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Happy 2012! We hope the new year is treating you well so far. Our winter has been pleasant and filled with outdoor activities, catching up with friends, travel, working on other projects and of course, reading up on vegetable growing and planning for our next growing season.

Wakefield in the winter

After our successful first season, Brad and Leela decided to look for a larger piece of farmland where they could scale up their vegetable production. After much research and deliberation, they have decided to move to Chelsea, where they will rent 5 acres of land to start a new farm business. Their new farm, Chelsea Gardens, will be part of a mixed-use residential community called the Hendrick Farm that will include housing, parks and trails, commercial and retail, and a working organic farm. Brad and Leela are currently selling Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable shares for 2012, for pick up in Chelsea or Ottawa, and are also looking for farm interns. Visit their new website at www.jardinschelseagardens.ca for more information.

Meanwhile, Kelly and Jer decided to keep the existing garden at Kelly’s cottage between Wakefield and Masham. They will continue to operate Helios Farm, which will sell CSA shares mainly for pickup at the farm on Chilcott Road. Contact Kelly for more information.

You’ll be able to find both farms at the Little Italy Farmers’ Market on Preston Street in Ottawa starting in June. Chelsea Gardens will also be at the Old Chelsea Farmers’ Market.

We’re a bit sad not to be working together as closely as we did in 2011, but we recognize that we have different goals and needs for our farm operations. We’re still good friends and look forward to collaborating as we grow our respective farms and businesses.

For now, all of us are getting ready for the growing season by selecting vegetable varieties, ordering seeds, planning our crops, getting greenhouses ready, and dreaming of spring! We hope to see you in 2012 and look forward to sharing some more great produce with you.

It’s hard to believe, but our first growing season is coming to an end. We went to our last farmer’s market on Thanksgiving weekend, and harvested our last CSA boxes last week.  Now that the harvest is done, we’re cleaning up the garden for winter and reflecting on our adventure so far.

The Last Harvest! Fortunately for us, a warm September kept veggies growing in our field right through mid-October.

Looking back, this year has brought us many opportunities and gifts. One was the chance to work for ourselves and to create our own fledgling business. Compared to the office jobs Brad and I left, we worked a lot more for a lot less pay, but relished the newfound autonomy, creativity and variety of our work.  We’ve enjoyed working outdoors in beautiful settings, and being physically active in our work (and many lifesaving swims in the lake at lunch!).  We were challenged and learned constantly, developing skills not only in growing and harvesting vegetables, but in marketing and sales, communications, and business administration.

When life gives you giant 12-pound sweetmeat squash...

...farmers make convenient, meal sized squash portions for their CSA baskets. (Oh my God, did this tray weigh a lot!)

But the best part for me has been the amazing support of our community, which made this season possible, as well as fun and rewarding. When Brad and I decided in early spring to leave our steady jobs, move to the country and start an organic farm with friends, we usually prefaced the announcement with ‘We know this is totally crazy, but….’ . To my surprise, family, friends, colleagues and neighbours responded with encouragement, excitement and optimism from the get-go.  Granted, certain older and wiser family members did ask, ‘What if one of you quit your job to farm, while the other one, you know, actually made some money?’ But once we explained our desire to do this together, they fully supported our decision, offering their own efforts towards our goals.

A colorful fall share.

So many people helped in so many ways to make our farm a success.  Our families lent equipment, offered business advice and provided free labour.  When we decided to sell seasonal shares in the farm’s produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) model, friends, relatives, neighbours and colleagues put their money where their mouth was, paying up-front for a season of vegetables with no hard evidence they would actually receive any. These CSA members were our guinea pigs as we piloted our system of harvesting, packing and delivering baskets of veggies into Ottawa each week. They dealt with hiccups in our delivery process, new and weird vegetables, and a whole lot of swiss chard, and for this we salute them. In return, they enjoyed a full season of fresh, local, diverse and organic produce, discovering what grows seasonally in their region, and knowing exactly how, where and by whom their food was grown.

Know Your Rutabaga, Know Your Farmer.

Other friends and family came to our farmer’s market on Saturdays, often creating a little party in the parking lot. Visiting with city friends became a highlight of going to market for us, with some making the market a part of their Saturday routine.  One guy walked up to our booth and turned out to be a friend of mine from high school in Winnipeg, whom I hadn’t seen or heard from in over a decade. Not only that, Scott turned out to be an avid gardener, and later rode his bike from Ottawa to Wakefield to visit our farm!

