Transplant ’til you drop!

Now that June is right around the corner, the farm is transitioning from spring to summer vegetables, and I thought it might be fun to share what we’ve been planting in the ground over the last couple of weeks.  Before I go through the list, let me describe the planting process.  Some of the vegetables that I grow come straight from seeds planted out in the field.  All the wonderful items in the spring salad mix, for example, were planted out as seeds.  First I till the ground, then I make a furrow (kind of like a tiny ditch), then I sprinkle seeds along the furrow, cover the seeds up with dirt, and then pray for rain.  Seeds need water and they need to be within a favorable temperature range to germinate.  Some of my seeds have germinated well, especially all those salad-y things.  Other seeds have not, like spinach.  Sometimes, germination is helped along by putting fabric row covers over the seeded area because it helps keep the soil more warm and moist.  Sometimes this helps the weed seeds germinate too and the new baby weeds choke out the little plants that I want to grow.  You win some, you lose some.


 ​Here's what baby chard looks like while it's living in the greenhouse, waiting to be transplanted out to the field.

​Here’s what baby chard looks like while it’s living in the greenhouse, waiting to be transplanted out to the field.

Transplanted plants, on the other hand, can be planted in the freshly worked ground and will be leaps and bounds ahead of weed seeds.  Because they are big, they can also resist insect or other pest damage, which is a plus.  The drawback, though, is that transplants need a lot of TLC to get them big enough to put out in the field.  You have to sow them as seeds into potting soil in a flat.  A lot of growers buy their potting soil, which is often “sterile,” meaning that it is guaranteed to be free from fungal and bacterial diseases.  I have chosen not to buy pre-mixed potting soil and have been mixing my own blend of compost, peat moss, dolomite lime (a natural source of calcium and magnesium), and worm castings (that’s right, worm poo).  It has taken some tweaking of how much of each ingredient goes into the mix, but I’m pretty happy with the result.  I am actually glad that my potting soil isn’t sterile because it helps the plants develop strong immune systems and eliminates any little plants that aren’t going to make it out in that big, dirty, non-sterile world.  As a side note, all the ingredients I use come from organic sources, which means I pay higher prices, but I do so willingly because I prefer to use all natural products.  Most of the potting soil you buy from the store is not organic because it contains synthetic fertilizers and/or synthetic wetting agents that help keep the soil moist.  After the seeds have been sown into potting soil, they get watered on a daily basis and live in the nice, cozy greenhouse environment for anywhere from 4-12 weeks.  They often need to get “potted up” or moved into larger containers to have enough space to grow into healthy sized transplants.  Once the transplants are ready to go out in the field, I dunk them in water mixed with a tiny amount of organic liquid fertilizer made from kelp and fish.  This gives the plants a little bit of nutrients and extra water during the first few days when they experience transplant shock.  Each plant gets placed in the ground with some extra compost, and then they are watered in.  It’s a time consuming process, but my plants seem happy, so I’m not inclined to change things.  Larger farms have machinery that can do the planting, fertilizing, and watering, but my farm is small and I like the fact that each plant passes through my hands on its way from the greenhouse to the soil.  It makes me feel a little closer to the plants and helps me to notice the health of each plant.

transplanting in action
Transplanting in action! Chris plants eggplants in holes in the ground while Lisa scoops compost from the bucket of the tractor to fill the holes.

So, enough of the process, here’s what has been planted over the past two weeks: 5 varieties of cherry tomatoes, 2 varieties of roma tomatoes, 1 variety of sundried tomato, 12 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 5 varieties of basil, rainbow chard, cumin, nasturtiums, 3 varieties of sunflowers, 3 varieties of bell peppers, 1 variety of Italian pepper, 4 varieties of hot peppers, 1 variety of eggplant, 5 varieties of cucumber, 4 varieties of watermelon, 2 varieties of cantaloupe, 2 varieties of leeks, 1 variety of shallots, and 7 varieties of onions.  Needless to say, you’ll find some tired and achy knees and backs on the farm these days, but it feels good to have all of these plants out of the greenhouse and living out in the field.  I may have gone a little overboard buying seeds of so many different varieties, but I’m excited to see which ones do the best in the soil and climate here, and also to see which ones have the best flavor.  I look forward to bringing all these goodies with me to the market later in the summer and fall, and I hope you’ll come out, give them a try, and let me know which are your favorites.

Freshly transplanted peppers and tomatoes
Freshly transplanted peppers and tomatoes

New Arrivals

posted in: Friendterns, General, Local Food | 0
Vyper and Smudge
Say hello to Chris and the first Dark Wood Farm animal, Smudge.

