Tag Archives: compost

Battening Down the Hatches

Silvery red cabbage leaves

Silvery red cabbage leaves

Rain is in the forecast, a novel situation for us in “Droughtville” (California). We’ve had a couple practice storms roll through, dropping an inch, more or less, just to tease us. But this week, we’ve heard up to 7 inches could fall. The whole community is excited, hoping this will open the storm door and eventually lead us out of the dry conditions we’ve experienced for several years now. The reservoirs are low and steps are being taken to monitor ground water supplies. We have two good wells on the property we use to irrigate year-round. And so far, that’s been enough. Paul has also switched most crops to drip lines for most of their life cycle, rather than overhead, sprinkler-type watering. We trade off using less water for more plastic and more labor.

Cover crop has been planted wherever possible.

Cover crop has been planted wherever possible.

Lush cover crop.

Lush cover crop.

The farm prepares for winter rains every year, whether they come or not. As the day length shortens and the nights cool, fields are cleared of finished tomatoes and eggplant, tilled until smooth and flat, composted and finally cover crop seed has been planted wherever we want to give the beds a carbon boost. Ditches are checked and regraded where necessary.

Hoops to cover beds await

Hoops to cover beds await

Hoops are set up over beds in case the rain becomes too much for small plants. Plastic covers can be pulled over the top of the hoops, if need be. We’re ready and waiting to have time in the shop, to clean and sharpen tools, to change the oil for the many machines, and to get to the projects that await, like the recently purchased cultivating tractor that needs a new front axle and for the whole under-belly apparatus to be rebuilt and mounted.


Romanesco plays peek-a-boo

So we wait to see how much will fall.

Red beets

Red beets


Rainbow chard is loving this cooler, wetter weather.

Rainbow chard is loving this cooler, wetter weather.


Lots of new pipe. The days of moving pipe from field to field are numbered!

Lots of new pipe. The days of moving pipe from field to field are numbered!

Surprise artichokes are popping here and there.

Surprise artichokes are popping here and there.

Moving compost

Moving compost

Attending the compost

Attending the compost

Two kinds of leeks, King Richard on the left and Lexton on the right.

Two kinds of leeks, King Richard on the left and Lexton on the right.

Joanie came to visit on Thanksgiving.

Joanie came to visit on Thanksgiving.

Brussels sprouts are just beginning to form

Brussels sprouts are just beginning to form




New (used) Kubota cultivating tractor


Front axle needs work


Cha-Cha-Cha Changes

Rain is expected tomorrow. So much to do to prepare. The crew is racing to finish picking and packing for the restaurant orders and the Farmers’ Market, so they can go out in the fields. Planting, covering beds, harvesting …

Paul is spending his day on the tractor…from one to another, spreading the new pile of compost before it needs to be covered and the fields are too wet to drive on. Getting another application of compost on now, then allowing the rain to soak it in, will do everything a world of good.

Before Rain Buzz

Today the farm was busy with field preparation. It feels like spring. But there was added urgency because much needed rain is predicted. Not just trace amounts, but possibly days of the wet stuff which will hopefully be able to bring us closer to some kind of rainfall normal. We’ll see.

One field is being readied for some long overdue cover cropping. This field has been in constant production for many years, but in the interest of restoration and more fall production, it’s getting tilled, composted and planted with a “green manure” crop which will grow through the spring to build a better soil. In June or July the crop will be incorporated into the soil to augment the fertility and enhance soil structure. The vegetable crop that follows should get a boost from this process.

Another field is being readied for peppers, eggplant and tomatoes, about a month away from target first planting.

Our salad production is in full swing. Rows of colorful lettuces are in stages, some ready to be picked, some already grown past their prime. And some rows are just emerging, barely there yet full of promise. The head lettuces are grown in the greenhouse then transplanted and covered to keep them warm. The covers have been a huge help this year, allowing better growth for many crops, including the kales and chard. The plastic is a bit tricky to attach to the hoops that cover the bed and when it is windy, checking the covers is the first chore of the morning. But even with that issue, the covers are a plus for us.

We are almost out of carrots, but this week was our first harvest of baby Tokyo Turnips and Green Garlic. You can see the beautiful turnip greens are plentiful and vibrant. The next carrot crop is just to the left. The rainbow chard is just out from under covers and shining. Spring is springing.

