The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Fullness

Onion seedlings

Life has been incredibly full since the beginning of 2010 - and consequently my posts here at the Milkweed Diaries have become become woefully sparse.

My Real Job (working with nonprofits and political campaigns) has been at full throttle since the first week of January, a rude awakening after a relatively sleepy 2009. I'm not complaining though: income is a wonderful thing.

Adding to the fray, I worked as a cook at a Permaculture Design Course in south Georgia for two weeks last month, sharing kitchen duties with my kitchen co-conspiriator and dear friend Puma, cooking three meals a day for 30-60 people using local and regional in-season foods. Though I didn't blog about this Great Cooking Adventure, I did chronicle the experience on facebook.

And then there's Red Wing Farm, our homestead garden that has very quickly grown to market-garden proportions. We're selling at two tailgate markets this season, hosting our first farm interns this summer, teaching classes on the farm, and ramping up our production fast and furious with an eye toward both Christopher and me being able to quit our day jobs.

Lettuces, mustards, and kales growing in the unheated hoophouse

Homemade heat table for seedlings (salvaged lumber + gravel + heat tape) with tatsoi & bok choy growing in a raised bed underneath

Christopher has been in non-stop construction mode, building the first section of our duck and goat barn, a heat table for our hoophouse, and various other structures and contraptions, and I've been prepping beds, making soil blocks, and planting seeds. Thousands and thousands of seeds. And stepping up plants. Thousands and thousands of plants.

Tomato seedlings


Our Starting from Seed class planting peas in the garden

Life is good. And full.

So apologies in advance, dear readers, for the less frequent posts in the next few months. I promise to post images as often as I can of what's going on on the homestead, in the garden, and in the kitchen.

You can also follow Red Wing Farm on facebook, where I'm posting more frequent albeit briefer updates.

In the meantime, here are some images of recent goings on at the farm...Happy Spring and good gardening to all!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Signs of Spring

Witch Hazel blooming in the garden today

It was a beautiful sunny day today (high of 62!) and I spent a good chunk of the day in the garden before I had to shower and get into professional mode and drive in to town for a meeting.

It felt so much like Spring outside today. I had to keep reminding myself that there's likely plenty more cold in store for us. We still have two more

months before the average last frost date here, but I couldn't help it, I just let the Spring fever flow and planted some seeds.


In my defense, I did plant the seeds in a cold frame and in another raised bed we have covered with a mini-hoophouse type structure, so it really is possible they will germinate, grow, and produce food. I planted several spinaches (Bordeaux, Space, Winter Bloomsdale), Ruby Streaks Mustard from the OGS Seed Swap, carrots (Oxheart, Scarlet Nantes, Napoli), radishes (French Breakfast, Easter Egg), a little lettuce (Pinetree Winter Mix), and beets (Early Wonder, Golden Detroit, Chioggia).

While I was getting the beds ready for planting, I encountered this little critter: one more reason I am glad we do not use a tiller. She was a little disoriented when I uncovered her with the fork I was using to work in manure, but she would have been dead meat with a rototiller.

You can see how she's barely visible in the soil. This was a moment when I felt really good about using hand tools, which are slow and gentle enough to allow life to go on in the garden beds despite our disruptions.

Another highlight of my time in the garden today was watching
the honeybees forage. I was kneeling in the herb garden to enjoy the crocuses up close when one of our honeybees landed on a tightly closed crocus bud and proceeded to open it up and get inside. It was really amazing to watch. She opened three buds this way, with
efficiency and enthusiasm. A good reminder, too, of the importance of early food sources in the garden for beneficial insects. This meal will help her and her hive sisters get
through the rest of the winter! (They're all sisters at the moment; the females kick the males out of the hive to freeze to death when resources
get scarce in the winter, and make more in the Spring.)

I was lucky to have my camera with me, and at some point remembered that it has a video feature. So here's a little photo
sequence of bee/crocus Spring
celebration, followed by my first HOME VIDEO posted to the Milkweed Diaries! It's just 14
seconds, but you can really get a sense of the crocus/bee lovefest in action....enjoy!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Total Garden Immersion

My brain is tired from two days of immersion at the Organic Growers School. We in Western North Carolina are very, very lucky to have this amazing event happening here every year. Somewhere around 1,300 people gathered yesterday and today for the OGS at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and it was fabulous as always.

I always learn so much, and love communing with other growers, plant lovers, garden geeks, and lovers of organic foods and farms. It's always so inspiring to be there, and I find myself scribbling notes to myself the whole time with brainstorms about things we could do in the garden, new plants to grow, little known facts, and resources to check out later. There is also always an excellent seed swap, and I got to meet some of my "internet friends" from the seed and garden world online and swap seeds in person - delightful!

