Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 2

Year two of the garden project started with a decision: was I going to keep using a tractor to work the earth? 

Like many of you, I grew up thinking that you needed to deeply till the soil to grow things in it. As a boy, I remember being beat up by the family roto-tiller, the thing pitching me around like a bull as I tried to hang on to it. In my twenties I worked on a vegetable farm, and we basically used the same techniques as we used in the home garden, just with better equipment. Every spring, we broke the earth with a three-bottom plow. We then disked, then spread manure, then used a tractor-mounted tiller to make fluffy beds. The soil was so soft and loose when you were done that you wanted to lay down and take a nap in it. 

Of course the downside to soft, loose dirt is that there’s no structure anymore, which leaves the soil vulnerable. Without a plant layer to act as a roof, topsoil can dry out and blow away, rain water gushes in instead of trickling in, ecosystems full of mycorrhizae and microbes and insect life get all smashed up. A no-till farming/gardening advocate would tell you that the plow is a pariah, and best practice involves keeping dirt as green as possible for as long as possible, then work only the top few inches of soil, leaving the subsoil as intact as possible. 

We want to dig deeply into the topic of soil in Volume II of the Almanac, talk to some growers with different perspectives on best practice and report what we hear. My sense is that it’s not a case of right or wrong, it’s a matter of scale, technique, available resources, and what trade-offs you’re prepared to make.  

In the meantime, where it comes to this garden, I decided to pursue a modified no-dig approach. Instead of plowing and disking this year, I simply scratched the soil surface with a York rake to break up the dead buckwheat litter. I blew my budget by investing $100 in a broadfork – basically a pitchfork on steroids that lifts compacted soil. And I borrowed a twist tiller, which is a tool you plunge into the earth and twist to break up a planting bed. If the hand tools work, I’ll be able to recoup much of the cost by selling the old roto-tiller that sits in my garage.

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 1

Like many people, I decided to start a big vegetable garden in the Covid spring of 2020.  The goal was a garden on the cheap – a couple hundred bucks was the rough budget agreement with my partner. 

I went the traditional rectangle-on-the-ground route, as opposed to raised beds, because I didn’t want to have to buy or make lumber and I didn’t want to have to dig and elevate soil.  I’m blessed with a big backyard so space isn’t an issue. I  know the ground is fertile because I had it tested at UVM: here’s the link to follow if you want to do that with your own soil. For $15 they’ll send you back an analysis that tells you what it has and what it needs; for a few dollars more they’ll test for heavy metals. 

To break the earth, I borrowed a tractor and hooked it up to an old trip plow and a set of disks that came out of a hedgerow. I believe the plow was a model called “Little Wonder” that was made by International Harvester in the early part of the 20th century. Hopefully there’s an equipment collector reading this who can correct me if I’m wrong on my ID. 

The old plow was elegant; even after years of rust and disuse it worked like a charm. I plowed with my three-year-old daughter, and as you can see from the picture, it was slow going, since we needed to get off and pull worms out of the furrows with each pass.

The rectangle ended up being about 30 x 70, which seemed right. The thinking here was that if I’m going to go through all the trouble of putting up a deer fence, it may as well fence in a large area. A big footprint will give me the ability to scale up or scale down based on the time and interest available in any given year. And if it turns out to be too big to manage, then I’ll plant some fruit trees within the fence, or keep animals in there. 

If I didn’t have access to heavy equipment, I might have tried weakening the sod with landscape fabric, then smothering it with cardboard and mulch for a year. This fits into the no-dig garden concept that’s all the rage amidst a certain subset of home gardeners. I’m intrigued by no-dig techniques, especially by the idea that you’re not using machines to compact your soil, and you’re not exposing more bare dirt than you need. On a small scale it makes a lot of sense to me. But the logistics of trying to do a 2,000 square foot garden this way were too daunting. Plus we all work with what we have, and in my case it’s easier to borrow a tractor and coax some old machinery to life than it is to try to source industrial rolls of cardboard and gobs of mulch. 

In year 1, after breaking the earth with a plow and disking it, I mostly resisted the temptation to start planting and instead cover cropped for a year. Lawn sod takes a long time to break down. And the soils under lawns are compacted, which plants don’t like. And there are white grubs, and crabgrass, and other garden pests that get stirred up by disturbance but can be blunted with time and technique. 

