birthday from her father. That’s an heirloom. Something that has been passed down over the years through the generations of a family. Now, let’s shift the gears and talk about heirloom vegetables. In the days before seed catalogs, folks would save seeds from the myriad vegetables they were growing for fresh eating and preserving, and plant those saved seeds in subsequent year. In fact, a family could save the seed from their best, most flavorful, most vigorous and healthy plants, and by doing that every year, improve their vegetables’ taste, texture, and production at that specific location. Let’s fast forward to what agriculture looks like today. We now live in a world where vegetable production has converted from diverse backyard gardens to large-scale monocultures, meaning vast acreages of one crop, often picked by a machine instead of by a human hand. We also live in a world where we seldom walk out the back door, pick our vegetables, and eat them immediately. Instead, we go to the grocery store and buy vegetables that were picked at an unknown date, packed, and shipped some unknown number of miles away. For a vegetable to be “successful” in today’s agricultural world, it must maximize production per acre, be easy to pick by a machine, be easily washed and packed, resist bruising during shipping, sit stably on a shelf for an untold amount of time, be uniform in color, shape, and size so it displays nicely, and last for weeks in your refrigerator’s vegetable drawer. So, instead of seed that has been saved by families for flavor, ripeness, and vigor in a specific location, we now eat vegetables from seeds that were saved for uniformity, hardness (for shipping purposes), and shelf stability. Note that I did not include “flavor” in that list. To achieve these modern goals, people have done crazy things to seeds, including inserting genetic material from other life forms into the DNA of vegetables, making them genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Most vegetables develop flavor as they approach ripeness. This is especially the case with tomatoes. Ever eat one of those hard, white-in-the-center, tomatoes from the grocery store in January? They have absolutely no flavor because they were picked under-ripe to keep them hard for shipping. A tomato that is allowed to ripen on the vine has time to develop sugars, which cause the tomato to be soft to the touch, juicy when cut, fragrant, and sweet. The sugars also cause the tomato to rapidly decay and soften if you don’t eat them shortly after they are picked. A soft, sugary tomato does NOT travel well, and it certainly doesn’t travel well over thousands of miles. Really, the only way to get your hands on one of these babies is to grow them and pick them yourself or to buy them from someone growing them nearby. This is where your friendly, small-scale farmer comes into play. Small-scale farmers can pick tomatoes by hand, noting which are at their peak of ripeness, handle them gently, and deliver them to a market or to your doorstep in a short amount of time. Small-scale farmers can peddle even the ugliest of tomatoes, including cracked and crazy-looking tomatoes (as heirlooms often are), because they can talk with their customer one-on-one, describe the flavor, describe their growing practices, let you smell, touch, and even taste test the vegetables. Farmers that grow for wholesale simply can’t do this.
While I do have my great grandma’s heirloom ring, I don’t have any heirloom seeds that were passed down in my family. Luckily, there are a lot of small-scale growers out there, dutifully saving seeds from old heirloom varieties and sharing them with other farmers. This year, I ordered most of my seeds from Fedco, a seed co-op based in Maine, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which is a network of growers that specialize in varieties that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern US. Through the hard work of these growers, many heirloom varieties live on and are available for growers like me – new farmers just getting started and in need of delicious locally-adapted varieties to grow for their friends, family, and neighbors.
I spend a lot of time sharing news about the farm and the farming process, but I haven’t been too good about sharing homesteading stories. Part of the reason I decided to become a farmer and live on my farm is because I like growing and preserving my own food. Mainly because I love to eat and eat well. When I first moved onto the farm this winter, I decided to try tapping some of the maple trees on the property to make my own maple syrup. I ended up tapping three trees and got enough syrup to keep my pancakes topped throughout the year, with a few jars of syrup to spare to give as gifts to my family. Currently, the veggies and fruit are rolling in, and it seems like I can’t find enough spare time to do all the canning I’d like. Plus, my gas stove heats the kitchen up sooo much that I’ve convinced myself I’ll do all my pickling and canning when the fall comes and I can use the extra heat in the kitchen. For now, most of the food preservation I have been doing involves drying herbs. I can deal with the heat that the dehydrator puts off, plus I’ve been passively drying a bunch of herbs by hanging them upside down from a curtain rod in the kitchen. Any extra bunches of basil, tulsi, and coriander that I bring home from the market go right up on the “drying rod” until they are crispy dry, then I strip the leaves or seeds off the bunches and store them in a dry mason jar. It makes me excited for spices and tea this winter when my garden is under lots of snow.
Earlier this week, I harvested a crop of mustard seeds from the garden. In April, I planted white mustard, Sinapis alba, which is used to make the table mustard we’re all used to eating. Your basic mustard comes from grinding down the seeds of this plant, and adding it to water, vinegar, or other liquids and spices. For example, dijon mustard typically includes white wine as one of the liquids. Additionally, the super yellow color we normally associate with mustard comes from the addition of turmeric, although I’m sure a lot of cheap store-bought mustard just uses food dyes these days. You can also use seeds from other mustard plants to make different kinds of mustard. In the past, I have grown brown mustard, Brassica juncea, and used it to make spicy brown mustard.
