I like old things, ancient things, things that are unfamiliar to me at first, but upon taking them in my hands or taking the thought upon my mind they evoke a knowing sensation, epigenetically if you will, that my ancestors have handled the same thing for countless generations before me. Such is an idea -a sensation – aroused in me during a time of great toil, a time of solemn work, a time to think – like now, when the sun hangs highest in late June. I’ve unwittingly spent a good portion of my life searching for something I couldn’t name or identify, much less grasp; the handle of antiquity, a connection to the past, where resided an idyllic version of life – peacefulness and a sense of purpose. I’m lucky that the nature of my labor allows for these feelings, in fact it regularly elicits them. Land, soil, plants, hunger, relationships and hope are fundamental to human life on earth; they’re in our blood whether we like it or not. And what is our blood but a living memory; a lifestream from the past; a timeless, discoverable knowledge?
Allium sativum, garlic, has occupied my mind for much of the last two weeks. It’s a bit different than anything else I plant. The biggest bulbs are always saved from the previous harvest with the individual cloves within the bulb to be planted again in the Fall. The cloves themselves aren’t seeds, they’re protective leaves, so in this way the plant actually never dies – it’s propagated every year. Planted second-knuckle deep last October and mulched with straw, tiny roots quickly emerged in every direction in search of moisture and other nutrients. As the rest of the plant kingdom all around is dying off, garlic is getting a head start on next spring. In fact, cultivated garlic doesn’t enter dormancy after it’s been planted in the Fall. It grows, albeit slowly, all winter, and come spring when the ground is still cold and wet it bursts into high gear and becomes – for a time – the most obvious plant on the farm, despite its slender foliage. The straw serves a few purposes: keeps weed pressure down in the spring, regulates soil moisture and temperature among other things. Essentially it mimics the layer of snow it’s ancestor, wild garlic, had as insulation every winter for thousands of years before (and after) humans learned to cultivate it.
*Much of this history is taken from Ron L Engeland’s wonderful book Growing Great Garlic.
Garlic is perhaps one of the oldest cultivated plants. It’s quite possible that ancestral wild garlic had been cultivated by semi-nomadic hunter gatherers for more than ten thousand years. The “garlic crescent” or “hearth” (origin) ran from “the rugged ravines and steep hillsides of a series of mountain ranges extending from the remote Tien Shan in the east (eastern Uzbekistan into western China), through the Pamir-Alai Range and onto the Kopet Dagh in the west (northern Iran just east of the Caspian Sea).” Due to its location, the region served as a natural trading route between China and the Mediterranean, with long distance trade occurring well before the rise of Babylon. “(The Crescent) was a natural bridge between the great Siberian marshes and the great mountains of the Hindu Kush.”
The ancient silk road out of China coursed through this land and over the centuries large portions were conquered by Turks, Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Chinese, and even Greeks by Alexander the Great. The spreading around of culture, knowledge, and other necessities of life – and garlic, was a natural occurrence. Even as far away as Egypt, clay garlic models and actual bulbs have been found in 5,000 year old Egyptian tombs, and, reportedly, “the reduction of daily garlic rations (after the Nile flooded and destroyed the crop) led to a labor strike among slaves building the great pyramid at Cheops,” again over 5,000 years ago. Engeland goes on to write, “Obviously the plant considered a staple nearly six thousand years ago in a civilization as far removed from the birthplace of garlic as is Egypt, must have already had an ancient history of its own.”
Here around the 39th northern parallel in Missouri, Garlic is dug in late June and early July, just after the solstice. I find it interesting that the garlic crescent in South Central Asia also hovers around the 39th parallel, though with quite different terrain, climate and soil. Immediately after digging, the plants are cured, usually by hanging in an old barn or shed for 2-6 weeks where moisture escapes the plants through its roots and leaves, allowing the dried wrappers to close around the cloves serving as protection for its short period of rest. Fully cured garlic will store for up to 6 months depending on the type and variety, though don’t expect the stuff you get at the grocery store to last more than a few weeks. Long held in esteem for its medicinal properties, it would have been not only a popular trade item in that highly trafficked, ancient region, but it surely would have been carried by hunter-gatherers, nomads, travelers, war parties and the regular ole ’Joe’s of old – everyone but the upper classes as curiously in many cultures they regarded the pungent root as strictly reserved for peasantry and lay people. Garlic is lightweight, stores for months and requires little cultivation, and with properties ranging from anti-viral to easing stomach ailments to meat preservation uses, I can imagine the bulbs being carried ubiquitously. Of course this was a time when there was less distinction among food, medicine, and utility – and perhaps none at all.
