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Farming

For the ambitious gardener, there is nothing quite as frustrating as planting seeds that never come up. You watch and wait, and wait some more, and wait some more, and…nothing. Precious weeks can slip away before you accept that you’re going to have to replant. For any crop, this is a nuisance; for some, like long-season tomatoes or late-season broccoli, it’s a disaster.  

There are three keys to avoiding this disaster:  

  • Store your seeds properly 

  • Test their viability   

  • Replace them when its time 

For me, the arrival of the NOFA bulk order is, like the arrival of the seed catalogs, a harbinger of spring, and an opportunity to stock up on things I know I will use all season long. The bulk order also appeals to the Yankee in me, because I know I will get great prices, especially with the member discount, and loading up my pick-up with a season’s worth of soil amendments feels like thrift rewarded. There are hundreds of items to choose from, for the back yard or the back 40. Here are some favorites of NOFA farmers this year:

A farm worker sprays a foliar application on a freshly hoed bed

A farm worker sprays a foliar application on a freshly hoed bed

No matter how early I think about adding fall amendments, this job always falls to the bottom of the to-do list below some bigger priorities. Harvesting crops remaining in the field prior to frost, bagging up all the row covers, and removing all the poles and trellises, for example, all take precedence over the spreading of fall amendments.

Fortunately, this year I sent my soil test into Logan Labs in October, so after receiving the results, all I had to do was calculate the amendments I needed to order, order them, pick them up, and broadcast them on the fields.  If you have a Logan Labs soil test result, NOFA/Mass will analyze it and give you soil recommendations. You can see the details of that program here or check out this article to calculate your own amendment needs.  You can order a variety of soil amendments through the annual NOFA Bulk Order.

 

 

weed large garden bed

Soil test results are the key to planning your soil fertility program. Adding the right amendments in the right amount can dramatically improve your plants’ health and your garden’s productivity. But once you have your test results, it can sometimes feel daunting to figure out how much of a particular amendment you need to add to get to your goal--and I say that as a former math and chemistry teacher!

In this article, I will try to greatly simplify that process with a few conversion factors and formulas. With these, you should be able to use your results to easily figure out what you need to order—from the NOFA bulk order or elsewhere—and apply your findings to fine tune your garden’s fertility.

Aerial view of Hopestill Farm showing Christmas tree fields
Photo via www.hopestill.com

For those of us who aspire to make sustainable and regenerative consumption decisions, the holidays are an Olympic-level event! With so many gifts, decorations, and food items to buy in so little time, it can seem overwhelming to think carefully about each purchase.

If your family buys a Christmas tree, you might want to give it just as much thought as your other holiday purchases. According to Beyond Pesticides, “The pesticides that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registers for use on conventionally grown Christmas trees are linked to numerous adverse health effects, including cancer, hormonal disruption, neurotoxicity, organ damage, reproductive/birth defects, asthma, and more.” And less than 1% of the Christmas tree market in the United States is organic, so it can be very hard to find a tree you can be sure was grown without harmful sprays. Also, when you consider that the leading Christmas tree producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Washington and Michigan, you might start to question the impact of your tree’s ecological and carbon footprint.

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.

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