December is not usually a good time to visit a small farm in action, but when I visited Daniel Botkin and his wife, Divya, at Laughing Dog Farm in Gill I got a tour of a thriving garden in the big hoop house (or long tunnel) and a lunch of delicious vegetable soup with bread and goat cheese made that very morning. This is local food at its finest.
I had specifically gone to Laughing Dog Farm to learn about making garden structures out of black locust. I already knew black locust is a rot resistant wood. I’m still using fence posts I was given 25 years ago – and I don’t think they were newly cut then. I did not know that black locust is considered a weed tree and grows quite fast. You would think this would make it easily available, but not so. It does not make good lumber because it doesn’t grow straight and is not harvested in the same way as maple, oak and other timber trees.
Still, if you can find a supplier of black locust, take advantage of the opportunity. Daniel Botkin has built numerous arbors, trellises and low hoop houses out of black locust. Sometimes he uses the poles, but he also makes use of slabs and flexible thin slats. These sturdy structures, made of crooked logs and rough slabs, show a slightly manic sense of humor as well as engineering skill. They are not what you will find in an elegant flower garden, but they will last for years, and make use of that extra dimension in the garden.
In the summer Botkin’s three plus acres of market garden rise up towards the sun. We are all familiar with bean poles and pea fences, but cucumbers also love to be grown on trellises. Melons can be placed in net bags like those onions come in, and supported on a trellis.
Botkin is a proponent of permaculture and no till techniques. His land is a steep hillside which he has terraced using black locust slabs and ‘poopy hay’, the bedding from his goat barn. The advantage to goat manure is that it can be used immediately in the garden, unlike cow manure or my chicken manure which need to be composted to be safe for plants.
In mid-December parsley, leeks and kale were still growing in the heavily mulched beds outdoors, but I was really stunned by the variety of vegetables growing in the hoop house, all manner of greens and a few sunny calendulas. This long structure, made of ‘hoops’ and special heavy plastic is not heated, but it is warm enough to provide cold hardy greens until spring. When I visited I even got to eat a few Sungold cherry tomatoes.
Botkin had just finished building a new low tunnel with flexible slats of milled black locust that will retain their shape as they dry. Low tunnels can be used in a hundred ways, Botkin said. They can be covered with plastic in very early spring to start spinach and other greens. An extra advantage is that you will foil the insects that plague brassicas. During the summer the plastic sides can be rolled up and the ends left open making that area very warm for crops like peppers and tomatoes that like and need extra heat. Or the plastic can be removed entirely for the summer and the skeleton can be used for vining crops like cucumbers.
In late summer or fall, with the plastic in place, a late planting of hardy greens can go in. Botkin said, “I don’t operate with a plan. I look at the space and decide what will give me the highest value. Or I might throw down what seeds I happen to have in my apron.”
Laughing Dog Farm is small, but there is a lot of work to be done to bring vegetables, f.ruits, berries, herbs and flowers to local farmer’s markets. I was reminded that for 20 years Botkin was a teacher and counselor before he devoted himself to full time farming in 2000. He has not stopped teaching. In the summer he has apprentices who live at the farm and give a certain amount of labor for room and board while they learn the pleasures and challenges of growing food.
Botkin explained that there are networks that include the World Wide Opportunties on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org) and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (www.nofa.org) that help pair young people who are interested in learning with small farmers who need extra seasonal labor.
Beyond teaching interns and apprentices, Botkin holds occasional workshops at Laughing Dog Farm and has put up a website www.laughingdogfarm.com that explains his philosophy and gives enormous amounts of information about gardening. It includes a series of very short videos on designing hoop houses, growing greens in a hoop house, planting intensively and working with goats. Some teachers just cannot give up teaching, no matter what else they are doing.
Botkin is also an enthusiastic seed saver. In the olden days gardeners and farmers routinely saved seed from their own plants, but now seed is easy to buy. Aside from the issues of hybrized seeds that won’t come true, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds that have many people concerned, Botkin says that saving seed gives the gardener control over his produce, and over his own food security.
A vegetable garden does provide a measure of security, of good health, and pleasure. Those are good things as we go forward into a new year. ###
Between the Rows January 2, 2010