Friends visiting the market - these are some savvy squash shoppers!

On his vacation from Juniper Farm, Peter helped us bake sweetmeat squash pies, harvest veggies for market, and set up our market stall. And as if that wasn't enough for a Saturday morning....

...he then hopped on his bike and cycled all the way to Montreal!

Our core farm team was complemented by several fantastic helpers. Tara was our farm helper extraordinaire, working long hours and helping with all aspects of the farm. She also learned a lot at our place that she was able to transfer to her own bountiful garden. And she came to enjoy many new veggies, as evidenced by her mother’s surprise when she joined us for lunch at the farm and saw Tara eating… salad???

Tara brings her homegrown cherry tomatoes and raspberries to share.

We were also lucky to find our volunteer Marielle, who quickly went from a complete stranger looking to fulfill her university requirement for volunteer hours, to a capable part of our farm family. We cheered every time she called back to offer another day of help, or sometimes just showed up in the field. Then there were friends who came up for a day, or two or three, spending their leisure time helping with weeding, picking, and packing while we caught up.  And of course, our resident entomologist and apiarist Chris kept the beehives buzzing in our fields.

Just... don't... make.... any....sudden....moves!!

Brad’s internship on Juniper Farm was another crucial source of support and information. Every day when Brad arrived at our farm after his day job, Tara would ask, ‘Brad, what did you learn today?’  Whatever the answer, it was sure to be replicated in our fields in the near future.  The Juniper Farm team offered an essential source of farm knowledge, but also a welcoming, like-minded, and inspiring community as we adjusted to living in the country. Instead of seeing us as competition, they welcomed us as collaborators, sharing their valuable experience and networks.

Juniper Farm: The meanest, leanest, and on this day the cleanest farm team you will ever meet.

Receiving so much supportive energy has inspired us to give back to our community. In addition to providing tasty and healthy food, we’ve made efforts to build relationships with other farmers and eaters, and to educate people about our food system and the challenges facing sustainable agriculture. Through farm visits and events, blog posts and email updates, presentations and informal conversations, we’ve shared our experience and helped to connect people with food production.

Brian and Erin helped out at Feast of Fields, a yearly event that brings together local organic farmers with local chefs (and in our case, high school students) to offer a locavore smorgasbord. Brian even got his own nametag listing him as a Farmer.

Shera, Jess and Julia from the Wheely Slow Farm Tour visited us in August as part of their cross-Canada tour of sustainable farms..

After touring and filming the farm, we made salsa together, shared a potluck dinner with friends, and enjoyed a house concert by Julia and Shera (and a wicked mullet wig Jess picked up at the Rupert Mall!)

We held a wind-up BBQ for our CSA members and farm friends in September that brought together many of our supporters for some good food and good company.

A new generation of future farmers get their hands in the dirt...

... and harvests a potato the grown-ups missed!

Can't Talk. Eating.

Ron shares his first honey harvest straight from the hive. People are still talking about how delicious it was!

Former colleagues have become outside-the-office friends.... and CSA members!

A friend recently asked me if farming was financially rewarding.  I laughed and told her I find it shocking how much we got paid to sit in front of a computer and send emails all day, given that most small-scale sustainable farmers can’t earn a living without off-farm income or unpaid farm labour. I can’t think of many jobs that are more important than growing food in a way that sustains people and the earth, but our system clearly doesn’t place much value on this. This is something we all need to work on (and a topic for another blog post).

But in every other way, our experience this season has been extremely rewarding, and we are grateful to everyone who contributed to it. We look forward to building on what we’ve learned this year to keep growing our farm business (pun intended). And we look forward to doing it as part of a vibrant, engaged, dedicated and hopeful community.

 

Squashed!

Earlier this season I wrote about the Vegetannual, the imaginary plant from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that produces different veggies throughout the growing season, according to what part of the plant is ready at a given time. You wouldn’t know it from the warm weather around here these days, but we are now officially into fall. This means we are harvesting lots of root vegetables on the farm, such as potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, onions, leeks, and radish…

…And, of course, winter squash. Squash are not roots, but rather fruit.  Their large size and tough shell means they mature later in the season than other fruit such as zucchini (also known as summer squash), eggplants, or tomatoes. We harvested all our winter squash at Helios Farm in early September, and now that they’re showing up in our weekly CSA shares, I’d like to give you a tour of our squash field.

