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The Leafy Green Revolution: Greens from Your CSA and Why They Matter

June 26, 2024

Table of Contents

The Leafy Green Revolution: Greens from Your CSA and Why They Matter

The Incredible Edible Cover Crops

As the crisp autumn air settles in, I can’t help but marvel at the lush carpet of greenery blanketing the beds of my community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. This vibrant display isn’t just a happy accident – it’s the result of a carefully planned cover crop mix designed to nourish the soil and set the stage for an abundant harvest.

Let me tell you about the all-star cast of characters that make up this living, breathing quilt of goodness. First, we have the ever-hardy clover and Austrian winter peas. These cold-loving legumes have a superpower – they can take nitrogen right out of the air and fix it into the soil, acting as a natural fertilizer for the crops to come. And the way they vine and spread across the ground? It’s like watching a verdant tapestry unfurl before your eyes.

But that’s not all – we’ve also got tillage radishes and brown-seeded mustard, both members of the Brassica family, working overtime to keep things interesting. The radishes are like underground aeration specialists, creating long, skinny roots that will eventually rot away, helping to break up soil compaction and improve water infiltration. And the mustard? Well, not only will it provide us with delicious spring greens, but those tall stalks will also offer a vertical structure for the peas to climb up, creating a veritable jungle gym of productivity.

And let’s not forget about the trusty winter rye. This is the cold-hardiest player in the mix, and even if we get another bone-chilling winter, it will bounce back in the spring to provide us with ample biomass that we can then cut down and work back into the soil. Over the winter, its deep roots will anchor the earth, keeping it in place until the rest of the gang is ready to take the stage.

Now, you might be wondering about that summer-loving buckwheat that seems a bit out of place in this cool-weather lineup. Well, I had some extra seed, and I figured, why not? Even though it’s likely to bite the dust with the first frost, in the meantime, it’s been busily growing and helping to hold the soil in place. And just as the buckwheat fades away, the rest of the crew will be ready to step into the spotlight.

But wait, there’s more! Sprinkled throughout the beds, I’ve got a veritable volunteer choir of “weeds” – things like henbit and purple deadnettle. Some might call them pesky, but I see them as free cover crops, filling in the spaces between the intentional plantings and creating a lush, low-growing carpet to protect the soil.

As I look out at this vibrant, ever-evolving scene, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride and anticipation. I know that come spring, this living mulch will give rise to a beautiful stand of plants, with low-growing vines, vertical structures, and an abundance of flowers to feed the pollinators. And all of this is happening right here on my little CSA farm, nourishing the soil and setting the stage for a bountiful harvest.

The Art of Growing Petite Perfection

Now, you might have noticed that some of the veggies at my farmers market stand are on the smaller side. That’s not an accident – it’s all part of my “little pumpkin” philosophy. You see, I believe that sometimes, good things really do come in small packages.

Take my celery, for example. It’s petite, but oh-so-flavorful. The same goes for my eggplants, beets, cabbages, and a whole host of other veggies. And you know what? I don’t use any fancy fertilizers or extra water to make them grow big and beefy. Nope, I let them do their thing, and the result is nutrient-dense, flavor-packed produce that’s anything but watery.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – “Bigger is always better, right?” Well, not in my book. I’m a firm believer that sometimes, less is more. And when it comes to my CSA members, I want them to experience the true essence of each and every vegetable, without the distractions of size or excessive water content.

Harvesting the Onion Bounty

Speaking of my CSA members, let me tell you about the time I decided it was high time to harvest my storage onions. It was a bit of a race against the clock, as the recent rains had me worried about the onions rotting in the field and the weeds taking over completely.

I had two 150-foot beds of onions, each four feet wide and containing two or three rows. One bed was devoted to my “fresh eating” onions – the ones with the green tops that don’t have any of those papery wrappers you’re used to seeing. These are the sweet, sugary ones that are meant to be enjoyed right away, no peeling required. I also had a bed of my summer leeks in there, which mature a bit faster than the fall varieties and are planted closer together to keep them slender.

The other bed was all about the storage onions – the ones with the pungent flavor and layers of dry, papery skins that allow them to be cured and kept for months. I had five different storage onion varieties in that bed, each one carefully selected for its stellar keeping qualities.

