Friday, August 26, 2011

Blog has moved.

I know it's been a little while since we've posted anything here.  We have been transitioning all of our blogs and websites over the last month.

Please visit our blog at it's new home.  www.weksnyacres.net

We are in the process of moving all of the feeds over, o hopefully your service will not be affected.
We invite you to give the new blog a look and comment on it's feel, appearance, etc.

You are our friends here on the farm, so we hope that you join us there.

The staff of Weksny Acres.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Transition time

Over the course of the next few days, we will be transitioning our website and blog to a new web hosting company.  All of our current sites are still up and active, but I wanted to let you know that we are making a move and giving everything a new look.
Thank you for being such loyal readers and customers.
Keep checking back for developments.
You can see our progress at www.weksnyacres.com

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dry-Farming: Why It Works

Time for another update on our Dry-Farming experiment here at Weksny Acres.  (You can find a more detailed look at our dry-farming technique here, and our introductory results on tomatoes here.)

This morning as I sit here at my desk, looking out over our green garden and seeing red tomatoes and crops that need harvesting, I decided it was time to examine this concept of dry-farming more.

Why does it work?  It works because even though the top 4 or 5 inches of your garden soil is "bone dry", there is still a lot of moisture trapped under the surface.  Your plants just have to reach that water before they dry and shrivel up.

Before I get into how this works, I need to say something about how the average gardener waters their crops.  How many of you stand out at your garden with a hose and water?  (I have.)  We spray the water over the ground until it's good and wet then move on to the next part.  Sound familiar?  What is actually happening is we are just adding moisture to the top few inches of the soil.  It takes over an inch of water to really add moisture content to the soil down deep where the plants need it.  The result is that our garden plants grow shallow root systems to take in the water we are giving it.  The plants become dependent on us, and do not grow naturally.  By resisting the urge to water our gardens every day, we are forcing the plants to send their roots deeper into the soil, to the place where there is moisture and an abundant supply of minerals that every plant needs.

If you need proof of this, dig up some weeds that have been growing in the corner of your patch.  Have you noticed how hard they are to uproot?  How long their roots tend to be?  The weed knows that it's survival depends on finding water, so it goes deep to where the water is.  The results that we see are weeds that look healthy, green and growing, while our prize tomato plants just a few feet away are looking parched and dry.  The next time you are out walking around your garden on a hot, dry afternoon, compare the weeds to the crops so you can see firsthand.

If you are living in a region of the country where drought conditions seem to be the norm anymore rather than the exception, this old way of farming may be for you.  Here are some ideas to consider when you look at dry-farming:

Not all vegetables or varieties grow well dry-farmed.  A lot of what I am doing with the gardens this year is experimental with an eye towards what we'll grow next year.  I've planted multiple varieties of the different vegetables we're growing, just to see which grows best and gives the most fruit under these conditions.  (While on the subject of vegetable varieties, I cannot stress enough that you use an open-pollinating or heritage seed if for no other reason than the fact that you want to harvest the best fruit off of the best plant for your seeds for next year, which can't be done with hybrid seed. Like us humans, plants have their own gene mix, and you want to use seed from the plant that excelled in the hot, rainless summer.  These are the seeds that will be prone to perform, giving you your best chance for success next year.)

Letting your land rest for a growing season, while hard for those of us who have only a small amount of land to work, is very important to the dry-farmer.  By letting the land rest, or "lay fallow", you are allowing the soil to rejuvenate itself, and also retain and build up its moisture level. After heavy cropping, if not allowed to rest, the soil can become so depleted of water and nutrients that the land becomes its own little dust bowl. Combine that with severe drought conditions, and all life in the soil dies.  It will take years to bring that soil back to being a healthy, life-sustaining soil.

Mulching is so very important to the dry-farmer.  There are two ways for you to mulch.  Probably the better known way is to cover your soil with organic matter, such as leaves, grass clipping etc.  This method of mulching is good for trapping moisture underneath the mulch blanket, as well as retaining moisture in the soil.  You will still have to weed, but only the strongest weeds will be able to push their way up through the mulch.
The second method of mulching is dust-mulching.  I, for one, had never heard of this until I started researching this year.  In its simplest terms, dust-mulching is nothing more than taking a hoe or some other implement and breaking only the surface of the soil.  You don't want to go deep.  You are introducing air into the soil, trapping it, and using it's cooling effect.   But the real result of this hot dusty work is that it actually helps the soil retain its moisture below the surface of the soil.  When you are doing this hoeing, you are also removing weeds that are growing in the plot, keeping them from stealing the moisture from the soil.  It does work.  My wife and I finished weeding a plot that we have been dust-mulching.  It can best be descried as sandy loam soil.  We are in the middle of a heat wave right now and haven't had any rain in over a week. While I was on my knees (on ground so hot it burned through my jeans) I dug down to pull up a root ball and my hands hit moist, cool soil about 4 to 5 inches down.  Just to give you an idea of the current conditions, it is 99 degrees outside in the shade and we have had 0.01 inches of rain in the last 7 days here on the farm. I had my wife take some pictures to try to help demonstrate what we are talking about here.

