Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reinforced, extra-shock fencing

Putting water in the piggy "spa"

Loading hay for vegetable mulch

The big project in the garden this week was to catch up on weeding and put down hay mulch around the potatoes and tomatoes. We still need to get around to the peppers. All these crops really appreciate the moderating effects of mulch. It will help hold moisture in, cut down on weeds, cool the soil temperature, and reduce pest pressure. Pests that particularly like tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes-in particular the potato beetle, are unable to navigate the jungle created by mulch. They tend to get lost in the hay instead of finding the plant. Unfortunately the same is not true of pests for other plant families. Mulch around squashes is a bad idea because this provides the ideal habitat for squash bugs to wildly proliferate.

Flowers in the potato patch

This Monday and Tuesday we didn’t get to work in the garden quite as much as we had planned because we were busy with an experiment. We were testing the idea that our single electric line fences for pigs only work when the pigs are happy. It turns out that when the pigs decide that they are unsatisfied with what’s inside their fence they have no problem going through it! In the last 48 hours the pigs have more or less operated as if there were no fence-extremely exasperating (especially to the poor horse who is pretty sure that the pigs are after her when they get out!). Last night we were finally able to address some of the issues. Turns out the pigs were just plain hot. Who can blame them for being grumpy when it’s almost 90 and humid? So we ran water for a nice big wallow-they loved it! We also added some electric lines to their fence so it looks a little more intimidating. Today we will find out if our changes worked. Update: The pigs decided that the fence doesn’t apply to their situation right now. William added one more electric line to help prevent these particularly athletic pigs from sailing over the fence. They are staying put now. Thank goodness.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Barn Rafters of Garlic

Happy summer! Yesterday marked the sun’s nothernmost track in the sky. For a few days the sun will stay in relatively the same place on the horizon, before slowly working its way back south.

Last Monday we harvested all of the garlic. Last week you received fresh garlic in your box. This is a bulb that we dug up, cut off the stalk and passed along directly to you without curing it. The rest of the garlic we have sorted and hung up to dry, or cure in the rafters of the barn. This will ensure that the bulbs dry down slowly so they can keep for as long as possible without rotting. Cured garlic can store for a very long time in a cool, dark, dry place.

When we hung the garlic up we carefully selected the largest, best formed, most even bulbs of each variety to set aside as this fall’s seed garlic. We cure these bulbs along with all the rest and just kind of forget about them. Then, in October, we will pull them out take all the cloves off the bulb and push them into the ground to start the cycle over again.

This is about half of it!

Garlic is an interesting plant because it is planted in the fall in October. In the sprouts up to about 6 inches then waits dormant for the rest of the winter. In the spring it takes off, quickly becoming the tallest, most lush green plant in the early spring. Their growth and vigor begins to slow in May when they start to think about flowering. This is when they send out their garlic scapes. The scapes are the closed blossom of garlic. Garlic reproduces both vegetatively and sexually. However, if it is allowed to fully flower and create seed it invests far less energy in the roots, the part we want to eat. So we cut off the flowers before they open, this is what was in you box several times in May. After the flower is cut the above ground portion of the plant starts to decline. The tips of the leaves begin to yellow and no new growth is seen. Meanwhile, the plant is working to make its bulbs as large as possible to give thee, energy to regrow the next year. Once several leaves have fully died on the stalk we know it is time to dig them up.

In a few weeks, we’ll pull down the cured, dried garlic and put them in your boxes. We’ll have several exciting varieties to taste and enjoy.

Flowering cilantro. Look closely to see all the pollinators it attracts to the garden.

Baby cucumbers for August fruit.

