Asian Greens for June: Tokyo Bekana

Bird’s eye view of Tokyo bekana. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Lettuce is hard to grow in summer in our Virginia climate. Tokyo bekana (Brassica rapa chinensis) can be used as an alternative. It won’t get bitter in hot weather. Because it is fast-growing, you can sow it when you realize a lettuce shortage is looming – it grows faster than lettuce, and bigger than most lettuce varieties, so you can make up for lost time.

Tokyo bekana leaves
Photo The Funny Farm

Or, once you’ve tried it, you might decide to plan for Tokyo bekana in the summer rather than lettuce. The flavor is very mild, and most people don’t notice they aren’t eating lettuce. The texture of the white stems is very crunchy and juicy, and the frilly leaves are sweet and tender.The color of the leaves is chartreuse: a light bright lime green. Here is a delicious description of the flavor from Specialty Produce in San Diego, CA.

Tokyo Bekana cabbage is succulent with mild pepper nuances and a melting quality unique to all cabbage varieties.

I haven’t got the figures for nutritional content just now, but I think it’s got to be more nutritious than lettuce. Brassicas generally have more lots of antioxidants than lettuce, for example.

Tokyo Bekana was first cultivated in Japan and is a descendant of Chinese loose-heading celery cabbages (pe tsai). It is widely grown in rural Japan as well as in ex-pat Asian farming communities worldwide.

To grow Tokyo bekana for summer salads

We sow 4/30 – 6/15 and transplant at 2 weeks old. Germination at temperatures of 50-85°F is quick and reliable. Growth is fast. It can be harvested at any stage from microgreens to full-size “heads” – it never actually heads up, as a Napa Chinese cabbage does, but forms a loose head of big frilly leaves about 45 days after sowing.

Tokyo bekana Photo Johnny’s Seeds

Tokyo bekana transplants.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Sowing

Sow the seed thinly (3 seeds per inch) in a nursery seed bed. Or sow in pots or plug flats depending on the scale of production you need. Cover to keep bugs off, and transplant when there are 3 or 4 true leaves on each plant. We transplant 4 rows in a 48″ wide bed, but they could be a little closer.

Or you could direct sow  3 or 4 rows per bed. Make individual shallow furrows 1/4-1/2″ deep.

For baby salad greens, sow in 3″ wide bands, or broadcast. Harvest these by cutting when seedlings are 3-4″ tall.

One key to growing delicious Asian greens is to treat hem well: fertile soil, plenty of water, keep the bugs off. 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week, 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather.

A bed of Tokyo bekana
Photo The Funny Farm

You may be thinking “Oh it’s sure to bolt in hot weather!” But if the temperature remains above 50°F (10°C) it will not bolt if treated fairly. Of course, if you don’t water, or don’t harvest when it’s ready, it will bolt. I’ve been slow to learn what’s important. Years ago an Atlanta grower told me he grew arugula all summer in his hoophouse. It was hard for me to understand how that was possible. Last month I was in Jamaica and saw how they can grow kale in very hot weather. Any prolonged dip to 50°F (10°C) triggers bolting. It just happens that in my climate the bolt-triggering temperature happens in many months (but not in June, July, August!)

Harvest

Bunched Tokyo bekana Photo Johnny’s Seeds

Harvest Tokyo bekana at any stage: Young baby leaves for salad mix after 25 days, or the whole plant when fully mature at 10-12″ tall (45 days). You can harvest individual leaves and keep coming back for more. Juvenile plants can be cut and bunched for market. Once you have lots you can cut the whole plant. Full size plants weigh up to 1.25 lbs. each.

Tokyo bekana can also be sauteed like bok choy, if you find it grows extremely successfully! I have eaten sauteed lettuce, so I don’t want you lettuce lovers writing in to inform me that’s possible too. I didn’t think much of sauteed lettuce, but I do like sauteed Tokyo bekana. Cooked it pairs well with poultry,  pork, sausage,  fish, legumes, garlic, cream sauces, cheese, mushrooms, bulb fennel, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados, grapefruit, lemon,  peaches and cherries.