That is the surface of our plot. See how dry, hot and dusty it looks?

This is one shovel-full below the surface. Notice the moisture-laden soil that was turned up. We have not watered this area at all this summer.

I'll say it again...this method of farming and gardening does work.

If you are suffering from hot, dry summers where all you can do is water your garden and hope to keep it alive, this centuries-old way of farming and gardening might just be for you. I hope that I explained it well enough from this small-farmer's perspective.  If you want more information or have a question about this or anything else garden or small-farm related, let me know and we'll explore it together.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dry-Farm Tomatoes: An Introduction

 I've been working my vegetable and herb beds without any added irrigation this year, and I felt that it was time to test what I'm doing and share some results from our tomato patch with you.

Most people outside of the Midwest or the Pacific coast probably don't know too much about dry farming.  In its purest form, dry farming means just what it sounds like; No added irrigation or water aside from what's in the ground and whatever rainfall the area receives.  It relies on the farmer building up the soil, letting the soil rest, crop rotation, etc.

On our small farm here in South Carolina, rainfall can only be described as hit or miss. We have gone weeks without rain, while temperatures soar into the upper 90s. This trend has been the norm for a few years now resulting in drought conditions.  We have a well on the property that we tried to use for our gardens and animals, but it can't handle providing for both. To water the gardens "properly" as the gardening books stress is impossible for us.  So we have been experimenting with the dry farming techniques here.

Some things to remember when using a dry-farming technique:
Your harvest totals will be smaller than with constant watering.
You will lose some tomatoes to blossom rot due to heavy rain falls that occur.
Your tomatoes will be smaller and more compact.

But the flavor is awesome! These tomatoes have a fuller, more robust flavor and texture than any tomato I have ever eaten before.  This includes everything one can buy in the typical grocery store, organic or otherwise.

As a side-note...I harvested our heritage tomatoes at the peak of ripeness, and let them sit on the kitchen counter for a week before slicing, in order to duplicate conditions the store-bought tomato goes through.

From left to right: Orange Stripey, Marion, store-bought "Hot House"

The Orange Stripey, when taste-tested, had a full yet mild tomato taste with a nice firm flesh that appealed to the eye.

The Marion tomato, more comparable to the store bought tomato than the Orange Stripey, had a very rich and robust tomato taste.  The flavors actually "popped" in my mouth.  It, too, had plenty of rich, colorful flesh that was firm and retained it's shape when cutting.

The last tomato, bought from the store, actually had water draining out of it while it was sitting on the cutting board after slicing. The surprising thing was that after tasting the others, this tomato's taste could only be described as virtually tasteless. There was a light hint of tomato, but it was very bland and very watery.

After conducting this taste test, I know that I will never go back to growing tomatoes like I have in the past. This on-going experiment has given me some new direction concerning educating our customers and friends, as well as our marketing strategies here on the farm.

Now that I know what real tomatoes taste like, it's a shock to think that I ever used to enjoy what I bought at the store.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Sad Day On The Farm

Being a farmer who strives to work hand in hand with God's creation has a lot of good and wonderful moments in it.  But sometimes, the outcome isn't so good.  No matter what you do, or try to do, the "Laws of Nature" are still in control.

I posted about our "Nice surprise" the other week. It was an exciting time here on the farm, as only new life can bring.  Since the mother hen was one of our rare heritage breeds and was brooding her clutch on her own,  I chose to let her raise her brood where she wanted, so she could teach them and reinforce the heritage traits that she passed on to them.

It's been six days since she started gracing our barnyard with her precious little brood.  Every morning when I headed out for my animal chores, the first thing I did was check on Momma and her little ones.  They were always out at the barn, scratching around, learning how to be chickens.

This morning was different.  As I left the house and headed for the barnyard, I heard Momma's cluck, right where is should be at that time of morning.  But when I got out there, I saw only one chick with her, and my heart sank. Where there should have been a dozen little chicks pecking around their mother, there was only one.

When I got over to her nest, my worst thoughts were confirmed.  Sometime during the night, probably after the rain had stopped, the nest had a visitor.  And the outcome wasn't pretty.

Had I thought about moving her to the broody pen that I have set up?  Yes.
Had I worried day and night over her and her clutch?  Yes
Did I do anything about it?  A resounding no.

