Tag Archives: farming

pH matters

It’s the time of summer when there aren’t enough hours in the day. In addition to gardening and swimming and planning a wedding, my job for the Damariscotta Lake Watershed Association is also much more time consuming and busy in the summer. I haven’t had much time to write, though it doesn’t mean nothing is happening in the garden.

Garden on July 5th

Some crops seem to grow overnight. The pumpkins and potatoes are huge. The tomatoes and cucumbers and brassicas look great. But the onions and corn leave much to be desired. We’ve been trying to figure out why the onions have done so little even though they were the first seedlings we put in the ground. My father suggested the problem could be pH.

Many crops do best in slightly acidic to neutral soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7. Soil pH affects the chemical forms of nutrients like phosphorus and iron. When soil pH is too acidic or too alkaline, some nutrients convert to a form that cannot be absorbed by plants. Even in nutrient-rich soil, off-balance pH may cause plants to suffer nutrient deficiencies

In Maine, soil is often too acidic for optimum plant growth. Luckily, soil pH can be easily raised by spreading and mixing in ground limestone. When we got our soil tested in the spring, we found out that the pH was 5.6. We spread 350 pounds of lime and 65 pounds of wood ash (about half the recommended amount) and tilled it in. However, we expect that the lime hasn’t had time to completely do its work.

Potatoes are one crop that does grow well in more acidic soils, preferring a pH of 5.5. We didn’t spread any lime in our potato area, and the potato plants are enormous. The onions, however, prefer a pH of 6-7.

To see if we could solve the low pH in our onion patch, we dumped some wood ash around the plants. Wood ash raises pH and is more water soluble than limestone. We only had enough ash for part of the onion row. Today, after the rain had a chance to wash the ash into the soil, the part of the onion row we treated seems to be greener and larger. Before we spread ash on the rest of the onions, we’ll take a picture so we can assess the results more concretely.

We’ve decided to do an experiment with our tomatoes. Some people prune their tomatoes to improve their yield. Tomato plants sprout suckers where new leaves leave the main stem. When pruning, you cut these suckers off. I’ve always wondered whether pruning tomatoes really makes a difference. This summer we intend to find out. We pruned one side of the row and left the other half untouched. We’ll weigh the fruit we get from each side.

First batch of cucumbers and dill

Our first crop is ripening: cucumbers. We were very excited to make our first jar of pickles!

I’ve been adding lots of pictures to the Photos page of chicks, plants and more. Check them out!

In case you’re interested, I found this list of pH preferences for different crops:

  • Beans            6.0-7.0
  • Beets             6.5-8.0
  • Broccoli        6.0-7.0
  • Cabbage       6.0-7.5
  • Cantaloupe  6.0-7.5
  • Carrots         5.5-7.0
  • Corn             5.5-7.5
  • Cucumbers 5.5-7.0
  • Lettuce        6.0-7.0
  • Onions         6.0-7.0
  • Peas             6.0-7.5
  • Peppers       5.5-7.0
  • Potatoes      4.8-6.5
  • Squash        6.0-7.0
  • Tomatoes   5.5-7.5
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Wishing for rain

It’s been a beautiful, sunny, summery weekend. Spring has been mild this year, and we’re tempted to plant many crops now. We have to remind ourselves that the schedule we made is meant to provide food for our September 25 wedding. We’re not looking for early crops. We’re also waiting for the electric fence to go up around our garden, which will probably happen in the first week or two of June. Lastly, we’re very aware of how dry the garden is right now, and we don’t have running water there yet. We would have to haul water from our house, which is around a half mile away. This is not an easy thing to do, especially since we don’t have a truck, yet.

So we’re trying to put off planting some crops, and we’re hoping for rain on the seeds we’ve put in the ground. Yesterday we planted Baby Pam pumpkins (good for pie) and two kinds of squash: Waltham Butternut and Hubbard Blue Ballet. We also planted some dill (for making pickles) and some lettuce for us to eat this summer.

We also laid black plastic on two beds. This plastic mulch warms the soil and keeps the weeds down. We will transplant heat-loving plants into holes in the black plastic, such as melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.

We were happy to see that our dwarf white clover has germinated in the paths. We planted this short variety of clover in the paths to keep the weeds down and add nitrogen to the soil.

Tomato and brassica seedlings in the cold frame

Back in our homemade cold frame, many plants are growing well. Our scavenged tomato seedlings are doing well in their bigger pots, cucumbers are huge and peppers are finally sprouting their true leaves.

Unfortunately, some tomato seedlings are still quite stunted, but we have enough others that we might not have to use them. Our kale and broccoli seedlings are getting too big for their trays, but we don’t want to transplant them before the fence goes up. Being near the woods, our garden would provide an easy meal for deer. April 27 may have been too early to start these seeds.

