Seed Starting- Some New Ideas

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It feels good to be starting seeds for the coming growing season.  This year snow is still piled up outside as we approach April.  We have faith that we will see the bare earth again, and have to plan to be ready to plant into it.  In our unheated hoop house spinach, arugula and claytonia are germinating.  Inside under lights we have all the early alliums (onions, shallots, and leeks) and solanums (tomatoes, peppers and eggplants) starting to grow.  With more seedings of early greens and brassicas to follow soon.

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This year we are trying some new ideas in how we start seeds.  In workshops we have taken with Dan Kittredge (Bionutrient Food Association) and John Kempf (Advancing EcoAgriculture) they both emphasized the impact that the early days of a plant’s life have on its development and ultimate yield potential.  It seems within the first 12 days of a plants life its little roots have tried to determine how much space and resources it has to work with and it then decides how many leaves, flowers, and fruits to develop.  Based on this information, we are thinking that starting seeds in larger cells and making sure they have a good starting medium may have a big impact on its health later on in life.  We are also choosing to start many seeds later than we usually do, really trying to avoid root bound plants.  Ideally plant growth above ground should mimic root growth below.  It can also really stress plants and set them back to be forced into soil that is colder than their liking.  We are trying to resist the urge to get everything out ultra early, waiting instead until the soil temps will encourage rapid growth of roots.

Because space under grow lights is always a premium, we have usually started many plants in row trays or small pots with many seeds.  The next step was then to graduate to a larger cell size by bare rooting the plants and transplanting.  This year we are foregoing the row trays in most cases and starting things right into trays with larger cells.  We used to use trays with 72 cells for many things, but we have graduated into a larger size for most plant starts now with 38 cells.  Giving plants more space to start usually results in much nicer transplants, and a side benefit is that they also seem to mature faster.

Onions started in 200 cells

Onions started in 200 cells

So, you might ask if you are starting all of these plants in larger cells aren’t you going to run out of room?  Well the interesting thing is that we are also learning that if you give plants more space in the garden, they yield more and you need a lot fewer plants.  Dan Kittredge was saying that he has planted tomatoes 5-10 feet apart and had tremendous yields.  We are going to do some experimenting with this in 2014 by planting our tomatoes in the greenhouse at 4 foot spacings, not pruning them, and maintaning them with stakes and a basket weave.  Usually we plant them about 2 feet apart, prune them religiously, and clip them to strings dropped from rebar attached the rafters.  We are taking a bit of a leap of faith here, because we will be planting far fewer plants (around 36 as opposed to close to 100 last year) and if some of them die or have issues we don’t have many replacements.  It really seems to make sense that a plant that can grow that rampantly really can use a lot of root space, so we are going to take the risk.  What this means for this time of year though, is that we don’t need to start as many plants so we can afford to give them bigger cells to start in.

Tomatoes in 38 cells

Tomatoes in 38 cells

We also like to start our seeds in a high quality potting soil.  We use Vermont Compost Company’s Fort V potting soil which we add “Fortify” to (a blend of lime, humates and micronutrients often lacking in potting soil).  We also add a mycorrhizal inoculant directly in our seed packets or sometimes mixed into the potting soil.  Almost all plants except brassicas have relationships with mycorrhizal fungi that enable plants to access much more water and nutrients, adding the inoculant helps ensure that these relationships establish at an early age.  Hopefully with enough space, water, nutrition and some mushroom friends our babies are off to a good start.

 

 

 

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Proliferating Pollinators

100_1243 Spring still seems a long way off here in Vermont.  Dreaming about green growing things, sweet smelling flowers and buzzing insects is more inspiring at the moment than doing wintry tasks like taxes, garden mapping, and planning.

Pollinators of all sorts are taking abuse from pesticides, GMOs and habitat destruction/lack of biodiversity in agriculture.  We are trying to find more ways to support and attract pollinators on our farm.  In general we have pretty good habitat for a wide variety of insects between our crop diversity, plenty of tall un-mown areas, and wild edges.  We hope to keep honey bees in the future- maybe we’ll tackle that project next year.  When we raise bees we’d like to try top bar hives and/or sun hives which seem like shapes that support bees’ instinctual habits.  This year we plan on creating more habitat for native bees with pallet stacks in a couple of different garden zones such as between greenhouses, around gardens close to home, and near our berry plantings.

