My most profound struggle over the past five months has been maintaining a sense of passion for what I’m doing. It would be easier, far easier, if there was a community waiting with open arms for a young vegetable grower to feed it. Oh, how wonderful it would be to have restaurants and markets clawing at my door, barraging my phone with calls for my delicious, sustainably-grown, local produce. Life is seldom as easy as we’d like it to be and tends towards surprises in both directions. This is what makes living meaningful. Joy and satisfaction would be but fetters to the mind without knowing the desolation of sorrow, hopelessness, and struggle. I found that no matter what direction I moved towards, I hit walls. Local restaurants were already stocked for produce and the local markets were closed for admission (save for one, which flat out didn’t want me in it-too many produce vendors). Individual buyers were hit or miss and most of them didn’t know what half of the vegetables I was growing were. I was afforded some opportunities to educate people, which I relished, but in the end my exotic bok choy was left in the field, growing lovely yellow blossoms as it went to seed.
Somewhat dejected, I came to two conclusions: that I want to grow food for people out of love and that I want to share my life and livelihood with other people in closer, more meaningful ways. Profit is nice and would certainly help, but the purpose of growing food in this way is to foster community. That is the missing link that I’ve been searching for. I would hazard a guess that even had I slipped into the farmer’s market or under a restaurant’s wing, I’d still have felt the lack of that vital component. The medium of exchange is always monetary (again, that works in this social platform) but the method is a competition: buyer and seller, farmer and farmer, farmer and environment, farmer and self. I personally felt that as a female, I was being forced by the nature of my culture to perform competitively despite my belief that food should be produced out of universal altruism and shared. As a food producer in a capitalist economy, I have to acknowledge that unless I create an alternative, not-for-profit project, I have to work through a system that forces goods (food is now a commodity, like all necessities) to be distributed via a monetary rewards system.
In one way, this benefits me immediately because as a member of a capitalist society, money makes my life easier. In another way, this hinders my desire to foster food systems based on community bonding and shared cultural knowledge. The centrality of food to culture has been completely eclipsed by the abstraction of food as a collection of goods. There is no knowledge base for the foods that we consume, or of their history of their impact on other cultures or the environment. As a local grower, part of my end goal was to involved consumers with the creation of food. I wanted to educate people about the pitfalls of the industrialized food system and the essentiality of returning to regional food habits. While I had limited success with some individuals, I found that approaching the market with this mindset was completely counterproductive. Not only did restaurants, farmers markets, and grocery stores reject my methodology, I encountered aversive behavior that was surprisingly aggressive. When I offered to share my vegetables for free and explained my reasons, the aggression quickly shifted to discomfort and communication ceased completely. My only options were then to somehow preserve my huge harvest for myself, donate it, or compost it. I chose to preserve it to the best of my abilities, because I don’t see the point of donating such high quality produce and then buying vegetables of lesser quality at the store. Any excess beyond my ability to use will be donated, when it comes to that point.
I understand that not everyone wants or needs armfuls of kale. Certainly, not everyone’s digestive system can handle that much greenery. I can sympathize, believe me. It’s the means by which the communication broke down that struck me. By trying to detangle food from money, I broke the law of capitalism. I offered a good that I had grown out of love, with no desire for compensation. I offered the people I spoke with something that capitalism cannot tolerate: equality. I was no longer competing for superiority as a seller, waffling between dominance and subservience (according to who I worked with). The produce was no longer a commodity, but a creative expression of my individuality: a deep and powerful gift of personality and cultural wisdom (older ways of growing coming to light through conversation). I broke multiple levels of classism simultaneously. Recognizing that the very fabric of their culture had just been vandalized by my transgression, others (consciously or unconsciously) shied away. Some, perhaps trying to express appreciation but unsure of how to wade into non-capitalist waters, rejected free goods outright or in some instances, overcompensated me with an excess of cash. This I refused to accept. An overabundance of money cannot make up for the dissolution of community, empathy, and wisdom. Furthermore, accepting the money would have been to alleviate the guilt felt from approaching capitalism’s boundaries: something that I did not want to encourage, at least not without an equal exchange of worthy knowledge nor needed supplies. The barter system was far closer to true communal support than the delegation of finances is. Even that has proven too difficult.
Capitalism as an expression of the patriarchal impulse to conquer, divide, subjugate, and control. In the collaborative book Rape of the Wild: Man’s Violence against Animals and the Earth, author’s Andrée Collard and Joyce Contrucci explore the necrophilic mindset of patriarchy as it relates to women, animals, and the environment. They compare the death-oriented values of patriarchy with the life-giving, sustaining, and nurturant values of feminist societies. It is important to remember that “feminist societies” are not instances in which women act oppressively over men, but in which feminist ethics based in equality, sharing, nurturing, and cooperation are favored over aggression, division, destruction, competition, excessive control, and superiority. Nor are patriarchal societies those in which all men benefit unanimously over women. Patriarchy thrives on division and struggle, and the greater the stratification, the more extreme the patriarchal expression. The mindset of patriarchy is that of the hunter, to whom nature is an arena and any resource (be that an elk, a timber forest, a coal mine, or another human being) is fair “game”. The “thrill” and “nobility” of the hunt is so glorified that its victims are blamed for their suffering. A bear that wanders into human territory is shot because it was threatening people, despite the fact that its natural habitat may have dwindled to an unlivable size. A woman is blamed for being raped because she “tempted” a man with provocative clothing. Crops are blamed for their weakness against blights and insects for plaguing grain fields, yet it is the industrialized food system that has made our crops weak and vulnerable.
In order to perpetuate patriarchal social values, indigenous, regional, and cultural knowledge pools are actively being “erased”. Food is the most obvious example of this extermination of cultural knowledge. As the epicenter of social life, the methods by which we acquire our food define our interaction with the landscape, which in turn shapes culture. Our “tribal” (to use this world loosely) identities are rooted in the land. Many people are “landless”. Those that do have land seldom interact with it beyond appreciating the aesthetics of a kept lawn or the romanticism of “nature”, that ubiquitous “otherness” that characterizes inert, nonhumanized landscapes. Where has wildness (not wilderness) gone to? Is nature still wild, or has it, too, been tamed by abstractive thought?
Most farms are huge mega farms with negligible human interaction. Food magically appears, undaunted by season, supply, or locale, upon supermarket shelves. Few Americans today can explain with assurance the process by which their food is grown. More strikingly, few want to. I would venture that most shoppers are caught between two thought processes: the apathy of knowing the right action but failing to do it out of socially accepted depression, fear, or irresponsibility, the genuine ignorance and seemingly helplessness that has stricken the population regarding food. On occasion, there is the genuinely angry snubbing of sustainable food dissemination and traditional knowledge preservation, as though these things were somehow primitive and therefore undesirable. This typifies capitalisms destruction of cultural memory: make the old ways seem irrelevant. Make them lesser, make them paltry, make them seem trivial in the face of our grand achievements.
The aforementioned apathy furthers the subjugation of animals and the environment in the same way that patriarchy subjugates women. It denies the responsibility of choice and accepts subordination . In fact, the only way to meet cultural approval (especially for women, to whom an obscene onslaught of goods and services are advertised) is to support the erasure of wisdom and equality and to embrace consumption as the highest ethic. It appears to me that the measure of cultural mental health and maturity in industrialized societies is humanity’s separation from nature, as though forcing nature into submission at our own expense indicated any foresight into the future. As Collard and Contrucci say:
“…We see more and more control exercised by fewer and fewer individuals over the many, through cybernetics, mood and behavior control, pre-natral genetic and memory alterations. Thee “achievements”, together with the nuclear and chemical threats to the environment, the robotisation of work, the desensitisation to life, the chemicalisation of foodstuffs, the proliferation of iatrogenic diseases, the extinction of animals and plant species, the increasing rigidity of the political structure, the impoverishment of imaginative life-all give reason to think that if this represents the optimum in “human” evolution, the hunters who are shaping it are insane” .
I suggest adopting Vandana Shiva’s “political” or “subsistence” ecofeminism as a platform for combating patriarchal social norms. The spiritual ecofeminism commonly seen in the Global North, while personally fulfilling, lacks the potential for the social change that would alleviate women from the struggle for equality in the first place. Spirituality offers a private escape from the torment of patriarchy, but it cannot change reality. India’s Chipko Movement, a women-lead battle against industrial forestry for the preservation of forest-based subsistence livelihoods, is one of the most successful environmental campaigns in the world and a prime example of political ecofeminism . “Chipko” means “to embrace”. The movement was one of love, a blatant resistance to the warmongering mindset of industrial timber companies. To the women of the region, the logging was essentially a rape of their livelihoods, a total invasion of their world . It was as personal as physical rape. Such is the mindset of patriarchy: the planet, women, those deemed inferior, animals, even plants…all are seen as possible “prey” to be exploited for personal gain and pleasure (regardless of consequences).
In the west, subsistence is equated with survivalism, a concept so distance and archaic to the industrialized mind that it seems almost boring. Modern conveniences have drained the meaning from day to day life. Light, heat, water, and amusement can all be had at the touch of a button or flick of a switch. One need not even leave the house, let alone the confines of the human habitat. In the wake of convenience come boredom, loneliness, and disconnectedness. Imagination and communication, spurred by participating in the endless drama of life, are fading. Survivalism is creativity and creativity is food for the spirit. When we sacrifice the earth and the “other” for intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually lacking “conveniences” of modernized life, we lose the appreciation for what it means to live. I by no means am proclaiming that we return to a time before electricity, but I do feel that stepping down from the high horse of our necrophilic heritage would enliven our hearts and stimulate our minds. As Collard and Contrucci write, we can “replace the “experiment” with the outside world.”
In her book, Earth Democracy, Vandana Shiva proposes a shifting the phrase “equality for all” to include all life in all manifestations, human and non-human. In this life, race, gender, and class are done away with and all decisions are guided by the preservation of the planet . At the heart of campaigning for equality is the acceptance of mortality. All things are impermanent, and humanity is no exception. Rather than embracing Hedonism at the expense of other humans, animals, and the planet, cultivating joy, balance, and egalitarianism can create a world in which all life forms, however brief, are given the chance to flourish. This maintains an environment that is safe, nurturing, and supportive for life itself, as well as for the individual and his or her loved ones. Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen monk, political activist, and author of multiple books including Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, reminds us of the Five Remembrances of Buddhism:
1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
2. I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand .
It is interesting to not that these are called “Remembrances”, with respect to the forgetting of traditional wisdom and cultural knowledge. Industrialized societies base their continuation on the precept of immortality: immortality of resources, of methods, and even of people. Death has little, if any, place in modern American culture until it happens, and then is for the most part limited to humans. Animals slaughtered on massive scales are subject to “processing” rather than death. Even people differing and dying to potentiate our way of life are ignored entirely or seen as acceptable loses. Women are subjected to the standard of immortality, as they derive their social power from either their sexuality or by mimicking men (just another variation of sexuality). Vandana Shiva’s Principles of Earth Democracy seems like the natural conclusions of The Five Remembrances. They outline a culture in which understanding death is fundamental to creating lasting patterns for the living. They are as follows:
1. All species, people, and cultures have intrinsic worth.
2. The earth community is a democracy of all life.
3. Diversity in nature and culture must be defended.
4. All beings have a natural right to sustenance.
5. Earth Democracy is based on living economic democracy.
6. Living economies are built on local economies.
7. Earth Democracy is a living democracy.
8. Earth Democracy is based on living cultures.
9. Living cultures are life-nourishing.
10. Earth Democracy globalizes peace, care, and compassion.
At first glance, it may seem that Shiva’s opinion differs from that of Buddhist teachings in that she emphasizes defending outwardly static cultures and life-systems. The timescale of transformation for culture and the environment can be gradual or abrupt, and the result is further diversification rather than absorption. Recent human cultural models have differed from this pattern in that they fail to conform to nuances structuring that change. This is due, in part, to the “hunting” mentality, in which the point of cultural exchange becomes assimilation. The feminist perspective is the point at which the principles of Earth Democracy and the Five Remembrances merge. In the words of Collard and Contrucci, “femininity has holistic, biophilic vision” . Feminist farming and gardening works for the perpetuation of life. It makes food a gift of love rather than a commodity. It makes the farmer a steward and caretaker for those around them rather than a pawn to faceless corporate powerhouses. Feminist farming reorients humans with the web of life, the greater community to which all living things belong.
I have worked with nature to create life in the hopes that I can perpetuate my own and those of my loved ones. I have also taken measures to enhance the life of the soil and to not damage the land upon which I have fostered this life, assuring the benefit of the other living things around me. I would like to think that I have, in my own small way, taken responsibility for my exsistance and for that of my community. I dream of the morning that I will wake surrounded by like-minded individuals, who will join me in the fields, working, laughing, talking, and playing together through the endless cycling of the days. I look towards a future that I can share with others who, in loving the earth as deeply as I do, live joyfully, beautifully, wisely, and ethically-together.
If we want to fight for genetic diversity in our food, we have to pick up the torch and carry it ourselves. Unless there’s money involved, corporations aren’t going to do it. It’s challenging enough for small companies and growers to create markets for crops that no one has heard of. Sit a clamshell of Shipovas, cardoons, or bitter melons in the vegetable isle and you can be sure to get some glazed, vaguely apathetic glances. A tray of “amaranth-muffins” sounds like something laced with an illicit drug (don’t even think about calling them gluten-free!). It is up to the individual to find the lost seeds of our ancestors and maintain the legacy they’ve left for us.
Seeds are the memory of our people, the trail of indigenous knowledge that has marked our journey as a species on this planet. Our lives here are brief. There was a time when we measured their passing with the cycle of the seed: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The sprouting, maturation, withering, and death of the plant is a mirror to our own mortality. To save seeds is to save future life. Each of us will pass into the autumn and the winter, returning to the earth, the shell of our sprouting buried beneath the soil. The literal and metaphorical seeds we plant in our lives are the next generation. Will we sow a monocrop, vulnerable to the slightest threat? Will we plant fields of uniform crops in the name of productivity? Or will be sow a garden of beauty, creativity, and diversity? One that can roll with the punches and adapt to sudden change. One that will evolve, mature, and change in new and unexpected ways? This is as much a choice of the gardener as it is for a responsible member of society. Each person is accountable for their actions. Each person has the potential to create life.
When one saves seeds (we can speak of all manner of seeds here, the practical and the abstract, the physical and the etheric), there are some basic things to look for:
· Viability- What is the rate of germination? What percentage of seeds in an average batch will sprout? Choose seeds with a high rate of germination for the most successful harvest.
· Vigor- How rapidly do seeds grow once they have sprouted? Rapidly growing plants will be more likely to survive early insect, weather, and disease attacks.
· Size-Larger seeds have more nutrients available during the sprouting process and have a better chance of surviving. Large seeds also have a greater chance of breaching the soil. Smaller seeds may lack the strength to reach the surface.
· Maturity- Seeds that have been allowed to ripen fully will have a higher rate of germination and will store for longer periods of time.
· Plant health- Always choose seeds from strong plants. This seems like a given, but it requires an intimate knowledge of the plant in question and an ability to differentiate between languishing plants and healthy ones .
It is imperative that diseased plants be removed from the seed pool. Some diseases can be passed to new plants through seeds. Not only should infected plants be removed and destroyed, but they should by no means be allowed to produce seeds. During the seed formation stage, plants should be minimally stressed to maximize seed development. Plants should be kept in well-watered soil through the flowering stage to stimulate the highest possible production of pollen. Once seeds have set and are in the later stages of maturation, water can be reduced to accelerate drying. Overwatering or alternating wet and dry periods can cause tissue damage in seeds due to swelling and shrinking .
Plants of the same species must be isolated from one another to keep them from crossing, unless of course they are self-pollinating (although some self-pollinators can also cross-pollinate). If multiple plant varieties are grown with overlapping blooms, the safest way to sure guard genetic isolation is adequate spacing. This can mean distances up to half a mile or more for some plants (such as melons), but perhaps just ten feet for tomatoes, beans, and peas. Other alternatives include staggering bloom times by planting specific varieties or staggering planting dates. Different plants can be cultivated on different years. Lastly, if all other options aren’t feasible, flowers can be taped shut, preventing pollination from occurring .
Most seeds can be removed from the plant, cleaned of excess pulp (often by soaking and rinsing through a strainer), and simply dried (the percentage of allowable moisture varies from plant to plant). Seeds can be dried by leaving them out in the open air, but warmth, moisture, and free microorganisms can all hinder the seed’s viability. Seeds may appear to dry completely on the plant, but often contain residual moisture and benefit from being allowed to sit for a number of weeks before packaging . A self-defrosting refrigerator, which is the common refrigerator model found in the U.S, can alleviate moisture issues in humid regions (areas in much of the southwest or westerly parts of the United States suffer fewer humidity problems). Seeds can be spread in a container with an airtight lid (the lid is left off) and placed in the refrigerator for a number of days until the seeds have dried. Before removing the seeds, the lid is placed on the container to prevent moisture from condensing on the seeds. Once it has come to room temperature, the seeds can be removed and packaged .
Seeds can be dried in the sun or under UV lights, counter to what many traditional seed savers claim. An experiment done by Ben Gabel, publisher of The Real Seed Catalogue, found that when exposed to UV radiation, only the outermost portion of the seed coat was affected . The use of UV lights in particular may help to stave off diseases transmitted by seeds or destroy other pathogens. Other methods of disease control include treating seeds with a hot water bath. Hot water baths can eliminate pathogens on both the seed coat and the inside of the seed itself . Difference plants can tolerate different temperatures, which must be strictly adhered to in order to avoid seed injury. Most plants tolerate up to 122 degree F. Peppers can reach 125, while lettuce, celery, and celeriac can only tolerate 118 . To treat seeds, small amounts of seed are wrapped individually in cotton bags or nylon and pre-warmed for ten minutes at 100 degrees F. Temperatures are then raised to the appropriate level and left for five minutes. After treatment, the seed bags are submerged in cold water. Following the bath, seeds are dried as usual. Drying can be accelerated through gentle heat and air flow. A hair dryer set on “cool” or “low” is appropriate for this task, although the “hot” setting runs the risk of deactivating the seeds .
Chlorine can also be used to treat seeds and is more appropriate for seeds in which there is less concern for internal pathogen distribution. The seeds are agitated in a solution of 25 oz. bleach in 100 oz. water with one teaspoon of surfactant, such as Activator 90 or Silwet. Once the seeds are dried, they can be dusted with a fungicide such as Thiram 75 . However, as Thiram 75 is produced by Bayer Corporation, one of the world’s leading producers of toxic agricultural chemicals, the sustainable grower may skip this step or opt for water treating instead. Dried seeds that have not been treated benefit from being frozen in airtight containers for at least 48 hours to destroy and insects or insect eggs that may be present .
Some seeds have germination-inhibitors on their coast that must be removed before drying. The technique is called “wet-seed-saving” and is used on tomatoes, eggplant, watermelon, melon, cucumbers, and squash. Preparing these seeds for storage involves fermenting the seeds, which breaks down the seed coating and separates them from their pulp. Fermentation is simple: the seeds are left to sit in their pulp, perhaps mixed with a minimal amount of water, for 1-3 days, stirred 2-3 times daily. Fermenting the seeds past this point could result in seed germination, or perhaps a very interesting (I won’t day appealing) beverage. Once thoroughly fermented, the pulp and coatings are removed and the seeds are dried .
Saving seeds has greater implications than just ensuring the genetic diversity of our crops. The ritual of seed saving preserves cultural land-ties and agricultural knowledge. Saving seeds connects the farmer to the local ecosystem through carefully cultivated acuity in respect to the seasons, geography, and weather patterns. Seeds have traveled for generations, year after year, painstakingly protected and nurtured. They become the food that sustains us, that marks our festivals and our ceremonies, that staves off the hunger of winter and involves us with the cyclic processes of life and death. Seed saving is culture-saving. To save seeds is to remember what it means to live ethically as responsible, regenerative members of the web of life
The seed-saving farmer works out of love, not only for the plants or the people they feed, but for life itself. Most of the seed grown by farmers for food production is distributed by corporations. Genetic engineering has enabled scientists to patent life itself, removing the spontaneous, self-sustaining creativity of the seed from the greater context of life and metamorphosing it into abstracted knowledge. Modern, industrialized food has likewise become an abstract concept. We no longer have a memory of how our food comes to us, of the effort and ingenuity it takes to produce nutritious food without sprays of toxic chemicals or modern machinery. Likewise, the ritual of eating, once a communal exchange of social interaction and the transmutation of one life to another (via the ingestion of food) has devolved into a brief, automatic refueling. The very word “company” derives from the Latin cum and pan, or “with bread” . Food (in this case, bread: the staff of life and foundational food for countless cultures throughout history) is the heart of social life. Now, food is hardly more than a perfunctory survival routine, or worse: a gluttonous habit of overindulgence. In the case of the latter, the extreme stimulus of overeating masks pervasive dissatisfaction that characterizes the greater scope of our automaton lifestyle.
The depth and appreciation of the origins of food is completely lost on the industrialized eater, who mindlessly consumers his or her food while being passively entertained, often alone, by electronic stimuli (an anesthetizing ointment to the hollowness of mealtimes). The disconnection from food is symptomatic of highly industrialized agriculture and the overarching consumerist norms that perpetuate it. The seed saver embraces an alternative of intelligent decision-making. In Buddhist thought, this is called making “skillful choices”. That double-cheeseburger with fries and a coke might look appealing, but it is seldom the skillful choice, for multiple reasons. By preserving food, a keystone element in cultural sustainability, we preserve the societal fabric in which we can realize our individuality. The alternative is social and ecological standardization, a fundamental antithesis to the endlessly evolving richness and multiplicity of nature.
It was a massacre.
I arrived at the scene just past ten. From a distance, nothing was amiss. After days of dismal, cold rain, the sun had finally returned. The breeze off the ocean was cool and briny. Gulls cawed and clacked their beaks, their streamlined white bodies zipping by effortlessly overhead. I walked down to my garden with jaunty steps, feeling hopeful about my next harvest. My spinach has mostly bolted, as have my later bok choy plants, but I’ve frozen at least five bok choy heads and six bunches of mustard greens. It was the only way I could preserve them (they’ll make great pestos, soups, and casseroles, I’m sure). The kale, plentiful beyond all reason, is holding steady in the ground, so I’ve left it for now. The arugula is a popular salad green and I’ve managed to sell most of it. What remains keeps going to seed, but the leaves taste wonderful all the same. Everything else is still growing. A few tiny sugar snap peas are swelling on their vines. Ruby strawberries ripen besides exploding zucchini plants (I ask myself now: “what have I done to myself by planting so many?”). The eggplants are thriving (too much, perhaps, as they’re crowded).
I was grinning to myself on my way into the rows. Chef Ian Thomas at the district requested my nasturtium leaves for an event catering to 400 people. My name will be on the list of farms supplying local produce. He wanted ten pounds (if only I had known a month or so ago!) but all of my leaves together equals only about two, plus a few lovely blossoms. He said he would take them and I’m happy to see them go. They were crowding my other veggies for space.
