Today is a special day, and not just because it’s the first day of summer or even that it is father’s day… Trouping through the 7 foot grasses, evading the swarms of deer flies, sweat dripping from your face and then you come to it- a mountainous shrub covered with cream colored flowers beckoning you forth with the most alluring aroma … it is the first day of elderflower harvest.
Pinching off the umbrels and delicately setting them into our bags until they formed a mound of sweet floral nectar just begging to be made into a new batch of St Steve’s cordial is more than a sign of the season, it is a sign of life …and just really cool.
Some of these flowers will find their way into a fresh batch of St. Steve's Elderflower Cordial right away. The rest of them will be dried - a beautiful reminder of what's to come - a taste of mid-summer's day in the dead of winter.
We think lace must have been invented because elderflowers are so fleeting...
The skies are gray with low clouds that seem just out of reach. The air, moist and thick but with a warmth that bedevils any sense of dreary. Plumes of green foliage spring from the earth that was so recently nothing more than a frozen white canvas. The mirrored pond flickers to and fro as the converging ripples dance from the unseen life frolicking below its surface.
The artic kiwis stretch their arms across lanes to hold hands with their sisters forming a dense catacomb of intertwining green. These arms are laced with a myriad of small white flowers, beckoning pollinators with their sweet aroma, offering gifts from their delicate jewels. Touched by a breeze, this buzzing mass of life dances to the rhythm of summer, it is chaos and unkempt but it is also marvelous… if you can slow down and take a breath and then listen… and if you listen long enough then maybe, just maybe you can hear the music.
We like to make it sound romantic, idyllic and earthy. The idea planting of a seed and harvesting food can do that, but farming is at its essence a business and although we grow year-round we are still ruled by the seasons.
In autumn, we prepare, plan, and store for the long cold winter that awaits us, hoping we have done enough. The winters are always cold and dark, but some are really cold. Not only can we keep things alive, but can we survive the added expenses and limited production that come with it?
Spring, ah yes- spring! Spring is the seasonal turn of the economic cycle. The end of annual recession, spring is hope shown in all the glory of budding shoots and tilled fertile soil.
And that brings us to summer. Beds are full and the fields are planted and turning green. This is the time to pay off the debts of winter and invest for the future. It is the time to make hay… and kale, arugula and basil. The time to work from sun-up to sun-down and a little longer on market days. The farming life is paid for in the summer and we can only hope we can make enough to get us through the seasons that lay in wait.
It is the season of plenty, let us rejoice and be glad. The mortgage is caught up and the basil, arugula and even mizuna all look great……………. OK, enough of lollygagging, let’s get back to work.
Growing up just outside of Holland, I played in the creek, the pond and the river. I played in the trees, the valley and the fields. I caught crayfish, fireflies and frogs not to mention a few worms, turtles and butterflies. I played with nature, I watched and I learned.
The soaring hawk, the jumping fish, the lumbering snapping turtle all provided lessens to the curious mind back when I thought ‘to google’ (or was that ‘oogle’??) meant staring awkwardly at a pretty girl. Nature can still teach us many things but the internet sure can help fill in the missing pieces.
Today, we can still find many of the same things in the wild places but some are curiously missing. The Monarch butterfly is one of these. As kids we used to find the caterpillars roaming milkweeds and if we were lucky, a chrysalis would make it into a jar were we could watch nature literally unfold.
But it is rare to find a monarch anymore, the king of butterflies with their stained-glass wings that provided a sense of awe for generations are now being considered for addition as an endangered species. The high use of Neonicotinoids and GMOs (with the additional use of herbicides) in agriculture are the primary cause. While there is little hard evidence to show that GMOs have a negative effect on our health, it is clear they have a huge effect on our natural world. Monarch populations have dropped over 90% in the last 20 years.
Is this a good reason to avoid GMOs? Well, it is to me, it is also a reason we have way too many milkweed plants in every flower bed around the house and all through the valley. It is our hope that we can once again see these magnificent creatures and we can all say “long live the king!”
It has been a ridiculously busy week here at the farm, but what should we expect from spring. You have to look no further than our lawn to see the effects of the weather, we could spend every night just mowing and we could not keep up with the steady growth of vegetation.
The greenhouses are no different, we pick and pick and there just seems like an endless supply of lettuce but this of course also means endless seeding, transplanting, moving, washing, cleaning sheets and then we still have to deliver it all.
Friday, we were up at 5 AM loaded for Fulton St. market and then afterwards did deliveries and prep for Saturday only to be back up at 5 for another day of markets. Last night, totally whipped, we were heading to bed early only to have Pip the pup decide to poop in his crate. He then of course had to step in it and shoot past our legs when we tried to fish him outside. He sprinted through the house with a gleeful smile and a trail of puppy prints in his wake. Oh joy…
With exhaustion though, comes loads of great things to eat; in addition to loads of lettuce, we have tons of basil, bok choy, endive, mizuna, chives, thyme and edible flowers. We have a fair amount of arugula coming on and we should have kale soon too. Ginger plants are up, Artic Kiwi’s look to have made it past the frost and we have 4-6 mulefoot pigs already lined up too. It looks like it will be a busy summer.
Top of the morning, unless this is late in the day for you in which case you may replace it with a more proper salutation. It was a glorious day here on the Hill o'er Mud Lake. The grass is as green as I remember those lovely hills of Ireland, splashed with the dew like the sea herself had tiptoed about, and sprinkled them with mist. The wee pup was up early driving hard into the foliage sending out a spray like he was a freighter cutting through the open sea.
