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Ah, Spring

By Nick Faircloth

“For those who only pray for the cherries to bloom,

How I wish to show the spring

That gleams from a patch of green

In the midst of the snow-covered mountain village.” 

-Fujiwara Iyetaka (1158-1237)

Just as day gives way to night, the winter weather is breaking, ceding to spring. Over the last few weeks, a warm sun has greeted our farm every morning and, by 10 am, it’s all but impossible to remember just how cold we were one month ago. Our greenhouse is bursting with seedlings and the hardy, winter greens left in the ground over the winter are putting out new leaves. The richness of the shades of green seems to deepen with each new day as things grow out of the corners of our farm.

It’s an exciting transition, but the encroaching green is a sign of the work that is already on hand. We can’t forget that weeds love the warm weather as well and are certainly capitalizing on the sunshine and rising temperatures.

Baby spinach sprouting in our greenhouse.

The presence of weeds poses an elevated threat in the area that will be our future rice patch, especially. Rice is a grass with slender leaves and, until it matures and creates a canopy, shading out these plants would be easy work for ephemeral weeds. As we won’t be transplanting rice into that area until the middle of May, our team has employed some low-tech tactics to keep the weeds at bay until the rice is established.

Our first consideration when planning this rice patch was site selection. For the location of the patch, we chose a section of the farm that had been covered with sorghum sudangrass and white clover through the fall. These plants had been winterkilled and are now acting as a mulch, shading the soil and preventing weed seeds from germinating.

While the sudangrass should prove to be an effective mulch, it doesn’t completely cover the ground and won’t, therefore, be completely effective in preventing the germination of weed seeds. To fill in the bare spots left in the mulch, we’ve chosen to sow what organic growing figurehead Elliot Coleman calls a green manure. Green manures are plants that, through their life processes, increase the health and resilience of a soil. They are often deep rooted and draw nutrients up from deep in the soil. They reduce soil erosion, hold onto soil nutrients that might otherwise be leached out of the soil, add organic matter and nutrients to the soil through their decomposition, and suppress weeds. Simply put, when we undersow a green manure in our fields, we’re “planting desirable weeds between crop rows,” (Coleman, New Organic Grower). By acting first, planting a desirable weed, we exclude more invasive and competitive plants from our fields.

The green manure we chose is white clover. It’s low growing, meaning it will stay low and won’t compete with our rice for sunlight. It’s quick to establish. It can take a beating and will stand up to being stepped on during the transplanting process. And, maybe the most desirable of traits, it’s a legume and, therefore a nitrogen fixer. By associations with beneficial bacteria that live in little nodes on the plant roots, legumes are able to grab nitrogen floating around in the atmosphere (N2, after-all, makes up 70% of our atmosphere), transform it into a form of nitrogen available to plants, and hold it in the ground.

Right before transplanting the rice, we will mow the clover, weakening the green manure (to allow easier establishment of the rice and reduce the amount of competitive pressure the plants will exert on one another) and causing some of the plants’ roots to die back. Plant loss in the aboveground portion of clover is proportional to dieback below ground. Therefore, if we mow down half of the clover’s biomass, we effectively kill half of the roots belowground and, in turn, release nitrogen and trace nutrients, previously stored in the roots, back into the soil for the new rice plants to soak up. Natural fertilization at work.

We started working to establish the clover in February, luckily just before Staunton found itself covered in snow. Frost seeding is a method of seeding a field during the winter months to establish desirable plant populations while most everything is still dormant. Starting anytime between late fall (after the frosts begin) and early spring, a farmer broadcasts desirable seed into the fields he wants to establish that plant at 2-4 pounds per acre. Through periods of freeze and thaw, the seeds are worked into the ground and, as soon as the weather permits, the seeds germinate and stand a good chance at competing with early weeds. * We employed this method to establish clover in our fields and a couple weeks ago, Kelly and I noticed our first baby clover plants pushing their way up through the soil. Success!

These are little clay, covered seed balls I made using red clay, clover seed and a spray bottle, following Masanoba Fukuaka's method described in One Straw Revolution. To make these for yourself, follow this link...

Though we’re reminded each spring of the work a growing season entails, this time of year is certainly exciting. Morning showers, warm, sunny days, evening thunderstorms. This is certainly a tumultuous time, but evident in every shift and climatic fluctuation is the promise of life. Life itself, seeping up from the ground. At times, we seem closer to those long, hot summer days than we do the memories of frigid nights and bitter winds.

Ah, spring.

*For information on seeding rates and a more detailed description of the frost seeding rational, follow the link below. Note: Frost seeding is generally used to beef-up a rancher’s pastureland to benefit grazing undulates. In that scenario, farmers want a mixture of a variety of grasses and legumes, not solely clover. The seeding rates listed in the following link reflect that intention. If you wish to create a thick blanket of clover in a field, expect to use more seed per area than listed.

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