2023-2024 Vegetable Growing Conference Tips 4

 

Alkindus lettuce from High Mowing Seeds

This is the last of my series on tips I learned at sustainable farming conferences the past winter. The sessions reported on here were at PASA.

Harvesting Techniques for Small and Medium Scale Farms

This was presented by Julie Henninger and Andy Russell of Goodkeeper Farm in Gardners, PA. They run a Full Diet CSA, with 7.5 acres of vegetables including five high tunnels and outdoor vegetables, and turkeys, cows and pigs. Their well-organized workshop covered their Top Crops (head lettuce, baby greens, carrots, bunched greens and roots); Pre-Harvest Prep (check list, harvest pouch, rubber bands, sharp knives, bins, other equipment); Techniques; Post-Harvest Work; Pitfalls to Avoid and Meet the Farmers.

For a harvesting pouch they use a nailbag that clips on the waistband, to carry their knives and rubber bands. For harvesting crops, they recommend the Hoss harvest bag. Both leave both hands free for picking.

Hoss Harvesting Satchel leaves hands free.

Goodkeeper Farm practices flaming or tarping to deal with weeds before they become a threat to their crops. All their lettuce is transplanted using a paperpot transplanter. This Japanese designed implement is imported to the US and is now also being made in the US. They favor the red butterhead Alkindus lettuce. See photo above.

For carrots, they grow 6 rows on a 30” bed, spaced as 3 pairs of rows with 2” between the pair. As they harvest the carrots by hand, they broadcast rye, to get the cover crop established as early as possible, and keep live roots in the ground for the most time. They have made a carrot washer from a cement mixer, reducing the size of the belt to slow the machine down. See Root Washers for Produce Farms.

Root Washers for Produce Farms, from University of Vermont Extension Ag Engineering

Top of their tips for techniques is to ensure each person masters the tasks first, limiting distractions. A strong role model demonstrates the technique and the expected pace. After getting those two aspects as second nature, the learner can start to have conversations and other distractions.

In the Pitfalls to Avoid, they list damaging the crops while harvesting, overloading harvest bins, using the wrong harvest gear, failing to invest in good appropriate equipment, dull cutting tools, and actions such as gathering different size bunches, that require re-bunching – try not to need to touch the crops again after harvesting!

Winter Market Gardening

by Catherine Sylvestre, the farm manager at Ferme de Quatre Temps, in Quebec, and co-author (with Jean-Martin Fortier) of the book Winter Market Gardener. Read my review here.

Cover of The Winter Market Gardener

Catherine gave both an introductory presentation and an advanced session with an excellent handout. At their zone 5b teaching farm, they have 27,000 sq ft of sheltered growing: 4 high tunnels, 3 greenhouses and one multi-bay shelter. They offer a two year program for students wanting to learn sustainable farming. They close for a two week break over the winter holidays, and plan their crops to be ready for harvest either side of that break. They need to sow in June for harvests before the break. They have five Principles of Winter Gardening:

  1. Use simple shelters, plastic-covered tunnels, for best profitability
  2. Add minimal heating. By adding 3 Celsius degrees (5.4 F degrees), they double their yields, and avoid using rowcover. Evening out the temperature between day and night reduces stress on the plants. Nutrients are more active if the soil is warmer.
  3. Increase the cold tolerance of the crops. This increases the sugars in the cells, making them more cold-tolerant from then on. Increase the airflow and expose plants to cold temperatures. They start this hardening off at the first frosts, and find that 7-10 days of chilling is needed to create a lasting result.
  4. Be aware that light is the limiting factor (especially for spinach). Their light in November is only one quarter of what they get in August. They plan to grow many crops to size in September and October. Although Asian greens can make some growth Nov-Feb, many crops will not. The ratio depends on your latitude, and is less extreme where we are in Virginia. Grow crops that are less affected by light shortage. Adding artificial lighting is not financially worthwhile.
  5. Well, my notes don’t include #5! It was something to do with appropriate crops, I think. Crops they can grow under shelters with no additional heating: spinach, baby kale, tatsoi, mustards, corn salad (mâche), claytonia, if T19 rowcovers are added for temperatures below 0°C (32°F). They use two layers of rowcover for temperatures below -5°C (23°F) and three layers below -10°C (14°F). They use minimal heating for chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, kale, lettuces, turnips, radishes, arugula, sorrel, celery, cilantro, parsley. You could consider soil-heating with PEX tubing filled with glycol (poisonous), 24″ (60 cm) deep in the soil, below cultivation level. At Quatre Temps they use above ground perforated polyethylene tubing in the pathways (it’s OK to step on it, it’s not high pressure).
Tatsoi at Twin Oaks ready for harvesting of whole plants.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the advanced session, we learned more details of their techniques and systems.

