The Ray Tyler Lettuce Series is a new podcast mini-series hosted by Diego Footer and farmer Ray Tyler to take a deep dive into the technicalities of growing lettuce—from why lettuce is a farm staple to how to master growing the crop consistently to how to effectively market lettuce to maximize profits.
In this episode of The Lettuce Series, Ray drives the importance of potting soil in ensuring a successful lettuce crop, as well as the value of taking regular soil tests to stay on top of your soil’s needs when it comes to necessary amendments.
This Episode’s Guest: Ray Tyler
Ray Tyler is the farmer and owner of Rosecreek Farms, a financially successful one-acre market garden nestled in Tennessee. Ray Tyler is also an educator who has helped many farms become more profitable through his coaching services. He also offers his services in the form of his three courses: The Living Farm Course, Caterpillar Tunnel Success, and of course, his Lettuce Masterclass.
In this episode of The Lettuce Series
- Diego introduces the episode series on the importance of potting soil (00:29)
- If lettuce is a light feeder, it should grow in any soil…right? (02:12)
- Why is it important to focus on soil health when growing lettuce? (03:15)
- Balancing soil fertility (04:35)
- Should you balance the soil specifically for lettuce? (07:01)
- How often should you test your soil? (07:50)
- Feed the microbes and get the soil biology going (09:22)
- Say goodbye to sandbags forever (11:45)
- Narrowing down which amendments to put into your soil (13:39)
- Better soil, better lettuce (16:42)
- The best time to take a plant sap analysis (18:39)
- Using plant sap analysis on different crops (19:48)
Anything specific You want to hear? Reach Out!
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Ray Tyler Lettuce Series - Episode 3 - The Importance of Potting Soil
[00:00:00] Diego Footer: Welcome to Farm Small Farm Smart. I'm your host, Diego, DIEGO. Today, it's episode number three in the Lettuce Grower Series. This series is a deep dive into growing one crop really, really well: lettuce. Why did we focus on lettuce? Well, typically, it's a profitable crop that's really easy to sell.
[00:00:25] Everybody knows it, and that makes it the ideal cash flow crop for small market farms. In episode three, we're gonna be talking about the importance of potting soil. The key to having a great crop of lettuce in the field is getting seedlings off to a great start in the nursery. Ray's gonna discuss what he looks for in the perfect potting soil and how you can get your seedlings off to an amazing start so you can have a beautiful harvest that you can sell for a lot of money at the end of the day.
[00:00:57] If you're looking for additional resources to help you out, Ray wrote the book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce. Ray�s someone who struggled growing lettuce for years, but eventually went on to master it. This series and Ray's book gives you the opportunity to learn from someone who knows what you're going through and wants to help you and your farm succeed.
[00:01:18] To get the book and follow along at home, use the link below. And if you're more of a visual learner, you can sign up for Ray's Lettuce Masterclass using the link below. And be sure to check the episode description for any tools and supplies referenced in this episode. Episode three, the importance of potting soil. Let's get into it.
[00:01:44] Last week, we talked about chapter two in your book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce, which was variety and propagation. We talked about the importance of potting soil in the early stage growth of a lettuce transplant. Now, we're taking that transplant, and we're bringing it out to the field.
[00:02:02] It's no longer reliant on potting soil. It's now reliant on field soil, so this is chapter three in the book, Soil Fertility. But if you think about it, lettuce is a light feeder, so it can just grow in any soil. Right?
[00:02:18] Ray Tyler: I would wanna push back on that a little bit. I have found it to be a heavy feeder in the summertime. It needs a lot more than what you think. So I would agree with that in fall, winter, and spring, but not for the summer.
[00:02:34] Diego Footer: Yeah, I think a lot of people do view lettuce as that light feeder, and they treat their soil management practices, reflect that belief: plant something, and then they'll just turn the bed. They don't amend it.
[00:02:47] They just throw in lettuce right after it, and they're like, eh, it's a light feeder, whatever. I can go right into it. You have different experience, and you wrote a whole chapter on soil fertility here, and you have three essential practices. Or some essential practices for healthy soil when it comes to growing lettuce, balancing fertility, feeding microbes to encourage biology, foliar feeding, and then keeping the soil covered.
[00:03:15] Can you talk about why, in your experience, you've found it this important to focus on soil health with respect to lettuce?
