A Night In Tomato House

I still remember my first year as a gardener. I had been dreaming of that garden all winter. Literally, I had dreams of watching carrots grow. I could almost taste the tomatoes. You couldn’t buy a good one back then, and I desperately missed the taste of my grandpa’s garden. April seemed so warm, and the official “Last Frost Date” for my area is April 16. I had never really noticed that we frequently get frosts as late as Mother’s Day. I planted my tomatoes in April at the community garden, along with all the other newbies. The elder, more experienced gardeners patiently prepared their soil and waited for May. I had to re-plant.

One would think I’d learn my lesson that year, and I thought I had. I know full well that the frosts will keep coming. I still plant early, starting with hardy peas and radishes on St. Patrick’s Day, but I surround my plants with jugs of water for extra thermal mass, and I build low tunnels over all my raised beds so I can easily cover them with clear plastic sheeting at a moment’s notice. Still, I usually wait to plant most of my really tender seedlings like tomatoes and peppers until May. But this year, my improved seed starting setup produced hundreds of seedlings that grew to such enormous proportions that I simply couldn’t keep them in the house any longer. The spring had been consistently warm and the two week forecast was clear, so I planted. But then the winds changed, and last night’s forecast predicted snow, ice, and a low of 26 degrees.

Perhaps my plants would’ve survived with the coverings I had already provided them and no extra effort. But 26 degrees is extremely cold for a tender plant, and I felt I couldn’t rest with months of work, hundreds of dollars of investment, and most of the summer’s harvest on the line. So, I woke up at 4am, just before the coldest part of the night, and I boiled some water. I took two quart jars of hot water, and two jars each containing a lit tea light candle to place inside the coverings of each raised bed. Then I placed a candle, a watering can full of hot water, a mug of hot tea, a flask of homemade fire cider, and myself inside the big tomato tunnel, and stayed there to monitor the situation and to share some of my own warmth with the plants until the sun came up, the candles burned out, and the ambient temperatures began to rise.

Side Note: If I had enough Wall-O-Waters to place one on every single plant, I wouldn’t have worried. But my garden this year is market sized, and my collection of Wall-O-Waters is not. I felt reasonably confident that my low-budget combination of plastic-covered low tunnels with gallon jugs of water interspersed would work down to 28 or 29 degrees, but I was concerned that 26 might be just that tiniest bit too cold.

Camping Inside The Tomato Tunnel

By 7:30 I was exhausted and a little frosted, so I went inside and crawled back into bed with my own hot water bottle. Later, I returned to check on the plants. All look healthy! I don’t think I lost a single plant. Was all this effort necessary? I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll do a controlled experiment on another 26 degree night and find out. But for now, I’m simply glad that the garden survived, and looking forward to sinking my teeth into the earliest of ripe tomatoes. And, if all goes as planned, some of these fruits will make it to my local farmers market this coming summer.

Tomato Plant Inside A Low Tunnel With Thermal Mass

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A Soil Test For The Chicken Run

When I first decided to adopt the Strawberry Moon Chicks and began building the first coop, I intended for it to be a “chicken tractor”. That is, I intended to move the coop periodically so the chickens would have a steady supply of fresh pasture. This proved to be a more difficult a job than I anticipated. That coop has been in the same spot for three years, sitting on cinder blocks because the wheels buckled under the weight of the too-big coop. I think I have finally remedied that problem and if so, that coop is moving on Saturday. As soon as the hen coop is secure in its next location, I plan to annex the old chicken run into my garden.

Chickens have a long history as garden helpers. Their presence ads a great deal of fertility to land, and prominent growers such as Eliot Coleman include them as a successful part of organic crop rotation. However, three years is too long a rotation for optimal soil enhancement, and it occurred to me that their extended stay might have done some damage. A little googling revealed the following possibilities: the soil might be too salty, the soil might contain too much phosphorus (the ‘P’ in ‘NPK’), and the soil might be too low in organic matter. My chickens do have a large run, and I do add straw and pine chips to it sometimes, so I hoped the land would be fit to garden next summer. I ordered a soil test to find out.

A brief note about soil testing, because people ask me about this a lot. It’s common advice to “do a soil test” before starting a new garden. When people say this, they mean a standard fertility test, which might be free if your extension service offers it, or might cost about $10-$15. Either way, you find out where you can have this done by calling your county extension office.

