What Keeps Farmers Busy in the Winter

There is a myth that farmers only work during the growing season. That we have nothing to do in the wintertime but vacation, tinker, make crafts and read books. Certainly, on our organic vegetable farm, we are busiest during spring planting and summer harvests. But winter is the time to get everything else done.

Winter is farm cleanup time. Clear the rows of hoops and dirt bags, the supplies that keep row covers over the crops. We pile up the hoop and dirt bags at the top of the row on pallets. The pallets can be scooped up on the tractor forks and driven to a storage spot. Mulch the blueberries. Tuck the fig tree under some protective mulch for the winter. We put things away that were set amiss during busier times. Haul the recyclables. Stack tomato trellis panels. Mow the field perimeter. Pull up rows of landscape fabric and reroll it, ready to use for weed control in the fresh spring rows. Organize the barn.

Winter is project time. Build more hoophouse benches for seedling trays. Build an arbor for the hardy kiwi vines. Build new herb garden beds. Work on the solar panel project. Fix the tractors, replace wearing blades. Have a baby.

Yes, we even coordinated our children’s births with the “off-season.” Not because we are that organized, but mainly because my husband got a nervous twitch when he thought about a spring baby. There was a window of opportunity, you might say. Our sons were born in January and October. It is not a coincidence.

Winter is fix-it time. Fix the driveway, order gravel dump loads. Rebuild broken wood crates. The bathroom back-splash project.

Winter is housework time. We start to notice the condition of our house. House cleanup and fix up, decluttering, things that never hit the list during the summer season. Put up new clotheslines. Build shelves in the closet. Clean up. Some.

Winter is, indeed, vacation time as well. Go cross-country skiing, go on an adventure, go to a farm conference, visit faraway friends. We don’t leave the farm often, but we try to get away some.

Winter is planning time. I drink tea and peruse a seed catalog, dreaming about next year’s garden. Provider Bush Beans. Windsor Fava. Let’s try edamame! Drop the peppers that didn’t produce well. Plant some horseradish root. Maybe Chioggia beets this year. Want to grow more sunflowers?

For years, I would send the kids to their grandparents’ house for a sleepover and Phil and I would stay home to review the seed order together. It took hours, lovely hours over tea and an Excel spreadsheet, with dreams and hopes for next year’s garden. I enjoyed those meetings. Now, in our fifteenth season, seed ordering is easy. Phil pretty much just handles it, reviewing last year’s spreadsheet and making a few changes. We mostly stick with favorites that grow well for us. We always add a few new varieties to try, and change a few things up. Add a couple pipe dreams. Like fava beans. To keep things interesting.

Winter is rest time, too. Even though the job list is long, we sneak in the rest and slow our routine down. We sleep in more days. Cook more soup. Bake cookies. Visit with friends. Read books out loud in the evenings to the kids. Certainly, farming keeps us busy year round, but the busi-ness changes with the seasons.

written by Ilene White Freedman for Mother Earth News published on 10/5/2020

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Grow a Kiwi Arbor for Shade and Fruit

Kiwi Arbor

Before Sarah moved away, she bought the farm a gift: a pair of kiwi plants. Not only did she give us this gift, but she planted it too. She was wise. How often has a potted plant gone unplanted? She made sure the job was done, neatly planted on either side of the entrance to The Veggie Shed. It takes years to establish a beautiful kiwi arbor. I would say it took three years to get fruit and about five years to establish a good shady structure. Here is a little bit about how the past eight years has gone, raising up a kiwi arbor.

Sarah explained that one of the kiwi plants was the male and the other, the female. Both would grow flowers, leaving it to pollinators to carry pollen from the male’s flowers to the female’s flowers. The female plant will produce fruit. Sounds like a familiar story of the birds and the bees. 

