Book Review: Building Your Permaculture Property

Building Your Permaculture Property book cover

Book Review: Building Your Permaculture Property, A Five Step Process to Design and Develop Land

Rob Avis, Michelle Avis and Takota Coen

New Society Publishers, 2021, 222 pages, $49.99, color photos and illustrations throughout

Thank goodness for this book! I had already admired some of the work of Michelle and Rob Avis in Adaptive Habitat (ecological design and sustainable technology), so I knew them to be committed and practical. I am one of those put off from permaculture by the worshipful jargon of some followers, and the peculiarly male-dominated field. This book restores my faith in being able to benefit from and use the good ideas in permaculture without abandoning independent thought or the all-important holistic approach.

This book is a valuable and realistic resource from authors who have “earned their share of cuts and bruises”; a guide to clarifying your goals, attitudes and approaches to holistic land management; a step-by-step guide to get from today to a future aligned with your dreams.

This is not an introduction to permaculture, or a quick-fix for your garden, woodlot, home energy source, flooded land, compacted soil, or back aching from rototilling! There is a common misperception that permaculture is about a set of trendy vegetable gardening techniques. Here is a careful Five Step Permaculture Process, with exercises, templates, workflow tools and thoughtful questions. It addresses real challenges.

The book is introduced by the quote from Bill Mollison (one of the cofounders of Permaculture), defining Permaculture: “Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

When Rob and Michelle were teaching, Rob was often ashamed to mention the word “permaculture”. Despite the elegant practical solutions for solving systemic problems with food, water, housing and energy systems offered by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Permaculture One, most people publicizing permaculture talk about zones, guilds, keyhole and spiral planting beds. “Putting a herb spiral in your backyard while you still source the majority of your basic needs from the degenerative food, water and energy systems is simply permaculture tourism.” Thank you! Straightening the deckchairs on the Titanic! Society’s big messes will not be helped by a herb spiral!

The authors believe that the root cause of people becoming disenchanted in permaculture is a lack of a clearly defined process. They ask the question “What is the biggest problem you are struggling with right now putting permaculture into practice?” and have found that answers fall into five categories.

  1. I don’t know what I should do. (Unclear goals.)
  2. I don’t know where to look. (Inadequate information.)
  3. I don’t know how it all fits. (Confusion.)
  4. I don’t know where to start or what’s next. (Being overwhelmed.)
  5. I don’t know when it will end. (Burnout)

All indicate a lack of something important. The authors decided that instead of teaching students what to do, they would teach them how to solve their problems. We benefit from focusing less on specific practices (those herb spirals!) and more on making a clear step-by-step process for how to design, develop, and manage a property to provide all the food, water, shelter and energy needs in harmony with the ecosystem.

The Five Step Permaculture Process logo

In the Five-Step Permaculture Process, each step addresses one of the five Biggest Struggles:

  • Clarify vision, values, resources
  • Assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats in your resources
  • Design your use of resources to meet vision and values
  • Implement the design that most improves your weakest resource
  • Monitor for well-being or suffering

Buy the book, check out their website, I’m not going to spell it all out here! It’s easy to forget that hours of learning and practicing a skill come before becoming an expert! Persistence and process are both needed.

The illustrations from Jarett Sitter throughout the book look like those from children’s picture books, although examination reveals symbols of the permaculture journey. Each chapter includes sidebars with enlightening segments from Takota Coen’s Story developing regenerative agriculture as a fourth generation farmer.

The heart of the book addresses the five steps and the initial foundation (Step 0) to guide you through design and management. Approach the steps in the order given, and be open to the possibility that you will need to tackle several aspects at once. Like learning to play guitar by learning to read music, keeping time, strumming a rhythm and making a chord, you will need to practice many skills and pull them all together as you go. Find an independent Accountability Partner, who is tackling a similar permaculture challenge, but is not invested in the same one as you. You will gain support and motivation.

The foundation chapter (Step 0) is about inspecting our conscious and unconscious beliefs about reality, which determine our vision, our actions and our responses to other people. We look for hindrances such as confirmation biases (remembering information that supports our existing preconceptions); endowment effects (demanding more to give up something than we would pay to acquire it); the IKEA effect (giving higher value to things we have assembled ourselves, regardless of actual quality!)

The authors define two predominant downward spiraling paradigms: ‘degenerative’ and ‘sustainable’, in contrast to the upward spiraling ‘regenerative’ paradigm. The degenerative paradigm cycles through arrogance, extraction, combat and suffering, creating an increasingly fragile system. The ‘sustainable’ paradigm seeks to maintain the status quo, cycling through guilt, conserving, controlling and surviving, creating a resilient system. The ‘regenerative’ system is anti-fragile, getting stronger, cycling up through reverence, co-creation, designing, thriving.

I dislike this definition of “sustainable” – people in survivalist mode, delaying on their own land the effects of societal collapse. As the author of a book with the S word in the title, I feel a bit defensive. I am not the guilt-ridden, masochistic, fearful, self-hating type portrayed. How does this stereotype help the authors make converts? I share with permaculturists feelings of reverence, awe, co-operation, justice, humility, compassion and being part of nature. But I am not a permaculturist. I use the definition of sustainable in the 1987 Brundtland Report: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I do agree with the authors that ableness to sustain or maintain is not a guarantee that sustaining will happen.

From the perspective of word meanings, regenerative suggests being able to or tending to regenerate, renew or restore, especially after injury, or damage. It includes the sense that something has gone wrong and we are going to ride in and fix it, returning things to a previous state. Yes, corporations and individuals do co-opt the word sustainable, for industrial agriculture, as happened previously with the words organic, biological, ecological. And will happen with the word regenerative. In a few years, this word too, will be seen as having shortcomings, meaning retro-farming, or something unfortunate like that.

Step 1 is to clarify vision, resources and values. The large number of options can be reduced to those that answer all three questions, What do you want? What resources do you have? and What matches your values? The overlap of the first two filters out the impossible. The permaculture movement has developed helpful tools: the Needs and Yields Analysis, when applied to ourselves, will help answer the first two questions, and the Three Permaculture Ethics of earth care, people care and future care gives guidance on clarifying values.

Make an inventory of your resources, starting with money and material resources, and moving into natural, social, spiritual, experiential, intellectual and cultural resources. Your personal resource inventory should include debts (negative resources) and resources you have access to without ownership. Step 1 also includes thought experiments on increasing wellbeing for all, and the creation of a Vision and Values One-pager. Because most of us want to share our lives with others, we need to resolve interpersonal conflicts, to build shared vision and value statements. The process of writing down your desires in broad daylight helps with inspection and reflection.

The most common design mistakes when clarifying visions and values are focusing on the what rather than the why; using language traps like the future tense which let you off the hook for actually doing anything today; identifying yourself as outside the ecosystem looking in, and being paralyzed by perfection. The authors sell a toolkit of the  templates for the exercises  and provide practice tips at the end of each chapter.

Jared Diamond, in Collapse, his study of collapsed societies, notes: “Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values.”

Step 2: Diagnose Your Resources for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, opens with encouragement to search out any information that could make or break your plans.

Jarett Sitter’s illustration of 11 categories of resources

You can organize your property resources into 11 categories: geography, climate, water, access, structures, fencing, flora, fauna, business, technology and soil. There’s another helpful chart. Use a pattern found in nature to gather, store, organize and retrieve your info, based on these categories. This functions to help create an ordered workflow (order of operations) for design and implementation.

Diagnosis has two stages, firstly making observations about your resources using the four variables of patterns (form, timing, placement, scale). There’s a chart about this, with descriptors that fit each mode. Secondly SWOT analysis, where you make value-based judgements about each resource. Strengths and weaknesses are attributes within your project. Opportunities and threats are outside your project but close enough to have an impact. There is a big chart with examples for each of the 11 categories.

Takota Coen

Be warned that every property seems to have a hidden piece of information that, if discovered, can change everything for the better. Takota Coen describes discovering he had (at big expense) had a pond dug in the wrong place. He thought he knew the land so well he didn’t need to put his design on paper. After learning to use Google Earth Pro (it’s free!), he discovered a much better pond site. The website has tools to help you make effective use of GIS programs.

Step 3: Design Your Resources to Meet Your Vision and Values. When you draw out a design in detail on paper, you gain insights into how to create it in real life and reduce silly mistakes. There are three misconceptions about what design is. Designs are not fixed in stone – if you become aware of ways to improve your design, you do it! Design is not just aesthetics, but is structural, functional, and also beautiful. The best way to improve something is not always to add to it – many improvements come with removing something, or taking a very different approach.

Regularly ask yourself what you are aiming to achieve, and what other options would also provide the same outcome. Don’t decide you need a swale, or a solar greenhouse until you identify a goal and weigh up the options for reaching the goal, and come out with the answer that best satisfies the goal.

Two useful method of design that can be tweaked for this job are the needs and yields analysis and the sector analysis. Both are carefully explained. They examine if every need of every element is fully met within your system; if every yield is fully used; if every element serves multiple functions; if every function is served by multiple elements; and if all is functioning ethically.

Rob Avis

Consider each of the energy sources and sinks on your farm, whether you want that energy and how you will make best use of it if you do want it. There are suggestions of what sources and sinks to consider, as well as ways to reduce losses. There’s an engaging list of tips, including “When you are working, work; when you are chilling, chill. Make it a binary.” Also, reduce clutter, distractions (social media), and set up a ritual for starting deep work on your design. Use your accountability partner. Gather all your worksheets in one place.

Step 4: Implement the Right Design That Will Most Improve Your Weakest Resource, opens with a note that “the dirty little secret of permaculture is that design is the easy part, it is the implementation that kills you.” When one of your resources fails, it will no longer be helping you thrive, it will start to cannibalize the farm. This can happen if you made a poor decision earlier. This chapter helps you organize workflow, make weekly plans, make good decisions, and not rush to get to your goal in what looks like the fastest way.

Problems can arise if you tackle tasks in a poor order. Go back to the 11 categories of resources. Geography comes first, because once chosen, it cannot be changed easily or quickly. The categories that are listed higher impact all those below them. Don’t abandon the list because soil is last! Soil is very important, of course, but there is no value in getting into the detail of the best cover crops, if you have not dealt with water supply and drainage to prevent runoff, or dealt with wind erosion.

Look for weakest links (biggest gaps between vision and resources), turn this gap into a Wildly Important Goal (achievable and exciting), and focus with the formula “from X to Y by when?”. Each week commit to one or more actions that will lead in the right direction, schedule them weekly, and check them off when done. The book has an extensive chart of examples.

Michelle Avis

Revisit Step 3 (Design) with its description of good, bad and ugly designs, and transfer the descriptions to decisions. What is your process for making good decisions? Many people are not consciously aware of how they make decisions. Intuition alone is not enough. Use the Good Decision Worksheet.

After writing down your decision, check its alignment with your values; any possibly ruinous outcome; whether it actually addresses the problem; whether it’s your best use of your resources; the risk/reward ratio; then sleep on it and repeat the process; pass the idea by your accountability partner; flip a coin to check if your emotions align with your decision; write down what needs to be done, and early indications of whether you have made the best decision.

