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March 15th, 2012

Notes from the Underground

It’s March, and most of the prevailing madness at Stonegate Farm these days is focused underground. Besides fretting over tender seedlings in the greenhouse, I’m preoccupied with soil: Top dressing, tilling, broad-forking, sampling. Managing the health and fertility of the land is a strange kind of rural hypochondria, particularly here at the OCD Farm (Obsessive, Compulsive Dirt Farm).

Composted horse manure and worms: the stuff that dreams are made on.

We’re obsessed with dirt because it is mysterious, with a deep and secret life of its own. It’s the most complex and abundant ecosystem on earth; a dark universe of fungi, bacteria and micro-organisms, all interacting with plant roots and rhizomes in a language that’s still arcane to science. In a spoonful of dirt, there are more than a million species of microbes, mostly unknown: a cosmos of dreams beneath your feet.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” said Yeats.

If I had any issues last season, they were largely subterranean, with soil lacking in certain trace elements or nutrients, with water-logging leading to root-rot on brambles in the orchard, with not having rotated my crops and therefore depleting the soil’s vitality.

Black currants catch a nitrogen buzz with a top dressing from the horse farm.

Of course, there’s always the usual flotsam the land heaves up in the thaw of Spring: bricks, metal scrap, cistern caps, tires, carriage linkages, not to mention the constant scree of glacial rock that lies  reliably just 10 inches below my topsoil.  There’s nothing quite as bone-shuddering as hitting a twenty-pound chunk of stone with the business end of a shovel.

It turns out, my farm was, in fact, never farmed.  The collection of 19th century outbuildings were all there to support the lifestyle of estate owners.  Carriage house, stable, ice house, manger, barn, gate house, greenhouse – all there to make life in the 1850s a pleasure for the patrician class.  The cows surely grazed, as did the horses, but the estate’s 35-plus acres were landscaped in a picturesque English style by contemporaries of Andrews Jackson Downing.  Meant to be meandered through by carriage, appreciated in evening jackets and jodhpurs, but never plowed under.

Rural Bavaria: Nobody does it better.

So I’ve been breaking new ground, and my metaphorical back, with my compulsion for agricultural order and fertility.  And this season in particular, after a Winter spent in the Bavarian countryside just south of Munich, where “ordnung muss sein” (order must be), I’m more determined than ever to reign in the wild and scrappy.  Bavaria, with its carefully cultivated farms and fields and charming villages, is postcard quaint; a place where the stewardship and care of agricultural lands is a communal act.  If ever there was an argument to be made for agriculture integrated into community, you’ll find it there.  If I achieve a fraction of what the Bavarians have accomplished here at Stonegate Farm, I’ll consider this whole OCD experiment a success.     -Mb

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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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