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“It’s an event like no other.” Agreed. It is a place where rural life is celebrated, and where three days aren’t nearly enough to see everything.

It’s a place where no one over 30 dyes their hair, and so salt & pepper are suddenly not just condiments. It is a place where people under 30 frequently do dye their hair, to colors not natural to man. Kool-Aid red, peacock blue, and eggplant purple are much more common than, say, blonde highlights.

It is a place where the livestock is often enormous, the food portions are generous, and no bottled water is sold. (Yes, they’re making a point.) The event is organized seamlessly, perfectly, thoughtfully – outside of Disneyland, I’ve never seen the like. Drinking stations where you can fill your own water bottle are plentiful, as are hand-washing stations, toilets, and parking spaces. All of these things combine to create an atmosphere of peace and calm. What more could anyone possibly want?

How about a quiet walk to the entrance, described by one sign-making wag as a “10 minute walk of wooded bliss”? It looked like this:

CG_ApproachTwo

Then look over the program. There are approximately 150 presentations/demonstrations/talks given EACH DAY, over the course of three days. What are you interested in? Farming/Gardening? Livestock? Cooking/Herbs/Health? Environment/Community/Education? Traditional Arts/Fiber & Fleece?

Here are a few of the better titles from the categories above:

Weave Like It’s 1699
Basic Dowsing
Getting Your Goats
Old Tales of the Maine Woods
When the Horse Says, “I am not leaving”

You get the idea. With the exception of “Basic Dowsing”, the presentations I attended were a little more mainstream. Beekeeping, heritage apples, medicinal herbs, gardening for birds and wildlife. And as for the dowsing course, I may or may not write about it. I came home with two brass dowsing rods and a complete inability to explain what I experienced in that class. I am still unsettled.

Let me show you some of the wonders of the fair. Of course, there was the lovely 2014 poster, which highlighted medicinal herbs, all of which I have grown except for stinging nettle. I remedied that (ha) by buying some nettle tea.

CG_Poster

There was the expected Exhibition Hall with proudly displayed vegetables and flowers from local farmers, including the “Judges’ Award” perfect leek:

CG_Leeks

CG_Flowers

CG_TableSquash

There were incredible crafts, including swags of switchgrass, lovely baskets, and items made from felted wool, such as this whimsical mask:

CG_FeltMask

And there were the animals:

CG_Oxen

Including piglets, with a generous offer to name the 6 mulefoot hog piglets. My suggestions added to the Name Jar? Tallulah and Walter.

CG_PigSign

CG_Piglets

There were the tents housing crafts, political agendas, and the offerings of companies large and small. One of my three favorite companies was there, the glorious Fedco:

CG_Fedco

There were the heritage apples on display, presented after attending a talk on heritage apples, and a discussion of how to find and offer scions (cuttings) of rare apple varieties:

CG_ApplePoster

CG_ApplesStraight

And then, of course, there were the people. Every flavor and style imaginable. Here are a few photos. The first shows the tenacity of the fair-goers despite the rainy blustery weather on Sunday. Crowded into a tent, with only their legs in view. Their heads were, I am certain, deeply engaged in the presentation.

CG_ButtsInTents

Then there was the total stranger who wore a t-shirt that I found so compelling that I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he’d mind if I took a photo of the back of his shirt. It said:

CG_Shirt

The front of his shirt said “Camp Wellstone”, as in the late Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota.

And finally, to end my day, this photo of what one fair-goer used as a bumper for his truck. Because, after all, why not do for yourself, take care of yourself, and be creative – if you can? Only in Maine.

CG_Bumper

I came home with three scarlet runner bean seeds (Jack never had magic beans like these), my dowsing rods, tea, presents, heaps of business cards and brochures, and a desire to research the background of Switchel – an old-fashioned haying drink that was offered at one booth. A concoction of water, vinegar, maple syrup, and ginger, it was as bright, delicious, and surprising as the fair itself.

I’m going back. I just wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year.