So now here I am, forking the ground and one by one pulling a bulb from the soil like has been done for thousands of years. Carefully tying the bulbs to hang out of the rain and heat, threading together the past with the present to ensure the roots of those sacred bulbs can take hold long after I’m gone, hopefully in a simpler, saner world. If that isn’t a sense of purpose; substance to grasp; peace; then I don’t know what is. I can’t help but think about those thousands of years of great civilizations: the Egyptian and Chinese dynasties, the Persians, the Golden Horde of the Huns, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, Alexander the Great and so many more; and garlic was there, garlic was part of it – an integral part of it – sitting both on the inside and outside of the great walls of the great cities under siege, through fire and famine and arrows, curing diseases and meats, bouncing around in little leather pouches of the devastating horse archers under Atilla the Hun as they thundered into Eastern Europe; so, too was it in little idyllic Mediterranean villages, the ones with the red clay roofs, hanging to dry out of the hot sun while the blacksmiths pounded away at glowing iron and the midwives brought the newborn into the world; and so, too is it here, at this little farm near the confluence of two mighty rivers, those same immortal cloves passed down for thousands of years, for that’s how garlic is, that’s why it’s so special – it’s like blood – it’s a river of time; and you can hold it in your hand.
We had a good two days of rain earlier this week. Just across the river they had twice this much. Within 40 or miles or so of here over four inches were recorded in the same time span. Just goes to show how localized rain falls can be. Either way, the plants were happy.
What I’m Eating
Spring rolls! I finally made a batch this year and had so many different things to fill them with. Red cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, vermicelli noodles, fried tofu, mint, basil, green onions and some radishes I fermented in the spring. It’s a great dish to make if you have a garden because you can really throw whatever you have in them.
I remember it was four years ago in April when I got them in. Along with the 500 strawberry plants I also got 12 grape vines and 15 or so raspberry brambles. Everything about me was green except my thumb. I had apprenticed the previous two years at Seeds of Hope under Gabriel who had left in the Fall to “get his cabin built before winter.” A little known story is that I wasn’t actually hired for the job after Gabriel left. Another farmer, Eric, who had much more experience was hired and I started working in the food pantry at the office. I wasn’t ready anyway, and I wasn’t the only one who knew that. Around late January Eric was on his way out and I was on my way in. He was heading to another local farm – the Founding Director of which just so happened to be my housemate – and Seeds of Hope kind of fell into my lap. In fact I was no better than third in line for the position after I interviewed, but I’ll save that story; suffice to say fortune was in my favor.
It was one of those Missouri Aprils where the spring pastels were drowned out by endless grey and wet. Even the gigantic forsythia across the road seemed a bit drab, subdued even; the typical golden, effervescent flowers had nothing from above to radiate back so there it sat flat for weeks waiting like me for any little bubble of hope. The fading and falling purple and white flowers of the tulip trees gave way to the red buds and violets as it goes but it all seemed as if nature was nonchalant, indifferent – to human aesthetic appeal, anyway.
Sometime in early April I was sitting in my new office, silently panicking, wondering why in the heck I was hired to manage a farm when I knew nothing about farming. I had never even been on a farm before May, and those who know anything about it know the season begins in January, generally speaking, though really it never ends. Anyways, there I was twiddling my thumbs on another rainy day when I noticed Eric had left a sticky note on the file cabinet. It was for IndianaBerry.com and it was a login and password. I realized – right about then, I guess – that Eric before he left had told me he ordered some plants that would arrive in April. I logged in and saw that I had those five hundred plus plants coming in on Friday of that week. The ground was soggy and there was nothing but rain in the forecast so I called and asked them to push back the delivery date, which they couldn’t do because they’d already been shipped.