Step 5: Monitor Your Resources for Indicators of Well-being or Suffering. You can only manage what you measure (but you can measure more things than you can manage!) Precision is not the same as accuracy! Knowing exactly how many beetles are on your plants does not provide the whole answer on what to do.  Rather than focus entirely on numbers, monitor for suffering and well-being. “The one thing never found in a healthy ecosystem is excessive suffering.” There will always be some suffering – it is feedback on the situation and the design that led to it. Determine what actions you can take to improve things.

There are two categories of resources, personal resources and the 11 categories of property resources. Look at your Vision and Values Sheet and use your Indicators of early signs of success or failure to see if you are heading towards well-being or suffering. Takota tells the story of figuring out when and why his cows got mastitis, and making a small change he had resisted, increasing well-being, and preventing mastitis from then on.

Increase awareness of your own state of being: if you feel patient, grateful, relaxed and enthusiastic, you are in a state of well-being. If you are sleepy, angry, resentful, jealous and prone to procrastination, you are suffering. Do you hum as you work, or curse? Your coworkers will know your signs of distress, if you can’t tell for yourself.

Keeping a journal can help monitor your well-being. Write down the answers to 3 questions in the morning. What are you most excited about today? What are you most grateful for? What is one thing you could do to make today great? In the evening, ask: What is the most amazing thing that happened today? What could I have done better? What was my biggest insight today?

At the end of each month, review your weekly planner sheets, and your daily reflections. Answer questions on a range of 0-10, and compare your answers the previous month. How clear are you on what your weakest link is? How confident are you that what you are doing is addressing this weakest link and moving you towards your goal? Have you seen signs that you are increasing well-being (or suffering)? What has been this month’s most valuable insight?

Monitor your 11 property resources yearly, looking for signs of increased well-being. There is a template! Shockingly, cropland globally is often bare for 30-50% of the year, wasting the potential photosynthesis, and degrading the soil. Soil carbon can (on average) hold four times its weight in water. Another source of potential wastage or potential improvement. When the solar cycle, the water cycle and the soil nutrient cycle interact well, the flora and fauna spiral towards the climax ecosystem for that region.

Monitor, reflect, record, compare results with your vision and values statement, monitor your ecosystems. Make a paper planner and use it for a full year before reviewing. There are templates and suggestions for designing your own planner.

A lot of the ideas in this book make a great deal of sense even for those of us who don’t identify as permaculturists! Careful design and planning, checklists, worksheets – these can save all of us wasted effort or heartache. This thoughtful book can be useful to every farmer or landowner. As I’ve often noted, any gardener or farmer paying close attention and recording their results, has something valuable to teach us, whatever they call the style of their farming.

Fall and Winter Vegetable Growing, Harvest and Storage

 

China Rose Winter Radish.
Photo Seed Savers Exchange

You can find a wealth of information on my website about growing, harvesting and storing winter vegetables. There are many links here in this post (all should open in a new tab, so you won’t go down a rabbit hole), and you can also use the search box in the upper right to enter whatever vegetable you are wondering about, and “grow” “harvest” or “store”, Remember I also have several annual series of posts, on Asian greens, root vegetables, workhorse crops, alliums, cooking greens, and lettuce. Just don’t look for “Storage lettuce” until April 1st.

I’ve also included some good blogs that I sometimes consult.

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Growing

Season extension into cold weather

Prepare your garden for colder weather: plant winter crops if there is still time, use rowcover on hoops to protect crops from wind and cold weather, plant up every little bit of space in your greenhouse or hoophouse.

See my posts

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo wren Vile

And here’s a post by Shannon Cowan, the blog editor at Eartheasy.com:

Winter Gardening: Best Crops to Extend Your Harvest

Shannon suggests using a variety of strategies. “Plant some vegetables that will mature quickly, others that will hold well in your garden beds, and still others that will overwinter and begin growing again when the days lengthen.”

This is also my approach. See my posts

Fall-grown senposai.
Photo Pam Dawling

Good late season vegetables: salad greens, Swiss chard, beans, peas (in climates milder than 7), carrots, radishes, senposai, spinach, pak choy, cabbage and winter lettuces.

Good cold hardy vegetables: Plant in late summer and fall to harvest throughout the winter. These late-sown crops reach full maturity before seriously cold weather, and hold so you can harvest them when the rest of your crops have been eaten. They don’t usually grow much during the winter, but they do stay fresh. Grow enough to supply your needs without depending on any further growth. This category includes Asian greens, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, leeks, scallions, spinach, turnips and other root vegetables,

Good crop protection so you can grow some crops through the winter. If your winter temperatures routinely drop below 25 F (- 4 C), crops need protection, from simple rowcover to hoophouses or greenhouses. This improves the temperatures, but it’s hard to address the reduced amount of daylight or sunlight. The increased warmth, plus the protection from winds, can be enough for some, such as spinach, kale and lettuce, to make some growth whenever their temperature is greater than 40F (5C).

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

Good slow growing crops to harvest outdoors in late winter or early spring. In this category are crops that go into the winter less than fully grown. After the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, crops start growing again, making them usually ready for harvest very early, much earlier than any crops planted after the solstice. They don’t usually need winter protection and include beets, some types of broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, onions, garlic, garlic scallions, spinach, kale and collards.

See my post Winter radishes, planting garlic.

Good crops to grow in hoophouses include arugula, beets, chard, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, lettuce, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, mustards, pak choy, parsley, radishes, spinach, tatsoi, Tokyo bekana, turnips and Yukina Savoy

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

See my posts

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Harvest

See my posts

Harvested Purple Top Milan and White Egg turnips.
Photo Pam Dawling

Here are some links to a couple of good sources for more harvest information:

Piedmont Master Gardeners Garden Shed Newsletter

Guidelines for Harvesting Vegetables by Pat Chadwick

A list of seven basic principles of harvesting, followed by a crop-by-crop list of almost 50 individual crops and a resource list of 18 publications (focused on the mid-Atlantic and Southeast)

Roxbury Farm Harvest Manual (Roxbury Agriculture Institute at Philia Farm)

October Tips from Harvest to Table, by Steve Albert covers all climate zones and comes complete with a USDA Hardiness Zone Map

Links to other posts by Steve Albert

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Storage

I already have posts on root cellar potato storage, onion storage (alliums for August), Garlic storage, Storage vegetables slide show, Root Crops April, Feb, Jan, Dec, Nov.

See my posts

Sweet potatoes in storage. An ideal crop for winter meals, as they store at room temperature for a long time, maybe seven or eight months. Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops for October

 

The crew working on the sweet potato harvest.
Photo McCune Porter

This is another episode in my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops. These crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions. We’re several months into this series, so here’s the complete list: asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash.

I hope to help you become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as you deal with another strange year. Maybe you are not at home as much as last year, or maybe your helpers have gone back to school, but you deeply appreciate sustainably grown food.  You still want to garden, even with less time at home. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as September.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in October

In October in central Virginia we only have enough remaining good growing conditions outdoors to plant 3 of our 14 Workhorse crops – we can still transplant chard, collards and kale. A big step down from last month’s 8. We could also plant some garlic scallions (the soil is still too warm for us to plant garlic, but if you are in a colder zone than us, you’ll want to see this post.)

In October here, outdoor gardening is more focused on harvesting and less on planting. In contrast, October is our busiest planting month in the hoophouse! In September we direct sowed our first hoophouse bed, and sowed other crops in an outdoor nursery seedbed. Two to four weeks later, in October, we transplant them in the hoophouse. Workhorse crops getting transplanted into our hoophouse in October include Red and White Russian Kales, Bright Lights chard, and Napa Chinese cabbage. This year we are trying some carrots (actually we sowed those in September). We have plenty of other crops that don’t qualify as workhorses too!

Chard:

Swiss chard can be sown outdoors here in September, and transplanted early in October for an early winter harvest, with the option of overwintering under rowcover to provide harvests during the winter. We could direct sow chard in September and protect it for the winter, for a late winter and early spring harvest. Remember that red chard is more cold-hardy than the multi-colored types, and green chards tend to be even more hardy.

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

For hoophouse winter harvest, we sow Bright Lights chard in our nursery seedbed September 15 and transplant it October 16. We love the beauty of the multi-colored chard mixes, both growing and after harvest, and we have found that the hoophouse protects the crop well enough that it does not die, even without inner rowcover (unless the outdoor temperature is forecast to be below 8°F (-13°C).

Collards

This is rather late for us to transplant collards outdoors, but if we need to, and we have some good thick rowcover, we’ll do it. The extra warmth of the rowcover will help it make up for lost time.

Kale

Our last date for sowing Vates kale outdoors is 10/30. We can still transplant August-sown kale to fill gaps if we need to – see August’s post. Because kale makes some growth whenever the temperature is above about 40°F (5°C), it is a valuable winter crop. Our sunnier winter days are often warm enough for kale (and spinach!) to make some growth. We will sow more kale in late January, to give us a spring crop.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse we grow both the White Russian and the slightly smaller Red Russian kale. See the explanation about the merits of Oleracea and Napus kales. We make sure to transplant the shorter red kale on the south side of the bed, so it gets adequate light, with the white kale on the north. You may have noticed that red and purple-leaved vegetables grow slower and tend to be smaller than their green cousins. This is because they have less green! Green leaves are needed for photosynthesis, which enables plants to grow. Green plants also contain the reds and purples, but the green dominates. This is similar to the conundrum of red and orange fall leaves – where do those colors come from? They are there all along, but are masked by the green. In preparation for leaf fall, the trees absorb all the green chlorophyll, leaving the fall colors visible.

White Russian kale (napus type) gives us good yields in our hoophouse in winter.
Photo Pam Dawling

Garlic scallions

Garlic scallions are immature garlic plants, mostly leaves, pulled up before they make bulbs. They are the garlic equivalent of onion scallions (bunching onions, spring onions, escallions). Great for omelets, stir-fries, pesto, soups, and many other dishes.

We plant ours using the culled tiny cloves from the bulbs we save for outdoor garlic planting in early November. Tiny cloves will never produce big bulbs, so growing garlic scallions makes very good use of them! Planting garlic scallions is simplicity itself! Plant the small cloves close together in closely-spaced furrows, simply dropping the cloves in almost shoulder to shoulder, any way up that they fall. Close the furrow and mulch over the top with spoiled hay or straw.

You could plant these next to your main garlic patch, or in a part of the garden that’s easily accessible for harvest in spring. We plant our small cloves for scallions at one edge of the garden, and as we harvest, we use the weed-free area revealed to sow the lettuce seedlings for that week.

If you want to have Garlic Scallions to eat or sell in early spring, when new fresh vegetables are in short supply, and homesteaders may be running out of stored bulb onions, see my post Alliums for March. With a last frost date of 20–30 April, we harvest garlic scallions March 10 to April 30 in central Virginia, or even into May, if our supply lasts out, and we don’t need the space for something else. Harvesting is simple, although depending on your soil, you may need to loosen the plants with a fork rather than just pulling. Trim the roots, rinse, bundle, set in a small bucket with a little water, and you’re done!

