As you can imagine, at a small-scale diversified vegetable farm, spring is BUSY. For the past few months, soil and air temps have been slowly warming. As each day passes, it gets less and less risky to get things planted outdoors. Our planting frenzy has been going on since at least February; around Valentine's day we planted our potatoes, and around the 20th of February, we got cauliflower, a 60-day crop, in the ground. If all goes well, you’ll see cauliflower (and cabbage) at the beginning of May. Truthfully, every single day at the farm as of late is absorbed by seeding or planting something. Texas’s spring and fall, seasons that are neither freezing nor scorching, are optimal conditions for growing a large diversity of vegetables.
In today’s post, we thought we’d tell you about the three main ways we plant vegetables at Vrdnt, our small-scale Texas farm. The main factor that determines how we plant a vegetable is the desired spacing of the vegetable, aka how much room we need between each individual plant. Depending on spacing, we plant our vegetables in 1 of 3 ways: direct seeding, paper pot transplanting, and what we just call “regular” transplanting.
If you’re a gardener, you know the tools readily available to help you: hand trowels, shovels, hoes, rakes, maybe a broad fork. In the world of big (and medium) agriculture, tractors and expensive tractor implements do most of the heavy lifting. But what about all the thousands of farms, like Vrdnt, that are leagues larger than a garden, but not multiple hundred-acre expanses? In the world of small farming, there are a plethora of amazing technologies that can increase efficiency and speed up tasks like planting. When farmers who use these technologies get together, story swaps often include brand names and model numbers of these cool tools, all of which we’ll cover in today’s post.
Join us! Let’s nerd out about Vrdnt’s various planting techniques.
Direct seeding is just what it sounds like: the process of putting individual seeds directly into the soil of a meticulously prepped bed (more on that). These seeds skip any greenhouse time and are germinated directly in the bed where they’ll mature till harvest. The vegetables that we direct seed are all of those vegetables that have very close spacing including root crops like beets and carrots, as well as baby greens like arugula and some lettuces. When we plant these crops, there are so many seeds, places so close together, that direct seeding is really the best way to achieve this dense planting. In addition to the spacing concerns, crops like carrots, for example, simply won’t transplant well! Once they get going, they don’t like to be moved.
So, how do we direct seed, exactly? In a small garden, it’s reasonable to spend some time, hunched over with a ruler and your index finger, poking holes and dropping seeds into the earth. But when you have dozens of farm beds that are 200 feet long, you’ve gotta use tools to speed up the process. At the farm, we use a seeder that we adoringly call by its brand name, Jang. This Jang roller seeder is outfitted with different wheels, which turn like gears and dispense seeds as you walk along the row and push it along, kind of like the Fischer Price corn popper toy. The rollers are easily changed out depending on the size of the seed and desired spacing (i.e. do you want your carrot seeds dropped every .5 inch or 1 inch?). On the video below, Becky is using the Jang to seed baby greens. Fun fact: it's a quarter mile walk to seed each bed of baby greens. On the day that video was taken, Becky clocked 8 miles. Safe to say she got her steps in!
Remember how we said direct-seeded crops get planted in a carefully prepped bed? Allow us to back up a bit and tell you about that process. Because direct seeded crops are planted so closely together, weeding is one of the biggest concerns. It’s difficult to drag tines or a hoe in between densely planted crops to weed without damaging the crops themselves. The best way to avoid weed pressure in these beds? Kill ‘em before we start. After beds have been shaped and amended, but before we run our Jang seeder down the rows dispensing vegetable seeds, we will water the beds, hoping to germinate all of the weed seeds that lay dormant in the first few inches of soil. If there is rain in the forecast, we rush to finish shaping beds and have the rain do our irrigation work; otherwise, we’ll just put the sprinklers on the rows to coax out any weeds. Just as the weeds emerge, tiny specks of green amid an otherwise tidy bed, we pull out one of our favorite tools: the flame weeder, which we prefer to call the flame thrower.
Our flame thrower is another walk-behind wheeled tool that is made up of a row of propane-powered torches pointed at the ground. Passing a flame over a newly germinated weed plant will heat the plant up just enough to kill it. When flame weeding, you’re not actually igniting or even scorching the tiny plants, but are instead just briefly introducing the sprout to flame for long enough to destroy the cell structure. The weed turns from glossy to dull, and limp slightly. A day or two later, they’re dead as a doornail and you have a clean bed in which to direct sow vegetable seeds, without competition. Hopefully, these vegetable seeds germinate and grow ahead of any lingering weeds.
Paper Pot Transplanting
The second way we plant vegetables at Vrdnt is using a tool called a paperpot transplanter. Like the Jang seeder, the paperpot transplanter is a walk-behind, hand-pulled technology without a motor. Invited in Japan, the paperpot system is pulled along to create a small furrow in a prepped bed in which young greenhouse-grown transplants are dolled out. The transplants are connected via a paper chain at a rate of over 250 plants per minute, and when it’s working smoothly, the whole process requires no bending or digging. Check out the video below to see our paperpot transplanter in action.
The paper pot system is best suited for crops that are spaced a close 2-6 inches apart. We use the paper pot system to transplant scallions, lettuce, kohlrabi, leeks, kale, chard, and fennel, just to name a few. In the video above, you can see Becky harvesting some beautiful Salanova paperpot lettuce!
The final way that we plant at Vrdnt is what we unimaginatively call “regular” transplanting. In this method, we grow transplants in plastic cell trays in our greenhouse. Once the young plants have an established root system and at least a few true leaves, we move them from the greenhouse to the field. Plants are “popped” out of their trays using a pencil or small wooden dowel which is inserted through a hole on the underneath side of the plastic cell tray. These plants are then manually plugged into the ground. Because our soil at Vrdnt is so sandy, we usually can just push the plants into the ground and don’t have to actually dig a hole. We transplant this way when planting crops that need to be spaced 1-2 feet apart like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and tomatoes.
When transplanting using this method and sometimes the others, we will often use either a dibbler or a grid roller to help us mark the beds and evenly spaced plants. A dibbler will actually dibble (is that a verb?) or punch, small, evenly spaced holes in the beds. The other tool, a roller, simply marks an 8-inch square grid on the bed that we use like grafting paper to space the plants.
It may seem overkill to go through so much trouble to plant pristine rows, but having plants uniformly spaced allows us to mechanically weed with a tine weeder (seen below), helps us streamline the harvesting process, and also allows us to better project crop yields. Also, it’s just so pleasing to the eye.
Hope you enjoyed learning about how we plant our vegetable crops at Vrdnt! Happy Spring, y’all! CSA signups are OPEN!