Transplanting into hay or straw mulch, organic myth-busting, keep soil in Organic

Hopefully the really cold nights are behind us. We had 20F last Wednesday night/Thursday morning 3/23. We are getting ready to transplant spring cabbage and broccoli. I wrote a bit about broccoli planting last spring (mostly about varieties and planting alyssum to attract beneficial insects) and in spring 2015. 

Flats of broccoli seedlings in our greenhouse in early March.
Photo Wren Vile

Here I’ll say more about transplanting into hay or straw mulch, which I have also written about for Mother Earth News. Transplanting into rolled out or pre-spread straw or hay from small square bales is quicker, easier and more effective than fitting the mulch around the transplants after you’ve planted them.

We bale hay into big round bales, and move them around with the tractor and forks or a rear bale spike (spear). We plan our beds to be 5′ apart on centers and our rows to be 5-5½’ apart (tomatoes, for example) . We prepare our beds and get the mulch dropped off at the uphill end (even a small slope is helpful!).

When we plant garlic in November, as soon as we’ve planted and covered the cloves with soil, we unroll the bales over the top of the beds.

Using mulch helps control weeds, and reduces the weed seed bank, which is the name for the store of weed seeds already in the soil, that will otherwise grow in the future. “One year’s seeding, seven years weeding,” is a wise and rueful gardener’s saying. Only perennial grasses and a few other “running” perennials will come up through a thick layer of hay. Plastic mulches, while they do deal with weeds, actually raise soil temperature. This is an advantage for warm weather crops, but not for brassicas! If using organic mulches for warm weather crops, it is often best to wait four weeks after transplanting, cultivate to remove one round of weeds, then roll out the mulch. This avoids cooling the soil which would slow growth down and delay harvests. If you’re waiting for watermelons, this is too sad! All kinds of mulch also reduce rain splash, helping prevent fungal leaf diseases.

Organic mulches have some advantages over plastic mulches. They keep the soil damper, which can mean higher yields and less need to water. They also keep temperatures lower in summer, an advantage for cool-weather crops, like broccoli and cabbage. Organic mulches improve the soil structure and increase the organic matter. The number of earthworms in the soil at the end of the season can be twice as high as under plastic mulch.

Rolling hay over newspaper for a new strawberry bed.
Photo Luke Stovall

There is a myth that organic mulches lock-up nitrogen from the soil. This could happen with soils which are very short on organic matter and micro-organisms. It does happen if fresh high-carbon sources, such as straw or hay, are incorporated into the soil. In my experience, surface mulches have not caused nitrogen shortages to the crops they mulch. Our soil is very fertile, and we do what we can to encourage soil micro-organisms to multiply, so that they can readily digest what we add to the soil. The longer-term effect of high-carbon mulches can be to increase the soil nitrogen. The micro-organisms feeding on the carbon die and decompose, and they are a high-N source!

If you are buying in straw or hay and need to watch costs, you could spread the organic mulch over a double layer of newspaper. You’ll only need half as much hay or straw compared to mulching with the straw or hay alone. The final result is only half as deep, which is an advantage when transplanting small plants, which could get lost in deep organic mulch. I believe the inks used on regular newsprint are not toxic. We avoid using glossy paper with colored inks, because of concerns about toxicity of the coating on the paper as well as the inks.

Spring cabbage planted in hay mulch, a few weeks after transplanting.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We grow our own hay, so we know it is unsprayed – there is a danger from pyridine carboxylic acids, a class of broadleaf herbicides which persist through composting and even through the digestive systems of livestock, and can kill or seriously damage food crops and flowers. Grazon is one brand; picloram is the plant growth regulator it contains.

Our hay is not the perfect mulch, as it does have some weed seeds, and sometimes mold. (Our garden gets the hay which is not good enough for the cows to eat.) If you have the choice, unsprayed straw is better than hay, as it won’t have many weeds. We don’t live in a grain-growing area, so there is no local straw for sale.

We remove the twine (if it hasn’t already rotted and fallen off) and study the end of the bale to figure out which way it will unroll. This can be surprisingly unclear. If we have to turn the bale, or maneuver it to line up, we might have three people do that. Once it’s rolling, two people can manage to unroll a round bale of hay. We spend some time at the end using wheelbarrows to move hay from the thick places to the thinner spots.

For transplants we do what we call “making nests” in the hay. Two people work opposite each other, across a bed, as we plant two rows of broccoli or cabbage. One of the people has an 18″ stick to measure the  center-to-center plant spacing. The second person doesn’t measure, but staggers their row compared to the first person’s row, making a zig-zag to match the pattern. Both people aim to stay about 16″ from the edge of the bed, so the rows are evenly spaced across the bed. Using two hands, they pull open the hay, down to soil level. The “nest” needs a diameter of about 4″, for easy transplanting. We either make all the nests before we start planting, or we have two pairs of people, with the nesters moving faster than the planters. We want to get the plants in the ground quickly, and minimize the time they are out in the field wilting in the flat.

