Root cellar potato storage, Mother Earth News post on hot weather seed germination tips

Potato harvest.
Photo Nina Gentle

We harvested our March-planted potatoes 21 days ago, and we are in the process of sorting them and managing conditions in our root cellar to cure the potatoes and help them store well.

Here are our “Root Cellar Warden” instructions:

  1. Before the potato harvest, leave the cellar open for a couple of days to warm up to the temperature of the potatoes (to reduce condensation and rot.)
  2. Gather crates. We store our potatoes in open plastic crates on plastic pallets, which allow ventilation but not rotting or holding of fungal spores.
  3. Like most root vegetables, potatoes store better if they are not washed before storage.
  4. In summer we stack the crates of harvested potatoes under tree near the cellar the first night, to lose some heat. At dusk, we cover them with a tarp to keep dew off and keep them dry. At 6 or 7 am next day, we put the crates in the cellar and close the door.
  5. Store in a moist, completely dark cellar, avoiding excess moisture.
  6. After the harvest, the potatoes need a surprisingly warm temperature, 60-75°F (15-25C) with good ventilation, for two weeks of curing. This allows the skins to toughen up, cut surfaces to heal over, and some of the sugars to convert to the more storable starches. Wounds do not heal below 50F (10C).
  7. In June/July, after harvesting the March-planted potatoes, we leave the door open at night almost every night for a week, then every other night, and close it early in the morning. After the Oct/Nov harvest of the June-planted potatoes, we leave the door open on mild nights or days every 2 or 3 days, and close it later. (It’s easier to cool the cellar in the fall.)
  8. As well as cooling to a good storage temperature, for the two weeks between harvest and sorting, the root cellar needs 6-9 hours of ventilation every two or three days. The potatoes are still “alive” and respiring, and will heat up if left closed in. If not ventilated, the potatoes get Black Heart. This is a dark hard black nodule of dead cells in the middle of the potato. Ventilate when the temperature is 0-20 Fahrenheit degrees (0-11 Celsius degrees) cooler than the goal:
  9. Air in the daytime if nights are too cold and days are mild;
  10. Air at night if nights are mild and days too warm.
  11. Try hard to avoid having the cellar cool down, then warm up. This causes the potatoes to sprout.
  12. Ventilate more if it is damp in there.

    Sorting potatoes .
    Photo Wren Vile

  13. After two weeks, the potatoes need sorting to remove Use First and Compost ones, keeping the varieties separate. Usually we bring the crates out to the top of the cellar steps in rotation. We gather buckets, rags, gloves. It’s important to do this 14-21days after harvest, and not leave it longer, to minimize the spread of rot.
  14. We find that if we do this one sorting after two weeks, we don’t need to check them any more after that – pretty much anything that was going to rot has already done so. Very little additional rotting occurs after a two week curing and sorting. If left unsorted for longer, rot does spread. If we sort too soon, we miss some potatoes with tiny bad spots, and need a second sorting.
  15. Restack the crates in the cellar, remembering to leave an airspace between crates and walls.

    Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
    Photo Nina Gentle

  16. For weeks 2-4, the temperature goal is 50°F (10C), ventilation is needed about once a week.
  17. After week 4, ventilation for air exchange is no longer needed, as the potatoes are now dormant. We want to cool the cellar whenever a cool, mild night or chilly day is forecast, to 40-45F (5-7 C) if possible in late fall, and as close to that as we can get, in summer. (In summer, potatoes can be stored at 60-75F (15-25C) for up to six weeks – but at higher temperatures they will sprout.)
  18. Avoid wildly fluctuating temperatures, as the stress can cause “physiological aging” which among other things, inclines the potatoes towards sprouting.
  19. Continue to ventilate as needed during times of cool temperatures, to maintain the cellar in the ideal temperature range.
  20. Avoid storage much below 40F (5C), as these low temperatures will cause some of the starches in the potatoes to turn to sugars. This gives the potatoes a strange taste, and will cause them to blacken if fried. Potatoes which have become sweet can be brought back to normal flavor by holding them at about 70F/21C for a week or two before using.
  21. With a good in-ground root cellar, potatoes can be stored for 5-8 months. As a sustainable alternative to refrigerated or electrically cooled storage for crops needing cool damp conditions, traditional root cellars are a good option.

    Potato crates in our cellar.
    Photo Nina Gentle

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Dormancy Requirements of Potatoes

We are researching the dormancy requirements of potatoes in an effort to store ours so they don’t sprout when we don’t want them to! So if you have information on that, please leave a comment

What I know so far about dormancy is that potatoes need a dormancy period of 4-8 weeks after harvest before they will sprout. So if you plan to dig up an early crop and immediately replant some of the potatoes for a later crop, take this into account. Get around this problem by refrigerating them for 16 days, then chitting them in the light for 2 weeks. The company of apples, bananas or onions will help them sprout by emitting ethylene.

To avoid sprouting, keep the potatoes below 50F (10C) once they are more than a month from harvest, avoid excess moisture, and avoid “physiological aging” of the potatoes, caused by stressing them with fluctuating temperatures, among other things.

Potato Sprouting Conditions

The rate of growth of sprouts on potatoes is directly related to the degree-days above 40F/5C, so storing potatoes above 40F (5C) (for best flavor), clearly runs the risk that at some point they will start sprouting. If eating potatoes do start to develop sprouts, it’s a good idea to rub off the sprouts as soon as possible, because the sprouting process affects the flavor, making them sweet in the same way that low temperatures do.