The first few years, we matchmakers weren’t sure they liked each other. The first year, the two kiwi plants got settled in. The second year, the female produced flowers but not the male. The third year, the male produced flowers but not the female. It’s like they were trying to date but not getting the timing right. Then, hooray, in the fourth year, they both flowered. Synchronicity! A matchmaker’s success. Over the next few years, they grew, matured, intermingled vines, and offered fruit in most years. Like most delicate fruity flowers, if there is a freeze when the plants are flowering in the spring, you might not get fruit that year. We had a couple years like that. This year looks like a bountiful fruit year.

We anticipate cute little squishy fruit in the fall. We are not talking tropical kiwis here. This is Maryland, not Florida or Mexico. This plant is a Northern Hardy Kiwi. It thrives in northern (USA) states, producing one inch little kiwis, called kiwi berries. They aren’t fuzzy like tropical kiwis. Find the soft berries that look kind of rotten: those are the sweetest ones. Squeeze the fruit out of its skin and eat the soft fruit, quite sweet and impressively similar to the tropical kiwi flavor.

My brother Ron built a trellis for the kiwis out of strong locust tree beams that we had planted and harvested for such a purpose. As the plants grew, Ron added branches as trellis supports. Expect a kiwi plant to need weight-bearing support for fifty pounds. The trellis provides structure and support to the kiwi arbor. The trellis is fully covered now. It took years to cover the trellis, but it is great to have a strong trellis established and waiting for the kiwi vines to creep over it. We added two more females a few years ago. It is their third year and they are looking awfully like males, since they had flowers but no fruit this year. We are hoping they just haven’t reached maturity and will fruit in the next couple years. Like a coming of age. Gotta give a girl some time.

We are going on eight years now. Who knew the kiwi arbor would be such a lovely addition to the farm. Well, probably Sarah knew. A gift that keeps growing. Sarah had volunteered at the farm for two years while she lived in Frederick, gracing us with her joyful learning spirit. As she apprenticed at the farm, she learned from us and she taught us things too. Like how to make fermented vegetables she called “Farm Chi”. Here is the blog on that. Our friendship continues, we have exchanged visits a few times, and we have watched Sarah create her own homestead and family. We are grateful for her gift and her friendship. Now the kiwi arbor is a beautiful structure on the farm, providing shade, beauty and fruit. 

Jack and the Arbor

written by Ilene White Freedman for Mother Earth News published on 7/2/2020

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How do you fill your basket?

This is Tracy. She and I go way back. She was one of our first CSA members twenty years ago. We became friends and raised our kids together when they were quite little. She is volunteering on the farm this summer. She always told her kids, “You need to fill your basket.” She’s talking about your internal soul-nurturing basket, filled by moments that just seep in and nurture contentment. 

On harvest day, I sent Tracy out to pick the beets. I knew she loves beets, so I figured she would enjoy picking them. Tracy came out of the field with a smile on her face and her crate full of beets. I took this photo. She told me that the delight of picking those beautiful bountiful deep red beets filled her basket. Literally and figuratively. 

I love this because it taps into our farm mission of connecting you to your food, the land and community. Making these connections fills your basket. It seeps in and satisfies deep inner needs. It satisfies the need to take care of yourself. It makes sense that there is an instinctual deep satisfaction in growing your own food and knowing where your food comes from.

At House in the Woods Farm, our mission is to fill both your harvest basket and your soul-nurturing basket. When kids leave the farm with an experience of pulling a beet or planting a sweet potato plant, they connect to their food sources in a really special way. It is an experience that fills their basket.

What fills your basket?

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What’s Growing On: First Crops

It’s mid-May and CSA harvests will begin soon! Let’s take a look at some of the crops we expect to harvest first. Eating seasonally is part of the adventure of participating in a farm share/CSA. Spring crops feature leafy greens, scallions and radishy crunchy vegetables like turnips and kohlrabi. Here is a snapshot of some of what’s growing.

