Category Archives: homestead

A mother of a day

I am writing this post on Mother’s Day eve, my shirt is filthy dirty, my fingernails are full of dirt, and my knees have the impressions of the wood chips I have been kneeling on as I plant our garden. In other words, I am happy!! IMG_8789

Just about every square foot of garden space has been planted or assigned for planting in the next week, for the first time I am ahead of the game.IMG_8784 IMG_8783 IMG_8668 IMG_8623 IMG_8652

This past week and a half the weather has been rather mild on Long Island, and since there was no imminent threat of frost I took the gamble and started putting some of the more tender plants in the ground last weekend. My tomatoes looked somewhat purplish at the beginning, a condition that can be caused by either lack of Phosphorus or by being exposed to too much cold and water.IMG_8616

I am not quite sure what did it, but after a few days with the mercury hitting in the upper 60’s (ºF) and having better soil to grow on than what was in their seedling cups,  they now look stronger and a healthier shade of green. Today I even started training them on to a string so they grow upright and without crowding each other.IMG_8776

As I had mentioned before, this year I am committed to growing more varieties in my homemade grow sacs. I really want to find out if these containers are a viable alternative for those with planting space limitations. I spent a few evenings making them, so our fleet of grow sacs has more than doubled this year. As of today we have 27 sacs in various sizes spread out in different areas of the garden. IMG_8764IMG_8691

All our peas, zucchinis and potatoes are being grown in this manner, but I also dedicated some sacs to grow a good portion of our cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, scallions and peppers.  If anyone is interested in learning how to make their own, leave me a comment.IMG_8759 IMG_8762 IMG_8787 IMG_8666

I wish all moms out there a wonderful day tomorrow and always.

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End of April, garden update

It’s been a while since I last updated everyone on the state of my garden. It seems I have spent more time than I originally thought necessary dog proofing not only my garden, but also building a 6′ fence to keep our pup in the yard, and then reinforcing it with wire at the bottom to prevent her from digging her way out.IMG_8491

However, little by little I am catching up on what I have to get accomplished in the garden before the start of the planting season the second week in May. As in previous years, I have changed a few things around to simplify the care of the plants and planting area, and the garden is starting to look pretty snazzy.IMG_8516 IMG_8517

Last year I had a bit of trouble keeping the green cabbage looper caterpillars at bay, in spite of the frequent use of neem oil spray they seemed to find their way into some of my cabbage and cauliflower and ended up destroying some of it. This spring I planted most of the brassicas in one of the narrow beds where I had sown lettuce seed last fall. I covered the bed with tulle fabric to prevent the white butterfly from laying her eggs on their favorite food plants.IMG_8478 IMG_8505IMG_8558

The construction of the tulle tunnel was very simple, I drove six 1/2″x3′ pieces of rebar into the ground, just outside the bed, leaving 3/4′ still out of the ground. I inserted the exposed rebar into pvc pipe forming 3 loops over the garden bed, over which now hangs the tulle.  I am holding the tulle in place with plastic shop clamps. The best thing about this arrangement is that I can raise the sides of the netting and keep it up out of my way as needed, and when the weather changes I can easily transform the tunnel into a mini greenhouse by simply replacing the tulle with plastic.IMG_8553 IMG_8557 IMG_8555

I have decided to grow some of the most aggressive climbers, tomatoes, peas, beans, cukes, out of the garden beds. I have already planted some seed in my homemade grow bags,  and have moved the net trellises away from the beds so they are free standing on the west side of the garden where I had some bamboo contraptions last year.IMG_8564

I am trying again to grow potatoes in bags, the experiment last year worked quite well, and even though we are not much of a potato consumer family, it makes for a great show if you have kids come and visit for a harvest celebration.IMG_8570 IMG_8568

The plastic that covered the greenhouse I used last year did not hold for another growing season. I picked up the frame and brought it up to the new fenced-in garden area, and re-covered it with thick plastic, it should hold for a while.IMG_8549IMG_8522

The compost pile I left cooking all winter has started to produce some black gold, but mining it had become an issue. The screen I had made a few years ago was a bit heavy duty,  it was also rather large and just plain heavy.  I always ended up with lower back ache after using it IMG_8563 IMG_8552

At the end of last season I made a new one out of a 10 gal Rubbermaid plastic tote. I simply cut a rectangular section off the bottom of the tote, inserted a piece of 1/2X1/2″ wire from the old screen, and fastened it with zip ties (best invention ever).  This new gadget is very light weight, it has nice handles, and can be easily lifted and shaken to separate the fine stuff. With the rest of the wire I made seedling protectors to keep squirrels and birds from digging where I have just planted.IMG_8559 IMG_8561IMG_8537 IMG_8538IMG_8562

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Back on the horse.

