Wednesday, February 19, 2014

2013 Growing Season Overview

When we began this blog, we wanted to be truthful and accurate in our statements.  Our goal is to share our successes and failures in such a way that you the reader have a firm starting point should you find yourself with plants on the brain and shovel in hand.  With this in mind, we share with you the synopsis of our 2013 growing season:

The largest hurdle of the 2013 growing season was securing permanent placement at the Fairground. Any farmer knows that planning, preparing, seeding, and harvesting takes a substantial amount of time.  Add to this, the fact that the soils on our site are mediocre at best and must be amended prior to planting, and one quickly realizes the necessity of permanence. This being said, we continued toward our goal of installing 450 square feet of cold frame space, complete with a conservative irrigation system, without any proof that we would be able to utilize the space in the following year.  Fortunately our perseverance paid off and we were able to secure a three year commitment in late August.  Our foot is in the door and we hope to establish true permanence through collaboration with our local county extension office.  Until this permanence is gained, we will continue to install movable infrastructure by which to increase growing space and soil amendment capabilities.

Our construction timeline began in April when we purchased our triple layer polycarb.  Our first pilot cold frame was created by the end of April and we began building the joists for the frames at the Fairgrounds.  During this time, we ordered 15 cubic yards of moo poo - a double digested cow manure product - for use in soil amendment.  By the middle of June, we had installed the base of the cold frames and prepared the soil within.  We quickly got to work building our irrigation system, and by late June, we finished working out the kinks.
Chris giving transplants initial irrigation

By July, we were ready to plant and given the name of our project - Freedom Gardens - found it appropriate to place our first transplants in the ground on July 4th.  Our first round of planting included the southern-most mound and the cold frames.  We planted various tomatoes, green and purple basil, endive, purple and green okra, rutabaga, leeks, various hot peppers, and various lettuces inside the cold frames - all of which we began ourselves from seed!  As noted in our previous blog, we seeded daikon radish, clover, and bunch grasses on the southern mound.

Just a few comments before diving into each of these individually: we did not complete the cold frame lids before planting, which ended up creating a height problem when we did place the lids in October.  By not having lids in the summer months, we were able to circumvent temperature complications inside the boxes; however, we quickly realized that our plants were succumbing to the intense summer sunlight - our well watered babies appeared droopy and generally overheated.  We were able to solve this problem by placing shade cloth over the cold frames, which we left in place until the creating of the lids.  With the shade cloth in place, our plants quickly bounced back and grew vigorously - in fact, the shade cloth helped keep our basil tender and delicious throughout the growing season, but more on this later.

Now for the fun part - how did everything grow!?  Well, to be honest, we seeded the southern mound too late in the season.  Perhaps our construction priority distracted us?!  Regardless, by the time we dropped seed in July, the rains of June had nearly ceased and our seed germination rate appeared hindered.  However, as our "Big pile of dirt" blog points out, we did observe quite a few of these seeded plants maturing into seed bearers, thus offering the potential for self seeding in 2014.

We planted our various tomatoes in the back of two boxes in an effort to utilize vertical space.  The plants faired well, but we did observe some herbivory to the fruits.  While the culprit was never identified - rabbit, mouse, or rat? - we believe the problem may be solved now that lids cover the cold frames.  Our tomatoes continued to provide fruit throughout the growing season and into November, however, once temperatures reached the lower forties, our tomatoes reached their demise.  In this case, the cold frames would be perfect for early planted tomatoes that would be removed before November, but we may simply save the tomatoes for the terraced space we plan to create this spring.
Tomatoes and basil on the first day of planting

Our basil flourished especially well once we placed shade cloth over it.  While we are unsure of the volume yielded, we can certainly attest to harvesting tender, tasty basil throughout the growing season.  Unfortunately, our procrastination in lid development led to an untimely demise of our beautiful basil plants, as the first frost of the season was more than they could bear.  We'll have to see how the lids alter their longevity this season.

We knew we would have some extra work on our hands with the endives.  Ultimately, endive must be clumped or tied at the bottom with soil mounded around the base to create that tender while leaf we've grown accustomed to; however, we never quite grasped when to perform this task.  Perhaps we grew the wrong variety?  At any rate, our endive was quite bitter and grew rather unruly.  They were perhaps our greatest failure of the 2013 growing season, as the growth was primarily wasted.  If we decide to try again, we'll need to brush up on our research, but rest assured, we'll share whatever we learn with you!

Who knew okra grew so beautifully and produced such a harvest!  As stated above, we planted two different species of okra - one purple and one green.  Both performed marvelously and yielded fruit clear into November when the cold moved in to stay.  We learned a couple very important lessons with the okra in 2013.  Okra will grow very tall, 3ft+, if you allow it to - this in mind, we'll be keeping it out of the cold frames in 2014.  Okra fruit also grows quite woody, or fibrous, if allowed to grow longer than two inches (we're currently running an experiment to see if fermentation will break this woodiness down).  I believe that we will see larger plants and a greater harvest in 2014 by cutting fruits when they are 2 inches or less in size.  I know we'll have more edible okra, by doing this!

