Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food: Step-by-Step Vegetable Gardening for Everyone
Joseph Tychonievich and Liz Anna Kozik, Ten Speed Press, 2021. 90 pages, color throughout, $19.99 paperback, $12.99 Kindle.
This is the first time I’ve reviewed a comic book, and it makes a refreshing change from my usual (less comic) gardening and farming reading. This small book, with text by Joseph Tychonievich and drawings by Liz Anna Kozik, is a delight. The art is wonderfully clear and realistic, even though they are not botanical drawings. The page of seven herbs makes them all distinguishable. The characters have character, keeping the reader engaged with the plot (oh, not a deliberate pun!)
This will be a great book for new gardeners (of whom there are acres, as a result of Covid-19). It will also particularly help recovering failed gardeners get a fresh, more successful start. It is perfect for visual learners, gardeners with English not their first language, and young gardeners. I have a gardening friend who says her teenager reads only graphic novels and she hopes this book will lead him to do more gardening, more enthusiastically!
It is easy to read/look at, entertaining and accurate (therefore helpful). The breezy, friendly conversations between the fictional characters, young novice gardener Mia (who writes code as a day job) and retired neighbor George, show a great example of food-growing (and computer help) as mutual aid. Gardening as a step to a more peaceful and productive future.
The book covers location, choosing crops, timing, soil testing, bed prep, buying plants, starting seeds, planting in the garden or in containers, and maintenance. This is followed by troubleshooting, harvesting, celebrating, and a “Cheat sheet of cheat sheets” and further reading. The cheat sheets throughout step us aside from the story to dive into some aspect more deeply. Come back to those when you need them.
Mia is savvy about technology, finding a compass app or a last frost date when she needs it. George has the gardening experience to share, including his ever-changing Rule #1! (Grow what you like to eat. Grow what’s easy to grow. Always grow herbs. Grow flowers. Get a soil test.)
Important points are included, such as even though organic fertilizer is best, using too much is a bad thing. Check for lead in city soils and if you find it, garden elsewhere (community garden?), grow vegetables in containers of bought-in soil, or grow flowers, not food. Why is Swiss chard easier to grow than spinach? Do you actually like radishes?
Packed in this little book, you will find how to build raised beds, how to mulch, how to choose healthy plants to buy, which crops do better from seed, the most important bugs to watch out for and more. Joseph the writer has been gardening most of his life, and Liz Anna the artist clearly knows her vegetables too.
What is missing that I would have included? Making compost (can be an issue in city gardens, I know); more about choosing seed varieties in stores, catalogs or online; sowing seeds (like carrots) in rows rather than individual holes.
What is included that I would not have thought of? Root-pruning bought plants to encourage good outward growth. A flow chart of whether or not to water that day. Ideas for garden party snacks! The value of a smartphone as a gardening tool!
This is a real book – it has an index! (Some of my readers may know I live with people who index books, and the index is a better way to judge a book than the cover!)
Yes, this book works as a guide for new vegetable gardeners, and right now when you can’t garden with your neighbor physically at your side, this could be the next best thing. It packs a lot in a small space, which is probably what most of the readers are also hoping to do in their gardens!
For sure, the topics are simplified, but the most important bits are all there, including plenty of cautions to help prevent common mistakes, and make it more likely that readers will continue to garden and learn in the future. There are a few resources listed at the end, useful pointers of where to turn when this book can’t get into enough details, or you’ve found a bug that the authors don’t include. This book and a smartphone will help you start growing your own food successfully.
I wrote an earlier version of this review for the Comics Journal.
Commiseration and sympathy to ice-blasted farmers and gardeners
Visits to my website shot up over the weekend. People are checking out my Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables as they are dealing with temperatures considerably colder than they ever expected for their region. I hope you can find some helpful information there while you triage your crops into “OK with these temperatures, can be left alone”/”might die, need help”/”will definitely die, no point in trying to save them”.
Q and A
Next a couple of questions that people left on the contact form, that I thought others might be interested in.
Q1. Is there an easy way to figure out what vegetables I can plant to maximize my space and yield. I am not sure if its my soil or sunlight availability in my backyard garden.
A. Most vegetables do need at least 6 hours a day of sunlight, so as we get closer to spring, assess various spots in your backyard. Maximizing use of the space includes careful choice of plant spacing, but also following one crop with another, or squeezing crops in between others. There’s no quick answer. Search my site for Succession Planting, Crop Spacing, Choosing Crops.
Q2. I am currently looking for Onion seeds or seedlings to purchase for approximately 1hector to plant. We based in the Free State Area.
A. South Africa? Sorry, I have no idea what is available where you are. 1 hectare is a huge area for onions, especially if you have never grown them before. Use transplants, not direct-seeded onions. Choose varieties adapted to your latitude, or else they may never grow big, or may not dry down and store well.
Flaming can be used for weed control, pest control, or crop termination.
Our introduction to flame-weeding was via the first article I ever read in Growing for Market magazine. It was about flaming for pre-emergence weed control in carrots. It sounded like such an effective method that we bought a Red Dragon flamer and never looked back! I remember saying and writing that it worked so well it felt like cheating!
We use a handheld flamer attached to a propane cylinder that is in a wheelbarrow pushed by a second person behind the first. This person also acts as a “fire warden.” Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame. Walking along the aisle between beds and wafting the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed takes about ten minutes for a 100′ (30 m) bed. Flame-weeding alone can reduce hand-weeding to one hour/100′ (30 m). Hand-weeding can be reduced to 6 minutes/100′ (30 m) by flame-weeding after using stale beds which have been hoed three or four times.
Stale seedbed flaming for weed control
In the stale seedbed technique, the bed is prepared and watered ahead of planting time and one or more flushes of weeds are germinated and flamed or hoed off. Flaming avoids bringing any new weed seeds to the surface. To sow large crop seeds into a seedbed that has already had the weeds removed (by flaming or other stale seedbed technique), you can use a stick seeder or easy-plant jab planter. Making furrows for small seeds will inevitably activate a few weed seeds along the rows.
Flame weeding, pre-emergence
Carrots, beets and parsnips are ideal crops for pre-emergence flame-weeding. They do very poorly with competition, and grow more slowly than weeds, consuming lots of time hoeing, cultivating and hand weeding to get good yields. Flame weeding can change all that, with pre-emergence either as part of a stale seedbed technique, or post-sowing.
The latter method is to prepare the bed, sow the seeds, water, and then monitor carefully. The day before you expect the carrots to emerge, flame across the whole surface of the bed. Use a soil thermometer and the table here to figure out which day to flame.
Table of vegetable seed germination as a function of soil temperature
Days to Germinate
People who use pre-emergence flame-weeding for carrots can use a few “indicator beet” seeds sown at one end of the bed to show when to flame. As soon as you see the red loops of the beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case!) Beets are always a bit quicker than carrots in germinating. Note that beets are about half a day ahead of carrots at 50°F–68°F (10°C–20°C), but more than a day at 77°F–95°F (25°C–35°C). The challenge with carrots is to keep the soil surface damp until they come through. As an indicator for beet seeds, you can use a few radish seeds.
Another way to get an alarm call is to put a piece of glass over part of a row. The theory is that the soil under the glass will be warmer and the crop there will come up sooner than the rest. I tried this once, but the soil under the glass dried out, and those carrots came up later than the rest! Nowadays we have a “no glass in the garden” rule, for safety, so I use beets, the thermometer and the chart.
Potatoes can get impossible to hill when you’d like to if you have wet weather, and this is where flaming can save the day. Potatoes may be flamed at 6″–12″ (15–30 cm) tall, to kill weeds without damaging the potato plants. After that, flaming is not recommended.
Sweet corn can be flame-weeded after planting, either pre-emergence or, with care, after the crop is two inches (5 cm) tall, using a directed flame.
Onion and garlic crops can be flame-weeded when relatively mature. Flame-weeding can achieve as good results as hand-weeding using one-third of the labor. Flame-weeding can damage young plants (four or fewer leaves), so bide your time. Direct the flame at the base of the plants, in the morning, when the plants are turgid. This technique is for unmulched crops. Naturally, if you have used straw or hay mulch, flame-weeding is not such a smart idea!
Peanut seedlings can be slow to emerge, so pre-emergence flame-weeding may be helpful. The seedlings look somewhat like peas or clover. Because they grow slowly for the first 40 days, they will not thrive if you lose them in weeds (guess how I know?!).
Flaming for ending potato growth
Potato plants come to a natural end when the leaves die, after which no further growth can be induced in them. Once the tops die, the potato skins start to toughen up. If you are growing storage potatoes and are impatient for the end to come, you can mow off the tops or flame them, to start the skin-thickening process, which takes around two weeks. The potatoes are ready when you can rub two together without any obvious damage to the skins.
Flaming for pest control
Pest habitat includes all those half-wild edges and odd corners. You can reduce the pest count in these havens by mowing, hand weeding, or flaming. Be sure not to remove all the habitat for beneficial insects while you do this.
Colorado potato beetles can be tackled by flaming while the potatoes are less than eight inches (20 cm) tall, as an effective pest control measure. It won’t kill the potato plants. Choose a warm sunny day when the pests are at the top of the plants. Flaming can kill 90 percent of the adults and 30 percent of the egg masses, according to ATTRA.
Mexican bean beetles can be killed by flaming after harvest for that planting is finished. Flaming will kill the plants too. We used to plant six or seven successions of beans, every two weeks, then flame the old plants when the pest count got too high, and move on to a newer planting. Nowadays we buy the Pediobius parasitic wasp to deal with the MBB, and we can sow beans less often and harvest them for longer.
Flaming trap crops
Flea beetles can be lured by a row of mustard greens. They like the pungent compounds in brassicas. Once you have lured the flea beetles you need to deal with them before you create a flea beetle breeding ground. Flaming the mustard plants is one possibility.
Cucumber beetles have a preference for some particular squash varieties, which may be grown as a trap crop: Cocozelle summer squash, Seneca and Dark Green zucchini are all “cucumber beetle preferred”! When beetles accumulate in the trap crop, flame it or till it in.
