Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The War on Weeds

Our most beautiful hen--and the meanest by far.
Just like that girl in junior high.
It’s been a long time, we know. It’s not that we’ve been slacking—au contraire. We’ve been busy as ever, digging and planting and cooking and making ambitious plans. After a long winter that weighed heavily, we’re heaving a huge sigh of relief that spring is in full bloom. 

Kate made Mark pinky-swear that he would not launch a huge new project this year. So far, so good. Instead we’re trying to improve the garden we have. The greenhouse is a godsend, the perennials we started four years ago are now well established—mature asparagus, rhubarb, peonies, blackberries, and gooseberries around the perimeter, plus some obscure sea kale, turkish rocket, ramps, and hyssop in the hugelkultur.

Mark planting peas in double-dug beds
with his little helper mugging for the camera.
The objective this season is weed control. We don’t use herbicides, and we keep the tilling and gas-powered machines to a minimum (in fact, we haven’t done any this year besides mowing the lawn once). Considering the battle we continue to wage in the garden against thistles and mugwort, which has completely taken over, this means many, many hours of hand-weeding. That’s one reason Mark became enraptured with double digging—the other being his obsession with nurturing the soil food web. And indeed, double-digging does result in gorgeous, aerated soil free of rocks and deep-rooted weeds (for the time being, at least). This video showed us just how easy it is! Except . . . it’s not. It’s difficult and slow, especially if you pull out all of the weed roots you encounter as you go. What an opportunity, though, to not only loosen the compacted soil but to attack the weeds right at the source! And at the end of it, we have the beautiful, high, mounded, well-aerated beds we’ve always dreamed of. The beauty of the tilth is enough to make one swoon. These days, early in the morning, you can find Mark outside in his pajamas and muck boots digging just a few more trenches, getting one more bed prepped before going to work. That’s how good double digging is, if you have the time and energy.

Busy hens in the chicken tractor.
Another weapon in the War on Weeds (just as futile as the War on Drugs or the War on Terrorism) is laying down 20-year greenhouse-quality weed blocker in the pathways. Kate has mixed feelings about this, since she has a vision of the garden as wild and free and able to breathe, and she worries that the weed blocker will harbor disease. Plus it’s kind of ugly right now since we haven't had a chance to dump any mulch on top. But she will certainly not be complaining when we don’t have to beat back the weeds on the pathways, and covering the pathways will placate her aesthetic concerns.

This first rhubarb became syrup for iced
black tea with star anise and cinnamon.

Finally, the most fun way to combat weeds—the chicken tractor, which is truly as cool as we hoped it would be. We carry a few girls from their yard out to the garden, put them inside, and they happily peck and scratch at the dirt all day, eating weeds and bugs that will end up producing more luxurious eggs for us. Closing the loop like this—making energy out of waste matter like insect pests and weeds, plugging that into our little ecosystem—feels SO SATISFYING. We’re perpetually working on becoming more efficient like this.

Some of the other topics we’ve been talking a lot about at Markate Estates are mulching, foraging, pushing our permaculture principles even further, and establishing an orchard. And Kate is obsessed with making bitters (and consuming them, of course), while Mark is content to simply remain bitter. More on that later.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bracing Ourselves

It's bitterly cold today, 23 degrees with a mean arctic wind whipping across the mountaintop. Hard to believe that we spent the entire day yesterday outside, putting up the greenhouse, prepping garlic beds, and pulling in a surprisingly large harvest for late November--several pounds of little leftover onions, leaf beets that are still going strong, and about 20 pounds of parsnips.

Back in October we brought in half our parsnips and left half in the ground, and when I dug them up yesterday they were monsters. Hopefully the cold weather has concentrated their flavor without the texture getting too fibrous. But if they've matured into that sweet, cinnamon goodness, then I don't mind cutting out a tough core one bit.

We also checked on the horseradish, and sure enough, the roots have been going crazy underground. Recently I've been on an Eastern European kick and eaten at a couple of Russian restaurants in New York and Washington, DC. Their savory infused vodkas knocked my socks off, with the horseradish infusion being my favorite. So we broke off a good-sized piece of root and I shaved it and put it in vodka this morning. In a few days we should have a bracing winter tonic. Some people swear that a shot of horseradish vodka with a spoonful of honey stirred into it will clear your sinuses and ward off an oncoming cold. A more genteel person might use this infusion for a spiced-up bloody mary. In the interest of science, I will try both and report back.



Thursday, November 21, 2013

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


We're so spoiled to be able to make meals almost
completely with goods we produce ourselves.
But we can do even better.
It's not all about fancy new greenhouses around here. At the same time, austerity measures are being implemented. Sometimes Mark and I get carried away by our enthusiasm for growing obscure and unusual vegetables. Often, there is a reason said varieties are obscure. We grew a row of fava bean plants this past year--plants that required purchasing seeds, planting, tending, watering, weeding, and harvesting--that yielded about 2 cups of beans after they were removed from their fleshy pods, blanched, and shelled again. As much as I love favas, that's not much of a return on our investment. Same goes for the black chickpeas--two peas inside every tiny pod means a lot of work, and the small, feathery plants required frequent weeding so they wouldn't get swallowed by thistles and garlic mustard. There's a reason these aren't perfectly suited to our climate or to the way we garden.

In 2014, we're looking for a little more bang for our buck. There's satisfaction in being economical and sustainable. I'll step into the chicken coop with kitchen scraps, spent grain from brewing beer, and whey leftover from making cheese, and I get to walk out with a pocket full of eggs, white and blue and brown, some so recently laid that they're still warm, all with richest golden yolks I've ever seen. It feels so rewarding, and I get one step further away from the stereotype of the wasteful American consumer. I feel like part of a primal network of people, animals, and the land.


