Last Friday I got a call that my seed potatoes were in. This year I used one of the several organic farms in central WI that specialize in spuds to source my seed – I save a bundle in shipping, and they make a bit too. Its all good. But as this was an ad hoc deal, communication was not ideal and some wires were crossed. Apparently some of “Rose Finn Apple *OR* La Ratte; German Butterball *OR* Kennebec” got a lost in the shuffle and all those “or’s” got changed to “and’s”. So I have an extra 150#’s of potatoes — not a huge deal, but its an extra 20% more space. And were were already feeling the crunch on the farm as each of the tenant farms is looking to expand this year. Might need to rethink some of my cover/compost crop experiments…
Running the math – 750#’s works out to just under 6000 row feet with 12″ spacing. The Kennebecs and Yukons get more like 8″, but still, that is well over a mile of potatoes to hill, water, and harvest. Good thing I have that extra day off! With seed in hand and low tunnels up, it was time to get crackin on planting. 2010 is going to bring several changes. First, I am growing even more varieties: Desiree (storage), Carola (melt in your mouth good), Purple Viking (al purpose and gorgeous), Kennebec (baking), Nicola (favorite of my Chef client), Yukon Gold (early/potato salad), German Butterball (storage), “Flaming” (no idea, it was a substitute for Red Gold), and 3 fingerling (La Ratte, Rose Finn Apple, and French). Second I am planning the harvest more betterer since harvesting/selling 8000#’s of spuds in a part time one man gig is no mean feat. And finally, I am getting much more intentional with my growing technique which is what I would like to get into in this post.
Last year I ran 2 experimental plots. The first, the potato towers, were an unmitigated failure. The second was using deep straw mulch over fertile soils was a spudtacular success –netting over 3# per plant. If I could get the same yields in field production my harvest would be over 9 tons this year from 750#’s of seed (24:1) – or more importantly I could cut my seed order and acreage in 2011 by over half. Doing more with less sounds great to me.
Here is the technique I have worked out and will be field trailing as much as time allows:
You may have noticed that it is still March and I am planting potatoes – this is the bed under the first low tunnel I built this past Febuary. The rye crop LOVED the cover and was 18″ tall by March 22! – I mowed and turned it under last Friday using the rotary plow and then formed this bed. The bed design is taken straight our of 4 Season Harvest: 2 30″ beds divided by a 1′ middle path. This allows it to snuggle under a low tunnel (hoops laying to the left, plastic to the right) allowing me to plant as early as the soil can be worked – in this case 3 weeks early due to having to till under the cover crop; 2011 I will be in March wk 2.
But I am not one to rest on anyones laurels, not even Eliot Coleman’s. In Chapter 12 of Alcohol can be a Gas, David Blume talks through a really intriguing method of doing raised beds. Essentially a contour swale is dug every few beds and then this swale is filled with compost material and wood chips. In Blume’s idea, these mulch filled swales are then inoculated with red wigglers who munch away, merrily composting in place. But Blume is a Grade A permaculturist so look how cool this gets: these are contour swales – so they fill with water every good rain. That alone is great as each raised bed is now sitting on top of a lens of sub soil water greatly reducing or eliminating irrigation. But his swales are full of worm turd, which is water soluble and that lens of water is now super fertile. Plus the worms can’t live in the swale during the flood so they high tail it into your raised beds and happly munch away in there while manuring and opening up air passages with their burrows. Awesome. But the swale function stacking ain’t done yet. Blume doesn’t mention this, but being full of wood chips – they will act as nurseries for soil fungi. The paths are never tilled, just added to, so the fungi lives on. And on and on to recharge your beds with mycelium even after the disruptive potato harvest. How cool is this?
It just so happens that the rotary plow is wicked good at building raised beds with 1′ deep swales on each side. Oh, and I just bought a cool Italian chipper that eat 2″ trunks for breakfast. AND I am planting coppice trees by the hundreds. Look at the picture again, you see the start of the wood chip swale (not on contour in this plot) for my own little Chapter 12 experiment. This week I will get another 20 yards of chips in BART (it will take about 90 yards to fill all the swales!!) And this afternoon the farm owner and I staked out the contour lines of the new potato plot (65’x170′). This week we will disc it to give the horses a workout, and then build the beds with the Grillo and the rotary plow: 6′ beds each surrounded by a 2′ wide swale. On contour and full of mulch and worms. Gods I love this plan!
So the beds are made, but I want to take the learnings from my uber successful trial last year and scale them up. The trial consisted of 3 things – shallow planting of the seed potatoes for easy harvest, then covering the seed in compost and a foot of straw. the yeilds were insane and weeding and watering were almost eliminated. So here we go: enter a crap ton of compost and straw and I am planting shallower to hopefully allow me to use the root digger for the Grillo (good thing with 6000′ of row to harvest!). The photo at right shows me half way done with one of the 20 beds. The spud seed is planted about 4″ deep, the soil raked flat and then I applied a .5″ layer of 3/4 finished compost and watered well. Over this I added a 1-2″ layer of straw. This works out to 1 bale every 40′ of 30″ bed. As I expect to “hill” the potatoes again in about 4-5 weeks with another layer of mulch I expect each 6′ bed to take 8 bales total which works out to 160 bales for the entire plot. Bales are about $2 each, but seeing as I sell my potatoes for $2/lb I fully expect to earn that back in harvest and the reduction in weeding, hilling and watering should more than make up for it regardless.
Here is where I get really excited about this plan. First – there is 3 acres of prairie on the farm. We burn an acre a year, and the farm owner has always dreamed of using the biomass (3-4″ of straw) off on of the others on the farm each year. I’d rather not spend $300 on straw if I don’t have too, so we took a fork and a rake out to the blue stem prairie today for a look see and the straw came up fairly easy. Next week we will drag a harrow across one of the prairie plots with the Draft Team to collect the straw to one side and then pile it up for future use as potato mulch. Awesome.
I’ve been writing about the MASSIVE amounts of compost we will be making this year – 40 tons or so. That is flippin awesome in and of itself, but it also takes ALOT of machinery and making the fuel for that machinery is alot of work. Using the bed method above nature is doing much more of the work – Moving wheel barrow loads of mulch around ad forking it into the paths is pleasant work. Chipping the coppice wood will still need fuel, but my chipper has a 5hp engine vs. the Bobcats 45hp one. Also, this system can get very close to no till in a very big hurry. Ruth Stout would be very pleased with all my mulching and I’d like to think that Fukuoka would be pleased with my letting the worms do my composting in place. Its all coming together.
This system makes all kinds of sense so we are moving forward. It will be a CRAP TON of work in the first year as I have to build 20, 80′ long raised beds from scratch, and then fill 1700′ of swale with 90 cu yards of wood chips. But once the system is in place the work should drop off quickly as is to be expected in any permaculture design. Stoked as all hell about this.
Be the Change.