Category Archives: Soil

The Miracle of (Plant) Birth

“As I kneel to put the seeds in
careful as stitching, I am in love.”

(excerpt from The Common Living Dirt by Marge Piercy)

Every time a seed sprouts in my garden I am amazed.

This year’s cold, wet spring delayed planting and germinating making it even more of a thrill to finally see my plants coming alive and growing throughout June.

Carrots Are Up!

Most people are more excited by the birth process in animals which is a more dramatic moment for sure. It also stresses me out. Whether it’s the goats laboring or the poultry hatching, it is loud, messy and takes time during which my attention is held and I can’t help but wonder about everything that could go wrong. In comparison, I appreciate the restful quiet of the garden, and the surprise of the seeds suddenly germinating. If it doesn’t work, I try again, without having to dispose of any bodies – literally.

When it does work, I feel triumphant because my planning and care succeeded! I also feel humbled by recognizing how little I really had to do with it and considering what else was involved in bringing me to this moment. The evolution of flowering plants, thousands of years of plant breeding by our ancestors, the work of pollinators and spring actually coming again, to name a few.

Working with rather than against nature is a foundational concept in permaculture and I experience a sense of that collaboration in this process.

Knowing the science of it only makes it more wondrous. Here’s a glimpse at that…

Sunflowers Sprouting

A seed is a method that plants developed to reproduce, sort of recently. As far as we can tell, seeds first appeared about 400 million years ago while land plants have been around at least 700 million years. Currently, over 220.000 plants – 90% of those we know – make seed. Every seed contains a living embryo with its first leaves and root in miniature. Most seeds have a protective coat and a nutrition pack that will last until its roots function. Seeds can be as tiny as dust or as big as 50 pounds with many different shapes. A seed is in a kind of suspended animation until the conditions align for it to burst into life: the right amount of water, oxygen, temperature and light for instance. Seeds can survive, waiting for the right conditions, for years, with the oldest documented living seed being 2.000 years old! Most of our garden seeds are in the 1 – 5 year range.

After 20 years of growing, maybe I should have gotten used to it but I’m glad I haven’t.

Now that we’ve hit July, there will be less seed starting and more watching the plants grow and harvestng. I’m preparing my food preservation equipment and looking forward to the abundance!

More from The Common Living Dirt by Marge Piercy in her book Stone, Paper, Knife

Beets Emerging

As I kneel to put the seeds in
careful as stitching, I am in love.
You are the bed we all sleep on.
You are the food we eat, the food
we ate, the food we will become.
We are walking trees rooted in you.

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Last Year’s Garden: Reviewing 2018

I admit it – I don’t love record keeping and have not

Summer Harvesting

always been conscientious about it, especially for garden produce. When the picking and preserving season is here, who has time to weigh and take notes?

But this year, partly inspired by this blog, I set up a scale and a notebook and tracked what came in. And now, after a few long hours of data entry, I have my final tallies from the past season of growing.

This helps me exercise the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact and the fourth principle: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feecback. I can see what worked, what we struggled with, how my experimenting panned out and come to my 2019 planning more informed.

Let’s start with problems and what we didn’t grow enough of.

Seedling Trouble

Last winter I played with my seed starting mix, adding homemade products to the commercial mix. I am sure there must be a way to make my own on site rather than buying it in plastic bags, but I have not found it yet. So, my eggplant and brassica starts were not as healthy as usual. Then we had the cool start to the summer, so my eggplant never took off only yielding 5 pounds from the

Beautiful Brussel Sprouts

few plants that did survive. The brassicas, who love cool weather, did better. The 10 kale and collard plants bounced back giving me 23 ½ pounds between the two of them. I got 9 pounds of broccoli from 8 plants, 4 pounds of brussel sprouts from 4, and 1 pound of cauliflower from 2.

Rodents and Other Pests

I previously discussed this year’s excessive rodent populations. We saw the results primarily in the root crops and fruits.

Bold Squirrel Tormenting the Cat

Our peaches were hardest hit, being carried off while still rock hard by huge, bold squirrels. We picked 40 pounds of peaches, but should have had at least 4 times that. I can and dry a lot of fruit so can easily use a few hundred pounds, which this year I had to buy off-farm and not organically grown.

I planted 12 ½ pounds of potatoes in the spring and we harvested 69 ½ in the fall. That’s a 5.5 to 1 ratio, which isn’t terrible, but I have done much better (up to 18 to 1). The voles taking about 25% of the crop was a factor. There were other reasons for the low yield. In an effort to outsmart the Colorado potato beetles I have been planting late – May 23 in 2018. It has worked – I didn’t see any beetles – but I think the reduced growing season is causing more loss than the beetles ever did. Also, we had a slight drought last summer which potatoes suffer from.

