Each year we spend many hours planning and discussing our goals and aspirations for the farm. When crop planning, important decisions need to be made about what we will grow, where each crop should be planted, and how much of each we will plant. We take into consideration whether we are planting to harvest, for use as a cover crop, or to attract pollinators. Decisions are often made years in advance to ensure we are continually growing healthy soil. Rotating crops is imperative as different crops have different nutrient cycles and they will extract nutrients from and can deposit nutrients into the soil.
Some of our crops such as rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries are perennials and will regrow from rootstock, but others need to be started from seed. In the fall we plant crops that grow from bulbs such as garlic and tulips. Plants with slower root development and those that are susceptible to cooler weather (i.e., tomatoes, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers) are seeded in the spring, in the greenhouses. Other crops such as corn and peas that are fast-growing and not affected by cool temperatures are seeded directly into the field when soil is consistently warm.
We save seeds from heirloom crops such as peas, tomatoes, squash, and garlic. We choose healthy plants with good traits and then carefully extract the seeds and let them completely dry. We also purchase quality, certified seeds from trusted providers we have used for many years. Seeds must be protected from moisture, animals, and extreme temperatures. We store our seeds in clean, plastic storage containers inside an old cooler unit. At home, you could try using an old cooler chest or Rubbermaid tub.
A lot of preparation goes into seeding crops. Firstly, we need to establish a safe place for our seedlings to grow. Sometimes we use a grow light to start a few plants in our sheds in the cold winter months. By mid-March, we start up our greenhouses where we begin seeding crops that take a long time to mature. We ensure appropriate heat and humidity levels in the greenhouses with a ventilation system and a constant heat supply (propane). Animal proofing the greenhouse is very important. We try to keep most of our seedling trays high up off the ground and wrap hardware mesh around the bottom of the greenhouse to keep the little critters out. Sometimes we play loud music to scare the birds away.
At the farm, we use a variety of supplies for seeding (e.g., germination trays, transplant trays, fiber pots). When reusing trays, we carefully wash and disinfect them to prevent the spread of disease. We seed rhubarb, tomatoes, and peppers directly into germination trays. When the seedlings have started to develop a strong root system, stalk, and small leaves, we transplant them into individual cell transplant trays. They will stay in these trays until they are strong enough to be transplanted by hand outside in the field or directly into the soil floor of the greenhouse. Kale, onions, lettuce, flowers, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and squash plants are seeded by hand or vacuum seeder into transplant trays. When these seedlings are developed and the weather is just right, they will be transplanted directly in the field by hand or with a water wheel transplanter. Sweet corn, peas, and beans are sowed by a planter behind a tractor, directly into the field. This year we retrofitted an old corn planter into a no-till planter. We will use this no-till planter to sow our crops without disturbing the soil and microorganisms within it.
Choosing the right growing medium is important as seedlings need consistent access to water, oxygen, and nutrients. We use a combination of different growing mediums to start our seeds. A mixture of compost and peat moss is used for tomato and pepper plants. This year we are experimenting with a pre-mixed growing medium and then adding in earthworm castings (manure) and mycorrhizal fungi for our other crops. It is important to understand how long the seeds will take to germinate and develop into hardy seedlings. The longer they will stay in the initial growing medium, the more nutrients they will require (i.e., more compost or fertilizer).
Keeping seedlings healthy can be quite challenging. They need to be continually monitored for moisture, heat, and nutrient levels. It is important that seedlings do not get too hot or wet and that they get enough nutrients and sunlight. If seedlings do not get enough light they will stretch up and become lanky. If they are overwatered they can develop root rot and the seedlings will become “lazy” as they don’t have to work to get nutrients. Before transplanting outside, it is important to harden off seedlings so they can survive “real life” conditions in the field. We harden seedlings off by limiting watering and exposing them to cooler temperatures.
When planning out a small home garden, get creative and have fun! Remember to consider how long each plant will take to mature and what vegetables grow best in your environment. You don’t need a huge greenhouse or any fancy supplies. Reusable containers with clear plastic lids make excellent germination trays as they act as mini-greenhouses. Egg cartons also make excellent seed starters and transplant trays. Cardboard egg cartons can be divided and placed directly into a garden. The cardboard will support the seedling as it grows and then composts down. A spray bottle is a helpful tool to prevent overwatering. All you need is a few squirts to keep the soil moist each day. And lastly, don’t get excited and plant outside too early! Cool soil temperatures and frost can cause numerous problems such as stunted growth and poor root development. Seedlings that are planted too early will be susceptible to wilting and disease. We usually wait until mid-May before we transplant our seedlings into the field.
“When life hands you dirt, plant seeds.”
― Matshona Dhliwayo