Posts Tagged ‘low tunnels’

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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Wednesday, January 9:

The temperature was above freezing today and the sun came out, so the men split three truckloads of wood this afternoon and replenished the woodshed.  The lane is a sheet of rotten ice over ruts of yellow mud running with snowmelt.  Although the thaw means fencing the cows off the pasture – again – it does at least reduce the size of the snow drifts piled up against the sides of the tunnels, high and low, making it easier to remove two or three sandbags, pull up the plastic covers and get a sieve full of carrots, or to squeeze through the keyhole doorway into the high tunnel where the spinach is and get enough leaves for a salad.

Forecast says the temperature will get up into the sixties on Saturday, but I hope not.  Let the ground freeze and stay frozen until the beginning of April, say I, so that the cows can be fed in the sliding manger out on the pasture without damage to the sod, not in the barn where nutrients will pile up and leach away where they can do no good.  In the big pasture at the monastery there is no such problem; low stock density and plenty of room mean we can give the steers enough space to graze without excessive wear and tear on the forage.  And the steers love it; although they accepted the two bales we threw out to them for a Christmas treat, they have no trouble pawing down through a foot of snow to the good, nutritious standing forage stockpiled in that pasture.

Would we had another hundred such acres.

We are gearing up for the beginning of our spring semester of Practical Farm Science by pulling out all our seed catalogues and laying out plans for the gardens in 2013.  More feed for the pigs is a high priority; we will see how much of the big gardens we can plant in late summer to mangels, beans, and turnips, and we want to order all of our seed at once to save on shipping.

Our spring workshops on fermented whole grain bread baking, seed starting, and maple sugaring promise to keep our weekends full over the next couple of months – see our Classes page for dates and details.

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Wednesday, September 5:

The young cabbages are set out and watered with the hose off the creek.  Constantly running water – free, and not drawn off the aquifer – is a blessing we feel every day.  Eight dozen cabbages and seven hundred row-feet of carrots, mostly Napolis, need lots of water, every day even, water we could not give them from the house well even if we wanted to burn electricity to do it.  We are properly grateful.   In October we will cover the winter vegetables with low hoops and row cover; in November, or December if the cold holds off, we will cover them again with high hoops of welded wire and six-mil poly twenty feet wide, making a high tunnel about five and a half feet tall and almost ten feet wide.

That’s a big tunnel, much bigger than last year’s, and we hope it works.  In a high wind it could be a disaster.

The big pile of waste wood at the foot of the hill, in the curve of North creek we call “the bonfire pit”, has been reduced to a thin layer of cinders edged by a few half-burned lengths of two-by-four.  It went up in flames thirty feet high, lighting the whole valley with tongues that tore loose from the parent fire and expired in showers of sparks.  The alchemists of the Middle Ages who classified all matter as either Earth, Air, Water, or Fire, can’t have been too far wrong;  at the Sow’s Ear fire is employed almost as often as the other three, multiple times a day.  In the kitchen, of course; and under the fifteen-gallon brass kettle out back where we cook swill for the pigs and chickens.  In the oil lanterns we carry down to light the way when we close up the ducks and chickens, and in candle lanterns on the porch for prayers.  In the grill to sear the good red meat that, with potatoes and fresh vegetables, refuels us after a day of hard work.  In the rock oven by the creek for hot dogs and marshmallows; and, as last night, for joy, and to clear the farm of those things, comparatively few, which cannot be recycled and for which we can no longer find a good use.

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Tuesday, March 6:

It begins to be light about six-thirty these mornings, so that while it is too dark to see the milker as he makes his way down to the big barn for the morning milking, anyone at the kitchen window can see him when he comes back up the hill, bucket in hand, accompanied by the younger two rat terriers.  The cowbell on the back door clangs loudly enough that, if the morning chore person has overslept, he will now spring out of bed with whatever exclamation is characteristic of him – only he’s a her – and streak downstairs to get yesterday’s milk skimmed and out of the way of the milker.

The air was cold and the ground was frozen when we headed up the hill for mass, but what sky can be seen from our hollow was completely clear except for a fishscale haze at the zenith.  The first moments of sunlight flooded through the neck of the hollow like a tide and washed the west hill.  Despite the cold, something in the air was expanded, as though, breathing it, one were liable to go up like a balloon, and a wren in the sweet cherry tree sounded like spring.  At seven-twenty the sun shone the color of a Charantais melon through the clerestory windows of the chapel of the Sisters of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother onto the dead face on the Twelfth station; at seven-twenty-two a grey stratospheric haze extended over the chapel like half of a mollusk shell over a rosy pearl, and by seven-thirty the shell had closed, and the chapel, and the bare hill from which it overlooks three states, was an island in a muted sea.

We thought perhaps we wouldn’t work outdoors today.

At two, however, we ventured out bundled in our fashionable farming clothes – muck boots, oversized coat once belonging to Grandpa, hat, and lined gloves – and took a wheelbarrow down to the garden to investigate the compost bins.  Some good discoveries were made, and when the sun emerged from its cotton-wool wrapping about three-thirty, our winter wear was on the bench in the yard and we were working six loads of compost into the top layer of soil in raised bed number two, the long one by the house.  Before the boys had hamburgers grilled for dinner we had five hoops over the bed and a layer of plastic over that.  The soil there will warm over the next few days, and next week, after the butchering marathon of this weekend is past, we’ll plant it to spinach, lettuce, carrots and beets.  The greens in the hoop house are almost all gone, and we will be wanting a change from cabbage by the time the spring plantings are big enough to thin.

