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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spring Garden Progress

It has been a busy and productive three and a half months since we started our gardens. It all began back in August when Jeremy, Megan, and I made the decision to start an extensive gardening program in the coming winter; it continued with months of researching and planning between ourselves and Will Powell, who signed on as the Assistant Garden Manager and who has been enthusiastic and integral in every aspect of the garden. It finally felt truly underway when I sunk the first shovel in to the ground just before the new year began.

Since that first shovel of soil, the pre-existing small family garden has undergone a dramatic change. Our first project was to construct a 36’ by 18’ hoophouse, a structure similar to a greenhouse. It turned out beautifully after two weeks of trial and error. Now fully equipped with heat mats, grow lights, and a sprinkler irrigation system, we can provide the consistent conditions necessary for growing healthy seedlings. This has allowed us a head start on warm weather crops and over the weeks the hoophouse has rapidly filled with tomato, pepper, squash, basil, cauliflower, chard, celeriac, and all manner of herbs and flowers. We now have over 500 tomato seedlings representing eight varieties including cherry tomatoes and several heirloom varieties. The oldest tomatoes are now healthy and sturdy 6 inch plants. Our five squash varieties have grown so quickly that we recently constructed more tables outside to hold them all. We are also excited with the health and vigor of our six pepper varieties and four types of basil: sweet, lemon, cinnamon, and an interesting purple cultivar
 named Dark Opal. We have begun to offer many of these starts for sale.

Our next project was to expand the garden itself. We have fenced in a large area around the chicken barn and more than tripled our planting space. Up until this year, the old garden was tilled every season and shaped in to rows. That worked just fine, but ultimately we decided to go a different route and build no-till raised beds. There are many benefits to raised beds, and many more to not tilling them yearly. We try to incorporate permaculture ideals in to our gardens. This often involves creating an environment closer to nature than the environment commercial farms now typically produce for plants to grow. Raised beds provide us with a wide, flat space where we can plant more densely, and often plant more than one species. Interplanting is beneficial to the overall soil health. Rarely in nature do you ever find just one plant growing over a large area. Healthy soil is comprised of slowly decaying organic matter and a large number of organisms including insects, bacteria, and fungi. Tilling land breaks up the naturally occurring strata in the soil and damages the intricate soil ecosystem. Organic matter is broken up too quickly, many nutrients are lost and more fertilizer is needed. Without tilling, compost is slower to decompose. Over the years, slowly decomposing compost and layers of mulch should start to build fertile, humus rich soil. A much greater amount of carbon is retained in the soil and plants have time to absorb more nutrients as they are released. 

Another measure we take to boost soil health is to inoculate our raised beds with mycorrhizal fungi. In almost any natural ecosystem, mycorrhizal fungi are symbiotically linked with 90% of the plants. These fungi make nutrients easier for roots to absorb, in exchange for a small amount of carbohydrates from the plant. By inoculating our no-till beds, we hope to create a dense fungal network in the soil, benefiting the plants and the soil itself. 

We now have over forty such beds dug, irrigated, and planted. The planted garlic, radishes, spinach, kale, kohlrabi, chard and cauliflower are all thriving in this environment. We have begun harvestin radishes, spinach, Red Ursa and White Russian kale. We are currently digging and shaping new beds as many of our seedlings approach transplanting age and the likely danger of frost in the canyon has diminished. Although it is still a bit cool at night for cucumbers, we recently transplanted five varieties (over 200 plants!) in to the ground under row covers and the warm glow of Christmas lights, a beautiful sight when the sun goes down. Almost all the transplants took, and should flourish more over the next few weeks as the weather warms. Cucumber transplants are quite tricky, so we are thrilled with the success. 

Time has also been dedicated to planting flower beds throughout the garden. Not just a pleasing aesthetic touch, certain flowers are very beneficial to a vegetable garden. Many flowers will attract beneficial insects. Pollinators such as butterflies, moths, and bees are necessary for garden productivity. Insects such as lady bugs and predatory wasps that act as natural pest control are also drawn in by certain flowers. Lupines, scarlet runner beans, and other legumes fix nitrogen in the soil. Several flowers we have growing are also edible! We hope to offer unique salad mixes studded with borage and nasturtium. 

We have also planted and irrigated another 135 raspberry plants. We now have over 200 raspberry and blackberry plants, traded for with our friends over at Sweet Pea Farm. These plants are already three years old, meaning they will produce fruit this summer. 

In the coming weeks, we will be continuing our germination rotations in the hoop house, directly sowing the next round of kale, spinach, kohlrabi, carrots, and parsnips, and preparing space in beds for all our cauliflower, chards, cabbage, and broccoli seedlings. We’ve made so much progress but now that most of the infrastructure is in place, I’m expecting the garden to really take off. We just sold the first of our harvests to the Vitamin and Herb Store, at 525 West Central Ave here in Lompoc and I hope you’re as excited as we are for the multitude of fresh, local, organically grown produce we will soon be offering. Stay tuned for news on our upcoming farm stand, CSA, and other retailers where you can find our produce and seedlings.

I would also like to give a shout out to all of our WWOOF volunteers without whom the garden would not be possible. Weeding, digging, and sifting compost can get very monotonous but it is all done without complaint because we have plenty of fun in the garden as well. Kristen and Andrea in particular have been especially involved and dedicated and help the garden run much more smoothly. 

By: Alan Callaham
Garden Manager

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