Absentee Gardening

Gardeners at work

Gardeners at work

I hesitate to call myself a gardener. I think I need some more triumphs under my belt before I will accept that grand moniker.

Especially considering my recent rookie mistake: I was so excited to assemble my balcony planters that I put them together (looking adorable full of double impatiens in a warm, regal red, trailing ivy, bright orange gazania and deep burgundy coleus I might add) and promptly left them outside overnight during the only frost warning of the last 2 months.

I had some logical explanation for this. Believe it or not I did think it through. I just made the wrong decision and I fear my coleus may not recover.

In that I’m not fully ready to claim to be a gardener it’s at least safe to call myself an absentee gardener of some description. Most of the large-scale gardening work I do takes place at a farm house in a rural setting that I visit frequently but don’t live.

The rest of the time I live in the city and eke out a garden via containers on my balcony and indoor house plants vying for the relatively small amount of sun I get each day. Currently my apartment also doubles as a potting shed and greenhouse (to varying degrees of success).

So it’s kind of an odd patchwork garden kind of scenario. The last time we were in Lodi we planted some bigtime stuff: 2 different varieties of potato, two different varieties of onion, in addition to the rhubarb, garlic and various assorted herbs we’d planted in the fall. But I won’t see their progress first-hand for another two weeks.

Mum and Dad are ensconced in Lodi for the season and when I talked to them yesterday they gave me the exciting news that the garlic is really growing. I am thrilled and yet have no idea what that means–I’m only relying on a description and the promise of a photo. How high are the shoots? Are they flowering? How far are we from harvesting?! How can I learn how to make a garlic braid in time!? (ok… getting a bit carried away there)

I guess that really I have the best of all possible worlds: I get the bustle of the city and the triumph of greenery growing around so much concrete, traffic and exhaust fumes as well as the serenity of the rural garden with the expanding horizon of farmers fields and nature blooming all around.

Each has their benefits and each their detractions, but really when it comes right down to it I’m awfully lucky to have both!

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BIG Garden News

Fun with farm equipment

Fun with farm equipment

On the unseasonably beautiful spring weekend we enjoyed over the Eater break us Coverts* were hard at work in Lodi breaking new ground–literally–and raking and digging and planting and hauling.

We worked steadily throughout the long weekend and the record warm temperatures were both encouraging and slightly daunting: I actually got a sunburn working in the garden in April, which seems unlikely. But there’s nothing like getting your farmer tan on the go early in the season.

Here is a partial but mostly complete list of things we accomplished in the garden and grounds at the Home Farm in Lodi:

Potatoes and onions are planted, though there may be some controversy about whether this was actually the right time to plant potatoes. The mad crowd elbowing their way towards the seed potatoes at the Agway sure seemed to think it was about the right time to get them in the ground, but we shall see.

Raspberry bushes removed of dead canes and pruned back in hopes they will produce berries

Cherry tree discovered with evidence of cherry pits on the ground around it, lending one to believe it may indeed produce cherries (note to self: find out more about caring for cherry trees)

Old farm equipment uncovered, righted and turned into garden accessories

Path broken between upper and lower garden areas

Areas in front of two different barn entrances uncovered and cleared for easier access to barn

Many sumac trees felled to shed more light on old garden area in the paddock

More raspberry bushes tamed

Tops of rhubarbs discovered pushing through the ground, much to Dad’s chagrin

All new and old vegetable crops identified by wooden stakes (NEW this year!)

Perennial garden areas tidied up, weeded and dead leaves removed

Garlic tops seen to be sprouting (success! so far…)

Flagstone pathway discovered around the side of the house leading from an old doorway

Mum took some great photos of the progress we made and you can view the album here

We definitely laid all the ground work for putting the rest of the vegetables in on the long weekend in May which is the next time we’ll all be together in Lodi. Let’s just hope the weather stays lovely and that the potatoes don’t rot!

*Ok, not all of us Coverts did all this back-breaking work: Andrew and Dad wielded the pick-axes and shovels like champs, I gravitated to the detail work of clearing the dead leaves from the garden and planting while Mum picked up a chainsaw and hacked down a few trees.

Organizing the Garden Shed

Garden Tools

Garden Tools

So next weekend is our first trip to Lodi in a while–in fact, I think since November. We have a lot of work to do to get the garden ready for the year but we will probably not get to do too much of that because it’s still a bit too early in the season.

I have a couple of goals however that I think could really help us get ready and organized for the coming garden season. I would like to whip our garden shed into shape and arrange tools, shelves and other materials so that when it comes to the hard work we have everything at the ready.

Last year had a large amount of gardening equipment already on the premises which was kind of surprising since it was the first year we created a garden and also not at all surprising because our garden is on a farm.

However the hoes, rakes, shovels, stakes, gloves, spades and posts lived in any one of four different locations at any time: the garage, the far end of the second barn, the near end of the first barn or the woodshed. Which makes for inefficient work patterns, grumpiness and conversations like this:

“Where’s the _______?”
“I don’t know, look in the barn”
“Which barn”
“The big barn”
“It’s not there”
“Look in the other barn”
“It’s not there either”
“Look in the shed”
“Oh forget it I’ll use my boot”

Or similar.

