Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Buckets and Buckets!

Buckets and Buckets of vegetables have kept us busy, busy in the kitchen and garden these days!

It's no surprise we've been tardy with our blog updates. We're finding summertime involves tending the farm from morning to night- often closing up the chicken coop and turning off the irrigation with flashlight in hand. Not much energy left to write after the sun goes down... what we wouldn't give for one of those long rainy days that allows a farmer to tend to neglected indoor activities. Oh well, we'll get plenty of those when winter comes, so now it's back out to enjoy the bounty of the land- bushels and pecks of it!

Our first warm season harvest included Walla Walla yellow onions, three varieties of beets, and 25 pounds of sweet carrots. 
After we ate our fill, we "put up" the rest as pickled beets and frozen cut carrots. The Carillon and Soldier beets were a stunning crimson color after blanching, slipping off the skins, and packing them tightly in jars with brine. And this year's carrots were so much longer and sweeter than last's- definitely the reward of all our early season soil improvements (see our soil blog). We had great success with the Nelson, Napoli and Touchon varieties- bright orange, long and really sweet even after the weather got so hot.

While the first root crops were a big success, we lost all our pickling cucumber plants to the dreaded cucumber beetle. Our beautiful seedlings had begun climbing the picket fence when the top leaves started wilting, turned brown and whole plants shriveled to the ground. These little shiny, striped pests lay eggs in spring that hatch and attack the roots and stems- cutting off the life of the stalk at the base. They've taken all our heirloom melon plants too. We're hoping several sprayings of organic insecticide oil will hold off any more damage. And next year... after some research and planning this winter... we'll cut them off at the pass!

Our spirits were lifted with more treasures in the ground- we harvested 65 heads of German Extra-Hardy (hard neck) garlic out of the hundred planted last fall. They've been drying in the workshop for 3 weeks and are ready to be added to batches of homemade tomato sauce. The workshop is now renamed Papa Rico's garlic hut! A place that once smelled of sawdust, now makes you think of a fine Italian dish :-)

Green beans are coming in like crazy- Slenderette, Parisian, Fin de Bagnol- gourmet beans that need to be picked while small and slender. Regular harvesting is helping to keep our yields up... but it sure makes for a lot of work- reaping what you sow! Pole beans ripened most recently- they are our favorite! Flat and long and tender we blanched and packed up bags of them for next Thanksgiving dinner.  And the Edamame just decided, overnight, that it was ready! Jenny lugged in a full bucket this week. We blanched and froze lots of small bags of it for cold weather snacking. We were smarter and planted edamame in succession (every 2-4 weeks) so we'll have harvests over a longer time period.

The most exciting crop for Tim was picking the first ears of corn. We planted two varieties- Silver Queen and an early one called Spring Treat.  The first cobs were so sweet we ate them raw in the garden. Best corn we've ever tasted! As you can imagine, it's been a staple for lunch and dinner the past few weeks. We'll try our hand at freezing some for a summer-fresh lunch in January. This was our first experience growing corn even though people warned us it took a lot of tending. There is just something about corn in the garden that makes it feel like a real farm. Next year, we'll do successive plantings so we can enjoy a longer season of harvest- not just boom and bust .

It seems everyday we're toting a basket or hat-full  of something from the vine- squash, eggplant, cherry tomatoes (red and gold), and five kinds of peppers. Somethings always stir-frying or blanching or getting chopped in the kitchen. And bless that Kale and Swiss Chard...leftovers from the early salad garden that just keep on giving!

It's August and just when we feel we've hit our stride with a routine that works so we might be able to catch our breath a bit... we remember what's coming- the Tsunami of Tomatoes that will hit during the next 3-5 weeks. Sure, we've been picking some heirloom slicing tomatoes each day but we know what's coming - we doubled the number of plants for saucing tomatoes and those Amish Paste and San Marzano tomatoes are prolific! Soon we'll be up to our elbows in Kingsolver tomato sauce. We emptied the last jar of it over 3 months ago and don't want that to happen next year. With cinnamon, nutmeg and honey, Barbara Kingsolver's "Secret Family Recipe" from her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral is the best ever.

Every day we are amazed, grateful and full-body tired from this season of harvesting. Each time we pull a heavy, plump fruit from the vine, we shake our heads remembering how this all started on a patch of soggy, neglected land with tiny seeds and a lot of enthusiasm. And just when I wonder how we'll ever want to do all this work again next year, I hear myself whispering "hmmm, next year I want to try....". And I know that, by the light of the fire this January after a good night's rest, we'll be turning down pages of the seed catalogs again, ...  sore backs and sunburn just a distant memory.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


  Since we are building this farm from the GROUND UP... the last month at Taproot has been all about SOIL!
  Last year we focused on establishing the garden design and adding some soil amendments, but the crops were a bit stunted.
  When we turned the beds again in the fall, they Slooshed.  "Sloosh" is not a good sound in a garden bed! It means there is lots of clay with poor drainage. Compacted clay holds water like a bowl, like a clay bowl. So we made a promise to our garden that we would invest ourselves in soil improvement this spring. Our plan is to loosen and lighten the soil to create the perfect habitat for earthworms and roots. The goal is to give the tiny seedlings lots of room to stretch out and breathe.
   In early spring we set out to: Add nutrient-rich soil; Loosen and lighten through Double Digging;  Deepen and widen the beds.

