Winter rains are a great time to build soil root structure

2016-01-20 10.17.18 (NXPowerLite Copy)When I first started growing food, winter was a time when my efforts would slow down. With the reduced temperatures I couldn’t grow much of what I wanted to. But with the recent drought years in California, especially last summer, I’ve come to see things differently.

In the midst of a long, hot, dry summer it’s rather tough to get crops established, especially if growing from seed. Sure, I can also grow seedlings and transplant them, but for crops that are “many in number” like sorghum and wheat, I’d much rather be direct seeding. With a very full time job, a baby, and speaking engagements, I have to use my garden time very carefully.

I have direct seeded grains in the summer, however even with all of my tricks, it still takes more water than I wish it did, and requires vigilance in the first week to keep the ground moist. Carefully prepping and prewatering the soil, soaking the seeds, planting deep, and carefully covering the soil, sometime in two layers can make it all work in summer.

But in the winter, the relatively warm weather and frequent rains this year in California are making it very easy to direct seed. Basically everything is coming up readily. It feels like I could get a handful of cereal rye, through it in my soil, and walk away, and if the birds don’t eat it, it’ll grow.

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Why grow grains to cover the soil?

Which brings me to my favorite topic these days: keeping soil covered by growing grains.

1. Life. The soil needs something growing on it in order for the organisms in the soil to stay active. Those organisms are the life (or death) of your soil, and are my favored way of getting good yields. Fertilizer, bought compost, pesticides, herbicides? Screw that. I work with nature to take care of my soil.

2. Roots. Grains put down beautiful, extensive root structures that will support life in your soil fairly deep down. Grains have a decent capacity to dig down.

3. Ease. It is surprisingly easy to grow grains. Wheat, sorghum, cereal rye, even quinoa are hardy growers. I don’t have time these days to baby the soil. (I need to baby our baby.) So grains are perfect.

4. Longevity. Here in San Mateo my grains don’t seem to fully winter kill. Last year I left some volunteer sorghum in the soil just for fun, and it survived all winter. The beauty here is that if you get too busy to replace that crop, you can leave it in and it’ll continue to nurture your soil for a few years. Plus if you don’t cut the seed heads off, it’ll self seed on its own and keep going. It’s easy enough to pull when you need to.

What’s the takeaway?
If you have bare patches of soil in your garden, winter in California is perfect time to get some cereal rye or wheat established, while it’s very easy to do so. The root structures will leave you with wonderful soil for spring. Irrigation-free growing in California? Yes, in winter.

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Exotic Crops: Burdock

2014 Spring final bed pic

I’ve learned a tremendous amount from other people’s experiences in growing crops. And so I thought it would be useful if I shared my own stories from this past year, especially because I grew a lot of different varieties on my small space. This year, as usual, I tried some crops that are uncommon in backyards.

Burdock

Kinpira Gobou

Kinpira Gobou

To be clear when I say “Burdock” I mean what in Japanese is called Gobou, or ごぼう. I’ve heard there are American wild varieties of Burdock that just aren’t the same. In any case I’m thinking “tasty, shredded, with carrots, as an appetizer.”

I actually started my burdock late last spring, around May of 2013. It struggled, maybe because of poor soil in that particular spot, and never got that big. I left it there over winter, and nothing much happened. It was still small, still struggling. I was thinking of giving up and pulling it come May of 2014, when it mysteriously started to grow–a lot–and developed huge leaves. It was amazing.

Gobou 2013And so needless to say, I let it grow through summer, and the plants thrived. The roots also got very big, and by the time I went to dig it out, I’d estimate they were at least 2.5 feet deep, if not deeper. I didn’t have the energy or the space to thoroughly dig out all of the gobou roots, and so I got what I could.

This year I have a smaller gobou in the ground, Salada Musume from the Kitazawa seed company, and it initially did well. One interesting observation is that even though I’m struggling through an attack of Bagrada bug, which eats Brassica family plants (like Cabbage and Broccoli), my gobou plants have in the past gone completely untouched. Indeed, gobou are of a different plant family, Asteraceae. However the Salada Musume were perhaps too tasty to be passed up, and something ate them.

A learning here is that different varieties can have different rates of survival. So it is worth trying varieties and discovering which ones work best in your space.

