Yeah, yeah, it’s August and I’m just now getting around to writing about June on the homestead… if you’re wondering why, read this.
It’s rare that I say these words, but, we were feeling hot, hot, hot in June. We are not hot weather people (I repeat NOT), as evidenced by our move to a snowy state. Summers here are usually temperate and quite manageable with opened windows and doors (screened, of course).
But June wrought a novel form of heat, unfamiliar to our winterized bones and we boiled like so many lobsters in a pot. Thankfully, this punishing heat lifted and we’ve returned to the 70s and 80s of our acclimation. Despite our human hatred of heat, our tomatoes and hot peppers felt differently and grew to unusual sizes. One of our tomato plants is nearly taller than its trellis and summer is barely half over!
If you’re just tuning in, this is a recurring series in which I document each month of our lives out here on our 66-acre Vermont homestead. After leaving urban Cambridge, MA in May 2016 to chart this wholly different life, we’re experiencing a constant learning curve of exploration (and plenty of stupid novice moments). Check out last month’s installment here and enjoy the best and worst (ok, mostly the worst) moments of our first year on the homestead here. Wondering if it’s less expensive to live rurally? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
The FLAME WEEDER
June was bonanza month for veggie garden growth and, so as not to impede things, I sat back and watched Mr. Frugalwoods scurry around weeding. Which brings me to a highlight for many of you who’ve oh so patiently waited for an update on our FLAME WEEDER (this is an affiliate link). The FLAME WEEDER–as it is known–does its namesake well: it weeds via flame. When Mr. FW first proposed that we buy one of these, I waved him off thinking, I don’t have time for your jests, buddy. But he persisted and finally convinced me that it is a real thing–an actual, factual gardening implement.
What’s more, it is apparently one of the most efficacious ways to manage a garden organically. Since we want to grow our fruits and veg organically and don’t want to dump pesticides on them, weeds are an ever-present interloper, particularly in the veggie garden. Enter: the FLAME WEEDER. The reason for flame weeding versus cultivating (scraping the ground to remove weeds) is that when you cultivate, additional weed seeds can be disturbed and germinate. The flame weeder, on the other hand, doesn’t disturb the surface of the soil and so shouldn’t introduce new weeds into the mix. The flame weeder is also a multi-purpose tool: in the future we can use it to light brush piles on fire and Mr. FW has already used it to heat up a stubborn bolt on the tractor box blade in order to remove it. In Mr. FW’s words, it’s nice to have a large propane torch at your disposal.
The flame weeder (apt that its initials are FW, no?) partook in weeding in two separate iterations:
- First, the FW was employed to scorch the earth prior to planting. After Mr. FW dug out the rows to create our new (and larger) vegetable garden beds this year, he allowed the weeds to germinate and sprout. He taunted those weeds, letting them grow unchecked and with abandon for several days. Then, when we sensed the time was right, he unleashed a firestorm of terror upon their weedy heads. It sounds more dramatic than it actually is as the flame itself is pretty controlled and does not (much to my disappointment as a photographer) look all that spectacular. It’s just sort of a little puff of flame that incinerates the weeds on contact.
- The flame weeder is particularly useful when you’re direct seeding because you can time the germination and flame weed AFTER you plant seeds but BEFORE your veggies pop out of the ground, which gives your veggies a big head start on the weeds. A major problem otherwise is that the veggies and the weeds pop up at the same time and, uh, look a lot alike and make it tough to weed around your fledging plants…. this is what happened to us last year and more than a few vegetables were accidentally weeded… whoops.
- Next, the flame weeder took care of the weeds that usurp the walking paths in between each veggie row.
- Powdered by propane, Mr. FW was delighted to learn that the flame weeder uses very little as he was able to flame weed twice on the seed beds and three times between the rows and hasn’t had to replace the propane tank yet.
Now that the vegetable plants are more mature, the flame weeder is retired for the season since it would accidentally catch the veggies on fire at this point. The primary utility of the flame weeder is that it terminated the initial crop of weeds in the garden bed, which is supposed to make it more challenging for their weed-like offspring to take root. It’s a great way to reduce a weed population without the use of chemicals or constant, laborious hand-weeding (which we do plenty of anyway… ). Having managed the garden solely through hand-weeding last year, Mr. FW estimates the flame weeder has cut his hand weeding time in half. Mr. FW reports that he considers the flame weeder to be a “dramatic success.” And that’s a direct quote. It’s also, according to Mr. FW, a lot of fun to use. As evidenced by him flame throwing in random directions where I’m quite certain there were no weeds…
If you’re curious about how we manage weeds around our perennial fruit trees, the answer is sheet mulching and you can read all about that process here.