WORDS FROM OTHERS
“If you’ve ever been to the Fair, you know — and if you haven’t been, anyone who has will tell you — it’s an event like no other, that brings together so many people from so many walks of life, all in the spirit of celebrating the rural and agricultural traditions of Maine.”

–from the MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) home page, describing the Common Ground Country Fair

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We are the proud owners of two apple trees and one pear tree at our new home. One of the apple trees bore fruit this year. The house has been unoccupied for at least one year, so I am confident that these apples were not sprayed or tended to in any manner other than that dictated by weather and God. Husband saw those bright red fruits on the too-tall tree (it hasn’t been properly pruned), and ordered an apple picker.

ApplePicker

Because it is so late in the season, most of the fruit had already dropped to the ground. Deer and squirrels took care of that mess, and our dogs found a few remaining to carry around the yard – a sweet alternative to a tennis ball! But there were enough left on the tree to encourage the purchase of the picker and for me to plan that night’s dessert. Here is what we harvested:

ApplesInTheBag

There are 12 decidedly organic apples in that bag. Two were unusable – too much insect damage – but the rest went into a pie/crisp. More on that in a bit.

The debate about the merits of organic versus non-organic food production is a lively one. I am decidedly in the organic camp for health and environmental reasons, but the challenges of raising apples in particular, organically, are known. I did a quick search of a few representative opinion-holders in this debate. I chose three voices: medical, consumer, and Mother Earth News, and found the following (please note I have cut some content for space reasons. Ellipses are telling):

From the Mayo Clinic:
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/

“The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content. Research in this area is ongoing…. Some people choose organic food because they prefer the taste. Yet others opt for organic because of concerns such as:
• Pesticides. Conventional growers use pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects and diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, this can leave residue on produce. Some people buy organic food to limit their exposure to these residues. According to the USDA, organic produce carries significantly fewer pesticide residues than does conventional produce. However, residues on most products — both organic and nonorganic — don’t exceed government safety thresholds.
• Food additives. Organic regulations ban or severely restrict the use of food additives, processing aids (substances used during processing, but not added directly to food) and fortifying agents commonly used in nonorganic foods, including preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings and flavorings, and monosodium glutamate.
• Environment. Some people buy organic food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil quality.”

From the Daily Green (a consumer guide produced by Good Housekeeping):
http://www.thedailygreen.com/healthy-eating/eat-safe/organic-apples-pesticide-residue#slide-2

“Apples consistently rank near the top of the annual dirty dozen list. More than 40 different pesticides have been detected on apples, because fungus and insect threats prompt farmers to spray various chemicals on their orchards. Not surprisingly, pesticide residue is also found in apple juice and apple sauce, making all apple products smart foods to buy organic…. Some recommend peeling apples to reduce exposure to pesticide residue, but be aware that you’re peeling away many of the fruit’s most beneficial nutrients when you do so!”

From Mother Earth News online, October/November 2001:
http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/organic-apples-better-taste-comparable-yields.aspx#axzz2g5YT1Z2l

“Organic apple-growing methods leave soil in better shape and has fewer potential negative impacts on the environment than conventional growing methods do.

“The organic apples were sweeter and as firm or firmer than fruit from conventional systems. Organic methods also left the soil in better shape than conventional methods and had fewer potential negative impacts on the environment than conventional systems. The results of the six-year study were published in the April 19 issue of the prestigious journal Nature.”

To me, the conclusions of the debate are clear: How you raise food may or may not affect its nutritional value, but it will certainly affect its safety. The use of pesticides is of enormous concern, and keeping this concern in the public eye will insure that good science is practiced and the collective wisdom of farmers, scientists, and consumers will produce a safe and delicious fruit. Good science is good business, and both contribute to a healthy society. And as always, the most direct way to change the world to suit your point of view is to vote with your dollar. Is organic farming important to you? Then buy organic! Every business pays attention to where you spend.

