Contrary to what the farm's appearance might suggest, not everything I plant grows well. I submit, for your disapproval, photos of my home garden:
Lettuce, bok choy, fennel and some onions planted a week or so later than their counterparts at the farm. There is also some self seeded dill from the garden two years ago. They are still alive, but are small and sad looking, considering they are only slightly bigger than when I put them in three weeks ago. In contrast, here are plants from the same seed starting vintage at the farm:
Just to make sure I'm clear here, the house garden plants and the farm plants were started at the same time, in the same trays and given the same treatment until they were planted. I just happened to have some leftover seedlings after I planted at the farm, so I took them home and planted them. Granted, the farm plants were put into the ground a week and a half earlier than the house plants, but I can guarantee the house plants will be nowhere near caught up in a week.
"So what happened?" you might ask. Both gardens get a similar amount of sunlight, which is usually the first culprit. The disparity between my two gardening practices points to just about everything that will make the difference between a successful garden and a frustrating one. Lets take them one by one, shall we?:
Timing: Timing is important when it comes to transplants. Seedlings in a cell pack only have a little tiny amount of dirt they can draw nutrients from and the cell pack's structure lends itself to letting plants become root-bound. There's a relatively short window between peak readiness and malnourished plants, and to make matters worse, store-bought seedlings often are right at the peak when they arrive at the store, and almost at the end of their window when you get them to your house. Even though I grow my own seedlings, I put them in a little after peak at the farm because I was traveling, so by the time they got home they were way past their prime. Recently, a customer asked what was wrong with her seedlings. They had started to turn yellow and had spots on them. This is usually a sign of severe nutrient deficiency and probably the early signs of disease. As it turns out, she had bought the seedlings three weeks ago, but decided to wait on putting them in the ground because of the cold weather we've been having lately. At this point the seedlings are so starved, even if they get proper nutrition when they hit the soil, they'll be weak for long enough to let disease and pests in early. Sometimes these things cannot be avoided, but if you can, try to put in your seedlings before or just as they start to show signs of stress, which includes yellow or purple leaves. If it is too cold yet, consider protecting your transplants with row cover, cold frames, or even a milk jug turned upside down. Or chalk it up to experience and try again later in the season.
Soil Prep: Before I transplanted at the farm, I added some micronutrients to the soil to balance out their availability (using what I learned at the Bionutrient Rich Crop Production Course). I also added some of my own garden compost as well as a good dose of Croswell Enterprises compost. I let this sit for at least a month before I planted in it. At the house I added compost at the beginning of last year, but no micronutrients and I didn't have time to add this year's compost in the spring. It's probably decent soil at the house, but nowhere near as lush as the soil at the farm. Once those seedling roots hit the dirt, they'll find it easy to access what they need to keep growing, boosting them into fuller leaves and healthier growth. Letting the amendments mellow in the soil before you add plants lets the soil ecosystem recover from the shock of the additions and lets the microorganisms work on making those amendments more available to the plants.
Seedling Prep: Right when I planted the seedlings at the farm I either dunked them in a nutrient rich fish and seaweed emulsion solution or I added a small amount of light fertilizer that has been beneficial bacteria and fungi added to it (I used GardenTone from Espoma, but I'm looking for a fertilizer that is actually approved for organic production, GardenTone is not...). This helps ease the "transplant shock" that seedlings get when they go from being coddled little plant babies to being shoved into the real world. I also made sure the seedlings were well watered during and for a few days after transplanting. I am pretty sure I just stuck in the home plants some evening after work without any of the prep steps. I am also certain I forgot to keep them watered afterwards.
Mulch!: This year I also used Croswell Enterprises compost as a mulch on the farm. Their compost has a slightly rough texture that is well suited as a top dressing or mulch, the nutrients go down and the wood pieces stay on top, covering the soil. As a farmer, I almost never mulched my soil, mostly because it seemed like a daunting task on a 6+ acre farm. On this new scale, mulching is my best friend. Something fine, like straw, chopped dry leaves or rough compost, is great because it covers the soil for one season and will break down to nourish the soil by the next season. As you can tell from the pictures, no such luck at the house garden, though I'll probably add some compost soon to mulch it there too. The mulch does so many great things, it covers the soil and creates a safe space for the microbes to do their thing, it regulates the moisture in the soil and allows for easier watering (bare soil often creates a crust that is hard to water properly), it deters weed growth, and it adds even more nutrients as it breaks down.
Intention: Often overlooked is the intention you bring to the garden. I'm not trying to be totally hocus-pocus here, but in reality I just pay more attention to the plants at the farm. I notice if they need help and I try to do what's best for them. This is often something that is difficult for folks with busy lives, like myself, that want to have a little garden at their house. I am majorly impressed with anyone that finds the time to have a day job, raise a family and a garden. It is very difficult, and yet, some pull it off. Kudos to you folks, you've totally got me beat.
And now a word of encouragement: the good thing is, we're still lucky enough to have dependable food sources while we learn how to grow our own. And the season itself is flexible enough that even if you're first planting attempts don't quite make the grade, you can always try again, often in the same season. Tomatoes and cucumbers can be planted into June and short season crops like lettuce can be planted into the summer. So if your soil and your garden plan isn't quite ready, you've still got time. Strategize and grow!
BTW, if you look on my facebook page, you'll find some sweet links to seedling sales happening this weekend so you can stock up on high quality plants. Also, here's a link to the HV Seed Library's blogpost about building a raised bed, and I'm mentioned in the post!