By Nick Hodgson, Phase II Fellow
It’s hard to believe we are four months into our Phase II placements! It seems that it was not long ago that I was loading a truck up and moving to Staunton. When I was leaving in January, I was unsure of what I would be doing during the first two months. Local farming friends back home wondered what I’d be doing on a vegetable farm in the beginning of January. But, with a third of the year behind us, we have managed to stay busy all year.
The first two weeks we worked on reconstructing our greenhouse and prepping beds in our high tunnel. Next, we started seeds and watched them germinate into healthy seedlings. Like farmer Pat, the farm manager at AMI’s Farm at Augusta Health, says “It all starts in the greenhouse. Our success in the field starts here.” At first, I have to admit, I was a little annoyed when he would thoroughly go over basic greenhouse duties like how to water, fill seed flats, etc. I have done these things many times in the past, but must say his meticulous care and attention to detail has helped us produce some of the healthiest looking plants. Good job, Pat!
February continued at a fast pace as well. We continued to work in the greenhouse, starting more seeds and caring for young seedlings, even while snow continued to fall outside. We got our first plants in the ground in our high tunnel and soon, it began to fill in with spinach, kohlrabi, pac choi, swiss chard, and carrots. We put in a lot of the work making sure our plants would survive the cold nights with a layer of row cover that we sometimes needed to double up on.
Our greenhouse is heated by four space heaters plugged into thermostats, with extension cords running to the barn. It was a constant checking and double checking that all of them were turned on and working to keep the seedlings warm during frigid February nights. Phase II Fellow Grace and I also salvaged an old fridge and turned it into our germination chamber. It is well insulated and we regulate the temp with a heat mat and a heat lamp attached to thermostat with a soil probe. This helps keep temps right where we want them (high for germination) without having to heat the whole greenhouse. It is energy efficient and helps our seeds germinate faster.
A lot of farming is dictated by timing and windows of opportunity. It is hard to farm on a rigid schedule with no flexibility - mother nature doesn’t operate this way. So, when we had a few days of sunny warm weather with no rain in the forecast, we brought out our BCS tractor and started shaping our production blocks. Each block consists of eight 100-foot-long beds. Setting your farm up in blocks really helps to keep things organized and makes crop rotations, adding soil amendments, and pest and disease management much easier.
How do you shape a bed? First, we measured our beds and pathways so that we had 30” wide beds and 18” wide pathways. This is pretty standard on a small-scale market farm. The width of these beds is adequate for maximizing production while allowing for ease of harvesting. You can straddle a 30” bed during harvesting and weeding, but may struggle to do so on a 36” bed. The 18” pathways are wide enough to be able to comfortably walk down without stepping into the beds. Because the BCS is an 18” wide implement, we can also run the rotary plow on the BCS down the pathways, cutting and throwing the soil from the pathways up onto the bed. This creates raised beds that are easily defined and distinguished from the pathways. Next, we aerate our beds by going down with a broadfork to loosen the soil, while not inverting the soil with a tiller. Sure, this is a much more laborious task then simply running a power harrow or tiller on the beds, but maintains a healthier soil food web, which in turn give us healthier plants. This is one of our fundamental strategies for maintaining and improving soil health is to disturb the soil as little as possible. After this we fertilize our beds by adding compost, rich in organic matter and nutrients. This is our main source of fertilizer on our farm. Next, we rake out the beds lightly incorporating the compost to help feed the microbes. Lastly, we cover our beds to prevent loss of nutrients and organic matter through erosion and evaporation, keeping in line with the strategy for soil health of always keeping the soil covered. We’re not perfect at this, but always try our best. We either cover beds in hay or straw or use large silage tarps for this task.
March began with more seed starting and outdoor planting. We planted more spinach, swiss chard, and started to plant our brassica block with kale, cabbage, collards, broccoli, and cauliflower. Another aspect of small-scale farming is to maximize production in beds. This often is done by intensive spacing and interplanting. This honestly just makes sense to me and I find it odd that this is just becoming widely practiced among small-scale farmers. Consider, for instance, a broccoli crop that is only harvested once. At 18” spacing, the spacing is pretty wide. We transplanted our broccoli in early March and won’t harvest until June. The bed is not being harvested for almost three months. This is not very economical, nor is it maximizing the food that can be grown for the community. So, while the broccoli plants are still small, why not transplant a light feeder like lettuce heads down the center of the row? Lettuce will be ready to harvest in 30 days. Now, you can squeeze out another crop, maximize photosynthesis in your production bed, increase root structure helping to feed and support a thriving soil food web, and it keeps the soil covered while the broccoli plants are still filling out. This is another one of our soil health protocols - to maximize plant diversity.
So there you have two out of our three fundamental soil health strategies, all while growing more food for the hospital and community! This seems like a win-win situation, and it’s something we experiment with a lot here at Augusta Health. This is often about timing and finding a balance of heavy feeders and light feeders, and plants that occupy different root zones. Other examples including tomatoes with lettuce, peas with lettuce, swiss chard with lettuce. We get it, lettuce is interplanted a lot, but you can also do cabbage with radishes and turnips, peppers with basil, and many more. Oh, and we casually transplanted 6,500 onion plants by hand! Did I mention they were interplanted with lettuce?
April has been probably our busiest and most transformative month yet on the farm. Plants are growing at a blistering pace with the sun being oriented overhead and rising temps. We had fourteen University of Delaware Alternative Spring Break students out at our farm for a few days. This was the time to get large laborious tasks done such as mulching our main pathways with hardwood mulch, groundhog proofing our fence, weeding, finishing picnic tables, and lots of planting. It was a refreshing time to have new faces out on the farm. They were a very energetic group and their admiration for our work and curiosity in the farm really increased my appreciation for why I am doing this work.
We also started harvesting for the hospital at the beginning of April. We have been harvesting spinach, asian greens, kohlrabi, swiss chard, lettuce heads, mesclun mix, turnips, radishes, collards, and kale. Our spring high tunnel rotation has been almost completely harvested and transplanted into our summer rotation of tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers! The high tunnel has been a huge success for us this year and we’re excited to see what the summer produces!
Now, we are winding down with spring planting and our greens harvesting is at its peak. The transition is coming from spring greens to summer fruits - think juicy heirloom tomatoes, mouth-watering sweet corn, crisp cucumbers, and zucchinis galore! Just last week, we planted our row of cut-flowers filled with zinnias, dahlias, strawflowers, snapdragons, and many more beautiful flowers! Now, we are delivering produce twice a week to the cafeteria, just started our farm stand at the hospital, and Food Farmacy, the prescription veggie program, is only less than two weeks away!
Whew, May is going to be busy, and I can’t wait!