Garden photos (3)

The final group of photos of today’s garden.

We’ll have a lot of sweet potatoes. Because of the mulch, the weeding here is easy if we just keep after it.

Some of the sweet potato plants looked spindly and sickly after we first planted them, but they all seem pretty healthy now.

I learned to despise this weed, since it sprouts from a long, stick-like root that is hard to dig out. Turns out that it is a wild black raspberry (or blackberry?) plant, and that the garden area was thick with them when we tilled it under. But we have no regrets—there are plenty more around the property.

I should have gotten a close up here; some of the bell peppers on these plants are already pretty big.

Carrots are a whole different enterprise. They grow so slowly that the area can easily be overgrown by weeds, and you really need to weed by hand to do a proper job.

Debbie and the kids have done some hard work to get this bed as weed-free as it is.

Here’s the second bed of carrots we planted, which hasn’t been weeded much at all, as you can see.

The larger plants here are radishes (well, OK, some of them are weeds) which we use to mark the rows that have been planted; the radishes grow much more quickly than the carrots, and so they help you distinguish tiny little carrot growth from weeds.

The potato patch is still doing great.

One problem with the patch is that you don’t really want to venture into it, for fear of tromping on potatoes. I’ve weeded extensively around the edges, and the mulch has mostly kept the weeds inside the patch to a minimum, but I just today noticed this weed standing proud and tall in the very middle.

The vines are starting to die off. Jerome says that it will probably be mid-August before they completely die off, at which point we will harvest.

This photo is just to show how Chris has to keep the area around the garden mowed down. The higher growth at the border was just cut about a month ago when he began to mow the eight acre field; he is nearly done with that job now, just in time to start over again.

Garden photos (2)

Continuing with photos of today’s garden.

When we were at the Burkholders to help pick blueberries, Daniel was walking me around their very large garden and stopped to show me something I’d never seen before: ground cherries. They are related to tomatillos, and the fruit on the plant has a wrapper very much like a tomatillo wrapper, but inside is a sweet berry, with a taste something like pineapple. What was pleasant about this was that Debbie and Maggie had discovered ground cherries in some book, and were intrigued enough to want to try growing them. I mentioned this to Daniel, and he offered me some seedlings that they weren’t planning to use. So here they are.

The lettuce is done, but I think we left this one to see if we can collect some seed.

The romaine is definitely done! We might have left this one just for the sake of weirdness, but in fact we want to collect seed from it as well.

The kale did so well, it’s a shame we never figured out a way to eat it that we liked; they have a very strong flavor we just aren’t accustomed to. We may try again in the future, but this evening the kids had the pleasure of ripping these kale plants out. The collards will stay for now, since we haven’t gotten around to trying them yet.

The cabbage is partly done. We’ve picked five heads so far.

Most of the ones we picked were at least as nice as these.

Debbie and the kids did a great job of cleaning up this area, where the peas were. We’ll be planting another round of beans here.

The first planting of sweet corn is doing well. The second planting is in, but hasn’t made an appearance yet.

You don’t have to look too closely to see that the sweet corn could use some weeding.

This is the three sisters garden plot, with field corn, beans, and squash. It is doing well, but weeding is a headache.

The plot consists of sixty-three circles, with seven corn plants in each circle (a hexagon, with a seventh plant in the center). You can see here how weedy it is compared to the rest of the garden. Because the plants are not in rows, the wheel hoe is no help. And the hand hoe I use is just large enough that I need to be very careful while weeding so as not to take out corn or beans, making the job tedious.

Here you can see the squash we’ve planted between the corn plant circles.

Each circle is supposed to have four bean plants, but I don’t think our seeds germinated very well. I haven’t done a thorough count, but I’m guessing we average about two bean plants per circle.

Garden photos (1)

Here we go with photos of the garden as of this afternoon. There are quite a few, so I’m breaking this into three posts, and as usual putting the photos after the jump.

You can see that our beans are doing very well. So far we’ve planted mostly white half-runner beans, along with some Kentucky Wonders and some greasy beans. We’re looking forward to making “leather britches” this fall by threading string through some of the beans, then hanging them up to dry.

The beans are so thick here that we’re worried they might send runners over the top and form tunnels. Not that it wouldn’t be kind of cool, but it would probably make it a pain to pick the beans.

