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.

At Work With Vermont Evaporator

When we see the Made in Vermont stamp on an agricultural product, we view it as a badge of quality. We probably know the town where it’s made, and might even know the people who made it. We can assume that it’s produced in relatively small quantities, and can imagine the care that went into its production – something we rarely expect in mass-produced products. The same is true with durable goods, and that’s part of what makes Vermont Evaporator such a cool story. This Made in Vermont item is itself much like the syrup it produces: hand-crafted with pride in small batches.

We caught up with Vermont Evaporator founder Kate Whelley McCabe to find out what goes into making each of company’s flagship Sapling evaporators. She provided this series of photos and walked us through the production process at Vermont Evaporator’s Montpelier headquarters.

“We special-order new, unpainted and unlined, 55-gallon steel barrels,” Kate explained. Most barrels sold are treated inside and out to protect the metal or the contents being stored. “But we’re not using the barrels to store something; we’re using the barrels to do something,” she noted. She added that most barrels are standardized by volume size rather than height and width; but in order to standardize the manufacturing process (the jigs used, the boxes for shipping, etc.), Vermont Evaporator has to be very careful to be sure they are getting barrels with exactly the same dimensions every time. (Also in the photo: Oliver, the shop dog, guards the door.)

The new barrels are placed in a jig and cut using a plasma cutter; the heat from the process lights up the inside a bright red as the employee makes the cuts. “Behind him is a giant fan that removes the fumes,” said Kate. “And we’re sure that all of our employees wear all of the necessary protective equipment.”

In this photo, the front door of the evaporator has been cut out, and the top opening where the pan will sit is being cut. An opening on the back for the smokestack will also be added.

Here, in an artistic shot that Kate said could be called “Portrait of a Barrel,” all of the cuts have been made. A frame to hold the pans has been attached along the sides of the top opening. And now it’s time for the “media blasting” – this essentially sands the barrel to prepare the surface before a coating is applied. “Instead of sand blasting, we use aluminum oxide,” said Kate. The employee dons fully protective PPE, including a helmet/mask with clean air supply hose before entering the blasting room to begin the process.

Vermont Evaporator achieves a durable protective coating for its evaporators without using a typical paint. “The wet part of paint is a solvent, and that’s actually the toxic part,” Kate explained. Instead, the company uses a dry particulate [often called a powder coating], which is blown onto the barrel. Here, the soon-to-be evaporator is being removed from the high-temperature oven that “cures” the powder coating.

At this point, the pieces all come together. This evaporator, which is sitting up on its back end for assembly, has been outfitted with a door frame and door, as well as the company’s emblem. A vent will be added (the holes for it are already cut).

One part of the evaporator that’s not manufactured in Vermont is the stainless steel pan in which sap will be made into syrup. “We sourced everything in Vermont at first, but the company that made the pans unfortunately went out of business,” said Kate. “But we kept in New England – the pans are currently coming from the Springfield, Mass., area.” Vermont Evaporator looked into producing its own pans, but the materials involved require highly specialized equipment and expertise. “Our pans are food-grade stainless steel with lead-free welds. Stainless is a whole different beast; we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and highly specialized skills.”

Almost ready: These saplings are boxed and ready to go, with hand-written notes indicating the final pieces needed before shipping. Since Covid, customer pick-ups have been impossible, so all Vermont Evaporators are now shipped; this critical part of the process is expensive and requires careful packing and a lot of attention to detail, said Kate. It’s also another area where the special nature of doing business in Vermont pays off. “UPS is really good at their job. And I’ve built up a good rapport with our driver over the years,” she joked. “I’m talking making him Christmas cookies! We’ve worked out a system where he knows when we have boxes that really need to get out. Personal relationships really help.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Salvage, Only Song

Our friend Verandah Porche shared this New Year’s acrostic with us. You can also find more of her work here.

For the 52 years we’ve lived here, the barn stood

for everything that mattered: animals named,

tended and eaten, lovers, then children in the hayloft,

plays performed, weddings, and funerals.

We sought advice about saving our loved barn,

but the price was wrong and the livestock were gone.

A local contractor with a crane will finish what

the wind began. And the future landscape will take shape,

for all of us.

 

2021: NO SALVAGE ONLY SONG

 

Haphazard gifts…

A neighbor’s whip of forsythia

Proliferated. In this thicket, a cardinal

Pivots, chest puffed, barn-redder than

Your heart.  Listen for his forked cheer,

 

Now barely audible under the squall.

