Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Johnny's Donates 29-acre Benton Field to Maine Farmland Trust

Erica Buswell of Maine Farmland Trust signs a conservation easement document on Tuesday as Johnny’s Selected Seeds Founder and Chairman Rob Johnston, Jr. looks on at Johnny’s Research Farm in Albion, Maine. Also pictured from left to right in the back row: Brian Milliken, Johnny’s Farm Manager, William Bell, Maine Farmland Trust Board President, and John Piotti, Maine Farmland Trust Executive Director.

Johnny's recently donated a 29-acre agricultural conservation easement that is used for plant breeding and seed production to the Maine Farmland Trust.

The easement agreement was signed Feb. 28 at a “Farmland Forever” closing ceremony at Johnny’s Research Farm in Albion, ME. The land being protected is known as the Benton Field. With its southern exposure and rich soil, the Benton Field is ideal for growing vegetables.

“It’s one of our best,” said Johnny’s Founder and Chairman Rob Johnston, Jr.
"We believe in statutory farmland protection. Good land ought not be subject to non-farm development.”

Read story about the conservation easement in the Waterville Morning Sentinel.

What's New at the Farm? Greenhouse Photos

As the days are getting longer my thoughts turn to the impending spring season. Seems it was warm all winter but now winter is trying to make one last stand before it’s all over. The greenhouse is all green and warm; a great place to spend a cold, dreary winter day.

The greenhouse now has all the trellises installed; it’s a very busy looking landscape.

Before we know it we’ll be starting seedlings:

But for now, it's still winter.
It won’t soon look like this; it’ll be spring sooner than later. The birds will be returning and the snow and ice will be retreating. Soon the first dandelions will be blossoming against the south sides of buildings and we’ll wonder where winter went.

We’ll finish ordering the bulk of the supplies this week; the big stuff anyways.  We’ve ordered the row covers, plastic mulch, potting soils and fertilizers, the soil amendments and the planting flats. We’ve inventoried the other crop growing aids we’ll need and will order those shortly. We’ll do as much work as we can before the season gets under way.

I’m off next week. I will try to get a few things done before spring arrives. Although with the impending snowstorm, I may put a couple of things off a while. I do intend to put together a couple of raised beds; one for early greens and one for something else. And I’ve got some errands to do around town so will get those done.

Enjoy the snow; it won’t be here long.

Johnny's Attends the 2012 MOSES Organic Farming Conference

Last Thursday Johnny's Maine-based Territory Sales Rep, Ken Fine, headed to La Crosse, Wisconsin for the 23rd Annual Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Farming Conference.

This conference is the largest organic farming conference in the U.S, with over 65 informative workshops, 160 exhibitors, locally-sourced organic food, live entertainment and educational keynote speakers.

Ken spent three days at the conference connecting with Johnny's customers, talking about our New for 2012 products, demonstrating some of our smaller hand tools and was even interviewed by WEAU 13, the local TV news station in Western Wisconsin.

See photos from the MOSES conference below, along with a video recap of some of the participating exhibitors, posted on the MOSES website. To see additional videos, head to their website here.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Eliot Coleman's Organic Farm, Winter Growing Subject of New York Times Story

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a great story -- "Living Off the Land In Maine, Even in Winter" -- about Four Seasons Farm here in Maine.

New York Times photo
Barbara Damrosch harvests Tatsoi at Four Seasons Farm in Harborside, ME. See story in the NY Times.

The story, written by gardening columnist Anne Raver, is about the organic farm owned by gardening book authors Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch. The article details many of their winter growing techniques, season extension ideas, and managing a small commercial growing operation. It is accompanied by an online photo slideshow with a dozen shots from the farm.

Johnny's exclusively carries many of the tools that Eliot helped develop and design, including Broadforks, the Long-Handled Wire Weeder, the Bed Preparation Rake Row Markers, the Hand Tiller, and the Tilther.

These books, written by Eliot and Barbara, are also available on our website.

We also carry the DVD -- "Year-Round Vegetable Production with Eliot Coleman"

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Random thoughts on weeds, rats, and birds

I think for this week, I’ll toss some random thoughts out there; things that we all need to think about but nothing I can write a whole column on.

