Winter 2020 started as they all do, with the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. As many of you know though, it wasn’t your average Solstice around here. The nursery was transformed from the summer dumping grounds of all things in our way, to a magical, warm alter. Surrounded by our immediate family we married at dusk, symbolical, as every day after will only bring more lightness. David organized a market day in our name, and the out pouring of warm wishes and love we received from our customers was amazing. We felt (and still feel) so loved.
Yule log filled with wishes from friends and family who couldn’t celebrate with us due to the pandemic
Photos by the fabulous Cloe Poisson.
Get lighter, it did…
The blanket of snow on the ground the night of the Solstice was a good indicator of the type of winter season that was in store for us. Don’t get us wrong, we appreciate the “slow down” nature of winter, especially a snowy one. But it is nice to see the ground again. Even just the simple task of walking around the farm is made more difficult in the snow. Don’t get us started on trying to move compost around right now…
Winter farming is truly something special. Tasks that in the summer seem unending and tedious switch to being relaxing and meditative. On a sunny day, even with wind chills in the teens and the ground covered in snow, we can unbundle all of our many layers and comfortably crawl around the dirt in our short sleeves, transplanting, weeding or harvesting.
The snow didn’t stop us from crossing off some tasks on our winter to-do list. One goal was to give our high tunnel “Survivor” a make over. Of all the high tunnels here, Survivor was the only one that was left (somewhat) still standing when a big storm took out all the other tunnels some ten years ago. It got it’s unique shape after David and long time friend to the farm, John T, salvaged what they could of it by bending the bars with the tractor and securing them into place. The original peak of the tunnel is now the right hand side of the tunnel. With the help of a few friends we upgraded Survivor by adding metal channel lock and a new plastic cover. It came together about as smooth as things are known to go around here.
Another task on our to-do list was build a chicken coop. This has been on the winter to-do list for a few years now, we’ve learned that if it’s not done by February it’s not getting done because things pick up pretty quick around here. Well this year we finally did it! We managed to get a lot of discounted plywood and used many 2x 4s that were part of Survivor before her make over. We finished the coop up just in time to pick up our Valentine’s Day Love Birds. We got a mix of 20 organically raised chickens who were 11 weeks old at the time. That should mean organic eggs starting April. The coop is built into the sheep pen. They seem to get along quite well with each other. I imagine the sheep are happy to have a little more entertainment, and we are hoping the sheep will act as deterrent for any predators that might be lurking around out there.
Trails and Tribulations of Low Tunnels
Low Tunnels are like mini high tunnels. We build them each year around November. Last winter Joel applied for a grant which allowed us to buy all new materials for our low tunnels this year (not to mention the caterpillar tunnels and Survivor). With new, stronger hoops, plenty of new sand bags and uniform pieces of plastic we are pretty pleased with the low tunnels out on the field this year. That being said, low tunnels aren’t for the faint of heart.
Pros and Cons
- Creating a controlled environment for plants to stay alive
- Extending the fall season and over wintering for crops like spinach and carrots
- Keeping the soil healthy by protecting it from the harshness of winter and erosion
- Allowing for photosynthesis to continuously take place
- There’s usually a surprise or two, things that we didn’t think would make it but do. Remember those January bok chois?!
- Creating a controlled environment for unwelcome critters
- The laborious task of constructing them
- The seemingly never ending maintenance of them during all types of weather, wind and rain are especially problematic
- Slipping and falling on icy plastic
- Low tunnel collapses
Although in the thick of it, low tunnels can seems to have more cons than pros it truly is one of our best season extension tools. Even in a worse case senerio, where the tunnel collapse and the crop we are trying to protect doesn’t make it, the ground is still protected and kept dry allowing for field space to be planted into much sooner in the spring. When they don’t collapse, and everything works just fine, we get early crops of spinach, carrots, onions, mustards, radish, aka early yum!
Start, start, start. Transplant, transplant, transplant…
That has been our mantra around here. Transplanting in the winter time is in and of itself a challenging task. Plants started inside, in warm, ideal conditions must be gently exposed to the harsh realities of the outside world. Prior to transplanting, plants must experience temperatures just below freezing to activate their natural “anti-freeze” properties. Too cold too fast they die. Not cold enough and they won’t be able to survive when it is cold. These “anti-freeze” properties are the same reasons over wintered veggies (like carrots, spinach, and kale) taste oh, so sweet.
As we speak, the basement and the nursery are full of lush, green goodness. Beets, turnips, broccoli, bok choi, lettuce, onions, scallions, are all sitting ideally by, waiting for a 30 degree night to be hustled out to one of the high tunnels for their first night of the real world.
In order to transplant, we must start everything. And that is exactly what we are doing, starting EVERYTHING. Tomatoes, peppers, flowers, herbs, kales, collards, ginger, turmeric, you name it, we probably have at least a tray or two of them started. Now is the time where it’s a mad dash to get seeds in soil, with the intention of having enough for us and enough for all you home gardeners out there! For the last couple years we’ve been using this nifty Stella Natura Calendar to guide us on what to start when. The basic thought behind it is that the moon can beneficially influence certain crops depending on its proximity to certain constellations. So for example, today is a “root” day and as I type this Joel is out seeding radishes and turnips.
Probably the most exciting part of this time of year is being able to witness the growth that is happening. All of those crops that we so diligently seeded on the best day possible, hardened off, transplanted, and watered still need two things that are out of our control, light and warmth. Once we get those, we can start to see growth. Plants lay dormant for weeks, even months in the winter, waiting and waiting. Finally, in the last week or so we are really starting to see the growth. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, spinach galore!
Gearing up for Spring
All this is to say that winter is truly a transition season for us at Star Light. Life is really all about transition if you think about it, we often look at life as getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, then right to Point C. But really most of life happens in between those points. Everything we are doing now is really to gear up for Spring. But we are also taking the time to enjoy the transition, to watch each plant grow little by little, to happily weed rows of carrots or lettuce, to mindfully flips beds over for a new crop. Often in busier season these are task we rush through, to get to the next task.
“One half of the truth is that earth endows us with great gifts, the other half is that the gift is not enough. The responsibility does not lie with the maple alone. The other half belongs to us; we participate in its transformation. It is our work, and our gratitude, that distills the sweetness”Braiding Sweetgrass
One true sign that Spring isn’t too far off is the sap drip dropping into little metal buckets hung from our maple trees. For us it is a community thing, sitting around the fire with neighbors and friends. Our neighbors gifted us the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” and it has given sugaring a whole new meaning to us. The reciprocal nature between Mother Earth and humans can be so warm and sweet, literally, when we respect each other. Sugaring is also one last excuse to remember that in winter it is okay to take it slow for a little while before the madness of the other seasons comes. We are making sure to enjoy it while we can and hope you all can too!