To cover the exposed soil I planted buckwheat, which is cheap. It took maybe $10 worth of seed to cover the rectangle. Buckwheat grows fast, so it’s a good smother crop which keeps the weeds down. It has deep roots, which helps loosen the compacted soil. It can add phosphorous to the soil, but since I just let it die and fall over, I probably missed this benefit. Still, the dead thatch protected the soil all winter, and in the spring of 2021 I had a nice, loose rectangle of earth to work.

The story continues in Part 2 of the blog . . .

The garden plot in late July, 2020

April, Part 3

The “drip, drip, drip” of sap landing in a bucket isn’t a sound that’s heard much in Vermont anymore. Most commercial sugarmakers rely exclusively on tubing to silently transport sap downhill to a tank or the sugarhouse. But even if buckets were still the go-to collection method, sugarbushes in the state would have been quieter than normal this year — the “drips” fewer and further apart. 

The sugaring season wrapped up in mid-April, and sugarmakers around the state are generally reporting a down year. Mark Isselhardt, maple specialist with UVM Extension, cautions that “normal” is a relative term in sugarmaking, as every year there can be wide variances in production between sugarmakers in different parts of the state, and even within local microclimates. But based on reports he’s received from sugarmakers around the state, Isselhardt estimates that most producers made about 25-35 percent less syrup than normal.

Mary McCuaig’s family has been making syrup at Top Acres Farm in South Woodstock since the 1920s. The fourth-generation sugarmaker said that the sugar content of sap this year was lower than it usually is, which means that it took more sap to make each gallon of syrup. (In an informal survey done by UVM extension, 72 percent of respondents reported a similarly low sugar content.) McCuaig added that by the time the sap really started flowing after a cold start, the syrup being produced was dark and the season was over. The good news, she told us, is that thanks to high-tech spouts, improved tubing lines, and a vacuum system, Top Acres Farm was able to limit the losses; it made about 82 percent of the crop that it has averaged over the past 10 years.

For consumers, the news is not at all dire. “I definitely think there will be plenty of syrup around,” UVM Extension’s Mark Isselhardt told us. But he adds that for individual sugarmakers, especially those who have recently made significant investments in equipment and technology, the loss of income from having less syrup to sell may be dramatic. A reminder that in April, as in all months, agriculture in Vermont is subject to the ever-unpredictable nature of weather.

April, Part 2

After a year of Covid disorientation came an April of disorder. Hot, dry, then snow on the daffodils. But remember – April is often like that. 

An unusually large number of mourning cloak butterflies this year, it seemed to me. Also, other members of the Nymphalidae family that overwinter as adults, such as the delicate Compton tortoiseshell. And song sparrows everywhere. The songs of these cute little birds vary, but most begin with two to five long notes, followed by a string of  gibberish. 

Perhaps inspired by a year of social distancing, I took to studying the way that flocking birds space themselves. Robins in fields tend to stay four or five feet apart. Juncos, at a bit more than half the size of robins, keep about 18 inches apart. Does this suggest a feeding area that a given bird can expect to exploit? Or could it have to do with predators? Or basic bird hygiene? They all seem to know the rules.

Meanwhile, barring a huge snowfall, the end of April features a lot of false hellebore – the big plants that turn the moist edges of fields and swamps a vibrant green. Many trees  – silver maples, red maples, and willows – have finished flowering and wild bees and honey bees will need to find pollen elsewhere, among the march marigolds perhaps or the sugar maples.

Gathering wild leeks for dinner provides a chance to listen to kingfishers rattling, grouse drumming, phoebes singing (yes, technically it is a song), peepers peeping, and wood frogs imitating ducks.

April, Part 1

In early April,  when the snow recedes, you can finally see the earth, which really only happens for a few weeks each year. You see it through and around the crushed thatch in the meadows. In the forest it exists in halos around tree trunks and as little islands in the deteriorated leaf litter. Buried things – old bottles, plowpoints, license plates – get heaved to the surface, and there’s this brief window where the past reasserts itself. Then the spring rains come, and the first blushes of green start to obscure things. 

The winter snow disappeared in southwestern Vermont in late March, and by mid-April the earth-seeing window had passed. Early April was jarringly hot. There was a 5-day stretch from the 7th through the 11th when highs soared into the 70s each day — about 20 degrees above normal. But then a spring snowstorm on the 16th restored something of a natural order, though it stayed dry.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 7 of 7

There are things that make someone a good sugarmaker, like an understanding of forest health, keen attention to detail, endurance. But at the end of the day, the success of any given season mostly comes down to the weather, which no one has any control over. This season ended up being a perfect case in point. 

