With the resurgence of small farm scale 'organic' vegetable production actual published useful information is very scarce or non existent. If you read gardening books, they are normally plagiarised from other authors, often by lazy celebrities, who either have no original ideas or just leave it all to their 'ghost' writers. Nonetheless, laziness is a common human trait and having not yet fully evolved into a robot I am here going to concentrate on my own innovations and not bore us all stupid repeating everything else! Hopefully some of the ideas will be useful for house scale gardeners as well.
I got much of my information by working for free on some of my neighbour's farms and spending the lunch break quizzing them incessantly on how they did things. They had been doing this kind of thing for over 20 years and were happy to pass on the info, particularly when bottles of homemade whiskey and apple brandy were offered!
To economically grow a ton of vegetables, or more accurately, ten tons, a certain degree of mechanisation is required, which basically means a tractor, a plough and a rotovator. Potatoes require some extra equipment such as a ridging plough, a planting machine and a harvesting machine, but try and borrow/share these items with your neighbours if possible.
Leeks require the minimum in terms of machinery, but need extra care and attention all the way from sowing the seeds to harvesting, so I have given them a much more detailed set of instructions compared to the other vegetables. The biggest mistake is to transplant them too early and in my yearly experience I have had to restrain myself for 20 whole weeks!
I do not practise permaculture as this does not work on a commercial level unless we could get a sizeable income from running courses or help from a large number of 'free' workers. Instead I practise 'Tractorculture' which takes much of the back breaking work out of the jobs. I do use 'organic' principles, but my set up is too small for it to be worthwhile paying for the official certification and so I call it 'chemical free' which means no pesticides, no artificial fertilisers and minimal use of plastic.
Step 1: Equipment and Machinery
- 36 cc volume per cell seed trays eg. Modiform Multitray 104 - (#1557) multicell seed trays
Pronged push out tray for above (#6240)
- 69 cc per cell seed trays (no push out tray required) for sweetcorn
- 337 cc per cell seed trays (no push out tray required) for courgettes
- 6mm (1/4") sieve
- Small glasshouse/polytunnel
- Greenhouse shelving
- Bubble wrap
- Black woven plastic mulching fabric
- Guerilla currency (Golden Goats).
- 50 hp tractor
- 2 furrow plough
Machinery for Potatoes:
Step 2: Get Some Help!
There are plenty of people around the world and even in the neighbourhood who will work for food and accommodation. Some of my neighbours come and work for 'Golden Goats' in the Spring and then cash them in later on in the Summer/Autumn/Winter for vegetables.
If you'd like to come and help in 2017 etc, please contact me in advance and I will arrange for a boat to pick you up from the mainland.
Step 3: Soil Preparation
The soil is processed in early Spring, as soon as it is dry enough for the tractor to drive on the land without damaging the soil structure.
Firstly, the field is ploughed: The aim of ploughing is to scoop up an 8” deep by 12” wide piece of earth and turn it over 180 degrees, burying any crop residue or weeds in the process. This results in loosened soil which can be made into a seed bed.
Detailed info about ploughing is here: https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Plough-or-plow-a-field-for-beginners/
Next, the ploughed field is rotovated.
Since we seem to be using technology from about 40 years ago, the Howard 'Rotovator' is now used to break up the crude sods of earth created by the plough. Again, only do this when the ground is nice and dry and it is a massive false economy to get over excited at the start of the season and do things to early. Much better to slowly come out of hibernation like a big sleepy old bear.
There is not too much skill involved in using the Rotovator, but it's a good idea to set the machine up so that it breaks up at least one of your tyre tracks by having it offset to one side. With this in mind, we would then have to rotovate in the same direction each time, to keep the tyre tracks at bay! Sometimes, particularly on newly cultivated land, we may need to go over the filed with more than one pass. In this case, the field is left for a couple of weeks to allow weeds to germinate and then rotovated for the second time, annihilating those new weeds in the process. We should then end up with what is called a 'stale bed', stale meaning 'no weeds'.
Step 4: Stale Beds
Diary notes: It's now the 11th of May and the soil temperature has gone up one whole degree in the last 24 hours. It really is time to do a whole load of planting, but it has been so wet since the beginning of May that it has been impossible to make any progress. However, there is some consolation, as when the final pass with the rotovator is made, it will destroy a whole swath of freshly germinated weeds.
