Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Scenes from the Field: 2.3.2019

Yesterday the sun came out and melted the dumping of snow we got last Friday, which followed a multi-day Polar Vortex that brought temperatures down to 0 degrees with windchills around -25.

As I ventured out back to see what survived, I was reminded of a story Eliot Coleman tells in Four-Season Harvest. I’m quoting it at length because a) I love it, and b) because it remains an inspiration for the season extension work we do at Over the Fence, and the seasonal eating we do in our home.

During [our] January trip across France, we had an experience that emphasized the point. We were visiting the Jardin des Plantes in Montpelier, one of the oldest botanical gardens in France. Like many such venerable institutions, it was showing its age. Some of the walls were beginning to crumble and panes were missing in unused glasshouses. But we were not there for the architecture. We had come to see the “non-existent” vegetables. When we had called ahead to learn the winter hours and had inquired about the vegetable garden, the nice Frenchman on duty told us not to waste our time because the vegetable garden was “non-existent” in the winter. Ah, well, we had heard that song before. “There is nothing in the garden” is usually synonymous with “it doesn’t look nice like it did last summer.”

The vegetable garden at the Jardin des Plants occupies one quarter of a parterre in front of the orangerie. Admittedly it probably did look nicer during the summer, but it was just what we wanted to find in January. Despite the disclaimers of the garden staff, this abandoned Zone 9 garden, which had probably seen no care since October, still contained ready-to-pick crops of chard, salsify and scorzonera, six different types of lettuces, radicchio, sorrel, mustard greens, turnips and turnip greens, kale, cabbages, winter radish, red and green scallion, leeks, and spinach. If that garden were in our backyard, we would have considered it a source of fresh main course and salad vegetables for the rest of the winter. It was a cornucopian example of a garden truth we have long notes–if you just look around in a post-season garden, you will almost always find something to eat.

After you read this post, head out to your winter garden and see if you can score some greens for your next meal. Here’s what I found yesterday, when the high got up to 55.

Not too surprisingly, Tatsoi did great.

Lacinato Kale is also tough and super cold hardy.

The few heads of  Napa Cabbage still hanging around lived to see another day.

And even these tiny heads of Romaine (which I left as a test) were insulated enough to survive.

The Arugula I didn’t chop down in January still tastes amazing.  Hoping for a small bounce back crop from these plants as temperatures return to the 30 and 40s.

The Swiss Chard was glowing.

A few heads of Raddichio are waiting for their turn at the table.

This Pac Choi was in the high tunnel, under a second cover, but managed to get burned. Need to investigate that.

Another cold weather winner, Giant Red Mustard, is ready for a growth spurt to welcome back Persephone.

As are these baby Red Russian Kale. Though they look like they could use a drink of water. The high tunnel can get a little dry this time of year. Might try to catch some of the rain coming this week and move it in before the overnight temperatures dip down again.

Our cold frame-within the high tunnel started seedlings are patiently awaiting transplant. In this box, Pac Choi, Red Russian Kale, and Tatsoi…

…and here, spinach….

…which looks amazing up close, and tastes like good health.

The biggest Polar Vortex surprise by far is that one of the chickens started laying! I suspect Hermione or Ginny since their combs and waddles are the most fully formed. Won’t be much longer until we’re (happily) drowning in eggs again!

As a reward, the girls got to come under one of the low tunnels for a snack and dust bath.

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And the humans all enjoyed post-Vortex salads with dinner!

 

 


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Scenes From the Field: 1.16.2019

Yesterday was overcast and the high temperature only reached 33 degrees, but somehow it didn’t feel as cold as it had the few days before. I spent a solid hour and a half out back harvesting greens and playing with the chickens who ventured into the yard for the first time in days. The weather is supposed to get nasty again the next few days and through the weekend, so I pulled up my snowpants and made the best of it.

Here are a few scenes from the field.

