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New garden varieties for 2023

Experimental crops for 2023The seed rush has started! My calendar tells me to start the first lettuce outside if the ground is warm enough on February 2 (which it almost never is up here) and the first broccoli inside on February 14. But Mark asked me to try romaine lettuce this year, which seemed like an excuse to go ahead and start a few lettuce seedlings along with the first flat of broccoli seedlings on January 30. I couldn’t help myself!

As usual, we’re trying a small selection of new varieties along with our tried-and-true and I thought you might like to see our experiments. We get our seeds from Johnny’s because their plants are (almost) always both productive and delicious, so you can find all of these goodies over there if you want to follow suit. I will admit that their seeds aren’t cheap, but I find that I get so much more out of each plant that it’s worth the extra cash, especially once you factor in time spent taking care of crops that don’t bear.

So, without further ado, four experiments!

Quirk produces tiny cucumbers that were just too cute to pass by when I saw them on the website.

Sunland is a run-of-the-mill romaine, but we’ve never grown romaine before so I’m adding it to the list. We’ll be starting a few seeds every week then transplanting them the way you would broccoli, a different technique than our dependable direct-seed-a-bed-a-month technique formerly used for leaf lettuce.

Adam Gherkin looks like a similar variety to my beloved Harmonie, which has been a delicious producer for years. Yes, 250 seeds is a lot, but the packet option just seemed too small. I can often eke out cucurbit seeds for two to four years, so if this variety is a winner that will only be $5 – $10 a year for our main cucumber crop.

Menuette is a new kind of parsley with very small, ferny leaves. We like to use parsley in tuna salad, but the bigger leaves tend to get tough in the summer. We’re hoping this variety will stay tender all year long.

How about you? Which new varieties are you most excited about trying? (I’m assuming your seeds are ordered, right?!)

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Turning a septic field into a wildflower meadow

When I mentioned not wanting to turn our septic field into the traditional mowed lawn, Travis Sparks wrote in to share his impressive mini-meadow, started in 2017 atop his Maine septic field.

First step turning a septic field into a wildflower meadow
“I mowed the area down as low as I could in late spring 2017,” he wrote, “spread a thin layer of compost over the whole area, broadcast a variety of both perennial and annual seed mixes over it, and lightly raked everything. I mowed it a couple more times that year (higher cut) to try to knock the competition back while things germinated, and then left it be.”

“I just had sparse grasses and wildflowers to start (nothing woody) before doing any of this, so the competition wasn’t too strong early on. It was reasonably successful the following year.” (Image above.)

Two year old septic field meadow
Travis wasn’t entirely thrilled with wildflower establishment, though, so he repeated the process in late spring 2019 including “another very light top-dressing of compost since the leach field soil is mostly just sandy fill.” The results that year were even more inspiring as you can see in the photo above.

Four year old septic field meadow
And here’s the meadow at four years old, in 2021. Travis wrote that after the establishment phase, he hasn’t done anything to keep the meadow on track (although I suspect he’ll have to mow now and then to keep woody plants out).

I’m so impressed by his success, which turns his septic field into habitat for pollinators and lots of other wildlife. Have you turned a blah septic field into an integral part of your homestead? If so, I’d love to hear about it!
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Microbusiness: Artisanal chocolate and seed production

Mark worked up this awesome video of the second half of our Trouvaille Farm tour. If you missed it, the first video looked at the larger picture of the farm business and ecosystem while this one zeroes in on their income-producing gigs: artisanal chocolate making and growing seeds for seed companies.

(Yes, I’m posting for Mark. He seemed to think it was more fun to rip out a stained old toilet and put in a new one rather than spend five minutes playing with a computer. His loss, my gain!)

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Save a bundle on homesteading literature (plus septic system management)

Homesteading bundle

Would you like to start 2023 with a little (or a lot) of homesteading inspiration? If so, I highly recommend this limited-time bundle of $285 worth of ebooks and videos, marked down to $35 for a couple more days. The massive compilation includes a Joel Salatin video, books I’ve read and recommended on the blog previously (including Understanding Roots and Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist), and my own Weekend Homesteader: Winter.

Brush clearing

On an unrelated note, Mark and I are slowly figuring out how to live with a septic system instead of a composting toilet. Our health department comes out to inspect new systems every five years, and we got a B on our first report card. Apparently we need to tweak our flow levelers for more even distribution, to clean the filter under the outlet riser every six months, and to keep woody plants out of the leach field.

We’d mowed the septic field when we first got here, but we’re not lawn aficionados and I wanted to develop better pollinator and firefly habitat so I started letting things grow up. In lieu of mowing, we’re instead hitting the autumn olives, blackberries, and rose bushes with the chainsaw, figuring the same treatment annually might do the trick. It was either that or succumb to the always-present urge for goats…

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Happy solstice!

Walden Effect at the Portsmouth Floodwall murals

Okay, so I know I promised you a farm tour video this week. How about next week?

