Bringing in the Last

Yesterday afternoon, I dumped all the potted annual herbs into the wheelbarrow and brought in all the tender houseplants from the back deck.

Thunder was grumbling, and days of rain and potentially even a little snow are in the forecast. I didn’t want to haul in frigid, heavy, sopping wet pots at the last moment. So, amid rumbling and flashing and the first spatter of drops, the season of patio plants ended abruptly.

A little later, a bolt of lightning splintered a tree by the kitchen, nearly causing me to spill boiling tea-water on my foot. Then wind forced open the mudroom door, hail flew in with a clatter, and THEN the weather radio sounded a warning.

There is no “fall garden” this year other than what’s out in the older beds already, mature, planted in spring. Some of the newly-built raised beds are filled with a combination of “black dirt” (which is farm field soil, stripped off so that excavators can get to the gravel underneath) and barn cleanings–a mix of straw bedding and goat manure. I combine the two because black dirt from an industrially-farmed field, while gorgeous-looking to those who garden in less-than-ideal soil, is nevertheless a dead medium. There aren’t any worms, no organic matter. When it’s dry, it blows like the Dirty Thirties; when it’s wet, it pools and runs to gullies.

DSC05815I see whole big fields of it in places–fall cultivated bare to allow for earlier spring planting, and I wonder how much soil that farmer will lose before they wise up to what their grandparents learned the hard way.

A couple of the newly-filled raised beds are serving as winter nurseries to perennials I dug from the yard in Clinton–I don’t want to lose what I worked on if the house should sell after the ground freezes, and I don’t want to ask for stipulations about digging plants in the spring. A couple beds have asparagus crowns dug last weekend from a plot now outside the new garden boundaries. Some of the new beds still stand empty, and I guess they might stay that way till spring.

I had the idea I’d get all the beds filled and the newly-defined garden fenced this fall, but the list of what can be accomplished before freeze up is shortening along with the days. I also remember thinking I’d get a plot tilled and the small high tunnel erected down on the south lawn. The frame and plastic for that is still in the shop in town.

DSC06017Yesterday evening, casting around for dinner ideas, I decided to make lasagna–not because I was particularly in the mood for it (it was excellent!), but because I could combine the making of it with processing the rest of the ripe tomatoes in the house. I also had some soft goat cheese in the fridge from a local farm tour last week, and that’s not something you let go to waste.

Now, with the weather tending toward chill and damp, and the fact that some animal (probably a squirrel) is competing with me for the last of my lovely heirloom tomatoes, I am planning to cut them down and bring a wheelbarrow-full to the chickens. If critters are going to eat the last few, I ought to get something in return (theoretically speaking, since my hens have not yet begun to lay eggs).

DSC05983I don’t think I’ve ever pulled healthy tomato plants before a frost, but their production is waning, and I’d like to bare those beds and get compost worked in sooner rather than later. Another first: two days ago I pulled all the sweet pepper plants but two–again, waning production and a desire to beef up the soil organic matter before winter closes in.

Yes, and to make room for the garlic that still needs planting, though I have it on good authority that with a power drill and ice auger, it’s possible to plant it in December, even.

It’s a bit of a relief to be bringing in the last–to know that the constant inflow of baskets and boxes and buckets of produce is coming to an end, and what we’ve got is it until the first greens of spring. Sure, there’ll be a few more trips to the farmers market for winter squash and onions, to the orchard for apples. We’ve got currants and elderberries in the freezer that are destined for jam, jelly, and syrup, the canning of which will warm the house in the chilly damp weeks ahead.

But it seems clear from the forecast, and from the geese gathering by hundreds in the sloughs, that the Time of Too Much Eggplant is coming to a close, and the stored-up Feast of Fall is about to begin.


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.


Building in Resilience

First rain–a lot of it at once. Now it’s dry again.

When I raked and shaped the raised beds in my new gardens here, I got a lot of questions about what I was doing and why. And, if I know my western Minnesota well enough by now, for every voiced question, there are ten who drive by and think, “what the heck is she doing?”–but never actually stop and ask.

