Book Review: The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, Andrew Mefferd,

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, 

Andrew Mefferd, New Society Publishers, January 2019, $29.99

Organic No-Till has been an unachievable goal for many of us, but there’s no need to feel guilty or ashamed! We may understand the biology, and even the physics and chemistry of it, and why it’s a Good Thing. We can see how it can be done on a domestic scale, especially by those who can grow or buy lots of mulch, and especially if there’s no need to account for time and money invested.  There is equipment (roller-crimpers and no-till planters) that makes large scale organic no-till possible and efficient. But for those of us growing food in the middle scale, it’s proving harder. Giant equipment works for acres of soybeans but not for market farming. How to keep the weeds away while tending forty sowings of lettuce? The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution provides very practical information for those who want to increase the amount of no-till growing on their small-scale farm.

Andrew Mefferd says in the introduction, “No-till is as much about climate change as it is about soil health as it is about farm profitability.” Work on all three at once with this book. 50-70% of the world’s carbon in farm soils is off-gassed due to tillage (according to a Yale study). This decreases soil fertility at a time when we need to grow more resilient crops to cope with climate change. Global food production could be reduced by up to 17% by 2100 due to climate-induced crop failures. All steps in a good direction are worth taking.

Andrew is not a proselytizer and this is not a religion. You don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere to benefit from some very practical new skills, enabling you to increase the area in no-till practices. Different strategies work for different farms and different crops. Not inverting the soil layers is important. Any reduction in tillage is a good step; shallower is better than deeper; less often is better than after every crop. The tilther and power harrow on a shallow setting are used by some no-till farmers. One last tilling before setting up permanent beds is OK if that’s what you need to do! Think in terms of doing more no-till and take away any pressure to feel bad if you continue to do some tilling. One step at a time towards healing the earth, the climate; improving your soil and your crops.

The first part of the book explains the concepts and presents various methods: mulch grown in place; applied cardboard, deep straw or compost; occultation (tarping) and solarization (clear plastic). The main section consists of in-depth interviews with seventeen farmers about what works for them. After reading the first part, you can dive into the chapters with the methods that most appeal to you. The book is written so it doesn’t have to be read sequentially to make sense.

Andrew worked at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Research Farm on organic no-till vegetable production, using roller-crimpers and no-till drills. The next year he moved to a 3 acre farm and temporarily forgot about no-till because the methods he’d seen were not applicable to that scale. Ten years later, in 2016, he read articles in Growing for Market magazine, and attended conference workshops by farmers who were succeeding with organic no-till on smaller farms. These growers were using various different methods, and Andrew decided to visit them and write up the interviews.

“Want to build organic matter and soil biology because of the way you grow, instead of despite it?” Andrew asks. Increasing the organic matter in the soil will help the soil hold more water, suffer less from run-off and need less applied water per year (1″ (2.5 cm) of water saved per 1% increase in OM has been quoted). Carbon is stored in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Paying attention to the soil biology and feeding the soil is the heart of organic farming. We must farm more ecologically if we want to survive. At the same time, small-scale farms must be profitable to sustain the farmers. This book has many examples of farmers that started small with limited resources, and are able to make a decent living. Avoiding the need to buy heavy machinery is a big saving.

I love this surprise quote: “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” Which outspoken radical farming group made this proclamation? The USDA-NRCS! Taking care of the soil biology reduces the urge to compensate with chemistry. The less tillage, the better-off we can be. OM levels can rise quickly when tillage is reduced. Cover-cropping, adding compost and organic mulches are all ways to achieve this. The churning of tillage burns up OM. As Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm, Connecticut, says, “Tillage is a nutrient flush from all the death you just wrought on the soil…Tillage doesn’t give nutrient balance, it gives you nutrient release.” More OM must be added every year just to maintain levels that were there before tilling.

Tarping is a rediscovered method that lets the soil digest the plant material without any tilling. This is especially useful when you have several weeks to spare after a harvest, but not enough time to grow a cover crop. The soil biology breaks down the residue, weed seeds germinate then die. The soil is left ready to replant.

After listing all the many benefits of no-till, Andrew explains the disadvantages. Weed control without cultivation is the main issue, especially perennial weeds. The slowness of mulched soil to warm in the spring is another. A third is that high OM can lead to more slugs. If you mulch with tree leaves, you might find squirrels and chipmunks rummaging for acorns. Grass creeps in from the edges. These problems are all addressed in the book.

Andrew Mefferd
Photo by Ann Mefferd

The Overview of Organic No-Till Techniques is a summary of methods, biodegradable mulches and plastic sheet materials.

Biodegradable mulch grown in place is the method we used for many years for our large planting of paste tomatoes. We sowed winter rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas in early September, following our spring broccoli and cabbage. At the beginning of May we mowed down the cover crop with our hay cutting machine and the next day dug holes and transplanted the tomatoes. We used a small shovel for our big transplants. Shawn Jadrnicek suggests using a stand-up bulb planter. The legumes provided all the nitrogen the crop needed, and the long-cut cover crop kept the weeds at bay for maybe 6 weeks. By then we had trellised the tomatoes and were able to unroll big round bales of spoiled hay between the rows. This dealt with the weeds for the rest of the season. One year in ten in our row crops rotation was no-till. We tried a few other applications of this method but generally they didn’t work as well. We were unable to direct-seed into cut mulch, for instance. Our watermelons didn’t like the cold soil, and we wanted watermelons in August, not October! To grow big enough cover crops for this to work, the food crop has to be planted no earlier than late April in central Virginia. Paste tomatoes worked well because we didn’t need an early harvest. Transplanted Halloween pumpkins and winter squash work. Fall cabbage and broccoli (on German millet and soybeans) can also work.

Bringing in biodegradable mulch (hay, straw, cardboard, paper, compost, tree leaves, wood chips, spent brewers’ grains) is the second method. The material needs to be spread thickly, usually 3″ (7.5 cm) or more and used appropriately (don’t switch plans and till in raw wood chips!). Straw can cost $750 per acre covered. A round bale covers about 200′ by 5′. We use hay bales or biodegradable plastic on annual crops, cardboard and wood chips around our fruit plantings. The existing weeds and crop residues will need to be removed first. Flaming works for small weeds, otherwise use one of the sheeting methods. Read the book to get the all-important details on how to be successful.

The non-biodegradable mulch methods are tarping (occultation) and solarizing. Tarping was introduced to most of us by Jean-Martin Fortier in The Market Gardener. For annual no-till crops, first tarp the soil using an opaque material such as silage tarps (or solarize in hot weather). After killing the weeds, uncover, spread mulch and transplant into it. Tarps will not kill docks or nut-sedge. Tarping takes from 3-6 weeks, (the shorter time in hotter weather). Allow longer if you’re bringing new land into production. Plan ahead, and tarp all winter. Silage tarps warm the soil for early spring plantings, and also prevent soil moisture from evaporating.

Solarization uses clear plastic (old hoophouse plastic is ideal). In a summer hoophouse, solarization can be as quick as 24 hours, Andrew says. When we’ve done this, one of our goals was to kill nematodes and fungal diseases, not just weeds, so we waited a few weeks. Outdoors it takes several weeks. You can see when the weeds are dead. Bryan O’Hara poked a thermometer probe through solarization plastic and found a 50F degree (28C) difference between the outside air and the soil immediately under the plastic; a 10F (6C) difference at 1″ (2.5 cm) deep and little temperature gain lower than that. Solarization does not kill all the soil life!

The growers interviewed explain which methods they use and why, helping readers weigh the pros and cons for the various crops we are growing, and our resources, climate and soils. Andrew offers some pointers on which methods are likely to work best for which situations. Several farmers tell how they transitioned into organic no-till for various crops, for instance buckwheat, compost and Weed Guard Plus paper mulch for a garlic crop, followed by two crops of lettuce. Mossy Willow Farm in Australia has a designated area for direct-seeded crops, where they use sprinklers, and the tilther if needed. The rest of their farm (transplanted) uses drip irrigation, but the soil does get too clumpy for direct seeding, and is slower to improve.

Farmers also address the things that went wrong while they were learning (thin stands of cover crops, cover crops not dying, getting the timing wrong on seeding or roll-crimping, weed seeds blowing in from elsewhere). They describe equipment they found helpful (drop-spreaders to lay down even layers of woodchips or compost, landscape fabric, the stand-up bulb planter, Tilther, Jang seeder, paperpot transplanter, broadfork). They also address timing of cover crop sowing to avoid warm-season and cool-season weeds; extending the weed suppression period of cut or crimped cover crops by adding tree leaves; pre-irrigating before digging transplant holes; and many other tips to success. A strategy for tall crabgrass is to mow it down, cover with newspaper and compost. A border of comfrey plants all-round the garden does a great job of keeping grass out. You can quickly see how this book will pay for itself many times over!

