On Planning the Garden and Planning for Downtime – Redheaded Blackbelt


Casey O’Neill is a cannabis and food farmer in Mendocino County who has been writing newsletters about his efforts to provide sustainable produce and marijuana. We feature his column once a week.

 I’m getting excited for crop planning, looking forward to revising my projections and expectations for production.  Things have changed so much on the farm in the last couple years that it feel almost exponential.  I have more tunnel space to work with in the winter, and better tools available for producing, harvesting and washing produce.

      I’m realizing that in order to plan my hoophouse production, I need to work backward from transplanting date of long-season summer crops.  If I want to transplant a row of tomatoes into a bed on April first, I need to make sure that I have that bed space available.  Working backwards from then, I know that I can sow radishes 4-5 weeks before (and have them cleared by the time tomatoes need to go in), or I could sow salad mixed 6-8 weeks before.

      Working backwards from the firm planting dates I want for hot crops gives me a foundational starting point, a constant from which I can define the crop planning puzzle, flexing and altering as needed with the variety of winter crops that we will grow in that space.  Radishes are very fast, turnips and greens somewhat less so, beets and carrots least of all.

     I’m looking forward to getting back into the planning software to revise for next year.  I’ll admit that I’m not making full use of it, falling off after spring planting and not doing any updating for summer plantings.  The software could allow me to work all the way through harvesting to track the different data streams on the farm to measure and refine our methods, but I’m a long way from that capability.  As it is though, the level of accuracy that it afforded my planning this year was a huge step forward for us and I’m super excited to revise and refine over the months to come.

     There are certain beds that are earmarked for specific crops at certain times; cannabis beds always get cannabis in them, first when seed starts go out, then with later clone plantings.  In between those times I can grow food crops or cover crops, but there is no flexibility when it comes to time for planting the long-season cannabis.  The same is true for the hoophouse tomato and cucumber beds, which need to go in at a certain time (earlier than we managed this year) in order to be most effective and productive.

      I’m excited to add pole beans to the rotation of summer crops that we do in the hoophouses.  The caterpillar tunnels have two middle rows that work well for tall, trellised crops and two edge rows that need shorter crops because of the curving of the hoops.  This year we ended up with more peppers than we need with three full rows each of sweet and hot peppers, and one of those rows was a center row that can hold a tall, trellised crop like beans.

     The farm had phenomenal success this year with rapid-rotation salad mixes, cooking greens, and fast-growing root crops.  Using these crops as the foundation of our winter food production in concert with the 4 x 50’ caterpillar tunnels gives us production opportunities that I could only have dreamed of in the past.

      With 16 dedicated growing beds each 50’ long by 30” wide, the potential for winter food production is four times as much as last winter when only one tunnel was planted before the beginning of 2021.  Two new tunnels at my place and proper trenching for cold-weather water available to the hoophouse out by the farmstand means that I can rotate through plantings to have a steady stream of produce available.

      We also have 2 caterpillar tunnels used for light dep during the cannabis season that will be planted to large brassica like cabbages and cauliflower, along with kales and collards.  Dep tunnels that aren’t in use in the winter can do phenomenal work in food production, producing at times of the year when there is often a lull in local food system availabiilty.

        Winter farming can be tricky because of the need for work-life balance.  Without some good downtime in the winter, I begin the year without enough reserves to get through the journey and I end up burnt out by the end.  I’m working on being more consistent with time off throughout the year, so that I feel comfortable with the workload of winter production.

      It’s the running joke of “just work till dark”, which means that I don’t stop till after 9pm on summer solstice, but I knock off at 4 during the darkness of winter.  The natural rhythms of the seasons impress themselves upon my soul in a comforting cycle providing the metronome of life.  As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!

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