We are growing lots of red and green lettuces, succulent and crisp. Some are almost ready, but there are younger sets growing to harvest a bit later. Napa cabbage is a very diverse Asian cabbage–make Chinese Chicken Salad, chop and dress with sesame salad dressing, stirfry lightly, use as wraps, or make kimchi. We are growing two kinds of kale–red flat kale and curly kale.

From top left: a row of lettuce at the early stages, succulent green leaf lettuce, Red Russian flat kale. Bottom: Napa cabbage.

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COVID Response by the farm

House in the Woods logo

House in the Woods Farm and COVID-19 

March 2020

Connect to your food, the land, and community…always, but most importantly, now. 

“Know your farmer” has always been our mantra, but it resonates even more during uncertain times. People are going to find out how wonderful it is to know your farmer, in good times and in bad.  –Ilene Freedman

House in the Woods Farm has been honored and trusted to feed families in our community for the past 20 years. This year, we are taking on the upcoming harvest season with a wartime determination to feed our community. It’s a victory garden for our local community. 

Agriculture is essential for a safe and reliable food supply.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has identified farms as “essential businesses” that are encouraged to maintain or expand operations at this time. From the MDA: “Reliable access to food is a human right and it is critical that our food supply chain maintain – and even be prepared to expand  – operations throughout this state of emergency.”  

We are taking this appeal seriously at House in the Woods Farm. We have always enjoyed growing food for our community, but we have never felt such a community responsibility to “feed the people.” We are on it!

It is not easy to maximize production on a diverse organic farm. It is time-intensive work to grow and harvest, and then sales need to happen quickly for perishable goods. We have found that this is best done by a direct customer-farmer agreement, for most of our crops. In order to feed the most people with very efficient sales, we will need to make share agreements ahead of time. We have capacity for about 50 more families. 

Connecting you to your food, the land, and community…always, but most importantly, now. 

May a farm or garden provide you with comfort and healing this summer. It looks like we are all going to need it. 

*Growing your own Corona Victory garden? We can support you. We are growing plants for your garden. Join our House in the Woods Facebook Page and stand by for more gardening guidance.

House in the Woods Farm is taking the following precautions on the farm:

  • Cancelling large group volunteer days and children’s programming, until further notice.
  • Social distancing along rows while planting, more hand-washing protocols. Being outside provides plenty of fresh air and room to spread out. Less helpers at one time.
  • We will post our plan for more-careful-than-ever harvest and distribution guidelines closer to our May harvest time.

How can you help, you ask?

Join our CSA early, so we have time to plant accordingly and at maximum capacity. Take some pressure off the grocery stores by committing in advance to source directly from the farm. You get to arrange pick up days at the farm with flexibility and select which items you’d like from our harvest list. Less hands on your food, direct sourcing from our fields to you. 

Help us grow all this food. House in the Woods Farm is also accepting workshares–healthy adult volunteers who can help at the farm for a weekly four hour shift. Not a kids opportunity and no kids in tow. Learn with us in very small groups, get some fresh air, support your community, and take home some of our organic produce. As three group volunteer workdays at the farm will likely be cancelled, these workshares are even more important during peak planting time.

  • Donate to our Food Bank shares

We donate produce weekly to the Frederick Food Bank, with grants from The Common Market and private donors. Let’s double their share this season. Quantities are matched by House in the Woods with even more donated produce. Tax-deductible. Contact me for more information or subscribe to our newsletter. Online donations option coming soon.

Ilene and Phil Freedman

House in the Woods Farm




 We also need to collect contacts for people who want to buy excess product, as available, via our online farmstand. For now, subscribe  to our newsletter on our website and wait for details about farmstand notifications.

I hope it brings you comfort and security to know that you have farmers growing food for you right now. 

As the State of Maryland continues its unprecedented response to COVID-19, the Maryland Department of Agriculture is emphasizing the need for businesses involved in the state’s food supply chain to continue production….

