Starting seedlings is a great activity for young children. It is can be inexpensive (critical when you have a plant habit like the two of us). It brings spring to your home just a little sooner than the Idaho climate does. If you shop seed catalogs, it brings more diversity to your garden than you can find in local greenhouses. It expands the growing season in Idaho and allows you to eat fresh sooner.
Honestly though, starting seedlings can be discouraging when you don’t have a flat full of nursery quality plants and instead have wilty, spindly, pale yellow strings that are struggling for life. It happens to us too, especially when we attempt new kinds of seedlings we are not familiar with. There are tons of blogs out there on how to properly start seedlings…here are just some of our tips that have made us more successful, especially in Idaho and our busy lives.
1. Designate a safe area. More seedlings have succumbed to toy tractors driving through their soil, helpful little fingers “weeding” out the ones they didn’t like, curious minds looking at the roots, balls bouncing through the area… My kids get their own flats and seeds to plant. The youngest kid gets peas or beans that are easy to handle and oldest his choice of favorite vegetables. Remember that brightly colored seeds (pink, blue, orange, red) have chemical on them to prevent disease – your children should NEVER handle these seeds!
2. Let them have light. My biggest challenge has always been finding high quality light conditions in my home. I should have bought the $10 grow lights years ago! You can see right away if your plants are looking for light as they start to bend and get spindly just a few days out of the soil. Rotating their direction can help minimize the effects but a light-lacking plant will always be spindly and not have the strong main stem of a happy light-filled plant. Spindly plants are also harder to harden off and transplant to the garden. Some starts, like tomatoes, can be planted differently in the garden to overcome this growth but others cannot.
3. Not all potting mix is created equal. We prefer a mix specifically designed for starting seeds. They are typically a finer texture and help us get good soil to seed contact. A good soil mix will have enough nutrients to maintain almost any seedlings growth until it is ready for transplant unless you are delayed in getting larger starts out of their pots or you are over-watering.
4. Think outside the pot. Don’t get locked into the traditional image of what a seedling in a pot looks like. Check out these sites for ways to use items around your house as pots. Some of my favorites that I have used (and still do) are solo cups, old egg cartons, apple cartons from Costco and Rubbermaid bins.
5. Hold the flood. We are bogged down in mud and standing water right now and hating it. The plants do too! It is so tempting to encourage plant growth by giving them more water. Sometimes the answer is to just let them grow. Depending on the pots you have chosen to grow your seedlings in, water encourages mold and fungal growth or just drowns the seedlings. Seeing fuzzies on the top of your soil, time to back off on the water and let them dry off. Depending on how much humidity is in your growing area, a fan may be useful in drying off foliage and also is a great start for preparing your babies for the Idaho wind.
6. Prepare them for Idaho. Idaho springs are a tough environment to handle seedlings. Winds, frosts all the way into the end of May, hot days at the beginning of May…you need to be prepared for everything. I lost all of my seedlings one year when I set them outside and forgot about them while I was cleaning house, a wind came up and they were crispy before I could rescue them. Hardening plants take patience and a good location to slowly expose them to the elements over time. Always start this on a day when you will be home and check them often!
We hope you are getting your veggies from us this year BUT we also want you to enjoy a garden at your house as well. Start some flowers for containers. Make sure you always have your favorite herb on the kitchen counter. Grow some flowers for cutting.
What else is on the list this time of year? I am starting to clean out the shed from the fall and winter accumulation of “stuff” that didn’t get put away. I am hoping to do a re-arrange to make the pickup location more open and welcoming. There are handles to replace on shovels, harvest knives to sharpen, compost to spread, the hoop house to setup for March plantings and a new section of garden to break in. We really are expanding! It will be great to get back outside as soon as the mud becomes bearable to work in!
There are countless blogs on the internet written by farmers and farmer’s wives about why or why not they are organic. Here is OUR blog on the topic.
In my limited experience over the last year, the organic question is asked even more often when you are marketing fresh locally grown produce versus growing agricultural commodities in the Magic Valley. We are asked often “Are you organic?” or sometimes it is assumed “It is so great that there are organic producers leading the way in our area!” Either way, it opens a conversation that I am more than willing to have.
No. We are not certified organic. The answer could be as simple as we are organic producers we simply don’t complete the documentation and go through the inspections to get the stamp for our produce. It is not that simple.
