Book Review: Worm Farmer’s Handbook

 


Rhonda Sherman: The Worm Farmer’s Handbook: Mid- to Large-Scale Vermicomposting for Farms, Businesses, Municipalities, Schools and Institutions,

Chelsea Green, 2018, 247 pages, $29.95

 The Worm Farmer’s Handbook is exactly that. It explains very clearly how to farm worms on food scraps, manure, yard waste, paper and more. It goes beyond the “tub under the kitchen counter” scale of worm bin, upwards to commercial farming and community-scale enterprises. Rhonda Sherman is an excellent writer, inspiring, concise, personable, candid and very down-to-earth. Art and science. Detail without fluff. For beginners and upgraders.

The book includes the many reasons you might venture into vermiculture (worm production) or vermicomposting (worm cast production); earthworm biology; business plans; equipment set-ups; bedding and stocking rates; feeds and feeding methods; monitoring for success; harvest and post-harvest practices; and over two dozen global case studies, including some in places I bet you didn’t think of: Turkey, Afghanistan, and an air force base in Ohio. Some highly successful business people got some of their boost from worm farming.

Rhonda Sherman started as a recycling consultant, producing a much-scorned-at-the-time factsheet Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage, which became immensely popular. Answering the demand, she created the annual NC State Vermiculture Conference, the only one of its kind in the world. In 2000 she established the NC State Compost Learning Lab, with 26 kinds of composting and vermicomposting bins and space for hands-on teaching. So, she has full credentials to tell us about how to produce vermicast for profit or manage waste produced on farms and gardens, in municipalities, industries and institutions.

A tour of the Worm Barn at the NC State Compost Learning Lab

First, to clarify the terminology: vermiculture is the raising of worms for bait or animal feed or for selling to other worm farmers; vermicomposting is the conversion of organic wastes into worm castings (vermicast), a nutrient-rich, microbially active soil amendment or growth medium for young plants. The word vermicompost is sometimes used to refer to a mixture of castings, uneaten bedding and feedstock (organic material). To avoid confusion between compost (a thermophilic aerobic process) and vermicompost (a warm-not-hot mesophilic process involving the material passing through earthworms), Rhonda uses the word vermicast.

Nowadays the main reason for worm farming is to process organic wastes and use the vermicast to grow stronger, more nutrient-dense food crops or marijuana. It is possible to keep costs low, even fairly large-scale, by manufacturing your own worm bins and by screening the vermicast manually, or with a small motorized sifter. Additional income can come from selling vermicast tea and teaching classes.

Vermicast sells at a much higher price than regular compost, 7-60 times more! The microbial populations in vermicast are much larger and more diverse than those in thermophilic compost. Seeds germinate more quickly in vermicast-amended soil, the seedlings grow faster, the root mass is much bigger, leading to earlier, bigger yields. Strangely, and proven scientifically, all these improvements are independent of the nutrients available to the plants. The turnip photo is astounding. Crops with vermicast-amended soil have greater resistance to insect pests, because the vermicast adds phenolic compounds to the plants, making them distasteful to bugs (but apparently not to humans!). Plant parasitic nematodes (such as the root knot nematode Meloidogyne hapla) can also be suppressed.

Photo https://medium.com/compost-turner-fully-hydraulic-composting-machine/what-is-vermicomposting-b83428572c6c

The earthworm biology chapter is fascinating. Rhonda opens by saying “I don’t want to put you to sleep with a long-winded discussion of the anatomy and physiology of earthworms.” No danger of that. This is concise, technical and yet easy reading. Who knew there are species of earthworms that reach lengths of 3ft (91 cm), 4ft (1.2 m), 4.5ft (1.4 m), 6ft (1.8 m), 13ft (4 m) and an eye-watering 22ft (6.7 m). Only the smallest two of those are in the US, and no, not in Virginia! Some earthworms don’t live underground in the soil – the epigeic group live in the leaf litter. Seven species of worms are suitable for vermicomposting, and Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler, is by far the most widely used.

To start a worm bin, buy at least 1lb (0.5 kg) of these worms per square foot (0.09 m2) of surface area. That’s much denser than I imagined. And don’t go to the bait shop, because you’d have to buy dozens of packages for every pound of worms, throw out all the containers, and pay $122-$225. From a reputable worm grower you will pay $20-50 per pound, perhaps with added shipping.