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Thursday, January 26: 

The thermometer on the front porch reads forty-one degrees.  The snow banks are sagging under a chilly rain which scours them into pits like those made in a white salt block by a cow’s slow tongue.  Someone with a cement hoe scraped a drainage ditch from the yard gate to the edge of the driveway, redirecting a stream of water brown with silt, shed by the long slope of drive up to the road.  Even at the exit of the culvert over Jeddo’s run, where in shade the icicles usually grow unchecked until April, a bucket to water the young steers can be filled without entanglement.  Is this really winter?

Pulled from the low tunnel twenty-five carrots weigh six pounds, bright orange, crisp, sweet, and juicy.  The green tops and small roots are fed to the cows, who have seen us in the garden and are waiting at the bridge for the expected treat.




A carefully knitted ball of grass is retrieved from the low tunnel along with the carrots, and since it seems to be uninhabited we bring it up on the porch and unravel it.

We can find no clue about the identity of the little homemaker, but someone has been keeping warm inside this nest, probably the same creature which has been tunneling from root to root eating carrots from the bottom up.  We hope without his nest he will find the carrot tunnel too chilly to linger in.

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Tuesday, January 24:

Four inches of wet snow on Friday night gave the children a chance to go snowboarding on the south hill; lying in a heavy blanket over the low tunnel where the carrots are growing, it weighed the six-mil plastic covering right down to the ground.  Constrained by many loads of laundry, the necessity of churning two-and-a-half gallons of cream, and a disinclination to venture out into the soaking rain, we did not get out yesterday to drain the slush off the tunnel cover and straighten the hoops of PVC.  Then last night the wind got up, gusting hard enough to be felt as a force even down in our protected valley.  It shuddered under the eaves, shifted the wicker furniture on the front porch and, as was apparent this morning, lifted the cover right off the low tunnel, pulling up one of the stakes with which it was fastened down at the ends, and working it out from under the sandbags which weighed it down along the sides.

This afternoon conscience drove us out in boots and scarves and thick coats to pull a colander of carrots and mend the tunnel.

It is one of the perfections of the low-tunnel that it is so easy to build, and to restore.  Counting the five minutes we spent pulling and topping the carrots, the job took about ten minutes.  Lifting the plastic sheeting to drain it, drawing the cover back over the hoops, taking up the slack and driving in the displaced stake with which the whole thing is pegged down, then replacing the sandbags, is a fast and simple job for a single man – or woman.  It carries with it a satisfaction not always to be met with in farming, or keeping house:  once done, it tends to stay done for a while.

The carrots are of excellent quality, crisp, tender, and sweet.   Our little burrowing friend had been under again, and one fat carrot was reduced to just a shell, completely eaten out from beneath.  Smart little guy, he must be glad God sent him his own solar-heated greengrocery for the winter.

In the kitchen a four-pound Paysano – our house Colby cheese – is draining in the wall press under thirty pounds of leverage.  The wall press was made by S-1 before he departed for Minnesota, and is a very clever and convenient arrangement, consisting of a bracket on the wall over the counter, an adjustable pin in the bracket, and an oak lever five feet long, marked with grooves at one-foot intervals, which hangs when not in use inside the basement door.  Our cheese ring is set beneath the bracket on a tray with a drain in the side, under which we place a pie dish to catch the expressed whey.  We fill the ring with curds and a chessit, position a follower on top, wedge the lever under the bracket pin and over the follower, and add weight at intervals along the lever.  The grooves on the top side of the lever let us know how far out to place our weights; the further they hang from the follower, the greater the pressure placed on the curds.

We have used this press for years, and find it the most convenient way of applying a steady, unvarying pressure to our cheeses.  With as many opportunities to make mistakes as there are in cheesemaking, it’s nice to feel that some aspects of the process, at least, are consistent.

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Tuesday, September 6:  

The beds that grew onions and tomatoes this summer are dug over and composted.  Two of the beds were sown with carrots in early August, and as the lacy seedlings unfolded, the grasshoppers were there to nibble them off.  Only about a quarter of the carrots escaped; in the spaces where the carrots are no longer, we have sown spinach for fall consumption.  Belatedly, we have added row covers to foil the insect pests.  September is really early for covering the garden, but we are afraid if we don’t protect the small plants they will all be eaten, and they are meant to provide us with our winter carrots.

Today we sowed another six feet of spinach, and an equivalent in buttercrunch lettuce; the weather is perfect, coolish and damp with the wrack from a hurricane spinning out of the Gulf.  We will continue to sow a few feet of salad greens every week until the end of September, and perhaps a little longer.  These will be covered with hoops and row covers, and then again with sheet plastic when the snow comes.  Some of the greens should be ready for harvest in November or December, God willing, and there should be succession of harvest into early spring.   God willing, because no one is more aware than we are of the uncertainties of gardening. There are flats of buttercrunch in the greenhouse, waiting to be big enough to set out in one of the raised beds by the house; covered with stock panel hoops and plastic sheeting, these should be a little better insulated than the low hoops, and we hope will be our insurance in case anything happens to the latter.  If everything does well, there will be a little lettuce to sell this winter.

The cool, damp weather we are having makes it easier for the school age children to hit the books; not that they are overflowing with enthusiasm, but right now ditching in the rain is less attractive than a cup of cocoa and a math lesson.  If we are to have ware ready for our two fall sales, we will have to get the kiln wiring overhauled and get to work in the clay studio.  From raw clay to finished ware is a weeks-long process that can’t be hurried, and demands close attention to timing.  We hurry from one thing to the next; there are few breaks in the work load of a revolutionary, but there is a lot of diversity.

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