Following the longest blog break yet, we are still here, still growing and harvesting, still weeding (yes, really), and still thinking about some exciting projects coming very soon. The lack of updates via the blog is due, quite simply, to the fact that we’ve been extremely busy, with off-farm work combined with a laborious on-farm experience: plant diseases, excessive weed growth, and the general challenges of the second year (as described but not even fully realized in the last post) have kept us busy and, unfortunately, have meant smaller-than-expected harvest for a number of crops.
To make up for 3 months’ worth of missed blog posts, I will share some significant events or observations from this summer, plus what’s going on right now and what is planned!
Tomatoes were a very important crop in our first season, and much care went into tomato preparation for 2019, including beds and trellising, as well as selection of some new and some tried and favored varieties. Our main tomato area, on a sloped portion of our field, looks terraced (and is, slightly) and was pretty stunning, we thought, early on.
Crops like tomatoes and peppers are very susceptible to moisture-related diseases that can be fungal or bacterial in nature, and this summer, on our farm, was a challenging one for tomatoes specifically. Conditions including frequent rain and heavy dew forming on the plants EVERY night favored the spread of Septoria Leaf Spot, in our case, which is common but can spread and have devastating effects if left untreated and if high moisture conditions persist (which they very much did). We have been fortunate to have harvested many delicious and beautiful heirloom and cherry tomatoes this season (we continue to collect small amounts into September), but tomato management has taken much more energy than expected and much of the fruit has been unmarketable.
Our soil is wonderful and we are committed to keeping it in place and to improving it by increasing organic matter and maintaining a healthy nutrient and mineral balance. I have been using the scythe since last summer to produce mulch for vegetable beds (we also use leaves in the fall), but it is not reasonable to produce enough straw mulch to effectively cover the entire growing area. Other options include purchasing large quantities of straw, which we cannot afford, or purchasing large quantities of compost, which is also very expensive and heavy, which means lots of fuel used to transport it and much labor expended by us to move it from the roadside to each bed.
The promising alternative to those alternatives involves the use of craft paper underneath a relatively thin layer of straw. The acquisition of craft paper rolls is especially suited to our operation, as we can pick it up on our return trip from the Midtown Farmers Market. It is very thin and breaks down fully within a season, but it acts as a significant barrier, initially, to weed growth, and it allows us to use much less straw than would normally be required to mulch a garden area. Below is a bed with mulch freshly removed (raked off to each side), and on the left, Alabama Blue collard greens with a nicely mulched adjacent bed.
A massive benefit of paper (or cardboard, as long as it does not have color ink), in addition to weed suppressing action, is that worms love it, and the evidence of increased worm activity under these mulches is very clear. Not only do we see worms when beds are uncovered, but the soil underneath tends to be fluffy enough that I can push my whole hand in, with no tilling whatsoever, except that performed by earthworms.
Our mulching process goes as follows:
We prepare the bed or beds by pulling any crops or large weeds out. For especially good care, we will lightly hoe the surface.
Compost and organic fertilizer is spread on the bed surface.
Craft paper is pulled over the area. We purchase rolls that are 3 feet wide by 1200 feet long (the roll isn’t actually very large though), and mount them onto a SUPER simple stand that I made from leftover 2×4 scraps and some screws.
The paper is very thin and light and will blow around like crazy. So we do not apply it when windy, and we generally work together. Immediately after it is pulled the length of the bed, it is covered with a very thin sprinkling of wood chips for initial weight and a touch of extra fungal magic.
More sheets are pulled, overlapping at least 3 inches with the previous one.
We spread loads of grass/clover mulch or leaves over the paper and chips, just enough so the paper is mostly no longer visible.
That’s it! It isn’t EASY, because we are still doing everything by hand, but it is EFFECTIVE at preserving the soil when cover crop is unsuitable. Generally, we will mulch in this way in early summer to preserve a bed that will be planted or seeded later. We also will use this mulch at the end of the season, to provide some food and protection to the bed for the fall and winter. We are also in the process of growing cover crop in beds that are done for the season, and then cutting it and mulching for winter, which will happen in about a month.
We have ALSO transplanted directly into this mulch (so far with just kale and rutabaga), and the resulting beds have been fluffier and have had greatly reduced weeds compared to unmulched beds. Below is this fall’s garlic area (still quite small), prepared as described above. We will plant into it and then apply additional mulch for winter protection.
If you’re still reading, way to go! And thanks!
There are TWO big projects we are excited about this fall.
We are going to build a high tunnel! A high tunnel is a protected growing area, like a greenhouse, that is built in the field. We have ordered and will be constructing, starting sometime this month, a steel high tunnel measuring 30 feet wide by 96 feet long by 14 feet high (at the peak).
It is exciting! We are excited! And I will share more as it happens, including, I suppose, many, many photos.
Yes! We’ve been talking about it for one-and-a-half years, and we will finally be drawing up plans, acquiring materials, and constructing individual studios and shared work spaces in our large barn.
This process will involve patching the steel roof so that it is waterproof, framing and finishing studio walls, updating the electricity in the barn, acquiring a few useful tools for artists/makers, and constructing facilities like an outdoor shower supplied by rainwater runoff from the barn roof.
Most of the labor will be completed by us, with help from amazing friends along the way, surely. But it will require funds that are not currently available to us, though nothing at all excessive. Please look out for more updates, coming soon, concerning fundraising for this plan that we are SO excited about.
A final bank of photos for this post. Fedco Seeds mis-packed some flower seeds we were very excited about. Instead of purple globe amaranth, which we thought we had seeded, we got these, which are amazing! “New Day Formula Mix” Gazania. Very tidy and compact, they’d be great for a garden border.
Thanks for reading!