Preparing your hoophouse for fall and winter

December lettuce and spinach in our hoophouse. Photo Wren Vile

Recently I traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas to give my presentation Extend Your Growing Season into Colder Weather with High Tunnels. Run the mouse over the slide and click on the lower left.

CAFF - Extend Your Growing Season into Colder Weather with High Tunnels

We are getting ready for fall and starting to plant our winter crops in the hoophouse.

I have written about transition to winter crops here: Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables (August 16, 2022). This post includes a bed plan, and links to lots of related posts, such as selecting and planning winter crops, bed prep, direct sowing and transplanting, and then caring for the crops, optimizing use of the space, harvesting, and what to do if something goes wrong,

Fall Lettuce Transition

From September 11-17 we sow to transplant in our greenhouse, and on September 15 and 24 to transplant in our hoophouse. This is our fall transition and I’ll write about that when the time comes.

On September 15 and 24, we sow leaf lettuces and romaines in an outdoor nursery bed. We transplant these into our hoophouse at 10” (25 cm) spacing. This is a bit closer than the 12” (30 cm) spacing we use outdoors. We will harvest outer leaves from the hoophouse lettuce all winter, so the plants won’t get as big as they do outdoors.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Wren Vile

On October 23 we start sowing lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall, longer in colder weather. Our first sowing will be harvestable form 4 December to 15 May if we’re lucky, although if it gets too hot, this planting will get bitter and we’ll need to pull it up.

Baby lettuce mix is a direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop, the plants regrow and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. We sow 10 rows in a 4’ (1.2m) bed, 4.5” (11cm) apart. Weed and thin to 1″ (2.5 cm). When 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cut 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. Gather a small handful in one hand and cut with using large scissors. Immediately after harvesting, weed the just-cut area so the next cut won’t include weeds. Rake after harvest with a fine leaf rake to remove outer leaves and cut scraps. If you want to make more than one cut, you will need to remove anything that isn’t top quality salad while you can see it. Larger scale operations have harvesting machines.

We make four or five sowings of baby lettuce mix, sowing our last one on 15 February, for harvest starting mid-March, and ending in May when it gets too hot. By then we should be happily harvesting juicy lettuce heads outdoors and will have lost interest in the lettuce mix.

The soil temperature range for germination of lettuce seeds is 35-85°F (2-29°C), with 40-80°F (4-27°C) being the optimum range and 75°F (24°C) the ideal. At 41°F (5°C) lettuce takes 15 days to germinate; at 50°F (10°C) it takes 7 days; at 59°F (15°C) 4 days; at 68°F (20°C) only 2.5 days; at 77°F (25°C) 2.2 days. Then time to germination increases: 2.6 days at 86°F (30°C); after that it’s too hot.

Removing Shadecloth from our Hoophouse

We are now removing our shadecloth. Normally we would have removed the shade cloth in mid-September, or at least by the Equinox, but this year we are delayed a week. After 15 years with our initial piece of shadecloth we ordered a new piece. Well, we ordered two new pieces, because we mistakenly ordered a piece only half long enough. We bought a matching piece for the other half, and this winter we are going to sew the two pieces together with nylon twine, because the ends of each piece roll back, leaving a central gap about 6 feet long by September. Measure twice, order once!

Our hoophouse with two pieces of shadecloth (by mistake). Photo Pam Dawling

Before next spring we need to replace quite a lot of the hooks the shadecloth ropes attach to. Next time we replace the big plastic we also need to replace the baseboards, as they are rotting and not holding the hooks well.

My post Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal includes spreading compost, broadforking, and a step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep.

Also see September in the Hoophouse for more about removing shadecloth

A reader passed on this tip:When I ordered shadecloth for my hoophouse, I overshot each end by ten or twelve feet. We stake that out on either end, using six-foot T-posts, to give us a shaded area where air moving into the hoophouse’s open ends can be cooled before entering the structure. Every year in July and August, I’m grateful we did.”

Washing Down the Salts in the Hoophouse

Effects of excess soil salt levels on crop foliage.
Photo Rose Ogutu, Horticulture Specialist, Delaware State University

Next week we will leach the salts that have risen to the surface of the soil and dried out there. My book The Year-Round Hoophouse has a whole chapter on recognizing, monitoring and reducing salts that have built-up in the hoophouse, and reducing the likelihood of problems in the future. There is also a chart of salt tolerance of various vegetables, so you can choose what to grow while you remediate your soil. Here I’ll just give a very short intro, in three slides. Click in the lower left of the first slide to move to the next one.

Salt Build-up

Closing Hoophouse Doors and Windows at Night

We are starting to close the doors at night when the temperature looks likely to drop below 50°F (10°C) outside. We had to trim down the grass to be able to push the doors to. We had to re-drill the holes the door-bolts (“cane bolts”) go down into. The doors have been wide open all summer.

View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

In fall/winter/spring, if night time outdoor low temperatures will be below 40°F (4.5°C) here, we close the windows as well as the doors.

See my post Hoophouse Sliding Doors if you might want to replace your doors with sliding ones.

One of the sliding doors on our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Be Ready for Winter

See my post Dealing with winter weather in your hoophouse (Jan 2022). Be ready to deal with snow and strong winds, extra cold temperatures, and holes in the plastic letting cold air in. If you have a double layer hoophouse, the air inflated between the layers adds strength to the structure, as well as thermal insulation. Holes are bad news.

Hoophouse snow scraping tool on a telescoping painter’s pole. Photo Pam Dawling

Winter Kit

  • SnoBrum and telescoping painter’s pole
  • Hat with visor
  • Long-handled broom with bristles covered with a towel or some bubblewrap
  • Rowcover or inner tunnels
  • Some spare plants, back-up plans or a list of fast-growing crops to replace disasters with successes.
  • PolyPatch tape for fixing holes in the plastic
  • Gorilla tape for fixing many problems
  • Pond noodles or other draft-excluding sausages if your doors let air under them
  • Perhaps some sturdy poles or 2x4s to help support the roof in case of very heavy snow.
  • Hot chocolate/tea/coffee for when you get back indoors.
Plan D: seed flats in our hoophouse on Oct 16, a late attempt to make up for things that went wrong!
Photo Pam Dawling

Book Review Our Wild Farming Life: Adventures on a Scottish Highland Croft, Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer

Cover image of Our Wild Farming LIfe book.Chelsea Green Publishers

Book Review Our Wild Farming Life: Adventures on a Scottish Highland Croft, Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer, Chelsea Green Publishers, February 2022. 212 pages plus 8 pages of color photos, $19.95.

This is the inspiring and uplifting tale of two determined, thoughtful women who took ownership and stewardship of a croft, a 150-acre parcel of Scottish land that most people would consider hopeless, and restored it to life as a small farm in harmony with nature. I loved this book partly for the details about their farming life, but even more, I appreciated their openness about the challenges and dilemmas they faced. Many of these will have been experienced by other farmers too. Their story has been featured on BBC2’s series This Farming Life. This is a passionate, honest, pragmatic account of careful decision-making combined with hard work and integration into the local community.

Lynn and Sandra met in 2012 while working as rangers for the National Trust. Soon the two realized how strongly they were drawn to each other. They shared a dream of growing their own food, heating their winters with firewood they gathered and cut, and learning from the land around them. Pragmatically, they acknowledged that bills would have to be paid, imagining operating a small campground. Full-time farming was not on their radar, despite their attention to planning.

Sandra and Lynn weren’t earning much money and didn’t have a lot of savings. Sandra was drawn to Scotland, and so they went camping in the Cairngorms National Park, three hours north of Edinburgh and Glasgow to look for land. The two “must-haves” on their list were: must be in Scotland; must have at least 5 acres of land. Even a house was not on that list: they were willing to live in a caravan (trailer) to start with. After a dinner of canned haggis, they found a spot with an incredible vista. Lynn said: “Imagine living here. Imagine if that was your view.” Neither knew that their future home was just two miles behind them!

Sandra got a ranger job in Scotland, to further their land search. Lynn found tree-planting work and lodging a few hours away, enabling them to spend weekends together. Every evening was spent working down lists of available property. Sandra found an enticing property – a small traditional farming homestead set in beautiful scenery. It was way over their budget, but they became obsessed with this impossible dream.

Several months later they had a weekend of land visits, and realized they would be driving “right past” their secret crush, Lynbreck Croft. They booked a viewing, and fell in love with the place. How could they ever raise the money? Moving there to live would involve leaving their jobs, nullifying any chance of a mortgage or bank loan. Lynn had some trepidation and fear about leaving friends, family, and career.

One close friend questioned them on how sure they were about what they were doing, and then offered to lend them the money to make up the shortfall. What good fortune! What a good friend! In March 2016, four years after they met each other, they were locating the key to their cabin under a rock and moving in.

Crofts are small Scottish farmsteads, usually mixed arable and grazing, providing a subsistence level of food, water and heating, in cooperation with the local crofting community. The 1886 Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act ensures security of tenure, provided crofters paid their rents and kept the land in working order. In 1976, the Act was reformed, allowing crofters to buy their land. Crofting law is complex, and usually banks will not provide mortgages or loans on crofts. It is a real challenge to make crofting profitable. It requires both traditional knowledge and a willingness to embrace modern technology.

The area had relatively recently become a National Park. (National Parks in the UK are individually run by government-funded bodies, but the land continues to be owned and farmed as before).

Two old buildings stood on the homestead when they moved in, and they opted to live in the 3-bedroom wooden cabin. The old croft house, dating from 1852, had been gutted for a renovation that never happened. Winters used to be more severe, with snow anytime from October to May, sometimes with drifts over 30 feet deep.

Sandra and Lynn developed a huge respect for the crofting community, and wondered how well they could carry the responsibility, and how welcome they would be in the local community, where residents are being squeezed out by vacationers. They never hid the fact that they are a couple, but never felt any discrimination or awkwardness. When their neighbors learned that they wanted to work the land, they welcomed them warmly.

In their early days they did feel a bit lost, as it dawned on them what a massive amount of work they had taken on. They started with the trees around the cabin, tending saplings, pulling competing grasses, installing tree guards. Their past work with trees gave them confidence and familiarity. Next they started their no-dig (no-till) permaculture kitchen garden, using the flat south-facing area in front of the cabin. They installed a rabbit-proof fence and made five raised beds, bringing in soil from many mole hills. A neighbor who saw their efforts donated a tractor bucket-load of manure.

They also made a start on felling and cutting firewood for the winter, and a daily rhythm developed. They needed outside jobs for money to live on. Lynn worked four days a week in Inverness, 50 minutes away. Sandra got a part-time job cutting riverside weeds to improve access for fishers. Most new farmers face similar issues: keeping a flow of money coming in, while building up the farm.

The authors chronicle their misfortunes candidly, such as the time they tried to sterilize their well and then spent several months using bottled water until the well recovered from their ministrations. They likewise do not pretend they can go it alone. Gratitude to neighbors lifts them up. They receive gifts of an old barrel, a tractor-bucket of peat fuel for their stove, and even a heifer.

The authors have the goal of working the land to provide food for themselves and the local community, while ensuring natural diversity thrives. They don’t seek to recreate past harsh conditions. They want a warm house, electricity, speedy internet, and a reliable car.

UK agriculture is heavily subsidized, and they decided to see what funding they were entitled to. For a coherent 5-year plan they could get a Young Farmer’s Start-Up Grant of €70,000, of which 90% would be paid upfront! They struggled with “Imposter Syndrome”: feelings of chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that persist despite proof of success. They struggled to define their plans precisely enough for this competitive grant. It became clear their margins would be very tight, and they would be working hard. They made the deadline, and then continued their day jobs and farming, not really expecting to get the grant. One year after they moved to Lynbreck, they received a letter saying the money was on its way!

