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Cover Cropping Foibles

Farming often feels like an impossibly complex, multivariate puzzle that resets itself every few minutes, often before you can even discern if you took any successful steps toward solving it. It’s like a rubik’s cube that only gives you 2 minutes a day to figure the damn thing out. It’s like that movie Groundhogs Day, except that….
Okay, terrible metaphors aside, we often feel like we’re just winging it. Nothing exemplifies this feeling more than cover cropping. Trying to find the best covercrop to fit the right season, the right soil moisture, current crop residue, given weed pressure, future cash crop planting date, nutrient needs of the soil, etc can feel a bit perplexing. Let’s say we’re trying to find the right cover to plant after tilling in our summer brassicas. Winter Rye is a wonderfully hardy winter cover, but is hard to kill in the spring and its stubble takes forever to break down, often suppressing the germination of small vegetable seeds. So rye is really only appropriate if we’re planning on sowing a late summer or fall cropthe following year. But most of our late season crops are brassicas, and we just planted those here this year, and we really should rotate out of brassicas at least two years between plantings. Sooo maybe it’s better to go with Cayuse Oats in this field, which die over winter after a few frosts and will allow us to get in an early non-brassica spring crop. Nope, this particular field is generally full of standing water until May, so we need something that will survive the winter and put on growth in early spring, helping transpire the soil moisture out of the field so we can get our tractor in there. So, maybe Barley? Sure, let’s try Barley. But now what legume should be coupled with it? Crimson clover is nice, but probably won’t compete well with winter weeds. Field peas are good, but don’t really fix that much nitrogen, and we pulled lots of nitrogen out of this field with all those long-season kales. How about Hairy Vetch? Yeah, lets try that, I mean, as long as the field dries out in time to mow it in April so the vetch doesn’t set seed and create vetch weeds for years to come. Okay, let’s be sure to document our seeding date and how many lbs per bed of seed we applied so we can compare to other experimental plots in other fields. 3 days later: Oh, crap, my discs weren’t set up perfectly so the seed didn’t get buried quite deep enough and germination was crappy and then then 300 blackbirds came in and ate 75% percent of the germinating seed and…screw it. Try again next year?
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Seed Germination Rates of Deep Harvest Seeds

Not the sexiest title for blog post headline, but we’re going with it. The below photo is an example of what’s been coming into our inbox lately from Colorado Seed Lab. A couple weeks back we sent over 100 samples of seed to the lab for germination testing, and have been getting pretty stellar results, generally between 95-99% viable. While federal standards require seed companies to sell vegetable seeds with between 60-80% germination, depending on the crop, we never sell anything below 80%. 80% tends to be the accepted industry standard, except for certain flowers and herbs which can be hard to get that high. On average, our seed has been tested at 94% viable over the past two years. No bad. It can be a bummer to obsessively tend to a seed crop for 6 months to year and then get a bad germ report back without an explanation for what went wrong. Immature, diseased, dormant? It’s hard to know. There are usually at least a couple duds every year, generally on those heat loving crops that are hard to mature for seed at our latitude and mild climate. Luckily, that hasn’t yet happened yet this sweet germ report season. Crossing fingers the good news keeps a flowin so that we’ll all maximize our chances for vigorous and abundant gardens in 2020.

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When the Farm Catches the Cold: Winter Farming Preparations

We’ve had a few decent frosts already this fall, and while I can’t remember clearly when they came in previous years, it seems a bit early for temps this low. Here on Shore Meadows Rd, the actual nighttime temps always seem 5-10F lower than the forecasted lows. So, when the forecast predicts 40F lows, it’s a good time to begin going into frost-preparation mode (we’re in it!).

While most of our fall crops can handle varying degrees of freezing temps, there are still a few tender items in the field that need monitoring. Mid-large sized broccoli and cauliflower heads can begin to rot even with a slight frost exposure. Lettuces, bok choi, chards, frisee and escarole are also fairly tender. So, during weather like this we generally cover these crops with heavy-duty floating row cover (which can prevent freezing as low as ~22F.) Another strategy is to harvest before the frosts come and store the veg in the walk-in cooler (never more than a week) until CSA, farmer’s market, etc. The latter option isn’t our preference, as we like our veggies delivered/sold as fresh as possible.

