The Call, Column 74 – Some Notes From My Urban Farm

18 06 2017

(June 18, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Some Notes From My Urban Farm

Hey everyone, I hope your gardens are coming along nicely despite the abnormal weather (characteristic of a fossil-fueled changing climate, of course). I decided to use today’s column to discuss a few observations, notes, thoughts, and updates from my own urban farm, as it has developed this year. I’ve never done something exactly like this before, but I think it might be helpful to share my experiences with my nearby urban farmers, who can hopefully relate and put them to good use.

This year has NOT been a good one for leafy greens in my garden. It was cold and wet pretty late in the winter, which delayed planting my spinach and lettuce until like April. And it’s been cloudy and cool far too often since then, so now that they are finally established, this onslaught of dry heat is making them bolt! It’s a shame because leafy greens are my favorite vegetables, in no small part because they are the most nutrient-packed plants you can eat. Hopefully you all are having better luck than I am.

It makes me particularly glad that I’m a member of Blue Skys Farm’s CSA program. Each week’s bag is packed with vegetables, including plenty of high-quality greens. Christina and the crew sure know how to grow them, even when the rest of us aren’t having such luck!

Gone are the days of a nice, gradual increase in temperature, and regular, light rain showers over the course of the spring. Climate change is already beginning to wreak havoc on our growing season in the Northeast US. While it’s intellectually irresponsible to attribute a particular weather event to increasing CO2 concentrations, it’s pretty safe to say that we are seeing the effects of climate change in the general shift of our day-to-day weather.

These torrential downpours, alternating with stretches of dry, oppressive heat…this weather is horrible for agriculture. It’s hard to make up for the heat with routine watering (especially if you don’t have 6 inches of mulch), and the massive downfall of rain is only beneficial if it’s followed by a kiss of sun, not another week of clouds. Until we get our act together and globally reduce carbon emissions, this unpredictability and extremeness is the new normal – and it’s only going to get worse from here.

With that said, I think the above-freezing temperatures are here to stay for the season, so I’m planning to plant my warm weather crops over the next few days. I put it off a week or two this year because of how busy I was in late May and early this month. But they’re hardened off and ready to go.

The tomatoes are a little leggy, probably because my house isn’t super temperature-controlled and my seed-starting setup isn’t heated, so they fell victim to the fluctuating temperatures over the past few months. But the eggplants and peppers are generally doing pretty well, so I’m excited for some home-grown, homemade melitzanosalata (a garlicky, Greek eggplant paste that I could eat at every meal) and meat-and-cheese-stuffed-peppers later this summer. Now, let’s hope the weather stays warmish and the rain comes a bit more regularly, so these babies can take off once they’re planted.

My raspberries, blackberries, and elderberries are doing great this year, which is hardly a surprise considering how closely related they are to their wild ancestors. They leafed-out beautifully, they’ve made a surprising number of new canes, and there is a good mix of buds, flowers, and immature fruits on the plants as I write this. This is great news, because bramble fruits are my second favorite foods from the plant kingdom after leafy greens, again and in no small part because of how nutrient (and fiber!) dense they are. Now, if only I could raise red meat animals in my yard, I would never have to buy food again! (Hmm, maybe it’s time for another change to Woonsocket’s Zoning Laws?)

My grapes, blueberries, and other fruiting bushes are doing moderately well this year. I’m hoping for a better crop than last year’s dismal one, so I’m trying to water them more than normal. But the strawberries: they’re doing awful. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the general sentiment I’ve heard is that strawberries in our area are pretty bad this year. It’s likely the same abnormal weather patterns I discussed above, especially because groundcovers tend to like cooler, sunny weather and even moisture. I might dig them all up this fall and move them to a new location, being a little more methodical with the layout, and mulching like it’s my job. We’ll see. I’m enjoying what is being produced, but it isn’t much thus far.

This year was being forecast as the Gypsy moth apocalypse. I haven’t seen that much evidence of the larvae, not nearly as bad as a few years ago, but it may just be a function of my microclimate. Anyone else have a problem in their yard? I’ve talked to some people who live in the central part of RI, who said it’s bad down there. The one good thing that might come from this weather is that they don’t thrive like they were supposed to; that, or it’ll aid in the proliferation of those much-sought-after viruses and fungi that are said to keep the larvae populations in check. Time will tell.

