Over the Fence Urban Farm


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Farm School Grows On

Put 40 amateur urban farmers in a room with an Extension Educator to talk about vegetable production planning, and it’s bound to get personal. Everyone has a pet product they want to know how to grow better. And so it was Wednesday night at farm school. One person asked why her onions never get much bigger than a golf ball. Another wanted to know what was eating her radishes. I wanted to know how to keep the flea beetles off my arugula.

Jacqueline Kowalski, who also led our session on soil, did a nice job balancing these queries with her prepared remarks about vegetable production planning, tomato production (yes, this was a presentation onto itself – they are that popular!), and plant nutrition. As with all the other sessions, I heard some things I knew before, but from a new perspective, and had my mind opened to new things I’ll need more time to consider and explore.

Jacqueline likes to teach through problems and for this session she presented us with questions we answered by looking up information in the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogue. I found myself drifting from the assignments – for example, “You have an order for 500 Wee-B Little, 500 Snowball, and 500 Baby Bear pumpkins. How many plants do you need to grow?”or “What are the best lettuces to grow in the summer?” – to drooling over the season extension supplies featured in the back of the book. I returned to the group consciousness for the answers to our assigned questions and learned some new strategies for reading the seed catalogues and analyzing and selected varieties to grow. Then, when I got home I placed a great big order for row covers and and other supplies that have been on our list through Johnny’s website.

We talked at length about starting seedlings, intercropping, succession planting, crop rotation, and fertilizers. So much interesting and useful information to refer back to and share with you all as the season grows on.  Hard to believe, but next week is the last session of farm school.

 


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Top Five Farm School Tips on Pests and Pollinators

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This week’s farm school session was by far the best yet. Denise Ellsworth was the most dynamic instructor we’ve had and the three hours whizzed by. (The art educator in me is convinced this is in some way related to the fact that she started her college career as an art history student.) Denise had so much information to share she ran out of time, which was kind of a bummer. Some of what she shared was a little unnerving – there are so many natural threats to a good harvest – but in this game it’s best to know your enemies. Thankfully, she provided lots of resources we can use to get started on the right foot, to expand on what we’ve been doing well, and make changes as we move forward. She also taught us a thing or two about our allies. I can’t wait to use some of these tips to more effectively lure the bees from the hive down the block to our yard. (Thanks, Jen and Tim, for letting them come over to play!)

Here are the top five things I took away from the evening:

If you see fungus, it’s too late to treat it.
If you want to have a healthy garden, you have to take a long-term and proactive approach to pest management. This includes understanding the culture of your landscape – “how actions impact balances and relationships.” There is so much happening beneath and around our plants that we need to be aware of. Too often we focus too intently on the plants themselves. Attention to drainage, air flow, and crop rotation are examples of areas for pro-action.

Banish old tomato plants from your kindgom.
Most backyard compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill the diseases and pests tomato plants can accumulate over a season. It’s not worth risking next year’s crop by holding onto any part of these plants. Pull roots completely and remove all fruit and foliage from beds as soon as the harvest is over. Bury the remains somewhere in the yard a foot down or put them in the trash. (Need to find out whether they can be put out for city yard waste pickup. Do their piles get hot enough or are we just spreading the disease throughout the city?)

Embrace your inner scientist.
Scientists’ work develops from observation-based questions. Come this spring I’ll be “scouting” for problems in the garden everyday, then exploring options for addressing them. For example, if I see insect “frass” (aka bug poop), I’ll follow the trail and see where it leads and take action based on what I see. I’ll record the “ground truth” for weather related patterns as they arrive at our property like “growing degree days” as they pass.

Be the hostess with the most-ess.
Invite pollinators into your “insectary” and show them a good time. Find ways to provide a successive feast with at least three pollen sources spring, summer, and fall to keep them around your property rather than flying off to the next way station. That’s gonna take some research and planning. We’ll start by rearranging some of our perennials in groups and by incorporating flower beds throughout and around the the farm. This will help us create” corridors of connectivity,” or highways, for bees and butterflies to follow through your space so they don’t have to cross scary pathways where predators might gobble them up.

The more you grow, the more you need to know.
As urban farmers growing a variety of things in small spaces, we are both at an advantage and disadvantage over the large-scale, one product grower. We’ll need to learn the ideal growing conditions for a wide variety of plants. At least we won’t ever get bored.


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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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Farm School: Day 2

My head is spinning from class tonight which left me wishing I hadn’t ditched so many of my high school biology classes.

Our instructor for the evening, Jacqueline Kowalski came down from the Cuyahoga County Extension (that’s up near Cleveland from folks out of state) to give us a very quick and dirty introduction to plant science and soil quality. The three hours flew by as we worked through learning activities, like the following vegetable quiz, and listened to Jackie run through a ton of information. Lots of the terms and concepts were familiar, but I definitely walked away with a list of things I need to learn more about.

photo 1[For those of you trying this at home, the samples were beets, carrots, onions, garlic, spinach, tomato, potato, and  asparagus.]

I really enjoyed the discussion of soil and can’t wait for the ground to thaw so we can have ours tested to learn what we are really working with. The chart following chart shows the general makeup of viable soil. Seeing that 25% is air really helped me understand why you shouldn’t walk on your garden beds. I’ll be showing it to the kids for sure! I also hope to conduct a “shake test” with them to explore the makeup of our soil. See how it’s done at Far Out Flora, and watch for our results this spring.

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“Mastering” the Art of Urban Gardening

Tonight, I started a Master Urban Farmer workshop series. The class was scheduled to begin yesterday but a winter storm forced a late start. I hope this isn’t a bad omen for things to come this spring. I guess I’d prefer to focus on the kale seeds that germinated on our windowsill in 48 hours. Either way, we have our work cut out for us.

Kale. Day One.

Kale, day one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found out about this series of classes when local gardening guru Trisha Clark suggested I contact Mike Hogan at the OSU Extension about taking a GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) course to learn about safe handling of produce for distribution. Mike recommended the seven week workshop series, which will cover GAPs as well as lots of other things one would need to know to start an urban farming project of any size or scope – from site selection and soil testing to management of labor and marketing goods for sale. Tonight’s session provided an overview of urban farming in the 21st century with a focus on Columbus (I’ve been reading a lot about the history of urban farming nationwide and will share some of that another time), setting goals and objectives, and identifying a site.

I think my favorite part of the class, however, was the introductions. With over forty people in the room, I wasn’t sure we’d get to any of the course content if we all had a chance to talk about who we were and why we were there. However, I was inspired to hear about community gardening initiatives around the city that I hadn’t heard of before like  an international garden for new immigrants and workforce initiatives for developmentally disabled adults. I also got a sense of why other individuals and their families are joining the food revolution, much of which echoed my own – everything from the pure love of growing one’s own food, to a desire for self-sufficiency, to wanting one’s grand-kids to know where their food comes from. It was welcome inspiration.

Never, in a million years, did I think I'd be in "school" again.

Never, in a million years, did I think I’d be in “school” again.