A Winter Harvest


Sunday’s High Temp

Last weekend we had some of the coldest weather of the winter.  Sunday was the most brutal. During the day temperatures didn’t climb above 13˚. At night temperatures dropped to minus 13˚ on our farm. With winds gusting up to 28 miles per hour, the cold was simply wicked. Winter winds are especially damaging to plants because they suck the moisture (desiccation) right out of plants. Would the cilantro, spinach, Asian greens and claytonia in our unheated high tunnels handle the cold and live to be eaten another day?

We have three things standing between the frigid outside air and our delicious and nutritious greens. First, our plastic covered high tunnels serve to keep howling winds out. They also trap warm air on sunny days. Even on the coldest of days, temperatures can rise substantially in a high tunnel. That Sunday featured bright sunshine, steady winds and a high of just 13˚, typical of very cold winter days in New Hampshire. But, with that bright sunshine our tunnels were able to warm up to a balmy 51˚. Almost tee-shirt weather!


LEF High Tunnels

Second, our crops are protected with layers of heavy duty “row covers”. Row covers are made of spun-bonded polypropylene that trap heat and act as a blanket to protect crops from weather and insects. While temperatures fell below -13˚ during the night, the air under our row covers bottomed out at 14˚. That is a 27˚ temperature differential.


Row Cover Material

The third aspect of winter growing (actually harvesting) is crop selection. Cold season greens (planted in September) go through a hardening process in preparation for the winter. Sugar, which acts as an anti-freeze, has been building up in the plants since early fall. Water is also expelled during the hardening up process, making the material in the plant cell denser. A higher sugar content and denser cell material allow the plant to survive cold temperatures. In extreme cold plants may freeze up but cell walls will not rupture.

The most remarkable feature of what I call “winter-treated” crops is the taste. It is simply outstanding. Leaves will become thicker but more tender. With less water in the plant the flavor is more intense. And, the sweetness of the plant can’t be matched by anything grown in the summer. Only winter can produce this kind of taste.


Covers Pulled Back

So, the real hardiness test comes when the row covers are pealed back. Did our greens make it through the night? We needed to let the air under the covers warm (above 40˚) so that the plants could thaw out. I was very sure the spinach, claytonia and kale would be fine. I wasn’t so sure about the some of the Asian greens and the cilantro. All these plants were comfortably tucked away, but 14˚ is still pretty cold. The first covers I pulled away were protecting the Cilantro. This is one of our favorite herbs and we put fist fulls in almost everything we eat. I would have been really bummed if we had carried the cilantro this far through the winter only to find it in a mushy heap. As you can see in the picture, it looks grand. And the flavor!



If you want to learn more about winter growing please join me on the following dates for our “Four Season Harvest” garden workshops:
Tuesday, April 5th at Beaver Brook in Hollis, NH
Wednesday, April 27th at the Massabesic Audubon Center in Auburn, NH

What You Need to Know About Buying Seeds

Seeds are the foundation of your garden. You can’t grow much of anything without them. Seed genetics determine yield potential, ability to grow in your area, resistance to pests & disease, flavor and nutrient quality. The better the quality of the seed the more robust the root system, the healthier your plants are and the higher your yields. This is especially true in an organic growing system.

Selecting Seeds that are Right for Your Garden

The first step in the selection process is to purchase seeds that are best adapted to your Johnnys Selectsoil, climate and length of growing season. There are several companies the produce seed for the New England region. High Mowing Organic Seeds, FEDCO Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds are three of my favorites. logo_seeds_lgAll three companies buy seeds from local farmers as well as from growers outside of New England. All of their seed varieties are trialed on their respective farms.High Mowing

You will then need to select the type of seeds based on your growing methodology (organic or conventional). If you are gardening using organic fertility methods you will want to purchase organic seeds. Organic fertilizers (especially nitrogen) need to go through a biological process in the soil before they are available as a food for plants. So, it is critical that your plant have a robust root system to take up nutrients. Conventional fertilizers are readily available to the plant and feed it directly without the assistance of soil biology. The plant doesn’t have to work for its food. With each passing generation the genetics of the plant change. Root system of conventionally bred seeds eventually become more diminutive (this is one of the reasons it takes so long to develop a conventional plant variety into an organic variety – the root system needs to be genetically rebuilt). The added benefit of using organic seeds is that they will be non-GMO and free of chemical pesticides.

