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Lessons From Our First Year of Market Gardening

 

Market Gardening has become the craze. Do a quick search on the subject and you’ll probably find someone boasting about how you can make six figures growing vegetables in your front yard. Thousands of YouTube videos have been made on the subject. Advocates like Curtis Stone and JM Fortier have made the idea of farming vegetables on a small-scale attractive to many.

We started down the path that eventually led us to market gardening long before we knew about the pioneers like Fortier and Stone. For us, small-scale farming was a way of life that was not only attractive but essential to the nurturing of our soul. There’s something incredibly satisfying about growing your own food, working the soil with your hands and earning the right to eat from it by the sweat of your brow.

But can it be profitable?

We’ve always gardened. But the idea of making a living by working our own land didn’t start to take root until a few years ago when we were still living in Oregon. It wasn’t until we moved to Iowa in 2016 that we were able to put our dreams into reality.

When we started our market garden we knew very little about what it would take to make it all work. We had a three-year business plan. We had twelve acres. And we had a lot of determination. But would it work? Would it be successful? Or would our dreams go up in smoke?

I’m happy to say that we’re still at it. We have learned so much since that first year, and even though we are still very much students of the craft, we have also gained a wealth of understanding and experience that has made us a little bit wiser.

Here are some of the valuable lessons we learned that first year:

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You Will Have To Give Up Much

We seriously underestimated how much we would need to sacrifice in order to succeed.

In order to establish our market garden, we had to convert a 3 acre field that had been overgrown with weeds into a suitable place to grow fruit and vegetables. It was a kind of blank canvas, but required a lot of time to turn the soil, design and establish our plots and prepare new beds for planting.

I have a full-time job, so every day from May through most of October I would race home and spend the evening in the field until after the sun went down. Every weekend was spent in the field as well, starting early Saturday mornings harvesting produce for the market and our CSA members.

When my kids were playing in the yard I was in the field. I’d try to sneak in a late game of catch with my 8-year-old, but I always felt like it wasn’t good enough. Often I would be late to the table for supper. The rest of the property pretty much went neglected, the flow beds in front of the house barren, the shrubs in the old grove overgrown, the weeds around the buildings untrimmed. Man how that bugged me.

We did squeeze in one vacation, a whirlwind road trip back to Oregon to attend our eldest son’s wedding. But we found that leaving the garden for any long period of time was to risk losing part of our investment. We were in a drought and so watering was a daily chore. So we chose to forgo any other family vacation time. There was always something to plant, something to harvest, weeds to pull, soil to turn.

I’m not complaining. Not at all. This was the life we signed up for. This was farming. It was a summer filled with hard work, sunburned scalps and dirty hands. And I loved every minute of it. But I also wrestled with guilt for not having the time I wanted to spend with the kids, and other projects around the house that were put on hold. This led to a deeper desire to be more efficient with my time if we were to make this a long-term vocation.

If you want to farm vegetables for profit, it is one of the most fulfilling endeavors you can pursue in this life. But be prepared for the sacrifices you’ll need to make. It can be lonely. It will be tiring. And the only thing certain is uncertainty.

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Start Small

The tendency when starting out is to take on too much. To start too big. You’re anxious to get all those veggie varieties planted, and more space is better, right?

Wrong. My recommendation is to start small until you have a good idea of what you’re doing.

We launched our market garden with a 3 acre field, but even 3 acres proved too much to work with our first year. We started without a tractor, using only a rototiller, a couple of wheel barrows, an assortment of hand tools and a hand seeder, which made the challenge even more daunting. Ultimately we only used about an acre and a half our first year. This included six plots of twelve 100′ beds planted with vegetables, plus our raspberry, strawberry and asparagus plots. We also planted a quarter acre in fruit trees.

The rest of the field grew weeds. Literally. This proved to be one of the greatest challenges we faced that first year. The sight must have been humorous to our neighbors as they passed by our field and saw me out there mowing two acres of ragweed standing 4 feet tall with a push mower. 

When starting out, have a plan, plant only what you can manage, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. You don’t need to be everything you want to be in year one.

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Invest In The Right Tools

Our budget was tight, and honestly we weren’t sure exactly what we needed when we first started farming. We invested in an Earthway Seeder and also bought a new Husqvarna tiller, but that was pretty much it.

After months of dealing with incessant weeds, we did decide to finally buy a tractor, complete with mower, loader and tiller. That was certainly a huge investment, but it would pay off in time and energy utilization. I was able to manage the rest of the property, keep the weeds at bay before they went to seed, and using the loader to move compost and mulch was so much more efficient than the wheel barrow.

The right tools depend on how you plan to farm and how much space you will use. Do you want to be completely or partially no-till? Will you be planting on permanent beds? Or do you prefer the more conventional route, using a tractor to do most of the work?

Whatever your direction, don’t cheap out on your tools. This is an investment you can’t afford to skip.

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Have A Plan, But Be Flexible

When we started making initial plans for our market garden, I knew I wanted to work on permanent beds. I knew very little about soil structure and microbiology, but had a desire to adopt a no-till approach on each bed. My plan was to till once to get each bed established, and then practice good crop rotation and apply lots of compost to build up the soil, thus eliminating the need to till in the future.

I still am moving toward achieving this goal, but have realized that going completely no-till isn’t likely going to work for us. I do want to exchange the tiller next year for a power harrow, which stirs the soil instead of pulverizing it, but our operation and climate won’t likely support a complete no-till operation.

The point I’m making, and the valuable lesson I learned, was not to be too rigid with your plans starting out. I knew very little going into our first year, and with each lesson learned in the field my plans seemed to alter. This is good, and often necessary. Adapting new techniques is part of the farming journey.

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Don’t Underestimate The Weeds

I’ve mentioned our battle with weeds several times now. Seriously, it was one we almost lost!

But valuable lessons are often learned by the toughest of challenges.

Our first year, the only landscape barrier we used in the field was to lay down paths in between plots. But over our beds? Didn’t think about that. At least not until we found ourselves dealing with ragweed well over our heads in the bean plot. And in the kale.

Pulling weeds takes up too much time, and will significantly reduce your efficiency. Plus its a complete morale buster. I strongly suggest planting everything you can on landscape fabric or plastic, or spreading some kind of thick, organic mulch like straw. Even the smallest garden plots can be daunting to manage when it comes to weeds, and there is no way we could manage a 3 acre market garden if we didn’t use these well learned methods.

Vegetables you can easily plant on fabric: strawberries, lettuce (transplanted), squash, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cucumber, tomato, pepper, pumpkins and melons.

Vegetables that do well in mulch: all of the above plus potatoes, sugar beets, green beans and peas.

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Pay Attention To Your Market

The biggest rookie mistake when starting a market garden is to plant without understanding the market you’re trying to serve.

We weren’t entirely immune from this mistake. We did a little investigating into what others were selling at the markets, mainly looking to identify varieties that we might grow to stand out from the competition. But we still had little understanding of what our market would support.

