A Spark of Encouragement

Although my new garden expansion hasn’t been as successful this year as I hoped it would be, my two-year-old garden shines. Every day it greets me with a new lovely surprise. Some of you may remember my herb-loving snake friend from last year. She raised two littles in the garden last summer, and this year they have returned. She has grown to twice her previous size, shed her skin (I kept it), and this splendid little team has deftly handled my once-insurmountable vole problem. No more tunnels in the garden, no more root crops destroyed, no more seedlings uprooted! I want to throw a parade in her honor.

Garter Snake in the Herb Spiral
This is a photo from last year. She hasn’t allowed an updated portrait.

In my entire gardening career, I have never successfully grown eggplants. I have tried almost every single year at every single garden. This year is the year! My plants are loaded with beautiful striped heirloom Antigua Eggplants. I don’t expect I’ll harvest enough to sell at the market because I didn’t do a market-sized planting, but it’s enough to impart some much-needed encouragement, and hopefully a good seed crop so I can grow these again next summer.

Antigua Eggplant, Heirloom Eggplant Ripening
Antigua Eggplant, heirloom variety

Another plant I’ve always struggled to grow is winter squash. Squash Bugs seem to follow me wherever I go, and they win every single battle. This year I’m seeing much better success in the cucurbits I’ve planted, even the ones growing in the boggy soil of the new garden expansion. But by far the winner is this butternut squash, that I did not even plant, but which sprang up from the compost pile as if by magic. My most fervent wish this year was for a bountiful squash harvest. Squashes like the butternut make up the basis of my diet during the winter, and organic squash can be quite costly at the supermarket. The garden must have heard me, because just look at this beauty! Yet another good reason to tend a compost pile.

Volunteer Butternut Squash

My next joyful surprise came by way of a friend. Earlier this spring, she offered to share some yellow turmeric roots that she had grown in her garden. I previously dabbled a little bit in growing turmeric and ginger with mild success, but I hadn’t received a substantial harvest. Buoyed by the sight of her abundant turmeric treasure, I planted the starts she gave me. So far, it’s a roaring success. The plants have already outgrown two pots, and one of them blossomed last week. Check out this beautiful bloom! Turmeric is considered a medicinal plant due to the chemical component curcumin, but I feel like this flower is a different kind of medicine for the soul.

Lastly but not leastly, I have grown an absolute jungle of Thai Red Roselle Hibiscus! The fleshy red calyces can be made into delicious tangy beverages and jams. Most of these are second generation plants, grown from seed I saved from my 5 plants last year. I also planted some from a different seed source to compare, but there was no observable difference in the plants.

**Note that not every species of hibiscus is edible. The type discussed here is Hibiscus sabdariffa.

I hope you’re finding your own sparks of encouragement this summer!

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Sunflower Pesto

One of my favorite microgreens is the sunflower. I can’t get enough of the nutty, buttery, slightly piney taste of sunflower microgreens, and they’re a joy to grow. This particular microgreen will happily thrive in natural light, and asks only for a window with medium sun. I grow mine on homemade shelves in a west-facing window. They are a reliable crop year-round, and loaded with nutritional benefits.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with new recipes for my microgreens. In particular, I’ve been looking for ways to feed them to my friends and family who might not be as keen to chow down on plain greens as I am. One of my most successful attempts so far has been this recipe for Sunflower Pesto.

In addition to being my favorite microgreen variety, sunflower is a wonderful native food plant. I love incorporating its many edible parts into my cooking. I also grow plenty of sunflowers outdoors where all creatures great and small can enjoy their blooms. This recipe uses three sunflower products: the greens, the seeds, and the seed oil.

Ingredients

1 box (1/2 pint) Sunflower Microgreens
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup hulled sunflower seeds
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil, or Organic Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil
1/2 – 1 cup goat cheese crumbles, or a vegan cheese substitute of your choice
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
1-3 medium sized garlic cloves, according to your taste preferences
Salt & Pepper To Taste. As a guideline for most palates, try 1/4 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper.

