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Aquarius Farms - Structural Modification of Tomato Starts to Maximize Production in Cold Climates  RSS feed

 
Thomas West
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Hi!

With spring planting season approaching we felt that we should share our starting methods for tomatoes in the spirit of Open Source knowledge. So here goes - the same content appears on brochures at retail locations in Ronan and Polson selling our organic tomato starts. As always constructive feedback is appreciated!

-- Aquarius Farms

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Adam Klaus
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Interesting stuff, well done experimenting.

What is the age for moving the initial seedlings into the second stage transplant container?

And what is the age from seeding for transplanting into the field?

When do you transplant to the field in relation to frost-free date?

Thanks for sharing!
 
Thomas West
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Adam Klaus wrote:Interesting stuff, well done experimenting.
Thanks! Our entire operation is an experiment at this point - we expect that to decline over time as we document and learn things such as the above.


What is the age for moving the initial seedlings into the second stage transplant container?
Its not so much dependent on age as when it achieves enough length to bury in a 6" deep soil cup with 3-4" of plant above it - typically this is around 4-6 weeks from germination depending on the tomato variety.


And what is the age from seeding for transplanting into the field?
Also dependent on variety as articulated above but our seedlings generally spend another 4-6 weeks in the greenhouse after transplant so depending on variety anywhere from 8-12 weeks, though 10 weeks seems to be about the mean.


When do you transplant to the field in relation to frost-free date?
We completely ignore it. Montana is so full of micro-climates that the "frost free" date for a zip code could be off by as many as 2-3 weeks. In addition most forecasting, including frost free dates, are based on models and historical data that largely do not address the impacts of climate change. Our temperature is regularly 3-5 degrees warmer than the "forecast" and our frost date 2 weeks earlier as we are on a SW exposure on a slope. Our last frost last year was May 12th - this year it has likely already passed back in the 3rd week in April but the "forecast" date is May 20th. We will be putting our Tomato starts in the ground starting Wednesday of next week - basically 10 days prior to the forecast "last frost". It pays to remember most forecasting models are built around historical data and assumptions that are largely invalidated by global warming. Our growing season is over 140 days and is extending by a week to ten days every season.

Sorry for the dissertation. Its a long winded way of saying we plant based on what the climate is doing and where it is going and not where an outdated model tells us it should be had we stopped driving cars 30 years ago...

Thanks for sharing!
 
Adam Klaus
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Thanks Thomas-

Where do you get the 6" deep soil cups?
I find your system quite interesting and am considering implementing it into my tomato scene.

I asked about planting dates more from the standpoint of planning when you start your seeds. Sure there is a lot of variation. My historial date is around May 15. I have seen last frosts anywhere from April 15 to June 5. This high level of variability is a challenge, but I still have to make an educated guess back in March when to start my plants.

I generally start seeds around April 1. Then transplant as early as May 15 if the weather looks really benign, or as late as June 10 if unsettled. Frost date aside, I feel like soil temp, which is more consistent year-to-year, is a huge factor at transplant time. So even if the weather isnt freezing, I play it conservative and let the soil warm thoroughly.

thanks again, glad to have the discussion
Adam
 
Thomas West
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Adam Klaus wrote:Thanks Thomas-

Where do you get the 6" deep soil cups?
I find your system quite interesting and am considering implementing it into my tomato scene.

-- We make them with newspaper and a caulking bottle - once you have it down you can make one cup every 2-3 seconds. If you like we can post a video of how to do this on our Youtube channel. Should be able to get something up this weekend - like our FB page facebook.com/aquariusfarms or goo to youtube.com/TheAquariusFarm for the video once posted.


I asked about planting dates more from the standpoint of planning when you start your seeds. Sure there is a lot of variation. My historial date is around May 15. I have seen last frosts anywhere from April 15 to June 5. This high level of variability is a challenge, but I still have to make an educated guess back in March when to start my plants.

Doing it our way we just start March 1. The large soil cups leave plenty of room for continued development without getting root bound and results in a more mature plant that goes into production sooner. As we can fit 288 seedlings per 1020 tray (another benefit of this method) we can cram 30,000 starts in a 10x12 start room March 1 and avoid having to deal with heating our GH until April as they are inside under lights during this time. Once they go into soil cups they have a 6" stem to develop into roots so we have much more flexibility in transplant dates without becoming root bound or stressing the plants.

