We’ve migrated our site over to chasefamilyfarm.com! Please update your bookmarks or RSS feeds.
I was ridiculously excited to haul this much food out of the garden for our customers the first week of June.
Lettuce, chard, kale, bok choy, spinach, thyme, marjoram, and rosemary. Oh my! If you are considering using row covers or cold frames in the future, I can’t encourage you enough! They are relatively inexpensive and miracle workers for us Northern gardeners. I will do a full post on season extension some time soon.
This weekend was the first sunny, warm one of the year here in the Helena Valley. It was incredible! Eric and I worked hard in the garden all weekend and now most everything is planted or will be tomorrow. Planting, transplanting, hoeing, mulching, building row covers, along with some household chores. We are happy; satisfied to see the results of all the work we’ve done and to begin harvesting what our labor has yielded. We are also very, very tired. A little after nine and, my friends, it’s well past time for sleep.
I dropped off the first boxes for our CSA’s two subscribers (oh yeah, we’re big-time!) this morning. They featured a bag of mixed greens, including baby spinach, Australian Yellowleaf and Forrellenschlus lettuce, radish greens, and baby chard. We also included a few radishes, and some thyme and marjoram I’ve been growing in containers in the greenhouse. I know I’m looking forward to digging into a big, hard-earned salad tonight!
I was so happy to drop-off these bags of beautiful, tasty greens to my friends and customers. I know delivering fresh, nutritious food that my husband and I grew will be one of my favorite chores throughout the summer. I have an inner-stereotypical-Italian-Grandmother who is just delighted to feed people. The rest of me really hates cleaning the kitchen, so farming is a good compromise for me!
This was how April in Helena ended. Luckily, the cold frames performed admirably and nothing got nipped.
Inside these cold frames, there’s promise of fresh, Montana produce in the not-too-distant future!
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with the broadfork, preparing new beds for the growing season. As I get a peek at what lies beneath the surface of the soil, I have learned that we have an abundance of earthworms! Of course, I love seeing them because I know it is a sign of healthy soil. Dex loves carrying them around and then placing them back on the soil and putting a little handful of dirt on top of them, exclaiming “Verms! Verms!” with an inexplicable German accent.
However, seeing these big, fat worms, nearly paralyzed by the cold, but still alive made me wonder about them. I had always assumed they had relatively short life spans, knew nothing about their reproduction, and mostly thought of them as little digestive tracts. I am not the kind of person who can wonder about something and not go find the answers to my questions. Thank God I live in the age of the internet, or I would never leave the library. What I discovered surprised me. These are fascinating little creatures, so I thought I’d share some of what I learned.
If only we could be so useful just by pooping…
Earthworms work wonders for our soil, just by defecating. Earthworm poop is called casts. They eat the soil and get their nutrition from the fungi and bacteria in it. While they are carrying on their eat-poop-dig-rinse-repeat lives, they do many lovely things.
- They fragment organic matter and mix it up with the many microorganisms that survive their digestive tract. They thereby effectively increase microbial activity.
- They mix up the soil. They pull nutrients from deep in the soil and deposit it on top. Then they take the organic matter from the top layers of soil and drag it deeper down. According to the NRCS, they will effectively turn over the top 6 inches of your soil in 10 to 20 years all by themselves.
- They aggregate the soil and help give it structure.
- They increase infiltration and water-holding capacity. Earthworm burrows increase the amount of air space, called porosity, of the soil. Therefore, when it rains, more can infiltrate into the soil rather than run off, which improves water quality. The soil can also hold more water.
- They provide channels for root growth. Earthworms provide tunnels that preferentially fill with water and are lined with nutrients. If you were a plant root, where would you go?!
Earthworms have between about 100 and 150 segments, depending on the species. Different segments of the earthworm perform different functions and they have well-developed nervous, circulatory, digestive, excretory, muscular, and reproductive systems. Here are some diagrams of what’s going on inside an earthworm. The first section is, of course, the mouth and the cone-shaped part that helps them push through the soil. One thing I certainly didn’t know is that earthworms are covered in little, retractable hairs, called setae, that help them push through the soil. They also have glands that lubricate their passage through soil.
Earthworms breathe through their skin. I had always assumed that they head out of the soil after a heavy rain because they would drown underground. Apparently, this is not true. They crawl out of the ground when it rains because they are able to stay wet enough (their skin has to be wet to breathe) and it’s easier to find their fellow worms and get it on, or to find another spot with more food.
Speaking of getting it on…
Earthworms are hermaphrodites, but still need other earthworms to reproduce. They lay head to tail to copulate and exchange sperm… *ahem* The clitellum is the conspicuous ring on worms (which changes from pinkish to red-orange when they are ready to mate), and is where the eggs are fertilized and cocoons are formed. The cocoon is then deposited in the soil and about 3 weeks later is the blessed event; anywhere from 2 to 20 baby worms are born. This also signifies the point in the blog post when I am no longer tempted to make gross jokes about worm sex. Lucky you.