No-till beds are ready for early spring crops, even in wet regions, if the beds are mulched overwinter. Because no-till builds soil upwards, it is a good technique for land that is very rocky or with shallow topsoil. Another advantage of no-till is that you can install fairly permanent irrigation (drip or sprinklers). And you can farm intensively on small areas without needing to cater to the turning radius of large machinery. Getting high productivity from small areas is becoming an essential factor to consider.

Potatoes are a soil disruptor, and can bring up new weed seeds, so it’s worth covering the beds as soon as the potatoes are harvested. At Four Winds Farm in New York State, they plant garlic in the fall after potatoes, then mulch over the top of the garlic with a thick layer of compost. In their bigger plan, they only plant garlic in every other bed (although composting all). The following spring they plant winter squash in the empty beds, which can take over all the space after the garlic is harvested.

As I read the interviews, I started to worry: were none of these farmers having a problem using such high amounts of compost? The first problem is making or buying the sorts of quantities they are using, but the second is a build-up of phosphorus, which we have experienced on our farm. Singing Frogs Farm has studied this, testing the water run-off in the ponds at the low-point of their land. The phosphorus stays in place in their system, it does not leach. Nor does the nitrogen. The soil biology sponges up the nutrients, the 3-8 crops they grow in a year absorb them. They don’t rely on compost for fertility, but now   use pelleted feather meal, calcium and rock dusts. Their compost use is 0.5″ (< 1 cm) per year, very different from the many farmers using much more.

Daniel Mays at Frith Farm in Maine believes cover crops provide a more active kind of organic matter, which is tailored to the soil. He is seeing better results than with compost. Roots in the Ground! Hedda Brorstrom, of Full Blossom Flower Farm, Sebastopol, CA is trending in the other direction. She points out that a lot of the compost for sale is made with lots of animal manures, which does send the phosphorus levels way up. Because growing cover crops was not working for her, she researched available composts carefully. High-carbon compost is a way to avoid sending the phosphorus levels up too much. She has used 4-8″ (10-20 cm) of compost per year.

Neversink Farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains point to intensive production (“the greenhouse mentality writ large”), 5 people working on 1.5 acres of permanent (not-raised) beds, and direct sales to customers, as factors in their success. As Conor Crickmore says proudly, “Our farming practices may be radical but they have resulted in our farm being one of the highest production farms per square foot in the country.” Close to $400,000 gross on 1.5 acres!

The collected wisdom and experience in The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution can save newer no-till farmers from a lot of frustration and wasted time, money and mental and emotional energy.

Garlic scapes, yellow spinach, and listen-while-you-work

 

Garlic scape harvest. Photo Wren Vile

The seasons are changing, and I notice fewer people are searching my website for Winter-kill temperatures and more are searching for garlic scapes, and (sadly) sprouting green potatoes!

We’ve been harvesting scapes from our hardneck garlic for over a week now and have been tackling the sequence of tasks that scapes act as a prompt for:

  1. Weed the hay-mulched broccoli and cabbage beds next to the garlic
  2. Weed the garlic
  3. Carefully lift out the hay-mulch-and-weeds combo from the garlic beds, into wheelbarrows
  4. Take it to the broccoli and cabbage beds and use it to top up the mulch there.

This gives the garlic good airflow and helps it dry down (our scapes arrive 3 weeks before we need to harvest). I notice it’s earlier this year. We may be harvesting at the end of May, rather than in the first week of June. We need to clean and prepare the barn where we hang the garlic to cure, and service the box fans we use to help that process (our climate is too humid to cure alliums without fans). For a lot more about garlic throughout the year, see the “alliums” category of posts.

What causes spinach leaves to turn yellow?

A bed of healthy green Reflect spinach on May 3
Photo Pam Dawling
A bed of sad yellow Reflect spinach only 10 ft away.
Photo Pam Dawling

On a less happy topic, we have been puzzling over the difference between one bed of spinach (green) and another about 10 ft away (yellow)

We had two beds of transplanted Reflect spinach from the same planting that came out very differently this spring. One developed yellow older leaves, the other stayed green. Seizing an opportunity, we transplanted the troubled one (30W) directly after tilling, on 3/2, without allowing the turned-under weeds to decompose. We did spread compost before tilling. Although initially healthy, later the older leaves developed all-over yellowing (not just between the veins). The other bed (27W), transplanted 3/18, about 10 feet away, has stayed healthy and green, up until May 14. We’ve lost track of when it was tilled relative to planting. Or, because we had such wet weather, we might have broadforked rather than tilled. Both beds now have pointy leaves and are getting ready to bolt. No difference in that. Our other beds of spring spinach, transplanted 3/5 and 3/13 are between the two mentioned in color. Is the problem entirely to do with the decomposing weeds (and the micro-organisms they are feeding) tying up the nitrogen? It looks like that.

In an effort to save the yellow spinach, 30W was weeded around 5/2 and the bed was sprayed in the evening 5/3 with seaweed extract. It rained 0.1″ the night of 5/4 and again 5/5, then no more rain before the second set of photos 5/9 – could the seaweed have washed off before it could be absorbed? We did not add a spreader/sticker (soap) to the seaweed spray. There might have been overhead irrigation, which could have washed it off. We don’t remember when it was irrigated relative to the seaweed spraying.

We also don’t know if there were differences in transplanting techniques between the beds, but as both beds were transplanted by several people working together, we can probably rule this out.

The bed of green spinach on May 9 – note how the leaves are pointy – the spinach is preparing to bolt.
Photo Pam Dawling
In 2016 both beds had spring spinach (three year rotation).

30W (yellow) then had buckwheat, compost and late squash 7/18/16, followed by winter wheat.

In 2017 it had compost, tomatoes 5/2 and winter wheat.

In 2018 it had buckwheat and soy, compost and late bush beans 8/3, leaving weeds over winter.

Total about 14 months food crops.

27W (green) had buckwheat and soy followed by oats in August 2016.

In 2017 it had compost, spring turnips, buckwheat and soy, compost and lettuce in August, followed by weeds over the winter.

In 2018 it had compost, carrots 3/27, compost, turnips 8/6 and weeds over the winter.

Total about 11 months of food crops.

The yellow spinach (no greener) on May 9.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Possible causes of yellow spinach leaves include poor drainage, soil compaction, damaged roots/poor root growth, high soil pH, too much or too little water, too low or too high a temperature, or perhaps cold temperatures followed abruptly by very warm temperatures, 80°F or greater; nutrient deficiencies or disease. In our case, the beds are close together, receiving identical weather. Perhaps 30W is a bit drier.
  • Nutrient deficiencies may occur due to insufficient amount in the soil or because the nutrients are unavailable due to high soil pH, or nutrients may not be absorbed due to injured roots or poor root growth. Our roots grew OK, we don’t tend towards alkaline soil
  • The most common nutrient problem associated with chlorosis is lack of iron, but yellowing may also be caused by manganese, magnesium, boron, zinc, or nitrogen deficiencies.
  • Iron deficiency starts on young leaves and may later work towards the older leaves (which initially had enough iron, as a transplant). Can occur in water-logged soil. The veins can remain green. Not the problem we have – our older leaves are yellower.
  • Deficiencies in manganese, zinc or nitrogen develop on older leaves first and then progress upward.
  • Within older leaves, magnesium is transported from the leaf’s interstitial areas to the veins, resulting in yellowing of the areas between leaf veins. This creates a marbled appearance, a typical symptom of magnesium deficiency. Our leaves were yellow all over.
  • Nitrogen deficiency. Overall yellowing (including veins). The lower, older leaves appear yellow first as the plant moves the available nitrogen to the more important newer leaves. Spinach is sensitive to inadequate nitrogen. Our main suspect.
  • Boron deficiency also yellows the leaves and stunts spinach plants. We do tend to run short of boron, and my approach was to add boron before brassicas. We haven’t added any for several years and the only brassicas in these beds were turnips in 27W in spring 2017 and fall 2018. Did we add boron in 2016/2017?
  • Spinach is a heavy feeder. Feed with compost tea, manure tea, or fish emulsion when plants have four true leaves. Side dress with compost tea every 10 to 15 days. Mix 1 tablespoon of fish emulsion and 2 tablespoons of kelp extract per gallon of water; use about one cup per one-foot of row on a weekly basis until plants are about 4″ (10 cm) tall; then feed two more times before harvest. Add mature compost to planting beds twice each year.
  • Fusarium wilt or fusarium yellows (also called spinach yellows) is a fungal disease which infects plant vascular tissues. Fungal spores live in the soil and can be carried by cucumber beetles. We certainly have lots of striped cucumber beetles! But these plants did not wilt. See the photos here:
  • Harvest to Table is a great website with lots of reliable growing information.
  • Identifying nutrient deficiency in plants
  • Guide to Symptoms of Plant Nutrient Deficiencies
Listen While You Work

Harold Thornbro of The Small Town Homestead interviewed me about hoophouses and you can listen to the interview here. It’s about 50 minutes.