Why?  It's simple...

I lead a very simple life here on the farm.  I watch our little ones hatch or be born. I care for each of the animals that God has blessed us with, not just by making sure they are fed and watered, but by being personally invested in their well-being.  The responsibility for the life of an animal God has placed in my hands is one I don't take lightly.  I treat them with equal care and respect at death. We care for their lives, and their lives provide for ours.  To farm this way, you have to learn to work with nature, not against nature, because nature will always prevail.

Though the loss of these little ones hurts, it is still a part of the circle of life. I can't change it, but I can embrace it, and move on, carrying the memory of all our lost little ones with me.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bee Balm 101

It's time for another installation of our Herb 101 series.  This time, we're focusing on one that seems to be overlooked a lot by most gardeners, Bee Balm.

A little history of this delicious and versatile herb takes us back to the time of the American Revolutionary War. Bee Balm is a native American plant that grows throughout the eastern half of the United States. The Oswego Indians, who lived in western New York, used the leaves of the Bee Balm plant to prepare a "tea." They shared this tea (which came to be known as Oswego Tea) with the colonial settlers, who used it as a replacement for the imported tea after the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

Bee Balm is also referred to by a few different names, such as Bergamot or Horsemint, and comes in 4 known varieties identified by the color of their flowers. The variety specifically used for Oswego tea develops flowers which are red, almost scarlet, in color, with leaves that taste of orange and lemon, giving it a citrus flavor.

The leaves can be used whole or chopped and add a nice flavor to meats, and also compliment many fresh fruits.  The flowers, though best used for making tea, can make an attractive and edible garnish for your serving platter. I would recommend that you use the leaves dried for your cooking, because the fresh leaves tend to be very strong in flavor.  Young tender leaves can be added with the flowers in making your tea, if you so desire. I have listed two tea recipes below. One is for Oswego tea, and the other is for "Mock" Earl Grey tea.

Bee Balm is well known for attracting bees and butterflies, making it beneficial to grow near your vegetable garden, perennial flower bed or in a border area, to aid in pollination.  If you want to grow Bee Balm but have limited space, this plant also does very well in pots.  Take note that it is a member of the Mint family, so it can be very invasive if allowed to grow unchecked.

It's best to plant your Bee Balm either in the Spring or early Fall.  I have had good success starting this herb from both seeds and cuttings.  Bee Balm grows best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade well. It likes moist, well-drained soil that has a lot of organic matter in it.  A good practice is to dress your Bee Balm plants each spring with a thin layer of compost.  Then, mulch around the plant a layer of about 2 inches to help retain moisture and control weeds. The plants generally reach 2 to 4 feet in height. 

To overwinter your Bee Balm plant, after the first killing frost, cut the plant back to about an inch from the ground, and then mulch it with a straw blanket for the winter.  If you have a potted Bee Balm plant, either bring the plant indoors or plant the pot to overwinter it.

Since I am not an Herbologist, or herbal medicine practitioner, I am not going to address the medical properties of Bee Balm. I will only say that it is reported to aid with sore throats, insomnia, headaches, and menstrual pains, however any of the varieties of Bee Balm can be dangerous to pregnant women in that it stimulates contractions.

Oswego Tea Recipe

Use one tablespoon of fresh leaves and flower petals, or one teaspoon of dried leaves and petals.

Steep in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes.

Sweeten to taste.

"Mock" Earl Grey Tea

Prepare a good black tea, then steep 2 tablespoons of dried Bee Balm flower petals in the tea for about 5 minutes. Do not boil the petals while making this tea. Boiling the petals will affect the oils that cause the "Earl Grey" flavor.

For more extensive information about Bee Balm and other herbs, I recommend either of the following resources:

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Nice Surpise

Allowing your chickens to free range, giving them their complete freedom during the day, has it's advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages, especially in this area are predators, like coyotes, hawks, etc. So you just have to expect the occasional chicken loss to farm this way. I've been missing one of my Dominique hens for a few weeks now.

The good news is, we found her. The better news is that she wasn't alone.
If you have ever raised a chicken who has gone broody, you know that she has a distinctive clucking compared to the other hens in the flock. I saw this hen walking across the yard with this distinct cluck. She disappeared in a pile of brush.
When we went over to the pile, there she was, settled down in a nice nest of dried leaves in the middle of the pile, clucking softly. We saw 2 chicks, and there is at least one egg yet to go.

I have walked by this brush pile at least a half a dozen times a day, and never saw nor heard them until this afternoon.  It looks like I'm not quite ready to move that brush pile yet.

It is an exciting time for me and this little hen. She is my first Dominique to go broody, and my hope is that she passes this trait on to her babies.