Instructions

Add all ingredients to a food processor, and process until nearly smooth. Pause to scrape down the sides of the food processor container if you notice ingredients sticking to the sides near the top.

Serving Suggestions

This pesto is delicious in all the ways I’ve tried it. You can use it in any recipe you currently enjoy that calls for pesto. Here are a few suggestions:
* As a spread for sandwiches
* As a pasta sauce, or combined with a creamy pasta sauce
* Mixed into the dressing for potato salads
* Slathered on roasted corn on the cob
* Tossed with grilled zucchini
* As a dip for your favorite raw veggies.

Notes

Sunflower Oil: If you can’t find cold-pressed organic sunflower oil, then I recommend using extra virgin olive oil instead. The inexpensive sunflower oil commonly sold in grocery stores is heavily processed with chemical solvents, and I don’t personally consider it to be a healthy choice. Of course, feel free to choose the olive oil anyway, for its excellent flavor, health benefits, and higher likelihood of already existing in your pantry.

Cheese Portions: If you are serving this recipe to people who are not eager greens-eaters, then I definitely recommend including the full cup of cheese. If you enjoy fresh green flavors and are looking for a healthier option, then reduce the cheese to 1/2 cup.

Vegan Substitutions: To make this recipe vegan, substitute the vegan cheese of your choice for the goat cheese crumbles. I really enjoy nutritional yeast as an affordable and easy substitute for cheese in pesto recipes. I also love this vegan mozzarella recipe from Avocadoes & Ales. There are numerous store-bought vegan cheese preparations available now, which is a wonderful convenience for those who choose to limit or eliminate dairy in their diet. If you’re going with one of these pre-made options, I suggest choosing one of the soft vegan cheeses rather than shreds or slices.

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Growth and Constraints on the Farm

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, “The One-Straw Revolution”

As I write this, I find myself in July. The sky is dark, the air is thick with humidity, and the clouds have spent days flirting with rain without releasing any meaningful amount of water. Where have the months gone? I’ve been working in a daze since January, on a quest for growth. I spent my entire annual operating farm budget by May. Growth takes money as well as time, it turns out. Returns on my investment are still in dreams rather than in reality, but the dream persists, and so do I.

It is my deeply held belief that constraints are a healthy and necessary part of life. If I had unlimited resources, I wouldn’t be motivated to tap into my creativity for new ideas and solutions. If I never failed at anything, I would never learn to adapt. Life is constantly challenging us and in rising to meet these challenges, we become more of ourselves, approaching that which we were always meant to be.

four straw bales fit into the prius hatchback

Last year, my biggest constraint was garden space. I couldn’t grow enough produce to keep my market stand full. Some days I sold out, and some days the produce I brought to market was not the type people wanted to buy that day. I took notes. Bringing more types of items to the market seemed to be the key to success. So as soon as last year’s market season ended, I went to work expanding my garden. I nearly tripled my growing area. I built new fences and shoveled compost and topsoil and wood chips. I hauled many prius-loads of straw (the prius seats four bales of straw per load). No, I don’t need a truck. I do need to find a more local source of straw.

I raised enough plants from seed in my guest bedroom to fill all this space and more. I planted them all. I got really strong. I’ve never done crossfit, but from what I’ve seen, I think it must be inspired by farm life.

The spring rains came. And they stayed. I had purchased 200 new trees to add to my floodplain, and I never got to plant them because that land never drained. My new garden space, although not in the floodplain and on the same high level with my established and thriving garden, appears to suffer from a high water table. My 152 tomato plants, 158 pepper plants, and assorted other lovingly grown-from-seed plants all wilted. Every day I visited them, told them I loved them, and begged them to live. I did whatever I could for them.

June arrived, and it was dry! Every day I tested the soil in my new garden with a moisture meter. Does it need water yet? Still no. The meter continued to read “very wet” for weeks after the last rain. Finally, the moisture meter produced “average” water readings. The plants began to recover! A few plants had already perished, but the vast majority rallied, and are now looking green and growing again. The crop, if any, will be late. Late crops are not worth much money. People are excited to buy the first ripe tomato in July, but by September they’ve had their fill. Timing is everything, almost.