Needless to say, I was distracted, so I didn’t notice that my carrots had been brutally decapitated until I had my head ducked under the row covers. I was searching for stray nasturtiums, but what I found was a bloodbath of shorn leaves, severed stems, and trampled greenery. In my shock, I could think of only one culprit so vile and dastardly as to wreck such havoc: the groundhog.
My sworn enemy. We meet again. There could be no other. It reveals itself by the way it systematically butchered the lettuces, carrots, and tender young greens but left the kale, beets, and otherwise mature plants. My young cabbages (given to me by my grandfather!) were decimated, but the more mature heads were left alone. I suppose the tissue is too tough for the groundhog, or that he otherwise was put off by them. Surely, it must have slipped under the gaps in the row covers (did I leave them like that, or did it make its way through? Or was it the foul weather than shifted the polypropylene?). All my efforts with the trap thus far have failed, but now that it knows where to find the “goods”, I know where to put the trap (and what to put in it). I suppose it might have been chipmunks…but the damage is so great that I doubt it. In addition, I know that groundhogs prefer to come out when it is cooler and wet out, because they struggle to regulate their body temperatures in the heat. A day of exposure in full sun can kill a groundhog. Those days of rain, with my garden void of human contact, would have been perfect.
Needless to say, I’m frustrated. I laid down some natural pest repellent, though I doubt it will work. That might buy me some time while I try to catch it in the havahart…again.
Available veggies: Spinach, Red Russian Kale, Nasturtium leaves and blossoms, arugula, Bibb lettuce, green lettuce,
It’s spare pickings on the market front, and so I’ve tapered back my planting regimen to accommodate. If all else fails, I might be able to sell through the Epping market, which is roughly thirty minutes away. Not a bad drive, but I’ll have to get some coolers. I’m late on a few things at this point, but out they went all the same. Dale Sorghum, a cold-tolerant cultivar, is taking up a third of my final row. The seeds are beautiful: burnt orange orbs nestled inside breeching tan husks. The impression is quaint and wholesome. Believe it or not, sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world, thanks to its excellent drought tolerance and versatility. It has been used as a staple grain in Africa and Asia for thousands of years and although it is primarily used as livestock feed in the United States, sorghum is becoming a popular grain amongst those with gluten intolerance.
In the United States, “broomcorn” sorghum was originally cultivated for making lovely woven brooms, the art of which has long been lost to industrialized broom manufacturing (reclaim the craft of artisan cleaning tools, America!) The “sorghum belt” of America runs from South Dakota to Southern Texas, supplying one-third of the United States’ ethanol . The benefits and drawbacks of growing edible grains for fuel are worth debating, but I approach that in another section, so we’ll stick to the basics here.
“Sweet Sorghum” is grown for the sweet juice of its stalks. In a similar process to extracting cane juice from sugarcane, Sorghum stalks are crushed and the juice is cooked down into syrup . The leaves and seed heads are stripped off and the cane is left in the field, where the sun turns the starches in the cane into sugar. The canes are then sent through a press and the squeezed canes can be used as garden mulch. Inside the “sugar shack”, as it’s called, the pressed juice is boiled through a series of baths. A bitter green scum called the “skimmings” is removed, leaving a sweet, malty flavor akin to barley malt or molasses. Once cooled, the syrup is bottled.
Kentucky is the sweet sorghum capital of the US, producing 90% of domestic sorghums syrup. As few insects attack sorghum, it is seldom sprayed with insecticides, although it can suffer from multiple funguses (especially those common to corn). All things considered, sweet sorghum is an ideal sustainable cash crop. On average, the syrup sells for fifteen dollars a gallon and an average acre can produce between 175-300 gallons. Possible grains are over 2,500/acre . Sorghum syrup can provide a local, comparatively nutritious and environmentally responsible alternative to sugar. Alongside maple syrup, malts, and honey, sorghum syrup relocalizes sweetness-a vital step in making the American diet more sustainable.
My sorghum is not of the “sweet” variety (though after reading that last paragraph, I wish it was!), but I’m sure it will be delicious all the same (if I get any after battling the birds). In addition to sorghum, I planted more carrots, cilantro, parsley, okra, pole beans, corn, watermelon, and cantaloupe. The melons, I might have a market for and I figure that everyone likes free melons so they won’t go to waste. I’m going to try my hand at pickling the okra and beans. The corn will probably be swiped by animals, but if not, I know a few people that wouldn’t mind having some. The apple trees in the yard (a pair of mystery cultivars, two unknowns) are both beginning to bear fruit. After studying fruit cultivation, I can recognize the clusters of early fruit hanging on their stems. My urge is to thin them to one per a bunch, as I’ve been taught, but the trees are too tall and unkempt for me to approach them without a ladder. Even then, it would be like climbing into a monstrous bush thick with birds, yellow jackets, and bees. I might stay in my garden, just to be safe.
All else in the garden proceeds at a slow and steady rate, save for the mustard greens, which are still rocketing out of the ground faster than I can stop them. I had trash bags full of mustard greens and bok choy, which I steamed briefly and froze. Most greens can be frozen for 10-12 months . By steaming them rather than blanching them, I minimized nutrient loss. They won’t be quite like fresh greens, but in this way, I’ll have a supply of nutritious, organic vegetables well into the fall and winter. I rather enjoy the idea of fortifying myself against the “spare” months. It speaks to some primal, ancient impulse that I’m sure humans have been following for thousands of years. I’ve been sharing my bounty as well. The loss of a few bucks worth of produce isn’t worth the anxiety and I know more than a few people have benefited from the free food. In a different society, perhaps we could rely upon one another without needing the medium of cash to facilitate camaraderie.
Last but not least, I’m thinking of building a farm stand/road sign for my garden. Then, at least, I could advertise for my vegetables. I don’t expect a huge turnout, since most of the farm stands I see around here are wholly ignored. Another option is renting the commercial kitchen down the way and focusing on value-added products rather than selling my fresh vegetables. I could freeze vegetables and finished products both (or can them, depending) and try selling those at the market instead. It would extend my market season and make me less competitive with other vegetable growers.
What do the Dalai Lama and Wendell Berry have in common when it comes to sustainable human culture? I would venture a single word in response: compassion. The Dalai Lama is succinct in his approach to compassion, focusing primarily on motivating the self to interact with sentient beings and with the environment through awareness, intellectual consideration, and altruism. Berry follows a similar vein, though less abstractly, as he retells the path by which humanity has drifted further from its place in nature to an abstract “tower” beyond nature. Both offer plausible solutions to rectifying these damaging relationships, not simply for the benefit of the self or even of the human species, but for the preservation of the earth. There is far too much to
The manner in which humanity treats the natural world is reflected in the manner in which humans treat each other (to include how they treat themselves). The theme is one of division, of the competition of seemingly opposing forces, despite the fact that few (if any) aspects of nature are wholly at odds. Wendell Berry, author of The Art of the Commonplace: the Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry”, poetically equates the interconnectivity of all things (though specifically referring to the actions of humans upon the environment) to “the hum of a violin.” One string, vibrating at the command of the bow (the impulse, the action, the unconscious event) causes its sister strings to vibrate softly . The same sympathetic vibrations occur in the symphony of life. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, not even the seeming abstraction of human thought. This resonance between all things is the basis of equality, and the point of origin from which the human ship long ago departed.
On one of the painted walls of the Lascaux cave bears the image of a humanoid stick figure surrounded by colorful, beautifully artistic, and enormous depictions of various wild animals . The figure is indicative of the elemental mindset through which humanity related to nature for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. Humans are a part of nature, and indeed belong in nature (or with nature perhaps. My aim is not to state a claim for returning to a paleolithic lifestyle). Similarly, Berry points out that Taoist Chinese artwork presents humanity in a similar light: small human dwellings with a handful of people nestled into beautiful landscapes. Nature is the focus, yet the image is not unpopulated. Humans have their place, but they are far from the lords of the earth.
In his essay A Native Hill, Berry emphasizes the point by comparing the means through which early settlers to Kentucky and local Native American groups related to their environment. The Native Americans appeared to be primitive in their minimal manipulation of the environment. They used simple shelters and small fires. In their passing, they scarcely left a trace, save for the undefined paths by which they tracked their memory of the land. The settlers, on the other hand, “felled the hickory trees in great abundance; made great log-heaps…and caused them to burn rapidly.” Where the Native Americans traveled by footpaths through the forests, the settlers cleared the land for roads. . The impulse is to abundantly use what is abundantly available-the idea of which is the quartertone of modern society (save that we are now abundantly using what is no longer abundantly available, existing blindly under the notion of an eternally regenerative environment). When the first Europeans came to America, they saw almost no trace of human life here, despite the fact that the land has sustained sizable populations for hundreds of years. The Native Americans had developed a cultural model based on a sustainable, nonviolent approach to resource management. The Europeans, on the other hand, already had established a violent relationship with the earth in their countries of origin.
The difference between the path and the road best articulates the decidedly differing mindsets by which Native Americans and European settlers related with the land. A path is a ritual of passage based on familiarity. It contours to the landscape, merges with it, and places the traveler in direct interaction with his or her surroundings. The road is an abstraction that resists the landscape. It avoids the environment through which it runs, transporting the traveler to the two major foundations of industrial living: commerce and capitol-based pleasure . If nothing else, the distinction between the path and the road illustrates the mindset by which people have related with their land.
According to Berry, human civilization as we know it today, regardless of how urbanized, exists through agriculture. He states that “…our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh…It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth.” Furthermore, the treatment of the body mirrors the treatment of the spirit, as well as the bodies and spirits of others. Violence towards any part of the web results in violence upon all parts. The romantic ideal of wilderness as a scenic backdrop to and escape from industrialized society perpetuates a false sense of species autonomy . Ignoring this fact is vitally detrimental to other humans, other species, and to the very habitat upon which we all depend.
The Dalai Lama pointedly states in his brief publication, How to Be Compassionate, that the ignorance of the perception that things exist in and of themselves is the basis of negative emotions and ultimately suffering. The untamed mind, captivated by illusions of the same autonomy that defines modern culture, both creates and permits suffering based on anger, desire, and fear. Such a mind, according to the Dalai Lama, is “untamed”. A tamed mind, cultivated through individual self-discipline, is the only source of lasting contentment or happiness . This echoes Berry’s concept of “resonance”. While Berry focuses on dissolving the divide between the “self” and the “other”, the Dalai Lama uses the same dissolution to harbor a peaceful internal environment. Both seek to create overall harmony; Berry through altering external interactions and the Dalai Lama from changing those within.
Such mental training cannot be found in institutionalized religion or academia, because totalitarianism (to borrow the words of the Dalai Lama) stifles the growth of the mind. The movement away from negative reactionism must come from a personal incentive. The development of the individual and the development of culture are co-transformative. By creating peace within, the individual brings peace to those around them simply by being as they are. In a grander scope, considerate lifestyle choices create a peaceful world (environmentally sustainable choices are naturally more peaceful). It is possible, then, that by individually cultivating a mindset based on universal compassion, an unsustainable culture could reestablish its longevity.
The Dalai Lama defines spiritual or religious practice not as connecting with an external source of the divine, but as an adjustment in attitude. Taken in this light, all spiritual practices may be viewed as methods of training the mind so that it can better adjust to the uncertainty of the life . Actions and events occur as they will, effecting changes that may appear positive or negative. In truth, the result of all actions is a neutral effect, which is imprinted with moral implications after it is witnessed within a specific context. When one recognizes that the initiators of actions are sentient beings, it becomes easier to react with compassion and kindness. Tibetan Buddhism teaches that all sentient beings have a right to be happy . In this light, caring for the environment and fostering a culture based upon compassion rather than violence is the means by which living things can be allotted what they rightfully deserve. Compassion is what makes community possible. The Dalai Lama uses an Indian saying to drive the point home: “When an arrow has hit, there is no time to ask who shot it, or what kind of arrow it was.” .
The only possibility of failure in spiritual practice lies in hopelessness. So long as there is hope, the mind can be “tamed” and sustainable interactions can be nurtured. Berry makes a similar statement. He equates the health of the body with the health of the community, and again with the health of the planet. To be healthy is not simply to be physically well, it is to feel well. Feeling well requires far more than a body free of pathogens or injuries. It is a reflection of a supportive environment, of mental and emotional positivity. As humans live through the land upon which they depend, the degradation of the earth can be seen as a causal (albeit circular) factor in societal derangement and individual suffering. The most extreme reaction is suicide, the ultimate response to the pervasive loneliness that a culturally impoverished society creates .
The individual, encapsulated by divisions, subjected to dehumanizing labor, and severed from the creative fire of the natural world, is left without the community to which humans naturally gravitate. The body, damaged by societal neglect, becomes a veritable “hunting ground” of pharmaceutical companies. The soul, languishing in the superficiality of mechanized professionalism, is maddened by repetition into a state of perpetual sadomasochism. There could be no greater punishment, undeserved.
The disintegration of indigeneity is accelerates the “disease” of hopelessness. The health and fertility of the individual is the health and fertility of all. This kind of deep, long-standing fruitfulness between humans and nature is accomplished through cultural land-ties. “Wisdom”, writes Berry, accumulates like land fertility. Just as sustainable agricultural practices generate viable soil, so too does a rooted, stable culture develop the wisdom it needs to support itself. Understanding mortality in particular is fundamental. Without the incentive of sustaining the land for one’s children or culture, there is little reason to moderate consumption . Similarly, the Dalai Lama points to meditating on death as a tool to cultivating compassion. Death is certain for all living beings and may occur at any time. Because of the finality of exsistance, it benefits none to live through aggression and violence, nor does it benefit the self to become overly attached to the accumulation of excess .
All living things die, but since one of the fundamental purposes of living beings is to further the perpetuation of life, it is natural then for humans to cultivate compassion for the betterment of both humanity and the world. To do otherwise is contrary to the very purpose of living. Not only are we responsible for ourselves and our loved ones, but for all humankind. In being responsible for humanity, we must by default be responsible for the welfare of the environment. With this perspective, it becomes easier to adopt a perspective of compassion towards others. Before gender, race, and ethnicity, we are all human beings and so we know one another deeply through the shared experience of being human.
Though altering the underlying mindset of individuals is critical to changing culture as a whole, it presents a dangerous trap of self-satisfying inaction. Berry is very clear about the pitfalls of changing mindsets without changing the function of society itself. He describes this “armchair activism” as yet another luxury of industrialized societies. Modern capitalism functions under what Berry describes as “sentimental politics”, which relies on faith that the materials and circumstances of the present are not “good” . What is “good” is forever in the future and must be strived for through the capitalist system, which manifests as an all-consuming destruction machine. The change in mindset, then, seems sufficient because the individual appears to have no choice in the matter. This is the illusion of faith-based politics, the illusion of capitalism: that there is no alternative.
Given the extremes of hermetic monasticism and hedonistic ravagement, a middle path offers some hope (recall that hope is the key). Changing deep-seated internal and external cultural values takes patience, time, and persistence. Working to alter the one’s mindset while consciously avoiding the trap of ideological lethargy is the basic foundation through which the “good” can be built back up. Now is the time for goodness and positive change. The whole of culture is a mosaic of habits. Working through a compassionate, realistic perspective is the means by which we can create a sustainable future.
Available Produce: Red Russian Kale, Spinach, Arugula, Mustard Greens, Bok Choy (early), Nasturtiums (edible leaves only), Rhubarb, Kale and Bok Choy thinnings.
I’ll start with the lighter fair and move on to deeper concerns later in this post. The lesson learned this week is: Weed! For the love of all that’s good, weed before it’s too late! I’m sure you can imagine how I learned this lesson…
As weeding is not exactly an academic pursuit, I have been avoiding it for the sake of devoting my time to learning new growing skills, writing papers, and conducting research. However, there comes a point at which life and the environment, regardless of how inconvenient, get in the way of academic progress. I have weeded, and weeded, and weeded, and occasionally mowed…but really mostly just weeded. Yet, the grass returns, the clovers spring forth, mystery plants shoot defiantly through the weed block, and deep-rooted dandelions (who I wrote so poetically about before) and weeviling their way into every corner of my beds. Thankfully, the dreaded Japanese Knotweed seems to be restrained by the railroad track, otherwise I have a feeling its “knotted” roots would send runners right through my garden.
I’ve had better luck with pests. There is minimal insect damage, the worst of which occurred on brassicas planted too close together and in without sufficient deterrents, such as members of the allium family or nasturtiums. The chipmunks, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, and (of course) the groundhog under the shed have all left my plants alone. I chalk this up, once again, to the row covers obscuring the prize. The groundhog occasionally sits in the lawn and munches on the grass, but I think it’s afraid of the strange, billowing white blobs that I’ve constructed. I would be too, if I didn’t know what they were.
My plant selection is diversifying slowly. My okra is actually growing, and I’ll be expecting some Mizuna and cauliflower later this year in addition to the plants that I’ve already chosen. I also purchased a variety of heirloom nasturtiums, which I find delicious and hope to market to restaurants. I have one row left to plant, and I’m debating on planting a portion of it with Sorghum or just using up more of my veggie seeds. If I can find more buyers, it will be the latter of the two.
I’m currently in the process of registering with the Kittery Farmer’s Market, which is relatively small and should be easy to get into. If all goes well, I may be selling my produce at “Golden Harvest” and “Rising Tide”, two natural foods stores in Kittery. Individual buyers are scarce. It seems that without the professional agreement of a CSA or similar exchange, it is too troublesome for individuals to seek me out (and vice versa). I don’t blame them. It’s my job as the producer to make my good available. I do wish, however, that our society lent itself to a more personal, emotional relationship between grower and consumer. Friendship is the forbidden phrase. I dare to approach my clientele not as a waiting collection of vacant musculature and neurons bearing cash, but as individuals, as real people.
Allow me to compare this to one of my favorite quotes from the children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit. The velveteen rabbit, a stuffed animal in a boy’s nursery, is speaking to the Skin Horse (who is very old and wise) on what it means to be “real”:
“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse.’It's a thing
that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time,
not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.
'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or
bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become.
It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break
easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the
time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out
and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter
at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't
The “realness” of people is lost in economic exchange. The “realness” of the newfangled, wind-up toys in the nursery is lost because they inevitably break down and do not lend themselves to the bonding that emerges when a child can creatively interact and with the simpler, less stimulating toys. The “play” is removed and replaced with entertainment (this is much stronger in the case of electronic games today, which remove a child’s impetus towards creative curiosity altogether). The same is true of the exchange of goods. The “play” of human bonding and interaction is subverted by capitol-driven professionalism. The lingering memory of social curiosity, intellectual connection, and co-creative energy is replaced by a short-term, superficial sense of having won, or perhaps even conquered. Modern supermarkets are a prime example, in which social interaction has been removed altogether, right along with the environmental context in which food is produced. They are the benign hunting grounds. We hunt and gather prey and plants whose souls are lost behind fluorescent packages and grayscale barcodes.
There is little left in the exchange of food besides lust (I spoke somewhat on this in my last journal entry, referring to monetary exchange as an unbeneficial “lust” experience in which one party is subjugated for the satisfaction of another). Yet, I am left with no other option if I want to strive towards establishing an alternative to modern markets. I suspect that my buyers feel the same way. Purchasing local, sustainably grown produce is an ethically positive decision and many people desire stronger community bonds. Yet, something always manages to get in the way: convenience is one thing, but I suspect that the challenge and responsibility of recognizing and nurturing the “realness” of the interaction is also at the heart of the matter. .
Recognizing and appreciating realness requires careful consideration of the other person. The grower/producer becomes fragile, dynamic, and reactive. They are no longer in service to the buyer, but are elevated to a status of equality. This puts both the producer and the consumer in positions of vulnerability, something that has become increasingly less common in our hyperindividualistic (to borrow Bill McKibben’s terminology) and isolationist society. The “autonomy” (or illusion thereof) that characterizes the classic American lifestyle is broken, slipping dangerously towards the historically tumultuous descriptor: socialism!
Would we be so damaged if more elements of society were cooperatively managed? Is collaborating with people and forgoing the grossly unequal accumulation of wealth so terrifying? Is simply acknowledging the complexity of another person enough to steer a buyer into the electrified supermarket rather than a local farm stand? For many, it is. Challenging this impulse is difficult, particularly as a relatively uncharismatic, inexperienced young woman. It is nearly impossible for me to communicate the time, devotion, and hard work that have gone into my produce. Even more difficult is convincing people that this sort of labor is worth their hard-earned money, the only widely accepted expression of societal support that is left.
Last semester, I delved deeply into the connections between women, subsistence labor, and the influence of patriarchal culture. As I turn my attention to the more practical, hands-on side of my education, I feel the chafe of striving towards cultural sustainability in a patriarchal, capitalist society. The act of growing a sustainable garden has its roots in a nurturant interaction with the environment. While I do manipulate my surroundings (performing a form of subjugation, albeit relatively benign) the underlying principles of my work are grounded in an attempt to foster community cooperation, kinship, and positivity between in human-to-human as well as human-to-environmental interaction. In expressing my intentions to my community with the hopes of generating solidarity and increasing environmental awareness, I have instead found myself railroaded by the unspoken unanimity of patriarchal oppression.
Initially, I found that the majority of queries regarding my garden relegated my work to a minor domestic project (disregarding the academic component altogether) with the greatest possible achievements being the preparation and distribution of food to others (namely, my previous partner, who was automatically assumed to be the obvious recipient of the fruits of my labor). When it became clear that 1-I am utilizing my garden as an academic catalyst, 2-am unwilling to use harsh chemicals to destroy the ecology of my settings, thus bending nature to my will, 3-am raising crops for my own self-sufficiency, and four: I am seeking to distribute excess produce to others in some form of equal, needs-based exchange (note: I do not say monetary exchange), I received mixed reactions. Men of older generations initially assumed that I would fail because the labor would be too difficult and the market too competitive. When I proved that I am competent in both areas, I was met with a kind of cool discomfiture. I felt as though I had openly defied core elements of patriarchy and capitalism, yet at the same time, in doing do I have fulfilled many of the norms inscribed by patriarchy upon women.
Feminist and activist Denise Comanne describes the cumulative effects of patriarchy and capitalism on gender equality as a combination of exacerbating systems. Patriarchal societies create social orders based on opposing divisions: black and white, hot and cold, wet and dry, and so forth. The root of these divisions, the very core of divisory thinking, is the opposing of the female and the male . Ascribing a definitive trait to a specific social group in effect dehumanizes them. Their exsistance as a distinct individual comprised of a multitude of such traits is overshadowed by one descriptor. Comanne refers to this process as “naturalization”, through which differences perceived in individuals are exaggerated and applied to the entirety of the group. In this light, women can be seen as an entirely different species, which legitimizes male exploitation and usury.
