Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tomatoes, Peppers and Herbs... Oh my!

It's cold.  It's rainy. It's dreary.  I'm longing to get my hands dirty in the garden.  But the weather report says the next 8 days will be (you guessed it) cold, rainy and dreary.  I keep repeating to myself "April showers bring May flowers" between gritted teeth.  We need the rain.  After the drought last summer, I'll gladly take precipitation in any form.  But gosh darn it, I just want to work outside!

Thankfully, I have plenty to keep me busy indoors.  It's peaceful working in the basement, basking in the glow of my grow lights as I fill more containers and plant more seeds.  I've started some flowers for borders and cut flowers (to keep my daughter busy in the garden - her favorite pass time is making flower bouquets), cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.), lettuces, onions, and herbs.  The majority of my time, however, has been focused on tomato and pepper plants.  It seems like every year, I never have quite enough, so I went a little over board this year.  I think I have nearly 75 tomato plants and about the same in pepper plants.  Seeing as how I may have overestimated a wee bit... I thought I would offer to sell some of my extra plants for $2 a piece.   

The plants will be ready around mid-May, since our last estimated frost date is anywhere from April 29-June 2.  I usually wait until the end of May to put in my tomatoes and peppers, just to be on the safe side.  It would be a shame to lose all my plants to frost because of my eagerness to get them in the ground!

I've compiled a list of all the pepper, tomato and herb plants I'm starting.  If you click on the link for each variety, it will take you directly to the seed company website from where I purchased the seed.  You can find more information about each variety there. Almost all of my seeds are certified Organic.  I like to purchase Organic seeds and plants because these are varieties that have been proven to grow vigorously and thrive without the need for pesticides.  If you want to buy some plants, just let me know and come on over so we can talk gardening!  But watch out - I might put you to work in the garden while we talk...

  • King of the North Sweet Pepper  *Organic.  A classic sweet bell pepper, matures from green to red.
  • Orange Cal Wonder Bell Pepper  *Organic.  A classic sweet bell pepper, matures from green to orange.
  • Carnival Mix Bell Pepper  *Organic  A random mix of 5 different sweet bell peppers, each plant producing one kind of pepper - red, orange, gold, purple or ivory.  You won't know what kind of pepper you have until they mature past the green stage.  Always a fun surprise!  A great way to add lots of color to the garden.
  • Yum Yum Gold Hybrid  My first year trying this variety.  Bears small, bite-sized sweet bell peppers, with few seeds.  Perfect for eating right out of the garden.  I'm planting these for my daughter because she adores bell peppers and would happily eat them all day!
  • Ancho Poblano Pepper *Organic.  My first year trying this variety.  We love poblano peppers for making salsa.  Just a hint of heat.
  • Early Jalapeno Hot Pepper *Organic.  The perfect hot pepper for any occasion!  Last summer, I froze bags of chopped jalapenos for salsa and also canned several jars of pickled jalapenos. 
  • Maya Red Habanero Hot Pepper  *Organic.  Knock-your-socks-off hot!  Beware!  They are fabulous for making your own hot sauce.
* A friendly reminder - To avoid playing "pepper roulette", be sure to separate your sweet peppers from your hot peppers, putting them as far away from each other as possible in your garden.  They can easily cross-pollinate and you could end up with  spicy bell peppers or weak hot peppers!

"Carnival Mix" Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Roma VF Paste Tomato  *Organic.  The classic paste/plum tomato.  These are hands down my favorite for canning - very firm with few seeds.  I canned about 50 jars of diced tomatoes last year using this variety.  Great for stewed or whole canned tomatoes, pasta sauces or even just sliced fresh on a salad.
  • Beaverlodge Plum Tomato  *Organic.  My first year trying this variety.  Supposedly, they ripen very early in the season, before the Romas.  This will allow we me extend the tomato canning season and spread out the harvest.
  • San Marzano Tomato  *Organic.  Known as the absolute best tomato for pasta sauces!
  • Rutgers Tomato  *Organic.  This is the variety of tomato that Campbell's used to make their famous Campbell's Tomato Soup.  Great for fresh slicing, but I froze most of mine whole in bags and have been using them over the winter to make delicious soup.  We're down to the last bag - I might cry!
  • Cherokee Purple Tomato *Organic.  My favorite tomato.  The flesh is dark brownish-purple and has rich flavor.  Makes for a stellar BLT sandwich!
  • Yellow Brandywine Tomato  *Organic.  My first year growing this variety.  I have high hopes for it.
  • Brandywine Tomato *Organic.  Brandywine is considered to be one of the most flavorful of all tomatoes.  The plants produce huge fruits, but they are quite fragile and blemish easily, which is why you rarely see them at markets.  They are my second choice, behind Cherokee Purple.
  • Stupice Tomato  *Organic.  An early ripening salad tomato.  Last summer, these started ripening around the 4th of July!
  • Oaxacan Pink Tomato  *Organic.  A small, beautiful and unique variety.  Great for salads or salsa. 
  •  Yellow Pear Cherry Tomato  *Organic.  Pear-shaped yellow cherry tomatoes.  Perfect on salads.
  • Peacevine Cherry Tomato  *Organic.  A classic red cherry tomato.
  • Black Cherry Tomato  *Organic.  A delicious and unique cherry tomato.  Fruits are slightly larger than a regular cherry tomato.  Lovely, rich flavor.  Everyone I gave these to last year went wild over them!   

