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May 5th, 2013

My Dilemma with Omnivores

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” says local-food evangelist Michael Pollan, and though his books have been translated in at least sixty-five languages including Urdu, Chicken wasn’t one of them. Even if it were, it would be lost in translation on my willful mob. Can you say “Eat food, lots of it, mostly Matthew’s plants.”

CSA May 2013-9344Breakfast of Chickens:  The apple blossom special.

My Dilemma with Omnivores is their lack of discrimination. They seem to pick up on the coddled pheromone trail I’ve invested into my favorite varieties an go for those first.  Just when a long-awaited apple,  pear or tomato is heavy with itself, it’s pecked or gnawed into oblivion.

Chickens are über-omnivores:  They’ll sample, trial and taste almost anything, even chicken (don’t ask).  And they’ve become so unhinged lately by the delirium of Spring that they’ve even taken to browsing the blossoms off of fruit trees in the orchard.  Who does that?

I’m not alone, of course.  I just have a larger produce department than most home gardeners, and a few too many fowl wandering the aisles.

CSA May 2013-9492Annual Lamium purpurium carpets the orchard. Also known as henbit, it’s chicken candy.

I spoke about “Growing Beautiful Food” at a big garden conference last month in Connecticut, where the Master Gardeners were many, and the Q&A was mostly about predation.  “Yes, it’s all very pretty, and thank you for your lovely presentation, but what about the critters?  How do you keep them out?  This was the idée fixe: Beauty is negotiable,  plundering is not.

And while I implored them to sacrifice a few peonies for eggplant, they couldn’t get passed the loss factor. Though growing things is always fraught with peril, growing food–no matter how beautiful, healthful, and environmentally responsible—is asking for trouble. Of course, in the long haul, not growing your own, or not supporting those who do it locally and organically, is the real worry;  It will be no accident when we just can’t feed ten billion people on chemically saturated agricultural land that’s dependent on a diminishing supply of petroleum. So a few wayward chickens or nibbled greens are the least of our worries.

I’m seeking absolution, I suppose; having come in from the urban cold of not knowing (or caring) where my food came from, to caring deeply and deciding to do something about it.

I came from cities – physically, psychologically. From the bump and bustle of urbanism. No planting, no growing, no harvesting. And yet, here I am in mid-life, an organic farmer, feeding my family, feeding neighbors and CSA members; lost in a headlong swoon for this crazy, sexy piece of earth, and unable to imagine a life without it.

CSA May 2013-9511-2

Spring at Stonegate Farm:  One sexy piece of earth.

So I let the chickens have their barter share: They lay, I look the other way. A dilemma resolved by a kind of rural détante.  Sometimes letting go can be the very thing your life needs.  -Mb

Visit the farm @ StonegatefarmNY.org

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March 29th, 2013

Heart of Glass

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.


SGF March 2013-8315-3

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.

SGF 5-11-1220-1The 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.

SGF March 2013-8432-5Shoveling 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

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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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April 11th, 2011

The Lovely Bones

My faithful Troy-Bilt tiller, Spiny Norman, is having his engine rebuilt this week.  While the Wheelhorse tractor, which rambled over a few too many stumps last season, has a cracked spindle on its mowing deck, and the greenhouse has three panes of storm splintered glass that need replacing.   I seems I need to set up a triage on the farm.  The thing about older machinery is that it’s worth fixing, worth rushing to the ER (Engine Repair?) for treatment.  Like organic farming versus chemical farming,  good tools presuppose a long-term relationship, not a one-night-stand with plastics and pot metal.

Bones and buildings in Early Spring, before the growth hormones kick in.

Bones and buildings in Early Spring, before the growth hormones kick in.


I used to expect my tools to put up with me and my casual disregard for their well-being:  “Did I leave you out in the rain again?  I’m sorry.  Suck it up.”  But I’ve since learned the hard way to be mindful and patient.  I’m a parent, after all.

I’m not into small engine repair.  Dirt I don’t mind, but all of the petro-gunk that clings to engines and fuels internal combustion has no appeal. I’m partial to external combustion, to the heat of topsoil as it arouses seeds to germination.  I have a neighbor who’s a genius with all things petroleum based, a grease monkey to my dirt monkey.  He tinkers while I till, and keeps me in working machinery, a must-have for farming unless you’re Amish and have seven plain-clothed children who are chore-bound to help out. My kids harvest eggs and tend a few flowers, but it’s all moi after that.

Hundreds of seeds have been planted in the greenhouse, starting their miraculous journey from speck to splendor.

Hundreds of seeds have been planted in the greenhouse, starting their miraculous journey from speck to splendor.


And as much as I love the farm in the full swing of the growing season – in the swelter and hum of midsummer – there’s a moment in early April before seedlings have begun to push up through the soil, an anticipatory delight, when there’s nothing to tend or fret over or weed. The farm’s form is clear, its lovely bones spelled out, its undressed structures waiting to be loosely draped with beans, cukes, squash and tomatoes.

I pick through the soil, which has been coughing up rocks in a consumptive heave of frost and thaw in beds that I was certain were finally stone-free. The tilled earth, before being knotted and bound by weeds, is a relief, as are the vines-less cucumber and squash trellises, the short Winter-stalled grass, the absence of insects. All of the cold season’s fitful tantrums have passed , and the farm seems to be holding its breath.  Then March continues on into April (it snowed on the first, no joke), and instead of going out like a lamb, it sent Spring on the lam, a fugitive from the farm and its desire to unfold and grow again.

There will be a lot to savor this season, including some hard to find heirlooms, like the serpentine Italian squash Trombo D'Albenga.

There will be a lot to savor this season, including some hard to find heirlooms, like the serpentine Italian squash Trombo D'Albenga.


Only the greenhouse is a refuge from erratic Spring weather, where hundreds of seeds have begun their miraculous journey from speck to vegetal splendor.  There will be much to savor this season:  Mereled Rattlesnake snap beans, Mexican Sour gherkins, serpentine Tromba D’Albenga squash, Lemon Drop tomatoes, sweet paprika peppers, purple Barbarella eggplant.

Happy Spring!   – Mb

As he has planted, so does he harvest; such is the field of karma.  ~Sri Guru Granth Sahib

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