If, this morning around 8:30 a.m. EDT you heard the distant echo of a frustrated scream…well, that was me. You see, I had just discovered that despite thinking that everything was perfectly all right, something had gone very wrong in my fall garden.
Something got to the brassicas I set out a week ago and I’m pretty sure it was cutworms. They live in the soil, so were undeterred by the floating row cover protecting the plants from aerial pests. I haven’t taken an exact count yet, but I’ve lost around three dozen broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts plants. And I’m really kicking myself because I’ve dealt with cutworms before. When I set the plants out I briefly considered putting toothpicks next to their tender stems–a precaution against cutworms I always take with my cabbage plants. But then I talked myself out of it, because I’ve never had cutworm trouble with other brassicas. Such a bad idea. I wish I could go back in time and throw a box of toothpicks at past me’s head. I imagine it connecting with a satisfying “thunk.”
Before this discovery I had a much different post in mind for today. Ironically, I had actually planned to write a post expanding on some of the issues I mentioned in my earlier post about the trials and triumphs of fall gardening: pests and high temperatures, to be precise. I was going to talk about row cover and hand-picking and organic controls. And I still will. Next week.
But right now I’m going to be talking about coping with gardening failures.
To be perfectly honest, I still struggle with embracing failure and learning from my mistakes. I was the quiet, anxious kid who did everything I possibly could to avoid mistakes and conflict. Paranoid about breaking the rules, terrified of getting an answer wrong on a test. I thought going into a creative field–graphic design–would help me loosen up, but in college it was just more of the same. No room for error. So I matured into an uptight, type-A, perfectionist, control freak.
Fortunately, I got into gardening just a few months after college graduation. Gardening has taught me–and continues to teach me–that life is messy. That I’m not at all in control. And that the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry. (Robert Burns knew what he was talking about; maybe that insight came from his own farming experience.)
Somewhere out there are some bad-ass Zen gardeners who can calmly survey the loss, nod their heads, and move on. I aspire to be join their ranks someday. That kind of objectivity and acceptance requires some serious perspective–and a lack of perspective is one of my biggest weaknesses. I’m really, really good at making mountains out of molehills in my mind and letting them overwhelm me.
So I’ll admit, the first step I took in dealing with today’s setback was to flip out about it. I raged at the loss of the beautiful plants I’d grown from seed and fumed at the frustration of having to start over. I felt stressed by the pressure of the changing seasons–despite a 10-day forecast full of highs in the mid-90s, I was keenly aware that my time for getting these fall crops established is quickly slipping away.
The next feeling that came up was insecurity. I thought about not writing a blog post for the week–who wants to read about my stupid mistakes, right? Then I thought: what if I and my family really were depending on this fall garden to get us through the winter? What if we suddenly didn’t have the luxury of buying food from the store? How would I ever feed myself and my family when I could even keep a bed full of brassicas alive in August? (And if that isn’t an excellent example of my personal neuroses, I don’t know what is.)
But some words of wisdom from my mom–a Master Gardener for more than 20 years now–made me realize that it was important for me to sit down and put these thoughts to (digital) paper. Because at some point, all gardeners of all skill levels go through this same experience. Because in the internet age, it is way too easy for these feelings of failure to be magnified by all the perfectly styled photos on Pinterest and how-to blog posts. Because it’s too easy to start thinking that everyone else’s garden is perfect while you’re struggling to figure it out.
Gardening has taught me–and is still teaching me, over and over again, because I have a thick skull–that I’ll never have it all figured out. At best, I’ll become skilled at cultivating the tenuous relationship between human and earth. My feet will grow nimble enough to navigate the spider-silk tight rope that stretches between last and first frost, though I’ll still slip off and come crashing to the ground on a regular basis. There will always be something more to learn, a new plant to grow, an old technique to improve.
Gardening has also taught me that adaptation is the key to survival. Gardening failures are an invitation to step back and reconsider your approach.
In my case, I should have gone with my gut and used my toothpick trick to keep cutworms from shearing off my plants at ground level. I also should have used entirely new and pristine row cover over the plants, instead of reusing old pieces with a few small holes in them–just in case some of the damage was due to grasshoppers, which are largely impossible to control except by exclusion.
It’s also possible that I need to rethink my efforts to grow brassicas here in South Carolina. I’ve done it many times before and I’ll no doubt do it again (I can’t live without frost-sweetened kale in the winter), but they are so terribly attractive to so many pests.
I’ve only been on a horse once in my life, but I’ve gotten thrown by gardening plenty of times so I know deep down that the only remedy is to get back up and try again. I have a few replacement plants on hand, held back when I planted the rest out last week in case I lost a few. (Ha!) And even though most local stores don’t even have their shipments of fall plants in yet, I did manage to track down more replacements at a local nursery this afternoon.
4 Steps to Dealing with Gardening Failures
So to distill this experience into something you might find useful in your own gardening practice, here are my tips for recovering from gardening failures.
1. Allow yourself to feel frustration, anger, sadness, etc. as needed. Gardening failures represent the loss of your scarce time, resources, and plants; it is completely legitimate to feel strong emotions as a result.
2. Analyze the failure and isolate the causes, realizing that many times these causes lie outside of your control–especially when it comes to the weather. Take special note of factors you can control, however.
3. Create and implement solutions. These could range from the micro (mulch or fertilize plants, increase or decrease watering, etc.) to the macro (grow a different variety, grow an entirely different crop, move your garden to a new part of the yard, etc.) and from the short-term (today, tomorrow, next week) to the long-term (later this season, next year).
4. Make a record for future reference. Write down the problem, the causes, and steps taken to find a solution. Try to remember to come back later and make further notes once you find out how your solution worked.
What’s the worst gardening failure you’ve experienced? Let’s commiserate in the comments below!
Although it’s time to start thinking about cool-weather herbs for the fall garden, it is still August and that means I have a whole lot of basil on my hands. Since this summer-loving herb will soon be on its way out, I’m making sure to enjoy it while I can.
For most people, basil is synonymous with pesto, and this is a fine time of year for it–as a sauce on pasta, a spread on sandwiches, a condiment for meats and grains, and more. But did you know that the secret to green and gorgeous pesto lies in one simple trick?
Why Blanch Basil?
When I first started growing basil and making pesto, I always used the fresh leaves. I picked them off the stems, packed them into a measuring cup, and then dumped them right into the food processor. But I ran into the eternal problem of pesto-makers everywhere: discoloration. Within 12 hours or so, my gorgeous green pesto would fade to a muddy, unappetizing shade of brown. I tried all the tips and tricks I came across to prevent this–pouring a thin layer of olive oil on top of the pesto to keep the air out, adding lemon juice to the recipe, and so on. Nothing worked. Even worse, after a few days in the fridge the pesto had also lost most of its bright basil flavor.
Then one day I came across some information about the benefits of blanching your basil first. Blanching is a must when you’re processing fruits and vegetables to freeze–it neutralizes enzymes that cause the loss of color, texture, and flavor over time. It’s the same with basil, whether you plan on storing it in the fridge for immediate consumption or freezing it for winter use. (Blanching also has the side benefit of getting your basil really clean–much better than a quick rinse under the faucet.)
When I tried it out, I was amazed at how much flavor the blanched basil retained, and how green my pesto was even after days in the fridge! I was a convert. I also found that, just like with fruits and vegetables, blanching my basil before freezing it made a world of difference.
But for all its pros, blanching does have a few cons. First, it is time consuming. Not only will you need to pinch or snip the basil leaves off the stems as you would if you were making fresh pesto, but you’ll also have several additional steps to get through before you finally get the food processor going. When you’re blanching large quantities of basil you may need to block out a few hours for the task.