Stink bugs: Russ Mizell has published a paper on trap cropping for native stink bugs in the South. He recommends buckwheat, triticale, sunflower, millet, field pea and sorghum. A succession of trap crops including these and others such as pumpkins, cowpeas and other small grains (which are most attractive in the milk or soft dough stage) could help. Flame the trap crops when the stink bug numbers in the trap crop build up.
Excerpted and adapted from Sustainable Market Farming
Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in February
We sow no root crops in our hoophouse in February. It’s too late for radishes or turnips. If you are in a place colder or darker than winter-hardiness subzone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C), see Root Crops in January.
If the soil outdoors is dry enough and not frozen, we spread compost on the raised beds we plan to plant in February and March, and till in the compost. Root crops that we sow outdoors here in February include carrots #1 and turnips in mid-February, and carrots #2 and radishes in late February. It’s true not much growing happens in February, but it helps us if we are able to get some crops planted early, leaving us more capacity for other crops once those are in the ground. And if the soil isn’t dry enough, we just do those jobs as soon as we can. We would hate to miss an opportunity!
Carrot Bed Prep
Carrots do very poorly with competition from weeds or too many other carrots. You can make use of the Stale Seedbed Technique, preparing the bed ahead of time, and flaming or hoeing one or more flushes of weeds as they germinate. I’ll do a separate blogpost on flame-weeding soon, as I have too much info to squeeze in here. It works so well, it feels like cheating!
Carrots are small seeds, needing a fine tilth (small soil particle size and good texture – not likely to crust or blow away).Good information on crop spacing for maximum yields, or biggest vegetables is in an out of print book, The Complete Know and Grow Vegetables by JKA Bleasdale, PJ Salter, and others. For maximum total yield of carrots, they recommend 1.5” x 6” (4 x 15cm). You get medium sized carrots. For early carrots go with 4 x 6” (10 x 15cm) to minimize competition and get rapid growth. If you want to have rows more than 6” (15cm) apart, calculate the area of these optimum spacings, then divide by your chosen row space. For example, if your rows are 12” (30cm) apart, the carrots can be as close as 0.75’ (2cm) if total yield is more important than individual size, or 2” (5cm) for fast early carrots. We do five rows in a 4 ft (1.2m) bed, so the rows are about 10” apart, with the outer rows 4” (10cm) from the bed edge.
Carrot Thinning and Weeding
Remember to thin carrots as soon as you can see them well enough to do so. We usually hoe between the rows first, then crawl along thinning and weeding. It does take time! But you won’t get good carrots without thinning, unless you either have a precision-seeder that drops one seed per inch, or pelleted seed which you can sow at one per inch. Precision seeders like the Jang are expensive, but worthwhile if you need to use it every week. Pelleted seed costs more than raw seed, and its big advantage is traded off for two other disadvantages: The soil has to be kept well-watered until germination or else the clay coating will imprison the seed forever, and the seed does not store for long – don’t keep any over for next year.
Greenhouse Root Crop Sowings for Transplants
The only root crops we ever transplant are celeriac and kohlrabi (a stem vegetable really, not a root). I have transplanted many things and I am skeptical of books saying this or that can’t be transplanted, but not beets or rutabagas, which I hear people transplant as soil blocks or plugs. So try it if you think it will help.
We have grown both Diamante (100 days from transplanting) and Large Smooth Prague (110d), and strongly prefer Diamante, as it seems to us to be more tolerant of warm weather, less prone to rot, and easier to clean. Several growers say that Diamante and Brilliant are virtually indistinguishable.
This crop likes rich soil with lots of organic matter, some shade from mid-day and afternoon sun, and ample water without sitting in waterlogged soil. We make sure to choose beds in a shadier part of the garden. Celeriac can rot if too damp, so keep it weeded and remove some of the lower leaves to improve airflow. A pH 5.8-6.7 is ideal. Celeriac can benefit from seaweed as a foliar spray, or side-dressing with compost during the long growing season.
Celeriac requires long steady growth, and the challenge is to prevent checks to growth. The Virginia climate is on the warm side for celeriac, it prefers cooler areas, but we have good success if we pay attention at a few critical times. Celeriac can tolerate frost quite well, so there is no hurry to harvest in the fall.
Sow seeds 1/8″(3mm) deep, and keep the soil surface moist. The minimum germination temperature is 40°F/5°C, and the optimal range 59–70°F/15-21°C. Germination is slow, typically 14 to 21 days, and it takes 10-12 weeks to grow to transplant size, so start in plenty of time. We sow in open flats, then spot out (prick out) into deeper flats. We sow February 10, which is about 10 weeks before our last frost date. Celeriac can be sown from 67 days before the last frost date to 184 days before the first fall frost date, but you don’t get large roots unless you have plenty of growing time.. If your climate includes long chilly springs, I’d suggest starting 12 weeks before the last frost date.
Emergence takes at least 12 days at 59°F/15°C and 7 days at 68°F/20°C. The ideal temperature is 68°F/20°C day, and 59°F/15°C at night. The fluctuating temperatures, with nights cooler than days by 9°F/5°C, help speed germination. Another factor when choosing germination temperature to aim for, is that at 59°F/15°C, only 40% of the seeds produce seedlings, compared to 97% at 68°F/20°C.
Celeriac should not be hardened off by reducing temperatures, as that can cause them to bolt. More than about 9 night temperatures below 55°F/12°C will cause bolting. Plants can have their watering reduced to help them get ready for the big outdoors. Use rowcovers if a cold spell arrives after you have planted them out, or if you know cold weather is likely to return. Falling apple blossom is a phenology sign that conditions are suitable.
Kohlrabi is very easy to grow, treat it just like cabbage or kale.
It can be direct-seeded, but for an early crop, especially if you live in a climate like ours where spring turns into summer very quickly, use transplants. We don’t grow a lot, only 180 feet (55m) in total for 100 people. We also grow kohlrabi in the fall, transplanting bare root transplants from nursery seedbeds around August 3. We grow twice as much in fall as spring, because we can store them for winter.
We have grown both Early White Vienna and Early Purple Vienna. Growing both provides for pretty harvests. We sow February 8 at 4 seeds/inch (0.5 cm apart) in open seed flats, aiming to have the plants spotted out, hardened off and transplanted outdoors with rowcover on March 13. Fast work!
Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in February
As for January, in central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in February except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish. We do have horseradish, but not the others. Of course, you can only dig up root crops if the ground is not frozen!
We have had outdoor night temperatures of 16°F/-9°C and 12°F/-11°C. This winter we have some carrots “growing” in the fresh air and some late-sown beets under rowcover. I don’t think we’ll get roots from the beets, but the leaves might make a nice change from brassicas as cooking greens.
In the hoophouse our radishes #3 (sown October 30) will come to an end by 2/1. Our #4 radishes will get harvested this month. Our #5 radishes, sown 12/23, will feed us from then until around April 7
We still have some of our first turnips (sown around October 13) until mid-February, and they have reached a really good size, thanks to early thinning. This month we can harvest the second sowing (October 25). We thinned turnips #2 in early January. They are looking good too.
We have not yet needed to unroll our inner rowcovers in the hoophouse. We wait until we expect it to get down to 8°F (-13°C) outdoors, as we like to avoid extra work!
Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in February
Check stored vegetables
Stored crops need to be checked for decay at least once a month, preferably once a week now the days are getting longer and the temperatures will get warmer. From storage, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips, if we grew them.
Special Root Crop Topic for February in Central Virginia
Wrap up the winter planning
Our garden planning wraps up by mid-February, with all the budgets, crew selection and shift decisions (afternoons in cold weather, mornings in hot weather –we’re mostly half-day gardeners, with one or two stalwart all-day workers)
Order summer cover crop seeds
For early spring, if we find an area without a winter cover crop and we realize we won’t plant it with a vegetable crop for at least 8 weeks, we sow oats. They will smother weeds and add organic matter to the soil when you till them in.
If you have not already ordered summer cover crop seeds, this would be a good time to do so. Cover crops suppress weeds, add organic matter, feed the organisms in the soil and attract beneficial insects, birds and amphibians to feed and reproduce. Biodiversity encourages ecological balance that can help reduce plant diseases and pest attacks. Have a goal of No Bare Soil. Seek out odd spaces to fill with cover crops.
Once frosts are past, buckwheat is an easy cover crop. Its flowers attract beneficial insects, and it is a very manageable (not too tall) fast-growing crop. Buckwheat can be in and under in a month.
Just as fast is mustard, but we don’t grow that because it’s a brassica and we grow a lot of brassica food crops. Keeping a good crop rotation is important to us. Also we have harlequin bugs and we don’t want to feed them year round.
Sorghum-sudangrass hybrid is a fantastic, huge warm weather grass type cover crop, but don’t grow it if you have only a lawnmower, a scythe or a nylon line weed whip to cut it down! For smaller scale gardens, choose Japanese millet.
Soybeans, southern peas and sunn hemp are easy legume cover crops for warm weather, providing nitrogen for the next crop.
Cover cropping is a big topic. See my book Sustainable Market Farming for more. Here I’m just pointing you in the right direction enough to order seeds soon. You can read up more later.
Growing early season lettuces involves choosing suitable types and varieties (cold-tolerant and fast-growing), having successful production methods, and a good schedule. Harvesting early in the year might mean fast production in January and February, or it might mean starting in the fall and overwintering the plants. See my post series Lettuce of the Month, for ideas on varieties and techniques throughout the year.
Our Climate Zone in central Virginia is 7a, which means our annual minimum temperature averages 0°F to 5°F (-18 to -15°C). The average date of the last spring frost is April 30 (later than 5/14 one year in 10). We grow lettuce outside from transplants from February to December, in a solar greenhouse from October to early March, and in a solar-heated double-layer hoophouse from October to April.
There are several different general types of lettuces. In terms of growing speed, the baby lettuce mixes and the leaf lettuces produce harvests soonest after sowing. Loose-leaf lettuces are very useful because you can harvest individual leaves while you’re waiting for the heads to reach full size.
Leaf types are ready for harvest 45-60 days from direct seeding, 30-45 days from transplanting. Bibbs mature in 60-75 days, most head lettuce need up to 80 days from seeding, or 60-70 days from transplanting in spring. Romaines are slower-growing (70 days or more). Batavian lettuces (also called French Crisp) are tasty, thick-leafed varieties that have excellent heat and cold tolerance. Icebergs mature in 75-100 days.