It was a cold and snowy February in southern Vermont, so there was no meaningful February sap run. We got a minor run on the first day of March, but then a cold front moved in and it didn’t get above freezing for seven straight days. The trees don’t run when they’re frozen, so this amounted to a lost week. We could have, in theory, made up that lost time in April, but only if it stayed cool and March-like. It did not. Three days into the warmup we had a three-day stretch where the highs reached 60, 66, and 56, temperatures that are really too warm. You can absorb a three-day stretch of this, but the seven-day heat wave that came on March 20 – 26, when temperatures soaring into the mid-70s, was just too much. The warmth changed something in the trees, which changed something in the sap. Last week, the syrup went off-flavor. The sap still came after that, but neither we nor the place where we sold a portion of our sap this year thought it was worth the time and effort to collect and boil it. And so we’re done.

Examining the weather from a different angle, I noted that this March, in our woods, there were 11 days when it was in the 30s or below – a little too cold. And there were 11 days when it was 60 degrees or higher, which is a little too warm. That left just 10 days in the sweet spot. I hauled sap on 22 days this season. Last year, when the weather was more consistent, I hauled sap on 32 days in a season that started on February 24 and ended on April 2. As the days-spent-hauling number would suggest, our yield this year was off by almost a third compared to last. In 2020, our Maple Hill bush averaged 29.5 gallons per tap, this year the average was 20.6. 

But it is what it is. Compared to last year, this season was a disappointment. But one of the good things about getting older is that your perspective broadens. As a young man, I used to be happy with 12 gallons of sap per tap. Middle-aged me is balking that I even wrote that line, thinking that there was a lot less riding on a season when i was 25 years old. But young me is still in there somewhere, and immensely grateful that the trees gave so much. 

Bulk syrup prices have been creeping downward for the last decade as production boomed in the Northeast, and an off year, production-wise, that keeps the packers honest and a little scared about supply probably doesn’t hurt in the grand scheme of things. 

Near the end of the season, I just happened to look closely at the tongue that connects the trailer hitch to the pickup and noticed that it had cracked and was hanging on by a strip of twisted metal. Had the trailer broken free with a load of sap on it, it could have been a disaster. That didn’t happen. 

Near the end of the year I found a spotted salamander trapped in a bulk tank swimming in 1,600 gallons of sap. I pumped it down and climbed in and rescued the silly thing. Later, I told my 4-year-old about it, and the next day, I’m told, it was the talk of Evergreen Preschool. Nobody there would have even comprehended what 20 gallons of sap per tap means, but the fact that I rescued a salamander gave me Ryder-from-Paw-Patrol status. I felt like I earned a bit back in her eyes after being gone so much for the last two months.  

We’ll get through this pandemic and there will be better days ahead. Thanks for reading.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 6

Stress tends to distill us, accentuating our base personality traits. Maureen Dowd wrote a political column about this recently, pointing out that the stress of the Presidency made Jimmy Carter more preachy, Bill Clinton more self-indulgent, George W. Bush more insecure, Barack Obama more professorial. 

But you certainly don’t have to be a president to experience some version of this. I tend to lose myself deeply in things, and the stress of pandemic life, combined with the stress of the maple season, have certainly magnified this trait. As I’ve lost myself in sugaring, it’s been a struggle to be a good father, and partner, and friend, and good teammate to people I work with on the Almanac. There’s some of this every year, but this year more so. I’ve neglected emails for a month because in my down time I couldn’t bring myself to even turn on the computer. Friends would ask if they could help lessen the sugaring load, but I couldn’t think of how they might – there was just no capacity for peripheral thought. The part that stings the most were all the times I’d have to stop in the house to work on a broken pump part, or get a tool, or get wash water, and my four-year-old would be there and say: “Dad, let’s play!” and I’d respond numbly with: “I have to work, honey.” And then I’d go back to work, over and over again, a lot of days from before she woke up to after she went to bed. In hindsight it doesn’t seem like it would have been that hard to spare 20 minutes, but I just kept grinding. It was what-not-to-do parenting right out of a Harry Chapin folk song. 

This is weirdly personal for a maple blog, I know, but I’ll bet you anything you recognize some stress-induced distillation in your own life these days. We’ve spent a year now being isolated from one and other, which is its own sort of trauma beyond whatever financial and health-related traumas people have endured. Of course it’s changing us.