All this trouble with the water table will be resolved by next year’s planting. I’ll bring in more topsoil, more compost, more wood chips. The garden beds will grow taller, and plants will have more distance from the groundwater. We will reach equilibrium. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. Meanwhile, I still have all the vegetables I can produce in my established garden. I have huge coolers full of kale and collard greens and microgreens and fresh herbs at every market. And I am resourceful.

Sometimes, it takes a friend to remind you of who you are. My friends reminded me that I am more than just one thing. Included in that collection of things I am are an artist and a craftsperson. I’ve always loved making things. In preschool, my favorite toy was wood, nails, and a hammer. (Yes, they used to let children play with real nails and hammers at preschool!) Throughout my school years I was an active participant in 4-H, and I tried nearly every craft project in the catalog. In 2008, I started my first business, and it was photography. Eureka, the farm stand doesn’t have to be limited to only vegetables! The universe provided me with a huge burst of creative energy, and I started bringing my creations to market. I made tie dye textiles and beeswax candles and matted art prints. Jewelry and candlesticks are currently in the works. I’m having so much fun with this and you, my dear community, have been very supportive of this effort. Thank you. It will be a year before I can try again for that first July tomato, but a new candle can be ready in 24 hours.

The kale is always turning over a new leaf, and here comes the rain.

Blue curly Scotch kale growing in a raised garden bed

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Amphibians On The Farm

Teeny tiny baby toads have emerged on our farm this week. I’m not sure how many there are (dozens, hundreds?) but there are more than I’ve ever seen. Members of the new generation are currently smaller than garden peas.

That huge boulder on the right of this picture? A small piece of driveway gravel. The giant shellbark hickory shell on the left? Just a little acorn.

Frogs and toads are some of the most delicate members of our ecosystem when it comes to herbicide and pesticide exposure. One study from the University of Pittsburgh found that even at low levels, the common herbicide Roundup® killed 71% of tadpoles, and at normal use levels, the same herbicide killed 79% of all frogs within a day. Because we are an organic farm, herbicides like these have not been used on this land since my husband and I purchased it in 2015. The transformation has been significant and astonishing. After three years, the fireflies returned to our fields in breathtaking numbers. The gathering of butterflies and birds has been more gradual, but the steady increase each year has been noteworthy. After five years I started to notice more reptiles and amphibians. A snake took up residence in my garden, then it raised offspring there. Frog and toad sightings have gradually become more common, and my issues with other pests (insects, voles, etc) are significantly declining as their predators increase. A full seven years after transitioning this farm to organic and regenerative methods, this toad population boom has arrived. The ecosystem is balancing.

Not only are the tiny little toads adorable, they are true garden allies. They eat insects and garden pests like slugs, beetles, and flies. They don’t harm plants, and they don’t bite (they don’t even have teeth).

So what can you do to increase the population of frogs and toads in your garden? First of all, adopt an organic approach to land management, and stop spraying herbicides and pesticides. You can also create a toad habitat in your garden, which should include water, shelter, and native plants. Birds&Blooms offers a detailed guide to creating your own toad habitat. I find that my toads enjoy hanging out in a less formal toad habitat (my potted planters and seedling trays).

Check out this cute little chamomile seedling


Thank you for taking the time to consider the needs and wellbeing of these important amphibian neighbors. I wish you a bountiful summer!

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The Joy of Beeing

A few years ago, I decided to become a beekeeper. I read every book and article I could find on the topic. I joined a beekeeping club and attended meetings for a full year before purchasing any bees. I attended Indiana Bee School. I made decisions about the type of hive I would use, and how many hives I would start with. I built two top bar hives from scratch. I researched all the kinds of bees (there are several “races” of honeybee within the species Apis mellifera), and studied their characteristics. I still found myself rather unprepared for this undertaking, and I made mistakes. I am sure I will make more mistakes, but I will not make the same mistake twice. That is the learning process.

