Good soil? Good enough

Abundant tomatoes. Finally.

Abundant tomatoes. Finally.

The garden this year has been redemptive.

Previous growing has been hindered, stymied and manhandled by weather, late blight, and inexperience. But this year the space has been filled with an abundance of tomatoes and cucumbers, squash and kale. Which is exactly what I had planned.

The garden this year has also been an experiment.

All of my gardens have been experimental so far. It’s unavoidable when you’re just getting started with greater food independence. But unlike those previous gardens, this iteration has been experimental with purpose, intention, and – in the end – success.

All I wanted this year was tomatoes. Big, beautiful, bountiful tomatoes. Last year, late blight snatched away victory when it was within my grasp. And I was trying to do too much, growing lots of things for the sake of growing them and not because I really wanted to eat them. So this year I kept the garden small, focused, and manageable. Just a few beds, just four types of vegetables, up near the house. I got as many transplants as possible from the farm where I work instead of starting from seed.

I built a small collection of raised beds from reclaimed pallets and filled them with “experimental” soil. Maybe soil isn’t even the best term for it—you decide.

I started with a giant pile of dirt that had come out of my workshop when I put in the floor. I also had a pile of “the material formerly known as soil” saved from last year’s container garden. The material in both piles was about as fertile as a parking lot.

I mixed the reclaimed dirt with well-seasoned cow manure. (Free barrels of manure are another perk that come with working on a small farm.) I filled the beds with equal parts manure and dirt, alternating between the two with each bucket-load and mixing with a spade as I went.

I had no idea if this experiment would work. Nothing about this garden looked like the kind of thing you see in coffee table books or glossy magazines about gardening. It was in that moment of reflection that I had a full-blown episode of Tomato Anxiety: a deep-rooted fear that I was going to catastrophically screw up the tomatoes in my garden and end up with nothing. Not a single fruit, much less a bushel or two for canning.

But working on the farm has given me something even better than free manure: the understanding that things don’t have to be perfect to succeed. You don’t have to know everything; you never will. Instead, you just need to know the right things at any given moment in time.

Understand soil basics: Soil is shelter for the roots of a plant. Soil must hold both moisture and air in just the right amounts. It must be an appropriate medium for roots—big and small, deep and shallow—to expand in. Soil is the pantry for plants, a storehouse of food and nutrients. It’s also great if you can establish mycorrhizae as a reliable roommate to help the roots do their nutrient-uptake thing. These were the factors I carefully considered throughout my soil experiment.

Seeds and plants are resilient: Around my property, kale and lettuce and other random lonely plants grow in the lawn where seeds have been dropped. Cucumber transplants tossed into my dump bucket continued growing despite abandonment and neglect; I transferred a couple of the best-looking plants into my experimental bed, and they’ve given me beautiful cukes all season. Plants have been growing and fruiting and reproducing for how many millennia? Something was sure to grow in this experimental soil.

Mitigate transplant shock: Regardless of soil quality, stress is inevitable when moving plants from pot to earth. The trick I used this year was soaking the roots of the transplants with fish emulsion to minimize the shock. It’s a way of patting them on the back and saying, “It’s going to be okay, you can do it.”

Feed regularly: No matter how good your soil is, feeding your plants is always a plus. With the questionable nature of my soil, regular feeding was a no-brainer. Understanding what each element in the N-P-K rating does for a plant was key to smart feeding. Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium: grow up, grow down, grow all the way around. To get the tomato plants established, I used fish emulsion with a higher ratio of phosphorus. Once they were on their way to fruiting, I used fish emulsion with a higher amount of nitrogen and potassium.

The tomatoes speak.

The tomatoes speak.

Good soil doesn’t happen overnight: No amount of money and expertise can produce ideal soil in a single season. It takes an investment of care and attention and chicken manure over several years. It takes keeping the soil continually covered and filled with plant matter. It takes learning about the rhythms and needs of your particular piece of earth over time.

But that wasn’t going to stop me from growing this year. It should never stop anyone. Do what you can, with what you’ve got, right where you are.

The garden was redemptive this year. The soil wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. I got it right. The tomatoes told me so.

