Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Broccoli and Cauliflower

As I've mention in earlier posts, the harvest season has been going very well this year. We have been especially happy with the cauliflower and broccoli which have yielded large and very sweet heads.

Our earlier troubles with cabbage moths had been handily fixed with a single application of an organic gardening biologic control (see earlier post for details). They still nibbled on some of the leaves now and again, but the amount of damage done never again rose to the level that I felt a need to do something about it.

Our daughter Freya (in center of photo) happened to have a couple of her school friends over for a visit and we put them to work. I snapped this picture as they were delivering some produce to the kitchen for processing. A small amount of these were steamed for dinner. The rest we blanched, vacuum packed and stored away in the freezer for use this winter.

Sprinkler System

The weather has certainly been odd this year. The spring was the rainiest that anyone could remember. Then along came July and it was incredibly dry. Knowing that I was supposed to make sure the garden received at least 1" of water per week, I spent a fair amount of that month setting up and moving our one sprinkler around. It didn't take long until I was telling myself, "There must be a better way".

I headed off to the hardware store and bought more sprinklers, some more garden hose, some valving and a watering timer. Now what was once a chore is as easy as can be.

I placed fence posts at various points in the garden and topped each with a sprinkler. I ran hoses between them and hooked it all up to the water supply. Unfortunately the output of our well pump isn't quite enough volume for all of them to run at the same time so I added some valves to break them into two groups. Now I just set the timer and stand back while the sprinklers do all of the work.

Harvesting In Heaps

It would be fair to say that my garden plans will require some adjustment for next year. Some items such as peas have been too few. Other things such as zucchini, collards and yellow summer squash are yielding in such huge quantities that it is laughable.

We have been harvesting the garden literally by the wheel barrow full for the past month. We have tried to find time to can some of it for winter use, have been having fresh vegetables at nearly every meal and chopping up some to feed to the chickens. Inevitably, some of it has been heaped in piles between the rows and left to rot in the sun.

In my defense, I only ordered one small packet of seeds per variety. The problem was that I doggedly planted every single seed in every packet no matter how impractical that might be. Now that we have this first year under our belt, I will be able to make some adjustments to the plans to better match our ability to consume what is grown. All of this may be reversed someday if we ever manage to start producing for sale at the local farmer's markets but right now we are just too busy getting the kids back into the school routine.

In the quiet time between the last harvest and maple tapping season, I have a long list of website improvements and similar projects to tackle. Among them will be the final assessment of our garden's successes and failures. I also look forward to adjusting some of the varieties that we grew that didn't turn out so well.

But for the moment the sun is still warm and things are still growing. I think I may take the kids aside this evening and work out a special strategy to help with the problem. I'm starting to think that Janet and I could intentionally distract any visitor who comes to our house just long enough for the children to pack every cubic inch of their vehicle with squash!

Flower Garden

Janet has always loved decorating our home with flowers. Upon purchasing our farm last fall, we began to discuss the best spot for the flower garden. Before long we settled on the patch of grass in the center of the circle drive directly in front of the house.

The plan didn't move beyond that stage until Mother's Day. We used that occasion as the impetus to get things moving forward. The children and I took Janet out to the nursery where we purchased a wide assortment of wildflower mixes and individual seed packets.

I also borrowed my father-in-law's rototiller to tear up the sod and prepare the ground for seeding. Unfortunately the project hit a major snag when I managed to break the tiller by snapping an old welded repair that had become rusty and brittle. I removed the part and Dave had it rewelded at a local shop. Borrowing equipment is always risky but he has been very forgiving and helpful.

When the tiller was finally back in working order, I broke up the very hard packed soil and removed a fair number of rocks. Aidan and I mixed all of the seeds in a bucket with some potting soil and then broadcast them as evenly as we could. After a few weeks of watering, the first seedlings were well on their way.

We were concerned that a flower garden created in this way would just end up looking like a big patch of weeds. Fortunately the blooms have been increasingly plentiful and it is finally beginning to fill in and look nice. We are trying not to overdo the harvesting of flowers so that enough will go to seed to provide for next year's crop. Regardless of how many manage to emerge after the long winter, I'm sure we will have to supplement it with a fresh batch of store-bought seeds next spring as well.

Beauty Brought Indoors

Now that the flower garden is blooming, the interior of our house is full of colorful bouquets. Every few days, Janet has been picking a combination of wildflowers and our garden flowers and placing them everywhere. I even found a water glass with some sitting on my desk in the basement.

I like the country charm that they impart and appreciate the fact that we grew them ourselves instead of bringing them home from the grocery store or floral shop. It's a shame we can't have them during the long gloomy Michigan winters. Perhaps someday we'll invest in a little greenhouse out back so we can enjoy them all year 'round.