I also gave an interview for the Yale Climate Connections

This one is short (1 min 30 sec) and more about Twin Oaks Community than farming in particular.Play it directly above, or See the webpage here

There is also a link to a longer CNN story about Twin Oaks

Cooking Greens in May

Ruby chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

My recent blogpost Hoophouse Greens Clearance is a good lead-in to this topic. This is the first of a planned monthly series of posts about seasonal cooking greens. I have been justly criticized for not reminding readers that these dates are for our location in central Virginia. Those living in the rest of the world can choose later or earlier dates as appropriate. Hopefully you will be able to set a pattern, where you add or subtract a certain number of weeks. For example if you are in a colder area, you will generally plant later between December and June and plant earlier after that, to fit the length of daylight and the temperature.

Cooking Greens to Plant in Central Virginia in May

Very early May is our last chance to finish transplanting gap fillers to replace casualties in spring broccoli and cabbage. It’s too late for us to transplant any other cooking greens in May (except Swiss chard and special heat tolerant crops), as the weather is already heating up and brassicas will bolt.

We plant our chard out around April 29–May 6, at 3–4 weeks of age. We transplant into beds already mulched with rolled out bales of spoiled hay, making “nests” through the hay down to soil level, at 12″ (30 cm) spacing. The plants will grow large, so we put only two rows in a 4′ (120 cm) bed with 1′ (30–cm) paths. The mulch controls weeds and keeps the soil cooler and damper through the summer.

Spinach beet, also known as perpetual spinach, is by far the closest to real spinach in appearance and flavor. It is a kind of chard with narrow green stems and plentiful glossy green leaves, which are generally smaller than other chard leaves. It is a trouble-free, adaptable crop, and deserves to be much better known.

New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa, Tetragonia tetragonioides) is salt tolerant and will even grow in sand. It is a sprawling bushy plant with small, fleshy, triangular leaves. Thin to at least six inches (15 cm) apart. It is very slow to germinate and needs hot weather to really get going. Regular trimming encourages lush growth. Scissors can be used to harvest the shoot tips. If it seeds, you’ll get lots of plants the following year. The flavor is very mild — I rate this one as not particularly like spinach.

Malabar Spinach, a summer green leafy crop.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Malabar spinach (Basella alba, Basella rubra) can be sown in early May. It’s a vining plant with crinkled heart-shaped leaves on green or red vines. A tropical plant from Asia and Africa, it needs tall trellising and will reward you with its attractive appearance. Germination can be erratic, so don’t give up too soon. Soaking the seed in warm water before sowing may help.

Thin to at least 6″ (15 cm) apart and, to promote a more branched plant, pinch out the central shoot after the second set of leaves. It is little troubled by pests and will produce an abundance of moderately small leaves, looking like real spinach, two months from sowing. Individual leaves may be harvested as needed. The taste is slightly seaweedy (it’s also known as “land kelp”) and the texture is somewhat mucilaginous in the way that okra is. It can be eaten raw if you like the chewy texture.

Melokhia (Corchorus olitorius) is an Arabic summer cooking green which grows quickly to a height of three feet (one meter) in hot weather. Only the small leaves are cooked and eaten. Jute fiber is extracted from the mature plants. Seed is available from Sandhill Preservation.

See the chapter Other Greens: Chard and Other Summer Cooking Greens in Sustainable Market Farming for more about other chard relatives and amaranths.

Bolting mustard greens on May 3.
Photo Pam Dawling

Outdoor Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

As the outdoor cooking greens prepare to bolt, we clear the beds of spinach, senposai, mustard greens, collards and kale, probably in that order. Over-wintered spinach bolts sooner than spring-planted spinach.

Daylight length of more than 14 hours triggers bolting in spinach. All of us, wherever we are, have 12 hours of daylight at the spring equinox and the fall equinox, and less than that from fall to spring. So, provided temperatures are in the right range, we have over 6 months of suitable spinach growing conditions. Hot weather will accelerate bolting once the daylight trigger has been reached, as will overcrowding (with other spinach or with weeds) and under-watering. The exact temperature that triggers bolting varies between varieties. Here we reach 14 hours of daylight on May 8, and spinach is definitely a lost cause after that date.

Broccoli, cabbage and chard harvests start here this month. Broccoli is generally available 5/20 – 6/30; cabbage 5/25 – 7/15, with some put into storage. Our outdoor chard is ready from 5/25 into the winter. We could have chard earlier, but we prefer spinach and kale while we can have those in spring.

Beet greens and turnip greens can be harvested all month outdoors. This fits in well with thinning the plants out to 3″ (7.5 cm) or more apart.

Young turnips (with flea beetles!) in need of thinning for cooking greens.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

As I said in my Hoophouse Greens Clearance post, the indoor greens have to concede space to the tender warm weather plants. Bulls Blood Beet Greens will be bolting, as will the chard, frilly mustards and spinach. Clear them away, and look outside instead!

Other Tasks with Cooking Greens here in May

In mid-May, we weed our broccoli, having packed away the rowcovers, or moved them on to more tender plants. I always prefer moving rowcovers and netting direct from one bed to another, rather than rolling tightly and storing it, just to unpack it again soon after!

Garlic beds next to rowcovered broccoli beds, under a stormy sky.
Photo Wren Vile

After weeding the broccoli and cabbage beds, which in our rotation are right beside the over-wintered garlic, in the same plot, we weed the garlic. Then we gather up the mulch and weeds and move them from the garlic to the weeded brassica beds. This achieves three things:

  1. We are extra motivated and get all the broccoli and cabbage beds and garlic weeded in a timely way.
  2. We leave bare soil around the garlic which improves airflow and helps the garlic dry down ready for harvest at the beginning of June.
  3. The brassica beds receive a topping up of mulch, which helps smother weeds and keeps the brassica plants cooler as we go into hotter weather. This will extend the harvest period and reduce the likelihood of the broccoli becoming bitter.

Special Cooking Greens Topic for May in Central Virginia: Planning Fall Brassicas

At Twin Oaks we need to start sowing our fall brassicas (especially the broccoli and cabbage) in the middle of June. Rather than have to attend to flats of starts in the greenhouse, we use outdoor nursery seed beds and do bare-root transplanting.

To determine when to sow for fall plantings, start with your average first frost date, then subtract the number of days from seeding to transplant (21–28), the number of days from transplanting to harvest for that variety (given in the catalog description), the length of harvest period (we harvest broccoli for 35 days minimum) and another 14 days for the slowing rate of plant growth in fall compared to spring.

Our rough formula for all transplanted fall brassicas is to sow around a foot (30 cm) of seed row for every 12’–15′ (3.6–4.6 m) of crop row, aiming for three seeds per inch (about 1 cm apart). This means sowing 36 seeds for 10 plants that will be grown on 18″ (46 cm) spacing. And we do that twice (72 seeds for 10 plants!), two sowings a week apart, to ensure we have enough plants of the right size.

Fall brassica nursery seedbed with insect netting.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We consult our maps and see how much space we have for fall broccoli and cabbage, how many raised beds of Asian greens and collards we want, and so on. (We direct sow kale in raised beds in early August). We will, of course, have initially planned this in the winter, before ordering seeds, but sometimes plans change!) Once we have decided how many plants of each variety and each crop we want, we can plan our seed sowing. We make a spreadsheet of what we need to sow each week, and maps of the seed beds. Our sowings are complex, so we make sure to label everything clearly. Here are our instructions:

  1. On the same day of each week, sow, label, water, hoop and ProtekNet the “Feet Plan” for that week.  Allow 3 hours.  Make a map.
  2. Check and record the germination of the previous two weeks’ sowings. (Perfect = one plant per inch)
  3.  In a fresh row, sow top-ups for varieties with a germination less than 80%. Enter the info in the column for the current week. Example: If Arcadia week 2 germination = 12′ (at 1/inch) visible in week 4, sow 10′ in the week 4 bed to make up to the 22′ needed, and write 10′ in the Arcadia row in the week 4 column. ( There are no sowings in weeks 5-8 except resows and kale beds.).
  4. Transplant at 3-4 weeks old:

In Week 4 (7/8-7/14): Transplant week 1 cabbage.

In Week 5 (7/15-7/21): Transplant week 2 cabbage, broccoli, , any  week 2 resows.

In Week 6 (7/22-7/28): Transplant week 3 cabbage, broccoli, senposai, Yukina Savoy; and any week 3 resows.

