The Sting and the Sweetness

I’ve been thinking about wasps lately. Probably because I was stung by one Monday. Crew member Jenny was too. The field was full of wasps that day, searching out the last drops of summer sweetness before season’s end. In fact, there’s a yellowjacket nest in the ground at the southeast corner of the hoophouse, and the residents stream in and out all day long.

There was a time when I would unthinkingly reach for the can of poison to end a nest like that. Then I attended a talk at a farmers’ conference one winter where the speaker explained how that was what he would do, too—until he learned how many cabbage worms each wasp eats. (I forget the exact number, but it was notably large.) The speaker went on to describe how he now not only doesn’t kill wasps, he tries to encourage their nests around his farm.

His point was driven home for me the following season. One morning I was spraying an organic control for cabbage worms in the fall broccoli when I noticed yellowjackets swarming up as I disturbed the plants. Looking closely, I saw that they were indeed feasting on the bug I was working so hard to eliminate. So now when I find a wasps’ nest, I let it be, if I can. Even if, once in a while, I do end up feeling it’s sting.

What This Time Is Like

September is one of my favorite months on the farm. The days grow short, the weather cools, and the end of the season hoves into view. It’s an abundant time, as our days fill with harvesting. It’s a weary time, too, for the same reason. Counterintuitively, it’s also something of an easeful time—by now, most things that were going to go wrong, have already gone wrong, so my anxiousness dials down as the days pass. And, so, this is something of a hopeful time, as I have room in my head to dream about what could be possible next season. Of course, it’s a beautiful time, too, with the goldenrod and the rudbeckia and the asters and all the other late-summer flowers in full bloom. Above all, it’s a thankful time, for all the previous reasons, and for so much more.

Growing Garlic

IMG-1513Last week the crew brought the last of the garlic into the barn’s loft to cure. I always breathe a little easier once that job is done and the season’s harvest is safe, out of the ground and under cover. An important step, but only one in the year-long cycle of growing garlic.

The next step, once all the garlic has cured for a couple of weeks, is to trim the stalks and the roots and gently clean the heads. Then, we grade the heads, looking for damage or disease and sorting them by size. At this point we set aside the garlic we will be using for seed in the fall, choosing the largest heads with the greatest number of cloves. This way, we bring forward the best genetics in our garlic stock as well as adapting it to our farm’s particular climate. With the garlic cleaned and sorted, and the seed garlic set aside, the rest is distributed to the CSA shares or sold at market.

In this climate, we plant garlic sometime between the middle and end of October. I’ve planted later, into the second week of November, and have been fine but knew I was flirting with disaster. Running up to the planting day, we spend a little time in the loft “popping” the heads, gently breaking breaking apart the heads into individual cloves. These cloves are what we plant out, the “seeds” of the garlic. They are planted just like you would crocus bulbs, pointy end up, blunt side down, and about two inches deep. Once planted, we topdress the beds with the chicken litter from last winter’s coop and then deeply mulch it with six to eight inches of straw to protect it through the winter.

And then we wait.

The following spring, once the ground thaws and the days warm, I begin checking the garlic beds. Usually by mid-April I will see the little green fingers of new growth thrusting through the straw mulch. Throughout the rest of the spring and early summer, the garlic grows in the lengthening days. Sometime around mid-June we harvest the scapes, the flowering part of the plant. And then we watch for the plant to begin to die back. Once this process starts, we know the garlic has grown as large as it’s going to, and we begin the harvest. Sometimes, when the ground is soft, the garlic comes right out with a gentle pull. Sometimes the ground is harder and we need to deploy the digging forks. In either case, we work as gently as we can so as not to bruise the heads. And then the whole harvest is spread out in the loft to cure, and the cycle begins anew.

War Against Weeds

Right now, we’re staging an all-out assault on the weeds. When the crew and I are not harvesting, we’re weeding. For extra help, I’m calling in favors, offering blandishments, extending veiled threats. Like a general, I’m reviewing my tactics and deciding where to apply my resources to the best advantage: Where is the insurgency most serious? Which assets are most important? Where is the battle already lost? And where can it yet be won?

I know I need to be careful when using martial imagery when describing my work on the farm. As I’ve written elsewhere, my relationship to this place is more of a dance than a fight. But in this case, I think, the analogy rings true. These weeds, by robbing the crops of light, moisture, and soil fertility, do threaten the harvest. How numerous they are outstrips my resources to fight them all. So victory here depends on determination and thoughtful tactics.

