Garlic drying and curing methods

Hanging garlic of many varieties (and onions) in bunches.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I’m prompted to write about garlic drying and curing by an inquiry from a reader in Idaho. Their family has a new garlic business and they need to upgrade their drying and curing method. This year they have planted 3 acres (12 varieties), so they really need a method that will be reliable. Do leave a comment if you have suggestions. Here I’ll review methods I know about, for areas from backyard to small commercial size.

Hanging garlic in vertical netting.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

I also think this is a good time of year to plan and construct infrastructure you will need later in the season, when planting, cultivating and harvesting have top priority. First, so you know when you’ll need the space ready, here are some links to information to help with that.

When and How to Harvest Garlic

Garlic bulb cut horizontally to check maturity (good now or soon).
Photo Wren Vile

Signs of garlic maturity: Alliums for May

Alliums for June: planting leeks, harvesting garlic and bulb onions

Garlic bulb initiation (and the end of leaf growth) is triggered by daylight increasing above13 hours in length (April 10 here at 38°N). Soil temperatures over 60°F (15.5°C) and air temperatures above 68°F (20°C) are secondary triggers. The drying down process is started by hot weather above 91°F (33°C) which ends bulb growth. In tropical latitudes where daylength does not vary much, it may be that temperature is a bigger trigger and daylength is less important. See Alliums for May for more

Harvesting garlic: Garlic Harvest step by Step

Methods for Drying and Curing Garlic

Faragut Farm in Alaska dries their garlic in a hoophouse (but beware of over-heating )
Photo Chris Blanchard

Growers of small amounts of garlic (or complicated harvests of relatively small amounts of many varieties) sometimes tie the garlic plants in bundles and hang them from nails or hooks in beams. This method takes a lot of twine, and can be slow.

Garlic spread to dry on an upper story wood barn floor.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We once spread a single layer of garlic on a wood upstairs floor of the barn, when our harvest exceeded our storage racks. “Shingle” the garlic plants so that the bulbs and roots are all uppermost, for best airflow.

Garlic hanging in vertical netting.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We hang our garlic in nylon netting fastened vertically around the walls of our old tobacco barn. This is a good method for humid areas as the garlic is in a single layer and can get good airflow. Other growers have used chicken wire or snow fencing. We have considered making free-standing frames covered in netting, so we can deal with higher yields. The walls of the barn limit the amount we can hang there. It’s a slower method than laying plants on horizontal racks.

Garlic in vertical netting and onions on stackable wood racks.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier.

Horizontal racks need to be sturdy. We made stackable wood slatted racks to dry our bulb onions, as onion necks are not strong enough to hang onions by. Later we made larger netted wood frames that we hang from a pulley in the beams. We can fill them layer by layer, starting at the lowest one, and gradually lower the upper racks as we need to fill them. This kind of system would work for garlic too, but is not practical on a large scale.

Bulb onions curing on a rack.
Photo Wren Vile

Horizontal racks can either have the garlic threaded bulbs up through the holes of the netting (as we do for onions), or the plants laid flat, shingled. Shingling saves space (racks can be closer to each other vertically) but it is harder to dry garlic this way in a humid climate.

For a nice design of racks for drying onions, and perhaps garlic, see this post about the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, Virginia

Onion racks at the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, Virginia (their photo)
Drying and Curing Garlic Step by Step with Vertical Netting

Hang your garlic to cure for 3-6 weeks or even longer, with fans if the humidity is high. Don’t set the fans too close to the garlic, your goal is to improve the air flow, not blast the bulbs and shrivel them up. See my book Sustainable Market Farming.

  1. We like our garlic arranged in order of harvesting, to make it easier to find dry garlic when the time comes to trim it. We hang our curing garlic in vertical netting hanging around the walls of our barn. Some growers use horizontal racks, others tie garlic in bunches with string and hang the bunches from the rafters.
Garlic threaded into vertical netting.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

2. We start at knee height, threading one garlic plant in each hole of the netting. (The netting stretches downward with the weight of the garlic. Starting lower would lead to garlic piling up on the floor.)

3. Take a garlic plant, fold over the top quarter or a third of the leaves, and push the leafy part through the netting. The leaves will unfold behind the netting. Leaves shouldn’t poke through to the front.

4. We work back and forth in rows, filling a 4-6 ft wide strip per person, working upwards.

5. We continue as high as we can reach before moving to the next section. We make walls covered with garlic, day by day until done. This sequential arrangement simplifies trimming, and makes the best use of the fans, giving the garlic the best chance of drying evenly.

6. Damaged bulbs are “Farm Use” quality and are set on horizontal racks to dry.

7. Arrange box fans to blow on the drying garlic. Even in an airy old tobacco barn, fans are essential in our humid climate.

After curing, this garlic has dry necks and is ready to snip and store. Photo Wren Vile

8. Wait 3-4 weeks, then test some bulbs for dryness by rolling the neck of the garlic between your finger and thumb. It should feel dry, papery, strawy. If many bulbs are slippery, gooey, or damp in any way, delay the trimming until at least 90% of the necks are dry.

In 2016, we pondered whether a ground floor shed or an upstairs barn offers the better airflow, and whether better airflow is worth hauling all the garlic upstairs and down again. We didn’t come to a conclusion, but we didn’t find time to build a new barn.

Snipping, Sorting and Storing Garlic 

You won’t need this for  a while, but it’s helpful to have next steps in mind when designing your hanging and curing space – see the link to Garlic harvest, new barn plans, Mother Earth News post on sweet potatoes which includes the question of how to tell when the garlic is cured, and setting up, snipping and sorting garlic into three categories for replanting, for storing and for using soon. Garlic can be stored in the same high temperature range as bulb onions, provided it has never dropped into the sprouting temperature range of 40-55°F (5-13°C). The key to good storage is dry necks

For pictures of our onion drying racks see Alliums for July: harvest minor alliums, finish harvesting bulb onions, snip and sort garlic and bulb onions.

If weather prevents gardening and farming, knit your own garlic potholders and felt them! Photo Pam Dawling

Book Review: The Farmer’s Office by Julia Shanks

Book Review: The Farmer’s Office: Tools, Tips and Templates to Successfully Manage a Growing Farm Business,  Julia Shanks, New Society Publishers, 2016

Farmers don’t go into farming because they want to do accounting or develop their business skills, and yet these skills are vital to success. We all want success! Get Julia Shanks’ book, quickly understand what you need to do, make time to do that as often as you need to, and move on to your next production task. You can save the time you would have thrown away on exhausting but wasted work. Be more successful, be less exhausted! This book review will be shorter than my usual ones. Just because I’ve no intention of leading you through the technicalities step-by-step. It’s an extremely useful and well-written book.

This is a very user-friendly book. Julia understands that farming is exhausting work. Julia understands farming, and has earned her stripes growing vegetables. Julia understands accounting and business management too. She explains concisely, very clearly, and provides examples and little stories to help us get to grips with the subject. She leads us to take a clear-eyed look at where we make money and where we don’t, which empowers us to make the decisions that are ours to make. We owe it to ourselves to stop the magical thinking that if we only work harder, everything will come out OK. Too many farmers have crashed and burned that way.

Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Julia tells how (in her first year of business school) she used a computer model to help a farmer friend determine how much of each of ten crops to grow. The silly computer program answer was to grow only okra and sweet potatoes! But behind that foolish suggestion was the information that his tomatoes were only earning 12 cents/case! Now that is useful information! What would you do if that’s what your tomatoes were earning? Raise the price and explain to your customers? Stop growing tomatoes? Knowingly sell tomatoes at that low profit as a way to attract customers? Any of these decisions might be the right one for your farm.

Like all money management texts, this book has warnings: Julia has used a simplified approach good enough for agriculture but not for taxes! She tells us when we should consult an accountant, tax advisor or payroll service provider. This 250 page book has 10 chapters of 6-30 pages, a glossary and 5 appendices. Everyone is advised to start with chapters 1 and 2. After that you can pick the ones you need and plan your own DIY course of study. Always eat your elephants one bite at a time! See the chart on page xxi, which points out lines of inquiry depending on your situation.

And here’s another aspect that makes this book special: there are pointers towards videos and webinars that Julia has made, on her website. But buy the book first, and know where you’re going! The price of the book includes the download price of many of the templates. Julia tells how she took a business class for farmers, after her first year of farming. She had kept absolutely no financial records! The instructor told her to guess, so they could make a cash flow plan for Season Two. Julia used that as a road map, and it saved her from ruin. She could see what she could afford, what she couldn’t, when she needed to hustle to bring in a bit more income. It wasn’t a coincidence that she ended up so close to where she needed to be!

Glacier early tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

This book will help you determine whether to prioritize tomatoes or cucumbers, eggs or chickens. You’ll need three primary financial statements: the income statement, the balance sheet, and the statement of cash flows. Don’t panic! There’s a webinar and a very readable chapter, with diagrams. There’s a video on depreciation! One of my colleagues calls depreciation “an enforced savings fund” – it pushes you to pace your spending and saving so you can replace a worn-out tractor. At the end of the chapter are instructions on which chapter to read next, according to your situation (creating projections about the future, or statements about your past)

Julia Shanks

Chapter 3 includes a set of questions and worksheets to ensure you have the skills you need to set out in starting your own farming business. The questions cover skills, knowledge, access to mentors or farming partners, your own energy levels, money to float your first year, tolerance of risk and uncertainty.

Chapter 4 covers the business planning process. Follow the stories, diagrams and instructions and choose between a Level One “Quick and Dirty” plan, a Level Two more detailed plan and a Level Three full business plan. You might not need the full plan to get started. Remember “A plan is just a plan” – don’t expect everything to go according to this plan! But the plan still has real value – writing it nudges you to think everything through, providing you with the resources you need to think on your feet and solve the problems that come up on the way. Julia leads us step-by-step through the process of writing a business plan, financial projections, operating assumptions (including the “Gut Check”), a list of funding sources, and an executive summary. Scale back your projections to see what it would be like if something went wrong. Test out a worst case scenario. Could you survive? What would it take?

Chapter 5 is all about financing: savings, loans from family and friends, loans from institutions, prepayments from customers and supporters. Be professional, look as professional as needed when asking to borrow money!

Chapter 6 is on setting up QuickBooks, the industry standard accounting software for small businesses. Other small non-farming businesses using QuickBooks could find this useful too. Julia has two webinars, and this chapter includes sample spreadsheets with the relevant bits circled. Chapter 7 shows how to use QuickBooks daily for cash management. It opens with Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper (living in the moment) and the Ant (stashing grain for the winter). Just as we can tomatoes in summer for eating in winter, we need to set aside cash we earn during peak season for the slower times of year. 10 minutes a day, plus 30 minutes a week, plus 1-2 hours at year end. Doesn’t sound too bad.  And it’s going to help with saving time and money next year!

Chapter 8 digs into managerial accounting – how to get meaningful information about your business. It includes determining the costs of producing various products/crops. There are several examples. Inventory management is also important, and requires a quick, smooth and simple system of tracking. Here are examples.

Chapter 9 covers stabilizing your business, so you don’t fall into a hole. There are some sad stories in this chapter. Chapter 10 has the more upbeat title “Growing Your Business”. Here’s help in making thoughtful decisions when considering new projects, or expansion of old ones. This is like having an older and wiser experienced farmer at you side. One who will be very honest with you, will share your excitement, and question things you seem to be ignoring.

The appendices give examples of questions to consider at each step of the way, sample spreadsheets and a list of the templates used in the book, which can be accessed from Julia’s website. What a wealth of information for just $24.95. It will pay for itself, I’m sure! And remember, if you feel out of your depth, Julia also works as a consultant, providing technical assistance and business coaching. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather ask for help! Go to https://thefarmersoffice.com/ for more info, including a free basic accounting course, and a 6-course free Self-Paced Farmer’s Office Basic Course, available 24/7, including videos, quizzes and case studies. There’s also fuller Farmer’s Office courses for $49/month.

Alamar Urban Organic Farm

I mentioned before that I took part in the Organic Growers School Cuba Agroecolgy Tour in January. I’ve made some progress sorting through my photos, and this post is about Organopónico Vivero Alamar (Alamar Urban Organic Farm) on the outskirts of Havana. Alamar is one of the largest and most successful urban farms in Havana, and it is very impressive. It was founded in 1997.

Alamar Urban Organic Farm, Havana, Cuba

During the Special Period in Time of Peace in Cuba (1991-2000), an extended period of economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union combined with a US trade blockade, Cubans were thrown back on their own resources.  This was described to me as “Cuba went to bed with privilege and woke up with nothing.” Food, fuel and equipment were not imported, and people began producing food wherever they could. Because there were no fertilizers or pesticides, vegetables and fruit were grown organically. In time, Cubans came to see the superiority of organic farming, and today the urban farms and small-scale food-producing farms continue to be organic (Cuban organic standards are not the same as USDA requirements). Commodity crops (tobacco, coffee, sugar) however, are not usually organically grown.

Farm manager and educator Isis with a lettuce plug

Alamar Urban Organic Farm covers 11 hectares (27 acres) in a residential dormitory suburb, surrounded by  grey prefabricated concrete apartment blocks in the classic Soviet style. Like many Cuban farms, there are many and varied tropical tree fruits, and permaculture is easily practiced. Sadly, it wasn’t mango season when I visited, although early-ripening mango varieties were in flower. Here is a fruit tree I lost the name of:

Alamar and other organic farms have many tree fruits. I forgot the name of this one

Alamar has 125 workers, with an average age in the “upper middle age” bracket. They produce vegetables and ornamental plants for sale, as well as medicinal and spiritual plants. 90% of their sales are to the public and 10% to hospitals.  The Cuban government ensures that hospitals and schools get provided for, I think. They keep bulls (steers?) and rabbits for manure, and oxen and horses for cultivation. Rabbit meat is not popular.

A large screen house at Alamar Organic Farm

Many of the crop plants are inside shade and/or screen houses, which took quite a hit from Hurricane Irma. Agricultural buildings are mostly pole barns thatched with leaves of the Royal Palm. Thus they can be rebuilt after hurricanes destroy them.