In my case, free tests aren’t available, and so I took my soil sample to a local agricultural supply business. They called earlier this week to tell me everything is A-OK, and my garden expansion may proceed as planned. Yay! Upon my request, they also sent me the specific lab results. I went through each result individually to learn about the implications and optimal range for each test. This research process was very tedious, so I’m sharing all my notes here for your benefit. The hard work was worth doing though, because in the process, I learned that my celebration might have been premature. There are some soil imbalances, but it remains unclear whether or not they’ll have an impact on plant health next season.

These are the results I received from my standard $15 soil test.

Test NameMy ResultExplanation
CEC13.7CEC stands for “Cation Exchange Capacity”. This metric indicates the capacity of the soil to absorb and retain nutrients, and is related to the components of the soil (sand, clay, loam). Our 13.7 is a fine number. This article by Spectrum Analytic provides a detailed explanation of CEC.
OM %2.7OM stands for Organic Matter. According to Cornel University, most agriculturally productive soils have between 3-6% Organic Matter. So it looks like we’re a little low, but not by much.
pH6.8pH is a measurement that almost everyone will recognize. It stands for “potential of hydrogen”, and it’s the scale we all use to measure how acidic or alkaline something is. Lemon juice is acidic, and has a pH of 2. Household bleach is alkaline with a pH of 11. Neutral pH is 7. Most common garden plants prefer soil with a pH between 6-7, so we are right on the money.
Lime Index69.15This measurement tells us how difficult it would be to raise the pH of our soil. Since our soil does not need to be any more alkaline, this particular measurement isn’t very useful in our case. However, you can read more about this indicator in this great article from Michigan State University
P(Bray) lbs/ac222This test measures the amount of phosphorus in the soil. According to Penn State, the optimal range is 30-50 lbs/acre. Our 222 is a very high phosphorus number.
K lbs/ac209K stands for Potassium (it’s the K in NPK). According to Purdue University, this number is in the optimal range.
Ca lbs/ac3782This test is for calcium. According to Ohio State University, the desirable amount of calcium in pounds per acre is 800–16,000. Our test result is within this desirable range.
Mg lbs/ac3782This test is for magnesium. According to the same article by Ohio State University, the desirable amount of magnesium in pounds per acre is 150–2,000. Our result is above the desirable range.
K sat’n %2.0This test measures potassium saturation in the soil. The desirable range is dependent upon the CEC value (ours is 13.7) so according to the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC, our desirable range for potassium saturation would be between 3-4%. Looks like ours is a little low.
Ca sat’n %69%This test measures calcium saturation in the soil. The ideal range is 50-70, so it looks like we passed this test! See the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC for more info about calcium saturation.
Mg sat’n %22This test measures magnesium saturation. Based on our CEC, our ideal range would be 8-20. Looks like we are a little high. More info can be found in the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC.
Base sat’n %93Base saturation. This appears to be the sum of the previous three numbers.
H sat’n %7.4Hydrogen saturation. Ideal value is less than 10%. This result looks fine. More info on Hydrogen saturation is available here
Ca/Mg3.2Calcium to Magnesium ratio. According to Michigan State University, values between 2-8 are fine, as long as the soil has enough calcium and enough magnesium.
Mg/K11.1This is the magnesium to potassium ratio. I tried, but I haven’t been able to find out the desirable range for the number. I’m told it’s not very important, anyway.

In summary, our chicken run soil has elevated levels of phosphorus and magnesium, and low organic matter. The low organic matter may indicate that some erosion has occurred (due to the chickens scratching). This is the easiest problem to remedy, and I will do so by spreading a thick layer of mulch on top of the soil. I’ll prevent this from occurring in the future by keeping a thick layer of mulch on the new chicken run. Sodium and nitrogen tests were unfortunately not included in our basic soil test package. I spoke with the specialist at the local agricultural supply company, and he feels confident that a sodium test isn’t necessary, since our local soils all contain very low levels to start. He also said that since nitrogen leaves the soil so quickly, even if the soil has elevated nitrogen levels now, they should normalize by spring. He does not believe our elevated phosphorus and magnesium levels will cause any problems in the garden. I also discussed these results with my county extension agent. She agrees that the elevated phosphorus and magnesium aren’t likely to cause problems in the garden by themselves, but suggested that we might need to add higher than usual amounts of nitrogen, potassium, and calcium to bring the nutrients into balance with each other. She is unsure whether the garden will grow well or not, but reminded me that all gardening is really an experiment.