Categories: compost, DIY, food, garden, repurpose | Leave a comment

Saving seeds. Getting burned.

Padrón peppers

Padrón peppers

There are never enough hours in the day to get everything done.

Been saying this sort of thing my entire adult life. But it took working on the farm to really appreciate how true it can be. So sometimes you bring a little work home.

Like five gallons of Padrón peppers to de-seed.

Saving seeds from peppers is easy, not the worse thing to bring home. Especially when you get to keep all the meat from the peppers to eat, freeze, or otherwise incorporate into the pantry. The quirky perks of working on a farm.

It all starts with busting open a pepper: dig your fingers in and rip off the top. If possible, remove the seed cluster with the top. Then rip open the rest of the pepper to get to any remaining seeds. Scrape all the seeds into a pot with enough water to ensure plenty of space for them to separate by sinking and floating.

Mature seeds sink. Immature, poor quality seeds float. Simple.

When all the seeds have settled, start pouring off the floaters. Refill and pour off a few times; be sure to let the seeds settle for about twenty seconds before pouring. I tend to pour the floaters through a mesh colander because sometimes I’ll do a second round of separating with these. Just to make sure I got all the mature seed.

Sinkers and floaters: winners and losers.

Sinkers and floaters: winners and losers.

When all you have is mostly sinkers, spread them out on a screen and give them good airflow. At the farm we have a walk-in drying booth: a series of 4-foot screens shelved in front of a wall of fans. At home, I just use another mesh colander and a single box fan. However you do it, make sure the seeds are spread in as thin a layer as possible. Let them dry for at least a couple days.

For the record: Padrón are hot peppers. Not the hottest we have in inventory but definitely delivering a firm kick to the palate. And any exposed skin.

The smart thing to do is to wear gloves when you process the peppers and seeds. Or be sure to wash your hands afterwards. Immediately. Do not touch your eyes or nose or armpits or other parts of your body after touching Padrón seeds. It burns. For days. Ambushing you from your fingernails and other hidden crevices on your hands. For days, people. Days.

Or so I’ve heard…

Categories: DIY, Finding Fruition, food, food storage, seed | Leave a comment

The Muther of Invention

Jamaican Cucumbers. Awesome.

Jamaican Cucumbers. Awesome.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Creative, quirky, jerry-rigged solutions to the problems that pop up on the farm. Solutions that safety-conscious individuals and agencies would likely frown upon.

Solutions that definitely qualify as “cool shit we get to do on a seed farm”.

This season we’ve been growing Jamaican cucumbers for the first time. The biggest ones fit in the palm of your hand. They’ve got a sweet-ish cucumber taste. Their spiny skins aren’t as tough on the palate as you might think. They definitely rate high on the novelty scale.

They also rate pretty high on the “how the hell do you get the seeds out of these things” scale.

Their small size, rough rinds, and prolific quantities make de-seeding by hand an all-day affair. For several days. A mechanical solution is ideal and preferred.

Enter the wood chipper.

A small, green, 20-year-old wood chipper with a 5 horse engine. Tumbling flails inside the drum for shredding and pulverizing material. A nice big hopper to put the material in and a wide-open underside for ejecting all the material out.

Easy to start. Easy to maintain. And sitting right in out barn, waiting to be put to use.

With the addition of four cinder blocks, a 10-gallon tote, and a make-shift chute, the chipper was cucumber-ready: one block under each wheel, one tote under the chipper, and a chute directing ejected seed into the tote. Most of the seed, anyways.

Plenty of room for improvement in design but a more than passable solution for the day. None of the seed was damaged by the process. And what would have taken a full work day ended up requiring only fifteen minutes before lunch.

Before heading in, we filled the tote of cucumber seeds with enough water for things to start floating. Then left it to sit and ferment for several days to clean the anti-germination gel from the seeds. If left alone, the cukes would do the same thing all on their own: the fruit would drop from the plants, rot and begin to ferment, cleaning the seeds.

But that would take days.

Nature don’t have a wood chipper.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, repurpose, seed | Leave a comment

Seed Greed

“Seeds will make you a thief… I steal seeds in the hopes of surrounding myself with a bewildering and awesome universe of plant life.”
– Janisse Ray, The Seed Underground

The limits of my seed greed.