Paired with a capitalist system, patriarchy extends into labor delineation, transcribing greater value to positions deemed essentially “male”. Housework and (perhaps more so in more agrarian/less industrial societies) subsistence skills (to include agriculture) are viewed as women’s social obligation and are therefore unpaid. The result is that women are highly overworked and grossly undercompensated. On average, 80% of housework is performed by women but because this labor does not directly feed into capitalist production, it goes unrecognized (despite the fact that household labor necessitates a need for certain goods, which in effect still fuels the capitalist model) .
Because my garden is an aspect of my home, it may be seen as a source of domestic labor. The only means of garnering the public valuing of my garden has been by marketing my goods to individuals and restaurants: an outwardly natural extension of producing excess food. Monetary compensation, while still not enough to cover my costs completely, enables me to continue to grow plants, the goal of which is ethically agreeable. However, by exchanging my vegetables for money, I am commoditizing my labor. The intrinsic value of my work is overshadowed by the production model, which removes both the customer and I entirely from the equation and places the emphasis on the goods produced. Witnessed through a patriarchal lens, I would venture to say that the capitalist exchange of goods is an act of violence and metaphoric rape. Allow me to explain:
Patriarchal need not manifest in physical violence. Oppression can be moral, emotional, and ideological. In striving to express the intentions of my work to others, I feel that I have been forced to participate in a violent, isolationist cultural model. Consciously, I see find that most people are curious, appreciative, and supportive of my endeavors. However, when approaching the actual dissemination of products, deeper discussion on the fundamentals of growing, or attempting to develop alternative relationship mediums beyond capital, I am met with opposition. Left with no choice (as I still wish to support the overall nourishment of the earth and of people through sustainable agriculture) I must offer myself through my goods to waiting consumers in exchange for cash.
The emotional effect is eerily familiar to prostitution. As a woman, objectified and speciated by my culture, I am “demoted” from human to “natural”, an expression of a landscape that man cultivates at will. I am fulfilling one of the very roles that I have sought to combat. Worse still, I have unconsciously emulated the methodology of this societal model. I have unearthed the root and bared it with my garden, but the shoots of patriarchy resprout quickly in the soil of capitalism. My efforts linger only as long as my plants belong to me. Once they leave my hands, they lose their sacredness and become commodities. I savor the poeticism of working the soil, the beautiful Zen of gently lowering my seedlings into the earth or wrenching weeds, one by one, from the loose earth of my garden beds. The depth of my vegetables’ worth is lost in financial conversion. No amount of money can capture the worth of a living thing, plant or animal, or the experience of helping that life to manifest.
In his brief yet moving publication, How to be Compassionate, the Dalai Lama outlines the means by which people form destructive habits based on anger, lust, and ignorance. In individuals, these habits emerge as exhaustive preoccupations with objects: the body, material goods, and a significant other. There are multiple illusions to this mode of thought: firstly that the body and self is separate from the rest of the world . This is a misconception based on the limitations of the human senses. In truth, the human body is in constant, direct exchange with the environment, via the senses and through the energetic exchange of atoms (and their smaller particles). The “self” as we know it is completed by sensorial interjection, defined by the images, sounds, and sensations that enter the brain. Recognizing that these perceptions are limited by the mechanics of the human form and then proceeding to understand that there is no barrier between the mind and the environment are the first steps to relinquishing material lust.
Anger is both biological and learned. All mammals have the capacity to react aggressively. Unlike humans however, most lack the intellect to abstract their aggression and project it into the future. Their reaction is more superficial and does not linger . In humans, anger and other negative emotions have the capacity catalyze social negativity on a larger scale. Paired with an inappropriate lust, a plausible outcome of unmanaged anger, lust, and ignorance is an oppressive patriarchal society. This is what we have today: a culture of anger, lust, and confusion resulting in the battering of the planet for material wealth, the rampant suffering of multiple social groups (to include women), and perhaps most poignantly, a deep, untraceable sense of discontent that appears to spring forth without cause.
My own discontent with my experiences dealing with my societal model is beneficial in that it alerts me to action I can take, but also negative because it distorts my interactions and distracts me from more important work. According to the principles of Buddhism, all beings have a right to happiness. As life is both fragile and impermanent, it benefits all to strive for mutual contentment and peace. By training the mind, the temptations extreme violence and lust of our culture can be avoided, leading to healthier, more rewarding interactions and greater community cohesiveness. The environment, devalued and forgotten in the face of industrial good production, becomes a paramount source of inspiration, wisdom, and nourishment, and so should be treated with the upmost level of respect. “All beings” applies not just to humans, but to all living things. Therefore, seeking sustainable alternatives to large-scale agricultural processes, no matter how socially discouraging, is an act of universal compassion.
Available produce: Small amounts of arugula, spinach, bok choy thinnings, kale thinnings, and mustard greens.
My hard work is starting to pay off! I’ve managed to find some interested buyers for my produce! The first plantings: arugula, mustard greens, spinach, and a few of my small kale and bok choy thinnings have come in and I can safely say that they are absolutely amazing! The arugula has strong flavor without slapping you across the face, the mustard greens are pungent yet mild enough to eat without puckering up, and the spinach (though a tad tough in the larger leaves) makes an excellent salad (baby leaves) or is wonderful sautéed (the rest of it). I’ve been mixing the thinnings into salads and I’ve found that the kale is a delicious, surprisingly tender addition. Because they are thinnings, they’re a little leggy for a commercial microgreen salad mix, but for my own uses they’re just fine.
My first buyers were three of my good friends, all of whom appreciate locally grown produce and were thrilled to support me in my cause. Jessica, wise woman of the Herbal Path health food store in Portsmouth, purchased a mix of everything (including the thinnings!). My two coworkers, Vanessa and Charlotte, opted for greens, which I was happy to provide. You can see their excitement in my recent photos, particularly charlotte (who looks like she is vampirically enjoying a pair of spinach leaves!).
While I am happy to see my work benefiting my community, the icing on the cake was when Chef Ian Thomas of The District sent me a text saying that he wanted to order four bunches of arugula and three bunches of mustard greens. I was ecstatic! I woke early to cut the greens and bag them, chilling them in my refrigerator to make sure they wouldn’t wilt on the way to the restaurant. After getting lost in the offices behind the main entrance, I found Ian and turned over the bounty. He took the bags enthusiastically and immediately nibbled both the arugula and the mustard. I held my breath. While I thought that my vegetables tasted good enough, I had no idea how they would stand up to the pallet of a professional chef. What was the terroir of my landscape? Salt brine and seagull droppings? Old, leathery baseball shells? The taste of steel swing set legs, twinkling firefly lanterns, cracks of summer thunder, the melodic chanting of peepers and night owl birds (not to mention real owls)? And what of my own childhood laughter, as well as that of many others, all bound up in the tilth of this land I work? Could he taste all of these things in my vegetables? I couldn’t help but wonder what they tasted like. Did I taste them when I ate my own spinach or mustard? Or was I blind to those flavors?
I was pulled from my reverie when he firmly announced that they were good and said that they would be willing to buy more. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and I’ve shifted my planting scheme to accommodate- principally with more greens, herbs, and nasturtiums. This season has been a real learning experience when it comes to garden planning for buyers. I feel like I planted things a little haphazardly and should have spoken with restaurants before planting. However, I was so new at the time to gardening that I didn’t feel confident that I would be able to deliver what I would promise them, so I held off. Next time around, I know exactly what I’ll change to streamline my garden and tailor my plants to the needs of restaurants/buyers. It was immensely rewarding to know that I produced a living thing that will first be transformed into art (via professional culinary magic) and then consumed as healthy nourishment buy appreciative people in my local community. It was all worth it, just to know that.
After my transformative transaction at The District, it was back to the grind in my garden. Some row covers needed adjusting and the weeds are embarrassingly out of control. My grandfather, with his trusty Roundup, would scoff at my overgrown walkways. Time and energy are always short in supply, and while I did a fair share of weeding (in that single, over-grown bed, dead center, next to the struggling concord grape vine), it was more important for me to transplant my leggy seedlings and tall sweet potatoes before the rain set in. Over the next few days, I’ll probably try to plant my eggplants, since they are getting too large for my greenhouse. More trellis stakes are in order as well, since I’ll need more room for all of my “viney” plants.All things considered, I think the garden is a resounding success thus far. The groundhog has failed to find it (shocking) and insect damage is really minimal. As long as I keep things obscured beneath their covers, I should be alright (I did notice some scuff marks in my oat grass…the sign of some curious creature exploring the bed. No damage was done however).
First, a burst of fire, flames breaching the tips of woody stems and dry, gnarled branches. Then...white, an aftershock of winter blindness, of eternal snowfall and dormancy. Vision returned in sepia mud, frostbitten. A muddy world, with drifts of dirty snow battling for their lives and my precious seedlings, tucked away under heavy plastic skins. The earth was frozen by night and a clinging, globular mass by day, punctuated with the dead, yellow bodies of last summer’s crew-cut grass. There was never-ending cold, raw and wet. My breath was a tendriled spirit, a watchful companion, a self-generated totem when none other could be found. And then…then there was green again.
Have I been transported back to Virginia? That green tunnel in the south, where seeds sprout in the air before they hit the ground and everything is verdantly utopian? I dare not think of it, lest the reality of this impermanent summer finalize itself in my mind. One day, in the future perhaps, but not this day. I stare about me awe (garden hoe in hand and garden hand in glove), my mind forcibly blank, and watch the rapid progression of buds to blossoms to leaves. What was once a naked stand of bare-bark trees is clothed with the new, velvet growth of spring. Some leaves have even gone so far as to shed their downy fuzz and assume leathery maturity (so eager to grow up, to leave their fragile childhood behind. I warn them: it will pass soon enough, linger for a while).
The arrival of fair weather means that it’s time for me to prepare to market what I’m growing. It’s almost painful to consider harvesting my plants, let alone selling them for profit. I’ve enjoyed watching my mustard greens go from minuscule sprouts to gargantuan, leafy behemoths. Nevertheless, learning to say goodbye is a part of learning how to grow (no pun intended!). I’ve contacted two restaurants regarding my produce: Good Karma, a vegan cafe in Exeter and The District, an upscale, modern fusion restaurant in downtown Portsmouth. Bret, the co-owner of Good Karma, already has most of his produce needs covered through another local farm and by Cal-Organic, but is willing to purchase certain things: basil, herbs, zucchini, and a few other things. The executive chef of The District, Ian Thomas, was more eager to work with me. He’ll take anything unusual-a hard sale for such a challenging climate, but I can look for heirlooms and perhaps some less common Asian vegetables. He’s the only person thus far to express an interest for my edible nasturtiums, which I think are absolutely delicious but few people actually know about (or appreciate). If I had a few years, I could plant fruit such as lingonberries, shipovas, seaberries, currents, and other cold-tolerant varieties. But I must persist with my fast growing vegetables. He is also potentially interested in the rhubarb that my grandfather and I are growing. It’s a shame that no one has jumped on the high brush blueberries that he’s teaching me to grow, because they are the best in the entire world.
I’m thrilled to be selling anything, quite honestly. I’m happy to produce enough for myself and my loved ones. There is a small farmer’s market coming to Kittery. If I can obtain a table, chair, and some storage containers for my crops, I could make up a display and sell there. Time and energy all come into play. My baseline is to provide for myself first and then sell everything else. It doesn’t make sense for me to sell all of my goods and buy lesser quality produce for myself.
As I wait for my first harvest, I’ve slowly increased the intensity of my planting under my row covers. My initial planting scheme seems to have been too thin (I worry that I’m mistaken and my plants will be overcrowded later on). I filled the gaps with alliums and herbs, or brassicas where there weren’t any others. Mixing them up really does seem to deter pests, though I’ve had almost no insect damage so far (I’m keeping my fingers crossed). A huge amount of black flies have congregated under my hoops. I think they may have come from the compost. They appear to be totally benign to my plants and in fact, they seem to be attracting spiders, which I want. Most of them are unable to find their way out of the hoops and collect in small clouds at the arch where the sunlight is heaviest. I tried to lift the hoops to free them, but they either scattered down the chamber or were simply replaced by more flies. I’ve given up at this point and let them become spider chow.
I added some trellises to my garden beds for my next batch of warm-weather, vine-type vegetables. My first round of planting included zucchini and strawberries, which I’ll train upwards under modified frost fabric covers. In an effort to “do it myself” and be economical, I constructed them out of wooden stakes and plastic garden fencing, as recommended by the attendant at Home Depot. I find myself wondering now whether that will be strong enough to support my plants, but the damage is done and the fences are in. If they fail, I’ll have no choice but to replace them anyway. Further staking might be in order. It would certainly be cheaper than purchasing all new fencing materials.
I also planted new rows of cilantro and onions (both sweet red and white Walla Walla. These are from sets, not seeds like my previous batches, and supposedly produce better when propagated that way). The cilantro can go to The District and the onions, if I get into the farmer’s market, can go to the public. Otherwise, they’ll store fairly well. I also added some rosemary that a friend gifted to me at the corner of my garden, where I’ll be able to easily snip off sprigs as needed.
It’s a shame that I can’t leave the plants uncovered. They really are beautiful to look at. I fear that if I did, they’d either be decimated by the groundhog, the squirrels, the chipmunks, the random dogs that wander by (though they seem to like urinating on the corner of my garden, which I think might be working in my favor) and maybe the occasional “tweens” that wander by. Something is going to give sooner or later, since most of my plants are getting a little big for their covers anyway. It might be time to switch them to insect barriers placed directly over the foliage. I still have at least a week before the technical last frost, so I have time. There is always time.
Outside of the garden, I learned the invaluable skill of tractor driving from my good friend on a nearby farmstead in Epping, NH. The lesson was brief, but I can safely put “tractor-driving” on my farming resume-a requirement that I’ve seen on nearly every advertisement for farm help or interns. It’s really a no-brainer sort of operation: just the pull of a lever here or the press of the clutch there. It’s easier than a standard car, though not quite as simple as a boat, and far more “clunky” in the gear shift. It’s good fun, especially when I’m not driving at all, but riding along on the back, clutching the jostling roll cage with my hands to keep my balance. Owning a tractor, if I decide to do so, is something very far off in my future. I am still torn between a tractor or trying to keep draft horses. Both take a fair amount of upkeep, funding, and labor, though I could always leave my tractor if I wanted to take a vacation. All of this being said, if I ever can bring my vineyard idea to fruition (get it? Fruition?) then I may not need a tractor at all.
I have three weeks until the official last frost date, though I’m confident that I’ve been well beyond any frost danger for quite some time. Nevertheless, I’m taking things slow in the garden, keeping my frost fabric on and my new starts protected. After repeatedly shocking my eggplant and tomato with cold, I’ve established more permanent dwellings for them in the greenhouse until they recover. The eggplants, resilient and tenacious things, have tripled in size, absorbing the passive solar heat of their plastic shell and growing headlong (to their detriment) into the lights. The tomatoes, on the other hand, fall over, straighten, and fall over again, but they’ve at least managed to sprout some respectable green leaves. Next time around, I’ll have a little more care when it comes to hardening them off.
My corn, soybeans, cucumbers, and zucchini are all just about ready to transplant and it’s just a matter of getting them used to the weather. I’m dreading the day I put them in the garden, because it will mark the beginning of an official battle with that darn groundhog. My hoops may confuse it enough to keep it from eating my leafy greens, but I’m not sure if I can come up with a cover system that will protect my trellis plants: the cucumbers, zucchini, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, melons, and pole beans. Perhaps just covering the bases would be sufficient, though if I want to keep insects off, this won’t do. Dilemmas abound.
I visited my grandfather last night to ask his advice. He keeps a lovely garden and always has a surplus of flawless vegetables, which he shares with everyone. Some of what he grows: his rhubarb, apples, and blueberries, are free of sprays (though he does fertilize his blueberries with questionable chemicals on occasion). His advice, along with spraying my weeds with Roundup and fertilizing my vegetables with Miracle Grow, was to either detonate the shed (under which the groundhog dwells) with kerosene and a match, or bomb the den with poison. I actually considered the bomb for a moment (despite environmental and ethical complications) until I realized that even if I did have a bomb, the crawl space under the shed is so narrow that I wouldn’t be able to get clear of the den without poisoning myself in the process. I’ve already done this once with a flea bomb. I’m not about to do it with something designed to kill mammals.
Until we meet in the field, there is peace between the groundhog and I. Meanwhile, fragrant white blossoms cover the apple trees with shawls of snowy flowers. Fuchsia buds are sprouting from the mysterious, unknown tree varieties in the center of the yard, drawing the attention of early bumblebees. They buzz and bob, bottom heavy, from flower to bud and ground to branch, measuring the worth of these pink beauties against the proliferating dandelions (my dear, favorite flower). They come in mass (as many so-called weed are wont to do) with toothy leaves, bouncing blooms, and ethereal seeds, upon whose arms wishes are given flight. There aren’t many seeds to spare this time of year, so I save my wishes, blowing only the deepest, most heartfelt into the wind. They spin about lazily in the sea breeze, colliding with overgrown blades of grass, my garden hoops (to spite me later), or the dusty gravel skid hedging the shed. Some of them reach open soil. Some of them will take root. Maybe some of them will come true, but I have no idea which ones.
I checked in on my plants after an extended absence yesterday. Things are doing surprisingly well! A few weeds are resolutely piercing through my weed block, but my plants are large enough now that they can out-compete them. The mustard greens, in particular, are simply enormous. I don’t know what I did to those, but they are doing beautifully (clearly I need to grow more mustard). Likewise, my potatoes have coalesced into a veritable forest in the center of my row cover. I’m worried that they will be too large to keep covered up, thus raising the issue of the groundhog again (not to mention insects). Those crops that were leggy when I transplanted them are still leggy now, sprouting large, leafy bodies on dangerously thing stalks. Given time, they toughen up and put on weight, but keeping them alive until then feels like holding my breath. Next time around, I’ll have a little more faith in the insulating power of my row covers and I’ll plant directly into the ground. Things might progress a little more slowly, but at least my plants will be strong. I might also invest in better quality grow lights.
Today, the morning is warm but rainy and there is little for me to do outside. I started my some more warm weather crops in flats: Melons, watermelons, and some more basil. I’m beginning to look to the future at my next stage of summer planting. In a few weeks, my spring plants will be ready to harvest. Soon enough, I’ll be planting late-summer vegetables and cold-hardy, autumn crops. Planting comes in layers, overlapping. I often find myself confused by the many dates, planting and harvest, and the multitude of considerations that each plant needs. Creating life is always a complicated process. Beautiful, unpredictable, frustrating, and rewarding. In planting, I am following nature’s footsteps, learning from the seamless flow of life around me, trying to make peace with a world that my kind has largely taken for granted.
I find myself caught in a quandary of interests. Willingly or unwillingly, I am growing in a temperamental, cold, and somewhat challenging growing region. My timeframe is short, my soil rocky (though not as stone-strewn as some), and my customer base (if I am so bold as to even approach the concept) is uncomplicated. If I were to grow nothing but potatoes, I would find a niche of charitable tolerance as I, southerner in my bones, stake out my bald little spot of earth on Maine’s windy coastline. I have grander ambitions, however. Perhaps my tastes were tainted from a life of supermarkets and long-balmy growing seasons. I know, deep down, that I will not be satisfied with potatoes and apples for the eternity of my growing career. Nor will I be placated by an audience who can’t find the line between instant mashed potatoes and organic potatoes freshly dug from the earth and mashed with golden butter and fresh milk.
In fairness, I must acknowledge that, saving some act of divine intervention (highly unlikely), I will never grow agave, cashews, jujubes, mangos, coconuts, dates, or all of those other wonderful edibles that I just so happen to love but will fail miserably at raising in the north. The crops of choice have been carved out already by those who came before me, the rugged immigrants who clung by the skin of their teeth to this harsh terrain, doing everything in their power to make a home out of an otherwise unwelcoming landscape. Apples, potatoes, beans, corn, parsnips, roots of all sorts, peas, maple syrup, raspberries, currents, strawberries, onions, and other hardy, simply plants formed the basis of their diet. Hunting and trapping was common, though ammunition was short in supply, and fish was abundant enough (New Hampshire and Maine boast some of the highest quality seafood in the world). Early wheat was either grown in the south or imported, because it certainly couldn’t handle growing here (though some heirloom strains are very cold hardy and can deal with this climate, some examples being strains raised in Russia). Most grains struggle, although corn (thanks to its rapid development) oats, and rye can tolerate the rigors of the season.
I suppose it’s too late to be a hard core traditionalist now (and do I really want to be?). My theoretical client base wouldn’t appreciate it and I think that I’d be rather board after a fashion, with the lack of gustory “pizazz”. I’ve been exploring the wild edible shooting up with the warm spring weather. Japanese Knotweed, a known invasive is filling my refrigerator. Dandelion blossoms will soon be turned into dandelion wine, and garlic mustard is making its way into my stir fries. Sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, purslane, wild raspberry, burdock, rhubarb (gone wild?!) and many others are slowly, surely sprouting up. My good friend and professional herbalist, Jessica Bellatone, has leant me a number of her books on wild edibles and medicinals, which I have incorporated into my garden (in a sort of meandering extension…a plot of wild plants is growing outside my window and the purslane is a safe distance from my beds.) These plants are highly nutritious, tasty, and require almost no care. They compete with other, nonedible plants and are resistant to insects and disease. Why are these plants not the mainstay of the local diet? It seems like a logical solution to agricultural struggles: Incorporate native plants that thrive in the local climate.
While I am afraid to introduce these plants into my garden beds, I am carefully exploring their nutritional value, taking my time (so as not to poison myself). I have mentioned including medicinal plants as a future portion of my garden, perhaps focusing on Chinese Herbs. It would be worth my time to include native edibles as well, plants that compete with other local varieties and are hardy to this climate. If I can, in fact, start a small CSA, I would encourage my members to try these plants for themselves, educating them on the nutritional and ecological benefits of utilizing traditional plant lore. While it isn’t explicitly stated in texts detailing the traditional New England diet, I suspect that these wild edibles provided a notable portion of the early colonial diet. Tying in the permaculture concept of “edible forest gardens”, what better way to create a self-sustaining, reliable food system than one that literally mimics the natural ecosystem by using regionally appropriate plants? Not only would this reduce the risk of spreading invasive plants, but it would enhance food security by using nature-tested plants resistant to insects and environmental stress.
I appear to be sensitive or allergic to Japanese Knotweed. I ate some a few days ago and my tongue and throat went numb. Then I couldn’t breathe. I am 99.9 percent sure that I ate the right plant. Nevertheless, I will be avoiding this edible in the future. All the more reason to preserve local edible food traditions! Once that knowledge is lost, the road to its recovery may be paved by unfortunate victims to false plant identification…
Spring is a slow, beautiful process here in Maine. The wind off of the ocean is still cold and raw, but the sun has drawn out tender green leaves and bright flower buds. The birds greet me when I wake, those chattering songstresses (perhaps this is the wrong word, as I suspect many of the vocalists are competing males), young otters bask and play in the low tide, and heavy bumblebees, clumsy from hibernation, alight on bobbing dandelion platforms. I do believe I saw a queen bumblebee, recently emerged from her winter slumber, searching for a suitable hive site in my sod pile. Bumblebees do not overwinter as honeybees do. The entire hive will die and the queen will hibernate through the winter underground. Come spring, she awakens, seeks a patch of brush to dig a hole in, and deposits her initial eggs with a small amount of food. The entire hive relies upon her for its initial construction. It is really a miracle to see so many bees about and a sure sign that this ecosystem is healthy.
