Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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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!

 
 

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!

 
 

Transitions

It's a dreary day outside, but the rain is much needed so we can't complain.  The sunflowers, which all summer followed the sun's daily path with upturned blooms, now look sad out the window.  Their heads are drooping, so heavy with seed that the stalks can barely support them.  In fact, the weight of the seeds and some wind has already toppled a few of the largest.  While I'll leave quite a few for the birds and other wildlife, I'll cut many to use as supplemental food for the animals, especially our birds, over the long winter.  Also, I'll dry a bunch and save the seeds so we can have more golden beauties adorning the outside rows of the cornfield next year!

The gardening season at this point has changed from growing to harvesting.  My herb garden is a great example.  My cilantro did poorly through this summer's weather, producing few usable leaves and bolting straight into flower & seed production.  I let it go, taking up its space in the garden, and my reward has been a bumper crop of seeds which I've been harvesting lately. I miss lots too, but it's alright since the patch is dedicated to that plant and it saves me the trouble of replanting in the spring! The seeds are the spice coriander, and is called for in many Mexican or Chinese dishes.  I love this plant, it is like a 2 for 1 special!  Also, I've gotten lots of dill, parsley and chive seeds.

Amazingly, we haven't had a frost yet although it's looking likely that mid-week that will be coming our way.  About the only plants that will really be affected that are still growing strong are my basils- this year I grew a regular green basil and a delicious lime variety! I've been freezing or drying them in preparation, because once they are frosted they turn black and are unusable.  However, I'm looking forward to frost for a few reasons...the gnats have made it nearly unbearable to be outside recently, and none of the repellents seem to discourage them from swarming one's head and flying into one's eyes.  The frost will bring an end to that, which will make like outside more pleasant, even if it means putting on an extra shirt at times! Also, frost is necessary to bring out the colors of my multicolored ornamental corn.  I planted the open pollinated, heirloom variety Earth Tones Dent last year, and was able to save the biggest, nicest and most colorful ears to replant this year.  I planted lots more than I grew last year, and so far it looks like it did very well.  Checking an ear or two, they are definitely colored, but the true beauty won't show until after a good killing frost.  I love to decorate for fall, so I'm anxious to have that happen.  We will have some at the store too...I've planted enough to have lots of beautiful extras!

 
 

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!

 
 

The Canner is Bubbling Again

I love this time of year in the garden, everything is so plentiful!  We had our first sweet corn this weekend and a few ripe tomatoes as well.  The plants don't look great, but they don't have the killer blight and the tomatoes are finally turning red! It must be the sunshine, which has finally reappeared. As I type, I'm keeping an eye on my canner as I am making salsa with the leftovers from the market- tomatoes, onions, and hot peppers.  Growing up, no one in my family canned, but I taught myself a few summers ago and I really enjoy it.  I love knowing what's really in my food and being able to control the amout of chemicals, salt and sugar that goes into whatever I'm eating.  I love trying new recipies, and I love finding ones that use the herbs and vegetables I have just out my back door! I do make some other things, like mustards, that I need to buy most of the ingredients for, but they are so much better than anything store bought!  I enjoy canning so much that I have started putting some of my sauces and other things for sale at the stand.  If you stop by, along with 2 kinds of mustards I have flavored vinegar, a sweet & sour dipping sauce, hot pepper jelly, dilled green beans and this weekend, salsa!

 Opening the stand has made us so busy, getting laid off was really a blessing in disguise.  People remember our sausage and we have sold quite a lot of the secret family recipe breakfast sausage.  Dan and I introduced a mild and a hot Italian sausage 2 weeks ago and they were so popular, we're going to have them again this weekend.  So Thursday I'll be busy stuffing sausage and packaging it.  

 Another thing keeping me busy lately is working on the website.  I've added a lot on new pictures of the animals and the stand.  I'm also working on a page with pictures and descriptions of the various polutry we raise, which is taking some time and isn't live yet.  If you'd like to check it out, the address is www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com.

If you're planning on being in Tionesta for the Rumble on the River Bike Fest, stop by and see us!  We always enjoy meeting the people who follow us online.  And if it isn't too hot, you can meet Puff, our cat who thinks he is the farm stand mascot.  He love to be the greeter and be petted by everyone!  

 
 

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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