Become Active in Local Agriculture
Becoming active within local food systems can be as easy as mixing soil and water. It can also be a great way to meet local farmers, reduce CSA membership fees, and learn about organic gardening.
Learning how to make a soil block is a simple skill capable of permitting one to become involved within their local CSA or farm and may be used as a key to open doors to other food systems, local or worldwide. Once making a soil block is learned, it can go on the resume and traveling by organic gardening may one day be an open door. Or the next family trip.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a trial day at my local CSA, Fertile Grounds, for a chance to work in their greenhouse. I can now work for an hourly credited rate towards membership fees or value-added products sold at the farmers market, also known as greenhouse work exchange. This is where I learned how to make a soil block.
How To Make A Soil Block
The soil block making area consists of pallets laying on top of blue, plastic barrels inside the greenhouse. The barrels are filled with water to increase thermal mass. Saved plywood is placed on top of the pallet to form a flat table surface. Cement blocks are available to stand on.
First, know where there’s water and soil mix. A lot of both will be needed. Second, gather as many 5-gallon buckets as possible. Fill two buckets with soil mix and the rest with water and carry them all to the soil block making area.
Next, all the soil needs to be wet, so start pouring water into the buckets filled with soil mix. As buckets filled with water are emptied, fill them up with dry soil mix and continue to pour in water. Use one, 5-gallon bucket of water for every two, 5-gallon buckets of soil mix. Once the water bubbles to the bottom it can be lifted and dumped on top of the table. Gloves come in handy.
Level the pile of wet soil somewhat and prepare to make mud. Well, almost. Create a hole in the middle and pour in more water. Fold the ingredients. The batter should be almost soupy. There should be excess water on the table surface. It’s perfectly fine if it’s running off the back and front. It should be. The excess water usually soaks into my t-shirt and pants, leaving me looking like a messy cook with no apron.
The tool used to form the soil into blocks is called a soil block maker. They come in many shapes and sizes, but the one at Fertile Grounds makes 4, 2-inch blocks at a time. Take the soil block maker and push it into the almost soupy soil a few times to make sure the soil is compact in each block mold. Scrape the bottom of the soil block maker on the table surface to level the soil if too much is pushed in. This way, all the soil blocks will be the same height – 2-inches.
Next, take a germination tray lined with a layer of newspaper on the bottom and begin to fill the tray by pushing out the soil blocks from the soil block maker. Each tray holds 50 soil blocks.
If the soil block is too dry, it may discourage germination or make the greenhouse manager have to water too frequently. And watering is not too fun, according to the greenhouse manager. If the soil block is too wet, it will not form into a block and more soil mix must be added. When the soil blocks are pushed out of the soil block maker it is good to see water oozing out from the top. I like watching the excess water be absorbed back into the soil block. That tells me it’s a good one.
After filling up a tray, it is carried to the other side of the greenhouse where seeds will be sowed. Some other tasks of greenhouse work exchange may include setting up pallets inside the greenhouse, watering seedlings, and sowing seeds. Or anything else the greenhouse manager may ask.
Key Benefits of Greenhouse Work Exchange
Other than the obvious benefit of working off some of my membership fee, it feels good to work for food that is organically produced. Before each seed is sowed it must have a soil block to grow in. Being part of that initial step somehow makes me feel more whole inside.
As a member of a CSA I can expect to receive produce I’ve either never heard of, never seen in the grocery store, or would never try if I was not a member. This forces me to cook new foods and eat them. Now I also get to learn and watch how over 40 different crops are started from seed and grown.
And now that dream trip to faraway lands is becoming more realistic. With a few more practiced skills in the greenhouse, I may one day be ready for an entry-level traveling organic farming position. Until then, feel free to see what I’m growing at home in Pennsylvania.
Click here to find a CSA near you.
After planting a vegetable seed (let’s say it is a tomato seed), there is an extended holding period while the seed germinates and grows into a plug that is large enough to transplant. Typically, tomato seeds germinate in 7-14 days. Following germination it takes another two weeks for the seedling to size up so it is ready to move into a larger container, where it may grow for another 2-3 weeks. During this early growth period you need to provide your immature plants with healthy growing conditions so they develop into sturdy seedlings. The critical elements are light, water, air circulation and nutrients. You need the role each plays in the development of a healthy seedling.
Saturate Your Seedlings with Light
Vegetable seedlings need lots of light. They are outdoor plants that grow their best when they are surrounded by light. It is challenging to match the intensity of outside light in an inside growing area. While a south facing window may appear to be full of light, the light is entering through one plane only. Your plants need 360 degrees of light surrounding them to grow their best. The ideal growing environment is found in a greenhouse or cold frame that has a good orientation to the sun so your seedlings are bathed in light from sunrise until sunset.
