Precoce d’Argenteuil Asparagus Planted!

Asparagus is one of our primary crops, so we’re always thinking about varieties to add.

Precoce d’Argenteuil is a French heirloom asparagus from the 1700s that gets rave reviews on the Internet (just google it!).  It’s pretty (green spears with lavender buds), early bearing and produces thick, delicious spears that taste wonderful steamed.  Since it’s not as productive as the “all male” modern hybrids, it’s only available as seeds, not crowns, which means 3 years, rather than 2 years to a harvestable yield.

Being a farm that showcases heirlooms, I decided to give in to the Internet hype and give this variety a try.  I ordered my seed from here,as most of the reputable US seed companies said their seed was from Italy.

Growing asparagus from seed takes patience (up to 3 weeks to germinate!) and space.  Rather than start the seeds in flats, as I usually do, I instead ordered Jiffy 7 Peat Pellets so that I could place one seed in each pellet, then when that pellet germinated, put it under the grow lights while the other seeds could slumber until they were ready to germinate.  It would also prevent the roots from each seed from entangling with each other.

Here’s how the pellets look when purchased:



Asparagus seed has a hard seed coat so recommendations range from a soak of two hours to 2 days in water before planting.  I gave mine at least two hours to soak while I readied the pellets for planting.  Use enough water to generously cover the seed.


As a child, I loved Jiffy 7 Peat Pellets because it was so much fun to soak them in water and watch them plump up.  It’s not cost-effective to use them on a large scale unless you are planting perennials with delicate root systems that could be damaged while trying to untangle them, so I hadn’t used the pellets in years.  A friend advised me to use hot water which swells up the pellets in minutes.  (Don’t use cold water — that bucket took 2 1/2 hours to swell up to a usable size!)


After two hours, both asparagus seed and pellets were ready for planting.  I borrowed my dogs’ tick removal tweezers (which has the handy magnifying glass for finding tick mouth parts embedded in one’s dog) to pluck out an asparagus seed from the cup and plant it about 1/2 an inch into the rehydrated pellet.


78 pellets fit in a standard plant tray, which I then put on the heat mat.


I covered the tray with plastic wrap (like most seed savers, most of the household plastic wrap is used for seed germination, rather than food storage!)  I have two trays for a total of 156 aparagus seeds planted


Now we wait for germination!  I keep my germinating trays next to my computer so I can keep an eye on them during the day and add water or place baby plants under lights as needed.  With bottom heat, the asparagus seeds could germinate in as little as 5 days or as long as 3 weeks.  I’d like to have 200 plants to set out in the Spring, so if this techinque works,  I’ll add another tray once these trays begin germinating.
In just 3 years, we’ll have an interesting (and tasty!) asparagus variety for sale!  Stay tuned to watch these plants grow!












Seventeen Garlic Varieties Planted for 2016

We spent the last half of October getting the garlic in the ground.  Usually, the weather cools off, which encourages the garlic to grow its root system (which can extend up to 8 feet under the ground!), rather then sent shoots above.  So, there is time to make shredded leaf mulch (the best mulch for garlic) as the leaves fall.
This year has been unusually warm.  Saturday morning, I took Luke for his early morning relief walk in the back field and saw that much of the garlic had sprouted in neat rows down the two beds we had created for them.
Panic!  Frost was coming yet again, so we spent the weekend gathering and shredding leaves, then putting the mulch over the tender garlic shoots.


