Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Preserving Lessons from Our Semi-Wild Season

Fall on the farm is the time for preservation: collecting and saving seeds in the field, canning produce in the kitchen. This growing season has been like no other in our farm’s short history. We went from planning a sabbatical to planting a victory garden. We limited visitors on site while attempting to stay connected and relevant. We weathered another hot and dry summer as we tried a few new strategies for planting, tending, and letting things grow wild.

I’m sorry I didn’t share more. Not because I think I let readers down, but because this blog is my memory. For the last seven years it has served as a preservation space for my experiences and day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and year-to-year observations. And I’m so glad I did the work to build that archive. I use it all the time.

A few weeks back, for example, our neighbor Leslie sent me this text:

Using the blog’s search function, I found a post from April 12, 2014 featuring a slide show of one of our first full work days on the farm. Included was this photo of Leslie and her son along with other neighbors and friends helping us plant four apple trees out front:

Here’s what our neighbor saw when she walked by last month:

Seeing these photos together is a gift. It’s amazing to see the change in the land that we created. Two of the four trees are loaded with fruit and the other two are offering us more than they ever have before. I’ve been excited to see this abundance appear this year as it aligns with the concept of shmita (sabbatical) as I intended to practice it. According to this ancient Jewish tradition, farmers are required to take every seventh season off to rest the land and themselves. We are allowed to eat wild and perennial crops and some Jewish farmers have suggested that it takes about seven years for such plants to get established. Our trees seem to prove that theory which has me excited about planning for year 14. Maybe by then I’ll be able to convince my mother-in-law, who lives in the farmhouse, to let me convert the rest of the front yard to edibles. (I know the resident deer herd would appreciate it!)

Which takes us to my first lesson from the wild season I want to preserve – living in harmony with our urban wildlife. This season we really embraced those living in our midst, even in the moments when they were destructive – to our bodies and our plants.

In the course of a few weeks, I shot this video of our passion fruit plants which have hosted an enormous collection of big fat beautiful bumble bees this year and then stuck my hand in a yellow jacket nest and suffered the consequences, as did the wasps.

We also tested an idea for keeping tomato thieves at bay, which worked reasonably well. The strategy came to me by way of Kate Hodges (Foraged & Sown). When weather is dry, animals go looking for water, as they should. When puddles and other sources are unavailable, they poke holes in tomatoes and suck out the liquid, leaving you with a perfectly good looking fruit, save for the hole. It’s a frustrating site for any grower but the past two years, as our local rat population has been displaced by road and sewer construction, we’ve seen a big rise on little farm. When Kate first proposed the idea I scoffed. Leaving water out for the very creatures who were robbing from me seemed like an invitation for further trouble. But, it seemed to work! I even caught one on the trail camera enjoying the oasis.

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(Photo note: Time stamp should read am, not pm.)

Determining to only grow seeds already in our possession–once we decided to grow anything–we realized we were living in abundance we weren’t fully aware of; enough to grow a farm full of food.

A surprisingly good producer were Roma tomatoes grown from seeds we got through a MidOhio Food Bank grant program 2 years ago. In reflection, I probably didn’t grown them because I was being a snob. They game from one of the big seed companies (Burpee or Livingston) and the picture on the packet looked pretty basic. Like the uniform plum tomatoes you find in the grocery store that are pink inside and have no flavor. Turns out, they grew an incredible amount of delicious fruit, perfect roasted for Pasta Puttenesca (now on regular rotation. Yes, we are spoiled). I wish I had weighed the output of a single one of these plants. Lesson learned. Don’t shun the hand that feeds you. (And still, I will support smaller-scale seed farmers…)

My daughter and I also found a “wild” tomato plant growing between the curb and street in our neighborhood. After visiting it over a few weeks among its neighbors–“weeds” who were bound to be pulled or poisoned–we carefully rescued, transplanted, and labeled it with the name, “Fuzzy Wuzzy.” Like any good healthy tomato seedling, its stem was covered in a billion tiny hairs (aka trichomes. Super cool. Look them up. After you finish reading this.). We enjoyed a few nice big slicers care of this adoptee.

Which leads to the final lesson I wanted to record, for memory and further contemplation, and action, I hope. I had set an intention for shmita of learning more about wild edibles. Towards this end we went for a bunch of hikes with foraging friends. On one we found morels, on another boletes but overall, the hot dry weather prohibited this activity. I did harvest a ton of chanterelles over two weeks spent in the mountains of Georgia. Which was awesome. And I learned that the purslane and poke weed in the yard is edible and highly nutritious.

All in all, it was a very good season. I shouldn’t complain. (Note, I could but I won’t).

Shanah tovah to all the Jewish Farmers out there.


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Hope for the Future

This is Leo.

