Plant Propagation Case Study, Quiet Creek Farm, Kutztown, PA. Penn State Extension Start Farming Video

eOrganic author:

Tianna Dupont, Penn State


This is a Penn State Extension Farm Profiles video directed by Tianna DuPont and produced by Daniel Paashaus. This series of videos is designed to give new farmers ideas and advice from experienced producers. Video production is supported by funding from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant #2009-49400-05869.


John Good, Quiet Creek Farm. John and Aimee Good run Quiet Creek Farm, a 200-member certified organic CSA at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. In this video, John Good discusses plant propagation planning, equipment, soil, and seeding methods on their farm.

Audio Text

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For our production facility, we use a 24-foot by 48-foot Quonset hut. It is a roll-up side greenhouse that we actually lease from the Rodale Institute. We have two propane powered heaters in the unit, as well as two gable and ventilation fans. In addition to that, we have two small circulation fans in the greenhouse and a circulation tube—a polyethylene tube down the center of the greenhouse.

We have eleven 9-foot by 5-foot benches. They are soil-filled benches. On top of those we just lay wooden planks. We also have one table on the end of the greenhouse, a 10-foot long table, with five 10-foot Agri-tape heating mats. We can use that as a nursery area. We have two thermostats to control those heating mats so we can zone them according to different crop needs. In terms of ergonomic concerns, we've built a nice pine table in our greenhouse. It is, I believe, a 42-inch high countertop height. We put a nice smooth melamine top on it so it's easy to keep clean, as well as a shelf below just for a foot rest when you're working. And we have a bunch of, we've scavenged old stools, stools of all different shapes and sizes, so it's comfortable to work both sitting or standing at the table when you're there all day.

The biggest thing, I would say, that's a detriment for our size greenhouse set-up is the size. Again we're 48 by 24. I would like to be bigger than that at this stage so I don't have to move things out into a cold frame as early as I do now.

Planning is the most important thing you can do in terms of efficiency in farm production. We work on that in the winter generally, in January and February. We do a general crop plan, we do a field plan, and we do a greenhouse plan. The greenhouse plan is really good for, in terms of determining your needs for production that year. One in terms of amounts of potting soil, amounts of flats you're going to need, and of course the amount of seeds you're going to need. We really like having a good plan also because then when you get into greenhouse season, you don't have to think about what you're doing anymore. You can pretty much look at the plan and read right off, and it's also really useful for in terms of having employees that you can hand them the plan and say,” OK, we need to do these three things today”, and they can take that sheet and do that. All the information they need is there.

Our propagation mix is a compost-based mix that we make ourselves. We're lucky enough to be at the Rodale Institute and have access to lots of good certified organic compost. We take that compost and screen it into a soil pasteurizer. The screen helps us get a nice fine mixture. Then the pasteurizer is there to sterilize the mix. We set it at about 190 degrees as a good temperature for killing most of your weed seeds but also allowing some of the beneficial organisms to pass through unscathed. Then we take that mix and we bag it. We use just old grain bags. We put one-and-a-half 5-gallon buckets in each bag. And then we take those bags to our greenhouse and store them for the following year. To our mix, we also add peat, perlite, and vermiculite, as well as bone meal, blood meal, rock phosphate, and lime. And those are the ingredients we use for our mix. The proportions are a bucket-and-a-half of compost, three-quarters of a bucket of perlite, three-quarters of a bucket of vermiculite, three-quarters of a bucket of peat. And then we add the mineral supplements. We use a one-pound butter dish. And we use a full butter dish of blood meal and greensand. We use a half butter dish each of lime, rock phosphate, and bone meal. And then we mix those all together with just a square tip spade in a mixing box in the greenhouse and that's the mix that works well for us. There's definitely a fair amount of challenges and benefits to working with a compost-based mix. The biggest benefit is that particularly in our mix is that we have a lot of nutrients in it, so we can hold plants in it if we need to. The biggest challenge with compost-based mixes is damping off. We have a lot of trouble with cucurbits with damping off. And then we also grow a fair amount of flowers for the CSA and Celosia is really troublesome for us. You have to be careful with a compost-based mix, one that you don't water too heavy, because they have a tendency to stay wet, and you also have to be careful that you don't let them get dry. Because they have a tendency once they're dry to be really hard to get wet again and that when you try to water, the water will pool up on the surface and almost evaporate or just spill off before it soaks down to deep in the bottom of the cell.

We haven't had much difficulty with fertility in our compost-based mix. And I would attribute that to adding the mineral supplements. They seem to provide the extra food that the plant needs. And we have found if there's an extreme case where it's really been raining and we really can't get something out, we have used fish emulsion in the past, just a commercially bought organic-approved variety.