 

 

 

 

 

Process Learnings from Summer

2014 Spring final bed picOn the one hand, this year’s growing plan was in many ways a lot more intricate and ambitious than last year’s. On the other hand, because last year was my first year at the new location, there was absolutely a ton of infrastructure to build and soil to prepare for the first time. So I actually found this year to be a lot easier in various ways, although I still wouldn’t call it “effortless.” I’m working towards that.

Goals

Going into this growing season, as with every year, I chose several objectives regarding what I wanted to explore and work on. One of my bigger picture goals has to do with developing the process and know-how to make growing a lot of food–sustainably–a fairly routine and straightforward thing. Of course it’ll never be as easy as driving to a Farmer’s market and trading paper money for food (how easy we have it!). But growing food also doesn’t need to be arduous, mysterious, or otherwise unattainable.

 Process

I’m convinced that with careful focus and experimentation, I can refine the processes I use to grow food so that it takes a lot less time than it does now, without taking much more resource or equipment. I have a clear goal to reduce my “dependency chain” as much as possible when it comes to growing food, and so using anything that contains a computer processes or relies on precision machined parts is what I’m trying to get away from. So that leaves me with my hands and a desire to develop know-how.

Here are process goals I set:

  • Successful direct planting of grains, as opposed to transplanting to save time.
  • Layout to allow stirrup hoeing between plants to simplify weeding.

Planning

There was so much to do last year that I didn’t have much time to think ahead. I started the year behind because of when I received my new space, and spent the rest of the year catching up. Then I was taken by surprise when my Spring potatoes matured, and I didn’t have a plan for what to put in the ground next. The soil went unused and uncovered, which is bad, and so I decided to do a much better job this year.

  • Have a plan to keep the soil working w/ no more than a 2 week gap in between crops.
  • Plan ahead for fall, and even next spring, so I can optimize timing and placement.
  • Plan ahead for when to put fertilizer crops on much of the garden.
  • Move my paths around for simplicity. And also to take advantage of the fence as a trellis.

Crops

  • Lima beans
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Dryland Rice

 

 

 

A quick guide to growing your own quinoa

YES, you can grow your own quinoa here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve been growing successfully here for several years, and get several pounds of finished quinoa from a relatively small amount of space.

Seeds

  • Quinoa seeds naturally have saponin on them, a bitter substance that deters birds and other wildlife from eating them.
  • Most quinoa that you buy at a grocery store has had the saponins removed via abrasion. In the process, that damages the seed’s ability to properly germinate. I personally haven’t had good luck trying to grow quinoa plants from grocery store quinoa.
  • Instead, buy your seeds online or get them from a local friend who grows. My favorite online source is Wild Garden Seed.

Germination

  • I use half compost, half garden soil. A typical potting mix works too.
  • When I do need to buy soil or compost, I go to Lyngso in Redwood City. They are very careful about what they put into their soil, and they are also mindful of sustainability and soil healthy. Cover lightly—if too deep they may not emerge.
  • Just keep the seeds moist for good germination—if they dry out, they’ll die.
  • Make sure there’s good drainage—if they sit in puddles of water for hours, that’s bad. The optimal dampness is “damp sponge” level.
  • The quinoa should sprout within a couple of days. If not, something’s probably wrong.
  • Hint: quinoa, like most vegetable and grain seeds, don’t need sun to germinate. So until they germinate, you can place them out of the sun, where it’s easier to keep the soil moist.

Growing

  • Once the quinoa germinate, then they need sun! Otherwise they’ll get leggy and fall over.
  • Shade cloth is helpful so the seedlings don’t dry out. It gives you some buffer if you’re late watering one day, or if it’s a particularly hot day.
  • Similarly, I find that putting the flats onto the top of a raised bed gives them an extra “moisture bank” from the raised bed soil to tap into. The worst place you can put seedlings is on a wood or concrete balcony in full sun.
  • The seedlings are ready to transplant when they’re about 2” high.  But if it’s been a few weeks and they get to 1” and stop growing, transplant them anyhow and keep an eye on them.

Prepping soil

  • Pre-water for a few days—and cover.
  • The deeper down your soil is loose, the better. At least a foot loose, preferably two or more.

Transplanting

  • Re-water and transplant after.
  • 12” centers.
  • Shade them until they get settled and start growing again.

