Our Growing Practices
Disclaimer: we are not "certified organic" and make no claim to be. Also we make no claims about our produce being "healthier" than "conventional" vegetables.
But we do stand behind our principles and practices, and we take pride in trying to farm in balance with nature. We are heavily inspired by the broad "permaculture" community, especially market garden authors Eliot Coleman, Jean-Martin Fortier, and the No-Till Market Gardener podcast/Youtube channel, not to mention other farmers and gardeners we've encountered digitally and in real life.
The truth is we don't use any herbicides, insecticides, fungicides - synthetic or natural, nor do we use synthetic fertilizers. We have no interest in working with them, exposing ourselves and workers/kids/family/friends to them, exposing the wildlife on our acreage to any of these products, and honestly we don't need such products to do what we do (though we empathize with why other farmers use them). We stand behind our claim with good faith and integrity. We invite curious customers to schedule a farm tour and we will show you our weeds, bug damage, and fungi to back our claim. Indeed over the years we have shown numerous customers our fields, when we farmed on rented land 2017-2019 and on our own property 2019 - now (2021).
Below we show and describe our growing practices in detail in hopes that curious folks get a sense of what we do at Branching Path Farm. If anyone has any questions or would like to schedule a farm tour, we invite them to reach out.
Harvest & Post-Harvest
(Picture of a hay field)
Tillage & Soil Fertility
2017-2019, we were renting part of someone else's established market garden in Flamorough, of which you can see pictures in our older social media posts. In fall 2019 we took possession of a hay field that we needed to convert into a market garden. The hay's roots formed a thick sod, not tilled in years: a mix of grass, clover, alfalfa, and all sorts of "weeds" (in this case lots of narrow-leaf plantain, bindweed, moss, dock, dandelion and more). To be able to plant vegetable crops into this soil ecosystem one must kill most of the existing plants and compost their organic matter, leaving mostly-bare and loosened soil available for direct-seeding or transplanting into.
Through the history of human agriculture, tillage (disturbing and loosening of soil some inches to feet deep) has always proved to be a useful tool. You can take an area with compact soil, wild plants and mulch, and (whether by digging stick; shovel; horse-drawn or tractor-drawn plow, disc or harrow; or walk-behind rototiller) turn it into bare fluffy soil available for a plant crop. We refer to this as "bed prep," preparing a garden bed (or a plot of 5 beds at a time in our case) for planting. For our main 2 acre vegetable garden, we decided to go ahead with tilling all beds at least one initial time in 2019-2020 to more quickly kill the hay, though we want to till as little as possible in the future. For our scale, we use a walk-behind rototiller instead of a tractor.
(Picture of initial rototilling).
Some areas we didn't need available in spring-summer 2020, but we wanted clear for planting perennial crops in 2021-2022, so we skipped tilling and went right to "stale-seed-bedding" with a tarp (described below) for months instead of weeks, to kill and compost previous vegetation and leave bare soil available for planting. No-till bed prep can have benefits to soil biology (example: better fungal communities) and especially it's organic matter content (which also means more carbon sequestration in the soil). This includes benefits to soil fertility and water moisture retention, and general plant health.
[Fun fact: lots of large scale conventional corn/wheat/soy/etc farmers are also going low or no till for similar benefits, using chemical herbicides in circumstances where we would use a tarp]
Many of our beds/blocks get two or more quick-growing crops per year, and we often avoided using the rototiller for the transition to the second crop, opting instead to just use our wheelhoe and/or boadfork, which appear in later pictures.
Another way we are "low till" is that we usually only till the 40" width of our beds, not also our 18" wide walkways. Ecologically-speaking this un-tilled soil would be a refuge (like a ravine--forest spared from a fire or clearcut) for organisms that are killed by tillage. In one block of our field in the summer of 2020 we had numerous puff-ball mushrooms pop up in it's walkways (but not beds) after some rain; that seemed to be perfect evidence of the benefit to soil fungus.
The soil in our field is a bit heavy (silt) and compact, so a first pass with the rototiller just goes a couple of inches deep, chopping the tops of the hay roots, but leaving a layer of packed soil still full of deeper roots. So we needed to till a bit deeper with second pass, which is an opportune moment to mix in compost and other amendments.
During the 2017-2019 growing seasons while we farmed at Simpler Thyme, we tried and used leaf compost, mushroom compost, composted cow manure, and a granulated fertilizer product made from poultry manure; and we used fish emulsion and compost teas as foliar sprays a few times/places.