Rhonda walks us through all the necessary steps of preparing to farm worms. Study the state and local regulations, and the safety issues, and make a business plan before buying worms, except perhaps for a small pilot scheme. Don’t expand before you know how you will make it work. Production and marketing are equally vital. Will your state regard this as a composting process (lots of regulations) or a livestock farming enterprise? Plan to avoid the problems and have contingency plans in case they happen anyway.

Photo NC State https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/vermicomposting-for-business-farms-institutions-municipalities/

In designing your physical set-up, there are options from small outdoor pits or bins to continuous flow-through bins. Buy or build your own, after studying the pros and cons. Look for suitable readymade containers at a good price, such as Macrobins and IBC totes used for vegetable and other storage and transport. Source your feedstocks and decide if it would be best to pre-compost them before offering to your worms – often wise if dealing with large deliveries of food waste, to reduce volume and pest problems. This book helps with information on the space you’ll need for all stages of the process. Plan ahead. Imagine yourself 10, 20 years older when delivering feedstock, monitoring your livestock and emptying your bins. Don’t build things too wide, tall or heavy. Leave access space all around your bins (unless very narrow). Imagine more climate change.

Don’t geek out too much on the equipment though – remember you are farming livestock and will need to prioritize learning their ways. You need a 6″ (15 cm) layer of moist bedding, a layer of worms at a sufficient density for the container, a thin 1-1.5″ (2.5-3.8 cm) layer of feedstock and a covering layer, so the worms can eat without being exposed to the light. Enough air and water, light to prevent them crawling away. Wait till they’ve eaten all you’ve provided before adding more food, or you will get fruit flies, gnats, flies, ants etc. Rhonda advises on various feedstocks. Check at least once a day, to make sure your worms are healthy, thriving and mot crawling out of your bin. As needed each day, water the top of the bin, using a mist or light fine spray.

Worm farming can fit with other types of farming with good results. Livestock manure (except poultry manure) is a good feedstock for worms. You can experiment with adding some worms to a composting toilet. Vegetable, fruit and flower crops can provide crop residues; food processing has what would otherwise be waste; shredded paper is good (the ink on printed paper is not toxic nowadays, but avoid glossy paper and fancy papers with metallic additions).

A worm bin is not a trash disposal – you need to find a recipe that combines your ingredients in the right proportions to provide a balance of nutrients. The ideal starting ratio is 25 carbon:1 nitrogen, and a helpful list is in the book. You can use an online compost calculator to roughly determine an appropriate mix. Pre-composting is a good way to turn your materials into a homogenous substance the worms will thrive on. This avoids the problem described by Rhonda as “the worms beeline for the melons and stay away from the onions.” Rhonda provides ten reasons for pre-composting.

Photo http://lessismore.org/materials/75-vermicomposting/

Earthworm husbandry is central to worm farming. Inspect daily with eyes and nose, and squeeze a handful of bedding to test for moisture. Never pour water directly into the bin “even if you have seen people do it on YouTube!” as Rhonda cautions. Once a week count population samples at 4″ (10 cm) deep. Take 6″ (15 cm) squares, count and record worm numbers and make sure numbers don’t go down. Keep your worms in a temperature range of 60-80F (16-27C), cooling, insulating or heating as needed. Adding extra feed will help raise the temperature in cold weather, but don’t overdo it. Add cow patties and see if your worms choose to congregate there. Add an insulating layer and watch out for other animals (“with sharp teeth!”) sheltering there. Be aware that too much cooked food can attract different types of flies.

 

Six worm bins.
Photo NCSU
https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/earthworms-and-worm-bins/

The instructions for harvesting worms, vermicompost or both are very practical. For small-scale enterprises with limited budgets there is the table harvesting method – spreading the top layer of the bin material on a table and hand-sorting worms, vermicompost and unconsumed food. This is made more efficient by using bright lights to cause the worms to cluster in the middle of the pile, avoiding the light. Another method, if you only want the worms, is to add fresh feed in a wide mesh tray on the top of the bed, after fasting the worms for a week. When the worms gather in the tray, scoop them up.