Watering and Growing

  • I like to keep the soil moist until the plants are about 4′ tall.
  • Once they are established, they need much less water. At some point, lots of water will just make them grow very tall, without any gain in yield.
  • Straw as a mulch can really help until the quinoa canopies.
  • Right after transplanting ,the quinoa may “look at you” for a while, seemingly doing nothing while they establish. They they’ll grow fast. FAST.

Weeding

  • Quinoa looks a lot like Lamb’s Quarters, which I consider a weed. You won’t be able to tell the difference until they’re about 4″ high.
  • The most reliable giveaway is that the leaves of Lamb’s Quarters have a strong smell, whereas the leaves of Quinoa, in my experience, have a pleasant smell.
  • Another giveaway is that Lamb’s Quarters puts out seeds much earlier than quinoa, and the seeds are much more dominant on the plant.
  • You’ll want to pick Lamb’s Quarters as soon as you positively identify it, because it can generate a lot of seeds quickly, which can become tomorrow’s weed problem.

Staking

  • Need to put in stakes or they’ll fall over.
  • I use electrical metal conduit (the thinner one) from Home Depot; Bamboo would be better if you have access to it, but it’d have to be very thick bamboo.

Harvesting

  • When the leaves dry out, the stalks go brown. It’s ready.
  • Pull the plants, cut the seed heads off, and dry them in the sun.

Threshing

  • You can remove the seeds from the dried stalks with your hands.
  • You can also use a home made Bucket Thresher.

Winnowing

 Washing

  • You can wash off the saponin just like how you wash rice. You know you’re done when you can’t taste the bitter saponin any more when you sample a grain of quinoa.
  • At the “Ichican-kan” Japanese variety store in Japantown, I bought a strainer cup specifically for washing rice, that works great for washing saponin off of quinoa. I haven’t been recently but hopefully they still sell it because it’s a great tool for washing quinoa and rice thoroughly, while saving water.
  • By the way, the “waste water” from washing quinoa and rice is fantastic in your garden or your compost pile. For rice in particular, don’t let that water sit overnight in a container because it will begin to smell.

Cooking

  • Quinoa cooks well in a rice cooker. Of course you can cook it on a stove top too.
  • Sweet and Crunch Quinoa Salad is one of my favorite recipes! You can substitute the pine nuts if you want.

Resources for Growing Quinoa

Here are my go-to sources for quinoa growing supplies.

Seeds

Soil and Compost

Processing

Hand Tools

Recipes

 

 

Why I don’t use compost from the city in my vegetable garden.

Here's what hidden pesticides in city compost can do to your tomato plants.

Here’s what hidden pesticides in city compost can do to your tomato plants. Why risk it?

I was recently copied on an email to a community garden regarding the safety of city compost. The email pretty much said “Don’t worry, the city says that the compost is OMRI (the Organic Review Materials Institute) approved, therefore it’s safe.”

But it turns out that OMRI doesn’t require testing for herbicides or pesticides! So you could have city compost with nasty stuff in it, even though it has passed all OMRI requirements.

And this isn’t hypothetical problem: a quick search of the internet turns up a number of incidents where nasty persistent chemicals, both pesticides and herbicides, have been found in city compost and have caused big problems for backyard gardeners. Persistent chemicals are ones that survive the composting process and remain in the soil for years.

I found a very relevant article on the topic that shares important information and perspective:
http://ecologycenter.org/terrainmagazine/spring-2010/compost-confidential/

When you think about it, it’s not surprising that city compost contains these products. Practically every garden store has a full assortment of herbicides and pesticides, and people buy them and use them. Even if vegetable gardeners are less likely to use them, you’ve got the lawn industry, which is probably 100 to 1000 times larger than the vegetable gardening industry.

All of this yard waste, and the chemical residue on them, go into the collection bin, which goes into the shared city compost. Many of these chemicals are not broken down by the composting process, and they can go on to cause terrible problems for the vegetable gardener.

It’s critical to understand, as well, that OMRI doesn’t require testing for pesticides:

The nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute, which reviews organic inputs, requires approved composts to be tested for heavy metals and pathogens every five years. The US Composting Council operates a voluntary accreditation program in which the largest participants must submit to similar metals and pathogen tests once a month. Neither program requires testing for pesticide residues.