Second, it requires additional equipment. Making pesto with fresh basil requires very little equipment; usually just a chef’s knife, food processor, and a spatula for scraping the sides. Blanching, on the other hand, requires a pot full of boiling water and a large container or sink full of ice water. You’ll also need a additional utensils and supplies on hand, like a slotted spoon or spider, cloth or paper towels, plates, bowls, and measuring cups.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, it reduces the volume of your basil. In my experience, after blanching you’ll end up with about an eighth (1/8) of the basil you started with–a significant change. If you’re like me and always plant way too much basil, this can actually be a pro! But if you’re buying expensive bunches of basil at the market or grocery store, this can be a serious drawback.
Personally, I think blanching basil is still worth it despite the drawbacks. But it’s okay if it’s just not your cup of tea. There’s nothing wrong with making pesto with fresh basil leaves–just use it up quickly!
How to Blanch Basil
When you’re ready for a basil-blanching session, first get your supplies together. You’ll need fresh basil, a large pot (I use a 4-quart stockpot) filled two-thirds of the way with water for blanching the basil, a slotted spoon or spider to fish the blanched basil out of the pot and later the ice bath, a sink or large container full of ice water to shock the basil and stop the cooking process, measuring cups, plates or bowls to transport and store the basil, and cloth or paper towels for wringing the water out of the blanched basil.
Set your pot full of water to boil on maximum heat while you get your ice bath ready. You can pinch the leaves off your basil ahead of time, but I prefer to do so while my water is boiling. That way I minimize the amount of discoloration that occurs from normal handling–whenever you pinch leaves off a basil stem there will always be some bruising, and it only gets worse the longer the leaves sit afterwards.
As I mentioned above, I find that my volume of blanched basil is about one-eighth (1/8) of the original volume. When I’m blanching basil for pesto, I like to do it in batches of 4 cups of firmly-packed leaves, which is usually the product of about 8 stems of fresh-cut basil. That leaves me with 1/2 cup of blanched basil once the water’s been wrung out. So if your recipe calls for 1 cup of blanched basil (see my recipe below), you know you’ll need to start with 8 cups of firmly-packed leaves, or do two batches of 4 cups.
Now, what do I mean by “firmly-packed?” Most basil leaves, especially the largest ones, are concave rather than flat. So when you try to measure their volume, it can get a little subjective. If you place a handful of basil leaves in a measuring cup as they are, nice and fluffy, half a dozen leaves might fill a 1-cup measure to the top. But if you press them down and get the air out from between them, those same six leaves may only measure 1/8 of a cup. So you want to find a happy medium between getting a good number of basil leaves into your measuring cup and packing them so tightly you crush the leaves.
When your leaves are ready and your water is at a rolling boil, dump (yes, it’s a technical term) your basil into the water and make sure all the leaves have been fully submerged by gently pressing down with your slotted spoon or spider. They’ll float back up to the top of the pot, but that’s okay as long as they’re entirely wet.
I recommend blanching basil for 5 seconds. A lot of websites recommend 15 seconds, but I find this is way too long–keep in mind that the aromatic oils that make herbs so flavorful are also very volatile and easily destroyed by excessive heat. I don’t wait until the water comes back to a boil to start my count–I start it when all of the basil has been submerged in the water. Occasionally, I’ll still be fishing a few lonely leaves out around the 10 second mark, but I don’t worry about it as long as the bulk of the basil has already been safely removed. You can use a kitchen timer to mark your 5 seconds, but I just count it off in my head–it’s such a short period of time that by the time you hit “start” on the timer and turn back to the pot, it’ll already be beeping.
This is where it’s important to hustle. At the end of those 5 seconds, use your slotted spoon or spider to remove the basil from the boiling water and transfer it to a bowl or plate. Then dump the blanched basil into the ice water bath as quickly as possible. Stir it with your preferred utensil to make sure it’s all been submerged. The ice water puts a stop to the chemical reactions initiated by the boiling water–if you skip this step and just leave your blanched basil at room temperature to cool, it’ll have enough heat in it to keep cooking down into a soggy mess.
Once the basil is blanched, it’s actually resistant to the same cold that would have destroyed it when it was fresh. You can leave it in the ice water bath for a few minutes, but don’t leave it submerged for too long as it can still discolor a bit.
With your slotted spoon, spider, or even your hands, fish all the basil leaves out of the ice water bath and place them on a cloth or paper towel on top of a plate or baking sheet to catch the water. Wring the leaves out, taking care not to be too rough. Transfer the blanched basil to a dry container–now you’re ready to make pesto!
Pesto, Pistou, What’s the Difference?
Confession time: I’ve been talking about pesto this whole time, but I don’t make or eat pesto any more. A year or two ago, I actually switched over to making basil pistou. Pistou is a French sauce that is very much like pesto, only without the nuts and cheese. The reason I changed recipes was because it got increasingly difficult to find non-Chinese pine nuts (long story short, a certain variety of Chinese pine nuts is the likely cause of “pine mouth,” a relatively harmless but disturbing temporary disorder, and it’s almost impossible to know which variety is which just by looking at them in the package) and I don’t like the taste of walnuts, a common substitute for pine nuts, in my pesto.
Enter pistou. At its simplest, pistou consists of basil, garlic, olive oil, and seasonings. You can also garnish with fresh grated Parmesan cheese as you would pesto. And I make it the same way I did pesto–in a food processor, though traditionally pistou was pounded down in a mortar and pestle.
Basil Pistou Recipe
This is my go-to recipe for basil pistou; I freeze large quantities of this every summer to use when basil season is a distant memory. My favorite use for pistou is as a sauce on homemade pizza, but you can use it wherever you would use basil pesto. Freeze in ice cube trays, then transfer to zip-top or vacuum-sealed bags to store frozen for up to 6-8 months.
If you’d like to convert this to an honest-to-goodness pesto recipe, just add 1/4 cup of your favorite nut (pine, walnut, pecan, etc.) to the food processor and fold in 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese at the end.
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup blanched basil
1/2 cup olive oil + more for desired texture
1/8 tsp kosher salt + more to taste
cracked black pepper to taste
grated Parmesan to garnish (optional)
Place garlic cloves in a food processor and process until minced. Add basil and process until the leaves are broken up.
While the food processor is running, pour the oil in a slow, steady stream through the feed tube and into the mixture. Once you’ve used all the oil, stop the food processor and remove the top. Scrape the sides down with a spatula. If you like a thinner pistou/pesto, repeat the preceding step and add more oil until you reach your desired consistency. (As you can see from the photos, I like mine chunky.)
Add the salt and pepper and adjust seasonings to taste.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl if using immediately and garnish with grated Parmesan if so desired. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for up to a week.
To freeze your pistou/pesto, scoop the mixture into ice cube trays, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the freezer overnight. The next day, pop the cubes out of the trays and store in a zip-top or vacuum-sealed bag for 6-8 months in the freezer.
Have you ever made pesto (or pistou) at home? Share your stories, tips, and tricks in the comments!
I’ve talked a lot lately about fall vegetables, and written an extraordinarily long post about the king of summer, basil. But today I wanted to write a short and sweet post on three annual or biennial cool-weather herbs for the fall garden. (Well, as short and sweet of a post as I’m capable of writing…)
Now before we get started I do want to note that fall is a fantastic time of year for planting perennial herbs like thyme, sage, lemon balm, mint, and more. But that’s a post for another day. Today we’re going to talk about cool-weather lovers parsley, cilantro, and dill. All three (plus the bonus herb at the end) are members of Family Apiaceae, also known as the carrot or parsley family.
Also: please remember that I’m writing this from the perspective of a Southern gardener in USDA Zone 7b/8a. So what survives the winters here may not do so further north!
#1: Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Of the three herbs we’re talking about today, parsley is by far the most tolerant of hot weather–it can stay fresh and green all summer with a good, heavy mulch and moderate water. But it’s in its prime in the cooler weather of spring and fall. I find that its taste is also better in the cooler months; in the summer it can get a little strong and even acrid.
Parsley is a biennial, which means that it produces only leaves in its first growing season and then flowers and sets seed in its second season. (Well, except for this year, when some of my parsley started bolting in its first season…go figure.) So a parsley plant put in the ground this fall will produce only leaves until next spring, when it will start to flower.