Today (Monday), in anticipation of a potentially serious frost later tonight, we harvested our broccoli, salad mix and parley. Generally, we would harvest everything the day of CSA. Another reason for harvesting today vs tomorrow is the possible lack of frost-free, daylight harvesting hours tomorrow. Often, when it’s really cold, the crops down thaw out until afternoon (if at all!), giving us no time to harvest for CSA. Harvesting veggies when partially frozen will result in the premature wilting and rotting in storage.

Of course, another strategy for fending off frost is planting inside greenhouses or tunnels. Unfortunately, our tomatoes, eggplants, and pepper usually don’t wind down until early Oct, too late for a fall planting of greens in the greenhouse. We get more money out of milking these high-value summer crops into late summer and early fall than we could from a single planting of fall spinach or arugula.

Our main strategy in warding off death-by-frost is variety selection. Ten years of variety trials have equipped us with tons of knowledge about the relative cold hardiness of fall vegetables varieties. This is one of our main criteria in choosing which varieties are planting for our fall CSA.

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Regenerative Agriculture and Rewilding Farms

There’s been quite the buzz lately about Regenerative Agriculture, a new wave of farming practices that goes beyond the organic standards set by the National Organic Program, toward a truly more sustainable, ecological type of agriculture. As the climate continues to change beyond recognition, the world’s topsoil continues to erode and wild ecosystems continue to get bulldozed into industrial monocultures, it’s becoming clear to an increasing number of farmers, consumers and political leaders (Beto O-Rourke even mentioned Regenerative Ag at the last debates!) that something drastic needs to change. Business as usual may continue to feed increasing numbers of people in the short term, but will precipitate ecological collapse in the not-so-long term.

While the list of necessary changes to our global agriculture are endless, one area of focus must be the transformation of marginal, low-productive farmland back into diverse, carbon-sequestering habitat. Areas with minuscule rainfall, rocky soils, short growing seasons, etc., would, in many cases, be better left to regenerate into their former forests, prairie and scrublands. Back in the mid-century, as Agriculture’s get-big-or-get-out mentality compelled farmers to plant “fence line to fence line”, we lost nearly all of our remaining woodlands, hedgerows, bogs and prairies east of the Rockies.  It’s imperative that we restore these features of our native landscape. Any small losses in yields as a result of this restoration could be offset by a combination of smarter, regenerative farming practices that focus on soil building and polycultures coupled with smarter national policies and subsidies that incentivize healthy food over ethanol, corn syrup and beef. These changes would help stabilize the climate and provide critical habitat and ecosystem services without significantly diminishing global food yields.

On Whidbey Island, our land management could use improvement. There are few productive farms outside of the Coupeville prairie and vanishing little healthy, old growth forests or wetlands. Instead we have a steady increase in 5-acre parcels with a single house, fenced lawns, and perhaps a single horse or cow. If we are serious about both fighting climate change AND feeding a growing population, we’re gonna have to be smarter with our scarce land resource. I’d like to see most of our rural “homesteads” transition either into actual food production or back into native forestland. Future development should be concentrated in existing urban areas or other marginal lands.

On our farm, we inherited quite a bit of rocky, unproductive pasture. We could put this toward grazing sheep or pastured poultry, but this would likely be difficult to incorporate into our already over-complicated business model. (Also, we like taking weekends now and again, which animals don’t easily allow) Instead, we hope to return this area into a mix of carbon-sinking perennials: orchards, hedgerows, and native trees. This week we experimented by seeding a native wildflower mix on a 1000-sq ft patch of dirt we had been prepping for the past 6 months. (Check out if you’re interested in establishing some rare and hard-to-find wildflower and grass species on your property.) This winter we intend to expand our hedgerows area and plant more fruit trees.