Inspired by my county extension agent, I think I’ll grow an experiment garden on the old chicken run. I’ll plant a wide variety of species and see which ones grow well post-chicken, and which ones struggle. I will not plant any precious seeds (ones that need to be saved and preserved for future growing seasons) or any expensive transplants in the experiment garden. As always, I’ll report my findings here. Meanwhile I hope you’re all warm, cozy, and well.

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Tiny Root Cellars

I keep a detailed garden journal, and I’ve used the same notebook for years. In the back of the notebook, I maintain space for a list of ideas that I think I might try someday. One such note caught my eye this year. The note reads: “Makeshift root cellar- bury a 5 gallon bucket up to its rim. Fill with carrots, top with plastic, cover with hay.” Unfortunately, past me did not leave a citation, so I can’t trace the lineage of this idea and provide proper attribution. But, I think it’s going to work. I have previously enjoyed great success storing carrots packed in buckets of damp sand in an unheated attached garage. I no longer have that garage and I didn’t grow carrots this year, but I did grow a great abundance of sunchokes. I decided to test this idea on them.

I considered a number of factors when deciding where to locate these buckets, as I hope to use them for many years. Digging the hole is not a massive effort, but it is a non-trivial amount of work, and I prefer not to re-do it every year. I wanted a location that would be easy to access, protected from most animal predators, and one that would not reduce my available gardening space during the growing season. I eventually decided to bury them right in the garden, with one bucket between each pair of raised beds. I don’t think the buried bucket will impede passage between beds as long as the lid is on.

A note about buckets. There’s a restaurant chain called Firehouse Subs. If you live near one of these places, you can get a wonderful recycled bucket complete with lid from them. They use 5 gallon plastic buckets to store their pickles, and when the pickles are all eaten, they sell the bucket and the lid for a low price, and you get to rescue a discarded item from the waste stream. Win-win.

All-in-all, I burried four buckets and layered them all full of sunchokes and damp sand. That’s three buckets of sunchokes for eating, and one bucket of sunchokes for replanting in the spring. I look forward to enjoying this healthy, delicious, native plant root vegetable all winter long. As always, I’ll keep detailed notes and let you know how this goes!

One fun perk of this project is that I finally had an excuse to dig below my topsoil and into the subsoil. The subsoil feels just like modeling clay! While I was already digging it to make holes for the buckets, I filled a couple of bags with the clay for use in other projects. Clay subsoil is ideal for mixing the building material known as cob, and I have a few projects in the works that will need plenty of it!

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Celebrating A Job Well Done

In 2017, I received an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This grant pays part of my costs for the tree seedlings and seeds I needed to purchase to transition this land from corn/soy fields into tree crops and other perennial crops. It came with some restrictions, but the only restriction that concerned me was time. It was a huge project, and the grant required it be completed in only two years. Well, luckily for me I was awarded a one year deadline extension last year, because I fell a little short of that deadline. But today I planted the last tree and I can finally say it is complete!

These are the projects I’ve completed in the past three years, under guidance of my encouraging and knowledgeable NRCS representative and with help from my wonderful husband.

  • Grown a buckwheat cover crop in my three non-flooding fields, to help shade out weeds and provide good summertime forage for pollinators (but for one summer only).
  • Planted a permanent pasture grass blend in the same three fields, consisting of mixed grasses and legumes. This planting will reduce erosion on that land, keep the soil aerated so it can absorb maximum water, add biomass to the soil (mulch), and someday provide food for sheep, when we are ready for them. The clover included in the planting mix will also provide food for pollinators for years to come, and nitrogen to naturally fertilize the grasses.
  • Planted a native plant food forest on our two acre riparian flood plain. This project doubles as both an orchard and a wetland restoration. The soil is no longer bare, but now contains a tree every 10-12 feet, mown grasses down the tree rows, and strips of native herbs and wildflowers blossoming between rows. Not only does this planting help to clean and filter flood waters, reduce erosion, and create food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife, but when fully established, we expect these two acres of diverse native plant species will generate thousands of pounds of food per year with minimal human intervention.

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Growing In Place : How To Spot Bad Garden Advice Before It Spoils Your Harvest

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the bad advice I have received on my gardening and farming journey. Some of it mislead me for a season, and some has set me back for multiple years. Most of it has cost me money, and all has cost me time. Some advice has wasted precious resources. This is why I often write about my mistakes, and about the things that have proved more difficult than I expected. I want you to be inspired to try. But more than that, I want you to be empowered to succeed. Mistakes are the very best opportunities for learning and growth, and I hope that by sharing mine, we both can learn.