There’s something to note here, too, in that farming in general and sugaring in particular is immensely stressful on a professional scale. That’s something that’s often glossed over in the PR copy. Rick is the name of one of the guys at XR Maple I sell sap to, and I don’t think he sleeps during the season. I got texts from him at night during tapping season from the woods, tapping in the dark with a headlamp. I’d deliver a load at 9 pm and he’d be there starting the RO and heading out to haul sap. I’d bring another load at 4 am and he’d still be there. I have this image as I write this of him standing in front of the heater in the RO room, cigarette hanging out of his mouth with a long ash on the end of it, absorbing the heat while looking just bone tired, before a wave of energy courses through him, and he whirls off for another 20 hours of climbing mountains and hauling sap and emergency repairs and making syrup. 

There’s joy in this work, some of it the same sort of adrenaline-fueled, masochistic joy that endurance athletes crave. But when that adrenaline subsides, you’re sometimes left feeling despondent and alone.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 5

The trees opened up yesterday and the sap ran as fast as I’ve ever seen it run. By the end of the day I’d collected 9 loads worth, or almost 7,500 gallons. Sap is crystal clear and the syrup has an exquisite flavor.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 4

We made our first syrup of the year on March 10. Dad used a wheeled walker to get out into the sugarhouse, though he suffered from a lack of mud tires. We still use wood to fuel our evaporator, and fire loading is out of the question for him with his injury. He tended the reverse osmosis machine and filter press, though. And canned the syrup once we had a system set up right. 

After two months of deep cold and snow, we endured a three-day stretch of 60-degree-plus warmth that only a sugarmaker could complain about. One day touched 70 degrees here in southern Vermont. Sap runs are a Goldilocks-type proposition: we don’t want things too cold or too hot. If forced to choose one, we’d choose too cold, since that just puts things on pause. When it gets above 50 degrees, the sap starts to degrade, so it’s a race to get things processed. This degradation also creates a slime on the inside of a taphole which eventually stops the sap from flowing out of the tree. This is a weeks-long process, but the wheels get set in motion by high temperatures, and every high temperature accelerates the process. 

In light of this, the deep snow that we fought all spring getting tapped became an ally. The deep snowpack around the bulk tanks served as refrigeration – on the third day of the heatwave, the sap was still 39 degrees when we fed it into the RO. The color of the syrup we made with it suffered as it warmed in the bulk tank before boiling, but the flavor had the sweet, buttery, delicate profile you’d expect from first run sap.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 3

One marker of a healthy rural economy is the existence of markets for secondary or minor products. If you’re a hardwood sawmill, your business, in theory, is producing furniture-grade boards. But at times the difference between red and black will be markets, or a lack thereof, for mat timbers (disposable beams used in the construction industry to stabilize the ground beneath heavy equipment), or pallets, or even the sawdust you produce. 

All Ag is like this, including sugaring. In theory, I’m in the business of crafting the maple syrup that sells directly to the consumer on our website or through the stores that carry our product – “table syrup,” in the industry. But I also need markets for the off-flavored “commercial grade” stuff that’s produced at the end of each season when the weather turns. On a year like this, because I’m a one-man show, a market for raw sap is playing a crucial role. I’ll be selling the sap for pennies a gallon instead of the dollars per gallon that any syrup I made from it would bring, but I’m also being paid in time that I can then use to both get woods work done and make what syrup I can.

I’m selling the sap to XR Maple, in the town of Arlington which is just north of here. It’s a family operation, where the father and son run around 9,000 taps and the father’s brother runs an adjacent retail store where they sell a good chunk of their crop. They’re all in on maple, with plans of expanding to 20,000 taps, so they have plenty of RO capacity and the storage to buy a large chunk of my crop and process it. It’s a cool example of two businesses helping each other out, which is the rule in so much of the ag world. It can be lean out there, so there’s strength in numbers. 

I was able to sell 4,700 gallons of sap last week while I finished tapping in the warmth, but then a ferocious cold arrived on 60-mile-per-hour winds that ended the first run. While there was some damage to the sap lines from falling limbs, I got most of it cleared up. The snow glazed over, and the hillsides glared sharply. If you dropped a tool on a hillside, you could count on it sliding 50, 60, 70 feet before it came to rest. 

I came across a coyote bed in the upper reaches of the Hall bush, and saw evidence where it had ripped a maybe 4-foot section of sapline off and then chewed it to bits. One of the intact bits still read “food grade,” which I imagined the coyote reading and misinterpreting. Bad jokes aside, it’s that time of winter where you start to worry about wildlife, and in a dark moment I could imagine the coyote starving and desperate for food. But I don’t think that’s what was happening here. I think it was more play – the tubing a chew toy not unlike what you’d buy in the store for the family dog.