More about Tokyo bekana

It is an open pollinated heirloom variety so the seeds can be saved and replanted.

It can be grown in the fall and spring outdoors, and in the winter hoophouse in our climate. It has good frost tolerance, down to around 25°F (-4°C), perhaps even 15ºF (-9ºC) with thick rowcover.

Maruba Santoh is similar – more about that one next month.

 

 

 

Asian Greens Slide Show, Crops in our Hoophouse

I’ve started my year of monthly posts about Asian greens with one about senposai and at the Mother Earth News Fair in Vermont this past weekend, I presented my slide show on Asian Greens, which is here for those who missed it. Click the diagonal arrow symbol to get the full screen version.

Today, back on the farm, I spent the morning in the hoophouse. I harvested 4 buckets of cucumbers from one 90′ bed of Spacemaster bush cucumbers. We harvested 2 buckets two days ago, and today they have really taken off!

Flowering cucumbers in our hoophouse May 25. Photo by Alexis Yamashita

I also harvested 3 gallons of green beans – we planted Strike, a very upright variety. We find that bush beans tend to sprawl in the hoophouse, and the varieties that do well for us outside (Provider and Bush Blue Lake, from Fedco Seeds), grow straggly inside and the beans curve. It’s probably because the shadecloth on the hoophouse is too dark for beans.

Strike beans in our hoophouse. See the big shade cloth over the hoophouse.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

The Gentry yellow squash are doing very well. I’ll harvest those tomorrow (we’re alternating cucumber and squash harvest days currently)

Gentry yellow squash in our hooophouse.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

The other crops in our hoophouse now are peppers (we’ve had a handful of green bells). two beds of tomatoes that have been struggling with aphids and sooty mold, and some Iron and Clay cowpeas as cover crops. See this sad picture of the aphids and sooty mold:

Tomato plant with aphids and sooty mold.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

Aphids excrete a sweet liquid called honeydew. In warm moist conditions this sugary substance grows a black mold on every deposit. This is called sooty mold. We have been dealing with it by jet-washing some of the tomatoes every sunny day, and we are winning. The photo above was specially chosen to demonstrate the problem – it’s not a crop to be proud of at this point! We use a brass jet-spray nozzle on a hose and wash them in the middle of the day, so the leaves can dry quickly – we don’t want any more fungal tomato diseases moving in!

Upcoming events, Growing for Market article, Organic Broadcaster

Harvesting Zephyr yellow squash.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Starting with what’s being harvested now – squash and zucchini are coming in nicely. The hoophouse Gentry yellow squash (chosen for being fast-maturing) is coming in by the bucketload, and the outdoor yellow squash and zucchini have started producing.


I’m off to Burlington, Vermont this weekend, for the Mother Earth News Fair. I’m giving two workshops:

Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables,on Saturday 6/10 at 11 am on the Yanmar Sustainability Stage, immediately followed by book-signing at the Mother Earth News Bookstore noon- 12.30.

Producing Asian Greens on Sunday  6/11 at 3.30 pm on the Heirloom Gardener Stage.

I’m also doing demonstrations of tomato string-weaving at the New Society Publishers booth 2611, near the Mother Earth News Stage (not the Bookstore this time), at 10 – 10.30 am and 3-3.30 pm on Saturday and 10 -10.30 am, 11- 11.30 am and 2- 2.30 pm on Sunday. Check out my Events page to see the pink sparkly tinsel tomato plant models I use!


At the Heritage Harvest Festival near Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday September 8 (the Premium Workshops before the main Festival), I’m presenting on Growing Sweet Potatoes at 3.30-4.30 in classroom 7, followed by book-signing at the Monticello Bookshop.


The June/July summer issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, and includes my article on Hoophouse soil salt buildup. This is an issue we have been dealing with – we see white deposits on the soil. I did a lot of research and found ways to water the salts back down deep in the soil profile. I also gathered information on how to measure and monitor salinity, and how to understand the test results and their different testing methods and different units of measure. I learned about salt tolerance of different crops, the plant symptoms of excess salinity, and how to prevent the problem in future. This topic is rising in importance as more people use hoophouses with drip irrigation systems. We were blithely ignorant for our first several years of hoophopuse use, as salinity takes a few years to really develop, and there wasn’t much information available.