The telltale sign that it was time to harvest? When those green tops started to brown and flop over, signaling that the onion bulb had effectively sealed itself off, trapping all that good stuff inside. Most of my storage onions were ready to go a couple of weeks ago, but a few stalwart Rossa di Milanos were still stubbornly holding onto their perky leaves.

Rather than let those Rossas sit out in the field, I decided to try my hand at braiding them into an onion rope. It’s a great way to cure onions, especially if you don’t have a lot of horizontal space. You just braid the leaves together, adding some twine for stability, and then hang the whole thing up to dry. My onion braid is currently swaying gently from the rafters of my front porch, getting a nice breeze and keeping dry until it’s ready for storage.

You see, onions are classified as short-day, intermediate-day, or long-day varieties, and you’ve got to choose the right type for your latitude. Here in Northern Kentucky, I’m right on the edge of the long-day onion zone, so I’ve got about a three-month window for the bulbs to form before the day length drops off. That means my onions tend to be on the smaller to medium side, but I’m okay with that. It’s all about working with what Mother Nature gives you.

The Harvest Shuffle

As August winds down, we’ve entered a new phase here on the farm – the era of bulk harvesting. Up until now, everything we’ve been bringing to the farmers market has been freshly picked, with the exception of the potatoes, which we normally dig and cure just a week before market.

But that’s all changing now. Today marked the start of our winter squash, pie pumpkin, and storage onion harvest. These crops all need a little extra time and care before they can make their way to your plates.

For the winter squash, we want to give them a chance to cure in a warm, well-ventilated area, allowing the stems to dry up and the skins to toughen, creating a nice, sealed exterior that can withstand the rigors of storage. If the squash aren’t nicked or bruised, they can actually last all the way through the winter and into spring.

Since I don’t have an ideal curing space right now, the greenhouse is going to have to do. Sure, it’s not as well-ventilated as I’d like, but at least the squash will be dry, warm, and up off the ground, which helps with air circulation and keeps them away from pesky critters.

As for the storage onions, they’re going through a similar curing process, only this time, I’ve got them laid out in my greenhouse, where they’ll have a chance to dry out those papery wrappers and seal in all that goodness. Once they’re ready, I’ll store them on a covered porch, keeping them cool but not too cold, with plenty of airflow to prevent rot.

The nice thing about these storage crops is that they allow me to keep selling fresh, local produce long after the growing season has ended. Last year, when I worked at Local Roots Farm in Washington, the farmers had this amazing insulated shipping container they’d converted into a storage unit, complete with a dehumidifier and fan to maintain the perfect conditions for their winter squash. I was amazed at how well it worked – we had tons of squash that lasted all the way through the cold months.

Someday, I’d love to have that kind of dedicated storage infrastructure on my own farm. For now, I’m making do with the spaces I have, and I’m grateful for the extra hands we had today to help with the harvest. My parents, Jana and David, and my in-laws, Sue and Roger, all pitched in to not only pick the winter squash, but also gather all the tomatoes for tomorrow’s market. It was a real community effort, and I’m thankful to have such a supportive team behind me.

Crunching the Numbers

As I was driving to the market the other day, I noticed a sign that caught my eye. It claimed that if Kentuckians spent just 10% of their food dollars on Kentucky Proud products, it could generate $500 million for the state’s economy. Now, I’m no math whiz, but I had to crunch the numbers on that one.

If 10% of the food dollars in Kentucky could generate $500 million, that means the total annual food spending in the state must be around $5 billion. And with a population of roughly 4.4 million people, that works out to about $1,140 per person per year on food.

If each person were to allocate 10% of that to local producers, that would come out to about $114 per person per year, or around $9.50 per month. That seems like a totally reasonable amount to dedicate to supporting your local farmers, producers, restaurants, and farmers markets, don’t you think?

Now, I’m not trying to get all preachy here, and I know that everyone has to make their own food choices based on what’s important to them and their family. But I would challenge you to take a step back and really think about where your food is coming from and who is producing it. Your food dollars can make a real difference for the farmers and businesses in your community.

But it’s not just about the money, you know. There are so many other ways you can support local food, beyond just where you spend your grocery budget. You can grow some of your own food, whether that’s a sprawling garden or just a few pots on your balcony. You can cook more meals at home using local, seasonal ingredients. You can get to know the farmers and producers in your area, ask them questions, and spread the word about their businesses.