[00:03:26] Ray Tyler: Yes. This is really one of the subjects that keeps me very excited in agriculture because it's a subject that I don't understand at all. I have experiences, but it's such a beautiful and majestic mystery that it really just keeps me intrigued. And the more I dive into the underground world, just�
[00:03:53] It's gonna be a lifelong pursuit of understanding what's going on. But what I found is that, like I mentioned I think the last podcast we did, was, in my first years, I did not pay attention to soil fertility and soil health at all. And it did okay for the first few years, and then it caught up to me, and then I depleted my soil.
[00:04:20] And I was told early on that lettuce was a light feeder, and so I treated this as such and found out that I was wrong in following that advice. So what I found, so we'll go over to these kind of four things and why. So one is balancing the fertility in the soil. I've just found that taking a soil test and understanding your soil levels are vital, right?
[00:04:47] It's one of these things we're soil like, we can't see what's missing. We can see a plant if it's stunted or diseased or if there�s pests. We tend to focus on the things that we can see with our eyes. That's just, that's human nature. But then, there's all these things that are going on under the soil that we just, that are invisible to our eye.
[00:05:08] So taking a test and getting that data back is really�has been very helpful for me at least, because then I can see, oh my goodness, I'm seeing a deficiency in potassium. Why is that? And then I'll add more potassium to soil, and I'll see my romaine, we'll start to head up. Wow. It seems to me, based off of my soil test that I've been taking and finding a soil consultant, that if I add potassium, I can now all of a sudden grow romaine.
[00:05:45] So it looks like to me like romaine needs a lot of potassium. And so, I started to see, wow, the more I'm balancing, and I'm more aggressive with balancing fertility, not just the macro, but the micro, the zinc, the manganese, the magnesium, boron, all those things, like they'll make lettuce sweeter, and they'll have more color, and they'll withstand a lot more stress.
[00:06:14] And so I've just found that this has been really important. So the first thing I really try to encourage every grower who wants to get serious about lettuce, before you plant that transplant that we talked about the last episode, get your soil amended. Oftentimes, what you can do is as soon as you plant your lettuce seeds, while those are growing, take a few weeks.
[00:06:39] Get a soil test, hire a consultant. They're very inexpensive. Get the amendments that they recommend, incorporating them into your soil. Balancing the soil to the best of your ability before you plant will just give you a lot more chance of success in the production aspect of your farm.
[00:07:01] Diego Footer: Would you go as specific as balancing it for lettuce since it's such an important crop, or do you think just balancing for vegetable crops as a whole is good enough?
[00:07:12] Ray Tyler: First of all, I would say, starting out, I would start with just balancing for vegetables as a whole or just because I think it's more, if you're getting into this, there's a lot you're learning, and you can overdo things pretty easily. If you hire a soil consultant, and they read your readings, and you tell them what they're growing, they can help you go, Hey, if you're growing lettuce, all right, just let's add a little bit more nitrogen and a little bit more potassium.
[00:07:41] So they may give you like, Hey, let's just do this for all your vegetables. But hey, since you're doing this, let's help you out.
[00:07:50] Diego Footer: How many times a year do you think you need to test? Is once good enough?
[00:07:53] Ray Tyler: I like to do mine a few times a year only because we are working our�we're doing up to eight bed rotations a year of different crops, so we're going very aggressive.
[00:08:09] So because we're mining so much nutrients from our soil, and I have found that summer crops take a�it seems in my experience, that they take�can take lot more nutrients to help reduce stress, that just making sure that your levels aren't off. It's better to make smaller corrections than larger ones. But for someone starting off once a year, just do it once a year is a really good goal to have.
[00:08:41] Diego Footer: Yeah, like the idea too of a consultant just getting their outside eyes on it, those tests can beard to read, confusing. And then you don't have any of the antidotal experience of somebody who's seen a thousand soil tests and can just say what you said. Hey, yeah, dial this up a little bit. Don't worry about that as much if these are the crops you're focusing on.
[00:08:59] Because all this is gonna eventually translate into money, right? Like you're gonna read the soil tests, and you're gonna have to buy those inputs, so you don't wanna be adding stuff that you don't need to add or over adding it. So you're gonna spend the money somewhere.
[00:09:15] Get the right advice so you can input the correct or at least what people think is the correct amount right into the soil at a given time. So after that, you balance your fertility, feed the soil microbes, get the biology going, add organic matter. Principle two.
[00:09:30] Ray Tyler: This is really important because I found that the more microbes, earthworms that you can have closer to the surface of the soil, the more nutrient cycling can be going on and happening.
[00:09:42] So, this can be done� Gosh, there's a million ways to go about this, right? But what I have found, for me, is I make my own compost. So that has certainly helped, and I'm adding some microbes in my soil on a pretty regular basis, depending on what's going on and things I've done. We'll get into that more later in our next episodes here.
