When I was about five years old, every summer held two official (to my thinking) landmarks. The first, when it was time to start helping my grandparents next door to plant their rows of onions and potatoes, involved a trip to the dark front coat closet where my grandmother stored a collection of sun-faded cotton sunhats—I distinctly remember pink and yellow. After careful consideration I would choose one to "borrow" for the summer as my Garden Hat—in caps because of what those hats signified. Not only did they keep the Michigan sun from baking down on my scalp and the copious Michigan blackflies out of my face, they made me feel like I belonged in the garden, that my place there merited the proper equipment and uniform. In hindsight, there may have been collusion between my mother and her mother; lost on me at the time was the fact that whatever one I chose, it always fit my child-size head, though my Grandmother claimed they were hers. I was thus protected from the sun and, an equally great gift to my future wellbeing, I was told that I was a gardener.
The other ritual of summer was one entirely of my own devising. Our otherwise sandy property had two or three large rocks that stood out of the ground in a more-or-less decorative manner (to my thinking). They were made of some sort of large crystalline particles, maybe some kind of coarse granite. Their texture made me think of a mosaic, lacking only a little color to make the rocks real, fancy works of art. So every spring, around the time the nearby shrubs had gotten enough leaves to give me some cover, I smuggled out my crayons and gave those rocks a careful coloring-in. If this sounds a little clandestine, the experience was indeed spiced by some impression I had that what I was doing was graffiti-like and therefore, if caught, I would be stopped. I was willing to take the risk. The project felt more like an exciting and important act of self-expression than any of the tame drawings I made inside on sheets of proper drawing paper.
Uniforms of the summer and clandestine self-expression unite in this week's chance to hygge: color-your-own aprons. Sure, coloring alone or together has become the ubiqutous way to become calm, meditative and in-the-moment, and it does have that quality. The only question is, what can you do with all those colored-in pages? Wouldn't it be more fun to color on something and then wear it? (Or give it as a gift?) Think: an apron for dad, colored by his kids; a gift for a younger sibling's birthday, made pretty by the older child. Even, a potholder you color in to match your kitchen. Use washable crayons, and the color will be bright until next laundry day (when you can do it over!) Permanent markers and regular crayons leave a softer but indelible hint of color. Fabric markers are a permanent commitment. Color-it-yourself items are $10 - $40, available at my stand this week until they're sold out. Not near my markets? Grab a black Sharpie and make your own outlines on a ready-made white apron, Tee, or dishtowel.Add color, do a little clandestine graffiti work, and have a uniform for all the mess-making fun of summer. Bloom where you are planted.
Flower syrups were one of the first products I offered at my farm market stand. It isn't easy to sind organically-grown roses to use culinarily, especially ones that are intended for that purpose. My plant came from suckers (root sprouts) of the plant in the medicinal herb garden at Hancock Shaker Village. The Shakers made rosewater to use in the sickroom as well as the kitchen. These flowers only last on the plant for a day or two. They're marvellously fragrant. Without distilling equipment, I can't make true rosewater, but rose syrup captures that evanescent smell in a lasting form. I sell 8oz bottles at my stand for $7 - enough to flavor a good many glasses of iced tea, bowls of fresh fruit, or dishes of vanilla custard. It's also delicious in chilled champagne or summer cocktails. Here's an afternoon- and family-friendly concoction.
Combine 1 c rose simple syrup (1 8-ounce bottle), 1 c lemon or ¾ c lime juice, and 4-5 cups still or sparkling water in a pitcher. Add a few flowers or floral ice cubes if desired. Serve cold, with a few rose petals floating on top, if you have them..