Stale beds are not beds that have not had the sheets cleaned for a long time, they are beds of soil that have been specially cultivated to be 'stale' or, more precisely, free of weeds. The work with the rotovator is iterative, in that every time the soil is turned over it destroys more weeds and the number of viable weed seeds in the soil is significantly reduced. For optimum benefit, rather than keep turning the soil over on the same day, it is better to wait until the weed seeds have germinated and then kill the small seedlings mechanically, preferably on a nice sunny day when the sun will frazzle seedlings brought to the surface.
Step 5: Leeks
Leeks are grown over a 12 month period, so just when you are planting new leeks in the spring, the old ones are coming to an end and starting to flower. I sow my leek seeds in cell modules in the glasshouse as soon as the temperature within it is suitable. The minimum temperature for seed germination is 7 degrees C, but they will tolerate temperature swings quite happily. Leeks are also frost hardy so can be left in the ground all through the winter for harvest in the 'hungry gap' in May and June.
Step 6: Leeks - Plant Seeds in Seed Trays
Diary notes: It's the 20th of February and time to sow leeks.
The modiform seed trays specified are ideal for leeks and I would strongly advise not to use any other size. Sieve your compost onto the seed trays and use the pronged push out tray to create small indentations, or holes, for the seeds to fall into. Using your thumb and forefinger, pick up about 6 seeds and roll your fingers gently over the seeds allowing one seed to fall into each hole. This takes some practise!
The seed trays are now lightly covered with more compost and put in the shelving. Never put leeks on the top shelf or they will frazzle - I made this mistake one year! They do not need or like full sunlight at this stage. Keep them well watered and check them every day or twice a day when the sun is shining.
There is no set date for planting the seeds as this will depend on you local weather patterns. I planted mine on 20th February 2015 and they germinated nicely and I live in North west Wales, UK at 200m above sea level on the East coast of an island where the prevailing wind is from the S.West.
The shelving itself is made of steel angle and is four layers high, 400mm apart. In a small glasshouse there is room for over 10,000 seedlings at any one time. It may seem that the plants would not get enough sunlight in these shelves, but actually the opposite is true - seedlings in direct sunlight do worse than those in semi shade as they dry out incredibly quickly when there are no clouds.
Step 7: Leeks 2 Weeks Later
The leeks have now germinated and grown to about 10 mm tall. There is still a bit of frost around where I live but it has been dry enough to get out on the tractor and do a bit of cultivation.
The first cultivation stage is to break up the crops and weeds that have grown from the previous year. In the photo above you will see a strip of green grassy vegetation that looks like nothing in particular at all. In fact, it is the remnants of a beetroot crop and has been deliberately left there so that the remaining beets will form tall stalks and go to flower for subsequent seed saving. Beetroot is really good for this.
Either side of the grassy strip are areas that I has started to cultivate with the rotovator. What I have done here is just to skim along the surface, breaking up any stalks and roots so that the plough will go through it nice and cleanly. In previous years I used a flail mower, which was a lot quicker, but I reckon this way is better.
Step 8: Leeks Week 6
The leeklings are now 50 mm high and being watered twice a day. Any weeds are meticulously removed, as are any 'doubles', where two seeds have been accidentally dropped in the same cell. I did leave these doubles in one year and the leeks produced were quite inferior due to fighting each other for water and nutrients.
Step 9: Leeks Week 8
Diary notes: It's now April the 18th and after a prolonged dry spell, the ploughed ground is now lovely and dry for a good run through with the rotovator. The photo shows how 'raised' beds are being created with nothing more than this machine, with the height adjustment wheel on the left of the tractor. To achieve this, the tractor must be driven in the same direction every time, ie. You can't turn around and come back in the other direction to save time, you have to drive all the way around to the front of the field again.
Step 10: Leeks Week 9
The seedlings in the glasshouse are now about 125 mm high and are being kept on the lower shelves, rather than the top shelves, which get far too much sunshine. On a bright sunny day, the leeks have got badly scorched in the past. However, the weather has gone a little bit colder this week, so the seedlings will be left in the glasshouse until the next hot spell, and then the trays will be put outside in the great outdoors, but NOT in the ground.
What I am trying to do is get the plants as large as possible without cramping the root system so that when they are finally planted in the soil they will have a much better chance against the weeds. Leeks hate weeds!
Step 11: Leeks Week 20
Diary notes: It's now July the 11th and finally the leeks are ready to plant.