After the initial April planting of white mustard, the plants grew quite quickly and were in full flower by the end of May. And, boy, did the bugs love those flowers. It was a veritable bug orgy down there in the mustard patch.
Slowly, the flowers turned into green seed pods that plumped up and filled with green seeds. Then, the seed pods began to dry up, turn brown, and the seeds inside turned from green to tan/yellow. A few days ago, while the weather was dry, I decided that the majority of the mustard plants were dry enough, and that I should harvest them before they shattered, which happens when the plant gets so dry that the pods burst open and spew their seeds all over the ground.
To harvest the seed, I cut down handfuls of the plants, and shook them into a large, clean garbage can, causing the seed pods to shatter and release their seeds. This process is called threshing. It took me 2 hours to thresh 250 square feet of densely growing mustard. A mechanical harvester would be a whole lot quicker, but I don’t have a mechanical harvester, and I enjoy spending time in the garden doing repetitive work. It lets me relax, listen to the birds, and let my thoughts wander. At the end of the two hours, I had a can of mustard seeds and shattered seed pods, and I left the remains of the mustard plants, or “straw”, behind to compost back into the soil.
When I finished the threshing process, I brought my garbage can of seeds and pods to my kitchen and sifted it all through a strainer to separate out the seeds from the pods. There is still a little bit of chaff, or non-seed material, in with the seeds, so on the next low humidity day, I will take them outside with a fan and pour the seeds into a bucket in front of the fan to let the lightweight chaff blow off. All in all, I will have around 4 lbs of mustard seed, which I will use to make mustard, spice up dishes, and to make my new favorite condiment, pickled mustard seed, or “mustard caviar.” It’s a whole lot more work than buying mustard at the store, but at the end of the day, I love that my mustard will be homegrown, and the mustard patch was a huge benefit to the garden. It provided habitat for all kinds of beneficial insects during the flowering stage, its straw will help feed the soil, and because it was such a dense stand of tall plant material, it helped to keep weeds from sprouting underneath. Also, recent research has shown that growing mustard as a cover crop helps to fend off some of the pest insects and nematodes that live in the soil. All of that is wonderful, but honestly, I’m most excited about tasting my homemade mustard because, like I said, I love to eat.
This past week on the farm, a major crop of weeds sprouted following two days of heavy rain. Our onions and celery seemed to be engulfed in them overnight. Last Monday, Chris spent half the day clearing out around the onions and on Wednesday, my parents and our friends, Tina and Donna, helped to save the celery. These crops in particular have a hard time out-competing their weed neighbors. They are skinny and tall and don’t send out a lot of horizontal leaves that would shade out their competitors, so they require repeated weeding to ensure they receive sufficient light and water instead of their free-ranging weed neighbors.
Whenever I think of weeds, I think of a story that my friend, Rachel, told me once. She had a plot in a community garden in Nashville and spent a lot of time at her plot pulling weeds. One Sunday, Rachel and her husband were in church and the preacher was talking about weeding as a metaphor for simplifying your life, how plants require water and light and can miss out on those things if they are cluttered by weeds. Suddenly, Rachel’s husband turned to her and said, “Oh, now I get why you spend so much time weeding in the garden!” He thought she was just doing it to keep the garden looking neat and tidy, not realizing how weeding helps your vegetables get all the light and water they require. I’m sure it can look like a tedious job to the non-gardener, but weeding is an essential part of keeping your vegetables happy and healthy.
On the other hand, weeds can actually serve a purpose in your garden. Whenever you have bare soil, weeds are sure to pop up within a few days. Their seeds are ubiquitous in the environment. They float in on the air, are carried into or buried in the garden by animals, and are dropped from parent plants around the edges of your garden. They can live for years in the soil, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate. You don’t have to do anything and they just grow up on their own. That can be nice sometimes. Without the root systems of weeds, bare soil will wash away in a strong rainstorm. The roots of weeds also harbor bacteria, fungus, protozoa, nematodes, and other microorganisms that help to feed the roots of vegetables in your garden. Weeds can also help keep the soil moist by trapping water between the surface of the soil and their leaves. I have seen super dry bare soil after a hot week without rain, but if you look under a squash plant with weeds around it, the soil is still moist!
One of my farmer mentors, Bob, didn’t like calling them weeds. Instead, he called them “nature’s support” because he saw them as free helpers. He didn’t have to plant them, they just came up on their own, helped keep soil in place, helped keep the soil microorganisms happy, kept the soil moist, and generally added biomass to the garden that would eventually compost down into free soil! Acknowledging that weeds can sometimes grow faster than vegetables and get the edge on sucking up water and sunlight, he would have us do a little “competition control” and that meant cutting back or mowing down “nature’s support” plants so that our vegetables would now be winning in the competition for light and water. Note that we never “weeded” on Bob’s farm. I really like thinking about weeds in this way. So often we vilify “weeds” or “pests” when really they are just trying to live like everything else in the garden, and often they do much better than the things we’re actually trying to grow. Now that I’m a farmer, I realize that you must intervene and give your vegetables the edge if you want to be sure you can eat or have vegetables to sell at the end of the day, but that doesn’t mean that all weeds or bugs need to be eradicated from the garden. They can still live there and contribute, just with some checks and balances from the farmer.
