Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spring begins -- indoors at least

The first item on our annual farm calendar in any given year is always the plant "starts" or seedlings. This is one of Aimee's jobs, although I'm put in charge of setting up the shelves and getting the grow lights to work.

Tomato and pepper starts need about 65 to 70 degrees F to germinate, and unless the night-time temperature is above 55 degrees F, they don't grow much at all even if they do germinate. Despite the fact that we heat primarily with wood, the house only occasionally drops below 60 F, so starting them indoors this time of year works out well.

There's a south-facing window in my den that is used for these baby plants. We could use the greenhouse, and just heat it, but with nights still easily capable of getting down to 20 F or so, that would use a lot more power or fuel. Later, when the risk of a hard frost is much less, we'll move the growing plants to the greenhouse, using either a small electrical heater, or, in extreme circumstances, the kerosene heater, on the coldest nights.

I'd love to get my hands on one of the slow burning kerosene heaters especially made for greenhouses that my grandfather always used, but I haven't ever seen one in the US.

We always grow at least six varieties of tomato and at least four peppers. Later we start a lot, and I mean hundreds, of basil plants for Aimee's pesto operation.

We can always sell off a large proportion of our seedling stock. Some we sell at our farm "stand" at the bottom of the road. Others are sold to colleagues at the college. Aimee is the "sales girl," and handles the entire process. She'll cycle several different sets of starts through these shelves and the greenhouse, starting with tomatoes and concluding with trays of densely sown basil. Late in the spring we give away what we can't sell. Our neighbors usually take what's left. We only bring in a hundred dollars or so of sales in seedlings, but that's a fair proportion, a little less than ten percent, of farm income.

Once our own seedlings get put out in our own garden, results are variable. Despite our high altitude, we generally do well with tomatoes here on the Great Farm, and we are able to put up a large supply of canned and frozen, enough to last all winter.

Peppers do less well here unless we have an exceptionally warm fall, and in fact our most reliable source of hot stuff in the winter is the hot pepper jelly put up by Aimee's dad in Virginia.

But we can grow both tomatoes and peppers out of doors, which you can't manage in most of Britain, so there are rewards for putting up with that horrendous winter weather we get.

I sometimes think we eat a version of the "Mediterranean Diet," with tomatoes, basil, other herbes de Provence, lamb, and so on.

Our plant starting system tends to produce "leggy" seedlings. There's just not enough light in that window. The grow lamps help, but not by much.

But once they get out in the greenhouse, they harden off fast. The cold early summer nights make sure of that. Night-time temperatures don't reliably exceed 55 F until July in Maine. Leggy tomato seedlings put into the greenhouse in late April will often lose "shade" leaves and grow sun leaves before they get going, but they usually thrive in the greenhouse.

Once in the garden, they seem to get yet sturdier, saving up growth potential until July and August, when they rocket upwards.

In other indoor activities Aimee has also been busy. She decided the cats needed a new cat "tree." We liked the one Dick had made for the Virginia cats, and Aimee decided to make her own version. She used cheap rugs from the iconic Maine surplus store Marden's, some two by fours and plywood, and a cedar post from one of our cedar mills. Here it is awaiting its final level.

The cats were quite exited by this new climbing frame, especially when some catnip was strewn around. They've been competing heavily recently for this particular spot on a cushion of the back of the sofa, and the new cat tree should give them some other options for a lounging spot in the living room.

So what has the husband been up to while Aimee's been doing all this work?

Not much.

I did repair the greenhouse, switching out some of the panes. Our greenhouse was built using all the left-over storm windows we had after renovating the house. We put in double-glazed windows throughout, which meant we had a stack of about forty storm window panes. Unfortunately, we break one or two panes every year in the greenhouse, usually from rocks thrown up by the lawn mower, and so our stack is dwindling. We will run out this year or next depending on how careful we are. Then we'll have the choice of building a new greenhouse to some better design using stronger glass, or perhaps buying a greenhouse kit, or we could kick the can down the road a bit and try to find more old storm window panes at yard sales.

I also dug the lawn tractor out of the snow bank in which it has resided all winter. I was amazed that it started first try, although two tires needed air. We mostly use this beast to pull a 4 by 8 trailer around, on which we can load, hay, firewood, fencing and other bulky loads. It's a kind of motorized wheelbarrow, and works well for that purpose, although I can never keep air in the tires and am always pumping them up.

I'll need the trailer for my first big job of the year, which is a major renovation of fencing. Our fences get destroyed by snow plowing each winter, and this year we have also a number of rotten wood posts and rails to fix. I decided to put in stronger fences in several key spots.

There's also the knotty matter of chicken fence. Our nearest neighbor has decided that free-range chickens are not her cup of tea. In particular she wants to grow flowers in unfenced flower beds, and our birds are always over on her land scratching around.

We fence the chickens out of our own flower gardens so they can patrol everywhere else. This keeps the slugs and ticks down, and gives more opportunities for the chickens to escape any loose dogs or predators, so we're quite happy with the situation. But the law is quite clear, as is neighborly practice. I could build a regular coop and chicken yard, but that would allow the slugs, which are otherwise rampant, to eat our garden. Plus, it would cost us considerably in chicken feed. The chicken feed consumption around here dwindles to almost nothing in high summer and fall, when they can find their own food.

So I have to find a way to fence the chickens in on our own property, or at least that portion of it which surrounds our main vegetable garden. This could be expensive, and it may not work that well, but we'll give it a try.

But first I have to fix the sheep fences. Lambs are coming soon. They need to be kept in, and predators kept out.

I've been spending time observing the sheep as lambing season is coming. Of the four ewes, Nellie, Molly and the two P-year two-year olds whose names I can never remember (Poppy and Penelope, I think), Nellie and Molly and the white P-ewe probably named Poppy are clearly showing.

Penelope, not so far. Durn it. Ewes that don't lamb in their second year often don't make good mothers later.

Nellie, my favorite, has a big bag and seems like she will lamb first.

But Tillie, the older "head" ewe, may also be showing. The ram broke out once, so this is possible. But not good, and may indeed be the end of Tillie, because she's a very old ewe. But we'll see. She's still sturdy and really shows no signs of old age. She may be able to pull off another year. If she is pregnant, then there's no choice.

We definitely need those studier fences. We couldn't afford good fences when we first started here. But we'll need to rectify things now.

Beside the worry over Tillie, all these activities are healthy signs of spring.

Now, if it would only stop snowing, maybe it would be spring!

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Welcome to our Farm Blog.
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