Baby lettuce can be cut 21 days from seeding, (except from November to mid-February, when it may take 2 or 3 times as long).
Bolt-resistance generally goes from Leaf types (first to bolt), through Romaines, Butterheads, Bibbs, to Crispheads.
I like to sow four lettuce varieties each time (for the attractive harvests, and to reduce the risks if one variety bolts or suffers disease): at least one red and one romaine. We have 5 lettuce seasons, with different varieties:
Early Spring (Jan – Mar), 6 sowings
Spring (April – May 15), 5 sowings
Summer (May 15 – Aug 15), 17 sowings
Fall (Aug 15 – Sept 7), 9 sowings
Winter indoors, Sept 8 – 27, 9 sowings
It’s important to grow the right lettuce variety for the conditions. For earliest harvests, consider a different, faster, variety than you have usually grown. Some of the early spring lettuce varieties are often useless here if sown after mid-March, or even mid-February, because they bolt prematurely as the Virginia spring flips from cold to hot (and back again, grrr!). Varieties we only sow until 2/15 include Bronze Arrowhead (46 day leaf lettuce); Buckley, Ezrilla and Hampton (55d multi-leaf types); Merlot (60d), Midnight Ruffles (48d) and Oscarde (45d) (leaf lettuces). Antares (48d) Panisse (48d) and Revolution (38d) leaf lettuces we can sow until 3/15.
Others that we like in early spring go on to be useful later in spring too. In this category are Buttercrunch (a small 50d bibb); Nancy (58d) and Sylvesta (52d) (two big green bibbs); Pirat (55d red bibb), Green Forest (56d), Kalura (57d) (two green romaines); and New Red Fire (55d), our reliable Salad Bowl (45d) and Red Salad Bowl (46d), Starfighter (52d), and Swordleaf (53d) (leaf lettuces)
For those with challenging growing conditions, both companies offer other specialized selected mixes.
Cold-tolerance of lettuce
Lettuce is more cold tolerant than many people realize. If plants are sufficiently hardened (prepared by growing in gradually lower temperatures), they can withstand freezing. At 22°F (-6°C), large leaves of some lettuce will die. Medium-sized plants with 4-10 leaves (Marvel of Four Seasons, Olga, Rouge d’Hiver, Tango, Winter Density may survive unprotected down to 15°F (-9.5°C). Half-grown lettuces are more cold-hardy than full-sized plants.
Lettuce Crop Requirements
Lettuce seed remains dormant unless triggered by adequate levels of light and temperature. It needs light to germinate, so don’t sow too deep: ¼-3/8″ (6-9 mm) is enough. Some sources recommend not covering the seed at all, but this can make it hard to keep the seed damp. The light dormancy is more pronounced in fresh seed, which has higher levels of the hormone that controls germination.
Soil temperature is important. I have a table of optimum soil temperatures for germination in TheYear-Round Hoophouse The optimum temperature range for lettuce germination is 68-80°F (20-27°C). It takes 7 days to germinate with a soil temperature of 50°F (10°C) or 15 days at 41°F (5°C), and only 4 days at 59°F (15°C). Even a few hours at temperatures higher than the optimum can induce dormancy.
Lettuce transplants prefer a well-draining soil high in organic matter, and with a pH of 6.0-7.0, not lower. Optimum growing temperatures are 60-65°F (15-18°C), with a minimum of 40°F (4.5°C) for any growth to occur. Lack of water will lead to bolting, and/or bitterness. Keep them growing quickly for good flavor.
We plan to start harvesting heads of lettuce outdoors from April 15. Before then we will harvesting lettuce in our greenhouse and hoophouse.
In mid-January we sow four lettuce varieties, to become our first outdoor transplants. I recommend sowing several varieties each time to spread your risks, if one kind bolts or suffers disease. I choose varieties that cover the range of colors and shapes. I select 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! 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 exactly head up, although it can be cut as admittedly lightweight heads. It works fine as a leaf lettuce, harvested by the cut-and-come-again method. We grow New Red Fire year round, it’s that adaptable and easy-going. We haven’t found many good full-size red romaines. Bronze Arrow has worked well for us and we were harvesting it in early May.
We grow all our outdoor lettuce as transplants. In spring we sow in 3″ (7.5cm) deep open wood seed flats, 12″ x 24″ (30 x 60cm). We make four little furrows by pressing a 12″ (30 cm) plastic strip (aka a ruler!) into the seed compost. We sow the seed, label it, cover it lightly, water, and put the seeded flats in our germinator cabinet. The first flat of the year takes about 9 days to germinate.
Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, we spot them out into 4″ (10 cm) deep flats (also 12″ x 24″/30 x 60cm). We have a plywood dibble board with pegs evenly spaced about 2.5″ (6 cm) apart. 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.
Seeds can instead be sown in cell packs or plug flats, putting three seeds in each cell, and later reducing to one seedling with scissors. Cells or pots with diameters from 1-2½” (2.5-6cm) can be used. The 96-cell size (1×1½”/2.5x4cm) works well, although the 200-cell size (1×1”/2.5×2.5cm) is possible if you can be sure to get the transplants out before they get root-bound. If warm germination space is limited in early spring, sow seed in a small flat, then “spot” the tiny seedlings into bigger flats, 606 (2×2¼”/2.5x6cm) cell packs, or 32-pack square pots to grow on in cooler conditions before planting out. Soil blocks are also possible, but take more time.
We make a second sowing on January 31. The intervals between sowings at the beginning of the year are long, because later sowings will catch up to some extent with earlier ones. Most crops grow faster in warmer weather.
We sow lettuce twice in February – 14 days apart. We get ready to transplant our first outdoor lettuce, to feed us mid-late April. Our first sowing of baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse comes to the bitter end, and the second sowing is awaited. We continue to harvest leaves from the large lettuce we transplanted in the hoophouse in October.
Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall, longer in early spring. A direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop, the plants regrow and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. We sow 10 rows in a 4’ (1.2m) bed, 4.5” (11cm) apart. Weed and thin to 1″ (2.5 cm). When 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cut 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. Gather a small handful in one hand and cut with using large scissors. Immediately after harvesting, weed the just-cut area so the next cut won’t include weeds. Rake after harvest with a fine leaf rake to remove outer leaves and cut scraps. If you want to make more than one cut, you will need to remove anything that isn’t top quality salad while you can see it. Larger scale operations have harvesting machines.
Book Review: The Chinese Greenhouse: Design and Build a Low-Cost, Passive Solar Greenhouse, Dan Chiras
New Society Publishers, 2021. 230 pages, color photos and diagrams throughout, $34.99.
I have been eagerly awaiting this book, after attending several of Dan Chiras’ workshops where he talked about the evolution of Chinese Greenhouses. This is a next step for those of us thrilled with what we can grow in a passive solar hoophouse. As we harvest our abundant winter greens, we might ponder “What if it were possible to grow warm weather crops in winter without fossil fuels, given a careful greenhouse design with attention to insulation and so on?” The Chinese Greenhouse provides the answers, design and construction tips for pioneers in this new kind of greenhouse. Don’t reinvent the wheel – get this book and learn from those who have gone before.
Chinese Greenhouses are not readily available off the shelf, and are best designed to suit the particular site. This book tells you, step-by-step, how to build your own. Naturally, building one of these high-performing structures is more work than putting up a standard hoophouse (high tunnel), but once you have put up one of those, you might be ready for more challenge (and rewards).
Chinese greenhouses are solar-heated, earth-sheltered, well-insulated, plastic-glazed structures, using heat-banking, and shaded and curtained when appropriate. They are always oriented with a long side facing the sun. In the winter, this allows maximum (low-angle) sun exposure. In the summer, the high arc of the midday sun goes over the roof, and crops don’t get baked. The energy-intelligent design reduces your carbon footprint and saves you from future fuel bills, or imported vegetables.
Dan identifies six design problems with standard greenhouses that are solved with Chinese greenhouses. If you have a standard greenhouse, you can modify it to reduce the impact of the short-comings, by adding water for heat storage, using compost as a heat source, or storing pumped hot air in pipes in the soil. Dan Chiras has tried some of those. Also see The Bio-Integrated Farm by Shawn Jadrnicek. Or you can keep your existing hoophouse for growing winter greens, and put up a Chinese greenhouse for winter tomatoes and citrus trees.
Enclosing the north (south in southern hemisphere) side in the ground (which is 50-55°F (10-13°C) below the frost line year-round) is an important feature of these Chinese greenhouses, helping stabilize the temperature. To grow warm weather crops you need to maintain a greenhouse minimum temperature of 40-50°F (4-10°C). These crops may survive lower temperatures, but they will not thrive or be productive.
Dan Chiras met Dr Sanjun Gu, a world authority on Chinese Greenhouses, in Iowa in 2014, and gathered the available information (it wasn’t much, most was in Dr Gu’s slides!). Chinese greenhouses emerged in the mid-1980s, as a way to feed the expanding population. There have been three generations of such greenhouses, and traditional materials such as bamboo posts and external straw mat night curtains have now been replaced by easier-to-use modern materials. The first generation Chinese greenhouses had a bowed roof framing of bamboo poles in a mesh of tensioned steel wires. This framing was supported by many posts, and plastic sheeting was stretched over the top. At night, straw matting was unrolled on top of the roof (effective but labor-intensive). The second generation design reduced the number of posts supporting the roof, allowing the use of small machinery to till the soil. Third generation Chinese greenhouses don’t need posts at all, but have curved steel roof trusses (bows).
Newer models have replaced the straw matting on the outside with synthetic insulated blankets, or with reflective curtains on the inside of the roof, and replaced the hours of manual adjustments with mechanization. There are now billions of acres of these greenhouses in China. About one-third of Beijing’s winter vegetables are grown in greenhouses (I’m unclear if that’s one third of all their vegetables, or one third of warm weather crops.)