Agriculture above the 40º of latitude takes some degree of trust, specially for anyone like me who grew up in the tropics. Planning  a garden when the ground is covered by a two foot layer of ice and snow always feels much like taking the proverbial leap of faith. Nonetheless, a few weeks ago I waded in knee deep snow to gather all my equipment and left over supplies from last year, and officially declared open the 2015 gardening season by planting our first batch of seeds.IMG_7838 IMG_7843IMG_8225IMG_8223

I have since continued planting seed, one flat at a time,  and as of this morning I counted over 300 tiny pots most showing seedlings at different stages of growth and development. I have already started hardening some of the sturdier plants out in the sun, and by weeks end will probably have even the tomatoes and peppers out for a sun tan.IMG_8149 IMG_8140 IMG_8230 IMG_8386 IMG_8405 IMG_8406 IMG_8294IMG_8293

The only constant in our garden is that there is always change. This year I have a new challenge to overcome, our new pup, Panda, is the new master of our backyard. She is extremely curious, and has shown a a great affinity for vegetation. The only solution has been fencing the garden area off from the rest of the yard, something I was always against doing, but it is the only way keep everyone happy. Needless to say I had to fence not only the garden area, but also had to construct a fence to keep the dog in the backyard. All that has taken some focus away from my plantings, but I am sure I will catch up by Mothers’ Day.IMG_8241 IMG_8281

Our production goal for 2015 is 250 lbs of produce. This year I am staying away from fancy varieties and focusing more on the veggies we do like and consume. I will try to dedicate more growing area to grow bags, as these proved very effective last year. Let me know if you would like information on how to make your own.

Wish us luck, I will try to share my our experiences with all. Now go and play in the dirt.

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A Harvest Celebration

A couple of weeks ago, our garden started showing definite signs of seasonal maturity, many plants were in full bloom, some others were steadily producing fruit, while a few, like the lettuces, had already called it quits. One very interesting group were those of the onion and garlic family, which after putting out their funky looking flowers were begging to be pulled out of the ground. It was time for a harvest party!

My two special guests were M and B, both 7 years old.  B you may remember from her internship last year, when she helped me by taking care of the garden (B Is The New Farmer In Charge.  and  Meet B Our Interim Farmer), and also  when she planted all the garlic bulbs (Planting Our 2014 Garlic Crop). I met M last fall, he is a member of the track team where I assist coaching. M is a great kid with a happy face and a curious mind, much like B.IMG_2173

I had thought of bringing B back to harvest the garlic she had planted, as a way for her to see the result of her work last fall. In conversation with M’s mom, I learned he had shown recent interest in gardening, so I thought he would perhaps also enjoy spending an afternoon picking fruit and veggies, and learning about worms, bees and where some of the food comes from.

It was a great afternoon, the stage was our garden, and mother nature set it up perfectly for us to find amazing goodies in every corner. We started by emptying out one of the soft containers where I grew potatoes. B and M had fun digging with their hands through the soft soil in the wheelbarrow looking for nice bright red potatoes.IMG_2140 IMG_2136 IMG_2141 IMG_2177 From there we moved to the zucchinis, tomatoes, and cucumbers searching for fruit ready to be picked. With amazement, they pulled carrots from the ground, and also picked beans from the vines.IMG_2144IMG_2146 IMG_2149

We stopped to look how the baby cantaloupes and water melons were forming, and made sure to smell some of the herbs growing. At the far end of our garden we found cabbages, onions and a small forest of garlic plants to pick from.IMG_2157

IMG_2165 IMG_2169We finished work by digging through a compost pile usually frequented by sub-foot long night crawlers to see who could find the biggest worm, and later took a look at how the worms in our worm farm recycle some of our kitchen waste.IMG_2175

It was a great afternoon, we gave the children bags to put in all their goodies to take home, and B proudly commented “I don’t eat any of this stuff…I am just taking it home for my family”. I often think how interesting it would be to include gardening as part of the elementary school curriculum, children could learn so much by getting their fingers back into the soil.  IMG_2153 IMG_2136 IMG_2158

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Why is my salad so awful?

