Thursday, November 24, 2011

Weird Science, Part 2

Back to the radish experiment…we discovered radishes did indeed live up to their reputation as quick germinators. Within a few weeks, we were harvesting armfuls of these rose-red beauties. Really, they were the prettiest vegetables I’d ever seen! After a scrub, I sliced some up raw, for a simple Zen-like garnish on our dinner plates—and was prepared to be amazed.

First bites: “Um, these don’t taste very good,” I said. Even my notoriously not-picky husband said, “I don’t like them either.” I decided radishes needed a little more preparation. So I tried them as refrigerator pickles, even added some sugar that wasn’t in the recipe. Still unpalatable. Then I put radishes in a stir-fry with broccoli, carrots, and other delectables. Nope. We ended picking them out. Okay, it was time to get serious. John and I had never met a root vegetable that roasting wouldn’t render into mouth-watering delicious-ness. So I drizzled a panful of radishes with olive oil and roasted ‘em.

Well, it turns out I’d wasted oil, electricity, and the time I spent washing both the radishes and the roasting pan. I took the roasted radishes out to the hens, but even they wouldn’t touch them. I ended up tossing the whole shebang onto the compost pile. Then I tromped to the radish beds and pulled out the fifty or so still in the ground and threw them on top. That’s one experiment we won’t repeat.

While the radish fiasco was all my fault, John’s been known to take a few wrong turns in the seed selection department. One of his favorite winter activities is gazing at the dozens of seed catalogues that come in the mail, and with this dizzying assortment of veggies to choose from, he always orders more seeds than we have room for. But I like his optimism. This year, he decided he’d go for something really new: purple carrots. Now, I’m a real carrot lover, but I wasn’t too enthusiastic about this variety. Purple food doesn’t really do it for me. But John, as usual, looked at the bright side. “Purple food like grapes is full of that really great antioxidant--you know, the one that's in red wine,” he said. “So it makes sense that these carrots will be especially good for us.” He ended up planting not one bed of this purple variety, but three.

As with the rest of our experiments, I had great expectations. Along about August, when the first carrots are generally ready, I checked our purple guys, and the tops seemed to be detaching from the roots. What gives? Were the voles going after them? “I’d better pick ‘em before the voles get the rest,” I told John. So I started pulling these carrots out…and yep, the purpleness was pretty strange. But what was really weird was that there wasn’t a trace of vole damage to the roots—the voles had completely ignored them. (Very odd, as they’d attacked our previous carrot crops in legions.) Apparently, the tops of these carrots are simply weak.

But if the voles had ignored these carrots, other pests had not. On closer inspection, it turns out that the purple color cleverly disguised the serious insect damage on just about every carrot, that had pretty much destroyed the bottom third of the root. Then, when I tried to rinse the soil off of the buggers (done by holding the carrots by the foliage, and hosing them down) the tops just broke right off. The compost pile was once again the beneficiary. Even though I didn’t toss out the entire crop, but kept a couple of big bagfuls, I still had to cut off the gnarly root ends. Then, ultimate insult to injury: when I peeled this variety, I discovered two things: 1) the insect damage was not only on the ends, but all over, and 2) only the peel was purple! Inside, these carrots were actually orange (in varying shades from yellow to a variegated purply-orange, that is). My conclusion: if you’re going to end up with orange carrots anyway, you might as well go with your “normal” varieties and skip the grief.

You’ve probably guessed that by this time, my compost pile was starting to pack on the pounds faster than a contestant at a pie-eating contest. Now, the nature of a compost pile is that it’s better to give (to it) than receive. Then I encountered the exception to the rule. You see, our spring and summer was so abnormally chilly that even zucchini didn’t grow. But around mid-summer, in the middle of my well-composted garlic patch, an odd plant emerged: a squash of some kind. Obviously, a seed from the compost pile had survived the winter, and germinated. Quite mysteriously, this specimen grew vigorously, while our other zucchini plants (from more packets of $3.99 organic seed) languished.

I carefully watched our volunteer’s progress, and one day, when the first fruit looked like it had been fertilized, I called John over. “Is this a winter squash or a summer squash?” “Darned if I know,” said John. This vegetable’s sprawling growth pattern looked like a pumpkin, but the fruit resembled a zuke. By the time the fruit had put on a few inches, we realized Berryridge Farm had just produced its first crossbred! The fruits were indeed summer squash: firm but not hard, and green, like a zucchini, but with big fat ends, like a butternut. We were able to get a good dozen or so, and they turned out to be really tasty too. That is, if you picked them while they were still small, before the super-quick-growing seeds developed. We ate every last one, so didn’t save any of seeds. But you never know what’ll turn up in next spring’s compost.

Our most successful experiment this year, while not weird, was also our most expensive. After several seasons of major crop shrinkage from vole predation, John and I were pondering the 2011 growing season with dread. We'd been fighting a losing battle, and our dream of living off Berryridge Farm was at stake. We knew that if we wanted to grow anything at all, we’d have to take drastic steps. We’d admired the raised and screened beds we’d seen in our favorite homesteader magazines, and decided if that’s what it takes to grow food in the Foothills, so be it.

Thus, around the end of March, flush with our income tax return, we made an expedition to our local building supply center for raised-bed materials. First we had to chose the wood: cedar, though long-lasting, was too expensive. But Ron, the owner, said fir would be a wise choice. “Should last you five, maybe ten years.” Next, we purchased a quantity of you call hardware cloth: ½ inch screen material to line the bottom of the beds. The bill for our anti-vole campaign? Let's just say it took most of Uncle Sam's refund.

Thus armed, with much sawing, hammering and nailing, much digging and seating and refilling with soil, John produced several of these boxed raised beds. With great trepidation, we sowed all the vegetables we loved, that the voles had eaten in previous years—spinach, broccoli, peas, carrots (orange ones), chard, and our all-time fave, beets—wondering, had we wasted hundreds of dollars on this experiment? Would these raised beds really keep the voles out?

Every day, we checked the boxes, watching for the first tiny “seedlettes.” They soon became seedlings. Then viable plants. Peas, beets, carrots, broccoli, chard, you name it, it was growing! The raised box beds had worked—no vole predation! Even though these vile critters were still in our garden—they’d hit the nearby potato crop hard. Voles, we concluded, are very inflexible in their eating patterns. They apparently need to tunnel up to eat from below, because not one simply climbed the wood wall and just noshed on the veggies from the surface.

Right now, I’m looking at my fall planting of spinach with great satisfaction, since every other year, the voles had eaten every last seedling. By next April, I can start harvesting. And after a winter of root crops, I’ll be more than ready for a home-grown organic spinach salad!

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!