Tag Archives: planting

ways not to farm: part II, potatoes

I promised a post on Ways Not To Plant Potatoes, so here it is:

We dug a little trench, placed our seed potatoes at appropriate intervals, and covered them with soil. We planted these guys four inches deep, per the instructions from Seeds of Change. So far, so good, right?

Well, I guess it’s good until you have to mound them. Mounding potatoes that have sprouted at ground level is a royal pain the petutie. The whole time, you’re fighting gravity and erosion, not to mention the voluminous potato plant that has lots of airspace between its lower branches — which further fends off the mounding effort.

The first 6-12 inches of mounding was pretty easy. But after that, we found ourselves cutting a deep trench–great for tripping over, by the way–into the path just to try and get enough soil to dump on top of the potato row. We used wheelbarrows. We used shovels. We used hoes. We struggled mightily.

Next time, we are planting the potatoes in a deep trench, which we can then simply cover over–by eroding in the sides of the trench, instead of fighting erosion–as the bushes grow up. (We’ll make sure the trench is fairly wide, or at least in a well-dug bed, because potatoes have a hard time busting through compacted soil, and the potatoes tend to sprout out to the sides).

You know, I’d visited a big-scale potato farm that seemed to have their potatoes mounded up well above the surface–a good two feet, neatly done–but come to think of it, they had big gigantic machines that did that. The human labor for above-ground mounding potatoes, at least in our situation, was way too much work.

This is another of those greenhorn moments: while we’ve tended potato beds before, we’d never had to go through the whole process ourselves, from the planting to the mounding to the harvesting. From the start, it’s been an eye opening process, and I’m getting a little nervous for the finish: I can’t wait for the harvest, but I’d better not get my hopes up. Our watering has been a system of guesswork. Our soil is a tad on the clay side, although we did add manure. And while the bushes look beautiful, it’s a little scary having no idea what the crop is doing underneath the soil! Here’s hoping.

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ways not to farm: part I, general design

I think it might be useful to start a list of lessons I’ve learned by doing things the wrong way. I know I’ll remember these lessons the next time around, and hopefully if you hear my story, you will too.

Lesson #1: Don’t plant things haphazardly.

Emmett and I were desperate. It was June, remember, and we were facing a gigantic nothing of a small farm. So our mission, which we chose to accept, was to get things in the ground. Potatoes? Pronto! Tomatoes? Toss ’em in. Beans, and maybe more beans, and maybe… more beans. Oh, and cukes, and quinoa, and chard and kale, and beets and radishes, and salad…. better get some squash in the ground…

We threw things in the ground ASAP, not quite randomly, but not quite carefully, either. We did think, I promise. We just didn’t think far enough ahead.

In this way, the tomatoes ended up just two rows from the salad bed. The salad bed is watered with misters that spray out very fine droplets of water, which are caught by the wind, which usually blows towards the tomatoes, which don’t like being wet.

In this way, the pole beans ended up next to the tomatoes. It wasn’t a problem when the beans were 1-foot-tall little darlings trying mightily to fend off cucumber beetles. Now that they have become 10-foot-tall monsters, they are casting long shadows on the tomatoes, which like sun. (On the bright side, they block some of the water from the misters. Small comfort.)

In this way, the squash are encroaching on the peppers, the cucumbers are being stepped on because they’re on the front section of a main row, and I practically trip on the ditch that is the potato row (which deserves a ‘ways not to farm’ post of its own–stay tuned) every time I try to get to the cilantro or parsley.

As a sidenote, the problems I’ve encountered have given me creative ideas for the future. How about using beans as a shade for a salad bed? You could even trellis them into an arch just above head-height, so you’d have shade on the salad even at high noon, and you could pick the beans fairly easily, too. And that salad mister could be put to good use: next time, I’ll stick some water-loving plants next to the salad bed. Like arugula, or spinach, or kale or chard — not tomatoes.

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heirloom failures

So by now you know that Emmett and I handily killed $300 worth of seeds. (Well, it was really Emmett’s doing, but solidarity, you know.) When I arrived on scene, I suggested that we plant more tomatoes — even though it was getting quite late in the season. (By that time, it was June.) I thought it would be good experience, to get ready for next year–and besides, we could dust off our reputation as from-seed tomato growers.

At this point, our reputation as from-seed tomato growers remains, um, slightly burnished.

We water them every day. They’re in 4-inch pots with organic potting mix. And while some of the starts at the farmer’s market tower 2 feet tall in pots this size, we can’t seem to get more than 2-4 leaves on our little one-inch wonders. Heck, a dozen of the pots we planted (and we planted at least 3 seeds per pot) refused to sprout any seedlings at all.

I just don’t get it. These little guys (pictured above) are one month old. We’re putting them in the ground for the heck of it, hoping for a no-frost Indian summer.

This one below–a potato-leaf variety–seems to be “thriving,” although it’s sickly compared to the plants we purchased wholesale from a local nursery earlier this summer. (Some two-week-old tomatoes we bought from the nursery were bigger than this one. Do they pump them up with nitrogen? What’s the trick here?)

Some other near-fatalities, transplanted weeks ago with 2-4 leaves, have started to grow into decent-looking plants. The black plums seem to be the most hardy of the bunch; we had considerably less luck with chocolate cherry and green zebra, two varieties we were most excited about.

[Drumroll, please!] After two months of trying, this is our most successful from-seed start:

Emmett and I have grown more traditional varieties (a la Early Girl) successfully from seed. What’s the trick to starting heirlooms? For now, it eludes us; when it comes to the farmer’s market’s most iconic produce, we clearly have some learning to do.

Now that‘s a tomato: from-the-nursery red plums that are just starting to turn.

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the amazing maize technique

A man named Enrique taught us this trick for planting corn. Previously, we’d just planted it, covered it with dirt, and then watered it every day — which led to highly irregular sprouting, and some unfortunate kernel-rotting, too. (Our soil has a fair bit of clay, so it crusts over easily, and I think the corn had a tough time breaking through.)

This technique — “la sistema Mexican,” as Enrique (who’s from Mexico) called it — seemed to help the corn sprout more quickly and evenly. It’s also easier, because you never have to water!

1. Hoe out a trench, about 6 in. deep in the center.

2. With a hose, fill the trench with water. (Note: if your ground is sloped at all, this is easier said than done. On a slight slope, run the hose from the top of trench, and do it a few times, switching frequently so the water doesn’t overflow at the lower end.)

3. Leave trench overnight. In the morning, test the trench to see if it’s wet enough: you should be able to easily stick the top section of your finger (to the joint) into the soil. If not, give it a little more water before planting and test again.

4. Sow your corn the recommended distance apart, and press each kernel gently into the soil with a forefinger.

5. Cover corn with approximately 1.5 inches of wet soil from the sides of the trench.

6. This is the fun part: now walk on the planted corn, carefully placing your feet heel-to-toe for maximum coverage.

7. Top off with 1/2-1 inch of dry soil.

8. Voila! You don’t have to water your corn again until it sprouts.

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