Tag Archives: seedlings

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 dance of the beans

From the moment they rear their little heads — seed noggin, leaf-ears — out of our crusty clay soil, I fall in love with beans. The way, even as youngsters, that they politely tuck their leaves down at night and raise them to greet the day each morning. The patterns that emerge from twining so irregularly around whatever happens to be in their path, leaving loud cursive loops leading up to the runner’s final serif.

Sure, there’s something a bit dark about them — clambering up each other, grabbing desperately for light, using other things to support themselves rather than developing a strong enough stem on their own. But if it’s dark it’s also beautiful: the evolutionary efficiency, the speed of growth, the brilliance of the bean’s little dance that leads it to twine around objects. It’s a marvelous adaptation. (Have you ever seen a strangler fig?  Gorgeously sinister.)

Next year, perhaps, we need to plant them further apart… there are sometimes five or six stalks to a single piece of fence wire, and I have a feeling it’s going to be tough trying to locate beans in the midst of this forest, come harvest-time. It’s practically a full-time job trying to hook errant runners onto the fencing, too.

Still, I enjoy the dance.

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the first disaster

The first disaster came early.

Our farming attempt started out hopefully – what can be more hopeful, after all, than tiny green things poking out of dark earth, the first sign of life (not to mention the potential for our food and income)? But unfortunately this storybook scenario wasn’t taking place in Spring. Were it Spring, maybe our proto-farm would have had a better chance at harnessing some beginner’s luck. No, tragically, our tiny green seedlings were getting a late start in life: a May start, a hot start, a scorching 100-degree welcome-to-the-world-and-good-luck-to-you start.

At this point, I still hadn’t yet arrived at The Patch. I was in Southern California, visiting family and farming vicariously. I heard the news over the phone that the seedlings were dead.

“Which seedlings?”
“All of them.”
“All of them?”
“Well, most of them.”

Since I hadn’t been living and breathing the chaos – while I was surfing, Emmett was trying to locate cheap organic manure, ready the ground, lay the framework for irrigation, oh, and coax seedlings to life in 100-degree and zero-humidity weather – I was understandably miffed.

“What do you mean, most of them? How could you have killed them already?”

I’d been a strong supporter of extravagant seed purchasing. Ten types of tomatoes? Five of winter squash? Lacinato kale? Quinoa? Sure, go ahead! The more the merrier. $150 at Seeds of Change? $120 at Johnny’s? Be my guest. As Emmett cringed entering our credit card number yet again, I was by his side murmuring Remember, honey, it’s an investment.

And although I knew that we were a bit out of season, deep in my heart I always assumed that the investment would pay off. Or, if not pay off, at least not wither and die before ever making it into the ground.

Because The Patch was just a stretch of dry, dusty clay (with no useful things like faucets) when he arrived there, Emmett had planted the seeds in a couple hundred of those black plastic six-packs. We figured, better to get our little babies in the dirt growing as soon as possible.

Then the heat hit. And Emmett, rightly worried about the dehydrating effects of low humidity and high temperatures on seedlings planted in small pots, promptly overwatered. (Did I mention that some of the pots he bought didn’t actually have drainage holes? That didn’t help.)

The beans rotted. As in, some of the seeds never emerged; a post-mortem revealed that they had simply disappeared, composted in-situ. Only two out of 216 survived. The trauma left them stunted, and the ultimate survival of those two warriors is still unclear; their directly-sown counterparts now tower above them and may shortly shade them out.

If the beans were a fast massacre, the 330 tomatoes were a slowly-spreading epidemic. Some of them died quickly but many of them lingered, cruelly prolonging hope. After six weeks, we have one tomato that might be tough enough to go into the ground in, say, 14 more days. That’s if we’re lucky: the biggest one is currently a whopping 2.5 inches tall.

As our spindly, root-rotted tomatoes staunchly refused to don a second set of leaves, it was suggested by Emmett’s dad (kindly) that we go out and buy some seedlings from a nursery.

“Sometimes you have to spend money to make money,” Emmett’s dad noted. (Or, in our case, sometimes you have to spend money… to lose it.)

We bought 80 tomatoes for $1.12 each, and they’re currently the healthiest looking thing at The Patch. They might be flowering a bit early, but they’re still growing briskly and pumping out runners like mad, which we are dutifully plucking as we train them upwards, vine-style.

Squash proved hardest to kill. We managed to eke three 60-foot out of the squash and melon seedlings. (We also saved half a row’s worth of cucumbers.) Still, we’ve learned the hard way that squash don’t really like being transplanted; the squash we planted directly in the ground is bigger and healthier looking than the transplants (which are several weeks older).

Other casualties: 550 cells of (multiply planted) lettuce.
100 spinach.
100 chard.
60 kale. (A handful have been transplanted into the ground, but aren’t looking good.)
36 fennel.
90 arugula.
120 golden beets.
100 leeks.
50 broccoli.
24 basil, 24 cilantro, 12 sage, 12 dill, 24 chives, 24 parsley.
For a while we had one fabulous little healthy-looking dill plant which thrilled us. Our pride and joy got scorched in the plastic house on a 100-degree day, and ended up compost.
Rest in peace, all ye veggies…

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