This year we grew 6 different types of winter squash: Pie Pumpkin, Acorn, Delicata, Butternut, Spaghetti, and Sweetmeat.

A humble pie pumpkin, or Cinderella’s coach after midnight? We’ll never know.

Acorn squash – those farm squirrels just love to stuff one of these in each of their cheeks.

Delicata – the babies of our squash field.

Butternut – this squash is neither butter, nor a nut. Discuss.

Spaghetti Squash - If Lady and the Tramp lived on an organic farm, their first kiss would have been over noodles of spaghetti squash.

By far the biggest squash we grew are called Sweetmeat. Brad discovered this heirloom variety in a book called The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe.  Noting that the first pumpkin pies were actually made from other varieties of squash, she recommends the Sweetmeat for its large size and tasty pies. So we decided to try it out. Sure enough, the squash were huge; our biggest one weighed 20 pounds!

Even a large spaghetti squash is no match for the mighty Sweetmeat.

We also got a couple of plants that appeared to cross-pollinate in our field, creating unique varieties:

Delicata crossed with pumpkin - so cute!

Acorn crossed with pumpkin.

We planted our winter squash in one large section of the garden, and sowed oats and clover among the squash as a cover crop. The oats and clover helped to suppress weeds, retain soil moisture, and will provide organic matter for the soil now that the squash are done.

This photo is from back in June - you can see some weeee little clover starting behind the squash flower.

Kelly also planted a few other squash varieties in her kitchen garden:

This gourd-like squash was officially known as ‘’the Dharma Center squash’’ since Kelly got the seeds from a Buddhist retreat center where she cooks.

A pretty mystery variety – or possibly, a hybrid of two other types?

And of course, watermelon for Brian!

Like so many things we do on our farm, we learned how to harvest squash from Alex and his team at Juniper Farm, who conveniently came to visit our farm right before it was time to harvest. They thought they were coming for a ‘’Farm Tour’’, but of course, like all visitors, we put them straight to work.

Peter, Mary and Alex from Juniper Farm keep it real by helping us transplant lettuce and onions.

After the work bee was over, we checked out the real worker bees.

OMG! You mean this is where honey comes from?

As we toured our garden, Alex explained that winter squash should be harvested all at once. The leaves of the plants will protect the fruit from the first frost, but once the frost kills them, the fruits are exposed to future frost. Since our plants were already dying back from powdery mildew, we ended up harvesting them before the first frost to be safe.

Winter squash need to be cured (or dried) for a couple of weeks after they are picked. This improves their taste and allows them to be stored longer. Ours sat in the sunshine for a week or so, and then moved into the stage when it got rainy and colder.

I used to organize my desk at work; now, I organize my squash. Oh yeah.

I visited Juniper Farm on the day they harvested their squash, and it was quite the impressive sight – they grew almost 1500 squash from about 500 plants! That’s a lot of heavy lifting. When I arrived, the tired farm team were collapsed among the squash they had lined up in the field to cure.

Finally, the secret behind Brad’s farm nickname ‘’Biceps’’ is revealed.

Juniper Farm grew acorns, spaghetti, and pie pumpkins....

as well as blue hubbards, butternut, and red kuris...

...to make a beautiful rainbow of squash.

Our first harvest at Helios Farm was much more modest, at just over 200 squash from 120 plants. Next year we’ll use black plastic mulch under the plants, irrigate them, and give them more spacing in order to produce more fruit.

Once the squash had cured, Brad and Peter made six pies from the biggest sweetmeat, using their own creative recipe with delicious results.  How else can you eat squash, Bailey’s Irish Cream, maple syrup and heavy cream all at the same time? What a way to get your veggies!

Look Mom, I'm eating my squash!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I hope you enjoy some good local squash and/or pumpkin as part of your Thanksgiving meals!

One of the nice things about farming is tuning in to the cycle of the seasons. Being outdoors all the time, observing farm crops and other plants on a daily basis, and paying attention to the weather have connected me to the flow of one season to the next.

A sign of late summer: a stray watermelon masquerading as a tomato.

Fireworks in the garden: A leek flower goes to seed.