Each planter works along a row, transplanting into the exposed soil in the nests, firming the plants in and watering from a can every 10-20 plants (depending how hot or windy it is). Another crew member pulls the hose and wand along the aisles and gives all the plants a generous second watering. After the hose watering, someone pulls the hay around the stems at ground level.We call this ” tucking the plants in”. If plants are  “untucked”, this is the signal to the Hose Waterer that the plants need water.  When they are all tucked in along a section of a bed, it is the signal to those unrolling row cover to go ahead and cover. Our system is almost disaster-proof, as it includes indicators about the next task needed.

To have a long broccoli harvest period, we use several varieties with different days-to-maturity, and two sowing dates. This gives us the longest possible harvest period before it just gets too hot for pleasant-tasting broccoli.

A bed of early spring cabbage, planted into hay mulch.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The Organic Trade Association has published a set of 33 little posters putting solid information out there, and busting some myths about organic agriculture . Here’s one with a photo on our cabbage theme.

The items are free to download, for any healthy food related events you might be organizing. Or just go and read them, so that next time someone asks you a question about organic farming, you’ll have the answers at your fingertips.


And talking about what’s allowed in Organic certification, one controversial practice is hydroponics, where plants grow without soil, in a liquid including nutrients (the nutrients people are aware the plants need). Another is aquaponics where plants grow without soil, in a liquid where farmed fish have been growing.

There is a “Keep the Soil in Organic” movement, which advocates for Organic certification requiring plants to be grown in soil, not water-plus-some-nutrients. Dave Chapman sent me this message asking for support for the National Organic Standards Board on 3/27/17:

“The NOSB needs our help.

The NOSB meets in Denver in three weeks to debate whether a healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming.

We have champions on the NOSB fighting for us, but they need to hear from you. They are facing tremendous pressure from professional lobbyists in this battle. Lee Frankel, one of the chief lobbyists for the hydroponic coalition, stated in an editorial last week that organic hydro is now a billion dollar a year industry. This explosive growth happened in just 7 years since the NOSB recommended that hydroponics has no place in organic certification. That recommendation was opposed by the USDA, and hydro has been welcomed into organic certification. The hydro industry sees organic as their economic gold rush. And they are only getting started.

Please submit a comment to the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) letting them know that organic must be based on the fertility of a healthy soil ecosystem. Don’t let organic be destroyed.

Comments are due by this Thursday 3/30 at midnight. Do it now.

Click Comment Now!  “

No time to lose on that one! Big hydroponic “organic” industries have lobbied and got included as certifiably Organic, when most of us realize that growing food without soil is the opposite of Organic, with or without a capital O.

Pennsylvania farmer Tom Beddard speaks out on the soil in organic at the Rally In The Valley. “You can tell it was grown in the soil because it tastes better!”

Virginian Eat-All Greens

Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening introduces us to the concept of Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 9. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 9.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, as our spring planted greens only have a short season before they bolt. And summer is too hot, winter too cold. . . We sowed in mid-September, and are about to make our third harvesting foray. Unlike Carol, we sowed our greens in rows side by side. This fitted better with the space we had, a large rectangle where our asparagus used to be. The organic matter content of the soil is lovely, as we used to mulch the asparagus with hay twice a year. But the weed seed-bank is awful! After each asparagus harvest season we let the ferns grow up and the plot became impenetrable. So we got lots of summer weeds, especially morning glories and cocklebur. After about 12 years or so, we decided to give up on that asparagus patch and grow a series of cover crops until we got the weeds under control again. Having the Eat-All Greens in rows, and hoeing between the rows, fit that strategy nicely.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We sowed on 9/16. I had a lot of help that day. Somehow the seed got sowed very thickly. Carol recommends leaf or pod radishes, some beets, some chards, quinoa, some mustards, some snow peas, some Napus kales, some amaranths, some leafy Asian greens (mustards but less spicy). She has put a lot of research into which grow best – see her book for the details. We decided to use some seeds we had on hand and some we got given, that resembled the things Carol recommends. We didn’t want to invest a lot of money first time around, nor wait for a seed company to fill our order. We knew our results wouldn’t be the same as if we lived in the Pacific Northwest anyway.

Most of the seeds emerged by 9/21 (5 days), and we hoed between the (wavy) rows on 9/23. We also thinned some of the radishes, because they were sown too thickly. The fava beans didn’t come up till 9/30, but then they grew fast, and became one of the first crops big enough to harvest. Eating the tips of fava bean plants is a practice I learned in England, so I knew these unusual plants are edible. I noticed the beets and chards are all slow-growing in our climate at this time of year, as are the kohlrabi. We had lots of seed of Early Purple Vienna kohlrabi and the seedlings are so pretty I thought they might work for Eat-All Greens, but no, not at this time of year anyway..