We use a variety of seedling flats. We start off with seedling trays. Those are 20-row or 10-row seedling channel trays. Those are for small things. And in those we can generally fit 500 seeds or 500 plants per tray. Those are a nice nursery tray and for putting things on the heating mats. You know, on one heating mat I might be able to start, oh, 20,000 plants. So that's a really nice, really nice to be able to consolidate things in that space. From there we'll transplant on, or some things we'll seed directly in a larger cell tray. And then we also have a variety of things that are both are transplanted into or seeded directly into a 72-cell tray. And then we have a variety of things that we transplant or seed directly in 50-cell trays. Those are the sizes we use. We really like wind strips or injection-molded plastic trays. That's a much more sturdy tray. It allows for much better air circulation in between the cells. And they will last until you run over them with the tractor. Those trays will stand up to years of use. We do also use a lot of your traditional, I guess it's kind of a softer, flimsier plastic cell tray just because we can't quite find some of the harder trays in different cells, cell sizes or we can't afford them.

The basic process is we make our compost-based potting mix in a mixing box which is set up a couple feet off the ground so you're mixing it at about waist level. Then we'll add water to that mix and mix it up again until we get it sort of thoroughly wetted to the consistency of about a damp sponge. Then we'll put whatever tray we're using that day and stick it onto the mixing box, and actually just pull the soil on with our hands, kind of push it into the channels or the cell trays nice and firmly. If it's a seedling tray with 10 rows or 20 rows, we use 1/8th-inch aluminum bars to make a little indentation in each channel in addition to already being in the channel. If it's a cell tray we'll just use our finger tips to make a little divot in each cell for the seeds to land in. If we're working on a seedling tray, we'll actually count out, maybe it will be 25 or 50 seeds per row. If it's a cell tray, we'll look at our greenhouse plan, and if it's two seeds per cell, one seed per cell, we'll do that. And we'll just go in, and we'll sprinkle them between our thumb and our forefinger. And when we make our potting mix, one thing we always do before we wet it down is we take off one bucket of dry soil mix. And you can take that dry mix, and it's really nice to sprinkle over the top of your seeds. Most seeds, I would say, we bury approximately an eighth- to a quarter-inch deep. A good rule of thumb to try and kind of remember is that the smaller the seed, the less deeply you want to bury it, and the larger the seed, the less it matters how deeply it's buried.

You know when something is ready to be transplanted out of the channel seeding flats when, we generally say the rule of thumb is that, when there are two true leaves on the plant. There is flexibility in that, though. You can let a plant get a little bigger. Or if it's a rainy day and you have nothing else to do, and it's only got one true leaf, you can do it. It will be fine. And then, we actually use a butter knife. It works perfectly to just zip down and scoop all of the plants out of the channel tray. We'll then kind of take that long strip of plants in your fingers and you can kind of loosen up the soil, tease them out a little bit. And then we'll pull them out, sort of one-by-one, by their leaves, and you kind of gently tap them on the table to get the remainder of the potting mix off. And then we'll take a pencil—that's our preferred potting on tool—we'll take that and poke a hole in each cell. And then you can take your plant, and just basically, take it down, and using the pencil kind of push the roots all the way down to the bottom of the cell. You can generally plant at the two-leaf stage. You can take most things and transplant them on, and have them be buried all the way up to the base of their cotyledon leaves that way. If a plant is more leggy, you can also take that pencil and sort of bend over the stem and the root a little bit inside that hole, and push it down to the bottom, again to get it planted nice and deep. We like to use a Wonder Waterer™ watering wand. And, we've found that it works really well for both larger plants and small, really, really tiny seedlings. For really tiny plants, you can actually turn it upside-down so it waters them really gently. For larger plants you can turn it right side down, so to speak, and you can really water even larger plants from 6 feet away.

Air circulation is always an issue in the greenhouse because it is such a humid environment. And the best way you can deal with that is by, one, having ventilation fans in the greenhouse. Those help keep air, at least the air in the house, moving a little bit, and keep the foliage of the plants dry which is an important aspect of preventing disease. Beyond that, the most important preventative measure we can take is sterilizing our cell trays, and also only using our cell trays only once per season.

The biggest pieces of advice I could give are to go look at other people's facilities, and if you can, if it's at all possible, to go work for somebody else. And I always tell people regardless of what you're trying to learn that it's good to go to somebody, try and find someone who has a really good reputation for what you're doing and go learn from them, and also to work for someone who's maybe large scale because they'll have learned methods of efficiency that possibly you won't think of. And the other thing I would say that's most important is build the biggest greenhouse you can afford, and that you can, and that you have space for. No matter what you think, you'll always end up at some point be limited by the space you have.

Published June 27, 2012

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