In Week 7 (7/29-8/4): Transplant week 4 senposai, Yukina Savoy, collards and resows.   Also fill gaps in week 4 transplantings (= week 1 sowings)

In Weeks 8 & 9 (8/5-8/19): Transplant week 5 collards anything you didn’t keep up with, and replacements in weeks 5 and 6 transplantings (weeks 2 & 3 sowings)

Fall broccoli rows.
Photo Kati Falger

Below you can see our seedbed maps, with four rows per bed, and handy 5 ft measurements.

Next we make a fall brassica transplanting map, or field map, to show where we intend the various varieties to grow. I’ll tell you more about that in June.

 

Winter Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2019

Baby greens in a cold frame in January.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I keep records of how well our crops do in the colder season, both outdoors and in our double-layer hoophouse. I note each increasingly cold minimum temperature and when the various crops die of cold, to fine-tune our planning for next year. We are in zone 7a, with an average annual minimum temperature of 0-5°F (-18°C to -15°C).  We had some extremely cold temperatures of -8°F and -9°F (-22°C and -23°C) in early January 2018. The winter of 2018-2019 was not as brutal. Our lowest temperatures were 6°F (-14°C) 1/31/19, 8°F (-13°C) 12/11/18 and a couple of 11°F (-12°C). This year I found that senposai is  more cold-tolerant than I had thought. otherwise I haven’t got much new news here. My results from other years hold up.

Unless otherwise stated, these are killing temperatures of crops outdoors without any rowcover. All greens do a lot better with protection against cold drying winds. Note that repeated cold temperatures can kill crops that can survive a single dip to a low temperature, and that cold winds, or cold wet weather can destroy plants quicker than simple cold. Your own experience with your soils, microclimates and rain levels may lead you to use different temperatures in your crop planning.

Hoophouse Notes

Our double-plastic hoophouse keeps night time temperatures about 8F (4.5C) degrees warmer than outdoors, sometimes 10F (5.5C) warmer. Plus, plants tolerate lower temperatures inside a hoophouse. The soil stays warmer; the plants recover in the warmer daytime conditions (it seems to be the night+day average temperature that counts);

Winter crops snug in our hoophouse in a December snowstorm.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse (8F warmer than outside) plants without extra rowcover can survive 14F colder than they could survive outside; with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan) at least 21F colder than outside.

For example, salad greens in our hoophouse can survive nights with outdoor lows of 14°F (-10°C). Russian kales, lettuce, mizuna, senposai, spinach, tatsoi, turnips, Yukina Savoy survived a hoophouse temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with. Bright Lights chard got frozen leaf stems.

Lettuce varieties for a solar-heated winter greenhouse or hoophouse in zone 7a: (hardiest are in bold) Buckley, Ezrilla, Green Forest, Green Star, Hampton, Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Marvel of Four Seasons, Merlot, New Red Fire, North Pole bibb, Oscarde, Outredgeous, Pirat, Red Cross bibb, Red Sails, Red Salad Bowl, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Rouge d’Hiver, Salad Bowl, Sylvesta bibb, Tango, Winter Marvel, Winter Wonderland.

Hoophouse lettuce Red Tinged Winter and Tango (and senposai) in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

Outdoor killing temperatures of crops (unprotected unless stated)

35°F (2°C):  Basil.

32°F (0°C):  Bush beans, cauliflower curds, corn, cowpeas, cucumbers, eggplant, limas, melons, okra, some pak choy, peanuts, peppers, potato vines, squash vines, sweet potato vines, tomatoes.

27°F (-3°C): Many cabbage varieties, Sugarloaf chicory (takes only light frosts).

 25°F (-4°C): Some cabbage, chervil, chicory roots for chicons, and hearts, Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), dill (Fernleaf), endive (Escarole more frost-hardy than Frisée), some fava beans (Windsor), annual fennel, some mustards (Red Giant, Southern Curled) and Asian greens (Maruba Santoh, mizuna, most pak choy, Tokyo Bekana), onion scallions (some are much more hardy), radicchio.

22°F (-6°C): Some arugula (some varieties are hardier), Bright Lights chard, large leaves of lettuce (protected hearts and small plants will survive colder temperatures), rhubarb stems and leaves.

20°F (-7°C): Some beets (Bulls Blood, Chioggia,), broccoli heads (maybe OK to 15°F (-9.5°C)), Brussels sprouts, some cabbages (the insides may still be good even if the outer leaves are damaged), celeriac, celtuce (stem lettuce), some head lettuce, some mustards/Asian greens (Tendergreen, Tyfon Holland greens), flat leaf parsley, radishes (Cherry Belle), most turnips (Noir d’Hiver is the most cold-tolerant variety).

Large oat plants will get serious cold damage. Oats seedlings die at 17°F (-8°C)

Canadian (spring) field peas are hardy to 10-20°F (-12 to -7°C).

Closing rowcovers after a winter spinach harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

15°F (-9.5°C): Some beets (Albina Verduna, Lutz Winterkeeper), beet leaves, some broccoli, some cabbage (Kaitlin, Tribute), covered celery (Ventura), red chard, cilantro, endive, fava beans (Aquadulce Claudia), Red Russian and White Russian kales, kohlrabi, some lettuce, especially medium-sized plants with 4-10 leaves (Marvel of Four Seasons, Olga, Rouge d’hiver, Tango, Winter Density), curly leaf parsley, rutabagas (American Purple Top Yellow, Laurentian) if not covered, broad leaf sorrel, most covered turnips, winter cress.

12°F (-11°C): Some beets (Cylindra,), some broccoli, Brussels sprouts, some cabbage (January King, Savoy types), carrots (Danvers, Oxheart), most collards, some fava beans (mostly cover crop varieties), garlic tops if fairly large, most fall or summer varieties of leeks (Lincoln, King Richard), large tops of potato onions, covered rutabagas, some turnips (Purple Top).

Using a sturdy digging fork to harvest leeks in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

10°F (-12°C): Covered beets, Purple Sprouting broccoli for spring harvest, a few cabbages (Deadon), chard (green chard is hardier than multi-colored types), some collards (Morris Heading can survive at least one night at 10F), Belle Isle upland cress, some endive (Perfect, President), young Bronze fennel, probably Komatsuna, some leeks (American Flag, Jaune du Poiteau), some covered lettuce (Pirat, Red Salad Bowl, Salad Bowl, Sylvesta, Winter Marvel), covered winter radish (Daikon, China Rose, Shunkyo Semi-Long survive 10°F/-12°C), Senposai leaves (the core of the plant may survive 8°F/-13°C), large leaves of savoyed spinach (more hardy than smooth-leafed varieties), Tatsoi, Yukina Savoy.

Oats cover crop of a medium size die around 10°F (-12°C). Large oat plants will die completely at 6°F (-17°C) or even milder than that.

Garlic shoots poking through the mulch in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

5°F (-15°C): Garlic tops even if small, some kale (Winterbor, Westland Winter), some leeks (Bulgarian Giant, Laura), some bulb onions, potato onions and other multiplier onions, smaller leaves of savoyed spinach and broad leaf sorrel. Many of the Even’ Star Ice Bred greens varieties are hardy down to 6°F (-14°C), a few unprotected lettuces if small (Winter Marvel, Tango, North Pole, Green Forest).

0°F (-18°C): Chives, some collards (Blue Max, Winner), corn salad (mâche), garlic, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, Even’ Star Ice-Bred Smooth Leaf  kale, a few leeks (Alaska, Durabel, Tadorna); some bulb onions, yellow potato onions, some onion scallions, (Evergreen Winter Hardy White, White Lisbon), parsnips (probably even colder), salad burnet, salsify (?), some spinach (Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia). Walla Walla onions sown in late summer are said to be hardy down to -10°F (-23°C), but I don’t trust below 0°F (-18°C)

Crimson clover is hardy down to 0°F (-18°C) or slightly colder

Vates kale with a freeze-killed center January 19 2018. Photo Pam Dawling

 -5°F (-19°C): Leaves of overwintering varieties of cauliflower, Vates kale survives although some leaves may be too damaged to use.

Many of our Vates kale plants survived those cold temperatures Photo Pam Dawling

-10°F (-23°C) Austrian Winter Field Peas and Crimson clover (used as cover crops).

-15°F (-26°C) Hairy vetch cover crop – some say down to -30°F (-34°C)

-20°F (-29°C) Dutch White clover cover crops – or even -30°F (-34°C)

 -30°F to -40°F (-34°C to -40°C): Narrow leaf sorrel, Claytonia and some cabbage are said to be hardy in zone 3. I have no personal experience of this.

 -40°F (-40°C) Winter wheat and winter rye (cover crops).

