We’re building a greenhouse.

This is still a little shocking to me. I expected to have to spend this week, the final week of our Kickstarter campaign, making desperate phone calls to friends and family and acquaintances, begging them to pitch in $20 so that we’d meet our goal and get the funding. Instead, we hit 50% of our goal less than 48 hours after launching the campaign publicly. Just a week into the campaign, we were fully funded. Now, with 4 days left in the campaign, we’ve raised enough money to buy the greenhouse kit, rent the equipment we’ll need to put it up, build benches to go inside, and hopefully even put a little potting shed on the end.

Can I be honest? Every donation, every single one, was a surprise. Donations came from close friends and family, customers, classmates and colleagues, and even from people we’ve never met. As we watched the backer count rise, this whole experience came to be about so much more than just building a greenhouse. It was a truly remarkable and unexpected show of support for this little business we’re building.

Starting a farm, starting any business, is tough, and although we ended the season with more successes than failures, it’s still a rough ride and the future isn’t certain. Knowing that we have the support of our community means more to us than you can imagine. We’re going into the 2012 season encouraged and grateful; we’re ready to work hard and make our supporters proud.

I cried my eyes out watching It’s a Wonderful Life last week. At the end, George Bailey opens a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that’s been mysteriously left on the table; the inscription reads “No man is a failure who has friends.” Thank you, friends, for making us successful.

Trifecta Catalogs

The trifecta has arrived. For us that’s three seed catalogs: Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, and the Seed Savers Exchange. There’s an addendum of FedCo Seeds, but Fedco is more utilitarian and less exciting to look at. The full-color, photo-filled catalogs from the trifecta bring excitement akin to the joy of a small child looking at a toy catalog, but perhaps moreso as we know not only how exciting the seeds are but the satisfaction we’ll feel next year as we harvest and share the food these seeds will become.

In the House of the Revolution, looking through catalogs is as much a part of December as Christmas’s music, Hannukah’s latkes, Yule’s lights, and Festivus’s insults are to our friends.

It’s some combination of a game and a gamble- we each go through and mark up the catalogs with what we want to grow. We then come to an agreement of which varieties we’ll actually be purchasing. Then we fill in how much we’ll need of each in a giant spreadsheet (Open Office Calc, of course), and calculate out what that will cost. Then we edit everything so that we can afford the first two rounds of orders and place those.

Why do this during the stressful holiday season, when we’re also hand-making Christmas presents for relatives and cookies for what seems like the entire world? Why, the onion orders have to go in by New Year’s Eve or our allium will be behind from the beginning! The potatoes sell out before we’re done making latkes! And this year High Mowing gives us a discount for being responsible and putting money up toward our HMS orders before the ball drops on the 31st.

For reference:

High Mowing Seeds
Seed Savers Exchange

Just do me a favor and don’t buy them all out before we get our orders together!

Heirlooms vs. Hybrids? Really?

Dragon Carrot from Seed Savers ExchangeWithin the constraints of our planting and harvesting schedule, our seed purchases this year emphasize heirloom and open-pollinated varieties — something which, according to this New York Times article, may be misguided. The article pits open-pollinated heirlooms against “flinty” F1 hybrids, and makes choosing heirloom varieties sound like a silly luxury.

There’s a lot to be said for Mendelian genetics when it comes to raising vegetables. Lord knows that we appreciate the disease resistance and higher yields that hybrid (F1) vegetable varieties often provide, and it many cases those benefits won out when we were choosing seed. Zucchini, for example — it was off-putting that one of the few open-pollinated varieties we found boasted yields “almost as good as hybrid varieties!” as though that were shocking and miraculous. Hybrid often produce a more reliable product, at least in terms of quantity.

With that in mind, we hunted for heirloom varieties that were as good as or better than the hybrid vegetables on our list, and in many cases we were successful. In fact, we were so successful that more than 50% of the varieties we’ll grow for market this season will be open-pollinated, which we consider an achievement. There were several reasons for us to pay attention to the number of open-pollinated varieties on our seed list:

Food sovereignty. Growing open pollinated varieties means that, with some careful planning, we’ll be able to save seed from many of the crops we grow this season. Even better, by saving seeds from the strongest, best tasting, highest yielding plants, growers can develop strains that are highly selected for the region. Modern hybrid varieties don’t produce true seed, which means growers are forever dependent on major seed companies for next year’s seed.

