Book Review: Grow More Food by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Cover of Grow More Food, by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Book Review: Grow More Food, a Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Getting the Biggest Harvest Possible from a Space of Any Size, by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm. Storey Publishing, 2022, 300 pages, diagrams, $24.95

This book, Grow More Food, is an updated version of the authors’ 2015 book, High Yield Vegetable Gardening. I have been a big fan of that book since it was published. This book has much the same content but is a larger format with color photos and a larger print size.

Some of the content has been rearranged into a different, more logical, order, (athough a good index does make all topics findable). Some of the more technical or professional terms have been changed from the earlier book. “High yield” has become “productive”. The real or fictional example gardeners have almost disappeared, although drawings of their gardens live on.

If you have High Yield Vegetable Gardening and like it a lot, as I do, you probably don’t need to buy Grow More Food, unless as a gift for a friend, or if you are going to relegate the old version to the greenhouse or shed as a quick reference work. You may like to have the bigger print and the more informative and inspiring color photos in your house for periods of longer contemplation and planning. The new one, however, does not have the lay-flat spiral binding of the old one. The book is definitely a good one to keep on hand, in one version or the other.

The authors founded Seattle Urban Farm Company in 2007, and have been running it since, helping more people grow food. Their focus is to ‘find joy in the simple pleasure of doing a little better each season.” Here they are bringing proven professional techniques for bigger harvests to vegetable gardeners on any scale. The information is presented very clearly, without jargon, so that home gardeners will easily benefit. As I said in my review of High Yield Vegetable Gardening, this also provides newbie professional growers with solid information on techniques that work, without the need to understand everything at once.

These are gardeners after my own heart. Here are details you will benefit from knowing and putting into practice, which are not found in many gardening books: interpreting and using soil tests, choosing onion varieties that work at your latitude, succession planting for continuous harvests, flame-weeding, making soil block mix of the right consistency, dealing with salt build-up in greenhouse soils, minimizing nitrate accumulation in winter greens under cover. There are lots of useful charts.

This edition has more emphasis on building and maintaining good soil, and includes sidebars that dig deep into particular topics such as providing onion flavors all year, making space dedicated to perennial vegetables, converting farm-scale soil amendment rates to garden-scale ones, setting transplants at different depths, hand pollination of cucurbits, and the role of ethylene in crop storage.

Dibbling holes for planting leeks.
Photo Wren Vile

The sequence of topics starts with clarifying your garden priorities, planning and record keeping: “It’s no exaggeration to say that a detailed garden plan alone can double or triple the productivity of a garden.” There’s help in choosing the right size of garden for your needs, experience and available time. Next, create a map or drawing of the garden site, including buildings, paving and trees, and consider which crops to grow. The chart of annual crops includes days to harvest and whether to direct sow or transplant. This enables gardeners to compare short-season crops, long-season crops and those in between, to plan food for the whole season; and sequential follow-on crops to make best use of all your space.

Once you’ve figured which crops to grow, how much of each to plant, when (and how often) to plant them, you can create your planting calendar. There are options for format, and a real-life example with arugula. This is followed with a sample section of a planting calendar with harvest tracker and room for notes for next year.

The next big question is “Where?” Make a map of your garden and think about a crop rotation to help you get the best yields by avoiding planting the same crop in the same place each year. A two-year rotation simply has two groups of crops and two beds or plots that flip each year. A three-year rotation can consider which crops need heavy feeding and follow two years of heavy feeders with one of light feeders. Also, if you don’t have soil-borne diseases, consider the counter-intuitive idea of following brassicas with brassicas in the spring and fall of a year, and avoiding brassicas in that bed for the next two or three years. For gardeners like me who grow a lot of brassicas, this makes planning a rotation easier. As well as an overall map of the whole garden, make a planting schedule for each bed, with space to write things down.

A pest and disease management log is another useful piece of record-keeping. It will remind you when to be on the lookout for particular problems, and what strategies worked for you previously. A garden log or diary with entries each day you garden can end with a To-Do list, including things to buy, and watch for.

Colorado potato beetle on an eggplant leaf.
Photo Pam Dawling

And that’s just the first part of five. The second is about building healthy soil, providing a diverse ecosystem, high nutrient-level crops and big harvests. There’s information on making boxed beds, if you want to go in that direction, or lasagna beds, where organic materials are piled in layers, and tilled beds incorporating amendments. Tarping (covering soil with tarps to smother weeds) is also discussed. Mulches for pathways are compared. There is a very clear description of taking, submitting and understanding results from soil tests, accompanied by an annotated soil report.

There are clear instructions on making quality compost, buying compost, improving soil with cover crops, and mulching over winter. This chapter includes a manageable chart of “beginner” cover crops (buckwheat, four clovers, peas, vetch, mustard, oats and winter rye). Then comes the weed-reduction chapter. Strategies include dealing with weeds while they are small and seed-free, hoeing (photos of various types, with pros and cons), flaming (good safety tips here!), tarping and mulch.

Part 3 is Get to Know Your Plants – “Grow More Food by Planting the Right Varieties at the Right Time with the Best Care.” Smart gardening, with no wasted effort. Choose suitable varieties (open pollinated ones and hybrids) to match your climate and your goals. Order sensible quantities, store leftovers carefully (cool, dry, dark, airtight, mouse-proof) for use next year. There’s a two-page chart of Seed Lifespan, including parsnips and peanuts, something for every climate. Seed treatments to improve yields are covered, including soaking, scarification and inoculation.

The chapter on transplanting and direct seeding advises on which technique works for which crops. There’s information about supporting plants, from hilling up with soil, to making trellises. Supplemental fertilizers (during the growing season) are useful for some crops, not needed for others (the lists are in the book). The general theme is that heavy feeders and fast-growing crops will benefit. There’s an interesting section on pruning for production, including for good air circulation; for delaying bolting; for encouraging earlier harvests (by root pruning); and removing late flowers to focus energy on maturing fruits already formed.

The goal of managing pests and diseases is not to eliminate them all, but to control levels by cooperating with and stimulating natural processes that restore balance. This process starts with preventing problems, and ramps up if this does not succeed well enough. Develop good soil; attract beneficial insects; use rowcover or netting to keep expected insect pests from vulnerable crops; use deterrent sprays such a baking soda, hot pepper, garlic, kaolin clay for various problems; bring in beneficial organisms.

To nip any problems in the bud, it is important to monitor or scout your gardens at least once a week, looking for problems. Distinguish problems caused by extreme temperatures and water shortage from those caused by pests and diseases. Find good ID resources. You may be able to hand pick or trap enough pests to make the difference between a damaging outbreak and a trivial level. The authors explain why it is unwise to rush for the sprayer. Sprays are a last resort, even organic ones, because they may kill unintended insects, and they leave some of the pests alive to develop resistance, making that spray ineffective in the long run. There’s a two-page chart for pest and disease management strategies.

Part 4 is entitled Create Efficient Systems. It describes how to use your resources well, so time, money and space are not wasted, and you get the best from your efforts. Set up a home nursery to grow your own transplants, and plant the varieties you want in the quantities you want, to fit your schedule. Here are details on light intensity and where on the color spectrum the light should fall. You may be surprised just how much light plants need. For overall plant growth, general full-spectrum lights are just fine for a nursery, where the plants are headed outdoors to the natural source. Growing plants to maturity indoors is another (costly) matter.

The photos on making soil blocks are very helpful, and it’s a topic not covered in many places. Various types of plant container are covered. Making your own seed-starting schedule is explained. There’s info on propagating from cuttings, grafting with silicone clips, and watering or misting tiny plants. The next chapter covers irrigation of more kinds: drip systems (good description and photos for newbies) and sprinklers (including oscillating lawn-type sprinklers, wobblers, impact sprinklers and microsprinklers). This section will clear up a lot of confusion. Whichever you choose, make yourself an irrigation map, helping ensure you run pipelines and hoses along the best route, and set up sensible zones. Designs that minimize the need to move equipment around during the growing season will preserve your sanity and sense of well-being.

One of our im[act sprinkler tripods, in a broccoli patch.
Photo Pam Dawling
Part 5 is Extend and Expand the Harvest. This includes storage. Good techniques and timely harvesting let you get the most food from your crops, and eat them at peak quality and flavor. Extending the growing season includes starting as early as possible, finishing as late as possible, helping crops get through hot weather as well as cold, and planting successions to give you a seamless harvest through the growing season. Try crops you have not grown before.

The section on choosing protective structures will help you think about the pros and cons, costs and benefits of low tunnels (with rowcover or clear plastic), cold frames, greenhouses, high tunnels (also called hoophouses), and combinations of low tunnels inside high tunnels. If you are undecided on this topic, Grow More Food could save you from buying the wrong thing and wasting many times its cover price. And it could save you the big disappointment of not getting the harvests you hoped for. Consider not just cost but also ease of use (let’s enjoy our gardening!), suitability for your climate, and gained productivity. Glass greenhouses and greenhouse heating are often not cost-effective, and heating brings environmental costs too.

When weighing up design features, do the math for your own situation. I dislike the “comb” greenhouse bed design because it doesn’t work so well with drip tape. The authors say it maximizes usable space. But the difference is very small and the disadvantages are several. You lose the staging area of the lengthwise beds design. Many gardening books neglect methods of summer cooling, but the climate emergency is upon us. Here you will find good ideas about shade cloth and using overhead irrigation for cooling.

The next chapter is about timely harvesting and successful storage. Remember when planning your garden to think about how much food you can use, including not just how much your household can eat, but also how much time you have each week for harvesting and storage. There is a good discussion about becoming a skilled harvester. For each likely crop there is a short description of which part to harvest, and how to recognize maturity.

Next is a section on harvesting “hidden” crops – extra harvests form your garden: weeds, less usual parts of crop plants, such as flowers, garlic scapes, carrot leaves, pea shoots and tendrils, and sweet potato leaves. You can harvest more food from the same plants by choosing varieties that provide multiple harvests (loose leaf crops, broccoli side shoots, turnip and beet greens and roots).

How to harvest garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

There’s a bit on washing crops, and food safety. Then harvesting for maximum freshness and quality, and storage, short and long term. Not everything should be refrigerated! Onions, garlic, winter squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes need to be cured before long-term storage. Be sure to get the details right, or you could have big losses. There is a 4-page chart of storage conditions for various crops. Although I agree with the authors on almost everything they write, I wouldn’t wipe down winter squash with bleach. I’ve never found it necessary.

At the end of the book are worksheets you can photocopy and use. Or you can download them from Seattle Urban Farm. They include a Crop Amount Worksheet, Planting Calendar Worksheet, Planting Dates Worksheet, and Garden Planning Chart. The website also has sample log pages for a specific bed, for the garden as a whole, a pest and disease management log, harvest log, and planting calendar with harvest tracking.

There is a resource section and I was particularly happy to find two resources for non-toxic wood preservatives for garden use. The index looks very thorough – 21 columns for 300 pages.