    A day's haul of tomatoes from the garden last summer.

  • Genovese Basil *Organic.  A classic basil for making pesto.
  • Lemon Basil *Organic.  Smells like lemon.  Simply divine! 
  • Slow Bolt Cilantro  *Organic.   Cilantro that doesn't go to seed as quickly, prolonging the harvest.  When it does go to seed, let the seeds fall and you'll get more plants that same season!
  • Garden Sage  *Organic.  Perfect for poultry dishes
  • Oregano   For pizza, pasta sauce and Mexican dishes.
  • Garlic Chives  Yummy on baked potatoes or soups.
  • Thyme  Wonderful in soup, but I'm growing this for the lovely flowers.  Honeybees love thyme!
  • Parsley, Italian  For salad dressings, dips, pesto and much more.
  • Dill, Mammoth  A must have if you intend to make your own pickles!


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New Beginnings... and Unexpected Endings

I can feel the excitement in the air.  Plans are being made, dreams becoming reality. Yup, spring is here, folks.  Let the craziness begin!

After a long, relaxing winter, we're ready to dive into farm work, ready to get our hands dirty.  The "To-Do List" is two pages longs and we keep adding to it each day.  So much to be done, so little time!  I tend to have a perfectionist personality, which keeps me thinking "I can do everything by myself.  The right way.  I don't need help."  But the reality is, I DO need help. After turning over 26 garden beds by hand and spreading 2 trailer loads of manure myself last spring, I've decided to let go of my pride.   So there are plans in the works for setting up "farm work days", where I can invite my friends and family over to complete some big farm/garden projects.  People are always offering to help, and by golly, I think I'll take them up on it!

My husband had an accident at work on February 25 and he has been home since then... and will probably be home until at least May.  A 32 foot extension ladder collapsed on him at work, breaking, crushing and tearing his thumb.  At first, we thought he might miss a week of work, but it soon became apparent the damage was much more severe than originally thought.  After surgery to repair torn tendons and twice weekly physical therapy, he is improving, but still has no use of his left hand... which puts a real monkey wrench in the two-page long "To-Do List". 

Yet, despite these set-backs, plans are coming along.  A friend came out and helped my husband build shelves in the greenhouse (my husband is still quite handy, even with only one hand!).  Several of the seedlings I started in the basement have been moved out there.  It's thrilling to have so much space to work with!

A peek inside the greenhouse.  There is enough shelving to hold about 23 flats and there is a garden bed underneath the shelves.  Right now I have it filled with spinach and lettuce.  I'm going to trying growing some greens in there during the fall and winter.  

There are piles of notes, catalogs and charts laying on the kitchen table as I study and research small fruit and tree fruit varieties.  My notes from the Michigan State Master Gardener Program class I took a few years ago have proved be extremely helpful.  We plan on eventually planting strawberries, raspberries, black raspberries, blackberries, saskatoon berries (if I can find them), elderberries and possibly blueberries (they need acidic soil, but my soil has a pH of nearly 7).  Last year we planted 4 apple trees and intend to add another fruit tree each year until we have about 12-16 trees. 

Yes, I read every page of that manual.  Whew!  A treasure trove of valuable information. 

A few weeks ago, we purchased more chicks to increase the size of our egg layer flock.  After a visit to the farm store and a chicken breeder found on Craigslist, I finally had to call it quits when I reached 19 chicks.  I was starting to feel like a chicken hoarder (is that a bad thing?).   We can't wait for the babies to grow up and join our other "mobile lawn ornaments" in the yard.  In the meantime, the chicks are residing in the basement until it warms up enough to put them in the brooder box in the garage.  It's not so bad having chickens in the basement - I can hear their cheeping all day long and it sounds like spring.  It makes me happy.  Here's what breeds we ended up with this year:
  • 5 Ameracaunas (Easter Eggers) - beautiful plumage and they lay blue-green eggs.  We bought a few last year and grew to really like them.
  • 5 ISA Browns - The same breed as our beloved Cheryl, may she rest in peace. These are considered to be the best brown egg layers.  If you buy brown eggs at the store, they come from this breed. 
  • Silver Laced Wyndottes - A new breed for us.  Stunning feather pattern and supposedly very good layers as well.
  • 3 Blue Copper Marans - I was thrilled to find these, as they are quite rare.  All of the Maran breeds lay dark chocolate brown colored eggs.
  • 3 Mystery birds - I choose 3 birds from the farm store that were supposed to be Golden Laced Wyndottes, but I am fairly confident that they store had their signs mixed up, because they are NOT Golden Laced Wyndottes.  We'll just have to wait and see what they are!