Are you all aware of the origination of the Gypsy moth problem? They were indigenous to Europe, and brought over to Southern MA in the mid 1800s, by a scientist who wanted to experiment on them to produce cheaper silk. They escaped into the wild and spread like wildfire across the Northeast, because they didn’t (and, I believe, still don’t) have natural predators in our area. And now, they needlessly risk the health of our gardens and farms. Have you ever benefitted from cheaper silk prices? I sure as heck haven’t.

This should be a lesson for everyone who scoffs at the DEM and EPA for regulating the movement of plant and animal materials. Regulations like this are in place for a reason. Ecosystems are pretty resilient, but in a perfectly wild setting, they aren’t supposed to be constantly bombarded by species or populations from the other side of the world, or even from hundreds or thousands of miles away. And when they do, there is a significant possibility that the new organisms harm the natural environment.

Other than the Gypsy moths, I’ve always had a huge problem with winter moth larvae, on my apple trees in particular. I started to see it sometime in late April/early May this year, when the trees began budding out, so I made an executive decision: I used foliar Bt spray for the first time in my life. Bt is a soil-borne bacteria, which seems to have evolved to keep populations of destructive insect larvae in check. The spray is approved for use in organic farms, and of all crops, ultra-hybridized, grafted, non-well-adapted apple trees probably wouldn’t survive without a little extra help (but please let me know if you have proof to the contrary). I didn’t make the decision lightly, but the organic spray is certainly effective and is not harmful to human health and not persistent in the environment, so I deemed it acceptable.

Finally, here’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. In the most general sense possible, we all have different personalities and drives and motivations, which mean that different approaches to the same problem work well for each of us as individuals. This is very true of how we approach creating and maintaining our gardens and urban farms.

In my case, looking specifically at the Myers-Briggs Type Index, I test as an ENFP (“Extroverted-iNtuitive- Feeling-Perceiving”), which explains why I get very enthusiastic about projects at the beginning, but often lose interest if they require a lot of repetitive, mundane maintenance tasks. Thus far, I have gardened in the typical way, which has produced a lot of mental fatigue around having to weed and water (especially if pests or other things beyond my control detract from the success of the garden), and often means I don’t keep up with that type of upkeep as well as I should.

I could certainly force myself to do these tasks, but it significantly detracts from the enjoyment of the garden. Armed with this knowledge, I have more incentive to create what I’m calling “passive maintenance systems”, that allow most of my mental effort associated with the garden to be used for creative pursuits (i.e. planting the next thing, reacting to good and bad weather events, harvesting) than routine maintenance (weeding and watering). These passive maintenance systems include things like drip irrigation to supplant direct watering, mulching to prevent weeds (and actually reduce the amount of water necessary), and permaculture design to make the whole thing function more like an independent ecosystem.

That’s my type. In general, it’s important to the success of our urban farming endeavors to tailor them to the way we think and behave, to maximize the likelihood of success and make it as fun and rewarding as possible. And in the end, there is nothing more enjoyable than a bowl of raspberries or tomato salad that was on the plant 20 minutes before.

I have one quick request. I have been writing this column for three and a half years now (!!!). I’ve written about a lot of exciting topics, and I have a long list of ideas for the future. But I want some input from you. If there is a topic you’d like me to discuss – anything from “hands-on” gardening ideas, to exposés on agricultural or environmental issues, to philosophical discussions about our place in the world – email me about it and I’ll try to make it happen!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 41 – A Spring Planting Schedule

2 03 2016

(February 28, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Spring Planting Schedule

At this point in the year, you’ve probably ordered or bought your seeds already and are preparing to start them. I will be starting my first ones this weekend, and thought it the perfect opportunity to share my basic schedule for seed-starting and planting-out over the next few months, so we can all kick off the 2016 growing season right.