The bonny wife was a bit latter in greeting the morning sun, she had been weeding in the fields the day before and though she's not as young as she used to be, she is a sight to behold when a grass or a thistle dare invade her furrowed rows.
The greens are all in mighty fine form, you would be hard-pressed to find a finer head of lettuce in all the county. And the basil, what can you say, it is so green you would think must be Irish and not from that other place. Now to call bok choy Irish would be a tall tale to be sure, but the hues of color in a single plant can be downright mesmerizing and let’s be honest, it is far more green than any potato.
So pick up a pint, and strike up the band , grab the hand of a bonny lass and dance a jig for life is good. But it’s even better with a salad.
It is the season to rejoice; warmth, sun and growing things paint the landscape a shade greener every day. Spring is in the air and the fields and raised beds call for their session under the painter’s brush, but alas, there is only so much time.
The key to growing in the winter is to start lots of plants since it take so much longer for them to mature but once the kiss of spring ignites their passions they are ready to run off with the first bloke who shades the door way. The result is total chaos; every plant matures at the same time and since only so many can be picked, the old maids bolt and wilt in aggravation.
The place is a mess. Not only are we throwing away tons of unusable greens to the chickens and compost pile but we have to clean out beds for a new season and find homes for the still young and beautiful ones.
And yet, the land needs our attention as well. Turning over winter’s casualties with the tiller and broad fork to form black fertile canvases is no quick and easy task. Not to mention the seeding and transplanting that will transform them with organized green rows of a finished bed.
But we want it all now! A beautiful greenhouse full of beautiful greens, pretty fields filled with more beautiful greens and then some time… not a lot, but just some time to sit and enjoy it… is that too much to ask?
As a true sign of spring I am writing from the front porch today and it is amazing how green everything has gotten in the past week, but two and half inches of rain and some sun will do that. And while the sun feels great, it is also kind of depressing since now I can see how much work I have to do. Raised beds need to be forked, kiwi vines need a serious haircut and then there are weeds; they’re sprouting out of every corner and edge in the greenhouse and every one of them seems to be in flower, threatening to overrun the place with their offspring.
Of course around here that means hand to weed combat (none of this chemical genocide on our watch!). Thankfully, this time of year they do come out rather easily, their roots are still short and they come out in bunches. But is it still disconcerting to see the multi yellow headed serpent known as a dandelion already lay claim to the byways by this the first full week of April.
And weeds are not the only unwelcome guests who have come visiting. With the pond only recently free of ice we have already had muskrats about the place seeking to take up residence. If you read any of these posts from the past years you would know this was not welcome sight. So far, we have greeted three of them with air-mailed packages of hot lead which, from my perspective were warmly received.
But it is good to see other signs of spring, like the “V”s of ducks and geese coming in low to the lake; hearing the valley ring with calls of their home coming and accompanied by the frolicking chorus of mating frogs. The smell of turned soil - rich, dark and earthy - it is a feast for the senses and today we get to sit back and take it all in, for tomorrow… tomorrow the work begins again.
We are in that strange period of time; Kind of like spring, but kind of not, sixty during the day, freezing at night. Soil is tilled, even have some things planted, but the world is still ruled by multi shades of brown.
But if you look close, under the thicket of dried grass, and past the tumbling leaves, you see them. With a green so dark it almost goes unnoticed; a shoot rises up from the soil blanketed by bars of tan stalks. And if you look especially close you may see a purple flower no bigger than a dime but far more precious for this is the currency of spring, the down payment for the changing of the guard.
Crocuses may seem like bribes, both out of place and unfair in such a drab world but it is a cost that must be paid. Perhaps it is a tax, if so it is the most welcome one to be sure since it would allow the scepter to finally pass to the next ruling season.
It seems like such a waste to see such beauties lost to the world of brown but we should be thankful for the sacrifice. For without such willingness where would we be?
Perhaps this sacrifice is the reason for crocuses, perhaps they were placed here for this very purpose. So then let us fill the world with crocuses, let the purple and pink, the yellow and white, let them bloom in all their splendor so the price may be paid and we can enter the glories of spring.
We got an interesting email yesterday. After meeting our daughter at the Fulton street market, a visiting professor contacted us. Apparently in 1901 a lady by the name of Emma Cole published: Grand Rapids Flora: A Catalogue of the Flowering Plants and Ferns Growing Without Cultivation in the Vicinity of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It just so happens that one of her places of research was our very own Mud Lake in southern Ottawa County. We thought we knew all the history of the area, but this was new.
Emma Cole was quite a remarkable woman. After teaching for several years, she left at the age of 31 to study botany at Cornell University, and then came back to teach again, but she also traveled the world researching plants. She worked with Charles Sprague Sargent from Harvard (and was credited with helping find 20 new species) and became vice president of the Kent Scientific Institute- the forerunner of our Grand Rapids Public Museum.
Her specialty was the genus Crataegus (better known as the Hawthorn tree to us mere mortals). Her work was so extensive she even has one species named after her: Crataegus coleae and guess what… we still have lots of hawthorns in the wilds of the valley, perhaps even a Cole’s Hawthorn?
To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of Hawthorns, they can destroy expensive tractor tires and will skewer even the thickest Coat with their long pointed thorns leaving trail of bloody pin holes on the bearer, but perhaps I’ve been a little hasty and maybe, just maybe they do have some redeeming value… at least with a historical view point.
So come this summer the visiting professor and his troupe of students will venture out to the wilds of the farm to see how much is left of Emma Cole’s West Michigan. It will be a day we may do a little venturing ourselves… ready with band aids just in case.