Progress has been basic in the garden. It’s still a little too early to plant my next round of veggies, though I think I’d like to beef up my established beds somewhat (there’s space enough in areas). That calls for a trip to the store (or reclamation of the seeds I leant to a friend of mine, whichever comes with the least amount of resistance. I try to take a Taoist approach with these things!) Instead, I methodically hammer out new hoops for my warming rows, temper my seedlings’ sunlight dosage with the chilly spring air (they don’t seem to like anything under sixty degrees, the spoiled brats), and stalk the new groundhog living under the shed.
Oh yes, there is a new groundhog in town, and this one doesn’t look rabid.
I’ve tried to trap it, sidling my havahart right next to what I assume the entrance of the burrow is and placing tempting strawberry morsels around the trigger plate. To no avail. The creature is too smart to enter. I can’t throw garlic and oil down its burrow because I can’t get to the burrow and, quite frankly, I can’t shoot it with my hunting bow because I’ve only seen it once and it’s never out when I am (imagine me working in my humble garden, compound hunting bow with razor-tipped arrows resting casually against the blossoming apple tree). I have repellent, though I am loathe to use it before I uncover my plants and since it’s about to rain in a few days, there is little need (it will just wash away). The only plus here is that the groundhog doesn’t seem to know what’s under my garden hoops and so hasn’t attacked my plants yet. I fear that with the warming weather and my planting of sprawling, vine-bearing things (zucchini, for one), I will be forced to remove my hoops and my bounty will be decimated. I toy with the idea of calling animal control or the other option: fence.
The fence is a hard thing for me to consider. First of all, both electric and buried chicken wire fences are expensive. Secondly, they require a lot of time and energy to install, neither of which I have in quantity. Third, they are very permanent additions to the yard, which my housemates are not thrilled about. They have actively discouraged me from fencing, and so I find myself in a bit of a pickle. I’ve considered keeping the row covers on indefinitely (I’ll have to think of something for the crawling plants…maybe an upward trellis system. I could simply slit the plastic covers to allow for better ventilation and could use my polypropylene for the remainder of the plants. Its cool enough here that I doubt they will overheat, even with the cover. I also have a light “insect block” that I could use, just in case it does get too warm. Hopefully this will keep the groundhog confounded enough to avoid my garden.
I’ve mounded the soil around my potatoes. I didn’t understand why this needed to be done at first, as all of my garden books simply said to mound and provided no explanation. It turns out that mounding the soil prevents the uppermost potatoes from turning green and tasting metallic, so mound I did. They, like everything else under the hoops, are growing well and have nearly no insect damage at all. Many of my plants have tipped over after transplanting, only to begin growing again from their horizontal stalks. They are quite fragile and if I’ve not careful they break in half. I thought initially that the problem was cutworms, but now I suspect that they are simply too “leggy” when I plant them and the weak stems collapse from stress and new growth. I am trying to find a solution for my next transplants. For by Boc Choy and second round of red Russian kale, I propped up the stems using the many small stones scattered throughout my soil. Hopefully this will discourage any breakage as they adjust to their new homes.
My grape vine is still suffering from cold damage, despite the second cover of frost fabric. I added the plastic over top of that to cut the wind, since grape leaves are easily wounded by chilling breezes. It may be too late to salvage it, which saddens me deeply, but I’ll try all the same. Perhaps the roots and central stalk will survive, if nothing else, to resprout once the weather is more agreeable. I don’t expect from fruit from the vine this year, but it is a pleasure to work with the plant. I find it quite agreeable and pacifying for whatever reason. I suspect that the soil might be somewhat too acidic for it and that the brownish spots of necrotic tissue are due to iron deficiency (acidic soil can limit the uptake of nutrients in certain plants). Otherwise, it could be grape vine leaf rust, which would be difficult to handle.
Wild edibles surround my garden. Japanese knotweed proliferates across the railroad. Garlic mustard and burdock have engulfed the top of the nearby hill. Dandelions are everywhere. Feral roses and raspberries are producing a profusion of thorns and leaves, all green and new with life. Small clovers dot the yard. Seaweed, washed in from Maine’s pristine coasts, piles at the base of the bay, encased in layers of salty silt. I’ve tried a sampling of these, though I remain cautious. The Japanese knotweed numbed my tongue and throat and called for a good dose of Benadryl to keep my airway open. My eyes may be good, but I leave relying on wild foods as principle sources of nourishment to trained experts. Perhaps one day I will be able to call myself one (if I die from something that I eat first!)
I have no pictures to correspond with this entry, as there is very little to photograph. The bees are too quick for me, much like the groundhog, and the otters are too far away. I’ll leave the images to your imagination, where I am sure you can paint far better portraits of my garden than I can capture with my camera.
Each day I work with my cumbersome plastic row covers, I grow more and more fatigued. The routine of putting them on and taking them off just for a few hours of sunlight has become not only time-consuming, but just plain boring. To remedy this, I have decided to make two changes: first, I will not take off the plastic nearly as often. The temperature inside during peak hours on an average sunny day here hasn’t seemed to injure the plants in the least. In fact, I think the hoops are trapping moisture and warming up the soil, making the transition from peat start containers to actual soil far easier on the plants. Of course, this means I’ll have to check them daily for heat damage and to water them, but that’s far easier than speeding home from work at eight in the evening to make battle with windblown plastic. Come warmer weather, I’ll adjust as needed (which probably means losing the plastic altogether.
My second change was to order a small amount of agribon galvanized steel hoops and spun polypropylene frost fabric, which is far easier to use than plastic. The fabric doesn’t trap as much heat, but its water and wind permeable, preventing overheating and negating the need to constantly water. My window cold frame turned out to be a complete waste of time, with everything inside dying or coming close. I scrapped the whole area, took off the weed block, and decided to try a different tactic. I intensively planted the bed with a mix of vegetables, following the principles of permaculture. Something is strategically decimating all of my red Russian kale (but not the dino kale) at night. I think it may be cut worms, and so I’m created a mishmash of my vegetables to hopefully deter them from culling all the Russians. My next step is to create collars to protect my seedlings, which would ideally prevent the worms from coming up through the soil.
Lastly, I got rid of my plastic grape cover, since it seems to be doing more harm than good, and replaced it with a cover of frost fabric, which I pinned outwards away from the leaves. I’m not sure if the grape vine has grape vine leaf rust or if it’s just very cold-damaged, but hopefully the fabric will alleviate any “burn” it once experienced against the cold plastic. If it is grape vine leaf rust, then I’ll have to find a way to treat it, something that I am currently working on.
Aside from that, things have paused in the garden. The oats continue to grow; the plants are making a slow comeback from transplanting. I’ve begin to pluck off sweet potato slips and place them in water to encourage root growth. Once the roots emerge, I’ll be able to move them into pots. My eggplants and basil have been injured from me putting them outside (thinking that the sun would do them good and not taking into account that they can’t really take 50 degree weather. It seemed warm to me!) They’re back inside, basking on the windowsill.
Now to more exciting news!
Yesterday I visited Brookford Farm in Canterbury, NH! After four years in Rollinsford, NH, they moved their operation to Canterbury, expanding their land. Yesterday was an open house, potluck, tour, and maple tree planting ceremony to commemorate their fifth year anniversary! We sell their bread, milk, cheeses, kefir, and yogurt at the health food store where I work and I’ve long been familiar with their renowned CSA. They sell at nearly every major farmers market, traveling as far as Massachusetts. They are also one of the only providers of raw milk and cheese to commercial stores.
Upon arriving, I deposited my potluck contribution of curried buckwheat and apple salad on the picnic tables and made my way into their storefront. Within, I was met with shelves upon shelves of archetypal artisan bread, freshly baked from Brookford’s very own grain. I recognized the dark, hearty loaves from those at the health food store, but these were somehow more vibrant, more alive, as though simply resting in the context of their own creation (the brick oven was only steps away) made them more “real”. A chalkboard hung beside the loaves detailed the selection of meats, dairy, and other products available at the counter. I helped myself to samples of their blue, feta, and camembert cheeses, products that I’ve seen on our shelves but I’ve (unfortunately) never had the means to purchase on a regular basis. I can easily say (and keep in mind, I can be quite the snob when it comes to food) that their cheeses are some of the best that I’ve ever tasted. I sampled small morsels of heavily veined blue with their sesame bread, the feta with their dense, seeded “backpacker” loaf, and the camembert with what I assume was the “Brookford Brown”. Everything tasted…as it should have, as though the food had a heart. There was no taint of plastic or faint memory of metallic conveyer belts and nitrile gloved hands. I could still taste the earth, the sky, the grass, and the rain. This was what food was supposed to taste like.
But enough waxing poetically about the food. We began the even by planting nine trees encircling a series of tents. These would mark an area for people to gather, eat, and rest, as well as for functions conducted on the farm. The head farmer, Luke, began the ceremony with a brief history of Brookford and their recent move to Canterbury. The farm was originally a sod farm and had been so for forty years. The soil, so damaged by the repeated removal of the topsoil, was hardly more than a dustbowl. It took a great deal of compost and two plantings of grass just to build up the fields again. In addition, there was a terrible flood many years back that deposited a layer of sand over the property, leaving it quick to drain (too quick). It still struggles to retain water, but Luke and his team have done a fair job of revitalizing it.
A pair of musicians, one violinist and one accordionist, played us merry tunes while we shoveled layers of composted manure and soil around bare tree roots. The many children of the farm (and of visiting CSA members) danced around the planted trees as though circling spring maypoles (it is almost the time for it), tromping down the soil.
Luke led the tour, which lasted nearly two hours, starting with the calves and the cows in pasture. Young calves are often given a “nurse” mother to care for them all. Generally she is a cow stricken with mastitis that needs the extra oxytocin to help her udders heal. They’re held in separate pens from the older cows until they are deemed old enough to join the heard. Many of the males are slaughtered later for meat with the occasional bull kept for his genetics. A castrated bull is called a steer and a castrated bull meant for work is called an oxen. The cows are often kept for milk production.
Many of the cows are spending short amounts of time on the pasture, though it’s still early. The grass is so rich that it moves too quickly through their digestive tract to provide them with all of their nutrition. They graze for about four hours and then are moved back into the barn, where they receive hay to slow their digestion down. Along the pasture were gigantic mounds of compost material: cow manure, pig manure, chicken droppings and bedding, eggshells, and wood ash. All of these are mixed together and spread upon the fields. I was blown away by the sheer amount of organic material needed to rejuvenate the farm. Throughout the tour, compost and soil were two topics that repeatedly came up in conversation and I realized just how vital proper soil conservation really is for a farm. Without it, a farm has nothing.
After we passed the fields, we walked beneath a huge, pivoting sprinkler system that, once they get it up and running, will be able to water the entirely of their lower fields. We moved udder its massive steel arms and onto my favorite part, the vegetable fields. Most of their crops rested safely beneath spun blankets of frost fabric, with their tails buried into the earth to prevent insect damage and to keep them in place. Some of the crops used hoops to keep the fabric off, but not all. And some crops were simply planted out in the open with no protection whatsoever. The vegetable manager said that his goal was to not have to spray anything on the plants, and the fabric was a boon of an alternative to organic treatments. They used a push planted to seed their rows and they have wheels of irrigation hose that they can run through their crops. They also have two tractors specifically designed to till up weeds without damaging crops. They were designed before the advent of commercial herbicides and are apparently very effective.
We moved on, arriving at their mobile chicken tractor. It moves daily, utilizing a “bubble” trap system in which the main chicken fence is opened up into a second fenced “bubble” and the birds are herded through. A few of the smart ones escape, but generally most of them are obliged to usher onward to greener grazing grounds. The walls of the chicken tractor roll up and the roosting boxes are on the outside, making egg harvesting simple and efficient. Thus far, they’ve had no trouble with coyotes, thanks to their electric fences, but the occasional owl or eagle will swoop in when the guard geese are out of sight (they keep the large geese in with the chickens as a large, intimidating presence). Oliver, Luke’s eldest son, described the chicken tractor to us and the bubble system. He can’t be more then twelve or thirteen, but he easily knows more than I do. In addition, he is capable, mature, and fit, thanks to a life of responsibility, healthy food, strong family support, and plenty of time spent outside. I was happy to see children to in touch with nature and so vibrantly alive. Most children today are housebound, bogged down by homework or preoccupied with video games. The American idea of childhood had degenerated into an electronic alternative to curiosity and sensorial interaction. These children seemed so full of life. Their energy was boundless and their eyes bright.
We trekked onwards, though an improvised swamp created by a recent beaver dam. Felled trees, pocked with gnawed gashes, paved the way through the standing water. It was worth the trip, however, as beyond there were endless, rolling green fields of winter rye and wheat. They were the grain fields of the back pasture, where the flood had spared the land and the soil had a higher concentration of silt and loam. It was a beautiful sight to behold, although I picked up more than a few ticks walking back to the farm through it.
Once we returned to the farm, we quickly went through the two greenhouses and the cheese making room. The greenhouses were miraculous, to say the least. Filled with lush, mature plants, they put my tiny operation to shame. Heads of flawless Red Russian Kale, Bok Choy, Lettuce, and other wonderful greens stood side by side, ready to harvest. In the adjacent greenhouse, relays of more greens, onions, and warmer weather vegetables were growing in starts. Eggplants, basil, and tomatoes all sat upon heat mats on a raised table with hoops over it, in case they needed extra protection. I see now just how fragile some of my warmer weather crops really are and how careless I was in forcing them into the cool spring air (this explains why my basil is all shriveled up…). Heaps of potatoes dried on massive beds. The vegetable manager said that they were easily growing hundreds of varieties of vegetables, according to their harvest dates and individual characteristics. They had at least five kinds of potatoes, multiple tomatoes, and all sorts of lettuces. The greenhouses are notably warmer than the air outside, even with their doors open, but I noticed the furls of frost fabric, carefully wound beside the plants to protect them at night from freezing temperatures. Overhead sprinkler systems dotted the ceiling, providing gentle, even water to the sensitive young plants.
The cheese making room is as sterile as a laboratory. Each cheese has its own mold and the entire room must be sanitized after each cheese variety is processed to prevent cross contamination of mold strains (a blue camembert may taste good, but it won’t sell). Because many of their products are made from raw milk, they must be doubly careful to prevent bacteria from contaminating cheeses that require pasteurization. As they develop their new property, they will construct aging rooms for each cheese, where they can specifically control the humidity and temperature specific for each mold variety.
We ended the day with a lovely meal, much of which was made up of Brookford’s own products. CSA members brought dishes of cabbage and roasted root vegetables from their shares. Loaves of hearty bread, crackers, and cheeses were laid out beside sweet corn muffins, apple crumble bars, hotdogs (someone had to bring meat!) and various bean/grain salads (of which mine was a part). My buckwheat salad was devoured, to my satisfaction. Nothing brings me greater joy than preparing food and sharing it with others. It is one of the oldest rituals human beings have, one that spans cultures and generations. The sharing of food, this “breaking bread” together is the universal sign of friendship. Nothing could be more supportive than the give and take of nourishment. Sitting down with farmers, CSA members, and curious stragglers such as myself, I felt something that I have not felt for a long time: a sense of place, of belonging. I felt enveloped by the community at Brookford farm, safe in the arms of a beautiful landscape and good company. We talked of gardening, farming, and the need for change of all kinds. I had a great conversation with a similar soul about the need for a proper understanding of nutrition as a basis for crop cultivation. Understanding what it takes to nourish a person (as opposed to simply feed them) would streamline crop production, saving space and curbing inefficient resource use. The tie between nutrition and agriculture was not something that I explored completely on my own and I see now how important it is, especially in regards to big agriculture, where wheat and corn are processed into nutritionally defunct breakfast cereals.
I met many good people that day. We spoke of lighter things, the beauty of the mountains, harvesting wild edibles, and what it really means to live, peacefully, deeply, and honestly. That’s all I want in the world: a peaceful, honest, and rewarding life.
Kittery, Maine saw its first 70 degree day of the season, though it was blustery and cloudy. It threatened rain nearly all day but never delivered, causing me a good deal of anxiety about when and how much to water my plants. The overall prognosis for the garden is good: all of the brassicas are faring well, except for the red Russian kale starts that got pinched at the waists are now dying slowly, pitifully, but hopefully painlessly, in the mud. A few of the onions have some dry, yellow tips, but they seem to be vigorous. The nasturtiums stopped their explosive growth and are keeping pace with everyone else. Some of the spinach is yellowing as well, which I first thought was due to the soil being too acidic but I now suspect is due to a combination of transplant shock and chilly temperatures. The potatoes and peas are thrilled, as are the carrots and beets. As for the lettuce…oh, the lettuce is a sore sight to see. Most of them have tipped over and look like straggling refugees, splayed weakly over the ground, reaching desperately back towards the house (where the comfort of the greenhouse waits). The only lettuce that is doing well at all is in the first row cover, which has a heavier grade of plastic. Lettuce can be directly sown before the last frost, so I may try this technique in the future so that my plants are hardy from the start. The same goes for my carrots…
The first cover has .6mm plastic on it, whereas the rest have .3mm. Why the difference? I could buy twice as much .3mm plastic for the same price as the .6mm and I figured “how much can a few millimeters really matter?” Well, they matter. It’s literally a matter of life and death out there on the front lines, when the nightly temperature (in defiance of the forecast) regularly hits 30 degrees. I’m considering purchasing some spun polypropylene cloth, which I would have to order online, and comparing it with the plastic. It breaths a little more than plastic, so there is less risk of the plants overheating (though you still have to take it off if it gets notably warm). Because it’s spun rather than solid, air and water can pass through, so there is no need for soaker hoses or lifting the covers to water. Like the plastic, they cut the amount of available sunlight the plants receive. The higher the thickness, the more sunlight is blocked. A heavy grade of frost protection cloth can cut light transmission to between 30 % and 50%, whereas the lighter grades usually offer 90% sun penetration. There are also lightweight insect covers that I’m interested in purchasing, for the sake of cutting my losses. These only reduce sun exposure by 5% or less .
I do believe that there is a patch of raspberries growing right in front of my window. Now, I could be wrong, but they look an awful lot like raspberries to me and I have some vague recollection of my cousin mowing them down year after year because they are so vigorous. I went ahead and “liberated” two of them, carrying them down the hill to my garden, where they won’t be mowed and they can keep my little raspberry bush (which is doing quite well, thank you!) company. My grape vine is surviving, though it has suffered some frost damage to the leaves. I added another layer of plastic to its nightly wrapping from my pile of scraps. I also fertilized it and all of the active beds with liquid seaweed to help give them a boost. The roots of transplants are fragile and every effort should be made to encourage root production over leaf growth in the initial stages.
The Japanese Knotweed across the railroad tracks is sending up spring shoots, which should be edible. I tried some, expecting the taste of rhubarb (I’ve been told the flavor is similar) but found it to be bland and insipid, which makes me doubt my plant identification skills. Perhaps the shoots are simply too young at this point. Regardless, if they are, in fact, what I think they are, they’ll be making an appearance in spring pies and jams in the near future. A few other edibles are coming out as well, but I don’t know them well enough to trust actually ingesting them.
I find myself in a crux between planting sessions. It’s too early to plant some of my crops, as they need to be planted directly into the ground. I’m pushing the envelope with a few plants, starting them in larger peat pots and arranging for row covers when they’re strong enough to transplant. The last frost is in a number of weeks, so by the time it rolls around I’ll be ready. I’ve started more lettuce, red Russian kale, marigolds and chamomile. An herbalist friend of mine told me that chamomile acts like a “nurse” in the garden, tending to the health of plants nearby. I don’t know how true this claim is, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out. I also planted enough corn to make a block of rows, which should ensure pollination. I don’t expect much from my corn harvest because I don’t have enough free space for it. It’s more of a learning process than anything, and I’ve been told by a very reliable source that raccoons like to take a few bites out of each ear right before they ripen. Maybe I’ll but an ear in my Havahart and take any captives for a ride northwards into State Park land.
I planted a few Midori soybeans, which I’ll plant again once the weather warms, some cucumbers, zucchini, Pac Choy, and Sacred Basil (Tulsi, an Indian Basil with therapeutic effects. One of my favorite herbs). I also transplanted all of my eggplants and tomatoes into larger pots that I can move in and out. They’re supposed to start very early inside because of their frost sensitivity. Eventually, I’ll need to trellis them and transplant my celery to larger containers.
At night, when the garden has gone to sleep and I’ve had it with lugging plant pots in and out, I’ve been reading about the traditional New England diet. From my limited research, it appears that the Northern diet was a basic, no-frills offshoot of English cookery (one of my all-time least favorite styles of cooking). The best part of New England cooking came from the Native Americans, who already knew how to prepare cranberries, corn, seafood, and native edibles. Irish “Boiled Dinners” made their appearance (the name alone sounds awful) and apparently inspired an old New England Tradition of boiling vegetables down into “sauces”, which they ate along with their meals.
New Hampshire and southern Maine traditionally ate pork (fresh, salted, cured, and dried), fresh corn and baked corn breads, root crops, seafood, game, breads, pumpkins, and apples. The short growing season and rocky soil made farming extremely difficult. In addition, early farmers often lacked horses and cattle, as only the least desirable stock were shipped overseas to the colonies (most of them dying along the way). The addition of dairy and labor animals to the New England farm was slow in coming. Once established, however, dairy became a major industry in New England, with hardier strains faring well in New England’s cool temperatures and rich pasturage.
I’d like to look into the history of food in New England further. While I daresay most of the local farmers here have traditional crops covered (because really, they’re all that will grow up here without any amount of coddling), I think having an understanding of early New England culture will help me find a way to rekindle that sense of community and tenacity in modern New Englanders. This is the secondary project in my garden: find and strengthen the link between people, food, and the environment.
My garden lacks the magic that I was hoping it would have. Most days, it looks like a muddy, forgotten monument dedicated to a collection of abstract insectoid exoskeletons…those translucent plastic covers of mine, the last defense against late frosts. I muck about, bumbling through my seedling flats with my bulky gardening gloves, grumbling at the weakness of my arms as I wheel loads of compost to and fro. This isn’t true farm work. The thought scares me, like distant thunder on a sunny summer’s day. After reading Kristin Kimball’s book, The Dirty Life, I can imagine the long days, hours of toil, and the never-ending “to-do” list that a real farm entails. The learning experience of my garden, aside from grasping the basics of growing altogether, includes understanding the physical, mental, and emotional stamina that I’ll need.
