Category Archives: back forty

Worth the work

So, more days than not Old MacDonald (sometimes accompanied by me, but I have late hours at the job) has been going out to water the Back 40 garden, and it has absolutely paid off:

Photo Aug 05, 6 19 34 PM

Photo Aug 05, 6 43 18 PM

I can’t get over how good it looks.  He did admit that there have been two applications of fertilizer, which combined with the watering seems to more than be working.  Our experiment with grass clippings is also a success; we’ve been out to weed only twice so far this season and both times took about an hour and a half to do the whole garden.

The secret to our success is a 50-gallon cistern we keep in the back, and refill by running hoses linked together from the house whenever it gets down in volume.

And making her first appearance on the blog, Old MacDonald’s mother and a farmer’s daughter (her father was a farmer in Denmark; apparently farming is genetic but skips generations):

Photo Aug 05, 6 40 50 PM
Like Luke, she’s smart enough to help by watching carefully

Our experiment out back is a success – this was the second picking of beans, just two days after our first round:

Photo Aug 10, 9 08 22 AM

I only wish they didn’t turn green when cooked.

A banner year

So while we’ve had a few problems this year (see also: rabbit in fenced garden, bugs) it’s turning out to be an amazing year:

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We’ve lost a couple of squash plants – due to powdery mold, bugs or both, it’s not clear, but we’ve successfully harvested zucchini pretty consistently since the middle of July.  Of our 6 plants, 3 are producing – all zucchini – and we’re keeping up with consuming what we’re picking.  We’ll stick with the 6 plant plan for next year, because if everything does well we’ll have to give stuff away even at that low number.  We’ve come quite a way from the days of 6 of both types of plants.  Those were some dark times – for us, and the neighbors.

The tomatoes this year are amazing.  Our sungold plants are over 6 feet tall, and so heavy we’ve taken to leaning the cages against the fence and lashing them in place:

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Our peas this year have been somewhat anemic – Mr. Big Pea produced enough peas for a sandwich bag, and the sugar snap lagged further behind that.  Which is interesting, given that we rotated them to a different part of the garden and we used a soil inoculant to help the plants live longer.  Currently they start to die off just as the pods begin to form, so instead of being indeterminant, we get one harvest.  J yanked out all the Mr. Big Pea plants earlier this week and planted a second crop, something we’ve never done before.  We estimate about 7 to 8 weeks before we’re at a huge risk for frost, although the last 2 years we’ve had snow near Halloween, which is about twelve weeks away.  We had the seeds for planting, so we figured we’d give it a shot.  Also planted this weekend – the third crop of lettuce, and more parsley, cilantro and basil. I’ve picked pretty much what we have, so if I want stuff for the fall, I had to replant.  I’m also hoping for enough basil to do a little pesto this year, and freeze it.

We’ve had a lot of rain this summer, punctuated but spells of hot, sunny weather, which has been enormously helpful to the garden, and to our non-farmed yard.  It has never looked this nice this late in the summer since we moved in.  And as I write this, it’s raining again, after a week of sunny 80-something days:

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I’m sure in years to come we will look back on this season fondly.  Except for the peas.  And that rabbit.

Still waiting……

We have now entered the difficult time of year where everything’s growing merrily (particularly the weeds) and yet nothing is ready to harvest (except the lettuce, that’s still coming.)  Maddening.

The back 40 garden looks good:

Back 40
Back 40
Beans, corn , pumpkins & watermelons
Beans, corn , pumpkins & watermelons

While we were away at Barbecue University, all the peas and beans came up, much to our delight, because it apparently rained really hard for that week.  We need to focus on putting up trellises this weekend, and we’ll see if we’re still so pleased when we’re out there picking bushels of legumes in either the broiling sun, or the mosquito-infested twilight of August.  Either way, likely to be uncomfortable while harvesting:

Beans and peas
Beans and peas

In other news, almost all of the seeds I sowed for herbs have come up.  The dill has been a little difficult, but that happened last year so I’m not worried, plus I don’t use a ton of fresh dill in my cooking so what’s coming up will probably be enough.  And another challenge is that I absolutely cannot tell the difference between the tarragon seedlings and the weeds.  This should sort itself out in a few weeks, because the weeds will grow much bigger much faster.  I think.  I didn’t photograph it, because who wants visual evidence of their weeding incompetency?

I am currently reading The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden, edited by Thomas C. Cooper.  It’s a series of essays by famous gardeners (not that I’ve heard of any of them, though) trying to articulate why they garden.  Most of them can’t – they can trace the roots of their interest to a family member, or family tradition, or just an interest – but all of them are universal in their love for working with dirt and plants.  It’s a mix of both vegetable and ornamental gardeners (and sometimes folks who are both) and an interesting read.  Something to occupy my time while I avoid weeding the tarragon right out of existence.

