How We Grow

First Garden in Gause, Milam County, Texas - 1982

Back Field/Austin/2018 

Thoughts about small-scale farming

Since we planted our first big garden (1982, at our farm in Gause, Milam County, Texas) we have experimented with various approaches to growing nutritious, fresh vegetables. Our initial teachers were the trees of the woods that needed no fertilizers/no deep cultivation, and the native grasses (weeds) who did just fine without our assistance.

With few books to consult in those days, our influencers were John Dromgoole, Eliot Coleman, and Malcom Beck, all of whom espoused growing methods that protected the soil.

The problem was introducing the crops we desired lead to a competition with the home team, and what a struggle that has been.

The majority of non-organic crop growers learned from the pesticide peddlers, who learned from the adaptable success of chemical warfare, and so the weeds were finally routinely controlled by herbicides. But since the soil was then incapable of feeding itself, without the native species, more and more fertilizers (feed the plant, not the soil) and constant tilling (stirring up the soil) was the 1-2 punch needed. Thus, the corn field, lush in the summer, lies “fallow” in the winter. With the winter weeds banished, leaving the soil unclothed, it blows away when dry and erodes with heavy rains. The civilization of tiny soil dwellers dies.

Finding the flowers in the weeds

We chose not to get on that train. But, honestly, we were frustrated over the last 28 years trying futilely to negotiate the weed war. The labor needed for “weed control“ was ill spent as the weeds always came back. Weed a bed one day; weed it again next week. (Job security.) The tiller was our friend.

 

The Dust Bowl of the 1930‘s stands as a lesson on the folly of plowing and tilling the soil, always expecting a timely rain, but achieving a no-till status is difficult for modern farms that use no herbicides. If one plows or tills dry soil, it becomes homogenized dust and billions of soil creatures are chopped up or sent into the air to travel away from the farm or die. The structure of the soil is destroyed and an almost impenetrable “hard pan” is created by the tiller, beneath its flailing blades, generally 8 inches below the top of the soil. Yes, the tiller was our fickle friend.

 

Much is said about losing carbon from the soil into the air. Tilling does a great job of this, by introducing air into the soil. Our first effort in the late 1990s to sequester carbon in our soil, was to leave crop roots in the soil to decompose. Roots are sheathed in carbon, so as the roots decayed, the carbon was protected IN the undisturbed soil.

 

In the summers, we were growing and training our tomatoes, cucumbers, and long beans upright, using hundreds of baskets, t-posts, and baling twine to keep the plants in vertical order. Since these crops blocked sunlight on the adjoining beds, only weeds could grow on those fallow beds. Nature wants the soil covered, and weeds are her best solution. By every August the weed war was in full swing. We had 4-foot tall weeds, not only on the fallow beds, but also sharing the crop beds. Insane. We calculate that every year, we spent over $20,000 in weeding labor and extra fertility applications. (No wonder our quality vegetables are “expensive,” while the herbicide-treated vegetables are “cheap.”)

Perfectly tilled beds before planting tomatoes

March - Larry & Buddy tie up tomatoes on a bed full of weeds

Twenty years ago, we experimented with landscape fabric. Nurseries were using it as it was permeable to rain and it kept all weeds away from the potted plants. We thought that the tarp might keep Bermuda grass from entering our fields. We purchased a couple of 3‘x300’ rolls and laid it at the heads, sides and backs of the beds, all around each field on the farm. A lot of work and guess what, the Bermuda grass launched branches over the tarp, and under the tarp, and then the final insult: the wind threw Bermuda seeds over and into the fields.  We abandoned the effort. Failure.

2016 Spring Flood

In the spring of 2016, during a very wet season, we knew the weeds were going to be extra vicious by fall. We ordered landscaping fabric in lengths of 300' with widths from 3’  to 12‘.  We covered beds that hosted spent crops and healthy weeds. We removed none of those plants. We just covered them with the tarp, holding the edges tight to the soil with agricultural staples, bricks and sand bags.  

 

Rain continued to fall, soaking through the tarp. After two months, we removed the tarp and found only a few tired, decomposing thread-like stems. In a few beds with enormous amounts of weeds the tarps transformed the weeds into hay. We could rake them into the pathways with our hands or a spring rake. No weed seeds had germinated. The soil was so clean! 

 

We amended the blank canvas of soil with minerals and our farm-made compost. Then we planted, digging small holes (we didn’t want to disturb the dark soil) and tucking the transplants in. They grew with little to no competition from weeds.  Success!