I generally start seeds around April 1. Then transplant as early as May 15 if the weather looks really benign, or as late as June 10 if unsettled. Frost date aside, I feel like soil temp, which is more consistent year-to-year, is a huge factor at transplant time. So even if the weather isnt freezing, I play it conservative and let the soil warm thoroughly.

I am really glad you brought this up - I am working on an informational packet about hugelbeds that addresses the soil temp issue. Because of our SW exposure and the "heat sink" effect you get from manipulating surface area to cold earth contact with a Hugelbed our soil temps are higher than needed for proper plant growth a couple of weeks BEFORE the last frost. This is because a hugel built tall with a narrow base has a dramatically increased surface area to absorb the suns heat and a substantially smaller contact area available to pull that heat out into the earth. Heat loss to the air is trivial by comparison as it is thermally much less conductive than the soil. Basically the Germans invented this method of agriculture to provide increased soil temperatures much earlier in the season to allow more effective use of a short growing season. It provides no absolute benefit in season "extension" (cant move frost dates by piling up a bit of dirt), but rather allows the farmer to make much more effective use of existing season through elevated soil temperatures.


The woody material and organic stuff has nothing to do with "composting" in the center of the bed - it is simply a practical solution to a HUGE problem if you dont have access to heavy machinery. When you fold a surface and create say 4x more surface area you end up with 1/4 as much top soil per sq. ft. It has to come from somewhere so either you haul it in from elsewhere (umm maybe with horses, if you are lucky) or you drop the organic stuff in place as you clear the land, pile the branches on top, and wait for it to decompose. Arguments about water holding capacity aside the "composting" in the center of a hugel while it is "maturing" is a huge PROBLEM, not a benefit, as it causes substantial nitrogen lockup until the material is sufficiently decomposed that excess N is made available for the plants. When building hugels use material that is as pre-decomposed as possible to avoid a need to heavily supplement with N for as long as a decade or more if fresh and hard to decomp material was used in construction.

A hugel can be made from anything - just depends on what you want to grow with it - how it is shaped is primarily a function of the soil temperatures you are trying to reach. It is a basic ratio of surface area to cold earth contact, the higher the ratio the higher the soil temps. A low flat hugel will basically do nothing for you in this climate aside from a minor increase in surface area available for plant growth - you need to make them large with a narrow base and your tomatoes will explode the minute they touch the soil. We have soil temps above 75 degrees in our hugels for the past two weeks.

Another thing we have found that goes against the "common wisdom" with hugels but makes total sense from an empirical/scientific standpoint is that we actually need TONS of water with hugels. I am not equipped to have arguments on relative efficiency of use but I can tell you that when you fold a surface so you are putting 8 acres of produce in 1.5 acres you get the following effects based on the physics.


1. More plants, plants are 80% water, more water is needed
2. More plants, evapotranspiration increases, more water is needed
3. More surface area, evaporation increases, more water is needed
4. Inclined surface area, runoff increases, more water is needed
5. Increased soil temperatures, rate of evaporation increases, more water is needed


Our own rough calculations indicate that even if our hugels were made from PURE WATER we would still require irrigation - the physics in this case invalidate the "common wisdom" RE hugels and irrigation. Differences in construction methods can make a minor difference but are an order of magnitude smaller in their impact than the above. Of course please caveat our experience with the understanding that we are a commercial vegetable farm and our experiences are driven around the needs of feeding a LARGE number of people - use of hugels in a "backyard" garden may not clearly illustrate additional water needs. We have consistently measured a dramatically increased rate of water consumption in our hugels vs. flat ground right next to it based on soil moisture readings throughout the season - this again confirms what the physics tells us - more surface area + higher soil temps + more plants = more water. I have attached a couple of rough drawings I use to illustrate the heat battery concept of hugels - if soil temps are holding you back from earlier planting dates this is probably the answer - just be prepared to irrigate like a crazy person with all the increased surface area.


thanks again, glad to have the discussion
Adam
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Thomas West
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Something that occurs to me as worth mentioning that I haven't seen expressed often on Permies. The carribean indians independently invented and practiced hill farming (hugelkulture) prior to the Germanic people. The interesting thing is they are manipulating the same property, surface area, to achieve a different result. When you run out of land on an island you have to figure out something or you are going to starve. Hill farming provides an increase in absolute surface area per sq. ft. of growing space and so that is the solution they landed on. They also build them out of trees and organic material - for the same reason - to make up for a much reduced thickness of topsoil due to increased surface area. The key difference is they build their hills to be very large but with low slope angles and a wide base - this is to achieve the maximum amount of surface area while MINIMIZING soil temperature increases as that is a problem in the tropics vs. a solution in our climate.

