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Homesteading

soil formation

New England is a weird place to farm. We live in a mostly tree covered landscape of rolling hills, weathered mountains, deep ponds, swamps, rivers, outcroppings of bedrock, and once in a while, some really nice soil. In many areas, soil can change from heavy, wet clay to rocky, sandy soil in a matter of a hundred feet or so. This patchwork effect is increased by the crosshatching of millions of miles of stone walls built by the first European farmers in this area as they tried to eke a living from the rocky ground. It has even been posited that the orneriness of New England’s soil is at least partly responsible for the same trait found in its farmers.

But where did this landscape come from? Why are we blessed with perched water tables, endless crops of “New England Potatoes”- field stones- and house sized boulders seemingly dropped from space in the middle of our woods and fields?

Seeds

For the backyard gardener, a seed catalog can be an exciting resource full of opportunities that cast visions of gorgeous rare plants thriving in your garden and previously undiscovered vegetables that astound your taste buds. But where did these unique seeds come from and why does it matter?

There are different terminologies that are thrown around and each one carries with it an understanding of how plants reproduce and ultimately the way that they are controlled.

Heart Bowl

First of all, I want to thank all of you who have been so supportive during my recent health challenge; thanks for the good energy, thoughts, prayers, meals, cards and concern. I’ve heard from other NOFA staff that some of you have been asking about my status, so here’s a brief rundown.

I had a very successful mitral valve repair performed through open-heart surgery on December 4th. Because they were dealing with a genetic abnormality that caused the prolapse and there were no other problems with my veins/arteries, it went really well. Then I spent 4 ½ days in hospital and have been home for a week and a half. I’m slowly and steadily making progress building up stamina by walking and doing gentle exercises. Not being able to lift over 7-10 pounds has been a challenge. Pru has been an amazing “nurse” as well as being “Homesteader Extraordinaire” by doing EVERYTHING while I sit back and watch (not an easy thing for me to do). I also want to thank my amazing Wendell community who has pitched in to help with meals, Sharon-sitting and encouragement.

wildbrowse farm

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and there is much to be thankful for here at Wild Browse Farm. The larder is full, the cordwood stacked, the garden tucked in, and we are cozily sitting here watching snow fall. Last week was a bit of a whirlwind finalizing the last minute preparations before our first snow of the season. We moved the chickens from their summer pasture to their winter quarters. We harvested the last of our carrots and took down all of the electro-mesh fencing before the ground froze. We then hauled and spread aged wood chips onto the carrot bed and the asparagus beds, as well as several other beds where the mulch was thinner than I like. And, as the first flakes fell, we finished reinstalling the plastic covering on our small hoop-house.

Pork being butchered for packaging and freezing

Without the ease of a backyard garden supplying fresh vegetables or the hum of your local farmers market open for business, it can be challenging to continue to eat locally throughout the winter months in New England. Sometimes I wonder how early settlers survived the frigid December weather without modern day food preservation conveniences like refrigerators, freezers and pressure canners. Luckily, most of us do have these options available these days, which makes it much easier for us to prepare for several months without fresh food.

Green Tomatoes

A rainy day, another in a long succession from the wettest summer I can remember. We did have a few weeks of hot dry days when I began to wonder whether we were at the beginning of a drought.   It surely has been a crazy summer.  I thought I’d talk about some of the successes and challenges of this year’s growing season.

Successes

hand tool

Hand tool on newly prepped bed with CC seeds before raking in 2 Sorghum Sudan in mixed cover crop cocktail

As seems to be the norm around Wild Browse, there is a still a lot to do, however, the bulk of the crops are in the ground, which is a big load off of my mind. Of course, there will be regular succession planting and maintenance of vegetables and cover crops as the weeks progress.

The signs of summer are everywhere; the strawberries have started to ripen, robins and orioles have fledged, and the deer flies have arrived! The last few nights have served up a dazzling display of wonderment as the fireflies weave their magic in the early-summer night sky. Having been enchanted by these creatures since childhood, I realized that I didn’t know much about their life cycle and how they might affect the garden. So, the Internet to the rescue! Turns out that unlike the short-lived adult (2 weeks), the larva lives about a year in the soil. The larva is carnivorous and eats soft-bodied insects like worms, slugs, and other insect larvae.

Healthy Kale

Kale planted in stubble with little soil disturbance 2 - Buckwheat flowers 3 - Wasp eggs on tomato hornworm

While I’m taking a break from homestead work to write this article, I’m also enjoying the mid-May beauty surrounding me. The apple and pear trees are in full-bloom, the pasture and garden (April planted cover crops) are pulsing with that vibrant spring green, and the Baltimore Orioles are vrooming in to feast on orange halves we’ve put out for them to replenish their strength after their long return flight. We also like to feed them following their migration, so we can enjoy their spectacular beauty, close-up.

Unseen beneath my feet there is another layer of beauty unfolding, that of the soil food web which is also coming to life after its winter slow down in activity. If only we had microscopic vision, the wonders we would see!

Cover Crop

Cover Crop Cocktail

Here it is, another wild-weather day here at the homestead. I realize that it is still early spring and the weather is unpredictable, but somehow in recent years, the swings in daily weather patterns seem more extreme. Another good reason to be glad that I am a “Carbon Farmer”, co-creating a more healthy and resilient soil, which can roll with the punches, tolerating swings between mild, 60-degree days and those like today, with high wind, snow, sleet and rain. 

This time of year (most times really) I like to take regular garden walk-throughs, inspecting and observing the conditions of the soil, growing beds and mulch. Earlier this week (in mid-April) I determined it was time to plant those early cover crops (discussed in the April issue of this newsletter). For the most part, the beds were still covered in mulch, with just a few bare spots of unprotected soil. The depth of all of the mulch is much thinner now than it was in the fall, an indication that throughout the winter, there has been a slow process of healthy decomposition. The worms, macro and microorganisms have been doing their jobs, integrating organic material into the soil and simultaneously receiving nutrients for their winter survival.

Green Cover Crops

Although it is only mid-February as I write this, spring is in the air. I am still hoping for more snow, as I like having the garden tucked in with a nice blanket of snow atop the mulch-covered beds. But alas, the snow is melting fast. Not only does snow replenish soil moisture, but also, its insulating quality helps protect the soil and soil life from a deep freeze. 

I’ve been giving more talks on the topic of Cover Crops/No-Till For The Home Garden: Small Scale Practices for Soil improvement and Carbon Sequestration around the state.  There is a lot of interest in this topic because it is such a win-win for us and for the planet! Healthier soil equals healthier plants, equals healthier food, equals healthier eaters, all while taking excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it deep within the soil.

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