The magic of the tarp turned thick weeds into hay, much of which we put into our compost pile.

A new carrot bed

Lush plants

We are now a “NO TILL” farm, focusing fervently on the health of the soil. The two tractors (Lilian and Jaws) are used for hauling brush, transporting chicken litter to the compost pile, turning the compost pile, and bringing the finished compost to the heads of the growing beds. They never enter the beds and the tiller is now a cherished relic. We also no longer tie into hedges our tomatoes, long beans, hard squashes, cucumbers, and any other vining crop. They simply sprawl over clean tarped beds. More saved labor!

Our Tractors / Compost Piles

Tomatoes sprawling over the tarps

How does it work? Seeds can wait over many years in the soil. Tilling brings buried seeds into light, and with light they germinate. The tarp blocks all light from the soil and absorbs rain water. The soil civilizations thrive in darkness and moist conditions (Witness the earth worm forming tunnels in soft, moist soil--impossible in dry hard soil.)  Our compost, the spent crop, and the weeds are their food. The tarp furthers decomposition, and does not heat the soil, even in the summer, so soil life is not hurt.

 

Some weeds require many months to be totally dead. Bermuda grass takes about 8-12 months as its roots are 2’ deep in the soil. Finally though, they use up their reserves and their brittle remains can be swept to the side of the bed for pathway mulch, by hand or by rake. Likewise nut grass uses up their reserves as the tarp floats above its pointy leaves. Without pressure on the tarp, the nut grass can not penetrate the tarp and so is eliminated. 

 

We also use the “stale bed” method for delicate crops such as carrots, salad mixes, and arugula. We remove the tarp, expose and irrigate (if needed) the cleaned bed, and wait for any weed germination. If tiny weeds are present, we cover the bed once more for a couple of weeks. That almost guarantees a lasting clean bed for immediate sowing or transplanting, (after we apply  compost and minerals.)

Arugula in lines, to the left

Our goal is to not disturb the soil. For direct sowing of seeds, like radishes, salad greens, carrots, spinach, etc, we draw small shallow (1/2”) trenches in the bare soil. We drop the seeds into the trench at the proper distance from each other (we like pelleted seeds. They are easily seen by the white coating on each seed.) Then we rake the trench edges over the seeds. Irrigation is on to bond the soil particles back together; and to get rid of pockets of air.

Sprawling cucumbers with new drip irrigation system

To continue making life difficult for unauthorized plants (weeds) before or after a crop of our choice is planted, we lay the tarp up to the edge of bare soil required for the plants and for drip tape. We leave a swath of soil 4" wide for a one-line crop on the bed, up to 18" wide for a multi-lane crop like broccoli, summer squash, beets, carrots and spinach. Arugula, cutting lettuces and radishes may warrant 30" of bare soil. 

Squash in a double line on the bed

The tarp covers the shoulders of the bed and the foot paths. Weeds will grow in the bare soil, exposed to light, of these beds because we did have to disturb the soil with our trenches or transplant holes. But, these weeds are EASY to pull when they are still young.  Sometimes in the busyness of the summer crops, amaranth or other rogue weeds will escape our notice as the crop hides them. So, we pull them and take them to our passive compost pile, hoping to get them out of the field before they go to seed.

The use of tarps has been a wonderful decision for our farm. They last many years, especially since we move them around the farm. Some of our tarps are over a decade old. 

A lot of mindless labor is mostly banished. Minor baby leaves in the planting areas are easily pulled. We used our idle hours to install a new irrigation system, with new header pipes, and T-tape, and turn-off switches for each bed.

The laying out, and removal, of the tarps is the main labor expense, but once the tarp is secured, there is no further labor expended as the tarp will be in place for at least two months.

Monica moving tarp

Cover crops? Our past experience with “normal” cover crops, rye, sorghum, peas, etc., have failed to control our weeds, even with a good stand. In Texas we can’t count on timely rains to irrigate them. Drip tape does not water them efficiently, and it must be removed before mowing down (and disking or tilling) the cover crop. 

 

Instead of seeded cover crops, we use many of our market crops as “cover crops” after we have harvested their edible contributions. Short/soft crops like arugula, long beans, squash, spinach, peas, chicories serve as cover crops. We just tarp them and in their last days of life, they do the job of feeding the soil. Within two or three months, the bed is clean.