I’m also looking forward to reading the other articles, especially Summer lettuce lessons from Southern growers by Jesse Frost. There are some great photos of beds covered with hoops and shade-cloth, which show a good system. I always appreciate articles written for southern growers, which can be in short supply.

Daisy Fair in Utah’s zone 5 has written about moveable tunnels with in-ground hydronic heat. So there’s information for cold climates too. Sam Hitchcock Tilton has an article with tips learned from Dutch and Swiss farmers. Robert Hadad advises on careful monitoring of costs of production in order to actually make a living from farming. The flower growing article in this issue is from Debra Prinzing and is about American Flowers Week, a chance to highlight American-grown flowers with some light-hearted fun photos.


The May/June Organic Broadcaster just arrived in its paper format – I’ve had the digital one for a while. Good thing I’ve got that long car ride to Vermont this weekend to catch up on my farming reading!

The front page story this time is about Kansas farmers, Tim and Michael Raile, transitioning thousands of dryland (non-irrigated) acres to Organic steadily over the next 5 or 6 years. Dryland farming focuses on moisture retention. The Railes grow a wheat/corn/
sunflower/milo (grain sorghum)/fallow rotation. They are also trialing some ancient grains.

Organic production in the US is not meeting demand, and organic imports are increasing, including organic soy and feed corn, not just bananas and coffee. More farmers want to produce Organic poultry, eggs, milk and meat. And so they are looking for Organic feed at an affordable price. This is often imported, which raises issues about how Organic Standards vary from one country to another, and the bigger issue of sustainability – not always the same as Organic! Does it really make sense to ship in grains to feed livestock?

Harriet Behar writes about the true meaning of Organic and overall methods of production. It’s not just about following rules on allowed inputs and materials – it’s a whole approach to how we treat the soil, our plants and livestock.

Hannah Philips and Brad Heins share research on how cover crop choices can influence the fatty acids and meat of dairy steers. Jody Padgham writes about CSAs responding to competition and decreasing membership by offering more options on shares and delivery. Gone are the days of “One box, one day, one price” CSAs. Numerous modifications of the basic CSA model have sprung up to better fit the diverse needs of customers (members). Kristen McPhee writes about the Vermont Herb Growers  Cooperative, which buys from various small-scale growers and aggregates orders to larger buyers. Other topics covered include lessons learned from Hawaii’s GMO controversy, paying for end-of-life care without losing your farm, and many short items and classified ads. As always, a newspaper packed with information.


And by the way, we’re also picking blueberries – ah! heaven!

Blueberries.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

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.

<iframe src=”https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=1LW_uOA4CRAwig9LPDA5hIm0TP4M&hl=en_US” width=”640″ height=”480″></iframe>

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.

 

 

 

 

Asian Greens in May: Senposai outdoors

A bed of senposai outdoors in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the first of what will be a year of monthly posts about different Asian greens.

Most Asian greens are chancy outdoors in the spring here in central Virginia, because our springs are short, escalating from cold weather to hot in not much time, and most Asian greens bolt as soon as it heats up. Senposai is the only one that is worthwhile for us to plant outdoors in spring. It grows quickly into a big plant producing large, round, mid-green leaves. Senposai is cold tolerant down to 12°F (-11°C) once hardened off, and also warm-tolerant (I won’t say heat-tolerant).

Senposai, which translates as Thousand Wonder Vegetable, is a cross between komatsuna and regular cabbage.

Spotting senposai seedlings in the greenhouse in early spring.
Photo Wren Vile

We start the seedlings in the greenhouse, sowing senposai February 7, the same date as our main spring cabbages. We spot out the seedlings into 4″ deep flats, 40 in a 12 x 24″ flat, as shown in the photo above. When the transplants reach a good size, we harden them off in the cold frame for two weeks, ready to plant out March 18 (at five to six weeks old).

