Wednesday, July 30, 2008

like a well-oiled machine, or a ballet

This morning we looked at the list of seeds & transplants we needed to get in the ground... fennel, swiss chard, lettuce, beets, carrots, beans, herbs, greens, radishes, turnips, cucumbers, summer squash. So we quickly divided up tasks & hopped on our tractors. We put all four of them to use this morning. First I spread fertilizer across all the beds, then Nick chisel-plowed, meanwhile Dave was cultivating the neighboring rows. Then I hopped on the big John Deere & rototilled all the beds, followed closely by Nick who marked the beds for our big day of planting. Below is a picture of what the ground looks like after chisel-plowing (left) and after rototilling & marking (right):
We transplanted chard, lettuce, and fennel by hand, and used the push-seeder to direct seed everything else. Except the cucumbers & summer squash, which we put in the ground by hand too. We irrigated the transplants since it was a hot day, and covered up the greens, turnips, and radishes with ReeMay to protect them from flea beetles.
Thought I'd stick a sheep photo in:
Lately the sheep can't seem to get the idea of "uniform grazing"... they will eat some grass right down to the roots while leaving big patches of lush grass 8" tall. I assume they know what they're doing and there must be some good reason why they graze this way, but sometimes I doubt that. Anyway, my grand scheme of having a suburban sheep lawn-mowing company is quickly fading.

Here is the grand melon field:
Can you spot the ripe cantelopes in there?
Watermelons are a little more obvious to find. The trick is getting them ripe.
And the onions drying in the greenhouse...
We put a shadecloth over the top of the greenhouse to block some of the sun from scorching the onions, and the fans are left on to facilitate in the drying process.

evening walk around the farm...

There's only one table of seedlings in the greenhouse these days, and we don't even close the doors at night now. The fans are kept on for the drying onions.
The tomatoes I staked up last night:
The first Purple Yard-Long Beans!!! Only 6 inches now... but they do grow fast! I wish the vines would catch up, they seem a lot slower than the other bean vines I planted at the same time.
These big heirloom tomatoes are all going to ripen at the same time I predict. Oh yes, bring on the gazpacho.
We have more eggplants than we know what to do with. Farmer Dave says that he's never seen an eggplant harvest like this before.
And the peppers are turning red:
The sunflowers...

This is a cotton plant (another of my wacky experiments)-- actually a variety that produces colored cotton! Check out these cool flower bracts... within it the cotton-ball will grow. I think it's so cool that you can grow your t-shirt. Well, there is some processing that has to happen I guess.

These beans have to be picked in the morning. Sometimes it feels like we are slaves to our crops... definitely things like beans, zucchini, and okra, which grow too big to be edible after 3 days.
The second batch of basil is looking beautiful. Good thing, because the first batch is tall & flowering and devoured by japanese beetles. We'll till that one under soon, now that the new field is ready to harvest.
And the winter squash field:
A baby butternut squash, hiding in the deep shade of those leaves... a visual reminder that winter is coming. When we harvest these guys, there will be an autumn crispness in the air, and they will provide needed nourishment for those months without tomatoes!

adventures in nonconventional corn growing

Our 3-Sisters field has really sprung up, and it is blooming and sprawling and creeping and crawling! The winter squash planted in between corn hills has almost completely filled in the area, so that no cultivation is needed anymore... the weeds don't stand a chance.

There are giant amaranth stalks and broom corn (a sorghum) almost 10 feet tall.
Some of this amaranth is an amazing burgundy color. Amaranth is a super grain. Look it up on wikipedia for some interesting facts. I'll report more on this when I get a successful harvest. But right now it's growth habits (very strong, tall, upright stem) seem perfect for growing beans up it... the long-lost 4th sister? (Also sunflower & sorghum have tall trellis structures)
Watch how these bean vines just wrap around anything verticle:

We made small mounds around the corn (4" or so) when it was about knee-high, for some extra support, but it looks like the corn plants have their own strategies for support. They send out these roots from nodes on the stems, when they first emerge they are sticky... somehow they are making their own protective moisture until they get into the soil! Then when they hit the soil, they immediately branch out into lots of little roots, all seeking to stabilize this very tall plant from falling over in the wind! Genius architecture.