Many people grow parsley as an annual and simply take it out before it flowers. But parsley flowers are very attractive to beneficial insect predators like ladybugs as well as flying pollinators–so if you have the space to leave it in the ground while it flowers, I highly recommend it.
Parsley is a hardy herb so it will continue to produce well through light frosts. I can usually expect a good harvest through late December, when I use a huge bunch of it to make my favorite herb & veggie dip for Christmas dinner!
Parsley can sustain cold damage in heavy frosts, however, so if you want a continuing harvest through the depths of winter you’ll need to protect it with heavy-duty row cover or cloches or grow it in a cold frame. Even without any protection, most parsley plants will survive the winter to flower in the spring due to their biennial nature.
Recommended Varieties: “Giant of Italy” (Italian), “Moss Curled” (Curly)
#2: Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
In other parts of the world, the name coriander refers to both the leaves and seeds of this plant, but in the U.S. we call the leaves cilantro and the seeds coriander. Contrary to popular belief, cilantro is not a hot-weather herb. It prefers the cooler temperatures of spring and fall and is actually quite tolerant of the cold once established.
Cilantro is an annual, so it will produce leaves early on and then flowers and sets seed later in the same season. This bolting mechanism is triggered when soil temperatures rise above 75-80 °F–which happens early in our South Carolina summers.
If your heart is set on cilantro throughout the summer, sow frequent successions, mulch heavily around the plants, and situate them in a place where they receive only two or three hours of direct sunlight per day. Or you can let your cilantro bolt, collect the seeds, and use them to sow more plants or use them as a culinary spice or medicinal herb.
Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that bolting mechanism when we grow cilantro as a fall crop. It thrives in the cooler temperatures of fall and, like parsley, weathers light frosts well. Also like parsley, it can sustain damage in heavy frosts so offer it some protection for continued harvests.
Overwintered cilantro plants not protected from frosts are occasionally tough enough to survive and flower in the spring, but more often than not I find that exposed plants will succumb to the cold.
Recommended Varieties: “Calypso”
#3: Dill (Anethum graveolens)
This is a weird one, I know–who grows dill in the fall when the cucumbers are long gone? But it is indeed possible as dill falls into the “cool-weather herb” category. (And it’s also possible to sow a late summer succession of cukes for fall harvest!)
Like cilantro, dill is an annual that produces leaves early on and then flowers and sets seed later in the same season. Also like cilantro, hot weather will prompt dill to form flowering heads earlier rather than later.
I actually don’t mind when my dill bolts because I get more mileage out of the flowering tops for pickles than I do out of the ferny leaves for cooking. But for those of you who prefer the leaves for culinary use, bolting plants can be frustrating. So if you plant some dill in the fall, you’ll have a longer window of opportunity for harvesting the leaves than you do in early summer.
You may read in books or online that dill doesn’t transplant well, but this is a bit of a half-truth. Dill doesn’t like to have its roots disturbed, so bare-root transplants don’t work well. But normal potted dill plants (1 plant per pot, please, to avoid having to divide them and disturb said roots) with good root systems in potting soil do just fine when transplanted into the garden.
Dill is more sensitive to cold than low-growing parsley and cilantro. If you offer your plants good protection they may survive the first few frosts but they are not hardy enough to survive long once winter really sets in. So enjoy dill leaf fresh in the fall and preserve some of your harvest dried, frozen, or in a preparation like herbed butters for winter use.
Recommended Varieties: “Dukat”, “Fernleaf”
Honorable Mention: Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
Chervil is pretty obscure in America, though it’s a quintessential French herb with a lovely, delicate anise flavor. It pairs well with fish, chicken, and eggs. Like parsley, cilantro, and dill, it’s a cool-weather herb and a good candidate for fall gardening. I simply can’t find a spot in my spring and summer gardens where chervil will actually grow–no matter how sheltered, it just keels over in the heat. So I’m hoping to give it a try in the fall garden this year. I’ll let you know how it goes!
What is it about basil that has people so obsessed with this summer-loving herb? Maybe it’s basil’s complex aroma, a fresh green scent layered with hints of floral sweetness, anise, and spicy cloves. Maybe it’s the way it goes with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese like delectable peas in a pod. Maybe it’s the way it thrives in the heat when other more delicate culinary herbs have long since faded away. Or maybe it’s an instinctive knowledge that basil’s aromatic oils can help promote digestion and soothe summer stress.
Common sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) has massive appeal right now for both market gardeners and home gardeners. For market gardeners, it can be something of a cash crop: $1 an ounce for fresh-cut basil is a common price for high-quality, organically-grown stems. But for many home gardeners, basil can more closely resemble the dreaded basilisk with which it was associated in ancient times: cranky, challenging, and followed by death. If only I had a nickel for every person who told me sad tales–of bolting basil, stunted and dying plants, and pricey bunches of basil blackened and shriveled up in the crisper drawer–during my years behind a table at the farmers market. And the most depressing part for all of these folks who’ve been conquered by the basilisk–I mean, basil–is that they’d worked so hard at growing it or keeping it fresh.
The root of the problem? It’s often just a matter of poor technique.
I feel a little weird writing this post, to be honest, because the three techniques I’m about to share with y’all could not be easier. But time and again I’ve spoken with folks who aren’t aware of these simple practices.
First up, a tip for all of you home gardeners out there.
Tip # 1: Feed the Beast
Here’s how the conversation goes:
Customer: Oh my! Your basil is so gorgeous…I think I want to get a bunch. I’ve tried growing it but mine turned yellow and died.
Farmer: I’m so sorry to hear that! Let’s troubleshoot it so you’ll have better luck next time. First of all, were you growing it in a container or in the ground?
Customer: In a container.
(At this point I know exactly what their answer to the next question is almost certain to be.)
Farmer: And how often were you fertilizing it?
I can count on one hand the number of times in five years that folks answered that they had fertilized their container-grown plants and they’d still died.
Here’s the deal: container gardening is absolutely fabulous, and I cannot recommend it enough for those who don’t have the real estate (or time) for raised beds or an in-ground garden. Container gardening is also a brilliant strategy for growing many culinary and medicinal herbs.
That said, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect with a lot of new gardeners practicing container gardening: they think that potting soil out of the bag has the complete spectrum of nutrients fast-growing annuals like basil need. That’s never the case. Even if you use a soil mix that contains a slow-release fertilizer, it will generally be used up within the first few weeks of regular watering.
So whether you grow basil in the ground or in a container, it must be fertilized periodically. You can get away with much more infrequent fertilization when growing it in the soil because the plants’ roots are free to quest for nutrients there, but in a container you need to fertilize your plants with a mild, organic fertilizer (I swear by OMRI-listed hydrolyzed fish fertilizer) at least once a month. I’ve even been known to fertilize in small doses as frequently as every two weeks, depending on the size of the container and how many plants I have in it. And fertilization really does yield results: a few years back, I harvested a full pound of fresh basil off of three plants I was growing in a 1′ x 3′ container on a deck.
Keep listening, home gardeners, because tip #2 is also for you…
Tip #2: Quit Pinching and Start Pruning
Let’s revisit the market.
Customer: Oh my! Your basil is so gorgeous…I think I want to get a bunch. I’ve tried growing it but mine is just never very productive.
Farmer: I’m so sorry to hear that! Let’s troubleshoot it so you’ll have better luck next time. First of all, were you growing it in a container or in the ground?
Customer: In the ground. And I’m very good about pinching the tops and flowers off as soon as I see them.
Farmer: So about that…
As the popularity of basil has skyrocketed, so has the idea that when basil starts flowering the leaves are of no further culinary use so it’s imperative to keep it from doing so. While this may be true of cilantro and other annuals that essentially lose their leaves when they bolt, it’s really only a half truth when it comes to basil.