The Older Daughter gave me a mug for Christmas that says, "I Did Everything Before it was Cool. Aside from the obvious ironies (like, how many other people are claiming this with their mug, ALSO purchased from some "maker" on etsy and glazed in Millennial Pink
Memorial Day has come and gone, and summer seems to have established itself for the season. Such a rapid transition from cool spring to hot, muggy summer-like weather has made a larger-than-usual window of flowerless time after that luxurious first week of lilacs at my market stand. In addition, the German and Siberian iris, usually a reliable resource between those lilacs and the peonies-into-annuals tumble of June blossoming, were skimpy this year despite my conscientious dividing and transplanting last fall (which usually prompts lots of blooms the next year). Add to that a market at all three locations plus a wedding order to fill, and the garden gave all it had - mostly to the wedding client, who got every blue Spanish Hyacinth, Purple Allium splendens, silver Lamb's ear stem, maroon Geranium phaeum, and every purple, yellow or ivory dutch or German iris showing its colors at the point of it's tightly-wrapped bud.
Happily, my daughter caught me raiding our little Lily-of-the-Valley patch, and offered to drive me to my favorite old source, a gone-wild swath on the banks of the river across from her dad's house. We picked a great handful, concluding that there is nothing more perfectly bridal.
Because the pickings at the farm were slim, I took mostly "tinies" to market: little composed bouquets, this year in recycled tin cans covered in scraps of fabric left from sewing. When making these, I think of their place on a nightstand, as a gift to an unsuspecting parent, as a last-minute hostess gift or birthday surprise. The fabrics often inspire the composition, and sometimes the least inspiring clips of fabric result in such a harmony with the flowers, it is quite pleasing. Here, four that didn't sell found perfect spots throughout my house. Bloom Where You are Planted.
The first West Stockbridge farmers' market of a chilly spring arrived warm and summery last Thursday. More than than any Memorial Day cookout, it seemed as if summer had truly arrived. It was great to see everyone after a long winter-not only other farmers, crafters and cooks who have come to seem like a sort of extended family to me in the otherwise isolated endeavor of farming, but also familiar regular customers, their dogs, and their children. How the children change from the final October market of the old year to the first May market of this new one! Meantime, my own "children" in the garden are growing, too - new lettuces beginning to take on their characteristic shapes of romaine and butterhead, and their mature coloring, from chartreuse "Tennis Ball" to trout-mottled "Amish Speckled" to forest green "Parris Cos".
Because it was a cold, late spring, I was ashamed to be bringing mostly crafts and not much else. I cut armloads of lilacs (it has been a marvelous year for these), fat bunches of rhubarb, and fresh jam made from last year's frozen peaches and raspberries, dried rose petals and the first harvest of rhubarb.
When I arrived, I found it was the same for the other farms as well—too cold for much besides the very earliest of crops. That's another thing that makes the first markets so nice: the reminder that I am not alone in coping with cold rains, snows, unheated growing spaces, etc. We can also share our triumphs: Molly at Colfax Farm is building a real, permanent heated and ventilated greenhouse this year, and Danny at Taft Farm is capitalizing on the rental potential of his vast acres for farm weddings. It's encouraging to see those incremental steps into a more solid farm future and interesting to see how the answer is different for each of us depending on scale, goals, and the limiting factors we're facing and (hopefully) overtopping.
As for First-Flower Farm, this afternoon Project Cooler is up and running. After two months' time spent searching for a used AC unit, I decided to buy a new one to be sure of getting a functional, appropriately-sized model of the kind specified by the Cool-Bot folks. One Haier AC unit (And $220) later, the room is reminiscent of a day in March. Installation was really simple. Thanks to a few trips to the Habitat Re-Store, the whole thing was really affordable to build aside from the mechanicals. It will be a few weeks before I can fill it with flowers and find out if this really lengthens the window of time I can harvest flowers before they go to market as fresh as I want them to arrive—in essence, buying me time to spread out the workload and prevent morning-of-market frenzy three days of the week.
I used to believe orange was strident. Like millions of gardeners who came of age in the 1980s, with a careful eye on the tastemaking English masters, I knew enough to scorn all shades from yellow to red on the color wheel. Pink and blue gardens in the misty and innoffensive tones of cool, virginal afternoon tea and Sunday bonnets—that's what the new converts to "perennial gardening" were all for. I worked at plant nurseries in those days, and not a workday passed without the words "yellow" or "orange" spoken of with the same self-righteous disgust one might reserve today for scorning trashy novels or instant coffee.