Weed Seed Movement:  Weed seed does not moves on its own, but rather we move it with our actions. Fifteen years ago here at the farm, we had a small plot of Galinsoga. Now we have it in every field on this farm and at some of the isolations fields. Galinsoga is a bad weed; if you don’t have it, don’t get it. If you do have it you know what a challenge it is to handle. Preventing weed seed movement is as simple as cleaning your tools and shoes between gardening sessions. Washing equipment between fields helps here on the farm; a lot of weed seed can hide in a small amount of soil

If you have a landscaping service rototill your garden make sure they wash their equipment prior to tilling your plot. There’s no need to bring your neighbors’ weed seed into your garden. If you have a weed issue in part of your garden, make sure it doesn’t get established in the other parts of your garden. Be vigilant about killing and removing any weeds going to seed; especially in the late summer /fall season. Many weeds grow well undisturbed in the fall months, after gardening interest has waned. Chickweed is a good example of this. Keep an eye on cover crops to make sure that weeds don’t grow in their understory. If you see weeds growing there, mow or otherwise kill off the crop and reseed. 

If you have domestic animals, you will have rats. Fact. Everyone who has domestic animals knows this and accepts it. There are other circumstances that ensure you’ll have them too. One is birdfeeders. Birdfeeders concentrate bird activity in one area of the yard, thereby attracting all kinds of unwanted critters, including rats. Birds are notoriously wasteful and throw seed everywhere. All this seed on the ground is a surefire way to attract rats. I’ve seen full-grown rats chasing squirrels away so they can feed on the smorgasbord of seed at a bird feeding station. Compost piles and greenhouses are also attractions for rats; food, shelter and warmth will give rats a good place to spend the winter.

Solution for rats? Well, it varies. Deny them a place that’s warm, a food source and a place to hide out and that will go a long way towards reducing their numbers. Have the compost pile away from buildings – out in the open where they’ll have to be exposed in order to search for food. Birds of prey will take their toll on them as they move about.  Foxes, weasels and pine martins will also eat them if given the opportunity.  The placement of bird feeders out in the open, or at least not in an area that will provide them lots of cover i.e. low growing bushes will help to discourage them from hanging around. I’ve seen owls watching the feeders at home and talking mice but not taking the songbirds from around the feeders. Of course the birds don’t hang around much when there’s an owl perched above them either.

I had rats in the garage last year. My garage is between the bird feeders and the compost pile and has the chicken houses on the north side of the yard. I dislike poisoning them but I dislike them even more. I resorted to poison to get rid of them and then placed drops of peppermint oil around the garage in several locations. Coincidence or not, I haven’t seen a rat in the garage this year.  And the garage smells good too.

Birds: I like birds; all kinds of them. Whether they are songbirds, birds of prey or ducks and geese I enjoy them all. The winter is a perfect time to do some maintenance of the birdhouses that adorn both Johnny’s farm and my place at home.  At the farm, we have approximately 30 birdhouses around the fields and woods. Most of these houses are occupied with swallows, but we do have a Bluebird pair down on the hill. At the house we have about 12 birdhouses around the yard and garden. I must admit I’m not as disciplined at home about the birdhouses as I am at Johnny’s but my heart is in the right place. I have designed a birdhouse that works well for swallows and can be taken down each year, repaired and stored for the winter before being put back out in the weather for new nests to be built in.

We have had over the years hundreds of successful nests here at the farm, mostly swallows. I like their aerial maneuvers and graceful flights. They are certainly busy feeding their young ones until they fledge. Fledging is the most dangerous time for the young ones, but it’s immensely rewarding watching them take off for the first time too. This time of year, I walk through the fields stopping at each birdhouse to clean and inspect it. I bring some tools and a spare house or two and make repairs and observations as to anything that needs fixing before the birds’ arrival in the spring. Spring comes earlier than you might think so it’s best to not put this maintenance off too late.

This is a good time to look around at birdhouses and perhaps build or buy a couple. Sometimes it’ll take a year or two to get the birds interested in a new house. Sometimes they’ll move in as soon as they come back.  There are a lot of craftsmen out there who make really nice houses, although the birds aren’t usually all that fussy. As long as they feel safe and secure they’ll probably nest in it. A good birdhouse should last 10 to 20 years if properly taken care of.

And my final thought for today:  Spring will be here sooner than we know it and we need to be ready!  Next week is March and winter is about done. I’ve ordered the compost, most of the plastic and row covers, and most all the crop growing aids that we’ll need. I’ve yet to order the cover crop seed. I’ll finalize the planting plan before I decide which cover crops to use this year.  The planting plan designates which crop will be planted where. Where crops go depends on many factors including fertility, soil conditions, rotations and previous crop information. Did a crop do well here or should I move that same crop to another field? Here at Johnny’s we have 10 different field locations and a total of 31 separate fields. Placing all our crops is kind of like a big crossword puzzle. There’s a lot of planning that goes on to make sure all crops perform as well as they can.

