Archive for the ‘winter gardening’ Category

Monday, August 5:

   After a wait of over a week finally we have had a long enough spell of dry weather to permit getting the tractor in the garden.  The area previously in grain was thick with clover, and we had to plow and disc it, then run the rototiller through to break up the clods.  Yes, we know we are destroying soil texture when we rototill, but right now we need mechanical means to cut through roots and let us get seed in the soil.  We took out the Earthway seeder – an excellent invention, if somewhat underbuilt – and sowed everything to pintos, turnips, mangel wurzels (no kidding), and OP corn.

   Yes, we know it’s late for some of these crops, IF you intend to harvest them for humans, but we have no such intention.  These are our pig fodder crops, things we sow after the potato and corn harvests so that we can put the pigs into the garden in early winter to forage.  Last year they reveled in corn stalks, late beans, turnips, sugar beets, and gone to seed lettuce right up through December, with just the occasional scoop of shell corn for a relish.  By that time had they turned and manured the garden, including a section of sod we needed to break, eating everything they could find, and the ground was beginning to freeze solid.  The pigs were still comfortable in their round-bale nests, and a submersible heater in their tank kept the pig nipple from freezing except on the coldest nights, but once the ground froze we brought them home where they were more convenient to feed.

   Anything that reduces our dependency on purchased inputs is just what we want.

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Friday, March 22:

Thirty minutes before the farm science students were due to arrive yesterday the phone rang to say that the truck would be here to pump the septic tank simultaneously with their arrival.

This never happened when we lived in town.

The ones who arrived early got in before the fat red pumper truck was squatting like a toad completely across the narrow dirt ramp we call our lane.  The remaining two students called in like a space shuttle paging mission control to report an operational malfunction.  When the situation was explained to them they opted to park at the foot of the hill until the tank-pumping operations were completed.  Not that it really smelled that bad.

Our work that day centered principally around the little bulls in the white barn, their care and housing and feeding, but we detoured through the greenhouse to take a look at the tomato seedlings started two weeks ago.  At first I thought we were seeing damping-off, a fungal condition that attacks seedlings at ground level, causing them to topple over like felled trees; maybe a third of the tomato seedlings, which we had sprouted in a warm corner of the kitchen and then moved to the greenhouse so they would get more sun, were supine on the black peat moss.   But closer examination showed that the little stems had folded at various heights above the level of the soil.  It was the translucent appearance of the pale green stems and dark green seed leaves that gave us the definitive clue.

The greenhouse warms up on even the coldest day, soaking up what sunshine there is and storing it in the river rock floor, but the last few nights temperatures have dropped well below freezing and the cold had seeped in.  Frost sensitive summer annuals like tomatoes can survive chilly nights, but they will freeze when the thermometer dips below thirty-two, and that’s what had happened to these.  Blast!  We had enjoined upon the children the importance of keeping the greenhouse door closed.  This was their fault.

Okay, in justice let’s admit that we know better than to expect ten and eight and five years to remember to shut doors every time.  Anyway, maybe they had closed the door and things had frozen anyway.  Anyway, the dogs had cornered a little calico cat on the west side of the greenhouse and in her panic she had catapulted herself through the window behind the door.  It was a small window but it was just possible that the breach was enough to let the temperatures drop too far.

Shucks, it would have been nice, just for a moment, to have someone to blame.

Well, for a mercy half of the baby tomatoes were still alive.  We took the wooden box with its small tubs of soilless starting mix and tiny plants into the cellar to warm gradually, and chalked one up on the Near Miss column.

M. called today, his place is bigger than ours and he’s been working in the ag community longer; it was melancholy solace to hear that one of his first-calf heifers just a week from calving had gotten herself head-down in a tight spot in a ravine and died trying to get out again.  We are very far from wishing evil on our fellow stockmen but there is something reassuring about the fact that other people lose animals too.  It takes a long time to become comfortable with the fact that in interactions with nature success is not defined by a text-book outcome; rather, it is determined by the simple fact of being still in business.

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Wednesday, March 20:

The equinox is upon us; the ice and snow, however, have only loosened their grip, not relinquished it.

Snow fell on us today as we harvested the last of the carrots in the low tunnel and tore out the early-emerging weeds where the protection of a single sheet of six-mil plastic had nurtured them to jungle proportions.  There were two forty-foot by thirty inch beds in that tunnel which have provided us with carrots all winter, crisp, sweet, juicy, pith-less carrots such as we had never tasted before we began to winter harvest; the weeds were so lush today that it was something of a treasure-hunt to find the carrots before we pulled the weeds.  A full wheel-barrow of clover and wild lettuce made half the dinner for the three pigs in the big barn, and they relished it.

