Archive for the 'Growing food' Category

Jubilee Farm

When we drove up and parked at Jubilee Farm a crowd was gathering around the top of a little grassy hill, and I could see Erick Haakenson directing adults and children in what I at first thought was a giant tug-of-war game, folks lined up ready to pull on a rope. But it wasn’t a tug-of-war game. They were cocking a trebuchet. A trebuchet is a cousin of the catapult but instead of a winch a trebuchet has a weighted beam. You lift the weight and hold it in place with a pin. Pull the pin, and whatever you loaded into the basket attached to the unweighted beam-end gets flung out into the adjacent pasture, in this case a large pumpkin.

Arriving at Jubilee Farm. If you click for the larger version you can see the line of people about to pick up the rope.

Locked, cocked and ready to fling. Erick stands at far left on the hill while the three pullers pull.

Erick moved everyone except for three adult volunteers off the hill, for safety’s sake, and then the relocated assembly shouted a countdown from ten, at the end of which the volunteers pulled on the rope that held the pin, the pin came out, the 2,000-pound weight dropped, the beam rotated, and the pumpkin joined that relatively small fraternity of gourd vegetables that have been privileged to leave earth’s bonds momentarily behind, lifted into the blue sky above the tops of fir trees. It landed and exploded in a thud of yellow and orange, and all the children ran out to examine it.

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm occupies 200 acres at a sharp bend in the Snoqualmie River, near the town of Carnation. It’s a small farm owned and run by Erick and his wife Wendy. They raise vegetables and keep some livestock, mainly for the manure, and the farm is supported by a CSA program, wherein townies who wish to know where their food comes from and have a relationship with its grower pay an annual fee and receive weekly boxes of the farm’s produce in return.

It’s a princess patch.

I met Erick years ago at the Seattle Tilth Harvest Fair. He had a table set up with a few apples and other fruits and some vegetables on it, but he said he wasn’t really there to sell produce that day so much as talk with people about biodynamic farming, which is his passion. Biodynamic farming seeks to restore and maintain ecological balance, so, for example, instead of adding chemical fertilizers to the soil, BD farmers might use manure from cattle, returning nutrient to the soil from right there on the farm instead of importing something external. Basically, it’s farming in harmony with instead of in opposition to the processes of nature. But there’s also a huge emphasis on community in the BD movement, since the approach is based on a holistic idea of the health of the land.

Shortly after this encounter, we took Mara, who was then two years old, to Jubilee Farm to hunt down a pumpkin for Halloween. We climbed into a wagon for a free hayride around the edges of fields full of broccoli and squash and carrots and chard and onions and cabbage, and just before the tractor started to pull the wagon Erick himself jumped up into the wagon so he could ride with us and tell us how things were going that year. As we skirted the fields he shouted above the sound of the tractor to report that it had been a good year for some things but not for others. He talked about wanting to eventually get his tractors off of diesel and onto biofuels, in keeping with the biodynamic model.

I was entranced.

The man was singing my song, namely the song of can’t we just quit bashing the earth we’ve been given for our home and sustenance in order to make bigger profits and start being responsible stewards and reckon the health of our soil and our communities as a bottom line asset?

Silas explains one of his ideas to Mara. He has already proposed marriage and they talk a lot about the house they will build together.

We started planning how we might participate in Jubilee’s CSA program, which was not outrageously expensive but would amount to a rerouting of our food budget that would take some planning and experimentation and education for us to make work for us. Like how do you make a meal out of kohlrabi? And what the hell is kohlrabi? But that’s when we finally moved out of our tiny 1912 cottage-y house into our big swingin’ 1960s plate-glass windows and a two-car garage house (we don’t have two cars), and for several years we were burdened with a monthly mortgage that forced us to retreat from the expensive moral high ground where our food was concerned.

We never joined, and what’s more, we began getting our pumpkins at another farm up north every year with friends of ours who went there, whose daughter is Mara’s oldest friend. I’ve written about our annual trip to Craven Farm at least twice before, and we’ve had fun there. It’s a big operation and a well-oiled commercial enterprise, complete with tractor-pulled hayride through a corn-maze (not free), some small farm animals in a petting barn, a concession stand with a play-and-eating area, even a permanent espresso bar and a gift shop. We’ve been to weddings and other events at Craven Farm. It always seems to be stunningly beautiful there, tranquil and magical and…the word ‘shimmering’ comes to mind, and they have vast pumpkin patches, and a separate patch with smaller pumpkins for littler people. Even though you don’t necessarily feel the farmingness of it, there’s nothing not to like there.