Most of the bad advice I have received could have been good advice when applied to someone else. But successful growing is not so much about following a set list of rules as it is about developing an intimate knowledge of your land, your place, your needs, and your ecosystem. I try to always use language like “this is what worked for me”, and “this is what didn’t work for me”, and “this is why I think this thing did or did not work for me”. When I encounter phrases like “so easy”, it makes me wonder… do they understand why they experienced success? Will that success be repeatable for me? What conditions might cause that “so easy” effort to fail? Let’s take an opportunity to dive into some classic bits of advice that did not work for me, and think about why they may or may not work for you!

Bad Tip #1: Zucchini grows abundantly, and without pests. I’ve read this from many sources, but for me, the dream of growing way too much zucchini continues to be a mirage in a desert of squash bugs and sorrow. I still believe in the dream of the abundant organic zucchini, and I have even achieved it in years of extreme hand-picking persistence, but the squash bug has been a formidable foe in all my gardens to date. I do meet people even in my own city who claim not to have any squash bugs in their gardens, so this issue may be extremely site-specific. Ask your near neighbors who garden which pests are most problematic for them.

Bad Tip #2: Everybody should add lime to their garden soil. Of course, the lime in this common suggestion is the mineral lime, not the bright green fruit you find in your margarita. Whether or not you need lime in your garden depends entirely on the results of your soil test. You can run a soil test easily for about $10, and your county extension agent can give you instructions for gathering the sample and a list of all the labs in your area capable of providing that service. If your soil is too acidic for the plants you want to grow, then you can add lime to the soil to raise the pH. It is common to have acidic soil in many locales. However, all of my gardens in central Indiana have had soil that is neutral to alkaline. If I added lime to my soil, I would ruin it.

Bad Tip #3: Tomato hornworms are the most devastating garden pest. This may be true in many places, because I read it often. But I find zero to three hornworms in my whole garden, per year, total. When I see them I hand pick them and move them to the chicken yard. The chickens act like they just won the lottery. I think they wish I had more tomato hornworms.

Bad Tip #4: Tomatoes are totally over by September. There are two growth types of tomatoes: “determinate”, and “indeterminate”. Every tomato variety falls into one of those two categories. If your seed packet or seedling label doesn’t say whether it’s a determinate or indeterminate type, a quick google search should provide that info. Determinate tomato plants produce all their ripe fruit during a shorter time window, and the plants reach a smaller total size. This type of behavior is preferable for gardeners who want to can their tomatoes. It’s easier to have a few big canning days where the canner is packed full than to process many half-full batches throughout the season. Although I’ve read several sources that claim that determinate plants ripen all their fruit within a two week window, that has never been my experience with the Rutgers determinate variety that I like to grow. I find that I get fruit from my Rutgers determinate tomatoes for most of the summer. However, by this point in the season, my Rutgers determinate plants are focusing on ripening their last few green tomatoes while my indeterminate Brandywine plants are still growing new vines and flowering new flowers. The Brandywine plants will usually continue growing and flowering until the frost kills them in October, so planting both varieties of tomatoes allows me to can my tomatoes and eat them too.

Bad Tip #5: Potatoes are done flowering in July. If you didn’t see them flower, you probably just missed it because the flowers are inconspicuous. Dig them up anyway. This tip was shoved at me repeatedly on the garden forums back in the early days, and caused me as a young gardener to cut down many a fine potato plant in its prime. This year I grew my first really successful potato crop. It’s nearly October now, and I still haven’t dug them. They continued flowering for well over a month, and the flowers were more conspicuous than tomato flowers. I would never have missed them. The right time to dig up your potato plant depends on your location, your soil, which potato variety you grew, and maybe even the mood of your particular seed potato. Trust yourself to notice the white flowers of similar size and shape to tomato blossoms. This is the advice I’m following for my Carola potato crop this year, with great success:
1. Wait until the plant is totally done flowering.
2. Wait two weeks after that. If it flowers again, go back to step 1.
3. If you want small “new potatoes”, you can dig some two weeks after the vines have stopped flowering.
4. If you want large potatoes, wait until the vines start to die back, then dig up all the plants. It’s nearly October now and I’m still waiting.