Last winter, I wrote a detailed tutorial about the tools, materials, and practices that everyone should know in order to start their seeds indoors (here). I urge you to check it out on my blog, but I’ll quickly recap the basics here. Those common black plastic trays are called 1020 flats, and in them you want to put “cell packs” (#72s or #98s for small/early crops and #32s or 3 or 4-inch pots for large/later crops) filled with a good quality seed-starting mix. This should be set up in front of a south-facing window and/or under grow light fixtures, to give your seeds the best possible start. They should be well-drained and warm, and you should water them according to the particular needs of the crop. One more thing: opt for high quality, organic/biodynamic/non-GMO/heirloom seeds whenever possible. And that brings us to the second recap.

Earlier this year, we talked extensively about how to order your seeds from seed catalogs (here). Most importantly from this column, in order to select what to grow, you need to determine 1) what type of garden you are going for (preservation versus self-sufficiency versus high-nutrient-diet versus just tasty food) and 2) how much of each crop is sufficient (based on eating patterns, intended end-use, etc). After you make these decisions, you should use my strategy to parse through your many seed catalogs, and make the final decisions about what to order.

So you now have your seeds, and know how to start them. The next question is: how much? In my experience, it’s very easy to overplant. This isn’t always a bad thing. Having the extra plants means a few things: 1) It gives you a choice about exactly what varieties to put in the ground; 2) They provide a safety net for potential crop failure; 3) They provide you with enough to give to friends and family; and 4) You can even sell or trade them, if they are that high quality.

But extra plants can also be a problem. If you have limited seed-starting space (or you’re someone like me who overplants to an unnecessary level and runs out of space no matter how much he expands his setup), too many of every type of plant can mean sacrificing a better variety of crops, and ultimately having to compost plants which cannot end up being used.

Now, in my own garden literature, I’ve broken up the crops into pseudo-taxonomic groupings (plant “families”, and then some), and that’s how I’ll divide them here. They are presented roughly in the order that they should be started. As a point of reference, northern Rhode Island is in Zone 6a, and our last frost normally occurs sometime around May 10 to May 20.

First up: the Onion Family. You’re going to want to plant bulb onion seeds as soon as possible indoors (within a week or two from now), to be planted out in early April; leek seeds should be started indoors in mid March and planted out right before the last frost (early May); and scallions can be direct-seeded outside around the same time you start leeks (once the soil can be worked). Any started indoors should be planted thickly in the planting tray, and trimmed occasionally (down to a few inches) as they grow to promote robustness. Bulb onions can also be grown from onion sets (olive-sized onions that continue to grow when put in the ground), which should be planted in April.

Next, we have the Cabbage Family. These include cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower, and are all grown pretty similarly. You’ll want to start them indoors right around now, to be planted out early-to-mid-April. Kale can also be started directly outside at that time. As I discussed last year, you can start a second crop of all of these in a cool area (indoors again) in late June, to be planted for a fall harvest in late July. These are all relatively easy to grow, but require regular watering and lots of light. They are pretty hardy in the cold, and it might be worth growing extra so you can plant out earlier and later crops.

Then, we have what I call the Leafy Greens. This includes small, leafy crops from many different plant families, like arugula, endive, lettuces, celery, spinach, and spinach substitutes (i.e. Good King Henry). These are pretty varied in their specificities, so you’ll want to check the seed packet and the internet for a better idea. But in general, these can be started indoors between now and mid March (celery and spinach on the earlier side), and planted out or otherwise direct seeded in late March (except for celery, which should wait until after the last frost in mid May). Other than celery and select alternative/exotic greens, these don’t really like the heat or very bright sunlight, as they are prone to bolt. You’ll want to plant them in succession throughout the spring and early summer, and again in the late summer and fall. Start them in small cells (like #98 trays) as they will only be a few inches tall by the time they are planted out.

Next up: the Tomato Family. This includes tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes, and all the potatoes are planted very similarly. These should be started indoors, early March for eggplants and peppers and mid March for tomatoes. I suggest starting these in smaller cells (like #72s) and transplanting the better seedlings up into 3 inch pots. They love light, water, and a nutrient-rich planting medium (like compost-based Fort Vee), and should be planted out in late May, after the last frost. Potatoes, on the other hand, can be direct seeded (from sprouted seed potatoes) throughout April and early May.