The Seattle Urban Farm Company has a blog and a podcast, and their Projects page will give you lots of ideas on garden layout and design. Their shop sells training sessions, webinars, and individual coaching.

Brad Halm
Colin McCrate

Okra Planting Time

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve reached mid-May, the time of year to transplant our okra. Okra is a tropical annual in the mallow family, and is widely adapted where the frost-free season is long enough. Okra is heat- and drought-tolerant and has few serious pests or diseases. Those in hot climates will need to deal with its exuberant growth in mid-summer. Those in cold climates should choose fast-maturing varieties and transplant into black plastic. In areas with cold nights, okra can only be grown in a hoophouse.

Okra Varieties

We like Cow Horn okra from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which gives good yields and sturdy plants in our zone 7a climate. It is one of a few varieties that can grow relatively large pods without their becoming tough. We are sometimes not good at finding all the pods when harvesting, so it is an advantage to us if they are still good to eat when bigger than normal. SESE has an Okra Growing Guide.

High-yielding varieties include Cow Horn (55 days), Jade (55 days), Cajun Jewel (50 days).

Spineless (easy to harvest) varieties include Clemson Spineless (56 days), and Evertender (50 days). Red-podded varieties include Burmese (58 days), a high-yielding dwarf heirloom, and Red Burgundy (49 days), reported to do well in “cooler” areas, although it will not do much until day time temperatures reach 80°F (27°C).

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Crop Requirements and Yield

Okra does best in well-drained, fertile, loamy soils with high organic matter. Wet clay soils can drown the plants. It grows best with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0, although as high as 7.6 is still OK.

5 gm sows 50’ (15 m) at 6” (15 cm) spacing. Average yields are about 50-100 lb/100’ (7.6-15 kg/10 m). We grow 90’ (27 m) for 100 people, which provides enough for some pickling too.      

Sowing okra

According to Rodale’s 600 Answers, germination speed can be improved by freezing the seed overnight, then soaking in hot water for ½-1 hour before sowing. It needs to be warm enough to get your seed germinated: you can soak the seed for 8 hours in water at 88°F (31°C).

When we direct sow, we “station-sow” – we put three seeds ½-1” (1-2.5 cm) deep at each spot where we want a plant to grow. We do this on May 1, with rowcover, as this is around our last frost date, and we want to avoid disasters! Direct sow once the soil temperature averages 65°F (20°C), 3-4 weeks after last frost.

When seedlings have 3-4 leaves, we thin to the strongest seedling. Okra is sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got!

Transplanting okra

Okra seedlings in a Winstrip 50-cell tray.
Photo Pam Dawling

Usually we transplant, especially if we are intercropping. For transplants we sow April 15, using soil blocks or Winstrip 50-cell flats. I was amazed to learn that at 6″ (15 cm) tall, plants could have taproots three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m).  To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can, carefully.

We transplant 3-4 week old starts – a plant with 3 or 4 leaves is ideal – at 18” (45 cm) spacing in a single row down the middle of a bed. We transplant May 11, 10 days later than the direct-sowing date. In the past we used wider in-row spacing, but found we could get a higher yield with the “hedge-like” closer spacing.

Some growers plant as close as 6” (15 cm) in the row, with 5’ (1.5m) between rows, or plant double rows with 12” (30 cm) between plants, and wider spacing between the beds. Thick planting requires very fertile soil, and risks diseases from poor air circulation. Wide spacing can lead to heavily branched plants, and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area. It may lead to a later start to the harvest, as flowering is delayed while the plant grows bigger.

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

Intercropping Okra

Okra is slow-growing until hot weather arrives. We sometimes take advantage of this and its upright growth habit to transplant okra into a bed of early cabbage. We transplant cabbage in two rows along a 4’ (1.2 m) bed on March 10 and the okra in a single row down the middle on May 11. We mulch the cabbage, which has the disadvantage for the okra, of cooling the soil, so don’t try this if direct sowing! At first the cabbages are relatively small, and the okra uses the open space in the middle of the bed. As the plants grow, we remove outer leaves of the cabbage that might overshadow the okra. Finally, we harvest the cabbage and leave the okra to grow to full size. This method saves space, and efficiently uses our time to help two crops with one weeding.

Okra plants can be huge by September!
Photo Pam Dawling

This post is part of what I have written about okra in my book Sustainable Market Farming. Buy the book to read the rest, including crop rotations, pests and diseases, harvesting and post-harvest care of okra.

Pickled okra, garlic scapes and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

The Whole Okra

See my review of Chris Smith’s book The Whole Okra. Chris has grown 125 varieties of okra, and still counting, and cooked it in many different recipes. His book includes using the oil from the seeds, eating the leaves; making okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights; okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. Here are instructions for freezing the sudden glut of okra that often arrives at some point in the summer, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips. Chris has a video of taste testing on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAy0pouxlME

Fruit for May

Flowers on a two-year-old strawberry plant.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the first of my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I’ll talk about planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. I’ll have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.

Strawberries are the focus fruit for May

May is the month in our climate, to harvest and weed strawberries. Actually weeding strawberries in bare soil is a job that needs doing once a month from February to November here! We don’t have any strawberries in our gardens this year. Once upon a time, we grew matted rows, where you keep the same bed in production for multiple years, removing the oldest plants to make space for younger more vigorous plants. Weeds were our downfall. Once you let weeds seed in a strawberry bed, you have lost the battle. In our climate, we have cold-weather weeds and warm weather weeds. Semi-permanent strawberry beds get them all. I wouldn’t choose this method again.

See ATTRA Strawberries: Organic Production available free online, for a wealth of information. Updated April 2021.

Strawberries need a lot of weeding if grown on bare soil.
Photo Twin Oaks Community (Renee)

Harvesting strawberries

I recommend harvesting three days a week, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases. Use shallow containers, although strawberries don’t crush as easily as raspberries. Turn each ripe-looking strawberry over to make sure it’s ripe underneath too. We will harvest with white tips, but not green. Commercial strawberries that will travel long distance are harvested ¼ green and arrive very red, but with not much flavor.

Nip through the stem of the fruit with your nails and set the fruit in the container. Also, now or preferably separately, collect up any moldy or bird-bitten fruits to compost. It’s better not to handle healthy plants after moldy fruit, but if you have dry weather and not many moldy ones, it’s very tempting to remove them as you go. When “Mouseberry”, our nickname for Botrytis grey mold, is only a minor problem, we just hurl each one as far from the strawberry bed as we can, rather than collect them up.

Unblemished strawberries can be stored for several days in the refrigerator. Do not wash before refrigerating, as this leads to rot. If you are planning to process lots of strawberries for drying, jam, juice or other value-added products, I recommend finding a simple little tool, a pair of round-ended tweezers about 2” (5 cm) long and ½” (1 cm) across. You can twist our the green tops quickly with minimal wastage.

A dormant bare root strawberry plant.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

When to plant strawberries

In case you don’t yet have strawberries, and now wish you did, here are some considerations about when to plant. Many gardening books are written in more northerly climates, where bare-root transplants are set out in early spring. But then it is necessary to pinch off the flowers the first year. And still weed once a month! We found it better here to plan for September planting of runners we had potted up in July, leaving them attached to their mother plants until time to make the new bed. They are less likely to die if still attached to the well-rooted mother plant. Fall-planted strawberries do not need to have the flowers removed in their first spring. It is not easy to find bare-root transplants to buy in the fall.

In Virginia, many commercial growers plant new strawberries on plastic mulch every year, buying in plugs. The costs are covered by the high price that strawberries bring in when sold. We were not selling, but feeding our intentional community. This means that produce that would get high prices doesn’t repay us for the time spent. We need nutrients for a well-balanced diet, not fancy stuff. This issue also came up for us when we grew ginger in our hoophouse. Tasty and enjoyable, but not lots of food for the space and time.

Newly prepared strawberry beds with landscape fabric.
Photo Wren Vile

As a balance, we settled on keeping two beds (one early variety, one late) for two years each, using landscape fabric with holes melted in it. Each year we would make 1 new patch, till in the older one after 2 harvests. Some years we bought plants, and we also figured out a good propagation method, which gave us plants when we needed them, without too much money or labor. We had backup plans in case we failed to propagate enough replacements.

In early June we’d prepare new beds if going for bare-root plants; after fruiting we’d dismantle the two-year-old bed, renovate the one-year-old bed, and in early July prepare the new bed if using plugs. We did the propagation of our own plugs during July, setting up a misting tent. We planted the new plugs in early August. I’ll go into detail about these tasks when we get to that time of year.

Patented varieties

Some varieties are patented and it is illegal to propagate your own without permission from the patent holder. It’s most illegal to sell plants you have propagated from a patented variety. Technically, it is also illegal to propagate for you own use, and even to let strawberry runners root themselves beside a mother plant. Not all varieties are patented. Cornell has a page Patent Status of Select Strawberry Varieties with info for varieties that do well in NY State. It includes when patents expire. StrawberryPlants.org has a lot of information, including an interactive variety list. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include info on which are patented.

We cover the new strawberry bed in newspapers and hay. Our method prior to using landscape fabric. Note the drip tape in position below the mulch.
Photo Luke Stovall

Climate change, challenges and options

Our climate is variable, and is changing to more of all extremes, so we need to change our systems to meet the challenges. It always helps to have a plan B.

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Fruit still available in May

If your rhubarb flowers, cut off the flower stems, preferably before the buds open, to keep the energy for the stalks.
Photo Pam Dawling

Rhubarb can be harvested until the stems get too thin. April is its main month here in central Virginia. Weed and water. Lop off any flower heads or buds, to concentrate energy into the stems.

Other fruit care in May

Install blueberry netting before the fruit sets, so the birds will have no reason to be interested. Weed, water, top up mulch, as needed. Check periodically to ensure the netting has no holes.

Grapes: Mow, weed, water in drought. Mow aisles as needed. New vines: remove side branches from trunks, and fruitlets. I like to walk through in May to record the condition of the grape vines.

A young grape vine in early May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Green Beans All Summer

A newly emerged bean bed with sunflower landmarks. When lilac is in full bloom, plant beans, squash, corn.
Photo Pam Dawling

Here I’m talking about snap beans, both bush beans and pole beans, often simply called green beans. By choosing appropriate varieties and giving thought to planting dates, you can get high yields all summer until frost.

Bean Varieties

We like Provider and Bush Blue Lake snap beans for productivity and flavor. We often sow Provider for the early and late crops, with Bush Blue Lake during the main season. Contender may have more flavor, but is less productive then Provider. Jade is a delicious, very tender bean, which grows well in hot weather, but will be a dismal failure if the soil is too cold. Our approach is to plant a succession of 6 sowings of bush beans, so we always have some at the peak of production.

Those who like flat beans often choose Romano II as a reliable producer of tasty beans whether it is hot or cool, wet or dry. Some people like yellow (wax) beans for visual diversity – the flavor is not much different from green beans. Purple-podded beans look attractive while raw, although the color fades on cooking.

