Localvore for the Summer

fm herbs Localvore for the SummerI’d like to present a challenge – go localvore for one month this summer.  Do it for your health, for the environment, and maybe surprisingly, for your social well-being.

What does going Localvore mean? To quote the Rutland Area Farm & Food Link: “participants agree to eat only foods grown within 100 miles of home.  Some people make exceptions for spices and leaveners (like yeast).  Some also take “wildcards” for non-local foods that life is miserable without. Coffee is popular. An Eat Local Challenge is a powerful learning tool for exploring the diversity of local foods in our region. It’s a way to break from our routines and learn what more is possible.”

NOFA VT maintains a list of Localvore Pods around the State, and the Mad River Valley Localvore Project site is particularly inspiring. The website has tons of current news, links to recipes, maps of the “foodshed”, etc.  The page titled What is a Localvore and Why Should I Care says it all – and I won’t repeat it here, but it’s definitely worth reading.

 Localvore for the SummerIf you live in VT going local for a month in the summer should be easy for these reasons (from the Middlebury Farmer’s Market website):

  • Vermont is leading the United States in the number of farmers markets per capita.
  • Vermont has the most CSAs, the most certified organic farmers, the greatest amount of certified organic farmlands, and the greatest number of local dollars spent buying local foods.
  • Greatest number of astisan cheesemakers per capita.
  • Largest producers of maple syrup.
  • Vermonters lead the nation in per capita production of dairy products.

And if you don’t live in VT, never fear, Farmer’s Markets are experiencing a boom across the country.  Check out this excerpt from Bill McKibben‘s Baccalaureate Address at Dartmouth College, June 11, 2011:

“Look at what’s happened in the last 20 years to the food economy in this nation. We discovered the idea that we like to be getting food from our neighbors. Farmers’ markets have been the fastest growing part of our food economy, and it is now reached the point where the USDA said last year that for the first time in 150 years, there were more farms in America instead of fewer. That most deeply embedded American trend had actually bottomed out and reversed. We’re beginning to really understand that those connections are so important, not only for ecological reasons. It’s obviously better to have a five-mile tomato than a 2000-mile tomato, not only for culinary reasons. I traveled 2000 miles this week, I know how I feel; that’s how the tomato feels also.

“But most of all because it’s a different experience. A pair of sociologists followed shoppers a few years ago, first around the supermarket and then around the farmer’s market. You all have been to the supermarket, you know how it works. You walk in, you fall into a light fluorescent trance, you visit the stations of the cross around the outside of the supermarket, that is it. When they followed shoppers around the farmer’s market, they had on average 10 times more conversations. Not 10 percent more, 10 times more. The only odd thing, of course, is that we’ve convinced ourselves we’ve come up with this brilliant new idea, the farmer’s market is chic. And this is how all human beings shopped for food until 70 years ago and how 70 percent of the world still does. Of course we like it, it’s who we are. We are social creatures.”

 Localvore for the SummerI’m particularly intrigued by the social aspect of eating local – the idea that buying food from our neighbors helps us stay connected within a community.  Back in the 90s when Tim and I sold herbs and edible flower salad at the farmer’s market in New Mexico, it was the social aspect of it that we loved the most.  We experienced it on a grand scale when we visited France and spent a few weeks with a family there in 1998.  Shopping for food at the local farmer’s market was a window into the cultural history of the community.  They had developed a relationship with their produce grower, their butcher, their cheese maker, their bread baker, and the menu for the week was built out of those conversations, strolling from one to the next.  And it was beautiful – the foods were carefully arranged to show off their shapes and colors (just like they are in the Atwater Market in Montreal), and flowers are integrated into most stands.  Food slows down, becomes art, becomes conversation, becomes more valuable.

potatoes Localvore for the SummerSo I encourage you to try doing a Localvore Challenge – take the time necessary to visit the farmer’s market each week, make it a family ritual, get to know your neighbors and experience slow, beautiful, tasty food.

