Potatoes, Potahtoes

A wide view of potato plants, collards, and cover crops

Most potatoes are not grown from seed, but rather by planting out “seed potatoes,” which are just high-quality whole potatoes, or pieces of potatoes, that were saved from a previous season. Here in Alabama, February is the best month to plant them, which is what Eric and the students did, despite all the rain. There are many ways to plant out potatoes, but at Rural Studio Farm the students set them out along shallow trenches in the newly built in-ground raised beds.

Then, students covered the potatoes with several inches of hay (many growers hill up soil around the seed potatoes). The hay protects the potatoes, modulates temperatures, suppresses weeds, and helps to retain moisture.

After a few weeks, the potatoes pushed their way through the hay and continued to grow.

Once the sprouts reached about 8 – 12 inches, Eric then hilled up even more hay around the plants until only the growing tips were left exposed. As the potatoes grow, the tubers will form in the hilled-up hay, increasing yields. This also eliminates the need to do any digging to harvest the potatoes—just open up the hay.

Asparagus Crowns and Social Distancing

A closer view of asparagus crowns set in a row

Coming off spring break, Auburn University changed all of their classes to be taught from a distance in order to facilitate social distancing. As such, Rural Studio Farm’s farm manager, Eric, suddenly found himself without his usual work force, meaning there was more work than a single person could realistically do for normal operations. Most of the food out in the field can still be harvested and frozen for later use, but Eric has shifted his focus away from such heavy production toward work that is more sustainable, as it will probably be August at the earliest that Eric will have student workers again.

Planting cover crops and building soil has become a major focus, as has planting more perennials, like scallions and artichokes, which will produce more in the future and require less maintenance overall. One of these is asparagus. Eric planted 100 asparagus crowns (which look like spaghetti or deep-sea squids), working the soil down to a depth of at least a foot and planting them about five inches deep in trenches. On average one can figure that four crowns will produce enough for one person, and each crown can produce for 15 to 20 years.

After only a single week, the new shoots are over 20 inches tall—that’s about four inches per day.

A newly emerged asparagus shoot

It’s Beginning to Feel Like Spring

A thunderstorm drenches the farm

It’s official: 2019-20 has been the wettest winter in Alabama’s recorded history. Our region got around 27 inches, with over 12 inches in February alone. It’s pretty tough for Eric and the students to work in those conditions, even so, they finished the new beds and got them all planted out with food and cover crops.

On rainy days, however, there is still plenty to work on in the seed house and the greenhouse. Despite all the cold and rain, this week really felt like the beginning of spring, as students have started some warm-season crops. They transplanted tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, which were started in the seed house in mid-January, into the greenhouse right around March 1. As they grow, the students will prune and train these tomatoes to grow on string lines suspended from the greenhouse.

Students and Eric talk about greenhouse plans

They also began some cucumber and zucchini seeds to be transplanted into the greenhouse (statistically, there is likely to be another freeze, so the field will need to wait). Like the tomatoes, the cucumbers will grow vertically, so students suspended a trellis for the vines to climb up.

Planting Onions

Students measure out and plant onion starts

With frost on the ground, Eric and the students busily transplanted over 300 onions starts—almost twice as many as last year. Onions can be started from seed too, but it saves a lot of time and energy to mail-order some high-quality starts.

Students mulch around newly transplanted onions with hay
Students mulch around newly transplanted onions with hay

Once the onions are planted, the students then mulched around them with hay to suppress weeds, preserve water, and protect soil. Not only do onions need consistent moisture to grow well, but they are very susceptible to weed pressure, with one study finding that weeds slow onions growth by about 4% per day (50% in just two weeks).

After only one month (March 26, when this post was made), the onions have already grown tremendously. As they continue to grow, the onions can be harvested at various stages of maturity, from green onions to pearl onions and finally the mature globes in June. Quality onions, when cured properly, can be stored for six months or longer in the right conditions, so these will find their way into many future meals.

In addition to onion planting, students also continued to prepare beds for future transplanting. Eric also tested and compared the merits of the power harrow tractor attachment to the much lighter, cordless drill-powered tilther. The power harrow proved to be too heavy and cumbersome in such tightly packed and water-logged beds.

First Spring Transplanting

Students fill a prepared bed with turnip seedlings

The growing season has officially begun! Eric and the students started seeds in the seed house in the last two weeks of January, and now, about four weeks later, we are ready to transplant out the new seedlings into the field.

Once the seedlings have between two and four “true” or adult leaves, they are ready to be either transplanted or moved to larger containers so that they don’t get root-bound. Even though the last frost has not happened yet, students are able to start planting out cold-hardy seedlings: turnips, beets, lettuce, collard greens, lettuce, mustard greens, kale, and broccoli. Other crops, like carrots, that are not suited to transplanting will be direct-sowed into the field.

Some of the beds still had residue from winter cover crops, and students worked to add soil amendments and fertilizer before using the tilther to gently work the amendments and residues into the soil. The tilther also fluffed up and prepared the surface for transplanting. Cover crops add a huge amount of organic matter to the soil, especially the root mass, as well as opening up the soil and promoting a healthy soil biome.