On The Farm: Week 3

Last week was another whirlwind of activity on the farm…we did a lot of bed prep which included pulling clumps of vetch and rye, side-forking and raking beds.  We had an awesome tool safety demo that covered not only how to be safe with the tools and each other, but with our bodies when we use them.    We also focused on how to weed and transplant quickly and efficiently without hurting your back.  When you spend lots of time bent over and looking down, your back lets you know it.  I’m a big fan of keeping my back happy, so I paid close attention to this part!

We also began our farm rotations.  There are five areas:

  • Irrigation
  • Propagation
  • Flowers
  • CSA  (Community Supported Agriculture)
  • Market

Students are paired up and assigned a month-long rotation in each area.  The first week of your rotation you are instructed…the following two weeks you run that rotation yourselves, and the final week you teach the next two people coming in to take the rotation over.  The rotations are staggered so that you’re able to do this.  I really appreciate the chance to have to show someone else the ropes – having to teach someone else how to do it really reinforces learning for me.

My rotation for the next month is propagation, and what perfect timing!  There are still plenty of seeds to be sown.  I’ll be spending a LOT of time in the hoophouse, not just filling and planting seed trays, but also watering everything.  In the hoophouse we need to check moisture levels every few hours.  Those seed trays and seedlings really can dry down that quickly on warm days.  We’re in there first thing of the day, last thing of the day, and several times in between, pushing our fingers into the bottom of seed trays and pulling out seedlings to see if the bottoms are moist.

We have had a lot of instruction and discussion about proper watering techniques.  We’ve learned about the importance of avoiding compacting the soil, avoiding creating a “crust,” what levels of “dry down” certain plants like or can handle, and the importance of even, consistent watering.

Every Friday afternoon we have a workshop, and last week’s focus was irrigation.  I found it really helpful to talk about the roles and functions of water, and why plants need water.  Honestly, I was amazed to find out how many jobs water performs for plants, and in how many ways!  It’s pretty incredible.  More on our Irrigation Workshop at the end of this post, but first – some photos.

The farm gets burlap coffee bean bags donated from a local roaster…they make terrific path liners between beds!

Here’s a new row of burlap sacks, ready to keep down weeds and stop the aisles from getting too muddy.

Here’s what they look like after months of use. They do a great job!

A visitor in the hoophouse…wish I knew what it was!

Some radishes harvested and washed for a restaurant order.

Me: “Um, are we going to get the chance to wear that thing at some point?” Instructor: “Oh yes, you definitely will.”   Me:  “Does it come with a pair of rocket boots?”  😉

Another awesome idea – stapling bicycle tire tubes to the finished tabletops to cover sharp wire tips! Lots of bike shops have old tubes that they’d be throwing away otherwise. Handy!

The first bed that we prepped from top to bottom, freshly raked and ready for transplants.

Lining up stakes to see if we raked out our 70 foot row fairly evenly.

Irrigation Workshop

This was the first of many lessons we will have on irrigation.  I loved our discussion about the many functions of water and the roles that it plays with regard to plants and soil.  Here are a few:

  • water sustains biological & chemical activity & mineralization
  • water promotes soil solution and the uptake of nutrients
  • water provides carbohydrate building blocks through photosynthesis
  • water provides plant structure / support within the vascular bundles
  • water promotes maintenance of optimal temperature within the plant
  • water can be used to lower freezing temperature

Through irrigation we’re also learning about soil structure and organic matter and how water is lost (through transpiration, evaporation, capillary action, evapotranspiration, and percolation) as well as environmental factors that can affect evapotranspiration:  light, temperature, wind, humidity, and soil moisture.

There is so much to consider when watering.  I’ve always felt it was a no-brainer in my garden at home, but I’m learning how important good watering decisions and techniques are on the farm.  (the way you water can cause pest / pathogen problems, for example.)

My favorite part of the irrigation workshop was sticking our hands in the soil to test for the “field capacity” of the soil – the extent to which it has reached maximum water capacity.  We reached down to the plant root level and brought up handfuls of soil which we then squeezed, examined, crumbled, and tried to make “ribbons” out of – all to determine at what capacity we thought the soil was (according to a chart.)  There is an ideal moisture level, for example, when you transplant into a bed, etc.