A solid blanket of snow covered everything and made accessing the tunnels a chore. I did a little maintenance, but have more to do to support the ends of our low tunnels when this melts…

While the world outside the tunnels was white, a bounty of greens lay beneath. This short tunnel (covered in Agribon and plastic) contains tatsoi, pac choi cilantro, romaine, and arugula. I’ve noticed growth increasing already since the winter solstice. I harvested most of the lettuces and left a little to see how they would hold up to the sub-zero temperatures coming early next week. I wondered if plants packed closer together would fair better than those hanging out alone, which I’m noting here to remind myself to check.

A bowl of arugula, some of which was buried under the row covers, which collapsed on the ends, from the weight of the snow.

Swiss chard, tatsoi, and pac choi under a low tunnel.

Same low tunnel – Lacinato and Red Russian kale in front, spinach in the back.

Close-up of arugula in a second short tunnel.

The high tunnel continues to enchant us. The pac choi on the left was hit hard by cold two nights before but completely bounced back (see below). I plan to add some low covers inside the tunnel in advance of the super cold temperatures coming next week.

 

Did you know cilantro embraces the cold?

Spinach starts in a cold frame, inside the tunnel. Surprising to me (but perhaps not to someone with more scientific understanding), these frames are not holding temperature as well as the tunnel itself (see chart below). These will be transplanted into a bed the next warm spell we see. (Note: This experiment was introduced in an earlier post, referencing the MidOhio Food Bank that made it possible.)

In the basket, chard, kale, and mustard for our harvest. On the ground, the chickens’ fodder.

After school, Cora helped me document temperatures in various locations.

 

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And the hens came out to play.

 

 

 


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Chickens Come & Chickens Go…

This month has been really, really busy with life in general, off-farm work obligations, Jewish holidays, an art exhibition, and a special farmgirl’s eighth birthday. On top of all that, we got new chicks!

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Here’s the backstory…

Animals all over our neighborhood relocated this summer as a result of extensive and ongoing road and sewer work. After spending the second half of the season watching seedlings get trampled to the ground, giant half eaten tomatoes left to rot, and corn eaten off the cob while it was still on the stalks 5 and 6 six above the ground, we bought a trail cam. The Spurgeon General caught a series of images that shed light on the nightly garden parties happening out back.

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Three raccoons torment a rat in a trap.

 

In addition to the raccoons, skunks, and opossums that were eating our crops, we had rats. Rats?! They nibbled on tomatoes on the vine and they dug tunnels under our chicken coop and shed. The tunnels were so prolific they shifted the flow of water around the chicken run causing rain to seep in, creating the first foul smells we had related to chickens in the three years since we started keeping them. It was time to (temporarily) clear the coop so we could rid the rats by taking away any food source and shelter the hens were providing.

We spent a lot of last winter talking about the next step for our hens. They were approaching three years old (the average age heritage birds’ egg production seriously slows down – from November 2017-March 2018 we got ZERO eggs) and we always said we wouldn’t keep chickens that weren’t laying. But what then?

We had a few choices – kill them and bury them, butcher and eat them, send them someplace to retire, or give them to a friend to do… whatever she pleased. I personally had no interest in eating them. On the small scale we farm, the hens were our pets as much as our farm animals. They ran to the back door for treats when I opened it and followed me around when I called them.

I’ve learned a bit about chickens these past years. Meat chickens are slaughtered anywhere between 21 and 170 days old (that’s 3 to 14 weeks). This is surprising for folks who regularly who eat a lot of poultry. Noone wants to think they are eating such young creatures, but we are… Our hens were over 3 years old. You do the math. They were old by meat eating standards so even if I wanted to cook our girls, they would only be good for stock or stew and I don’t care nearly enough about either to do the work it would take to clean them for that. And, again, I couldn’t imagine consuming them myself.

In the end, we felt fortunate that Stratford Ecological Center agreed to take them. They would retire on a “real” farm with a bunch of new chicken friends. Maybe…

When flocks of chickens mix, the pecking order is disrupted and has to be renegotiated. The one time I tried to add girls to our mix so difficult to watch – like mean girls in a school cafeteria, but with blood – that I vowed never to do it again.

Also, Stratford has roosters and I couldn’t help thinking in putting our girls in with them was like putting 50 year old women in a brothel. As expected, they were spotted and stalked from the moment they were introduced to their new home.