We began the rutabaga from seed in the cold frame.  Our method was to spread the seed, moisten the seed and soil, and then place shade cloth directly on top of the seeded soil to decrease water loss from evaporation.  While this proved to be a very successful seeding method, we did find that our close spacing led to smaller root harvest.  Ultimately our harvest was small and the big take home lesson for rutabaga was space.  For this reason, we'll keep rutabaga out of the cold frames in 2014. That being said, we were able to harvest tasty rutabaga leaves into December, but once temperatures began staying below 30 degrees F, the leaves were quick to wilt away.

The leeks have proven to be the most tolerant plant of the 2013 growing season.  Planted when extremely small, they have grown to inch diameters at the base.  The cold has not seemed to effect the plants, as we still have quite a collection of them inside the cold frames.  To date, our Montana climate has dipped below zero degrees F for at least two full weeks and still our leeks stand tall and green.  In fact, the leeks seem to grow sweeter and sweeter as we move into the 2014 growing season.  We'll definitely be planting more of these come spring!

What can be said of the lettuces - they seem to grow like weeds no matter where you plant them! We grew lettuces throughout the 2013 season and have successfully kept a few throughout the winter. The cold frames seem to be the perfect habitat for head lettuces.  We were able to harvest a head or two every week clear until we had harvested all of them.  Lettuces did so well, that we decided to plant more at the end of the season to see how long they could battle the Montana cold, but more on that later.

Hot peppers on the day of transplanting
Last but not least, my favorite, hot peppers.  We transplanted white habaneros, culinary thai, long cayenne, bird's eye piquin, and scotch bonnet, which we grew from seed.  All grew amazingly and seemed to relish the hot summer sun!  These plants grew healthy and tall, but quickly succumbed to cooler temperatures in September.  It seems that as soon as the cool fall temperatures set in, chili leaves droop and drop. Fortunately, their fruits can be harvested at this time and thanks can be given to the dying plant. We'll probably place hot peppers in the cold frames for 2014, but we'll have to keep their heights down by pinching the tops.
A collection of harvested hot peppers

We spread arugula seeds in late August, utilizing a method to that of the rutabaga mentioned above. Once roughly 75% of our seeds sprouted, we removed the ground level shade cloth.  The arugula performed similar to the lettuces and basil, yielding several harvests before succumbing to sub-zero temperatures in December.  One change we'll make in the 2014 growing season concerning arugula, is spacing.  While we were able to harvest large quantities of arugula, we were not able to do it quickly or efficiently, as it was spaced too closely together. Unfortunately, we did not bear this in mind when spreading the seed, because we were more focused on maintaining a high germination rate.  One effort we could have made would have been to completely remove harvested plants to make more space for remaining plants to fill.  As it was, we simply cut the tops of all the plants and allowed the bases to sprout more leaves.  Our 2014 attempt will limit the number of seeds we spread in an effort to keep spacing a little wider.  With greater spacing, we should observe larger plants and a quicker, more efficient harvest.

Cold frames in October, during the day of lid placement
Our lid template was completed by mid September, just as the frosts were moving in.  By October 4th, the lid frames were completed and we began attaching them onto the boxes.  As you can see in the picture below, however, many of our plants were taller than the cold frames and had to be cut back. At this point the frosts had begun wilting the tomatoes, basil, and hot peppers.  In fact, the basil had completely died by late October, followed by the tomatoes and peppers by the middle of November.  I believe the okra harvest could have continued longer than October, but cutting the plants back seemed to place a great toll on the plant and they too where completely dead by the end of November.

Our last planting of 2013 occurred in the middle of October.  We planted green butter crunch, red butter crunch, blue scotch curled kale, bell isle cress, red chard, baby choi, a fall seed mix, broccoli de. cicco, and collards.  Now was our chance to see the true effects of the cold frames.

To date - bear in mind, we've had at least two full weeks of sub zero temperatures - it appears as though the red chard, baby choi, broccoli, and collards have succumbed to the cold.  That being said, it appears as though some of the butter crunch, kale, cress, and something in the fall mix has survived even the coldest winter temperatures.  Our immediate observation after proof of life is that the plants are not growing much at all.  We believe (confirmed by Elliot Coleman in Winter Harvest Handbook) that the lesser angle and lack of sunlight is to blame.  Perhaps our fall planting should occur earlier so as to have more mature plants heading into the grip of winter, thus increasing our harvest season, rather than increasing the fall to winter growing season.  The next observation we've made is that the cold frames appear rather dry inside by late January - this is another potential problem we'll have to address in the coming growing seasons.

Oh the joy of farming!  Every year holds a new lesson to learn as we make our way to a more resilient and self sufficient lifestyle.  We hope you enjoy your journey with us as we progress further into the creation of an abundant food system and successful classroom experience.  Thank you and stay tuned!
Fall planting in the evening sunlight