Millie became rather attached to her tractor.

But for a number of reasons we decided to go back to Jubilee Farm this year. Even though we’d only been once before, a long time ago, we had been missing it. Or at least Angela and I had. Mara didn’t remember it. But she was game, especially since her buddy Silas and his mom said they’d go with us, and Millie at just two and a half years probably doesn’t even remember Craven Farm, so she was untroubled by the change.

When I saw Erick conducting the trebuchet firing I was immediately glad we had come back. It occurred to me that Erick is always outside talking with people, or driving the tractors, or helping people weigh their pumpkins. I love that. Whereas Craven Farm is big and smooth and feels a bit like going to a fair, like a place eternally at ease, the feeling at Jubilee is more like going to a holiday gathering at your favorite uncle’s farm. Erick and Wendy are always participating, engaging the people who support them not just by being customers, as Erick said, but by being part of the community that the farm operates in. This is a farm with a family at the center of it, and the families that visit it during weekends like this are often families that have worked in Jubilee’s fields in a “workshare” capacity. They know Erick and Wendy and Erick and Wendy know them. At Jubilee Farm, you get a whiff of the realness, the danger, the dependence on the weather and on the community of friends, the skin-of-their-teeth determination that keeps Erick and his family in the game.

Getting our gourd on. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

We caught a hayride out to the pumpkin patch and Silas and Mara had a blast running around and assessing the features that in their minds make up the ideal jack-o-lantern. There weren’t pumpkins small enough for Millie to pick up in the field, but she found a tiny one she coveted later at the cashier’s counter. The wagon picked us up with our chosen pumpkins to take us back to the barn. All three kids enjoyed a large haybale maze in one of the sheds, and Millie twice climbed up unaided into an old International tractor, whose gear levers she seemed to intuitively understand. We had gotten there late and things were closing down. It had been a beautiful day, even hot, which I think surprised everyone. There was hot cider and hot corn on the cob for sale on the barn porch, but we bought popsicles out of a freezer.

Erick’s son David conducted an end-of-day pumpkin fling with the trebuchet, and the dwindling crowd again pulled the rope to lift the 2,000-pound block. This time I shot my hand up when volunteers were called for to pull the pin. It took me and the man and woman with me three pulls with all our might before it came out. I fell to the ground. The pumpkin arced through the sky. The children ran after. It was great to be part of the fun.

David Haakenson readies the trebuchet for another fling.

Silas and his mom had to leave, but Angela and the girls and I took a stroll down the long road across the highway — Angela had asked Erick where the cows were that we kept hearing. A quarter mile down the road the cows were in a pasture picking at what little green there was in the grass after the long drought we’ve had since late July or so. Angela and Mara fed them over the electric fence. If I understand correctly these animals are the engine of soil replenishment for Jubilee’s crop fields. Most of the calves were black — all black, even their faces. The cows were mostly black or black with white faces, though some were a dirty white and one or two were brown.

It was cool in the shadow of Tolt Hill, and a little mist was even coming up, even while the lowering sun was still painting the treetops across the valley. The quiet between the lowing of the cows was soul-enriching. David came walking down the road to check that the fence was on. With him was his wife Kristin, who was carrying their baby son Micah in her arms. He pointed to the new barn being built across the fields, and told us that the cows were being so vocal partly because they were unhappy about the lack of green grass. He said they were moving the herd every 24 hours in an effort to make the fields provide enough nutrient to keep them fed until November, when they’ll go into the new barn for the winter (in the barn, I happen to know, they’ll get good hay that was put up at the end of the summer – dry but tasty).

Millie in the shade of the barn. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

Silas and Mara enter the haybale maze. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

Angela and I missed the tradition of doing Craven Farm with our old friends, but this feeling was more than mitigated by the fun we had discovering new adventures with new friends. Mara had not uttered a single word of discontent (she was happily capering with Silas). Jubilee’s patch was not as large nor as plentiful as Craven’s, and there were no wheelbarrows to stick your toddler in when they tired of tripping around among the pokey vines and stems. Sending us off in our haywagon, Erick had acknowledged that “at Jubilee we grow pumpkins with our left hand; mainly we’re all about biodynamic vegetable growing.” But, he said, he was glad we were here and he thanked us for coming, and in his voice I could hear a person who really knows the non-monetary value of people, of community. We’re not sure Jubilee Farm will be our annual pumpkin patch until Millie is old enough to tromp around on her own, but Jubilee Farm is busy with family events all year and we want to find a way to work this wonderful little farm into the rhythm of our lives.

