When we’re not gardening, I’m reading about gardening

Or, in this case, farming, which to me is the ultimate hard-core act of sustainable living.  A few weeks ago I read a great memoir called The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love by Kristin Kimball.  She was a NYC writer in a rent-controlled apartment who met a self-taught farmer while on a writing assignment, fell for him, and move to upstate New York to start a farm from the ground up.  The book covers the good and the bad, talking about the fun of making your own cheese with the worry about money when your bank account reads nearly zero.  She doesn’t romanticize or sugar coat the hard work that she and her fiance (now husband) put into starting a farm from scratch, but you get the sense that she truly feels its worth it – she’s traded the security and lifestyle of NYC for a simpler life where they grow their own food and were able to develop a year-round CSA model that provides a complete diet to their members – they have bees, chickens, pigs, cattle and dairy cows.  They even use draft horses to plow the five acres in which they grow vegetables.  It got great reviews online, and I picked it up thinking, “Even when the garden expansion seems overwhelming, it will never be as much work as this.”  Heck, we don’t even have pets, never mind dairy cows that need milking or pigs we have to slaughter.

There’s a plan to start some of the seeds this weekend, requiring a trip out to pick up some new supplies.  J has some new things he wants to try, namely grow lights.  We’ve already been using covered trays and seed mats for heat.  This year we also have a new baker’s rack, assembled and waiting in the basement.  We’ll have more trays of seedlings this year, based on the expanded, ambitious garden plans, and it will be easier to move them from their daytime home on the sun porch back into the kitchen if we have the rolling rack.  The tentative plan is to start the eggplants and peppers now, staggering the rest of the seeds (tomatoes, squash) based on our target planting date of Memorial Day weekend.  We’re currently debating whether to put the peas, beans and cucumbers directly into the ground or not.  We did decide that the corn, pumpkins and watermelons are going directly into the ground one to two weeks before our big planting weekend.  J is planning on creating furrows in the garden and we’re going to buy hay for insulation during the germination period.  In the past we’ve used weed block, but last year’s heat and dry weather shredded the material and we ended up weeding once a week anyway.  We’re going to try and keep the weeds down with the hay and some good old-fashioned hoeing.  I also think it’s an excuse for him to buy some other piece of equipment to attach to the tractor for the plants in the open field.  Did I mention that we might need to build a new and larger shed this year? 

Tonight the alpine strawberry seeds are going in the freezer – in order to mimic nature and what they would experience if they were outside all winter it is recommended you stick them in the freezer for 4 -6 weeks prior to planting.  I have been reminding myself for weeks that I need to do this, and finally decided tonight was the night; it will be easier to remember the date I did it since today is the start of the month.  Depending on the rate of germination, I might sow them directly into the raised beds that have yet to be constructed, or I might start seedlings in about a month.  My research shows they can be somewhat susceptible to frost, so they’ll be going in the ground around Memorial Day either in seed or seedling format. 

A lot of this is guess work and trust in others’ research and experiences.  Our favorite phrase around here is, “It’s an experiment.”  So far it’s worked out fine (except for those blasted pumpkins!) but I can’t help but feel at some point there will be a failure.  We’ll see.  It’ll probably be those strawberries I’ve spent so much time thinking about.  They’ll probably get frostbite in my freezer.

It’s Not Just The Tractor…..

In my last post, I mentioned the purchase of the John Deere garden tractor. J was very specific in the type, vintage and condition he wanted, which is why it took almost 5 months to find the right one in the right price range. However, given how expensive they are new, this was worth the effort. Especially since I didn’t have to do anything except say, “Whatever you want, dear,” and “I think that’s a good price,” and “I’d be happy to go with you to pick up the tractor.” Which I said. Repeatedly. For five months. Don’t get me wrong, this is probably one of the best things ever – there was zero effort involved on my part except some verbal reassurance AND now I get a ride-on tractor to do the lawn instead of having to use a push mower. Win-win.

