Tag Archives: soil

Day 3: Tucking the farm in for the winter

There is something deeply satisfying about having a job that goes to sleep with the trees. Our longest work days correspond to the longest days of the year, so by the time we hear the first geese call overhead, we are pretty ready to start putting the farm to sleep.

 

For the vegetable fields, that means mowing the last standing crops, pulling up plastic mulch, discing in the crop residues and planting cover crops. If we have our act together, which—remarkably—we did this year, all of the beds are cover cropped except for the lettuce, greens, and root crops that carry us through the Thanksgiving markets.

We tried three combinations of cover crops this year. First we put in a mix of winter rye and crimson clover, and when we ran out of that, we seeded a bed of oats and peas. The oats and peas will probably die at some point this winter, but then they will become mulch, which will still protect the soil.

We also seeded a mix of spring barley and Austrian winter peas, which, like the rye/clover mix, should survive until spring. Our main goal with cover crops this time of year is to have roots in the ground at all times. Above-ground, the leaves have dropped and all signs point to sleep, but below-ground, life is teeming. Soils are still warm and roots are no longer burdened with leaves, fruit, and other pulls on their productivity. They continue to grow rapidly, exchanging mineral nutrients for sugary secretions, they also help feed the vast community of arthropods, worms, and microbes that do the work of breaking down all those vegetable plants. And if the roots belong to a tree or berry bush, they are gathering and storing the nutrients they need for spring leaf-out.

All this activity will eventually slow way down when the ground freezes, but the soil is one part of the farm that will never fully go to sleep.

Advertisements

Giving thanks: seven posts in seven days

Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday. For us, it marks the end of our markets and celebrates the successful completion of another growing season. It is an occasion to gather with family and friends for no other reason than to be together and to feast. It is an excuse to make—and eat—ridiculous amounts of food. And it is an annual reminder to feel grateful.

We couldn’t feel more grateful this year. We have had an incredible season filled with wonderful people, great markets and unforgetable milestones. The experience of starting a second season and having customers remember us, and seek us out at market, was unexpectedly gratifying. The oven that we built earlier this year allowed us to bake much more bread, and even dabble in pastry. Our CSA expanded and included donors that allowed us to subsidize shares for four families through our Pay-What-You-Can program. El Nino provided autumn warmth that made November markets positively pleasant.

But nothing beats getting to know our community more deeply, and knowing that we are serving it in ways that we believe in. We are so grateful to you, the people that support us, and our farm. You are a big part of what makes what we do possible.

The other part is the work our soil does for us. We had the pleasure this year of seeing our soil respond to our care. An eye-popping root crop followed a buckwheat cover crop, and the soil is looser now than ever. The conversion of seed into vegetable never ceases to be a source of awe. May we never loose sight of the soil, and sun, and rain, that make our life possible.

Over the next week, you can read some more specific reasons why we are feeling grateful this year. This is the first of seven posts in seven days. Then we will take a break for the holidays, and be back at it in January. Happy reading!

So, what about those cover crops?

[Follow-up to Growing cover crops as if they are cash crops] Now that we’ve tilled in that buckwheat and planted radishes, turnips, bok choi, arugula, and other mustard greens there, we can give you an update on the experience. The buckwheat worked well–we mowed it at the right time, just as it was flowering but before it set seed, and I used the discs on the same day, which helped break up the roots and cover up the mowed buckwheat to speed decomposition. Our discs are a little wimpy (but we got them for free–thanks Janet and Rob!) so I was worried they wouldn’t tear up the roots, but the soil looked fluffy and loose and the buckwheat was totally dead when I was finished. Then we waited a week and I disked again, and then a week later I rototilled for a nice flat seed bed, as we were direct seeding, not transplanting. There were some buckwheat stems still visible in the soil, but they didn’t slow down the precision seeder. The seeding was quick and easy.

That’s the good news. The medium news is that the sorghum-sudan grass is a little out of control. Seeding it in a mix with buckwheat worked well; we mowed the patch when the buckwheat started to flower and the sudan grass was still little. Well, at least we mowed where we could. The patch neighbours a melon planting whose vines had spilled over into the cover cropped area, so there was nothing we could do without damaging our melons. (Note to selves: plant sprawly viney things next to things that don’t need to be mowed!) So now we have tall woody grass that is trying to flower, which is bad–we don’t need another weed in the fields–so this week Heather went through and cut off the flower heads by hand. We will still have to deal with all of the slow-to-break-down plant material come fall, but luckily we tried sorghum-sudan grass in a non-crucial area of our fields, so (hopefully) it won’t slow us down too much next year. (Thanks to Michael and Arden of Great Day Gardens for the sudan grass seed–we promise we will try it again!)

And then there is the bad news: the area that didn’t get a cover crop at all, and, predictably, grew up in weeds. Just as predictably, that field looked really trashy even after I chisel plowed (that’s a deep plow that breaks up roots and compaction without turning over the soil) and disced twice. The weeds had grown tall and deep-rooted, and then they flowered, so their carbon-to-nitrogen ratio changed to favor more carbon, which doesn’t break down quickly. So we’ll most likely be kicking ourselves when we transplant kohlrabi into that bed in a couple weeks because we’ll have to move aside plant residues to get to actual soil.

So while we feel like we did a better job this year than last, this mixed bag of experiences serves to motivate us to continue to try to improve our crop succession planning for next year. We clearly still have a lot to learn.

A little farm history

This afternoon I drove up the road to my neighbor’s house to talk to him about when he might be available to help us out with his 80 hp tractor. Just before thanksgiving, we bought an old chisel plow, but don’t have the horsepower to pull it. The ground is too wet right now, but I thought I’d see if my neighbor had time early next week, if conditions are right. When I drove up, he was supervising some siding being put on an old barn. He agreed the ground was too wet, but said that he’d stop by sometime in the next week. But he invited me in, and said, I want to show you something.

He took a book down off the shelf, a coffee-table book of photographs that his daughter had put together about a few years ago. It was professionally printed and looked very nice. It appeared to be a one-off, self-published book that she had printed as a Christmas or birthday gift. Inside were portraits of family ancestors, snapshots of my neighbor as a boy, sometimes alongside snapshots of his grandchildren doing the same things: playing in the spring-fed horse trough, or posing with a rifle next to a freshly killed buck. There was also a page on Hurricane Camille, a 1969 storm that unleashed devastating rains on parts of Virginia. According to the Washington Post, parts of Nelson County experienced the heaviest rains, with over 25 inches falling in just eight hours, causing flash floods and mudslides that killed at least 150 people in Nelson County alone.

When I got home, I wanted to show Heather the photo of a Camille mudslide I had seen in my neighbor’s book. A Google image search of “Hurricane Camille Nelson County” turned up the photo in the first page of results:


(for a hi-res version, see here)

My neighbor’s house is at the top of the photo. The road is Shaeffer’s Hollow Lane, and the East Branch of Hat Creek flows along the bottom of the photo. The house in the group of trees in the center of the photo is where we live now! My neighbor said that the big trees around the house caught the logs at the head of the mudslide and created a little dam around the house, which is why the mudslide parted around the house. Today, our fields are to the left of the driveway, and our greenhouses are to the right of the driveway. Had they existed in 1969, both fields and greenhouses would have been devastated by the mudslide.