Dreaming of gardens

  • Wisty Rorabacher tending plants in the second-story porch she and her partner Judy Draper use as a greenhouse substitute. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Rorabacher and Draper's first seeded crop of the 2021 season, red and yellow onions. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • "Wisty Rorabacher and Judy Draper of Greenfield bring their small fig trees indoors during the winter. Burgeoning fruit is evident in late winter." For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall—

  • Nancee Bershof's Greenfield property includes a greenhouse, berry bushes, goat enclosure, solar array, perennial pollinator-attracting beds, five kinds of fruit trees, and garden spaces she shares with several friends. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Dan Botkin's greenhouse in Gill is a year-round hive of activity. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Nancy Bershof, of Greenfield, raises Nigerian dwarf goats and uses their waste to boost soil fertility. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • In February, Nancee Bershof's greenhouse was a serene haven of light, warmth, daffodils, a large fig tree, and some happy geraniums. Soon every shelf will overflow with starts and seedlings. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Nancee Bershof tends a composting system incorporating earthworms known as redworms or red wigglers. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Nancee Bershof in her greenhouse, known commercially as The Bioshelter. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Wisty Rorabacher and Judy Draper of Greenfield bring their small fig trees indoors during the winter. Burgeoning fruit is evident in late winter. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

For the Recorder
Published: 3/3/2021 8:58:55 AM

Wisty Rorabacher’s practice of starting garden plants indoors was born of necessity: “In Arkansas, we lived a two-hour drive from any place that sold plants, so I started my own,” she said. “I continue to do it 25 years later because I love the process.”

Rorabacher and her partner, Judy Draper, of Prospect Avenue in Greenfield, are in their 14th year of tending a narrow home garden plot about 30 feet long.

“It gets eight hours of sunlight, max,” said Rorabacher. They’ve participated in the Pleasant Street Community Garden and this year plan to use garden space at Just Roots Community Farm on Glenbrook Drive.

Their crops germinate in a three-season, second-story porch, “our version of a greenhouse,” said Rorabacher, 75. “We’ve installed good windows, but our seeds are probably kept colder than recommended.”

Plants are boosted by grow lights; some get an assist from a heat mat.

“I knew nothing about gardening when we moved to Arkansas from Minnesota, so I asked a lot of questions of experienced gardeners,” Rorabacher said. “I’m a slow learner, but determined, and am fascinated by trying to grow plants that aren’t necessarily expected to succeed.”

In general, Rorabacher and Draper “choose crops recommended for our zone. But we’re not afraid of stepping outside of traditions,” Rorabacher said. “We’ve grown edamame (a preparation of immature soybeans in the pod). We cultivate ginseng and okra. A couple of years ago, while visiting Arkansas, we saved some pawpaw seeds,” she added.

Pawpaw fruits are 3 to 6 inches long, greenish to black in color. The edible flesh is yellowish, containing a network of glossy, dark brown seeds. “It’s delicious,” said Rorabacher. “We planted the seeds in pots, and later found they’d established huge root systems.”

While the couple is grateful for opportunities to garden on supplemental community land, they prefer to harvest “from right outside our door,” Rorabacher said. “It’s amazing how much we can grow right here. Herbs, tomatoes, lots of greens like kale, chard, lettuces, mustard, even perennial sea kale, which has become one of our favorites.”

The list goes on: “We grow in every available sunny, or partly sunny, square inch, right down to where the soil meets the sidewalk,” Rorabacher said. “Our beans climb strings tied to the top of our front porch. We do peas, garlic, onions, leeks, cukes, parsley galore and last year our basil was non-stop — waist-high. And we have delicious blueberries right here.”

A few crops don’t seem to thrive at their home site, “like peppers. But almost everything else does fine. We’ve even grown 10 different varieties of tomatoes at once,” Rorabacher said. “They really don’t take up that much space.”

She emphasized that starting plants at home doesn’t require a lot of space.

“We grow stuff indoors through the winter: rosemary, parsley, cilantro, all kinds of lettuces. We plant pea seeds and harvest the greens in the form of tendrils when they get to 5 or 6 inches, and they just keep coming. We can count on five or six harvests if we don’t cut the pea shoots too low.”

Rorabacher admitted, “I have a history of starting things too soon. I’m learning to be patient so I don’t end up with leggy plants. But it can be hard to wait.”

On Feb. 15, she put in her first seeds, onions — Red Amposta and Yellow Granex — and a few lettuces, while trying to hold off on chards, beets, kale, tomatoes, cukes, peppers and eggplants.

“We start many plants indoors and later direct-seed many of the same varieties outdoors,” Rorabacher said. “I’m trying to get better at succession planting.”

