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Farmer Zippy’s Notebook: Green Tomatoes!

November 14th, 2014, by Lisa

Green Tomatoes
Do you ever feel like you’re all thumbs? Me too!

Well, that is, I feel like I’m all hooves sometimes…I don’t have thumbs!

You know why I feel like this today? Because I was paging through my notebook of this year’s farm adventures and came across this entry about green tomatoes which I never shared with you because the pages in my notebook were stuck together and my clumsy hooves missed the page! Sometimes it can be frustrating being a wee little sheep. But, on the other hoof, I’m so cute that I get lots of hugs – so I’ll take it!

Ok, well, here’s all about green tomatoes:

On the farm, we grow lots of heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes taste WAY better than regular tomatoes, which were bred for looks rather than for flavor. They also come in lots of funky colors. My favorite ones are the green tomatoes!

Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it isn’t ripe! These green tomatoes don’t ever turn red, or even orange! When they’re ripe, they’re a sort of yellowish-green color. They don’t taste funny because they’re green, though. They’re some of the best tasting tomatoes I’ve ever had! I’ve heard people say that they like Malachite Box even when they don’t like any other kind of tomatoes. I can’t get enough of them!

Malachite Box isn’t the original name of this kind of tomato. The real name is in Russian, and it’s really, really hard to say. “Malakhitovaya Shkatulka.” Thankfully, Malachite Box is much easier to pronounce! A sheep’s mouth just doesn’t move the way it has to to pronounce a complicated name like that! Does yours?

Fun Fact: Malachite Box grow on indeterminate tomato vines. Do you remember what that means? I wrote about it in my notebook a couple weeks ago! If you said yes, you remember, then I’m very impressed! If you didn’t, then you can read about it here (Ike had to tell me twice before I remembered . . .).

Farmer Zippy’s Notebook: In the Washroom!

August 15th, 2014, by Zippy, translated by Hannah

Spinach with Hannah
I got to work in the washroom today! I was really excited, because I’ve wanted to work in the washroom ever since the season started. My thoughts, after helping out there all day: it’s much harder work than I thought it would be. BUT, it was still fun. Lots of fun.

Farmer Tara’s in charge of the washroom, and she’s really good at keeping everything organized. I don’t know how she does it . . . there’s so much to keep track of on harvest days. The field crew brings down so much stuff, and it all has to be sorted and washed and counted. I especially don’t know how she keeps track of that last one.

I got to work next to Farmer Hannah the whole day, and she showed me how to do everything in the washroom. Each kind of vegetable has to be washed and packed differently, and there’s lots of cleanup to do, too, because there’s water everywhere when you’re washing, and water everywhere makes a big mess.

My favorite job in the washroom is packing. It’s so much fun to put things into bins, and getting it all organized, and making it look pretty! My favorite thing to pack was the spinach. You wash the spinach in the sink, and then you dry it out in a big orange hand-cranked salad spinner, and after that you package it into .50-pound bags. There are scales in the washroom that you can use to make sure you get the right amount in each bag. Some of the farmers are really good at it! They get it super close to .50 every single time. I’m not so good at it . . . my first try was .67 lbs, and so I tried to put in less the next time, and ended up with .35. Whoops. Farmer Hannah says it gets easier after you’ve done it a few times. I hope she’s right!

My least favorite job is washing all the bins after you’re done using them. You use a hose and wash them off out back, and the water splashes off of them and sprays all over you. It made my wool all wet. :( Farmer Tara finished the rest for me, though, once she saw how much I disliked it. She let me clean the water off the floor again with a giant squeegee. THAT was fun!

After working in the washroom all day, I decided that I really like it. I hope I did a good enough job that I get to help out again next week!

Farmer Zippy’s Notebook: Garlic Harvest!

July 31st, 2014, by Zippy, translated by Hannah

Garlic Harvest

I’ve gotten to try lots of cool jobs while I’ve been here on the farm, and there are lots of things to do here that I love. I love planting and washing and thinning and even sometimes (shh, don’t tell!) . . . weeding. But my favorite job, out of all the ones I’ve gotten to try, is harvesting.