I think we determined this soil sample was in the “75% – 100% Field Capacity” category, due to the way it felt, the way it clumped, the way it broke into large “aggregates” when crumbled, and the fact that we could make a slight “ribbon” by sort of rolling it out with your thumb.

Looks can definitely be deceiving.  There were plenty of beds that looked dry enough on the surface but were plenty moist when you reached down into them.

The surface of this bed looked fairly dry, but squeezing a sample of soil from it revealed it was actually pretty moist – in the 50% – 75% range on the Field Capacity “chart.” We could definitely not make a ribbon with it and it broke into smaller clumps or “aggregates” when crumbled.

The farmers say the spend a lot of time every day just testing the soil this way, all over the farm, to determine how long a particular bed should be watered.

It made me realize I’ve been watering my plants based on what the PLANTS seem to tell me, not on what the SOIL has to say.  Hmm.  A bit of a different story since I grow a lot of my vegetables in containers, but still.   I’m learning a lot about what else to pay attention to, that’s for sure!

Hardy Geranium or Aggressive Weed?

Mistaken identity seems to be a running theme with me these days.

While finally tackling the seemingly Herculean task of finally weeding the side garden, I noticed that what I have thus far believed to be a geranium was running rampant and spreading itself all over the place.

Full disclosure:  before I settled on “geranium,” I wondered if this particular plant might be one of the blue aquilegia from seeds I planted nearby last fall or possibly a bleeding heart  (Didn’t I plant one there my first summer here, gosh darn it?  And where did IT go?)  Sigh.

I thought it looked like a hardy geranium I had bought and planted across the driveway…it had lovely purple flowers last year and the leaves do indeed look similar…I don’t remember planting this particular plant, though, and I’m starting to wonder if it might be a plain old weed.  One that is spreading.  I pulled up many of the little babies that were popping up left and right but saved the big plant in hopes of figuring it out.

Last year I let several weeds grow happily nearly all summer long just because I wasn’t sure what they were and wanted to give them time to see who they became before ripping them out.  Nine times out of ten they were weeds.

In case it rings any bells for any of you, I’m including a few photos of the current culprit: (again with the camera phone!  Sorry!)

close up of Mystery Plant stem

close up of Mystery Plant leaf

Mystery plant seems to grow in a mound. This one is about a foot tall.

I am pretty sure that my aquilegia seeds DID come up behind this plant and that these are the young columbines here:


The leaves of this plant are kind of similar in size and shape to the Mystery Plant, but I’m pretty sure this one is Aquilegia…at least it came up right where the marker says I planted seeds! (See, I do mark *some* things now and then…trying to get better at this!)

Any ideas?  Is it geranium?

On The Farm: Week 2

Week two on the farm was a bit warmer than the first week.  Every Monday morning we do a “Farm Walk” to observe everything and make task lists of the work that needs to be done.  It’s inspired me to try to do some similar weekly assessment / task list in my own garden at home.

At the end of each day on the farm, we do record keeping and make sure that the sowing, irrigation, and harvest logs have all been updated and that any completed tasks are checked off.

While in the hoophouse on our Farm Walk this week, we notice leaf miner damage once again:  (sorry, I’ve forgotten what plant this leaf belonged to!  Chard perhaps?)

white blotchy area indicates leaf miners at work…

This spinach planted in the hoophouse also has a lot of leaf miner damage. We will have to thoroughly wipe each leaf of each plant in this row to hopefully get rid of them and prevent more damage.

I’m really excited to have the chance to learn some basic carpentry skills this year.  It rained on Wednesday, throwing our schedule off a bit, so we worked in the hoophouse.  Half of us pricked out basil…

While Bret & I got to make a propagation table!  First we stapled some hardware cloth to this existing frame to make a sturdier platform to hold seed trays:

this 8′ x 4′ frame will hold a lot of seedling trays. It’s stacked on crates, so it’s easy to move and/or store if need be.

The real treat was when I got to learn how to use a circular saw.  No big deal, really, but  power tools with BLADES do freak me out a little bit, so I was glad to have some supervised instruction!

Bret & I made this 8′ x 3′ frame, including the supports and corner braces.

We then covered it with some metal garden fencing wire using the staple gun.

Here it is filled with seed trays:

the garden fencing creates a surface sturdy enough to lots of trays

There were a few small restaurant orders to fill, so we got a lesson in harvesting last week as well.  Here are some large green onions we pulled, ready to be hosed off, trimmed, and cleaned up.

