Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Till, Rake, Rattle and Roll: Amending A Soil Bed


One of the worst storms in recent years couldn't keep us from the farm this week.  They even saved us a parking space...

Saturday was all about amending beds, which means removing plants that have exhausted their profitable life cycle, through multiple harvests, over the course of a few weeks or months and preparing for a new cycle of planting and harvesting.

This process involves some hard work, patience and some cool tools.

Step 1.  Out with the old
We start by clearing the bed of all weeds and old roots we can find so that nothing will compete with the incoming seeds.

Step 2.  Kelp! I need somebody
Kelp is a type of seaweed that contains tons of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

You can think about Kelp as an organic fertilizer, although technically that is incorrect.  Kelp really starts the life process whereas fertilizers act more as food for the soil. 
Nevertheless, Kelp does help feed the microbiology and make the soil stronger for plant growth.  The Kelp is dried out and sprinkled over the bed which Sara (the farm apprentice/artist) helped demonstrate.
Step 3.  Stake your case

In a greenhouse you want to maximize your space.  To do that, you need to ensure that there is enough separation between each bed.  In this greenhouse, the beds are about 36'' wide and 12'' apart.

We hammer in these stakes to make sure we know exactly where our bed will lie.

Step 4. Broadfork (No bad joke title for this one)
Here's Matt posing for the cover of this year's John Deere catalog.

The broadfork is used to lift the soil, which allows the kelp to mix in and helps aerate and decompact it as well.  This all creates a good environment for new plant growth.

You put your body weight on the broadfork until it sinks down in the soil to the metal bar.
Then you push down until your arms straighten and the soil lifts up.
Repeat until your arms hurt you finish the bed

Step 5. Tillage
Tilling the soil also cycles the nutrients through and helps remove any leftover roots from the top layer.  Tilling can help reduce the number of weeds that may be lingering in the top layer of the soil.  You don't want to turn up any weeds that are lying too far below the surface because anything that deep probably won't grow if it is not awakened.  
The interesting part about tilling in this greenhouse opposed to outside on the big fields, with the big tractors, is that 1.  Inside we get to do this awkward little penguin walk and 2.  Inside we let the micro and macro biology do the majority of the tilling below the surface whereas outside the tractors dig deep into the earth moving layers of soil from top to bottom.  The macrobiology (things we can see i.e. worms and spring tails) and microbiology (things we cannot see i..e nematodes and protozoa) cycle the nutrients through the deeper layers...sustainability at its best.

Step 6.  Rake
By using two rakes, one flat end and one fork end, we can remove any rocks and other excess while smoothing the surface to prepare it for seeding.

Step 7.  Roll
Finally, we take this big heavy roller and run it over the bed a few times to even the surface and create a good growing surface for seeds.

Perfection!  Smooth as eggs...

The process is fairly simple once you get the hang of it, but each step is vital in the creation of the best growing environment for new plants.  It is also important to remember that when a bed is amended you don't want to immediately plant the same crop because that can exhaust the same nutrients in the soil.  It is generally best to rotate plants with different growing styles i.e. replace carrots with mache or arugula.  


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