The plants aren’t good company, but neither are slumbering infants. My living room is a hospital ward full of newborns, all snug beneath their lamps, waiting to see the outside world. I wait for communication, for woody kale plants whispering, scuff-scuff, in the noon breeze, or for the delicate shudder of full, leathery grape leaves (and the seductive sigh of heavy purple clusters beneath). The truth is, I can’t help but feel like this work is meant to be shared. We humans…we’re not supposed to be alone in our labor. There should be laughter, wise words, stories of good times, of bad, of the in-between days and the smallish memories (why did I remember this and not that? This day and not another?)
I work in my garden, building obscure monuments, learning the unteachable movements of planting, digging, cutting, lifting, and I keep close to my heart the point of this work, then end goal: it’s all for people. It’s for my love of people, of humans, of humanity. I’ve found it hard to take most faith systems seriously, I’ll admit. I’d like to believe in a certain, infinitely complex rhythm to things, a grand tapestry that I’ll never even glimpse for all its detail. But I do know that on this small planet, I am a passing bit of a beautiful whole, and I have biological ties to the species to which I belong. My happiest days, my most creative urges, my moments of elevation and evolution, all of these have come from human interaction. What I do is truly a labor of love: heal the world, heal people, make life good, as good as it can possibly be, and most importantly: share the experience of life with others. As far as I know, there is only this life and these people that I meet, like me, last no longer than flower blossoms in spring. Each of us is precious, unique. No other time will be as this time, and not a single soul is repeated in the dance of life.
The plants have no opinion. Perhaps they are wiser than I suspect. The lean towards the sun, green with life, tender with their leggy youth (the grow lights have leant them this unfortunate quality). I planted all of the starts that were ready to go out, which gives me flexibility in what I can start for the warmer weather (now that I have the space). I’ve planted more brassicas and alliums than I care to remember and I tried to intersperse some nasturtiums, calendula and marigolds amongst them. Hopefully it will be enough to confuse any pests I encounter. The recent rain has really brought out the bugs. I’ve put up more row covers to shelter them as well, and a small cold frame made from an old window and some scavenged wooden beams that I sawed down to proportion. I planted my grape vine, installing a rustic trellis that I made from garden twine and dead young pine trees. As for the new raspberry bush, I planted that at the far corner of the garden and at its feet I put in a bed of oats (early for my studies but one of the cold-tolerant crops that I have). Thus far, none of my seedlings have died yet from cold stress in the night. My soaker hoses aren’t working quite as well as I was hoping they would, but they seem to do the job. Once the soil dries, I’ll open up the row covers and sweep over the beds with my watering wand.
Once I decided that I would never, ever be able to remove all of the rocks and sod from my garden soil, I decided to shape up my beds. I began by getting another truck load of compost, this time from a very nice nursery in Stratham, NH called Scamman Nursery, an extension of Scamman Farm. I’ll probably purchase from them in the future, unless I find comparable providers in southern ME. Their compost was much better quality than my first batch and their products trump those found at the local home depot, hands down. I shoveled out the compost and spread it as evenly as I could over my intended bed areas. Purchasing, moving, and dispersing the amounts recommended in some of my gardening books is neither cost nor time effective. However, the soil is in relatively good condition and I had some organic sources of nitrogen and phosphorous on hand in the form of blood meal and bone meal, so I combined the two and added them in as well.
Only after I purchased the fertilizer and spoke to my advisor did I realize that they are both products of the industrial animal slaughter industry, a horror that I somehow managed to not think of as I put them into my cart. My lack of concern was both a thoughtless mistake on my part and a testament to the power of our culture. Though I battle against industrialized animal farms and products, there still lingers a thread of blind acceptance, one that unconsciously ignores the connection between the product and the source. It frightens me to think of how much I still simply cannot see under the veil of my culture.
I ran Rob’s small rototiller through the soil once more, to incorporate my compost and fertilizers, and them raked the soil up into rough mounts, marking what was a bed (and not to be walked on!) and what was a pathway. It took me the better part of an afternoon, but the weather was lovely and the work meditative, so I was happy to take the time. After the beds were shaped, I again decided to follow Pam Dawling’s advice, author of Sustainable Market Farming, and run soaker hoses along the perimeter of each bed. The climate here is rainy enough that I don’t strictly need them, but the ease of irrigation coupled with the ability to cover them with mulch makes them convenient for my schedule (especially on days that I work). I covered each length of hose with a weed fabric (secured with garden staples), as my stockpile of cardboard is still in the nascent stage. I plan on applying salt marsh hay over the fabric and I have a number of weeding tools (including my own two hands, thank you very much!) for good measure.
My raspberry plant is done for. It has succumbed entirely to the root-rot…so I got another and I’m going to try again. Desperate? Oh, yes. A waste of my money? I think not! My grape vine, on the other hand, is doing superbly and I’m preparing it for transplanting, just as soon as I get a proper trellis up.
I was reviewing the recent shift in growing zones for my region (thank you global warming) and I found that the last frost date has tentatively been moved from Memorial Day to April 15! That is quite a shift and certainly opens doors for my planting schedule. I’ve begun to harden off my starts, eager to get them into the ground! After reviewing Dawling’s book, I fear I may have starting the transplanting process too early. Most plants are transplanted once they produce between 2 and 6 “true leaves”. The first leaves that a plant sprouts are called seed leaves. They usually occur in pairs and are followed by the more distinct, plant-specific true-leaves . Some of my plants have 1 or 2 true leaves, but most are still in the seed leaf stage. Undeterred, I first constructed a row cover from .6mm plastic and flexible water hose, using Eliot Coleman’s model in his book Four Season Harvest as a rough guideline. My plastic fell a little short of the entire row length and covers perhaps 8 feet or so. A short cover is wieldier than a long sheet of plastic and since I’m using garden staples for that as well, I won’t have to pull out 20 staples every time I open the row.
Once I had the row cover erected, I planted my carrots, beets, initial lettuces, peas, and potatoes. I feel a little silly regarding some of my plants, such as the peas, which I could have sown directly into the soil (thank you Rob for reminding me!). I planted the carrots in a large section, since they apparently do poorly with competition. I wasn’t sure how vigorously the other vegetables would be compared with them, so I played it safe and made a little carrot family at the end of the bed. They may be planted too closely, but I think that the soil is rich enough to support a dense planting, at least for now.
Using the intercropping technique found in Hemenway’s Gaia’s garden and Edward Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, I planted my beets and lettuce in an alternating pattern, putting down the plants in triangles rather than in strict rows in order to maximize space. Ideally, the deep beet roots won’t compete with lettuce’s shallow roots, so they can be planted more closely. I made a row of peas along the edge of the bed, where I will eventually have a trellis to support them. I planted my potatoes in the middle of the bed, where they will hopefully shade out and weed competition. I was going to plant more, but the forecast is calling for, of all things, ice pellets. I put in enough plants to fill up the first row cover and I’ll continue on a nicer day.
I also transplanted my sweet potato cuttings from their watery, moldy, slightly viscous baths into fresh potting soil. I wanted to make sure they were actually producing slips and roots before using my good soil on them. I’m still a little vexed than the sweet orange ones didn’t work out, but I’ll take what I can get.
In my spare time, I read Kristin Kimball’s book The Dirty Life, On Farming, Food, and Love. It is a memoir of the start-up year of her farm in New York, Essex Farm, and her romance with her husband and farm co-owner, Mark. Kimball’s writing is fast-paced, humorous and poetic. She details meeting Mark on his farm in Pennsylvania, their heated romance and rapid engagement, and the year-long struggle to both learn how to run a farm and navigate each other at the same time. Early in her work, Kimball talks about the preliminary stages of her relationship with Mark and his vision of their eventual home: a farmhouse nestled into a cozy, green landscape with animals grazing peacefully in the fields. Kimball realized that her apartment in the city and her work as a freelance writer was rootless, homeless. She had no community in which to sink roots, no sense of lasting place or pride in her home (which could scarcely be called hers, given that she was renting). Her family was far flung and her work, while rewarding enough, didn’t offer intrinsic fulfillment. She wanted a HOME (she writes it just as I have, with big capital lettering), a real home in an honest place, not the perpetual ambiguity of apartment living and consumer-crazed city culture.
Her transition from city to country was hardly as smooth as Kimball intended. The reader navigates the challenges and learning curves of farm life as Kimball learns how to milk cows, use draft horses, cultivate vegetables in the bitter cold of an upstate NY winter, and carve out a place in their sleepy, somewhat traditional town. She and her husband eventually open a “Full-Diet CSA”, providing not only produce, but breads, grains, milk, butter, cheeses, lard, meats of all kinds, eggs, maple syrup, and various other staples often overlooked at farmer’s markets. The intention is to truly provide a local diet, rather than supplement the conventional supermarket shopping list. Kimball’s undertaking was monumental to say the least. The combination of her and Mark’s ambition, passion for local food, desire, and tireless energy were the only things that made their success possible.
I can relate to Kimball’s desire for a “home”. Indeed, I have long been fascinated by the idea of oikos, the Greek term referring to the house, home environment, and domestic responsibilities. Oikos as a medium for emotional security, community, rest, nourishment, and connection to nature has been all but forgotten in our modern, fast-paced society. Most homes are shells of the family work, disconnected from food, labor, and the natural world, offering respite in the form of instant meals and blaring televisions (the pacifiers of the overworked). Many parents are so busy with work and their children preoccupied with school that the family unit and its place in the larger context of the local community has become a largely empty image.
I myself have not felt a sense of “home” for many years and, like Kimball, this is part of my attraction to agriculture. I’m of the mind that there can be no “home” and no “community” without a sense of place in the natural landscape. Most rituals, holidays, and ceremonies are nature-based, often timed with the seasons or with agricultural cycles. Not so very long ago, most people cultivated the land in some way. A greater portion of humanity has lived an agrarian or hunter-gatherer lifestyle, working intimately with the landscape, connecting to it emotionally. The severed link between home and nature has reduced the concept of home to a flimsy wisp of what it could otherwise be. Give me ritual, place, and honest communication! Give me stories and good, simple food from fresh, whole ingredients, laughter, rest, and a warm place to sleep after a hard day. Give me simplicity and peace and I will leave the rat-race of my upbringing behind in a heartbeat.
It pays to have friends in the right places, or in my case, family. After hearing of my time-consuming battle against the sod with nothing but a rust shovel, my grandfather contacted a friend of his who happens to own a large Kabota rototiller capable of cutting through sod (and scooping up large rocks, which came in handy!). His name is George and he lives in southern Maine, where he manages four gardens and a greenhouse. George grew up on a farm and dreams of buying ten good acres of arable land upon which he can establish a self-sufficient homestead. Although he has his gardens, they are all seasonal and spread throughout the region (literally many miles apart). He was happy to come out and till my land for me, free of charge (though I did insist upon giving both he and my grandfather loaves of my cranberry-apple-nut bread). What would have taken me something close to ten hours to dig took him less than one. It really puts into perspective the term “horse-power” and the strength of fossil-fuel powered machinery. As loathe as I was initially to accept his help based on my principles, I worried that I would never get my gardens prepared and still have time to produce reasonable results for my research. Hopefully, this will only be a one-time occurrence and the rest of the labor can be my own.
In the meantime, I scoped out local compost and mulch hay suppliers. Next weekend’s projects will include adding more compost to the soil, buying mulch hay with which to deter weeds, tilling under any germinating weed seeds, setting up row covers, testing my hose length (I should have done this already), perhaps building temporary cold frames (I still need windows), and maybe working on trellises. After George and my grandfather departed, tea breads in hand, I began the long, tedious process of removing the rocks and large portions of sod from my soil. Ask any New Englander where their beautiful rock walls come from and they’ll tell you, with a smile, that they don’t grow crops up here in New England, but rocks. The ground is full of rocks. I must have tossed hundreds of rocks and shaggy hunks of sod out of my beds. I was fortunate enough to have Andrew’s help spreading my compost. Otherwise I would have been working well into the dark and perhaps the following morning, trying to empty the back of the pick-up. I’m hesitant to leave it sitting full, not only because a good rain would weigh the compost down like a pile of bricks, but also because the truck isn’t strictly mine.
A few days ago, I spotted the groundhog, sitting in the lawn, looking awfully odd. They are supposed to be skittish creatures, wary of humans, but as I approached, this one simply sat where it was, mouth ajar, eyes glazed. Its fur was matted and dull, its body small. Finally, decided that I was too close for comfort, it shrieked and lunged at me, chasing me for a few yards before flattening itself to the earth. I haven’t dealt with many groundhogs, but this struck me as rather strange. I shrugged it off and told my grandfather, who wanted to shoot it and make a stew out of it, that it might be better left uneaten…
As we prepared the Kabota, the groundhog emerged again, sitting comfortably next to my pickup truck and appearing utterly nonplused by all the action on its turf. When we approached, it simply leaned to the side, staring at us and looking quite ill. Seeing this, may grandfather’s face became grave. “It’s sick,” he said, shaking his head. “Nope, can’t eat it. I’d give it a good whack.” He nodded to the shovel on the ground beside me.
I wasn’t keen on the idea of whacking a sick groundhog to death with my shovel, though I suppose in a pinch it would be effective. I briefly considered unearthing my hunting bow from the closet, but reconsidered. I called animal control instead and within the hour an officer appeared to examine the groundhog. “It’s probably rabies,” he told us. “This area is full of it. We’ll have to destroy this guy.” There was a touch of softness to his voice.
By “destroy”, he meant “shoot”, which was probably the most humane thing to do. This guy. The groundhog was terribly cute, despite its mangy, greasy fur and crazed, oily stare. Cleaned up, it might have been someone’s overfed guinea pig. The officer went back to his truck, returned with his .22, and took aim. We all stopped to watch, until George shook his head and motioned for us to get back to work, clearing sod. After a sharp crack the groundhog tipped to its side, deflating, and was gone. The officer, donning blue nitrile gloves, shoveled the creature into a trash bag and took him to the dump. In a year’s time, perhaps he’ll return to his home, here in Kittery, to nourish the earth in which he once build his home.
I’ve decided that I’m going to try natural repellants such as cat urine (from a friend of mine who has a surplus of used kitty litter), human hair, and natural garlic spreads. None of these sound particularly effective, but they’re worth a shot. If they fall short, I’ll bite the bullet at install a fence. However, everyone that I’ve spoken to in this region has found that even carefully angled and deeply buried fences are ineffective against groundhogs. Most people trap or shoot them. I still have my havahart and this time, I know where I can legally release what I catch (thank you again, Adam Stevens, Animal Control Specialist!)
In addition to preparing my garden soil, I conducted some intensive transplant surgery on my poor raspberry bush. Convinced that it was afflicted with root-rot, I removed it from its soil, aired out the roots, and disinfected the pot with bleach. The soil bared the smell of rot and the roots were slimy, too classic symptoms. I sprayed the plant itself with diluted neem oil and repotted it in fresh potting soil, taking care to not overwater it this time. While my plan should have worked, the raspberry bush is undergoing a slow and visually painful death, its leaves and tiny blossoms yellowing. Perhaps I was mistaken in my diagnosis. Regardless, I fear this plant may be a lost cause (much as many of my sweet potatoes were, though one has managed to start sprouting slips from its crown…a very exciting moment for me!) I also planted more starts for my greenhouse, including: Red Norland Potatoes, Optima Bibb Lettuce, Lemon Balm, Long Purple Eggplant, Lineras Quinoa, Easy Treat Hybrid Tomatoes, Sugar Daddy Snap Peas, Genovese Basil, Resina Calendula, Nasturtium Mix, and more Lacinato Kale.
The weather suddenly turned warm and I decided that it was time to get to work preparing my land. I know I’m still early, but it takes me a long time to get through the physical labor involved with some of the tasks at hand (I’ve lost a lot of strength it seems, hibernating through the winter). Fortunately, I have at my disposal an arsenal of young, strapping men (one of which was purely accidental…and as a result, an ephemeral feature on my networking web). My first thanks goes out to Rob Blais, wise backyard gardener and owner of a fine rototiller. My second goes to Andrew Sakach, who made up for my lack of muscle when he lugged compost and tossed sod. My third goes out to Animal Control Specialist and Sugar Maple Tapper Adam Stevens, who tried to catch my groundhog. In the end, we failed, though we did manage to catch the same opossum twice in a row. It takes a community to work the land, even on such a humble plot of grass as my own. To invite further community-development, I’ve offered my skills as a (dare I say gourmet?) cook and baker to barter food for help!
I decided to take Rob’s offer and use his rototiller to prepare my soil. The act of tilling the soil is highly discouraged in permaculture, but I have limited time to start my garden and observe my yields. Tilling the soil exposes the delicate beneficial soil fungi to sunlight, thus killing them. It also destroys and displaces many beneficial microorganisms such as earthworms. The structure of the soil can be left overly-fragile, allowing nutrients to leach out of it and making it susceptible to compaction . Walking behind a tiller (as I had to do with Rob’s) can compact freshly-tilled soil and the weight of the tiller coupled with its tines can compact deeper soil levels. This is called a “hardpan” and occurs when the soil just beneath the tilled soil presses into a hard “crust”, impenetrable to water and plant roots. They also make it difficult for organisms to move up and down through the soil.
Plants growing in a hardpan will appear stunted, suffer from drought more easily than other plants, and can die from lack of nutrients. Hardpans can be difficult to break up, but are usually more of a problem when an area is tilled repeatedly, year after year (often with larger equipment). Similar issues of compaction can occur with heavy draft horses working the fields or cattle grassing in a single area for too long. Hardpans also occur naturally, depending on how the soil was formed. A hardpan can be tilled through to a deeper level, repaired by resting the land or adopting no-till methods, and by planting deep-rooting crops that naturally break through hardpan soil .
But I have limited time and my soil is extremely dense with clay. Adam gardens extensively at his home in York, ME, and has comparable soil to my own. He said that it took him five good years to make his soil workable. While I understand that I won’t have a perfect garden by the close of this semester, I really don’t feel like I can take such a leisurely pace with this land. I’d like to see some results in the next few months. The three of us agreed that using the rototiller was a good idea. I will do an initial preparation and then pursue no-till/low-till methods that preserve the soil structure, adding composted organic material to the tops of the beds and allowing the critters in the soil and the plant roots to do the tilling for me. The local transfer station (dump) produces high-quality compost for a very low price. It won’t be ready for a few weeks, but I will probably attempt to use that for my gardens. I may be able to include some fresh manure from mules, rabbits, chickens, sheep, and goats on a nearby farm (though I’ll need to collect some transportation buckets to carry it in! I will be able to add these, kitchen scraps, seaweed from the local coastline, and perhaps coffee from nearby restaurants (and coffee-drinking friends) to my compost pile.
But I digress…back to the tiller and sod removal. Using the rototiller is easy. After disengaging the wheels from the depth gauge on the back, it’s just a flip of a switch, a tug of a string, and (in true lawnmower fashion, a squeeze of the handle bar). I found using the tiller to be surprisingly fun as I jostled my way up and down my small garden bed. I went over it twice: first at a depth of 8 inches and then again at 12 inches. After that, I picked out the largest rocks and spread the bed with a mixture of compost and aged cow manure, which I tilled into the soil with a third pass of the rototiller. I smoothed the top with a rake and voila! A new bed was born. I do believe that I either removed too much soil with the sod or did not apply enough compost to the area, because I was aiming for a raised mound but ended up with something level with the initial soil line.
Cutting the sod and carrying the compost bags were very difficult for me, though Rob seemed to take off the skin of the soil like it was nothing. After his departure, I had to resort to cutting cubes into the sod and pulling them out one by one. I think that I could benefit from a sharper shovel or spade, or even perhaps a mechanized sod-cutter (though they are hefty and expensive to rent). I have at least three more of these beds to prepare, in addition to digging the ground for the groundhog and maybe deer fencing. Andrew was kind enough to pile the sod neatly for me, as well as carry the bags down the hill. I’ll have to come up with more efficient solutions if I want to make any progress. The rains are beginning, which leaves the earth wet, heavy, and impenetrable. Some books have recommended waiting for a good rain to remove the sod, but I think that my soil is too heavy for that. The last thing I want is to try to carry the compost down a slippery, wet hill…
Another new concern is that I think my raspberries have root-rot. I have only watered them once, but the soil never really drained and they have been extremely moist ever since. The leaves are slowly starting to yellow and die, one by one, and I fear that the entire bush will fade at this rate. I’m not exactly sure what to do in this situation. Replanting the bush is an option, but if I put it outside, it may die from the cold. I could put it into a pot, but it may be too late to prevent the infection from spreading. I will try to aerate the soil and apply some neem oil to destroy the fungus. I may transplant it to a larger pot as well, just in case. Updates to come!
Rototiller and why I’ll do it and how
I set out a havahart trap for the alleged groundhog living on my property. After carefully studying the Havahart website’s directions, I set the trap and placed the recommended feast of bananas, corn, and cantaloupe in an innocent line leading up to the trap plate. I was going to add in some canned tuna, but my gourmet sensibilities flared against it. The trap itself is simple to set: just a flip here and a tug there. Since I wasn’t sure where the burrow was located, I placed the trap underneath a pine tree near the groundhog’s favorite browsing grounds.
Within a day, my devious trap was a success! However, my captive was not what I had intended to find…
Within a day and a half I had a terrified raccoon in my Havahart, sitting on a pile of cantaloupe rinds. I carefully covered the cage with towels to calm the creature and took it for a short field trip to what I thought was a state park (according to my grandfather, who releases his groundhogs and raccoons there). It seems I was misinformed. I stopped my car on the side of the road and release the raccoon into 350 acres of privately owned and heavily raccoon-infested land. I would find this out approximately two minutes after letting the raccoon go, thanks to a passing animal control specialized who stopped to ask me what exactly I was doing.
He was Adam Stevens: fully licensed and certified provider of emergency wildlife removal services. It turns out that an awful lot of people unthinkingly (or covertly, I’m sure) release raccoons into that area and the owner is faced with a terrible concentration of animals in his lawn (small as it is by comparison). Adam was friendly enough and didn’t turn me in for my crime. I mentioned my attempt to preemptively trap my groundhog and he gave me his card. According to Adam, I shouldn’t have seen any groundhogs for at least another month. Most are still hibernating.
The next day, I saw the groundhog, nibbling at the grass in the yard.
Naturally, I called Adam Stevens. It seemed like the karmically-appropriate choice. He came over within the hour and we spent about an hour more walking the property, talking about wild animals. It turns out that the thick stand of cut brush and dead Japanese Knotweed across the train tracks makes for an ideal groundhog nesting site. Their burrows can have multiple entrances, and while there are probably a few around, we found one under a mound of earth just beyond my property. Most groundhogs are in hibernation, but apparently the more brazen males and pregnant females will start to forage out of their dens at about this time, especially with the warmer temperatures. Because I am trapping it early, the chance of a litter being born is scant, and if I am removing a dominant male, it may disperse the entire family. Dens can be up to fifty feet long, though they are more commonly around fifteen, and can house ten or more members.
