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The Lazy Farmer

Lazy Gardening Part Two: Growing Almost Year-Round Without Cover

Here in zone 6b we were told that it wasn’t possible to harvest vegetables for ten months each year unless we used some sort of extensive cover.  Not having the money to build a greenhouse or hoop house, and having too much wind to manage row covers well, we needed another plan.  Carefully selecting varieties of each vegetable, employing straw for insulation, and overwintering baby-sized cool season vegetables, we’ve consistently harvested for ten months each year.  Would you like to learn how to do this in your garden?

Selecting the Right Seeds

Whenever possible, choose open pollinated seeds as the resulting plants produce seeds that grow true to type.  This way you’ll always have the option of letting a few plants go to seed.  Continue to save your own seed and further develop plants that perform especially well in your garden and climate. 

A specific type of breeding involves developing stable, open pollinated, plants under very cold growing conditions.  These “ice-bred” plants are selected for their ability to perform in the depths of winter.  Brett Grohsgal of Even Star Organic Farm in Eastern Shore, Maryland has developed a number of ice-bred greens.  We use many of his Fall/Winter Gardening Tips for our winter garden. As Brett says, “The greens will flower and stop making leaves for you sometime in April or May. Don’t expect these to grow through the warm months.”  Instead, let them set seed and you’ll have started your own continuing line of ice-bred plants that survive your garden’s coldest months.

 Blog5  february lettuce

When your goal is the longest growing season possible, you’ll probably want a few hybrid cultivars developed especially for the coolest times of the year.  Choose your varieties from seed houses that grow their seed in cold climates to reliably get vegetables that perform well in extreme cold.  We use two seed growers in Maine because they have a strong focus on hybrids bred for cold locations and on open pollinated ice-bred seed lines.   Johnny’s Select Seeds, an employee owned business, and Fedco Seeds, a growers’ cooperative, have excellent reputations for their cold hardy vegetable lines.

Insulate with Straw and Plant for Winter Harvest

Straw makes a wonderful insulator for wintertime plants as we discussed in Part 1 of this series.  We begin seeding for winter harvest as early as the beginning of August when we put in our first beds of turnips, winter radishes, and rutabaga.  By mid-August we’re transplanting seedlings of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages.  As these plants grow, we surround them with blankets of straw to protect their roots from the heat of late summer, followed by the cold of early winter.  Beets and lettuces are direct-sown in late August, with continued planting of lettuces and mustards through October.  Straw surrounds these plants as well once they are several inches tall.  When an early frost or freeze threatens, pull a covering of the straw over the plants and most of them will come through undamaged.  Turnips can be covered completely by straw once they are full grown and kept in “cold-storage” directly in the garden.  Cut off the greens before covering them and top with 6-8 inches of straw.  Harvest as needed any time the ground below the straw isn’t frozen.  Swiss chard seems oblivious to temperature extremes.  It is our go-to green in the summer months, but the new, small growth on existing roots has survived into the low teens in our garden.  In late January the 6 inch leaves on our chard stayed a glossy green after three nights at 15 degrees.

 Blog5  winter insulation

Overwintering for Early Harvest

Many plants that can’t survive a hard freeze (below 24 degrees Fahrenheit) when mature, pull through extremely cold temperatures when in the baby stage.  This positions them to put on an early growth spurt giving you a harvest 4-6 weeks ahead of early spring seed plantings.  We plant cold hardy lettuces, kale, mustards, and spinach in October hoping to get it to just a few inches tall before cooler temperatures inhibit growth.  The ones that stay below 6 inches tall pull through single digit nights and are ready for harvest in March.  During a particularly hard winter here in the Mid-Atlantic, the greens on these plants appeared to have died.  But the straw-covered roots survived and we were harvesting from them by the beginning of April.

Are you ready to harvest abundantly during the winter months?  Start selecting the right seeds, insulate with straw, plant late in the year, and plan to overwinter baby greens.  Let us know about your successes, and which seed varieties work well for you.