A colorful salad of rainbow chard, onion scallions and garlic scallions.
Photo (and salad) by Bridget Aleshire.

Rather than dig up whole garlic scallion plants, some people cut the greens at 10″ (25 cm) tall and bunch them, allowing cuts to be made every two or three weeks. We tried this, but prefer to simply lift the whole plant once it reaches about 7″–8″ (18–20 cm). The leaves keep in better condition if still attached to the clove. Scallions can be sold in small bunches of three to six depending on size. A little goes a long way! If you do have more than you can sell in the spring, you could chop and dry them, or make pesto for sale later in the year.

You can plant garlic scallions at other times of year, if you have planting material. See Plant garlic scallions from softneck varieties (Alliums for February). If you plant in a hoophouse, more of the year opens up as a planting season. You can plant whole bulbs (the small cull ones you can’t sell, or don’t want to peel) and grow your garlic scallions already in a clump, rather than in rows of plants.

Some growers find they make more money from garlic scallions than from bulb garlic, partly because they don’t have the costs of curing and drying the bulbs! I encourage you to experiment with planting a few cloves at different times of year and record your results. Because you do not need to work with the right times for bulbing and drying down, all sorts of dates are possible!

Napa Chinese cabbage

Maybe you think I’m stretching things to classify Napa Chinese cabbage as a workhorse, but in my defense, I’ll say firstly that success in farming involves creativity and flexibility, and secondly that the Asian greens as a category are genuine Hoophouse Workhorses, as they grow so well in cool temperatures and short days. It is a cabbage! We sow Blues (53d from transplanting in mild weather) in a nursery seedbed on September 15 and transplant in the hoophouse October 2, at only two weeks old (very fast-growing in September). Because this is a heading vegetable, we leave it to grow to full size before harvesting. That will be in January. Many of the Asian Greens are harvested by the leaf, but Napa cabbage and pak choy are more often cut as a head.

Young Chinese cabbage transplants in our hoophouse.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in October

Eleven of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested in October (also true in September and August, but with substitutions!) No asparagus, no garlic, no more watermelon. Depending when the frost bites, there will be several fewer harvest options by the end of October.

Beans­ can be harvested until the weather gets too cold. We have covered the beds with rowcover to keep the plants warmer and growing faster. It’s true that pollinating insects can’t get at the flowers to perform their pollination services and make more beans, etc. But that doesn’t matter. We are more interested in fattening up the already pollinated beans! It’s also true that the yields are now way down, so we need to balance the benefits against the costs. Sometimes it is better to clear the crop (and its pests and diseases) and sow a cover crop.

Cabbage We harvest fall planted cabbage from September 25. We like Early Jersey Wakefield (45 days from transplanting) and Farao (64d) for fast-maturing cabbage; Melissa Savoy 85d; Early Flat Dutch 85d, Kaitlin 94d, for storage cabbage which are slower-growing. We have also liked huge Tribute 103d, Tendersweet (71d) for immediate fall use, and Wakamine (70d). Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C) . Double-check those days to maturity, I may have mixed days from transplanting with days from sowing.

Deadon cabbage
Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

Carrots: If we sowed carrots in July, we will be harvesting in October.

Chard can be harvested whenever you want some. This year our chard did extremely well all summer and we are bored silly with it! We wish we had had stored cabbage, or some fall broccoli. We are relishing our fall senposai!

The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C).

Collards can be harvested in October.

Kale can be lightly harvested, if our early August sowings came through.

Potatoes: We can plant potatoes between mid-March and mid-June, leading to harvests in July-October. Protect potatoes from frost when harvesting. Read more about potato harvest here.

Our March-planted potatoes are in the root cellar. We’ve been eating those since July. We often plan to grow more in the June planting than the March planting, as root cellar storage over the summer is more challenging for us than having them in the ground.

Sweet Corn harvest is still going, thanks to our sixth sowing on July 16.

Sweet Potato harvest at Twin Oaks. Photo McCune Porter

Sweet potatoes need harvesting in October here, before it gets too cold. Usually sweet potatoes are harvested the week the first frost typically occurs. I wrote a lot about this topic here. I wrote all the harvesting details in another post, 10/12/20.

Contrary to myth, there is no toxin that moves from frozen leaves down into the roots. On the other hand, below 55°F (13°C), they’ll get chilling injury, which can ruin the crop. Roots without leaf cover after a frost are exposed to cold air temperatures, and have lost their method of pulling water up out of the soil. I remember one awful year when we left the sweet potatoes in the ground too late, hoping they’d fatten up a bit to make up for a poor growing season. Instead, the weather got cold and wet, and the sweet potatoes were rotting in the ground (it was November by then), and those that didn’t rot got chilling damage that prevented them ever softening in cooking. Sweet potatoes that stay hard are no fun to eat!

Tomatoes are winding down. If a frost threatens we will harvest them all, including the green ones. I prefer to store them on egg trays or in shallow crates, to gradually ripen indoors. But other people prefer fried green tomatoes. To my taste buds, it could be cardboard inside the batter! I don’t know the nutrient content of fried green tomatoes, but I feel certain ripened tomatoes without batter are more nutritious!

Winter Squash harvest continues once a week throughout September and October. Stored winter squash can provide meals all winter and also in early spring when other crops are scarce. We used to harvest as late as possible in the fall, but now we prioritize getting a good cover crop established, to replenish and protect the soil, so we have a Grand Finale harvest just before Halloween, when we harvest all the large interesting almost-ripe squash, and give them away for lantern carving. Some go to the chickens too. Harvest before the fruits get frosted, which is shown by a water-soaked appearance of the skin.

Zucchini and summer squash are now being harvested every other day. Our last sowing was August 5. We harvest beyond the first fall frost, by covering that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights. But once it gets cooler, they grow slower, and are not worth checking every day.

From storage: spring cabbage, carrots, garlic and potatoes, winter squash.

Food processing is still busy.

Workhorse Crops Special Topic

Winter rye and crimson clover cover crop
Photo by McCune Porter

Cover Crops

September 17 is our last chance to sow oats as a cover crop. If sown later they will not reach a good size before they are killed by cold temperatures. The soil would not be held together well. It would be better in those circumstances to mow the weeds and leave their roots to hold the soil together over the winter.

Oats winter-kill in most of zone 7 or colder, and survive in zone 8 or warmer. The end for oats is around 10°F (-12°C), depending on their size and the frequency of cold temperatures. Large oat plants winter-kill after 3 days at 20°F (-7°C) or colder. Young oats are tolerant to temperatures down to 12°F (-11°C), until the 5 leaf stage, as the growing point is still underground. Once the plant starts to make noticeable vertical growth and form nodes (22-36 days after planting, depending on variety, sowing date, and water), oats can die at 24°F (-4°C).

Dead oats leave an easy-to-work surface for early spring vegetables.

Clovers can be sown here throughout September, as can winter wheat and winter barley. Winter rye can be sown here in September (not August – it could head up!). Hardy Austrian winter peas can be sown in late September with rye.

For more details, see my post Planning Winter Cover Crops

Getting ready for frost and colder weather

 

Eat-All Greens rows with frost in December. October and part of November are still productive growing weeks in central Virginia. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Gardening does not end with the first frost! We will work our way from clearing the least hardy crops to those we can leave outside all winter. See our table Winter Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables. We will harvest or cover all the frost-tender crops, make a last harvest of rhubarb (the stems are hardy to 22°F (-6°C)) and hoop and rowcover the last outdoor lettuce. Our June-planted potatoes will be our last big harvest for the year.

We pull up the biggest Purple Top turnips and Cylindra beets, leaving the others a bit more room to size up before their killing temperature of 12°F (-11°C). Any day now, we’ll start harvesting fall leeks (King Richard and Lincoln), keeping the winter-hardy ones (Tadorna) for the winter.

DIY weather-forecasting

I recommend learning your local weather patterns by keeping records and watching what happens. Here’s what I’ve learned about ours:

Our mid-Atlantic climate is controlled by three weather systems,

  • mainly by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico,
  • the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer,
  • and recurrent waves of cold Canadian air in winter.
Beds after rain, Photo Wren Vile

Rain (statistically fairly evenly distributed throughout the year in our county) has slight peaks in January, February and March, and again in early June and August.

Some parts of our area can experience long periods of drought. September-November is the drier season but it’s also the hurricane season, so the net result is very variable.

We use Wunderground.com  but subtract 5F° from their forecast night lows for our nearest town, and mentally downgrade the chance of rain by 10%, as rain often passes us by as it scoots along the river valley north of us.

Blackberry leaf with frost.
Photo by Ezra Freeman

Our average first frost date is October 14. Actually from our own records it has averaged 10/20 (13 years of our own records). So it’s time to start thinking about frost. It’s good to be prepared.

According to Dave’s Garden in Louisa County where I live, the threshold of 36°F (2°C) has a 50% likelihood on Oct 3; the 32°F (0°C) threshold has a 50% likelihood by Oct 13 and the 28°F (-2°C) threshold is as likely as unlikely by Oct 27. The 90% chances occur by Oct 14, Oct 28 and Nov 12 respectively.

Another great website for local weather info is WeatherSpark.

Now that climate change is here, it pays to be ready for weather different from what we have experienced previously. Keeping records helps, as does having good thermometers for air and soil.

Four Ranges of Cold-Hardy Crops for Harvest at Various Stages of Winter

This simple model helps reduce confusion and set priorities

1. Crops to harvest before cold fall weather (32°-25°F) and store indoors:

Michihili Chinese Cabbage. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Chicory for chicons or heads; crosnes/Chinese artichokes, dry beans,  Chinese cabbage, peanuts, “White” Peruvian potatoes at 32°F (0°C) approximately, pumpkins, seed crops, sweet potatoes at 50°F (10°C), winter squash.

2. Crops to keep alive in the ground into winter to 22°-15°F (-6°C to -9°C), then harvest.

Bucket of freshly harvested Detroit Dark Red beets for storage.
Photo Pam Dawling

Store: Beets before 15-20°F (-9.5 to -7°C), cabbage, carrots before 12° F (-11°C), celeriac before 20°F (-7°C), kohlrabi before 15°F (-9.5°C), winter radish including daikon before 20°F (-7°C), rutabagas, turnips before 20°F (-7°C).

Use soon: Asian greens, broccoli, cabbage, chard, lettuce, radishes

3. Hardy crops to store in the ground and harvest during the winter.

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

In zone 7, such crops need to be hardy to 0°-10°F (-17.8°C to -12.3°C): Collards, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, leeks, parsnips, scallions, spinach.

4. Overwinter crops for spring harvests before the main season.

A stormy winter day, garlic, rowcovered spinach beds and our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

In zone 7, they need to be hardy to 0°-10°F (-17.8°C to -12.3°C): Cabbage, carrots, chard, collards, garlic and garlic scallions, kale, multiplier onions (potato onions), scallions, spinach.