Example of a native bee hotel from Mother Earth News                                                                                                              Good article on how to attract native bees:  http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/how-to-attract-native-bees-zm0z13aszkin.aspx

 

 

We’d like to try to have more  perennials blooming on a regular basis as part of cover crops.   We plan on experimenting with under-sowing long term crops such as corn, some brassicas and possibly winter squash with crimson clover which is a nitrogen fixing annual clover, that will hopefully also bloom.  We are also thinking about seeding some of our garden pathways to dutch white clover (we will start with a small section as we are worried about it taking over our beds).  The benefits of living mulched pathways are that they would always be covered, fixing nitrogen and building organic matter, and they would bloom.  Another new idea is to convert a couple of our garden beds into dedicated mulch beds where we will grow plants that are good at bring minerals up from deep in the soil (bio-accumulators) and that are good at creating a lot of biomass that we can cut and mulch with, and many of these plants will also have a variety of blooms for pollinator attraction.  Hopefully with a wide variety of suitable homes, nectar sources and undisturbed wild spaces we can invite more pollinators onto the farm and help them to proliferate everywhere.100_4324

If I close my eyes I can hear the buzzing of little wings and smell the sweet clover now.

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Stars, Planets, Moons and Seeds

100_5254 We see a lot of value in biodynamic farming principles, although we don’t practice most of them.  However, one tool created in the biodynamic world that we do use is the Stella Natura Calendar.  This calendar is based on research conducted by a German woman named Maria Thun over a 60 year period.  Her research charted the germination and growth of many plant varieties dependent on influences from the moon, stars and planets and all their constantly changing interactions.  I don’t begin to follow the astrology behind it all, but the beauty of the calendar is that it is all translated for you.  Basically the research showed that different astrological configurations had influence over different parts of plants (roots, fruits, leaves, flowers).  Some hours of some days are better for starting seeds of plants where the root is dominant (carrots), other days are better for flowers, other days for leaves (lettuce, cabbage), and some for fruits (peppers, tomatoes, apples).  Some periods of astrological transition are not great for sowing anything- we personally call these gray days.  Research looked at astrological influences on not only seed germination but also nutrition, ability to store, taste, and disease resistance.

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So, this sounds very complicated and a little whacky.  The calendar makes it pretty easy and clear as to when to plant leaf, fruit, root or flower things.  The complicated part is making that work to your schedule.  There are times when it isn’t practical- something just has to get planted because of the weather or other time constraints, but in general we do try to honor it.  A major exception is in our sprout seeding schedule because it is such a specific and tight weekly routine (but we do see negative impacts of not following the calendar showing up in our sprout yields at times).  For most of our seeding we have an idea of a date we’d like to plant on (say early March for tomatoes) we then look at the calendar and see that there is a few day window in early March that are fruit days, so we plan to seed in that period.  Throughout the season we also try to transplant and weed plants according to the appropriate calendar days.  For harvesting crops we generally don’t follow the calendar accept for storage crops that are picked all at once such as winter squash.  We also try to do any foliar spraying or fertilizing according to calendar days.  Though it sounds crazy, following the calendar actually helps focus your work.  In the growing season on any given day there are hundreds of things you could do, but if the calendar says it is a root day- it helps limit your possibilities and you know your focus can be on all the carrots, onions, beets, etc. and you’ll get to the raspberries and tomatoes on another day.

As for the whacky accusations- who knows if cosmic forces are really making a difference in your carrot yield.  Certainly many millions of people have had successful gardens throughout the ages without this calendar.  However, it is clear that the moon, sun and planets have significant influences on water movement on Earth.  Most living creatures are made of a lot of water, including us.  At the very least cosmic forces are having effect on water movement in plants, and it is not hard to imagine that other energetic forces that we don’t fully understand yet may also be influencing a plant’s life.  We think the potential benefits of following the calendar outweigh the inconvenience, and actually like how it helps structure our days.

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Seed Choices

Sage helps with the seed ordering process.  She is helpful with pretty much all activities that involve crinkly paper and take place on the couch.

Sage helps with the seed ordering process. She is helpful with pretty much all activities that involve crinkly paper and take place on the couch.