  1.) Adding nutrients: Due to decades of farming and mowing without replenishing the soil, the 20-acre plot we purchased is almost devoid of topsoil. Our raised bed design allows us to add a foot of healthy soil above the surface.We knew we needed to add organic material- composted leaves and manure- before we planted a single seed this year. In the future, we will top our beds each fall with our own compost, but this year we had to order it. Organic matter breaks up the clay, but most importantly, it provides the perfect habitat for earthworms. EARTHWORMS are your garden laborers.  The more you attract earthworms with rich, organic, moist matter, the more your digging and turning will be done for you. Earthworms work 24-7- enriching your garden while you sleep!

2.) Double Digging to loosen and lighten the soil: our favorite gardening expert, Ed Smith, teaches the WORD method of gardening (W=wide beds; O= organic; R= rotate crops; D= deep beds). In his fabulous book, The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, Ed introduced us to double digging and we are devoted to it.
   Double Digging is a technique to deeply loosen the sol and mix in rich, organic material. Double digging eliminates that "clay bowl" effect on the bottom of the garden beds.
  After spreading a layer of new organic matter and sand (for drainage) on top of the whole garden, we dig a trench in the garden about 18-20" deep and 10-12"wide. The first excavated soil is set aside on a tarp or wheelbarrow and used in the last trench. The second trench beside it is created by putting the top 1/2 soil layer into the bottom of the first trench. The bottom 1/2 of the second trench (the subsoil)  is layered on top of the first trench. (basically turning the garden upside down :-) We repeat this until the entire bed is completed. Then another layer of organic matter is added on top and turned in. This process "fluffs" up the new bed by aerating and loosening all that compacted clay soil. I can just hear the earthworms getting excited nearby :-)
  Double Digging is hard work but it's a one time job!  Earthworms and plant roots will do the loosening and aerating for years to come.
  It is important not to walk on newly aerated garden beds.  We build our raised beds 4'-5' wide so we can reach to the middle from each side without stepping in.

3.) Deepening and Widening the beds: Double digging helps us reach down to the subsoil and incorporate rich topsoil deeply into the beds. Traditionally, beds were dug only about 8" deep and 3' wide. Farmers laid out narrow planting rows and wide paths to accommodate wheelbarrows and tractors. But the new thinking is to reverse that model- wide rows and narrow paths create more planting space and less compacted soil from foot traffic. The deeper and richer the original soil, the less tilling and turning is needed in subsequent years. We will not tractor till our vegetable beds in the future because we do not want to disturb the earthworm-rich environment we have created.

We are not getting any younger so we decided to do all this heavy manual labor in the first few years of our garden prep... hoping to sit back on the front porch and let the earthworms do the heavy lifting from here on out!

TOOLS are key-

We have learned the hard way that any money you save up front buying cheap tools is lost later. Cheap tools break and require more effort.
We have discovered some awesome tools that we know we will enjoy for a lifetime:

Quality "professional grade" tools- Tim is an advocate of buying professional or construction-grade tools. They are usually forged and designed to fit the handle securely with the metal tool end. We like the ones we have found at Lowes (Jackson brand)  and Southern States.

Fiskar Tools- Fiskars is a Finnish company that makes light weight, long handled (ergonomic) and VERY durable garden tools. We love them!

Broadfork- This ingenious traditional farming tool uses physics instead of the lower back to turn and aerate the garden. I hold the two handles, step on the bar and just lean it back to lift the top 8" of garden soil. The Broadfork  is used to prepare beds for planting, not turn deeply compacted soil.

2-Wheeled Wheelbarrow- 2 wheels in front (instead of 1) distribute weight so it is easier to steer and more stable when parked.


  If you don't believe us- just take a look at our first radish this year.
  Check out that long TAPROOT- proof that this is one happy radish!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Birds and Bees

This week the population of Taproot Farm has increased by 20,018! 
18 chickens and 2 bee hives.

The Hens

Laura called us from the Post Office on March 9 saying our peeps had arrived from Texas. What a way to celebrate our one year anniversary in Capon Bridge!

Our brooder is made of a cardboard box, newspaper bedding and a 250-watt heat bulb suspended from a floor lamp. Allen and Tim picked "the girls" up and brought them home with their coats wrapped around the shipping box to keep out drafts. Jenny drove up the next day to meet the little fluff balls and do a photo shoot.

