Reflecting on 2018 (Part 1 of 2)

2018 was a year of surprises, challenges, joy, and growth for both me and my family. My writing energy was diverted, and that was okay; it was necessary.  But after a week away in the sun, I feel so much more like myself: centered, calm, determined, and full of ideas and plans!

Last week I was lucky enough to take a break from winter and spend a week in St. Lucia where it was warm, sunny, and rejuvenating. I brought the laptop in case I couldn’t “do” vacation, but never turned it on. I didn’t read the news, and checked email only for emergencies. I swam, read, ran, watched the sun go down, walked to waterfalls, snorkeled and swam some more. Every day outside without 4 layers and boots. It was perfect.

I spend a lot of time thinking about life on land, (I mean, I’m a farmer…) but there’s this whole other world beneath the water. You can be transported with the help of a snorkel, a mask, and some fins. Sounds are different, light is different, the animals and plants and in-betweens are different. It is both incredibly exciting and calming, like meditating while exercising. Sea fans and coral wave to you in the current as you sweep by them. Colorful schools of fish move in ways that remind you of flocks of birds.

Emerge from the sea, take off the mask, and your land life looks a bit different. A new perspective. Travelling, taking a break, a rest, a vacation is like that too; a change in perspective is always good. I know that’s obvious, but I seem to forget to take breaks sometimes, and I was reminded how stepping away leads to new ideas. And now it’s time to work! I’m so excited.

I learned some good stuff in 2018.

Because I took such a break from writing in 2018, I figured I would recap a bit now by looking at photos and remembering a couple of things I learned each month. I tried stay accurate and use both photos from the actual month as well as NEW things I learned.

And now, it’s time for…….gameifying the garden! Points have been assigned to each thing I learned. Stupid mistakes? Negative points! Brilliant things? So many points! I’m pretty sure I came out with a positive standing this year….let’s see.

January

1.Protect the chickens!

Success! 40 points for Kate! I wrapped the part of the chicken run and bottom of the new coop with greenhouse plastic for wind and snow protection. Don’t worry- the chickens didn’t suffocate! There was plenty of the run that was not wrapped so they could have proper ventilation.

New chicken coop made just a bit uglier but way more functional with some greenhouse plastic. January 2018

It was so much easier to remove the snow from around the coop and run because of the smooth plastic, and it allowed the chickens to have a dry and warm space for dust baths.

Coop and run under heavy snow- but notice the plastic on the right part of the structure holding the white stuff at bay.

2. Don’t “water” plants in the hoophouse with snow in the early winter when temps are forecast to be in the single digits for days on end.

It seemed like SUCH a good idea to “water” my very sad looking greenhouse plants with snow. It worked really well the previous year in February and March. HOWEVER, it is a BAD idea when temps are below freezing… or about to drop below freezing for days on end.

-20 points for killing some plants, and since killing plants is literally the antithesis of what I do, I kind of think this means minus 2,000 points instead of just twenty, but I’m the arbitrator, so 20.

February

3. Learn to custom print seed envelopes at home!

I was so excited to figure out a way to print directly on to seed envelopes.

+10 points

4. Don’t use bricks in a vertical position to hold up the side of a raised bed in New England.

Raised beds can be built with so many different types of materials, and in an attempt to both recycle and be thrifty, I used bricks to hold up the sides of terraced beds. In New England. On a slope. Where the freeze/thaw cycles 1/2 the year breaks paved roads apart. So, bricks standing on end? Yup, they fell down.

-10 points for not thinking this through all the way.


The picture above was taken in February. That’s when I realized my mistake.

5. Plan, plan, plan

I took a great farm business planning class through the New Entry Sustainable Farming Program in Lowell, and among the MANY things I learned, the most important for me was how to plan more efficiently. I renumbered all of the beds in the growing area, created a very specific and accurate map, calculated square footage, used expected crop yields. I also mapped out exactly when, where, and how much to plant to account for the seedlings for market, the produce for the CSA, and the produce for home. Before the farm, when I was growing for home and not for business, I had a plan; it was just so much looser. Yay for planning. Stay tuned for specific ways to plan for your garden in an upcoming post.

+15 points for instituting some new planning methods.

March

6. A reminder to test your soil

On a dry(ish) day in March when it seemed like winter might be over (ha!), I took soil samples per UMASS extension directions, dried them in the basement, and sent them in.

Soil from the 7 different areas drying in the basement.

The good news was that I now knew exactly calcium, nitrogen, etc. to add to each area. I calculated how much of each amendment to add per 10 square feet. Using a bit of math, a scale and the most available containers (which happened to be small kitchen toys the kids don’t use anymore), I calculated that I would need 1 blue princess teacup of bloodmeal, a silver frypan of bonemeal, 1 tablespoon of potash, and a soup take-out container of lime per 10 square feet.

+20 points

Soil amendments ready to go in the radio flyer.

7. Do not build your high tunnels next to the forest. Or trees. Any trees.

Why not build your tunnel next to trees? On the one hand, the fungal partners of trees (mycorrhizae) improve the ecology of your farm, and more specifically, your soil. You can take a break in the shade of a tree in the middle of summer. Trees take in enormous amounts of CO2, provide great windbreaks for the tunnel, provide a buffer between spaces. BUT…

Properly built tunnels can withstand hurricane-force winds, snow and ice storms, but not sharp objects…. like tree branches. I have to admit the rips left by the huge branches that fell on the tunnels during a huge storm in March could have been much worse, but still, it was a bit disheartening to have gashes in the three month old structures. On a clear, slightly warmer day I dried the plastic with towels and repaired the holes (at least the ones I could reach) with gorilla tape. That stuff is great! Most of it has held for a year.

