Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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How Much Corn Do We Need?

When I was younger, my family didn't garden, so I really never paid any attention to vegetable varieties.  Corn, for instance, came on the cob, canned, creamed, frozen, or popped.  Now that I'm actively involved in planning the varieties we'll depend on for the year, the names of different varieties are like old friends to me.  I'm always on the lookout for a new friend who will perform well, too.  This means we'll plant multiple varieties of many vegetables, and there really is a lot to learn before you can be successful.This year, we are planning to plant seven different varieties of corn.  Not all seven will ripen at the same time, or even be used for the same purpose.

 Probably the most important corn is one we won't eat, and that is our field corn.  It will be the variety we plant the most of, for it is what we feed to the animals all winter as a supplement to their hay.  Many a city kid has been bitterly disappointed when raiding a farmer's field after dark for those luscious looking yellow ears, only to take them home, cook them, and find them to be starchy and tasteless.  We'll leave it on the stalks to dry until late fall, when we'll pick it.  Some will be left whole and on the cob, while some of it will be ground into feed.  We also use some of this (in a different grinder!) to make the cornmeal we sell here.

 

I have planted Earth Tones Dent corn for the past 2 years now, it's an ornamental, or "Indian" corn.   It's very pretty, and we sell some of it for decoration in the fall.  It also dries like the field corn and can be fed to the animals or used to make colored cornmeal.  I'm still using up my yellow cornmeal, but the next time we grind, I'll be interested to see what it looks like.  It is also not a hybrid, unlike most corn varieties, so I save the seed from the biggest and prettiest ears every year.  We plant a little more each year, and are going to try planting more this spring to use as animal feed as well.  It would be so nice to have a dependable corn crop from a seed that we don't have to buy each year, as it can be quite an expense!  Plus I have a fondness for the old time varieties.

 

Two varieties we're planting this year are new to the farm. Dan wanted to plant Bloody Butcher, a macabre name for a red corn that again can be used for animal feed, decoration (it's a deep, deep red) or for an interestingly colored cornmeal.  I wanted to try strawberry popcorn, a cute little miniature ear, only 2" long, that can be popped right in the microwave.  It just sounds fun,   and if it does well, we'll have it for sale at the farm stand later on in the season.  We purchased both these varieties from Seed Savers Exchange, so if they do well, we'll be able to grow them for years to come, saving the seed from year to year.

So four of our planned varieties are for the fall, as the kernels have to dry out before they are ready to harvest.   Don't worry, it just wouldn't be a farm stand without sweet corn, and we have three varieties of that in mind!  I really thought sweet corn only came in three varieties- all white, all yellow, and butter and sugar, the yellow and white kind.  Turns out that's not the case at all.  One catalog we receive has over 70 varieties of sweet corn alone!  Most are bi-colored- turns out "butter and sugar" could be one of at least 50 different, named, varieties.  That explains why some taste so much better than others!  We'll be planting 2 bi-color and one all yellow variety of sweet corn.  While they all mature much earlier that the fall corns, each variety has its own pace.  The catalog gives you a rough guess of how long it can take between the day you plant and the day you pick.  A short one will be something around 65 days, extending all the way to 90 or so.  This is a rough guess, and will vary depending on weather conditions and the like, but if you pick varieties that ripen a week or two apart, it's possible to have fresh, ripe corn for a much longer stretch in the summer.  So there really is a lot more to planning than deciding something named Silver Queen or Seneca Dancer sound tastier than the new ACX MS4012BC F1 (all real varieties!)  Of course, all the planning in the world can't protect you completely from bad weather, bugs, or blights, but doing my gardening homework and looking at the pictures of those delicious plants of summer sure help to pass the winter nights!

 
 

Seeds for the Garden, Flowers for the Outhouse

Despite the snow and freezing rain, spring feels a little closer.  I've started to order seeds for this year's growing season, so visions of tomatoes and zucchini have been dancing through my head.  Planning a home garden takes some thought, and planning a garden you intend to sell from is an even bigger project!  

