Monday, January 30, 2012

An Opening for the Sun's Full Gaze

It seems like a simple thing; and we did, after all, initiate it.  Nevertheless I don't take it lightly.

When we settled on the location for the greenhouse shortly after moving in, we recognized the problem posed by one particular tree.  At the very least it would shade the sunlight from an afternoon sun; potentially it could prove to be a hazard to both the barn and the more delicate covering of the greenhouse.  All that, and it wasn't particularly appealing.  Others agreed, suggesting that we arrange to take it down.  We made some inquiries, a tree service came by to survey the situation, and we came to some agreement.  In addition they would trim back a tree on the other side that was drooping over the barn roof.

And then we waited.  The removal apparently wasn't any big issue; it was the trimming that stalled the work.  We would have to wait for freezes to eliminate the parasite attracted to an oak tree's open wounds.  As it turned out, "waiting for a freeze" in this climatically challenged winter presented more of a challenge than the parasites. 

Today, just to make the point, it will hit 60-degrees. 

On January 30. 

In Iowa.

Apparently, however, the mercury has dropped sufficiently in preceding weeks to eliminate the risk and at 7:45 a.m. the big truck turned into the driveway.  By 11 a.m. they were gone -- one tree trimmed, another tree removed, the branches chipped and the sawdust raked away.  After another crew makes certain there are no buried wires or pipes nearby, the stump itself will be removed.  Erased like an errant mark on a theme paper. 

But as I say, I don't take such an action lightly.  It was, for however many years it has been stretching to its offending size, it has been a living thing -- a part of nature.  Whether it emerged volunteer or was selected and lovingly planted by those who paused here before I cannot say.  I only know it took root and gave rise to trunk and branch and ultimately fruit.  It was, the tree specialist told me, an Osage Orange tree (which, in a fete of fruitful confusion, produces what is inexplicably called a "hedge apple").  We have others -- at least for the moment.  I am sure we have yet more tree considerations to undertake. 

For the moment, however, the newly formed clearing brandishes this wound.  I have looked forward to making our mark on this habitable place; I'm not sure how I feel about that first mark being this one. 

As the days begin to lengthen and it drinks in the sun's fuller gaze, the greenhouse will no doubt be grateful that this day finally came.  There is always, I suppose, an argument between sunlight and shade.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Production of a Careful Farmer

Each day I look at this box of seed packets -- fingering the photos of the intentions inside -- and imagine them popping up in my garden.  I know, it's almost an obsession.  It's hardly winter and already I am harvesting a crop in my mind.  A "bumper crop" I'll add, although I allow room for a shriveled potato or two and some undeveloped Bok Choy or the like.  It is a dream, after all, but even dreams have imperfections.  

In reality I harbor more modest expectations.  I have no real idea what, let alone how much, may grow into harvestable splendor as a result of my ministrations.  And I plan to learn from my mistakes and hard experiences.  That said, I'll be sorely disappointed if the field is a barren lot.  This is, after all, about food -- about nourishment and the pleasures of consuming what one has helped to grow.  

But I am a bit sobered by my quick deference to tangible results.  If harvest is the only useful metric then the platform for disillusionment and despair is vast and wide.  Aren't there other, maybe even larger considerations touching soul and soil and self and some things larger even than the horizon of my awareness?  If it is all merely about the perfunctory mechanics of "seed in", "edible out" then it doesn't really matter how it gets done.  If productivity is the only viable measure then pump it in and churn it out.

Even the writing of such possibilities, however, turns the words themselves as powdery and lifeless as the fields we have degraded by our vaunted "green revolution."  Surely, as relevant and desirable is a harvest, there is something richer than merely filled baskets. 

Wendell Berry, ever the deeper observer of such things, writes by way of contrast that, "the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind and the cropland itself."  And then again more pointedly, "The finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer."   (from Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer)

Building soil, growing a mind, and in so doing producing a careful farmer.  I do, indeed, hope something edible matures from all these seeds, but if instead the best that I accomplish is improving the soil and enlarging myself into something deeper and more careful it will have been a season of growing well and appreciatively spent.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Dirt is Now in Hand

I'm almost embarrassed to confess how exciting it was to guide the Speedee Delivery driver back toward the barn late last week and unload my almost 20 cubic feet of organic potting/seeding soil I had ordered from Wisconsin.  It is, after all, only potting soil.  But I find myself excited these days by all kinds of treasures I never expected to find titillating -- like chain saws, snow blowers, rain water and arugula; and seed catalogs send me into near paroxysms of delight.  But back to the potting, it was recommended last week by a presenter at the Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference who operates a larger, more developed vegetable farm in northeast Iowa and was sharing strategies for extending the growing season in high tunnels and greenhouses.  He positively raved about this stuff -- and he has shopped around.

