Cover Crops

Cover crops help us begin to replace the tons (literally!) of organic matter taken from the fields during the growing season. Tons (again, literally!) of compost will also need to be spread before the next growing season if we are to even approach replenishing the soil. As you may be able to tell from this old photo of me spreading compost with CY at Vanguarden CSA, I like this winter work!

Oats were undersowed in the cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collards at Brookwood around the first of September. They are coming up nicely. The oats will continue grow amidst these ‘cash crops’ until the first hard frost which will kill them. In the spring, the oats will be tilled in and the first crops of 2010 planted in their place. Undersowing is a useful cover crop technique on a small farm like Brookwood. It allows us to protect and replenish the soil at the same time we’re using it to grow late fall crops. In hindsight, I wish the oats had been applied a bit earlier, when the crops were a foot in height rather than two. It would also have been lovely to use the Cub for the final cultivation/mixing soil and seeds.

I’d hoped to undersow our winter squash planting with hairy vetch, but we missed the planting window because we didn’t have the seed on hand. (Note to self, order cover crops in the spring!) It’s best to undersow vetch just as the squash vines are reaching across the tire tracks, into neighboring beds. (It’s handy to sow it just before a rain, too.) Vetch is a legume; it pulls nitrogen from the air and brings it into the soil where it’s available for next season’s crops. I think we’ll be able to make good use of the vetch next week, mixing it with oats and applying to the beds where the melons grew this season.


Ack! How could this happen? The farming season has just begun and already I’m six weeks behind schedule! Well, maybe not a whole six weeks, though it sure feels like it. But then, it always feels like this in the spring.

There’s the excitement of starting anew. I love the look of freshly tilled soil, weed-free straight beds ready for transplanting. The purr of the tractor. The contrast of greenhouse work best done in shirt sleeves, and field work that is best done with hat, gloves, heavy coat and winter boots. Winter was the time for careful planning to reduce weed and critter pressure during the season, maximize yields, and possibly, just possibly, shorten some of those 14 hour days to 10 hours days, and turn seven day work weeks into six days. Now it’s time for these plans to be put into action. Manure spread, fields chisel plowed, beds made and planted, finishing touches on equipment repair and carpentry projects.

This year I’ve been hired to be the Field Manager at Brookwood Community Farm in Milton and Canton. I’ve finished my first two weeks on the job and I am just delighted – I mean, really delighted – to be farming at Brookwood this season. I’ll post photos and stories of Brookwood soon.

First though, I really should report on the Winter CSA that I’m managing this season. Yes, I know, spring has just arrived and it seems early to be thinking about how we will feed ourselves this winter. Well, it seems early unless you’re the farmer responsible growing the food. Picadilly Farm and Riverland Farm are the primary growers for the multi-farm Winter CSA this year. The farmers report that their season is off to a great start. Farm crews have settled in and are working hard in greenhouses and the fields.

Here are some photos I took on a visit to Picadilly and Riverland last month.
Beckley, Jenny & Bruce Wooster Picadilly Farm Field

Jenny, Beckley and I drove down to Sunderland to visit Rob and Meghan at Riverland. What a sweet little farm these folks have! They built a much needed greenhouse this past winter — do check out the nice slide show posted on their web site. Here are photos of Meghan and Beckley in the new greenhouse, onions for the winter share in the background, and the Riverland Farm apprentices on their first day of work.
Riverland Farm's new greenhouse Riverland Farm Crew


We took the last of the tomatoes down today. Moved tomato stakes to their winter resting place. Mowed the pepper and eggplants. Used the disk harrow to chop up the plant debris and get the field ready for winter rye.

It was a bit odd, though pleasant, putting the farm to bed on such a summery day.

October garden

Much of my field is in cover crop now. Oats and field peas are growing where I’ll plant first next spring. Winter rye will be sown early next week. Leafy greens that I’m growing for the Winter Share are lovely. Kathy stopped by to take photos. She makes the field look like a piece of art. Hmmm, maybe it is!

