Summer of 2015 in review

I ran out of time to do weekly postings, so here is a summary of our season on the Littleton farm site. Overall, it was a great year! All of our trees survived and are growing well. The tomatoes yielded so abundantly that we sold them at Church, after the members and the Carmelites had taken all they wanted. Our favourite tomato varieties were taxi, moonglow, green zebra, black krim, black cherry, Ananas Noire, Siberian, and Cosmonaut Volkov. We also donated some to Christ in the City and The Divine Mercy Supportive care. We also harvested lots of squash, zucchini, and turnips, but it turns out that the members don’t really like turnips, so we will be planting less of them next year. As usual, the Costata Romanesco zucchini did really well at the beginning of the year, and the powdery mildew resistant PM straight-neck summer squash from High Mowing Seeds got off to a slow start but is still going strong. Our Mammoth Sunflowers topped 8 feet, despite a few wind storms, and we harvested at least some seeds ahead of the chickadees. We got at least one ripe cantaloupe, about the size of a soft ball. Next year we will try again to be truly successful growing melons in Denver. And we harvested cucumbers, beets, tomatillos, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, and lots of arugula. We tried growing beans up our sunflowers, but this was a failure. In fact, all the beans we planted gave a lack luster performance.

Due to the work of harvesting, we did not have time for infrastructure projects or planting Fall crops. In any case, due to the extremely dry weather in Denver during the Fall, late crops are hard to start.

We have lots of plans for next year. We will be rebuilding our fence to be more animal proof by attaching fine mesh wire along the base and laid out along the ground. Our greenhouse will be mounted on skids sliding on rails, so that we can start winter crops outside while the summer ones are still growing, and then slide the house over them latter. To help lettuce weather the dry climate, we will build wicking beds and shade structures, and to help the workers survive the heat, we will build arbors and plant some grape and hardy kiwi vines. We will be planting more trees, raspberries, hazelnuts, and currents, among other perennials. We hope to have more flowers and insect attracting plants.  We want to experiment with some sunken hugelkulture beds to see if we can get by without watering some crops at all. Our compost system needs to be improved put on track this Fall. We hope to plant cover crops of winter wheat and rye on some of the beds, and deep mulch others.

In a few weeks we will have a planning meeting to get things on track for next year, redefine our mission statement and project list, and reorganize our vegetable share plan. I will post more information as we go.

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The year in review; plans for the year ahead

A frost on September 12th damaged the Lakewood farm gardens, though some outdoor plants and the greenhouse continue to produce well, as the weather has continued warm. We have started cleanup, and will be rebuilding many of the beds. We have also planted some fall crops.

At our planing meeting a few days ago, we discussed many topics, among them the following.

Sheet mulch works really well here. It seems to hold water, once it get really wet. If it is built dry, it can stay that way. It also does a lot better if it is started a few months before planting. Some seeds seem to need mineral soil on top, not just compost. Greens are difficult to start in a rough mulch. Paths should be raised up to form borders around the mulch beds, especially on a slope, to keep water in. Chunks of wood and sticks seem to improve a mulch. The mulch should also be deeper the a foot, more like two feet. By spring, the foot of mulch we laid had turned into something more like six inches.

Our labeling system (plastic with permanent marker) broke down. Even if the marker was permanent the labels were not and they soon disappeared in a jungle or got pulled out. This lead to a number of problems: difficulty in seed saving, inability to harvest green when ripe tomatoes, difficulty telling if a bean was a green bean or a dry bean, or if a squash was a winter or summer variety. At very least, different types of the same plant should be segregated, so as to avoid this problem.

To solve this problem, we will be spending some winter meetings inside wood burning labels into some stakes.
Cherry tomatoes were a waste of time, since they were too difficult to pick and ended up smashed on the way home.