Choosing the varieties you want to grow is your next step. Here are some things you might want to consider:
• What vegetables do you want to grow?
• Is disease resistance important?
• Is one variety more nutritious or tastier than another variety?

Different Seed Types

Open-pollinated seeds come from a plant that can be pollinated by natural means such as birds, insects and wind. If they are pollinated by the same variety they will grow true-to-type (like the parents). If they are pollinated by a different variety, you will have created a new flavor. And, if you want to save seeds, this is the type you need to buy.

Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated seeds that have been around for decades and maybe even centuries. They can be organic or conventional and may be better tasting or/and have higher nutritional value. Heirloom seeds are usually more susceptible to plant diseases but they have very stable genetic material.

Garden Gem Tomato

Garden Gem Tomato courtesy of Harry Klee – University of Florida


Hybrid seeds (often labeled F1) come from two varieties of a plant that have been artificially cross pollinated for specific traits (for instance grape tomato Maglia Rose and commercial tomato ‘Fla. 8059’ were combined to produce Garden Gem). Unfortunately, seeds from the offspring of a hybrid may not produce true to the parent or may not produce at all. Don’t choose a hybrid if you plan to save seeds.

Certified Organic seeds have been grown without the use of any synthetic nutrients or synthetic pesticides and under a specific process mandated by law. They have been inspected by a certifying organization. Certified organic seeds can be open-pollinated or hybrid but not genetically modified.

Conventional seeds have been grown with the use of synthetic nutrients and synthetic pesticides. They can be open-pollinated, hybrid, or genetically modified. As I stated earlier they generally do not perform as well under an organic regime as organic seeds do.

Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds have been impregnated with genes from a different species or have been altered through genetic engineering techniques. Why stay away from GM seeds? Yields are not substantially higher than normal seeds, they are significantly more expensive and nature has been finding ways around their modifications making them less effective. GM pollen can contaminate your neighbor’s seeds and we have no real idea what long-term exposure to GM crops will do to our bodies. Check out this interesting article about pigs eating GM foods.

Different Treatments for Seeds

Seeds can be treated to prevent pathogens or insects from destroying your seed or seedling. Treatments include chemicals fungicides, insecticides, and antibiotics. Some treatments combine an insecticide with a fungicide. Organic seeds are treated through some form of physical treatment (steam, hot water, etc.) to kill pathogens and not any pesticides.

Systemic pesticide treatments are absorbed by the seed or developing seedling and become part of the tissue of plant. These treatments protect both the seed and the young plants against pests and diseases but they also make the poison part of what you eat.

Carrot seeds Pelletted 02-08-2016

Pelleted and Raw Carrot Seeds

Pelleted seeds are covered with an inert material to make them easier to handle and plant. There are organic and conventional pelleted seeds.  Pelleted seeds germinate more quickly because they absorb and hold moisture well.

Primed seeds have been treated to germinate more quickly. Depending on the process, they may or may not be allowed in organic production (sometimes pelleted seed are primed).

Seed Germination, Vigor and Age

Most seed packets will have a germination rate on the package. The packet also gives you instructions on how densely you need to sow based on germination rates.

Seed vigor is much harder to measure, but seed size is often good indicator. Before sowing, I sort my seeds by size. I then plant the largest and feed the smallest to the birds.

Be aware that as seeds age, both germination and vigor decline, slowly at first and then more rapidly as they grow older. And, vigor will decline faster than germination rates (you can have seeds that germinate but then grow very slowly or not at all). Don’t buy cheap seeds. There is a reason they are in the discount bin.

Seed Considerations

Onion 02-08-2016Short-lived seeds, including vegetables such as onions, leeks, parsley, parsnips and sweet corn, have germination rates that decline rapidly. For best results, purchase new seeds for these crops every year.

Early Maturing varieties have been developed for shorter growing seasons. They are usually smaller fruited so that ripening happens more quickly (cherry tomatoes ripen more quickly than slicing tomatoes).

Days-to-Maturity gives you an idea of how long it takes for a plant to reach full ripeness. Remember this calculation is very weather dependent (cooler weather slows the growing process).  If you are starting seeds indoors (tomatoes for example) the “days-to-maturity” begins on the day you transplant your seedlings outside.

Disease Resistance information is usually provided in the catalog description. If there is no information you need to assume that resistance is minimal. Disease resistance or tolerance does not mean immunity so your plant may eventually succumb to disease.