The limits of my seed greed.

“You should take a look to see if you want any of those seeds.”

Matthew was pointing to a cardboard box on a table in the corner, a random assortment of bags spilling over the sides.

“We’re cleaning out the cooler. It’s stuff we don’t need to keep.”

This is another of the unique perks of working on a seed farm: free seed coming your way. High quality seed. Interesting seed. Seed you’ve never seen before, maybe most people haven’t seen before. Maybe never will see in a catalog anywhere.

I don’t know if Janisse Ray is right. I don’t know if seeds will make you a thief. But they definitely fire up a key cardinal sin: greed.

It’s easy to get over-enthusiastic digging through a box of seeds like this. The look of the beans alone make you want to grab them all. You start thinking to yourself, “I’ll definitely grow an entire field of anise hyssop next season.”

No I won’t.

And so I set limits, mostly choosing only things I want to eat. Varieties I know I will take care of.

An almost-empty packet of Black Zebra tomatoes, “a cross between a Green Zebra and a Black tomato.” Half used packets of cucumbers: Bush Pickling, National Pickling, and Little Leaf. A giant ziplock bag of cilantro. A dime-bag of basil. Lemon queen sunflowers and barley, two varieties I want to grow for chicken feed as well as cover crop.

And I took the beans, every last one. Beans leftover from a collector who gave them to us. Calypso, Dolloff, May Flower and Annelino Giallo.

I brought them all home. Sealed them in glass jars. Made sure they were labeled. Stored them in the back, bottom corner of the refrigerator.

And started dreaming of next season.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

Chicken Tv, episode one


Categories: Chicken Tv, chickens | Leave a comment

The Blight of Uncertainty continues

Gold Medal tomatoes, no blight. Yet...

Gold Medal tomatoes, no blight. Yet…

Today we walked the fields again, this time in the company of our friend Ada from High Mowing Seeds. We had just spent two days at the Vegetable Breeding Institute, talking varieties with everyone from High Mowing to large corporations and seeing what Cornell’s breeders have been up to. Seeds and sharing are inseparable, even in business.

We walked among our rows and hoop houses. We talked of the flowers and lettuces and tomatoes surrounding us. We stopped to make observations.

“That’s blight,” I said suddenly.

On either side of us, the rows of tomatoes were showing the uber-wilted decay of plants hit hard by late blight. We were surrounded by the bastard.

Everyone went silent. The sort of silence you’d expect from a group people suddenly realizing they’re surrounded by the enemy.

“It is,” said Petra. She’s knows my Tomato Anxiety.

I knew the farm hadn’t been spared the heavy hand of late blight this year. Some varieties have shown no signs but others have suffered mightily. We are fortunate late blight is not a seed-born disease.

But the blight will still kill my plants at home if it gets there. It will steal all the tomatoes I plan to can.

The best way to avoid getting blight on your tomatoes is to avoid being around blight on tomatoes; there’s no way to know if you’re picking up spores to spread. Don’t set yourself up to be a disease vector.

I made a hasty exit from the field. Far, far away from the field. Sorry, Ada.

Fortunately, I had brought a second pair of shoes. If I had contact with the blight in our fields, it was walking on any plant matter on the ground. At the end of the day, I switched shoes before heading home.

I took additional quarantine-style precautions when I arrived home.

I parked my car in a different spot, downwind and away from my tomato plants.

I sprayed my shoes with bleach. Bottoms, tops, sides, laces, everything. I let them sit overnight.

I threw all of my work clothes in the laundry.

I showered immediately.

This is all I could do. Because there’s no way of knowing for sure.

And I will not lose my tomatoes this year.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, food storage, garden, seed | Leave a comment

The Blight of Uncertainty

The leaf in question. Notice the fuzz.

The leaf in question. Notice the fuzz.

Late Blight is a bastard.

It took out my tomatoes last season, after herculean efforts to nurse them along and right when they were starting to turn. And for a moment last week, it looked like the bastard might be back.

On one leaf, on one plant, there was a single dark spot with white fuzz showing on the underside. Above it on the stem were black spots. On several other plants, leaves were browning around the edges.