Photo (left): Thin, pale stems without enough light.
If you are unable to buy, build or borrow space in one of these structures, you may elect to set up an indoor growing area using artificial light. Fluorescent bulbs are commonly used in these setups. While these can be effective, their energy dissipates rapidly the farther away they are from your plug trays. Place your fluorescent bulbs a mere 2” above your vegetable plugs for best results.
There are easily recognizable signs that your plugs are not receiving enough light. The stems become awkwardly elongated and look pale, thin and frail as your plants stretch to find light. If you don’t take immediate action, your seedlings will collapse under their own weight or their tissues will be so weak that they cannot survive the transition to the out of doors.
Healthy plugs have dense cell structures and compact stems. A healthy tomato plug has a purple stem covered with tiny hairs – adventitious roots.
Small vegetable transplants need steady water to grow their best. Plugs can’t hold much water. They saturate quickly and dry quickly. But there is subtlety to watering your seedlings. If they are over-saturated they will not grow their best because the roots need air which is not available in waterlogged soil. The plants essentially suffocate. If the soil dries out, the roots have no water to absorb and the growth of the plant is comprised, sometimes severely, depending on how long they are left dry. You need to find the middle ground, providing your vegetable plugs with soil conditions that are always moist but not saturated. The soil should feel slightly damp to the touch, like a wrung-out sponge.
Photo (above): Stocky stems with enough light.
In our greenhouses we meet these requirements with an automated watering system that waters for short intervals multiple times per day. The length of these intervals is determined by outside weather conditions: temperature, and the length and quality of the daylight hours. In January, when we start our first seedlings, the cool, somewhat dark conditions require that we water only two or three minutes per day total, usually in one minute intervals up to four hours apart (8:00 AM, noon, 4:00 PM). By April we may water eight minutes or more per day in the course of 4-6 watering cycles, depending on weather conditions.
If you are a working person who is gone for most of the day, watering at regular intervals may not be possible without investing in an automatic timer and other specialized watering accessories. One alternative to frequent automated watering cycles are propagation tray kits with a solid holding tray at the base. The holding tray can be used as a reservoir to provide water for absorption from below. You need enough water in the tray so that the openings at the base of the cells in your plug tray touch the surface of the water, but not so much that the roots are sitting in water 24/7. As mentioned before, that will drown them.
Another low-tech tool that can be very effective is capillary matting, available from some gardening catalogs. This matting is placed beneath your plug trays with one end sitting in water. The water is absorbed from the reservoir and travels through the matting where it is absorbed through the holes in the base of your plug trays.
You can also try the old-fashioned approach that relies on self-discipline: water before you go to work and when you return home. Check closely when you return home to see if the soil in your plugs got too dry during the day. If so, you need to consider one of the solutions above.
Air Circulation and Temperature
Vegetable plugs grow their best when they grow in gently circulating air. Fresh air is ideal. Gentle air movement strengthens the stems and other tissues and disperses excess humidity which can make your plants grow too rapidly, leading to rank growth. Fresh air also contributes to a growing environment that is less likely to encourage colonization by unwanted insects and disease. If the air feels damp in your growing area, your plants aren’t in optimal conditions.
Photo (right): Floating row cover protects seedlings.
We generate airflow in our greenhouses through vents along the base and top. If you have a cold frame, keep the door open during the day if conditions allow. Vent openers that automatically open and close are ideal for this purpose, and require very little tending.
Regarding temperature, 70 degrees F is ideal, but most seedlings will tolerate a range with the optimum temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees F. Our greenhouses are unheated and nighttime temperatures sometimes dip into the 40’s or even 30’s. When they descend to the 30’s plants must be monitored closely. We keep our smallest, least mature plug trays on heat pads set at 60 degrees F and cover them with floating row cover to create an insulated pocket of warm air.
Once your seedlings are out of the cotyledon stage and developing true leaves (the second tier of leaves is the first set of true leaves) they need nutrients. Water passing through the plugs leaches nutrients; they must be replenished regularly. The easiest way to feed vegetable plugs is with a concentrated liquid fertilizer that is mixed in water. The best liquid fertilizer is a hydrolyzed fish or fish/kelp combination fertilizer. Hydrolyzed fish fertilizers are composed of 100% fish that has been liquefied by the additional of enzymes to make the fish solids decompose. They provide everything a vegetable transplant needs in a balanced formulation. This type of fertilizer is the organic gardener and grower’s best bet to feed their plants during the seedling stage and after they are planted outside.
