Cold, Wet, Gray – We’re making it happen anyway

Upswing-4-5-18-9018What a spring. It is spring, right? I keep telling our seedlings that I promise I didn’t seed them two months early. They look at me and ask, where is the sunlight, you know we need it to make our food, right? On a rare sunny day you can almost see them growing, every cell of their little green bodies stretched and ready to use every single ray of light.

Weather challenges are a part of farming. We do everything in our power to be prepared for any variety of weather events, but one thing that I find hardest to control for is excess rain and a lack of sunlight.  Cold, Wet, Grey. We’ll be fine – you’ve put your faith in a few farmers who like the push the envelope, who want to make things work and we definitely are, but boy it would be nice to have a warm, sunny week to lift our spirits, dry our soil and help our plants photosynthesize!

Growing for a CSA is like taking on debt from a lot of people you really care about.  Instead of a bank, we’re thinking about all of you when we worry about crop loss, or poor weather. It’s you who inspire us to be extra creative and push ourselves that little bit more to make sure we have great produce available for each week of your share.

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We have our big greenhouse and our two high tunnels right next to it.  We use space in all three to plant in the ground.  Right now those beds are planted with spinach, lettuce, arugula, bok choy, salad greens, radishes and a row of cilantro.  We also grow in flats on the tables.  When we saw what a cold, late spring it was going to be, we increased the amount we’d be growing in flats for the early shares to make sure we’d have enough. We’ve planted pea tendrils, micro-basil and micro-cilantro so we can have some fresh, fantastic flavor to kick off our spring shares.

We’ll keep planting in flats as long as it looks like the weather isn’t turning.  We can plant micro-greens for salad too.  We consider these types of plantings a kind of insurance.  It does cost us in materials (soil, flats, seeds, water) and time to plant and care for them.  But its like buying insurance. We all do it. (I spend WAY more on it than I would like to each year). But this type of insurance I find more valuable.  I can use it, even if every other crop turns out and I didn’t need it to begin with, I have extra I can just give to CSA members, or see if I can find a restaurant who wants to buy it, or donate it to a food pantry.

We pushed the envelope last week. The soil was still a little wet to work, but we needed to get plants out there.  When you see a small window during a wet spring, you take advantage of it.  I was so thrilled with our team.  We set a plan for the week on Monday and despite a few challenges we made planting happen by Friday and Saturday. Erin got some training on the tractor, and we got to experience our first round of many, many, many field prep and planting days for 2018.

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We planted almost a quarter acre with crops that we need both for the Spring CSA and for the Summer CSA.  We planted peas, carrots, beets, spinach, lettuce, kale, swiss chard, arugula, lettuce mix, radishes, sweet turnips, dill, cilantro, bok choy and kohlrabi.  All crops that can tolerate cool, wet weather, but who enjoy it when its a little drier and a little warmer. Luckily we plant on raised beds, and use row cover to protect the crops from cold and pests.  The added benefit is that the row cover prevents the rain from directly hitting the soil, making it more like a mist when it gets to the plants, preventing erosion.

Boy am I glad we planted when we did.  I don’t think we’ll be planting again until the end of next week after the Marathon Monday Monsoon. At that point we’ll be planting another round of most of the crops listed above and also trying to plant our first round of broccoli and cabbage, new potatoes, fresh onions and scallions.

Until then we’ll be crossing our fingers and keeping each other’s spirits up. Being bummed on a grey day is not fun.  When every day is grey, you’ve got to do something to inspire a little hope.  We put on music while we pot-up peppers and eggplants and think about hot, sunny summer harvests. We talk about why farming is important to us and why its worth it.

Our seedlings are doing well, despite wanting a little more sunshine and we are starting to fill to the brim! The weather will turn, one of these days, and we’ll be planting tomatoes and melons before you know it!!

harvey in greenhouse

5 Tips for Successful Gardening

Upswing-4-5-18-9030photo credit: Bob Durling

Your garden soil is a living organism.  Try not to think of your vegetables and flowers as what you are caring for.  They are your canaries in a coal mine, your spokespeople for the state of your soil. Reading their messages will tell you what your soil needs.  Give it what it needs and your plants will send positive messages in the form of healthy, bountiful harvests.