Here on our new farm, starting in the fall of 2019, we went with a more detailed approach. We started with a soil test that told us we needed to increase our organic matter content, that our soil was lower on potassium and nitrogen than phosphorus, a bit on the acidic side, and some micro-nutrients were low and some were good. Based on all the research we've done over the years, we decided that at least for Year 1 we would not just add good compost (which is an much of an inoculant as it is nutrientrition) to the soil, but also a few rock dusts and other minerals, biochar, lime, and innoculants to add to the soil ecology. We looked up examples of agronomist recommendations of those amendments for other farms (based on their soil tests), and generally did 1/2, 1/4 or lower doses, hoping to just gently nudge our soil rather than try to beat it into submission.
We are planning on only applying more of the same compost in 2021, and partway through 2021taking more soil tests to inform need changes for 2022. We would also consider consulting with an agronomist to fine-tune our plan.
Here following the ingredient list of what we applied in spring 2020, and a picture of us spreading the mix out.
Per "block" of 5 beds (beds on 5' centre, so an area 25'x100', with the beds being ~40" wide)
~ x lbs of Turkey Compost (from Schlegels)
~ x lbs worm compost (from Black Swallow Living Soils, BSLS*)
~ x lbs lime
~ x oz greensand (*BSLS)
~ x oz biochar *
~ x oz carbonanite *
~ x oz wollastonite *
~ x oz *
~ x oz kelp flour *
~ x oz alafalfa meal *
~ x g Biological Actviator *
~ x g fungal ... *
Weed collaboration, prevention, and control
One problem with tilling soil is that it brings up dormant weed seeds, thus causing more weed problems. Said again simply, tilling causes weeds. Think of it like a forest fire or a landslide in nature. An ecosystem sees a population collapse and afterwards there are empty niches (unclaimed resources) like bare fluffy soil. Nature is good at filling in a gap, that is why so many plants evolve to grow like "weeds" as we call them. So once you till an area to be able to plant it, the weed pressure starts. This is especially problematic with slow germinating / slow-growing crops, like carrots for example. If you get too many weeds coming up too quickly you end up with stunted or lost crops, and/or inefficient weeding tasks. There is a point at which a farmer might then just "till in" their lost crop
(picture of an area too weedy)
Weeds aren't all bad:
However we are not interested in eradicating every single "weed" in our field. Many so-called weeds are useful, some are even species that a farmer might purposely plant as a cover crop or green manure. One perfect example is the legume-family cousins Clover and Alfalfa, which are abundant in our field because they are commonly planted in "hay" mixes. Being legumes, they have a agreement with special soil bacteria who extract atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into plant food. For this reasons farmers often plant legumes before, with, or after certain crops to improve the nitrogen content of their soil. In 2020 we intended on "under-sowing" some of our Brassica crops with white or red clover which would start to grow under our maturing crop, and then take over the bed after our crop was done. We kept delaying this task in lieu of 100 other tasks we also have to do each week, but as luck would have it the most dominant weed coming up in that part of the field was in fact red clover. Thus that was three whole blocks of our field that we didn't have to do work to cover crop in the summer/fall of 2020, nature ended up taking care of the soil by itself.
(clover under brassicas)
Other benefits to some weeds include:
- They can be edible (dandelion, purslane, wood sorrel, lambs quarters, and pigweed are all ones we even bring to market sometimes);
- They might bring other other nutrients or minerals from subsoil (though we haven't seen much peer-review study to back this claim);
- Just by being plants that exist they turn atmospheric carbon into plant biomass which ultimately becomes soil organic matter;
- Also, every plant in nature helps support some kind of soil microbes, and overall a wider variety of plant life in a given area may be correlated a more bio-diverse soil ecosystem, which itself is correlated with healthier crop growth.
Once we prep a bed or block of beds, in most cases we then lay down one of our large 100'-long by 10' to 25'-wide silage tarp for a process commonly called stale-seed-bedding. Very simply: before planting your crop, let the first weeds come up and die off under the tarp; then after a couple of weeks you remove the tarp and plant your crops while trying to disturb the soil as little as possible (because re-tilling would bring new weed seeds up to the surface). In our experience, when this process is applied during warmer months (late-May to August) new weed germination after the tarp is removed seems to be delayed by a few weeks, such that we can grow a 30 day crop of salad greens or radishes without ever weeding it, or a 60-day crop of lettuce or carrots with only having to weed once or twice midway through it's growth. However a tarp on the ground in April or over the winter does not offer the same weed-prevention, because it's not much warmer under the tarp then outside.
