Hoophouse tomato varieties

Tall tomatoes with beans and cucumbers in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse tomatoes are doing well this year. Apart from the determinate Glacier, they’ve reached the top of the stakes and as high as we can string-weave or pick. We transplanted them March 15, a month before our last frost date. We harvest each of our hoophouse beds every two days,alternating them to smooth supplies.We plan to harvest for ten weeks from May 25 till July 31, by which time our first outdoor planting is yielding well. In the South many of us grow only our early tomatoes in hoophouses, as outdoor crops produce abundantly once the weather warms. We harvest our outdoor tomatoes (sown 3/15) from July until frost, initially overlapping with our hoophouse earlies, then on their own.

Ken Dawson in Cedar Grove, NC, has a succession planting plan for outdoor tomatoes. He makes four field plantings at three week intervals. In cooler climates, because yields will be higher, it is more common to grow tomatoes in hoophouses whenever possible, and keep them growing for the whole season.

Glacier tomatoes in our hoophouse in late June.
Photo Pam Dawling

It is possible to grow successions of determinate tomatoes in a hoophouse, but any advantages are usually outweighed by the disadvantages of disease spread and the extra time plants spend before they reach production. In the past we grew a late hoophouse crop, to take us beyond the first frosts. We sowed June 18 and transplanted at a relatively young age (tomatoes grow quickly by that point of the year). We gave this up in favor of growing more leafy greens.

Each year I take notes on the varieties we have in the hoophouse, and often we run a taste test. I have also been gathering information from other growers, on which varieties do well for them. Before I get into talking about specific varieties, I want to say a bit about types of tomatoes.

Determinate Varieties

Varieties can be divided into two main growth types and then the exceptions. Determinates (bush tomatoes) are compact varieties that stop growing at a height of 2′-4′ (0.6-1.2 m). The number of stems, leaves and flowers is part of the genetic makeup of that variety. The number of leaves between one fruit cluster and the next decreases by one each time a cluster is produced, until the terminal cluster forms. No more leaves or flowers develop after that. The fruit ripens and the plant starts to die back. Harvest can be 1-3 months from start to finish. Because they are faster to mature than indeterminates, they are often chosen for early crops. Determinate varieties usually bear lightly the first third of the  harvest period, heavily the second, then lightly for the last third, so it is not very productive to plant crops so late that they don’t reach their second (main) month of production before frosts. Determinates need no pruning as the yield of fruit is inherently limited. Most need little staking, but some determinates are quite tall, and produce for quite a long season.

Tomato Mountain Magic in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Fast-maturing Tomato Varieties

Currently Glacier (56d det red) is the only determinate we grow. We simply choose varieties for our early bed based on days to maturity, past experience and inspiring catalog write-ups! They have to be 71 days or fewer from transplant to maturity. We like Stupice (61d ind red), Mountain Magic (66d ind red), Garden Peach (71d ind yellow) and the very fast and delicious cherry Sun Gold (57d ind orange) and Five

Sun Gold cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Star Grape (62d red). We found out the hard way that growing too many cherries is not wise – they take a long time to harvest and when you compare yields it’s clear they don’t add up to much. We grow two plants each of Sun Gold and Five Star Grape, 6 each of Garden Peach and Mountain Magic, 13 Stupice and 16 Glacier. Very biased towards the earliest.

 

Indeterminate Varieties

Jubilee tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

We choose our favorite workhorses along with some unusual heirlooms for our second bed. Most heirlooms are indeterminate. We grow lots of Jubilee (80d ind orange) and Tropic (80d ind red). The just two or three each of the fun and interesting Green Zebra (76d ind green stripes on gold), Striped German (78d ind red/yellow), Amy’s Sugar Gem (75d ind red), Rebelski (75d ind red) and two each of two more cherries, Amy’s Apricot (75d ind apricot) and Black Cherry (70d ind purple-brown)

Green zebra tomato in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

Indeterminate varieties can continue to grow and produce more fruit as long as the weather is warm enough, and as long as they don’t get struck down by frost or disease. The number of leaf nodes between one cluster and the next remains the same all the way up the vine. Indeterminate tomatoes need substantial support. Pruning is not essential – whether or not to prune depends on your climate, the varieties you are growing and how long you plan to keep the plants for.

Amys Apricot cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Semi-determinate varieties

Semi-determinate tomato varieties are larger than determinate but smaller than indeterminate plants. Some seed suppliers just call them large determinates. These plants usually require staking.

Making Choices

If you are growing in a cold climate you will probably want to grow indeterminates in your hoophouse and keep them all season, as it takes a long time to grow a tomato plant. If you are growing in hot climates, you will probably only grow your earlies in your hoophouse and then grow a succession of outdoor tomato crops. If you grow where there are lots of tomato diseases, you will do better with succession planting than having all your eggs in one tomato basket. If your season is long enough for multiple plantings, you might choose to start with fast determinates to catch the early market.

Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program

 

I’m back from Jamaica, compiling my trip report. I went as a volunteer with a farmer-to-farmer training project for 9 days (plus two travel days). I was a volunteer with the FLORIDA ASSOCIATION FOR VOLUNTEER ACTION IN THE CARIBBEAN AND THE AMERICAS (FAVACA), funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) From the American People established by John F Kennedy in 1961. USAID is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. One of the FAVACA programs is the Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program.

For those who don’t know Jamaica at all, let’s start with a map of the island, which is south of Cuba.

