Monday, July 9, 2007

From Seed to Ready to Plant

"No need to worry, folks in a hurry, leave them behind you, no one can find you, House in the country, House in the country."

In this first year of operation for Gravity Hill Farm, David's goal is to have produce to sell at the Lawrenceville, NJ Farmer's Market; Sunday mornings from 9am-1pm; starting five weeks ago and lasting through October. For a few reasons beyond David's control, he got a late start in seeding and planting his crops. Over the past weeks he has been working extremely hard in order to catch up. One consequence of the slow start is that he has not had as much as he would have hoped at market. This past week, July 8, was the most bountiful to date and, it is hoped, things will keep getting better. The produce that he has had includes: head lettuce (upwards of six varieties), spinach (which he is hoping to grow through the summer, something not usually done) salad mix, arugula, cipollini onions, scallions (including a variety that is deep purple {smoke on the water} in color), squash, zucchini, Swiss chard, kale (David says, "eat more kale" - one of the most nutritious vegetables out there), collard greens, fennel, broccoli, broccoli rabe, basil, and parsley. Coming soon: tomatoes (upwards of 20 varieties), carrots, various onions, beans, potatoes, celery, cabbage, and cauliflower. Whew!! No wonder David is working long hours on a daily basis. No rest for the weary or for farmers. Warning - do not get into small, local, sustainable farming (organic or conventional) if you are interested in a decent hourly wage. Do it for love. Do it for passion. Do it out of respect for nature. Do it to provide people with better tasting produce than you get at mass market stores. Do it to decrease the distance that the food has to travel from field to market thus reducing the impact on the environment. (Think about the message of the recent Live Earth concert.) (By the way, today the temperature was in the mid-90's, Las Vegas has hit 116, ice caps are melting - support your local farmer; support sustainable agriculture; support organic farming.) What follows are pictures showing the development of the plants from seed to vegetable producing plants. Enjoy. First you need dirt. Not just any dirt, but a soil mixture. You start with a soil mixture that comes in a 3.8 cubic foot bale. You mix 1/3 of this bale with some compost and vermiculite and you have soil in which your seeds will grow.
On the table you see seeding trays. Some have 50 cells and some have 128. Some plants require a larger space as they germinate. The trays are filled with the soil and the soil in each cell is slightly compacted to allow for the seed to be placed inside. After the seed is placed in the cell the seed is then covered with more soil, or in the case of lettuce and flowers, vermiculite. It should be noted that most of the seeds are really, really tiny. Most are smaller than the font of these letters. Some are about twice the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Seeding is a slow and time consuming process.

It was this process of seeding that was delayed at the beginning of the season. At this time David is now on par with where he should be at with his seeding.

After the trays have been filled with seeds they are placed on these 'tables' in the greenhouse. In the greenhouse, the newly planted seeds, the newly germinating plants, and even plants that are more fully developed, are able to grow in relative safety as their roots become established. The absence of a greenhouse is what set David back. It is really cool to see the plants at various stages of their development; from first beginning to break through the dirt to being ready to be planted. Being on a farm leads to a better appreciation of where our food comes from. Too often it is easy to take for granted how much work goes into the process of farming; especially for the small, independent farmers.
Despite being in a heated greenhouse, some newly seeded plants require some extra warmth. The pink stuff is insulation to help keep the bottom of the trays warm. Additionally, the trays you see are on top of a heated mat. On the left side of the front tray you can make out a copper tube. The tube is connected to an electrical cord that is out of the picture and is also connected to the heating mat under the tray. This is done to keep the soil warm; this is essential for certain plants, including tomatoes.

Note here the white 'stakes'. No, they are not grave markers. They identify what has been seeded in that particular tray, or section of tray. Written on each stake is the variety of plant and the date it was seeded. Different species take different lengths of time to germinate. This allows David to know whether or not to panic if something isn't germinating. After spending their time inside the greenhouse the plants are moved to a table outside by the field. They are not immediately placed in the ground. Being outside in the trays for a period of time allows the plants to 'toughen up'. This aids in their survival once in the ground. NOTE: Some plant varieties are 'direct seeded'. This means that they do not go through the whole process that has been described; the seeds are directly planted into the seed beds that have been prepared for them. As can be seen, these plants are 'large' and are ready to be planted. Over the course of the season, there will be a number of plantings of the same vegetables. This staggering allows David to have produce available on a weekly basis throughout the summer. Some varieties, such as spinach, do not like hot weather and is not often seen fresh throughout the summer at local markets; usually just in the spring and fall. Next time: planting, protecting the plants, and fields of veggies. For now, thanks to all who have helped out with weeding and a special shout out to Emily for helping with harvesting. As a one man band David is appreciative of the help he has received. Support your local farmer. Go organic! Go local sustainable agriculture.

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