Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Sliding towards Spring

It's the halfway day of February already! Winter seems to be just flying by. Although, the fact that it has been warm and snow free for much of the time probably has a lot to do with that feeling. But as we start on the downhill of the month, I can't help but feel like things are going to get crazily busy before I've had a chance to get around to my winter projects!

The cold and snow have kept me inside most of this week, but I'm already thinking spring. I lugged a big bag of potting mix into the kitchen to thaw out, and by tomorrow I should be filling flats with seedlings for early tomato, pepper and cucumber plants for the greenhouse. I should be getting some herbs seeds very soon, and am hoping to be able to offer a few potted herbs when we open for the season.  Plants for the main garden will follow in a few weeks. I'm excited about rehabbing the small greenhouse near the house over the next week or so, and using it to start more of our own plants than we have in the past. I'm also excited about getting a big greenhouse up, and planting the plants right in the ground inside. This will be new for me, although Dan did it for years. We had hoped to last year, but it didn't happen, mostly because of the incredible amount of rain we had last spring. But, we're determined to get it up and operational this time around.

Another thing that has me busy is preparing for the Farm to Table conference in Pittsburgh, March 23 & 24. I'll be speaking once again, this time on Heirloom plants, so I've got an hour long speech & Powerpoint to put together. I'll also have a table in the main hall both days, so I've been planning on how best to fill it. I've bottled some vinegars, made some mustard, and have been working on plenty of feather jewelry too.

In addition to my talk on Heirloom plants, it's looking like I'll be involved in a couple of other educational presentations. The local Lions Club is putting on a walk & educational program about diabetes awareness, and they reached out to us to partner with them. There is a meeting next week to plan it, but I know that usually if someone volunteers, they are put to good use. Also upcoming is to do some education on nutrition, organic foods and shopping local for families in a nearby town in a health & nutrition program. I am looking forward to helping out local groups, but also trying to get a good outline of what I want to say, as well as any handouts I might want to pass out, because I know better than to put off my homework until the middle of spring. It's impossible to stay inside in the spring on a farm, but for now, it's nice to stay warm and dry here in front of the keyboard.

 
 

The Perfect Garden

Right now, this year's garden is perfect. That may seem strange, as it's covered with a few inches of snow, and harnessing up the horses to plow is still months off. But right now I can see it, I've planned it all out, and it's the only time of year where I don't have to deal with the difficulties of actually growing. So, in my mind, the weather has been perfect, no pests or diseases, and all the varieties are doing well. The weeds haven't been a problem, and you can tell by now that I'm totally delusional.

I've gone though all the seeds left over or saved from last season, took stock of our inventory, and figured out what I could avoid buying this year. I get excited about using heirloom varieties and finding ones that work for our microclimate. It is not too much work to spend a few hours in the fall picking dry bean seeds or scooping out the seeds from a squash to save for next year. Each time I do, I help to perpetuate a variety that in some cases is old and in danger of going extinct. In any case, it's like money in the bank, as I've created my own seed for next year. I am trying, year by year, to become better and save more different kinds of vegetable seed. I think if I can become proficient at saving seeds and starting plants in the greenhouse, I should be able to slash the seed bill somewhere around half. Some seeds take too long to save (for example, carrots are biennials, and would require field space for two seasons to produce seed, so it is worth it to us to purchase seed instead) and in some cases, especially with things like sweet corn, we will likely stick to the hybrid varieties, as they are what the public is geared to look for.

I've looked over my records of the last few years, noting which plant varieties performed well, and which I might like to try a new substitute. I've perused the seed catalogs and noted which varieties are no longer available and made acceptable substitutions. It's always a bummer when your favorite kind of something is no longer available. This year it was our favorite zucchini from Johnny's seed, Cashflow. We've picked out a new variety now, and hope it will be similar in taste & performance. At first, planning the seed purchase was almost overwhelming to me, as each variety sounds so amazing. (The catalogs are worded so that it is possible to feel overwhelmingly excited about something as plain as a radish!) I grew up with flowers in the yard, not veggies, so the names were not the old friends to me that they were to Dan. But I've got enough growing seasons under my belt that I am pretty confident about what (and how much!) to order, although Dan and I always sit down together and look it over before I send it in.