[00:10:12] But I do like adding fish hydrolysis and biochar into the soil. That's been a very good�just soil biology, micro building. It's just, I look at that as�your earth worms and microbes need food, but it's livestock, right? And I want to keep those, that livestock on my bed. And so if I feed keep feeding that bed, they're gonna keep going the surface to feed.
[00:10:42] And so that's been my approach is molasses work, too. And again, there's many different ways to go about that, but that's really helped me.
[00:10:52] Diego Footer: Adding that fish hydrolysate and some of the other microbes�is that going on foliarly or are you adding it just a soil drench?
[00:11:03] Ray Tyler: We've done a soil drench, and then we're doing mainly fertigation right now.
[00:11:10] Diego Footer: So injecting it through your drip trim.
[00:11:12] Ray Tyler: We're injecting through my drip tapes because again, once you grow this crop, especially for lettuce, like you don't wanna spray fish hydrolysis on lettuce a week before you eat it. So you could think, oh, I'm gonna just spray the soil. Yeah, most likely you're gonna get some�you're gonna get some overspray on the lettuce, and maybe it'll have a strong after smell or taste, and then you'll have to wash it.
[00:11:34] So I like to do a lot more fertigation. It's just simpler, it's easier, put on timer and walk away. It can be done any time of the day.
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[00:13:39] In the book, in chapter three, you have some of your most commonly used products. How do you advise people to start to narrow down what to put on their soil? Because there's no shortage of amendments. If you wanna put stuff in soil, there's a lot of companies who wanna sell you a whole bunch of stuff that you can put on there. Is it like the variety-cultivar approach? Hey, let's see what our soil test says.
[00:14:04] Identify some weaknesses, focus on a few specific products, start there. Observe results, take notes, and then expand out. Cuz before you know it, it's easy. I can be applying 25 different things to the soil. And now that's a job in and of itself.
[00:14:19] Ray Tyler: Which, yeah, which it is a job of itself for sure. I would say... I would like to lead that up to the job of your soil consultant. Here's the thing is like every soil is so different, right? And so I'm, occasionally I'll be like, Hey, this is a really great product, and I don't think, it doesn't matter what kind of soil you have, it's not gonna hurt. But for the most part, it's really best that to be left up to your soil consultant and yourself to discuss your goals, what kind of deficiencies do you have?
[00:14:54] If a soil consultant can understand your goals, they can help you get there. That�s their job. And back on the consultants, I wanna drive this home a little bit, is if your goal is to have a business, meaning, you wanna make profit, right? Let's say you have a 10-year goal, or let's just say you have a five-year goal that you want to quit your nine to five job, or maybe you want to keep your job and your wife wants to come home full-time, that means you have to be profitable.
[00:15:26] That means you have to�you're gonna have to spend money to make it. And I would say that a soil consultant probably has one of the greatest ROIs of your money because you pay someone, let's say a hundred bucks, right? To read your soil, give you a list of recommendations, you could easily double your production, not your sales.
[00:15:51] But you could, if you follow their protocol, and you do it exactly how they say, if you have the right consultant, it's you're struggling having healthy plants, they could literally help you double your production in one year. So I just would love for a lot more people to be taken test and getting someone who is smarter and has more experience than them on the subject of amending and feeding your soil.
[00:16:22] Cause it's everything. I just don't see enough farmers paying attention to the soil. And so when I get a lot of pictures from farmers who are struggling, it's like, man, when was the last time you took a soil test? Oh, I don't do that. It's too much money.
[00:16:40] Diego Footer: I don't want�I don't wanna hit on disease now. But if we think soil fertility as it relates to lettuce health, do you notice a big difference on a well-balanced soil, and I'll just say average soil in terms of the look of the lettuce, the size of the head, are you going to notice the lettuce looking better in better soil?
[00:17:02] Ray Tyler: Yes, 100%. I would almost bet the farm that if I were to go to a farmer who was struggling and had diseased, yellow lettuce, and we were gonna have a little competition here, okay? He was gonna do it his way. And I come in, and I do it my way, side by side. Bed A is yours. You do what you've been doing for the past two years, and I'm gonna do it my way. I guarantee you.
[00:17:31] I could 20x your production, no question whatsoever. And the first thing I would do is I would take a soil test from that bed, send it off, have it analyzed, and I would amend it exactly what the consultant told me that would cost me a hundred, 200 at max. And I guarantee you, I could blow you outta the water. Like it's not even close.