Each burst peels the barn from the bird

Who doesn’t waver: no salvage, only song.

 

You want it over: the shape that sheltered

Every creature, the year we flinch from touch.

After grief, let unroofed heaven gentle down.

Raise sweet corn in the manger. Scatter seeds.

Nov. 3rd to 10th: A whole week of temperatures in the 60s. An unexpected opportunity to finish getting the wood in and getting the garden detritus out.

A Good Year For Pear Thrips

This has been one of those years that really brings the timing of spring into focus. We had a pretty warm March, followed by a pretty cold April. (April averaged out at 3.2 degrees below the long-term normal in Saint Johnsbury.) This cold continued into May, a month that featured several unprecedented cold-weather events, including that 8” snowstorm on the 9th. The sugar maple leaves had broken bud earlier that week in southwestern Vermont; the ones in our sugarbush then endured the snow and three nights where the temperature fell into the upper 20s.

I’ve been monitoring the frost damage since then (which is to say periodically walking around with binocs and jotting down general observations). And it’s not as bad as I feared it might be. Certain trees had certain leaves succumb – maybe 10-15 percent in the worst cases. I couldn’t find a pattern as to why certain trees took it harder than others.

A bit more discouraging is the pear thrip damage I’m seeing. On most years, these non-native insects are not that big a deal. But during drawn-out springtimes like this one, when the buds break but then cold weather delays leaf expansion, the damage can get ugly. In some cases the tiny insects cut the compressed leaf with their sharp mouthparts – when the leaf fully opens, the effect is similar to when you fold a piece of paper and cut a snowflake pattern into it with scissors. In other cases they scrape and damage the plant tissue, which leads to stunted, curled, mottled leaves. If you’re wondering what they look like, you can see a picture here: We don’t often see them because we don’t often look; also because they spend most of their life underground.

In my surveying, some trees look fine, some look moderately damaged, some – especially unhealthy and small trees – look bad. I won’t know the extent of the damage until the canopy is fully developed.

Mottled, disfigured leaves.

Morel vs False Morel

Mushroom foraging can be an intimidating hobby on account of the whole some-can-kill-you-if-you-eat-them part. But the reality is that anyone with a reasonable amount of caution, commonsense, and a desire to learn can quickly reach a point where the whole endeavor is as dangerous as crossing a road.

Morel season is underway in southern Vermont, and they’re a great mushroom for a beginner to start with, both because they’re distinctive and delicious. Of course, if you’re new to mushroom foraging, and you’re appropriately cautious and commonsensical, you’ve done your homework and learned that there are these things called false morels, which are toxic and potentially deadly.

Here’s a closer look.

There are two common quote unquote look-alike species that share the woods with morels. One is Verpa spp. (V. bohemica and V. conica are the ones I’m aware of that grow around here). Verpas have a cap and stem that’s sort of like a morel on the outside, but inside they’re filled with cottony material, whereas morels have hollow interiors. I was not able to find one this morning to photograph. Verpa caps overlap their stem and connect at the top, whereas morel caps and stems are seamless. But that might be too much information. Just remember that if there’s cottony material inside, that’s bad. I’ve heard of people eating Verpas on purpose, but most books suggest to steer clear.

The truly toxic look-alikes, and the phrase look-alike is a bit of a stretch, are Gyromitra species. (I believe the one pictured here is G. brunnea.)

They’re sort of brain-looking in places, which I guess might confuse a novice. But they’re built much squatter than a morel – mature they’re almost round – and any ridges and pits on the cap will not be uniform. You can see from the close-up picture here that the stems are not hollow, so there’s really no mistaking the two if you know this.

A Gyromitra cut in half. Note substantial, pitted interior.

A morel, cut in half. Note hollow interior.

One of the pleasures of working here is that we don’t have a legal department that frowns upon stories about eating mushrooms. No one to suggest we put a disclaimer imploring readers to NEVER ID a mushroom based on something they read online, which undercuts the story and treats you, the reader, like a young child. The way we see things is that if you’ve read this far, you’re an intelligent, curious person looking for reasonable information that you’ll use, along with other sources, to triangulate truth. We hope this is helpful.

Man and Machine

When you get up to the tree, your instinct is to grab the trunk with the clam, but if you’re holding it, the saw will bind. You’ve got to cut the tree and then close the clam almost simultaneously. If you’re off, the tree can fall back and land on the machine.