The squash plants are huge, as squash plants tend to be. We’re just starting to pick some yellow squash and zucchinis; had some for supper tonight, in fact, stir fried. We’re starting to appreciate them more, as the heat begins to kill our appetite for heavy, greasy things.

The zucchini were just picked, but you can see that more are coming on.

Same with the yellow squash.

The cucumbers are doing well, and Debbie just picked the first two. But you can see that not every plant in the garden is thriving. I don’t know why this one cucumber plant had trouble; the others in the row didn’t.

This is celery, unless it is parsley (we’re still learning to tell the difference).

We’re looking forward to garden fresh tomatoes in a couple of weeks.

You can see that the tomato plants are prolific.

We have a couple of plantings of onions, done a couple of weeks apart. These will be ready a bit later.

These onions are nearly ready to pick.

Jerome gave us some cherry tomato plants; at least that’s what he said they were …

But these are the strangest shaped cherry tomatoes we’ve ever seen.

Wild black raspberries

Matthew and Maggie just came into the house with about a gallon of wild black raspberries they had picked in the field at the top of the hill. Yesterday they had picked enough for dessert for everyone; I ate mine at lunch today, and they were really good, although they left a mildly bitter aftertaste. I’m told that there are lots more berries where those came from, all over the property; in fact, the weeds we curse the most in our garden turn out to be wild black raspberry plants.

Another experiment is in the offing, I guess. How many can we pick before the birds take them out? Are they valued at all around here? Can we make anything out of them?


One of the farmers besides Jerome Lange who supplies stuff to Good Foods Coop in Lexington is Daniel Burkholder, a Mennonite who has lived near Jerome for eighteen years. Daniel’s specialty is organic greenhouse tomatoes, and they are good—we’ve bought a couple of boxes of them through Nolt’s in the past few weeks, and they were ripe and flavorful, a real treat so early in the season. Though he got a late start this year, he usually has them available by the end of March.

I’ve been making produce deliveries to Lexington for Jerome for the past few weeks, and the buyers are always glad to see Daniel’s tomatoes. But they were particularly excited when I brought the first delivery of blueberries a couple of weeks ago. These are sweet and plump and organically grown, and draw a good price. There is even a cancer researcher who is using them in his studies. Daniel is known for the quality of his blueberries, and is proud of the fact that he grows them differently than the agricultural researchers suggest, yet gets better results.

Saturday Jerome called and told me that Daniel had asked him if he could help pick blueberries today; he said he was too busy, but wanted to know if we were interested in helping out. Interested? You bet! So he told me to go over to see Daniel and arrange it. In fact, I had never met Daniel before Saturday, even though Jerome had taken me by his place three times, because Daniel is usually out working in the fields. But I stopped by and he was there, and we chatted for nearly an hour on his back step about tomatoes and blueberries and organic farming and country life, and somewhere in there I arranged for our family to come over Monday morning and help out.

We showed up at 8am, bright and early for us, particularly since it is a 30 minute drive to the Burkholder farm. Normally they would have put us to shame by having gotten up before dawn and being out and picking by 7am, but it turns out that last night the church youth came over to their place at 4pm for volleyball and dinner and a couple of hours of singing, didn’t start leaving until 10pm, and the family hadn’t gotten to bed before midnight, so they slept in a bit and were just getting started as we arrived.

Debbie and the kids went straight with Mrs. Burkholder and some of her nine children to pick blueberries, but Daniel thought I might like to help with one of the morning chores. The Burkholders have started growing field tomatoes in addition to the greenhouse tomatoes, and he needed to add some “fencing” to a couple of rows. The rows of plants are about 250 feet long, with tall stakes driven into the ground every five feet. Rather than using trellises or cages, Daniel will go down the rows and run a string, wrapping it once around each stake, with the string being about four inches higher than the one before. The string is run down one side of the row, and then up the other, with the plants being held between the strings on either side.

To run the string, Daniel uses a stake with holes drilled on both ends. He puts on a belt to which is attached a box of string, threads the string through the holes, then uses the stake to feed out string as he walks down the rows, wrapping it around each stake in the ground, making sure the top of the plant is inside and held up by the string. After doing twenty or so stakes himself, he handed me the apparatus (but kept the belt on himself—we both laughed when I tried to put it on and found it wouldn’t reach around my waist) and for about an hour I fed out line and wrapped stakes as he kept the plants in position and generally corrected my sloppy work.