Despite the current extended period of below zero weather there are some inklings that spring is getting nearer.  Our chickens have increased their egg production to 5 a day (up from an average of 0-1 a day), it is light until 5pm, and our seed order is just about done.  Sometimes I think we must be the most complicated people in the world.  It takes us forever to order seeds- there are a lot of variables and a lot of varieties we want to try.

Some of our favorite seed companies.  Sand Hill, Turtle Tree, Horizon Herbs, High Mowing, Johhny's, Baker Creek, and Fedco
Some of our favorite seed companies. Sand Hill, Turtle Tree, Horizon Herbs, High Mowing, Johhny’s, Baker Creek, and Fedco

We primarily purchase organic and open pollinated seeds, so we gravitate towards catalogs that offer them.  If we can’t find an organic source of varieties we like we look for seed sources that are small growers.  There are a few catalogs that either grow a high percentage of seed themselves or have a coding system that tells you what size/type of operation grew the seed (Turtle Tree and Fedco are great for this reason).  Between all of the catalogs we shop around for: the varieties we are interested in, days to maturity, how they were grown, if they were grown in a climate reasonably like ours, price, and also seed count.

Seed count is something new for us this year.  We have been hearing that seed grown by large seed growers is sorted by size.  All of the biggest seeds basically go to very large growers in the industry first.  There is a size hierarchy and basically most of the seeds that end up going to home gardeners/small farms is the bottom of the barrel.  Those seed growers know that larger seeds have the most potential to grow the best plants.  Therefore it makes sense to shop around for the largest seeds or save your own seeds, or buy from companies that are just growing seed for gardeners.  Some catalogs include seed counts/ounce or pound for each type of vegetable.  It of course is an average, so not totally accurate, but comparing between those companies that offer a seed count can tell you if one has bigger seed over all.

Beyond the seven catalogs pictured above we have a couple of other small sources to recommend:  Hudson Valley Seed Library, Wild Garden Seed, and Solstice Seeds.  These are all small seed growers.  Many varieties that have been bred by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed can also be purchased through Fedco.  Solstice Seeds is offered by our friend Sylvia Davatz in Hartland, VT.   She is an amazing seed saver, growing all of the seeds she offers in her relatively small garden with some help from several community members.  She specializes in crops that do well in her Central Vermont climate.  Solstice Seeds is not on line but you can download a copy of the catalog here Solstice_Seeds_Catalogue_2014 and mail or email your order.

We try to save at least a few of our own seeds every year.  In 2013 we saved seed of one onion variety, all of the tomatoes we want to grow again, and several herbs.  We would really like to do more seed saving each year.  It takes a fair amount of planning ahead, and for some vegetables it can require isolation or hand pollination.  We’ll keep working towards the goal of saving more of our own seed and being able to swap with others in our region.

Happy planning and seed ordering!

Flowers of NY Early Onion from which we saved seed in 2013

Flowers of NY Early Onion from which we saved seed in 2013

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Dreaming of Projects for the Green Months Ahead

100_4604This time of year possibilities seem endless.  There are many changes we’d like to make on the farm, projects to finish and new ones to start.  Although it is fun to think about what we’d like to plant and what animals we’d like to raise, the list can also look a little intimidating.  In thinking about this post I asked myself, “Why would anyone like to read about our farm goals?  Should we put something so personal out for the world to see? (sarcasm inserted here, as our readership is quite small)”  The answer I gave to myself is that perhaps there are some people out there interested in our plans and they may be inspired by some of our ideas or want to share words of advice or caution about them.  There is also the idea that stating goals to someone else makes you a little more accountable to actually achieving them.  So here is a list of some things we’d like to work on this year.  They may get finished and you’ll probably here about them in future posts, or you may hear about them in following years.

1.    Grow plants and use growing space to their full potential. We are frequently reminded about the fertility and nutrient requirements for crops when you plant a whole bed of something and it yields very little.  Instead of falling into the thought pattern that we need more and more garden space to increase our yields we’d like to focus on improving fertility in certain garden spots, paying more attention to specific nutrient, spacing and water requirements so that the garden spaces we do have are more productive.  In this same vein of thought we hope to utilize the space in our greenhouses better.  There is room to go up and down.  We may shift some beds around a bit so that we can trellis on the back wall of the greenhouse.  We’d also like to make long hanging planters for lettuce that can be suspended from the cross supports.  Looking downward in space, we have a big hole dug in the middle of the greenhouse for a worm pit that will house red wigglers decomposing compostables under the walkway, we just need to finish and fill it.

