Heat Wave

It’s been more than two weeks since our last post, but many things had to get done to launch our field production…After a chilly start which may have cost us a few cauliflowers, we are now experiencing an early heat wave, and watering freshly planted vegetables and fragile root systems has been an absolute priority. Meteorological vagaries notwithstanding, our broccoli, cauliflower, celery, fennel, lettuce, green-red-nappa cabbage, kale, beets, spinach and swiss chard are already planted; our eggplant, basil, beans, peppers and tomatoes are patiently biding their time in their trays; and we’ve seeded our carrots and turnips. The season is indeed launched, and planting activity (a continuous succession of seeds and seedlings) will continue unabated until mid-summer – all with a view of ensuring a steady supply of vegetables for our baskets.

In our spare time and with a view to the longer term, we also planted a small orchard of 60 trees – a mix of plum, pear and apple varietals. Patience is a virtue, as it will be a few years before they begin to bear fruit.

An Old-Fashioned Greenhouse

We could have planned it better, but the need for a greenhouse of our own has become pressing, so we decided to build one in our “spare” time. Ideally, it would have been best to wait until the end of the summer when everything is planted and we only have a few weeks of basket deliveries left. Putting it off until then is not an option, though, as the greenhouse we are sharing with a friend and fellow organic farmer is bursting at the seams. After shopping around a bit, we decided to build our own wooden structure, like they used to in the good ol’ days. For seasonal producers such as ourselves, whose intense use of a greenhouse is limited to three months out of twelve, a wooden structure works just fine. The only requirements to start our seedlings are a sheltered spot with good light exposure. That being said, most “sensible” people today buy metal structures and raise a greenhouse in a day. But we wanted something a little more rustic – there is something undeniably more appealing to working in a wooden greenhouse than a metal one, particularly in mid-March. The structure is almost finished – the only thing missing is the polyethylene tarp. We are still debating whether to heat the greenhouse with propane gas or diesel (unfortunately, neither geothermal nor solar energy are commercially feasible solutions for greenhouses in Quebec yet) – a debate that will be practically settled as a function of the best furnace deal we can find…

Field Work

You may be wondering what farmers do in April when they’re not in the greenhouse. While they may be doing seasonal maintenance on farm equipment in preparation for the summer, more likely they are starting work in their fields, provided said fields are dry enough for a tractor or a rotary tiller. Proper soil preparation of beds is important to ensure plants develop healthy and strong roots. But care has to be taken not to damage the soil; premature entry into a field in the spring when the soil is too wet can severely compact the soil. Compaction is something of a four-letter word in agriculture, a by-product of poor workmanship and/or unseemly impatience.  That being said, sandy loam like ours is more forgiving (than clay, say), allowing for earlier soil preparation. After ploughing under last fall’s crops, a couple of passes with the vibratory plough in the past few days has broken up any remaining clumps, allowing us to prep the soil for this year’s vegetable beds. In coming days/weeks we will be direct seeding radishes, arugula, turnips, peas and carrots, among others – inaugurating the 2010 planting season in earnest. Stay tuned – in a couple of weeks, we’ll fill you in on the logistics of (biodegradable) plastic mulching.

Animal Farm

We finally succumbed to the subtle pressure of friends and family for whom a farm without farm dogs is not a farm. Allow us therefore to introduce you to Maggy, a two-year-old black Labrador retriever, and her five pups, now four weeks old.  We would have liked to know the father, but what matters most is that mother and pups are healthy, and the pups are growing by leaps and bounds.  We picked them up at the SPCA – an organization that works hard to find new homes for animals abandoned by their owners. We are acting as a foster home until the puppies are old enough to be adopted. We won’t be keeping them all – the mum and two pups will be more than enough.

To dog-lovers reading this: that leaves three puppies to be adopted…

Straw or No Straw?

Weed control is an obsession for the organic farmer who is constantly seeking to minimize the time spent weeding (a thankless chore, according to most). Take fall garlic, for instance. Planted in October, it spends winter in a dormant state, but is quick to sprout as soon as spring temperatures beckon. Unfortunately, it does not lack for company, even this early in the season – so weeds must be dealt with swiftly to prevent their competing for nutrients in the soil. While it is a bit rich to speak of two “garlic schools of thought,” there are those who believe it paramount to cover the bulbs with straw as soon as they are planted in the fall, and those who believe weeding, be it by hand or mechanical, is preferable at a later stage in the garlic bulb’s life cycle. We sit squarely on the fence between these two opinions, but only because we did not have time to lay straw last fall before the first snowfall. Recognizing how tedious weeding several beds of garlic may soon become, we laid a thick layer of straw this week in a bid to avoid being overwhelmed come June. While there seems to be no meaningful difference in yield between garlic with straw and garlic without, straw means better water retention, a plus during hot, dry summers. Late June-early July baskets will include garlic scapes (fleurs d’ail), with real garlic expected by late July.