Frost is more likely at Twin Oaks if:

  • The date is after 10/14 (or before 4/30).
  • The daytime high temperature was less than 70°F (21°C).
  • The sky is clear.
  • The temperature at sunset is less than 50°F (10°C).
  • The dew point forecast is low, close to freezing. Frost is unlikely if the dew point is 43°F or more.
  • The Wunderground 3.30pm forecast low for Louisa Northside is 37°F (3°C) or less.
  • The soil is dry and cool.
  • The moon is full or new.
  • There is little or no breeze, although if temperatures are falling fast, the wind is from NW and the sky is clear, then polar air may be moving in, and we’ll get a hard freeze.
Ice on the pond.
Credit Ezra Freeman

Frost Alert Card

For just this time of year, we keep a Frost Alert Card reminding us which crops to pay attention to if a frost threatens. We check the forecast online at 3.30 pm (we find that’s late enough to be fairly accurate about night temperatures and early enough to give us time to get vulnerable crops covered).

The big decision is the triage of harvest/cover/let go. Our list is not just crops that will die with the first frost but also ones that will soon need covering as temperatures decrease.

  • Cover lettuce, zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, beans, Chinese cabbage, pak choy, lettuce and celery.
  • Harvest crops listed above that can’t or won’t be covered.
  • Harvest all ripe tomatoes, eggplant, corn, limas, cowpeas, okra, melons.
  • Harvest peppers facing the open sky, regardless of color. (Often only the top of the plant will get frosted).
  • Check winter squash and harvest any very exposed squash.
  • Set up sprinklers for the night, on tomatoes, peppers and a cluster of beds with high value crops.
Peppers that are protected by leaves can survive a light frost. Photo Pam Dawling

We really like this pepper strategy we have developed: by picking just the peppers exposed to the sky, we reduce the immediate workload (and the immediate pile up of peppers in the cooler!) and we often get a couple of milder weeks after the first frost before the next. By then the top layer of leaves that got frosted the first time will have died and a whole new layer of peppers will be exposed and need harvesting. This way we get fewer peppers at once, and a higher percentage of ripe peppers, which have so much more flavor.

Our overhead sprinkler strategy is useful if a frost is coming early when we still have many tomatoes we’d like to vine-ripen. Keep the sprinkler running until the sun is shining on the plant sin the morning, or the sir temperature is above freezing again. The constant supply of water during the night does two things. First water gives off heat as it freezes. Yes, really. It’s easier to understand ice taking in heat to melt, but the flip side is that water gives off heat as it freezes. This latent heat of freezing helps warm the crops. And if ice does form, the shell of ice around the plants stops more cold damage happening.

Frost Alert List

Task

Crop

Notes

 

Harvest all edible

Asparagus beans

 

Harvest all edible

Eggplant

 

Harvest all edible

Okra

 

Harvest all edible

Tomatoes

Including green ones

Harvest all edible

Peppers exposed to the sky

 

Harvest all edible

West Indian gherkins

 

Harvest all edible

Pickling cucumbers

 

Harvest all edible

Corn

 

Harvest all edible

Beans #4, 5, 6, then cover

Uncover once mild again

 

 

 

Thick row cover

Squash

Spring hoops or none. Ditto

Thick row cover

Slicing cucumbers

Spring hoops or none. Ditto

Thick row cover

Celery

Double hoops – leave covered

Thick row cover

Last lettuce bed

Double hoops – leave covered

Set sprinklers

Slicer tomatoes

Overnight from before 32F till after sun shines on plants

Set sprinklers

Roma paste tomatoes and peppers

Ditto

Set sprinklers

Other vulnerable raised bed crops

Ditto

Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. Pick the green and the ripe ones before a frost.
Photo Pan Dawling

Cold Weather Crop Protection

  1. Rowcover – thick 1.25 oz rowcover gives about 6F (3.3C) degrees of frost protection. Use hoops.
  2. Low tunnels and Quick Hoops are wider version of using rowcover. They need the edges weighting down. Best for climates where the crops are being stored in the ground until spring, when they start growing again. Less useful in climates like ours which have very variable winter temperatures, and are warm enough that we realistically expect to harvest during the winter, not just before and after.
  3. Caterpillar tunnels – 2 beds plus 1 path, tall enough to walk in. Rope holds cover in place, no sandbags.
  4. High tunnels (= hoophouses), single or double layer. Double layer gives 8F (4.5C) degrees of protection, plus plants can survive 14F/8C colder than they can outside, without extra rowcover; at least 21F/12C colder than outside with thick rowcover. Leafy crops are not weather-beaten. We strongly believe in two layers of plastic and no inner tunnels (rowcovers) unless the night will be 8°F (-13°C) or colder outdoors.

Hoophouse Notes

Salad greens in a hoophouse in zone 7 can survive nights with outdoor lows of 14°F (-10°C). A test year: Lettuce, Mizuna, Turnips, Russian kales, Senposai, Tyee spinach, Tatsoi, Yukina Savoy survived a hoophouse temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with. Brite Lights chard got frozen leaf stems.

Rolls of rowcover in our hoophouse ready to pull over the beds on very cold nights.
Photo Wren Vile

Other Posts on These Topics

10/18/16 Getting Ready for Frost

10/21/19 Preparing for Frost and Cold Weather

10/19/20 Harvest and Maturity Indicators in Vegetable Harvests.

10/16/18 Season Extension and Frost Preparations

Book Review: Vicki Hird, Rebugging the Planet

Vicki Hird, Rebugging the Planet:

The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – And Why We Need to Love Them More

Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2021, 224 pages, $17.95

Vicki Hird has a passion for insects, and this book brings home to us how much depends on the well-being of invertebrates in the world. Insects are a cornerstone in our ecosystem, and we must reverse the current dangerous decline in bug populations (40% of insect species are at risk of extinction and 33% more are endangered). We are heading towards “Insectageddon.” After reading this book, I found myself being much more careful about gathering up insects inside the house and taking them outside, where I imagine they will thrive better. Did you know that spiders rest calmly in your gently closed hand? They do not wriggle and tickle!

We need to overcome any aversion or indifference to creepy-crawlies, and change our attitudes to respect, appreciation, and some humility if possible. Insects pollinate plants, recycle waste into nutrients, control pest species, add air channels in the soil, and ultimately return themselves to the soil food web.

Fall spiderweb photo from Ezra Freeman

Vicki explains how to rebug our city green spaces, grow gardens without pesticides and weedkiller, teach children to appreciate small creatures, make choices that support insect-friendly (planet-friendly) production of food and fiber, and make wider choices that affirm human dignity and equal rights.

This book has charming insect drawings, and delightful anecdotes: “I was never going to get the pony I wanted, so I settled for an ant farm at an early age.” Studying biology at school led Vicki to a summer job observing bees at a research station. A later job investigating cockroaches led her to respect them and realize that it is humans that need better control, more than roaches do.

Vicki has been an environmental campaigner, lobbyist and researcher for about 30 years, and is the mother of two children. Vicki is also head of the Sustainable Farming Campaign for Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming, a UK alliance of organizations and communities advocating for healthy food, people and environment, and equity in society. She has a website for Rebugging.

Those over 50 (and maybe 40) will have noticed that long car drives no longer lead to cars covered in smashed bugs. There are fewer butterflies. More than twice as many insect species as vertebrate species are at risk of extinction. I noticed on a trip to England after an absence of a couple of years, that the number of sparrows has plummeted. We are more likely to get distressed about the charismatic mega-fauna, but less so about formerly ubiquitous sparrows, and even less about insects. There may be 4 million unidentified species of insects (as well as the million we know). In the UK 23 bee and wasp species have become extinct since 1850.

So, what is ‘rebugging’? It is a form of rewilding (the introduction of similar-to-natural ecosystems and missing species into an area and then waiting to see if the species can settle in). It is somewhat controversial, and alone is insufficient to cause all the changes we seek. We also need changes in policy, lifestyle, and civic involvement. This book provides information, encouragement and tools to act.

Sunflower bee and bug.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

What would the world be like without bugs? “A great image that has been doing the rounds is a picture of a bee saying, “If we die, we’re taking you with us.” It’s not an empty threat, but a fact – we would not last long without insects. Our flowering plants would die off; all the species that dine on insects would be lost, followed by the next ones up the chain; dead animals would pile up undigested; trees would cease growing in the compacted airless soil.

But this is not our inevitable future. We can step back, as we have done when the dangers of DDT, CFCs, and nuclear weapons became blindingly clear. We can work to restore habitat, reduce damage and make political and economic structural changes at all levels in society. We can start by “rebugging our attitudes.”

How can we protect and nurture invertebrates? We can help research what’s out there. We can encourage others to be concerned and take action to protect invertebrates. We can teach others about the value of insects for human well-being. We can make havens for wildlife, convert every city street into a biocorridor, share designs for pollinator-friendly gardens, encourage conservation of water and other natural resources, make urban farms and community gardens.

The book is studded with sidebars on aspects of the value of insects, such as “How much is a bee worth?” (The answer is over $3,000 per hectare in pollination services, for wild bees) That’s more than 651 million GBP to the British economy.

Insects are food for many animals such as poultry, fish and pigs. And some insects could be food for humans. I ate a 17-year cicada last time they were in our area (2013). I was partly inspired by Jackson Landers’ book Eating Aliens. And really, if you can eat shrimp, you can eat meaty insects. But Rebugging isn’t mostly about eating insects, but rather preserving their lives, and benefiting from their contributions.

If you are still unsure what bugs do for us, the second chapter spells it out. We would be knee-deep in manure, leaf litter and dead animals within weeks, if there were no bugs eating it all, and enriching the soil. Tardigrades (water bears or moss piglets) are the most resilient animals known, able to survive extreme temperatures, pressures, dehydration, oxygen deprivation, starvation and radiation. They can remain in suspended animation for years until conditions improve. They have already survived all five mass extinction events, and some have been revived from a hundred-year-old sample of moss in a museum. Respect, please!

A ladybug on the leaf stem of a sunflower planted to attract beneficials.
Photo Pam Dawling

Avoid spraying wasps with pesticides-in-a-spray-can. They are as useful as bees and ladybugs, and are the best pest control we have for hauling away cabbage caterpillars. If you are more motivated to provide accommodation for ladybugs than wasps, keep moist dark places like old hollow stems, bark pieces and logs where the adults can overwinter. I could really use some early-spring-wakening ladybugs in our hoophouse to tackle the aphids!

Carefully introduced biological bug control can reduce the amount of pesticides used. A scientific risk assessment is an important first step, though. The 1930’s introduction of cane toads in Australia for pest control was a terrible mistake. The toad was a worse pest than the bugs had been. There are many more success stories than disasters!

