By Carol Tashie
The Weekly Planet
In 2012 I wrote a column titled “Winter on and off the farm.” To be honest, I think that column was an excuse to wax sentimental about the winter camping vacations my partner Dennis and I take each year.
I apologize if the column was more akin to viewing your coworker’s vacation photos than reading a newspaper-worthy story. Some of you, dear readers, were kind, thanking me for the over-share. Others of you remained curious, asking the question, “What are you doing now?”
This column is for you.
As I write, I am sitting in New York’s Penn Station, waiting for the train home to Rutland. While I promise no more tales of winter retreats, it is plain fact that, for this farmer, winter is a time to reconnect with out-of-state family and friends. Every winter I hop the train to see the people who raised and love me. And ditto on the loving-them-back part.
But since it is now March, albeit a driving-us-crazy cold March, this weekend away was only possible thanks to Dennis’ willingness to handle the home front without me.
Mid-winter is the time for planting and tending — seeds, that is. By early February, we have already started the 17,000 onion and leek seeds we hope, by mid-summer, will grow into aromatic delights. Onions and leeks take a long time to grow, which is why many growers start with sets. Sets are basically young plants that look a bit pathetic when they arrive but can eventually grow into delicious vegetables.
But we start with seeds, not sets. Onions and leeks are not the only seeds we start in February. Spinach, peas, lettuce, kale, scallions, beets and artichokes are all on the early start list: onions, leeks and artichokes because of the length of time they require; peas, greens, and the like because they can be transplanted as soon as the outside ground can be worked.
And even though the calendar says spring is right around the corner, the ground outside is far from workable. So for now, we transplant what we can inside our high tunnels and care for the rest as we dream of melting snow and warming soil.
The seedlings that need more tending, as well as those we continue to start throughout the winter and spring, all require water, warmth and light to thrive. A greenhouse is the ideal milieu for managing all these conditions. As long as your water source is not frozen, water is the easy part.
When the sun is shining, hallelujah for the light and warmth it bestows! But with this season’s cold days and colder nights, the greenhouse requires another source of heat. And therein lies the rub.
Propane is probably the most common source of greenhouse heat, although wood, kerosene, pellets, and electric are also used. Solar hot water is making a splash, and heat pumps and geothermal are exciting possibilities.
But for now we use propane, which takes a toll on both the pocketbook and the environment.
To manage that toll, we transfer our trays of seedlings between our home and our greenhouse twice every day. By carrying the trays out to the greenhouse in the morning, we ensure that our plants reap the benefit of the sun and natural light all day long. By carrying them back inside every evening, we reap the benefit of not running our propane heater during cold sub-zero nights.
Is it a pain? You bet. But by making this effort, we save a bit of money and reduce our overall carbon footprint.
Complaining about this year’s winter seems to be a favorite pastime. But let’s face it, cold and snowy winters used to be the norm. The warming climate, while horribly frightening, has actually spoiled us. We have almost come to expect workable ground in March. Let this winter remind us of the real challenges — and joys — of growing food in our northern climes.
Carol Tashie, co-owner of Radical Roots Farm, lives in Rutland City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.