It Makes Me Smile

In all of the hustle and bustle of daily life, it is a challenge to find time to slow down and smell the roses. I have written here of my restless pursuit of projects around the farm and my frustrations of always feeling behind in my work. Part of that comes from the fact that my part-time hobby doesn't take into account that weeds grow and things fall apart around here at a full-time pace. The rest of it is just my naturally ardent nature.

There is one sight that breaks my stride at least once per day and causes me to stand and reflect with a smile on my face. It may have been late in planting and a bit too weedy in patches, but my garden gives me great pleasure and a sense of accomplishment just the same. There is something so satisfying about seeing those plants spring from the soil and grow big and beautiful before your eyes. When measured against the reward of vegetables for the table and the aesthetic pleasure that it brings, the labor to plant and maintain the garden seems well spent.


That stands for....Thank Goodness Chickens Eat Zucchini!


Isn't Anyone Else Going Organic??

Last spring in my gardening classes at the local extension office, I was singled out as one of the few people attempting true organic gardening. The instructor explained that for most people organic gardening was a matter of degree and that they follow some of the rules and ignore others according to personal taste and convenience. Among the packed room of classmates, I was clearly holding down the "purist" extreme of the spectrum.

Thus far I have stuck to my guns and intend to carry it through. This has meant that I have paid more for my seed stock and potting soil. It has also meant that I have been keeping careful records of everything that I have done including keeping the labels off of everything I have used for eventual inspection by an auditor. I have also called the certifying agency a number of times to get advice on what I can or cannot do.

This has meant that I have been extremely cautious about what is placed in the garden or used on the plants. It has also led to some minor problems such as when Janet came home with a few basil plants that she had picked up from the grocery. Because they had no paper trail to prove where the seeds came from or what might be in the potting soil, I would not allow them to be anywhere near our food production areas. In the end I stuck them in the ground along the edge of our shed to be treated as second-class citizens on our farm.

Up until recently the garden had been pretty exclusively my problem to deal with. It is true that Sean and Aidan lent a hand during some of the planting but the rest of the work had been done by me mostly late at night when I could finally find some time to get to it. During a recent trip by the children and I to visit family, I was surprised to hear from Janet that she had spent considerable time weeding the garden. In the past week her participation has led to a couple of evenings where the entire family could be found heads-down in the rows. My smile could not have been broader at the sight.

A few nights ago we were all together among the vegetables when Aidan observed, "The cabbages are getting eaten up by something." Up until this point our plants had been completely free of insect pests. My experiences with growing potatoes in Tennessee, for example, has left me amazed at the sight of our great big healthy potato plants without a single potato beetle! I walked over to the cabbage and saw that Aidan was absolutely correct. Every single cabbage plant had holes nibbled in its leaves.

It didn't take me long to find the culprits. A close inspection of the plants revealed that imported cabbage worms and cabbage loopers were both happily munching away at our plants. I am very familiar with these pests from previous seasons. They arrive in the garden daily as little white and grey moths to lay eggs on the undersides of the leaves. Unless something is done about them, the green caterpillars that emerge will quickly reduce the plant to a hole-riddled skeleton.

I have dealt with them many times before using a tried and true organic method. There is a wonderful line of products made from a soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. I have used it for years in powder form. A light dusting of the plants prevents any further problems with the worms. The nice thing about Bt is that it has been in use for nearly 100 years with no known issues for the environment or human health.

Bt is nice to use because it only affects a few species of insects, primarily moths and butterflies, and only those who decide to eat the plants on which I have applied it. A light dusting of the cabbage plants now and then is enough to keep them completely free of the pests. The problem is that I can't find Bt anywhere!

I have spent a number of days calling and visiting every garden supply store and greenhouse in the area. Each visit has found me standing in the store explaining what Bt is to employees who have never heard of it. With enough effort, I can generally get to the point that they will offer to special order it for me and have it available in a week or two. My problem is that my cabbages are getting eaten right now!

In one phone call, I did manage to find an employee at an Ann Arbor garden supply store who actually knew what it was without me having to explain it. Regrettably, they didn't carry it in the store either. In my frustration I asked the man, "Why can't I find this stuff anywhere? Isn't anybody else doing organic gardening? What are they using to combat cabbage moths?". He sheepishly admitted that it is very rare for anyone to really be concerned about using anything other than the standard toxic stuff from Ortho. One application of that stuff would be enough to cause an organic farm to lose its certification for three to five years!