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I was hosted by the Source Farm Ecovillage, Johns Town, St Thomas Parish, Jamaica. Here’s a more detailed map with St Thomas parish colored in pink. The Source Farm is east of Morant Bay, very near the coast.

The Source Farm Foundation and Learning Village is a multi-cultural, inter-generational eco-village, located in Johns Town, in the parish of St. Thomas, Jamaica.

“Our ecological mission and vision is to respect natural life, its systems and processes – preserving wildlife and botanical habitat, and creating a life-style that regenerates, rather than diminishes the integrity of the source farm environment.”

Here is a 2014 site map, showing roughly what buildings are there, and where the gardens are located. Actually the gardens have expanded quite a bit since this map was drawn.

I stayed in Earthbag 1, a house built of stacked bags of bauxitic soil with cement, rendered over with cement, giving an adobe effect. The structure stayed fairly cool. The windows had no glass, but insect screens and wood louvered shutters. I’ve never actually had a house to myself before, even a small one like this!

The newer houses in the eco-village are monolithic concrete domes, which hold up very well against hurricanes, earthquakes and termites. Jamaica is rich in marl (lime) and other minerals, and there is a cement works near Kingston. Because many other homes on the island are built from concrete block covered with cement rendering, there are many workers skilled in rendering, who can quickly adapt to dome houses.

I got to taste many kinds of mango, passion fruit, star fruit, star apple, ackee, bammy (cassava flatbread), yam, breadfruit, callalloo (amaranth leaves) and meringa seeds, as well as foods I was already familiar with. I had an especially lovely supper with Nicola and Julia, of snapper with bammy and festival (described by April Jackson on The Yummy Truth as a Jamaican savory beignet made with cornmeal), and Red Stripe beer at Fish Cove Restaurant by the ocean.

Festival, bammy and fish in Jamaica.
Photo https://theyummytruth.wordpress.com/tag/jamaican-fried-fish/

What is on the Farm?

Photo courtesy of
The Source Farm

My teaching work was organized by the people at Source Farm and included the whole group of farmers in JSFEP. The schedule included several farm visits, but unfortunately it rained very hard for four or five days (this was meant to be the dry season!) and many areas were flooded. One farmer told me that the biggest challenges to farming in Jamaica are climate change and theft. Both are serious. The heavy rains I experienced showed how much damage unusual weather can cause. At one farm, where a co-operative onion-growing project was underway, one farmer got trapped by rising waters and had to be helped by two other farmers to swim and wade through the wild waters. After that, the farmers in the group had to take turns to guard the place so that the drip irrigation equipment didn’t get stolen. Another farmer told me about losing an entire crop of sweet potatoes one night – someone dug up the whole lot. The thefts, of course, are related to poverty and desperation in some cases, and a culture where each person has to take what they need as there is little in the way of government support. And a history of colonialism with sugar cane and banana cash crops, followed by a crashing economy.

The roads are in poor shape and in rural areas people rely on calling taxis to get from one place to another. Everyone needs a phone to live this way, and I saw some very battered up phones and chargers carefully repaired and kept running. Arranging a meeting time requires a flexible attitude about timeliness.

The farmers were looking at increasing production, planning planting quantities, scheduling succession plantings, and considering new crops. I met one-on-one with a few farmers, and I did some research into the possibilities of growing asparagus and garlic in the tropics, for a couple of them. I had to get my head round the idea of planting a sequence of three crops each needing four months. No winter cover crop cycle. Cover crops are very different from ours. Some overlap – sorghum-sudangrass, sunn-hemp. But no place for winter cereals! The principle of feeding the soil stays the same, using legumes to add nitrogen, bulky cover crops to smother weeds and add biomass.

I was teaching vegetable crop planning, crop rotations, and scheduling co-operative harvests to help the farmers double their presence at the Ujima Natural Farmers Market  to every Saturday rather than very other Saturday, starting in June. The demand for sustainably grown fresh local produce exists, and farmers are interested in learning to boost production.

On the second Saturday I was there, I gave a workshop on crop planning, to 22 farmers, and we got some lively discussion going, as they offered each other tips, and diagnosed some diseased carrots (looked like nematodes to me).

I treasure the time I spent in Jamaica, even though it wasn’t all sunshine and mangoes. I met many wonderful farmers and enjoyed my stay in the Source ecovillage, which reminded me somewhat of Twin Oaks Community, where I live in Virginia.

 

 

 

 

Book Review, The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook, by Andrew Mefferd

The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook,  Organic Vegetable Production Using Protected Culture. by Andrew Mefferd. Chelsea Green.March 2017, $34.95. ISBN 978-1-60358-637-5

I was lucky enough to be asked to write an endorsement for this book, and was sent an uncorrected proof to read. Now I have the full color, published version, and I’m poring through it once again. Andrew Mefferd is the editor and publisher of Growing for Market magazine that I sometimes write for. Prior to that job, he worked at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, in the research department for seven years. Born in Virginia, he apprenticed on farms in six states on the west and east coasts, then farmed in Pennsylvania. He now farms in Maine, and has a good appreciation for the difference a different climate can make.

This is not an “Everything you always wanted to know to get started with a hoophouse” book, nor a compendium of greenhouse crops, pests and diseases. On the contrary, this book focusses down on the precise details of successful practices to grow what Andrew has determined to be the eight most profitable crops using protected culture: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, greens, microgreens and herbs.