So unless we see 3rd party tests on Recology compost for persistent herbicides and pesticides, that show at what ppb (parts per billion) they were detected, then we have to assume they’re present and that they could cause a problem. I imagine that there is a standard ppb threshold at which the presence of a pesticide becomes a concern.

This is NOT a hypothetical concern! From Mother Jones:

Composting Council executive director Stuart Buckner believes that the EPA still hasn’t learned its lesson from the early aughts, when the herbicide Clopyralid was banned for lawn use after turning up in damaging levels in compost.

Here’s a study of what Clopyralid does to plants:
http://ohioline.osu.edu/aex-fact/0714.html

pesticide clopyralid 3 pics

To me it’s just common sense: given where the raw materials comes from, I assume that city compost contains harmful pesticides and herbicides, unless proven otherwise. Why take the very real risk on city compost, when you can make your own compost from known good materials?

Danger of frost has passed for peninsula gardeners.

One of the challenges that any gardener faces is deciding when to plant seeds in the new year. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in particular the peninsula, we are very fortunate to have extremely moderate weather and so it means that we can start the planting season very early. But how early?

The one danger that we face is that we can get frost in February. Frost is particularly damaging for certain types of seedlings, and so it’s important to consider. In fact early last year we had about a full week of evening frost. I remember this vividly because I had potatoes that were about to go to maturity and so I was out there every night covering them, and out there every morning uncovering them. I know that people’s memory of weather can be unreliable and so it got me wondering if there was good historical data out there. It turns out that there is.

A few years ago I really got into analyzing weather data. I discovered a UC website that had free, rich, downloadable set of climate data for various spots in California. And with the help of Excel I did a lot of analysis on it. At the time I was just doing it for fun but now as a gardener I can look back at the analysis that I did and pull out some very important information.

Frost danger climate chart SFO RWCHere is a chart of climate data from the year 2000 to the year 2010 for the San Francisco Airport and a spot in Redwood City. The red dots show the high temperature for the day and the blue dots show the low temperature for the day. The green dots are precipitation. For the purposes of deciding when it’s safe to plant, let’s focus on the blue dots.

Although technically 32 degrees Fahrenheit is freezing temperature, I personally start to get concerned when the temperature is below 34F. And so I have drawn a blue dotted line showing approximately where 34F it’s. And you can see that from around the middle of February onwards, the nighttime temperatures in this 10-year period have never dipped below 34F. So this gives me a fair amount of confidence with respect to going and putting seeds or seedlings in the ground.

I would say that mid February is a fairly safe guideline overall. Granted, it depends on what you’re planting, but I feel comfortable that I can plant from now going forward and I won’t have frost problems. Keep in mind that some vegetables need much higher temperatures than 32F in order to work, but the point here is that frost creates special problems for many food crops.

One might reasonably ask what happened to the data from 2011 to 2014. The problem I ran into is that the University of California website stopped published the data I was using. Fortunately somebody at the UC extension office was able to refer me to a data source from Utah State University which for some reason has California climate data. (Thank God.) And so if I wanted to I could work that data into my spreadsheet and update my chart.

In any case I just downloaded fresh data and did a quick spot check of weather data from 2011 to present. What I found is that in 2011 there was a late frost from 2/26 to 2/28. And in 2013 there was one night of frost on 2/20. To find the previous late February frost, I have to go back to 1996, and before that, 1990. So while historically there is a *chance* of frost in late February, it’s rare.

The key point I want to communicate here, besides mid-February being a safe time to start planting, is that there is wonderful free data available, if you know where to look, and we can learn a lot from it.

Sneak Peak: 2015 Spring and Summer Garden Plan

2015 garden plan sneak peak

Believe it or not, I’m trying to keep things simple this year. With the new job I don’t have nearly as much time as I used to, and so this year will be a test of how well I can keep the garden happy, while still showing up to work.

Here’s my thinking on this year’s plan:

Grains
First of all, in order to have a sustainable garden that builds soil, rather than just chews it up, I need to grow a lot of grains. In fact for the whole year, 60% of my garden needs to be growing grains. I do more in the winter than in the summer, but it’s still important for me to get a lot of grains going in the summer.

