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.

Jiggity Jig–For a Couple Days

Returned late yesterday afternoon from the Farmers Market Workshop in Rapid City–some good presentations there about Buy Fresh Buy Local SD, ethnic vegetables, grants and resources, and organic production.  We had a lunchtime session with Rep. Sly about HB 1222 as well.

I made a presentation on EBT (food stamps) and debit cards at farmers markets, and there was a great contingent of participants from Pine Ridge and Rosebud interested in providing that at their beginning markets, as well as getting information about markets in general.

Black Hills Farmers Market management and vendors were also there in numbers, along with parties interested in starting markets elsewhere in the Hills.  I’m hoping this will be the year that a few more markets will make the jump to accepting EBT as payment–especially considering the numbers of people that option can serve.

So, I’m home now for a couple of days–retrieved the last of my seed orders from the mailbox yesterday, so dividing them up into their boxes and re-inventorying everything is on the agenda.

On my way out to Rapid, I got a call from a friend who is back in Vermillion for a couple of weeks and wants to talk trade: some of my frozen, canned, and cellared produce for some of his antelope sausage and duck.  Hoping to hear from him today or tomorrow–LOVE me some antelope sausage!

And I need to get ready for my next adventure–Northern Plains Sustainable Ag’s Winter Conference up in Watertown.  I’m also doing a presentation up there (on local foods in rural America), so that has to be finalized before I take off.

Unfortunately, the wireless internet at my house has been getting slower and slower, so I’m heading to the library this afternoon to work.  I hear the Superbowl is today, so hopefully there’ll be plenty of open workspace (either that or it’ll be packed with fugitives from blaring TVs and howling fans).

And I suppose before I leave again I should re-clear my sidewalks for the next round of white stuff–maybe it’s just my imagination, but this latest storm felt a little more spring-like–warmer and wetter–than the last several we’ve gotten.  Wishful thinking?

Let Me Tell You a Secret…

It’s a lot better from a market grower’s standpoint to pick those gorgeous heirlooms when they first start turning ripe.

This is not the same as the commercial growers picking green and gassing with ethylene to make them red–it’s picking when the tomato is already ripening and letting it finish in a safe, bug-free, storm-free, disease and hail-free place.

ripening heirloom tomatoes

The box on the left was picked today; the box on the right was picked two days ago.

I pick my ripening tomatoes every other day, I take all their stems off so they don’t poke holes in each other, and when I get them home, I pack them into a box like these peach boxes. The new box of fruit gets closed up, so some of the natural ethylene gas given off by the fruit stays in the box, helping the fruit to ripen.

In two days, the fruit is pretty much ripe and ready for market or for processing into sauce, salsa, or what-have-you.

I have not noticed any appreciable loss of flavor from this early picking, but it definitely lessens the amount of fruit that gets lost to slug or bug damage in the field or to squishing during packing and transport.

This is a pretty typical market grower trick–most market growers don’t go out and pick every single tomato on their place the night before or morning of their market–they’re picking steadily through the week.  Some growers chill their tomatoes to hold them, but I don’t–that practice does affect the flavor.

Instead, when I have a box of tomatoes that won’t hold until market, I simply process them for my own home use. Looks like I may need to do that tomorrow!

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Spent much of the day (after dropping M. off at summer art camp) in Yankton at the Organic Field Days there.  This is the first year for that event, so attendance wasn’t great, but we’ll do it bigger and better next year.  I gave two presentations–one on CSA and one on the economics of sustainable agriculture.

I also got to hear most of Rena Hebda’s presentation on their slow and deliberate transition to organic production. It sounds like they’re making a good effort over there in Mission Hill, and I took the opportunity to introduce myself and make the same case to her that I made to her husband over the phone: Come to our Market!

But they also have a CSA, and one of their delivery days is Thursday.  So, I suggested they consider us for next year.  I also met another grower from Volin who might be interested in coming next week with Sweet Corn!  It’s possible we’ll have a little for this week–but next week is the real deal from everything I’m hearing.

When I got back from Yankton, I had about an hour before I had to pick up M.  You’ve never seen a gal throw off the heels and scrub off the make-up faster than I did.  I went out to the farm for a little yesterday evening about seven, and the mosquitoes were so bad, I had to wear a head net just to do a (literal) run through the gardens.

I thought since it was earlier and hotter this afternoon, it’d be better.  Well, I wasn’t wearing the headnet, but DEET came into play–even in the heat and full sun.  I made the executive decision to do some harvesting this afternoon, so I wouldn’t have to donate quite so much blood tomorrow during the rest of the harvest.

The good news: summer squash is bearing in my gardens now.  I know everyone and their cousin has had it for a couple of weeks (remember: I planted later to break the bug cycle–no Sevin for me!), but much of what I am growing is the light green teardrop-shaped cousa (or cousa) squash–very pretty, very tender.