We start out with the list of what we planted last year and decide if we want to plant the same varieties this year.  There are so many varieties of each type of vegetable, there's no use sticking to one that doesn't do well for you.  I had no idea there were over 70 varieties of sweet corn available until the cover of one of our wholesale garden catalogs came last year!   Our next consideration is how long the plant takes to finish growing.  We have a short growing season this far north, and need to make sure the plant will do what it is supposed to do before the frosts come again in the fall.  Also, if you plant varieties which ripen at different times, you can have that vegetable available for a longer season, both in the stand and in the kitchen.

The order I just sent out was to Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit group committed to saving rare and heirloom vegetables.  They have lots of things not seen in any of the other catalogs we receive (and we get plenty!) so I always spend a little extra time picking out a few goodies to experiment with.  As an added bonus, I can save the seed to plant next year if they do well!  Last year I fell in love with Grandpa Admire's lettuce, so I ordered lots more of that.  Since it was such a rough growing year, I ordered a few things that didn't do very well last year, but either showed promise or I just can't resist. Normally, we wouldn't be so lenient, but almost no tomatoes survived the summer anywhere, and the weather didn't favor melons either.  However, if I don't get any Delice de la Table melons this year, they won't be on my list next year.  I ordered most of my fun experiments through this catalog.  Hopefully,  I'll find a tasty use for a bounty of ground cherries and you'll be able to purchase mini popcorn on the cob from the stand this fall!  

SSE also carries flower seed.  I love to plant flowers, but I favor hardy perennials that take care of themselves year after year.  I simply don't have time to spend hours on flowers in the spring, but I love having good habitat for pollinators like bees and hummingbirds, and every place needs a bit of pretty, farms included! My mom had her own floral shop once upon a time, so I know a bit about flowers, which is more than I could say for vegetables until recently. This time I decided to give hollyhocks a try- they are big, bold flowers that come back on their own, although planting from seed I won't see flowers until next summer.  This variety is called Outhouse Hollyhocks, which sound like a terrible name for a flower, but they have a charming story.  According to the Seed Savers catalog, "years ago, refined ladies just looked for the hollyhocks and didn't have to ask where the outhouse was."  Being 6-9 feet tall, they hid the building as well.  We still have an outhouse here, although we do prefer the pleasure of indoor plumbing, it is a part of the character of the farm and we have no plans to tear it down.  So it seems fitting to me to decorate it with hollyhocks!

I've been working on the website again, and have plans to start a monthly e-newsletter.  If you'd like to be a part of that, just go to www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com and fill out your name and email on the form on the home page.  There is a place to leave a comment or let me know what you'd like to hear more about as well.   And when I say monthly, I mean it...I'm too busy to send you spam! I also set up a fun little poll you can vote as well.  Once I get some names, I'll work on a newsletter, but it will probably be late February before it goes out.

 
 

Why Save Seeds?

Just like the stores seem to pull out the Christmas stuff earlier each year, the seed companies seem to be in a race to get the catalogs for the coming growing season out far earlier than necessary.  We haven’t even finished picking corn, and already I’ve received two! In case I misplace then during the holiday season, I’m sure duplicates will come my way in January or February.  While I love looking through them on a cold winter evening, with temperatures still rising to near 60 every day this week, I’m still outside, finishing up this year’s garden!  Dan put the rhubarb to bed for the year…our secret to a bountiful crop that produces clear into fall is blanketing it each winter with a thick layer of horse manure, which is never in short supply here.  It keeps the crowns of the plant safe from winter’s bitter cold, and as the manure breaks down gradually over the coming months, it not only provides a bit of warmth, but also valuable fertilizer. We’re also closer every day to having all of the corn in the corncrib.  Once that happens we’ll take some to a mill to have our own feed mixed, and some will be fed to the animals still on the cob.  And I’m picking the last of this year’s beans.  They are no longer green anywhere, but have produced hard dry beans inside the edible part.  These can be soaked and used in any bean dish, but can also be used to plant next year’s crop, as long as you have not planted a hybrid variety.  (While hybrid seeds will sprout, the fruit of the plants has no guarantees…it most likely won’t taste anything like what you enjoyed the year before.)