This is a book to come back to each time we want to know more about one of his topics. If I were about to launch into microgreens, I would follow Andrew’s methods. I tend to read quite widely on vegetable growing topics and I’ve read some very fussy time-consuming microgreens-growing instructions for home gardeners. I haven’t seen another book be so down-to-earth with an efficient and professional growing method that uses only simple tools and supplies. Those wanting to grow microgreens in quantity, and make a living from it will find plenty of information to get started or to fine-tune their operation.

The part of the book I’m most excited about right now is the information on what plants need at different stages of growth, in terms of balance between temperature, humidity as it affects transpiration, daylength, light intensity, carbon dioxide, oxygen, water and nutrients; and how to use this information for “crop steering” – adjusting conditions to select for leaf growth or fruit development. Here are the details to get it right. I once got a light meter to compare the light transmission through clouded old glass and new glass (I wanted to know if it was worthwhile to replace the glass in our greenhouse). But then I didn’t know how to use the information. Now I know that 1% less light will lead to about a 1% lower yield. Specific information like this can be hard to dig up bit by bit on the web. Here the gold nuggets have been screened for us, and the mud left behind.

The book starts off with a sixty page section on the basics of protected culture: the why, what and how of the various options of structures and utilities you might be choosing among, with a chapter on economics and efficiencies. The main part of the book then dives into the specific practices that help the eight crops do best. Chapters on propagation, pruning and trellising; temperature control and crop steering; and grafting are applicable to many of the recommended crops. Next follow chapters on each of the crop groups, and appendices on hydroponics, pests and disease and tools and supplies.

Andrew is obviously a very attentive farmer, and one who keeps good records. And here we can all benefit, whether experienced growers looking to improve our game, or beginners wanting to grasp success from day one. Serious backyard gardeners could use this book too, not only commercial growers. Facts are facts, results are results. Not everyone will want to follow all of the recommendations immediately or perhaps ever. In our hoophouse in Virginia, we grow two beds of early tomatoes in our hoophouse with just enough trellising to keep them upright, and minimal pruning. As soon as our outdoor tomatoes are producing well, we pull out the hooophouse rows. Our climate doesn’t warrant keeping them in the hoophouse, and in fact, it may get too hot in there for them. Our climate is full of fungal diseases, so crop rotation is very important to us, and the sooner we don’t need tomatoes in the hoophouse, the sooner we can remove them and their fungal spores!

But I do remember growing tomatoes in a glass greenhouse in northern England, and how we cherished those plants! I had started to experiment with side-grafting 25 years ago, in hopes of having sturdier tomatoes. We pruned and twined, and every ripe tomato was precious to us. It was late September when I moved to Virginia, and I helped the garden crew harvest Roma paste tomatoes, which were grown sprawled on the ground. That in itself was a shock – gosh these people don’t hold their tomatoes in very high regard, they let them rot on the ground! The crew member working next to me shocked me further: “Stomp on the green ones” she muttered under her breath. Apparently so great had been the harvest of these paste tomatoes that the crew was exhausted from harvesting and wanted to be done!

So, select the sections of Andrew’s book that speak to your needs and your climate. There’s something for everyone. You don’t need to abide by it all to want the book. It will easily pay for itself if you find only one new practice to adopt this season. But read the whole book anyway, and you can develop a fuller understanding of the big picture, a new management strategy and a set of skills to deal with the challenges that arrive unbidden. Andrew has tested all these practices as a small-scale grower himself, and he does this because he’s a passionate supporter of local food, sustainably grown, and sees protected cropping as a way to increase local food production by increasing on-the-ground crop insurance in the face of the unpredictable.

Young tomato plant in our hoophouse in April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Growing for Market, Sweet potato propagation and yields

The April issue of Growing for Market is out! For those of you growing sweet potatoes, Andrew Schwerin from NW Arkansas has written an interesting article. I’ve written about starting sweet potato slips before and I have a slideshow that includes three methods of  starting your own slips.  He and his wife Madeleine grow 1500 feet of sweet potatoes each year, a third of their growing area.

I was interested to note their reasons for growing so many sweet potatoes (apart from the obvious fact that they can sell that many). Sweet potatoes are not a big moneymaker in terms of the space occupied. Here at Twin Oaks we pondered similar issues this winter when deciding which crops to grow.  We worked down a list of 25 factors, deciding which were important to use. We chose our top handful of factors and then worked down a list of crops we might grow, awarding points (or not!) for each factor for each crop. This helped us narrow down what to focus on this year. And yes, we are growing sweet potatoes! I wrote about this in Growing for Market in February 2017.

These growers listed the following factors as their reasons to grow sweet potatoes:

  • Sweet potatoes produce well in our soil

  • They aren’t troubled by intense summer heat

  • Extensive vines will smother most weeds

  • Few pest or disease issues

  • Most of the labor is in early October, between intensive harvests of summer and fall crops

  • They store long-term for steady sales through the winter

Sweet Potato harvest at Twin Oaks. Photo McCune Porter

They like Beauregard, and wanted to try using the single node cutting method, as advocated by Anthony and Caroline Boutard – see my Sweet Potato slideshow for details. Initially they were excited about the single node cutting process, as their roots produced exponentially more growing shoots each week. OK, maybe exponential is a bit of an exaggeration, but it gives the sense of it. Because they had so much propagation material, they started making 5-node slips, rooting clusters of cuttings in pots of compost, 3 nodes in the soil for roots, 2 nodes above ground.

Some of their single node cuttings failed to thrive, both in the trays and in the field, so they developed a 2-node cutting system instead, and also used their five-node slips. And so they had a trial of three sweet potato cutting methods, with plants in different 100 ft beds. In the past (using the regular slips method) they have averaged yields of 500-600 lbs of sweet potatoes per 100 ft bed, with a range from a poor 250 lbs to a few successes with 1000 lbs/bed. Of course, yield is not the only important feature of a market crop, although understandably it has a high profile for those growing 1500 row feet for sale.