But hands down, my favorite part of spring garden planning is trying new things. In the past few years, we have had spectacular successes and also things we won't plant again, even for fun. Swiss chard grew fantastically, and is now one of my favorite greens. Herbs were not a big part of the farm and I've had fun starting with the basics and working my way up to more exotic flavors. Peanuts didn't work so well, and I'm still searching for the perfect melon for our weather, so not every gamble pays off, but if you don't try, you'll never find new, exciting things! So this year my wish list included everything from fingerling potatoes to salsify, a vegetable that supposedly tastes like oysters. I've seen fennel in so many recipes lately (I subscribe to what are probably too many cooking magazines!) that I have to try it. We've even tossed around the idea of branching out of the plant world to try our hand at growing gourmet mushrooms. So, as you can see it's easy to picture the perfect garden right now. The green house, the fields, everything is pictured with perfect optimism. Now I know there will be crop failures and pests and problems, but if you can't have joy in your heart picturing how this season will be the best ever, than you're probably in the wrong line of work.   

 And besides daydreaming about the perfect garden, there are still lots of things keeping us busy.  Our first lamb of the season was born on Sunday. I've been canning things I put away in the freezer until a slower time, so last week I finally defrosted a bucket of cherries and made case upon case of Black Forest Preserves.  (If you're looking for a unique Valentines gift, what could be sweeter than chocolate jam with PA-grown cherries in it for your sweetie?  We also have jewelry, handmade from our birds' feathers, and we ship nationwide!  Click over to our store at www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa to check it out!)  The sun is streaming through the window, and the thermometer is reading nearly 50 degrees, so I guess it's time to get off the computer and get outside! I'll try to post baby pictures in the near future!

 
 

Taking Inventory

The first real winter storm has hit the farm.  It's cold out, the wind is blowing and I can barely see the woods line from where I type, meaning visibility is not good at all.  It's a good day to take on indoor tasks, and after I finished sweeping up the mud on the kitchen floor again, I needed another project for the day.  Strangely enough, seeing all this blowing snow gets me excited to start thinking about the 2012 garden.  I enjoy sitting on the couch or near the woodburner, perusing the seed catalogs with a highlighter and a pen and notebook to begin creating a wish list of plants I'd like to grow, plus lots of price & volume comparisons.  It's a major undertaking, but it's always enjoyable.  

But before I start planning our seed purchases, I need to find out what is still here, meaning an afternoon of sorting through seed packets which have been stored away since planting stopped.  I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the types of seeds I have, both what vegetable and what variety, plus the quantity on hand and when it was purchased or harvested.  I've been trying to do better at saving seed from our own garden plants, which is only possible with older, heirloom plants, not the modern hybrids.   We do use some of the modern varieties for disease resistance or productivity, but we've been steadily incorporating more heirlooms each year.  So in addition to seeing how many small white packets of commercial seed are in the box, I also have an assortment of envelopes and brown bags, each carefully labelled "Chives"  or "Christmas Lima" or "Pink Banana Squash".  It's exciting to see how much of our own seed we can preserve, which in the end results not just in a smaller bill come spring planting, but also should produce plants that are most suited to our particular climate and location.  

Once all the packets have been inspected and inventoried, I'll put the boxes back in their cool, dry space in the pantry.  Then I'll get out the highlighter and notepad and the gorgeous assortment of seed catalogs that have arrived and start dreaming of the possibilities of spring! 

 
 

Spreading The Word

I've always been an avid reader.  Dan is too, an so we subscribe to a number of magazines.  The latest National Geographic came in the mail on Saturday. I love reading about the exotic places, cultures and animals inside, but in this issue, one of the stories was very close to home.  On the cover, I spotted "How Heirloom Seeds Can Feed The World".  The actual article is entitled "Food Ark".  It begins by discussing Seed Saver's Exchange in Iowa, where we buy many of our garden seeds.  The two-page photo spread feature of uncommon chickens featured a dozen breeds of chickens, and out of the hundreds that could have been used, two featured (Orpingtons & Phoenixes) have been hatched in our incubator here at the farm.  The selection of potatoes, showcasing unusually colored and shaped tubers, included the blue that I enjoy growing.  Of course I read that article first, and found that it introduced quite a few concepts that are familiar to me but not for many Americans: heirloom seeds and heritage livestock breeds, and the fact  that they are in real danger of extinction; why reliance on a few high-yield varieties is dangerous; and that knowledge of traditional farming techniques is also slipping away as farming, like everything else, becomes increasingly mechanized.  While mud huts in Ethiopia are much more in line with the expectations of this publication, much of what they said could have easily been written here too.  Although I know I lead a far from mainstream life, I never really though of it as exotic enough for National Geographic!

