Preparing for spring, sowing seeds, Crop Planning slide show

 

Here’s my updated Crop Planning slideshow, which I presented last weekend at the Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference. To view it full screen, click the diagonal arrow in the lower right.

I will upload my other presentations bit by bit. January and early February are choc-a-bloc with conferences and slideshows, so there will be plenty to see in the next couple of months!

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Seed flats in the greenhouse in early spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Spring starts in January in Virginia! On January 17 we make our first sowings in the greenhouse. We sow some early cabbage, the first lettuce, and some scallions. The week after that we sow our hoophouse tomatoes! Ah! Signs of spring! Even if we did manufacture them, so to speak!

Our germinator cabinet is made from a broken fridge, warmed by an incandescent light-bulb. We’ve got maybe one more year before we run out of incandescent light-bulbs. Then we’ll have to get a different form of heating. But we’re shelving that problem for now. We check twice a day to make sure the light-bulb is still working and the temperature in the germination chamber is still OK.

By the end of February, we’ll have sown tomatoes and peppers for growing in our hoophouse, and spinach, kale, collards, cabbage, lettuce, scallions, broccoli and senposai for planting outdoors.

When the cabbages emerge, we’ll need to make space for the flat in the greenhouse near the window. When the hoophouse tomatoes have germinated, they will go in a plastic tent on a seed heating mat by the greenhouse windows. We have the 48″ x 20″ size mat, and we extend the plastic tent and graduate the older seedlings off the mat, but still under the tent for extra protection.

Screening compost to fill our greenhouse beds in September.
Photo Wren Vile

Our system for seed compost is to screen a big pile of our homemade compost in September, and fill the cinder-block beds in the greenhouse. Then we pop lettuce transplants at 10″ spacing into the beds. Those lettuces give us salad from November to February. As we need space in the greenhouse, we pull the lettuce. We can then scoop out the compost to fill the flats for seedlings. This system works well time-wise –we benefit from this lettuce supply in the winter. It also works well in providing us with a large quantity of mellow screened compost for seed flats, indoors and not frozen. The soil organisms have had time to colonize the compost, so it is full of life.

Walking the gangplank to fill greenhouse beds with compost in September. Photo Wren Vile

As the seedlings grow, we spot them out into bigger flats, with about 2.5″ between plants. My favorite tool for this job is a butter knife! For lettuce we use 3″ deep flats, but for most crops we use 4″ deep flats, so the roots have plenty of space. We use a dibble board to make the evenly spaced holes in the compost in the bigger flats, to move the tiny seedlings into. It’s a piece of plywood with fat dowel pegs glued into holes at the right spacing, 40 in a 12″ x 24″ flat. On the other side of the board are two small wood handles to make it easy to use.

A flat of scallions to transplant in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

There is a great website on Vegetable Transplant Production from the University of Florida Vegetable horticulture Program. It has a collection of excellent articles developed by Charles Vavrina in the late nineties. Plants still grow the same way! Check out the site for lots of useful tips about growing and using transplants. This is a good time of year to make plans to do something in a different way, to avoid repeating last year’s less successful episodes!

You can see our Twin Oaks Month-by-month Garden Task List here on my website.

 

Alliums for January: sow scallions, cipollini, shallots

Clumps of scallion transplants in a plug flat, ready to transplant.
Photo Pam Dawling

Plant scallions, shallots, cipollini mini-onions, small potato onions

In January, one of the first crops we sow is scallions for transplant. We sow in 200-cell plug flats, on January 17, aiming to get 4-6 seeds per cell. It takes 4 gm of seed for 200 cells. We transplant these clumps on March 21, with 3″ (7 cm) space between plugs. We need about 50 row feet (15 m) This grows us scallions already in bunches, and makes excellent use of the space. We make a second sowing of the same size on February 17 and transplant April 14. We also grow scallions in the hoophouse in winter.

French Red Shallot bulbs. Photo Raddysh Acorn

 Plant shallot bulbs January-February, if you haven’t done so before the winter.

Between late January and mid-February, sow shallot seeds. Transplant in late March. Shallots from seed will be ready for harvest 7/4-7/30, about a month later than harvests from replanted bulbs.

Cipollini, Mini-onions, Pickling Onions

Like bulb onions and scallions, cipollini are a biennial crop grown as an annual (A. cepa var. cepa). They are small bulb onions used whole for kebabs, pickles, casseroles, and stews. Depending on your latitude and the variety’s adaptation, these will provide bulbs from the size of large cherries to ping-pong balls. They tend to dry down nicely and store well. White varieties get sunburn here. Red Marble is good, stores well. Purplette doesn’t store well.

Mini-onions are viewed as a gourmet item, so the prices you can get may justify giving them greenhouse bench space, or even growing space in a hoophouse. We can grow these outdoors from seed sown 1/17-1/25, transplanting 3/10-3/21, leading to harvest 7/1-7/17.

Red Marble cipollini.
Photo Fedco Seeds

Small potato onions

In late January, plant small potato onions (smaller than 1.5″/4 cm) late January as soon as the ground can be worked. Or early February, if January is not possible. See Alliums for December for planting medium-sized bulbs, Alliums for September for information on planting the large ones. In order to make January planting possible, we prepare the bed for the small potato onions in the late fall and cover it with mulch for the winter. In late January or early February, we remove the mulch, make 4 deep furrows, plant the small onions (<1½”, 4 cm) on 4″ (10 cm) centers, cover with ½”-1″ (1-3 cm) soil, tamp down, and replace 4″-8″ (10-20 cm) of mulch. Label and write down how much seed was used. Eat any leftovers or give them to a friend. For 360′ (111 m) at 4″ (10 cm), we need 1080 bulbs plus 20% spare. (Approx 1300 bulbs). 425 bulbs = 18-20lbs (8-9 kg), 1lb (500 gm) =20-33 bulbs.