It is officially mid-summer around here on Long Island NY.  The days are very hot, sticky and humid. Awesome weather if you are a plant I guess.  It is the kind of weather that makes you crave a cool refreshing salad with produce picked right off the garden. IMG_4272

Since our tomatoes have so far refused to turn any shade of red, we have been hitting our lettuces and the like pretty heavily. So much that some have now grown very tall and look like some sort of palm tree.IMG_4390

A few evenings ago I went out to collect an assortment of greens for a fresh dinner salad. I picked about a pound of leaves altogether. I had red ones, green ones, mottled ones, smooth ones and ruffled ones too, a good looking mixed bunch. IMG_4066

I washed it, spin dried it, chopped it, and then mixed it with cucumber I picked early that day, some red onion and store bought tomato.  For dressing I used a quick balsamic vinaigrette, nothing fancy but a favorite at our house.

I don’t think I exaggerate when I say our salad tasted as if I had made it with freshly picked oak leaves. Crunchy and fresh but awfully bitter.  After washing the taste with plenty of water, my mind rushed to the garden, what were we going to do with all that lettuce still out there? There was still plenty of lettuce, radicchio and Swiss chard to feed our family for a few days.  The thought of having to trash it all was not a happy one, I hate to waste food.IMG_4251

An online search on bitter lettuce will lead you to bolting lettuce, and will give you suggestions on how to prevent or minimize the bitterness in leafy greens. Below are some I have tried and somewhat seem to work for us.

Heat not only makes lettuce go to seed (bolting), but somewhat stresses the lettuce and that makes it taste bitter, so avoid picking leaves during or at the end of the day. I find it best to harvest the lettuce very early in the morning before the sun has had a chance to warm up too much. IMG_4388

Collect all the leaves in a container with cold water. I actually use water with ice cubes, as at this time of year the water coming out of the faucet never gets cold enough.IMG_4289 IMG_4362

Wash, select and hydrate the lettuce by placing the leaves right side up in a bowl with cold water for at least 6 hours.  We make mixed heads of lettuce by placing the smaller leaves in the center and surround them with larger leaves.IMG_4368 IMG_4305

Once the leaves are well hydrated, drain them and store them in the fridge inside zip lock bags.IMG_4392 IMG_4394

Of course, taking care of late season lettuce as detailed above does not make it as sweet as it was in the spring when it was young and tender, but certainly makes it a lot less bitter and definitely edible. Also, once you mix it with other vegetables and a nice salad dressing, any hint of leftover bitterness cannot be tasted. Nonetheless, avoid using the older tougher leaves, or stems of those greens that have turned fuzzy, those are definitely best in your compost.

Hope this works for you too, even if it gets you a couple more decent salads it is well worth it. In a few weeks you can start all over again with a new planting for fall and early winter harvest.

For more information on keeping lettuce check one of my older posts

It is salad time

June is always a salad month, not a stew or a sauce month, definitely just a salad month. All plants are surely growing, but most are too immature to feed a hungry family.  This early in the season all I am able to harvest consistently is salad greens and radishes. IMG_3760

No, I am not complaining, we enjoy being able to go out and pick a nice mix of of lettuces to eat that same eve. We always make sure to include assorted color, shape and textured leaves for best flavor and visual impact. IMG_3761 IMG_3762 IMG_3922 IMG_3915

Since we started harvesting our greens about 10 days ago the combined harvest of lettuces and the like (spinach, young chard, etc) has been plentiful, but not excessive. We are harvesting on a cut and come again basis, and so far we have visited  75% of the plants, some of which have been cut more than once already. IMG_3923 IMG_3924

I certainly cannot take full credit for our production, the cooler and wet weather we have been experiencing has kept the lettuce growing and not induced it to bolt.

Last week I reported on our first radish harvest. Our first three square feet of radishes produced over 1.6 lbs. That is a lot more radish than we bought in all of last year, however having it available and fresh, has made it easy for us to include them in our diet. It is so easy to grow, that I have already replaced the harvested squares with new plantings. Today I started picking a different square with long radishes, Salad Rose variety from Burpee Seeds. IMG_3855 IMG_3877 IMG_3881

Beautiful red skin with a pink to whitish center, very crisp texture and live peppery flavor.IMG_3928 IMG_3929 IMG_3930

As for the rest of the garden, it seems all other plants are getting in the mood to grow and produce something. The peas are going mad trying to grab and climb up the trellis, their white flowers and pods popping out everywhere.IMG_3880 IMG_3767 IMG_3868

The tomatoes, have been flowering for a week now, and you can see fruit starting to form in some of the plants. I think this is the earliest I have had tomatoes form on the vines ever. At this rate, we may have cherry tomatoes by 4th of July. So far the plants are looking very healthy, the indeterminate variety clearly growing faster than the determinate ones.IMG_3841

The zucchinis in the grow bags are doing wonderfully, their leaves have not become gigantic as I am used to seeing them. Instead it seem as if the plants are putting more of their energy producing flowers. IMG_3878The first two male flowers came out yesterday, and today the first female flower was fully open. IMG_3839 IMG_3837 IMG_3898

Lucky enough there were also couple male flowers to get pollen from, so for sure we’ll be having zucchini this week. Check out one of my early posts on fertilizing zucchinis  A bees job. Remember also that zucchini flowers are edible, for a great way to use the flowers visit Nonna’s zucchini flower recipe.

