This past weekend we saw the first flower of spring in full bloom on the farm: the glorious skunk cabbage! If you are unfamiliar with this hidden beauty, now's the time to go to a nearby swamp, creek, spring or seep and search around for a bulbous pinkish thick-fleshed flower right on the ground.
These brave flowers actually make their own heat, melt snow and ice, and attract their pollinators to them when we are still convinced it's the deep of winter.
Soon they will grow great big light green leaves that smell skunky when torn.
Inside this flower it might be as much as 59-95 degrees F above the air temperature, attracting insects weary of winter and in love with the carrion-smell the skunk cabbage produces.
Meanwhile, we are busy preparing for spring just like the skunk cabbage. Seeds are germinating and supplies are being gathered. We are just a few short weeks away from getting into the ground.
My shoveling this morning had a particular urgency as I cleared the fresh 5" of snow and sleet that fell last night from the path to the greenhouse and pulled snow off the windows. I wanted the greenhouse (and the 11 barrels full of water inside) to absorb as much sunlight as possible to create a cozy environment for the first seeds of the year.
Now as the moon arcs across the night, there are over 40 flats of onions, scallions, and parsley awakening with water and warmth and preparing to sprout.
Onion seeds are some of my favorite, appearing to me as fragments of dark volcanic rock. When I seed them and read especially the bouncy names of the Italian varieties -- Rosa Lunga di Tropea and the cippolinis, for example (the "c" is a "ch" sound) -- I am transported to a lush volcanic landscape in the Italian countryside. And I may begin to daydream about sautees and sauces at the same time.
From this small rock-hard seed will blossom one of the most beautiful roots: the crystalline onion. For Spanish-speakers, and in honor of Valentine's day, I would direct you to Oda a La Cebolla by Pablo Neruda, or Ode to the Onion. This is my favorite piece of romantic vegetable poetry and it honors the onion for the beautiful sphere it is, an anchor in our kitchens. An English translation (which only does partial justice) can be found in entirety here. A small sample:
petal by petal,
your splendor appeared;
crystal scales multiplied within your essence,
and beneath the secret of the rich earth,
your dewy belly grew round."
Perhaps it is clear why it felt auspicious to sow onions on the full moon!
Our sweet pup helped me to seed by sleeping at my feet. Together we sowed parsley, a seed that is said to go "back and forth to the devil 7 times" before sprouting....it does take a looong time to germinate.
The very essential work to get electric and water to the greenhouse was spearheaded by Sean, who is a budding electrician and plumber.
So, as the snow has settled in around us, rest well knowing that all across Pennsylvania farmers are summoning spring and tending the first of the crops.
Yesterday we picked up 15 hardy pullets (= young hen 16-20 wks) from a grower near Lancaster. They are about 17 weeks old and will begin laying eggs within the next couple weeks. They were raised out doors so they are already used to the winter cold and have more insulative feathers than birds raised indoors.
These chickens are red sexlinks, meaning their color is linked to their gender; a handy way to tell hens from roosters at a young age!
They will live in a coop we built from cattle panel, 2x4's and a some left-over greenhouse plastic. This structure was economical and easy to build, is lightweight, and is very warm and bright on sunny days.
We are feeding them many kitchen scraps and a mix of grains specifically for layers from an organic/transitional organic grain grower in Oley. We will be soaking their grain in water (or milk when we have it) overnight in our mudroom before feeding them first thing in the morning. This makes the grain more digestible and nutritious. Their first grain was soaked in milk from our neighbor's cow. She's an Austrailian lowline, not meant for milking usually, but she lost a calf and had milk to spare. With another flock that shared a farm with dairy cows, I've observed winter laying increase dramatically when excess milk was added to their grain.
Despite Punxsutawny Phil's forecast of 6 more weeks of winter and the heavy 9" of snow that fell throughout the day today, the lengthening daylight hours make it clear that this arctic world can't last too much longer. We are on the days-long count-down to our first seeding.
When we first moved to the farm we planned to build a plastic hoop-house style nursery to start our seeds in early spring, but then realized what a treasure we had in the solar greenhouse, built over 30 years ago by a friend of our landlords' son. It is banked into the hillside on a treeline and the windows enjoy southern exposure. On a recent bitter cold day when the temperature outside hovered in the teens we recorded a high temperature of 118 degrees in the greenhouse as the winter sun poured through the glass. With sufficient thermal mass, (i.e. black barrels full of water), the heat of the sun can be captured and will radiate out during the night, preventing the night-time temperature from plummeting.
Here's the greenhouse as it appeared when we arrived:
Our friends, the previous tenants, installed a new metal roof on the greenhouse and planned to redo the interior. We picked up where they left off. We buttoned up the edges of the greenhouse where water damage was rotting the wood and put in new corners and metal flashing to prevent future leaks. We installed louvers for ventilation on the end walls at either peak.
We decided to stucco the interior to seal in the insulation and cover the old plywood and chipping paint. First we nailed metal lath to the rafters and along the end walls. Next, we created a base-coat stucco mix with sand, portland cement, lime, and warm water. It was much like baking, where the proportions must be just right for the best result, but there is a fudge factor that allows amateurs to whip up a so-so pancake mix with no recipe.
This first coat is called the scratch coat or brown coat, referring to its color and the need to "scratch" it before drying so the next coat adheres. We mixed our scratch coat in our wheelbarrow with hoes and applied it with trowels and hawks (the handheld stucco tray). Doing stucco requires technique and more strength than I expected, especially when stuccoing overhead while balancing on planks!
Sean applying the scratch coat near the roof line: fighting gravity!
After scratching the first coat and allowing it to dry for a couple days, we created a mix for the finish coat on another sunny day. We were trying to replicate the pink tone in the lime stucco on the barn pillars. We dug down below the topsoil, screened the clay/sand soil we found, and incorporated it into our lime & sand mix. It was a beautiful earthy pink. The finish coat included much more lime and water and was much stickier and easy to spread.
We also made a simple lime wash with lime and water to coat the cinder block foundation.
We cleaned out some debris, moved a giant century plant, leveled the ground and laid landscaping fabric. I built tables with 2x4's and hardware cloth for inside and outside the greenhouse and Sean is now putting the finishing touches on shelves for extra flats, using some calculations for sun angle to ensure our higher shelves don't shade plants below.
Stay tuned for seeding updates!
With so much to plan and prepare for we are finding ourselves grateful for the deep winter. While snow fell last Tuesday we pulled in several cartloads of firewood from the trail behind the pond and then watched everything become covered and transformed.
Saturday as snow fell again and when I came back from a walk with the puppy I found a large box under our mailbox collecting flakes. Our seeds! It is remarkable that one box can hold the seeds that will plant 3 acres of crops and feed us and many others for the year!