Bad Tip #6: Scythes are easier than weed whackers. This might actually be true, but it’s misleading. Even weed whackers couldn’t handle my weeds. If you are mowing a section that consists of nice flowing grasses or maybe some grain crops, the scythe might be a good tool for you. And it is enjoyable to use under those circumstances, for short periods of time. I tried to use a scythe to mow my wild and crazy fields though, and it was a disaster. The reason for the backache was mostly to do with a plant called giant ragweed, whose stem is too tough for even my hybrid brush blade to cut down. Instead, when striking one of these powerful stems, the scythe blade gets stuck midway through. By the time you remove it, the blade is dented. A similar outcome was produced by mulberry saplings, which I also have a plenty. The other obstacle I encountered during the great scythe experiment of 2016 is that I was trying to mow too large an area (about 8 acres was the goal). By the third acre, all my project deadlines were late, and I had sprained most of my fingers. By the way, I later learned that cork bicycle handlebar tape is a great addition to the scythe hand holds, and helps to prevent those finger sprains. I still have my scythe and I hope one day my fields will be tame enough to use it.

Bad Tip #7: Nothing grows in flood plains. There are great plants native to almost every ecosystem type. As it turns out, flood plains can be one of the most productive of all ecosystems, and they can grow some pretty awesome food. If you have a site with flair, like a flood plain or a sand dune or a rocky hillside, try to learn about it. Find out what the unique advantages are. Learn about the role that type of ecosystem plays in the wild. Seek out the history of what your site used to be part of before land was industrialized and grid divided and cleared. Your extension agent or NRCS representative may be able to help you get started. It’s a real shame to tear down the unique habitats of the world in favor of homogeneity.

For context on my findings: I do all my in-ground gardening in central Indiana, USA, in USDA Hardiness Zone 6a. I’ve gardened on three sites. The first site was a community garden built on pretty awful fill dirt (over an old landfill, if I recall correctly). The major problem there was the terrible soil, which I spent three years overcoming by infusing 6 inches of compost and mulches each year, and finally eventually achieved a thriving garden. The second site was another community garden on average lawn soil in a church yard in a city. That garden grew decently well, but my harvests were reduced by hungry neighbors who thought that the garden produce was free for the picking (truly, an honest mistake given the location and some confusing signage). Currently I garden in my own back yard in a rural area, surrounded by corn fields on two sides, established woods on one side, and a baby woods on the other. I use a mixture of raised beds and in-ground garden space. I have also grown a patio container garden in two different micro-climates of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Oaks of Indiana

An oak is a beautiful, long-lived tree. They don’t erupt in floral fireworks in the spring, but their autumnal display is second to none. They’re planted in parks, back yards, and campuses for their generous shade, farmed for their highly valuable lumber, and climbed by adventurous children and young-at-heart alike. The oak belongs to the noble Fagaceae tree family, along with Beeches, Chestnuts, and Chinkapins. Roughly one year out of every three, an oak tree is capable of producing a huge crop of healthful and delicious nuts that sustained many civilizations throughout human history.

Did you make a confused face when I mentioned oak nuts? Yes, we are talking about acorns!

Acorn Uses

Oak Leaf with AcornsAcorns are not suitable for fresh snacking like pecans are, but after some simple processing (involving soaking the nuts in water to remove their bitter tannins) they can be ground into a versatile and gluten free flour that can be baked into cakes, cookies, breads, and more. They can also be made into porridges, soups, and beverages. Their culinary use is more similar to grains than the nuts that might more commonly come to mind, although their cultivation requires none of the ecologically destructive tillage practices and deleterious sprays that are commonly employed in grain farming. The extensive root system of the oak tree helps to protect soil from the forces of erosion, which in turn protects clean water. The many leaves of the oak tree filter the air of the carbon that we have too much of, and infuse the air in turn with plenty of the oxygen that we need more of. Since these trees grow all by themselves and produce plentiful acorns in the wild, we know they won’t be high maintenance as crops. This is Earth-positive agriculture at its finest.

Aside from a few fun experiments with acorns, I haven’t really cooked with them in quantity. But that’s all about to change. For me, 2020 is to be the year of the acorn. I bought a new nutcracker so I can process them in bulk, and gathered all the publications I could find on the subject. Over the past month, I’ve been searching for oak trees everywhere I go, and keeping a detailed log of the species, location, and approximate age of each tree that I find, and noting whether or not the tree is producing acorns this year. My hope is to collect a sampling of acorns from every native oak species to experience and compare all the available flavors, and to collect a large quantity of acorns from trees of the easier-to-process white oak group for recipe experimentation and general winter sustenance. I probably won’t realistically gather acorns from every single native oak species this year, but eventually, I aim to collect them all.