The part that’s true: Yes, when basil reaches full flower the flavor of the leaves can change, and not for the better. I find that when basil goes “off,” the anise and clove undertones that are normally subordinate to the grassy and floral high notes come to the forefront. When this happens, basil’s flavor can be spicy and burning. There are probably some people out there who enjoy that flavor, but I am not one of them. When my plants reach this point, I quit harvested from them and leave them to flower for the pollinators.
The part that’s not true: I do not find that this change in flavor is as married to bud development as people seem to think. In my experience, when the first buds start showing up on your basil, it’s absolutely not the plant’s death knell–there is rarely a flavor change at that point. I’ve even harvested basil for our own use that was in full bloom, with multiple white flowers open, and it’s tasted just fine.
The sign I go by when choosing which plants to keep harvesting is tough stems. I’ve found that this is much more likely to signal that a basil plant is no longer in peak flavor. If I try to prune a stem of basil from the plant and it’s fleshy and cuts easily, regardless of flowering stage, that usually indicates that all is well. But when I try to cut the stem and it’s much harder and woody, I can often confirm by the smell and taste of the leaves that the flavor is off.
So if the flavor of basil isn’t as intimately connected to its flowering stage as we tend to believe, then there’s really very little reason to “pinch” the buds off as soon as you see them emerge. For one, it’s unnecessary work. For two, constantly pinching just the basil “tops”–the first two leaf clusters at the top of a stem–where the buds emerge is a poor harvesting practice and often stunts the overall growth of the plant.
Here’s the secret: basil likes a good haircut. As long as you leave about half of the plant intact to re-grow, you can feel free to harvest the rest if you so desire. The more you harvest basil, the more it grows–provided, of course, the growing conditions are good.
But we don’t want to go out to the garden and haphazardly whack half the plant just because we can. Maximizing your basil harvest requires a little bit of strategy:
Whenever you harvest basil, always be sure to cut the stem to right above a leaf node. I recommend cutting off at least two leaf nodes at a time from an individual stem (you can count the cluster of leaves at the top of the stem as one leaf node).
A lot of people aren’t sure what a leaf node looks like, so I’ve highlighted them in the photos above. A leaf node is just the place where side shoots emerge. These shoots can grow to become new tops, but they’ll really only do that if you remove the stem and tops above them. It’s important to note that you should cut the stem back as close to the leaf node as possible.
If you leave an inch or more of bare stem sticking up above the leaf node, the plant will continue to ferry nutrients up the stem, diverting them from the little shoots that we really want to grow bigger. Bare, protruding stems can also promote rot, so be sure it’s a tidy cut close to the next node.
So now that you know about leaf nodes, you can probably see why all that pinching wasn’t doing much good. Since only a fraction of the overall plant material was being removed, the basil plant had no reason to send energy to all those little side shoots that could have become big and leafy. Instead, it just kept sending energy to the tops of the plants, where the biological imperative to flower and set seed was in full effect.
This third and final tip is for home gardeners and basil buyers alike. Now that you home gardeners are going to have a bounty of basil on your hands, you need to know a little bit about post-harvest handling and storage. Folks who buy basil at farmers markets, or who benefit from gardening friends, will also find this a handy trick.
Tip #3: Cold is the Enemy, Water is Your Ally
Before we get to the number one mistake people make when they store their fresh-cut basil, let’s talk about post-harvest handling: what you do with your herbs (or veggies) between the time you pick them in the garden and the time you store them in the fridge or at room temperature.
Basil should basically be treated like a leafy green after harvesting, and like cut flowers for storage. I dunk it in clean, cool (not cold) water, giving it a nice little swish to dislodge any insect stowaways or dust.
Always handle basil by the stem and never by the leaves as they bruise easily. Bruising shows up as dark brown or black discoloration. Trim the stem ends after rinsing as you would with cut flowers. Basil stem ends begin to close over immediately after harvest, so you want to open them back up before placing your stem or stems in a glass of water–again, just like cut flowers.
A coffee mug or tumbler glass works very well for storing a rubber-banded bunch of basil, since they’re relatively shallow and broad. Whatever container you use, just be sure that the stem ends are submerged and that the bulk of the bunch is supported so it won’t topple out of the container once you walk away.
And here we are at the number one mistake people make when storing basil. I want to shout this from the rooftops. Never, ever store your basil in the refrigerator! (As a side note, never, ever store garlic bulbs or whole tomatoes in the fridge either.)
Basil is a heat-loving plant that’s extremely sensitive to cold. Basil plants die when the first frost comes. Refrigerator temperatures hover around 40° F or lower; this is far too cold for basil. In the fridge, the cell walls will rupture and the leaves will blacken, which is a sign of cold damage.
Let me tell you a story to drive this point home. Several years ago, on a Friday, I was doing harvest and prep for our Saturday morning market. It was probably sometime in June, and the basil was ready for its first cutting. It was such an enjoyable job–the basil was beautiful and fragrant, and I was happy to fill a whole tub with it. I carefully rubber-banded and dunked the bunches, then propped them up in a big bin with an inch of water at the bottom for the stems. I then left the bin by the sink while I went to harvest more herbs.
When I came back about 20 or 30 minutes later, I immediately noticed the bin was gone. I had a moment of horrible realization and just knew that someone had put it in the big stainless steel cooler while I was in the garden. I rushed to the cooler, flung open the door, saw the bin inside, and literally wailed, “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” I’m pretty sure I made an agonized Luke Skywalker-clutching-his-stump-of-a-wrist face as well.
In the short time I was gone the damage was already done. I pulled the bin out and surveyed the cold damage. I started pulling bunches out, hoping that some were salvageable…but none of them were. I had to compost the entire bin, and I had no basil to sell the next morning at the market.
So please, please don’t put your basil in the fridge. In water, at room temperature, fresh-cut basil can last for up to a week and still be in great condition. If you’re diligent and change the water in the storage container every day or two, and give the stems a little swish in water and another trim to freshen them up around the seven-day mark, you might even get two weeks out of your cut basil–I’ve had customers tell me they’ve accomplished this feat with a smile on their faces, and it always made me smile too.
Because with a little bit of post-harvest and storage know-how, they were empowered. They had taken the basilisk by the horns (or maybe tail, in this case, since the glare of a basilisk means instant death) and had mastered it. Not only did they have fresh basil for all their culinary needs right there on their kitchen counter for days on end, but they also didn’t waste any of their hard-earned money by having to compost blackened basil that got forgotten in the back of the fridge.
So, basil-lovers, go forth and conquer!
Are you sensing a theme yet? It’s July, it’s hot and humid outside, and I’m up to my ears in tomatoes and beans. I’ve only just harvest the first few okra pods, but here I am thinking about this year’s garlic seed order.
For those of you who are new to garlic cultivation: it goes in the ground in the late fall, lies dormant through the winter, and then does most of its growing in the spring for an early summer harvest. Although it occupies a place in the garden for seven or eight months of the year, it does so during a time where there is less garden activity and less of a demand for that space. And homegrown garlic is such a revelation that it’s worth the wait.
My relationship with garlic is…unique. At times, it’s bordered on obsession. I’ve spent many seasons fretting and fuming over garlic-growing challenges, wept over losses to rain and rot, skipped an entire year of growing it because I couldn’t handle the stress of bringing it to market anymore, and when I finally let it go and mostly ignored this past year’s planting I got incredibly lucky with respect to the weather and had my best harvest to date. I’ve read garlic books cover-to-cover, pored over varietal descriptions online, grown more than a dozen different cultivars, and performed garlic taste-tests complete with sprigs of parsley to cleanse the palate between samples.
I might have a bit of a garlic problem.
I could wax poetic about all the reasons to grow garlic, but I’ll leave that for another post. Today, let’s assume you’ve already decided that you would like to grow some this year and need to source some seed.
What Is “Seed Garlic,” and Why Is It So Expensive?
