Category Archives: garden

Old Man Winter is Here

A New Year is here, and it has finally turned winter. With lows in the upper teens, some collards couldn’t hold out and got zapped. It’s a shame because we finally had a buyer lined up who wanted to buy in bulk. One thing I’ve read in countless farming magazines and books is to always have a market lined up before you put the first seed in the ground. I guess that’s good advice, but I’ve never been confident enough yet in my growing skills to try to pre-sell produce. This year I planted 1,000 collards, hoping that I’d be able to find a market if, and when, the time came. Well, the time came and went for some plants.

I was able to sell a good number of collard bunches at the farmer’s market and a few by word of mouth. I had planned to set up a roadside stand, like we do for our tomatoes, but the endless rain didn’t allow for it. I scrambled to try to find a wholesale buyer. One lady who owns a produce stand said she could remember selling hundreds of collards for New Year’s. But she said now people just don’t cook anymore, and young people, if they like collards at all, like them pre-chopped in a bag from the grocery store.

After striking out there, I then called a chef who works in the café of a factory that employs 400 people. To my surprise, he wanted collards. I took him 30 lbs, which is a lot of greens, on Monday. It was a surreal delivery. To walk the boxes of collards through the plant to the cafe, I had to have my photo taken, after which I had to don a freshly-printed nametag with my photo on it, an orange safety vest, safety glasses, and ear plugs. This was a very modern facility, with people manning robotic-type gizmos and tools. The café in the facility would put many restaurants to shame, and the chef was trying to buy as much local food as he could reasonably afford.

He said he would go through those collards in no time, and, in fact, the next day he called wanting more. Unfortunately, the cold snap came through that night, so future delivers might not be as much as I would have liked.

As much as I’m disappointed I lost some collards, the contact I made might be even more valuable, as the chef said he would be very interested in buying tomatoes and strawberries this spring and summer. And that’s how things seem to go with farming. One thing leads to another. From roadside stand to farmers’ market to chef, from chickens to bees to pigs, from tomatoes to strawberries to collards, each is a little gateway drug to the next.

At some point, and maybe I’m beginning to reach that point, I think I’ll begin to “just say no” to new farming ideas. Still, it’s kind of hard with farming to know what works and what doesn’t and what’s worth doing and what isn’t until you try it.

Collards: A Southern Superstition

The New Year means resolutions for most of the country. But in the South, it also means it’s time to cook collards. Eating collards and black eye peas on New Year’s Day is a southern tradition, or really a superstition.

Collards represent cash, and black eye peas represent cents. If you eat both on New Year’s Day, you’ll make lots of money in the upcoming year, or so the superstition goes. And just so you’re prepared to make lots of money in the New Year, below is my mom’s recipe for cooking collards, with some photos of her collards at Christmas. She cooks them like my grandma used to, frying them after boiling them.

Have a Happy New Year and don’t forget to eat your collards and black eye peas!

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Here’s my mom’s recipe that she learned from my grandma:

  1. Cut the leaf off of the main vein that runs through the leaf. They seem to cook better if I have a large amount of leaves to cook at one time.
  2. If any of the little veins that runs through the leaf is of any size, I cut the leaf from around those also.
  3. Once I have my leaves, I wash them several times.
  4. Then using a large large pot, I boil the leaves until they get really soft (I usually cook for an hour or so)
  5. Then drain the leaves good to get rid of excess water.
  6. Then with my hand chopper, I chop the leaves up really small.
  7. Then in a large frying pan I put oil (enough to cover the pan but not deep).
  8. Place collards in pan to begin cooking process.
  9. Sprinkle some sugar over the collards and stir.
  10. Once they start cooking I turn heat down and cover with a lid. Keep checking. Sometimes I keep adding a little oil and sugar.

Do not let them dry out when cooking (Keep moist with oil). I let them cook slow for a while. Many people do not add the sugar, but that is the way we like them.

 

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Collards in the frying pan, ready to eat.

A Collard Peddler

Oh, if I knew then what I know now. Growing up, I had a strong dislike for collards, though I probably never tasted them until I was an adult. That smell, that sulfur stench, of collards boiling was enough cause for me to turn up my nose. This year I planted 1,000 collards, a lot for someone who once despised the things. Either my culinary tastes have improved or my olfactory senses have declined. Natalie says I can’t smell anything.