We feed once a week using an injection system that mixes the fish fertilizer in our greenhouse watering system. Injectors automatically proportion the mix of fertilizer to water; ours are calibrated at 200:1, water to fertilizer. This degree of precision isn’t essential. You can mix your fertilizer concentrate in a watering can and dispense that way (follow the directions for the proper dosage, more isn’t better). You can also obtain a simplified fertilizer injector (Syphonject is one brand) that attaches to your faucet and runs fertilizer while you water through your hose, a great time-saving device if you do a lot of fertilizing during the growing season.
Photo (above): All-purpose, hydrolyzed fish emulsion.
Next time we will take a look at how and when we transplant our vegetable plugs. See you in two weeks!
St Patrick’s Day is the Traditional time for planting “Irish” potatoes here in Central Virginia. Coincidentally it is also when we start sprouting sweet potatoes for slips. For both it is best to wait until the soil temperature at 3 inches deep is at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We are impatiently waiting for just a few more warm spring days before planting.
While we are waiting we have been green chitting (aka pre-sprouting) our Irish potatoes to get them off to a good start. Chitting is easy to do: first thing is to spread the whole seed potatoes in a single layer in clean seedling flat. Make sure the seed end (with a cluster of little potential sprouts) is facing up. Place the flats in a warm (70 degree) dark area for about a week to start the tubers sprouting. Then move the flats to a cool (50 to 60 degrees) spot with indirect light for 1 to 3 weeks. This stimulates the growth of short sturdy sprouts. We cut the seed potatoes into egg size pieces with at least two good sprouts each before planting.
A Southeastern tradition that we follow here on the farm is planting two crops of potatoes. We plant one crop in March for harvest in early summer and another in June for fall harvest and winter eating. Planting a crop of fall potatoes is not just for us southerners. In a recent Mother Earth News interview, potato expert Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm shares his "Best Tips for Growing Organic Potatoes," including a grower in southern Michigan who makes a fall potato planting. For us here in the hot humid Southeast having a second fall harvest after the weather cools off makes for better quality in storage and eating during winter.
Although we have eaten all of our stored Irish potatoes, we are still enjoying 14 varieties of sweet potatoes: orange, white, gold, and purple sweet potatoes, all grown here on our farm or at Living Energy Farm just 14 miles away in Louisa, Virginia. Sweet potatoes are hard to beat as a storage crop. They keep well for 9 to 12 months at room temperature in breathable cardboard boxes or paper bags out of the light. For new gardeners Our Sweet Potato Planting Guide will give you all the information you need to get started.
We like to start sprouting sweet potatoes for slips in March so they are ready to plant in late May when all chance of frost is past and the soil temperatures are warm. For us in zone 7 that is traditionally Memorial Day, but sometimes we cheat and pre-warm the soil with clear or black plastic so we can get our slips in the ground a week or two earlier. For gardeners further north getting sweet potatoes planted early is more of a necessity for insuring a good crop. Learn more about How to Sprout Sweet Potatoes for Slips from Sean at Living Energy Farm.
Another root crop that we enjoy all winter is yacon: a delicious, sweet, crisp Andean root. Grower Mike Youngs in New York stores yacon in his root cellar and takes peeled and sliced pieces to work as an apple-like snack most days all winter. We enjoy yacon substituted for half the apples in a Waldorf Salad. The fresh cut pieces should be dipped in lemon or orange juice to prevent browning. Learn more about storing and growing Yacon from heirloom expert William Woys Weaver who introduced us to the fruit-like Yacon roots.
Thanks for stopping by and we hope you’ll come back often to see what we’re growing and cooking.
Ira Wallace lives and gardens at Acorn Community Farm, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, where she coordinates variety selection and seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+ varieties of non-GMO, open-pollinated, and organic seeds. Ira is a co-organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and is a frequent presenter at the Mother Earth News Fairs and many other events throughout the Southeast. Her first book, “The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast” is available online and at booksellers everywhere.
I have started harvesting my first crop for the season: Egyptian Walking Onions. They grow under the snow during the winter and are ready for harvest about 3 weeks after our winter snow cover melts. My father calls them forever onions because they continue to produce food for my family until covered with snow in the fall. The strain I am growing was collected from my great-grandfather's garden.
How to Use Egyptian Walking Onions
I love the taste of walking onions. They are robustly flavored without the strong sting that is so disagreeable to me in some varieties of onion.
In my climate walking onions produce scallions (green onions) during the entire growing season. In hotter climates they may form a dormant bulb during the hottest part of the summer. The bulbils may be eaten as well. The bulbils are small, so I like using them in dishes that don't require peeling such as pickles or roasted onion.
