Because we only farm a small number of acres, we plant very intensely. There are several components to this. First of all, we can’t wait until our cool season crop is out of the ground to plant our summer crops. This may sound a little crazy, but when we harvest spring leafy vegetables, we harvest so that we create spaces to plant our summer crops right in there. So, the lettuce row has tomatoes planted in there with the lettuce.
The lacinato kale rows have eggplant interplanted. The carrots have peppers interplanted. This method is difficult, but has some benefits even beyond making good use of space. The first is that by interplanting, it creates a very diverse planting that prevents insects and pathogens from causing too much damage. For example, we planted some eggplant transplants in an area surrounded by carrots and kale. The little transplants are tucked in happily and thus far have not been bothered by flea beetles, the most common pest of eggplant. The hardest parts of this growing strategy are that everything has to be managed by hand and the soil needs to be amended with compost to keep from depleting nutrients. I have even read books about companion planting where the authors are of the opinion that there could be synergies when certain crops are planted together. People often ask how we manage insects if we are not using chemicals. It is a complicated process. The first line of defense against insect pests is to create an ecosystem where predatory insects that feed or reproduce on insect pests are going to be happy living and reproducing. These areas are called insectaries.
To accomplish this, we have lines of flowers that insects love, planted throughout the fields. We also plant different types of flowers at the end of each row. I have heard many ideas about what types of plants work best for this. My opinion is to create as much diversity as possible. There are different types of flowers all around our fields. My insectaries include areas of dill, fennel, cilantro, parsley, marygolds, cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, and even a few areas where I simply planted a “wildflower mix”. If there is a beneficial insect anywhere out there, I want to be sure there is a good home for it on my property. Remember, if you use this strategy, you really can’t be spraying pesticides because the pesticides will not only kill the pest, they also can kill beneficial insects. Another way I manage insects is to be sure that my fields are very diverse. There is nowhere on our farm that is a big monocrop. All of our fields contain multiple crops as well as quite a bit of actual interplanting. This type of planting is thought to create an ecosystem that is more difficult for insect pests to locate and damage crops. Lastly, I treat our crops with seaweed extract every week. Seaweed extract bolsters plant’s natural defenses to insects. There are multiple scientific publications documenting improved resistance to mites, thrips, and aphids in crops that have been treated with Ascophyllum nodosum seaweed extract. This entire system works together to keep pest pressure and damage so low that I almost never have problems with insects. I honestly have found that spraying insecticides (even organic insecticides) can begat more spraying. It is hardly worth it, except in the direst of circumstances. If pest pressure becomes so bad that losing the crop is a real possibility, then simple plant extracts such as neem oil works well. A BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) is also a very soft way to manage caterpillars without disrupting the entire beneficial ecosystem. Another great idea is to educate CSA members, chefs, and market customers that a few holes are natural and better than starting a cycle of pesticide use.
By farming so intensely, and rarely having fields fallow, it is extremely important to manage the soil well. Here is what we do: first of all, any time a crop is removed, we add lots of compost. We also put straw in the walkways between the rows. As the straw breaks down, it adds organic matter to the soil. Worms and soil microbes love the area under the straw. This may sound odd, but sometimes we actually will cut down a crop and simply lay the cut plants on the ground in the rows between the new plants. Last week we cut down big tall cilantro plants and simply laid them down on the ground where they were growing. This was an area between some purple cabbage and some snap peas, and it created a great ground cover that not only smothers weeds, but will eventually break down and help build the soil. I remember when I was in graduate school studying plant diseases, I was taught that the key to preventing diseases is to keep the field extremely “clean” with no plant debris or old plants around. It was pretty hard for me to break this rule and just lay down old plants to rot between the rows. To be honest, I really don’t think that these cilantro plants between the cabbage and sugar peas is in any way contributing to diseases. This method may go against the traditional plant pathology wisdom, but it works for us.
Last week we inadvertently sent out several blog posts in one day, as we are trying to add content and variation for our readers. We apologize for the surplus of posts you subscribers received, and our goal is to post 2-3 times per week at the most. We know many of you are interested in reading the technical details of how we grow our vegetables, while others just want some great recipes and beautiful farm pictures! We think we will have something for everyone as we move into a new season here on the blog. Bell, the family goat, has decided to retire from writing posts, so Robin (with some blog team support) will be doing all the blog writing from now on.
If you haven’t already, “Subscribe” (top right of this page) to the blog so you will receive the latest posts in your inbox!
Lastly, we want to remind you of the Spring Veggie Cooking Class (and dinner) with Chef Sganga at Stone Table on June 21. Here is the blog post with the details, including the sign up link. You must sign up to attend. Adults only.
We look forward to seeing many of you at the Farm to Fork Dinner on June 14. As of this writing, there are only a couple seats left. It’s going to be a fantastic evening! Until then…
Eat Your Veggies,