Roots

Root Crops

For my carrots, beets and parsnips my first problem was germination. I planted a bed of carrots which didn’t come up at all in late May. I blame the cool spring soil (ideal soil temp for carrots is 75F), and my difficulty keeping the bed moist enough for their long germination. And then, the voles took 25%, even of the parsnips. I did end up with 22 pounds of carrots, 10 pounds of parsnips and 12 pounds of beets, but planted enough to have gotten double that.

The Cold Spring

Tomatoes came to 36 pounds from 8 plants. The slow start to the season meant they stayed green much later than usual, shortening the season. And, we lost a lot to the chipmunks, believe it or not, who climbed up the cages to gnaw on and steal them.

A Disease

Our Cukes Could Have Done Better

This year, our cucumbers contracted what looked like bacterial wilt so we lost some leaves and vines on our 10 plants. We still brought in 27 pounds, which was enough to eat plenty of cucumber salads (I slice the cukes thin and use in the place of lettuce) and to make a year’s supply of lactofermented pickles.

And…

We only harvested a few heads of lettuce. Old seeds made for few plants, and the voles ate a surprising number of their roots. Anyone else see that?

Our 3 pounds of sugar snap peas were not enough for us. I only planted one 4 foot row, which I will increase this year.

Successes

Maybe we learn more from our failures, but let’s still examine what did work for more clues.

Spring started with rhubarb, and our 10 plants are starting to thrive at a couple of years old giving me 15 pounds easily.

Garlic did great for us, as usual. The big beautiful crop gave us 105 garlic scapes, and 147 heads or 23 pounds of 4 varieties.

Beans were a big producer.

Snap Bean Harvest

I planted bush snap beans 3 times over the season for continuous harvest in 5’ x 3’ beds. I also did an early planting of pole snap beans, about one 6’ row trained up a fence. The end result was 118 pounds of produce. I love fresh beans (roasted in olive oil with garlic and onions with cheese melted on top), I was happy to freeze some, and the goats were wild about the overgrown ones, so none of it went to waste. However, I did a lot of picking leaning over in the heat so might grow less this year.

Homegrown Dried Beans

As for dry beans, I planted a total of about 20’ of 5 varieties and now have 15 ½ pounds in my cupboard. I’m pleased, but think I’ll do even more this year. Protein from the garden that dries on the vine and stores for years at room temperature – awesome! Plus, when you grow from seed there are so many more options than you can buy commercially, just like with potatoes.

It was an amazing squash year, as I have marveled at in previous posts. With 161 pounds of summer squash from 10 plants we had enough to share with the animals. Then there was the winter squash. I plant these wild, vining space-hogs throughout our orchards and train them into areas we haven’t planted – paths, fields, up into trees. There were 7 varieties, something like 30 plants and we ended up with 1,010 pounds. It seemed like an overwhelming, never-ending supply, far more than I was planning on and we had to scramble to find places to store it. But, we’ve been making great use of it, especially since it makes an excellent winter food supplement for the goats and the chickens. We have started to lose some to rot. Nearly every one of them had been damaged at least a little bit by gnawing critters so we knew they wouldn’t keep as long as usual.

Leeks in the Late Summer Garden

For some reason, I struggle to grow onions on this property but leeks do extremely well here. I pulled 84 leeks, totaling 48 pounds. The harvest season began on September 24 and didn’t finish up until December 22, growing sweeter and sweeter as winter set in. Yum!

Our basil was prolific at 17 ½ pounds from about a dozen plants, making a lot of delicious pesto. I overdid it with 81 radishes or 7 pounds of them. Our currant crop was our best yet at 18 pounds which I made into jams and jellies.

All of this bounty lasts us through much of the year and accounts for at least 75% of our fruit and vegetable intake.

Winter is a perfect time to have this information to review as I plan for our next garden and start seeds.

Remembering the Summer Garden

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June at Living Land

Borage Flower

June is one of my favorite months. Warm but not too hot, hearing bird song, frog song and breezes in the leafed-out trees, witnessing the plants grow, the animals thrive and the fireflies flashing at night. The downside is the number of biting insects! Insects do speak to the health of the environment, though, and with the modern invention of window screening, we can escape them when needed.

So, even though there is a ton of work to do, I make sure to stop and appreciate living in this beautiful place.

This particular June, weather conditions weren’t ideal for growing, being mostly cooler than usual and having little rain. On June 1 NH was drought-free, but as of June 26 all of Strafford county NH was classified as in a “moderate” drought. However, cool and dry is excellent working weather and we had lots to do!

Our Work in June

Outdoors: Plants

June brings us the longest day of the year, which means there is plenty of light for working outside, early and late. I often feel this time of year like when I’m not planting or tending the plants I am losing out on future harvest. It makes it hard to remain calm for all the other parts of life needing attention! That’s a good time to practice appreciation, as I mentioned above.

Planting continued. Very early in the month, I planted 25 eggplant seedlings, of three varieties: Purple Pickling, Nadia and Diamond. This used one bed in the main annual garden, plus I placed some in the front orchard. I reseeded winter squash varieties and cucumbers that hadn’t germinated well. In our newest hugel area I seeded melons (Escorial, Montreal Market, Savor), more Delicata and Butternut squash, and cover crops of Japanese

Bush Beans

Millet and Japanese Buckwheat. Steve drove more stakes and ran wire so I could plant more climbing beans: Turkey Craw and Good Mother Stallard. I also seeded another area of Pinto beans. Mid-month I planted more root crops: Andover parsnip (it was actually a little late to start them), various carrots and beets. I had been late starting my basil indoors, so I gave that a good long time in the greenhouse before transplanting it on June 24. At that time, I also started my next round of bush beans. 

I covered the eggplant and basil with row cover for a little extra heat retention since they love heat and it wasn’t a consistently warm month.

Kale getting crowded

Most of my crops are looking good so far. My earliest root crop plantings germinated poorly – maybe because of too low soil temps? It’s very frustrating to carefully hand sow those tiny carrot seeds with poor results.  Heat lovers like tomatoes and eggplant grew slowly without much heat.  My brassicas, beans, potatoes, leeks and squash look gorgeous! No disease or insect problems to speak of so far this season, although I am starting to see white imported cabbageworm moths fluttering about!

With the drought, there was watering to do for all the newly planted crops. The rain barrels empty quickly in these conditions. The ponds last longer, especially the one fed from our overflowing wellhead. We mostly did spot watering rather than using automated systems. It takes time, but is the most efficient in terms of water use.

We also brought in materials (hay, wood chips, cardboard) to mulch with for moisture retention and soil health. In many places the mulch had gotten thin, being digested by the soil. That’s great – we just need to remember to refresh it.

Speaking of feeding soil, Steve continues to experiment with diluted urine as fertilizer, especially on our alternate pasture areas. After the animals eat the vegetation down to the ground, we fence it off again and he fertilizes. He managed to overdo it in one area so we saw what “burning” the plants looks like. Other than that, it’s going well as far as we can see and smell. The grass is truly greener. Steve is also preparing to launch a line of urine diverting “toilets” for sale soon!

Our elderberry bush is 10 feet tall and spreading – the goats love the leaves I prune off

I have done quite a bit of what I guess we can call weeding. Because of how much I mulch, my established and annual gardens have almost no weeds. Where we are expanding, though, there are plants to cut back, often resprouting from stumps. Also, in the orchards, I am trying to get particular plants established as the layers of mulch break down. The best ground covering is always plants. At this point, I still need to go through and pull what I don’t want there (wild lettuce, thistle, pigweed, bindweed, crabgrass, brambles, excess mullein, chickweed and plantain) to make space for the spread of my chosen species (red clover, lupine, dandelion, calendula, echinacea, borage, cleome, globe thistle, angelica, valerian, nettles, and comfrey). At a certain point, even these need to be hacked back in order not to affect my food crops.

Everything that I take out, with scything, pruning or hand pulling, goes to the goats. It is very satisfying to watch them devour what otherwise seemed like waste. Well, it would have been composted or used for mulch, but still – it feels even better to turn it into milk!

Grapes Developing

Other miscellaneous work included tending grape vines, adding wires forpole beans, digging up and replanting some perennials, thinning the peaches, gathering manure and seaweed to create new growing areas.

Outdoors: Animals

Chicks in Tractor

The chicks that hatched last month from Steve’s DIY incubator grew quickly in the brooder and were moved outside mid-June to a chicken tractor. They were especially excited to start roosting versus sleeping on the floor. They quickly learned to love eating plants and bugs, scratching on the ground, and dust bathing as well. Strangely, from what I can tell, we have 11 female and 1 male in this batch. We’ve never had such an unbalanced gender percentage – I have no idea what that might mean, if anything!

Our big excitement with goats this month was Lily’s trip to the vet (video here: Lily Goes to the Vet). Every year we bring one of our goats to be tested for: CAE, CL, Johne’s, selenium deficiency, TB and brucellosis. We have never had reason to think we have these, but they are serious issues and regular testing is important to keep up, especially if selling animals. In fact, we implore people not to bring home goats from untested herds or breed to an untested buck. Always ask for copies of paperwork first!

Steve repaired and added more fencing, to keep in our livestock and to exclude predators. I am happy to report few losses so far this year. We’ve

Tabitha… her belled collar stops her from catching birds

rarely lost animals, but some years groundhog and deer have wreaked havoc on our poor plants. This year I can really only complain about the chipmunks. What destructive little beasts they can be! We are indebted to our huntress, Tabitha the cat, for keeping all our rodents in check to some extent at least.

My two hives are doing fine, but aren’t impressing me. Both have cranky personalities and aren’t growing very quickly. I plan to replace these queens with northern stock in July.

Indoors

Unfortunately, our second round of egg incubation was unsuccessful. We’d set both chicken and duck eggs. Just one of each hatched, and neither lived beyond a few days. It was disappointing and sad. Steve is investigating and reading and thinks that the temps got too high this time around. He has some new designs to try next year, and we also plan to buy another incubator. The commercially made ones do work, they just break down much faster than we approve of.

The other possible issue, although less likely, is that we haven’t replaced our rooster or drake for a few years so some inbreeding could be impacting our hatch rates. There isn’t much evidence of this being our problem and birds can tolerate quite a bit of inbreeding, but it did motivate us to reach out to find new stock. We don’t have connections to many others working with our

Indian Runner Ducklings

breeds of poultry, so I searched not-quite-frantically online. We found nice folks in Pelham NH with four black Indian Runner ducklings, old enough to move right outside rather than deal with brooding them in my tub (video here: New Indian Runner Ducklings – June 2018). Now we just have to hope there is a male in the batch. It will be a few months before we can tell gender. Then I tracked down a woman breeding Dominique chickens only a few towns over from me at Just A Notion Exhibition Poultry. In fact, she shows at the Deerfield Fair and we bought our last rooster from her, without ever meeting. She’ll be a great resource for information and help as well as new stock. Phew!

Open Homestead

The twins entertained at our Open Homestead Day

On June 2 we held our first Open Homestead Day. We had some big goals for organizing ahead of time that we mostly met. We so enjoyed showing people around and reflecting on our decade here and future plans. It was especially gratifying to have some friends come who hadn’t been here for awhile and could remind us of how much had changed. It’s hard to notice progress happening over years without such a reality check.

Off-farm

Since most people don’t live by an agricultural calendar at the moment, plenty of activities continue as summer arrives (not schools or the NH Legislature, which still follow a farming schedule!). I did spend time off-farm even though I limited my commitments. I was glad to make it to a few NH Peace Action events, our True Tales Live storytelling workshop and performance, and even to the SoBo Story Slam at The Sarah Orne Jewett House in Maine. I told my Bee Moving story there, and met another serious organic gardener, Mort Mather, whose book, Gardening for Independence, I am now greatly enjoying.

We also went strawberry picking at East Wind Farm since we don’t grow enough here for our appetites. They have amazing organic berries. I’ve put 5 gallon bags into the freezer, which I’ll process into preserves and jelly when the cooler weather arrives this fall.

June’s Harvest

We brought in 155 chicken eggs, 70 duck eggs, and 11.1 gallons of milk.

Red Currants Ripening

From the garden we brought in: 5 heads of lettuce, 7 pounds of rhubarb, 95 garlic scapes, 10 radishes, 1 pound of kale & collard leaves. Plus, “handfuls” of: oregano, garlic chives, chives, sorrel, mint, peas, honeyberries, strawberries, red currants and blueberries.

From previous years, the garlic ran out this month – just in time to start eating the garlic scapes. Still remaining: honey, canned peaches, blueberries and strawberry jelly, dried kale and beans, frozen eggplant, pesto, and salsa.

We grew fodder for the animals as well, many kinds, some tossed to them and some we let them pick themselves by using portable electric fencing.

We made 550 kwh from the PV solar panels. You’ll notice this is less than the past couple of months because, despite even more sun, the trees leafing out reduced how much sun reached the panels. It is still more than we used, so our “carry forward” account with the power company is growing.

I am also moved to put in the harvest column: beauty and rewarding work!

Looking Ahead

Pea Flower

There is plenty on my to-do list coming up. Here’s a sampling: hill potatoes, train beans and grapes, more sheet mulching, trim overgrowing trees, repair shed, cut problem weeds before they go to seed, successive plantings of root crops and beans, and learning to make frozen yogurt or ice cream/milk. And, soon, harvesting and food preservation will take much of my time, I hope! I can already see peas, beans and more berries forming.

July’s weather forecast is predicting seasonably hot and humid conditions coming up, which will slow down the heavier work. Thus, there will be some time to catch up on email, reading, and writing.

I’ll close this entry with a quote that speaks to this time of year for me: “The earth loves us back in beans and corn and strawberries.” -Robin Wall Kimmerer

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