Compost Hilling Potatoes

June 24th 2015

Hello Farmers and Gardeners!

A row of potatoes, pre-hilling

A row of potatoes, pre-hilling


The same row of potatoes, post-hilling

So last year I made a post about hilling potatoes. Hilling potatoes yields more potatoes per plant, keeps weeds down so less weeding, and stops the potatoes from widening and getting all over the place, tricking them into growing higher instead. So hilling is advantageous for many reasons, but there are many ways to do it. My last post about it just involved using dirt. We’ve also used straw and compost to hill, and they are very different techniques. As you may have guessed from the title, this year we’ve been hilling with compost, and that’s what I want to explain in this post.

For this you’ll need a flat hoe, a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and compost (obviously.) Once your potatoes have grown up a foot or so, you can hill them, we’ve been hilling our potatoes that went in the ground in late April for the last 3 or so weeks, so most potatoes don’t require much more than a month or so of growing. We always do make sure to weed each row of potatoes right before we mulch them this way, and we mow the paths between the rows to make it easier for us as well.

The growing point-or the place where the stem will continue rising, is at the convergence of the highest set of branches on any plant, right here on potatoes. This is the part that it's important to never block from the sun.

The growing point, which is the place where the stem will continue rising, is at the convergence of the highest set of branches on any plant, right here on potatoes. This is the part that it’s important to never block from the sun.

First thing you do is fill a wheelbarrow with compost, and dump it right next to your potatoes. It’s ok if it get’s right on the plants, as that is the point of hilling them. Once your potatoes are nice and strong, you can pile the compost 6-8 inches or higher, as long as you don’t cover the growing point on each plant (pictured.) After you’ve poured it on, you can take your flat hoe and kind of rake the compost into place, covering the bottom branches of each plant as best you can.

After that, you leave the potatoes as they are. They will grow up very happily and yield many delicious spuds for you. Happy Farming!

– Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Direct Seeding Beans

June 17th 2015

Hello farmers out there! I’m back to LaFarm for another summer, and have had my hands in the dirt quite a bit already. To best capture the spirit of the season (a very goal-oriented, don’t-stop-working-all-day-and-there’ll-be-plenty-of-work-left-anyway spirit,) I’m going to be writing about a season appropriate topic: planting beans!

Late summer beans need to be planted around early to mid June, as we did ours just last week. For this process, you need a single row direct seeder (we used an old EarthWay vegetable Seeder,) something to furrow with (we used a wheel how with a furrow attachment,) the beans you want to plant, and potentially some organic seed inoculant.

The package of our GUARD-N Seed Inoculant

The package of our GUARD-N Seed Inoculant

The inoculant as we used it to soak our beans.

The inoculant as we used it to soak our beans

Beans, like all legumes such as peas and certain types of clover, grow nitrogen nodules on their roots to leave in the ground, which boosts the nitrogen in soil tremendously. This is why farmers really like legumes as cover crops and designing crop rotations that have nitrogen intensive crops like corn following legumes. Seed Inoculant facilitates beans’ conversion of in-air nitrogen into these nitrogen nodules, increasing the nitrogen fixing effect even further! This makes it useful to use innoculant. To use seen inoculant, you actually create a bath of the stuff and soak your beans in them a bit before you plant.

The next thing you must do is prepare the bed. We used a freshly-tilled, 100′ long, 3′ wide bed, and we knew we wanted 2 rows of beans in the bed. So, we took our trusty wheel hoe with a furrowing attachment and ran it down the length of the row twice, 1′ from each end of the bed (and the other furrow.)

Once you have inoculated your beans and furrowed your bed, you need to get your seeder ready. Make sure you have the correct sized disc for beans in your seeder before you start loading the beans into the seeder!

From here, you need to only take the seeder and run it down the furrow, keeping as straight as possible. Most modern seeders are designed to cover the seeds right after they come out of the dispenser and then compact the soil over them, but if your seeder does not you will need to go down the furrow after you’ve planted and cover your seeds by pulling dirt from the furrow over top of them.

Hope this helps, and happy farming!

Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

The Smell of Spring

When I imagine Spring, I think of sunshowers and wildflowers. And when I think of farm work in Spring, I think of early plantings like onions, peas, and potatoes. I don’t usually think of the smell of compost (I no longer have anything against the smell of good compost though—now that I’ve seen the amazing results of such compost the smell just reminds me of success.) But one of the most grueling—and important—tasks of Spring farming is spreading compost. So we invited our friends to help!