Groundhogs have trouble regulating their body temperatures, which is why they nest underground and prefer shady areas. They prefer moist, clay-rich soils that insulate well and tend not to collapse…much like the soil in my bay-side yard. In the current weather, a trapped groundhog would be fine for a day or so. In the heat of the summer, with temperatures commonly above 80 degrees, a groundhog can die within hours from exposure. They get most of the water from their food and dehydrate easily. This is also why they are such a nuisance to gardeners, who supply ample sources of water-rich, succulent vegetables . Adam baits his traps with strawberries and strawberry jam, both of which are rich in moisture and sugar.
We also talked about skunks and raccoons. Raccoons are attracted to moisture and thick brush. Thanks to the obliteration of natural predators such as coyotes, foxes, and wolves, the raccoon, groundhog, and skunk populations have soared. Raccoons, in particular, are extremely common in my area. Adam said that it would be useless to try to catch them all. I could set the trap out every night and I would find a raccoon in it by the morning. The same is true of skunks, though it might be a few days rather than a few hours before my trap is tripped by a striped, nightly marauder. We found evidence of skunk activity in the yard: shallow circular burrows in the earth called “whirlpools”. These occur when skunks dig into the soil, searching for grubs, caterpillars, and small insects. It is the first step towards more permanent residency…or the sign of a nearby burrow. Deer are likewise an issue, with high populations living just a few blocks away in the patches of forest between residential areas. . Though I told Adam that I didn’t think the deer would find my gardens, he was quick to disagree. I trust his judgment, since this is what he does for a living, after all. Better to use preventative measures than try and trap my way to victory.
The solution for all of the creatures, according to Adam, is proper fencing. A deer fence should be at least eight feet high and is usually constructed out of lightweight mesh. Raccoons can still climb over deer fences, but will probably be deterred by the height. Groundhogs and skunks can burrow under fences. To prevent them, chicken wire or hardware cloth can be buried twelve inches underground, extending from the above ground fence, and bent at a 90-degree angle away from the garden. This should prevent them from digging under the barrier. He also mentioned running string across the top of the fence to deter seagulls, which live in dense profusion around the bridge just down the road. I had thought that my property was bomb-proof, but it seems nature has other plans for me. It will be a learning experience and a challenge for me!
Update: after a second round of traps, Adam and I have managed to catch a possum! We’ll be releasing it to the wild shortly.
Meanwhile, I’ve completed my fluorescent light strand for mounting inside of my vertical “greenhouse”. Really, it’s more like a shelf with zippered plastic thrown over it, but it keeps the plants warm, the soil moist, and when the weather gets nicer, I can use it to harden off or start seedlings outside. The process of connecting the lights, known as daisy-chaining, goes something like this: first I needed to buy a grounded plug, which was simple enough. I also purchased connector cables, electrical wire, wing twists, a romex cable, metal chains, and S-hooks. Before I did anything, the attendants at Home Depot provided me with a rough diagram of what to do and about an hour of repetitive, detailed instruction on how not to kill myself. Black wires are the “hot” wires (carrying the current), white wires are neutral, and green or non-insulated wires are the “ground” wires. The ground must never touch the black or the white wires.
I stripped back the insulation from the plug and the initial ballast wires (the ballast being located on the inside of the light fixture and bearing the wires for the plug as well as the bulb. I connected the blacks to blacks, whites to whites, and I combined the ground wires, wrapping them around a green “ground” screw that juts through the top of the fixture. I also attached the black, white, and ground wire of the second bulb to those of the first with a stripped romex cable (a cable that contains the three wires and can be used for multiple purposes). All of the connections were fastened safely together with the wing twists (plastic encasements that twirl and hold stripped wire ends together) and then again with electrical tape, for the preservation of my sanity. I ran the romex cable out of the pop-out sections of the lights via connector cables, which are metal clamps that hold the wires firmly in place. The process was the same for connecting the second and third light, save for that there were fewer wires to join together. I considered adding a fourth light, but since I already have a growlight that fits the space and some extra room under my initial growing lamp in the closet, I would just wait. A week or so before I harden these plants off, I will plant my next wave of crops. Not all of these can go out immediately, but enough of them can to free up some space on my shelves. As the weather warms, I’ll have more flexibility with how many plants I can put outside (my row-covers, when I get them up, will help…but first the ground needs to dry out so I can till it and put in proper compost).
I made quite a few mistakes with the lights…buying the wrong equipment, making multiple returns…but it was a wonderful experience and I now know how to construct my own greenhouse setup without having to pay for expensive grow lights. I’m using T12 Plant and Aquarium bulbs for my greenhouse, which is a good place to start, but insufficient for growing plants to maturity. They emit a greater proportion of the red light than most bulbs, which aid in the growth and maturation process of many plants. Leafy plants can get by on a predominantly blue spectrum, but the red light triggers a hormone response in plants that brings on flowering. My growlight can handle bringing leafy vegetables to full maturity and fruiting plants to ample height. My plan is to use all of the lights as supplements, giving me a head start on the weather.
I unpacked my things as quickly as I could after moving to the new apartment in Kittery, ME. My family owns a small, multi-apartment home that my extended family has lived in since I was a child. My father grew up in this house and they would like to keep the land for future generations. I had the opportunity to move into one of the apartments, and I knew that by doing so I would not only have a I have a great area to practice my gardening with, but I would be helping my family as well. It’s a perfect learning area: a sandbox for an aspiring gardener. I measured the proportions of the five distinct yard plots, one of which is a substantial hillside that I may or may not be able to use, depending on how much time I have to develop it (and depending on how the children living here feel about sacrificing their hill to my cause). I took copious notes of my observations, including pictures of the landscape (which are available on in my Kismet Roots photo albums). All of the land is south-facing, which makes it blaze with light during the day. In addition, all of the shadows cast by trees on the property fall straight back over the house, rather than shading the landscape. Come summer, when the leaves fill out a bit, the shadows will be larger (particularly on the hillside), but will still fall in the same line.
The hill is a 50’X75’ rectangle with a gentle undulation and about a 50 degree angle. There is some shade from a grove of trees and rose bushes on the left side. To the right, there is a second large patch of rose bushes. There are roses all over the property and they grow in great, untamed profusion wherever there isn’t lawn. Some of the rose hips are still red and plump, despite the harsh winter!
Along the far end of the property, along an abandoned railroad, there is a long stretch of flat, sunny land. It’s perfectly wide enough for a bed or three and is out of the reach of the trees. The space is 7’X50’. Japanese knotweed grows wild on the other side of the tracks and returns year after year, no matter how many times it’s mowed back. My family initially thought that it was bamboo, but I recognized the familiar blossoms and leaves. I knew for sure that it was knotweed when my father mentioned chewing on the rhubarb-like shoots in the spring as a young boy. It has never spread beyond the tracks, but I’ll have to keep an eye on it as the weather warms. There is an almost continuous sea-breeze from the bay beyond the tracks. It affects most of the property, but is most pronounced here. I will have to take care with my initial plants to protect them from the chill of the wind. The knotweed acts as a natural windbreak (undoubtedly, this is why it was introduced in such a parallel fashion with the yard). Come spring, I will incorporate the shoots into my harvest!
At the base of the hill, there is a small plot, 7’X 20’ that is at a slight angle. Because of this angle (20 degrees or so) I am hesitant to use it. I think I might be able to construct beds that move with the flow of the land, lessening any runoff.
There is a small shed in the middle of the yard. The three kids play near this region, so I may be conservative with how much I do here. The area is 6’X14’, nearly flat, with some shade from an unknown deciduous tree. In summer, the shade will be much greater. There is also a suspicious, large hole (the first of three). I know for a fact that there is a groundhog in residence here. Could this the entrance to its home? Or is it one of the other strange holes? Or are they all separate burrows? Or perhaps none of them lead to burrows at all…
There are two other plots: both of them “pool-side” (or on the far side of the pool, shouldering the neighbor’s property. They run the risk of pool run-off or splashing, but only if I plan my gardens poorly (I may be new to this, but I know enough not to build a garden in front of a chlorinated overflow spout). The first part is 12’X14’ with some tree shade. The second part, towards the base of the pool, is 4’X22’ at a very slight angle (about 17 degrees). There are more roses on the left side. Both areas are protected from the sea-breeze to a higher degree than the rest of the land, probably due to the number of trees ensconcing them.
There are power lines at the back of the property. These, the numerous mature and immature trees, the dense shrubs, the nearby water, the birdhouse in the middle of the property (the birdhouse?!), and the nearby stone bridge (nests spotted on the bridge underbelly) all lend themselves to perching areas for birds. I suspect that my fruiting crops and grains will suffer losses from heavy bird feeding unless I am prepared. I can’t remove the trees, shrubs, or birdhouse, so I’ll have to put up defenses (netting, scarecrows, ect).
I also took a sample of the soil and tested it for nutrients and acidity. I would like to get more tests, because I for some reason thought that one pack of tests would cover the entirety of the land. I made a composite of soils from each site on the property and combined a diluted suspension of the soil (5 parts to 1) with each reactive test. The results were depressing, but not hopeless. The soil, on average, is about 7.0 pH, so according to Burpee, that is relatively neutral . It is very low in nitrogen, low in phosphorus (but not as low as the nitrogen measurement), and moderately high in potash (potassium). So I have my work cut out for me. I’ll have to try to amend the beds before I plant anything in the soil if I want it to grow.
The soil texture seems to be a combination of clay and silt, which isn’t surprising given that I am located right next to a marshy, bay. I am reminded of Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture, in which he introduces the concept of chinampas as a method of efficient, cyclical gardening. Developed in early Mesoamerica by the Xochimilcans, later adopted by the Aztecs, and still used today, chinampas have poetically been described as “floating gardens” and are a hallmark of modern permaculture design theory . They consist of rectangles of arable land mounded into a marsh or shallow lake. Birds, fish, algae, and all manner of life take advantage of the water around the land. Decaying plants, animal waste, and other nutrients collect in the water, which is held in place by the mounded earth. In effect, each chinampa is a raised bed, surrounded by a highly fertile irrigation pool that constantly maintains soil moisture and nutrition. On average, a chinampa is 30 meters by 2.5 meters and are contained by staked baskets of woven reeds or wood. Permaculture design suggests that not only could chinampa beds be used for crops, but the edges of each bed for beneficial, moisture-loving or water-dwelling plants. Vining plants could easily take advantage of the open areas over the water, shading the life below while making use of open space. Chinampas are an excellent use of native plants or plants that are poorly adapted to regimented rows .
If I could only have access to the marshland behind my property, I would transform it into a system of chinampas. As it stands, the bay floods irregularly and is owned by the government and individual property owners. Most of the land closest to me is shaded, but I could perhaps take a few buckets of the soil back for my own uses. My only worry is that the salinity would be too high for my plants. According to Amy Antonucci, much of New England’s soil is low in salt, and so she freely adds seaweed to her beds that she harvests from the coasts of Maine . Because I am already so near to the water, my case may be different. I will test the soil on a specific plant to gauge its effect once the weather warms (the bay is currently frozen). During my survey, I noticed some seaweed growing close to shoreline of the marshland. I believe that I too could harvest some seaweed for my garden beds, both from behind the property and potentially from some of the nearby coastline.
To rebuild my soil quickly (in preparation for planting), I plan on adding a mix of composted manure, composted waste materials from a local farm, and a mixture of bone meal for phosphorous and blood meal for nitrogen. I hesitated briefly on using bone meal for fear of contaminating my soil with bovine-derived prions, but according to the Organic Consumers Association, the risk of contracting mad-cow disease from bone meal in the garden is minimal. The greatest risk is inhaling the dust, which can easily be prevented with a mask. As for plant absorption, the OCA claims that the protein molecules are too large for the plants to absorb into their cell walls. The nitrogen is available to the plants, but any dangerous proteins are not .
I also took stock of the plants that were growing well in the soil:
- Roses: Roses prefer clay soil, affirming my impression that my soil is high in clay. The soil must be relatively high in nutrients, despite my lacking test results, because roses prefer rich soil and they grow extremely well on this property. It may also be that there is a large proportion of sand in the soil (common in this area), which also is preferable for roses .
- Plantain: This plant thrives in soil that is low in nutrients and heavily compacted (such as curbsides and parking lot crags) . It is a clear sign that I will need to amend my soil before planting.
- Moss: Moss prefers soil with poor drainage, moderate soil, and limited sunlight . The moss on this property is close to the train tracks and Japanese Knotweed, which shades the area. However, the moss is near the garden plot, which means I may have to deal with some dense soil initially.
- Mugwort: Mugwort prefers sandy, loamy soil, though it tolerates a wide variety. It is exceptionally hardy and can grow in a wide span of pH measurements .
- Japanese Knotweed: Apparently can tolerate a wide variety of soil types. It thrives in particular in sunny, river-side areas. Because it creates dense patches of shade and grows quickly, it can out-compete native species, making it highly invasive. It was first brought to the US and England in the 1800s from Asia as an ornamental . I am reminded of the risks that many green permaculturalists run by incorporating hardy perennials into their gardens without first understanding the impact that plant will have in the larger ecosystem.
- Red Oak: The oaks shine a light on the PH of the soil. They prefer soil that is between 5 and 7. Where there are oaks growing, the soil is unlikely going to be higher than 7 on the PH scale .
- Chickweed: Chickweed prefers soils high in nitrogen and moisture . I found a patch of it growing at the base of the hill, far away from the tracks. That area appears to be richer in nitrogen than the rest of the lawn.
To house my seedlings, I constructed a small greenhouse-shelf. I wasn't expecting them so soon, so I visited my local home-depot to purchase some indoor grow lights. I already have one rather nice grow light: a two-foot long, energy-efficient, fluorescent light fixture that emits very little heat. It holds two bulbs, each of which is 14 watt T5 bulbs that emit 96.7 lumens per a watt. That puts it on par with standard, high-output fluorescent grow lights, generating enough light for general plant growth. Because my light produces primarily in the blue spectrum, it isn’t the best choice for fruiting plants, but I won’t be using it for that anyway (not to mention, most of what I am sprouting right now are greens). I called my local home-depot and was assured that there were lights similar to mine in stock, yet when I arrived it appeared that the only grow lights were too long for the space that I had. I left, went to my local coffee shop to do a little research, and returned to buy a different light. For growing plants to full maturity, high-end grow lights are really the way to go.
However, for starting seedlings, I decided to follow the advice of Heather Zydek, owner of Blue Bungalow Farm in Wisconsin. She uses T8 plant and fish tank bulbs (commonly used for lizards), to grow her lettuce seeds and has seen great success . The bulbs aren’t powerful enough to compete with traditional grow lights, but for getting a head start on the season, they’re cost effective and perfectly sufficient. I will compare my grow light with my new T8 light once I have more seedlings.
To protect my crops, I have done multiple things: First, I purchased a havahart trap for the rogue groundhog. The preferred bait for groundhogs includes cantaloupes (these are the best, according to the havahart company), sweet corn, lettuce, peas, strawberries, string beans, cucumbers, peaches, and (oddly) vanilla extract. . I will construct small row covers with PVC pipes, which I will have to buy joints for (was planning on bending them, but it turns out that bending hard plastic is more challenging than I anticipated). I will have to cut the piping further and use PVC joints to create a more geometric design. I see no reason for this to be any less efficient than a hoop model, though it may be more costly in the end. I will also have to enlarge my beds to accommodate the greater cover size, but I don’t foresee this being an issue.
Climate change has vastly affected my growing area. In 1990, the growing zone for Kittery, Maine was 5b, thanks to the buffering effect of the coastline. The majority of Maine at that time fell between 5a and 3b. The USDA 2012 climate change map paints a very different picture of Maine’s growing zones. Kittery has moved to 6a, and the remainder of Maine is mostly between 5b and 4a . While this allows me some flexibility in the crops I can grow, it speaks to the rapidity of climate change. Pests that otherwise would be unknown in the north are slowly making their way upwards. So perhaps I’ll be able to grow my sweet potatoes after all…but I’ll watch out for the insects that come along with them. In a heart-stopping moment, I thought that the 17 year cicadas expected for 2013 were making their way up to Maine, but apparently they’re hitting the southern states this time around. Cicadas aren't known to be serious garden pests, but they do suck the sap out of more rugged, woody bushes and vines.
Now that the snow has melted for the most part, I’m turning my attention to preparing for the start of the new season! My time has been occupied with posting wanted advertisements for garden supplies, compost, and tools, and with researching basic permaculture design principles. I already have some offers for reclaimed lumbar (early April), compost (whenever I can get it, which will probably be early April as well), and five old windows (after I move to the new gardening location, potentially within the next two weeks). I’ll also be paying a visit to the local dump to see if I can recycle some old materials for raised beds, trellising, composting, row covers, pots, racks, and cold frames. Straw mulch has proven to be an elusive commodity, though hay is in high demand. According to Toby Hemenway, author of “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture”, a gardening should never mulch with hay unless he or she wants a bed of grass and weeds sprouting out of their vegetable beds . Now, to someone with a little more experience in this area, that might seem like common sense. I, however, did not know the difference between straw and hay and blithely assumed that they were the same thing. I’m glad that I learned the difference before seeding my entire garden with hay.
Some growers I know already have their seedlings sprouting under indoor lights, but I should still be well within the window for starting my own plants. I’m tempted to say that I could start them anytime between now and June (for the quickest varieties) for a late summer harvest. I certainly don’t expect it to get too hot up here! I’ve chosen to start my most hardy plants first, as well as those with elongated transplant dates. I hope to stagger some of my greens for multiple harvests, especially once the season warms up and moving the plants outside becomes easier.
I have four fifty-count flats of recycles cardboard transplant pots at my disposal, as well as potential egg cartons and toilet paper roles (I’m still collecting the latter). I’ve started onions, arugula, a lettuce mix, two types of carrots, beets, cabbage, spinach, mustard, two types of kale, celery, parsley, marigolds, bunching onions, cilantro, chamomile, thyme, and Echinacea. I have many more plants to add on later, as well as potential surprise additions from any seed swaps or fellow growers I encounter. Using Hemenway’s concept of stacking plant functions, I’ve endeavored to select certain plants not only for their immediate value, but for their secondary roles in respect to their fellow crops. For example, Echinacea and chamomile are medicinal, but they also attracts beneficial pollinators, which not only aids my flowering plants but also nourishes the native pollinators and honeybees in my area. The marigolds are supposed pest repellants, as are the cilantro, thyme, and both of the onion varieties.
I considered incorporating the “herb spiral” into my garden design, but I found that the concept, while appropriate for limited spaces, did not lend itself to the layout of my property. The permaculture herb spiral can include any smallish plant, and swirls the growing area upwards over a mound of soil, using an equal amount of surface area in a much smaller footprint. For my purposes, especially with the use of certain plants as pest repellants, I don’t see the spiral as practical, but for others it would make a functional, beautiful garden addition.
Once I gain access to the property, I’ll have a better opportunity to accurately map out my garden beds. I am toying with the idea of “interplanting” in a triangular grid rather than using segmented rows of singular crops (Hemenway, 2000). Not only would this reduce bed space, but it may also serve to hinder the spread of pests and diseases. What it won’t do is stop the groundhogs that live on the property. I’ll have to attend to them when the time comes to it. I can’t wait for the day when I get to take an angry groundhog on a field trip in its very own Havahart trap.
Despite the fact that I will be planting my garden in the far north, my undying love of sweet potatoes has overridden logic and pushed me to include them in my growing plans. Sweet potatoes are started from ‘slips’, or sprouts that begin from the sweet potato itself. The cut roots can be planted directly into the ground, much as potatoes, but often times they are started early indoors to elongate their season. This is the principle I will be relying upon in order to successfully cultivate my sweet potatoes in a shorter, cooler growing season.
Fortunately, I work at a small health food store, where the produce available is all organic and top quality, so I was able to buy a few untreated sweet potatoes for a relatively low price. The alternative was to purchase the slips online and have them shipped to me for an astronomical sum. The way I see it, I can try to create my own slips from a few potatoes and plant them myself. If they fail, the loss is minimal and I might even be able to eat the starting cuts (given that they aren’t moldy and disgusting). If they succeed, then I will have broadened my available food supply and will have gained knowledge that I can share with other growers. My only immediate concern is that it will take some time for the sprouts to develop, perhaps longer than I have to wait. If that turns out to be the case, I will cultivate them late and arrange some heavier protection for them as the season closes in late summer. Or perhaps the rogue groundhogs in the plot will have a special treat for the winter…
Starting the sweet potato slips is simple. The roots are sliced in half and ringed with toothpicks. Thus skirted, the cuttings are suspended in water, with approximately ¼- 1/2 inches of the potato body submerged. Ideally, small new root tendrils will begin to grow from the mother body, eventually leading to green shoots springing forth above. At four-five inches, the slips can be separated and planted into larger pots or directly into the ground (depending on the weather and ground temperature). According to Pam Dawling, a master gardener and resident of Twin Oaks Intentional Community in Charlottesville, VA, sweet potatoes don’t require highly nutritious soil or large amounts of organic material. This makes them ideal for new gardens where previous soil amendments may have been limited. Dawling Recommends planting the slips into compost for 1-2 weeks prior to planting outside, which is exactly what I will need to do anyway because of the chilly Maine spring temperatures. They germinate best at 70-85 degrees F and need to be spaced 6”-18”, depending on desired root size. Each plant can produce 5-10 slips and I have ten slips, so I have plenty of room for failure!
I will continue to update the progress of the sweet potatoes as the season develops! Hopefully by summer, I’ll be posting pictures of sweet potato pie made with tubers pulled from my own garden!
To culminate the end of the semester, I decided to host a Varietal Honey Tasting and Potluck through the Greater Seacoast Permaculture Meet up Group, moderated by Amy Antonucci (but of course!). I provided two wildflower honeys, one from Maine and the other from Amy Antonucci (representing New Hampshire), and four varietal honeys: Buckwheat, Blueberry, Black Sage, and Tamarisk. I also ordered cranberry, sourwood, and tupelo, but the cranberry was out of stock and the tupelo and sourwood didn’t arrive until after the tasting was over (late in the evening sometime. Luckily, a fellow Meet-up member by the name of John was able to share two honeys of his own: “Killer Bee Honey” (made from African bees. Really there is little difference between killer bee honey and European bee honey aside from the flowers available for them to forage on, but I was grateful all the same) and Brazilian Rainforest wildflower honey (which was amazingly complex, easily one of the best honeys on the table).
There was such a big turnout (approximately twenty people, while the average Meet-up turnout is about eight people), that I had to move the tasting to my father’s house in Stratham to give people enough space. That was just as well, as he recently finished putting up all of his Christmas decorations and the house looked fantastically festive. He also has more than three chairs, unlike Andrew and me, making everyone a great deal more comfortable.
Channeling my inner foodie, I put together a gourmet spread of food pairings to taste along with the honeys. I supplied assorted crackers and breads, a diverse cheese platter featuring sharp Irish cheddar, Stilton, Roquefort, smoked Gouda, camembert, Ricotta Salata, Brie, and Manchego. Someone else supplied a wonderful olive tapenade that really complemented the tamarisk honey. I also provided homemade basil pesto, arugula-cashew pesto, a sundried tomato and goat-cheese tart on an almond crust, garlic-parmesan stuffed-dates, and plain Greek yogurt. At the far end of the table, I set out four shades of fine, organic chocolate, starting at 85% cocoa and running up to white chocolate. There I didn’t want anyone to be hungry or fall into an untempered sugar coma after sampling six or so tablespoons of honey. I also compiled a set of menus describing the terroir of each honey, as well as suggested food and drink pairings.