Winter or Spring?

Sure feels like spring…warm, dry and windy. Our beekeeper is concerned about the lack of nectar to feed the bees. It’s been so dry. And the worry is that it will rain throughout the month of March.

So, irrigation has been running. Lettuces and and greens are under covers. Fields are being readied for planting and planting is happening.

This bed of fennel and kales was planted Friday. Strange confluence in that 2 or 3 people asked about when we would have fennel again. As you can see, it’s probably 6 weeks off.

Favas are flowering. The artichokes are starting to really produce.

Ideally, before we do get rain, all the ground that can be planted should be bedded up and composted. Paul is spending a lot of time on the tractor with his compost spreader right now. This first picture, you can see him off in the distance. Through the power of ZOOM, he comes a bit closer. The spreader he made last winter is working like a charm and getting a lot of use. Looks like it’s gotten a nice rusty patina over the year.

Turning the Compost

Compost is always in some stage of transition on the farm, either being made, digesting or finished. Usually we have all three stages simultaneously. It plays an essential role in our farming scheme, adding nutrients, microbial life and texture to the soils.

The raw ingredients vary with availability, but we have access to aged horse manure and bedding that provides enough carbon to balance the amount of green refuse that comes from our packing and sorting. Typically 1-2 cubic yards of green material goes back to the compost every week. When a new pile is made, it will heat up to at least 135 degrees. After the pile cools (3-5 weeks) it’ll be turned again, usually with a similar heating spike of shorter duration.  After rolling the pile 4-5 times it will stabilize, cool off and be ready to use. It takes several months, turning the pile, keeping the right moisture level, the correct ingredients in the right proportions, but magic happens.

We also purchase, by the truckload half or more of the compost we need to augment the soil building necessary to grow good vegetables. Increased working of the soil by nature depletes the organic fraction, and when all of those vegetables leave the farm, something has to replace the nutrients and elements leaving with them. Typical compost applications are between 8-12 yards per acre per crop.


Thanksgiving is tomorrow.

Yet there is plenty to do at the farm.

The morning is cool and quiet.

Rain is expected later today.

Green Glow

It’s the green glow, post-rain flush. Nothing like what happens after rain in the garden. Just look outside. Take a walk. Look at the ground. Weeds and grasses are springing to life with all the vigor they can muster. Somehow the weeds know the difference between rain and irrigation. Maybe it’s the change of weather that prompts all of this activity. In fact, if you look closely, the weeds are entirely different than just a month ago. So it’s time to cultivate EVERYWHERE at once.

The cultivating tools have been out in force, wheel hoes, stirrup hoes, and the cultivating tractor. It has to be done now, before they gain on the crops too much. Every once-in-a-while, we’ll lose a crop to weed pressure. And conditions like last week are a perfect storm for that possibility. If the ground stays wet too long the weeds will get to a size that it’s not economically practical to do anything except start over.

These rows of arugula and Easter Egg radish are wheelhoed for the first time. We'll do this at least one more time and then some hand weeding.

Walking around the fields this morning, I was struck by how much had been cleaned up. I’m amazed how fast the crew jumps on these issues. As soon as they are finished picking or packing, Silvano, Servando, Austin and Orlando have hoes over their shoulders and are headed to another bed.

This was peppers only two weeks ago.

There are also many empty beds, with the spaghetti of drip tape gathered into furrows, to be moved later. The obvious weed growth on these open stretches isn’t important at all. And in some open fields, the grasses are coming up in distinct rows, sure sign of the tractor mounted cover crop seeder. This crop of bell beans, winter peas, vetch, barley and oats will be tilled in sometime in the spring. There is nothing like cover crop to build the soil fertility and structure.

We're happy to have the cover crop pop to life. The oats and barley always show first.


The soil is littered with a colorful juicy orbs filled with seeds. Imagine how many tomato seedlings will be here in the springtime!




This was the first crop of cherry tomatoes planted outside in April. The trellis has come down, so did all the plants. They’ll lay here until the stakes are pulled and then the plants will be chopped and incorporated into beds for either cover crop or or early 2012 plantings.