To harvest vermicompost, you can make screening boxes. Sort the finest vermicompost for sale or use on the farm, and return the coarser material and the worm cocoons to the bin. Return the worms to the bed or sell them. A way to harvest the vermiculture but not the worms is sideways separation. Set up a new bedding and feeding area adjacent to the old one, after not feeding the worms for a week or so. They will gradually move sideways into the better accommodation and you can harvest the vermicast from the old area. Continuous flow-through bins allow vermiculture harvest without disturbing the worms. This involves grates in the bottom of the bin and a way of scraping the vermicompost across the grate. This was the only place in the book where I do not understand the description, and there was no helpful diagram or photo. Fortunately a description later cleared up the mystery.

There is a good photo of a homemade trommel (cylindrical screen) involving bicycle rims. Worm farmers are definitely a hands-on crowd! Packaging and shipping can involve egg trays cut to size on a band saw, and breathable bags sewn from rolls of rowcover.

Vermicast can be tested using compost-testing criteria, and the book tells you the target values for pH and various elements and also the acceptable pathogen limits. There’s also a list of 13 bragging points which you can include on your label if selling your products. There is also a warning about what not to claim on you labels!

Rhonda Sherman

The last chapter of the book consists of 27 diverse global case studies, and makes inspiring and confidence-building reading. So many ideas you could use for your own worm farm! Rhonda points out that she herself is operating from a small research station, with a small staff. Sites profiled include the Len Foote Hike Inn (Georgia), a state park facility where you do indeed need to hike in. The facility was built in 1998 to be sustainable. The worm bins are fed guest meal scraps, shredded office paper, cardboard, discarded natural fiber clothes and even cotton mopheads! The Evergreen State College collaborates with Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Washington to recycle their food waste. The prisoners designed and built the equipment, saving the taxpayers $2000 per year and reducing the facility’s water consumption by 25%. The vermicompost is used in the prisoners’ garden to grow vegetables for the facility.

The Medical University of South Carolina reduced food waste with worms and has recorded the data in good academic fashion, providing everyone with some precise information on quantities, labor requirements, expenditure and productivity. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (Ohio) began vermicomposting when they acquired a bin and a quarter-million earthworms from another air force base where they were no longer welcome. With one hour of labor per day, the staff were able to save $25/day hauling waste food and provide vermicompost for the base golf course (hey, better than chemical fertilizer!)

Photo
https://www.tagawagardens.com/blog/want-to-turn-kitchen-garbage-into-gardening-gold-vermicomposting-is-for-you/

Various school projects are acclaimed for educating children and getting them onboard with reducing landfill lunch components by 85%, in one case. After lunch, the SCRAP carts (Separate, Compost, Reduce and Protect) carts (operated by students, staff and custodians) are wheeled around to collect up whatever has not been eaten.

The Green Organic Agricultural Production Company in Kabul, Afghanistan, is a woman-owned business with the goal of composting and vermicomposting 20% of Kabul’s organic waste, and train other women in the process. They use open-air beds built of concrete blocks, producing 100 tons of vermicompost annually.

The diversity of the farms profiled is a real help in showing the process as manageable on various scales, in various climates and with varying degrees of funding and mechanization. Perhaps the widest range is the feedstocks: everything from manures and vegetable wastes to agave bagasse at a tequila production plant, waste from a palm oil extractor plant. And scales up to 200,000 tons per day (maybe bigger). Reading these profiles will also steer you away from repeating mistakes already made by others, such as the large continuous flow-through bin made of wood, that fell apart under the strain, dumping worms and vermicompost on a concrete floor in the middle of winter in Michigan.

Corrugated cardboard is a surprising source of nitrogen – it’s in the glue. As paper is recycled, the fibers get shorter each time until they are too short to be useful for recycling (this is why egg boxes and apple trays are not recyclable. Worm farming is the perfect use for these products, and worms are partial to paper sludge.

There are five pages of Resources, nine pages of Bibliography and a twelve page Index. That’s an impressive index. Twin Oaks runs an indexing business, and I have written two books myself, so I have a fine appreciation of indexes!