Harvesting and Eating

Eat onions and garlic from storage, including bulbils from Egyptian onions if you stored those.

You can enjoy eating Perennial leeks as leeks, September to February. See Alliums for December

If still green and visible, you can eat leaves of Egyptian onions and perennial leeks, September to April.

This is the time to enjoy winter leeks. We try to grow enough to supply 1 bed (720 leeks) each month, December to February

Other Allium Tasks

How to harvest and trim leeks.

Use a sturdy digging fork to harvest leeks.
Photo Pam Dawling

Be sure to get the prongs/times of the fork downwards into the soil, not at an angle that will stab the leek. Step on the fork and go deep enough to dislodge the leek when you lever back on the fork.

Trim the leek roots off with a big knife.
Photo Pam Dawling

After removing the roots, hold the leek upside down and slash diagonally at the leaves. This will remove the damaged parts of the tougher outer leaves and leave the tender inner leaves to eat.

A trimmed leek showing how the inner leaves are left longer than the outer ones.
Photo Pam Dawling

If you haven’t done it already, free trapped garlic shoots. Look for garlic shoots at whatever spacing you used.

Young garlic shoots which emerged through the mulch on their own.
Photo Pam Dawling

A trapped garlic shoot that was freed with human intervention.
Photo Pam Dawling

If you don’t see a garlic shoot where there should be one, part the mulch just enough to let the pale shoot see the light. Don’t leave any soil bare, it only leads to weeds!

Unusual Alliums List. (There are others)

While you are perusing seed catalogs, look out for these less common alliums, and consider if they have a place in your garden. The Clove Garden has lots of info on all types of onion. The Backyard Larder: Ali’s Alliums is also a good read.

  1. Pearl onions (Allium ampeloprasum sectivum), also known as button or baby onions in the UK, or creamers in the US, are a close relative of leeks, with thin skins and a mild, sweet flavor. They grow up to 1′ (2.5 cm) in diameter. They are especially popular in the Netherlands and Germany. Unlike bulb onions, they do not have layers of storage leaves but only a single storage leaf, like the non-layered cloves of garlic. The onions are ready to harvest 90 days from sowing. They are mostly used for pickling. Most onions grown for pickling today are simply small crowded bulb onions, with layers. Also see the Useful Temperate Plants Site  and How to grow Pearl Onions by Jenny Harrington
  2. Perennial Rakkyo (aka as true pearl onions, Japanese scallions, Vietnamese leeks) are Allium Chinense. These small onion bulbs are generally pickled.
  3. Canada onion (aka Wild onion) (Allium canadense) is a perennial sounding very like what we call onion grass or wild garlic in Virginia, although that is Allium vineale (crow garlic). The leaves of onion grass are hollow and round, while those of Canada onion are more flat and ‘solid’.
  4. Kurrat ( kurrat), is a Middle-Eastern cultivated leek, used mainly for the greens, which may be cut from the plant repeatedly.
  5. Field garlic Allium oleraceum is native to most of Europe, where it is a wild perennial, growing tall leaves (the part that is used).
  6. Ramsons Allium ursinum, buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, or bear’s garlic, common in Europe. Looks like Ramps, (Allium tricoccum) but is not the same. The broad flat leaves are the part used.
  7. Japanese bunching onion and Welsh onion (native to Siberia or China, not Wales) are Allium fistulosum. They are sometimes used as scallions, as are some A. cepa. Young plants of A. fistulosum and A. cepa look very similar, but may be distinguished by their leaves, which are circular in cross-section in A. fistulosum rather than flattened on one side.  A. fistulosum has hollow leaves (fistulosum means “hollow”), scapes and does not develop bulbs – the leaves are the part which is eaten.

Winter Gardening and Farming Conferences and Reading

I’ve just updated my Events page with more details about the events I’m speaking at. Coming up really soon is the Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference. Here is a flyer for it:

I’ll be offering a half-day (1-5 pm) workshop on Friday 1/11: Year Round Hoophouse Vegetables.

On Saturday 1/12, 2.30 – 4 pm, I’m offering a 90 minute workshop on Cold Hardy Winter Vegetables, and on Sunday 1/13, 4 – 5.30 pm a 90 minute workshop on Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production.  

I’ll provide handouts for all my workshops, and there will be book signings and sales after each workshop. You can read more details on my Events page or on the VABF website.

I’m having a busy January! The very next weekend, January 17-19 (Thurs – Sat), I’ll be at the 2019 Future Harvest CASAat College Park Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. I’m offering two 90 min workshops, with book sales and signings after the workshops.

Lettuce Year-Round, Friday 1/18 2.00 – 3.30 pm and  Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers, Saturday 1/19 2.00 – 3.30 pm

And then January 23-26, 2019 (Weds to Sat), I’ll be at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference, Little Rock, AR.

On Thursday January 24, I’m doing a 1 – 5pm Mini-course (4 hours) Hoophouse Production of Cool Season Crops

On Friday January 25, 8 – 9.15 am (75 mins), I’m offering Diversify Your Vegetable Crops.