It’s more than just the tractor, though – it’s the accessories necessary for the larger garden. It started with the rototiller, which appeared in our garage even before the right tractor had been located. That sucker is big. And rusty, which is par for the course when you purchase a piece of equipment that rips up the dirt as you drag it behind the tractor. It’s apparently of early 1960’s vintage if J’s research is right, which explains the rust. Then came the plow, which is currently in pieces in the basement, being painstakingly restored. A few weeks later a mulching kit arrived via U.S. post, an EBay purchase. Somewhere in between the hydraulic lift was acquired, the details of that acquisition still fuzzy to me. Someone might have actually brought it to the house for him. And over Valentine’s Day weekend we travelled out to the MA / NY border to pick up the remaining parts for the mower’s bagger and a 6-gallon attachable sprayer. He’s still on the hunt for a garden cart, and probably a few other things he hasn’t admitted to yet.

But I know he’s most excited about the plow, mainly because every time I go into the basement he’s fiddling with it and he spends time on John Deere posting boards reading up on plowing techniques. The garden is making a big jump this year, from the fenced-in 8′ x 20′ plot to that, plus 2 raised beds, and an open field section for the corn, pumpkins and watermelons. We need the plow and the rototiller in order to be able to put in the three hundred stalks of corn and the four types of pumpkins and the watermelons. (I will post the garden plans soon, along with the seed lists. The sheer number of plants and the ambitions of this year’s garden sometimes overwhelm me. But then I remember, we have a tractor! Won’t that help?)

Over the weekend J apparently read this on one of his boards and sent it to me to post here. I like that it’s from a website called “Weekend Freedom Machines” which tells you something about the sort of people who describe tractors like that. The author is unknown, but if someone ever uncovers who wrote this let me know as I like to give credit where credit is due. If you make it all the way through the text, bless your cotton socks. I promise more pictures in upcoming posts, rather than all this text.

From “Weekend Freedom Machines, ” a vintage John Deere garden tractor website. Author unknown:

One of the oldest and most valuable tillage tools of agricultural history, the plow has transformed many millions (probably billions) of acres of land into a productive seed bed. Through the ages, good plowing had been the soil’s best friend by preparing a seed bed with a minimum of time and effort, helping to control weeds, assisting in the degradation of mulch into organic matter, increasing water retention, and reducing erosion. One of the oldest plows known to exist (said to date from 2000 BC) is a testament to the timelessness of this tillage practice. When plowing, a farmer is part of fraternity that spans many continents and generations. Plowing contests are more than turning over soil, they are a celebration of tradition, agriculture and friendships.

Skillful plowing provides many benefits for the soil:
1.) Furrows that are turned over at the proper angle create a furrow comb (ridges and valleys) that makes an excellent seed bed. Clods and holes should be avoided as they allow seeds to fall too deep or cause it to lay on top. A farmer should be able to broadcast seed over the plowed field and harrow it lightly to incorporate the seed at a uniform depth. Once the crop emerges, rows should be visable.
2.) The furrow comb also helps to slow the wind at ground level. This reduces the amount of soil that blows away and helps to deposit snow in the depressions. On hilly land, contour plowing slows water runoff which reduces erosion and improves moisture absorption.
3.) Weed control can be achieved with good plowing. Furrow slices that are properly cut off, rolled over, and placed tightly against the next furrow bury growing weeds and weed seed deeply enough to help prevent weed growth and seed germination. An extra weed control measure may be taken by plowing a split and then placing the crown on top of that. The split shaves off all growing plants at ground level so they do not grow through the crown placed on top of them.