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In February, he wrote me this email:

Hi my name is Leo and I’m currently a freshman at Ohio State. I happened to find the Facebook page for Over the Fence Urban Farm, and immediately knew it was something I wanted to support. I’m originally from Hawaii, where through school trips and community service opportunities I was able to go to and help out at multiple local organic farms. I would love to be able to come and help out in your garden. Please email me back with any info regarding ways I can help.

I wrote back and let him know things would get going in March and gave him a rough idea of what days of the week might be good to come around. Low and behold, the first week in March, he got back in touch! He wanted to try to come around before he left for spring break. Things didn’t work out that week, but once he was back in town and completed his midterms, he reached out again. We went back and forth for a month and a half until, yesterday, we connected, just days before he leaves for summer recess.

Leo showed up on time. He was enthusiastic about what we’re doing here – asked questions, shared stories from his own experiences, smiled, helped with the chores, played with the chickens, and took a big bag of greens back to the dorm to make a salad for his friends.

Thank you, Leo. Thank you for reaching out and keeping in touch. Thank you for giving me hope for the future at a time when so many things in our country and around the world seem to be upside down and falling to pieces. Thank you for being a mensch. Have a great break and we’ll see you again in August!

(If you’d  like to read more about young people working on the farm in this post from last summer, “Help from Abroad.”)


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Field report: 2.16.17

The sun was shining bright in Columbus, Ohio today. The temperature only got to about 38°F, but it I had a purpose to be outside, down on the ground, with my hands in the soil. And I was glad for that.

I transplanted onions I started inside and moved around field sown spinach seedlings so they were more evenly distributed.

This is the last night forecasted to go below freezing for the foreseeable future. While it seems awfully weird, we’re going to take advantage of it. Hope this inspires you to do the same.

 

 

 

 

 


Inside the high tunnel.


Spinach sown in high tunnel November 5.


Winter density lettuce transplanted in January, Radicchio transplanted 2.15, Mizuna sown in November, Sassy salad mix sown in January.


Tatsoi, Kale, Chard transplanted in October. Pac Choi transplanted early February.

 

 

 

 


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Validation by Six Year Old

An important mission of our farm is demonstrating that good food, lots of good food, can be grown within city limits. I am particularly excited about passing this knowledge on to children, so they might imagine a new future for our public and private spaces. And so, it was with GREAT joy that I opened this text from one of our CSA families this morning.

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And then…

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So yeah, I’m feeling pretty validated today. Thanks Ezra.

Note: This post was previously called “Validation by Text Message” but after thinking about it, I realized it wasn’t the texting that made this exchange so powerful, it was the sic year old behind it.

 

 

 


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Tomatoes Growing Up One Vine

People sometimes look sideways at our tomato vines. We grow them up strings tied about 6 feet up from the ground, prune them down to a single fruiting vine, and they grow to be about 10-15 feet long by October. We fit around 20 plants in a 25 foot row. This practice was the result of reading Fell’s Vertical Gardening and watching a pruning tutorial on YouTube. (It’s linked in this post from a few years ago: “Tomato Fingers.”)

This year I’m trying to train more of our CSA folks to prune the plants. This is something I like to do myself both because I enjoy it and because it is somewhat exacting work. But I need to teach others what I’ve learned the past few years and I need to let go so I can get away from the farm from time to time! Pruning must be done at least once a week.

The hardest part for people to watch and understand is when I cut the suckers, some with stems 3/4 of an inch wide with flowers. They shouldn’t ever get this big but sometimes I miss one when they are young. I see the potential for fruit on those vines too, but I know from experience that it is easier for the plants to breathe, and for me to harvest their produce, when they are cut back.

People always ask whether the plants make as much fruit as they would if I let them grow out. I don’t have a scientific answer but have always assumed that since they are directing their growth in fewer directions the yield is concentrated to those areas and does better than spreading itself out. I still don’t have hard numbers to share- I’m a qualitative researcher afterall – but as the fruit sets this season, I do believe the proof is in these pictures. (top to bottom: Marbonne, Amish Paste, Sun Gold)

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Help from abroad

This is Carla.


She is sixteen. She’s from Berlin, Germany and visited Columbus this spring for a few months. While she was here she attended a local high school a few days a week and volunteered at an elementary school. Her host families took her on a few road trips. And she hung around the farm, learning and lending a hand.


It was nice having Carla around. She followed directions and shared memories of her family’s balcony garden. I appreciated hearing her observations about the school she attended while she was here and about her own school back home. Her friends were also out and about visiting new places, meeting new people. I wish I could hear them share stories of their adventures when they get back.

I wonder how different teens in this country would be if they lived in another place for a few months before they left high school and home. Some alternative schools in our area have a walk-about term for seniors. While I haven’t heard of any yet who have worked on urban farms I am sure there have been some have. (If you know of any, I’d be curious to know…). And those kids might decide to pursue lives connected to the earth as a result of their experiences. They might be the future farmers of America, working to shape our food system.

Carla came to Over the Fence because one of her host mothers is a friend and member of our CSA. She doesn’t have plans to farm at this point or even join a community garden back home. But maybe, someday, in some small way, her time with us will have an impact on the choices she makes.