A couple years ago, my bees absconded (left). I decided not to bring in more bees right away, to focus on other farm projects. At last, it is time for bees again!

Note: You may notice from the pictures that my hives look a little different than the rectangular stacking hive boxes you are accustomed to seeing. I use a type of hive called a Top Bar Hive. It’s a really accessible style of hive that is easy to build and customize, fun to work in, and lends itself well to natural beekeeping practices. I built these hives and all their accessories myself on a small budget. If you’re interested in exploring this style of beekeeping for yourself, I recommend Les Crowder’s book “Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health”.

Soaking top bars in boiling water to clean them

To prepare my old hives for new bees, I cleaned all the hive equipment with boiling water and a scrub brush. Bees are very sensitive to chemicals, so it’s not a good idea to use any cleaning solutions on bee hive equipment, even natural ones. Boiling water is the safest and best option. The hot water removes old wax and propolis very effectively, and provides some degree of sanitation. Bees can get sick just like people do, so it’s nice to offer them a clean home. Plus, people might eat some of the honey they make inside the hive.

After cleaning, I repaired any loose or damaged parts, then gave the exterior of both hives a fresh coat of paint. Paint or other weatherproof coating is needed on the outside of the hive, because those outer surfaces may be exposed to rain, and may rot. It is neither necessary nor recommended to paint the inside of the hive. I also built brand new lids for both hives, since the old ones had fallen into disrepair.

Sugar Board

Once the hives were clean and placed into their permanent location, I filled a homemade sugar board for each hive. This is basically just a giant sugar cube. It’s something I normally place inside the hive for winter, just in case they run out of honey. It’s not usual to offer this to them in the spring, but there were some cold days in the forecast when they would not be able to leave the hive, and I didn’t want them to go hungry. They won’t eat the sugar if they have honey available. Note: it’s not recommended to feed bees honey that they didn’t make, or that didn’t come from your own apiary. Commercial honey could make them sick.

Installing a package of bees into a top bar hive

Bees can come in two different ways: packages and nucs. Nuc is short for nucleus hive, and it consists of a small family of related bees with some comb that they’ve made and some honey and eggs that they’ve stored. I would prefer to purchase nucs instead of packages to start my hives, because there are many more local, small farm businesses who offer their bees that way. However, nucs are always made of rectangular frames that only fit into Langstroth style bee hives (the rectangular box kind). The rectangular frames will not fit into my half-hexagonal shaped hive boxes, so I must always purchase packages. Although they’re not ideal, I’ve had pretty good luck with package bees in the past. You can see the package pictured above, it’s a small wooden box with screens covering the largest sides. Inside the package, there’s a can of sugar syrup for the bees to eat during transport, a tiny box that holds one queen bee, and three pounds of worker bees.

Queen Cage Inside Hive

To transfer the bees into the hive, I partially open the hive for their access by removing three bars (top bar hives have bars instead of frames). I place the queen bee in her little box inside the hive (there’s a tiny cork to remove first, so she can eventually get free), and then set the box upside-down with the opening facing the inside of the hive to encourage the bees to go in after her. Some people shake the box so that the bees fall into the hive, but I don’t like to do this. The bees usually find their own way. If they don’t figure it out, I’ll come back later and shake them into the hive. The hive does need to be closed (with the lid on) in time for sunset or inclement weather, for their safety.

Once bees are in the hive, there’s nothing forcing them to stay. You hope they like the hive you made for them, you hope they like you, and you hope they like their queen. If they don’t like it, they can leave. This is one major lesson of beekeeping: bees are free. Bees choose what’s best for their colony. Bees will live in your hive only if they feel like it’s a good deal for them. That’s one of the reasons why I put so much work into making the hive a welcoming place, nice and clean with good smells and a candy buffet.

