Archives for posts with tag: vegetables

A.V. Walters

Garden Starts

I don’t know why I’m surprised by it; it’s the same every year. It’s as though someone pulled the plug and then all the green runs out of the landscape. It starts at the top of the hills, and in just a few weeks, we go from spring green to that golden-straw color that says summer in California.

Last week when we got home it was still green here, but flying in, over the Central Valley, I could see that the hills and everything east of us was already dry. We usually get a longer run of it in Two Rock—through June, usually. But this year’s dry winter is leaving its mark. Between last week and now, our hilltops have turned from green to gold. Where they’ve cut hay has gone gold. Yesterday there were deep ridges of cut hay, showing the contours of the hill. We wanted a photo of it—in the elongated evening light—but before that could happen, they’d bailed it and now the hill is punctuated with lines of square dots like a computer punch-card.

The bottom of the valley is still green, and near the creek it’s even lush. The pond is shrinking by the day, and only a few, stubborn egrets remain.

Today, with our head-colds in check, we finally started putting the garden in. We’d dug in the buckets the first week of May, so I was surprised that the soil in them was still loose and soft. It made planting a breeze. We put starts in 38 buckets—about half tomatoes and then some squash (more to come), peppers, eggplant (more of these too), and cucumbers. The rest will filter in over the next couple of weeks, and then there’s just watering and weeding.

Since we have the advantage of being pre-plowed, it’s odd to be planting and weeding simultaneously. But, the interval of absence, since the early May plowing was enough for weeds and (and quite a few, volunteer squashes) to get going so, Rick hoed the long garden. I have trouble eradicating vegetable volunteers but he’s an editor, amongst other things, so cutting things out (except being a smart-ass) doesn’t bother him at all. We’re not sure what kinds of squashes these were—last year, we turned out a bumper crop of four kinds of summer squash and at least twice that number of varieties of winter squash. But the plow spreads the seeds and there’s no telling what’s what but, judging by general location, we think most were yellow, patty-pans—they weren’t too popular, so a lot were left where they stood. (Won’t be planting them again, anytime soon.)We’ll let the “escaped” potatoes stay to see how they fare with the gophers. They were planted in bins, with bottoms, but in the early plowing this spring, Don wasn’t watching where he was going and he mangled the bins, spreading potatoes throughout that whole corner of the main garden. So, we shall see.

This year’s garden is a bit of a cheat. Usually we start a lot of our own seeds. This year, however, the trip away interrupted that, and we couldn’t rely on folks here to make sure that starts would be watered while we were gone. I know that sounds odd—well intended farm people not taking care of the garden—but, I speak from experience. (I think I’ve mentioned that this is not a dirt farm.) We decided we’d put in store-bought starts on our return. That’s a much more expensive garden approach than that to which I’m accustomed, but there it is. We’ll fill in with seeds—lettuces, radishes, beets and such.

We were running errands the other day and came upon an innocuous sign reading, “Vegetable Starts” with an arrow pointing down a rutted country lane. “Turn there!” I said, but, too late. So, we circled around and came back. We carefully worked our way down a terrible road in a borrowed car with bad shocks. (My car’s not back from the shop yet and, beggars can’t be choosers.) Finally, like a breath of fresh air, there it was. Senk Farms.

It’s a wonderful little operation, many kinds of vegetables, at very reasonable prices, lavender, honey, pick-your-own strawberries, home made jams.  Their starts are healthy, appropriately sized in their containers (not root bound) and lush. They had the widest variety of heirloom tomatoes I’ve seen this year! They had everything except pony rides for the kids. The women running it were very, very nice and helpful. Who knew that that unpretentious little sign would lead to the solution to this year’s garden dilemma? We gathered up the little pots and she came over with boxes. I went to write her a check—and, pointing, she told me just to put in the slot in the wall. They run on the honor system! Did I fall into a time warp? It makes me want to spend my money there. Later, I checked them out online—and they list their vegetable selection for the year, complete with what’s low and what’s gone already. I think I’m in love. We were going to finish the garden up from seeds, but now I think I’ll go back to Senk Farms for one more round.