The kohlrabi and broccoli were planted a bit late and the fertility in their beds isn’t so great. I’m not sure they will size up enough to harvest for the October winter distributions. We’ll see.

kohlrabi radicchio

rows of kale: red Russian and Winterbor broccoli the rabbits didn't eat

Winter Squash

So much change on the farm in the past three weeks!

An oat and field pea cover crop has germinated on about a quarter of the field. It’s growing well in beds that hosted winter squash, watermelon, carrots, beets, summer squash and cucumbers this summer. Oats were also undersown in the kale and collard greens that will be in the winter share. Next week more beds will be prepared for winter and sown in winter rye.

Winter squash was harvested early September. Using clippers, we snipped the squash from vines and piled the squashes into one long row in the field. We moved squash into the harvest bins we’d placed in the tractor’s front-end loader. A team of three people made quick work of the harvest: One person drove the tractor (slowly) down row of harvested squash while two people moved the squash into the harvest bins. We unloaded the squash in the hoop house to cure. We’ve been distributing it in the CSA share for a few weeks.

We brought in 1,600 pounds of butternut, sweet mama, sunshine and delicata squash from 780 row feet. A little more than 200 pounds per 100 feet. Pretty good. Now, who’s going to eat all this squash?!


September is a bountiful month on this farm. Summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zukes and cukes are still producing fairly well. Our fall and winter crops like napa, bok choy, leeks, purple top turnips, broccoli raab, radicchio, are sizing up and some are being harvested. It’s lovely to be surrounded by veggies!

We’ve planted the last of our vegetable crops. I suppose we might try direct seeding a few more beds – can’t really have too much spinach, hakurei turnips or arugula. We’re still harvesting almost a half ton of tomatoes every week and (knock on wood) we hope to have tomatoes in the CSA share through the end of September. The eggplant that failed this spring hasn’t been missed, in large part because of generous veg swaps with the Newton Community Farm and Natick Community Organic Farm. Natick got cucumbers and tomatoes in exchange for some of their lovely eggplant. The Rosa Bianca eggplant we got from Greg at the Newton Farm was almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.

Here are some nice farm photos that Kathy Martin took last week. (Thanks Kathy!)

winter greens between tomato beds

rows of winter veggies

radicchio, variety fiero radicchio, variety Pan di Zucchero

A watched pot never boils

It doesn’t matter how many times a day I examine the second planting of tomatoes, they are still green. They are not the desired red, pink, rose, peach, yellow (marbled with red veins), burgundy, or purple. Green, green, green. I vow not to look at them at all tomorrow. Perhaps that will move them along toward ripeness.

I plant three sets of tomatoes every year. The early planting consists of determinant tomatoes that take around 60 days to ripen – Taxi, Orange Blossom and Polbig varieties. This year the early tomatoes were transplanted to the field on May 14. These tomatoes were in the CSA share by July 14. They are fine tomatoes. But they are not my favorites.

My favorite tomatoes are some of the heirloom varieties that are stubbornly refusing to ripen. They went into the field on May 31. They take from 71 to 80 days before they are ready for harvest. Twelve more days.

The last set of tomatoes were transplanted on June 16. These are mostly paste tomatoes (Amish Paste, Hog Heart, San Marzano varieties), but also some of the heirlooms and hybrids that I’d like to eat until the first frost.

Why three plantings? Tomatoes are vulnerable to diseases. At this farm, they tend to get septoria leaf spot. Even when we take precautions (straw mulch, staying away from the tomatoes when they are wet, etc.) they get diseased at some point in the season. This year has been especially wet, speeding the fungal disease, and the first planting is well on its way to being defoliated. I plant a succession of tomato crops so that when the first planting dies, I’ve still got a batch of nice, healthy tomatoes ready to pick.

Here’s a list of the vegetables and varieties I’m growing this year.

July Farm Update

Lots going on at the farm this past month. Lots of planting, weeding, harvesting, twining up tomatoes, sampling cucumbers, spotting coyote and wild turkeys. Lots and lots of rain.