So although I haven’t even opened the catalogs, I’m busy planning my garden next year and saving seed.  I have my colored corn, giant sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, and several types of beans.  I also did some herbs earlier before the seeds dropped and supplied next year’s sprouts themselves!  You might wonder, if a bunch of mail-order catalogs featuring every plant under the sun are coming right to my door, why would I spend my time letting plants go to seed, picking the seeds and preparing them to keep through the winter?  Farmers are always short on time, but saving seed is worth the time in my opinion.  I’m helping to preserve the biodiversity of agriculture by not relying on the newest super-seed Monsanto or some other heartless corporation is pushing, and saving money to boot. Also, if you save the best seeds from the best plants in your garden for a few years, you will end up with a plant that is most ideally suited to the climate conditions of your particular farm.  You can also help save a piece of history.  Grandpa Admire’s lettuce, which we bought seeds from Seed Savers Exchange to plant this year, has been saved and replanted since the Civil War.  While it didn’t keep at all once picked, and therefore would never be an option at the supermarket, it was a beautiful combination of red and green leaves, had a fabulous taste, and never got bitter, even on those hot summer days.  It would be a shame to let this piece of American food heritage go by the wayside just because it doesn't appear in the big catalogs or on the racks of seed packets at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

 

The biggest drawback to the heirloom vegetables which you can save seeds from is that they may not have the high disease resistance that hybrids are known for.  The only crop that we really had trouble with this year was tomatoes, the late blight hit hard and earlier than usual in our area this year.  Whole crops were lost whether you sprayed chemicals or not, and no matter what varieties were planted.  We were fortunate to get some tomatoes, and neither Dan nor I saw any real difference in the disease resistance of the various varieties, as none of the plants survived and all the tomatoes were spotted or rotten after a time.  I may have been overly optomistic, but the heritage Riesentraube cherry tomatoes seemed to have had more useable ones than any other plant.  It may have been the sheer number produced by these prolific plants though, as a small percent of each tomato variety were salvagable, but 20 cherries may have been comprable to 1 beefsteak.  I'm not sure they won if you looked at percentages.  While I was disappointed I really wasn’t able to save seeds from them this year, we both agreed that we’re not giving up on heirloom tomatoes.  So when the snow starts flying and I get into real garden planning mode, I’ll be ordering them again.  Hopefully, it is the last time I pay for tomato seeds, at least until I find another variety that sounds too good not to try!

 
 

Gold & Jewels from the Fields

Although the season of delicious corn on the cob is long past here, field corn season is taking its turn as the main farm job.  We planted quite a few acres of field corn in the spring to feed the animals over the winter.  Unlike sweet corn, field corn isn't picked until the stalk is dead and the kernels are dry and have begun to dent inwards due to moisture loss.  That's why some varieties are called "dent" corn.  We spent last Sunday picking the smallest field, and we were able to complete harvesting it in a short time with the help of Dan's father and brother.  Everyone had a row or two to pick.  The ears were pulled from the stalk, the husk was pulled off, and the ears were thrown into the wagon being pulled by the horses.  The wagon had plywood boards to make the side away from the pickers higher, so that you could hit the board and the ear would bounce off and into the wagon.  It kept many ears from landing in the pasture or field!  Picking corn can be very enjoyable; with a number of people there is bragging about who is picking faster than whom, reminiscing of harvests gone by, helping out whoever has the densest row to pick and general good-natured conversation.  It's a real group effort that not only gets a very important job done, it isn't a bad way to pass a late fall afternoon.  The result is as precious to a farmer as gold for the winter.  Our little 3/4 acre field yielded a bit over 60 bushels, a very respectable total considering it was the field that Bandit, the Angus steer, love to escape to for a meal and parts of the field were damaged during the neighbor's runaway horse accident earlier in the summer. The wagon we used was built by my husband out of an old Toyota truck that was no longer roadworthy.  In its current state, it has a variety of uses around the farm, and was even our transportation from our wedding here at the farm to the reception hall a few miles away!

