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September 26th, 2010

Great Egg-Spectations


The orchard hens have started to lay their pale blue and almond brown eggs as promised. I’ve been finding them tucked here and there under a pear or quince tree, or scattered beneath the brambles, but mostly in the nesting boxes as planned. There’s a large, antique porcelain decoy egg for encouragement, and plenty of praise when they relinquish.

Eggs from the orchard, in shades of earth and sky, have begun to delight us all.


But there was scolding as well last week.  When I was away, they flew the coop into the lettuce greens and began to unravel the beds into loose stitches of green.  The lettuce, thick-sown in early September, is just coming into full leaf, so to find them scratched out and flattened by plundering fowl was exasperating.

They will get into all and everything, of course: raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes.  I’ve watched them leap 3 feet in the air to snatch a raspberry, or balance on a tightrope of orchard wire to snack on currants, or peck incessantly through fencing to reach a tomato. They will also decide, without much discretion, that your planting of Fall arugula is a fine spot to take an afternoon siesta, so you find your coddled greens flattened here and there by the imprint of a settled hen.

Blackberries, swelling over the orchard fence on long, armored canes, haven’t escaped the notice of the insatiable hens.  They will find a way.


I haven’t had the heart to forward news of the damage to my wife’s German uncle, a doctor who visited this Summer and worked meticulously every morning in the beds of greens, picking out late summer weeds one at a time, as though cleaning a wound.  The farm has never looked as healthy and well cared for it did in late August.

The hens may not know a weed from a-rugula, but little loss of green is a small price pay for the eggs we’re now getting. Compared to a supermarket dozen, and to the USDA’s nutrient data on commercial eggs, our orchard roaming hens produce a vastly superior product. Their natural, free-range diet–including seeds, berries, insects, and greens, along with grain–results in eggs with far less cholesterol and saturated fat, and much higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, beta carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids. Is it any wonder they taste better?

Supermarket birds, even those labeled “free range” and “organic,” are usually fed a compromised diet of soy, corn and cottonseed meal, laced with additives, and have limited or no access to the outdoors.  If fresh eggs from the home or farm are not available, pasture-raised are the next best option.

When the child of a CSA member was in the coop last week as an egg as smooth and blue as beach glass was being laid, she marveled at the beauty of it.  In that moment, the value of running a small farm was being paid forward a generation or two.  –Mb


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September 13th, 2010

Clutching Hope, Cultivator in Hand

September has settled in on the Farm as a welcomed reprieve from August’s searing heat, and we’ve been busy planting Fall greens – cutting lettuce, arugula, broccoli raab, savoy spinach, bok choy. All of them holding out the fragile promise of an extended, bountiful season. We may get lucky and have a balmy Fall (we are in Balmville after all!), or be dashed to vegetal purgatory by an early frost.

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A thinned bed of Red Komatsuna, a cool-season Asian mustard green, or bok choy, that’s delicious in salads or stir fry. We planted it when the lettuce was still too hot and bothered to germinate.  For a few recipes, see below.


Nature is a temperamental master. We’re all Pandoras, of course, clutching to hope with cultivator in hand. There would be no growing without the folly of wishful possibility. Every viable seed has a wish in its DNA. It wants that delicious, life-giving cocktail of dirt, water and light to set it loose upon the world.

In the wild, mercurial nature settles the score, and plants thrive or falter as conditions allow. On the Farm, however, conditions are created to maximize odds of survival.  And as seedlings push their hopeful green leaves up from the dirt, full of potential fullness, most are quickly dispatched as we thin the beds.

It’s one of the most Machiavellian chores on the farm. No matter how careful you are when planting seed, particularly tiny dust-in-the-wind lettuce seed, overseeding is routine, and a type of insurance against spotty germination, so unwanted seedlings need to be culled (put to sleep, bumped off, sent to the green beyond). Seedlings that will be allowed to grow into maturity are spared, and competing siblings that have sprouted around them are yanked out with a quick flick of thumb and index finger.“Now I have become Death, the destroyer of Worlds”indeed.

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Cutting lettuce seedlings thinned to conformity and order. We are near West Point, after all.  Ten-hut!


Like their carbon cousins, trees, too, need to be thinned.  Our property, once a forty acre estate landscaped in the picturesque style of the mid-nineteenth century, has an abundance of magnificent specimen trees suitable for an arboretum. But decades of neglect, and no thinning of competing weed trees, has weakened most of the green giants. The forest’s relentless, unmanaged vigor has been its own undoing.

It has fallen upon me – God forbid not literally! – to thin the trees to a manageable few, not only for their own health, but for the health of the Farm. I love trees and have been known to hug them, grope them even, but shade is the enemy of most annual vegetables (excepting lettuce and few others), so this Fall more trees will be come down, destined for the wood pile.

When the wood stove in the barn is sending out its warmth this Winter, and I’m just finishing off the last of the delicious Fall lettuce, I’ll most certainly be grateful for the trees and seedlings that made that moment possible.  –Mb


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