Sure, your food dollars are like votes, but there are plenty of other ways to participate in this food revolution. It’s about building relationships, supporting your community, and reconnecting with the land that sustains us all. And who knows, you might just discover a new favorite veggie or recipe along the way.

The Melon Melodrama

Ah, melon season – that fleeting, sweet and juicy flash in the pan that’s been keeping me on my toes this year. You see, I’ve never grown melons before, and let me tell you, I’ve learned a thing or two the hard way.

For starters, I thought any melon with orange flesh and a tan, rough skin was a cantaloupe. Boy, was I wrong about that one. Turns out, cantaloupes are a specific type of muskmelon, along with honeydews and Armenian cucumbers. They all share that signature fragrant aroma when they’re ripe, but they’re definitely not interchangeable.

And then there’s the whole issue of weed control. Melons, like their squash and cucumber cousins, have these gigantic vines with huge leaves that do a great job of shading out any pesky weeds. So, I figured I could just let the melons take care of business and focus my weeding efforts elsewhere. Boy, was that a mistake. My melon patch is the weediest spot on the farm – it’s like a jungle out there!

Every time I go to harvest cantaloupes and watermelons, it’s like a treasure hunt. As fun as that is, it also means it takes me about five times longer to get the job done than it would if I could actually see the melons sitting on the ground. Lesson learned for next year!

And speaking of watermelons, my favorite variety is this little yellow-fleshed number called Petite Yellow. They’re sweet, the perfect size for two people, and have barely any rind to speak of. But that thin rind and sweet aroma makes them prime targets for late-night deer snacks. Just before they were about to ripen, the deer wiped out my entire Petite Yellow patch, leaving nothing but a few scraps of rind on the ground. Thankfully, I was able to salvage one hidden gem, and a couple more have grown since then, but I’ll definitely be on high alert for those furry raiders next season.

In mid-July, after the deer attack, I got a little trigger-happy and started harvesting my watermelons way too early, thinking the deer must have gotten to them. Turns out, I was way off base. One Sugar Baby was completely white inside, and the other was just barely starting to turn pink. They were still sweet, just not at peak ripeness. I decided to wait a couple more weeks, keeping my fingers crossed that the deer would leave the rest alone. Luckily, they did, and I started finding nice, juicy watermelons about two weeks ago.

I’ve learned a few tricks for identifying ripe melons – the watermelons have a little curly tendril that dries up and turns brown when they’re ready, plus there’s a yellowish spot where they’ve been resting on the ground, and you can give them a good thump to listen for a hollow sound. For cantaloupes, you can just give them a good sniff – a strong, sweet aroma means they’re at their peak.

Size doesn’t always indicate ripeness, though. I’ve found big, underripe melons and tiny, perfectly ripe ones. I think it has more to do with how much water the plant received than anything else. Since I haven’t been irrigating my melons at all, they’re a bit smaller than average, but boy, are they sweet and juicy.

The downside is that my cantaloupes have a really short shelf life. They seem to develop soft spots overnight, which makes them tough to sell at the market. But you know what? I’ve been eating them myself and giving them away to family and friends, and they’re still delicious – you just have to cut off the soft spots. In fact, I just whipped up a batch of melon sorbet, complete with a little splash of vodka. Hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere, right?

Dealing with Abundance

The past few weeks at the farmers market have been the busiest of the year, and I think there are a few factors contributing to that. For one, the cooler-than-normal temperatures this summer have had folks out and about, eager to soak up the beautiful weather and spend a little extra time perusing the market stalls. And let’s be honest, with all the beloved summer veggies – corn, tomatoes, watermelons – hitting their peak right now, it’s truly the best time of year to visit the market.

Chris and I have been working hard, harvesting and prepping for these jam-packed July and August markets, and let me tell you, by the time we pack up the truck to head to the market, I’m amazed at how much we’ve managed to fit. We like to keep our booth well-stocked for the duration, so we often end up with leftover produce at the end of the day.

Back when I worked at Local Roots Farm in Seattle, those leftovers were never a problem – we had an honor-system farm stand on the road where we could sell any nice extras, and the wilted stuff could go to the chickens and pigs. But here at Dark Wood Farm, I don’t have any livestock besides Smudge the cat, and she’s definitely not a fan of leftover chard.

So, what do we do with all those extra veggies? Well, we get creative! In the days after a busy market, Chris and I prioritize cooking with the leftover items. Just today, I used up a bunch of sorrel, chard, onions, leeks, a tomato,

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