No-Till

No-Till Soil

I grew up on a grain farm. Growing up surrounded by farming, you become innately aware that there is a season and a time for everything. Seeds get sown in the spring. Crops get tended in the summer. Crops are harvested in the fall. After the harvest, the fields are tilled and turned under to prepare them for next spring’s seeds. This made sense. 

It wasn’t until I became more of an avid outdoor adventurer in my twenties and thirties that I began looking at nature a little differently. The most lush environments that I ever found myself in were the ones when I was buried deep in a forest somewhere. The forest floor was abundant with life and the springy, hummus-y soil was incredible to walk on, to touch, and to dig my fingers into. It was on one of these forays when the idea first occurred to me that the forest floor grew lush and abundant without the annual tilling that I had accepted as a part of the growing process. The seed stuck (pun intended) and when I first started growing crops commercially I began to look into a method I had heard of called No-Till. 

I didn’t start with No-Till methods right away. The particular piece of land that I grow on was a hay field that hadn’t been touched in approximately 30 years and there were a LOT of perennial weeds. Because I hadn’t fully researched No-Till at that point and because I was under a timeline to get the ground prepared for planting as quickly as possible, we tilled the ground. I don’t regret doing that and given the situation, I would do the same thing if I had to repeat it. However, now that I am in a position to use No-Till methods, this is the system that we use to prepare a new patch of ground for planting. 

So what is No-Till?

Well, it is exactly that. No-Till is a practice in which the soil is not tilled so that the biology of the soil structure and the layers of the soil are completely retained. In the forest, the leaves that fall from the trees and the plants that die down every year are left to decompose on the surface of the soil. The earthworms, bacteria, and microbes begin their work digesting and breaking down these plants. As the years go by, every layer is broken down even further and a new layer is formed on top. Given a few years, the soil starts to become much richer in organic matter. It retains more water and is lighter and fluffier in texture. If you think of soil in the terms of a forest floor, you can start to see how soil develops layers. Each layer of soil from the surface down has a different purpose and attracts different life forms living in it. 

When soil is tilled, one of the things that happens is a disruption of the soil layers. This sounds like it might not be a big deal but imagine what happens when an earthquake effects a city. Imagine the buildings that are knocked down. The materials strewn across the city streets. The people that are homeless and possible casualties. All of the materials that once created that city are still in the city. But they are no longer in the same place, or providing the same function. It will take time for the residents of that city to clean up the debris, put everything back in order, and complete the building process again before the inhabitants of that city can carry on with life as it was before the earthquake. 

It turns out that tilling the soil has the same effect on the soil inhabitants as it does on our hypothetical city dwellers. The contents of the soil, the building blocks, all still exist after the plow has been through, but the structure has been destroyed and the inhabitants have a lot of clean up to do before they can get back to doing their jobs with any efficiency. Not to mention the loss of life that will have occurred from the mechanical process of the tilling (worms cut up, microbes drying up on the surface). Our hypothetical earthquake ravages our city dwellers every single time the plow or rototill passes through. Plowing multiple times within a season keeps our city dwellers in a constant state of emergency, not to mention the loss of life that occurs each time. 

Soil biology has been overlooked for years. It has only recently  begun to be researched and as such, there is so much that we still don’t know about soil. What we think of as an inert substance that is a medium to keep a plant in place on a windy day, is actually filled with an overwhelmingly large and diverse life force. Scientists have only recently started to identify the vastness of the life.

Bacteria, protozoans, arthropods, fungi, archaea, and nematodes! Oh my!

When you hold a handful of soil, you are in fact holding hundreds of thousands of life forms. These life forms are responsible for creating soil structure, breaking down organic matter into forms that plants can use as nutrients, and much, much more. Fungi, for instance, forms a symbiotic relationship with plant roots that allows both to function at a higher level than they ever could on their own. 

The functions that soil performs and the relationships between soil and the plants that live in it are just beginning to be researched. And there is so much more to learn. 

In the meantime, I wanted to share the process that we use here on the farm to prepare a new patch of ground for growing. 

There are a couple of methods that can be used for killing back an existing crop (weeds or a cover crop) but the one that we employ most often is called Occultation. 

Occultation is, very simply, the blocking out of the sun. If you have ever left a bucket or planter on the grass for a few days, you will notice that the grass beneath it is yellow when you pick it back up. If you were to leave that item on the grass long enough, the plants below will starve from lack of sunlight (sunlight=photosynthesis=energy for plants). After the plants have died, the soil life begins to decompose the dead plants. 

