Monday, March 24, 2008

Thomas Jefferson, President, Statesman, Farmer

1803 Nov. 14. "The class principally defective is that of agriculture. It is the first in utility, and ought to be the first in respect. The same artificial means which have been used to produce a competition in learning, may be equally successful in restoring agriculture to its primary dignity in the eyes of men. It is a science of the very first order. It counts among it handmaids of the most respectable sciences, such as Chemistry, Natural Philosophy, Mechanics, Mathematics generally, Natural History, Botany. In every College and University, a professorship of agriculture, and the class of its students, might be honored as the first. Young men closing their academical education with this, as the crown of all other sciences, fascinated with its solid charms, and at a time when they are to choose an occupation, instead of crowding the other classes, would return to the farms of their fathers, their own, or those of others, and replenish and invigorate a calling, now languishing under contempt and oppression. The charitable schools, instead of storing their pupils with a lore which the present state of society does not call for, converted into schools of agriculture, might restore them to that branch qualified to enrich and honor themselves, and to increase the productions of the nation instead of consuming them." (TJ to David Williams, L&B.10.429-30)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Gentlemen, start your seedlings!!!

While it is still a tad early to plant all but the earliest of the spring veggies, it is just about the perfect time to plant others. I have received the last of my spring seed orders so we are busy putting them in the ground. Now I get to start on summer seed orders.
Some of the other lettuces I have this year are imported heirlooms. Many of them are Italian because of the great diversity of heirlooms available from two of the oldest Italian seed companies, Bavicchi Sememti (since 1896)and Franchi Sementi (since 1783). Obviously, these two companies have been around a LONG time. I believe that Franchi Sementi may be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, seed suppliers in the world, so I guess it is an heirloom, too. Another very old seed company is Vilmorin in France and while many of the heirlooms you see in the marketplace today were originally introduced by them, they are a very modern company and produce many modern varieties as well.

While, there is not quite so much clamor to come up with new hybrids in other countries, seeking to improve varieties is something all seedsmen worldwide try to do. In other places in the world, the approach to the seed trade is a little different than here in the U.S. Lots of older varieties have been continuously offered by these companies since they opened their doors. Also, I think it is kind of thrilling to have the original strains of heirlooms from the location where they originated. Sometimes heirlooms are "improved" strains of these oldsters and so even though they may be old enough to be considered true heirlooms, I want the "granny" strains if I can get them.

Some of the lettuces we are planting this year have marvelously descriptive names. For example, there is one lettuce that has long slender leaves that grow in a rosette and resemble ribbons. The name of this lettuce is "Cocarde" which is a spelling of the French word for "the ribbons adorning a woman's hat". And if you stretch your imagination, you picture why this lettuce was so named. It grows a about 12-14" or higher and it probably does resemble ribbons that might be fluttering atop a ladie's hat.

Our lettuce selection this year contains Batavian, Bibb, Butterhead, Cos (Romaine) and Leaf lettuces. Most of these types are never seen in supermarkets because they do not ship well and need to be eaten as freshly picked as possible. These lettuces make that wimpy iceberg lettuce pale in comparison, in flavor, texture and nutrition. More about that in a later blog. I keep falling off the subject of seeds today for some reason.

One thing that is different this year is the number of onions we are planting. Last year, we planted around 2000 sets and most of them made small onions. With the drought, we simply could not provide them with the 30+ inches of water that is recommended over their long growing season. We ate the last of them in January but they were starting to sprout a little....
Anyway, this year, we decided to plant alot more onions, since we are going to be able to water them regularly.

So instead of ordering 2000, we ordered 5400. That is a whole bunch of onions. But the kicker is that we got the wrong ones. Two cases were the right ones and the third case was a different type of onion and we are not sure that they will grow in this area (onions are finicky about where they are grown. Has to do with the # of daylight hours, etc.). When I called to company, they were very apologetic and said that kind of mistake doesn't occur very often but it is their busiest time of year and stuff happens.