Meadows – Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT Landscape

img 0686 Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT LandscapeThere is no such thing as a native meadow in Vermont (it’s a stage of succession) but we plant meadows that contain native plants in residential landscapes in an effort to capture a feeling of openness and freedom, and to replace traditional lawns.  I think our desire for meadows is rooted in some collective memory of migrating west through the Plains, through vast oceans of grasses and flowers that moved in rhythm with the wind.  They’re romanticized, but they are also practical – a meadow can replace the time-consuming, water-guzzling, and synthetic chemical-sucking lawn with a low-maintenance, rich tapestry that is beneficial to all life, both children, pets, birds, bees and butterflies.

I recommend John Greenlee’s book The American Meadow Garden for the photos alone – the majority of the plants are not adapted to Vermont, but the design concepts are all there.  Most of his case studies are in California, Colorado and New Mexico, and we actually saw one of Greenlee’s public installations last year in Sonoma, CA and it was quite compelling.

So how do you create a meadow garden?  It starts with a site assessment, and then plant selection (bulbs, grasses and perennials) based on soil and exposure.  This varies so much from site to site that I can’t generalize it but if you have a specific question I would be happy to answer it.  We source most of our plants for meadows from wholesale growers – North Creek Nurseries (American Beauties) and Van Berkum Nursery.  Van Berkum’s New England Meadows listing is very helpful if you’d like to learn more.

Here in our moist, short-season climate, weed competition is fierce and so we have developed a method of establishing meadows that is fairly unique.  It works particularly well with sites that have disturbed soils – if existing lawn is present it needs to completely removed, and the site needs to be weed-free and properly graded.  Here’s a meadow installation that we completed a few years ago that shows each step.  (You can also see photos of the project on our Facebook page):

 Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT LandscapeStep 1 – Soil Prep.  After all existing vegetation is removed, then the base soils are graded and raked smooth.  Then we add and rake smooth a 2″ layer of soil (compost and sand) that has been heated to above 160° F  to kill any dormant weed seeds.  Finally we spray on a thick layer of hydroseed that is a mixture of cellulose mulch and a sheep fescue seed, which is a short, clump-forming grass.  No fertilizer is added since most meadows like a lean, low-nitrogen soil.  The combo of the “cooked” soil and the thick hydroseed mat helps reduce the germination of weed seeds in the base soil.

 Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT LandscapeStep 2 – Planting Plugs.  In the case of large meadows we use a 5″ deep landscape plug.  We rarely go any smaller than that and avoid using wildflower seed, again to reduce weed competition and to give the select plants a head-start in the race.  In smaller spaces we will use quart size containers or even gallons depending upon the budget and the desired time-frame to maturity.  Here you see the crew using a long dibble to plant the plugs through a template 18″ apart.  This project required 4,000 plugs (19 different species) so this was the most efficient way to install the design, and although it started out rigid, the overall effect was much softer once it filled in.  The plugs are first dipped in Bio-Magic (from North Country Organics, a VT company), which is a bio-stimulant with beneficial bacteria that helps the plugs survive transplant shock and encourages root growth.  A few photos of it all planted -

 Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT Landscape Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT Landscape Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT Landscape

Step 3 – Water, Weed, Mow.  A meadow is fragile in the beginning, and it needs a bit of babying.  Eventually it fills in, grows up, and doesn’t need you all that much, kind of like kids.  New meadows sometimes need plant doctor house-calls, to diagnose a new weed (friend or foe?), or to figure out nutrient needs.  Test to make sure the plugs are rooting with a gentle tug, and a mild organic liquid fertilizer can be used mid-summer if it looks thin.  Depending upon the year a once-per-week watering may be necessary the first summer while plants are getting established.

 Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT LandscapeA word about maintenance – After the first season it should be mowed (on the highest setting) because it encourages tillering, or the production of side shoots, which will help it thicken, and because it will help you identify plants as they come up in the spring.  As time goes on the meadow will need some editing – no plan is perfect and it’s important to understand the dynamic nature of a meadow.  Some plants will come to dominate over time and will require thinning, or removal if you desire, and part of the joy is participating in the act of natural succession.  Here’s what the meadow looked like in September, about one year after planting:

