This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
Ah false spring my old friend! The warmth returns to the sun on my face, the blood begins to move as the buds start to swell on the oaks and my footsteps quicken. This is always the point in the winter that the drumbeat speeds up and I start to feel like I’m behind. I have to remind myself that it’s still February, still winter, that I’m right where I need to be, neither late nor early.
The propagation house is filling up with trays of starts and the first batch of brassica went in the ground yesterday under a low tunnel of floating row cover, metal wickets, and a baling wire purlin wrapped around each wicket and staked with rebar at either end. This is the quickest, lowest structure we build, good for covering a single, narrow bed of two alternating rows of brassica on 18-27” spacing. The drips are 9” apart, so I often switch between 18” and 27”, giving a little more space here and there for the biggest starts of the larger varietals, while still trying to maximize overall production.
Plant spacing can be tricky; too much space and your harvest decreases, and there is often more weed pressure, too little and the plants can’t reach full expression and often struggle more with disease or lack of nutrients. How rich the soil is has a lot to do with how intensive the plantings can be, as does the availability of water. For large brassica I try to grow sizes that sell easily without sticker shock; few people want a monster cabbage, and a massive, $12 cauliflower is a lot to handle.
The bed we planted yesterday had been made ready earlier in the winter by mowing, power harrowing (to rip up the weed roots) and putting down a layer of cardboard to smother the weeds so that they would decompose. Over the cardboard we layered 1-2” of compost and then covered the whole thing with straw. The cardboard has softened so that it’s easy to punch through and plant, and the added moisture retention and fertility from the compost will help the plants thrive through the spring with minimal weed competition.
I’m trying to move away from spending so much time pulling weeds, which removes biomass and soil from the garden. If I can get them to decompose in place under cardboard or old light dep tarp, then they add fertility and tilth to the soil and require less overall effort. So long as my timing is on point and I can prepare the beds a month or two in advance, these methods work out very well.
The cardboard method is great for big crops with wide spacing, so I use it for heading brassica and sometimes for squash varieties. Gophers can be problematic, so I have to watch and set traps if I’m losing plants. As we get later into the spring I’ll stop with the cardboard and shift to the tarps, laying them black side up to add heat to the soil and hasten the breakdown of the vegetation. The soil will be pre-warmed for early plantings and the weed populations will be greatly reduced.
Though we’ve had some sunny weather of late, there is snow in the forecast for this upcoming week and I’m hoping for some downtime to read and rest before the real spring push begins. As the tunnels fill with salad mixes, turnips, beets, radishes and other cooking greens I’ll start prepping the big terraces for early plantings of the same crops, getting them in and the out again before cannabis goes in later in the spring.
On the big terraces I build low tunnels from hoops bent from ½” metal EMT conduit, which is strong enough to hold up significant snow weight so long as the baling wire purlin is pulled tight and attached to stakes pounded in deep at each end of the tunnel. I cover with the AG30, thick frost blanket row cover that is durable and reusable for several seasons. At 14’ wide it covers the hoops with plenty extra on each side to be held down by sandbags, which we’re shifting to in favor of T-posts which often rip the cloth.
Planning crop rotations is something I enjoy, a puzzle to tinker with in my head, trying to work out optimum timings for use of space and maximum harvests. Keeping enough produce coming in for the CSA, farmers market and farmstand is a challenge that I enjoy, although it can feel overwhelming during seasonal transitions. As we begin our 13th year of CSA I feel the excitement rising as it always does about this time; hope springs eternal! As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!