Planting on Contour

swale digging tools of the trade

swale digging tools of the trade

We are now into our 5th growing season at Peace of Earth Farm.  In the beginning there were many trees to clear and garden beds to create.  Our initial strategy was to start building gardens close to the house and in areas where the least amount of clearing needed to happen.  This strategy led us to the creation of a lot of gardens on hills and slopes.  On the steepest slopes we did use terracing to prevent erosion and build soil (by utilizing lots of woody debris from all the clearing we had done).  We did not necessarily build those terraces on contour though.  Many of the garden beds we have built on slopes show evidence of some degree of erosion and unequal water distribution.  The importance of planting along a contour line has become more clear as we observe our beds over time.  A contour line is basically a level line across a slope.  At this point any new beds we create we are forming on contour, and may end up reshaping beds we have already created over time.

This past winter when doing the farm planning and mapping we decided we needed more space and hence some new beds.  Winter squash is the crop we often use to break in new beds as they are large plants that are good at spreading and smothering weeds.  So we decided to create some new beds on contour on a slope.  Looking at the pictures below you might ask why we did not utilize the lovely flattish field it is next to instead of the slope that was recently populated by pine trees.  The answer is that the lovely flattish field gets flooded seasonally and we are only grazing animals on it until we have established other flood control measures (more on that in the future).

To form these beds we first found the contour of the land using an a frame level and marked it with stakes.  We then dug out a trench or swale and put the dug out soil downslope to create a berm.  The purpose of swales is to capture water that is running down the surface of a slope, slowing it down and allowing it to sink into the soil down at root level where plants can access it over time.  Swales are used in different ways in different climates and soil types.  The important difference between a swale and a ditch is that we are not directing water down slope and off site for drainage, we are trying to hold onto it and distribute it evenly.  For these particular swales; we dug them, ammended them with compost, gypsum, kelp and greensand, and seeded the concave portion to white clover.  We then planted the squash on the berms, laid cardboard on top (as the sod that is inside the berms is sure to grow upward eventually), and mulched with grass that was freshly scythed.  Hopefully we’ll have pictures of cascading vines and ripe squash to show off in the future.

These images (above) show two other swales we dug earlier this spring before things started to green up.  These were planted to hardy low maintenance bushes like Black Currants, Nanking Cherry, Beach Plum and Buffaloberry (an edible nitrogen fixing shrub).  They are a bit narrower and steeper.  The berm and swale has also been seeded with a mix of clovers, lupines, other annual flowers and some deep rooted radish and turnips.  These hardy shrubs should be able to hold their own once established and will not need a totally mulched and maintained understory, so we will let the clover dominated ground cover establish and hand mow it periodically instead of trying to keep the whole area mulched and weeded.  The bushes we planted were pretty tiny, but are establishing.  I’m sure they are loving the rain that is steadily coming down outside our window.

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Perennializing Salad

At this time of year the battle with grass is ever waging in our garden beds.  Looking around for images to capture I found myself much more satisfied with close up shots than panoramic images of weedy garden beds.  Why not focus on “weeds” that we appreciate and love, and even some that we have nurtured.

There are many wild perennials and self seeding annuals that fill the early spring niche of salad and cooking greens.  As we are pulling dandelions, lambs quarter, and purslane out of the garden we sometimes save some to add to salads.  This year we roasted a lot of dandelion root for tea.  The beauty of these plants is that they generally took no human effort to grow, they are more nutritious than the plants we do grow, and they are earlier than anything we seed into the garden.  We haven’t found anything useful to do with grass though, except let other animals graze it.

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Another category of early greens are patches that we have intentionally or unintentionally allowed to grow to maturity, drop their seeds, and naturalize.  This gets a little complicated in annual garden beds.  It works better in perennial gardens or along perennial crop rows such as asparagus.  We’ve let chervil, several varieties of chicory, lettuce, amaranth, arugula, dill, parsley and orach seed into some pathways and around perennial fruits.  You have to be willing to accept a little disorder in the garden, but are rewarded with a variety of salad additions that act as ground cover with very little work.  If things get out of hand you can weed them or cover with mulch to thin the population.  At this point these little patches are too small and irregular to be a big part of our commercial production, but they add variety and flavor to our mixes and home salads.  Maybe we will be more intentional with it in the future and maintain whole areas of “perennialized” salads.

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Saying Goodbye to a Friend


We recently decided that we could no longer keep our ox Lucky.  He had come to us at the age of 5, a full grown holstein.  In retrospect the combination of a very large animal and two inexperienced trainers was not a good idea, no matter how trained he was to begin with.  We had high expectations of being able to work with him to haul firewood and other heavy loads around the farm.  As we tried hitching him, reality soon hit.  Early on there were several incidents of him running with loads.  We made many mistakes along the way and he was quick to learn that he was much bigger than we are.  Over the last year and a half we kept working with him twice a day leading with a halter and practicing commands.  There were many ups and downs of stretches of good behavior and hope that he was improving followed by some erratic behavior like running.  Over this past winter his behavior got worse and degraded to the point that he was very difficult to get a halter on.  He learned how to pull his head away so that he was difficult to correct.  Eventually his behavior made me feel unsafe and I dreaded working with him.  We knew the prospect of hitching him and doing useful tasks on the farm were not likely, so we decided to slaughter him.  It was a hard decision as we had grown to love him and had spent so much time trying to make it work.