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Check out the beautiful white breasted cockerel – far side of the fence – scoping out our girls, near side, moments after they made their debut on the scene.

I was also reminded at drop off that they could be culled anytime, as early as this week. And still I left them there.

I have spoken with many friends and family about this scenario. Many of these folks are poultry eaters, few chicken keepers. I like to think they learned something through our conversations – about the chickens they eat and the hens that lay their eggs. Most thought I did the right thing taking them to the farm to retire. You gave them a chance to live a little longer, they contended. You didn’t kill them, they applauded. But at what cost? And at what quality of life?

I have long loved Stratford as a place children and families in Central Ohio can go to learn how food gets to their plates, and how a small group of people can preserve a piece of land in the midst of a real estate development boom. But the current space they have setup for their chickens pales in comparison to our backyard full of trees and flowerbeds to forage and take dust baths.

I’m grateful for the time I had with R2D2, Dot, and Golden Honey. I appreciate every egg they laid for us. And I’m sorry I didn’t have the strength to kill them quickly and peacefully, to be the cause of their “one bad day.”

 


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The Farm as Artistic Space

I have so many thoughts to try to organize on the subject of this post. More posts will be necessary. Consider this Part I.

Three years ago I wrote an article for the art education journal Artezein (see Art Education in my Backyard) about the farm as it relates to and benefits from my training and experience as an art educator. But that was just a piece of the puzzle; a snapshot of my thinking. A meditation on what I offer others through the work. Since then I have been given more time to the notion of the farm as my artistic practice.

This has been on my mind since I got started. As I attended meetings of urban farmers in Columbus, I felt a sense of imposter syndrome. What qualified me to be in a room with these people? What did I have to bring to the conversation? In those moments, I often recalled the work of Nikki S. Lee who has positioned herself as a member of various cultural groups in oder to learn more about them, to try own their clothes and see the world from their point of view, and to make amazing photographs along the way.

After five years, I’m more confident in what I’m doing, and in calling it something like long-term, socially-engaged, participatory, performative, eco art project exploring relational and green aesthetics, and small scale economic theory. My use of all this jargon is part of the performance, as I play the part of academic as well as artist and farmer.

Since this all got started I have hosted numerous tours on the farm including a few for elected officials (see On Site with Columbus City Council Member Elizabeth Brown and City Council Farm Tour), blogged extensively, and offered spoken words and images at Pecha Kucha (check out a recording embedded in this post if you haven’t seen it already!). In each, I flexed my creative muscles – in multimodal directions.

After reviewing an exhibition of mobile photography at the Columbus Museum of Art, I started thinking about all the images I posted on Instagram to share the moments of “fleeting beauty” I experience while in the field. Like the conceptual artists who inspired me to engage farming as a creative practice, those images serve as documentation of my work. They serve as a gateway for people not accustomed to thinking of soil and water as artistic media entrance into the farm as creative space, not merely an agricultural one.

And so, it is with great pleasure that I am celebrating an exhibition of my photos at Global Gallery in Clintonville this month. The show was sponsored by the Greater Columbus Arts Council and will be up through the end of the month. I’ll be there for a reception this Friday night from 6-8pm. Hope to see some folks come out to talk about “The Work.”

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July and August Review

This season has been rough. I was under a lot of stress in the spring in various other aspects of my life and like Tita’s emotion-infused cooking in Like Water for Chocolate, I believe it had an impact on the farm. The erratic weather (a week in the high 80s, rounds of 2-3 inches of rain over two days followed by 7 dry days…) and an influx of animal pests displaced by road and sewer constructions throughout our neighborhood didn’t help either. And so, it isn’t surprising that I haven’t posted much in this space. I didn’t feel like I had much to celebrate.

Thankfully my friends and loyal CSA supporters have assured me, repeatedly, that they’ll support our work when times are good and when they’re not so good. They understand that that’s what community supported agriculture means. When the harvest is good, it’s great, and when it’s ain’t, it ain’t.

I suppose you could say part of what members received in their share this season was emails from me outlining the challenges we faced, as we faced them. I like to think of this as the “get to know your farmer” bonus CSAs and farmers’ markets provide.