Done…..with planting

We finished planting this weekend, in some of the hottest weather we have seen this early in June. It felt unspeakably hot to be out there yesterday, but we persevered. The tally:

125 Mr. Big Peas
120 Sweet Peas
100 Royal Purple Bush Beans
48 Pole Beans
2nd planting of Sweet corn
7 Sugar Baby watermelon plants
4 Moon & Stars watermelon plants
8 Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkins
9 Amish pumpkins (those mysterious pumpkins from the purchase 2 years ago in upstate NY at an Amish farm stand)
8 Jack-Be-Little pumpkins
7 Orange Smoothies

And it look like this:

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…..which doesn’t look like much at this point. It joins the sweet potatoes, first corn planting (of a brand called Quickie; we’ll see if it lives up to it’s name) and sunflowers. No edible value to sunflowers, really (well, except the seeds) but we’ve always wanted to grow them so this year we finally got around to planting some.

This year we’ve fenced the entire garden. Last year we only fenced the peas, beans and corn, which worked out fine, but once the pumpkins, watermelons and winter squash had matured, something came through and sampled a little bit out of quite a few of the fruits. Plus, this year we have a turkey. We think it’s a female, but who can tell? (It could be a juvenile male. Only time will tell.) This turkey enjoys walking across the corn, and snoozing in the dirt mounds we created to plant the watermelons, squash and pumpkins. So up went the fence. Which works, because as I was finishing up the watering yesterday she walked out of the brush and right into the fence. Someone unhelpfully pointed out turkeys can fly. We’re hoping the dirt isn’t that appealing to her that she’ll fly over and end up stuck. Or knock the fence over.

Almost planting time

Last night the first round of corn was planted.  We have finally gotten some rain and the ground is no longer bone dry, so J could move forward with planting.

Our beets have started to come up, as have our cabbages, lettuce and potatoes.  Still no sign of the parsnips and carrots, but those are usually slower and we have been less-than-attentive to watering.  I am going to double-check them tomorrow and see if anything’s starting to pop up; if not I’m going to plant another round.

Our seedlings are looking good and are ready for planting next weekend:

The bottom two shelves are flowers,the top 3 are all vegetables.  This is not including what we will sow directly into the ground – namely, the peas and beans – and there are still more growing under the lights on the bigger rack down in the basement.

And the front yard yesterday:

The only downside is that to encourage healthy bulb growth I have to let all the foliage die off and turn brown before mulching the bed.  Still, worth it – it reminds me so much of our trip to Amsterdam last spring and the Keukenhof garden.  It’s nice to see such color without the jet lag.

Another Season Begins

Most of the garden is now in the ground:

Tomatoes!



Potatoes, carrots & parsnips, planted in April

 I didn’t remember to photograph the main garden, because we were headed out immediately to plant the back 40:

From this angle, it doesn’t look so bad.  Hunched over the rows, planting peas, beans and corn, it seemed like the worlds loooooongest field.  Where you can see the furrows above, we planted corn in one half of the right hand side (we are planning a successive planting over the weekend of June 16-17 if the weather holds) and on the left-hand side, we planted 1 1/2 rows of pole beans, 1/2 row of green bush beans, 1 row of purple bush beans, and five rows of peas.  I must have put in more than 200.  J claims to like peas – we’re about to find out just how much.  We left 2 rows empty to do successive plantings of green and purple bush beans.  About the middle of the field you can see some very thin stakes sticking up – J planted barley in that area.  Behind the barley is where we will be putting the pumpkins, watermelons, winter squash and radishes.  We don’t actually like radishes all that much, but J read that they repel the bugs that eat squash and pumpkin plants, so hey!  Let’s grow some radishes.  I bet the woodchuck will love them.
Our newest concern is how often it rains.  Unlike the main house garden and raised beds, there is no water source out by the back-40 field, and it’s quite some distance from the house:

Standing next to the field, looking back towards the house



In fact, you can’t even see the house from the back-40 garden.  Fortunately today it is raining, and it seems like we got a pretty good soaking rain last night.  We’re hoping the overcast/drizzly weather last through Thursday, as predicted, while J investigates the possibility of rain barrels for out back.  Otherwise it’s a really long way to haul 5-gallon buckets of water, even if we put them in the trailer that attaches to the tractor.