Oak Tree Groups

Oak Leaf VeinsAccording to Wikipedia, there are around 600 species of oak trees, encompassing a multi-continental native range and spanning multiple oceans. Here in Indiana, we have quite a few native species of oak trees from the white oak group and the red oak group. The white oak group produces the sweetest nuts that ripen about six months after the tree flowers, and these nuts require less processing (soaking in fewer changes of water), since they contain lower levels of bitter tannins. The red oak group produces nuts that are higher in tannins, and ripen about 18 months after the tree flowers. Because of the higher tannin content, acorns from red oak trees require more work to process the bitterness out of them (you soak them in extra changes of water). However, all acorns are edible as long as you process them until they are no longer bitter. We have planted one hundred Swamp White Oak trees in our wetland food forest in anticipation of their delicious acorns, and so far they are thriving more than any other tree species we have planted. We also inherited a beautiful mature Bur Oak tree that grows on a steep slope between our high and low fields, and that tree is loaded with acorns this year. Most trees in the White Oak Group have rounded lobes on their leaves, and most trees in the Red Oak Group have pointed lobes on their leaves. However, this is not a 100% hard and fast rule. If you have space for an oak tree on your land, be sure to select a species that is native to your area. Native trees are usually easier to grow and more beneficial to your local ecosystem. Although you might notice some bite marks on the leaves of your oak tree, or an occasional acorn with a hole in it, please don’t spray as these are not usually a serious problem for the tree, and are a sign that the tree is supporting the vibrant web of life in your community.

Indiana Native Trees of the White Oak Group

  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). A splendid tree with a very nice form and especially nice acorns. It is a very adaptable tree whose native range includes all of Indiana, and also dips down as far south as Texas and reaches up as far north as Canada.
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana). Native to upland regions of eastern and southeastern United States, including the southernmost parts of Indiana.
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers upland soils.
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers dry, acidic soils.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba). A huge oak tree native to all of Indiana, as well as most of the eastern United States.
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata). A great lowland oak tree native to several southeastern United States, including a very small area of southern Indiana.
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata). Native to southern Indiana and most of the southeastern United States. A smaller oak tree that prefers dry soils.
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii). Native to a small section of southern Indiana, and several Southern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Very similar to Chestnut Oak, but native to lowland regions instead.
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor). Native to lowlands across all of Indiana, and a few neighboring states.

Indiana Native Trees of the Red Oak Group

  • Black Oak (Quercus velutina). Native to all of Indiana, and to a huge range encompassing much of eastern United States. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica). Native to dry soils of southwestern Indiana, and several southeastern United States.
  • Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda). Native to a tiny corner of southwestern Indiana, but mostly to southern states. Thrives in moist bottomland soils and tolerates occasional flooding.
  • Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis). Native to uplands of northern Indiana, northern Illinois, and a few other northern states.
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). Native to moist but well-drained soils across all of Indiana, and to our neighboring states to the west, south, and east.
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Native to all of Indiana, and a huge range encompassing most of the eastern United States and parts of Canada. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea). Native to splotches of southern, northern, and central Indiana and most of the northeastern United States. Grows best in well-drained, acidic, dry or sandy soils.
  • Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria). Native to most of Indiana, as well as our neighboring states to the west, east, and south. Adaptable to many soil types.
  • Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii). Native to most of Indiana and to the south. Adaptable to multiple soil types.

Side Note

One notable “oak” we thankfully do not have in Indiana is “poison oak”! Poison Oak is not related to oak trees at all. Its in the same genus as (closely related to) poison ivy and poison sumac, and its plant family curiously also includes cashews, pistachios, and mangoes! Poison “oak” is named such only because the leaf shape vaguely resembles the shape of an oak leaf. The similarities end there.

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Sage Advice

I’m growing two varieties of garden sage (Salvia officinalis) in the herb spiral this year. One plant was simply labeled “Sage”, and the other was labeled “Berggarten Sage”. Early in the summer, it seemed like Berggarten Sage was extra productive, but regular Sage has totally caught up and now both are producing about the same amount. The Berggarten variety has a slightly milder flavor, and huge round leaves. The large size of the Berggarten leaves is an asset when making fried sage leaves, such as are used in one of my favorite lasagna recipes. In most other recipes, the sage leaves are chopped and/or dried, and there is only a slight flavor difference between the two varieties. Both varieties are labeled as hardy perennials in zones 5-9. I planted them in zone 6, so I hope to enjoy both of these plants for years to come!