Two top bar hives

Once the bees were all in, I closed up the hives and placed the lids on securely. Bees fly in and out freely through the entrance holes even when the hive is “closed” with the lid on top.

sugar syrup

Honeybees need a lot of energy to build wax combs where they can store honey and raise their babies. I’m not a big proponent of feeding my bees sugar, but I do always offer it to them during times of stress, like when they are first moving in or when there aren’t a lot of flowers blooming. Sugar isn’t the healthiest food for them, but it’s better than going hungry. I tried out an herbal bee tea recipe from Mountain Rose Herbs as the base for my sugar syrup. I offered both the herb-infused sugar syrup and plain sugar syrup, and it really seems like the bees prefer the herbal infusion.

After the bees had been in their hive for about a week, I opened the hive to inspect their progress. I’m happy to report that both hives are thriving! They have made very different design decisions. Hive #1 really went wild with the sugar board, and built an amazing amount of wax combs that are all white. They built their combs starting in the back, next to the sugar block. Hive #2 didn’t use much of the sugar, and they have built a smaller but still respectable amount of wax combs that are bright orange and located in the expected place, near the entrance. I look forward to all the lessons these bees will teach me in the days, weeks, months, and hopefully years to come!

bee keeper in bee suit

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10 Essential Winter Chores for the Farmer and Gardener

Winter may be the “off-season”, but I find I’ve been working long hours anyway. Maybe not as many hours as in summer, when every chore seems an urgent matter of pure survival. Winter work has more of a squirrel feeling. It’s a kind of preparation for the busy time when I know I will have no more free minutes to learn new skills, prepare new ground, or build new structures. Winter sculpts the bones for the growing season.

1. Winter is a time for building projects

construction projects

My hens are in desperate need of a new coop. It’s not so much that their current coop is bad, it’s just that it’s in the wrong place and too big to move. The new coop is smaller, more agile, and best of all- built in a nice shady place where the girls can chill out, instead of over the sunniest spot in the garden.

2. Winter is a time for preparing new gardens

new market garden

I’ve been busy preparing a large chunk of my back field for expanded vegetable production. There’s more work yet to do, but the foundation has been laid for a promising harvest.

3. Winter is a time to cut and stack wood

Trees die and they fall down. Limbs break during storms. Sometimes when this happens in the right place, I leave the logs on the ground so they can provide habitat for wild creatures. But all too often they fall on the driveway, on the garden, or another inconvenient place. These logs need to be cut, stacked, and put away to dry. We don’t have a wood stove in our home yet, but we hope to add one in the future. Meanwhile, we enjoy using some of the wood for bonfires and craft projects.

4. Winter is a time to prepare for next year’s market stand.

tomato crates

From the dry and boring work of insurance policy comparison to the more fun and creative design projects, I would never have time to work on these things during market season. I am especially excited about these custom tomato crates that I designed and built for multipurpose use. They’re sturdy enough to take into the field at picking time, shallow enough to hold exactly one layer of tomatoes (no bruising), they stack neatly for easy transport, and they’re pretty enough to use as a part of the display in the booth.

5. Winter is a time to grow.

seedling nursery

I’ll fill and refill this indoor seedling nursery multiple times during the winter, as the earliest crops are planted outside and the later crops begin to grow into their space. I’m growing vegetables for the market garden, new test crops to evaluate for the future, and all kinds of herbs and native plants. This work starts in December or January, when I load up my refrigerator with trays of seeds for cold stratification, and continues until June when the last crops are planted outside.

6. Winter is a time to lay the foundation.

bean trellis

In this new edible landscaping garden, I not only built a strong foundation at the soil level with local compost, reclaimed cardboard (as a biodegradable weed blocker), and free local wood chips. I also built a vertical foundation for vining plants using naturally fallen branches gathered from the tree line. That means less wood for me to chop and stack, more opportunities to grow beautiful food (like scarlet runner beans), and less waste and consumerism all around.

7. Winter is a time for tradition.

three rutgers

My grandpa always grew Rutgers tomatoes in his garden, and these incredibly delicious heirloom tomatoes inspired me to become a gardener myself, and influenced my path as an open pollinated vegetable grower. The Rutgers tomato was introduced in 1934, as a joint effort between Rutgers University and Campbell Soup. It was a favorite tomato variety in victory gardens and large tomato farms alike, and was widely grown for many years. This heirloom variety fell out of favor somewhere along the way, displaced by newer hybrids. Seeds called Rutgers are still available, though they aren’t all the same. I am growing plants from a variety of sources this year, hoping to find some that taste just like my grandpa’s. If nature cooperates with my plans, I hope to grow enough Rutgers tomatoes for the farmer’s market this coming summer.