Every week or so I notice a subtle shift, in the vegetable patch or the wildflowers along the road, with one plant winding down while another comes into full bloom. In my office job I always felt like I was missing out on the summer, that it was out there while I was in here, wearing a sweater against the air conditioning and trying to cram all my summer into frantic weekends.  But in the field, the summer has felt rich, full of detail and variety.

A striking monarch caterpillar grows fat on milkweed....

Then enters its cocoon with full bling - check out those gold beads! The monarch butterflies have now emerged, equally beautiful as their previous incarnations, but too fleeting for me to catch on camera.

So instead of wondering ‘where did the summer go?’, it feels perfectly natural now that it’s making way for fall. Summer crops like peas and beans are done, pulled up and replanted with cold-hardy fall spinach and lettuce. As the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, the vegetable plants are growing more slowly. With no more planting to do, my days in the farm field are getting shorter, and we’re spending the extra time in the kitchen, preserving the harvest for winter.

Harvesting red onions for red onion jelly.

We’ve been putting food away for years, out of our backyard gardens and purchased in season at farmer’s markets. But growing so much of our own produce this year has turned food preservation into a full-time job, dehydrating, canning and freezing the bounty.

Canning up a storm: this is what happens when you don't have internet or TV at home (Thanks CBC for going digital and leaving us with no signal!).

Our favourite home canning is tomato salsa, which Brad and I first made together 8 years ago (woah, that makes me feel old) and have made every year since. Salsa starts by chopping fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic.

Brad chops tomatoes... and misses CBC.

The veggies go into a big pot with a little sugar and salt, vinegar, and tomato paste, and cook for 20 minutes.

Some people like to dance the salsa... I prefer to eat it.

In the meantime, we sterilize mason jars by placing them in a canner filled with water and bringing it to a rolling boil.

The mason jars are so good about taking their bath.

When the salsa is ready, it is removed from heat. The sterile jars are removed from the water bath, filled with salsa, and sealed with a snap lid and screw ring.

Focus on the salsa making here people, not the messy kitchen.

Now focus on how convenient this magnetic fishing rod is for lifting lids out of hot water, not how mine got a little warped by leaving it next to a hot pot on the stove. The moral here is not to make salsa while talking on the phone to your mother.

The filled jars then go back into the water bath to boil for another 15 minutes, to remove any remaining bacteria or microorganisms that could spoil the food. When removed from the water bath, the jars cool down and the air pocket at the top condenses, creating a vacuum seal. This allows the jars to be stored at room temperature for up to a year.

In addition to salsa, we’ve canned mustard beans, zucchini relish, dill pickles, and red onion jelly with veggies from our farm. We’ve made jam with rhubarb from our garden and canned Ontario peaches. These are all high-acid canning recipes, which contain enough vinegar, lemon juice, sugar and/or pectin to preserve the food at room temperature after processing in boiling water. Low-acid foods, such as soups and plain vegetables, need a pressure canner to heat them above the boiling point in order to preserve them safely.

A rainbow of home canning: Dill pickles, peaches, zucchini relish, salsa, and red onion jelly (from the onions you saw above!).

We don’t have a pressure canner, but we also dehydrate and freeze a lot of food. Our dehydrator has been put to work making kale chips, zucchini chips and sundried tomatoes (and proving that swiss chard chips are not the tastiest!). When we get lazy, we throw stuff into the freezer. Quebec strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are washed and frozen on cookie sheets before being bagged; tomatoes and peppers are chopped and bagged; beans, swiss chard and kale are blanched in boiling water, drained and bagged before freezing. We also freeze soups and soup stock, applesauce, pasta sauce, pesto, and pies.

Peter and Brad pick apples at the Rupert schoolhouse.

Applesauce is one of the easiest things to preserve: Just core the apples (I don’t even peel these little guys), cook in a big pot on medium heat, stir often to prevent burning, add raisins, cinnamon and/or sugar to taste. If you add lemon juice it can be canned in boiling water; otherwise it can be kept in the fridge or freezer.

Apples for teacher. No, there's no teachers left at the Rupert schoolhouse! These were used to make pies and applesauce, and some are being stored for an upcoming apple cider experiment.