A large shade house for landscape plants at Alamar Urban Organic Farm

Vegetables are on raised beds. Almost all seed has to be imported and is not organic. Cubans we spoke with generally thought the humid climate would be too hard for seed growing. Personally, I wonder if that’s true. I think a home-grown seed business would be a good step towards more food sovereignty, but it’s not for me to say, really!

Alamar makes their own potting soil from 50% humus, 25% compost and 25% rice hulls. Cubans eat a lot of rice, and annually import 300,000 tons of cheap Vietnamese  rice which needs a lot of cleaning.

Alamar urban organic Farm vegetable beds

Alamar is trialing biochar as animal bedding, to reduce smell, and charge the biochar with nutrients and micro-organisms before it is used on the fields. They have insectary plantings (flowering plants to attract beneficial insects and birds) at the heads of many vegetable beds. They use mung beans as a cover crop and to grow bean sprouts.

Hot climate version of oregano at Alamar Urban Organic farm

The tropical “oregano” in the photo above looks nothing like our temperate climate oregano. It is almost a succulent, and the leaves are much bigger than we are used to .

Alamar has tried growing mushrooms, but they are not commonly eaten in Cuba. They also make value-added products: condiments, garlic paste, tomato sauce and pickles.  Canning is not easy, as glass canning jars are not available and there are regulations against plastic jars.

Beautiful bed of pak choy at Alamar Urban Organic Farm
Large shade house and vegetable beds at Alamar Urban Organic Farm

They make for use and sale both compost and vermicompost. Below are two photos of open air concrete worm bins, which they cover with tarps.

Alamar Farm manager Isis shows us some of their worm bins
Large worm bins under shade at Alamar Urban Organic Farm

Alamar also has a Beneficial Insect Breeding Laboratory.  Click the link to watch a short video.

Alamar Urban organic Farm has its own Beneficial Insect Rearing Lab

Another source of income for Alamar is workshops and courses in organic agriculture and tours such as ours. Cuba geared up for a big increase in American tourists during the Obama administration but has seen fewer tourists since Trump introduced stricter criteria for Americans visiting Cuba.

There are several types of agricututal co-operatives in Cuba. Alamar is a Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production). In 1993, the Cuban state handed over agricultural land to co-operatives “in usufruct”, which means “the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.”

Cooking Greens in February

Plentiful spinach in our cold frame in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in February

Harvest in Time! Lots of Bolting Greens in the Hoophouse!

Outdoors, we can still harvest collards, kale and spinach. This winter our chard has died. Remember that red chard is hardier than multi-colored and green chard is hardier still. To maximize your chance of keeping chard alive over the winter, use hoops and rowcovers (in zone 6-8) or, in colder zones, cut the tops off the plants (above the growing point) before it gets much below 15F (-9C), remove those leaves, then cover the bed with a mulch of thick straw, hay or tree leaves. Mulching doesn’t work in milder climates, especially those with back-and-forth temperatures) because new growth forces up out of the mulch and gets killed.

From the hoophouse we continue harvesting chard, Frills, kale, senposai, spinach, tat soi, turnip greens, and also yukina savoy (if we had it). We normally grow the Frills as salad crops, but once they get large and plentiful, we can cook some.

Bolting Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse, the extra warmth (sometimes!) combined with the reliably lengthening days causes some of the greens to start bolting. In January, I told you the order of bolting of our hoophouse greens. Our Koji has all bolted by February 1, and I pine for Yukina Savoy which usually lasts till early-mid March here, from our second winter sowing. We didn’t have any this winter.

We are keeping an eye on our turnip greens #1 (they will bolt in mid-February); tatsoi #2, spinach #1, and turnip greens #2 (usually bolt in early March). Our senposai and our turnips #3 usually don’t bolt till mid-March. Our Russian kales, chard, beet greens and January spinach sowings last till late April or even early May.

Hoophouse turnips have delicious greens too!
Photo Wren Vile

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in February

Outdoors in mid-February, we sow spinach if our January transplant sowings failed. We presprout 4oz/bed spinach for 1 week before sowing. This rarely needs to happen, as we have a backup transplant sowing date to seed in flats in the greenhouse, if our first-line hoophouse sowing of transplants doesn’t come up well. This year, those look great!

In the greenhouse in early February, we sow: kale, cabbage, mustard, collards, senposai, broccoli #1, kohlrabi in open 3” (7.5 cm) flats.

In late February, we sow broccoli #2. This year we have reduced the size of our planting to make it more manageable.

In the hoophouse, December 15-February 15 is the slowest growing time. We do sow some salad crops, but not usually any cooking greens. if the January hoophouse sowings of kale and collards have come up well, we don’t need to sow those in the greenhouse this year.

We have a couple of unexpected gaps this year. We followed Radish #2.5 (an extra sowing we squeezed in on October 20) with Frills (frilly mustards) and we plan to follow some of our Koji #2 with a quick catch crop of Tokyo Bekana, marking five rows in the bed, but leaving the central row unsown. This will hopefully let us leave the greens growing after we transplant the warm weather crops down the centerline of the bed.

Young Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills provide continuous harvest after the older ones bolt.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in February

Outdoors, we transplant spinach from hoophouse [or flats] in early February

In the hoophouse, from January 25 to February 20 we fill gaps that occur in the beds with spinach wherever the gaps are, using the spinach Filler Greens which were sown October 24 and November 9 (spinach). We’re careful not to fill any places that will be sown in new crops in February, such as where we sow a row of early snap peas, or the salad crops I mentioned earlier.

From February 20, we only transplant spinach to fill gaps on the outer thirds of the beds, leaving the bed centers free for tomatoes, etc. in mid-March.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in February

Flats of cabbage in our greenhouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

In early February in the greenhouse we spot cabbage and kale. In late February, we spot senposai, cabbage #2 and collards. See the Special Topic below for more about the task we call ”spotting”. Other names for this task include “bumping up”and “pricking out.”

We really try to finish transplanting spinach outdoors, as our springs are short and quickly heat up, taking the spinach plants with them.

We weed our over-wintered spinach, kale and collards. Hoeing isn’t so effective in early spring, as the chickweed, henbit and dead nettle too readily re-root on damp soil. Hand-pulling weeds is slow, but more effective. Another approach is to hoe several times, choosing dry breezy sunny days.

During January we had two nights at 13F (-10.5C) and 12F (-11C). The Koji are looking quite damaged, beyond marketable but not beyond salvageable for home use. We grew too much of this, so we still have plenty to eat! The outdoor senposai is also damaged, but as this is a loose-leaf crop it could recover if it doesn’t get colder.

As I reported in January, we didn’t cover the spinach this winter, because of issues with rowcover fibers getting in the food. The plants are looking quite small, while those in the coldframes (with rowcover) are growing well. I have been expecting the growth of the uncovered spinach to be a lot slower, as spinach (like kale and lettuce) makes some growth whenever the temperature is 40°F (4.5°C) or more. 10°F (-12°C) could kill the large leaves and 5°F (-15°C) can kill spinach entirely. So far, temperatures haven’t get that cold this winter.