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Hard Pan

A.V. Walters

The blessing and curse in this area of Sonoma County, is the ubiquitous, clay layer in the soil. There’s a reason that there’s an Adobe Road in Petaluma. During the rainy season it’s not a problem but starting around June, about six inches down, we get a really hard, clay layer. You plant early here, or not at all. (Oh, I suppose you could use dynamite and break up the soil, and get a handle on the gophers, in one step.) The good news is, that once the garden is in, that subsurface clay layer locks the moisture down in the root zone—making for lovely gardening conditions. No rain in the summer means very little weeding. Since we plant in buckets, we water into the well of the bucket and don’t waste any water where there aren’t vegetables. The soil otherwise is lush and fertile.

Since we will be away for the early part of May, Rick and I started early yesterday, digging in some of the buckets. It’s still too cool at night to put our starts in but daytime temperatures soared into the eighties, for a blistering day of digging (It takes extra planning to be sure you’ll be digging on the hottest days.)  I’ve been worried about the soil. All winter I’ve been commenting about how little rain fell this season. We need it to recharge the soils—and the supply for well water. And, if yesterday was any indication, we’re in for a very dry summer. Already the clay layer has started to harden—in May! We dug in about fifty buckets, about half of what we’ll do for the season. Usually we wouldn’t see these conditions for another four or five weeks. It makes for slower going, because the buckets go in deeper than that hard clay and because you need to break through it, or you risk having a “perched” layer, where any water you add follows the clay shelf and doesn’t sink down into the root zone. We dig in each bucket with a shovel-full or two of Elmer’s finest, eight-year-old manure.

It’s a community garden, sometimes in The Little Red Hen, sense. Though everyone this year is excited about the garden, only one neighbor stepped up to the plate with a shovel, yesterday. I guess we must have looked pretty rough—sweating up a storm with our grunting and digging—not exactly an ad for Fun with Gardening. At least we didn’t need to pull out the adze.

I’m particularly fond of “The Claw” for this kind of work. Yep, The Claw, (As seen on TV!) I used to scoff at those ads, but my nephew set me straight. It was years ago, during a time when I was disabled from a car accident. My nephew was visiting and had been directed by his mother to help me put in the garden. He asked me where my Claw was. Eh? What’s that?

He went on to say that his mum couldn’t garden without it. He turned up his nose at my trusty spade and garden fork. So, off he went to the hardware store to get The Claw. I was dubious. Then I watched, and tried, and became a convert. It’s the perfect tool for breaking down through our cursed, clay layer. Real men scoff at it, it looks like a girl-tool. But when push comes to dig, I noticed that even they reach for The Claw.

So, it’ll be a dry summer in the garden. Thank god for buckets. I noticed how strange my priorities have become when our new neighbor offered some really lovely, black buckets to the cause. I was almost drooling. Testing the waters I inveigled, “You know, we’ll have to drill holes in these for drainage?”

“Sure, do whatever. I was going to take them to the recycling-center, anyway.”

Nirvana! Lovely, choice buckets, heavy-duty, wide, but not too deep (think grueling, clay layer, here) perfect for winter squash or cooking-pumpkins. (This ain’t no Jack-O-Lantern garden!) You know you’ve gone a little batty when you covet someone’s used, nursery buckets. What a garden-gal won’t do…. Rick drilled them (adding additional, drainage holes—large enough for fast drainage but still too small for a gopher!) and we had them in the ground within an hour. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Now, we’re ready for whatever weather comes our way.

Tomato-land is ready to go into its new digs, in the long garden. This is our warmest, sunniest garden and I’m expecting great results this year. Today I’ll sterilize the tomato cages and get them in. We have the super-sturdy, delux, 42-inch tomato cages. That part of the garden always looks impressive. Elmer likes a tidy garden. I accommodate by planting with plenty of space between the tomato buckets. I’ve done square-foot gardening with great results, but here we have room to spare, so we spread out some. We put in twenty-two tomato buckets, (plus six in our back yard for those troublesome Romas.) Hopefully, this year we’ll keep the tomatoes plants to less than thirty. (I know, I’ve said that before.)

A.V. Walters

Farmer/Gardener?

I’m a gardener. Still, it’s an interesting question and not one so easily answered. I don’t think that it’s just a question of quantity. Measured by quantity alone, I border on farmer. Last season, the first where I had any meaningful and steady help, we produced (and gave away) at a rate that compared favorably to any farmer’s-market vender. One stellar week I distributed grocery bags of vegetables every day, at a rate that would have easily filled any market booth to overflowing. Indeed, an appraisal of the garden by visitors frequently elicited comments about how we could “do the market.” I like it the way it is. I know that some of our garden’s recipients would not have eaten so well without the garden’s bounty. With the economy flailing last year a good many hard working folks found themselves out of work. Here, we had plenty to share. Sharing food, quality food that I’ve grown, is one of the most satisfying and meaningful parts of rural living.

