Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH

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Failure in the field

Like all bloggers, I tend to emphasize our successes in the field. (I did write about some ugly carrots at one point and I stand by my love of fruta feia.) Today I thought I would share a failure.

About 3 weeks ago, we set out some red cabbage starts. You can see them on the bottom right of this image. Looking back on them now, they definitely look like they could have used a few more weeks under the lights inside before transplanting. But, it was warm and the plants on the other side of the tray were ready to go.


Before planting, I consulted folks on the Ohio Homesteaders and Gardeners Facebook group.

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As you can see, I wasn’t alone in my poor previous attempts. I took the comments about feeding cabbage well and providing a stable environment to heart and set them out with a nice dousing of fish emulsion and a frost blanket. I should have taken more seriously the post wishing me luck.

I’m sad to those seedlings are not looking great at this point. In the photo below you can see a few (top let and bottom right) which are pretty leggy and have burnt leaves. These were two of the best looking ones I found.

Thankfully, I had some cilantro and boc choi in need of a home so I spent yesterday afternoon interplanting those between a few cabbages that will get one more chance to get going. With overnight temperatures in the 20s expected on and off this week, their outlook is not all that great.  I might try starting a few more red cabbage plants before we get much closer to the frost our date. Maybe.

Below is another problem we’re facing. The Napa cabbage we set out the same day as the red is looking good — leafing out and emitting a gorgeous green glow. However, slugs have been feasting on them. Yesterday I set out a few beer traps and hope to find some treats for the chickens later today. This is my first try with this so I’m not sure I did it right. I’ll be sure to report later.

Below is a shot of shows some of the plants that haven’t suffered much from slug attacks (see center row). I believe there’s hope for them yet…


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Death (and Rebirth) by Cold Frame Solar Oven

(This post is dedicated to our friends Tim Chavez and Suzanne Csejtey, local masters of solar power.)

I guess I didn’t really check the forecast all that well yesterday morning because I decided to leave our cold frame closed to benefit some seeds I had set to germinate. I wasn’t thinking at all about the sprouts and greens already growing in there. When the temperatures approached 80 degrees, everything baked.

From the overwintered mustard:


To the new sweet pea seedlings.


At first I was really pissed at myself for making such an amateur mistake. But then I sat back and looked at what was in the soil and thought about what could be.

Using the cold frame as a seedbed, not just a tool for growing plants when it’s cold, is a concept I picked up from Eliot Coleman and it works. It’s so much easier to keep a 2 x 4′ bed damp for germination than a 27 foot row. And the seedlings are able to stretch out form the start in the ground as opposed to in a plastic cell. (The space under our grow lights is presently overrun with tomato plants so that’s not an option anyway!)

So, I ripped out everything that was left growing – the aforementioned mustards and some lettuces that had been growing in the basement this winter which I moved out to the frame a month ago but were so root-bound they would never amount to much more than they already were, and made a giant harvest salad.


I added some of the potting soil mix I picked up at the Columbus Agrarian Society and am now using instead of the totally unsustainable coir I was using for seedlings (turns out it is made in Holland from coconut husks grown in Singapore!) and now we’re’m ready to start over again. Spring is all about new beginnings, afterall!

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A Peek @ Our Indoor Seeding Operations

IMG_9477There are lots of great things you can grow in your vegetable garden from seed. This is the kind of gardening kids learn about in picturebooks – dig a hole in the ground, put in a seed, add water, and wait. “Direct seeding” in gardening lingo. But there are other things that need more sun and heat to mature than our northern North American climate can offer in a single season. These must be started indoors, in late winter or early spring. Tomatoes, for instance, make up some portion of 85% of kitchen gardens in the U.S. and we’re starting ours this week!

Growing your own seedlings is a rewarding way to get through the final days of winter and save money in the garden. But it’s not for everyone. It’s a lot of work to keep things growing strong, healthy, and on schedule. Plants that mature too early can be hard to acclimate to their outdoor environs. And plants that don’t receive the right amount of light and nutrients may never catch up. Sick seedlings are also more susceptible to disease and pests, neither of which you want hanging around.

So, if you don’t have the time or equipment to give your seedlings a good start, stick with locally grown plants, raised by folks that do. You’ll be supporting your local farmers and ensuring that you’ll have something to harvest when the time comes. Be sure you get organic stock to avoid seedlings raised with neonic insecticides that can be harmful to bees, contaminate your soil, and leave chemical traces in your produce.

