Tag Archives: squash

farm grace

For the latter part of our Wednesday “weekend” — I spent the morning freelancing for the Windsor Times, and Emmett spent it harvesting — Emmett and I have decided to indulge in a miniature Slow Food event of our own. After a lunch of four ears of fresh-picked corn (wormy ends severed prior to a brief boiling), we’ve decided to get creative with Foggy River produce for dinner. Riffing partly off recipes from Grub, we’re planning on bruschetta, green bean salad, some early, nutty-but-not-yet-sweet Kuri squash (from the plants that died — the fruit never did quite ripen fully), and some other dishes that will probably arise when we plumb the depths of the refrigerator to discover still more Armenian cucumbers, Lacinato kale, brassica greens, and Swiss chard.

I can’t wait to sit down to the bounty, and in anticipation of a feast, I thought I’d steal a post to talk about farm grace. By which I mean: I can’t quite express how lucky — but it’s deeper than lucky, more like blessed or gifted — I feel when things grow. Often, when Emmett and I sit down to a meal we grew and prepared, one of us will compliment the flavor of the food and the other will quip, “Thanks, I grew it myself.” But honestly, we had nothing to do with it. I mean, sure, we weeded, watered, and hoped. But really, the plant does the hard work.

I’ve learned about photosynthesis, the light and dark reactions, the xylem and phloem and all of the components of a plant’s cell — chloroplast, vacuole, mitochondira, ribosomes, endoplasmic reticulum. And yet somehow, sometimes, focusing on the specifics of how things work can take away a bit of the magic. How often do you stop and wonder how in the heck, with the same ingredients — soil, sun, water — you can end up with a potato or a tomato, a melon or a lemon, a butternut squash or a radish? Maybe I’m simple, but it seems to me that in this context even the formation of the lowly radish is something of a miracle.

And then there are the things that are obviously miracles. Have you ever grown a pumpkin? With very little help from you — just a bit of water and compost — one day you’ll walk outside and happen upon a gigantic green gourd three times the size of your head. (How does it do that?!) And even if you’ve been paying close attention to the plant the miracle is no less great. Watching a bright orange flower turn into a small fruit, which then gradually grows… and grows… and grows… into a monstrous squash is phenomenal, too. Whenever I wander out into the squash patch and see a snapshot of time progression — blossoms, tiny squash and bigger squash in the same frame (sweet dumplings pictured above) — I’m amazed. All this beauty and flavor, mostly made of air. (Funny aside: When Harvard seniors were presented with a block of wood and asked what it was mostly made of, the majority of students — even science students — said water and soil. In fact, the solid part of plants — including trees — is primarily derived from carbon dioxide, what you and I breathe out.  Somehow, it’s intellectually easier to attribute a redwood’s growth to water and soil, but even 150-foot-tall trees are made of air.)

So, to all of our hardworking plants at the farm, I say thank you. Because if someone gave me water, sun, and soil and expected me to make a butternut squash out of it, I’d be quite certain that they’d lost their minds.

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the jungle

I’ve dug up a few interesting farming-related articles from around the web: how high food prices can hurt — or at least not help — third world farmers, what Wal-Mart, cancer, and organic produce have to do with local farming in my hometown of San Diego, and when agricultural conservation gets contentious in New Jersey.

And finally, as promised, the optimist’s version of our two-week vacation from the farm:

In our absence, the farm went from a vegetable patch to a vegetable jungle. The quinoa now towers as tall as I do, brimming with proto-grain. Remember when, three months ago, I dreamed of a bean thicket? Well, now I’ve got one — an impenetrable green mass whose weight has managed to partially collapse its fencing. And the winter squash field — oh, the winter squash field! Green jack-o-lanterns, three times the size of my head, lie casually in the dirt. A French variety of yellow pumpkin — which looks as if you took a bright yellow globe and squeezed it at the poles, so it’s slightly wider than it is tall — bursts through the green vines with an unexpected splash of color. The textures, colors, and sizes of the squash are all different, all energizing: the ribbed delicata; the smooth, ovular spaghetti; the pear-shaped butternut; the pleasingly round kuri. (There are also a few mysterious hybrids, such as the one that’s shaped precisely like a spaghetti squash but is ribbed and dark green, like an acorn. What will it taste like? Only time will tell.)

Yes, a few of the mysteriously diseased squash plants died, but a couple of them are reminding me of… oh, I don’t know, pick some great hero, Hercules in the Augean Stables myth, or Queen Elizabeth I resolutely refusing to wed, or Mel Gibson in Braveheart, or something.

This one could not be more gallant, stolidly hanging on just long enough to put all of its energy into a small-but-perfect kuri squash:

So these are the upsides. And more good news: at today’s market in Windsor, we made more money than we ever have before. We still haven’t added up all of our numbers to see if we’ve actually paid off our investment costs yet, but I’m not going to let that dampen my spirits! Instead, I’m going to drink a locally-brewed beer and toast to all of the wonderful customers who’ve helped us out — by coming back every week to see what we have, by telling friends, and for all the little things, too, like getting excited about purple bean recipes and armenian cucumbers.

