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Planting, Planting, Planting

May 20, 2024

We planted potatoes three weeks ago, following the predictable routine. In the morning, a volunteer crew arrived at the Tin House to cut potatoes into “seed” pieces. In the late morning, planters dropped the pieces into furrows in the field. In all my years of growing, I’ve never encountered the perfect potato seed. Ideally, each piece should be the size of an egg with 1-2 eyes (sprouts). But when choosing where to cut, it’s usually a choice between pieces that are too large with not enough eyes, or too small with too many eyes. You can’t agonize over it. At some point, you just get into a rhythm and trust your gut. More important than the perfect seed piece is the right environment. Potatoes can grow in a range of conditions, but if the soil is too cold, the seed will rot. As long as the soil is above 50°, and the field has been adequately prepared, pieces that are a little small or a little large will do just fine.

The morning crew included seasoned regulars—Jackie, Judy, Maryellen, and Jeff. They got into the swing of cutting in no time. Out in the field, I raced to keep ahead of them, laying a tape measure along the furrows so they could drop at the appropriate intervals. I took a different approach with the afternoon crew—Kobi, age 13, and Arturo, age 14. I brought them out to New Pond Field, explained the process, and walked away. I did this with full confidence that they would take the job seriously (they were getting paid), and also knowing they would develop a rhythm a lot faster without me hovering. We won’t know how well they did until the potatoes sprout, and even then, there are other variables to consider. But from what I observed from a distance, the boys did just fine.

The weather has followed the same pattern for the past two weeks. Sunshine on Tuesday, followed by days of rain. So Tuesday is designated for cultivating weeds by tractor and with hoes. These weeds are tiny—they’re in what farmers call the “white thread stage” because their roots resemble tiny white threads. They put up no resistance to the tractor or hoe, which flicks them up from the soil and deposits them on the surface, where their roots dry out in the sun. Cultivating weeds at this stage is easy and pleasant and always brings to mind the adage a stich in time saves nine. So if we only have one sunny day in the week, there’s no question we’ll spend it cultivating.

Staying productive on rainy and/or wet days is more challenging. Harvesting in the rain is doable if it’s not a downpour, but with the first CSA pickup still one week away, there’s no harvesting to be done yet. That leaves planting, potting, pulling big weeds from the perennial beds, and attending to infrastructure (irrigation, trellises, etc.). Last week we caught a perfect two-hour window on Wednesday morning for planting tomatoes. This involves one or more “droppers” popping the plants from their flats and dropping the plugs in a line down the bed. “Planters” follow up on their hands and knees and anchor the plugs in the ground. In that critical time between getting dropped and planted, the plants’ roots are exposed to the air. On sunny days, the roots dry out fast, and we have to be careful not to let the droppers get too far ahead of the planters. On rainy days, the plants can hang out on the surface much longer, lending more flexibility to the crew. When we started on Wednesday, a light rain was falling, but the field itself was still fairly dry—perfect for planting, but only for a short time. So we raced to get the tomatoes in before the field turned to mud, which it did by 10am. That God for muck boots and rain pants.

This week we'll plant peppers and eggplant. Next week it’ll be sweet potatoes. Once the winter squash is planted in June, the lion’s share of the planting will be done. Planting doesn’t completely stop until September—that’s how we provide lettuce all season, and cabbage all winter. But once the winter squash is in, our focus shifts from the babies in the greenhouse to the teenagers in the field. It becomes a race against the weeds, especially as we bear down on the summer solstice, a point at which everything just wants to grow! Fingers crossed for the right combination of sunny and rainy days so we can keep the weeds at bay, and help the teenagers along.

Thanks for reading, and see you at the farm.


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