Lynbreck is on the leeward edge of the Cairngorm Mountains, in mixed grassland, woodland, heather and bog. The three main fields are separated (or joined!) by a band of woodland. They hired an ecologist to make a baseline vegetation survey. She found 148 species of trees, shrubs, grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, mosses and wildflowers, and provided some recommendations on maintaining and improving diversity. She also shared insight into previous uses of the land.

Lynbreck includes 38 acres of bog to the south of the homestead: tussocks of purple moor-grass, pillows of sphagnum moss and bog pools. The largest vegetation area is dry heath, mostly heather-clad hills on the north with small clusters of trees. There is a row of eight grouse butts, stone-lined excavations made for hunters to lurk to shoot grouse. They also discovered prehistoric piles of rocks from field clearance. The landscape was once a mosaic of young trees, older trees and open spaces, not continuous forest as some imagine.

By their first autumn the new farmers had a good understanding of the land. They had observed that for trees to flourish they would need to fence out the foragers. They contacted various bodies for advice and funds for tree planting. They claimed “carbon funding” to bridge the gap. This is a way of trading future carbon sequestration to companies seeking ways to offset their carbon emissions, and make them carbon neutral. In other words, get paid to plant trees.

Despite their worries about repaying the funds if they hit a disaster, they installed a large deer fence and planted of 17,400 trees. Yes, just the two of them. Yes, while working outside jobs to provide money to live on. They had to clear 17,400 spots to plant in, in two months, an average of 290 spots each day, so the trees would get a good start. In mid-February were ready to take delivery of their tiny trees. They planted dawn to dusk at a rate of almost 580 trees a day. In snow, wind, rain, icy blasts, and also sunshine they persevered, eating their lunch of oatcakes and tea out in the future woodland. This huge task took them over the brink of exhaustion, and also gave them enormous satisfaction.

This story delves into many of the issues new farmers face: uncertainties, confusions, dilemmas; accepting government financing along with regulations and inspections. “Farming subsidies don’t exist to prop up a farmer, they exist to subsidize the true cost of producing food to make it cheaper for all of us.” The pressure to make the land as agriculturally productive as possible leads to spending large amounts of money on inputs. Without farm subsidies, no-one could afford to pay the actual cost of the food. Really, farming is being done at a loss by many farmers, trapped in a dependency on subsidies.

They sought more like-minded farmers. Initially they felt kinship with the Rewilding movement, but over time that kinship dwindled. Some Rewilding practitioners see the needs of nature opposed to the needs of people. Some of the wild animals they would like to reintroduce pose a very real threat to the needs of farmers to keep their livestock safe, and their habitats in balance. It is easy for farmers and rewilders to become entrenched in polarized views.

The Regenerative Agriculture movement was taking off with a passion. Lynn and Sandra watched videos by Richard Perkins, listened to Allan Savory on holistic management, and Christine Jones on soil biology. Integrating animals into farming is vital as part of biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture was the closest fit to what they were doing: farming in a way where the impact of livestock benefits the health of the soil and increases biodiversity and abundance of species above and below the ground. They observed the effects of their methods and made changes when a better idea emerged. Their confidence grew over time, but so did their task lists, and the challenges of time and money!

They were working 16-hour days, earning income four days a week each, expanding their farming business and putting food on their own table. Lynn’s stress levels spiraled. They were paralyzed with fear about giving up their paid jobs in case their dream collapsed, but they were sacrificing the simple pleasures of life that were the reasons they chose this path. They reduced their paid work and accepted tighter finances, regaining some time.

One of the Lynbreck pigs.

After getting hens early on, they next bought three young Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, a rare breed well-suited to the crofting life. Lynn and Sandra planned for them to root up a strip of land in small sections for short lengths of time, so the soil would get suitably worked to plant 320 trees next winter. Additionally, of course, the pigs would provide meat to eat and to sell.

The soil-prep aspect went well, but like many new farmers they made the mistake of overfeeding their animals “to be nice to them”, causing their meat to have excess fat. When it came time for the trip to the abattoir, each pig got personally thanked for their past work and their future.as nourishment. The authors did wrestle with guilt and re-examined their meat-selling plan. In spite of good intentions, there is no single food choice made by any living organism that does not impact some other form of life. Plants included.

One of the Lynbreck Highland cattle.

Next they got six hardy Highland cattle (the short ones with big horns and long shaggy coats), filling an ecological niche: recycling plant material, dunging the soil, creating new habitats. And providing exceptionally high quality beef. The electric fencing and careful planning let the cattle be rotated around their land on a daily basis. This became a short chore, and the farmers were able to learn by observing the condition of the land how to tweak the size of the paddocks. They need no housing, and their lighter weight limits damage to the ground. Sandra studied the work of Temple Grandin on efficient humane livestock handling systems, and built a custom design in their barn, which worked very well.

One of their first calves died out in the field, and this caused anguish, even though they knew “where you have livestock, you have deadstock” (meaning, some deaths you can’t prevent). Over time, the herd got back to its routine, and the farmers back to theirs, with added appreciation of the “magnificent, living, breathing creatures that are strong and resilient and live each moment.”

The value of trees and hedges became obvious in winter, as the cattle shelter among the trees. In the heat of summer, they realized their cattle were stressed in a paddock without shade. After that they planned their cattle moves to provide access to trees all year.

After noticing the cattle browsing on reachable tree leaves and lichen, they decided to make “tree hay” for winter. Willow leaves are used by cattle for self-medication against worms. Lynn and Sandra got grants to plant an edible hedgerow and a stretch of native willows, and planted 5000 trees in their lower field, with necessary fencing. Their plan was to cut some branches every year and dry them for winter forage to supplement bought-in pasture hay. They also dried nettles and docks in bundles, adding to the feed diversity to keep their animals healthy.

Another period of anguish was coming to terms with the need to shoot deer and other wild animals threatening their food supply. Lynn bought a rifle and took lessons, but had a moral tussle when she found three deer inside their (incomplete) fencing. Her brain was saying shoot, but her trigger finger would not comply. She felt sick. She worried about not making a clean kill. She knew she needed to do it, and finally she was able to take a good shot. The dead deer rolled down into the gully, and she set out to find it, wondering if she would be filled with remorse when she saw it. She was not. She talked aloud, thanking the deer and promising to do her best to use its body. This calmed and reassured her, shifting the focus away from her own emotions. She felt pride rather than guilt, that night, after the successful butchering, with nothing going to waste. Rabbit stews followed. Then pork from pigs they had raised – another significant step in their role as stewards of the croft.

Vegetable production was challenging in the limited growing season at their exposed landholding, where growth was three weeks behind the less-elevated town five miles away. They planted a shelterbelt, and made cold frames. Every harvested crop was precious to them. They enlarged the garden with an area of berries undersown with medicinal herbs, and a potato patch to the north of the old house. The yield was so high they sold some alongside their eggs on their roadside stand.

The following year the potato sales covered the cost of all the vegetable seeds, making all their produce feel free. They were now growing 70% of their vegetables. Alongside the eggs and potatoes, they sold their first lot of pork. They wanted a diverse, multi-enterprise business to pay their bills, and a bit for rainy days, but they were not motivated to accumulate extra money. Earning money to live on, not living to earn money.

They had the dilemma of wanting to be home more, but worrying about walking away from a monthly salary. Then Lynn quit her job while Sandra was away visiting her parents. Sandra accepted the news gracefully, without argument. In 30 months they had transformed Lynbreck from a semi-derelict croft to a fully-functional farming business, thanks to immense amounts of hard work, and being careful with their spending.

They started an Egg Club, a subscription egg delivery service, asking a higher price than the supermarkets and other roadside vendors. Some of those vendors were not making any money, just breaking even by selling their hobby surplus at cost price. Another farm dilemma – how to set prices. They decided to only sell locally, telling the story of their farming and the individual animals to every customer. They were only just breaking even and covering the cost of their portion of food. Their time was not covered at all. Nor was depreciation of equipment, or investment in new tools.

The first time they sold pork, they briefly fell into the trap of focusing on the money. They kept back only a few packs of chops and sausages for themselves, before they realized their folly. They decided to be more efficient, not just take on more work. They tried value-added foods, particularly charcuterie. They were able to get a loan. (If the book seems a list of loans and grants, this is because they started with almost no money and no land, and that’s what you have to do.)

Sandra took a course, but suffered the horrible experience of blanking on what to do when faced with a half pig. Lynn, as assistant, could be no help, and felt sick. Happily, Sandra’s automatic pilot kicked in and she did an excellent butchery job. They started a Meat Club, like their Egg Club, delivering a monthly added-value meat parcel. Not every creation was a success, but 94% of the subscribers signed up for a second year. The butchery paid for itself and a little more.

They bought sheep, then regretted it and sold them after a year. Not everything works out. It’s important to be willing to reconsider your decisions. That’s not always easy: “Have we failed? Did we give up too easily?” But you’ll know the feeling of relief when you make the right choice.

Then life got difficult again. Their well was running out of water! A hot dry summer led to a use rate of 300 liters per day, partly thirsty livestock, partly fencing contractors power-washing their equipment, partly garden irrigation. They had not thought of well water as a finite commodity. To add embarrassment and stress, a BBC film crew was filming over their shoulders. Lynn had responded to a search for farmers to be filmed for a slice of life series This Farming Life, and forgot to mention it to Sandra before they were being asked if they’d be willing to be filmed for a trial run, next week.

Their daily chores increased to include carrying buckets of water from the River Spey, buying bottled water to drink, buying a bowser (mobile water tank) and a pump to extract water from a spring to water the cattle, and bathing in the loch each evening. “Water, in both scarcity and abundance, can be the limiting factor of life.” For longer-term solutions, they installed a new well by the spring, and added water-butts to collect rainwater. Parallel with the drying down of their well, their bank account experienced something similar.

While this was going on, they had a night in Glasgow for a BBC Thank You “wrap party”. A fun evening was followed by anticipation of a sleep-in next morning and a sumptuous breakfast. But they woke to a text from the farmer who was taking care of their animals, saying the cows had nudged open the valve on the bowser and lost all the water. So they grabbed some toast and drove home fast.

Their swift rise into public awareness led to involvement in policymaking bodies and political organizations, often receiving awards and accolades. Lynn spent whole days answering emails, showing important people around Lyncroft, or away from home altogether, giving presentations on their farming and crofting.

Meanwhile Sandra was holding down all the farm chores, and both of them were feeling increased stress and exhaustion. They were not living a more relaxed life. Life was moving ever faster. Self-doubt came back. They were responsible for too many spinning plates, which could all come crashing down. Plus, their expertize was not really in policymaking and lobbying. It was in reconnecting people with production of their food. They realized they needed to invest more time in their everyday lives, themselves and each other. They had very little time to observe the vast skyscape, experience the birdlife or enjoy watching wildlife. Lynn reported that when family visited, she’d be rushing around working. Sandra and Lynn’s relationship had become strained as their energy was drained by running the croft and explaining to other people what they were doing.

They didn’t blame anyone but themselves. Now was time to focus on making life personally sustainable. Lynn stepped back from the committees and meetings. They decided to group visitors into either monthly public tours (for a small fee) or private tours for a larger fee.

