High Tunnels, Raised Beds, “No Till” and Other Growing Secrets.
I came to the Brookside Farmers’ Market this year just assuming every weekend would offer more and more variety of produce. And it does!
But wait just a celery-sproutin’ minute. My spinach in the raised bed out back is grass-blade-two-inches tall. My strawberry plant, perennial from last year, has four — count ’em — stems and five blossoms. But vendors like Red Ridge and Gardens of Peace and Stony Crest and Urbavore have crate-loads of big crinkly dark and small baby smooth varieties of spinach and every conceivable other salad green (and cooking green). Pay Lay and Hto May from Ki Koko Farms have strawberries already. What is going on?
I took a closer look and consulted with the Farmers Themselves. And I learned their secrets.
First of all, Laura Christensen from Blue Door Farm told me about Capturing the sun. My spinach (and soil) has a half-day (if lucky) of regular-strength sun tickling its cells to grow (and beneficial bugs and earthworms to wriggle). But many farmers and growers in these parts use high tunnels or hoop houses that capitalize on passive solar energy to provide a sheltered, toasty environ for crops. I saw this when I visited Ami Zumalt at Red Ridge Farms before the season started – it was a chilly, windy day and the high tunnel was a little warming house for me! Ami had the doors open to circulate air so it wouldn’t get too hot (!). All of her greens were lush like mid-summer (in my world) – and some were past peak – she had been selling through even the winter! And she had seedlings underway for the next crop, which was ready by opening day a few weeks ago.
High tunnels are otherwise unheated greenhouses, and crops are typically grown in the ground inside the tunnel, Laura told me.
“Some cold-tolerant leafy greens and root vegetables can be planted very early in the spring or even overwintered in high tunnels,” Laura said. “This allows growers to offer them to customers weeks ahead of field-grown crops.”
Warmer season crops can also be planted earlier, she said. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers all do well in high tunnels. “Tomatoes especially benefit because they are protected from direct rain fall. Keeping the foliage dry and managing the amount of water the plant receives helps prevent fungal diseases and keeps tomatoes from splitting and cracking.”
That’s why you ask the experts! I thought.
I’ll Raise You A Bed
Other farms – like Stony Crest Urban Farm – have raised beds inside their high tunnels, too. Rodger Kube and Diane Hershberger use a mixture of composted garden soil, composted chicken manure (Chickety Doo Doo) and wood chips – a combination that makes them like hot beds, Rodger said. So the sun is warming the tunnel, but the compost action is heating the soil up, too, and that allows Stony Crest to grow and harvest through the winter.
Rodger said the length of day is critical for plant growth between December and February, but if the plants are hardy by then, they will provide through the winter.
Every grower has a different situation – type of soil, water source, sun and other factors, Rodger said. The native soil on their seven acres in Marlborough was bad clay when they moved there 18 years ago. They amended and amended the soil with compost for seven years.
“Every farmer’s plan is unique related to the environment and how you build your soil and manage it,” he said. That results in the terroir of the produce he grows – all of the factors of environment that combine to create the unique taste of a region – or even a farm.
So, sun and warmth and protection are one thing (makes me want to go curl up in a high tunnel), but every farmer is working in his or her unique set of circumstances, with available resources, to create optimal conditions for growing. And for every variety of plant they grow, they need to know that plant’s optimal conditions.
So high tunnels, originally designed for colder climates (such as my own native, and frigid, Wisconsin) where the growing season is short, are easily adaptable here to enable local growers to meet the demand for local produce earlier in the season – and even out of season!
Brooke Salvaggio and Dan Heyer from Urbavore Urban Farms do not use season-extending methods such as high tunnels to get early spring produce. So what are they doing at market with picture-perfect heirloom spinach, kale, and herbs?
Brooke explained, “Being the ‘odd man out’ as usual, we crazy Urbavore farmers decided to avoid tunnel production in an effort to reduce the plastic on our farm.” They go for old-school field production.
“We seed a large round of spinach in early December,” she said. “This cold-hardy crop grows slowly all winter long, enhancing its flavor and sweetness. Come early April, it is ready to be picked and, if all goes well, we have endless quantities to share with our eager customers until a diversity of crops come to maturity in mid-May.”
Urbavore uses a no-till approach to growing. All of their planting and crop-tending is done by hand. Dan described how this is most beneficial to the soil — keeping the healthy bacteria and enzymes intact. And, when you don’t break the structure of the soil, it doesn’t dry out as much, he explained. They do not irrigate their fields. Yet, in the drought of 2012 in this area, they were okay, Dan said. They lost some crops but, overall, made it through with a good harvest.
This undisturbed soil is nutrient-rich and, with generous compost applications, it gives their produce a unique richness and depth of flavor, Brooke says.
It’s a labor-intensive approach to growing and would not be possible for large-scale farms, Dan admits. “We’ve created a system that makes it work for us.” he said.
Whether in a cozy sanctuarious high tunnel, or a raised bed hot with healthy microbes, or nutrient-rich soil undisturbed – we have some banner growers at the Brookside Farmer’s Market. They bring produce to you early in the season from the hard work of building their soil, knowing their crops, maximizing their resources, and creating optimal environments to grow some of the healthiest food on the planet.
Come this weekend with a new appreciation of the early crops each farmer has to offer!
Susan, for the Market
Brookside Farmers’ Market Manager