Category Archives: The garden

The garden is filling up

Sunday was a big planting day. We transplanted pepper and melon seedlings and directly seeded more beets and carrots. Ten beds out of 14 are filled with plants or seeds. Others are partially planted. Each bed is around 100 feet long.

Tiny corn seedlings

We gave the plants a snack of watered down fish emulsion. This provides plants with an organic and natural source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. We hope this will give the onions especially a boost (they’re looking a little stunted). Perry, the Jersey cow who lives next door, munched grass nearby as we worked. Gabbie stayed in the truck the whole time, which is typical for her.

We hilled the potatoes, meaning we piled up dirt around the stems of our growing potato plants. This prevents light from reaching the tubers. When potatoes are exposed to light they turn green and slightly poisonous. Hilling also keeps weeds in check and provides potatoes room to expand.

Newly planted melon seedling

It was a typical summer Sunday for us. Andy milked Perry the cow (she belongs to Medomak Camp) while I made pancakes and coffee. We ate breakfast while listening to NPR (paying particular attention to the Sunday Puzzle). Then we headed out to the garden in our new truck. After working until we were too hungry to continue, we came home for lunch.

We love having Sunday traditions, and working in the garden is something we look forward to. So far, the work load has been manageable with a few hours on Sunday and occasional time during the week. Surprisingly, we haven’t had many weeds come up yet, but that could change. Gardening isn’t easy, but it’s doable. With the knowledge and desire, I think most families could grow at least some of their own vegetables without a huge time commitment.

I made a map of the garden, which shows where everything is planted and will be planted. We’ve still got some open space unspoken for. Any ideas on what we should grow?

A map of the garden

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A quick garden update

Under clouds last Saturday, after a week of mostly rain, we happily transplanted broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, more tomatoes, basil and dill into the garden. It was a great day for transplanting – cool and wet.

Transplanted kale and broccoli

We planted two beds halfway with the brassicas (broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower) and covered them with remay to keep the flea beetles out. In the other half of those beds, we planted corn (8 rows in 4 beds all together). By yesterday, much of the corn had germinated.

Tomatoes

We have 102 tomato seedlings in the ground now (and more in pots getting ready to be transplanted). If it’s a good year for tomatoes, we might just be overrun. But we do enjoy canning tomato sauce and salsa, and last summer we roasted and froze tomatoes, which were great for soups.

The potato plants are huge, and we’ll have to hill them soon. Our clover is growing well between the garden beds. We’re hoping the clover will keep the weeds down and add nitrogen to the soil.

The potatoes are bigger every day!

We’ve planted two kinds of melons inside in trays – a cantaloupe and a yellow watermelon. I can just imagine the juicy sweetness, and I can’t wait. The melon seedlings are leggy, but they’re growing. We’ll put them in the ground in a couple of weeks.

Pumpkin seedlings covered by remay

Our pumpkins and squash plants are doing well. We planted the seeds directly into the garden on May 22. Cucumber seedlings we transplanted on May 30 are also growing well.

And we bought a truck! We found a 1994 Chevy Silverado 4×4 with a rebuilt engine in pretty good condition for $3,000. Now we can haul all the manure, veggies, chickens, wood and compost we want, without making many trips with our cars.

We bought a truck!

There’s so much hope and expectation this time of year. We watch the garden fill with lush green and wait with hopes of few pests and good weather.

In support of local food

I can imagine some future brides poring over wedding magazines – looking at dresses, shoes and flowers. I pore over seed catalogs – ooohing and ahhhing over heirloom tomatoes and hot peppers. Mmmmm…romanesco cauliflower, blue ballet squash, yellow sunshine watermelon…these varieties are definitely wedding-worthy.

I was asked in an interview recently why we decided to take on this project (check out the Portland Press Herald article by clicking here). Why grow and cook the food for our wedding dinner? Why take on another potentially stressful task to prepare for our special day? The question really got me thinking. Was our motivation primarily to save money, be self-sufficient, feel connected to our food source, make some sort of statement about eating locally or just serve delicious, fresh food to our guests?

The answer is a combination of all of these reasons. Andy and I feel passionately about eating fresh, locally-grown food. We love the taste of fresh food. We also try to limit our negative environmental impact, so we eat food that has required less chemicals and fossil fuels to be grown and transported to us and thus has had a lighter impact on the earth. We are appalled by the way animals are treated in factory farms.

We also value community, and we see eating locally as a way neighbors can get to know each other through mutual support. We hope to help preserve the traditional farming lifestyle of New England so children understand where their food comes from and what goes into growing it. For all of these reasons, and probably several more, we strive to eat local food grown in a humane and sustainable way. Writing this blog is, I suppose, a statement in support of small farms. We do what we can to make a positive impact on the world, but we also do what makes us happy. We hope that others will do the same.

Planting cucumbers in black plastic

It makes us happy to work on projects. We’re not the type of people who spend much time sitting around. When living in Portland, I used to run a lot. Now I garden.

