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hoop house spinach

November brings an end to almost everything growing outside in the garden, and spring seems forever away. But if you also grow in a hoophouse, spring can be just around the corner. Plant over-wintering spinach now and get a harvest in February of what will likely be the best-tasting spinach you’ve ever grown.

Spinach is probably the most cold-hardy crop you can grow—it will survive even outside the hoophouse, under row cover laid flat on the ground (see more below). Inside the house, it will grow slowly through the next couple months, and then really begin to take off as the days lengthen in early February. What is a tiny pair of first leaves at the start of the month will grow to harvestable size by the end of it.

Ellena discusses the oats and peas cover crop

While spring planting of cover crops is not an uncommon practice on organic farms and gardens, many farmers and market gardeners are experimenting with extending cover crop overlaps with cash crops through the creative use of easy-to-manage species (field peas, buckwheat and oats, all of which can be ordered through the annual NOFA Bulk Order) and leaving them in the ground until just prior to bed planting, or even allowing them to share bed space with cash crops or new perennial plantings.

Emerging research on soil microbiology and soil carbon sequestration shows that the number of days/year that soil has living roots in the ground with photosynthesis happening (i.e. “days in living cover”), the density of living plant roots, and the diversity of species of plants present are all contributing factors in increasing soil health and building soil organic matter / soil organic carbon.

These insights from the scientific community and healthy soils movement have spurred growers to start experimenting with ways to increase living root density and species diversity on as many beds and fields as possible.  

I love growing garlic, not least because it is counter-cyclical: it goes in just as everything else in the garden has come out, and it gives an abundant, profitable harvest early in the summer, while so many other things are only beginning to get going.

In his Summer Conference workshop on growing garlic, Karl Hammer, founder of Vermont Compost, noted that “garlic loves to grow.” And he should know—Karl was at one time a commercial garlic grower, and he still plants a crop each year. Here, I’ll give an overview of planting garlic, and describe some specifics of Karl’s practice, and some ways I do it differently. Both ways can give you a terrific crop.

One of the central tenets of no-till organic gardening and farming is to never leave soil bare, especially through the winter. Planting a cover crop at the end of the season is one way to do that, but it can be challenging in the fall to get a good crop started before the cold weather sets in, and challenging again in the spring while you wait for it to size up before planting your main crop.

On my farm, I address these challenges by mostly avoiding seeded cover crops, and instead applying lots of what I call “nature’s cover crop”: leaves, and lots of ‘em. I aim to put about 4” of leaves on all my garden beds beginning as soon as I can get them, usually late October through November.

Worms love leaves and the soil environment that they provide, and the worms do most of the work of breaking them down over time, leaving me with a rich, loose, fertile soil the following spring, still covered with a nice layer of mulch. At planting time I usually rake the leaves on the beds into the paths, allowing the soil to warm quickly, and then add it back by the handful or forkful as the season progresses. Unlike hay mulch, you won’t get stray weed seeds in your leaf mulch, except maybe an acorn or two.

This September we are focusing on Soil Health, with statewide events focusing on healthy soils practices and indicators taking place on the first and last days of the month and many days in between.

Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge will kick off the month on September 1st with a detailed farm tour emphasizing their methods for increasing the productivity and resilience of their farm through stacked enterprises and farming practices centered on enhancing soil health and building soil carbon.

For the middle of the month, we will offer a free series across the state entitled “What’s Going on Down There? Soil Health & Fertility Assessment for Growers.” The focus of these short, on-site workshops is to help gardeners and farmers understand how to utilize different tests to determine the health and fertility of their soil environment, how to inform their input and management decisions, and how to start understanding the ways that management practices, inputs, and soil biology intersect. Participants will go home with a Soil Health Field Test Manual (instructions and data sheets) and a handout of resources for labs where you can send samples of your soil.