We finished covering the beds before the frost came on Sunday night.  As you can see from the photo, we had been covering the beds with odd bits of straw and the cowpea residue we had cut into the cover crop to make the garlic beds.
Each variety is marked with two wooden stakes (in case one stake gets lost over the winter).  We put trenches down each outer side of the beds so that water drains off the beds.  This is critical because in winter, the ground will be too frozen to absorb any moisture.   If we have wood chips, we put them in the trenches to prevent erosion.
This year’s 17 varieties are a mix of 1) varieties we want to continue to grow, 2) varieties we are still trialing to see if they will grow well in Southeastern Pennsylvania and 3) new varieties from The Experimental Farm Network​, via USDA, which are beginning their 3 year trial to see if they should be grown in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  They are:
German Extra Hardy
German Red
Georgia Fire
Kettle River​
Italian Arctic
Montana Zemo
Chef Chet’s Italian Red
and numbered varieties from USDA from the following countries:
Even with stakes, we can’t remember where all the varieties are planted, so each year, I make up a map that lists all the varieties and where they are planted.  In the past, I’ve made several copies of the map and put them in various locations around the house so I have at least one map that didn’t get lost over the holidays when I’m ready to harvest in late June/early July.  This year, I also scanned the map and put a copy in the Farm folder on the computer, which is backed up to the cloud.  Losing the map is not an option!
If you’d like to talk garlic, drop us a line!  There’s time now that the garlic is planted and mulch!



Seed Production 2015

There’s several gaps in the blog posts this year, mostly because we were so busy cleaning and processing seed that I didn’t have time to actually write the blog posts!
I did take photos, so since it’s raining today, I thought I’d put them all together in one post and show you what we’ve been doing.
The Workshop has turned into a premium seed production facility.   Here, we have 3 types of tomato seeds fermenting and drying, plus leek seed (in the bags) and radish seed (in the pods on the pallet) drying.


In this photo, Shanlee spreads out fermented tomato seeds to dry on ceramic or glass places (so they don’t stick and can be gathered easily when dry) with a canape knife.  Most seed processing equipment is made for laboratories (for testing) or for farms that grow acres of one type of seed.  Most small-scale heirloom seed processors have assorted “make do” repurposed items to help them clean and process the seed they grow.


Here are Tina, Libby and Shanlee processing radish seed in the evening in the doorway of the Workshop. It’s a very pleasant place to be on summer/early fall evenings, but radish seed, it turns out, is one of the most difficult seeds to process.


Next year, we are hoping to have less hand-work and better equipment to help us clean seed in a more timely manner.  One of my winter reading projects is to learn more about how to efficiently clean and process the different types of seed we want to grow.  If you have any tips, leave them in the comments!






Planting a Pawpaw Patch

It’s been a busy month with adding 33 rhubarb transplants, planting 17 varieties of garlic (about 3,000 cloves) and cleaning up the annual gardens for winter.

However, the most exciting development at the farm this fall has been putting together a pawpaw patch.  A friend discovered a neglected pawpaw patch near Barto and received permission to take fruit.  We tasted a few and the flavor was outstanding.

October is the tail end of pawpaw season, so many of the fruits were beyond their prime.  However, Purdue University Extensionsuggests that one plant the entire fruits, so we took 15 fruits and the seeds left over from the pawpaws we ate and planted 18 holes worth of pawpaw patch.

Right now, the pawpaw patch looks like this:


As the pawpaws won’t send up shoots until mid July to late August, each fruit has to be marked with a stake so we don’t mow anything down in the Spring.  We’ll weed the areas around the stakes by hand until the trees are large enough to be easily seen.  Pawpaws are an understory tree, but once mature, they bear more fruit in full sun.  We’ll put shade cloth over the shoots for their first two years above the ground.​​

If you’ve never heard of pawpaws, the Wikipedia entry is here​.  The ones we planted had yellow flesh and tasted like a banana with mango and apple overtones.
Kentucky State University has studied pawpaws more than anyone else; their information is here.
It will probably be about 5 years before our pawpaw patch produces saleable fruit, but we’re excited to add this native fruit to the farm.  ​​


Summer Flowers

As a seed grower, I mostly grew flowers to attract pollinators (good pollination means more viable seeds) and then, because plants grown for flowers tend to be more attractive to pollinators than vegetable flowers, plant plenty of those flower plants around the  vegetables grown for seeds so that the pollinators “dust off” their vegetable pollen and take up flower pollen instead, thus preventing crosses between the same type of vegetable.
But once we put up the farm stand, people noticed the flowers in our vegetable fields and asked if they could purchase them, too.  So, I gather the best of the day’s flowers and put them in the farm stand, like this.