Where we really stumbled was in the amount of what we grew. For instance, have you ever seen how much two 100′ long beds of basil can produce? When it comes on all at once? It smelled wonderful, and probably kept some pests away, but we couldn’t give our basil away.

We also sorely underestimated how much sweet corn to plant early in the season. We sold out of our sweet corn in one day, even as people were begging to be put on the list for more. We did plant a succession crop that came on in August, but by then the rush for sweet corn was over and we couldn’t give that away either. Who knew?

Do some research. Think critically about how much you need to plant to produce what you need. But also have fun experimenting. We wouldn’t have known how wonderful broccoli could taste growing in our Iowa soil, and how well it sold, unless we took a chance on it.

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Don’t Be Afraid To Fail

This is a good lesson for anyone starting out in business. Follow your dream, and don’t be afraid of failing.

You will fail. Maybe not entirely, but in small (or big) ways that might hurt nevertheless. But failure can be our greatest teacher. We learn from our mistakes, and then we apply those lessons to become better at what we do.

In order to succeed at market gardening, you must have a desire to succeed. You must have determination and grit. And you must love what you do. Every part of it. Otherwise I would do something else.

Don’t believe the hype that has built up around the market gardening industry. You likely won’t make a six figure salary growing vegetables. You may never be able to leave your steady job to farm on a small-scale. You will be faced with uncertainty like you’ve never known. And you will fail.

But in the end, it’s so worth it all. 

We survived our first market gardening year. And we’ve grown in so many ways since then. Every year has its challenges, but that first year is just as exciting and frightening as anything I can imagine.

If you choose to go down this road, you’ll never be the same again.

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Spotlight: Siberian Kale

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I wasn’t always a fan of kale. As a matter of fact, I always associated the taste of kale with dirty feet. It wasn’t until we started to grow our own that I really started to appreciate kale for what it is.

Kale is a super food packed with so many nutrients like Vitamin K, Vitamin C, Potassium and iron. Some might say that kale is the healthiest food you could possibly grow.

But what about the taste?

Kale doesn’t have to be nasty. I’m convinced that the trick to finding good tasting kale is to source it locally. Nothing beats fresh kale, and the stuff you might find at the grocery store usually just doesn’t compare.

We grow Siberian Kale because of its broad, tender leaf and high quality sweet taste. It’s easy to grow,  and its one of the first things we plant in early spring.

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Why Siberian Kale?

We grow Siberian Kale because it’s exceptionally tender and sweet, even when at full maturity. It grows very well in our Iowa climate, even during our hot and humid summer months.

How do we grow it?

Kale seed is very small and so we don’t bother planting with our seeder. Instead, we will scatter seed by hand over a well prepared bed and then gently rake over with soil. Kale doesn’t need to be planted very deep at all, and we don’t bother with thinning. Kale germinates very quickly and within 25 days our 100′ beds are filled with lush baby leaves growing on tender stalks. Growing in this method almost eliminates the need to weed the beds because the kale crowds out anything else that might want to grow.

Kale is vulnerable to several species of pest. Flea beetles love to munch on baby kale leaves. So do the rabbits, ground hogs and deer. We never spray our leaf vegetables with pesticides, and are always experimenting with different methods to ward off pests. We have found that planting kale early in spring will give it a good start before flea beetles start to emerge in warmer weather. They still hit our crop, but wont’ decimate it once the plants are well established. In a particularly bad year for insects, we might use a floating row cover to minimize damage. We are also experimenting with cross planting our beds with flowers and other plants that deter certain insects. Marigolds and basil are two great options to cross plant with kale, as they attract beneficial insects that will eat flea beetles.

And the rabbits? We do spray the perimeter of our garden plots with a plant safe rabbit and deer deterrent.  You can find what we use here. That and the addition of our two dogs who like to chase anything that moves seem to keep the rabbit and ground hogs in check.

How do we harvest it?

Early in the season all of our kale is harvested at baby stage. We cut it all by hand, using scissors to trim the stalks about a half-inch from the ground. Once cut, the baby kale goes into plastic bins to be prepped for our CSA customers or for the farmer’s market. We wash in ice-cold water to immediately take the heat off, dry and then it goes directly into the cooler. If prepped properly after harvest, kale will last up to three weeks in the cooler, although we aim to sell it within a day or two. But its long shelf life is a reason why many of our customers love to buy it fresh from the farm.

Kale will grow back, and we’ll often get two or sometimes three cuttings off each plant. The longer it grows, however, the less sweet it tastes. So we’ll plant successions of Siberian kale all through the season.

How do you eat kale?

The best way to eat kale, in my opinion, is fresh. Either on its own or mixed with spinach or a lettuce blend, kale makes a great salad. Consider mixing it with cranberries, cheese and a light vinaigrette for an incredible lunch. You can also use it in a variety of soups or dishes. Kale goes well with pasta and fish, or bake it in a pot pie. Kale also freezes well.

If you enjoy making your own juices or smoothies, kale is the super food that will offer an extra punch of vitamins and flavor. We like to juice kale with a couple of apples, celery stalks, carrots and a little bit of ginger. So good!

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Tell us your kale story. Do you have a favorite recipe? Share it with us here on the blog or visit us on our Facebook page. And don’t forget to support your local farmer’s market!

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Starting Seeds Without a Greenhouse

When we were still in the dreaming phase of starting our market garden, the visions we painted in our head always seemed to include a few greenhouses. Large, beautiful caterpillar shaped vessels filled with flower and vegetable starts. Can you picture them?

But as we moved into to our first year of production, we quickly realized the cost of starting business was more than we had bargained for. Dreams, you might say, crashed head first into reality. So sacrifices needed to be made, and our greenhouse plans were pushed down the road.

But that hasn’t kept us from starting our own seeds for transplants. As a matter of fact, we are actively planning on ramping up our seed start production significantly this year. We plan on not only growing all of our own transplants (instead of buying half of them at the big box stores) but also making some available to our customers for retail later this spring. And we are doing it all in our basement on a minimum budget.

Starting seeds indoors can be easy. It’s fun to be able to actually plant something when its 8 below outside! With just a few basic things you can turn almost any space in your house into a grow room.

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We’ll be starting with a couple varieties of peppers. Peppers take a while to germinate, and even longer to grow. So even thought we start most of our seeds in Feb, we’re going to get a jump on some of our peppers this month.

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Although we’re starting to gravitate toward using cell trays like these we still plant a lot of our starts using Jiffy Pellets. These are a simple way to germinate seeds for any gardener.

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What are Jiffy pellets? They are little pods made of condensed peat. When you apply water they swell in size, making a nice little habitat for a seed.

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Apply water slowly over the Jiffy pellets. Don’t completely submerge them, but rather let them absorb the water. Once your pellets rise, your tray should be clear of water, otherwise you’ll promote mold. Make sure you drain off any excess before you place your seeds.

