Friday morning I was farming with Ed. We walked the dogs, fed the pigs, tended the cats and ducks, and took a look at our Battle Board- the massive, 8’x4’ white board we’re employing this year for organizational purposes and overall coordination. Dates of tarping, seeding, varieties of crops and rotations – all included in one visual space; color-coded to boot. Red means “do.”
“Alright man, looks like we have to finish composting, harrowing and tarping Y1; I think we’re trying to lay drip on that before we tarp it as well; that will be direct-seeded….
Then we have to just broadfork W2, because I think we’re going to plant beans into the mulch, and compost over top. Then it looks like T4 and the middle beds of D2 need to be totally prepped. Think we can do it?”
Then my eye caught the red in our A2 carrot plot, which was seeded a week ago, soaked, and tarped until germination, and needed to be checked daily. “Oh yeah, I’m gonna check that carrot germ quick.”
I walked down, opened up a middle section of the tarp, and met with some surprise. Leggy little plants germinating absolutely everywhere. I took a closer look, and finally identified something that I was pretty sure was a little carrot. I started pulling the rock bags, to move the tarp up to the new plot we were finishing prep on that morning. As we pulled, I eyed the beds with some concern. Maybe I had seen a carrot germinating, but with more of the field in focus, I wasn’t exactly seeing the clean rows one would expect. I reasoned that it had been a week, and I didn’t want to air on the side of carrots frying under the tarp, so I decided to pull it.
Later in the day, Danny showed up and took a look, deducing that, though he had almost made the same mistake a day prior, the tarp should have stayed on. In a damage-control effort, we layed drip irrigation lines, started soaking the plot, and moved a tarp from a neighboring plot, covering the carrots once more.
The damage, however, had already likely been done. By pulling the tarp early, I had given a critical sun boost to the millions of tiny, leggy weeds suffering under the darkness of the black tarp. The moisture of the soil had been compromised, and the soil had cooled, as a result of the cold day Friday. Simultaneously, with one decision and a lack of deeper thought, I had massively encouraged weed growth, and set back the carrots still further.
See, with weed control in the spring, timing is everything, and we had made a number of critical mistakes already on this plot. When we first prepped and tarped, we had taken some shortcuts — broadforking and raking, but not composting, shaping and cleaning the beds for direct-seeding purposes. This mandated us to pull the tarp, where the surface weeds had already been killed, add compost, and harrow (lightly work the top soil, fluff and shape the beds mechanically) immediately before planting – bringing a new host of annual weed seeds to the surface, including those from our first-year, homemade compost pile.
Had we fully prepped, composted and harrowed prior to tarping, and tarped appropriately, we would most likely have established a clean plot of carrots, with easily identifiable rows and solid germination. They would have had a jump start on annual weeds, making the identification process easier, and altogether enhancing their growth and development. One quick hand-weeding and a hoeing could possibly have seen them through to maturity.
Given the tactics we employed, however, and the sensitivity of carrots, it’s not unlikely that the workload of this single plot increased from about 15 hours to 30 or 40. For the home gardener, some extra weeds in a carrot patch is maybe not such a big deal. For the small-scale commercial farmer, it’s kind of a big deal. Time is our most valuable commodity in the spring, and the difference between success and failure is often a difference measured in the prioritization of minutes.
The vegetable farming equation is relatively simple: grow wanted plants and minimize growth of unwanted plants. We’re still learning how to do this, and every planting every season provides another opportunity to think critically and adapt our particular methods to our particular systems in our particular soil. Our ability to mind the details of our successes and mistakes, and keep our minds open to tweaks in technique, moves us slowly toward farming effectiveness, one painfully hand-weeded carrot plot at a time.