8. Winter is a time for reflection.

I keep a detailed garden journal where I record my inputs, work efforts, harvests, weather, and observations. Winter is a good time to review what worked and what didn’t, which varieties are worth scaling up for the market, which varieties won’t be planted here again, and which varieties may deserve another try in a different part of the garden. Notes are absolutely essential for a gardener or farmer, especially one with her hand in so many different pies.

9. Winter is a time to learn new skills.

stack of books

I read stacks on stacks of books. Winter is a great time to wrap up in a warm blanket and learn new things. But not all learning comes from books, and it’s important to remember that we can also learn from our friends, neighbors, and relatives by helping each other out. Offer to help a friend inspect a bee hive, work together to can tomatoes, weed the bean patch, or pick walnuts. You’ll learn something local and new while strengthening relationships and building community. I helped a friend with a controlled burn this winter, and it was very educational as well as incandescent fun.

10. Winter is a time to train.

Don’t forget to maintain your physical fitness over winter. Get outside and take a walk as often as you can. Practice yoga, strength training, or your favorite sport. I know from personal experience that if I begin the gardening or farming season out of shape, I’m likely to end it in injury. Taking good care of your mind and body over winter is a sound investment.

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Best / Worst

When I think back over the best experiences of my life, many of them were uncomfortable in the moment. My first backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park for example, during which I saw some of the most awe-inspiring scenery of my life to date and brought home several hundred mosquito bites. Or my first garden, into which I poured my heart, soul, and countless hours of time, yet harvested almost no vegetables (but gained a stronger body, valuable lessons, and enough enthusiasm to try again). Cold and snowy days like today carry the same high/low feeling. It’s uncomfortable to be out in the cold tending my chionophobic chickens (they’re afraid of snow) on days like today. But if I didn’t have anyone counting on me, I might be tempted to stay indoors. If I stayed in, I’d miss the enchantment of the day. Now, as I warm up indoors sipping a hot cup of home-grown tulsi tea and writing this article, I look back over my time in the snow with love and gratitude for another best/worst day.

Snow labyrinth

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January’s Harvest

It may surprise you to learn that the garden is still alive. A selection of cold hardy crops have been riding the weather like waves, wilting during the cold and dry periods only to perk up and shine after each warm rain. I haven’t been able to bring myself to harvest, preferring to savor the visual feast of green vitality deep into winter. But the forecast for tomorrow holds a frigid low of 8° F, and I doubt there will be many plants left standing after that weather passes through. Ah well. I was going to eat them eventually, and a fresh feast is especially welcome on a cold, windy night like tonight.

What’s for dinner? Clockwise from Top-left corner: Parsley, Mixed Salad Greens, Ruby Red Swiss Chard, Chioggia Beet, French Breakfast Radish, Malaga Radish, Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Kale.

A note about planning for a winter harvest: I did plant a specific fall garden (though I got a late start with it). The radishes and mixed salad greens (mesclun) came from that fall planting. The kale was planted in early spring, the chard followed in early summer. They have produced abundantly across the seasons, harvested carefully using the “cut and come again” method. This means that rather than chopping down the whole plant to harvest, I repeatedly snip off the oldest individual leaves throughout the season, always leaving several healthy young leaves on the plants to keep the plant alive and growing. As for the parsley and beets, they were also spring planted. They became shaded by other plants, which slowed their growth and prevented a summer harvest. Once those taller plants were out of the picture, these little lurkers filled in the newly available space.