I noticed a black-grey dust on some of the corn tassels, and looking closer, realized they were heavily infested with aphids! There were ants crawling all around the aphids too. What these ants are doing is "farming" the aphids. They eat a sticky-sweet substance that the aphid produces, so the ants will treat them as their "livestock" and even move them onto new plants when the food in one area gets scarce.

But, no need to worry or spray anything, I gladly found, the ladybugs are on the scene, and preparing for a great big aphid feast. There were tons of them, tomato-colored little beads moving around on the leaves, making lady-bug love. Their larvae are mostly who devour the aphids. I will keep checking these plants to see when the larvae will appear, these little spiky orange & black bugs.

And... the ears are coming! Hopefully they've been getting pollinated alright... I'll wait a while before I open one up to check. No need to rush the surprise.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

some new kids on the farm...

Today we harvested some usual items like leeks, but some entirely new crops like tomatoes & melons! Pretty exciting. I'll have pictures soon, but today we were in such a hurry to get everything ready that I didn't have time to pause & shoot. Just words tonight.

The earliest tomato varieties were ripe, First Lady and Oregon Spring. Dave thinks that because we mulched heavily with straw (weed control & water conservation) that the soil didn't warm up as fast, and that's why our tomatoes are kind of "late" this year. I don't care if they're late, they're still just as good, if not better because of the wait. I can't wait to make salsa.

Harvesting melons is a theatrical sport. First we got the big wooden bin set up on the forklifts of the tractor & rode into the field in the harvest lane (crushing the buckwheat cover crop we had planted there... it's ok, it's going to seed anyway). Then, while Farmer Dave stands at the bin with hands wide open, Nick, volunteer Pam, & I wade on tiptoes into the network of vines, trying not to crush the plants too much. When we spot a big round melon, we knock on it (the lower resonance is what we want... a higher pitch means it's not ripe yet), and turn it over to see if there's a big spot of bright yellow underneath. If it's ready, we detach it from the vine, and hurl it through the air (various techniques) to Farmer Dave who counts them as he puts them in the bin. Each melon weighs about 9 pounds. We will all have some sore muscles in odd places tomorrow. We only dropped a few... one of which Dave stopped with his foot, and it split open so beautifully red that we all had to have a mid-harvest pause... juices running down our chins as we devoured the fruit like birds.

Cantelopes turn from green to orange when they're ripe and "slip" the vine, meaning they come off the plant easily. Some of them were beyond ripe, and splitting open or mushy in a spot... we saved those for us. There are lots more that are still green out there.

I drove to the Bronx after packing & loading the boxes onto the van... each box weighed over 20 pounds, and there were about 70. That's over half a ton of food, all harvested today and yesterday. And that's not counting the shares that people pick up at the farm... my back hurts just thinking about it!

All of my clothes reek of this sweaty-cheesy smell, and I just identified it--- onion harvest residue. I'll have to do laundry asap, so my whole house doesn't eminate this odor.

When I got back from my drive, having devoured an entire chocolate bar on the way back, radio blasting hip-hop, I decided to trellis the rest of the tomatoes. This is not an easy task. But I like a challenge.

The plants had grown so much and we had so much else to do on the farm besides trellis tomatoes, that they had flopped over into the paths, sometimes completely obscuring passage. I wielded my trellising stick, and my roll of twine attached to my belt, and dove in. By picking up the flopped-over vines with my left arm and using my whole body to hold them up into the space they were supposed to be contained in, I could wrap the twine around the post to hold them up at that angle. Mostly they would flop over to the other side and wait for me to go down that side & pick them up & tie them up again so they resembled something verticle.

In this process my arms and jeans become covered with the sticky yellow resin that tomato plants have on them, that turns black and makes me look like I have some kind of skin disease. It is a real workout too-- I am sweating so much that I need to wipe my face on my shirt so that I can see again! But afterwards I can look back & see that now the tomatoes will ripen up on the vertically suspended vines instead of underneath vines, rotting on the ground, and we will be able to move down the rows with our harvest boxes & pluck the fruit easily. When I shower, the black scum washes off my skin slowly in neon-yellow dilutions... and the cold water feels good on my face.

Another luscious day in the food-production business.

Monday, July 28, 2008

onion harvest!

