rtyler

Starting an ambitious 2017 growing season

Spring has officially erupted in Sonoma county, with the immense amount of biological activity we have come to expect from one of the more productive regions of the country. On our meager parcel we have more plants, with more variety, than ever before going into the ground. With two seasons under our belts in the "south crop" and one season with the "north crop," I absolutely couldn't wait for the cold nights to pass, and am pleased beyond belief that Spring is finally upon us.

Plants

There is enough variety this season that we need to break things up by plant type, how exciting! Generally speaking, our varieties of plants break down into fruits and fruiting vegetables, root plants, and herbs.

Another experiment I'm starting this season is planting of microgreen rotations. Microgreens can be effectively grown in trays on a rotation, and require a few weeks to germinate the seeds but once the greens reach 4-5" tall, they're immediately cut with scissors for salads. I am omitting microgreens from the rest of the post because the seeds are still in the bags and I am still at the design stage for the trays and rotation.

Some of plants listed aren't yet directly seeded or transplanted, but will be before the end of April, those have been marked with an asterisk.

Fruit/Vegetables

Tomatoes are always a big hit in the garden, as are my sugar snap peas. Currently both are in the ground and established. As I did last year, I started snap peas from seed but purchased tomato starts. Unlike last year however, I have two full bed-length rows of snap peas planted (8' rows), instead of one 4' row. The tomatoes are laid out differently than last year too, with the shorter plants (sauce tomatoes) planted in the southern end of the bed so it's not shaded by taller plants during the morning transit of the sun.

New this year are leeks, also started from seed which, currently, look like nothing more than little green wisps poking out of the earth. I'm still unsure what to expect from them.

Also new this year will be bush beans. Unlike the sugar snap peas which require something to climb up, bush beans are supposed to support themselves and grow nice and bushy. We'll be dedicating part of one of our north crop garden beds to the "bush beans experiment" this season.

Root Plants

The potatoes are fun new experiment this season. In the "south crop" there are a couple beds which receive decent sunlight but haven't performed well with tomatoes or peppers in years past. I haven't grown potatoes before so I'm uncertain what to expect as far as yield is concerned.

I'm also trying radishes again, which I have am planting in the "north crop" as a bed-liner to capture some additional sun and water from otherwise unused space. The older seeds which I used for the first two rows had a 90%+ germination rate, so I have high hopes for some small tasty salad radishes around Memorial Day.

The onions are more out of laziness than anything else, sometimes we don't eat onions fast enough, and they sit on the counter long enough to sprout. Whenever something sprouts in my kitchen, I throw it into the ground. My friend, Farmer Josh, grows a few rows of purple onions so I don't feel particularly motivated to spent precious bed space on them, when I can trade some snap peas for fresh onions.

The hops continue to be more fun and decorative than anything. The root systems are now well established, and I continue to enjoy learning about the hop growing process, but it's unlikely the hop cones at the end of the season will find their way into any beers.

Herbs

We do truly need more herbs but I just hate dedicating garden space to it. Depending on how things pan out around the garden, some parsley may find its way back into the mix.

Soil

As I read more about organic and sustainable gardening, the more I am coming to appreciate soil health. To think that our entire civilization depends on something as simple as soil health and biodiversity is still something which amazes me.

Because I'm working in enclosed and raised garden beds, I don't worry much about soil erosion. Additionally, for better or worse, our area of Santa Rosa is covered with absolutely awful compact clay, so under my beds there isn't much transfer of moisture or leaching of minerals likely.

For most of the garden beds, soil preparation consisted of aerating and folding in chicken manure. This is a fairly rudimentary preparation, once fruit vegetables get nearer, I'm planning on doing proper soil tests for the first time to make sure all my tomatoes turn out nice and juicy.

For the garden beds which are hosting potatoes, I employed an old gardening technique which involves trenching the garden bed, laying down rice straw, placing seed potatoes over it, and then covering with a few inches of loose soil. The straw helps give the roots some loose space to grow into when the seed potatoes are just starting out. Unlike the fruit/vegetable plants, root vegetables need extra care taken for "hilling" during the growing period. Meaning we'll want to build up soil around the stem of the plant as the season progresses. For the potatoes, between the trenches I have a tall mount of dirt which I will be using to hill as the tubers start to appear on the stems.

Unfortunately, due to soil compaction, loss of soil during harvest, and other factors, the "soil reserve" which we had last season has been spent topping off beds. Soon we'll need to pick up another cubic yard of garden soil to ensure we have the necessary surplus on hand for hilling and potting plants.

Challenges

Gardening wouldn't be much fun if it weren't challenging along the way. Thus far the largest challenge is the same as last year: managing soil moisture during the hot days. Our primary garden soil purposefully crusts over on the top to preserve moisture in the soil below. The downside of this is watering can be more challenging as a first-pass with water must first be done to soften this "crust" and then after a few minutes a deeper watering can be achieved.

The awful, but native, clay soil is also a persistent challenge. This year we're attempting to reclaim some parts of the yard with decorative flowers and some basil plants. It's too early to tell how well the transplants are rooting but I'm not very optimistic right now. The clay soil captures moisture quite well, but once dried it's almost indistinguishable from rock. Depending on how this smaller, almost entirely native soil, area performs this season, I may amend it next year with some sand and compost to help loosen it up.

The path forward

By the end of April, I am expecting to have seeds, transplants, or plants for everything in the ground. I also expect to be planning the rest of the rotation through the garden for late May. What I haven't successfully done in the past, except with corn, is rotate multiple plants through the long California growing season. Radishes for example, should be harvested in about a month, snap peas in about two and a half months. Since we started earlier this year, this means we should be able to get a good full second (at least!) sowing of a number of our plants before the end of the productive season in October.

With the experience of a couple years in this location, this will be the first year where I operate more systematically like a farm and less like an experimental garden, so I'm looking forward to the long days of sunshine ahead!

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