Earlier this year, I decided to become a collard peddler. I took my inspiration from a man who sold collards from the back of his pickup truck at an Exxon Station in my hometown of Hamlet. He did quite the business. Every year, during the fall and winter, he would be back at that gas station, selling collards. He sold the collards whole, not in bundles or bags. Some customers inspected the collards, examining each leaf, as if at a tobacco auction, before settling on the collard they wanted to purchase.

So far the collard business has been pretty successful, although I believe they aren’t quite as popular here in the western part of the state. It seems like a lot people here grew up eating turnip greens instead. I planted two varieties of collards: Georgia Southern and Flash. Georgia Southern is an heirloom variety with huge, crinkly leaves. Flash is hybrid that grows faster, albeit with a smaller size overall, and produces smooth, bluish-green leaves. Both taste the same, like collards.

I grew my own transplants from seed, which I planted into black biodegradable plastic mulch. This was my first time growing anything in plastic, and I’m impressed so far. The time it saves in weeding outweighs the cost. I planted the collards in double row beds, with 12 inches between rows and about 14 inches between plants in the row. I have a drip-line between the two rows. I strip-till the beds, living enough room to get a tractor between each bed. The ground between the beds is left in white clover sod.

I like the strip-till system. Before, we used to disc the whole garden, and anytime it rained, a muddy mess lingered. After heavy rains, much of the garden stood in water. Now with the clover aisles between each bed we can easily access the collards. The sod helps water infiltrate the ground. This has been the wettest November on record, with over 10 inches or rain this month, and standing water has only been a problem in tire tracks. Of course, the problem with the strip-till system is that it isn’t nearly as efficient with space. With so much ground left in sod, you’re only planting about half of what you could with traditional rows.

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Strip-till rows

Collards are easy to grow, but pests are tough on them. Caterpillars and grasshoppers have been a pain. I had intentions of cutting my collards whole, like the collard man at the gas station, and selling them that way. Instead, I’ve resorted to picking good leaves and bundling them, which adds more labor. I tried spraying some organic pesticides (Bt, neem oil, and sulfur), but they didn’t seem to faze the pests. The good thing about not cutting the plants is that I can continuously harvest more leaves as they grow. After the hard freeze, pests haven’t been as bad. So far deer have left my collards alone. I can tell where they’ve been browsing in the clover aisles, but apparently the deer herd here doesn’t like collards. Maybe for deer it’s an acquired taste, as well.

 

Old Stuff Works Good

If we had a farm motto at the old white house, it would probably be “Old stuff works good.” We’re chronic reuse it, re-purpose it, “if it ain’t broke” kind of people. While I’d like to philosophically say that we are hip, nostalgic, and connecting to our past….the truth is, we’re kind of tight wads who like fixable, old farm stuff.

Stephen’s most recent acquisitions have been a 1950’s Allis-Chalmers All Crop Harvester and an old Clipper seed cleaner.

all crop harvester

The All Crop Harvester was produced from the 1930’s – 1960’s and is designed to sweep harvest a wide variety of grains and grasses. It allows farmers to harvest crops on a smaller scale without having to own or rent an industrial sized combine.

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Stephen, after months of looking, ended up finding an All Crop Harvester for sale literally across the street in the barn of a cousin. This thing looked rough and while Stephen was having this weird holy grail moment all I cared about was whether or not it worked.

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After a treacherous tractor pull across Pleasant Hill, we got the All Crop Harvester home. Stephen and Poppaw (who is basically a mechanical genius) began tinkering away and before long she was ready for her maiden voyage…well, her maiden voyage after 40 or so years.

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On a bright, Saturday afternoon they revved up our old tractor, hooked the All Crop Harvester up, and made their way to the soy bean field. Within half an hour every old man in our neighborhood was out by the road waiting to watch the old girl in action.

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As I stood there dodging fire ant hills, I wondered whether or not that old machine came equipped with a homing beacon for anyone over 75. If I had known, I would have brought a box of crackers and some drinks to sell – maybe start to recoup some of our initial investment.

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At the end of the day, the All Crop Harvester still knows how to get the job done. It may not be pretty, and it may look a bit complicated – but there is a certain beauty in bringing life back to something forgotten. Well, while we certainly aren’t hip, maybe we’re philosophers after all.

Bad Carrots

This year Stephen maxed our garden spot to capacity. For weeks we were loaded down with lettuce, carrots, butter peas, brown peas that I don’t have a name for, green beans, tomatoes, and peppers – and this year we wanted to try and save some of our favorites items to use throughout the fall and winter.

Lots of lettuce ready for the picking

There were some successes and failures….we’ll start with the successes because the failure story is a little rank.

All form of beans were nicely blanched, bagged, frozen, or dried. They are all safely stored in the pantry or freezer.