I am an engineer so I am naturally suspicious of "one ring to rule them all" sorts of solutions. There are an infinite number of ways to correctly construct a hugel and as many ways to screw it up. As with any form of geo-engineering building the "right" hugel boils down to "What problems am I trying to solve and what solutions does this tool afford me in solving those problems?".
 
Thomas West
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Here is an example of an 8 week old Black Cherry tomato start done with our methods. You can see roots poking out of the paper near the bottom of the cup - the stem of the plant is buried all the way to the bottom of the cup where it comes out of our 1/2" rock wool cube. By the time it goes in the ground we will trim back all but the last couple of leaf sets and trench plant it with only about 4" remaining above the surface. This gives you a 4" start with 18-24" of root behind it; combined with the elevated soil temps afforded by hugels and we grew over 40 tons of tomatoes on 1.5 acres in a polyculture, in Montana, with "cold soil". Hooray for physics and biology!



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Thomas West
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As promised - a video on how we make newspaper cups has been posted to our youtube channel.

http://youtu.be/C3B3VcaKcCY

 
Thomas West
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Here is a picture of a plant from another nursery at approximately the same stage of maturity. Notice the abundance of foliage and bushy "short" stem - if you were to pull both plants and rinse away the soil they would weigh approximately the same amount - the difference being the biomass in our start is slanted towards roots/stem and theirs is slanted towards foliage. All that extra stem we produce is an early investment in biomass that substantially raises its productive potential in later stages of development as all the stem we create, then bury in a trench planting, will turn into an enormous root system the start below is incapable of developing - even if trench planted - because the stem (or scaffolding for future root development) is short and underdeveloped. Appearances can be funny things - in this case the bushy green plant below represents a 2-3x decrease in production vs. our trench planted "spindly" start.

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S Bengi
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If on a flat surface you get 1x pounds of tomatoes/harvest with 1y gallons of water.
With hugelculture you plant and harvest 4x but would only use 2y gallons of water.
So per land surface you are "using" more water but per plant/harvest you are using 1/2 water.
 
Jessica Gorton
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This is very interesting...

Somebody try to remember to bump this thread in February of next year, so we can all experiment. Or, let's bump in August for the Southerners...
 
Patrick Mann
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How do you handle the starts during the newspaper pot phase? Are they just sort of leaning against each other in a big tub?
 
Thomas West
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We put them in perforated 1020 trays - works great just let them get a bit low on water before you move them or the trays can be very heavy. I will post a pic tomorrow - we fit about 55 cups per tray.
 
Thomas West
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Where do you get your numbers RE water efficiency? A 2x decrease in water for the same amount of production is huge given all the physical factors involved. Where do you arrive at a 4x increase in productivity? Is that a per sq ft number accounting for the increased surface area?

Does anyone know of any empirical data on relative water efficiency with hugels vs. a flatland farm under good organic soil management?

The physics imply that we may be mixing up the source of productivity increases and water use with hugelkulture.

Our experiences make me lean towards a line of thinking that the extra production isn't really "extra" in that you would produce a similar amount if you farmed and equivalent amount of "flat" ground you just do it in less absolute sq ft with a hill farm and increased soil temps provide an additional "boost". There is solid physics behind this.

I remain highly skeptical that hugels provide any meaningful increase in water use efficiency - they may be able to store water but it's a minuscule amount compared to what is needed to sustain commercial production. Without some solid side by side numbers, which we captured last year in rough form I remain highly skeptical that hugels provide anything more than a minor increase in water efficiency.

Remember water stored in a hugel is still water that gets used and when it runs out it has to be replaced somehow.
 
Thomas West
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Jessica,

If you have access to a big hugel we will happily sell you a few starts so you can try it this year! Our starts should be on sale 15th of May.


 
Thomas West
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Good morning! It's rainy, I'm bored, and its international permaculture day! Anyhow after posting last night it occurred to me that there is another often discussed property of hugels that can easily explained using the same physics shown in the (very) simplified diagrams above.

