Things are hopping on the farm now. We’re doing a lot of planting every week, and getting into the swing of harvesting more each week. The strawberries are still ramping up. Blueberries are also running a bit late this year. But we’re seeing some fruit start to blue up out there, so we’re hoping to get the bird netting over the patch this week.

Steve installed a sprinkler system in the green houses where we start our seeds over the weekend. He used the same type of efficient sprinkler heads that we use in the field hoophouses at our Lewis Road ranch. This system should save water because the water is applied at a more gradual rate than it is when watering by hand, so it has time to soak in instead of flowing off onto the floor. It will also save a lot on labor—it can take up to 40 minutes to thoroughly water our “big” greenhouse by hand.

Starting most of our crops in the greenhouse instead of planting directly into the field has several advantages. For one, germination is never 100%; it typically ranges from 60% to 90%. So planting seeds directly into the field means that you can either have huge gaps in your field–an inefficient use of space–or you need to plant the seeds more closely together than you want the plants to be, then go through and thin the field out later—a waste of both seed and labor. A second advantage to the greenhouse for the young starts is that they can be coddled, with some protection from extremes in weather and regular watering and fertilizing exactly when they need it. Plus some plants like warmer temperatures for germinating, and we can put those on a heated pad.

But probably the greatest advantage to starting the crops in the greenhouse is that they get a head start on the weeds. Weed competition on an organic farm can be fierce, and labor spent combating weeds is probably the most significant cause of the increased cost of organic produce over conventional. Conventional farms apply herbicides to kill weeds, both prior to planting and after the seedlings have emerged. In our area they also have the advantage of planting into ground that has recently been fumigated—a process that kills most of the weed seeds in the soil (and most everything else for that matter). That’s not the sort of farm ecosystem we are after, of course, but it is certainly frustrating when the farm is busy as can be and the weeds take over a plot of young carrots because we weren’t able to get in at the right time to weed.

Weed control has many aspects on our farm, from using our cultivating tractor and hoeing by hand, to using the “stale seedbed” approach, where we water up weeds and kill them either mechanically or with the flame weeder before planting the crop. Starting crops in the greenhouse first means that when we do plant them out they at least have a head start. The weed seeds will germinate as soon as we start watering the plot, but the starts will have the advantage of height and vigor, and have a chance to shade out and otherwise outcompete the weeds. Used in conjunction with our new European “finger” weeders (shown at right on our Allis Chalmers tractor toolbar), which kill a large percentage of the in-row weeds that the knives on our cultivating tractor miss, we have become much more effective in our weed control this season.

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