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Place one to two seeds in the center of the pellet. We’ll just barely cover our pepper seeds to allow light to penetrate the peat. How deep you plant your seed will depend on what you’re trying to germinate.

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Make sure you mark your varieties so you know what you’ve got germinated. We’re planting two different pepper varieties in this tray. The Wenks hot peppers will likely germinate later than the sweet pepper. Just for reference, there’s about 90 potential pepper plants represented on this one tray. I say potential because its possible not all of your seeds will germinate.

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Cover with a plastic lid. This will trap in moisture and heat that will create a greenhouse effect. Again, its’ important not to completely saturate your pellets. Be careful when watering. Too much and your seed will rot, or you’ll grow moss or mold that will contribute to disease.

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We’ll place the trays underneath our lights. You can see our setup is pretty simple. We used inexpensive shelving that I already had lying around. We bought LED lights like these at Sam’s Club. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on expensive grow bulbs if you’re working with a temperature controlled space. These LED lights don’t put out a lot of heat, but it’s plenty warm in our basement. They are plenty bright though, and because they don’t put out much heat I don’t have to worry about them burning down the house.

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Here’s a look at our basic setup. Is it fancy? No, but it really does the job. We currently have three of these shelving units, with two lights each. Since we’re doubling our growing effort this winter we’ll be adding more shelves, and I’ll update with more pics once we get a little further down the road.

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Make sure you have plenty of help. As you can see, planting seeds is fun for the whole family, and absolutely Batman approved!

No matter your level or the size of your garden, starting seeds at home is very simple, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money doing it. Start small, learn and have fun experimenting. Growing you’re own vegetables is a journey that offers many rewards.

So what about that greenhouse we were dreaming about? We’re still dreaming. Maybe next year it’ll be in the budget. As our production increases so will our space requirements. But we may be able to squeeze yet another year out of the basement. It’s not completely full of plants yet!

 

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6 Vegetables That We Always Transplant in the Garden

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Here in Iowa its 10 below and everything has been frozen for a week now. Its times like this that April can seem so far away. But January is an important month for us, as its when we do much of the planning and initial prep-work for our market garden. Plots and crop rotation are mapped out on graph paper, seeds are ordered, and here very soon we’ll be starting our first round of transplants under grow lights.

Transplants are an important part of our planting scheme. Many of our crops are grown from putting seed right in the ground. Our corn, beans, squash and the majority of our leaf and root crops are all done this way. But there are certain crops that we always start indoors and then transplant when the ground is warmer. This is where taking the time for proper planning is important. Knowing our planting season, relative last frost, varieties we want to plant and their maturity time frame are crucial.

So why transplant? Good question. Many crops can be started indoors under grow lights rather than by direct seeding. The advantages to this are multifaceted but include stronger disease resistance, protection against late frost or other weather events, protection against birds or other animals that like to dig up seed, and getting a jump on long maturity dates. Not to mention that it’s fun to start seeds indoors when there is snow on the ground.

Certain plants should always be started indoors, or bought as transplants from your local nursery or greenhouse. Here are six vegetables that you’ll have a higher success growing if you transplant rather than direct seed.

Tomato

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are somewhat fickle when they are first starting out. They’re not hard to grow, but exposing them to the elements through direct seeding doesn’t usually have good and consistent results. Tomato seeds are very small. They need the right temperature and amount of moisture to germinate. Most varieties of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes also have long days to maturity, meaning that if you wait until outdoor conditions are right for sowing your seed, you probably wont’ be picking those juicy red slicers in time for burgers and bbq.

For our market, we need to have fresh tomatoes as soon as possible.

In order for tomato seeds to germinate, your soil temperature needs to be around 70 degrees. They’ll need a steady source of light until they sprout, which means you don’t want to plant them too deep. We plant ours at about 1/4 and lightly cover with soil. The soil should be kept moist, but not saturated or the seed can rot. Once your seeds sprout and start to grow you’ll want to keep them under direct light for at least 8 hours a day.

Start your seeds no later than 4-6 weeks before the last frost in your area. We start ours around 8 weeks before last frost because I like to have a little more stem height when I go to transplant. This allows me to bury the stem nice and deep to ensure strong root development.

Pepper

Peppers

Peppers are part of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, like their cousin the tomato. Also like tomatoes, they aren’t difficult to start from seed but getting consistent germination can be frustrating with certain varieties.

We plant our pepper seeds just like we do our tomatoes, but we’ll start them at least 8-10 weeks before the last frost as they take longer to grow, sometimes earlier depending on the variety. Hot peppers like habanero can sometimes be fickle, but they’re the most profitable for us at the market. So these we take our time getting right.

You’ll want consistent moisture and soil temps around 70-80 degrees. I’ve found that sometimes an overhead light isn’t enough to get good germination. We start our seeds in Jiffy Peat Pods underneath a hard plastic cover, which creates a kind of extra greenhouse effect under the lights, trapping in the moisture and heat. You can also try a heated pad underneath your seed tray, but we don’t use that method. Once the seeds sprout, we remove the plastic cover and let expose the seedlings to 8 hours of light each day, always checking the soil moisture content.

Broccoli

Broccoli

We start our broccoli indoors around 7 weeks before last frost. In some climates, broccoli can be direct seeded, but we’ve found that our broccoli is much more healthy and better developed when we transplant. One of the biggest factors for us is pest penetration. Flea beetles love to eat young broccoli seedlings as they emerge, often decimating a whole crop overnight. Deer like to munch on broccoli too. Transplanting doesn’t guarantee either of these pests won’t go after your crop, but a bigger, stronger plant has a much better chance at surviving insect (or deer) infestation than seedlings.

Broccoli will germinate in soil temps as low as 45 degrees, and will usually only take 4-7 days. Broccoli thrives in cooler weather, but make sure temps are consistently above 55 before you transplant or else you might have early bolting (your broccoli head flowering and going to seed).

We handle cabbage and cauliflower the same as we do broccoli. All three are part of the same family and having similar growing traits.

 

 

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Celery

Have you ever considered growing your own celery? There’s no comparison to the taste of fresh celery, and its really not as hard to grow as you might think.

Celery is a tiny seed that takes up to 3 weeks to germinate, which makes it a good candidate for starting indoors. We’ll start our celery around 12 weeks before the last frost, under grow lights at a consistent temperature around 70 degrees. Moisture should be even but not overdone.

When transplanting, makes sure temps are consistently above 55 degrees. Celery can withstand light frost, but too many cool nights and temps below 55 will cause early bolting.

Celery takes a long time to mature, so starting with strong plant development is essential. It does well in the high heat of summer here in Iowa, as long as we keep the soil moist, and we will usually start to harvest in August. That’s a long journey from seed to table!

 

 

 

 

 

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25 Ideas to Inspire Your Country Christmas

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, it’s officially time to start decorating for Christmas. Looking for inspiration? You’ve come to the right place. We’ve put together 25 ideas to help you get started planning your perfect country Christmas.

