Seeding The Future with Plant Starts
Nothing points to the arrival of spring more than the appearance of plant seedlings at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. Whether you refer to them as starts, seedlings, or baby plants, they are in abundance at the Saturday Railyard Market this month. Ric Gaudet of One Straw Farm, a CCOF certified organic six-acre farm in Dixon, NM, has been raising plants for Santa Fe home growers since 1996. In 2021, he met Tania Marines, and they “have been farming and raising a family together ever since (daughter Hannah and Luis). He shared some information on his timeline, process, and what makes his plant seedlings so in-demand.
“Most plants are started in the greenhouse or in our grow room inside the house. Onions and lisianthus are started in late January. We usually don’t turn the greenhouse heater on until late February, so during the early period we only plant things that can take some frost at night. Most crops are also germinated on heat mats, and are usually covered at night with plastic. We start our main summer crops—tomatoes, peppers, chiles, eggplants, flowers and many herbs—in March, and have 2-3 staggered plantings of those crops. Later in April we start cucumbers, melons and squash. Every crop has somewhat different requirements, and we try our best to do what the plants need. Almost everything started in the greenhouse and grow room will get moved to the hoophouse, which has minimal heat, and eventually outside to the shade structure or to benches in the direct sun.”
To help him sustain and grow his business to respond to increasing demand, Ric Gaudet has participated in the Institute’s microloan program many times. The funds have been used “for early operating expenses, irrigation equipment, and farm equipment.” One Straw Farm has been “selling plant starts for more than 25 years at the farmers market, but on a small scale. In 2020, before the pandemic started, we decided to focus our spring efforts on plant sales, and then switch focus to farm crops the rest of the season. The huge demand for vegetable, herb and flower starts resulting from the pandemic surprised us, and we sold pretty much everything in 2020. So we increased our production even more in 2021, and built a huge shade structure for our plants to get accustomed to the outdoors before being sold. This year, we are expanding more, mostly by offering more varieties of edible and ornamental plants. We focus on plants that we can grow from seed, and only have a few varieties that are grown from cuttings. Other vendors at the market are much better at those items than we are, and we encourage customers to shop around for all of their garden needs.”
Ric and his partner Tania Marines spoke of their philosophy of growing seedlings. “Our approach to growing seedlings is to grow plants to the stage where they are ready to be planted in the garden (or farm) and will continue growing with little delay. We try to provide all of the nutrients the plant will need during their early stage in the potting mix. We don’t fertigate our plants, because we believe that can pose problems for those plants when they are transplanted into the soil, especially if the gardener is trying to use organic methods of growing. Many plants purchased from box stores and some nurseries have been grown entirely inside controlled environments with all of their nutrition provided by chemical fertigation. Plants often go into a shock for a few weeks when they are planted into garden soil, because they are not used to having to extract nutrition from actual soil.
We also try to time our seedlings so that when purchased, the plant is ready to grow vigorously, is properly sized, is not ‘leggy,’ and is not root-bound. This is why we grow all of our tomatoes in 4” pots. We want to sell a plant that is several inches high and is well-proportioned horizontally and vertically. We don’t bother selling overgrown plants that have already set fruit, because we believe that in most situations, a well-grown, sturdy tomato plant will out-perform those huge plants. Similarly, putting tomato plants in small containers is an invitation to problems. Plants grown in 2” pots tend to get leggy very quickly, and require more care to keep them happy. Leggy tomatoes break easily, but our tomatoes tend to be very sturdy.
We have experimented with our custom potting mix over years, but the basic recipe is the same. Peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, worm castings, or well-aged manure-free compost, garden soil and our custom “fertility mix”. We make large piles of worm castings every year from leftover farm produce and trimmings, plus whatever non-woody organic material we have on the farm. We don’t put manure into these piles, because we have noticed that manure needs a few years to fully digest to the stage that makes it safe to use in a potting mix. Too many salts and volatile compounds are found in manure-based composts to make them suitable to the very sensitive environment of a plant inside a container.”
How did they become so knowledgeable about soil? “Much of our initial knowledge about potting soil was gleaned from the farm-based research of Eliot Coleman. Over the years, we have modified his recipes to better suit our needs. We are not scientists, and please don’t ask me to explain biologically what is happening! But we have mostly found what works for us, most of the time. The fertility mix is a combination of organic materials that provide the basic N-P-K elements, plus a host of other ‘minor elements,’ trace minerals and soil-enhancing ingredients. Seedlings continue to access these ingredients after being planted into the garden/farm, and many of them are bound in the soil by organic compounds for future crops to use. The worm castings provide some fertility, but more importantly, they improve the soil’s ability to bind nutrients and to improve the physical condition of the soil. The small quantity of garden soil in our potting mix provides a way to buffer the excess of nutrients in the mix, especially when the plants are small. Our potting mix does not mimic garden soil, but it does contain many of the conditions that are found in the garden, once transplanted.”
And about those worms, Ric gives a shout-out to Sam McCarthy of CORE (Creative Organic Recycling Enterprises); a vendor for more than 20 years at the Santa Fe Farmers Market who sells starter worms and gives detailed advice to customers. At One Straw Farm, Ric uses “red worms, also known as composting worms, or red wigglers. In the right conditions, they will eat, poop, thrive, reproduce and create beautiful, stable and soil-enhancing compost. They need more moisture than typical compost piles, and they don’t like to get too hot. So the typical carbon-nitrogen ration of 25:1 method, used in our regular compost piles, does not apply to worm piles. We often surround each pile with straw bales, and add a layer of straw every few weeks. The walls of the pile eventually will become composted too by those busy worms.”
Ric probably gives away free advice as much as he sells plants at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. He thrives on “chatting with customers. Most of our customers have been shopping at One Straw Farm for years, and we keep meeting new people who we hope to maintain contact with for a long time. Our customers are what make One Straw Farm possible.”
He shares some of that general advice for home gardeners, “every region in northern New Mexico, and even microclimates within those regions, have different average planting seasons. I spend much of my time at the farmers market discussing with customers their particular micro climate, and what might be safe to plant, taking into consideration various cold – and heat- protection measures. This issue could take up an entire book! I suggest asking seasoned gardeners and farmers in your neighborhood when you can safely plant various crops. And maybe experiment on a small scale to find out what your own garden conditions are like.
But generally, basil, cucumbers, eggplant, melons and squash can’t take any frost, and will hate you if temperatures go below 35 degrees. Tomatoes and peppers can take a slight frost, and will often recover if a frost burns them. Many herbs can take fairly hard frosts, including parsley, oregano, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, etc. Onions and sweet peas can be planted very early in the spring. But this is just scratching the surface of when to plant various crops.”
One would think that farmers who have been dedicated to producing a plant starts for over a quarter of a decade must be optimists by nature. After all, each year they entrust hundreds of their baby plants to amateurs trying to figure out the knack of home gardening. Ric is not so sure about that observation. “Farming involves failure. We have witnessed countless failed crops, destroyed greenhouses, hail storms, dry acequias, poor germination, bug infestations, no labor to cultivate or harvest, no money to pay the bills, unsold produce due to stiff competition, late frosts, early frosts, broken tractors and vehicles, and broken spirits. Many farmers will quit from any one of these events, perhaps because they are smarter than us! But we keep farming because we love it, and have sometimes found success in it. We have also cultivated countless friendships over the years, and have fed thousands of people with our produce and with our plant starts.”