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How to Laugh

August 14, 2023

Earth Laughs in Flowers
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
What’s hot right now? Flowers, that’s what. Sure, tomatoes and zucchini are having their peak-summer moment, but as I consider what provisions to bring home at the end of the week, a bucket of flowers always tops the list. We seeded multiple successions of sunflowers back in the spring, and we’ve had a non-stop show since early July. The single-stem type bloomed first, its size and simplicity making it a big crowd-pleaser. The smaller, branching type
—Soraya—takes longer but is worth the wait, putting off ten times as many blooms. Thanks to Soraya, the show will continue into September. Meanwhile, at the Tin House, the zinnias, strawflowers, and other cut flowers are in such a dizzying array of color, you hardly know where to begin. The conundrum is laughable, yet CSA members prevail. No two bouquets are alike, and it’s amazing to see the different arrangements people can create from the same raw materials.

Cucumbers have been mildly successful this season. For us, that is a big success. Except for two notable years, we always struggled with cukes, which are vulnerable to a host of diseases. We use row cover and kaolin clay to ward off the cucumber beetles that vector disease, and last year Peter trellised one succession as a
defense against downy mildew, but drought conditions undermined whatever gains he might have made. So this year I resolved to try trellising again— without realizing how much pruning would be involved. I only found out by accident, so we didn’t prune early and frequently enough. The result was a jungle-like wall of plants that sagged under its own weight and snapped the trellis in multiple places. Weeding was impossible and the cukes hard to find, but what I could find was abundant and nearly perfect. By that measure, the experiment was a success! A second succession is underway, and we’ve been vigilant about pruning, but despite our careful attention, the plants are fairly diseased for this stage in the game. But disease pressure always mounts in late summer, and if we manage to pull a decent haul of cukes from this succession, it’s likely we’ll stick with the trellis-pruning system in the future.
Each pest has its season…or so we thought. Flea beetles in the spring, cucumber beetles in the summer, stink bugs in the fall. For reasons we can only guess, the flea beetles didn’t depart in the summer, as they usually do, and they were especially voracious in the spring. As a result, the brassicas they feed on—kale, bok choy, arugula, etc.—have had a sub-par performance so far, This threw a wrench into my plan to include our new crew members in the morning greens harvest. When teaching a new task, it’s best to have conditions that hold steady from day to day, so that a novice that learn through repetition. When conditions are constantly changing, it’s impossible to develop a technique. We soldiered through the late-spring harvests because we had to, but once the summer fruit crops kicked in, I decided to redirect the crew’s attention to where it would be better served. They picked beans and tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. They learned how to prevent baseball-bat zucchini and dagger-sized okra. They pruned cucumbers and graded garlic. The greens, meanwhile, were more than I could handle on my own, so I decided to give them a summer break. What I observed from a distance confirmed everything I'd been told as a novice—that kale slows dramatically in the summer, but chard does just fine. Makes me wish more people liked chard.

Throwing up the white flag on greens—if only for the summer—would have been a bigger disappointment were it not for all the lettuce. As it is, reliable seeding, reliable rainfall, and a reliable deer fence have all contributed to a reliable supply. Because the conditions have been so steady, I have been able to delegate all lettuce harvests to Mike. My only task is to check the beds each morning to determine which varieties should be cut. Apart from that, the show is 100% Mike’s. But even in my hands-off role, I’ve learned a lot, not the least of which is that that summer lettuce should be harvested young, before the heads close in, to prevent interior rot. I’ve been seeding lettuce for 16 years, so you’d think I’d know all the ins and outs by now, but even so, it never surprises me to learn something new. And I’m proud to report that we’ve had lettuce at every pickup so far.
Our summer apprentices are heading back to school, and we’re grateful for the time they spent with us. At our employee orientation back in April, Dan and I warned that farm work can be tedious, but we also promised that when you embrace the tedium with a crew, the learning and bonding opportunities are endless. As promised, we bonded over spinach, carrots, chickens, turtles, cucumber beetles, tomatoes, and much, much more. Mia learned that our fearsome rooster, Edward G, can be kept at bay with a simple yelp. Adam was crowned "The Purslayer" for his fixation on purslane. We worked hard and shared a lot of laughs. The intensity of the summer is best distilled in these two quotes:

“I’ve only been here a month, but it feels like I’ve been here my whole life.” —Adam

“It feels like I’ve graduated from Restoration Farm University!” —Mia

The fall won’t be the same without Adam and Mia, but it will be beautiful and abundant thanks to their contributions. Best of luck to them this semester!
Last Friday I hosted a crew of garlic cleaners. In the perennial quest for volunteer-friendly tasks, garlic always comes out on top, whether it’s breaking up seed, planting, or cleaning. After weeks of peak-season hustle, it’s rewarding to take a load off and work on something relatively mindless while chatting with CSA members. In three short hours, we cleaned several crates' worth of garlic, caught up on farm news, and roasted yours truly for luring people in with a photo of last year's crew working indoors, only to have the whole project set up outside in the blazing sun. In my defense, cleaning garlic is a messy job best done outdoors. Fortunately the shade didn't take long to arrive, and I don't mind getting roasted.

Fall is just around the corner, which for us means many things. The return of greens. Bringing in the storage crops. Preparing for the Long Island Fair. This year, it also means breaking ground in New Pond Field. The last time we opened a new field was in 2012. I don't remember much about that process, as our kids were quite young, but I'm sure it was a big deal. Opening New Pond will be a big deal that involves many hours on the tractor. Once the field is ready for planting, it will take years to build the same level of organic matter we've achieved in other parts of the farm. Dan and I know this on an intuitive level, but Adam wanted to see it on quantified level, so he took two soil samples to submit for testing. The lab results haven't come in yet, but the picture below tells the story. The dark soil on the left embodies 16 years' worth blood, sweat, and (occasional) tears in Old Pond. The light soil on the right shows how far we've got to go in New Pond. The work ahead is daunting, so daunting you almost want to cry.

So instead, you laugh. And keep going.


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