Learning Something New

When I decided to grow medicinal herbs, as Wild Health Herbals, for Namasthé Tea this year, I knew I would be getting into new territory, as growing and drying medicinal herbs on a large-ish scale was not something I had experience with. And while the growing has had a few challenges so far (namely in the seeding stage, as some of these herbs are tricky to start from seed), the herbs I am growing are all fairly low maintenance and easy to grow. The part I was slightly, shall we say, unsure of from the beginning has been the drying process. It turns out that drying high quality herbs is not as easy as you might think. Especially in quantity. When you are making do with the space and materials at hand, and it is not really enough space.

And since I am planning on growing high quality medicinal herbs, I also want the finished product to be of the highest quality. So when the calendula really started to pump out the blossoms last week, and I also noticed my tulsi had, seemingly overnight nearly reached the prime time for harvesting it, I suddenly realised I needed to turn my attention to getting my drying shed in order.

For drying the herbs I am using the germination area in the greenhouse at Rootdown. At this time of year the majority of transplants are in the ground, and the remaining ones are outside, no longer needing the additional heat of the greenhouse. So using quarter inch wire screen, a staple gun, some baling twine, and some shade cloth kindly given to me by a neighbour of Rootdown’s, I turned the former germination room into a drying shed of sorts. The screen is obviously to support the herbs while still allowing air flow, and the shade cloth is actually to keep it from getting too hot in there, as many herbs, especially leafy ones, don’t dry to a high quality if they are dried at too high a temperature (or so I have read).

Once I had finished creating the drying shed, I couldn’t help myself – I harvested sweet-smelling tulsi amongst the plethora of bees (they have also been harvesting it!) until the drying racks were full, only harvesting just over half the tulsi! While I could have waited a few more days, I figured I may as well start using the shed, as the spearmint and then lemonbalm are coming on strong, and space will be my limiting factor for drying herbs.

While this is definitely a learning curve for me, that is the beauty of farming – there is always something new to learn, new crops to grow, new ways of doing things – and I’m enjoying this incredibly aromatic learning process to far.


A Few Words On Transplanting

There is a lot of transplanting that happens on organic veggie farms in spring and early summer. There are two main reasons for this. The first, which is more the case in more northern climates with cool and/or short growing seasons, is to get a head start on the season, having veggies readier to sell earlier. Sometimes, if your season is shorter or the crop a heat loving one, seeding into cell trays in a heated or unheated greenhouse and then transplanting out into the field can make the difference between having a crop, or not having one at all.

The second main reason is to beat the weeds. I have written about the struggles and pleasures (yes, pleasures!) of weeding on organic farms before, and I will likely do so again. But just because I do get enjoyment out of weeding doesn’t mean there isn’t good reason to do all we can to minimise weeds, because in all reality you’ll still have lots of them. Weeds are simply amazing plants, and their vitality and ability to propagate themselves is truly astounding. Which is why organic farmers who wish to have a marketable crop (especially in the case of annuals), need to spend a lot of time weeding, or at least managing weeds. And so when seeds are started in cell trays and then transplanted into weed free or mulched beds, they get a jump on weeds, which is beneficial to both plant and farmer.

Happy cucumber transplants in the ground in the greenhouse.

At Rootdown we have been doing a lot of transplanting these past few weeks. My first three days in May were almost 100% transplanting, and there has been significant chunks periodically since then. And while transplanting by hand (as all of Rootdown’s transplanting is) is somewhat hard on the body – think sore shoulders and back, and sometimes sore knees – it is also an activity I thoroughly enjoy. If you are transplanting with other people, it is a good chance to for conversation, and if you are transplanting alone it is meditative, contemplative work. I also love pressing the young plants into the soil, watching the inevitable wilt of transplant shock (plants in the brassica family suffer from transplant shock particularly hard, especially if it is a hot day), and then seeing them recover and take off as a result of having access to more nutrients, more space for their roots to grow, and ample water.

Healthy tulsi starts, ready to go into the fields.