It’s hard to explain why we get so much satisfaction from providing for our own needs. In the last year we’ve cut all our own firewood, smoked our own bacon and ham, brewed our own beer, boiled sap into maple syrup, canned pickles and applesauce and froze many different fruits and vegetables. Partly, we do this to save money, but it’s about more than just that. The food tastes better when we preserve it ourselves. The pile of wood keeps us active and outside while cutting and then keeps us warm all winter.

Potatoes

The wedding garden is also an experiment that we hope to learn from in planning future gardens. We are planning to start our own small, diversified farm in the near future, and we will need to do the same sort of planning that went into this garden, just on a larger scale. I’m keeping meticulous records (in this sense I truly am my mother’s daughter). For every crop, we’re keeping track of how much we planted, how much space it took up and how many pounds of product we get out of it. Keeping track of what it all costs will also help us plan future, larger gardens.

Bags of rocks to weigh down row cover -- using the resources we have

Money is also a factor in our decision. As both of us are the type to choose low paying jobs because we enjoy them, neither of us has ever had a lot of money. We are trying to keep our wedding expenses low so we can use our hard-earned savings for farm start-up expenses. Our most recent wedding budget has us spending somewhere between $6,000-7,000 total, with somewhere around $1,500 of that being for food. We were joking that few wedding budgets include things like chicken feed and potting soil. Our budget numbers are still very rough, though, and they could be way off. Check back later for an updated budget.

It helps in taking on this task that we don’t feel like we’re entering this endeavor as total beginners. Though we haven’t done it commercially, we aren’t brand new to farming. My parents moved to Maine as part of the back to the land movement, joining other city folk searching for a more meaningful lifestyle close to the land. As a child, I learned about growing food, raising chickens and preserving food. Andy grew up in the country too. He had his own garden as a child.

As adults, we’ve each spent two seasons working for other farmers. Last summer we spent the summer together working at Dandelion Spring Farm, just to make sure we still wanted to farm together before we bought land. Despite the relentless rain, we had a great summer. During summers when we haven’t worked on farms, we’ve usually had gardens in our yards or at community gardens. Our wedding garden will be the largest either of us has planted on our own.

Wishing for rain

It’s been a beautiful, sunny, summery weekend. Spring has been mild this year, and we’re tempted to plant many crops now. We have to remind ourselves that the schedule we made is meant to provide food for our September 25 wedding. We’re not looking for early crops. We’re also waiting for the electric fence to go up around our garden, which will probably happen in the first week or two of June. Lastly, we’re very aware of how dry the garden is right now, and we don’t have running water there yet. We would have to haul water from our house, which is around a half mile away. This is not an easy thing to do, especially since we don’t have a truck, yet.

So we’re trying to put off planting some crops, and we’re hoping for rain on the seeds we’ve put in the ground. Yesterday we planted Baby Pam pumpkins (good for pie) and two kinds of squash: Waltham Butternut and Hubbard Blue Ballet. We also planted some dill (for making pickles) and some lettuce for us to eat this summer.

We also laid black plastic on two beds. This plastic mulch warms the soil and keeps the weeds down. We will transplant heat-loving plants into holes in the black plastic, such as melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.

We were happy to see that our dwarf white clover has germinated in the paths. We planted this short variety of clover in the paths to keep the weeds down and add nitrogen to the soil.

Tomato and brassica seedlings in the cold frame

Back in our homemade cold frame, many plants are growing well. Our scavenged tomato seedlings are doing well in their bigger pots, cucumbers are huge and peppers are finally sprouting their true leaves.

Unfortunately, some tomato seedlings are still quite stunted, but we have enough others that we might not have to use them. Our kale and broccoli seedlings are getting too big for their trays, but we don’t want to transplant them before the fence goes up. Being near the woods, our garden would provide an easy meal for deer. April 27 may have been too early to start these seeds.

Our seedling room is a warm, humid sanctuary filled with tomatoes, peppers, basil, dill and melons (which are starting to germinate). I love to sit among the plants and read or do yoga.

Experimental farming

Farming is an experiment. Especially in the beginning, though I expect we will continue to experiment for the rest of our lives. I wonder if experiment is the right word, though, since we often don’t understand what we’re testing for or why something works or doesn’t work. Farming involves guessing, intuition and flexibility.

I have to remind myself that failure is a learning experience, which can be a hard thing to do. It’s hard not to feel disappointed when our seedlings are stunted. What if this whole experiment is a failure?

It’s a test of our relationship, too, seeing how we deal with things not going right. I might be exaggerating a bit, since I’m just talking about tomato and pepper seedlings, but there is some stress when neither of us know what is the best action to take.

I know everything will work out fine in the end. We can buy seedlings if we need to. We could even buy our wedding dinner ingredients (we’ll have to buy at least some). But it would be nice to have a beautiful, healthy garden.

Our sad tomato seedlings

Here’s what’s happening with the seedlings… We planted three kinds of tomatoes and two kinds of peppers on April 15. We put them on a table in Beth’s greenhouse. They germinated fairly well, got to be about an inch high and stopped growing all together. Many of them still haven’t grown their first true leaves (meaning they only have two tiny leaves).

