Spice Holler Farm
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Spice Holler Farm

And…April

Hope and fear are really just two versions of the same story but I guess everybody has a different opinion. Since apparently we’re living in a time of extreme stress, it’s been difficult to remain hopeful. (And extremely hard to commit to this journal in a timely manner.) However, despite all signs pointing in the opposite direction, towards fear, April was a month of substantial growth, both literally and figuratively.

I was getting into the groove of starting my seedlings. I was still a bit vague on timing as many crops say “start in early spring” which is of course different in every climate. Finding no answers after scouring the internet and seed catalogs, I had pressed onward simply spilling seeds into pots, guessing at the numbers of plants these tiny seeds would amount to. Soon my seedling shelf was full and trays of plants were spilling out all over my office. It wasn’t just the excessive volumes of plants adding oxygen to my room, they were the poster child of disarray. I had cool season plants intermixed with warm season plants. Plants had been tucked into trays willy nilly because I simply had no plan. I’m saying this out loud right now to make sure it will not happen next year.

fetch with dog

In kitchen talk, I’ve managed to have gotten “in the weeds”. I wonder if farmers who have gotten this overwhelmed call it “in the sauce”?

By mid-month, my head was still buzzing with planting dates and my list of crops was getting ever more complicated. I was obsessing over whether to name my crops “basil, thai” or “thai basil.” I was second guessing where I would plant my crops in the field. I decided to take inventory and then found that I had 468 tomato plants! I only had room and time for about 100. I considered selling some of the seedlings, but that would take time. At least I could offer them to friends, and plant the rest near the chicken coop to let them grow wild and provide a tasty treat.

My days were spent rotating plants in and out of grow lights. More than once I found wilted plants I had missed. Some died.

Tomatoes, some of my 400+ plants

It took every ounce of courage for me remain calm. I had this urge to get my seedlings into the ground. Outside, it was sunny and warm, but I knew Winter would make a final appearance before the end of the month. And I was right. Back to the drawing board with a few crops I had rushed out too soon.

Early Spring / Late Winter.. you pick

“Just keep the rest of the plants alive,” I said, trying to remain hopeful.

Meanwhile, it has been interesting to observe the difference between starting seeds indoors versus outdoors. I enjoy growing transplants because it reminds me of baking. I also like the certainty that starting indoors offers and the ability to count and space plants more exactly. Yet direct sowing does seem much faster, except it requires a little more attention to keep the bed moist while protecting the soil from a deluge. Without an irrigation system, this can be very time consuming. Some days I found myself watering for almost two hours, which for me, standing still for that long, is very difficult. However, I am thankful to have this time to watch the effect of different starting methods on the harvest timeline, and, more importantly, my state of mind.

a game we call “get out of the garden”

April was also a time to dig the remaining permanent beds in the lower field, effectively tripling our growing space for a grand total of 10,000 square feet. We waited as long as possible because we wanted to ensure the tarps had a chance to kill off all the remaining weeds and their respective seeds. The other thing was that there were tadpoles living in the puddles on the tarps and I have a thing for frogs.

Time moving as it usually does — forward — we couldn’t wait any longer so we pulled the tarp off and invited our chickens for a delicious buffet. I promised the frogs that I would build a small pond for them next year.

I was very happy to see that the soil that had been under silage was fluffy, clean, and full of worms. Digging the beds would be easier, which was a good thing because I wanted to mulch the paths before the compost delivery. I admit this was an aggressive, risky and somewhat arbitrary goal, but nonetheless, it made sense in the larger vision of all that had to get done before planting time.

Supple dirt

Of course, the plan backfired because my husband shoveled too hard and threw his back out. One of his discs had herniated, pinching a nerve, sending shooting pains down his leg AND making his leg weak. And I am sure it was kismet that the compost delivery arrived early and the big plan collapsed right in front of me.

Meanwhile I kept my promise and tried to just keep the plants alive. Some were growing fast and burning their little heads on the grow lights. Some were so excited about life that they flowered. Some even set tiny little fruits on their four inch bodies!

Yet in my dream vision of the farm, there are still bird houses to build, irrigation to plan out, and of course building an efficient central workspace to process our harvests to ready them for some distant marketplace I have yet to be able to imagine. Because not only am I new to farming, I’m new to North Carolina.

It’s a strange pickle I’ve gotten myself into. I tried to draw comparisons from my experience as a baker and small business owner. I suppose it would be like baking a cake in an unbuilt kitchen. A good chef would lay out all of their ingredients before beginning. I still have to grow mine.

Anyhow, as I simultaneously dig my permanent beds in the field, dropping seeds and seedlings into rows, update my planting list and crop layout, monitor the indoor seedlings, start new seeds that will need to be placed in more seed trays, and attempt to buy more seed trays during a pandemic when everything is delayed, I think of that moment before the orchestra starts and the musicians are farting out random notes. I guess there is still hope.

Hope despite the flea beetles. Those nasty little jerks perforated my mizuna, arugula, and pak choi. My mustard wrapped heart was shredded and the poor plants had no choice but to bolt and set seed. I thought to myself, “actually, nature is pretty smart.” The pests may have thought they won this round, but I have one eye looking forward, remembering that my task in the moment is to understand the process, make a few mistakes, and don’t obsess about good or bad outcomes.

This is very hard for someone who is a perfectionist.

Yet despite my tendency to prefer fear, I decide instead to breathe a sigh of relief and instead pause and observe these plants that I nursed into life as they try to make it to maturity, holes and all, and giving the gift of experience (and seed) for next season.

I also granted myself a bit of grace and reflected that I have tasked myself with building a farm ecosystem without understanding what all the pieces are. And I try with significant effort not to let fear overwhelm the present moment, even though it is hidden behind the people who now wear masks, hidden behind the lack of knowledge about how life will be as we crawl out of the current health crisis.

Winter kale gone to flower

While watering one morning, I listened to a podcast with a North Dakota farmer named Gabe Brown and he mentioned an idea called an “unfair advantage.” I thought a lot about this because people say “life is unfair,” meaning it puts us at a disadvantage, but actually, depending on your opinion, unfairness is an advantage, and that is pretty interesting. I have zero experience in farming, and that is not my excuse, it’s my advantage, which is even more interesting when considered in the context of this time where we are swinging back and forth between the end of the world or the beginning of a new type of life.

For me, this is a time to focus on my craft and learn farming as it contributes to the big picture of this next phase of living. This is a time to observe how farming will circle back for me and nurture my love of making food for my friends and family. It’s letting go of perfection and allowing mistakes to happen. And for this, I thank the pesky little beetles that will be on next year’s buffet.

The whole shebang, all 10000 square feet of garden

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stephanie crocker

stephanie crocker

Connecting the dots through the written word.