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Mastering Season Extension: Extend Your CSA Harvest with Simple Hacks

June 26, 2024

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Mastering Season Extension: Extend Your CSA Harvest with Simple Hacks

Extending the Harvest with Clever Tricks

As a CSA farmer, I’m always on the lookout for ways to stretch out my growing season and keep those veggie boxes filled for as long as possible. After all, our members are counting on us to provide a bountiful, year-round supply of fresh, local produce. And let’s be honest – we farmers want to maximize our returns too!

That’s why I’ve made it my mission to become a master of season extension. Through a combination of innovative growing techniques, smart infrastructure investments, and a whole lot of trial and error, I’ve managed to extend my CSA harvest by several months on both ends. And I’m excited to share some of my favorite hacks with you today.

Greenhouse Greens and Winter Wonders

One of the first things I tackled was maximizing our greenhouse potential. Now, I know not every CSA has the budget or the space for a fancy, high-tech greenhouse setup. But even a modest hoop house or cold frame can work wonders.

Iowa State University has some great resources on constructing affordable, energy-efficient greenhouse structures. The key is getting the environmental controls right – things like temperature, humidity, and ventilation. With a little tinkering, you can create the perfect microclimate for growing greens, herbs, and other cold-hardy crops all winter long.

I remember our first winter in the greenhouse. It was January, the polar vortex was in full swing, and the thermometer outside was reading a brisk -15°F. But inside our little oasis, the spinach, kale, and arugula were thriving, soaking up the sun and basking in the cozy 50-degree temperatures. That was the moment I knew we were onto something.

Harnessing the Power of Paper Pots

Another game-changer for us has been the paper pot transplanting system. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s this ingenious little contraption that allows you to seed and transplant crops with lightning efficiency.

The basic idea is that you start your seedlings in these biodegradable paper chains, then use a specialized tool to transplant the whole chain into the ground, roots and all. It’s like direct-seeding, but with the advantage of getting a head start in a controlled environment.

We use paper pots for everything from baby greens to root crops. Not only does it save us a ton of time and labor during the busy transplanting season, but it also gives those delicate seedlings a major boost in the early stages of growth. That means we can get crops like spinach and radishes into the ground weeks earlier than we used to.

The Power of Presoak

Speaking of getting a head start, one of my favorite season extension tricks is the trusty presoak. It’s so simple, yet it makes a world of difference.

Basically, before we transplant anything, we soak the soil blocks or paper pot trays in water for at least 30 minutes. This ensures the roots have immediate access to moisture, which is crucial for establishing healthy plants, especially in dry or variable weather conditions.

I learned this trick from a savvy old-timer back when I was just starting out. He swore by the presoak, and now I can’t imagine transplanting without it. It’s like insurance against wilting, stunting, or other transplant shock. And it’s just one more way we can give our crops a little extra edge as they get established.

Maximizing that Microclimate

Of course, season extension isn’t just about what happens inside the greenhouse. It’s also about leveraging every microclimate opportunity you can find on the farm.

For example, we’ve strategically placed our cold frames and low tunnels in the most sheltered, sun-exposed spots. That way, we can get an early jump on crops like carrots, beets, and scallions, even before the ground has fully thawed.

We also make liberal use of row cover – both for frost protection and pest exclusion. It’s amazing how a simple layer of spun-bonded fabric can transform a chilly, windswept field into a cozy, insulated oasis. I swear, my kale plants practically grin with delight when I tuck them in under that fluffy white blanket.

And speaking of microclimates, don’t forget about the power of mulch. We use a thick layer of straw or leaves around our overwintering crops to insulate the soil and retain moisture. It’s like a natural duvet for your veggies!

Embracing the Cold-Hardy Crops

Of course, season extension isn’t just about tricking Mother Nature. It’s also about working with her by carefully selecting cold-hardy crops that can thrive in those shoulder seasons.

Thornapple CSA has become famous for our late-fall and early-spring harvests of hearty greens, root veggies, and brassicas. Crops like kale, collards, parsnips, and Brussels sprouts really come into their own when the mercury dips.

In fact, many of these veggies actually improve in flavor after a touch of frost. The cold temps trigger a survival response, causing the plants to convert starches into sugars for a natural sweetening effect. It’s a win-win for us and our members!

But it’s not just about choosing the right cultivars. It’s also about understanding the unique growing habits and cultural requirements of these cold-hardy crops. For example, we’ve learned that overwintered spinach needs extra fertility and protection from the elements to really shine in the spring.

Diversifying the Offerings

Of course, season extension isn’t just about growing the same old staples for longer. It’s also about diversifying your offerings and bringing new and exciting items to the table.

Take microgreens, for instance. These nutrient-dense little gems can be grown year-round, either in the greenhouse or under grow lights. We’ve found that our members love the convenience and versatility of microgreens – they’re the perfect addition to salads, sandwiches, and even cocktails!

Another favorite of ours is edible flowers. By staggering our plantings and using a mix of cool- and warm-weather varieties, we can keep the blooms coming from spring right through fall. Not only do they add a beautiful, delicate touch to our CSA boxes, but they also open up all sorts of culinary possibilities for our members.

And let’s not forget about those oft-overlooked summer staples that can be coaxed into extended production. With a little strategic pruning and protection, we’ve managed to eke out extra harvests of tomatoes, peppers, and even cucumbers well into the autumn months.

The Season Extension Mindset

At the end of the day, successful season extension isn’t just about implementing a few clever tricks. It’s about cultivating a whole mindset – one that embraces creativity, flexibility, and a deep understanding of your crops and your climate.

It means constantly experimenting, keeping an eye on the latest research and innovations, and never being afraid to try something new. It means anticipating challenges before they arise and having a toolbox of solutions at the ready.

But most of all, it means staying true to the core mission of a CSA – providing our members with a bountiful, year-round supply of the freshest, most flavorful produce possible. Because in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

So whether you’re a seasoned CSA veteran or just starting out, I hope these season extension hacks have inspired you to think outside the box and push the boundaries of what’s possible on your farm. After all, with a little ingenuity and a whole lot of elbow grease, there’s no limit to how long we can keep those veggies flowing!

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Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

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