What’s Going in the Ground at Sugar Grove

Your garden at home may be on a similar trajectory as The $64 Tomato, or it may be the sort of garden in which you watch in curious amazement to see what fruit is growing from the compost pile. You may have already purchased canning jars, visited the Ely Seed Lending Library, or you may still be thumbing through the catalogs to see what new varieties of pea sound tasty.

At Sugar Grove Farm, as at most businesses, there is another layer of questions we have to ask. Will we have the labor to successfully plant, weed, and harvest the crop? Are the seeds we are purchasing organic? Do we have buyers for the crops?

Even the cover crops are organic. This clover, planted last fall, will be tilled in to add nutrients to the soil before planting. We till shallow, and only where we will be planting. The rest of the field will stay in cover crop, to hold the soil and increase the organic material in the soil.

Every year, as we become more familiar with the site and the time involved in crop management, as the soil becomes richer through cover crops and certified organic amendments, and as we have improved infrastructure (such as driplines for irrigation), we should be able to expand our offerings. 

Stop by the Creekside Shop during harvest time if you want to experience these tasty and unique fruits and vegetables. All will be certified organic.

It can be challenging to find organic seeds of the varieties you want, and even more challenging the longer you delay placing your order. I really appreciate Wood Prairie Family Farm, Seed Savers Exchange, and High Mowing Organic Seeds for helping me out.

This year, we plan to grow: 

Keuka Gold potatoes (sourced from Wood Prairie Family Farm)

Parade cucumbers (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Waltham butternut squash(sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Sweet Pea Currant tomato (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Moon and Stars (Cherokee) watermelon (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Chinese Miniature gourd (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Miniature Yellow Bell pepper (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Long Island Cheese Pumpkin (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Red Carpet F1 onion (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Cortland F1 onion (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

PMR Delicious 51 cantaloupe (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

True Love F1 cantaloupe (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Sweet Gem Snap pea (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Sugar Ann Snap pea (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Creating the Compost Habit

I love the idea of compost. When I first started, years ago, it instantly reduced my trash output by 50 percent. Just like that, you can make great strides towards a zero-waste lifestyle. It also instantly creates healthy, rich soil in which to garden. I have two copies of the pamphlet, “…Make Compost in 14 Days,” on my bookshelf. Because that is knowledge too important to lose.

But…compost is smelly. It creates flies, gnats, and a host of flying insects I cannot begin to name. You have to trudge to the garden through the rain, and the snow, and the mud, and the mosquitoes. It takes time. Not a lot of time, but time all the same. You have to do it daily, or the flying insects and the smells begin to lose that indoor/outdoor boundary.

My garden, wedged in a narrow patch of sunlight among oak trees, was designed for growing veggies, not an ever-expanding pile of rotting veggies, so there were some boundary issues. There is nothing healthy about trying to find a fresh strawberry under an avocado husk. I quickly matured into a fair-weather composter when I felt inspired.

When the pandemic started two years ago, I lost access to basic services including trash, recycling and compost pickup, and suddenly composting became very high on my priority list. Why? There are only so many times you can beg your friends to let you put things in their trash, and only so much trash you feel like dragging around town to the houses of friends. Friends you aren’t supposed to be visiting because its a pandemic. “Um, hi. I didn’t come to visit you, just your trash can.” The friends I have are really, really good people.

A friend set me up with a two bin tumbler system, and that was awesome. It kept the scraps contained and kept the yard tidy. I used one bin primarily for high acidity things, including coffee grounds and lemons. This was for the blueberry bushes. I used the other bin for most everything else. While it still had to be done every day, the alternative idea of living amid ever increasing piles of waste is not a healthy way to even contemplate living.

Most bins and tumblers on the market don’t create enough heat to break down some things, like weed seeds. For compost to generate enough heat to start breaking things like that down with heat, it needs to be a 3’x3’x3′ pile. Since we all know piles are unstable as cubes, that’s actually a big pile. Huge. Compost shrinks as it composts, which means that’s a lot of compost. More than I can generate.

My solution: don’t put weeds that have seeded out in the compost bin. Throw them in the yard, where they will at least be mowed down after germination. A better solution would be to weed before the weeds set seed, but I am not always that sort of gardener. Mostly, I am the sort of gardener that solves the problem of not knowing what to do with pulled weeds by simply not weeding at all.

Eventually, my trash, recycling, and compost service resumed. Interestingly enough, I have kept composting, at least March-December. Keeping non-essential paths clear during the ice and snow of January and February are beyond my physical capacity.

Creative Gardening

I am under siege. The beautiful seed catalogs, glossy pages full of plump, brightly colored fruits and deep green vegetables, are in my mailbox. Burpee’s, Johnny’s, Gurney’s are the latest three. I want to eat those fruits. I want to grow those fruits. With everything around me brown, grey, and white, I want to impulse buy fresh flavorful colorful tasty beauty sooo badly.

This is a full color photo from February 23. This is Iowa right now. Beautiful, but needs some color.