Weeding rowcovered spinach in winter. This winter we tried not using rowcover.
Photo Wren Vile

Special Cooking Greens Topic for February:

Planning our Field Planting Schedule.

In January we prepare our new Seedlings Schedule, then our complex Fall Brassica Spreadsheet and Map, Field Planting Schedule, Hoophouse Schedule for March to September crops (those are not cooking greens!), and then our Raised Bed Plan and our monthly Garden Calendar.

Field Planting Schedule:

We allow 6 hours. We bring the previous year’s greenhouse copy of the Seedlings Schedule, the shed copies (the copies we wrote notes on) of the previous year’s Field Planting Schedule and the shed and seed bucket copies of the Lettuce Log. We also bring the new (current year’s) Fall Brassica Schedule, Seedlings Schedule, Seed Order, Garden Plan, Rotation Plan, Maps, Succession Crop Plan, Sweet Corn Plan, Brassica Plan and Tomato Plan and any notes we made while doing the year’s planning so far.

  1. We work in Excel, copying last year’s Schedule to a new Worksheet and modifying that.
  2. We highlight and clear the contents of the“Location” column (Crop rotation in action!)
  3. We check against last year’s Shed copy and Field Manual copy of the Field Schedule. As we go, we make a list of questions or points to fix later.
  4. We check against the Seedlings Schedule for last year and the current year, for transplant date and varieties, row feet of the transplanted crops. (Leave the direct seeded crops varieties and row feet for step 6).
  5. Next we highlight the data, sort alphabetically by Vegetable, Variety to make the next stages easier.
  6. We check against the Seed Order (and Succession Plan as needed) for varieties and row feet of direct seeded crops.
  7. We check against the Tomato Plan for main crop and late bed.
  8. We check against the Garden Rotation Plan, Maps and Succession Crop Plan.
  9. We fill gaps in the Location column, in In-row Spacing and Space Between Rows cols.
  10. We check against Fall Brassica Schedule from the current or previous year, revising sowing dates, row feet, transplanting dates.
  11. We check against the Lettuce Log.
  12. We check against Hoophouse Schedule, for transplants in and out.
  13. We clean up the Notes column keeping useful info, adding any new useful info, checking against running list of things to fix.
  14. With all that done, we sort by Transplant date; then by Vegetable, then by Variety.
  15. We tidy up the page layout and print a draft copy
  16. We proofread and fix anything that didn’t make sense.

 

Hoophouse Musings, Bugs, Okra, Edible Landscaping Workshops in Maryland

Hoophouse beds in December. This is why we have a hoophouse!
Photo Wren Vile

Winter hoophouse posts in Mother Earth News newsletter

Sowing and Transplanting Winter Crops in a Hoophouse

Grow Great Lettuce in Winter

Winter hoophouse lettuce
Photo Kathryn Simmons

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A photo of a Tiny House from Wikipedia

Would you live in a hoophouse?

A reader wrote in:

“I have actually been thinking of building a tiny house and putting it inside a big hoophouse, creating a living area that would include a yard, trees, and gardens – allowing me to snowbird in place in northern New England – but I’m concerned about outgassing, since I’d be there almost 24-7 most days (I work out of my home). Have you done any research on outgassing of hoophouses?”

A Tiny House is generally a residential structure under 400 sq. ft

First off, No I haven’t done any research about hoophouse off-gassing, but I wouldn’t worry about out-gassing from the polyethylene of the hoophouse. Other products  are much closer to your nose: All the materials used to construct, preserve and decorate the house and all the products within the house, such as furniture,  fabrics, soaps, appliances etc.

There are some other things I’d wonder about:

1.      Temperature. When the sun shines, the interior of the hoophouse warms up. When the sun doesn’t shine, it doesn’t. Would you heat the tiny house? You’d have to avoid heating systems that could damage the plants.

2.      Snowfall. When it snows, you need to remove the snow from the roof of the hoophouse. Some snow can be carefully pulled down from the outside. Usually we also walk around inside the hoophouse bouncing a broom on the inside of the plastic to move the snow off. You can’t do that if you have a house in the way.

3.      Humidity. In the winter we grow cold-tolerant hoophouse crops. We are aiming for 65 F (18C). We need fresh air for the plants and to deter fungal diseases. It doesn’t work to keep the hoophouse sealed up and “cozy”!

4.      Strong winds. In hurricanes and gales, hoophouses sometimes collapse or get destroyed. You don’t want to be inside when that happens.

5.      Height. Our hoophouse is less than 14 ft (4 m) at the apex.

In conclusion I’d say it’s better to have a small patio seating area within your hoophouse for suitable sunny days, rather than plan to live inside all the time.
Brassicas in a nematode-fighting hoophouse crop rotation in Hawaii.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a Farms

Do you value crop rotation in your hoophouse?

A reader in the Pacific Northwest wrote: “This winter I have been re-thinking my crop rotation plan after having some issues (with flea beetle larvae in the soil outsmarting my diligent insect netting of my brassica salad crops). These days I see intensive market gardeners seeming to not worry so much about rotation (i.e. Neversink farm, etc), and yet I’ve always been taught that it is such an important principle to follow. I reviewed your slideshows on crop rotation and also cool crop planning in the greenhouse (which briefly addresses salad brassica rotation with other crops). With how much space I have and the high demand I have for brassicas, for salad mix (mustards) and also the more mainstay cole crops, I had settled on a 2.5 yr between brassica crop rotation (but planting two successions of mustards in the same bed within one year, in the year the bed was in mustards, with a lettuce or other crop breaking up the successions, with the idea that they were very short day and also light feeder crops). Wondering if you think this just doesn’t sound cautious enough, or if this sounds like a reasonable compromise with not having more space to work with (and wanting to satisfy the market demand for brassicas).”

I replied: “Yes, I do think crop rotation is important. I do know some farms seem to have given it up. I think what you are seeing shows one reason why rotation is important. In our hoophouse, we do as you do, allocating brassicas to a space for that winter season and perhaps doing more than one round of brassica crops. Then moving away from brassicas for the next two winters. If doing that doesn’t get rid of the flea beetle problem, and you are being thorough about netting with small-enough mesh netting (sounds like you are, but maybe check the mesh size), then my next step would be spinosad when the flea beetles appear. You can spray the inside of the netting too, and close it quickly. It’s that or a longer rotation, which it sounds like is not financially viable. You could also try farmscaping and/or importing predatory insects (not sure if there are any), Are there beneficial nematodes that attack flea beetle larvae? These are things I don’t know about, but might be worth looking into.”

 

Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes
Credit Ezra Freeman

Sweet Potato fends off bugs

Modern Farmer has this fascinating article about sweet potato plants alerting their neighbors to pest attacks.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute and the National Taiwan University found that when sweet potato plants are attacked by insects, they emit a bouquet of odors and start production of a protein called sporamin that makes them unappetizing. Neighboring sweet potatoes sense the odors and start their own production of sporamin.