But, back to the highlight of the day: Using the harvest! I only had one pre-made crust – not enough for a traditional pie. It was late – too close to dinnertime to shop. I decided to make a half pie/half crisp. I lined a pie pan with the crust, filled it with apples and topped it with my Apple Crisp topping. Here’s how:

Apple Crisp/Pie

Ingredients
Topping:
• 6 T flour
• 1/4 c light brown sugar, packed
• 1/4 c white sugar
• 1/4 t cinnamon
• 1/4 t nutmeg
• 1/4 t salt
• 5 T sweet butter, chilled, and chopped into chunks (for easier processing)
• 3/4 c pecans, coarsely chopped (for easier processing)
Filling:
• 8-12 apples (depending on size), peeled, cored, and cut into big chunks
• 1/4 c sugar (less if your apples are sweet)
• juice from 1/2 lemon
• zest from 1 lemon

Instructions
1. For the Topping: Put the flour, both sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a food processor. Add chilled butter and pulse until mixture is chopped to a coarse texture. Add nuts and pulse until mixture resembles crumbly sand. Don’t overprocess! Refrigerate the topping for at least 15 minutes.
2. For the Fruit: Toss the apples, sugar, lemon juice, and zest together.
3. Assembly: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place a pie crust in a pie pan, and pour the fruit in. Sprinkle the topping over the fruit, and bake for 60 minutes, until the fruit bubbling and the crust is browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.

And here is the happy result:

applecrisppie.b

Tip: Serve this with a scoop of the very best vanilla ice cream you can find. In our case, it is from the Round Top Ice Cream Stand in Damariscotta. Open from May 15-October 15, their ice cream is worth organizing your entire year around a visit to them!

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“Don’t get fancy. Have you cooked an apple pie? You don’t know what you did wrong? Do this: Take two or three apples. Put them on a table. Study them.”

— Paul Prudhomme (1940- ), American chef

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I am gardening by the thermometer and tradition this year, rather than by the calendar. My Good Neighbor always told me that St. Patrick’s Day was the traditional day to plant peas, but for the past three years, I worried that the ground was too cold, the weather too damp, and the Fates just not conducive to planting so early. So I waited for the calendar to turn at least one more page.

Not this year. It has been so warm that I almost wonder if I am planting my peas too late! I planted them on St. Patrick’s Day this year, pleasing both Neighbor and my common sense.

Three varieties this year, to mature early, mid- and late:

The early variety is from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and is “Premium.” The vines grow up to 30″ and may be grown with or without support. This year I plan to try using brush to support the vines, again with Neighbor’s advice to guide me.

The mid-season variety is “Sienna,” also from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and I’m told that the vines are relatively short but set heavily for a high yield potential. I am hoping this encouraging description comes true!

The late variety is “Green Arrow,” from the Seed Saver’s Exchange. Besides the later maturation, these peas are smaller than Premium and Sienna, and bear 1-3 more peas per pod. All attractive qualities.

As I did last year, to thwart the marauding chipmunks, I planted my peas and then covered them with recycled milk jugs. These homely-but-effective cloches provide a bit of warmth and a lot of camouflage for the emerging plants. Once the peas are a few inches high, I will remove the cloches, and replace the jugs’ anchoring sticks with brush or some other form of support.

Here is the start of my 2012 Pea Garden:

It was astounding both to Husband and myself that I still don’t have enough milk jugs. I have about 15 seeds planted, but not covered. They are marked with small rocks, to cover as soon as we drink our way through gallons of milk. I am setting out a box of Carnation Instant Breakfast on the kitchen counter as a subtle hint for family members.

Once the peas are established and the jugs are removed, I will only be a few weeks away from putting the jugs back into service to cover my bush green beans and shelling beans.

Ending this post with a few Fun Facts About Peas (because you can never have too many Fun Facts):

-The United Kingdom is the largest producer of peas that are used for freezing, in Europe.

-One serving of freshly frozen peas has more vitamin C than two large apples.

-In 1533, Catherine de Medici supposedly took Italian peas, known as “piselli novelli,” to France when she married Henry II.

-In the 19th and 20th centuries, the thick London fogs were called “pea-soupers” because of their incredible thickness (density) and their slightly green color.