And of course we talked. It made me think of the passage from Eric Brende’s book “Better Off”, where he discovered for himself that manual labor can become a semi-automatic activity, leaving your brain free to hold a conversation. We talked about modern living and farm life and the Bible, and soon enough an hour had gone by and the work was done. It hadn’t gone by for me as easily as it probably would for Daniel—it was cool but humid so the sweat was pouring down my face, and I never did figure out how to hold the stick properly so that tension was maintained while the line fed out, and my hands were tired and hurting a bit by the end, and I didn’t feel like I did a very good job. But the job was done, and the talk was pleasant.

Next we went to the tomato greenhouse and he showed me what seems like a very clever setup. Strings are suspended from spools attached to rods that run the length of the greenhouse; these are what the vines climb as they grow. The vines will grow taller than the roof of the greenhouse, so the procedure is to periodically come along, shift each spool to the side so that the vine now has more room, then take the lowest clip on the vine (no longer needed, since it is touching the floor) and attach it to the top of the vine. Daniel moved along one of the eight rows of vines, adjusting them sideways, removing suckers, checking on how his treatment for his aphid problem was progressing. And of course we continued to talk.

Later Daniel had to go off and do a few things, so I went to help with the blueberry picking. Which for me turned out to be keeping an eye on the little ones as Debbie and Maggie picked; the area where they were picking was tight quarters, and they were being especially careful to get a certain quality of berry for the cancer researcher, so I thought it would be better to leave them to it. Eventually the berries were picked, and we picked a half-gallon or so for ourselves and took our leave.

Some of you who are reading will be very jealous of us for this, and rightfully so. This is the sort of relationship we’ve been hoping to develop with the local Amish and Mennonites, and so we’re pleased as can be that it has already started to happen.

Garden diary

It’s about time to post another round of photos, but I haven’t taken them yet. Some of the early crops are done (peas, lettuce), and the plants are pulled to make room for later stuff. I asked Jerome what he recommended to fill the trellises that the peas had occupied, and he said “More beans!” We probably have enough for our own needs, but we decided to plant a bunch more white half-runner beans and maybe try to sell some.

Both plots of corn are doing well. The sweet corn is planted in straight rows, meaning that most of the weeding can be done with the wheel hoe. I’ve hand-hoed in between the sweet corn plants once, and discovered to my dismay how delicate they are despite how they look; through sloppiness I managed to take out eight or ten of them. The field corn is stouter, which is a good thing, because planting them in circles of seven means that much more hand hoeing is required; the field corn plot also seems to be weedier ground. But everything is on track—maybe 2/3 of the beans germinated, but those are doing OK, and the acorn and butternut squash we intermingled with them are taking off.

The beans we planted are thriving; our main chore is to keep the runners on the trellises and out of the paths. Once they get above our heads I won’t be surprised if they reach out to each other and form tunnels. Tomatoes are healthy and beginning to bear fruit, the sweet potatoes are starting to send out vines, zucchini and yellow squash are well established, onions are close to being ready, celery and parsley are holding their own. Some of the potato vines are beginning to die back, so we may be harvesting them pretty soon.

As we watch our garden grow we’re thinking about what to plant in quantity next year. Definitely garlic. Maybe strawberries, since we enjoyed the ones we picked at Martin’s so much. Possibly a wide variety of chili peppers, since that is something that has always interested us.

Pickin' in the Park

Faithful readers will recall that for the past three years Chris and I regularly attended an open microphone event called Pickin’ in the Park, held during the summer at Natural Tunnel State Park in Duffield, Virginia. We don’t live close enough anymore to make regular appearances, but this weekend I had to take Chris to nearby Big Stone Gap to spend a week with Ron Short (Chris will be helping Ron teach an old-time singing class at this week’s Cowan Creek Music School in Whitesburg, Kentucky). Since the second Pickin’ in the Park was this weekend, we decided to leave a bit early so we could stop by.

