Tiny farming: rocks

Rock, pebble, stone

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[From 8-May-2013] Imagine a world of soil without stones… In the three farming locations I’ve fully worked, they’ve been everywhere and in all sizes. You get used to them: collecting heavier, smoother specimens for weighting row cover, moving even bigger ones to avoid breaking tines on the rototillers, piling up the grapefruit and orange-sized rocks by the tractor bucket load, and raking the smallest out of the way of the seeders. I have experimented a bit with how much I can leave and still have the seeders not bounce around and lay down seed unevenly. Raking as the last step of bed preparation is still the way we go.

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Bucket loading

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[From 9-May-2012] Especially in spring, with constant seeding and transplanting, moving gear around the field is a bigger deal than it may seem. Forget stuff, even little things like a hose fitting or a seed plate or some twine, and you’re heading back the equivalent of a block or two or three to get it. A trailer of some sort is the ultimate for a 2-3 acre plot, but with decent packing skills, you can fit a lot into a tiny tractor bucket, too! This carefully balanced load includes everything needed for some direct seeding: the Planet Jr. and Earthway seeders (can’t forget the Earthway seed plates, they’re a perfect fit in that coffee can); seed, clipboard for notes, twine and stakes for row marking (all in that large flower pot); choice rocks for anchoring row cover (it’s never too early to protect brassicas from flea beetles!); and there’s the last of a 50lb bag of snap peas nestled in. It takes a practiced eye to fit everything you need so nothing falls out as you bump along—do it a few times and…easy peasy!

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Rock garden

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Rocks, rocks, as far as the eye can see. This is how the market garden field looks, before the post-winter work up. Months of snow and rain, have washed the surface rocks clean, so it looks worse than it is. Still, a lotta rocks, pushing up fresh each year.

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Carrot-burlap method gets a twist

Landscaping fabric over carrots

Here’s one of the more extreme displays of crazily labor-intensive tiny farming technique. Andie surveys our work, the result of deciding to try landscape fabric in place of burlap to help carrot seed germination. It’s actually a double experiment, because one of the beds is green onions.

The burlap method has been the way to start carrots around here for the last two seasons: tried and true. The main purpose is to preserve moisture in the seed drills, and the increase in heat helps as well.

After a good run, the first round of burlap expired, and I couldn’t find rolls of it in time for this season (I know it’s out there, somewhere). But, I spotted this gear, landscape fabric, a porous plastic mulch used to permanently suppress weeds in…landscaping. It’s light, and just wide enough (3′/30 cm) to cover 4 rows of carrots (that’s a little closer than usual for the bunching onions). I tried it on two beds earlier in the season, and it works fine!

One little problem: it tears easily, so how to hold it down? With the burlap, we made wire staples out of heavy gauge wire. Here, we placed a LOT of heavy rocks, close enough together that there’s no room for the wind to get under and start really pulling. This does the trick for now, but overall, it’s a little TOO intense. The hunt for burlap: still on!

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Field day!

Winter-killed brassicas

Left to the last possible harvest in the fall, brassicas like kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower (above), were eventually winter-killed and now have to be cleaned up—one of the first field-readying jobs of spring! Today, I started. (EVERY day is a field day from here on in, through November at least, or the first heavy snow that sticks.) A day of tiny farming fieldwork is really just a whole lotta gardening… Now that the ground has dried out enough to be tillable (that could’ve been yesterday, but…errands and CHICKENS), and warmed up enough to direct seed the crops that germinate in cooler soil, it’s a whole new world of things to do…and think about doing. There are two basic ways to ponder the progress of the season’s garden: by timing and by area, each useful in its own way. Timing is mainly about the plants: when to seed, when to water, when to harvest. Area is about where to locate particular plantings, which in my case doesn’t mean absolutely running out of space, since there’s lots more field to expand the garden into if I wanted to (which I don’t), but more like where to position stuff efficiently, so you’re maintaining crop rotation, but not having to, say, drag hoses all the way down the garden to a couple of newly seeded beds that need daily watering in (although there’s a field production plan made up, there are lots of adjustments on the way—where to put stuff will come up again and again!). So, the start of the season is mainly about area, because you have to prep beds and get veggies in in a rough order—cool soil seed, then cool weather transplant, then warm soil seed and transplants—and the timing is a constant: it’s all right away! One way I keep overall track of this garden is by counting sections: it’s about 2.5 acres, divided into 40 50′x50′ squares (each fits 10-16 beds, depending on width). At some point in the next six weeks or so, almost all SHOULD be planted out, nearly 40/40. Today, I started seeding in one…

Rototilled

Tilled and untilled: Partially composted cow manure was spread and incorporated in the fall. Now, a light rototilling to prepare for seeding is all that’s needed. Today, I used the tiller on the Kubota compact tractor.

Rock stuck in tiller

Rock beats tiller: There are lots of stones in this field, they work their way up continually, and even a fist-sized rock, caught in the right way, can stall out the 48″ rototiller on the Kubota (it’s a tiny tractor!). No problem: remove and restart.

Garden gear on trailer

Getting set to seed: I work mostly one or two sections at a time, prepping an area with the tiller, marking the beds, then seeding (or transplanting). This way, I can get the crops that need to be started in as quickly as possible. Here’s the cart towed by the riding mower, loaded with assorted seeding gear (and some transplants being ferried to the greenhouse).

Measuring up the garden

Making beds: Oh, there’s A LOT of tiny farm history behind my bed marking methods. :) I’m still working on the most efficient way to set up beds. Right now, it’s fairly streamlined, involving a 100′ tape measure, stakes, and pacing off distances. This year, I’m planting in 3′, 4′, and 5′ beds (that’s path included), depending on the crop.

My favorite rake

Customizing the Rake: Every season, I re-ink faded measurement markings on a couple of hand tools I use the most. Here’s a convenient mark for 42″ from the top of the handle (that’s the planting area width for a 5′ bed. There are other marks further up the handle, and the whole rake is exactly 5′. It’s convenient for quick checks, especially on the favorite rake that I use for touching up beds right before seeding. And so, off we go…!

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Row cover decision

Row cover kit

After a chilly and only reasonably busy day at the farmers’ market, it was a bit of afternoon nap time, and then on to making the first frost decision—to cover or not to cover—of the fall season. I “consult” four different online weather services, in general trust none to be very accurate, but when it comes to more dire predictions, like super high and low temperatures and mighty gusting winds, a certain one out the four usually stands apart and is…quite accurate. True to the norm, today three services forecast overnight lows of around 5-7°C (40-44°F), while the dire one calls for plus 1°C with “risk of frost”. So, a couple of hours before sunset, we started assembling floating row cover kits near tender crop sections. The cover, 14′ wide and cut to 50′, is kept loosely rolled on 4′ lengths of 2×2. Heavy rocks, 10lbs and up, are gathered and kept track of over the season. And that’s all you need: row cover and rocks! Unlike for insect protection, where edges of the cover should be buried, or at least, anchored firmly every few feet, frost protection only needs draping over top, and tacking down at the corners and a couple of additional spots. Anyhow, in the end, I considered the breeze, the slight cloud cover, and my…um, instinct (?!), and decided not to cover…

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