Seed potato pieces after pre-sprouting for planting.
Photo Kati Falger

If you are storing potatoes for seed, and have good control over the temperature of your cellar, you can manipulate the conditions somewhat to help get best yields. The “physiological age” of the seed tubers affects both the early yield and the final yield. Cold storage conditions – below 40F (5C) keep the seed “young”, which leads to a crop that takes longer to mature. Avoid planting physiologically “young” seed potatoes unless you are prepared to harvest later than usual (or have a lower yield when you bring the crop to an end by mowing). “Old” seed gives an earlier harvest, but perhaps a lower final yield. If you will be planting in spring for an early finishing crop, “age” your seed potatoes by storing them at 50F (10C) until two weeks before planting, then harden off at a lower temperature to reduce thermal shock when they reach the soil. “Middle-aged” tubers stored at 40-50F (5-10C) give the highest maincrop yields. When we buy seed potatoes we have no control over the storage conditions before we get them, and probably no information either. The physiological age can be estimated by the length of the longest sprouts on the tubers. The best information I have found about potato storage and sprouting is in a book from the UK: The Complete Know and Grow Vegetables by Bleasdale, Slater and others.

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I wrote an article about growing potatoes for Growing for Market magazine.

I also wrote about root cellars for potatoes and other vegetables in Sustainable Market Farming and forGrowing for Market magazine in November 2008.

Storage is not a one-solution-fits-all project. Produce for storage might need to be frozen, refrigerated, cool, warm, moist or dry. Refrigerators and the ingenious CoolBot have their place. Mike and Nancy Bubel, in their excellent book Root Cellaring identified five different sets of storage requirements. Since their book was published, more evidence suggests that potatoes are better stored at 40-50F (5-10C) than 32-40F (0-5C), and that cucumbers and eggplant, like peppers, are better above 45F (7C).

Ethylene. Ripe fruits and actively growing plants (such as sprouting potatoes), emit ethylene, which then promotes more ripening or sprouting. Ethylene-producing crops need to be stored separately from those sensitive to ethylene – vegetables you don’t want to sprout, such as onions and potatoes.

Other Vegetables in Cellars. Most other root crops can also be stored in a root cellar. Some people pack the unwashed vegetables in boxes of sand, wood-ash, sawdust or wood chips. Perforated plastic bags are a modern alternative. Whole pepper plants can be hung upside down in the cellar, as can headed greens, like cabbage. Or cabbage can be replanted side by side in boxes or tubs of soil. Celery and leeks can also be stored by replanting in the same way. I’m more of a fan of choosing hardy varieties of leeks and leaving them out in the garden for the winter, but this is zone 7 and people in places with really deep snow or very cold winters might laugh ruefully at that suggestion.

Root Cellar Construction

Mike and Nancy Bubel Root Cellaring contains great designs and instructions for excavated root cellars, including a two-room version for keeping different crops at different temperatures and humidities. Excavated root cellars are not the only possibility, but they have advantages because the earth insulates the cellar. Because soil is heavy, in-ground cellars must be strongly built, and well drained, so that water does not pool, freeze in winter and crack the walls. The book has details about laying out the site, working with concrete blocks, mixing concrete, making a supported roof, and drainage.

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20 Tips for Success in Germinating Seeds in Hot Weather

This is the title of my newest post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog. In my previous post I wrote general themes for starting seeds in hot weather. This time I listed 20 specific tricks under categories such as Seed Storage, Sowing Seeds Indoors, Sowing Seeds Outdoors, Watering, Soaking Seeds, Pre-sprouting and Fluid Sowing.

Good irrigation is important for successful carrot growing in hot weather.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Harvesting squash and cucumbers, Starting Seeds in Hot Weather, ATTRA tutorials

Gentry squash in our hoophouse.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

 Harvesting squash and cucumbers

The weather has heated up, the squash and cucumbers are growing well, and the combination leads to irritation from prickly leaves on sweaty skin. Some people get quite a rash from harvesting these crops, others just get a short-term itchiness that is cured by rinsing arms and hands in cool water. We’ve come up with a few helpful techniques.

Harvesting Zephyr summer squash, wearing a long-sleeved shirt.
Photo by Brittany Lewis

The first is fairly obvious: wear long sleeves for this task. Keep a suitable cotton shirt handy (near the harvest knives) to slip on before you start. But sometimes it just feels too hot. Gauntlets are another option. We have two pairs of these white plastic sleeves with elasticated ends. We keep one in the hoophouse, clothes-pinned to the rack by the logbook

Using plastic gauntlets or protective sleeves avoids getting skin irritations while harvesting squash.
Photo by Pam Dawling

I don’t know where we got these. It’s very quick to slip them on and off again, keeping the “enclosed” time to a minimum. They are just tubes, they don’t have gloves attached like the ones I used to wear when I kept bees. They are sold as “protective sleeves”, and they look like these or these (see the photo above).

Probably cutting sleeves off an old shirt and hemming and threading elastic in the top end would work.

For cucumbers, we have introduced the use of a pole to rummage in the vines, seeking mature cukes. This is a surprising improvement over using hands or feet to find the fruits. It does little damage, and you can easily feel when you hit a cucumber. The small amount of  time it takes to pop the cucumber off the vine is not long enough for skin to get irritated (for most of us). Also, cucumber vines are closer to the ground than squash vines and leaves, and so your arms don’t get scratched.