Based on my own observations about the soil here, as well as my neighbor’s comments about the back lot being poorly drained, this is what I was preparing for:

In the process of raking up these beds, I incorporated a lot of the organic matter into them, and even with the two-inch deluge, there was very little erosion off these mounds. Had the garden been level, the plants would have been sitting in muck, their roots starving for oxygen.

Now that it’s dry out, the plants are still doing well–the clay soil holds water well, and there’s still plenty of moisture deep in the mounds. The tomatoes have really taken off!

Before that series of storms, I planted the lower part of this same garden with a buckwheat cover crop. I thought about trying to build more beds and plant more vegetables, but I’ve been busy enough to know my time limitations for garden work.

Thick-sown, fast-growing buckwheat makes a good weed-suppressing summer cover, and its heart-shaped leaves (and later white blooms) are really pretty! I’ll let it bloom for a bit before I cut it down for mulch–giving bees more reason to hang around the garden while the other crops are blooming.

As I mow the lawn, I’ve been adding more mulch to these gardens. I’m not sure I have my system just right at this point, but I’m laying the fresh clippings in the aisles to dry down and then raking them up on the mounds to help preserve moisture.

The yellow storage onions got weeded and the aisles mulched in the last couple of days as I mowed various areas of the lawn. I’ve been trying to split up the mowing into a rotation–some areas are lusher than others and need more frequent attention, and I also try not to mow down all the clover blossoms at one time in order that the bees stick around.

At some point in the season, I’m hoping to have all the bare ground covered. The natural state of soil is to be covered–so you can take your pick if it’s going to be mulch, plants you want, or weeds you don’t.

The spring-sown cover crop is still going strong in the other garden, and instead of tilling it under, I’m mowing and cutting every couple of weeks–keeping it in a sort of living mulch that is also fixing lots of nitrogen thanks to the vetch and what’s left of the field peas. But I’ve cleared a few small spaces to make room for beans and squashes.

I should probably not jinx myself by saying this, but last year across town, the rabbits took every one of my beans. This year, I haven’t protected these Gold of Bacau plants, but they haven’t been plundered. There is a rabbit living under one of my sheds, but apparently she has different tastes–the only damage I found after a brief getaway last weekend was my shallots had their tops eaten off.

I wonder if that means the rabbit is French, and/or the meat is pre-seasoned? Maybe I should leave a glass of wine out there, too, but I don’t really want to encourage her.

Another hopefully-success this year is that I finally have some decent-looking Fish pepper plants. I have been intrigued by this variety for some time now, but their germination is not always great, and I’ve had many die or never come up. This must be a magical year!

The plants are pretty with their variegated foliage, and the peppers are supposedly stripey as well. This is an heirloom used in crab shacks on the East Coast–their spicy and fruity flavor is reputedly excellent with fish and other seafood. While we’re distant from the ocean, I do have some local fisherman friends who might appreciate these (and might therefore invite me over for fish fry!).

Here’s to a bountiful growing season!

Spring Soil-Building

Spring and summer just aren’t conducive to blogging–at least not at length. After all these years, I should just get used to that fact and resign myself to post something shorter more often instead of fretting that I have nothing to write no time to write.

A friend’s husband tilled a couple of garden spaces for me back in mid-March. I should have known the soil under all that dandelion and plantain wasn’t going to be pretty–the presence of both plants in profusion all but shout, “hard clumpy clay soil underneath,” but I wanted to believe I wasn’t dealing with the nightmare soil I thought I was.

I’ve been blessed with gorgeous black soil for a number of years in a number of places. It was always more about maintenance than actually making/building soil. Sure, there was clay, but there was also plenty of humus and decent tilth.

Now that a few things are growing in these gardens, you can see from the potato rows exactly where the black soil ends and the mostly subsoil clay fill was trucked in and spread–in the little fingers of good soil that stretch into a row, the plants are twice as tall as the rest of the row. The earth is darker and easier to work. In the rest of the row, it’s light-colored, rocky, and likes to form big, ugly clumps.

