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Post by Kriss and Shannon
Circle M Market Farm
2013-03-06 10:14:42

Seeds! From Plant to Plate

Things are popping here at Circle M Market Farm, in spite of the foot-deep blanket of snow that cushions the farm on this early March day. Popping right out of the soil, in fact! Skinny shoots of onions, shallots, parsley, lettuce, celery, kale and broccoli have exploded from their seed coats and are pushing first leaves toward the sun in our cozy humid greenhouse.

While we were talking via cellphone recently, a friend asked me what was going on at the farm. When I told her I was standing inside my walk-in cooler tapping shallot seeds into black plastic plug trays she said, “You should write about that! I bet very few people know how that all works.” So here goes: The Story of a Seed from Plant To Plate.

A market farmer’s garden year starts quite bit earlier than a home gardener’s might, so first of all, don’t panic if you don’t have seeds in the ground yet. Our CSA Farm Members will be getting Shares delivered the first week of June, so we start planting inside in mid-February so we’ll have lots of different veggies to put in the boxes by then. But there are plenty of things you can start now if you want to, if you have the right set-up (sunny window or shelves with lights) to take care of them. And certainly, there are things you have to start now if you want to grow them from seed in our somewhat short northern growing season. If you want to see a complete seed-starting table for all possible garden crops, see a great one at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, one of our favorite seed catalogs.

Our earliest starts are onion family members because they need at least 100 days of full sun before the days start to get short in August. You can plant onions from little bulbs, called “sets,” in May and still grow nice big bulbs by August, but you can’t buy sets for the tasty heirloom varieties we like to grow. So February 15 we seeded Walla Walla, Cippolini, Red Torpedo, Rossa Milano, New York Early and White Wing onions. We also seeded Red Prisma and Yellow Saffron shallots on that day. March 1 we seeded King Richard leeks.

Our next earliest starts are parsley family plants like, well, parsley, but also celery and celeriac. These have to get in early because they take up to 3 weeks to germinate and they need a long season to grow. We seeded these February 16 along with a few edible flowers we like to have ready early to add to our salad mix: pansy, violet and calendula. Finally, on February 28 we seeded broccoli, head lettuce and kale because we want them to be big and ready to transplant outside a few weeks before our last frost in May.

All of these “starts” are, of course, transplants. We don’t actually seed these things into the outside ground at this point – we can’t even see the ground! We drop them onto the surface of small cells in plastic plug trays filled with our homemade seed-starting soil. (Way back in the fall, we made up nearly a ton of this soil mix from peat moss, perlite, compost, sand and various rock powders and minerals. And thank goodness we did – our compost and sand are too frozen to dig now.) I’ve been doing this seeding, messy as it is, in the walk-in cooler in which we store our harvested veggies during the growing season.

Why seed in a cooler? Well, I’m using this very-well-insulated room as a “germination chamber.” Right now, I keep it warmed to 80 degrees with a very small space heater and this is where almost all of our seeds rest until they pop up, or germinate, from the soil. Most seeds just need warmth and moisture to get rolling – they don’t need light until they actually emerge from the soil. So I stack the seeded flats on top of each other on shelves in this warm chamber until I see the tiniest little plants poking up. The flats need to be checked every day, though, because once the seeds have germinated they start growing and they grow fast. Every flat with a few sprouts visible goes immediately into my glass greenhouse.

Our sweet little greenhouse has three glass walls and a polycarbonate roof. The northerly wall is insulated and painted white, to passively increase the heat the house collects from the sun during the day. We do have a propane heater and and an emergency electric heater to keep the plants above freezing on super-cold nights. The house is full from February through August - we start transplants the entire growing season to enable us to succession-plant crops for the whole year.

If at home you want to start some seeds now, the top of your fridge is a nice warm place to put flats until they germinate. Simply put seeds in the soil, water very well, and stick the flats in plastic bags to hold the moisture in. Check every day and once you see some sprouts, put the flats in a very sunny south-facing window, or put the flats on shelves with fluorescent lights hung over them.

The sprouted seeds will need water and light, and perhaps a bit of fish emulsion/kelp fertilizer, for the duration of March and April. These first-seeded alliums will go into the ground sometime around May 1. At that point, they’ll be planted next to irrigation drip tape and weeded faithfully through June and July. The leeks will be heavily mulched with straw to create long sections of white, tender, root. In the meantime, the onions will begin to bulb up and take their final shape. We’ll see this happen because onions force themselves out of the ground and grow half out of the soil.

Sometime in August, we’ll see the onion tips getting a bit brown and a few of the beefy leaves falling over. Then we’ll go through the whole crop and knock their leaves over with a rake handle. This will signal to the plants that growth is over and it’s time to cure. The curing process will create firm, dry skins on the onions that will keep them fresh in storage through many months. (We’re still bringing last year’s cipollinis and shallots up out of the root cellar.)

Finally, sometime in late August or early September, we’ll see that the onion leaves have dried to thin wisps on the surface of the soil, and we’ll pull all the onions up out of the ground. They’ll be spread out in a single layer on wooden flatbed haywagons to dry fully in the sun for a few days. In case of rain or heavy dew, the wagons will get pulled into the barn. Some will go into CSA Boxes at this point.

Finally, the rest will sit on open trays in a well-ventilated shed for about a month until the dried leaves can be easily pulled off. At that point, we’ll store them in perforated buckets in a cool, dry spot. CSA members will get lots of these in September and October boxes to store at home for use throughout the winter.

So that’s the story of just one of our seed families – from Plant to Plate. Oh! I forgot about the plate part. Here’s a recipe. Bon Appetit!

Sweet Cipollinis With Balsamic

1 lb cipollini onions, carefully peeled (this can be a pain!) but whole
2 TBSP olive oil
1 1/2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
salt, pepper and fresh thyme

Place onions on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss around fresh thyme. Roast them till tender and caramelized in a 400 degree oven. If the glaze seems to be cooking down too fast, lower the oven to 350. Prick to test and remove when tender. Serve next to a luscious steak or crisp salad.