The term “seed garlic” can be a little confusing–with a name like that, you might expect it to come in a nice, neat little packet like the seed of other allium family members like onions and leeks. But modern garlic doesn’t often set seed as we know it. Over hundreds of years of domestication, garlic has almost entirely lost the ability to reproduce sexually–that is, by flowering and setting seed. Some hardneck varieties can still perform this type of reproduction with the help of a human hand, but seed viability is extremely low (less than 10% germination).
The reason for this loss of reproductive ability is because humans have long capitalized on garlic’s ability to reproduce asexually through clove division. So when you see a reference to “seed garlic,” it’s actually a reference to a whole bulb of garlic, which is composed of multiple cloves. Each individual clove will yield a new plant.
Here’s the rub, though: the bulb size of the new plant is directly related to the size of the original clove. So the biggest and best garlic bulbs will come from the biggest and best cloves…which in turn come from the biggest and best bulbs of the prior year’s harvest. So when garlic farmers sort their crop, they save back the biggest bulbs to plant or sell as seed, sell the mid-sized bulbs at market for fresh eating, and keep the smallest bulbs for their own use. Since seed garlic is literally the cream of the crop, gardeners and farmers can expect to pay a premium for those big, beautiful bulbs.
Sourcing Your Seed Garlic
So seed garlic is going to be expensive no matter where you look. But it’s sometimes more economical to purchase your seed garlic directly from garlic farmers rather than from seed companies. The seed companies are usually purchasing the garlic from the individual farmers anyway, but then have to mark up the retail price to get a return. There’s certainly nothing wrong with purchasing seed garlic from a reputable company, but you will often pay more per pound.
On the other hand, ordering from seed companies can be convenient–some carry enough different varieties that they can serve as a one-stop shop for your garlic-growing needs. Some of them also offer smaller units of purchase or even sampler packs, which can be helpful if your growing space is limited but you’d like to try several different varieties. Whether you order direct from farms or from seed companies, it’s fairly easy to find certified organic stock.
And in case you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned anything about just getting garlic from the grocery store to plant: it’s really not a great idea. Sometimes it’s been sprayed with chemical growth inhibitors to prolong its shelf life, and more often than not it hasn’t been handled very gently during transport–which can lead to damaged or rotted cloves, which you definitely don’t want to plant. And most of the garlic you’ll find in the stores is “California Early” or a related softneck variety grown more for storage than for flavor. Of course, I see local newspaper articles crop up every few years sharing the tales of backyard gardeners who just “planted what [they] got from the store” and swear by it. So it can work in a pinch. But there’s a whole world of garlic out there for you to explore!
Order Early for Best Selection
Depending on where they’re located, most garlic farms bring in the year’s harvest from June through August. Many of them–and the seed companies they supply–begin taking orders a few weeks before harvest, once they can be confident they’ll have a crop to sell. The demand for seed garlic–from small market farms and from backyard gardeners–is only growing, but there aren’t that many new garlic farms selling seed on a yearly basis. So many farms and seed companies sell out of certain varieties quickly, leaving the latecomers to take what they can get. If you want a good selection of cultivars to choose from, it’s best to get your orders in starting in July. But if you’re a little late, don’t panic. Some of the more exotic varieties will probably be sold out by the end of August, but more common ones like “California Early” and “Music” can often be had well into the fall because they’re grown in larger quantities.
It will usually be posted in a prominent place on their website, but do note that most farms and seed companies don’t ship seed garlic until a little closer to planting time–usually beginning in September–because fresh garlic must cure for several weeks after harvest and then the farms must sort and grade their harvest.
How Much Seed Garlic Should You Order?
Figuring out how much seed garlic to order can be a little tricky. First, seed garlic is expensive–so if you’re trying your hand at garlic cultivation for the very first time, you’ll want to start small. Second, it’s impossible to say that X pounds of garlic will plant Y row feet because different varieties have different numbers of cloves per bulb–and the number of cloves in your order determines the number of new plants you’ll have. For instance, “German Extra Hardy” has a hard limit of 4-5 cloves per bulb, while “Inchelium Red” has anywhere from 10-18 cloves per bulb. So one pound of the former won’t go nearly as far in terms of row feet as the latter. Many farms and seed companies that sell seed garlic will include this information in their cultivar descriptions, and I’ve seen some websites that even provide an “average cloves per pound” number, which is very helpful.
You’ll see a lot of different numbers for garlic spacing, but the most important thing to take away is that garlic actually does better when it’s planted more densely (to a certain point). I use a 6″ spacing both within my rows and between my rows, and plant three rows across in a 32″ wide raised bed. So if you’re mathematically inclined, you can calculate your available space and figure out how many cloves will fit in it, then order the appropriate quantity.
But if you’re a new gardener and just want to get started, here’s my advice: do not order more than 1-2 pounds of seed garlic total for your first outing, and limit yourself to 2-4 varieties total. Once you have your first year of garlic growing under your belt, then you can go crazy and grow a dozen different varieties at a time. Because if you get bitten by the garlic bug…well, it’s easy to go overboard.
Another quick note for those new to garlic cultivation: there are two primary types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. In general, hardneck varieties do better in areas with cold winters, while softnecks do well in both cold and warm winter areas. That said, I live in South Carolina and grow a mix of hardneck and softneck varieties each year. If we have a very mild winter, the hardnecks might not do that well and will produce only small bulbs–but when we luck out and get a cold winter like this past one, it’s possible to get some really nice-sized hardneck bulbs. If you live in an area with warm winters like us and are risk-averse, only order softneck varieties. If you’re comfortable with experimentation, though, I’d recommend trying both types.
A Few Seed Garlic Sources
I’ve ordered from a wide variety of garlic farms and seed companies over the years. The list below is far from comprehensive; in fact, it’s just scratching the surface. The entries here were selected mostly for their broad cultivar selections and certified organic options, not necessarily their prices. There are lots of small garlic farms selling seed out there, and most large mid- to large seed companies will offer at least a few varieties of garlic for sale. So you can shop around to get the best price and most obscure varieties, or you can do all your shopping in one place. Either way, get those orders in soon!
Big John’s Garden | Filaree Farm | Hood River Garlic | Grey Duck Garlic
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply | Seed Savers Exchange | Territorial Seed Company
P.S. I hesitate to recommend specific garlic varieties because what will grow well for you will likely be different than what grows well for me–depending on your zone, your soil, your winter temperatures, and so on. But my favorite garlic varieties include “German Extra Hardy,” “Inchelium Red,” “Chesnok Red,” “Silver White,” “Spanish Roja,” and “Georgian Fire.”
Now that I’ve got you at least thinking about putting in a fall garden this year, it’s time to talk about the pros and cons. Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of fall gardening. In fact, it’s probably my favorite gardening season of the year, and my favorite selection of vegetables. (Grass-fed lamb stew with home-grown carrots, turnips, and rutabagas served over a pile of steamed rice…be still my beating heart.)
But let’s get real for a second here. Although there are some huge advantages to fall gardening–which we’ll discuss momentarily–there are still the usual gardening challenges like pests and weather extremes. Fortunately, these challenges can be a little easier to deal with in the fall than at other times of the year. But the success of your fall garden hinges on being prepared for those challenges.
Before we launch into the trials, however, let’s hit some of the triumphs.
Triumph #1: Eating fresh produce from the garden well past the first frost feels good and makes you more resilient.
Just when your summer veggies are biting the dust, your fall crops will be gearing up for production. You can enjoy fresh vegetables and herbs from your garden well into the fall and even early winter (depending on where you live and how well you practice season-extending techniques). Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to come out of cans: it can come straight out of the garden. Just wash off the dirt and get cooking. If you’ve not yet had that experience, let me tell you that it is a distinctly empowering feeling.
Learning how to grow a great fall garden also makes you more resilient. If, heaven forbid, it became necessary for you to supplement (or even replace) your diet with home-grown food, fall gardening would be a vital piece of that puzzle. Lots of fall veggies are perfect for lacto-fermenting, and here in the South many root vegetables can be stored right in the ground through much of the winter.