Dan has logged winter indoor and outdoor temperatures at his home-built modified Chinese greenhouse in Missouri, and found an indoor minimum of 48°F (9°C) with outdoor temperatures of -10°F (-23°C) for the first two winters. One feature of this book that especially appeals to me is that Dan describes the pros and cons of multiple options for achieving various goals – thermal mass, insulation, glazing, trusses – no need for expensive mistakes!
To build your Chinese greenhouse, you first need to choose a site, excavate it and take steps to prevent water leaking into your greenhouse. Yes, you really do need to earth-shelter your Chinese greenhouse, unless you are in the southern tier of the United States. While you are planning your excavation, consider the options of geo-thermal heating/cooling tubes, or tubing to take excess hot air from the greenhouse and store it in the earth berm until winter.
Check the slope of your land and draw a scale plan to make sure it will work. The perfect slope is 20° south, but anywhere between 10° and 30° will work. It partly depends on the height you want inside. You can also import soil if you need more than your excavation will provide. Stake out the site, using a compass to get the best orientation, correcting for magnetic declination (it’s all in the book). Ensure you are not excavating in a natural drainage path – observe the path of heavy rainfall or snowmelt. Look for subsurface springs or seeps. Look for wet areas in spring. You don’t want to have to incorporate a “water feature” in your new greenhouse! Perhaps consult a water engineer or locally experienced excavator. If necessary, construct swales uphill from your site, to divert water away from your greenhouse. Details of these and various drainage possibilities are in the book.
Dan recommends renting a skid steer loader with tracks rather than tires, or a small excavator. Keep the topsoil and subsoil separate, and covered if it might rain before you finish. Get seed on hand to sow on the berm as soon as possible after creating it, and/or transplant native ground cover plants.
If you really can’t do earth-sheltering, you can compensate to some extent in an above-ground greenhouse by adding lots of thermal mass in the floors and walls. I have some mixed feelings about the use of interior thermal mass. In the 1970’s there were greenhouse books advocating so many barrels of water to store heat, that there was little space left to grow plants!
After completing the excavation you can start incorporating heat-absorbing dark colored thermal mass in the floor and back wall, up to the optimal 4” (10 cm) thick, to store heat gained during sunny days. Dan discusses several possible materials: poured concrete, bricks, flagstones, soil-cement, cement blocks, bin blocks, adobe, cob and rammed earth. How’s that for a thorough review of options? Beware earthen materials that can disintegrate in a damp environment (you can’t use them underground). An adobe, stone or blockwork north wall works. Be aware of all the ecological pluses and minuses of concrete. Bin blocks are large concrete blocks made by concrete contractors when emptying out returning concrete mixers. The price is good! Paying for transportation is expensive! The smallest ones weigh half a ton, so you’ll need at least a tractor with a bucket, if not a crane, to stack them.
If this sounds like a lot of work and you start thinking about installing a wood stove instead, Dan invites you to think again: wood heat is “the black sheep of the renewable energy field.” Burning wood produces carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. It also produces toxins such as sulfur and nitrogen oxide gases, which form acid rain. And particulates that irritate lungs.
The next group of decisions is about wall framing and glazing. Will your framework be curved or in flat planes? Only some kinds of glazing curve, so figure these two items out together. Soil is not a good insulator, as many people wrongly assume. The water in the soil conducts heat, so it is important to insulate the north wall, north roof, and the east and west ends. You’ll need deep walls with space for R-40 to R-50 insulation. Dan discusses options: loose-fill cellulose and fiberglass; batts of fiberglass, rock wool and cotton; rigid foam sheets of polystyrene, polyisocyanurate, and mineral wool board; liquid foams like Icynene and Air Krete. He recommends loose-fill cellulose, which is made from old newspapers.
Framework options include traditional lumber, home-made or purchased laminated wood rafters (straight or arched), steel tubing (round or square), or metal trusses. There are photos and tips for each of these. Be sure to consult a structural engineer or architect to ensure your roof will support the snow and wind loading that you might experience in your location. While tubing is adequate for smaller greenhouses, steel trusses are stronger and advised for wider greenhouses.
If you are using standard lumber and vertical walls, you will need to carefully determine the roof angle giving the best light transmission without too much summer heat gain. Light hitting the glazing at small angles will reflect rather than pass through. The rule of thumb is to add 20° to your latitude to get the ideal roof angle for maximum winter sun transmission. I found this particular sidebar confusing, but happily, I don’t need to know right now. Dan recommends a lower sloped roof than the calculation suggests, perhaps 30°.
Options for glazing include glass, ETFE, rigid polycarbonate, poly reinforced polyethylene sheeting, and polyethylene film. Light transmission ranges from 75-95%, but light transmission is not all we care about. Plants can do better with light diffused through translucent materials, bouncing around at all angles rather than beaming straight in. Glass is fragile and expensive.
The price of the plastics starts with a high for ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), For most of us, this is outside the budget: $9,000 for a 20 ft (6 m) greenhouse. Sell 7,000 bags of lettuce to pay for it! Double-wall acrylic is another very pricey option, with very pricey shipping costs. Solawrap looks like bubble-wrap on steroids, provides some insulation (R-1.7) It is sold in rolls the width of the gap between bows (or rafters). A roll 4’ x 328’ (1.2 x 100 m) costs about $2,200 plus shipping. Polycarbonate has channels of air providing some insulation. The price is lower than Solawrap, but the special hardware adds to the cost. Poly reinforced polyethylene (PRP) resembles rip-stop fabric used for outdoor gear, with a reinforcing mesh embedded in it. It comes with a ten-year UV warranty. Avoid wearing holes in your PRP by fitting it snugly after duct-taping any hardware that will contact the sheeting. The price is one-tenth that of Solawrap (but it provides no insulation). Standard 6 mil greenhouse poly is much cheaper, and using two layers with an inflated air space provides some insulation. You’ll need to replace the plastic every 5-7 years.
Watch this YouTube of Dan Chiras talking about the Chinese Greenhouse
To reduce heat losses through the glazing at night, install a blanket. White shadecloth resting on plastic-coated cables or laundry line works well. Aluminet and Tempa Interior Climate Screen work even better as heat reflectors, keeping heat out in summer, in during the winter. Radiant heat barriers can be used on the inside surfaces of roofs and walls to reflect heat back. One kind is a shiny aluminized sheet with a scrim backing, another kind is reflective bubble wrap.
The next part of the book explains ways to improve on the performance of Chinese greenhouses, to consider before you start. Use the excess heat on sunny winter days to mitigate the cold night temperature. Hot air from the top of the greenhouse can be pumped into porous pipes running through an in-floor storage medium such as a bed of gravel. You can wire thermostatically-controlled low-wattage DC fans directly to 50-watt photovoltaic modules, without batteries. When the sun shines, the fans operate. Having air movement in a greenhouse is helpful in managing fungal diseases and bugs, even when it isn’t banking heat. And bringing hot damp air through a gravel bed allows condensation to form in the gravel bed, effectively reducing the humidity of the air above.
Seasonal heat banking is designed to store excess heat from the summer to use in the winter. The usual method is to construct a large heat exchanger, composed of lots of plastic pipe deep underneath the greenhouse. Underground heat at 7 m (23 ft) deep moves through the soil by conduction at a rate of 1 m (3.3 feet) per month. Another method (without pipework) is to install a skirt of rigid board insulation just underground, all around the building to 20 feet (6 m) out. This catches the heat escaping from the building as well as that coming up from deeper in the earth.
I’m going to slide right over the details of designing and building heat bank systems. They involve pumps capable of providing five air changes per hour, thermostats, fans, piping sufficient to allow an airflow rate of 5 feet (1.5 m) per second – that’s 3 mph! Before installing any expensive heat banking and recovery systems, talk with people already using such a system. Once you have literally sunk a lot of money underground, it is very expensive to change. “If you get it right, you should be able to create a structure whose internal temperature in the winter is a heart-warming 35-40 F higher than ambient temperatures.” And pleasant summers too.
Next we have a chapter on minimizing summertime heat gain. One aspect is the roof angle, which we already looked at. A design that works at one latitude won’t be as good at a location with different sun angles. You can shade, vent and (if not in a humid climate) mist, in order to cool the space. That should provide for an extended period of summer use, if not the whole of the summer. Your cooling efforts might need to be moderated by your bug-excluding efforts. You could build a pond (10-15 feet (3-5 m) deep) with cooling loops of pipe. That’s one improvement you can add after construction, adding a fan to spread the cooled air inside.
Next there is info about supplementing the lighting with LEDs, for cloudy areas, or if you are growing commercially. There are explanations about different wavelengths of light, which ones plants use, and in what proportions (65% red, 15% blue, 20% green), and about total PAR, photosynthetically active radiation, the proportion reaching your plants, and the varying PAR requirement at different stages of plant growth. Another consideration is the total amount of light the plants receive each day (the daily light integral).
The final chapter of the book is Dan’s illustrated description of building his Chinese greenhouse in Missouri. His goals are to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly. For simplicity, Dan chose a lumber vertical south wall and sloped (not arched) roof, a departure from the usual curved Chinese greenhouse look. It appears to be about 21 ft long and 30 ft wide/deep. He used 3ft x 16ft (1 m x 5 m) polycarbonate roofing sheets, with plastic H-profile connector strips.
Dan does not gloss over the problems he and his band of helpers met during the 2-3 years spent building his greenhouse. His site was only slightly sloped, so he needed to dig down till he hit bedrock at 6 ft (2 m), then build up and import topsoil to complete the berm. His greenhouse uses rammed earth-filled tires (two summers of work). This is a labor-intensive method, physically draining. Think twice. You’ll need sturdy friends to help you. Even Dan says he would make a different choice if he had it to do over.
There are photos of the gravel footings, the underground pipework, the thermal mass north side and end walls and their insulation, concrete foundations, the Herculean rammed earth tire walls, earth cooling tubes, L-bolts to anchor the tire walls to the sill plate for the glazing, waterproof membranes for the walls that will be in the ground, framing, roofing, and glazing. Keep the chickens from pecking your cob infill, the new berm, suitable groundcover plants, and foam insulation board! Finally a photo of the first plateful of spinach!
Dan ends the book with two of his newest ideas – wind scoops and a methane digester. Of course, all these engineering tweaks won’t help if you’re not a good plantsperson to start with, so you might brush up those skills too, with a different book.
