Row-cover-rama

Since organic farming eschews the use of pesticides, plants need to be protected from insect pests in other ways so as part of a multi-faceted approach to achieve that, the final step of transplanting, once seedlings are in the ground, is covering them up.
Covering the rows of plants to protect them from predatory bugs is a common technique used in Canada. Depending on the material, row cover can also provide insulation that protects against frost and increases soil temperatures; particularly beneficial for heat loving plants such as tomatoes, eggplant and chillies.

Setting up the row cover involves a few basic steps:

  1. Cutting wire or tubing that is rigid enough to drape the row cover over into regular pieces that will be long enough to span the plant beds.
  2. Pushing the wire or tubing into the ground on either side of the planted rows at regular intervals (5-7 feet or 2-3m) so they look like hoops sticking out of the ground.
  3. Cutting the row cover so it’s a little bit longer than the bed that needs to be covered.
  4. Pulling the row cover over the wire hoops ensuring it’s fairly taut.
  5. Securing the row cover at either end of the bed and on each side of the hoops. This can be achieved using rocks, soil or bags of either and is the most tedious part of it all.

This was our method for any transplants from the greenhouse but for plants that were directly seeded it was much quicker; there’s no need for hoops since the plants lift the cover as they grow.

What is row cover exactly?

Any material used as a protective cover for plants; there are different weights and grades available in a variety of widths and lengths. At Chelsea Gardens we used two types, both lightweight synthetics; the majority of it was referred to as row cover with the second type known as protectnet which is more robust, more expensive, doesn’t insulate as much and looks sexier since you can actually see the plants through it. In the pic to the right the row of transplanted pak choy on the left is under hoops with protectnet over the top while the direct seeded turnips, radishes, mustard greens and arugula or rocket are under row cover simply laid on top of the earth.

Unfortunately row cover is typically made from petroleum products and although the materials can be reused they are fairly flimsy and easily damaged but still seem to be the best solution given insect problems and the short growing season. The only other idea I had for something equivalent would be silk which would be stronger but could be equally light weight and prohibitively expensive.

Transplanting, transplanting, transplanting

Once seedlings have been hardened off adequately and deemed ready to go into the ground it’s time to head to the field. In spring there was lots of transplanting for the farm team; when a single week saw us undertake a massive effort with cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, squash, melons and eggplant go in and there was head lettuce, napa cabbage, pak choi, kale or cabbage to plant almost every other week.

Bed preparation typically includes a light hoe or even a flame weed (although this tends to be used before direct seeding) to help reduce weed pressure although this might be skipped it has been rototilled recently. Once it’s time to plant we hope for a cool, slightly overcast day with rain in the afternoon but the main thing is to get them in the ground; they may only be small plants but they will eventually use up the nutrients in the planter trays and become root bound. It’s lovely when the soil is a bit ‘fluffy’ and it’s easy to dig your hands in to make a space for the new plants but of course it’s not always ideal conditions and when we did leeks on a wet day into clay soil it felt like an uphill battle.

Watering them in is an essential step, generally achieved the low tech way with watering cans, although we did skip it if it was raining hard enough.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The transplants can look pretty sad (like the lettuces in the pic on the left) when they first go in but somehow they miraculously manage to survive, perking up (see middle pic) and eventually turn into fully grown plants ready to harvest (more like those same lettuces in the pic on the right).

Harden the f@#k up

They’ve been babied in the greenhouse with plenty of lights to help them grow, a heater to keep them warm and a fan to keep the air circulating (in an effort to prevent damping off – a fungal disease that affected some of our onions and leeks; we watched in dismay as they were eaten away at the base before keeling over) but it’s time for the plants to head out into the real world. Starting on the deck at the farmhouse the trays of seedlings begin their journey in fits and starts. The plants are put out in the morning, to gradually get used to life on the outside before being brought into the nice warm house again at night. So begins the daily ritual: inside, outside and inside again as the dining room, study and some of the living room are transformed into an evening sea of green. Once the minimum night time temperatures are over 10’C and the deck is made rabbit-proof the plants will stay out overnight.

Ideally hardening off weather is calm and mild; fairly overcast on day one, mostly sunny with patchy cloud cover on day two and then clear and warm after that. Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t always oblige and often our seedlings were put out in less than ideal conditions and some of them inevitably succumbed to cold, windy or very hot, sunny weather. It’s a shock for the little plants but once they are in the ground at the farm there will be virtually no protection from the elements so it’s now or never as there’s a planting schedule to follow if we want a harvest.

It all started in the greenhouse

It may not look like much but this tray of potting mix has been seeded with oil pumpkins that will be transplanted in a few weeks.  Canada has a short growing season and farmers often start plants indoors where they can control temperature, water and light while waiting for the soil to warm up. It’s a way of extending the season and gives plants a head-start while waiting for the days to lengthen and the risk of frost to pass.

Some considerations when planting for an indoor greenhouse:

  • Tray size – How many plants per tray? The more plants per tray the smaller the available space for each plant to grow before it becomes root bound and larger seeds, such as squash, need more space; the oil pumpkins above are in a tray with 24 pots.
  • Seed depth – As with all planting it’s important to know at what seed depth is needed.
  • Labelling – It’s a good idea to label trays with planting date and variety name in particular.
  • Germination – What germination rate is expected (if it’s low planting more than one seed per pot may be planted) and how many days for germination to occur?
  • Lighting – Fluorescent lighting is fine but it needs to be close to the plants; about 5-10cm (2-4 inches). If the light is too far plants will end up lanky as they stretch towards the light.
  • Number of seeds to plant – How many plants are planned for harvest? To account for losses calculate 20% loss in the greenhouse and a 20% loss at transplanting. For example, if 100 plants are started in the greenhouse then 80 plants would be transplanted in the field of which 64 would make it to harvest.

Even better than an indoor greenhouse is an outdoor heated greenhouse where plants get sunlight rather than artificial light. Unfortunately, there is some infrastructure yet to be built at Chelsea Gardens so for now the greenhouse is a basement room at the farmhouse.

Time to sow our seed

Spring has sprung and it’s time to start planting but of course you can’t just fling some seed around and expect it to grow. Besides preparing the soil there are plenty of other considerations once you’ve decided which variety you want to grow and of course where and when you want to plant it.

For most of the direct seeding (i.e. when seeds are planted straight into the earth) we use a seeder. Basically a two wheel cart with a seed hopper at the top, a plastic seed plate in the hopper that turns to pick up seeds and drop them down a chute to the ground, a tiny plough to form a furrow for the seed and a short chain at the back that covers the seed with soil. Direct seeding is a simple job but it does take some care since the rows need to be straight and evenly spaced across the width of the bed; before getting started check the following.

  • How many rows are being seeded – We seed 4 rows of carrots in the beds that are 5 feet wide.
  • What seed depth is needed – This is an adjustment that gets made at the base of the seeder; typically seed packets give an indication of seed depth.
  • Use the correct seed plate – Each plate is used for different seed sizes and spacing between seeds; typically the suitable seeds types are listed on the plate.
  • While seeding – It’s a good idea to check beneath the seeder to ensure seeds are dropping out evenly and getting covered adequately in soil; keep an eye on the seed level too.

Once the job is done has been done it’s a matter of waiting for germination, for rain and for the myriad of tasks that await; this is just the beginning.