Really, if impulse buying a three dollar seed packet is the worst of my vices, I am probably doing OK.

A red okra in full bloom from last summer. I used to not be a fan of okra, until I tried it fresh, straight off the plant. Delicious.

But last fall, when I was climbing 15 feet in the air to harvest cherry tomatoes, and I was getting scratched up trying to find sweet peppers that were totally hidden under a mass of invasive hops, I came up with a plan. I would not succumb to the assault of the seed catalogs. I would buy in the early fall, before the watermelon harvest. Before fresh became a thing of the past season.

Small heirloom watermelons, well mulched with straw to keep the weeds at bay.

I already focus my gardens on perennials. Blueberries and honeyberries are growing next to the kiwis. A goji bush accompanies the horseradish and the asparagus. If I am going to add an annual, it is going to be something that either 1) I can’t easily find in the grocery store, or 2) it is a leafy green that I eat in such quantity that it doesn’t make economic sense to buy it in the grocery store. Mostly, I buy from Seed Savers Exchange, which I respect for being local, sustainable, and not cutting a tree to send me a catalog I may or may not want.

What did I end up with for my 2022 annual vegetables? Red Burgundy okra, Red Kalibos cabbage, Backlund Bly Orach, Copenhagen Market Cabbage, Mammoth Sandwich Island Salsify, Premier Kale, Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard. In hindsight, I definitely don’t need two different kinds of cabbage…But if they give me the strength to ignore the seed catalogs, I am OK with that.

Kiwis in Iowa: a potentially awesome vine

When I’m creating with the landscape, my top three criteria are usually local, organic, native. But I’ve been totally intrigued with the idea of adding kiwi vines to the yard. I repainted the windmill a few years back, only to have invasive hops run rampant over it. Hardy kiwis (Actinidia arguta) are native to China and Siberia, and produce lovely (I hope) little fuzzless kiwis. After doing enough research to determine that, having never actually tried a hardy kiwi, I completely lacked the knowledge to figure what varieties I really wanted, I opted to go with a variety pack from Stark Bro’s.

 

It included two Anna Hardy Kiwi’s, a male pollinator partner for them, and an Issai Hardy Kiwi. The Issai self pollinates. The plants are beautiful, and I managed to get them in the ground, mulched, and deer-fenced within a day of them arriving. They probably won’t produce fruit, even with the best of care, until 2019 or 2020. But it will good to see something with potential growing in the next few years, versus the hops.

Creating an orchard

When I was nine, my grandfather would let me mow the hayfield with the tractor. He would supervise from the edge of the field, wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt and straw hat, eating an apple fresh from the tree.

31 years later, I wear long-sleeved plaid shirts and a straw hat to protect me from mosquitos, thorns, ticks, and the sun. I inherited a McCormick Farmall Cub tractor older than I am. The only thing missing was the apple tree.

My friend Craig has been trying to give me a pair of apple trees for about two years now. I have always demurred, because apples need sun, and that’s not something I have a lot of living under the canopy of an oak savanna. But this spring I was watching the cardinals and chickadees in the thicket of mulberries, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle that had grown up under the dead oak tree, and I realized that I do, indeed, have a sun spot.

The oak tree died back in 2000, before we moved onto the land. It is gradually crumbling in place. Woodpeckers are aiding its decomposition, and more small twigs and bark slough off each year. If enough sunlight in the area is allowing the birds to plant  and grow a thriving orchard of invasive trees and shrubs, its enough sunlight for a few more desirable trees as well.

Armed with a chainsaw and a shovel, I started clearing and planting. Since I had no idea what kind of apple tree I wanted (the kind that tastes good?), Craig started me with a lovely variety of heirloom eating apples: a Chestnut Crab, a Yellow Hardin, a Golden Russet, a Ribston Pippin, a Rhode Island Greening, and a Yates.

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On the Wild Menu

As part of the wild foods foraging program today at Indian Creek Nature Center, we were able to bring together a  very local, very fresh, gourmet menu.

Appetizer: serviceberries

Salad: purslane leaves, lambsquarter leaves, dandelion leaves, yarrow leaves, red clover blossoms

Salad dressing: orange champagne vinegar and basil infused olive oil

Main course: milkweed blossoms sauteed in butter with catnip and mulberries on the side

Common milkweed buds are edible when cooked. If you arent sure about what youre picking, develop a relationship withyour local nature center or other outdoor enthusiasts so you dont eat something poisonous
Common milkweed buds are edible when cooked. If you aren’t sure about what you’re picking, develop a relationship with your local nature center or other outdoor enthusiasts so you don’t accidentally eat something poisonous.

Drink: sumaconade (staghorn sumac drupes, honey, cinnamon stick)

Staghorn sumac drupes are edible and high in antioxidants. Posion sumac has white drupes, not red.
Staghorn sumac drupes are high in antioxidants.* Posion sumac has white drupes, not red.