Garden So Glorious
June represents a wait, tend, weed, and hope cycle for the garden. It’s too late to plant anything new, but too early to harvest. So mostly we wait, we weed, and occasionally we water. Thankfully we get a fair amount of rain, so watering is an infrequent event and by early June, the entire garden was planted.
Here’s the rundown of what we’ve planted and are trying not to kill this year:
- Cherry tomatoes! Mr. FW possibly went overboard with cherry tomatoes this year (I say this with all love and honesty) due to a garden pest we encountered last year that wasn’t accounted for in any of the gardening books we consulted: our toddler. Caught unawares by this voracious critter, last year’s tomato crop fell prey to her munching jaws. Babywoods would run through the tomato rows and pluck and eat every single ripe tomato (and plenty of unripe specimens as well). I estimate that Mr. FW and I each feasted on one tomato the entire summer. In deference to this little beast’s tomato-crazed appetite, the man planted no less than 36 cherry tomato plants (versus SIX last year) of the following varieties: Gold Nugget and Matt’s Wild Cherry. Here’s hoping we get to eat a few more this year. We opted to do all cherry tomatoes versus larger tomatoes as we think the flavor is better and the larger tomatoes have trouble ripening in our growing season. So far, the Gold Nugget variety seems to be producing better than the Matt’s Wild Cherry.
- Rainbow chard! We adore chard in all its many forms and rainbow chard seems to have a particular affinity for our zone 4 cold climate and brief growing season. Last year, a number of our chard plants perished, so Mr. FW accounted for this loss in his seed starts this year and planted a whopping 80 chard plants (rough estimate–I meant to go out there and count them, but I forgot and now it’s nighttime and I’m drinking wine). Uh, I’ll give you a sneak preview and let you know that, so far, not a single chard plant has perished. In other news, we’ll now be using chard leaves as cleaning rags, paper towels, and I’m fashioning skirts out of the stalks for me and the girls.
Kale! It’s a requirement for former hipsters to plant kale; it’s in the contract we sign with the state of Vermont before we’re allowed to post our gardens on Instagram. It’s a lifestyle thing, you understand. Mr. FW selected a different variety of kale from last year and, unfortunately, it fell victim to a bout of nasty cabbage worms. Ever the vigilant(e) gardener, Mr. FW took note of this malady early on in the kale’s life and treated it with a round of BT (which is an organic bacteria that specifically targets caterpillars and their ilk). At this point all 50(ish) kale plants are still alive, but are struggling to catch up in size to their swarthy chard counterparts. We might need to consider a re-branding here to convert over to chard-sters.
- Cucumbers! Longtime readers may recall our cucumber-pickling-a-palooza last summer and our ardent love of Mr. FW’s spicy pickle creations. Babywoods and I eat an entire jar in one sitting. Not a long sitting either. In deference to this, Mr. FW ramped cuke planting up to 25 cucumber plants. So far, hale, hearty and producing well. It’ll be pickle time soon my friends. (P.S. if you’re on our Christmas gift list and DON’T like our pickles, speak now or forever hold your jar(s) of pickles.) The variety we planted is aptly called National Pickling, we’re happy with them so far, and they seem to like the climate.
Snap peas! We, as a family, are on somewhat thin ice with peas and their relatives Mr. FW planted a gargantuan number of beans and peas last year and we ate a ton of them, but didn’t think they tasted all that superb. He also preserved a bunch of beans which, to be honest, didn’t taste terrific. We ate them, but not with much fervor. So, he’s trying snap peas this year to see if we consume these at a more rapid rate.
- Thai basil! Mr. FW (our sole household chef) cooks with a lot of Thai and Korean spices, including a not insignificant amount of Thai basil. So why not plant some? I’ll tell you why not: it appears to hate our climate. Last year’s crop of regular basil grew to the immense size of the head of a pin (I am not kidding), so I’m wondering if our environment is hostile to basil. Oh well, at least we have some super cute basil-gone-to-flower in our garden right now.
- Cilantro! Another favorite herb of my personal chef’s, cilantro is new to our line-up this year. Seems bushy and happy thus far (but how can we know if it is truly “happy,” did anyone ask it? Or are we simply projecting our own wishes upon Cilantro? Forcing it to live out a facade of “everything’s fine” when in secret it seethes, feeling misunderstood and rejected for its desire to start a punk band in Brooklyn and not pine away as a lonesome herb in the Vermont countryside–seen a bucolic by some, but felt as a prison by Cilantro).