We use a large black tarp for occultation in the field. The black tarp traps heat and speeds up the entire process of decomposition. In the heat of the summer, a patch of field can go from grass/weeds to ready to plant in as little as 6 weeks time. When it is cooler outside, it can take as much as 6 months to complete the process (ie over winter). The tarp also traps moisture beneath it which forces any weed seeds on the surface of the soil to germinate. These germinated seeds will then die out due to lack of sunshine. This process helps to clear the top surface of the soil from unwanted weed seeds before we plant. 

Before Occultation. This fall rye cover crop has died back after it was cut down in the summer.
During Occultation. This large black tarp is weighed down with rocks, tires, and pallets.
After Occultation. 6 weeks time in the heat of the summer and the remnants of the cover crop have disappeared. This soil is ready for planting

Weed seeds can lay dormant within the soil for up to 50 years. As soon as they have the right conditions, moisture and light, they will germinate. Every time the soil is tilled, new weed seeds are brought to the surface from the seed bank below. These seeds are exposed to sunlight and moisture and BAM! they geminate. This is why using no-till methods can also help to knock down the amount of weeding to be done on our farm. Once the seeds in the top couple of centimetres of soil have germinated and been killed, as long as the soil isn’t being disturbed below that level, new weed seeds will not be brought to the surface to germinate. That is not to say that we don’t spend any time weeding. We do. But most of the weeds on our established beds are weeds that have been blown in from the wind or have been brought in with compost (more on that in another post). We spend a lot more time weeding our newer beds and every year that goes by, we are able to spend less and less time weeding our established beds. 

There is so much more to soil and to No-Till methods than I can fill one blog post with. If you are interested in knowing more, reach out to me and I can recommend some fantastic books on the subject.

Nadine

Have you pet your seedlings today?

Pet your seedlings

aka Why movement is good for seedlings.

Have you pet your seedlings todays?

Before you unsubscribe, hear me out. At this time of year, you probably have some seeds started indoors and some of the seedlings are starting to look like tiny little plants. While our instinct with anything small and tiny is to protect and coddle, it’s important for our seedlings to get a little tough love from us. 

When seeds germinate outside, they have to deal with the wind blowing on them. As the wind blows, the seedings get a little workout. Over time, their stems strengthen so that they can withstand the wind without blowing over. 

When we start seeds indoors, the seedlings have much weaker stems because they have not been subjected to the natural movement of the wind. If we don’t strengthen these seedlings before transplanting they will likely fall over at the first wind or rain storm and may not have the strength to recuperate. 

One solution is to set up a small oscillating fan near your seedlings. You don’t want the air to be too vigorous so set it up a couple of feet away from your seedlings and keep it on low. We want to stimulate a light breeze not a hurricane. 

For an even lower tech solution, you can simply run your hand across the top of the seedlings each day when you check their water needs. Lightly pet the tops of the seedlings a couple of times to create a little movement in the stems. I prefer this solution because it gives me a chance to inspect the plants at the same time and connects me to them. I am much quicker to notice when a leaf begins to yellow or there is a sign of wilt when I am being this intimate with the seedlings. 

So give your seedlings a little pet. It will make them stronger for the world outside and will give you a chance to do a little bonding with them. 

Everyone already thinks you’re a crazy plant person. Own it. 

Nadine

Seed Germination Test

Seed Germination Test

With the recent sunshine and warmer weather, your mind might be turning to starting seedlings. While flipping through stacks of seed catalogues is admittedly one of my favourite ways to spend an evening, what about all of the seeds I have already accumulated from years past? Can those still be planted or should I throw those out and buy new?

While the idea of using existing seeds is enticing, it’s important to ensure that the seeds are still viable before planting. Nothing is more disappointing than to have just a few stragglers pop up in your carefully tended row after putting in the work of seeding and watering. 

Enter: Seed germination percentages. 

Seed germination percentages are the percentage of seeds that are likely to germinate given correct growing conditions. 

Correct growing conditions can be found on the seed packet or seed company website. 

Sometimes seed companies will state the germination percentage on the seed packet. A seed packet that indicates a 95% germination percentage means that 95 out of 100 seeds will germinate given correct growing conditions. This is good information to know, so that you can plant extra seeds accordingly to end up with the final number of plants that you need in your garden. 

It’s important to note however that the germination percentage listed on a seed packet is only accurate for the year that the seeds were packaged (also usually listed on the package). Every year that passes, the germination rate will drop. So we need a method of testing germination percentages at home for both older packages of seed and open-pollinated seeds that have been saved from your garden.