How to Grow Eqyptian Walking Onions
Walking onions are a hardy perennial. In my climate they can be planted or harvested any time of year except when the ground is frozen. If pulled, the roots and a small piece of bulb may be replanted. They'll grow a new plant. They may be propagated by planting the bulbils that form on top of the flower stalk, or by digging and dividing the mother clump. There are a few weeks after the flower stalk forms in which the stem becomes hard and undesirable. New bulbs form beside the flower stalk producing tender bulbs later in the season.
I typically keep a perennial mother clump to generate bulbils that I harvest and store in a dry area. I then replant the bulbils every few weeks as an annual to grow successive crops of green onions for market and to feed my family.
Egyptian onions are an inter-species hybrid between bulbing onions and bunching onions. The plants produce a few flowers, but as far as my plant breeding network has been able to determine, they may be sterile and produce few if any viable seeds. Oh no! One of those sterile plants that I was badmouthing the last couple of blogs. I did that deliberately to demonstrate that I'm willing to grow some sterile plants if fertile substitutes can't be found. I used to grow sterile potatoes, but successfully transitioned to only growing fecund potatoes that produce true pollinated seeds. I also grow garlic and seedless grapes which are both sterile. Eventually I'll transition to only growing fertile garlic, but I can't foresee totally giving up my seedless grapes.
I have a small patch of onions my garden which is planted to both bulbing onions and bunching onions. I allow them to flower together. I am hoping to eventually find some inter-species hybrids among the offspring. This will create more biodiversity among my tree onions and allow them to avoid the eventual fate of clones: a combination of pests, diseases, or weather that overcomes the plants defenses. My ancestor's clone has been going strong for more than 70 years, but it could meet it's demise any decade now.
I am also using pollen from both parent species to pollinate the top setting onion flowers. Perhaps that will be the kick they need to set seed.
Egyptian walking onions are a wonderful plant in the home garden because they can provide great onion taste any time of year that the ground isn't frozen. Even though they are grown as clones, I suspect that the creation of new clones may be within the skill set of the average landrace gardener. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.
Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardeningin order to feed his community more effectively.
The first thing you need to do to succeed in fruit gardening is to narrow down what you are going to attempt. Start small. What should you grow when you are starting out?
The trick is to ask the right questions. We have learned that the best way to help people is not to answer their questions if they are asking the wrong questions but instead suggest the right question. Here is the most commonly asked wrong question:
“My favorite fruit is <fruit>. What variety of <fruit> has the best flavor?” The better question to ask is: ”Which fruits are the easiest for a beginner in my area to grow and fruit successfully?” The answer, of course, will vary depending on what part of the country you are in and upon your specific conditions.
Now, gentle readers, please know that by next week I am going to start giving you useful info about what to do in your fruit garden. Don't be too put off that I am starting with what not to do and what not to expect.
When you read a gardening catalog, you see wonderful pictures of fruits and vegetables, and you are told that they are “disease resistant” and “easy to grow” and “delicious.” You are led to believe that if you buy these things, you will succeed and that in fact what you purchase is guaranteed to grow. Forget all that. It is not true. Buying plants is not like buying other consumer goods like appliances or clothing. In fact the only thing that is really guaranteed is that you will fail. A lot.
The important thing to understand is that when you plant something you are planting a living thing and all living things die sooner or later, and the less you know when you start, the sooner more things will die. Conversely (fortunately) the more you know, the longer plants will live and the more they will thrive.
So here's the most important thing for a beginning gardener. Understand that you have signed up to be part of a science experiment - which in fact you have always been apart of but have not known it. The experiment is called "life on Earth." The good thing is the more people who participate in the experiment trying to make their small part of the planet work more harmoniously with nature, the better chance we all will have as a species of sustaining a healthy life giving planet.
As a starter scientist you will assemble your basic tools for your little lab - often called a garden. One of your most basic tools will be a little book where you will write down what you did and when you did it. Because later you are going to repeat what worked and alter the experiment for what failed. As a beginning scientist, you will understand that a lot of stuff will die.
If you viewed gardening as a hobby, this would be the time where you gave up and faulted yourself for being incompetent and you would try another hobby. But gardening is not a hobby. Gardening is skill that is very important to learn. When you learn to be a reasonably good gardener, it is a skill you can pass on to your children and to your neighbors. It's a series of skills that most humans had for thousands of years until recent generations. Knowing how to grow your own local, healthy organic food will help you and your family and your neighbors live a happy, healthy, self-fulfilled life.