The program is slowly and steadily building momentum. There were maybe 100 people in the audience, especially good because the afternoon threatened to turn rainy and eventually did. We played three new songs we’ve been working on, and they were well received. And we were delighted to see some friends from St. Peter there. Three of the four members of Maker’s Mark (Jonathan Daugherty, Mark Osborne, and Joshua Blackburn) played a couple of fiddle tunes and sang a couple of songs; they had the cloggers up and dancing, and the audience was pretty pleased.

The program traditionally ends with an onstage jam with all the musicians. Unfortunately it was just at that point that a storm moved in, bad enough to make it prudent to shut down the sound system. But nobody wanted to venture out into a heavy rain, so we played for close to an hour without amplification. I don’t know how much the crowd could hear, particularly the vocals, but they kept asking for another and we kept obliging.

As it ended Ron Short arrived to collect Chris. We chatted for a bit, and I helped load Chris’s instruments into Ron’s car and gave him a care package from the farm—fresh baked bread, strawberry and peach preserves, and a cabbage head—and then they were gone, and it was a long drive home without my usual driving partner.


After raising our first batch of chickens this spring, the women of the household informed the men in no uncertain terms that using the sewing room for brooding chicks was a one-time-only deal, and that another solution would have to be found before another batch was started. Chris’s friend Jacob uses a small standalone A-frame structure for his chicks and is happy with it, so we decided to copy it.

I drove Chris over to the Ellises’ farm one afternoon and sat in the car reading while he spent an hour using a notepad and a digital camera to study the A-frame inside and out. Later I printed out the photographs for him. This morning he handed me a parts list, which I took to a nearby home improvement superstore and spent two hours filling. (I have a renewed appreciation for the cost of a sturdy wooden structure.) When I got home Chris unloaded the lumber and other parts into the basement. Not too long from now I expect to watch him construct our own A-frame brooder.

I’m pleased that Chris is able (and, even better, willing) to take on important jobs like this. And I think more and more about how he is quickly becoming a man, and what we might need to change around here to acknowledge that change, and how little we have in the way of guidance for managing the transition. He doesn’t get paid for his work—and I don’t want to pay him, I want him to have an appropriate amount of control over (and access to) the family wealth, and to thereby be encouraged to work to increase that wealth. He isn’t being prepared to strike out on his own, and I don’t want him to do that, I want him to begin to lead the family economy in new directions, directions that will satisfy him and employ his talents fully and spur him on. He doesn’t bear the responsibility of making this agrarian enterprise work—I do—but I want him to see his own future in it, the future well being of his wife and children and their children after them.

In six months Chris will be eighteen. That doesn’t scare me as much now as I thought it would, but it will still be a momentous occasion for all of us. Our family has changed directions so many times over the years, every time in an effort to provide a better path for the children to follow. But to change directions again at this point would mean that we’ve failed in a major way. Each change we made was with the understanding that the children would have to scramble to make up for lost time, the time they could have had if we had been right from the beginning.

Chris has had to scramble more than most, having endured these course corrections at a later age. Who would have thought just eighteen months ago that he would embrace the life of a farmer, even begin to take the lead for the family in many ways? It wasn’t an inclination of his back then, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he balked. Instead, he threw himself into it dliigently, and found that he was good at it, and even enjoyed it. And I think he threw himself into it for two reasons: he knew it was important to the family; and he knew that we would support and honor his efforts no matter how things turned out.

As it happens, things turned out well. We couldn’t have been certain of that eighteen months ago, but we had poured ourselves into figuring it out, and were not so much confident that we could make it work as we were convinced that we had to make it work. Similarly, we don’t know for certain that our efforts will succeed, but we are convinced that they have to succeed for the sake of the family, and so we pursue them as thoughtfully and diligently as possible.

Chicken processing

If even a year ago you would have told me that our three oldest children would spend the morning killing, scalding, plucking, and eviscerating chickens, while their mother and I and the rest were occupied with other things—well, I would have doubted you. But that’s just what happened this morning. Chris, Maggie, and Matthew slaughtered the first six of our Cornish Cross chickens, start to finish without any help from us. Even better, Debbie and I don’t really know much about what they are doing; Chris learned the process partly from books and partly from his friend Jacob, built and tested the chicken plucker on his own, and showed Maggie and Matthew what needed to be done.