A bumblebee visits our Echinacea

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pig Wranglers and a Sweet Potato Jungle

Last Friday, our big afternoon project was not out in the vegetable field, but with our young pigs.We played pig wranglers with our youngest batch for several hours-they almost made us tear our hair out! The pigs in question are twelve piglets we purchased form Warren Wilson College about 6 weeks ago. When we first get piglets we keep them in a corral because they are so small they will slip through all but the smallest gaps in a fence (several of these actually developed a habit of worming their way through the gaps in a pallet we use as part of the fence!). After about a month of eating they are big enough to learn about electric fences. We string up a double line and hold training sessions. We let them into their electric fence area and watch to make sure they don’t run through the fence. After about 3 practices they generally know what the fence is and they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Now they are ready to go to a paddock in the woods. So we trimmed back some of the brush that has grown up this spring and strung up some electric line. Now comes the fun part; moving the pigs to their new home. Usually pigs herd relatively well. We can get them all moving in one direction out of their old area and toward their new area. Not these pigs, they wanted to go in every direction except the one we wanted them to go in. To top it all of many of them confidently explored the woods alone. It took us about one and a half hours of crashing through brambles to move these little guys thirty feet to their new paddock! Every time we got them close to their paddock they would decide that that was the least interesting part of the woods and scatter in all directions around us. Boy was it frustrating!But in the end they got tired and a little more cooperative. Now they are happily rooting in the woods.

He looks innocent now!

This week we also planted sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are an interesting crop because you actually grow miniature plants from last year’s roots to transplant. It all starts the previous fall when you save out your best potatoes for “seed” potatoes. You then store them in a dry cool area with some airflow until about April. In April you “wake” you potatoes up by allowing them to get warmer. Once the outdoor temperatures are safely above frosting, place the sweet potatoes in a pile of mostly decomposed mulch or very loose soil. Within about a month small green sprouts will begin appearing. In about another month there is a sweet potato jungle! Each sweet potato will send out up to a dozen sprouts, called slips, from one end of the potato. Once these slips are about 6 inches tall (ideally anyway, Mine are always bigger because if you neglect them for a week they grow from 6 inches to 16!), snap them off at the potato and plant. The little slips typically have begun to send out small rootlets of their own. When placed in the soil and watered well they will establish themselves in about a week. After that, watch out, because sweet potatoes are related to morning glories and they will take over! They are a long season crop that appreciates warm weather, so after about three months of patient waiting we should be able to dig up our sweet potato treasure.

Harvesting spring onions

You can't see the forest for the dill!


What does chemical free mean?

In the garden this week the weeds grew. It is amazing how we turn our back on the weeds for a week or two and they are suddenly knee high! In some ways the dry, hot days have been helpful. They make the weeds grow more slowly and die more easily when hoed out. In the paths of the big field we had planted a clover cover crop. In some areas it has done well, outcompeting weeds and blooming nicely (the blooms help attract beneficial insects). But in others the clover didn’t take as well and the weeds quickly filled the void (nature does not like bare ground). No the weeds are kind of like a cover crop as long as we don’t allow them to seed, so we mowed them all down. Many weed seeds can survive for up to 7 years in the soil without germinating. This is called the weed seed bank. Every time you till seeds are brought to the surface to grow. This is like a withdrawal form the bank. If you allow the weeds to seed this is like a deposit. Unlike most accounts, this is one where you don’t want to make any deposits. Overtime, if no plants go to seed we can reduce the number of weeds we have to contend with.

Depleting the weed seed bank is the primary weed control strategy available to organic farmers. In the short term we can weed, cultivate, and mow. But in the long run that is time consuming and tiresome. By eliminating the seeds we can prevent a problem before it occurs. Weeds are such a challenging problem that even farmers who have reduced or even eliminated pesticide use cannot imagine giving up their herbicides. This has led to some confusing labeling in the marketplace. Is “pesticide free” the same as “chemical free.” In either case is the farmer still using chemical fertilizers? (because the fertilizers don’t typically come into direct contact with the plant many farmers will say “chemical free, except fertilizers”). There are responsible and irresponsible ways to use many of the chemical tools at our disposal at farmers. But, as confusing as this sounds, never assume that a broad statement like “chemical free” means the vegetables were raised in anything like a balanced organic system. Always ask.

At Bluebird Farm we raise all of our produce following the organic standards for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and all other growing techniques. In addition we strive to work with the ecology of the soil, our plants, and insects instead of against them. We work to establish patterns that encourage our vegetables instead of discouraging weeds. We try to increase beneficial insect populations instead of eliminate pest insects. In other words we are trying to build a positive ecological system of growth rather than a negative system of suppression.