On a Wild Health Herbals front, I transplanted tulsi basil this morning, 250 bed feet of it. Tulsi is the biggest crop I am growing for Namasthé this year, and in the last week or so the plants grew a huge amount and were looking green and beautiful and ready to go in the ground. Since the danger of frost has (I think) passed in Pemberton, I decided to take this slightly overcast morning to get them in the ground. I had a great time of it, spending a few hours listening to the birds and the breeze in the trees, and ruminating on life. I might have taken the time to catch up on a podcast or two (another great activity for solo transplanting), but I forgot my iPod at home. In the end, I was glad to have a chance to work in silence in the fresh air on the farm.


What’s in a Name?

I mentioned in an earlier blog post my desire to name my upcoming medicinal herb growing venture – but at the time all I could come up with was the rather uninspired Ariella’s Herbals. Since then I’ve been doing some thinking, some sketching, some brainstorming, and have come up with another name I like much more, and which seems to suit my fledgling business in a way that I like.

And so Wild Health Herbals has been born.

Some of the brainstorming process.
The final (for now), and still very hand done, copy of the logo.

Why Wild Health Herbals? Well, there are a few reasons. One is that the herbs I will be growing are health giving herbs, and will be used by Namasthé Tea Company in their delicious and medicinal tea blends.

Another reason is that many medicinal herbs tend to be either outright weeds in most contexts, or at least much less refined, and  closer to their wild relatives than many of our more common cultivated crops, with the tendency to revert back to their wild and weed-like state given half the chance. Just think about it – many people will be familiar with the tendency of plants in the mint family to take over a growing area if not actively kept in check – and I will be growing three plants in that family (spearmint, skullcap, and lemon balm). And gardeners or farmers who have grown calendula or borage – two more herbs I will be growing – will be quite familiar with those plants ability to to self seed and come up year after year with no further help from us humans.

And a final reason I like the name Wild Health Herbals is that it would work quite well if I decided, in the future, I might like to go the route of producing more value added medicinal products myself – such as tinctures, teas, or salves. Which is a definite possibility.

Not to mention – all those thoughtful, heady reasons aside – I simply like the way it sounds and rolls off the tongue.

And while Wild Health Herbals is still mostly an idea in my head right now, still very much in the planning stages with very little happening concretely in the world of soil and plants growing, it feels good to just go this one step further, and give it a serious name. Because names, and the intention they bring to things, have power.



Putting a Farm to Sleep a.k.a. Season’s End

Next year's garlic in the ground and tucked in for winter.
Next year’s garlic in the ground and tucked in for winter.

This is the time of year when a farm gets put to bed. The last of many crops get harvested, while some carry forward, weather permitting, a little longer into the winter. When a crop has been harvested what remains gets mowed down and/or tilled into the soil. Cover crops get spread over bare soil and around remaining crop residues to protect the soil from erosion, suppress weeds, and build organic matter. Irrigation and plant row covers get pulled from the fields and stowed away. Garlic is planted so it can go through the cold temperatures of winter that unlock the magic inside each clove. All in all, things get cleaned up, stashed away, and organised for the harsh weather of winter, and the year to come, and it is a good, satisfying way to end a season.

The north field in a cover crop of winter rye.
The north field in a cover crop of winter rye.
Rootdown's oldest kale bed, planted in April and still producing like a champ in late October!
Rootdown’s oldest kale bed, planted in April and still producing like a champ in late October!

Last Tuesday was also Aurélie and I’s last day of work at Rootdown for the season of 2015. It was a little bit shy of our original planned end date, but these things are hard to predict for a farm and for farmers. What can seem like a huge and endless to do list can actually be made up of small jobs that don’t take as long as you think they will to accomplish. Such was the case for Rootdown this year. Once the CSA wrapped up in the first week of October and harvesting dropped down to a minimum the list of farm tasks remaining was completed rather quickly.

And while, on some level I am sad, because I love my job and the work of farming, on another level I am very okay with it, and maybe even glad. That is because a large part of what I love about farming is the seasonal and cyclical nature of it. Seeds sprout and grow, are harvested, and die. Animals grow, and animals die. The seasons change, and as they change, the work, and my desire to do it, changes too.

