A Project of the Community Action Agency of St. Louis County, Inc. (CAASTLC), we increase access to affordable fresh produce through our unique income-tiered CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model, bringing together members of all different economic backgrounds.
Hello everyone, I thought you may be interested in what’s happening at the farm here in mid-March. I’ve taken a few good walks around the property and of course have caught myself gazing out the parsonage window on the colder, more unforgiving days. I find observation to not only be incredibly important, but also one of the more enjoyable aspects of growing on a piece of land. To me it’s similar to “measure twice, cut once”. Only after careful observation and thoughtful planning should we fire up our toothed metal. The vegetable plot gets most of my attention, but it’s only one small part of this ecosystem, and late winter offers a great time to notice the not-so-obvious goings-on here in Spanish Lake. I’m trying to get better about learning botanical (Latin) names of the different plant species here so I’m including them where I can for practice. Also, I’m realizing I have an outdated camera on my phone, so the pictures aren’t quite what I’d like, but like many things, they’ll have to do.
One of my favorite things to do in winter is to look at trees. Without their leaves you can really get a feel for the form of different trees and shrubs, and some of the less obvious characteristics begin to stand out, like the striking differences among bark. We have two red mulberry (Morus rubra) trees on site (and one reaching over from a neighbor’s yard). Consider the bark of this adolescent red mulberry tree. It’s bronze – or even a bright sepia – and almost smooth (hard to tell in the picture), quite different than the dark gray and brown ridged bark we typically think of on our native trees. The flowers are several weeks off but the buds are noticeably swollen. These trees are all over the area and are great to forage during the summer. They’re often harvested by placing a sheet or tarp under the tree and shaking the low hanging branches.
I encourage you to take a walk and look at the buds on trees. Each species is unique, like a fingerprint. Which ones are opening? Are they leaf buds or flower buds? Most of the leaf buds I’ve seen open are bush honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), unfortunately, but the elderberry at the farm has started to leaf out. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is an easy plant to propagate from cuttings if you’re looking for a project. We didn’t this year, but they can be cut back completely to the ground each year to keep the plant a manageable size. You can even root the cut wood the following spring.
The white flowers of the serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), also known as Juneberry, shadbush, saskatoon, sugarplum, Amelenchier, and about 30 other names, are just peeking open. They’re a common Missouri native with delicious little berries that ripen in June. The name isn’t quite so sweet. It’s called such because early settlers knew that when the plant began to flower, that meant the ground was no longer frozen and thus they could hold service, and bury those who didn’t survive winter.
I planted two wild plums (Prunus americana) three or four years ago. I got them in the ground in early summer, a little late, and one of them missed getting watered for about a week before transplanting and the root dried out. I didn’t think it would survive, but it hung on, and you can see the difference in size between the two shrubs. Missing that watering set the shrub back a year at least, and even the big tree had some serious browse damage from what looks like a deer, though it’s healed up OK. The big one is getting messy so I’ll be sure to prune it after this season though I’m still not quite sure what form I want the trees to take. Wild plums, like other plants, can take either shrub or tree form depending on environmental factors and how they’re pruned. There appear to be some flower buds swelling in addition to the leaf buds so hopefully we’ll get some nice white flowers very soon, and of course some nice tart fruit.
The apple trees (Malus domestica) which were so rudely dug up – really, hatcheted out of the ground – and moved to Seeds of Hope a few years ago are looking better each year. We’ve pruned off the diseased wood and cleaned up the trees a good bit. Their flower buds are starting to swell. I’m hoping they’ll hold off another week or two as we’re still likely to get another frost. That early warm spell sure was nice, but it can encourage fruit trees to blossom a little early. Fruit trees have a built in system which prevents them from budding too soon. They produce a hormone which inhibits their growth (dormancy) until a certain number of “chilling hours” (temps below 45 degrees, for example) has occurred. Once the number of hours has been reached, a warm spell signals the end of winter to the resting trees, and they burst out of their slumber.