Vicki Hird, Author of Rebugging the Planet

Rewilding can be complicated – looking at a huge overgrowth of creeping thistle is alarming. Happily, the biggest migration of painted lady butterflies came over and laid eggs on the thistles. The resulting spiny black caterpillars ate the thistles down to the ground. UK organizations have been creating maps of “insect superhighways” they are calling B-Lines, that will be filled with wildflowers so that insects and other wildlife have continuous corridors to travel from one area to another. There’s a two-page spread of possible actions to help the rebugging process, starting with publicity and education, and moving onto helping build bug-friendly habitat in public places and workplaces and private gardens.

Green public spaces can include a wide variety of invertebrate species. Look on derelict land, in cemeteries, along grass verges, and even on golf courses. Many companies and local authorities are now wanting to manage their land in ways that support more wildlife, and with encouragement might move another step in that direction. Tiny public orchards and forests are being planted in some places. There is a sidebar of actions to reduce deliberate, accidental, and thoughtless damage to insects.

After starting small and local, you might be ready to expand your ambitions and commitment. The overall total mass of insects is estimated to be falling by 2.5% every year. One big factor pushing species towards disaster is climate change. This is a big one to tackle, and yet we must. Overwintering numbers of monarch butterflies (the celebrities of the insect world) have dropped to less than 1% of their 1980’s population. Yes, compared with 40 years ago, the population is now just 1/100 of what it was. When food species arrive, peak, or leave earlier in the year due to changed temperatures, the predator species goes undernourished. Pesticide contamination gets a lot of blame too.

A bee pollinating squash. Photo Pam Dawling

Water pollution also harms diversity. Leached fertilizers in estuaries have created ocean dead zones. Combating climate change might not be what you expected to read about when picking up a book on rebugging the planet, but it is vitally connected. We can learn from bugs about climate management. Honeybees have learned how to mob an invading Asian giant hornet and cook it to death. In Brazil, scientists discovered an area of 200 million termite mounds each spaced 60 feet from its neighbors. This is all one colony, connected underground. Some of the mounds are over 4,000 years old. They have created a stable environment for millennia. The methods of ventilation and gas exchange could be copied for human habitation.

Are 5G phones heating insects 370% above normal levels and cooking them in the electromagnetic fields they generate? It could be true, based on research on models. The action list at the end of this chapter urges us to avoid 5G phones if we can, and not to use them outdoors if we must have one.

The chapter on why our farming, food and shopping all need bugs opens with a discussion on almond milk. The “dark reality” is that huge almond plantations need millions of bees brought in every year for pollination. Thousands of colonies are moved in to California’s Central Valley, for example. 30% of these bees die, because the environment is hostile, devoid of crops other than almond trees. Local wildlife cannot survive either.

It is a mistake to think that all vegan milk-substitutes are environmentally better than all dairy milk. It takes roughly 4 gallons of water for every gallon of milk a cow produces. Almond milk is much more intensive on water use: it can take up to 101 gallons of water to grow 1 cup of almonds, plus another 3 or 4 cups of water to manufacture almond milk. In fact, many commercial almond milks only have about 2% of almonds in them – the rest is water!

Bugs and other small animals can thrive in pastures if the livestock management is done well. The stock numbers and types are important.

Did you know that more than 70% of the world’s fish stocks are over-fished, depleted or collapsed?

We could also consider the impact of our decisions about textiles, timber and metals, on wildlife and ecology. The average person in the UK now buys over four clothing items a month! Less than 1% of clothing textiles is recycled. The waste mounts up. Forests are destroyed to make way for cotton plantations. Even if organically grown, cotton monocultures destroy habitat of thousands of species of butterflies, moths, termites, wasps, bees, and other bugs. Ironically, the cotton crop is then a sitting target for the bollworm moth. Genetically modified cotton was developed to overcome bollworm problems. A few countries resisted the siren call of GM cotton, and use integrated pest management (IPM) instead. They have lowered costs and increased yields.

While worrying about cotton, let us not forget synthetics and the huge problem of microplastics. In 2016, for example, 65 million tons of plastic textile fibers were produced. They do not decay. They are found everywhere on the planet, from the Arctic to the ocean depths. Ingestion of microplastics causes problems for marine life. The dyes cause disease, and can kill corals.

The action list for this chapter focuses on reducing waste. Think before you buy, think before you throw away. If you can, switch to consumption of locally sustainably produced goods.

Front and back covers of Rebugging the Planet

The action lists that close each chapter get longer, the connections get wider. Politics and the economy might not be the direction you expected from this book, but these topics are all part of the connected system, and all need consideration and action. Termites and corals co-operate within their colonies to create and maintain large healthy populations: we can do it too. (Corals are symbiotic associations of bugs (coral polyps, which form the exoskeleton) with several thousand species of animals and plants living within. Algae provide oxygen and carbohydrates.)

Big investors own shares in seed companies, just to make money. They have no interest or incentive to protect bugs or any aspect of the ecology. “It’s as if some beetles decided to take all the ants’ food supplies even though they cannot eat or use them. Money accumulation is hard to eat.”

Frustratingly, vested interests have too much power in decisions that affect large groups of people. We tend to avoid tackling entrenched societal problems. Vicki suggests three big areas to understand and deal with: poor governance and politics; inequality and poverty; runaway consumerism and waste. If you only wanted to read about saving beetles, you might be tempted to put the book down at this point. However, in order to save beetles, we need to look at the underlying causes of beetle die-offs.

Decisions on land use are often made by corporations and investors less focused on protecting biodiversity, and more on profits. We need to show them that enlightened self-interest can protect their financial success for the long haul. Some corporations are seeing this now that climate chaos is biting hard. Pushing humans to get three-quarters of their calories from just four crops (soy, wheat, rice and maize) may bring in fast bucks, but gives little resilience against climate change and extreme weather conditions, and is bad news for biodiversity.

Research has shown that as social inequality grows, so does harm to biodiversity, which leads to more inequality. Financial pressure from profit-seekers drives down wages, leading to a demand for ever cheaper food, spiraling to lower costs of production. They wring out higher short-term yields. Sustainability of food production goes to the wall. Desperate people take desperate measures to cover their basic survival needs. In 2020, the UN announced: “to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, we need to bend the curve of inequality.”

The action list for this chapter is over 5 pages, demonstrating the broadening of the goals. Campaigning, lobbying and voting; pushing governments and economists to balance social and environmental concerns and work for sustainable outcomes; requiring corporations to show much stronger accountability for all the results of their activity; supporting companies that are taking steps to lower their environmental damage and increase co-operation with others, strengthen international treaties and hold nations to their commitments on biodiversity and limiting climate change.

This probably sounds overwhelming, but “You don’t have to rebug alone”! You can join (or start) local organizations working on an issue you feel strongly about. The book contains a directory of some organizations (mostly in the UK). There is some help on starting lobbying, which most of us have not done before. The resources include guides on campaigning and influencing people. You can reduce your own carbon footprint and encourage others to do so. Big change is needed, but some days it’s restorative to “clean our own house” rather than go out lobbying.

 

Harvesting and Storing Winter Squash

Sweet Meat winter squash, a Maxima type.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

There are four main types of winter squash, and some hybrid crosses. Refer back to your catalogs or websites if you are unsure which type your varieties belong to, as this helps determine when to harvest. If you haven;t grown any winter squash this year, use these photos and descriptions to help you plan for next year. Most of our photos are from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We tend to get caught up in the excitement of harvest, and forget to take photos!

Leave the squash on the vine until fully mature. Once the vine is dead, the squash can’t get bigger, but can ripen, change color and convert starches to sugars, (tasting better). In general, squash are fully mature and storable when the skin cannot be pierced by fingernails, but testing each one would leave ugly scars and reduce shelf life, so learn the other signs of ripeness. Yield could be 3¼ lbs per row foot (about 5 kg per meter.)

Not all the squash on one plant will be ripe at the same time, but they come to no harm sitting in the field (provided there is neither frost nor groundhogs). We harvest once a week, using pruners. We cut them with fairly long stems, which helps them store best. Those who need to pack squash in crates remove the stems so that they do not injure their neighboring squash. If you do this, you need to cure the open ends before crating. Handle squash as if they were eggs, not footballs. Bruising leads to rot in storage. Look for black rot infestations (concentric circles on butternut) and either compost those, or salvage the good parts for immediate use.

Pepo Squashes are ready soonest

Candystick Dessert Delicata winter squash. These are Pepo types.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The first squash ready to harvest (in early September) are the Pepo “winter” squash species (more properly called fall squash), including acorn squash, delicata, dumplings, spaghetti squash, and most orange pumpkins. If you want to start harvesting these in August next year, sow earlier than late May! Pepo squash are fast maturing, short-storing, mild flavored. They have prickly leaves and stems. They are susceptible to vine borers, and perhaps a little more susceptible to viruses than other types. Pepos have hard, five sided stems, and the fruits are often ribbed.

When they are ripe, the “ground-spot” of Pepos usually becomes the color of pumpkin pie filling after the cinnamon is stirred in, or else bright orange. The stem will still be bright green. Wait till at least 45 days after pollination. Harvesting too early will disappoint: the squash will be watery and fibrous, without sweetness. Pepos can store up to 4 months, so check them every week and eat them up before New Year.

Maxima Squash

Maxima squash plants have huge hairy leaves. Fruits have thick round stems, different from the angular stems of the other species. This group includes buttercups/kabochas, hubbards, bananas, the Big Max giant pumpkin, Jarrahdale, Candy Roaster, Galeux d’Eysines and Rouge Vif d’Etampes. They are very susceptible to wilts, borers and squash bug damage. We have found Jarrahdale to have relatively high resistance to squash bugs compared to other Maximas. The hybrid Kabocha, Cha-Cha, is reliable. Kabocha may be harvested slightly under-ripe, as they continue to mature after harvest.

North Georgia Candy Roaster winter squash, a tasty Maxima variety. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Maxima squash are ripe when at least 75% of the stem looks dry and corky (tan, pocked, wrinkled). They have fine-textured good-flavored flesh They will store 3-5 months, sometimes longer.

The weakness of maxima compared to the others is susceptibility to downy mildew. There may be other fungal pathogens that maxima is more susceptible to.

In central Virginia, maximas are almost always a loss, due to squash vine borers. Ken Bezilla at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has watched the plants live for about 70-80 days, the fruits get nice and big and then the plants die all of a sudden. The safest way to grow them is under rowcover or netting, and keep them covered for the first 60 days (briefly uncovering for weeding and pollination).

Moschata squash

South Anna Butternut winter squash, a Moschata bred by Edmund Frost to resist Downy Mildew. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Moschata squash plants have large hairy leaves, and fruits have flared angular stems. This species is the most trouble-free, with no damage from borers and cucumber beetles. The tougher stems repel invaders. They need warm growing temperatures above 60°F (16°C). Butternuts and similar tan-colored squash, such as Seminole, Cheese, and the large Tahitian Butternut and Lunga di Napoli are in this group.

Mrs Amerson’s Winter Squash, a large and beautiful Moschata.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The Moschata species usually have bright orange, sweet, tasty flesh. These squash are ready when the skin is an even tan peanut-butter color, with no pale streaks or blotches. Many have green lines radiating down the squash from the edges of the stem. In some varieties, these green lines disappear when the squash is ripe, but not in all kinds. If in doubt, cook one and see. Or try a slice raw. These squash also have angular stems, but unlike the stems of pepo squashes, moschata stems flare out where they join the fruit. Moschatas can store 4-8 months or even longer. Seminole is a Moschata that will keep on the shelf for a whole year after harvest. It has a hard shell!