A hardy cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Hoophouse Greens Clearance, Warm Weather Crops Established

April 23 hoophouse view.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our hoophouse is in transition from the winter greens to the early warm weather tender crops. The photo above shows the old lettuce mix we are about to pull up, young tomato plants edged with late spinach, and a row of early snap peas. We usually grow the quick dwarf Sugar Ann, but seed was not available this year so we are growing Sugar Snap – much taller and slower! Usually we snap the peas in three pieces and put them in our salad mix, but I think we will have finished harvesting hoophouse salad mix and moved on to cutting outdoor lettuce heads when these peas are ready. This amount of peas is far too little to be served alone as peas for our hundred people!

Bulls Blood beets with spots cleared to plant tomatoes in mid-March
Photo Pam Dawling

Transition from cool to warm weather crops

  • We flag planting spots every 2’ (60 cm) down the mid-line of the bed – see the photo above.
  • Harvest crops that are too close
  • Dig holes
  • Add a shovelful of compost in the hole
  • Plant the warm weather crop
  • Over the next few weeks, harvest to the south of the new plants, and anything between them that’s too close
  • Over the following few weeks, harvest the rest of the greens between the new plants and then crops to the north.
  • This overlap allows the new crops to take over gradually, and the winter greens to continue harvest in March and April
  • Having hoophouse greens in March and April is very valuable, because the newly planted outdoor crops are not ready to harvest yet, and the overwintered ones are getting sparse.
Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills.
Photo Pam Dawling

We still have some patches of winter greens, such as the Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills mustards above. We grow different types of frilly mustard to add zip to our salad mixes when they are small. Also, the Brassica juncea group  is resistant to Root Knot Nematodes, which we have been dealing with. We just learned that Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills are both more bolt-resistant than the pretty pink-stemmed mizuna (not a juncea mustard) and Ruby Streaks.

We still have some baby lettuce mix in good shape. Here is our fourth sowing:

Our fourth sowing (Feb 15) of lettuce mix.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our salad mixes currently are spinach, pea shoots, lettuce mix and small Frills or a homemade brassica salad mix. We are starting to crave the crunch and juiciness of big lettuces! We have a few still in the hoophouse, the last of the ones we have been harvesting leaves from all winter and spring. Most of those October-transplanted lettuces have bolted now, and have been chopped up to cycle back into the soil.

Pea shoots make a delightful spring salad ingredient.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our warm-weather crops include two beds of tomatoes, one each of peppers, cucumbers and squash. Here are photos I took yesterday. This year we are trying out Golden Glory squash (yellow zucchini), because they are able to set fruit without pollinators, and we have been having lots of trouble with what I believe are unpollinated squash with brown ends failing to develop.

Hoophouse squash: Gentry on the left, Golden Glory on the right. April 23
Photo Pam Dawling

More recently I heard that they may in fact have blossom end rot. I had not known this can affect squash. It has the same cause as the malady in tomatoes: a shortage of calcium reaching the top of the plant. This can be because of a shortage in the soil, or because cold temperatures slow down its transport. Less likely to be a problem in the hoophouse! In fact it is so hot some days that we have already scheduled a date to pull the big shadecloth over the top.

A hoophouse pepper plant on April 23.
Photo Pam Dawling
A Spacemaster cucumber plant on April 23.
Photo Pam Dawling

Book Review: Book Review: The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, by Chris Smith

 

The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration

Chris Smith, Chelsea Green, June 2019

ISBN 978-1-60358-807-2, 272 pages, $29.95

This brand new book is a lot of fun, and the photos are stunning. It has more about okra than you knew you “Wanted to Know”. Oil from the seeds, eating the leaves, okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights, okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. It contains growing tips and recipes, but is not limited to the practical realm.

Chris Smith lives in North Carolina and works with Sow True Seeds in Asheville. He is also a writer, speaker and consultant. He is an immigrant farmer, like me, coming from a climate where okra does not grow. “As a white British guy, I am fully aware that okra is not part of my culture or heritage. I have, however, fallen in love with okra and have tried to approach this book with integrity, and a deep appreciation of people and food.” Fortunately for us all, he persisted beyond his encounter with soggy, slimy, greasy fried okra to discover much better ways to use this versatile vegetable.

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

Chris has grown 76 varieties of okra, cooked it in many different recipes, and experimented on himself and his family with “beauty” preparations and alcoholic tinctures and beverages. He is growing another 76 different varieties in 2019. The USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) holds 1099 separate accessions from all over the world. India grows the most okra, by far (over 6 million tons in 2014). Nigeria is second with 2 million tons. The US is 21st in line (producing 10,000 tons in 2014). The US also imports 50,000 tons mostly from Mexico and Central America.

In his introduction, Chris says: “Not embracing okra because it’s slimy is like not visiting the Alps because you’re scared of heights.” Okra is often dismissed these days as a vegetable people don’t like, although it used to be a favorite of many. In the 1900s, the Tabasco brand of canned okra sold well.

We need resilient crops in the face of climate change; we need to grow more of our own food, eat locally, organic, and with less or no meat, to survive the uncertainties ahead. Zero food waste has become a goal of some chefs (and no doubt, some home cooks too). The Whole Okra provides help with several steps on this journey.

Early in the book, Chris embraces the S-word (slime), including some great photos of his smiling family with okra slime face masks and okra-slice eye pads, and himself with okra mucilage hair conditioner. Although Chris is only recommending things he’s tried himself, he does mention some untested ideas, like substituting okra juice for mallow juice as a tonic. A (tested) recipe for okra marshmallow delights is included. Adding acidic ingredients (think tomatoes, lemon juice) to a recipe will effectively cut through the sliminess.

Pickled garlic scapes, okra and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

If you have grown okra, you will probably be familiar with the sudden glut that arrives at some (hot) point in the summer. Here are instructions for freezing okra, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips (season 2 pounds (907 g) of pods with oil, salt, spices, roast at 500F (260C) for 20 mins, then 170F (75C) for 2-3 hours). 4 ounces (113 g) of tasty crunchy chips! Who knew? There’s also info on pressure canning, and okra kimchi, which can be dried, powdered and used as a seasoning.

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Okra can be self-pollinating, but produces more seeds per pod when pollinated by insects. There is a specialized native okra bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis. Okra is not native to North America, but rose-mallow and hibiscus are. The flowers are edible cooked, but of course you won’t get an okra pod if you’ve eaten the flower. Unlike squash, okra does not have separate female and male flowers. Flowers can be dried, used in tea blends, or in vodka for tinctures and nightcaps. Only eat flowers if you have an over-abundance of pods or you are about to go away for a long weekend and don’t want to come home to a mass of woody pods. Believe it or not, Chris has uses for woody pods too! These can often be obtained free or cheap in high summer. Don some gloves. Open the pods and shell out the immature seeds, which can be cooked and eaten then, or blanched and frozen for winter. Thoroughly dry the empty pods, then powder them, and sift through a fine mesh. The pod powder can be used as a thickening agent in place of cornstarch.

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

The young leaves make appetizing summer greens and are higher in protein than the pods. They are used (mixed with yam and other vegetables) by the Igbo people of Nigeria. Choose very young leaves, or fairly young leaves of a variety without spiny leaves. Heavy Hitter is the variety to grow for large supple spineless leaves. A close cousin of okra, abika, is used as an important leafy green in some Pacific Island nations. Seeds can be bought from Monticello, under the name Sunset Hibiscus.

Deep-fried young leaves can make crisp chips, like kale chips, but different. If you are saving okra seed, you will often have more seeds than you need to grow, you can sow those for microgreens. Chris has a small aquaponics system made from a barrel. Goldfish (and tilapia in summer) are in the bottom section of the barrel and the water is pumped to the top section which grows the microgreens.

Mature okra seed has a tough hull and a nutritious kernel which can be ground into flour and used in soups, sauces, gravies, and okra seed tofu and tempeh. Back to woody pods: they can make Christmas tree ornaments, earrings, strings of holiday lights (hint: cool LED bulbs, not fire-prone hot bulbs), and painted ornamental figurines. Crushed pods can be used to grow mushrooms. I’m waiting to find out if Chris suggests using them as mulch, or as firelighters. (My Advance Readers’ Copy doesn’t have an index).

Cow Horn okra pods and flower.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

It was known in 1874 and in 1919 that oil can be extracted from okra seeds, but forgotten since. Chris describes hand-cranking his Piteba oil press, for small yields of delicious yellow-green oil. In a comparison of okra oil with that from sunflowers, safflower, soy and sesame [why only the oils that start with S?] the yield of okra oil per hectare is second only to sunflower. The yield pf protein is the highest, beating soy. Clay Oliver makes artisanal small-batch oils, including okra. In a study by Robert Jarret, the oil content varied by variety from 9.19% to 21.56%.