Little problems always come up in the course of working with machinery that can stop everything. Paul was transporting a load of  compost to the new front field when the wheel on the spreader broke. Luckily he was on the road and able to jack it up and re-weld the break.

Compost was spread on some open ground before the wheel interruption.

Field Turnover

So much is changing so fast.

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Nothing lights a fire under a farmer faster than the prediction of the season’s first rain, especially if the timing is early or the outlook is for significant precipitation. Ideally, a farm’s fields are fully clean of plants and weeds, bedded up, composted and cover cropped if necessary, before the first rain event of the season. And rain is predicted for the next three days, not a lot, but certainly it will change things.

In our case, many of the fields are still producing a straggling amount of food. In some cases a newer planting is kicking into high gear; tomatoes for instance. In other cases, the crop is finished for the season, like the first plantings of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.  The fields with finishing crops are the target of attention before the rain. For example, this field of peppers was essentially finished with another crop in full production so Saturday it was mowed, tilled, composted and bedded up.

Another important winter prep detail involves making room for storage crops, onions and winter squashes, in our case. Storage crops are the staple for small diversified growers who rely on having something to sell while they are unable to get into their fields because of weather.

Thoughts on “waste”

We took a walk through the varied fields, from crop to crop in all stages of maturation, with a number of CSA members last Saturday. And one of the things that kept coming up was how much food was out there not being sold. Bruised and damaged heirlooms littered the aisles. Colorful peppers created a floor tapestry between the rows. So much to pick up that seem perfectly fine. Someone should eat this, can this, make sauce, sell it here or there. Surely, this isn’t right! This food is being wasted!

OK. In some parts of the world, it might make sense to try to glean every last green bean, every tomato and pick through weedy beds of lettuce. But, the reality in Sonoma is that planting too much is what we do on purpose. How much to plant is an art in itself. We like to be “long” on a crop so that in case that caterer throws us a curveball, ordering an extra 10 boxes of lettuce mix, it’s out there. Or in case you want to can tomatoes, you can order them from us!

Farming means dealing with products that are perishable, sometimes highly so. There is always more that could be picked of something. How much to pick and how long to spend picking vary daily, especially this time of the year when so many crops are ready. The “waste” goes right back onto the compost pile or is just left in the row and tilled in to feed the soil. After all, the crop is made up of the soil. Just makes sense to feed it back. In truth, the cycle of life is augmented by this attitude I believe. If we leave something for nature and the soil life, we are promoting its abundance.

Every week a local woman comes to the farm to pick up a few buckets of what would otherwise be compost and takes it to her property on the hill to feed an assortment of animals both wild and domestic. One day we were talking and she made the assumption that if it went to the compost, it was wasted. I pointed out that I have a population of worms just waiting for a meal also. The worms convert this waste into a pile of biological activity that is like pure gold in my farming system, better than any compost that can be purchased. It’s a closed loop that perpetuates itself and actually somehow magically becomes better and richer with time. We simply harvest the sun’s energy into plants so it can build on itself.

With all this in mind, we canned 20 quarts of tomatoes and peppers Sunday. We didn’t pick them up off the ground, there were plenty of extras this week. It seems like perhaps we’re experiencing the wonderful result of the “back to the garden” movement around us. (The economic downturn has a silver lining). It seems nearly everyone enjoys growing tomatoes, and we salute the efforts. Come visit us for whatever you don’t feel like growing.

And at the end of each week, we set 10-15 cases of food aside for Meals on Wheels. Win. Win.

Rock On


Paul’s Produce is rockin’. There are routines. The field crew addresses cultivating, picking and packing. My schedule involves sales calls, pick lists, preparing the CSA newsletter and restaurant availability sheet, farmers’ markets, preparing invoices and banking. Paul’s days are the most varied. He does most of the seeding, directs the crew, does all of the irrigation, maintains the trucks, tractors and many other tools, orders seed, boxes and such a variety of miscellaneous items I can’t list them. And after dinner he tends to peruse Craig’s List for “things that could be useful”.

One such item that turned up last week was this rock sifter. It needs some tweaking, but we have a lot of rock in much of the ground we are farming. It is set up to sift the rocks from our compost. The spreader that Paul made this spring has trouble handling wet compost and compost with rocks.

Given the right conditions, this one-bed compost spreader works beautifully.

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