5 First Time Farming Tips
5 First Time Farming Tips
When we moved to the Ray farm, I (Austin) had many bits and pieces of gardening experience. I had done everything from tomato plants in buckets on the sidewalk, to small raised beds in the back yard, to working at a large scale CSA. However, up until this point in my life, I had never been in the same place for an entire growing season. And I certainly never had free rein on a large plot of land with all of the proper tools needed for large-scale gardening (all of which came with our farm…super handy). With more ambition than experience or know-how, I threw myself into farming, both in our two hoop houses and on our large field plot.
I started all our plants from seeds, germinating them under grow lights through the cold winter months in our root cellar. For an added challenge, I avoided all herbicides and used only organic ‘physical’ pesticides (explained further in point 5). I threw my whole self into starting our garden — I made a bunch of mistakes, had just as many successes, and I learned a lot from both. So here is short list of 5 of the most important things I have learned so far (it’s June) about farming at our current scale:
Don’t start your seeds too early. There are many types vegetables and many varieties within each of them. To make it more confusing, they all require different amounts of time to be at ideal outdoor planing maturity. In other words, your cabbage seedlings and your bell pepper seedlings will take very different amounts of time before they are ready to be moved outside for the growing season. Starting your seeds too late in the winter will shorten your growing season and hinder you in the long run. However, if you start your seeds too early, your plants will be root bound before it’s warm enough to transplant them outside and they will be stunted. Obviously, either situation is not ideal. The final point here is this: do your research on how much time your seeds need to grow & establish themselves indoors before you plant them outside.
Speaking of starting your seeds inside in the winter months, always start you seeds at the proper temperature specified by the supplier of the seeds. If the supplier doesn’t specify what temperature to germinate your seeds at, look up a similar vegetable/fruit. Generally (and there are exceptions), seeds germinate best at 75-85ºF . The best way to keep your seeds at these temperatures as they germinate is to use heat pads under your seed trays and a thermostat inserted in the soil. All you have to do is turn the heat pad on/off as necessary — don’t cook your seeds! Germinating your seeds at the right temperature can be the difference between 4 days to germinate and 14 days. When you are trying to time your seedling to go in the ground at the right time, 10 days can make a huge difference.
Spread things out. If you are growing a wide variety of plants in high volume, you will likely see some mortality of your seedlings. This could be from a variety of causes — an unexpected frost, insect damage, a deer chomping on a few of them, or your dog might decide to lay down right on top of a tomato plant. Either way, life happens and plants sometimes die from many different causes. If you’re fortunate enough not to experience mortality of plants, you will probably have some plants that get damaged or experience some stunting of growth. For this this reason, I have found it is wise to plant a few plants of the same variety in different places around your land in different ‘situations’. For example, on our farm we have a larger field plot, a hoop house, and several very large pots on spread around the property. I have tomato plants in all three locations, and almost all my other plants in at least two of the three. By having your plants in many different places, you give some of them a better chance of survival. Best case scenario, all the places you have your plants are great and everything thrives. Worst case scenario half or a third of your plants die instead of all of them.
Have an irrigation plan. This one is more relevant to anyone who doesn’t have access to water via a hose or directly from a house or well. In our case, both our hoop house, our field plot, and many of our large pots are not located by a water source. It is a terrible situation to be in to finally get all of your hard-earned seedlings in the ground in the spring only to have the summer sun bake them away because you didn’t have a reliable and realistic way to get them water. Depending on where you live, the rain is usually only a subsidy to the water your plants require. Further more, many plants will do ‘okay’ with rain water, but will thrive with regular consistent water through the season. Make sure you have a plan before you get your plants in the ground, whether this be a some sort of rain collection system or pump from a near by water source, your plants will need water whether it’s convenient or not.
Be ready for cold snaps and insects. These two threats to your garden are important because they are both issues that you think won’t happen until your plants are frosted black and/or crawling with aphids. Protections from cold comes in two forms. First, don’t put thing in the ground (both seedling and seed) too early. Second, be prepared to cover your plants with small hoops and row covers or blankets when your plants are still very young. A few degrees can make a huge difference when temperatures get around forty degrees. As far as insects & pests go, there are many pesticides that are considered organic. Some of these offer physical protection, like row covers, or diatomaceous earth, which kills insects physically, as opposed to chemically. Others are chemicals that are simple and repel insects without polluting other organisms, your soil, and your water. These include sprays that contain basic metals like copper. The most eco-friendly way to help protect your plants from insects is to encourage their predators to live in and visit your garden. This means planting other non-vegetable species that attract beneficial insects and not squashing spiders and other predatory insects (lady bugs) when you see them.
I hope that helps you as you kick off your next garden project! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below.