Season of the Tomatillo

photo 1(20)It hasn’t been a great year for tomatoes here at the farm. Or should I say, it hasn’t been a great year for me taking care of my tomatoes. I planted them out in a newly-established garden that promptly got choked with weeds (and I didn’t get around to staking them, either), and although the garden was fenced, it was also inside one of the paddocks the chickens frequent.

The chicken-tastrophe that is (was) my main tomato patch

The chicken-tastrophe that is (was) my main tomato patch

Those young pullets know how to fly, and they also know how to take advantage of the woodchuck holes in the fence that keep re-opening in new places after I fix the old ones. Pullets are almost like hogs the way they constantly test the fence. And, having been dumb enough to throw all the rotten tomatoes just over that fence to the waiting chickens, I should not have been surprised that eventually they decided to just help themselves to the bounty.

Eight feet tall...and no chickens in sight!

Eight feet tall…and no chickens in sight!

That’s alright—I still harvested plenty enough to do a few roasters full of smoked eggplant-and-tomato sauce, and a bit of salsa, too. And, I have a few choice varieties staked up nicely in the raised bed garden, as well as all the volunteers that made it through the first few rounds of weeding in the lower field garden. We’ve got plenty left for fresh eating, and to be honest, my appetite for canning is waning now that October is well underway. Somehow, I thought living up here in Minnesota might shorten the season, but climate change just keeps on keepin’ on. Soon, I’ll need new excuses not to go on preserving into November. Christmas canning? Oh. My. Lord.

Naked and ready for processing

Naked and ready for processing

But, even though they’re planted in that same garden, the tomatillos have fared much better. Apparently, the chickens aren’t aware of what goodness lies beneath that papery husk, and even though there’s only one row, those big, weedy plants have held their own with the other weeds to provide a real bounty.

The first time I grew tomatillos, I put in three or so plants in a little bed I’d newly broken out in front of a run-down rental house on Cottage Avenue in Vermillion, South Dakota. The house has since been torn down, but when I lived there, the goal of the gardens was part production and part hiding how beat-up the place was. I had morning glories twenty feet up the south side, and sunflowers more than half that height. It was a riot.

The old Cottage Avenue house and garden

The old Cottage Avenue house and garden

The tomatillo bed was right in front, and I remember when the mailman (always kind of annoyed at how the un-latchable storm door would whack him unexpectedly when the wind came up) asked me what the heck they were. At that point, I knew what they were, but I’d never done anything with them. Then came the harvest—these weird little green tomatoes inside a sticky, papery husk with a decidedly citrusy “twang.” But there was a Ball Blue Book recipe for salsa verde, and one night, my friend Matt and I decided to try it out—making a few small amendments as we went, as we’re both prone to do.

The result was seven half pints of a salsa so delicious that we declared it magical and ate it all up much faster than was reasonable. It had been much, much too long since I have grown them again. This was the year, and the variety was a big green one from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They’re huge—some of them bigger than golf balls—and they’re juicy and tangy and I’m in love with them all over again. I’ve re-visited the salsa recipe (thankfully, I’ve still got the notes from my sooty old Blue Book edition that went through the house fire), and I’ve also made a chili verde sauce with tomatatillos, chiles, onions, garlic, and our own chicken stock that gets pressure-canned in quarts and stored for pouring over winter roasts in the crockpot.

The beginnings of a chili verde sauce

The beginnings of a chili verde sauce

Yesterday I pulled from the garden what might be the last fifteen or twenty pounds and did another batch of the chili verde sauce for canning tonight. There are more tomatillos out there, but the nighttime temperatures are dropping, and I’m not going to bet on the last of them sizing up and splitting their husks before the frost hits. And the chickens may develop a taste for them yet. The oven at 450 degrees knocked out the nighttime chill and sent a delicious scent wafting throughout the house.

