Reflecting on Summer 2019

cordwood and straw bale house with blooming flower garden birds nest garden farm
The baptisia in full bloom attracts hummingbirds an butterflies.

It’s January now and all the highs and lows of the 2019 summer season are having their sharp edges whittled away by time. We’ve seen snow, a melt, more snow and yet another mild spell in the last six weeks. Our lifestyle orbits around heating with wood, winter chicken chores and keeping the lane snow-free.

It wasn’t that long ago that the meadow was lusciously green and we were harvesting armloads of veggies for the farmers’ market. Looking back through our photos twigs my memory of the past season. Here’s a short and sweet list of three things that stood out.

no-till vegetable garden July onions
Dusk in the onion patch mid-July. The no-till beds are working well.

Best Move: Converting the Market Garden to No-Till

Over the past few years we’ve worked to reduce our tillage in the gardens. Exposure to a series of  books, articles and podcasts convinced us that a no-till/no-dig system would really benefit us and our shallow, heavy clay soil.

So, this spring we bit the bullet and converted all the veggie plots to a no-till system.

agricultural tarp for soil prep in no-till beds
A large agricultural tarp protects the soil as other beds are given priority. The tarp keeps the soil moist while preventing weed growth.

This was no small undertaking. Perennial weed roots and twitch grass rhizomes in the beds and paths were removed by hand. Precious spring and early summer hours (and hours) were also devoted to collecting, preparing and distributing the materials we needed: wood chips, mulch, compost and cardboard. Thankfully we have been stockpiling wood chips over the past few years.

We ran out of steam and time in late June so still have two 30 ft. rows yet to prep. However, at this point I am convinced that the extra effort in the spring set us up for an excellent growing season. I look forward to this coming spring to see how early we can get transplants in the ground.

What we observed this season:

  • weed pressure was reduce at a minimum by 75%
  • rainwater soaked in to the soil rather than pooling on the surface
  • there was an unsurprising increase in slug pressure that cost us some crops

We hope to write a more in-depth post about this whole undertaking in the future.

 

evening tour of Bird's Nest Garden Farm
Peter leads a group of friends on an evening tour of the farm. Photo by Sue Schlabach.

Best Memories: Farm Dinner

One of the brightest highlights of this summer was a visit from our dear friends from Vermont. We had the joy of introducing them to several of our local haunts and local friends. With their considerable help, we even hosted an informal farm dinner which was a first!

In summer we typically work from sun up to sundown. We fill our days keeping the animals happy and healthy, keeping the veggies happy and healthy and trying to keep ourselves…healthy. Happy doesn’t always enter into consideration.

This summer, many of our friends and family remedied that happiness situation. They showed us that we could take time for socializing and the farm wouldn’t fall apart. Taking time off recharged us and reminded us why we are doing what we are doing.  And it didn’t hurt that most of our friends and family are excellent at pitching in, whether it’s harvesting veggies, feeding the chickens or making us delicious treats.

a selection of desserts from a dinner at Bird's Nest Garden Farm memories
Behold the dessert table. I love having talented friends who bake! Photo by Sue Schlabach.

I think it’s a lesson we need to turn into a concrete plan for this coming summer. Now to book a few dates for July and August.

 

black GSD in the back of a car memories
“I just had emergency abdominal surgery and I feel GREAT!” Cricket on her way home after spending the night recovering at Sunset Strip Veterinary Clinic in Owen Sound.

Worst Memories: Cricket’s Emergency Surgery

The toughest part of this summer was dealing with not one, but two surgeries for our beloved German Shepherd. The first surgery was planned and the result of an injured leg joint. The second surgery was an emergency and the result of her eating something indigestible. With that one, we were told to prepare for the worst.

Having our normally active and sociable dog spend most of her summer confined to a pen to heal was rough. I work from home and Cricket is my shadow. We spend A LOT of time together. She settles herself near my work and companionably naps in the sun or shade given the day. Occasionally she forays into the bush to bark at offensive squirrels and chipmunks. She patrols the property, keeping predators away from the sheep and chickens. She always reminds me when it is 4 o’clock: walk time.

