This is how we do it

Hydroponics

Hydroponics

Our lettuces and some of our herbs are grown using Hydroponics, a method of growing plants out of the ground, up on elevated garden beds. There are many ways of growing using the hydroponic method, and we've adapted the method to suit our farm philosophy of using no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. 

Hydroponics is often a more sustainable alternative to traditional farming methods and this is certainly true for us on our farm. Why does it suit us so well?

Our water: we treat our water as precious because we collect our own rain water, storing and filtering it before use. Our hydroponic system is a closed system, so the water is re-used over and over. It feels good to be capturing and using the water carefully.

Careful use of nutrients: as the water goes through the system, it is analysed and the system drops in to it the nutrient amount required. We choose to use only natural minerals in our nutrient mix. This fits with our growing philosophy of only using natural inputs.

Careful use of energy: our hydroponic set-up takes less than a light bulb of electricity a week to run. We can use our two-person man-power to look after it, it doesn't require heavy machinery or fossil fuels to maintain. The beds are up at waist height which means less stress on our bodies. We can fit more plants to a bed than in the ground, which means we can grow more in a smaller space and control our workload. There are less weeds - we don't want to waste time weeding.

More control over pests: our hydroponic tables are outside, in natural sunlight.  They are covered by a hooped frame, and on the frame we can bug net, bird net, shade cloth or rain cover. At waist height, the tables make it easier to look for bugs. If we find aphids, we can remove and dispose of a few plants easily to contain the problem. We have lots of birds here at Salty River Farm, so bird netting is a vital part of our setup. We can pull the covers over if rain is coming and easily shade the beds if it's too sunny. 

Re-use and compost ability: We sow the seed into little grow pots, which get reused over and over. We mix together coconut coir and pumice for our growing medium - we like that after harvest any waste can be composted.

Consistency in growing: because the nutrient water runs under the plants constantly, our plants are strong and healthy year-round. This makes it overall the most consistent part of the farm crop-wise therefore income-wise.

Cleanliness of crops: being up off the ground, there is no dirt or mud splash on our hydroponic crops. This means we usually don't have to wash. Washing crops lowers their shelf-life so the less we have to wash, the better for our customers.

Although we also grow many of our vegetables in the ground, we love growing hydroponically. 

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Home compostable packaging

Home compostable packaging

We package our produce using paper and rubber bands, paper bags, cardboard punnets and home-compostable and worm-farm friendly bags.

Using packaging that can be composted is important to us, and we also want our customers to experience our produce as fresh as possible. 

We package our salad greens into home-compostable and worm-farm friendly bags. They are a brand called Econic and made using vegetable starches. By using the bags our greens stay in top-notch condition and fresher for longer which creates less waste for our customers.

Any offcuts from our packing room go into our compost which creates less waste for us too. Econic bags are made in Hamilton by a New Zealand owned family run business. 

You can put your used Econic bags in your own home compost or worm farm, containing heat, water, oxygen, soil and micro-organisms. Compost trials have shown that Econic bags can break down into small fragments in as little as 16 weeks. The rate of breakdown will vary depending on the compost environment, temperature and humidity.

Econic bag compostability information: https://embersustainablepackaging.com/pages/how-it-works

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Outside, in the ground and no-dig

Outside, in the ground and no-dig

Here at Salty River Farm we love growing. In both our no-dig beds and hydroponics we grow from seed and love watching the journey from seedling through to harvest. We enjoy being immersed in the seasons and enjoy the change from winter to summer crops, it keeps our life as growers interesting.

We don't call ourselves organic growers, say that we practice permaculture or that we're regenerative farmers. We take ideas from all of those practices, choose what's going to help us and are always on the lookout for better ways to do things. With every decision we make on the farm we try to be mindful and consider ourselves caretakers of our little farm, trying to make the soil and whole environment better for the future.

We spend a lot of our energy building and maintaining our soil health. We use only natural products to grow our vegetables. We don't use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides on or around our no dig beds or hydroponics. Our gardens are intensive rather than extensive ... we put all our energy into a smaller area so we can stick to our 'two person power', and not have to use tractors or other big machinery.

We first learned about no-dig gardening during a lockdown. We had been struggling to grow in the ground and were ready to give up, we were sick of spending hours upon hours weeding. We thought surely there's a better way. We stumbled upon Richard Perkins on You-tube, a market gardener in Sweden. It was a revelation. We then set upon our local small town, begging cardboard boxes from every shop. Why cardboard?