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Failure in the field

Like all bloggers, I tend to emphasize our successes in the field. (I did write about some ugly carrots at one point and I stand by my love of fruta feia.) Today I thought I would share a failure.

About 3 weeks ago, we set out some red cabbage starts. You can see them on the bottom right of this image. Looking back on them now, they definitely look like they could have used a few more weeks under the lights inside before transplanting. But, it was warm and the plants on the other side of the tray were ready to go.

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Before planting, I consulted folks on the Ohio Homesteaders and Gardeners Facebook group.

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As you can see, I wasn’t alone in my poor previous attempts. I took the comments about feeding cabbage well and providing a stable environment to heart and set them out with a nice dousing of fish emulsion and a frost blanket. I should have taken more seriously the post wishing me luck.

I’m sad to those seedlings are not looking great at this point. In the photo below you can see a few (top let and bottom right) which are pretty leggy and have burnt leaves. These were two of the best looking ones I found.

Thankfully, I had some cilantro and boc choi in need of a home so I spent yesterday afternoon interplanting those between a few cabbages that will get one more chance to get going. With overnight temperatures in the 20s expected on and off this week, their outlook is not all that great.  I might try starting a few more red cabbage plants before we get much closer to the frost our date. Maybe.

Below is another problem we’re facing. The Napa cabbage we set out the same day as the red is looking good — leafing out and emitting a gorgeous green glow. However, slugs have been feasting on them. Yesterday I set out a few beer traps and hope to find some treats for the chickens later today. This is my first try with this so I’m not sure I did it right. I’ll be sure to report later.

Below is a shot of shows some of the plants that haven’t suffered much from slug attacks (see center row). I believe there’s hope for them yet…

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Service Learning with OSU EEDS Students

This afternoon I hosted half a dozen OSU students and their friends for some hands-on learning. I had visited and spoke with them last month during a Rural Sociology course at Ohio State they are enrolled in called “Population, Place, Environment.” My article, “Art Education in My Backyard: Urban Placemaking on an Urban Farm,” was included on their syllabus. Most are majoring in a multi-disciplinary degree program,”Environment, Economy, Development, and Sustainability.” I’m still trying to figure out what all this means, but it was great hanging out with them and hearing about their interests and academic pursuits.

Sarah is conducting a survey of people who live in the vicinity of urban farms in Columbus.
Joachim was recently appointed a parcel of land to garden through the city’s land bank.
Molly has been working for clean energy solutions.
Laura is interning with OEFFA.

It took me a little longer than usual to get things ready for the workday since we are still unpacking from the off season. With a little effort, I got the workspace opened up and found the tools we’d need.


Thelma and her friend Laurel arrived first, eager to get to work. I saddled them with resizing the last beds on the west side. This wasn’t easy as things have been out of wack from the start.

They got things marked off and moved soil around to get the beds back in line.


Then George, Sarah, Alayna and her friend worked on reestablishing the walking paths between the beds.


On the other side of the farm, Laura, Molly, and Joachim worked on the garlic beds. They removed the straw that was set in the fall, counted the plants, fertilized, and recovered them with a new blanket of straw.

It was a great afternoon – relaxed place, productive energy, engaging conversation – and I lamented the fact that there are only a few weeks left of the term, leaving us little opportunity for additional time together. A number of the students are graduating this spring and I feared that coming to the farm today might not have been well-timed. On the contrary, they reported that garden therapy was just what they needed. Since I’ve been grading my own students’ papers night and day with no end in site, it was just what I needed too.

Come back anytime, y’all.

 


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Foraged & Sown

This afternoon we were blessed with what The Weather Channel app predicted would be “a steady soaking rain.” But before it started, I threw some flower seeds in the cold frame, transplanted some watercress seedlings, and visited with Kate from Foraged & Sown.

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Kate, with support from Thompson, foraging blackberry canes in the easement fenceline behind our place.

She helped us pull a few blackberry starts from along the fence line and the easement behind our yard. If you’ve ever been to Pacific Northwest, you know that blackberries can be really invasive. We started with one plant about 6 years ago and now we have at least a dozen. And then there are the volunteers. When their canes reach down to the ground, blackberries send out roots and produce new canes; which produce new plants. After a few years with little attention, our plants were reproducing faster than the bunnies living under our shed.

The canes we harvested this weekend will go in the berry beds Kate’s starting at her place this season. We’re so excited to hear a final count of how many shoots we gathered and to see what becomes of them in the space Kate is cultivating!

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Buckets of blackberries!

You can find Kate every weekend starting April 25th at the Clintonville Farmer’s Market. Be sure to stop by her booth to check out what she has for sale and pick her brain about edibles that may be hiding out in your backyard. Today we learned that this little weed is Hairy Bittercress. It’s edible and tastes an awful lot like broccoli.

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Weed no more! Hairy Bittercress.