We transplant senposai in 3 rows per 4 ft bed, with plants 18″ apart in the rows. Yes, they will grow into big plants.You could transplant at anywhere between 12″–18″ (30–45 cm) spacing, using the closer spacing if you will harvest often and prefer smaller leaves. When transplanting we use rowcover, but only keep it on the senposai until early April, when we take it away to use it on the newly planted broccoli instead.

Senposai is very fast growing. In the fall, senposai takes only 40 days to mature, but this early spring sowing takes 57 days. We can start harvesting senposai April 5 (almost as soon as we remove the rowcovers!) and continue till late May, when it starts bolting a week or two before the spring kale and collards.

A young senposai transplant.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Because senposai grows fast, it is very productive. It is usually harvested leaf by leaf,simply snapping off the bigger leaves.  “8 for later” is our mantra to prevent over-harvesting of leafy greens – we encourage new people to count the leaves from the center out and take those in excess of 8 (or we might take fewer). After a while of counting, it becomes second nature to recognize what is a sustainable number of leaves to save for future harvests.

Senposai is tender, easy and quick to cook, much quicker than collards. It has a delicious sweet cabbagey flavor, and tender texture. It can be stir-fried, stir-braised, steamed and even eaten raw, by the fairly dedicated salad-lover.

Because it is fast-growing, senposai can be a good Plan B vegetable, to plant as a fast-growing substitute for cabbage or kale if something goes wrong with your original planting plans. We did this one spring when we got poor germination of cabbage.

Senposai also does well planted outdoors in the fall, and over the winter in our hoophouse, so it might reappear later in the year in this series of blogposts.

We buy seed from Fedco Seeds (who recommend it for okonamiyaki  savory pancakes). “Customers buy it once because it looks absolutely stunning, then they buy it again because it is extremely delicious. Absurdly productive and easy to grow,” raves John Eisenstein of Port Royal, PA, in the Fedco catalog.

Seed is also available from Kitazawa Seeds in California who say: “This is an excellent vegetable for soup, salad, pickling, stir-fry, ohitashi, sukiyaki, and yosenabe,” and Evergreen Seeds. 

 

Year Round Lettuce

I’ve now completed 12 monthly posts about suitable lettuce varieties and growing techniques. You can see these by clicking the Lettuce Varieties Category tab, but you can also get the overview here. They run from May to April because that’s how I wrote them. Click the name of the month to view the original post.

Sword Leaf Lettuce
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

May: Sword leaf lettuce

Star Fighter lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June: Starfighter: Lettuce Variety of the Month

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bed of young Green Forest lettuce.
Photo by Wren Vile

July: Green Forest – Lettuce variety for early July

Pablo Batavian lettuce
Photo Nina Gentle

August:Batavian lettuces for August

Freckles lettuce is a cheering sight in spring or fall.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

September: Lettuce in September,

Young lettuce plants in greenhouse beds in October. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

October: Lettuce growing in October

Starfighter and Red Salad Bowl lettuce in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

November: Lettuce in November

Rouge d’Hiver hardy romaine lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

December: Lettuce in December

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

January: Lettuce varieties for January, new year, fresh start

Reliable Red Salad Bowl lettuce, one of our standbys.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Extra: Lettuce Varieties for 2017

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

February: Lettuce in February

Bronze Arrow lettuce is a beautiful and tasty early spring variety.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

March: Lettuce for March and all year

April: Lettuce in April

Spring lettuce bed.
Photo Wren Vile

Our Vegetable Gardens in May, Year Round Lettuce, Sprouts and Salads

Spring cabbage planted in hay mulch, a few weeks after transplanting.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Our broccoli and cabbage transplants enjoyed the cool rainy weather and got through the dry hot weather. Yes, it’s been very changeable. Last night the temperature dropped to 33F (0.5C).  We’re harvesting rhubarb, kale, spinach, collards, senposai and garlic scallions outdoors, and are deep into our garlic scape harvest.