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The Promise of the New Year

Last night we bid farewell to 2021. It was an intense year for me, packed tightly with highs and lows. I built a garden, I tried my hand at market growing. I read many books, I studied, I wrote. I re-launched my photography business. I stayed home, I traveled, I met new friends, I reunited with old ones. I lost a loved one to cancer. I’ve lived through days filled with uncontainable joy and gratitude and days that flattened me. I haven’t made as much progress towards my goals as I wanted to make, but I have made significant, measurable progress towards those goals. This morning I woke up with the urge to start the new year with hope, with purpose, and with new life. I spent the day planting seeds.

It’s too early in the season to start most of the garden plants that might readily come to mind. If I started my tomato seeds this early, they’d take over my house by the time the last frost has come and gone. But there are certain kinds of seeds that benefit from an extra early start. Many native plants and medicinal herbs retain their own sense of the seasons, and must experience winter before they will consent to sprout. It’s called cold stratification, and it usually takes about two months. Certain other plants may grow very slowly from seed, even though they don’t need cold stratification. This category includes perennial herbs such as sage. I’m starting those seeds now as well.

Seeds planted in tiny soil blocks.  Twenty individual cubes of soil, each with a single seed resting on top, arranged to form a larger rectangle resembling a baked brownie.

My current preferred method for cold stratification when growing transplants is to plant the seeds that need it in tiny cubes of freestanding compacted potting soil called soil blocks. In this configuration, about 240 seeds can be started in a single growing tray, which I then cover with parchment paper and slide neatly onto a shelf in my refrigerator. There it will chill for about two months, with an occasional re-moistening now and again. In March, I’ll transfer them to my regular grow light setup and finish germinating them alongside the familiar tomatoes and marigolds.

One full tray of planted soil blocks, ready to load into the refrigerator! Note: I’ve labeled these with post-it notes, but only because I couldn’t find my label of choice (sharpie on masking tape). These will be replaced with something more sticky and more water resistant ASAP. There are few things more frustrating for a grower than raising a bunch of beautiful and healthy plants that you can’t identify because the label failed.
a day's work of seed planting
An honest day’s work! That little device in the bottom-left is the soil block making tool.

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Compost Safety and Leguminous Rhythms

It’s November in Indiana, and I’m raising little bean plants in my guest room. They’re not an early start for next spring’s garden, but a test of some new compost. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t make enough compost this year to nourish the major garden expansion I’m working on, so I purchased a truckload of locally made compost from a nearby lawn and garden supply shop to supplement what I did make.

Other people’s compost is a little bit suspect these days due to the emergence of a new class of herbicides which persist in soil, in plant material, and in animal manure for up to five years after application. These herbicides are sometimes used on conventionally grown grain crops and grazing pastures, so they can wind up in your organic garden through compost, straw, hay, grass clippings, or manure.

Not only do I try to avoid ingesting herbicides as a personal health preference, and not only do I endeavor to manage my farm organically for myriad reasons, but the whole point of herbicides is to kill plants, so nobody wants them in their garden harming their flowers and veggies for the next several years.

Since these chemicals have such a long active life, sometimes persistent herbicides can contaminate a batch of compost by accident if somebody fed their horse something that once grew in a field that was once sprayed and then the manure from that horse is composted, or if contaminated straw or hay was added directly to the compost pile. It’s difficult if not impossible to verify all the inputs all the way to their origin if you’re a business or a municipality who takes in other people’s compostables and makes large quantities of black gold for a whole community. The best way I’ve found to make sure that not-homemade compost is safe is to test it before spreading it on the garden.

Ergo, I have six pots of Phaseolus vulgaris in my guest room right now, and we’re learning a lot about each other. Most interestingly, I learned that they “sleep” every night. They actually fold up their leaves into a relaxed-looking posture and spend the night that way before stretching out for the sun again the next morning. This botanical process is called nyctinasty. According to Wikipedia, “Nyctinastic movements are associated with diurnal light and temperature changes and controlled by the circadian clock.” Not all plants have nyctinastic movements, but some plants do, including beans. I plan to research more about nyctinasty, but I couldn’t wait to share these photos and observations with you all. See below for more info.

So far, all my beans look vigorous and healthy, and all signs point to safe, excellent compost. I’ll know for sure in another week, and then I can proceed with my garden expansion at full speed.

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