Casey O’Neill cultivates cannabis, vegetables, and fruit in Mendocino County. We will be publishing his weekly newsletter regarding growing cannabis and produce sustainably.
We rejoice in the sweetness of rain! Hopefully this storm system will bring enough moisture to get the ephemeral streams flowing again. There are dry springs in December that have flowed every day of my life thus far. We make sad jokes about the lack of winter to cover the rawness of climate change. As the moisture returns, our souls ease for the moment, though we know the broader issue remains.
Making use of the dry periods during the winter and early spring are a critical part of our farm strategy. We prep beds for early plantings and work on infrastructure. This past week we recovered some of our most productive garden space from the perennials that were taking over. We pulled mallow and dug out comfrey that will be replanted in the pasture and in drainage areas from gardens.
Comfrey is one of our biggest plant allies, but it has such strength that for all its gifts it also requires much work of us. We harvest it for forage for livestock, use it in our fermented plant juices that we make for fertilizing and we use the roots for medicine. Comfrey has done so well that we dig up and transplant huge numbers of starts each year from its voracious root systems.
Clearing the beds of perennials doesn’t mean that they will stay clear, so we’re layering cardboard across the whole zone and then covering the cardboard with compost on the beds and wood chips on the paths. After the first moisture in this storm, we covered the whole zone with silage tarp (old light dep plastic). Any perennials we missed in our weeding (or roots of comfrey that we didn’t get) will sprout under the cardboard but will be unable to push through it. The worms will decompose the plant matter and the cardboard over the winter, enriching the soil with their castings. The wood chips in the paths will form mycelial mats that add to the fungal properties of the space. Weed seeds that manage to end up above the cardboard will germinate under the plastic and will die from lack of light so that there is minimal competition when we are ready to sow salad mixes in early spring.
Cut-and-come-again greens are one of our best crops in all respects. They are tender and flavorful, in high demand, and have high dollar sales value. When done right, salad and mesclun mixes are a primary driver for many small farms. They are also labor intensive at best and a hopeless time suck at worst. One of the main factors is whether there are weeds in the bed. We used to start all the salad mixes in trays and transplant them out into a carefully weeded bed, using the jump start on growth to outrun the new weed sprouts.
Direct seeding is much easier and less time consuming than transplanting into the bed. There is no potting soil, no watering of trays, no transplanting, but the crop occupies the bed for much longer, which is a drawback when there is limited space on the farm. As we gain bed space, we begin to shift towards less labor-intensive methods in some of our crops, focusing on direct seeding for salad mixes and root crops.
Combining the prep work with a period of occultation (plastic over the beds) gives us flexibility over the timing and makes for fewer weeds at harvest. It also means that we can do the prep work during any of the dry periods in winter and the plastic will prevent nutrient leaching during wet periods.
Like all labor in life, the right tools make the difference between drudgery and delight. Each year we make another purchase in our journey towards a thriving salad and mesclun operation. The pandemic stimulus checks bought us a washing-machine salad spinner (a converted maytag that runs its spin cycle holding a 5 gallon basket of greens). We have purchased the pieces for a bubbler tank to speed up the washing process and lower the incidence of bruising on the leaves.
Last spring we bought a handheld mechanical greens harvester that has an oscillating horizontal blade with spinning ropes (think the spinning cloth at the automatic car wash) that pull the cut greens into a basket. The tool is powered by a battery-operated drill, and it speeds up harvest by about 10x. Like most paradigm shifts, it also requires changes in other methodology. We use drip irrigation for all crops on the farm, but the blade on the harvester will either cut the drip line or we have to cut the greens higher on the stem than we’d like to avoid the irrigation. Moving to overhead microsprinklers will solve the issue without too much of a change in practices for us. We will implement this new change in the season to come, along with two new 14×50 caterpillar tunnels for greens and quick root crops.
Farming is an incremental journey, each piece of equipment or learning experience a step on the path. As we look towards our twelfth season of CSA and farmers market, we are excited for our new potential. We hope to double our production of salad and mesclun mixes while spending less time and energy and producing a better overall product.
As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!