I have experimented with all of the grains you see on this year’s plan, in addition to others such as Pearl Millet, Oats, Amaranth, and Triticale. They all have their pluses and minuses. This year I’m going to back the “winners” from previous years:

  • Quinoa is an amazing crop to grow. After starting out very small, and seemingly not doing anything for a few weeks, it gets happy and grows vertical so quickly you can almost see it. I’ve gotten more than enough quinoa to eat each of the past two years, from relatively little space.
  • Sorghum is a hardy, easy to grow, low maintenance crop that can give you grain or syrup, depending on the variety. The stalks make fantastic compost, and the extensive roots put great organic matter in the soil.
  • Wheat, and in particular Ethiopian Blue Wheat, is a strong, satisfying crop that doesn’t get too tall. It actually does have a blue tinge when it’s close to maturity.
  • Japanese Millet is a fast growing grain that I’ll cut before it goes to seed. This one is specifically for compost material, and is one I’ll cut and let regrow several times this spring.
  • Cereal Rye is a holdover from winter, that I’ll let grow for part of spring, to nurture the soil for my second potato crop.

Low Water Crops
So we’re in the midst of a serious and potentially long-term drought. Being that I grow in a community garden on the edge of a park, I have access to city water. Nonetheless I am super interested in trying several varieties of crops known to grow well with limited water. I will be getting these seeds from the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH which has many seeds from Arizona. There is an area at the back of my plot that is hard to water, and will be a good test ground for these crops.

Calorie Crops
As much as I love Kale, it won’t keep me alive and kicking. It takes calories to do that, and so in addition to being a “carbon farmer” (for the soil) I need to be a “calorie farmer” and be smart about what I grow.

The best known calorie crops, that give a lot of calories reliably, quickly, in a small area, are tubers. I’ll be doing traditional potatoes again this year, as my main calorie crop. I’ll also be continuing to grow two varieties of Andean tuber, Mashua and Yacon. I am not going to grow Oca again this year–it didn’t do well last year, and the tubers I did get were too small; Oca simply lost out.

One tip on growing several varieties of potatoes is that if you want to track yields, your life will be much easier if you plant very different looking varieties next to each other. Last year I did purple, white, and red potatoes and that worked really well. No more squinting at the difference between a Norkotah and a Burbank.

I will also not being growing sweet potatoes again this year. In 2013 I got the plants to grow, but planted them too late to get any useful yield. Last year I got the timing right, and added heat via a black plastic mulch, but the yields were still lackluster. We have enough to enjoy a few meals, but nowhere near the yields I’d hoped for. In future I may track down short season varieties that should do better around here, especially since we don’t get the heat that sweet potatoes crave.

Kitchen Crops
In my early growing seasons I tried growing everything and anything, to see what would happen. It was fun and suspenseful however we sometimes ended up with crops that weren’t much use in the kitchen. Bushy Salsify, anyone?

Thus now we grow things that we know we’re going to want in the kitchen. The big winner here is onions. The trick with onions is that they can be a pain to grow from seed. I have two strategies I’m using this year to deal with that:

1. Grow “walking onions.” There is a variety of onion that propagates itself, by growing the new crop off the top of the old crop. I’m not kidding. In nature the new ones separate and plant themselves (hopefully) next to the old crop. So as you can imagine, it’s very easy to help the new seedlings along by hand.

2. Buy seedlings. Yes, I said that out loud: buy seedlings. I will be sourcing organic seedlings this year, to save me the drama of growing onion seedlings. I get a bit better at it every year, but I still have a ways to go to get the hit rate that I want. Given my time constraints this year, I will throw in the towel and buy from my local garden shops. The good news is that you get a surprising number of seedlings in one container.

I’ll also be doing carrots, which are a pain to transplant (and yes, it CAN be done), and are challenging to germinate, to boot. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try this year.

Root Crops
Parsnips are interesting because the deep root structure means that in properly tended and shield soil, they don’t need much water at all. Also they can stay in the soil for a long, long time and still be good eating. They give a lot of calories in a small space, too. Beware that they are slow germinators, but if you do it correctly, they’ll grow for you. The secret is consistent moisture.

I like to grow beets year round, in part because I can, in part because they are very tasty, and in part because of my Ukrainian heritage. I grow a variety of giant yellow beet that’s called a “Mangel” that has a subtle, sweet flavor. Beets are very strong growers, and are easy to germinate.

Beans
I have yet to have a stellar bean crop, but I will keep trying until I get it right. I’m doing big beans, Lima, and maybe some Soy beans specifically for making tofu.

