I wake to another drizzly morning on the farm. Even the roosters haven’t bothered to start
crowing yet. The air is cool, and I long
to stay snuggled under the covers…just a bit longer. It’s the first Saturday after the farmer’s
market season, and everyone else is sleeping in, right? But, alas, those rules don’t apply to
farmers. It’s already October, and there
is much to be done before the snow flies.
And that little voice inside is reminding that there’s no
use putting it off until spring—that crammed-full-of-projects-and-baby-animals
time of year when leisure for sleep evaporates like puddles in August. It’s time to start checking off items on that
autumn list as fast as possible before the ground freezes.
The biggest chunk of the before-ground-freezes assignments
focus in the garden. October is the
month for planting garlic, which means preparing a bed that has raised neither
garlic nor onions nor shallots this year, picking out the best heads for
planting, and getting down on one’s hands and knees with the dibble to push
next year’s promise of a crop into the ground.
Then haul out old hay and mulch the bed nice and thick to protect the
buried cloves from severe cold.
It’s also time to dig the last of the carrots and potatoes
for the root cellar. Last year, our
potato patch was quite ambitious, since we were expecting to sell 50 pounds of
potatoes each week to a local restaurant.
When that arrangement fell through, we found ourselves with more
potatoes than we could imagine using!
Our CSA members enjoyed potatoes each week well into the winter, we sold
potatoes at our farm store, and we served potatoes in pasties and pot
pies. And still there were more potatoes
sprouting in the basement. It looked
like some story by Dr. Seuss!
This spring, therefore, we vowed to curb our potato
overdosing habits and planted a patch about half the size of the previous
year’s undertaking. Box-fulls of those
sprouting basement beasties were returned to the earth to grow anew (a practice
that only works for one year before scab sets in), sprouting tendrils
included. With the help of our summer
interns, we mulched the patch religiously and picked potato beetles. Now our interns have returned to college, and
we are left with the bulk of the patch still needing to be harvested by hand
with a garden fork! No small task, for
Fortunately, harvesting the patch of winter squash can be
checked off the list. I was hoping to
give the plants a bit more time with the warmer weather, but when the mice and
voles decided to begin nibbling craters into the sides of a handful of
buttercups, that was it! We hauled out a
hay wagon and began piling the green, orange, blue, and yellow squashes,
pumpkins, and gourds on top. Rolling the
wagon into a shed keeps the precious harvest away from most gnawing creatures,
as well as frosts. The timing was
fortuitous, actually, because the ensuing days of drizzly rain would have been
the perfect setup for molds to attack any squashes still in the field. Safely tucked in the shed, along with boxes
of apples and palates of onions, garlic, and shallots, it’s easy to slip inside
and snitch enough for supper.
And then there are the other sundry jobs of emptying out
rain barrels and squirreling them away in the shed for the winter, pulling out
the electric mesh perimeter fence and in-ground soaker hose irrigation system,
and hauling the pump for the sand point into the garage before it freezes.
Autumn is also butchering season, reducing the summer
population down to winter breeding stock.
The last of the chickens are ready, and soon it will be turkey
time. Over the years, we’ve butchered
our own poultry in every kind of weather—90 degrees, wind, sleet, hail, even a
snowstorm. But everyone much prefers a
sunny, crisp autumn day for the task.
Winter housing for poultry is a finite situation, and folks have already
placed their orders for pasture-raised Thanksgiving turkey.
It’s also time for the winter-season piglets to arrive,
courtesy our neighbor’s sows. That means
fencing needs to go up, housing needs to be winterized, and feed needs to be
ordered. Not long after that it will be
time to sort the ewes into breeding groups and turn in the rams, preceded by
barn cleanings on a massive scale. Every
time we turn around, something else gets added to the autumn to-do list—often
the adding happens faster than the subtracting!
There are apples to pick and sauce and jellies to make, wild
plums to gather and cranberries to make into jams. The last of the basil needs to be whipped
into pesto and frozen for pizza enjoyment all winter long. Winterize the tractors and change the oil in
the golf cart, then rip out the old garden plants and rake the leaves. Either we’ll have to switch to a 24-hour
shift or find a few more persons to help us “get ‘er done” this autumn. What’s that you said, we have to add canning
tomatoes to the list now too?
Just when you thought the growing season was winding to a
close, there is yet one last push before winter truly closes in around the
homestead and blankets the pastures in white.
But there’s also room for a little fun—crunching through the fallen
leaves with our herding dog Lena, carving
pumpkins into golden glowing Jack-O-Lanterns, watching the flock of Sandhill
cranes dance in the pasture. Autumn can
be such a magical and fleeting time of year.
Soak in the colors now so they fill your spirit with joy and wonder
through the wintertime.
I can smell wild plums on the stove. Time to help make another batch of jam. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a
co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 03:22 PM CDT
With 18 inches of snow still tumbling from the skies and
sliding off the barn roof in mid-May this year, it’s been my grumble that we
sure ought to have earned a late autumn.
We had a nip of frost during that cold and drizzly week in July, but
usually the fall freeziness starts up in late August on our farm—which has the
pleasure of being nestled in the county’s cold spot.
Fortunately, September has been impressively mild, with the
eggplants and peppers still hanging in there.