There is still one bed of carrots to last us until the early spring vegetables begin to mature.  These carrots are smaller than the others because they had less protection from the winter weather; in fact, the inadequate plastic over those hoops often blew off, allowing the beds to be covered by snow.  We made the mistake, in the first place, of situating two tunnels with no space between them; not only did each block some of the light that might have reached the other, but when it snowed, as it has done many time this winter, the snow piled up in the narrow channel between the tunnels and was very difficult to move.  We had also to be careful of the long bed of garlic planted right alongside the eastern tunnel; we didn’t want to walk on it, but it was almost impossible not to do so when we were sweeping snow off the tunnels.  And we didn’t want the overhang of plastic to artificially warm the soil of the garlic bed in case the alliums should come up early, expecting warm temperatures, and be fatally disappointed.

The two baby bulls we brought home week before last are doing well in the stalls in the white barn.  These are small, dry, straw-lined box stalls where each calf has room to move around freely but from which they cannot reach one another to share germs (see our page on calf rearing).  The top half of the loft door on each side of the barn is open, admitting plenty of fresh air, but drafts are minimized by the deep eaves of the roof and the stacks of hay bales on the north side.  A bucket of clean water and a truss of hay are provided for the babies at all times, and warm milk twice a day.

We are trying on innovation with these little bulls.  Up to now we have followed the recommendations of virtually every source, and against our preference have offered a handful of grain to our calves morning and evening for the first few weeks of their lives.  Only just for so long; after weaning they are grass-fed only, but every book we had, and practically every farmer we asked, insisted that calves should be fed grain when they were young.  To put weight on them, one farmer friend said recently; and, I more than suspect, to medicate them as well, since commercial feeds are routinely medicated and dairy calves are so notoriously apt to get infectious illnesses.  The whole idea is completely counter-intuitive, since if cows aren’t really designed to eat grain, baby cows, which are designed to take their calories from milk, must need grain even less than their mamas do.  I can hardly tell you why we followed this strange advice, except that the calf attrition rate was in the beginning so high that when we finally had a protocol that seemed to work, we were afraid to alter it in any respect.

No longer.  We believe we have a working understanding of the rearing of baby bulls now – not so much as to make failure impossible, but sufficient to be getting on with — and we have asked ourselves why our sources advocate giving grain to baby calves; and the answer we have come up with is that it is cheaper to feed grain than to feed milk – or calf formula.  Were this not so, dairymen would not be feeding cows grain to get milk.  But we have a plenitude of milk, or at least so much that we need not be stingy with the calves.  Normally — that is to say, up until now — the calves have been feed twice a day, at milking time, a half gallon of warm whole milk apiece, and they drink it eagerly.  As of last week we are giving them a third feeding, mid-day, of a quart or more of skim milk or butter milk, with the addition of a good dose of yogurt or whey for probiotics and carbohydrates.  We are watching closely for any sign of scours – dangerously loose bowel movements – as a result of the change in feeding, but so far we have seen no negative results, and the calves continue to take their regular feedings with undiminished appetite.

Why have we not thought of doing this earlier?  The increase in calories may result in larger frames and fleshier carcasses in the young animals, which can only be an advantage in bulls intended for beef.

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Saturday, March 2:

We took Poppy back up to the monastery after her pregnancy check, and shifted the young animals around to the west side of the soccer field.  They are making good use of the stockpiled forage and their condition is much better than that of the milk cows, who are on hay, demonstrating the superior food value of standing fodder.  Grass that is cut, cured, baled, and moved (several times) cannot compare with mature grass that has been frost-cured standing in the field.  In the cutting there is loss of nutrients; in curing, there is further loss every time the grass is wet and dried again, as with heavy dew or rain; in baling there is much shattering of leaf and resultant reduction of food value, and the tight packing of hay in bales encourages mold and consequent loss of quality; more leaf is lost every time the hay is moved.  Seeing the difference in condition of our various animals brings home these facts in a way that merely reading or hearing them cannot.

This is wet season, the late winter winding down into early spring, longer days loosening the hold of the frost in the earth.  The barnyard is a sea of mud and muck in which you may lose a boot if you don’t take care.  Rain and snow make a pond in every hoof mark, all running together and running over and seeping in where not wanted, under the door of the dairy, under the wall of the lounging stall, into the holes in old chore boots.  This is the time to visit a farm if you want never, never to be tempted to live on one.  The compost bins, sodden with a winter of snow and sleet, full of stall sweepings and undigested orange peel and coffee grounds, bleed peaty brown water with a sour smell.  Where the winter cabbages were abandoned to the snow when we took their covers to protect a row of carrots, now rot sodden, limp bouquets of bleached cabbage leaves, answering unequivocally the question we asked when we chose to leave them in the garden, rather than feeding them in December to the pigs:  are cabbages winter-hardy on this stretch of the Beautiful river?  The perennial borders hang in dejected clumps of black sage leaves and leafless catmint and only the hopeful or inquisitive can find the blunt tips of daffodils pushing aside clumps of frost-heaved mould.