– Clarence Birdseye froze the first peas in the 1920’s.

-Janet Harris holds the world record for eating peas. In 1984, 7175 peas were consumed one by one in 60 minutes using chopsticks.

Source: http://www.bioweb.uwlax.edu, a collaborative website produced by faculty members of the University of Wisconsin.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“Field pea (Pisum sativum, L.) was among the first crops cultivated by man. Some say the word “pea” came from Sanskrit; however, most concur that the Latin pisum, resembling the older Greek pisos or pison, is the true origin of the word. The Anglo-Saxon word became pise or pisu, and later in English, “pease”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, by 1600 the last two letters were dropped because people believed the word was plural, forming the singular “pea” that we know today.”

— Best Cooking Pulses, Inc.

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Happy Birthday to ME! Husband gifted me with a Compost Aerator from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

This fabulous tool is to composting what the whisk is to sous-chefs, an indispensable tool for lifting and gently mixing. I will post, soon, about the glories of composting, but first wanted to share photos of my newest weapon in the Sustainable Agriculture Arsenal:

The Compost Aerator in foreground, and the Compost Bin, from Gardener's Supply, in the modest background.

Notice the thoughtfully-clad handles in black ribbed rubber, giving a good grip — a grip that can be assembled for either right- or left-handed gardeners.

Notice the two sets of phalanges at the bottom of the tool, at 90-degree angles. The idea is that you position the tip of the tool on top of the compost heap and push down, like so:

Poised to plunge....

Once the aerator is well-down into the heap, you use your two hands-on-the-handles to turn the tool 90- or 180-degrees (depending on how enthusiastic you are feeling) and lift up.

This photo illustrates a Novice's 90-degree turn.

Then you lift up. As you lift, the phalanges flair (Alliteration is an ailment for Amy), and fluff the compost. And, ta da!, the compost is aerated! Hence, the name of the tool….

Look at the beautiful stuff on the wings of this tool!

And repeat until done. Or, until mixed to your satisfaction.

Air = optimum environment for microbes. And when the microbes are happy, composting occurs. And when THAT happens, Amy the Gardener is really really happy.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“Some gardeners avoid laborious turning by finding clever ways to introduce air into static piles.”

— “The Rodale Book of Composting,” Deborah L. Martin and Grace Gershuny, Editors

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I took out a wheelbarrow-ful of beautiful, dark, crumbly compost a few weekends ago, and photographed its relocation: where the cherry tomatoes used to be, and where the peas will be next year.

This is the most challenged of all of my garden beds. It is at the top of the garden, the most steeply-sloped, and the dirt only goes down a few inches before becoming riddled with small shale rocks. It is a ledge masquerading as a garden.

I will never plant root vegetables there. But, I hope, with a generous application of compost, I can build up that area enough that my pea plants will feel at home, and will produce bountifully for me next spring.

Also, its position at the top of the hill means it is in the most advantageous spot for the early spring sun.

Here are photos of my pretty dirt:

The dark dirt contrasts with surrounding weeds and heavily-trod paths.

From another angle.

I sprinkled straw over the compost to help hold it in place during winter's wet. I want this stuff on the beds, not the paths.

What’s next? Refilling the compost bin as quickly as I can. I have 9 more beds to go!

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“We no longer dig the garden. We spread compost on the surface and mix it in shallowly (an inch or two). Crop yields and quality are noticeably improved.”

— Eliot Coleman, “Four-Season Harvest”

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For once I’m not thinking, “Gee, I wish I’d done that earlier. I’ll do it better next year.”

My first-frost date in this part of Zone 6 is October 15th. That’s tomorrow, and I knew last weekend that I would not be home early enough, or able to go into the office late enough, to harvest my green tomatoes if frost threatened during the week. So I was proactive instead of reactive, and I harvested my blushing, and full-on-green tomatoes. It took me all day and I loved every minute.

I began in the early afternoon, a beautiful autumn day with a bright blue sky:

Most of the tomatoes were still green, but a few showed a promising blush.