Book sales and signing Thursday evening.

And then it’s February, and I’m on to the PASA Conference

February 6-9 2019 Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Lancaster County Convention Center.  I’m offering three 90 min workshops:

Sequential Planting of Cool Season Crops in a High Tunnel, Friday 8.45 am – 10.15 am

Lettuce Year Round, Saturday 8.45 am- 10.15 am

Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests Saturday 10.30 am -12 noon.

Handouts, Book-signing, Recordings for sale.

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And if you can’t make it to these events, I have found plenty of good reading on gardening and sustainable agriculture.

Reader Anne Donley sent a link to this fascinating news from the Guardian.com:

Finalists for the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa prize reveal their designs, The team has shortlisted 16 African inventors from six countries to receive funding, training and mentoring for projects intended to revolutionize sectors from agriculture and science to women’s health. Some of the ideas presented include

  • Vertical vegetable growing boxes which grow up to 200 plants and  include a wormery! Wonderful step to more food security.
  • Moisture extraction from the air using silica gels, then solar power to heat up the moisture to provide clean water. Kenyan Beth Koigi  points out that

“There’s six times more water in the air than in all the rivers in the world. With every 1F increase in temperature, water begins to evaporate on the ground but increases by about 4% in the atmosphere, and that’s water that’s not being tapped.”

  • Gloves that translate sign language into speech

  • Smart lockers that dispense medicines.

Growing for Market January issue is out

The Organic Broadcaster is out

Gena Moore at Carolina Farm Stewardship has some great research on the efficacy of various biopesticides.

Modern Farmer is a good online resource for news. They offer a weekly digest via email, or you can go to their site and click on the stories you are interested in. Themes include Farm, Food and Lifestyle, Animal Heroes, News.

The Hoophouse Year in Pictures

Here’s an end-of-year pictorial post with photos from our hoophouse through the year. Few words! Enjoy your holidays. Maybe Santa will bring you a hoophouse?

January spinach from our second sowing.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in February.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse beds, marking spots to transplant tomatoes in mid-March.
Photo Wren Vile.

April snap peas with young squash plants.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The snap peas in May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers in June.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

Tomatoes, yellow squash and more tomatoes in July.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

Young cowpeas in August.
Photo Nina Gentle

Radish seedlings on September 25.
photo Pam Dawling

September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile

Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile

November in paradise.
Photo Wren Vile

Young pak choy in November.
Photo Wren Vile

Tatsoi in the mist, November.
Photo Wren Vile

Prolific beds in November.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Lush greens in December.
Photo Wren Vile

View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

Back-up plans for winter hoophouse crops

Lettuce “filler” transplants to fill gaps.
Photo Pam Dawling

Because crops grow slowly in cold weather, if something goes wrong at the beginning of the winter, or in the fall, the consequences can cast a long shadow. It is not easy to make up for lost time. In spring, the weather is getting warmer, the daylight is lengthening, and you may have noticed that later sowings can catch up with ones a week or two earlier, allowing for a second chance. In the fall, the rate of growth is moving in the opposite direction, and later sowings will stand no chance of catching up. Even worse, they may get “trapped” like Persephone in the Underworld during the dark Persephone Days. But don’t despair – there are things you can do ahead of time to be prepared for plans going awry, and there are even a few things you can do instead of your original plan, to ensure you get some crops to harvest.

Transplant seedlings under insect netting outdoors.
Photo Pam Dawling

Starting outdoors in September

We sow a lot of our winter crops outdoors in September, and transplant them into the hoophouse in October. This gives us an extra few weeks to prepare the hoophouse beds, and gives the seeds the cooler outdoor conditions to germinate in. We have three sowing dates.

On September 15, we sow 10 varieties of hardy leaf lettuce and romaines; pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo Bekana, Maruba Santoh and chard

On September 24, we sow another 10 varieties of lettuce; Red and White Russian kales, Senposai, more Yukina Savoy, mizuna and arugula, and we resow anything that didn’t do well in the 9/15 sowing

On September 30, we resow anything that didn’t do well in the 9/24 sowing, or substitutes.

Emergency back-up seedlings for the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

This year, we had poor germination of a lot of the 9/15 sowings and too many of the 9/24 sowings. As a back-up for the back-up plans we sowed some crops in Winstrip trays, and spotted lettuce in open flats, which we kept inside the hoophouse. By that point, conditions in the hoophouse were more crop-friendly than outdoors. We did need some of these, and the rest we harvested for salad mixes right out of the flats! We were short of salad items because of the late establishment of the plants, so every plant was a help!

A flat of lettuce transplants in the path in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our goal is to keep the space filled with useful crops.

Success with this goal relies on a cluster of strategies

  1. The fall transplant program I describe above.
  2. Follow-on crops: A sequence of different crops occupying the same space over time. It’s important to know when crops will bolt, and how to plant sensible quantities
  3. Filler crops: As well as scheduled plantings, in October we sow a few short rows of spinach, lettuce, Senposai, Yukina Savoy, Maruba Santoh, Tokyo Bekana to transplant into gaps as soon as they occur. We simply dig them up, replant where needed and water well. Bare-root transplants are much easier than many fear. They save time and money, compared to growing starts in flats, and save on greenhouse space. They are very sturdy plants, as they have the full depth of soil to develop big roots. Little extra care is needed, as they are less prone to drying out than seedlings in flats. Alternatively you could keep some plug flats of these plants handy. We fill gaps with Asian greens, spinach or lettuces as appropriate, until Jan 25. From Jan 25 to Feb 20 we fill all gaps everywhere with spinach From Feb 20, we only fill gaps on the outer thirds of the beds, leaving centers free for tomatoes, etc.