It's always very tempting to plant to leeklings too early, but much better to wait until the stems are the thickness of pencils and the root ball has pretty much filled the whole volume of the cell, as in the second photo above.
Step 12: Onions From Sets
Diary notes:It's 27th April and the soil temp is a steady 7.1 degrees C and today corrado onion sets were planted. Make sure that the sets come from a reputable supplier who has heat treated them or else they will just go to seed. Also, don't plant the sets too early or they will be overtaken by weeds and/or go to seed.
The ground is cultivated by ploughing and then rotovating and then the rows are marked out with a home made 'rake' as seen in the photo, which is dragged across the soil to make a small indentation. The rake has been built to create a 5 row bed with 15 cm between each row. The sets are then planted 15 cm apart to make 'square' patterns in the soil (see photo). The sets are then pushed into the soil, roots downwards, with just the tip of the onion showing. Do not use a trowel etc as this takes too long. Each person should be able to plant about 5 kilos of sets per hour. The popular gardening books and TV celebrities will tell you not to push the sets into the ground as this will damage the roots, but if the soil is nice and loose no damage is done.
After a couple of days, some of the sets will have miraculously done somersaults or crawled out of their holes to sun bathe on the surface. Unfortunately there is an entirely rational explanation for this - birds. Just go along the rows and put the onions back again and eventually, when the roots get a proper hold in the soil, this will no longer be a problem.
After 3 days, the soil temperature has risen to 7.5 degrees C and, with a nice bit of rain, the sets have started to form new roots and are on their way to success.
Onion sets (there are approximately 200 per kilo) are basically immature onions grown professionally from seed. This means they will mature more quickly, and are less choosy about soil conditions. Where varieties are heat treated, the treatment is designed to kill off the flower embryos within the bulb, to lessen the chances of bolting (running to seed). Treated sets have a darker skin colour and have low moisture content. Initial growth may be restricted but soon accelerates.
Step 13: Strawberries
Diary notes: It's the 25th of May and time to transplant strawberry plants out of the weeds onto nice clean ridges of soil.
Although strawberries are obviously not vegetables, I've included them here anyway. Thankfully, they are incredibly easy to grow and require work at the very start of the season when there is not too much else to do.
It's not worth trying to keep the plants free from weeds after they have cropped, so I just let them battle it out for themselves and salvage all the plants and runners in the Spring, when the weeds have died down and the plants reveal themselves once more. Again, it's not worth trying to weed them and it's much easier to dig the plants up, throw them into a wheel barrow and transplant them into clean, weed free soil on ridges made by the tractor. The plants themselves are incredibly tough and will tolerate a huge amount of abuse.
Step 14: Brussels Sprouts
Another crop to grow in cells, the seeds tend to be very expensive so none should be wasted. The plants need lots of space and, this year, attracted an enormous number of caterpillars which had to be removed by brushing and shaking the plants vigorously by hand.
Step 15: Calabrese/Broccoli
One of the easiest crops to grow - plant then sequentially to get a harvest all through the Summer and Autumn.
Much loved by the pigeons, who will eat this in preference to everything else, so it can be used very effectively, through 'tactical planting' to lure them out into good lines of sight for shooting.
Purple sprouting broccoli grows into a huge plant the size of a small tree and is harvested in the early Spring.
Step 16: Courgettes & Marrows
These plants require larger cells for planting the seeds and need to be transplanted into a sunny patch sheltered from the wind as much as possible.
Use a stack on the leeward side of the plants to prevent the wind blowing them out of the ground.
Step 17: Sweetcorn
Diary notes: Soil temperature is now 8.5°C and there are four full weeks to the last frost. The weather has been generally cold, but now seems to have gone into a warm spell. (Today is 4th May 2015 and the last frost where I live is normally 1st June each year)
Sweetcorn is normally fairly easy to grow and benefits from being planted in blocks protected by fence posts and pallet wrap, see HERE for more details. The plants need to be started in the glasshouse and planted out after the last frost.
Step 18: Cabbage
Diary notes: It's the 30th of June and pigeons are being a real problem this year. They are totally camouflaged when sitting amongst the cabbages and very difficult to shoot. .
Cabbages are fairly easy to grow but pigeons can be a real problem in the late spring when there is little else for them to eat. This year, I set up a small garden shed and cut a hole in the front so that I could shoot a gun out of it without being seen by the birds. For a few weeks, this meant getting up at about 5.30 in the morning until the pigeons had been persuaded to relinquish their bad habits.