Shoveling compost takes a lot of strength!  Pictured: (from left to right) Fletcher Horowitz, Miranda Wilcha, Monica Wentz, and Benji Helbein.

Shoveling compost takes a lot of strength!
Pictured: (from left to right) Fletcher Horowitz, Miranda Wilcha, Monica Wentz, and Benji Helbein.

Work is much more fun when you make it a party, and Spring farm days definitely make good parties! Even getting a team of 5 or so people out to shovel compost evokes feelings of community and family which we don’t get everyday in our modern, disconnected lives. So it’s very nice to get a bunch of people together to do something like this (especially if it means that just one person needs to do it for 5 times as long later on!) which is totally doable because it doesn’t take much background knowledge to shovel and spread nutrient rich dirt.

Spreading compost is not the most glamorous farm job, but it is necessary and still fun in groups.

Spreading compost is not the most glamorous farm job, but it is necessary and still fun in groups.


After your primary cultivation (your first tilling of the soil in the Spring) you take your compost (we get ours straight back from the dining halls we sell to) and spread it over your beds until it’s about an inch thick. For this, we dump piles of compost on the field with a wheelbarrow or cart and then use a rake (tilling rakes work especially well) to spread it evenly. After spreading, we till the beds again to mix the wonderful nutrients in with our normal topsoil.

But truly, it feels wonderful to be back outside, no matter what you’re doing on the farm, and all the more so when you can share it with friends. Here’s to hoping for a good season!

Joe Ingrao, Spring 2015 EXCEL Scholar


Seeds, Spring, Software, and Spreadsheets

So I posted several months ago about choosing seeds and planning fields for the 2015 season. Well, now that the season is finally starting, our plans have come a long way, and it’s funny to think how much has gone into it.

As you place specific varieties of crops onto your Garden Plan in Mother Earth Garden Planner, it generates a sheet with the number of plants, when they need to planted, and more useful data.

As you place specific varieties of crops onto your Garden Plan in Mother Earth Garden Planner, it generates a sheet with the number of plants; starting, planting and harvesting dates; and more useful data.

After we looked over what crops and varieties we wanted to grow, we had to consider what farm planning software to use to mock up LaFarm. Last year we worked with AgSquared but it wasn’t able to do everything we wanted in the most convenient way, so we switched. First, we were considering the open source Farm Data, being developed by some friends at Dickinson College, but given its relatively rough current state, we chose to go with the Mother Earth Garden Planner. Though the Mother Earth Planner is not actually made for a full sized farm and is more apt for smaller gardens, we were able to fit it to our fields, and the useful visuals as well as the printable data sheets give us the information we’ll need in the field in a good form.

With a rough idea of what we wanted and where, we made a preliminary plan with this software. After that, it was time to narrow down some details. I looked through all our saved seed and made a very extensive inventory with Microsoft Excel that I was able to cross reference with information from our Garden Planner as well as from seed catalogs about growing and pricing.

With that information, I was able to revise our Garden Plan to be much closer to what it will likely look like. This office farming has been happening concurrently with the start of our outdoor work and the purchasing of our earliest crops like leeks, potatoes, and onions, (the last of which we already have in the ground!) The Plan will be indispensable for us in knowing what else we need to get, and keeping track of what goes where and when, and having it now means not having to do extra office work when there’s too much to do outside. Even in cases when we might have to change the plan because of unforeseeable circumstances like weather or a failure in someone’s greenhouse, having a plan already makes recouping from something like that much more manageable.

-Joe Ingrao, Spring 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Famous Names and Connecting to the Earth

Here at LaFarm, we figured a good way to get closer to our land was to give our fields and plots their own names, rather than the traditional 1 2 3, or A B C. And not just any names were good enough for our fields, no we decided to make our whole farm a history lesson. Each field we have is named after a famous agriculturalist. We even chose a lot of the names for our specific fields because those fields connected to the legacies of the people they were named for. And then we also decided to name our shed Eliot Coleman and our Gazebo Jethro Tull to boot!
Eventually I’ll be going into some more detail about who each of these people are, but here’s a quick rundown of the important names we have at the farm.

Sir Albert Howard
Many see Sir Albert Howard as the father of organic agriculture. Starting his work in England in the early 1900s, he was one of the first people to begin studying the effect of new agricultural chemicals on the health of the soil-and the nutrition of our food. Any familiar with Rodale over in Emmaus should know that it was information released by Howard that first shocked Jerome Irving back in the day to start all of his projects.