We got to harvest some flowers for the restaurant as well…

Flowers from sage, cilantro, crimson clover, and batchelor’s buttons

On Friday I got to help out with pH testing.  Every year they test the pH level of each and every bed on the farm.  It was pretty easy with this Rapitest reader.

Of course there was more weeding to do.  For some reason I’m really enjoying weeding on the farm.  (check in with me 4 months from now on that!)  It seems much easier and more pleasant than weeding in my own yard.  Go figure.

We also spent some time discussing special projects.  Time has been allotted into the schedule each week for us to devote some time to a special, independent project of our choice.  We need to make decisions by Wednesday of next week so that we can begin setting up a plan and timeline with the staff.  It’s going to be VERY difficult to choose what to work on.   I had hoped to do something with rainwater harvesting, but unfortunately the roof of the school is set up to drain into the center of the buildings, so we can’t collect water that way.  (Or at least it would be a much larger job than an independent project could pull off.)  We could, however, build a shed or structure that allowed us to harvest water…

I also thought it might be cool to have elementary school kids who come for field trips – perhaps through an art class – select a plant to sketch, draw, paint, or write a poem about – and to auction their artwork off later on at a fundraising event.

Some other ideas that were presented as choices included:

  1. hosting / organizing a community Farm Dinner  fundraiser
  2. working on the Farm’s presentation display and supplies
  3. creating educational signage for plants or for restaurants who use our produce
  4. organizing supplies in the shed and creating a system to make use of vertical space / hanging things
  5. making dibblers – suggestions included old bicycle tires with bolts attached…can be rolled down a row to create regularly spaced holes for seeds, etc.  Lots of opportunities to be creative with this one!
  6. a Farm Photo Exhibit – create a book or documentation of how one bed changes over the season, or of the farm in general…again, lots of ways you could approach this.
  7. social media – working on promoting the farm, creating online events calendars, etc
  8. silk-screening – using plants from the farm to create images for printing on bags and T-shirts, which could then be sold at our Farmer’s Market.  I assume we could use screenprinting presses in the high school for this…not sure.
  9. worm composing – building bins, signs and educational materials, and taking care of the worms, collecting compost tea, etc.
  10. creating value-added products that could then be sold at our Market (salves, oils, maybe even canned food products – sound like we have access to a licensed kitchen!)
  11. building a chicken coop – while BK Farmyards oversees another cooperatively-run chicken coop at different location, they’d like to get chickens here at the Farm as well.  Me too.  🙂
  12. growing mushrooms
  13. working on community outreach and events
  14. creating a poster board of insects and pathogens that are commonly found on the farm –  high school kids might be more inclined to go check out the poster board rather than consult a field book.
  15. build and maintain a kiosk / display case to inform the public about the farm, upcoming events, and how they can get involved.

As you can see, there is no shortage of great ideas!  I don’t know how I’m going to decide.  I think I can safely rule out social media, but there are a lot of things that really interest me:  building a chicken coop, making a dibbler, silk-screening, worm composting, value-added products for the market…I also have a little experience hosting fundraisers, but it might be nice to try something new.  By Wednesday I’ll have to have a plan!

Happy Hydrangea News

Dearest Hydrangea:

Please forgive me for mistakenly identifying you as an Annabelle variety and hacking you nearly to the ground in the fall of 2010. (Incriminating photos HERE.)

Your blooms were sorely missed last year, and I have only myself to blame.  (I’m learning, I’m learning!)

With the help of Lady Flora and In My Garden (Country Edition), I now realize that you are most likely a macrophylla variety, possibly ‘Niko Blue,’ and that you bloom on old wood.

Thank you for the tiny, amazing green cauliflower-like buds you have begun to produce all over, which give me hope that this summer you will bloom once again.

I promise to never come near you with the pruners again, except to remove your lovely faded blooms in early winter.

You are free to do your “hydrangea thing” uninterrupted (I hope) by any more blunders from this novice gardener.


your biggest fan

On The Farm: Week 1

Last week was my first week training on the farm! There was a lot of getting acquainted – with each other and with the farm – but that didn’t stop us from jumping in and getting a little dirty.  (Neither did the weather, which was really chilly – thankfully we were able to spend some time in the greenhouse!)