Using a pole to locate cucumbers among the vines.
Photo Pam Dawling


Starting Seeds in Hot Weather

A well-germinated bed of young carrots.
photo by Kathryn Simmons

My blogpost on this topic has been published on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. You can see it here. It is based on material in Sustainable Market Farming and in my new book The Year-Round Hoophouse. The post covers germination temperatures, soaking and pre-sprouting seeds.


 

ATTRA tutorials

If you are looking for a reliable source of tried and tested information on Sustainable Agriculture of any sort, try ATTRA Tutorials

“Two new courses outlining Farm Energy Efficiency and Scaling Up for Regional Markets are now available from NCAT/ATTRA. And we’ve added a new quiz feature to each of our tutorials. Each lesson includes a quiz that will test what you learned in that specific lesson. If you successfully pass all quizzes, you’ll get a certificate demonstrating your knowledge!”

Other topics include Food Safety, Soil Health, Managed Grazing, Sustainable Irrigation, Ecological Pest Management, Farm Business Planning & Marketing for Beginners, and Getting Started in Farming.

Twin Oaks Garden blog, rainy day reading, more on hydroponics.

Y-Star Pattypan squash, one of the varieties for the Twin Oaks Garden this year.

Wren, one of the Twin Oaks Garden Managers, has started a blog about the Twin Oaks Garden. This is a great place to check what’s happening in our garden, especially if you also garden in Virginia or some other winter-hardiness zone 7 area.

The new post this week is about What’s New in Spring 2018. There are photos of people at work and also of the new varieties we’re growing this year: Southern Giant Curled Mustard, Purple Peacock broccoli/kale, Canary melon, Flavorburst yellow bell pepper, Y-Star pattypan squash, Royal Burgundy beans (not new to us, but back again), Granny Cantrell’s tomato and Persimmon tomato.

The March issue of Growing for Market is out. Nothing from me this time, but plenty of good stuff from other farmer-writers. Diane Szukovathy writes about starting a 12-member flower producer’s co-op in Seattle. They started with a part-time employee and a simple leased space, working on an indoor farmer’s market model where each farm conducted its own business under a shared roof. They were able to get some USDA funding, and increased their income immediately. Their shared setting was attractive to customers, and a good way to mentor newer growers.

Jesse Frost has written on Understanding Early Blight, with a lot of solid information from Meg McGrath at Cornell (home of the Vegetable MD Online site). Carolina Lees writes about Healthcare beyond hospitals: farm-hospital connections. Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms offers a Farmer to farmer profile of Richard Wiswall (author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook and designer of many labor-saving devices.) Morgan Houk writes about only collecting useful information when record-keeping, not piles of data you’ll never use. John Hendrickson brings us the latest news on the paper pot transplanter (still not certifiable for USDA Organic farms).

Paper pot transplanter,
Photo Small Farm Works

The Spring 2018 Heirloom Gardener magazine has an article from me about Intercropping (planting two crops side by side in the space normally reserved for just one. In early spring we often sow snap peas down the center of a spinach bed (either an overwinterred spinach bed, or a spring-planted one). The same piece of rowcover warms both (until we whisk away the rowcover to a later crop. The peas grow upwards, not competing with the spinach. When the spinach bolts, the next crop is in place with no further work.

In the summer we have sown peanuts down the center of a bed of lettuce, and transplanted okra into a bed of early cabbage. It’s all about timing and about choosing compatible crops. Okra grows tall, while cabbages stay close to the ground. peanuts grow slowly while lettuce grows quickly.

Overwintered spinach with spring-sown Sugar Ann snap peas.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Lastly I have more on hydroponics and Organic Certification.

Last week I wrote about the November 2017 vote at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) on hydroponics. Since then I’ve read more information, and realized that the view I presented last time is not the whole picture. It is more complex. Audrey Alwell wrote in the Organic Broadcaster for Jan/Feb 2018, reminding us that the 8:7 vote at the NOSB is not a clear stamp of approval for “organic” hydroponics and aquaponics. The NOSB rules require a “decisive vote” (10:5) for a decision. They did not get a decisive vote to prohibit hydroponics from Organic Certification. This means the situation continues for now as it has been. That is, Organic certifiers can certify hydroponic operations of growers using only approved inputs for fertility and pest management, and if they are protecting natural resources and fostering biodiversity.

The Organic label does not cover all the important aspects of ethical and sustainable farming. Not all Organic practices are sustainable. (Think about removing and trashing plastic mulch!) Social justice and fair trade are not addressed. Some hydroponic  growers use renewable energy, some see hydroponics as more sustainable than Organic. In California, during the 6 year drought, hydroponics helped some farmers survive and produce food. Adaptability is important.

One USDA-accredited certifier, CCOF, says all producers should be pushed towards using renewable energy, in order to reduce impact on natural resources. CCOF submitted a 12-page comment.

You can see the USDA Hydroponics Package slideshow.