A healthy soil is about 40-45% minerals (ground up rocks in varying sizes), 25% water, 25% air and 5-10% organic matter.  Organic matter includes bacteria, fungi, insects, worms, “recently dead” plants, bacteria and fungi and “humus” long-dead organic matter in a stable form. That 5-10% makes a world of a difference in how well your plants will perform.  It is said a tablespoon of soil contains a greater variety of species than all the mammals on earth – that’s a pretty diverse ecosystem!

Basic steps to a healthy garden soil:

1 . Add fully decomposed organic matter (Compost).

You can add manure, but it should be already well broken down.  Decomposition stimulates a different population of microorganisms than the ones you want to stimulate for healthy plant growth.  Too much decomposition and those organisms will take essential nutrients needed by the organisms that support your growing plants.

If you don’t make compost (which you should if you have even the smallest yard) you should buy some. Weston Nurseries has just started offering bulk, certified organic compost.  We tested some last year and it was excellent.  Our tomatoes shouted “Yum! Yum! Yum!” all season long. As far as we know it’s the most affordable, highest quality option available.  Just $34/yard and free delivery to Ashland and Hopkinton. Check out their bulk delivery materials web-page and the Weston’s Best Compost.

Don’t need a whole yard?  What about your flower beds?  Does your neighbor want to split one? One yard can cover an 18′ x 18′ garden with one inch of compost.

Or, if you have a very small garden you can get the bagged stuff, but I’m telling you – you can use up a yard of compost quickly! An inch of compost should be enough for a least one season of growing.  Probably good enough for a few seasons if you use some of these other fertility-building methods. Two inches is a great investment.

2. Use Mulch.

IMG_2015photo credit: Sue Rorke

Soil hates to be bare. Bare soil will quickly be covered by weeds, algae and mosses.  These organisms (although annoying to a gardener) serve an incredible purpose.  They hold soil together and support the microbial ecosystems which would otherwise be destroyed, eliminating that area’s ability to support life.

Benefits of mulch:

  • Weed suppression (if it’s thick enough – don’t skimp!) Weeds aren’t just unattractive and time-consuming to manage. If left unchecked weeds will compete for sun, water and soil nutrition and prevent air-flow which can lead to disease.
  • Moisture retention. Mulched soil holds water more readily, requiring less watering.
  • Ecosystem support. When you are watering the soil you aren’t just watering your plants, you are watering the ecosystem that supports them.  Remember, a healthy soil is about 25% water.  By keeping the soil moist with mulch, you are supporting your soil ecosystem.
  • Prevent back-splash of soil onto plants, which can cause small abrasions and soil borne-disease.
  • Worms love living under mulch. Ever leave something out on the grass for a few days?  When you lift it up the worms have come to the surface.  Worms will actually start to digest your mulch, pulling their nutrients down into the soil and depositing their worm castings (poop) at the base of you plants. At that point your mulch is becoming fertilizer.

Potential mulch materials:

  • Straw (make sure it is weed free)
  • Grass clippings (make sure you don’t spray herbicide on your lawn, it will kill your garden plants)
  • Cardboard (you can cover with compost or leaves for aesthetic purposes)
  • Dead Leaves
  • Wood Chips
  • Weed free compost

Make sure not to mix mulch into the soil, just layer it on top.  Mulch mixed in below the soil surface will stimulate the decomposition bacteria mentioned earlier that take nutrients away form your crops.

3. Don’t over water.

Upswing-4-5-18-9091photo credit: Bob Durling

Most people like to water their garden. It’s easy and it feels like you are doing something good, but many times the avid waterer can be causing more harm than they realize.  Excess moisture is an excellent environment for most fungal diseases that affect plants.  From blight to damping off, all of these diseases can be prevented organically through proper moisture control (unless of course it’s a very rainy year, in which case, you don’t have a lot of options, but mulch and good airflow helps!!).