Preserving food takes some effort, and often requires you to have your stove on all night on the hottest day of the year. But in all the years I’ve been doing it, I’ve never regretted being able to open a jar of homegrown, homemade, local organic tastiness in the middle of winter. And I must admit, after a summer of farming and a fall of preserving, I’ve never looked forward to winter so much in my life!

If you’re inspired to do some canning yourself, you’ll find my beloved salsa recipe below.  Bernardin’s website has good canning tips, and you can find all kinds of canning recipes online. I’ll also be demonstrating how to make salsa at a canning workshop organized by Just Food on Thursday September 29, at the Rochester Community House in Ottawa. For details or to register, contact Terri at communitygardening@justfood.ca or call 613-699-6850 x12.

Enjoy the last days of summer and the arrival of fall, and all the food that comes with the season!

 

Tomato Salsa (for canning)

8 cups tomatoes, diced2 green peppers, diced

1 red pepper, diced

6-7 jalapenos, diced and seeded

1 cup diced onion

3-4 cloves chopped garlic

3 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp salt

5 oz can tomato paste

¾ cup vinegar

Chop all veggies or blend in food processor. Add them with remaining ingredients into a large saucepan and boil for 20 minutes.  Combine ¼ cup cornstarch with another ¼ cup vinegar, add to salsa and boil for another 5 minutes.

Ladle salsa into hot sterilized jars, seal, and process filled jars for 15 minutes in boiling water canner. Makes 8-10 250 mL jars. Once cooled, check the jars to be sure they have sealed. Sealed jars can be stored at room temperature (in a cool, dry, dark place) for up to a year.

There’s been a lot of buzz around Helios Farm lately. For one thing, our Farmer-in-Chief was spotted in the Centretown Buzz newspaper, manning our stand at the Little Italy Farmers Market:

Who wouldn't buy a potato from this guy? Read the full article here: http://www.centretownbuzz.com/?p=582

Speaking of manning our farmer’s market stand, you may have noticed a new face there recently. Kelly’s son Brian, who came up with the name Helios, has given up several of his Saturdays to help out at the market. It has been noted that Brian appears to be equally helpful to the apple vendor, the sausage vendor and the children’s table, but that just shows you what a generous guy he is! When asked how it went last Saturday, Brian answered, ”Pretty good. I sold a lot of cider.”

Kelly, Brian, and Brad before his morning coffee. Good thing the Centertown Buzz photographer caught Brad post caffeine hit.

Our produce has also been creating some buzz around town. Two of our CSA members, Meg and Michelle, busted out their aprons in Hintonburg to whip up some delicious zucchini bread from their shares:

Mu ha ha ha...Andrew and Mo will have NO IDEA they're eating vegetables for dessert!

CSA members aren’t the only ones baking with our veggies. Jacqui Okum is another vendor at the Little Italy Farmers Market who specializes in gluten-free, gourmet baking. Jacqui used our rainbow chard to create a whole wheat and chard muffin as a healthy alternative for those who are too wholesome and well-behaved for cupcakes:

Check out Jacqui O's Sweet Temptations on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jacqui-Os-Sweet-Temptations/262646320427901

Another Jacquie who digs Helios Farm veggies is our friend Jacqueline Joliffe, chef and owner at Stone Soup Foodworks (a.k.a. the Little Green Soup Truck That Could).  Jacqueline runs a mobile food business out of a vintage green chip truck names Sweet Pea. She’s served her soup and other tasty treats on the canal at Winterlude, at the University of Ottawa campus in the spring, and at various festivals throughout the summer. The most recent stop on her tour was the Ottawa Folk Festival, where she sold tacos and soup to long lineups of hungry, happy hippies. Topping the Korean Beef taco was homemade kim chi with napa cabbage from our garden.

Jacqueline started a business, and then we started a business, and now our businesses do business together! Yeah.

What are you doing with your veggies from Helios Farm or other local farmers? Let us know!

Next week we’ll take a look at preserving food and the many ways you can enjoy local flavours all year long.

Guest photography by Carole Ramachandran

Brad, Leela, Rama and Carole: That's a lot of Ramachandrans in one garden!

Last week my parents, Carole and Rama, came to visit from Winnipeg.  Avid gardeners as far back as I can remember, my parents cultivated green thumbs in their children by getting us to choose one crop that would be ours to plant and tend each year in the backyard garden. I got hooked by a strawberry patch I kept for several years; my sister grew giant pumpkins one year that took over the backyard. She decorated the biggest pumpkin like a turkey, entered into a contest and won the prize (Shantha, I wish I had the photo to post here!).