Triumph #2: Better-tasting vegetables will inspire you to eat more of them.
As I mentioned in my last post on fall gardening, it’s a biological fact that fall-grown greens and root crops taste better than their spring-grown counterparts. Think you can’t stand the bitter taste of kale? Try it in the fall and you might change your tune! It’s not so much of a chore to eat your dark leafy greens on the regular when they taste downright delicious.
One of my most eye-opening gustatory experiences came in late December 2009, when I visited a friend who was taking care of a farm outside of Portland, Maine. One night, she prepared a ridiculously simple snack: carrot sticks and home-made hummus. But when I took a bite, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head. I was eating the best carrot of my life. It was sweeter than any carrot I’d ever tasted, with a crisp and juicy crunch. I expressed my delight and my friend told me that the carrots came from the farm’s fall garden. I knew right then that fall carrots were the only way to go for me.
Triumph #3: Growing cool-weather crops in the fall saves space in the spring and summer garden.
Here in the South, a lot of cool-weather vegetables are just not an option for late spring and summer gardening. And even if spinach in July was an option, let’s face it: summer is all about the hot-weather crops like tomatoes, corn, and peppers. Why take up space in the summer garden with root crops and greens when you’d be better off devoting that prime real estate to the fruit crops?
We’ve gotten to the point where our spring garden is getting smaller and smaller as we shift the majority of our cool-weather veggies to the fall garden, leaving more space in late spring for cool-weather herbs and in early summer for planting hot-weather fruits and veggies. (We even had enough space for melons this year!)
Triumph #4: You won’t have to spend nearly as much time weeding your fall garden.
In addition to saving space, fall gardening has the potential for saving you a lot of time in the weeding department, particularly if you’re up to speed on good mulching practices. Even if you’re not, the shortening days that work against your maturing vegetables will also work in your favor by hampering the growth of weeds. And tender summer weeds will disappear entirely not too long after the first frost. There are still some cool-season weeds you’ll need to deal with, but they don’t grow nearly as quickly and some of them, like chickweed and dandelion, are actually wild edibles. Jackpot!
It all sounds great, right? You’re totally sold on fall gardening and are ready to get your hands dirty. But forewarned is forearmed, so before we get too far ahead of ourselves let’s talk about the cons of fall gardening…the dirty little secrets you need to know about in order to have your best chance at success.
Trial #1: Late summer heat can cook tiny little transplants.
By August, when you’ll want to start setting out a lot of your fall crops–like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and chard–as transplants, uncovered soil temperatures can soar into the 100-110° F range. That’s more than a little challenging for those wee cool-weather transplants! So for the best transplant success rate, you’ll want to do something to modify the soil temperature before planting. You’ll also need to give your newly-planted seedlings some protection from the intense sunlight of late summer days until they get acclimated to the garden.
Trial #2: Insect pests are at their worst in late summer.
Insect predation can be a huge challenge in the late summer when you’re trying to get your fall garden up and running. Those tender baby plants are irresistible to the grasshoppers, aphids, and cabbage worms that run rampant this time of year. Grasshoppers are a special menace to those of us who do a lot of seed starting in the late summer; I can’t tell you how many mornings I’ve headed down to the hoop house to check on the newly-potted kale, chard, and cabbage only to find little gnawed-off stubs of stems where the day before there were pretty little leaves.
Trial #3: If you don’t start early enough, your plants won’t mature.
I talked about this in my last post on planning your fall garden. Now that we’re past the summer solstice, which occurs in late June, the days are getting shorter by a few minutes each day. By the autumnal equinox in late September, there will be equal hours of daylight and nighttime, and then past that point there are more nighttime hours than daylight. Plants rely on photosynthesis–converting sunlight to food, essentially–for their growth, so when there’s less sunlight there’s less food for them to use and they slow their growth. This is why it’s important to get your plants in the ground early enough that they’ll have plenty of sunlight and energy to reach maturity before the decreasing daylight and increasing cold really slows them down.
Trial #3: Even the hardiest plants will eventually succumb to cold weather.
While many fall crops are very hardy, some of them–like cabbage, lettuce, and cauliflower–are only somewhat hardy. Your gardening microclimate also affects how quickly even your hardiest plants may succumb to cold. If your garden is in a low-lying area–a frost pocket where the coldest air settles–you may not have as much fall gardening time on your clock as someone whose garden is on the top of a small hill or has a south-facing exposure. But we aren’t completely helpless in the face of hard freezes: there are lots of season-extending techniques you can practice in your fall garden to prolong your harvest.
Cloches, floating row cover, and cold frames are some of the most popular season extension techniques. Stay tuned for a thorough discussion of each in a future blog post, along with posts about how to deal with high soil and air temperatures and insect pests!
It might seem a little crazy to talk of the fall garden already, while temperatures are still soaring high into the 90s on a regular basis. But I promise that it really is already time to get your ducks in a row for what can be the best gardening season of the year. Here’s how to go about planning your fall garden:
1. Identify your average first frost date.
Here in Laurens County, South Carolina, our average first frost date is around October 25th, but I usually round that off to about November 1st. Your average first frost date will vary, whether you live in other parts of the Upstate or in another state entirely.
To find your average first frost date, visit the National Climatic Data Center website and select your state from “Select a State (PDF)” box.
You’ll be redirected to a PDF containing a whole lot of data for different areas of your state. Scroll through the PDF until you find the name of the town you live in or, if it’s not listed, choose the town that’s closest to your home. For average first frost dates in the fall, you’ll want to look at the second set of three columns. These columns are arranged by the probability of a frost on the dates listed.
It’s important to note that what this means is that the first frost of the fall could occur on any date after the one listed in the “10″ column and almost certainly will have occurred by the date in the “90″ column. But the average first frost date–the mean date–for your area is listed in the second column with the heading “50″. (See highlighted area on the screenshot above.) This date is not hard and fast–remember, it is statistically possible for your first frost to occur on days both earlier and later–but it can serve as your rule of thumb for fall planting.
2. Decide which fall crops you would like to grow.
This is the fun part. Here in the South, fall is our prime time for cool-weather brassicas–kale, broccoli, cabbage, collards, and more–along with a whole range of delicious root vegetables like rutabagas and turnips that just don’t do as well or taste as good when grown in the summer heat. Growing a fall garden is a fresh start with veggies we haven’t seen in their prime for months.
Remember too that many fall greens and roots literally taste better than their springtime counterparts. At the onset of cold weather, beginning with the first light frosts, many fall greens like kale, spinach, and collards increase the amount of sugars stored in their cells in order to mitigate frost damage. These concentrated sugars act as a sort of anti-freeze within the cells. Root vegetables like carrots and parsnips grow sweeter because repeated frosts prompt the plants to convert stored starches to sugars below soil level.
If you’re just getting started with fall gardening, here are some typical fall crops that are suitable for many areas of the country: beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cilantro, collards, daikon radishes, green onions, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, parsley, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, Swiss chard, and turnips.
3. Count backwards from your average first frost date to find out when to plant.
Now that you’ve got your list of fall crops, it’s time to figure out when to set out transplants or direct sow your veggies. I’ve put together a chart below to make it a little bit easier! The numbers on this chart came from taking each crop’s average days to maturity, adding three weeks (21 days) to the lower and upper range numbers, and then converting the number back to approximate weeks. The reason we add three weeks to the days to maturity is because as we get deeper into fall, the number of hours of daylight decreases rapidly. This decrease slows the growth of your crops just as much, if not more, than decreasing temperatures, so it’s important to take it into account.
Advanced gardeners/seed starters: If you’re planning on growing out your own starts, add 4-6 weeks (4 weeks if you’re an experienced seed starter with a solid setup, 6 if you’re a beginner and bootstrapping it) on top of the weeks listed below to arrive at your seed-starting date. Now you see why we need to start thinking about fall crops around the first of July!