Being in Community: A Gardener's Response to Coronavirus

What does it mean to be a part of a community during a pandemic?  How can I reach out to my neighbors, or they to me, when we’re supposed to practice social distancing?  With all the focus on protecting ourselves, how do we look out for each other?

Take a look in your canning pantry.  What is still on the shelves from last year?  Are there nutritious soups or stews you can share with the elderly in your community?  What about that overabundance of winter squash – could you spare a few for friends?  And the fall apples in cold storage – would a family with small children appreciate some fresh fruit?  Did you store potatoes or sweet potatoes?  Do you need all your stored or could you share the bounty?

stocked pantry with homemade canned goods

Now take a look at your garden.  Did you successfully overwinter lettuces, kale, or cabbage?  Wouldn’t those vitamin-packed greens be a welcome treat for someone finding the produce section empty at the grocery store?  How soon will your asparagus start coming up?

We’re in this for a while.  If you haven’t yet started planting please do so right now.  Spinach, leaf lettuce, kohlrabi, kale, and radishes all come to harvest maturity very quickly.  Anywhere you don’t normally plant until May, put in cool weather crops that can be harvested before then.  Plant peas for late spring and plant them profusely with sharing in mind.  Plant quick maturing cabbage in abundance so that you can share them in a few weeks.  Get your tomato seedlings started inside and start extras.  Many of your friends who don’t garden might appreciate a seedling and instructions on how to grow it in a large planter or even in their flower garden. 

Call your friends and neighbors to see what their needs are and what they are not finding in the grocery store.  Do some crowd-sharing and bartering to ensure that we all come through this together and closer than ever. God has blessed us with the ability to garden and feed our families with healthy, vitamin-packed, real food.  Let’s bless each other by sharing what we can! 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Lazy Gardening, Part One: Eliminating the Weeds

Do you dream of raising most of your own vegetables?  Are visions of canned goodies dancing in your head?  Yet do you find the thought of all that work to be daunting?  Follow along in the couple of Lazy Farmer posts to learn how you can develop a nearly year ‘round garden with low input techniques.

Our journey to a 10-month garden started when my husband laid down the law that I was NOT allowed more garden space until I could figure out how to garden without the back-breaking amount of rototilling and hoeing that I’d been doing.

Rushing to the library I found a book entitled Gardening without Work by an octogenarian named Ruth Stout.  Go to Ruth Stout’s System for Gardening for more information on her mulching method.

It turns out that this wonderful method of weed prevention has limitations when used on clay soil and requires about 25 bales of spoiled hay annually for a 50 by 50 foot garden.  Our soil is comprised primarily of clay and rocks.  Strike One.  $150-$175 per year of hay quickly eats away at our financial advantages in gardening.  Strike Two.  We’re over 50 years old and that’s a lot of bales to lift and divide.  Strike Three.  We needed to modify. 

Enter Lee Reich’s No Till Gardening method at Maintain a Weedless Organic Garden.  Again there were limitations.  Lee takes the time to create perfect, weed-seed free, compost which allows him to use a shorter layer of mulch than Ms. Stout.   We’re lazy farmers so we needed to compromise.  The no-till method is based on disturbing the soil as little as possible so as not to introduce light and air to dormant weed seeds.  We grow many root crops which naturally disturb the soil when harvested.  We needed to develop our own method using ideas from both these knowledgeable experts but based on our specific land and growth requirements.

What has developed over the past few years in our no-till, heavily mulched garden is based on 1) disturbing the soil as little as possible, 2) avoiding compaction of planting beds, 3) mulching with home-grown lazy compost, and 4) placing a 4-6 inch layer of straw on the beds each winter, followed by additional straw as needed when planting seedlings during the year.  At current prices, we spend about $60 on straw per year.

 Blog4  fall harvest photo

Undisturbed Soil

Using a metal rake and shovels we scraped the dirt in the existing vegetable garden into a series of 3-foot wide beds separated by 18 inch walkways.  We never walk anywhere but on these paths which keeps the dirt in the growing beds fluffy.  Walkways are kept weed free through a several inch layer of straw and the constant compaction created by walking on them.  When harvesting root crops we try to lift each tuber or clump carefully, shaking the loose dirt back into the hole it came from.