    Filler brassica transplants in our hoophouse in November.
    Photo Pam Dawling

  4. Interplanting: After 2/20, we harvest the winter crops from the center rows first, plant the new early summer crops down the center, then harvest the outer rows bit by bit as the new crop needs the space or the light. This overlap allows the new crops to take over gradually. Our winter and spring crops end in April
  5. Fast Catch Crops. Some cool-weather crops mature in 60 days or less. Mostly these are greens and fast-growing root crops. Useful if a crop fails, or you have a small empty space. Details on some of these follow the list.
  • Ready in 30–35 days in fall, longer in winter: arugula, many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy,.Senposai, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy), brassica salad mixes, chard, kale, radishes, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) spinach and winter purslane. Peashoots in late winter or spring.
  • Ready in 35–45 days in fall: chervil, corn salad, land cress, parsley and sorrel.
  • Ready in 60 days in fall: beets, small fast cabbage, collards, kohlrabi and turnips.

 Asian Greens

Asian greens are better able to germinate in hot weather than lettuce, and are faster growing than lettuce. Transplant 2-3 weeks after fall sowing, or direct sow.

Asian greens are nutritious as well as tasty – flavors vary from mild to peppery – read the catalog descriptions before growing lots. Colors cover the spectrum: chartreuse, bright green, dark green and purple. A diversity of crops without a diversity of growing methods!

Brassica (Mustard) Salad Mixes

Interesting mustard mixes are sold for salad mixes. We often mix our own Brassica Salad Mix from leftover random brassica seeds. For a single cut, almost all brassicas are suitable – just avoid turnips and radishes with prickly leaves! We sow between 10/2 and 11/14 for winter harvest and from 12/4 to 2/12 for March and early April harvests. We’re zone 7, central Virginia.

Chard and Beet Greens

Green chard is hardier than the multi-colored Bright Lights. Days to maturity: 61 – 103 days, a big difference, depending when you sow. Sow 9/15, harvest 11/15 – 5/10; Sow 10/26, harvest 2/6 – 5/10.

Radishes in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

Radishes

Varieties we like: Easter Egg, White Icicle, and Cherry Belle.  Sparkler got too fibrous for us, as did Cherry Belle after mid Oct. We make 6 sowings 9/6 – 1/26. Small radishes take 27–52 days to maturity, not counting days too cold to grow.

Scallions in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Scallions

We sow 9/6 for harvest 12/1 – 3/1; 11/18 (following radishes) for harvest in early spring. This winter we are trying a sowing 10/20 also (we happened to have a space at that time, in a spot where it fitted our rotation). Evergreen Hardy White and White Lisbon scallions are hardy down to 0°F (-18°C)

Spinach

We loved Tyee and now grow Escalade, Reflect, Acadia and smooth leaf Renegade. Renegade makes good Nov/Dec growth; Acadia, Escalade yield well Jan – April; January sown Reflect does well.

  1. Succession Planting for Winter Hoophouse Crops

We do 2 sowings of chard, scallions, tatsoi and yukina savoy; 3 sowings of  mizuna, turnips and bulb onions; 4 sowings of baby lettuce mix and brassica salad mix; 5 sowings of spinach and radish. Our goal is to provide a continuous supply.

As temperatures and day-length decrease in the fall, the time to maturity lengthens – a day late in sowing can lead to a week’s delay in harvesting. As temperatures and day-length increase after the Winter Solstice, the time to maturity shortens – later sowings can almost catch up with earlier ones. To get harvests starting an equal number of days apart, vary the interval between one sowing date and the next accordingly. Here’s the most dependable method:

Making a Close-Fit Plan Using Graphs

  1. Gather sowing and harvest start and finish dates for each planting of each crop you are growing as successions.
  2. Make a graph for each crop: sowing date along the horizontal (x) axis; harvest start date along the vertical (y) axis. Mark in all your data. Join with a line. Smooth the line.
  3. From your first possible sowing date find the first harvest start date.
  4. Decide the last worthwhile harvest start date, mark that.
  5. Divide the harvest period into a whole number of equal segments, according to how often you want a new patch.
  6. Mark in the harvest start dates and see the sowing dates that match those harvest dates

Overgrown hoophouse filler greens in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Wren Vile

Working around the Persephone Days

In Indiana (in Zone 5b) Ben Hartman (The Lean Farm) sows salad greens & spinach for winter harvests every week Sept 15–Oct 15. Baby lettuce sown before Oct 22 takes 5–6 weeks until harvest. If sown Oct 24–Nov 16, it takes 8–17 weeks to harvest. In Zone 5b, if you want baby lettuce mix before December, sow before Oct 22.

Spinach sown before Oct 11 takes 4–6 weeks to harvest. If sown from Oct 20–Nov 1, it takes 12–15 weeks. To harvest spinach before December, he sows before the middle of October.

For new year harvests he sows every week Oct 15–Nov 1. He then takes a two month break from planting (Nov-Dec). Jan 1–Jan 15 he sows both salad greens and spinach for late winter.

In Zone 7 we can harvest outdoor lettuce and spinach in December, and we have less urgency about early hoophouse sowings (and we get no winter break!).

