Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Weird Science at the Little Farm

Around Berryridge Farm, the summer rush begins with the first strawberry (that is, the one the voles or chipmunks didn’t get), and ends with pulling up the last of the beets and potatoes, which I did last week. So now that the harvest is pretty much over, it’s time to look at our food-growing operation, and figure out what worked, and what didn’t. If our 2010 was the Year of the Chicken, 2011 turned out to be the Year of the Experiment.

Back in the city, having only a small backyard, John and I played it safe—we’d buy the same basic tomato and zucchini starts we did the year before...and the year before that. But once we got our country place, with all the room we wanted, we had a veritable gardener’s playground. We could try all kinds of new stuff!

After a couple of years on our Little Farm, we were starting to get a clue about our soil, climate, and what we could grow out here. So we started testing some tried-and-true garden rules. Take store-bought potting mix: one of our first experiments at Berryridge was starting seeds in plain garden soil. This would appear to be blasphemy, even for the free-thinking folks at Mother Earth magazine. Their resident garden writer admitted that yes, you can make your own potting mix. But this involves screening the soil, then baking it in your oven to sterilize it. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to put any dirt in my oven—what with processing lots of root crops, I have enough dirt passing through my kitchen, thank you very much. Besides, to me, potting mix is a little creepy. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t decompose, which seems unnatural. So, despite our misgivings, we took the risk, and John and I discovered that seeds start perfectly well in good ol’ Berryridge earth. Who knew?

Another early and notable success was with seed potatoes. Gardening experts always advise that you should buy certified seed potatoes. Meaning, they’re free from disease, funguses, and nasty pests, thus ensuring a healthy crop. Well, being an organic potato grower, I’ve found certified organic seed potatoes are hard to come by—unless I want to make an eighty-five mile round trip to the nearest food co-op that carries them. So I started using our home-grown taters for seed. They were far from flawless: there’d be a bit of scab here, and lots insect holes there. But guess what? They produced perfectly edible potatoes. That is, if you don’t mind a few worm tracks. Our resident voles seem to think they’re just golden too.

Emboldened by these successes, John and I figured, no guts, no glory, right? So this past spring, we really started pushing the food-grower’s envelope. It all started with garlic. Last fall, I’d tossed an abundance of shriveled garlic cloves I’d deemed unworthy for cooking into my compost pile. Now, I have what appears to be a very workable composting system: lots of veggie waste, balanced with brown, crunchy stuff like dead leaves or last year’s bracken fern. If I turn the pile every so often, this material breaks down just fine, even if it’s frozen from December through March. In spite of being turned and frozen many times over, by May, I had quite a nice crop of garlic starts growing in my compost. So I pulled them out, and planted them alongside the fall-planted garlic. And while I was at it, here and there all over the garden. Well, guess what. These transplants were a total wash. I didn’t get any proper multi-cloved garlic heads, only slightly swollen roots. Conclusion: the root structure needs many months to develop. So if you want to raise garlic, you’d better get it in the ground before the soil freezes, then leave it there.

One experiment this year that was just plain dumb: radishes. John and I read that if you plant a very slow germinating crop like parsnips, you should also sow a fast-germinating item like radishes alongside them. This is so you’ll know where your parsnips actually are (because you won’t see any evidence of them for what seems like a really long time). Now, although we love our veggies, neither of us had ever developed a taste for radishes. But then, we’d never had any home-grown, organic ones, now had we? That would surely make all the difference. Besides, around this time, the local chefs were all over radishes—cooking demos at the Farmer’s Market and the Co-op, and radishes were being featured at the area’s finest restaurants—clearly, they must be tasty! So I bought some organic French breakfast radish seeds at $3.99, further encouraged by the packet’s enticing photo of the loveliest rosy-white radishes you ever saw. With the cold spring we’d had, even the peas were late. Since we were both hungry for our first vegetables, John cast the radish seeds in the ground with great hopes…

To be for Weird Science, Part 2!

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