All in all, the OGS contained way too much information and to try to summarize here, so I'll settle for a couple of greatest hits lists.

Top 5 Quotes from the 2010 Organic Growers School:
  1. "Plants' mission is to cover the earth. Plants are the skin of the earth." ~Joe Hollis
  2. "To me it is an ecological crime to heat greenhouses to grow food." ~Patryk Battle
  3. "Clear communication is a learned skill." ~Elizabeth Gibbs
  4. "Future farmers are one of the main products of our farm." ~Tom Elmore
  5. "To me, plants are innocent until proven guilty. Just like every other living organism, they want to be fruitful and multiply. No need to demonize them for it. Outbreaks of exotics are nature's efforts to clean up our mess --plants trying to heal a wound that we created" ~Joe Hollis
Top 13 Things I Learned at the OGS:
  1. How to make a germination chamber out of a bakers' proof box.
  2. To find out if legumes are fixing nitrogen well, you can pull one up, cut open one of the root nodules, and if it is RED inside, nitrogen is being accumulated (the red substance is a form of hemoglobin!)
  3. To cure sweet potatoes for optimal storage life, close them in an 80 degree room at 80% humidity for 10 days.
  4. All grapes in Europe, even in the Frenchest of French vineyards, are grafted onto native American grape root stock.
  5. Rufus Mayhaw is both a productive, hearty, edible variety of hawthorne and a good name for a hound dog.
  6. There are two kinds of creasy greens, and one tastes a whole lot better than the other. The one that tastes good has 6-8 small lobes and one big terminal lobe. When you find the good one (there is some in one of our production beds) you can just let it go to seed and "anoint the soil" with a stalk with a seed pod on top.
  7. Lambsquarter seeds are edible and comparable to quinoa (though smaller).
  8. A single muscadine grape vine can produce up to 100 pounds of grapes in a year.
  9. To get all or most of the nitrogen benefit from a cover crop, the plant has to decompose into the soil.
  10. One piece of science that supports the traditional use of hawthorne for heart medicine is that hawthorne leaves, flowers, and fruits contain high levels of antioxidants, specifically the flavonoid procyanidin.
  11. There is an excellent organic wine made from Baco Noir grapes produced at a vineyard near Boone, available for $18.
  12. How to make a DIY greenhouse heat table with gravel and plywood and heat tape.
  13. Even though there are over 15,000 known varieties of grapes in the world , 99.5% of the world's grape production is from only 100 varieties.
And here's a little photojournal of our DIY greenhouse and germination equipment class building a gothic arch hoophouse on the quad at UNCA:

Monday, March 1, 2010

Let the Seed Starting Rumpus Begin!

Last week we started just over 2,000 onion, leek, and shallot seeds, plus a few cardoons and a couple of heirloom varieties of celery. And after just 24 hours, the sprouting began! Within five days, all of the seeds had sprouted.

This time last year, our onions and celery took weeks to sprout. Why such fast germination this time around?

First, we followed Eliot Coleman's advice and did not cover any of the seeds, but left them all sitting on top of the soil exposed to the air. According to Coleman, this allows the seeds to have much better access to oxygen, which is critical for germination.

Second, rather than heating the air we're using a propagation mat to heat only the soil in which we're starting seeds. (Ours is a Pro-Grow mat, available here). This is a much more energy-efficient way to ensure that seeds have what they need to germinate, since soil temperature, rather than air temperature, is the critical factor in germination time. Soil temperature without a heat mat will be 10-20 degrees lower than ambient temperature, so you would have to get the air temperature up to 95 or so and keep it there to maintain the 75 degree soil temp ideal for germination for most garden vegetables. The heat mat prevents temperature fluctuations (a big problem in our passive solar hoophouse) and allows you to keep conditions just right for the short period of time needed for germination. Then you can move the plant babies off the mat into a less controlled environment once they're up and growing.

Third, after our experience starting our winter greens in soil blocks rather than black plastic cell packs, we decided to do most of our germination for the Spring in mini-blocks. These 3/4 inch homemade blocks allow us to fit somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,300 seeds on the germination mat. So we germinate seeds in the soil blocks, and then step the babies up into bigger containers without bottom heat. It's a far more efficient and speedier system than starting seeds in cell packs in the hoophouse, which was our old method.

The eventual goal is to have a well-insulated unheated greenhouse where we can start seeds on the propagation mat, but for now the plant babies are growing just fine in our kitchen. We'll have onions in the ground in early April if all goes according to plan...til then, it's so heartening to see the tiny plants curling up from the soil. Spring is coming!

Heirloom Torpea Rossa onions (also known as Torpedo Red Bottle onions) sprouting.