A Special Treat

Alkékenge or more poetically amour en cage in French, bladder cherry from its Latin root – physalis, Chinese or Japanese lantern, winter cherry – there are countless names for the delicious ground cherry. Planted in the month of May, the plant reaches gigantic proportions in August, yielding large quantities of berries which are meticulously harvested week after week until the first frost. They are best laid out to dry in their husks for several days up to a few weeks before consumption. When they finally fill a dish, they can be deliciously addictive and notoriously difficult to share. Sweet but tart, the orange fruit of our comestible northern ground cherry (Physalis Pruinosa) differs from that of the more decorative Physalis Alkekengi. Strictly speaking, “alkékenge” denotes the ornamental Chinese lantern which belongs to the Alkekengi species and whose berries are wrapped in a bright orange husk. Botanists say the plant is of South American origin, more particularly Peruvian. The word alkékenge, which first appeared in XIVth-century France, is from the old French alqueqange or alcacange, in turn derived from the arabic Al-Kakendi, a physician and pharmaceutical authority to the Eastern Caliphate (western central Asia during the European Dark Ages). Be that as it may, the ground cherry is now grown worldwide, in regions where it is neither too cold (frost halts growth) nor too hot (despite its South American origins, the plant abhors excessive heat). We love eating the fruit fresh, but were recently offered a jar of amazing ground cherry jam…

Fall follows summer

Picking up where we left off is easier said than done. Notwithstanding recent cooler temperatures, the summer was a hot one.  Everything that could go to seed did, to the frustration of those hoping for more lettuce in their baskets. The cooler weather heralds the return of broccoli and some leafy heads. The tomatoes continue to keep us busy. The plants simply refuse to cease yielding their bountiful crop – with no frost on the horizon, we’ll probably have to uproot them to get them to stop. Such is not the case of our eggplants, peppers and zucchinis: they seem to have decided that fall means slow, or no, production. And so we turn our attention to root crops. Radishes, carrots, turnips and more beets will fill your baskets – with winter squash to top things off.

Summer in Full Swing

July was an intense month – justification of sorts for our radio silence. It can’t get any busier than July, when crops are still being planted even as harvesting is under way. Added to the demands of crop logistics are those of basket fulfillment, and editorial activities such as these. We are heading into our 7th week, nearing the midpoint of our 16-week season. The much anticipated high point of the last few weeks, without a doubt, has been our first garlic harvest. Planted last fall, our garlic is now spread out to dry in all its varietal splendor in the coach house and barn hayloft, both specially requisitioned and prepped for garlic-drying. As we harvested the garlic by hand, we wondered what we would uncover – big, bulging bulbs or smaller, delicate cloves? Now, as it lies drying, we are already thinking about October, when we will select the best of the remaining bulbs for replanting. Less momentous, but equally satisfying, has been the start of our tomato harvest. While you have already seen the many-coloured hues of our early tomatoes, the tomato season, which continues into September, has in fact only just begun.

Weeding: A State of Mind

There’s nothing like weeding several rows of carrots  to make one realize that carrot weeding is an activity to be undertaken with either zen-like calm or unmitigated enthusiasm…anything in between is guaranteed to result in unbearable frustration. There is no pleasure to be found in weeding carrots. They germinate slowly and weeds have ample time to firmly take root before a carrot has even begun to form. When it becomes impossible to ignore the weeds any longer, we fall on our knees (the most comfortable position is on all fours) and begin our chore – one not recommended solo, but rather in groups of two or more, to preserve morale. Carrot weeding is undeniably painstaking, as it is difficult to avoid uprooting one or more miniature carrots with each handful of weeds. Knees ache and sweat beads the brow…and while the satisfaction somehow seems paltry in comparison to the effort exerted, the rows do eventually get weeded. Daucus carota is its latin name, and you’ll see them in your baskets later this summer.

Not This Year

You all know a blueberry bush cannot be harvested in the first three years of its life. We’ve told you often enough already – flowers and fruit must be sacrificed for the greater good of the plant and its roots. A field of well-established blueberry bushes should yield tasty fruit for more than 20 years. That being said, to test the different varieties we’ve planted, we’ve let one of each bloom – 7 or 8 worthy representatives of the thousand bushes we planted last year, ranging from the early season (July) varietals to the late season (September) ones.  Some are already laden with berries, hanging like bunches of grapes on fine stems.  For now, our task is to make sure the plants are growing, weeded and composted well. When the first fruits ripen, we’ll write a post on the varieties we’ve planted.

Time Flies…

… as it is the busiest time of the year for vegetable growers. Everything needs to get done – field planting, irrigation, weeding, and very soon, harvesting the first vegetables for next week’s baskets. The good news is that we’ve also found time to plant our berries, just in time for them to root well in order to begin producing next year. We’ll have a little bit of everything: raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, red, and even black, currants. In the meantime, we have to seed grass between the rows and make sure they’re off to a good start.

Nordicity

Agriculture in northern climes means rushing like crazy to get everything planted in the field before the summer heat. Quebec seasons being what they are, the planting window is narrow indeed. Consider this spring: after an unseasonably hot May, we are now facing an unusually rainy early June. Neither is optimal for farmers looking to work in their fields and plant their seedlings. When it rains too much, machines compact the soil; when it rains too little, for weeks on end, nothing grows, and root systems wither. So we do double planting duty, planting thousands of plants in record time. Beyond the window, there’s no point in planting – given the short Quebec summer, many vegetables simply won’t make it to maturity. While agriculture is, generally speaking, a marathon – spring planting up North is more of a 100-metre dash.

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.