The water melon, cantaloupe and spaghetti squash growing in bags are doing great. I am considering dedicating the small area of my yard with Southern exposure to growing plants in bags next year. IMG_3905 IMG_3823

Not everything is picture perfect though… The corn I planted a couple of weeks ago has failed to impress me. I was concerned since the beginning that the area would not get enough sun, and indeed it doesn’t. I have just a couple corn plants struggling to survive, if it wasn’t because I don’t have anything else I want to grow there I would have pulled their plug already.  My biggest concern currently is with the potatoes. Some of the plants in one of three bags started to wilt and died after the last dirt fill. Perhaps I did not leave enough leaves out of the ground, but it has been so cool and wet around here lately that I started to fear fungal infestation. I have been checking carefully for signs of fungi, but cannot see anything so far that would suggest that is the cause, in any case I just hope for warm sunny days ahead.

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Garden update week+1

What a fantastic and incredibly rewarding week I just had. After all the rushing and running around the past few weeks trying to finish all the projects I had set myself to accomplish before the beginning of this garden season, last week seemed like a piece of cake as all the pieces are falling in place. After the Mother’s day planting marathon I ended up with just 7 empty squares in our garden. Yesterday I finished planting those squares with left over seedlings and seeds. As of today all our raised beds are fully planted, and look like beautiful garden quilts, each square has a different pattern, texture or color. IMG_3533 IMG_3532 IMG_3530 IMG_3535

The plants are growing nicely, some of the lettuce have reached a size where one could start harvesting on a “cut and come again basis”, but I figure that if I wait another week, we will definitely get a much larger and sustainable harvest over time. IMG_3539 IMG_3538 IMG_3537 IMG_3543 IMG_3544IMG_3551

The seedlings I planted last week seem to have acclimated well, especially the tomatoes which seem to have grown considerably in only about a week in the ground. Their stems are now as thick as a finger and their canopy spreads proudly almost touching the support netting we made for them. IMG_3541

In the squares where I have sown seed, the progress is less apparent, some squares have nice size plants while others have just the tiniest evidence of seedlings poking through the soil, that is the beauty of planting at different times, something is ready to eat while the replacement is already underway. IMG_3424 IMG_3521 IMG_3522

We have had a couple of cool nights which have not made some of my cucumbers very happy. The forecast for the weekend calls for temperatures in the 70ºF, this should be enough for them to get over their chill and will start climbing on the netting. IMG_3550

This weekend we unrolled and filled the tater totes once again, leaving just a few inches of the plants showing above the soil. The bags, which are now filled up to about a foot in height had been started with about 4” of soil when I fist placed the seed potatoes in them. As I have mentioned, the potato plants grow very fast in these bags, in fact today I looked at them and in only 5 days they look like they need to be re-filled with soil. IMG_3467 IMG_3468 IMG_3470

We also have very healthy zucchini growing in similar home made bags in order to save space in the raised beds. The whole idea of growing veggies in these air pruning bags is so interesting that I made a dozen more of them over the weekend to house our melons, cantaloupes, and squashes. IMG_3547 IMG_3502IMG_3497

The added bonus is that I am using the bags as dark and moist germination chambers until the seedlings sprout. Closing the bags at the top with small clamps/clips also protect the seeds from being scavenged by squirrels (yes they are still digging around when they get a chance even though I have the ultrasonic repelling gadget). IMG_3503

Last week I noticed two of the eggplant seedlings that had been transplanted later in the week had a few tiny holes in the leaves. IMG_3562

Even though I could not see any other plants being affected, but having seen a few white moths flying around for a couple of days, I decided to spray all my plants with a neem oil solution(2Tbs Super Clean Neem + 2 Tbs Dr Bronner’s Sal Suds in one gal of water) following advise found in one of my favorite Youtube channels at http://youtu.be/33Q0uP4odh4. The neem oil does not smell that great, but the plants do seem to tolerate it well, and apparently it kind of a wide spectrum treatment.