 

A new Tokyo bekana transplant attacked by vegetable weevil larvae October 10
Photo Pam Dawling

Insect damage cause stress-response production of anti-oxidants

In a related piece of news, Agrilife Today from Texas A&M AgriLife Research has found some evidence that wounded plants produce anti-oxidants as a stress response, which may make them healthier for human consumption. Read the report here.

Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist Spring Series

Michael Judd in cooperation with Common Market CO+OP is presenting a combination of hands-on workshops at Long Creek Homestead and evening talks at the Common Market, Frederick Maryland.

Click here for info on Spring Workshops/Talks/Tours

·        Inoculating Mushrooms

·        Fruit Tree Grafting

·        Herb Spirals

·        Creating Growing Beds- Swales and Hugelkultur

·        Edible Landscaping & Straw Bale Home Tour

·  For the Love of PawPaws


 

Fire Ants have reached Toronto

A reader wrote in that the European Fire Ant is now found in Toronto.


“There were two nests of these in my allotment garden 2018.
They actually moved the nest in order to be closer to the zucchini
plants.  Hand on heart: I never had  any cucumber beetles develop past
the instar stage.  The ants did not eat the eggs but they ate the larvae
as soon as they hatched.  Same for potato beetle.  My neighbours had
the best cucumber harvest in history. 
What I’ve read is these Fire Ants kill colonies of native ants.  Summer 2019 I had a Pavement Ant war that went on for days.  Clearly the Fire Ants did not wipe them out.  There are black ants and other smaller red ants
in my garden.  The Fire Ants appear to have moved on for some reason known
only to themselves.   Perhaps they too have enemies.”
“There’s a guy with a Youtube channel who keeps ant colonies.   AntsCanada although he is in the Philippines.  What happened was the feral Pharaoh Ants invaded his colony of Fire ants and killed them.  Pharaoh Ants are much smaller but perhaps that’s what gave them the advantage.   We have Pharaoh ants in Toronto also.   I spend a lot of my time looking at the little critters in my garden.  Like red velvet mites:  there were many in 2016.  Have not seen a single one in two years now. “

Video of Okra Taste Testing

Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra

Chris Smith, author of  The Whole Okra: Chris has a video of
the taste testing on  Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAy0pouxlME

My Cuba farming trip. Conference season!

I’ve just got back from a wonderful Agroecology Tour of Cuba with the Organic Growers School. Click the link to sign up for the 2021 tour. I have lots of photos and much to say, but so little time today! In 9 days we visited 9 farms, had several speakers address aspects of life (and particularly farming and environmental issues) in Cuba, had a couple of walking tours, ate many delicious farm-to-table type dinners and still had time for a salsa lesson

We are having trouble with our internet connection today, so this post will either be short or very short.


I’m headed to the Little Rock, Arkansas conference of the Southern Sustainable Working Group

Go to my Events Page for a full list of where to look for me. Not long after getting home from SSAWG I’m headed to PASA in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Then the West Virginia Small Farms Conference

Then OAK, in Louisville, Kentucky,

Then Organic Growers School in Mars Hill, North Carolina

Videos, podcasts, weevils, rainwater harvesting, UK Farming net zero by 2020, carbon footprint calculators, climate change books

Funny Farm Videos,

located by Modern Farmer

Lil Fred, Farm It Maybe.

Derek Klingenburg, Serenading the cattle with my trombone (Lorde – Royals)

Pasture Road, Peterson Farm Brothers,

Goat Busters, Dana McGregor


Origami Weevils by Charley Eiseman

I saved this post on Origami Weevils to share. It transitions us from the ridiculous (funny animal videos) to the sublime.

Charley Eiseman describes himself this way: “I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.” He is an exceptional photographer, an exceptional entomologist, and one of those people who pays exquisite attention to what he does. These factors make his blog a special treat.

I always get excited when I encounter the work of leaf-rolling weevils (Attelabidae), even though they are by no means uncommon. I just find it fascinating that these insects have learned to fold leaves into neat little cylindrical packets for their larvae to live inside, without the use of silk or any other adhesive. The […] Read more of this post

 

 

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Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

Modern Farmer did the research and found the best. Read More

———————————————————–Essential Rainwater Harvesting Spreadsheet Toolkit

 

Now we might be ready to move off the holiday couch, at least enough to get pencil and paper and start some planning. Here is an Essential Rainwater Harvesting Spreadsheet Toolkit from Verge Permaculture: https://vergepermaculture.ca/product/spreadsheet-tool/ $29.00 CAD (Canadian dollars)

The Essential Rainwater Harvesting Tool is a spreadsheet tool for analyzing the feasibility of a rainwater storage system on your farm. It contains tables, formulas and logic from the Verge Essential Rainwater Harvesting book, pre-programmed and ready-to-go, plus a substantial number of extra features.

They are also offering a FREE WEBINAR on Jan 14, 6:30 pm MT: IS RAINWATER SAFE? with pioneering Australian hydrology engineer, economist, policy analyst, educator, UN adviser and researcher Peter Coombes

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UK Farming goal net zero by 2040

https://www.nfuonline.com/nfu-online/business/regulation/achieving-net-zero-farmings-2040-goal/

The National Farmers Union in the United Kingdom has announced in this 12-page report their ambitious goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. This is farming’s contribution to the UK’s ambition of net zero by 2050. In the UK, agriculture’s contribution to Greenhouse Gas Emissions is 10% of the nation’s whole. (27% is from transportation)

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For those with serious New Year Resolutions here are 6 Personal Carbon Footprint Calculators (and How to use Them Efficiently) from Mother Earth News

https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/carbon-footprint-calculators-and-how-to-use-them-efficiently-zbcz1812?newsletter=1&spot=headline&utm_source=wcemail&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=MEN%20HE%20eNews%2001.07.2019&utm_term=MEN_HE_eNewsAll%20Subscribers&_wcsid=79E96C01FC4AFE8B2C8184EBA1FEB58413B54C4386F47764

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And here are 12 books on climate change and the environment,

from Yale Climate Connection

https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/12/gift-guide-12-books-on-climate-change-and-the-environment/?utm_source=Weekly+News+from+Yale+Climate+Connections&utm_campaign=f83923d619-Weekly_Digest_of_December_9_13_2019&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e007cd04ee-f83923d619-59330105

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Cooking Greens in January

Morris Heading collards, a reliable winter crop. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in January

Harvest in time! Freezing or Bolting Greens!

Outdoors, the temperatures continue to get colder in January. In our garden outdoors, there are collards, kale, spinach, and sometimes chard,  senposai, and Yukina savoy, and over-wintered cabbage (not for much longer!).

Hopefully there is also cabbage stored in the cooler. The most cold-hardy greens are what we depend on for the next two months.

Tatsoi in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

From the hoophouse we continue harvesting chard, Chinese cabbage, kale, frilly mustards, pak choy, senposai, spinach, (including thinnings from the newer sowings),   tatsoi (thinnings from the newer sowings, whole plants from the September 7 sowing), Tokyo bekana/Maruba santoh plants, turnip greens, yukina savoy.

