Updated: Sep 25, 2019
Every Day, Something New
Over the summer, many parts of caring for the farm have become routine. Weeds must be pulled, zinnias must be cut, okra must be harvested. Many of the plants (and even bugs) feel like old friends. But gardens are living ecosystems, always growing. New members greet us every day.
The Thai basil I raised from seeds has become bushy and fragrant. The first flower buds appeared this week. When I pinched them off, my hands smelled like a mixture of licorice and sweet basil. The borage opened three blue blooms. Concetta, Lilly, and I each ate one. They taste like sugary cucumbers. Eating flowers always feels a bit strange since I am quite used to putting them into bouquets. Chamomile wasn't about to be beaten by the borage, and opened five and half flowers. I picked them to dry, though I'll need the other plants to contribute before there's really enough for tea.
The gourds are blooming as well. Their petals are delicate, though they always seem to be guarded by ants or wasps (or both). The luffa vines have been blooming for weeks, but they finally have enough male and female flowers to set fruit. The luffa fruit grow fast, and are already over a foot long. When they dry, we'll peel them to make natural luffa sponges.
The birdhouse gourds are much younger plants, but they seem to grow two feet every day. It's difficult to keep them trained onto their trellis; we often find their vines creeping across the trail in the morning. Their fruits are still tiny and just as soft and downy as their leaves.
Making the Beds
In preparation for late fall plantings, we've been clearing old summer plants and supplementing the soil. Generally, the process begins by removing the hay. Then we pull up the plants, knock the soil off the roots, and pile them in our compost. Finally we edge the beds with a shovel, add a wheelbarrow or two of compost soil, and re-cover with new hay.
Of course, every bed requires something different. The sunflowers contained valuable seeds, so I rigged up a hanging system and set them to dry. The goldfinches have been stealing some, but they are bright company and there's plenty to go around.
The comfrey was harvested one last time before winter, producing a huge stack of nutrient-rich leaves. So we covered many of the beds with those leaves in place of hay. Some of the comfrey was left in a covered pile, and since it remained damp, it began to rot. Within only a few days, the leaves had dissolved into moldy black goo. Unappealing to people, definitely, but a hearty meal for soil organisms.
Though we plan and plant our garden, there are always surprises. The Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are a species of North American sunflowers. Concetta planted them ages ago in spring. Day by day, they've risen skyward. Now they're 15 feet tall and overflowing with sunny blooms. We of course expected flowers, but the long-awaited spectacle exceeded expectations. We've even added some of the flowers to bouquets. Later in the season, we'll harvest some of the tubers, which are potato-like but less starchy. (So I've heard- these are the first plants we've grown that survived the deer.)
Another unexpectedly beautiful bloom is the celosia. We aren't quiet sure why, but several of our plants have set multi-colored blooms. The usual blooms are pink or white or apricot. But a dozen plants decided to do all that at once. Even the leaves are multicolored, variegated in the same pattern as the blooms. They look like vibrant corals, and every day they grow bigger and more complex.
Many of our producing plants have come and gone, and the next generation is now beginning to peak. Yard-long beans are over a foot long and have a hearty flavor and texture that makes them good for stir-fry. I like to toss them in with okra and garlic. Our watermelon grew gigantic fruit amidst their sprawling vines. We've picked them one by one, though soon the plants will die and we'll have to harvest the rest.
The Dragon-tongue heirloom beans produce flattened pods that are speckled purple. They taste floral and crisp, and I always eat a few raw when harvesting. Our "Black Beauty" bell peppers are ripening, just as the purples tomatoes give their last. The purple color in all of these veggies is caused by pigments called Anthocyanins. The pigments paint color across the plant world, from eggplants and red cabbage to blueberries, raspberries, and even autumn leaves.
Rise and Fall
Even as new plants bloom and fruit, others die back. Infection claimed one of our basil beds. A powdery mold-like substance crept up the underside of their leaves, and soon most of the plants were yellowed, spotted, and dusty. We harvested the rest of the clean leaves to put up as pesto, and then cleared the bed. Instead of putting the plants into the compost, I quarantined them to decay at a safe distance.
Just like with other organisms, an unhealthy plant often suffers compounding issues. Once one virus or fungus gets a good foothold, others have an easier time overtaking the weakened plant. Plants also are more susceptible to infection when they are stressed by heat or water or low nutrients.
But the reverse is also true. The more rich and complex a plant's environment is, the more likely it is to succeed. Well-watered plants in mature soil can fight back infections. Ladybugs find shelter in a garden and become regular consumers of aphids. Wasps arrive for the flowers and stay to hunt harmful bugs. Sunflowers and barley re-surge in the enriched soil of used chicken yards, and as they compost new plants move in to use their organic material.
We have ten new chicks! Our new little flock of Rhode Island Reds was raised inside for a few weeks, until they were almost fully fledged. Just this week, we moved them into a little run outside. They'll grow and adjust to the elements, and then we'll merge them with one of our flocks. In a few months, they'll be laying beautiful eggs.