Soil Rejuvenation

Because of the large amount of compost created on the farm — see Lazy Composting — we top all beds with a couple of inches of compost each year.  Some gets added as side dressing to rows of corn, some as finished compost at the beginning of the growing season around transplanted seedlings, and some in the late fall/early winter as rough compost that will finish in place before the next spring.  We make sure to remember where rough compost went as it is important not to plant root crops there the first year since the resulting sow bugs will ruin the harvest.

Weed Deterrent Topping

Following the late fall/early winter final harvest we top each bed with 4-6 inches of fluffed straw.  Straw is the bottom half of grain stalks and contains few seeds.  Straw stalks are hollow and don’t compact, while they do retain air providing for good winter insulation of the soil.  Come spring, straw is slow to decompose and doesn’t tie up nitrogen or other soil nutrients.  It does cause more even soil moisture and so is an excellent drought defense in deep summer.  When planting seedlings in the summer and fall we surround them with additional straw to stop the spread of diseases that can be caused by rain splashing soil onto plants.

Now that you know to have a productive garden with less work, join us in a couple of weeks for Part Two: Growing Almost Year-Round Without Cover.


Lavender For Dinner

When was the last time you made a meal out of your flower bed?  Edible flowers have been all the rage, but they are still often relegated to garnish or just for dessert.  We’re going to make an entire meal with recipes using lavender.

Dried or fresh lavender buds can be found at farmers markets, festivals, or in your own garden.  Buy or grow lavender that hasn’t had chemicals applied to it or the ground it grew in.  Use English lavender as it is sweeter and has a fresher taste. 

We’ll start with a Citrus Salad using Lavender/Mint White Balsamic Vinegar.  Then move on to Lavender Roasted Potatoes and Grilled Pork Chops with Lavender and Herbs.  Our finishing touch is a delicate Lavender Crème Brulee for dessert.

Lavender is the perfect edible flower to start using in your meals.  It is easy to find, pairs well with both sweet and savory dishes, and can be used throughout the year either fresh or dried.

Bon appétit!

Citrus Salad with Lavender/Mint Infused White Balsamic Vinegar

  • Cara Cara oranges, peeled and segmented
  • Praline pecans (or other candied pecans or walnuts)
  • Craisens
  • Lavender/Mint White Balsamic Vinegar
  • Fresh or dried mint flowers or dried lavender buds
  • Baby spinach leaves

Place a large handful of spinach leaves on each individual salad plate.  Put orange segments on top.   Scatter candied nuts and Craisens on top of the spinach and oranges.  Sprinkle a small amount of mint or lavender flowers over each salad.  Drizzle lavender/mint white balsamic vinegar over each salad and serve immediately.

Lavender/Mint White Balsamic Vinegar

  • 1 cup good white balsamic vinegar, such as Alessi
  • 1 teaspoon dried lavender buds
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh mint (or 1 teaspoon dried)

Gently heat vinegar, take off heat and add lavender and mint.  Let steep until cool.  Pour into a lidded jar and set on counter for one week, shaking daily.  Strain out herbs and pour into a pretty vinegar cruet or bottle sealed with a rubber stopper.  This will can be kept on the countertop.              

Blog3  citrus salad

 Lavender Roasted Potatoes 

  • 2 pounds small potatoes
  • 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender buds, toasted lightly over gentle heat

Use a waxy potato with pink or purple flesh such as Red Thumb Fingerling which has bright red skin and pink flesh.  Quarter the potatoes, toss with olive oil, pepper, salt, and lavender.  Roast on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for approximately 30 minutes, stirring twice.