Our Organic Integrated Pest Management

French Marigolds and sesame to combat root knot nematodes in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Organic Integrated Pest Management involves tackling pest problems one step at a time with ecologically-based practices, starting with actions chosen to reduce the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops.

Steps:

  1. Cultivate a good environment for your crops: healthy soil, sufficient space, nutrients and water, suitable temperature, soil pH. Practice crop rotation to reduce the chances of pests and diseases carrying over from one crop to the next. Clear old crops promptly, so they don’t act as a breeding ground for the pest. Choose suitable varieties that resist the pests you most expect.
  2. Cover or protect the plants physically from the pests (mulches to stop soil-dwelling pests moving up into your crops, netting, rowcover, planting diverse crops, and even trap crops)
Young cucumber plant under insect netting in June.
Photo Pam Dawling
  1. Provide habitat for natural enemies and other beneficial insects
  2. Monitor crops regularly at least once a week and identify any pests you see.
  3. Introduce natural enemies of the pest (bacteria, fungi, insect predators or parasites)
  4. Hand pick (or trap) and kill the pests if the pest population is above the action threshold. Many fruit and root crop plants can take 30% defoliation before any loss of yield. Where the crop is the foliage, this may be too much!
  5. Use biological controls (often derived from natural enemies) if the damage is still economically significant after trying the earlier steps in the process.

I recommend the ATTRA online publication Organic Integrated Pest Management.

Each of the 22 pages is a poster, complete with good photos and concise clear info.

Our motion sensor sprinkler and the outer layer of our fence around the sweet potato patch at the end of May. The inner fence was installed later.
Photo Pam Dawling

One of our biggest garden pests is the deer, which are especially fond of sweet potatoes. We use motion-sensor water sprayers initially or in years when the deer pressure is low. For worse years we install an electric fence with a solar-powered charger.  Last year our electric fence didn’t keep the deer out, so this year we have a double layered fence to make sure.

Broccoli bed with alyssum to attract aphid predators.
Photo Pam Dawling

At the other end of the size scale are aphids.  We plant sweet alyssum in our beds of broccoli and cabbage to attract insects that will eat aphids. We sow about 200 plugs for 1500 row feet (450 m) of brassicas planted as two rows in a bed, and pop one alyssum plug in the bed centers every  4ft of bed or about one alyssum per  4 plants. We transplant these the same day that we replace any casualty broccoli and cabbage plants.

Nasturtiums planted in with squash to deter pests. Does it work?
Photo Pam Dawling

We transplant some bush nasturtiums in with our first plantings of cucumber and summer squash. They are said to repel some cucurbit pests such as squash bugs., but I can’t vouch for that. Radishes in cucumber or squash rows are said to repel cucumber beetles and squash bugs. I haven’t tried that. There are a lot of companion planting ideas out there, but most have no scientific evidence for effectiveness.

An insectary circle in early June. The flowers will attract beneficial insects.
Photo Pam Dawling

In late May or early June, we transplant some flowers in our garden to attract pollinators and pest predators. We use circles cut from plastic buckets to surround these clusters of flowers so that inexperienced helpers don’t pull them out as weeds.  We use a combination of sunflowers, dill, borage, cosmos, calendula, tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), zinnias.

Sunflower bee and bug.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We also sow sunflowers in our bean beds at each succession. These attract birds and pollinators, while also acting as landmarks for our harvest progress.

In our hoophouse we have been tackling nematodes for several years. This year we have planted the nematode areas in French marigolds and sesame (apparently particularly good in deterring root knot nematodes, the type we have.) Some other nematode areas have been planted with Iron and Clay cowpeas. Unfortunately we now have an aphid infestation on the cowpeas! We are trying blasting the aphids off the plants with a strong stream of water from a hose. Later in the summer we will solarize some of the nematode areas.

We planted Iron and Clay cowpeas to deter nematodes, but got aphids!
Photo Pam Dawling
Flowering sesame in our hoophouse, surrounded by French marigolds. We hope they will fight the root knot nematodes.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens in June: Chard is the queen!