 The other corn that is still standing out in the field is called Earth Tones Dent and is an ornamental corn (aka "Indian corn").  I grew some last year and saved a few of the nicest ears until spring when we planted the seed from those ears.  Now it's time to harvest, and unlike the field corn, I want the husk left on for decorative purposes.   So each husk is carefully peeled back, one layer at a time, until the ear is revealed.  It's exciting every time to see what color it will be...shades of cranberry red, a rainbow of pastels from pink to orange to blue & purple, a pink & purple ear, one dotted with bright yellow kernels, or a mysterious shade of purplish black with deep green mixed in. The finished pile quickly looks like the garden's jewelry box.  I will sell some for decoration, decorate a bit myself, but what happens to the rest?  We grind our own cornmeal, so I want to see if I can produce a blue or red cornmeal just for fun.  The ears that grew large, straight, beautiful & disease-free will be the chosen few planted for next year's crop.  And the rest, just like the golden field corn, will provide nourishment for the animals over the coming winter months.

 


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Loading Up the Truck with Squash

We've been anticipating a frost for a few days now, but so far we've been spared. Yesterday Dan & I decided to bring in any winter squash that seemed ripe enough to be pulled from the vine. While squash will handle a light frost just fine, a hard one will cause them to begin rotting. So as it was a dry and sunny (but chilly!) day, we drove the faithful farm truck out to be loaded up with garden goodness.  

We grew several varieties of pumpkin and have some biggies, but nothing big enough to turn into a house for Wilbur as we had joked about during planting season.  We have some nice looking pumpkins but also quite a few lopsided ones...not sure exactly why, but given the much less than ideal growing season we had here, sometimes you just have to be thankful for what grows, no matter the shape.  One of the more unusual winter squash we grew this year is the kabocha...while there are green varieties of this squash, ours turn a nearly scarlet orange when ripe.  I've had more than a few questions about our "little pumpkins".   While not really a pumpkin at all, they would make fabulous fall decorations, and the larger ones might even be carve-able!  However, they are great to eat too, sweet and rich flavored. Our kabocha plants did wonderfully, I even had to follow the vines deep into the planting of ornamental corn to collect all of the beautiful orange globes.  We also picked more than a few giant pink banana squash (my new favorite) and the smaller acorn, butternut and buttercups just in case.  The bed of the truck looked like a postcard from fall! 

Squash is something my family didn't really eat when I was growing up, so I've been looking for good recipes that I can use all winter long.   I've been saving my favorites and printing them out for you to pick up when you stop by the stand on Saturdays...a recipe of the week, if you will.  I love to try cooking new things, so I intend to keep it up next year as well.  If you don't live close enough to stop by, I also post them online on the farm's website -www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com.   Also for all the coupon clippers out there, I posted a coupon for a discount on delicious winter squash there as well!  It's already down to 49 degrees and the clouds are clearing off as the sun goes down, so I think we're finally in for a frost for sure.  So it's time to go cover the last of the pepper plants to try and save them just a bit longer, then a good night to enjoy the heat of the woodstove!

 
 

Homegrown Watermelon and Bananas..sort of

The leaves are rapidly changing and it's starting to smell like fall here.  So it was a bit of a surprise when Dan came in from the garden with a watermelon yesterday.  Melons usually conjure up thoughts of summer picnics, but with the short growing season here in northwestern PA, we're just seeing ripe ones in our garden now.  The one we had with lunch yesterday was small, about 8" across, and round like a ball instead of the longer ones usually found in grocery stores.  Perfect for two or three people!  It tasted like a stolen bit of summer.  Last year we didn't have any luck with watermelons, but we planted 3 varieties this year and 2 kinds of muskmelon.  If it stops raining, I just might have to go see what other surprises are lurking under all those big green leaves, but I know this was a hard summer for them and I'm not sure all my varieties did well enough to bear fruit.