Planting a second batch of zucchini and cucumbers in July is well worth it.
Watering by hand was a huge chore. Pulling the hoses around ran the risk of damaging plants and was a big hassle. As well as increasing water storage in deeper mulch, we may switch to using an oscillating sprinkler on a tall pole for most of the garden. If the pole is seven feet high, it will clear trellises, tall plants, etc. This would only require one hose and could easily be activate and left on for the required amount of time. For many plants in an arid climate, overhead watering is beneficial. Tomatoes, dry beans, and some seed crops will need to be watered from below. For these, we will be setting up soaker lines. This would also eliminate the problem of over and under watering.
We really need trellises for tomatoes. Without them, the plants did wonderfully, but finding the tomatoes was so difficult that many rotted on the ground or were eaten by slugs.
The farm was not set up so that members could come and help out on their own schedule. We will be having a numbered sign in each bed, with a corresponding white board chart in the shed, showing what is planted in each, and what has to be tended, harvested, etc. We will also set up a logbook for member’s use. This will greatly increase our efficiency in use of volunteer hours.
Distribution of produce was more difficult then we thought it would be. We need drop-off/ pick-up points, each with an evaporative cooler or refrigerator. That way members could pick up produce on their own schedule, while avoiding spoilage. This will be important if we grow more greens, which members have requested. At the same time, each pickup point would have a member in charge to inventory produce and send out alerts as to the amount on hand. One member voiced concern as to a child potentially getting stuck in a refrigerator. To avoid this we would lock any refrigerators.
We have many projects planned, among them the following:
Mushrooms started in our sheet mulches would improve the conditions for our plants. Fall would be the best time to do this, and we will probably use oyster mushrooms, which have the best symbiotic relationship with garden plants.

Over the winter, we can get our beehives and swarm traps finished and set up. We will continue to salvage wood for these. If we build enough, we may try selling them.

We will add thermal mass and insulation to our hoophouse to extend its useful season. One of the members can get bubble wrap for this.

The members want to raise more flowers in the gardens next year. There are many edible, medicinal, and habitat providing flowers for us to use.

We may start raising geese on the Lakewood farm, rotating them through cover cropped sections of the garden.
There are lots of indoor building type projects we can purse over the winter, such as solar applications, aquaponics setups, alternative cooking devices, and many more.
Bare root fruit bushes, grape vines, asparagus, and other perennial plants can be installed this fall. Geese are used as weeders in orchards and strawberry fields, and thus fit in well with this.
Next year, if we are more organized, we can save more of our own seed, and work on breeding our own plants.
To get our Lakewood farm ready for next year, we have many things that need to get done this Fall. Among them are: starting some big compost piles; rebuilding all our sheet mulches so that they are two feet deep; building our shed; setting up an irrigation system and trellises; upgrading some of the fencing; general cleanup; and reworking our entrance area. We will probably use concrete reinforcing wire for tomato trellis.
We will be hosting an Advent wreath crafting event at OLMC parish in Littleton to raise funds for the SIS. This will be held towards the end of November.
And finally, we have a new farm site in Littleton, near Broadway and Littleton Boulevard. If you want to come and help please contact me for the address.

Farm update for August

The farm has been producing tons of vegetables, especially eggplant, tomatoes, and zucchini.

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Here is just part of one day’s harvest.

Some things have not done so well. Due to a loss of labels, we have not been able to harvest any green tomatoes, since we can’t tell which they are. Watermelon are still the size of base balls. Winter squash are growing well, but still way behind where they should be due to late planting. Peppers are only starting to produce now. I am glad we keep them in the greenhouse, where they will have another month or so of growing left.

Sheet mulching has vastly out preformed the tilled beds, though we have no one variable trials to prove it.

I saved landrace tomato seeds from the farm; basically, I just saved seed from any plant that had produced, without worrying about variety or potential crossing. Over the years, the mix of varieties will adapt themselves to the location, soil, and growing methods. They will preserve enough genetic diversity so that something does well in any given year, but I will not have to keep fifty varieties pure and separate. I hope to do a post on landraces soon.

We salvaged a metal shed for the farm and are in the process of rebuilding it.

