Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Vegetable Musical Chairs

I'm a planner and a list-maker by nature, one of those compulsive types who sometimes writes down tasks after having completed them, simply for the pleasure of checking them off as done. So you can imagine what the lead-up to this year was like for me: umpteen spreadsheets and to-do lists and timetables and budgets, to the point where my computer ran slow from so many open windows. They are my security blankets, the lists, helping me to keep breathing when too many thoughts crowd my head.

But lists are only as good as the circumstances they organize. My seeding plan, for example, was predicated on the assumption that we would have built our greenhouse in March, and it would be ready and warmly waiting for the seeding bonanza of April. That's not exactly how it worked out. Construction was postponed seemingly indefinitely—first because Brendan and Katia, through no fault of their own,were delayed in closing on their house (and the site of the would-be greenhouse). Then there was the problem of the frame, which we had planned to purchase from some friends who backed out the last week in March. We found a greenhouse company that promised to deliver on Saturday the 3rd, until they realized that we were in Hardwick Massachusetts, not Hardwick Vermont. April 1 found me without a greenhouse or a place to put it, watering my ever growing number of trays in a shower.

Change of plans. I drove to New Hampshire, loaded up the truck with greenhouse parts, and decided to make it happen. The first step, the foundation, proved the hardest part. Based on our admittedly limited sample set, I'd put the probability of sending a three-foot post into Massachusetts soil and not hitting rock at about 3 to 12. These are neither good betting nor good construction odds. We pried out rocks; we dug holes, and after two days of sweat and tears, we had twelve posts to show for our labor. Erecting the bows and attaching the purlins and ridgepoles seemed like nothing after the first Herculean task, and with Brendan's help we soon built endwalls. We stretched the plastic over the frame and admired our handiwork.

Next we needed heat. An electrician lent us a propane heater, which we rigged up to provide warmth at night. The 200,000 BTU heater proved massive overkill, however, so I slept in a tent next to the greenhouse to monitor for melt down, and we left one roll-up side slightly raised to avoid cooking the plants. All seemed well—my plants were shooting up and my greenhouse finally felt like a proper structure. Until the heater ran out of propane Thursday night. One week's supply had cost $85, so we knew that our jury-rigged system needed changing. Besides, I didn't relish the thought of driving an hour and a half to the propane dealers each week with a 100 gallon tank in the back of the truck.

We called the propane company and asked them to come connect a small heater we had purchased, which promised to be energy efficient, thermostat controlled, and infinitely safer than our first model. But a solution so neat would have ruined our record of near catastrophe, so the good beurocrats of Massachusetts intervened. They've banned the use of vent-free heaters (what we had) as a primary source of heat, and the propane comany's alternative system would run a cool $1200, not including propane. So, without going into too much incriminating detail, I'm headed to Connecticut on Monday in search of “alternative” options.

In the meantime, I'm playing vegetable musical chairs again, carrying sixteen flats of cold-sensitive peppers inside to warmth at night and out to sun by day. I'm constantly commuting between fields and the greenhouse (they are separated by approximately four miles of windy country road) to water plants or work the land where they will ultimately grow. I'm seeding. I'm digging pathways. I'm trying to make sense of all those best-laid plans amidst the hustle of spring.

But Sunday morning, having worked a seventeen hour day the preceding day (which was my birthday), I decided to stop. We went out for ice cream. I ate food while seated. I went for a walk and admired the fresh green that comes and goes so briefly each year. Then this evening I sat down to make my list for the coming week.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The View from Tuesday

Some days (like Monday), chores expand. Milking turns into bottling, collecting eggs turns into cleaning eggs, the walk behind rototiller keeps dying, and watering the animals turns into castrating piglets. Before you know it, 4 AM has turned into noon, and all hands are on deck to finish the chores so that we can finally go home for a proper meal. Days like Monday have their purpose, though, outside of the sheer necessity of them from a maintenance perspective. They make Tuesdays feel wide and gloriously open when, at 6:30, you stop to watch the piglets head butting one another and snuffing around in the sawdust (apparently the previous mornings emasculation was not nearly the trauma that their squeals suggested). Chores are finished; you are free to return to the sleepily quiet house where, through the window, you can see the dew drops on the grass refracting the sunrise as one thousand points of light.

Friday, April 9, 2010

How Badly Do You Want It?

My eyes are bigger than my garden. I think I can attribute this overambitiousness to Eliot Coleman's books Winter Harvest Handbook and the classic New Organic Grower. Eliot Coleman, whose brilliant designs and incredibly efficient systems yield fresh greenery all winter long (in Maine!) can be both inspiring and depressing when you are in my position.

As a farmer striking out on her own this year, I'm building everything from the ground up. I've got visions for implementing and improving on all of the good systems of Caretaker and Serenbe, but right now, I'm about as far from the fine-tuning stage as you can be. I'm still charging forward at full throttle, seeding flats even as I mentally scramble deciding where they will go. I'm watering plants in a shower with a showerhead, toting them back and forth from the bathroom as the sun or the woodstove dries them out. My planting “apprentice” is a three-year-old, whose primary task is to warn me if his one-year-old brother breeches my ottoman blockade and charges my growlights. A friend in Athol is babysitting eight flats of onions and two lettuce trays; as soon as I had sent them off, I seeded beets, cauliflower, peppers, parsley, and chives. My lights are full again.

Meanwhile, my greenhouse is in pieces, finally here, but still far from built. After a shipping snafu delayed what was supposed to be a Saturday delivery, I took matters into my own hands and drove to central New Hampshire to pick it up. For the record, a 17 x 20 foot greenhouse does fit in the bed of a Toyota Tundra—just not very gracefully.

Up at the farm, the rye grass that blanketed my field all winter is beginning to take off: thickening, greening, growing taller every day since the rains let off on Wednesday. I, meanwhile, am itching to till. Rye grass residue naturally impedes seed germination, which is great as a weed suppressant, but not so good when you need to start direct seeding soon. There are strawberries that need to be transplanted, equipment orders still to call in.

Three days a week, as part of our arrangement with Brendan and Katia, I take the 4 AM chore shift: feeding calves, shoveling manure, and watering pigs while someone else milks. Andrew takes three other mornings and all of the afternoons. We're all various states of crazy transition: from winter to spring, from Williamstown to Barre, from a small, cramped house to a new, dilapidated home that would intimidate even the folks of Extreme Home Makeover. Through all of this, we're learning to live together, to respect boundaries, to find time and space for rest.

And it is April. Let the games begin.

Note: this post was written on Monday, but due to a virtual absence of internet, it is only coming up now. Stay tuned for more news on the greenhouse, a lament on the rockiness of New England soil, and an ode to the wonders that are tractor-mounted rototillers. There may even be pictures (no promises)