Remember, these are the pioneering days for Chinese greenhouse builders and growers. Not everything has been figured out, especially for locations very different from China or Missouri. You can’t buy exactly what you need “off the shelf”. You have to figure out some things for yourself. Some ideas in this book are untested. Don’t take anyone else’s ideas as the perfect solution, This book would have benefited from a bit tighter editing to remove a few slip-ups. Growing warm weather crops in winter, without fossil fuels, in countries outside sub-tropical zones is a goal worth working for.
When I check to see which blog posts are gathering interest, the ones featuring Tokyo bekana are doing well this past year. You might wonder why. It’s because it’s one of the greens being grown on the International Space Station, and most people haven’t heard of it before. I’ve written about Tokyo bekana as a winter hoophouse greenhere on earth, and as a summer alternative to lettuce in places with hot summers (Virginia, Jamaica, Cuba).
According to an article in The Atlantic, the first plant to grow in space was thale cress, Arabidopsis thaliana, a spindly plant with white flowers, related to mustards, mature 6 weeks after sowing. This was in 1982, on board Salyut, a Russian space station of the era. Thale cress was chosen for practical reasons: a fairly quick life cycle that allows for many analyses in a short time.
The first vegetable grown and eaten on the International Space Station space was Outredgeous red romaine lettuce, in 2015. Bred by Frank Morton ofWild Garden Seed. 64 days to maturity on earth, 33 days in space, with intensely dark red, slightly ruffled leaves forming loose upright heads. “We are an organic seed farm in the Pacific Northwest, established in 1994, owned and operated by Frank and Karen Morton. We are known for farm-original varieties of many salad greens, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.” This is an Open Source Seed Initiative variety. The OSSI pledge: “You have the freedom to use these OSSI-Pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.” Read more about OSSI here!
Space gardening has to be hydroponic – there is no soil involved. I am a big proponent of “Keep the Soil in Organic”, as I believe there are nutrients we don’t yet know about, that the plants take up from the soil in the proportions they need. But in space, you can’t do that, soil is way too heavy. If you watched The Martian movie, you saw some hilarious efforts to grow potatoes in “soil”.
In the Space Station is a plant growth system Veg-0, fondly called “Veggie,” a chamber about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage, typically holding six plants. The magenta light bathing the plants in Veggie is the result of a combination of red and blue LED lights. the most efficient way to get good plant growth. Green LEDS were added later so the plants look like edible food rather than strange decorations. Without gravity, plants use other environmental factors, such as light, to orient their growth.
To grow the first food crop, a root mat and six plant “pillows,” each containing ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce seeds, were put into Veggie. Inside each plant pillow is a growth medium including controlled-release fertilizer and calcined clay as used on baseball fields. This clay increases aeration and helps the plants grow. The plants get about 100 milliliters of water each to start the seeds growing. The pillows distribute water, nutrients and air around the plant root, to prevent the roots from drowning in water or being trapped in air (because of the way fluids in space tend to form bubbles).
Veggie remains on the station permanently as a research platform for other leafy plant experiments (and a source of food and psychological comfort!). The crew does get some fresh fruits and vegetables when a supply ship arrives at the space station, but the quantity is limited and they are soon gone.
Tokyo bekana was chosen for its fairly short stature and fast growth. Other contenders included Swiss chard, spinach and beets. The scientists who noted Tokyo bekana’s short stature haven’t seen the healthy 24” (60 cm) ones I just pulled up in our hoophouse today! In our hoophouse climate, it bolts in January, so our plan includes clearing the crop then and sowing spinach for bare-root transplants.
“We conducted a survey of several leafy green vegetables and looked at how the crops grew, how nutritious they were, and how a taste panel felt about them,” Gioia Massa, a scientist on the project, told Modern Farmer in an email. “The ‘Tokyo bekana’ Chinese cabbage variety was rated as the top in growth and the favorite of tasters.”
In some reports the little known Tokyo bekana is called, rather generally, but confusingly, Chinese cabbage or, more specifically, but mistakenly, bok choy, but we growers know the difference! Different sources in English use different names for Asian vegetables. I have a series of blogposts Asian Greens for the Month, which you can find by clicking that Category or using the search box.
2. The cabbage family, Brassica oleracea, of European origin (Kai-lan, Chinese kale)
3. The Chinese Mustard family, Brassica juncea (Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Red Rain)
Returning to 1a Brassica rapa var. pekinensis, there are two types: Wong Bok (Napa cabbage such as Blues, and cylindrical Michihli types) and Celery cabbage (pe tsai), which includes Tokyo bekana and the very similar Maruba Santoh.
A fast-growing, looseleaf, non-heading vegetable with light green leaves and white petioles.
Mild flavor, tender texture: can be substituted for lettuce
Can be ready for harvest in 3–4 weeks after sowing.
More heat tolerant than Napa cabbage. Cold tolerant to 25°F (-4°C)
Fairly bolt resistant
Advanced Plant Habitat 2018
There are two Veggie units aboard the station, along with a more sophisticated growth chamber, the Advanced Plant Habitat.
The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is a growth chamber on the Space Station for plant research like Veggie. It uses LED lights and a porous clay substrate, and a controlled-release “fertilizer” delivering water, nutrients and oxygen to the plant roots.
Unlike Veggie, APH is sealed, and automated with cameras and more than 180 sensors that are in constant interactive contact with a team on the ground at Kennedy, so it doesn’t need day-to-day care from the crew. It has more colors of LED lights than Veggie, and also white, far red and even infrared to allow for nighttime imaging.
APH had its first test run on the space station in Spring 2018 using Arabidopsis thaliana (good old thale cress) and dwarf wheat.
Astronauts have grown eight different types of leafy greens in Veggie at different times. NASA is building up the ingredients for a pick-and-eat salad; or rather, a pick, sanitize and eat salad since there is no way to cook on the station yet.
In 2018, the Space Station grew Dragoon lettuce, a green mini romaine. Compact and uniform. Leaves are thick and have an excellent, crisp texture. Heads are very dense, hold well in the field. Bolting and tipburn tolerant. Resistant to downy mildew, lettuce dieback lettuce mosaic virus and an aphid. For spring, summer, and fall on earth, anytime in space. Suitable for hydroponic systems. By contrast with Outredgeous, Dragoon is Utility Patent granted, meaning other people are prohibited from making, using, or selling the “invention” without authorization.
In 2019 the Space Station crew cultivated Wasabi mustard (eaten as a microgreen after 10 days of growth, or after 40-45 days as leafy greens) and Extra Dwarf pak choi (Harvest around 2-3″ tall, 30 days after sowing)
In experiment Veg-04B (see list below) with Veggie, a plant growth unit on the space station, the researchers tested how the quality of light and fertilizer affects the microbial safety, nutritional value and taste of mizuna. Astronauts completed the second of three harvests of this mildly tangy, leafy salad vegetable.
“A lack of vitamin C was all it took to give sailors scurvy, and vitamin deficiencies can cause a number of other health problems. Simply packing some multi-vitamins will not be enough to keep astronauts healthy as they explore deep space. They will need fresh produce.
Right now on the space station, astronauts receive regular shipments of a wide variety of freeze-dried and prepackaged meals to cover their dietary needs – resupply missions keep them freshly stocked. When crews venture further into space, traveling for months or years without resupply shipments, the vitamins in prepackaged form break down over time, which presents a problem for astronaut health.
NASA is looking at ways to provide astronauts with nutrients in a long-lasting, easily absorbed form—freshly grown fresh fruits and vegetables. The challenge is how to do that in a closed environment without sunlight or Earth’s gravity.”
Microbes in Space
March 2020 Researchers examined the microbial communities growing on the Space Lettuce. A diverse community of microbes lives on typical Earth-grown plants. These may include commensals (which neither harm nor benefit their host), or other microbes. Because microbes can affect the health of plants and those who eat the crops, researchers studied the communities of fungi and bacteria growing on the lettuce.
They identified the 15 most abundant types of microbes on the leaves and 20 in the roots, and found that the identity and range of these microbes was similar to Earth-grown lettuce. This was surprising, given the unique conditions in the Space Station. The scientists had expected to find different microbial communities present.
Happily, none of the bacteria they detected are known to cause disease in humans. Tests confirmed the absence of dangerous bacteria known to occasionally contaminate crops, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. The numbers of fungal spores on them was also in the normal range for produce graded as fit for human consumption.
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins harvested radish plants growing in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) aboard the International Space Station. She carefully wrapped each of the 20 radish plants in foil, putting them in cold storage for the return trip to Earth in 2021, for further study. Note they didn’t get to eat any.
This is the first time NASA has grown radishes on the orbiting laboratory in the APH. Radishes were chosen because they are well understood by scientists and reach maturity in only 27 days on Earth, under optimal conditions. Radishes are genetically similar to Arabidopsis, thale cress, that researchers have long studied in microgravity.
Radishes are a different kind of crop from the leafy greens that astronauts previously grew on the space station, or dwarf wheat which was the first crop grown in the APH. Root crops require certain triggers to initiate root swelling, and also flowering (not wanted if you want to eat the roots!) Growing a range of crops helps determine which plants can thrive in microgravity and be part of offering variety and nutritional balance for astronauts on long missions.
Unlike previous experiments in NASA’s APH and Veggie, which used clay pillows loaded with a slow-release fertilizer, this trial relies on precise quantities of minerals.
Sophisticated control cameras and more than 180 sensors in the grow chamber let researchers at the Kennedy Space Center monitor growth and regulate moisture levels, temperature, and carbon dioxide concentration.
For the future, NASA hopes to figure out how to grow tomatoes, peppers, beans, and berries in space. And microgreens.
Overall, 15 different types of plants have grown in space in Veggie. Researchers at Kennedy Space Center have tested more than 100 crops on the ground. Click the link to read about them all.
Veggie Crops not for human consumption include more of the same crops, and also zinnias, lentils, mustards and radishes, brome grass, algae and tests of a new type of grow chamber, the Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS)
This is the continuing journal of my Agroecology Tour of Cuba with Organic Growers School in January 2020. For other posts in the series, click the category “Cuban Agriculture” Our visit to Las Terrazas was on day 6 of our trip.
