Updated: Jan 11
A week ago, I uploaded a quick video to instagram where I prepared a row (or "bed" as we call them) for planting. It was saved far more times than anything I've ever posted and I got to thinking, maybe some of ya'll would like to know exactly what we do when we farm. So here's an overview :D Later on, I'll write a post about how we've evolved in our practices from when we first started farming 5 years ago.
Most of our rows are 3.5 ft wide and 60 ft long. Straight up honest: every single row is actually a different measurement. :D Some are 58ft long, some are 62 ft and some are 64ft. The widths are all different also. It's ridiculous! ha! What tends to happen is that dirt moves, with wind, with planting, with rain, it migrates. A smart farmer I know marks out their rows every time they prep them for a new planting. I'm too lazy.
How I prep a bed depends completely on what time of year it is and what crops are getting planted. In autumn, several rows have a summer cover crop, so I cover it with landscape fabric for a week or two to smother it and then I just broadfork, put compost down on the smothered crop and plant into it. Some smart farmers mow down their cover crop but I don't like mowing and I don't like risking the drip lines near the mower blades. I don't usually disconnect them, I simply move them to the side, broadfork, shovel some compost on the row and move them back. They stay on the row all winter. We don't have weather cold enough to require disconnecting them. Also, did I mention I'm lazy? :D (maybe I should use the word 'efficient', sounds much better).
Broadforking is a way of aerating the soil - creating air pockets and gently lifting the top foot or two of soil to prevent compaction while keeping all the soil biology alive and humming. It takes a bit of muscle at first but as the soil gets fluffier with time, eventually, it's like cutting through butter. My ultimate goal is to get soil so fluffy that I don't even need to broadfork :) Also, a broadfork is MUCH cheaper than a tiller and since we have an urban farm, it's also easy to find storage space for a broadfork. Did I mention you'll never have to visit the gym? The benefits are endless :p
If a spring crop is coming out and there's no cover crop, whether I pull the old plant or leave it's root system depends on the spacing I need. Ideally, it's perfect to cut the stalk/stem right below the soil line and transplant around the root system so that as the roots decompose, they feed the baby roots of the transplants. I also leave the roots in and direct seed my zinnias around them (for instance, larkspur and nigella roots that are done blooming). If I'm sowing a cover crop, I'll usually pull out the whole plant and immediately sow the cover crop.
Leaving the row bare for anything length of time is a bad idea - hard rain can easily compact the soil, wind can lead to soil erosion, and all the friendly soil thingies don't have anything to munch on so they leave. No buenos.
Sometimes, I broadfork around the drip if I'm not adding compost to that row. If it sounds like my approach is all over the place, that's because it is. I'm a huge fan of responding to the data in front of you. If a row has great soil and is mounded up enough to prevent rot, I'll bypass the compost. If a row is pretty low or the soil isn't as great or I have a heavy feeder crop going in, I'll add compost. I can't stress enough that the actions you choose to do should be in direct response to the environment and context in which YOU are farming - not anyone else.
In the fall, sometimes I'll grab some poo from our bunnies (an ideal fertilizer) and lightly sprinkle it over the beds during prep time but I'm scaling back on that. We have very fertile clay soil and too much nitrogen or fertilizer during the autumn can easily lead to quick and weak leaf growth when what we really want is robust root growth. So the plant gets out of balance and is far more prone to disease and pests. We give them some fish emulsion once and that's it. We hold off on amending the soil until spring warmth and then the bunnies' poop is raided again and spread around. We also do compost tea in the Spring (made from our own compost pile, which is rich and robust thanks to my toddlers' aversion to vegetables :).
Since we don't use landscape fabric in the rows, the way I do my spacing is by eye-balling it. I'm not kidding. The length of my hand is roughly 6 inches, the drip holes are roughly 8 inches apart and the length of my arm is 12 inches (though I don't plant anything at 12 inches except for woodies). So I don't have to mess with measuring guides or anything when I'm planting. I like to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. Since my plants normally have a thick enough canopy to prevent weeds and I hardly ever have disease issues, I figure I'll keep the approach for now :) I run the drip lines for 20 minutes and then I try to seed or transplant into the little pockets of wet soil so that I know the drip will be watering the plants and I'm not wasting a plant by putting it in a dry pocket where it will just die. If it's a crop that I net (there's only a few), I'll go ahead and lay down the netting and use it for a spacing guide.
I build low tunnels around Christmas. Everything I plant can handle a frost so there's no need for protection (unless they're babies but I don't transplant if the forecast shows frost in the immediate future). Protection is needed when the real cold arrives late winter and the plant gets bigger. If the weather is mild, I may not need a low tunnel at all - in which case, why build one? (see: efficient :) Cold sensitive varieties like Strawflower don't get planted until early spring so that I don't have to mess with keeping it alive all winter.
I've been hearing a lot from rockstar farmers like Jennie at Love n' fresh and Tony at Bare Mtn Farm about some cool microbial solutions that you can make from plants around your farm and feed your soil with it. I will definitely be researching and testing these more. For excellent resources on no-till farming, follow the No-Till Market Podcast and the No-Till Flower Podcast. I love no-till because it's less labor, less cost, and better for our friendly soil thingies - which is ultimately better for our flowers. Better flowers??? Yes, please!
So to summarize:
- pull or cut plants
- move or disconnect drip lines
- broadfork (optional)
- spread compost (optional)
- return drip lines
- run drip
Enjoy the fruits (or flowers) of your labor!! :D