Continue reading

Growing for Market article, CSA Day, Organic Growers School, VA raw milk threatened

Our hoophouse hydrant with drip irrigation supply equipment.
Photo Pam Dawling

The February Growing for Market issue is out, including my article on drip irrigation, which will help people new to drip get started. I was a reluctant adopter myself, maybe 10 years ago, and I’ve become a big convert. I explain the basics and include the options on tape width, wall thickness, emitter spacing and flow rate, to help everyone get the options that’s best for them.  I have a worked example of the calculation and links to more information. I show how to figure how long to run the system for each week, and the pieces of equipment you’ll need. I talk about maintenance and repair too.

Other articles in this issue include Chris Blanchard on the Food Safety Modernization Act (pronounced Fizma). Of course none of us want to make anyone sick from eating crops we grow, but if you are a farm with average sales of more than $25,000 worth of produce a year , this new rule applies to you. All the details of exceptions and compliance are in the article.

Sam Knapp writes from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan about tackling quackgrass (Elymus repens) without chemicals. We know this as couch grass, a cool weather wandering perennial with long sturdy white roots. It’s not the same as wiregrass, a bigger problem in the South. That’s Cynodon dactylon, also known as Bermuda grass and scutch grass. It’s a fine-leafed wandering perennial that dies back in the winter. If your problem grass is brown in winter, suspect wiregrass; if it’s green, suspect couch grass. Sam Knapp advises on how to deplete the rhizomes of couchgrass/quackgrass with repeated tillage going into the winter and mowing in summer.

Ricky Baruc writes from Orange, Massachusetts, about mulching with cardboard (topped with hay or manure)and silage covers to control weeds and replace the need to till. The editor adds a note that some organic certifiers prohibit cardboard that has ink in colors other than black. Check with your certifier if you are certified organic. Ricky Baruc also uses cover crops, which he crimps and plants into. He is able to manage several acres of intensively planted crops on his own.

If you’ve ever coveted those Bumble Bee tomatoes in the Johnny’s catalog, you’ll enjoy the interview with Fred Hempel, their breeder.

The last article is about winter cut flower planning, and is by Gretel Adams who regularly writes about cut flowers for GfM.

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February 23 is CSA Day. CSAs will be promoting their work and signing up new members. Data gathered by Small Farm Central  showed that the most popular day for CSA signups was  Fri Feb 28. And so CSA Day is celebrated on the last Friday of February to encourage more signups and to publicize the whole idea of community-supported agriculture. CSA is a way for farmers to sell directly their customers. In the original CSA model, people pay for a season’s worth of produce (a membership), at the beginning of the season. The members then receive a box of produce every week throughout the harvesting season. The members are supporting their farmer by paying up front, when the farmers most need the income to get ready for the growing season. Today there are variations on this theme, so look around and see what’s available near you.

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The Organic Farm School Spring Conference is Friday–Sunday, March 9–11, 2018, at UNC Asheville, NC. Click the link to read more and to get to registration. Pre-conference workshops are on Friday March 9, with the main conference 90-minute sessions on Saturday and Sunday. I’m offering two workshops on Saturday, which I’ll repeat on Sunday. This conference tends to offer workshops twice, so people who can only come on one day can choose which is best for them, and fewer people have to miss a topic they are interested in. My workshops are Sustainable Farming Practices and Growing Sweet Potatoes from Start to Finish.

Sweet potatoes on a plate.
Photo Brittany Lewis

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Lastly I want to mention an alert I received from the Homesteaders of America at the end of January. (Note theirs is not a secure webpage)

House Bill 825 (HB 825), introduced by Virginia House of Delegates Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), would require herd share dairies to register with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, be open to premises and paperwork inspections, and adhere to stipulations put forward by VDACS.

“While the sale of raw milk is illegal in Virginia, raw milk advocates have used the concept of herd sharing to obtain the revered, nutrient-dense food for decades. In a herd share agreement, consumers pay a farmer a fee for boarding their animal (or share of the animal), caring for the animal, and milking the animal. The herd share owners then collect the milk from their own animal. No sales occur, the animals are taken care of, and everyone gets to enjoy the magical elixir that is raw milk. Herd share agreements have been in use in Virginia since the mid-1970s” Christine Solem, Virginia Independent Consumers & Farmers Association (VICFA).

On 2/5/18 The Subcommittee #1 recommended striking this bill from the docket. On 2/13/18 the House left this with the ANCR (Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources) Committee.

More about Jamaica’s Source Farm Project

A bunch of bananas growing at face level outside my door on the path to the office at Source Farm, Jamaica.
Photo Pam Dawling

At last I got the photos from my Jamaica trip from my camera to the computer. I didn’t take many photos – as I said in my other Jamaica post, it rained most of the time. As you see in the photo above, bananas grow well, the land at Source Farm is hilly, the office is a repurposed and repainted shipping container

At the beginning of June the BBC visited Source Farm and made a podcast as part of the On Your Farm series, and called it Jamaica’s Organic Revolution.

You can listen to all 22 minutes of it for free, and hear the people I stayed with at Source Farm as well as Mr Brown, one of the farmers I met with. I can only link to the program, not embed it, so click the link below

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08skyk0

Source – BBC News

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the voices of my new friends, and being reminded of the farm and the countryside.

Viewing my photos reminded me also of the “domestic wildlife.” First the friendly ones:

Gecko or “Croaking Lizard” on my wall at Source Farm
Photo Pam Dawling

Then the creepy crawlies, the two inch millipedes that were everywhere. You have to be careful not to crush them, because the liquid inside them can cause burns. I never had that problem, and scooped them up by the handful to throw outside each night, only to find them back inside by morning. I concluded that each house had its allotment of millipedes and it was best to ignore them!