Until next week, I think I’ll go do some more planning.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Johnny's New Organic Online Catalog Released

The Johnny's Selected Seeds 2012 NOP Certified Organic Online Catalog is now live on our website. This new catalog contains 96 pages with more than 350 organic products. Click here to view the catalog.

OG Catalog

Monday, February 20, 2012

USDA releases new Plant Hardiness Zone Map

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a new color coded Plant Hardiness Zone Map for the United States.

Plant Hardiness Zone Map

The USDA has collaborated with Oregon State University to produce an updated Plant Hardiness Zone Map -- the first since 1990. According to the USDA's website, the new map features much greater detail than the old version, in part because the map was created using digital or Geographic Information System (GIS) based data combined with a "sophisticated algorithm".

The USDA's upgraded website is more user friendly and well worth a visit. Improvements include:
  • Interactive map with zoom and customized terrain adjustment
  • Downloadable Plant Hardiness Zone Maps available in several different sizes and resolutions.
  • Hardiness zones searchable by zip code, state, and region.
  • GIS data downloads (license necessary)

The latest map shows a slight warming trend compared to the 1990 edition. The USDA reports that the new map is generally a half a zone warmer than the earlier version. The USDA has also defined two new hotter zones that didn't exist on the previous map -- zones 12 and 13.

Read more about the new map on the USDA's Plant Hardiness Zone Map website.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Win $50 Johnny's Coupon by Taking Winter Growing Survey

Do you grow produce in the winter? Are you thinking about ways to extend your growing season? Fill out our Winter Growing Survey. It won't take more than 5 minutes and you can enter a contest to win a $50 Johnny's coupon.

Click here to take survey

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Greenhouses

It’s already the middle of February. Where did the winter go?

To say it’s been a strange winter is an understatement. Two big snowstorms (or events as they are called now) in the fall months, and some cold but not a lot and the bulk of winter is behind us. Oh sure, we may get some cold and perhaps some snow but with the days getting longer, spring is closer than we think. The woodpile has shrunk considerably, which is a sure sign of winter’s waning days. Fine by me as spring is my favorite time of year.

Speaking of spring, we are running one of our greenhouses all winter this year so we can grow in the off-season. Here’s a photo taken Monday this week:

Greenhouse at Johnny's Research Farm, Albion, ME

It’s 32.7˚F outside as I write this and it’s 75˚F in the greenhouse. We’ve just recently had the grow lights installed to mimic summer day length. I’ll tell you, walking in at night to turn the lights off and one would think they’re some place tropical. Well, not really tropical, but it is great to be in where it’s warm and well lit with crops being grown. It’ll be months before we see this outside.

This last paragraph brings me to my subject for this week -- the home greenhouse.  I always wanted my own greenhouse. I like growing crops in a greenhouse and we wanted to grow seedlings for our own use so when one came up for sale locally, we bought it. It was a New England series built for the snow loads we often get here. Dimensions were 21 feet wide and 32 feet long – perfect size. It came with a propane furnace with controls, a 36-inch exhaust fan, a new roll of plastic, baseboards and wood framed end walls. Buying it was the easy part! First thing we had to do was move it. Taking it apart and moving it 15 miles took me a weekend. It was easy enough. Turn the nuts to tighten and they snap off easily; I’d planned on replacing them anyways.  I didn’t worry about taking the plastic off as it was 8 years old and I had a brand new roll to put on. The ends came off and were loaded into my truck in one piece; well, you get the idea: taking one down is the easy part.

Once I got all the parts and pieces home, it was time to put it back together. First of all I wanted to make a few minor changes in the structure; namely adding roll up sides, vents that would close automatically and additional purlins or crop support piping. At the time water pipe was cheap so I added the roll up sides, which also meant I needed to add a hip board. I extended the baseboard from eight inches tall to sixteen inches tall.  The structure itself went up fairly quickly, especially since I did most of it myself.
New plastic was installed, and the new aluminum vents were put in the end opposite the fan end.  The propane furnace was installed (a word of caution here – heating any greenhouse large or small is an expensive proposition) and all was good.

Now what to raise in it and how? Like most greenhouses around, we built benches and grew seedlings. The first couple of years we had 500 or so 6 packs of various seedlings to sell and tried retail. There are a couple of drawbacks with selling retail if you work full time plus. Being around all the time and being cordial all the time.  Everyone needs some space and that’s what my home is for; space to do and be what I want to be. That’s pretty hard if you have people showing up all days and times, poking through everything, criticizing and then not buying anything.

Anyways, to make a long story even longer, we decided retail wasn’t for us. And growing seedlings wasn’t for us either. So we decided to take out the benches and grow vegetables in the greenhouse instead.

