Monday, June 23, 2014

Garden Update: Weeding Frenzy

Heroes. All of them. In any garden season there are make-or-break moments. These moments are sometimes small windows in time when the ground is dry enough to plant or cultivate. To make the garden thrive, we need to seize these moments and have enough help at just the right time.

Well, it dried out a little last Friday, so on Saturday morning we had a small crew of CSA volunteers who showed up bright and early. I brought them up to the garden and I pointed out where the crops were and which I thought we could save from the mucky weeds. First, we hoed the flowers, herbs, and green beans. Yay! Progress. We saved them. Then we looked at the bed where the early beets were planted. They were nearly invisible amidst all the weeds. First we carved the weeds away from the rows with a sharp hoe. Then, on our hands and knees, we painstakingly extricated each cluster of beets from the weeds growing in the rows. Then we thinned the clusters down to one plant every three inches. Whoa! We will have beets. Thank you Saturday heroes!

Then on Sunday evening our first group of summer apprentices showed up. On Monday morning the sun was shining (Bonus!) and all 10 of us went to the big field by the Homestead, armed with hoes of various shapes and sizes. We weeded the pumpkins, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, dry beans, sunflowers, corn, potatoes, onions, leeks, and sun chokes. Sh-whew! There were two moments when the team was hoeing away and it came time to stop for a break. Both times they asked to finish the task at hand before going on a break! Thank you apprentice heroes!

It might rain tonight and probably tomorrow - so this was our one day to weed. Yay team!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Garden Update: Monsoon Season

It is raining. Again. On Sunday it poured. Three inches. Then since then I have stopped keeping track. Tuesday, Wednesday, and now Thursday have each produced over an inch of rain. There is a bucket sitting out that I think has almost a foot of water in it. I have never seen so much rain in any Spring since I have been farming. Our gardens are swampy, mucky messes of malodorous mud. When I drove down to Glenwood City today I saw that many fields are partially underwater, and everywhere I looked there was evidence of erosion. Then Donna mentioned that it is actually official - that we have not had a Spring this wet since they started keeping records. Wow!

What does all this mean for future harvests in the Land School Community Garden? Well, the good news first. Last week was relatively dry, so we were able to get a lot of stuff planted in the big field by the Homestead. Things need to be dry for us to use the tractors to weed field crops, so right now we are watching weeds grow without any recourse, but since the crops were just recently planted, the weeds haven't had time to completely overwhelm. The onions, potatoes, garlic, peppers, eggplant, pumpkins, zucchini, winter squash, leeks and tomatoes all look pretty good, actually. If it dries out next week, we will be able to fertilize and weed everything that is already planted. There are cover crops of either oats or rye established on about half of our fields, and those cover crops are thriving - using the rain to grow and create biomass that will help build the soil later. These cover crops have also helped stabilize the soil and prevent major erosion.  

Now the set-backs. The garden at the Farmstead is the only field we have that is protected by a deer fence, and it is a mucky weedy mess right now. The garden soil is much slower to dry out than the big field, and it has never been dry enough to really dig up and prepare the soil. We need to plant deer sensitive crops there. These include carrots, beets, green beans, edamame, lettuce, chard, and more. We also prefer to plant crops in the garden that require more time and attention in the harvest. These include cut flowers, herbs, kale, and other such crops. We have done our best in the garden. The cut flowers and most herbs went in last week. We have tried twice to seed carrots, beets and green beans, to mixed results. About a third of the green beans came up, some beets sprouted, and almost none of the carrots came up. My best guess is that the soil was so wet that the carrot seed rotted. The ground has been mostly too wet, so kale and chard and lettuce never got planted - those plants are patiently waiting in the greenhouse. Maybe next week. In the big field, the corn went in late and seems to be having a hard time with the transplanting. The cucumbers were tender from the greenhouse and then got blasted by high winds, breaking many of the tender stems in half. We have more cucumbers on the way in the greenhouse and corn too.

I have no doubt that it will dry out eventually. Then we will finish planting the garden. Some harvests will be delayed, and you'll likely have to get your summer carrots at the farmers market. But there will be produce, and lots of it, as usual.