“July is the month that gives us so much hope as the tomatoes size up and begin to blush,” said Petra recently as we walked the rows of tomatoes at the farm. “Only to be dashed into a thousand pieces in August by the blight.”

This isn’t hyperbole.

Late blight is a disease that looks a lot like a fungus but is actually caused by a pathogen more closely related to brown algae, Phytophthora infestans. Cool temperatures and moisture, both on the leaves and in the air, make an ideal environment for the disease. It spreads easily and can be airborne. It affects both tomatoes and potatoes; it caused the Irish Potato Famine in 1845. Once your crop shows signs of the blight, you can loose everything in just a few days.

There are three key steps to stopping the blight once you’ve positively identified it:

* Pull the infected plants. Bag them. Bury them or burn them.

* Spray the remaining plants with fungicide. Copper fungicides are approved for organic growing.

* Pray.

Other questionable damage.

Other questionable damage.

It’s horticultural shock and awe. Heavy duty, no messing around. By solution or blight, you’re probably going to lose all your tomatoes.

Which is why it’s uber-important to correctly identify what’s ailing your plants. There are several other diseases and conditions that can be confused with blight, but don’t require the same heavy-handed response.

In comparison to the photos on the Cornell Cooperative Extension web site, the fuzz and the spots on my plant kind of looked like late blight. But I just wasn’t sure.

So I snapped my own photos and sent them by text and email to people way smarter than I am about these things. I waited for definite answers to roll in.

“Not to me,” said Jon, the first to respond. “Late blight usually wilts then turns black.”

“That looks like the early stages of late blight to me,” said Caroline, seconds later.

“The length and location of the spores looks more like gray mold,” said Caroline and Jon’s guy from Cornell Cooperative Extension. “But the color and texture of the lesion looks like late blight.”

“From what I see it does look like late blight,” said another guy from my own county’s extension office. “You cannot kill late blight.”

More questionable damage.

More questionable damage.

Definite answers? A whole bunch of “maybe” is more like it.

But in the course of all this communication, two very important details came up.

I mentioned to Caroline that the damage on my plants had been there for at least a week.

“Then it might not be late blight,” she replied. “It usually moves fast.”

Caroline’s guy at CCE also said something interesting: “If late blight, there should be more spots visible on the plant. Including fruit.”

There were no additional spots on the plants. And absolutely no damage whatsoever on the tomatoes themselves.

And it was these two details that helped me decide not to nuke my plants.

Instead, I just cut off the affected leaf and any other questionables: snip, bag, tie, and leave in the sun to die. If this really was blight, all my tomatoes were dead anyway; I only have seven plants growing in close proximity to each other. Taking this extra step wasn’t going to make things any worse. But if this wasn’t blight – or if I had caught it early enough to make a difference – then I had just saved my little tomato crop.

The tomatoes look great.

The tomatoes look great.

The gamble paid off: eleven days have passed and there’s been no recurrence of dark spots or fuzz. The damage around the leaf edges hasn’t spread. The fruit looks beautiful; the Gardener’s Sweethearts, Black Cherries and mystery tomato continue to turn.

It’s important to point out that Caroline and Jon run their own farm plus a winery. They took time out of their busy day to help me solve my problem. I am extremely grateful to have such good people in my community.

Of course, just to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, one week after Caroline and Jon helped me work through my uncertain situation, their own crop of tomatoes was identified as having blight.

“The plants are all dead even if they don’t know it yet,” said Caroline. “We hopefully saved the potatoes by mowing off the tops.”

Did I mention that late blight is a bastard?

Additional Info:
Jon Hunt and Caroline Boutard-Hunt, Italy Hill Produce,

Petra Page-Mann, Fruition Seeds,

Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center, Cornell University,

USABlight. What is Late Blight? Retrieved from

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The Harvest begins

Threshing. With a wiffle ball bat.

Threshing. With a wiffle ball bat.

It’s now that point in the year when we live up to our name on the farm and all of our efforts come to fruition.

Plants are going to seed. Time to harvest.

Time to get all these little embryonic plants ready to put into packets for someone else’s garden.

