Tuesday, September 30, 2008

North pole, Korean herbs and China.

It was day light on the north pole.

I had been sleeping but Wenonah woke me. “Look at that,” she said, pointing at something out the window.

I leaned over her seat and looked down below.

Except for a bank of clouds off on the horizon, the sky was clear, so I could easily see the ocean 38,000 feet below. Large circles of snow covered ice broken by bands of blue water.

But that was not what Wenonah wanted me to see. Instead, she was pointing to that bank of clouds almost directly above where I reckoned the North Pole to be.

It was a layer very similar to the ones I often see during the summer while driving home from delivering vegetables.

A thick layer of oily looking clouds.

A band of clouds looking more like concentrated smoke out of a coal fired power plant than anything else.


Around here I assume such things are caused by all the cars sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along I-66, I-95 and the beltway.

But greasy looking clouds all the way up on the north pole?

“Do you see that?” Wenonah asked. “What’s it doing up this far north? There aren't any automobiles or power plants anywhere close.”

I stared at it, at that unbelievable sight, as the plane approached and then passed the north pole.

As we passed the bank of greasy looking clouds down below the snow covered ice gave way to more stretches of clear ocean then again, more ice. This time broad stretches that, instead of being snow white, had a unmistakable blue tinge to it. As though it was ice without snow.

Clear ice covering blue ocean.

Anyway, I’m back after a week in Asia. I mostly spent my time visiting my brother and his family in Korea but I did spend a couple days being a tourist in Beijing.

In Beijing we walked half a dozen miles along a less touristed part of the Great Wall. Then back to town and through the Forbidden City, across Tiananmen Square.

Rambling through the narrow streets of the Hutong neighborhoods. Walking miles through the Temple of Heaven park and then around the lake at Beihai Park where we rested at a kiosk and listened to a group singing and playing folk instruments.

Several of the woman from the group came over and sat by us and started practicing their English. They said they were a group celebrating their 40th reunion and the songs they were singing were from the 60’s and 70’s . One woman had lived and worked in Crystal City a few years back.

After a while we said our good by's and went on. It was a little while after that when my pedometer died at 25 miles for the day.

I didn’t get to see much in the way of vegetables in Beijing but the air was amazingly clear and pollution free the first day. In fact cleaner than most day’s here in DC. (it had rained the day before). Unfortunately, each day after the rain the air got progressively dirtier.

In Korea, where I spent most of my time, my brother and I ate a lot of Korean food. and I saw how important shiso (that herb we had in our shares a few weeks back) is in the Korean diet.

Instead of being a herb that the Koreans cook, the leaves are used to eat with. Whether its raw fish, grilled pork or beef a plate of shiso leaves are on the table.

You take one of the leaves and place your grilled beef (or pork or fish) on the leaf along with vegetables and hot peppers (Koreans eat a lot of hot peppers) and sauce and Kim-chi and then you fold up the leaf and put it in your mouth and eat.

The gardens and vegetable plots all have shiso growing. (Over on my blog there’s a description of the Korean vegetables I saw).

Besides the shiso, the Korean vegetable farms and gardens all have just about the same vegetables. Asian eggplant, Chinese cabbage (for Kim-chi?), hot peppers, sweet potatoes, and a type of winter squash.

Korean gardens were all immaculate. Hardly a weed to be seen. It made me envious as well as tired thinking of all the weeding that’s being done.

In China, the gardens were not as homogeneous and they weren’t near as well taken care of. I was surprised.

And now on to farm news.

Right now we are having early sign up for 2009 for those who are shareholders in 2008. It is open for only a couple weeks.

Our normal sign up period starts in February. 2009. Right now I don’t know what the 2009 shares will cost and probably won't until February.

Waiting list for 2009 season. Beginning October 1 we will start the waiting list for 2009 shares. To get on this list you simple need to send me your name, e-mail address, size of share you think you will sign up for and which pick up spot. This holds you to no responsibility. To be on the waiting list simply means that you are interested and when the shares open I will send you an e-mail announcing the fact.

Two weeks of vegetable deliveries left. The growing season is rapidly ending.

Temperatures are supposed to drop into the 40’s at night later on this week. I wouldn’t be surprised to see nights drop into the mid or low 30’s by the end of the season. When we first started our CSA over a decade ago we usually had an October frost that would kill our more tender vegetables (peppers and basil only have to think 32 degrees and they die). One year I recall we had a hard frost killing most of our vegetables in the first half of October.

Other farm news--

Last Friday 175 day old chicks arrived in the mail. These chicks will be laying eggs by spring.

