Things are in full swing in the vegetable garden these days. We are keeping our new crew busy with planting, setting up irrigation and row covers and of course, weeding! We have had several large field plantings including our onions, potatoes, peas, and spring brassicas. Keep your eyes peeled for blue potatoes this year. They are beautiful!
We also planted all of our greenhouse tomatoes this week. You will recognize our favorite green heirloom from last year, Malachite Box, and we are bringing back a delicious red heirloom from previous years called Cosmonaut. This year we are also growing my personal favorite, Cherokee Purple. Heirlooms are a little fussy to grow and certainly look very “unique” compared to a traditional red grocery store tomato, but the flavors are simply unbeatable.
Many farms choose to grow heirloom tomatoes in an unheated hoop house or greenhouse during the main growing season. This is less for the extra warmth and more to increase quality and overall health of the plants resulting in higher yields. Many tomato varieties crack from excess rain and disease can spread very rapidly when leaves stay wet during extra humid times during the summer. When growing tomatoes in a hoop house or unheated greenhouse, we can better control the amount of water the plants receive and keep their leaves dry, which helps reduce the spread of fungal diseases. We will also grow tomatoes in the field, but for our more delicate heirlooms we like to give them a little extra care and comfort.
Can’t wait for tomato season!
Last week we were driving home from my inlaw’s house and I said to Josh, “I’m so excited! We’re going to be seeding onions this week!” To which he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Excited? You are so weird!” As I’ve mentioned before I LOVE spending time with seeds and the prospect of 12,000 onion seeds waiting to move into their new homes in the greenhouse is delightful.
Last spring one of my first days was spent seeding onions with Brint and talking about all of our expectations for the year. I thought that surely over one season at North Star, I’d learn everything there was to know about vegetable farming on this scale. But as the season progressed I learned that, in gardening (or any topic), there is always more to learn!
The world over, onions are one of the staples in cuisine. Yesterday I was reading about them in the Fedco catalog, which stated that the average American consumes 18.5 lbs of onions annually and that in Libya the number is quadrupled. Ask almost anyone who likes to cook and they’ll tell you, first start with an onion and go from there. Why is it that onions and garlic are the start to many great meals? These members of the lily family can grow in almost every climate and hold many immune boosting properties. Onion traces are found in Bronze Age settlements, they were worshiped by Egyptians because the concentric circles reminded them of eternal life, and in the Middle Ages they were so important that they were used to pay rent or even given as gifts!
Onions are a day-length sensitive plant. They will begin bulbing at a certain number of daylight hours and only continue to make new growth as the day length is increasing. As soon as Summer solstice comes, they start the process of curing and then a few weeks later we pull, dry, and top them to put into storage. We could wait until spring to plant seeds in the soil outside. But by starting them on heat mats in the greenhouse they will get every possible day in the garden to bulk up and get as big as they can.
A friend told me, “If you want to impress a man with you cooking abilities, just chop up an onion and sauté it in butter. The smell will win anyone over!” If only I would have know that earlier maybe Josh would have been more excited about me seeding the onions last week at North Star!
After a long walk on a chilly day, I came inside to visit a friend who responded, “Mmmmm. You smell like cold!” She is an avid skier and loves a good snowy hike. If you know the smell I’m talking about, chances are you too love the outdoors and are as anxious as I am for a good snow. I can’t believe after the unexpected snow in October we haven’t had more than just a few flurries!
Last Thursday I had the privilege to weed the greenhouse. “Privilege?” you say. To which I respond, “YES!” I love weeding and it was truly a joy to work in the soil for a few hours after more than a month without it. No matter if it’s snowy or warm, rainy or dry, this time of year the soil outdoors is always moist. These past few weeks it has a nice frozen crust from the cold nights, but by afternoon it is a living sponge – moist and as soft as a pillow! It is near impossible to weed such wet soil and so we’ve left the garden to do as it will for these next few months. But in the greenhouse I pulled a wheelbarrow of chickweed and ground ivy, grass and yellow rocket, and it was GREAT! The smell of the soil and the earthy winter annuals were enough to make me hungry – yes, I occasionally enjoy “eating my weedies”. Chickweed is my favorite, it has a very earthy and yet fresh crunch. I probably couldn’t eat a whole bowl full, but a few nibbles is always a pleasure.
The greenhouse was cold in the early morning, but as the sun came up I was quickly shedding hats and sweaters. Outside it was still chilly and later that afternoon, when I was in the farmhouse finalizing the garden plan for 2012, Sophie (the dog) came inside, and she smelled like cold. I looked out the window to see flurries! I was elated to watch the sidewalk and then the grass turn white and was hoping it wouldn’t stop. Maybe in the morning I could get out the skis?
Wouldn’t you know it, but Friday morning it was warm and sunny again and the distinct smell of earthworms was in the air. It seems so early to smell something I directly link to spring, but of course worms don’t migrate to warmer climates. They are doing their job all through the year – turning a mix of partially decomposed organic matter and all of the bits of soil into a wonderful environment for growing things. Thank you worms (and all soil organisms) for all the hard work! You take last year’s bits and pieces and recycle them into the perfect nursery for the following year’s seeds and transplants.