Our own frozen chicken stock, melting into the pureed roasted vegetables

Our own frozen chicken stock, melting into the pureed roasted vegetables

I won’t claim that this is the last thing I’ll can this season, but it might be. The end is creeping ever closer, and the killing frost can’t be far away now. The projected low tonight is 36 degrees…though it looks like it’ll creep back up into the 40s and 50s the rest of the week.

We might not have as many cases of “red” this year, but the shelves of canned goods are still looking well-stocked in a festive shade of green.

Winding Down; Winding Up

It’s forty-five degrees this morning on our little patch of the prairie.

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Long underwear weather, and last evening’s rain coupled with the later morning light gives me not-enough-time to prepare for today’s expected-then-abandoned foray to the farmers market. I can’t even see to clean out my car of the various beverage containers, road food wrappers, gallons of water refills, and cases of canning jars both purchased and scored from a friend’s trunk during a chance meeting at the liquor store yesterday–after she and I had forgotten them on multiple trips to each other’s farms over the course of more than a month.

So many details to remember this time of year. When did we last put salt in the softener? How many days after the last pick-up will it take to get the trash cart back up from the end of the driveway? Who has looked in the mailbox in the past week?

These are all the regular chores of day to day living. But there is also, who can we find to scale the peaks and clean out the gutters? When will the outer door be re-framed so the snow doesn’t blow in? Another load of straw for the chickens’ winter bedding, and the gamble of leaving the ripening squash in the field for another week. The last of the onions need pulling (have needed pulling for a month now) from their vast bed of weeds, which also need pulling—and transporting with their full seed heads out of the growing space. The chickens are in the tomato garden again—the groundhog must have made another hole in the fence that needs repair.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

The Meander approaches—that great Upper Minnesota River Valley art crawl that provides a big boost to the income of artists, cafes, grocery and gas providers all over the region. Three days of hosting hundreds of visitors to our farm, the preparation for which takes place over the course of months but really winds up in the last couple of weeks.

This year we have the new timber frame studio space to welcome people—a feeling of relief after last year’s set-up took over the entire lower floor of our home, reducing meals to an awkward few bites over the table/check-out area crammed against the wall to open up the “gallery” of the dining room. Easier just to snack on sister Ann’s cookies all weekend and drink too much coffee. I suppose that’s what we’ll do again this year, though excuses for that behavior won’t be as easy to come by.

At 6:30, light begins rising—enough to silhouette the farmstead trees and outline tassel-tips in the cornfield to the east. Venus still shines in the upper darkness, and a lone bat makes a last pass. No birdsong yet—except that Oskar is crowing in the coop, and Wilson, one of our “surprise” cockerels, is emulating with his adolescent cackle. The lower gardens hold deep shadows—protecting rabbits free to forage now that the cats have come in, eaten their kibble, and dozed off in the piles of unfolded laundry on the couch.

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Canning is almost a daily affair now—all the food preservation equipment should probably just live upstairs until the gardens give out. The 18 quart roaster’s on the table in front of me; the food mill and pressure canner in boxes on a chair behind, and the boiling water bath is still on the stove-top after last night’s quadruple batch of salsa verde. The dehydrator hasn’t yet made its yearly appearance, but celery leaf is on the agenda (a two-part process, as the stalks get chopped and frozen), and the shell beans will need finishing after the season’s ample rains.

And then there’s the shelf-stable produce–onions, once pulled, need time on the sun porch table to cure—squash is likely to fill up the rest of the area where we ate when daylight was long enough for working late and supping at sunset. At least the garlic is dug, cleaned, cured, and put away—though bags of heads labeled and sorted for seed are waiting out there for re-planting in the next month.

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At 7:30 it’s finally light enough to let the chickens out. My toes feel frozen and I’ve resorted to my earflap cap, but they seem immune—even energized by the sudden drop in temperatures. That’s good—the coop is unheated, and it’ll be a lot colder than this come winter, even with their deep layer of straw. I’ll give their house a final cleaning-out (and my compost pile a top-dressing) before we start creating that heat-generating pack of manure and straw that gives them a little extra insulation against the extremes of the dark season. But not this morning—the early half of the day is prime laying time, and I’ve been scolded enough by perturbed hens to know I should just stay out until the sun shifts west. It’s their house; I’m just the cleaning crew.

Gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Ridiculous gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Since I’m not at the farmers market, and I’m not allowed in the chicken house, the morning will have to shift the other work. Will it be the twenty pounds of wild plums in the studio fridge, waiting to be turned into jam? Should I attempt the celery project? What about harvesting the squash or pulling the onions? A deep cleaning of the cold storage room would be useful progression.

Best to think on it a bit over breakfast, then take out the compost, wash the dishes, put salt in the softener, and finally bring the trash cart up from the road. I’m sure after all that I’ll figure out something useful to do with my time.

Salad Days

June has sprung, and with it the gardens are growing like mad–right alongside the weeds.

Since the tomato garden is a newly cultivated spot that last year sprouted an impressive selection of summer weeds, the seedbank for pigweed and lamb’s quarter is well-stocked. After a weekend’s worth of rain, a second hoeing was in order to take out the germinating pigweed at the white thread stage.

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Pretty much the entire sixteen hundred square feet of the garden looked like this, and with the forecasted rain Friday night and Saturday, these weeds had to go before they could get another drink and start creating a more complex (and difficult to kill) root system.

The tomatoes in their raked-up raised beds needed mulching, too–keeping the root systems a little more cool, suppressing the next flush of weeds, and preventing soil erosion from heavy rains. It took pretty much all day to finish the one garden, with chunks of time for breaks and other work. John pitched in at the end, helping rake the hoed soil back up onto the mounds while I laid straw.

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So, things are starting to look a little more put-together in the gardens, and the deer have been fairly moderate in their incursions (Plantskydd helps). The raised beds are sprouting a few new crops since I went willy-nilly out into the rain last weekend and thumbed-in summer squash, cucumbers, flint corn, and okra. I took the early spinach and arugula out from either side of the peas a few days ago, and yesterday I pulled the last of the bolting bok choy, radishes, and sad-looking broccoli raab and rolled up the row cover.

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In the early brassica bed, that left a big, open space next to the Hakurei turnips. Thought about planting some fall carrots in there, but those beds are the original ones we inherited with the farm, and they’ve been gardened pretty intensively over the last few years. There’s really not much for organic matter in there, and I happened to have a big bag of my favorite summer soil-building cover crop: buckwheat. So, instead of a crop to feed us, I planted a crop to feed the soil–and the pollinators, too, when it flowers.

Speaking of pollinators, I finally saw the first bumblebee of the season!

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Bumbles love onion flowers, and they always seem especially drawn to these perennial Evergreen Hardy White green onions. They aren’t as refined as some varieties, but they are a great, sturdy, never-say-die crop. These are the descendants of the ones I started from seed back in 2005–they always get divided and tucked in the corners of beds and other odd spots, and I always let them bloom because then I know whether the bumblebees are surviving or not–if there are bumblebees anywhere near, you’ll see them on the onions.

Back to the soil organic matter issue–I took a few images yesterday of what it looks like when you have plenty of it and what it looks like when your soil is depleted of it.

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The first image, which is the bed where I cultivated and sowed buckwheat yesterday, looks nice, doesn’t it? All smooth and dark-colored and pretty. It is depleted of organic matter, but looks better than the bed next to it because it had floating row cover on it, which helps absorb the impact of raindrops (and watering), plus it had had a nice leaf canopy from the spent greens I’d just removed. Still, the soil was compacted underneath, and the cool-loving greens that came up early and fast ended up going to seed faster than I’d anticipated–probably due to how warm this dark, bare soil gets when the sun hits it and their inability to sink their roots deeper and tap into moisture reserves.

