The greenhouse at Stonegate Farm has been transformed this month from a cool, empty glass box to a biosphere of warm green life, taken over by the bustle of seed starting.
It’s Hope Central for the farm, a strange and wonderful refuge of genetic desire. The greenhouse is where you lay out your floral and vegetal longing in orderly blocks of soil, pinch in an improbable speck of seed and say your prayers. Ora Pro Nobis.
Thinning seedlings in the greenhouse. The weak shall inherit the compost pile.
Ideas incubate as well here; what to interplant this season, how much of this variety to grow, when to start that. You test plant in coconut coir, or seed start under the cosmic pull of a full moon. You glaze young greens with an emulsion of fish and seaweed and imagine low tide. It’s all very seductive, to be inside this small ship of hope, when the gray and cold of late March is still clawing at the glass.
You pump iTunes through your brain to give rhythm and meter to the monotony of planting, or a sacred dirge when thinning fragile and crowded cotyledons (yes, even though they have a fetal heartbeat). You meditate on the meaning of growing food for yourself and others and why it matters.
The heart of glass at the center of the farm.
This season, with the first expansion of the farm in five years, it’s a wonderfully crowded house. The cut flowers alone, preening beauties that they are, have laid claim to half the space, while the dozens of new vegetable varieties pack the aisles. Maybe we should crank some Green Day into the glassy mosh pit?
While I was away from Stonegate this winter, having fled to Europe on an annual Bavarian hajj where my family, alps and mountain huts beckon, these plans were all virtual, scrawled out in journals and circled in dog-eared seed catalogs. My absence always seems to make the farm grow fonder. I miss the weight of organic dirt caked into worn boots, the midnight rustling-up of lost and frightened chickens, the fussy coddling of pears and quince in an orchard.
Even while Sandy and Nemo gave us a climatic battering, and kept me cursing the gods from far away, I couldn’t wait to pick the farm up and start all over again.
Shoveling the Sh*t at the horse farm.
But that’s just part of why we do this. As gardeners, growers, and micro-farmers , we see things as we are, and if we’re joyful, hopeful souls, we’ll always come back, happy to press our wills against the vicissitudes of weather and temperamental plant habit; to fungal disease and the relentless, destructive hunger of insects an critters.
“Though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener,” said Thomas Jefferson at the end of his life, and we will do no better. We’ll leave this world wanting one more season, one more heirloom tomato to grow and swoon over, one more squash or melon variety to trail and taste.
For now, we’re in the greenhouse–the glassy, pulsing heart of the farm–seeing things as we are. -Mb
We’ve been setting out young greenhouse seedlings for the last week – looseleaf lettuce, broccoli raab, luminous rainbow chard – and organizing them into perfect matrices on the farm; it’s the kind of hopeful symmetry that prevails in the Spring, before the sprawl of Summer growth turns order into succulent mayhem.
Italian Chiogga Beet seedlings, with their candy stripe centers, about to leave the greenhouse.
When you’re not spread out over acres of land, but are farming on limited ground, your season is defined by meticulous planning and bio-intensive forethought: what can I plant here and harvest early before the space is succeeded by a later season variety? What could I squeeze into the soft, useable dirt between taller stems, or companion plant so that there’s balance and harmony, not competition?
Of course, balance and harmony are fundamental to organic farming. Organic asks that you take as much as you give, that you’re attentive to inherent cycles and rhythms, that you consider the farm as a macro organism where all the living parts function in service of the whole. But organic isn’t just a method and philosophy of growing food. The OED defines organic as “denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of the whole.”
And aren’t we all looking for lives that “fit together harmoniously,” for a sense of order and meaning, for some magical coherence at the end of the day?
Working with the land gives you some of that, it ties you in and proposes that you, in the words of ee cummings, “ask the more beautiful question” because “that’s where the beautiful answers lie.” When I began to restore this property fifteen years ago, and stood looking at a cluster of worn-out buildings buried beneath bittersweet and at the menacing loom of wild and unruly trees, I started to ask those questions – what if we restored this, or added that, or moved this building here, and built one there, or started a farm?
Greenhouse seedlings of looseleaf lettuce ready for the great outdoors.
The answers have broadened the meaning of organic at Stonegate. Very little that happens here is out of context: the work I do as a photographer and writer is all shaped by my relationship with this place and vise versa. Working in magazines, books and television helps give purpose and meaning to the farm, and is an engine of its sustainability ( I’ve even grown my own props for food shoots!)