As we head into late summer, stay tuned for more blog posts about getting the most out of your fall garden. In the meantime, what’s the number one fall veggie you’re most looking forward to growing this year?
Shearing day is a strange time on the farm. It’s characterized by tense planning conversations (about the sheep, about meals, about where everyone will sleep), by long periods of waiting punctuated by short bursts of harried activity, and by grime and sweat and sometimes blood. But it’s also something of a holiday. For us it’s something different, a significant change in schedule and activity. All the rules change when it’s time to shear. For the sheep, it’s also a change–over the course of a few short minutes at the shearers’ feet they’re freed of a year’s worth of hot, heavy wool. I think both parties–humans and animals–feel a great deal of relief once the job is done.
While there are over 200 recognized breeds of domestic sheep, they all fit into one of two categories: hair sheep and wool sheep. The former look rather like goats, bearing coats composed of coarse hairs that are shed on a regular basis and require no shearing. The latter fit the image of a stereotypical sheep, with fluffy fleeces that can be harvested once or twice a year and transformed into a variety of wool goods. We raise Tunis sheep, a fat-tailed breed that is good for both meat and wool production. Here in the South, shearing typically occurs between mid-April and mid-June; the weather must be warm enough for the lanolin in the fleeces to be more liquid than solid (to avoid gumming up the shears) and the hope is to be done with shearing before the truly hot weather settles in for the summer. Sheep can survive a summer with a full fleece, but the added weight puts a lot of stress on their bodies; it’s best for them to be fleece-free during our hottest months so they stay healthy and fit.
Scheduling shearing is the trickiest part of the entire operation. We employ a father-son shearing duo, Jonathan and Ben Hearne, who live outside of Asheville, North Carolina but shear all throughout the Southeast. They start the season in Florida and then work their way northward, so the first piece of the puzzle is figuring out when they’ll be servicing the flocks in South Carolina. Once we have a general idea of when shearing will occur, my dad starts rotating the sheep through the paddocks towards the corral, where we eventually load the flock onto a stock trailer and transport them to the barn right before shearing. We used to try to lead the flock to the barn on foot through one of our largest paddocks but that was always a logistical nightmare. We eventually got smarter about it, but it took a while.
In the meantime, I’m responsible for cleaning up the barn. Some years it’s a monumental task–although it’s done annually, the sheer amount of stuff that accumulates in there over the course of the growing season is amazing. I managed to get it cleaned up by myself in just a day this year, which might have set a record. I’m also responsible for accommodations for the shearers while they’re here, while my mom produces prodigious amounts of food to feed us all.
Late last week we got the word that the shearers were planning on being here on the Monday the 26th, which was Memorial Day–neither farmers nor shearers have holidays off! On Sunday afternoon we were deep in the midst of making our preparations when dark clouds started rumbling in from the west. The forecast said we had a 30% chance of storms, which on an ordinary day would mean a 0% chance. But on the day before shearing, Murphy’s Law is in full effect: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. So just after we got the first load of sheep (about 20 out of 65) safely into the barn, the skies opened up and drenched the rest that were still out in the corral and exposed to the elements. It was a good storm, dumping an inch and a half of much-needed rain in about 45 minutes, but it was definitely a bit of a speed bump.
A few years ago that sort of thing would have sent us all into a tizzy–you can’t shear wet sheep, after all. But we rolled with the punches quite nicely. The shearers arrived just as the storm started, spent the night, and then headed out on Monday morning to shear some small flocks in the area while our sheep dried out. When they returned around 3 p.m., we had all the sheep dry and in the barn, and it was showtime.
According to the shearers, every farm is different in terms of setup, organization, and assistance provided. They’ve been to some farms that have simply pointed out to the wide open pasture and said, “The sheep are out there,” when they arrived and left everything up to them. We’re pretty much the opposite: all the shearers have to do when they arrive is set up their equipment and stations and shear the sheep. We take care of bringing the sheep to them one by one, removing each fleece from the shearing stations as soon as it’s fully detached from the sheep, bagging the fleeces, and sweeping the shearing mats between sheep. It’s a lot of work, but not as much as the shearers have to do, and it makes the process go quickly.
The first few times I participated in shearing day, it was beyond stressful trying to keep track of all those moving pieces. Shearing was something I dreaded, and couldn’t wait to be done with–though I have always enjoyed the tangible benefits of using our wool. But this year’s shearing found me in a very zen frame of mind. Despite the delays, and despite a panoply of unrelated things going wrong on the farm in the past week, we all functioned like a well-oiled machine once those clippers buzzed to life. I’ve seen so many sheep sheared now that it’s easy to notice exactly when the shearers are down to the last few passes on an individual sheep and I need to get ready to grab the fleece out of the way. And I’ve wrangled enough runaway sheep over the years that I no longer feel a sharp spike of panic when a freshly-shorn sheep decides to make a break for the great outdoors instead of heading back through the barn door to the flock. (Though I had to laugh at myself yesterday when I was trying to grab a runaway while clutching a broom, all the while chanting, “No, no, no, no, no,” as if that sheep was going to listen to me. I eventually ditched the broom and caught the sheep.)
It went so quickly this year–just under three hours from start to finish to shear 65 sheep. But we were all feeling it by the time we cleaned up the barn and headed up to the house for a shower and then dinner: salad, homemade lasagna, French bread, and three choices of dessert (I went for the banana pudding). Ned told us tales of Australia while Jonathan and Ben talked sheep with my dad. They got up this morning to head to the next farm, and will do it all over again day after day. Between the three of them they’ve no doubt sheared thousands of sheep. For us, shearing is over for another year, and we (and the sheep) couldn’t be happier.
A familiar scenario played out this week: a chef acquaintance got in touch, interested in purchasing a number of plants worth a little over $100–a number considerably higher than our average plant purchase at the market, and quite a welcome order. It was an urgent request, of course, and they needed the plants ASAP. Dutifully, I pulled the plants, emailed to confirm what I had on hand, and then coordinated with the person the chef was planning on sending out to the farm to pick up the order. We were on for Thursday afternoon.
I hung close to the house that day and kept my phone close at hand, three trays of plants ready and waiting to go. Hours ticked by–2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m. No one showed. I checked my texts, my voicemail, my email. Nothing. It’s been three days since the supposed pickup, and I still haven’t heard a peep about these plants.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but we go through this sort of thing all the time. People schedule a time to come pick out some sheep for breeding stock; they never show. Folks schedule a tour of the farm and never turn up. Interest is expressed, we put time and effort into meeting it, and then the original intention vanishes into thin air. At best, it’s a minor inconvenience. At worst, it disorders part or all of our day.
I’ve learned not to let it affect me (much)–quite an accomplishment for a self-professed type A control freak. Because if there’s anything that’s certain in the world of farming, it’s uncertainty. People are unreliable. The weather is unreliable. Plant growth is unreliable. Even our own bodies are unreliable, sometimes failing us when we need them the most. What matters is that when someone or something fails you, you pick yourself back up and forge ahead. Perhaps not in exactly the way you did before–course corrections are a must–but you just keep going.
I’ve been seeing rabbits around the farm all week. One over on the edge of the woods by the chicken house. Two last night on my way down the driveway to do chores. One paused just ten feet away when I went out to shoot the photos for this post. Rabbits are all about agility and the ability to move quickly, to think on your feet. They come up short when they sense danger, all eyes and ears for the situation at hand, but when the time comes to do something about it they explode in a flurry of fur and feet. Seeing them reminds me to be flexible and aware, to not get locked into unproductive ways of thinking about uncertainty.
Uncertainty can be a thrill–there is something to be said for novelty, for the exhilaration that comes from taking a leap of faith. I’m not really hard-wired to find excitement in uncertainty (it usually just makes me queasy), but there are certainly those who do.