2. Build a root cellar/passive cooler.  Though our root pit has worked great for us it

Root pit in need of expansion

Root pit in need of expansion

is too small.  We would like to build a root cellar into a hill.  We are researching the construction possibilities and looking into building with earth bags.  We have visited a passive freezer in Essex, VT where they freeze soda bottles and buckets of water in the winter and then close off their very well insulated root cellar space to have a freezer into the summer months.  We would like to adapt this idea so that frozen buckets can be brought into a portion of the root cellar towards spring so that it can continue to be used as a cooler in the summer months.  We may try to do crowd funding to help pay for this project. 

3. Sprout grow room renovations.  This one actually needs to happen sooner rather than later.  We want to open up a wall and make other plumbing/work space improvements to our sprout growing area to help transfer heat, airflow and have more room in general.  We would love to switch to a non-petroleum heat source for the room.  We like the idea of a rocket mass heater, but are skeptical that we could get one insured.

 4. Increase our CSA members, especially from the very local community and have more involvement with neighbors.

CSA members and local folks enjoying samples at our open house in September.  We'd like to do more of these type of events.

CSA members and local folks enjoying samples at our open house in September.

5. Chickens, pigs and Lucky. We plan to raise some meat birds this year for the first time.  We’re still not sure if we’ll do the slaughtering ourselves or hire a mobile slaughterer.  We’ve been rotating our pigs each year on the same field for the past 3 years and it seems they may be getting to the point of doing more damage than improvement.  We’d like to move them into different edge areas and possibly into the woods, which requires experimenting with different fencing systems.  Training Lucky the ox continues to be a slow and turbulent process- we hope he is still with us in a year and that he is pulling firewood and other heavy stuff around.

Pig plowing

Pig plowing

6. Fill, build and dig more terraces and contour beds.  We hope to keep adding to the terraces behind our house and start some new beds also on that hill and elsewhere that will follow the contours of the hill.  Swales will be dug behind the beds and trees and/or annuals will be planted into the mounds on the downhill side of the swales (I know that deserves more explanation, but it’ll have to wait).

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 7. Deal with flooding and erosion in our lower field and work on design layout for tree plantings, pasture and annual gardens.  This one is a doosy.  We have dug a few swales by hand to try to help slow down and absorb seasonal water flows that come off the hill behind our field that have been causing major erosion.  We need to do more consulting about this, probably dig more swales and plant them with trees.  If we can get the water situation a little more stable we’ll move on to creating beds for annual vegetables and possibly more fruit tree/shrub plantings.

 8. Explore and implement some alternative energy options.  We’d love to get a solar panel and implement some form of solar hot water heating.  We realize our vulnerability when the power goes out and we have no water (we have a deep well that does not gravity feed).  We would like to insure access to water by either having an off grid power system, installing a deep well hand pump, or explore digging another spring.  All of these options have a pretty big price tag so they will most likely be a work in progress.

9. Last but not least is our dream of building an outdoor kitchen.  This most likely will not happen in 2014, but perhaps we’ll get started.  It is fun to think about anyway.  Just behind our house incorporated into the terracing we’d like to build an earthen oven with a rocket stove and seating and counter space all under a roof that we can collect water from.  Beyond our own personal use of this kitchen our thought is that we might offer wood fired pizzas with home grown seasonal toppings through our CSA in future years.

We love your comments and feedback!

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Some Places You Can Find Us Next Week and Beyond

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Greetings in 2014!  We have made it to another year and are looking forward to another year of growing, learning, creating and eating.  We have a couple of events coming up next week.  We’ll be speaking about no-till gardening at the Newport Natural’s Cafe on Wednesday January 8 at 6pm.  We’ll be speaking mostly about our experience at Peace of Earth Farm creating gardens with sheet mulching, terracing and using wood to build beds (hugelkultur), and involving animals in the work to prepare land and add fertility.  After 4 years working with our no-till system we have some success stories and some “wish we would have done that differently” stories to share about creating and maintaining gardens without mechanical help.