[00:17:55] So it's everything. Like you just, I just can't�I can't say enough on how important it is to take a test, analyze it, and then do what the soil consultant tells you to do. A lot of these soil test companies have folks like this on staff, and it would be better to do that. It's about half the price, may not be as�cause they're gonna be a little nerdy on what they�when it comes to like actually amending the soil, but it's gonna be a lot more effective doing that than it would be just�you're just playing Russian roulette. You're just gambling. Be better off going to the casino.
[00:18:39] Diego Footer: One thing you touched on briefly in that chapter is plant sap analysis. For people who aren't familiar, one thing that you can do, and it's a carefully curated process, is you take a living leaf off a plant that's growing in your field.
[00:18:54] And now we can send that off to a lab, have it looked at, and they can say, this is what a baseline is, this is what you have. Here's some things that are going on. So it's the inversion of a soil. At what point would you consider maybe doing that or thinking about doing that?
[00:19:14] Ray Tyler: Another way I look at a plant sap analysis, it's like a blood test for plants. If you, as a person wanted to be healthier, you wanted, you thought that you wanted get onto some minerals and vitamins, no doctor worth his or her salt would just throw some things out, like they would wanna see some data, right? So what I have found is if we take this plant sap analysis, it comes back, it will tell us most likely some deficiencies in the leaf.
[00:19:48] Now here's the problem with plant sap analysis on lettuce, is that there's never enough time to do anything about it. So like I do this for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, �cause you have time like, my peppers are in the soil for almost a year, so I can take a plant sap analysis, get it back in a few days, do something, do it again in a month later, and I can see if it made results.
[00:20:16] You don't have that time for lettuce, but what it will do, and I've done this before, is I had some disease on romaine. This was a few, two or three years ago, and I found, I was like, man, why is this affecting my romaine so much? Like I'm taking soil tests and what I found is that romaine was deficient and potassium, and so I was really having a hard time.
[00:20:43] And so I thought, okay, that means that's telling me that Romaine needs a little bit more potassium, possibly. So I'm now getting the point where it's some of the soil consultants are just �cause my climate is, I don't know any soil consultants who understand my climate like I do. But once you do this enough, I can go, okay, I'm gonna throw some more potassium, not in the soil, but I'm gonna foliar feed it.
[00:21:13] Cause I don't wanna mess up my soil balance. �Cause it's balanced, it's good, but I can foliar spray potassium, fix my disease problem in the summertime. Does that make sense?
[00:21:27] Diego Footer: Totally makes sense.
[00:21:28] Ray Tyler: So use that plant sap analysis as a tool to help me solve problems that I was having. So I've done this with spinach. This is a really good example. I had disease in spinach about three years ago. I sent the plant in, and for some reason I had rock bottom nitrogen. I'm like, my goodness. I thought I was like doing, doing what? What? We didn't have nitrogen down, and this was at a time when I was trying to grow spinach past May, so it was hot.
[00:22:00] And so what I found is that in the summertime, for whatever reason, the heat was tying up nitrogen. I don't know why. Didn't really make a lot of sense. When I foliar applied nitrogen to the plants, spinach, I got it past June. So sometimes, these plants sap analysis is like another tool. Okay, don't mess up with the soil too much because like your soil is balanced, but you're still having problems. So it's okay.
[00:22:34] Somehow my environment is tying up nutrients. And so if you apply those nutrients that are low, it can generally fix the problem. That's been my experience with using plant sap analysis and soil test. Oftentimes, those two will not match up.
[00:22:59] Diego Footer: I like the thought process. Start with soil fertility. That's relatively easy to deal with than the plant sap analysis, use the plant sap analysis later on when you're rolling to identify problems. So those are the big things here. Chapter three, this is soil fertility. For recommended in your commonly used products, people can check out the book, but those are the big things that you're doing to grow healthy lettuce.
[00:23:25] To learn more, check out Ray's book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce.
[00:23:32] Thanks for listening to today's episode. For any tools and supplies referenced in this episode, please visit the show description below. There, you'll find a link to Ray's book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce, as well as a signup link for Ray's Lettuce Masterclass. Those are just two additional ways to go even deeper into growing better lettuce on your farm.
[00:23:56] If you enjoyed this episode, can you please do me a favor? Take a minute and share it with a farmer friend. Ray and I took a lot of time to make this series, and our ultimate goal is to help as many farmers as possible. So if you enjoyed it, odds are, another one of your farmer friends will, too. So take a minute and share it.
[00:24:17] Thanks for listening to the episode today. I hope you enjoyed it, but more importantly, I hope you can use this information to make a major impact on your farm business and your life. Another episode next week. But until then, be nice, be thankful, and do the work.
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