Luckily, seed germination tests are easy and inexpensive to do at home and they produce accurate results. 

To perform a germination test, fold a paper towel in half twice so that it creates four layers. Wet the paper towel and wring out any excess water. You want the towel damp but not dripping wet. Remove some seeds from the seed package and place the seeds on the paper towel. This is a test of percentages, so the larger your test batch of seeds, the more accurate your results will be. Slide the damp paper towel and seeds into a plastic bag and seal. Place this bag in a warm location where you can check on it every day. The length of time to germinate will depend on the species you are testing, so refer back to the seed packet for an indication of how long it should take. Once the seeds have germinated you can count the duds and do a little math to figure out the germination percentage. 

Delphinium 'Magic Fountain' seeds collected from our fields in 2020
After 10 days. Pulled from the plastic bag.
I moved all the sprouted seeds to the left for easier counting.

On my test of the Delphinium ‘Magic Fountain’ seeds that were collected from our fields in 2020, only 30 seeds sprouted from the 56 that I tested. This is a 54% germination.

If a test indicates a low percentage, I would recommend replacing these seeds unless they are an extremely rare variety. Which leads back to that stack of seed catalogues calling my name…

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be curled up on the couch with a mug of tea, surrounded by dog-eared seed catalogues. 

Nadine

Signature bouquet wraps

Community Collaboration Creates Blumen Fields’ New Signature Look

Blumen Fields Flower Farm was born out of the desire to make the flower industry more sustainable, one beautiful bloom at a time. Now, thanks to a partnership with Frog Friendly Coffee in Canoe, BC, we have been able to up-cycle their coffee bags to create the new Blumen Fields signature burlap bouquet wrap. 

As the only coffee company in Canada that owns their supply chain from source to cup, Frog Friendly Coffee is a leader in environmental stewardship and we have the utmost admiration for everything that they do. This collaboration allowed us to replace the single-use craft paper we were previously using for a prettier, eco-friendly option, which is a true win-win and something we can all feel good about.  

Once you unwrap your local, farm-fresh bouquet, there are many different ways you can also use the burlap. It can be composted, used as mulch, become part of a craft creation, or simply be returned to us for use on another bouquet. How will you plan to use your wrap? Share your up-cycle story with us on Facebook or Instagram, we would love to see your ideas!

As always, thank you so much for choosing to support local!  

“It is our collective and individual responsibility … to preserve and tend to the world in which we all live.” —Dalai Lama

March to-do list

It’s March!

Here are the 9 things that you should do now to get your garden started off right.

1. If you want to enjoy delicious garden tomatoes in the summer, now is the time to get the seeds started. Tomato seedings should be started 6-8 weeks before your last frost date. Around here, that means now is the time to get those seeds started. Remember that these seeds will want a warm, cozy temperature to get started in and will require LOTS of light once they have germinated to avoid leggy plants. A leggy seedling will never turn into a strong plant so give your seedlings the best start to life.

This seedling will never become a strong plant
This seedling has a good start

2. Add a top dressing of compost or aged manure to all garden and vegetable beds.

3. If you tested your soil last fall, now is the time to add the necessary amendments based on the results. Your soil test results will tell you what nutrients are required and the amount of amendments required. (What? You didn’t get a soil test in the fall? Make a reminder to take samples and send them off this September.)

4. Plant any bare root trees and shrubs now. They will still be dormant and will awaken in their new home ready to burst into growth.

5. Plant any berry bushes like raspberries, blueberries, or haskups now.

6. Get an early start on the vegetable garden by planting cool-season crops like peas, carrots, radishes, spinach, broccoli, and onions. These crops can be seeded directly into the garden as soon as the soil is thawed.

7. Now is the time to divide any perennials in your yard that haven’t been divided for 3-5 years. It’s easy to do. Dig up the entire root ball and slice through the roots with a landscape knife or a shovel. Divide each root ball into 2 or 3 pieces and either replant the divisions in another location in your yard or garden or gift the divisions to someone else. One of the original pieces of root ball can be replanted in the original location to grow on. Division of perennials is necessary every 3-5 years to avoid overcrowding. You will be rewarded for your efforts with healthier growth and more flowers. 

8. Now is the perfect time to plant asparagus and rhubarb into your garden. Asparagus roots will take three years to develop into large enough plants to harvest so the sooner you get them into the ground, the sooner you can start enjoying fresh asparagus directly from your garden. 