I’ve been buying zinnia seed that are appropiate for cut flowers, but it’s good to see that the pollinators still enjoy the flowers we set out for them.


The farm stand is a bit zinnia-heavy as they seem to hold up best as a cut flower.  I’ve used Cosmos ‘Sensation Mix’ for years for the pollinators, but haven’t found that the stems are long enough to put in the farm stand.  (It probably doesn’t help that I’ve bought Cosmos twice in my life — once when we started the community garden [1990] and the second time when we started a full planting season here at the farm [2013].  Cosmos re-seeds prolifically and beautifully, but the variations on petal shape & color, plant height and stem length doesn’t lend itself well to putting the flowers  in a bucket at the farm stand.  The pollinators, however, love Cosmos, no matter what the year’s re-seeded variations produce, so there is always plenty of Cosmos in the field, especially around the tomatoes. )

I needed to get out of a zinnia rut and add another flower to the farm stand.  Frank loves sunflowers and a friend had tried out some of the new “cutting” sunflowers that have lovely flowers only a few feet off the ground so that one can easily harvest them as a cut flower.  My friend’s seeds grew into this scene by the Workshop:


Don’t they look nice?    I decided I liked them so much that I would let this year’s trial go to seed so that next year, we can plant “cutting” sunflowers along the smokehouse (which has zinnias this year) and the barnyard wall where everyone can enjoy them as they pass by the farm and, hopefully, will produce enough to add to next year’s farm stand.
In the meantime, enjoy the photos and if you know what type of butterfly is in the middle zinnia photo, let me know and I’ll edit this post!










In her later years, Frank’s mother grew gooseberries.  She wasn’t so sure that she liked them, so she’d pass them along to us and I’d make pies and fruit crisps from them.

Once we came to the farm, I had space to grow small fruits.  At a 2013 perennial plant swap, someone brought two ‘Pixwell’ gooseberry plants.  No one else wanted them, so I managed to score both of them when my numbers came up.

‘Pixwell” is the traditional American variety used in the unripe state to make pies and jam.  It looks like this on the plant:


Contrary to what most of the plant sale sites say, ‘Pixwell” has some NASTY thorns.  Harvesting from any gooseberry plant is a careful business.

“Pixwell’ may be the old standard, but it has not held up well in the small fruit press.  The variety is almost universally panned as “overly sour” and “tasteless” by garden writers.  Lee Reich, the upstate New York fruit expert (if you like fruit and he’s speaking, you want to attend his lectures!) outlines how to grow gooseberries here and like most fruit folks, vastly prefers the newer-to-the-US Finnish and Ukrainian varieties which are mildew-resistant (the biggest disease problem in gooseberries) and sweet enough to eat out of hand when ripe in late June.

The trend is to use the American varieties (like ‘Pixwell’) unripe for pies and jam and to let the European varieties ripen to eat fresh as “dessert gooseberries.”

All fine and good, but how “ripe” should an “unripe’ gooseberry be to make pies?

We have 4 American gooseberry bushes.  Since Memorial Day, I was getting a steady stream of emails, asking to buy our gooseberries.

Unfortunately, my mother-in-law is no longer with us, so I couldn’t ask her when she had harvested her gooseberries.  It’s considered bad form to experiement on your customers.  So, to answer the question “When is an unripe gooseberry ripe enough for pie?” I would have to make an actual gooseberry pie.

Sometimes farm work is so tough!

So, I went out and harvested the Pixwells.  They looked like this:


Gooseberries must be “topped and tailed” before they are cooked.  It’s time consuming to take the stem off the top end and the blossom-end “tail” which is another reason why some people just don’t want to bother with them.  As you can see from the photo, these gooseberries are in their light green “unripe” state.  ‘Pixwell’ gooseberries will turn light pink when ripe; other varieties will turn pink, purple or yellow, depending on the type.

Next, I needed a good pie recipe.

The currently popular gooseberry varities may be from Nordic and Eastern Europe, but the pies and jams made in the US are usually from British recipes.  When I need a traditional English recipe, I check out the BBC, which once again, did not disappoint.  Their gooseberry pie recipe is here.  What was fun about the BBC’s recipe is that it took port. However, I needed a little more instruction.  The Beekmans saved me with a great recipe here.