The tables have turned, and for some time now, chartreuse and hot shades to complement it have become the vogue. Now, the very idea that a blossom can be "in" or "out" of style is pretty goofy to me. How can anyone shun any flower, especially after a long, dark winter? Still, while I was looking beyond the pastel '80s ahead of the curve, it's only recently that I've begun to understand the role sunset shades play in a spring garden. Orange is restorative. Like that first dose of bitter greens, chlorophyll-forward asparagus or diuretic rhubarb, bolder colors are a sort of visual spring tonic. Soon enough, we'll tone it down to "millennial pink" (the latest vogue-though it's actually that same shade we detested in the dread "pink bathroom" we ripped out 10 years ago, or the pink barf buckets they gave out with every '90s appendectomy). The Cafe Au Lait dahlias and cameo-pink zinnias that make a bouquet sell right out of the car before I can get my market stand set up? They might be pushing us back towards another decade of toning it down. Meanwhile, here are my favorite all-out blooms this week: Sedate at sunrise, and full-on joyous as the spring sun climbs high. Orange is righteous, and spring is here. Bloom Where You are Planted!
Last I wrote, it was with great happiness to introduce the new Farm Dog. Alas, two days after that post, the Farm Dog made a third hackles-up, teeth-snipping lunge at the neighbor children, unprovoked (unless standing there, guilty of being four, is provocation). So our smart, enthusiastic, loving (or, otherwise loving) little lad is back at the Humane Society, per their advice and much soul-searching. I write this as I would announce a death in the family, and it feels like one; I made promises to little Sputz that I was ultimately unable to fulfill, and now I am dogless and he is searching for his ideal home again. Now that the busy season has begun, there isn't the kind of time and care a new dog search requires, never mind the sort of slow, gentle introduction and bonding time a new friend needs and deserves. So it will be a bit lonesome this summer here at First-Flower...
On other cold fronts, the big improvement to infrastructure is a new walk-in cooler for what I hope will be an increased focus on, and market for, cut flowers. Hopefully, having something other than a corner of the basement garage to keep them cool will mean I can pick farther in advance of delivery, making market days a little less hectic.
The cooler room is built almost entirely of reclaimed materials: Framing lumber we had sitting around, built to enclose a 4' X 6' space in the SE corner of the room. The walls are masonry and the Patient Spouse is a mason, so I had his expertise for fastening wood to concrete and getting those corners square. The door, painted in my favorite '30s green, came from another use in the basement. The insulation on walls and ceiling is supposed to be R30, but that would have cost me twice the price, so this project will begin with R15 in all but the outermost wall, which is R30 rock wool we had sitting around - in a frame scavenged from one side of an old rabbit hutch that was here when we moved in (and which was eating up basement space as a chick brooder-turned-scrapwood bin). Still to come: an AC unit to attach to a CoolBot, which will enable that simple window-mounted unit to chill the space to a recommended 45 degrees.
A nearly-finished walk-in cooler isn't very photogenic. That said, here's a before and after of the project. ...Where you are planted...
Followers of the old version of this blog will surely remember the Farm Dog. 35 (okay, maybe 38-ish) pounds of pure mutt, answering (before he went stone deaf) to the name "Curtis", and living here alternate weeks because, like the children, no one wanted to surrender custody to this rather furry son post-divorce, the Farm Dog was a curly-brisketed mutt of uncertain parentage. We adored him. The Ex, a.k.a "Tall", sobbed like a child as Curtis passed into a gentle final sleep, his beloved treat ball clenched between his paws. I have been weeping inside ever since. A special pet, the sort we take the time and chance to get to know for the fullness of itself, has as legitimate a place in the heart as any human family member. No dog will ever be Curtis, and I miss him terribly.