Soil Tests:  It’s critical to get a soil test before amending the soil. It’s helpful to know what minerals exist and whether or not they are available to the plants. A test will inform the pH, and texture of the soil. Results vary from one lab to another in complexity, but even a simple inexpensive test will help. Our source for Soil Tests: tpslab.com It offers many types of tests.

Soil Test

Minerals: Without periodic additions at the courtesy of floods, our lands become depleted. With every broccoli head harvested, minerals leave the farm too. Thus we must add minerals needed to our soil.

 

The amendments we use: Sulfur (pelleted), Potassium/Magnesium (KMag), Gypsum, Molasses, Humus. For a boost to greens (kale, spinach, mustards, etc) we add a small amount of cotton seed meal (cattle grade).

Compost Piles. (Pile to the left is ready to apply to beds. The pile on the right is in the gathering carbon/nitrogen/ minerals (dry leaves/sawdust and chicken poop) and making compost stages.

Our Farm-made Compost:  The compost is our major nutrient for the soil. Each planting bed receives about 1-2 inches sprinkled on the bed. We harvest it in its “slow-release-nitrogen” stage, meaning that our compost contains blackened particles of leaves and small sticks that will continue to decompose on the planting bed.

 

Making Compost: Our chickens live their entire lives on the farm, often to the age of 15 years. They don’t lay eggs after about 5 years old when they enter “henapause.”  But, they poop until they die! And it is first-class poop as the hens eat our vegetables as well as soy free Coyote Creek Feed Mill grain.

Tootie J Tootums & Aunt Penny: pet hens who love to tour the farm house,  when they aren't contributing their awesome poop to the compost piles.

Our recipe is the chicken’s poop and litter (nitrogen/carbon) mixed with brown leaves (carbon) + water + air. The ratio is approximately 20% poop/litter to 80% brown leaves/sawdust. It is crucial when we make compost to keep the pile moist. The pile must be turned about 3 times each week in the early stages. We water it with a hose as the tractor turns the mass. The size of the pile will shrink as the ingredients decompose.

 

A working compost pile will emit steam even on the hottest day. If there is no steam, the pile needs water. The temperature in the compost pile will range from ambient temperature to 160 degrees. At that upper level of heat the pile should be watered and turned to prevent combustion. At 100 degrees, the pile is working; at 130 degrees, any existing salmonella bacteria will be killed.

Small piles will dry out rapidly; so have at least a pile 5’x5’ for a garden compost. Over-watering can be just as bad as no watering because the bacteria/microbes need oxygen to live.

Greenhouse

Plants from Seeds:

We grow all of our plants from seeds. We save some heirloom seeds, but we also buy in seeds from johnnyseeds.com,  and tomatogrowers.com.

Plants that we directly sow in the fields include beets, carrots, parsnips, fava beans, Asian long beans, spinach, radishes, cucumbers, squash, peas, and arugula. These seeds are sown into shallow/narrow trenches, or dropped into a shallow hole, depending on their space requirements. (Seed catalogues will advise one on the spacing each seed needs.)

Buddy checks out the seedlings, making sure no grackles are in the green house. The grackles like to pull up our info sticks hoping to find a worm in the seedling's cell.

Individual seedlings are placed into a hole carved into the soil. Displaced soil is drawn around the planted seedling. Fingers press the soil firmly around the seedling. Irrigation is on to eliminate pockets of air around the roots.  (When roots hit air, they stop growing.). The most delicate of the transplants, lettuces and chicories, are planted in our hoop houses, where we can protect them from frost and wind.

Hoop House. Frisee to the left and Radicchio to the right

Pests: Harlequin Bug

Pests:
We are always asked about rogue insects that can ruin a crop overnight. What do we use to turn them away? We wish we are always successful, but here are some tips for some of the most horrible tragedies.

For squash vine-borers: You know that depressing moment when you stroll out in the morning to admire your squash plants, and they are all flat on the ground, limp forever. Dead.

The sure-shot technique? Surgery. But, this works only when the plant is alive. You must examine your near to bloom plant every day and see if at the base of the stalk there is a small pile of yellow poop coming out of the stalk.

 

That means you must whip out your sharp knife and slit the stalk vertically to enable you to open it up and look for the pooper, the worm. It is soft and white like a “bubble boy” as it has lived all of its life inside the stalk, eating away at it. When the worm gets large (1” long) it chews into the stalk walls and death is near for the squash. Pull that worm out (and up to two more!) and you have saved the squash. No need to sew up your knife work; the plant will recover. You will get squash from it!

