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As the season winds down, I look forward to winding down with it, working shorter days and taking longer lunches. But I know that any little project I can do in the cold months will save me precious time once the growing season starts up again. One such project I did last winter not only saved me time this past spring, but will continue to do so for as long as I garden. I made cutworm collars that will last as long as I live, and probably quite a bit longer.

Cutworms are moth larvae that live in the leaf litter. They feed on young stems, usually severing them completely. They are a heartbreaking pest, as they can destroy a good fraction of the tomato transplants (or most other seedlings) put out in early spring.

Fall soil testing can get you set up to succeed next growing season. Don’t shoot in the dark - find out what your soil’s limiting factors are now. Fall soil testing will also enable you to order the amendments you need via the 2021 Tri-State Bulk Order  – a NOFA tradition that helps growers of all sizes get affordable prices on farm and garden supplies while helping fund critical programming and activities at participating NOFA chapters.

As a thank you for soil testing with NOFA/Mass, you will receive a $10 coupon code to use when you place your order via the Tri-State Bulk Order in January.

Autumn is garlic planting season. If you save your own bulbs for planting (and I heartily recommend you do), you will need to decide what part of your crop to plant and what part to sell or eat or give away. The usual advice is to plant your very best—those giant heads with mammoth cloves, because, the advice goes, “the largest cloves makes the largest heads.” But those giant heads will also sell for the most money, and that made me wonder whether I could come out ahead if I planted my mediums instead. Would they do just as well?

This past season I tried an experiment to answer that question. I took 50 large, 50 medium, and 50 small cloves, and planted them in the same bed, with the same soil preparation, and the same irrigation. (As I’ve described before, I plant shallowly into several inches of compost, and cover with several inches of leaves, which makes for a fertile, no-weed bed that requires no digging at harvest time.)

My lightweight pneumatic wheelbarrows are the single most useful tools around my gardens. I use them every day, multiple times a day, for ferrying compost and leaves onto my beds, and produce off of them; for carrying brush and weeds to a rot pile; for moving stakes and tools and lime bags and all manner of other heavy things.

I’ve made four modifications to my wheelbarrows, each of which has increased their utility and expanded the range of things they can do for me. Each mod is easy and quick to do yourself:

Always bring a bungee. Bungee cords are great for keeping a load of brush from falling off in transit, or supplying just enough hold to carry a load of garden stakes with confidence. I keep one or more bungee cords wrapped around the handles, down low and out of the way, but always at hand.

It is wonderful to speak to the elders of a community. A husband and wife team, Ms. Audrey and Mr. Walter (that is what I call them–this wonderful couple is older than me, so I show them respect by referring to them as Ms. and Mr.), and I enjoy a wonderful conversation on gardening and what got them started. 

Anna:

“Mr. Walter and Ms. Audrey, you all have such a beautiful garden. I always learn a great deal when I come over. How did you get started growing food and what keeps you going?”

Mr. Walter:

“My family is from Georgia. I had 13 brothers and sisters, so growing additional food was quite necessary. My father always had a garden and my mother would preserve food from that garden. I look forward to having a garden every year. You need food to survive.”

If you had looked for my onion patch a few years back, it would have been hard to find at this time of year—overgrown with endless amounts of pigweed, crabgrass, and all manner of other weeds, lording over and crowding out my onions. Last year I radically changed my approach to onions, and this year extended that approach to most of my gardens. This year, just before harvest, you can see every onion flopped over in the row, and the weeds in a 100-foot bed number in the low dozens.

I did three main things to effect this transformation, all designed to deeply bury my prodigious bank of weed seeds.  First, I stopped tilling the garden. Second, I laid several inches of new compost on each bed. Third, I mulched everything deeply with leaves, covering beds and paths alike, only pulling the leaves off the beds at planting time.

Last month you learned about Abby and Jonathan’s experience starting a first year CSA during a pandemic. This month, we’ll talk about the farming practices that Abby and Jonathan have used to get their farm started with limited time and with soil health and weed management as central goals.   

The Winter Street Farmers came up apprenticing and managing on organic farms just as the contemporary healthy soils movement was rising, benefiting from receiving a training in standard tillage practices while also having access to education about alternative, tillage-reduced systems. “We were really influenced by seeing examples of how much you can actually grow in a small area,” Abby explained, “and we learned a lot between NOFA workshops and reading farming books.” They decided early in their conversations about their own future farm that it would be no-till.  

It’s a bit early to be thinking about digging potatoes—in my garden, they have just finished flowering and the spuds are not much bigger than marbles—but it’s not too early to think about buying a tool that I’ve found makes the task of digging by hand far easier than with a standard garden fork.

The tool is variously called a trash fork, or refuse fork, or trash hook. It’s what you’d get if you took a pitchfork and bent the tines at 90 degrees. I bought mine to pull quackgrass runners from loosened soil, and it does a nice job with that, but it turns out it’s even better for digging potatoes.

I have a BCS, and since I was planting about 700 feet of bed, I bought a potato digger for it. Unfortunately, the tool was a disappointment—it sliced or bruised lots of spuds while it moved through the bed.

June 22-28 is Pollinator Week! Organized by the Pollinator Partnership, Pollinator Week is a national celebration of the thousands of insect species that are essential to flowering plants—including the food crops that we depend on for our meals.  

Pollinators (and, more broadly, insect biodiversity) are one of our long-standing priority issues at NOFA/Mass and one of our topline topics for educational programming, published content, and policy work. 

Of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we can’t gather for any in-person activities right now, but we wanted to take this opportunity to share some resources and actions that you can use to support these critical members of our food system and our ecosystem. 

There are three major reasons I love to use drip irrigation in the garden: It puts water where it does the most good, it puts enough of it there to really make my plants happy, and it allows me to set it and forget it for the rest of the summer—a real benefit to a busy, lazy farmer like me.

Drip systems got their start in the desert, and that’s where I first learned about them.  But they are useful wherever plants need more water than the sky will supply.

There are many types of drip emitters, but for gardeners, the most common and most useful is drip tape—thin tubing with regularly spaced slits. Laid in straight lines down the planting bed, drip tape weeps water that percolates down into the root zone, allowing the plant’s roots to dive deep for water (and bring up nutrients from there as well), rather than spread wide and stay shallow.

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