North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
[ Member listing ]

Garden Frenzy

Visitors this time last year would have witnessed a garden with only three rows left to hill and plant.  But this year, with the lingering winter and inclement weather, the garden has all but about three rows to go.  It’s a madness of squeezing a month’s worth of labor into about a week…if we can pull it off.  That’s right, it’s time for garden frenzy.

The early crops are desperate to go in the ground.  Little broccoli wait impatiently in their flats, while peas soak in the bowl.  We did manage to broadfork their beds, turning in compost and lime to amend the soil and stringing up trellises framed by 2x2s and latticed with used bailing twine.  There’s always a creative use for baling twine on a homestead farm!

The onions arrived during the last snow storm—a box full of 30 bundles of 60 little onion plants each.  The lid reads “open and plant immediately.”  The problem was that 18 inches of snow lay on the ground outside!  Then we opened the box to discover that the plants were covered in mold.  There was no way these little members of the lily family were going to hold over until things melted.

We sent pictures to the distributor and asked for advice.  The word was plant them in flats with soil, water, and light, and hopefully they would pull through.  If things didn’t work out, they’d send a partial reshipment.  That night until midnight, we sat on the walkout basement floor, pulling apart the moldy stems and handling them one-by-one.  Less than a week later, they were green, growing, and curling around their fluorescent grow-lights.  We had saved them!  But then, the UPS truck pulled up.

“Oh man!” he cringes, hopping out of the brown sliding door.  “Did you guys have to get more of these?  I couldn’t wait to get them out of my truck.  I’ve got onion breath, and I haven’t even eaten any onions!”

It was another full box of onion plants.  We opened it up…they were all covered in mold too.  We looked at each other, shook our heads, and that night planted 30 bundles of onions until midnight in flats on the floor of our basement.  Garden frenzy?  I think so.  Soon—very soon!—we hope to get them all in the ground and be done with it.  There isn’t likely to be an onion shortage on our farm this year!

Last year, there certainly wasn’t a potato shortage.  We had planted our biggest patch ever, with the understanding that an area restaurant was interested in buying 50 pounds of fresh potatoes each week.  It didn’t work out that way, however, so we passed out potatoes in the CSA program, and we sold potatoes at Farmstead Creamery.  We served potatoes in shepherd’s pie and Cornish pasties, and we ate plenty of potatoes.  But still, despite everything, boxes and boxes of potatoes went into our basement storage.

By now, as you might imagine, they have been starting to grow pale red and green shoots in search of soil.  What to do—we couldn’t use them fast enough!  So this year, we put them all back in the ground for this year’s seed potatoes (along with some more from the store).  We tilled up the patch by the beehive and had at it.

Our intern LeeAra hauled a bucket while we stuffed spades into the soft earth.  “How much of this patch will be planted in potatoes?” she asked, glancing behind her at the wide circle of bare ground.”

“All of it,” I replied matter-of-factly.  After the words left my mouth, I feared the idea might scare even me.

“All of it?”  As it turned out, as we dug and chucked spuds into holes, we barely got them all to fit into the patch—red ones, yellow ones, white ones.  Near the end, we’d toss three tiny ones into the holes, in the hopes that something would take.  It worked last year with a few leftover russets, so these might as well find a use! 

We planted the whole patch that day—something like eight hours of potato digging and 400 pounds of spuds.  Garden frenzy?  Well, Grandpa always says that most things are cured by hard work in the fresh air.  We had just a wee bit of both that day.

One of our former interns and farm groupie Kelli loves to boast that “Those ladies have compost piles bigger than their house!”  And it’s true.  The other day, as we began the labored process of preparing raised beds in the high tunnel for tomato plants, we attacked the pile that had previously been sheep, donkey, and hog bedding with shovels and buckets.  The black humus smells fresh and clean—far from the odiferous, steaming heap we had taken out of the barn.

But sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.  After a good eight trips of hauling compost in buckets, we’re ready to go at this big time.  The bucket brigade could take weeks to cover all of our CSA garden!  It’s time to get out the manure spreader, load up the compost, and do some massive humus distributing.  Forecast warning:  hats with large brims might be a good idea on that day.

Garden frenzy?  It’s that time of year.  So grab a shovel, a hoe, a broadfork, or whatever tool gets you out in the soil planting this week.  We’ve all been waiting so long for spring to arrive this year!  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



Seed Catalogue Scribbles

“Need a trellising cucumber that doesn’t get a waist in the middle and peas that harvest all at once,” is on our wish-list this year as we thumb through the colorful seed catalogues that start to fill the mailbox as early as December.

December?  Who is even ready to think about seeds yet!  But now that late February brings noticeably lengthened daylight, birds flit actively and sing, and the snow clumps tumble off the edge of the roof and land in wet plops below, it’s hard not to think of the oncoming spring. 

Now, granted, spring also brings with it a multitude of baby animals, a million projects needing attention all at once, plenty of mud and barn mucking…but the thought of eager little plants in the basement, popping their optimistic first leaves through the starting soil is as close to a visual of hope as any I can imagine at this moment.  Nature is reborn through a promise of summer glory and a delicious and bountiful harvest.

“Check out the heirloom tomatoes; any new cherry types?  Low acid strains are preferable.”

By the time February comes, even the store of home-canned tomatoes is dwindling.  The hard, pink rocks in the story are hardly worth the mention, and so we dream of the succulent, dripping red orbs that seem so tantalizingly far away.  The seed catalogue images of tomatoes seem especially glossy and succulent—almost unreal in this land of white and gray and barren branches.  Will summer really be as green as the photos I took last July?  Each winter I wonder, as if I am not yet ready to trust the truth of the images.

