Advice for home gardeners from Farmer Joe

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Photo by Dave Spatcher

Joe O’Grady’s love of producing food right here in Granby comes through loud and clear in his smile—and his carrots!

Welcome to 2021. Things may seem very quiet at Holcomb Farm this time of year, but in fact the Friends of Holcomb Farm are busy welcoming almost 100 new members through our year-end fundraising appeals and building an army of Tree Trail Stewards to assure that the investments we are making in the fields and forests are accessible to the whole community. We’re planning for the next growing season, including bountiful CSA summer shares that are still available at—go to the CSA tab. A well-stocked retail farm store, to open in June, and promises of tons of our produce for people in need, through our Fresh Access partners. While working behind the scenes, we offer up some professional gardening tips direct from our very own Farmer Joe O’Grady. Check it out.

Q: Understanding that February may be a bit late to be asking this question, what should we have done after the fall harvest to care for our garden? How should it have been put to bed?  Are there enhancements we should add? And is it too late for 2021?

A: Soil Tests! It’s never too late to get a soil test. We did most of ours in the fall, but ran out of time and as soon as the soil is thawed enough and not waterlogged, we will be doing more this late winter/spring. You can get your soil tested by UConn on the cheap, but we send our samples to Logan Labs in Ohio. We get their Standard Soil Test Plus, which includes all the standard measurements as well as some crucial trace elements (they’re not needed in large amounts, but they are crucial to soil health). They cost much more than the UConn tests (about $30 each) but knowledge is power and you get what you pay for.

Q: Talk to me about cover crops and rotation. How important are cover crops to a home garden? Are we supposed to concern ourselves with crop rotation when we just grow produce at home for our family?

A: Cover cropping and crop rotation is definitely an option for home gardens, though not always necessary. There is a school of thought that says plants know better than we do where they want to be, and if they do well in a certain spot, there is no need to move them (until any soil borne diseases pop up). 

For farms, cover crops are primarily used to increase organic matter, prevent soil erosion and suppress weeds. These are less of a concern in garden beds. Probably the best thing to do is reconsider “fall cleanup.” It’s a shame to see how much money and time is spent removing all the unwanted organic matter (leaves, grass, etc.) in the fall, only to buy inorganic matter (mulch) in the spring. Cover cropping is a good option in gardens, but just as good is covering your garden beds with a thick layer of leaves from your own property—or any organic matter, really; you can even use tarps, cardboard, newspaper, etc. In the spring there will be no need to rototill your beds, just rake the mulch away and you’ll be looking at wonderfully prepped, plantable soil.

Q: As the seed catalogues pile up, is there any science to knowing where to source seeds? Do you have favorite sources suitable for home gardeners?

A: Looking at seed catalogs in the dead of winter is exciting (and can also lead to a lot of bad decisions, everything looks so good!) It’s important to keep trying new things, but you also want to know you will have crops that do well and taste good. 

Some sort of record keeping is essential. Varieties come and go. Keep the ones that perform well for you but try some new varieties every year. The best sources in our region for organic and non-GMO seeds are Johnnys, Fedco and High Mowing. They are based out of Maine and Vermont and have a ton of varieties that do well in New England. 

Some other smaller seed companies that are based in our region and are worth checking out are Fruition Seeds, New England Seed Co., Hudson Valley Seed Co., and Turtle Tree Seed. Like the bigger companies in Maine and Vermont, they carry varieties that do well in our climate. In general, you’ll want to get all your seeds from companies like these, as they are regionally grown and adapted. Although this past year, I did try to patronize some seed companies in the Northwest. The rain shadow of the northern Rockies is a hotbed of seed production, and due to last year’s historic wildfires, they had a very rough year.

Q: If someone is looking to augment their home garden with an equipment purchase, what should they consider? What should no home gardener be without, that you think many don’t have? Are there any new innovations that you think may be worth trying?

A: You don’t need much equipment for a home garden. My first recommendation is to throw away the rototiller! I understand the satisfaction of looking at a freshly tilled and prepped garden bed in the spring, but the reality of what you’re looking at is quite depressing. It’s the aftermath of a war zone. All the rest and recuperation for the soil and the millions of lifeforms therein has been abruptly shattered; and you are starting at zero again in a lifeless, structureless soil. Also, weed seeds love a good rototilling, giving you another reason to avoid it.

I recommend a sprayer of some sort—depending on garden size either a backpack or hand-carried pump sprayer. Soil and plants are alive and would much rather continually feed slowly through the season instead of getting a huge meal of fertilizers and amendments dumped on them when they are planted. Spraying plants (foliar feeding) periodically throughout the season will reduce plant stress and lead to more efficient nutrient uptake.

Q: And finally, how about WHAT we plant here in Granby. Beyond peas, tomatoes and zucchini, what would you encourage people to try that they might not have tried, based on what you know about our weather and soil?

A: Anything is possible! Farming is my occupation, but it is also my number one hobby. I can’t wait to retire and just tinker in the garden in my dotage. There are always a handful of fanciful seed packets that make their way into my order. This year, once again, I’m continuing my quest to grow an enormous pumpkin (got a packet of Dill’s Atlantic Giant). It has yet to work out, but I think this is the year! We’ve also gotten quite good at growing ginger, which does well in Connecticut in a hoop house.

But forget the summer, Granby is teeming with talented home gardeners with stunning summer gardens. I encourage folks to grow into the winter! Low maintenance, low-cost structures can be set up to keep your family swimming in fresh greens all winter. (We have several hoop houses in production over the winter but can only satisfy a fraction of the demand that’s out there). All that’s needed really is shelter from the desiccating winds and extreme low temps. Spinach, kale, mustards, arugula, lettuce, and much more can survive our winters happily with just a little bit of protection.

Do you have a gardening question for Farmer Joe? Send it to and he will do his best to answer it in the next Granby Drummer.