In the end I ended up asking my local hardware store to special order a couple of containers for me. As a hold-over measure until they arrive, I have been hand picking the caterpillars off of the plants and feeding them to the chickens. This morning I consulted my new organic gardening guides to make sure that it wasn't just a case of me being out of date. They confirmed that Bt was the solution of choice. I'm just left wondering how much longer these companies will continue to manufacture products that so few people are buying.

Where the heck are all of the other organic gardeners?


A Calendar Laid Out In Dirt

The past weekend was dedicated pretty exclusively to planting. Sean, Aidan and I started at the south end of the garden and worked our way north all weekend. I'm not sure how many hours were expended other than to say that it was many.

I started by going to the farm calendar on our website and looking through the months to find all the items that we would have already planted had we not been so behind schedule. We worked our way forward, starting with the peas that were scheduled for March 20th. Those we planted in the first row and then worked our way chronologically through the calendar and across the garden. As of late last night we had worked our way forward to May 2nd which meant that all of the beans (lima, black, Jacob's cattle, wax and pole beans) finally were poked into the waiting soil. In all, 29 varieties of vegetables were planted or transplanted from where they have been growing under lights indoors and about one third of the garden was used up.

It was a very satisfying feeling to straighten my back and look across the garden to see the work we had accomplished. Of course, I realize that having our schedule so far out of whack means that some things will not turn out all that well. I anticipate that a couple of the cold-weather crops at the southern end of the garden will bolt in protest of the hot summer weather. As well, some of the long season crops may not have enough time to make it to maturity before the frosts come in the fall. Some of my co-workers have mentioned that their gardens were all severely damaged by a late frost at the end of May so I may accidentally come out ahead.

Sunset last night found me poking the last of the pole bean seeds into the ground. As the light shifted from yellow to red, the thunderstorm that had been threatening all evening finally arrived. The roiling clouds in the last rays of the day made a dramatic display overhead that was quickly followed by an impressive lightning show and torrents of rain. I ended up getting caught for the worst of it while ushering the chickens into the coop for the night.

We rode out the storm together in dry comfort beneath the temporary roof. I sat on the floor in the dry wood shavings enjoying the rest for my tired muscles. I sat with a satisfied smile on my face as I listened to the thunder overhead and watched the chickens all about me busily pecking at their dinner. It was a golden moment. It just doesn't get much better than that!

First Try At Plowing

The weather had been dry, rain was in the forecast and the planting was way behind schedule. The day had finally come when I had to take my courage in both hands and give plowing a try. When I purchased the tractor and plow, the dealer gave me a long-winded explanation of how to set up and adjust the plow. At the time plowing seemed a far-off prospect and the information went completely over my head.

In the past month I have attempted to gain some understanding of what is involved. I read websites on plowing but only picked up tidbits of knowledge. I talked to my father and father-in-law. Everyone seems to be saying that I just needed to hook it up, give it a try and learn as I go.

What understanding I had managed to gain was this: 1) the angle of the plow should be adjusted so that all three shares dug into the ground at the same depth; 2) the side-to-side tilt of the plow should be adjusted so that the resulting cut was level in the ground; 3) the coulters (the black wheels in second picture) should be adjusted to cut the sod in front of each share; 4) the sod should turn off of the mold board so that it lands grass-side down and 5) I should not break anything or run into anything while accomplishing all of this.

Mounting the plow to the tractor proved to be tricky. It is very heavy so the tractor has be to positioned exactly to allow everything to link up. This involves a lot of jumping on and off of the tractor to make tiny adjustments and to raise or lower the hitch. After a good ten-minute struggle, I was able to raise the plow and drive toward the field.

As I had read, I paced off the field at each end and placed stakes to show where the first cut should be positioned in order to divide the area in half. I lined up the tractor on these stakes, lowered the plow to the ground, gunned the engine and kicked her in gear. Just as if I knew what I was doing, the plow dove into the soil and began expertly turning three big furrows. I gave Janet a smiling shrug and continued down the field quite pleased with the results.

I probably plowed up a little over 1/2 acre that day. It went pretty smoothly and nothing broke. The forces that plows withstand while doing their work is amazing. It is no wonder they are built so heavily.

I also learned a number of refinements as the job went on. Early on I noticed that the hind-most share was cutting much more deeply than the front. I turned the top-link of the three point hitch to adjust the angle of attack and that problem was solved. I also had some issues with the fact that the ground was so uneven. Now and then the plows would come completely out of the ground and leave a grassy patch as the tractor bumped along. Some of these I backed up to fix, the rest I left for next time.

Once completed, I stood at the edge of the field and felt good about my accomplishment. I would leave the soil as it was for at least a week (two weeks is recommended but I am late as it is!) to let the grass die underneath. Then I will disc it and perhaps plow it a second time to get those grassy patches that I missed.