Some “necessary parts of the whole” lately are the publication of The Photo-Graphic Garden (Rodale, 2012), Urban Farms (Abrams, 2012), a lecture and book signing at White Flower Farm in Connecticut next week on “The Artistic Vegetable Garden,” and a exhibit at FloreAnt Gallery titled “Impermanence and Beauty in the Photographic Garden.” At the center of this media bustle is the farm, the sustainable heart that helps to make beautiful sense of it all. –Mb
They’re back. Under the greenhouse, through the barn, into the woodpile. Scraping and plundering about, eating all that’s new and green, making passionate, squealing woodchuck love in the middle of the night.
I was even jolted out of bed last week at two in the morning to what sounded like a chicken meeting the toothy end of a fox or raccoon. After a blind and bewildered stumble out to the coop, pellet rifle in hand, I made a quick tally, and all wattles were accounted for. Then it sounded again, from underneath the barn floorboards: The horrible yelp and howl of woodchuck sex.
What, me worry?
If this springtime ritual is that painful for them (truly a little death) why don’t they just stop breeding, or adopt a one-pup policy like the Chinese? Works for me.
They actually tunneled under the greenhouse foundation and up into beds of March-planted seedlings recently. Of course, they took out the much-coveted kale first; hopeful young shoots, barely into first leaf, gone. Then the tender loose-leaf lolla rossa lettuce, about to be hardened off, gone. And, of course, my faltering humanity, gone.
I have to admit, I was impressed by their determination and insight. How did they know the farm season begins in the greenhouse? That this was nursery of wonders where seed was maturing into soft chloro-filled bites?
After finding their tunnel, I blocked it’s entrance with old bricks and rocks, which they handily excavated around. I laid down wire and heavy terra cotta pots, which they gingerly pushed aside, with a varmint snicker. Finally, I mixed two sixty pound bags on concrete, and poured the hole shut at both ends. I’m just waiting to hear something from inside their cement tomb, like a Tell-Tail heart, or – God forbid – squeals of woodchuck ecstasy.
Seedlings in the newly-fortified greenhouse, ready to fend off another pillage.
Woodchucks are as perennial and unflappable as weeds. The more burrows you empty out each year, the more vacancy signs dance in their furry little heads. Like sub-prime speculators, their waiting for the market to open up so they can settle in. Sprees like these can only send agricultural economies South, as a band hungry, ravenous woodchucks can easily undo you as a farmer.
For now, the greenhouse appears to be protected, and seedlings are thriving again, standing tall and brave in their refortified world. In a few weeks, they’ll move out to live under an open sky of sun, wind and rain, safe behind fencing, as objects of insatiable, four-legged desire. –Mb
We’ve legalized winter egg production here at Stonegate Farm thanks to a 200-watt red warming light in the Cage aux Fowl, and my little feathered harlots are laying like Madame de Pompadour. Even our virile black frizzle rooster, Gerald, struggles to keep on top of his broody harpies – chasing them about the frozen yard like a manic feather duster. With eggs galore in mid-winter, the oldest profession has aroused theKavorka in all of us.
The Dutch think they’re progressive, but we have dozens of farm-fresh eggs in our district!
All this fowl balling has inspired the addition of free range eggs to our 2010 CSA shares and Market Garden: we’ve ordered two dozen more hens, full size Marans and Ameraucanas, that should been laying their deep chocolate and teal colored eggs by Summer. A new Gothic coop will be built in the orchard, where the birds will feed on insects and fallen fruit and in turn cheerfully fertilize from their feathered ends. Chickens, eggs, and quince, oh my!
In the greenhouse, beds and soil blockers are getting ready to start seedlings in early March. This year, we will be adding fingerling potatoes, deep purple carrots, gherkin cucumbers, and – heedful of last season’s scourge – blight-resistant tomatoes! We’ll still have the heirlooms and unusuals but have included an escrow of blight-resistance to our insurance policy. Is any local tomato better than no tomatoes? We’ll see.
Greens are slowly stirring inside the Winter greenhouse.
Out on the Winter farm, the stalwart Tuscan Kale has been adding frozen, vitamin rich greens to soups, and the cold has only ramped their sweetness; it seems many plants react to stress by converting their starches to sugars – a kind of vegetal survival instinct - so kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and carrots are a sweet wonder beneath the blanketing snow.
Varied greens will be a mainstay again this season. If I yearn for anything in the bleak mid-winter – and we all need a good yearn this time of year – it’s for all that wonderful, mixed cutting lettuce and mesclun greens. Call it chlorophyll deficit disorder. How many starchy root veg can one man eat, after all.
The snow-bound orchard, waiting for Spring to stir it to life.
Besides walking among the orchards snow-bound allées of apple and pear, pruner and notebook in hand, or starting greenhouse seedlings, winter is a long, cool breath, somewhere between quiet reflection and forward drive. So be it. Let the lusty chickens frolic. Apparently, Roxanne, you dohave to turn on the red light.