Vermont Planting Weather

Neolithic Pig Rib Planting Poker

Today was an all seasons kind of day. Apple petals blowing in the wind. Real snow as well. High winds driving the light rain. Intermittent hail. No sunshine though. Fortunately the soil has warm so the white stuff, other than the flowers, didn’t accumulate.

Nine hundred and ninety nine pounds of seed on the wall,
Take a hundred pounds down,
Cast it around,
899 pounds of seed on the wall…

We spent another day planting both in gardens and in the winter paddocks and pastures. It was practically perfect planting weather. The rain will drive the seed into the soil. Light seeds like grass, legumes, brassicas and such can simply be scattered to the wind, broadcast from hand as we walk across the fields. No need to harrow, plow, disk or cover them with soil.

With hand broadcasting I can seed a 60′ wide path with each walking pass – about 30′ to each side. As I walk I’m tossing seed from a pail I carry across the mountain. An advantage of the hand broadcast method is I can target specific spots like when I’m over seeding bare patches in pasture. With practice this produces a pretty even spread. Perfectly even is not necessary since we’re over seeding. Oh, and Luke, use the wind…

We also have hand seeders with spinning cranks. They give a little more even coverage but only cut a 20′ wide swath and tire my wrist. I have found that the cheap little lawn spreaders do just as well as the much more expensive chest mounted spreaders. The little spreaders not only cost less but they also last amazing well. After seven years we still have two out of three in operation.

For the pumpkins, sunflowers and other large seeds I use a planting poker such as the pig rib shown above. This ergonomically fits my hand and lets me quickly make holes of the right size for big seeds. These neolithic planting sticks come in both left and right handed models. The best ones come from the very big boars and sows – it’s all about size.

As I was seeding the south field plateau two Canadian geese came a visiting. This pair lives down in the marsh at the center of our valley about three quarters of a mile from our cottage. For the last week they’ve been visiting the south field about once a day. I haven’t actually seen them grazing but rather just walking about and eyeing the real estate.

After sorting seed in the morning Will and Ben spent the afternoon seeding up on the ridge where the winds were higher and the weather, well, fiercer. We have about 30 acres to go in the outer fields.

Yes, I realize that there are some people who are already harvesting from their gardens… Like certain people who send me tempting descriptions and photos of what they’ve been planting for months and are already eating… But our soil has been too cold until recently for much to sprout. It was a scant month ago that the snows left our fields and they have stuck in the woods for longer. The soil warms slowly. Each spring I like to plant some things early on the off chance that the seed won’t rot in the ground but it’s a bit risky until the soil is warm enough. Interestingly, some seeds, even things like sunflowers and tomatoes, winter over fine. Perhaps it is a percentages thing. Lots of seeds and a few of them make it.

The grasses and some native plants are up. The brassicas are sprouting out in the fields. Even sunflowers are sprouting. But tender things like pumpkins plants have wisely not shown their faces yet, todays windy snow would not be their sort of weather, although I’ve spotted some squash. Wild, shall we say feral, tomatoes and tomatillos have been popping up, they try and get a jump on the season, but days like today may kill them back. The seeds that stay dormant a little longer will likely make it though. Although, I have seen some volunteer sunflowers who appear to be making it through last weeks snow so maybe they’ll survive today in protected places.

Seeding sounds simple but a lot of prep goes into it before the first seed hits the soil. Every gardner knows (savors?) the months planning all the species, which will be best into each pasture depending on the soils, water and when they’ll be grazed. Then once the seed arrives there is sorting and mixing the seeds and adding inoculants, the bacteria which help legumes like clover pull free fertilizer out of the sky. Finally when the soil is warm enough and I’m expecting rain, like now, we spread seed that will feed our livestock and then our customers in the months and years to come.

What is the difference between pasture, winter paddock and garden seeding you might ask? It is a matter of intensity of husbandry and planting style.

Pasture seeding is primarily grasses and legumes. About 40% of each. There are also some brassicas and other things like chicory in the mixes I make up for those large areas. The focus is on small seeds we can easily storm, frost and mob seed since broadcast seeding is the rule – our mountain is too steep, rocky and stumpy for tractor work over most of the fields.

The winter paddocks are about four acres where the pigs, chickens, geese, and in other years sheep too, over winter. These areas are high in nitrogen and organic matter so I plant hungry eaters like pumpkins, mangles, beets, turnips, broccoli, sunflowers, squash, radishes, sugar beets, etc – mostly annual things that take more work to plant but little work to care for once established. These are all things for the fall and winter to replace forages as the pastures fade and the deep snows come again. Summer is the time we thrive between when we survive.

Gardens are more intensely managed, neat rows or plots and more for our family consumption than for the livestock. This is where I grow leeks, a tiny bit of sweet corn (often not successfully), peas, broccoli, beets, carrots, tomatoes, squash and all the usual suspects. You know, a garden. We originally got livestock, to a large degree, for their manure to improve our poor mountain soil so as to be able to better raise vegetables. Give Walter a sheep and look what happens

I’ve heard many people complain that seed is expensive. They’re right – it is. That is why I like to select species that will reproduce themselves and not require annual reseeding if at all possible. By managing the grazing, using reserve areas and saving seed I reduce the amount of seed I must buy. I save seed where possible – one more reason to avoid the GMOs like the plague.