Most people don’t think of sage when they go to brew a cup of tea, but sage makes a very nice herbal infusion. Brew as you would mint tea. À votre santé!

Pro tip: In past years, I’ve tried growing sage in the ground with no success. Sage enjoys dry climates and well drained soil. It does not thrive if the soil is soggy all spring long, such as is common here in central Indiana. If thriving sage plants have eluded you in the past, consider growing it in a raised bed, or near the top of an herb spiral. A little elevation has made all the difference for me!

Both plants were purchased from Companion Plants nursery in Ohio in May 2020.

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A Midsummer Day’s Feast

It is the beginning of August. The sun and the rain have been battling for dominion over our days, settling into a ferocious and unpredictable, yet nourishing and balanced cycle. Harvests are abundant in these conditions.

On a personal note, regular readers may remember that I lost my day job at the start of the COVID shutdown. Recently, on the seventh anniversary of this blog, I officially decided to make that a permanent change. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for years, and now feels like the best time to dive in. I’m working the land full time now, and I’ve never felt better. I find my life harmonizing with the weather patterns. Sunny days are for field work, gardening, sun tea, and hanging laundry. Rainy days are for preserving the harvest, making and mending what is needed, and for studying. I’m studying hard, and I’m learning a lot. Every day is magical, and I’m so grateful for the combination of luck, strategy, and hard work that brought me here. I know what a rare chance this is, and I won’t waste it.

As you might imagine, there’s a large pay gap between a software engineer’s salary and a beginning farmer’s salary, so anything I can produce rather than buy increases my odds of success in this venture. This is especially true of high quality fresh food, which pays me not only in grocery savings, but also in improved wellness. I harvest regularly from my gardens – four raised beds, an herb spiral, and some container plants. But I also supplement my garden’s offerings by foraging wild edible and medicinal plants from my fields and wooded areas.

A trio of foraged plants: lambsquarter, red clover, plantain
A Foraged Bounty: Lambsquarters, Red Clover Blossoms, Plantain Leaves

Right now, lambsquarters, red clover, and plantain are plentiful. Lambsquarters is a wild relative of spinach, and it tastes just as delicious as its famous cousin. Red clover and plantain have many uses for food and health. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use red clover and plantain, both are covered in Rosemary Gladstar’s excellent book “Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide“. My library has a copy, and maybe yours does too! As the farm evolves, my goal is not to remove weeds, but to continuously skew the weed populations towards useful species. I mow and cultivate selectively to discourage poison ivy, cocklebur, and hemlock while encouraging useful weeds to grow and multiply. I’ve even planted some seeds of native weeds I enjoy, in hopes they will take hold and spread through the untamed parts of the land.

Herbs gathered from the garden
Garden Herbs: Tulsi, Lemon Balm, Sage, Garlic Chives, Chives, Sweet Basil
Garden Veggie Harvest
Garden Veggies: Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Sunflowers, Green Beans

Tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans are thriving in the garden. My sunflowers have had limited success. Most of the sunflower seeds didn’t grow- I suspect the seeds were devoured by hungry wildlings. And who could blame them? Sunflower seeds are delicious. Of the few sunflower plants that germinated, only one is yet in bloom.

Sun Harvest : Sun Tea Brewing
Solar Harvests: Sunshine brews the most beautiful herbal teas! And you can save a tiny bit of electricity by brewing them this way.

Much to my surprise, my greens garden is still producing, even in the summer heat! I expected the collard greens and kale to bolt once the weather warmed, but they are unfazed. The radishes did bolt. Other brassica family members have started to differentiate themselves from the nearly identical forms they all shared as young plants. Kohlrabies are growing bulbs, cabbages are forming heads, and Brussels sprouts are sending up their tall stalks. You may notice there are no pictures of harvests from that garden today, and there’s a reason for that : cabbage loopers. The little green worms have eaten more than their fair share of these plants, and so I paused my harvesting while the plants recover from that damage. BT is an effective organic pesticide for cabbage loopers that I do use when necessary, but I waited a little too long between my applications of it. These plants are very vigorous, and I’m confident the harvests will resume in a couple of weeks.

A Visual Feast : Beautiful Marigold Blossom
An Especially Nice Marigold Blossom
Not Yet A Harvest : Fig Tree Beginning To Flower
Not Yet A Harvest, but a baby fig!