Variety. Hybrids have generally been selected to suit the needs of large-scale growers whose crops must be uniform and able to withstand travel and a potentially lengthy stay on the supermarket shelves. That’s why supermarket tomatoes — beefsteak, on the vine, even cherry tomatoes — all look more or less the same. Compare that with heirloom varieties of tomato which, though less reliable, come in all shapes and sizes, from the brilliantly colored Hillbilly Potato Leaf to the oddly elongated Green Sausage to the delightfully fuzzy Garden Peach. We know that farmer’s market customers appreciate the variety and beauty afforded by open pollinated varieties.

A sense of place. Our global food system has had the unfortunate effect of homogenizing our diets, so that the foods we eat here in New England are no different than the foods they eat in Nebraska or New Mexico. Renewing America’s Food Traditions, a project of Slow Food USA, has produced a list of foods, unique to New England, at risk of disappearing altogether, and do you know what’s on that list? The Berkshire Polish tomato. Moon & Stars Melon from Seed Savers ExchangeA variety of tomato brought from Poland and refined right here in these good Berkshire hills. It’s a history that makes my heart race a little. I’m trying to get my hands on some seeds so we can help bring it back from the brink.

Perhaps most importantly, we feel that it’s important to keep growing these varieties so seed companies will keep producing the seeds — otherwise we end up with nearly-tragic stories like that of the Moon and Stars watermelon. Once widely grown, this pretty and delicious melon all but disappeared. Only one farm continued to grow and save Moon and Stars seeds — if they hadn’t, the particular flavor of that melon would have disappeared from the earth forever. Luckily seed savers stepped in to rescue the variety and now anyone with $2.75 (or a seed-saving friend) and a sunny backyard can have a Moon and Stars melon of her own.

Crop planning resources

seedling 2010Ah, seed season. If you’re a gardener, or you know one, or you follow a single gardening blog, you know that this is the time of year when we find our mailboxes stuffed with catalogs filled with pictures of perfect vegetables and the seeds that will, we hope, produce them.

In the past our major seed purchases have been made to satisfy our own whims — a packet of this, a packet of that, some of last year’s seeds on sale at the local grocery co-op, until the seed budget was maxed out and we had plenty of food to grow. This year’s garden is different, though; it has to feed lots of other people, not just us and some wholesale buyers. We’ve attacked it with all the zeal of college freshman on the first day of class, with charts and spreadsheets and a whole lot of mathematics to ensure that we’ll have the earliest broccoli harvest, the most consistent greens harvests, and the longest-lasting onions we can possibly manage. The end result was a seed order about $200 over what we initially budgeted, but hey: it’s an investment.

Planning our crop plantings this season has required a handful of different tools. We used a from Johnny’s Selected Seeds to estimate yields and figure out how many seeds we needed. [pdf] A chart from Fedco Seeds filled in some gaps. We frequently found ourselves referring back to the Johnny’s catalogue to time plantings. A master planting spreadsheet prepared for Philies Bridge Farm Project, where Cian apprenticed in 2008, proved to be our most important tool. We adapted it for our own purposes and incorporated elements from other crop planning spreadsheets and what we came up with will be our sanity’s savior come June.

Over the summer RAFFL (Rutland Area Farm and Food Link) hosted a Beginning Farmer workshop on crop planning. You can watch the lecture, given by Green Mountain College farm manager Kenneth Mulder, on RAFFL’s blog. Be sure to also check out Kenneth’s lecture notes and the excellent handouts, which include a great CSA planning chart.

Past experience was our biggest asset; after several years of experience, we didn’t have to pause with every crop to wonder how to space the plants or which crops require transplanting as opposed to direct seeding. Overall, planning the season’s crops and putting together our seed orders has taken on the order of ten hours — a minimal investment of time, given the panic it will save us this spring when everything needs to happen at all at once.

Get Excited.

Things are happening fast around these parts. On New Year’s Eve we celebrated not just the changing calendar but also a job offer. On Sunday, with the offer accepted, we celebrated again. On Monday I called at least a dozen potential landlords. On Wednesday we drove all over the southern Berkshires looking at apartments. Wednesday night, back in Rutland, we were exhausted and crabby and having a hard time imagining moving into any of those places.

On Thursday afternoon we came to our senses and realized that the place in town with the hardwood floors and sun porches (two!) would make a wonderful home.

On Sunday we signed a lease.


So now there are two and a half weeks between us and The Big Move, which is plenty of time, right? Sure, sure. Plenty of time. Of course, we’re also in the midst of mapping out concrete plans for our one-acre market garden (official announcement coming soon). There are seeds to purchase and planting schedules to outline and crop rotations to figure out and oh yes, there’s also that whole technical “starting a business” thing to look into. Originally I wanted to have our onions started in flats before we moved. HA! I’m such a comedian.

