Speckled Romans

This is the first year I’ve grown Speckled Romans. I’ve tried Red Zebra before (which is a round red stripey tomato), and I wasn’t impressed with the flavor (though they looked gorgeous).

These lovelies have both gorgeous looks and great flavor. Definitely will be getting a re-run in my gardens in years to come.


Twitter, E-Mail, and Blogs, Oh My! Online Marketing Workshop for Farmers March 19 in Milan

Are you interested in marketing your farm and its products online but don’t know where to start? Join Land Stewardship Project and University of Minnesota Extension for a workshop highlighting some of the many available social media and internet marketing tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and websites, and how they can be used to connect your farm to potential customers throughout the region.

Ryan Pesch, U of M Extension educator, will delve into the specifics of online marketing tools (from free to $$) and provide individual assistance to farmers wanting to get started using these tools. Regional producers will discuss their online marketing strategies, the costs, the benefits, and how to build customer relationships by telling their farm story to an online audience.

Join us at the Milan Community School in Milan, MN on Monday, March 19 from 9-noon. Light refreshments will be provided. Fee for the workshop is $10 for LSP members and $15 for non-members. RSVP to Rebecca Terk, LSP Community Based Food Systems Organizer: (320) 305-9685 or rebeccat@landstewardshipproject.org.

This workshop will also occur in southeast Minnesota on March 27th. For details about the location or to RSVP, please contact LSP’s Caroline van Schaik: (507) 523-3366 or caroline@landstewardshipproject.org.


Observations Toward the End of Winter

The first of the seeds are started here at my yet-unnamed urban farm. Besides a farm name, which will come in time, I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate the “wink” when I call my new, slowly-developing market and home gardens in a town of 450 residents an “urban farm.”

But, naming issues aside, I’ve got yellow storage onions, red Italian bottle onions, and leeks started so far, as well as a number of perennial and biennial herbs and flowers. At Flying Tomato Farms, most of the annual vegetables and herbs were at the farmstead (along with perennial berries, horseradish, rhubarb, and asparagus), while the perennial herbs and flowers resided at my postage-stamp place in town. Here in Clinton, they’ll come together in a more biodiverse mix better designed to draw beneficials and to keep the neighbors happy.

Aside from starting a few perennials from seed, I’ll have my eyes open for plant division possibilities. There’s a lot of space here, and not a huge need for lawn. Here in Clinton’s “urban core,” the kids play in the street or in the open grassy spaces and parks. We have sidewalks, but except for the main drag, we mostly just walk in the wide streets. It’s pretty fantastic, actually.

Yesterday afternoon we hit 57 degrees according to the Clinton State Bank clock, and today promises more of the same. Whatever of our paltry snow cover makes it through this day will almost certainly be melted by tomorrow’s projected rain. Tuesday, we’ll approach 70!

As the snow melts, I can continue the process of observation that guides the development of the two lots I’m on. Last fall, when my friends Joelie and Rob helped me lift and move the raised bed frames from behind the burned-out house across town, I set them in this great little configuration behind the house and along the south side of the shop.

It seemed perfect–close to the house and with reflected heat from the shop wall for early seedings of roots and greens, with eventual shade from the deciduous trees to extend their season into summer. Now that I’ve seen what happens with what little snow we did get this year (and half of what we got is already melted in the below image), I’m reconsidering that siting.

Had it been last year with the many, many feet of snow we got, I wouldn’t have seen those raised beds again ’til late April or May. So much for early seeding!

I guess the snow issue should’ve figured in my mind initially, but while weighing several other factors, I simply didn’t think about the trajectory of the snow off that roof. And because the two beds that are in the main part of the snow trajectory aren’t filled with soil yet, I can still easily move them (OK–I can move them in a couple of days when the snow melts!).

Instead of the two raised beds there, I’m planning a wide in-ground bed/border along the shed with plants that can take advantage of the reflected warmth, but be resilient enough to survive getting buried in the winter. Instead of guttering the shed and storing the water that comes off the roof, I’ll store that water in the soil instead–building up the organic matter and mulching the bed thickly so the soil doesn’t get pounded along the eaves-line.