No points lost or earned, I knew that it was risky to build the tunnels so close to the woods, but I think the buffer and mychorrhizae balance out the tree limb damage, so no points!

April

8. Remember that even though you are an overzealous grower with season extension techniques, most people aren’t- they don’t want to buy your plants until May. Not April, and definitely not March.

Part of the Market display one chilly April day

I have always loved getting out in the garden as soon as possible in the spring. So, when temps are above freezing and the soil is ready for cool weather crops like spinach, kale and lettuce, I’m out seeding and transplanting.

I figured if people had home gardens, they too would be jumping for joy at the prospect of planting as soon as possible, but it wasn’t the case– at least not last year. Week after week I was surprised at how few lettuce and spinach seedlings were selling at the market, even though they really do best in cooler weather.

But the thing is, many home gardeners like to begin planting in May or June: tomato time. It’s okay- another point on the steep learning curve.

-10 points for forgetting that most people do NOT like to garden with mittens.

9. Appreciate the time you have with babies, because gosh darn it, they all grow up so fast.

Chicks explore tiny furniture
Chick in a coat

The kids convinced me to get baby chicks in April. I wanted to get older chickens to add to the flock, but they were adamant, so we got 7 new chicks who spent their early lives in the house. They grow and change really fast, so we made sure to take some fun pictures before they got too awkward looking. I found old dollhouse furniture from the 1980’s and they really seemed to like the kitchen pieces. What I actually mean is the chicks really liked to poop on the mini stove, poop on the mini refrigerator, and poop on the mini table. But they really liked it, and we took pictures.

+5 points for appreciating the moment. 0 points for cute pics. Too easy.

May

10. Do not haul EVERY SINGLE SEEDLING out for a sale.

Our property has an “interesting” shape- long and narrow in some parts. It is one acre, but feels much larger. The driveway is long and the growing area is at the back corner of the property, behind the house and down a small hill. Because I grow inside a fenced area in the back, transporting plants out of that space and up the hill to the van near the garage or further up the driveway to the street area is a lot of work. At the end of the day, (post sale) I return the plants to their home inside the fence so that the deer, groundhogs, rabbits, and small children do not get any ideas about fancy free meals.

2018 was year 2 of the seedling business, and it was still on the smaller side. After several weekends of hauling massive amounts of plants back to the fenced in area at the end of the day, I realized that maybe, just maybe, I brought too many plants with me and could perhaps, just perhaps, not bring every single 6-pack out on sale day. Such a big learning curve.

-5 points for making the same error for weeks on end.

11. Use lilacs in bouquets

Lilacs picked for Market bouquets

Lilacs can be incredible bouquet additions if they are picked in the morning, and immediately placed in cool water up to the flower. I would also recommend slitting the stems with a clean pair of sheers. Even if the bouquets themselves don’t sell at market, they are gorgeous, smell amazing and attract customers.

+5 points for prettiness.

June

12. Invest time and energy into double digging your beds THE FIRST TIME.

Part of double digging process.

I run an organic no-till farm. I use hand tools, no tiller and no tractor and it is (obviously) a bit of work. Prepping soil for planting in the spring is done with a broadfork.

The exception to this no-till rule is the first time a planting space is established because New England soil is really rocky, and my farm is no exception. So, when we were was building the initial growing space in 2016, we rented a rototiller to break up the ground and I removed rocks by hand. I added loads of compost and kept removing rocks.

The vegetables I grew that year were okay, but not quite as strong or prolific as the ones from my previous garden. There were number of reasons for this: poor drainage, disturbed soil, lack of soil nutrients, etc. BUT… one of the main things was that the friable soil was simply not deep enough for most plants to grow deep strong root systems. It was between 6-10 inches in most places, but less than 6 in others; fine for a small vegetable garden, not enough for a small farm.

Since that first season, I have been re-digging every single bed. Double digging to be exact, which, as any farmer would know, is a crap ton of work. The first step is to move aside the first 6-10 inches of good soil. Next, you need to break up the next 14-20 inches of ground. This is usually so compacted and rocky that a pickax is necessary. Rock removal is the next step- physically lifting large stones and then sifting out medium-small rocks with my compost sifter. Finally, moving out the unusable subsoil and/or heavily mixing it with super beautiful compost. THEN, back fill with the original soil you removed at the beginning. It just would have been so much better to do this the first time around.

-25 points for taking shortcuts. Do it right the first time.

13. Kale flowers from overwintered kale are a delectable treat. Eat them yourself and share them with NO ONE!

Just kidding. Once my kids saw the kale flowers, there was a scuffle in the kitchen and they ate them all. Some kids fight about the last cookie or who gets to play the video game– mine fight over kale. Just kidding, they also fight about cookies and games. They are, after all, just completely normal, average kids. Who eat kale. Who fight over kale. Weirdos.

+5 points for “letting” the kale bolt and eating the results. Or rather, watching the kids eat the results, which is TOTALLY NORMAL.

And next week, 12 more tips from 2018. Yay!

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