img 0687 Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT Landscape

copy 1 of img 0696 Meadows   Capturing the Prairie Essence in a VT Landscape

Jam Planning – Growing, Picking, and Preserving

 Jam Planning   Growing, Picking, and PreservingIt’s time to plant your Berries!  Every year we run out of homemade jam and I vow to make more.  Elsa and Gabbie insisted on having PB&J every day for school lunches, and only the strawberry freezer jam would do.  By mid-March we were down to three jars and the rationing began.  The girls insisted that they had first dibs on strawberry and that Tim and I could eat the peach jam, but I would still occasionally sneak some strawberry on my toast.  So, this year I’m going to make 30 pint jars of strawberry freezer jam – one jar every two weeks plus more to give away.  My grandmother ‘Nanny’ was the queen of freezer jam – every trip home from her farm included a jar, and now I realize why she kept half a freezer full of the stuff.   When she passed away in my 20′s, I learned how to make it myself, and it has been an annual ritual ever since.  I rarely ever make cooked jam – freezer jam just tastes so much better, even if it isn’t as carbon friendly.

So how much is enough?  Well of course that depends, but start first by figuring out how much fruit you eat in its different forms (fresh, frozen, jammed) then figure out how many total pounds of fruit are required and then how much space/number of plants you need to grow to yield that amount.  The calculations for fruit are similar to the ones I described for vegetables in the article “Oh My is that 850 lbs of Veggies in your Yard?”.  For our family of four I’ve figured out that we eat about 575 lbs. in one year (7 cups per day x .25 lbs per cup x 330 days).  Here’s what I estimate we grow vs. what we buy in pounds:

fruit needs e1330639730925 Jam Planning   Growing, Picking, and Preserving
(I Just realized that the qty of strawberries in my chart above is reversed – it should be 30 lbs for jam and 45 lbs. for fresh eating, which is equal to 20 quarts of berries for jam and 30 quarts for freezing and fresh eating – about 6 flats total).

 Jam Planning   Growing, Picking, and PreservingFiguring out how many row feet to grow to yield what we need for every fruit in the chart above is a lot to tackle right now so let’s focus on just one – strawberries.  The general rule of thumb is one pound per plant, but I’ve found that some varieties yield more than others.  Last year we planted 100 June-bearing plants – 25 ea of Jewel, Earliglow, Allstar and Sparkle.  Sparkle was by far the favorite, and Jewel was a dud for us, so I’ll plant more Sparkle this year.  We get all our fruit plants from Nourse Farms in MA, for their high quality and superb info and customer service.  All of the growing info is on their website so I won’t repeat it here.

For now let’s skip to the processing of jam, glorious jam.  The girls have always been my accomplices and I have photos throughout the years of their participation.

 Jam Planning   Growing, Picking, and Preserving Jam Planning   Growing, Picking, and Preserving Jam Planning   Growing, Picking, and Preserving

We pick, wash, hull and slice, and then use Pamona’s Universal Pectin which requires minimal sugar to make it set.  Last year I used about two full flats of berries (24 lbs or 16 qts):

6 boxes pectin + 40 cups mashed fruit  + 2.5 c. lemon juice + 7.5 c. sugar + 7.5 c. water

yield = 25 pint jars (50 cups)

Here’s another no-sugar recipe that I’ve used that includes apple juice.

We also process other fruits – We freeze gallons of blueberries for muffins and pancakes, and this year I am going to try drying our currants and grapes for granola.  The raspberries and blackberries disappear fresh into little mouths before I can estimate how many pounds are eaten, but when I can pick a batch I spread the berries on cookies trays so they freeze individually and then slide them into freezer bags.  We also buy a wooden case of PA Amish peaches, skin them and slice them and freeze them as peach sauce for waffles on weekends.

 Jam Planning   Growing, Picking, and Preserving Jam Planning   Growing, Picking, and Preserving

Happy planting and jamming!

Ordered Abundance – Updating the English Mixed Border

 Ordered Abundance   Updating the English Mixed Border

The “Wilderneath” Garden at Basin Harbor, Linden 2011

The traditional English border that graces the pages of garden magazines usually includes dense plantings of old-fashioned favorite flowers arranged in church choir order – tall in the back, medium in the middle and short in the front.  Too often the plant layers end up being too rigid, the occasional dead plant creates a whopping hole, and the design falls flat.  My goal as a designer is to update the traditional design – to use more modern plant varieties such as tropicals and vegetables and then relax and interweave the elements to create a mixed border that has movement and mystery.