(insert picture of tarp)
(picture of tarp edge lifted, showing soil available for planting)
Many fruiting crops (such as tomatoes and it's nightshade cousins, cucumbers and it's cousins squash and melons) are planted as a single row with plants 2'-3' apart, meaning most of the soil surface is bare and prone to weeds. If you have lots of weeds around the stems of these plants, you have a higher likelihood of fungal diseases, so we have using some artificial mulches for weed control. This includes the same "landscape fabric" that nurseries and greenhouses use, and also a biodegradable plastic mulch we bought from Dubois Agrinovation. We plan on re-using the same pieces of landscape fabric for a few years until they start to degrade, but we are not excited about buying more nor are we interested in using the bio-plastic again. Long term we would rather use actual biological mulches such as leaves (which we have done in the past and will again in 2021), or low-growing cover crops like clover as a living mulch. See here for updates in the winter of 2021-2022.
(Picture of peppers and eggplant with mulch)
(picture of leaf pile)
When we do need to kill weeds around our crops, we have a preference for standing on our feet and quickly hoeing between rows, because it is much faster than kneeling and hand-weeding. Here at Branching Path we mostly use stirrup hoes so that our soil disturbance is really shallow, and we can even cut off big weeds right at ground-level with ease and precision (versus disturbing soil unnecessarily wide or deep, because that could just cause more new weed problems). We also have a wheel-hoe with different attachments, though this is only suited for certain crop sizes and spacing.
Hand-weeding is something we only like doing for small-areas when necessary such as up against the stems of crop plants where we can't reach with a hoe, and when leaving the weeds would be detrimental to the crop outcome.
We use a lawn-mower to mow our larger access paths around the field and along-side rows of berries and trees, and we often do that mowing when also using our lawn-mower for it's trailer (which we use to haul hundreds of pounds of compost at a time out to the field, and later to bring in hundreds of pounds of cabbage, squash etc per trip) thus being more efficient.
And we do occasionally use a weed-whacker for tall weeds in walkways and between widely spaced plants, and also to flatten down cover crops.
(mowing / trailer),
Seeds, seeding and transplanting
First off: since we are not seeking to be "certified organic" we don't exclusively use "certified organic" seed. But because we don't want any pesticides on our crops we are selective about where we buy our seeds, because some seeds from some companies are treated with fungicides or insecticides. With that in mind we buy almost all our seed from Johnny's (https://www.johnnyseeds.com) and from William Dam (www.damseeds.com), and in the past we have bought some seeds from Urban Harvest (www.uharvest.ca) and Greta's (https://www.seeds-organic.com/). In addition to this we also do some of our own seed-saving (and uncontrolled breeding) and intend to do much more seed saving and (controlled) breeding in the future. There is some evidence that when you save seed and replant year after year in the same field/garden that the plants are better adapted to your specific soil ecosystem, and we're keen to experiment for ourselves.
We grow numerous heirloom varieties of most crops (such as brandywine, cherokee purple, sicialian saucer, garden peach, etc etc tomatoes), as well as other varieties which are "open-pollinated" like heirlooms but are not old enough to be classified as heirloom. These are varieties which have been created with traditional seed-saving and breeding techniques, and which are available to us modern farmers due to dedicated gardeners/farmers/breeders continuing to grow them every year.
And we do also grow some varieties which are F1 hybrids, which is a breeding technique which has existed since decades before modern GMOs and involves rubbing flowers together. While some farmers similar to us prefer to stick to heirlooms only, we grow some hybrids because they often are more vigorous (fast growing), uniform (similar size and harvest time), higher-yielding, and most-importantly are often more disease resistant than available open-pollinated varieties. For example, it's really common for organic growers to lose their tomatoes to "blight" before the harvest would otherwise be complete. In the 2017 farming season we lost our whole crop of heirlooms to early blight in July. In 2018 we lost most of our crop to late blight at least a month before fall frost. In 2019 and 2020, we also grew some hybrid varieties which are bred for blight resistance, and sure enough the hybrids were more resilient and productive.
We don't use any seeds which were produced by more modern "Genetic Engineering" techniques. You can check our seed suppliers' (William Dam and Johnny's) websites for their assurances that they don't sell GMO seeds, same goes for the two smaller seed companies named above. This is not to say that our crop varieties are not "modified" because obviously they are domesticated species (nature didn't create big-tender-colorful carrots or beefsteak tomatoes or butternut squash, thousands of years of human seed-saving created those), you would be hard pressed to find a vegetable farmer who only grows native species.
Seeding and Transplanting:
Some crops we start in potting soil in trays in the greenhouse, and then eventually transplant those seedlings to their home in the field. This includes many fruiting crops (like tomatoes and squash), many stem/leaf crops (like celery, cabbage, leeks, head lettuce, kale), and just a few root veggies (like onions and celeriac). Reasons to transplant a crop incloude
(picture A9 or C2 no weed crops)
Also fabric and bioplastic mulch