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These metal Christmas trees are a perfect addition for a little rustic look. From RustinRose

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A different take on the Christmas wreath from Smash Blog Trends

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Another unique Christmas wreath, and we love red trucks! From Crystals Cottage Home

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A regal country look. From Instagram.

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Love this Christmas lantern from The Country Farmhouse

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Don’t forget under the tree! This and lots more ideas from Life on Kaydeross Creek

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Looking for a classic way to dress up your mantle? By Liz Marie Blog

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Don’t forget the stockings! From Deavita

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Garland and wrapped boxes to dress up your fireplace.

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Use handmade signs and pillows for an extra splash.

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DIY wreath design by Blue Eyed Yonder

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Can’t have a country Christmas without mason jars. Designed by DebDebsCrafts

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Unique Christmas Trees by Lyckoslantern

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Decorating with appetizers. From Ciao!

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Simple beauty by Liz Marie Blog

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Fun with Mason jars from Mason Jar Crafts

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Elegant Christmas Tree from Celebrate Mag

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Decorating the table. From Rosemary & Thyme

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Love this hot chocolate station.

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Another hot cocoa station from Jennifer Carroll

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Snowflakes on the front door. From Small Measure

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Cheerful entrance from Comoorganizarlacasa

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Simple farmhouse living room by HomStuff.com

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Rustic snowman from Pinterest

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Now its your turn! Share with us your country Christmas designs and decorations and help us spread the cheer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Ways to Prep Your Garden For Winter

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The warm days of summer might very well be behind us for now, but there are still plenty of things that need to be done in the garden. And if you’re like me, this is good news!

I love the fall months for their rich change in color, crisp evenings and moderately warm afternoons. But I know that fall leads to winter, and winters in Iowa tend to be long and bitter. This year, winter has come early, and I’m already aching for warm soil, dirty hands and beds of brilliant green. But there is a rhythm to this life. Life sheds its beauty in fall, is stripped to its core in winter in order to be reborn in spring.

So as we come to the end of the gardening season, we look to the coming months of cold and barren fields not only with trepidation but also with hope. On the other end of winter, somewhere between April and May, there is life! A new planting season!

But it doesn’t come without a little preparation. Our gardens are a living organism, and in order to get the most out of our spring we need to prep our fields and our plots to withstand the cold months.

Here are 5 ways you can prep your garden for winter.

 

Pull the brown. Now is the time to walk your beds and pull the leftover tomato vines, pepper stalks, and whatever else is left of your summer crops. Throw these in your compost pile, unless you suspect disease. If you wrestled with blight, verticillim wilt, downy mildew or club root, take these plant remains to the burn pile instead so you don’t infect your compost.

Cleaning your beds of spent plants will allow you to mend the soil and will help prevent bugs like the squash beetle from overwintering in your garden.

Lightly till your beds. If you have a small garden, you can do this with a hoe or rake. We use a walk behind tiller to open up the beds in our 3 acre marketgarden. The trick here is to not go too deep, where you’ll disturb the living microorganisms that are hard at work building your soil. A couple of inches is enough to expose any pests that might be planning on napping in your garden.

Test your soil. A healthy garden crop starts with healthy soil. Fall is the best time to test your soil as it will allow time for amendments like lime to breakdown before spring. Gardens big or small will benefit from testing soil at least once every 2 years. We test every year, pulling soil from each garden plot and amending as necessary, based on our crop rotation.

Taking soil samples is easy. There are plenty of home test methods available. Or you can simply pull a spade of soil from your garden (again, we take one from each plot), put into a Ziploc bag and take to the lab. Check with your local extension office for the location of a lab near you. It will usually only take a couple of days before you get your results back.

Cover your soil. Here’s a rule of thumb everyone should remember: never leave your soil exposed over winter. Leaving your soil exposed to the elements will result in erosion of your precious top soil (especially if your winters are windy like they are here in Iowa) and nutrients. So what do you do?

If you want to experiment with green manure, you might consider planting a winter cover crop like annual Rye. This will stand up to most winter temperatures and will provide an excellent source of organic matter for your soil. Make sure that you have a way to cut and till the rye, otherwise it will continue to grow through spring. You’ll also want to make sure that you till rye in as early as possible in spring, as it has a allelopathic tendencies and could tie up nutrients in your soil that may prevent seeds from germinating if not broken down.

Clover is another option to use as a cover crop. Till this in as early as your soil can be worked in spring and this will provide an excellent source of nitrogen for your new crops. Or leave in your garden paths to prevent weeds from growing.

If you don’t want to use a cover crop, you can cover your garden beds with mulched leaves or straw. Leaf mold provides a great snack for microorganisms in your soil, and both will break down to add a rich source of humus. Or you can simply use plastic. If you struggle with weeds, covering your beds with black plastic after you lightly till is a good way to force any seeds that may have come to the surface to germinate and die from lack of sunlight.

Whichever method you choose to try, covering your soil for winter is a best practice every gardener should be using.

Protect your perennials. You’ll want to protect any plants you hope to come back in spring. Cover your strawberries with hay. Prune any brown raspberry canes to soil level, but don’t prune the green ones; cover any canes that haven’t experienced winter yet with straw or mulch.

Prune your roses and heavily mulch with compost around their root base. Do the same for any flowering shrubs you may have.

Split bulbs and compost heavily for a welcome sea of color in the spring or summer months.

Tackle those chores. Fall is a great time to take on those chores that might save you time next spring. Cut any new stakes you think you’ll need for next year’s tomatoes. Move the pea or bean trellis and string for next year’s crop. Build those raised beds you’ve been thinking about. Maybe you’ve been longing for a better way to suppress weeds along your garden paths. Now is a great time to lay landscaping fabric and to spread wood chips. Clean your tools and put them away for next year.

Take a few minutes to sit down and plan out what you want your garden to look like next year. Make a list of any chores that need to done to accomplish this plan, and then work in whatever you can this fall so you can spend most of your time next spring planting and building your soil.

 

Now it’s your turn. What do you do to prepare your garden for winter?

5 Ways

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Just a Little Update

Well, spring arrived here in Iowa…and then it quickly slipped back into winter. The last couple days temps have plummeted back down to the high thirties. It was seventy-five last weekend, just to give you perspective. And while the rain is keeping us out of the fields, it is a necessary blessing. The radish, carrot and spinach seeds we planted last week have all sprouted, and our broccoli, kale and lettuce are enjoying the cooler weather (although not really the steady wind).

The rain has also given us the opportunity to get caught up on a few things. We’ve been seeding inside the house and repotting transplants like crazy the last couple days. We’ve fallen a bit behind on those things and its good to get that going again. I’ve also gone virtually silent on the blog for the past month, so I wanted to take this chance to catch you up on what we’ve been up to.