Lettuce pause

Than growing food I can imagine no worthier enterprise. It’s what I should have done with my life, what I would be doing if I didn’t have to work. I know, I just said that out loud to fully imbibe the insanity. Those of you who have followed this blog since early days may recall that we grew peas a few years in a row, and lettuce once before, and pole beans and pumpkins and cucumbers and tomatoes, but then the wave seemed to break on our heads and we’ve been awash in too much to do since then.

A good season for green and purple lettuce.

For several years now our yard has of all things most closely resembled a weed preserve. I can hear the voice-over for the conservation video:

Here in this suburban enclave nestled in the unlikely environs of North Seattle, vegetate supercompetitors such as ivy, clover, morning glory, blackberry and dandelion are free to flourish and reproduce without the threat of physical and verbal abuse (harm to both root and reputation) that they would otherwise face. Ivy clambers exuberantly up every vertical surface, morning glory and blackberry raise their periscopes to the sunlit world from below every square foot of garden, clover and moss sashay unchecked across every corner of the lawn, dandelions sink their carroty anchors deep among the grass roots, and the grass in turn moseys into every patch of cultivated earth…”

I can barely keep the lawn mown.

So it was something of a victory over entropy when Mara and I went out one day in February, pulled all the three-foot weeds out of the farm box I built years ago on the planting strip by the street, mixed in fertilizer and compost, and planted some peas and lettuce — two kinds of romaine, Valmaine (green) and Petite Rouge (purple) — from Territorial Seed Company seed packets we had purchased at City People’s the week before. I was careful to let Mara do the actual dropping of the seeds so she could feel she really had a hand in it, because I had no intention of making her weed the box later, inflicting the lessons of toiling at cultivation on her at her age — just the thing to kill her very real enthusiasm for playing in soil.

The ones that made it. We like the Sugar Sprint variety.

It almost didn’t happen, but we did it at the right time. Of course, with the maddening late freezes and pelting rains we get here ONLY right after you’ve carefully planted seeds, the peas were much disturbed. They’re hardy little buggers, but heavy rain turns them up out of the soil, and…well, I don’t know if the late cold really hurts them, but at all events half of them didn’t come up. I was so excited to have lots of snap peas this year, they’re so tasty right off the bush. We will still have peas, but not the lush bounty I’d planned.

The lettuce has so far fared better. We didn’t do any successive plantings, so it’ll just be one short crop, and you have to thin the rows to give the best individuals maximum room to grow, so you lose a lot there, too. I’ve purposely let Mara’s lettuce rows grow as much as I could before thinning them — you’re supposed to do it as soon as they come up — so that we could eat what we thinned. This past week the lettuce really put on weight, both varieties, and so Mara and I thinned the rows and took the thinnings inside and washed it. I let Mara use a very sharp knife for the first time in her life to cut the earth-ends off each clump, and tonight we enjoyed tasty, wholesome greens fresh from the garden in a little salad that we ate with our cheese pizza.

Ham over salad. Mara shows off the first greens of the year.

It was a delicious harvest. I’ll get to the weeding later. Or not.

And behold, they ate of them

A few weeks back I wrote about the way Mara seemed to be charmed when it came to windowsill propagation and backyard farming. In that post we made much of the fact that she had thrown a handful of wasted spuds into a patch of unamended soil — one might be excused for using the word “dirt”, normally anathema to plantsmen — covered them over and forgotten about them, and from this unfretful sowing came four large and verdant potato plants. True, it was I who remembered to toss a little water their way when the heat finally came in August, but I almost didn’t because I didn’t really think new potatoes were hatching under there. As you saw in the post, potatoes were indeed growing — Yukon Golds — and we gathered them up at summer’s end.

Mara enjoys the fruit of her labors. That's face paint on her cheeks, by the way (a different story).

I just wanted to report on the end of the story, at least for this year. Knowing that the way things go around here Mara’s spuds would have rotted in the garage — a sort of fitting circular journey since that’s where she found the original bag Angela had abandoned there — before we ever did anything with them, I suggested we bring them upstairs and whup ‘em up! Mara and I washed them, I sliced the littler ones into home fry chunks and the two largest ones into French fries, and Angela baked the home fries up with some fish sticks the next night. (The French fries we’re saving for another occasion.) And let me just testify, these potatoes were delicious!

I’m so tickled about the way this all went down, I just had to take a photo. I don’t know, it just blows my mind that Mara did this. It seems like she was a baby a minute ago, and now she’s practically growing food by herself. To produce sustenance out of the earth is one of Ye Bigge Thynges, is it not? Okay, I’ll stop yapping about it now.