Pulling garlic scapes in May
Photo by Wren Vile

How to harvest garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

The above photo shows our preferred garlic scape harvest method: grasp the scape firmly below the head and pull steadily directly upwards. There will be a popping sound when the stem breaks. This method gets us the largest amount of the scape, and more importantly, the lower part is the most tender, and we don’t want to leave it behind.

Flowering squash plants with a row of snap peas in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

In our hoophouse we are harvesting the last of the winter scallions, some snap peas and today, May 9, the first yellow squash (Gentry). You can see in this photo taken last week, that the squash are flowering and have tiny fruits developing.

Our first bed of outdoor lettuce (and weeds!) Photo Wren Vile

My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blogpost about Growing Lettuce Year Round: Succession Planting for a Continuous Supply is up. This acts as a follow up to one of my workshops at the Asheville MEN Fair last weekend on Succession Planting for a Continuous Supply of Vegetables.

I had a good time at the Fair. My Saturday workshop on Sweet Potatoes was addressed to a full tent of extremely hardy sweet potato lovers. The weather was cold and windy, especially hard on speakers – at least the audience sat shoulder-to-shoulder for warmth. I was glad to get indoors for the book-signing afterwards. My Sunday workshop on Succession Planting was the last session of the Fair, but even so, there was good attendance.

My fellow Twin Oaker Winnie has written about using our seasonal vegetables in her blog

sustainexistence. Check out her Beet, Spinach, & Garlic Scape Salad

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

Lettuce in April

Spring lettuce bed.
Photo Wren Vile

We’re on the brink of starting to harvest our first outdoor lettuce, switching over from the last of the baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Our goal for this transition is April 15, but naturally the exact date will depend on the weather in the spring, the coldness of the late winter, the rate at which we are eating lettuce and other factors beyond the grower’s control.

Hoophouse baby lettuce mix. Photo Kathleen Slattery

We make three sowings of baby lettuce mix: 10/24 to harvest early December to early March (after we’ve cut it several times, and it is starting to tun bitter); 12/31 to harvest from late February till the end of March Later if it doesn’t get bitter from hot weather); and 2/1 to harvest mid March to the end of April. This year the #2 sowing is still edible in mid April, so we have two patches feeding us for a little longer.

Our winter salad mixes are very popular, but we can only continue with those as long as the spinach and the salad brassicas hold up. Part of me is always sad to stop eating salad mix, but the other part welcomes the juicier, crunchier, tastier head lettuce. Baby lettuce mix is very pretty, but honestly I find it a bit short on flavor and texture! It’s the other ingredients in the salad that make it interesting for me, especially spinach.

The first outdoor lettuce were sown 1/17, planted out 3/9, to feed us 4/15 to 5/8, when the second sowing should be ready. We cover these with rowcover on hoops when we transplant, for about a month, or until the weather seems settled at a reasonable temperature.

Our raised beds outdoors are 4 ft wide, with 1 ft paths. we plant four rows of lettuce, spaced 12″ apart, and plant about 120 from each sowing. That usually fills a third of a 90 ft long bed, so we have 3 different plantings in each bed of lettuce. We continue at this pace until our last outdoor plantings around the fall equinox.

This spring we are going to continue the salad mixes a bit longer by harvesting the outdoor lettuce by the leaf. We have lots of really good looking spinach to mix in, and the last few mizuna and ferny mustards. We used to only sow these twice, 9/24 to transplant in the hoophouse, and 11/9, which feeds us until late March. We added in a third sowing of mizuna and ferny mustards 2/1 which we harvest 3/24 to 4/23 approximately. That extra month is really worth having!

We also have a short row of Sugar Ann snap peas in the hoophouse (sowed 2/1) that we like to snip into thirds and add to salad mix. This makes for a nice little surprise for everyone. We couldn’t feed a hundred on 50 ft of snap peas! These are an incentive to keep the salad mixes going while the peas are being harvested.

Sugar Ann snap peas in our hoophouse, a month earlier than outdoor peas.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

 

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.