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In March we started planting seedlings inside under lights. To see how we do that click here We’ve started around 300 tomato plants, 100 pepper plants, broccoli, melons and a few flower varieties. We have more tomatoes to seed and a few other things that will transplant better rather than direct seeding in the ground. This has been a new adventure for us, as we’ve never really started seeds indoors before. Our basement has been converted into a makeshift grow room! But its been fun, and we’ve learned so much that we will take into next season when hopefully we will be able to add a greenhouse to expand our seeding efforts.

What will we do with all of our transplants? We’ll plant many of them in the market garden, but we also plan to sell some of these at the first couple farmer’s markets of the year.

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In March we also began raising a flock of 15 chickens. These girls (and a few unexpected roos) brooded in our front room until they were big enough to go outside. And just a couple of weeks ago they all moved into their new coop. FYI, it smells a wee bit better in the house now, thank you very much.

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They’ve made the transition without any problems, and they love the new space to roam around. Although it took some coaching from “mom and dad” to teach them how to go in and out of the hen house. I used to think that I would never have chickens. I’ve taken care of other people’s chickens before, and it kind of turned me off on the idea. But there is something to raising our own that has changed my mind. And I can’t wait for those fresh farm eggs every morning!

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We’ve broken ground on the 3 acre market garden. This plot of land had been used for soybeans in the year past, but last year was so badly overtaken with weeds that it was hard to imagine how this could ever become a garden. But we mowed, we plowed, and we ran a disc and a harrow over the ground more than a dozen times to get it in shape for making beds.

Our plan is to put in 10 distinct garden plots made of 12 beds each. Each bed is 100 ft long and 20 in wide, with 18 in space between. This will allow for a 10 year rotation between crop types, which will help alleviate disease and aggressive pest issues.

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We’re adopting a permanent bed model to eliminate compaction of the soil. We’ve tilled each bed this year, partially to help line each one out and to help with weeds, but we hope to move toward a no-till process in the next couple years. Our goal is to build up healthy soil, and limiting how often we disrupt it, or turn it over, will help preserve those beneficial microbes we are trying to nurture that live in top six inches. Iowa has incredible soil to begin with, so we are already starting in a good place.

After each bed is tilled, it gets a healthy application of compost around 3 in thick. Starting next year, we’ll rotate our compost application, giving preference to the heavy feeders like potatoes and tomatoes, while applying every two years to the lighter feeders like leaf crops and legumes. Compost is expensive, and we’ve been bringing it home by the truck load. We have a place locally we can get it, but it would be in our best interest from a cost perspective if we can figure out how to provide the amount we need from our own operation.

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Part of the 3 acre garden has been reserved for permanent crop. We’re putting in almost 60 raspberry plants this year, and will likely double that next year. We’ve also got around 300 strawberry plants coming and about the same amount of asparagus over the next two weeks. We hope to expand on these depending on the market in our community.

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In addition to laying compost, we’re laying shredded oak chips in the pathways around each garden plot. Hopefully this will aid in weed suppression, while also giving the garden definition. Another expensive resource that I need to work on sourcing cheaper. Any arborists out there who want to donate their wood chips?

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Part of our overall plan for the farm is to incorporate fruit trees throughout the property. When we bought the house, everything was so overgrown that it will likely take the next couple years to clean it up the way we want. But once we do that there will be plenty of space for small orchard plots around our 12 acres.

So far we’ve added 10 trees. 4 apples, 3 pears and 3 peaches. We’d like to double this yet this spring, with the plan on adding at least another 20 more next year.

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The reason we named our farm 16 Hands was because we have 6 children. Add me and my wife and that’s plenty of helping hands, right? This is a lifestyle that we are hoping will offer our children beneficial skills and experience that will help shape their character as they grow older. Our greatest responsibility in life is to raise healthy, compassionate children who are willing and able to contribute to their community. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by growing up on a farm and sharing in the daily responsibilities.

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This rain has not only been good for our germinating seed, but look at all the weeds popping up in the field! We’ve got our work cut out for us, and I’ll show you how we plan to handle these weeds a little later. But I’m very excited with how this project it turning out. It’s not easy, but I’ve learned that nothing worth having is ever achieved without working for it. And we’re happy to do so.

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Apart from the 3 acre market garden, we’ve also started to put in so raised beds across the property for extra growing and research opportunities. Right now these boxes have cold weather crops growing in them, most of them direct seeded and started under the hoop frame I built in the picture above. These are great for protecting young starts and for extending your growing season. To learn how to build your own click here

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When I pause to reflect on what we are trying to accomplish I sometimes get overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy that will be necessary to pull it off. But when I look at all we have already done, I’m encouraged. It doesn’t feel like work when its something you are very passionate about. Are there unknown risks? Of course there are. But the reward is greater than any of those risks. And I’m blessed to have the people I love most at my side working toward the same goal.

It’s been a crazy ride, let me tell you. How did we get here? I’m not even sure anymore. But we’re loving it, and that’s all that matters.

To see how things progress, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And if you’re in the Ames, Iowa area, we’ll see you at the market!

 

 

 

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DIY Hoop Frame For the Raised Beds

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I’ve been thinking about ways we can extend our growing season. Why wait to plant in May when we can plant lettuce and other cold weather crops in March? And what about harvesting kale and Brussel sprouts in December or January? So I started building these cold frames that fit over the raised beds. They can be removed in the summer and are sturdy enough to weather the spring winds or the winter snows we get here in Iowa. And they’re easy to build.

Here’s what you’ll need to build one frame:

  • 3 – Pressure Treated 2x4x8
  • 4 – 1/2in PVC in 10ft lengths
  • 1 – Roll of 6mil 10x25ft painter’s plastic
  • 1/2in brackets, outdoor treated screws and a staple gun
  • 2 hours of time

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First of all, its important to have good help when building these frames. I have a little boy who loves to work outside, and he was my shadow the whole time during this project.

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I built our frames to match the raised beds I built earlier last month. These measure 40in wide by 8ft long. Cut your 2x4s to match dimensions of whatever sized bed you’re using. The frame is built with simple butt joints and it should be independent from your raised bed box so that you can remove the cold frame when needed. After securing the joints with outdoor screws, I reinforced the corners with 90 degree steel angle bars to take out the flexibility in the frame and relieve the stress on the joints when moving it.

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After the wooden frame is secure, line out your PVC pipe. I wanted my frames to be tall enough to house anything we wanted to plant in the box, so I used 10ft pieces. This should give us enough room for kale or even late season tomatoes.

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Measure out where you want your PVC. For a basic hoop frame, 4 should be enough to support the plastic, but if you’re building a longer frame you might use more. Here I used 1/2 inch brackets to support the bottom of the PVC.

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I then used a second 1/2 bracket to keep the PVC from slipping. You can also screw the PVC directly in to the wood, but I found the two brackets worked nice when it was time to bend the PVC.

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Here’s where that extra hand comes in handy. Bend the PVC into a hoop and attach with a 1/2 bracket on the other side of the frame. After all four pipes are secured you’re hoop frame should look like the skeleton of a covered wagon.