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the squash mystery

A mystery is casting a pall over the farm. (OK, fine, that’s not a pall, that’s my shadow. I didn’t want to post more depressing pictures of dead squash, can you blame me?)

Anyway, our squash continue to die: the ones that were wilting are now flat-lined into the soil. A post-mortem conducted on the dead ones, along with some vivisection conducted on those still living, revealed no oozy fluid associated with bacterial wilt. Nor could we find any vine borers, or evidence of vine borer entrance holes at the base of the plant (which were depicted in one of our organic gardening books). Curioser and curioser, as Alice said.

We ran through other possible culprits: too much water? Poor soil? But only a few plants are afflicted, and the whole block is being watered the same amount–besides, the death seems too sudden to be a water issue. (Ditto for the soil — it’s pretty even throughout the field, and wouldn’t plants show more evidence of a slow decline?) A disease not mentioned by any of our 5 books on organic gardening? We noticed a lot of different bugs on the dead plants, including some small white ones on the roots. But we didn’t read about any squash root-mites, and I wouldn’t exactly describe any of the bugs we saw as a major infestation. What else could the mystery death be?

Hmm. For now, we can only wait and see.

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the fate of the squash

The squash are our hope for the future: we have hundreds and hundreds of them planted. Delicata, acorn, kuri, butternut, various varieties of pumpkins, not to mention our zucchini, yellow crooknecks, canteloupes and melons. We went big on the winter squash, thinking it a particularly useful crop: since they store so well, they’ll make it to farmer’s markets week after week without a problem.

But suddenly, in a few distinct places, healthy, beautiful squash plants are in various stages of decay. First yellow leaves, then sustained wilt (utterly unresponsive to water), then a horrific sight: a completely flattened, point-of-no-return plant.

We have a ton of cucumber beetles here, and apparently they can carry a bacterium in their innards that can cause bacterial wilt. But apparently it could be any one of a number of problems

I’m scared! Potential losses of 50-100%? Tomorrow I guess I’ll start slitting vines to see if I can find vine borers…

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why farm?

I was talking to my mom on the phone today, describing The Flood. “It doesn’t sound like you’re enjoying farming,” she said.

“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m just describing the event. I don’t like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood, is all.”
But then I thought about it. And on some level, I do like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood. I kind of enjoy disasters, although I rarely admit it at the time. (During disasters, I prefer to swear profusely — another secret delight — and perhaps pout.)

That got me thinking about the appeal of farming. What, exactly, is the appeal of long hours in the hot sun, modest wages and the imminent threat of disaster? Is it the romance of the thing? The challenge? The simple pleasure of growing? The drama? All of the above?

In English class multiple choice questions — and essays, for that matter — the answer is typically (e), all of the above. [NB: this does not hold true for science or math; my hypothesis is that English teachers are simply too kind-hearted to throw in a red herring (e), while many math and science teachers are pure evil.] If you’re guessing that I’m more of an English teacher than a science teacher, you guessed right. Extra credit goes to those who answered “all of the above”: farming’s got back-to-the-land romance, honest physical challenge, a certain life-giving zen, and something of the theatre, too.

Still, if I had to pick one choice to defend for 5 paragraphs, I’d go with the drama. Every day on the farm is a mortal struggle: Beans v. Bugs. Lettuce v. Sun. Tomatoes v. Inexperienced Farmers. There’s the hopeful joy of a young bean rearing its head from the ground, the subsequent struggle as the young, tender leaves are attacked by diabrotica. And then hope again as the plant puts out leaf after leaf, faster than they can be eaten; and then finally sends out a climbing runner which whirls in a slow-motion dance, looking for something to grasp onto. Every vegetable’s tale is different, but common in its struggle to survive — a struggle that means a good deal to a farmer, who relies on its survival for income.

Another way to weigh drama is in its value as instant feedback. Very few jobs today permit a person to tangibly experience the error of his ways. In farming, there’s no gentle upbraid courtesy of a manager or boss. You forget to water the salad bed, you’re in deep doo-doo. All of your investment — time, energy, emotion, and money — will disappear tragically in a bunch of withered, flatlined greens. You don’t know your way around heirloom tomatoes? Don’t be surprised when (as has happened at The Patch) they end up with some weird, unidentifiable withered-leaf disease. Didn’t prepare for an invasion of flea beetles? You end up with “Swiss” bok choi.

For someone who can’t remember facts to save her life but never forgets a good story, farming offers potent narrative. It also offers an alluring combination of instant gratification — wilting greens, with a little water, perk up within minutes — and delayed gratification. Our first yellow zucchini, maybe 1/2 an inch long, appeared on a plant today — a plant that we grew from seed, transplanted, watered, and weeded.

I couldn’t be more delighted.

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