Archive for March 8th, 2011

March 8, 2011

The Beginning of Walter Mitty Season

by Kate

Raised beds, January

Even though it is 18 degrees this morning, there is a different quality to the sun-light.  Perhaps it is the angle, though I have no way of measuring. It just feels as if it is a little higher in the sky by 10 am. And it is slightly more yellow.  The picnic table is draped under a foot of snow, blue in the shadows of the yard. The raised beds are indecipherable under their white blanket, interrupted only by the browned tops of un-harvested leeks.

I was smug last fall when I left the leeks in the ground. I had thought to harvest them the morning of Thanksgiving so I could boast to my New York City relatives that they were freshly picked  “this very morning!” before the ritual braising with lemon, home made chicken broth and butter.   But the ground was frozen that morning, cement hard, and so they remained. Then snow fell. And there they have remained.

I am desperate to put my hands in soil. This morning saw the final planting of paper white bulbs. I brought the scented geraniums down to the south facing windows in the breakfast nook, away from the grow lights they’ve been hunkering under all winter  (along with bulb starts, and rosemary in pots from last summer’s garden).  One Amaryllis is finally opening; I have a tiny window garden, green and bright, to sit in at breakfast, while through the window, the snow is drifted high against the house.


Imagine my surprise when, after noting the change in the light, I find packets of seeds just arrived at the co-op. It is only January! Seed catalogues have already arrived at the homes of my more organized friends.  But I don’t subscribe to a single catalogue; never have. Instead, I wander all the farm centers, gathering seed packets one by one, while reading the instructions and savoring the descriptions of succulent fruits, vegetables, and blossoms to come; or I buy seeds by the teaspoonful at Paris Farmer’s Union.  On three tenths of an acre I do not grow vast quantities of any vegetable, but I grow masses of tomatoes and more salad greens than we can eat, not to mention peas, cukes and beans, garlic, and butternut squash. And part of having a garden is, for me, visual:  I choose some plants and vegetables for how they look… My garden is literally a palette of colors and tastes.

I would like to grow more, but the limitations of a village yard, the shifts of light and shade from neighboring buildings and trees proscribe what I can plant, and how much.

Now is the Walter Mitty time of my garden. I sit back and day-dream about what the garden CAN contain, what it might look like. These plans are elaborate because the conditions are perfect.  From my armchair by the wood stove, there are no pests. And it doesn’t take much work: no sweat, no aching back, no mosquito bites.  My tomatoes are large and sweet. I invent a new kind of potato.  My squash plants become self-pollinating….. I find a way to solve the food issues in this country.

Raised Beds, August

Seeds purchased – all from High Mowing Organic Seeds: Provider Bush Bean,Bouquet Dill,German Chamomile, Sweet Basil, Italian Flat Leaf Parsley, Summer Thyme, Astro Arugula, Sylvetta Wild Arugula, Samish Spinach, Giant Winter Spinach, Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach, Bull’s Blood Beet (for red salad greens), Early Wonder Tall Top Beet, Laxton’s Progress # 9 Shell Pea, Glacier Salad Tomato,San Marzano Paste Tomato

March 8, 2011

Seventy Acres of Scrub Farmland

by Barbara

Coyote on the lawn

Some people think my experiment in ecosystem gardening is on the verge of getting out of hand. First it was coyotes on the lawn, bears at the feeder. Then it was turkeys through the garden. Pretty soon the house will become the fields and woods. Heck, I’ve already brought in grapevines, grasses, and wildflowers to decorate the spaces. Next I’ll be inviting the animals in.

Oops—apparently that’s what the wildlife think, too.

