Over the Fence Urban Farm


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Preparing for Persephone

This fall I watched from afar as my students in Texas and Florida prepared for hurricanes Harvey and Irma. I felt powerless to help them, and guilty that my house was standing tall, dry, and coursing with electricity. But as autumn settles into central Ohio, I’m preparing for the coming of another powerful force of nature: the Persephone Days.

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From The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki.

I first learned about Persephone Days from Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook (you can read an excerpt here). Put simply, folks who grow food in areas with sub-freezing winter temperatures must think as much about hours of sunlight in planning crop rotations as the cold. The Persephone Days are those with fewer than 10 hours daylight. (See a timetable for your zip code here.) Here in Columbus that means mid-November through late January.

If you plan right -Coleman has lots of recommendations – you can harvest greens and some root vegetables (including the most amazingly sweet winter carrots) grown in the fall and stored in your garden throughout that dark period. Just don’t count on your plants doing much new growing. Coleman suggests things be at least 3/4 of the way to maturity before the coming of Persephone.

I started paying  more serious attention to these dates last fall as we began using our high tunnel and did some winter-sowing for early spring harvest. This year I feel behind. I didn’t get a full crop of fall greens out early enough for our family’s winter harvest, let alone a fall or winter CSA, which has been a goal for the past few years. Looking back on this field report, however,  I realize I am ahead of where I was last year so… I’m learning.

This year I am homeschooling our daughter, Cora, 2 days a week. We have spent the past two months studying ancient history with a strong emphasis on the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses. Through the process I spent more time with Persephone. I got a refresher on her mother Demeter (goddess of the harvest and fertility) and Hades (god of the underworld) who, with permission from her his brother, the all-powerful Zeus, abducted Persephone to keep him company in the underworld. In her loneliness and suffering, Demeter caused a famine. Eventually Persephone was returned to her mother, but because she had eaten four pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, she had to return to the land of the dead for four months each year to keep Hades company. We experience these months as winter, the time when nothing grows. (Click here for an extended version of the story told from a contemporary and feminist perspective.)

Unlike the ancient Greeks, I don’t need a story to help me understand why the days are shorter and the nights are colder this time of year. I don’t need one, but it certainly makes things more interesting.

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Welcome to the 2016 Season!

In keeping with the unusually mild winter weather we enjoyed this year, overnight temperatures  are predicted to be above freezing for the foreseeable future.  That means it’s time to get the farm back in action. Here’s what it looked like yesterday morning. IMG_4994

The chickens have wrecked havoc on the beds all winter, scratching and kicking straw and soil every which way. Going into our third season it was time to remark our beds anyway – some had shrunk by a couple of feet on the ends – so the girls kind of did us a favor.

With help from die-hard CSA member Melissa, we got started measuring, moving and prepping the soil, and put a few trays of greens in the ground.IMG_4995

These babies were hardened off and ready to embrace the cool crisp air. (clockwise from top left- radicchio, lacinato kale, buttercrunch lettuce, rainbow chard, and romaine)

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Melissa pulled the plants from the trays…IMG_4991

…and I tucked them into their freshly (re)made beds.IMG_5010

Then we covered them with a frost blanket (sorry no photo), just in case Jack Frost comes back around this way.

Next week: The Return of Happy Hour on the Farm!


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Death (and Rebirth) by Cold Frame Solar Oven

(This post is dedicated to our friends Tim Chavez and Suzanne Csejtey, local masters of solar power.)

I guess I didn’t really check the forecast all that well yesterday morning because I decided to leave our cold frame closed to benefit some seeds I had set to germinate. I wasn’t thinking at all about the sprouts and greens already growing in there. When the temperatures approached 80 degrees, everything baked.

From the overwintered mustard:

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To the new sweet pea seedlings.

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At first I was really pissed at myself for making such an amateur mistake. But then I sat back and looked at what was in the soil and thought about what could be.

Using the cold frame as a seedbed, not just a tool for growing plants when it’s cold, is a concept I picked up from Eliot Coleman and it works. It’s so much easier to keep a 2 x 4′ bed damp for germination than a 27 foot row. And the seedlings are able to stretch out form the start in the ground as opposed to in a plastic cell. (The space under our grow lights is presently overrun with tomato plants so that’s not an option anyway!)

So, I ripped out everything that was left growing – the aforementioned mustards and some lettuces that had been growing in the basement this winter which I moved out to the frame a month ago but were so root-bound they would never amount to much more than they already were, and made a giant harvest salad.

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I added some of the potting soil mix I picked up at the Columbus Agrarian Society and am now using instead of the totally unsustainable coir I was using for seedlings (turns out it is made in Holland from coconut husks grown in Singapore!) and now we’re’m ready to start over again. Spring is all about new beginnings, afterall!


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Winter Carrots

Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch write a lot about winter carrots. Before last year I NEVER had any luck growing carrots so when I first read his descriptions, I was just plain jealous. And hopeless. Would I have to drive to his farm in Maine for the experience of eating a winter carrot harvest?

This summer we grew a good crop of carrots. They weren’t all perfect (see our post on Fruita Feia), but we kept on trying. Planting carrot seed late into the summer and early fall as summer beds died off. And I’m so glad we did! After a few hard frosts, I  can honestly say I have eaten the BEST carrots of my life. Extra sweet and super crispy. Like NOTHING you’ll find in the store.

Next year I hope to have a continuous supply.


