Thursday, February 28, 2013

Vermiculite Sandwich with Extra Onions

I have extra, unused rows in my garlic field. At first I thought I would fill them with tomatoes, potatoes, green beans and the like. Now I'm thinking that's just too much effort at this time. So, what to fill those empty rows with then? Onions. From seed.

I purchased these 5-inch deep, 2 by 2-inch wide cell trays, eschewing positive cost to cell-count ratios for longer roots, longer tray times, or what is often referred to as leeway. 

Large holes at the bottoms and ribbing on the side which purports to fight off root binding.

The team. After last summer's trip to Maine where I saw peat bogs first hand, I decided to try a different approach to a peat-based starter mix. After some hand wringing, I made an on the fly decision at the Agway to go with a decent compost (no sludge) and a generous dose of vermiculite.

The resulting mix was light, held moisture, yet appeared to drain well enough. It wasn't spongy the way peat-based mixes are, but in fact was somewhat grainy so that it was tough to poke holes for seeds to drop into.

Three onion types. Three trays. Each tray of 10 x 20 inches holds fifty cells, but to spare soil, space and effort, I planted two seeds in each, on the bias, roughly one inch apart so that each tray holds one hundred.

I ran out of my soil mix by the 550th cell, and had to short my goal of 1200 onion starts. Each 1/16th ounce seed packet held about 500 seeds, so that I could have planted more, but then I thought this is enough. Of course, I'm planting onions because they fit the overall business of my little acre. Garlic, shallots, and why not onions? They're on the same schedule, roughly, and require a similar care. Now sprout you little boogers!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


These are my new tools. They lack the grace of fine Dutch tools; in fact they rather have an American brutality about them. Made in the Missouri Ozarks of discarded farm implement discs and ash wood handles, they're inexpensive, tough with a fair amount of coarseness. Although they're probably more than is required on my stone-free sandy loam, one never knows what ground may be broken in the future. I expect these to last.

The opposite edge is ground on a wheel and watch those fingers sharp. If you're interested, it's Rogue Hoe.    What I've here is their standard hoe (5.75 by 2 deep, shallow curvature), the mini (4 across, 3 deep), a mini scuffle (3.5 by 3.5 by 4 inches), and a soil rake (6.5 by 6.5 and 4 lbs).

Etymology of the hoedown: it is speculated that a hoedown is a type of dance that mimicked the hoeing of fields (do the mashed potata). But I propose that since we go to a hoedown, it may have also stemmed from the notion of laying down our hoes so that we can have some fun.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Sophomore

I made my way out to the farm Monday morning to collect 300 pounds of alfalfa meal from the Riverhead Agway. They had expected me two weeks prior, but given the nature of the storm, Nemo, I declined. Rounding Quail Hill Farm near 10 am, I was greeted by a road block. A massive snow-blowing truck was throwing snow 50 feet to the south. After ten minutes, I was tempted to run the van over the farm road, but I didn't, probably wisely.

After a potholed, rutted journey over a road that could only have been devised to keep traffic out, I made it around to the private road. It's a road to grandiose, stony facade and column, poolhouse and pond, and I parked because farmer has me feeling more entitled than artist ever has. 

Blocking the road, yes, but wouldn't a friendly farmer's wave do, a wave from he who toils on the land, provides the stony facade and column a vision of the pastoral, reassures him and her that agriculture is not peasantry, but all the more pleasantry? So, yes, I parked on the private road, and from here a simple wave to just over there could rouse me to unblock their passage. But then nothing much came of it.

The farm road was covered in snow of variable depth, impassable by minivan or rather the promise of digging out was just as great an impasse, so that I hiked in.

Easy enough on old snow, frozen then melted, rained on and refrozen, now crusty.

Enter the farm from the eastern gate and we first notice the saffron patch, which I thought appeared remarkably sound given recent weather. A surprising amount of growth put on since the studio-bound sprouting, early November planting, and December flowering - a full two months late.

This hardly looks like a farm in winter, but a farm in drought. The decision not to mulch was a difficult one, born of cost and wind. I still cannot determine a mulch that will stay put in the face of so much daily scouring.

If you look closely at the field, orderly, pale greenery emerges. Bare soil warms rapidly under the strong February sun. A month ago most rows had no emergence, but the warmth of just a few days last week and the bare soil have given the eager varieties (notably the soft-stemmed and variable hard-stemmed varieties) the signal to push up. Rocambole, Pocelain, and Purple Stripe varieties appear to have the will to stay put, a botanical mind for the mild bipolarity of winter. This wasn't an issue in the cold zone farming upstate, but as my experience at the beach farm bore out last season, Long Island's coastal warming contributes to the early growth. But it's just that warming that allows us to grow every variety. All I can do is prepare better next season, plant a little deeper, and be mindful of the higher amplitude climate patterns offered by the warming arctic.