We harvested the garlic a few weeks ago, and it was the first giant harvesting project I had gotten to be a part of. I’ve been on the picking crew when we’re harvesting veggies for CSA shares and for market, but this was really different. When you’re picking veggies, you just pick what’s ready, or what you’ll need for that week. When you harvest the garlic, you pick . . . everything.

The farm crew planted EIGHT beds of garlic last fall. Eight beds. And there are three rows in each bed. That makes . . . hmm, let me think . . . *hoof taps on desk while counting* . . . TWENTY FOUR ROWS OF GARLIC?!?!?! And they’re LONG rows, too. I thought it seemed like a lot of garlic. It took a long time – days – to harvest it all.

Harvesting garlic is really fun. You have to be careful with the bulbs, because they’re fragile. They’ve spent their whole lives underground, so they’re not used to being moved around. (Can you imagine spending your whole life underground? I can’t. You’d never see the sun!) They bruise inside if you knock them too hard, and they’ll get sunburned if you leave them in the hot sun for . . . guess how long? Five minutes! See? I told you they’re fragile!

So, you have to lay the bins on their sides while you’re harvesting, so that the part of the bin that’s supposed to be the bottom acts as a sun shade and keeps the garlic protected. Farmer Ike drives down each row with an undercutter attached to the tractor, which does exactly what the name makes you think it does – cuts underneath the garlic plants and loosens the soil so that the farm helpers, who come down the rows right after the tractor does, can pull the garlic right out of the ground. The farmers pull one garlic plant out at a time, and shake the dirt off, and snip off the roots with clippers, and then they stack them up in the bins with their stems still on, because Farmer Ike says that’s an important part of the drying process.

Once all our bins are full, Farmer Ike or Farmer Stephanie comes up with one of the big white trucks and we load the garlic onto it and take it down to the barn, where we stack it on big mesh shelves where it’ll dry. The drying process is called “curing”, and Farmer Ike said it takes about a month before the garlic is finished curing. Until then, we keep the garlic in the barn, stacked almost all the way up to the ceiling! I bet it’s going to smell like garlic in there forever!

Garlic Stacked

Hike with Ike! July 22nd: Staples Redux & How to Determine Fruit Ripeness (without eating yourself sick!)

July 17th, 2014, by Lisa

Farming Curious? Learn from our expert, Farmer Ike!
First peach of the season
From 7PM until dusk every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month through September, join Farmer Ike for walks through the orchard and/or garden and open discussions about various seasonal happenings on the farm. Topics will vary depending on the season. Open to those curious about how a farm like this works and for those looking for gardening and orcharding tips and tricks!

This Coming Tuesday, July 22nd:

There’s not much easy about growing staple crops such as dry beans, wheat, and flint corn on a small scale. Running from the rain last time cut Ike’s staples talk short, and now the wheat harvest is nigh! Learn about the trials and tribulations so you can appreciate your autumn chili and cornbread more!

PLUS:

How to figure out when fruit is ripe without gorging yourself on underripe individuals. Yes, this part of the Hike will include samples straight from the trees!

AND your questions welcome on other subjects!

Free admission; all are welcome.
Light refreshments provided.
Location: 3226 Limestone Rd. Cochranville

Have a topic you’d like Ike to cover? Let us know in the comments below!

Hike with Ike! July 8th: Tomato Training and Staples

July 2nd, 2014, by Lisa

Farming Curious? Learn from our expert, Farmer Ike!

Wheat
From 7PM until dusk every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month through September, join Farmer Ike for walks through the orchard and/or garden and open discussions about various seasonal happenings on the farm. Topics will vary depending on the season. Open to those curious about how a farm like this works and for those looking for gardening and orcharding tips and tricks!

This Coming Tuesday, July 8th:

Staples: The business of that name says “That was Easy!” As it is, there’s not much which is easy about growing staple crops such as dry beans, wheat, and flint corn on a small scale. Learn about the trials and tribulations so you can appreciate your autumn chili and cornbread more!

PLUS:
Tomatoes - smaller
Tomato Training: methods and equipment of various types to help you grow the bestest tomatoes!

AND your questions welcome on other subjects!

Free admission; all are welcome.

Light refreshments provided.
Location: 3226 Limestone Rd. Cochranville

Have a topic you’d like Ike to cover? Let us know in the comments below!

