Sunday, 22 July 2012

A Garden In a Meadow

There’s a farm in there, somewhere. The farm is looking like a meadow, and it’s quite beautiful this time of year. The weather has been nice and warm, and the tomato plants scattered throughout are now starting to grow towards maturity. The damp month of June resulted in the untimely death of most of the squash seeds I planted, so I decided to plant more tomato plants on the grave sites of the squash seedlings and to make the best of it. This summer will be one of heavy tomato harvests, along with potatoes which are now getting big, and producing new potatoes for my culinary pleasure.

Mowing with the scythe has been a great ab workout, and as desired, it’s providing me with lots of material for mulching and composting. I enjoy starting my days at the farm by sharpening the blade and cutting the areas I need to access. The key to scything has definitely turned out to be having a sharp blade and a proper swing.

Clover living mulch under Apple tree
The farm definitely looks absurd from the traditional farming point of view. The property is covered in dozens of plants types that I planted as well as many wild plants that some would call weeds. As mentioned in a past post, I am encouraging weeds while trying to keep them controlled so that they can perform their soil improving activities while growing my food crops nearby. Some would be shocked to see almost no bare soil here, with clover being encouraged to provide shade to the soil, and nitrogen fixation from the atmosphere for the benefit of nearby crops. It’s my understanding that the nitrogen nodules on the clover roots are shed and made available to the soil when the clover vegetation are cut, killed or disturbed. I hope to see this technique reduce or eliminate irrigation for the tomatoes, resulting in more flavourful and nutritionally dense food, while the weeds and ground cover attract beneficial insects.

Oats, with some companions. A bit too much grass.
Tomato in polyculture

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Update on Potato Growing Methods

The potatoes are looking pretty good now. I must be in some sort of cold air trap at my farm because I had almost all the potatoes (regardless of how their were planted) get burned by the cold and shrivel. Luckily the plants have vigour, and have rebounded quickly. They're due to be hill up to provide them space to grow the tubers, then they will be mulched heavily with grass and weed mulches. As mentioned in a previous post, the potatoes were planted in a few ways. Some were put dug into the ground, six inches deep. Other were place upon the grass and covered with fertilizer (bone meal and worm castings) and soil, while a few were dug into a trench, then covered.

Potatoes grown on the lawn (grass to be used as mulch)
When re-emerging after frost
I'm surprised to say that the ones in the trenches are doing the best, though they're not too far ahead of the ones in ground. The ones on the lawn are also doing quite well. I'd have to say the trench ones are the busiest and tallest so far, so I consider that my measurement of success at this point but the proof is in the potato yield, taste, and whether any develop disease. The potatoes are almost all planted in the vicinity of Horseradish plants which seem to groove with potatoes, warding off some pests. We will have to wait and see over the next few months.

Trench Potatoes with Horseradish

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Wheat Growing Crop Update

I've been using my scythe a lot recently and it reminded me that I haven't posted up anything on my wheat crop that I planted in the fall. It's a winter wheat from West Coast Seeds and it's doing quite well. I sprinkled it all around last fall, but particularly the back few rows where the squash, tomatoes and peppers were last year. The stalks have grown as tall as me, and they've got these amazing coloured heads where the grains are developing. The colour of the heads is hard to describe, a sort of blueish brown. I'm only allowing a small amount go to seed at this time, due to space constraints, but it's encouraging to see as grains will allow me to use a larger portion of the farm in the future. It's good to see common grains growing here in Langley considering how commonly it is eaten. So far, I'd say we've got a great climate to do some grain raising, and it's well worth the effort if you consider the benefits.

Developing Grains, should be ready in July
Along with the hops plant I planted along the fence, I should have the making of a batch or wietbier or at least some chicken feed. By growing grains, I also had a living crop in place during the winter which helps trap nutrients that run off during our wet winters. The soil is left fiberized from the roots, and the stalks are quickly cut with a scythe, providing mulch for plants, compost or growing mushrooms.  An interesting interaction I noticed was the vetch plants that wound their way up the stalk, providing a win-win as they fix nitrogen. 
Wheat with Vetch in May
Wheat with Potato
Wheat and Clover

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Letting go of the Lawn Mower

I've given up on my old lawn mower. It's been extremely valuable in establishing the site, and taming grass, brambles and out of control tansy plants. It gave up, and needs some work to stay started, so as an alternative I bought a Scythe. Scythes are not only extremely cool and old school, but I've been blown away by the advantages of using a scythe rather than a lawn mower.