I had about a week to get the dormant plants in, or so I recall from the instructions they mailed with the plants, so long as I kept the roots moist. There was a section along the western edge of the main field near the neighbor’s red bud tree that I had tilled prior the farm becoming a slop. I was able to get two north and south beds planted with two hundred or so plants. It was way too muddy to plant or do anything really and it took lord knows how long, but there wasn’t a choice that day. Mud was sticking everywhere, a trowel was useless and I was miserable out in the cold and rain on my hands and knees for hours – I guess nature was breaking me in. After planting those two beds I snuck some more plants into a nearby section that runs east/west, two or three shorter 30 foot beds that had just had their first crop harvested the previous fall; they were carrots, I remember. Anyways I somehow got about 350 of the plants in and the rest I sent down to another farm site we had in Bel-Ridge for planting there. The grape and raspberry cuttings went in that week as well, but that’s a tale for a different day.
This is our third year of harvest. It’s hard work. Every other day at 6 AM crawling around on your hands and knees for a few hours, in the wet grass, with the mosquitoes pricking your face and the buffalo gnats flying kamikaze missions up your nostrils and into your eyeballs for some unknowable reason. Searching around in a sea of perky, saw-toothed leaves for the little red ruby’s that are just right, plucking them off one by one, careful not to bruise or slip a fingernail into it, and putting it gently into the pint container. Years ago when I picked strawberries as an apprentice I found it monotonous. But it isn’t. To do it well on this scale takes focus, dexterity, body control, honed muscles, flexibility, keen eyesight, experience and a fair bit of determination – especially when the gnats start gnawing on you.
The planting was more of a controlled crash landing than anything and I’ve read and been told of all the ways you’re supposed to care for your berry plants. You’re supposed to mulch them; you’re supposed to mow them; you’re supposed to thin them; you’re supposed to fertilize them – but I haven’t done any of that. I’ve just watched them grow. The beds have changed shape, grown together, conquered new ground in some areas, lost some ground in others. Dock weed pokes up here and there, it’s large seedhead towers ominous above the short strawberry plants, threatening to really disrupt the operation if those potent seeds take hold. Poison ivy and violets are creeping in on one section, and a small grove of goldenrod somehow snuck in and got established. It’s already four feet tall. Nature, having quite the sense of humor, teasingly (I assume) planted false strawberries all around the patch, too. But still every April as that watchful red bud sheds her magenta hue the berry plants spring back to life and open their little white flowers to us: the select, lucky few in this world who know the best berries to be found are tucked back in that little nook.
Over the past three years we’ve have good strawberry crops. Number-wise I have no idea if this is true, I don’t have anything to compare it to, but we’ve had plenty of berries for what we need. But they’ve surely got to be the tastiest strawberries this side of the river. I’m convinced of that. And that’s what counts right? Havin’ just enough of a good thing? Seems like I’ve done everything wrong with these plants, or just mostly done nothin’ at all. Maybe that’s the secret? Maybe a little less farmin’ and a little more watchin’ is the way to go about things. In some ways I feel like that strawberry patch. I wasn’t ready to go into that field either, but I did. It was someone else who like me was in a pinch and said a prayer and grabbed me and threw me in the ground. It was a surprise; there was no plan. I’m thankful for it. So are those plants. That place sure has changed me, too. I have a little footprint there among the oaks, and that little garden is stitched into my soul.
When did this happen? Wednesday night I guess. We’ve been hot, humid and dry all week but I heard some thunder Wednesday night. Ground looked wet in spots but it didn’t feel at all like an inch of rain. Guess I need to break a few more bones so my aches’ll tell me when the rains comin’. Weatherman said a hurricane is blowin’ through Monday night so we’ll have to make sure everything is tied down real good.
