Reflection Series: First Year Farming Part 2

This is a Part II of my Reflection Series on the first year of farming. Catch up on Part I here.

It was February and once we had the animals situated, we were able to focus on other things. It was time to start thinking about Spring: vegetables, gardens, herbs, where, how, seeds, starts, fertilizer, soil, water… Wow! It was a lot to consider for us first-timers. Like most things with farming, we would just have to figure it out when we got there.

I’ve always had a green thumb, or so I thought. I had backyard gardens growing up, raised beds and planter boxes full of herbs. At a restaurant I once worked at, we even turned an entire section of the lawn into a garden. It wasn’t big, but we made it work the best we could. How was I to take this knowledge of backyard gardening and turn this piece of mountainside into a profitable, healthy, nourishing, productive eco-system?

Especially, since this mountainside had never been farmed before. Not long before we moved in, it was covered in blackberries and thistles. The landlord had cleared the land and scraped everything into giant burn piles. By scraped bare, I mean exactly that: scraped to the bone. I don’t even think we were working with topsoil. The soil was light brown, compacted and crusted over. The aeration and tilth were almost non-existent. Not even close to healthy, living, nutrient-rich soil. It had been depleted of anything and everything that plants need. And so we had to ask ourselves again, where do we start?

Armed with the basic knowledge of what is needed to make things grow, along with a growing library of soil health, farming and gardening books, we began planning our attack. Thankfully, we also had access to a growing number of Seeders in The Collective with years of knowledge that were willing and excited to share. We started by getting a soil test. Ouch! It was as bad (or worse) than we’d thought. We had to ask ourselves, do we try to farm this, or do we try and find an entirely different plot of land? We decided to go ahead and work on getting the land back to health. But at what price? How much were we willing to invest, especially considering we only have a two year lease? An investment of not only labor and sweat, but also financial? Was it even going to be worth it? To us, it was worth it. The amount of knowledge and education we were going to gain by bringing this land back to life would be invaluable. If we succeeded at this, imagine what we would be able to do a couple years down the road when we have an “actual” farm and adequate soil to work with.

As we were still in the rainy season, we had some time before the soil would be dry enough to work. But we didn’t have any indoor lighting to get our seeds started. Luckily, our landlord had two small greenhouse frames that he allowed us to set up for our seedlings and starts. They weren’t heated, so we placed them on the driveway next to the garage. That way we could easily move the trays in at night to keep them warm and out during the day for light. Probably not the best way to go about it, but we had to make do. Even getting this down was a challenge: what was the best potting soil to use? How do we keep the moisture level constant? How do we maintain a reasonable temperature in these little tents that tend to get up to a hundred degrees in the sunlight? How do we keep the starts from stretching too much due to the heat? So many factors went into figuring out the best approach, everyday.

Once we had the soil test done and deciphered, the land was almost dry enough to start working. We had already planned where each garden was going to go. Garden 1 was the largest plot with probably the worst soil on the property. It was slightly sloped, but flat for the most part. Garden 2 was on the hillside, so it would need to be terraced. At least it had some soil cover wasn’t totally wasted away. Garden 3 would be the hoop house. It was probably the flattest area on the property but also the rockiest, with soils as depleted as Garden 1. For Garden 4, we cleared out a patch of blackberries, so at least it had a good amount of organic matter from years of coverage and decomposition.

We started by marking out the gardens and tilling. Then we began the rebuilding process by adding about twenty tons of compost, a ton of lime and half a ton of gypsum. That’s not to mention the handful of other organic amendments like kelp, fish, blood, bone and alfalfa meal. We could have done more, but there was always the question of investment: how much were we willing to spend? Also, how much difference would these amendments make on the first attempt and with such poor quality soil? We came to the conclusion that we had spent enough setting up for our first season, and it was then up to us (and mother nature) to coax the soil in the right direction.

Once the beds were made, we fenced the gardens to keep the deer and critters out. Next we constructed the hoop house, which was a fun challenge. Sometimes fewer ideas are better than too many ideas. But with the help of our trusted friend Pabst Blue Ribbon and a little ingenuity we successfully designed and built a very inexpensive and hopefully efficient-as-possible hoop house. The intention was for it to last 2 years, but we’d have to wait and see what happens if we get another ten inches of snow this winter.

Finally springtime arrived and it was time to plant. We got the seeds in the ground: radishes, carrots, beets, arugula, romaine and beans. We transplant our starts: tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and onions. This first year was a trial, as I’m sure most farms are. We were trying to figure out what would grow best and where. We had a rough idea, but decided to plant as much as we could and see what happened, with the idea that it would help us make decisions the following season. Once everything was in the ground, it was time to wait and see.

At this point, we had only just begun to break ground on our quest for knowledge in the world we call farming. The learning had just begun and we knew it would never end. Exciting, but also a challenge: you never know what to expect. We just had to wait and see what was going to happen.

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