Lynn gave a talk at a rewilding conference with 500 participants. Someone booed loudly when she said “We have to accept that it’s OK to eat meat.” Lynn carried on with her talk, but was understandably shaken, even though sure of her ground. A survey by the Farm Advisory Service found that Lynbreck, in one year, had sequestered 12 times more CO2 than emitted. At the break the boo-er apologized and said she’d learned a lot by listening to the talk.

The farmers were now making an income from farming and were no longer working outside jobs. They prepared to run a residential course on How to Farm. Then the Covid pandemic hit. Their projected income nose-dived. All events involving people coming to Lynbreck were cancelled, and much money was refunded. Some people left their money with Lynn and Sandra for “next year”. Sales of meat and eggs covered most of their overheads. Produce sales hit the roof. They got a government Covid business support grant to cover lost earnings.

One day a few weeks in, while they sat in the sun drinking tea, they noticed the peace and quiet and realized they had nothing to do except run their farm and live their lives. They could relax into a slower pace of life with no external commitments except weekly deliveries. A useful change of pace, and time to spend together.

One of the Polycrub models, made on Shetland, UK

They had taken delivery of a Polycrub kit, a super strong hoophouse structure designed on Shetland to withstand 120mph winds. Now they had time to construct it and learn to grow in it. They also had time to do things slowly and enjoyably. Their lives felt more in harmony and balance and they made exciting new plans: fruit trees, hazels for nuts or coppicing, future courses.

After deciding to sell the breeding cows and instead buy in young stock to raise for meat each year, they faced a big decision: what to do with their first cow Ronnie, who was not becoming pregnant. No-one would by an unproductive cow. After some anguish about selling her for meat, they decided to keep her, to lead the new herd each year, and help things run smoothly. Once the decision came to them, they never had a moment’s doubt that it was right. Redefining Ronnie’s role put things in a new light.

Clearly at some point during the Covid pandemic, they wrote this book, and I hope it brings them a steady, if small, income stream. Authors don’t usually get rich writing books, I know.

After five years at Lynbreck they became more settled and felt they were putting down personal, social and environmental roots. It has felt relentless. It took them to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, but they couldn’t stop, because no one else was going to do it for them. The good times could be relentless too. The sunshine, the ripening produce, the satisfaction and contentment, being part of the web of life.

Read more at www.lynbreckcroft.co.uk

Lynbreck Croft on Youtube

Nematode-resistant food crops and cover crops

Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills, two Juncea mustards that resist nematodes. Photo Pam Dawling

A few weeks ago I wrote about clearing tomato plants, and mentioned our hoophouse troubles with nematodes. Nematodes are tiny soil-dwelling worms that have a wide host range and are hard to control. They move only 3’–4′ (1–1.2 m) per year on their own, but people move them on shoes, tools, etc. We have had peanut root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne arenaria) since 2011 when we found them in spinach transplants we were growing for outdoors in early spring.

My article on nematodes in Growing for Market  in November 2014 describes our discovery of the beasties and our first attempts to deal with them.

White Russian kale in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In my August 2014 post Good news – great hoeing weather! Bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse I wrote about solarization to fight nematodes in our hoophouse (scroll down to the end of the post). The post includes a photo of our first attempt at solarizing – a  bit of a How Not To! Be sure to use UV-inhibited polyethylene. This year we somehow got some construction plastic mixed in. It doesn’t work! It goes cloudy (thus not heating up the soil) and it shatters into little pieces.

There is info on dealing with nematodes from Garry Ross in Hawaii, where nematodes are a fact of daily life, in my post Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes from February 2015.

My most thorough blogpost about nematodes was in 2018 for Mother Earth News:  Managing Nematodes in the Hoophouse.

Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

My post Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes in August 2019 includes a photo of a much better way to solarize an individual bed. In that post I gave a list of nematode-resistant food crops, and also talked about cover crops. There is a photo of nematodes on cucumber roots there too).

Food crop choices to fight nematodes

Most resistant and most helpful are the Juncea group of mustards. I did some research into more Juncea options in Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes. We don’t like very pungent greens, so we have not yet taken the route of planting a whole bed of Juncea types. Instead we have mapped and flagged the nematode-infested areas of our beds, and try to be mindful of what we plant in those spots. Three of our seven beds have no nematodes so far.

Open-pollinated Yukina Savoy.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

This year we looked at the nematode map we had made and decided to focus our attention on the bed with the highest number of nematode patches, and grow the most resistant winter crops (of the ones we like to grow) there. That’s the frilly mustards (Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills, all Juncea mustards, and Mizuna, a Japonica mustard), Yukina Savoy (variously reported to be Brassica juncea,  Brassica rapa pekinensis, and Brassica rapa), and Russian kales (Brassica rapa).

Mapping nematode areas

See the post with info from Gerry Ross I mentioned above. We have previously tried for a “Two years good, One year bad” strategy. This was to grow nematode-resistant crops in the infected areas for two years, then try risking one year of susceptible crops. That was a bit demanding on careful management, and we haven’t kept that up.

Nematode map 2022

Cover crop choices to fight nematodes

French marigolds and sesame to deter Root Knot nematodes in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

A reader asked about cover crop choices to fight nematodes. In June 2019 I wrote about using marigolds, sesame, Iron and Clay cowpeas as warm-weather nematode resistant cover crops. We’ve also used winter wheat (in winter!), and white lupins (not worthwhile, in my experience). See that post for a few other ideas on nematode-fighting cover crops, and why we decided against some options. At that time, we decided not to grow sunnhemp (Crotolaria) because it is poisonous, although newer varieties of Crotolaria have lower toxin levels. More recently we have been growing sunnhemp, after I saw it growing so well in North Carolina. It is a warm-weather legume, so it is feeding the soil while tackling the nematodes. It does grow tall in the hoophouse, and we have taken to chopping it down with hedge shears to an ergonomic elbow-height every few weeks whenever it gets too tall. The cut tops create a nice “forest-floor” mulch effect. You can almost feel the extra organic matter nurturing the soil! (High OM levels deter nematodes.) 60-90 days to maturity.

Sunnhemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC.
Photo Pam Dawling

We previously used soybeans as a short-term leguminous summer cover crop, but they do not offer the nematode resistance. Iron and Clay, Mississippi Silver and Carolina Crowder cowpeas are all nematode-resistant and can be grown in summer instead of soybeans. Sesame is a legume that is particularly good against peanut root-knot nematodes.

Iron and Clay southern peas flowering in September. Photo Pam Dawling

See Our Organic Integrated Pest Management post for an organized approach to pest management, including nematodes.

A Florida reader gave me information about partridge peas, which I have not yet tried: After terminating cool-season brassicas and celery between April and June, their late spring sowing of partridge peas were too late this year to be productive, because the hard seed was very slow to germinate. Partridge pea could be a good cover crop for mid- to late-summer, if you scarify those hard seeds to speed germination.

Some cover crops can be alternate hosts for pathogens like cercospora, rust, or bacterial leaf spot, so be on the lookout for new problems while solving old problems. In the deep south, beans, yard-long (asparagus) beans, and cowpeas can succumb to heat, nematodes, rust, bacterial spots, and other pathogens and pests. Senna (tall) and Partridge pea can provide “chop-and-drop” organic matter as sunnhemp does. Sunn Hemp can host foliar pathogens (some possibly seed-borne), in Florida, and does not reliably form nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots, even when inoculated. Even so, it is useful as a fast warm season green manure cover.

The flower Gaillardia (blanket flower) is a quick-to-compost, chop and drop option for late winter to late spring, It decomposes quickly, and can provide a quick green manure. Gaillardia is nematode-resistant, great for beneficials and pollinators, but is susceptible to some foliar pathogens later in the season. You can sow Gaillardia in August, or even later in fall for early spring flowering.

Due to climate change, and the more year-round activity of nematodes, pathogens, and pests in Florida, they’ve been including more nematode-resistant grasses into their rotations. We all need to be thinking more about warmer-climate options, as climate change continues to push pathogens and pests farther north, earlier each year.

Fruit for the Month: September (Watermelon)

 

Crimson Sweet watermelon.
Photo Nina Gentle

This is another in my monthly series of posts about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a (loosely-speaking) mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.

Watermelons are the focus fruit for September

Nothing beats a big slice of watermelon during a break from working in the fields. It’s a good cure for dehydration, especially if lightly salted to balance the electrolytes, and helps improve heat tolerance. It’s good to know watermelon are nutritious, but frankly, their main claim to fame is that they are delicious, and just about everyone wants one when the weather is hot.

Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I’ll start with information on harvesting, and pests and diseases to watch out for, then cycle round to things to think about for next summer’s watermelon crop.

Watermelon harvest

Ripe watermelons have mature seeds. In Crimson Sweet these are brown-black. White seeds indicate an under-ripe melon.
Photo Pam Dawling

The skill of the harvester in discerning ripeness is a major factor affecting the taste. The first sign we look for is the shriveling and browning of the tendril on the vine directly opposite the little stem of the watermelon. If this tendril is not shriveled we walk on by. Next we slap or knock on them.

According to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, when a watermelon is ripe, it will have a hollow sound when you thump it with your knuckles: it sounds like thumping your chest. If it sounds like knocking your head, it’s not ripe; if it sounds like hitting your belly, it’s over-ripe. There is a 10-14-day period of peak ripeness for each variety. We harvest our Crimson Sweet from around 7/25 (75 days from transplanting) to the end of August. We might be still harvesting in September.

Lastly, we do the “Scrunch Test”: put two hands (heels together) spread out across the melon, press down quite hard, listen and feel for a scrunch – the flesh in the melon is separating under the pressure. Rumor has it that it only works once, so pay attention!

Other growers with other varieties use different ripeness signs, such as the change in color of the “ground spot” (the area touching the ground), or the change in rind texture from glossy to dull.

I like to cut the melon stems with pruners, but some people break them off. Watermelons need gentle handling, as do the vines if you will be returning to harvest again. After harvest, we set the melons out to the side of the row for pickup. This gives time for sap to start to ooze out of the cut stem. If the sap is red or orange, the melon is ripe. If it is straw-colored, the melon was cut too soon. This is useful feedback for new crew.

Post-Harvest Storage of Watermelons

Watermelon marked with a grease pencil.
Photo Nina Gentle

Watermelons can store for a few weeks, but then flavor deteriorates. We store ours outdoors in the shade of a building or a tree. Rotating the stored stock is a good idea. (Consider dating them with a grease pencil/china marker). The ideal storage temperature is 50-60°F (10-15.5°C), with 90% humidity.

Watermelon Pests

Compared to some crops, watermelons are not often challenged by many pests.

  • Striped cucumber beetles are our worst pest. They eat not only the leaves (which reduces the sweetness of the melons) but also the rind of the melons, leaving an unattractive russeted surface, thinner than it was originally, and easily damaged. Cucumber beetles can also interfere with fruit set by eating the stamens and pistils of the flowers. Don’t worry unless you see two beetles or more per plant.
  • Aphids (usually green peach aphids) can be a problem to young plants – another reason to use rowcover or fine mesh netting. If needed, use insecticidal soap, or import ladybugs or lacewings.
  • Spider mites can be a problem in hot dry weather if populations are driven into the patch by mowing of bordering grassy areas. Heavy rain, vigorous spraying with water or overhead irrigation will reduce numbers.
  • Root knot nematodes can attack roots and produce galls. This leads to loss of vigor and wilting.
Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower. Photo Pam Dawling

Watermelon Diseases

Organic growers do not usually get many disease problems with watermelon, provided the soil fertility is well-balanced and the plants are not physically damaged. There are a few diseases to watch for:

  • Alternaria leaf spot
  • Cercospora leaf spot
  • Gummy stem blight
  • Watermelon fruit blotch/bacterial fruit blotch is a serious seed-borne disease
  • Bacterial wilt – watermelon is resistant, although young seedlings could succumb.
  • Fusarium wilt is a persistent soil-borne fungal disease that infects the roots, invading the xylem cells.
  • Anthracnose is a fungal foliar disease that can cause loss of vigor and fruit spotting.