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You have some flexibility on which kind of plastic you use to cover your frame. No need to spend a lot of money here. I used 6mil painter’s plastic because I wanted it to hold up against the elements. But you could easily use cheaper 3-4mil plastic as well. The thicker stuff isn’t going to create much more heat inside the frame compared to the lower grade. I just didn’t want to have to change the plastic every year.

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A good heavy-duty staple gun will shine here. You want to get the plastic centered and then staple to the frame. An added bonus of a hoop frame is that is doubles as a shelter that can potentially keep some of those bugs out. I staple along the outer frame, and then tucked the plastic underneath and staple again on the inside. After attaching both sides, tuck the flaps on the ends tightly over, like you would when wrapping Christmas presents, and then attach. Cut off any extra plastic so it doesn’t interfere with crops inside the frame.

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There are tremendous benefits to having a few raised hoop houses like this. They create a safe haven for those transplants you’ve started from seed indoors. They give you the ability to sow seeds directly outdoors earlier in the season, even when the ground temps are still well below 60 degrees. And they can allow you to extend your growing season into late fall or even through the winter months. And I like the flexibility of being able to take these hoop frame off and move them around based on our growing or rotation needs.

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So what did we plant?

We let the soil rest for a week underneath the hoop frame before planting this weekend. We’re experimenting with seeds strips, which are seeds placed in strips of biodegradable cloth (a very cool option for so many reasons!), and I thought the hoop frame was the perfect place to do that. The picture above shows lettuce and spinach placed in alternate strips. These will be harvested as a “baby” crop for a tender salad mix, so I’ve intentionally placed them close to each other to maximize space. I’ve also sown Siberian kale seeds in short rows at each end of the bed. These will all be harvested in about 25-30 days, and then followed by a successive crop of peas.

Wanna build a hoop frame? Let us know what you think. We’ll be posting more pics on how these hoop frames can be used on our Facebook page and on Instagram. Follow us if you aren’t already and share your own pics if you decide to build one.

Happy planting!

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Remember a hero

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On August 21, 2004, this man walked his daughter down the aisle. I was waiting there, in the half-light of a partially raining afternoon, scared to death. Doug put his daughter’s hand in mine, and he gave her to me to cherish, to love and to protect for the rest of my life.

I remember the talk Doug had with me before the wedding. We talked about God and the responsibility of being a good husband, and he gave me his blessing and his love. He cried. Well, to be fair, he bawled like a baby, but that was classic Doug. All raw nerves and awkward emotion. He cried when he toasted our marriage as well, but he was beaming with joy when he set his gaze upon us and lifted his glass. He came to the wedding alone, was there for every ceremony, and he was the last person to stay behind after everyone else went home.

It was a great day.

Fast forward ten years later. We’re all sitting around Doug’s hospital bed. We’ve been saying our goodbyes every time we see him because we don’t know how much longer he has, and there are so many things left unsaid. There still are.

He’s gone now. The man who gave me his daughter is gone. He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.

And we remain.

I could tell you about the way Doug cherished his grand kids. That he was a great grandfather. I could tell you that he accepted my two older boys that day in August, accepted them as his own and never once treated them like they were outsiders. I could tell you these things, but I’m not going to. I could also tell you about the many times Doug dropped everything to come help me. Fixing the sump pump in the middle of the night while it was pouring down rain because the basement flooded. Twice. Or the many times he helped me wire electrical outlets in the shop and the house. I could talk about the fishing trips and the shooting trips and the sledding trips. The birthdays, holidays and everything in between. The times he used to come over just to wrestle with the little boys, or the way he held his granddaughter for the first time. But I’m not going to talk about those things either. Those things are mine to keep, to take out and look at like old pictures anytime I feel I need to.

What I want to talk about is the day he handed his daughter to me, and asked me to take care of his little girl. Because, in Doug’s death, I’ve been trying to find a way that would best honor him. And the only real way I know how to honor him the most is to live up to the promise I made that afternoon 13 years ago. Because I plan to see him again, and I’ll have to look him in the eye, and he’ll want to know if I did it. If I fulfilled my promise. And I’m not going to disappoint him.

There are so many things that have gone through my mind in the last several days. Regrets. Words I wish I would have said. Words I wish I hadn’t said. I wish I had more fishing trips. I wish I had more time. But one thing I can say with certainty. Doug touched my life in more ways than he ever knew while he walked this earth. His convictions and faith were unshakable, right up to the end. That will stay with me forever. I want to be a better person because of Doug. A better husband, son, father. A better man. To live with more conviction and less bitterness. To be more open and less closed off.

That, if you ask my opinion, is the true essence of a hero. To live in such a way that you inspire others, that even in your death you are creating change in the people around you.

Doug is a hero. He served his country. He served his God. He served his family.

There will come a time when I will leave this earth. Maybe I’ll find myself walking down another aisle, to another kind of wedding. No tuxedos and photographs this time. I know who will be there waiting for me. He’ll be the first one to meet me at the door, to welcome me home. He’ll ask me about his little girl, and how well the kids have grown. He’ll put his arms around me and we’ll cry, we’ll laugh, and then this distance between us will be no more.

In a little while.

Note: this was first written and published 2 years ago from Hood River, Oregon

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Experimenting with gardening: The Core Method

Happy Saturday! The weather here in northern Iowa has been off the charts. Yesterday was in the low seventies and its supposed to be in the high sixties most of this week. It’s hard to believe we’re still in the middle of February! But we know its only short-lived, so we’re making the most of the sunshine.

We’ve started putting in raised garden boxes, where a lot of our cold weather crops will be grown, with a transition into beans, and I wanted to quickly share the gardening technique we’re experimenting with this year. It’s called the Core Method, and its been around for some time. But this is the first year we’ve used it in our own garden.

The method is simple. The idea is to incorporate organic material down the core, or center, of your raised bed before planting. As this material breaks down it will release vital nutrients to your plants while enriching the soil. Most of the time this is done with rotted straw, but we’re using rotted grass clippings and mulched leaves.

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We have this great space in front of the old brick barn, nestled on the southern side of the hog shed, where the ground is relatively flat. This picture was taken yesterday late afternoon, but we get at least 8 hours of direct sunlight here, and the hog shed provides decent wind break. Our plan is to put in nine raised beds this year, and to incorporate some flowers throughout the space to attract those necessary pollinators.

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Once the box is built and placed, I’m laying cardboard on the bottom, right over the grass. This allows me to not have to dig the grass up (its warm but the ground is still frozen 4 inches below the topsoil) or lay down plastic. I want my plants to have access to the rich soil below and for their roots to not be restricted to the depth of the box (16 inches). The cardboard will kill the grass and act as a weed barrier as it breaks down over time.

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After the cardboard is placed and soaked really good, I’m putting down a thin layer of mulched leaves from our fall pile. Then I’m placing the rotted grass clippings right down the middle of the bed in clumps about six inches deep. The grass is rotting but still green, so it should be a nice source of nitrogen for my spring crop.