 

 

 

 

Alliums for December: Free trapped garlic shoots, divide perennial leeks

Sorry for the delayed post. We lost our internet in the storm 5 days ago. Just got it back. Ah rural life!

Perennial leeks (small ones)

Planting Alliums in December

Sow backup bulb onions 12/5 in the hoophouse, see Alliums for November. These will be transplanted outdoors March 1st or as soon after that as feasible. If this sowing is not needed for transplants, they can be used as scallions. Regular bulb onions are a biennial crop grown as an annual (Allium cepa var. cepa)

Divide clumps of perennial leeks and replant (see Special Topic below)

Egyptian onions, aka Top-setting onions, tree onions, walking onions, produce tiny red-purple bulbs in the umbel instead of flowers, and were previously named Allium cepa var. proliferum. According to Wikipedia, they are now known to be a hybrid of A. cepa and A. fistulosum. Divide clumps in Spring (March, April) and fall (late September to November, depending on your climate)

Further south, warmer than zone 7, plant garlic and elephant garlic. Elephant garlic is botanically a leek (A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum).

Yellow Potato Onions.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Potato onions and shallots (which develop in the ground) are Allium cepa var. aggregatum. Plant medium-sized (1½”-2″, 4-5 cm) potato onions in late November-early December in zone 7. See Alliums for September on planting the large ones. Save the small ones to plant in January, as they won’t survive the winter well in the ground. On the plus side, the small ones store really well indoors, unlike the large ones.

  • For 360′ (110 m) @ 6″ (15cm) you need 720 bulbs plus 20% spare. Approximately 940 bulbs. 150 medium bulbs weigh about 20-21# (9 kg). 1# = 8 bulbs
  • Plant them at 6″ (15cm). If there are not enough medium-sized onions available, increase spacing or fill out with small onions.
  • Cover with ½-1″ (1-2 cm) soil, and add 4″-8″ (10-20 cm) mulch.
  • Store any leftovers till January, when the small ones get planted, if you want more.

A yellow potato onion plant in spring, showing how a cluster of onions forms.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Here’s more information about Potato onions and shallots from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange:

The potato onion is closely related to the shallot. Like the walking onion they aren’t largely referenced until the 1790s when they gain popularity in English and American gardens. Shallots on the other hand, have been recorded in use for centuries and date back to Roman times. Southern Exposure’s yellow potato onion variety is an heirloom that dates back to prior to 1790. Both the potato and walking onions saw widespread use in colonial America. They were often easy to grow in conditions that were less than ideal and easy to keep year after year. Sadly these perennial onions fell out of favor during the 20th century. People chose to grow more seed onions as onion seeds and sets became more widely available.

Benefits of potato onions and shallots

  • They are not as readily bothered by the onion fly as are seed onions.
  • Once you have enough potato onions or shallots you need not buy seeds or sets again.
  • Some types of multiplier onions are in demand as gourmet items in restaurants.
  • Potato onions and many shallots store well, and can withstand subfreezing temperatures in every area of the continental U.S. when properly planted.
  • Perennial onions may be easier for you to grow. While some gardeners find seed onions to be an easy, productive crop others struggle with them. If you’re having a hard time with seed onions perennial onions are worth a shot.”

Harvesting alliums in December

Winter leeks, 12/8-3/1. Common leeks are Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum.

Scallions in the hoophouse at the end of November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse scallions, (spring onions, escallions or salad onions). Like bulb onions, these are A. cepa var. cepa. Early Lisbon and Evergreen Hardy White scallion varieties are hardy to 0°F (−18°C), as are chives, garlic, a few leeks (Alaska, Durabel), some bulb onions, and yellow potato onions.

Perennial leeks as leeks (see Special Topic below).

Leaves of Egyptian onions and perennial leeks: Cut and use these September to April, as long as they are still green and in good shape.

Other Allium tasks for December

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch.

Free trapped garlic shoots. Watch your mulched garlic beds and when the shoots start to emerge, choose the moment to free any trapped shoots, by working along the rows, investigating each spot where you expect a garlic plant to be, but see nothing. Your goal is simply to let the shoot see the daylight. Then it will right itself. Don’t reveal any bare soil, as that will grow weeds (and let colder winter air at the garlic.) Don’t over-work this – as soon as any part of a shoot is visible, leave that plant alone, and move on to the thousands of others. It isn’t necessary to make all the leaves visible, or to clear around the whole plant.

Choosing the right time might be tricky. I used to say when half or more of the shoots are visible, but one year we were having a crop disaster, and we waited too long – we were never going to have half visible. Usually, most of them emerge at the same time.

When properly planted and mulched, garlic can withstand winter lows of -30°F (-35°C). garlic roots will grow whenever the ground isn’t frozen, and the tops will grow whenever the temperature is above 40°F (4.5°C). If garlic gets frozen back to the ground, it can regrow and be fine.

Eat onions and garlic from storage, and if you harvested little bulbils from Egyptian onions in September, you can use them during the winter. They store well.

Cured garlic and onions hanging from a beam.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Special topic for December: Perennial Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum)

Divide clumps of perennial leeks and replant in late September to November and March-April. Harvest the larger leeks September to February, replant the rest. Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange says:

“If divided and left to grow for 9-12 months, perennial leeks really make decent-sized leeks you harvest in October [or so]. This gives you something more like the early traditional leeks plus an assortment of smaller leeks to divide and let grow. [If you are] starting with only a few it’s best to just divide and grow larger for at least a year to get up to a decent quantity and size.”