Problems with sheet mulch/ farm update

We have installed lots of sheet mulches on the Lakewood farm. Sheet mulching involves laying an overlapping layer of cardboard to smother weeds, and then piling on a foot or more of organic matter, ideally weed free, and with a balanced ratio of nitrogen to carbon. There are lots of benefits to this: less weeds, more organic matter, and, after the first year, less work, since the beds are never tilled again. For more information, see this post.
However, we have discovered two potential problems with sheet mulching.
First of all, sheet mulch does NOT stop bindweed. Those long twisting roots easily wend their way around the cardboard and through every crack, to emerge triumphantly at the surface. However, nothing else really kills bindweed either, and sheet mulch at least makes bindweed easy to pull. And the sheet mulch killed off the grass, thistles, dandelions, mallow, and other weeds on our site fairly well.
The second problem is more serious. When we planted the tomatoes, we just opened a hole in the mulch, stuck the tomato in, and pushed the mulch back together. Some of the beds were full of a light, fluffy mixture of grass clippings and mulched leaves. We then got a lot of rain, and occasionally people would step on the beds (our paths are not that well defined.) The mulch compacted and sank. Soon the tomato root balls were sticking out of the mulch, where the peat in the potting mix acted like a wick to dry out the roots. The fact that the grass clippings were very porous did not help matters any. We first noticed the problem when a lot of the tomatoes looked sick, with curled and yellowing leaves on a hot day.
Hopefully, we have solved the problem by laying a layer of rough compost from the pile we built last year over the beds. This will cover the root balls and hold water.
So, if you want to build a sheet mulch:
Don’t expect it to kill bindweed,
Try to mix dried grass clippings with other, more compact and water retentive material,
Lay the mulch much thicker than you think necessary, and plant deeply,
Carefully pack mulch over the root balls of transplants,
And ideally, build the beds in the fall, so they can decompose and compact over the winter.
The tomatoes in our hugelkulture/ sheet mulch hybrids are doing splendidly so far. I will continue to report on the success or failure of our systems over the next year. And now we will know how to avoid this problem for the future.
We are almost done planting. We have also got a fence built on the perimeter of the property, set up plant supports, and done a lot of weed mowing on the site over the last few meetings.

 

Planting continues

We have now got tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green beans, yard long beans, summer squash, zucchini, luffa gourds, pattypan squash, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, sunflowers, and some winter squash planted. We still need to plant dry beans and some more winter squash, and we will be done with the main season planting. Late, but hopefully not too late, if we get a reasonable autumn. We will be succession planting green beans, summer squash, cucumbers, and lettuce all summer. Cool weather crops will be planted in late summer.

Planting has begun!

Over the last few meetings, we got a lot done! We rented a rototiller, and broke up 1500 square feet, addition to the 1500 square feet of sheet mulch beds we already prepared.  We will plant into this area immediately, and mulch it latter. This will speed planting, since mulch supplies for our sheet mulching have been hard to get recently.
On Saturday, lots of members came out and planted 250 tomato plants. There are still some more to plant, but the biggest ones, which urgently needed to get into the ground, have all been planted. We prepared a lot of planting areas, and are almost done with the fencing project. We are digging big holes in unprepared grassy areas and filling them with manure. We will plant vining winter squash in these and let them help smother the weeds.
Next week our squash, melons, cucumbers, beans, lettuce, peppers, and eggplant will be planted. Because we got off to a slow start, we are waiting till late Summer to plant cool weather crops, except for lettuce. We have some heat tolerant strains of lettuce which we will be trying out.

Notes from the Work day, April 16th

Our fruit trees have arrived! Three standard pears, five semi-dwarf apples, a standard apricot, a dwarf apricot, a semi-dwarf nectarine, three semi-dwarf plums, and a semi-dwarf peach. We will probably buy some cherries to add to this collection. We are also looking into trees for the wetter areas of the property, possibly including pawpaws, hawthorn, and serviceberry. The trees will be planted at the next work day, Wednesday the 23rd.

At this meeting we planted 200 snap peas in our sheet mulch beds. We will be planting more in future work days. At a member’s house we have started 500 tomato plants.

We finished cutting up a tree felled at the last work day.