And the clock is ticking. On the one hand, if these crops are going to have time to bear a good harvest before the end of the season, they need to get free of the weeds now. And on the other hand, as the harvest ramps up, we have less time for everything else, weeding included. So, this week, we fight on.

The Power of a Fallow Season

Our first summer here on the farm, I started planting in the part of the field where it seemed most logical, closest to the barn. That turned out to be not the greatest choice. After years of conventional farming, the soil there was depleted and compacted and poorly drained. I fought with that soil one more season before moving on to other, better spots in the field.

But I wasn’t going to just abandon that soil. My plan was to put in a soil-enriching cover crop of crimson clover and then let it alone for a while to give it some time to heal. The cover crop thinned out after a couple of seasons and became a little weedy, dandelions chief among them. That was okay, I thought, because I surmised that the plant’s long taproot might help break up the compacted subsoil and bring nutrients to the surface. And from time to time I would mow the weeds and pasture the chickens there, letting them do some of the work of restoring the soil food web.

This winter I decided it was time to break ground there again and see if the soil had improved. In early summer, I cut the spring weeds short with the brush mower, then plowed them under. I waited for the sod to break down a little, then ran the disc through it to break it down further. Yesterday, I attached the three-point tiller to the tractor and made our beds for this week’s transplanting. And wouldn’t you know it, that soil had improved during its long fallow period. The final test will be how the plants perform growing in it, but I am encouraged to see how much the soil healed itself with only a little bit of help from me (and the chickens) in such a relatively short period of time.

Hopeful, is what it makes me, both for this farm and for this old, battered world of ours.

Free For the Taking

July is crunch time, the month that can make or break the season. So I try to keep everyone—myself included—on point and hustling, all of us working through that impossible to-do list. That’s as it should be: There’s no harvest without labor. But it’s all too easy to lose perspective in summer’s flurry of work, and when I need a little perspective, I like to take a walk out around the back of the property.

Our little farm sits on sixteen acres. On the front six are the house, barn, yard, and flower gardens. Behind them are maybe four acres for the greenhouses and orchard and vegetable plots. But further back are six acres not yet used, laying fallow. Those acres have been sown with a long-term cover crop—timothy, clover, alfalfa, and orchard grass—and I keep a path mowed around it for walking. So, last evening, that’s just what I did.

This time of year the grasses in the field nod in the warm breeze, their heads heavy with seed. The eastern and northern edges of the field I keep wild, and black cherries and flowering hawthorns like to grow there. In the spring sprout trout lilies bloom, and in the fall wild grapes hang heavy from the vines draped through the trees. Last evening, I found a patch of wild brambles I hadn’t noticed before, the berries already eaten by the birds.

Along the western edge of the farm I’m working to establish a wind break of white spruce and native crab apples. That’s also where I’ve set out some nest boxes for the bluebirds and tree sparrows. The sparrows seem to like them, but I haven’t seen any bluebirds take up residence yet. There must be a red-winged blackbird nest nearby, though—a pair hovered above my head, trilling and squawking me away.

And as I walked back toward the house in the growing twilight, the nearly-full moon rose bright and bold to the southeast, only slightly hazy in the thick summer air, and the fireflies began to drift in from the wild margins of the farm to hover and blink across the darkening yard.

It may be that there’s no harvest without labor, but beauty is free for the taking all around us, scattered by the fistsful.

Dividends Elsewhere

On the farm, there are urgent things, and there are important things. Sometimes these are the same things—staking and stringing the tomatoes, for example. And this time of year, the list of urgent things is long. The tricky list, though, is the set of things that are important but not urgent, things that could easily slide in the ferocity of the season.

The flower gardens, for example. Most of my farmer colleagues don’t grow ornamental flower beds. And when they visit our farm, they marvel that I have time to plant and maintain them. One of them mentioned to Shel that she feels like she’s so busy with the urgent business of farming that there’s no time to make things “look pretty.”

I suppose I could find arguments to justify the flower beds’ utility, how they attract pollinators or could be used to make bouquets to sell at market, but the truth simply is that they delight me and others, so I make it a priority to tend to them. I don’t quite see the point of having the farm be only about production and efficiency and work. It’s not like we’re making a killing in this vocation, so we might as well find our dividends elsewhere, in the beauty of the fields, in the generosity of the earth.