Although they skip some practices widely considered necessary, their garden yields bountifully. “For instance, we hardly water,” Rorabacher mused. “That comes from living in Arkansas where water was scarce. We learned that by mulching heavily, we do OK without watering much. And in Arkansas, that was with horrible, clay soil.”

They don’t till or do much digging. “We use weeds as mulch and try to build soil. And so many weeds are actually edible. People overlook many, seeing them only as pesky weeds. But quite a few so-called weeds are nutritious and tasty.”

Rorabacher loves to save kitchen scraps and salvage bags of leaves from neighbors. “I grind up the leaves with the lawnmower. We layer the green and brown materials and make free soil. It’s rich, too.”

Growing in community

Across town on Colrain Road, Nancee Bershof raises animals and crops on less than an acre. The retired physician, 69, has also opened her land to a number of friends over the last decade.

“Seven of us share a fenced-in area, sort of a community garden,” Bershof said. “We also collectively grow one or more substantial crops out back. We’ve done cabbages, potatoes, onions, and what’s known as the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash.”

The group operates on three-year rotation cycles.

“This season, it’ll be sweet potatoes and maybe soybeans,” Bershof said. “We grow many native flowers and shrubs in our pollinator beds, attracting and protecting insects and birds.”

Bershof benefited from a permaculture consultation and site plan through Regenerative Design Group; the centerpiece of her project is the passive solar greenhouse they built for her, known as the Bioshelter. “It’s 25-feet by 25-feet,” she said. “About three-quarters of it is used for planting. The rest serves as our henhouse.”

Bershof’s greenhouse is an elegant, warm space decorated with cheery daffodils blooming on a winter’s day, a small Laughing Buddha statue, and a compost bin filled with industrious red worms chomping their way through kitchen scraps and pooping out rich nutrients.

Lettuce is the first thing Bershof plants each year, “and my favorite thing.” She cycles through kale, pea shoots and other varieties, “putting fresh greens on my table through December.” Two fig trees live in the greenhouse year-round, “giving me delicious fresh fruit from August through October.” Bershof’s other fruit trees include “peach, plum, pear and a persimmon tree that started producing two years ago. I also have two pawpaw trees.”

Eight barrels and three large tanks of water are the keys to success, ensuring that the greenhouse retains heat. “I raised edible catfish for a while, but my heart is really in growing plants, not eating animals,” said Bershof. She finds that raising chickens for eggs is “a wonderful way to get my protein.”

With a friend, Bershof is raising three Nigerian dwarf goats, as well as three ducks. “The duck eggs are amazing,” she said. She’s debating whether to mate the goats, opening the possibility of a dairy source, as well.

Surveying her land, Bershof said, “The most wonderful part is the opportunity to produce food with other people, to share in the experience of working the earth.” With a deep, satisfied sigh, she added, “Plants and pollinators bring such joy.”

Laughing Dog Farm

A few miles away, on the Gill site of the old Renaissance Community, Dan Botkin and Divya Shinn live a life of passionate agriculture and interdependence with community members.

“We live on the fertile cusp between a backyard garden and a real farm,” said Botkin, 63. “There’s no downtime, that’s for sure. Between animals, vegetables, perennials, fruit trees and our funky old hippie house requiring constant maintenance, we’re always busy.”

Their diverse enterprise, dubbed Laughing Dog Farm, has two greenhouses, a 26-by-65-foot quonset hoop house Botkin built 14 years ago, and a newer one, thanks in part to a United States Department of Agriculture grant. “The newer one is 30-by-48-feet and has a peaked roof that doesn’t accumulate snow,” said Botkin.

“We’ve discovered that many plants can overwinter with protection from wind and frost, with little or no supplemental heating. Solar gain in the greenhouses allows all kinds of greens, brassicae, and alliums to survive and germinate year-round.”

Botkin noted that hardiness is incrementally accrued.

“In December, I made fires in the woodstove in the bigger greenhouse, but by mid-February, the chards, lettuces, leeks, collards, tatsois have been hit by so many low temps, they’re fine even when temps go well below freezing.”

Referring to a phenomenon known as “protective wilt,” Botkin described how these plants can shed water from their cells to protect against freezing and later rehydrate when warmed by the sun.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he said. “A grower sees the wilt and thinks they should add water. Yet the best thing is to dry mulch the plants deeply and leave them alone.”

Using the term “hydrostatic” (meaning the equilibrium of liquids and the pressure exerted by liquids at rest), Botkin said that the barest of moisture in the soil can give plants sufficient hydration for the whole winter.

Citing as inspiration Eliot Coleman, the famed agricultural researcher, educator and proponent of organic farming, Botkin said, “I learned that we can overwinter many greens, sort of limping along under cover. Coleman recommends planting through Dec. 15 each year, and then quitting until February.”