Check the Oklahoma State University Watermelon Diseases publication for help identifying diseases.

Planning Watermelon Varieties for Next Year

 After trying several varieties, we settled on Crimson Sweet, a 20-25 lb (9-11 kg) striped 10 x 12” (25 x 30 cm) oval OP melon which takes 86 days from transplant to harvest. It has tolerance to some strains of Anthracnose and Fusarium. Its flavor is the best! For many years, I saved the seed, selecting for size, earliness, disease resistance and flavor. This is available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, as Crimson Sweet, Virginia Select.

Crimson Sweet, Virginia Select watermelon seed collection.
Photo Pam Dawling

Charleston Gray is another popular large variety, with a redder color but less sweetness than Crimson Sweet. Black Tail Mountain (OP, 73 days) was made famous by Glenn Drowns, who developed it as a fast-growing, highly productive, rich flavored melon he could grow in a cold climate in northern Idaho. It stores for up to 2 months after harvest. OrangeGlo (85 days) is an outstanding orange-fleshed variety, with large fruits and great tropical flavor.

“Icebox” varieties are 6” (15 cm) round, 8-12.5 lbs (3.6-5.7 kg) melons, perfect for small refrigerators. Some varieties are ready as soon as 64 days after transplanting. Seedless triploid varieties Dark Belle (F1 75d) and Fun Belle are said to be better tasting than traditional Sugar Baby (77d) and orange New Orchid (80d). But triploid seedless watermelon seed is expensive and harder to germinate, and the transplants are very fragile and tricky to establish. Triploid varieties are hybridized from a cross between two plants with incompatible sets of chromosomes. This results in sterility (lack of seeds).

Even smaller than the icebox size are “mini” watermelons, 3-6 lb (1.4-2.7 kg). Golden Midget is an OP seeded mini from Baker Creek 70d, 3 lbs (1.4 kg). There are also triploid seedless varieties. Solitaire (triploid, 88d), is a single serving watermelon from Johnny’s. It has 6” (15 cm) diameter fruit. Harvest can begin 78 days after transplanting.

I’ll do a blogpost on growing watermelons next spring, once you might be sowing the seed, or at least planning your garden layout.

Other small fruits still available in September

Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), Asian Persimmons, Blackberries, Figs, Muscadine Grapes, Muskmelons, Pawpaws, Fall raspberries, Rhubarb.

Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in June!

Other small fruits becoming available in September

Kiwiberries (Actinidia arguta, aka hardy kiwi, Chinese kiwi) and elderberries. American persimmons need to be soft before they’re nice to eat. This can be anywhere between September and February. If the wildlife are not going to wait for them to ripen, harvest them early and let them ripen indoors.

Sun Jewel Asian melon. Photo Mary Kranz

Other fruit care in September

Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit (weed blueberries and raspberries shallowly, so as not to damage roots).

Prepare and plant new strawberry beds in early September if not done in late August, using potted runners. If needed, use rooted runners from the paths of an old patch to fill gaps. Renovate strawberries to carry over for next season, if not already done.

Farmer and gardener health and wellness

A crew member string-weaving peas in our hoophouse in February. Photo Wren Vile

Raising food is good work, right livelihood, outdoor work in the rain, sunshine and fresh air. The physical tiredness at the end of the day can bring good sleep. Farmers contribute to production of healthy food, and get to enjoy extremely fresh food from very local farms.

And yet – some days this is not the whole story. Farming can be hard on the body, the brain and the emotions. It can be stressful trying to get a good outcome from a situation that went outside our control and took a turn for the worse. Some things we can control, others we cannot. Some things we will be able to do a better job of dealing with next time they come around. Our work is not punching out identical widgets. Seasons change, tasks change. Only for a short time each year do we need to know how to decide if a watermelon is ripe. Once in a hundred years we need to know how to deal with a one-hundred-year flood (hmm!). I have written about being prepared for and dealing with disasters in The Year-Round Hoophouse. Being prepared and having a plan of what to do when things go wrong is a very good way to manage mental and emotional stress.

Hauling sweet potatoes uphill the hard way. Sometimes we use the truck!
Photo Nina Gentle

Musculoskeletal health

First let’s talk about physical health of the musculoskeletal kind. Overdoing the hard work, making the wrong move, going beyond the limits of our bodies, and wow! Pain! Maybe even injury. After many repeats of the same action, inflammation and problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and over time, maybe arthritis too. Musculoskeletal pain affects bones, joints, ligaments, tendons or muscles. See the Cleveland Clinic information page.

Common symptoms include aching, stiffness, burning sensations in the muscles, fatigue, muscle twitches, pain that worsens with movement and sleep disturbances.

Home treatment can include hot and cold compresses, over-the-counter pain relievers (NSAIDs), strengthening and conditioning exercises, stretching exercises, and stress reduction techniques.

Professional treatments can include local injections with anesthetic or anti-inflammatory medications, physical or occupational therapy, acupuncture or acupressure and relaxation/ biofeedback techniques. Most people I’ve seen at physical therapy are there for sports injuries. Sports medicine offers many good exercises for people whose work has injured their bodies.

Prevention is definitely better than cure. I’m a firm believer in doing some stretches and strengthening exercises every morning. Yoga is great too. Going to the gym? Some farmers make time for this, others don’t. Here’s some more prevention tips: limit repetitive movements, or vary them, use good posture and practice correct lifting techniques. (I recommend the Alexander Technique). Alexander Technique teachers help you identify and change harmful habits of posture and body use, and learn to move more freely.

I have written some articles in Growing for Market magazine that are accessible for those with a Full Access subscription on the website. I wrote about stretching in April 2008. Julie Bradley Law wrote an article: A wintertime reset for our most important tool: our bodies. It is free to access, and recommends a few weeks of winter rest, yoga and attunement. Designed by a farmer.

AgrAbility Tool Box

For those with limited physical abilities, AgrAbility provides Assistive Technology, Resources, News, Training, Services in your State. The Toolbox: Agricultural Tools, Equipment, Machinery & Buildings for Farmers and Ranchers with Physical Disabilities is a resource that contains assistive technology solutions for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities.

Physical illness

Remember to get checkups. Be aware of ticks, mosquitoes, and rodents and the pest-borne illnesses they can cause. Read about Public health issues caused by pests. The EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have collaborated to create a thorough List of Pests of Significant Public Health Importance

Pests and diseases and climate change: as the climate chaos intensifies pests will move into new geographical ranges. We need to learn about the Zika virus, (cases in Florida and Texas in 2016-17, but none in the continental US since then). Chikungunya is another mosquito-borne virus. In 2014 and 2015, a few local-transmission chikungunya virus disease cases were found in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of the cases in the US are travelers returning from countries where the disease is endemic.

Internal physical trouble

Let’s keep in mind the symptoms and treatment of heat stress. Heat stress happens when your body can’t cool itself enough. Physical activity during very hot, humid weather, and insufficient replacement of water and electrolytes cause heat stress. It can lead to heatstroke, which is a serious, life-threatening condition.

Home-made rehydration solution

Here is our recipe (“salty lemonade”):

  • 8 oz water
  • 8oz fruit juice (or mix concentrated lemon juice to usual lemonade strength)
  • A pinch (1/8 tsp) salt
  • 2 pinches (¼ tsp) baking soda

During watermelon season, a plate-sized slice of watermelon seems to do the trick!

Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

At the other end of the risky weather is extreme cold, especially if it is wet and windy. Livestock farmers are more at risk of hypothermia, trying to save their animals under terrible conditions. Vegetable farmers don’t suffer the same degree of risk.

Our lungs are vulnerable to dusts, pollen, sprays, toxins, microbial pests like the Coronavirus, flu, prions (mad cow disease) and anthrax.. Good masks can guard against all these, as well as asthma and allergies. There are also some specific agricultural problems like farmers’ lung, an allergic disease usually caused by breathing in the dust from moldy hay, or other moldy crop.

Mesothelioma

You may remember hearing about problems with vermiculite in some potting mixes. Some vermiculite naturally includes asbestos. Farmers are at risk of exposure to asbestos through contaminated soil, vermiculite and dust from these products on farm equipment. The Mesothelioma Center provides free information: books, packets and a Patient Advocacy program that works with people individually to help them find local treatment, legal help, and support groups. If you may have been exposed to asbestos they help you find free care and support. They will send you a free printed guide to mesothelioma. Sign up at their website.

Mesothelioma Info pack

The site has a special section for farmers: Farmers and Asbestos.

Mental health

New Mental Health Resources for Farmers in Stressful Times

by Matt Kneece, CFSA South Carolina Policy Coordinator Aug. 5, 2022

“However rewarding, the farming lifestyle often brings a compounding mental load that can be difficult to deal with. Fortunately, the stigmas around mental health and farm stress are breaking down, and farmers don’t have to deal with it alone. . . There are loads of resources to support producers’ physical health, but programs to support mental health are just as critical.”

South Carolina Farm Bureau is now offering access to a new program called AgriWellness including three online counseling sessions free of charge.

North Carolina Agromedicine Institute has compiled a list of resources here.

Another great resource is available through Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA, which offers a crisis hotline for farmers. When crises begin piling up, one of the most important things farmers can do is reach out for help as soon as possible. RAFI-USA’s hotline is designed to be a type of rapid-response available for farmers who need to talk to someone on short notice.

“Farming is a challenging job that can easily be impacted by factors beyond farmers’ control,” said Lisa Misch of RAFI-USA. “Anything from crop failure, natural disasters, market price changes, or family emergencies could lead to a farm crisis. If you are in crisis and need someone to talk to, please call toll-free at (866) 586-6746. The hotline is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.ET” They also provide in-depth assistance from a farmer advocate if you are in danger of losing your farm and/or home.

“In addition to the new therapeutic resources featured above, mental health experts have recommended several tips to farmers dealing with farm stress. Pursuing a healthy diet, staying active, cultivating social support, and getting enough sleep are all great steps toward protecting your mental health.”

I hope you will never need it, but if you get to that point, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 1-800-799-4889 (deaf/hard of hearing) or text 741741 to the Crisis Text Line.

New 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Dial just 988. Available 24 hours. English or Spanish. Learn more The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 9-8-8. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

Veterans Crisis Line
https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/
1-800-273-TALK (8255), press ‘1’ Text 838255 Chat also available

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has info on warning signs, how to have a conversation with a loved one you are concerned about, suicide loss, and more.

SC Farm Stress Management Resource Guide

I’ll leave you with this Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service link to Farm Stress Management Resources. There are educational resources, worksheets, articles, podcasts, links to support organizations, and other stress management websites.

I also took part in an interview with Jordan Marr for a podcast with The Ruminant: Audio Candy for Farmers, Gardeners and Food Lovers. It’s about farmers’ struggles with mental health problems, trying to cope with the many and varied stresses, while the public wants farmers to appear competent and blissful with all that time in the Inspiring and Nurturing Outdoors.

The Farmers Aren’t All Right. Podcast from the Ruminant. Episode 92.

Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/theruminant/posts/1369936529736669

Book Review: The Berry Grower, by Blake Cothron

The Berry Grower: Small Scale Organic Fruit Production in the 21st Century, Blake Cothron, New Society Publishers, paperback, 300 pages, May 2022, black and white and color photos, $39.99

Here you can read about growing berries and other small fruits on a backyard or small commercial scale, and see how they can work for you. You can learn up-to-the-minute information relevant to organic farming, urban farming and the local foods movement. You can learn which modern cultivars hold the most hope for your location.

This is not a glossy coffee-table book. Nor is it written for full-time fruit growers. Blake wrote this book to encourage a move to more localized and resilient organic food production on a global scale, garden by garden. He wants to spread practical, effective knowledge and training. Blake speaks from 20 years’ experience growing small fruit, including the past ten years operating a successful commercial organic plant nursery.

Blake quotes Bill Mollison, suggesting that if 10% of us switch from consumption to production, there will be enough food for everyone. Small fruits are a good place to start, because they bring faster returns (6-12 months) compared to tree fruits, and the demand is almost infinite. It’s easier to satisfy the demand for fresh vegetables, than for fresh fruit! Small fruits do not require a large area, and won’t shade out your vegetables. Once your fruit crops need most of your attention, you can cut back on vegetable crops for market. Fruit can provide more income for the time invested, if not for the space. Size your operation so you and your household can do 90-100% of the work yourselves, as paying others cuts into what could be your profits.

Small fruit crops deserve more attention than they’ve had from growers or writers in recent years. This book addresses the shortage of up-to-date information, and the reality of climate chaos. By growing a diversity of crops, your risks are spread and reduced. Note which crops do best and grow more of those! Blake reports that in his Kentucky garden, all the blackberries, red and black raspberries, strawberries, aronia, figs, gooseberries, juneberries, blueberries, passionfruit, and honeyberries survived a very difficult winter and late spring frosts.  Be prepared for winter low temperatures some years a full zone colder than previously, and also a full zone warmer other years. Or, if you are really unlucky, a yo-yo winter that can zap the blooms of early cultivars. Blake’s list of survivors above makes a good starting point of resilient fruit crops.

Berry Growing Basics

The first section covers the planning and preparation: finding the plants you want, getting good tools, prepping the beds, then planting and maintaining the areas.  Choose a site with full sun, good drainage of air and water, a low enough water table so that your crops will not get flooded, protection from strong winds, and ideally land with a gradual slope. Be alert to the micro-climates on your land.

Choose the species you’d most like to grow, of those that will thrive in your area. Be sure the fruit will ripen and you can prevent other creatures who might eat the fruit. Be sure there is an unsaturated demand for that particular fruit locally. Gooseberries have loyal fans, but not millions of them. Ask neighbors, grocery stores, commercial growers, your local Extension service and university ag department. At the same time, find out what publications, courses or funding are available. Don’t flood the market with more of the same, if you could focus on something else that many people want. Be realistic about likely yields. New growers and those growing heirlooms should expect half the published yield figures. Look at your costs.

Look at your climate, and pests and diseases you’ll likely contend with. Understand winter-hardiness zones for what they are, and look at all the factors other than coldest winter temperatures. Zone 6 in Washington State is like a highland desert; zone 6 in Kentucky is moist, humid and verdant. Notice your weather and signs of imminent change. Blake reports that he can hear distant train whistles not long before rain starts.

Blake Cothron, author of The Berry Grower

Get soil tests and add needed amendments. Prepare your beds ahead of time. Blake recommends using silage tarps for 60-90 days before planting (less in hot weather). Consider solarizing with clear plastic to cook any disease pathogens, nematodes and weed seeds in the top few inches. Just 6-7 days is enough when hot and sunny.

Choose cultivars that are productive, reliable, tolerant of the range of your weather, as well as well-flavored. If your plant only produces one superbly flavored fruit in good-enough condition to sell, that’s going to be so disappointing! There’s a useful summary at the end of the chapter, to make sure you cover all the bases before parting with your money.

This book guides you carefully through all the steps to get the plants established. Weed management and irrigation follow, and mulch. There are good tips on making beds (turning the soil and no-till, using tarps for 30-90 days, clear plastic for 7 days, and landscape fabric for long-term cover), and a thorough explanation of Integrated Pest Management. Learn about today’s bugs, and modern tools and methods. There is a one-page checklist of factors to consider when pests take over.

Next is an up-to-date chapter on buying plants. Or, sometimes, buying plant material (cuttings or divisions). There are warnings about accepting gifts from neighbors (pests, diseases, varieties that don’t grow that well). Just in case anyone is still unsure: hybrids are the result of breeding work that crosses open-pollinated varieties. You may have heard of hybrid vigor (the name we gave our first Prius!). Hybrids can bring good qualities from both sides of their family, providing productive, vigorous crops. They are not GMOs. There are no small fruit GMOs, except for a couple of research tomatoes and peppers, that are not sold on the open market. See the ISAAA’s GM Approval Database. Remember, if a nursery (such as Blake’s Peaceful Heritage Nursery) is Organic, it does not use or sell GMOs. Also, be realistic: you can buy a non-Organic plant and by growing it in Organic soil, with Organic amendments, you can develop that little twig into a healthy shrub.

Learn how to handle cuttings, how to heel-in plants temporarily, and then how to plant (add nothing to the hole). Consider some useful tools. I wonder why I never bought a tapener, or a berry rake? They do look helpful.

Floricane raspberry patch making new growth. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Berry Crops

The second section starts with in-depth profiles of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries (black and red), strawberries, juneberries, muscadine grapes, gooseberries, currants, figs and – surprise – tomatoes.

There are descriptions of recommended cultivars, and Blake’s very useful Urban Market Farming Rating and Rural Market Farming Rating, comparing different fruits. Blackberries only get 2/5 for the Urban Farming Rating, but 4/5 for a Rural Farming Rating (the difference here is the income you might need for the area). In a home garden, you can use large tomato cages to support the canes. Blueberries are widely popular, and productive once established. The one-page Blueberry Soil Prescription by Lee Reich sums up what is importantly needed to succeed. Raspberries are Blake’s top choice, 5/5, for both urban and rural fruit plantings. Easy, popular, productive only 6-12 months after planting. I favor the fall fruiting types, particularly Caroline, because the canes bear fruit the same year they grow, so after fruiting you can mow the beds, and weed and make a fresh start each year.

Strawberries can be cultivated under either the annual production system or the matted row system. The options include fall-planted annual production, used in the south (zone 7a and milder). Annual production from spring starts involves pinching off the flowers in the first year, maintaining the plants for over a year before getting any harvests. If you can establish plants in the fall in your climate, you can get production the following spring and then choose between renovating the beds for a second production year, or terminating them. 4/5 in every situation.

Rolling hay over newspaper for a new strawberry bed.
Photo Luke Stovall

Juneberries (shadbush, saskatoons, serviceberries), if you get a good cultivar, are like small blueberries with little almond-flavored seeds. Mediocre varieties are small, bland and watery, and prone to diseases. There are two main species of Juneberries: for Northern areas, Amelanchier alnifolia (Saskatoons), and the tree-form grown on the East coast (Amelanchier canadiensis) and a hybrid x grandiflora (serviceberry) with better disease resistance. The Alberta Government has published The Saskatoon Berry Production Manual.

Muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) are less well known north of Kentucky (zone 7). They are a native plant, considered by the author to be the best all-round organic market growing grape. (Also see the mention of the more cold-hardy Munson grapes in his Maybe section later). Muscadines are large, plump, sweet, aromatic and chewy. They have seeds and thick skins. They are extremely resistant to diseases and bugs, and they thrive in humidity! Fruiting starts in year 3, and increases to about 50-80 lbs (23-36kg) per plant. The large vines need a strong trellis, 12-20ft (3.7-6.1m) space each, and rigorous pruning. If planting female cultivars, you must include some self-fertile ones for pollination. The book suggests some good ones.

Mulberries have a big future. The trees are cold-hardy and late-blooming, so late frosts do not wipe out your harvest. Be sure to buy regionally-adapted species and cultivars. The more popular species include red mulberries (native in the Eastern US), white mulberries native to Asia and hardy to zones 4b-6, with berries that can be white, lavender, purple or black, and the black mulberry tree (native to Europe/Asia) which is hardy to zone 7. If you seek genuine Morus nigra, be careful to not get sold a black-fruiting Morus alba. Then there is the Himalayan Mulberry, Morus macroura, which seems hardy to zone 7, maybe 6. Mulberries are one of the easiest tree fruits to grow organically, but do note that trees are either male or female. Named cultivars are always female, but seedlings naturally can be either. Don’t plant the males unless you want to test your pollen allergies. Consider pruning your trees annually to a bush form, for easier harvesting, unless you want a large landscape tree. Illinois Everbearing is the deservedly most famous cultivar, suited to zones 4-9. Remember to prune, or the branches may break off. Mulberries have a low Urban Market Farming Rating, because the trees could shade other crops. and the roots could compete too much for nutrients. The Rural Market Farming rating is 5/5.

Gooseberries are only worthwhile in regions with a market for these northern European berries. Black, red and white currants can likewise do well in some locations and be wasted in others.

Fig with frosted leaves.
Photo Ezra Freeman

Figs do well when grown organically, although cold climates will limit their size and yield. Blake has them in a hoophouse. Consider an in-ground Walipini greenhouse. Be warned that fig latex is phytotoxic (can burn your skin, while also being an effective treatment for skin warts) — take care when harvesting. In humid regions, grow rust-resistant cultivars such as Celeste, Brown Turkey, Magnolia and the LSU cultivars. The book includes information about 17 cold-hardy figs (zones 5-7), 6 warm climate cultivars (zones 8-10) and 9 for hot, humid climates (zones 8-10). I learned a lot about figs from this book (I’ve never grown them). Ratings of 4/5 for Urban Market Farms, 5/5 for Rural ones.

Next are tomatoes, a crop I did not expect in a fruit book. Yes, of course they are a fruit. Here is solid information about growing tomatoes for market. Plant regionally-adapted cultivars, look for production, consistency, resiliency as well as flavor. Ignore heirlooms, go for the “heirloom-like” hybrids, which have greater vigor, reliability, disease-resistance, and yields, with attractive appearance. (Blake confesses to ignoring this advice early on, and regretting it later.) Marnero looks and tastes just like Cherokee Purple, but is very productive. Balance 10-25% of fancy types with plenty of hybrid red slicers. Here are tips on growing strong transplants, choosing a trellising system and keeping your eyes on yields and sales. Consider also selling plants, value-added products, and seeds. As a “casual” sideline, the author earned over $900 in sales of organic tomato seeds one year. 5/5 Ratings in urban and rural locations.

Riesentraube cherry tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Other Berries to Consider

These main profiles are followed by shorter profiles of other fruits that you could consider growing: aronia, autumn olive, goumi, bush and Nanking cherries, kiwiberry (hardy kiwis), cactus fruits, cornelian cherry, hardy passionfruit, elderberry, feijoa, goji, various hybrid cane berries, rosehips, seaberry (sea buckthorn), Munson grapes (free cuttings from Grayson College for growers and researchers), che, and honeyberry. A few of these I had never heard of. Honeyberries (haskeps) ripen about two weeks before strawberries.

Harvesting and Marketing Berries, Now and in the Future

Next follow chapters covering harvest, post-harvest and marketing, and the future of small fruit growing. Blake has noticed that if you harvest your blackberries early every morning, you will avoid the beetles and birds which arrive at midday. Get there first and get more fruit, and make the patch unattractive to the pests! Harvest with both hands, always! Use buckets that strap to your body, or crates on carts that you pull down the row. Identify ways to reduce or eliminate unnecessary movements, including not handling fruit more times than you must. Pick straight into marketable containers.