Dwarf Grey snow peas as Eat-All Greens. Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Dwarf Grey snow peas as Eat-All Greens.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We got our first harvest on 10/21, 35 days after sowing. The biggest varieties were the fava beans (seed we’d bought, then decided not to grow) and dwarf grey sugar snow peas (seed from last year – we don’t like these as snow peas any more). We cut along the rows with scissors. People found it hard to cut at 3″, high enough to leave the tough stem behind. I noticed we all tended to cut low. The plan was to lay the cut greens in shallow crates with the stems all aligned to make it easier for the cooks. Some people didn’t do this with the peas, putting them in a big mat in the crate. The peas got served raw, which wasn’t my intention. The stems were too tough for most people – even for cooking, we should have cut higher. We got 3 cratefuls, a generous amount, which we didn’t make the best use of, despite an instructional label. Presentation and instructions are our version of marketing to our cooks.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on Oct 22. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on Oct 22.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

One week later (10/28) we went for our second harvest. By then the radishes had clearly come into their own, and one of the rows of dwarf grey peas that we harvested the week before had already made enough growth for a second cut. You can see in the photo above the big difference in growth rate between the radishes and everything else. The harvest was bigger than we’d hoped for. We got 10 crates and two very stuffed 5-gal buckets we decided to give to the chickens as a sign of our appreciation.

What next? I ‘m looking forward to the Maruba Santoh, and the Ruby Streaks especially. But we have to explain more carefully how these should be cooked, to people unaccustomed to cooking mixed greens. And we need to switch to more frequent forays and smaller harvests at a time. And cut higher up the stems. And then, it depends on the weather. The kohlrabi already got some frost damage. Currently the nights are mostly above freezing. Some of these crops are good down to 25F, some better than that.

I’m already thinking what would I do different if we do this again. No chards, no beets, no kohlrabi. Thinner seed sowing, straighter rows (easier hoeing). Try some other Asian greens? Buy some of the specific varieties that Carol Deppe recommends. Maybe sow a week earlier. And a smaller patch! It’s being fun!

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens - Ruby Streaks. Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens – Ruby Streaks.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Crop review time, harvesting potatoes, frosts and foliage

Beech tree in November foliage, Credit Ezra Freeman

Beech tree in November foliage,
Credit Ezra Freeman

We’ve had a night of 24F and two of 26F, so the season is really changing. Here’s a photo from Ezra’s blog A Year In the Woods of a beech, one of the last trees with good foliage.

In the garden we’ve been setting up the spinach beds for the winter, weeding and filling gaps. We had really good spinach germination this fall, but then the seedlings got eaten by grasshoppers or something, so we have been moving plants from where they are closely spaced to where there are gaps. Spinach is an important winter crop for us. Kale is another, and happily we finally got a good stand of that, after resowing.

We’ve also finished screening compost into our cinder block greenhouse beds. This will be our spring seedling compost and we like having it all ready to use (not frozen in a lump as it would be when we start in mid-January if we stored it outside). Over the winter we grow lettuce in the compost in the beds, and the roots and the watering help mellow the compost into a lovely condition.

Yesterday we had our annual Crop Review meeting where we gather to talk over the successes and failures of the past season and start to consider what to do differently next year. Us five Full Crew were there, along with a few of the more casual helpers and also our Food Processing Manager and our Cooks Manager. This was a horribly hard season, starting with losing a couple of key people and having a very wet spring which grew lots of weeds and got us off to a very late start. We had to cancel several crops we had planned to grow (celeriac, lots of onions, kohlrabi, peanuts) and we lost several more to weeds after we’d planted them (leeks, Chinese cabbage, winter radish, some of the turnips and beets). Unsurprisingly, we are planning on a more manageable garden next year, so we can build up our strength and be more successful with what we do grow. Plus we’ll have a substantial bank of weed seeds to cope with.

We also used the meeting time to pop garlic cloves in preparation for planting later this week. I suppose most of you would call it next week. At Twin Oaks our weeks start on Fridays and end on Thursdays, for reasons almost lost in the mists of time. Nowadays I suspect we just like the quaintness of it.

Now we are starting to harvest our second potatoes (“Irish” potatoes) which we planted in July (late, like much else this year). We bush-hogged the tops two weeks ago, so that the potato skins could thicken up and be ready to harvest before it got too, too cold. Today we will remove the hay mulch and the dried up vines and weeds, to the compost pile, and tomorrow we’ll start harvesting.

We have a Checchi and Magli SP100 potato digger, which you can see in action on YouTube. Here’s ours

Our Checchi and Magli potato digger
Our Checchi and Magli potato digger

The other main work going on in the garden is getting cover crops planted. Here are before and after photos of one plot:

Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes Credit Ezra Freeman
Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes
Credit Ezra Freeman
Late corn undersown with oats, noew mowed high, and the sweet potato patch now sown in winter wheat and crimson clover. Credit Ezra Freeman
Late corn undersown with oats, now mowed high, and the sweet potato patch now sown in winter wheat and crimson clover.
Credit Ezra Freeman