Now, we have the Roots, my grouping which consists of carrots, turnips, beets, radishes, and other similar crops. They can all be started directly in the ground in mid-to-late-March, and can be planted every week for a steady crop through the summer and fall – this is the method that I have used every year so far. I found out that it is also possible, and arguably beneficial, to start them indoors a few weeks prior to planting outside (probably in #72 cell trays because they won’t get that big), to give them some steady, warm temperatures to sprout and get off the ground in their growth (pun intended). However you do it, make sure to disturb their root as minimally as possible while transplanting them outside. I plan on trying a tray this year.

Next up: the Legume Family (beans and peas) and the Grains. None of these like to be transplanted, and all should be planted directly outside. You’ll want to start peas in late March, in succession throughout April (they are cooler season crops), and beans after the last frost in mid May, in succession through August (they are warm season crops). Grains vary widely depending on the crop and variety, but should generally be planted a few weeks before the last frost (except corn, which should be planted after).

Then, we have the Squash Family, including winter and summer squash, gourds, melons, and cucumbers. These can all be started indoors in late April (to give them a head-start), and transplanted out or otherwise direct seeded in late May. They aren’t fond of transplanting, so care should be taken not to disturb their roots. They are heavy feeders, and like plenty of water and light while growing.

Finally, if you’re growing Sweet Potatoes as I have started doing, they are very warm season crops and can only be directly planted out (from bits of root called “slips”) in late May or early June, after the frost.

That’s it, now get those seeds started! For a detailed local schedule, check out this handy calendar from URI: Good luck and happy planting.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 37 – The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

8 02 2016

(January 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

Despite the snow, frozen soil, and minimal egg yield, the winter is one of my favorite times of the year in terms of urban farming. Why, you ask? Two words: seed catalogs!

It’s time to begin the preparations for next year’s garden, and the eight or so seed catalogs I’ve received in the mail over the past month make that task a whole lot more fun. They form the basis for my spring garden plan, how and what I decide to plant come springtime. Today, I want us to go over how an urban farmer should go about making this plan: what types of decisions you will have to make and how to go about making them, my personal methods for planning my garden each year, and some resources that I’ve found helpful in the process.

The first two decisions that you must make are: what you want to grow, and how much. These decisions are nuanced, and how you make them depends very much on your and your family’s goals in planting a garden.

If the purpose of your garden is the simple quest for good food, you probably want to focus on tried-and-true favorites: culinary herbs, heirloom potatoes and beans, and varieties of fruits and vegetables bred for taste. A good yield is important to you, but a bushel of tomatoes is worthless of they are bred for industrial production or cooking down into sauce, and taste like mushy water raw.

This is even more true if you make a few, specific recipes often, and are growing the garden to supply the ingredients for those recipes. If Italian food, for example, is a personal forte, then basil, oregano, and good Italian tomatoes are a must.

On the other hand, if you are growing with the goal of maximizing production in the confines of your backyard, whether for some measure of food self-sufficiency or even just to stock the cupboards for the winter, your focus will be different. High-efficiency, high-calorie-density crops like grains, beans, brassica vegetables, white and sweet potatoes, and root vegetables are the best way to accomplish these goals.

If, instead, you have found that eating a sufficient quantity of vegetables and low-sugar fruits (10 servings per day) can get cost-prohibitive, you might endeavor to supplement your food budget with a garden. The crops you’ll want to focus on are those that give you the greatest return on your labor investment – for example, nutrient-rich and calorie-poor crops like leafy greens, can run a pretty big food bill if you want to make them a significant part of your diet. It’s a great idea to combine what you buy at the farmers market (which is already cheaper than what’s in the supermarket) with the products of your own garden.

Personally, as I’ve grown and matured in my knowledge of agriculture, ecology, and human nutrition, the emphasis of my diet has shifted from high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods to “high-nutrient” foods. In turn, the subtle focus of my garden has and will continue to shift in this direction – rather than spending so much effort and space on things like white potatoes, sugar beets, corn, and other manner of grains, this year’s garden will be largely based on all manner of nutrient-dense vegetables and low-sugar fruits, and especially leafy-greens (with some sweet and white potatoes and other root crops mixed in, for the self-sufficiency aspects).