A good job of plowing also helps maintain a field that is easy to work with:
1.) An opening crown that is level with or only slightly higher than the surrounding furrows is preferred to one that is too high as it is easier to maintain proper seed depth for good germination and is more comfortable to drive over for the farmer.
2.) The closing furrow should be narrow and shallow while still maintaining furrow conformation and trash coverage. This will help insure the best possible seed placement at planting time and reduce the depression that runs through the field for years to come.
3.) The plow should be placed into and taken out of the ground quickly and uniformly across the field so that the ins and outs may be cleaned up with only one pass of the plow. Anyone who has plowed an uneven headland knows how rough bouncing through furrows can be.
4.) From year to year, opening furrows should be placed over last year’s dead furrow to “unplow” ridges and depressions. This requires planning and skill with a plow.

The plow itself is an excellent educator for those interested in agriculture. The same attention to the details of fine plowing would serve a farmer well in choosing chemical, seed and fertilizer programs, making equipment adjustments, and selecting farming practices. With today’s small profit margins, this attention to detail may be the difference between making money of losing it.

There will never be a profit margin for us. Our very first year my mother commented that each tomato would probably cost $82. It probably was not that much then, but it might be that much now….

How we got started

American Gothic by Grant Wood

Almost four years ago, we bought a house with just about 2 1/2 acres of land. The majority of the property was in an untended state; close to the house the flowering gardens were becoming overgrown and invasive species bordered one side of lawn near the house. We spent that first summer (2007) knocking the yard back into shape, removing the invasive species by hand and dealing with all the things new homeowners typically encounter, like the fact that our paychecks were going almost exclusively to home improvement stores and occasionally for groceries.

By two years ago we had pulled down over 100 feet of 20 foot high invasive bushes (and by we I mean my husband did a fantastic job with an occasional assist by me) and had uncovered and mostly rebuilt an old farmer’s stone wall. The prior winter we had discussed the idea of putting in a vegetable garden, and that spring we borrowed my cousin’s tiller, bought some fencing, and put in our first garden in a sunny section of our yard. It was about 8′ x 20′. We went to a nearby nursery and purchased 4 types of tomato plants, summer squash, peppers, jalepeno peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, a few pumpkin plants and corn, and crammed them all in. (Well, the pumpkins had to go outside the fence line; there just wasn’t room with the way they spread.) J set up an automatic watering system on a timer and we put down weed block to cut down on unwanted plant growth. It was totally a lazy person’s garden, and we figured we’d give it our best shot.

It went better than we could have expected – the garden produced a lot for so many plants crammed in a small area. The corn struggled, but that was an experiment from the start – we knew right away we did not have enough stalks for decent self-pollination but we weren’t even sure the corn would grow. We did manage to harvest a few small ears; enough for the two of us for one dinner.

Last year we purchased seeds and started them in the basement before moving them onto our sun porch during the day so they could get some light. We brought them into the kitchen nightly and put them in the ground right after Memorial Day. We expanded and contracted some of our selection, too – we cut back to two types of tomatoes (Sungold and Cluster) added two new types of jalepeno peppers and experimented with eggplants, and added a lot more corn. A lot. I also decided to experiment with carrots and lettuce down at one end of the garden, an experiment that got decidedly mixed results. (Planted too late. June? Really? In New England? What was I thinking? Those carrots weren’t ready until almost October.) We also grew peppers, zucchini & summer squash, cucumbers and those pumpkins again. Overall we were pleased with how things turned out, and made a few notes on what wanted to do differently this year.

Starting with the purchase of a 1984 John Deere garden tractor two days before Christmas off Craigslist. Apparently not very popular around here, we had to drive just over 2 hours to Connecticut to pick it up (and this was the closest one J found.) And then J spent a good amount of time on Christmas Eve cleaning it up and preparing it for winter, before I snagged it and went joyriding around the yard. (Yes, really. Yes, I’m in my 30s. But you cannot know the joy I feel in knowing I no longer need to use a push mower to cut our grass.) Since then we’ve purchased a rototiller and plow attachment, mulching kit and bagger, and a 6-gallon sprayer attachment. Oh, and the plans for the garden? Or should I say garden(S)? About five times the current space, spread out in various sunny locations on the property.

But that’s a story for another post.

Adventures in aggressive suburban gardening