At harvest, they found that their single-node sweet potato plants were producing a couple of hundred pounds per 100 ft bed. The 2-node beds produced about 500 pounds per bed, of relatively few, very large (6 – 20 lb) sweet potatoes. The plants with 3+ nodes in the soil gave more reasonable sized potatoes. They tend to get jumbos, so they have started planting closer (10″) to tackle this – not many customers want jumbos.

In his article in Growing for Market,  Anthony Boutard pointed out that single-node cuttings do produce fewer tubers which are larger and better formed. This is a big advantage for growers in the north, but less so in the south. The Arkansas growers have found that the 2-node cuttings are even better at this tendency in their location, which is much further south than Anthony Boutard’s farm.

Beauregard sweet potatoes saved for seed stock.
Photo Nina Gentle

Other articles in this month’s Growing for Market include Managing a cash crisis
How to climb out of the hole by Julia Shanks, the author of The Farmer’s
Office. Farmers deal with a very seasonal cash flow, and may well have gone into farming with good farming skills but not good business skills. Julia writes about four rules for getting out of a financial hole.

  1. Quit digging (don’t incur any more inessential expenses).
  2. Keep the dogs at bay (communicate with your creditors about how you plan to pay, and how you plan to keep producing the goods).
  3. Climb out (increase revenue in as many ways as possible).
  4. Get your head out of the sand (don’t panic, face realities, be proactive).

She goes on to list 10 ways to protect yourself from getting in such a hole again.

Sam Hitchcock Tilton has an article about cultivating with walk-behind tractors, ie, weeding and hoeing with special attachments. There are some amazing walk-behind
weeding machines (manufactured and homemade) throughout the world. There
is an entire style of vegetable farming and scale of tools that have been forgotten, in between tractor work and hand growing – the scale of the walk-behind tractor. The author explains how commercially available tools can be adapted to work with a BCS or a carefully used antique walk-behind tractor.

Mike Appel and Emily Oakley contributed Every farm is unique, define success your own way. Money is not the only measure. Quality of life, family time, and personal well-being are up there too, as are wider community achievements. Farming is equal parts job and lifestyle, and the authors recommend having a strategic plan for yourself and the farm, which you update every couple of years to pinpoint goals and the steps you need to take to reach them.

Cossack Pineapple Ground Cherry
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Liz Martin writes about husk cherries (ground cherries) and how to improve production of them, to make a commercial crop viable. Who would have guessed that hillling the beds before planting can make harvest so much easier, because the fruits roll down the sides?

Judson Reid and Cordelia Machanoff wrotea short piece: Fertility tips and foliar testing to maximize high tunnel crops, and Gretel Adams wrote about  Scaling up the flower farm. Many of the ideas also apply to vegetable farms.

Hoophouse seasonal transition to tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers

This past weekend I was at the Organic Growers School spring conference in Asheville, NC. I presented my workshop on Spring and Summer Hoophouses twice. This link will take you to a blog post where you can get the handout. An older version of the slideshow is at this SlideShare link. Later this week I will tweak the presentation a little and upload the revised version. It wasn’t very spring-like in Asheville. We got 3″ snow, but gardeners and farmers are a hardy lot, and attendance was still good. My workshops were packed (the room was quite small).


Young tomato plant in our hoophouse.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Now I’m home and we had snow in the forecast for Monday night, but got ice pellets instead. The worst of the weather passed us by. It’s still very cold though, and so we are delaying transplanting our early tomatoes in our hoophouse, which we had scheduled for 3/15 and 3/16. The photo above shows where we’re headed: sturdy transplants in the middle of the bed, with wire hoops to hold rowcover on cold nights. Here’s where we are now:

March hoophouse bed prepared for tomato planting.
Photo Wren Vile

When we make the transition from hoophouse winter crops to early spring crops, we don’t clear the whole bed. First we harvest out the greens down the middle of the bed, then measure and dig holes every two feet and put a shovelful of compost in each hole. Within a couple of weeks after transplanting the tomatoes, we harvest the greens on the south side of the bed, as they will block light from the new crop. After that we harvest the greens on the north side. This allows us to keep the greens later, which covers the time (the Hungry Gap) until the new spring plantings of outdoor greens start to produce.

Tomato transplants in March, ready to plant in our hoophouse in milder weather.
Photo Wren Vile

Meanwhile the tomato transplants are in pots in our greenhouse, where we can keep them warmer at night with rowcover. Our greenhouse stays warmer at night than our double-poly hoophouse. It has a solid north wall and double-pane glass windows (old patio doors).

We use the same method for our peppers, cucumbers and yellow squash, transplanted 4/1. In the photo below you can see the winter crop of Bulls Blood beets, which we grow for leaves for salad mixes, discarded beet stems, young squash plants and one of the wire hoops that hold rowcover on freezing nights.

Young summer squash plants in the hoophouse, surrounded by Bulls Blood beets.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

In the hoophouse we have three crop seasons:

  1. winter crops planted in the fall, harvested November to April (some spinach to May)
  2. early warm weather crops planted in March and April, harvested June and July (peppers to November)
  3. high summer crops planted in July and harvested August to October.