“A garlic caress is stimulating. A garlic excess soporific.” (Une caresse d’ail revigore, un excès d’ail endort) – Maurice Edmond Sailland (1872-1956), better known by his pen-name Curnonsky and dubbed the Prince of Gastronomy, reportedly the most celebrated French writer on gastronomy in the 20th century.

Chicken Run

As March ends, it is time for us to order our laying hens to ensure they arrive towards the middle of May. Hen selection seems easy enough, but it’s more complicated than it appears. Unlike broilers that arrive as one- or two-day old chicks, layers come aged 18 to 19 weeks. They usually start to lay within a couple of weeks. The question is – which hens to choose?  Our research seems for naught as we quickly find out breeders don’t sell chickens by breed, but by color: “What’s it going to be?  We have red ones, white ones and grey ones.”  After a few frustrating calls, a friendly breeder finally explains that the “whites” are white-egg-laying Leghorns, the “reds” are those of Rhode Island fame who typically lay brown-shelled eggs, and the “greys”, our favourites, are Plymouth Rock hens, whose shells have a pinkish hue.  Plymouth Rock layers are  sought after as much for their meat as for their eggs. The aforementioned hens have well-established pedigrees that reach back to colonial times and even Europe. At the beginning of the last century, farmers in nearby Oka bred the Chantecler, a hardy hen capable of weathering cold Quebec winters and a prolific layer, to boot. We have been told that it is the Chantecler, a species now on the verge of extinction, that is the most commonly depicted rooster on Quebec weathervanes.

Our answer this year: we’ll take the white ones and the grey ones, please.

A New Old Barn

Preparations for the 2010 season are in full swing. We are busy completing our warehouse, the cold storage area and our chicken coop. The warehouse is an old barn which we have converted into an all-purpose building, re-cycling old barn planks from the self-same barn to create a cold storage area, a vegetable work area, a washing station, a general purpose workbench and a mezzanine which will serve, among other things, as extra storage space. Building a cold storage room is done in stages to ensure its long-term usefulness. Building materials and techniques are selected to minimize the negative effects of condensation on stored crops. The cooling system has to satisfy peak performance requirements in order to chill large quantities of fresh-picked field vegetables.

On Monday we laid the foundation for the chicken coop – weather permitting, we will raise the walls and complete the inside layout in the next week or two. We expect to house thirty-something layers this summer, along with a few free-range chickens. We’ll let you know as soon as we have organic eggs for sale – once the hens settle in.

More Than Just Vegetables

While our main focus at Arlington Gardens is organic farming of vegetables for our CSA baskets (or ‘shares’), we would be remiss if we did not draw your attention to our organic fruit plantation plans.

Unlike vegetables, which are, for the most part, sown and harvested yearly, berry crops take a bit more time to grow. This year (2010) is a critical berry year for us, as we will be planting (more) blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and currants (red and black). Most of these yield fruit in the second year following planting, while blueberries only begin to bear fruit in commercial quantities by year four. So: no berries in 2010, but we hope to have strawberries and raspberries by 2011.

Did we mention our orchard? We will also begin planting apple, pear and plum trees this year, but we’re talking 5 to 7 years… Hey, they say patience is a virtue.

Walden Pond It Ain’t

But our pond is nevertheless the sine qua non of our organic farming activities. Plainly put – no water, no veggies.  Last summer we had more rain than we wished for, but as Mother Nature offers no guarantees – who’s to say that this summer won’t be a dry one?

Fortunately, our pond is an established one. It served as a watering hole for cows when the farm was a dairy farm, more than a generation ago. As best we can tell, no ‘pond maintenance’ had been done in more than 30 years.  So this spring we seized the opportunity to nearly double its capacity as we cleaned it out.

In organic farming, plants are often watered through drip irrigation systems with tubing running along the rows which allows for efficient and effective use of water. Our ‘new and improved’ pond should meet our irrigation needs for the foreseeable future.

Cleaning out a pond is a dirty job – but nature will take its course (with a helping hand) and by summer’s end, our pond should be (almost) Walden-esque again.

Of Seedlings

Winter may seem long, but it is a welcome respite after three seasons of intense physical activity, and a period of intense planning activity. Beginning in January, your farmer began leafing through seed catalogues and placing orders to reserve vegetable varieties and quantities sufficient to satisfy our partners’ expectations.

March 15 marks the beginning in earnest of the 2010 season – as we begin our greenhouse plantings.  Our first seedlings are for vegetables which require a longer greenhouse stay (eggplants, peppers, artichokes, etc.) and/or vegetables which will be transplanted as soon as the soil is frost-free (leeks, onions, celeriac, spinach, herbs, etc.). Next come other vegetables including succession planting crops like lettuce, which are harvested throughout the season.