From what I can tell now, about a third of the shop wall towards the house will remain comparatively cool though still full-sunny–evaporation won’t be as quick there (judging from the moss growing on the ground), so plants that like their feet cool and moist will thrive in that location. Growing things that like it hotter and dryer can be located along the 2/3 of the wall that is unshaded except for the early morning hours.

There is a lot that can be determined about a growing location, even having only observed for part of the year. But it’s hard to get everything “right” just looking at a place over a month or two–so many factors to take into consideration (and yeah, roof avalanches are a big one). It seems like a lot of people go at landscape and garden designing wanting a certain “look” on their property without taking into account the specific needs of the land itself.

Doing landscaping without the land’s input–without the process of observation and interaction–can lead to a lot of extra work and expense down the line. It’s true that the process of “developing” a landscape for living things is in itself work, and more so if the land hasn’t been well-managed in the past.

But, over time the workload can be made lighter by moving mindfully and considering the many elements, both human-made and naturally-occurring, that give each place its own unique character.

End of Season: Ripening Peppers Indoors

The evening before the first frost threatened, a couple of friends and I converged on the Borrowed Farm gardens to do what we could to preserve and protect the still-bountiful harvest.

Typically, there will be at least a couple of weeks of warm, congenial weather after that first early freeze. It’s a different story if you can dodge the frosty bullet until mid-October–at that point and this latitude, you might as well call it a season.

But, when the first advisory comes even before the middle of September, it’s not worth clearing out the whole garden when there’s so much juvenile fruit still sizing up, and so much warm weather yet to come.

Because the predictions had us hitting a low of around 27, we hedged our bets–a temperature that low can kill off tender plants even under their snuggly covers, so we picked everything that was mature and/or ripening and then tarped and blanketed as much as we could of what was left. We worked ’til the sun was setting, and the temperature was 47 degrees and dropping.

It turned out that Borrowed Farm didn’t come even close to that predicted low temperature, though there was some spotty damage to un-tarped plants–especially melons and other ground-sprawling tender crops. But it wasn’t a killer.

Still, it was worthwhile doing the picking and tarping–it’s a lot nicer doing the hindsight, “what if?” session from the perspective of having been cautious than the perspective of having made a foolish wager.

But if you’re thinking we were smug about it, think again. Because we now had a couple hundred pounds of produce in the house without an extremely clear plan of what we were going to do with it.

In particular, we had (2) twenty gallon storage tubs chock full of green bell peppers. I had sixty-seven plants out there–most of which were leftovers from about a dozen flats-full I was handed with the mission of giving them away.

You might not know this, but it’s actually kind of hard to convince people they need at least ten or twenty sweet pepper plants when they think they only need one or two.

People around here don’t like to take more than they need (even–and maybe especially–when it’s free), and they also don’t like to be responsible for wasting something.  And I guess I must fall into that camp, too, because I couldn’t stand to waste them, either. So, I stuck in the ground what I couldn’t give away.

It turned out to be a very good year for peppers.

I’ve had abundant pepper harvests before–there was a Flying Tomato Farms CSA season that ended with two huge marine coolers plus a fifty gallon tub-full sitting in my living room. After that, I tried to be a little more restrained in my planting and a little more proactive in my marketing.

But, what I learned from that season is that it’s not such a terrible thing to have an abundance of full-sized green peppers sitting around because full-sized green peppers ripen into lovely sweet red peppers given a little time.

While it seems widely known that full-sized tomatoes, picked green, will ripen over time, it’s not as widely known that peppers will do the same.

First off, green bell peppers are simply a full-sized but unripe version of the pretty (and expensive) red, yellow, and orange peppers you see in the grocery store. Hot and sweet peppers also come in other unripe and ripe colors–but bell peppers in their unripe green stage and ripe red, yellow, or orange stage are the most common in supermarkets.

You do not have to uproot the whole plant to get your peppers to ripen indoors. So long as they’re at their full, mature size, they’ll ripen for you off the plant just as well as on.