It is not that I want to stop farming when winter draws near, but there is something about working with plants and doing work of a seasonal nature that has put me more in touch with what my body wants to do at different times of year, on more of an instinctual, animalistic level. As daylight hours decrease, it is harder to get up when it is still pitch black out, and less work feels more tiring. The cold and damp weather can also take it’s toll, as can the heavy rain gear that must usually be worn (although don’t get me wrong – I love my industrial Helly Hansen rain gear!). My body wants to sleep more and go into a hibernation of sorts. Emotions seem to run high at this time of year too, and getting teary-eyed for little reason in the middle of the fall field is not as uncommon as you might think. That probably has do with everyone being more tired than they may even realise; or maybe it is just because fall and winter are the seasons of moving inward into the deeper, more emotional parts of ourselves.

Whatever the reason, the end of the season seemed to come at just the right time this year. While I felt I could have kept going, I wasn’t raring to go, and am appreciating being able to sleep in a bit longer in the mornings, and shift gears a bit. Any farmers reading this probably know what I mean.

As for my next move, I was offered a job at Rootdown next year, and have accepted it gratefully and with excitement. As well as simply getting another chance to work with and learn from the lovely Rootdown ladies (minus Aurélie, sadly, as she is going back to Québec to be closer to friends and family there), I will also be growing a few medicinal herbs for the Whistler-based Namasthé Tea Company using Rootdown land but my own time and muscle power. While there are a lot of details still be to be worked out on how exactly that will play out, I am excited to be in the planning stages of this mini herb farming adventure.

I will say once again how extremely grateful I am for my season at Rootdown. It has taught me so much about farming, communication, and myself. It has taught me a lot about what I want, has helped me to clarify my vision surrounding farming, has shown me that a work/life balance is possible for farmers, and has shown me how much fun it can be to work with an awesome, small crew of positive farm women! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The 2015 Rootdown Farm crew, happy if a bit tired, sporting our work rain gear.
The 2015 Rootdown Farm crew, happy, if a bit tired, sporting our work rain gear. From left: Aurélie, Simone, Sarah, Marisol (Simone’s daughter), and myself.

Death – and Life – on the Farm

So the week before last we lost two of the six baby turkeys. When Aurélie  and I first agreed to take on the raising of turkeys for the farm, the idea was to raise one for each of us – so four turkeys total. But because, upon doing some research, it seemed as though turkey poults are extremely easy to accidentally kill (for example if the temperature is too hot or too cold, if they catch a disease called blackhead that chickens carry but do not get sick from, or if they simply fail to find the food and water you have given them), we decided to get two “insurance turkeys.” That way if we lost a couple we would still each have a turkey. And a good thing too, for two weeks ago  coccidiosis struck our happy, healthy little flock.

Coccidiosis is a disease that is spread by protozoan parasites of the genus Eimeria that all poultry are susceptible to, although it seems (as usual) that turkeys are more likely to get it than other types of poultry. They are also more likely to get it when they are younger and their immune systems are not strong enough to fight it off. Because it seems a little bit like the common cold or the flu in humans – birds will almost definitely be exposed to it and come in contact with it, it is whether or not they are strong enough to fend it off that determines if they will get sick from it. And while young birds can be given medicated feed to begin with or antibiotics if they become ill, that did not seem to be the route we wanted to go. It also all happened very fast – a matter of days – and we didn’t really get the chance even if we had wanted to.

Not that we knew any of that when our first poult got sick. But sick she definitely was – she was huddled up in the brooder, with her head drawn back into her shoulders. She wasn’t moving much, and she wasn’t eating or drinking much either. Without knowing what was wrong with her, we put her into a little incubator brooder, with food and water and a heat lamp, and hoped for the best. She was dead by morning.

At that point I had done some research and was pretty sure it was coccidiosis, but by the end of the day, another poult was showing similar signs. So into the incubator he went, and two days later he was dead too. The other four poults seemed to be healthy and strong, but we gave their brooder area a thorough clean, nonetheless, and began putting apple cider vinegar into their water as a preventative immune booster. And maybe we were just lucky, but the remaining poults seemingly had strong enough immune systems to fight the parasites off.