Many people use straw instead of grass clippings. I don’t have access to straw without going out and buying it, so I’m using what I have readily available. The important thing to remember is that whether you use straw or grass, it should be partially rotted already. Don’t use it if its wet and slimy, as this will work against the balance you’re trying to create in the soil (think composting; same principle), and could contribute to plant disease or hinder growth. You don’t want to use fresh straw either, as you might not see the benefit of it breaking down until the following year. Using material that is already in the process of breaking down will give your plants a continued source of nutrients throughout the season. Just make sure you don’t use material that has been sprayed with a herbicide, or grass that has gone to seed! (I wouldn’t use hay either, as most hay has seed in it and will create unnecessary weeding.)

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After the grass clippings are placed, I’m adding native soil from the property. Our soil here is a rich blend of sandy clay and I want to use it as much as possible. We had a new septic tank put in last summer, and after the leech field was excavated we ended up with a large pile of black earth. This is what I’m using to fill our boxes.

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I’m starting at the sides and spreading the native soil throughout the box. I’ll cover the grass and mulched leaves and then follow with a layer of compost, which we’re having trucked in from a local business within the week. Once I add compost, I’ll mix in more native soil. Then I’ll be ready to plant.

We hope to sow cold weather crops like kale and radish over the next couple weeks. I’ll put up plastic hoops over the boxes to keep the soil warm and to protect the plants from late winter flucuations in weather. Any snow we get will hopefully serve to insulate the boxes as well. At least that’s the idea!

By the way, you don’t need to have raised beds to incorporate the Core Gardening Method. If you already have or are establishing raised beds on the ground, whether permanent or annual, you can use this method to enrich your soil. This is a neat and organic way to let nature do the work for you, and works well on a no-till garden plot!

Happy gardening!

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Dare to dream big

local-grownI sat down with a local agronomist to go over soil samples he pulled from both of our fields. I was encouraged, but not necessarily surprised by the results. For the most part, our soil is pretty healthy. Nitrogen levels are good, which is to be expected after years of conventional soybean and corn rotation. Potash and Phosphorus are a little low, but nothing to worry about. Organic matter is good and our ph is pretty neutral.

So why did I walk away from our meeting feeling a little discouraged?

The average ph of our soil is 7.1, which on a scale of 0 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline) is right in the middle. Many of the vegetables we intend to grow in the market garden thrive in more neutral soils. Think peppers and squash and green beans. But raspberries, blueberries and strawberries? They prefer a much more acidic soil type, down in the 5-5.5 range. And these are really the crops we are most excited about bringing to our community.

So I asked the agronomist what he would recommend we do to lower the ph of our soil where we intend to grow berries, and this is where the meeting kind of took a strange turn. He looked at me with a crooked smile and kind of shook his head. That simple gesture told me everything that was going through his mind without the need for words. It’s not the first time someone has looked at me as if I was nuts.

“We just kind of grow what the soil lets us grow here,” he said. “And that’s corn and  soybeans.”

I know that’s at least partially true. There are other variables that go into that, and a lot of it has to do with the commodity market. But with corn dropping well below $4.00 a bushel, there are many farmers looking to diversify their crops. And what about the regional market? The desire for fresh, organic produce on a local level is growing rapidly.

Our agronomist went on to tell me that it wasn’t worth the effort to lower our ph, that it would cost too much and probably wouldn’t work anyway. And I could tell he was uncomfortable with the discussion, that this was well out of his wheelhouse. And that’s okay. I get it.

We came here with the intention to go against the status quo. We don’t have enough acres to justify field corn or soybeans, and that’s not where our heart is anyway. Our heart is in being a resource within our local community for quality and diversified fresh vegetables and fruits, and in contributing to the education and preservation of small acre farming. And what we are trying to accomplish isn’t necessarily traditional in the Midwest. We’re in the heart of big agriculture.

I walked away from the meeting and began to do my own research on soil amendment on a smaller scale. Composting and mulching with wood chips shows promise, as does some sulfur application, but the key seems to be in creating a rich environment for the right bacteria to thrive. I’ll be studying this pretty hard over the next couple months.

But as I left that office, a little deflated, a little unsure, I had two choices. I could stop pursuing what we wanted to accomplish, or I could dig in and go deeper.

My point is this: More often than not, if you are working towards accomplishing anything worthwhile you’ll find yourself at odds with those around you. There are always people who are stuck in the rut of “we’ve always done it this way.” Don’t let that discourage you! There is always a different perspective, and if you’re willing to be open-minded and realistic, you’ll often find success. But it won’t be without skeptics!

The inclination of many is to walk away, to abandon the dream, or to conform to normal standards. Each comes with their own kind of death, in my opinion. How many of us live with regret of the risks we didn’t take, especially as we grow older?

If we are to follow our heart, we have to dare to dream big. And we have to prepare ourselves to be challenged; by the people around us, by reality, and by our own expectations.

Luckily we are not necessarily alone on this path. There are others who have gone before us, who have dared to dream. And from the experiences of others we can glean our own success. Here are a few thoughts on making your dreams reality:

Be grounded by reality, but not limited by it

I may never be able to successfully grow berries on our property. That may be a reality. But it’s not going to keep me from trying to do it. I refuse to stop just because it hasn’t been done before (there are a few farms that grow berries here in Iowa; its not like this is a completely foreign idea). The agronomist might think it isn’t worth trying, but why should that limit my desires?

We have to be willing to work within the realm of possibility, and not be limited to what is only commonly accepted. Some things might be beyond reality. I will never be a famous singer. No matter how much effort I put into it, I still can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Amending my soil enough to have healthy berry production might be scientifically and financially out of question, but I’m not convinced of either yet.

Don’t let the skeptics define your success

You will always have someone tell you it isn’t possible. Challenge them. Ask why? Maybe something isn’t possible, but don’t determine your own limitations by the opinions of others.

I’m not saying that we ignore the advice of others. Actually, I believe in seeking the advice of many. But what I have found in my life is that there are too many out there who have refused to follow their own dreams, and have become jaded from it, and so are willing to cripple the dreams of others. Or, more often, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who have become comfortable with a certain kind of conforming. They’ve accepted the status quo, and anyone who comes along challenging the accepted norms will make them uncomfortable.

Don’t be afraid to make people uncomfortable. Challenge the common status quo. When people ask you why, ask them why not.

You’ll have to work for it

I read a quote from Colin Powell that I love: “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”

You can seek help, but if you’re going against the grain you’ll often have to pave your own way. You can be inspired by those pioneers of innovation who came before us. You can learn from their stories of grit and resistance and challenge. But often times, as a dreamer, you’ll find yourself alone and doubting your resolve. You’ll have to figure things out on your own. Do your own research. Learn from your mistakes. It takes work to make a dream reality, but the payoff is well worth it.

Many dreamers have crashed and burned because they weren’t willing to do what it takes to realize their dreams. Think of all the failed writers and musicians out there among us. These are the skeptics.