All this to say, my parents have been following our new farming adventure with a lot of interest, so when they arrived in Wakefield, the only logical thing to do seemed to put them to work. You know what they say, the family that farms together, gets sunburn, back pain, bug bites etc…together.

7:30 AM on harvest day: it took a lot of coffee to get my retired parents into the field this early!

Brad had the week off from his day job at Juniper Farm, so he was able to come and help too. We had a big harvesting party in the field! The work got done so fast with so many extra hands pitching in. (Which, conveniently, left more time for drinking beer later).

Brad spends his vacation taking orders from his other boss.

Tara recovers the kale after harvesting.

I have cabbages and I know how to use them.

Brad's other farm team decided unanimously that if he were a vegetable, he'd be a potato.

My parents were ready for a coffee break after harvesting and were shocked and dismayed to learn there was no Tim Horton’s in Wakefield. But a fresh pot of homemade coffee did the trick, and we got down to washing and packing.

The carrots look better after their bath.

Mom and Dad sort some spuds.

This is what happens when you grow food with love.

Tara practices walking down the aisle with a bouquet of fresh garlic.

To make their farmstay vacation complete, we brought my parents to the farmers’ market with us on Saturday.  Several of our friends visited the market too, including Christine and her son Quinlan, who won the market’s coloring contest; Jason and Mel who were visiting from Pakistan; Rob and Esther who are our most loyal market customers; and Mike Vanderveer, who had just gone home for a midday nap when we took this photo.

It takes a village to start a farm.

Although they worked hard, my parents seemed to enjoy their visit.  We did manage to squeeze in dinner at Chez Eric, a stroll through Wakefield, drinks at Pub Italia, and visits with family and friends over some great homegrown meals. Turns out the family that farms together, eats really well together! On Sunday we rested, and my parents spent the afternoon sipping scotch and reading Brad’s farm books. Apparently they were so inspired by their trip that they went back home to Winnipeg and started their own satellite farm in their backyard!

Surya Farm: The Prairie branch of Helios Farm.

Surya means sun in Sanskrit - I can't believe I didn't think of it myself after all those sun salutations in yoga (Surya Namaskars).

Thanks Mom and Dad for coming to visit, for all your help on the farm, and for your support on this wild and crazy adventure. And thanks Mom for all the great photos!

Guest Post By Brad:

So thank you to friends and family for all of their support so far in our new venture!  We are now half way through the season and are very happy with our efforts and success to date.  We started off with a plan to deliver 15 CSA weekly baskets and to attend the Preston Street Farmer’s Market from the end of June to Thanksgiving.  We are now up to 21 CSA shares and continue to be happy with the success and momentum building at the new Preston Street Farmer’s Market.  We consider the market our home market – we used to live nearby and have lots of friends in the neighbourhood which continues to make it feel like home.  The Preston Street area is known as a food desert with very little opportunity for residents to buy fresh, local and organic produce and we are very proud to offer our products, talk about food and recipes, and make connections with local residents. Now that we are half way through the season (and I happen to have a week vacation from my day job farm), there is time for a little reflection of our year to date.

Yes, it’s true, this summer I am working on two farms.  I am a farm intern at Juniper Farm by day, and by night I see how things are going at Helios Farm and try to lend a hand where I can.  I am very proud to be a member of Juniper Farm this season.  I am learning lots from Alex, Juniper and the rest of our farm team.  Here is a photo of the amazing interns at Juniper Farm this season (on business Monday when we wear our best ties!).  At Juniper Farm, they have close to 4 acres in vegetable production and grow about 60 different types of vegetables and close to 300 varieties.  So needless to say there is lots going on and much to see and do.  So far this season, I often take what I learn from the farm and apply it directly to the land at Helios Farm.  Sometimes this works and other times it doesn’t quite work as planned.  For example, we decided to row cover our zucchini immediately after transplanting, but since the plants were a little small and we had a few hot sunny days in a row, a few succumbed to the heat instead of thriving.  Lesson #322 of the year – you can’t just put row cover on your vegetables and forget about them.

Peter, Jen, Brad & Mary at Juniper Farm on Business Monday!