Millipede and electric outlet in my room at Source Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Things I noticed and learned from the farmers about growing crops in the tropics have led me to think more about how plants respond to temperature and day-length, and I want to learn more about this when I have time. As I said in my Asian Greens for June post:

“Last month I was in Jamaica and saw how they can grow kale in very hot weather. “

I had a comment from a reader about successfully growing Joy Choi in hot summers as well as Tokyo bekana. It’s revelation to me that at least some brassicas can grow in hot weather as long as the temperature never drops below 50°F (10°C), which triggers bolting.

Swiss chard I take for granted as a summer leafy green – it’s a biennial and usually won’t bolt until the second year. The Ruby chard seems the most prone to bolting. We’ve given up that one in favor of Bright Lights, as well as Fordhook Giant green chard. Chard is popular in Jamaica too.

Fordhook Giant green chard.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

A green which is not common here in the US, but is very popular in Jamaica is callaloo, which is a type of amaranth. I enjoyed eating it at Source Farm. I tried growing it in Virginia one year, when I was researching summer cooking greens in spring 2015 for an article in Growing for Market. Here’s what I said then (when I maybe misspelled callaloo):

Vegetable amaranth,  Amaranthus species.

In spring use the young leaves for salad. Larger leaves make tender and nutritious cooked greens. Calaloo is an amaranth (but sometimes other crops have this name), used to make a green Caribbean stew. Joseph’s Coat, Amaranthus tricolor, is an eye-catching plant with red, green, and yellow leaves that may also include patches of pink, bronze, purple and brown. This tropical plant thrives in really hot weather. It is a huge plant, 4-6’ tall. Carol Deppe in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening recommends All Red for a spectacularly colorful leaf, especially for salads, and Green Calaloo and Burgundy for fast-growing greens. She reports they all taste the same to her raw, and all taste the same when cooked. So choose by preferred color and rate of growth.

Seeds should be started indoors in spring, and transplanted once all chance of frost has passed, when it is time to plant corn. Alternatively, broadcast with aim of getting plants 4” apart. Each time the plants reach 12” tall, harvest the top 8”. Pinch back often to push out new leaves and prevent reseeding (it can become a weed problem). If your farm has lots of amaranth weeds, you won’t want to risk adding another. Also, if weed amaranths are eaten by the striped fleabeetles, your cultivated amaranths will also suffer. (Those are the two reasons we gave up on them.)

William Woys Weaver (Saladings, Warm Weather, Mother Earth News) is a fan of ‘Bliton’ or ‘Horsetooth Amaranth’, Amaranthus lividus (Amaranthus viridis). He reports that it is the easiest and most prolific of summer greens. Seed should be started indoors, except in the South. Transplant seedlings when it’s warm enough to plant beans (Frequent advice for many of these hot weather greens). Alternatively, broadcast where it is to grow after all danger of frost is past. Thin the seedlings for salads or harvest plants about 12” tall and cook like spinach. When the plant is older, the stems get too tough, and then only the leaves and new shoots should be used. In parts of the South, it has become a weed – “Grow responsibly,” as Barbara Pleasant says in her Mother Earth News blogpost Warm Weather Spinach Alternatives.

Green Amaranth/Calaloo
Photo Baker Creek Seeds

 

 

Upcoming events, Growing for Market article, Organic Broadcaster

Harvesting Zephyr yellow squash.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Starting with what’s being harvested now – squash and zucchini are coming in nicely. The hoophouse Gentry yellow squash (chosen for being fast-maturing) is coming in by the bucketload, and the outdoor yellow squash and zucchini have started producing.


I’m off to Burlington, Vermont this weekend, for the Mother Earth News Fair. I’m giving two workshops:

Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables,on Saturday 6/10 at 11 am on the Yanmar Sustainability Stage, immediately followed by book-signing at the Mother Earth News Bookstore noon- 12.30.

Producing Asian Greens on Sunday  6/11 at 3.30 pm on the Heirloom Gardener Stage.

I’m also doing demonstrations of tomato string-weaving at the New Society Publishers booth 2611, near the Mother Earth News Stage (not the Bookstore this time), at 10 – 10.30 am and 3-3.30 pm on Saturday and 10 -10.30 am, 11- 11.30 am and 2- 2.30 pm on Sunday. Check out my Events page to see the pink sparkly tinsel tomato plant models I use!


At the Heritage Harvest Festival near Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday September 8 (the Premium Workshops before the main Festival), I’m presenting on Growing Sweet Potatoes at 3.30-4.30 in classroom 7, followed by book-signing at the Monticello Bookshop.


The June/July summer issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, and includes my article on Hoophouse soil salt buildup. This is an issue we have been dealing with – we see white deposits on the soil. I did a lot of research and found ways to water the salts back down deep in the soil profile. I also gathered information on how to measure and monitor salinity, and how to understand the test results and their different testing methods and different units of measure. I learned about salt tolerance of different crops, the plant symptoms of excess salinity, and how to prevent the problem in future. This topic is rising in importance as more people use hoophouses with drip irrigation systems. We were blithely ignorant for our first several years of hoophopuse use, as salinity takes a few years to really develop, and there wasn’t much information available.