Just growin’ stuff

A year or so ago, Mara got curious about the apple seeds that tumbled out of the many Honeycrisps and Pink Ladies we eat around here, wondering whether you could grow them into new apple trees. Apples are not grown from seed, because they do not “breed true” from seed. That is, the seeds of an apple have a different genetic composition than their parent, so that if you grow an apple tree from seed, you will not know what it looks or tastes like until it fruits. For this reason, a farmer coming upon an apple tree grown up wild in his hedgerow will always wait to taste the apple before he chops it down. You never know when the next Granny Smith will emerge. This is in fact how the Granny Smith apple was discovered — growing wild in Australia as the result of a chance hybridization. The discoverer, Maria Ann Smith, had the foresight (and good taste) to cultivate it, which is done not by seed but by cuttings.

Like the forlorn seeds thrown out the window in Jack and the Beanstalk, these spuds throve where we tossed 'em.

Nevertheless, Angela showed Mara how to lay a damp paper towel in a clear-sided glass and then wedge the seed between the glass and paper, so that they could watch it sprout a shoot and a root. All you have to do is remember to keep a little water in the bottom of the glass so that the paper towel keeps wicking it upward to surround the seed with moisture. Unfortunately, several attempts that they had started together failed after one or two true leaves had emerged. Oh well. Kids don’t have much interest in long term projects like that anyway, right?

One day I came home and saw one of Mara’s clear plastic drinking cups on the kitchen window sill with a wad of damp paper towel not very carefully folded inside it but applying enough pressure on a little apple seed in there to keep it moist. I asked Angela and she thought I had done it. Then Mara blithely stated that she did it; she had wanted to try growing an apple tree again. We kept it watered, and it sprouted, first the root, then the shoot with its cotyledons — the starter leaves that are folded up inside the seed. In a few weeks it had true leaves on it and the root was thriving. It lived on the windowsill for months, until we finally transferred it to some good soil in a little pot. It’s out on the deck now, having put on several inches of stem that has turned woody over the summer. She did the same thing — on her own, and by her own initiative — with pear seeds and got several to sprout and grow small pairs of true leaves before they expired in the hot sunny windowsill from dehydration as our busy summer advanced and we neglected to keep an eye on them.

We were a little startled that Mara had done all this all by herself. It’s exactly the kind of self-directed learning we want to encourage in our daughters. I used to work in nurseries and botanical gardens, and had at one time considered making a last ditch to get out of deskwork by being a nurseryman on my own, but it didn’t work out. If Mara or Millie became a plantsman I’d be extra happy — I say ‘extra’ deliberately because I will be happy whatever they do, as long as they are happy in their work.

These are just the ones that pushed up out of the ground.

A while later Mara noticed a sack of old Yukon Gold potatoes that Angela had abandoned in the garage. My roommate Dave used to leave the last bit of milk in his half-gallon carton in the refrigerator and buy a new one, then when you’d ask him how long he was going to leave that older carton there he’s say, “oh, is that mine?” And he wasn’t being cagey. He just didn’t recognize his own carton after a certain amount of time, no doubt something to do with a subconscious fear of rotten milk. I used to tell him he had dairy myopia. Angela has garage myopia. Once she puts something down in the garage, she can never again perceive that item with ocular vision. I jokingly told Mara that those potatoes were “past eatin’” and that we should plant them in the ground. This idea seized hold of her, and she begged me to help her plant them.

I told Mara that these were not the best spuds for that, that nurseries sold “starter potatoes” just for that purpose, but she insisted, since we would just throw them out anyway (she was mistaken in this: I would have let them sit there and grow tentacles just to see how long Angela would continue to not see them. Jeff and I once did this with a potato that Kip left on top of the fridge when we all lived together in the Spoon, and it eventually looked like a green hairy spider, its shoots hanging down the sides of the appliance, before we gave in and asked Kip to put it out of our misery. Not surprisingly, he could not remember having had anything to do with it.)

We took the four wrinkled, knobby spuds outside, scraped some holes for them with a trowel, tossed them in and covered them up. What you’re supposed to do is create a situation in which you can keep covering the plant with more soil as it grows upward. As the plant chases the light upward, it leaves bunches of tubers along the root. I did not have time to make a “potato chimney” (a stack of tires, such as a real man living in a semi-rural area might have lying around, would be perfect for this) so I told Mara not to expect much. It was truly a slap-dash operation.

Harvest.