Onions and garlic were harvested, dried, and hung in the barn loft. Now that most of the hay is gone, it is pretty easy to get up there and move about.

And then, there were the carrots. Our carrot crop didn’t do very well this year, but we still had a good plenty to store up. We had heard once that you were supposed to store carrots pretty much the same way that you store potatoes – and I still have no idea how true that is.

Most people around here just store potatoes under the house. Well, to successfully get under our house you need to be about the size of a small child…and since I wasn’t too confident that my cousin would jump at the chance of volunteering her three year old for the job…we decided that another solution needed to be found.

Stephen and I thought about it for awhile, and figured we’d try using an extra styrofoam cooler. After all, coolers are dark, dry, and are easily sealed up. Looking back, I think it was the easily sealed up part that got us in to trouble.

A few weeks later I’m in the kitchen fixing supper and I smell this horrible stink – and I mean unbelievably horrible. Then I notice this toxic brown slime dripping to the floor – where the heck is this coming from!

The carrots…

Carrots can not be stored in a cooler. They will rot and mold beyond belief – colors and stink that you did not know existed! The toxicity of the slime will be great enough to rot through a styrofoam cooler. I thought styrofoam could not be biodegraded!

Stephen was heartbroken. I promptly sent him outside to get rid of the carrots; he was still speaking out in denial between dry heaves and gagging at the deadly stench radiating from that box.

So friends, what have we learned about food storage and life in Pleasant Hill in today’s post?

  1. Carrots cannot be successfully stored in styrofoam coolers, just stick to the under your house method or preferably whatever a legitimate carrot farmer suggests.
  2. Stephen’s hair really is like mad Bob Ross hair when it hasn’t been cut in several months….and yes his eyebrows are just as big.
  3. We may have discovered a solution to the problem of non biodegrading styrofoam in our nation’s landfills – just seal it all up with some fresh carrots and let nature do it’s thing….if you can handle the eye watering odors that it will emit.
  4. Onions and Garlic in the barn are really nice…plus you feel all old timey when you go cut one down to cook with. Good idea Stephen!

Afternoon fun

With the weekends jam packed, we spend most afternoons working on various things around the farm. New plants, new chickens, new bees, new paint (which still needs to go on the old house)…..the list of chores is never ending, but we still find time to have a little bit of fun.

Little chickens are growing up!
Zillah, Quigley, and Dangerfield
Quigley likes to hop up for a snuggle
Lots of lettuce ready for the picking
Gotta smoke those bees
Bee suites are for protection
Bees need more gear than chickens!

Some New Friends

This past weekend, we brought home some new friends—thousands of them to be exact. We traveled up to Moravian Falls, NC, to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm to adopt two nucs of bees. Nucs (short for nucleus colonies) are like starter-kits for beehives.  Each nuc has several frames of brood, honey, pollen, lots and lots of bees, and, most importantly, a fully functional queen bee. You simply move the frames over from the portable nuc box into your hive and hope you don’t crush the queen in so doing. So far, our bees seem pretty happy, and as an official beekeeper, with all total a week of beekeeping experience, here are a few of my sage observations on bees and beekeeping:

a nuc

1) There are lots of newcomers to beekeeping, like me. At Brushy Mountain, over half of the people who attended the nuc installation class were new to beekeeping (of course, experienced beekeepers would probably skip the class). It was also interesting to notice the diversity of the class, at least in terms of men and women, young and old. Some attendees were wearing flip-flops and shorts, some Carharts and boots, some capris and ankle bracelets; most of us, though, were wearing veils.

the nuc installation class
that's me with the white jacket and blue jeans

2) Bees are heavy. Okay, one bee doesn’t weigh very much, but moving thousands of bees crawling all over honey-soaked frames in a wooden box can give your back a workout.

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Getting ready to open the nuc for the first time
Ahh! What have I gotten myself into!