Yellow wax beans.
Photo Small Farm Central

We have given up on pole beans as we don’t like putting up trellises. If the advantage of standing to harvest beats the disadvantage of putting up a trellis, you’ll prefer pole beans over bush varieties. Pole beans take a few days longer to mature but can then be picked for a longer period, if they don’t get damaged by the Mexican bean beetle. Half-runner beans can be grown with or without trellises, and are capable of high yields. We haven’t grown any we really liked.

Prepare for green beans

Beans tolerate a wide pH range, and like plenty of sun and well-drained soil. They definitely don’t thrive if flooded! An open site with good air drainage will help minimize mold problems and other leaf diseases. Bush beans take 50-62 days from sowing to first harvest, a bit less once the soil is really warm. A soil temperature of 77°F (25°C) is best for germination, although a temperature of 55-60°F (13-16°C) and rising is workable for dark-seeded varieties. Air temperatures of 65-85°F (18-29°C) are best for growth.

Like all legumes, beans produce nitrogen in their root nodules, although this doesn’t peak till after the beans are being harvested. In order to grow strong bean plants, you can fertilize before the beans at about 4 oz N/100 sq ft (13.4g/sq m), and use the bean-produced fertility for the following crop. If your soil is already very fertile, you could skip fertilizing before sowing the beans. Excess nitrogen will produce lots of leaves but delay flowering. 80-85% of the nitrogen produced ends up in the bean tops, so if possible turn them under before planting the next crop, rather then remove them to the compost pile.

Because they are not planted until spring is well underway, beds for beans can grow a good stand of winter cover crops ahead of the bean crop. Winter rye should be turned under three weeks ahead of sowing, to allow the rye to break down and for the allelopathic compounds to break down. We have found wheat to be easier to incorporate and to have less of an inhibiting effect on germination of the next crop. It is usual to avoid legume cover crops ahead of legume food crops, to reduce the likelihood of spreading pests or diseases. For the same reasons, it is better to grow beans where there have not been other legumes for 3 years. Sclerotinia white mold can be avoided by rotating with sweet corn or other grass crops, and avoiding nightshades, brassicas, lettuce, or other legumes. 

Newly emerged beans (in rather dry soil).
Photo Pam Dawling

Start beans as early as possible

We make our first sowing 10 days before the average last spring frost date, and cover the bed with rowcover. Dark-seeded varieties are more resistant to rot in cold soils, so use these at least for the first spring sowing. To speed germination, soak the seed overnight (up to 8 hours) in tepid water. If the sowing has to be postponed after the beans are soaked, rinse them twice a day and drain. Plant in 3 or 4 days. If you wait longer than that, the rootlets will be too long and fragile.

Sow your beans

If possible, ensure the soil has enough water before you sow, as watering after sowing can cause crusting and also chilling injury to the seed from the cold water. Avoid irrigation for two weeks after sowing to reduce the chance of the seed rotting. Sow 1” (2.5cm) deep, a little shallower in spring, a little deeper in hot weather. Place seeds 2-3” (5-7cm) apart. We use the wider spacing for new seed, and the closer planting for one-year-old seed. Two-year-old beans often have a germination rate of only 50%, and are not worthwhile. 

You can plant beans 2 rows to a bed, or on-the-flat in single rows with enough space to accommodate the pickers. The best spacing for optimum yield is 36 sq ins (232 sq cm) per plant. For example, 2” in-row x 18” between rows (5 x 46cm). Another advantage of close spacing is that the plants are more upright, with the beans higher in the leaves. This is less space than recommended for areas prone to fungal diseases.

Planting soaked inoculated beans through holes in plastic.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Beans host nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on the roots, and if you are growing beans on land that has not grown legumes before, or it’s spring and you don’t want to rely on the existing bacteria waking up, add some powdered inoculant. You could add this at each sowing, as it is cheap and easy, especially if the beans have been soaked. Simply scatter some of the black powder on the beans as if you were adding pepper to your dinner, then stir the seed gently. Each bean needs only a few specks of the inoculant to get started. Contrary to any rural myths, the inoculant does not speed germination.

Care for your beans

Don’t cultivate or harvest while the leaves are wet, since anthracnose, bacterial blight and rust disease are more likely to spread under these conditions. Hoe or machine cultivate while the bean plants are still small, and once they grow taller and bush out, few weeds will cause trouble. We have tried sowing beans through biodegradable plastic mulch, poking holes with rods and popping the seeds in. This crop stayed very clean, and withstood a drought caused by a crew member mistakenly pulling the drip tape out too soon. Sowing took a long time, and anyone tempted to try this would be advised to make a jig that punches multiple holes at once. In that way, the saved cultivation time, lack of diseases, and extended life of the plants might balance out the extra sowing time.

Using the bean dibble to punch holes through the plastic mulch (the soil is holding down the edges of the mulch).
Photo Brittany Lewis
Beans growing on biodegradable plastic mulch.
Photo Nina Gentle

Irrigation is most needed during bloom, pod set and pod enlargement. Time the watering so that the leaves dry before nightfall. Beans need around 1” (2.5cm) of water until the end of May, then up to double that in summer.

Carry on sowing beans as late as sensible

To calculate your last worthwhile sowing date, subtract the number of days from sowing to harvest from your first frost date. Then count back a further two or three weeks, whatever would be a worthwhile length of harvest period for you. If you don’t have rowcover for when it turns chilly, count back another week or two in case frost is extra-early. Our first frost could be October 14, and counting back 60 days gets us to mid-August. We go with a last sowing in early August. We pay attention to weather forecasts, and when frost threatens, we cover with rowcover on the cold nights. Usually this lets us get several more pickings before any serious cold weather arrives. During the day, rowcover would stop pollination, but it does not stop beans that have already set from growing to full size.

Bad damage from Mexican bean beetles on these bean leaves. Beetles will also attack the pods after a while, making them inedible.
Photo Wren Vile

Plant beans often for continuous harvest

Before we discovered the Pedio wasps to kill the Mexican Bean Beetles, we needed a new patch of beans coming into production every 2 weeks. We made 7 plantings at 15 day intervals. We now plan for a new patch to harvest every 20 days, sowing 6 times rather than 7. As well as saving space and sowing time, we get more beans than previously. Some of the time we pick from two overlapping patches.

To calculate the best planting dates for your farm, you’ll need four pieces of information: first possible planting date in spring, last planting date that will provide a crop in time before fall frost, first harvest date from each sowing you’ve done, and the number days you want to be picking from the same plants. For us, space is tight, and we want to pick from the same plants for 3 weeks, after which the yield goes down, and it takes too long to “search” for the ripe beans.

We determined our earliest possible and latest worthwhile harvest start dates, and then divided the period in between into a whole number of intervals. In our case we went for 20 days. If we expect the first beans to start coming in on 6/16 and the last ones on 9/24, then the period in between is 100 days long. If we want fresh beans every 20 days, we’ll need a total of 5 intervals between plantings, which is 6 sowings.

A May sowing of Provider beans in late June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our records tell us that for harvest dates of 6/16, 7/6, 7/26, 8/15, 9/4 and 9/24, we need to sow 4/20, 5/14, 6/4, 6/26, 7/19 and 8/7. In practice we use sowing dates of 4/16, 5/14, 6/7, 6/29, 7/19 and 8/3. Notice that beans mature faster in warmer weather, and to keep up with them, we need shorter planting intervals later in the summer. Our sowing intervals are 28, 24, 22, 20 and 15 days.

Harvest your beans

We pick beans three times a week, going for pencil-sized pods with pliable tips. In our climate, beans can size up in two days. It’s important to nip through the stem of the pod, and not leave the cap part on the plant, as this is the part which signals to the plant whether to continue cranking out beans or stop and focus on ripening seed. For the same reason, it is important to pick and discard any oversize pods.

Like many warm weather crops, beans are liable to chilling injury if over-refrigerated. If possible keep the temperature above 40°F (4.5°C), or you risk having the beans become slimy and pitted. At 40-45°F (4.5-7°C) and 95% humidity, beans can be stored for 7-10 days. Temperatures above 45°F (7°C) are likely to lead to yellowing and development of fiber.

A plentiful supply of beans!
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Watch out for trouble

Scout the fields once a week, and keep a weather-eye open while harvesting or cultivating, to spot small problems before they become large ones. See the Cornell University 2016 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Snap Beans for detailed organic disease and pest control information.

Lifecycle of the Mexican bean beetle.
Photo Purdue University

By far the worst pest of beans we ever deal with is the Mexican Bean Beetle, a yellow-bronze beetle with eight black spots. Adults overwinter in plant debris, so clean up well in the fall, and try not to have your first bean planting be near the site of your last one the previous year. Here, the MBB emerge on the first cloudy day in early June. We used to flame each bean planting when numbers and damage became intolerable, and move on to the next planting. A smarter move would have been to plant a small early trap crop of beans deliberately at or near the site of the late beans the previous year, and then flame the trap crop when there are larvae, but not yet any pupae.

Nowadays we buy the parasitic wasps Pediobius foveolatus, ordering them as soon as we see the fuzzy yellow MBB larvae, which is the stage the wasps attack. The package contains mummified MBB larvae, with the wasps on the point of hatching. Set the open container under the bean plants close to some MBB eggs and larvae. Sometimes I shake out a few mummies here and there along the row. Once hatched, the wasps are very mobile, and will likely take care of your neighbors’ MBB as well. The Pediobius do not overwinter in our climate, but we have found that good control for a few years reduces numbers so that we can sometimes take a year off from buying the parasites.

See Using Pediobius Foveolatus as a Biological Control for Mexican Bean Beetles on Organic Vegetable Farms by Kim Stoner. Suppliers come and go, apart from the Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Rearing Laboratory, who we have been buying from for many years. Two other suppliers are Bugsforgrowers.com and Arbico, Read the instructions here.

Other insects that can damage bean crops include bean leaf beetle, potato leafhopper, seedcorn maggot, European corn borer and tarnished plant bug. Mites and slugs can also cause trouble.

The main defenses against disease are to keep the leaves as dry as possible. Consider orienting the rows to take advantage of the prevailing winds, planting on raised beds, using wide row spacing or in-row plant spacing.

Fungal diseases tend to be furry. Botrytis Grey Mold and Sclerotinia white mold are the most common.

Bacterial diseases of beans cause sunken or water-soaked brown spots perhaps with paler margins, on leaves and pods. Virus diseases cause leaves that are typically mottled, blistered or curled.

Most likely, it will be you enjoying your beans and not pests and diseases!

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive, by Miles Olson

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive, by Miles Olson. New Society Publishers, 2012, 200 pages, diagrams, $19.99

This is not a new book, but I was drawn by the title, as rewilding is a word I’ve been hearing lately. I thought I would learn about growing diversified hedgerows, and including areas of native wild plants to attract beneficial insects and predators. Instead, this book combines philosophy, politics, and ethics with some survival skills. If you seek answers to questions around what “sustainability” really means, and what it is you want to sustain, then this book can provide some pointers. Skills such as foraging, trapping, and using what you have are included.