The grower then very kindly sent us a case of the proper onions, "gratis and sorry we goofed up" so now we have 7200 to plant. Oh! my aching back, one more time. We hand plant the little buggers, so each one has to have a hole punched in the dirt, the onion "set" into the hole and then the hole filled in and tamped down. Big onion growers have crews and machinery to do this job which is why supermarket onions are so cheap. You plant them once, irrigate them and then pull them up a couple of months later. Not much labor after the initial planting. We have to hand plant, hand weed, hill up, hand harvest, then dry, sort and store the harvest. Big difference. But the ones we grow taste so much better!

The sugar snap peas that were planted several weeks ago have already sprouted and are coming up. We should start harvesting those in early May. These are succession planted, which means every 2-3 weeks, we plant a few more rows, so that the harvest will be extended over a longer period.

The eggplant and tomato seeds have been planted in flats and are coming up now. In 4-6 weeks, we will have strong healthy seedlings, ready to plant at the proper time, which is late April. Hot weather varieties can't be put out until the last chance for a hard freeze is definitely over, so we wait about a week past our last average frost date, which is April 14th. We generally have at least grape tomatoes by the last of June but usually the first real tomato comes off the vine around the Fourth of July.

Some of the early season varieties might come in a week earlier, but they are usually the mealy, pithy, tasteless red globs that pass for tomatoes in the supermarket. Heirlooms make these imposters pale in compairson, so it is definitely worth the wait. Once our own homegrown tomatoes are done for the year, I usually don't eat another tomato until we have our own again. Call me silly, but tomatoes are my absolute favorite veggie and I have zero tolerance for those horrible "shipping tomatoes" that supermarkets try to pawn off on us. Yick!!!Blechk!PTooey!!!

The eggplants are going to be widely varied again this year. As usual, we will have the big old "Black Beauty", which is of course an heirloom and a classic Italian variety. There will be several other colors, shapes, sizes and origins. The peppers will abound this year, with almost 15 varieties in the running. Some of them have names like "Ram's Horn" and "Sheep's Nose" and come in colors like "rosso" and "giallo", in addition to "verde". Some are sweet as an apple and some are hot as a volcano! I can hardly wait to make my first batch of salsa!!!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Everyday miracles and natural magic!

These are acorns from the huge oak trees in our back yard. The acorns stay hidden under the fallen leaves all winter long. Eventually, it becomes warm enough and moist enough and they get their signal to sprout. The fallen leaves act like a "nest" for acorns until that perfect proper time comes for then to sprout. This is the beginning of a forest. One of the neatest things about these oak sprouts is that they already have the beginnings of bark. Notice the pattern on the sprout. It is a tad smaller than a pencil in diameter at this point and about 4 inches long if I could stretch it out. I imagine this sprout is about a week old. I pushed back some leaves to finds these sprouts. There are literally hundreds under the blanket of leaves but squirrels, birds and other wildlife know they are under there and only a few will survive. Life feeds on life.

This tiny nest belonged to a hummingbird. We were taking a walk in the woods last fall and as I stepped over a fallen log, I happened to look down and there, attached to a broken branch was this tiny nest. It stayed attached to the branch for a couple of months, but I guess it dried out too much and fell off. I put it in the branches of our Christmas tree and it fit on the limb perfectly. (Those tiny feathers came from another bird, by the way. Probably some type of wren.) I wish you could see how intricately fashioned this nest actually is. There are layers upon layers of thin sheets of what appears to be pieces of dry leaves. There is also some kind of animal fur lining the inside.

Here, beside the hummer's next is another nest I found recently. It is most interesting to me because it is made almost entirely from the long stiff hairs from the tails of the dairy cows that live in the big pasture just on the back side of our farm. At first, I thought it was from one of my Jack Russells, but I pulled one out and immediately recognized that it was from the cows. There are lighter colored ones on the top and darker ones on the sides and bottom. This next is as soft as a blanket. This one is a little bigger than the other one. The quarter is for reference as to the size of these tee-tiny nests.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Oh, my aching back!!!

(Note: I started this entry on the 5th and am just getting it finished today, the usual)

Things are heating up around the Farm these days. LOTS of stuff going on. Well digging, plowing, hoeing, furrowing, planting, you name it, it is happening. And that can only mean that the season will be in full swing in another 4-5 weeks.