And then there’s the exchange of produce between folks who themselves have gardens or orchards. I call it the Petaluma Salute. I once met a woman from a craigslist ad, in a parking lot in town, where we stood talking politics and gardening as we exchanged zucchinis for pears, tomatoes for eggplants from the trunks of our respective cars. We haven’t seen each other since, but the experience of complete understanding remains a solid memory, as she bemoaned a recent infestation of white flies and I offered her my full repertoire of organic solutions. This summer we were walking down to the mailbox when our closest neighbor came up on a mule with boxes full of zucchini and peppers. He stopped and said he was on his way over to give Elmer some vegetables. We looked at each other and laughed. “It’s coals to Newcastle,” I said. “We’re full to our ears with these and more.” He nodded, and turned the mule around, calling out behind him, “I’ll just have to go find other homes for these.” I live in a world where neighbors leave bags of produce on your back porch, and I respond in kind.

Still, I am just a gardener. Farming is honest work, but it is work for pay, or at least the hope and expectation that the season will pay at the end. It is food as commodity. So far, I’m in it for the very real and sensory gratification I get from working with the soil and season. I note some other subtle differences between farmers and gardeners—which I find akin to the differences between the idea of livestock and pets. We gardeners sweat over the lives of our individual plants. It’s personal. We worry and try different solutions to plant troubles. We water and weed and coax. Dinner conversation can include concerns about what’s up with that last row of peppers. Bugs? Gophers? Or perhaps the long reach of the shadow of the tree-line. (Indeed, this season one whole garden will be repurposed because trees have grown and early afternoon shade dictates that that area will become the home of leafy greens.) Our gardens speak to our hearts.

One gardener/farmer test is how well one handles culling the excess plants that seed-starts yield. Farmers plant the best and dump the rest. It’s a healthy approach but one that eludes many gardeners. Every year I vow to keep the tomato crop down to no more than 24 plants. But there are always extra seedlings—what is one to do? And then there’s the problem of orphan seedlings. Elmer’s cousin starts a plethora of tomatoes every year. Come planting time she gives him the culls—leggy, pale babies. Whether or not I’ve kept to my own limits, these orphan tomatoes always manage to find homes in one of my garden plots. So I am doubly challenged; I have my own difficulties dispatching the less than hardy and I adopt the culls of other gardeners (who themselves cannot bear to waste even the most bedraggled of seedlings.) I have garden space. I take them. I give them their own buckets and water and even manure tea, until they are robust and productive. In my five seasons here I’ve never ended up with less than 36 tomato plants. Good thing for canning, eh? Now, it’s March and we’re still eating tomato sauce and whole, canned romas from the garden.

Farmers, out of necessity, have to deal in numbers. Plants are crops. It’s not the eggplants next to the potatoes–it’s the cornfield, it’s acres. They suffer the same indignities of weather and drought, of predation, but without the personal relationship. They do so on a huge scale, and with the highest of stakes. Still, the financial rewards are often slim and success is never guaranteed, regardless of how much you put into it. Nothing is guaranteed, until the crop is in, or the herd sold—and even then there are the unpredictable vagaries of price. A farmer requires some measure of armor. He cannot afford a personal relationship with his plants or animals. Sometimes, and especially with livestock, this comes off as callous. I have a little trouble with it at times–I bristle at the chickens in their crowded cages. Yet that scale and approach is what’s needed to feeds us all.

And so, I remain a gardener. I enjoy the bounty, but, beyond my pride, I don’t have skin in the game in the end result. I joke at the distinction, but my hat is off in respect to the farmer.

Elmer, my favorite farmer, has chickens and sheep. When it comes to plants, he’s no more farmer than me. When it comes to garden-starts, he has the opposite problem. He goes to the nursery and picks the largest starts he can find. You know the ones, nursery fed on fertilizers, the junkies of agriculture; these baby vegies are literally climbing out of their four-inch pots. They’re bushy, precocious, already sporting blossoms, or even small fruit. They boast of success and productivity. It’s too good a deal to be true! And so it is. These spoiled, root-bound prima-donnas don’t transplant so well. They, too, get their own buckets but the damage has been done; their growth is invariably stunted by their over-ambitious early beginnings. We coddle them, but as yet I don’t know the cure for root bound. It shows that once we’re out of our fields of specialty, we are all gardeners. It’s always personal. For the root-bound, I carefully separate and spread the roots out at replanting time. For the scrawny ones, there’s always the hope of recovery.  I think of this as a lesson, in and out of the garden. I was myself (and remain) a late bloomer.

