One of the most common winter questions I get from folks is “are you enjoying your vacation over the winter?”. Or perhaps more telling is “What do you do with all your free time over the winter?”. So this month I thought I might share a little flavor of how we are spending our time at the farm during our December through April hiatus from delivering your veggies.
We do slow down quite a bit over the winter months. We really focus on Christmas and family time in December. Decorating the house and barn. Cooking up all the holiday fixings. But we also spend time cleaning up after a long and hectic picking season. December is the month we begin planning what we will plant next year. We start by reviewing the whole year together as to what worked, what did not, and what we are going to try to do this year that is different. We look through all of your customer surveys to see what you are trying to tell us you liked or did not like about the service this year. Then we start making our lists of crops – for each variety we determine how much we will plant and when. We go through all the catalogs trying to figure out what new varieties we would like to try. Then comes the fun part – trying to fit it all onto the map of the garden by month with long crop rotations. We try to make sure that crops from the same family do not go in spots where they were planted before . Long rotations are critical for us because each plant family shares certain pests and diseases as well as somewhat similar nutritional needs. If we put the same family in the same spot, we risk moving pests from year to year and may end up with soil that is deficient in something that this particular crop needs. But rotating crops does make life a lot more complicated. I read a comment from another Virginia farmer who described it as a vegetable sudoku. I like that. It really feels like a similar problem. You put in a member of the night shade family (tomato, pepper, potato, eggplant, etc…) only to realize that you put it in the last available row for cabbages….so they have to be moved- but then you realize that the new spot messes up your plan for follow up crops of fall spinach….and so it goes. It actually takes several days of mucking around at the computer screen to fit everything in and make sure that we have the longest rotations we can. Once that is done, we send out the seed orders. Like all folks who work the soil, December and seed orders are a time of wonderfully extreme optimism. Nothing is more fun than looking at all the gorgeous pictures and reading the incredible crop descriptions in the seed catalogs while planning without any bugs, diseases, or weather challenges. It is a delightful interlude of fantasy before having to deal with the real world of vegetable growing. I love it!
January is usually our only travel month for us where we can visit friends and family. January is also the month where we start getting serious about our winter time projects. This year we focused a lot on building a new movable chicken coop for our newest layers. We finished that project in late January and moved the chickens from the greenhouse to their new “digs”. They like the space but were not happy to move out of sunny warm greenhouse into an outdoor pen. They complained a bit about the lack of central heating and too much ventilation in blowing snow! It also took several days to slowly clean up the mess they had made of our green house. We also spend time in January to start getting in our “winter” mulches – mostly leaves that we rake and bale and move into the garden. That process usually extends into March since it is weather dependent and we need dry weather to work with leaves. This year we spent a fair amount of time cutting timber – mostly oak trees that had died this year around the farm. Brian Irminger is planning to come in February or March with his mill to get us a good inventory of fresh lumber for new projects. In January we also go through our box inventory – repairing boxes and applying fresh finish where needed. We also start cutting box parts to build this year’s supply of new boxes. Each year we add new customers. For every three new customers I need four new boxes to have enough for deliveries (assuming they are all on different days and everyone always returns their box!). It takes a surprising amount of time to fabricate and assemble all the parts of a box. Of course much of that effort is because I am using our local lumber and mostly scrap wood left from other projects. Each piece needs to be milled and cut to size. Carol thinks I mainly create sawdust in the workshop! That process continues in the background usually right up until the season begins. We never have enough boxes! Also in January we start creating our big fat list of activities to make a successful start to the season. Each crop goes on the calendar – when to plant, when to transplant, and when the row in the garden needs to be ready and cleared of weeds. This year we are expanding our space a little so we need to move our fence out to accommodate adding one more row of beds. With our winter weather this year, that project has so far been on hold waiting for the ground to thaw and things to dry out enough for us to start installing the new fence line.
And then, before we know it, February is here and it is time to start planting. We make our own soil mixtures by screening compost and peat moss to make a good soil medium for our soil blocks. That starts off slowly but ramps up quickly as soon as seeds start sprouting. As I write this we have already planted 1500 onion plants, 1500 leeks, 600 broccoli plants, 900 spinach plants, 900 parsley plants, 900 kale, 300 fennel, and 100 calendula flowers. Whew! We will see how our germination turns out – germination is always a little bit of a miracle and always a little mysterious with seeds. We start most of our seedlings in ¾ inch dirt squares. As soon as they sprout, we have to move them into 2 inch dirt squares. That is where mixing soil mixtures gets more serious! From February on, we have to focus pretty intensely on our seedlings and planting to get everything ready to move into the garden. We do have one trip planned to pick up our potato seed down in North Carolina hopefully visiting some friends along the way. We are also teaching a master gardener class this year. But most of our energy is focused on your farm and getting ready to start the season. It is one of the things I love about farming – the connection to an annual cycle. Somehow having a job that follows each season of the natural world feels pretty wonderful. I stop every now and again and listen to the swans passing overhead on their way north and feel very lucky to be doing this for you. So thank you all for your support. Now….time to get back to work….