Both the BBC and the Beekmans agreed that gooseberries should be cooked before putting in the pie shell.  The filling ingredients are put in a saucepan and simmered until the goosberries “pop” which really does happen in under 10 minutes as shown in this photo:


While the filling cools, one pre-bakes the pie’s bottom crust.  Once the bottom crust and the filling are cool, one pours the filling into the bottom pie crust, then puts rounds (Beekmans) or strips (other recipes) of pie crust on top of the filling.  One then bakes the pie with a cookie sheet under it to catch drips (which will happen even with lots of space between the pie crust rounds or strips to let the steam out.  This is one goopy filling!
If one is the Beekmans, one’s pie looks perfect regardless (the advantange of staff!).  If one is me, who is a grower, rather than a baker, one’s pie looks a bit gloppy.  But to show you that everyone here really liked it, here’s a half-finished plate:


So, how ripe should an unripe gooseberry be for pie?  Personally, I love tart flavors, so I thought the pie was great.  But Cornell Univeristy’s write-up on gooseberries here suggests mid-June for making pies.  I think another 10 days on the plant will benefit the gooseberry flavor.

So, if you’d like to buy gooseberries for pies or jams, contact me June 18!  They should be perfect then!








Seedlings Transplanted to Next Larger Pots

It poured this morning, but I was expecting that so I had already set the day aside for working with seedlings.
We don’t yet have a greenhouse, so my potting area is in the basement and the seedlings are placed under lights in what used to be the Guest Room.  On a RePotting Day like today, that means going up and down three flights of steps.  Farm work is exercise even on rainy days!
Here is the view of my potting bench:


These seedlings are Rei Umberto (or King Humbert) tomatoes.  I’ve grown them before and they are an excellent tomato for making old time South Philadelphia tomato “gravy” or to put in the dehydrator for a lovely looking (and tasting!) dried tomato.

We’re growing for this variety for seed, but there should be plenty in season to buy in bulk for making your own sauce.  We’re in talks with a local processor to make tomato sauce and maybe even ketchup from these tomatoes after we’ve removed the seeds (and using our Jaune du Poitou Leek instead of onions!) for really superior tasting tomato products.  Savoring the idea of these tomatoes simmered with the leeks inspires me to keep going up and down the stairs with trays full of seedlings (Yes, when fully hydrated, as all transplanted seedlings should be, those trays are HEAVY!)

Tomorrow, the asparagus harvest starts!





First Asparagus Coming Up!

Luke and I walked the asparagus field and this is what we found:


It’s a Purple Passion Asparagus.  Although it will turn green when cooked, it’s purple when it grows in the field.  We grow this variety because it has 20% more sugars than the green asparagus varieties and less lignin, so it tastes sweeter and doesn’t get woody and tough.  We also grow Jersey Knight, one of the best-tasting of the green asparagus varities, but it hasn’t made an appearance yet.

Meanwhile, the rhubarb continues to grow.  We weeded it today and laid the foundation for a “pollinator patch” at the corner of our property where the rhubarb row ends and our neighhbor’s property begins.  It’s right by the road, so walkers, as well as pollinators, should be able to enjoy the perennial flowers we’ll plant there.

Tried to get a photo of Luke with the asparagus, but only got Luke.  Since I haven’t shared a photo of him lately, here he is:


Enjoy this lovely Spring weather! If you’re interested in either the Purple Passion or Jersey Knight asparagus, do let me know.  We should have plenty, soon!







Rhubarb is coming up!

Still waiting on the asparagus, but today, for the first time, Luke and I found that about half of the rhubarb is sending up new shoots for Spring.


We are growing MacDonald Rhubarb,  which grows very well in Southeastern Pennsylvania and has the deep red color that people prefer for pies and compote.

In another two weeks or so, this rhubarb should be ready for your favorite recipes.  Let me know if you’d like to reserve some for pies, compote or eating straight dipped in sugar!