Eating on the Wild Side

Picture from Amazon.com

Recent research has shown that the nutritional content of your plants can vary significantly from variety to variety. You may want to seek out cultivars that bring greater nutrition to you dinner table (they also happen to taste better). To learn more about the nutrient content of various vegetables you might want to check out Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson.

Store your seeds properly (airtight container at 40 degrees) and do not use old seeds unless they have been stored properly. Be sure to check out the “packed for” date to determine how old your seeds are.

Fluctuations in humidity and temperature can greatly impact seed viability and diminish shelf life. Store your seeds in sealed containers in a refrigerator or a freezer. This can greatly extend the amount of time seeds remain viable.

Finally, seeds are complex, living organisms so handle them carefully when planting. Damage done to a seed while planting is often overlooked.  And, you will want to get your seed orders in before the end of February.

A Simple Mead from Water & Honey

It’s January and it’s cold. The ground is frozen and hard as a rock. And it’s way too early to start any plants for the summer. So, what is a farmer to do? Some reading perhaps! I’m not much for fiction, but a good text book about mycorrhizal fungi or the function of soil bacteria, I can dig into that. Books about food are also at the top of my list, especially if they contain some science. Where it comes from, how to make it, why this is better for you than that is, all that kind of stuff. One of my favorite observers of the food and farm world is Michael Pollan. He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a few weeks ago his In Defense of Food aired on PBS. After scanning Amazon for a good read, Michael Pollan’s newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation seemed right down my alley.

Well, a hundred pages into Cooked and I know what I want for my birthday (the big 60 is coming up)… a smoking pit to cook a pig southern barbecue style! Barbeque PitMy son Steven said he would help me build it. So, at some point this summer we will be building a pit similar to the one pictured here.  And, when it’s time to roast I’ll be looking for a very special pig. This one will have eaten roots, grass, acorns and apples. It will have had friends and lived a good life all the way up to the end. We will say thank you for providing us nourishment and then roast it on low heat for a long time, a very long time.


Being the kitchen hack that I am, I didn’t think much about the difference between roasting and braising. Water is the medium in the middle chapters of Cooked; how to turn it into sustenance. Moving from the smoke and fire of an open pit to an enclosed pot filled with water completely changes the methodology of the cooking process. I learned that a little bit of extra time and low heat can turn ordinary H2O and a few simple vegetables into something special.

One of our favorite recipes from a cookbook titled Food of the Southwest Indian Nations, is “Apache Stew”. It is a combination of vegetables, hominy, venison and some spices. Foods of the Southwest Indian NationsThis past week-end I set out to make Apache Stew, but this time with some help from Michael Pollan. Normally, I cut up the onions, carrots, peppers and garlic and quickly cook them on fairly high heat to caramelize them. However, instead of caramelizing the vegetables as I usually do, Mr. Pollan suggested we melt them into the broth. So, I kept on chopping (lots and lots of chopping) until the onions, carrots, peppers and garlic were almost a mash. I tossed this mash into a large cast iron pot with some sunflower oil and simmered and stirred on the lowest heat for a whole half hour. Water, hominy, spices and braised venison followed, again simmering lightly for three more hours. And, melt it did, into a deep flavorful stew that was beyond anything I had made before.

The last 200 pages of Cooked are all about fermentation, something I knew little about. My Mom never made food that involved fungi or bacteria (at least not on purpose). As kids, Land O’Lakes American White was our cheese and Wonder Bread was the toast of our town. Our taste buds were geared towards grocery store blandness. Heck, bacteria and fungi were bad and caused disease and needed to be avoided. Or better yet, wiped out. Boy did I miss out! Today, I seek out tastes that are far more robust; cheeses that are earthy and buttery and have a little tang, a malty smooth beer with a hint of sweetness, or a slightly sour whole grain bread. All coming from the actions of fungi and bacteria.

I have done some of my own fermentation at Joes Ancient Orange Meadhome with flour, water, yeast and salt to make bread. But, making bread with store bought yeast is pretty easy. So, this week-end I am plunging into the realm of the mad scientist and brewer, again with inspiration from Michael Pollan. Nothing fancy on my first try, just a simple mead from water, honey, spices and yeast (and any other fungi or bacteria that happens to be floating around in our kitchen). I’ll let you know how things turn out in a few weeks.