We built raised beds; five in all, two 2-foot beds and three 3-foot beds. This configuration allowed us room to work around the beds easily but also made good use of the room we had. The beds were 12 inches tall and we filled them with topsoil with a liberal amount of compost mixed in.  We also had hanging baskets full of flowers and cucumbers. It turned into kind of a cool project. 
We had an area for mixing flats and for planting and transplanting complete with a sink, lawn chairs and a coffee table. A greenhouse in the winter, even without supplemental heat, can easily climb into the nineties during a sunny afternoon, so what better place to hang out on a cold winter day?  During the fall and winter we laid plywood over the beds and used it for storage during the cold winter months.

In the 2-foot beds we raised tomatoes, summer squash and cucumbers. The 3-foot beds were primarily salad greens with a few fun projects thrown in like super early potatoes. We had a pretty good setup but like all things we decided to pare down what we grew as we weren’t into selling it and we raised far more than two people could possibly consume. We gave away much produce, and we had a good time raising all these crops but it too soon became a high maintenance project.  Each year we grew less and less until we stopped growing altogether.

So, once we decided not to grow crops or seedlings in there what do we want to do with it? I toyed with selling it, but didn’t really want to. We took out the raised beds and put landscape fabric down to keep the weeds from overtaking. We still used it for curing onions and could put it back into growing crops if we wanted to. Today we use it for storage for our lawn furniture, wood splitter, lawnmower and my boat. There’s also a cord of wood for the kitchen cook stove, scrap wood for the fire pit and my four wheeler and trailer. The issue of being so hot in the greenhouse; too hot to store equipment in, was alleviated by hanging the shade cloth from the frame on the inside of the greenhouse. It now remains cool and dry in there.  So, basically, it’s a storage area now. Looking over the contents of the greenhouse last weekend, I think if I cleaned it out I would make something else out of it now. Most of what’s in there can be stored somewhere else; I only use the greenhouse for storage because it’s already there. So, what can I do with this structure next?

Yep, here it comes: Peafowl housing! First I’ll clean it out and then I’ll run some four foot wire around the bottom of the greenhouse between the baseboard and the hip board. That’ll keep the critters out and the peafowl in. I’ll take the shade cloth down and put it on the outside once the weather starts to warm up. I think I’ll make a spot in one corner that she can have her nest and sit on her eggs, and a couple of roosts; they like to sit on them to preen and talk. The greenhouse should make a really good pen as it’s over 650 square feet and 10 feet tall at the peak. Currently their pen is 10 feet tall but only 140 square feet.  I’ll pull out the landscape fabric and replace it with clean straw. And maybe just for kicks I’ll toss a few guinea hens in with them!

The greenhouse proved to be an interesting project. It all started with the research of what we wanted and what was available, buying, moving, and modifying it. Raising crops and seedlings and finally using it for something completely different than what it was designed for; there are endless possibilities of what to do with a greenhouse.  If you have the want and the opportunity to get a hold of one, do so and you’ll find lots of possibilities too.
Until next week, Brian

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Visit to Intervale Community Farm in Vermont, and Photos From the NOFA-VT Winter Conference

Last week, Johnny's Maine-based Vermont Territory Sales Rep, Chris Hillier, visited Johnny's customer Intervale Community Farm (ICF) in Burlington, Vermont. Organized as a member-owned, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, ICF has grown to serve over 500 member households annually, growing and distributing produce for nine months of the year.

After the farm visit, Chris headed to the NOFA-VT Winter Conference. The conference was from Friday, February 10- Sunday February 12th at the University of Vermont (UVM).

Workshops at the conference included those from Cornell University researcher Jonathan Comstock who spoke about farming in a changing climate, as well as Deb Neher who works in the Department of Plant Soil and Science at UVM and educated people on soil health.

See photos from Chris's farm visit as well as pictures from the NOFA-VT Conference:


Intervale Community Farm (ICF) in Burlington, Vermont



Our Johnny's booth set up at the conference


The Growing Wisdom DVDs on display in our booth


Art work displayed throughout the conference by the NOFA-VT staff

Product spotlight: Fruit Plants, Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, Blackberries, Cranberries, and Rhubarb

Fruit plants

This year, why not add fruit to your market garden or home orchard? Johnny's has a good selection of healthy berry and rhubarb plants available only for a limited time.


Prime Jim


Strawberry Sparkle is an old-fashioned June-bearing variety renowned for its delicious flavor. It is considered one of the best varieties for jam making and freezing. Plants are vigorous and productive, with medium-size, dark red berries. Strawberry plants are shipped in March through April.