The author, Miles Olson, was part of a small community of feral homesteaders for ten years, ten years ago on Vancouver Island. While I enjoyed some of the essays in this book, I was disappointed to find so little about growing food, which is my own passion in life. The author sees all agriculture as intrinsically problematic. The food part of the book is very meat-focused. I believe a mostly vegetarian diet supplemented with meat is the more sustainable way to go.

I agree with the author that skills are pointless if not grounded in a cohesive context. Why tan hides? It’s not helpful to the planet to tan hides on Saturdays and water-ski all week. We cannot relax into philosophizing without making practical contributions.

Olson questions the word “sustainable”, which is the first word in the title of my book, Sustainable Market Farming. Currently the favored word for planet-inclusive agriculture is regenerative. I’m sure this word will also get greenwashed, as organic and ecological have already. We need to consider what we actually mean by the words we use. What is it we want to sustain? Destroying the rainforest to grow soybeans for animal and vegetarian food is not sustainable. Monocultures of any sort destroy diversity. Destroying peat bogs to plant trees (as carbon offsets for other unsustainable practices) is not sustainable. Destroying good agricultural land to make conifer plantations so that jet-setters can continue jetting about is not sustainable. The global population needs to be fed. And so will the people of the next century.

“To “rewild” is to return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication. Synonyms: undomesticated, uncivilized.” This is where Miles Olson starts to set out his anti-farming table. Farm animals are dominated and controlled by farmers, with their wild spirits extinguished. Humans are also domesticated animals. Hence the need for us to unlearn some domestication. Cast off assumptions that you need to earn your keep, for instance. I found his analysis unsatisfactory. He throws all aspects of the modern world that he does not agree with,  into the barrel of “civilization”, while keeping back ones he likes such as practical skills, intelligence, books, science.

While I found some of his thinking valuable, I did not like his gloominess, or the certainty that he professes. “Every day the world is ending. . . Our lifetimes, if we are not sedated, are going to be filled with loss and struggle. . .” He does continue with “. . . when we embrace that, we can move through it with more strength and determination.” But let’s also remember joy, humor, kindness.

In reading other reviews, I found that others say some of his facts are untrue. So, reader beware. Do not throw your critical thinking to the winds. “The back-to-the-land communities. . . a movement that was solid and strong in urban centers scattered into the countryside and gently faded away into dysfunctional utopian communities.” Now, that I know is not true! I live in a large community started in 1967. I’ve lived there 30 years. We’re not dysfunctional! We’re running our own businesses, producing quite a bit of our own food, raising around a dozen children at a time. Yes, I feel defensive!

He claims to be descended from nomadic reindeer hunter-herders in Scandinavia and acorn-gathering fisher people in the British Isles. I had not heard of Ancient Brits eating acorns. British acorns are considerably smaller than American acorns, and hazelnuts are tastier. This site: Old European Culture, says the writer has found no archa­eological data on acorn consumption in the British Isles.

When he was 17, Miles benefited from spending several summer months, living alone in a cabin in the woods on a small island in British Columbia. He was fortunate that it was not winter, or somewhere with a less benign climate, or the streets of Chicago. He was fortunate to be a physically healthy young white man. He grew a garden, foraged, trapped, and hunted. The solitude was life-changing for him. As he says “Everyone has different wounds to heal from, everyone has different ways of healing.”

In order to stop killing the planet, we need to realize that our own survival depends on the health of our land, with an understanding of our place on that land. Are tools neutral? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” A part of the truth. People with guns kill more people than people without guns. We have to reduce the risk of gun deaths by making more gradual changes, and working on a plan towards our goal. Which technologies are ethical, appropriate, and which ones are inherently destructive? Good questions from the author.

I agree that technology can provide power and efficiency, while it can also take away understanding and connection. The internet allows us unprecedented ways to connect with others. But these are inferior to real-life connections, as we have become acutely aware during the Covid pandemic. It gives us access to massive troves of information, while seemingly destroying our ability to remember what we’ve read and sometimes even think for ourselves.

Is it “common knowledge” that hunter-gatherer societies do not destroy their land bases? Many societies have collapsed. Possibly some groups out-hunted or out-gathered what their environment could continue providing? Several pages bemoan the terrible things that white people did when arriving in North America. I doubt his claim that the immigrants did not appreciate that they had found something beautiful, a better way of life. Or that they (all?) “worked as fast as possible to degrade what was here.” As Jared Diamond says in Collapse, no one decides to cut down the last tree, but rather people cut smaller and smaller trees until the weather takes what saplings remain and no more seedlings can appear.

I appreciate that Miles includes an essay “On Being White”. How does the blond, blue-eyed white male reconcile himself to his lineage of colonizers? He doesn’t accept that his destiny is to be an oppressor. The Earth didn’t produce the white male oppressor, the white male oppressor did. “When our goals, views and perception fall in line with the plans of those in power, we have been fully colonized.” We cannot ignore the privileges that come with our ancestry. Olson says that we should use these privileges to navigate our way towards a society that is completely intolerant of racism, empire and genocide.

Author Miles Olson

The next hot topic is about diet – is veganism or radical sustainability best? Olson is an ex-vegan. He no longer believes veganism is good for humans or the planet. We have no evidence of a traditional society that sustained itself by being vegan. The very valid concerns and passions that drive vegans also drive the author. But their conclusions are different. Olson’s concept of radical sustainability includes nourishing and maintaining the planet. Traditional sustainable cultures are mostly omnivorous and they don’t farm. They hunt, fish, trap and forage. They don’t eat burgers from factory-farmed animals.

Veganism does not address domestication, over-population and the reduction of wild land. On the contrary it seems more urban, more detached from the roots of finding our own food. Veganism is efficient (cut out the cattle and eat the grain ourselves!). But hunter-gatherers worked fewer hours than farmers. Nowadays we cannot all become hunter-gatherers. Population density is too high where most of us live. Biologically, we are omnivores. Herbivorous animals have multi-chambered stomachs, regurgitate and chew the cud, and lack incisors. We are not like that. Cultures that eat mostly raw foods eat mostly meat. Those that eat mainly plants, mostly cook them (or ferment them). 92% of long-term vegans, 67% of vegetarians and 5% of meat-eaters suffer from B12 deficiency (WebMD).  A place-based (locavore) diet involves us in noticing and supporting what foods can be produced on the land we live on. It can teach us humility and respect.

The next essay is about the succession of plant types that colonize bare soil. Invasive plants are not a cause of destruction but a first response of the environment. Scotch broom may be followed by Himalayan blackberries, then red alder and finally the climax species of hemlock and cedar. There is no point in pulling the Scotch broom, it’s only there temporarily anyway.

Following the essays is the section on endangered practical skills. It’s a motley collection, including how to truly determine if dead animals are safe to eat. (Lots of myth-busting.) Roadkill can be a source of meat, and here you can learn how to tell how fresh the meat is. Look at the eyes, pull the hair, bend the joints, look at the size of the maggots. I’m confidant not everyone will want to use this information. I’m not squeamish about food expiry dates. I like to have facts, rather than myths. I do hope he checked his facts. . . Once again we see that the focus of this book really is on meat.

Olson says that in 2012 Africa, at least one group of Pygmy people will kill an elephant and camp around it, feasting and drying some meat for later, until it was all used. No freezers or refrigerators in sight. It is easier to imagine Inuit caribou hunters keeping meat cached for a year or more, because of the cold.

Next comes a chapter on feral food preservation. Traditionally, before refrigeration, there were three main methods of food preservation: drying, cellaring and fermentation. Secondary methods include salting, smoking and packing in various liquids or finely divided solids like ashes and sand. At last! Vegetables and fruit! Anything that can be dried in a dehydrator can be dried by sun and air, indoors or out. I was especially intrigued by the recipe for Gundru, or Gundruk, one of the national foods of Nepal. Pickled greens, without any salt. Crush the leaves, preserving the juices, and pack tightly in a jar, tamping down the layers. Don’t let any juice escape. Put a lid on. Leave the jar on a tray or plate in a warm place for 1-3 weeks. When ready it will smell tangy and tasty. If not, don’t eat it (yet). It can be eaten fresh, or can be dried, but should be used within a few weeks of opening.

There are interesting ideas such as storing apples in water (perhaps the origin of bobbing for apples), then it’s back to the meat. Olson explains the butterfly cut, a way to slice meat into long thin strips for drying, and discusses the hazards of smoking (carcinogenic creosote). He explains how to eat various less-likely parts of animals, and also the difference between the fat of herbivores and that of omnivores and carnivores, and explains how to render fat and store it. Next he gives directions for making pemmican, a staple food of Plains Native Americans. It is a mixture of powdered dried red meat with rendered fat, rolled into balls. The author has personally lived off pemmican as a staple for several months. If dried berries, seaweed or other dried plants are included, it is a complete food.

The next chapter brings in some plants as medicine. The author wisely encourages us to learn a few basic useful plants first, and really understand those, rather than overwhelm ourselves with hundreds of local medicinal plants. His list includes comfrey and yarrow for wounds; yarrow for influenza; Queen Anne’s Lace seed (beware of poisonous look-alikes) as a natural morning-after contraception; plantain for coughs, small injuries, stings and bites; high tannin plants for burns; goldenseal, Oregon grape and barberry against bacteria, viruses, fungi and other infections. I’m not advocating any of these, read up and make your own decisions.

Feral food cultivation is next, managing wild food plant sources to encourage more of what we want – pruning berry patches, weeding and tending camas plots. What appeared to incomers to be completely wild forests were sometimes forest gardens carefully tended by the native people. Clearing land to grow or raise culturally approved foods (domestication) puts us at war with what the land is naturally producing. Do you have a deer problem or a venison abundance? Miles favors learning how to support the land to feed us in sustainable, elegant and effective ways. This can include weeding, pruning and controlled burns.

The author advocates for trapping rather than hunting, as a means of efficiently and effectively obtaining meat (and skins), leaving lots of time in the day for other activities. (I almost wrote “other pursuits”, then realized that sounds like hunting!) This does require understanding the habits of our prey, and might require changing our outlook from being brave, sporty, manly, to being most effective. So “Hunter-Gatherer” might become “Trapper-Gatherer”. And with the considerations about managing the forests, “Trapper-Gardener” or “Gardener-Trapper” when you consider the relative proportions of each type of food.

The book includes details on traps for various animals, and tips on becoming a successful trapper. Coppicing of trees (cutting them down to a stump that can resprout) is a sustainable forestry method that provides poles. There is information on catching mice and how to eat them (cooked!) without contracting hantavirus. I hope never to need to eat mice, but I guess in a survival situation, I could do it. I just hope to be better prepared and not need that information!