9. Late winter is the time to prune apple and pear trees but leave your stone fruit trees (plums, apricots, peaches, cherries) alone for now. Pruning of stone fruit trees now can allow open up the tree to disease from silver leaf and cankers. If you aren’t sure how to prune a fruit tree, consult a local arborist, as incorrect pruning can lead to a structurally weak tree and loss of fruit.

Nadine

Soil Blocking

It’s time to start thinking about seed starting!

There are many ways to start transplants (often called plugs) and the most familiar comes in the form of a plastic 4-pack or 6-pack of seedlings, or as an entire tray of 50-72 plugs. These ubiquitous plastic forms can be found at every greenhouse and big box store from now until the end of June. They are easy to transport from the store to your house and easy to transport from the house to the garden. But when you go to transplant your new seedlings and you pop them out of their plastic forms, what do you do with the plastic plug containers? Do you throw them in the garbage? Do you recycle them? Do you try to save them for reuse? As we commit to trying to reduce the amount of waste in our lifestyles, these are all questions that should be asked. When I was growing for my own backyard, I would reuse the trays from previous years to start seeds in.

Once I started growing commercially, the plastic plug trays quickly became a bone of contention.

The first issue is storage. I’m growing over 23,000 seedlings this year. Even if I am using a plug tray that allows 72 plants per tray, that’s over 300 plug trays that must be washed, and stored somewhere when they are not in use. That takes up a lot of space!

The plug trays are also far from indestructible. I try very hard to be careful with these trays as the cost to purchase is expensive, but even when you think you are taking it easy on them, they bend the wrong way and break. I have yet to make it to a second season with a plug tray in good condition. This results in extra time and risk of them breaking with plants inside, thus dumping the plants onto the ground/floor in transit or with routine moving.

Lastly, there is the outlying cost for all those trays. $$$

I knew after just a couple of seasons of growing commercially that I needed to find a better, more environmentally responsible way of seed starting.

Enter, the soil block.

A soil block is exactly as the name describes. It is a block of compressed soil that acts as both growing medium and container for the seedling. No plug trays means continuing to reduce the mountain of plastic that has become so ubiquitous with agricultural operations.

Although constructed of only soil mixture, the blocks are not as fragile as you would imagine. And once roots begin to fill the soil block they create a completely stable container that can even handle some roughhousing. 

Soil blocks eliminate the expense and storage of plastic containers and they completely eliminate the plastic waste of broken containers.

But the even better news is that this method actually creates a stronger seedling. How?

Plug trays are pyramidal in shape.

A pyramid has only 1/3 of the volume of soil as a cube with the same top dimension. Thus the roots of a plant in a soil block have three times the amount of soil to grow in versus in the same sized plug tray.

Photo credit:
Math Stack Exchange

This means that the seedlings can stay in the soil block for much longer before needing to be planted in the ground as they have more soil and more nutrients to sustain them. This removes the stress of trying to time transplanting perfectly, especially in early spring when weather can cause unexpected delays.

Another thing that becomes obsolete with soil blocks is root bound seedlings. When the roots of a plant in a plug tray reach the edge of the container, they will begin to encircle the edges of the container. If the seedling is left too long, the roots will circle, and circle, and circle. Resulting in a root bound seedling.

Roots of a seedling in a soil block are “air pruned” at the natural edges of the soil block. The roots of these seedlings will push out towards the edge of the block but once they cross into the air they will die off leaving the portion of root within the soil block “pruned”. 

Anyone that knows anything about pruning trees and shrubs will know that when you prune the growing end off of a branch, many more shoots will appear along the branch producing a bushier plant. The science behind this is fascinating.

(Warning: I’m about to geek out here)

The growing point at the end of a branch, shoot, or root is called the apical meristem. The apical meristem produces a hormone that blocks all of the other growing points (buds) further down the stem from growing, thus allowing this top bud to dominate. When the end is cut off of a branch or root, the source of the hormones is also cut off and other buds along the stem will now have the ability to grow. This is what makes a stem bushy. (Like when you’re told to pinch the top off of your basil plant because it will produce more leaves.)

This exact same process is happening at the edges of a soil block. Once the roots push out of the soil block they will reach the air and will be burnt off. Once the apical meristem of the root is removed, that root will branch out and produce many more roots. This means that by the time you are ready to transplant a seedling in a soil block, the soil block is absolutely full of roots that are just waiting to burst out into the surrounding soil. This creates a much bigger, healthier plant, more quickly. 