Mixta (Agyrosperma) Squash

Green Striped Cushaw Winter Squash, a Mixta variety, also known as Striped Crookneck.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The fourth species, Argyrosperma, or Mixta, includes many old-time varieties from the south. Flesh is often yellow rather than orange, and these squash are often cooked with sweeteners. Plants are rampant; leaves are large and hairy. Fruit stems are slightly flared, slightly angular, and hairy. This group has the best drought-resistance and also good resistance to borers and beetles. Cushaws are Mixta species. They are not all great storers.

Curing and Storing

Butternut and buttercup squash need to be cured at 80-85°F (27-29°C) for 7-10 days to be sweet tasting. Other varieties do not need to be cured, unless the stems have been removed, You can cure squash in a greenhouse with 80% shadecloth, or simply in a warm storage room.

Curing conditions for winter squash can be quite far from the ideals. Many people simply put the squash straight into storage Just don’t eat uncured butternut or buttercup squash, ie within two weeks of harvest, to avoid disappointment.

Our winter squash storage cage. Photo Twin Oaks Community

Store winter squash in relatively warm and dry conditions: 50-60°F (10-15°C) and 50-75% humidity. Check through stored squash once a week, removing any that are rotting. Squash have a medium demand for ventilation, similar to carrots, more than potatoes. Temperatures below 50°F (10°C) can cause chilling injury, which reduces shelf life. Do not store squash with potatoes or onions; like most ripe fruit crops, squash exhales ethylene, which increases sprouting in potatoes and onions (and other roots and bulbs).

More Information:

Roxbury Harvest Manual 2012

ATTRA Organic Pumpkin and Winter Squash Marketing and Production

Workhorse Crops for September

Burpee’s Butterbush Winter Squash.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Here we are with my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (including two pairs). These crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions. My goal with this series is to help you become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as you deal with another strange year. Maybe you are not at home as much as last year, or maybe your helpers have gone back to school, but you deeply appreciate growing your own food.  You want less time-consuming crops and growing methods. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as August.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in September

In September in central Virginia, the heat is less oppressive, especially since Tropical Depression Ida washed by. The day-length is definitely shorter, soon we will be at the equinox with only 12 hours of daylight. Gardening is more focused on harvesting and less on planting. Food processing is at its busiest.

This month we will put our fall and winter garden plan into action. Plants take longer to mature from September onwards, so don’t delay any plantings. Try a few different dates, and keep good records, especially if you’re a new farmer or gardener, and improve your plan for next year.

In September we only have enough good growing conditions to plant 5 of our 14 Workhorse crops in central Virginia. Down from last month’s 8. We can still transplant cabbage, collards and kale, and sow carrots, and chard (or transplant the chard.)

Cabbage and Collards:

September is much too late for us to start cabbage, but we could still transplant early in the month, if we have transplants with four true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing). If you only have bigger transplants, remove some of the older leaves until four leaves remain. This will help the plants survive by reducing evaporation (transpiration) losses. Collards can be sown here until September 15.

If insect pests are a problem, cover the transplants for four weeks, until they are big enough to survive. Nets are better than rowcover in hot weather, as airflow is better and heating is less. I wrote last month about ProtekNet Insect Exclusion Netting from Dubois Agrinovation.  

Another advantage of nets over rowcover is that you can see what’s growing! Back before ProtekNet I found one year that I had been studiously watering a covered bed that was mostly galinsoga! It was quite big, and I had assumed it was greens!

Two weeks after transplanting, till or hoe around the plants. Four weeks after transplanting, remove the netting entirely, and hoe and till again. At that point you could undersow with a mix of clovers to be a long-term cover crop, unless you plan to plant an early spring crop in that bed.

Young carrot plants, thinned to one inch.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

This is actually late for carrots but if you failed to establish them in August, hurry out and sow some early in September. You won’t get big carrots, but you’ll still get carrots!  Hoe between the rows as soon as you can see them, because carrots grow slowly and fall weeds grow fast!

Once the carrots are 1” (2.5 cm) tall, hand weed, cultivate with claws (to kill weeds that haven’t even emerged yet) and thin to 1” (2.5 cm) apart. Simply pulling the weeds is not as good as also lightly disturbing the surface of the soil. Heavy rains can cause crusting, which makes it hard for seedlings to grow. Breaking up the crust lets air and water in. I have noticed that crops make a growth spurt after hoeing. If you think you might have carrot rust flies in your area, collect up all the carrot thinnings and take them to the compost pile, so that the pests won’t be attracted by the smell of carrot leaves, and move in to eat your carrots.

Later thin your carrots to 3” (7.5 cm) and weed again. That’s a September task, if you sowed in August. The tiny ones you pull out may be big enough to wash and throw in a salad. Before they develop the orange color they don’t have much flavor, but they are a treat for the eyes anyway!

Kale:

We grow Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale, the most cold-hardy variety I’ve found. I’ve tried every type of kale I could get my hands on, including some imported from Europe. Vates isn’t huge – we plant 4 rows 10″ (25 cm) apart in each bed. We want 6 beds of kale to over-winter, and there isn’t time to transplant it all. We direct sow, two beds at a time, every 6 days. We water the two newly sown beds, daily as needed, until the seedlings emerge.

Often we get patchy emergence in those hot August days, so we use carefully dug thinnings to fill gaps. Our goal is one plant every foot (30 cm). Our mixed direct-sow/transplant method requires less watering than if direct sown all at once and gives us a solution if we get patchy germination. September 15 is our last sowing date for kale for harvests in late fall and through the winter. We cover the beds with netting, until the plants are large, or the weather gets too cold for pests.

Kale makes some growth whenever the temperature is above about 40°F (5°C), which happens in our winters on many days, making this a valuable winter crop. We will also sow more kale in late January, to give us a spring crop.

An outdoor bed of young Vates kale Photo Kathryn Simmons

Chard: Swiss chard can be sown here in August, and transplanted in September for a good fall harvest, with the option of overwintering under rowcover. It grows small leaves after only 35 days, and full-size leaves after 50 days. Chard is our poster-child insurance crop! So easy! So productive! It is not eaten by bugs, and does not have problems germinating in hot weather like spinach does.

You could direct sow chard in September and protect it for the winter, for a late winter and early spring harvest.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in September

Eleven of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested in September (also true in August, but now with one substitution!)

Beans­ can be harvested until the first frost (or later if we cover the beds with rowcover when a frost threatens). We also cover the bean beds (and squash, cucumbers, zucchini and other tender crops) whenever there is a chilly spell. This keeps the plants warmer and growing faster. Vegetable crops begin to take longer to ripen in September. It’s certainly true that pollinating insects can’t get at the flowers to perform their pollination services and make more beans, etc. But that doesn’t matter. We are more interested in fattening up the already pollinated beans!

Plenty of beans to eat in September.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Cabbage We eat about 50lbs (25 k) a week. Fall planted cabbage will be ready from September 25. We like Early Jersey Wakefield and Farao for fast-maturing cabbage.

Carrots: We generally hope not to need to sow carrots between June and the beginning of August, because carrots grown in hot weather don’t taste sweet and can even be soapy. If we did not grow enough carrots in the spring, we sow in June, or July and harvest those carrots about 2-3 months later (less time in warm weather, longer as the weather starts to cool in the fall). So, some years we harvest carrots in September.

Chard can be harvested whenever you want some. Snap or cut off some outer leaves and refrigerate them promptly. We use our Leafy Greens Mantra “8 for later” meaning that we make sure to leave at least eight of the inner leaves on each plant, as we harvest the outer leaves. With chard, we can take a couple more than this, but we do want to harvest at sustainable levels.

To overwinter chard in our climate, we cover the bed with rowcover on hoops. We can continue to make harvests into early winter. The mulch and rowcover help keep warmth in the soil, which keeps the crop growing.

Another method of over-wintering chard in reliably cooler climates, is to make a big harvest of all the sizeable leaves, just before the daytime temperatures are around freezing, then pile tree leaves, straw or hay over the bed for the winter. Covering the whole stack with rowcover is even better. Our winter conditions are too variable for this – we get cold spells interspersed with warm spells in almost every month, causing the plants to make some growth among the mulch.

The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C).

Alabama Blue collards.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Collards can be lightly harvested in September, if you started them early enough. What’s more likely true for us, is being able to harvest leaves of senposai. No, not the same as collards! But it fills the same spot on the dinner-plate – fresh leafy greens. It’s been a long summer with only chard, this year, as we were short of spring cabbage, and don’t have any fall cabbage or broccoli yet.

Potatoes: We can plant potatoes between mid-March and mid-June, leading to harvests in July-October. It’s as important not to leave potatoes baking in the sun as it is to protect them from frost, both when planting and when harvesting. Read more about potato harvest here.

Our March-planted potatoes are in the root cellar. By mid-September, we need to cool the cellar to 60°F (16°C)

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter

Sweet Corn harvest is still going strong. Sweet corn is ready to harvest about three weeks after the first silks appear. Some growers say you should harvest daily, but we find that 3 days a week is often enough, and gives us a nice amount from our 1050-1325 ft (320-400 m) plantings to feed our community. We sow sweet corn six times, for continuous harvests from early July to mid-October.

Corn is ready when the silks are brown, not before! If they are brown, and the ears are plump and filled to the end with kernels, take a closer look. Mature ears stand away from the stalks. If you are still learning, slit the husks at the side of the ear with your thumb nails and look at the kernels. (Don’t puncture the husks on the topside of the ear as the dew and a million tiny beetles will get in and make a mess.) The kernels should be a bit square and fairly tight-packed, not round and pearly with rounded diamond-shaped spaces between them. An opaque, milky juice will seep out of punctured kernels. If your sample ear wasn’t ready, push the husks closed over the ear and wait a few days.

Be sure to shade your corn after harvest and get it cooled as soon as possible, as the flavor deteriorates if it sits around.

Amy’s Apricot tomato from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tomatoes are cranking out their fruit but starting to look “back-endish” – spotty, and smaller. To minimize the spread of fungal diseases, wait for the leaves to dry in the morning, before harvesting. We plant maincrop tomatoes (sown in mid-March) and late tomatoes (sown in mid-May). This way the late ones peak after the maincrop, and keep the plentiful supply going longer. This year our late bed includes a few Black Cherry and Sun Gold cherry tomatoes as well as lots of our standards: Tropic, a heat-tolerant, disease-resistant round red one, and Jubilee, a lovely flavorful orange that is also a feast for the eyes. This year I have been particularly impressed with its healthiness – the fruits are reliably unblemished and do not readily split. Truly a workhorse variety!

Watermelon harvest is peaking. They don’t ripen further after harvest, so get good at determining watermelon ripeness. I wrote about that in my August post. An unripe watermelon is a sad waste, as most plants only produce two melons.

We store our watermelons outdoors, under the eaves of the house, where they will stay in good shape for a few weeks. We used to store them under the trees further from the building, but the squirrels learned to bite their way in, and taught each other the trick!

When we have enough watermelon harvested (500-600), we roll up the drip tape and disk the plot, to get a good stand of winter cover crops. We use winter wheat and crimson clover if before October 14. I’ll address this more next month. We used to try to harvest every last watermelon until the year I realized that we can only eat so many, and that watermelons in October are of limited interest. Good cover crops are important for taking care of the soil mini-livestock.

A fine winter squash medley.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Winter Squash harvest happens once a week throughout September and October. This is next week’s blog topic. Winter squash is very rewarding to grow, providing high yields for not much work. Stored winter squash can provide meals all winter and also in early spring when other crops are scarce.

ATTRA Organic Pumpkin and Winter Squash Marketing and Production

ATTRA has a very good publication Organic Pumpkin and Winter Squash Marketing and Production. Add it to your winter reading if you plan to grow winter squash next year!

Zucchini and summer squash are still being harvested every day. Our last sowing was August 5. We harvest beyond the first fall frost, by covering that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights. See above, under Beans for our thinking about fattening up the last fruits.

From storage: spring cabbage, carrots, garlic and potatoes; watermelon from under the trees or the roof overhang.

Workhorse Crops Special Topic:                    Garlic Storage

Between late September and early October, we move our stored garlic from the basement to the walk-in cooler. the garlic was stored in the basement from June to the end of September, where the temperature was above 56°F (13°C) which is a perfectly fine storage temperature for garlic. Once the basement gets colder than that, we move the garlic to the refrigerator, where it will be below 40°F (10°C). The temperature range of 40°F to 56°F (10-13°C) is where garlic sprouts readily.

Hanging garlic of many varieties in bunches.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Lettuce All Year in a Changing Climate

Lettuce bed in May.
Photo Wren Vile

We like to eat lettuce year round, and have put time and energy into finding the varieties and planting dates that work best here in Central Virginia, as well as how to get the best results in each season. Recently I revised our lettuce schedules, partly to take account of hotter weather arriving earlier in the year, and also to even out the harvest dates.

I have frequently written blogposts about growing lettuce. And I have a whole year of Lettuce for the Month posts. See here for the overview, or click on the month you want to know more about. These posts are mainly about our favorite varieties for each time of year.

I have a slideshow Lettuce year round  – It’s at the end of this post.

Back in 2006, I wrote Lettuce: Organic Production in Virginia for VABF. We’re now in Winter Hardiness Zone 7a. Back then we were 6b. Read this publication for details you are hazy on, but see our updated Lettuce Varieties List and Lettuce Log in this post.

Fast-growing Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Choose appropriate lettuce varieties for each time of year.

Sow several varieties each time to spread the harvest season and the risks of poor germination. I like to use something fast, something slow; at least one red; a romaine, a bibb and a couple of leaf types.

Consider multileaf lettuces too, Salanova and Eazyleaf brands. They are bred for uniformly small leaves, with more texture, loft and flavor than baby mixes and faster harvesting. Transplanted 6″–8″ (15-20 cm) apart they produce 40% more than baby leaf mixes. The full-size plant can be harvested as a head, providing a collection of bite-sized leaves.  Or just one side (or the outer leaves) of the plant can be cut and the plant will regrow for future harvests. Growing multileaf heads takes 55 days, compared to 30 days for baby lettuce

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

Our recent changes to our Lettuce Varieties List include switching over from “Early Spring” varieties to “Spring” varieties at the end of February rather than the end of March. This means we only make 3 sowings of the early spring varieties, and we need to stop buying much seed of those varieties! Next year I might even abolish that category and those early varieties to simplify life.

The spring varieties we now sow from February 28 to April 22. We used to sow these until May 15. We’re still making 5 sowings of those, but the dates have moved earlier.

On April 23 we switch over to our Summer varieties, which we make 20 sowings of, until August 14. (Buy lots of seed of those varieties!) We then switch to nine sowings of Fall varieties, until September 7.

Lettuce growing in our greenhouse in November.
Photo Wren Vile

From September 8 to the end of September we use our cold hardy varieties. These 9 sowings include those for the greenhouse and hoophouse, which will feed us all winter. 

Click to access Lettuce-Varieties-pdf.pdf

You’ll need a large screen, a magnifying glass or the ability to expand the image.

We like to grow a balance of leaf lettuce and head lettuces, and, in winter, baby lettuce mix too. We harvest the baby lettuce mix when 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cutting 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. We harvest leaves from the big lettuces the rest of the time. Baby lettuce mix is very pretty, but I actually prefer the juiciness and crunch of big lettuce.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
photo Wren Vile

Keys to year round lettuce

  • ·         Store seed in a cool, dry, dark, mouse proof place.
  • ·         Grow your lettuce quickly, for high quality and flavor, using good soil preparation and high organic matter.
  • ·         Learn the skills of lettuce germination in all weathers. Minimum soil temperature for germination is 35°F (1.6°C).  Optimum temperature range for germination is 68°F–80°F (20°C–27°C).1/4″–1/2″ (6–10 mm) deep is ideal.  Good light.
  • Watch the temperature – Germination takes 15 days at 41°F (5°C), 7 days at 50°F (10°C), 3 days at 68°F (20°C) and only 2 days at 77°F (25°C). Germination will not occur reliably at temperatures hotter than 86°F (30°C).
  • Keep watching the temperature –  Optimum growing temperatures are 60°F–65°F (15°C–18°C), Some growth occurs whenever the temperature tops 40°F (4.5°C).
  • ·         Choose good locations! We grow lettuce outside from transplants from February to December (harvesting from late April); in a solar-heated greenhouse from September to March (harvesting leaves from November) and in a solar heated hoophouse from October to April (harvesting leaves from November, and whole heads in April). We also sow baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse from October to February, for harvest multiple times from December to April.
  • ·         Use shade cloth on hoops in hot weather
  • ·         Use rowcover in cold weather, or plant in cold frames, greenhouses or hoophouses.

Lettuce under shade cloth.
Photo by Nina Gentle

Grow a consistent lettuce supply using succession crop planting

To have a continuous supply, it is important to plant frequently, at intervals adapted for the time of year. The gap between one sowing and the next gets smaller as the year progresses; the gap between one transplanting and the next does likewise. The number of days to reach transplant size dips to 21 days in the summer, then lengthens as the weather cools and the days get shorter.

We made a Lettuce Succession Crops graph using our records for sowing date and harvest start date. From this we determined the sowing dates to provide us with a fresh harvest (120 heads of lettuce, or equivalent) every single week. We made a Lettuce Log with our planned sowing, transplanting and harvest dates. This is explained in my slideshow Lettuce year round.

Lettuce Succession Crops Graph

Click to access Lettuce-Succession-Crops.pdf

Rouge d’Hiver hardy romaine lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Recently I fine-tuned this in light of more recent records. In some cases we had been led astray by a spreadsheet date calculator that was based on 30 day months in a 360 day year! Not reality! We also had data showing that transplants were not always ready on the dates we had thought, probably due to a mistake in an earlier year when we were unable to transplant on time, and repeated the delayed date the next year. Most of the tweaking was in early and late spring, and then in August.

Click to access Lettuce-Log.pdf

Tips for growing good quality lettuce

I recommend transplanting lettuce (other than baby lettuce mix) at 4-6 true leaves (3-6 weeks of age). It is worth learning good transplanting skills, so that plants thrive, even if transplanted in mid-summer.

Water enough, with an efficient irrigation system. Water new transplants daily for the first 3 days, then every 4-7 days after that. Lettuce needs a relatively large amount of water throughout its growth.  Deeper weekly waterings equivalent to 1” (25 mm) of rain are better than frequent superficial irrigation – roots will grow deeper, giving the plant greater drought-resistance.

To make best use of space and time, plant lettuces 10-12” (25-30 cm) apart, in a hexagonal pattern. If you plant too close, you are restricting the size of the lettuce. If you plant with more space than needed, you will waste time dealing with more weeds!

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

Transplanting gets a head start on weed control, which is important from planting to a couple of weeks before harvest. Don’t waste time hoeing lettuce you will be harvesting next week. I generally find that if I hoe once, a couple of weeks after transplanting, that is all the weed control I need at the fast-growing time of year. We like the stirrup, or scuffle, hoes, which are safer in the hands of novices than sharp edged hoes, because the blade is in a closed loop.

Some growers use black plastic mulch, but I hate filling the world with single use plastic, so we don’t do that. Some others use landscape fabric with melted holes at the right spacing. I used this for strawberries and liked it. I’m not sure I’d find it worthwhile for fast-growing lettuce. No-till growers can transplant into mulch, first making what we call “nests” at the appropriate measured spacing. It’s tempting to skip the measuring, but if you drift from a 12” (30 cm) spacing to a 15” (38 cm) spacing, you will end up with fewer lettuces!

For those who like to direct sow lettuce, you could prepare the bed, let it rest for a week (watering it), then flame or lightly hoe the surface before sowing to remove a flush of weeds.

Lettuce seedlings for transplanting later. Photo Pam Dawling

Bolting and/or bitterness are more likely with under-watering, long days, mature plants, poor soil, crowding, high temperatures, and vernalization—once the stems are thicker than 1/4″ (6 mm), if plants suffer 2 weeks of temperatures below 50°F (10°C), followed by a rapid warm-up.

Bolting lettuce in July
Photo Alexis Yamashita

Deal promptly with pests and diseases. Aphids, cutworms, slugs, rabbits, groundhogs and deer all like lettuce as much as we do. If you find your lettuces melting down with fungal diseases, you can, of course, commit to better crop rotation. You can also consider solarizing beds for next year’s lettuce. You need a minimum of 6 hot weeks in which to cook the soil-borne disease spores by covering the prepared beds tightly with clear plastic. Old hoophouse plastic is ideal – construction plastic does not have the UV inhibitors that prevent the plastic shattering into shards. 

More resources

Cornell has a 2016 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Lettuce 67 pages of everything you are likely to need, for growing in New York type climates, at least.

Ray Tyler at Rose Creek farm has a Lettuce Masterclass, a step-by-step blueprint to plan, grow, and sell lettuce year-round!

This slideshow is from 2019, before I made the changes I mention above.

Lettuce Year Round 60 mins

Book Review: Josh Volk, Build Your Own Farm Tools

Josh Volk, Build Your Own Farm Tools: Equipment and Systems for the Small-Scale Farm and Market Garden

Storey Publishing, August 2021

I knew from the start that I would like this book! Who among us hasn’t wrestled with tools that aren’t quite right, that we spent good money on? Handle too short? Wrong angle? Made for very large hands? Who hasn’t wished for a tool that isn’t commercially available yet?