The trapping chapter is naturally followed by information on skinning and gutting animals of various sizes, and later comes tanning. Sandwiched curiously in between those chapters is one on birth control in the boonies, for those that need it.

There is a chapter on gathering and curing nuts. Beat the squirrels to the harvest of still-green hazelnuts, and ripen them in a warm, dry rodent-proof place. (Black?) walnuts, apparently, are best soaked to remove the anti-nutrients. Acorns take a lot of attention: drying, shelling, toasting, removing the skins, grinding, leaching and then drying or immediate cooking as mush.  I hope I never get that desperate. It’s a lot of work for the food they provide. Chestnuts we hope will make a comeback, thanks to hybridization. Horse-chestnuts (buckeyes) are toxic unless roasted, peeled, ground and leached for several weeks in a stream. Like acorns but bigger. What’s left is almost pure starch. Harvesting the squirrels first might be the way to harvest nuts.

Then we get to bugs, typically eaten whole, or with just the tickly legs and wings removed. Apparently there are over 1,700 known edible species in the world. Mind you, the earth is running out of bugs, and it takes a lot to make a meal, so I do question the sustainability of entomophagy (consuming arthropods as food). We need to hold back on killing everything that eats what we want to eat.

To close out the book there’s information on making fat lamps in the wild, using oils or fats from animal and plant sources. And finally there’s ideas on using human excretions safely and productively. The author’s conclusion is that we need to deal with our problems as they arise, to stop things becoming so miserable we cannot cope. We need to honestly evaluate ways of living sustainably, whether those ideas come form the past or the future. The “future primitive”

There is a 2014 Utne Reader interview here.

 

Spring Lettuce Transition

Our first outdoor lettuce bed in May.
Photo Wren Vile

We grow lettuce to harvest year round, here in central Virginia. From the end of April into November, we harvest lettuce heads outdoors, from our raised bed area. From October to early March we harvest outer leaves from leaf lettuces and romaines in our solar greenhouse, and in our solar-heated double-layer hoophouse from October to April. From mid-November we harvest salad mixes containing lettuce from our hoophouse. From 4 December to late May we have baby lettuce mix from the hoophouse. Note that we have overlaps at both spring and fall transitions. We’re approaching the spring transition, and that is what I am going to focus on in this post.

 Our Winter Hardiness Zone in central Virginia is 7a, which means our annual minimum temperature averages 0°F to 5°F (-18°C to -15°C).  Our average date of the last spring frost over the past 14 years is April 29 (later than 5/13 one year in 10).

Flats of lettuce transplants in our cold frame in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

More About Growing Lettuce

See my post Lettuce All Year in a Changing Climate, which includes links to my slideshow about growing lettuce year round, and our updated Lettuce Varieties list and Lettuce Log (planting schedule). It also includes keys to succeeding with year-round lettuce (dates for succession planting) and what causes bolting.

I have lots of posts about growing lettuce! Here are some of them:

Early Lettuce Production See this post for details of growing lettuce transplants in flats in our greenhouse.

Cold Tolerant Lettuce – In the 2017-2018 winter we had some extremely cold weather, with outdoor night-time temperatures of -3°F (-19°C) two nights, followed by -8°F (-22°C) 6 and -9°F (-23°C). Our guideline is that if we expect the night-time low to be 8°F (-13°C) or lower outdoors, we use rowcover in the hoophouse. It wasn’t enough to save all the lettuce. See this post for which varieties survived.

Ezrilla, a favourite cold-hardy lettuce.
Photo Wren Vile

Also see What makes vegetable crops bolt and how can I stop it?

And I have a whole year of Lettuce for the Month posts. See here for the overview. These posts are mainly about our favorite varieties for each time of year.

Head Lettuce Transplanted Outdoors

From February to November/December, we grow lettuce outside from transplants. Transplanting gets a head start on weed control, which is important all the way from planting out to a couple of weeks before harvest. Don’t waste time hoeing lettuce you will be harvesting next week. I generally find that if we hoe once, a couple of weeks after transplanting, that is all the weed control we need at the fast-growing time of year.

From mid-January until mid-March we sow in flats in the greenhouse, with heating for the January-March sowings, to get the seeds germinated, then good old solar energy to grow them to transplanting size. We spot the seedlings out to give the plants more space, and harden off the flats of transplants in our cold frame for two weeks before planting them in the garden. The first few plantings will get rowcover after transplanting, to protect the young plants from cold and speed up the growth rate. March 9 is our goal for transplanting our first sowing (January 17) outdoors. January 17 to March 9 is 52 days, a very long time for the seedlings to grow to transplant size! We hope to harvest that first lettuce as heads in late April.

During April we put the seed flats in the greenhouse without extra heating, as temperatures in the greenhouse are warm enough to germinate the seeds. Growth speeds up, and in warm weather we transplant three weeks after sowing. The intervals between one transplanting date and the next decrease from 9 days in spring to 5 or 6 days in summer. We transplant 120 lettuce from each sowing – about one week’s worth for 100 people.

Swordleaf lettuce, and an unnamed romaine with radishes. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Soil Temperatures for Lettuce Germination

The soil temperature range for germination of lettuce seeds is 35-85°F (2-29°C), with 40-80°F (4-27°C) being the optimum range and 75°F (24°C) the ideal. At 41°F (5°C) lettuce takes 15 days to germinate; at 50°F (10°C) it takes 7 days; at 59°F (15°C) 4 days; at 68°F (20°C) only 2.5 days; at 77°F (25°C) 2.2 days. Then the time to germination increases: 2.6 days at 86°F (30°C); after that it’s too hot. A soil thermometer soon pays for itself and saves lost crops and frustration.

Summer Lettuce Nursery Seedbed with Concept, De Morges Braun, New Red Fire and Loma lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire,

Bare-Root Transplanted Lettuce in Summer

From May to late September we use an outdoor nursery seedbed and do bare-root transplants (with heat-tolerant varieties). The soil temperature does not vary as much as the air temperature, and  we no longer worry about cool nights.

If it’s too hot for lettuce seed to germinate, you can find a cooler place (put a seeded flat in a plastic bag in the fridge or on the concrete floor in the basement). Or cool down a small part of the world. From June we put shade-cloth over the lettuce seedbed, and only sow in the evening. In July and August, we water the sowed seedbed with freshly drawn cold water, line up ice cubes along the seed rows, and cover with shade cloth.We make sure to keep the seedbed damp, using cold water each time.

See Using ice to germinate lettuce seed in hot weather

From July to September we sow lettuce every 5 days! See Success with summer lettuce. Of course, transplanting that lettuce in hot weather takes care too. We do that late in the day, and water as we go. We cover the transplants with hoops and shade-cloth, and water daily until they are well established. We stop sowing for outdoors on August 29.

If using a nursery seed bed, you can put ice cubes on top of rows of seeds in hot weather to help cool the soil.
Photo Bell Oaks

Lettuce After Summer Ends

From September 11-17 we sow lettuce in a nursery seedbed to transplant in our greenhouse, and on September 15 and 24 to transplant in our hoophouse. This is our fall transition and I’ll write about that when the time comes.

Preparing for sweet corn

Our first sweet corn of the season. Bodacious
Photo Pam Dawling

Preparing for sweet corn

It’s too early for us to be planting sweet corn, but not too soon to be planning, preparing and thinking about it!

Crop Rotations and Cover Crops

Rotation Pinwheel Sus Mark Farm

If you don’t already have a crop rotation plan, this is the time to put one into place, especially if a lot of your ground is taken up with sweet corn every year! Our sweet corn occupies a lot of our space, so we pay attention to crop rotation. Corn is the only crop in the grass family that we grow, so this is not hard. We keep two or three years without corn between the corn years. Here’s the crop and cover crop sequence for each of our six sowings:

Sowings 1 & 2: The winter before the corn, we have a winter-killed cover crop of oats, (or sometimes a clover patch which has been growing all the previous year). Half the patch of this early corn is followed by oats in August and then garlic in early November. The other half gets oats and soy in August, to be winter-killed. This area will be easy to work up in early spring for our broccoli and cabbage.

Sowings 3, 4, & 5: The previous winter cover crop is winter rye or wheat with crimson clover (if we sow before 10/14) or winter rye or wheat with Austrian winter peas if after 10/15. The corn is followed by more rye or wheat and crimson clover in October. The following year we will plant potatoes here in June. The clover will have plenty of time to reaching flowering and therefore have plenty of nitrogen nodules on the roots.

Cover crop of winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Sowing 6: The previous winter cover crop is winter rye and Austrian winter peas. We undersow this corn with oats and soy. We mow high after harvest, and leave the oats and soy to grow until winter-killed. This patch is easy to prepare for our potatoes in March.

Late sweet corn undersown with oats and soy beans for a winter-killed cover crop. Photo Kathryn Simmons

For the later sowings of sweet corn, a good stand of a preceding winter cover crop mix including legumes can provide all the nitrogen the corn needs (100-125 lbs/acre; 112-142 kg/ha). The nitrogen nodules on the roots contain the maximum nitrogen when the legume reaches its flowering point, so this method doesn’t work for early sowings.

 No-till planting into strips tilled in a white clover living mulch sounds good but has been found tricky. Jeanine Davis addresses this in NCSU’s Organic Sweet Corn Production. The clover can out-compete the corn, become invasive and hard to get rid of. Soil temperatures will be lower (a disadvantage in spring) and slugs and rodents may increase. Trials of sowing corn into rolled and crimped hairy vetch are underway.

Undersowing (interseeding) cover crops such as white or crimson clover into the corn at the V5 or V6 stage is more successful. Ensure good seed-to-soil contact. The clover grows after the corn dies.

Some growers undersow with forage brassicas at last cultivation. Research shows this does not reduce corn yields. The forage can be harvested after the sweet corn harvest finishes.

Caring for Sweet Corn

Young sweet corn plants after imperfect hoeing.
Photo Pam Dawling

Never allow soil in corn plantings to dry out, especially with close planting. You might need more than 1” (2.5cm) per week for maximum productivity, although corn is more drought-tolerant than some crops. The most important times for watering are silking (when the silks first become visible) and while the ears are filling out. We use overhead irrigation for corn, which works well to also water undersown cover crops.

Corn plants closer than 8” will compete with each other, so be sure to thin. People used to recommend removing the suckers that came from the base of the plant, thinking it led to higher yields. This has been tested, and in fact it can damage plants and possibly even reduce yields. (Reports from Clemson and Colorado State).

Sweet corn needs cultivating at least twice, at two weeks and four weeks after sowing. Even better are four rounds: at 7, 14, 21 days and finally one around 35 days when plants are 18-20” (45-50cm) high. Corn is shallow rooted so avoid deep cultivation. We use a walk-behind BCS tiller, followed by hoeing (and thinning at the first cultivation).