Evidently, however, another dog WILL be the Farm Dog. Enter Sputnik, which means "little traveller" in Russian. Sputnik has already travelled from unknown origins in Arkansas, to a shelter in Mississippi, to the Berkshire Humane Society, where it was love at first woof. Apparently there were not leashes in Arkansas. There weren't commands like "off" or "come" or "leave it"; no restrictions on "shopping" from the grocery bags placed in the back seat of the car for the two minute trip home. In Arkansas, carrots and apple cores were not for eating, but pins and plastic-wrapped four-packs of toilet paper are. There was heartworm, tapeworm, earmite, fleas; there were restrictive cages that make a guy panic when placed inside, but the handling of paws, tails and ears by anyone over 3 feet tall was a positive experience. But let's hope there were squirrels. Because, boy-oh-boy!—live revolves around squirrels. Time stops. No voice can be heard. No treat is compelling, no matter how much it smells like bacon. Neither leash, no fence, nor door latch shall keep this pup from his appointed rounds.
The former Farm Dog was happiest in the sun. This one is happiest with his font paws on the windowsill and his nose against the glass. A brilliant canine with the will of a two-year-old, this little satellite has three months of complete bed rest prescribed as he recovers from a case of heartworm that surfaced en route from the south. If he can be trained to listen to anything beyond the call of the wild, he will make this the first year I haven't had to evict a single bunny or woodchuck from the farm. But it's spring, now: new dog, much training, and red squirrels taunting from every branch. I am remembering what dogs teach us about parenting, commitment, and patience. So long, old Farm Dog. Welcome, Sputnik.
Bloom Were You are Planted...
April is the cruellest month... I can never remember if it was Shakespeare who penned this bitterly accurate observation, or one of those romantic English poets (during a not-so-romantic day, apparently). If I was not a Luddite and thus iphone-less, I suppose I could look up the answer and be instantly gratified, as well as have the correct attribution. But there it is: those of you familiar with me from my blog of the past, http://newfarmancientjoy.blogspot.com, will know that I still dial my calls from a rotary phone, use a flip version whenever I absolutely HAVE to, check my email at least once a week, and was already carping about Facebook's evils back when the term "social media" was coined. You might say I am antisocial when it comes to my media. Or, as the younger daughter observes, "Mom, if you had a T-shirt, it would say 'I said it before it was right.'"
...But I digress...
April this year has been cut from a harsher cloth than even that poetic and un-Googled Brit proclaimed it. Here in Western Massachusetts, we are in a zone 5, with daffodils only just budding and crocuses tolerating their fourth snow since the vernal equinox. There are plants started in the hoop house and downstairs on top of the furnace, but so far only one or two days have reached above 50 degrees, leaving more than too many days to get the less desirable tasks on my desk out of the way: things like consolidating my blogging and website presence into one unified space.
My former blog traced the first year of First-Flower's development. Looking back, it already seems it must have been more than just two springs ago that I first began tearing up sod to create those initial planting spaces, turning our backyard homestead into a market garden.
Anyone who isn't my parents but who followed me there (there are a few of you) knows the cast of characters here at First-Flower Farm: the Patient Spouse, Boss Lady (of the T-shirt invention aforementioned), her Elder Sister (Who is Grown Up and Busier than a Trojan Beaver) and the Farm Dog. You also know my penchant for writing, which perhaps works against me in that it makes me a poor candidate for most brief social media formats, but probably also keeps me from writing, since I expect whatever I post to be well-developed. Nobody has time for cogency and frequency both, during a growing season on a one-woman farm. So after this first wordy introduction, I plan to make my subsequent postings both brief and frequent.
Eleanor Roosevelt managed to write a daily column for years, despite her very active role in politics and home life. My cousin Fran Ransley turned years of struggle with lucky livestock, governmental red tape, amazing parenting and bare-bones living into a beautiful account, This House Protected by Poverty. My mother's friend Gloria Bake churns out an annual farm log that reads like the cliff notes version of James Herriot. Together, these three women will serve as my inspiration as I try to share with you, at least minimally, some of the details, both social and antisocial, of First-Flower life in this cruellest of months and the kinder ones to follow.
Bloom Where You are Planted.
I've been farming since I was a toddler, when my grandparents showed me how to put onion sets point-up in the sandy furrows of our Michigan homestead. It's taken thirty-odd years of horticultural jobs—from potting up lilies by the thousands to managing a 150-member CSA at Hancock Shaker Village—for me to embark on cultivating a farm of my own. Hence, the title.