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On-Farm Plant Breeding pt. 2

The seed company is a relatively new type of business, only gaining a foothold in the last 100 years or so with the advents of seed patents and hybrid seed technology. However, back before the seed companies controlled the breeding, production and supply of seeds, farmers were in charge of their own seed stocks. (Well, there was awhile when the federal government and land grant colleges played a crucial role too, but that’s beside the point). Back in the day, farmers had to make sure that they didn’t harvest and sell their entire crop for food, but that they also kept enough plants for saving seed, so that they would have seeds to plant the following season. This process inevitably begs the question: which plants did they sell/eat and which plants did they save for seed? Were the seed plants chosen at random? Did they just save the last few plants that happen to remain in the field toward the end of harvest? Hopefully not. Saving seed gives the farmer the chance to choose the most productive, flavorful, disease-resistant or well-adapted plants to pass on their genes, while culling out all the rest. Thus, most farmers were also de facto plant breeders, actively sculpting the gene pool of their crops toward more productive, resilient futures. Here at Deep Harvest, we are no exception. We’re constantly making choices as to which plants to harvest for CSA, and which to leave for seed saving.
This week planted three different over-wintered root crops for seed: Hilmar Carrot, Touchstone Gold Beet and Tokyo Market Turnip. Most root crops are biennial, meaning that they flower and produce seed their second season of growth after undergoing a winter vernalization period. The roots can either vernalize in the field, or you can harvest them and store them in a damp, cool environment.  We chose the latter.
Let’s take beets for example. The first step was to harvest an entire bed of beets and line them all up in a row, over a thousand in total. Then we walked the row and took out the obviously ugly, damaged, or insect-ridden roots. These got tilled into the field. We then evaluate the remaining roots for several preferred traits such as round shape, lack of hairiness, strong tops, dark color, large size and absence of insect damage or disease. We chose the best 200, cut off the stems, and put them into bins surrounded with wood shavings. The rest went to CSA and restaurants. We chose 200 roots because you need at least 80 as a minimum population size to prevent inbreeding depression, and we can assume that many will rot, freeze or get discovered by mice in storage, or perhaps meet other grim fates after replanting next spring. The hope is to have enough survivors to ensure a successful seed crop for harvest in summer 2019. We could have just left them into the ground all winter, but them we’d miss out on the wonderful opportunity for some casual plant breeding. This week the soil warmed enough to replant the roots in rows in the field. Soon they will begin sending out new leaves, followed later by a bolting shoot and flowers. Seed will follow!

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On-farm Breeding Projects

By Annie Jesperson

Sorry to get your hopes up, family. Here on the farm, we’re breeding new pepper varieties, not humans.  Still a little exciting, perhaps? For us, for sure, but for potential grandmas, likely not so much. While pepper-breeding, like child-rearing, is still subject to the mysterious whims of mother nature, over time us seed growers are direct the evolution of our plants toward the traits we crave.

So what are our goals with pepper breeding? Here in our cool Northwest summers yellow bell peppers can be hard to ripen.  The open-pollinated varieties currently on the market have failed to produce mature fruits in our cool, maritime fields. A solvable dilemma? Perhaps!  We’re now into year four of de-hybridizing our favorite hybrid yellow bell pepper “Catriona” in order to develop an open-pollinated variety that matures in our region. Additionally, we’re selecting for disease resistance, flavor and yields. We’re getting closer, folks.  Stay tuned!

Additionally, we’re working to breed a red bell pepper that is sweet and spicy.  Intriguing? For us plant nerds and cooking enthusiasts, indeed!  Two years ago, we saved seed on a sweet, red bell pepper called King of the North.  At the time, we didn’t realize it had crossed with our spicy Padrone peppers, as we had given them what we thought was ample isolation distance. But, every once in awhile some industrious pollinator carries pollen between varieties that are far apart, even with self-pollinating crops like peppers.  Luckily, we sampled our King of the North fruits before selling their seed, and we noted they had a crazy unexpected kick. Ow!  That spiciness caught us off guard, but once we bit in to another pepper, expecting this result, we found the experience quite appealing and worth sharing.  It’ll likely be a few years before we’ve stabilized this variety enough to warrant selling, but we’re excited for when that day comes and hope you are too!

For now, if you’d like to just grow yourself some nummy peppers, hook yourself up with our spicy Padrones for frying or our sweet Mini Red Bells for salads and stuffing.  If you’d like to save your own pepper seed, just grow one variety in a small garden, as peppers need 160 feet of isolation distance to keep a variety pure. For more basic info on how to save seed check out: Need a reminder of why it’s important to support local, organic and open-pollinated seed? No sweat….go HERE!