Over the past week and a half I have been anxious and overwhelmed and, frankly, not very excited. And then I felt angry at myself for not being more excited. This is it! We’ve been planning to start a market garden for years, and I’ve been hoping to move back to the Berkshires for a year or so. All our plans are coming to fruition, so why wasn’t I jumping for joy?

But tonight, after several months of being pretty much done with tomatoes forever, I found myself daydreaming about a nice thick slice of tomato in a grilled cheese sandwich. And then I realized that, all over the Berkshires, people who understand the joy of a fresh, local tomato are having the same kinds of culinary fantasies. And this summer, when they finally get that vine-ripened brandywine they’ve been dreaming about for months — when they pick it up at the market and sniff it and consider exactly how they should go about devouring it — it might be one of ours.

Now I’m excited. Two and a half weeks? Bring it on.

The Perfect Garden

Winter Barn by CianThe perfect garden, as any gardener knows, doesn’t exist in the lushness of August or even in the pristine early days of June. It exists only in January, in the mind of a grower thirsty for the new season’s greenery.

It’s the seed catalogs that start it, with their close-ups of quirky but beautiful produce grown on trial farms. It’s easy to imagine that the whole farm looks as lovely as that single head of lettuce or that wheelbarrow full of winter squash. But it’s easy to take pictures of pretty vegetables, and even those farmers — with considerably more resources and hands than we will have in the coming season — must find themselves fantasizing about neatly tilled weed-free fields growing nothing but picture-perfect produce.

It might sound nice at first blush, but I suspect we are, none of us, really capable of growing the perfect garden. Every weed plucked, every tomato perfectly staked, each succession yielding to the next with perfect timing… who could stand it? If I’ve got time to till and plant and weed and mulch and pick everything on my roster, it means I’m not trying hard enough. I should be growing more food, expanding into cut flower production, planting an orchard and raising small ruminants too. Obviously. Right?

I don’t know how much of this is unique to me (at times I have been surprised to find that the whole world doesn’t share my neuroses), but it seems we gardeners have a tendency towards ambition over contentment. We’re hardly alone; the indomitable human spirit has been keeping people up at night for all of history. A useful adaptation, sure, but also a damn pain. Perpetually discontented, except for the odd moment of satisfaction, we’re always pushing for something just a little bit better.

It bears mentioning that generations worth of enthusiastic progress got us into a whole lot of trouble. The little-bit-betters of the industrial revolution, with the best of intentions, have led to rising obesity, chronic illness, and a little thing called climate change. We don’t always know what’s best for us, on a global scale (wind energy or nuclear?) or a personal one (plastic mulch, or straw?). Every step forward is a gamble, but we’re all chronic gamblers, and there’s no stopping us.

Which is all to say: Happy New Year, friends. May your moments of satisfaction be many, may your aspirations be tempered with humility, and may your garden be a beautiful mess.

Four Gifts

Amanda recently told me the theory of four gifts. Since then, especially considering the collective economic insanity that is the holidays, I have been contemplating the idea. It is thus- each child should receive four gifts for Christmas (or, arguably, a birthday, or any other major giftgiving event). Of the four, one should be worn, as in a clothing item; one should be read, as in a book; one should be needed; and one should be wanted.

I would argue that a fifth could be added- something to be eaten. This may be a product of my love of food, or my relative obsession with cookie baking, or even the memory of opening the once-a-year chocolate orange I found in my stocking as a child, but I firmly believe in food gifts.

Over the past few years we have been encouraging our families to minimize spending for Christmas, which remains a largely religious holiday for some of our relatives. On the long drive home this year, contemplating the gifts we gave and were given, it became clear that although we have not spoken of the four gift idea to our parents, and they gave us more than four gifts apiece, they seem to have internalized the idea behind it.

Gifts need not be frivolous, and are at best useful items.

This year was a veritable haul of useful items. It seemed from all directions we were receiving thermal socks and pocket handkerchiefs. We each ended up with some food items, a few books, some tools (very necessary), and a few frivolous things for fun. I suppose the next aspect of this theory to impress upon everyone is scaling down, but I fear if we do that I’ll have some mighty cold feet.