We have 4 Leghorns, 8 Barrd Plymouth Rocks and 8 Americaunas which should yield white, brown , and blue/green eggs, respectively, in 4-5 months. Like babies they spent the first few days eating, sleeping and pooping. But after only a week, they are practicing grown-up chicken behavior- scratching and pecking.  They are developing distinct personalities. Supposedly chickens, like other animals, become attached to their owners and will follow you around if you are out in the yard with them.

Today was a big day for the girls- a field trip to the garden! Since the temperature was in the 60's, the chicks spent a few hours in a fenced "playpen" in the garden while Beth planted spring crops. They hit the lottery every time Beth turned up a worm and threw it in to them. It took a while to venture out of their box, but once they did, they had a ball pecking at the grass and soil.
After such a big day, they collapsed and we don't expect a peep from them until morning.

Busy Bees

While Tim was building the hives, we got an unexpected call that our 3 lb. bee packages were ready for pickup in Wardensville- 2 days early! So he kicked it into high gear to be ready to receive the queens in high fashion.
A bee package consists of one queen, 300 drones (males) and 10,000 workers (females). These Italian Honey Bees were raised in Georgia and trucked overnight.

As the sun set, we first released the queen into the brooder box, then "poured" 10,000  bees in with her. The workers will feed, clean and protect the hive- they got to work immediately.

Tim was fearless in his white beekeeper jumpsuit, gloves, and netted hat.  It kept 99.9% of the bees out except for the one that snuck in and stung him in the back of the head. Nothing Benedryll and bourban can't cure!

Man, after a long, snowy winter, these past two spring days have been full of Life!!

More birds and bees photos- thanks to daughter Jenny's wonderful photo eye ...birds and bees 3-2010.  (the lambs in these photos belong to a friend :-)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Inspiration from the WV Small Farm Conference

Tim and I just returned from two days at the West Virginia Small Farm Conference in Morgantown. http://smallfarmcenter.ext.wvu.edu/events/conference
My head is full of new ideas as I stare out at our dormant fields and garden beds. Everything looks a little different to me now- my lens is wider. The land is pulsing with potential.

It was inspiring to be in the company of hundreds of small farmers dedicated to the same things- healthy living, healthy eating and a sustainable worklife. Our friend, Steve Martin of Church View Farm http://churchviewfarm.info/, says his farm life is his vocation, recreation and avocation all wrapped up in one. I understand that now. I wondered why I've had no desire to leave our farm even to drive to Winchester to shop. But it is true- everything I want is right here on our new farm- healthy food, exercise, creative adventure, spiritual sustenance, relaxation, connection to the living. A farm is a multi-dimensional life- one-stop shopping :-)

The farmers we met ranged in age from early twenties to their eighties. Everyone of them seemed to care about each others' success. Their backgrounds were as varied as one can imagine- those who are preserving a family farm tradition, those who have left the city life to try a life of farming, young people with college and masters degrees wanting to innovate and improve farming techniques while working outside in the fresh air and sunshine, and everyone caring about a healthier life for their families and community. At first, I was shy about admitting that ours is now a Hobby Farm (for pleasure first, production second) and that we are novices in our fifties. But the spirit of the workshops and keynote talks focused on our shared predicament- helping each other support the art and science of small farms. We are all in it together, no matter the size of the role we play.

Tim and I went to workshops together and separately... we have a lot of notes to share! He got very excited about the raising fish for local markets, small egg production and solar/wind classes. I was inspired learning about growing crops in high and low tunnels to extend the season. I learned alot about drip irrigation (that will save hours of hand watering!)

We both loved hearing farmers share their first-hand lessons on farming and marketing their crops in more sustainable, profitable, wiser ways. They smiled and shook their heads telling tales of "first year lessons". Ha! That's us. We are still in our first year. Everything is new learning. We don't even know what we don't know.
But like a toddler taking those first steps, we are pulled to keep experimenting. We are curious about what waits around the corner. We expect to "fall down" a lot :-) and we know there is a large and generous community of fellow farmers looking out for us.

Time to go check on the melting garden...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Welcome to our new Taproot Farm Journal!
This is where we will share updates about Taproot Farm as we build our small farm step-by-step, season-by-season.

Today the sun is shining but the ground is still covered with several inches of snow. As it melts and rolls off the mountain we can hear the waterfall grow louder and wilder. After 7 snows this season, the last one 30" deep, we expect a lot of water flowing down our stream soon. It is hard to imagine we'll ever get our hands into dry garden soil again- come on sun!

As we wait to get out in the garden, we'll enjoy the last few weeks starting seeds indoors, finishing construction of the chicken coop and bee hives, and reading about raising a puppy in anticipation of our new farm puppy coming early June.

Stay tuned!