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Update from Our Fall Laboratory

One of our goals at Over the Fence is to find ways to produce fresh food throughout the year. To this end, we consulted the first name in North American season extension, Eliot Coleman. After traveling to Europe to research year-round crop production and conducting experiments on his own land in Maine, he developed a variety of techniques for covering crops, overwintering seedbeds, and winter harvesting. Anytime you speak with someone who is trying harness Mother Nature’s more subtle powers, you’re likely to hear his name. We’d love to visit his aptly named Four Season Farm. Someday… In the meantime, we’ve seem some of his ideas in action around Columbus at Swainway Urban Farm, Harmonious Homestead, and Peace, Love, and Freedom Farm.

After reading as much of Coleman as we could get our hands on, we purchased 20 – 10 foot lengths of 1/2″ EMT and borrowed a bending tool to make our first low tunnel hoops last winter. You can read about that process here. We experimented with them a bit in the spring for an early harvest, but didn’t have much luck. We needed to start earlier, producing a fall garden that could evolve over-winter. This year we were ready.

In late August, we got a variety of cold-hardy seeds into the ground and sprouting – kale, arugula, swiss chard, spinach, scallions, beets, carrots, tatsoi, and a variety of mustards. We tried corn salad, or mache, a Coleman favorite for winter harvest but after two rounds of planting saw no germination and gave up. For now. By September we had two full rows of greens going just as strong as we had in the spring. We’re eating from them everyday, occasionally sharing with CSA friends though at this point we are selfishly relishing the fruits of our experiment.

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A mid-Octover harvest.

Last week, in anticipation of our first overnight frost, we covered the beds with our low tunnel hoops and 6-mil greenhouse plastic. The plastic is secured with clamps and, for the time being, held down on the ground with burlap coffee sacks. Something a bit heavier will likely be in order as it gets colder and windier.

A corner of the tunnel. Note the moisture dripping down the sides!

A corner of the tunnel. Note the moisture dripping down the sides!

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Outside

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Inside

A quick temperature experiment showed that on a partly sunny day in the mid-forties, inside the tunnel was just above sixty. Yesterday was unseasonably warm, in the low sixties. We didn’t measure the temperature inside the hoop, but it felt warm and smelled of rich, damp earth. A true joy to behold in early November.

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It’s like the tropics in here!

Hope to keep these going at least through our Thanksgiving feast! We’ll let you know how it goes.


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Hoops Dreams

One of the things we’re most excited about experimenting with this spring and fall are tunnels – high and low.  Tunnels are used to extend the growing and harvesting seasons. A tunnel over a garden bed creates a microclimate which magically transports the soil and air 500 miles south. So, in the spring, we can use low tunnels to get a jump on the growing season, and in the fall, we can use them to protect crops from the frost. The tunnels will behave similarly to our coldframe.

Last week, Jesse Hickman of Local Matters – Columbus’s leading non-profit dedicated to “transforming the food system” and a co-sponsor of farm school – offered to lend me a low hoop bender the organization owns. I jumped at the opportunity and made use a few recent sunny days with temperatures over 30 degrees to give it a spin. I stabilized the bender on picnic table in a green space behind a bank and a funeral home at the end of our block and set to work. Dogs from adjacent lots were barking at me and I was waiting for the bank security to come ask me what I was building. All part of the urban farming experience, I suppose.

IMG_4862As Jesse predicted, my first attempt at bending the 1/2 inch electrical metal conduit was a wonky, lopsided mess. But I quickly got the hang of it and we now possess 16 hoops 4 ft in diameter and 4 feet high. Hope to install these guys the second week in March and move some seedlings into them. Will also be experimenting with direct seeding under the tunnels. Stay tuned…

 


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Seedbed

This past fall we were on a tour at Swainway Urban Farm when our pal Milan, from Peace, Love, and Freedom Farm, asked Joseph Swain who inspires him. It was a great question and without hesitation, Joseph cited Eliot Coleman, the guru of Four Season Farming. I was somewhat familiar with Coleman’s work from articles he published in Mother Earth News, but we promptly checked a few of his books out from the library and haven’t looked back.

In Four Season Harvest (1999), Coleman offers advice on sowing seeds and raising seedlings in the coldframe. Knowing full well we are in for a few more weeks of very cold weather, we decided to give his method a try today as temperatures soared above 50. As promised, I picked up a soil thermometer and found the soil was fluctuating between 45-60 degrees for the past few days. Perfect for kale, beets, onions, chard…

With the coldframe already cleared of old growth and the soil smooth, we laid a 2-3 inch blanket (about 1 yard) of Happy Frog Potting Soil over all but the small section where we transplanted some seedlings earlier in the week. We set the seeds down in well marked rows and gave them a drink. And now, we wait.

It used to be if I heard the term “seedbed,” my thoughts turned to performance artist Vito Acconci’s (1972) work of that title. If you don’t know it, look it up. (Just be warned, this work is not appropriate for all readers.) I won’t go into it here except to say, that I have new understanding of the term. These seeds are warm and cozy and we’re going to do all we can to keep them that way.

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[Quick note on the transplants. They seem to be doing okay. We moved a few straw bales that were lying around to the west and southwest sides of the coldframe as a windbreak to help these next last few weeks of winter. The transplants aren’t growing as fast as the seedlings still sitting in the kitchen, but they are holding their own, gaining inner strength and waiting to flouirsh as soon as temperatures stabilize. As soon as the grow lights we got are installed, we’ll move some of the guys on the windowsill under there and then they will really start to take off. Can’t wait!]

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Check out our “true leaves!”