With all this going on,  I had no idea two months had gone by since I posted here! And, in retrospect, it wasn’t all bad. Here are some highlights.

The Clintonville Farmers’ Market Kids’ Garden Club continued their meetings, field trips (Franklinton Farms and Rock Dove Farm), and had two great sales at the farmers market. They raked in over $100 which we’ll split between their harvest party and a donation to a yet to be determined local nonprofit.

We grew popcorn for the first time this year – in the kids garden and on the farm. Visitors who stopped by for the Clintonville Midsummer Garden Tour were surprised to see it. Thanks to our early planting, it was way more than “knee high by the fourth of July!”

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Edible Columbus featured me in the Local Hero column. It was great to run into people throughout the summer who saw the article. Made me feel almost famous. And appreciated.

We have a bunch of events coming up in September including the Simply Living Sustainable Living and Garden Tour – an answer to the wish my friends and I had for such an event in the spring after visiting the mainstream H&G show at the fairgrounds (see Follow-up on The Columbus Dispatch Home and Garden Show).  We’ll also be celebrating the beauty of small scale agriculture at Global Gallery September 14th for a reception celebrating “In the Footsteps of a Farmer: Fleeting Beauty,” a photo exhibition sponsored by an Greater Columbus Arts Council Artists in the Community grant.

Thanks for sticking with us in the good times, and the not so good times.


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Scenes from the field: 4.2.18

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The sun was shining and The Farmers Almanac Gardening by the Moon Calendar  said it was a good day for transplanting. We were lucky to have friends free to help us move some things around. Here are a few highlights.

A peak under some of our caterpillars. Clockwise from top right – spinach under frost blanket (planted 2/5), potatoes under low plastic tunnel (planted 2/22: Thanks for the inspiration, Milan!), and the view inside our high tunnel panted with various herbs and greens in January).

Homeschool on the farm today included measuring and recording air and soil temperature in 5 different growing situations (high tunnel, low tunnel w/plastic, low tunnel with frost blanket, glass-topped cold-frame, and no cover.)

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The girls potted some plants for our upcoming sale with partial proceeds going to Red Oak Community School.

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Then the moms broke our backs transplanting hundreds of onion, kale, beet, and spinach seedlings. Like I said, it was a very good day.

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More Stories of Life and Death on Our Little Farm

[Warning: This, like my posts about rabbits and voles, includes discussion and images of dead animals. Vegans beware.]

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Our first flock of hens are nearing the end of their productive egg laying years. As such, we’ve been having lots of conversations around the farm about what comes next, and seeking advice and options for how to make room for a new group of ladies. In the meantime, and after a long cold winter with many days when they didn’t want to leave their sheltered run, I’ve been letting our girls roam around the yard from dusk ’til dawn.

Leaving them out on their own while I’m not in the yard with them has always been risky. We’ve had our share of predatory visitors over the years – hawks, fox, feral cats… But those risks don’t seem worth worrying about much anymore. I figure if their time earth-side is limited one way or another, they should enjoy their days as much as possible.

Still, it was with a heavy heart that I found this old biddy Thursday afternoon. All signs point to death by opossum. The only thing I’m having trouble understanding is the time of day it happened. Right around 3:30 in the afternoon. And so, for the time being, the other ladies are on fairly strict lockdown.

As usual Thompson, our farm dog, found her first. He nudged her with his nose and I joined him to investigate. We have lost chickens before, but all to what seemed like heart attacks or some other internal failure. This was the first time I saw evidence of attack. The first time I saw bloody entrails and flesh resembling what you’d find at the butcher shop. I took a moment to examine the wound, to look at her insides now that they were on the outside. This brought me one step closer in understanding the creatures that have been sharing our yard. Somehow, in death, I felt closer to her and more responsible for her than ever before.

I picked her up without any hesitation and pet her one last time. Then, in keeping with Jewish tradition of burying the dead as soon as possible, I said my own silent blessings of thanks for the time we had with her as Dan, a neighbor, and I buried her.

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Postscript: Shout out to our friends at Two Blocks Away Farm and Foraged and Sown for their support and council during this event.