Fresh. Local. Sustainable.
Fresh. Local. Sustainable.
What's Growing On?
The Method Behind the Madness
How do I do what I do? I like to think of myself as a combination old school/new school farmer. I am old school in the fact that I employ techniques that do not use mechanized methods of production. All of my planting and harvesting is done by hand. I intensively manage my beds by using cover crops and green manures to increase my soils organic matter and fertility. I am new school in that I use modern soil science and research to build my soils fertility. My soil is tested yearly for nutrient levels, which tells me exactly what nutrients my soil needs to be its best. By focusing so much on soil health and biology, I am able to grow more crops in less space than typical row cropping techniques. My motto is "Healthy Soil Grows Healthy Plants".
Good food starts with good seed. Here on the farm, I only use certified organic seed. It costs more, but the results are worth it. Take a look in a seed catalog though and you can become confused quite easily by all the options. When talking about seeds, there are 4 main types: Open-Pollinated (OP), Heirloom, Hybrid (F1), and Genetically Modified (GMO).
Open-Pollinated: When properly isolated from other varieties in the same plant species, open-pollinated varieties will produce seed which is genetically "true to type". This means that the seed will result in a plant very similar to the parent.
Heirloom: Heirloom varieties are named open-pollinated strains that have remained unaltered over the years. Typically for a variety to be considered heirloom, it must be at least 50 years old.
Hybrid: When open-pollinated varieties are allowed to cross within the same species, the resulting seed will be a hybrid. This happens in nature all the time, and does not mean a variety is genetically modified. In modern seed production, the careful and deliberate cross breeding is used to create new varieties. There is nothing "mad scientist" about hybrids.
Genetically Modified: GMO's are varieties that have been created by adding genetic material from one species into the DNA sequence of another species that would not normally exist. This is done in a laboratory and unlike hybrids, could never occur naturally.
Here at Mustard Seed Microfarm, I never grow GMO varieties. I choose mostly open-pollinated varieties and have a special place in my heart for the old heirloom varieties. I also grow some hybrid varieties on occasion.
What's In a Name?
I've recently had several people ask where the name "Mustard Seed Microfarm" came from. I call it a micro farm because that is what it is, a micro sized farm. The name "Mustard Seed" is a reference to a Bible passage, Mathew 17:20. Jesus says that with faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains and that nothing is impossible. Taking a 1/4 acre piece of lawn and turning into a working farm has taken a lot of very hard work and has definitely taken a lot of faith. There are still a lot of unknowns to be faced. Will the needed funding come through? Will the weather cooperate? Will I be able to sell what I grow? I have faith that everything will come together and work out. Faith like a mustard seed.
Planning the Plan
Running a 1/4 acre market garden is a daunting task. It wouldn't be possible without a solid plan. When I start the planning process, the first thing I do is figure out dates. The most important date is the last frost date. This is the forecasted date of the last hard frost in spring. This year, last frost is at the end of April, but to be on the safe side, I usually plan on the first week of May. Once this is determined, I start the crop plan. This tells me what to plant, when to plant it, and where to plant it. Each crop is different. Some can be direct seeded and some need to be started indoors and then transplanted. I also have to plan according to how long a variety takes to germinate and then how long it takes to mature. A solid plan is important, but it also needs to be flexible. I have to be able to adapt according to weather conditions, and a host of other factors. It's a lot of work, but when it starts to come together, it's worth it.
Spring has finally sprung (although it's snowing out as I write this!). Yesterday was a big day. Our first batch of seedlings moved out to the greenhouse. Another round has been started under the lights.
Soil Fertility: How's It Done?
I was having a conversation with one of my friends the other day, and the question of how I build and maintain soil fertility came up. It's a fascinating subject-especially if you like science and biology!
One of my first memories of gardening with my grandmother was her telling me "Healthy soil makes healthy plants". That continues to be my mantra to this day. Soil fertility is extremely important, especially on small farms like mine. As some of you may know, I use biodynamic practices at Mustard Seed Microfarm; I wrote about it in the last newsletter. Biodynamics views the farm as a living organism. Rather than fighting and trying to control the environment, biodynamics seeks to work in harmony and heal the environment. Surprisingly, I use a minimum amount of fertilizer. My soil is tested every year, and I only add what the test advises. My approach to building and maintaining soil fertility is three pronged. The prongs are: Compost, Cover Crops, and Biodynamic Preps.
1. Compost: Good quality compost is the foundation of my soil fertility program. It helps soil by adding beneficial organisms and bacteria while also adding precious organic matter which helps build humus. Because my compost making capacity is small, I choose to add the majority of my compost in liquid form which is known as compost tea. In simple terms, this involves brewing a tea in a specially designed brewer that's aerates the water as it brews. By aerating the water and adding a food source (I prefer unsulfured molasses), The amount of bacteria and other goodies can be maximized. The tea is then filtered and sprayed onto the crops and soil.
2..Cover Crops: Cover crops, sometimes called green manure, are used for several reasons. Firstly, the roots grow down and "mine" nutrients that are deep in the soil and bring them up where they can be used by the plants. Secondly, they provide organic matter that can be broken down in the soil and by composting. I currently use two types of cover crops. The first is a special blend of peas, oats, and tillage radishes. The peas help bring nitrogen into the soil and provide organic matter. The oats help support the peas and also provide a good supply of organic matter. The radishes help loosen the soil. They can penetrate the soil up to 30" deep, helping to bring nutrients to the surface. When the roots rot, they leave channels in the soil that help bring oxygen and water into the soil. The tops also provide organic matter. During the growing season, I use buckwheat as a cover crop. It grows really fast, adds a lot of organic matter, and the blossoms make an incredible pollen source for bees.
3. Biodynamic Preps: These are special preparations made from manure, rock dust, and plants that are applied to soil and plants. There are 8 different preparations, BD 500 - BD 508. BD 500 is called horn manure and is applied to the soil. BD 501 is called horn silica and is applied to vegetation. BD 502-BD 507 are herbal preparations that are added to compost. BD 508 is an herbal preparation which is used to suppress fungal growth on plants.
I also do not till or turn over the soil in my beds. When preparing my beds for planting, I use a tool known as a broadfork. A broadfork is a tool with 4 long steel tines that is sunk into the soil and then rocked back, cutting up through the soil. It helps to loosen and aerate the soil with out destroying the soils structure like a plow or rototiller would.