Tiny Farm Blog
Overnight snow turned our muddy browns of spring back to white, and after a spell of welcome warmth, it’s cold days and freezing nights again for most of the next week or two, if forecasts turn out to be right. Waiting for the field to dry out enough to work, which in recent erratic-weather years has been anywhere from early April to late May, makes it hard to plan things in general, but this is not unexpected, it’s just what it is. And spring weather has been known to suddenly and dramatically change from one day to the next. Surprise!
[From 23 Jun 2012] The Weather recently: three weeks of hot-no-rain, followed by a couple of days of intense rain, 2″ each, then, three days of sweltering heat wave, a couple more days of intense 2″ rain, now, three days of perfect balmy summer, with the forecast for the next few days calling for cool to cold and cloudy. The rain barrels filled up several times over (the pic is from the last bout of heavy rain, three days ago). Interesting!
[From yesterday] Transplanting lettuce into the unheated greenhouse, filling it out in small sections to work around wetter areas. The seedlings, waiting for drier conditions, stayed a couple of weeks longer in trays than ideal—now they’re a little floppy and stretched, but I’m confident they’ll figure it out. This first spring, seeing how the ground dries in the new hoophouse is part of the learning curve. Tiny farming!
[From yesterday] Lettuce seedlings get their first taste of full-on springtime sunshine. Next stop, into the ground in the greenhouse. I wouldn’t call this hardening off, some of these are being transplanted later today—tomorrow’s cloudy forecast should give them all the post-transplant adjustment break they need, then bring on the sun! (Starring in this pic, always reliable Black Seeded Simpson.)
Yesterday’s harvest that went to today’s farmers’ market, my earliest market start by almost two months! From the unheated greenhouse: kale, green and red mustard, and lettuce mix times two. Harvest conditions: -2°C outside, a perfect-working-weather 10°C inside. At the end, the sun came out and it started to get sweatingly hot under a T-shirt, shirt and fleece. But, already done! No rinsing, just covered and into a cool room for a 6 a.m. pick-up this morning. It felt a little odd, starting the year’s Saturday markets so early, and indoors—this fall, if all goes as intended, weekly market will cease to end for winter and become instead a fully year-round thing…
This bowl of lettuces and kale is the first cut of spring, taken from the unheated greenhouse while snow flurries whip around outside. With the help of 6 mils of plastic and some row cover, the salad easily survived three months of winter, with temperatures that went down to -30°C (-22°F). The texture and color are good, the taste, deliciously bold. Fantastic! The flowers are bok choi that managed to bolt in the alternating warmth and cold—on sunny days, the hoophouse temperature could easily reach 10-15°C (50-59°F), even when it was sub-zero outside. Interesting!
[From 5 May 2015] Rainwater upgrade: We only turned over the barrel yesterday, set bottom up for winter to protect from frozen-water cracking, and it rained overnight. A little rain, a little gravity, and presto, the first seedling water of the season from just outside the door, instead of from the well pump in the barn, a bit of a trek away. Modern conveniences!
[From 7 May 2015] This is exactly what small-scale looks like. Prepping and seeding another 20 or so beds, a couple already seeded with salad greens, the rest with compost lightly scattered—maybe a little more spreading, then tilling, sectioning into 50′ or 100′ by 4 or 5′ beds, smoothing, and seeding with the Planet Jr. Sometimes this tiny farming feels to me like being in a little boat on a big, big ocean. Maybe not that dramatic, but I’m definitely adrift in a deep blue sea! Fun.
[From 12 May 2015] We have rocks, it’s not a big deal when you get used to them, although I suppose I’d really notice the difference if suddenly all the rocks vanished. As it is, little ones like these are usually ignored, but in one small area they were dense as cobblestones… Removal method: pick ’em up, toss ’em into the Kubota tiny tractor bucket, dump them on one of the rather large rock piles. With two or more people: toss into piles from a convenient tossing radius; travel around with the Kubota and load the piles into the bucket. It’s really quite straightforward. Of course, there’s a variety of tractor-run mechanical contraptions for removing rocks in large volume. It’s all about scale, and how many hands you have!
Staring up close at a stack of 72-cell plug sheets in webbed trays. Exactly where most of the transplant seedlings around here get started…!
The snow’s gone, replaced by puddles and mud. You can still see the road through the trees—the only aerial green so far is evergreen. An overall browned-out scene, but what’s not in the pic is the vigorous twittering of birds, the tantalizing hint of real warmth in the still chilly air, the slightly musty dampness of winter earth waking up, as the outdoors steadily gets ready to…explode!
