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Homesteading

Spring is in the air. Yesterday, my heart leapt and then sank, after seeing sap buckets hanging on sugar maples up the road from us.  Pru and I had discussed when, or if, we’d tap out this year and have decided not to as it would push us over the proverbial edge.  With so much to do before our move from the homestead, sugaring dropped to a very low priority, thus the sad heart.  Even though the new place doesn’t have a sugar bush, we are keeping a few buckets and taps in hopes of future use on some friendly neighbors’ trees.

As many of you faithful readers already know, we have sold our homestead and will officially move from Wild Browse Farm this spring.  So go the ups and downs of a homestead and homesteaders in transition. I know that this poignant roller coaster ride will continue for quite awhile.  Guess it’s time to strap on my hardhat and seat belt and learn to enjoy the ride. 

It’s a major transition time here at Wild Browse Farm and we’re feeling both excited and terrified. We have made a commitment to moving and have just finalized a “Purchase & Sale” with a couple of young farmers and their 3 children!  We couldn’t be happier with the future owners, yet we find the transition to be both exhilarating and terrifying, not to mention overwhelming.   Our closing date is May first. Which, when we let ourselves think about it, is just around the corner and alarmingly soon, with so much, much, much, to do in between.  

We’ve cared for this special land since 1980. Between 1980 and ‘88 we cleared land, built soil, planted orchards, vegetable gardens and many permaculture crops, and finally building and moving out of our little camper/cabin and into our “real” house. You can imagine what our next move will entail.  Not only 40 years of our accumulated personal possessions, but also tools, equipment, homesteading essentials, materials and supplies and of course all sorts of other bits & bobs. Everything needs to be sorted, recycled, composted, discarded or moved. 

For me, the arrival of the NOFA bulk order is, like the arrival of the seed catalogs, a harbinger of spring, and an opportunity to stock up on things I know I will use all season long. The bulk order also appeals to the Yankee in me, because I know I will get great prices, especially with the member discount, and loading up my pick-up with a season’s worth of soil amendments feels like thrift rewarded. There are hundreds of items to choose from, for the back yard or the back 40. Here are some favorites of NOFA farmers this year:

A farm worker sprays a foliar application on a freshly hoed bed

A farm worker sprays a foliar application on a freshly hoed bed

No matter how early I think about adding fall amendments, this job always falls to the bottom of the to-do list below some bigger priorities. Harvesting crops remaining in the field prior to frost, bagging up all the row covers, and removing all the poles and trellises, for example, all take precedence over the spreading of fall amendments.

Fortunately, this year I sent my soil test into Logan Labs in October, so after receiving the results, all I had to do was calculate the amendments I needed to order, order them, pick them up, and broadcast them on the fields.  If you have a Logan Labs soil test result, NOFA/Mass will analyze it and give you soil recommendations. You can see the details of that program here or check out this article to calculate your own amendment needs.  You can order a variety of soil amendments through the annual NOFA Bulk Order.

 

 

weed large garden bed

Soil test results are the key to planning your soil fertility program. Adding the right amendments in the right amount can dramatically improve your plants’ health and your garden’s productivity. But once you have your test results, it can sometimes feel daunting to figure out how much of a particular amendment you need to add to get to your goal--and I say that as a former math and chemistry teacher!

In this article, I will try to greatly simplify that process with a few conversion factors and formulas. With these, you should be able to use your results to easily figure out what you need to order—from the NOFA bulk order or elsewhere—and apply your findings to fine tune your garden’s fertility.

Ellena discusses the oats and peas cover crop

While spring planting of cover crops is not an uncommon practice on organic farms and gardens, many farmers and market gardeners are experimenting with extending cover crop overlaps with cash crops through the creative use of easy-to-manage species (field peas, buckwheat and oats, all of which can be ordered through the annual NOFA Bulk Order) and leaving them in the ground until just prior to bed planting, or even allowing them to share bed space with cash crops or new perennial plantings.

Emerging research on soil microbiology and soil carbon sequestration shows that the number of days/year that soil has living roots in the ground with photosynthesis happening (i.e. “days in living cover”), the density of living plant roots, and the diversity of species of plants present are all contributing factors in increasing soil health and building soil organic matter / soil organic carbon.

These insights from the scientific community and healthy soils movement have spurred growers to start experimenting with ways to increase living root density and species diversity on as many beds and fields as possible.  

Homestead Reflections

Today is another glorious, late summer day. It is especially a blessing in light of the recent weather-related disasters, occurring in other areas around the world.  Having these sunny days interspersed with days of gentle rain, has been great for end of garden harvesting and the re-seeding of cover crops.

Even with my scaled-back garden, there is enough abundance to fill the larder with frozen, canned, dehydrated and fermented vegetables and fruit.  And it continues to be a big fruit year. After the less than stellar spring strawberry harvest, I’m happy to report that the fruit trees have really come through.  Plums and peaches galore! We just harvested and dehydrated 15 pounds of Italian prune-plums to go along with the plum conserve and frozen & dehydrated peaches.  The pear and apple trees are also loaded with fruit waiting to ripen.  Then it’ll be more dehydrating, sauce and cider making!

Some people may not have much love for porcupines. And I understand why. We have experienced the frustration of Erethizon dorsatum ("the animal with the irritating back") attacking our fruit trees. Even so, I felt sad seeing a ‘grandmother' porcupine run over on the road in front of our house. 

I say grandmother because I knew her.

I say grandmother because she was so big and her face was grizzled with white and gray whiskers. 

I say grandmother because I admire how she survived for so many years.

One of the central tenets of no-till organic gardening and farming is to never leave soil bare, especially through the winter. Planting a cover crop at the end of the season is one way to do that, but it can be challenging in the fall to get a good crop started before the cold weather sets in, and challenging again in the spring while you wait for it to size up before planting your main crop.

On my farm, I address these challenges by mostly avoiding seeded cover crops, and instead applying lots of what I call “nature’s cover crop”: leaves, and lots of ‘em. I aim to put about 4” of leaves on all my garden beds beginning as soon as I can get them, usually late October through November.

Worms love leaves and the soil environment that they provide, and the worms do most of the work of breaking them down over time, leaving me with a rich, loose, fertile soil the following spring, still covered with a nice layer of mulch. At planting time I usually rake the leaves on the beds into the paths, allowing the soil to warm quickly, and then add it back by the handful or forkful as the season progresses. Unlike hay mulch, you won’t get stray weed seeds in your leaf mulch, except maybe an acorn or two.

This September we are focusing on Soil Health, with statewide events focusing on healthy soils practices and indicators taking place on the first and last days of the month and many days in between.

Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge will kick off the month on September 1st with a detailed farm tour emphasizing their methods for increasing the productivity and resilience of their farm through stacked enterprises and farming practices centered on enhancing soil health and building soil carbon.

For the middle of the month, we will offer a free series across the state entitled “What’s Going on Down There? Soil Health & Fertility Assessment for Growers.” The focus of these short, on-site workshops is to help gardeners and farmers understand how to utilize different tests to determine the health and fertility of their soil environment, how to inform their input and management decisions, and how to start understanding the ways that management practices, inputs, and soil biology intersect. Participants will go home with a Soil Health Field Test Manual (instructions and data sheets) and a handout of resources for labs where you can send samples of your soil.

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