Sustainable Farming Practices slideshow, Mother Earth News blogposts, Modern Farmer

Greenhouse interior with early spring seedling flats.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

I just got home from the Organic Growers’ School Spring Conference near Asheville, NC. On Friday, I gave an all-day workshop with Ira Wallace, on Year-Round Growing on the Farm and Garden. The classroom at Creekside Farm, Arden was packed. This farm also has an educational center, which made a great setting for our workshop. The weather was awful, so we didn’t explore the very wet farm much. We had plenty of indoor teaching material including show-and-tell. The funniest part was my Julia Child chicken-on-the-floor moment when I dropped a freshly -made soil block on the nice wood floor.

On Saturday and Sunday, I gave  my Sustainable Farming Practices presentation, which is now on www.SlideShare.net, and posted here for convenient viewing. Just click the diagonal arrow icon to see it full screen.

Now I have a couple of lovely days at home, working in the hoophouse and greenhouse. The crew is steadily composting more beds, sowing peas and transplanting endless spinach beds (our spring is short and then heats up, so to get a longer spring spinach season, we do all transplants.)

Summer Lettuce Nursery Seedbed with Concept, De Morges Braun, New Red Fire and Loma lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

My post 20 Tips for Success in Germinating Seeds in Hot Weather was #8 in the top blogposts for 2018. My newest post on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog is

We transplant all our spring spinach, to maximize the length of the harvest period
Photo Denny Ray McElyea

The Pros and Cons of Direct Sowing and Transplanting

One of the pages in our Field Manual, which we revise each winter.
Photo VABF

In early January I posted 13 Steps to Planning your Vegetable Garden

Elsewhere for interesting gardening and farming reading, I am enjoying The Modern Farmer an online and digital subscription magazine with lots of thought-provoking and useful articles. Some recent ones I really like include

Can Hydroponic Farming Be Organic? The Battle Over The Future Of Organic Is Getting Heated.

Does Milk Actually Make Kids Grow Taller?

Trump Administration Rolls Back School Nutrition Standards

Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

America’s First Cash Crop: Tobacco

Urban Gardening 101: How to Deal with Contaminated Soil

My next speaking event is the Virginia Festival of the Book,and then the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC. There I’m presenting Lettuce Year Round and Cool Season Hoophouse Crops. Here’s the probable schedule. This is a change from what I posted earlier. I”m replacing Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables with a new one, Cool Season Hoophouse Crops.

Hoophouse beds in November.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

 

Starting Seedlings

Seed flats in the greenhouse
Seed flats in the greenhouse

We’ve been starting seedlings since late January, and the greenhouse is filling up with flats of lettuce, cabbage, kohlrabi, spinach, scallions and broccoli. We’re eating our way through the lettuces that grew overwinter in the compost in the block-work greenhouse beds, and shoveling out the compost to fill our flats. All our seedlings are grown in 100% home-made compost. We screen compost to fill the beds in September and transplant lettuce there in October. When we need the compost for the seedlings, it has mellowed nicely and has plenty of worms. This beats buying in bags of compost, or chipping lumps off a heap of frozen compost outdoors in January! Our greenhouse has a masonry north wall and a patio-door south wall. It has no heating apart from the sun (this is Zone 7). This space is warm enough and just big enough for all our seedlings once they have emerged. For growing-on the very early tomatoes and peppers, destined for our hoophouse, we use an electric heat mat and a plastic low tunnel in one corner of the greenhouse. Many seeds benefit from some heat during germination and are then moved into slightly less warm conditions to continue growing. This means it’s possible to heat a relatively small space just to germinate the seeds in. We use two broken refrigerators as insulated cabinets, with extra shelves added. A single incandescent lightbulb in each supplies both the light and the heat (we change the wattage depending on what temperature we’re aiming for). Some people construct an insulated cabinet from scratch, with fluorescent lights suspended above the flats.

Our coldframes and greenhouse
Our coldframes and greenhouse

We use traditional coldframes for “hardening-off” our plants (helping them adjust to cooler, brighter, breezier conditions). They are rectangles of dry-stacked cinder blocks, with lids of woodframed fiberglass. Having heavy flats of plants at ground level is less than ideal for anyone over thirty-five! Shade houses and single-layer poly hoop structures with ventable sidewalls and benches for the flats are a nicer option. Some growers report that some pests are less trouble when flats are up on benches. Others say flats on the ground produce better quality plants. According to the nighttime temperatures, we cover the coldframes with rowcover for 32°F–38°F (0°–3°C), add the lids for 15°F–32°F (–9°C–0°C) and roll quilts on top if it might go below 15°F (–9°C). For brassicas, lettuce and our paste tomatoes (a big planting), we use open flats — simple wooden boxes. The transplant flat size is 12″ × 24″ × 4″ deep (30 × 60 × 10 cm). It holds 40 plants, “spotted” or pricked out in a hexagonal pattern, using a dibble board. For sowing, we use shallower 3″ (7.5 cm) flats. Usually we sow four rows lengthwise in each seedling flat. We reckon we can get about six transplant flats from each seedling flat. This allows for throwing out any wimpy seedlings, and lets us start a higher number of plants in a smaller space. Because we transplant by hand, and because we hate to throw plastic away (or spend money when we don’t need to), we use a range of plastic plant containers. For crops where we are growing only a small number of plants of each variety, we use six- or nine-packs, or a plug flat divided into smaller units.

One year we tried soil blocks for early lettuce transplants, shown here on our custom-made cart
One year we tried soil blocks for early lettuce transplants, shown here on our custom-made cart

The first crops sown are not necessarily the first ones planted out. Our spinach gets sown Jan 24 and transplanted out 4 weeks later. The early tomatoes get planted in the hoophouse at 6 weeks of age (slower-growing peppers go in at 7.5 weeks with rowcover at the ready!). Lettuce goes outdoors after 6.5 weeks, cabbage after 7.5 weeks, cipollini mini-onions after 8 weeks. These are early season timings and as the days warm up and get longer, seedlings grow more quickly. Being a few days later sowing something in early spring makes little difference, as later sowings can catch up by growing faster in the warmer weather. If the spring is cold and late, you may find your greenhouse packed to the gills with flats you don’t want to take outside. We try to put the faster-maturing crops near the doors and keep the open flats, which will need spotting-out, near the accessible north side. But let’s not complain about the bounty of so many plants! Spring is an exciting time of year, full of new growth and new potential. Working in the greenhouse with tiny plants on a sunny day when it’s cold outside is a special treat.