The gun needs to be propped up on a tripod to get accurate shots at 100 metres and targets are placed out in the field at 50, 75 and 100 metres to get correct vertical ranging.
Cabbages are tolerant of weeds as they produce big leaves which fan out at ground level. When they reach a certain size, I use a strimmer with a metal blade attached to weed out the thistles etc. The plants don't seem to object to being caught by the blade every now and again!
Step 19: Carrots
Diary notes: It's the 17th of May, the soil temperature is holding at 9.5 degrees C and there is forecast for some wet and mild weather tomorrow, which means that night time temperatures will be higher and an all round more even temperature between day and night. Hopefully, this should help with germination of the carrot seeds! Six days later, after scrubbing around in the soil a bit, I found some germinated seeds, as in the first photo.
30th June and it's time to weed the carrot seedlings, as in the second photo.
Don't try and sow carrots by hand in high winds as the seeds will blow away. Also, it's easy to sow the seeds too close together because they are so small. I've sown the seeds and I will wait for about 3 days and then scrub around in the soil by some marker sticks to see if the seeds have germinated or not. If 'not', then the beds will need to be re-sown.
Carrots are notoriously difficult to grow and total crop failure is very common. Carrot root fly is also a big problem.
Use the standard Autumn king variety and sow successively all the way up to late July and abandon any plots that do not germinate or develop properly. There is not much advantage in sowing carrots early as they will not grow as well as a later sowing and will need much more weeding, unless you enjoy doing a lot of weeding! As soon as the seedlings are visible, it's a good idea to go through the rows with a hoe, even if the weeds can't be seen yet as they won't be far behind the carrots. I have tried carrot fly resistant varieties, but they don't work and the seeds are incredibly expensive. Carrots sown in May/June can be harvested until late November after which the carrot fly larvae have grown big enough to ruin the crop. Later plantings SHOULD yield a harvest later into the year, but this has yet to be proved!
Diary notes: It's the 21st November 2015 and the carrots are now too wormy to sell anymore :(
Step 20: Kale
This is a great crop where I life as I am limestone soil and the climate is nice and wet - perfect for kale! It's easy to grow, tastes fantastic and lasts all Winter, producing a glorious array of flowers in the early Spring.
Let the plants go to seed and it's great for the honey bees and seeds can be saved for growing micro greens in the late spring.
Step 21: Beetroot
Growing beetroot in cell trays is preferable to direct planting as the time taken to plant the individual seedlings is a lot less than the time needed to weed direct planted seeds. For a comparison, look at the third photo above - on the left is beetroot transplanted from cells and relatively free of weeds.
Cell grown plants benefit dramatically from the small amount of compost in which they are grown, which stays with them around the main part of the root system right up until they are harvested.
Step 22: Potatoes From 'Seed' Tubers
Diary notes: It's now the 8th May and the soil temperature is up to about 8.5 degrees C. I dug up a few tubers from the ground and they are showing small shoots of growth, but nothing fantastic yet. Apparently, it has been a cold spring here. Definitely too early to plant the main crop.
To grow a ton of potatoes, quite a lot of machinery is needed as it would be too hard on the human body unless a dozen or so volunteers were available.
- Ridging plough
- Planting machine
- Harvesting machine
The ground for growing potatoes should not be 'virgin' soil which has had no previous cultivation and should be treated with well rotted manure. Never use fresh manure or the spuds will not grow properly. The land can be ploughed in the Autumn or the spring, depending on constrains of time and suitably dry weather.
The next task is to loosen up the soil with the rotavator and the machine needs to go fairly deep into the soil to get nice clean ridges. Also, the soil must be sufficiently dry or otherwise round balls of clogged soil may be produce which will set hard like clay and ruin the chances for growing crops for that year. A few passes with this machine may be necessary to create a nice 'fluffy' soil quality.
The ridging plough is now used to create the ridges within which the potatoes will be planted. It's essential to get all the tractor wheels in line with each other and set the ridger according to the wheel spacings themselves. It's common sense really! Also, accurate tractor driving is essential or otherwise the planting will be off the centre of the ridges and the tubers may even be exposed.
'Chitting' of the tubers is not necessary as the mechanical planter just removes any shoots sprouted. Set the planter to the required spacings as below:
Earlies & Salad types: Plant the tubers around 30cm (12”) apart in the row (slightly further apart for maincrop types), in rows 45 (18”) cm apart, at a depth of 10cm (4”). For maincrop types, spacing in the row is 37.5cm (15”), at 67.5” (27”) between rows, and again, allow 10cm (4”) to the top of the tuber.