I’m also looking forward to reading the other articles, especially Summer lettuce lessons from Southern growers by Jesse Frost. There are some great photos of beds covered with hoops and shade-cloth, which show a good system. I always appreciate articles written for southern growers, which can be in short supply.

Daisy Fair in Utah’s zone 5 has written about moveable tunnels with in-ground hydronic heat. So there’s information for cold climates too. Sam Hitchcock Tilton has an article with tips learned from Dutch and Swiss farmers. Robert Hadad advises on careful monitoring of costs of production in order to actually make a living from farming. The flower growing article in this issue is from Debra Prinzing and is about American Flowers Week, a chance to highlight American-grown flowers with some light-hearted fun photos.


The May/June Organic Broadcaster just arrived in its paper format – I’ve had the digital one for a while. Good thing I’ve got that long car ride to Vermont this weekend to catch up on my farming reading!

The front page story this time is about Kansas farmers, Tim and Michael Raile, transitioning thousands of dryland (non-irrigated) acres to Organic steadily over the next 5 or 6 years. Dryland farming focuses on moisture retention. The Railes grow a wheat/corn/
sunflower/milo (grain sorghum)/fallow rotation. They are also trialing some ancient grains.

Organic production in the US is not meeting demand, and organic imports are increasing, including organic soy and feed corn, not just bananas and coffee. More farmers want to produce Organic poultry, eggs, milk and meat. And so they are looking for Organic feed at an affordable price. This is often imported, which raises issues about how Organic Standards vary from one country to another, and the bigger issue of sustainability – not always the same as Organic! Does it really make sense to ship in grains to feed livestock?

Harriet Behar writes about the true meaning of Organic and overall methods of production. It’s not just about following rules on allowed inputs and materials – it’s a whole approach to how we treat the soil, our plants and livestock.

Hannah Philips and Brad Heins share research on how cover crop choices can influence the fatty acids and meat of dairy steers. Jody Padgham writes about CSAs responding to competition and decreasing membership by offering more options on shares and delivery. Gone are the days of “One box, one day, one price” CSAs. Numerous modifications of the basic CSA model have sprung up to better fit the diverse needs of customers (members). Kristen McPhee writes about the Vermont Herb Growers  Cooperative, which buys from various small-scale growers and aggregates orders to larger buyers. Other topics covered include lessons learned from Hawaii’s GMO controversy, paying for end-of-life care without losing your farm, and many short items and classified ads. As always, a newspaper packed with information.


And by the way, we’re also picking blueberries – ah! heaven!

Blueberries.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

Garlic scapes, upcoming events, hoophouse seed crops

Garlic Scapes
Photo courtesy of Small Farm Central

I always know when garlic growers in slightly warmer or more southern climates are starting to find scapes (the edible firm flower stems of hardneck garlic) because my posts about scapes suddenly become popular! My posts “Garlic scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest,”  and “Garlic scapes to cheer us up” have been reread a lot recently, and Harvesting garlic is due for attention any time now. My Growing Great Garlic slideshow is here. Click the diagonal arrows to view it full screen.

And sure enough, our own scapes are ready too, even though this is a week earlier than usual.We harvest two or three times a week until there are no more. I love garlic scapes as one of the first outdoor crops of the spring, and a flavor different from leafy greens and stored roots, the staples of early spring.

Our tulip poplars are flowering now too, also early. Our average date for those is 5/1, and we’re a few days ahead of that. When I was a beekeeper it was important to be ready for the tulip poplar flowers, because that was our big nectar flow of the year, and I had to dash out to the beeyard and stack up 5 supers on each hive. I had to give up on the beekeeping because the combination of lifting heavy boxes and twisting was hurting my back too much. Oh, and those heavy boxes were full of thousands of stinging insects, but I didn’t mind that bit as much. The flowering of tulip poplars and the germination of ragweed are both phenology signs that signify that the Growing Degree Days have reached 200 (on a base of 50F) and that conditions are warm enough to sow sweet corn. Myself, I watch the young leaves on the white oaks and when they are the size of a squirrel’s ear, I decide it’s warm enough for corn.


This weekend I will be at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC. Click the link to see the location, the workshop schedule and the list of vendors who’ll be there. I’m presenting two workshops, Growing Sweet Potatoes from Start to Finish on Saturday 5/6 at 12.30on the Yanmar Sustainable Agriculture Stage, followed by book-signing and chatting at the Mother Earth News Bookstore; and Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests on Sunday 5/7 at the Heirloom Gardener Stage.

Of course, you’ll need to be there and  hear me speak to get the most out of it. I’m also doing short demonstrations of How to String Weave Tomatoes at booth 2800, New Society Publishers (near the Bookstore) on Saturday at 10 am, 11 am and 5 pm, and on Sunday at 10 am and 11 am. They’re half-hour time slots. My table top demo kit uses #2 pencils and pink tinsel.

At the New Society Publishers booth at the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair, demonstrating how to string weave tomatoes.
Photo Ingrid Witvoet/New Society

The May issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, including my article about growing seed crops in hoophouses. I interviewed Clif Slade, founder of the 43560 Project at Virginia State University, about several creative sequences of food crops and seed crops he has grown in a high tunnel. (Collards, okra) as well as plant starts (sweet potatoes, onions). He farms in Surry County, Virginia.