Even with all of my trepidation, the job got done and not too badly for a first try. Oh yeah, there was one comical collision with a spruce tree that borders the garden area. I hadn't removed the front-end loader and the bucket is pretty hard to see around and makes the tractor much longer. At one point I rounded the corner while looking backwards to check on the plows. Suddenly I realized that the bucket had rammed into the spruce which waved wildly back and forth making a big display of my error. I backed up and continued plowing. The tree only lost some bark and will recover. Later, while admiring my handiwork I made a sideways comment about having run into the spruce hoping that it hadn't been noticed. Janet grinned at me and said, "Yeah...I saw that."

Are You Guys Alright?

One of the first things I noticed upon returning from my recent trip to Mexico was that the vegetable seedlings that we have growing in our basement didn't look so good. They had been doing so well prior to my departure but now they were yellowed and appeared to be dying. Of course, my initial reaction was to assume that Janet had let them get too dry between waterings. That assumption turned out to be incorrect.

Right away, I began my attempts to nurse them back to health. As I watered them and fussed over them they continued to wither and look terrible. I asked about the problem in my organic gardening class and the consensus was that they were lacking nutrients. It seemed odd to me that the organic seed starter mix could be so devoid of nutrients that I would have this problem but I dutifully purchased organic fertilizer and applied it in hopes that it would work. Alas, the yellowing and dying only continued.

I noticed that the tiny pumpkin and spinach seedlings were forming flowers in a desperate attempt to reproduce before their impending demise. I wondered if they could be too cold in our basement. The temperature usually hovers somewhere in the upper-60s. After considering that for a while I started thinking that the flowering could be bolting behavior. Cold weather crops will "bolt" and begin to flower when the heat of mid-summer becomes too much for them. Could they be too hot?

It was just about then that a memory of something that I barely heard in my gardening class filtered to the fore in my puzzled brain. It had been one of those moments when my attention had wandered and I only caught the end of what the instructor was saying in response to a question. She said, "...four to six inches from the top of the seedlings".

"That must be it!", I thought. Perhaps it hadn't been lack of water or nutrients at all! While I was away in Mexico they must have grown too close to the overhanging lights and baked themselves! I raised all of the lights to about six inches from the poor little plants and began an anxious watch over them to see if it would help.

Sure enough, a few days later they began to green up again and put out new leaves. They seem much happier now and I feel that I have yet again learned an important lesson. The pumpkins and spinach may not pull out of it since they shifted over to flower production way too early. Everything else is looking better every day and are probably going to pull through. I guess this was a case of too much of a good thing!

Organic Gardening Classes


I have been gardening off and on for the past twenty-five years. In most of those attempts I used organic gardening techniques for dealing with problems. I usually resorted to picking bugs off of plants and using naturally derived products such as insecticidal soap, diatomaceous earth, pyrethrum dust and Bt (Bacillus thuringieniensis) spores to combat pests. That was as far as my understanding of "organic gardening" went.

In the past six months I have been re-educating myself about organic gardening. I have been reading books and websites as time permits, as well as attending seminars and classes. Last week I added another chapter to this educational process by attending two organic gardening classes taught by our local Michigan State University Extension Agent.

Our local agent is an interesting character. I was already a little familiar with her from her regular column in the county newspaper and my brief visit with her a few months back to discuss chicken coop design. She is very easy to talk to and very direct in her answers. The classroom was absolutely packed each night as her colorful and anecdotal delivery had everyone in stitches.

In general the classes reinforced what has already become apparent to me. Organic gardening is far more than the acceptance of ascetic limitations on what chemicals can be used to combat pests. The techniques center around building the health of the soil and paying attention to the ecosystem of the farm as a whole. It harks back to the best sustainable methods of agriculture from the days before the "Green Revolution" after World War II when agriculture began depending on industrial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to wrest the maximum possible yield per acre with little regard to the impact to the ecosystem.

A few particular items that I learned will be helpful in the years ahead. I learned that ambient soil temperature should be measured in the morning before the sun has a chance to heat it up. I learned the importance of getting a soil test every three years to learn what organic amendments may need to be added (it's on my to-do list). I learned that mulching is the best solution for keeping down weeds (we need to get a riding mower with a bagger!). I learned that mulching is not advisable in Michigan for hot weather plants such as tomatoes and peppers. Lastly, I learned that I need to use a rain gage to insure that the garden gets at least one inch of water per week.