 

Lettuce in February, Growing for Market, open seed flats

Baby lettuce mix in our winter hoophouse.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We still have plenty of lettuce to eat, although our first sowing of baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse has come to its bitter end, and the second sowing isn’t quite ready (I think we sowed it a bit later than intended). We are still harvesting leaves from the large lettuce we transplanted in October.  Soon we’ll have the second and third baby lettuce mix sowings to bring a welcome change. We are about ready to transplant our first outdoor lettuce, to feed us mid-late April.

Here is a month-by-month planting and harvesting narrative for our hoophouse lettuce in Zone 7, from September to April:

September: Sow cold-hardy varieties in the second and third weeks (outdoors or in your greenhouse) to transplant into the hoophouse at 4 weeks old .

October: 4 weeks after sowing, transplant those lettuces at 8” spacing to harvest leaves from mid-November to early March, rather than heads. In late October, sow the first baby lettuce mix, for up to 8 cuts from early December to late February, and sow a small patch of “filler lettuces” to replace casualties in the main plantings up until the end of December.

November: 11/9 sow more filler lettuce, to be planted out in the hoophouse during January. Transplant the first “filler lettuce” to replace casualties. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce.

December: Use the “filler lettuce #1” to replace casualties or fill other hoophouse space, for lettuce leaves in January and February, or heads in February. At the end of December, make a second sowing of baby lettuce mix, to harvest from late February to the end of March. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the first baby lettuce mix.

January: Use the “filler lettuce #2” to fill gaps in the lettuce beds up until January 25. After that is too late here for hoophouse lettuce planting, and we use spinach to fill all the gaps, regardless of the surrounding crop. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the first baby lettuce mix whenever it reaches the right size.

February: 2/1 sow the third baby lettuce mix, to provide up to three cuts, from mid-March to late April. In mid-February, consider a fourth sowing of baby lettuce mix, if outdoor conditions look likely to delay outdoor harvests. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the second baby lettuce mix when it sizes up. Harvest the first baby lettuce mix, clearing it at the end of February before it gets bitter.

March: Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the second baby lettuce mix whenever it reaches size. Cut the third baby lettuce mix when it sizes up.

April: In the first half of the month, harvest the last of the transplanted lettuce as heads . Continue to cut the third baby lettuce mix until it gets bitter. Cut the fourth baby lettuce mix when it sizes up. Outdoor lettuce heads are usually ready for harvest mid-April. Plan to have enough hoophouse harvests until the outdoor harvests can take over.

Lettuce transplants in soil blocks, on our custom-made cart. We don’t use soil blocks for lettuce any more (too time-consuming!) but I love this photo. Photo Pam Dawling


The February issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article How to decide which crops to grow which I previewed some of here last August. I also included some of the material in my slideshow Diversify Your Vegetable Crops. Click the link to see the slideshow. This past winter we used this kind of process to reduce the amount of garden work for 2017. I’m retiring from garden management and the new managers  want to stay sane and not be exhausted all the time. We have fewer workers this year (the past few years actually), so we needed to slim down the garden and not go crazy trying to do everything we’ve done in the past. I’ll still be working in the hoophouse, the greenhouse, and doing some outdoor work, as well as being available to answer questions and provide some training when asked.

Back to Growing for Market. There’s a great article for new small-scale growers, from Katherine Cresswell in northern Idaho, Year One Decision Making, about starting a farm with only one implement. Careful planning lead Katherine and her partner Spencer to focus on fall, winter and spring vegetables, as no-one else around them provided these, and they had experience of winter growing from working on other farms. Clearly a high tunnel (hoophouse) needed to be in the plan. It was essential that they hit the ground running and have saleable produce within six months. The expense budget was very tight. They bought a BCS 739 walk-behind tractor (which they both had experience of) and a rotary plow. A very down-to-earth article to encourage any new grower with limited means.

There are reviews of three new books by GfM writers: Compact Farms by Josh Volk, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden and The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Growers Handbook by Andrew Mefferd, the editor of GfM. Brett Grohsgal has written a valuable article about his 15 years experience with on-farm breeding of winter-hardy vegetables, both in the field and under protection of hoophouses. Informative and inspiring. Erin Benzakein has written about rudbeckias, the unsung heroes of summer bouquets, and Gretel Adams has written on new flower varieties to try in 2017.


I have a new post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, Using Open Flats (Seed Trays) to Grow Sturdy Seedlings Easily – How to make reusable wood flats (seed trays) for seedlings, and use them to grow sturdy vegetable starts to transplant into your garden. This is a way to avoid contributing to the problem of agricultural plastic trash and be self-reliant in gardening equipment. You can also grow stronger plants by giving them a larger compost volume than plug flats or cell packs provide.

Open flat of broccoli seedlings.
Photo Wren Vile

I heard that my MEN blogpost Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating was very popular in January, coming sixth in their table of most-viewed posts on all topics. This has been out there in the blog-iverse for almost 18 months, so clearly there is a lot of concern about eating healthy food and not wasting what we’ve grown.

Sorting potatoes two weeks after harvest to remove problem potatoes before rot spreads.
Photo Wren Vile


The false spring has been barreling along. Last week I reported that we’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17). Since then, we’ve seen daffodils and dandelions flowering, heard spring peppers and already the maple is flowering (2/25). These are all markers on our phenology list. The maple flowers on average 3/12, with a range (before this year) of 2/28 in 2012 to 4/2 in 2014. A 9-year record broken!

This post was hacked–we’re trying to restore it.

This post was hacked–we’re trying to restore it.

