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.
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.
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.
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.
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.