1. Self Tilling

This experience bears out quite well for us. Our hugels were soft and ohh so fluffy this spring when the snow melted - better than most flat ground gardens after 2-3 passes with the tiller. This is due to the increased surface area to earth contact ratio - it causes the hugel to both heat up AND cool down more quickly than the surrounding flat ground. This is because once the snow arrives and the ambient air temperature drops and stays down the hugel will cool faster and get much colder than the surrounding flat ground as it has a limited amount of surface area available to harvest the heat radiating up from the earths core (55 degrees 6' down most places) and a much expanded surface area in contact with bitterly cold air - the reverse then occurs as the hugel rapidly heats up once exposed to direct sun where the increased rate of heat capture comes into play. This causes a much increased rate of "frost heaving" from multiple freeze/thaw cycles and "naturally" tills the hugelbed for you. Self tilling will occur at a much reduced rate in warmer temps and likely not at all in climates that do not experience sufficient numbers of freeze/thaw cycles.

This also means you need to be careful what you plant on top of a big hugel with a narrow base if you intend to overwinter it. We planted an entire crop of garlic on the top of one of our large round hugels and it appears to have frozen to the last clove - all of it is dead. The thermodynamics work in both directions with Hugels - they get warmer faster and attain an higher absolute soil temp than surrounding flat ground, they also get colder faster and attain a lower absolute soil temp than surrounding flat ground. The physics indicate that anything you want to grow on the top of a hugel in this climate that has frost sensitive roots is going to need to be HEAVILY mulched and even then it might not be a great idea unless it is a perennial that develops roots large enough in the first season to get down past a much deeper frost zone. We had a much increased rate of death/stress on perennial herbs planted near the tops of the hugels vs. those planted near the bottoms and I am certain this played a part in that observation.
 
Mary James
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I am never sure if I should post to these.
Tom,
The Aquarius Farms way of growing tomatoes is similar to a method we have used for many years as a matter of fact we learned it from an old gardener who lived a few miles from your place and gardened for 70 years in the area.He however taught us some bonus methods that begin the basic root structure growing from the lanky stems so that when they were laid on their side they would be fully rooted in a matter of a week.This was also helped along with an herbal tea to water in that encouraged quick root growth but also helped the plant with shock and disease prevention. We also grew up with a grandmother who taught us to use a home-made based form of Mycorrhizal fungi.That if used properly will make the plants healthier, have higher production and use less water. Through the years I have tested this type of planting and process in several alternative gardening beds, normal gardens as well as hugle beds. All plants treated the same way with the same amounts of water, organic fertilizers etc..Hate to say this but they have all produced equally.The container based plants produced a bit quicker but in the long run the similar amounts of tomatoes.Toss these out in WOWs with hot manure to heat them and we have had cold set type tomatoes in the past as early as the middle of June.
Wink I grew up in the area your building your Aquarius farms and used to produce an acre sized organic garden that rocked hugs amounts of produce.Which was developed around creating micro climates to allow for earlier planting and longer growing seasons. As well as using old knowledge of gardening.
Hope you guys have a great growing season down there
 
Spencer Davis
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Thomas: what do you think about this?, instead of planting the tomatoes horizontally, why not just plant them vertically really deep? It seems then they could gather more nutrients and moisture...especially for those of us that plant in hugels. Also thought of this for the chicken-in-a-bucket technique...?
 
Mike Hamilton
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Thomas

looking forward to try this out,water we have lots of it [340.5'' of snow this season]and average 1-6'' per rain storm a week.
short growing season here in the Kewenaw too,just getting rid of the last of the snow piles
first hugle bed is 1/2 done so some tomatoes are going in this weekend

Mike
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Hi Thomas,


This is a great thread and I really appreciate your details on your tomato project.

I'm also really grateful for your insight into the nature of the surface are to heat loss/gain in the hugel. Your understanding of that part of the thermodynamics seems to be sound, and you seem to have based your statements on your own observations in your own gardens and that is super, but when it comes to your statements about water needs, it just doesn't seem to make sense to me, despite your well articulated and reasoned arguments which are contrary to the common experience.