Bare Root Transplants

Lettuce seed bed, with Muir, Jericho, Sierra lettuces. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Lettuce seed bed, with Muir, Jericho, Sierra lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Last week when writing about Lettuce Varieties for January I mentioned how we grow all our outdoor lettuce as bare root transplants. From January through to the end of April, we sow lettuce seed in open flats. After that date, we sow in outdoor nursery seed beds, and simply dig up the transplants when big enough and replant them in our raised beds. We transplant 120 lettuce outdoors each week until early October and then transplant in our greenhouse and our hoophouse. We also grow many other crops (all the easy to transplant ones) in open flats, or in nursery seed beds.

This method has gone “out of fashion”, but perhaps it will come back in! Atina Diffley (Author of Turn Here Sweet Corn and Wholesale Success) has written a blog post about bare-root brassica transplants at atinadiffley.com/blog/. She has written a thorough-and-concise 9 page manual Seed Beds: Bare Root Field-grown Brassica Transplant Production.  It includes a chart of pros and cons of bare-root transplants compared to container-grown greenhouse transplants.

Using bare-root transplants does require a bit more attention to technique than popping plugs into the ground. But it’s not that difficult and we train new people every year with success.

Why bare-root transplants?

Bare-root transplants save a lot of time and money, compared to growing in flats. They also save on valuable greenhouse space. The plants get very sturdy, because they have the full depth of soil in which to develop big roots. Starts grown in outdoor seedbeds are already acclimated to cooler conditions than plants in your greenhouse. They are less prone to drying out than seedlings in flats, but do be ready to protect them from bugs.

Which crops work best?

Bare-root transplants can suffer more transplant shock than plugs, so start with “easy to transplant” crops, such as brassicas (cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi), lettuce, onions and leeks. Tomatoes and peppers are worth trying next. See the Chart “Relative Ease of Transplanting Bare-Root Vegetable Seedlings” free online in Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers. Avoid trying bare-root cucurbits (squash, melons, cucumbers).

Bare-root transplants can be used on any scale, from backyard to large farm. See the impressive photos of huge beds of cabbage transplants in Atina Diffley’s manual. They can be used at various times of year, and from indoors to outdoors and vice-versa.

Spring bare-root transplants started in a hoophouse, planted outdoors.

For the earliest spring transplants, bare-root hoophouse starts are a nice option. For us, onion seedlings overwintered in the hoophouse have worked very well. Seedlings outdoors or in a cold-frame suffer too much winter-kill. We don’t want to fuss with flats in November-February. We’re in zone 7, at 38̊ N. We sow onions in the soil in the hoophouse November 10 and 20, with a backup sowing on December 5. We plant them outdoors as early in March as we can. The onions get to thin-pencil-size by March 1, which we couldn’t do from a spring sowing. Onion roots are tough and thick, not thread-like – they are easy as bare-root transplants.

We sow spinach, collards and kale in the hoophouse in mid-late January and plant them outdoors in early March. This is a lot less work than using flats, and our comparison trials with bare-root spinach showed results were just as good as spinach in Speedling plug flats. We have tried early lettuce transplanted from the hoophouse, but the plants were not as sturdy as those in flats.

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green, Credit Kathryn Simmons

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green,
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Outdoor bare-root transplants

See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for more details of growing outdoor bare root transplants. We grow lettuce this way from April to September, and fall brassicas in June and July, in one of our permanent raised beds where the soil is friable and free-draining. Also see Atina Diffley’s manual for cultivation tips.

We grow outdoor cabbage, broccoli, collard, senposai and Yukina Savoy transplants in seedbeds for 3-4 weeks in June and July, covered with ProtekNet on hoops. We transplant in July and early August for harvest in October and November. We prefer this to direct sowing, because it is much easier to keep the relatively small seedbed watered and bug-free. For large amounts use an EarthWay seeder. Atina Diffley recommends the leek seed plate for brassicas.

Outdoors to indoors

In September we make an outdoor seedbed for crops to transplant into our hoophouse in October. The late summer hoophouse crops get a few extra weeks to finish up. Because the hoophouse can be warmer than ideal for lettuce germination until well into fall, it often works better to start plants in a cooler location, then move the plants. In September in our climate, four-week old lettuce plants will be a good size.

As well as ten varieties of lettuce, we sow various Asian greens and Brite Lites chard. Nine days later we sow another ten varieties of lettuce, white and red Russian kales, senposai and frilly mustards such as Ruby Streaks, Red Rain, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills as well as green mizuna. We cover the seedbeds with hoops and ProtekNet and water daily. Transplanting these plants starts October 1 with the fast-growing pak choy, Chinese cabbage and Tokyo Bekana. The other transplants follow, as they reach the right size.

Brassica seedbed protected from insects with ProtekNet and hoops. Photo Bridget Alsehsire

Brassica seedbed protected from insects with ProtekNet and hoops.
Photo Bridget Alsehsire

Stay indoors in winter

In October in the hoophouse we sow short rows of “brassica fillers”, mostly senposai, Tokyo Bekana and Maruba Santoh. These grow fastest, which becomes more important in the dark winter days. We fill gaps in any brassica bed, that occur either because of disease, or of harvesting. In late October and early November we sow filler leaf lettuce varieties and filler spinach. These extra plants help us out if something goes wrong, and give us the chance to grow some extra crops after the first ones have been harvested.

