tales from a first-year urban farmer: lessons, battles and a little relish.
Big globes of green hang heavily on the branches---glorious in size but blatantly denied the satisfaction of sun-ripened redness. I watch my tomatoes daily. I resist my fingertips, whose sole desire is to type the search term 'green tomato recipes.' I am not ready to give up on summer. If I aim to be a tomato farmer on my humble little Seattle urban farm: each year I will be tomato dancing for the sun gods. I will beg for just a few more days of summer, add red plastic to the ground to help them ripen, and ultimately tuck green tomatoes into my cellar for future ripening.
I feel like this is my first official year growing 'crops' in my yard. Last summer we were still digging up invasive weeds, taking a tractor to bamboo and building countless garden boxes. This year I was ready: I planted tomato seeds indoors in early spring, lovingly watered and re-potted them and kept an eye on summer's arrival. Sweet peas and sugar snaps hit the frosty dirt running---they may have been my most rewarding crop all season. I finally dipped a toe in the routine of 'succession planting,' adding carrot, arugula and beet seeds to the garden every few weeks.
This year, I learned that I am impatient (note: all those relatives of mine that just laughed? I heard you). Listen to me whine: the arugula, carrots and beets took way too long to grow. I ripped out perennial brussel sprouts after a long spring battle with slugs. The artichokes were taking up too much space: tossed into the yard bin (don't knock it: composting coming next year). I swore profanities at unproductive dill seeds, moth-laden brassicas and 'ornamental' corn. I finally ripped out the cauliflower and planted carrots on top of the broccoli.
Despite my tromping around like a toddler, swearing at bugs and ordering green to poke north of the brown dirt: I am frequently found with a wide grin plastered to my face as I water, coddle, prune, weed, mulch and otherwise tend my growing fancies. I love the creativity: using ladders, rake heads and old garden hoes to build trellises. There are little delights: rhubarb that keeps on giving, a plot of herbs that I snip from daily for any given meal, two varieties of strawberries---one early season and one late---providing ongoing berry nibbles all summer long. And the two apples.
We planted our first espaliered tree last summer (the kind that grow flat like a fence, and with pruning create a wall of apples), and this year we will pluck our first two apples. We plan to add a few more 'fence' trees (to be planted in Jan/Feb): apples, pear, fig and plum. What grew well this year: asparagus, fava beans, garlic, nasturtiums, beets, carrots, lettuce and spinach, SunGold tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries, eggplant (that was a surprise!) and squash of all kinds.
What I learned:
1. No matter how badly I want peppers, tomatoes and other sun-loving plants to thrive, I am in the Pacific Northwest and it will forever be a challenge. I have plans to build a greenhouse in the next 1-2 years.
2. Beer is a great way to drown slugs; it is also a party invitation to a colony of black ants. Solution: at night position cup (with an inch or so of beer) at dirt level. Slugs come out at night and early morning and will all dive into the beer pool. Remove cup by mid-morning unless you want your garden to have the go-to kegger for black ants everywhere.
3. Trellises are never tall enough. I thought this year I would be prepared, raising the ladder and twine ever higher---and supporting all of my tomato plants with cages. The tomatoes became a jungle, snap peas easily mounted the measly 4 foot rusted tool trellises and the beans reached our mounted ladder in a matter of days. In addition to building higher and wider trellises next year, I plan to build a canopy or arbor trellis for squash---instead of just becoming ground cover; the vines are plenty strong to support dangling squash.
4. Over-wintering begins in summer. In the heat of summer, plan for a fall harvest and winter garden. Perhaps this is that notion of Christmas in July? So much of farming is planning---something I aim to improve upon. I didn't even think 'fall harvest' this year and am likely too late for popping seeds in to over-winter (for a spring harvest). I need to think in a calendar year as well as rotating dirt plots. This year I probably did a better job learning about bugs and foundational plants than about mapping against the calendar or keeping my different plots in use.
5. chickens rock. I love having urban hens (see the pic of them with their milk mustaches?). They have personalities and a purpose, they both entertain and feed us. I keep a special bin in my kitchen of scraps for the hens and treat them with meal worms and scratch. We hold them and let them run in our yard, enjoying dust baths and bugs while we garden. I am also learning how to cull them and cooked a meal to honor a friend's hens. I know it is hard for some people to think about culling their hens---perhaps it is the chef combined with the farmer in me that enables me to step up to the butcher block, to carefully process and prepare them.
6. Being a farmer takes patience and a bit of humor. I am ever learning and often from mistakes. Things take long to grow---I planted asparagus so I can harvest it 3 years from now. My garlic took so long to mature I couldn't use my original space for tomatoes---now it is a play-pen for my chickens. Cabbage moths are tenacious and green caterpillars are gross. Picking slugs off plants by hand is time-consuming and a bit silly. I bought strawberry plants that I though would simply enlarge in place and instead they are the 'climbing' variety and are already waging war on the nearby rhubarb. Ironic: a strawberry rhubarb patch.
7. If you cannot beat them, join them. I have an enormous cherry tree in my backyard. I am in love with it---it is probably why we bought the house. I have watched it grow beautiful cherries and drop them on the ground 2 years in a row. There are no low branches (ahem: even with a ladder off my deck), long ladders would procure but a handful near the trunk and nothing short of a cherry picker (think telescoping machinery they use to work on telephone poles) would reach all those glorious cherries. In short: I bought cherries.
There are so many little wins and little losses when it comes to farming---and my comprehension is pale to none in comparison to those whose livelihood depends on it. But what is common is working in and with nature and dirt, feeling the weather and accumulating years of lessons learned. And hope. That next year you will win against the aphids and your squash will mold just a little bit less. It is the joy in making pickled nasturtium pods for the first time and seeing that your asparagus is going to thrive. It is the pride of two dangling apples and the knowledge that even if you are given a bumper crop of green tomatoes: you can still make magic. Even if it comes in jars upon jars of green tomato relish.