It took about three hours start to finish to process six chickens, including setup and cleanup time. At lunchtime Debbie told them to take a break, but they insisted that we eat without them so that they could get the job done. Just as we were finishing lunch they marched in, each carrying two of the bagged chickens. These were all eight week old hens, and they dressed out at between five and six pounds—very large. Somewhere it was suggested that we could let the roosters go to ten weeks, so the remaining nine Cornish Cross birds are scheduled for slaughter week after next; I’m curious to see how big they will be by then (and how many will have keeled over from heart attacks from carrying around so much weight).

Everybody pitched in, but each of them has their special gifts. Maggie turns out to be the champion eviserator, because of her smaller hands and her cooking experience; she did five of the six birds. Chris was thankful, since he finds it hard to get his hands inside the birds, but he knows that when there are more to be done he will need to be gutting them as well.

You can’t really tell from the picture, but these birds are just unnaturally large. Especially their feet!

Proud assistants display the fruits of their labors.

Debbie is urging me to fix the rotisserie attachment for our Weber gas grill, so we can cook these chickens the way God meant for them to be eaten.

The old way of singing

Faithful readers know that Chris and I have gone to some length to learn about what is often called “the old way of singing.” It is a style that is dying out, restricted mostly to Appalachia, only found these days in Primitive Baptist and Old Regular Baptist churches, both of them small and shrinking denominations. But originally it was the dominant style of church singing among English Protestants, approved by the Westminster Assembly of Divines, brought to America by the Puritans and the Anabaptists, and eventually marginalized by snobs who thought that the high-art singing style of continental Europe was preferable.

One of the things we like about this sort of music, along with the rest of Appalachian music, is that it contains major elements that were jettisoned as the music was commercialized. Old time musicians have broader and just plain different ideas about tempo, meter, rhythm, tone, and song structure, ideas that are hard to grasp if all you know is modern pop and classical music. Sometimes it’s fun to listen to songs that were popularized during the folk boom of the 60s by people like Pete Seeger or Peter, Paul and Mary, or the Kingston Trio, or even Bob Dylan, and then go back to the original sources—so much had to be thrown out just to make them palatable to modern tastes.

The old way of singing has a lot of these characteristics. It is done slow and without musical accompaniment, and many people would say that there is no tempo or rhythm at all, although I don’t think that is accurate—the songs do unfold at a steady pace, and there are rhythmic elements present. Because there is no accompaniment, you can sing notes that aren’t found on the keyboard. Because not everyone changes to the next note in the melody at the same time, you get a sort of “unstructured harmony” happening, with multiple pitches being sung at different instants during a transition. And a very wide range of vocal tone is appreciated and cultivated among singers, so that when singers join together a deep and varied texture is created, allowing kinds of expressiveness that you’ll never hear on the radio where everyone sings like everyone else.

(As an aside, I heard a twelve-year-old girl recently singing a couple of songs by Jean Ritchie, a famous Appalachian balladeer. The girls voice was good, strong and on pitch and expressive. But her style was shot through with pop singing cliches, which made the whole thing jarring and almost ridiculous. It was especially weird when she would lead into a line about, say, the toxic effects of coal mining with that sort of sexual groan (“unhhh … “) that so many girl pop singers start a phrase with.)

All this to say that last night Chris and I were overjoyed to discover an Old Regular Baptist church just down the road that still sings in the old way. Since we’ve moved here I’ve noticed a number of Primitive Baptist churches and wondered if they sang that way, but never checked it out. Then I heard from a friend of a friend about an ORB church just a couple of miles away, and I wondered about them. Talking to Brother James Caudill in Whitesburg, an ORB elder, he assured me that “if they’re one of ours, they definitely still line songs out.”

So finally last night Chris and I went over to their evening service, and sure enough they did. In fact, one of the elders who preached sang as well as I’ve ever heard it sung. We hung around afterwards and talked with the elders, who were very pleased that we were interested in the singing. They told us about the state of singing in the immediate area (the Primitive Baptists in the area no longer do it), and in their denomination in general, and they invited us to come to their monthly Sunday morning service, which has much more singing, and to accompany them whenever they are headed to a gathering where there will be lots of singing (the elders will travel long distances to preach at churches all over Kentucky and Ohio, then come back for the Sunday evening service). They also invited us to record any of their services.

I don’t know how things will develop—the time we can devote to such pursuits is limited these days—but this could be a major connection into the old time singing community for us.