How much to sow

Our formula for sowing seedbeds in the hoophouse is to divide the final row length of brassica plants by 10 to give the minimum length of seed row to sow. These plants will be transplanted 10″-12″ (25-30 cm) apart. For onions (to be transplanted 4″ (10 cm) apart), we divide the number of plants wanted by 20 to give the row feet (67/m), but we sow this amount twice, about 10 days apart. Outdoors for the fall brassicas, we sow around a foot (30 cm) of seed row for every 12′-15′ (3.6-4.6 m) of crop row, aiming for 3-4 seeds per inch (0.75 cm apart). These plants will be transplanted 18″ (46 cm) apart. It’s important to weed and thin the seedlings to 1″ (2.5 cm) apart soon after they emerge.

Transplant age and size

There is quite a lot of flexibility about when a start can be transplanted, but there are accepted ideals to be aimed for. The University of Florida Vegetable Horticulture Program Vegetable Transplant Production page  has a wealth of transplant information. Transplants grown over winter or in very early spring in a hoophouse will take longer to reach plantable size than those sown in spring or summer.

Suitable conditions for transplanting

The ideal conditions for outdoor transplanting are mild windless afternoons and evenings just before light steady rain. Transplanting late in the day gives the plant the chance to recover during the cooler night hours when transpiration is slower. Shadecloth or rowcover can reduce the drying effects of wind and sun. Damp soil is important before, during and after transplanting.

Bare-root transplanting technique

When you dig up your bare-root transplants, leave some soil clinging to the roots, to help the plants re-establish quicker. They don’t need a full handful of soil for each plant. Just dig up a clump and give it a light shake, to leave the majority of the soil behind, and some still on the roots. This means less damage to the root hairs. Be sure to dig deep enough so you don’t damage the tap roots. Water your plants the day before and an hour before lifting (pulling) them. In hot weather, keep the plants as shaded as possible while transplanting.If necessary water the soil ahead of planting.

We use plastic dish-pans to carry our plants from seedbed to field, and I tell people to only dig up what they think they can transplant in half an hour, so that plants don’t sit around for too long. Push the trowel into the soil, using the dominant hand, push it forwards, shake a plant loose from the clumps in the dish-pan with the other hand, and slip a plant in behind the trowel. Pull out the trowel, keeping it in your hand while you close the soil against the stem with your planting hand and the trowel. (Efficient workers keep a hand on the trowel at all times, never setting it down.) Move to the next spot and repeat. When setting out a large number of plants, water every 20-30 minutes if you don’t have drip irrigation running (a bit less often if you do) regardless of the number of plants set out. If the person is skilled and moving fast, and the weather is not outrageously hot or windy, I might let an hour go by before pausing to water. The advantage of getting a lot of plants in the ground proficiently and quickly might outweigh the need to water more often, as the plants are not having their roots exposed to the air for as long when they are planted fast. The hand-watering really helps the soil settle around the roots, and after that the damp soil can wick moisture from the irrigation towards the plant.

Aftercare: water, rowcover, shadecloth

Water your plants the day after transplanting, on days 3, 7 and 10, and then weekly, if it doesn’t rain when you’d like it to. Shadecloth draped over recently transplanted crops can help them recover sooner from the shock in hot sunny weather. We use 50% shade, in 6′ (1.8 m) width, with wire hoops to hold the shadecloth above the plants. This improves the airflow as well as reducing the abrasion or pressure damage done to the plants. The airflow through shadecloth is better than with floating rowcovers. ProtekNet allows good airflow too, and keeps bugs off.

Shade cloth on lettuce seed bed. Photo Nina Gentle

Shade cloth on lettuce seed bed.
Photo Nina Gentle

 

 

 

Lettuce varieties for January, new year, fresh start

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Maybe you aren’t ready to think about sowing lettuce, but I am! In mid-January we sow a flat of four lettuce varieties, to become our first outdoor transplants. I like to choose four varieties that cover the range of colors and shapes.

Buttercrunch bibb lettuce. Photo Kathleen Slattery

Buttercrunch bibb lettuce. Photo Kathleen Slattery

I also like to choose hardy types that are fast-maturing. Buttercrunch green bibb lettuce is one of my favorites for early spring. One of the Salad Bowl lettuces, red or green, is also usually in my first sowing. The Salad Bowls are so reliable and productive!

Young Salad Bowl lettuce. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Young Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

New Red Fire has become another reliable lettuce stand-by for us. It was suggested to me by neighboring Virginia farmer, Gary Scott of Twin Springs Farm. It is more of a leaf lettuce, and doesn’t really head up, although it can be cut as admittedly lightweight heads. And it works fine as a leaf lettuce, to be harvested by the cut-and-come-again method. We grow New Red Fire year round, it’s that adaptable and easy-going.

New Red Fire lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

New Red Fire lettuce.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

After last year’s success with Sword Leaf lettuce, which I wrote about last May, we have added this variety to our list of favorite lettuce varieties. But if I start those four, I won’t have a romaine and will have only one red. We haven’t found many good full-size red romaines. Rouge d’hiver is a possibility, although I wonder if it would bolt too easily (it’s more famous for growing in winter). A better choice might be Bronze Arrow (it worked well last year and we were harvesting it in early May).

We expect/intend/plan to start harvesting heads of lettuce outdoors starting 4/15. Before that we will harvesting the lettuce in the greenhouse and the hoophouse.