The chicks beginning to enter their "terribly awkward and ugly" phase

Yes, we're having lots of fun as we embark on these new beginnings... greenhouses, small fruit and tree fruit orchards, new egg layers.  We look forward to even more new beginnings as we prepare for new hogs, new goat kids and new meat birds.  But not all is happy on the farm.  I have a sad story to tell.

Our goat Toro had been terribly lonely since his companion goat, Lacy, died this past February.  We didn't know what to do with him.  We had considered buying a calf to raise for meat this spring, but the drought of 2012 was unkind to our newly planted pasture and we decided we should wait another year before we put a heavy grazing animal on the pasture.  Raising a few goat kids for meat seemed like a better idea, as they are lighter grazers and could spread their manure over the pasture, increasing fertility.  So, we had been looking to purchase kids, but had a hard time locating the breed we wanted to buy. 

Toro on his "jungle gym" made from pallets

In the meantime, Toro was desperate for companionship, so he started testing the electric fence.  Several times our neighbors or friends had to catch him and bring him back to the barn.  We knew this could not continue, as we live along a fairly busy street.  One day, I decided to figure out how he was escaping.  I released him from the barn and watched as he ran full tilt towards the 4 foot tall electric fence and sailed over it effortlessly.  My heart sank.  Once a goat figures out it can escape and gets a taste of freedom, it will be nearly impossible to contain for the rest of it's life.  There was no way my husband could run the fence wire higher, even if he did have a functioning left hand.  It was time for Toro to leave.  And it just so happened that my cousin gave us a call, out of the blue, asking if we knew anyone with goats for sale... for meat.

My cousin has befriended some men from a Nepalese refugee community in Grand Rapids.  In their native Nepal, goat meat is highly desired, but when they came to live in the United State, they discovered goat meat is hard to come by and they quickly exhausted their source of meat. We struck a deal to sell Toro.  It seemed like the best solution to our problem. We were paid a good price for Toro and the men were thrilled to have meat for their families.  

Let me be perfectly clear.  I was extremely troubled by our decision to sell Toro for meat.  When we purchased him last summer, we carefully explained to our children that Toro was a companion animal, a pet if you will, not an animal we intended to raise for meat.  This was totally different from when we slaughtered our hogs - we went into the hog raising endeavour knowing full well that one day their meat would be gracing our dining room table.  I suppose knowing that ahead of time allows you to create some emotional distance from these animals, despite your fondness for them.   This experience with Toro forced me see the difference between pet animals and farm/meat animals... and how uncomfortable it makes us when the lines between the two become blurred.  The week before his final day was gut-wrenching... I could hardly stand to look him in the eye when I went to feed and water him and scratch him behind the ears.  I felt like I was betraying him... and I was.  It was an unexpected ending.

The plan was for the men to come to our farm and slaughter him on Saturday morning.  Arrangements were made for my children to be at the grandparents for the morning while I had to run errands, and then we had a play date at our house scheduled for the afternoon, figuring all goat business would surely be finished by then.  Wrong.  We learned that Nepalese time is different than American time and the folks (8 in all.  Goat slaughter party!) arrived 3 hours later than the appointed time...right before our guests were due to arrive.  Frantically, I called my friend and instructed her to herd her kids directly into the house and to not allow them to peek in the backyard.  The poor kids were baffled why they couldn't play outside, as I kept glancing out the window and saying "Nope!  Not yet" (I'll spare you the details on what was happening in the backyard).  If I hadn't been so sad about Toro, I might have found the entire situation darkly comical.  "Sorry kids, no playing outside today because our family goat is being slaughtered in the backyard by a bunch of people we've never met before" (who actually were quite fun folks - my husband enjoyed getting to know them as he helped out, despite the language barrier).  Whew.  What a day.  Never a dull moment around here. 

We told our children that we sold Toro and that is the truth.  Perhaps someday I will be ready to tell them the whole truth, but not yet.  Thankfully, the children were not deeply attached to Toro and when we mentioned that we wanted to buy some baby goat kids, all thoughts of Toro were quickly forgotten.  Everybody loves baby animals. 

It feels strange and lonely on the farm with only chickens, dogs and barn cats.  I catch myself looking for Toro out the kitchen window as I wash dishes...  this too shall pass.  Before long, there will be plenty of other animals to demand my attention.  I feel bad that we let Toro down, that we didn't meet his needs and ultimately caused his demise.  Mistakes.  We make so many mistakes...

It's time to move on.  Spring has arrived.  Here's to new beginnings... and learning from our mistakes.