Of course, I knew all about he concepts they were introducing, and to do more than touch on each of them was beyond the scope of the article.  But I was really excited to see it because it reaches out to such a wide scope of people.  Plenty of information is out there, but if you're not keeping up on agricultural or food-centric publications and websites, this might be totally new to you.  An article in National Geographic certainly reaches beyond those niches.  Hopefully, it will get even just a few more folks to really question where their food comes from, how it is grown, and maybe even inspire them to stop by a farm sometime.

It was also neat to see something I do featured so prominently in a national publication.   Not only are we dedicated to growing, selling, eating and preserving heirloom seeds and heritage breeds, we're doing our best to conserve farming knowledge, too.  Using the horses in the fields isn't some sort of gimmick, it something we truly believe in doing.  To many, it seems like the hard way, and it does take more time to do many tasks, as horses need to rest, unlike a diesel engine.  But to be on one of the horse drawn pieces of equipment, and many of them are antiques, with the lines in your hand, and the horses moving on your command is something powerful, something amazing. I know it's sustainable.  I know it's healthy for the farm, the environment, the food and the eaters of that food.  And in a very real way, I feel like I'm touching history.  And by touching it, I'm keeping it alive, bringing it forward through time to share with my customers, and here online with the world.  That is something really large, and surprisingly easy to lose when you're so focused on the day-to-day tasks at hand.  

 
 

Tour Time!

If you live on a small farm, it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll be asked to do tours from time to time. People don't have personal connections to how their food is grown anymore, and lots of people don't have connections to animals either, not even pets.  So it's no wonder that a farm like ours is a source of interest.  In my previous life I was in adult education, and I do think it's important to give people of all ages the opportunity to learn new things, and as farmers I believe we have a duty to engage those interested in learning more if we want to succeed both as businesses and as advocates for knowing and supporting where your food comes from.  It's really impossible to tell people that they need to take personal responsibility for knowing what they are putting into their bodies, but not allow anyone to ever look around our own farms.  That being said (and as I talked about in my last entry) my farm is also my home, and I'm not going to indulge everyone who just shows up and wants to walk around, I couldn't or I wouldn't get my farming done!  I am however, willing to coordinate with groups, especially for educational purposes, as long as we can get it set up far enough ahead of time.

So yesterday, I was excited to host a group of youth from Clarion University's Educational Talent Search program.  This is a program open to kids in grades 7-12, as a way to tour different places and give them some new perspectives on what careers are out there, perhaps introducing the kids to something they never thought of as a viable occupation before.  I had talked with their advisor and had set up that they would arrive in the morning, we would tour the barn and the animals, they would go to nearby Tionesta Lake for their bagged lunch (call me selfish, but I just wasn't willing to have 20-30 kids tromping through my house to use the single bathroom, so that was a nice alternative!) and when they returned we would take a look at the garden, talk a bit about the plants, they would plant a seed to take home, and we would have time for a question and answer session about anything they had seen before the bus pulled away.  The weather was perfect, not too hot, and sunny, and everything else went almost flawlessly.  Almost, in that the horses refused to come into the barn in the morning before the kids arrived, except Sara.  So I was able to let the kids pet her before turning her back out with the other (misbehaving) equines.  The cows were almost too friendly, sneaking into the open barn while we looked at the pigs, but the kids got to see them up close as well.  Even the rabbits seemed charmed by the kids, and Scotchie patiently ate blades of grass out of as many hands as cared to feed her.  The boys in particular seemed to enjoy looking at the horse drawn equipment.  The kids were great listeners and stayed together as a group, heeding my requests to watch where they stepped in the garden.  The kids all had the option of planting something to take home with them; basil, sage, chive or Swiss Chard, and I had enough that everyone was able to plant their first choice.  As we got to the Q & A, I got some thoughtful questions, like "how do you water your garden?"  and "Do deer eat your plants?" to some unexpected ones- "Are there any palomino colored cows besides Guernseys?" or "Do you trim the turkeys' beards?"  We talked a bit about the different careers a small farm like this encompasses- from horticulture to animal husbandry, to being an entrepreneur or a butcher or advertising & web design.

