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September 27th, 2009

Till, We Meet Again


Fall has made its official, blustery entrance here at the farm and the tiller and broadfork are out and about, working over exhausted beds , turning under organic matter before the long sleep of Winter.

Out at my neighbor’s horse farm this week, his ten-year-old appaloosa gelding stood curiously by as a shoveled composted manure into the truck, then brushed his long, warm muzzle against my shoulder, as if to ask “what are you doing with my poop?” I love this horse – his sweet and massive tenderness. Do you suppose if I bring him a bushel of Purple Haze carrots and heirloom apples he’ll make the connection?


My Troy-Bilt tiller, Mad Max, and soil-puncturing broadfork,Spiny Norman. The tines have come.

About four, half-ton truckloads of hay-sweetened soil will top-dress the farm. Years ago, when we had just started working this land, we would travel across the Hudson in a run-down Mazda to gather our horse manure. We loaded up to the roof-line in sturdy yellow IKEA bags and hauled it home, dragging our bumper all the way across the bridge. The first methane-fueled sub-compact.

Now the horses are nearby, and chickens add their high-nitrogen spoils to the mix, although – unlike the horses – they seem perfectly ambivalent about the contribution.


Chicken guano cuffs pears in the orchard with a high-nitrogen blast.

The compost piles will in turn add their sweet, damp crumble of organic matter to the soil - a billion-strong natural order of nitrogen fixing bacteria, fungi, yeasts and molds. This universe of organisms, all dancing in the dark, and so vast as to far outnumber life above ground, is where it all begins.  The Big Bang.


Composed compost.  Corn husks, fava shells, pawpaw rinds, wood ash. It’s all good.  The larger bins, below, will turn all of our yard waste into a fertility bank with no withdrawal fees.  Good ‘ol Yankee, feel-good frugality.


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September 19th, 2009

Maine Event

I was up in Maine last week, on a shoot at Four Season Farm. Like pilgrims on a Hajj to Mecca, farmers, gardeners and homesteaders should all make their way to this singular place, out on the ragged fringe of Penobscot Bay.

It is a unique model of organic sustainability, agricultural enterprise, and soil science; an open air laboratory for industrious writer/farmers Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman.

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Barbara Damrosch at Four Season Farm.

Coleman has spent the last forty years listening to his land. Like a soil whisperer, he ‘s taken a stubborn slab of forested bedrock and coaxed it into fertility, infusing it with organic life. In the late 60s, when he bought his piece from back-to-the-land guru Scott Nearing (who wrote the homesteading primer, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World), It could barely sprout a turnip. Now it turns out some of the most remarkable organic crops in the Northeast, and year-round to boot!

I came away, as I have in the past, daunted, humbled and inspired; determined to tune in more deeply to the voices on my own small parcel.

It takes years to understand the disposition of a place: the tooth of the soil, the aspect of light through the seasons, the prevailing winds, the frost pockets, the random course of rainwater. All of these inform what to plant where and when, and how make the most of your modest holding.

We seem to have had more trials than Heracles this season, but better to be toughened up early than lulled into some facile illusion of what it takes to farm well. Learning to work your land is a complex dance, fraught with missteps, emboldened by small victories, but doubtless worth doing.

Apparently, we think we can dance. – Mb

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Matisse’s Dance. At Stonegate, modesty prevails (at least on Saturdays).

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September 15th, 2009

Field of Dreams

In the orchard of my imagination, well-ordered rows of pear, apple, plum an quince have by now turned delicate spring blossom into sun-burdened fruit; heavy on the branch, swollen by a long, sweet-tempered season.  And, despite all the dire chatter about the difficulties of organic orchard management, my fruit is flawless.

The heirloom apple, Swaar, in fruit at Stonegate its first season.  A tease or a sweet harbinger?

Then you channel surf into the Real World.  Truth is, I lost half my English gooseberries and a third of my hybrid black currants to root rot and anthracnose fungus, and my plums and cherries barely broke bud before succumbing to some scourge or another.

Nineteenth Century Newburgh luminary Andrew Jackson Downing knew something about fruit.  As the author of the authoritative Fruit and Fruit Trees of America,  he championed the cultivation and preservation of heirloom varieties, and would have played Quixote to the bland, shippable selection at most markets.

In his description of the apple Swaar, one of twenty three Downing-described varieties we’re growing here, he says:

“This is a truly noble American Fruit, produced by the Dutch settlers on the Hudson, and so termed from its unusual weight, from the Low Dutch, meaning heavy.  It is one of the finest flavored apples in America, and deserves extensive cultivation, in all favourable positions.”

And cultivate we will, and then some.  New posts and wire have gone in this week to add even more varieties to the mix.  They were purchased from a time-worn, scrappy lumber yard off of rt. 84 with an unshaven proprietor who bobbles about in a golf cart and seems to slink about your ankles as you load up your truck, purring approval at every purchase.

“Great posts.  White cedar, straight as hell.  And the wire’s imported from Germany.  Last you years.”

Then he sizes you up to see how many years you may, in fact, have left.  Orchards presume longevity, after all.


Fall has started to paint the garden.

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September 5th, 2009

The Weeder

After a cool, rain-muddied Summer, the sun has at last emerged, clear and lovely in September, and a quick amnesia has set in this week at the farm. How beautiful it is!

We’ve planted new mixed gourmet lettuce, baby spinach, braising greens, broccoli raab and chard, and the Brussels sprouts are starting to swell on their tall, ungainly stalks.

But this is the swan song for the farm, a last determined push before the deep sleep of winter.

We are a hopeful lot. We hope for sun, we hope for rain, we hope for fruit-swelling heat. We hope for more of whatever we and our leafy charges may covet. There’s never enough of something and always too much of something else.

Outside of the world within fences, the rest of the property has been brutally annexed by weeds. The wet Summer been a boom time for these thugs. They love excess: too much heat, to much rain, too much dry.


Barbarians at the gates. Given a chance, theselow-lifes would crash any well-kempt ground they could.

Weeds flourish on the exponential fringes of weather, thriving on adversity, sprawling and colonizing in thick, obscene swaths. They have a merciless appetite for self-preservation. Why can’t my heirloom lettuce be as shameless and libertine?

I admit, I’m impressed by their Darwinian vigor; how their root-clenched fists hold fast to the soil, how they skulk in hard-to-reach corners, or colonize and entire field overnight.


A tangled orgy of weeds pulled from the black currant beds. The cats have yet to volunteer. They use weeds to floss.

Of course, pulling these miscreants out by the roots in heavy, pitiless clumps, is an act of exaltation in the garden. Few chores blend a more complex mix of pleasure and dread.

So we weed. We’re not expecting an Oscar nod for our work. After all, In our version of “The Weeder”, no one is weeding to us (although there is something earthy and Kate Winslet-y about my wife). Just keeping ahead of them has to be good enough, one god-awful thug at a time. – Mb

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