Springtime archaeology is in full swing. Removed is the white blanket of snow, leaving behind the dog droppings, fallen branches, spilled chicken bedding, and the skeleton of last year’s garden. Jacob (one of our summer interns this year who is staying with us for a week to see the farm in springtime) arrived just the other day, and we’ve set to work attacking the archeological mess.
First it was the branches—bits and pieces from the old spreading maples in the yard that were already a mature stand in an old farm picture from the 1940’s. There’s the blown-off dark chocolate twigs from the silver maple by the bird feeder to collect, the barren sticks from “instant habitat” harvested for last year’s escapist pheasants to be thrown from the hen yard, and then there’s the great limbs ripped from the red pine next to the barn from the November ice storm to drag away.
So we’re bending and picking, bobbing like ducks in puddles as we load the back end of the golf cart we call “the Blueberry” and haul them to a pile near the compost bin. Last year because of hay shortages, we had to buy quite a bit to get the sheep through the hard winter, which means that this spring there won’t be any old hay laying around for mulching. So what, as organic-style gardeners, are we going to do?
Well, we’ll have to try using something else. Last year, with so much of our time needed at Farmstead Creamery, there just wasn’t enough hours to get all the weeding done. We’ll be experimenting with some plastic mulches this year (a reversible black-on-one-side and white-on-the-other to customize for warm or cool-loving crops). But there’s still all the walkways and more to cover. How about running these branches through our chipper and making our own mulch? But the little pile from yard waste wasn’t going to go very far, so it was time to tackle some other spring projects to add to the horde.
Along the lane up to the farmhouse, Grandpa had planted black spruce and a few odds-and-ends pine volunteers to serve as a living wind and snow barrier. Before, drifts would pile across our private road, making winter excursions to the homestead rather difficult. These trees have now grown considerably, though several times smaller than the towering maples.
Our first trimming of the roadside pine stand came after a young and exuberant Lena (our sheepdog) chased a wayward rabbit into the thicket and poked her eye! It did heal, with treatment, but all the branches up to Lena height had to go. Last summer, I pastured our new flock of ducks beneath the trees, which offered both shade and protection from flying predators. But the crouch-height branches made for intricate zig-zagging of electric mesh fence to keep from grounding out and face-poking late night duck chases to convince the white feathered beasts to go to bed!
Hence, in our search for chipping material for mulch and in an effort to clear more fence and headspace for shaded duck pasture, Jacob and I broke out the hand saws and went to work at the half-dead lower limbs. The breeze was brisk from the northwest, encouraging us to stand upwind of our endeavors or risk a faceful of wood shavings—eyes, nose, teeth gritty with bits of bark and pulp. We drug the severed limbs into the lane, creating a hedge of tree parts. A chainsaw probably would have speeded the process, but such powerful and dangerous machinery is not my forte.
After clearing the way (and the view into the sheep pasture beyond, which was an added bonus), we piled the branches onto the dump bed of the Blueberry. Some awkward specimens caught the wind and pulled us around or spread wide so as to make stacking a stable pile quite a feat. In the end, Jacob walked behind as “spotter” while I drove slowly to our pile, backed up, and we used the release lever on the dump bed to push the whole mess onto the chipping pile. Nine or ten loads later, we had the project cleared out.
Today, however, was busy as ever at Farmstead Creamery. With the previous snow dump, various booked events had been postponed…all to the same day. We also had our first major delivery of aquaponics lettuce to the area hospital and CSA shares to prep and send off for pickup, as well as a meeting with a drinks purveyor. Jacob was going to be on his own for springtime farmwork for the day as the rest of us held down a DNR fisheries meeting, the lunch crew, and deliveries with our helper Kelli.
So we scoped out the bones of last year’s raised-bed garden. Armed with empty feed sacks to collected the battered remains for anti-cutworm cups (made from former yogurt, soda, and milk containers from dumpster diving) and a couple styles of rakes for removing old vines and dead weeds, there was plenty of ground to be covered. Last year, we had spent weeks of time forming wide raised-bed rows (at least two to three times as wide as our previous formations), with in-ground soaker hose still in place.
This year, instead of tilling the whole project over and pulling out and reburying all that irrigation, we’re trying a top-dressing compost method, covered with the plastic mulch where we can. In the walkways, we’ll split our paper feed sacks that have been piling up from all winter so that they unfold flat the long way, lay them down in the walkways, and cover them with our chipped mulch. In the end, our hope is to have a seriously lessened weed load so we can focus on our real passions—growing great local foods—instead of constantly waging war on the things we’d rather not be growing.
But first, we have to make order of the chaos of autumn’s remains. With eagerness and tenacity, Jacob attacked the garden, filling bags upon bags with cutworm cups and heaping piles of debris onto either far end of the garden to be hauled away. By lunchtime, half the space was cleared. And by 5:00 in the afternoon, only the last few rows remained. We were pretty impressed, Jacob was pretty hungry, and we were all feeling great about the progress made these last few days.
Of course, you still don’t want to see my springtime to-do list, but at least we’re making progress on all those things that need attention when the snow clears. 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 www.northstarhomestead.com