Blackberry Prime Jim is a primocane fruiting variety with large berries. It has a good flavor and sweetness, like other thorny varieties, but it is not as thorny as wild blackberries. Fruits are not recommended for shipping. Summer temperatures above 85˚F can greatly reduce yield. Plants are shipped March through April.

Raspberry Killarney is an early/midseason variety that produces bright red, medium-size fruits that are considered extremely sweet for a raspberry. It was developed in Manitoba and is very cold hardy. One-year-old dormant canes are shipped March through April.



Cranberry Stevens is a hybrid from USDA's cranberry breeding program. It has good yields of round to oval fruits that keep well. 4-year-old plants are shipped in 6" pots. Cranberry plants are shipped mid April to mid June for spring planting or early August through September for fall planting.
Blueberries require more than one variety for pollination, so Johnny's Blueberry Collection includes one plant each of Patriot, Northland, and Jersey. The three varieties mature in sequence, providing a long season of tasty blueberries. 18-month-old plants are shipped March through April.
Rhubarb is the earliest fruit plant to produce in spring, and essential for strawberry-rhubarb pie. We have certified-organic plants of Victoria, a sweet and mild variety, available for shipping from late March through April. Victoria also can be grown from seed. Rhubarb should not be harvested the first year and only lightly harvested the second year. If it's in a suitable location, with well-drained soil, it will produce for a decade or more.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

JSS Advantage Newsletter -- February 2012: Take Your Growing Mobile, AgSquared

Innovative Software and Tools to Help You Grow

Here at Johnny's, we are always pleased to offer new resources to our customers. This month, we have two exciting new programs to tell you about. We hope that you'll find one or both of them to be a benefit as you plan for the season ahead.

Take Your Growing Mobile with Moveable Caterpillar Tunnels

benderHigh tunnels are without a doubt one of the most beneficial capital improvements a vegetable farmer can make. But a commercial-grade high tunnel is expensive. You may be able to get grant from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to pay much of the cost of a high tunnel, and if you're interested in pursuing that option, you can read more about the program below.
But there are other ways to get many of the benefits of a high tunnel without building a commercial structure. A recent innovation is the moveable caterpillar tunnel, an inexpensive, temporary structure you can build yourself. Johnny's has developed a pipe bender that will create the correct shape hoops from locally available pipe. We have also produced a comprehensive manual about how to build a moveable tunnel, available free for you to download. Most of the materials you need can be purchased from local home improvement stores, and Johnny's can supply specialty parts including connectors, pipe track wheels, and greenhouse poly.
A moveable tunnel can be built on a track long enough to accommodate two, three, or even more positions. It gives you tremendous flexibility in scheduling crops that require a protected environment. You can start cool-weather crops extra early in the tunnel. When the weather moderates enough for them to grow outside, you can move the tunnel to the next position and plant warm-weather crops that will get a head start in the warmth of the tunnel. When summer arrives, you can move the tunnel again and cover it with shade cloth to extend the season for lettuce and other vegetables that dont like the heat. In fall, as the weather cools, you can move the tunnel back over heat-loving crops to get a few more weeks of production from them. Meanwhile, you can plant fall crops outside and when cold weather threatens, move the tunnel over them to keep them going into winter.
If one moveable tunnel can extend the season for so many crops, consider what you can accomplish with several moveable tunnels. In his book, Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman describes his complicated crop rotations using multiple moveable tunnels.
Moveable caterpillar tunnels can be an important component of a season extension program that includes greenhouses, stationary high tunnels, low tunnels and row cover. Here are some additional resources to help you extend your season:

Get a Free trial of AgSquared Crop-planning Software

AgSquared is a new, web-based software program designed specifically for small farmers. It offers a suite of tools that will help you make your crop plans and follow through on them throughout the season. With support from Johnny's, AgSquared is offering a free three-month trial of the software, which will be available by subscription the rest of this year for $4 per month.
The primary benefit of the program is that it allows you to make comprehensive crop plans for each variety you will be growing this season. You can schedule seeding and transplanting dates, assign the crop to a specific field or bed, plan for management tasks such as pruning and spraying, and project harvest dates (done automatically when you enter days to maturity for the variety). As you enter details for each crop, the program collects the data and creates a calendar of tasks and events. You can consult the calendar weekly, monthly, or seasonally to keep a clear idea of the work that needs to be done. In addition, you can amend your plans as needed and keep track of actual harvest dates. The information you record this season will help you make better plans next season.
Many people at Johnny's have tested the program over the past several months. We think the existing crop-planning features will be helpful for many of our customers, and we believe that as the software continues to develop, it will provide a valuable tool for overall farm management. Additional features planned for the next year include inventory tracking, staff management, and cost accounting, which will be available for an additional fee.
We encourage you to sign up for the free trial, explore the programs features, and let AgSquared know what additional features would make it even more helpful.
When youre ready to give AgSquared a test drive, we recommend that you start with the video demo of its features.