Young Fordhook Giant chard plants in mid-May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens in June

Summer has arrived here in central Virginia, and most of the spring-planted cooking greens have bolted and been cleared to make way for warm weather crops. And it’s already time to start work on the fall greens, sowing most of them this month. We have no cooking greens to transplant this month (it’s going to be too hot!).

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

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in June

Winstrip tray with chard seeds.
Photo Pam Dawling

Chard is our queen of summer cooking greens! Because it is a biennial it will not bolt in the summer heat. We can eat it whenever we get the urge, until winter. Apart from the flavor, this is why I value chard: it is always there, always harvestable, from late May to late December. It’s so easy to care for, and nothing bad happens if we ignore it. Some years it even survives our winters. This year we have planted two beds instead of our usual one. We have Bright Lights multicolored chard and Fordhook Giant green chard. We also planted some Lucullus this year, to try. Some years we grow Perpetual Spinach/Leaf Beet, a chard with thin green stems and more moderate-sized leaves. This crop is the closest hot-weather alternative to actual spinach that I have found.

Bright Lights chard in our garden in July. Behind the chard is a new bed of beans with sunflowers and a bed in buckwheat cover crop.
Photo Pam Dawling

In addition to chard, we are harvesting beet greens as we pull our biggest spring-sown beets. By the end of June we will have harvested all the beets, putting the excess into cool storage over the summer. And so the beet greens harvest will end then too. Some years, the quality of the beet greens does not hold up as late as the end of June. We’ll see.

We continue to have broccoli until the end of June or early July, when we expect it to get bitter, and to only have tiny side-shoots left. We have started harvesting our early cabbage. This year we grew Early Jersey Wakefield, a pointed 2-3 pound (1-1.5 kg) OP cabbage that matures in 63 days. We sowed this in our greenhouse in late January and transplanted it around March 10.

A bed of Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage in mid-May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Later we will harvest Farao (F1, 60d, 3lbs, 1.5 kg), more Early Jersey Wakefield, and flat, mid-sized, Tendersweet (F1 71d) from our April 1 transplanting. We store cabbage beyond our immediate needs in net bags in the refrigerator. None of these spring varieties are long-storers, but they should see us through the summer until mid-October when we have fresh outdoor fall cooking greens.

We do still have two beds of collards, Georgia Green and Lottie’s, which we bare-root transplanted from our hoophouse in mid-March. We also have two beds of kale, but these are past their prime and due to be clear-cut any day. June 5 is our usual end-date for kale.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in June

Sow the fall brassicas – see the Special Topic below for all the details.

Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli is ready for harvest in early spring but needs sowing in late May or early June.
Photo Baker Creek Seeds

Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli, is one of the broccoli staples in the UK, and is hardy down to 10°F (–12°C). I’m not sure it would survive in our winter-hardiness zone 7 climate, but one of these years I want to try it, as it’s a wonderful crop.

Early Purple Sprouting broccoli has an extremely long growing season, needing 220-250 days to reach maturity. It is grown overwinter for late winter/early spring harvest. Late spring/early summer is about the right time to be sowing it. If you decide to try it, know what to expect. These are big tall plants, and they produce florets, not big heads.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks

Maybe bushhog the spring broccoli (after harvest is finished) to reduce the habitat for harlequin bugs, our worst brassica pest. The cabbage will continue to grow and mature until mid-July, so we cannot disk up the plot until it is all harvested. We often sow a short-term cover crop such as buckwheat after clearing our spring brassicas.

Special Cooking Greens Topic for June:  fall brassica sowing, field planning and preparation

Fall brassica seedlings under netting on July 4.
Photo Pam Dawling

In May, I described our planning for our fall brassica nursery seedbeds. In the third week of June we start the weekly sowings, hooping, netting, watering and weeding. We sow around a foot (15 cm) of seed row for every 12′-15′ (4-5 m) of crop row, aiming for 3-4 seeds per inch (2.5 cm). When I’ve been responsible for this job, I set aside an afternoon a week on a regular day. It takes a surprisingly long time to get all the details right. It is important to be timely, because a one-day delay in sowings for fall can lead to a one week (or longer) delay in harvest date. The shortening daylight slows down the growth.