It was time for the first batch of onions (the ones we will dry for storage) to come out of the field!
We drove the tractor right down the row with a big wooden bin on the fork-lift, so we could easily remove all those onions without a lot of backache. The technique was simple: bend down & pull up as many onions as you can fit in both hands, then stack them in the bin in a somewhat orderly fashion. We had several volunteers helping us!
The bins are nearly overflowing! Check out the field behind it--- all those white flowers are a buckwheat cover crop in bloom (where the spring greens used to be). We need to till it in soon, because it will soon be making seeds.
Nancy pulling up beautiful red onions:
A group photo:
Farmer Dave taking the bins up to the greenhouse where we will lay out the onions on tables to dry. More pictures of this to come!
Before we started the process of drying the onions, which makes them have a much longer storage life, we had been giving fresh onions to our CSA members. These are super delicious & sweet, but do not keep very long, since we peel back those dry husks. But aren't they beautiful?
Equally as beautiful I think are the purple cabbages. I am going to make some bright pink sauerkraut tonight.
And the garlic, all peeled & trimmed:
Lettuce continues to roll in:
Some amazing root vegetables:
And of course the bounty of summer-- peppers, eggplants, beans, and squash-- all of which don't seem to know when enough is enough! There is so much to pick! Help!

Oh, and the latest invention by Farmer Dave: the portable knife block. There is a slot for each of our harvest knives, small and large, with magnets built into the wood so that they don't fall out. It fits comfortably over your shoulder,
and also can be attached to the side of the van or harvest-cart with it's built-in magnets!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

a break in the weather, finally

I am sitting here typing this to the glorious music of a steady rain. Enough carrying big pipes around the farm, it's time for the clouds to fulfill their end of the bargain.

The rain started during Tuesday evening's distribution. We had the sprinklers going full blast on the melon field. (Melons actually get sweeter the less water they recieve, but the leaves were curling up and we weren't sure the plants were going to make it at all!) As the downpour ensued, I turned to Farmer Dave & asked whether we should turn off the irrigation on the melons. He said no, let's not do that just yet. "I'm superstitious like that."

One must be tactful when making bargains with clouds.

I can feel the earth breathing deeply to let the moisture into it's dry crusty soil. Everywhere on the farm there is relief. Here's a chance to show you what's been going on the past few days:

Washing up onions on Monday (check out the shade tent!):
Garlic we processed today:
After taking it down from the barn, we cut off the stems, trim the roots, and peel away the outer layer.
Beautiful. This variety is called "Music" and Farmer Dave has been replanting from cloves that he saves every year for 10 years!
Here's a shot of the melon field. The lower portion of the picture is summer squash, then the watermelons and cantelope are the low-growing green in between. The tall white-flowered plant in the background is buckwheat that we planted in a bed to be a "harvest lane"... this means we can get a tractor in when it's time to harvest the heavy fruits, and don't break our backs trying to carry them all out! Also, the buckwheat is a fast-growing cover crop that not only shades out any weed attempts, but provides nectar for important pollinators & beneficial insects. Standing next to it, you can hear the incessant buzzing of thousands of little winged beings, of all shapes and sizes. Farmer Dave pointed out the tiny black parasitic wasps that prey on common crop pests.
And some pictures of the 3 Sisters Garden:
The corn is "tasseling" which means it sends up this flower on the top that's covered with pollen. This is the male part of the plant.
The pollen will be carried by the wind to the female part, the "silk", and then each pollinated silk thread will produce a plump kernel of corn down there on the cob... progeny for the next generation of corn.
The beans are starting to wrap around the cornstalks!
The amaranth is looking beautiful. It has tall sturdy stems like a sunflower, and I think would make an excellent replacement for the cornstalks as the "trellis sister".
The squash is quickly covering the ground. I mulched a section with old hay, but I think that soon the squash vines will act as a mulch and prevent weed growth anyway. Maybe the mulch would have been a better idea at the time of planting, eliminating the first few cultivations we did.
And here's a vegetable I'm really excited about:
I grew a few purple cauliflower & purple cabbage, even though Farmer Dave usually doesn't, because I think purple vegetables are just great. I'm pretty proud of them, too.
And another delicious meal:

I stir-fried these veggies up with some chili pepper & cilantro, and tried making a few corn tortillas from scratch. Pretty easy to do, just corn flour & salt & water, and cook them on an ungreased cast-iron pan for 5 minutes each side. Yum.

CSA members-- I promise tomatoes for you too soon! These are just the "teasers" to make you salivate... Don't worry, there will be a whole lot of them. I plan on doing some serious canning.