The night of the frost advisory, we picked (2) twenty gallon tubs of full-sized green peppers. A little less than two weeks later, this is what they look like.  I go through the tubs every couple of days, emptying both bins and transferring the ripening peppers from the green bin to the ripening bin and the red-ripe peppers to the “ready to use” crate.

Of course, if you like green peppers, you can certainly use them, too. I like to keep a couple bags of chopped “Christmas peppers” in the freezer.

What do we do with all those lovely sweet red peppers? We eat them, of course. And we chop and freeze them (no blanching required!). And we also roast, skin, slice, and freeze them on trays lined with wax paper before bagging and labeling them for later use.

We line up eight peppers in two rows on the pan and set them under the broiler. As each side blackens and blisters, we turn the peppers with tongs to do the next side. Once all four sides are nicely charred, we remove them to a paper bag to steam. This helps loosen the skin further.

After the peppers are cool enough to handle, it’s easy to peel off the skins and expose the deep red flesh beneath. We strip out the cores and skins and slice them into strips, laying them on the wax paper-lined trays. It’s a lot easier to get frozen peppers off wax paper than icy metal, and you run less risk of breaking the strips as you remove them.

The full trays go into the freezer until the peppers are solidly frozen, so the strips won’t stick together once they go into bags.

Alternately, you can layer the red pepper strips in a sterilized jar and pour a vinegar, water, and salt brine over them and store them in the fridge. They’re especially good in sandwiches and with crackers and goat cheese as an amuse-bouche. Pour a thin layer of olive oil over the top, so each pepper gets a coating as it’s taken out of the jar (see my post from last year).

The process is somewhat time-consuming, but you end up with a product that is very high value. Roasted red peppers are expensive in the grocery store, and sweet bell peppers are also on the pesticide-laden Dirty Dozen list. Why not take an afternoon to lay in the local harvest of peppers from your garden, or from a farmer you know and trust?

Cutting back…a little

I’ve been known to start (and plant) as many as twenty-five varieties of tomato, so I’m feeling very restrained this year at sixteen.

Reversing my earlier paradigm, I planted these in 4-packs because I couldn’t figure out how to get all the plants I needed into one flat using soil blocks.  So, we’ll see how the soil blocks do for onions, peppers, and eggplant, and maybe make a fuller transition next year.

I still need to start a few spring cabbages, Prezzemolo Italian parsley, and broccoli–those sound like good soil block candidates.

Ten varieties had to share 4-packs with two plants apiece, and 6 varieties got their own 4-pack.  If you parse that out, you’ll realize that leaves one 4-pack empty–but it’s not.  That one is planted with Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry.  When my friend Kelly planted them a couple of years ago, I became addicted to their warm, sweet honeyed pineapple flavor.

Without further ado, this year’s tomatoes varieties:

Coyote Cherry/Cherry Roma
Polish Linguisa/Gilbertie
Principe Borghese/Millet’s Dakota
Sungold Cherry/Green Zebra
Pruden’s Purple/Rose
Cuore di Bue
San Marzano Lampadina
Amish Paste
Old Pink Plum
Japanese Trifele Black

Many of these are paste, plum, or sauce-type varieties–while a vine-ripened summer tomato is an immeasurable bliss, it is an all-too fleeting pleasure.  I want a bounty for my canning jars, and I don’t want to be cooking down batches of sauce for half a day to fill them.

I’m planning on putting the three cherry tomato varieties in the raised beds–one plant in each.  The extra plant of each variety will be a back up, or it’ll go in the lower gardens if there’s room.

Speaking of raised beds and lower gardens, it might be a good idea to order a load of soil and schedule someone to till, or else there won’t be anyplace to put any of these plants!  I also need to get hold of Moose Tubers to make sure my potatoes come to the right address–as of now, I think they’re shipping to Ortonville.

And with all these lovely warm temperatures, the potatoes ought to be getting in the ground very soon.  Wish I was planting some lovely Hakurei turnips and radishes, some arugula and salad mix right now!  Soon…