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The keys to Hap-pea-ness

Believe it or not, here on Whidbey Island it’s still a bit early to get your garden going, however, planting time is indeed drawing neigh.  Let’s start visualizing what we’re going to put in the soil once it gets over 50 degrees. Snap peas! Snow peas and Shelling peas, oh my! Yes p(l)eas(e). These tasty and productive garden treasures are more than happy to be the first veggies to get growing.  What brave, little gems they are! Here at Deep Harvest, we give our pea seeds extra TLC by soaking them 8-12 hours prior to planting, which allows them to plump up in the comforts of your home.  Once in the ground, they’ll reward your extra attention by springing up faster than non-soaked seed.  Just fill a jar about a 1/3 of the way with seeds, cover with water, soak overnight, drain, and plant.  Easy-peasy!
Once in the ground, peas will still need your support.  I know they’re needy, but also lovable, so we happily comply.  It’s time to plot your trellising tactic.  One farmer friend supports a six-foot tall roll of chicken wire between t-posts and lets the peas weave themselves throughout it.   At the end of the season, she burns the dead vines to clean the wire and rolls it up to use year after year.  Brilliant! Some home gardener pals plant peas against chain-link fencing, which works well, as long as it’s at least 5 feet tall.  Here, we use the one and only Florida Weave to coral our 2000+ feet of peas.  How does that work? Well, we plant two rows of peas 10 inches apart.  Then we pound t-posts in the ground every 10-15 feet between the rows and wind twine on the posts 6 inches above the ground for peas to grab for support. Every week, thereafter, we sandwich the fast-growing, new shoots in between two lines of twine which we loop around each t-post, always cinching tightly once a t-post is reached.  This is a quick, cheap, and effective trellising technique for tomatoes as well.  For you visual learners, here’s a short youtube to clarify any confusion I’ve created:
And if you’ve yet to purchase your pea seeds, we’d be elated to hook you up.  We’ve got super delectable, tried and true, organic, NW adapted varieties for a your fresh-eating and stir-frying pleasure. It’s (almost) grow time! Click the images below to be directed to our pea store!Organic, Non-GMO Snap Pea Seed

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Wrapping up 2019

It’s been a bountiful year here in the fields of Deep Harvest Farm. We grew over 50 varieties for seed, including 15 new vegetables and 10 new cut flowers, bringing our catalog total to 110 varieties. You might wonder why our variety selections are rather slim compared with most other seed catalogs you receive in the mail. This is because we choose to only sell seeds grown on our home farm on Whidbey Island.(Occasional exceptions occur due to unexpected crop losses, in which case we’ll bring in a bit of seed from another certified-organic, Pacific NW seed grower). We take pride in our small, highly curated batch of varieties, many of which we’ve been selecting and refining for several years. We’ve chosen to only produce seed from varieties that have also performed exceptionally well on the vegetable side of our farm business; those that have become staples for our CSA, farmers market and restaurant accounts. You can know that our seeds have been trialed and tested for suitability to organic, low-input soil conditions as well as the climate and seasons of the Pacific Northwest.

The Deep Harvest Farm CSA

Almost 50 years after the start of the modern Community Supported Agriculture movement, the US is now home to well over 10,000 CSA farms. That’s not at all hard to believe, as even our little island community enthusiastically supports around 10 such operations. The majority of CSAs aim to get customers the most local, fresh, and seasonal produce possible along with meaningful relationships with growers – huge perks the average grocery chain doesn’t provide.  At Deep Harvest Farm, we take local to the next level by growing most of our produce with our very own farm-grown, organic-certified seed.  Due to the added complexity of running both a vegetable and seed business, we safely guess that only a handful of CSA farms grow the majority of their own seed. In the age of global climate change, we passionately believe that regionally adapted and locally controlled seed is a crucial part of a secure, decentralized food system.  Our electric tractor, solar panels and farm-grown seeds help us and our customers keep our carbon footprints down. Following the Black Friday release of the latest US Climate report this is more important than ever.

