Sunday, March 19, 2017

Begin Again

Note to self: Remove your headphones. Get off the couch. Plant some seeds. Look for signs of life under the snow. Exercise. Do it now.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

This Is the End

Reader, I think of you fondly and often. I haven’t forgotten this space. So many blog posts have been started and abandoned, both in my head and on the page, so many photos taken and then left to languish in laptop purgatory. So when I went out to the garden yesterday to bring in one of the last harvests of the season, I was determined to report back to you.

Two weeks ago, after an early hard frost, a weather report popped up in my Facebook feed. The last line read, in all caps, “THE GROWING SEASON IS ENDING.” Could the National Weather Service be any more dramatic? The same day, a farmer sent me this text after I asked if his fields contained anything LocalShare could glean: “We had 23 degrees that froze what we had left and turned it to mush.” This isn’t a surprise--the ancient Revolutionary-era ash tree outside our front door dropped its leaves a couple weeks ago, and I had to wear a winter coat last weekend--but the reiteration that WINTER IS COMING from all around does make it seem more real. It’s all not over just yet, though.

Our huge bed of kale, which started out as 24 pale, rescued seedlings, is happier than ever thanks to the low temperatures killing off the pests that were devouring their leaves, followed by some rain and a number of days with temperatures in the 60s. I continue to pick huge bunches of peppermint and spearmint several times a week, now with some urgency, to make big batches of my favorite green chai-mint iced tea before the cold gets serious and kills off everything green. And even though Mark objects to collecting horseradish root in the fall (yes, okay, it should be harvested in the spring for the optimum health of the plant, but our robust horseradish isn’t going to wither away anytime soon), he concedes that now is the time to make our favorite winter tonics--Rosemary Gladstar’s fire cider and my horseradish-infused vodka with caraway seed and honey from our bees.

Fall activities, working overtime, and kids’ schedules are keeping us so busy that getting out to the garden to do the most basic tasks seems nearly impossible. There are still potatoes in the ground; the garlic remains unplanted. Yesterday I couldn’t take it anymore and had to spend some time out there even though the rain was pouring down. And you know what? It was marvelous. There’s something deeply satisfying about gardening in the rain. I plucked enough sprouting broccoli to make a nice head’s worth for the kids’ lunches, checked on the leeks and brussels sprouts that we’re leaving out for as long as possible, squelched the sense of failure I felt upon seeing all the delicious ground cherries from this year’s bumper crop that went uncollected. The greenhouse was still humid with the intoxicating smell of warm earth that’s been seducing me since my first job in a greenhouse at age 15.

Next season we’ll be easing off on the large-scale gardening to offer the rest of our property some TLC. Ironically, even though we’ll be doing less gardening, this should leave me more time to post here. We’ve wanted to share stories about the earth oven we built at Luna Parc, the satisfying work of LocalShare, what’s going on at Genesis Farm, the farm dinners I’ve been cooking, the exciting things our friends have been up to, and of course, our ongoing kitchen and garden experiments. Because sharing with you all is my favorite.

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!