Okra seed flour has high levels of protein and fat, and an impressive range of amino acids. It can be made into bread and other baked goods, mixed with cornmeal. Okra seed was used as a coffee substitute during the civil war. Chris tries everything, and reports that the roasted seeds, when ground, release an appetizing coffee aroma, and look just like coffee, but the beverage tastes nothing like coffee (and has no caffeine). So much for that!

Okra stalk fiber is next – you can make cordage or crochet a hat. Okra is related to jute, kenaf, roselle, kapok and even cotton. Paper is another option. Okra paper is beautiful, strong, and you can make your own paper or twine, following Chris’s instructions. It never caught on commercially, because supply could not meet demand.

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

Naturally enough, there is a chapter on growing okra. I was amazed to learn that at about 3 weeks of age the 6″ (15 cm) tall plant could have a taproot three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m).  This suggests okra would be sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got! To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can. But it needs to be warm enough. Bruce Adams at Furman University suggests waiting until the butterflies migrate from the South.

Here’s the info you need to get your seed germinated: Warmth, soaking the seed for 8 hours in water at 88F (31C). Get the book for all the details. There are several false rural myths out there about growing okra. Okra has naturalized in the Red River floodplain in Louisiana, and also near Durham, North Carolina, where it survived some freezing temperatures.

Our mulched Cow Horn okra plants in June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Recommendations on spacing vary a lot: as close as 6″ (15 cm) in rich soil, to 24″ (60 cm) for some of the bigger varieties elsewhere. Wider spacing leads to more branches and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area.

And the important matter of deciding when a pod is mature but not too fibrous receives good attention, and a helpful photo, although Chris does warn that it’s best to develop a feel for the rigidity of tough pods. You can’t tell just by length, even within a variety you know well, as the weather will change the size of a mature pod. Chris recommends snapping the end off a trial pod. A clean snap indicates a good meal ahead. A pod that doesn’t snap or that “splinters” is too woody. Three to nine days after flowering is how long it takes to mature a pod (and 40 days from flowering to mature seed). An experienced grower suggests harvesting 4 days after flowering, regardless of length. In drought it might be 2″ (5 cm) long, in warm rainy weather 6-7″ (15-18 cm) Chris includes a hilarious description comparing reactions of Americans and British family and friends being served tough okra. As a fellow Brit, I laughed aloud. Buy the book, I won’t spoil the suspense!

Store the unwashed pods in a cool damp place after removing the field heat.. I was intrigued at the description of Zero Energy Cool Chambers (ZECC) in India, but wonder which part of India, and if this would work in a humid climate.

The back of the book includes a summary of Chris’s 2018 variety trial and includes descriptions his observations, including pod spininess, branching and productivity.

And to end this review, no, Chris did not mention what great kindling dried okra pods make, nor what great long-lasting, weed-free mulch they provide. (I recognize you need to grow a lot of okra seed to produce enough mulch to write about!) Thanks Chris! An entertaining read, and lots of practical information, and inspiring photos!

Alliums for April: transplant scallions, grow onion sets, eat garlic scallions

Young cucumber plant in a hoophouse bed of scallions in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

Allium Planting in April

  • Divide and replant Egyptian onions and perennial leeks, during March or April
  • Transplant more scallions (These will be our second outdoor ones)
  • Sow seed for onion sets 4/1 (See Special Allium Topic for April below)

Allium Harvests in April

  • Trimmed scallions from our hoophouse in late March.
    Photo Pam Dawling

    Harvest hoophouse scallions 3/18-5/20 (our third sowing)

  • Cut leaves of Egyptian onions & perennial leeks, Sept-Apr
  • Dig garlic scallions (see Alliums for March)
  • Harvest ramps, sustainably for one month, from when tree buds appear (late March or early April in the Appalachians).

Alliums to Eat from Storage in April

  • Eat softneck garlic from storage once all the hardneck has been used (softneck stores longer)
  • Eat bulb onions from storage, including bulbils from Egyptian onions if you stored those.

Alliums to Weed in April

Softneck garlic beds in May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

April is weed season! All overwintered alliums will need weeding once a month from March, until harvest. See Alliums in March

Special Allium Topic for April: Growing Onion Sets

Onion sets are commonly sold in feed stores loose by the pound, and many people know of no other way of growing onions. But sets don’t grow the best onions (unless growing from seed is impossible for you). Sets are dried down small onions (which come out of dormancy when replanted the next spring), not to be confused with perennial multiplier onions such as potato onions.

William Shoemaker, former senior research specialist in agriculture at the University of Illinois, wrote about growing onion sets in 2010:

“Sets won’t make the high quality bulbs that the plants will because they are older, biennial plants that have shifted into the reproductive stage. . . .  But they could be useful for growing bunching bulb onions early in plastic. I’m not sure that’s the best use of plastic though. I think large fresh bulbs from plants would be better.”

“We have one of the oldest onion set industries in the country in northern Illinois, near Kankakee. Over time I’ve learned how they do it. Kind of strange but it makes sense once you understand how they do it.”

“First, you are trying to create very small bulbs. The smaller, the better. Let me explain. When you buy onion sets, you often see most of them are about 1/2″ in diameter. Those are best used as green onions because they are big enough to bolt. So plant them very close together and plan on harvesting them early as your first green onions (scallions). Those that are 1/4″ or smaller in diameter will be much less likely to bolt and will grow into small, early dry bulbs. They’re less physiologically advanced! They won’t get to be huge, so don’t count on them for that. Instead, use them for early bulbs, even bunched green bulbs. They’re very good for that purpose. So onion sets have a much different Best Use than onion plants.

Remember, onions are biennials. They want to flower after overwintering. So large onion sets will always flower. You can break off the flower stems, but don’t count on big bulbs. Small onion sets can bulb reliably but will not make really big bulbs, certainly not like direct-seeded onions or onion plants. Each approach is valid, but has a different purpose in the end. And . . . they are daylight sensitive, so make sure you pick the right variety for your area of the country. In the north you want varieties that are long daylength (short nights. They will begin to bulb when nights get short). In the north, that’s in June (so plant early!).

If you are growing in the south, plant short daylength varieties (Granex types are an example). They will begin to bulb during longer nights, earlier in the Spring. But you will plant much earlier in the year so the plants can get well-established and grow big shoots to feed the bulbs as they grow.

Okay, back to growing sets (which CAN be used to grow seed). To grow the sets the year before growing them out for seed, plant seed early in the season (April Fool’s Day in Chicago. No kidding, No coincidence). Plant them in shallow furrows REALLY THICK. I mean 12-24 seeds per inch of furrow. The reason is you are essentially letting them get started, but not letting them thrive. Grow them out very thickly and they will stay very small. They will eventually form small bulbs because they will grow normally but under intense competition. As hot-dry days occur in July and August, they will go into dormancy.

Dislodge them from their roots after tops dry down. You can just use your hand to shove them aside and they will dry down nicely in place. Put them in trays and put them somewhere they can finish drying. Be sure to pick up the smallest ones. They will grow into nice onions next spring. Remove debris and excess dirt. Once they’ve dried down, they can be cleaned up by brushing off the loose layers of skin and bagging them in something well-aerated. Netted bags or nylon hose works fine. Store them somewhere very cool (35F) and dry till planting time next Spring. Separate them for their distinct uses and plant accordingly.

That’s the kernel of the idea behind growing onion sets. There’s more to be said but not enough time/space here. But this should give you the basics and enough for success.

One other pointer. If you have a variety you really like and want to make lots of sets, look at bulk onion seed prices. It’s amazing how much cheaper they are per unit when you buy in bulk. If you can buy with others and buy bigger quantities, you can save money.”

A grower in Texas, about 125 miles from the Gulf, responded that they used the word “sets” to refer to small live onion plants, such as you might buy online by mail order.

“The sets look like onions that have been started, allowed to grow to 1/4 inch diameter at the biggest. The tops are cut off with a couple of inches of green, then bundled and sold.  When I asked, I was told they were started in a climate controlled greenhouse mid-summer.”

That grower had found a way to resolve their problem of onions that were too big.  If they planted their “sets” out in October or November, they got huge onions from them.  Since their customers were not fond of really big onions, the grower kept their young plants (“sets”) in the fridge until January/February, then planted out.  Harvest was the beginning of June.

A fine bed of onions in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the last of the year’s posts on Alliums for the Month. In May I will start a series on cooking greens for the month.

You can read the other allium posts here:

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

January

February

March

Rainy day garden reading (listening and viewing)

New Format Website

After all this time, my website was due for some spring cleaning. In particular, the old format didn’t work well on smart phones, and this new one does. So I hope that makes life easier for lots of you! I’ve also moved the Categories and Recent Comments so they are easier to find. Let me know  if you have ideas for improvements.