But understand that you will succeed by trial and error and retrial using what you learned from the first go around. Ask your neighbors for information. Go help your neighbors in their gardens or in a community garden so that you are trading your hard work for information so that others can accomplish needed work while educating you. So, sign up to be a student scientist. Sign up for failure and frustration along with success. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together and none of us will get out of this alive, but what gives life meaning is that we can help make more sustainable for the future a little part of the earth, and we can pass on a little hard earned knowledge to our family and friends of how to live harmoniously here on Earth.
Compost happens, yes. But if food scraps are thrown into a pile and left to rot, a hot smelly mess may be taking over. That’s because the process of composting is a symbiotic relationship between carbon and nitrogen. Or at our home, cardboard and food scraps.
In order to end up with a pile of black, crumbly, rich scented, compost filled with fully charged micro-organisms capable of generating life-giving forces willing to build soil fertility worthy of growing nutritious veggies, one must understand the role of carbon and nitrogen. At least a little.
Carbon and Nitrogen Ratios
The right combination of carbon and nitrogen will please the micro-organisms responsible for creating the compost gardeners dream of. That’s because these two elements form the basis of their diet. Carbon gives them energy, while nitrogen gives them everything to grow cells and function.
Figuring out how much carbon material and how much nitrogen material to add does not have to be rocket science. One answer for the correct carbon to nitrogen ratio is as follows: 30:1. (I find that confusing.) Another answer can be 10-gallons carbon material to 5-gallons nitrogen material.
An even simpler answer? For every 5-gallon bucket of food scraps added to the compost pile, also add one 5-gallon bucket worth of cardboard pieces. Then go from there.
Before going there, let’s first identify some specific forms of carbon and nitrogen material. According to Compost Chemistry from Cornell University:
In general, materials that are green and moist tend to be high in nitrogen, and those that are brown and dry are high in carbon. High nitrogen materials include grass clippings, plant cuttings, and fruit and vegetable scraps. Brown or woody materials such as autumn leaves, wood chips, sawdust, and shredded paper are high in carbon.
Once the process of composting is started, it becomes easy to tell if the compost pile needs more cardboard or more food scraps. If it smells horrible, it needs more cardboard. If it seems to not be doing much, it needs more food scraps.
According to Cornell University, if there is too much nitrogen it will be lost as ammonia gas - that horrible smell. If there is too much carbon, there will not be enough nitrogen to supply cell growth and functioning to the micro-organisms who need it to make compost. That means they won’t make compost. A lack of nitrogen will also not allow the compost pile to heat up correctly, which reminds me … there are a few more things worth mentioning about the process of composting.
Temperature, Dimensions, and Oxygen
Temperature and dimensions basically go together. According to the Encyclopedia of Gardening by the American Horticultural Society:
To heat up efficiently, a compost pile should be at least one cubic yard (1 cubic meter) in size, but 2 cubic yards is preferable. Compost reaches its maximum temperature in two or three weeks and matures in about three months. Turning the pile speeds up the process and ensures complete breakdown.
Not enough oxygen will also produce a horrible smell. That’s why it’s important to turn the compost pile with a pitchfork every now and then, especially when adding more carbon materials to cover up existing odors.
At Our Home
Once our saved food scraps and coffee grounds exit the front door, they are stored in a 5-gallon bucket secured with a lid. When that bucket is filled, it’s dumped on the compost pile. About 5-gallons of cardboard is then layered over the food scraps. I don’t do too much turning to be honest. Once a month or so.
I do keep it moist if it looks too dry and I like to keep a tarp over the top. I’m not afraid to let the pile give off a slight aroma because I don’t want to add too much cardboard and slow down the composting process. Once I do smell a slight foulness, I add more cardboard and turn it with the pitchfork.
My biggest concern is keeping the neighbors happy. They both gave me the thumbs up to compost in the front yard. Two thumbs-up and a smile right back. And as-of-date, there have not been any complaints about residents composting in the history of this town. It can stay that way.
The worse thing that can possibly go wrong in the process of composting is to fail by not trying to compost. Remember, compost happens.
Whether you’re encouraging your kids to start gardening or you just want to save money on your grocery bills, growing your own chocolate comes with many sweet benefits.
It's well-known that chocolate M&M's, a key staple in the American diet, can be a difficult treat to grow, especially getting the fruit to mature with vibrant candy coating and rich flavor. In this video, we explain how to sow and space your chocolate plants correctly, and demonstrate key techniques to ensure you will be harvesting delicious M&M's throughout the growing season.
More Gardening Resources
The tool mentioned in the video — our popular Vegetable Garden Planner — can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.
Try our gardening apps, including our When to Plant app, Garden Insects Guide and Food Gardening Guide, for lots of essential gardening know-how.
Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops. M&M's not included in this guide.