I’m not complaining–well maybe a little under my breath on certain days. Mostly I am recognizing that this is a good next lesson the Fates have prepared for me. Had I started out gardening on soil like this, I’d have quit after the first season. Now that I have some knowledge and experience under my belt, I have a little soil-building roadmap to follow.

It starts with cover crop (aka “green manure”). This spring I planted a mix of field peas, oats, and vetch on about 3/5 of the garden with the worst soil. Once the peas started blooming, I slashed it down, and I’ve been slashing and mowing every couple of weeks as it comes back up. I’m not even trying to remove all the dandelions and plantain from the space yet–just slashing them, too. Their roots bring up valuable nutrients from the subsoil. The vetch and field peas fix nitrogen with the little nodules on their roots.

All that debris is forming a mulch on top of the soil–tilling it under green would make it break down too fast and burn up the organic matter. On the bottom half of the second garden, I just planted a summer cover crop of buckwheat to be slashed down once it flowers.

I have got a few other things planted besides cover crop–the aforementioned potatoes in the first garden, plus onions, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant in the second. Because the area is poorly drained, I’m mounding the beds.

And now that I’m mowing regularly, I’m dumping grass clippings from the more lush areas of the lawn into the aisles of the garden to help keep weeds down, add organic matter, and retain the moisture we do get (which hasn’t been a lot). Sort of a redistribution of nutrient wealth from one area of the property to another.

A lot of people don’t do this because they’re afraid to introduce weed seeds into their garden. I did wait until the dandelions were mostly done, but I’m not overly concerned with what weeds sprout from these clippings because as long as I get out there every once in a while and swipe them with a hoe while they’re small, they’re not going to cause any huge problems. If the choice is fewer weeds or more organic matter, I’ll take more organic matter. And, of course, I only ever spread clippings from unsprayed lawns to avoid applying a chemical cocktail to my own soil and food.

Besides growing cover crop for soil-building, I am doing a little growing of things I can actually eat. The raised beds I built at the rental house across town and then moved here after the fire are now placed a little better after last winter’s small amount of snow slid off the shed roof and showed me the error of my initial design.

But there is soil-building here, too. I’d thought I would get a load of black dirt from a local supplier to fill these beds, but when I called back in March, they weren’t delivering yet. So, I started building soil in the beds using leaves, pine needles, and clipping from last fall’s yard clean-up and some soil removed in the process of digging the 4 1/2′ x 50′ bed along the south side of the shop building.

So far, I only have two beds filled, and the other two are serving as repositories for downed sticks collected before mowing, fresh compostables from the kitchen, and excess grass clippings (and leaves in the fall). Eventually I’ll have to figure out where the compost pile will go, but for now this system is working well.

The first filled bed was planted in early spring with arugula, green onions, bok choy, radishes, spinach, and peas. The greens are all gobbled up now, but the peas are filling out nicely. I planted Blauschokkers–a blue-podded heritage soup pea, and they are gorgeous! I probably won’t actually eat many (if any) this year because I want to build up my supply of seed to grow more of them next year.

My onions, tomatoes, and peppers are doing pretty well in the back gardens as well–they are behind a lot of other plantings in the area (I’m hearing rumors of tomatoes at the farmers market in July!), but I’m OK with that. They will catch up, and maybe I will be ready for canning by the time the tomatoes are!

Despite all the busyness and lack of blogging, I have been doing some food projects–including a whirlwind trip last weekend back to my old stomping grounds in southeast South Dakota to pick and can Montmorency cherries. I looked for them in this area last year and came up empty-handed (OK–but I did find and can local apricots–and those were lost in the fire).

This year, I wasn’t going to be cherry-less, so I was watching for the right time to make the trip. As we were deep in the throes of pitting the five gallons of cherries we’d picked, I glanced through one of H’s cupboards looking for a tool and discovered he still had one last jar of the cherries I processed two years ago!