The big news on the farm this week is that help (and company!) has arrived.  My friend, Chris “Vyper” Pyper and his feline companion, Smudge, will be living and working with me here on the farm through the growing season.  And, yes, Smudge has to work too – she’s on bug killing duty in the house.  Chris and I met when we volunteered for the same AmeriCorps program in 2010.  We both led trail crews in the Pacific Northwest – me in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State and Chris along the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern California and Southern Oregon.  We were thrown together often for trainings and special events, and when we realized we would both be moving to Seattle after AmeriCorps, we promised to stay in touch.  It wasn’t long after we both moved to Seattle that we realized it would be fun and cost-effective to be roommates, especially because we shared a love for cooking local, sustainably grown food.  Chris and I lived in a few places around Seattle, but we always had a garden, whether in the ground or in containers on our balcony.  We even converted a little shed into a chicken coop and kept four laying hens in our backyard in urban Seattle.  Aside from his full time job at the Mountaineers, Chris worked for Nash’s Organics at two of Seattle’s largest farmers markets, while I started exploring the ins and outs of farming as a volunteer at the University of Washington Farm and then as an employee at Local Roots Farm.

When I left Seattle to move home and start my farm this year, it was bittersweet.  While I was excited to return home to my family and friends in Kentucky, I was very sad to leave my wonderful friends in Seattle, especially Chris who had been an amazing roommate and friend (and Smudge wasn’t so bad either).  Now that Chris has decided to come spend his summer and early fall at Dark Wood Farm, I am overjoyed.  We have already accomplished so much during his first week here, and we are cooking some pretty amazing meals from all that the farm has to offer, with a little help from our fellow market vendors too.  So far, Chris is adapting to the humid heat of Kentucky (he grew up in the dry heat of Utah), and we both got called “city people” while hauling water from the local well today, but we are both enjoying the sunsets, listening to the birds while we work, and sharing the bounty of the farm with family, friends, and market-goers alike.

vyper at market
Less than 12 hours after he arrived, Vyper put his veggie slinging skills to work at Findlay Market.
With Vyper’s help we now have over 250 tomato plants in the ground!

50% for humans, 50% for nature

Since I moved home to Kentucky and started the farm back in January, we have been experiencing some interesting weather to say the least.  Subzero temperatures, abundant snow, pounding rainstorms, late season freezes, and early spring high temperatures have challenged this first-time farmer.  Most of my farming experience has been in the Pacific Northwest and California.  The climate and severe weather events in those places are much different than what we experience here in the tri-state region.  I find myself checking the weather constantly and sorting through the different options in my mind about how to best protect my plants from weather extremes.  This week, we’re going to have lows in the 30s and 40s for a few nights, then we’ll be back to highs in the 80s in no time.  Some of the plants will love the cold weather (kale, collards, lettuces, and spinach) while others may hate it, or worse be killed by the cold (I’m looking at you, freshly transplanted summer and winter squash), and some will decide they’ve had enough of this crazy weather and go to seed.  Like my gal Dolly Parton says, “It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

squash transplanting
​Working hard to get squash transplanted, but will they survive the cold?

Around mid-March, I almost let it make me crazy.  I was losing sleep at night wondering if my plants were going to survive in my unheated greenhouse during those weird 16 degree nights.  I couldn’t decide if I should buy a heater for the greenhouse, move the plants inside my cramped trailer kitchen, or wait it out and see what would happen.  If I lost my plants, I’d have to re-do all my seeding and then fall behind on my planting schedule, and consequently have a big gap in what I could bring to the farmers market in the spring.  Indecision was swirling around my brain.  I finally realized that I had to let go of all of that worry.  Nature is unpredictable and I can’t be in control all the time.  Sure, I could run out and buy expensive equipment to heat my greenhouse, or I could buy extra fabric row cover and cover everything in the garden, or I could buy equipment to mist the plants overnight to prevent frost from settling on the leaves.  But that’s not what my farm is about.  I’m trying to grow things in tune with nature, and nature is variable, sometimes violent, and certainly not sterile, or controlled.  The plants have to deal with this variability, and so should I.

One of my farming mentors, Bob Cannard, used to tell me and my fellow student farmers, “50% for humans, 50% for nature.”  By this he meant that only half of a farm should produce food for people to eat.  The other half should go to all the other consumers in nature – the bugs, the rabbits, the deer, the soil microbes.  It’s easy to get greedy and try to grow and sell as much as possible on a farm, especially when you have bills to pay.  However, when we sacrifice some crops to all the other eaters in the world, the farm becomes a much more fertile and healthy place in the long run, and we can let go of chasing after the latest gadget or technology that will “save” our crops.  As the farmer, I can get caught up worrying about killing frosts, insects eating my crops, or deer destroying my garden, or I can face challenges as they present themselves, and let go of the reins a little and trust that things will work out in the end.  So what if the temperature drops low enough to kill my summer squash tonight?  I’ll just have to re-plant them or plant something new in that space.  In the meantime, my kale might grow more happily, some insect pests might die too, and the newly dead squash vines will compost into the soil to feed the next crops.  50% for humans, 50% for nature helps me to sleep a little better at night, and I’m thankful that Bob taught me that lesson.

