Farming in a Construction Zone Part 2: Seed Beds!

Updated: Apr 20

Initial Seed Beds

While starting microgreens, I was also very eager to get something growing in our beckoning 90-foot beds. Once we got the sheep manure in from Araceli and Charles, I decided to set up two of the 6-foot south bed sections as a trial. I amended the soil (again) with the manure, Bokashi-fermented sawdust, spent coffee grounds, and wood fire charcoal.

As they say in Tucson, first you plant the water. In our indoor greenhouse, right now that meant planting ollas to water our future plants at the root. I planted three large and three small ollas in one 6-foot section.

On olla-planting day, I worked in my pajamas out of protest to myself because I kept saying I would get a greenhouse shower in the 90-degree afternoon heat, but kept getting busy until after dark when it was way too cold. My new strategy worked! I did my farming before getting dressed, and then got that shower! That's the shower in the photo on the right, with the shower caddy, battery pump shower head, clean water on the ground, and the big bin to stand in and catch the used "grey" water... which later watered plants, of course. My first shower in probably weeks, in lukewarm water and 90-degree air... heaven!

In the olla bed, I planted cool-weather seeds (kale, rapini, daikon radish, bok choy, tatsoi), since the greenhouse was still getting so cold at night. I filled the ollas mainly to monitor how quickly the water drained and how moist the surrounding soil became -- seedlings don't really make use of the ollas until their roots are well developed, so I used a spray bottle to water the seeds. In the second 6-foot section I just broadcast daikon seed like my original plan of cover-cropping to break up the soil, and misted the bed frequently.


After initially filling the ~1 gallon and ~2 gallon ollas, it took about another 12-24 ounces each day for a couple of days (presumably so water could seep out into the very dry soil), and then it seemed to stabilize, going down about 8 ounces per day. Even leaving it for a week, the soil between the ollas still registered "moist" on the moisture meter. It seemed like the ollas were watering a good amount for mature plants, so I stopped that test until we had mature plants that needed it!


We know our soil is still very chunky and raw, but what the heck? Gotta start somewhere! In a few days the bok choy and radishes were sprouting. So far, so good!


Starts & Fits

As with the microgreens, at the outset we had to contend with unfinished systems, openings in the end walls and long walls, and the commensurate temperature fluctuations and critter incursions. We used recycled plastic bottle caps to cover the olla holes to avoid evaporation and mosquito larvae. We hadn't considered larger fauna...

Mice came under the south wall to enjoy the olla water and yummy seedlings. We found chewed seedlings and olla caps pushed off to the side. After that, daily we would find a few newly sprouted seedlings, a few of the previous day's sprouts devoured to ground level, ollas opened, and often a dead mouse in a snap trap. A little lizard also ran in one day to look at me -- I was grateful we did not catch a lizard in a trap! We did eventually seem to catch the last mouse... we still have the traps set, but haven't caught one for quite a while. Unfortunately the last seedling in the olla bed was eaten. Only the radish and bok choy seedlings had even germinated. I'm not sure if it was just too hot for the others, if they got eaten before we saw them, or if the seeds were just too old (they were from Wisconsin). I let the ollas go dry.


The daikon bed was similarly devastated on a nightly basis, but when the mice stopped coming by, a few late bloomers popped up, so we will hopefully get a handful of radishes out of it. Finally, we got a few seedlings into the "true leaf" stage!

Weeks after we gave up on the olla bed, we did finally get the long walls insulated, covered, and bermed enough to close off the easy access. I coincidentally found that some of our kitchen garlic had sprouted, so I decided to resurrect the olla bed, and planted garlic cloves around two of the big ollas. I stuck my finger down the holes to see if I could feel any water still in there, but it was beyond my reach. A stick showed me that they had less than half their full amount so I filled them up, sprayed the plants from the top, and topped off the ollas the next day.

Then yesterday, when the Bokashi microgreens had re-emerged and popped out of the crust, I decided to take a few of the daikon and plant them around the third big olla, just to see how they do in that environment. I filled that olla for the first time in weeks, and a white blob surfaced in the hole. I poked it with a stick but it drifted away from the hole and I couldn't tell whether it was something solid that just moved away in the water, or something more amorphous. Filmy white muck drifted by, and what looked like hairs... I thought it was probably a mouse that had drowned weeks earlier. I *had* commented to Chip over the weeks that I sometimes caught a slight whiff of death smell, but had figured it must be the manure in the heat.

Anyway, there's no way to open the ollas, so I had to dig the whole olla out. I waited until this morning so at least some of the water would evaporate and I didn't have to slosh rotting mouse water all over my hands. That olla won't be used again! I am grateful THAT olla had a water level beyond my finger reach, and I have vowed not to use my finger to test water depth again!!

I will keep using the ollas, but have now covered all of the olla holes with rocks from outside. I had made 12 ollas for starters and was planning to see how it went. I'd also been thinking of trying a simpler solution of just using one pot with the bottom hole plugged and a saucer covering the top. It takes up more garden space and you need bigger pots, but so much less work to make, and easy to clean out! I will not make any more enclosed ollas.


Other miscellaneous seedling news is gathered in the photos below. We don't have any water pressure, since we just haul water and store it in tanks, and our grey water comes in buckets, so watering such a huge space will be a challenge once we are all planted. We can use the handheld shower pump for deep watering and a spray bottle for misting -- but that is a hand killer to scale up. So one of our UPS-store deliveries was our hand-pumped watering backpack, which has been hugely helpful for off-grid watering. You can pump a lever with one hand while directing the spray wand with the other.


We have a few grass patches coming up in the north beds. It's not too widespread, just in a few spots that are at the original ground level rather than cut and fill. We were going to figure out some organic way to kill them, but decided to consider it our "grass nursery" -- we will dig them up and plant them in the new berms outside.

Now that our temperatures are under better control (generally ranging between 45 and 90 -- a 45-degree spread instead of 85-degrees), Chip and I sat down the other day and planted seedling flats of our warm-weather veggies in egg cartons -- we bought the seeds back in January. We planted several types of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and gourds. We did break down and bought mushroom compost, perlite, and sphagnum moss to put together a seed starting mix, rather than using our native soil. Some of the seedlings will be planted outside when it warms up, and some we'll keep in the greenhouse.


Next we'll be planting a few of the things that will go straight into the beds. Some will be the same types as some of our warm-loving seedlings. The first will be our horned melons (a.k.a. jelly melon, kiwano melon). That packet has ten (count 'em!) finicky seeds. I'll try three now and will hang on to the rest until we see how these come up. I started prepping the bed by chiseling some of the hard pack, wetting it down, aerating by pulling bits apart with the claw without working it too much, and top dressing with some of the seedling mix. Tomorrow when it's dried out slightly I'll plant an olla and the melon seeds. When we plant the less precious seeds we'll likely fuss less with the planting medium.


We also have seed potatoes, and we are waiting on shipments of sweet potato slips and Japanese vegetable seeds from Kitazawa Seed Company out of California.


We've been taking lots of baby steps toward an eventual harvest!


Here's wishing you all stay healthy, stay safe, and stay at home!

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