Here are three of our top tips for growing your own seedlings:

1) Dedicate space to your endeavor. Be sure it is out of reach of young children and pets. Make it somewhere you don’t mind getting messy. And locate near a water source, if possible. We set up in our basement. It’s grown a bit each of the past few years. We now have a nice sized potting area with space for our DIY heating mat and two large shelves dedicated to growing space. There is a utility sink a few feet away in the laundry area. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.

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2) Invest in grow lights. We didn’t have them when I first started seeds inside, but they are a must if you are really trying to do this right. (And, to reiterate my point above, if that isn’t your plan, I’d leave it to the experts.) We got our lamps from a commercial supplier that Dan knows through work. They are super efficient, T12, four-ft. flourescent bulbs, 6 bulbs per unit. When we first started using them I was terrified to see the electric bills, but they didn’t change at all! Goal for 2015-2016 is to always have something growing under there, winter, spring, summer, and fall to increase our yield (indoors as well as out) as much as possible!







3) Know before you sow. I used to start my seedlings in potting soil. Seemed to make sense since the plants were in pots. But last year when we started this venture, I headed to one of the hydroponics shops in our neighborhood for some education on indoor growing, under lights. Mike taught me about coir – or coconut fiber which provides a light, neutral medium for seedlings to grow in. Since the coir doesn’t have much nutrition to offer, he also recommended some food – Nectar of the Gods’ Gaia Mania. (The coir is probably the least sustainable part of our operation as it’s sourced from Sri Lanka and produced in Holland, but I have tried other brands and this one really is amazing. Your recommendations for alternatives most welcome.)

The nutrients are not important for germination, but as soon as I see sprouts I start feeding them once a week. I generally broadcast seed a bunch of seeds in a single container and then transplant them to their own individual containers. Just like when transplanting in the field, when I move plants to their new spaces, I give them a healthy snack.

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Hope to be reporting from the fields soon!

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Everything’s Illuminated

DSC_0023It’s bitterly cold here in Central Ohio, again. But, I’m convinced this is the last of it. Snow and ice in the forecast this weekend, then I’m hoping we can keep temperatures in the 20s and 30s with some sunshine through March. I can handle that. I’m over this polar vortex business.

Yesterday, Dan was off from work so we could attend Rosa’s 6th grade lip sync – a welcome respite from the winter blahs. After that, we chilled out a bit and got our grow lights hung.

We set them up on a few storage shelves I cleared off in the basement. They are out of the way and I figure if we do this every year, we’ll be forced to go through the junk that accumulates down there all year long. Two points!

The lights are so bright I’m thinking of moving my office down there. Not really, but they are lovely – never thought I would say such a thing about fluorescent light fixtures. Dan’s one of those guys who always “knows a guy” to help us out with great prices and services and these high efficiency fixtures were no exception. They are pricey and I’m not sure we would have made the investment at retail price. While I’m super excited to be growing stuff in February, I’m wondering how much money we’ll save in the end, if any, by starting our own seeds. I suppose I should count up how many plants we end up growing and compare our costs with retail prices. Report on that sometime in May.


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Hoops Dreams

One of the things we’re most excited about experimenting with this spring and fall are tunnels – high and low.  Tunnels are used to extend the growing and harvesting seasons. A tunnel over a garden bed creates a microclimate which magically transports the soil and air 500 miles south. So, in the spring, we can use low tunnels to get a jump on the growing season, and in the fall, we can use them to protect crops from the frost. The tunnels will behave similarly to our coldframe.

Last week, Jesse Hickman of Local Matters – Columbus’s leading non-profit dedicated to “transforming the food system” and a co-sponsor of farm school – offered to lend me a low hoop bender the organization owns. I jumped at the opportunity and made use a few recent sunny days with temperatures over 30 degrees to give it a spin. I stabilized the bender on picnic table in a green space behind a bank and a funeral home at the end of our block and set to work. Dogs from adjacent lots were barking at me and I was waiting for the bank security to come ask me what I was building. All part of the urban farming experience, I suppose.

IMG_4862As Jesse predicted, my first attempt at bending the 1/2 inch electrical metal conduit was a wonky, lopsided mess. But I quickly got the hang of it and we now possess 16 hoops 4 ft in diameter and 4 feet high. Hope to install these guys the second week in March and move some seedlings into them. Will also be experimenting with direct seeding under the tunnels. Stay tuned…