Las Terrazas is located in Pinar del Rio, in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range, Artemisa, Cuba.
We sat in their outdoor classroom for a presentation before the tour.
Las Terrazas, an Ecovillage and Intentional Community, covers 5000 hectares in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. They started with 100 people living there in 1971, and now there are 1400 people (about 273 families), a vegetarian restaurant, a hotel, a hospital, a university, schools and jobs for everyone there. Membership is “frozen” and very few people leave. The housing is government-owned and can be passed down in the family but not sold.
The life expectancy of the residents is 79 years and infant mortality has been zero for at least ten years. Las Terrazas has a young population, with an economically active population of 629 people, of whom 62% work in tourism, 30% in community services and 8% in forestry.
The land was once coffee plantations and charcoal production sites worked by enslaved people. The soil was not right for coffee, and reforestation was started in 1968. There are now 6 million hardwood trees of 22 species, including native ones as well as mahogany, tea, eucalyptus.
There is an additional 25,000-hectare park (Biosphere Reserve and Eco Station).
1793-1804 saw the immigration of French landowners who started coffee plantations in the area of Artemisa. They left archeological treasures, including 6 coffee plantations which have been “rescued”. (We visit the restored one next. It will be my next Cuban Agriculture post.) Up until 1968, the land was eroded. The slopes were treeless because they had been logged for export, for charcoal production and for ship-building. In 1968 a special comprehensive plan was made and reforestation started all across Cuba. In the Biosphere Park 1500 km of terraces were built to prevent erosion, enable transportation through the mountains, and grow a good forest. The reforestation project took 20 years.
In 1985 the 250,000 km2 site (Sierra del Rosario) became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (Reserva del Biosfera). It is a protected area of managed resources. It has three parts: El Salón for research and public use; a natural reserve with shrubs; and an evergreen pine forest. It receives 2000 mm (79”) of rain each year. It is driest in December, wettest in May and June, with an average temperature of 24.4C (75F). A drainage system was installed. There are 889 plant species, 608 land species [flowering species?] and 281 fungi, mosses and lichens, and 126 bird species, currently. The ecology of bird species is evolving, as shown by official counts. They measure water and soil pollution. Invasive trees (locust) are converted to charcoal for export to the US, by private businesses. They are working to control invasive aliens, such as The Giant African Snail. The government employs people to eliminate the snail and volunteers help, there are Public Service Announcements on TV (their TV has no ads).
In 1990, tourists were introduced, and are now a major source of income.
Lunch in Las Terrazas at the vegetarian Restaurant El Romero and visit to artist, Ariel.
Our lunch included lots of vegetables, with delicious good sized portions. It was nice not to have big piles of meat. There were quilts on display in the restaurant, including the one above, showing leaves of various tree species.
Later we visited the workshop of an artist in recycled paper, Ariel. I bought 5 small cards and 1 big one. They have beautiful paintings of flowers and birds.
No Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in January!
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of root crops that we sow outdoors here in January. Nor are there any root crops to sow in the greenhouse. Most root crops do not transplant well, as the replanting does too much damage to the taproot. Some exceptions are celeriac and kohlrabi (a stem vegetable more than a root, although I do tend to lump it in with root crops.) I have heard beets can be transplanted, especially if in soil blocks or plugs, and I’ve even heard of people up north transplanting plugs of rutabagas. I tend to be skeptical of books saying this or that can’t be transplanted, as I have transplanted many things. But not yet rutabagas or beets. I did roll my eyes when I heard someone propose transplanting mini-soil-blocks of carrots, using a pair of tongs made with popsicle sticks!
We are in winter-hardiness sub-zone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C).
Around January 26, we sow our last hoophouse radishes (sowing #6), Easter Egg, and White Icicle. This is our absolute last worthwhile sowing date. They will be ready for harvest from mid-March to mid-April, but if the weather is warm, or we fail to open the doors when we should, they will bolt before we get roots.
Our hoophouse radish sowing dates are 9/7, 9/30, 10/28, 11/22, 12/20, 1/27. Note that the sowing intervals are 23, 28, 25, 28, 38 days. The interval is much longer in December-January, as the rate of growth is so slow. There really is no point in sowing closer to the #5 sowing date, as the #6 will catch up in the warming days of late February and early March. The daylength is also increasing a lot by then, too.
If your hoophouse planting plans exceed the space you have, simply tweaking to a less frequent new harvest start could free up space to grow something else. Also consider a gap in radish supply, if other crops could make better use of the space. See Root Crops in September for more about our succession of hoophouse radish sowing dates.
In our double-layer hoophouse, turnips (and many cooking greens) can survive a hoophouse air temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan).
Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in January
In central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in January except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish. The months with R in them are the horseradish harvest months. September to April have R in them, and the summer months do not!
We have already had outdoor night temperatures of 16°F/-9°C and 18°F/-8°C. Until temperatures drop to 12°F/-11°C, we could dig Danvers carrots, Cylindra beets, and any rowcovered rutabagas (swedes). Albina Verduna, and Lutz Winterkeeper beets are hardy down to 15°F (-9.5°C), as are most kohlrabi, rutabagas and rowcovered turnips. Covered beets, covered winter radish are OK down to 10°F (-12°C). This is too chancy for us! We like to gather our root crops in and have them safely stored.
We store our root crops washed, in perforated plastic bags, in a walk-in cooler. Root cellars and cool basements are also possible storage sites, and in the past, I stored root crops in boxes of damp sand or woodash.
In the hoophouse we can normally harvest radishes #3 (sown October 30) all through January, from 12/15 to 2/1. This winter I notice we have already harvested most of them (1/6). We harvest our first turnips (sown around October 13) by pulling out the biggest from January 5 (or even late December), until mid-February, by which time we can have made a start on the second sowing (October 25). We thin the second sowing in early January or late December.
Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in January
Check stored vegetables
From storage, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips, if we grew them. Stored crops need to be checked for decay at least once a month.
Inner tunnels in the hoophouse for cold nights
As noted above, inner rowcovers can make a big improvement to nighttime air temperatures in a hoophouse. We are fortunate to have a climate in central Virginia that means we don’t need inner covers most of the time. We watch the forecast and if we think it will drop to 8°F (-13°C) outdoors, we pull over the rowcovers. For winter crops we don’t use hoops. We have separate lengths of rowcover for each bed. Some people prefer a single large sheet. We find we can set the roll of rowcover at one end of the bed and simply walk with the free end down to the far end of the bed, leaving only a little bit of tweaking to get everything covered.
In the morning, if we feel pretty sure we’ll need the rowcovers again, we just pull the covers into the aisles, leaving every other path free to walk in. If we think we won’t need the rowcovers the next night we roll them up, giving us more space to work, and lengthening the lifespan of the rowcover by not exposing it to much sunlight.
Special Root Crop Topic for January in Central Virginia
Garden Plans Part Two
This garden planning task is not just about root crops. We had our Crop Review in November, and then inventoried our leftover seeds, planned what to grow for next year, and ordered our seeds. See Preparing to order seeds, if you haven’t sent in your orders yet.
We have made our garden maps, and specific plans for important crops with either lots of varieties (tomatoes), lots of sowings (sweet corn) or some combination (lettuce, broccoli and cabbage).
One task we need to complete by mid-January is to prepare our greenhouse seedlings schedule, because here we start sowings in mid-late January. We also tidy up the greenhouse (currently growing lettuce) and test, repair or replace vital equipment (like a seedling heating mat) and supplies like Bt and cover crops seeds.
Another January task is to prepare a new Field Planting Schedule, or Outdoor Planting Schedule, as we call it here to distinguish it from our hoophouse schedule and our seedlings schedule. This is a list in date order of what to sow or transplant, how long the rows are, the space between rows, the space between plants (for transplants) and where to plant.
We also plan crops that will go in our raised beds from January to July. We plan the second part of the year in June, giving ourselves more flexibility.
Our garden planning wraps up by mid-February, with all the budgets, crew selection and shift decisions (afternoons in cold weather, mornings in hot weather – we’re mostly half-day gardeners, with one or two stalwart all-day workers)
There are lots of new gardeners now, as a result of the pandemic causing people to stay at home, cook more and want more food security without going inside grocery stores. Maybe last year you bought packets of seeds in a hurry, either online or off a rack in as store. Maybe you hope your garden will go more smoothly this year and I’m here with this blog post to help you.
Or perhaps you are a new professional grower, seeking to improve your game. Or an established one, looking to hang in there by farming smarter in these hard times.
‘Tis the season for garden planning. Inventory your seeds left from last year, peruse the catalogs and prepare your seed orders. The earlier you get them in, the more likely you are to get the varieties you want, before anything is sold out. Be prepared, note your second choice, and fend off disappointment!
I have a course on garden planning for home gardeners, on the Mother Earth Fair Online. It consists of eight half-hour workshops, covering all aspects of garden planning from clarifying your goals, choosing crops, making maps of what will go where, planning when you want to harvest, determining how long your rows will be and how much seed to order, deciding when to plant and scheduling everything to make the year go smoothly. There are also workshops on ways to pack more in, and how to be prepared for things that don’t go according to plan!
Commercial growers and energetic home growers will also be interested in the information on garden planning in my book Sustainable Market Farming.
Think about what you grew last year, and whether you want the same again. Think about what you wished you’d grown. Every year we try to introduce a new crop or two, on a small scale, to see if we can add it to our “portfolio.” Some-times we can successfully grow a crop that is said not to thrive in our climate. (Brussels sprouts really don’t). We like to find the varieties of each crop that do best for our conditions. Later we check how the new varieties do compared with our old varieties. We use heirloom varieties if they do well, hybrids if they are what works best for us. We don’t use treated seeds or GMOs, because of the wide damage we believe they do. For ideas of what you might grow, see our Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Crop.
2. Are any of your leftover seeds OK to keep?
See making an inventory, and Ordering seeds! Seed ViabilityMany seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook. Frank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.
A simplified version of how long to keep seeds is as follows:
Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera
2 years: Corn, Beans and Peas of all kinds, Chives, Dandelion, Martynia, Okra, Onions,
Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce).
The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. Keep seed cool, dark, dry in airtight, mouseproof containers.