Sadly, it doesn’t look like the peach tree survived winter. I’m basing this on the buds. On the other trees they’re swollen, fleshy and green – you can feel the life pulsing in them. But the peach buds are black and corky; silent. Hopefully I’m wrong. Peach trees aren’t native to North America, and often run into disease problems here in Missouri. If it doesn’t come back we’ll cut it down promptly and plant something more appropriate, but equally as delicious.
Early summer last year I dug up a few comfrey plants, divided the roots into large pots, watered them for a few weeks and then forgot about them for the rest of the year. My intent was to see if they controlled bindweed, as I noticed comfrey was about the only plant it wasn’t vining on in the herb garden. I was throwing old pots away a week ago when I noticed some green pushing through a rosette of dead leaves. Comfrey is known for being nearly immortal so I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. I’m not sure what the future holds for these tough little plants. We divided and planted other comfrey in early winter to do that little experiment, so we’ll see how that goes.
We didn’t get to pruning the pear tree this winter. It doesn’t look like its been pruned in a long time, so we’ll have to make sure to get it next winter. That’s one thing about working with plants. You have windows of time to get certain things done like pruning, watering, harvesting, etc.. and if you miss the window you may miss the crop – or not – but that window may not come around again for another year, and so you’re stuck with the results of what you actually did, not what you intended to do – you reap what you sow, I guess. The pear could still be pruned, of course, but I’d rather wait since we’re entering the rainy season. Open wounds and consistent moisture are a recipe for fungal infections.
Technically not our plant – we just appreciate it from a distance – the neighbor’s forsythia is starting to glow. When its fully lit up on these muted, gray days it warms me up like hot cider.
Everywhere squirrels are digging up their acorn stashes. Fortunately for the oaks, the hapless little balanophages can’t remember where many are buried, so they’re both seed eater and planter. I guess the oaks have the last laugh. Common Grackles, the black birds with iridescent blue heads are out in force. They swarm to the ground by the hundreds, peck around for a short bit of time, then coast back up to the bare branches of the oaks in what seems a well choreographed fashion, similar to a school of fish (apparently a group of grackles is called a plague). I seem to only see them after the late morning hawk sorties which cruise just above the treetops to the south of our clearing.
Over in the vegetable garden the alliums are thriving. There is a noticeable size difference among the four varieties of garlic (Allium sativum) we planted last October, but I’m pleased with how the whole crop looks. We also overwintered scallions (Allium fistulosum) and they’ve recovered nicely after that tough two weeks of winter we’ve had. The tops have grown a few inches since then; they could be dug in a few weeks for a healthy crop. Normally they stick around until our first week of CSA, but I’ll keep a close eye on them. Just beyond the scallions are the leeks (Allium porrum) which were direct sown at the end of last summer. We’ll thin them a little in a few weeks and wait til they’re pencil thick before digging them up, dibbling a hole about six inches deep, and burying them almost completely in the dibbled hole. This ensures they have the nice blanching, or white stem that makes for the best eating. Last are the garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). I had a group of elementary schoolers plant clumps two falls ago and of course I neglected them all last year. Like the other alliums, they’re thriving right now so I’ve promised myself to take care of them this year. We’ll divide and propagate them thicker in their little section so we should have a nice thick stand come next year.
And of course the tulip and daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) leaves have pierced through the wet soil. I’ve seen a few Easter flowers blooming here and there, but ours are still a little ways away. I suspect by Easter Sunday church bells will resound inside little yellow flowers at St. Peter’s Lutheran – to the startled grackles’ ire. See you soon.
Well, there it is: another ring on the trees, another wrinkle under the eyes, another season behind us. I am already a bit sad about the end but I think it comes with the territory, or maybe it just comes with the time of year. If you would have asked me in early August right in the thick of it I’d have told you I couldn’t wait til the first of November, though now part of me wishes I could have back that dreadful heat – I don’t think it’s the sane part of me.