Hike with Ike! June 24th: Edible Landscaping and Oscar the High Tunnel

June 19th, 2014, by Lisa

Farming Curious? Learn from our expert, Farmer Ike!

Hike with Ike!
From 7PM until dusk every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month through September, join Farmer Ike for walks through the orchard and/or garden and open discussions about various seasonal happenings on the farm. Topics will vary depending on the season. Open to those curious about how a farm like this works and for those looking for gardening and orcharding tips and tricks!

This Coming Tuesday, June 24th:
Edible Landscaping, including the nuts (trees, that is!) of North Star
PLUS:
Meet and Tour “Oscar” the High Tunnel

AND your questions welcome on other subjects!

Free admission; all are welcome!
Light refreshments provided.
Location: 3226 Limestone Rd. Cochranville
Have a topic you’d like Ike to cover? Let us know in the comments below!

Hike with Ike! Garlic and Fruit Thinning on Tuesday, June 10th

June 3rd, 2014, by Lisa

Farming Curious? Learn from our expert, Farmer Ike!

From 7PM until dusk every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month from June through September, join Farmer Ike for walks through the orchard and/or garden and open discussions about various seasonal happenings on the farm. Topics will vary depending on the season. Open to those curious about how a farm like this works and for those looking for gardening and orcharding tips and tricks!

Zippy is curious about these curly things growing out of the garlic plants.

Zippy is curious about these curly things growing out of the garlic plants!

This Coming Tuesday, June 10th:
Garlic from A to Z! How to grow it, how to save seed, varieties, etc. Everything you ever wanted to know (and not know?!)
Fruit thinning: Who, What, Where, When, and Why?
Plus – your questions welcome on other subjects!

Free admission; all are welcome!
Light refreshments provided.
Location: 3226 Limestone Rd. Cochranville
Have a topic you’d like Ike to cover? Let us know in the comments below!

In With the New: High Tunnel!

April 7th, 2014, by Lisa

High Tunnel -s
So, we’ve been talking about Spring Cleaning. You know, out with the old, in with the new kind of stuff. Each spring always brings a bunch of ‘new’, and around here sometimes it’s dramatic.

Our first dramatic new is the subject here: a high tunnel. Basically, ‘high tunnel’ is the term used for a greenhouse that doesn’t have any heating capabilities. So it really is a high tunnel – a structure of, in this case, metal and plastic, through which you can walk. And the fun doesn’t stop there because more than just for walking through, it is a structure in which you can grow plants!

We intend to grow our heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers, and other disease-loving garden plants in there. Keeping them covered helps keep diseases at bay and keeps the rain off the plants. For heirloom tomatoes, keeping the rain off helps to prevent some of the typical heirloom-type cracking. Keeps us from getting cranky, too. Cracky tomatoes will make any grower cranky…

Our brand-new (and returning) helpers set to work last week building this awesome structure, and boy did they do a terrific job. As you can see in the picture above, it appears now that we have a whale skeleton on the farm. Covering that whale with plastic will be a job for another quite windless day, lest we have to battle an escaping humongo parade balloon (a la Macy’s Thanksgiving type – read here for our adventures in just that!)

Onwards and upwards, but hopefully not up, up, and away. It will be all hands on deck when it’s time for the plastic. In the meantime, other nifty new things are going on. But I’ll save that for another day.

How about you? Any new things in your life this spring? If you’re looking for a whale skeleton of your own, I can point you in the right direction!

Cement Mixers and Castle Building

March 14th, 2014, by Lisa

Today, we’ll talk about using cement mixers in the process of castle building.

Wah??? How’s that relate to farming you might ask?

MixerWell, as with some other equipment around here, our cement mixer is not used for its original purpose. Nope – in our case it has been retrofitted a bit in order to mix our soil mix to the proper consistency with which to build castles.

Oh, no – that’s not quite right either. Although our castle-building is indeed reminiscent of those days many of us had at the beach building sand castles using buckets (or if you were lucky, awesome castle-shaped gizmos) in order to make what were, to us, magical and beautiful sand structures.

Depending upon who is doing the greenhouse work, they may reminisce about those happy-go-lucky days at the beach or they may (if they are more fantasy-minded) imagine they’re working on building the next Hogwarts Castle.