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But if you look at this second image of the bed next door, where the row cover and spent greens were removed a week ago, you can see that the lovely dark soil is crusting and cracking. Not a good sign. It’s hard for new seedlings to break through the surface, and once this soil is cultivated, the fine particles can easily blow in the wind or wash with heavy rain–the same thing that happens on a massive scale in all our clean-cultivated farm fields and leads to soil and nutrients clogging our rivers and streams. This bed will get a fall cover crop–maybe winter wheat–that will be incorporated into the soil in spring. Right now there’s flint corn planted on either side of the peas, and when that’s up enough, I’ll throw down some straw mulch to cover the soil.

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The last image is of a bed that got a liberal dressing of composted goat manure and bedding last fall before I planted garlic. I’ve got a couple of summer squash seeded in the middle, and a few other herbs along the outside. Watering this bed is like watering a big sponge. There’s no puddling, no washing–it just all soaks right in and stays there. The plants in it have no trouble breaking through the surface, and are well fed from the decomposed organic matter. Turning a fork-full of this bed reveals lots of worms, whereas the “clean” looking beds devoid of organic matter are mostly absent of these great garden helpers–it’s too hot in there, and there isn’t anything to eat!

But it hasn’t been all soil-building and weed control around here lately. We’ve been dining on asparagus snapped from the many little patches spread around the farmyard and tender salad turnips from our patch and that of a friend with whom we shared the seed. The spent greens gave us some nice meals, and there is more spinach and lettuce ready for the plucking. John even made a rhubarb pie–his very first from scratch with local lard we rendered last winter for the crust.

The guys went fishing a couple of mornings ago and brought home some nice catfish filets. On the way back, they stopped at a pizza place for lunch, and John was telling me about their surprisingly good salad bar. Harrumph, says I, and headed out to the garden to create some supper salads to put that chain place to shame with fresh multi-colored lettuce and spinach, baby dill snippings, chive blossoms, and the last of the early radishes.

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Beat that, Pizza Ranch!

And, John spirited us away one evening last week to a secret spot in the river valley. While Martin wasn’t too excited for a car trip to see flowers? Really? Flowers of all things?–the lady slippers were in bloom–literally hundreds of them along a boggy woodland edge in a magical display. Lucky us!

A pair of slippers ready for their lady

A pair of slippers ready for their lady

Hoe, Hoe, Weed & Mow

The onset of summer-like weather has jump-started the growing season–and the weeds. Last weekend, John, Martin, and I put in the tomatoes, peppers, and most of the rest of the onions and leeks.

This morning, before the real heat set in (I think it might’ve hit 90!) I hoed that whole new tomato garden to wipe out the first post-planting flush of weeds. They never look very menacing at that tiny “white thread” stage (named for their single thin taproot), but they are a lot easier to take out at that stage and in this hot weather, when any little soil disturbance makes them wither and die.

The Red Ranger broiler chickens are growing like the weeds, too. John took to calling them the “Drumsticks,” so I’m now referring to them as “Drummies.” They’re only three weeks old now, but I swear some of their legs are as thick as a full-grown laying hen.

I grabbed one up particularly recalcitrant one up in my hands this evening as I was trying to herd them into their kennel, and was amazed at how “meaty” it felt. Just solid and pulsing with heat and energy. I’ve never raised the typical Cornish Cross broilers, which some farmers I know are repulsed by for their tendency to do nothing but sit by the feeder and eat ’til their legs give out, but I’m impressed by the zip of these Rangers.

In the morning when I release them from their secure quarters, they all race out into the grass pen, flapping their wings and checking out anything that might’ve changed in the night. That’s not to say they don’t like their ration: I’ve taken to calling feeder-filling time, the “Drummie Scrum,” and I’ve also taken to filling a third feeder because fifty rapidly growing chickens at two feeders got to be a little too crazy for me to find amusing anymore.

The guys headed off to camp tonight, and I hope they have good weather for it (or at least that Martin is not scared, and the tent doesn’t leak–in that order). We have seen dark clouds roll through a few times today, and now there is lightning flashing in a few different directions. I got the raised bed garden watered early this morning, but I didn’t have time to water the tomato garden before work–I did water it yesterday, so it should be fine.

