Rural Studio Farm

Working in the Winter Wet

Statistically, February is our wettest month with a 30-year average of just over 5.5 inches, but we have already exceeded that number in the first two weeks, making this a very wet and warm winter thus far.

A broad view of the newly built beds

Nevertheless, our last frost date is typically mid to late March, so we are planning accordingly. In the seed house we are starting cold-hardy crops for transplant soon: collard greens, kale, mustard greens, turnips, beets, lettuce, and spinach. Other crops like carrots, arugula, and parsnips will be direct-sown in the next few weeks. We also started early tomatoes for transplant into the greenhouse in early March.

Meanwhile, with things in danger of washing away, the students are doing some landscape work to help improve the campus and make areas ready for planting flowers and perennial herbs—many of which are culinary or medicinal. In addition to being more beautiful, these accessory plants support the farm in other ways like attracting beneficial insects and pollinators and deterring other pest insects. They also make better use of different parts of the campus, turning more of the land into an active and productive resource rather than just a passive lawn that requires so much maintenance without returning much material benefit.

Preparing for Spring

We began cultivating additional land for crop production last fall, which will add about 33% more growing area. Using the walking tractor, Eric and the students first shaped the new in-ground raised beds before adding soil amendments and compost. Since we are promoting soil health, it is best to have something growing in the beds at all times, so it is important to start growing as soon as possible.

Students planted seed potatoes, which we covered in a layer of hay, and transplanted out collard greens. In some beds they also sowed a cover crop mix for early spring—hairy vetch, field peas, and oats—all to improve soil health and to keep the ground growing before crops are added later in the spring.

We are no-till, but we just tested out a new tool, the tilther. Run by a cordless drill, the tilther is like a baby rototiller, only working the soil to a depth of about two inches. This improves the tilth of the soil by fluffing and smoothing out the soil surface, making it ready to be transplanted into. It also mixes in any amendments, fertilizers, and minor crop residues.

In the greenhouse meanwhile, more seedlings are being started, and the early crop of tomatoes are being moved to larger quarters to allow their roots to expand and grow before they are transplanted to the greenhouse once March arrives.

A Welding Day

We welded, we taught welding, we tried welding, we enjoyed welding. And now the back stair on the greenhouse (which gives access to the upper windows for cross ventilation) is DONE!

It is all about the sun!

Don’t all greenhouses use the sun? Yes, but a solar greenhouse uses the sun’s energy for growing and to provide all of the greenhouse’s heating needs.

The solar greenhouse thermal mass wall has been upgraded with a ‘shiny blanket’.

A double reflective insulation barrier, installed on the inner side of the thermal mass wall, stops warm air from escaping through the wall’s cavity into the field. 

The ‘shiny blanket’, while protecting the greenhouse mild temperatures in the cold winter, gives the thermal mass wall’s cavity the new look of a ‘space ship secret cave.’

It’s All About Farming the Soil

Even though the final freeze is still a month or two off, we are beginning to prepare for the spring growing season. In the seed house we have started seedling trays of cold-hardy crops (and sorting potatoes) to be transplanted out into the field in the latter half of February. Meanwhile in the field, cover crops that were sowed last autumn were mowed down to improve the soil structure and add nitrogen and organic matter.

In organic farming, it’s more about farming the soil than the crops. In order to support a natural soil structure, reduce erosion, and promote a healthy ecosystem, Rural Studio Farm is completely no-till once the beds are established. Cycling cover crops through the beds in summer and winter is a vital step in building and amending the damaged soil we are left with here in the Black Belt, as most of the rich topsoil, from which the area got its name, was washed away from unsustainable agricultural practices. Since the field is mostly cover crops, all the Studio’s salads and greens are grown and harvested in the passive solar greenhouse.