Garlic. We’ll be planting next year’s garlic next week. Planting 400 pounds of garlic if all goes well, turns in to about 2000 pounds of garlic next June.

Breaking news. A neighbor just contacted me. Last night a bear broke into several of our out laying apiaries knocking over two hives. More on that later.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Korean vegetables

Perilla, sweet potatoes, cayenne hot peppers, Chinese cabbage (my sister-in-law, if I refer to anything as Chinese, Japanese or Asian, is quick to correct me and say that it is actually Korean, as in Korean chestnuts, Korean eggplant, Korean mustard and of course Korean bitter melons (though the later, she informed me, are not bitter at all but sweet melons. The Japanese, she reports 'no doubt grow a bitter melon but we don't.')

I also saw various mustards including 'Korean' giant red mustard, Korean onions and a short oblong orange winter squash that looks a lot like an orange delicata.

One point of confusion about the perilla or shiso, in Korean it is called deulkkae which translates as wild sesame, however it is actually not at all related to sesame.

Additionally, I can't help but pointing out are the weeds, or lack there of. Most gardens, small and large, are nearly weed free. Very similar to Australian gardens (in Australia though, the weed shortage, I'm told is because of the weak soils that make it difficult for many native 'weeds' to thrive). Here in Korea, its obviously because of the care given most gardens.

And then there are the chestnut trees. Yes, I know its off topic but I couldn't help but notice the 'Korean', if you will, chestnuts. The trees were growing native. with the nuts literally covering the forest floor.

The chestnuts started me think of what our forests must have been like before the blight that destroyed the American chestnut a century ago, (I'm sure my sister-in-law would allow the blight to be from the Chinese chestnut). The American chestnut when they were the dominate tree in our eastern forests must have dramatically changed the dynamics of our forest with the forest floor being covered with its fruit.

As my brother and I walked through the young forests everywhere you looked people would be out with bags harvesting the wild chestnuts.

One other point of interest is the use of the Korean herb that I gave out several weeks ago without really knowing its uses. In Korea it appears to be a staple in restaurants. There has been a plate of the leaves carefully put out in raw fish, shell fish, grilled beef and grilled pork restaurants. Its used as a wrap for the meal. You take one of the leaves in hand and place the fish (or grilled beef or grilled pork) on it along with the various side dishes and carefully fold it up and put the entire package into your mouth.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Fall tomatoes

Here's some of the tomato facts of life.

There's a section in Mark Twain's novel Roughing it where he talks about the beauty of the Mississippi before becoming a river boat captain and how the river changed once he became one.

Before knowing much about the river he could look at it and think "my, how beautiful the water ripples as it flows down stream.' After he was 'experienced' he could look at the same view and instead of seeing it as beautiful might see it as treacherous or difficult as in 'there's a submerged tree that could rip the bottom of my boat out.'

That's sort of like tomatoes and growing vegetables.

Looking at a beautiful tomato loses something when you know the facts of life are lined up against that tomato being local and in season. Or even knowing that a September tomato is probably a different variety growing on a different plant than an August tomato.

So when I see a beautiful tomato in September in Washington DC there are some facts that make me stop and give pause.

Sure you can grow a tomato around here this time of year but usually you have to do a lot of finessing to get it to ripen up and look beautiful.

Here's some of the facts of life.

Tomatoes usually need more warmth for best growth and quality fruit than we usually get around here in September . (look at Knox's vegetable handbook for temperature range).

For Best growth and quality a tomato on average needs an optimum temperature around 70-75 with the minimum temperature of 60 and the maximum at 80. In other words temperatures down in the 50's aren't very good if you are going to get a good tomato crop.

The problem is that our September temperatures generally fall at the low range. In other words, most varieties of tomatoes slow down or even stop growing in our September weather. (one of the reason that so many home gardeners couldn't get their tomatoes to ripen up this year is that we had a cool August with the temperature dropping into the 50's about a dozen times).

Another factor is the amount of daylight. As you’ve probably noticed the days are getting shorter. Much shorter. Tomatoes like nice long days. In September they just aren't getting it anymore. Which doesn't stop them from growing, it just slows them down.

Also, one way of classifying tomatoes is whether they are determinite or indeterminite. Meaning some of them grow to a certain size, put out fruit and then die and others, indeterminate, grow, put out fruit, grow some more and put out some more fruit.

This means that determinate plants that produced back in early August are mostly dead now. To get determinate tomatoes that produce in September you had to plant them to do so. They were planted later than those that produced in August.