Our Weather

It’s cold and rainy here as I write this (almost sleeting). I will need to plug in the heat mats under the pepper, eggplant, cucumber and squash seedlings, cover the tender potted tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse with rowcover, and pull rowcover over the newly transplanted beds of tomatoes and squash in the hoophouse. I’m expecting a third night with temperatures around 25F (-4C). Hence I’m in the mode of staying indoors and doing some reading. Here’s a big round up of good stuff.

Root Crops and Storage Crops

In A Way to Garden Margaret Roach interviews Daniel Yoder of Johnny’s Seeds on Mastering Root Vegetables. Read, or listen to her podcast how to grow root crops: Carrots, beets, radishes, parsnips. Lots of tips, and links to more articles/interviews

An earlier article discusses how to store garden vegetables for winter. Margaret covers the basics of temperature and humidity, along with details of some crops and ideas for preserving crops that don’t store well.

Ticks and Tasks in Virginia

The Garden Shed is a monthly online newsletter published by the Piedmont Master Gardeners.  It provides all gardeners in Charlottesville-Albemarle County area of Virginia with a science-based, reliable source of gardening information, monthly tasks and tips, and other gardening related features. Here are a couple of the most recent ones:

Managing the Tick Problem by Ralph Morini

Identifying the culprits, understanding the medical risks and tickproofing your environment

March Tasks in the Vegetable Garden by Ralph Morini

Of Wet Soil, Pests and Hope…

Note that the link in this article to VCE Publication 246-480 “Vegetables Recommended for Virginia,” does not work. It looks like the Extension has taken the publication down. Ralph Morini suggests that the next best reference is 426-331 Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates

Diversify and Profit

10 Most Profitable Specialty Crops to Grow

This post by Craig Wallin for the Profitable Plants Digest gives info on lavender, gourmet mushrooms, woody ornamentals, landscaping trees and shrubs, bonsai plants, Japanese maples, willows, garlic, bamboo and herbs. I’ll add a big caution about bamboo, as we have found many bamboo varieties very invasive and hard to control. Links on the site provide info on ginseng, microgreens and more.

Siberian garlic.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Pick High Yield Crops

Practical Farmers of Iowa offers an interactive list of Farmer to Farmer Vegetable Yield and Production Data

Get an idea of what a reasonable yield is (at least in Iowa!) of the crops you grow and compare various crops to help with your decision-making.

Control Weeds the Easy Way

Extension offers Solarization and Tarping for Weed Management on Organic Vegetable Farms in the Northeast USA which can, of course, be modified for those of us in other regions.

Reusable Black Tarps Suppress Weeds and Make Organic Reduced Tillage More Viable

A black plastic tarp laid over full-length crop beds. Photo credit: Haley Rylander.

Remediate Contaminated Soil

 


Most public universities – and many private companies – offer mail-in soil testing for a nominal cost. Photography By Humannet / shutterstock.com

Urban Gardening 101: How to Deal with Contaminated Soil It’s hard to find much information on this topic for organic gardeners, although Leah Penniman does also offer help in her book Farming While Black

 

Listen to Podcasts

Modern Farmer Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

 

Watch a Movie on Heirloom Seed Preservation

Al Jazeera, in their Witness series, has a 25 minute film The Seed Queen of Palestine
Can one woman’s mission to revive ancient heirloom seeds inspire a celebration of traditional Palestinian food? Vivien Sansour is distributing rare, ancient heirloom seeds to Palestinian farmers. Click here and search for The Seed Queen of Palestine

Track the Progress of Spring

The Nature’s Notebook phenology site

Join more than 6,000 other naturalists across the nation in taking the pulse of our planet. You’ll use scientifically-vetted observation guidelines, developed for over 900 species, to ensure data are useful to researchers and decision-makers. On their website, learn about the National Phenology Network Pest Patrol which is seeking observers to report their sightings of insect pest species that cause harm to forest and agricultural trees. Your observations as part of this campaign will help validate and improve the USA-NPN’s Pheno Forecasts, which help managers know when these species are active and susceptible to treatment.

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Heed the Warnings for Agriculture from the Fourth National Climate Assessment

The U.S. Global Change Research Program has released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, an examination of the effects of climate change on the United States. Chapter 10 of the Assessment is on “Agriculture and Rural Communities.” This chapter contains four key messages regarding productivity decline, resource degradation, livestock health, and rural-community capacity to respond.

Consider Water-saving Hoophouse Crops.

Texas High Tunnel Workshop

Texas high tunnel study expands

The Texas High Plains and Southern Plains continue to experience reductions in irrigation water from the Ogallala Aquifer as water levels decline, and producers need some way to improve their revenue from their farming systems. They have the potential to get a pretty good return and be able to take better advantage of the water they do have, using high tunnels to grow regular vegetable crops and also use them for seed production, cut flowers, small fruit.

Consider our own Impact

Here are 6 personal Carbon Footprint Calculators

from Mother Earth News

Be Amazed

Bug Tracks blog
Bug Tracks logo

Bug Tracks Charley Eiseman Life in a Cubic Foot of My Lawn. This inspiring article is one of many by this expert in leaf miners as well as other insects. It’s such fascinating stuff! And his photos are exquisite. There are over 40 in this post!

Learn about Vegetable Grafting

Members of a Specialty Crops Research Initiative Grafting Project Team have organized a grafting webinar series. The webinars each cover a different topic about the science and technology of vegetable grafting. While not specifically about organic production, upcoming topics that could be of interest to organic growers include Grafting to Increase Production for Small-acreage and High Tunnel Tomato Growers, by Cary Rivard of K-State University; past topics include Making Grafting Affordable and Beneficial to US Growers by Richard Hassell of Clemson University. Past presentations in the series were recorded and archived. Find the recordings on the project YouTube channel here, and learn more about upcoming webinars here.

See Enhancing the Utility of Grafting in US Vegetable Production, by Matthew Kleinhenz of the Ohio State University, below.

If you are a gardener, you may be interested in another webinar by Cary Rivard about grafting for home gardeners: Demystifying Grafted Tomatoes: The Why & How for Gardeners, which is part of the 2019 series of Advanced Training Webinars for Master Gardeners sponsored by Oregon State University Extension. Find out more information here.

Read up on New Research

eOrganic recorded presentations on current organic research from the Organic Research Forum organized by the Organic Farming Research Foundation at Organicology. The following presentations are freely available now and more will be added to their playlist on the eOrganic YouTube channel and mentioned in upcoming newsletters. Find the program here and click here to find the recordings on a YouTube playlist.

Help Beginning Farmers in Virginia

In partnership with First Baptist Church, Tricycle Gardens in Richmond, Virginia, are developing Charlotte Acres Incubator Farm with graduates of the Urban Agriculture Fellowship & Certification program launching their businesses and farming this beautiful land. They ask for donations: Please consider a generous gift today in support of beginning farmers. 

Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship Manager Dan Dalton meets with Apprentice Jess Hermanofski at host farm Plowshare Produce, an organic CSA farm in Huntingdon County, PA

Become a Farmer Apprentice in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Registers Its First Formal Apprenticeship for Farmers

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry approved the Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship on March 14th, making it the first formal apprenticeship program for farmers in the state.

Enjoy a Garden Walk in Virginia during Historic Garden Week April 27 – May 4, 2019

Springtime begins with Historic Garden Week At Monticello, Charlottesville, Va

In addition to Monticello’s regular guided Gardens and Grounds Tours, the annual observance of Historic Garden Week in Virginia will include talks, behind-the-scenes tours, and an open house at our Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.

Insider’s Tour with the Vegetable Gardener: Discover great gardening ideas from Jefferson’s kitchen garden during this Q&A walk with Monticello vegetable gardener Pat Brodowski. Tuesday, April 30, 10-11:30am

 

What can you do if spring is too wet?

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

As growers, we do not have control over everything that happens. The main thing outside of our control is the weather, and it’s only going to get more chaotic as climate change bites. Heavy rain events can leave soil impossible to work, because the water can’t drain away fast enough. What can we do when it’s too wet?

Laura Lengnick in Resilient Agriculture views climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as exposure, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). As for adaptive capacity, the main feature is our personal capacity to respond and plan. We need to pay greater attention to the climate as a critical factor in our decision-making.