 

A. V. Walters

Musings on Spring

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and, with this week’s heavy rains, our corduroy hills have taken on that Irish, emerald green.  I call them corduroy because the ranchers cut the hay and leave it in rows on the hillside. The hills across from us are so steep that a tractor can only go strait up and down–any turn on the steep part of the slope and they’ll tumble. On that steep terrain they cut, but don’t bother to bail or collect the hay. So the cut hay lays on the hillside in stripes–stripes that echo, season after season, on the landscape. The week’s rains have washed the cows and today they stand out starkly–black and white, against the green. With the intense green and the equinox next week, we can’t help but think of spring.

In my Michigan hometown, up on Lake Superior, they’re thinking of spring, too. My mother, even in her mid-seventies, is a rabid gardener. As soon as the snow retreats she hustles to rake up the garden in preparation for spring planting. It’s a big job, one she tackles in stages that are measured by the progress of the snow’s melt. She races against time, knowing that when late May fades into June, it’ll be blackfly season–and she’ll want to be indoors for that. It’s been a mild winter in the North, too mild. This week they’re having a false spring. It was eighty degrees in the Harbor today–a record breaker by all accounts. Most of the snow is gone, or nearly so. I can picture my brother-in-law standing in the parking lot of their general store, broom in hand (his excuse for being outside) face tipped to the sun. In fact I’ll bet all the inhabitants of the Harbor were out today, drinking in the summer-like weather.

It’s not necessarily a good thing and they all know it. In separate calls to my family today, three of them mentioned the obvious danger of too early a spring. The trees can be fooled, lulled into an early bloom. Flowers have the same risk. When that happens, winter reaches her icy fingers back to what March should be and the bloom will fail, taking next summer’s fruit with it. And nothing is quite as winter-numbing as the sight of a daffodil in it’s crystal sheath, after a freezing rain. Still, standing outside in shirtsleeve weather has its own hooks, after months of cold and grey.

Today in Two Rock the rains gave way to blustery winds. The clouds have been chased away and the sun shines on new hills. The grass is growing faster than the sheep and cows can eat. Walking out to the road, to get the mail, I spooked a huge flock of black birds–invisible in the tall grass until the moment they launched, en masse, into the sky. I was startled and laughed out loud at the surprise of it.

During the worst of the rains I was scheduled to collect signatures for California’s referendum to require foods with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such. We were positioned at the door to Whole Foods. (Yes, I know–shooting fish in a barrel.) Still, it was interesting. The signatures flowed easily between cloudbursts but when the rains really came down, the shoppers hunched their backs, scrunched up their faces, avoided eye contact and ran for their cars. I can’t blame them, it was cold and wet. Some people stopped to say they’d already signed, and to thank us for being there. One well-dressed man shook my hand and told me he hoped it wasn’t too late already. I couldn’t help but agree.

It’s an early spring here, too. To a lesser extent we have a similar problem as my family back home. We’re not clear of the danger of frost, not until May. But the equinox is a milestone. I can start hardy seedlings indoors next week. Then, in the weeks after that I can start some of the more delicate vegetables. I struggle with the temptation to rush the process. I’m no different than the folks back home, who sweep parking lots in the sun, where only a week or so ago there was snow. We all yearn for spring, for planting and the promise of summer’s warmth. And that’s what’s up in Two Rock.

A.V. Walters

Crows

(from June 2008)

Elmer is killing crows. I heard the first blast early this morning and wondered if that might be the case. It was confirmed when, minutes later, the phone rang and Elmer said, “Humans 1, crows 0.” I laughed and he hung up. A while later, another report but no call. Not too surprising, given Elmer’s reputation as a marksman.

This is my doing. Yesterday, Elmer, Dorothy and I were discussing the garden and I complained about the crows eating my sprouting beans. Had they just made off with them, I wouldn’t have been so offended. What they’re doing though, is pulling them up, eating the bean parts and then tossing the ravaged seedling back on the soil. We get to count the victims. Elmer laughed and said he’d noticed that the crows had relocated from the crow tree on the dairy, over to his birches. They’re a noisy lot, so when their pattern changes, we notice. We discussed the possibility of a scarecrow, which didn’t impress Elmer. I suggested we make one out of Don’s clothes and give it a coffee cup before he gets back from Oregon, so as to offend both the crows and Don. Elmer liked that. Elmer said with crows you had to teach them a lesson, to which I only laughed.