Better news is that sweet peppers are coming on–I’ll have about a dozen or so to sell tomorrow.  I stopped in Jones’ on the way home to check their prices–they’re getting a dollar apiece for some not-so-fresh-looking specimens (sorry, Dean, it’s true!).  Mine will be a much crisper and slightly cheaper seventy-five cents apiece.

The bad news: I am still not seeing any Monarch or Swallowtail caterpillars on the milkweed or dill or rue–either here at home or in the gardens.  Generally by now I’ll see at least a few–this year–absolute zero.  I have seen only one Black Swallowtail and one Monarch in the gardens this year. At home–one Monarch, no Swallowtails. Not good.

The ugly: Yep–there’s some late blight on the tomatoes.  It’s not widespread (yet), so tomorrow I’ll go out with pruning equipment and take out some plants–a pepper plant, a couple Principe Borghese tomatoes.

Some plants have a little, and I might try to save them by pruning with sterilized clippers.  A couple plants just need to go.  All the diseased foliage and plants will get tossed over the fence–far from my compost pile.  And next year, all the tomatoes get moved to a different garden.

Tonight’s dinner is a compilation of leftovers plus some extra veggies.  I made a baked chicken-and-rice dish last night to comply with M’s desire for bland foods, but tonight is going to be a little more veggie-full.

I’ve got a pepper I slashed with the knife during harvest (oopsy!), the smallest summer squash of the bunch, plus some broccoli side-shoots from earlier in the week.  There’s sugar snap peas left that need to be eaten as well.  And there’s a few pieces of the aforementioned chicken and some brown jasmine rice.

You know what I’m thinking, don’t you?  That sure sounds like fried rice!

Greens Harvesting at a Small Market Garden

Our Vermillion Area Farmers Market starts in one week, and though I’m already delivering to my lone CSA member and selling a few veggies here and there to friends and regulars, I’m just starting on cleaning up some of the nuts and bolts of my full-scale harvest and sale kit.

As the greens are coming on heavily now, I’m sterilizing my 5 gallon salad spinner to aid with harvest and hydro-cooling of greens.  It was an expensive piece of equipment (about $200), but has saved hours of time on my small operation.  The first year of the CSA, I was spinning each individual bag of greens for ten members–some days there’d be a couple bags of greens in each delivery.

When the second year rolled around, and I had twenty members–there just was no way that was going to work anymore.  I know some bigger producers use a washing machine’s gentle spin cycle, but for me, the salad spinner does the trick–5 bags at a time and get them in the cooler before spinning the next batch.

My harvest tubs have already been cleaned–though like the spinner, they’ll be cleaned, bleached, and air-dried several times throughout the season.  Mostly I use a thing called a Trug tub–my mom gave me a set of three a couple years ago, and now I don’t know how I managed without them.

They’re a rubber bucket with handles that comes in a variety of sizes.  I harvest (with scissors or harvest knife) directly into them, bring them up to the wash area, and fill the tub full of cold water–taking the field heat out of the veggies quickly.  Then I pull the greens up out of the tub (leaving a fair amount of dirt behind), put them in the salad spinner, bag them, then get them in the big marine coolers.

I’d like to get a couple more Trug tubs (about $25-30 for a set, I think), but the two I use in the field are usually about right when I’m the one doing all the harvesting and hydrocooling.  Each crop gets harvested, cooled, washed, bagged, and put on ice before I start on the next crop.

The coolers are the 102-quart white Rubbermaid marine coolers with the spigot on one end and heavy-duty handles.  I have two (plus an assortment of smaller coolers as well), but I am thinking it’s about time to pick up another.

The first one I bought has lasted three seasons without showing much wear other than a few surface scratches on the outside. The coolers cost about $80-90 each–which is more or less the sale value of the produce you can fit in one depending on the produce and your market–so in a way, they pay for themselves from the first week’s sales out of them.

Each cooler holds about 25-30 bags of greens without crushing them down, but that’s not enough space now that I’m bringing most all the greens to market instead of splitting between CSA Tuesdays and market on Thursdays.  I’m not sure I can fit more than three of those in my truck without stacking–but then what are bunjee cords for?

For the chill, I buy those permanent ice substitute packs that can be cleaned and sterilized and re-used.  I’ve tried using the soft ones, but they always split and leak that blue crud all over the bottom of the cooler.

You can get away with three of the bigger ice packs in a marine cooler, but five is ideal when the weather heats up–and then you want to rotate the produce so the stuff on top doesn’t warm up too much.  I always put a clean towel over the ice packs to keep the greens from touching the frozen blocks directly, which could damage their tender leaves.

When I set the coolers in my pickup bed, I line them up against the wheel wells, each one with the opening facing out, so I can pull what I need out of them from the side of the truck.  The third cooler will likely go right up against the tailgate so I can get at the produce from the end as well.

That’s basically my set up for getting greens from field to wash to chill to market.  It’s pretty pared down and not too expensive considering that the bigger-ticket items involved will give so many years of use and are so essential to an efficient process that preserves the quality of the produce for the customer.