Young sweet corn plants. To the right are ropes to mark rows for the next corn sowing.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Each time we sow sweet corn, we wheel hoe or till between the rows of the previous planting, hoe and thin the plants to 8-12” (20-30 cm). We also till between the rows of the corn planting before that, hoe, and sow soybeans. Although they don’t supply the highest amount of nitrogen compared to other legumes, they are cheap, quick, somewhat shade tolerant, hinder weeds, and withstand foot traffic during harvesting.

While harvesting the corn we pull out any pigweed that has somehow survived our earlier efforts. Pigweed puts out its seeds in one big burst, so pulling up enormous pigweed is worthwhile, if it hasn’t yet seeded. Our soil has improved over the years, so it is now possible to uproot the 5ft (1.5 m) pigweeds. Sometimes we have to hold the corn plant down with our feet, but we do almost always succeed in getting the weeds out.

Silver Queen sweet corn with wilting pulled pigweed amaranth. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Flame-weeding can be used after sowing before the corn emerges, or after the crop is 2” (5cm) tall, using a carefully directed flame. See ATTRA Flame Weeding for Vegetable Crops

Sweet Corn Growth Stages

It is helpful to understand corn growth stages so that you know when the plant is most susceptible to damage, and when to take action. Corn growth stages are divided into vegetative (V) and reproductive (R). Stages are determined when at least 50% of the plants have reached or are beyond a particular stage.

Vegetative stages begin at emergence (VE), and each leaf with a fully developed collar is a new stage. Leaves within the whorl, not fully expanded and with no visible leaf collar, are not counted. Most sweet corn hybrids produce 18-21 leaves. Vegetative growth takes about 55-60 days after emergence. V3 (three leaf collars) begins 2-4 weeks after VE, and plants switch from using kernel reserves to photosynthesis and roots for nutrients.

Around V4, broadleaf weeds will stunt yields and should be removed. By V5, the numbers of potential leaves and ears are determined. Plants are 8-12” (20-30 cm) tall and the growing point may still be underground. Tillers (suckers, branches that grow from the lower five to seven nodes) appear.

V6-V8 – Beginning 4 to 6 weeks after VE, the growing point emerges above the surface, making the crop susceptible to frost, hail and winds. Beginning at about V6, the lower leaves may fall off naturally. At V7, rapid growth begins, and the number of kernel rows is determined. The number of potential kernels per row begins is set between V7-V16. By V8, the plant reaches 24” (60 cm) tall.

V9-V11 – At V9, tassels (not yet visible) and ear shoots are developing. New leaves appear every 2-3 days

V12 – The plant is 4ft (1.2 m) tall or more. Nutrients and water are important from this stage until the start of the R stages. The leaves are full-sized and about half are exposed to sunlight. “Brace roots” develop and the number of kernels per ear and size of the ear are set. Kernels can be damaged by insects and hail.

V15 – The plant is two weeks away from silking. Tassels are almost full-sized, but still hidden. Moisture and nutrient shortages now result in shorter ears and lower yields.

VT – Beginning 9-10 weeks after emergence, good pollination is essential to develop the kernels. Tassels are fully visible and silks emerge in 2-3 more days. Pollen shed begins, continuing for 1-2 weeks. Hail can be very damaging at this stage. Vegetative stages end when the corn develops a tassel (male flower). It takes about 20 days from tasseling to ripe.

Sweet corn growth stages. University of Illinois Extension

R1 – The plant has silks outside of the husks and is at its most vulnerable. Environmental conditions can greatly affect pollination. The worst is drought, which dries the silk out, reducing its ability to collect pollen falling from the tassels.

R2 (“Blister”) stage – The kernels are filled with clear liquid. About 12 days after silking, the silks darken and dry out. Stress (especially drought) can cause kernels to abort.

R3 – Milk stage – About 20 days after silking, kernel fluid turns milky, as starch accumulates. The effects of stress are not as severe after this stage, but can still lead to shallow kernels.

R4 – Dough stage – About 26 days after silking, the kernels have a dough-like consistency. Stress can produce scrawny kernels.

The dent stage (R5) and full maturity (R6) will only happen if you leave the plant to produce seed.

Corn growth stages can be estimated using corn growing degree days (GDD), accumulated daily from the date of planting. GDD are calculated by averaging the max and min temperatures in a 24-hour period. 50°F (10°C) is subtracted from that average temperature to give the GDD for the day. A Corn GDD Tool is available at the High Plains Research Climate Center. Stress, especially drought, can affect growth and GDD alone may not provide an accurate estimate of growth stage.

Workhorse Crops for April

 

Garlic beds in April. Cabbage under rowcover on the left, strawberry beds on the right. Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the last month in my series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of weather conditions.

Here are links to the other 11 months:

Spring is here. April is a busy month for sowing and transplanting! First the rest of the cool weather crops, then the first of the warm weather crops. Our average last frost (over the past 14 years) here in central Virginia is April 29. We reached 12 hours of daylight on the March 20 Equinox, and the days lengthen until the summer solstice.

Gentry yellow squash newly transplanted into our hoophouse, with a friendly wood sorrel!
Photo Pam Dawling

In our hoophouse we are transplanting squash, cucumbers, and peppers in April. Those crops will occupy the centers of the beds, before taking over the whole width. By that time, we will have harvested any remaining winter salad crops, and the spinach we transplanted in early March. Our greenhouse and coldframe are packed with transplants.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in April

Newly emerged beans (in rather dry soil).
Photo Pam Dawling

Beans

We sow our first green beans April 24, around our last frost date. We choose two reliable varieties, Provider and Bush Blue Lake. Or Contender. There are varieties that are more delectable and tender, like Jade, but those are less cold-tolerant, and so not good for the first planting. We soak the bean seed overnight before planting.

We sow 2 rows in a 4ft (1.2 m) wide bed, with the rows about 16” (40 cm) apart. Seeds about 3” (7 cm) apart, closer if they are leftover from last year. Bean seed does not germinate well if older than that.

We use inoculant to help the nitrogen-fixing bacteria get started. We probably have plenty in the soil by now, but early in the year, everyone is a bit slower to get moving!  We cover the beds with rowcover until the weather has settled warm.

We make 6 sowings of beans. Our sowing dates are 4/24, 5/8, 5/24, 6/8, 6/24 and 7/8. The intervals between plantings are 14, 16, 15, 16 and 14 days. This schedule has got a bit off-course and has a much earlier end date than necessary. A better set of dates would be 4/20, 5/11, 6/1, 6/22, 7/13 and 8/3, at intervals of 21 days. The rate of maturity of beans does not vary much with temperature.

Cabbage

We are not growing any storage cabbage this spring, due to those infamous staff shortages everyone is struggling with. If we had sown some in early February, we would be transplanting them April 1, and covering the bed with ProtekNet for as long as possible to keep the bugs off. If we used rowcover when we first transplanted them, we remove it in April to use elsewhere (broccoli). Cabbage to store for the summer can be a great way to have greens other than chard during hot weather.

A tidy bed of young carrots. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

From April we switch to sowing one bed per month until August. We sow our fifth carrots April 10, and our sixth in May. The April sowing takes about 11 days to germinate, depending in on the soil temperature. Our standard practice is to flame weed carrots before the seedlings emerge. In April we have lots of weeding and thinning of carrots sown earlier.

Chard

We sow chard (and leaf beet, the type of chard closest to spinach) on March 24, and transplant on April 22, with two rows in a bed, close together down the middle, to leave the paths free for us. Chard will be our main summer leafy green after the brassicas have all bolted. We usually do a mix of a multicolor type for beauty, Fordhook Giant for reliability and productivity, and Perennial Spinach leaf beet as insurance. The leaves are smaller, making it slower to pick, but it does taste more like spinach than any of the other chards, and it is very resilient.

Young sweet corn plants.;
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sweet Corn

We sow our first sweet corn on April 26, being sure to choose varieties such ads Bodacious, with good cold-soil emergence. We also sow some Speedling flats on the same day, and float them in a n outdoor tank, as a care-free way of having some backups to transplant as replacements for casualties if a late frost strikes. Our harvest goal with our fist sowing is July 4-18. Our 6 sowings of sweet corn are scheduled to give us an even continuous supply, with a new planting coming on-stream every 15 days. We harvest three times a week

Potatoes

Potatoes can be planted here in April, but we prefer to divide our planting in two, half in march, half in June. Click the link for more about every stage of potato growing .

A row of squash plants with ProtekNet to keep bugs off until flowering.
Photo Pam Dawling

Summer Squash/Zucchini

We transplant our first outdoor summer squash and zucchini (as well as the ones we grow earlier in the hoophouse). We start them in the greenhouse March 27, in 6×12 Speedling flats. Those cells are bigger than the Winstrip 50 cells. We like Tender Gray 42d zucchini, a light-colored Middle Eastern variety, and Zephyr 54d yellow squash with distinctive green tips. We transplant them 4/21 with rowcover or ProtekNet to keep the striped cucumber beetles away. Other squash pests (Squash bugs, Squash Borers) are not such a problem for us. From the second sowing onwards, we direct sow outdoors, as the soil has warmed up by then. We often transplant or sow nasturtiums in among the squash (or the cucumbers) to deter cucumber beetles. We also enjoy the flowers.

Greenhouse sowings for later transplanting outside, and other greenhouse work

In April in the greenhouse, we sow our watermelons, and paste tomatoes if we’re growing those, and some non-workhorse crops, of course.

Watermelon transplants in a Winstrip plug flat. Watermelons give earlier harvests from transplants, and plants in plug flats transplant easier then from open flats.
Photo Pam Dawling

Watermelon

Watermelons need warm soil. We’re not growing any this year. Our method has been to sow them in Winstrip 50-cell trays in the greenhouse April 26, and transplant them into biodegradable plastic mulch (with drop tape under it) May 11. (We use 3’ (1 m) spacing with rows 66” (1.7 m) apart. We rowcover the transplants for 3 weeks, until flowering, and then remove the covers to allow pollination to happen.)

Winter Squash.

Winter squash is normally such a lovely, easy crop! Direct sow, water, thin, hoe, till between the rows until the vines run, then ignore them (apart from watering) until September. We have mostly grown Moschata types as they have the best resistance to squash bugs, and they store really well. Our favorites include Waltham butternut, Cha-cha Kabocha, Cheese Pumpkins, Jarrahdale squash and the giant Tahitian Butternut. We direct sow May 26, but if there are particular challenges with constant rain preventing us preparing the soil, we have transplanted, from cells sown in late April.

Potting Up

Pepper transplants in our greenhouse. Photo Kathryn Simmons

We pot up the peppers and eggplant for transplanting outdoors in May. Eggplant needs to be kept above 55°F (13°C), peppers above 50°F (10°C) and tomatoes above 45°F (7°C).