Berries
When they are working, strawberries are a very happy crop to have in the garden. But they are a fickle lover: rain at the wrong time can ruin everything. Last year an oddly timed rain resulted in a disease the full die off of my Seascape strawberries. They were great while they lasted. The Sequoia are still kicking, though. It is important to cut off the runners, if you want lots of berries.

I planted a white strawberry called a “Pineberry” last year, and got a few fruit. It’s true; it is like a cross between Pineapple and Strawberry. Rest assured that it isn’t *literally* a cross, though. This year I should get a real crop of Pineberries, which I’m very excited about. Strawberries typically don’t yield much in year 1, from what I understand, and besides, the Pineberries went in late last year.

I have several types of raspberries and blackberries along the back fence. Some of them are going to go nuts this year–let’s help the Ollalieberries are among them. I’d love to grow Tayberries but can’t find the canes.

Stuff everyone else grows
Yeah, I do grow some “normal” stuff. Tomatoes because they are tasty, and why not? I saved some seeds from farmers market tomatoes, but will probably buy Master Gardener seedlings this year.

There is a specific variety of Squash, Fordhook, that John Jeavons recommended and so I’m going to grow those.

We like eating cucumbers so hopefully we’ll get a decent crop this year. I haven’t had much luck in the back right of the plot, so we’ll try more upfront this year.

What now?
I hope this rundown has been useful for you. I haven’t yet finalized my plan, but it’s pretty close. I need to do some calculations (hello Excel) to make sure I have my 60/30/10 Grains/Calorie Crops/Everything else dialed in properly. And then I need to consult my notes from past years to finalize crop placement. And finally, I need to figure out how to make this as year’s garden as simple as possible!

If you have any questions, contact me.

How I Built My Seedling Flats

B43mXNVCIAEU9fQAn important part of Grow Biointensive is starting your seeds in flats (wooden boxes), and then transplanting the seedlings when they are hardy enough to reliably survive. If you don’t want to build them yourself, you can always buy them from Bountiful Gardens. But since I needed 16 flats, the prospect of spending ~$300 + shipping on flats wasn’t palatable. Besides, where possible I really wanted to learn how to build basic growing infrastructure, such as flats.

Here’s the thing, if you’re a carpenter or woodworker or general handyman, you’ll say “OK so you’re making small wooden boxes. Very easy.” But if you haven’t done this kind of thing before, like I hadn’t, it can be daunting. Nonetheless I decided to give it a try, and it went fine! My intent here is to share with you my learnings and opinions, to try and take away some of the mystery of it, and also to help you get a better end product on your first try.

The High Level

Wood

  • IMG_20141214_194854lg (NXPowerLite Copy)For the sides: untreated Redwood fence board, ripped in half length-wise to make 3 ½” high sides. I used this wood: FSC ConCom Redwood Flat Top Fence Picket (11/16 in. x 7-1/2 in. x 6 ft).
  • For the bottom: Redwood bender board. I used this wood: Benderboard Redwood (1/8 in. x 3-3/8 in. x 8 ft.
  • Cedar would also work fine.

Dimensions

  • 14” x 11”
  • This gives you five x 14” pieces per half fence board, or seven x 11” pieces.
  • On the 11” width, it means you can nicely space the 3 bottom bender boards, get just enough of a gap between them for drainage, and not have to rip (cut in half length-wise) any of the bender boards. If your bender boards are a slightly different size, adjust the width accordingly.
  • The resulting flat is about 65% the size of a full flat, and so not too heavy to carry.

Fasteners

  • “Drive Straight” self-drilling lath screws, 1 ¼”.
  • Pre-drill 3/32” for attaching sides; no pre-drill for attaching bottom bender boards.
  • One screw per side of board works fine, for both the sides and the bottom. The bottom benders will warp less with 2 fasteners per side, but in general 1 is working fine for me.

Tools

  • Table saw to rip fence boards length-wise.
  • Miter saw to cut fence and bender boards to length.
  • Safety equipment for using the table and miter saws.
  • Drill to pre-drill side board holes and screw in fasteners. If you have two tools, you can avoid needing to switch bits.
  • Tape measure, pencil, carpenter’s square.

Fair questions

Why not use bender board on the sides, like the HTGMV book says?
I did this and broke several in the first year. When it’s full of soil and you tug it on a bender board side, it’ll snap. If it happens at the wrong instant, you can lose a full flat of seedlings. Not worth the hassle.