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.
Bugs! A sign that summer is here is the amazing diversity of insects flying around the farm. I’m anti-spraying, so the good, bad, and ugly insects have taken up residence at Dark Wood Farm. So far, I haven’t had to deal with much insect damage on the vegetables aside from flea beetles on my early radish, turnip, and mustard crops and some leaf miner damage to salad ingredients. I was able to mitigate some of the damage from these insects by using fabric row covers over the plants. This time of year, though, the fabric row covers can make the plants and soil too hot, so I’ve quit using them except for over my eggplants. Eggplants like heat, and they are a favorite food for lots of insects, mainly the eggplant flea beetle which turns eggplant leaves into swiss cheese in no time. The eggplants don’t like to be abraded by the fabric, so my dad constructed some wire hoops that Chris and I put over the freshly transplanted eggplants with the help of our workshare friend, Lisa. Now the eggplants are growing safe and sound under their little fabric hoophouse.
Lately, though, I have been wringing my hands as I see a new set of insects emerging. I’ve spotted my first few Colorado Potato beetles, known to defoliate potato leaves, and Japanese beetles, which eat just about every type of plant that I grow. By far, the insect causing me the most concern at the moment is the cabbage moth. This seemingly innocuous looking white butterfly (yes, it’s a butterfly and not a moth even though it’s called a cabbage moth) flits around my field looking to lay its eggs on any member of the brassica family it can find. This includes cabbages, kale, collards, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. The eggs hatch into tiny little green caterpillars that eat their way through the leaves of the plants where they were born before they pupate and emerge as an adult butterfly. If you’ve ever found a little green “worm” on your kale or in a head of broccoli, this is the culprit! I knew I’d have some of these little guys on my brassicas, and given my 50% for humans, 50% for nature philosophy, I planted extra. My thought was, the cabbage moth caterpillars can eat some of the plants, and I’ll just harvest the nice looking, undamaged plants to take to the market.
So far, my “plant extra” philosophy has worked, but now the problem is that the cabbage moth caterpillars are everywhere! Really nice looking kale plants have little caterpillars hanging out on the leaves. Beautiful broccoli heads have little caterpillars hiding inside them. What to do?! I realize that most people don’t enjoy finding insects on their food, so I’m in a bit of a conundrum. I cannot guarantee that the vegetables I’m picking right now are bug-free. Any time I see an insect on my vegetables, I pick it off. I also vigorously rinse my vegetables before they come to market, which removes insect hitchhikers. But the truth is, that if you looked close enough, especially with the help of a microscope, you would probably find some kind of insect on the vegetables that I sell at market. Now, take a deep breath and ask yourself how you feel about that. Does it gross you out? I know I hated finding cabbage moth caterpillars on the kale I would eat from my family garden when I was a little kid. Since then, I’ve changed my mind about finding bugs on my vegetables. I’ve changed my mind because I know that it is impossible to grow totally insect-free vegetables without sprays. Whether it’s chemical sprays used in conventional agriculture, or even “organically accepted” insecticides like Bt (Bacillus thuriniensis) or spinosad, these products were developed to kill insects. While I don’t like some insects that are hanging out on my farm and eating my vegetables, I really like some of the others and don’t want to kill them. I have honeybees, praying mantises, ladybugs, and all kinds of other insects doing wonderful things like making honey, eating “bad” bugs, and pollinating my fruit and vegetable plants. Whether I like these insects or not, they are all part of a larger food web that is alive and robust on my farm. Take one piece of the web out, and there are bound to be unforeseen consequences. Also, what the heck is in those sprays and what do they do to your body if you ingest them? I mean, even the “organic” insecticides are made from bacteria in higher concentrations than you’d ever find in nature or they are some sort of engineered extract from bacteria or fungus. I figure, if I am afraid to put the insecticide directly in my mouth, I better not put it on the food I’m going to put directly in my mouth. The result of not using sprays, however, is that my kale *might* have a cabbage moth caterpillar on it when you buy it at the market. My collard leaves might have a few holes in them where a bug took a bite. Here’s the thing – eating a leaf with a hole in it will not adversely affect your health. Accidentally eating a cabbage moth caterpillar won’t adversely affect your health either. In fact, it’ll give you a little extra protein! The thing is, I don’t know what eating kale with insecticide on it is going to do to your health. I also don’t know what that insecticide will do to the health of the beneficial insects that live on my farm, and all the other creatures that eat those insects. So, I choose not to spray anything and let the bugs work it out among themselves while I keep myself busy inspecting kale leaves and pinching all the little green cabbage moth caterpillars I can find.