For leaf-eating worms: You want to eat the kale leaves but something has beat you to them? Look on the back of the leaves and you’ll see green inch worms. For a garden, just pick them off (look for tiny ones too) and give them to your chickens. This is a sure cure. For bigger problems farmers spray the back of the leaves with wormer products.

 

Look for the safer/kinder labels that don’t display the skull and cross bones…. The ingredients don’t kill instantly, but they give the worms indigestion and they quit eating. If you miss a worm, just pull it off and return it to the earth.

For harlequin bugs: This bug is bringing you bad news in April usually. You had the audacity to grow a late crop of broccoli and his entire team is going to teach you a seasonal lesson. These are sneaky bugs, starting at the plants that you don’t check on everyday. By the time you notice, he is ruining your heads of broccoli by sucking the green stuff out of the flower beads.


The only thing that will get them is fire.  So get a propane burner and whirl a soft flame around in the broccoli plant. The bugs will fall off onto the soil, and then you can turn your fire up a notch and smoke them out. The plants will survive the momentary heat wave and you’ll have broccoli to eat, although it may be polka-dotted here and there. Just remember don’t grow that last crop of brassicas as the harlequin bug will find them!

For leaf-footed stink bugs on tomatoes:  Ah, this surely is the tragic tale. The tomatoes are nearly ripe and suddenly you see these dark bugs with a stripe around their torso and hundreds of dark reddish offsprings sucking the red out of your tomatoes and leaving them with yellow bombs bursting all over your fruit. Inside the tomato flesh will be white and hard.
 

Treatment begins when you plant your tomatoes.  It’s tempting to pour on the nitrogen to get large leafy plants and succulent tomatoes. These are the nitrogen-rich plants that attract the L-F-S-B.  The answer is: Instead of pure nitrogen, use a good compost. A good compost should have slow-release nitrogen which will feed the plant in a more polite way throughout its life.

 

If you are serious about tomatoes, you should get a soil test on the area and see what the level of nitrogen is. Perhaps you won’t need more. If you insist on a bag of nitrogen rich fertilizer, then apply it very gingerly, leaving small amounts in several applications. If you get these bugs, you can clap your hands with them inside. That’ll get them.

For aphids: This is nearly the worst assault on your plants. Seedlings can be covered with aphids and die rapidly. Here’s the deal: If you have aphids, you probably have fire ants. They treat the aphids like tiny cattle. They place them, pregnant, onto your plants. Expansion of the plague is rapid. They love brassicas.  If you catch them early you can pick off infested leaves (to the chickens) or you may rub them off with your fingers. But the main thing is to control the fire ants! We dilute orange oil and pour it on their mounds. They don’t like this. Try to get to the mounds before you see aphids. Orange oil is expensive. Sorry.

For brownish/grayish cut worms:  Another tragedy. Your lettuce plant has fallen over, wilted, its trunk severed. No leaves have been eaten. The worm just wants the life juices at the junction of root and stalk. What to do? Dig around that fallen plant and close to the neighboring plants. Sift the soil through your fingers. Maybe you will find the worm. If you don’t, then tomorrow you can try again, as probably he was hungry overnight, while you slept peacefully. Sorry.

In summary, our focus remains on the soil. Our top-soil (sandy loam with some clay) is approximately two feet deep on most of our five acres. The front area, facing Lyons Road, received two feet of creek run-off soil, rocks and rubble, in the mid 1980’s. The area inhabitants feared flooding so Boggy Creek is now concreted. Rain water rushes past our farm and ends up in the Colorado River.

Unfortunately, the creek contents buried the original bottom land soil which sloped down to the creek, which lies across Lyons Road, behind houses.  But we endlessly build more soil with our compost, and we pick up the rocks and use them in our driveway potholes. It’s okay!

Every farm has its challenges and we’ve learned through storms, tornadoes, floods, hail, droughts and various insect plagues, that Nature is in control. Farmers may be negative in the short run, but overall we are very optimistic and passionate about our life’s work. We never quit.

We have dedicated ourselves to providing  excellent produce year round that is harvested even during the market days— so fresh that its energy may still be felt by the customer.

There is a new season in our future.

And, it may be a great one!

Map of the Farm