Instead, here’s a bit of our journey through time for the solstice. Building a stone house in the early 1800s with unnamed guy and cat Woodrow…

1905 Portsmouth fire department

Hanging out with the 1905 fire department. (Glad we didn’t drop by earlier since volunteers to the 1820 fire department were first required to purchase their own leather bucket.)

Wood-burning train

Then we were wowed by a wood-burning locomotive from the same era.

Yes, we did sneak away to enjoy the Portsmouth Floodwall Murals. Definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in southern Ohio.

Happy holidays!

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Freeze tolerance of fall crops (18 degrees Fahrenheit)

Broccoli after a hard freeze

I’ve written a lot in the past about critical temperatures of spring crops (especially flowering fruits), but I realized I don’t say much about what fall crops can handle. Usually, we’re down to the hardiest vegetables by the time we get a hard freeze. But this year, a very dry late summer meant some fall crops were running late, which was okay because we enjoyed a very long lingering autumn. Then the forecast suddenly called for the better part of a week below freezing with lows around 18 Fahrenheit, leaving me struggling to figure out what to harvest early and what to cover up. In case you’re ever in a similar situation, I thought you might like to see the results.

The image above is from the morning after the first hard freeze, broccoli I harvested early on the right and broccoli I chose to cover with a caterpillar tunnel plus row-cover fabric on the left. Everything looks pretty good, right?

Caterpillar tunnel protection vs. unprotected broccoli

Not so fast! Freeze damage usually doesn’t show up that first morning.

A couple of weeks later, the results are clearer. Uncovered broccoli pretty much bit the dust while broccoli under cover was damaged but kept growing in the warmer spell that followed. I’m not holding my breath about getting a crop from those last few plants though.

Recommendation: Harvest the broccoli early.

Winter lettuce

Elsewhere in the garden, I had two beds of lettuce, both under caterpillar tunnels plus row cover fabric. Both got nipped, but the younger lettuce (shown above) has since regrown. The older lettuce, which was starting to bolt, is now rotted down to nothing.

Recommendation: Age of the crop makes a different. Lettuce in its young prime can bounce back from a hard freeze if it’s protected but it’s probably a good idea to harvest anything that’s ready just in case.

Dewy kale

My darling kale, of course, did pretty well both under cover and in uncovered beds. Some leaves were slightly nipped; others weren’t. We’re still happily consuming a couple of meals of kale per week, often in the form of Kale Pesto.

Recommendation: Kale is our most cold-hardy fall crop if it’s moderately mature. If you’re low on row-cover, you can wait to cover this one up.

Winter hardiness of cover crops

Not that I was going to do anyting to protect my cover crops, but I thought you might like to see them after the hard freeze too. On the left — rye and vetch are thriving. Center — the oats are half-dead. Right — oilseed radishes are pretty nipped too. Of course, I wanted the oats and radishes to die and rot into the soil before spring, so this is actually good news.

Winter carrots

What about carrots? I got spooked and harvested the rest of ours because we had so many and they were so beautiful that I couldn’t bear to risk it. But our new friends from Trouivalle Farm put theirs under a version of a quick hoop and are still harvesting as needed out of the ground.

Recommendation: Be brave! Try leaving at least some carrots in the ground under row cover.

(Stay tuned for next week — we have a fascinating interview from Trouivalle Farm’s proprietors coming your way once Mark edits it into shape!)

 

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Favorite fall apple varieties

Stayman Winesap Apple

Our local farmer’s market has the most apple varieties I’ve ever seen, all harvested close to Athens, Ohio. As a result, I’ve been running taste tests over the last few years, picking new (and old) favorites.

Before I go on, I should tell you what I like in an apple — a good blend of sweet and tart, preferably also crisp (although taste is more important to me than texture). You won’t find apples like these at the grocery store even if they share these names. Head to your own farmer’s market, fruit stand, or U-pick orchard to find the tastiest treats.

Okay, which varieties won the prize? The first one is the old standby I’ve been enjoying since I was a kid — Stayman Winesap. When caught at its peak, this is an A+ apple. If harvested a bit too early, it tends toward sour and might be more of a B+. (Look for the bright red skin as a visual clue of sweetness.) Later in the winter, Winesaps turn mushy and are more of a B.

Goldrush Apple

Goldrush was a new one on me, but has become my go-to apple in the winter. It’s a little sweeter than Winesap but still has some tartness and a good flavor complexity. Plus, it stays crisp for quite a long time. The tastiest Goldrush apples tend to have a bit of a red blush, but even the solid yellow ones are an A to A+.

Liberty Apple

I’ve yet to find Liberty appples being grown by a traditional farmer, but homesteaders often plant them because they’ll bear fruit without any chemical sprays. They’re a bit denser than the others but boast a flavor explosion that definitely beats the pants off any other apple I’ve eaten. That said, I can’t be sure whether the difference is the variety or the cultivation method. Beyond-organic techniques lead to lots of micronutrients in the soil which in turn tend to turn flavors up extra high. Regardless, this is a solid A+ apple, maybe an A++.

I can’t wait to hear the results of your own taste tests. And if you end up with way too many apples after buying up every variety at the local farmer’s market, definitely try making a vat of skin-on applesauce.