Sweet Potato Slips

Also, we continue cutting sweet potato slips. I covered growing sweet potato slips last week.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in the Hoophouse in April: Squash, Cucumbers, Peppers

North edge bed in our hoophouse flagged up for digging holes to plant peppers.
Photo Pam Dawling

We plant one bed each of these crops, measuring and digging holes 2’ (60 cm) apart down the center of the bed, and adding a shovelful of compost to each hole. We do not clear the winter crops from the beds before transplanting the new crops. We value the extra month of greens we can harvest this way. When the new crops are small, they don’t need the whole space, and I’ve even thought that the slight shade from the greens helps the new transplants settle in.

We grow a bush (non-vining) cucumber Spacemaster, and two early squashes, sometimes Golden Glory zucchini and Zephyr. The bell peppers are Lady Bell, Gilboa (orange) and Revolution, all fairly early, big, thick-fleshed  and tasty.

Hoophouse Tomatoes

In April we install the posts for tomatoes (hopefully we won’t need to use rowcover at nights any more, and start string-weaving. We use the Florida string-weaving (or basket-weaving) technique to support our plants. More about that task in future.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in April

Asparagus

Asparagus photo Kathryn Simmons

The asparagus harvest season usually begins for us in early April. Well prior to that date we root out early weeds.  Then we fertilize with fish meal and greensand or a complete fertilizer, or add a thick layer of rich compost (if we did not do this in the fall), spread over the whole bed.  Next, mulch to a depth of at least 4” (10 cm) for weed control, with wood chips, wood chip horse bedding, sawdust, straw or old hay (although hay may include weed seeds).

I recommend snapping asparagus spears at ground level – cutting them below the soil surface risks damaging emerging spears. Harvest in the early morning, as the spears are easier to snap before they warm up. Snapped asparagus is almost all tender and usable – the tough lower ends remain in the soil. If you expect a frosty night, harvest all spears, regardless of size, as they will otherwise freeze and be wasted. We have sometimes done a second (afternoon) harvest, if we’ve noticed a cold forecast. During the harvest season, ensure the asparagus gets 2” (5 cm) water each week.

At the beginning of the season, when the weather is cooler, spears can grow to 9-10” (22-25 cm) before ferning out, but in warmer weather, they will open out at a shorter height.  So, expect to harvest shorter spears in warmer weather. To keep life simple, we tell our crew to pick any spears 7” (17 cm) or taller. You may prefer to change the required length according to the temperature. Harvest anything of the right length, regardless of thickness. For pest management, we pick and later discard skinny, tough spears, and any that are ferning out. (Slender stems are not more tender than large ones, quite the contrary.) We harvest the entire patch every single day as a way of controlling asparagus beetles – no spears are left long enough to leaf out, and beetle eggs are removed (on the spears) and cannot hatch. The eggs are harmless, and can be washed off after harvest by spraying with water, or tub-washing.

We harvest into short buckets so that the spears will be standing on end when the bucket is upright. We add a small amount of water, to keep the spears fresh, and hurry the buckets to a cooler at 34-40°F (1-5°C).

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons

First year after the planting year

Trials now show that asparagus yields more long-term if it is lightly harvested for 2-4 weeks in the first year after the planting year, in contrast to previous directions to wait 3 or 4 years. Stop harvesting after 4 weeks at the most, as soon as the thickness of most of the spears is less than the size of a pencil.

After the first (short) harvest season, let the spears grow tall and fern out. The photosynthesis of the ferns feeds the crowns and strengthens them for next year’s growth. Established asparagus is fairly drought-tolerant, but immature plantings need 1” (2.5 cm) of water each week. By the fall ferns will be 4-5’ (1.2-1.5 m) tall. Apply compost every year in the fall or winter.

Second year culture

In late February or March, we weed, spread compost (if we didn’t do it in the fall) and mulch to a depth of at least 3” (7.5 cm). We harvest for perhaps 5 or 6 weeks in the second year after the planting year. Stop picking when the thickness of most stems is less than a pencil. By the end of this second season the asparagus ferns will likely reach a height 6-8’ (1.8-2.4 m).

Third year and future years

Weed, spread compost, mulch, harvest and irrigate, weed, mulch. Pick asparagus for perhaps 6 weeks in the third production year, stopping when the spears are thin. By the fifth year you should reach a maximum harvest season of 8-9 weeks.

Chard – our hoophouse chard is growing at a good rate. This winter we started late, and so we have only been able to harvest the chard small, for salad mixes. In April we will get leaves large enough to cook.

Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

Collards and Kale can be harvested all month (over-wintered plants) until they start bolting. The spring-planted ones outdoors are ready from mid-April.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one!

Garlic scallions are still available to harvest here. We dig the plants once the leaves have reached at least 7” (18 cm). Wash and trim, cook and enjoy! Some years we have made a big planting, and it has provided for us into May (when they will start to bulb).

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in April

Our Red and White Russian kales are now producing well. These are Siberian-type kales, that keep growing (a bit!) in cold weather. We harvest the outer leaves and stand them on end in a bucket in a little water. The wilt very easily, so we try to keep them in the shade and get them to the cooler promptly.

Workhorse Crops from Storage in April

In April we can eat cabbage carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash from storage, while they last. We do still have potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Also we have frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

Workhorse Crops Special Topic for April: Rowcover

A rowcovered bed of turnips.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Use rowcover to keep new transplants outdoors protected from cold until they are acclimated and /or the weather warms up. In the hoophouse in April we use rowcover on possible frosty nights, to protect our new tender crops.

Rowcover is lightweight, easy to use, and easy to store. Its biggest challenge is that you need to hold down the edges with bags of rocks or sand, plastic jugs of water, or metal or wooden stakes rolled in the edges, to stop it blowing open or even blowing away!

To protect against cold, you need thick rowcover. We think polypropylene rowcover lasts longer and is tougher than polyester (Reemay). We like Dupont Xavan 5131 (aka Typar). 1.25 oz/sq yd spunbonded polypropylene, with 75% light transmission, and about 6 F (3.3 C) degrees of frost protection. It can last for 6 years or more.

Thinner types are made to protect from insects – if you already have thin rowcover You can double it up for cold weather use. Thinner types are very fragile and are easily torn by inexperienced helpers.

Double hoop system for winter rowcover.
Pam Dawling

Hoops keep rowcover from sticking to frozen leaves and reduce abrasion. For winter we made double wire hoops. 9- or 10-gauge wire inner hoops, 22 gauge outer hoops, every 6ft (2 m) down the length of the row.

See Workhorse Crops for March for info on Predicting Frost

Blueberries.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

For my next series of crops for the month, I’m planning to write about small fruits (berries and melons)

Book Review: The Ecological Gardener by Matt Rees-Warren

Book Review: The Ecological Gardener: How to create Beauty and Biodiversity from the Soil Up, by Matt Rees-Warren, published by Chelsea Green. 200 pages, paperback, $24.95

This is a lovely book for those wanting to make their backyard or homestead into an area more aligned with nature. It includes fruit trees and vegetables but these are minor themes in the book. It’s a guidebook to understanding your land, and working with the features of the space – slope, water, soil, light and shade. It includes constructing rainwater catchments, making compost, encouraging wildlife, and including more native plants. The author, Matt Rees-Warren, lives in southwest England, a country noted for artfully gardening every corner of tiny spaces.

The fact that almost all vegetables grown in the UK are non-native (changing the way wildlife and ecosystems interact with food production) can make a dividing line between those focused on encouraging biodiversity and those prioritizing food production. The author seeks to rebalance these approaches, to preserve wildlife, restore clean water and soil health.

The opening chapter, on design, suggests observing and studying our land, letting go of previously-formed plans and following nature. Observe your garden within the framework of the four elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water, using a page of questions about the prevailing conditions. There are tips on testing the structure of the soil and its ability to drain (or hold) water. If you notice an area prone to flooding, think about making a pond, a rain garden, or a bog garden. Or think about planting short trees to suck up some of the water without overshadowing other ideas for nearby. Give forethought to plants that colonize and grow rapidly. Imagine making the garden interesting and attractive (and perhaps productive) in winter as well as summer.

You can draw up your garden plans, but expect to be flexible about what happens. Work with the contours of the land, rather than plan for lots of earth-moving (unless you want a really big pond!) Note which elements of your dream will need the best light, and look at where to put those. Observe the microclimates as well as the prevailing elements of the weather.

As far as possible, design a garden that takes care of itself, providing for its needs from its natural resources. Make a cyclical design with no waste. Consider adding chickens or ducks. Make each area as rich in species as you can, for resilience and abundance of resources. The fittest will survive, even if they are not the species you expected to thrive there!

The second section, on the soil, encourages us to take care of the mycorrhizae, which extend the “reach” of plants’ roots, getting them more water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates for the fungi. Aeration of the soil can be a useful project for very compacted soils, but it will destroy the mycorrhizae. Reducing tillage will conserve the fungi. I like the author’s description of soil as “the basket that holds the roots of the mightiest organisms” (trees) as well as the roots of tiny seedlings.

The soil has an important role in holding carbon, and reducing tillage is one way of conserving the carbon already in the soil. When bare, soil emits much more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and supports fewer life-forms that might capture and store more carbon. In the natural world, the top 3 cm (1.2”) of the soil can take up to a thousand years to grow. Let’s not degrade that treasure! Building a successful compost system is a way to work in harmony with nature. Aerobic composting is what happens on the forest floor, open to air and water, heat from the sun, and animal activity. Cold aerobic composting happens if you never turn the pile: hot compost requires introduction of new air. Anaerobic composting corresponds to bog conditions, where the organic materials are deprived of air, and may have an overabundance of water. All composting is valuable. Hot aerobic composting adds the advantage of cooking weed seeds and pathogens. Anaerobic composting, where the ingredients are sealed underground, underwater or in a container, ensures that vermin have no access. There are tips on building compost bins, making leafmould and loam, bokashi compost, bokashi bins, compost teas and biochar. Vermicomposting (a good, cold-aerobic method for those with only a small space), animal manures and compost toilets (followed by hot-composting the product) are also given space. The issue for the ecological gardener, of how organic the animal manures are, including the humanure, is discussed. Medications, non-organic foods, are not the best ingredients. We work with what we have.

The third section is about plants. The native plants mentioned are, like the author, British. These plants are the European non-natives in the USA. Sometimes they are a problem. In helping you choose what to grow, consider plants that grow best in the open, in shade, in deep shade, in dry areas, in grassland, in marshes and bogs. You can substitute plants native to your region. There are tips on turning a lawn into a wildflower meadow. You need to start in the fall, cutting the grass very short and scarifying it to pull out 80% of the roots. The flower seed needs bare soil to germinate in, so roll or in some other way, press the seed firmly into the soil. Native plants generally shed seed in the fall, and some need a period of cold to break dormancy.

There are tips on scything, on planting a mixed species hedgerow (and for turning a hedge into a hedgerow of mixed species); on laying (pleaching or plashing) a hedge to keep livestock on one side of it, and on collecting seeds from wild plants. There is a table of which species need seed stratification, and which need scarification, and details on how to do each of those, and on taking and rooting cuttings.