How Much of What to Grow?
Make a rough map of your garden space and see what will fit. Remember you can plant a later crop in the same space after an earlier one finishes. See below for more info on quantities of potatoes and garlic, two staples.
How Much Garlic to Plant
A yield ratio of 1:6 or 7 seems typical, and makes complete sense when you consider you are planting one clove to get a bulb of 6–7 cloves. Divide the amount you intend to produce by six to figure out how much to plant. For large areas 750–1,000 lbs/ac (842–1,122 kg/ha) are needed for plantings in double rows, 3″–4″ in-row (7.5–10 cm), beds 39″ (1 m) apart. For single rows, 8 lbs (3.6 kg) of hardneck or 4 lbs (1.8 kg) of softneck plants about 100′ (30 m). In the US, one person eats 3–9 lbs (1.4–4.2 kg) per year.
Hopefully you kept some kind of record on whether the amount you bought last year was enough. When we figure out how much seed to order we add in some extra for some things – crops that can be difficult to germinate, or we really don’t want to cut too close. We add 20 percent extra for most crops, but only 5 percent for kale, 10 percent for onions and collards and 30 percent for melons. These numbers are based on our experience – yours might be different. We also know which seed we can buy in bulk and use over several years. This gives us an additional security against poor germination, or plagues of grasshoppers or caterpillars. For me, a big bag of broccoli seed for each of our main varieties gives some kind of warm glow of horticultural security! Buying too much either leads to wasting money (if we throw it away) or wasting time and money (if we sow old seed that doesn’t come up well, then have a crop failure).
Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops. Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts – have your calculator at the ready, or easier still, just type “Convert ½ oz to grams”into your search engine.
See How to read seed catalogs for tips on getting what you really want by paying attention to what’s in the small print and what isn’t mentioned. We carefully look for varieties that offer the flavor, productivity and disease resistance we need. The catalogs are starting to appear in my mail box. The early bird catches the preferred varieties! The main companies we order from are Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and of course, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We like SESE for regionally adapted varieties, Fedco for great prices on bulk sizes, and Johnny’s for some varieties we really like that aren’t available from the other two.
Formatting and placing seed orders
We grow lots of different crops, so we make a spreadsheet, and include columns for the name of the supplier we buy each variety from (we just use the initial), the item number in the catalog, the packet size and the price. (Be careful though, if you carry this information over from year to year – prices change.) Once we have composed our total seed order, we sort the orders by the name of the supplier. Then we can calculate the total price for each supplier. This also gives us the opportunity to look at price breaks for large orders and move an item from one supplier to another, if that makes sense. At this point we usually make a cup of tea and reward ourselves with an “impulse buy” or two, if that doesn’t push us up into a higher shipping cost bracket or blow the budget. We place our orders online these days, nice and early, to increase the chances of getting exactly what we want.
Here are a few more thoughts on crops to consider:
For an overall sense of success, grow some “Insurance Crops”. These are reliable vegetable crops that grow without much attention and quietly wait until needed. Chard is one of those. We sow chard in April, after the early spring rush. We plan for it to provide us with leafy greens in the summer, after the brassicas have bolted. We prepare a bed, unroll hay mulch over it, then make “nests” in the hay for planting. Nests are holes in the hay down to soil level, at each spot where we want to plant. After transplanting. we water and tuck the hay tight around the plants to keep the weeds at bay. Some years there isn’t much demand for chard and we just leave it growing. If we need it, there it is with a generous supply of leaves. If we ignore it, nothing goes wrong. It’s worth having some crops like this in the garden, to help ensure there’s always something to eat.
One year we grew Malabar spinach and it played a similar role: hot weather leafy cooking greens. Malabar can be used when small for salads, or when larger for cooking. It wasn’t hugely popular in either role, but it was beautiful. To be fair, I don’t think we did the best by it. Because it was new, and because it had the word “spinach” in its name, some cooks served large leaves for salad. Alone. I don’t recommend that.
Another insurance crop for us is asparagus beans, also known as yard long beans. Once trellised, the plants need no attention, other than regular picking. If not picked, the pods grow puffy and useless, so this is not a crop to ignore for too long. Asparagus beans are related to southern peas (cowpeas), and are more resistant to Mexican bean beetles than regular green beans are. They do need trellising, but once you’ve done that, the same plants will feed you all season. Very little seems to trouble them.
While we’re on the topic of crops that do need trellising, but can then produce all season, I’ll add in the West Indian gherkins. I found I did need to tuck these plants into the netting, so they weren’t work free. But the plants were disease-free and very productive. If you have trouble with regular pickling cucumbers, you might sow some of these as well, to be sure of being able to have something to pickle.
Another insurance crop is Tokyo bekana, or its cousin Maruba Santoh in late summer as a substitute for lettuce. It can be hard to germinate lettuce in hot weather, but these tender brassicas germinate under hot conditions and produce fast-growing very tender leaves with crunchy stems. Some people don’t know they’re not eating lettuce!
Senposaiis a cooking green that does well in spring and fall outdoors, and in our hoophouse in the winter. It’s fast-growing, productive, disease-resistant, easy to cook and delicious to eat. In spring it needs an early start in our climate, so that it has time to be productive before it bolts. In fall it’s cold-hardy down to 12F. Its Achilles Heel is that it can really attract Harlequin bugs! We did spend time every day for a while squashing the bugs on the senposai leaves, and we made a difference in the number of bugs.
Well, I hope this has given you some thoughts about ordering seeds of some insurance crops for next year, when you plan your seed order.
Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening introduces us to the concept of Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives. I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, as our spring planted greens only have a short season before they bolt. And summer is too hot, winter too cold. . . We sowed in mid-September.
These can also be insurance crops, in that, if you don’t need them, you can cut and compost them, to let fresh leaves grow. I wrote three posts on Eat-All Greens, because they were such fun and so productive
Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm: How to Start and Run a Profitable Market Garden That Builds Health in Soil, Crops, and Communities
Daniel Mays, Storey Publishers, 2020. 230 pages, color photos throughout, $24.95.
The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm is a great help to those moving towards more No-Till. This book is full of practical details, and efficient and effective no-till practices, such as how to manage large tarps. This is also a beautiful book. The photos are crisp and inspiring, the drawings clear and informative, the charts well organized and easy to use. The aerial photo shows a poster-farm! Frith Farm is a small-acreage vegetable farm using raised beds, in the style of Jean-Martin Fortier, Ben Hartman, Curtis Stone and others. “No-till human-scale farming is about so much more than avoiding tillage.” Here we can learn about healthy soil, high productivity, fewer weeds, lower costs and a more natural way of growing food.
The book includes some hard-to-find topics, such as acquiring capital, designing and setting out drainage and irrigation systems for both drip and sprinklers, and integrating livestock in a vegetable farm. Minor grumble: the index seems a little light. Fortunately, the book, like Frith Farm, is well-organized, and topics are easy to find.
Daniel started Frith Farm in Scarborough, Maine, in 2010, in his mid-twenties, borrowing $180,000 at 3.8% interest and buying a property with five open acres and a crumbling house and barn. He had “eighteen years of expensive education and an embarrassing lack of hard skills.” His first year, he provided for a 40-member CSA from less than one acre. The farm now supplies a 150-member CSA, four natural food stores, a farmers’ market and a farm stand. They sell about $300,000 worth of food, using 2.5 acres in cultivation and 2.5 acres of pasture. Almost all of the work is done by hand, by a crew working a 45-hour-week for 8 months, then having four months off.
Daniel recommends consistent bed dimensions, even if compromising the land geometry. He has 16 plots of 12 beds, each 100ft long, on 5ft centers. This bed-width increases the amount of growing space compared to 30ins beds. He’s over 6ft tall, so jumping over a bed is no problem. I don’t know about the rest of the crew. There are driveable surfaces between the plots and wood chip paths between beds. Without tilling, you minimize erosion, and the conventional wisdom of keeping rows across the slope, not up and down it, isn’t so vital.
Daniel recommends soil testing and an initial supply of inputs to jump start your soil health and enable you to earn a living. You’ll probably be buying compost your first year: 54 cubic yards ($25-$50/cubic yard) will provide 3ins cover on 6,000 sq ft (one Frith Farm plot). Once biological soil health is established, few imported soil amendments will be needed. You will need lots of mulch every year, such as leaves, straw, woodchips. Frith Farm uses 130 cubic yards of leaves per acre each year.
To go from a grass field to a set of ready-to-plant beds, some no-till growers do one initial tilling and maybe subsoiling to establish beds (rent or borrow the equipment). Daniel says “Don’t let purism keep you from actually breaking ground – it is better to start farming imperfectly than never to start at all!” Frith Farm tills with a Berta rotary plow on their BCS walking tractor, one 10ins strip at a time. We use a Berta plow to remake paths in our raised beds – it is a wonderful tool for that.
A second method of killing grasses and weeds is to mow closely and smother the plants with tarps. This takes 3-52 weeks, depending on the weather and plant species. This works for beds you plan to bring into production next year. Use a 5-6 mil thick black and white silage trap, black side up. Weight and wait! Daniel’s ingenious “tarp kit” consists of a pallet with enough cinder blocks to hold down a 24×100 ft tarp, which is folded and set up on top of the blocks, safely out of the way of tractor forks. The kit is moved to the next site, then returned to the pallet when its work is done. I’ve been interested in trying tarping, but muscling huge sheets of silage tarp and enough weights to hold it down was quite off-putting. Here’s an answer!
When you and the dead plants are ready, remove the tarp, spread compost thickly and plant. If the soil is compacted, use a broadfork before spreading compost. Tarping is also a valuable method for flipping beds between one crop and the next.
A third method of establishing new beds is to mow, amend the soil, cover the whole area with thick mulch, topped with compost and plant into that. To succeed, use an initial layer that lets no light through. This method involves lots of work and mulch.
Seedling production is major at Frith Farm, as transplanting fits well with no-till. They recommend 500 sq ft of greenhouse space per acre of field production. They have some very practical “benches” which are sawhorses topped by custom pallets holding 12 standard 1020 flats. Two people can carry a full pallet, saving lots of time transferring one flat at a time.