I had hoped that all the snow of the last month would provide a protective blanket for the crop, but the heavy winds removed most of the snow just as quickly as it had accumulated. In fact, the reason for the road closure was that much of the snow that had fallen two days prior to my visit had blown off the fields and onto the road.

The most eager growth belongs to the Turban variety. Above, to the right, is the strain 'Thai Purple' and to the left is 'Tuscan.' Several 'Tuscan' had begun to sprout before planting time, recalling now how planting was delayed by lease issues and our tropical friend Sandy.

During Long Island winters like the kind we've been having for years now, temperatures rarely dip below twenty degrees F, especially this close to the ocean. Extreme jet stream events brought extraordinary cold to the region this January, delivering occasional nights with single digit temperatures, fierce winds and damage to the eager strains. While garlic is a tough plant, energy will be lost to regrowth and stress will create opportunity for disease.

Another problem has been heaved cloves. By a long shot, not nearly as much as the other farmers' garlic, but enough to make me pissy. Every clove lost to something like this is a bulb lost to market. Pulling them out is incredibly tough, made all the harder by frozen soil just below the sun-warmed surface. The first dozen or so came up in January, while the soil was still soft as recently tilled, and those were tough to remove, their roots so firmly embedded in the ground. This visit, a month later, revealed another dozen or so. I'm not completely convinced that this is caused by rapid, intense root growth pushing the clove two, three or four inches up above ground. Maybe it's frost heave, given the moisture, the freeze thaw, the patterned cracks in the beds. Next year there will be deeper tilling, deeper planting, bed firming, and possibly some mulch because this problem is unacceptable.

To the left of the signs you see rows of minor hills running perpendicular to the garlic beds. This was the cover crop planted in December, back when warmer days seemed the norm. Nothing has sprouted there, and honestly I have no idea if it should. A cover crop in winter could help with another vexing problem.

The soil conservationist's nightmare. The snow that remains puts in stark relief all the blowing farm soil. If it weren't for this display, an untrained eye would hardly realize that any soil was being lost to the wind. I don't like it, not one bit. I have winter clover to plant around March one for my main walking row, an area roughly 1200 square feet. I have no equipment to roughen the soil compacted by our feet, nothing but a new, five pound, six-inch rake to break the soil. That will be a long day.

From here, my whole acre, the larger parcel intended for next year's crop. Despite crankiness about my sophomoric missteps and a blustery, incessant wind, I thoroughly enjoyed walking the rows. Spring approaches, and early summer's work beyond understanding, winter's rest and the warm, strengthening sun are solace.

As I hiked out, down the curving road toward the wood and van parked on the private road, the sun behind me lit the trees brilliantly. These trees on the south prong of Long Island's fork glow in the sun and are toned evenly under clouds. They are unlike any I've seen. The species, yes -white oak, aspen, beech, but the brilliance of the bark across species appears different here and I wonder if it has to do with the lichen and the ocean.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Why Not, QBot?

It was Chinese New Year, so we went to Flushing, Queens (my first neighborhood, just newborn) to explore several dumpling and hot pot houses for lunch. My mother was surprised to hear me call Flushing Chinatown, then had to explain to her that the place we lived over 40 years ago is not the place she remembers. We were so full after the second place (a mall food court that blows mall food court experiences you've had out of Flushing Bay), and so many restaurants that return trips are warranted. I might add, if you're at all like me, once you eat in a Chinese community, you will resent having to go back to your corner takeout.

When LaGuardia's patterns take planes over Flushing it's at first disconcerting, and ultimately colludes with the taller buildings, Chinese printed signs, and busy sidewalks to create a more cosmopolitan feel than you might expect. You do feel as if you could peg the bottoms of the lifting, slow moving planes with a handball. The image above, made with an iphone's 4mm lens, pushes the plane farther away than it really is. It takes getting used to, but less so inside the Queens Botanical Garden.

I've intended to visit QBot for some time, ever since the construction of their new administrative/visitor building. It's LEED platinum certified, possibly the greenest building in NYC, and all that may mean zilch to a wayward polar bear. But to this guy, it's the only serious reason to visit this underfunded garden.

The three dimensional water feature -used to recycle runoff, process gray water, achieve modest outdoor cooling, for irrigation, and as a visual design element is the heart of this building. Systemic water, a merging of liquid functionality with the designed landscape is hardly common and it makes my heart beat a little faster. 