I brought my basket into the garden with me, and filled it over and over again with potential.

I look at the green and see red. Salsa, spaghetti sauce, canned tomatoes.

As soon as the basket was too heavy to lift, I carried it over to the picnic table, and laid the fruit out in a single layer. It was an impressive sight:

First to arrive: the slicing tomatoes. The heirloom Moskvich and Brandywines.

The table was soon amply laid.

My version of the colors of autumn!

After reading all of the suggestions I mentioned in an earlier post about how to ripen green tomatoes, I chose the brown paper bag route. I gathered my supplies, lunch bags, paper clips, and trust (in the method).

A brand-new package of lunch bags made me feel like it was the first day of school. It was certainly the first day of a whole new project for me, this alchemy of turning green to red.

I put about 5 or 6 tomatoes into each bag — enough to encourage them to ripen (do tomatoes respond to peer pressure?), but not enough to risk crushing the ones on the bottom.

And sadly, the energetic greens and soft reds disappeared into the patient brown of the Great Wait.

And into the basement go the bags! To a spot that is cool and dry.

Slicing tomatoes in the background, paste tomatoes in the foreground. (trust me)

And, as Peter Pan would say, “Oh, the cleverness of me!” We’re having a torrential Nor’easter tonight and I bet I would have lost many of the fruits left on the vine.

I got them, and just in time.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“Ripe vegetables were magic to me. Unharvested, the garden bristled with possibility. I would quicken at the sight of a ripe tomato, sounding its redness from deep amidst the undifferentiated green. To lift a bean plant’s hood of heartshaped leaves and discover a clutch of long slender pods hanging underneath could make me catch my breath.”

— Michael Pollan

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Unlike this kaleidoscope of a month, this post will be mostly brown.

I decided to grow squash next year. I wanted to grow it this year, but was too greedy for real estate within the safety of the deer netting. Squash was too sprawl-y, compared with the more restrained, mannerly vegetables. I was certain the deer would eat anything that I really really wanted. So I resigned myself to opening my wallet for kabochas, butternuts, spaghettis, and acorns.

Then….a volunteer gourd vine from last year’s garden appeared on my hillside, and…

...the deer left it alone!

That was all the encouragement I needed. I secured permission from Artist Husband (No, I don’t have more than one husband. Just adding the qualifier so you don’t think I’m married to Controller Husband.), who’s only request for the astounding garden he dug for me was, “It has to look good.”

His definition of attractiveness is different than mine (think espalier versus borage) and apparently his definition is more universal than mine. (“If you didn’t plant things that look like weeds, the garden crew wouldn’t keep weed-whacking them down,” says he, after the third time the crew leveled my monarda bed.)

So I asked. Squash vines? On the hill behind the garden? Permission was granted with one condition. “Don’t make me eat them.”

Done!

So here is the Before photo:

Gentle slope, tipped towards the east. Perfect!

I cleared the weeds, and scraped out three large circles in the dirt:

The circles are roughly 3-4 feet in diameter.

My idea was to create three squash hills that began their careers as mini-compost heaps.

Coiling up the green part of the biomass, in this case the volunteer gourd vine that gave me the idea to grow squash here in the first place.

And then adding the brown of the compost mix:

In this case, the leftover straw from the bales I'd bought to cover my garden paths.

I’m hoping these heaps will start cooking and breaking down over the winter. Here are my three beautiful heaped hills:

I will add one more layer to these three hills: green and brown, and then, off they go, into the winter!

In the spring, I will add a layer of top soil, and then the fun begins. I will plant each hill with squash seeds. What will I choose?! Kabocha is a certainty. Butternut, maybe. Hubbards? The name alone warrants a close look. Acorns? Possibly. Spaghetti squash? Likely.

I will let you know, of course.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

Now in the east
the white bean
and the great squash
are tied with the rainbow.
Listen! the rain’s drawing near!
The voice of the bluebird is heard.

— Navaho Indian Chant, Songs in the Garden of the House God

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