We grew these hops for Man Skirt Brewing,
and we feed his spent grain to the chickens. Everybody wins!
Right now we see glimpses of it: growing some hops for the brewer who gives us his spent grain that we feed to the chickens, who give us eggs, some of which we give back to the brewer. Using day-old cream from our neighbor's farm stand to make butter, trading honey for vegetables from our farmer friends. Recently we've been going a little deeper into the system by helping to establish a local seed library, and launching LocalShare, a project that uses farmers' culls to feed people who don't have access to fresh, local produce.

We'll still be growing mostly heirloom varieties using biodynamic and permaculture practices, but there's nothing wrong with trying to save a bit of money and our own energy. So we'll be growing fewer varieties and bulking up on veggies that produce and store well--broccoli, potatoes, carrots, plum tomatoes, green beans. Veggies we can't get enough of, that aren't labor intensive, that won't go to waste. This is what we're working toward--closing the loop, eliminating waste, helping ourselves and others.

To that end, we're taking suggestions for what we should grow next year. What do you grow that's delicious, prolific, easy, and well suited to zone 6b? Because heaven forbid we should do anything that's easy.

LocalShare pepper cull from Caristi Farms--185 pounds total.
Most was distributed to food pantries, but we made
50 pounds into pickles and hot pepper jam.

Raising the Roof

We can't leave well enough alone. You probably know this about us. It seems like every year we embark on some big project. Last year it was the chickens, before that the bees. We made a pinky swear that we'd take it easy in 2014--no big projects. Well, it turns out we're untrustworthy, because this showed up at our house today:


Xmas came a little early this year. Yup, we're building a greenhouse. And in order to impose some kind of order on the garden, we're also putting down environmentally friendly landscape fabric to widen the paths and attempt to keep some of the weeds at bay. We have long wanted to extend our growing season and create an environment that's friendlier to our favorite heat-seeking plants like eggplant and peppers, as well as our potted kaffir lime, lemongrass, and baby fig trees. Plus a greenhouse will give us the space we do desperately need for starting seeds and storing garden tools. No more making potting mix in the dank basement or filling seed trays in the living room! We had talked about cold frames and a hoop house, but finally we just bit the bullet and got the most useful and versatile structure we could think of. After all, the greenhouse is just one layer of protection; incorporating cold frames and row covers inside the greenhouse extends the season even further.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rhubarb Star

 
I'm a Real American Hero, managing to harvest 8 pounds of rhubarb tonight in the torrential rain before the lightning came uncomfortably close. And oh look, here's a snapshot of me walking in the door soaking wet.

I'd been putting this off for too long, and all the plants have already thrown up flower stalks, which I dutifully hacked off. If the plants flower, then they'll devote their energy to reproducing instead of making more tart, snappy stalks for us to eat. If we let the flowers mature and go to seed, then they'll produce babies that won't produce reliably true to type. So now there's lots of rhubarb-ginger jam and my mom's famous rhubarb bread and rhubarb-rosemary cocktails to be made. Onward!


Monday, April 8, 2013

Glass Half Full

We managed to sow all our cover crops this weekend, blanketing most of the beds with field peas and a couple others with an oat/clover mix once the peas were gone. This is the first year we’ve managed to do this consistently and in a timely fashion; previous attempts have been kind of sporadic. We’re motivated by the visible benefits from limited cover cropping last year. We can see the improvements compared with the beds that weren’t cropped: looser soil with better tilth, less erosion, better water retention.

Of course, it’s not all coming up roses at Chez Markate. Although I try to be meticulous with my seed starting, I’m having all sorts of trouble with some of my seedlings. In the past, I’ve started peppers, tomatoes, and basil in mini soil blocks that heat up quickly to 70 degrees or more. This year is no different, but the results certainly are. Germination has been great, but I’m finding many of the emerging seedlings are failing to take root. The tiny plants have been bowing over and petering out within a day or two of sprouting. The effect is somewhat different from damping off fungus, where the base of the stem withers visibly. Even the seedlings that have survived are anemic and slow growing. I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with the soil block mix I made for the mini blocks.

We expect to get only about 15 tomato plants and a handful of peppers--a poor showing compared with past years. Fortunately, there are many local sources of live plants for the nightshade family. I just put in an order for 25 pepper plants from Cross Country Nursery and managed to score most of the same varieties we were planning for this year. We also plan on attending the annual Catalpa Ridge plant sale at Lafayette Village in May to augment our tomato stock. We used to do all our tomatoes and peppers from purchased live plants, so in a sense we’ve come full circle. The alliums and brassicas continue to thrive, fortunately, so we’re currently trying on our ‘glass half-full’ hat for size.

It helps that this week truly feels like spring. Look how happy our rhubarb is!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Glimpse of Green

Leeks sprouting from seeds we saved two years ago--success!
Our floor-to-ceiling seed-starting rack is filling up quickly with flats of onions, leeks, and spinach. Next up are lettuce and peas, radishes and broccoli. Mark is mixing up huge tubs of seed-starting medium that have become permanent fixtures in the kitchen and, confusingly, look remarkably edible once they've been made into blocks. It's a little confusing, even for me, to keep what look like huge pans of brownies on the counter. Everything is germinating well, and the weather is seasonal but generally cooperative.

In even more exciting news, our shipment of baby chicks arrives tomorrow! We're dizzy with excitement and have the guest room all fixed up for them--literally.