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

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!

 

 

 

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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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!

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.

 

 

 

 

Taking The Dream To Reality

 

 

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So we’re starting to figure some things out. When we first started this adventure last year, we only had a vague idea of what we wanted to do with our acreage. We had a vision, a dream, but the details of how that dream would evolve into reality were pretty soft and vague. Over the past couple of months we’ve done a lot of research, talked to a variety of people, and really tried to narrow down what it was we wanted to accomplish this year, while working through the bigger picture of what kind of farmstead we want to build over the next several years. In other words, who are we going to be when we grow up?

We dream big, and that’s good. Dreams are meant to be inflated and conceptual. But when it comes to bringing those concepts to market, I think we have to be intentional about focusing on what matters most to us, which is producing quality food that our family can share with our community.

gardening

We have all kinds of crazy ideas and there are many things that we want to try. We’ve often dreamed of having a UPick location for fresh berries. These operations are very popular and successful back in Oregon, and we frequented them often every summer. Also popular in the northwest are orchards. We come from the Hood River Valley, where a lion’s share of the pears grown for North America are produced. So we’ve always known whatever kind of operation we grow, tree fruit would have a part of it.

We’ve talked about raising goats and chickens and feeding out pigs for meat. We’ve even talked about beekeeping. All of these things excite me. But as we look forward to spring, I have to be realistic about how much time we have to commit, and the scope of each of these projects. Each will bring its own learning curve, which will add to the complexity of its success. If we want to succeed, I believe we have to narrow our scope and hone in on doing one project right, instead of spreading ourselves too thin and perhaps never achieving success in anything at all. That sounds like a good way to burn out to me, and I think it’s where several before us have grown frustrated and quit.

So our primary effort this year will be establishing a sustainable and profitable market garden that will be the centerpiece of our farmstead. We’ll do this on the 3 acres south of us, while planting a cover crop or perhaps alfalfa on the northern 6 acres and reserving it for future rotation.

Proper rotation is a part of the solution to our biggest challenge, which is soil fertility. Building a plan that will increase the quality of our soil over the next several years will be imperative. We have great soil here in Iowa, but the ground we are working with has been used for conventional corn and soybeans for many years, and it will take a little while for us to build the kind of organic matter and tilth necessary to provide a healthy, long-term environment for the alternative vegetables and fruits we want to specialize in.

Most of what we plant this spring will go in permanent beds. The idea behind this is to adapt a no-till strategy that will allow us to introduce organic matter and nutrients to the soil on a smaller, hyper-focused scale and only where necessary, while minimizing weed growth. When you till or deep plow, you risk bringing invasive seeds to the top surface (in addition to losing vital plant resources such as nitrogen). Only disturbing the topsoil at a few inches to incorporate organic matter and compost, you’ll still get weeds, but they’ll be easier to manage . At least that’s the idea. We’re choosing to minimize the amount of mechanized machinery we use (partially to limit compaction as well as cost) and with a labor force of three, we need to keep weeds under control as much as possible. Mulching will also help. We’re still contemplating the best kind of mulch, and where to find it locally in the quantity that we’ll need.

We hope having a good rotation plan will also keep weeds, pests and disease to a minimum. There will be permanent crops, such as raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. We’re also going to grow lavender. But the tomatoes, corn, beans and squash will all need to be on a three-year rotation. This will mean we have to be intentional about where we plant this spring, while at the same time thinking forward to where things will go in 2018.

Head spinning yet?

The breadth of this can seem enormous at times. Once we started to really narrow down on what we wanted to accomplish, it was easy to see there were several parts of the “dream” we had to let go. That’s okay. There will be time to incorporate those things back in, slowly and methodically. The market garden has to flow from year to year, and establishing it right in the beginning is essential. This is the part of the “dream” that can potentially be the most profitable for us, which will lead to growing other parts of the farmstead. So we have to give it every bit of time and energy we have to make it work.

gardening1

It’s all good. This whole journey has been exciting to me. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. We strive to be good stewards of what we have been given, to make the most out of these opportunities, and to learn and grow everyday.

I can almost smell the dirt. Can almost feel the spring sun on my face. I can’t imagine another way of living.