And if you are growing a indeterminate plant it might continue to produce this late, but only if its range of ideal temperatures is broad enough.

There are tomatoes that like fall temperatures. We have an indeterminate heirloom tomato that is doing well now. It's the same tomato that did well back in June before the temperatures got really hot. That little Siberian is a nice tomato but it certainly isn't a big beautiful tomato like the ones that came ripe in August.

So, in short to get tomatoes to grow and produce in the fall you have to pick a variety that doesn't mind cool weather and you have to plant this tomato specifically to ripen in the fall.

In other words, those tomatoes you ate in July and August were different tomatoes than the ones you eat in September. September is a different season with a different tomato than those tomatoes you ate back during the hot summer days.

So like that log under the water in the river, that tomato in your share in September is a different creature than the one that was grown to ripen during those long, easy hot summer days of bountiful summer vegetables.

smashing watermelons

I imagine you’ve heard of or even seen the picture of the guy who was out cutting fire wood and dropped a huge tree right on his brand new pick up truck.

Squishing the cab all the way down to the tires. 

Well, this week I cut down a large tree, maybe not quite as large as the one in the picture, but still big, and the only thing I can say about what happened is “At least I didn’t drop the tree on my truck.”

Though some people might be more upset by where I did drop it than if it had.

The maple that fell was that big one right next to where we stack our vegetables after picking them each day.

This is a tree that died last winter and this summer, started dropping limbs. 

Occasionally dead limbs would blow off and land on the vegetables.

Sometimes they'd land on the van.

And sometimes they came close to landing on me (once while I was carrying a box of squash out of the field).

So it was my idea to finally bring out the chain saw and cut it down.

Since we have used wood to heat our house and water for over two decades now cutting down dead trees is something I spend a lot of time doing.

In the forest, you can pick out which direction you are going to drop a dead tree and mostly it will land there.

First, you cut a wedge out of the tree in the direction you want it to go.

Then you walk around to the back side of the tree and cutting flat across the trunk. And nine times out of ten, more or less, it drops right where you want it.

The operative phrase here is ‘more or less.’

Out in the forest the only real concern is that when its time for the tree to come crashing down you’ve made sure no one is standing under it.

And your second concern is having a place to run if the tree decides to fall in an unintended direction.

If it misses where you were aiming by ten or so yards, its no real big deal. It still came down in the forest.

The problem with the maple wasn’t quite as simple.

The maple had obstacles that had to be avoided.

On one side was a power line.

If the maple fell over the power line the electric company and everyone living back down the valley would get a little upset when their electricity abruptly went off.

On the west of the tree is that old Allis Chalmers tractor of mine. It hasn’t run in almost ten years but it has sort of been elevated to ‘field art’ status. I once had a picture of it with snow falling on our webpage. Recently someone offered a thousand dollars for it. I would sure hate to see it get flattened.

And to the south, besides being where we stack up the vegetables for loading is an old house we now use as a storehouse.

A tree on top of the days vegetables might prove interesting but I don’t think shareholders would appreciate a week without vegetables.

And while I intend at some future date to knock down the storehouse and build a brand new barn, today isn’t that day. A tree across the storehouse’s roof might very well cause the entire structure to come tumbling down.

Which leaves a narrow slot to the south, a spot along the driveway where the tree could safely be dropped.                                               

Tricky, but doable.

So what I did is I hooked a logging chain around the maple maybe eight feet up off the ground.

And I hooked that chain to another chain. And that one to another, and another and another.

Until I had almost 80 feet of chain running down the driveway to the south. And then I drove my pickup truck to the end of the chain, hooked it up to the back of the truck, put the truck into low range.

And gave it a little gas.

The maple wasn’t prepared to fall yet but it did shimmy a little and the limbs giving a little shake.  

I put the truck into park. Pulled the parking brake and went back to the tree.

That’s when I started up the chain saw and started cutting.

First I cut a wedge out of the south side of the tree.

Then I went around to the north side, sighted the tree so I would be cutting directly toward the pick up.

And cut into the tree several inches before stopping to look. The maple was about 30 inches across. My chain saw bar only 18. It’s really important that you don’t leave a hunk of wood to either side. Especially when the tree is wider than your saw. If, when the tree starts to fall, if it isn’t cut equally on both sides, if one side has more uncut wood than the other, then the tree will fall in that side's direction.

I looked and everything was just fine.

Another thing that will go wrong when cutting down a tree, (and did you know, along with commercial fishing and working oil rigs - both occupations I’ve done a little of at one time or another - dropping trees is one of the most dangerous jobs out there).