Except this summer, we didn’t have walkies. We missed out on seeing the little daily changes in the forest, missed hearing the changing birdsong as the summer progressed, and didn’t explore the varied trails around our homestead. I really missed getting a mid afternoon break from my oppressive “to do” list.

An autumn dog walk around the meadow at Bird's Nest Garden Farm
An autumn dog walk around the meadow at Bird’s Nest Garden Farm

Thankfully, Cricket mended from both surgeries and by mid-September we were able to resume our daily walks on the Bruce Trail.

Next Steps

Back to the here and now. Winter has returned but it hasn’t dampened our memories. Planning for next year is in full swing. We straddle the decade reflecting on the year’s experiences while applying what we’ve learned to the season ahead.

 

 

 

 

5 Tips for a Successful Backyard Garden

Fresh red and golden beets
Harvesting red and golden beets fresh from the garden.

Preparing for a local Seedy Saturday today has me thinking about my journey as a gardener. On reflection, I realize that I am entering my 27th year of growing veggies, herbs and flowers. Wow. 27 years!

Growing in downtown Kitchener, then growing in small-town Wiarton paved the way to growing on our rural property and finally growing for market. I guess I might have a little to share with budding enthusiasts, after all.

Continue reading “5 Tips for a Successful Backyard Garden”

Soil & Sustainability

farmer-sitting-six-mule-team
Old Order Mennonite discing a field

By Peter

I was recently asked to speak at a nearby First Nation’s Reserve about Sustainability. “It’s ironic,” I said, “that someone who’s lived in the area less than 20 years is talking about sustainability to people who have lived in the area for 1000’s! However,” I continued, “some of my distant kin—Old Order Mennonites—have lived on the land for almost 500 years.”

I’m not sure how much Wes Jackson would be impressed with my ancestors’ history on the land. Jackson is the visionary force behind the Land Institute, a Kansas collaboration making slow, significant progress towards breeding a miracle. Their holy grail: perennial wheat—a timeless, food crop that would need no soil-disturbing plow and no genetic modification.

Wes Jackson Land Institute perennial wheat
Jackson compares perennial wheat grass roots to annual wheat roots

Jackson feels that any green-leaning farmer grasping at sustainability is vulnerable to the next owner who’s greed or ignorance prioritizes greenbacks over the needs of the soil. The best way to conceptualize conventional agriculture, Jackson has stated, “is that it is a mistake.” Continue reading “Soil & Sustainability”

Preparing the ground

 

We ordered a load of topsoil for the hoop house in spring. We used part of it right away inside the new structure. The rest of it went to the future site of the hoop house – where we will move the hoop house when the time comes. Don’t ask when that will be. But we will be ready.

Spring was rainy. It didn’t take long for that beautiful top soil to green up with wild mustard, shepherd’s purse and a few other characters I’d rather not have in my prime growing areas. It’s not that I am anti-weeds across the board. The only things I remove immediately are bindweed and ragweed. All plants have their roles to fill in the ecosystem. I’d just rather not be spending time and energy removing their progeny in the years to come.

Enter the chickens.

 

Chickens eat the weeds in our topsoil delivery mobile coop
These chickens really went to town on the greens that were imported in our topsoil delivery. Within two weeks, the ground was bare and their bellies were full!

With their scratching, pecking and dust-bathing the chickens reduced the green forest to bare soil in short order. They really seemed to have fun doing it too. At first it was like a big game of hide and seek as the plants were as tall or taller than the birds. As things thinned out, some plants continued to grow taller but had no lower leaves; almost looking like palm trees. The only plants left at the end of their session were goldenrod and chicory; perennial plants that were there before the topsoil delivery.

 

A partridge chanticleer chicken clears weeds near the hoop house.
This partridge chanticleer and her flock cleared the ground for the future site of the hoop house by the end of June.

Then it was time to move the chickens to new pasture. To keep the bare soil from growing more of what we didn’t want, we laid a tarp over the area. A BIG tarp. That was a family bonding experience that was not so fun. Dusk, everyone tired from a long day, bugs… But we managed.

Continue reading “Preparing the ground”