Beginning, Once More

Two Saturday mornings ago, walking the trails at Grand Ravines, I heard the sharp trill of spring’s first red-winged blackbird—a sure sign of the season, and a call for me to get to work.

That work began for real and in earnest a little over a week ago, when I spent the afternoon in the greenhouse seeding leeks, onions, and shallots. These seeds are little larger than a grain of rice, jet black and irregularly faceted. Scattered on the work table, you might mistake them for tiny chips of rock, maybe basalt or obsidian.

I sow these seeds into little furrows I make in the long cells of special twenty-row germination flats. Once they’ve grown little slender sprouts like a single chive leaf, I pot up the baby onions into larger-celled trays, from which they are transplanted into the field. Admittedly, potting up all these tiny plants can be a touch tedious, but the special attention now makes for higher yields down the line. Besides, this extra work happens in March when I have (relatively speaking) extra time.

I also seeded herbs for the first weekend of our May farmers’ market plant sales: thyme, oregano, sage, and parsley. Parsley seeds are about the same size, shape, and color as the celery seed in your kitchen pantry. Sage seeds are larger and look much like unground black-pepper berries. The thyme and oregano, though, are the smallest seeds of all, like grains of sand or specks of dust.

All these get started in 288-cell germination flats, which are then are placed on heated propagation mats. The small size of the flats’ cells—about a three-quarter inch cube—helps them be heated evenly. Many seeds like to germinate in soil warmer than the ambient greenhouse temperature, and heat mats help provide those optimal conditions. Once these herbs germinate and unfold their first true leaves, they also will be potted up for sale this spring.

I left the best task for last: potting up rosemary plugs. Rosemary grows slowly, so it’s challenging to coax it to marketable size starting from seed. I had dropped rosemary from our plant line because purchasing plugs through the mail had gotten crazy expensive, but this winter I discovered a local greenhouse willing to sell single flats at a nice price point. Handling these richly fragrant growing things while the rest of the world is still cold and frozen is one of the better parts of my job.

In fact, March and April have long been my favorite time of the farming season. Plenty to do, but not so much to be overwhelming. Time enough to tackle farm projects, or just to enjoy the spring’s greening. And, in the greenhouse, a chance to be somewhere warm and sunny, rich with the smell of thawed soil and full of little green plants. Work to occupy my hands but room enough in my mind to plot and ponder. And everything so manageable, all my responsibilities comprehendable with one glance—the whole shape of the season contained in spreadsheets secured to my clipboard, gathering in the greenhouse and readying to burst into the fields come May.

Spinning On Toward Spring

What makes an organic farm go?

The idealist might say peace and love. The practical-minded, compost and manure. Sometimes, if I’m feeling sassy, I’ll answer, money.

But the real answer? The sun.

At its root, a farm is a device for collecting and storing sunlight. Farms convert solar energy into calories to feed their farmers and animals, ideally with enough surplus to fuel the rest of civilization. Even the tractor runs on sunlight, albeit gathered three-hundred-million years ago during the Carboniferous Period.

The longer I farm, the more attention I pay to the sun—its passage through the sky and through the year and how that affects the farm.

Around the beginning of this past February, I was out and about in the early evening and was struck by how the sky had traded winter’s gray-blue tones for the blue-pink tints of spring. And I was taken by how light it was so relatively late.

None of that should have surprised me, of course. Groundhog Day (astronomically the day about midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox) is the tipping point, when January’s unrelenting darkness finally yields to the strengthening sun. I sure feel it. I think the earth feels it also—the world seems more lively, somehow, despite its blanket of snow.

The chickens surely notice it as well. While flower bulbs break dormancy in response to soil temperature, and trees to air temperature, chickens are truly sun worshippers: Day length affects how many eggs they lay. All this past winter I gathered just a couple of eggs a day, but throughout February that increased to the point that I can now count on over a dozen.

So we’ve moved from dormancy through expectancy to preparation and now action. The seeds have arrived. The potting soil, too. And the first of those seeds were sown into that soil last week, to start taking advantage of all this growing solar power.

The world spins on toward spring. Here on the farm, we spin with it.