Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Germination Celebration

Seed Starting Station
There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the first seedlings pop up in spring. (Okay, maybe harvesting.) This spring our seedlings are doing great. Scientifically, that is about 1000 times better than last year’s sprouts.  We live and learn, right?

Right now, it is an all-out Germination Celebration over here at McCollum Orchards. Mini red, yellow and chocolate peppers, Siberian tomatoes, cayenne, celery, asparagus, rhubarb, and lots of different herbs are growing 2nd and 3rd leaves. We are five weeks out from planting outdoors. In Weeks Four and Three, we will start melons, cucumbers, zucchini, and leafy greens. Yesterday’s “Snowpril” storm is just a reminder that winter-like weather can still rear its fluffy head and take out a few rows of lovingly direct-planted lettuce. The indoor forest growing in the summer kitchen is motivation enough to get that garden tilled and ready.

This year we have a much better seed starting arrangement in all respects: greenhouse, lights, soil and techniques.  After last spring’s abysmal seed starting attempts, it was a wonder we had anything to harvest. We had to change our approach if we wanted to eventually increase production.

First, as we mentioned in February, Farmer Rich built a new shelving unit to house the seed trays. It contains five shelves, each with its own cool and warm lights on adjustable chains.  We got a few heat mats because some seedlings, like tomatoes and peppers, need specific temperatures around 85 degrees in order to germinate. We also got a little fan at the dollar store to create movement around the sprouts so they do not become too leggy.

Soil mixture is pressed into blocks with the metal form
Second, we changed our seed starting approach to soil blockers. Last year, we had a devil of a time trying to get starters out of those tiny plastic cells. I mangled quite a few tender roots. Some of last year’s plants – that made it through the dampening off, mold, chill, and insufficient lighting – then developed “transplant shock” after being planted in the garden. Lesson learned, this year, we wanted to do better.

Pressing herb seeds into 1/2" blocks
Transplanting celery with helper
Have you heard of soil blockers or ever used them? It is basically a metal form that you fill with starting soil and then push out onto trays into little squares. You plant seeds directly into each little square. Forms come in various sizes. We bought the 2" and the 3/4" soil blockers along with the indentation attachment to transplant the small blocks right into the larger squares when needed. We ordered ours through Johnny's Select Seeds. Soil blocks are supposed to prevent starts from becoming root bound, as they sometimes do in the plastic trays. The celery still managed to get tangled, but we just transplanted them into the larger blocks. When we are ready to plant, we do not have to mess around with prying starters out of the plastic cells.
Larger blocks with indents

This year, everything is coming along nicely. We actually had fun starting seeds, instead of stressing over the task. Plus, germination rate has been nearly 100%. Not even a hint of mold. One more new input has helped, too. We created our own starter soil this year. After researching a lot of different recipes, we put together: 

Sphagnum Peat Moss
Course Vermiculite
Organic compost with worm castings
A twist of lime (soil lime, that is, to lower the acidity of the mix)

Rich mixed them up in a large tub and sifted the mixture through ¼” screen mesh to get out the errant sticks and debris. We have since added some bone meal to the water during watering days, so that older starters can get a few more nutrients between now and planting time. 

This whole effort makes us wonder how they ever got a harvest in time back in the day before electric grow lights, plastic trays and packaged peat moss that help get starters ready to plant. Farming was much more dependent on Spring weather. We will see what the season has in store for us. But, right now, we are doing a happy dance to celebrate all this germination.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tilling 2012 Commences

Across the northern swath of the U.S., farmers are firing up their engines and gearing up for planting season 2012. Latest reports estimate that this year will 'show the biggest corn crop since 1937.' Tilling began today here as well.
Tilling 2012

For any neighbors reading this and wanting an update on our field: Tilling should take a day barring any unforeseen tractor breakdowns or giant rock hurdles. (Rule of Thumb: Equipment breaks when you use it. Second Rule of Thumb that any gardener knows: Rocks also sprout in the spring.) Planting here will take a day or two. This field is small compared to usual corn fields you see; it is about 34 acres of cleared land. Then, they will not be in the field again until harvest time in late summer/early fall. Harvesting takes a day or two at most. In all, it is 3-4 days of field time. If you get a chance, go take a look. (From a safe distance, of course!) The farmer enjoyed it that last year people came to watch him working.
Seagulls are following the tractor, like it were a boat

Here's a little more information from the latest USDA report: U.S. corn growers intend to plant 95.9 million acres this year, which is up 4% since last year. According to more farmland forecasts, corn prices have increased over 2.5% since last year and corn plantings are happening earlier than historical records because of the warm winter (read: not as much frozen ground) and early spring.

Since our field was only recently cleared, they decided to start with corn because it is a dense crop that will grow tall quickly and be able to crowd out the weeds that would inevitably pop up once the trees were removed and the ground was disturbed. It should be in corn for a couple of years until the soil is ready for soybeans or hay.

Coming 'round the bend
Hope this provides a useful update!