Instead of watering this evening, I stayed out ’til 9:30 or so weeding garden beds and cleaning things up with the gas trimmer–taking the cages off the rugosa roses and serviceberry and hazelnuts and trimming around them and the edges of border beds and around the buffalo berry bushes. We’ve got a couple of cattle panels leaning up against our power poles, and I pulled those out and trimmed underneath them, too. I think grass loves cattle panels more than anything–if you leave one sitting along a fenceline or in the yard for any length of time, it becomes a real project to pull it out.

I also took a hint from my friend and colleague Robin Moore, who is this amazing blacksmithing, flower-growing, skill-having woman I’m blessed to know. We were at a Women Caring for the Land gathering that Land Stewardship Project hosts in Glenwood, and she started talking about this guy who buys up all the old seed from garden centers and where-have-you and plants it all together in a big, crazy mix.

I got to thinking about all the one or two year-old flower and herb seed I have just sitting around, waiting for the perfect place to put it. Except there is no perfect place, and there is no time to individually plant every last thing I want to grow (or even that I have seed for). But what I did have is this kind of bare, ugly place along the west side of the goat barn that used to have a big pile of goat manure on it, and was sprouting a bunch of weeds.

There were plans for that spot–I was going to transplant the “secret stash” of hollyhocks that John has so far managed not to mow (my dear husband is a hollyhock-hater, but I will let him tell that story!), but with the weather so hot and the spot so remote from my normal watering route, that probably would’ve just led to more hollyhock demise. So instead I mixed up a great, big batch of flower and herb seed–from amaranth to cilantro to Thai basil to zinnias and everything in between–and I hoed up the area, kicked some soil over it, and we’ll see what grows. Oh, and dare I say the mix contains my mother’s special “no-mow” hollyhocks? Shhhhh!

Then I cracked a cold beer and sat on the corner of a garden bed in the deepening dusk–when all the bird calls sound as if they’re coming from far away, watching lightning play across the southern sky and the rain clouds curtain around the farm. The breeze was light, the mosquitoes were somehow absent, and I spent some well-earned time just enjoying the view of the work we’ve accomplished.


Pushing Too Hard

It has been a long while since there’s been a “She Said” post. Trust me, there are a few drafts in the queue, but this is the season of all-out work. Last Spring, “He Said” and I were still living in my house in Clinton and the focus was almost entirely on getting the house buttoned back up, so we could move in and ultimately have a lovely summer wedding on the farm.

We accomplished all that and more, but the gardens and grounds got short shrift, and there was a pile a mile wide of tasks that got shoved from summer to fall to this spring–which ended up coming cooler and later than any of us would have wished. I keep reminding myself that the place I moved here from was the “banana belt” of South Dakota, and up here we’re about two weeks behind and ten degrees cooler than what I might’ve expected there–if expectations count for anything in our changing climate. From what my former farming partner has said, I got out of there just in time.

Of course, if you read on to learn the true nature of my personality when it comes to gardens, you’ll see that perhaps the “getting out just in time” comment wasn’t related to the global climate weirding at all. I am glad to see that others have taken over the garden space that once was Flying Tomato Farms–and less glad, though perhaps satisfied in some evil way that others are cursing that gumbo area along the western edge of the gardens that I cursed roundly on more than one occasion.

Listening Stones Farm lost three hens to Marek’s disease earlier this Spring, but it seems like everything has stabilized out in the coop now that the weather has somewhat stabilized. I’m down to eight hens a’ laying, but there are fourteen more pullets plus a young Black Australorp cockerel who’ve taken up residence in the hen house, and we’re getting about half dozen eggs a day–more than we can eat by a good measure, and eventually we’ll be offering eggs for sale rather than simply foisting a dozen upon every unsuspecting visitor.

A little over a week ago we picked up 50 Red Ranger broilers to fatten up over the next couple of months–part of a bulk order with a few friends over on the eastern edge of South Dakota. They (the chickens) are now out in their very own semi-secure quarters in the goat barn, awaiting the time they can set out within the grassy fenced pen to do what their name suggests (range, that is, not practice communism–we haven’t held a HUAC hearing as yet to know their political leanings, but rest assured, we are watching them very, very closely).