 

I do most of the catalog shopping for the garden in late winter.  Dan knows what varieties have been successful here in years past, and we rely on that knowledge quite a bit.  However, something unusual always catches my eye, and I like to try something different every year.  We always find a little room for my experiments, and if they do well, we'll make them regulars in the garden.  Past successes have been a variety of Swiss chard with colorful stems and an open pollinated ornamental corn. This year, I stumbled across the giant pink banana squash.  The description stated that they could grow to be up to 50 lbs each, so we figured if they weren't delicious, at least it would be a lot of garden food for the pigs!  They are named because the squash is long and tapered at the ends, kind of like a banana if it were straightened out.  They turn a salmon pink color when ripe, and are called a pink banana because there is a blue variety out there too!  The banana squash did quite well for us, the ones we've picked and taken down to the stand so far have been big, but in the 12-25 lb range.  That's still a lot of squash!  I cooked one yesterday, and they have that rich, almost sweet taste of a good winter squash.  I sliced into it and was happy to find they are easy to clean out, hollow like a pumpkin but not so gooey.  They have lots of big plump seeds, and although I saved these ones to plant next year, next time I'd like to try baking them.  They look like they'd be delicious baked with a sprinkle of salt & spices, just like a pumpkin seed.  After cleaning, I sliced my squash into several pieces and baked it until it was tender.  Then I took 2 pieces and removed the skin and mashed it up, kind of like mashed potatoes, but wonderfully orange-yellow with a bit of butter, nutmeg and a pinch of brown sugar. Mmmm!!  The rest I cubed and put in the fridge...I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it yet, I may make soup or I may freeze it for later.  I've seen recipes that say the banana squash make better "pumpkin" pies than real pumpkins,  but I' not much of a baker.  I may have to get my mother in law, who is the best baker I know, to try that out and see if it's true.  These squash are supposed to keep well also, so we'll see later this winter how that works out.  I know that they will be back in our garden next year too!

 
 

Hoping for Heritage Tomato Time

The weather just has not cooperated for us this summer, and it seems like a month since I've been able to garden or make hay.  The plants seem to be loving it though, and I'm just hoping for a bit more sun so all these green tomatoes and ears of corn will hurry up and ripen!  I've got lots of plans for them, and LOTS of people in this part of Pennsylvania have been experiencing tomato blight early this year.  It's a scary thing, by the time the leaves start to turn yellow, there is nothing you can do to save your plants but pull up and burn the affected ones. The only preventitive is to hose the plants down with fungicide weekly, but being organic that's not an option for us anyway.  But I'm crossing my fingers and hoping.  I planted 3 heirloom varieties which I bought as seeds from Seed Savers Exchange- a grape, a Brandywine and a Roma.  They seem to have just as many blooms coming on as the hybrid varieties, I'm really curious about comparing them.  I'd like to switch to more heirloom varieties in the coming years.  Many people don't realize it, but there are hundreds of varieties of plants and livestock that are endangered of becoming extinct.  Agribusiness only cares about the bottom lines of production and storage for transport, so unique, tasty and valuable strains die out because they don't grow fast enough or ship without wilting before they get to Wal-Mart.  Aniamls such as chickens or pigs that can't handle the confinement of factory farms suffer the same fate. So I'm very excited about the success we've had this year, we have a wonderful lettuce called Grandpa Admire's and the squash and other gourds seem to be growing like wildfire.  My goal is to find varieties that will grow well on the farm and help us pay the bills, but also to find ones with history and heritage, because that just fits our horse powed farm.  And watching an heirloom seedling sprout, or seeing an endangered chick hatch makes you realize that you don't have to go to the North Pole or the Amazon to save an endangered species...it really is possible right here at home. 

 
 
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