In June, July and early August some people use larger bulbils in mixed pickles.

Perennial leeks will be dry bulbs in August and can be re-spaced between August and November into a larger planting for next year.

This winter week in the hoophouse, Virginia Biological Farming Conference

This post will be mainly photos. Outdoors the weather has been grey and dreary, and November was the coldest in 38 years, according to AgWeb, from the Farm Journal. But in our Virginia hoophouse, crops are growing well, and we have been harvesting salads every day, radishes every week, and have even started harvesting cooking greens. (I say “even” because we still have spinach, kale, collards outdoors too, which we normally harvest while we can.)

Koji greens in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’ll start harvesting the outer leaves of these Koji greens soon. Koji is a hybrid, rather like the open pollinated Yukina Savoy. Here’s our senposai just after I harvested 10 gallons of the biggest leaves:

Freshly harvested senposi. In just three days, the plants had grown enough to be ready for another harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

Soon we will start harvesting leaves from our Russian kale

White Russian kale ready for harvest in our hoophouse at the end of November.
Photo Pam Dawling

.For salad mixes, we are harvesting outer leaves from the leaf lettuces, along with spinach, Bulls Blood beet leaves, and often the brassica component has been tatsoi.

Outredgeous lettuce in late November. The persistent galinsoga shows that our hoophouse has not yet reached freezing temperatures.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tatsoi, which we sowed September 6, has been very prolific. We have been harvesting the outer leaves and chopping them for salad mix, after removing the stems. These causes the patch to look messy, but feeds us well.

Hoophouse tatsoi in late November, with harvested plants to the lower right and not-recently-harvested plants to the left.
Photo Pam Dawling

Once we’ve chosen our basic three ingredients (lettuce, spinach/chard/beet leaves, and a brassica), we customize the mix with other ingredients, such as Tokyo bekana, baby chard or frilly mustards such as Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills and Ruby Streaks. We are harvesting our first sowing, cutting outer leaves, and thinning our second sowing.

Our second hoophouse sowing of frilly mustards. Here you see Golden Frills and Ruby Streaks.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our first hoophouse sowing of scallions is ready for harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

Looking to the future, the first sowing of baby lettuce mix is almost big enough to harvest. We grow both leaf lettuce to keep alive all winter, and several sowings of baby lettuce mix to cut whenever it is big enough. Growing both gives us more resilience when the weather is so unpredictable.

Red Round turnips are beautiful, and the tops make good cooking greens.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’re also looking forward to turnips and chard.

Our second hoophouse planting of Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling


The Virginia Biological Farming Conference will be held January 11-13, 2019 in Richmond, VA. See you there! See my Events page for more about my presentations.

Hoophouses I visited this month

In early November, during the Carolina Farm Stewardship conference I went on the afternoon bus tour to see 10 high tunnels and how they’re used for season extension,  irrigation, disease control, pest protection, and trellising. Red Hawk Farm grows salads and greens year-round in six high tunnels (more under construction!), and sells primarily to local grocery stores and restaurants.  Funny Girl Farm grows produce year-round for its popular farmstand and CSA, with four high tunnels and a greenhouse.They were focusing on the sweet potato harvest outdoors when we visited.

Red Hawk Farm hoophouse densely planted with multileaf lettuces.
Photo Pam Dawling

At Red Hawk Farm I was astounded to see this whole hoophouse planted wall-to-wall with multileaf lettuces. No aisles! The farmer Brett Evans plans to harvest with a walk-behind motorized salad harvester machine that makes a 4 ft wide cut. Then he’ll leave the lettuces to regrow. He uses the paperpot transplanter  which I mentioned last week. Here are the starts growing in their propagation house.

Lettuce starts in paperpots at Red Hawk Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

They still had peppers bearing well in one high tunnel

Early November pepper harvest at Red Hawk Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another interesting feature was the opening roof vent, which I had not seen in operation on a hoophouse before.

Opening roof vent on a hoophouse at Red Hawk Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

And this past week, I went to Potomac Vegetable Farms in northern Virginia for a talk with Future Harvest CASA members, and a tour of the hoophouses used there led by farmer Zach Lester.  I was interested in seeing the success he is having with caterpillar tunnels. These are smaller tunnels with a single layer of plastic, held in place by ropes, as you see in the photo below. They can be temporary or short-term, and Zach showed us one which is a “swing house” with two sites side by side, sharing one row of ground posts, and having just one row to move each time. Another way to deal with crop rotations and reduce the chances of pests and diseases!

Caterpillar tunnel at Potomac Vegetable Farms.
Photo Pam Dawling

At the ends, the plastic is gathered up and tied to well-anchored stakes, as you can see here.

How the ends of caterpillar tunnels are gathered and fastened to stakes.
Photo Pam Dawling

Zach got these frames custom made by Nolts. They have taller sidewalls than many models. He is also a firm believer in having a ridgepole in caterpillar tunnels, to reduce the likelihood of collapse with snow or high winds. As you can see here, they had some snow already.

Potomac Vegetable Farms caterpillar tunnel showing rolled up side.
Photo Pam Dawling

At both these farms, I learned the technique of laying landscape fabric along the side walls to reduce weed growth. You can burn holes in the landscape fabric where the ground posts go through, and it will keep the weeds away for a long time. I wish I’d known that technique when we put up our hoophouse. We have to hand weed, and in some places we have wiregrass (Bermuda grass) which has grown under the baseboards and even between the boards where there are joins.