Chapter 4 is about water, starting with rainwater “harvesting” or catchment. How we source, use and reuse water is of vital importance. Some past civilizations showed great mastery in water management: Minoans, Romans, Turks, and more. I’ve seen impressive English Victorian stonework reservoir management systems in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. One plastic rain barrel holding 150 l (40 US gallons) doesn’t go far enough to address a garden’s needs.  Your garden might need 5000 liters/1250 US gallons. Assuming barrels would refill 8 times during the year, one barrel only provides half enough.

The author avoids plastics whenever possible, and advocates for finding old wood whisky barrels. Most of the construction projects in this book use recycled lumber, typically from dismantled pallets. For rainwater collection, used metal drums and tanks are next best to wood. Aesthetics is important too. There are tips for creating a vista. There are tips on creating “Tranquil Effects” with rain chains for roof runoff, and channels, rills and gullies to move water through your landscape. Remember to make swales and ditches to catch overflow water from all the water features, to avoid erosion, slow the water down and let it soak usefully into the soil.

Matt Rees-Warren in his element

Rain gardens are easier to make than ponds. These are areas of dedicated plantings that can absorb larger amounts of water. There is a page on how to make one. There are instructions for constructing a bathtub reed bed in your garden. Grey-water use is another way to reduce the amount of fresh water you need for your garden. Water from showers, laundry, and sinks can add up to quite a lot of potentially useful water. One way to make use of grey-water is a keyhole bed with a central funnel or basket into which grey-water is poured onto compost full of micro-organisms, with a lower level of rocks and gravel.

The next chapter covers wildlife, everything from microbes to mammals. The author says: “By adding organic matter into the soil on a regular basis in the form of compost, you will do infinitely more to aid the food web than anything else.” The decomposition of organic matter sparks many life forms. Ideally, your garden will not be closed off from the rest of the world, but will have permeable boundaries. Opening your land to wild mammals will also mean the neighbor’s cat can come and go, which can cause problems for birds and small mammals. Ponds with a natural continuous water source can become part of a water-flow through your garden. Some ponds may sometimes need the addition of fresh water to prevent complete drying out. See the section on Creating a Natural Clay-Lined Pond. Find a good site, and a source of clay (try construction sites, where there is a pile of excavated clay). After digging the hole, spread a layer of cleaned, puddled clay over the inside, smoothing it with a plastering float. Sit back and wait for the pond to fill. Once plants start to grow, wildlife will soon follow. Seed the berm around the pond with fast-growing annuals to hold the soil in place, and add perennial plants later. Water-loving plants are not happy up on the relatively dry berms. Avoid plants with big roots that will destroy the integrity of the clay liner.

Pollination is important for most plants, so be sure to encourage pollinators: chiefly butterflies, moths and bees.

The chapter on materials includes growing your own plant stakes by coppicing and pollarding, as well as repurposing found and sought-out materials. Avoid new materials if possible, and when shopping, choose biodegradable materials and sustainable sources. Matt makes suggestions for repurposing many discarded items in creative ways. Plant your own coppice with a mix of whips of native trees such as willow, hazel, alder, ash and lime. After five to ten years, start harvesting rods by cutting the stems right down at the base. This kind of pruning can extend the life of the tree, which is perhaps counter-intuitive, but history and tradition bears it out. You can plan for a rotation of pruning each of the trees, some each winter. There are pictures and tips on coppicing a hazel.

We know it’s a poor worker who blames their tools. Here is information on maintaining and sharpening tools. I learned that waterstones should be soaked in water before use until no more bubbles come from the stone. I’d been in the habit of just dotting some water on the surface of the stone! Now I know better.

Mud mortars are explained as an alternative to cement. Matt also addresses the issue of agricultural plastics. He advocates for committing to a closed system, whereby you never send plastics to the landfill. Hard to do, but it does wonderfully focus the mind. And we can all do better at conserving and reusing plastic items.

The Ecological Gardener is a handbook for all who seek to be more ecological while working and playing outdoors on our land. It’s an earnest attempt to move the needle on the environmental impacts of our actions towards living more lightly. It’s not a soapbox, but a toolkit.

Why I don’t use Peat Moss

 

Walking on the Yorkshire Moors. Credit Daniel Wildey Photography/North York Moors National Park

When I was a new gardener at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia, I was a bit surprised to find the crew using peat moss in the potting mix. I come from the UK, where gardeners’ use of peat has long been challenged as unsustainable and ecologically destructive. I lived in Yorkshire and frequently took walks up on the “tops” (moors). I admit it did take me a while to come to appreciate the treeless stark beauty there. The moors are wild, wet and windy. You get wide views (if the mist or rain is not too thick). You get space and isolation, and tons of very fresh air. There are ancient trackways where salt and coffins were carried, and standing stones, and abandoned industrial workings such as millstone carving sites and mines. If you go alone, you need good navigation skills in the less-traveled parts. If you are unwary, you can find yourself thigh-deep in a bog, and the water is never warm.

Cutting peat turfs for heating. Photo Wikimedia Commons

In previous times, various efforts were made to drain the water and make the land arable or forested. Meanwhile, local people (or at least the “hearth-holders,” and I feel sorry for the others) had Rights of Turbary, meaning that each summer they could cut out slices of peat (turfs or turves) from the section of common or private land they had rights to, dry them and haul them home as winter fuel. More recently, interest rose in preserving the unique moorland ecosystems. The rich had their pheasant shoots, and they still do. The gamekeepers conducted controlled burns of the heather and bracken to make sure the plants grew tender new shoots at the time of year the young pheasants needed them. Sheep had some access. People enjoyed the birdlife, the heather flowers, the carnivorous sundew plants, the cottongrass, the mosses and other bog plants.

Roundleaf sundew, a carnivorous plant. Photo iNaturalist

There are many types of peat moss, including 160 species of sphagnum moss. It grows slowly, and needs acidic water and cool-to-cold temperatures. It could be a renewable resource in places with very large amounts of untouched peat bogs, like Canada. That is, if we only harvest small amounts. But, oil and coal could theoretically be renewable if we wait long enough! The Canadian horticulture industry does have some guidelines and best management practices and a certification program for Responsibly Managed Peatlands. You can read about them in Jennifer Zurko’s article I describe later. There are some restoration projects, including the Moss Layer Transfer Technique, a kind of grafting or transplant process. The suppliers do have some “enlightened self-interest” in preserving their goose that lays the golden eggs. In 2021 in the UK, a phased-in ban on peat-based growing media will reach a complete ban in 2024. The rate of progress with phasing out sales was seriously set back when lots of new gardeners wanted peat during the Covid pandemic! Most retailers did not start phasing it out! The UK supply of peat is much smaller than in Canada, and the situation there is critical.

Relatively recently, many people have realized the enormous value of peat bogs as a big carbon sink. Keeping carbon in the ground is one way to strive to reduce the impact of climate change. The wet, anaerobic conditions hold the carbon in the dead plant matter. If we burn it, obviously the carbon is released. This is also true if we use peat in our gardens, mixing it with other ingredients and exposing it to the air. Peat is not coal, it’s not yet a fossil fuel, but it’s on its way. If you use peat, you may have noticed the old heather twigs, and leafy and mossy bits.

In a small country like the UK, it’s more obvious that the rate of use of peat exceeds the rate at which it is laid down. The UK is committed to limit or to completely stop peat use in the home garden market in 2024, and in the professional market by 2030. In the US, we import most of our peat moss from Canada, a large country with a relatively small population clustered close to the US border. Who sees the peat bogs? But the environmental impact is the same. Using peat moss contributes to global heating.

Screening compost for seed compost and potting compost.
Photo Wren Vile

We reduced our use of peat moss at Twin Oaks by first discovering that our homemade compost could be screened (sieved) and used alone for potting transplants and sowing seeds in flats. Our remaining use of peat was for soil blocks. Soil blocks are cubes of potting media that can stand alone and grow seedlings. No plastic pots! To work in a soil blocker, the mixture must be quite wet and sticky. We experimented to find a recipe with as much homemade compost and as little peat moss as possible.

Lettuce transplants in soil blocks.
Photo Pam Dawling

Next, we switched to replacing the peat with coir, the fibrous stuff from coconut shells. It is sold in compressed bricks that need soaking in water and crumbling before use. The material has been shredded, and is easy to use. This is a by-product of growing coconuts. No coconuts are harvested just for the coir. It seems like a freebie, a “waste” product. Maybe our purchase helps people in poorer countries to get more money for their agricultural efforts. Of course, getting the coir from the tropical coconut-growing regions does involve some shipping. It’s shelf-stable, so can come by ship, using less fuel than air transportation. However, maybe the coconut groves would benefit from the coir being returned to the soil below the coconut palms. There are no “wastes” in agriculture.

Soil Blocker (currently on sale) at Johnny’s Selected Seeds

We still use coir for soil blocks, but we reduced our use of soil blocks, and last year made none at all. Now we use Winstrip trays instead of soil blocks. These are heavy-duty plastic with many years (decades?) of use ahead. They have square cells with vertical slits in the sidewalls and a staggered arrangement allowing air to prune the roots of the seedlings, one of the values of soil blocks. With Winstrip trays, we can use 100% home-made compost, not bought-in imports at all. Filling the Winstrips is very quick, much quicker than getting a good block mix and ejecting each set of four soil blocks.

Transplanting from Winstrips is almost as easy as transplanting soil blocks. With soil blocks, you open a hole in the soil (I used to like a right-angled trowel for this job; Eliot Coleman advocates a cut-off bricklaying trowel). Drop the block in the hole and firm the soil back in place. With Winstrips, you poke the plug up through the hole in the bottom, then lift it out, and it’s just like planting a soil block.

Okra seedlings in a Winstrip tray in the greenhouse.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Margaret Roach addressed this issue with Brian Jackson, an expert in soil-less growing media on her website A Way to Garden: Can we Replace Peat Moss? You can read the interview or listen to the podcast.

The January 2022 issue of GrowerTalks magazine has an article from an industry perspective: Is Peat Sustainable by Jennifer Zurko. There is an archived version of an earlier webinar, linked from the article, if you prefer that format.

Suppliers of other potting media are selling ground composted bark and rice hulls. The same questions remain. In the case of rice hulls, the additional question is, do we want to aid and abet the eating of hulled white rice? And another is whether the potting mix has any nutrients for the growing plants. If you can make and use your own compost, you can be confident your plants will get nutrients. Commercial potting mixes have nutrients added. Making a change will involve assessing your options and the results you get. Using a different medium will require other changes, like how much you need to water. It will involve paying more attention than you needed for doing the familiar.

So, we are back to using (very durable) plastics and no longer buy any peat moss. Probably we won’t buy coir again either, once we have used what we have in stock. This is one of those agricultural dilemmas everyone gets to find their own solution to. Peat bogs can perhaps be restored eventually, but we need to then leave them be, and leave peat in the ground, as with coal and oil.