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Posts Tagged ‘winter gardening’

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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fresh carrots

Thursday, January 10:

Pulling carrots in January is more than a way to put fresh vegetables on the table.  Bridget the sorrel pony crowds the gate when she sees someone in the garden; she knows we know she’s entitled to one of the big carrots and all the small ones.  The black spotted pigs in the calf barn keep up a steady squeal until a few tops are dropped over the wall into their pen.  The bulk of the carrots, of course, go up to the house where they are topped and washed for the table; in the morning the laying hens will get a pound or two of fresh carrot greens with their morning feeding of skim milk, oats and wheat.  It all comes home again in the shape of eggs and bacon.

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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, October 24:

Last year at this time we were in haste to develop the spring which now waters the big barn in all but the longest of cold snaps; this year we are hurrying to finish the water system that will keep the steers frost-free this winter on the monastery pastures.  One of these days, maybe, we will run out of big projects needing completion before snow flies.   Most of today was spent gathering supplies for the tire tank we hope to build this Saturday under the west pasture spring; here the water runs fast enough that we hope, by keeping the water underground before it enters the tank, to keep the flow from freezing.  That would mean being able to run the steers on grass at the monastery all winter, saving the baled hay for the milk cows in the home pasture.

The last few preparations for the winter gardens are gradually being made.  The bed is composted, tilled, and raked for planting next year’s garlic; ashes in buckets wait in the barn for someone to spread them over empty beds to be tilled in the spring.  Hoops and sandbags for the high tunnels are spread on the lawn in various states of incompletion.  Every length of row cover or clean six-mil plastic film that can be found is hunted out and examined for holes.  Only the warm weather of the last few days prevents us putting the first layer of protection on the winter carrots and salad greens.

Next to the river the poplars scarcely admit of the season by the yellow cast of their huge leaves, but on the bluffs above the maples are bare and only the oaks keep their foliage; this is shades of russet and brown, with the occasional deep scarlet of a lover’s rose.  Elsewhere the woods have lost their impenetrability, black boles standing out against a carpet of yellow.  In the ditches sumac, blood-red, flashes like a heliograph when it catches the sun, and now is the time to mark out patches of wild asparagus, clouds of ferny yellow, for spring foraging.  Our family news is like the weather, warm and cold by turns; one son has left us to return to Minnesota with his lovely family, while another proposes bringing home as his wife a woman we have long loved and admired.  We are joyful and sorrowful.

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Wednesday, September 26:

Let us speak for a moment about pigs.  Not the two pastured pigs presently residing by the stock pond, but the pigs in the barn.  It is a serious consideration for the family-scale farmer what to feed his livestock; since he is not raising his animals primarily to sell them but to eat them, it is important that they be fed for just as small a cost as possible.  The meat we raise may be better than anything money can buy, but we whose means are limited cannot consider it a bargain unless we reduce the actual cash outlay to almost, or literally, nothing.  This means little or no bought-in feed.  So what do our pigs eat?

Well, first of all, dairy waste.  Only in a family-scale dairy, there is no waste, there are just dairy products.  The ones that usually go to the pigs are whey, buttermilk, and some skim milk.  Right now, with the cows either going into heat or in early pregnancy and with three baby bulls in the calf barn, there is less milk to spare than we like to see, maybe a gallon of skim every other day, two gallons of buttermilk a week, and whey only by the quart from drained yogurt.  The pigs devour it.

When there is no milk there is swill, or slops, the cooked vegetable and table scraps from our own and the monastery’s kitchens.  This is also extremely palatable to the pigs, as well as to the chickens and dogs.  There is bakery waste usually two days a week, given to us at third hand by the Franciscan sisters to whom it is delivered in black plastic trash bags.  There are windfall apples by the bucketful, gathered from the trees in the pasture.  These have only been ours for two years, just since we bought the field, and the pruning we have been doing, while it helps, has not yet succeeded in making the apples from those trees worth harvesting for our own use, but the bruised fruit, sweet , red and yellow, is prized by pig, chicken, and duck, miniature horse, and the cows.

The garden offers many things for the pigs, and will offer more.  The zucchetta rampicante, or tromboncino zucchini, which has sprawled fifteen feet out of the raised bed where it is trellised, produces far more squash than our households can use.  The overgrown individuals are roughly chopped with a hatchet when we split the firewood for cooking swill and added to the mess in the big copper cauldron.   Bean plants, corn stalks and tomato vines pulled from the garden are thrown in the pig pen where what is not eaten becomes bedding, trampled and chewed to shreds.  In the monastery garden ranks of beets and turnips, maybe a thousand row feet or more, fill the open spaces left when the potatoes were harvested, and these are intended for the pigs winter food.  And the late beans, when we have had our share, will provide good protein for all the pigs on the farm.

This last item seems to us a good idea, and next year any spaces left empty before the middle of Augusts will be sown to pintos as fodder for the pigs and cattle.

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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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Monday, August 27:

I weighed the big copra onions today; seven or eight braids total about seventy pounds.  If they keep, and they are supposed to keep but theory is one thing and reality may be another, they will go a long way toward providing our year’s onions.  There are another forty pounds or so of smaller onions, which will be used up quickly in our canning projects, as they are more likely to spoil than the pretty ones.

The grapes ripen piecemeal, and we hold them in the refrigerator until we have a gallon or so to make jam with.  Two batches so far add a rich dark purple to the gold of peach preserves and ruddy brown of apple butter on the jam shelf.  Strawberries will not add their brilliant red to the palette until late fall, when other jobs are done and we can take time to make jam of the quarts and quarts of strawberries we froze in May and June.

Right now is time to set out the cabbages that we planted a month ago in small boxes of starting mix (equal parts sifted peat moss, vermiculite, and builders sand), then pricked into flats filled with earth and compost.  Our potting soil isn’t sterilized – you don’t know what a bad smell is until you have tried sterilizing potting soil in the oven – so weeds spring up with the cabbages, also tomato seeds invading from somewhere or other.  When we set out the young plants, sturdy and well-grown, we nip off the weeds with our fingernails.  The new cabbage beds have been heavily composted, and now we water the plants generously and send bad karma to all grasshoppers and garden-invading chickens.  Not too confident that our metaphysical assault covers the issue, we also spread rolls of old chicken wire over the beds to deter the barn fowl.

Winter carrots will go in as fast as we can prepare the beds, but spinach must wait until September.

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