Berry Grower Interviews

The book includes two interviews with successful small fruit growers, focusing on education, outreach, direct marketing, diversity of crops, and a creative, resilient, ambitious, hardworking, patient, smart mindset. These are detailed interviews of 4-6 pages.

Climate Change and Fruit Growing

Commercial fruit requires (mostly) perennial plants that bloom when triggered by the internal timer of the plant. You can’t delay fruit bloom the way you can delay broccoli heading by planting later. Growers may need to switch to different cultivars, or different fruits more suited to newer and potential-future conditions. The book suggests how growers can contribute to breeding efforts and selection of better cultivars: later blooming or lower chill hour requirements, hardier buds and blooms, more heat and drought tolerance, more resistance to diseases and pests, reduced days to maturity, better resistance to heavy or repeated rains, and last but not least, increased nutritional value. Blake spells out a 7-step process for growers selecting their own cultivars, to bring resiliency back to our farms and to future generations.

Get this book and apply Blake’s experience and wisdom to your fruit plantings, diet or market!

Click here to view the author’s page on the New Society Publishers‘ website, and watch his videos.

Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables

 

Hoophouse winter greens.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

If you have a hoophouse, you may now be planning or planting crops for fall, winter and spring. If you don’t have a hoophouse, this is a good time of year to consider getting one. See Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse at the end of that post. There are grants available from NRCS, including reparation levels of funding from traditionally underserved groups of people. There are now companies that will construct your hoophouse for you, if you don’t want to do it yourself, or can’t. If you do want to build your own, there are detailed instructions in my book The Year-Round Hoophouse. You can buy the book here on my Books page direct from me, or from my publisher New Society, or you can buy it wherever books are sold.

The Year-Round Hoophouse cover

I have many posts about winter hoophouse vegetables, so rather than try to write something completely new on the topic, I am going to give you a guide to find your way around the information already here.

General Hoophouse Info

Winter hoophouse growing

Hoophouse video interview

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables slide show

Hoophouse Cool Season Crops slideshow

Hoophouse Many Crops slideshow

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse Crop Planning

Planning winter hoophouse crops

Hoophouse Crop Rotations

Preparing for spring, sowing seeds, planning

Hoophouse Greens Clearance, Warm Weather Crops Established

Hoophouse Crops Winter 2022-2023

Hoophouse Bed Prep

Hoophouse fall bed prep

Fall hoophouse bed prep

Hoophouse bed broadforked to loosen up slumped soil. I’m happy to say our soil structure has improved in the 18 years since this photo was taken!
Photo Pam Dawling

Choosing Hoophouse Winter Crops

(see also my post categories on the right side of the computer screen, for special posts on Asian Greens, Cooking greens, lettuce and root crops)

How to decide which vegetable crops to grow

Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021

Spinach variety trial conclusions

September in the hoophouse: sowing spinach

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sow onions in a hoophouse

Frilly Mustards in our Winter Hoophouse

Three cheers for Ruby Streaks!

Yukina Savoy in the Hoophouse

Cooking Greens in December

Cooking Greens in February

Cooking Greens in March

Yukina Savoy in the early morning mist.
Photo Wren Vile

Asian Greens in October: Yukina Savoy, Tatsoi

Asian Greens for December: Pak Choy

Asian Greens for January: Chinese Cabbage

 

Green Panisse and red Revolution lettuce in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Lettuce All Year in a Changing Climate

Year Round Lettuce

Lettuce growing in October

Lettuce in December

Lettuce varieties for January

Early Lettuce Production

Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest

Tango lettuce from our September 24 sowing on January 10.
Photo Pam Dawling

Planting in the Hoophouse (Both Transplanting and Direct Sowing)

The decision between transplanting and direct sowing

Sowing hoophouse winter crops

Seedling winter crops

Starting Seedlings

Bare Root Transplants

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

Keeping Every Hoophouse Bed Fully Planted and Productive

Using all the space in the winter hoophouse

Fast Growing Vegetables

Sequential Planting slideshow

Young Tokyo bekana transplant in our hoophouse .
Photo Pam Dawling

Caring for Hoophouse Crops

What makes vegetable crops bolt and how can I stop it?

You don’t want this! Bolting lettuce outdoors in July
Photo Alexis Yamashita

What to Do If Something Goes Wrong with Your Hoophouse Crops

Back-up plans for winter hoophouse crops

Plans A-D

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

Harvesting in the Winter Hoophouse

Winter hoophouse harvests

Mid-winter hoophouse harvests

This winter week in the hoophouse

Young greens in the hoophouse

Winter Harvests

Making baby salad mix

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Clearing Tomato Plants

These tomato plants have served us well, and their time is up. We have pulled them out of the ground and left them suspended in the twine to wilt, before hauling them to the compost pile. The bed behind the tomatoes is being solarized to kill fungal lettuce diseases. Photo Pam Dawling

Here in Virginia, we pull up our two beds of tomatoes in the hoophouse at the very end of July or early in August. I realize this will horrify people in colder climates. I’ve been there. Every tomato plant was to be cherished until the frost took it. But in hot, humid Virginia, we have harvested from these plants for nine weeks, and the outdoor plants are coming in strongly. We don’t need the hoophouse ones; they’ve grown taller than we can reach, and we’ve lopped the tops off with hedge shears several times. Fungal diseases are to be reckoned with, and we only manage a two-year rotation in each bed, as far as nightshades go. In the past, we grew “high summer” food crops or seed crops, and needed to get the tomatoes out to make way for the new crops. Nowadays we only grow cover crops in the summer, until it’s time to prepare the beds for fall planting.

String-weaving diagram from Extension.org

We use the Florida String Weaving method of supporting our tomatoes. One thing I like about this method is that it is easy to take down, and all you have to store for next year are the stakes, which take less space than cages, or individual T-posts. We have a descriptive list of steps, and also a Worksheet – see below.

Another feature of our life with our hoophouse tomatoes are the Peanut Root-Knot Nematodes. When we pull our tomatoes, we examine the roots and carefully remove the ones with nematode lumps in them, usually to the parking lot on a dry sunny day, to die in the heat and be run over by cars. We don’t even want to send them to the landfill, because we don’t want to do anything that increases the number of nematodes anywhere. Nematodes need a film of water to survive, and the parking lot deprives them of that.

Cucumber roots with nematodes (see circles). We forgot to take photos of the tomato roots.
Photo Pam Dawling

We spread the tomato clearance job out over a week, doing one step each day, so we don’t have to be in the hoophouse after 11 am, when the temperature becomes unbearable. After harvesting all the fruit (ripe and unripe, separately) in the first bed, we pull up the plants and check the roots. If we see nematode lumps, we carefully cut off the roots and take them outside. We mark the area with a blue flag in each corner, and later measure the distance from the end of the bed and mark the problem area on a map of the beds. This is in case the flags mysteriously fall out.

When we plan the winter crops, we plant the more nematode-resistant crops in the infested areas.With the non-nematode infected plants (most of them) we shake the soil off the roots to speed up the wilting. Plus of course, we don’t want to be removing precious topsoil from the hoophouse! We leave all the plants still hanging in place in the rows of twine, to dry out for a couple of days. We are going to haul them to the compost pile, and it’s a lot less work (fewer cartloads) once the plants have wilted.

Cutting down through the layers of twine in preparation for clearing string-woven tomatoes. Photo Pam Dawling

The second day, we collect up the plant labels and put them in either the “Successes” bucket or the “Failures” bucket according to whether we want to grow that variety again. We cut the twine, pull out the long pieces and collect them in a trash bucket. We don’t try to save the twine, partly because it would take a lot of time, and partly because we don’t want to use twine that might be infected with fungal diseases. The easy way to remove the twine is simply to cut downwards beside a stake, through each of the pieces of twine, then go to the next stake and do the same, but this time gather the twine in the non-knife hand. Next, slice down the other side of the same stake, to reduce struggle, and make the lengths of twine easy to pull out! We use sisal twine, so we let the small pieces, which were wrapped around the stakes, drop to the ground. Most of them will get collected up when we pull the stakes, and a few will go with the plants to the compost pile.

Gathering the lengths of twine after cutting at both sides of each tomato stake. Photo Pam Dawling
Tomato clearance, after cutting and pulling the twine, and removing the stake extenders in the near bed. The bed to the right still has the extenders in place. Photo Pam Dawling

The third day we pull up the stakes. To reach the full height we needed, we have tied an extension stake onto each one, so first we remove those, then we pull the stakes that are in the ground. We like to use a T-post puller for this job, as it gets the wood posts out nicely without breaking them off in the ground. We only use the wood stakes for hoophouse tomatoes once, and the next year we use them outdoors, often for the snap peas. This is to reduce spread of diseases. When we pull out the metal T-posts we scrape the soil off, then spray them down and scrub with a brush.

Our (welding-repaired) T-post puller makes fast effective work of removing wood stakes too. 15 seconds per stake.
Photo Pam Dawling
When I’m collecting things togethe, I throw them into clusters as I work, and make them ready to move easily. Photo Pam Dawling

The fourth day we haul the wilted plants to the compost pile. We make a little effort to keep the zipper spiders in the hoophouse, but they have minds of their own! We do gather up any egg cases we see, and hang those on the metal framework of the hoophouse, to provide spiders next year.

A large zipper spider in our hoophouse in early August. Photo Pam Dawling
Zipper spider egg cases overwintering in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

On day 5 we rake and (if in time) sow a summer cover crop. We like to use soy as a warm weather legume that will supply some nitrogen, but it needs 6 weeks to be worthwhile. If we are a bit late, we’ll just sow buckwheat. We need our first bed for fall and winter crops on September 6. The others won’t be needed until Early October or later.

The steps for the second bed happen one day later than they happen in the first one. See the worksheet to get the full story.

Hoophouse Tomato Clearing Worksheet

If you live in a cooler climate than I do and you want to learn about keeping tomato plants growing (and accessible) in a hoophouse, read Andrew Mefferd’s book The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook. There he explains the lower and lean method of supporting tomato vines.

And I’ll close out with this photo which shows a tomato stem that I accidentally broke when doing the first round of stringweaving. I bandaged it back together with electrical tape from our drip tape first aid box. In the past I have also repaired stems with band aids. It works really well and the plants recover to live a normal productive life.

Yes, this really works! Tomato stem repaired with electrical tape 5 months earlier.
Photo Pam Dawling

Fruit for the Month: August (Grapes)

 

Concord grapes ripening. Photo Kati Falger

This is another post in my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a vaguely mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.

If you are finding my blog valuable and you are learning a lot, please consider making a donation by PayPal or with a credit card. See the Donation Button on the right side of the screen (maybe somewhere else on a phone screen). Thank you!

Grapes are the focus fruit for August

The Cornell  2022 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Grapes 2022-org-grapes-NYSIPM.pdf   (3.291Mb) is a great resource. It covers soil health, pre-planting and under-vine cover crops, site selection, variety selection, nutrient requirements, integrated pest management, and more in its 90 pages. Be aware that it is written with the Northeast in mind.

For a more general approach, see Grapes: Organic Production. ATTRA, Rex Dufour, 2006.