 We probably would have come up with many more, but some of the kids noticed that the big horses had come out of the far reaches of the pasture and were under the trees by the barn.  I was able to put all the horses in their stalls, so we ended the day by seeing all the horses up close, and all were gracious about letting many hands pet them, even Ponyboy, who can be quite skittish (even with Dan and I) at times.  The most popular question by far was whether it was possible to ride our impressively large Belgians, which I assured the kids we were able to do.  At that point, it was time to board the bus for the return trip, each youth armed with a planted seed and instructions for its care and use, as well as a paper listing resources for finding our more about farms and food.  I sincerely hope that the little seeds in the paper cups grow for each and every one who was here, and I also hope, even in a small way, I was able to plant some seeds in their mind, whether it is just to look for small farm to connect with instead of only shopping at Wal-Mart, up to introducing the idea that farmer is still an occupational choice, even in this modern age.  We need all the good ones we can get! 

 
 

Planning the 2011 Garden

One of the hardest things for me to get used to on the farm is how far you need to plan ahead to be successful. In college, while studying for my Master's degree, I got to be a horrible procrastinator; I can remember getting up at 5 AM to write a paper due at 9 AM, one that I'd had weeks to work on. Not just once, but often. As long as it got me an A, it didn't really matter. Now, what I do (or don't do) today can have consequences not just tomorrow, but 6 months or an entire year down the road! Although I do try to stay on top of things, one of my resolutions this year is to make sure I keep better records, it's the only way to know what works and what doesn't.

One of my major tasks so far this year has been to plan our seed orders, which will set the stage for what we grow and sell all year. Not just what we sell in May, but right up through November, and it will decide what I'll be eating this time next year, as we're big on using storage vegetables or things I've canned or frozen to feed ourselves through the winter. Truthfully, I probably would have gotten started on this even before Christmas, but my favorite catalog, from Seed Saver's Exchange, didn't get here until late last week. The conventional thinking is that farmers just do what they do, guided by old time wisdom or maybe this year's farmer's almanac. More than once, I've been asked why I'm farming when I have so much schooling, the insinuation being that I'm wasting my intelligence by doing something any hick could do.  In reality, it takes a lot of planning, record keeping, and the like to be successful.  Be it plants or animals, you have to know what does well on your particular farm to be able to make a living out of it. Growing is more than throwing some seeds in the ground and waiting to harvest. I do have very good records of the seeds we've ordered, variety, amount and all, from our past growing seasons, but the truth is, I make it a huge project not only because it's important, but because it's fun. I ogle seed catalogs the way some girls pour over jewelry ads.

While I do stick to many varieties that we've had success with, and start out our plan with those, each year I add new ones. Some will not work out, but others will make it into our garden for years to come, and the only way to find out is to take a chance on something new. I love the idea of helping to resurrect heirloom varieties instead of planting the newest hybrids, and that's one of the reasons I love Seed Saver's Exchange. Not only can I help to make the farm more self sufficient and sustainable by saving seeds from a plant we want to grow again the following year, but these heirlooms have a history. One I took a chance on a few seasons ago was a lettuce called Grandpa Admire's. It surpassed anything either I or Dan had grown here before. Not only is it lovely to look at, being green tinged with red, but it also has great flavor and goes a long time without getting bitter, a real plus for summer gardening. Also, it's a variety that has been planted and saved and replanted since the Civil War. Not only delicious, but a real piece of American history right on your plate!

Then there are others that are less than successful. For two years, I've longed to taste a melon called Delice de la Table, a very rare French heirloom. The rarity, the beautiful picture of the fruit, and the description made me give it a try after it failed to produce a single melon the first year. It was a tough growing season, though, so I gave it another try. Last season was very favorable, but again I got nothing. Not a single melon from multiple planted seeds. Part of me hates to give up, but it's wasted money and, perhaps even more valuable, wasted garden real estate. But I do think a nice French cantaloupe would be wonderful to offer for sale...luckily for me there are more options! My master list currently has two options- one that says it is the easiest to grow and prolific, but prone to cracking open when ripe; the other is said to be the “most divine and flavorful melon in the world.” I've yet to decide which one (or both?!?) will grace our garden this season. These are the kind of difficult decisions I love to have.

