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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