In the hoophouse, the extra warmth combined with the lengthening days causes some of the brassicas to start bolting. After the Winter Solstice the order of bolting of our hoophouse greens is: tatsoi #1 (meaning, our first sowing 9/6), Tokyo bekana, Maruba santoh (all in early January); pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy #1 (late January); turnip greens #1 (mid-February); Komatsuna, Yukina Savoy #2, tatsoi #2, spinach #1, turnip greens #2 (early March); Senposai, turnips #3, (mid-March); Russian kales (early April); chard, beet greens, later spinach sowings (late April or even early May.)

Tokyo bekana in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our knowledge of what will bolt first informs our plan of where to put the new crops we want to plant. To make space to sow spinach on 1/16, we need to clear the Tokyo bekana (and Maruba santoh) and the first tatsoi by 1/14. We keep a close eye on the Chinese cabbage and pak choy. Normally these will bolt in January, and we harvest the whole plants this month. They will be followed by sowings of kale and collard starts for outdoors on 1/24.

Chinese cabbage in November, not yet fully headed.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

It might seem sad, at first glance, that these big greens will bolt this month if we don’t harvest them in time, but in fact, it all works out rather well. The rate of growth of the “cut-and-come-again” leaf greens slows down in December and January, and while we eat the big heads of Tokyo bekana, Maruba santoh, Chinese cabbage, pak choy and the not-tiny tatsoi, we ignore the leaf greens, giving them more time to grow.

Pak Choy in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

December 15-February 15 is the slowest growing time for our hoophouse crops.

When the daylight is shorter than 10 hours a day, not much growth happens. The dates depend on your latitude. In Central Virginia, at latitude 38° North, this Persephone period (named by Eliot Coleman) lasts two months, from November 21 to January 21. We have found in practice, that soil temperature also affects the growth rate. And so we have a three week lag in early winter before the soil cools enough to slow growth, and then another 3 week lag  in January before it warms up enough again.

Transplanting spinach from a Speedling flat.
Photo Denny Ray McElya

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in January

Outdoors, we sow nothing.

In the greenhouse we tidy up the workspace, “fire up” the germinator fridges (germination chambers made from the carcasses of dead fridges), and prepare our new Seedlings Schedule (see Special Topic for January below)

Around 1/17 we sow some fast early cabbage, such as the OP Early Jersey Wakefield and the hybrid Farao. (We sow lettuce and scallions then too, to keep them company.) At the end of January we sow spinach in Speedling flats if our hoophouse sowings have been insufficient. We have trialed the bare-root spinach against the Speedling spinach and both do equally well.

In the hoophouse, in mid-January we sow Spinach #4, to transplant in gaps in the hoophouse. We usually clear Tatsoi #1 to make space for this. Of the varieties we tried, Reflect does best for this planting, followed by Acadia and Escalade. This winter we have had difficulty buying Acadia and Escalade and are going to try Abundant Bloomsdale alongside Reflect.

Spinach seedlings in our hoophouse for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also sow Spinach #5 for bare-root transplanting outdoors in February or early March under rowcover. This follows the Tokyo bekana or Maruba Santoh as noted above. Reflect and Acadia do well for this purpose, with Escalade close behind. We’ll have to improvise this spring.

In late January (1/24, 1/25), we sow kale and collards for transplanting outdoors in March. I have written before about how well these bare-root transplants work for us, compared to starting these seeds in flats in the greenhouse. It doesn’t work for lettuce at this time of year though – the tiny plants are too fragile and tender.

Vates kale seedlings in our hoophouse for bare-root transplanting outdoors.
Photo Pam Dawling

Follow-on Winter Hoophouse Crops

This is a  sequence of different crops occupying the same space over time. We try to keep the hoophouse fully planted all the time, and one aspect of this is knowing what we are going to sow when we pull an old crop out. Here’s our winter list:

  • 11/17: We follow our 1st radishes with 3rd  scallions
  • 12/23: 1st baby brassica salad mix with 5th radishes
  • 12/31: Some of our 1st spinach with our 2nd  baby lettuce mix
  • 1/15: Our 1st tatsoi with our 4th spinach
  • 1/16: Our Tokyo Bekana with spinach #5 for planting outdoors
  • 1/24: Our pak choy & Chinese cabbage with kale & collards for outdoors
  • 2/1: Our 2nd radishes with our 2nd baby brassica salad mix
  • 2/1: Our 1st Yukina Savoy with our 3rd mizuna/frilly mustards
  • 2/1: Some of our 1st turnips with our 3rd baby lettuce mix
  • 2/1: More of our 1st spinach with dwarf snap peas

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in January

Outdoors, we transplant nothing.

In the hoophouse, we fill gaps that occur in the beds. We replace spinach with spinach, brassicas with brassicas wherever possible. We use the Filler Greens which were sown October 10 and October 20 (brassicas such as senposai, Yukina savoy and the frilly mustards) and October 24 and November 9 (spinach). In December I mistakenly said that December 25 is our official last date for using the brassica fillers because there is not enough time for them to make worthwhile growth before they bolt. But I really meant January 25! Sorry!

  • Until January 25, fill gaps with Asian greens, spinach or lettuces as appropriate to match their neighbors.
  • From January 25 to February 20 fill all gaps everywhere with spinach transplants, except for places that will be sown in new crops in February.
  • From February 20, only fill gaps on the outer thirds of the beds, leaving the bed centers free for tomatoes, etc. in mid-March.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in January

We continue to harvest the hardier greens, and if (when) low temperatures are forecast, we might decide to clear the vulnerable crops and put them in the cooler.

See Cooking Greens for November for more details on winter-kill temperatures

During December we had two nights at 17°F (-8.5°C). The Koji are looking quite damaged. We grew more of this than we could eat before temperatures got too cold. Next year I hope for a return to the more cold-tolerant Yukina Savoy instead. We have not covered the spinach, because of issues with rowcover fibers getting in the food, and we’ll see how much production we get without rowcover. I’m expecting it to be a lot less, as spinach (like kale and lettuce) makes some growth whenever the temperature is 40°F (4.5°C) or more. That happens much more often under rowcover on sunny days than in the open. Savoyed spinach which we prefer) is hardier than smooth-leafed varieties. 10°F (-12°C) could kill the larger leaves and 5°F (-15°C) could kill it off entirely. This would be unfortunate as we expect to harvest a lot from out over-wintered spinach in the spring. Maybe temperatures won’t get that cold this winter, but I’m not holding my breath. Some spinach (Bloomsdale Long Standing, Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia) is hardy down to 0°F (-18°C). We, however, have not been focused on growing the variety with the best absolute cold-tolerance.

Our chard is pretty much dead. The green is hardier than the multi-colored, which died a while back. Green chard is hardy to 12°F (-11°C), but ours is already weather-beaten. Because we have nice chard in the hoophouse, we no longer try to preserve the outdoor crop in winter.

I’m expecting January temperatures to bring the outdoor Koji and senposai to an end.

Spotting cabbage seedlings from a seed flat into a transplant flat.
Photo Wren Vile

Special Cooking Greens Topic for January: Lots of Planning!