As you see from the top photo, we grow our outdoor lettuce as bare root transplants, starting in open flats. I’ll write about bare root transplants next week. We find it an easy, forgiving method for many crops.  For now, I’ll just talk about the lettuce. We sow in 3″ deep open wood seed flats, 12″ x 24″. We make four little furrows by pressing a 12″ plastic strip (aka a ruler!) into the seed compost. We sow the seed, label it, cover it lightly, water, then put the seeded flats in our germinator cabinet. The first flat of the year takes about 9 days to germinate. According to tables in Nancy Bubel’s Seed Starter Handbook and in Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook available free online as a pdf here, lettuce takes 7 days to germinate with a soil temperature of 50F (10C) or 15 days at 41F (5C), and only 4 days at 59F (15C).

Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, we spot them out into 4″ deep flats (also 12″ x 24″). We have a plywood dibble board with pegs evenly spaced about 2.5″ apart. You can see the offset pattern in this next photo:

Lettuce seedlings spotted out into deep flats. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Lettuce seedlings spotted out into deep flats.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We aim to harden off the lettuce for two weeks in the cold frame before transplanting into the garden beds with thick rowcover on hoops to protect the lettuce from the still-cold outdoors. To be ready for harvest 4/15, these seeds have to become full size lettuces in 88 chilly days.

We make a second sowing on 1/31. The intervals between sowings at the beginning of the year are long, because later sowings will to some extent catch up with earlier ones. Almost all crops grow faster in warmer weather (up to a point). We sow lettuce twice in February (every 14 days), then every 10 days in March, reducing the interval down to every 6 or 7 days by the summer.

As far as varieties go, we think of The Lettuce Year as having 5 seasons: Early Spring January – March, Spring April 1 – May 15, Summer May 15 – Aug 15, fall August 15 – September 7 and Winter September 8 till the end of September and our break from sowing lettuce.

Some of the early spring lettuce varieties will bolt prematurely here if sown after March 31. Examples include Bronze Arrow, Freckles, Merlot, Midnite Ruffles, Oscarde and Panisse.

Others that we like in early spring go on to be useful in spring too. All the ones mentioned as possibilities for sowing #1 are in this category, as are Green Forest, Parris Island, Kalura (three green romaines), Nancy and Sylvesta (two big green bibbs), Pirat (a red bibb), and Star Fighter (a green leaf lettuce)

Freckles lettuce has to be sown here before the end of March, or it bolts prematurely. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Freckles lettuce has to be sown here before the end of March, or it bolts prematurely.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Speaking Events, Good Reading, Sustainable Agriculture Courses

Photo by Karen Lanier

Photo by Karen Lanier

I’ve got my Events Page organized now, so you can check there whenever you’re wondering where I might show up next, addressing a conference or a classroom.

In January, I will be speaking at two conferences: VABF and SSAWG.

January 10-11 (Tuesday and Wednesday) 2017, Virginia Biological Farming Conference http://vabf.org/conference/  Location: Omni Homestead Resort, 7696 Sam Snead Highway, Hot Springs, VA. 800 838 1766. Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/2017-virginia-biological-farming-conference-tickets-28261472826.

Two 90 minute workshops: Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers and Spring and Summer Hoophouses. Book signing and sales.

Jan 25-28, 2017 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference http://www.ssawg.org/january-2017-conference/ Location: Hyatt Regency Hotel and Convention Center, 401 West High St, Lexington, KY 40507. 888 421 1442, 800 233 1234. Registration: http://www.ssawg.org/registration

Two 90 minute workshops: Diversify your Vegetable Crops (Friday 2-3.30pm) and Storage Vegetables for Off-Season Sales (Saturday 8.15-9.45 am). Workshops will be recorded. Book signing (Thursday 5pm) and sales.


planning-designing-the-family-food-garden-book-cover-2-e1454884966600-768x993I recently discovered an interesting website and blog: Family Food Garden by Isis Loran. I found it because Isis recommends my book Sustainable Market Farming in her article on designing for large-scale family food production. She lives in zone 5 in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada.

Isis Loran is collecting and sharing a lot of good information, and she has written a book Planning and Designing the Family Food Garden  (which I haven’t seen yet). The E-book is $12.99 online, and you can preview 12 pages before buying.

She also sells a 23 page garden planner via Etsy, the craft retail site, for $11.05 Canadian.

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broadcaster-picture-e1443112899347

For growers more at the farmer end of the scale than the family garden end, the November/December issue of the Organic Broadcaster from MOSES is out.

There’s an article Farmers use creative mix of new technology, adapted equipment to grow row crops. Carolyn Olsen writes about  a 36 burner flame-weeder they made from a sprayer!

In Expanding market offers opportunities for herb growers to create value-added products, Jane Hawley Stevens, of Four Elements Organic Herbals, writes about growing more than 150 varieties of herbs on their 130-acre certified organic farm near Madison, Wisconsin. In SILT offers permanent solution to affordable land access in Iowa, Denise O’Brien describes the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), a new model that reduces land costs for sustainable food farmers for generations to come. SILT permanently protects land from development, for truly sustainable production of food. Retiring farmers are donating land to this worthy cause.

There are more articles, some about livestock, one about the questionable organic certification on some imported grain crops, one about farm finances, and many more.


Lastly, I’d like to hear from you if you know of a college using my book for a text for sustainable agriculture courses. I know of a few in Virginia, but I’d like to hear more. At the Carolina farm Stewardship Conference at the beginning of November, I met a student at the Central Carolina Community College. The “green-collar” workforce in the “Green Central” program learns about Sustainable Ag and according to the student I spoke with, they chose my book because it is more regionally appropriate for the Carolinas.

I’d like to make more contacts with teachers of sustainable ag courses, and look into marketing my book as a text.

Hoophouse lettuce in winter at Twin Oaks. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Hoophouse lettuce in winter at Twin Oaks.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange