Category Archives: Soil

2019 On the Homestead

Garden in July

We just finished up our most productive season on our homestead yet, a year that showed how abundant permacultural systems can be. The bounty also kept us very busy with picking, drying, freezing, canning, and root cellaring.

Winter in New England provides a natural space to review, reflect and plan ahead. During the rush of the growing season, it’s a struggle just to keep up with daily chores. I’m grateful for the down-time that lets me practice the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact and the fourth principle: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. Some of what I note I can’t necessarily plan for – such as how much rain we get – but other information will change what I do – such as I planted too many bush beans for what we need or what my back feels good about.

I’ve begun to think of our years here less as numbers and more by conditions. Like, 2018 was the Year of Rodents & Clouds and 2016 was the Year of Drought. This year, 2019, stands out to me as the Year of Enough Rain, Weird Nectar Flows & Overabundant Veggies.

Last year’s review focused on the gardens. Here I will expand that to include our animals and other projects.

Let me begin again with speaking to problems, starting with the issues I identified in my 2018 Review and how I fixed them or saw them evolve.

Seedlings in April

Starting Seedlings

Having learned from my 2018 reflections on our seedling trouble, I did go back to a commercial blend. I found a company called Organic Mechanics that has peat-free seed starting mixes, so at least I was able to address that ethical issue arising with these mixes. It still came in a plastic bag. It worked well, though, so I got off to a good start with lots of healthy new plants.

Rodents, Pests and Diseases

Fewer Chipmunks Mean More Strawberries!

Rodent pressure was SO much less this year! It’s basic population dynamics – if a group grows beyond it’s ecological limits, it will crash. After 2018’s nearly unbelievable numbers, we had our easiest year yet dealing with chipmunks, squirrels, and voles, our usual competitors. I see this with insect pests and diseases often as well. It’s why I take my time and observe carefully before reacting, especially with any kind of drastic intervention.

We did have a groundhog appear mid-season, hanging out in our lower garden. We failed to figure out how it was getting in and out of the fenced area so we had some damage – it loved my broccoli and cauliflower plants and took bites out of many of our winter squash in that section. Honestly, for a groundhog, it was well-behaved to only make that much of an impact. It just kept me holding my breath for the day I’d go down to devastation! I’ve exhaled mostly by now.

Healthy Cucumber Vines in August

The cucumber disease that I and many others were affected by in 2018 was not a problem this year. In fact, I had way more cucumbers than I felt ready for! Luckily, the chickens and goats are fans of the overgrown ones. The only change I made from previous seasons was to space the vines far from each other around the garden, making it harder for disease to spread. I’m not sure that mattered, though, as so many others reported great yields from their cukes. I think it was a problem that came and went by factors larger than we control.

Pulling Parsnips

Roots

After a few years of germination problems with carrots I seem to have found the right combination for success. First, I planted later. Although carrots, beets and parsnips as “cool season crops” are happy to grow in cool weather, they don’t necessarily germinate well in cold soil. Especially since I am a committed mulcher, seeding carrots in March meant weeks before seeing them, and keeping them consistently moist that long was tough. So, I waited for some warmth and exercised patience, which I really needed given what a cold spring we had. It was May 26 when I finally seeded the root crops. I also put up a shade cloth over the carrots to keep them from drying out as the sun strengthened. It worked! In fact, my carrots came up

Carrots for the Root Cellar

thickly, and it had been years since I had needed to thin, so my first planting had it’s share of weird twisted, multi-legged roots from being crowded. I was on top of thinning the later plantings which gave me gorgeous results and 195# just of carrots to eat and pack in the root cellar.

 

Labor

The one big problem we experienced this year was a labor shortage. This should not have surprised me, as it is a very common problem on farms. When you are putting a lot of work into a product that is comparatively undervalued financially, there are going to be problems, even with the many labor-saving techniques used in permacultural systems. Steve needed to take more off-farm work this summer, leaving me to do more than I expected and than I was really up for. Any real solution to this needs to be addressed at a societal level, but, meanwhile, I am going to have to rethink some of my choices and be more realistic about my time. I am a great solar-powered, renewable resource, but have my energy limits!

Good Soil, Big Plants

Success in the Gardens

At this point we have about one acre out of our 7 in garden beds full of organic matter, built from the countless truckloads of reclaimed resources we have brought in since we moved here in 2008 (seaweed, coffee grounds, manure, hay and wood chips). The majority of the beds are planted in perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, berries and fruit trees, most still too young to be very productive. Between the young trees, and in our 3,300 square foot sheet mulched main garden, we plant our annual crops.

Peaches!

With the regular rain, low rodent numbers, and the soil we’ve built, it was a great year for growing. The trees are also becoming mature enough to begin to bear and we had our first real harvest of peaches, 219#, juicy and delicious.