On the bright side there’s more time for other things, less pressure and more apple cider. There’s no more mosquitoes, no cabbage loopers or harlequin beatles, no cloud of flies swarming rotting watermelon rinds, no putrid tomatoes, no horse flies biting the back of your head or gnats flying up your ears and nose, no yellow jackets and sweat bees hovering over your lunch, no hornet stings or lurking spiders or snakes, no more back aches, cuts and slices, blistered hands or twine burns or sunburns, banged up knees and shoulders and ankles, no more nervous nights in May and June, no more 4 AM mornings to 10 PM evenings, no more praying for rain – or the opposite – no more crabgrass or creeping bermuda, tap-rooted goose’s foot or invincible yellow dock, over-encumbering morning glory or the immortal bindweed, no broken cooler panics, or leaking and kinked hoses, missing washers and bolts to ruin your day, no groundhogs, rabbits or moles; no more blood, sweat or tears.
And there are no more strawberries or peaches, no more fresh stir fries with green onions and cilantro and Asian greens twelve different ways, no more dandelions or juneberries to forage, no mulberry kombucha or sweet melon, no more buckets of tomatoes and sweet peppers, Italian flat beans or spring carrots, wood sorrel or chickweed, no more ruby-throated hummingbirds floating a momentary query nor goldfinches to spy in the honeysuckle thicket, fresh tilled soil and burgeoning seedlings waiting in the nursery, no more thick stands of arugula or cultivated rows of carrots and radishes, no sprawling butternut vines or cucumbers hanging from the trellis, no plump pea pods playing hide and seek, no lavender sweetening the wind or fresh cut basil on the table; no more smell of spring rain. I don’t guess you get one without the other.
So what am I to do?
Last year around this time a fox came to wander about the farm. It seemed odd as we sit well into a neighborhood of houses, the nearest thick woods being still some ways away, not even to mention any wild, open land. No doubt in order to get to our little plot he must have walked right down the street! He moseyed around a little while we worked – cold and gray that day, I remember – every so often pouncing and pawing playfully after a regiment of moles trenching in for winter under our tarped beds. Beautiful, his fur like red winter wheat standing in the snow, his thick tail was pointed and exquisite, and black were his thieving legs, delicate – stately, even – like he was wearing fine midnight opera gloves.
But, Mr. Fox had a rough look about him, mange it could have been, or perhaps he was the runt of the litter and was pushed out of the pack in late summer – a tough time to be sure – but I like to think he was just a little like me at the end of a long season: happy and healthy but in need of a shower, a den, and a bowl of hot soup – and maybe a back scratch. Every so often he’d find a nice spot (it most usually happened to be just right where he was standing), yawn big and deep and curl up and take a little nap, his bushy tail wrapped around him like a blanket pulled up just below his eyes.
It seemed to me that Mr. Fox had nothing to do that day, so he headed out around town, eventually coming to see what the farmers were up to, mill about for a few hours and catch a nap or two; but I am sure he had a reason for stopping by (and dozing off repeatedly), though I couldn’t possibly know the purpose of his trip – such is nature. I remember being a bit jealous of him; I would even say that I aspired to be like him, when I could, when the weight of winter really bears down on you like a glacier – slow, heavy and impenetrable. Such an insulated time is good – necessary – for the soul; a warm igloo where the fires of creativity can be lit and fed, an opportunity for musings to become something more, or at least nothing less.
So, this is my winter strategy: to be like Mr. Fox: to be idle with purpose. I’m not quite sure what that looks like though something tells me a big pot of soup won’t ever be too far away. And of course making soup and eating soup both have more purpose than a lot of other things. I’d call myself lucky to fill my time with such delicious pursuits. But, who knows, maybe I’ll get restless and head out like Mr. Fox and go watch the townspeople running about their day; maybe I’ll get my cheeks cleaned up a little and knock the mud off my boots and go looking for an old red faced fiddle player with an anxious bow; or maybe I’ll find a hollowed out oak deep in the forest and crawl in and take a long nap. That all sounds just fine to me. Either way, I’ll be up here in late winter to check the neighbor’s great forsythia, the town herald of spring who wakens the tulips – for it’s far too important of a job to leave to those mischievous squirrels.