The stores of plant food, for animals and for humans, are growing thin.  In the basement the rows of full jars which weighed down the shelves in November — tomato sauce and salsa, green beans, sauerkraut,  jams, chicken, pickles — are giving way to rows of jars upside down, clean and empty, awaiting next summer for fulfillment.  The root cellar holds only seed potatoes now, and for the first time in several years we are reduced to buying potatoes; we plan an even larger potato patch and vow it will never happen again.  In the cave the last of the winter squash and pumpkins are breaking out in spots like a rash; we will eat what we can before they spoil, and feed the rest to the pigs. Braids of garlic festoon the kitchen and storage room, but the there are no more onions.  God willing, this year five hundred row feet of copras and yellow Spanish onions, assiduously weeded, should yield the three hundred pounds of onions we eat in a year.  Even in the freezer, where there are still ample quantities of sliced pie apples, you must dig for the frozen corn and okra and bell peppers which are growing scarce.  Of meat, however, there is a generous plenty, and the garden tunnels are still full of carrots and salad greens.

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Sunday, February 24:

Yesterday was the Day of Destiny for the two pigs up at Barry’s.  They were two of the four we got from F., and they hung at two-hundred thirty and two-hundred fifty pounds, split.  The guys got them on hooks in about three hours on Friday afternoon; on Saturday they started around seven o’clock, and with three of the Fallon boys had both hogs cut and wrapped by three o’clock.  The sample sausage that Barry brought in and fried was of surpassing excellence; tonight we will grill pork chops.

The hams and belly from the black hog the boys killed last week have been brining for a week in a black pepper/brown sugar cure.   To hold them at forty degrees we put them out in the cave on the east side of the house where we store pumpkins, winter squash, and potatoes.  Three times the bacons were brought in, massaged, turned in their brine and put back out in the cave.  The hams require a week longer in the cure, and only had to be checked to make sure the brine wasn’t turning ropy, a sign that bacteria have taken hold.  Today we took the bacons from the brine and washed them; later we will set up a fifty-five gallon drum and smoke the belly for seven or eight hours.  Not wanting to wait that long for a taste, though, we cut a few rashers after Mass and fried them up for breakfast; they were delicious.

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Tuesday, February 12:

The spinach we planted last fall in the high tunnel has been providing us with salad since December.  We make note of two considerations for next fall’s plantings:  1) a variety with an upright habit of growth will make better use of the space in the tunnel, and require less cleaning after harvest; and 2) it does not pay to skimp on thinning.  A crop that will be occupying the same space all winter needs plenty of room; thin rigorously.

We butcher our two biggest hogs this weekend.  Although the pigs make very good use of the forages, fodder crops and dairy products we provide them with, during the last two months the five of them have consumed about three bags of feed every two weeks.  Three sacks times fifty pounds divided by five pigs is thirty pounds of feed per pig per fortnight, or fifteen pounds of feed per pig per week.  That’s about five dollars per pig per week.  It is precisely this five dollars that we hope to save this year by starting our own piglets in May when there is plenty of milk and garden trash, and having them ready to butcher when the weather turns cold.

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Sunday, February 3:

It is beginning to snow again.

I can’t see the flakes, but they brush against my face in a fine dust as I climb the hill from the garden.  Sweeping snow off the tunnels that protect our winter-hardy vegetables is a job that has to be done when it has to be done; and sometimes it has to be done at midnight, or two a.m.  Whenever there is an accumulation of more than two or three inches of snow on the tunnels someone has to go down with a broom and sweep the tunnels clean.  Otherwise we could have another disaster like the one that had us all in the garden on the afternoon of December 26, tearing down and rebuilding tunnels which had collapsed when four inches of snow and ice fell in about two hours time.  Five of us were pulled off tasks which had kept us more or less under cover during the ice storm to spend the afternoon repairing the damage:  sweeping snow from the collapsed tunnels; pulling out lengths of PVC that had snapped off under the weight of all that ice; cutting the wires that held sections of stock panel to the T-posts that had anchored the thirty-foot long high tunnel firmly to the ground, while keen winds and freezing rain chilled us through.

No one is anxious to do the job over again.

For what do we labor?  The best food in the world, maybe; or maybe the security of knowing where it comes from, and that, barring accident, it will be there when we need it.

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