Seeds are different in this regard. Our process for harvesting and cleaning depends on whether the crop is dry-seeded or wet-seeded. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are examples of wet seeds; beans, lettuce, and basil are examples of dry.

Chervil is an herb that successfully overwintered. Which means it’s one of the very first to go to seed. Chervil is a dry-seeded crop and was allowed to dry in the field. When harvested, we hung it in the mill to dry even further. Until the leaves and stems were brown and as close to feeling like ancient, fragile paper as possible.

Using fans to further clean the seed, after screening.

Using fans to further clean the seed, after screening.

Then we threshed the chervil. There really is quite a bit of finesse involved with threshing. It’s not just whacking dead plants with a stick (or wiffle ball bat). If you bludgeon instead of thresh, you’ll create way more chaff than necessary. Which will just make cleaning harder. Threshing the chervil with a stick is just as much a stroking motion as hitting. And listening is incredibly important: you can hear when more chaff than seed is falling on the tarp.

When threshing was done, we gathered all of the detritus on the tarp to screen it. This is the first step to cleaning out the chaff. We have screens with openings of all different sizes and shapes because we have seeds of all different sizes and shapes. You want to find the screen that’s just right; that lets mostly seed fall through the openings. Until you’re familiar with every seed, it’s a bit of trial and error.

Once screened, the cleaning continues with the use of fans. Two boxes fans, actually, one positioned right in front of the other on a table. Two fans are used because, in combination, the airflow is less turbulent and can be fine-tuned with greater precision.

Clean chervil seed.

Clean chervil seed.

Immediately in front of and below the fans are two bins, side by side so that one bin is closer to the fans than the other. The detritus is poured through the airflow of the fans. Because seed and chaff are different weights, they separate in the breeze; mature seed is heavier and will fall closer to the fans, while chaff and immature seeds are lighter and will drift more. This means mature seed – the stuff we want – falls into the bin closest to the fans and the chaff blows into the second bin. Or off into the mill. Like screening, there’s a bit of experimenting to find the right strength of airflow to make this happen.

We often clean the same batch of seed several times in this way, both to ensure the maximum amount of mature seed is kept and the maximum amount of chaff isn’t.

And when we’re done, we’re left with clean chervil seed. Or kale seed. Or radish seed. Or whatever dry-seeded crop we’re working on.

The seed is then bagged in a cloth bag, labeled, and put in the cooler. To wait patiently until we’re ready to start filling packets.

To wait patiently while we continue with the harvest.

Check out the whole process in photos.

Categories: DIY, Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

Tasting beans

Petra in and among the beans.

Petra in and among the beans.

Days on the farm often start with a walk though the fields. Getting low, lifting leaves and branches, looking closely at what’s growing. Noting color and shape and size.

And taste. We’re growing our vegetables for seed. But gardeners will be growing our seed for vegetables. Taste is a huge consideration.

Today we walked through the beans at Hickory Bottom. Rows and rows of bush beans. Mostly green, some purple, some yellow. Tavera, Amethyst, Black Coco, Uncle Willie’s. Even a couple rogue Gold Rush plants.

“We should make sure to remove those,” says Petra.

Or save them to eat?

“We could do that too,” she says.

Picking a bean. Snapping it in half to share. Tasting, carefully. Sometimes different beans, side by side. Comparing. Contrasting.

Taste, in general, is a matter of preference. I can tell you how beans taste different; I won’t tell you which bean tastes the best. But taste, as we’re doing it, can tell you something about how the beans are growing.

Like when two varieties of beans taste the same. And they normally don’t.

Amethyst bush beans

Amethyst bush beans

I can’t taste a difference.

“You’re right,” says Petra, thoughtful and focused. She picks more of the same two beans, snaps them in half, and we taste them again.

Could all this rain, all this water, be affecting the taste?

“I don’t know.”

We continue to walk the rows, pondering the little mystery given us this morning.

This is one time of many we will walk these rows, tasting these beans. We’ll keep asking questions about these little things we notice. Because the little things make clear the bigger picture we’re looking at.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

Lady bug in the field, among the beans, on the farm.

Ladybug in the field, among the beans.

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