Later there was another blast, and another call. Our score (Humans) is improving. I asked Elmer whether I was supposed to dress in black for the burial. He laughed and said no, we needed to leave the crow corpse out in the garden, to teach the lesson. I asked if he was making stew tonight and he really laughed. Elmer loves to walk into a straight line, “No, I try not to eat crow.”

It’s been funny, we’ll see if there’s any learning going on here. In any event, I’ll be more careful now about complaining about the neighbors.

Bucket Farm

A. V. Walters

Let me just say at the outset that this is not a dirt farm. It’s about livestock. And gone are the days when the average farm had a big garden that provided the fresh food and canned goods for the family. Farmers get their groceries from Costco now, like the rest of us. More often these days, family farms run on such a thin margin that one or both of the resident farmers have to work off-farm jobs to support the lifestyle. At the end of the day, there just isn’t enough in them leftover to keep a garden, too. And so it goes, the almost audible last sighs of rural living.

Today’s farms, by necessity, are specialty operations. This one is a chicken farm. We produce eggs. We have some sheep, too. Elmer, the good-enough farmer who owns this place would prefer that I call it a ranch. But somehow in my mind a ranch is a big spread with cattle, and, well, maybe cowboys. I just can’t see it as a ranch, and every time he says it, I picture our farmhands out lassoing chickens.

I’m no farmer. I’m merely an urban transplant—a tenant who occupies the old original farmhouse from the turn of the last century. From my vantage here at the top of the hill, I witness most of the goings on around this place.

We’re out in west county, which were we one county over, would bring connotations of Birkenstocks, solar panels, gourmet cheese and oysters. Here though, it’s a proud lot of hard-scrabble ranchers and dairymen, land-rich and sometimes cash-poor. The area is peopled with second and third generation cattle, sheep and chicken farmers. At least so far, we’ve been spared the headlong rush that’s infected most of our county–to cover every slope with upscale vineyards. Our microclimate here is, thankfully, too cool for that.

Elmer, used to have a garden. But his wife passed away and with her went the warmth of the homemaking arts and the tradition of canning. When I arrived he was still planting every year, but all too frequently the vegetables hung neglected on the vines.

One of the attractions of the farm when I first applied as a tenant here was the promise of a community garden. Elmer had let the garden go, its decline symbolic of his losses.  He almost decided to let it go entirely, but I would have nothing of that; I didn’t relocate to this country setting to buy my tomatoes by the case at Grocery Outlet.  So I took charge of the farm’s community garden.

I’m a vegetable gardener from way back. Even when I lived in Oakland my postage stamp-sized backyard was a lush cornucopia of the season. There, limited space pushed me into French Intensive and Square Foot gardening. I had a library of back issues of Organic Gardening and every February I’d thumb through them to plan the year’s approach. Several years ago I suffered some reversals in my life so I repaired to the country to lick my wounds and reconnect with the me of me. Gardening was one link to who I’d always been and I needed the challenge of the community garden. And it was a challenge. Accustomed to tiny quarters, I was daunted by the expanse of it. Though, thankfully that first year it was just the one garden. Now there are actually three gardens on the farm, combined they are just over a tenth of an acre. My first spring I was given what we now call the main garden, an equilateral triangle of dirt of about 800 square feet. Oh, and there was a catch, water.

That winter’s scant rains had Elmer nervous. When he turned the garden over to me he was already worried that our wells would run dry before the rains started up again in October. We have the usual Northern California seasons—no rain from May until Halloween. Elmer said that the three water priorities on the farm, in order, were—chickens, tenants and only then, watering. So, in my assignment, the largest garden I’d ever dug and the prospect of drought, I had to be creative.

There was one more mother-of-invention factor. I was broke. Sure, I could afford seeds, and a few starts, but otherwise I couldn’t count on drip irrigation or any other fancy water-saving gimmicks. I had to figure a way to minimize my watering footprint. Typical of most farmers, Elmer rarely throws anything away and nothing goes to waste. The older barns are full of, well, stuff. We joke about it now, but that first year Elmer just waved in the direction of a barn we call Number Four, and said I’d find stuff in there that might help. And that’s how we came to buckets.