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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.

Cover crops

Cover crops

I’m just back from another fantastic Winter Conference where it was great seeing so many of you, learning so much and having fun.

I was fortunate to be able to present a well-attended workshop for gardeners on the topic of soil improvement and carbon sequestration. Folks were really enthusiastic about the topic, and many plan on implementing some of these techniques in their own gardens.

Oats, field peas & buckwheat cover crop

Oats, field peas & buckwheat cover crop

It’s that time of year when the days are beginning to lengthen and the seed catalogues have started to arrive.  I’m still glad it is winter and I am hoping for more nice deep snow to keep my garden soil protected from the harsh winter temperatures and to inspire me to indulge in more cross-country skiing.  However, when not availing myself of an opportunity for a great aerobic workout, I’m happy to do my indoor gardening!  Time to dream and plan, while curled up next to the wood stove, with a cup of tea and the seed catalogues. 

cider pressing

Some of the pressing gang

Transitions and gratitude have been on my mind a lot lately while watching the change of seasons and the concurrent changes around the homestead, especially in the garden.

Many of the garden beds are still green with cover crops though the recent temperatures in the teens and 20s have begun to weaken them. Soon they will be dead and will have turned into a deep layer of mulch on their respective beds. I watch this transition with gratitude. I planted the seeds in August; the mixed cocktail of oats, field peas, field radish, barley, sorghum, and buckwheat grew and photosynthesized, vibrantly feeding the soil life, sequestering carbon, preventing erosion while retaining soil moisture, preventing weeds and providing habitat for pollinators. The transition will continue through winter and early spring. The dead plants, both tops and roots, will protect the soil throughout the winter, slowly decaying and becoming soil.

With apples producing on an every other year cycle this year will have a lot of apple processing!

With apples producing on an every other year cycle this year will have a lot of apple processing!

While I write this article, I’m sitting outside in the sun between our house and the garden looking at the incredible beauty surrounding me.  Mid-October and we still haven’t had a killing frost in the garden, though there was a light one in the pasture two nights ago.  The tomatoes are dead, as we were hit by late blight.  The cucumbers and squashes, both summer and winter are spent and ready for the compost pile, but everything else is still green and vibrant.   Especially the cover crops planted in August.

I’ve been busy preserving the harvest: canning, freezing, fermenting, dehydrating and storing in our root cellar.  Actually the root cellar is an old refrigerator we use until we redesign and build a new cold storage space.  Our previous one became nonfunctional after an addition to the house raised the basement temperature.  I’m looking into coolbot technology  (A gizmo that allows an air conditioner to cool a space down into the 30’s).  Maybe that will be my winter project. 

Mixed flock on pasture

We are away from the homestead, right now, doing some repairs on the house where Pru grew up on the Cape.  It’s much harder to think of a topic when I can’t be inspired by looking around the homestead!  But you can never really leave the homestead at home, and in a way our chickens followed us here…

The day after arriving here, we got a call from our friend Lilly who is taking care of the place while we are away.  Somehow some kind of critter breached our high-security system and got into the pasture.  One hen was killed but not eaten and another one was badly injured.  All were freaked out and flighty. Lilly collected them from their hiding places and locked them in the coop, buried the dead one and placed the injured one in the house in a cozy box.

1) Young cover crop planted on 18” space at end of onion bed

It’s been a great growing year, so far, and we’ve had an abundant harvest of delicious vegetables. The apple and pear trees are loaded with fruit soon to be enjoyed. Every year our soil becomes richer and healthier, yielding more nutritious and delicious food while removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering carbon in our soil. This is a continuous cycle of life creating and sustaining life.

I’ve been preparing a presentation about this biological growing technique (No-till and Cover Crops for us gardeners) for both a NOFA/Mass webinar and a workshop at the Summer Conference. If you are interested and missed these talks, you can view the YouTube video of the whole talk.

Today is the first really warm sunny day we’ve had in weeks. Walking through the garden and orchard I am grateful to hear the buzz of many flying creatures, and no I do NOT mean the black flies, though they too have their role in nature. However, I’m thinking of the many tiny native pollinators who are going about their business of living. And in doing so, they are also helping to make my life more abundant. There are over 4,000 native pollinators in North America and approximately 4,00 here in the Northeast. They are amazing creatures ranging in size from very tiny insects up to butterflies. Of course, hummingbirds, bats, birds and even mammals can also act as pollinators, but I’m focusing on our smaller, winged friends: bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, beetles, and flies.


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