Crop after crop

first farmers market
my first farmers market!

Last week was big for me and my fledgling farm.  It was my debut at the farmers market, and the first time I could put a little bit of money in the bank after many months of preparation.  With warmer weather and a little bit of rain, all that prep work is paying off – vegetables are growing by leaps and bounds every day.  But the work isn’t over by any means!  Now that the threat of frost is over, I will be planting warm weather crops: tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, okra, beans, and basil.

tomato transplants
a sea of tomatoes waiting to be planted in the field

Once all of these crops are in the ground, my entire 1-acre field will be filled.  That doesn’t mean that I can just sit back and watch the plants grow.  As the weather steadily gets warmer, all my cool-loving plants like radishes, lettuces, and spring greens will begin to finish their life cycle by going to seed.  At that point, they are no longer tasty, so I will mow them down, till them back into the soil, and rotate a new crop into that location.  In this way, I will get almost two crop cycles out of my 1-acre garden, making it kind of like a 2-acre garden!  To guide me in this process of cycling crops through the garden, I created a crop plan back during those really cold winter days.  So far, the plan is pretty much on course, but I’ve had to adapt a little by pushing back my planting dates due to the long and cold winter this year.  One crop that has been waiting patiently to go in the ground are my onions.  I seeded them into flats that lived inside my house during February.  In March, they went into the greenhouse, but still had to survive through some cold nights – you all remember those 16 degree nights, right? My hope was that they’d be big enough to plant out in the field by the end of March, but not so!  They are still sizing up in my greenhouse and will hopefully go to live out in the garden in the next week or two.  On the flip side, I started some brussels sprouts at the beginning of April thinking they would be planted out into the field around June 1.

brussels sprouts transplants
baby brussels sprouts, freshly transplanted

Well, they’ve been growing like crazy, so I planted them out in the field this week.  That’s how it goes – the plants do their thing according to their own schedule and the weather, and it’s my job to observe them and adapt my plan as necessary to make sure they have the best growing environment possible.

Spring Greens

This weekend marks a momentous occasion for me and the farm – my first trip to the farmers market!  Four busy months have passed since I moved onto my little piece of leased land down in Belleview Bottoms, and now it’s time for the vegetables of Dark Wood Farm to make their grand debut and start filling the bellies of folks around Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.  On Sunday, May 4 from 10AM-2PM, I’ll be bringing lots of spring greens to the farmers market at Findlay Market.  Spring greens are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which improve digestion and help your body detox after a long winter of heavy, fatty foods.  As a bonus, most spring greens will enliven your taste buds with a spicy kick, bold nutty flavor, or bitter bite.

French breakfast radishes, petite and beautiful, ready for spring markets.
French breakfast radishes, petite and beautiful, ready for spring markets
Picking french breakfast radishes for my first farmers market!
Picking french breakfast radishes for my first farmers market!

Most of the greens I’m bringing to market this week are in the mustard plant family, including arugula, french breakfast radishes, and Asian salad greens including mizuna and tatsoi.  They went into the ground as seeds on March 24 and have grown happily through the cold, wind, rain, and even heat over the past 6 weeks.  Their only nemesis during the spring months is a small, black, jumping insect called the flea beetle.  Flea beetles emerge around the same time that the redbud trees bloom here in Kentucky, and when they start looking for food, they LOVE the spicy flavor of plants in the mustard family.  Left unprotected from the flea beetle, spring mustards would look like they were blasted by a shotgun, with tiny holes all over the leaves.  Some farmers prevent flea beetle damage by applying weekly doses of insecticides, but I don’t want to eat raw greens covered with chemicals, so I use fabric row covers to cover the vegetables that are most susceptible to flea beetle damage.  Even so, some flea beetles find their way under the fabric and leave their trademark holes on my spring greens.

Tiny turnip greens get riddled with flea beetle holes as soon as they emerge from the ground
Tiny turnip greens get riddled with flea beetle holes as soon as they emerge from the ground
These are turnip greens planted on the same date, but under the protection of fabric row cover, they stay relatively free from flea beetle holes
These are turnip greens planted on the same date, but under the protection of fabric row cover, they stayed relatively free from flea beetle holes

Since I cut spring greens by hand, I can check for flea beetle damage as I harvest.  Really holey leaves get tossed on the ground become compost and feed the soil, but I do keep some leaves that have minimal damage from the flea beetle.  The holes do nothing to affect the taste and quality of the vegetables, so if you find an arugula or radish leaf with a hole or two, don’t worry – in fact, rest assured that your veggies are free from chemicals and safe to eat.​

row cover
Mom helps me put row cover over plants in the mustard family