What I’m Eating
Strawberry Lemon Kombucha, what else? My friend and I recently began brewing kombucha thanks to some help from a friend of the farm. It’s been a great experience and very easy and inexpensive to get started. If you’re interested I’d really encourage you to start brewing it, especially now as I find it wholly refreshing on hot days. There’s tons of information online and I’m a beginner myself, but I’d say just pick the method that seems easiest to you and go with it.
Hello everybody, I hope you all are doing well. I’m terrible sorry I missed the newsletter last week. My work computer as well as my wallet and other personal things were stolen Wednesday night. I’ve spent the last several days trying to sort my personal life out as well as keep the farm going. The field is looking pretty good, though it would be nice if we could dry out some. I have lots of plants that have been waiting to go in for a few weeks now. Hopefully this weekend I’ll have a chance to get them in.
The strawberries are starting to ripen; I picked some pints this morning. Probably will only be a small amount in shares this week but I’m hoping to get a few solid weeks again this year. Spring shares are a tad lighter since the growing season is still getting going but lots more variety this week and moving forward.
I’ll make sure to get a newsletter out this week (in time). If you have any questions please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Randy is back full time now and will be handling the CSA pickup queries.
Items in Last Weeks Share:
Lettuce Mix/Salad Mix
Red Pac Choi
I’ve been thinking I’d like to brush the dust off this old blog and start to make some more use out of it. Other than posting the weekly newsletter and visiting with the members who pick up at the farm, I don’t get to communicate with our subscribers or other people in general about the goings on of the farm. This will also give my family and friends an opportunity to see what I’m up to. My goal here is to give more anecdotal, slice-of-life stories and happenings up at Seeds of Hope so you can get a sense of what life is like as a (sub)urban farmer. Of course it wouldn’t be a farming blog without filling you in on what I’m eating, after all it IS eating season, right? I’m planning to update regularly but I have no idea what regularly means, so we’ll just see how it goes. Hope you enjoy.
After a few sunup to sundown days I had gotten the first planting of the warm season plants in: tomatoes, cucurbits, peppers, and some late-June bok choy’s, lettuces and napa cabbages; and managed to get the weekly harvest in. I think I’m the last farmer in the Midwest to plant my tomatoes every year but with a frost advisory the second week of May I finally wasn’t the nervous one. On Tuesday morning I was wearing an extra layer under my pants and a jacket while I was planting four beds of summer squash, zucchini, and cucumbers carefully into the woven, black landscape fabric I use as a mulch. The planting didn’t take more than an hour, but the prepwork and post-planting regime took considerably more time. The beds were worked the previous day and I had laid out the new landscape fabric and stapled it in place with 8 inch sod staples every three steps or so for ninety feet – the length of my beds. Under the fabric I had ran a line of drip tape for irrigation off a fifty pound spool I’ve been lugging around from bed to bed. I form a makeshift toilet paper dispenser of sorts so I can easily take the end of the tape and run it down to the end of the bed and tie it off.
Just after dawn I marked off my holes with green spray paint every three feet on the new fabric and lit the blow torch to get the end hot. It’s a simple device that I also use as a flame weeder. I let the flame blow for a few minutes to get the end hot then shut off the gas valve. Picking up the propane tank I hustle up the bed burning holes where the spray painted circles are and where the plants will be, careful to avoid the drip tape which I can’t see and hopefully pushed far enough to the side so I don’t burn it too. Every twenty or so holes I have to stop and relight the torch because as I press the hot metal onto the fabric to burn a hole, the end of the torch sinks a little into the loose soil causing it to cool down, so the faster I move the more holes I can burn before I have to relight it. The purpose is to burn a big enough hole to get the plant in the soil underneath, while the rest of the solid fabric keeps weeds from growing and regulates moisture in the soil.
