All our gardens at the Sow’s Ear are U.O. (Uncertified Organic) and with only occasional exceptions we grow only heritage varieties. We keep three main gardens. The kitchen beds are up by the house where they are easily accessed by whomever is making dinner. The “Big” garden occupies 5,000 square feet at the confluence of Jeddo’s Run and North Creek, and is where we grow most of our tomatoes, peppers and beans for canning, storage onions, garlic, corn for the table, and okra, and in winter beds of carrots, spinach, and lettuce. Alongside this garden are our small apple and peach orchards; strawberry beds fill the space under the trees. Our biggest garden, 300 ft. x 100 ft., is at the monastery a mile and a half up the road; there we grow the majority of our potatoes, winter squash and pumpkins, corn and small grains for animal feed, and root crops such as turnips and sugar beets for winter pig feed.
All of our gardens are fertilized with homemade compost and composted animal manure and bedding. No insecticides or weed killers are used; instead we hand weed, and hand-pick insect pests like squash bugs, tomato horn worms, or potato bugs. Some insects are harder to control with hand-picking; bean beetles and cucumber bugs are too prolific to control in this way. In these cases we rely on succession planting and trap crops – crops grown to attract a variety of insect, then destroyed – to raise a crop for our own use. Some years the bugs win and there is no crop from some vegetables. Diversity and succession plantings make up for these failures. Crop rotation is the center of all our garden planning; green manures and cover crops add fertility and control weeds.
Of all our garden practices, however, it is our four-season gardening that is taken to unusual levels. In addition to high and low tunnels of cold hardy vegetables for our own winter use, in July after we harvest the potato and corn crops we replant large areas of the monastery garden to beans, beets, sugar beets, and turnips. These mature in the late summer and fall months, and when cooler temperatures and short day lengths stop their growth we can turn the pigs into the garden to self-harvest some of this farm-raised odder, while the rest will be stored in one of our root cellars after freezing temperatures make foraging in the garden impossible. The chickens don’t miss out on all the farm-raised bounty; low tunnels constructed especially for them let us use the birds for garden clean-up, while the additional warmth of plastic-covered tunnels seems to increase their winter laying rate.
checking seed for viability
If you obtain your seeds from a reputable seedsman this step should be unnecessary.
1. Count out ten seeds from your envelope and place in the middle of a paper towel; fold the sides of the towel in so the seeds are enclosed in a package.
2. Wet the towel, place in a small plastic bag with a zip closure, and record on the outside of the bag seed type, seedsman, and today’s date. If possible refer to a gardening book or seed catalogue to determine if the given seed type has special needs of light/darkness or cool/warm temperatures for germination. For most vegetable seeds, room temperature and darkness are optimal germination conditions; in this case you can place your plastic bag in a cabinet or drawer.
3. Every two days, open the bag and unfold the paper towel and check the seeds for germination. Count the number of seeds germinated, and record that number and the date on the outside of the bag or on a separate chart (this is most convenient if you are testing a number of types of seed).
Some seeds may take as long as three weeks to germinate, but most will germinate within two weeks. The final number of seeds germinated, times ten, is the percent germination of that package (seedsmen will often include this information in their catalogues). Knowing the percent germination allows you to adjust your rate of sow, or, of course, to eliminate nonviable seeds from your supplies.
Seeds may be stored with satisfactory results in a doubled plastic bag in the refrigerator (Eliot Coleman, Four Season Gardening).