Save Money with an NRCS High Tunnel Grant

The Natural Resource Conservation Service has extended its Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative to all 50 states this year. In the first two years of the program, the agency funded 4,430 high tunnels nationwide. It will pay 50-90% of the cost of installing a high tunnel up to 2,178 square feet. Producers can choose to build larger tunnels, but will have to cover the extra cost themselves. The tunnels cannot have any electrical, heating, or mechanical ventilation systems.
NRCS uses rating periods, in which all applications received by the deadline are rated and funded immediately if they meet a standard. Deadlines for 2012 are Feb. 3, March 30, and June 1.
For more information, visit the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative website. To apply, visit your local USDA Service Center.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Johnny's "Pistou" Fares Well in Writer's Mini Basil Trial

Pistou, our smallest basil, topped Green Globe in a head-to-head trial conducted by Helen Chesnut, a gardening columnist for the Victoria (British Columbia) Colonist.

Read story "February Brings First Hint of Spring" here.

Pistou Basil
Pistou is a Greek variety that does well in small pots. Leaves are small -- only about 1/2" in size. However, don't let its lack of size fool you; Pistou has a good strong flavor.

Helen also writes about Costata Romanesco, one of our top zucchinis. An heirloom, Costata Romanesco is a favorite Italian variety with great, nutty taste and a distinctive appearance. Costata is also a prolific producer of male buds and blossoms, which are excellent for cooking.
Costata Romanesco

Friday, February 10, 2012

Photos: Winter Greenery from Albion, Maine

It's still the dead of winter here in Maine, but you would never know it by taking a peek inside the greenhouse at Johnny's Research Farm. Photo slideshow below:

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Photos from the PASA Conference

February 1st through the 4th our Maine-based Pennsylvania Territory Sales Rep, Amber Flint, headed to the 2012 Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference in State College, PA. There were over 100 workshops offered and numerous speakers too.

Below are a few photos taken at the conference:

Welcome to the conference

The conference sponsors on display

A look at the PASA logo

The conference's silent auction

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What's New at the Farm? How to Choose the Correct Cover Crop

Trivia Question: Name this Cover Crop. (Answer Below)
This week I thought I'd spend some time on figuring out how to pick a cover crop or cover crops for your garden. I'm going to use my garden as an example. My garden is 75 feet wide and 150 feet long; about a quarter of an acre. It's a clay soil with poor drainage so I can't get it tilled early in the season. It was a pasture for many years after the landowner plowed it and decided it was too difficult to put into a good forage crop.  I don't think much ever grew there, at least not that I remember, other than cherry and pine trees and some goldenrod.  The soil was poor, to say the least, when I bought it.

When growing cover crops at home there are some things to consider before planting takes place.   Hopefully after you read this, you'll be better equipped to determine the best cover crop to use for your garden. There are many factors to take into consideration when choosing a cover crop:
  • Purpose : Why do I want to plant a cover crop? Is it for soil protection only? Is it to add organic matter and smother weeds? Will I have animals grazing it? Or bees and beneficials pasturing? Is it to add nitrogen and bring minerals up from deep within the soil layers? Is it to rot sod, break compaction or improve drainage?
  • Lifespan:  Annual, biennial or perennial? How long do we want the cover crop growing here? Is this a crop we want to protect the soil until next spring, or do we want to enrich the soil for an entire year or more before using it again? Should I seed a legume for nitrogen production?
  • Seeding:  How much do I need to purchase and how am I going to seed this? Is it easily broadcast or should I be looking at something uniform in seed size?  With a mix will the different seed types spread together or will the mixed seed spread differently causing strips in the garden?  Should I seed one crop and then seed another one or can I mix them and seed at the same time? What's the most effective way to cover the seed with soil? Should I use a mix, and if so, what?
  • Time span to seed: Spring, summer or fall? Will I have time to seed it so it will perform its best? Can I get on the ground early enough to get a good stand established before I get too busy with other planting projects.
  • Maintenance:  What kind of maintenance will it need and how best to do it? Will it need mowing during its growing cycle? Can I let it do its own thing and do nothing between planting and incorporation? Will it out compete weeds, or will they present a problem later in the season? Will weeds grow in the canopy  out of sight and undisturbed for the season?
  • Fertility requirements: Does this crop demand anything to insure a good stand? Like all garden crops you want to make sure you provide everything the cover crops needs to best suit the end result. You're taking a plot of land out of production for a period of time, so why not do everything to insure that time and money isn't wasted.
  • Soil type:  The type of soil you have can determine the type of cover crop seed you use. For example, if you have packed clay you'll want to use a crop that sends out deep roots to break up and aerate the soil layers. Wet, clay soil is typically later than well-drained soil to prepare in the spring, so if you have an overwintering crop think about how much growth it's going to have the following spring while you're waiting to get into the garden. Will there be so much rampant growth to make incorporation a challenge? Well-drained, early soil means you can get a crop in early while the ground is still cool; a perfect time for clovers to become established.   
  • Incorporation: How much crop residue will I have to turn under and what's the best way to do it? Can I mow it with a lawn mower (you'd be surprised what you can mow with a lawn mower), then turn it under with the equipment I have? A cover crop that adds a lot of organic matter, well, guess where the OM comes from  the plants parts that get tilled into the soil. Winter rye if not caught in time becomes a tall, rank and unruly mess and gets harder to kill and incorporate the longer it gets to grow. It can become a challenge even for us with all kinds of equipment at our disposal.
There are many, many things one should consider before buying cover crop seed. The many varieties we offer should cover the wide range of soil types, uses and ease of incorporation for most gardeners and farmers.  A simple checklist can be made to determine the best choice for a cover crop. Now, let's see.