  • They start seeds for their winter crops in large cells (4″, 10 cm) so that they can keep their summer crops in the ground for 1-3 weeks longer. When they transplant these, they are careful about spacing, aiming to increase the light falling on each leaf. They plant the crops twice as close in the row, with double-wide spaces between rows, compared to warmer, more light-filled times of year.
  • They irrigate twice a week for 20 minutes, but I don’t know the flow rate of their driptape. From November to January they do not irrigate at all, as growth is so slow.
  • They fertilize in two doses, a little at planting time and more in February, using a mixture of compost, chicken manure and cotton meal, with the addition of feather mela in February. Bacterial activity increase with soil temperature. “Fertilizing cold soils is mysterious. . .”
  • Diseases in winter are mostly fungal. Use strong transplants, with a Rootshield dip before transplanting. They open the sidewalls every 4 hours to remove excess humidity and pay close attention to airflow. If needed, they use Contans.
  • Aphids survive at 5°F (-15°C). At 50°F (10°C) an adult female can create 20 offspring (per day?). At Quatre Temps, they use a three week winter break with no crops to freeze out their shelters. It gets down to -4°C (25°F). They disinfect in spring, removing all plant material, cleaning the structure itself with water and SaniDate (although it also kills beneficials).
  • For heating, a heat pump is very expensive but very efficient. An electric coil is less expensive. A climate battery (aerothermal energy) costs $20,000 and includes 24” (60 cm) diameter pipes deep in the soil, and a large fan. They use one to pre-heat air for the air-tube heating system. Something most of us can only dream about.
  • After the winter break, they direct sow new crops. To provide food for April, they plan gradual crop successions to bridge the gap between winter and spring. This also evens the workload.

Senposai is our star of Asian greens at Twin Oaks. Here’s a bed of senposai outdoors in spring. it grows really well in the winter hoophouse. Photo Kathryn SimmonsCrops they have been trialing include perennial sorrel, which regrows early (mid-Feb); celery and parsley (both very successful winter crops); Tokyo bekana, senposai and komatsuna (grow well in low light); green onions in fall and spring (don’t do well with light levels they get in winter); chrysanthemums regrow well, even in low light.

Signs of winter, signs of spring

Tokyo bekana in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

 My  Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021 has not changed much in recent years. But I’ve just got some precise information on Tokyo bekana, the Asian green that grows well in summer as a lettuce substitute; grows very well outdoors in the fall; and grows wonderfully in the winter hoophouse even in low light conditions. In my 2023 list the outdoor killing temperature is listed as 25°F (–4°C).

Ugly, but not dead yet! Tokyo bekana outdoors on January 7, 2024 after several cold nights at 11°F (-11.5°C) at the end of November, and 12°F (-11°C) at the beginning of January.
Photo Pam Dawling

I harvested the last of the outdoor Tokyo bekana in November, except for one plant that was starting to bolt. I left that one to see when it would succumb to cold weather.  It was seriously damaged but not killed at 11°F (-11.5°C) at the end of November, and 12°F (-11°C) at the beginning of January. It was killed by 8°F (-13°C) and 10°F (-12°C) in mid-January.

Now it’s really dead! Tokyo bekana after two January nights at 8F and 10F.
Photo Pam Dawling

My tendency is to move only partway towards my new information each time I get some. This allows my info to gradually center in on the sweet spot, rather than have wild pendulum swings. So for the 2024 list, I’ll cautiously say it dies at 20°F (–7°C). I’ll release my new list for 2024 in March.

I’m updating my Phenology Record with Recommendations for Planting.