The other reason that seedlings in soil blocks are so healthy is the actual mixture that is created for the soil blocks.

Unlike in standard plug trays, where the soil mixture needs to be light and porous, in a soil block, we are actually requiring a soil mixture that can be compacted. This mixture is composed of peat, sand, and compost or soil. The mixture not only provides nutrients to the growing seedling but upon transplanting the soil blocks you are adding organic matter to the growing area. A staggering amount of organic matter actually.

Consider this:

2” cubed blocks set out at a spacing of 12” x 12” is the equivalent of applying 5 tons of compost per acre!

So every soil block that is transplanted into the soil is one less shovelful of compost that you need to add later.

Soil blocks save time. They save money. And they save mountains of plastic. This year alone, I will sow over 23,000 seeds to be transplanted into the flower field. And every one of them is sown into a soil block.

Have I convinced you to give them a try yet?

The purchase of a soil blocker is required to make soil blocks. The soil blocker is an ejection mold that forms cubes out of your growing medium. But this is a one time purchase that will last. I have used my soil blockers to make hundreds of thousands of seedlings and they still work like new.

Soil blockers can be purchased at Lee Valley, West Coast Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, etc.

Please note: I have no affiliation with any of these suppliers and I don’t receive anything if you purchase through them. 

Except maybe the knowledge that I will have stopped a little more plastic from going into the environment.

Change can start one seedling at a time.

Nadine

Why Flowers?

Why Flowers?

Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t get into growing flowers with the expectation of wandering through sunny fields with a wicker basket and wide brimmed hat.

I do this because I love flowers, and I love growing flowers. 

But I also love cooking. I love growing the freshest, tastiest vegetables that elevate my cooking. I love biting into a ripe, juicy tomato and knowing that I helped to create that experience.

I also love animals. I love raising animals and ensuring that animal welfare is the top priority whether the animals are pets or are intended for the table. 

Growing vegetables and raising animals are tough and admirable jobs and people certainly think of veggies, grains, dairy or meat when you say you are a farmer. 

So why did I choose flowers instead?

My path to commercially growing flowers goes back to 2002. On one fateful day in the summer of 2002, I heard a brief clip on the radio about how flowers flown in from around the globe created a huge carbon footprint.

Until that day, I honestly hadn’t ever thought about this at all. Until that point, if I wanted flowers, I would stop at the florist or the grocery store and pick up whatever was cheapest and would provide a little colour. I would order flowers for the pre-requisite Mother’s Day and birthday bouquets and not question where they came from. As long as they were pretty, that was good enough for my needs. 

But this radio clip caught my attention and I started to research it a little more. What I discovered would forever alter the way I looked at flowers. 

Almost 80% of flowers used in the floral industry in North America are grown in far-flung countries such as the Netherlands, Ecuador, Columbia, Mexico, Israel, Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. 

Getting a perishable and delicate product halfway around the world is a veritable feat that involves cargo ships, airplanes, and transport trucks all with climate control. The carbon footprint associated with this task is enormous. 

Putting the carbon footprint aside, it is also important to note that many of the countries listed above have a lower labour wage than North American standards. Unless the flowers from these countries are certified Fair Trade, there is no way to guarantee that the workers involved in the production and harvest were paid a living wage. 

Other questions to ask are whether the countries of export are using chemical inputs such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers? If so, how are these chemical inputs being controlled? Are the applications being conducted in a safe manner for the long-term health of the workers involved in applying them? Are the applications being conducted in a safe manner for the soil and water of the natural environment? Are these chemicals being properly and safely disposed of at the end of their life?

This new knowledge was the impetus for my future self to grow cut flowers. I realized then, that the only way to lessen this massive carbon footprint was to bring the flowers closer to the end users. Thus, I began my journey to create a cut flower farm. 

We now have 4.5 acres of cut flowers under production. 

I am proud to say that our flowers are used within a 150km radius of where they were grown. Using a combination of modern and traditional techniques, our flowers have been grown without any chemical inputs. The soil on this farm will be healthier when I complete this journey than it was when I acquired the land. This is a career that I can feel good about. Every day, I know that what I am doing is making a difference. Every flower stem that is bought from a local grower keeps carbon emissions to a minimum. Local flowers are fresher, more fragrant, and last longer than flowers grown elsewhere in the world. 

And if you’ve reached this far, thank you.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. 

Thank you for following along with the journey of this local flower farmer.

And thank you for buying local flowers. 

Your purchase of local flowers has lasting environment effects. And that’s something that we can all feel good about. 

Nadine