I took a bit of a hiatus from the blog while the ground was frozen but thanks to an inspiring workshop at the Dickinson College Farm, I am back with all sorts of new ideas. The farm is partnering PASA’s Good Food Neighborhood Program to put on a monthly workshops all year long. The workshop was actually a few weekends ago but I lost my notes in the chaos that is my home. Thankfully, my notepad re-emerged under an avalanche of other papers so I can finally write up my post about the session.
When I saw the workshops posted, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from them. I have been gardening for quite a few years and although I have learned a lot, I still have room to grow. My concern was that it was going to be tailored more for complete beginners. I was happy to find out that was a wrong expectation as the session really did have something for everyone. Here is the description that was originally posted:
January 28th: Summer Dreamin’:
Despite the cold weather outside, let’s talk summer! The winter months provide us with time indoors to start planning for the gardening season ahead. This workshop will discuss how to start a backyard garden, from designing garden beds and soil preparation to starting seeds and planning for continual harvests throughout the growing season! We will also share strategies for healthy crop rotations, disease prevention and lessons learned from last year!
Now on to my extensive notes. Others might not take away as much from my crazy note-taking but at least this way I can refer back to this post when my memory fails me. Here is a fun image gallery before you get too bored with my writing.
Planning the Garden and Planting
Jen Halpine is the manager/farmer of the farm and she has extensive training using the Biointensive method. I had never heard of this method, although in reality I was already sort of practicing it. Biointensive was described as “maximizing output in the smallest area” (she recommended not going smaller than a 3×3 foot space). They use a garden layout of blocks 4-5 feet wide and 20 feet long with a 1 foot path between to maximize production. I had always packed as much into my garden as possible but I never kept the same blocks so each year I would reformat the layout, not just rotating the plants.
They have some additional recommendations on crop rotation that I didn’t know about. They plant cereal crops (wheat/rye/legumes) in the beds after harvest so they only get to be a few inches and then they mix them back into the soil for green manure that will add nitrogen into the ground.
Since they are a (small) commercial farm, they plan for continual harvest and continue to plant all season. My planning for the garden consists only of what I want to grow and then nurturing the plants to produce. I don’t make any big plans on how much food I want from each veggie. This is probably how I ended up with about 50 tomato plants last season. They have a very organized planning and planting process. Their example:
If you want 60lbs of tomatoes to can you need to figure out how many plants you need. Tomato plants produce approximately 7 lbs of tomatoes so to achieve 60 lbs you would need about 9 plants. They multiply how many plants they need by 1.3 to decide how many seeds they need to plant so that way if a few die, you will still have the correct amount. It’s amazing how much time they put into the planning process so they can execute the garden planting in a organized and methodical way.
Last year was the first attempt I made at growing using permaculture techniques. The only one I attempted was called the 3 sisters which puts squash, beans and corn together. The beans are supposed to use the corn as a pole to grow up but mine basically just consumed the corn and stunted it’s growth. The farm uses interplanting that seems to make more sense. Planted around the tomatoes they use spinach since it grows fast. This keeps the weeds to a minimum while the tomatoes grow out slowly over time and you can eat the spinach while you wait.
Preparing the Soil
The farm uses the double digging method to till the soil. Once again, it is something I had never heard of but was sold on the idea once I saw how it worked. As I mentioned before, the farm keeps the same beds each year and always have a 1 foot path in between. They try to never walk on the beds themselves so it doesn’t compress the soil. Even whey they are double digging they attempt to keep the soil the least compacted as possible. In the picture, they start at one end of a bed and dig up about a 2×4 foot space and drop it into a large bin, saving it to replace the last area that will be dug up later. They lay a piece of wood down on the bed to stand on so it distributes the persons weight and compacts the soil minimally.
They use a spade to dig up the first 12 inched and move it to fill in the first hole. They also then use a fork to penetrate the soil another 12 inches. they don’t remove this soil but just work it around to make it permeable. All through this process they are trying to keep the layers of the soil intact, so they shovel from the bottom and drop it into the next hole the same way. It’s not unlike taking cookies off a cookie sheet and putting on a plate.
Many people want to turn the soil over but that buries all of nutrients that came from the compost that was put on the top. Another difference visually than most gardens is that the beds are not flat. The don’t pack down the dirt so they plant directly into the mounded beds. This also makes complete sense to me even though I never thought much about it before.
The other option for double digging is instead of using a spade you use an amazing creation called the U-Bar. This thing is damn impressive and kind of frightening. It has these crazy spikes on the bottom to dig into the soil and you stand on it and rock back and forth to submerge the bottom into the ground. I got to test it out and I’m definitely going to buy one.
Other Tools Mentioned that I might need to buy:
Season Extension & Pest Control
They use Hoops and remay garden cloth to extend their season as long as possible. The low tunnel creates a microclimate like a little greenhouse. The same is also used as a visual barrier to pests. They secure the base with soil or sand and unveil it during the day during pollination periods to ensure fruiting. Pests prey on weak crops so they especially like seedlings so covering them after transplant is important as well. If insects are an issue they of course choose an organic spray as a last resort but also take into consideration other factors to minimize the impact on other bugs. They check for days when there is very little wind and spray at night when bees aren’t active.
Another way they extend the season earlier into the spring is through use of cold frames. I was planning on building some cold frames but that takes time and effort both of which I often am lacking. They brought up a nice easy solution that even I can work with. Instead of building an entire fixture you can use a few bales of hay and then just lay an old window on top. I have a few windows I have collected just for this purpose but the use of bales will make this a snap.
Garden Sunlight Requirements:
Target: 11 hours full sun
Minimum: 7 hours full sun
April 15th-May 1st
Soft Frost 10/15-11/15
Hard Frost 11/15
Frost Tolerant Vegetables to extend growing season
Determinant End – plant dies after fruiting
Indeterminate End (continual growth)
Plants to seed directly in the ground
Plants started in flats
Herbs (seed in January/February)
How to Grow More Vegetables
Seed To Seed