But the patron saint of plantsmen, if there is one, must have been smiling upon Mara’s latest growing enterprise, for within days great green shoots shot up and unfurled big green leaves. We didn’t have to water them through the spring and most of the summer because the sun didn’t come out until August this year, so mostly we didn’t pay them much attention. But the plants grew vigorously and put out lots of foliage, and during August and September I watered them whenever I watered the pots on the back patio and we could see the potatoes pushing out of the soil. I assumed that what we saw emerging were merely the humps of the originals we had planted, but if I had bothered to look closely I’d have noticed that they were smooth and brown, not green and wrinkled. They were brand new tubers. Still, we didn’t even mound up the soil over them like we should have. I figured it wasn’t really worth doing since we weren’t “really” trying to grow potatoes, it was just one of Mara’s quixotic experiments.

But when the tops died back and it was time to pull up the plants and see what we had, I was shocked. The ground was full of potatoes. A few moderate-sized ones and a lot of little ones, and even a honker. I guess I expected that since we had basically flouted all correct procedure we would get very little return, but I was wrong. Mara harvested a basketful of doughty little spuds, grown by herself. Mara was very pleased, and not at all surprised. I was bowled over and determined that next year we are going to “do it right” and see what golden harvest awaits.

Nectarate vb trans. nectarated; nectarating

Because of the lack of rain all year until now (when the tomatoes would rather be dry, thank you), a ritual has emerged at this household, wherein I get up before the princesses (my wife and daughter), prepare coffee, tea, and milk, and head out to water the crops and those plants in the yard that are not accustomed to rainless springs or whose roots are not yet deep enough to find moisture in the ground. Angela and Mara usually follow with their beverages a few minutes later, and we water, inspect, and play, each according to his or her interest and ability.

Angela watches the pumpkins particularly closely. There are only three plants, but each of them has put out fifteen feet of laterally creeping vegetation on thick vines whose leaves unfold to a foot or so across and whose wiry tendrils have coiled around sticks and lifted them into the air. Along the length of these vines male and female flowers bloom, but the males start emerging first, in June, loitering around like boys do, waiting for their opportunity (and they have only one thing on their minds!). The females emerge later in the year, and there are fewer of them. Each flower opens for just a few hours one morning, then shrivels up and dies. That brief span is all the chance that flower has of mating. For the males, the prospect is grim. Most open, find that they are too early or too late, and then die. It’s kinda sad, really. The females have a better chance, since there are likely to be one or two or three males about when they open, but then there’s the little issue of mobility. The flowers cannot get to each other. Fix’d upon the vine, these Capulets are held forever apart from their multiple Montagues.

A successfully nectarated pumpkin.

A successfully nectarated pumpkin.

Thank God for pollen, which is transferable, the medium of veggie sex. On the other hand, nature’s way of moving pumpkin pollen from male to female flowers requires the intermediary agency of bees, who unfortunately, and despite all appearances, have little interest in pollination. Pollen gets on them while they’re in there scraping up nectar, the juice that lures them inside, and if the plant is lucky, the bee visits a male flower and then a female, in that order, before heading off to other gardens. Possibly because of this dichotomy between the bee’s purpose in collecting nectar and the plant’s purpose in dusting the bee with pollen, Mara calls this process “nectarating”. She frequently points out bees busy in the garden and says “that bee is nectarating that flower.”

It has been Angela’s experience that in our neighborhood, the bees don’t do a very good job. She learned after the first year that she has to pollinate the pumpkins by hand. This means that she has to pay close attention to which flowers are about to bloom, and when a female opens she has to be there to take the stamens from a male flower and rub them all around the pistils of the female flower (which happen to be orange and curled up like the staves of a barrel, exactly how the fruit of the plant looks when it becomes a pumpkin — cool?)

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Mara and I went out to water and inspect and play. Angela was helping with the music in church that morning and had to leave the house an hour earlier than usual. The kid and I noticed that one of the female flowers had opened. We knew it would be shriveled up by the time church was done, so we decided to operate without Angela. Mara was excited to show me how, since she had seen Angela do this. There were three males available. I picked the first one, removed its petals, and serviced the female flower with its stamens. Mara coached.  I then picked another one and let Mara have a go, then I did the last one.

This flower did bear a fruit, but that week of record high tempertatures in Seattle followed immediately, and all the pumpkins in the area took a hit of stunting heat. The one we “nectarated” is about the size of a cantaloupe and seems to want to stay that way. However, one that emerged earlier in the season has gotten to a good size. Angela is looking forward to harvesting this one come Halloween. Every time she got a pumpkin to grow this big at our old house it was stolen just before All Hallows.


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