This time of year I spend an inordinate amount of time in the seedling house.  It’s wonderful.  For years I made my soil blocks and planted seeds into them in the basement.  My back still aches at the memory of being hunched over so as not to bump my head on the heating ducts working in the cold, dark, damp of a basement in the late winter and spring in Maine.  But in the winter of 2012/13 I built our third hoop house which is dedicated to seedling production.  Working while standing fully erect in the sunshine in a 75 degree hoop house is an immeasurable improvement over working in a dark cold basement.  Funny, I never really realized how much time I spend making soil blocks and planting seeds into them until I really started to enjoy the work.

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Using a Hand Seed Sower from Johnny’s Selected Seeds to plant Rouge d’Hiver Red Romaine Lettuce

Over the last month or so I’ve been planting, and planting and planting some more.  Today I was planting another round of lettuces and Choi.  These crops need to be planted on a very regular interval to ensure there is sufficient product at the market stand and for our CSA members in the next few months.  Many of the other crops we plant are one shot deals.  For instance the seedling house is mostly filled with onion seedlings at this point.  Onions have to be planted early and then they take the entire season to grow.  But quick crops like lettuce, Choi and spinach for example, must be planted in succession.  Getting the timing right is tricky and takes some trial and error.  Even after many trials and many errors the weather can still be a big variable.

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Two different types of Choi – Joi and White Flash

Unlike in the industrial food system, which has been narrowing the genetic pool in our seed supply for multiple generations (this has reached terrifying proportions, see Michael Pollan’s ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma‘ for an engaging description of variety concentration) , small farmers often experiment with different varieties of the same cultivar.  For instance, this year I’m growing two types of Choi with the same maturity date.  I want to see which performs better in our climate, out competes pests and of course tastes better.  This requires more organization and record keeping.  This also helps lead to the creation (or discovery depending on how you look at it) of new varieties that are perfectly suited to the farm where they were created.  This is known as ‘nativized genetics’ and it is something in which I’m very interested at Parker Family Farm, both for our vegetables and our animals.

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Seedling sign filing system

I reuse and re-purpose as much as I can here at the farm.  This is called being thrifty and it used to be considered normal.  Indeed, thrifty didn’t used to be an option when farming was a way of life for the vast majority of our citizenry.  Our culture has moved away from thriftiness toward a mindset involving purchasing inputs without regard to quality or lifespan.  Clearly that isn’t a good idea.

One way I reuse and recycle is to make my seedling and garden signs out of vinyl siding.  This idea came to me from Fedco Trees, a nursery co-op based in the Waterville area.  If you write on the back of a piece of vinyl siding with pencil it won’t come off except by being erased.  It’s sun proof, waterproof, mud proof and smudge proof.  But you can erase it.  And unlike wooden plant labels these last forever (one reason to keep vinyl out of the landfill or even, dare I say, stop making it?) which, in combination with the erasing factor makes them a perfect garden sign material.  You can usually find scraps of siding around construction sites and if you’re nice the crew will let you have all you can carry.  I finally figured out how to organize my signs such that the variety names are visible for each sign so all I need to do is find the sign for what I’m planting and change the date from last year’s planting.  This has saved me incalculable amounts of time.  And time is food!

So as you enjoy the coming of spring, not withstanding last night’s snow and the shocking low temperature overnight tonight, think about your local farmer who is probably planting this seasons crops at all hours of the day (and into the night).  It’s a great way to spend a sunny, spring day in Maine.


Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.