Category Archives: gardening

Horse Power

cedarmountainfarm_0279sDrop me off on a farm with a camera and come back in eight hours; chances are I’ll be occupied and supremely content the whole time. After all, I am a country girl at heart. When the subject matter is something I am particularly drawn to, I can get completely lost in what I’m doing, enamored by all that is going on around me and hesitant to take that one final frame even after a full day of shooting. Such was the case at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vermont, in late April. Twenty-one of the resulting images appeared in Anne Raver’s excellent story about the farm’s horse-powered component in the Home & Garden section of The New York Times recently.

Read the article for the back story on Stephen Leslie’s fascinating trajectory from artist to monk to organic farmer and horse whisperer. His calm, gentle, yet assured manner in dealing with the Norwegian Fjord horses was a wonder to witness. The 1,000-pound animals were decidedly non-threatening and obedient. After seeing him in action, I have no doubt his new book from Chelsea Green The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale Sustainable Market Grower is bound to become the definitive book on the subject.

Having recently spent time in an intense environment where people are connected to the point of distraction—and getting sucked into it myself as a recent iPhone convert—I particularly appreciate Stephen’s desire to delve into the spiritual element of working so closely with these animals. In the article he says, “I think people are hungering for a kind of unplugged reality. That leads to a deeper self-understanding.” Coincidentally, I just read “The Art of Paying Attention” by James Fallows in this month’s The Atlantic about continuous partial attention and how to focus in this hyperconnected world. Linda Stone, the tech executive Fallows interviews, conjectures that “the generation that has been tethered to devices serves as a cautionary example to the next generation, which may decide this is not a satisfying way to live.” Let it be so. Below are some outtakes from this environment of “relaxed presence” where the only tethering is that of the horses to the plow, and where, as Stone says, “Mind and body are in the same place at the same time”—something we could all benefit from striving toward.


The Norwegian Fjord horse has many distinct physical attributes including this dorsal stripe handsomely displayed by Tristan.


Grooming the copiously shedding horses is a daily ritual.

Making short work of a field where a cover crop will be planted.

Making short work of a field where a cover crop will be planted.


Never one to miss out on a party, the youngest Fjord horse on Cedar Mountain Farm, Isolde, gallops to catch up to her friends already out to pasture.


The horses are so calm that even Charlie the barn cat feels comfortable walking underneath them!


Stephen leads his 6-year-old daughter, Maeve, onto the farm when she arrives home from school.


Charlie keeps Maeve company in a corner of the milking parlor while her parents tend to the 20 jersey cows that need milking.

Maeve occupies herself while her parents work.

A curious cow observes Maeve as she colors.


First in line for dinner!


Stephen’s wife, Kerry Gawalt, feeds the farm’s cows prior to milking. The cows’ manure is composted and turned into the fields by the draft horses.


In regard to not letting your own stress affect the horses, Stephen says, “That’s the Zen practice you have to work on yourself: Take some deep breaths, create some sense of calm.”

Growing Faithful

Every year I fret over our small garden and think nothing is going to survive, let alone prosper. It is still a revelation to me after several years of growing food that you put seeds or tiny seedlings in the ground, they get bigger, blossom and produce beautiful vegetables! It really is satisfying. And, of course, it’s not quite that simple. I weed, add compost and other organic fertilizer to the soil and the plants, water, use organic pest sprays, etc., but inevitably I get busy with other things and my attention wanes as the season goes on. Despite this, we had and have loads of things to harvest, even beans and brassicas that seemed to be getting ravaged by some pest or another early on bounced back formidably and continue to produce glorious green goodies. (Naturally, not everything thrives. For some reason, despite two successive plantings of carrot seeds, we ended up with a grand total of three carrots!)

This year, for the first time, I started some seeds (kale, eggplant, tomatoes, nasturtiums, and a new hybrid of kale and brussel sprouts called flower sprouts) indoors under a small grow light. I seriously doubted these fragile little plants could endure the torrential downpours that have become the norm, and the occasional cold or hot spells we had this spring and summer, not to mention what seems like an absurdly short growing season. But they did! And that experience was even more satisfying because I was nurturing plants from their birth through to their adult stage, and because we ended up with so much more food than we would have if we had been buying all seedlings, which can get to be expensive. Below are some of the results of these efforts (or lack thereof), which, in case you couldn’t tell, I’m quite proud of! Next year, I promise to have a little more faith in the resiliency of a loved-just-enough garden.

Salad Days

Summer is in full swing in Maine, something that doesn’t tend to happen until the 4th of July holiday. Then we all scramble to make the most of our two months of warmth and long days of sunshine. Along with warmth and sun comes vigorous garden growth—at least of the things that don’t get devoured by critters and pests who are just as happy about the new greenery as the gardeners are. (Can you tell that I’m just a wee bit angry that my brassicas are getting munched on by tiny green worms?) A few things that have been productive so far in our garden this year are pictured below: purple-top turnips, sugar snap peas and mixed salad greens.

