No-till Flower Farming
Here we are. The height of summer. Wait, how the heck did we get here already?!?
The 14+ hour days make everything a blur, don’t they? How are you holding up? If you’re a new grower, know that now is the hardest part of the season. August is BRUTAL! Everyone wants to quit in August! Chin up. Keep trucking! The rich floral rewards in autumn will make you recall why you decided to start this crazy gig.
I remember my first dog days of summer as a very new flower “farmer”. It was ten years ago. I was growing on a 20’x 40’ plot, and I probably had about 200 varieties jammed in that tiny space. My market bouquets were interesting, to say the least. “No Two Alike” was my sales pitch! Literally, I had two stems of each variety and that was it. Oh, brother…
If I hadn’t joined the ASCFG that year, I don’t think I could respectfully call myself an actual flower farmer back then. But everyone starts somewhere and fortunately I had this amazing professional organization to help guide my very first steps.
Fast forward ten long, hot summers and my farm has expanded to over three acres in intensive production currently, and another to be added this fall, and another next spring. Still a tiny operation to many, but large scale to some. I like this size. Room to stretch but still very manageable for me and a small farm crew without any big equipment to bloat the company overhead.
This scale has allowed me a lot of freedom to experiment, too. This season in particular I’ve been undertaking an intentional overhaul of many of the farm’s elements, from crop lists, to sales outlets, to building infrastructure, to planting systems, and more. Attempting all along to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, which has been both an invigorating and stressful endeavor thus far. There are heaps of fodder for many articles to come in what I’ve recently learned. But for now I’ll focus on no-till farming as I suspect it may be helpful to many who are “water-challenged”, be it too much or too little.
No-till farming probably needs little explanation among this crowd, but for the sake of being crystal clear: no-till is a system of farming that (nearly, if not entirely) eliminates the turning over of the soil, be it with machinery or by hand. Many reasons may spur a farmer to decide to go with no-till farming practices. Mine specifically were a notable decrease in yields due to soil compaction, continual above-average loss of organic matter, and a very wet growing season in 2018. That last bit is what really catapulted me into going wholly no-till in 2019.
I’m by no means an expert in no-till farming at this point. I’m barely a beginner. I leaned heavily on my winter reading to get me going. Andrew Mefferd’s book The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers has been the foundation for what I decided to implement this season. I highly recommend giving it a read for the numerous case studies that it contains from diversified farms, including a few other ASCFG members!
The system for no-till that I’ve currently settled on at my farm is as follows:
1. Cover crop (a mix of rye, vetch, and clover) that was sown last fall and growing vigorously this spring was maintained with biweekly mowings until a given bed was ready to bring into production, at which point, the cover crop was “scalped” with a push mower.
2. A single layer of large cardboard pieces was placed on top of the bed. Cardboard was 4’ wide and beds are 200’ to 250’ long*.
3. A deep layer (3-4”) of well-aged compost was spread on top of the cardboard the full length and width of the bed. I was very careful to source a high-quality, aged compost for this.
4. Guide strings were used to keep straight lines as we transplanted four rows per bed, spacing between plants has been 4” to 6”, depending on the crop. A soil knife has been the best tool for planting, as we have been able to puncture the cardboard with it to ensure the transplant root systems can reach the soil below as they spread out. The transplants do not initially reach the soil, though; their root balls are surrounded by the compost only. We have not attempted any direct seeding into this system.
5. Three lines of drip tape are placed on top of the bed after planting is finished. We had originally put the tape on first but we were hitting it too much under the compost and had a bevy of leaks so putting it on top seems to be prudent with this system.
(*A quick note about cardboard, as I’ve fielded a lot of questions about it from folks who have seen this new system in action at our farm: we are using mostly cardboard that a local appliance store puts out for recycling. We’ve also been using some shipping boxes that a retail florist occasionally brings us. The key is it needs to be big pieces of corrugated, brown (not colored) cardboard so that it’s pretty easy to manage as we lay it out along the rows. Little pieces of cardboard would blow around in the breeze. Basic corrugated cardboard is made from all-organic materials (soy-based ink, animal hide glue, paper) so it is completely safe to use in your growing operations. The cardboard in the beds here at my farm has been noticeably broken down about 3 weeks after planting so it doesn’t stick around too long, but long enough to suppress the cover crop and any weeds that would want to pop up among the young transplants.)
So far, I give this system a big thumbs up. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s working well. The downside has been the extra labor of hauling all that cardboard and compost around. Also, plants initially are sluggish to get growing until the cardboard starts breaking down. But, in terms of labor, our weeding time has gone WAY down so far this season. And the plants started growing vigorously as soon as they got settled and now seem to be outpacing where they would normally be at this point in the season. I believe I’ll forego using cardboard in another season or two. First, I need to master the art of stale-bedding with tarps in a more timely fashion so that the cover crop is truly dead before we start planting in a bed. For now, the cardboard has been essential.
Ultimately, what I had hoped for with this pivot to a no-till farming system has indeed happened: we’ve been able to plant right on schedule even throughout a stormy, wet spring. If I was still relying on my tractor and tiller, we’d be weeks behind. So even if the plants are a little sluggish after planting, I’ll still take it. Because, HEY, they got planted!