I also think that having clear and consistent places for your precious equipment leads to an attitude of better care for your tools. For those of us (me) who were (rightfully) reprimanded for leaving potato forks in the ground overnight thus leading to rust could use some reminding of how to best care for the gardening equipment.

So going into this new season I have a vision of a perfectly organized shed where the tools hang in their rightful places, the materials are piled neatly and I can *always* find my gloves. “Anyone seen my gloves?” “Look in the barn.” “Which barn?” etc…

Anyone have any advice on successfully organizing a garden shed? We need all the help we can get!

Amish Country

Photo: Rosemary Covert

Photo: Rosemary Covert

Lodi is situated in an area populated quite heavily by people of the Amish and Mennonite faith. Ever since I can remember it was a common occurrence to pass a horse and buggy on the country highways around Lodi.

In recent years there has been an influx of even more Amish and Mennonite families to the area and so the chances are very good that you will need to make a wide pass around a buggy carrying a couple, sometimes with curious little ones peering out the back window, their young faces framed by the traditional bob haircut and black-banded straw hat.

This increase in the Amish population of our area has meant nothing but a boon to local food and gardening aficionados. Among many different kinds of businesses that serve the Amish and non-Amish populations there are several excellent produce sellers that grow a lot of their own fruits and vegetables in greenhouses powered without use of electricity.

We’ve been buying fresh produce from our local Amish produce stand for many years but last year we also relied on them heavily for the plants that started our garden. In addition to having excellent quality produce and plants their prices are often the most reasonable you’ll find in comparison to grocery stores and farmers markets.

Last year we were thrilled when our garden tomato patch was spared the blight that was sweeping the countryside. Many of our friends and neighbors had their tomatoes wiped out completely but our tomatoes were blissfully unaware of any of that nasty blight business.

The story we heard was that the blight affected plants that went through the industrial food chain and were purchased at places like grocery stores and Wal-Marts. Since ours came from small independent greenhouses we were in the clear and enjoyed many pounds of tomatoes. (It actually wasn’t the best year for tomatoes blight or no blight, but that’s beside the point).

The population of Amish fits the rural farming landscape perfectly. Teams of six to eight Clydesdale horses farm on properties adjacent to those farmed by the most technologically advanced farming equipment. Seeing them at work in the fields gives us a glimpse at how perhaps our ancestors lived on and worked this land.

Farming in the Family

Grandpa Covert

Painting of my Grandpa Covert by my uncle Floyd Covert

Right now I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan which is an examination of our eating habits and the industrial food chain. The book looks these issues from many different angles and looks at people who are creating food sources off the grid of the major global food chain.

Thinking about food production on family farms like some of those described in this book makes me think about my own family and history with farming. My grandfather was a farmer on the Home Farm property in Lodi that we still own. My father farmed that land when he was young as well. The land is still being farmed today by a local farmer who rents the land. As far as I can tell it is mostly crops of corn and soy–two of the industrialized monoculture crops that come under a lot of fire in this book for a number of reasons.

After our gardening experience this past summer I’m much more concerned about my place and my role in the food chain. I’ve been trying to eat locally sourced meat and vegetables when possible and have been eating a lot less meat in general.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other similar books decry the loss of the diversified farm and that makes me think more about what kind of farming my family would have done over the years. I remember when there were sheep on the farm, though I was really little at the time, and my dad talks about growing different kinds of crops like wheat and barley.

It’s kind of amazing to imagine that in my own family over the course of 3 generations the food chain has been radically altered such that the skills that my grandparents subsisted on are all but foreign to me and my brother and most people of my generation. I hope that over the coming months and years we can re-learn some of these life-on-the-farm skills and tactics to continue our local food mission.

I wonder if I would have made a good farmer… I dunno, I’m *really* not a morning person and I understand that comes with the, ahem, territory.

A Local Thanksgiving and Garden News

Turkey

Turkey

Two weeks ago my family celebrated an early U.S. Thanksgiving during a long weekend in Lodi. We indulged in the usual Thanksgiving activities (eating too much and shopping too much) and we also made some significant progress on next year’s garden plans.

Of course turkey and Thanksgiving are a perfect pairing but this year we were determined to go local with our Thanksgiving dinner. Our summer garden triumphs put local food at the forefront of our eating habits and Thanksgiving was no reason to stray from this philosophy.

[Ok in fairness I have to admit that it was mainly my brother Andrew leading the local turkey charge. I thought it might be a bit of an expensive wild goose chase, if you’ll pardon the pun.]

We grudgingly headed off to the Green Star Co-op in Ithaca– I say grudgingly because I was certain that we would be dropping a princely sum for this local turkey. Come to find out that Green Star was selling their supply of local turkeys at the wholesale price. We assumed that this was a good faith gesture intended to promote local farmers and the philosophy of eating locally produced food, especially meats. We were thrilled and acquired a 12-lb bird from a farm in nearby Interlaken, NY called Oink and Gobble Farms.

The local turkey tasted… great! Was is significantly different than an industrial farming food chain turkey? I hate to admit that I couldn’t taste a huge difference. But it was moist, delicious, reasonably priced and grew up just about 15 minutes down the road from the dinner table at which we were enjoying it!