Sometimes uncertainty becomes something of a ritual around here. For instance, right now we’re in the process of scheduling this year’s sheep shearing, and it’s always a delicate negotiation between the weather, our schedules, and the schedules of our shearers. We look at all the factors and make tentative plans–next Thursday, or the following Monday or Tuesday–but there is never any certainty about when shearing will occur until the shearers pull up to the barn in their ancient pickup truck smelling of lubricating oil, lanolin, and hard labor. The only certainty is that they will, eventually, make it around to us. It used to be a source of stress, but now it’s a familiar routine. We know they’ll be here sooner or later, and they know we’ll have a huge spread laid out for their dinner, hot showers, and warm beds if they need to spend to the night before heading home to Asheville.
The only certainties in the garden are that the sun will come up tomorrow, that something will grow (even if it’s just weeds), and that something will go wrong. One summer it’s a great tomato season but the beans do poorly, the next it’s the exact opposite. Uncertainty is the best argument for diversity on a small farm, because you can be certain that there will be some sort of crop failure just about every year. If you’ve put all your eggs in the basket of monocropping, that loss becomes crippling, catastrophic. That’s when you lose the farm. But if you’ve spread out your risk across multiple crops or products your operation is far more resilient and able to absorb the loss.
And of course the biggest variable of all is the weather. Right now we’re flirting with dryness–I won’t use the other, dreaded d-word just yet–at a time of year where we really need the rain. Last summer, when it rained so much I never had to irrigate anything, was a glorious anomaly. And it’s not just about rainfall: this year alone we’ve dealt with winds high enough to tear the plastic off the hoop house and lingering frosts cold enough to risk serious damage to our plant starts right before our spring plant sale. You never want any of this to happen–you never want someone to order plants and then leave them sitting there, unclaimed and unwanted–but you’d darn well better be flexible enough to pivot when things go awry. Because they will absolutely, unquestionably will go awry.
We eliminated one uncertainty today by wrapping up our spring chicken processing. We processed thirteen on Wednesday before it got too hot, and planned to do another thirteen today, leaving us with nine to finish up sometime in the coming week. But the weather ended up being too perfect to refuse–cool and cloudy, if somewhat drizzly–so over the course of the morning our conversations turned from “when are we going to do the last batch” to “let’s just push through it and get it over with.” One of the hardest lessons of farming (for me, at least) is that you will never completely clear your to-do list; tasks large and small will always remain. There will always be some fresh fire to put out. But when you can cross one substantial task off the list, get it squared away and get ready to face the next big thing…well, that’s a pretty sweet (if brief) feeling of certainty.
Or, “Broken Toes are a Bummer but Present an Excellent Opportunity for Turning Yourself into a Case Study.”
So I’ve been quiet lately, due in large part to two events: the beginning of our farmers’ market season on May 3rd, and breaking my toe eight days ago (less than 72 hours before said market season was to start).
Ten days before the start of the 2013 market season, I herniated my L5 disk and was bedridden for five days. So as far as serious injuries go, a broken toe doesn’t rank too highly on the list. However, it sure is inconvenient. It happened in a moment of carelessness; I stub my toes all the time since I insist on walking around the house barefoot no matter the season. But this time when my left pinkie toe caught on one of my (unoccupied) rubber rain boots, I could tell it was different. My body’s reaction to the pain was quite similar to the reaction I had when I herniated my disk: intense nausea, a cold sweat, and a horrible feeling of wrongness.
My mother has a long history of broken toes–she’s broken nine out of ten, and some of them more than once. I’d hoped to dodge that genetic bullet but it looks like I’m taking after her. She broke her first toe at 31 and I’m not too far off that mark.
It hurt like hell, but it obviously wasn’t a compound fracture so I decided to forego an expensive doctor visit, especially considering the conventional advice would simply be to buddy tape it and wait for it to heal.
Of course, I have more tools at my disposal than just medical tape, and I fully intended to use them!
Perhaps the thing that helped my healing process the most was not icing my toe. I know we’ve all had it drilled into our heads by this point that icing is a good practice for almost any injury, but that’s not always the case. Applying cold to an injury slows local circulation (thereby reducing swelling) and numbs the pain–which can be very helpful in a number of situations. But swelling is the body’s natural response to injury for a reason: in the case of a broken toe, that reaction increases blood flow to the surrounding tissues and helps immobilize the appendage and the broken bone within. Circulation in the extremities is relatively slow as a matter of course and good circulation promotes healing, so the last thing I wanted to do was shut down blood flow to my toe. I started instead with a hot Epsom salt soak, which helped reduce the swelling considerably without reducing circulation.
That night, I applied a liberal coating of my bruise salve (which contains infused oils of elder leaf, yarrow flower and leaf, and comfrey leaf) and buddy taped my broken toe to its hale and hearty neighbor. At no point in the entire process did I have to take any kind of over-the-counter painkiller; as long as I didn’t put weight or pressure on the toe, there was no pain.
The next day, I got started on a more intensive remedy and dug a comfrey (Symphytum officinale) root from the garden. This isn’t the best time of year for digging roots, which are typically harvested in the early spring or fall. But acute injuries aren’t exactly convenient in their timing. I deliberately allowed the comfrey root to break off in the ground so that the plant will be able to regenerate itself; comfrey will usually come back if even a 1-2″ section of root remains. Some of those sections are still buried deep so it’ll take a while, but comfrey is nothing if not determined.
Comfrey’s healing powers are legendary, and one of its traditional names is “knitbone” because it’s so good at mending broken bones. I use comfrey leaf in my bruise salve for a gentler effect, but many of its medicinal compounds are concentrated in the root and in the root’s black skin in particular. Fresh comfrey root should be thoroughly washed before using, but it should not be scraped or peeled.
After I washed the root, I chopped it finely (it gets gooey–comfrey root also contains large quantities of mucilage) and added it to four cups of water in a stainless steel, non-reactive pot. I covered the pot with a lid and set it to simmer for two hours in order to make a very strong decoction as well as to cook the root until it was soft and suitable for poultice-making.
At that point, I strained the root from the liquid and ground it into a paste with a mortar and pestle. You could use a blender to puree it, but I try to avoid electrical appliances for most of my herbal preparations (which is a post for another time). To the paste I added perhaps a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to loosen it up and to help extend its shelf life in the refrigerator. One two-year-old root yielded about five tablespoons of poultice, and I applied a tablespoon at a time to my toe, on top of a fresh layer of bruise salve so that the poultice wouldn’t stick to my toe.
Typically, poultices are most effective when they are applied hot and then reheated and reapplied as soon as they cool. For my comfrey poultice, I applied it hot, dressed it with sterile gauze and medical tape, put a sock over it all, and went immediately to bed. In the mornings, I removed the poultice and gauze, gently wiped the skin clean, and applied more bruise salve before taping my toes together again. If I had to do it again with a major broken bone, like an arm or a leg, I would definitely reheat and reapply the poultice multiple times for maximum effect.
When I first made the poultice, I saved the comfrey root decoction and added it to another hot Epsom salt soak. I only soaked in the decoction that once, as I had a good supply of poultice and no reason to harvest more roots for further decoction. But soaking in the decoction on a regular basis would have also contributed to the healing process.
I literally couldn’t take any time off to heal, so I just kept on moving. I did avoid putting weight on the broken toe for several days and compensated with an awkward hobble. (My chiropractor just loved what that did to my lower back…) But by day four, I was able to walk normally again without pain. I’m certainly hyperaware of that toe and I don’t think I’ll be walking around barefoot again for quite some time to come. But overall it was a minor speed bump, a footnote, if you will.
Yes, that was a terrible pun.
Yesterday marked a week since I broke my toe and I think it’s healing up quite nicely. It’s still too tender to cram into a closed-toe shoe, so I’ve been working in the garden in one sock and sandal and one work boot–très fashionable! It’s impossible to know how the bone itself is healing up in the absence of an x-ray. But since the typical break takes 4-6 weeks to heal you can bet I’ll be extra careful of that toe for a while and continue the salve, poultice, and taping protocol for the next week or so.