The gardening plans thus far this year are a shambles. The late arrival of the tractor, the business trip to Mexico and the labor-hogging chicken coop project have meant that everything is late in getting done. I keep reminding myself that it is early yet and there is still time to put the train back on the tracks. If nothing else, next year will surely go more smoothly in comparison!



Racing The Flock And The Clock

It is characteristic of me to put myself in challenging situations by taking on massive tasks, especially ones that involve a tight deadline. Over the years I have completed countless projects by cramming the work into long sessions that go late into the night. The projects involved in getting this farm going are proving to be no different.

As you can see, the seedlings are up and well on their way. Soon they will be demanding a more spacious home in a well-tilled garden somewhere. I would be happy to accommodate those wishes if only I can manage to swing the purchase of the tractor in time. As well, a visit to our farm calendar will show that there are a number of crops that should have been planted already!

In the same way, the brood boxes are getting increasingly crowded as the chicks eat their way to maturity at an alarmingly rapid pace. They are beginning to squabble and fuss more and more. I'm sure it is due to the crowded conditions. If I don't manage to get a coop built soon, I may have to resort to creating larger temporary accommodations for them.

Luckily I have the day off today and getting a start on the coop is high on my list. I spent time yesterday having a very helpful discussion with our local extension agent about chicken rearing and got some additional helpful hints from the Michigan Department of Agriculture office. This morning, I hope to have one final conversation with the organic certification agency to make sure I don't include any prohibited materials in my coop construction. Once that is complete, it will be time to break ground and get the project underway!

Better Late Than Never!

I keep telling myself that this is a year for building and that it won't always be this crazy. I suppose it doesn't help that my enthusiasm is driving me to do absolutely everything that I can this year rather than taking things on at a more gradual and reasonable pace. For that reason I am finding myself perpetually behind. It's a good thing that I'm having such a great time!

The vegetable garden project is an excellent example. My ambitious plans led me to order a very large selection of vegetable seeds (see what I picked here). Each day the mailbox has been stuffed with little packages from seed companies who are more than happy to take my order and indulge my lunacy. The seed packets are now stacked up around me and impatiently waiting for me to get them started.

If there is a meticulous way to go about something, that is what I favor. The problem of figuring out of when to do what for the garden led me to the idea of making a calendar (see it here). I bought a gardening book for Michigan and combined that with information from the Internet to pull the plan together and get it organized.

Of course, as soon as the task was done I could see that I was massively behind in getting my seeds started indoors. For some things such as onions it was obvious that the boat had sailed so long ago that I will have to give up on those for this year. I decided to tackle all of the seed starting for March in the last few days of the month and hope for the best.

The pictures show the contraption that I built to encourage the seeds to do their thing. I bought four fluorescent two-tube light fixtures and rigged them from the basement ceiling so that I can adjust the height as the plants grow. I also bought seed starting trays and organic seed starting soil mix and rolled up my sleeves.

The lights must be working because it has only been three days and all of the trays now have little seedlings in them. Now that they are on the way I need to do something about the varieties that are listed in the calendar that are supposed to be in the ground outside already such as peas, shallots and turnips. Since I have nothing to prepare the soil for planting other than a hoe and a shovel, I am now turning my attention to getting some better tools!

Seed Catalogs!

A few weeks ago, I spent an evening on the web ordering seed catalogs. They are finally starting to pour in and I have a nice little stack started. I know, I know. I should use the online versions or download the catalogs to my computer. I will be better next year, I promise!

There is just nothing better to chase away mid-winter blues than to curl up with seed catalogs and begin to dream of spring planting. There are so many strange and exotic varieties to choose from. Of course, because of my organic certification ambitions, I will need to set aside all of the catalogs that offer chemically treated or genetically modified seeds.

I have to admit a long-held bias against hybrid varieties and a nostalgia for heirlooms. I look to my Appalachian grandparents as examples of truly skilled gardeners. To this day I can remember the smell of the room over their garage that was used for the winter storage of their seed stock from the previous year. It contained baskets of dried pods, shelled seed corn, seed potatoes and trays of dried pumpkin and tomato seeds. From the rafters they hung "leather breeches", dried bean pods strung on string.

I can also remember the taste of those vegetables at suppertime, especially the corn and green beans. Grandpa and grandma were the descendants of pioneer stock who had lived in those steep valleys from the time of the founding of the Northwest Territories. Many of the varieties that they grew in their huge garden were handed down from their ancestors and preserved through all of those years as particular favorites of the family. Today, I wonder if those varieties have become extinct as the older generations died out or whether they live on in some neighbor's garden, faithfully renewed and preserved with each season.

Realistically, I don't feel that I have the skill to begin with that level of discipline. I'll just have to file the seed saving idea away for now as an aspiration for the future.
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