To assure him that he no longer needed to hoard that one precious jar, I left him four of the sixteen pints we processed as insurance against a sad, cherry-less fate.

I’m going to attempt to train myself to blog more often through the busy summer season by not pressuring myself about having a lot to say and not enough time to say it. Maybe a few pictures and descriptions a little more often instead of an all-out, three-month’s-worth post would be a little more reasonable!

‘Til then, enjoy this slideshow of images from this year’s spring planting and soil-building endeavors!

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Seeds for a New Season

Along with most of my furniture and canning/preserving equipment lost in the house fire this summer, I also lost my seed collection. A young woman who lived in my neighborhood happened by while I was working in the “smokehouse,” and she helped me count the bags and envelopes before we scattered much of it to the winds–116 packs total of flower, herb, and vegetable seed.

Because I had gardens growing in two locations at the time of the fire, I was able to save a little from this year’s crop–a couple varieties of tomato were all I really had time and space to keep track of. I tried three times to save Coyote Cherry before I remembered to drain and dry them ahead of when they started sprouting in the jar.

I also saved Santorini–a tomato I hardly ever appreciate ’til the end of the season, when I look around and realize they’re still pumping out those lovely little bright red thin-skinned ruffled jewels. Old Pink Plum, bearer of prolific clusters of rosy pink thick-walled fruits, was first to be saved–and last to provide house-ripened tomatoes from all the green ones I snatched out of the jaws of the first hard frost.

Poking around in other people’s gardens has yielded a couple small packets of herb and flower seed. That’s something to start with. On a whim, I saved a few seeds of Lavender Touch eggplant–a hybrid from Pinetree Garden Seeds I’ve been growing for over five years now.

But with the seed catalogs coming in, I’m a little overwhelmed with how exactly to start building the collection back. One part of me thinks I should order as much as possible as quickly as possible–what if civilization as we know it breaks down, and I don’t have a big insurance policy of food and medicine ready to grow?

The other part of me knows that it will take some time to develop the gardens here, and why rush to buy more five times more varieties of seed than I will have time and space to plant?

The end result will probably be somewhere in between the conservative estimate of what I’ll be able to grow this year and the panicked squirrel-hoarding order I’d make if I watched too much news. Though it will probably be closer to the hoarding end, if only because I feel so naked without a serious collection of seed.

In the last couple of years, I’ve made a serious effort to find solid open-pollinated replacements for the hybrid varieties I like. I’ll continue that effort, so the rebuilt collection is something I can (or in some cases, could if I needed to) grow out and save for myself.

The backyard is big, and the production gardens are in the planning stages (read: walking around talking to myself stage). I’m hoping to get some long raised beds tilled and built up back there early enough in the season so I can grow a quick green manure cover before putting in warm weather crops. I’ve got my four raised beds in place (unfilled as yet) that can serve for what early season greens, roots, and legumes I choose.

But I haven’t made those decisions yet.

The seed catalogs didn’t used come out until Christmas–or even the beginning of the new year, but they are starting to come earlier and earlier now–some precede Thanksgiving, even.

It doesn’t feel right to me when spring seed catalogs come out while fall harvest is still in progress. It feels like we aren’t being allowed any rest–like we’re being pushed to make choices that need a little more time and processing of what we learned in the current season. It feels like we ought to have a little rest, a little settling into the darkness, a little of the fallow time before we start chasing the tail of spring too earnestly.

Because of my move late last winter (and failure to change addresses for seed catalogs until a few weeks ago–after my mom started calling to say gloat she’d gotten hers), I’m getting some of that rest while the catalogs slowly trickle into my PO box.

In years past, the post-Christmas seed considerations were preceded by an inventory process that took up most of an afternoon and evening. This year, my self-gifted Christmas present will be sitting down with my farm journal and a stack of seed catalogs and starting to think seriously about what this first seed order of the 2012 season will look like–on an almost completely blank slate.