Our first crocus . February 1, 2024
Photo Pam Dawling

On February 1st we saw our first crocus bloom (it averages 2/7), our first speedwell, and Hellebore/Lenten roses with big buds (the flowers opened by 2/11). Hellebore often blooms with the daffodils, but our daffodils are only half-height leaves at this point. There are many hybrid hellebores and I’ve no idea which one ours is.

Lenten Rose (Hellebore) buds on February 1,2024.
Photo Pam Dawling

Robin Migration

Robins can be found year-round almost anywhere south of Canada, as residents or short-distance migrants. Birds that breed from Canada to the north slope of Alaska leave in fall for the U.S. Some robins winter as far south as the Southwest, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast.

Robin Range Map from All About Birds.

“Our” robins arrived on February 3rd, partying in an eastern redcedar (juniper) tree, enjoying the berries. According to this All About Birds Robin Range Map, robins are migratory thrushes that can be found here in Virginia year-round. Ours definitely migrate, arriving here anywhere from January 20 (2009) to March 3 (2013). The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources notes that in mid-late February and early March they fly through headed north.

Eastern redcedar (Juniper) leaves and berries.

The DWR notes: “Robins’ seasonal movements are said to be tied to a 37-degree “isotherm.” An isotherm is a line on a map where the average temperature is the same at various points across the line.  As robins move from southern states into more northern ones, they stop and hunker down when they reach the limits of the isotherm.” They could reach the Arctic in May, if they travel that far!

Also see Journey North’s “Robin Migration Study” website. You can join and report your sightings and hearings of various signs of spring, not only robins.

Speedwell flowering on February 1, 2024.
Photo Pam Dawling

Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024

 

Preparing to sow Rainbow Chard in 2018.
Photo Pam Dawling

Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024

Have you ordered your seeds for next year yet? The earlier you order, the best chance you have of getting the varieties you want. Later, some will sell out. It’s true that when you order very early, some seeds won’t be available yet. The seed growers are still drying and cleaning them, weighing them and running them through germination testing. Your patience will be rewarded with high quality seeds.

I love looking through catalogs to find new exciting-sounding varieties! After so many years of gardening, I’ve tried lots of different kinds, and have definitely grown attached to some reliable favorites. I recommend planting a small amount of a variety new to you that sounds good, alongside your usual well-loved variety. And what do I mean by “sounds good”?

In 2014 I wrote Reading Between the Lines in the Seed Catalogs to share what I’d learned about decoding catalog-speak, and not getting distracted by wondrous claims, failing to notice the catalog never even claimed it had good flavor. Or high yields. Or good disease-resistance. That post lists 15 features to look for.

We look for flavor, productivity, disease-resistance, an appropriate fit with our climate or latitude, general adaptability, varieties that don’t require erecting elaborate trellises, ones that don’t sprawl too widely, ones that don’t take a really long time to reach maturity.

If we’ve had a few years of poor performance from a crop, we’ll try several new varieties. We have done trials of heat-tolerant eggplants, winter spinach for the hoophouse and outdoors, storage cabbage, and now we need to start over with broccoli.

Green Magic broccoli Credit Johnnys Seeds

For many years we grew three varieties of hybrid broccoli with different number of days to maturity. That enabled us to sow them all on the same day, transplant them all on the same day (or in the same week), and get an extended harvest period. Some of our favorites dropped out of the market, we floundered with various kinds, including some Open Pollinated varieties that sounded good. This year I am advocating for Green Magic (57d F1, 6-8″ main head and sideshoots too); Belstar (65d F1, also 6-8″ main head, plus sideshoots); and Marathon (68d F1) or Fiesta (70d F1, 6-7″ head, few sideshoots, short harvest window). Marathon has done well for us in the past. In my experience, broccoli is a crop where hybrids are much more productive than OP types.

Green Machine zucchini. Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Our much-loved Tendergrey zucchini, one of the flecked pale green types, isn’t easily available this year. But Green Machine (45d F1) sounds very good! Open plant habit is a phrase I like. Moderate spines is one I don’t like, but we have some pull-on plastic sleeves to deal with irritating plants. Widely adapted, excellent disease package, and high yields all appeal to me.