Our happy scavenged tomato seedlings

It’s a mystery. Beth gave us some reject tomato seedlings that were also very sad looking at the beginning of this month. We re-potted those and they have far surpassed our own tomatoes. We kept those under grow lights in our spare room. This would lead me to believe that our seedlings don’t like Beth’s greenhouse. But she has tomatoes in her greenhouse that are doing great. Hmmmm… curious. Let me know if you have any ideas.

We started potting up some of our pepper seedlings, thinking that might help them, but then we ran out of space under our lights. So we decided to build one of our chicken tractors early and use it as a cold frame for our seedlings.

Potting up tomatoes and peppers

The base our our chicken tractor/cold frame

We used scrap wood we got through Midcoast Freecycle, but we did buy screws, corner brackets and a roll of metal strap hanger (which we joked is the novice carpenter’s best friend). With the brackets and strap hanger, our joints hold firmly together even if our cuts aren’t perfect and the wood splits a little as we put in screws.

Finished structure

Since we didn’t have very much wood, we decided to make a 59-square-foot A-frame. We’ll probably put 20-25 chickens inside, depending on whether we choose to give them two or three square feet per bird. We’ll have to build another structure for the rest of the meat birds (we ordered 50 chicks).

Completed (for now)

We made panels and covered them with plastic to make a cold frame, or small unheated greenhouse. It’s not perfect, and the plastic doesn’t do much to keep the inside warmer than the outside. We’re still experimenting with it. We might put blankets over the whole structure overnight. We also plan to move it somewhere sunnier than our driveway. But in the meantime, we have our brassicas and some herbs inside the structure and out of the wind at least. Check out the Photos page for more pictures of us building the chicken tractor/cold frame.

Cucumber seedlings

Still under lights in the spare room we have beautiful cucumber seedlings, loads of tomatoes, some lettuce and newly planted watermelons and cantaloupes! We love melons!

In the garden we’ve planted onions, potatoes, carrots and beets. Soon the danger of frost will pass and we’ll plant many more crops in the garden. In the meantime, we’re still trying to figure out where to put all our seedlings as we pot them up into any sort of plastic container we can find. The tomatoes really seem to take off when they have more space for their roots.

725 baby onions

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Red, vidalia and walla walla onion seedlings…

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Dipped in water to separate…

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Planted in a trench with some partially composted goat manure…

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It’s not dirt, it’s soil

Andy and I went to a workshop about soil recently, which was presented by a state soil scientist who said that even at a young age, his son knew not to use the word dirt, but to say soil instead. When I was a child I learned to identify different breeds of chickens, and I probably learned other unusual tidbits. Our children, too, will likely have a different set of experiences than most.

The most interesting part of the soil workshop was the soil scientist’s demonstration of how people dramatically alter the soil structure by plowing and tilling. Naturally, soil is structured in easily identifiable layers. Land that has been plowed, however, even 100 years ago, doesn’t show the same layers. He showed us how you can dig a soil pit and look for the layers to find out if a certain area of land has ever been used for growing crops. The history of human use lies just beneath the surface.

We’ve been thinking a lot about soil types ever since we started looking for land to start our own farm. For every property we’re interested in, we look up the soil types on the Web Soil Survey. This website tells us what soil types are found in any particular area, and whether these soils are prime farmland, farmland of statewide importance or not prime farmland. It’s amazing to think that soil maps are around because people literally walked transects of the entire state, testing soil every so often along the way. Soil types can vary quite a bit from one point to the next, even in a fairly small area.

So when we started thinking about our wedding garden, we looked up the soil map right away. Our garden is Peru fine sandy loam, which is classified as prime farmland.

We went a step further and sent a sample of our soil to the Maine Soil Testing Service, which is part of the University of Maine. It came back recently, with pretty good scores in several categories.

What we did was take a small sample of soil from around 15 different spots around our garden. Then we mixed the samples together and sent some off in a box to Orono. Several weeks later they sent us a report showing if our soil had low, medium or optimum amounts of different nutrients important for growing vegetables. We found out we have optimum organic matter and sulfur, medium potassium and phosphorus, and low calcium and magnesium. Our soil pH is 5.6, which is optimum for potatoes, but too acidic for other vegetables. The test report also showed results for micronutrients. More on that later.

It’s hard to know what to do with these results. Okay, so we don’t have enough calcium and magnesium. Will that really hinder our plants? How do we fix that?

Tilling in lime and wood ash

I did some more reading. Lime, which is a common soil amendment to raise the pH (make the soil more basic), is also a primary source of calcium. Magnesium, too, can be provided by using dolomitic lime. That made things easier. All we had to do was spread lime to fix the soil pH and low levels of magnesium and calcium.

We also decided to spread wood ash from our wood stove. Wood ash provides potassium and raises the pH, so we decreased the amount of lime accordingly.

Like I mentioned before, our soil tests also listed micronutrient content for copper, iron, manganese and zinc. These elements are important for plants’ growth and productivity, but they are only needed in small amounts. I learned that the availability of the micronutrients is driven by pH and organic matter. When these two factors are at good levels, often micronutrients will follow.

On Saturday we spread our amendments and tilled them in, with some goat manure as well. It’s just empty soil, but it sure does look beautiful!

Ready for planting!