Dessert: paw paws and aronia berries (frozen last year), and elderberry jelly and wild plum jelly (preserved last year)

After dinner tea: chamomile leaves and buds, stinging nettle leaves, red clover blossoms, wild ginger root, wild rose blossoms, mountain mint leaves

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Chamomile isn’t native, but it is also not a problem for restoration. It prefers dry, sandy soil and no competition.

* Sumaconade Recipe*

Gather 9-12 staghorn sumac drupes in late summer. Hang them and cover with a paper sack to keep them clean and dry-they will keep until the following summer.

Soak them in 1 gallon of cold water, 2-12 hours

Wring or muddle the drupes with your hands into the water.

Pour the mixture through  clean t-shirt material 3 times to filter it.

Add 1/2-1 cup honey (may be mixed with a bit of warm water to dissolve)

Add 1 stick of cinnamon

Chill before serving

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_13

 

Chirping on Twitter as @pocketmousepub!

Connect with Pocket Mouse Publishing on Twitter @pocketmousepubPocket Mouse Publishing is on Twitter!  Yes, you will hear Jean (itsabeeslifeforme) and Lee (brightskymom chirping tweeting as @pocketmousepub now!

Since we’re brand new, we will bumble around like the fledgling social media-ites that we are.  If you’re on Twitter, we’d appreciate well-known, obvious, how-could-you-not-know tips — I don’t think we’re ready for amazing insider secrets yet!

We hope to see & hear you in the fields and trees, tweeting interesting tidbits about #nature and #forage and #organic and all kinds of things!  After all (to quote Robert Louis Stevenson, April IS National Poetry Month!):

The world is so full of a number of things,
I ’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Syruping Season

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As the maple syruping season winds down, Indian Creek Nature Center is sharing the first harvest of the year with the community this weekend. The daytime temperatures have been unseasonably warm, in the 60’s and 70’s, and the night time temperatures have also been unseasonably warm, in the high 30’s and mid 40’s. Without the nights getting below freezing, the trees have produced a modest 280 gallons of sap-only enough to make about 6 gallons of syrup.

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Maple syrup boils at 219 degrees, or 7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water. Wood, sustainably harvested at the Nature Center during restoration projects, provides the fuel for boiling.

If you only have one or two trees to tap or lack a good thermometer, consider drinking the sap or using it to make soups and stews. It has great flavor and is rich in minerals.

 While the temperatures will likely get cold again, the silver maple trees are already budding out, signaling that the sugars (=good syrup) are changing to starches (=bad syrup). Many of the trees have simply stopped producing sap altogether.
Another sign that the seasons are shifting:

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Mallard ducks are beginning to pair up.

The syruping is ending, but the next wild edible to emerge-stinging nettle-is just beginning to poke through the softening ground.
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As spring progresses, keep an eye on the maples. Their flowers in March attract bees, and their sap attracts other things all year long.

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Yellow bellied sapsucker by Gabrielle Anderson from Hunting Red.

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Healthy Soil for Healthy Food

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In this, the International Year of Soil, I hereby propose a Clean Soil Act for 2015! Healthy soil, a finite resource, is the lifeblood of healthy food. For fun soil activities, visit here.

 

by guest Scott Koepke, New Pi Soilmates Organic Garden Educator.

Current law allows us to apply certain classifications of chemicals to soil that microscopes indicate can greatly diminish biological life. Them’s fightin’ words in the Corn Belt. In my outreach, however, I have found that there are ways to find—excuse the pun—common ground with both conventional and organic farmers on this vital issue. We are building bridges on themes of biodiversity and cost savings. Let’s look at some of the science:

septemberherbsatelaines 017Exhibit A: Organically-farmed soil is biologically robust, teeming with microbial diversity that, as it consumes and decomposes organic matter in what is called the “poop loop,” produces chemically-available nutrients for root systems to absorb. Regenerative—not extractive—practices that build organic matter, like composting and cover cropping, are nature’s free gifts of fertilizer. They also create soil structure that retains hydration more effectively during drought conditions. Organic methods grow nutrients.

Exhibit B: Soil samples from fields that have been conventionally monocropped with corn and soy rotations, and sprayed annually with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, often test to be biologically sterile. The soil itself is less friable and hard-packed. Elevated levels of nitrates, phosphorous, neonicotinoids, atrazine, glyphosates, anhydrous ammonia, chlorides, and heavy metals (to name a few) also leach into municipal water sources.

garlic dicing 007This is a debate that threatens certain corporate interests and can often boil down to an impasse about “safe rates of application.” How much glyphosate can I apply and not have it be destructive?

I would suggest that conventional agriculture isn’t going away anytime soon, and that we all need to, at the very least, consider the ever-changing science that provides ample evidence of pollutive thresholds, for which models like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts mandate regulations. There comes a time when enough is a enough. I’m encouraged that, to their credit, farmers of all persuasions are increasingly acknowledging the need for safer alternatives. As my dear Grandma Helen used to remind me, “Scotty, just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right.”