But what I was saying, another thing that can go wrong when dropping a tree, and one its hard to account for, is if there's a hollow space inside the tree. 

What if termites had been eating at the tree, or what if there had been a forest fire when the tree was younger. Both can cause hollow spaces. Rotten wood on the inside that you can’t see on the outside of the tree. And when you start cutting suddenly you hit rotten wood and the tree, without warning, starts toppling

It might suddenly come crashing down in any direction.

Maybe right where you are standing.

How many tons do you think an 80 foot tall maple with a trunk diameter of two and a half feet weighs?

When a tree that size falls it pretty much squishes whatever is in its path.

So I again started up the chain saw, cut into the tree a few more inches and stopped.

Usually when I’m cutting firewood up in the forest I don’t’ give it as much care. I look where I want it to fall. Cut a wedge. Aim again. And then start cutting on the far side. Most times it falls, more or less, right where I want it.

But this time I was being extra careful. There was too much around to make a small mistake into a major accident.

So I stopped cutting. Walked down to the pick up. Started the engine. Gave it a little more gas. Tightened the tension on the chain. Saw the tree shake just a little bit. Then put the truck in park, Tightened the parking brake.

And walked back to the tree.

Two more inches. I had to cut some on the left, then because the tree was so much wider than my bar, some more on the right. And that’s when, just as I was pulling the saw out to cut on the left again, it started cracking. This is the time they yell out  ‘Timber’ in the movies.

The tree stood there for a moment, shaking back and forth and then giving out a loud crack, the tree started to fall.

I ran back a dozen yards. You can never be too sure that the butt of a tree is not going to kick up and maybe catch you right on the jaw (that’s usually pretty fatal).

The tree stopping shaking and started crashing. Crashing down right towards the pick up truck.

And that’s when I saw my mistake.

And if you are still with me, still reading along, this seems like a good time to take a break and do the farm news.

1. the changing of the seasons. As you’ve probably noticed the days are getting shorter. Much shorter. And if us humans have noticed you can be sure all of those vegetables out in the fields that are pretty dependent on sunlight have taken notice and have started to change accordingly.

It’s now time for fall crops. The summer crops are coming to an end. Dispite what you might read in some food sections out there September around Washington DC is not tomato season. Those delicious summer tomatoes are just about gone. Tomato plants that were put in the ground back in May are dying. If they were determinates they are now mostly dead. Also, most and the indeterminate varieties have given up and have stopped producing much fruit (not all though, we have one heirloom indeterminate, which is showing an extra jump. Those little Siberian tomatoes that beat all of the others back in June). However, for most tomatoes the days are now too short and too chilly to produce fruit. (Note in Knox's Vegetable Handbook a sort of vegetable growers bible that tomatoes don't grow at temperatures below 60 degrees. From my experience this isn't quite true. There are varieties, like the Siberian, that set fruit at lower temperatures but generally Knox's is right, the majority of tomato varieties don't produce very well at the temperatures we get here in September).

Fortunately (for tomato lovers) this year we planted a later crop. We put about 500 chill tolerant tomato plants in the ground in late June and early July and hopefully they will start turning red soon.

2. There are a number of plants out there that like days that are constantly getting shorter. Fall crops like mustards, lettuces and radishes.

3. You will also see vegetables that take a long time to grow. Vegetables that have been out there slowly growing all summer long. Winter squash and sweet potatoes to name a couple. Even the peppers, which are actually a perennial in warmer climates, start producing more fruit about now.

Which I guess brings us back to that tree falling.

You know most of the time from when the tree starts to fall to when it strikes the ground is only a fraction of a second. Once the tree starts falling it drops. And when I saw that limb of that maple hanging out to the south it was too late.

The tree came down so fast there was nothing I could do.

The larger part of the tree crashed into the driveway between the stump and the truck (no, it didn’t hit the truck) but there was a limb that I didn’t calculate on. I guess from the ground I didn’t see how far out it would go. 

But it came down to. And landed right on a pile of watermelons.

20 watermelons.

I think the sound track to that part of the accident went something like this:

Thunk! Crash! Splash.

And it was over. At first I wasn’t sure of the damage. There were broken limbs everywhere.

But then we started pulling the mess away and I saw the black sticky seeds,the smashed bright red fruit and the broken rinds.

A soup of twenty watermelons to pick up and feed to the farm critters that don't mind eating less than perfect fruits and vegetables.

When I threw the broken watermelons over the fence into the chicken pasture close to 200 hens came sprinting over to be the first one to take part in the feast.