So, making a note of the source, I quickly located the Cowsmo website and began reading about the "THE FINEST ORGANIC COMPOST AND POTTING SOIL IN THE MIDWEST".  That, quite understandably, is their own opinion -- and apparently that of the workshop presenter -- but it was enough to garner my order.  Twenty cubic feet may well turn out to be as excessive as it sounds, but last year it seemed like I was forever running out, and I plan to plant well.  Whether or not I will be able to add my voice to the composting accolades will remain to be seen.  How significant is potting soil along the long and tedious road from seeding to salivation -- from planting to picking?  After all, assuming for a moment the shock of a bountiful harvest, how will I know if the credit should go to this habitable seeding matrix, beginner's dumb weather luck, or simply the kiss of a beneficent garden angel?  That said, I figure I will need all the help I can get, and will scatter kudos far and wide should the results be positive.  If high quality starter soil imported from Wisconsin can give me a leg up, why would I squander the opportunity?

And so my dozen bags are neatly stacked in the barn, waiting for the day -- as are my special seeding cups made out dried cow manure -- "Cowpots" (I'm not making this up) -- and, of course, the seeds.  The garden is plotted.  About the only thing left, now that I have assembled all these great tools... learning what to do with it all.  

Even moreso than perusing the seed catalogs, that might be the real work of winter:  reading, reading, reading, and hopefully learning from those who know.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

From a Fertile Sketch on a Piece of Paper

A lot has happened since we sent in our first registrations for the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference a year ago.  We had imaginations -- maybe even some dreams.  We had curiosity, and certainly a hunger to learn.  But even as we drove the snowy highway toward Marshalltown and considered the program options, the "Beginning Farmers Luncheon" sounded too presumptuous to attend.  We didn't even qualify as beginners. 

We did, however, attend a training session for aspirational farmers; talking with those who are actually doing it, drawing out on paper a conceptual sketch of the farm we hoped to someday make real; shocking the presenter by our disinterest in a "business plan." 

"What do you mean you aren't interested in marketing?" he incredulously asked.  This, of course, being while I still had an income. 

We listened, we learned, we picked wiser and more experience brains.  And then we returned to our town home and plans to garden on our deck.

As I say, a lot has happened in a year.  Returning to the annual conference this past weekend, we encountered several familiar faces.  They were uniformly speechless when we told them what we had done, and we smiled when we remembered that visionary design sketched out on flip-chart paper what seems like a lifetime ago.  We had real life experience to draw from after a summer on borrowed land, and I had some frame of reference when one presenter spoke about extending the growing season with a greenhouse.  If we still felt like interlopers, it was certainly less so than last year; and I actually had reason to note the name and contact information of an organic compost and starter soil provider in Wisconsin whose wares are expected to be delivered at my door tomorrow. 

And if I still felt like a six-year-old sitting in on a college class -- learning more, for example, about microbial activity in soil health and development; if I still felt like I had moved to another planet where everything is still yet to be learned, I have, nonetheless, begun to grow some new antennae. 

Never mind the absence of paychecks.  With a beautiful and evocative piece of land, an embracing home that I hate to leave even for a trip into town, a barn and a greenhouse with waiting seeding pots at the ready and potting soil on its way; with a box load of seeds of everything from asparagus to zucchini; with a partner who enthusiastically and indulgently encourages and supports me, and puppy who accompanies me, I feel like the richest person in the world. 

As I say, a lot has happened in a year.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Garden Layout Emerges

Now that it is organized, it does indeed look a little daunting.  Click here to view the garden layout.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Until the Real One Comes Around

Most of the ordered seeds arrived some weeks ago (except for the asparagus transplants that won't arrive until March), where they have languished in the closet without further attention.  One of these days the time will come when something cultivational needs to happen with them.  "Something" like putting them in seeding containers in the greenhouse, or sowing them directly into the soil.  Toward that end, this afternoon I began to organize them -- at this point according to source.  Already I have begun to indicate what kind of growing season each requires, with "flags" for earliest and later seeding in the greenhouse.  Eventually I will create a separate inventory according to plant group and management plan rather than vendor; here, however, is the basic historical record of what I have and from whence it came.

It is, as is readily apparent, a mix of the idiosyncratic and the fundamental; the whimsical and the essential, all tied together in a preposterously ambitious bow.  It is, I'll admit, hubris to think I can honor all of these seeds with the care and attention they deserve -- and the list doesn't even include the garlic I've already planted and the fingerling potatoes we saved back from last year's harvest -- but I intend to learn from my mistakes as well as my beginner's dumb luck, so as far as I'm concerned broader is better than narrow.  I'm too old to start small, and too impatient to move slowly.  Besides, part of what sucked me into this intrigue was boredom with the handful of options at the grocery store.  Why settle for iceberg lettuce when you could potentially enjoy Redleaf Amaranth, Flame, Amish Deer Tongue, Tango, and Merveille Des Quatre saisons lettuce?  Why wouldn't you try to by-pass the produce section's "tomato shaped objects" and select instead -- with any luck -- the Emmy, Egg Yolk, Green Zebra and Brandywine tomatoes hanging from the bushes out back?   Just getting to say "Egg Yolk tomato" for the next few months will be worth it, even if the bushes fail to deliver their goods.