To set up the beds we laid cardboard down upon the grass. We then used wooden planks to set up a guide where to tip the soil for growing beds, and woodchip for paths between the growing beds. We ordered and had delivered to the farm a big pile of beautiful, well balanced soil and another big pile of woodchip. Then we set out to fill bed/path/bed/path until we had 16 x 24metre beds, 75cm wide. The soil and woodchip are 150-200mm deep. Once each bed and path was filled we'd remove the wooden planks. The cardboard and soil smothered the grass and they couldn't grow anymore because they couldn't see the light. And boy did our seedlings love the beds. And we fell in love too, no (or very very little) weeding.

Now we have 20 x 20metre beds and 8 x 5metre beds. Hopefully that'll be enough because setting up the beds is hard work.

No-dig means that you're not digging up the soil from below to the surface. If soil from below is dug to the surface, weed seeds are brought up to the light and think it's their time to grow! When you dig, you're also breaking up many good things that are happening down in the dark. Like the highways that worms make underground to get about. Or the pathways that old plant roots have made which transport water and nutrients for future plants. 

At the start of each season, we top up the beds with 2-3cm of brought in compost. We love the idea of using our own compost ... but we've trialled it, and it's very tricky to make sure the compost gets hot enough to kill seeds. I used some of our compost to make some new flower beds, and it's ended up with ... mustard, cucumber, tomatoes, pumpkins, lettuces, coriander ... you name it, it's growing there! Our compost is good for around our orchard trees, where it isn't a problem, but not in our no-dig beds where it's vital to earn income. As I've mentioned already, we don't have time to weed. So buying in compost that we trust is fantastic quality and won't sprout weeds is a huge advantage. 

When the crop is finished at the end of the season, what happens next depends on what the crop was. Some crops, like kale, we chop off just under the soil surface. It's then ready to be topped up with compost and replanted. If it was a crop of something like rocket, we prepare the beds for new crops by covering them with tarpaulins, until the previous crop and any weeds have died down. The covered beds stay moist, the worms do their work and the bed gets to have a rest until it is replanted.

Our edible flower crops encourage bees and other helpful insects by providing food and a home for them and in turn they pollenate our crops.

A big part of our growing is bug prevention. Because we don't use synthetic pesticides to deter bugs, keeping them out in the first place is essential. A big part of prevention is keeping our crops as healthy as possible. A stressed plant will be the most venerable to bug attack. We use a lot of netting to cover and protect our crops, especially when they're young. If we need to, we use natural, non-harmful sprays such as garlic and chilli spray or neem (in the cool of night and once the bees have gone to bed).

No-dig suits us to a T. Less time weeding, successful crops grown in beautiful rich soil. No heavy digging.

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Our garden paths - the quiet achievers

Our garden paths - the quiet achievers

This is a shout-out to one of our garden's quiet achievers - the paths. We don't give them enough credit for everything they do for our garden.

Every 3 or so years we top-up our paths with 150-200mm of untreated woodchip. We've made the paths 50cm wide, and that gives us enough clearance for the wheelbarrow when we're working in the garden, and to set down a vegetable crate while we're harvesting.

The woodchip paths help us achieve our goal of keeping much of our garden's soil covered. We aim for our garden to be like a forest floor, where there is no bare soil. In a forest there is forever a layer of leaves and twigs building on top of the ground to cover the soil. We do the same with our paths, we top up the paths from time to time so there is no bare soil between the beds. How does that help our crops?

In wet weather, the most obvious way the paths help is to keep our feet dry and clean. But also they keep the produce growing in the beds beside them clean. We don't have mud splattered onto leaves in heavy rain.

Something less obvious is that they act like a sponge. They absorb water and store it for later, when plant roots go out searching it's an extra reservoir for them to find.

And, over time, they compost down, partly becoming part of the bed beside them, and partly of the soil beneath them.

We can't waste time weeding here, there's only two of us to get all the tasks done. The woodchip layer is deep enough that weed seeds from below don't germinate. The odd weed seed still blows in and germinates on top of the paths - but they're super easy to pull out. Who wants to weed? Not us, that's for sure.

We're sure there are less slugs and snails because of the paths too. It means most of the garden beds are bordered by paths, not grass ... where the critters love to hide.

Often, fungi and little mushrooms will grow from the woodchips. This is a sign of a healthy environment, the woodchips are loaded up with fertile spores and helps us create a diverse growing environment.

And - lastly, I have to say it, the woodchip paths look really nice. Our goal is that our front paddock looks really nice when people drive in. It shows we have pride in our gardening.

Back in one of the big storms, our road got hit badly. Lots of the 'old man pines' along the roadside came down. Then something great happened, the tree guys clearing the road offered us the mulch produced from their tree clearing work. We were over the moon, the guys were happy to dump it into huge piles along our driveway, and we were able to top up our garden paths and create some new ones too.

Our paths, walked all over - but greatly appreciated!

 

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