  • Always water the soil, not the plant. Especially tomato plants.
  • Make sure the soil around the plant is watered thoroughly, then don’t water again until it begins to dry out. About 1” once/week is enough, 2” if the air is really dry.  Remember, a healthy soil has about 25% water and 25% air.  The air and water are taking up the same spaces in the soil, so if you have too much water, it’s taking up the space that would otherwise be occupied by air, which is just as important to your soil health.
  • Water seeds more, to make sure the soil doesn’t dry out, but once they have germinated cut back on the watering so the stems of your young seedlings don’t “dampen off” a general term which is used to describe seedlings, infected with one of 12 fungal diseases, falling over at the stem and dying.

4. Don’t over work the soil.

Upswing2017-5884photo credit: Bob Durling

The soil ecosystem is complex and based on layers and levels. Different organisms live in different levels. When you flip or turn the soil, you mix up the levels, inverting the ecosystems.  Many organisms die and there is a period of rebuilding which does not support healthy plant growth as well as an undisturbed soil.  You also add a lot of air to the soil, increasing the oxygen levels which will cause much of the nitrogen, the least stable but one of the most important nutrients to burn off.

The best way to loosen garden soil is with a digging fork, or a broad fork if you are working with a larger area.  Insert the fork into the soil, pull back but don’t lift the fork, just loosen the soil.  Step back and insert the fork again, one foot behind your last insertion (backwards is better, so you don’t step on your work). Repeat until all your soil is loose.  If you are adding compost or fertilizer, add it just before forking.  This will help to gently incorporate it.

5. Consider non-traditional fertilizer options, and don’t forget to test for pH!

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Organic farmers still use fertilizers, they just don’t use chemically derived ones, and they use soil tests to determine what their soil needs, to make sure they aren’t putting excess fertilizer on the soil, which will then wash away, negatively affecting local water bodies as pollution. The main nutrients your plants need to put on growth are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium which is referred to as N-P-K on all fertilizer products.  Any number on a fertilizer, like 5-4-3 is referring to the %, by weight of that nutrient in the fertilizer.  So if you buy a pound of fertilizer that is rated 5-4-3, you would have .05 pounds of nitrogen, .04 pounds of phosphorous and .03 pounds of potassium.

Nitrogen is important, but it is very soluble in most forms, unstable, and can be detrimental to some crops, especially fruiting crops that require more potassium and phosphorous. But – all plants need nitrogen to grow.  A very healthy garden soil with high organic matter could provide all the nitrogen a plant needs, but it takes many years to build that kind of soil.

Before you grab a bag of 10-10-10 consider some of these options:

  • Worm castings. These are stable, high nutrient, totally natural fertilizers that provide plants a well-balanced diet.
  • Dehydrated/pelleted options like feather meal, blood meal, alfalfa meal, chicken manure . . . there are many options
  • Extra compost (add two inches instead of just one inch)
  • Liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion and kelp meal. These are usually make from sustainable sources and can be applied to the roots through watering or to the leaves of the plants.

Micro-nutrients like boron, sulfur, manganese, iron, copper, etc., etc., are all very important for your crops but should be considered with extreme caution.  Most micro-nutrients can be toxic to plants in large doses and also toxic to the environment.  The best way to provide a complete, and diverse set of micro-nutrients to your crops is through the addition of a well-balanced compost.

As for pH, most New England soils are slightly more acid that is desirable for most vegetable crops, which are happy between 6.0 and 7.0. Adding compost yearly and not over-working the soil can slowly start to neutralize your pH, but if you suspect an imbalance you can get a pH test from the store or send out for a soil test. UMass Amherst has a straightforward sampling and testing method that is worth the price. Read more here.  I don’t recommend adding lime without a soil test, unless it’s a minimal amount.

After growing crops organically for a living for the last ten years I can tell you – if you aren’t going to put in the effort up front to succeed, it’s not really worth trying.  By taking the time and resources to add compost and mulch your garden you are setting yourself up for success.

Also, some vigorous, locally grown seedlings selected for their regional adaptability grown by passionate professional can’t hurt either! Check out our seedling inventory list and visit our sale.  We are open Saturdays and Sundays in May, 9am-3pm.

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Though we are open all weekends in May for plant purchasing, the best times for overall plant selection will be the second and third weekends, we are open both Saturday and Sunday. It is a late, cold, gray spring and many of our crops will not be hardened off until then. But don’t wait too long, our inventory shrinks towards the end of the month!