With a wink, Botkin said, “I love to push the limits. I wondered what would happen if I kept planting in the greenhouse all winter? I learned that — although the germination and yield slows considerably and probably isn’t worth doing for a business venture — we have the luxury of not having to justify everything for profit. It’s worth doing just to have a few greens year-round.”

Germination and seedling development represent the slow parts of the growth curve, said Botkin. “The key is multiple successions. We try not to do too much with any one planting. We grow less that way, but it’s more strategic.”

Botkin mixes batches of cold-hardy seeds, combining “leeks, lettuce, spinach, tatsoi, kale, and arugula,” and throws clusters of 100 to 300 seeds into a 4-by-4-square foot area in a greenhouse bed. “I’ve come to think of it as my little seedling library,” he added.

He doesn’t worry much about proper spacing. “If you plant with recommended spacing at the outset, you use all your available space. I just propagate massively so that it’s really crowded, but regularly scoop seedlings out of the library. Plant them, eat them, share them. That’s how we do it here.”

Even most hot weather crops begin life in the Laughing Dog greenhouses. “We can get a jump on woodchucks, crows, the weather,” Botkin said. “Almost our whole operation is by nursery propagation. Once the plants get too big for cutworms and rodents, out they go.” He still direct-seeds a few crops outdoors, including spinach and carrots, “because they don’t transplant well.”

In propagating crops like squash, tomatoes or pole beans, Botkin might do a “secondary transplant to strengthen them. That way, the root ball is very established and we don’t run the risk of stunting or losing those that aren’t strong enough.”

Compost tea is another element in Botkin’s success.

“The professionals make compost tea by steeping finished compost in a barrel and aerating it with a bubbler. I prefer less fuss and don’t have a bubbler, so I let the microbes do the work right in the soil.”

Laughing Dog Farm’s high fertility revolves around its population of dairy goats, and Botkin avails himself of long-composted goat manure. “It can be 10 years old by the time I dig it up, a combination of manure, hay, urine, leave, woodchips, food scraps, you name it.” He steeps finished compost in water and applies the liquid to plants, “at full dose, or diluted, according to plants’ size.”

“I break rules and I try different things, opting for the simplest. I’m feeling my age. I’m determined not to do extra if I can avoid it.” He used to “faithfully prune, trellis, tie, try to do it all perfectly. Now, I look for what I can not do.” The year, he stopped pruning his kiwi arbor, “we still got way too many kiwis.”

Botkin is passionate about saving seeds. “I used to spend $400 to $600 a year on seeds,” he said. “This year, I spent $60 because I’ve learned to save valuable cultivars.” He described many free sources of seeds: “There are networks of seed savers and seed traders. We work together to share our surpluses and fill in our gaps.”

Years ago, Botkin assumed he needed technical expertise and complex methods in order to avoid cross-pollination. “But the truth is, many seeds can be saved with very little effort. We just need to glean them in a timely manner, and Mother Nature does most of the work.”

About tomatoes, Botkin explained that “they largely breed true. They don’t require isolation, selection, hand pollination or any of that. Like many flowers, lettuces, and beans, saving tomato seeds is super easy.”

Some crops are more complicated. “Squashes can be tricky,” Botkin said. “They’re insect-pollinated, and cross-pollination can result by roving insects, leading to corrupted genetics.” He described experiences of “taping the flowers shut, marking the different varieties with colored ribbons. It’s a heck of a lot easier to simply learn the squash families since they do not mate outside of their clans.”

Botkin also conceded that some seed saving requires ample growing space. “You might need to let your beet crop stay in the ground an additional month or two.” Plus, some gardeners, he said, “don’t like the look of it. They think it looks raggedy or ugly to have seed heads falling over. But I don’t mind it. The yield is so worth it. I got enough seeds from one cycle of tatsoi seed saving to last a decade. I give it away to anyone who will take it.”

Each variety has a different shelf life. “Alliums last a year, maybe two. So I give those away a lot, too.” But the “hard seeds” like beans and tomatoes, if triple-wrapped, stored in jars, and kept cold, last quite a while. “They’ve opened the tombs of pharaohs and found viable wheat seeds,” said Botkin.

He estimated that his family produces about 85 percent of what lands on their table. “That’s between farming and active bartering. We do still buy coffee, sugar, flour, and chocolate chips.”

Summing up his love of greenhouse propagation, Botkin said, “I was slow to adopt this way of gardening. I claimed I didn’t like all the plastic and steel. But after a decade of postponing my entry into the world of greenhouses, I realized that I deserved it. I’m often found on my potting bench, the radio on, a steaming cup of tea at my elbow, all my work at eye level. … it’s such a civilized way to garden.”

Eveline MacDougall’s family farms on land in southern Québec for the ninth consecutive generation. An author, artist and mom, she welcomes comments at eveline@amandlachorus.org.

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