Ground cherries (variety: Goldie)! A bizarre little plant, I’d never heard of these babies before our baby ate an entire bag of them from our local farmer’s market last summer. They grow in micro bushes close to the ground (see photo at right), encased in brown paper-lantern pods. Tiny in size (smaller than a cherry tomato by several orders of magnitude), they’re pale yellow–anemic almost–and rather dull in rendering. But their taste? A wallop of pineapple and citrus, with an overtone of tomato. I actually think they’e a bit weird tasting, but Babywoods cannot get enough. She has, thus far, eaten nearly every single ground cherry we’ve harvested and begs us to “grow more ground cherries!!!” We’ll have to triple our seed estimate for next summer…
- Hot peppers: cayenne and jalapeño! Another key accompaniment for Mr. FW’s Thai and Korean cooking, hot peppers are delectable. Last year’s didn’t do too hot, but this year Mr. FW planted more and they appear (at first blush) to be motoring along with aplomb. At early analysis, the cayennes seem to be doing much better than the jalapeño. We had a tough go of it with out hot peppers last summer too, so we might need to re-think this strategy for next summer.
This is our third year of gardening and, as you can see, it’s a trial and error sort of process. We’re guided primarily by the pillars of: 1) what will grow in our climate?; 2) what do we like to eat?; 3) what isn’t as good/as cheap when purchased from the store/farmer’s market?; 4) what preserves well for winter?
Last year, we planted pumpkins and squash and, while the pumpkins were adorable, they tasted awful. Same goes for the squash (although it was lumpy and decidedly less adorable, so really, two strikes against the squash… ). And sure, you could load them up with butter and/or sugar, but that misses the point for us of trying to eat these veggies as healthfully as possible. So this year? No pumpkins, no squash.
We’re honing, testing, and seeing what it is that we like to eat and to preserve. While we eat in real time as we harvest, the vast majority of the garden will get canned and preserved for year-round consumption. At least, that’s the goal, which is pretty grandiose considering Mr. FW and I both have other jobs (at least mine is to write about it), two tiny kids (shockingly not helpful in the garden), and have no idea what we’re doing. OTHER THAN THAT, we’re killing it (literally in the case of the Thai basil).
Project Perennial Food Check-In
As I waxed at length last month, parallel to our annual veggie garden is our goal to create a permaculture, perennial homestead paradise. We are largely sucking at this, but–thanks to Mr. FW’s heroics (and ridiculous ability to get an inordinate amount of work done in infinitesimal amounts of time)–we made serious progress this spring. He planted four varieties of blueberries, currants, Saskatoons, honey berries, and two varieties of cherry. My homestead husband also embarked on a rehabilitation effort (including extensive pruning) of our apple orchard and plum “orchard” (we only have three plum trees left to our name, so I’m not so sure it’s an orchard… “mini orchard”? “morchard”?). In furtherance of these perennials, he embarked on a course of applying clay surround this month. We are (at this point) organic gardeners for a number of reasons: 1) we don’t want to pollute the earth with chemicals; 2) our children see fit to lick/eat everything in sight; 3) it’s cheaper.
Given this, Mr. FW was pleased to discover Surround WP, which is a mixture of very fine organic clay particles that’s applied to perennial fruit trees to confuse and deter bugs. He uses this backpack sprayer (this is an affiliate link), which allows him to spray a fine mist of clay onto the leaves and trunks of the perennials. This is a new treatment system for us this year and we’re dearly hoping it’ll reduce the number of insect-related pests.
We’re still beta testing whether or not spraying your toddler with clay provides the same deterrent. The downside with using clay as a treatment, as you might’ve guessed, is that, uh, it washes off in the rain. And so, Mr. FW gamely gets back out there after a rainstorm to re-spray each tree. Not exactly time-efficient, but it does keep our orchard organic and–thus far–appears effective at bug mitigation. Surround is purported to repel insects that attack fruit early in the season, so he started spraying right after petal fall when the fruits were tiny. As the season progresses and the fruit grows, he’ll stop spraying the trees as they’ll have outgrown those pests. We’ve also read that Surround can help with Japanese Beetles, so if we seem to have a lot of those this year, he’ll spray again. So far, the report is a thumbs-up for Surround. Looks like we’ll get about three years out of our 25 pound bag.
Summer equals visitors to the homestead since, for some odd reason, no one wants to visit us in the middle of winter. Must be all those ice storm chic photos I post… will have to reconsider my snow documentation methods. We love having friends and family visit us since sharing our homestead brings us immense joy (plus we try to con people into doing yard labor for us).
Mr. FW’s Domain
Notice how almost every action item above is preceded by the words “Mr. Frugalwoods”? Wondering what I did all month? Slake your curiosity right here.
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Onward to July, frugal comrades!