In Week 1, we sow the fall cabbages – this year Tendersweet F1 71d; Tribute F1 83-103d, 10-12lbs (4.5-5.5 kg); Ruby Perfection F1 85d, 4-7lbs (2-3 kg);  and Storage #4 F1 80-90d, 4-8lbs (2-3.5 kg). In Week 2, we repeat the cabbage sowings and sow the first broccoli. Weeks 3-6 fall in July, so I’ll tell you more next month. Weeks 7 and 8 are in August. See the schedule in May’s Cooking Greens post.

In summer weather, brassicas are the right size for transplanting (5 true leaves) in just three weeks, so we need to have the field ready for July 14. We disk in the winter cover crops, and if we didn’t have enough legumes in the mix, we spread compost. Or we spread some anyway, for the micro-organisms more than the plant nutrients. Then a week later, when the cover crops have started to break down, we disk again. Then we measure and flag the rows, and out up stakes and ropes to mark the rows. This helps us get the plants in a straight line (better for quick efficient cultivation), plus the ropes can support the netting we need to use for the first 4 weeks to keep the bugs off.

Next we make a fall brassica transplanting map, or field map, to show where we intend the various varieties to grow. We plan to have the broccoli varieties planted out in order of days to maturity, to make harvesting easy. We make the maps to scale so that if we switch variety in the middle of the row, we can show where the transition happens. Here I have chopped off some row length (extra bare space) at the right, so you can read the text.

Our map for 2016 shows rows of 265′, except for cabbage in rows 3 and 4. This is because the garden edge curved round and there was less space for those rows.

Squash variety trial for pollination issues and blossom end rot

Golden Glory zucchini in our hoophouse in late May.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote about our problems last year with unpollinated squash and our decision to try squash varieties that were less dependent on pollination. So this year we planted some Golden Glory zucchini along with Gentry yellow squash that we had troubles with for several years. The trial is not over, but the early results are promising.

We planted 15 Golden Glory and 25 Gentry and I recorded the number of small rotting squash we removed on 5 dates so far.

Gentry yellow squash in our hoophouse in late May.
Photo Pam Dawling
Date 15 Golden Glory rotted fruit Per plant 25 Gentry rotted fruit Per plant
5/13 2 0.13 12 0.48
5/14 2 0.13 5 0.2
5/17 0 0 32 1.28
5/21 15 1 54 2.16
5/27 9 0.6 39 1.56

The unscientific parts of this trial are

  • we are also removing rotten fruits on other day but not counting them (hey, we’re busy!). But we make sure not to leave rotted squash near the plants and confound the next count.
  • It’s early days still, and we may get different results over the whole of the (short-lived!) hoophouse squash season.
  • Productivity is also important. We won’t be as impressed if we get low yields from the (beautiful) Golden Glories

I’ll keep you posted.Later I learned  that summer squash can get blossom end rot, and wondered if we had that problem rather than a pollination issue.

Is this an unpollinated squash or one with Blossom End Rot? It is shrunken, so I suspect poor pollination.
Photo Pam Dawling

See this excellent article Why Are My Squash Rotting? by Charlotte Glen. Here are some of the points she makes:

  • Blossom end rot is not a disease, but a physiological disorder caused by a shortage of calcium. Many factors can slow the absorption or movement of calcium in the plant, leaving it prone to blossom end rot.
  • Depending on what is stopping calcium from reaching the developing fruits, blossom end rot can be temporary or persistent.
  • Low soil calcium levels are rarely a cause of blossom end rot.
  • Blossom end rot is most usually caused by acidic soil (low pH). In soils with pH below 5.5, nutrients (including calcium) can get chemically locked up and unavailable to the plants (even if abundant in the soil). If low soil pH is the cause of blossom end rot, the problem usually lasts the whole growing season.
  • Too much high-nitrogen fertilizer can also cause blossom end rot. Fast-growing plants often cannot move enough calcium into fruits to support healthy development.
  • Stressors such as unusually cool or hot weather, low nighttime temperatures, drought, or over-wet soil can also trigger BER.
  • Any conditions that cause root damage can lead to poor nutrient absorption and blossom end rot. The most common causes of root damage are wet soils following heavy rain or over-irrigation.
  • Another leading cause of blossom end rot is drought – roots cannot absorb nutrients from dry soil, they need a film of water to convey them.
  • To prevent blossom end rot, the most important thing you can do is to keep the soil evenly moist.
Rotting unpollinated squash. Or some other problem?
Photo Pam Dawling