We rely on Provider (50d OP) and Bush Blue Lake snap beans every year, with a short row of Strike in the hoophouse a month earlier than outdoors. We found we need an upright variety to get nice beans undercover, as the bean plants grow sprawlier than they do outside, and we don’t want to be treading on them.

Washing Cylindra beets for storage.
Photo Wren Vile

We rely on Cylindra or Formanova (54d OP) beets, long-shaped tender ones that grow up out of the ground, are tender and easy to peel after cooking. Seems like the yield must be high when half the root is above ground, and half below!

Premium Late Dutch cabbage (100d OP) has done well for us. Johnny’s has a lovely-sounding storage cabbage, Promise (96d F1). 6 ½ lbs at 18″ spacing, 9-10 lbs at 24″ spacing. And two attractive purplish Chinese cabbages Red Trumpet (60d F1), a tall Michihili type, and Merlot (60d F1), said to be an improved Red Dragon Napa type. I hadn’t got round to trying Red Dragon yet, so I can’t speak to its shortcomings. Merlot admits to being more prone to tipburn than green varieties and to be somewhat susceptible to bolting. Some trials on a small-scale are called for!

Merlot purple Chinese cabbage.
Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Carrots – oh why so many yellow, purple, red and black ones? None in my experience match the succulence and growth rate of orange Danvers 126.

Collards – for years I have loved Morris Heading, but the recent explosion of options brought us by the Heirloom Collard Project is leading us to try others. Some have remarkable colors, combined with high yields.

The delicious early Bodacious sweet corn is harder to find. Thanks Southern Exposure for carrying it. Our reliable favorite Kandy Korn has become hard to find.

Our favorite slicing cucumber has been renamed by Fedco as Generally, a name we’ve been using for years. This year we also tried South Wind from Common Wealth Seed Growers and were quite taken with its sweetness.

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

As always, there are new frilly mustards for baby greens and salad mixes. We like Mizuna, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills and especially Ruby Streaks. I feel drawn towards purple stemmed Ember and dark red Miz America.

For leeks, we grow King Richard and Lincoln for fall and Tadorna for overwintering in our Zone 7a climate. No complaints there. all are very good for their purpose.

I’m always on the lookout for new lettuces. This summer we tried Albachiara from High Mowing, and it did very well. We’ll get more for this coming year. It’s a Batavian heat-tolerant type. Now our climate is changing, we need to grow Batavians for more weeks of heat. Finding a new one is great! Dark red Cherokee has been my favorite.

I shouldn’t even look at the spring lettuce selection, or I’ll order more than we can use in the short spring season we have. Most spring varieties can be grown in the fall here too, but we like to switch to cold-tolerant ones.

Ezrilla, a favourite cold-hardy lettuce.
Photo Wren Vile

This winter we are growing the beautiful Rhone in our hoophouse bed of cut-and-come again leaf varieties, along with Ezrilla, Hampton, Brentwood, Tango, Revolution, Oscarde and Panisse.

For scallions we like Evergreen Hardy White (65d OP) every time, and feel no need to try another.

We have been growing Sugar Ann early dwarf snap peas in our hoophouse (sown Feb 1), but next year we are trying Oregon Giant snow peas instead. We think snap peas are best raw, and used to cut them into our salad mixes. But over the past few years, by the time the snap peas are ready to harvest, our winter salad mix days are coming to a close, and our outdoor lettuce head harvest is starting. We don’t grow enough snap peas to serve them on their own in big bowlfuls. We think we’ll be able to pick enough snow peas for stirfry mixes instead! In March we sow Sugar Ann outdoors and get plenty.

For sweet peppers our keywords are prolific, thick-walled, tasty, and 90 days or less from transplant to ripe harvest (76d to green). We like fairly large peppers too, and avoid small pointy ones that could get confused with hot peppers in the fridge.

Tomatoes are a whole topic on their own. We love Sun Gold and Black Cherry, Mountain Magic and Garden Peach. Others come and go. Next year we are trying Damsel  (73d F1). Damsel is in the new tomato category called “Hylooms” – hybrids resembling heirlooms in color and flavor, with added disease resistance.

