Planting the Garden

Our poor garden has been put on the backburner this spring as we’ve tackled other projects, dealt with crummy weather, and juggled trying to work full-time jobs while raising two kids. We developed a pretty good garden plan over the winter and started hundreds of transplants in Shannon’s art studio-turned nursery, but we’re a little off the pace we had hoped to keep in the garden. This past weekend was the first time we were able to get any of our transplants in the ground. By “we” I mean Shannon and the boys (when they weren’t busy climbing in the cedar trees on the edge of the woods). While my parents and I started construction of a 16’ x 20’ shed up by the house, Shannon tackled the garden. I had tilled up a smaller patch than we usually plant a couple weeks ago when the weather cooperated, so she was pretty much ready to go. Unfortunately for Shannon, we are working with some heavy clay soil that sometimes seems like concrete when you try to plant in it. She spent two backbreaking days planting things out and watering them in by hand.

For this year’s garden we decided to work with the typical 30” wide beds that a lot of market gardeners use to get us familiar with that set up. Shannon ran string to mark out her beds and then planted hundreds of tomatoes, peppers, okra, pac choi, eggplant, and flowers. We will go back in and set up a trellis system for the tomatoes, but we didn’t have time this weekend as we had to cut our work short on Sunday to take our Cornish Cross chickens and Muscovy drakes to the processor. Typically we would have our entire garden planted by mid to late April, but this year has been challenging and it feels like we just don’t have enough time to get everything done we need to do. We’re hoping to get the rest of the direct-seeded crops in the ground this week so we can get something checked off the to-do list.

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As I mentioned, our garden soil is pretty rough. We are working a plot of ground that was in a conventional rotation of corn and soybeans for years and then lay fallow after we purchased the ground. Unfortunately there’s a pretty good hard pan and quite a weed seed bank accumulated in the soil. We’re hoping to till up somewhere in the neighborhood of ¼ – ½ an acre this year and seed it with a cover crop to add some nitrogen, send some roots down into the compacted soil, and add some organic matter back into the soil once the cover crop is killed off. We have also been talking about having a local nursery haul in loads of compost and topsoil to accelerate the soil amending. Through a combination of bringing in soil, cover cropping, and then turning more toward a no-till strategy once we establish beds, we’re hoping we can change the composition of our soil to make it more desirable for market gardening. Once the beds are established we will likely utilize broadforks, tarps, and tools like the tilther and flame weeders that won’t damage the soil structure the way tilling does. But, for now, tilling is helping us get started.

This year is serving as a trial run for our farm. We just had our first batch of Cornish Cross processed (so expect a blog about that next week!) and we are due to get turkeys sometime in the next week or two. Once the shed build is finished we are going to turn our attention to fencing one of our pastures so we can bring sheep into the fold. After we are comfortable with the sheep, we plan to bring hogs onto the farm to run through our woodlot, but we’ll need fencing for that, too. These are all things that are new to us on some level. And although we’ve had gardens in the past, we’ve never had to really focus on the planning and succession planting that goes into market gardening. Unfortunately, we’re already falling down a bit on this. We have no season extension infrastructure and really hard soil to plant in. We’re realizing that this is going to require quite a bit more time, labor, and money to get the garden where we want it to be. It’s kind of a catch-22 because we’re fortunate in that we both have jobs to help support the farm and to allow us to not have to rely on farming as our income, but it also means we can’t spend the time we really need to be spending on the farm to get it up to speed quickly. Some people are able to devote all of their time to their farms at start-up and become fully operational in year one. We are clearly on a slower track than that. We are trying to build the farm without taking on debt and by adding ventures at a pace that allows us to be comfortable with each venture before adding another. Some days (ok, most days) I wish I could wave a magic wand and have a fully fenced property and a greenhouse/nursery/wash and pack station, but I think if we build slowly and methodically we will be able to understand our workflows and ultimately set everything up better than how I envision it without having ever worked all aspects of the farm.

So, what are the next steps for the garden? Well, we need to get stuff like squash, beans, corn, and melons in the ground first. The next big thing we need to do is set up some irrigation on a timer so that we don’t have to be out there dragging around hoses every day and spending time we don’t have watering the garden. We also will be putting down straw mulch around most of the plants to act as a weed suppressant and to have another material to incorporate back into the soil as we work to improve it. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever get to the garden I have imagined in my head, but I know that with enough time and organic matter, we’ll be able to achieve it. I may have to come back and read that last sentence next time one of our kids falls down in the garden and gets road rash from dried out clay soil. I’m sure we’ll have some struggles with weeds, pests, and diseases this year, but hopefully we will still have a bountiful harvest. In the future we will profile some of the varieties we chose to grow this year and let you know what we think of them.

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