My Garden:
  • Size: 75' X 150'
  • Square foot area:  11,250'
  • Area for crops: 2,500'              
  • Area to Cover crop:  8,750' (0.20 acres)
  • Crop Year: 2012
  • Purpose: Smother weeds and recycle nutrients, add organic matter and prevent erosion
  • Lifespan: I plan on this ground being out of crop production for 1 year, so an annual will be fine. My garden spot is clay so I can't get in early to prepare the soil.
  • Time to seed: I'd like to clean out my henhouses prior to seeding a cover crop so I'm thinking I should be done by the first of May.
  • Fertility requirements: With the manure I apply each year, I'll need a crop that will use the nutrients supplied without adding anything. 
  • Maintenance: I really don't want to have to do much after I plant it. Maybe mow it once if needed.
  • Crop decision: Based on all these questions I have decided to plant Sudangrass (answer to trivia question above).

Here's why:
Sudangrass needs warm soil temps to germinate and grow; mid-May is when to plant and I'll have the manure applied and the ground tilled by then. Sudan grass will grow in fertile ground like my garden and very little if anything including weeds will grow in the understory.  Mowing  I can bush hog it in August when I do the annual bush hogging of my fields. It will winterkill so I needn't be concerned about regrowth next spring and I can till it under when I do my once a year rototilling. Sudangrass will protect the soil during the winter with its dead stalks and leaves, and hold the soil with its root systems.  It will provide shelter for small animals and birds during the winter, and hold some snow so we'll have ample moisture next spring.

How much seed to purchase:
The suggested rate per acre is 30-40 pounds per acre. So let's say at 40 pounds per acre, and my garden spot to cover is 0.20 acres, the amount of seed I need is 8 pounds.  Planting a little thicker won't hurt but it will help shade out weeds better and it looks like I'll need 10 pounds of seed.  I'll get it sooner than later to make sure I have it when I'm ready to plant.

Figuring out which cover crop to plant takes some time and thought, but with minimal investment it will pay dividends by breaking disease cycles, adding organic matter and recycling nutrients.  I could go on and on about cover crops but I've rambled enough for today.

As always, any questions leave a comment below and I'll try to answer it and if I can't, I'll get you an answer.

Until next week, Brian

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Passionate About Cover Crops

Clover growing under a canopy
of corn as the author suggests
One of my passions in farming is the use of cover crops. Both here at Johnny's farm and in my own garden I use cover cops to protect and enrich the soil. I'm much more devoted to planting and maintaining cover crops here on the farm than I am at home. Here we have all the right equipment to prepare the soils, plant, mow and incorporate crops as we see fit. At home I'm sorely lacking the array of equipment I have at my disposal here so while things are a little different there, the goals remain the same; cover crops are important, regardless of the size of the plot of soil, to protect and enrich the soil.

Cover crops in the garden function much the same as in a farmer's fields; they hold the soil, bring up nutrients from deep within the ground, and add organic matter and, in some, cases nitrogen to feed subsequent crops. Cover crops for the home garden – that's my topic today.