High Tunnel Hacks

Now that we are in the hottest part of the summer, it’s tempting to start thinking ahead to the cold days of winter when the sweat and excessive growth and barely-managed chaos of summer fecundity has given way to sweaters, thermoses, and the constrained and ordered growth of high tunnel production.

NOFA/Mass has just completed a three-year project funded by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) in which we identified a cohort of experienced farmers, each of whom had a very different but innovative approach to high tunnel management and winter growing. The farmers who contributed to this project included Jeremy Barker-Plotkin (Simple Gifts Farm), Skip Paul (Wishing Stone Farm), Steve Chiazario and Laura Tangerini (Tangerini’s Spring Street Farm), Daniel Botkin (Laughing Dog Farm) Derek Christianson (Brix Bounty Farm), Jim Schultz (Red Shirt Farm) and Bill Braun (Ivory Silo Farm). The farmers in the project contributed in a variety of ways: mentoring beginning farmers, giving seminars and on-farm workshops, teaching at our Winter Conference and Summer Conference, and working with NOFA/Mass technical writer Allison Houghton on a set publications that detail their innovative approaches to high tunnel growing and season extension.

Increasing Production by reducing tillage

On July 14, NOFA/Mass held a Soil Health Field Day in collaboration with Gaining Ground in Concord Mass. It was the first of six on-farm workshops to be held over the next three years as part of a project entitled “Organic No-Till on Northeast Farms: A Practical Exploration of Successful Methods.” This project is funded by a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant Project. Led by NOFA/Mass in partnership with CT NOFA and NOFA-NJ, the project involves 9 farmer-innovators in three states who are working assiduously to trial and establish effective, scale-appropriate tillage reduction methods on their certified organic farms. (For more information about the project and the other farmers involved, check out the Project Webpage).

Radishes Push out

We get this question a lot, or some version of it, such as the comment “My radish roots hit the hardpan and instead of going through it they pushed up and out of the ground.” Why does this happen?

The explanation lies in understanding how compaction limits root growth and understanding why radish so often works so well to alleviate compaction. The limiting factor to root penetration is not so much the hardness of soil, but the oxygen content of soil. Roots must have at least 10% oxygen in order to grow. Since oxygen comes from the soil surface and diffuses down through the pore spaces in the soil, the oxygen content is highest near the surface and decreases with increasing distance from the surface. Any layer of soil with limited pore space will act as a barrier to movement of soil oxygen, and thus as a barrier to root growth.

Farm Manager Steve Munno explains his BCS-mounted implements for tillage-reduced farming

Farm Manager Steve Munno explains his BCS-mounted implements for tillage-reduced farming

Last month, CT NOFA held the first in a series of Soil Health Field Days to be held during the growing season of 2019 by NOFA Chapters across the Northeast. These on-farm events feature farmers who are innovating in organic approaches to increasing soil health and fertility.

Steve Munno, Farm Manager at Massaro Farm and Board member of CT NOFA, led participants on a tour of the farm, providing detailed descriptions of his cover cropping experiments and challenges. He also discussed and showed off his fields where he is trialing the use of silage tarps as a stale-seed bedding method and showed each piece of equipment used in his reduced-till fields, and explained the rationale behind a switch from plastic to the many-times-more expensive Weed Guard Plus for his tractor-mounted mulch layer.

Happy Hemp

Hemp History Week (June 3-9) celebrates agricultural hemp with nationwide education, advocacy and grassroots events. This year, NOFA/Mass is celebrating this especially exciting 10th annual Hemp History Week.

This year is special because the 2018 Farm Bill, passed in December, included the legislation S. 2667, The Hemp Farming Act. With its passage, hemp production was officially legalized in the United States. So this year’s Hemp History Week is the first in this new landscape of federally-legal agricultural hemp! The Act defined hemp as cannabis sativa containing no more than 0.3% teatrahydrocannabinol (THC) by dry weight and redefined hemp from a Controlled Substance to an agricultural commodity, removing it from the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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