We’re now taking sign-ups for our 2019 farm-share season. Go HERE to learn more about all our program’s options and to become a Deep Harvest member. We’d be elated and honored to be your farmers!

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Deep Harvest Seeds – Flower Planting Calendar

My oh my. Mother nature hasn’t been showing us her warm and friendly side. This
April is starting off mighty windy, chilly, and wet, wet, wet here on south Whidbey,
leaving many folks with a sense that the joy of flowers might be a long ways off.
Never fear! Years of blindly throwing seeds into cold, soggy ground give me reason
to believe our sweet flowers will grow and prosper, even in adverse conditions such
as these. Already, out in Deep Harvest’s boggy fields the Blue Jubilee Jem Bachelor
Buttons, Alpha Calendula, French Flounce Poppies, and sweet peas are showing
their bold, enduring will to thrive. Echinacea and Double Click Cranberry Cosmos are getting
strong in the greenhouse and will be planted out in the elements in the next couple
weeks—they, too, can handle this! Come May and June we’ll sow our more heat
loving flowers; Lovelies Bleeding Amaranth, Salmon Rose Zinnia, Jasmine Scented
Nicotiana, Nigella Exotica, and Soraya Sunflowers. It’s a hopeful, beautiful act to
plant seeds, especially flower seeds, in the midst of spring dreariness. Just go for it.
If they don’t come up, there’s always re-seeding. If they do… bliss!!

Annie’s Northwest Flower Planting Guide

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Why Buy Organic, Local Flowers and Flower Seed?

by Annie Jesperson

I’m guessing you’re not a big flower eater (am I wrong?) so seeking out blossoms grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers might not seem as vital as buying organic groceries. However, the joy and beauty flowers bring might be seriously diminished if you consider how they were likely raised.Whidbey Bridal Bouquet

The average grocery store bouquet gets shipped from countries often in South American that haveminimal, if any, herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide regulations. According to the CA Cut Flower commission, a whopping 80% of our flowers are imported. In 2007, the International Labor Rights Fund discovered Ecuadoran flower companies use over 30 different pesticides and that 20% of the chemicals applied on flowers in Colombia are restricted or banned in the US. The global flower industry is dangerous for field workers, florists and consumers alike and does serious damage to soils, waterways, pollinators and environmental health. The International Labor Organization found more than 60% of South American flower industry workers experience headaches, nausea, blurred vision or fatigue and suffer more than the average number of miscarriages.

Luckily, we have more opportunities than ever to buy flowers that support safe working conditions and a healthy natural world. In 2005, U.S. consumers bought $16 million in organic flowers and according to the Organic Trade Association that demand is increasing by 50 percent a year. “VeriFlora,” a labeling and certification program started by U.S. consumers, growers and retailers helps fuel that growth. Over 30 farms Colombia and Ecuador boast the VeriFlora label, which bans more than 100 chemicals and requires transitioning to organic growing techniques.

Also, the burgeoning Slow Flower Movement, started by flower farmer and activist Debra Prinzing, encourages consumers to know their flower growers and buy flowers raised close to home. Doing so hugely lowers the carbon footprint of your bouquets—and it’s not hard to do as the local flower movement is exploding. Between to 2007 and 2012 the number of US cut flower growers grew 20%! Knowing your farmer is a worthy and attainable goal for your flowers and foods alike.

Of course the surest route to chemical free blooms are to grow your own from organic, local flower seed. If you’re not a gardener, no problem, just seek out a local flower farmer or florist whom you can talk to about their growing practices and flower sources.

Let’s stop rubbing our noses and hands on the toxins of conventional flowers. With the rise of the local, organic flower movement, it’s easier than ever to ignore anonymous blooms. Show your friends, family and the earth your love buy supporting organic, local flowers.

Whidbey Island Flower Growers:

Organic, Non-GMO Zinnea Seed
Salmon Rose Zinnea from Deep Harvest Seeds

Deep Harvest Farm

Flying Bear Farm

Sonshine Farm

Organic Flower Seeds:

Deep Harvest Farm

Uprising Organics

Wild Garden Seed

Adaptive Seeds