My response brings on one of two responses: 1) “Good for you!” or 2) “Oh, well I really feel that organic produce is better.” These responses bring a variety of thoughts to mind. The first – “Have you personally been hurt by an organic producer?” “Why the excitement to assume the last few decades of agriculture should be the status quo?” The second – “Nutritionally?” “Environmentally?” “Because of the news?” Either way, I think “Why the bias?”
Let’s talk The Country Gardens philosophy. To us, it boils down to a couple issues: The Chemicals, Our Natural Resources and GMO’s.
1. The Chemicals
It is a complicated issue that can’t be simplified as good guy vs bad guy, organic pesticide vs synthetic pesticide. A pesticide, organic or synthetic, by definition is meant to kill or disrupt an organism’s lifecycle – they are all bad guys! That doesn’t mean that pesticides don’t have a purpose in agricultural production.
Don’t make your decision to buy organic because they don’t use pesticides. Organic pesticides can be and are used in organic production. Organic pest control is an industry by itself and the major chemical companies are bigger players than you would think. Don’t also assume that organic pesticides are safe: nature holds the power to poison, mutate and kill. On the flip side, don’t assume that synthetic pesticides are safe or unsafe.
OUR PHILOSOPHY ON PESTICIDES: Using any pesticide limits our ability to safely work and let our children play in the gardens. However there are instances when, even with other preventative measures, pests exceed limits and we risk losing current and future crops. In these cases, we do use the best pesticide based on current scientific knowledge to control issues in our gardens. While we do look at organic pesticides, we are not philosophically opposed to using a synthetic pesticide if it is the best tool for a specific circumstance.
All pesticide applications (organic or synthetic) will always be disclosed to our members. This is one of the many benefits of being a CSA member – you know the production practices that are used to grow your food!
2. Our Natural Resources
I haven’t met a single farmer with the goal of destroying the environment and putting themselves out of a job! I can only think of a few other professions that work day in and day out with the land. Most farmers have invested decades of their lives in a single piece of land (big or small). Their land is their most expensive and greatest asset.
Each individual grower’s production practices are a result of so many factors: available equipment, government program enrollment, personal philosophies, market availability, previous owner’s decisions, labor issues, crop contracts, financial considerations…
The number of combinations is limitless in how you manage a piece of land. The pros and cons are also limitless. Each management decision has an effect on future decisions – some seen in the same growing season or some a decade or more down the road. It is impossible to discuss these in such a brief forum and I am by no means an expert that will pretend to understand the repercussions of each decision.
OUR PHILOSOPHY ON NATURAL RESOURCES: Our gardens allow us to build a business doing something we love. Our management of these resources will affect how successful we are today and in the future. We truly believe that nutritional quality of produce is not a direct factor of organic vs non-organic production but is a reflection of soil nutrition and health. Tillage can have some negative impacts on the soil but is necessary for other crops. Cover crops are great ways to build soil but can increase weed issues in the garden. Compost can build the structure and fertility of our soils but can also be slow to provide benefits. Fertilizers can be a seasonal solution that increases plant vigor and prevents damage caused by diseases and pests.
Management of natural resources is a balancing act and it is also an active pursuit. We have interrupted nature’s balance to produce food for our family and yours. We will forever be involved in amending, controlling and balancing while we are in production on this small patch of land. Another benefit of being a CSA member – come and see exactly what is happening around your vegetables as they grow. Enjoy the sunshine and pull a few weeds while you are here!
You are talking to 2 women who have worked in public and private plant breeding programs. We have been involved in the research and even planted and harvested GMO crops! It isn’t all science fiction and frankenplants. Are they good, bad or necessary? I think it depends on each individual situation.
I have sat in a boardroom with some of the best minds in agriculture and discussed the challenges we anticipate agriculture encountering in 10, 20 and 50 years. Reality is that GMO’s are not all about chemical resistant plants (Roundup Ready) or insect protection (Bt). Droughts, disease, soil salinity and limited nutrient resources are serious issues that our current crop varieties are not going to overcome. Traditional methods may get us where we need to be but I’m not going to ignore the technology that has the potential to get us the better answer sooner. Most of us wouldn’t trade our cell phone for a land line, our car for a horse and wagon or our vaccinations for blood letting.
OUR PHILOSOPHY ON GMOS: We can’t embrace a production system that removes a technology that has the potential for reducing water use, improving nutrient utilization or preventing disease. Our husband’s farms do grow GMO crops and this technology has allowed them to limit pesticide use and incorporate more cover crops into their rotations – both organically minded pursuits.