I used the Meet-up as an opportunity to showcase my homemade ginger mead, fruit wines, coffee wine, and rice wine, all of which were roaring successes. I also made an Austrian mulled red wine called Krambambuli out of some left-over Syrah, cranberry juice, brandy, and raw honey. John was kind enough to bring his own homemade maple-syrup mead: a dry, light, and wonderfully crisp wine. Another Meet-up member brought a bottle of the famed Honeymaker mead from Portland, ME, but I unfortunately didn’t get the chance to sample it. My good friend Jessica supplied her homemade blueberry and raw-honey infused vodka, which she aged for over a year. For those not interested in alcohol, I made a pot of mulled cider, pressed from local New Hampshire apples.
Amy Antonucci acted as the director of the tasting, bringing permaculture flyers, Meet-up brochures, magnets, and bumper stickers. Together, we raised over $150 dollars, 20% of which went back to the Meet-up group and the rest going towards the purchase of the varietal honeys and foods. We also facilitated a wonderful discussion after everyone has a chance to mix and mingle on the health, ecological, social, and environmental benefits of local, sustainable honey verses other forms of sweeteners (to include maple syrup). I always forget how little many people know about how bees produce honey. I gave a quick run-down on how honey is made, how it can be used for health and healing, and what makes varietal honeys distinct from each other. One of the members admitted that she assumed that varietal honeys were the same as infused honeys, which shocked both Amy and I. My father, having been privy to so much of what I have been learning, eagerly chimed in whenever he knew the answer to Amy’s questions (and more often than not, he was right!).
Many of the attendants had never been to a permaculture Meet-up before but were so enticed by the idea of a gourmet honey tasting that they made an exception. Other members were thrilled to attend a Meet-up balanced between technical information and pure sensorial enjoyment. My goal was essentially to ‘bribe’ people with a positive, comfortable experience into choosing sustainably produced, local sweeteners over sugar or industrial-scale honey. I’m of the mindset that while it is important to educate people on the hard facts of Colony Collapse Disorder, food subsidies, processed food, and sustainable agriculture, I also feel that people respond best to positive emotional reinforcement. Sure, telling people that they should buy this certain kind of honey might win a few converts, but to really capture their attention, I need to give them the experience of honey. They have to taste for themselves why the distinct personalities of honey are important and how they can fit into regional cultures.
I was fortunate enough to connect with yet another young couple with a similar life goal to Andrew and me, that is, finding some land and trying to live as sustainably as possible while potentially pursuing a business of some kind. My hope is to keep in touch with all of the likeminded people that I meet through my education and through the Meet-ups, in the hopes that I might work with some of them in the near future to manifest a sustainable life of my own. Perhaps we might even evolve into a small community-space and resources allowing.
So impressed by my lust for cooking and my passion for the Honey Tasting, Andrew revisited the idea of starting a Tavern-style restaurant that would source its ingredients and perhaps even its beverages from either local sources or (ideally!) from our own fields. Naturally, with my love of cooking, I would be the Alice Waters of the endeavor, creating culinary masterpieces out of the freshest, most delicious ingredients according to the season and the climate. Making the establishment a tavern rather than a “restaurant” would encourage a more active social environment, with music, performances, and a greater discussion of the beverage available (I am also extremely interested in sustainable brewing. In fact, that is what I initially wanted to focus on when I applied to Goddard). I must admit, I love the idea of a sustainable, locally-sourced tavern. I think it could easily become a social hub and flagship of sustainability, just like Chez Panisse is today.
The sun never seemed to rise today, poised in a foggy twilight that cloaked the trees in drab gray. The melting snow brought out the blush in the otherwise brittle, dehydrated mushrooms growing in Amy’s woodpile. They blossomed through crackles of melting ice and sunken, rotting wood in rings, variegated fans of cellulose. I found them so striking that I found myself crouching in the cold slush with water seeping through the soles of my boots and into my wool socks. Sometimes, it is the beauty of the world around me that makes the work worthwhile. In a day or two, those mushrooms will be gone and the wood from which they grew decomposing into dirt.
It was a lucky day of tolerable weather after two days of cold snow and wind. The air was heavy, moist, and pressing, but not without the proper icy bite of the north to curb it. We arrived late but got right to work. After I ogled the wild mushrooms for a time, I got to work cleaning the salvaged plastic panels of Amy’s “Chicken Greenhouse”. The goal of the chicken greenhouse is to give the chickens a place to walk around when there is snow on the ground. Otherwise, they tend to stay cooped up in their house (no pun intended!) It took me a good two hours to scrub and rinse the plastic. The sheets were awkward, heavy, and unevenly weighed. I had to use gallons of hot water just to loosen the caked mud from the sheets, which splashed readily onto my pants, running into my boots. Each sheet had to be hung to dry, but their length and girth made it challenging to find places other than the muddy, snowy, slushing ground. I spent a good deal of otherwise useful time teetering around the yard, tossing the sheets over wood piles and beams like they were fishing nets. All the while, wafts of Diablo’s chevre perfume drifted past me in odorous waves, punctuated by the tempo of Andrew splitting wood. Wave, chop, wave, chop. Music isn’t always limited to audio.
Andrew and I took turns chopping, yielding the maul to Alex when he arrived. I love splitting wood, though I’m by no means an expert. I enjoy the warmth it gives my muscles and the satisfaction of feeling the wood give beneath the maul. The sharp crack of the logs is no more a disruption of the winter quiet than the rattatat of the woodpeckers in the trees or the snuffing of passing bucks. A machine would have been disruptive, intrusive. The flow of forest life ebbs away from the sound of machinery, leaving a cold, flat nothing behind it. I love to hear the crack of the wood and the resounding pause of the forest as it considers my actions.
Andrew spent the rest of the day sifting and crushing seashells for Amy’s chickens. Like her seaweed, she collects her shells from the beach by hand. The calcium is essential for the chickens to produce strong-shelled eggs as well as for the chickens themselves.
When I finally had the sheets cleaned up, Andrew, Amy, and I sewed them together by joining their grommeted sides with flexible wire. I’m not sure what these were used for prior to Amy’s usurping their ownership, though I assume they served a similar purpose. They had they look of hiking or camping equipment, though they are much larger than any equipment I’ve ever used. They could have been a giant’s stuff sack or food bag. But there were no giants at the dump, only the relicts of their sport.
Alex joined us once the sheets were attached and we rolled it into one great bundle, walking it through the duck pen and into the enclosed area where the chicken greenhouse waited. Once there, we unrolled it, letting its heavy, metal-barred sides pin it to the frame. It didn’t cover the entire house, but it will be enough to give the chickens some space to walk around when there’s snow on the ground. Once the back of the frame is covered, it will trap their body heat, keeping them warm. Warm chickens are happy chickens and happy chickens lay well.
Soon, Amy and Steve will take a break for the season. We will be meeting after this final packet is due to conduct a salve-making workshop in which we explore how to make medicinal salves with beeswax from her hives. Amy and Steve were gracious enough to invite Alex, Leanna, Andrew, and I to dinner at the end of the semester to commemorate a good working season, the end of my first semester, and Leanna and Alex’s graduation from UNH. I’ll miss working with them, but I’d say it’s about time for a break. We could all use it!
I had the chance to finally meet Amy’s other interns from UNH today! Their names are Leanna and Alex and were both part of the class that I attended at UNH with Amy some time ago. I’d forgotten that they were from that class and seeing them both again was a pleasant surprise. I remember talking briefly with Leanna in particular about Chinese Medicine and other healing modalities. In the future, perhaps after the close of the semester, Amy will be teaching Leanna and I (and potentially Andrew and Alex if they are interested) how to make healing salves from beeswax. It’s just another small nugget of knowledge that I can add to the trove that I’ve already gained over the past few months.
Today, we turned some compost, helped in the construction of the greenhouse, but mostly we worked on building up some beds along the far fence of the lower garden. The goal had been to allow the soil to sift through the fence and create what I assume would have been a dual purpose wind-breaker and goat-feeder out of the crops there (I suspect Amy had some kind of climbing bean in mind). However, the soil ended up piling along the garden-side of the wall and was in dire need of beefing-up. The work went quickly with four able bodies (Andrew was M.I.A. in Virginia, visiting his family and enjoying the 55 degree weather).
Steve and Stevo were busy trying to find the best angle for the greenhouse frame. I may have introduced Stevo here in the past when he stopped by to help Amy sketch out the greenhouse blueprint. He’s a fellow Goddardite, though he attended many years ago. He is a jack of all trades, blunt and genuine, and clearly has a heart of gold. I like him quite a bit. He’s intelligent but not pompous, utterly comfortable in his skin, enjoys sharing his knowledge, and seems to be accepting of all persons, regardless of age, race, and gender. I note this in particular because I’ve experienced some negative biases at other farms when I attempted certain types of work. For example, using a torch to burn back weeds, operating a power saw, and driving a tractor. Steve, Stevo, and Amy are a relief to work with. I can work according to my ability and interest, regardless of my age, my gender, or my lack of prior knowledge. They’re always willing to teach!
I must say, while I know that understanding how to erect an ideal angle for snow run-off is probably a useful skill for me to have, I was rather cold (I desperately need to buy some long underwear!) and frankly I was more of an observer on the sidelines. I did get to help hold up a post while Steve and Stevo tinkered with the angle. I learned that individual breeds of lumber are named after what they do. So, the thin strips of wood Stevo was using as a template are called strapping because they strap things onto other things. It’s clearly a highly creative field.
We took a break after a few hours to go warm up by the fire, during which Amy produced a Brix tester, a small handheld device that measures the amount of sugar in fruits and vegetables. While typically used for juice and wine grapes to ensure good flavor, the Brix test can also be used on garden vegetables and comes with a small chart that equates different sugar levels with ratings between poor and excellent. The numbers vary accordingly. For example, an excellent carrot will have half the sugar of an excellent papaya. Taking the Brix test a step further, produce with higher levels of sugar tend to have higher levels of minerals (this is an imperfect science, but as a whole it’s a pretty good standard). The idea was to measure the sugar content of Amy’s vegetables to estimate the approximate overall mineral concentration.
To test a vegetable or fruit, one must smear a drop of juice onto a rectangular lens and then look through the eye-hole at the opposite site (while facing the light; natural sunlight works best). The lens will have a selection of numbers and a line will appear running horizontally along one of the number brackets. This number equates to the sugar content.
It’s best to apply the Brix test at the height of the harvest season, soon after the vegetable or fruit has been picked. This will give the most accurate reading of the initial nutrition levels present. As the season wanes or as the plant ages in storage, the nutritional content will generally decline. Fruit may become sweeter as it ripens, but after a certain point the sugar will begin to ferment, degrading the product. Since we were all warmed up in Amy’s house and didn’t have a lot of her garden produce on hand, we pulled one of her gigantic carrots from her refrigerator and squeezed it through a garlic press to extract some juice. I was really expecting it to come in as excellent, but it only registered as average. The conventional carrots that Steve purchased from the store also came in as average (though Amy’s tasted far better!)
The next step in measuring nutritional quality would be to conduct soil testing on Amy’s permaculture beds. Because many commercial fruits and vegetables have been bred for sweetness and shelf-life, the Brix test may not necessarily provide a truly accurate reading for the complete profile of the plant in question. Testing the soil would let us estimate what minerals are available for plant uptake and what is potentially deficient. Unfortunately, soil testing must be done repeatedly, sometimes more than once a season, and can be prohibitively expensive. Amy prefers to trust that the work she is doing on her soil is enough to make a nourishing, nutrient-dense harvest for Steve, her animals, and herself. I can personally attest to the quality of her produce. On more than one occasion, Amy has sent Andrew and I home with an enormous bag stuffed with chard, kale, and a leaf-heavy variety of broccoli. Not only is everything she gives us rich with flavor, but we’ve both noticed that we simply feel good after eating it.
The Brix testing really puts the power of Amy’s permaculture system into perspective. The crops she produces are all raised without pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers or fossil-fueled machinery. She rotates her crops each season to prevent pest build-up and soil depletion. Everything that Amy grows is completely sustainable (save for perhaps a minute amount of fossil fuel used to produce and deliver certain seeds that she uses to plant her crops. Not everything she grows is from saved seeds). She consistently is able to produce a surplus of produce that she shares with her interns, her neighbors, and her animals (making for happy, healthy, people-friendly farm critters!) and the nutritional content of her crops rivals that found in commercial grocery stores.
Conversely, the carrots from the store, while comparable nutritionally, are from monocropped fields flooded with chemical treatments, fertilized and harvest with fossil fuels, packaged in not-so-sustainable plastic to make them appealing to the American eye, shipped across the U.S. from California to New Hampshire (many things are shipped globally, not just nationally), trucked to hundreds if not thousands of stores and warehouses (using even more energy), and then left to sit in grocery storage or on shelves for weeks (sometimes months…I worked in the produce department of a grocery store in Santa Fe, so I know how long a vegetable can be made to last and how many times it can be resuscitated with a chilly water bath). The environmental price of the commercial carrots is pretty steep, but as long as the American consumer saves an extra buck in the short term, it’s a price they’re willing to pay.
We’ll be sure to test some more of Amy’s produce in the future. I’m curious to see how her other crops stand up to conventionally farmed produce. We’ll also be building up the wood mulching along the back wall of the garden, where Amy plans on planting some berry bushes. Berry bushes and fruit or nut-bearing trees prefer wood-mulch to straw mulching because they fair better with higher concentrations of fungi in the soil. Many vegetable crops, such as those in the Brassica family, do better with higher levels of soil bacteria (which prefer straw). Enhancing the levels of beneficial microorganisms present in the soil is one of the many ways Amy maintains a circularly beneficial microcosm in which her plants can grow. Commercial fields are microorganism dead zones, voided of life from the harsh chemicals and toxins applied to the soil to combat pests and enhance plant fertility. In nature, an abundance of life forms and diversity is the failsafe for the system as a whole. Amy’s garden holds up a mirror to nature, manifesting biomimicry at its most basic and intuitive level. She is a living example of what we as a culture could be doing differently to make the planet a better place for all.
In a previous entry, I quoted Amy on how she views her work as making small miracles happen. It really is like working with a miracle-maker when I’m out on the homestead. The changes are slow and small-scale: the decomposition of seaweed into soil, early garlic sprouts peeking through layers of straw, three friendly goats, all puffed up for the winter (and friends in the truest sense, not just amiable food-stock, though one day cocoa and honey may make their way to the dinner plate. Who can say how Amy and Steve will feel when they’re last days come?), and perhaps most importantly-a sense of place, home, and security on a small patch of rocky New Hampshire earth.
I returned the armful of apitherapy books Amy lent to me today. After hearing of my plight with the Library ILL system, she was gracious enough to offer me her books on honey as a healing medicine and food. My packet is rather ‘honey-heavy’ in information, but that’s just as well. Really, I would probably be emphasizing honey if I were to approach apitherapy as a business facet anyway, so it’s just as well that I learned more about honey than bee venom (though I have certainly learned my fair share about that as well). Past ILL orders are trickling in now, far too late to be useful. Hedging my bets against continued inter-library surprises, I asked Amy if I could borrow a few more (armfuls) of her books. She was more than happy to lend me some, always willing to share her knowledge with those interested. It is truly wonderful to work with someone so considerate of my program. It has made this semester a wonderful experience.
We didn’t work with the bees today. They’re all wrapped up and bunkered down for the winter. Amy and I discussed the possibility of hosting a honey tasting and perhaps an apitherapy sampling via the permaculture group. She was open to the idea and it would certainly facilitate an exploration of honey as a medicine and regional means of identity. We also will be working together on finding plants with which to line the duck pond. We’ll need a variety: squat plants that can handle the ducks trampling them and deep-rooted plants that will hold the soil around the pond in place. In the winter, it may not be as crucial since the ground will be frozen. Come spring, when the soil turns wet and muddy, we will need to implement some sort of restraining system. Otherwise the duck pond is liable to transform into a massive reservoir sled and careen into the vegetable beds downhill (ducks or no ducks).
We spent the day building up more permaculture beds, a time-consuming but rewarding process. I came prepared this time with a wool jacket, hat, scarf, gloves, and insulated winter boots. Last time, I was entirely too cold to work well, let alone enjoy myself. This time, with full feeling in my toes and with my ears toasty warm beneath my fleece cap, bed-building was much more agreeable.
Andrew worked on chipping down a large stump in the middle of one of Amy’s pathways, hacking at it with a maul. The entire homestead was permeated by the sharp scent of fresh chevre, which turns out to be exactly the same as a goat buck’s urine. Amy and Steve are renting a stately old buck by the name of Diablo for a month, during which he lives with Honey and Cocoa in the goat pen. There is a reason many goat-keepers rent bucks rather than keep them on their property: the smell clings to everything. I can understand now why Amy was dreading Diablo’s vacation with Honey and Cocoa. Ten yards downwind and the smell is strong enough to make you sneeze. While the smell itself isn’t unpleasant per se, it is certainly pungent. Knowing that male goats pee on themselves (and everything else) to spread their scent somehow makes it less palatable…
Curious about Diablo’s personality, I thought it might be a good idea to let him smell the back of my fingers through the wire mesh of the goat pen. His leps barely brushed my skin, but his scent remained on my hand for the rest of the day (despite washing). Even working in the garden, with my hand at least two feet from my face, I could still smell my fingers. Amy loathes the smell. I didn’t mind it, but I wonder if I could say the same after a month of living in close quarters with Diablo. Steve, Diablo’s primary caretaker, is constantly showering to rid himself of Eau de Diablo.
Ideally, in about 5 months there will be little goat kids running around and pleanty of fresh goat milk for Amy and Steve to use as they will. They plan on using the male goats for food and either keeping some of the females as milkers or selling them. The milk they produce will be used fresh, cultured into yogurt, made into cheese, and potentially turned into butter (depending on how industrious Amy and Steve are). Both Honey and Cocoa are from fine milk-producing lines, as is Diablo. Their kids should be great milk producers and could easily sell for over five hundred dollars a goat (compared to goats of unknown or mixed lineage, who may not produce as much milk). In addition, Honey, Cocoa, and Diablo are all very mild-mannered (shocking with a name like Diablo).
I happen to love goats. They’re social, clean, relatively low-maintenance, hardy, and a lot of fun to be around. I was thrilled to see Diablo’s interactions with the girls. He’s a handsome mane, with long white hair and a full, luxurious goat beard. He was de-horned as a kid, but that certainly doesn’t detract from his allure! He was relatively calm during my visit, never leaving the girls’ for a moment. Amy mentioned that she let the girls out to forage a day or so ago and Diablo (normally so quiescent) panicked-stamping, bleating, and racing back and forth behind the fence. His devotion to the girls, even after such as short period of time, was touching. He was like their guardian, staying with wherever they went. For the first hour of our visit, he eyed Andrew and I suspiciously from afar, never blinking, never once looking away. “Never fear,” I wanted to tell him, “the ladies are safe with us!”
I have one more reason to look forward to the spring. Not only will there be gardening, humanure work, building, and beekeeping, but there will be goats to milk and little goat kids to play with! I can’t wait to see how Honey and Cocoa change during their pregnancies and I hope I can be there when the new goats are born!
I forgot my camera again.
…so the pictures for this homestead visit are few and lacking. But, as always, I made due with the camera on my phone. Andrew and I split up again-he working with Steve on a cement/cinderblock greenhouse foundation on the side of their home. They are building it on the south wall, right next to their front door, where it will receive ample sun and the trapped heat will passively warm their house. It is a wonderful idea, even more so because the materials they are using are mostly either retrieved from the dump or recycles (much of their work environments are constructed with found materials).
I really can’t compete with Andrew and Steve when it comes to feats of strength (like hammering steel poles into frozen clay with sledgehammers and post mauls). Instead, I helped Amy partially insulate her hives for the winter. Amy doesn’t typically wrap her hives with tar paper to insulate them, relying instead on topping her supers with squares of found Styrofoam or wood-shaving boxes. After doing a test in which she wrapped half of her hives and left the other have bare one winter and finding that there was almost no difference, she only wraps to protect against drafts. A few of her hives have slightly warped wooden supers or inner entrances, creating tiny gaps in the seams where the chilly north wind can cut through (ruining the ability of the bees to insulate themselves). Rather than wrapping up the hives completely, she just wraps them enough to cover the uneven seams, thus preventing drafts and making the best use of her top insulation.
Wrapping the hives is a time-consuming process that is highly expedited when more than one person is involved. Like many of her supplies, Amy scavenged her tar paper from the local dump (which I’ve been meaning to visit. Apparently it is a treasure-trove of useful materials). We cut it to size using utility knives. In warm weather, tar paper is quite flexible and easy to work with. In the cold, however, it becomes almost brittle and it quite leathery. Unfortunately, there’s no need to insulate hives in the summer, so the beekeeper is forced to work with tar paper in the cold. I held the paper in place while Amy cut it to size. It doesn’t seem like much help, but I can only imagine how frustrating it is to deal with constantly rerolling tar paper in thirty-degree weather. I like to think I made things a little easier, at least!
We began by removing the outer cover, laying the tar paper over the top insulation squares (being very careful to not let the squares fall from the hives, which would free the bees). After aligning the edges of the tar paper with the seams, we folded down the corners and replaced the top cover, securing the paper in place. An added addition of some rope around the free-edges will lock down the corners of the paper; keeping it flush with the hive rather than giving the colony a set of tar paper wings come the first strong gust of wind. Most of the insulation covered the top super or two of the hives, with the exception of the north side of her left-most corner hive. We wrapped the north wall nearly to the base to protect it from the wind. Every other hive has a windbreak except for that one (a tree, other hives, some bushes…)
I discovered that the insulation in my farm boots wasn’t very effective and quickly lost all feeling in my feet. After a few hours, I had to take a break to warm my toes up (only because it becomes difficult to walk when you can’t feel the terrain beneath you). Work was slow going due to the cold and I’m sure that it will continue to challenge us as the season progresses. Amy plans on moving our work inside, focusing on how to use products from the bee hive and other tasks that can be done beside a toasty fireplace. We may meet early this coming Monday (the 12th) to take advantage of a rare 60 degree day before the weather turns sour again.
After the blood returned to my feet, we got back to work constructing a wood-shavings box for Amy’s ‘Angry’ hive (she previously suspected some slight Africanized Honeybee traits, but now thinks that they may just be feisty Caucasian bees). Amy produced an old super from her bee-room and a long sheet of construction cloth, which we first stapled to the base of the super and then clipped back to eliminate any pointy metal edges. The first holding test revealed the cloth mesh to be too large, with wood particles snowing downwards at the lightest shake. The last thing Amy wants is a hive contaminated with chunks of wood shavings, so we retrieved a sheet of window screening (again, found at the dump!) and inserted a small square on top of the construction cloth.