There are 5 of us doing the season-long training, and we will be joined be a couple more people for the summer months.

During our first week we talked about the farm’s growing practices, learned about the history of the land, toured the high school, and got familiar with the layout of the farm.  We also had time to think and write about our own personal goals for the season.

The instructors are very big on safety and on taking care of our bodies…so each day we stretched, usually first thing.    We also had some introductory lessons in soil chemistry, soil structure, and irrigation –  WHY we irrigate and what plants actually DO with water.  We also talked about their methods of record keeping, and had a conversation about food justice and what it means to all of us.

On the work side, we jumped right into propagation and planted some seeds in the hoophouse, transplanted some crops into the ground, did a lot of weeding, and side-forked a bed that needed prepping.  Forgive the photos taken with my phone…still waiting for my camera lens to be replaced!

a row of strawberries, looking huge and already starting to bear tiny fruits! In April!

Collard greens, gone to seed

Starting with the row in the foreground, those are stock (flowers), hairy vetch and rye (cover crop), strawberries, overwintered lettuces and onions

In the hoophouse…I loved this simple work table (a “prop” table – short for propagation) made with hardware cloth – an inexpensive way to make a sturdy work surface.

We also planted lots of onions!

Using an old grill brush to clean off tools after each use – a great habit to get into, and the grill brush is a great idea.

Weeding tools

More weeding tools.  I found the curved tool incredibly helpful for cutting underneath the shallow roots of chickweed, which we weeded in great quantities!

These pink nodule-looking things on the roots of this clover are formed by bacteria and turn nitrogen into nitrate – which plants will then use. We tried not to pull up the clover but rather to turn it into the soil so that it can continue to fix nitrogen.

One of our instructors showing pulling up some beets, which we discovered had evidence of leaf miners on the leaves…

Of all the things I learned last week the thing that probably impressed me the most was how resilient those tiny transplants are!  When showing us how to transplant, our instructor talked about the difference between how you might do things gardening in your backyard vs. how they do them on the farm.  We got a big lesson on speed and efficiency.

She stretched out a measuring tape along the 70 foot row and had us very quickly scratch a mark in the soil every 8 inches.  Then she literally took a tray of 200 kohlrabi transplants, and without even bending over to lessen their blow, walked along the row DROPPING them right onto those marks in the soil as she walked along.  My mouth may actually have dropped open.  To plant them she used 3 motions:  pull soil back, set plant in, push soil up against / over.  Done.

What??  No digging a hole and gingerly placing each plant in it, then gently replacing soil and tamping down?  And dropping the plants onto the ground?

I was not the only one to ask “Won’t they break or get injured??”  In response she told us that even these tiny little transplants are tougher than we think.  Their roots actually need to be loosened a bit, which the dropping/landing takes care of.  As for whether or not they’d break or be injured, she talked about how on a farm this size they really only want plants that are tough – there is not enough time to give extra attention and TLC to plants that need help.  Wow.  Only the strong survive, huh?

I was also shocked that we didn’t really press them into the soil or tamp the soil around them…they seemed to sit loosely in the soil, with just a quick pushing of the soil over their roots.  They were practically lying sideways, as you might be able to see in this photo:

“They’ll grab on,” she said, “Just wait!”  And you know what, she was right.  Just two days later we were back and saw them standing up straight and tall.  They look great, and we got them done VERY quickly following her instructions.  It was pretty freeing to just “walk and drop” the plants, actually.

This was a major lesson in trusting in the resiliency of plants and in not being too precious, as I’m often inclined to do in my own garden!

Urban Farming

Nearly a month ago I posted about an urban farm in Brooklyn managed by BK Farmyards.  They have an Urban Agriculture Certificate Training Program, and I had sent in an application.

I am delighted (over the moon, actually) to say that I was offered a spot in the program, and I accepted!  I start this coming Monday, and I couldn’t be more thrilled!  I’ve been sitting on this news for a couple of weeks now, counting down the days until I start “Farm School.”