Frith Farm uses soil blocks, mixing in a cement mixer. Winstrip trays are much quicker than making blocks, but they prefer the smaller cost and space saving of soil blocks. They use four sizes of standup blockers, but not the ¾” miniblocks, because those dry out too fast. They have tried the paperpot planter and found it unsuccessful when planting into stubble, worth considering before spending $3000.
One key to successful transplanting is appreciating the sublime experience of setting a plant in the ground with your own hands. Another is to have enough hands to get the job done! A third is watering soon after planting. They use a rolling Infinite Dibbler, a homemade oil-drum dibbler and a special 6-plant garlic dibbler For direct seeding, Daniel likes the humble Earthway seeder, even using it for cover crop seeds (the beet plate for the grasses). The Earthway is rugged, affordable, and works well in no-till beds.
Irrigation is another aspect of vegetable production that Daniel has well figured out. Here is a good clear explanation about well depth, flow, recharge rates, costs, water quality and all the facts you never needed to know if you use city water. The book includes a very clear pipe layout superimposed on the bed plan.
Daniel will help you decide between drip irrigation and sprinklers (or some of each). He recommends Senninger Xcel Wobblers with a 1gpm flow each, covering 6 beds with a line of 4 sprinklers. They run 12 sprinklers at once. This kind of detailed step-by-step calculation can be hard to find. Here’s another instance where the book pays for itself with just one piece of information! Daniel uses driptape only for long-season crops that are prone to foliar diseases, otherwise, he likes the simplicity of sprinklers. Follow Daniel’s advice and bury all main and lateral pipelines deep enough not to hit them when digging. A hose reel cart is a helpful thing to have to make hand-watering less of a tangled mess.
Daniel avoids rowcover unless a crop has two reasons simultaneously. Pests and diseases indicate imbalance, underlying issues with soil health, crop rotation, biodiversity. Work to rebalance and make improvements. Work towards being a No-Spray farm as well as No-Till.
The chapter on weeds opens with the saying “We till because we have weeds because we till . . .!” Weeds are an ecological mechanism for keeping the soil covered and full of roots. The “simple” solution of never letting weeds seed is less work in the long run, more work at first. It relies on working only the amount of land you have enough skilled hands to deal with. Two skilled fulltime workers per acre.
When is thick mulch not helpful? In early spring when you want to warm the soil. At Frith Farm, the soil is frozen from November to late March. Beds that finish too late to plant an overwinter cover crop get composted and covered in leaf mulch. They rake this leaf mulch off the beds into the paths in early spring, and spread a layer of compost on the beds, allowing some warm-up time. The dark compost absorbs the heat from the sun.
“Flipping the bed” after a crop may be simple if it was a root crop with few weeds. If the crop leaves a lot of bulky residues, mowing and tarping can restore the soil to a usable state in 5-10 days in warm weather. You may need to dig out perennial weeds, or add soil amendments, and another 7 barrows of compost per 100ft bed (2.5 cu yards/1000 sq ft), but soon you are good to go. They have a smooth compost spreading operation. A tractor driver delivers buckets of compost directly into wheelbarrows lined up at the head of the beds. People push the barrows down the paths, dumping out several shots of compost, raking the compost out to cover the whole bed surface.
Solarization with clear plastic during warm sunny weather is another way to kill weeds. If the edges of the plastic are buried, weed seeds and pathogenic fungal spores are also killed. If you want to kill weeds or crop residues without all the other life forms in the top layers of soil, using black plastic tarps is a safer way to go. The soil temperature does not get as high, but the removal of light does help kill plants. The book has a graph of days of tarping versus temperature. More than 25 days at an ambient temperature of 50F, about 9 at 65F, and only one day above 85F.
They have an ingenious foot-powered crimping tool for killing tall cover crops instead of mowing. Called the “T-post stomper”, this is a partner dance with one person at each end of a T-post lying across the bed. The T-post is tied with twine to the “inner” foot of each partner and includes a long twine loop that is hand-held.
No-till cover crop planning takes care. Plants die in three ways: they finish their lifecycle, they winterkill or they are starved of light or water. In no-till farming, the tools are the mower, winter, and tarping, or some combination of these. A sequence of photos shows beds from seeding the cover crop in September to healthy summer brassicas with no weeds in sight. A spring cover crop sequence shows peas and oats sown in April, tarped in June, direct seeded in storage radish in summer. Shorter sections on summer and fall cover crops follow.
Daniel has a chapter on integrating livestock with vegetable farming to increase diversity and net productivity of the farm. The symbiosis between soil, plants, animals can lead to creation of more soil, and increased fertility. Chickens are easy to keep, although if you want poultry that don’t scratch up the soil, get turkeys. (Daniel has a punny photo of turkey on rye.) Sheep are easier to fence than goats, and are smaller than cattle. Be wary of pigs. They can act like obsessed tillers and do lots of damage.
Harvested crops remove nutrients from the farm soil, and these nutrients can be replaced by farming for a very healthy soil biology. Healthy soil draws carbon and nitrogen from the air, and makes previously “inaccessible” stores of nutrients available to the following crops. Use compost, leaves and other organic mulches until you max out the recommended level of some nutrient. If your soil is then unbalanced, you will need to bring in missing nutrients.
The chapter on harvest sets out efficient user-friendly methods at Frith Farm. For a pleasant wash-pack space, you need a roof, a floor with good drainage (could be wood chips), mesh or slatted tables; hoses and sprayers; tanks to hold water; a salad spinner, a barrel root washer; good scales; flip-lid storage totes; walk-in coolers using CoolBot technology; and customized shelving. Think before buying a delivery truck – $1,500 worth of produce will fit in the back of a Prius! Almost no fuel costs! Daniel also recommends buying an insulated truck body to convert into a cooler. It can double as a screen for crew outdoor movie nights! Don’t forget to have fun!
We have a captive market at Twin Oaks (more politely called direct supply), so I‘m not the best reviewer of information about selling. But the section on their hiring process really grabbed me. “We are not just hiring a pair of hands to meet our labor needs; we are inviting someone into our community, our family, and our home.” Spell out and keep to high standards, provide a social experience, show care and camaraderie, train adequately, and compensate fairly. Interview well, check references, have a working interview (paid) if you can; write out your job offer. Provide guidelines with goals for pace and efficiency. Each person should be able to harvest, wash and pack about $80 worth of produce per hour. Share the joyful observations of life around you.
Daniel describes his recordkeeping, where the plan becomes the record. He recommends Holistic Management by Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield. Define your farms’ purpose, plan the season, plan the week. A plan is just a plan, sometimes plans change. Look for opportunities to record aggregate data, such as recording what you take to market and what you bring back, rather than each individual sale. At the end of the season, add up sales for each crop and divide by the number of beds to calculate the revenue per bed, and the yield of that crop. Having standard sized beds makes this simple. Add into pre-existing records and eliminate multiple versions of the same data. Make one spreadsheet of notes for next year. You can sort it by crop or by month, or by plot number.
Their Plan for the Week is an online spreadsheet accessible to all via a laptop in the barn. (Obviously they have better internet than we do!) Each week has a tab, each day has a column, and each plot has a row with tasks, times and sometimes a name. Once a week, the crew walks the farm and makes the list for each day, including any tasks carried over. Nothing is erased (it becomes a record!) When someone completes a task, they use a strike-through font and add notes. At the end of each day, remaining tasks are reprioritized for the rest of the week. This spreadsheet becomes the farm journal, and is easily searchable.
Frith Farm has a four-year rotation starting with smothering followed by transplanted cucurbits or nightshades and a winter-killed cover crop. The second year involves brassicas followed by root crops, with mulch over-winter. The third year is devoted to repetitions of salad crops, and a winterkilled cover crop. The fourth year is for alliums and an over-wintering cover crop. Consider the crop spacing you need for the new crop, and the spacing of the stubble from the previous crop. You often don’t need a clear bed, just clear rows where you intend to plant.
During the winter they create their attractive crop rotation plan where each plot has 12 rows (for the beds), with “under-rows” (for under-sowing) and 12 columns (for the months). It’s color coded for quick reference. From that rotation plan, they create a Greenhouse Plan and a Seed Order.
Next is a Harvest Plan for each harvest day, starting with walking the fields to take notes, balancing what is mature with what is needed. The evening before, the harvest manager makes a list of crops, quantities, and picking order. Each harvest day has a tab on the online spreadsheet, with a row for each crop. The sheet for that day is posted by the time the crew arrives. In this case, pickers use a pen to indicate who is picking what, when it’s done. People work down the list in order, taking the crops to the wash-pack station. That crew cleans the produce and stores it in a cooler, labeled with its destination.
There is a table of revenue data for 16 top-earning vegetables. (The other 45 crops are not shown.) In terms of revenue per bed, ginger wins at $2442, but it is in place all year (and I think it is in high tunnels). Taking bed-months into account, ginger still wins, but arugula is chasing it. Radishes don’t so well in revenue per bed-season, nor do onions and beets. Frith Farm does not record labor per crop. CSA growers need to provide variety, not just the “most profitable” crops.
Success includes sustainability, considering the people and the planet as well as the profit. Profit can be understood as ability to reinvest. Exactly where the profits end up is important, and to his credit, Daniel includes his 2018 farm revenue and where it went. Of the total $314,000, $120,000 went to the farm crew (an investment in the local community that makes the farm productive); $11,000 to family loan payments. $92,000 went back to the land (infrastructure, seeds and local biomass). $91,000 left the area, for taxes, insurance, fees, tools and equipment, and non-local inputs including the energy bill.
Purchases like plastic mulch, fossil fuels and manufactured equipment are part of a linear process that essentially convert resources to pollution. Strong words, and why not? We need to each face the full effect of our production.
Frith Farm works to increase food access to people in the community who cannot afford the usual prices of healthy food. They accept SNAP and WIC, donations, and offer gleaning groups the chance to help food pantries. They have sliding scale pricing, barter, work trades, and ride shares, all of which they advertise widely.
On the ecological front, their no-till practices are working daily to increase carbon sequestration by increasing organic matter (less than 4% in 2011, over 10% in 2019). A one per cent increase in OM in the top 10” of an acre of soil removes about 8.5 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.