The screening did the trick, keeping the shavings in place without inhibiting air flow. The construction cloth made the screen sturdy and bee-proof (bees can chew through window screen plastic, but not through steel mesh). The benefit of wood-shavings over Styrofoam is that excess moisture won’t condense on wood shavings. They absorb the moisture, keeping the hive both warm and dry-two essential preventative measures against winter diseases and fungal growth. The Styrofoam does tend to trap moisture in the hive, but eliminating the cold air with the tar-paper wrapping should help to prevent that.
With the bees safely insulated in their hives, we had a little fun and hunted for bee clusters. Amy and I pressed our ears to the hives and gave one or two knocks, holding our breath. The first hive he knocked on didn’t respond, though once we opened it, angry, chilly bees crawled out and looked at us blearily, wagging their abdomens. Two hives were obviously clustering, so we didn’t check those. The last hive didn’t respond at first, but after a knock near the bottom, there was a dull, startled wave of buzzing deep within the supers. The bees were alive and in cluster, ready to take on the winter!
Amy and I had a brief excursion into the nearby woods, following the sound of a rutting stag (it sounds like a red-fox call or a loud mixture between a cough and a sneeze) though we never found it. We also pulled the beets from her garden and were promptly chased by the goats back to the house. Cocoa was so adamant about sinking her teeth into the cascade of beet greens pouring from my arms; she would dance around me in and endless circle, while I spun on my heels, laughing. I wish I had my camera for it!
The four of us had great conversations over lunch about globalization, the recent election, the benefits and downsides of eco-village-type living models (returning to the topic of self-ghettoizing behavior). Amy’s work with the UNH interns is going well, though their experience varies somewhat from ours. During their last visit, they stacked wood as a form of meditation-a useful exercise but not one that is particularly educational (beyond a certain point). One of the UNH interns, a single working mother and student, is very interested in honey/wax body preparations, which I think will make for excellent conversation! We left Amy’s house with two books: “Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food, and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture”, and “In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees: The Honey Trail”. Andrew and I are pooling our knowledge resources. When there is something I want to learn but that doesn’t really apply to my work with Goddard, he will usually look into it. I can’t say the same for him when it comes to bees, but I’ve certainly found him some interesting reading material in terms of theory!
Well, it was officially too cold for my wimpy flannel shirt and overalls today, despite the wool socks and insulated boots. My friends back south weren’t joking when they said that I was “going to the Wall” (pardon my “Song of Ice and Fire reference). Steve and Amy teamed up today with two lists, from which Andrew and I could pick and choose what we wanted to do. I was feeling a little grumpy and tired from the cold weather, so I suggested that we start with Steve’s list and replace the light in the goat house. I purposefully chose this activity because I know next to nothing about soldering, electronics, and most related subjects. It is a point of weakness that I feel is unfortunately very helpful to have in a farm environment. If I want to be self-sufficient, I need to be able to learn those skills that I otherwise find unappealing (boring perhaps? I would never tell Steve that!)
Steve started us with a basic run-down of electrical currents. He compared the flow of electricity to a river. Volts are the size of the river and how much water is flowing. Amps are the speed of the river or the depth of the incline down which the river is flowing. Volts times Amps equals Watts (V X A=W), or, when you take the size and speed of the river together, you can determine the total amount of water passing through. We also talked about Series and Parallel circuits, which I vaguely remembered my father complaining about when our older Christmas bulbs would short out. Apparently the old variety was wired in series, which allows electricity only one path to follow. If one light cuts out, the whole thing cuts out. In a series circuit, batteries are lined up in a linear fashion with alternating positive and negative charges. The electricity travels from battery to batter, following the charges and passing through the ‘load’: which is whatever resistance is being applied to the circuit (for example: a light bulb has a purposefully less-conductive coil to slow the transmission of electricity and generate light/heat). Without a load, the circuit would discharge all of its energy at once and burn out.
Christmas time became much jollier at my house when we bought some parallel Christmas lights. Parallel circuits have two paths that move along the positive and negative sides of the batteries in the circuit, meeting at the batteries themselves and joining again at the load point. This gives the electricity an alternate path to follow (so only one Christmas light will short out in a parallel circuit because the electricity can flow around the burned-out battery/broken bulb). While parallel circuits have a convenient safety net for multiple loads, they are less efficient than a series circuit. In series, the voltage is multiplied by two, increasing the available power. Apparently it’s common in many computers and electronics to combine both series and parallel circuits (having a series-type model but putting a parallel extension on each battery) which increases efficiency with the added value of a parallel safety net.
We began by testing a new battery for the goat light; measuring the available watts to make sure it wasn’t dead. Steve has a charger that can bring zombified batteries back to life, within reason, but we didn’t need that today. Once we found that the new battery was charged, we removed the negative and positive wires from the old battery. We had to re-solder some of the wires back together, which proved to be a bit of a challenge. The solder didn’t want to stick and we continuously burned the plastic back. Eventually, Steve soldered the wires together while Andrew and I were chatting with Amy about Apitherapy (which I shall describe later!). We then attached the wires to clamps and soldered them in place. The clamps enable us to connect and detach the wires from the wires of the light, which hangs above the goat feeder in the goat house. The light itself is rather old and gives off far more heat than light, so it’s important to make sure that it’s far from the goat’s hay and securing stapled to its beam, lest it come in contact with some dry kindling at burn down the goat house.
We attached the battery to the light clamps and returned the light to its proper place, tying off the wires to keep them securely separated. After that, Amy gave Honey and Cocoa some fresh hay for behaving so well. Goats are extremely intelligent and are quick to learn that if they bleat (scream is a better word) continuously, their humans will probably throw food at them to quiet them down. Amy and Steve are careful to only indulge Honey and Cocoa when they are behaving well.
Andrew and I split up after that. He went with Steve to work on the retaining wall beside the house where the earth was displaced to install Amy and Steve’s new well. Andrew learned how to weld and they worked on one of Steve’s old motorcycles. Andrew gave me a short run-down on welding, but I don’t understand it completely yet. From what I understand, one attaches the welder to the object that one is working on, which grounds it. Then an electrical current is run through the object and the welder. The welder shoots out metal, which liquefies instantly along the electrical current and adheres to the object. I’ll have to try this myself sometime, though I worry that the welder might become an inadvertent weapon in my hands.
I went with Amy to help her add to some of her garden beds. First we brushed off the outer layer of wood chip mulching and left that in the paths. We then harvested her late carrots, which were entirely a surprise. Her first carrots were completely destroyed by slugs, but these ones (lazier than their counterparts and late to sprout) passed unnoticed by the slugs. When slug season finally ended, these carrots took off! The carrots that we pulled out of her beds are some of the biggest that I’ve ever seen, and they were grown without any chemicals or commercial fertilizers of any kind! It’s all due to good soil and nutrient-rich compost!
After harvesting the carrots, we followed the standard bed-building routine: seaweed, manure, straw. We talked all the while about various things, mostly honey and apitherapy (since that is the focus of my current packet). I was specifically interested in the different varietal forms of honey and their therapeutic effects. I was also curious as to the possible cultivation of monofloral honey from medicinal herbs such as Echinacea. According to Amy, the medicinal effects of honey as they originate from their mother plant do not necessarily correspond to the medicinal properties of the plant itself. While some honeys do have similar effects, others (Echinacea honey again being the example of choice) are no different from common honey varieties because their medicinal properties are not present in their nectar.
Excited as I was about honey and apitherapy, I had neglected to consider this possibility. Some honeys, such as Manuka honey present very different properties than do traditional preparations of the plant itself. While the bark and leave of the Manuka tree were used as sedatives, pain relievers, and kidney tonics, Manuka honey features potent antiviral properties beyond those of standard honeys. The bottom line is that honey (in its many forms) is not an extension of a medicinal plant. It is its own medicine, working through a potent combination of trace oils, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carbohydrates, and small amounts of amino acids. It may or may not act similarly to its mother plant, but it most certainly is therapeutic in its own right. It is also far more than a medicine. It is food, topical treatment, culinary tool, and all-purpose preservative. It must be understood not in isolation, but as a multipurpose compound.
After building up the beds, Amy and I moved onto introducing her Indian Runner ducks to their new pond in the garden. Having never had access to a deep pond before (they did have a small wading pool) the ducks were terrified. It was both amusing and rather sad at once. Ducks, it seems, are not the most intelligent creatures and live in a state of perpetual fear. They have very few defenses, unlike chickens who have spurs, claws, and sharp beaks. A duck’s only defense is to flee and since Indian Runner ducks have been bred to be flightless (they can still make fluttering leaps) they are really quite vulnerable. I think Amy wanted the ducks to find their way into the water on their own, but when it became clear that they weren’t going to find their way, we picked them up one by one and tossed them into the pond. Steve and Andrew missed the Duck Toss, much to their disappointment, but Amy and I had a grand time tossing the ducks into the water. They seemed to enjoy it, once they got it, and immediately regrouped afterwards just outside the garden to quack excitedly about it in chorus. They then eyed the pond from behind a corner in the fence for at least an hour, too afraid to get back in but too intrigued to turn away…
Eventually, Amy corralled them back into the comfort of their pen and we moved onto the last item on our list: moving beehives. This was similar to combining hives, the difference being that the two hive bodies remain separate with their individual queens still alive. She has two small hives that have enough honey to make it through the winter, but are simply too small to generate enough heat through the colder months. What Amy does is really quite genius: she removes the telescoping lid from a larger hive and replaces it with a board with multiple entrances. These entrances lead to different hives (upper and lower) while keeping the bees from mingling between hives. The smaller hive is stack on top of the board, followed by a layer of insulated foam and a telescoping cover. The rising heat from the larger hive warms the smaller hive and is trapped by the insulation. In this way, both hives can cluster through the winter without dying of cold. There are also frame separators that can be used to keep two hives in a single super, if the hives are very small. Amy knows a beekeeper that quarters his hives using her stacking method, with a separate hive door on every side of the super.
We were going to move two hives, but one of them wasn’t quite ready to be moved. To prepare it, Amy removed the inner cover (which was really in the way and still had bees on it, moving it at that point would have been a mess) and replaced it with one of the swivel-entrance boards. The bees were irritable because of the weather (such is the way of bees in the autumn). When Amy used her bee brush to shoo them back towards their hive, one of the bees resolutely clambered into the hairs of the brush and tried repeatedly to sting it. After a minute or so, it retreated back to the hive, acting confused.
It was a joy to see the bees again, sleepy as they were with cold. I suspect that today was one of the last time’s I will see them before the spring. Hopefully, there will be more work to do later in the season.
We were supposed to open up the hives today to check on the bees, counting on a positive weather forecast of mid-seventies and plenty of sunshine. It turned out to be a mostly overcast day in the mid-sixties, with perhaps an hour in of hovering around seventy degrees. As always, the weatherman was off target (though really you have to hand it to the guy, he was close…this time). I was just glad to get in another day with Amy before the freak storm New Hampshire is expecting hits us.
So we changed pace and adapted. There is always something to do at Amy’s homestead. We checked in on the bees briefly, as you will see in one of my videos where Amy shows me the difference between her insulation techniques and Jeff’s, the Seacoast Beekeeper’s Association President. Apparently, Amy was holding her tongue during his class, which is shocking since she certainly voiced her opinion more than a few times. It turns out that Jeff actually has only about 3 years of beekeeping experience, which makes him somewhat of a newbie. Generally, hives don’t even start giving honey until the second year. While Jeff jumped into beekeeping with enthusiasm, he still has a lot to learn according to Amy A. Jeff insulates his hives with a hunk of Styrofoam, much like Amy. However, with Jeff’s method, there is a line of air around the insulation, which would minimize the effectiveness of the insulation in the first place. Amy makes sure that her insulation runs the course of the super rather than the line of an inner cover. She does this by placing it on a board rather than cover and sitting her telescoping cover directly atop the insulation.
It’s difficult to describe this verbally without sounding confusing, but I assure you that the video will clarify what I mean. She also overturned the ‘tincturing the dead queen’ and burning beeswax ideas as swarm baits. Really, in hunting down wild hives or in attracting a swarm, nothing does the job like sugar water, according to Amy. Liquid sugar or honey is the fastest way to get a bee’s attention. I’ve seen more examples of sugar water dishes as bait than anything else, so I’m inclined to believe her.
We spent the day building up her permaculture beds and creating new beds where before there were thick patches of scrub. I’ve been trying to network for Amy, talking to friends who might be interested in a visit to the homestead and potentially volunteering their time. Amy has found other students at UNH who are also interested in helping out. Given some time, she could very well have a veritable team of interns, which would require some effort in managing but would really help out on the farm. If I become experienced enough before that point, I (and maybe Andrew) could supervise new interns, freeing up Amy’s time. I am really excited about this prospect! We also discussed the possibility of me constructing a humanure system on her homestead (I was considering incorporating humanure and composting into next semester’s work). I could easily have a place to start a hive, a veggie plot, and a composting toilet come the spring. What more could a girl want?
Building beds followed the standard pattern of leveling (ok that isn’t standard, according to Amy’s no-till theory, but it needed to be done), manure, seaweed, manure, and hay. We made one bed completely from scratch, which I was glad to involve Andrew with. While he has experience with organic farming, he has little knowledge when it comes to permaculture and I realize now how much knowledge I’ve gained in working with Amy.
Prepping the beds in the autumn gives them time to decompose a little before the spring. In addition to the beds, we also fetched her kitchen composter to add some ‘liquid gold’ and ‘cookie dough’ to the beds. “Liquid gold’ is another name for compost tea: the liquid part of composted waste. It is immensely rich in nutrients and really is a dynamite source of nutrition for plants. “Cookie-Dough” is a phrase that I made up for the mush of remaining worm-castings because they have the consistency of warmed cookie dough. I might scrap the name, however, because it really puts a damper on my appetite. Like compost tea, it is rich in nutrients and a valuable source of soil-building material. We poured the tea over the new bed and layered the remaining sludge of ‘cookie-dough’ over the top, taking care not to spill anything. We added the left-over compost to the first bed that Amy and I worked on together.
Looking at the finished beds, we both felt a sense of pride in our work. I equated it to feeling properly responsible, as though I had spent my time in a worthy and meaningful way. Amy described it as ‘participating in a miracle’. She is right. We are restoring the soil and creating a healthier world not just for ourselves, but for every living creature. To create rich soil so quickly and to participate in the transformative circle of life as gentle mediators is immensely humbling.We spent some time turning her compost and moving her aged compost down to the beds for layering. Some of the rocks we pulled out of her gardens were moved to the edges of her beds, where they will double as heat-sinks and retaining walls for the plants there. At the close of the day, Amy left me with yet another variety of Susun Weed CDs, this time on “subversive herbalism’. She also gave Andrew and I a big bag of fresh green kale, purple kale, and collard greens from her garden. I cooked the green kale later that night and have never tasted kale so delicious! In return for her gifts, I donated a huge collection of cardboard that I’ve been amazing over the past few weeks for her gardens.
I invited my boyfriend, Andrew, along with me for my weekly visit to Amy’s homestead. We had to bump it from Friday to Monday since the weather has been so cold and rainy. He will probably become a regular feature on my internship days, work schedule permitting. Since we’re both interested in the same topics and Amy can always use more help, it makes sense for him to attend. In addition, he can participate in workshops through the Permaculture Meet-up Group that I cannot and we can pool our knowledge. We make an effective team, he and I.
We started with introductions, which lead into long conversations about permaculture concepts, Murray Bookchin, Daniel Quinn, and how Amy and Steve became interested in permaculture as an alternative to peace activism. While all of that was wonderful to discuss, it is not as pertinent to my documentation here, so suffice to say that we are all of a similar mind in most ways. It is good to find myself amongst friends.
Amy finally bottled some of her hard won honey! She gave me a bear-shaped glass jar of the honey that I helped her to extract. The flavor is incomparable, a complex, slightly acidic and highly aromatic combination of floral notes. It is entirely unlike store-bought honey, even the raw, local, unprocessed varieties. It seems to ‘sing’, which is a vague term I tend to use for sensory experiences that are poignant and piercing in nature. The only other times I have used this word to describe a physical sensation are when I smelled the freshly gathered honeycomb of Amy’s hives and when I saw the mountain aspens of Santa-Fe’s Aspen Vista trail for the first time. That should give you a good idea of how wonderful this honey is.
It’s about time for the bees to go to sleep for the winter. Most of Amy’s honey extraction is done, though the fluctuations in the weather from icy cold to unseasonably warm have left her some room to work with her hives. I asked her about the hive that she unsuccessfully combined. While the pile of dead bees was still there in front of the landing ledge (decomposing quickly) I noted that there were worker bees flitting in and out and that the hive seemed calmer than before. Apparently, when she introduced the new hive (killing one of the queens), the queenless hive quickly made a new queen to replace the lost one. They must have done this in record time, because it doesn’t take long to combine a pair of hives. The new queen hatched and the colonies were confused by the two distinct pheromone scents. Identifying as separate hives, the two colonies attacked one another until one of the queens (the younger, most likely) died and the remaining queen’s scent permeated what was left of the worker population.
Amy isn’t sure what will happen with the hive. They have enough honey to last through the winter, but their population is severely diminished. They may not have the mass to insulate themselves effectively, and externally insulating a hive often puts the bees at risk of overheating. I will follow this hive through the winter (to the best of my abilities. Certainly, opening the hive in the dead of a New England winter is not a good idea). I hope they find a way to make it through to the spring. I’ve become rather affectionate towards the bees. I know that the feeling isn’t reciprocal, but all the same I have this strange urge to care for the bees and protect them. This must be the masochistic bee-love that beekeepers suffer from. The fear seems to be abating, though whether that is because I’m not spending as much time in the hive or because I am actually getting used to the bees, I can’t say. All I know is that when I see the bees, I look upon them with nothing but fondness and amusement. The thought of being stung seems oddly humorous.
Simple things, I think, often reveal themselves to be much less threatening than they may initially appear. Compared to the stresses of work and tuition, a few benign insect stings seem almost relaxing. They symbolize a different way of life, one that might be stressful in its own ways, but is also full of life, community, and meaning. I remain hopeful for the life that I will one day be skilled enough to cultivate for myself, though it may be many years before that dream is fulfilled. The rat race and drama of customer service and the bizarre disconnect between me and my food/possessions is disconcerting and feels so very unnatural to me. It is dehumanizing in the truest sense.
We focused more on permaculture today, and it was a wonderful time with all of us working and talking together. We began with feeding the chickens and ducks, and then moving down into the garden where Amy and I educated Andrew about the ‘no-till’ concept of permaculture growing. We then improved upon a great many of her beds, building up layers of manure and straw (she was out of seaweed, so we couldn’t add that.) Andrew was amazed to see just how efficient the microorganisms in the soil are at turning tough old plants stems and fibrous seaweed into rich, dark earth. In two weeks, the seaweed almost disappears. Over the course of the winter, any trace of the left-over plant stems and roots are gone. It is almost frightening to consider just how quickly things return to the earth. If I were to die, any physical memory of me would be gone in less than a year, returned to the earth to feed any number of other life forms. The thought is both beautiful and terrifying.
We also rebuild some of the paths between her beds, laying down sheets of gathered ‘wood chips’. Really, these were more like decomposing broken twigs. Amy admitted that she got them from a tree-trimming crew that she happened to see, which is just as well. It’s a good use for otherwise wasted wood, though it makes from unwieldy chippings. Shoveling wood chips and manure took up the better part of the day. Its hard work, but worth it, and we were all good-hearted about it (especially after we had a break for a late lunch).
When I wasn’t helping with the shoveling, I was digging out a huge rock near Amy and Steve’s new pond frame. The rock weighed more than me and I am tempted to say that it was heavier than Steve as well (he is at least fifty pounds heavier than me, if not more). It took a lot of wedging with sticks, digging, and hard lifting to move it, but we eventually succeeded. Now, the stone is part of a lovely retaining wall beside the pond frame, where it will keep the ground from eroding and double as a solar heat-sink for the water (there will one day be plants in the water that will benefit from the warmth).
Amy wanted to scatter some Winecap mycelium in the chippings between her beds. Apparently, all mushrooms help to transport nutrients into plant roots in exchange for carbohydrates. I was under the impression that only certain varieties did this, but Amy says that most mushrooms do, which is why they are so very beneficial in permaculture gardens. They do particularly well when nestled around the bases of shrubs or trees, where the natural shade protects the developing mycelium from direct sunlight. Sunlight can kill mycelium runs and mushrooms are seldom layered with full-sun vegetable rows. They find their place in the permaculture garden, however, and Amy is looking forward to her harvest. The myceliated chips that she purchased will overwinter in the soil in a state of dormancy, largely unaffected by the cold. Come the spring, the mycelium will reactivate and take root, so to speak.
We pulled the spore-saturated chips from a plastic bag, which costs no more than twenty dollars, and scattered them over the woodchip paths. Amy and I then ‘danced’ down the paths, mixing the chips with the spores to give them some initial cover from the light. The process was largely unscientific, but I have no doubt that it will be effective.
Today was a long day of hard work with a great deal of coffee involved. Working at a bakery has not helped me to break my coffee habit, despite the deplorable ethics of the greater coffee industry. I left Amy’s home with a Bioneers CD, two videos, and a magazine to read. In turn, I gave her Murray Bookchin’s name and the title of “The Ecology of Freedom”. I think she will enjoy his writing, once she finds the time to read it.
Later that night, Andrew and I watched the first of the two videos, a documentary called “The Growing Edge: Exploring Real Solutions to Our Grave Ecological Crisis”. It is narrated by Starhawk and Donna Read, both of whom turned out to be rather poor public speakers. The movie itself seemed to be helpful to Andrew but was rather boring and inconsequential to me. I won’t take the time to synopsis it in any depth, because that isn’t going to benefit anyone. It gave a decent overview of permaculture principles and the need for a sustainable model of agriculture. Since it benefited Andrew, I’m glad that Amy lent it to me (I’m sure that was her thought process). I, for one, was obliged to take a nap during the last ten minutes.
Amy will be joining me at the upcoming bee class this Wednesday, where she will help a fellow master beekeeper (not Amy Robinson this time) teach. I’ve made a contact through the beekeeping class: a young woman about my age named Katrina. We may work on a hive together in the Spring, should we both be in the same area. She and I have a great deal in common, perhaps too much. Both of us are somewhat migratory in nature and have yet to find a place to set down roots. I would love to have a shared hive with someone. She and a few other friends I’ve made here are all interested in working together with others on a plot of land or at least in realms of sustainability. It may be too early to assume much, but I have high hopes. It would be lovely to find a group of people to share and work with. It would make everything seem much more attainable…
I know that it falls on my shoulders to manifest that scale of dream. I have a terribly ambitious streak in me, which can be troublesome at times for those around me. It is also a wonderful tool. I know that I can make my dreams into a reality. The more contacts I make, the more friends I find, and the more knowledge I can gain, the better equipped I will be.