Also in this GfM, Simon Huntley of Small Farm Central encourages small farmers to set aside two hours a week for a quick and efficient bit of online marketing “One Photo,
One Paragraph”. His goal is to help farmers stay in the spotlight with their products, without having to spend a great deal of time on it in the busy season.

Conor Crickmore has an article about preparing and laying out no-till permanent raised beds very precisely in a hoophouse. He uses the Quick Cut Greens Harvester to mow off over-size baby salad crops to clear the bed prior to broadforking and adding needed soil amendments.

Spencer Nietmann writes about what it really costs to start a farm. Jesse Frost discusses various types of plastic to cover hoophouses  (high tunnels), and lastly, Jane Tanner writes about native perennials for flower farms

Hoophouse slideshow, Ruminant podcast, potatoes planted

Here’s my updated Spring and Summer Hoophouse slideshow, that I promised all the people at my Organic Growers School workshops. I rearranged the slides in what I think is a better order and revised the resources section.


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

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.

“Farming is tough work. The unpredictability of the job and the pressure to present a curated, bucolic version of the work can easily lead to various kinds of mental health problems: despair, feeling overwhelmed or like a failure, or even depression. In this episode, co-produced with Jessica Gale of Sweet Gale Gardens, we discuss the prevalence of mental health problems among farmers, and how to address them.” Jordan Marr

As well as Jessica Gale, the episode includes discussion of Professor Andria Jones-Bitton’s work and interviews with Jean-Martin Fortier of The Market Gardener and Curtis Stone of The Urban Farmer.


The March issue of Growing for Market is out. Nothing from me this month (I have articles for May and June/July coming up). In this issue. There are articles about No-till vegetable farming (Conor Crickmore at Neversink Farm, in the Catskill Mountains of New York), and Bio-integrated farm design by Shawn Jadrnicek, co-author with Stephanie Jadrnicek, of The Bio-Integrated Farm: A Revolutionary Permaculture-Based System Using Greenhouses, Ponds, Compost Piles, Aquaponics, Chickens and More. Lots of water in this book, and very practical. There’s an article on A DIY mobile cooler for moving and storing perishable foods  – an insulated trailer using Cool-Bot technology by Cary Rivard, Kansas State Research & Extension Horticulture & Forestry & Extension Vegetable & Fruit Crop Specialist. Karin Tifft has written The “other” reasons to grow in a greenhouse: climate, light, good use of space, reduced wastage of produce, energy conservation and more. Andrew Mefferd, the editor has written on growing cucumbers umbrella style under cover. Finally, Debra Prinzing writes on Making your mark with local branding.


Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting.
Credit Kati Folger

And here at Twin Oaks, we planted our spring potatoes yesterday, after pre-sprouting (chitting) the seed potatoes for a couple of weeks. Soon we hope to see the potato shoots emerging from the soil.

Potatoes emerging in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Lettuce in February, Growing for Market, open seed flats

Baby lettuce mix in our winter hoophouse.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We still have plenty of lettuce to eat, although our first sowing of baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse has come to its bitter end, and the second sowing isn’t quite ready (I think we sowed it a bit later than intended). We are still harvesting leaves from the large lettuce we transplanted in October.  Soon we’ll have the second and third baby lettuce mix sowings to bring a welcome change. We are about ready to transplant our first outdoor lettuce, to feed us mid-late April.

Here is a month-by-month planting and harvesting narrative for our hoophouse lettuce in Zone 7, from September to April:

September: Sow cold-hardy varieties in the second and third weeks (outdoors or in your greenhouse) to transplant into the hoophouse at 4 weeks old .

October: 4 weeks after sowing, transplant those lettuces at 8” spacing to harvest leaves from mid-November to early March, rather than heads. In late October, sow the first baby lettuce mix, for up to 8 cuts from early December to late February, and sow a small patch of “filler lettuces” to replace casualties in the main plantings up until the end of December.

November: 11/9 sow more filler lettuce, to be planted out in the hoophouse during January. Transplant the first “filler lettuce” to replace casualties. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce.

December: Use the “filler lettuce #1” to replace casualties or fill other hoophouse space, for lettuce leaves in January and February, or heads in February. At the end of December, make a second sowing of baby lettuce mix, to harvest from late February to the end of March. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the first baby lettuce mix.

January: Use the “filler lettuce #2” to fill gaps in the lettuce beds up until January 25. After that is too late here for hoophouse lettuce planting, and we use spinach to fill all the gaps, regardless of the surrounding crop. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the first baby lettuce mix whenever it reaches the right size.

February: 2/1 sow the third baby lettuce mix, to provide up to three cuts, from mid-March to late April. In mid-February, consider a fourth sowing of baby lettuce mix, if outdoor conditions look likely to delay outdoor harvests. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the second baby lettuce mix when it sizes up. Harvest the first baby lettuce mix, clearing it at the end of February before it gets bitter.

March: Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the second baby lettuce mix whenever it reaches size. Cut the third baby lettuce mix when it sizes up.

April: In the first half of the month, harvest the last of the transplanted lettuce as heads . Continue to cut the third baby lettuce mix until it gets bitter. Cut the fourth baby lettuce mix when it sizes up. Outdoor lettuce heads are usually ready for harvest mid-April. Plan to have enough hoophouse harvests until the outdoor harvests can take over.