Be willing to work hard, to be humble, to learn and grow with determination, and success will eventually come.

Don’t be afraid to fail

Many of our great leaders and innovators learned through their own failure. Think about Abraham Lincoln. His life was wrought with failure, but in the end he was able to achieve more than he could ever dream. Think about Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mother Theresa. All of them risked failure time and time again. All of them felt disappointment and rejection. All of them challenged the status quo.

I did not grow up on a farm. I don’t have an agronomy degree. Many of the things I want to accomplish on our farmstead seem out of reach. Statistics are against me. But I am inspired by the opportunity to learn, to grow and through my own experiences help show others that growing food on a small-scale is possible, profitable and healthy for the community.

Be willing to adjust and be flexible

We may need to alter our expectations of what we grow and how we will grow it. That’s okay. It may prove too difficult to amend our soil enough to grow healthy berries. This isn’t a deal killer for us, because our aspirations are much larger. We’re willing to be flexible in our own expectations for success. That’s part of the enthusiasm we have for the market garden. Experimenting with different techniques, growing methods and varieties. Seeing what we can accomplish, and not being held back by our own fears and inexperience. We’re not afraid to change our thoughts or direction.

And neither should you be. Stay the course, yes. Keep your eyes on the end goal. But be willing to adapt to the challenges and to the revelations you experience on the journey. This is how we grow. This is how we make dreams a reality.

Don’t forget to have fun

Striving for the sake of striving doesn’t make sense. Is your dream really what you want in your heart? If so, then you will enjoy the process. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself, and your mistakes. I know I will. Are others laughing at you? Laugh with them! Don’t take yourself, or your dreams, too seriously. In the end, its in the process, or the journey, where character and skill are defined. That’s so important to remember.

Share what you learn with others

This is important. Share your experiences, your struggles, your lessons learned. Enrich your community and help others accomplish great things. Knowledge is power, but its wealth is only found in giving it away.

Our dream may seem simple to others. Everybody gardens right? It’s not like we’re trying to break the DNA code, split an atom or determine the Theory of Gravity. But to us its a revolution. It’s not just about gardening. We’re rethinking how we eat, how we view the food industry and how we engage and can serve the community. We’re redefining what it means to farm, and we’re not alone in this. This is a growing movement that we are happy to be a part of.

Whatever you are trying to accomplish, whatever path your are on, don’t be afraid to dream big. Enjoy the journey. Life is an adventure, or at least it should be.

 

 

 

 

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5 tools to invest in this spring

To do a job properly (and efficiently) you need to have the right tools. I’ve been accumulating several and making a list of others I want or need (or think I need), and thought I’d share some of them here on the blog. Many of these tools will be put to work in our market garden, but they certainly have a place on any scale of growing operation.

Here are 5 tools you might consider investing in this spring:

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Broadfork – This is one of the coolest tools I’ve discovered this year. Invented centuries ago in Europe and redesigned with the modern gardener in mind, the broadfork is the perfect way to aerate and provide deep tillage to your garden beds without breaking your back. You can get them with 4, 5 or 7 steel tines that usually are around 12″, and some are reinforced for harder soil types like clay.

The idea behind this tool is simple. When using a tiller, the blades will only loosen up the soil 4-6 inches deep. Below that a hardpan will start to develop, especially after several years of tillage, restricting how deep your roots can grow. Using a broadfork, you’ll be able to break up the hardpan and allow your roots to grow deep and straight, instead of hitting the compacted soil underneath and spreading out. This will allow you to plant more densely, as root systems aren’t competing for space. This is essential when establishing permanent beds like we are this year, or if you’re growing vegetables on a micro scale.

We’re ordering ours from Johnny’s Seed (johnnyseeds.com) but you can find broadforks other places like Valley Oak Tools or Meadow Creek. They’ll run anywhere from $80 to $220, depending on quality.

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Stirrup Hoe – It may seem like a crude tool, but the stirrup hoe makes the chore of weeding long beds so much simpler. The sharp steel band cuts through shallow roots and plucks those annoying weeds right out of the topsoil. Can a traditional hoe do the same thing? Sure. But the stirrup hoe has an open design that allows you to move through weeds without disrupting the soil as much as a standard hoe will. You’re not taking divots out of your precious bed or pathway. Its got an oscillating head that allows you to push or pull, and you can change out the tempered blades when they are worn.

Stirrup hoes can be found almost anywhere tools are sold. They usually come with a 5″ or 7″ head, and will run anywhere from $25 to $60. Totally worth the investment.

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Aluminum Rake – I’ve used various rakes in the garden for years. They usually have a narrow, metal head that isn’t attached to the wooden handle very well. I should also say I’ve had several rakes that have pulled apart over the years due to poor design.

What I like about switching to an aluminum rake like the one in the picture is threefold. Aluminum is much lighter, which will make a huge difference when establishing and maintaining beds on our 3 acre plot year after year. It’s also better designed, meaning the head isn’t going to pull away from the wooden handle under stress as easily as some of the other models I’ve used. Whether dragging rock or filtering tilled soil, this rake will handle any job.  I also like the ability to put the orange row markets on the tines. You’ll see in the picture that these are just plastic tips that slide over the tines, and when dragged across the top of the bed establish a shallow furrow for seed placement.

Quality matters. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $95 on a good aluminum rake.

seeder1

Earthway Vegetable Seeder – Even if your beds aren’t 100′ long, having a seeder like the Earthway will make planting this spring easier on the body and more efficient. This seeder is lightweight and easy to use. It opens the furrow, measures seed placement, covers and packs the seed while marking the next row, all in one fluid motion. It’s designed especially with the larger seeds in mind, but should do well with any size. It includes 6 seed plates: corn, peas, beans, carrots, beets and radishes. As an option, you can also include a fertilizer attachment for side dressing.

You can purchase this at Johnnys Seeds for $119.  We’re looking at ordering 2 this year.

seeder2

seeder3

Jang JP Seeder – This model is supposed to be one of the best vegetable seeders on the market today. Boasting precise seed singulation, even when the hopper is low, the Jang JP seems to stand out as a quality option for those with larger gardens who are looking for better seed placement across all vegetable types, from carrot to corn. It has a 1 quart clear plastic hopper that allows the user to monitor seed level, and allows for seed depth adjustment by raising or lower the plow height. Seed rollers are purchased separately but there are a wide option of sizes to choose from. This seeder also comes in a 3-row or 6-row option, and can mount on a 3 point hitch tool bar.

This tool packs a punch! You can buy the single row seeder itself for around $405. Seed rollers range around $20-$30 each. If you’ve got a larger garden and care about precise seed placement quality, this might be an option for you.

Purchasing quality tools is an investment that should have a meaningful return. I think any one of these tools I’ve mention will add value and efficiency to any gardening operation, whether private or market. Do your research and as always, buy from a reputable reseller.

Remember, a good tool makes for a happy gardener!