The longer I live, the more life looks like a long series of transitions. Being awake and present for each is a challenge to say the least, and its also our best shot at health and happiness. Here at Red Springs Family Farm, we have taken on more “outside” work this year, meaning work that is not OF the land. We have maintained an small customer base and a very large garden, both of which we enjoy very much. There were times over the course of the season when we felt spread too thin, in too many directions. But, looking around, I know we’re not alone. It seems to be a common symptom of the times we live in. Even our friends who work solely on their land feel this way in the thick of the season. So, we keep the faith, keep our hands in the dirt, keep with the seasonal rhythms that feed and nourish us. Keep working, keep looking out for the best way to grow forward, and up. Life is busy. Life is moving. Keeping the discipline to have a little stillness inside is what will keep our movements most effective. Balance, in life, doesn’t really seem to be about holding still – it’s about shifting the load and holding it wherever its best carried at that moment.
Now, when the sky has been grey for days, when the ground is wet, the clouds still and heavy, and the drizzle persistent… When fresh tomatoes are a memory and kale a welcomed reality… Now is a good time to look back. The desire to look forward isn’t too strong yet, and the lessons of the season past are still fresh enough to remember. I’ll share with you a few of our favorite lessons from this season.
Each year is jam packed. I’m going to try to stick with highlights…
I think our favorite fruitful experiment last season was the alpine strawberry. We started them from a pack of seeds. The seeds are nearly microscopic, so we sowed half a flat, real thick. They took off and made the cutest little seedlings. Slow, but steady. We threw a row in on the southwest corner of the garden – a bit of negligence, but its not like strawberries are a staple crop. And they did great.
We peeked at them, threw down some mulch, pulled a few weeds, and watched in wonder as the tiny blossoms began to burst. The fruit is so small, at first. It got bigger as the season progressed, and I guess next year it will be larger, still. But they are a fraction of the size of what we now call a standard strawberry. It works out though because they are exponentially more flavorful. It’s almost as if they have a perfume, a fragrance that accompanies their flavor. It’s hard to describe.
The little alpine strawberries produced all season long – they didn’t stop until a hard frost. It would be challenging to pick enough of these fruits to make a big batch of jam. It would also be challenging to try to take them to market. They are soft to touch. But it’s great to grow them. It’s great to send the kids out for a snack. It’s great to try something new and have it work so sweetly.
Another new jewel in our landscape worth mentioning is this little zinnia. My Fellow Man brought it back to me from his trip to Monticello. It was the first zinnia imported to this country, and of course, Thomas Jefferson grew it in his garden. It is petite, and all the flowers are this lovely salmon orange. But the zinnia characteristics are right there, and the color really glows in the afternoon sun. The seeds were not robust and did not germinate well – but I’ve saved enough to make another go of it next year. Flowers are important for the eyes of our soul.
And the eyes of the soul are important when we’re looking at gardens.
It was a good season. The weather was completely bizarre, but it worked out pretty well. The tomatoes were absolutely stunning. The first round of sweet corn had almost no ear worms. The melons were great. We grew 6 different types of field corn, on trial, and narrowed down a couple to move forward next year – more on that another time. Our carefully saved squash seed came true this season, and once again, we ate like royalty and have a pantry full of good stuff for the winter.
There was an unusual phenomena around the eggplant this year. Moles, or voles, or mice were eating the early fruit from the ground UP. They literally ate most of the first flush. Our neighbor’s dog offered to catch those varmints for us, but she also wanted to dig some big holes in the process which in turn would destroy the plants, so we fenced her out and went to work with traps and vibrating stakes, and that worked. After that – it was a wonderful year for eggplant, too.
Right next door to the eggplant were the tomatoes. We keep trying to grow less tomatoes, but it doesn’t seem to be working. One hundred plants seems to be as low as we go. And that’s just fine. This year we followed the lead of our good neighbors in Bugtussle and didn’t turn up the tomato patch. We cut the good stand of rye that had grown over the winter. It lay like a golden carpet on the ground. We ran the subsoiler through, digging deep to mark the rows, and we planted right into that ditch. Mulch went on, thick and fluffy, and the tomatoes were great. Work smarter, not harder, right?
We’ve been experimenting with isolating the nightshade (pepper, tomato, eggplant) varieties for good seed saving. Lately, we’ve been growing varieties of tomatoes in sections, three rows wide, separated by a planting of okra, also three rows wide and maybe three or four plants long. We do the same with with the eggplant and peppers, alternating varieties to create isolation. It seems to be working well. We’re considering doing more of this by combining even the tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers into one long three-row bed. It would be a patchwork quilt of nightshades. It will take some innovating, but we keep working on the ways to save this good seed, and save it true, in small spaces.
We grew, and harvested, more rice this year than ever before. It has been threshed now and sits waiting in a big plastic tote downstairs. After he takes care of a few other important jobs, my Fellow Man will build the long awaited huller, which will (God willing), allow us to make our rice, and maybe some other grains, usable in our home kitchen. It’s all a process, a beautiful, long process. I’ll write more about the rice as we go along.
One of the hardest lessons this year came from the field corn patch. We’ve been experimenting with three sisters, or two sisters, for years now. It seems so right – to grow plants together and let them benefit each other, above ground, and below. We believe in it. But some how, we haven’t quite got it right yet. The best year, as I recall, we harvested squash, beans, and corn from one patch, but it was a completely tangled mess. We decided to just do beans and corn, or just beans and squash, and we still haven’t found a consistent system. I suspect we’re still to ambitious with our corn planting – we really use the field corn as a kitchen staple, so we want a LOT of it. The squash wants more light than our closer rows provide, so it crawls right out from between those rows and sets its fruits in the full sun. I don’t blame it, but it kind of defeats the point of the inter-planting, and interferes with the electrified coon fence, without which we would have no corn. This year, we tried again, leaving still MORE room between rows of corn (maybe 5 or 6 feet?) and two or more feet between two corn plants set together to grow. It’s not Buffalo Bird Woman‘s garden, I know, but we have limited space and a family to feed. We planted five or six rows of corn like this, and then put our squash only on the inner rows, hoping that it would stay in the patch. The squash sorta-kinda stayed in the corn patch. The corn was great. The squash didn’t produce much. So, we learn and learn again.
Oh, the one squash that did produce was Silver Edge squash. It’s not a pie squash or a delicata – we grew only a few as a trial. It’s for seeds, which are large and numerous and quite tasty toasted. I don’t want a big corn patch full of these, but it was nice to see something thrive.
One other experiment I should mention – Kiwano – African Jelly Melons. We threw a few of these babies into the mix where we had some space at the end of the melon row. Wow, did they grow. The fruits are strange and gorgeous, but I couldn’t find much use for them. The flavor was blah, and some folks say you could strain out the seeds and sweeten the pulp and then its good, but I say, why bother when we’ve got watermelons and alpine strawberries? If you are considering this unusual fruit – there’s my review!
We grew. We learned. Even now, the brussel sprouts and cabbages are looking good and a long row of kale lends us a sense of security for the winter. Soon, we will be ready to think about next year, the possibility of a milk goat, new chicks, garden rotations, all the rest. Now, we celebrate with simple food and lots of knitting. So fortunate – it was a good year. I hope you enjoyed your season, too.