Covering again to make it through our fifth frost, the dreaded hard
freeze still appears a little ways off into October—added time for winter
squashes to ripen. This year, we’ll take
every extra day for keeping the garden growing that Nature is willing to grant
The Northwoods is notorious for its short growing
season. Grandma always used to say that
there was no sense planting much in the garden until Memorial Weekend, well
after her family used to have the planting finished on the old family farms in Central Illinois.
And you can be pretty sure, around here, that the ground will be
freezing by later October, if not sooner.
Garden into November or harvest Broccoli for Christmas dinner in these
parts? Forget it!
This leaves hearty Northwoods gardeners always on the hunt
for creative season extenders. Our adventures
began with cold frames made from insulative bales of hay stacked to form the
outline of a square. The earth below was
turned, amended with compost, and sprinkled with lettuce and spinach
seeds. The land sloped gently to the
south, facing the low-sky autumn sun. On
top was laid an old glass window in a wooden frame. This was supposed to catch and keep the
warmth of the sun, helping the soil stay above freezing and warm enough for the
eager plants to grow. But the buildup of
moisture became a problem, and when that moisture with the added weight of snow
load built up on the window pane and froze, the glass broke…and no-one really
wants to eat lettuce with bits of glass in it.
So we upgraded to a polycarbonate (corrugated plastic) cold
frame from Germany
with hinged doors for vents that could rest on the soil sheltered along the
south side of the house. Now we were
able to enjoy greens as early as April, and a second late planting of provided
salads weeks after the rest of the garden had froze out. But, while the small size was fine for one
family, it didn’t offer us the ability to extend the growing season for our CSA
members and clients.
We next tried low-tunnels, which are a method where metal
hoops stuck into the ground over the bed of growing plants support a
lightweight, breathable fabric. This system
can be used to organically keep plants protected from pests, especially in
their early and tender growing phases, as well as insulate against cold
temperatures. But a low tunnel just
wasn’t enough to keep the plants safe when the nighttime temperatures dipped
into the 20’s.
It was time for more drastic measures! High tunnels.
Also hoop-like in structure, these season extenders are supported by
steel ribs high enough to walk through, encased in plastic film. Doors on the ends or adjustable roll-up sides
offer abilities to control temperature and humidity, as well as air flow. Close it up through the winter and the ground
might never freeze solid inside, making it much warmer in the spring to get
plants started. Open it wide in the
summer to allow insect and wind pollination as well as keep the moisture
down. Close it back up on the chilly
fall nights to keep the plants safe and growing well into October or even
November. It doesn’t break (like glass)
or blow away (like low tunnels), and it can withstand winter snows.
Upon entering the world of high tunnels, we opted to start
small to give it a try by ordering a 12 by 24-foot high tunnel kit from
FarmTek. It was our first time working
with their systems, amidst the intricacies of run-away Tek screws, cantankerous
saddle clamps, and ground augers that had to be dug into the rocky soil rather
than twisted. But after several brave
and rigorous months, we had our first high tunnel. Oh the joy of ratcheting down the top cover
and hanging the door as the finishing touch.
A roll-up back flap made it easy to bring in wheel barrel loads of
compost or mulch, and in-ground soaker hose irrigation provided necessary
In the spring, we hauled out our trays upon trays of
seedlings to the high tunnel for hardening off, nestled our cold-sensitive
tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants into the sun-warmed soil well before squashes
or beans could be planted outside, and kept those plants going well after the
garden was ripped out and put to bed at the end of the season. But the little 12-by-24 soon wasn’t big
enough to meet our needs.
It was time for a serious high tunnel project. The summer of 2011, with the help of our Northland College intern Sarah, we leveled the top
end of the garden and erected a 12 by 50-foot plastic film high tunnel. But you know how it goes—construction projects
always take longer than you anticipate.
Our tomato transplants were getting desperate—really desperate—dangling
and sprawling from their transplant containers, praying for more room for root
growth as they waited for us to finish the project. The rafters were up and secured in place, but
we still didn’t have the cover on, when the tomato desperation went beyond the
It was after chores, and it was dark even for a June
night. The summer was getting off to a
hot start, and Sarah had been joking about trying “night gardening” to beat the
heat. Only the state of the tomatoes
made that proposition no joke that night.
We pulled the truck up to the high tunnel construction sight, turned on
the headlights, and planted 150 tomatoes until midnight (with the help of a few
mosquitoes). Sarah didn’t suggest night
gardening as a creative idea again after that adventure.
Stringing used baling twine from the rafters down to the
plants and securing the strands with ground stakes, the tomato plants were carefully
trellised up off the ground in orderly rows with walkways. That next week, the plastic cover was
carefully pulled into place, augmented with roll-up sides and a door on the
east end. It was a pretty satisfying
accomplishment for our woman-powered crew, and the frosts didn’t manage to kill
those intrepid tomatoes until November that year. Break out the canning jars!
We’re hoping for such a season now, given the late
spring. The twining Romas and colorful
heirloom varieties reach high over my head.
I love the season of autumn, but it’s always hard to see the demise of
the garden, with all the time and love that was invested to help it flourish
all summer long. In milder growing
climates, like Maine,
some farmers are using high tunnels to grow food all year round! But up here, we’re happy to add a bit more
time to both ends of the gardening season in whatever way we can. Who can help but smile at the first…and last
garden ripe tomatoes? See you down on
the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner
of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 03:20 PM CDT