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May 27th, 2013

Sex in the Trees

Periodical cicadas have begun to prowl the air this week, ending seventeen years of purgatorial root-sucking in the soil. They’re molting out of their thin, flightless shells and emerging en masse to deafen and terrify us with their shrill abdominal drumming and apocalyptic numbers.

5-27 AA periodical cicada, seventeen years in the making.

So many all at once; a plague of winged ghouls, coming out of the darkness like Orpheus, singing.

They’ll make their way to the treetops, where they’ll spend a few weeks conducting a thrumming orchestra of sex and birth and death, mating and laying eggs in the green wood of branch tips before a final rattle of life and skyfall turns them to chicken feed.

Their hatched nymphs will emerge, too, and fall to earth, burrowing down into an incubation of darkness to begin the next brood cycle.  All of this just to keep on keepin’ on, and at seventeen years from grub to gone, they’re the longest lived insect on the planet.

527EFruit in the orchard, protected from cicadas and other beasties with a dusting of clay.

Cicadas are strange, otherworldly creatures, armored and bloody-eyed, with a blunt head and cellophane wings. At almost two inches, they fly about like cargo planes, in slow, seemingly aimless paths, looking for mates.  And though I know the damage they can cause to trees with their egg-laying wounds (I can hear my young orchard screaming), I can’t bring myself to kill them. Any insect that waits so many years to be unbound and on the wing deserves its moment in the sun.

The summer my wife (then girlfriend) and I first bought this place, we were coming up from the city on weekends and bushwhacking overgrown lilac and bittersweet, and they had just emerged. We were on a garden tour, and the cicadas were rasping and whirring in the trees with such desperate enthusiasm that we couldn’t hear anyone speak. As the insects bonked clumsily into people’s heads, we huddled in tight, protective circles and talked plants. It was the most intimate garden tour I’ve ever been on.

527 DGooseberries netted against that other winged predator: birds

Sometimes cicadas get it wrong, and emerge in years when the rest of the brood is still sub-terra. Like showing up for a party as a hapless fool because you got the date wrong, they send their lonely rattle out into the void and die unrequited.  The cicada story does seem like a sad love affair – an existential lark.  All that time waiting for a short spasm of life in the sky and then death.  What’s the point?

Well, for us humans, burdened by heavy brains we have, life is about more than mere consciousness: we fret over significance and purpose.  We fill the space between the bookends with the struggle for meaning.  Maybe the joke is on us?

So I let the cicadas have their day in the sun. They have a purpose-driven life and their sole aim is to keep the whole, strange dance going. I do protect my apple, pear and quince from them and other damaging insects with a ghost-like dusting of micro-fine clay, however. It irritates their tiny, interlocking membranes (think of sand in your ear) and, clogged and bothered, they move on.  The birds, squirrels and chipmunks are thwarted with netting. In an organic orchard, an ounce of prevention (in a backpack sprayer) is always worth a pound of cure.

527CWe parade the orchard netting out each year after bloom.

I’ve been on this property now for as long as the last brood of cicadas droned in the trees, and have done my own share of incubation and emergence. The farm has come out from a tangle of neglect and taken flight. That’s meaning enough for me.  –Mb

…underground the blind nymphs waken and move.

They must begin at last to struggle towards love…

This is the wild light that our dreams foretold

while unaware we prepared these eyes and wings-

while in our sleep we learned the song the world sings.

–Judith Wright, The Cicadas

Visit Stonegate Farm at StonegatefarmNY.org

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October 15th, 2012

Qvitten Time

It’s qvitten time at Stonegate, not only because an early October frost took out the last of the leafy greens and brought a quick end to the season, but because the Quince (or Quitten in German) have ripened to a phosphorescent yellow in the orchard and begun to blette, turning their bitter starch to sugar and rendering themselves finally, and sweetly, edible.

CSA 10-12-4994-2

Quince: Lumpy, astringent, unforgettable.

Bletting is a form a decay, really; the same transformation that turns sour and bone-hard medlars sweet and wine grapes into Sauternes.  The French have a poetic word for this metamorphosis, of course:  pourriture noble, or noble rot.  Maybe something similar happens to the lucky few of us as we age – we sweeten!

Quince fruit begins as a pale, pleated blossom in early spring and evolves into an oblong sphere of hard, unforgiving firmness; its fleecy rind, its strange knobs and bumps, its astringent flesh don’t hold much promise until late in the season when they transform themselves.

Or those that haven’t been plundered do. I have a handful of quince that survived the season, but many were plucked early from their boughs by the orchard’s arch enemy: The squirrel.  For a few days in early October, winter-provisioning squirrels sacked and plundered the last of the orchard fruit, but they left me a few quince.  Maybe it’s just too firm and heavy and oddly lumpy for their tastes, or their larder was already full of contraband fruit, so why bother?

I watched helpless as they scampered down from tree-top burrows and leapt in furry, frenetic arcs across lawn and fencerow to the orchard, where they grabbed any fruit they could, giddy and snickering to be sure, and buried it somewhere as a cache for a January pear gelato or sub-zero cobbler.

The apples were the first to go. Small and firm and full of Fall promise, most of them were pilfered by mid-August. So my CSA (Compulsively Sacked Apples) fruit never made it into the weekly shares, and the reliable ebb and flow of dearth and plenty at the farm goes on.

CSA 10-12-4922

After a plunder by squirrels, only the evocative names remained.  Here, Sucré de Montlucon, an historic pear variety, is nothing but a plant tag and limbs.

The few quince I have I will covet and try to transform into an aromatic jam, jelly, or paste, something that’s been done for centuries.  In fact, quince culture long predates that of apples or pears, other pome fruit in the same family (rosaceae), but somewhere along the way lost favor and are now a rare find.

All the more reason to grow them here at Stonegate Farm, where the obscure will always have a home, where quirky botanical history is relevant, and where the squirrels eat like kings.  –Mb

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May 9th, 2012

Or•gan•ic (adj \ȯr-ˈgan-ik\)

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.

SGF May 2012

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?

SGF May 2012-2-2

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

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July 27th, 2009

The Love Apple

Our tangled galaxy of heirloom tomatoes has started to glow with color this week, and – barring a love apple apocalypse – we’ll be in fruit until frost. Caught below in flagrante delecto, they seem oblivious to blight, sun-colored and heat-swollen. Yes, there is something remarkable about a warm, unruly ravel of tomatoes, the kind of sensual squalor you don’t get from neatmarshalled rows tied up with string.

Love apple comes from the French (who else?), who thought the pomme d’amour was an aphrodisiac. The Germans had their Liebesapfel, the Italians theirpomi d’amore. It seems this little fruit gets around.

But these are tough times for the pommed’amour, and the plight of tomato farmers across the Northeast has hit prime time: Both the New York Times and NPR ran pieces on the fungusamungus, and Orange County’s black dirt region was singled out at particularly hard hit.

And the big box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowes – where the buyin‘ is cheap – seem to be complicit (surpirsed?).

So we can add a medieval black death of tomatoes to the minus column this year. Here’s a link to the Times article: Outbreak of Fungus Threatens Tomato Crop.

My advice: Savor every sweet, local liebesapfel that crosses your lips this season.

We Go Both Ways


Neat, marshalled rows. Efficient, very German.


The sprawl method: sensual squalor.

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