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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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Winter Squash I Have Grown, Respect Where it’s Due

Curing Winter Squash in 2018

Winter squash (Cucurbita spp.) is an amazing food resource – prolific, nutritious and with a long shelf life requiring no electricity. We humans love it as well as our chickens and goats. Over the past few years I have branched (vined?) out to try more varieties, especially heirlooms, to honor and help preserve what the native people of this region cultivated. Those master plant breeders cared so well for this land for thousands of years, including living through climatically challenging times. We immigrants could learn a lot from them.

Here is a review of our trials so far, starting with our latest finds.

Seminole Pumpkin or Chassa Howitska (Cucurbita moschata)

I first heard of this squash in 2018, but it was cultivated by the Seminole people in the Florida Everglades since the 1500s. I came across it in the Fedco catalog’s Indigenous Royalties program. They included a disclaimer that we might be too far north to succeed with this crop, but it’s claimed pest and disease resistance tempted me to risk it.

Seminole Trying to Cross the Road

It was slow to get started in the cool spring we had, but once it got going there was no stopping it. It grew farther and wider than I’d planned for or imagined possible. It snaked out into the road, pulled small trees down in its path and sent down roots everywhere it touched the ground. I had to climb into the patch regularly to free my persimmons, jostaberries and beach plums, not an easy feat. The foliage was huge, dense and deep green all the way to our first frost. I never saw damage from vine borers, squash bugs or powdery mildew.

Seminole Squash Vines (see the blue of my shirt in the jungle?)

I also couldn’t see much fruit through the greenery, leaving me to wonder if we’d actually have a crop from it at all. But after the frost hit, I ventured into the tangle with 5 gallon buckets, trip after surprising trip eventually bringing in 414#, all from an original 6 planting spots with a couple seeds in each.

Seminole Ripening on Vines Just Hit by Frost

None of it was totally vine-ripened. The small green fruits we used like zucchini and shared with the goats. Any that had started to turn orange I brought inside hoping they would ripen. This was in October. Over the next couple of months, any that showed signs of rotting we cleaned up and ate ourselves or fed to the animals. By January a batch of 50# had totally ripened, living in buckets in our dining room. These can supposedly last for years without even being kept cool. I’ll be testing that and can report back!

Cured Seminole Pumpkin

As for taste… the immature ones weren’t sweet, but were more nutty and like summer squash. As they ripen they sweeten up. They have made lovely fluffy pies and are especially great for pumpkin bread. Their size of 3-5# each is handy for using in the home kitchen.

I’ll definitely plant these again this spring, but farther from the street!

Boston Marrow (Cucurbita maxima)

This heirloom seed came to me from The Piscataqua Seed Project in 2018. It can be traced to upstate New York where it may have been gifted from Native Americans to settlers, then documented in Salem, Massachusetts in 1831.

Boston Marrow Squash

I grew one plant in one of our young orchards. It happily climbed up a small nearby oak. As expected, it made one large fruit, an impressive deep orange 20-pounder. We cracked it open in February and it cooked up sweet and moist. I made a few delicious pies and squished squash dishes. My complaint is the size. Chopping it up and having to process it all at once is not convenient at a typical home scale. If you cook for many people at once this is a great one, which I’m sure is why it is becoming popular with chefs at farm to table restaurants.

Long Pie (Cucurbita pepo)

Long Pie Pumpkin, Ripe and Stored through April

I received seeds for Long Pie at a Seacoast Permaculture seed swap in a homemade envelope with no photo. In 2016 I planted a variety of winter squash, including these seeds, in our front garden and orchard. That turned out to be a big vine borer year. Every few years there is a surge in their population and we lose much or most of our crop. Those are the ups and downs, the boom and bust cycles of nature, which I don’t worry too much about. But one vine kept going after all the others succumbed. It formed long dark green fruits looking like a weird cross between a zucchini and maybe a butternut. I didn’t know what to do with them so left them.

Long Pie Pumpkin, Still Green on the vine

When they started turning orange in the late summer I had enough information to research and realize what they were.

 

I was already a fan after seeing them shrug off the pest pressure that year. Their long-keeping nature, handy size and shape, and how they sweeten nicely over time keeps them on our must-grow list.  Other local growers have noticed it as well.

Delicata (Cucurbita pepo)

Delicatas in Storage in April

It is my personal history with Delicatas that endears them to me. When I was a beginning grower in the early 1990s, farmer David tried these out. Small and sweet with edible skin, they were perfect for me as I was living alone, making meals for one. I love them halved, sprinkled with cinnamon and baked. They are not super pest resistant or prolific, but they keep well for many months.

It is also an heirloom. I buy the Zeppelin variety which can be traced back to 1894, before more recent breeding programs.

Butternut (Cucurbita moschata)

A Baby Butternut

Everyone knows Butternut squashes, right? I thought I did, but only recently learned that they are direct descendants of the Canada Crookneck grown by the Haudenosaunee and likely other New England, New York and Canadian tribes (see “Seven Sisters” by Dr. Fred Wiseman). More recently they have been selected for straight necks, but still maintain resistance to vine borers, a trait common to C. moschata.

I’ve grown these for years, and never intend to give them up. This year I grew both Waltham and Burpee, with the Waltham being the better producer. Butternuts have generally been my best keepers, sometimes all the way until July. This year they haven’t been lasting as well, which I expect is because none of them escaped chew

Butternut Squash

marks from rodents in the fall. Maybe the Seminole pumpkins will outdo them on shelf life, we’ll see. They are sweet and delicious and a convenient size.

 

Looking to the Past, Planning for the Future

I had thought this blog post was going to be a simple one on a simple topic. However, while writing it, I found myself struggling with conflicting feelings and thoughts. I love this food source and I have a lot of gratitude and respect for the people who developed it. But honestly, it has come to me more through theft and appropriation than gifting.

The case could be made that I shouldn’t be on this land – there are others who should be. But here I am anyway, living in the wake of histories and choices that I didn’t have a say in. And – where else could I be? I’m ½ Irish and ½ Italian with no citizenship rights in either country. There isn’t a clear way to go back.

We can learn so much from Indigenous people. In fact, permaculture specifically looks to cultures who live in good relationship to the land. Many Native Americans are urging the rest of us to learn from them before we destroy us all.

I have no answers here, only questions and struggles. But sometimes hard questions are more important than quick answers.

I plan to continue to grow Native American crops – squash, beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes and more – and try to give credit where it is due. I will also pay attention to current issues in native communities and find ways to give back for all that I receive.

Here are just a few projects and resources to look to for ways to support indigenous peoples rights.

The NH Coalition for Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People

Indigenous New Hampshire

Dawnland documentary

Grand Canyon Trust (If you went to SELT‘s 2019 Wild and Scenic Film Fest in Portsmouth NH in April you’ll remember the film on this subject: Too Precious to Mine)

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

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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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