Not every new plant is an heirloom experiment, though. Will anyone in our area buy okra? Hmm, probably not, we're too far north. What about baby corn, like you use in Chinese stir-fries? It's on the list for me to consider, along with a couple exotic sweet corns- one bright red, the other steely blue. I'll also consider things my customers asked for last year that we didn't offer. Orange Hubbard squash? Yellow beets? So many choices. Also, our all-time favorite sweet corn, Seneca Dancer, has been discontinued, so I'll ponder its replacement carefully, since that is such an important crop for a farm stand. In addition to names, descriptions and histories, there are also other considerations- to order seed or wait to buy started plants, days to harvest, tolerance to heat, cold, plant diseases. And that's before I even get into comparing prices. While some places offer things very cheaply, if you're not familiar with that company, you're also taking a chance on the quality of the seed they ship. It's not a bargain if only half the seeds germinate as compared to the slightly more expensive version from a company with quality seed that you usually deal with. So it's a job worth spending a good bit of time over, and in the dead of winter, there is something uplifting about staring at the pictures of ripe red tomatoes, golden ears of corn, and colorful peppers that make spring seem that much closer.  

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Even Critters Get Spring Fever

For what seems like forever, the farm has been blanketed with snow...unbroken white all the way to the tree line. With a week of spring sunshine under our belts and temperatures breaking 60 today, it's quickly being replaced by more spring-like footing- mud everywhere!  Although the pond in the pasture is still frozen over, it won't be for long.  I can see the outline of the water shading the snow and ice yellow.  I'm guessing in a day or two there will be open water.   For now, the ducks are swimming in a rather large puddle between the house and the greenhouse.

We hope to be in the greenhouse, starting vegetable seeds, before long.  Another box of seeds arrived today in the mail.  Even though I placed the order and know what's inside, I still rush to open it.  It's like holding a box of promises.  Each packet whispers another secret, another color, another taste.  I can't wait to be elbow deep in trays and potting soil.

I swear, even the animals get spring fever.  Although the doors remain open all winter, the chickens don't venture out if there is snow on the ground.  Today they were looking for buried treasure in the exposed mud.  A couple of the Phoenix hens need to have their wings clipped again, as they are spending more time loose than in their outdoor run these days.

Last night, I let the cows and horses out while I cleaned up the barn and put feed in the feed boxes.  As I was scooping our home-ground feed out of the barrel, I looked out the window to see the cows racing through the pasture.  The animals generally go to the creek and drink and then mill about the barnyard until the door reopens, but last night the cows raced through the pasture, turning around the island of trees and brush halfway up the field.  Fiannait led the way, her heels kicking up higher than her ears in what looked like bovine glee.  Louie, Happy and Baby Buzz weren't far behind.

Our five little lambs are doing well.  They seem to be in a constant state of joyful motion; jumping and frolicking as much as they can in the pens.  We can't wait to let them out so they can  play in the great outdoors.  That will come soon, we hope in the next couple of weeks if the weather cooperates!

 
 

Spring Sunshine

The sun has been shining here for almost a week now.  It's refreshing after all the gloomy and snowy days of February.  The snow is melting and soon Dan will be able to begin plowing for the year.  My goal is to take lots of pictures of the equipment and how the process works and get it up on the website sometime this spring.  It will look a lot like the page up now that covers hay making.

I just hit "send" on another seed order this morning.  I can't wait to begin starting seeds!  we plan on making use of the greenhouse this spring to get a jump on the season.  We plant around 75 different vegetable varieties every year.  Sometimes I feel like  it's hard to narrow it down to that many, as the seed catalogs do a good job of making everything sound so good!

Our little owl friend is still living in the barn.  After a bit of online research, we've decided that we have a red phase screech owl.  We have been wondering if it is looking for a nesting site, so I looked up the dimensions and we hope to have a nest box hanging for it soon. 

I think this is one of the hardest times of the year...while the sun is shining, I feel like I should be outside, doing something!  But with a foot of snow still melting off the fields and pastures, it's really just not time yet.


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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!

 
 

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!

 
 
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