Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Down on the Farm, Part 2

Woke up Sunday to a gloomy day. It had rained most of the night and the ground was wet. On the way to the outhouse it didn't feel so chilly, so I put on my gumboots and decided I'd head back to the farm for another day of it. I got there just before 11, and all was quiet; except for the huskies in the dog yard and the poultry in their run the place was empty. It wasn't raining, and I was here, so I decided to work anyway. Yesterday before I left the farmer had shown me a yellow-flowered weed whose dried fruit is a bur that the dogs pick up on their coats and spread everywhere; he wanted me to pull up the whole plant wherever I found it, de-head it, and collect the heads in a pail to dump on the compost pile. I recognized the plant as being in the rose family, a type of avens in the genus Geum, a rosette of toothy lobed leaves and hairy stalks bearing small five-petaled yellow flowers that mature into round prickly fruits. Little does he know, I thought to myself, that he has a plant biologist volunteering for him--leave it to me, Mr. Green Jeans, Sir!

By the time he showed up nearly two hours later I had removed virtually every last one of those damn things from the east end of his property. I had attacked them with such relish, and the wet ground made it easy work to yank them out roots and all. I flung them hither and thither, hanging on willow branches and fence posts to die a horrible death in the hot sun. Bwahahahahaha! I was about to proudly tell him all this when he bent down to examine one and said it was the wrong weed. "It looks alot like it though," and lead me across the farmyard and through a dense thicket of willows and young spruce that scratched my bare arms to a clearing around a small pond thick with wildflowers: deep magenta fireweed and a lovely tall plant with delicate yellow flowers. "This is it," he said, snapping off a cluster of yellow flowers for me to inspect. "Just collect the heads in this bucket and bring them to the compost pile."

It was now about 2:00. I looked around me; what had been a lyrically beautiful meadow an instant ago had transformed into a battlefield with at least a couple hundred enemy forces. Kristin Kimball in her book The Dirty Life writes eloquently of the battle against weeds she and her husband fought during their first farming season together:
Farming, I discovered, is a great and ongoing war. The farmers are continually fighting to keep nature behind the hedgerow, and nature is continually fighting to overtake the field. Inside the ramparts are the sativas, the cultivated plants, soft and vulnerable, too highbred and civilized for fighting. Aligned with nature are the weeds, tough foot solders, evolved for battle.

Inspired by her words, and with digging tool in hand, I bent down and attacked those tough foot soldiers, one by one, and brought them all to their doom, bringing their heads back in my bucket, not as trophies but as future compost. Now I could finally say it: BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

After a late lunch the farmer showed me around some more. I got to visit the greenhouses. I have to say, the row crops were beautifully planted, but the greenhouse was a thing unto itself.

I've never seen such dark-green, healthy, sturdy-looking hothouse plants. They were interplanted in two foot wide wooden beds that ran the length of the greenhouse embedded with special pipes of warm air heated by woodstove to keep the roots warm: tomatoes, bell and hot peppers, herbs of all description, beans, peas, cucumbers, watermelon, muskmelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins. Every square inch of soil was taken up, but the plants did not look messy or crowded. The peppers were studded with white star-shaped flowers, the tomatoes and cukes with yellow bells, and the pumpkins and melons with minature orange lampshades of blooms. In the middle, wedged between two beds was a simple cane-backed chair on which rested a cigarette lighter and rolling papers. Classical music played in the background. I won't reveal the farmer's secrets except to say that he works with northern-adapted varieties, uses lots of natural fertilizer and bone meal, and inter-plants with radishes for natural insect control.

These greenhouses don't go year round--it's just too cold in the winter, and during the collar seasons the woodstove can't be left untended. In this part of the world keeping roots warm is critical. Of course air temperature is important but a healthy plant with a good root system can withstand temperatures above freezing if the roots are protected.

It was quite an education. Here was this humble looking guy, gray bearded, grimy clothes, smelling of tobacco--The Wizard of Plants if ever a Wiz there was!

During the tour the wind picked up and it grew chilly, and dark clouds in the east meant a storm was coming. Before I left the Wizard went down into a cellar and produced a carton of fresh eggs for me to take home. I was grateful. I ate two in an omelette shortly after and they were amazing. I'll go back again and hope to learn more.

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