The up-side is that we learned a lot about working with oxen in the process.  We would like to try working with another single ox or team in the future, but want to take the summer off and think things over.  Next time we plan on starting with a calf/calves and really establishing a relationship of respect when the animals are small.

We thank Lucky for the friendly bovine energy he brought to the farm, his good grazing work, and his big pile of manure.


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Greenhorns Radio Interview

We were honored to be on the Greenhorns Radio Program today for our first ever radio interview.  The short conversation features musings about our long land search, farming with animal power, and notable quotes like, “You can’t eat a tractor.”

You can listen to the interview at the Greenhorns Radio Program page at the Heritage Radio Network.

If you’ve never heard of the Greenhorns you should check out their website.  They do all sorts of supportive things for young farmers.  Farmhack is one program spawned by the Greenhorns that collects and creates all sorts of low tech innovations and ideas related to farming.  Check them out!

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New options for CSA shares

Things are starting to green up and push through the mulch.  The garlic, rhubarb, spinach and arugula are growing.  There are many seeds and transplants headed into the ground.  We hope to have a nice selection of options for the June shares in a few weeks.

If you are interested in signing up for a CSA share please act fast!  We’d like to know how many shares are filled, even if payment isn’t complete until the first pick up date.

We are pleased to announce a new pick up option in Hardwick.  If that is more convenient for you than driving to Albany, please let us know.

Are you a summer resident or planning on going on vacation for a number of weeks?  We can be flexible – don’t let that keep you from signing up for a CSA share.  Simply let us know how many weeks you will be around and we can charge per week.

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Community Supported Agriculture?

100_4587The title begs a question.  In our brochure we give a synopsis of what we think community supported agriculture, or a CSA is.  However, the focus of this post is, “Is it working?  Does community really support agriculture?”

Here’s how our brochure sums up CSA

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a commitment involving shared responsibility between the “eaters” and the “growers”.  By purchasing a share from our farm you will help guarantee a summer’s worth of sales and offer up front cash for a small start up farm.  In return you will receive a wide variety of fresh vegetables as they mature in season at near wholesale prices.   You will also have a chance to get to know a local farm and experience how your food is grown. 

Many of the early CSA farms started in the 1970s and 80s were member initiated.  People in a given region that really wanted to have access to a fresh and clean food source would create a cooperative and in some cases hire a farmer to produce their food.  The movement was really driven by people wanting to have direct input into how their food was grown.  The emphasis was on supporting the farmer to grow for the group.

Today most farms offering CSA shares are privately owned and operated, though some non-profit member driven CSAs exist.  Many farms offer CSA shares as one more way to market their goods.  As CSAs become more common it seems they are adapting to be competitive with other marketing methods.  Many offer free choice vegetables, delivery far from the farm, and on-line ordering options.  For many eaters these options may be just what they are looking for.

At Peace of Earth Farm we are trying to hold on to the older CSA ideal of having members pick up at the farm and have a direct connection to where their food is coming from.  We are hoping that members will ask questions, look around, participate in events, maybe do some work trade.  We’d really like to get to know more people in our immediate community and share how we are growing food.  Our rural landscape, with many home gardeners and people habituated to shopping at mainstream grocery stores has made participation limited.  Perhaps we’ll have to branch out and do drop offs at further locations, time will tell.

There is also something to be said about enjoying a wide variety of produce in season and trying new things.  Some find the idea of picking up a mystery box of produce each week daunting.  How will I plan my meals for the week?  What if I don’t like the vegetables or don’t know what they are?  At the opposite end of the spectrum others look forward to a mystery box, feeling excitement at seeing how the variety changes in weekly increments, letting the box inspire the menu for the week and introduce new flavors to the palate.  We put considerable effort into offering a wide variety of produce without inundating people with too many uncommon and lesser known veggies.  From our perspective being able to plan our crop production for a known quantity of members with an even variety distribution is even more valuable than receiving up front cash.  At our scale, letting people have free choice of vegetables in their weekly shares would be very challenging and potentially create more waste.

We’d love to hear comments from readers about what you are looking for in a CSA.  What may keep you from becoming a member?  If you have participated in a CSA farm, what were the best and worst experiences?

Hopefully this post dos not come across as a complaint or accusation to others.  The intent is an expression of what is important to our farm and how we hope to both support and be supported by the community in seasons to come.

 On that note, CSA shares for 2014 are still available.  You can find out more here.  Also, we are hosting an Open CSA Farm Day on may 4 from 1-4pm.  Come check out the farm and get your hands dirty laying down some sheet mulch.  More details on the events page.


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Seed Starting- Some New Ideas


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.


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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