The tool I bought was purchase from Lee Valley Tools. They've got a kit that includes the aluminium snath (shaft with handles), and whetstone with holder to keep the blade sharp. This style of scythe is called an Austrian Scythe. This shape of the snath and blade are a different shape than the more modern American scythe which is less ergonomic and a poor innovation on the Austrian scythe that has been used for centuries. This kit is easy to put together, allowing multiple blades to be purchased that can be matched to your purposes. For open pastures, there are long narrow blades (over 30''), and if you're using it to clear brush and small trees, there's a blade for that too. The craftsmanship and design of these blades is really impressive, and it's heartening to see an ancient craft being kept alive, even resurrected after all these years.
Blade cover on
Unlike lawn mowers, Scythe's are very light and very quiet. I'm able to hear music and birds while I work, without the deafening belching of a gas mower. The blade is accurate, giving me confidence to use the blade close to crops after a few days of practice. Besides the fuel savings, the scythe cuts the grass and lays it down, allowing it to be raked up and used as mulch. I've collected huge piles of biomass to be composted and used on the spot. I recently cut down much of my wheat that I've allowed to grow since the fall. This wheat stands head high (over 6 feet) and will be suitable as a mulch for my transplanted tomatoes, and seeded squash.

In summary, it's been a more useful tool than I expected. Not only does it provide mulch, it's quiet and honestly it's at least as fast as a lawn mower or gas powered brush cutter. I'm glad to further reduce my reliance on gasoline and to keep it's on-farm use to a minimum with a tool that needs to inputs and little maintenance.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Making Lacto-Fermented Vegetables

I've been a bit obsessed with lacto-fermentation and preserving food recently. I've been making my own sauerkraut and other pickled vegetable harnessing the lactobacillus bacteria to ferment foods into long storing pro-biotic food. It's really neat how you can use bacteria that are present everywhere to converted your vegetables to an even more nutritious state while also enhancing flavour and digestibility. I've got a lot to learn, but am really excited about going beyond sauerkraut and yogurt, and into the bold world of pickling. If you're interested in this sort of thing, I'd have a look on youtube for Sandor Katz who is a pro pickler and has some great videos to get you excited about all the possibilities. He's got some books as well that I plan to get, such as The Art of Fermentation which is loaded with cool stuff.

First Batch
As is often the case, I got excited about lacto-fermentation after making a batch of sauerkraut. It's really easy to make a batch, just keep in mind a few simple rules, and build your skills from there.

The veggies need to be submersed in a sea salt brine using filtered water, or other non-chlorinated waters. I like it a bit salty, so there's some leeway with the salt levels depending on the vegetable, but I've been using 1 tablespoon to each cup of water. This creates an environment for your preferred bacteria to grow and keeps molds off the food. Try to pack your desired vegetable into the jar and get the bubbles out.

Carrots, Ginger and Scapes
Use an old fashioned crock if you can find one. I've yet to get one, but there are some really nice new ones on the market, and plenty of antique ceramic crocks which would be great to make big batches of tasty recipes. I have been using 1 litre glass jars with the lids on, allowing them to off gas once every few days, and topping up the brine when some bubbles out upon off gassing.

Beets, quartered and sliced

These projects can be fun to watch bubble and change over time. You're welcome to taste test throughout the process to get familiar with how the bacteria are working, and to get the food to where you like the taste. I like to let them get nice and acidic tasting. The first batch of sauerkraut, and some carrot/sauerkraut mix jars were aged up to 6 weeks before going into the fridge to slow them down. The carrots had the crunch and taste of fresh cut carrots, with a delicious sour exterior and the cabbage also kept it's crunch for the most part.

At almost 6 days
My current batch is ginger carrots with onion scapes, beets, carrots and beets, beets in sauerkraut, and sauerkraut with apples. These I plan to age for a week at room temperature, then into the fridge they go. The process is still active in the fridge, but much slower.

How does fermenting food fit into a farm blog? Besides preserving the harvest (for quite a while, might I add), bacteria and fungi are important to the soil. I've been building on the knowledge that went into my Worm Poo Tea blog post and experimenting with feeding the leftover lactic acid liquid from my ferments into the "tea", bringing more life to it and so far it seems to be working quite well for my balcony plants. This brew can be diluted way down (100:1, 500:1, 1000:1, etc.) and sprayed on to the soil to work it's magic.