And finally, the smell of smoke permeates each of my winter days. We heat our home with wood, and sometimes a smoldering log or a drafty day will have us opening doors to vent out the smoke. As I am outside playing with the girls or carrying lumber to the shop, a breeze will blow smoke my way. It is a comforting, warming smell that reminds me that it really is winter – even if it is 50 degrees outside!
But soon enough the smell of smoke and cold will be on the air less frequently, and instead the faint scent of worms will become a regular part of each day. This will give way to the fragrance of apple blossoms and lettuce, which in turn will make room for carrots and cucumbers, and on and on…
Don’t you just love a parade? The big kind with floats and bands and huge lumbering balloon characters? Of course, I’m thinking the big one, here – Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Have you ever marveled at the folks who handle those huge balloons? Maybe you’ve never really thought about them much, but were engrossed instead in watching to see if Mickey Mouse would make it around the next corner without hitting the lamppost, or if Underdog’s paw would somehow manage to avoid patting the heads of the cheering Boy Scout troupe below. But on the other hand, maybe you’ve thought it might be neat to be one of those balloon handlers. (and just how does one come by that job, anyway?)
Well, have no fear – a solution is here. Next time you’re feeling like being a balloon handler, contact your local farmer sometime. Better yet – contact this local farmer. I’d be pleased to give you one of those balloon-handling ropes. Our balloon is not as colorful or fancy as Garfield, but we can provide you that much sought-after experience, complete with an audience.
Our balloon handling experience began in the spring of 2007 when we were building our new greenhouse. It was a new experience for us and involved lots of learning and mistake-making (and the subsequent mistake-fixing). Just getting the structure ready to cover with plastic was a challenge enough, and will require its own story. Here, of course, we are focusing on parade balloons, which is what the plastic covering of the greenhouse was to become before we got the job done.
Imagine a large piece of plastic. No – larger than that. Mmmm – maybe a bit larger still. Ok, a 50 ft. by 50 ft. piece. This is rolled out on the ground alongside the 15-foot high metal whale-rib structure of the greenhouse. The question is, how the heck do we get this plastic over that whale?
The first step is to get a series of ropes up and over the structure, which is best performed by someone with good archery skills, like Robin Hood. Lacking him, however, we had to make do with a rock and a lot of pitching practice.
Next, enter our high-tech solution (and this comes straight from the greenhouse engineering geniuses) – several balls of crumpled-up newspaper. This gets so technical here that I’m reticent to describe it in detail, lest I pass along some sort of patented trade secret. Suffice to say, we get the plastic, newspapers and ropes connected, and then the fun begins.
After waiting for a calm day and roping in a few unsuspecting balloon handlers (or in our case that year, grabbing a couple of employees), we set to work.
Now, it is my opinion that a ‘calm day’ is a definition open to interpretation. After waiting through the frigid and windy months of January and February, we were feeling anxious to get this job done. The greenhouse needed to be functional in March, so by the end of February it was becoming imperative that the darned plastic get on it. Heating a greenhouse to grow plants would be mighty difficult without sides or a top.
So Ike determined that ‘Wednesday’ was to be the day, gosh darn-it, before the next winter storm was supposed to hit. The weather guys were all talking calm weather conditions. Evidently those weather guys have never handled a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon.
As the four of us heaved and hauled that huge piece of plastic up and over the metal greenhouse skeleton, a wind kicked up. And by wind I mean a breeze that would be unlikely to stir a bit of fluff off the top of your head. But to that huge piece of plastic, it was a gale-forced hurricane howl of a wind.
Two of us spent the next two hours holding on to various parts of the plastic (now masquerading as a sail for a tall ship), while the other two tried to not only attach it to the frame of the greenhouse, but make sure that it was ‘square’ in the process. In this case ‘square’ refers to the state of the plastic covering the whole greenhouse without having some goofy crooked spot left over without any covering.
All of this was bad enough as the force of that plastic trying to sail away to the next county was making my shoulders feel as if they would pop out of their sockets. But on top of feeling crucified, we also had an audience to witness our folly. Our new farm is located right on a pretty-darned busy road, which at rush hour is nearly bumper-to-bumper with traffic. What fun those drivers-by must have had watching us deal with this wanna-be balloon. Some of them must have been wondering why we had this pale grey version, however, when there much more entertaining shapes and colors to be had – like Snoopy.
We finally managed to get the darned thing secure, thankfully. And it was even fairly ‘square’, as long as you ignore that one little wrinkle in it. However – and here’s something maybe you didn’t know about greenhouses – they need TWO layers of plastic! Arrgghh!!
Fortunately, the next morning was a calm one by our newly educated definition.
You may think that this means we don’t need the help of more wanna-be balloon handlers. Don’t fret however, I’ll take your application for the job. We need to replace all that plastic in every few years, and I have a feeling that our original balloon handlers would rather be watching the festivities next time around (preferably from the comfort of their own homes).
Send your applications to Lisa@northstarorchard.com; we’ll be replaying the above fun and games this coming fall!