Howdy there, I hope you’re easing into winter and looking forward to spending some time with your loved ones. We’ve been chugging away up near the confluence and are about to head in for the cold season, so I thought I’d fill you in on what we’ve been up to. As we expand into more educational programming, Randy and I have been focusing on planting new trees and shrubs, and remaking areas on the farm that have been long neglected. In certain cases, we’re cutting back into nooks and crannies which were planted by Gabriel and Randy a decade ago, and in others Randy has been expanding his demonstration garden by including elements from the medicinal herb garden planted by our teens and teen program coordinator, Deidre, five or so years ago.
We’ve also been wearing our wheelbarrows and shovels out. Earlier this season we had 3 dump trucks (54 cubic yards) full of compost dumped at the edge of the parking lot. This is the only place we can have it dumped as the drivers won’t let their wheels of their heavy trucks leave the pavement. Many of the beds were a few hundred feet from the piles. Luckily our ground is flat, but it took us a few weeks to get all the compost laid on top of our beds.
All of our beds – besides the few that we had some late season crops in – have been composted or cover cropped extensively this year. A lot of growers will till in compost at the end of the season to let the microbes start working on finishing it off. Certainly that’s a good strategy. I’ve opted to leave the compost on top of the beds (top-dressing) for a few reasons. First, that would have been a lot of tilling, since we laid I-don’t-know-how-many dozens of beds of compost. Second, we haven’t really had any rain since mid-October or so until just recently. The top inch of soil felt like July; dust blowing around in the wind – the whole nine yards. I like a little moisture in the soil when I work it as it helps keep the structure, also known as tilthe, more intact. Working it hard when it’s too dry has a lasting negative impact on your soil. Last, we’ve been busy raking all the leaves at the property (as well as some of the neighbors). Putting a thick layer of leaves on top of the beds will insulate it over the winter, allowing the microbes and worms and things to work higher in the soil so hopefully they can begin breaking down the compost in the dead of winter. The leaves also help to prevent erosion, regulate moisture, and deter weeds in the spring.
I’ve decided to stop using vinyl (plastic) in our systems as much as possible. I basically learned how to farm by laying 45 foot long billboard tarps over large sections of the field for various reasons, and rotating them as the season progresses. It’s a lot of work pulling those suckers around, but they’re highly effective. You can keep beds dry if a rain is coming, keep weeds from growing (or smother them out), among other uses. But they’re plastic, and I don’t like the thought of covering our healthy soil in that stuff. I also don’t use plastic mulch, which is heavily used in organic agriculture (although we still use landscape fabric for our tomatoes). In fact, when I was first learning about ag, plastic mulch was described to me as organic farming’s “dirty little secret.” Just do a little internet image search and you’ll see what I mean. I don’t look down on growers using it, it’s nearly impossible these days to turn any kind of profit growing food, and they do what they have to. But, we have enough labor and resources to grow without it, so we do. So instead of covering our field with tarps this year, we went with leaves, because that’s what we have available. We were also lucky enough to help a neighbor out who’d gotten way too much leaf mulch dumped for their garden, so we covered some of our beds with really nice leaf mulch from STL Compost. As you can see in the picture, the mini drought we’ve had has been tough on the oat and pea cover crop. They’re still around but are begging for water.
When spring comes we’ll start uncovering our beds as we need them, piling the leaves thicker on beds that won’t be planted til later in the spring. Again, it’s a lot of work, but I figure if we weren’t doing that we’d be doing something else. And labor is why plastic is used anyway. It’s why herbicide is used on other farms. Shoot, it’s why we invented tractors. Labor is everything when it comes to farming. We don’t have sustainable farming because there isn’t enough money to hire labor to chop the weeds out, to lay compost, to cover beds with organic material, etc… Farming systems are largely a consequence of economic and societal systems, as I see it.
Anywho! The corners of the farm, or the elbows as I like to call them, have long since needed a makeover. A decade ago Randy and Gabriel planted these shrubs back near the fenceline: buttonbush, ninebark, and several hazelnuts. They’d gotten overgrown and messy over the years, but he’s worked hard to get the area back under control this Fall. We’re in the middle of sheet mulching the whole area with a thick layer of cardboard covered by wood chips. Just like that, a disregarded, unkempt area will be a feature!
But, we’re careful not to over clean! These are the dried shiso plants which went to seed. The birds ate the seeds like crazy this Fall. We try to stay conscious and only cut back plants that have already fed wildlife.
Over in the Southwest corner, we’ve worked for two falls now to get the area under the black cherry tree under control. It’s a pretty shaded spot that often gets away from us. Missouri Department of Conservation is shipping us 25 paw paw trees and 25 wild plums next March. We’ll be planting and mulching some of the paw paws under the black cherry as they like a nice shady and wet spot. We planted some chokeberry bushes just on the other side of the strawberries and there’s some space there, so we might put some paw paws and plums in there, too. Capping the end of the half row of chokeberries is a little persimmon we planted with volunteers in October.
We also planted witch hazel, rose mallow, a green hawthorne, and a little baby white oak that day as well. The rest of the paw paws and wild plums will fill out other sections.
Over in the New section, we’ve always had trouble controlling the area between the last bed that gets enough light to grow anything and the fenceline. The seed bank there is infinite; full of lambs quarter, cattails, grasses and other tough species. It’s a wet, shady spot so we’re limited in what we can plant there, but there is an old mulberry leaning way over from the neighbors yard which is loaded with fruit every year, so we’d like to make it a stop on our walking tours. We uncovered a river birch that at some point took hold, and we put in some silky dogwoods we got from Forest Releaf, and applied thick rings of mulch. This will be part of a new nature path that leads from our demo garden to the apple orchard, and a reason to make sure we keep it mowed down real good. Last, I snuck in some more tulip bulbs I got from my mother at Thanksgiving. Oh yeah, we also propagated a row of blackberries.
Other than cleanup and some grant writing, that’s what we’ve been doing since you last heard from us. On the other side of winter we’ll be pruning the fruit trees, mulching some areas, and getting plans finalized for 2022! But for now, we’ll rest up and hope you do the same. Have a happy and healthy new year. Expect to hear from us when old man winter starts to have his doubts.