In all cases, how much you decide to grow of each crop should be made to match its intended uses. If you’ve decided on a “stock-the-cupboards, self-sufficiency” garden, you need to look at how many potatoes, how much cabbage, and how much corn your family eats throughout the year, both fresh while it is in season, and preserved, if there is a good way to do that.

In my case, tomatoes and peppers are a high-yielding, easily-preserved, nutrient-dense crop that my family uses a lot of. By growing many plants of these types in my garden, the goal is for us to have enough for much of the year. In terms of leafy greens, there are some that we like more than others – I go through a lot of spinach, kale, lettuces, arugula, and cabbage, so I will grow a lot more of that this year than, say, Swiss chard (which I like, but only in small doses).

Now that you have an idea of the types of crops you want to grow, and how much you should plant, you need to actually order the seeds! Here’s my organizational strategy.

It all starts with seed catalogs. If you haven’t bought seeds or plants from an online supplier before, you will need to go to each website and request a catalog; if you have, they usually begin sending you one around this time each year. I normally get catalogs from Fedco Seeds (along with their other plant divisions), Gurneys Seed and Nursery, Bountiful Gardens, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Burnt Ridge Nursery, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Some of these are from the local area, and otherwise they specialize in very high quality seeds and plants (organic, heirloom, permaculture-based, etc).

While you are deciding which companies to order catalogs from, and again after perusing their catalogs (which have way more information than a website ever could), you have to decide which companies you actually want to order your seeds and plants from. This decision can be based on many factors, but usually includes their prices in comparison to the others, how local they are, whether they offer specific seeds or plants you desire, and other company’s policies – about GMOs, organic seed, business structure and practices, and even practical considerations like ordering timelines. I usually limit it to two or three companies to order my seeds and plants, because there are a few whose quality has been proven (Fedco is my go-to for seed!), and otherwise because shipping can add up if you spread your order too thin.

For those who have grown a garden in recent years, you then need to make a seed inventory of what you already have. This is a big step for me, because I easily have over 200 seed varieties that I use every year (I know, this is excessive), and this step helps me organize my thoughts about what I liked, what I didn’t, what I still have, and what I need to order again.

Everyone’s inventorying strategy is different, but I use an Excel document and list out all of the different seeds that I have, based on crop type (Nightshades, the tomato family; Alliums, the onion family; Cucurbits, the squash family; Herbs; Brassicaceae, the cabbage family; Leaf Crops; Root Crops; Beans and Grains; Flowers; and Fruit). Next to each type of seed, I write the year that it was packed for (which can be found on the seed packet), a rough estimate of the amount of seed I have left of that type (either a number or, as I did this year, a designation of “few”, “some”, or “lot”), and a guess at the viability, based on how long seeds of that type or family usually last (I designate “viable” or “questionable”, based on my experience and tables like this one at I also designate which varieties I actually ran out of this year.

            From this, I extract a rough list of specific cultivars and general crops that I want to plant again; and therefore, for those that I did not save any seed (which I admit happens far too often for my liking in my own garden), those cultivars and crops that I have to order again, and which company I got them from (if applicable). Start by designating those cultivars which are definitely viable (i.e. tomatoes or lettuce marked for last year) and which you also have a lot of left, as “in inventory” (and therefore don’t need to be ordered), while those that probably aren’t viable and/or you have little left, but that you liked as “out of inventory” (and therefore need to be ordered).

            You can then peruse the offerings of each company by the above crop categories, keeping in mind 1) which crops and how much you decided to grow; 2) what you already have for seed; and 3) what you definitely need to order again. For me, this is the Year of the Leafy Greens – I have some lettuce and kale seed from last year, but I’m stepping up my game and need to include quite a few of them in my order.

            Finally, I create another Excel sheet (can you tell my mom is an accountant?), organized by company, of the specific seed varieties (and plants) that I need to buy. Include their name, as well as other identifying information – production number, weight or count, and price – to keep you organized, make it easy to build your shopping cart (if ordering online), and keep a rough estimate of total prices. Also, if shipping is calculated by weight or total order cost, you can include a formula to calculate it for each company in a cell below the company’s listing.

            Good luck, and happy (seed) hunting!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.