Here are the veggie and fruit numbers, hopefully presented in an useful way (feedback on that welcome!):

Alliums – garlic – 165 hds; garlic tops – 161; leeks – 96#

Beans & Peas – 96.75# snap beans; 17.5# dry beans; sugar snap peas – 11.5#

Brassicas – broccoli – 3.75#; brussels sprouts – 12.5#; cauliflower – 3#; kale/collard – 29#

Celery – 1.5 #

Corn, popcorn – 9#

Cucumber – 195.5# (ack!)

Eggplant – 70.25#

Greens – lettuce – 9#; nettles – 3#, beet greens – 1#

Herbs – basil – 6.25#; dill – 1#

Melon – 21.5#

Potatoes – 166.5# (from 22# seed potatoes, a solid 1 to 7.5 ratio)

Roots – beets – 30.25#; carrots – 195.25#; parsnips – 38#; radishes – 82

Squash – summer – 53.75#; winter = 686#

Tomato – 55.75#

Fruit:  beach plums – 1#; crabapples – 12#; currants, clove – 16.75#; currants, red & white – 21.5#; elderberry – 1#; grapes – 12#; honeyberry – 3 ½ cups; jostaberry – 3.25#, nanking cherry 1/4#; peaches – 219#; rhubarb – 15#; strawberry – 20.5#

This bounty kept us eating well and was preserved to last for months to come.

Bees Making Honey in June

Bees

My two hives from 2018 came through the winter strong, ready to take off in the spring. It was a slow start with the chilly weather, but once they had the opportunity they were wonderfully productive. Usually we have a dearth (lack of nectar) in July, but this year that did not happen. Instead, they just kept on filling their combs, to the point that we pulled honey in order to avoid towering hives toppling over, or late season swarms. I also split the overwintered hives to create two more, plus a small nucleus hive. Strangely, though, the fall nectar flow never came. I have no idea why. I gave them back some of the honey frames I’d pulled plus some sugar syrup and hope they were able to build up enough of a population to survive the winter.

We were able to take 165# of honey, so despite the weird season, I consider it a good one.

Goats

Goat Kids: Zan & Jayna

We had another year of healthy, happy goats, including two successful births in the spring. All four kids were sold to other homesteads with natural goatkeeping practices. We helped Gagnons Mountain Homestead start their herd with Luna’s little girl, Jayna, and her whethered brother to keep her company. We love helping others get started, especially folks we resonate with on animal keeping.

I have been milking three animals since the spring, this year’s moms, Cocoa and Luna, and 2018 mom, Lily. We brought in 107 gallons of milk over the course of the year, most of which I turned into yogurt, chevre cheese, and mozzarella.

Young Dominique Chickens

Poultry

All went smoothly with our Dominique chickens. From the incubator and one broody hen we raised 41 chicks, some of which we added to our own flock, some of which we sold, and some of which we harvested to eat. We added to our number of move-able chicken houses and yards to keep the growing birds protected but rotating pasture. It is tricky to make the structures strong enough to withstand predators but light enough to actually move.

Day Old Ducklings

Our Indian Runner duck flock had some turnover this year. We still had our “old grey duck” from the first batch we brought home back in 2012 but she was showing her age. Over the winter she had seemed arthritic, walking stiffly at times. I thought it kinder not to ask her to go through another cold season. We really liked her and her big blue eggs and wanted to keep those genetics in our flock. So, I put her and our drake together by themselves for a week, took her seven eggs, and put them in the incubator. We find duck eggs much harder to hatch successfully so were delighted when six of them hatched out 28 days later! And, in a poignant, bittersweet coincidence, Old Grey curled up in the pasture the following day and peacefully died, probably not – but maybe on some level – knowing that she had

Our Current Duck Flock

completed her basic biological imperative to pass on her genes to a new generation. Four of those ducklings did turn out to be female and are now part of the flock!

At that point, though, our drake became too related to everyone else in the flock to breed from, so we are ordering some spring ducklings from Sand Hill Preservation Center to add new genetics to our operation.

Our poultry harvest came to: 1,683 (140.25 dozen) chicken eggs; 593 (49.4 dozen) duck eggs; chicken meat about 100#; duck meat about 5#.

Other Homestead Projects

Packing Parsnips for the Root Cellar

The root cellar is up and running after about 7 years of intermittent work! This is a free-standing cellar since our house doesn’t have one. Lots of rock moving and masonry was involved, slow and heavy work. We also continued to expand the orchard and garden areas enough that I can order about 10 more trees for spring planting.

Looking Ahead

And now it’s time for me to do an inventory of our seeds and send in my order to Fedco, as well as orders for trees, bees, and ducklings. Now is also the season to find new and interesting ways to cook and bake all the food we have put up from this abundant year, and thus enjoy eating what’s still fresh and completely local. Watch for me to get back to the topic of food preservation in coming posts.

Happy 2020 – it’s a year of auspicious anniversaries including the 100th year of US Women’s Suffrage and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day… we’ll see what it brings for us all, on the homestead and beyond!

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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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