Traditional English mixed borders contain perennials mixed with annuals and the occasional shrub or evergreen as an anchor.  Sometimes, as is the case in the borders I design each year for the Basin Harbor Club, borders are planted with mostly annuals.  The difference from a design perspective is time.  A perennial garden’s plants are spaced according to their future mature size, which can take several years to achieve, and there is time to make adjustments to the design along the way.  At Basin Harbor the border gardens are clean slates every spring – completely ripped out and replanted with different annuals every year so the gardens are exciting and new for returning guests, which means that the planted design needs to go from zero to wow really fast.

 Ordered Abundance   Updating the English Mixed BorderI’ll be the first to admit that I failed miserably at designing annual borders when I was starting out, and I still find it challenging.  I learn more each year however, and my biggest realization is that it’s more of an art than a science, and success depends on letting go of my analytic nature, which is easier said than done.  For my sanity I still start out with detailed spreadsheets and a plan that includes the necessary 14,000 plants.  In the design phase an understanding of each plant is required that includes how it will mature over time so that the correct spacing and layering can be achieved, and thus how many of each variety needs to be ordered.  Once all the plants are grown and delivered to the site I take a deep breath, toss all the paper aside and ask not to be disturbed for four days – that’s when the magic happens.  There’s a fine line between a relaxed design and a messy one, so here are some guidelines that I keep in mind when I start laying out a design.

 Ordered Abundance   Updating the English Mixed Border1. Start with Bold Forms – plants such as large grasses, Colocasia, Datura, Ensete, Canna, Phormium, and Ricinus take center stage and are the types of plants I’m constantly scouting for when I visit trial gardens.  They are usually larger and more dramatic than the other plants in the design, and stand out because of their leaf size, texture or color.  The trick is to keep finding new bold forms or unique ways to coordinate them to keep the designs looking new each year.  If the border is long I divide it into blocks with one bold form per block to create a repeated visual rhythm.  I place these bold forms before anything else and build the composition around them, trying to have some bold forms appear at the front and some in the back to differentiate the layers.

 Ordered Abundance   Updating the English Mixed Border2. Add Vertical Elements – tall plants are placed next, and not just in the back row, but throughout to create depth and to draw the eye up and down.  Sometimes we use teepees and train vines such as scarlet runner bean or morning glories.  Delphiniums are such a favorite because they give great vertical punch, as do foxglove and grasses such as Calamagrostis.  In an annual garden I use sunflowers, broom corn, and amaranth to achieve the same effect.

 Ordered Abundance   Updating the English Mixed Border3. Add see-through plants – these have open-form branches that add depth when they are placed towards the front of the border because you see through them to elements beyond.  They break up rigid geometry, and create a veil.  Some favorites include Kniphofia, Alliums, Perovskia, and Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’.  The more they are used in staggered asymmetrical groups, the more casual the bed appears.  I use more see-through “frothy” plants such as Verbena bonariensis in the “Sunny Pines” garden, because it traditionally has been planted in a cottage style.

 Ordered Abundance   Updating the English Mixed Border4. Create Vignettes that focus on texture contrasts first and color second – fine textured plants such as Pennisetum, Amsonia, or Agastache need to be contrasted with large, smooth leaved plants such as Sedum, Heuchera, or Dahlias and then brought together in a cohesive color scheme.

5. Repeat in blocks but Blur the edges – this is critical, both between vertical and horizontal layers and between blocks.  Throwing in an occasional random large clump helps blend blocks.  Adding variegated plants can also  have a blending effect.

I hope this helps you if you’re designing your own gardens this summer, or helps you understand what I’m thinking if you find me standing in your garden with plants in hand.  The photos included in this post were all taken in the Basin Harbor gardens last year.  The gardens peak in mid-July, so if you’re in the area stop by sometime and see what the new designs are for 2012 are and see if you can identify the five design guidelines above. Have fun!

April Farm Photos

Here are some photos from the Farm in April – an exciting time of year!