On a happier note, the lucky (or strong) survivors got moved from their brooder to their new range last week. We decided that at six weeks old they were big and feathered out enough to survive the still somewhat chilly night time temperatures. Which is a good thing, as they were fast outgrowing their brooder, and kept on trying to fly the coop – literally. Not to mention that while we had to keep them in an insulated brooder to keep them warm enough at first, animals with access to fresh air and pasture always seem so much healthier and happier than their cooped up counterparts.

It has been a fun week watching they poults explore their new home. At first they were very perturbed, and simply sat inside the new brooder, refusing to go outside. But then they realised there was grass, and shade and probably bugs too, and now they are all over it. In a few weeks we will expand their run more, giving them access to more space and grass, as well as some trees for their roosting pleasure.

And so while there was death on the farm, there were also turkeys that survived to see the great wide world outside of the brooder. Now they will get to enjoy the fresh air and the grass – at least until Thanksgiving.

The young turkeys cautiously exploring their new home.
The young turkeys cautiously exploring their new home.
Getting a little braver now…

Things Are Heating Up

It has gotten HOT recently in Pemberton. The last several days have gotten up to the high twenties according to the trusty Weather Network, but according to Simone, the farm usually gets higher highs and lower lows than predicted for the town of Pemberton. Not to mention that the thermometer that is in the shade on my back deck in town read 31 degrees yesterday at 5:00 pm, which is when things have already started to cool down. Needless to say, it’s been pretty extreme temperatures compared to what I am used to, especially in May.

Farming often necessitates working in extreme weather conditions, be they hot, sunny days, below freezing temperatures, wind storms, rain, mud, etc. And that is because the work generally needs to be done regardless of the weather. If animals are involved, then animal chores need to be done; and if vegetables are involved then things must still be harvested, weeded, and planted regardless of weather.

The heat has always been more challenging for me than the cold, and when things begin to heat up, especially when it happens suddenly, I find myself struggling to adjust. My brain gets addled, I might get a sunburn or two, and I am completely wiped by the end of the day.

However, after a few days, things start to change, and on a physiological level my body seems to adjust and I begin to function better again. I also get smarter. My sun hat becomes a near permanent fixture on my head, I wear lots of sunscreen, drink litres of water, and this year I’ve even started wearing a long sleeved collared work shirt during the hottest part of the day.

And something starts to happen on a pyschological level as well. I become accustomed to the heat, and find myself expecting it rather than being broadsided by it. That moment happened for me earlier this week when I found myself volunteering to stand on a ladder in the greenhouse in the afternoon, to hang tomato trellising strings. It was somewhere between 40 and 50 degrees in the greenhouse. And yet I felt okay with it. I was hot and sweaty, sure, but I was functioning and felt pretty good. Sometimes that kind of extreme heat becomes cathartic in a way, and a greenhouse can bear a remarkable similarity to a sauna….

Things have been heating up in other ways around the farm as well. Today we had our first official harvest – salad mix and kale – which went to a high end restaurant and a grocery store in Whistler. It was a small harvest, but the produce was beautiful, and it is a sign of things to come. From here on out we will likely be adding new things to the harvest list every week.

And while it is still not the flat-out busy time of year, the overall pace is picking up. The heat and the lengthening days means everything – including the weeds – is growing like crazy, and all the crops need to be on a regular irrigation schedule to keep them growing well in this heat. The piglets will be arriving on May 30th, and so among other projects that means we are working on the new pig shelter and pen and running water and electrical (for the fencing) out that way. The mixed flock of baby laying hens are growing fast, and six baby turkeys are slated to come mid-June.

And so with the increased doses of sunlight, things at Rootdown are heating up. It is, like all farms, a truly solar powered kind of place.

Planting Greenhouses, Fun With Fire, and a Bee Swarm

Transplanting the eggplant and basil into their summer home.
Transplanting the eggplant and basil into their summer home.