On Monday, The Farmer and I planted 10 rows of snap peas (remember that our rows are 100 feet long when you are reading this post) and, 6 rows of Kennebec potatoes (more about planting taters below...). We also planted several yard wide swathes of mixed lettuces and likewise planted mixed mustards, spinach, endive and escarole. There are 60M carrrot seeds in the ground as well. We were keeping our fingers crossed that it would rain, which is why we planted in such a fury, so we wouldn't have to be watering everything in. It worked out perfectly!

Below there is a picture of the actual potatoes that I planted. I know that almost everybody reading this blog has had at least one potato in the bin too long and it started to sprout. That is the part that we very carefully save to plant. Each eye on a potato is a potential sprout and so we go thru a process of encouraging our seed potatoes to sprout. Once that happens, the potatoes are cut into a small piece everywhere there is an eye or a sprout because each one is a potential potato plant and seed potatoes (organic, that is) are VERY expensive. Mostly it is expensive to ship them but that is still part of the cost because there are NO suppliers of organic seed potatoes any where evenly remotely close to this area. So, mostly we save our own potatoes from year to year so that we can guarantee that we have what we need to plant in the spring.

Anyway, here is the picture of the cut potatoes that I planted. After they are cut, they have to dry out for a while, so these were sitting in the sun, doing just that when I snapped the pic. I cut these potatoes in the early morning and we planted them that evening.

Each little piece has to be set into the furrow with the sprout pointing up, so they have to be done individually, hence the title of this blog today.

For reference, there are about 750 pieces in this container or roughly 3/4 of a bushel of potatoes, cut into 1-2 inch pieces. Sound kind of like KP duty, doesn't it? Anyway, next time your potatoes are sprouting in the cupboard, remember that is a potential crop of potatoes. In fact, you could cut them up and plant them in your yard or in a big container and grow some for yourself!!!

We also planted carrots, lettuces, mustards, kohlrabi, Asian greens, spinach and a couple of other really early varieties. It has been really warm here this winter and I think some folks don't realize just how early in the growing season it actually is. Most of these varieties take about 50 days to maturity and we are right on schedule.

There are already several things we planted earlier that were already up and going strong, mostly things that take more than the 50 or so days we have until CSA starts up. Some things like radishes, arugula and some of the other spring items take less than 30 days to produce, so it is a little early to plant those. We could still have some really cold weather (the last average frost date in this area is April 14th...remember the killing frost at Easter last year?) so we are a little cautious about what we plant this time of year. Timing is everything in our weird spring weather and since we are such strong proponents of seasonal growing and eating, this season is our hardest to manage, in terms of planting schedules.

Another thing we planted yesterday was SUGAR SNAP PEAS!!!! This is one of my absolute favorite spring treats. There are 10 rows in the ground now and there will be another 8-10 planted in about 2-3 weeks, so that they don't all mature at the same time and we can have a little longer harvest period on those.


Since I originally started this entry, three days have passed and it has rained quite a bit. As I mentioned earlier in this post, we were trying to get these seeds, etc. in the ground in anticipation of the rain and it worked out great!!! Nothing washed away, everything is well watered in now and the only thing that I am concerned about are the potatoes sets.

Of course, this is the nature of farming as I always remind everybody. Not for those who have to have every "T" crossed and "i" dotted. We just never know what will happen when Mother Nature is in one of her "moods". If you can't take the heat (or cold or rain or drought or snow or flood or wind, not to mention the bugs or the weeds), you'd best stay our of the garden.

So, now this round of planting is done. The rains came, the weather was warm and most of the seeds are probably starting to pop out. And it is gonna be 26 degrees here tonight.....moody, moody, moody Mama Nature. (heavy sigh....)

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Thought for today

Life is a song ... sing it.
Life is a game ... play it.
Life is a challenge ... meet it.
Life is a dream ... realize it.
Life is a sacrifice ... offer it.
Life is love ... enjoy it.
~ Sai Baba ~