We get our Crop Review, Seed Inventory and Seed Orders out of the way before the end of the year, then dive in during January to line everything else up for the next growing year. We use a lot of spreadsheets, and also maps and lists. First we prepare our new Seedlings Schedule, then our complex Fall Brassica Spreadsheet and Map, Field Planting Schedule, Hoophouse Schedule for March to September crops (those are not cooking greens!), and then our Raised Bed Plan and our monthly Garden Calendar.

The Seedlings Schedule Spreadsheet is most pressing, as we start greenhouse sowings in mid-January. Updating the spreadsheet from last year’s to create the new spreadsheet takes us three hours, plus proofreading and corrections. As we go, we make a list of questions or points to fix later, and we use highlighter on cells with unsure data to go back to. Our seedlings schedule has a column for the planned sowing date, one to write in when we actually do that sowing (in case it’s different), columns for the germination date, and the hoped-for transplant date, the vegetable, variety, how many row feet we want to plant, how many plants we will transplant in 100ft, and then a column with a calculation of how many plants we want to grow (allowing 20% extra on most crops). We will be spotting our transplants into flats of 40 plants, so next we calculate how many spotted flats we will need (simply the number of plants divided by 40). From that we calculate how many seed flats to sow. We reckon on getting 6 spotted flats from one seed flat, so again it’s a simple division. And we round up.

For crops that we sow in cell-packs (plug flats) we add another 20% to the Plants number. Lots of things can go wrong in January and February and we want to be sure to have enough plants. Also a lot of these early cell-packs are tomatoes for the hoophouse and we might want 15 different varieties.

All our spreadsheets have a Notes column, either with a pre-recorded reminder or hint, or with space to write in anything unusual or a different idea for next year. We check this and revise the sowing and transplanting dates accordingly.

Once we have the new spreadsheet set up, we get ready for the slow part of the job. One nice thing about spreadsheets is that you can sort the data each time you want a different perspective. We want to end up with a schedule in date order, but as far as feeding in the crop data, an alphabetical list by crop is much easier.

First we go through the current year’s Seed Order updating Varieties and Row Feet. Then we go through the Seed Order line by line, cross-checking to ensure that everything ordered gets sown (crops for transplanting only).

When we’re satisfied with that, we resort the data by transplant date, then by Vegetable, then Variety. We take the previous year’s Outdoor Planting Schedule (Field Planting Schedule) and revise the Seedlings Schedule accordingly.

Before we’re done, we check the highlighted cells and resolve any unresolved issues on our piece of paper. We check germinator shelves in use on any one day: We have space for 24 flats at once. Check the number of Speedlings in use at one time, we have 27. We refer to last year’s Seedlings Schedule for days to germination.

With all that work done, we can resort the data by Sowing date, then by Vegetable, then Variety. We proofread for sense before tidying up the formatting, and making sure all the columns fit on one sheet. We revise the instructions before we forget!

Hoophouse video interview, plus 2019 Round up of favorite topics and posts you missed

No-Till Growers and Josh Sattin collaborated to post this Hoophouse Tips video interview of me talking about our hoophouse:

 

After a Best Ever day on November 7, 2019, when 876 people viewed my website (4,855 that week), December has been quiet. It’s not a big gardening month for most of us, and the month is full of holidays. And then there’s the urge to hibernate.

Nonetheless, I have been reliably posting every week, and you might have accidentally missed something, while entertaining the visiting aunts and uncles, or rushing to get the carrots harvested, or something involving food and drink. Here’s a chance to  find the lost treasures!

December 24, I posted a Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

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Three potato forks to the left, four digging forks to the right.
Pam Dawling

On December 18, I posted Making Use of Greenhouse Space in Winter and Getting the Right Fork

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Purple ube grown in North Carolina by Yanna Fishman

December 10, did you miss Yanna Fisher’s splendid purple ube?

And Josh Sattin’s video interview with me? Legendary Farmer on a Legendary Commune  https://youtu.be/vLzFd4YP9dI

And Jesse Frost’s interview with me on his podcast No-Till Growers ?  You can listen to it here and it’s also on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p75gRIl0Hzs


Reflect spinach in the open got damaged but not killed at -9F.
Photo Pam Dawling

On December 3, I posted Cooking Greens in December

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On November 26, I offered you a Book Review: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening


My Top Six. no Seven,  posts of all time:

Winter-kill Temperatures  of Winter-hardy Vegetables 2016 with 23,776 views, peaking in November. Clearly lots of people want to know which crops will survive and which to hurry and harvest, or protect with rowcover.

Garlic scapes with 11,202 views. Garlic and sweet potatoes are the favorite crops on this site. Garlic scapes used to be under-appreciated and under-used. Not now!

Winter-kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2018 with 9,979, also peaking in November. My list gets updated each year as I learn new information. But the older ones come higher on internet searches.

Soil Tests and High Phosphorus Levels close behind at 9,503. High phosphorus is a worry for organic growers, especially those using lots of compost, as it can build up each year.

How to Deal with Green Potatoes at 8,613, with sustained interest through August, September and November. Obviously we are not the only growers with this problem, caused by light getting to the tubers.

Tokyo Bekana at 2,199 (who knew that was so popular?)

In 2019 other popular posts included Hunting Hornworms and the newer Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2019. It takes a while for newer posts to gain on the older favorites.

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Harness the Power of Microbes to Create Your Best Garden Ever

Storey Publishing, January 2020

  • Price: $16.95
  • Size: 6 x 9
  • Pages: 176
  • Format: Paperback ISBN: 9781635862072
  • Other formats: Ebook

Grow Your Soil! is an introduction to soil biology and gardening in eight chapters. It is written as if describing how to build a house (but starting with the roof!). Diane Miessler writes in plain English, with a light style, and her book has the endorsement of Elaine Ingham, who writes the foreword, saying that Diane’s humor and tongue-in-cheek joy make this book a joy to read. People were once told that using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides was the only way to grow enough food for a starving world. Elaine simply states “That was a flat-out lie.”

Diane’s encouragement to garden in partnership with the soil food web lists the many benefits of a healthy environment, healthy flavorful food, and the satisfaction of doing what you believe is right. She has a ten-point list of suggestions for creating healthy living soil using no-till systems, lots of mulches, home-grown fertilizers, and by encouraging biodiversity. The fundamentals of soil science are explained – soil is about 45% minerals (sand, silt and clay), 20-30% air, 20-30% water and 5-10% organic matter. A teaspoon of good soil contains more microbes than there are people in the US, more species than all the vertebrates on Earth, several yards of fungal hyphae, a few thousand protozoa and several dozen nematodes (mostly good ones). Soil is our planet’s third largest carbon sink (after the oceans and fossil fuels). Healthy soil is continually pulling carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the organic matter and humus. We want to have as much sequestered carbon as possible, both to reduce the amount in the atmosphere and so that we can use it to grow food.

 Diane’s mulch recommendations are to generally aim for a mix of one-third green matter (which feeds bacteria) and two-thirds brown (which feeds fungi), but steering towards more green matter for annual vegetables, more brown for woody perennials, in line with the predominant life-form each type of crop does best with.