My garden at home is 75 by 150 feet. -- about a quarter acre. The soil is clay on top of ledge. For many years it was a hayfield; poorly maintained and hardly any fertilizer or organic matter was ever applied. When I bought the field, I picked out this garden spot as it was the only relatively flat area in the three acres. I immediately started adding lots of organic matter by way of leaves and manure from my chicken pens. My neighbor came down and moldboard plowed it for me the first year to bury the soil amendments and the sod. I seeded my plot down to oats.

Why oats? Oats will grow almost anywhere and at nearly any time of year. I needed a crop that would shade out the weeds and the sod, add organic matter and be relatively maintenance free.

Because of the large amounts of nitrogen from the chicken manure I felt I didn't have to add a legume for nitrogen production. Legumes make their own nitrogen (N); they don't need it or particularly like a lot of N. Oats will take up many nutrients including N and are very good at recycling them. I had planted the oats in August, so I left them intact for the winter. The following spring, as the oats had died, I had them tilled under along with another liberal dose of chicken manure. That second year I planted some vegetables in my garden. 
Routine additions of organic matter benefits the garden immensely. Adding compost is great, but on a garden of size it can easily turn into a large expense and a lot of work. There are many demands on my time and the thought of spending so much time and money applying compost every year, well, you get the picture.

I think the ideal situation is to cover crop half of the plot one year and rotate my garden the next.

Growing cover crops not only protects the soil but much of that organic matter I'm talking about can be had through the use and growing of cover crops. It's much easier, and a lot cheaper, to grow  organic  matter than buy and bring it in. Of course the crops that add the most organic matter will also have the most "materials" to incorporate back in to the soils and many of these would be difficult in the home garden setting.

Getting a cover crop in before planting my garden is pretty much impossible. The season is short enough as it is, so I'd rather get the soil drying out and the planting in early than try to push the time envelop to get a crop in and turned under before I plant another crop. In some instances, like planting fall crops, it is possible but it takes some management to make this happen and be worthwhile. In my garden, where I'll plant late crops, I'll do some weed control on these plots instead of trying to get a cover crop in prior to an edible crop. As the crops mature and are turned back into the soil, I spend the time needed to get some cover crop or organic matter addition done before fall starts.

Crops easy to turn under with a limited selection of tools:
  • Buckwheat -- Till in at most any stage, buckwheat will die and wilt rapidly on a warm, summer day. Not the best for adding lots of organic matter, but easy to grow and incorporate, and several crops can be grown in one season. Excellent for "smothering" weeds.
  • Annual Alfalfa -- If you indeed do need nitrogen, annual alfalfa winterkills and is easy to turn under in the spring.
  • Oilseed radish –- If planted midsummer, it will grow large roots during the cool fall months. During winter the plants will die and the roots will rot, so tilling them under in the spring will be relatively easy.
The most important things to remember with cover crops in the home garden:
  • Protect the soil before winter or when not in use for any large block of time.
  • Plant a crop that is easy to maintain and will till in easily when you want to.
  • Think about rotating part of your plot out each year to help break disease and pest cycles, and to add organic matter.
  • Interplanting is a great way to get two crops in the space one takes.

So, back to my garden. In the second year I planted sweet corn in one corner, and around the fourth of July underseeded it with Crimson Clover. The clover grew well in the understory of the corn, and once I mowed the corn stalks, grew rapidly the rest of the season. And last year I fallowed the garden to kill off some of the harder to control weeds that have gained a foothold. And this year I plan on planting about half the space and planting a cover crop on the other half. And so it goes.

Until next week, Brian

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Product spotlight: Jang Precision Seeders

Jang Seeders

Jang JP1 Seeder

Jang JP1 Clearn Seeder
Jang TD1 Seeder

Jang TD1 Precision Seeder

Jang Seeders are precision seeders that can be used for seeds of every type. The Jang JP1 Clean Seeder precisely singulates very small to medium-size raw seed and pelleted seed. Spacing is optimized, seeds are saved, and labor is reduced. The JP1 is extremely versatile with a multitude of quick-change rollers available for many different seed sizes and spacings. One MJ-12 seed roller included. Please allow 5-7 business days for delivery.

The Jang TD1 Precision Seeder is designed for larger seeds such as peas, corn, beans, and even flat seeds like pumpkins. A flat seed plate set at an angle rotates at the bottom of a large 7.3 qt. (7 liter) transparent seed hopper, and precisely meters larger seeds. Double disc furrow opener. Six sprockets (included) may be arranged to regulate seed spacing from 2" to 42". One seed plate included; specify when ordering. Please allow 5-7 business days for delivery.