Lady Eve Balfour
If Sir Albert Howard was the father of the organic movement, Lady Eve Balfour was certainly the mother and, just like most mothers, ended up doing a lot more important things than Sir Albert in this humble farmer’s opinion. Howard started things off by studying them first, but Balfour started the Soil Association in England and really got the gears turning on an international alternative agriculture movement.

Masanobu Fukuoka
Because farming, and alternative farming, isn’t just a history of white people in the western hemisphere realizing that chemical agriculture isn’t sustainable, I made sure to bring up Masanobu Fukuoka (the original Japanese name order would actually make it Fukuoka Masanobu but he’s always referred to in the westernized order so that’s how it is here,) who pioneered what he calls “do-nothing” farming, which is a Japanese parallel to permaculture that uses no tilling, no chemicals, and not even pre-prepared compost. Doing this in Japan starting in the 40s and well into the 70s and 80s, Fukuoka was able to actual have yields that rivaled those of even the most chemically intensive farms in Japan. Also make sure to check out my small review of Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution on LaFarm’s Bookshelf.
Since he was very much about doing the least work for the most gain, we gave his name to our field of perennials.

Rudolf Steiner
Among this man’s many, many hobbies, he found the time to develop the idea of biodynamics a more extreme level of organic agriculture which has been both praised as amazing foresight and laughed at by others as complete insanity. The only people I know who’ve actually tried it all stand by the methods though. Just because hanging a deer bladder from a tree hasn’t been endorsed by modern agribusiness doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep pests away, and just because cow skulls aren’t in everybody’s compost doesn’t mean they don’t help aerate the soil.
We  have a small field that does very, very well which we named after Steiner, because that’s kind of how biodynamics have been working.

Gary Paul Nabhan
First person on this list who’s actually still living, GPN is an amazing farmer out in the desert who emphasizes social connections and slow money for farmers in their communities. He came to speak here at Lafayette last year about the Monarch Butterfly Crisis, and found the time to make it out to look at our two humble acres. Since he’s so well known for keeping high organic matter in his soil (Seven Percent! Seven Percent! That’s astounding!!) we gave his name to a field that we’ve kept well maintained with cover crop and has more organic matter than most of our others.

Ruth Stout
Gardening in a similar tradition to Fukuoka, Ruth Stout was a proponent of “no-work gardening.” She was very actively part of the gardening scene for much of her long, 96 year life, and gets major respect from us for starting the roots of much of no-till farming in America in response to not wishing to be reliant on men to do the plowing before she could plant, or waste her own time doing what wasn’t necessary in the end.

Will Allen
The founder and leader of Growing Power, an urban agriculture group dedicated to helping feed Chicagoans with sustainably produced food, Will Allen is an important name in the local sustainable food discourse for all his great work. He focuses on equity (being a black man in an inner city, it is understandably a very salient issue for him and Growing Power), solving one problem at a time and not letting discouragement stop you, wisdom I think we could all follow. We named the closest plot to our entrance after this former professional basketball player, to remind ourselves that what we’re trying to do starts at the grassroots level, just like Allen did.

Joel Salatin
An expert in animal husbandry without using unsustainable practices, and well known among LaFarmers as the author of Everything I want to do is Illegal, Joel Salatin is a great farmer who is quick to point out the problems of big farming and the unnecessary obstacles facing local farmers.

Sandor Katz
Perhaps most well known for his ideas about wild fermentation, Sandor Katz is an openly gay culinary author who is well respected for his skill and innovation, and gains major props for being one of the Radical Faeries trying to shake up the establishment.

Wendell Berry
Although his Agrarian Populism is problematic in many respects (see the book Agrarian Dreams on our bookshelf for details on what I mean by that), we had to give a spot to the famous poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He’s been a voice for the alternative agriculture movement since the 1960s and 70s when he challenged USDA secretary Earl Butz in his support of big, chemical agriculture.

Karen Washington
If Will Allen is the face of urban farming in Chicago, this amazing woman is the face of urban farming in New York. She studied at the Center for Agroecology at the University of California Santa Cruz and took her skills back to the Bronx. She helped urban gardening in New York greatly with her aptly named Garden of Happiness.