 Why not make full sized 11″ x 23″ flats, as commonly used on Ecology Action farms?
In my experience full sized flats are extremely heavy, especially when the soil is wet. It’s easy to drop heavy flats, destroying the seedling, or even worse, to get a back injury from lifting the flat.

I also think the full flats are more brittle because of the relationship of weight to length, but I haven’t used them much. My 6″ deep half flats are the same weight as a full 3″ flat, and I have to be super careful when I move those around.

These 65% flats are a nice balance of size and weight. If you wanted an even lighter box, consider a 11” square box, which would roughly be a half-flat.

Do you really need to pre-drill the sides?
When I made my first batch of boxes, I was cracking about 1/3rd of the boards I was screwing into. It’ll depend on how fresh your wood is, too. It’s disappointing to have wood crack, and so I decided to take a moment to pre-drill using my old screw-gun, which resulted in zero cracking. The dryer your wood is, the more important it is to pre-drill.

Do the self-drilling screws really hold?
Yes, holding power hasn’t been a problem at all. The bigger issue is if a board cracks, and the self drilling screws are less likely to do that.

Do you need to treat the wood?
I haven’t treated the wood and so far it seems to be holding up well. If you know how to do it, you could. There is some skill to doing it safely since the treatments can be highly flammable before drying, and any rags you use in the process need to be taken care of properly. I haven’t done it, but looked it and decided to go without for now.

In More Detail

Sourcing Wood

If you can get access to salvaged wood, and it’s in decent condition, then use that. But don’t use it if it’s been exposed to chemicals, or painted. I used a number of hard old fence boards from a neighbor, and found that as long as I predrilled my side holes to avoid cracking, it worked well.

If you’re buying your wood, I recommend finding one reliable vendor to buy from. In particular for your bender board, you’ll want to consistently use the same width. I’d personally rather not  try to rip a piece of bender board to be narrower and so the width of the bender board becomes a driver for the dimensions of the box. I haven’t tried to rip bender board, but it strikes me as the kind of thing where it’s easy to have a piece break off and come flying at you off of the table saw.

Type of Wood

You’ll want to use a wood that is naturally resilient to weather, such as Redwood or Cedar. I advise against using chemically treated wood because it’s easy to see those chemicals getting into your soil, into your plants, and then into you. It’s just not worth the risk.

For the sides of the box, I’ve been buying 11/16 in. x 7 1/2 in. x 6 ft. Redwood picket fence like this one and then cutting it down to the size I need. I’d say you want the wood for the sides to be at least ½ inch thick. Since this is a “less expensive wood” from a “less expensive store” I always have to carefully pick through the pile to find pieces without cracks or other major flaws.

For the bottom of the box, I’ve been buying Redwood bender board like this one although you have to be very careful to get a piece that doesn’t have knots or cracks. Wear gloves to the store and don’t be afraid to search through the pile for the good pieces.

 Fasteners

One fastener or two? Up to you. Note drainage gap between boards.

Initially I was using a different fastener for the bottom bender boards and the side fence boards. However after a year of heavy usage, I found that both fasteners were doing just fine, and so there’s no point is using two different kinds, and also no point in spending the money for the more expensive “deck screw” kind.

So I’ve settled on using self-drilling lath screws, 1 ¼” “Drive Straight” which Home Depot sells. On the upside it saves me a lot of time because when I’m attaching the bottom bender boards, I don’t need to predrill and the bender boards don’t crack. I was initially concerned about holding strength, but this hasn’t at all been an issue.

I do predrill the holes for the side fence boards, to minimize the chance of cracking. I used a 3/32” bit and had zero cracking. A 1/8″ bit would probably work fine, but I like to think I’m getting better holding power by pre-drilling with a slightly smaller bit.

I did some boxes with 1 fastener on each side of the side boards, and some with 2. I didn’t see any performance difference, so I’m just going with 1.

I also did some boxes with 1 fastener on each side of the bottom bender board, and some with 2 on each side. I did see warping on some of the bottom benders with just one fastener, but not widespread. Frankly the bottom bender boards are going to fail first anyhow, and I’m not sure it’s worth the extra fasteners. On the other hand, the wood should last longer with 2 fasteners because of less warping. So you’ll have to decide what you want to do.