There is something irreplaceable about a homegrown tomato.  It might be lumpy, with a little sun scorch on the top or a little scab on the bottom, but inside is a treasure of juicy flavor ready to burst forth.  Oh, for some heirloom tomato bruschetta… 

But tomatoes come with their own trials.  They have to be started very early and transplanted many times.  They need compost tea, lots of sun, and a long hardening-off process.  Sometimes we spend months in the spring hauling teenaged tomato plants out to the high tunnel during the day and back into the house in the evening because we just can’t quite trust that it will stay warm enough out there.  The house can become so full of plants just before early summer’s transplanting that every surface (floor and table) throughout most of the house is turned into a virtual greenhouse of little cucumbers, squashes, and eggplants.  One farm visitor managed to find a vacant chair and looked around a bit bewildered, laughing, “Guess I’m sitting in the garden.” 

Invariably, it’s safe to transplant the tomatoes once they absolutely cannot wait any longer in their pots, and we’re out at 11:00 in the evening, desperate to save them, with headlamps and hand trowels and watering cans and…  To see a performance of a song by Stephanie Davis that is a perfect example of how the love of tomatoes can take over your life, visit (or search “Veggie Serenade”).

“Peppers that turn colors (red, yellow, orange) without rotting in the field.”

Perhaps it’s our soil or our luck, but we have had a dickens of a time getting peppers to mature beyond the green phase without them turning into a mass of gooey slime.  A small darkened patch grows limp on the side of the pepper and soon the whole fruit is lost.  Not fair!  Every year, we try a new variety, hoping for better success.  Green peppers are delicious, yes, but most of our restaurant clients really want red (or preferably orange!) ones, so the challenge is on.

We have had some success with small round ones, long skinny ones, or ones that end up with a curl at the tip, but getting that big, blocky fruit this far north is tricky.  Each year, we scour through the new offerings for hopes of a short-season colorful-ripening pepper with great flavor that looks promising.  But dark purple peppers?  We haven’t had a request for that yet…maybe leave that for an experiment another year.

“Stock up on onions—seeds, sets, or plants?”

Back in the days when we first started gardening, the bag of onion sets was an integral part of the stocking-up for planting season process.  That’s how Grandma put in her garden.  But an onion set is actually a year-old plant, and at this point in its life cycle what the onion really wants to accomplish is making a seed head.  For an onion whose focus is making a large, delicious bulb, starting from seed is best.

But trying to convince onions from seed to have a hearty start has been an adventure unto itself.  We tried started them inside.  We tried starting them in the high tunnel.  Sometimes they grew, sometimes they withered, and sometimes they just simply gave up and died.  Starting onions from seed is tricky!  Perhaps it works best in warmer climates, which is where the baby onion plants we buy now get their start.

Wrapped up in bundles of 60 or so, these little intrepid members of the lily family come by the boxful, ready to plant.  Our onions get a great start and someone else has the joy of getting those impertinent seeds to grow!  Get out your trusty dibble, get down on your knees, and in they go.  This works well for leeks too.

“Find an eggplant that isn’t so darn self-satisfied.”

I didn’t always like eggplants.  One of my strong food memories as a kid was the days Mom would make eggplant parmesan.  Now, I knew that Mom was a busy professional and couldn’t always take time to cook for us, so this was a special treat…or at least it was supposed to be.  It didn’t help that the eggplant had come from the store and had sat on the shelf for who knows how long.  Perhaps the eggplant had forgotten what sunshine looked like or rain or wind at that point…those moments might have been a long time ago.  This might be why the eggplant in the dish was far from even a vegetable-loving child’s idea of food—it was gray, slimy, and not very tasty.  The cheese and the tomatoes were, by far, the best part of the dish, and that slab of eggplant stayed on the plate the longest…staring me in the face.  I knew I had to eat it; Mom had worked so hard to make dinner, but…

Today, I like eggplant.  That is, the eggplant I grow.  But the plants that produce those lovely, round, pendulous, purple orbs of the Italian variety have a bit of an attitude.  To be honest, we’ve been lucky to get two per plant in a good season.  After that, they sit on their laurels and smirk at you.  That’s hardly enough for the eggplant to earn its keep!  So we went looking for something new.

There are strains now through the Asian varieties (which grow longer, slender eggplants) that are much more prolific and will produce right until they freeze.  Delicious sautéed or breaded, these eggplants come with purple, white, or speckled skins for a variety of gourmet tastes.  They’re not easy to stuff, but they do slice up into uniform disks, which work great for even cooking.  So, sometimes being brave and trying something new in the catalogue can be rewarding.  No more fear of eggplant parmesan!

“Try growing a new fresh herb—Lemon Basil?”

There’s nothing quite like exchanging the convenience of a bottle of dried herbs for the adventuresome and flavorful journey of learning to cook with fresh herbs right out of the garden.  Sometimes, in the summer months, I’ll just grab an assortment of vegetables (yellow zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, green beans) and throw them into a sauté pan with olive oil, garlic, and a handful of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, thyme).  It’s easy and delicious, especially when augmented with a little cheese or tortellini.

This year, as you page through the glossy seed catalogue, try something new.  It might be a bean that ends up growing higher than your trellis and waves around wondering what to do next, or it might be a new pepper with a unique shape and flavor from Hungary, but having a garden is always an adventure.  You just might surprise yourself with something you never knew you liked.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.


RSS feed for North Star Homestead Farms, LLC blog. Right-click, copy link and paste into your newsfeed reader