Once the tree’s cut and you’ve got a hold of it, you need to move it to where you want to lay it. Remember in little league when they showed you how to balance the bat in your hand? (He demonstrates.) You need to find the balance point of the tree.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. It takes more brains than balls.

— Greg Haskins

We’re having some logging done this spring, which is not a phrase that an ecologically-sensitive person is supposed to utter. The ground in April is wet, of course, which can lead to ruts and unnecessary soil disturbance. The bark on the growing trees is getting loose, as the sap flows and the trees move into high-gear making leaves; this means that the trees left standing are more vulnerable to injury than they are in winter, when they’re dormant.

And yet technology, and the right logger, is allowing us to push back on this conventional wisdom.

 

The machine in this picture is an 80,000-pound feller buncher. (To put that weight in perspective, the cutting head – just the cutting head – weighs as much as my full-sized pickup.) And yet it’s tracked, so the weight is distributed better than a skidder with four big tires. And as it cuts, it lays down brush and poles where needed to further cushion the ground.

The operator, pictured above, is Greg Haskins, who works for Hunter Excavating in South Londonderry, Vermont. Picture him deftly moving the beast through the forest, reaching out with the boom to cut the marked trees; bear-hugging, balancing, lifting them, then moving them and setting them down in a way and in a place where they won’t disturb the standing trees. You can see from the picture below the work he did. No gashes on any of the crop trees. (This is destined to become part of a sugarbush, if you’re wondering why the crop trees are marginal-looking red maple.) No jagged crowns. Minimal soil disturbance.

People like me – it might be safe to say people like us – tend to distrust technology, especially big, loud, imposing technology. And to be fair, there are applications where you can watch a feller-buncher mow through a forest and get chills. But when they’re used thoughtfully, and wielded skillfully, it’s hard to be nostalgic for the old chainsaw and cable-skidder method, which was crude at best. As I watched Haskins work, I marveled at how fast, and efficient, and clean the work was.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 4/13/20

We gathered our first sap on February 24th this year, and our last on April 2nd. Over the course of that 39-day window we weathered some bordering-on-disastrous weather, and some bordering-on-disastrous mechanical issues – namely a vacuum pump that burned up in the middle of a good run. But we persevered and came out ahead in the end. The farm bush generated 26.8 gallons of sap per tap; the Maple Hill bush generated 29.5 gallons per tap, for an average of 28.2. That average is about 6 gallons per tap better than last year, but the amount of syrup we made was essentially the same because of this year’s low sugar content.

All said, we feel tenuously triumphant. Some of the tenuous feeling can be chalked up to the simple fact that this is agriculture, and there’s only so much you can control. This lack of control does different things to different people. It makes some really religious. It makes some really pessimistic – you know the old stereotype of the farmer who complains when things are bad and complains when things are good. It’s because they don’t trust success; because they’ve been hardened by the lean years enough to find little comfort in the good ones.

Part of the tenuous feeling can also be chalked up to the fact that our operation keeps getting bigger, and the bigger you get, the more you have to lose. We’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into equipment and technology that enables us to generated close to 30 gallons of sap per tap, numbers that my grandfather would have found astonishing. He would have been tickled with 15 gallons per tap. But the trade-off, of course, is that you become dependent on the big numbers to support your operating costs. Looking back on the season, I remember a moment of panic when I walked into the pump shed and smelled that acrid metal smell coming from the quiet pump. My first thought was to estimate how long I’d be down, and then calculate the economics of being down. I remember, too, looking at my weather app after a week in mid-March when it barely froze at all, and seeing a 10-day forecast that said another week of 60s and no frost. That forecast was wrong; the pattern they were seeing never came to be and we finished strong. But had it been right, we would have, in all likelihood, been sunk at around 50% of a crop. Back when sugaring was part of a diversified farm operation, the sugarmaker shrugged off the bad years and started planting – hope sprang anew. But when maple is your one crop, you’re uncomfortable with lack of diversity if you have any sense.

I share these worries because I’m trying to give you a deeper sense of things beyond “look at our good per-tap average!” And yet in doing so, I’m being a stereotypical farmer and turning something joyful into something ominous. The bottom line is that we had a good year. Maybe I should have just left it at that.

I’m halfway done with the cleanup, and I’m especially conscious of the trees as I pull taps. They’ve given so much. We’re in the midst of a deep, soaking rain as I write this, and I’m thinking of them. Feeling glad for them.