Anyway, the plants were in and the row cover was on, and here we are two days later on Thursday afternoon just after lunch. We had a few brief showers that morning but now the sun had come out and we were up to just over 80 degrees and humid. I was walking out to the caterpillar tunnel to ready a bed for cherry tomatoes which I was hoping to get in a few days ago but didn’t have enough light. On a whim I decided to peak under the row cover at the cucumbers since I had noticed a few aphids on the underside leaves when I was transplanting. As soon as I lifted up the row cover heat poured out on my face and I saw those baby plants laying down struggling for life; my plans for the day changed. All the cucurbits, better known as squashes, were completely dehydrated, laying wilted on the hot, black fabric. All of the water from their cell walls had been rushed to their roots to maintain vital functions in a last ditch effort to stay alive. I couldn’t believe it. They had been watered in two days ago and it showered on and off all morning. I love growing with row cover, the benefits are many, but you can’t see your plants and you’ve got to remember that. I scurried down the beds ripping up the staples and throwing off the row cover in a fit of managed panic – a familiar feeling – and carefully laid the fabric between the beds so as not to damage the tender, flaccid plants. Right now I keep my hydrant off if I’m not using it because of a leaky manifold (‘nother story) so I ran to it and pulled the handle up. The manifold which I run three hoses from luckily sits right near the squash beds and I just so happened to have a 100 foot hose equipped with a watering wand on it, so I grabbed it up and started carefully watering the dying plants thinking up contingency plans if I lost the crop. The plants were four weeks old; so, squash, zuchinni and cucumbers four weeks late at best if I started more today. I’d need to figure out how to fill that gap in my CSA boxes in five or six weeks when I would start harvesting, and I’d have to make a decision quickly.
About halfway through watering a lovely woman and her daughter walked over and inquired about the farm. I tried real hard for a second or two to explain our program and what we do but ended up motioning emphatically to my dying plants I had just planted two days earlier. She understood and they took off to another section of the farm while I finished up watering. About fifty feet away a shaky plastic shed that’s fallen down three times houses several large pieces of woven shade cloth – and no telling what else. I’m not sure how many pieces of it I’ve got, four or five, or what lengths or widths they are, but I know about how much bed space I can cover with them, somehow, so I grabbed one and kind of bear hugged it and started dragging it to the beds, trying to figure out how wide it was. I got it on and it covered all four beds for about 60 feet, so I tightly sandbagged the ends to keep the slack from laying on the plants and ran around picking up sandbags weighing other things down. I ran them to the squash beds three or four at a time and placed one at each wire hoop to keep the side of the cloth from blowing on the plants (the wire hoops are placed every ten feet or so and form a skeleton which supports the row cover or shade cloth). By then the woman and her daughter had made it back around to me and I saw a big, thick cloud start to cover the sun – this would give the plants I hadn’t covered yet a enough of a break while I spoke with the woman and her daughter, which I did, then I hurried and covered the rest of the plants. I kept a close eye on those little guys through the cloth and over the next few hours they started standing back up and I felt a little more confident.
Another twenty minutes and those plants probably would have been dead. I’da gone to check on them the next morning (maybe) and they’da been all shriveled up and yellow and I woulda wondered what the heck happened. But they weren’t dead – just close – and I wasn’t even headed over there to check on ‘em. Just got lucky I suppose. Funny thing about it is I got the shade cloth on about 2 o’clock knowing the whole time I was going have to take it off again (and put the row cover back on) before I left around dusk because we were expecting storms and I was afraid the wind would blow the cloth off all over the plants and cause a lot of damage. And if I left the row cover off during the storms the wind would batter the plants since they were young and in pretty bad shape.
What was all that, then – diligence or luck? Sometimes I can’t tell. Sometimes you have to build a wall all day just to tear it down before night sets in– such is life.
What I’m Eating
My work is very physical right now to say the least, so I’m adding a lot of eggs to my diet for energy and muscle repair. I’m a passionate localvore so I always seek out eggs from farms I’m familiar with. Anyways, this past week I’ve been eating spaghetti with garbanzo bean sauce. It sounds fancier than it is. It isn’t life-changing but it’s very hearty and tastes better after it’s been in the fridge; good qualities for long days. I very loosely followed this recipe. To the noodles and sauce I added ground pork sausage which was browned with onions and garlic, sunflower seeds, arugula, and of course a couple of fried eggs with scallions. Mushrooms would have been nice too if I could just remember to buy them. A nice spring mix is obligatory, of course. Til next time.