If you are planning to grow grapes, late summer is a good time to prepare the site and sow a cover crop to suppress weeds, increase the organic matter in the soil, and if you include legumes, provide some slow-release nitrogen for the new vines.

grape trellises and solar panels in the mist. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Types of grapes

Grapes are a long-term perennial crop, so good research into suitable types and varieties is important. Wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) and table grapes do not grow well organically on the east coast, because of fungal diseases. Mars is a table grape that grows relatively well organically. It resembles Concord. Vitis Labrusca grapes (Concord, Niagara, etc) are much less susceptible than Vinifera varieties. Hybrid Grapes (Labrusca x Vinifera), such as Arandell, Cayuga White, Corot Noir, Noiret, and Traminette have better potential for Organic culture than Vinifera types.

We grow Labrusca grapes, mainly Concord, with a few Allred, with a selection of other varieties that we are trialing, including the Planets (Jupiter, Mars, Neptune, Venus) and Edelweiss, Fredonia, Marquis, Niagara, Reliance, Sheridan, Steuben, Vanessa. All these are suitable for juice, jam and jelly. Fredonia, Marquis, Mars, Niagara, Reliance, Steuben, Vanessa and Venus are dessert quality, but mostly they have thick skins, big seeds, and a sour taste. Some of these varieties are susceptible to Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and/or Black Rot, and I wouldn’t buy those again. Likewise, I would not buy grafted vines, such as the Cynthiana and Niagara, as we are not good at remembering to cover and uncover the graft unions when the seasons change.

Muscadines

Muscadine grapes. Creator: David Nance, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org. Copyright: licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

In the South, Muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) will grow easily, although Vinifera and Labrusca grapes won’t. See Mark Hoffman, Patrick Conner et al, Muscadine Grape Production Guide for the Southeast.  Also see the chapter on muscadines in Blake Cothron, The Berry Grower.  (My review coming soon) This less publicized grape type deserve more attention, especially in hot, humid areas.

The aromatic, sweet, large round muscadine grapes are resistant to diseases and pests (perhaps thanks partly to their thick skins), have 4-10 grapes per bunch, mature in 90-120 days, and separating from the vine with a dry scar when ripe.

 

 

 

 

The muscadine industry is a multimillion-dollar industry in the US, but most people don’t know it. Muscadines are probably the first cultivated native grape in the US. There are at least 100 cultivars of muscadines, including Scuppernong, the one people are most likely to have heard of. Some varieties are more suited to wine-making, others for fresh eating. Some are seedless. Individual plants are either male or female, with a few self-fertile cultivars. Planting a ratio of 3 female to 1 self-fertile vine will ensure pollination. Those in areas experiencing winter temperatures below 10F (zone 7b and colder) should choose a relatively cold-hardy variety. Make a trellis before planting time, allowing 16’ (5m) between vines:

Munson grapes

Thomas Munson in Texas “. . . became one of the leading experts in native American grape species, and his studies were instrumental in saving the European grape and wine industry from disaster during the late nineteenth century.” Free Munson grape cuttings are available from Grayson College, Texas for growers and breeders (request in the fall). These grapes are easier to grow organically under a wider range of conditions

Site Selection

As with many fruit trees, good air drainage is important. This means an open site where cold air can flow away downslope, and not cause a frost pocket. A site that has some protection from cold winds is valuable. Grapes benefit from soil that absorbs rainfall and lets it drain away when excessive. If your soil is compacted, do some deep cultivation before planting grapes. If necessary install drainage. This important site selection and preparation takes time, so start now! Get a soil test in the fall, and perhaps sow cover crops – see the Cornell publication for ideas.

A row of grapes in early spring. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Preparations for planting

Turn under or smother any cover crops in the rows. Build a strong trellis with cross arms and wires to fit your chosen trellising method. We use the Geneva Double Curtain, a cordon method. It has a single lower wire, fastened to the posts, and a higher wire on each side, fastened to the ends of the arms. If the first vine is trained over the lower wire and onto the east upper wire, say, the next vine will be trained over the lower wire and up to the west upper wire. By alternating, each vine can be planted 10 ft (3m) from its neighbors, but have room on the top wires for cordons (arms) of 10 ft (3m) in each direction, until they meet each other.

Install orchard grade drip irrigation (tubing with integral emitters). The tubing can hang on clips on the low wire of the trellis. This prevents accidental mowing or rodent damage.

Orchard tubing drip irrigation, showing an emitter and the clips holding tubing to wire. Photo Pam Dawling

Be ready by the early spring shipping date. Ours was 24 March.

Planting grapes

Dig 16” (40 cm) deep holes for new vines. Put 4” (10cm) loose topsoil in each hole (no compost). When the vines arrive, unpack them and soak the roots in water for 3-24 hours. For own-rooted plants, pruning roots to 6” (15cm) is possible but not needed. Grafted vines need planting with the graft union 2-3” (5-8cm) above the soil surface, the union temporarily covered with soil until the plant starts to grow.

New grape vine. photo Bridget Aleshire

Spread the roots into loose soil. Cover to 4” (10cm) below grade.  Position own-rooted vines at the same depth as it was in the nursery. Tread firmly. Fill the last 4” (10cm) with loose soil (don’t tread). Install label and stake (bamboo). Tie the vine to the stake. (Stakes will be removed after 2 years.) Mulch with cardboard and sawdust. You could prune now to 8-10 buds above the crown spur, and prune more later, or leave for now. Label the vines, make a map and logbook to note flowering and fruiting times, and success of new vines.

Annual Grape Calendar

Immature grapes. Photo Bridget Aleshire

January/ February

Compost and re-mulch the vines. Check and repair the drip irrigation. Update maps and logs.

Could take dormant wood cuttings, 6-9” (15-23cm) long, cut at the top 1” (2.5cm) above bud at a slope, heel in, label clearly.

March

Plant any new vines. Prune existing vines. See notes made the previous year, about replacement arms, etc. Be sure to prune vines well back from young vines, as competition is hard on them. Vines pruned after the buds swell will leaf out a little later, and may avoid late frosts. Tie in well to top wire. Remove any wrong side growth.

A row of new vines without a trellis yet. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Weed the rows, particularly around new vines. Remove stakes from any vines planted two years ago. Mow the aisles. Water if in drought, 1” (2.5cm) per week.

Layer branches of existing vines to fill gaps (very effective gap-filling method). Lay a tip with several buds 2-5” (5-12cm) deep in a trench, cover with 3” (7.5cm) of soil. When new growth starts to appear, fill the trench and pack firmly. Separate the plants the following fall. Layering can also be done in the fall.

 April

Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week. Monitor for pests and diseases. Uncover the graft unions of any grafted vines.

New Vines: One week after bloom, remove all fruitlet clusters in the first two years after planting. After hard frosts are past, or once growth starts, prune the new vines to a single stem with 2 or 3 buds above the crown spur. Or if the vine is vigorous, leave two trunks, one for insurance. Remove any suckers growing from the base of the vine.

Mature vines: One week after bloom, thin clusters to one per bud, if the number of clusters exceeds 60 on a mature vine (24 for a 4-year-old, 12 for 3-year-old).

Uncover the graft unions of any grafted vines.

Irrigation with orchard tubing clipped to the lower wire. Photo Pam Dawling

May-July

Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week. Monitor for pests and diseases.

New vines: Rub off or prune away all side branches growing on main trunks below chosen cordons, and remove any fruit clusters that appear. Tie in new growth.

Once a month – Remove dead wood. Train to wires. Tie in. Take notes. Keep aisles mowed.

August

Harvest – early August some years, or late August if the first buds got frosted. New vines will not yield for two years, and full bearing capacity will not be reached until 5th or 6th year. The productive life of a vine is 20-30 years.

Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week.

Two rows of grapes viewed from the north. Photo Kathryn Simmons

September

Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week.

October-December

Weed. Water if needed. Last mowing early October. Cover the graft unions of any grafted vines with soil.

Pests and diseases of grapes

Monitor for Black Rot, Botrytis, Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew, Phomopsis, Anthracnose, and other fungal diseases. Be on the lookout for grape Berry Moth, leafhoppers, scale insects, spider mites and Japanese beetles. Don’t panic about a few Japanese beetles. Grapes (and many other crops) can take a certain amount of defoliation before suffering a loss of yield.

For full technical details, see the Cornell publication mentioned above.

———————————————————–

Other small fruits available in August

Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), blackberries, crabapples, fall raspberries, muskmelons, peaches, and plums are still available. Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in May or June!

https://harvesttotable.com/how-to-plant-grow-prune-and-harvest-blackberries/

Very weedy primocane (fall-fruiting) Caroline raspberries in need of attention. Photo Kathryn Simmons

If you live in Virginia, see https://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/pdf/producechart.pdf

Small fruits that may be starting to ripen include elderberries (mid-Aug to mid-Sept), pawpaws, schisandra (2-3 weeks from the middle of the summer) and watermelons.

I have reviewed two books about pawpaws on this site: Pawpaws, by Blake Cothron, and For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd

Other fruit care in August

Water all fruit crops. Pack away blueberry netting after fruiting. Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit (weed blueberries and raspberries shallowly, so as not to damage roots).

In early August, plant new strawberry plugs at 4 weeks old, or rooted potted runners. Start more plugs if needed.

Newly planted strawberry plugs in landscape fabric.
Photo Wren Vile

Book Review: Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts by Levy and Serrano

Cover of the book Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts

Book Review: Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts: 50 Easy-to-Grow Plants for the Organic Home Garden or Landscape, by Allyson Levy and Scott Serrano. Chelsea Green, March 2022, 384 pages, 7” x 10”, 250 color photos, extensive resources, $34.95.

ADDENDUM 7/27/22: Since writing this review I have heard that some of the plants that are not invasive in New York’s Hudson Valley are invasive elsewhere, so if you have any doubt at all, please check with your local Extension Service.

This book is a delight for the landscaper, plantsperson, and fruit connoisseur. Here are profiles of 50 fruits and nuts, almost certainly including at least one or two you haven’t heard of. Che, akebia, medlar, schisandra. . . they are all resilient, low-maintenance cold-hardy plants for growing in temperate zones. And growing trees is, as Eric Toensmeier points out “one of the world’s highest-carbon forms of gardening and farming.”

The authors are the founders of the Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in New York’s Hudson Valley, a garden they created to provide inspiration for their work in visual arts. As the garden grew to 11 acres, their main passion evolved into growing and selling ornamental and edible plant collections with a focus on underutilized species, and sharing their gardens with the public through classes and open days.

Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts does not include apples, peaches, and other popular fruits that are actually a challenge to grow sustainably (although pears are included). This book assumes you will find basic cultivation advice from some other source, and instead focuses on specific details about each plant that you might not have seen anywhere else. The authors’ goal is to increase diversity for reasons of climate resilience and support for insect species.

The plant profiles include taste ratings, recommended cultivars, propagation methods, requirements for soil, sun, shade and fertilization, and notes on harvesting and eating; also a Growth Difficulty Rating alerting readers to the level of attention (low, lower and lowest!) that the plants will require once established. The crops in this book are disease-resistant and pest-resistant. Many of the plants have a photo page with bark, blossom, leaves and fruit at various stages of development. The fascinating plant descriptions and natural histories will keep you entranced on rainy days. I found myself wishing for a calendar of fruiting dates, to plan year-round fruit. Although not presented in that format, the information is in each Taste Profile and Uses section.

The first fruit is akebia, also known as chocolate vine. It is an attractive ornamental, and if you want fruit, you need two genetically different plants. Akebia is easy to grow and thrives on neglect. It could be invasive, although the authors have not found it so. The 3-5” (7.5-13cm) fruit look like purple sausages with a waxy bloom. When ripe, the fruits split open showing white pulp enclosing tiny black seeds. The taste is like coconut-flavored tapioca pudding.