This summer is rough summer to be having these weather issues, because I want to pass the gardens along in beautiful shape to Laura Kosowski, who will be managing the farm starting in August. Laura is traveling in Europe right now, currently getting ready to work on an organic farm in Italy. In August I begin my adventure in Marin County, California, working for Marin Montessori School. I bet that soon I will be wishing for some of the Wisconsin rain in droughty Northern California.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Catching Up in the Garden

On Monday it wasn't dry enough, but I tilled some beds in the big field anyway.

I seeded 6 long beds with double rows of dry beans. Then we went off to the Junior High Graduation.

Tuesday was a big day. It was drier, so we worked up a lot of ground. We planted sweet corn, field corn, popcorn and broom corn. In all we planted 8 trays of corn, 400 plants per tray. Instant corn field.

Then today, we rolled out the biodegradable plastic mulch that will heat the soil for us to plant the heat-loving crops tomorrow. So tomorrow is planting of cucumbers, zucchini, melons, eggplant, peppers.

Today we also planted flowers for cutting, basil, parsley, soybeans, and blue flour corn.

By Friday we will be over the hump and mostly planted. I hope.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Water Water Everywhere

by Andy

Last night it poured rain. Again. It was another inch on top of the 4 inches that we got last Sunday, which was on top of multiple inches the Monday of Memorial Day weekend, which had just dried out after a 4 inch rain 8 days prior. Prior to that, the ground was still drying out from the lingering winter and snow melt. All this rain has kept us out of the fields and as a result, most of the spring planting is not done. Tomorrow is our Community Work Day and I had big plans for all of the things we were going to plant tomorrow. But I didn't expect all the rain we got yesterday, and now the fields are too wet to work up for planting tomorrow. Waaaah! Time to come up with alternate plans.

This has been the story all spring. Sometimes I have worked the fields when they were too wet, just because I felt like I had to. The soil gives off a slightly swampy odor and instead of the tiller leaving the soil crumbly, it makes it chunky. The wet clods harden in the sun and the fields become something of a ceramics experiment. This is not a good way to treat the soil that I love. Ideally the tillage breaks the soil up and it shatters and crumbles along natural break lines. Tilling when things are too wet causes smearing and slicing and undermines soil structure. Not to mention the soil compaction that happens when you drive a tractor over wet soil. But oh well, sometimes we had no other choice. Because our soil has much more silt than sand, it takes a minimum of 4 to 5 days dry out enough to work, after it is saturated. Silt particles are small and the soil retains water, which is usually a good thing in droughty times, not so much in monsoon season.

The garden at the Farmstead dries out slower than the big field by the Homestead. In fact we have only had one day this spring that I have been able to dig the garden soil in good conscience. While we have been waiting for the garden to dry out, the weeds have been proliferating. There is so much lawn grass in the garden that I think we could undercut it and sell sod this year instead of vegetables. Where in other years, we would be almost finished planting the garden, this year we have seeds or plants in only 10% of the beds. There are many plants waiting to go into the garden: herbs, cut flowers, green beans, lettuce, beets, kale, chard, more. Soon.

The big field by the Homestead is doing a little better. We were able to put all the onions and leeks in next to the garlic. This is the first year that all of our alliums are in the big field. Then we had Class F come out on a muddy day and jab the potatoes in by hand into a muddy field. Other groups followed suit, as more potatoes went into the muddy field. The children used sticks to dig holes and used their hands to break up clods of dirt in order to cover the potatoes up one-by-one with soil. We went back in time to imitate the first Andean agriculturalists. The same methodology was used by Class C children to plant tomatoes this Tuesday. Katie and I finally planted some of the pumpkins yesterday. We have alot planted, but there is much more waiting to go into the big field: cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, corn, dry beans, melons, and winter squash.

Next week I have faith that the soil will dry out and our summer garden intern, Sarah Champeau, and I will go nuts planting everything we can. Katie and Donna will join in. Our late planting won't affect our harvests too much, because our harvest season is skewed to favor crops that are ready in fall and we deemphasize the summer harvests. So it is not as distressing as it might be. For now, I am watching the sun shine and hoping that the predicted rains for this weekend will miss us. There is always work to do on the farm while we wait for the soil to dry. None of the school groups who came out this spring suffered for lack of meaningful work.