Other cool stuff about earthworms
- The thing that really amazed me about earthworms is that they can live to be more than 10 years old! I had never really thought about it much, but assumed they lived for a year or so. I was so surprised to see huge, fat worms in my soil in April, but I guess this is no surprise at all!
- There are 2700 different species of earthworm.
- They can grow to be almost a foot long.
- You can’t cut a worm in half and expect it to become two worms. They can regenerate a lost tail, but if you cut them in half too far up, they might just die.
- Worms can eat their weight each day.
Composting with worms is something I know little about, but I plan to learn. A woman in my Master Gardener class says she just has buckets in her basement where she puts her kitchen waste, and the red wrigglers turn it into soil. I’m planning to get some worms from her and give it a shot. I’ll report back when we see how it works!
Here are some interesting links that I used as resources if you’d like to learn more:
University of Florida Extension: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in047
Penn State Extension (PDF): http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/uc182.pdf
Colorado State University Extension: http://www.colostate.edu/Dept/CoopExt/4dmg/Soil/worms.htm
This year we bought ourselves a new tool. We went back and forth about it because they are not terribly cheap as hand tools go! But this beast is worth every penny.
The broadfork is a two-handled tool with a series of large, sharp tines for breaking up soil. It’s fairly work intensive, but it works beautifully.
The Issue of Roto-Tilling
We do have a roto-tiller attachment for our lawn tractor, which we used to use and will continue to use when preparing brand new ground for garden. But it turns out that roto-tilling every year is not optimal in several ways.
- It ruins soil structure. It pulverizes the soils, breaks up soil aggregates, breaks up macropores (large spaces) in the soil and destroys all the tunnels your worms have worked so hard to build. All this space in your soil improves drainage, facilitates movement of nutrients and water.
- It causes compaction. Once those soils aggregates are broken up and the soil is reduced to its particles, the soil is nice and fluffy. But since there is no real structure, the soil will settle into a more compacted state.
- And then there is the problem of tiller-pan. The weight and action of the tiller causes a compacted layer just below where the tines reach, further decreasing soil drainage and the ability of roots to penetrate the soil.
- It inverts your soil. Tilling turns your soil right upside down. The delicate ecology of soil develops as it does for a reason. Certain helpful bacteria, fungi, and earthworms were at a certain depth in the soil because it had the right moisture and aeration conditions. Turn the soil upside down and you will disrupt this ecology for at least a while.
- It plants weed seeds for you. Ugh.
Broadfork to the Rescue
I won’t pretend that broadforking is as easy as roto-tilling (especially if you have a lawn tractor to drag it around). This is a 100% human-powered tool. However, it’s not back-breaking labor, either. Here’s how it works:
First, you get the broadfork into the soil as far as you can. For me, this means standing on it and wiggling it around until it sinks into the soil.
Then pulling the handles toward the ground to pull the tines through the soil. Drag it six inches further down the line, rinse and repeat!
As you can see in these photos, the broad fork doesn’t turn over the soil entirely. It loosens the soil while leaving aggregates in place. There is no way for it cause hardpan or increase compaction. It can prepare a bed, incorporate soil amendments, or be used to harvest potatoes and root crops. Another advantage we’ve found with it, is that it loosens the the root systems of established rhizomatous weeds and grass and makes them very easy to pick out their rhizomes.
My work with the broadfork left me so excited about my garden’s soil! It is beautiful, deep soil, just crawling with earthworms.
We are changing the orientation of our garden this year, from long east-west rows to wide beds that are mostly oriented north-south. We have a lot of time with the broadfork ahead of us, and frankly, I’m looking forward to it. The tool works just beautifully. Perhaps it just appeals to my Luddite inclinations, but the rhythm of it is lovely and meditative when I get to use it alone. However, when my family is in the garden with me, even a toddler can even help out a little!
OK, so this is probably the least efficient way to use a broadfork. But damned if it isn’t the cutest!
If you have a pretty large garden and know you’ll be working the soil for years to come, buy yourself a high-quality broadfork. You won’t regret it. If you have a small garden, it would be hard to justify the money spent on this tool. See if you can find two or three friends who would go in on it with you.
The broadfork is a powerful and effective tool. I’m pretty well sold on it. It’s one of those great, old ideas that is simple, elegant, and gets the job done better than the newer technology.
For one who loves growing plants, such as myself, winter can be tough. The garden has yellowed and crumbled. The trees are all reduced to dry twigs, excepting the pines that make up our shelter belt. On this magical 12 acres we call home, however, winter still offers something that thrills me; winter is when the wildlife moves down.
The Speed Goats
By far our most numerous visitors are the antelope (yes, I know they’re pronghorns, not antelope. But I can’t seem to correct myself.) Antelope herd up in the winter, so large groups of up to 100 animals come through our property. Most often, they come down from the property north of us in the morning and make a large circle around our hay field and onto our neighbors, then back up to the North and they’re gone by 10.