And off you go!
After the foliage just starts to show on top of the ridge, go over the rows with a hand rake or a chain harrow and partially destroy the ridges to knock back the weeds. Do this on a nice sunny day and the sun will zap the freshly germinated weeds. Go back a few hours later with the ridger to build the ridges back up again.
Potatoes are very susceptible to blight and once this is spotted it is important to remove the foliage to prevent the disease from going down into the tubers. After natural die back, the potatoes can either be left in the ground or harvested, depending on storage space available. After some weeks, rats and birds will try to eat the spuds and weeds will be growing so there comes a point where harvest can no longer be delayed. Adequate weeding is essential, or the harvesting machine will constantly get clogged up, which is a right pain in the proverbial!
Storage considerations are important: the spuds must be dried out for 24 hours and then put into breathable bags away from rats, sunlight and frost in a cool, well ventilated location.
It's a good idea to try and get some help during the potato harvest as, even with all the machinery, its still hard work to get the spuds off the ground, into bags and into safe storage. I created my own currency so that people helping early in the season could return the tokens later on when there was more produce available.
More info on growing potatoes is here: https://www.instructables.com/id/Grow-a-Ton-of-Potatoes/
Step 23: Cauliflower
This crop can be very hit or miss and the seeds are incredibly expensive. Winter cauliflowers are planted in seed trays in July and harvested in February and March.
Step 24: Broad Beans
This is one of the easiest crops to grow and is good for the soil as it puts nitrogen back into the ground. They are, however, susceptible to damage from pigeons and crows, who will pull them out of the ground, seemingly 'just for fun'. They are OK when they are bigger, but are particularly inviting to the birds when they are just sprouting. Crows are easily deterred by being shot with a rifle as they seem to communicate to their whole family that the field is then a dangerous place to visit. They can also get eaten by mice so it's a good idea to set up posts for owls to perch on during the nighttime and keep the crop well weeded for the predators visibility.
It's often said in the books that the beans can be planted in the Autumn and be over wintered, but I've had absolutely no success with this technique, even after mild winters.
Step 25: Sugar Beet
I am growing sugar beet this year to attempt to make my own alcohol and vinegar. As the name suggests, the root is very high in sugar content (20%) and so, with the right processing technique, can be fermented.
The crop is very easy to grow, especially from cell trays, and competes with the weeds very well.
The seeds seem to be very hard to find as the modern varieties are controlled by the sugar industry.
Step 26: Swede
Step 27: Rhubarb
All the info available says that rhubarb is easy to grow. Well, I followed all the instructions from the reputable sources and have failed every year for the past five years. I even tried growing from seed. The plants would grow OK during the spring and then at the first sign of warm weather just give up and die back into the weeds.
I also became increasingly frustrated by one of my neighbours reporting how incredibly well his plants grow. I quizzed him incessantly on how he grew it and there seemed to be no particular trick to it. The end of the saga came when he declared: 'It was just growing there when we moved in'.
After nudging a few of the more sceptical brain cells out of the way with the correct dose of home-brew, I eventually realised in one of those classic 'light bulb' moments that his rhubarb was probably genetically adapted to the soil in our area - the crowns that I had been bringing in were from a different and almost opposite soil type.
Eventually my neighbour's plant grew so large that he had to chop up the now massive rhizome into smaller pieces as it was starting to threaten the foundations of his house and being a very kind hearted person he took pity on me and gave me ten 'crowns' planted in large pots. Surprise surprise ..... They grew fantastically well!
Use locally adapted rhubarb crowns/rhizomes.
Step 28: Fertiliser
The land can be kept fertile by adding well rotted manure from neighbouring farms. It's important to apply the manure in such a way as not to damage the soil structure, so driving machinery on wet, soggy soil must be avoided. The best time to apply manure is when a field has been put out of use for a year or directly after an early potato harvest.
Land 'put to rest' for a year or two will naturally rejuvenate as continued cultivation will inevitably destroy the mostly invisible bacteria, fungi and insects living therein. During the first year the weeds will slowly populate the whole field and by the end of year two the soil will be thick with 'natural' roots and wildlife.
Step 29: Final
Please feel free to add suggestions for improving this Instructable in the comments section below - it will be updated if I have missed anything and ........
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