But in reality, our cement mixer has taken the not-too-fun task of mixing soil mix (we use Fort V from Vermont Compost) with water by hand in a wheelbarrow to a new height of techie-ness…shoveling measured amounts of the soil mix into the mixer, adding a measured amount of water, turning it on and watching it do its magic. Actually, it’s kind of like your home mixer too – which certainly makes life in the kitchen easier than mixing stuff by hand!

And then, with the properly mixed result (remember those days at the beach, here, when your castle-building sand could be neither too dry nor too wet for best results), our ersatz castle maker (ie. soil block makers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) is employed – in EXACTLY the same manner as you used to make sand castle blocks – to make the perfectly shaped soil block in which to grow beautiful vegetable plants for the garden.

Ok…it does take a wee bit of training. We’re all YEARS removed from our sand castle building days (back when we were all experts, eh?), but the idea is the same.

So, if your kids are avid sand castle builders, keep in mind they may indeed have a fantastic future in sustainable agriculture!

(learn more about soil block making here)

Soil Block Primer

January 5th, 2014, by Lisa

Soil blocks are a unique transplant production system which seemingly few are familiar with, so here’s some of the basics for you.

Ike first learned about soil blocks from some of Eliot Coleman’s excellent gardening books. The ideas behind soil blocks seemed to make so much sense that we started using them the very first year we grew vegetables, and we haven’t looked back since!
2" block maker

4" block maker

Soil blocks are made by compressing wetted blocking mix, typically a mix of compost, peat, organic fertilizers and bulking materials such as perlite, into cubes using block makers. We use an organic mix called “Fort V” from Vermont Compost with great success. We typically use a 2″ block maker for most crops, but use a 4″ block maker for a number of the summer crops like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. (We purchased our blockers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds)
Block Making
I always liken making the soil blocks to building sand castles. The mix has to be just the right wetness to hold together, yet not so wet that it falls apart. Fortunately, in this case, the incoming tide is not likely to wash away your efforts at the end of the day. In fact, the blocks are quite durable after they have partially dried (1 or 2 days after making and seeding them), and are very durable after filled with plant roots. (To the right Shannon and Laura Beth are using both the 4″ and 2″ blockers)

Besides providing the opportunity to have fun playing with soil, what do soil blocks have going for them? Here are some advantages:

  • They contain complete plant starting nutrients and pathogen-suppressing compost in order to grow healthy plants without requiring additional fertility (like stinky fish emulsion).
  • The young plants do not become root bound since the root blocks are air-pruned on all sides while growing, which leaves the roots poised to grow as soon as they are transplanted to moist soil.
  • They reduce or eliminate transplant shock because of the large healthy root system which is poised to start growing within 24 hours of being planted in the garden (provided they are properly watered in).
  • The plants have a better head start on weeds and provide better-flavored produce due to the even growth the healthy root system encourages.
  • The blocks add compost and stable humus to garden soil, thus enriching the garden’s soil organic matter and nutrient content.
  • Starting plants in this manner greatly reduces or eliminate plant plastics in transplant production – which is way cool.

How do you, the gardener, handle your soil-blocked plant starts? (For those of you in our Plant Start program, all of your transplants will come to you in soil blocks)

  • Make sure they stay well-watered. Soil blocks can be very hard to re-wet if allowed to become extremely dry and may require several minutes of submersion in water to completely re-wet them (we use one of those storage tubs like you might buy at Home Depot or Walmart…something big enough to immerse the whole flat in).
  • Completely soak blocks before transplanting using the above method if possible. If you don’t have a big tub, then water the blocks quite well prior to planting.
  • Water-in your plants as soon as possible after planting them in the garden.
  • If you can’t plant your starts promptly in the garden, using a starter fertilizer at planting time may be desirable.

The question which remains is: WHY isn’t everyone using them??

Young Tomatoes in 4" Soil Blocks

Tomatoes in 4″ Soil Blocks

2" Soil Block Starts

Lettuces and Brassica babies in 2″ Soil Blocks

North Star Orchard • Ike & Lisa Kerschner
Email: Lisa@northstarorchard.com • Phone: (610)-593-0314
3226 Limestone Rd. • Cochranville, PA 19330
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