Grilled Pork Chops with Lavender and Herbs

  • 3-4 pork chops, 1 inch or so thick (preferably fed on living pastures and acorns for richer flavor)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lavender flowers (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh-ground pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Mix the herbs, flowers, salt, and pepper together thoroughly with the olive oil.  Rub this mixture well into the pork chops, cover them with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.  Heat one side of grill to medium-high.  Lay chops directly over flame and grill uncovered for 1 1/2 minutes per side.  Move chops to cool side of grill, close lid, and cook for about 12 minutes more until internal temperature is approx. 145 degrees.  Remove to a platter, cover loosely, and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Blog3  lavender chops photo

Lemon Lavender Crème Brulee

(recipe should be made at least 4-5 hours in advance)

  • 1 large egg
  • 4 large egg yolks, additional
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon additional sugar to top each individual serving dish
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 1 Tablespoon dried lavender buds
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract/2

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  In a stand mixer, blend egg, egg yolks, and ½ cup sugar on low speed until just combined.  Scald the cream in a saucepan, then remove from heat.  Add lavender buds and steep for one hour.  Then add lemon zest and steep for 10 more minutes.  Strain out the buds and zest.  Now reheat the cream to barely simmering.

Turn mixer on low speed, and slowly pour the hot cream into the egg mixture.  Add vanilla extract.

Pour the mixture into individual crème brulee dishes until almost full.  Place dishes in glass baking pans adding boiling water to the pans up to the level of the custard in the dishes. 

Bake for 30-35 minutes until custard is just set.  Remove from oven, cool in the hot water bath in the pans for 20 minutes, then remove from pans and finish cooling on the counter.  Refrigerate for at least two hours before serving.

To serve, spread 1 Tablespoon sugar over each dish, heat sugar with a kitchen torch to caramelize it.  Serve immediately.

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Lazy Composting: Let Nature Do Your Work

In my last post, Rule Breaking Gardening, we discussed how to break new gardening ground using lazy compost piles over the new area in which you want to garden.  In this post we’ll look at a couple of other ways to let nature do your work of composting – one fast, and one slow.  We’ll also review the original lazy compost pile method.

Quick Chicken Composting

Watching our birds one morning we realized that chickens like to turn compost, but we don’t.  Chickens delight in searching for worms and bugs.  Why were we turning our compost piles and stealing all this joy from our poultry flock?  Choosing a downhill corner of the permanent chicken yard, we edged the area with straw bales to isolate a corner created by the fence.  Adding chicken wire to the lower part of the fence kept what we threw in the corner from falling out.

You can do this too in an easy afternoon.  Your kitchen scraps get thrown in that pile.  Excess garden vegetables go in.  After a surprise rain shower, damp hay and straw go there as well.  Tomato and apple skins from canning end up there.  Dying flower and vegetable plants go in.  No matter what you throw in, the chickens are happy to dig through it looking for treats.  They eat some of the vegetable matter.  The rest they churn over and over, creating a perfect environment for worms and sow bugs who help them with the composting process.  Spring through fall your busy chickens will create loose, black compost in under two months. 

To use this wonderful dirt, keep two piles so that after a few weeks new scraps go in the new pile while the old one is finished up by the chickens before you use it.

Blog2  chicken compost photo

Super-Slow Bedding Compost

We raise chickens, guineas, and sheep.  The birds sleep in a coop at night where we use a deep-bedding system of pine shavings.  During the winter, and during early spring lambing, the sheep are housed in an open barn with a deep-bedding of straw.  All the animals create quite a lot of partially composted dirty bedding by the end of cold weather. 

My husband believes that anything can be made with pallets and Zip Ties.  Using these and chicken wire he has created a compost aisle between our coop and the sheep barn.  He lined each pallet with chicken wire to keep compost from spilling out.  Then he attached four pallets into a square using long, heavy duty Zip Ties.  The pallet bins stretch in a line between the two animal houses.