On Saturday January 11, you can find us at the Capital City Farmer’s Market with our sprouts and shoots as well as some winter veggies, dried herbs, and hopefully some sprouted humus (still working on that one).  This indoor market in Montpelier meets bi weekly in the winter, though there is only one date in January.  We’ll be at all of the other winter dates through April as well.  Check out the Capital City Farmer’s Market website for more information about dates, directions and all the great vendors that will be there.  We are excited to try this market out, it sounds like a busy one.  Hopefully people are hungry for something green at this time of year!

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The Fat of the Land

Pig butchering time has come around again.  Last weekend we had our pig slaughtered on farm and with the help of our parents did the butchering at home.  This year we had only one pig instead of two, so the process went more quickly.  Beyond the usual meat cuts we also made 3 varieties of sausage (Chorizo, Luganega, and Breakfast), scrapple (see last year’s blog on scrapple making), and rendered lard.  We are also trying our hand at dry curing one of the jowls, the recipe is called Guanciale and it is the simplest process for dry curing meat we could find.  We need to see how that comes out and make sure we don’t die of botulism before sharing that process with the world.

Lard and animal fats in general have been much maligned in recent decades, but it seems the tide is turning and animal fats are coming back into acceptability these days.  Lard is a good fat for high heat cooking and contains a lot of fat-soluble vitamins including vitamin D.  We also think it tastes delicious, so we render all of the fat that gets trimmed from the pig into lard.  We use it for cooking and baking.  Here is the basic process:

  1. Trim any extra fat that you don’t want to stay with the meat cuts throughout the butchering process and collect it in a bowl.  Some people separate the fat from the belly from fat that is more from the back and rest of the body as they have different qualities.  We have never separated them though as there are already too many bowls and different things to keep track of at that point and have found our lard to be totally fine for our use.
  2. If you have access to a grinder, it really helps to grind the fat before melting.  You don’t have to, but it makes the process go faster and will probably yield more.
  3. Put the ground fat in a pot and boil at medium heat.  Definitely keep an eye on it and stir to keep from sticking. The fat that we got from one pig fit into two pots one about 1 1/2G and the other 2 ½-3G.  The smaller pot took about 30 minutes to melt fully.  The larger pot took closer to one hour.
  4. When the lard is ready to pour it will take on a golden color (both the liquid fat and the bits that are floating in it).  The bits are called cracklings and they are edible, though we usually feed them to our chickens.
  5. Have a pot or bowl ready with a colander lined with cheesecloth over it.  Pour hot fat through the strainer.  We poured into an 8 cup Pyrex so that the liquid could then be poured into pans easily.
  6. Press the cracklings that end up in the cheesecloth with a spoon until most of the fat is squeezed out then set them aside.  You’ll probably have to pour through several batches.
  7. Pour liquid fat into shallow pans and let cool until solid.
  8. Cut lard into sections, wrap in freezer paper and freeze.  I am told my Grandma Mast used to have a lard can that was filled with lard and stored in the root cellar and that kept just fine.  If you have a root cellar you could try keeping it there, freezing seems a little less risky though.
    Ground fat before melting

    Ground fat before melting

    Fat starting to melt and get clear

    Fat starting to melt and get clear

    Bubbling and golden color of liquid and cracklings achieved, it is ready to pour

    Bubbling and golden color of liquid and cracklings achieved, it is ready to pour

    Pouring the hot fat through cheesecloth

    Pouring the hot fat through cheesecloth

    Pressed cracklings

    Pressed cracklings

    Fat poured in the pan and set outside to cool

    Fat poured in the pan and set outside to cool

    The finished product ready to wrap

    The finished product ready to wrap

    Our total yield of lard was around 15# for one pig

    Our total yield of lard was around 15# for one pig

    Here's the sweet lady that made it all possible.  Her name was Hazel and she was most definately the sweetest pig we have ever had.  Thank you Hazel for bringing us joy in life and beyond.

    Here’s the sweet lady that made it all possible. Her name was Hazel and she was most definitely the sweetest pig we have ever had. Thank you Hazel for bringing us joy in life and beyond.

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