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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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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Dream With Me For A Bit

We’re having new electricity run in the corn crib and the wood shop, and it won’t be finished until Wednesday. No power, no tools. So it’s forced me to do other things. And that’s good, because I’ve realized there is still a lot to do on the property before winter really sets in.

We’ve been thinking about what we want to do with the property. Dreaming and scheming, you might say. We’ve always thought we’d plant some berries and vegetables, but I hadn’t yet really committed to a plan. Now its November and if we don’t have a plan for next spring we’ll likely have to make some compromises that could set us back a year.

I walked the property the other day and took another look at everything, trying to see through different eyes. We’ve talked about goats, but where will they go? We’ve talked about planting fruit trees. Pumpkins? Where does the sweet corn go? Are we just talking about a glorified garden or do we really want to make a go at something commercial? Having all of this somewhat planned out now will help us prioritize our time and know what needs to be done before spring. I want to put together a monthly list of goals  and things to accomplish. And I suppose if we’re going to do something commercially there should be a business plan written as well.

But it all starts with a little vision.

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This is our northern field, a little over 5 acres. Standing at the edge you can see for miles now that the corn is harvested and the fields are plowed. It’s a good place to think, even as the wind whips in my ear. There’s a big sand hill at the western end of this field that I have no idea what I’ll be able to do with (other than sled down it this winter). But I think we might put a pumpkin patch in on this side. It has access to the road if we wanted to do a U Pick patch and its relatively flat. Maybe sweet corn on the other end. I bought a 2 row planter this week that will allow me to do both. Or I could bring out the 8 row Cylco if I wanted to get a little nuts. Neither pumpkins nor the corn will necessarily need to be irrigated, as long as we have decent rainfall next summer. Right now there isn’t water access on this part of the property, and although I want to change that in the future, if I can get by for a year that would allow me to get some other things taken care of first (plus I still need to figure out how our well works).

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From where I was standing in the field, if I turn around 180 degrees this is what I see. There is a large patch of overgrown trees that separate our house from the northern field. I’ve never really thought about doing anything with this part of the property other than trim everything back, but that seems wasteful. We’ve talked about planting fruit trees (this was big for us since we came from orchard country in Oregon) and I’ve kind of struggled to figure out where we would put them around the property. Then I see this area through different eyes and its like…duh!

To be honest, my wife had the idea first. And its a good idea. Why not take out these trees, level the ground and put in a small orchard? I’ve looked at this patch from several different angles now, even from the bathroom window, and I think it would be gorgeous with apples, pears and peaches. Not only would it give the property a face-lift, but it would be profitable once the trees mature. But it will take a lot of work to take these trees out and level the ground. That may have to be a Year 2 plan.

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The tree line follows the edge of the field then cuts in at 90 degrees. Here is where I’ll likely plant sweet corn. Directly to my left is the big sand hill I mentioned, but to the right its flat. Where I’m looking in this picture, the trees bend back toward the corn crib and barn, which you can see in the background. There is a three stall building just on the other side of the foremost tree, where I think I’m going to put goats. This area here can be fenced pretty easily, giving the goats plenty of place to wander, and the building (an old hog barn) will give them shelter during the winter and summer months. I can keep some of the trees for shade as well.  I’m planning on adding goats next spring, so this area will need to be cleaned up between now and then, and fencing will need to be put in.

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A walk through the woods and to the front of the property, where the southern field lies. We’ve discussed what we want to do with the white hog shed. I think a green house would work nicely there. And maybe the chicken coop? Not sold on any of those things yet. But the trees need to go.

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And so go they did today. With the trees gone, I discovered there was concrete underneath them.

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I also unburied the JD 4 bottom plow. Rescuing old implements from nature. That’s what we do.

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The trees run along the northern edge of the field, and they’ll all go. There’s concrete that runs all the way back to the other field and to the future goat barn, which is nifty. But I’ve thought about putting more fruit trees here too. We’re planning on putting in raspberries and blackberries in this southern field, both for U Pick, fresh sale and for our own consumption (we’ll also be experimenting with green and kidney beans, tomatoes and peppers in this field). Fruit trees will compliment those thing much better than these ugly Black Locust and Mulberry trees. Plus I want people to see the old brick barn! It’s not much to look at now, but if we can figure out how to restore it the barn will certainly be something we want to show off.

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Here is a closer shot of the concrete run I was talking about. Can’t see much concrete? Yeah, nature has had her way for a while. We’ll need to cut all of this out before winter. There is another shed just to the right, in the background of the pic, that I think we can utilize as a machine shed. I’d like to get the planter and other things back there before winter.

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This is the back view of the white hog shed. There is half a fence around it, and the space could be used for animals. The roof on the shed needs repair, or compete replacing. And the shed itself needs some repair. I’m not sure I’m excited about patching it all up when it might be easier just to pull it down and rebuild. I’ll muse on all that for a while. There are plenty of other things to do before I need to do something with this space.

So I’m glad the sun has still been shining. We have lots to do. We’ve always dreamed about having a small farm, working the farmer’s markets and having plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to share with our friends. And its all certainly within our reach. I only wish we had more time in the day.

It’s exciting to dream and to plan though. Everything we’ve been working toward is starting to come into shape. When we first moved here it seemed like such a distant dream. Now it seems possible. We have to commit to making it happen, learning from our mistakes (there will be many I’m sure) and growing each year. I also want to make sure we don’t take on more than we can handle the first year. Goats and vegetable crops might be too much for one spring. I’ll sit down and put a plan together and share that in the weeks to come.

Thanks for following along and sharing our vision.