There were problems, of course, but all told these appear to be born of staff shortages or design quirks that can be addressed with some attention. The larger garden lacks a coherent design, lacks interest and given the resources poured into this new building and parking garden, it would serve Qbot to find a way to build a master plan that revisions the garden following these examples. They'll never be NYBot or even BBot, so be Qbot and give us a reason to travel to Flushing by offering something completely new, something so 21st century.

I think it's reasonable to keep people off green roofs. We want people to see, yes, but there should be a way that doesn't impact the plants. 

Mounded roses in a ringed circle?

An excess of funny, CNC machine-carved statuary?

Maybe a master plan that merges eco sensitivity with Chinese design, given the neighborhood in which Qbot resides? Many of the great eco-design landscape projects of late have been in China (Quinhuangdao Beach, Shanghai Houtan Park, Crosswater Ecolodge, etc. etc.). Qbot lacks space, but couldn't they access some of the wasted land of Flushing-Corona Park? Surely Flushing Creek (or what's left of it) could be cleaned and greened. Were you aware that many of NYC's early plant nurseries were this side of Flushing Creek (true -I've got maps)? Perhaps a China-NY partnership could help pay for such appreciation of the value of a growing Queens (Flushing soon to be the largest Chinese community outside of China) community. Could be awesome. 

But until my grand scheme comes to pass, we should revel in Cornus sanguinea, Winter Flame Dogwood. Brilliant on a gloomy day.

And snowdrops and hellebores, too.

Monday, February 18, 2013

February Farm

Windy at the farm, yet surprised how much I enjoyed the time walking the rows. I had to hike in, then out, and was struck by the warmth of a February sun and the beauty of the trees' branches entangled with the sky.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Forgotten Season

No matter if you are a home gardener or small time farmer, at this time of year we all begin to feel as if we have forgotten something. Maybe you have forgotten that today is the day of valentine? Uh-uh, no, it's not that, it's a nagging that builds and fades until the last tomato is planted in May. Or is it June?

Have you gotten all your seeds? What will you plant them in? Have you waited too long to start? Is it too late? Maybe too early, so relax. But is it? When should these be planted out? Two weeks before frost, two weeks after? Ack, when will the last frost be in this crazy zone anyway? Maybe I should just start outside. Maybe there'll be just the right moisture, the ideal germination temps. Or not. I better order those cell trays. 

This morning that's exactly what I did, choosing expense and glory over affordable and chancy. Five-inch deep 2x2-inch cells, fifty per, and reusable with cleaning. I ordered fifteen of those along with trays known to the trade as the '1020,' and as it's name suggests -roughly ten by twenty inches. Skip the domes, use cling wrap, and heed the seed.

My Fedco order arrived three days ago: three sixteenths of an ounce of onion seed, or put another way, 750 to 1200 onions to be (or not to be?). I bought seed not because they are tiny, fussy, or difficult, but because they do not harbor disease the way sets and starts do. Seed, then, was the only way to keep with the allium program in my unsown rows, even though seed must be started early, maybe now, or possibly later, soil temperature of 60 degrees, consistent moisture, but not soggy, watched and waited on, until perfect transplanting sometime in March or April, but who can be sure. 

I'm excited for onions, more so than for the cilantro and parsley, carrots and Sungold that came with this shipment. Onions are the second most consumed vegetable beside the tomato; roughly 17 pounds per person in these United States. Each year American farmers plant a crop worth four billion dollars, although my crop will be worth less than five hundred. Borrettana Cipollini, Rossa Lunga di Tropea, Rossa di Milano. Storage yellow, seasonal red, storage red. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Our Global Butterfly

Yesterday I went to the Museum of Natural History with Betsy, my cousin (Red Hook's PokPok manager/waiter, ask for Jeff) and his girlfriend to see the Our Global Kitchen exhibit. I wasn't expecting much since Betsy reported that a prior exhibit on bioluminescence had little in the way of bio, just a bunch of artificial displays. Honestly, if your up on food, this exhibit isn't for you -you'll hardly see anything new. The most fascinating display was a plastic mock-up of Michael Phelps' breakfast.

Fortunately we paid full price, allowing us the chance to see the butterfly exhibit and even though I wish the museum built a Rose Center-like glass orb filled with tropical plants and humidity, it was worth every penny to spend some time with any Lepidoptera in the middle of winter.

For all the power of an iPhone, I happened upon a weakness: under the Metal Halide type lamps, the phone's sensor whipped up a moire-type effect. Of course, there was the usual darkness induced slow-shutter blurring, but I could salvage several shots. I recognize that I'm becoming more self-conscious about taking shots with a phone -it's so common now that even my mediation feels mediated.