3) Finding the queen bee in the hive is like finding Waldo in a Where’s Waldo Book, only more difficult because the queen bee is always moving.

looking for the queen

4) It doesn’t take bees long to get to work. Within an hour or so, foraging bees were returning to the hive with their back legs loaded down with bright orange pollen. I think they were gathering pollen and nectar from some nearby Chinese Privet bushes, though it’s hard to track a flying bee because they zoom around so quickly.

bees coming and going and learning their new environment

6) It’s a new age in beekeeping. Apparently, in years gone by, beekeeping (or keeping bees alive) was a lot simpler. Now, a variety of pests target honeybees. Emptying the nuc box, I noticed one of those pests, a small hive beetle, scurrying around in the bottom of the box. The little beetle looked innocent enough, but I know its larvae can cause major mayhem. The varroa mite (a.k.a. Varroa destructor) is by far the most worrisome pest for hobby beekeepers. It spreads all sorts of honeybee diseases and gorges on bee larvae. A few days after installing the hives, I checked for varroa mites. The hive had a few, but nothing to be too concerned about at this point. Most hobby beekeepers haven’t had much problem with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has made lots of headlines in recent years. This seems to be a problem prone to larger, commercial bee operations. In any event, a lot of new pests are making beekeeping much more challenging. To keep the pests in check, I’m going to avoid using synthetic pesticides and try several more natural methods. Wish me luck.

Weather Roulette

Ugh, the weather these days. In Shelby, March was one of the warmest on record. People have been cutting grass for over a month, planting gardens (some of which already have corn stalks a foot high), and sneezing their heads off because everything is blooming early. Still, I didn’t take the bait. I diligently looked up the average last frost date for Shelby, April 14, and planned months ago to set out my young heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers a few days after that. And so I did.

Now, on the morning of April 24, 2012, we set a new record low for all April 24s in recorded meteorological history: 34° F.  This previous record was held by April 24, 1893.

The official temperature is taken five feet above the ground, and since cold air sinks, the temperature at ground level is colder, say, 32° F.  Of course, at 32 ° F frost forms and sure enough patchy frost covered the ground this morning. I didn’t want one of those patches to settle on and kill my plants, so last night the garden looked like an army of misfit boxes and flower pots in ranks across the field, protecting the plants. As far as I can tell, my plants came out unscathed, but my truck didn’t, as I put a small but deep scratch on it when I was backing up in the dark to return from the garden. Ugh.

On a brighter note, meteorologists are forecasting a cooler summer for the southeast because of El Nino.

Natalie was a little upset I used our good beach towels.

Now Spring Has Clad The Grove In Green

Now spring has clad the grove in green,
And strew’d the lea wi’ flowers;
The furrow’d, waving corn is seen
Rejoice in fostering showers

– Robert Burns

Spring is always full of new things and the most vibrant shades of green. Despite the sniffles, sneezes, and itchies…..this spring is particularly exciting. There are lots of new things taking place and growing up around the farm – there’s never a dull moment and always plenty to do.

We are adding three new chicks to our flock this year.

Dangerfield – Golden Cuckoo Marans


Zillah – White Plymouth Rock

Quigley – Easter Egger

We’ve got over 200 new blubs of garlic growing in the garden….plus over 200 onions….and at least 100 carrots.

Not to mention all of the new tomatoes, squash, watermelons, and peppers at the house waiting for their day to move to the big garden.


New leaves on the apple trees.

And the house….waiting for new paint.

Starting Seeds

Last week, we started our garden indoors with onions, lavender, and rosemary. Both lavender and rosemary take almost a month to germinate, so starting them early is a necessity if they’re going to be ready for planting by April 12, the date of the average last frost. To start them, I’m using little two inch pots made of strips of newspaper. I made them with this wooden pot maker: http://www.amazon.com/PotMaker%C2%AE-The-Original-Pot-Maker/dp/B00062ZNXQ  Once I got the hang of using it, the pot maker worked really well.

our newspaper pots

Although onions germinate quickly, they need an extra-long growing season, often five months or more, so giving them a head start indoors can ensure plenty of time to develop from seeds to scallions to nice, respectable onions. This year, we’re planting Red Creole Onions, an heirloom variety well-suited for the South.  I was surprised to learn that the South’s most popular onion, the Vidalia Onion, is actually a hybrid, not an heirloom. Although Vidalia Onions taste great, I wouldn’t be able to save seed from year to year if I grew them.

okay, worms look gross, but their castings are black gold.

For starting the onions, I used plastic cell trays, and out of 72 seeds planted, 68 germinated. I should also give kudos to my red wigglers. They’ve been working hard all fall and winter eating vegetable scraps, and I now have enough worm castings to fertilize my seedlings in a few weeks once dampening off is no longer a threat. Dampening off happens when new seedlings shrivel up due to various fungi. To prevent this, gardeners use sterile soil media to start seeds. This sterile soil media lacks any nutritional value for plants, so gardeners often water with a weak liquid fertilizer or compost tea to meet the seedlings’ nutritional needs. In a few weeks, I’ll use a compost tea made from worm castings—that is, my own natural MiracleGro 😉