The book is clearly illustrated with accurate line drawings – better than photos because there’s no extraneous stuff. The first chapter, Setting Up a Basic Shop, covers safety, tools, benches, tool use and maintenance. Having safety notes at the beginning is wise. Yes, don’t wear gloves when working near rotating machinery. Clear space around your work area and have good lighting. When needed, use ear protection, goggles, mask, helmet. No farmer wants an injury. We rely on our bodies to get our work done. Josh writes good advice.

The lists of basic tools are helpful, as is the beginner’s guide to driving screws, a task which many of us were not taught at home or school. I encourage everyone to read the introductory chapter. Even if you know it all, you may pick up a good way to explain things to your helpers. Given the other safety precautions, I was surprised we are not warned against spreading linseed oil rags out to air-dry after oiling tool handles. They self-ignite – we burned a building down that way!

The common materials used include wood (SPF, or spruce, pine, fir) and CDX plywood (grades C and D); hot-rolled low-carbon steel, black steel pipe, and polyethylene, PVC and ABS plastic piping (with environmental concerns elucidated).

There are 19 projects, all made and used by the author and farmer friends. All can be built with commonly available tools and materials. There are clear instructions, a description of how the tool is used, and options for design modifications, including how you can apply the design features to other tools you might make. I instantly saw the wisdom of having a three-legged sawhorse for uneven ground – the milking stool principle applies!

The greenhouse projects start with a simple potting bench made from standard size lumber. Make the height to fit the users. The slatted top is 42” x 8’, and you can customize by installing irrigation sprinklers, or hot water spaghetti tubing between the slats for a bottom-heating system, and/or insulation under the slats to prevent drafts from below.

Three homemade hoes are next., followed by a germination chamber made from wire shelving (as used in restaurant kitchens), surrounded by ½” exterior grade insulation board. Josh’s example holds 27 10×20 flats, and fits under their seeding bench. The heating is provided by a metal pan of water with a submersible 500 watt thermostatically-controlled aquarium heater.

A legless cantilevered potting bench with compost mixing tub follows. The key is to first find a tub the right size for your operation and build around it. Make a sliding plywood lid to cover the tub.

The field tool projects start with benders for making hoops from metal EMT conduit or chain-link fencing top-rail. You’ll need a different bender for each pipe size, and for each hoop size, but as they are made from scrap wood fastened onto vertical posts, you can line up a whole set in your barn. Instructions are included for drawing circles on wood, and calculating the pipe length for a given hoop diameter.

Next is a rolling bed marker. I once made one from plastic piping, following poor instructions online. It never worked. I don’t think it had been field-tested by the designer. No danger of that here! This design uses wood throughout, and marks lines across the bed every 12”, for rectangular plantings of three rows. You could modify it for more rows, or closer spacings, although not to mark a hexagonal (offset) grid, where plants are equally spaced in all directions. Josh recommends making just one roller and using a 1-2-3 row choice with a 3-row roller or 1-2-4 row options with a 4-row roller. The 4-row roller can be used to plant 1-2-3-4-5-7 rows if you eyeball rows between the marked rows. Likewise, by planting between the lines across the bed, you can create plant spacings of 4-6-8-9-12-15-18”. Rolling bed markers work best when pulled over fairly flat bare soil, soon after raking or tilling. This project is more exacting than many in the book, although it’s just labeled “moderate”. The easy-looking drip tape winder is also “moderate”. Even the hand cart, which involves some welding, is graded “moderate”!

The hand cart has bicycle wheels (smooth rolling), and a higher bed than the commercially-available carts (less bending and lifting), can roll over planted beds (higher clearance), and has good balance so the load doesn’t shift in use. The frame is made from plain steel square tube. The handle is round tubing, and the fork legs for the wheels are flat steel. You can make a flat plywood bed to sit on top of the steel framework. It has no side walls, just a short rail at the back, making it easy to load, unload, or use as a workbench in the field.

The irrigation tools chapter includes a stand with mounted drum to reroll drip tape, and an easy-to-move sprinkler system. The drip system section includes the calculations for applying the amount of water needed. There are also explanations of hose threads and pipe threads and why they don’t fit together, and how to use various driptape fittings. It’s possible to unroll two lengths of driptape at once off a new roll by fastening the free end to the mainline pipe and walking out a loop of tape. You can actually leave the two lengths connected, saving yourself end caps. The drip tape tutorial is very user-friendly, leading you through their real-life example.

The sprinkler system mimics the K-line system used in pastures. It has sprinklers on sled bases connected by ¾” flexible poly irrigation tubing. The sprinklers are either pop-up lawn sprinklers, Wobblers or Nelson Windfighter ag sprinklers. PVC pipe nipples attach the sprinklers to the sled bases.

Josh includes a heart-warming page on the importance of finding good mentors “with a crafter’s mind” as Washington State farmer Rohn Amegatcher calls it. Learning this approach from a person who puzzles through challenges and fixes things themselves is worth even more than learning a particular fix.

The wash and pack tools start with a hand truck mini-pallet. Stack your crates up on one of these pallets, then move them with your hand truck. You can make these from scrap wood as it becomes available and you have time, or you can have an off-season project to make a set of 20.

Next is an onion bag filling stand, that works equally well for potatoes or other root crops. Oh! This project is graded moderate to difficult! I don’t see why. A simple spray table is up next, a slatted table with a slanted metal diverter below it (to keep your feet dry!) and side racks. There’s a page of design notes including making the table height, width and depth fit the humans.  Important because the workers will be there for some time.

The barrel washer page by Josh Volk

The barrel washer is next. We’ve long wanted one of these, but prices of ready-made ones are high. These instructions could help us make our own. This project has a high level of complexity, so I should make something easier first! The compact design (4’ long) uses less water than the big ones, and suits small-scale farms. You can add a gate to keep the water in the barrel for longer, saving water. The frame uses aluminum bicycle wheels. The water supply runs from a garden hose into a length of PVC piping with three clip-on nozzles that can easily be removed for cleaning or replacement. There’s a flow-rate calculation page, and instructions on how to use the barrel washer manually or add a ¼ hp motor. There are tips for diverting and collecting the water that runs out, letting it settle and recirculating it as the first wash water. Design notes help you understand and optimize the washer.

A rolling packing table with a shelf for labels, tape, markers, order sheets is next. The table height adjusts for different workers, and the table surface is a store-bought plastic folding table, which can be removed and used as a regular table if your needs change. Most of the rest is plywood and standard lumber (plus casters). It’s straightforward to make but does require accuracy for smooth-operation.

If you want to move away from plastic crates, and have an upmarket look, the lightweight, lidded easy-to-carry CSA boxes are for you. Make them to fit efficiently in your vehicle and to hold a whole number of whatever size bags you pack into.

Next we move into the office. The main tools are computer, phone, pencil and paper. Josh explains, in 13 pages, how he uses spreadsheets, working back from his harvest goals to his planting schedule and field maps. If you are new to crop planning, this is a good primer.

You can quickly make your spreadsheet serve your needs. You can make a plan for a single CSA share, then multiply by the number of shares to get your harvest quantity. You can add in expected market sales, then proceed to make your Planting Plan.

Copy your Harvest Plan onto a new spreadsheet and parse it out into every single planting and the date to plant to meet your harvest date. You’ll need the days to maturity number, with a little wiggle room added. Include columns for the row length and the total space needed, in beds or in length x width areas. Make a greenhouse seedlings schedule for all the crops you transplant.

Sort your spreadsheets by date for your schedules, and in an alphabetical list of crops for seed ordering. You can even use spreadsheets to make your maps. If you record what actually happens, next year’s schedules and maps will be more fine-tuned to reality.

Will a tool pay for itself? It’s easy to get beguiled by shiny new tools. Sometimes this leads to buyer’s remorse. Josh lists out parts of the overall cost, including environmental costs. Benefits include saved time, increased yield, improved ergonomics and morale. The lifespan of the tool and its maintenance costs affect the cost per year of use, and the time it takes for the tool to pay for itself. As an example, Josh looks at the rolling bed marker. Cost of materials plus labor to build it, versus time saved each use, times number of times used per year x labor cost of that time. It pays for itself in just under two years. Additionally, the time used to build it is in the off-season and the time saved is in the busy season.

List the questions you need to answer and find an easy way to record the answers while you are using the tool. It’s easy to record packing data on record sheets in the packing shed.  But in the field? Clipboards and paper, or pocket notebooks are useful too. Investigate whether it is actually more efficient for your crew to write information on paper, and later have someone transfer it onto a spreadsheet or database, or if it’s easier to have each person input directly on their phone, or a barn tablet. Google Forms may be useful for time studies of tasks. Different answers suit different people.

It can be particularly helpful to have your weekly “to do” list on your phone. Phones are useful to set reminders to turn off irrigation, and photos can record water meter readings before and after. A video will tell you how long something takes. Or take a photo at the start and end of a task, and use the embedded times for your calculation. Having a step to complete in the shade is no bad thing!

Josh Volk

My review copy was a digital advance reader copy and I had to be patient and accept not being able to easily flip through the whole thing. I also had to deal with bits that still needed editing, that I assume will be. Why are there no metric equivalents throughout? Just conversion ratios for length, weight and temperature at the end of the book. Yes, we can convert, but it would have been easier if the book had included them.

The appendices include basic math for tool design, length, area and volume, practical triangles and trigonometry, circles, and calculating and converting rates such as water flow and slope rise. I’m fortunate to be math literate, but I’ve found not everyone can do seat-of-the-pants mental arithmetic to figure how many stakes are needed for a certain bed length. Sad but true.

The section explaining mechanical principles is useful for those of us lacking an engineering or physics background. Force, strength, stress and strain are all explained in terms of a bag of potting mix on a table, and bending forces are explained setting it on the edge of a cantilevered table. The explanation of torque examines the casters on a barrel washer, and a wrench on a nut. Flow rate and pressure are practical aspects of fluid dynamics. If your irrigation flow rate exceeds the maximum available, the pressure will drop. Pressure is generated by pumps, or by setting the water source higher up than the area to be watered. Pressure drops over the length of the piping, particularly at fittings. Use pipe runs that are as straight and short as possible, with the fewest fittings to restrict the flow. Small losses can add up.

The section on basic materials properties explains what you can expect from wood, steel, aluminum, PVC, and concrete. This book scores well on diversity of people-types in the drawings. – Who did those wonderful drawings? My copy didn’t include that info.

This very handy practical book deserves a place in your shop, barn or shed. You’ll refer to it often.

This review also appears in the August 2021 issue of Growing for Market magazine

Downtown Greens, Fredericksburg

At my presentation last evening at the Fredericksburg Food Coop, I learned about Downtown Greens and their hoped-for expansion using 56 acres of greenspace. They need financial help to reach their goal, which will improve lives of people in Fredericksburg, with open greenspace, outdoor education for children, farmer training, and the expansion of their current projects growing food and flowers for people of limited means and limited access to good food.

I hope some readers will be able to offer donations to help preserve valuable green space. Contact info is below the brochure.

 

Click to access DTG_expansion-Purchase-of-56-Acres.pdf

Sarah Perry,
Executive Director at 540-429-6771 or
[email protected]