  • All Farm Hands are washing their hands when they arrive at the farm, before they leave, and before harvesting. 
  • All Farms Hands are bringing their own work gloves and water bottles. 
  • We have a designated wash sink for washing hands, available to all who visit the farm, and a separate sink for washing produce. 
  • Our protocol will continue to change as needed

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Reusable Toilet Paper Cloths

DIYers, we need you! Homesteaders, take the lead! The supply and demand of toilet paper is off-kilter during COVID-19 lockdown, and the nation needs us to reduce the demand. We have been practicing sustainability and resilience for years, sometimes just because it feels like the right thing to do. Now, in a time of need, we have the skills and mindset for resilience. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves to make roll replacements–reuseable “toilet not-paper” cloths.

As a homesteader, I could eat for weeks from my home supplies, but I don’t grow toilet paper. However, I can make some. 

Making reusable toilet “paper” cloths is easy. Dig through the fabric bin for some nice soft cotton or flannel to cut into more cloths. Use pinking shears if you have them, to prevent fraying edges, or sew the edges. You can make your cloths as simple or fancy as you like. There are also pretty cloths in patterns and bright colors for sale by small companies. They are soft and lovely and nice on my skin. I bought some at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR (wish I remembered the vendor name!). I may never go back!

Make them or buy them, conserving your paper rolls for when you really need them and helping out the desperate customers at Costco. Ladies, if you like these, you’ll love GladRags for your monthly moon cycle. I’ve turned several friends onto GladRags who have thanked me for this lifestyle change.

As I take inventory of the two rolls in my bathroom and dread the store outing to find toilet paper, I am motivated for change. I can make it last longer. I’ve heard about the shortages in my town this week. I certainly don’t want to make several trips out of distancing, in a search for toilet paper. And I definitely don’t want to join the masses competing for short supply, fights, grabs and all. I don’t want to play. I’d rather adjust my habits. Cloth for pee, squares reserved for poo.

Washing reusable toilet cloths is easy. I used cloth diapers for my babies. I know all about washing bathroom products. A bag of pee cloths would be no big deal at all. A shake of oxygen bleach or vinegar in a hot wash cycle for good measure, and we’re good. If there ever was a time to take this on, now would be good.

There is a reason beyond hoarding for the shortage. Toilet paper is sitting unused in the supply cabinets of schools and workplaces and restaurants, while kids and employees are at home all day and evening. They are using their home bathrooms now all the time, using 40% more toilet paper at home.* Cloth sets are only reasonable to use at home, which is exactly where we are all using the bathroom these days.

This has been popular just for fun and sustainability, often dubbed The Family Cloth. That label doesn’t resonate with me. It sounds like too much family sharing. As the only female in my household, these will be my own private cloth set. But I imagine a household full of women and girls could really save some rolls here. 

My only word of caution: Don’t flush them! Flushing cotton wipes will clog pipes and damage septic systems. But there is a surprisingly persistent habit to toss the paper in the bowl. So the key is to close the lid before wiping. It breaks the habitual toss into the bowl. I keep the wipes in a small container or drawstring bag until washing. 

Saving the squares for Number Two will conserve significant rollage. This is my game plan. But even for that, I have to say, paper is not a requirement. In Japan, they use a bidet instead of paper. Can’t we adjust? I’ve got a squirt bottle and a towel; I’m set! I’m not kidding. This can be done if necessary.

So “pee cloths” or “toilet cloth” or my friend’s term, “ladies wipes”, call them what you want, but considering using them, at least for a while. And why not? As a resilient homesteader, I know how to roll with the punches, wipe out the issue, clean up the problem. I can create a self-sustainable, reusable bathroom wiping system that works. Especially now. 

written by Ilene White Freedman for Mother Earth News published on 4/7/2020

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Designing a Coronavirus Victory Garden: First Steps

Raised bed garden constructed using logs

 Now, during the spring 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, I anticipate there will be new or renewed interest in planting a garden. Like the wartime Victory Gardens of the last century, this health crisis which has us all social distancing in our own spaces may inspire some new garden projects. Or millions? Maybe this is another moment in history when people are reminded that more of their food sourcing can be in their own hands, strengthening the food security of the whole country. If more people grow their own food or source it locally, transported food can be more readily available to those who do not have the opportunity to grow their own.