I love the group’s mission (taken from their website):


“We want to unite communities around the dinner table and hope to teach people about eating seasonally, growing food locally, storing & preparing food, species biodiversity & food democracy. We aim to build local food networks, enhancing the health of our culture, people & environment by connecting farmers & consumers as co-producers of the foodscape.  We transform underutilized land into farms, encouraging the communal celebration of food”

The “farm” where I’ll be training is an acre of land which is part of a high school – The High School for Public Service.  Students there get to take agriculture classes as part of their curriculum along with cooking and nutrition classes.  From what I hear, the kids set up cooking demos at the on-premises Farm Market stand to share new foods with people in the community and show them how to use them.

While it is a youth farm, I will be participating in the adult training program, and I’ll get a serious education!  The nine components of the program are:

  • Hands-on farm work
  • Informal workshops (taught by youth farm staff and guests)
  • Farm walks
  • Weekly farm meetings
  • Rotations (irrigation, propagation, vegetable and flower field work, market & CSA – community supported agriculture
  • Direct marketing
  • Working with youth
  • NYC Craft visits to other urban agriculture projects (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training)
  • Discussions on food justice

I’ll be on the farm 3 days/week for a total of 20 hours weekly, and the program runs all the way through November.  This schedule will allow me to work part-time on weekends and two weekdays, which will make it possible for me to pay for the training (and rent!)

Last October, when I lost my office job, I never dreamed I’d spend 2012 training on a farm.  It has been, in some ways, a really rough several months of being unemployed and lacking not only money, but direction.  I turned the big 4-0 two weeks ago, and needless to say the prospect of turning 40, being unemployed, not having health insurance, and still not knowing what I wanted to do when I grow up was pretty discouraging.

While I certainly haven’t answered all of the questions, I can say without doubt that I am doing what feels right to me now and going where my heart (and opportunity) seems to be leading.

C.L. Fornari really summed it up for me (without even knowing it) in this recent post on her spectacularly inspiring blog Whole Life Gardening:

“Whenever possible in life, it’s helpful to see change as an opportunity, even when we might not have chosen that particular circumstance as the ideal time to be adaptable.”

She was speaking in regard to having lost some plants and needing to decide whether to keep, move, or divide the remaining plants…of course her words always have a deeper meaning.  Six months ago I certainly did not want to lose my job or our health insurance.  It was not a job I was happy in, I was not doing something I really wanted to do or even supported, and it was really taking a toll.  Still, I never would have left of my own accord.  Had they not decided to replace me with someone who could speak Chinese (true story!), I might very well still be there, miserable, instead of about to embark on what I feel is going to be a wonderful experience.  Seeing change as an opportunity is a lesson I continue to have to learn.  Thank you, C.L., for the reminder!

As for the farm, I am eager to absorb and learn everything that I possibly can about growing food on a large scale, carpentry, and maybe even keeping bees and raising chickens if I’m lucky. It will be great to have conversations about food justice and policy issues as well.

I’m looking forward to posting weekly about the farm in addition to my own gardening projects, and eager to see where this knowledge and experience will take me!

When are Virginia Bluebells NOT Virginia Bluebells?

When they are  Symphytum grandiflora ‘Hidcote Blue’, otherwise known as ornamental comfrey!

Thanks to Stacy over at the fantastic blog Microcosm, the plant I thought to be a variety of Mertensia, aka Virginia Bluebells, has been correctly identified!

This is not the first time I’ve purchased plants that were mislabeled.  I thought I was buying Viriginia Bluebells and had specifically wanted them for a couple of partial – shady spots in the yard.  The plants and flowers look very similar and it wasn’t until I was home in PA last week and visited my friend Bev’s garden that I noticed the leaves of her Mertensia looked very different from mine.

Fortunately, my ornamental comfrey (!) has performed fabulously in both shady locations.  The blue flowers are gorgeous, and the fuzzy dark foliage remained all winter (granted it was a mild one.)

Here is a comparison between my plant and photos of  Symphytum grandiflora ‘Hidcote Blue’ found online.  Thanks again, Stacy, for figuring it out!

my plant, about 24 - 28" tall.



Symphytum grandiflora 'Hidcote Blue', photo obviously swiped from http://www.highcountrygardens.com


close up of leaves and flowers of my plant

close up of Symphytum grandiflora 'Hidcote Blue' on http://www.plantdatabase.ie


Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!

Another site indicated that ornamental comfrey can be invasive in some areas, but so far it has not shown signs of wanting to take over the yard.  It has grown in the past year, but I must say it’s been one of my favorite plants in the garden.  I’m hoping it will continue to be well behaved!