Yet, seed is cheap compared with grain based feeds. A few thousand dollars of seed, a bit of planting time and patiences will produce hundreds of thousands of dollars of livestock feed over a period of several years. We buy no commercial hog feed so the more food we can produce here on the farm the happier the pigs will be.

Seed is an investment in the future. A promise. An act of faith.

Outdoors: 39°F/30°F Very Windy, Rain, Snow, Hail, Overcast
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/62°F

Daily Spark: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” -Vivian Greene

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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11 Responses to Vermont Planting Weather

  1. J says:

    Hi Walter,

    I really like your posts where you talk about seeding techniques and pasture management. Would you mind giving some more details about how you manage the winter paddocks once you put the animals on them? Do you strip graze them, or do something else? And do you harvest anything from them like the root crops, to keep them available after the ground freezes?

    Also, what percentage of the pigs’ fall/winter food comes from the paddocks, and how much is hay?

    • Depending on how many animals in the group and the size of the winter paddock garden they are moving into we might just let them in all at once to the whole area or move them in gradually across the area using strip grazing. See Turnip Patch Turnout and Pumpkin Patch. The fall crops like the pumpkins and such have never been enough here to last all winter. We start feeding hay in November, sometimes October.

      • J says:

        Thanks for the response. There are some really useful figures in the Turnip Patch post. I was also surprised that they went for the leaves first before going for the roots.

  2. Melissa says:

    You hit on some of the details that will help me decide which seed to buy. I started looking at seed some months ago but was overwhelmed by the selection but lacked data to select the appropirate seed– so I bought none. Rather I stole oats from the horses and chickens and walked thru the wood looking for patches lite by the sun in hopes of finding a few microclimates that may help the seed survive. More of an experiment than a success. But definitely a start.

  3. Ben Godfrey says:

    Have you found clover seeding to be of any value? We had a thick stand of yellow sweet clover last year in our pastures. To add to this I frost seeded red clover.

    In the fields that the pigs were in last year there is very little yellow left – perhaps they rooted up most/all of the tubers?

    Your post refer to many things other than clover, can I read into this that clover is NOt on your list of seeds?

    Thank you!

    • Yes, clover is a very valuable part of the legumes and forages in our fields. When we started our soil was too acidic for the clovers but over the years with grazing the soil pH has gradually risen so the clovers now thrive. Into this I have planted many different varieties becomes some do better in one season or another as well as different soil types.

      I typically say legumes because there are many other legumes besides clover that fall in a similar category of plant. I tend to divide my field planting thinking into grasses, legumes, brassicas, vegetables like pumpkins and sunflowers, tubers like sunchokes and then other to catch everything else. Clovers are an important part of the legumes group.

  4. Melissa says:

    While rereading this thread you hit upon an aspect I have been pondering– checking the pH of the “soil” though I do wonder if trial and error is a better method. DId you test the soil, or just use trial and error with all the different clovers? ALso I don’t see any mention of alfalfa, do you prefer clover to alfalfa or another legume??

    • We did full soil tests in the mid-1990’s as we began clearing additional fields. At that point our soil was very acidic, thin and poor (not fertile). It is gravelly on ledge.

      The extension lab’s recommendation was to apply many tons of lime yearly. Our land is steep and rough so that is not practical as machine work is dangerous on the slopes. The extension agent suggested that a slower method would work, to be patient and simply graze livestock and then seed behind the animals. She said that with time, the grazing and the application of the animals manure the pH would improve as would the soil condition.

      She was right. Back then we had almost no clovers, no alfalfa at all and lots of moss growing in our fields. Limited grasses, lots of sedges, milk weed, pig weed and dogs bane. Now we have fields filled with good forages from grasses to brassicas to legumes including alfalfa, clovers, vetch, etc. Along with gradually improving the fields we’re also planting more fruit and nut trees as those are other good sources of food for the livestock.

      • Melissa says:

        Thank you Walter, I can see I need to create a written plan with a rough timeline to help. Looks like farm animals are the natural method to improve land for agricultural use. Looks like the starting point is get the soil tested. Thank you.

  5. Bob says:

    Hi Walter,

    I always appreciate your generosity in sharing from your experience and research.

    We now have weaner pigs (8 of them), along with a dozen goats on our farm in southern Ontario. Our latitude is almost the same as yours but we are in the lowlands near Lake Ontario and our soil has a lot of limestone right under it. The pastures were abandoned for several decades and are now savanna style with bushes, small trees, wild grapevine and a lot of milkweed and goldenrod growing along with some kind of fairly tough orchard grass.

    I have divided the pasture into 16 paddocks of about 1/4 to 1/3 acre each and have started rotating the animals together through them. The pigs are doing most of their rooting in the damp, heavily shaded areas but also are opening up some small spaces in the grassy/weedy areas. I am wanting to plant legumes into those rooted areas to begin improving the pasture. From your experience, can you suggest which legumes might compete best against the orchard grass, milkweed and goldenrod?

    Thank you!


    • I like mixed plantings. We plant:
      soft grasses (bluegrass, rye, timothy, wheat, etc);
      legumes (alfalfa, clovers, trefoil, vetch, ect);
      brassicas (kale, broccoli, turnips, etc);
      millets (White Proso Millet, Japanese Millet, Pearl Millet);
      chicory; and
      other forages and herbs.

      Exactly varieties will depend on your local climate and soils. I avoid the grasses and such that turn toxic with drought, frost or other stress as they make our management system too complex.

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