[From 14 May 2015] Exactly where it was delivered last fall, the steel for the new hoophouse is kinda in the way, so we’re working around it (it doesn’t look like much in the pic, but it will expand into 30’x108’x16’H of plastic-covered year-round field protection). Beds of brassica greens are already in and protected by row cover from flea beetle attack. Lisa preps beds for more. Spring direct seeding proceeds…
[From 9 May 2015] More seed: Not by the 50 lb bag, but it still adds up. You find a balance between buying smaller quantities that are quickly used so that you always have fresh, vigorous seed that’s ready to pop up at the least sign of moisture and warmth, and the huge savings from the bag that’s one or two or three sizes bigger than what you immediately need, and may be around for a year or more. Shopping! It’s like a human condition you can’t escape.
The covers are off and it’s all shades of green! That’s about three months, left to their own devices, living through freezing nights, often around -20°C (-4°F), and a low of -32°C (-25.6°F), under a couple of layers of medium-weight row cover, which means, little light (with the plastic added in, somewhere around 50% of already weak winter sun). Inside, at ground level outside the row cover, the lowest it got on the coldest night was an amazingly not-so-chilly-at-all -13°C (8.6°F). As a simple survival test…excellent!
There’s official calendar Spring, and then there’s spring in the field, that ignores exact dates and goes by the weather, marking winter as over whenever the freezing temperatures end. If today’s two-week weather forecast is anything to go by—it is, in this case, when being off by ±5-10°C (14-23°F) either way isn’t a big concern—market garden spring starts now. For the moment, I’m mainly concerned about overnight lows in the unheated greenhouse, and whether row cover is necessary. If it stays above -15-20°C, my safe-with-no-cover cutoff, it should be fine to pull back the covers and let the sun shine in (prepared, of course, to put it right back if there’s a sudden severe dip, which we hope doesn’t happen). Nothing complicated, just a little of the gambling that’s called working with the seasons!
Long-term veggie storage can get fairly involved, with root cellars, sticking things in piles of sand, adjusting humidity, spotting and culling the spoiled, that sort of thing, or it can be as simple as tossing a plastic bag of small carrots, little guys that wound up at the bottom of an empty market bin, into the fridge’s crisper drawer, and forgetting about them until they’re found four months later while rooting around for ingredients for stew. These carrots represent exactly the latter, a few handfuls of Nelson (orange), Red Samurai, and Purple Sun. They’re in perfect shape, crunchy and tasty—the plastic bag maintains the humidity that keeps them hard—so a quick rinse, chop-chop, and in they go. (They’re partly cut because I’d already started slicing them when I decided to take a pic.) Another whatever-veg-is-around beef stew. What could be simpler?!
Spring, soon! So far, though, still chilly and winterish. The photo describes it perfectly: not much snow, but cold enough for the thin layer to stick around (-10°C/14°F at night). And no signs of fresh new green growth just yet… It’s nice to think it could at any moment turn into a startling and pleasant T-shirt-optional March (hope that was only good luck, not…global warming).
A reminder: Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable Soil Management is an excellent, book about soil for growers, free to download, or you can buy a hard copy. Follow the link, or read a bit more where I posted about it quite a while ago. The image above is cropped from the cover, a very specific type of old school farm view and set-up, which happens to be the one I’m familiar with; where you are may be totally different, as may be the soil, but the idea of growing is the same, and chances are this book is useful!
Here’s my main seed catalog for this year. Once again, unlike several seasons ago, when I’d receive a dozen catalogs, order from two main suppliers, and pick up a few things from two or three others, lately, I’ve simplified and get everything in one place. This year, though, and for the second year in a row, there was a crop failure on a variety of mustard that I grow, and no close substitute, so I had to look elsewhere. Which, of course, opened up a world I’d kinda forgotten, the wonderful world of price comparison shopping.
The puzzling thing about pricing is the seemingly bizarre differences in price for the same items between different sources (it’s the same in seed as everywhere else). Some suppliers are clearly overall more expensive than others, so if quality and service are fine, it’s easy to go with the savings. But then, on any one item, prices can vary quite dramatically either way. For example, I found the same variety of mustard at $10 and $17 a pound, and something similar at $50, at three different places, and that’s expected. Less so is that, for just one common variety of lettuce, it’s $33 at my usual place, where the same amount is only $19 at a usually more expensive other supplier.
Yep, I could’ve gone on and on like this, with multiple lists and endless tabs of online catalog pages, like a full-on coupon clipper, looking for the ultimate bottom line big score. Instead, though, I ordered my mustard and stopped! Maybe not the best every-last-penny business thinking for a tiny farm, and tiny farm definitely does not equal big budget, but sometimes at least, for a few bucks, life is too short! :)