On a happier note, yesterday I harvested my worm farm for the first time. I only worked with half of the stuff in the box and got about a gallon and a half of worm castings. The process is definitely involved and kind of messy, it is worm crap after all…The resulting stuff is completely odorless and very friable and fluffy. I distributed it among a good looking tomatoes, some fancy lettuces, and also among the sickly looking cukes and the eggplants with the bug bites on them, hoping that the worm castings work like chicken soup for these plants. IMG_3525 IMG_3555 IMG_3556 IMG_3559

After collecting the castings in half of the bin, I  made it ready again with the addition of chopped up leaves, shredded paper, horse manure, coffee grinds and blended mix of kitchen vegetable and fruit scraps…yum!IMG_3527

 

Take a look at this interesting video and post from fellow gardeners

http://youtu.be/uA5K5r_VXLs     Coffee Grounds: How And Why We Use Them In Our Garden

http://www.onehundreddollarsamonth.com/how-to-maintain-a-healthy-vegetable-garden/    How to maintain a healthy vegetable garden

D Acres Farm, waking up to homesteading

It seems we get drawn more and more to New Hampshire whenever we have a little time off or we need to decompress… This time it was Beth who suggested we head up for  few days during Columbus Day weekend. Our initial intention was to hike with our son and his girlfriend while enjoying the Fall change of colors.

Since we came up with the idea at the last minute, we had a hard time finding accommodations in traditional and not so traditional places, I even looked into staying in a yurt, without much luck. Beth then remembered a website our son had recommended www.airbnb.com where you can find less known places to stay. She called me midday three days before our planned departure to ask me, “How would you like staying at an educational farm?”. I guess she already knew the answer, because immediately after I responded, she said “We are already booked”.

The name of the place is D Acres, and it is located in Dorchester, New Hampshire. It is a homestead developed and run on the basic principles of permaculture. The farm occupies a small section of a 200 acre property. It is surrounded by wilderness and has a fantastic view of the foothills of the White Mountains from several vantage points.

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There are several buildings on the farm, the most prominent is the main house, that serves as a combination B&B-hostel and general meeting place for all guests.

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This building also houses a great kitchen and dining hall, a library well stocked with books pertaining to farming, gardening, permaculture, sustainability and other related themes, a fully functional wood workshop, and of course a root cellar and produce storage facility. The farm is not off the grid, but it boasts solar photovoltaic panels, solar heat collectors, and other sensible technology to help it run efficiently leaving less of a footprint on the environment.

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The other buildings on the property, although fully functional for their intended uses (greenhouses, chicken coop, temporary staff residence, outhouses, etc), are less conventional in looks and are happily decorated with hand painted signs and or sculptures.

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The structures and equipment at D Acres are mostly built with locally sourced materials. True to the focus of the farm, they find use for  commonly discarded items which they keep out of sight in a somewhat neat “Resource Pile” until needed.

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In the farm they currently have 2 oxen that help with weed control in the developed area and with muscle power whenever needed.

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They also have several pigs which are entrusted with plowing and preparing newly developed growing fields as they turn up the soil in their constant search for food.

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During our visit, we had a chance to feed the pigs with several cases of vegetables that would no longer be sellable at the local supermarket, and with buckets of kitchen scraps collected in local restaurants. They were all out of chickens at present, as they will be starting a new  flock soon, but they did have ducks in some of their ponds.

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Their farming fields were certainly impressive, they are oriented to make best use of the vital resources, soil, water and sun. Tree stumps are left in the field to decay and in turn return nutrients to the ground, their presence is not inconvenient as the ground is only worked by hand with pitchforks.

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Farming fields are heavily mulched with straw during the growing season to prevent weeds, control water and improve the soils. In the off season, the fields are planted with cover crops to further promote soil enrichment through natural processes of nitrogen fixation and composting.

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Crops are rotated to maximize production, all crops are grown organically. The farm produces all of its vegetables (except for grains and oils), and all of their meat. Surplus are offered for sale locally.

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The areas that are not dedicated to farming have been left in their natural state, with only a few well marked trails that loop around the forest and comeback to Base Camp, where visitors can elect to pitch a tent or hang a hammock.

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The most amazing aspect of the farm is how at ease one feels immediately upon arrival. Josh and Regina really make sure everyone feels at home. The food is fantastic, and is served family style in a very cordial atmosphere. The kitchen is also shared with guests that chose to prepare their own meals.

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There are just two house rules, no smoking, and no shoes upstairs. It is perhaps because of that that all guests feel compelled to maintain the harmony of the farm as if we were all invested in this great project. In future trips to NH we are most likely to stay again at D Acres, perhaps next time we can catch one of their educational programs, or get a chance to learn more about homesteading working side by side with them.

To learn more about D Acres Farm, visit their site at www.DAcres.org .

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