Our seedling room is a warm, humid sanctuary filled with tomatoes, peppers, basil, dill and melons (which are starting to germinate). I love to sit among the plants and read or do yoga.

Experimental farming

Farming is an experiment. Especially in the beginning, though I expect we will continue to experiment for the rest of our lives. I wonder if experiment is the right word, though, since we often don’t understand what we’re testing for or why something works or doesn’t work. Farming involves guessing, intuition and flexibility.

I have to remind myself that failure is a learning experience, which can be a hard thing to do. It’s hard not to feel disappointed when our seedlings are stunted. What if this whole experiment is a failure?

It’s a test of our relationship, too, seeing how we deal with things not going right. I might be exaggerating a bit, since I’m just talking about tomato and pepper seedlings, but there is some stress when neither of us know what is the best action to take.

I know everything will work out fine in the end. We can buy seedlings if we need to. We could even buy our wedding dinner ingredients (we’ll have to buy at least some). But it would be nice to have a beautiful, healthy garden.

Our sad tomato seedlings

Here’s what’s happening with the seedlings… We planted three kinds of tomatoes and two kinds of peppers on April 15. We put them on a table in Beth’s greenhouse. They germinated fairly well, got to be about an inch high and stopped growing all together. Many of them still haven’t grown their first true leaves (meaning they only have two tiny leaves).

Our happy scavenged tomato seedlings

It’s a mystery. Beth gave us some reject tomato seedlings that were also very sad looking at the beginning of this month. We re-potted those and they have far surpassed our own tomatoes. We kept those under grow lights in our spare room. This would lead me to believe that our seedlings don’t like Beth’s greenhouse. But she has tomatoes in her greenhouse that are doing great. Hmmmm… curious. Let me know if you have any ideas.

We started potting up some of our pepper seedlings, thinking that might help them, but then we ran out of space under our lights. So we decided to build one of our chicken tractors early and use it as a cold frame for our seedlings.

Potting up tomatoes and peppers

The base our our chicken tractor/cold frame

We used scrap wood we got through Midcoast Freecycle, but we did buy screws, corner brackets and a roll of metal strap hanger (which we joked is the novice carpenter’s best friend). With the brackets and strap hanger, our joints hold firmly together even if our cuts aren’t perfect and the wood splits a little as we put in screws.

Finished structure

Since we didn’t have very much wood, we decided to make a 59-square-foot A-frame. We’ll probably put 20-25 chickens inside, depending on whether we choose to give them two or three square feet per bird. We’ll have to build another structure for the rest of the meat birds (we ordered 50 chicks).

Completed (for now)

We made panels and covered them with plastic to make a cold frame, or small unheated greenhouse. It’s not perfect, and the plastic doesn’t do much to keep the inside warmer than the outside. We’re still experimenting with it. We might put blankets over the whole structure overnight. We also plan to move it somewhere sunnier than our driveway. But in the meantime, we have our brassicas and some herbs inside the structure and out of the wind at least. Check out the Photos page for more pictures of us building the chicken tractor/cold frame.

Cucumber seedlings

Still under lights in the spare room we have beautiful cucumber seedlings, loads of tomatoes, some lettuce and newly planted watermelons and cantaloupes! We love melons!

In the garden we’ve planted onions, potatoes, carrots and beets. Soon the danger of frost will pass and we’ll plant many more crops in the garden. In the meantime, we’re still trying to figure out where to put all our seedlings as we pot them up into any sort of plastic container we can find. The tomatoes really seem to take off when they have more space for their roots.

A local food wedding

We love to eat. We especially love to eat fresh, healthy, whole, real food. Naturally, when we started planning our wedding last fall, we agreed immediately that we wanted to celebrate by sharing a delicious meal of fresh, locally-grown ingredients with our friends and family. The catch is, we don’t have a lot of money and we have other priorities where we want to spend our money (we are currently looking for land to start our own farm). Largely due to farm subsidies to big business for growing large amounts of commodity crops like corn, healthy food is often more expensive than highly processed junk. Trying to pull off a September wedding for 100 guests on under $5,000, we couldn’t afford the kind of caterer we wanted.

We also like to do things ourselves. We love to provide for our own needs, and we like to be independent and make decisions. These desires are one of the driving forces behind our decision to go into farming together. We get a lot of joy from providing basic necessities for ourselves and others.

So we decided to grow and raise our own wedding dinner. We rented out a summer camp for the whole wedding weekend, and we’ve enlisted our wonderful friends and family to help us cook. We are lucky to have space for a garden where we live this summer (7,500 square feet to be exact) and additional fields to graze our chickens in a moveable chicken tractor.

You can follow the progress of our garden and meat chickens from ordering chicks and testing recipes to planting and harvesting ingredients to cooking and eating with friends and family. We’re so excited to embark on this process, we can’t wait until it’s time to sink our hands in the dirt. This blog will follow the whole process.