Last Saturday, the Nauset Regional Middle School auditorium was filled with farmers, gardeners and people who are devoted to organics. The reason: organic farming pioneer Eliot Coleman was giving a talk, and his equally famous wife, Barbara Damrosch was also on hand to sign books and chat afterwards. The event was sponsored by Sustainable CAPE, the amazing group in Truro who have made celebrating local food and education its centerpiece with events like the Truro Agricultural Fair and Farmer-in-the-School Programs.
Coleman is a leader in the movement to grow food year round in Northern climates, and he and Damrosch do so on their 60-acre Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. His talk was titled, “Nothing is Impossible,” and he listed all of the things that people told him were impossible over the years, beginning with the idea that it is possible to grow food without pesticides or chemicals.
His talk was as much about experimenting and ingenuity as it was about food. He explained how he came up with the idea of growing cold-hearty salad and root crops in unheated greenhouses during the winter months at first by accident and then by design.
“We weren’t so much gardening in the winter as harvesting in the winter,” he said. “All of the plants had to be planted earlier to have healthy root systems.”
His method of growing involves putting wheels on his 30 by 96 foot greenhouses. The mobile greenhouses serve two purposes. First they protect heat loving plants like tomatoes, eggplant and bell peppers through the fall. When the season for those plants end, the greenhouses are moved to protect the root vegetables and greens he planted in late summer.
One of their most popular winter crops is carrots, which just become sweeter in the colder earth.
“They are so tasty that kids call them candy carrots,” he said, prompting one farmer to ask what kind of carrots he plants. You can bet that Mokum carrots from Johnny’s Selected Seeds will be appearing in local gardens like mine this summer.
Coleman believes that farmers should share information with each other, and for over an hour he shared his best tips, best tools and best advice. With each step he has taken on his farm he learned something new and most of his tools are fashioned with things at hand. A cordless drill is the power behind his design for “the tilther,” a small rototiller that only works the top two inches of the soil.
The thinking behind this invention was that weeds rarely germinate from more than two inches deep in the soil. Shallow soil working avoids stirring up dormant weeds that are lying deeper. This bit of information made me appreciate the no till policy at the Brewster Community Garden. The town used to pay someone to rototill every spring, but stopped doing so a few years ago. Individual gardeners are allowed to rototill their plots, as we have always done.
Not anymore. I made huge strides with the weeds on my plot last year, and now I know how to keep them at bay this year.
I also learned why my leeks didn’t thrive last summer. I didn’t plant them deep enough. Coleman devised a leek planting tool from a 10-inch long piece of one-inch plumbing pipe with the end flattened. He then pokes a hole, places the leek seedling in and lets nature fill in around the small hole.
With Coleman’s book, “The Winter Harvest Handbook” in my hand and my head filled with visions of his gorgeous photos of carrots and leeks, I headed to the store to purchase both. This spring vegetable side dish would be lovely on your Easter table.