Lettuce transplants in soil blocks, on our custom-made cart. We don’t use soil blocks for lettuce any more (too time-consuming!) but I love this photo. Photo Pam Dawling


The February issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article How to decide which crops to grow which I previewed some of here last August. I also included some of the material in my slideshow Diversify Your Vegetable Crops. Click the link to see the slideshow. This past winter we used this kind of process to reduce the amount of garden work for 2017. I’m retiring from garden management and the new managers  want to stay sane and not be exhausted all the time. We have fewer workers this year (the past few years actually), so we needed to slim down the garden and not go crazy trying to do everything we’ve done in the past. I’ll still be working in the hoophouse, the greenhouse, and doing some outdoor work, as well as being available to answer questions and provide some training when asked.

Back to Growing for Market. There’s a great article for new small-scale growers, from Katherine Cresswell in northern Idaho, Year One Decision Making, about starting a farm with only one implement. Careful planning lead Katherine and her partner Spencer to focus on fall, winter and spring vegetables, as no-one else around them provided these, and they had experience of winter growing from working on other farms. Clearly a high tunnel (hoophouse) needed to be in the plan. It was essential that they hit the ground running and have saleable produce within six months. The expense budget was very tight. They bought a BCS 739 walk-behind tractor (which they both had experience of) and a rotary plow. A very down-to-earth article to encourage any new grower with limited means.

There are reviews of three new books by GfM writers: Compact Farms by Josh Volk, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden and The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Growers Handbook by Andrew Mefferd, the editor of GfM. Brett Grohsgal has written a valuable article about his 15 years experience with on-farm breeding of winter-hardy vegetables, both in the field and under protection of hoophouses. Informative and inspiring. Erin Benzakein has written about rudbeckias, the unsung heroes of summer bouquets, and Gretel Adams has written on new flower varieties to try in 2017.


I have a new post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, Using Open Flats (Seed Trays) to Grow Sturdy Seedlings Easily – How to make reusable wood flats (seed trays) for seedlings, and use them to grow sturdy vegetable starts to transplant into your garden. This is a way to avoid contributing to the problem of agricultural plastic trash and be self-reliant in gardening equipment. You can also grow stronger plants by giving them a larger compost volume than plug flats or cell packs provide.

Open flat of broccoli seedlings.
Photo Wren Vile

I heard that my MEN blogpost Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating was very popular in January, coming sixth in their table of most-viewed posts on all topics. This has been out there in the blog-iverse for almost 18 months, so clearly there is a lot of concern about eating healthy food and not wasting what we’ve grown.

Sorting potatoes two weeks after harvest to remove problem potatoes before rot spreads.
Photo Wren Vile


The false spring has been barreling along. Last week I reported that we’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17). Since then, we’ve seen daffodils and dandelions flowering, heard spring peppers and already the maple is flowering (2/25). These are all markers on our phenology list. The maple flowers on average 3/12, with a range (before this year) of 2/28 in 2012 to 4/2 in 2014. A 9-year record broken!

Cover crops slideshow, Hoophouse style and design article

Last week I went to the annual conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, held at Hot Springs Resort, Virginia. There were about 430 attendees, a big increase from last year. I gave two presentations, Spring and Summer Hoophouses, and Cover Crops. Here’s the Cover Crops slideshow.

In case you were there and missed the handouts, here they are:

Spring and Summer Hoophouses Handout

Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers 4pg Handout 2016

Crimson clover is a beautiful and useful cover crop.
Photo Kathryn Simmons


My next two events are

Jan 25-28, 2017 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference Location: Hyatt Regency Hotel and Convention Center, 401 West High St, Lexington, KY 40507. 888 421 1442, 800 233 1234. Registration: http://www.ssawg.org/registration

I’m presenting two brand new 90 minute workshops: Diversify your Vegetable Crops (Friday 2-3.30pm) and Storage Vegetables for Off-Season Sales (Saturday 8.15-9.45 am). Workshops will be recorded. Book signing (Thursday 5pm) and sales.

Feb 1-4 2017 PASA Farming for the Future Conference 2000 people Location: Penn Stater Convention Center, State College, PA Registration: http://conference.pasafarming.org/

I’m presenting three 80 minute Workshops: Sweet Potatoes, (Friday Feb 2 12.50pm), Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops,  (Saturday 8.30am), and Succession Planting, (Sat 3.40pm). Workshops will be recorded. Book-signings and sales.

Sweet potato harvest 2014
Photo Nina Gentle


The January 2017 issue of Growing for Market is out. It includes my article on Hoophouse style and design. As well as the Gothic/Quonset
decision and that on whether to choose  roll-up, drop-down or no sidewalls, this article discusses roads, utilities, irrigation, in-ground insulation, end-wall design, inflation, airflow fans, and bed layout to match your chosen method of cultivation.

Other articles include Barbara Damrosch on flower production on a small vegetable farm (beautiful photos!), Emily Oakley on planning to  grow only what you can sell (words of wisdom), Eric and Joanna Reuter with part two of their series online weather tools for farmers, Jed Beach on how to avoid and fix common financial mistakes we farmers make, and Jane Tanner on local food hubs. Plenty of good reading!

The first issue of Growing for Market that I ever picked up (years ago) had an article about flame-weeding carrots. I realized that that one article was going to save us more than the price of a subscription. Just one good idea, clearly explained, can save so much wasted time!

We won’t starve or get scurvy! Plenty of food in the winter hoophouse!
Photo Twin Oaks Community