So last week was another fun one full of hard work and playing in the dirt. We were blessed with some mercifully cooler temperatures in the mornings, a little bit of rain in the evenings, as well as some blazing hot Pemberton sun in the afternoons.

Aurélie and I were given the tasks of planting the greenhouses with their summer crops last week. The larger of the two greenhouses got planted with tomatoes in four beds out of five. The fifth bed will be have cucumbers in it once the spring salad mix is gone. It was exciting to plant the several different varieties of tomatoes and dream of the delights to come.


The smaller hoop house got planted in basil and eggplant. I always love working with basil, as it is one of my favourite smells in the vegetable/herb world and makes me think of summer.


I also got to use the Red Dragon Flame Weeder from Johnny’s Seeds last week. It is a new tool at Rootdown this year, and while I am familiar with flame weeders, I have not used one myself before last week. While they come in many different makes and models (and some farmers design and build their own), the basic idea is that there is a backpack designed to hold a small propane tank, which is connected to a long handled high BTU torch. You then use this torch to blast small weeds just after they have germinated, with just a quick shot of fire being enough to burst their cell walls and kill them. Often times people will sow seeds into the soil, and then a day or two before the desired crop germinates, go over and kill the faster germinating weed seeds with the flame weeder. Another option (which is what I did the other day) is to blast a bed just before transplanting into it. I have to admit, once I got used to the idea of having a propane tank strapped to my back and wielding a flaming torch in front of me, it was quite fun and satisfying to do. And hopefully it saves us a good chunk of weeding in that bed in the future.

Other excitement on the farm last week involved the resident bees swarming – twice! Apparently the hives were thriving and healthy, as bees tend to swarm when the hive is full and they have or are in the process of producing a new queen. The old queen and up to 60 per cent of the bees in the hive will leave for a new home during a swarm.

The first swarm took off to what they deemed a more suitable home somewhere across the road almost as soon as they were noticed. The second, however, a couple of days later, coalesced onto a branch near the hive, forming what is called a “beard” around the queen to protect her, while scout bees go looking for some new digs. They do this because the queen is a very poor flyer, and cannot fly long distances to and fro in search of a new home.

The triangle in the top centre of this photo is the "beard" of bees.
The triangle in the top centre of this photo is the “beard” of bees.

And while I believe there are different techniques for capturing a swarm, one is to put an empty hive box, called a super, on a white sheet underneath where the bees are swarming. The branch can then be cut, and carefully placed on the white sheet in front of the box, and the bees will march into their new home. And while I’m not sure I would be up for this task, apparently the bees are quite docile when they are swarming. In the picture below you can see Simone’s husband, TJ, who is the keeper of the bees around Rootdown, handling things very well, while the rest of us watch with amiration.


The photos don’t do the event justice, however, as the noise was truly something else. The humming, buzzing air almost seemed to tangibly vibrate, and was enough to make the whole farm take pause and watch what was taking place. It was a very cool, awe inspiring moment, and I feel privileged to have witnessed my first bee swarm.

Introducing Pemberton and Rootdown Farm

For the 2015 season, I will be farming in the beautiful and fertile Pemberton Valley in BC. I am working at Rootdown Organic Farm for the two amazing and inspiring women owners and farmers, Sarah and Simone. I will also be working alongside the other employee for the season,  Aurélie, another young woman farmer who hails from Québec.

And so it will be an all woman farm crew, on a new farm, in a new climate, in a new part of BC – a whole slew of firsts for me! 

Rootdown is also different than the other farms I have worked on previously in another couple of ways. For one, it is smaller, with about two acres of mixed veggies in production each year – all of the farms I have previously put in full seasons with have had a minimum of eight acres under cultivation, and as much as twenty. Another is that they raise a small number of pastured pigs every year. I have had very little experience with livestock, and zero experience with pigs. And thirdly, they are certified organic, which will, surprisingly, also be a first for me.

And so I am very excited to learn more about a smaller scale, certified organic, mixed veggie production, with the added element of pigs! Should be a good year.