While I found the turnips incredibly photogenic, I was at a loss for something creative to do with them (no, roasting with olive oil and salt does not count). So I requested ideas from Facebook friends, which, much to my delight, was a good move. Turns out FB is good for something besides wasting time! From roasting with garam marsala to grating and putting in a slaw or frittata, there were several excellent suggestions. The one that captured my imagination the most, though, was from Ellen Strickler at Willow Hill Springs Farm. She suggested slicing them thin and drizzling with plum vinegar and sesame oil. I loved the idea of eating them raw and the dressing sounded divine, but I also love turning a salad into a meal in the summer. So with other items I had on hand, I made a salad comprised of our mixed greens (which include lots of lovely Asian greens like tatsoi and pac choi grown from Johnny’s Seeds premium greens mix), the purple-top turnips and Green Spark Farm’s scarlet salad turnips grated, toasted sesame seeds and farm fresh hard-boiled eggs, topped off with the sesame oil plum vinegar dressing. Having grated veggies in a salad completely changes the texture and feel of it, and in a good way I think. I also really like the Asian elements of this dish (daikon would be a great turnip substitute). It makes it just enough different from your standard summer salad that you’ll want to have it over and over again until that pile of purple-top turnips is all gone! And then you’ll mourn their absence.

Living the Good Life

I look forward to most of the assignments I get from The New York Times. Naturally, they do stories on interesting things and people and because I shoot primarily for the Dining & Wine and Home & Garden sections, I’m almost always guaranteed to get gigs I’m interested in. But sometimes one comes along that I’m not just interested in, but really, really excited about. When the picture editor for the Home & Garden section contacted me last fall about a story in Harborside, Maine, I knew right away who the subjects were before she even told me. “Sounds like it must be Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch,” I wrote. “That’s exactly who it is!” she replied. Well, almost everyone who has been gardening, especially in Maine, for any length of time, has heard of this organic gardening powerhouse couple. Damrosch’s Garden Primer, a grower’s bible, sits tattered and soil-stained on many a bookshelf, including mine. And Coleman’s recent books on extending the growing season into the winter have changed the landscape of growing in colder climates. His contributions to organic gardening go on and on; just flip through a Johnny’s Selected Seed catalog and see how many times his name is mentioned as a developer of ground-breaking (sometimes literally!) farming tools.

Coleman prepares a bed for seeding with one of the tools he invented, the tilther, which is powered by a rechargeable drill.

So, as an avid home gardener, and year-round supporter of organic farms, it was with great enthusiasm and anticipation that I drove down the long, windy road to Cape Rosier, about three hours northeast of Portland in early February to take the photos for this article on winter growing. This is storied territory; the legendary back-to-landers Helen and Scott Nearing lived here. Greatly influenced by their book Living the Good Life, Coleman sought them out in 1968 and purchased land from them on which to farm and live. Over the decades, what is now called Four Season Farm has grown into a tidy compound of greenhouses, barns, root cellars, a farmstand/art gallery and housing for Coleman, Damrosch and their seasonal workers.

In one of three root cellars on Four Season Farm, Coleman holds a mangold, which is a giant beet that they use as feed for the chickens.

Although Mother Nature did not cooperate by providing the snow cover Maine is so often associated with in this season, there were plenty of scenic shots to be had. Greenhouses filled with leeks, onions, carrots, spinach and other greens were a sight for storage-vegetable-saturated eyes (and bellies). Coleman told me that even after all these years of winter growing, he is still filled with child-like excitement when he unfurls a row cover and sees green in the middle of winter. I know the feeling, though on a much smaller scale. My husband and I put some spinach seeds in a small, covered raised bed in late fall one year and the next spring opened up the cover to find big, beautiful spinach leaves. We were truly amazed as we didn’t really think anything could survive the Maine winter outdoors! Now it is our practice to plant spinach in October for an early spring harvest of sweet, green leaves.

A bed of spinach that was planted in the fall continues to grow through the winter in an unheated greenhouse on the farm.

Damrosch harvests tatsoi, a hardy Asian green that is growing in a glasshouse attached to their home.

Damrosch is an accomplished cook (with a cookbook coming out next year) and after a couple of hours roaming around the farm happily photographing the winter bounty, I was lucky enough to partake in a lunch she prepared that was filling enough for a farmer plowing fields all day long. The highlight was a platter of Four Season Farm beets, carrots and spinach thinnings. And what a treat it was just to sit at a table with these two stalwarts of organic growing, eating beautiful food and enjoying good conversation, their love of their lives and work—which are really one in the same—readily apparent. Not that they aren’t incredibly busy and I’m sure, at times, stressed out, but they seem to be possessed of an energy more often found in people decades younger.

Lunch fit for a farmer.

Damrosch and Coleman: clearly a couple that was meant to be!

After lunch, Eliot, who is 73, got right back to work preparing a row in one greenhouse for seeding carrots and then sowing the seed. Then dozens of eggs needed to be collected, washed and packaged for sale. In peak growing season, I can only imagine how much more there is to keep track of. I left feeling completely impressed and inspired by how hard these two work and all they have accomplished. How they live their lives is laudable, but even more noteworthy is how they’ve empowered others to live the good life too. Not everyone can have multiple acres to grow food on, nor the time to tend to it, but certainly incorporating small bits of what Damrosch and Coleman do into one’s own life is possible in many cases. Despite living on tenth-of-an-acre plots in suburban South Portland, after this article came out, a neighbor and I started discussing how and where we could build a little greenhouse to extend our short growing season. Maybe by next spring our tiny winter spinach-growing project will have blossomed into one that can keep at least four people in fresh organic greens through the winter!

Heading towards the barn at day’s end.