The cover crops section first describes the plants, then how and when to use them. I had a brief worry that people would go out and plant buckwheat or sweet potatoes in winter, until I read on! In fact, Diane does suggest you can sow buckwheat whenever you like, and it will be dormant until the right spring weather occurs. In our central Virginia climate this does not work. Buckwheat seed rots in cold wet soil. Buckwheat can germinate in a warm early spring spell and be struck down by a following frost before it has made much growth at all. As always, it pays to discuss ideas you haven’t tried before with nearby gardeners.

This book has a good basic description of the Soil Food Web, for new gardeners or anyone who is a bit mystified about what’s happening in the soil. And for those over 50 whose biology classes only included the two plant and animal “kingdoms”, here are explanations of the classes of bacteria, fungi and archaea, the main types of soil microbes. Archaea are neither bacteria nor eukaryotes (tiny organisms that have their DNA in a nucleus). Archaea are similar to eukaryotes in some ways, but have more resistance to extreme conditions. In the soil they work as decomposers.

Next up are the algae, protozoa and nematodes. The algae spectrum goes from one-celled photosynthesizing life-forms to giant kelp. In the soil they provide nutrients and increase plant resistance to diseases. Protozoa are one-celled animals, which release excess nutrients from their meals of bacteria and fungi, in a plant-available form. They help balance the numbers of bacteria in the soil. Nematodes are (mostly) microscopic roundworms that are mostly benign, from our perspective, and healthy populations keep the destructive nematodes in check. Arthropods (including insects, spiders, mites, ticks and scorpions) are shredders of organic matter in the soil (while eating smaller life-forms).

Bigger soil-dwellers include worms, slugs, snails, and small mammals. By the way, Diane explodes the myth that coffee grounds can control slugs, and claims to have videos to prove it untrue. And she tells us that fence lizards eat harlequin bugs. (I think she lives in California). Western fence lizards are centered in California, and according to the National Wildlife Federation, Eastern fence lizards are found between New York and northern Florida and as far west as Ohio and Arkansas. I want some!

The next section of the book explains Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), a measure of how many positively charged ions (cations, nutrients like Mg, K, Ca, ammonium) can be held by the negatively charge soil particles. Diane likens this to the pantry. Soils with a low CEC can’t hold many cations, and the key to increasing the CEC is to increase the soil organic matter content. Clay soils may have a high CEC, but the nutrients may be held too tightly to be useful to plants. The solution to this problem is also to increase the soil organic matter content.

Diane offers several ways to increase the organic matter, and one of her favorites is biochar. Biochar in its original form is more or less sterile, not nutritious at all, but in the soil it can act like humus on steroids – it is very good at absorbing water, hosting microbes, reducing plant diseases and lasting a long time in the soil. I have been skeptical about some of the claims for biochar, and of the net gains in reducing global heating. Diane does not make any wild claims (she’s not selling the stuff). She is open about the fact that the mechanism for suppressing disease is not yet understood.

As I said, Diane is not selling biochar. In fact she describes how to make your own on a small scale with an “upside-down” outdoor fire (with all due safety precautions). Big pieces of wood are arranged on the ground in an open airy stack, and a small fire is lit on top with tinder and kindling. This means the fire produces little smoke (all smoke is air pollution). The fire is thoroughly doused with water once everything is glowing but not flaming. Those wanting to make biochar on a bigger scale are referred to a double-barrel biochar burner on YouTube.

Diane Miessler

The next section is on photosynthesis, minerals and soil testing. Diane describes the effects of too much, too little and just right amounts of the main soil nutrients first. A deficiency of phosphorus shows up as blue-purple colors on the older leaves. She doesn’t mention phosphorus surplus, although she does confirm that excess phosphorus added to the soil will usually be locked up and become inaccessible to plants. Potassium deficiency can cause yellow leaf edges. Next up are other macro-nutrients, such as Calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Calcium deficiency leads to stunted new growth, brown around the edges, perhaps with yellowing between the veins. Bulb and fruit formation can be damaged, as with blossom end rot of tomatoes, caused by insufficient calcium reaching the fruits. By contrast, a magnesium deficiency leads to older leaves becoming yellow between the veins and around the edges, perhaps with purple, reddish or brownish discoloration. Sulfur shortage can lead to “unthrifty” plants. Shortages of any of these can be remedied by the addition of more organic matter.

Micronutrient shortages can also be helped by organic matter, although in Virginia I have noticed that we do sometimes need to add boron on its own (in tiny amounts).

Diane describes how to test soil, understand the results, and remedy the situation. Try adding organic matter first, and only tinker with the specifics if the general remedy is not enough. For instance, if your soil biological activity is low, you may find that piling on organic matter doesn’t help. Use compost to add  some more life to the soil and get a better balance of diners to dinners. There is a helpful one-page “Order of Operations for Fixing Soil”: Correct the pH; correct the calcium level; correct any excesses (usually by adding gypsum); correct the macronutrient deficiencies and lastly correct the micronutrient and trace element deficiencies. Clear instructions like this are so valuable to newer gardeners!

There is a chapter on making compost and compost tea. She suggests thinking of compost as a sourdough starter, and mulch as the flour. Both are valuable, and they work well together. Making good compost is a valuable skill to learn. Try for the a good balance of high nitrogen materials and high carbon materials, with enough water. Turn the pile, assess its progress, add what it seems to need. Rinse and repeat. Diane recommends against spending money on fancy compost bins. “Compost needs love, not a container.” There is value in turning the pile and seeing how it’s doing. If it’s fully enclosed in a tumbler, you might miss the signs that it needs a specific kind of care. Here is encouragement to learn the art and science of compost making.

Worm bins are a great way to use kitchen scraps to produce worms and compost, especially in winter, as worm bins need to be in a non-freezing place to stay alive. I disagree with Diane about using the liquid leaching from the bottom of the bin as a “compost tea” See my review of The Worm Farmer’s Handbook by Rhonda Sherman. This liquid might not be good for your plants. To make compost tea, put some of the wormcastings in water and bubble air though it. Instructions are in Diane’s book a few pages later.

Another small industrious worker is the black soldier fly. The (harmless) maggots of these (harmless) flies will out-compete other (disease-carrying and/or biting) flies in eating up kitchen scraps in an odorless way. They are also a favorite food of poultry, and there are clever ways of setting up a bsf bin so that the pupal stage will “self-harvest” by walking up a ramp and dropping into a collecting box. See YouTube for all the details.

After explaining these various aspects of growing good soil, Diane pulls everything together into a chapter on Building a Garden That Feeds Itself. Here you can learn about sprinkler irrigation,  mulching, planting, and selecting good tools. The next chapter covers being a good neighbor, by having a good-looking, good-smelling, productive garden that gets frequent attention. Diane advocates for pulling weeds and dropping them on the bed, without worrying about weed seeds or plant diseases. I can see this would work best in a smaller garden where things don’t get out of control, and in drier climates with fewer diseases and less chance for weeds to re-root. There’s a panel about roses that I didn’t read. (Roses are a great trap crop for Japanese beetles; I’m not a flower grower!)  A big help to beginners is the glossary at the end, and the bibliography of books on soil life.

If you are a beginner organic gardener, or you’re looking for a book for someone in that category, this book has a clear user-friendly approach. It won’t scare off newbies with too much detail.