In an effort to support this resurgence of gardening, here are some first steps to designing your own garden. It can be an overwhelming project, full of options and choices. Be assured, there are many effective garden designs. You will find some options to fit your needs better than others, or some to be more effective at nurturing growth, but for the most part: set it up, plant it and watch it grow. You can always improve your setup in the future. Gardening is an art as much as it is a science. As you get into it, you will develop more opinions and ideas to help personalize your garden. Here are some first steps to guide you on your way.

Evaluate your space. Do you have a yard? Space for some containers on a sunny deck or front step? If your best bet is a front yard garden, consider creating raised beds or clear edges to your garden to indicate to neighbors that this is a cared for, intentional space. Consider homeowners association rules, if you’ve got em. Some won’t allow a front yard garden. If you are growing a container garden, find the biggest containers you can. Fill them with topsoil and rich compost, with monthly additions of more compost, to feed your plants through the season. A few lettuce plants can share a relatively shallow pot, maybe twelve inches wide and about that deep. A tomato plant might enjoy a five gallon bucket or huge planter all to itself. 

Observe the sun. Observe the sun patterns in your yard or space, taking into consideration where more leaves might fill in as summer approaches. Find a place that stays sunny the most, hopefully full day if you want to grow peppers and tomatoes. Buy ten bags of Organic Compost and a square of peat moss at your local supply store. Hoe or till the soil, along with these supplements, to create a rich base for your garden. If you are breaking new ground from grass, you will fight grass seed and depleted soil nutrition the first couple years. Adding compost will help balance it. Research your best strategy for weed control. Some people put newspapers and cardboard down on top of grass and build completely up with purchased topsoil.

Square Foot Gardening. An excellent first garden resource is Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. I used this technique for my first ever garden, during grad school. I followed the book, including the strings around the one foot squares. And I still remember spacing tips: 4 lettuces per square, 1 pepper or tomato plant, or 16 carrots. Square foot gardening helps organize and simplify your garden, helps you space plants correctly, and works well with raised beds.

Other garden design ideas. There are many gardening designs to choose from. Raised beds, with a wood frame or without, make great gardens. Here are my posts on Resilient Gardening with raised beds and Raised Beds with Logs  Fill a plastic baby pool with soil; deconstruct some pallets to frame two garden beds; whole tree trunks cut into lengths make great garden frames; five gallon buckets; even rip open a bag of compost and plant right into it! It depends what look you are going for, what work or expense you are willing to invest, and what resources you might have on hand. Here is my Pinterest board of garden design ideas called Repurpose Garden to inspire you.

Consider your mulching options. Plan for weeds. They will join your plantings in the garden. Count on that. Have a plan. Keep your garden small enough that you will be able to manage it, ideally with an expansion plan. Weed prevention might be hand weeding or hoeing tiny weeds before they get big. These plans might work for the smaller gardens. Here are some mulch options, which block the spaces around your plants from weeds: layers of straw or newspaper and cardboard, plastic mulch, reusable landscape cloth. Find a system to try. Over the twenty years we have been farming, we have tried it all and my husband even engineered his own mulching system for farming. Read about that here

Lettuce growing in straw
Lettuce growing in straw 

Wildlife management. Plan for predators. They will be eyeing your lunch spot as well. Rabbits, groundhogs and deer are the most common uninvited guests to your garden. Ask gardening neighbors for advice. My best advice is to lock the door before the resident wildlife even realize a new restaurant has come to town. It is much easier to control before they’ve told all their friends about the new opportunity. A sturdy tall fence that is buried into the ground at the bottom and has small enough holes to keep out a rabbit would be ideal. Electric fencing can be effective for very rural locations. Floating row cover is impressively effective at keeping out the wildlife, but can’t help you for tall plants like tomatoes, peppers and peas. Even rabbits don’t like to crawl under it. 