Be Prepared

  • See Weatherspark.com for easy-to-understand graphics showing the average weather in your locality. Figure out which crops are most marginal already in your climate, and decide whether they are worth keeping in your crop portfolio, and whether they are important enough to be worth providing more protection for.
  • Using raised beds can help excess water to drain sooner.
  • Raised beds will drain and be ready to plant sooner after rain.
    Photo Ezra Freeman
  • Increasing the organic matter content of the soil helps it absorb more water in a manageable way, without compacting and going anaerobic. Compost improves the soil structure, organic matter and humus. The effects last longer than cover crops and crop residues, especially in humid conditions where the breakdown of plant material is very rapid.
  • Maximize the volume of living roots (food crops and cover crops) throughout the soil profile (use both deep-rooted and shallow-rooted crops).
  • Cover crops. The root channels improve the soil structure — fine roots make up 70% of the root biomass of crimson clover, vetches, and field peas, and when the cover crops are mowed, these roots support microbial growth, form active organic matter, and rapidly release N to the plants. Keeping roots in the soil all the time, or as much of the time as possible, will help prevent erosion.
  • Consider no-till cover crops which become mulch.

    A no-till cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover.
    Photo Bridget Aleshire
  • Avoid “bare fallow” at times of year when you could get a lot of rain. That might mean not just hurricane season, but year-round. Low-growing non-invasive cover crops can be planted in pathways.
  • Minimize tillage because tilling accelerates nutrient burn-up and hence the loss of organic matter. Avoid tilling or disking right before a forecast of heavy rain.
  • If water drainage is a big issue where you are, you may need to consider a “grassed waterway” Your NRCS office can help with the design. See their publication Grassed Waterway and Vegetated Filter System, Conservation Practice Job Sheet 412. This is really a very large gradual swale with a grassed surface, which you can mow (think home-grown mulch!).
  • Another option is a “drywell” or French drain, a big hole full of rock. We calculated that for our hoophouse, ours would need to be 11′ × 11′ (3.4 × 3.4 m) and 4′ (1.2 m) deep. It would have been a big area and a lot of rock (and money), and not inconsiderable maintenance to keep it free of sediment and leaves.
  • Field tile drainage
  • Keyline plowing (along contours).
  • Swales (also called “infiltration trenches”) allow water to gradually seep into the soil, while sending sudden large volumes downhill to an area which can absorb more water. A swale 18″ (45 cm) wide by 8″ (20 cm) deep in averagely draining soil can infiltrate approximately 1.6″ (4 cm) rain per hour per 20 ft2 (1.86 m2) of contributing area.

    A caterpillar tunnel and a plastic mulched bed at Potomac vegetable Farms in November.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  • Physically cover the soil: hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels can help keep crops from deluges. Large structures do have the issue of runoff, but you can plan ahead for that and make a drainage system. When we built our hoophouse, we made a ditch around three sides of it, to channel runoff downhill. Some people who have roll-up or drop-down sidewalls install plastic guttering on the “hipwall” lumber that these structures need, and collect the rainwater for irrigation. Bear in mind that the water catchment barrel will be low down and the water will need pumping or dipping and hauling to be useful. Read the NRCS Code 558 Roof Runoff Structure.
  • Before the storm moves in, cover the soil where you plan to plant: temporary caterpillar tunnels (field houses), low tunnels, plastic mulches and tarping (occultation) can keep some of the soil dry, at the expense of causing runoff that makes other areas wetter. This can help get crucial plantings done in a timely way, leaving the wider problem to resolve later.
Fast-growing Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

First Aid if you can’t plant when you want to

  • Consider transplanting instead of direct seeding. We did this one year with our winter squash, when the plot was hopelessly too wet. We were able to transplant the squash fairly young, and did not have a big harvest delay.
  • Consider a different, faster, variety that you can sow later and catch up. Some leaf lettuces only need 46 days (Salad Bowl, Bronze Arrowhead, Tom Thumb), while Romaines can take a lot longer (Crisp Mint, Winter Wonderland 70 days, Webb’s Wonderful 72 days). Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall.
  • Consider a different, faster, crop that you can sow or transplant later. Keep your crop rotation in mind, as well as the next crop you intended to plant in that spot. Here are some fast-growing crops:
    • Ready in 30–35 days are some Brassicas such as kale, arugula, radishes (both the fast small ones and the larger winter ones); many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai (40 days) tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy). See my Asian Greens of the Month category of posts
    • One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size.
    • Also ready in 30–35 days are spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) and winter purslane.
    • Ready in 35–45 days are corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil.
    • Ready in 60 days are beets, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield).
  • The International Cooperators’ Guide Grafting Tomatoes for Production in the Hot-Wet Season recommends using eggplant rootstocks for tomatoes when flooding is expected.

First Aid if you can’t till

  • Could you mow? This will prevent weeds seeding, and prevent the cover crop or previous food crop from getting any bigger. It will be easier to till once that does become possible.
  • If you can’t get a mower across the beds, can you use a weed whip (string trimmer) or a manual weed whacker or a scythe? This will buy you some time.
  • Could you use a broadfork? This will open up the soil, allowing it to dry faster.
  • Could you lay tarps over the whole mess, and wait for the cover crop or weeds to die?
  • Could you use a flame weeder to kill the existing vegetation? Flamers are intended to kill small weeds, not big ones, but we successfully used our wand-type flamer to kill weeds in the potato patch one spring when it was too wet to hill the potatoes.
Flaming (pre-emergent)
Photo Brittany Lewis

Dealing with Floods

  • If your soil floods, drain it promptly, or you may end up with drowned plants (insufficient air) and with a high salt level caused by evaporation. Dig shallow trenches to let the flood water flow away.
  • After the flood recedes, you could lose yield from loss of soluble nutrients. The soil may have become anaerobic, reducing available nitrogen. If you have a suitable source of nitrogen, apply some. You may also get a flush of weeds, competing with your slow-to-recover crop.
  • See How to Rehab Your Soil after a Flood on the Hobby Farms website for five steps to repairing the damage: Clean Up, Remove Water, Beware of Contamination, Level the Land, Rebuild the Soil with Cover Crops. See also the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Expert Tip: How to Handle Flooded Fields for information about food safety.
  • Consult your local Extension service before selling any produce that has been in standing water, as the water may have become contaminated. See the US Food and Drug Administration Guidance for Industry: Evaluating the Safety of Flood-Affected Food Crops for Human Consumption
  • There is more about dealing with floods  and disasters in general, in The Year-Round Hoophouse.

Spring hoophouse harvests and greenhouse seedlings

Pink stemmed mizuna in our March hoophouse Pam Dawling

Sorry for the delay in posting this. Apparently a driver hit an all-important cable and the whole county is without internet. Rural living can’t be beat!

Here we are in March. Nothing new to harvest outdoors yet, although the garlic scallions are getting close. But the hoophouse is serving us well. Every day we harvest 5 or 10 gallons of salad mix and either some cooking greens, radishes or scallions. The photo above is a new delight: Pink Stemmed Mizuna from Osborne Seeds

We’ve finished the hoophouse turnips, and are now making serious headway on the kale. We grow both Red Russian and White Russian kales.

White Russian kale from Fedco Seeds in our hoophouse in March.
Photo Pam Dawling
Red Russian kale from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in our hoophouse in March.
Pam Dawling

We use orange flags to denote where to harvest next, as we have a large hoophouse (30 x 96 ft) and many different crops. It is often obvious as we get closer. Here’s three different ways we are harvesting right now:

Baby lettuce mix after and before harvesting.
Photo Pam Dawling

As you can see we harvest baby lettuce mix by cropping it about an inch above the soil. I think this is the third cutting of this patch. I like to make our salad mixes about one third lettuce, one third brassicas of some kind and one third spinach. The brassica mix below is now bolting, so I pulled it up as I harvested. All brassica flowers are edible, and the buds are just like tiny broccoli.

Brassica (mustard) salad mix after and before harvesting.
Photo Pam Dawling

The spinach I’m harvesting today is our third sowing, and we are cutting outer leaves and chopping them into the salad mix.

Spinach after and before harvesting.
Photo Pam Dawling

For those wondering what the silver stuff is: these three crops are all in our narrow north edge bed. We have 24″ (60cm) bubblefoil insulation stapled onto the hipboard. It reflects back both light (in short supply low on the north wall) and heat.

In the greenhouse we have reached Peak Broccoli Flats season. We have 16 flats for our first planting in the coldframe, 16 of the second and four of the (backup plan) third sowing in the greenhouse.

Some of the many flats of broccoli in our greenhouse in mid-March.
Photo Pam Dawling

We use open wood flats for these kinds of hardy seedlings. We sow 4 rows into 12 x 24 x 3″ flats and then spot out into 12 x 24 x 4″ flats (40 plants each) to grow to final transplant size.

Broccoli in an open seed flat, and seedlings spotted into deeper open transplant flats.
Photo Pam Dawling

That’s it for this week! Hope to see some of you tomorrow at the Virginia Festival of the Book! 

My panel is the Land Use and Foodsheds in the Mid-Atlantic,

Thu. March 21, 2:00 PM – 3:30 PM

New Dominion Bookshop

404 E Main St, Charlottesville, VA 22902