Friday, May 7, 2010


So many of my farming techniques fly in the face of conventional wisdom. And sometimes, despite the fact that things have worked for the last 10-12 years, I begin to doubt that what I believe--what I have seen--is actually true. Maybe my successes have just been random luck.

Spring is always a time of such self-doubts, esp. when I am touring gardener after gardener through the farm, extoll the virtues of our soil and our system to them. "You NEVER water???? You NEVER till except an inch or two for tiny seed like lettuce???? Do I really not? Am I imagining things?

As the season wears on, I tend to be vindicated.

Today we planted tomatoes. Dozens of tomatoes. Flats of tomatoes. To be more specific, 126 tomato big, tall, succulent, thriving tomato plants from Pendleton's Country Market (yes, they have LOTS left, some great heirloom varieties, all colors and sizes and shapes!). Only another 90 to plant on Sunday, and then we start planting the 117 lbs. of seed potatoes that arrive tomorrow....

Our method is simple and direct...usually. The extra tall plants (some more than 2 feet) were a bit of a challenge, though. Our normal method is to bury all but the top few inches, so that there is lots of root system down deep to anchor the plant and to draw up water from way down if there is a dry spell. Judging from the length of roots that had crept through the holes in the pots, given the time and the need they could go down to the water table by August.

We are planting tomatoes and potatoes (and some cole crops, like cabbage and broccoli, by way of experiment) on the NorthEast Quadrant, which has been fallow and untilled for at least 4 years, probably longer. Mostly it grows a thick stand of crab grass, and we use it for hot-weather forage for the sheep.

Last fall we didn't graze it, just mowed it once to prevent a particular noxious (in a wool-grower's sort of way) weed from setting seeds, a.k.a. burrs. When it frost-killed, it made a dense silvery-tan blanket over the field. I've observed that a crabgrass cover like this, even a thin one, seems to have unusual weed preventive powers. I have never heard of it being allelopathic, but it sure looks like it. So we thought we'de experiment with using fall crabgrass as a self-mulch.

Early in the spring, we started planting potatoes out here...50 lbs. of Yukon Gold, and some early red 'taters, too. I worried a bit about planting them directly into this soil that hadn't been tilled for so long. Surely it would be very compact and hard to dig the potatoes? They might not even be able to grow well?

Imagine my happy surprise when I discovered how wonderful the tilth of this field has become! The sharpshooter went in easily; three progressive step-inn/pullback motions and the shovel was up to the top of the blade. Then I could burrow down in all that and be up to my elbows in perfect dirt.

If planting tomatoes is this easy, then digging potatoes will be even better after the soil has enjoyed a deep mulch of grass clippings on top of the crabgrass.

We worked as a real team on this, assembly-line fashion. JL would lay the string line, locate the plants using a planting stick (a willow twig that was lying in the garden, broken to the right length (a bit more than 2 feet)), pull back the mulch to reveal about 12" diameter of soil surface, move the string line out of the way to the next bed, pull the leaves off all but the top cluster of the plant (to reduce transpiration and stress; an important technique for transplanting without added water)

I would dig holes where the mulch was pulled back, take off the pot, wiggle myself elbow deep in the dirt, drag a tomato plant root ball down there with me, firm the dirt around the plant, circle it around gently in the hose to get more of it under the ground level if possible. Repeat.

TK ran the mower, keeping us well supplied with mulch. Nex, we need to mulch even bigger and thicker.

Before we know it, we'll be harvesting the fruits of our labors. Some tomato plants had fruit set on them already!

The best part of our soil, though, is NO CHIGGERS! When we are this tired, we can just go lie on the grass and stare at the stars.

1 comment:

Camille Cody said...

Tomatoes! I'm jealous.
It's been funny going from KS where you didn't water at all, to arid and high CO where watering is basic and elemental to all farm operations.
This is why I'm WWOOFing, to take in all this knowledge and weigh it, it's been amazing so far!