Bobcat in the near field

These almost seventy acres are known around here as pretty worthless farmland–for many decades, young heifers were put out here to pasture occasionally, but that’s about it.  We’ve got ledge outcrops and an old quarry, swampy sections and copses threatening to turn entire fields into entanglements of buckthorn.  The neighboring farmer scratches his head in wonderment over our delight in this scruffy overgrown spot. But it’s perfect for practicing ecological gardening and wildlife habitat restoration. Bobcats, fox, coyotes and raptors keep the rabbits and rodent populations in check.  The ponds teem with muskrat, turtles, snakes and the odd beaver plus migrating ducks.  Plenty of deer, field birds, songbirds and wild turkeys.  Ermine and even an opossum that fell asleep on a bale of hay in our barn. Butterflies and bees and insects massing at the wildflowers.


Deep in the garden

Short of throwing out the wildlife, how is it possible to weave an orchard, a nut grove, berry rows and extensive vegetable gardens through this parade of wildlife? By balancing, trying to participate as one inhabitant of a complex, rich ecosystem. I choose varieties of plants that support the wildlife as well as the humans. I make sure almost all the vegetables and herbs–at least some of each crop–go to flower for the bees–our ace pollinators, and to seed for the birds and critters as well.

I do not forage for wild foods–I leave the wild apples, pears, berries, herbs and greens to them–way out in the fields. I can grow my own, close to the house. I plant knowing who is likely to make inroads on what. Sure, the rabbits take off the carrot tops near the end of summer–but that’s okay, I could throw the greens into the juicer, but usually they go into the compost. All I really want are the lovely roots; all the rabbits want are the tops. Brilliant partnership–everything is eaten.

The first season trying out a crop new to me, especially something green and tender, I know I’m taking my chances with the bunnies and deer and insects. I always lose something. Last year it was fenugreek–in a single night, of course the night before I was going to pick it. Who knew that rabbits would develop a passion for something they had never before encountered? It must be their ice cream, their chocolate, their food fantasy. So, I’ll plant it with the lettuces and the chard this coming spring, inside rings of mint which rabbits loathe (read my article on growing mint). Or maybe I’ll make a little netting fence to keep them out. And as for the deer nibbling the kale and Brussel sprouts, the young raspberry canes, the bud ends of young fruits trees, I’ll also be fencing these areas in with a bit of netting during the vulnerable periods.


Tukeys at the songbird feeder

The coyote, the bobcat, the owl, the hawks, the snakes all keep tabs on the voles and mice and rabbits that frequent the garden beds. They watch me carefully, stay out of my way, but let me know they’re about. The deer–much shyer than in many places, probably due to our hunting season–haven’t been a big problem close to the house though the wild turkeys find their way to the bird feeders on a daily basis during hard winters. And all that’s okay by me–it’s as it should be: they adapt to my encroachment and I adapt to theirs. They stay as wild as they can considering the proximity of humans, and I give them a wide berth. I do not try to interact with them except through the plantings. This isn’t becoming a petting farm.

I want an effective garden that belongs in this landscape, this ecosystem. That works for it. I don’t need or want a tidy garden with the wildlife kept out. All the inhabitants play a crucial role in the health of this place, of this planet.

But I also don’t want wildlife in the house.

surprise visitor

Ermine in the house

This winter, things got a little out of hand, I’ve got to say. Not only do the animals make their way through the fields and gardens, now some of them are making their way through the house! I expect bees and bats to find their way in by mistake, and mice and mosquitoes, not by mistake–but an ermine?! Yup, that’s right. An ermine got into the house, presumably chasing a mouse, and I found him calmly looking out the window. He left calmly, too, when I opened the door, without waking the two cats asleep on nearby chairs.

Restoring the health of this bit of land is a partnered dance, really, and sometimes we don’t quite know the steps, or get out of sync with one another. I step on the land’s toes (leaving the barn door open and then trapping a phoebe by mistake in the upstairs) and it steps on mine (letting the late blight blow in two years ago). But I’m figuring it out, how to be a good, though not perfect, partner. I’m looking forward to this season’s adventures, the new dance moves–I’ll be practicing my stay-out-of-the-house shuffle for sure.