Nova Scotia reflections: fruits and vegetables

(note: this is part two of a multi-part series looking back on my time WWOOFing on Cape Breton Island. Also, I posted about my weekend activities over on the Green Racing Project blog.)

Nova Scotia in April – even an unusually warm April – isn’t really conducive to planting vegetables. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about growing things. The baby plants on top of the rabbit cage in the kitchen were a constant reminder that in a few short weeks, it was going to be all systems go on planting the garden. In addition, the large tubs of potatoes in the basement, still left from last year’s crop, were a frequent addition to dinners – this was at least one crop where the family could feed itself comfortably from its own land.

A garden that grows so much food is unlike the backyard varieties I’ve worked in before. It filled two separate fenced-in (or, theoretically fenced-in) sections of land in between the barnyard and the pastures. There were multiple raised beds ranging from small, semi-circular ones for herbs to large plots that Brooke spent several hours rototilling. There were piles of compost and soil strategically placed in multiple spots around the gardens, tarps to cover recently excavated plots or delicate new plantings, and piles of rocks which had been dug out of the ground.

The rhubarb was already growing, and in a few places vegetables were breaking through from bits of root that had been left in the ground after harvest. I spent an hour or so organizing the family’s extensive seed collection by type of vegetable, so that the planting process would go more smoothly once it began. Things were undeniably about to start moving.

But even though things weren’t quite going yet, there was still plenty to do. Take the fruits, for example. A small orchard of young apple trees filled a slope above the house, and there was a small vineyard next to one of the garden plots. I learned (by reading) about pruning and grafting. Pruning seemed to have been neglected in order to focus on the more pressing needs of the farm, but one day, the family would be eating apples and grapes and making cider and wine from their own land, too.

In line with the farm’s emphasis on permaculture (more on that in a later post), we hoped to make the garden attractive to beneficial organisms and unattractive to pests. I spent some time building boxes for solitary bees, using a handsaw to cut 2×4’s into smaller blocks (which turned out to be a workout!) and then drilling holes in them for the bees to next in. Solitary bees are non-colonial, and although honeybees and bumblebees are the first bees most people think of, the majority of bee species are solitary. Providing a spot for these bees to next and lay their eggs is good because it means they will pollinate your garden. There were a number of birdhouses up as well, with more in the works, and the family was planning on building bat houses too.

I even learned about cultivating mushrooms. We took a number of hardwood logs and drilled holes in them – similar to the bee houses, but distributed around 4-foot sections of log – which would then be filled with shiitake mushroom spores seeded in sawdust. The logs would be left in a damp place, sprayed with water, submerged for a bit… and one day, they would have mushrooms growing out of all the holes and look totally crazy.

It all seemed rather idyllic, but of course I wasn’t there for any of the hard work. Planting wouldn’t have been that bad compared to the extensive weeding that would be necessary for large garden plots, and I am sure that the harvests were completely crazy. But even though I was telling myself that the vegetables were, in fact, plenty of work, the idea of growing your own food seemed just as alluring as it always has. I was talking to Kate one day about how they still hadn’t figured out everything about the animals, or the best way to deal with them or even which ones to have, but in the last five years they had gotten “pretty good at growing vegetables”. I wish that I could go back to Old Man Farm in the summer, when things are growing wildly, and see what it looks like, and see Kate happily working among the plants.

It all seems so satisfying to have that store of potatoes and carrots, a stockpile that lasts all winter, that you had dug out of your own ground in the fall. I am really looking forward to the day when I can plant my own garden next to my hypothetical tiny house and have it be mine. While there are many wonderful ways to garden, at this point in my voyage or gardening discovery, growing things seems kind of personal. You work with your hands, and there is this amazing process of creation (well, scientifically that’s not what it is, but metaphorically in a way it is); I want to hold those vegetables in my hands, to look at them and marvel at what has come out of the soil; I want to be in control of my own gardening destiny. I am 100% positive that this greediness, if you will, makes me a terrible person. I am working to become more enthused about our community gardening projects in Craftsbury.

Stay tuned for a more theoretical and ideological approach to growing things in the next installment.

A quick note on some things I have been reading. Much has been made of the fact that a climate and energy bill now seems like it won’t happen, even though the Gulf Coast oil spill disaster makes the need appear so immediate to so many people. But interestingly enough there is another but of policy that approaches the problem in a different way. An editorial in Nature talks about a new system of spatial planning which will divide U.S. waters into nine areas, each regulated at a regional level by bringing together multiple stakeholders such as energy companies, fisheries, and water quality boards. It seems like this is a step in a good direction.

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