Each spring we muck out the barn and coop putting all the dirty bedding in a large round wire bin.  This lets in lots of air and rain.  Over the summer the contents compost down to less than half their original size.  My husband then turns it all out into the first pallet bin.  In the spring, the wire bin is filled again, and the first pallet bin gets turned over into the second pallet bin.  At each turning, he mixes in soybean meal or bone meal to speed the composting process.  By fall, Bin 2 goes into Bin 3, Bin 1 into Bin 2, and the large wire bin is turned into Bin 1.  By the third spring Bin 3 is ready to use directly on the garden, as beautiful black compost. 

This method takes a long time, but involves minimal work on your part.  If you have animals you must do something with their dirty bedding.  You might as well make lazy compost.

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Straw Bale Composting in the Garden (aka Lazy Compost Piles)

Lay out straw bales, two per side, in a square within your existing garden (or beside it if you are expanding your garden area).  Make the square two bales high.  In the center of the pile, insert an upright tube (slotted PVC or slotted downspout) to allow air to enter the center of the pile.   Now just throw in anything you have to compost: kitchen scraps, old vegetable plants with some of the dirt clinging to them, dirty straw, coffee grounds, whatever you need to toss out.  Avoid meat scraps and fat as you don’t want to attract animals into your garden.  As the first straw bale pile fills, build another right beside it.  Turn the first pile over into the second with a pitchfork and start filling the new pile.  After a year in the garden, and with only the one turning, this compost is ready to lay out on the garden rows in the late fall to finish composting in place before spring.  After a year, start the bottom of your new straw-bale-pile by putting in any rotted straw bales from an old pile.

Something more than compost is made using this method.  Each pile drenches the ground below it with super rich compost tea for a year.  Even if the area was grass covered when you started, after a year it will be black, rich earth full of worms and ready to be planted.  This is a great way to continually rejuvenate your garden.  And since much of your compost material comes from the garden it only takes a few steps to put things in the compost pile.

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Rule Breaking Gardening

Sheryl CampbellWe didn’t know what we didn’t know when my husband and I moved to our five acres of dreams in the countryside.  One of those dreams was to raise much of our own food.  We started with vegetables.  We got to know our neighbors, the local farmers who were already growing food with traditional methods.  They knew the way to go about getting good crops – just the way it had always been done.  But I have a minor character flaw:  I struggle with rules.

Since the rule was to raise one crop in each spot, I wanted to raise two or three; the rule said to tear up the soil each spring, so I wanted to leave it in place.  When I was told to plant in single straight lines, I broadcast seed; faced with scientific ways of composting I just built big piles in place in the garden. 

There was already a small garden plot on our property filled with rocks, an ancient fire pit, and broken beer bottles.  Clean up came first.  Then we used straw bales to enclose compost piles down the grassy areas on each side of the space.  Each year we’d fill one, turn it into the next pile and the next every few months, and so marched gradually around our garden, eventually tripling our space.  As each pile drenched the ground below it with compost tea the grass died off, happy earthworms abounded, and the ground became ready for planting.

We tried many ways of growing our food.  Being essentially lazy we ended up with a no-till approach simply top dressing the permanent rows with our own compost on a regular basis.  Using straw and grass clippings as a ground cover eliminated the most onerous of the hoeing chores.  Don’t you find weeding and hoeing the least pleasant of garden tasks?  Me too!  Follow me on future blog posts to learn more about the Lazy Farmer’s approach to the rural life.

Our garden grew, the vegetables and edible flowers flowed into the kitchen and onto our table, and we successfully grew multiple crops in each space throughout the year.  We intercropped, companion planted, grew trap crops (on accident!), and succession planted.  We were ready to take things to the next level.  So back we went to the local experts.

When we shared our dream to grow ten months of vegetables in each plot without row covers or greenhouses, we were told it couldn’t be done here in zone 6b.  With knowing smiles and pats on our little city heads, the local conventional farmers told us to go ahead and give it a try though.  Since they didn’t say that this was a rule, we did just that.  And it worked!  For the past several years we’ve harvested a wide variety of vegetables for ten months each year using intensively intercropped raised beds, covered by straw, never tilled, without benefit of cover.  I love it when impossible dreams come true.  And sometimes it helps not to know what you don’t know.  What do you dream about in your garden?


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