First, the veggie report. Our spring veggies were delicious, if I do say so myself! I grew some new-to-me vegetables, most notably fava beans, hon tsai tsi and vitamin greens. But spring is definitely over and we’ve moved on to our summer, heat-loving crops. Our earliest tomatoes are ripening and have been in the CSA share for a week or so. Green peppers and eggplant made their first appearance in the share yesterday. Zucchini and yellow summer squash are doing well. Cucumbers seem a bit out-of-control: We harvested 100 pounds of slicing cukes and 60 pounds of pickling cucumbers yesterday. Crazy!

Weeds, weeds, weeds! July is the month when everything, weeds included, grows at an astonishing rate. The acre that I grow veggies on has an enormous seed bank of pigweed. When the top layer of soil is somewhat dry, we’re pretty good at staying on top of it. We use colinear hoes, a wheel hoe and the BCS tiller set at the shallowest depth to attack weeds at the thread stage of their development. When the soil is drenched with moisture, there’s not much effective cultivating possible. (We’ve received two inches of rain on the farm in the past three days. More is on the way.) We hand weed crops like carrots, cilantro and dill. We walk through the field searching for pigweed that’s threatening to go to seed. I think about what kind of cultivating tractors and which weed killing implements I’d like to own.

More news later. I’m headed to the farm now to watch the weeds and cucumbers grow.

June Farm Update

Yeow! Summer has arrived. Lots of moisture in the soil coupled with this intense heat — this is just excellent growing weather. We’ve still a few cool season crops to enjoy (peas should be ready this week!), but soon enough we’ll all be eating tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Speaking of tomatoes, I tied three beds of them this morning. This involved weaving string through the tomato stakes and around each tomato plant to keep them growing up rather than flopping onto the ground. The plants have many blossoms and most have radish sized tomatoes on them. Last year we had tomatoes the first week in July; I hope we do as well this year.

We’ve ghostly white eggplant seedlings in the field. Flea beetles discovered the eggplant sometime last week and have been feasting on the leaves. This shouldn’t be a problem: the seedlings are healthy and they’ll likely out grow the damaged leaves. I thought a little added protection would be nice, so I sprayed this morning with kaolin, (brand name Surround), a white liquid clay powder (approved for organic farming). Some folks have noted a decrease in the number of flea beetles following kaolin application on eggplant. Apparently, when insects land on clay covered leaves they don’t think “food”, they think, “ugh, clay” and they go away. We’ll see.

I started planting sugar snap bush peas on March 30 and they will be ready for harvest later this week. These are pick-your-own peas. There will be containers in the barn for you to pick into. The beds that are ready for picking will be marked with orange flags Here’s a tip about picking peas — hold the pea in one hand and the vine, close to the pea, in the other hand. Snap the pea in an upward direction. This method prevents you from yanking the entire pea plant out of the ground. We are also growing trellised peas – a nice treat for those of us who prefer to not bend over to harvest. The trellised peas are just flowering now; I expect they will be ready for picking in a week or two.

Preservation Shares
The first installment of the Preservation Share will be distributed this week. This week, the fifteen adventurous people who signed up for this new share will take home 8+ pounds of napa cabbage. There’s going to be a lot of sauerkraut and kimchi fermenting this week.

Dirty Girl Farm and Healthy Soil

Or maybe I should write, “dirty vegetable farm”, ‘tho we girls did get pretty dirty during the harvest. The lettuce we harvested this morning for the CSA had more soil on it than usual. The much needed rain earlier this week — about an inch on the farm — came down hard, and it splashed a lot of soil onto the lettuce. I dunked the lettuce and gently sprayed it and dunked it again, but I think some of my shareholders took home something more precious than fresh veggies today: healthy soil.

Speaking of healthy soil, in year three of my growing food on this acre, the earthworms have returned. During my first two years, the rare earthworm sightings created excitement and always led to conversations about their absence. Some growers I spoke with suggested that the conventional fertilizer long used on this land may have created a caustic environment for the worms. Others wondered if the deposits of grass clippings from local landscapers may have contained chemicals that were not earthworm-friendly. I’m not sure if either of these hypotheses is true. But after two years of organic fertilizer and a heavy application of composted manure, there are earthworms everywhere!