Handmade Holiday

Our friend Sam (not his real name) grew up in a working class family, and each December his mother would put the family into debt trying to give her husband and children everything they might want for Christmas. She always ended up hurt and disappointed; Sam’s brother was never satisfied with his gifts, and Sam’s father always yelled at her for buying a gift for him, which he said was a waste of their money. Seeing his mother in tears year after year ruined Sam’s holiday spirit, and now that he’s an adult he doesn’t celebrate Christmas at all. Which is his prerogative, of course — what I mean to say here is not “oh, poor Sam,” but “oh gosh, how did we get here?”

There’s a lot of talk about the problem of consumer Christmas, but mostly it’s couched in philosophic terms about what it says about our society that a holiday ostensibly about the birth of somebody’s lord and savior is now more about iPods and jewelery and tickle-me-elmos. And I understand all that. I really do. But what really grips me is Sam’s story, and the idea that all around our debt-ridden country, these are the kinds of holiday memories being created. Our household is almost radically frugal, and I still feel that gift-giving anxiety. Cian has written about it here before.

This year almost all of our gifts will be handmade. We spent the better part of the year growing and preserving some the gifts that our families will find under their trees: strawberry-vanilla jam, roasted tomatillo salsa, pear sauce, dilly beans, the list goes on. Untold amounts of energy went into those jars. There were late nights and early mornings, lots of dishes, even some hysterical tears when it seemed like the tomatoes would never be done with. Over the past couple of months we’ve been opening a jar of each, just to make sure they’re good enough to give away, and you know what? They are. If they weren’t made by me, if I bought them in a store, they’d be artisan crafted local food products made with organic ingredients. But I recently saw someone, I can’t remember who, worry that her handmade gifts would be received like a child’s plaster handprints (“Oh, isn’t that sweet!”), and I’ve got that same worry in my gut.

A winter holiday is no use if it mostly inspires feelings of anxiety and disappointment. It ought to be about about family and friends and food and music and celebration at this time of year when we need it more than any other time, because darkness is scary and after all, we’re only human. Maybe you’re feeling some of the same things? Here’s what I keep reminding myself: I can not single-handedly change Christmas culture. I can only win people over, one jar at a time.

Baby Boomer Frugality

Since Amanda and I legally bound ourselves to each other, the stories of young couples from our families has been constant. As it turns out, our frugality is something they appreciate. Coming from a middle class family in the suburbs, I never thought of that being something lauded, but having now heard stories from their younger days- the days before they were homeowners, the days of someone being between jobs or when they had a third person need to move in with them, a person whom they had to add into their budget- I think they’re seeing us a little less as the black sheep for living frugally.

Some ideas from the 70′s for frugal living:

1- Sew some of your own clothing. While it’s true that sewing all of your own clothing is not less expensive thanks to sweatshop labor, sewing dresses, especially ones for special occasions, halloween costumes, and vests is still much less expensive than purchasing them. Or altering too-big items from second hand sources.

2- Have dinner with family or friends frequently. My grandparents invited my parents and their siblings over frequently for family dinners. It was the elder generation’s way of helping out financially- the young ones helped cook and clean but didn’t pay for the meal, and often got to bring food home with them. Now the reverse happens and the elder generation brings home a stack of filled tupperwares after family dinners. The other way this works is if everyone brings a dish- then you get a 4 course meal and only had to pay for 1.

3- Drive 55. It’s something that was mandated during the oil crisis of the 70′s in some states. The difference between highway driving at 55pmh and the more standard 70mph varies among cars, but can be as much as 10 miles per gallon. So if you’re looking to get the cheapest and least damaging trip in your car, drive 55, or at least don’t go 80. I don’t always do this (I’m habitually tardy), and I wouldn’t recommend trying it on the NYThruway, but when gas was over $4 a gallon, I was the jackass driving 55 in a 65mph zone.

4- Use the library. Even better now for media than it was in the 70′s, we have access to music, movies, and magazines as well as books and newspapers. In many areas you can even get books on Mp3! I’m in the middle of “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. And our local library is one of many to have regular book sales. A book for $1? I’m all about that. And when we’ve exhausted our boughten books, we can always donate them to a local library and let someone else experience them. Another side to the library is it’s a place that’s comfortable, heated, often has free wifi, open in the evenings, and a change of location for writing or study.

5- Learn to fix stuff. Requirements in my house growing up included being able to sew a patch on your own uniform (thanks, Mom), and learn basic home repair (and Pop). If the faucet was leaking, Pop would grab one of us and explain what he was doing as he did it. Sometimes that meant him admitting, “Now I don’t know what to do, so we’re going to call your Grandpop,” or “… so now we’re going down to the hardware store to ask.” For big projects, like the time the wall was leaking, they hired a plumber. For small ones, they hired an 8-year-old to hold the flashlight, and paid him in cookies later. This also counts for painting, varnishing floors, finishing (or re-finishing) or apolstering furniture. I appreciate that for electrical work and masonry, professionals were always the ones doing it.