The second plant is the familiar almond. If you have disease problems with peaches, plums or cherries, think twice. If you have room for a few large trees, consider growing a few Dunstan blight-resistant chestnuts, and helping the restoration of the great American chestnut. Or plant pecans, choosing varieties suited to your location. Wait up to ten years for nuts.

Walnuts (black and English, as well as hybrids like heartnuts butternuts, buartnuts) need a long-term plan. All walnut trees produce the compound juglone in all parts of the tree. This compound is allelopathic – it inhibits the growth of nearby plants, both edible and ornamental – so give them a space of their own. Hazelnuts grow more shrub-like if American, more of a small tree if European. Eastern filbert blight can be a problem with European hazelnuts, but not American ones.

The Korean Stone Pine or Chinese Pine Nut thrives on steep slopes and thin soils. The trees do grow tall, looking from a distance like American White Pines. Although self-fertile, they provide higher yields if two trees are planted. The cones take two years to mature, and are covered with a very sticky resin. Store them in bags until the scales separate. The seeds in their shells look like small pistachios.

Asian pears are easy to grow and the usual pear disease and pest problems (fire blight and codling moth) affect them less. Shipova is a hybrid of the European pear with the whitebeam mountain ash, propagated by grafts. The fruits are 1.5-2” (4-5 cm) and stay green for a long time before ripening to a blushing yellow. It can take ten years before any fruit is available. Usually the flavor is sweet, delicate and fragrant.

Quinces are tree fruits closely related to pears, and were more popular in the past. The Pilgrims brought quince seeds from northern Europe, and it was the only source of fruit pectin until the end of the nineteenth century. Watch out for fire blight and cedar apple rust. The fruit is hard and downy, and cannot be eaten raw. The easiest way to cook them is to bake them whole, when they become fragrant and delicious. The authors didn’t have this information, and instruct on peeling and de-seeding before cooking, which is slow work. Cooking whole and making jelly is another option. Older varieties of flowering quince also produce fruit, but in modern varieties that feature has been bred out and double-flowering has been bred in! A few of the fruiting varieties include Crimson and Gold, Jet Trail, Tanechka, and Toyo-Nishiki which all grow as shrubs, not trees.

Medlars are another ancient old world fruit, with not much modern-day interest. The fruits are not edible until “bletted” by a hard frost or by waiting beyond normal ripeness, when they get very close to rotting. The small trees have beautiful spring blossoms, and if you don’t harvest the fruit, they remain on the twigs during the winter, giving added interest then. They can also be eaten frozen during winter walks through the orchard.

American Persimmons really must ripen on the tree to be good eating. They don’t need a frost, but they do need to be soft, with a golden-orange to red-orange skin. Harvest the fallen ones each morning from late September until the end of November.

Beach plums grow wild on the east coast from North Carolina upwards, and while they are easy to grow, the quality of the small stony fruits varies. Nanking cherry is a short shrub producing small bright red (or white) cherries that can be used for pies. They fall from the bush when ripe, and need to be gathered and used soon, as they do not have a shelf life. The flowering shrub is very attractive.

There are some (relatively) hardy citrus, such as the trifoliate orange, a very thorny tree with small sour fruits, useful for marmalade and fruit sauces. The trees are very good for hedges and Flying Dragon makes a spectacular winter sight with snow on the twisted branches.

Jujubes are also known as Chinese dates or red dates. They are easy-care trees once established, ripening in mid-late fall if in full sun. If left to dry, the fruit gains a date-like texture. Two trees are required for cross-pollination, choosing varieties that have flowers opening at the same time of day. They can survive cold winters, provided the summer is long and hot.

Pawpaws have earned themselves several books of their own in recent years. Although tropical flavored, this fruit is adapted to temperate zones, and needs 400 chilling hours below freezing in order to flower. They are slow to reach fruiting age, but then are easy to maintain. The large oblong fruit contain several large seeds and a soft custard-like flesh. They can be eaten out of the skin with a spoon, or they can be frozen to eat later, like ice cream. Don’t eat the skins, and don’t eat cooked pawpaws. Two different trees are needed together for cross-pollination. There are myths about which insects pollinate pawpaws, but the authors attest to seeing many species of flies and beetles at work in their pawpaw flowers.

Black raspberries are a delicious wild fruit you can cultivate, although they are susceptible to disease and can spread the plagues to red and gold raspberries. Blackberries can be managed by thinning the canes, providing a trellis, shortening the canes or settling for a semi-wild, semi-constrained patch. Boysenberries are the result of complex crossing of blackberries, raspberries, and loganberries. The trailing canes are hard to manage, and the thin-skinned berries are best used very soon after harvest, without any need to travel.

Mulberries grow on trees, not canes, ripening in late June or early July. Everbearing types produce a second flush of fruit, into August. If you have large harvests of these delicious fruits, spread a tarp or sheet under the tree and shake the ripe fruit loose. There are black mulberries for southern areas, as well as the cold-hardy white and red mulberries. The Illinois Everbearing cultivar produces plentiful large fruit on a shorter tree than the wild types. The structure of the tree is a bit fragile, so you may need props under the branches.

Che berries look like dogwood fruit, but are not related. They are a kind of mulberry, and they are also related to figs. Their flavor is like both. They are now classified as a type of Osage orange. Aronia berries (chokeberry), Cornelian cherries, and goumi berries are all small berries that grow on shrubs or small trees that can make an attractive addition to a landscape. Goumi is an Eleagnus, related to the invasive autumn olive. Because goumi is not invasive (and the berries are bigger), it makes a good alternative. Also, goumi roots capture nitrogen from the air in the soil, improving its nutritional profile, and making it possible to grow them in salty soils.

Juneberries are also known as Saskatoon, Serviceberry, Shadblow and Shadbush. There are 20-25 species in North America, one for almost every climate area. Poor soil is sufficient, but full sun is better than partial shade. There is no sourness to the flavor, and the authors suggest that the mild flavor is enhanced if you chew the seeds too. They do make good pies, but because birds are fond of them, you may need to snack as they do, or harvest under-ripe.

Blackcurrants were once widely prohibited in the US, blamed for killing pine trees by spreading white pine blister rust. In most places it is no longer illegal to grow blackcurrants, and there are some disease-resistant blackcurrant varieties. They don’t do well in hot places, but the flavor is worth pursuing. The authors report that over a 14-year period, their pine trees have not been affected by the neighboring blackcurrants. Gooseberries are another European fruit once under the same ban as blackcurrants. Not all the European varieties do well in the humid mid-Atlantic, although there are still a hundred that do! Invicta, Poorman and Jahn’s Prairie are recommended as successful sweet types.

Blueberries.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

Blueberries are native to North America, and do best in acid soils containing a specific beneficial mycorrhizal fungus around the roots to make soil nutrients absorbable. There are Northern Highbush, Southern Highbush, Rabbiteye and low bush types. See the book for recommended varieties. Huckleberries look like lowbush blueberries but have larger, crunchy seeds. Lingonberries, another blueberry relative, are Sweden’s national fruit and develop on low-growing spreading evergreen shrubs. They do best with acid soils, whether shady or sunny. In hot areas choose spots with afternoon shade. The plants make an attractive year-round ground cover, with the flowers and berries providing extra seasonal interest.

Seaberry (Sea buckthorn – but it’s not a buckthorn), produces shiny orange fruits in late summer, with high levels of several vitamins and many health benefits. The bushy plants have an aggressive growth pattern, and the thorns can be off-putting. But if you persist you can enjoy these tart berries cooked and sweetened.

Grapes are a well-known vine crop. Muscadines, the native American grapes, found in the Southeast and South central US, are not found in New York, and are therefore not in this book. Muscadines do better with high heat and humidity, being more resistant to fungal diseases. The fox grape, native in the northeastern US, lead to the development of the Concord variety. If growing grapes, cover each developing bunch soon after pollination with a paper bag stapled closed around the stem.

Arctic kiwis are related to the large fuzzy tropical ones, but are hardier, smaller – about 1” (2.5cm) long – and smooth. The large vines are easy to grow, but do need a strong trellis. Hardy kiwis or Chinese kiwis have vines that are much bigger – up to 100’ (30.5m) long, and can take years longer to start producing. Their fruits are a little bit bigger than Arctic kiwis, with a more complex flavor, and, again, no fuzz, so no need to peel. Unlike Arctic kiwis, they do not fall from the vine when ripe.

Here’s a rare one: Himalayan Chocolate Berry. This very ornamental member of the honeysuckle family naturalizes rapidly (invasive in warmer areas?). It feeds many birds, and provides small nibbles for passing humans. It will never be a commercial success, because the sporadic ripening reduces the size of any one harvest, and the berries tend to split once ripe. Honeyberry is another honeysuckle type that is edible (most honeysuckles are slightly poisonous.) Honeyberries are a very cold-hardy early-harvesting berry, a long-shaped, blue-purple fruit, ripe when no longer at all green inside. Aurora, Berry Blue and Borealis are recommended varieties. Birds love them.

Schisandra is another less-known vine, producing tangy red berries, hanging down in generous clusters. You will need to trellis this vigorous vine, and maybe search the foliage for the hidden fruit. Most people will want to sweeten the fruit or juice it with sweeter fruits. Schisandra is not invasive, and you will need to plant several to be sure of having at least one male and one female. Goji is a berry growing on a “vine disguised as a bush”.

Cranberries are well known, although not that many people construct a bog to grow their own. Instructions for creating a “bowl bog” are in this book. Elderberries are a relatively well-known fruit. Note that all green parts of the plant are toxic (I didn’t know). I am more familiar with European elderberries, which we happily eat raw, and juice. American elderberry is apparently slightly toxic, and to most tastes, not pleasant if eaten raw. This shrub is very tough and adaptable, and has many medicinal as well as culinary uses. York seems to be particularly sturdy. European varieties may grow for several years but then decline.

Spikenard is a native herbaceous perennial found in cool shaded woodlands, and growing to 5’ (1.5m) tall in a single season. The tiny berries are not poisonous as some sources claim, but if you are nervous, cook them. They look a little like elderberries.

Wintergreen is a distinctive flavor familiar from some American candy, toothpaste and chewing gum. The shade-loving vines hug the ground, thriving in acid soils. The scarlet berries ripen in fall, persist on the plants all winter, and actually become sweeter after some cold weather. They don’t taste good at the end of the winter, though, so harvest while they are good eating. There are some modern cultivars selected for larger berries, although this plant is mostly grown as a ground cover or used for winter wreaths. The leaves can be used as tea. Those allergic to aspirin should avoid wintergreen because all parts of the plant contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like compound.

Mayapples are found in the understorey of Eastern woodlands, pushing up through the leaf-litter in early spring and unfurling large palmate leaves. All parts of the plant except ripe fruits are poisonous, and too many fruits can have a laxative effect. The roots have been used to relieve indigestion, and cancer drugs are derived from them. The fruits are lemon-shaped, up to 2” (5cm) long. Wait for them to soften and start to wrinkle in the summer. Discard the skin and seeds (slightly toxic). The pulp of the ripe fruits has a tropical flavor.

Maypops grow on the very ornamental passionflower vine. The egg-size fruits don’t provide a lot of food, but have an interesting mildly sweet, mildly acid flavor, once the fruits start to wrinkle. The seed are surrounded by tasty edible arils (like pomegranates).

After all the profiles, there are two pages of further reading, two of plant nurseries, about 20 pages of extra notes about the crops, and 20 pages of index. A very well-researched book!

Author Allyson Levy
Author Scott Serrano