My take on Cooked: First, at least when it comes to food, low and slow generally works better than hot and fast. Creating truly satisfying, flavorful food takes time. Second, Michael Pollan talks about his own follies and fears in the kitchen.  He knows he doesn’t know everything, but he wants to find out. And, he wants to share his discoveries with you. Finally, I forgot what a good story teller he is. I read Omnivore’s Dilemma several years ago with great enjoyment.  I love to learn about food, farming, science, and people. Cooked blends all of these things into a series of well-connected stories that took me deeper into the art of making great food.

Netflix is serving up Cooked as a four-part docu-series starting February 19th and with any luck I’ll be drinking my first batch of mead while I watch it.

Spring 2016 Garden Workshop Series

Join us this spring as Beaver Brook hosts another series of workshops for vegetable and fruit gardeners.  Learn how to incorporate organic methods of gardening so that you can grow your own delicious and nutritious food.  We start on Tuesday evening, March 1st with “Vegetable and Fruit Garden Planning” and end with a tour of Living Earth Farm on April 23rd.

  • Tuesday, March 1st — Vegetable & Fruit Garden Planning (7 to 9 PM): Improve the function of your garden while increasing yields, lowering costs and reducing your workload. We will talk about garden location & layout, seeds, plants, equipment & supplies, harvest, storage, and so much more.
  • Saturday, March 5th – Healthy Soil for Happy Plants (9 AM to 3 PM): Feed your soil to feed your plants. Create healthy soil to improve yields and the nutritional quality of your fruit and vegetables while reducing pests and diseases in your garden. Learn some simple steps to better manage the nutrients in your soil. Benefit from lower costs while improving the environment. Bring your soil tests and we’ll take a peek.
  • Tuesday, March 8th – Starting Plants from Seeds (7 to 9 PM): Starting plants from seeds is a great way to grow your favorite vegetables and save money at the same time. Join us for this fun, hands-on workshop and learn some tips and techniques to get your plants off to a healthy start.
  • Tuesday, March 15th – Container and Raised Bed Gardening (7 to 9 PM): Growing fruits and veggies in containers is a great way to save space and improve the efficiency of your garden. We’ll show you all the tricks to growing healthy, bountiful plants in small spaces.
  • Saturday, March 19th – How Do You Like Them Apples (9 AM to 3 PM): Growing organic apples in New Hampshire is a real challenge. We will talk about all aspects of starting and maintaining organic apple trees. We’ll even show you the nifty apple protection system employed at Living Earth Farm.
  • Tuesday, March 22nd – A Fungus Among Us (7 to 9 PM): Do you have sickly plants or tons of gnarly weeds in your garden? Let us provide you with strategies and solutions to reduce diseases and manage weed pressures in your garden.
  • Tuesday, March 29th – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (7 to 9 PM): Squash bugs and potato beetles. Mice and ground hogs. Deer, bear, DRAGONS! They’re all in my garden! Learn how to attract and keep the good guys around while scaring the bad guys away.
  • Saturday, April 2nd – Berries, Berries and More Berries (9 AM to 3 PM): Blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are delicious, nutritious and easy to grow. We will cover all aspects of growing berries including soil & fertility, variety selection, pests & diseases, and pruning techniques.
  • Tuesday, April 5th – A Four Season Harvest (7 to 9 PM): Yes! You can harvest fresh veggies all year long, even in New Hampshire! Learn the strategies and techniques for year-round vegetable production. We will even show you how to build an inexpensive greenhouse.
  • Tuesday, April 12th – Growing Your Favorite Veggies (7 to 9 PM): Beans, beans the magical fruit… Carrots and onions, cucumber and squash, lettuce, broccoli, spinach; they are all magical! We’ll show you some nifty tricks for greater success and improved yields.
  • Tuesday, April 19th – Great Tasting Tomatoes (7 to 9 PM): My kingdom for a great tasting tomato! Whether you have one tomato plant or one hundred, this is the workshop for you. Learn how to grow nutritious, great tasting tomatoes.
  • Saturday, April 23rd – Farm Visit (1 to 3 PM): Tour Living Earth Farm, a certified organic micro-farm in Brookline, NH, to see how we put all of these principles into practice.


Register on line by visiting: http://www.beaverbrook.org/

$10 for individual weeknight workshops & Saturday’s farm visit.
$20 for Saturday all-day workshops (BYO lunch). 10% off for all BBA Members.
$125 for all 13 workshops (a 15% discount). $5 for additional family members