And so the conceptual work begins.  Next step is the online garden planner where the layout is conceived and the varietals distributed.  And then...

...a beautiful virtual garden that will eventually bear some, perhaps shocking, resemblance to the one that actually emerges from the ground.

The Beets were Almost Incidental

Just to report, it was a success -- with coattails.  By Thursday afternoon, I had assembled and largely prepared the dishes Lori had requested for her birthday dinner -- shepherd's pie for an entree, using the recipe from Simon Pearce in Vermont, one of our pilgrimages everytime we are fortunate enough to be in our particular "Holy Land"; mint chocolate chip ice cream for a closer, and a beet salad for openers utilizing a bed of greens from the greenhouse.  By the time the guest of honor arrived home, Merryl had also joined us and was helping out in the kitchen; the shepherd's pie was browning in the oven, the beets had been roasted and julienned, and the vinaigrette was concocted and ready for the final dressing.  All that remained were the greens.  Ah!  The greens!

With bowl optimistically in hand, the four of us -- Lori, Merryl, Tir and I -- journeyed across the driveway, opened the greenhouse door and stepped inside where we were immediately bathed in its warm, moist air.  I could almost hear the waiting greens giggle at our collective exclamations of praise and admiration.  They were, indeed, quite beautiful -- all four varieties.  Gingerly taking up the clippers, I began to fill the bowl -- first with the larger lettuce leaves, then a handful of spinach, followed by a more delicate harvest of arugula and mustard.  We "oohed" over the deep and vivid color, appreciatively sampled one of the tender leaves, and bragged on the mustard's artful variegation. 

Back inside, we rinsed and distributed among the plates, added the beets, chopped candied and spiced walnuts, feta crumbles and the vinaigrette and almost ran to the table for a taste.  It was glorious -- an explosion of gratitude and flavor in the mouth, and of awe in the heart.  We were woven into this salad every bit as much as seed and soil and rainwater and time, and nothing had ever tasted this deep and wide and rich.

As for the coattails?  Clipping the greens for that initial salad it became obvious that we had more harvesting to accomplish, and lots of salads to enjoy.  Thankfully I had roasted extra beets.  Each of the next three days we duplicated the salad, and yesterday reinforced chicken salad sandwiches with still more.  And as a bonus, I even clipped a little extra to share with a friend. 

This, to me, is real harvest.  Whatever and however much, I realized, actually comes from this nascent garden, it is only part of the produce.  The privilege of partnering in its growth, the indulgence of getting to taste its earthy proximity, and the pride of giving it away amplify the experience to almost deafening euphoria. 

It's sort of funny, actually.  All this from a simple beet salad.  Go figure.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nervous About the Salad

It has all been somewhat experimental thus far, and academic.  Up until now I have been trying things; observing the results; seeing what I might learn.  Suddenly, however, the stakes are higher.   Thursday is Lori's birthday and I promised a mixed greens salad.  As of yesterday, I was smugly confident.  The spinach was booming, the lettuce was readying for yet another cutting; even the mustard greens and arugula were promising an initial harvest.  And then last night I glanced at the thermometer reporting conditions inside the greenhouse -- low forties and falling.  By late evening the number hovered around the freezing point and I fearfully crossed my fingers.  This morning the flashing report announced a chilly 28-degrees -- this inside the greenhouse with a space heater running.  To be sure, the exterior temperature was standing in the single-digits, 20-degrees colder; but I wasn't planning dinner around anything out there.

I had noticed throughout the day that greenhouse conditions had been cooler.  I don't know if it accounts for the difference, but anticipating Sunday's drop in temperatures we had filled and stored in the greenhouse two large garbage cans with collected water in the rain barrel, and returned the barrel to the barn.  Now perhaps 75-gallons of water share space with the growing plants -- the garbage cans, plus buckets and an assortment of milk jugs.  Perhaps all that water is attracting and storing the cold, reducing the ambient temperature in the space.  Who knows.  All I know is that it got cold in there last night and I dreaded my daily trip to water.

What I found upon opening the door was chilly air, ice-filmed water containers, a heater struggling to catch up, and five planter boxes filled with lush, green, hardy and intrepid plants.  The arugula and mustard may have looked a little weary, but hardly burned; the spinach looked proud and resilient, and the lettuce seemed ready to take on whatever winter might have left to offer.  The good news is that steadily warming days and nights are forecast throughout the rest of the week. For the moment I have added a little extra heat just to pull the space back toward normal, and I have begun scoping out seams that could use a little extra sealing.

In the meantime, birthday dinner on Thursday appears, at this point, to be safe.