Lastly, I have of course visited our own hoophouse at Twin Oaks, and have written a post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening on Dealing with Snow on Your Hoophouse. So if it’s snowing where you are, you can click on the link to read about that.

Hoophouse Many Crops slideshow, Hoophouse Squash article in Growing for Market, Modern Farmer

Here’s my Many Crops, Many Plantings slideshow from my shared Friday morning pre-conference intensive workshop at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference.

Scaling Up: Maximizing High Tunnel Production
Gena Moore, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and Pam Dawling, Twin Oaks Community

High tunnels provide high-value space for growing various crops throughout the year, but maximizing production comes with challenges. In this workshop, Gena and Pam will discuss how to effectively use high tunnels to maximize potential. Topics include monocropping for wholesale production, diversified high tunnel production, and effective management throughout the year.


The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article on Hoophouse Squash and Cucumbers for Crop Rotation.

We transplant one bed each of summer squash and bush cucumbers in our hoophouse on April 1st. This gives us harvests a month earlier than the outdoor crops. It also helps us have a crop rotation (compared to tomatoes and peppers in all the beds every year.) We find that people really enjoy early squash and cucumbers, as a welcome change from winter crops, and a harbinger of what is to come. We end the squash and cucumber sin July, once the outdoor plantings are bearing well, and use the hoophouse space for cowpeas or edamame, usually. Summer cover crops would be another fine option.

Hoophouse squash between beds of tomatoes in July.
Photo Alexis Yamashita


A great resource I discovered quite recently is Modern Farmer. 

Lots of interesting article, including the good news for certified Organic growers that the paperpot system is now accepted under Organic regulations. See

Machine Makes Planting a Breeze https://youtu.be/J_ia4KpVLKs via @YouTube

Paperpot transplanter.
Photo Johnny’s Seeds

There are sections on animals, how-to, politics, videos, environment, lifestyle, recipes, food & drink, plants and technology. You can sign up to receive their weekly newsletter.

While at teh CFSA Conference I participated in the High Tunnels Bus Tour, and saw a whole hoophouse planted wall-to-wall with lettuces at 6″ spacing using one of these. For next week, I’ll sort out my photos from that event and also my visit to Potomac Vegetable Farms where Zach Lester is focusing on protected crops using hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels.


Lastly (how can I forget), my publisher, New Society, is doing a Book Giveaway on Facebook this week (starting Nov 15) with my new book The Year-Round Hoophouse. It’s on their Facebook page and Instagram. Enter a question, I answer it, and someone wins a copy of the book at the end of the week (very soon!)

Book Review: Farming While Black, Leah Penniman

Farming While Black, Leah Penniman, Chelsea Green, November 2018

ISBN 978-1-60358-761-7, 368 pages, $34.95 Full color photos and illustrations throughout.

 

This timely book is Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. As Karen Washington says in the foreword, it “sheds light on the richness of Black Culture permeating throughout agriculture.” It’s practical, political, spiritual, uplifting and inspiring.

Before I go any further, I should say I’m white. I’m a farmer, a first generation immigrant, an enthusiastic reader of good farming books, and someone who likes to pass things she learns on to others. I love that this book brings farming wisdom from African and Caribbean cultures, gems like information on the susu Caribbean community mutual lending groups and inventive methods of farming with small material resources. I love that this book opens our eyes wider to the historical and current, shamefully unjust treatment of people of color as they farm. The title is perfect.

Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer who has been working as a farmer for 20 years and as an anti-racist food activist for 15 years, and a mother for some years too. She is a founder of the ten-person Soul Fire Farm in New York, which supplies low-cost healthy food to people living in places where they would otherwise be without good food. The farm offers training programs to Black, Latinx and Indigenous new farmers, as well as Black youth who would otherwise have received punitive court sentences, and anti-racism workshops.

Throughout the book are sidebars with the title “Uplift”, bringing wisdom from the African Diaspora. There are also tales from her own learning curve, such as letting the excitement over finding land blind her to the impoverished nature of the soil there, and the lack of road, electricity or even a house. She passes on to us her 13-point list of characteristics of suitable land, and her three essentials for farming: land, training and material resources. She knows the conventional resources, the unconventional ones, and how to tap into them. For instance, squatting land and activating an adverse possession claim after paying taxes for enough years, or making use of the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative programs.

As a result of decades of USDA discrimination and white injustice, the percentage of farms owned by Black farmers in the US has gone down from 14% in 1920 to less than 2% today. USDA is starting to make amends by offering some greater resources to “historically disadvantaged” farmers. There is a long way to go, to undo past harm. Land injustice continues today. Over 80% of food eaten in the US is grown by Latinx workers, but only 2% of farm managers are Latinx. A bright spot during the Great Depression was the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an interracial organization that used nonviolent protest to demand their fair share of government support.

The Uplift sidebar about the New Communities Land Trust particularly interested me. This, the first community land trust in the US, was set up in 1969 as a 5,700 acre farm collective owned in common by Black farmers. Yes, they were shot at by some white neighbors, and suffered thefts. They were denied emergency drought relief in 1981-82, while white farmers received funds. In 1985 they had to fold and sell the land. In 1999 they settled a civil rights case for $1.2 billion and re-established on a 1,600 acre former plantation, renamed Resora.

This book contains many useful resources I have not found in such concentration elsewhere! Contact lists for farm training programs, and in particular, ones led by people of color, with an awareness of the political implications of white-led programs that ask people to work for no pay, doing work that benefits the landowner. She tells of some specific acts of reparation where a European-descent person with means transferred a portion of their land to the descendants of those who created the wealth. She encourages people of color to be specific in asking for reparations, suggesting “If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice.”