Imagine the impact on the local food supply if people en masse grow even a small amount of their own food. Like the wartime victory gardens of the last century, we can do this. People can feed their families and their neighbors, with peace of mind, container gardens on the front step and a garden out back. 

written by Ilene White Freedman for Mother Earth News published on 4/6/2020

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9 First Crops for your Coronavirus Victory Garden

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Coronavirus Victory Garden Planning Here are my first picks for a garden. These tips are of course for any garden any time, but I am particularly inspired to start a Victory Garden resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s springtime, we … Continue reading

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Plant Your Coronavirus Victory Garden

Plant your own Coronavirus Victory Garden. Now is the time to get busy, a time when many of us are home social distancing (if you are reading this in March-April 2020). And it’s springtime. Time to plant things! As farmers, this time of year always springs up with sprouting crops, fresh succulent greens, and a full crop of hope for the season ahead. Every year we are motivated by big plans and goals, high aspirations and good faith that the seeds we sow will grow into nourishing food for our family and community. During the pandemic of COVID-19 in particular, we could all use a bit of good faith and hope for the season ahead.

Victory gardens were popular during both World Wars in the United States. In response to promotional posters, “3 million new garden plots were planted in 1917 and more than 5.2 million were cultivated in 1918” and up to 20 million victory gardens were planted between 1942-44. (History.com) 20 million victory gardens! Can you imagine all those gardens, all that potential and growth–in yards, containers, schoolyards, the company green space? The promotional effort was so popular they turned to educating people on how to preserve their harvests by canning and drying crops. Numbers like that strengthened local food security, garden by garden.

Victory gardens raise morale, as well as crops. I feel like we could use some morale raising during COVID-19. There is so much uncertainty. We don’t know if there will be food shortages or economic changes that would impact food purchasing power. Growing a garden could nurture confidence and a greater sense of food security, as well as a source of healthy fresh food. In the immediate moment, it provides a productive therapeutic project, a focus, fresh air and a meditative activity. Gardening can be a solitary and healing project, perfect for social distancing. It is a welcome distraction from the news and social media. Gardening therapy is real. Let the zen of the garden nurture you as you grow your own food. 

History.com states that in the victory gardens of the 1900’s, “some of the most popular produce grown included beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, squash and Swiss chard.” I’d be happy with the same lot in my harvest basket, now in 2020. We grow all these crops and more at our farm in Maryland. I’m here to help home gardeners grow some of their own food in their own gardens too. Let’s get started! 

written by Ilene White Freedman for Mother Earth News published on 4/1/2020

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Cherry Board Farmhouse Table Years in the Making

cherry table

For 25 years, this stack of two-inch-thick boards has sat under the house waiting to become a beautiful farmhouse table. It waited and it waited. For 25 years, it waited.

We would propose the table project with incentives—for this anniversary, let’s make the table. For my birthday, let’s do it. Let’s do it later, we are too busy building the farm. The farm was born; the children were born. We’ll do it when the kids are older, because we are going to ruin the kitchen table with projects. We got a hand-me-down kitchen table. How many projects were done on the kitchen table? Incubating chickens probably shouldn’t have happened on the kitchen table. Stamping seedling tags with permanent ink probably shouldn’t have happened on the kitchen table. But they did. We knew they would. All the while, this stack of cherry boards waited.

We started to realize the cherry table project would never fit into our routine. We will never get to it, but we’d really appreciate the table. That big permanent black ink stain on the hand-me-down table is starting to bother me. Let’s make the table for our 20th anniversary. We have heard that one before.

When my husband, Phil, prepared the land to build our house…

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written by Ilene White Freedman for Mother Earth News 3/14/2020 

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