Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Spring Challenges, Maybe

I started farming again this season rather than follow through on my planned sabbatical to give myself something to do that I could feel good about. To have something to work on. To have healthy food on hand to feed my family, friends, and extended community. Sadly, it’s been the hardest start to a season I can remember us ever having.

A late freeze killed dozens of tomato and tomatillo plants early on the morning of May 9th. This was just days after we donated plants to food access programs so we had minimal backups on hand. Last week we got 4.88 inches of rain in five days (May 18-22) followed by temperatures in the upper 80s, at least 10 degrees hotter than normal. This caused major crop failure in our spring greens, just as we were getting ready to distribute them. These are the crops I usually feel the most proud of, so their loss really hurt.

The day after the freeze I was texting with my friend Bernadett (Bernadett’s Farmacy). We’d been swapping weather forecasts and plans for protecting our seedlings for days leading up to the big chill. When I told her we lost a bunch of plants despite all my efforts, she sent me a link to the story of the Taoist farmer.

The story follows a farmer who suffers a series of what most people would deem unfortunate events ending with something most would consider a lucky break. Regardless, the farmer is always hesitant to label anything lucky or unlucky. “Maybe,” is his constant reply.

After sitting on this story for a few weeks, working through more and more of what I would consider bad luck, hunting for the silver linings, today things started to click.

I had grown only three types of tomato seedlings – following my revised sabbatical plans of using only the seed I happened to have in the basement, not allowing myself to buy anything new. Upon hearing we’d lost all our tomatoes, friends, including Bernadett, offered us extra seedlings they had. Now we have a much larger variety than originally planned. It makes me think a seedling swap could be fun in the future. Like a next level seed swap. So maybe things worked out in the end. At least for that chapter of the story.

The verdict’s still out on the others. I’ll be sure to report back as I find them.


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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.

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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:

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To the new sweet pea seedlings.

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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.

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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!

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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…

 


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Season Extension 101

IMG_4780You can’t go anywhere this time of year in Central Ohio without hearing folks begging for the end of winter. Yesterday the temperature reached above forty degrees – for the first time in a very long time – and the sun shone brightly so Cora and I suited up and ventured outside to move our bodies and get some fresh air. The melting snow was calling her, the coldframe was calling me.

As I lifted the lid, the smell of fresh soil rose up with it. There was not much alive in there, a few kale plants that made it through the polar vortex were stretching up towards the light, taller than I had seen them in awhile. Some arugula was showing signs of rejuvenation but were mostly brown and wilted. We pulled all these old suckers out to make way for some new seedlings. (I briefly thought about leaving the the kale, but flashbacks of  the cabbage worms that were feasting on them in the fall quickly changed my mind.

It was so nice to have our hands in the soil again. And the soil was warm!

Dan built our coldframe in the Summer of 2012. We used it that fall to provide shelter for some greens. Last spring, I started a bunch of arugula, kale, and spinach in the box, some of which I moved out to the garden when the weather got warmer.  These were my first experiments with season extension. I had read a few articles about such practices in Mother Earth News, but mostly I was just testing things out and seeing what worked for me. This year is a bit different. I’ve been doing lots of reading and have greater expectations for the frame as a result. Now that I know what it’s capable of, I’m ready to put this thing to work.

IMG_4785My first experiment of this season involved a thermometer, my garden notebook, and the flashlight app on my phone. As Cora was marking rows in the soil with the back of her hand rake, “just like Big Anthony!” in Strega Nona’s Harvest, I dashed inside to find an indoor/outdoor thermometer I picked up last weekend. I placed it in the sunny corner of the frame and shut the lid. 15 minutes later, it read 86 degrees! Amazing. It was 47 outside. I moved it to the shady side and checked again in a few hours (64), after the sun went down (47), just before I went to be (40), and first thing in the morning (39). The temperature went down overnight, but I could tell the soil was still warm. (Shopping note: buy a soil thermometer…)

The sun was out again today. I took a few of the spinach and kale seedlings I started inside and put them in a few inches of potting mix laid on top of the soil in the frame. I also left a few plants in the frame in the plastic cells I started them in. I closed the lid and went to farm school. The topic of the evening was, appropriately, season extension. At some point the instructor was speaking about hardening off seedlings before putting them out in the spring to acclimate them to heat and sun and I thought, oh no! The seedlings I moved outside probably needed something similar to prevent them from getting shocked by the cold. So, when I got home, I grabbed the first thing I saw, a bright orange plastic sled, and placed it over the little guys hoping it would act as a kind of low tunnel, adding an additional layer of protection. IMG_4828

[Morning report: The sled frost cover seemed to do it’s job. The temperature in the frame dropped to 35 overnight, but the plants don’t look wilted or burnt at all! Daytime temperature is suppose to jump to near 60 today and then dip down again tonight so we’ll have to do some venting and then frost protection again at night. My guess is these little guys are going to be stronger for all these early experiences, but we’ll be sure to let you know how it works out.]


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“Experience the Germination Sensation”

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The seasonally-changing sign outside City Folks Farm Shop, our local urban homesteading store, currently reads “Experience the Germination Sensation.” It captures the magic I feel when we see seedlings peaking their heads out of the soil, or in the case of these little guys, out of the coconut husk fiber. So, the only question left to ask, “Are you experienced?”

Kale: Day 3

Kale: Day 3

Spinach: Day 2

Spinach: Day 2