Crop Rotation

It’s an ancient tradition to rotate crops, because it didn’t take modern science for farmers to realize that growing the same thing in the same place every year wasn’t working so well. It’s widely accepted now that the longer your crop rotation, or the more time between growing the same family of plants in a specific place, the more healthy and balanced your soil and plants will become. There’s also generally accepted principles of which plant families “follow” each other best. Like onions work well following potatoes, and potatoes follow brassicas, meaning that each year it’s best to plant onions where last year there were potatoes and potatoes where there were brassicas, etc.

These things aren’t ironclad rules at all, and some people still say tomatoes do best if you don’t move them, but much of the reason crop rotation is really effective is the way different plant families interact with the soil. So corn for example, guzzles nitrogen from the soil, but legumes (beans, nuts, peas, clover grasses) take nitrogen from the air and store it in the ground, so they can replenish what the corn takes (or leave a good deal for the corn to eat up.) Other plants need other micronutrients (like Phosphorus or other metals) in higher amounts so they’ll do better in other places.

And there’s the even more pivotal result of crop rotation: pest and disease control. Growing tomatoes in the same place year after year, you’re bound to get some nematodes that love not having to move to find more roots to munch. And try keeping your squash anywhere near where cucumber beetles have been, or your potatoes in a place the Colorado Potato beetle knows to look. Devastation would result! And usually, just moving something 10 or 20 feet away will actually confuse bugs enough that they don’t find their food and die off.

We have a very good 10 year rotation plan (meaning nothing will be back to the same plot until it’s been 10 years since the last time they were there.)  That’s thanks to the wonderful planning and foresight of our garden manager Sarah, with some help from Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower. In the book, Coleman details how to plan your crop rotation, what follows what best, and goes into a lot more detail than I have here.

And while we were going through this years crop rotation plan, we also happened to name all of the fields after famous agriculturalists. I will be writing up some information about each of our fields and why the people they’re named after are important in the coming weeks. Look forward to it!

-Joe Ingrao EXCEL Scholar Spring 2015

Setting Up for the 2015 Season

A farmer’s job never really stops. There are definitely sudden lurches in the amount and form of work to be done, but even in the dead of winter, the LaFarmers are still hard at work, office farming.

Office farming is the vernacular we use for the plethora of activities farmers need to do in an office to make sure everything goes right on the farm. Probably one of the most important thing farmers can do to support themselves. Definitely more important advancement than a tractor, in my opinion (and it doesn’t guzzle fossil fuel like there’s no tomorrow to boot!)

We like High Mowing for their exclusively organic seed collection, their positive business structure, and their ease of reading.

We like High Mowing for their exclusively organic seed collection, their positive business structure, and their ease of reading.

The two things currently on the LaFarm office farm agenda are key to any garden or farm. We are planning what we are going to grow and where. We have some saved seeds from the last few years, but we also have to look in this year’s catalogs for the rest of what we want. Our personal seed catalog of choice is High Mowing (pictured at right) but for some of the crops and varieties they don’t have, or run out of, we turn to Johnny’s Seeds.

Please excuse my poor handwriting.

I like a good old pencil and paper, but Microsoft Excel is also conducive to this sort of index.

Choosing seeds isn’t easy even on a scale like that of LaFarm. There are so many factors to take into account; disease and pest resistance, nutrition, weed resistance, soil type, tastiness, reliability, germination rate, you name it; so farmers often have to be very careful in choosing what will work best. I was tasked with taking a look at our catalogs and creating a preliminary list of varieties that would be useful (pictured at left.) This is only the basis for what will eventually be our seed order, because we to not only confirm which varieties we want, but also determine how much of each we need, and then how much we can afford.

Simultaneously to the seed selection process, we are trying to plan the layout of our fields, which is easier than it could be thanks to our 10 year crop rotation strategy for our main fields, and our several satellite fields for growing whatever crops we need. That’s another thing we start out with on pen and paper, but software helps tremendously to finalize.

Preliminary, hand written notes which will be the basis of our crop plan this year. This year we are planning on using the Mother Nature Garden Planner, but there are alternatives like Farm Data and Ag Squared.

Preliminary, hand written notes which will be the basis of our crop plan this year. To finalize with software we are planning on using the Mother Nature Garden Planner, but there are alternatives like Farm Data and Ag Squared. Many farmers also swear by the adaptability and raw power of Excel to be the only software intense enough to handle a full plan.

These efforts are only the beginning, the metaphorical seeds for our whole 2015 year, but they are important steps. And maybe it’s nice to be able to work away from the blistering sun for some of the year. Long live office farming!

-Joe Ingrao, Winter 2015 EXCEL Scholar