The loose, lustrous heads of Italian radicchio di Chioggia are inter-planted among the Rosa Bianca eggplant, to the benefit of both: The radicchio keeps the eggplant roots moist, while the eggplant shades the heat-tender leaves of the radicchio.
We don’t grow a lot of dirt at Stonegate. We plant, inter-plant, succession plant, companion plant, Robert Plant. Dirt is inefficient. If the natural world were allowed to prevail over the imposition of agriculture, there would be no dirt. Every bit of soil would be colonized by something green, seeking purchase and life. A walk in the forest will bear witness to that.
But even with our careful planning, our world was certainly put out by the swelter. We watered twice daily. We irrigated the orchard. Our sleep was fitful. Last season, the sound of incessant rain on the roof kept me up at night, anxious that the farm was rotting in a wet slurry of soil and muck. This year, the relentless hum of the air conditioner (a window unit we only pull out during heat waves) has meant shallow, drought-fearing sleep.
And the lawn, which is never watered, went from supple green to scorched earth in a matter of days, its brittle blades piercing the tender soles of children as they scampered across it to find relief in the pool. I could even smell the lawn burning, like someone lighting up a joint. Now I know why they call it smoking grass.
Even the cats inter-plant themselves among the beds, where the soil is cooler and the shade dappled. “Hey, I’m in chard here.”
So as the climate becomes more and more unstable, more manic-depressive, we may as well throw out the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Its reliance on past weather patterns and cycles seems moot. The New Farmer’s Almanac might be summed up in a few words: Be prepared for anything. Frogs, hail, locusts. The planet has always been physically bipolar, now its climate is as well.
Farming longs for some level of predictability; it wants to be scripted, thought out and measured. Planning is at its core, and maintenance is the drum beat. Now I’m being told the USDA Zone map is even being redrawn to adjust for climate change. Should I be ordering seed for kumquats and Ponderosa lemons?
When the rain finally arrived by week’s end, its cool, wet relief was almost surreal. At first it drummed on the bone-dry ground, which sent the water pooling and running like mercury. But soon the land was guzzling every drop in delicious, life-giving gulps. Excuse me while I kiss the sky. -Mb
My new hens have outgrown their garret of a starter coop, and have begun to crowd the outside pen like a Parisian café. That’s café, not CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation), although conditions are rather similar, minus the threat of a looming hereafter. I hear them squawking over food and drink, or the best sidewalk table.
They’ll soon be moving to a new arrondissement in the orchard, where I’ve built a rather ornate gothic revival villa for them, in keeping with the rest of the property. The naming has begun even before the roof is on: The Café Au Lay. Coop de Ville. Das Coop. Why chickens bring out the cheap wordplay in us is a mystery. We just can’t stop ‘till we get an oeuf.
The New Coop will house 25 Maran and Ameraucana hens in great style.
While I was compound mitering the pagoda roof on the coop, my children and friends were in the orchard below, harvesting black currants. Their little hands, pulp-stained to a deep purple, picked the fruit in delicate clusters and arranged them in one pint boxes. This year is our first full harvest, with last year’s having been diminished by the ceaseless rain.
Black currants are certainly an acquired taste. Eating them fresh supposes a longing for complex tartness. The first bite through their supple, sun-blackened flesh is almost sweet, while the finish is much darker. All of life’s complexity in one bite. The Europeans have used them for centuries to flavor jams, tarts and juices, and the French transform them beautifully into cassis.
Daughter Daisy and best friend Hannah harvest black currant. Who needs a Brueghel painting when a canvas comes to life before your eyes?
But beyond flavor, black currants contain the fruit phylum’s highest levels of disease fighting anti-oxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which rage against heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. They’re also highest in vitamin C. For almost a century, production in the United States was banned due to concern over white pine blister rust, a fungal pariah carried by currants. But since 2003, all bans are off. I lift my glass of locally grown cassis to that.
Blackberries, raspberries and Aronia (another super-berry) will follow. The orchard view from the nearly-completed coop roof is lovely, full of promise; the fruit swelling in the heat, the bees traveling to and from, like the bowing of a thousand cellos, the chickens chattering in the distance. Life looks good from up here. -Mb
Black currants harvested in the orchard. Their smoky tartness and free-radical fighting brawn are legendary.