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Summer in the Riparian Buffer

One mowed row in the riparian buffer

The Riparian Buffer Native Food Forest project is well underway. It’s an ever-evolving work and while it will never be “finished”, the initial planting phase is on track to be complete this year. With every new year, we gain new knowledge and encounter new obstacles. This year, the dominant obstacle has been mowing. Little growing trees are not as tall as weeds, and they need help to get their quotas of sunlight and fresh air. Most farmers in a similar situation would likely spray herbicides to control weeds around the young trees, but we won’t do that here because we value the diversity of our ecosystem.

If I could start this project over again, I would have been mowing this area regularly this whole time with a regular riding lawn mower. But I had some misconceptions at the start: that I could maintain the area by mowing infrequently with a scythe, that frequent mowing wouldn’t be necessary, and that I’d be able to delegate the bulk of my mowing work to a few happy little sheep by now. I’m a natural researcher, but there isn’t a lot of documentation available on this subject, and none of those hopes panned out. Now I’m facing some pretty serious weeds. Three year old saplings, chest-high invasive grasses… add to that driftwood and large miscellaneous debris that regularly floats into our field on floodwater currents, and you’ve got an expert-level mowing situation. We have a riding mower with a pull-behind brush hog, which is able to handle the rough terrain. We’ve used it a few times to mow large spaces between planted rows, but the handling is not precise enough to be trusted anywhere near the small trees, and the operation is a complicated, multi-day effort involving two people guiding and coordinating the unwieldy beast. The riding mower alone could get fairly close to the saplings, but the deck cannot handle this much overgrowth. I was almost about to purchase an expensive new machine, when I saw my husband using our tiny electric battery-powered push mower to mow down some sturdy mulberry saplings near the rooster coop. I knew immediately that this unassuming little machine was up to the task.

An American Elder sapling, hidden among weeds

And so began the painstaking work of reclaiming the planted rows. Of course, the first job is locating the saplings, so I don’t accidentally mow them over. As you can see in the photo to the right, they’re hard to find. Especially because most of the stakes I used to mark them with last year floated away in one flood or another.

How do I find the trees? This treasure map! Actually, it’s a modern day treasure map, in the form of a google sheet. Every cell represents a 5’x5′ square. Text inside the cell tells me what species might be planted in that square. Highlighted colors denote topography. I’m able to update this sheet in real time from the field on my mobile device.

I use a surveyor’s tape (300′) to mark the row, joining the first tree in the row and the last tree in the row based on my spreadsheet notation. Then, I reapply marking stakes to any trees in the line that lost their stakes to flood currents. After the trees are all marked, I run the mower along the right side, then the left side of the planted row, coming as close to the little trees as possible. I often have to angle the front of the mower upwards, like a munchy mouth, then chomp it down over tall, tough weeds. After mowing along both sides of a planted row, I make a final pass to clear the area between planted trees. It takes 2-3 battery charges and about a day to complete one 300′ row. The maintenance work is much easier though, as long as the weeds stay short. I’m leaving wild strips between the rows, for wildlife habitat. These wild strips host important wildflowers such as milkweed, and give small animals safe places to hide, nest, and rest.

Permaculture Guild Area
This area was an attempt at a “Permaculture Guild” style design, and it was the hardest to mow. The trees aren’t planted in rows, they’re planted in concentric circles. That made them really hard to find, and created a lot of extra mowing work. This area was an experiment that will not be repeated. Yet, I mowed it!
Me standing next to a 3 year old pecan tree
This three year old American Pecan tree is nearly as tall as me! Delicious pecans in T-7 years!
All the hard work is worth it when I find a healthy little tree thriving with new growth like this yearling Swamp White Oak! Edible acorns in T-19 years.
A tiny American Cranberrybush hiding amongst the weeds. Hard to find, but worth it! T-3 years to fruit! This plant is a whole topic unto itself, and I’ll write a lot more about it. For now, suffice it to say, it’s not a cranberry.

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The Potato Box

Bountiful potato crops always eluded me in previous gardens, but I decided to try again this year in a raised bed. I ordered Carola variety seed potatoes from the Seed Savers Exchange and planted them in April. The vines grew fast. Potato vines are supposed to be buried as they grow, so that only a few inches stick out of the soil at a time. They are expected to produce potatoes on all the buried parts. So about two weeks ago, the plants got tall enough to start the burying process (called “hilling”). I was unprepared, surprised they grew so quickly. I was finally able to source materials, so today I built two 8″ high cedar extensions to contain the extra soil, installed them, and filled them with garden soil and compost. Already, they are so tall that I had to bury 16 inches of the plants! Hopefully I am not too late. I can almost taste these potatoes.

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