Another thing we have found that goes against the "common wisdom" with hugels but makes total sense from an empirical/scientific standpoint is that we actually need TONS of water with hugels. I am not equipped to have arguments on relative efficiency of use but I can tell you that when you fold a surface so you are putting 8 acres of produce in 1.5 acres you get the following effects based on the physics.[/b]

1. More plants, plants are 80% water, more water is needed
2. More plants, evapotranspiration increases, more water is needed
3. More surface area, evaporation increases, more water is needed
4. Inclined surface area, runoff increases, more water is needed
5. Increased soil temperatures, rate of evaporation increases, more water is needed


[b]Our own rough calculations indicate that even if our hugels were made from PURE WATER we would still require irrigation - the physics in this case invalidate the "common wisdom" RE hugels and irrigation. Differences in construction methods can make a minor difference but are an order of magnitude smaller in their impact than the above. Of course please caveat our experience with the understanding that we are a commercial vegetable farm and our experiences are driven around the needs of feeding a LARGE number of people - use of hugels in a "backyard" garden may not clearly illustrate additional water needs. We have consistently measured a dramatically increased rate of water consumption in our hugels vs. flat ground right next to it based on soil moisture readings throughout the season - this again confirms what the physics tells us - more surface area + higher soil temps + more plants = more water.


I don't have the experience that you do, so I might be way off base, but I hit a home run with my garlic and other crops this year with almost no irrigation in a province wide drought, and the main reason for this was mulch. You have no pictures of your beds for me to observe what methods you use to reduce evapotranspiration, soil surface evaporation, runoff, or increased soil surface temperature. All of these will be exasperated by a hugul bed a thousand fold if the soil is not protected, or if the soil community is disturbed.

My own garden was built to passively collect snow melt and water. It is made of unsupported raised beds, built on swales up to two feet tall on the downhill side. These beds were mulched heavily (4 to 6 inches of hay on the tops, steeply sloped sides, and paths). The mulch mitigates all of the effects that you mention, while at the same time collects dew every night of air temperature differential (thus increasing the mass of water in the beds). The soil beneath the mulch is always moist, despite the heat, and a lens of water is created in the subsoils below the bed, which could be available through capillary action or the action of fungal communities which are increasing in the soil structure on feeder root pathways

My beds were made the previous year, and were planted with a dense crop of field peas. The soil was not disturbed except for the pushing in of seeds or cloves of garlic this spring.
The living matrix of the "dead" pea ecosystem, which was only lightly mulched last year (and some weeds like dandelion were left to grow) held it's water well from the previous winter. Although this is not the market garden hugul bed that you are creating, the permaculture basics of protecting the soil and the soil communities, as well as reducing the negative effects of the sun while maximizing it's positive effects had dramatic results over those of many of my neighbors who were practicing more conventional gardens, particularly on flat ground and who were watering extensively with no mulch.

Another aspect of the mature hugul bed that I understand to be essential to the understanding of it's potential to hold water is the fact that the woody material not only sponges up the water, but the fungal network that naturally works at breaking that wood down absorbs a massive amount as well, and then, with the interrelationship with the plants deliver that stored moisture in measured needed amounts. As with my raised beds, your hugul beds should have an enormous potential to store water underneath them as well as within them, and the fungal network should have access to bring this under the bed lens to the surface.

If you had a dry, snowless winter, and not a lot of precipitation in your beds prior to transplanting massive crops of water loving plants, and nothing was done to check the effects of the sun upon your beds besides the sheltering effects of the plants themselves, then I can see why you might have these problems. Otherwise I am at a loss.

The way I see it, (assuming that you have some pre-growing season moisture charging your beds to capacity) If your huguls and the area around them were mulched, if your soil community was relatively intact, and you had a drip system on the top and perhaps partway down the sides of the mound, you would require very little in the way of water additions from the drip system to keep the soil system moist, even with steep narrow tall beds.

That's my experience, and my two cents on it anyway.





 
Mike Hamilton
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My first year trying this turned out fantastic in the Hugel Bed
the only issue was the tomato plants were so big and loaded with tomatoes we had a hard time staking them up
the stalks at the base were 3/4-1'' in diameter
the end product was 3-4 times more than any other method I tried

due to family issues,little time was put into the garden
planted and walked away from it for the summer
I did loose some starts[1/2 due to something yanking them out of the ground]
and the deer knocking the plants over getting to the white clover on top of the hill also the beets

all in all it was a ''bumper crop'' with little work

Mike Hamilton
 
Susan Wakeman
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Mary James, can you post some more about the method of starting that you mention? I'd be interested also in what herbs went into the starter liquid.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Susan,

I purple mooseaged Mary asking her for more information about her methods when I posted above, and haven't heard back. If she responds to me, I'll let you know.
 
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