When it comes to asking for loans, many Black people do not have access to conventional credit because of the legacy of structural racism. Alternative resources such as susu are needed. These are microfinance membership groups that pool subscriptions and fund one member at a time. Leah Penniman offers models of financial sustainability that question capitalism and reinforce the understanding that land has belonged to people in common for much longer than it has been owned privately. Those who have known want don’t assume that the world owes them/us anything, and so will want to pay close attention to financial agreements.

Sharing work via the konbit system is another way for people to support each other to get timely tasks completed. Every farm gets the chance to receive the help as well as provide it. This book provides a great deal of help. In return, don’t look for the cheapest place to buy it! Pay the fair price, or even offer reparations if you are from a family that benefited from historical exploitation of people of color.

The book offers help with clarifying your mission and goals, and making a farm business plan. Soul Fire’s goals include training and empowering aspiring Black, Latinx and Indigenous growers and young people, providing healing, offering education in environmental justice, food sovereignty and other transformative justice, supplying good food locally at affordable prices, sharing their farming model, collaborating with other Black land justice networks and being a culture that cares for the well-being of its workers.

There are work songs! Learn them at www.farmingwhileblack.org. There’s an explanation of Cultural Appropriation and Appropriate Use on page 69. Share, don’t seek to control or get private gain.

Leah Penniman
Photo Credit: Jamel Mosely Mel

There’s a whole chapter on restoring degraded land, which Leah Penniman surely knows well, having started with soil listed as marginal and unsuitable for growing crops. She addresses remediating soils contaminated with lead, an especial problem in urban soils which are more likely to be available at lower prices, financially speaking. She shares specifics about Haitian farmers’ work to remediate the soils they inherited after colonialism, using vetiver perennial grass planted on contour to prevent further erosion. Leah Penniman gives step-by-step instructions on soil testing, chelating the lead (acidifying the soil), using specific plants for phyto-remediation, removing the mature plants for disposal as hazardous waste, and retesting your soil.

There are details of how to measure the slope on your land using only a line level and string. This is so you can mark contour lines and create terraces, plant fruit trees and stabilize the soil. There is a very clear description of using tarps to smother weeds without tillage. (I am so relieved we can now call this process “tarping” rather than the cumbersome “occultation”!) The Feeding the Soil chapter explains the difference between the “energy-drink” effect of chemical amendments and “nutritious-meal” amendment with compost, rock dusts or seaweed. Cation Exchange Capacity is beautifully explained with a hip-hop metaphor comparing the number of binding sites to the number of vocalists!

The Crop Planning chapter offers crops unusual in the US as well as staples. I was tickled to find Soul Fire Farm calls their high tunnel “North Carolina” because its microclimate is more like that state than New York. We called ours (in Virginia) Trinidad for similar reasons! I like the idea of using a piece of wire mesh (hardware cloth) on top of an open flat to help with seed spacing.

The Tools and Technology chapter gives advice for simple affordable hand-made equipment (such as worktables at the right height), and using fingers, knuckles, hand-spans and length of stride as measuring instruments that will always be with you. There is a one-page equipment checklist which includes a hammock for after-lunch siesta!

The chapter on seed-keeping tells of the 2013 success of the Haitian Peasant Movement G4 in winning the Global Food Sovereignty Prize for their rejection of a large donation of seeds from Monsanto despite the challenges caused by the huge 2010 earthquake. That takes courage as well as wisdom and long-term thinking.

Unlike most crop production books, this one includes chapters on raising livestock, plant medicine (with recipes), cooking and preserving, healing from trauma, building a movement and how white allies can be helpful in uprooting racism. There is also a chapter on Honoring the Spirits of the Land.

In the Urban Farming chapter we learn more about the Great Migration which pushed 6 million African Americans from the rural Southeast into the cities of the North, Midwest and West. They were moving away from lynching, land theft and other forms of racial violence, as well as share-cropping, loan discrimination and other unjust practices. By 1970, 80% of African Americans lived in cities. The National Housing Act of 1934 institutionalized housing discrimination, ranking Black neighborhoods (marked in red on the maps) too risky for mortgages. This led to lowering of property values, and decline of Black neighborhoods.  Veterans returning from World War II were entitled to zero-interest mortgages, but these were illegally denied to African American veterans. Sadly, white “pioneers” have co-opted urban farming in many African American neighborhoods, getting grants that were denied to the Black leaders of area improvements. This chapter provides information on starting and maintaining urban farms, all the way from finding land (look at tax maps of vacant lots, find the most recent owner, open negotiations), through navigating “nuisance ordinances”, making land-use agreements, collecting rainwater, growing in small spaces and vermi-composting.

The Youth on Land chapter is about including young people in farming, Working outdoors provides physical, emotional and spiritual well-being; reduces stress, social anxiety, depression, disease and impulsivity and increases focus, creativity, agility, eye sight, life satisfaction and more. It provides a sense of a life worth living. For three years, Soul Fire Farm had a Project Justice which trained court-adjudicated youth at their farm for 50 hours, instead of them being persuaded by the lawyer to accept a plea bargain for a lighter sentence than they would get if found guilty (whether they were guilty or not). Once young people have a criminal record, they are more likely to become a target of law enforcement, and the pipeline from school to prison becomes cemented in place.