The antelope have a special affection for our property during the worst storms. This winter we saw several snowstorms with temperatures well below zero and winds near nearing 25 mph. During such miserable conditions, they find relative comfort in our shelterbelt. They will bed down and drift in behind the trees until the storm begins to let up. As soon as it does, the ever wary herd moves on.
The Saga of the Red Fox
Our favorite regular visitor is the fox. Well, there are two, actually, though we rarely see both on the same day. As we’ve heard from our neighbors, there used to be many foxes around here, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided that they were negatively impacting migratory birds (we live near Lake Helena) and therefore trapped them all out. It wasn’t long before there was an explosion in the local ground squirrel population. Ground squirrels destroy hay/alfalfa fields and that is what mostly surrounds us. So now, everyone is trying anything and everything to control the squirrel populations, which generally means poison. This is the wisdom of removing predators from an ecosystem.
Aside from knowing that our dear foxes are helping keep the ground squirrels at bay, they are mighty entertaining! Watching them pounce on small rodents moving beneath the snow is something you simply must see at least once. My favorite, though, is watching their interactions with our dog (through a fence). We’ll let our German Shorthair out in the morning and if the fox is around, he’ll tear out barking his head off. He’ll get to the fence and run back and forth barking his head off and generally losing his shit, as domestic dogs are wont to do. As I’ve witnessed more than once, the delightfully blasé fox will just sit down and watch our dog carry on with a detached sense of bemusement. Foxes are the coolest members of Family Canidae and they certainly know it.
We also get plenty of Whitetail deer passing through, though they spend most of their time on neighbors land rather than ours. Deer are sort of the giant rats of the Helena Valley, so it’s hard to get excited about them unless they are in little white packages in your freezer.
Less Frequent Visitors
The first winter after we moved here, we got elk daily for a month in the late fall. It was amazing! There were 11 cows and 1 large bull with a spectacular rack that came down every morning for a few hours. Naturally, this was right after Eric’s first unsuccessful season hunting elk and he seemed to feel rather like our dog feels about the foxes! One morning in particular, I remember seeing all of the elk, about 50 antelope and a fox all within 50 yards of each other. What an astounding sight! You’d be hard-pressed to find that much wildlife so close nearly anywhere, much less in the middle of a neighborhood (well, a rural one, anyhow).
There are a few other carnivores that come through from time to time. Coyotes, naturally, are one we see and hear from time to time. The two that several of our neighbors saw late last fall, but we never got to see were a wolf and a mountain lion! The wolf was a female with a tracking collar. I’d love to see the data on where she came from and where she went. The two were in the neighborhood at roughly the same time, probably because there were many deer hanging around on nearby fields for weeks.
Luckily, our wild visitors come by all year round, but winter is prime-time. It brings a little more wonder to those long, cooped-up months of winter!
I wrote a guest blog post over at author of best-seller The Paleo Solution, Robb Wolf’s site about open-pollinated and heirloom vegetables. If you haven’t seen it, go check it out! If you came here from there, welcome, I’m glad you’ve come for a visit. There isn’t much content on this website yet, as we are just getting started on our first season here at Chase Farm. We hope to publish a post with plenty of pictures once or twice a week. Please check back in the future if you’d like to see how things are going for us!
The nights are still below freezing, but not by much. The days are still cool and rainy. It even snowed a bit today, but high temperatures in the negatives are behind us for the year. There may be blizzards yet to come, but the birds see fit to return, snowpack is dropping and creeks are rising. It’s the beginning of spring in Montana.
For us, the return of spring means seeds, seeds, seeds. I love these flats of tiny, green shoots peeking above the soil. Every time a new one comes up, it qualifies as a small miracle in my book. Starting and potting up seeds is a kind of moving meditation; my first contact with soil each year, even if it is in a tiny room in the barn.
For Eric, this spring has meant lots of time swinging a hammer building season extenders. A few weeks ago he finished these beauties and today we moved them into the garden.
These are cold frames. They act as mini-greenhouses. We’ll open them for part of the day so it doesn’t get too hot in there, then close them for the night to protect from frosts. After we moved them in, Eric filled them up with spinach, lettuce, beet, chard, radish, and carrot seeds.
Eric also completed our greenhouse yesterday.The southeast corner of our barn has polycarbonate greenhouse sheeting for siding, so he added plastic to make it a full greenhouse. It was a tropical 83 degrees in there this afternoon even though it barely broke 40 degrees outside today. I’m very excited about the possibilities with this greenhouse.
We’ll also be trying out row covers this year for the first time. We had noticed some wire and plastic hanging around in the barn from the previous owners and it wasn’t until this year that we put 2 and 2 together and realized that we had row covers, all ready to go! How cool is that?
Spring in Montana can be long, frustrating and full of fits and starts, but we’re going to try to make little pockets of summer where we can.