The ground is frozen solid. We’re two months away from spring and more than three months away from the last frost date, which can be as late as the first week in June.

Time to relax? No, it’s time to get moving at Long Meadow Farm.

We’ve set a goal to provide 80 members with 20 weeks of vegetables starting the first week in June. That generally means about 100 families, since our large shares often go to two families, and even some of the small shares go to two households.

We will bring produce to the Gardiner Farmers’ Market and at least one restaurant and one specialty food store. And we’ve got to feed ourselves — Farm Manager Jon Ault, apprentices Brian Carter and Kate Harris, and me.

That’s a lot of production coming from about 2.5 acres of ground, using human labor and hand tools — no tractors, rototillers and other noisemakers in the garden. No horses, either.

We did it last year, and the couple of years before that, but each year is different. In 2009, we had too much rain and late blight; late frost in 2010, and a very dry June and July in 2011. Who knows what 2012 will bring?

It takes planning, exquisite planning, to bring forth large amounts of food on a small piece of land.

In the last two weeks, Jon produced a spreadsheet that listed all of the varieties of vegetables we would grow (47), and the number of pounds or bunches or units we would like to harvest from June through October.

In food that could be measured by pounds (tomatoes, greens, potatoes, carrots, etc.) he projected more than 14,000 pounds of produce. We hope to harvest more that 3,000 pounds of tomatoes, 875 pounds of lettuce mix and 1,800-plus pounds of carrots, to mention a few of the more popular veggies.

We’re expanding our sweet corn, which we shared for the first time last year, and it was a big favorite. Sweet corn takes up a lot of space in the garden, but the taste is spectacular. We’re projecting 800 ears, or about 8 per share, about double last year.

Even though it’s only mid-February, we already have started onion seeds on heat mats in the downstairs “grow room.” When they sprout, fluorescent lights will be used to help them grow before they eventually are transplanted into the garden.

The real dance begins when we plan how and when all these vegetables will get to their places in the garden. It’s like a three-dimensional chess game on wheels that starts now and doesn’t end until September.

There are two key words in this phase: “rotations” and “successions.”

Rotation means that none of the families of vegetables (alliums, brassicas, curcurbits, night shades, for example) should occupy the same space two years in a row. And, to make it more interesting, some plants do better and others worse depending on who their neighbor is. To figure this out, we use garden maps from the last two to three years.

Successions are a little more complicated. Some crops, such as sweet corn and onions, pretty much stay in the same spot all season, so successions are not a problem. Short-season crops such as lettuces, have to be planted and harvested weekly; spinach is planted and harvested very early (April-June) and then replanted again in August for the fall crop.

All the while, soil has to be carefully built though a combination of manure, compost, mulching and cover crops such as buck wheat and oats. Organic farming depends on healthy soil, not on synthetic fertilizers that rob the soil of its nutrients.

To make it even more interesting, many crops benefit from interplanting, such as Swiss chard and tomatoes, lettuce and broccoli, and pole beans and corn.

One more thing: We have to know how many row-feet we need to plant in our successions to achieve our harvest goals. We can’t have a week when there is little or nothing in the share baskets, can we?

Once this planning is done, and we have a notebook of weekly work assignments, we have to deal with reality. Reality can mean a wet spring where we can’t get into the garden and plant — and the soil temperature is too low anyway. Or the dreaded June frost that will blacken our tomato and pepper seedlings. Or a dry spring, when we haul our irrigation around much earlier than usual.

All bets on Maine weather have to be hedged, and our hedge is a 20 percent overproduction of seedlings that will be looking for spots in the garden as they become available and people have time to plant them.

The best part, the one that makes it all worthwhile, is that it’s all about making healthy fresh food for people in our community.

Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmmaine.com.


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