At Helios Farm, we started planning our 2011 season back in November 2010.  We started contemplating how much land we could cultivate, how much land should be in cover crops, what crops could grow together, and estimate how much food we could grow.  We’re currently farming  a half acre of land but take away our grassed laneway, a perimeter border of nut trees and perennials, and our two cover crops sections, and we’re left with a quarter acre of vegetables.  We’re currently growing about 30 different types of vegetables and close to 60 varieties.  The area is broken down into six equal sized plots and follows a rotation.  The plots are called:  cabbage family, roots family, cover crop, squash family, potato family and cover crop.  Next year the cabbage family and squash family will be grown where the cover crops were grown this year.  Our cover crop sections have been planted with buckwheat, oats and barley to suppress weeds, build organic matter and hold nutrients in place for next year’s crop.  However, the barley might be harvested in the fall in an attempt at beer production – we’ll see if there is time for that one.

Our root section on the left and cabbage section on the right under cover (to protect form flea beetle).

Over the winter, we looked through seed catalogues to select the vegetables and varieties we felt would be good to grow at Helios Farm.  Most of our varieties are heirloom, meaning that they are open-pollinated varieties that have been grown for the past hundred years or more by gardeners and farmers.  The seed can be saved by the grower to grow again the following year.  This is different from hybrid varieties, where the grower is unable to save the seed and has to continually purchase new seed every year.  This is not to say that hybrid seed is bad, it also has advantages such as plant rigor and disease resistance.  However, we also like the stories that come with heirlooms that have been passed down the generations of growers as well as the uniqueness of colours and flavours that heirlooms provide.

Purple Haze, Yellow Solar, Belgium Lunar, Atomic Red & Chantenay Red Cored carrots (all heirlooms).

We also practice sustainable and ecological farming practices.  Although we are not certified organic, we purchase the majority of our seeds from local, small-scale seed producers who sell certified organic or sustainably-grown seeds.  We do not use any pesticides, fungicides or sprays and have removed potato beetles and diseased tomato leaves by hand.  We do not use chemical fertilizers and have instead applied a minimal amount of composted manure and natural rock based minerals to augment the natural fertility of the soil.  We completed soil sampling and analysis in the spring and purchased soil amendments from Homestead Organics.  This included lime (to increase the soil pH), colloidal phosphate and greensand (both rock based minerals to supply phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients to the soil).  We also added boron, magnesium sulphate (Epson salts), zinc sulphate and copper sulphate – all important micronutrients for plant growth that were deficient in the soil likely as a result of the land being farmed for the past 100 years – even though it has been fallow for the past 20 years.   The majority of our practices have been with hand tools with the exception of a rototiller in the spring to break the land.  We have been very fortunate to have had fantastic volunteers and friends to lend a hand so far this season.  Other methods we include with our farming practices include companion planting, intercropping, succession planting, cover cropping.

Leela and Jer applying calcitic lime to the fields to increase soil pH.

So far it has been a busy but satisfying year.  May and June was a transition period where I needed to get adjusted to early starts to the day and lots and lots of transplanting work at Juniper Farm.  We were also busy at Helios Farm hoping that the vegetables would survive the intense weather of June – 2 days of monsoon rain followed by a week of heat and high UV rays.  Well, we got through May and June and we changed gears from planting and weeding to staying busy harvesting all of the bounty!  One of the aspects I underestimated was the time for harvest – hmm, I thought the cucumbers would pick themselves and find their own ride to the market!

Seriously though, it has been a great experience to be outside every day and observe nature and watch vegetables grow.  Up at Juniper Farm, we can see the rhythms of nature over the weeks and even the days – at one point the black flies would be out at early morning, then a few hours the deer flies would visit, follow shortly by the glorious dragonflies to save us.  We joked that we all wanted a pet dragonfly on our shoulder for the black fly season.  So far, we have learned a lot about our land, the vegetables, the weather and ourselves.  We faced many challenges where we’ve had to be creative and adaptable.  But we have also had many opportunities and great experiences such as seeing children and parents tasting red carrot samples at the Farmer’s Market.   Here’s hoping for a great second half of our season, bountiful CSA shares and continued success at the Farmer’s Market.  Okay, enough time contemplating, I need to go plant some bok choy!

Brad listening very carefully to the farm manager's directions!