Mid-August Update

Now that we are well and truly past mid-August, here’s where things stand in the yard:



Main garden



Eggplants and peppers



Carrots, lettuce, potatoes, shallots



Corn – slow going, but it’s coming along
Pumpkins, watermelons and in the rear, the corn again

Our main garden and raised beds are doing well.  This week I noticed that the potato plants are starting to die off, which means I should be harvesting them soon.  (CRF did share that tidbit over tea.)  The back forty patch has not done as well as we would have liked, but that area was so wet right through June it is nothing short of amazing that anything is growing there.  The watermelons are pretty much toast – nibbled by some bug, they barely grew.  Two of the five mounds still have some greenery, but that’s it.  The pumpkins are growing, and so far we have eight small green Orange Smoothie pumpkins, and two Jack-Be-Littles.  It seems unlikely that the Howden or Lumina vines will produce pumpkins for fall.  (The Luminas got eaten by the same bugs that went after the watermelons, we think.)  And while I’m disappointed that I will not have white pumpkins for my porch (think of the color contrast between white pumpkins and orange flames, when J lights them up on Halloween!), our only expectation was that we would get the garden in back there this year – the area needed heavy brush-cutting, mowing, plowing and tilling.  Now that we’ve established an area, next year we can improve it and overall crop health.

What we’ve learned so far:

1.) It is gong to be possible to grow two crops of certain types of vegetables, such as beans and peas, in our hardiness zone.  (With our occasionally late frosts – we sometimes have them as late as the 2nd weekend in May – we thought it was only safe to plant after Memorial Day.)  Our goal next year will be to do two plantings of peas, and three of beans.

2.) Fertilizer – it makes all the difference in the world in the growing season in central New England.  We’re partial to Neptune’s Harvest, an organic liquid fertilizer you mix with water.  Expensive, but worth it for how it works and the fact that it’s organic.

3.) Squash plants – six of each (summer squash and zucchini) is too many.  Four each is more than enough.  When we try to plant six each again next year, someone remind me we don’t need that many.

4.) You really can have too many sungold tomato plants.  (Even for me.)  They don’t freeze well, so we have to consume vast quantities of them or give them away.  Part of me doesn’t mind putting the sungolds into berry boxes and distributing them, but a (tiny, little) selfish part of me dies a little death every time I hand over a box of them.  Next year we’re going to reduce the number and try some other tomatoes, like plum, so I can make sauce.

5.) Those strawberries are just for the chipmunk.  He will outsmart every trick you have to keep him away.  Just give up, and leave a tiny napkin next to the plants so he can wipe his mouth on the way out of the garden bed.

6.) The hammock is much more useful when properly installed.  Maybe someday I will actually get to sit in it for more than 10 minutes:

The view from the main garden – it looks so inviting when working in the hot sun!

Looking on the Bright Side…..

Things are looking up for the cocktail farmers.  J managed to liberate the grow lights from UPS’ clutches yesterday on his lunch hour and installed them last night.  They look great, and apparently use half the electricity of the ones we filched from our attic. 

Last night while J was busy with our new lights, I began the search for the strawberry seeds.  I remember putting them on the top shelf of the freezer.  I even took a photo, way back on March 1:

So I started there.  Now, I think it’s a pretty standard design for most systems that freezer shelves are not solid construction but more like racks with bars, so when I didn’t find them on the top shelf, I moved down a shelf, thinking that perhaps they slipped down and ended up there.  Nope!  Nothing.  Onto shelf three, with the same result.  At this point I was mystified – sure, the package isn’t very big, but it’s not like we would have pulled them out of the freezer to use in a recipe for anything.  Shelf four, also a bust, led me to pull out and empty the drawer where I keep frozen meats.  Then I removed the drawer and looked underneath it.  No strawberry seeds.  What the hell….?  I was pondering where they might have disappeared to when inspiration struck, and I looked on top of the fridge…………..and there they were!  They were obviously removed at some point when we were rummaging in the freezer and forgotten.  J swears he never saw the seeds in the freezer, leading me to belive that I am the one who removed them.  The question remains – when?  And were they in the freezer long enough to make a difference?  Risk taker that I am (with a $1.29 package of seeds, mind you) I am just going to plant them and see what happens.  Worst case scenario, I will still be purchasing strawberries at the farmers’ markets this summer.  Also, we have chipmunks and a groundhog out therre – it’s only a 50/50 chance I’ll get any strawberries anyway.

On the bright side, my freezer has not been so organized since we moved into the house four years ago.

Here’s the cocktail I drank the night we found out the Back Forty garden is on our neighbor’s property.  I decided it should be called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and J did not object. 

2 oz Gin
2 oz pineapple juice
1 oz Chambourd
1 oz Grand Marnier

Mix in a shaker with ice until shaker is too cold to hold, pour equally into two glasses,  Serves 2.  Or one, if you’ve had a very bad day.