Assembly tips

IMG_20141214_194705 (NXPowerLite Copy)I found that using clamps made it much easier to put the boxes together. I used a pair of 24” Harbor Freight Aluminum bar clamps that are performing well enough for me with occasional use.

When screwing in the bottom bender boards in particular, set your drill for minimal torque. The bender boards are thin and so it’s easy to drive the screw too far and split them.

Last word: safety

There’s one thing you must keep in mind: cutting wood with power tools is dangerous! Seriously! If you aren’t an expert in this, find someone who is. Keep in mind, though, that many  “handyman” types have terrible safety habits. A good bet is to find places like Woodcraft or Tech Shop that have classes taught by people who are safety conscious, and tend to know what they are doing. Otherwise, there are some decent safety videos to be found on YouTube. Here’s one of someone purposely doing the wrong things, so you can see how scary it can get.

Anyhow, if I haven’t scared you off yet, I hope your flat building is fun and fruitful. If you have any questions, let me know.

Successful Direct Planting of Grain Crops

sewn cereal rye established 20141106_131102For Grow Biointensive, the system of growing that I’m using, it’s critical that I use ~60% of my growing space to grow grains such as Wheat, Sorghum, and Corn. The short version of the story is that grains are a fabulous way to build and ensure lasting soil fertility.

But here’s the thing: the Grow Biointensive folks are a lot more energetic than I am, and they put in the time to grow their own grain seedlings, and then transplant them one by one into garden beds, with optimal spacing. On the one hand, their garden beds look beautiful and they get optimal yields. On the other hand,  based on calcs I did for a theoretical garden and diet plan, for a garden for two people I’d be planting about 15,000 grain seedlings every year. It’s daunting.

So this year I decided to make yet another attempt at direct seeding of grains. I tried half-heartedly last year, and I got crummy results. The reality is that getting strong germination requires technique, and I wasn’t applying much. “Just chop in the seeds and keep them well watered,” was what I heard. Yeah right.

But this year, after spending too much time transplanting Cereal Rye seedlings, I said “no mas” and put in a real effort to get direct seeding of grains to work. Here’s what got me results:

1. Good soil prep is critical. Before seeding, I removed the previous crop, weeded, did a single dig (deciding that a double dig wasn’t necessary this year), and then worked my compost and amendments in. In my experience, this is a big part of the labor it takes to actually plant. Putting seedling or seed in the ground can seem easy after all of the prep.

2. Protecting the prepared soil is critical. Once the soil was prepared, I watered it well and then covered it. Burlap is best, but regular black landscape/weed fabric is fine. Just try not to leave it uncovered. And keep watering it through the cloth, since the soil is very much alive and needs the water.

3. Pre-soak your grain seeds. I had heard about doing this, but now I realize how critical it is. It helps tremendously to get the seeds into the “blast off” phase of germination. And since your soil is already prepared and well watered, it has a good home waiting for it. I soaked my grain seeds for about 12 hours, but my sense is that you could even soak for a day or two. I found a Wheat Emergence study that looked at length of soaking, and planting depth. 12 hours (the longest they tried) and 3″ (the deepest they tried) was the best.

4. Plant your seeds deep enough. I have often been worried that if I planted my seeds too deep, they wouldn’t come up. There is often repeated conventional wisdom about burying seeds no more than twice the depth of the size of the seed. However in my experience it really depends on the seed. And indeed, when I took the advice of the study and planted my Cereal Rye 3″ deep, it did really well. In fact my direct-planted Cereal Rye is growing much better than my transplanted Cereal Rye.

5. Keep the soil covered until seedling emergence. The biggest enemy of germinating seeds is lack of moisture. You have to keep them well watered, but if you don’t live next door to your garden, or even if you just get a very sunny day, this can be tricky. Fortunately, pretty much all vegetable and grain seeds *do not* need light in order to germinate. Thus after planting the seeds, we can cover the soil with burlap to keep the soil as moist as possible during this critical time.

6. Keep the grain seedlings shaded until they are tall and strong. Even after emergence, moisture can be a real issue for new seedlings. I think that moisture is a bigger issue than sunlight at this point, and so I’m willing to trade off 30% of the sun power for dramatically better moisture retention in the soil. It’s a matter of judgement as to when to remove the shade cloth.