Communists? We are watching...

Communists? We are watching…

On an evening earlier this week, when Mr. White was getting ready for his MN Master Naturalist conference this weekend, I started getting anxious about a place to put the tomatoes. I knew where I wanted them, thanks to a brush-and-stump burning project down below the existing raised bed garden that left a small section of the prairie scraped and blackened.

I expressed my anxiety to the Mr., who was attempting to rest in order to get better from our latest plague (this winter and spring have been atrocious), and then I headed outside to pick eggs and survey my intended new garden spot. Heard a machine start, and here he came on the maiden Listening Stones Farm voyage of the 1979 JD 317 garden tractor that a friend recently gifted to us.

He did a couple of passes with me standing by a little disgruntled (My tractor! My garden! Waaah!) before he saw my tractor-tantrum coming on and willingly gave over the seat and went back inside to more fully recuperate. If you have somehow heard that I’m a saint for putting up with Mr. White, you have it exactly wrong. I am a serious pain in the arse when it comes to anything garden related (we can quibble over the other stuff, but in this arena, I humbly acquiesce).

Spent the next hour (or was it two?) cultivating my new garden space, and thinking very seriously that I should have bundled up better. But, you know, how can a gal leave her willing little tractor when it’s doing such a splendid job? Yup. And that’s how JGW got better enough to go on his splendid weekend adventure with the MN Master Naturalists, and I got what I deserved for not taking better care of myself.

I think I’m going to name the tractor Eunice. Or maybe Viola.

At any rate, I’ve been feeling rugged this weekend, though with the weather so perfect and no husband to remind me that resting on occasion and eating regular meals are reasonable things to do, it’s probably a good thing that my body is reining me in a little.

Puttered around with mowing on Friday evening–especially the goat pen where it was getting long (nope, we don’t have goats–the former owners built the pen and barn named for the beasts and we’ve stuck with it), but I avoided a big triangle of dandelions in full bloom and buzzing with early-emerging pollinators.

All at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden dandelions!

All at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden dandelions!

Saturday I felt the worst and only puttered slowly with broad-forking a bed running parallel to the road and planting with a buffer strip of sunflowers, amaranth, cosmos, zinnias, and broom corn to hopefully shield the tomato garden from spray drift from fields across the road (tomatoes are especially susceptible to herbicides). Moved a few finer-leafed daylilies from the raised bed in which they overwintered to a bed along the sun porch. They, along with several other perennials I’m still trying to figure out a place for, were gifted from Earth-Be-Glad Farm near Lewiston, MN.

Today…more small puttering repotting a bay tree and separating our tomato plants from the ones I’m offering for sale, plus a small amount of mowing that once again confirmed I am a total weenie when it comes to driving a riding mower over uneven ground. I remain convinced that I will tip over and kill myself on every bumpy patch–and we have quite a few of them even after I dumped several wheelbarrows full of sand into the foot-deep ruts where the septic pumper truck got stuck earlier in the week (a kindly neighbor came with his large tractor to pull the guy out).

Houseplants become deck plants in the summer.

Houseplants become deck plants in the summer.

It’s hard to slow down even being ill when it’s spring and you can finally get going on the pile a mile wide of projects. T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month, but really it’s May–the month that everyone up here is really yearning for in the depths of winter…when it’s really and truly spring and the weather is so fine and suddenly all the projects of the past six months are falling upon your shoulders if only you were well enough and there were enough sunny days to accomplish them….

There aren’t enough sunny days or hours within all the days of the month, even if they were sunny, to accomplish all one dreams about doing in the first deliriously warm weeks of the spring. Best to just recognize the limitations of one’s capacity and also the importance of taking time for pure enjoyment–of listening to the birds, dozing with the windows wide, and spending time with loved ones over a glass of wine in the gilded evening light.