There is always a bright side. The perennial crops seem to be thriving in the wet spring: the orchard trees, the blueberries, the raspberries, the asparagus. We have cover crops on over half of the big field. Winter rye and oats cover much of the field. Those cover crops are growing exuberantly in response to the rains, and they are also preventing erosion from the pounding rains. The cover crops will improve the soil for next year. The garlic is thriving in the big field, despite my concerns about never having planted it there before. This spring, we planted hundreds of native plants into the forest and prairie. Those new plants were watered by rain several times, to welcome well them into their new homes. The forests are lush and green. The rain is neutral. It just forces us humans to respond by altering our plans.

This is a hard spring for me personally to be so far behind on the planting. As I prepare to move to California, I want to leave the Land School gardens thriving and bountiful. I envision an abundant garden bursting with produce and flowers, and no weeds at all. Instead I look to the garden and I see a swampy, weedy, muddy, unplanted field. I know that most of California is in a prolonged drought, and I can appreciate the ironic soggy send-off that the Wisconsin weather is giving me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Migrating Birds

by Andy

The barn swallows swoop past the children and I as we enter the red barn to do the morning chores. I reassure the children that the swallows are our friends. As they swoop, they are eating flies and other insects that hover around our heads. We look up and see the many packed-mud swallows' nests that line the rafters of the barn. We learn that the swallows protect the sheep and llamas from biting insects. The swallows return from their migration just as the insects begin to fly about in the springtime. The children have a new appreciation for swallows.

This spring I have enjoyed the return of many migrating birds. The first red-winged blackbirds and robins came while there was still snow on the ground. It was a late departure for the snow, but the birds returned anyway. We heard the red winged blackbirds' water-like calls from the ditches as the snow was melting. About the same time, we heard the unmistakable gurgling warble of flocks of sandhill cranes. They provide the soundtrack for our long days boiling maple sap in early April.

The spring birds return and start nesting and singing right away. Bluebirds, tree swallows, wrens, and cowbirds all vie to occupy the nest boxes. For the second year in a row there are tree swallows nesting just outside the Homestead in a nest box that John Hall helped some students make last year. Their iridescent green plumage shimmers in the sunlight. The phoebes that usually nest in front of the homestead had their spot taken by an enterprising pair of robins this year. Today I watched the robin nestlings open their beaks expectantly to the air when the parent approached with a beak full of worms.

In mid-May we were visited by a real-life birder. We were watching many spectacular orioles at the grape jelly. With his binoculars and trained ear, he brought the migration into even more precise detail. There were many types of warblers, grosbeaks, redstarts and even the uncommon orchard oriole. The hummingbirds buzzed around the sugar water feeder like bees. For days afterwards I was seeing little flashes of color as I appreciated the warbler migration.

The birds of the field are different. As I mow or till the field I am treated to displays. There are bobolinks that live out by the A-field. Black birds with yellow markings, who flutter in the wind. Then there is the northern harrier. The harrier is a low flying hawk that scans the fields for prey from about 10 to 20 feet in the air. Sometimes the harrier will flap its wings so it can float stationary over one spot for what seems like a long time. I imagine the harrier is preparing to drop on an unsuspecting mouse. Death from above! A couple days ago I witnessed the bobolinks harassing the harrier.

I may have forgotten a few. The woodcocks and the wood ducks of the forest and the pond respectively. The killdeer who sometimes nest in the driveway of the homestead, but this year was out in the field. The indigo buntings that people saw in abundance about the same time as the warblers. The song sparrows, who make so much sound from such little forms. There is some bird that likes to perch just above our car in front of the house. From the looks of the windshield, it is not a small bird.

This spring, the return of the missing birds has taken on a special meaning for me. I have appreciated each return and taken time to notice. I will soon be going on my own migration of sorts. Adventures await. But as happy as I am for the opportunities ahead, I am equally heartened to see the return of the birds and know that I plan my own eventual return to my beloved Wisconsin.