Reality – most garden crops do not have GMO varieties commercially available and not in the small quantities that we grow in our CSA.
Confused where we stand? I have given you our philosophy but what is the answer bottom line in regards to organic production at The Country Gardens?
In 2015, we were 95% organic within the bounds of the gardens. Why weren’t we 100%?
What is our plan for 2016? Continue on the same path. Our weed populations are dropping and we will be expanding the use of mulch because of the benefits we observed in 2015. Pray that this cold weather is dramatically decreasing vole populations!
Traditional and organic producers have often placed themselves as enemies rather than as farmers with a common goal of producing nutritious food for the consumer. Maybe we are able to see a slightly clearer picture of both sides because we are wives of farmers who fall on the traditional side while we lean more toward the organic side in our gardens. Traditional and organic are not mutually exclusive – both have tools that are beneficial.
More than anything, we want our members to understand where their produce comes from and we want the public to understand how food is produced. Read, ask and think about agricultural production. You are surrounded by it in the Magic Valley. Find a farmer and chat. Even if you grew up in Twin Falls, you might be surprised at the issues that are worrying farmers in 2016 and you might come away with a better understanding of exactly what is happening in the field.
A Side Note:
Remember that the “Organic” label is administered by the federal government. Definitions, exemptions and guidelines are all available for the public online. We encourage everyone to read and understand about labels on their food!
I am known in my circle for having a list or spreadsheet for everything! I have a spreadsheet checklist for my bulk pantry items, a spreadsheet with recipes and ingredients for making freezer meals, a shopping list, house cleaning lists, garden lists, a project list… I even have an app on my phone specifically for lists that I want always with me! One of my favorite lists is the list of things we “need” for The Country Gardens – such a great one to just look at over a cup of coffee.
Late last summer, Bonnie and I started to prioritize that list and the number one priority was a permanent growing structure in the Hazelton garden! YEAH! WOOHOO! SWEET!
I have lusted over Bonnie’s front porch where she starts our seedlings and her big greenhouse that grew our amazing tomatoes last year. My temporary hoop house worked in the spring to get us some great early veggies but I spent hours repairing wind damage and sleepless nights peering out my window wondering if it would survive the night. A sturdy structure – a dream come true!
Why did a physical structure beat out dripline irrigation, better tillage equipment, permanent washing stations and automated harvesting equipment? All of these items would make our labors in the garden significantly easier – A permanent structure minimizes our risk and gives us more flexibility in providing our CSA members with diversity early in the season and late in the season. That is something that no amount of extra work can accomplish without the unique environment that season extension structures can provide.
The first zucchinis, cucumbers, carrots, cilantro, peppers and tomatoes in our CSA shares all come out of some sort of season extension system. The same is true of the diversity that we protect from cool and freezing temperatures on the other end of the season. This can be as simple as row cover that lets sun through but keeps temperatures about 4 degrees warmer than outside temperature. The difference seems small but a big deal when nighttime temperatures dip to the 30’s. Simple plastic row covers using PVC structures heat up the growing climate in the spring to push early growth allowing plants to be flowering by early May and in fruit production by June. The true greenhouse with full ability to heat and cool and with lights to hit optimum day length is the Holy Grail of controlling climate to produce food.
We aren’t in need of the Holy Grail. We just need a place that we can walk into in the spring and be greeted by calm winds and 80 degree temps. This gives us all we need to extend the Idaho growing season while exploring new ways to expand our production and push the limits. Right before Christmas, we toured a structure where carrots and spinach were still in full production. No artificial heat, no grow lights and fresh homegrown veggies on the table at Christmas dinner!
So, we went to the catalogs and internet to pick out the perfect structure. Quickly over-whelmed by all of the options we gave up and sought help from a local couple who have been perfecting a structure that can withstand our spring windstorms but not break the bank. Right now they are working on designing us a custom base structure that our men can install and complete!!!
It will not be fancy but a simple design that we can upgrade if/when our needs change. Here is a look at how the 2015 temporary structure and 2016 permanent structure stack up:
PVC spans Steel spans
Greenhouse plastic anchored with dirt Greenhouse plastic anchored with wiggle wire system
Climb in access Real doors
Rope and digger link anchors Steel anchors
Less than 5’ high at center 7’+ high at center
No base walls Pressurized wood base walls
Greenhouses are one of my favorite places to spend an hour or five. A favorite drink and freedom to walk in a warm green place is good for my soul. Stay tuned for picture and updates of our progress.
Goal: Planting ready by March 1!!!