Here’s how I think our squash stacks up on those factors:

  • Our soil pH and our soil calcium level are both fine, we test the soil every year.
  • Home-made compost is our only source of nutrients in our hoophouse apart from occasional cowpea cover crops. I don’t think we overdid the nitrogen this way.
  • Yes, cool night-time temperatures when we first planted the squash in early April could have been a factor then, but now it’s reliably warm and the problem persists (at least with the Gentry)
  • Root damage? We did transplant these, but carefully. Maybe.
  • Uneven irrigation? We try to run the irrigation every day once it warms up. I don’t think that’s the issue. I don’t think we over-irrigated.
Healthy Gentry squash plants in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Then to help my deliberations, I found this
Squash and Cucurbit Problem Solver with many photos of fruit disorders (also leaf, root, stem, seedling and insect problems)Choanephora RotChoanephora Cucurbitarum is a soft rot of the blossom end, but rapidly developing grey-black fungal spores. I have seen that other times, but it’s not what we have in our hoophouse.Gray MoldBotrytis cinerea is another fungus that enters through the blossom end, leading to yellowed ends with grey furry mold. Bothe these fungal diseases are soil-borne, so more common in fruits touching the soil.Their photo of Blossom End Rot shows margins, and their description says: “The blossom end of the fruit fails to develop normally, turning black-dark brown and eventually shriveling and becoming hard.”Their description of poor pollination is this: “Fruit fail to expand normally, quickly turning brown at the blossom end and falling off the plant.” I’ve seen them fall off sometimes.For further help distinguishing between poor pollination and blossom end rot, I turned to the Garden Mentors (Robin Haglund).  She has helpful photos of these the two cause of problems, and these pointers:

  • Shriveling is due to poor pollination, not blossom end rot. Poorly pollinated fruits become obvious much sooner than fruits with blossom end rot. The fruits start to shrivel and yellow (harder to spot on yellow squash!)
  • If the squash was well pollinated, but has blossom end rot, it will grow plump with a sturdy stem, but rot at the end.

Poor pollination can be exacerbated if you use daytime overhead irrigation when the  female flowers are open. Squash flowers open flowers early in the day and close by early afternoon (and are open for only one day). Daytime overhead watering can discourage bees , leaving  your flowers unpollinated.So, more study needed! We definitely have been having poor pollination (shriveled rotten-ended squash that drop off.) maybe we have some Blossom End Rot too. I’m going to pay more attention! And eat lots of squash!

Date 15 Golden Glory rotted fruit Per plant 25 Gentry rotted fruit Per plant
5/13 2 0.13 12 0.48
5/14 2 0.13 5 0.2
5/17 0 0 32 1.28
5/21 15 1 54 2.16
5/27 9 0.6 39 1.56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Mefferd
Photo by Ann Mefferd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Garlic scape harvest. Photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

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

What causes spinach leaves to turn yellow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total about 14 months food crops.

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

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

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

Total about 11 months of food crops.

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

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

I also gave an interview for the Yale Climate Connections

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

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

Cooking Greens in May

Ruby chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

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

Cooking Greens to Plant in Central Virginia in May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bolting mustard greens on May 3.
Photo Pam Dawling

Outdoor Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

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

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

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

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

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

Hoophouse Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

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

Other Tasks with Cooking Greens here in May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall brassica nursery seedbed with insect netting.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall broccoli rows.
Photo Kati Falger

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

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

 

Winter Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2019

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

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

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

Hoophouse Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outdoor killing temperatures of crops (unprotected unless stated)

35°F (2°C):  Basil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing rowcovers after a winter spinach harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoophouse Greens Clearance, Warm Weather Crops Established

April 23 hoophouse view.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

Transition from cool to warm weather crops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration

Chris Smith, Chelsea Green, June 2019

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

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

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

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

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

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

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

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

Pickled garlic scapes, okra and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

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

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

Cow Horn okra pods and flower.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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