The Garden News is very big, very exciting and hopefully very sunny. One of the (ahem, many) problems with the garden plots we chose last year for our first ever garden was the shadiness of the spot. It looked great in the late winter when the trees surrounding it had no leaves, but we quickly learned that it was awfully shady.

So our new spots include a couple of different areas right at the end of the property where it abuts the farmed acreage. We figure that it must be good soil being that close to the farmland and it is in a much (hopefully!) sunnier area. Of course the trees have no leaves now either, but with our skillful plotting of the sun’s trajectory we think we’ve avoided the major shade issues.

Oh, and the other news? More walnuts. Yup, being a glutton for punishment, I said yes when Dad offered to collect more walnuts on his clean-up of the roof and the grounds. We sat and removed the mostly rotten husks (an extraordinarily gross job) and then laid them out on a board in the basement in the manner we believe that Grandma would have done. We’ll see in the spring how this method compares to the oven-roasting method.

The Great Walnut Experiment

The 150- year-old property that our home farm sits on is shaded by many lovely old trees that keep the house nice and cool and provide a gorgeous setting. One of the most prevalent trees on the property is the Black Walnut–there are several including one very big prominent one.

Raw black walnuts

Raw black walnuts

In the Fall the black walnut drops its seed pods in an attempt to proliferate. This strategy has clearly worked well for the walnut over the years, but it doesn’t work as well for the humans that co-habitate with these stately trees. The seed pods are large tennis-ball like things that drop from the sky at quite a velocity and pose a threat both from above and below: watch out you don’t get beaned by one of these things and watch you don’t turn over your ankle stepping on one of these things.

In the midst of trying to manage our safety around these dangerous things I had a thought: but wait! These are actual walnuts! Why don’t we try to harvest them and eat them? This is a potential goldmine!

So, I set about collecting as many decent looking and not-too-rotten walnuts as I could gather. Stoop labour: not super fun, but then as I was soon to discover, just about everything in this Great Walnut Experiment was hard labour.

I collected intelligence from folks in Lodi about what the heck to do with walnuts and one theme consistently emerged: drive over them. Yup. These suckers are so hard that you can DRIVE OVER THEM. And that’s just to get the outer skin off.

And a caveat: as every source I consulted confirmed, handling the nuts in any way will stain your hands for weeks. I can attest to the veracity of this statement and would add for posterity: even through gloves.

So while our friend Linda kindly obliged by backing over my crop of walnuts a few times I tried to determine the next steps. According to my dad, my grandma used to dry the nuts in the basement on an old screen door all winter. The ancient copy of the Rodale Organic Gardening handbook that I picked up at the Ithaca Book Sale said to dry them for a week and then roast them in a low over for one day. Given my lack of attention span, I chose this method and set about drying the nuts on every possible flat surface in my apartment once back in Ottawa.

Black Walnut

Black Walnut

After several hours in the oven I decided it was time for a taste test. Several violent hammer strikes later and with some diligent digging I was able to pry enough of the nut meat to consider this whole back-breaking experiment a success.

The all-important question of the flavour? It’s a strong and hearty nuttiness with none of the bitterness I was worried about. And the taste instantly transports me to my childhood and the raisin cookies my grandma used to make which she must have flavoured with these nuts that she harvested every year.

Ok, so, anyone want some? Seriously. I’m too exhausted to keep hacking at these suckers.

Local Food and Farmers’ Markets




Tomatillos

Originally uploaded by j-co

Lodi could be considered a hub of the local food movement, only because there’s always been a local food movement in this area. It’s just never been cool before.

Of course I’m exaggerating: Lodi’s not really a hub of too much, to be honest, but there’s no exaggerating the vibrancy of local produce growers and farmers’ markets in the Finger Lakes.

There’s a lot of agriculture around Lodi, but the large industrial crops are almost exclusively soybeans and feed corn. In recent years small farms offering CSAs have boomed, and more farmers markets have developed offering people the chance to feel closer to the food they eat and who produces it.

Throughout my childhood during the summers in Lodi you could count on the farm stands that dot the country roads and highways providing much of your summer meals. With delicious sweet corn that explodes in your mouth to perfectly ripe peaches whose juice drips down your chin to the ubiquitous zucchini, there has never been a shortage of great local produce. It’s always one of the best things about being in Lodi in the summer.

The Ithaca Farmers Market has been around for years and never disappoints with the great variety of produce as well as the diverse international food vendors and live music. This summer I became enamored of the Trumansburg Farmers Market which is much smaller by comparison but is off the charts when it comes to friendliness. Almost all of the vendors, which range from a goat dairy to cinnamon buns to specialty garlic in addition to the requisite produce are happy to engage in conversation, offer advice to novice gardeners and actually want to know what you think of their food.

One of the best produce finds of the summer were the tomatillos from the Ithaca market pictured here. I had no clue what to do with them but the kind vendor offered me a salsa verde recipe which was to die for. Now I’m hooked on tomatillos and am determined to grow them in the garden next summer. Salsa verde for all!