6- Use a clothesline and/or an indoor drying rack. My parents only have the latter (give me some time, I’ll get them hooked on clotheslines yet), but I remember a lot of clotheslines in my youth. And Grandma and Dziadzia (pronounced jah-jah, it’s Polish) had an umbrella-style one. Endless fun.

7- Bake your own bread. This one’s only going to work if you have 4 hour blocks when you’re awake. Some weeks it just doesn’t work for me. But on the ones it does, the bread is far superior to store bought bread in both nutritional value and flavor. As a seal of approval for this habit, my mother “lent” me some of her loaf pans a few years back.

8- Swap clothes. Sounds a little strange, but my mother and two or three aunts all wore the same size once-upon-a-time, effectively expanding their wardrobes without having to buy more clothes. More than just passing something along after you’re done with it, it’s an ongoing borrowing situation. My brother and I have picked up this habit and will swap dress shirts for a few months or a year. Or just go to a family event wearing a shirt the other owns. Much less expensive than having more dress clothes options.

9- Be a cheap date. Now, this is a joke in my family because my mother always picks a chicken or pasta dish at a restaurant, no matter what is available or how much extra cash there is at the time of celebration. Other pointers, don’t order wine at a restaurant (really, $8 a glass?) or go for lunch instead of dinner. And, y’know, make that trip out occasional.

What it means in the Household of the Revolution is that our favorite date is routinely a trip to the arcade. We had the opportunity to walk around the mall that houses the arcade and pick up anything we need (and laugh at what people pay for things they don’t need), but we also have the chance to have a date for $5-10 and feel great about it. Then pass along the tickets to a small child or bring home some silly plastic or candy trinket. So much more fun than going out for drinks.

10- Don’t be ashamed. My relatives are proud of their past and ongoing frugality- something I wasn’t aware of until I asked for The Complete Tightwad’s Gazette for Christmas one year. My parents were excited to pass along a bible of frugality, and to tell me they found it on deep discount. The thing is, if you’re ashamed of being frugal, you’re less likely to actually be frugal. Be proud of those dried beans and your slow cooker. Be the king of craigslist. Work freecycle for all it’s worth. Then brag about it on facebook. Go ahead, if your friends are like mine, it’ll become a trend.

Fall Plantings

Breaking Ground on the New GardenWe spent a few days in October planting crops that we won’t harvest until next year or or the year after. I’m an impatient person, all instant-gratification, your typical modern day Verruca Salt, so this kind of long-range planning isn’t exactly my strong suit. But I also really, really love garlic so it had to be done. Here’s the rundown:

Garlic: We bought a little over five pounds of hardneck garlic from a local grower. Buying big, beautiful, locally grown bulbs helps to ensure that the variety is well suited to growing in your area. We planted ours in three rows at approximately six inches apart and ended up with approximately 180 cloves in the ground. We’ll mulch them well this winter and harvest them next summer when the leaves die back. We called around at the last minute looking enough local garlic to plant another bed, but it didn’t work out. Upwards of 150 heads ought to be enough for our first season in production.

Sunchokes: Also known as Jerusalem artichokes, these little nuggets of starchy nuttiness aren’t very popular in this country — yet.  They’re related to sunflowers, but the tuber is the part you eat. They’re panted like potatoes, individual tubers planted a few inches in the ground, and next season they’ll flower and produce lots more roots for us to dig up in the fall. They’ll grow pretty much anywhere, but since they grow quite tall we put them at the north end of the garden, where they won’t block sunlight for any other plants.

Strawberries: Most of the time, especially in the northeast, strawberries are planted in the spring. Fall planted strawberries, if properly mulched, have a good winter survival rate and, if they’re strong, can be harvested in the first season. Our strawberry plants are mostly june-bearers, daughter plants that we received from a friend here in Vermont. We’ve also got about 25 day-neutral plants which will produce fruit throughout the season.

Asparagus: Asparagus is another perennial plant that is usually planted in the spring. Planting year-old root crowns in the fall gives the plants a head start, although we still wouldn’t likely harvest until the second spring. Unfortunately the plants we ordered didn’t arrive in time for us to plant them this fall, which means we’ll have to keep them in cold storage until the spring.