Damsel (71d F1) Hyloom tomato.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Bell’s Bend Tennessee Farming and Education

Normally you could expect a “Cover Crops for the Month” post in the first week of the month, but October’s will be next week. I have been teaching at several events in middle Tennessee, and want to tell you about those, and include the slideshows for those that want a second look, or those who wish they had been there.

LONG HUNGRY CREEK FARM –
© 2012 photograph by Alan Messer [alanmesser.com]
We had a day and a half at Jeff Poppen’s 250 acre Long Hungry Creek Farm, where a very laid back outdoor Southeast Regional Biodynamic Farming Conference was going on. It’s in Red Boiling Springs, TN. Jeff is also known as the Barefoot Farmer, for  reasons that are obvious once you meet him. Jeff began making biodynamic preparations and using the biodynamic farming method in 1986. Jeff and colleagues ran a community-supported agriculture program from 1988-2022, and they have offered internship opportunities since 1997.
Jeff Poppen’s logo
Not all the participants practice biodynamics (I don’t), and the conference was quite eclectic. I gave a presentation about growing Asian Greens to a very lively, question-filled group. Here’s the slideshow:
Ira Wallace and I also hosted a Q&A session on Seed Saving and Community Living. We did answer two short questions about seed saving, but most of the interest was in community living. The questioners were thinking about cohousing, or cooperative farming, or intentional communities, and had very considered questions.
We stayed two nights in the eccentric historic Armour’s Hotel with many theme-decorated rooms. Mine was about Red Hats. Definitely an experience.
A room at the Armour’s Hotel, Red Boiling Springs. The hotel’s photo.
Then we went to the Nashville Food Project on Sunday. Nashville Food Project is a community food project that brings people together to grow, cook and share nourishing food. They do community gardens, food recovery and community meals including thousands of after-school meals for kids, meals for nursing homes and all sorts. They have a lovely building for meetings, meals, cooking and everything related.

In their gardens, they grow organic food intensively and share resources with others interested in growing their own food.

In their sparkling commercial kitchens, they use recovered, donated and garden-grown food to prepare and cook made-from-scratch meals. Donations come from farmers, grocers, restaurants and markets. 1 in 7 Nashvillians do not have access to the food they want and need. Currently 40% of all food produced in the USA is thrown away. This knowledge drives the Nashville Food Project to continually explore new ways to recover would-be wasted food and steward it toward its best and highest use… and what better use for food than to feed neighbors!In their community, they share nourishing meals in partnership with local poverty-disrupting nonprofits and community groups.

My presentation was on Year Round Vegetable Production, Year Round Vegetable Production Dawling 2023 60mins

We stayed two nights with Dr Brenda Butka and her husband Dr Tom John, who  were very welcoming hosts.They are founding members of the Bell’s Bend Organic Farms Conservation Corridor. Bells Bend Conservation Corridor’s mission is to promote and protect the rural character of the Bells Bend. (It’s within the city limits, and yet has never been built on.) They are working to establish an outdoor recreational, agricultural, and residential conservation district that serves as a county, state and regional planning model for open space preservation.

They are raising money to provide funding to individual land owners seeking conservation easements from the Land Trust for Tennessee. While developing and funding programs that promote farm education, environmental stewardship, and the importance of land preservation. They currently have over 350 acres in Tennessee Land Trust Conservation Easements.

The land currently includes Beaman Park and Bell’s Bend Park, open to the public.
Beaman Park, Bell’s Bend, Nashville, TN
On Monday, I spoke to the Women Farmers of Middle Tennessee at Old School Farm, where a Scottish philanthropist bought and renovated an abandoned school house and set up a non-profit farm employing people with disabilities.
They work together with MillarRich, a healthcare company that specializes in providing family-style foster care and employment services for adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They also work with The Store which operates a year-round free grocery store allowing people referred to them (and the referring agencies) to shop for their basic needs at no charge. They may shop for food to supplement their income during times of crisis and as they work toward self-sufficiency.
I gave a presentation for the Women Farmers of Middle Tennessee on Production Planning for Late Fall, Winter and Early Spring Vegetable Crops. Here’s the slideshow:
It was inspiring to find so many places doing good work around healthy food, good livelihood, food justice, fresh air and cooperation.

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables slideshow, VABF Handouts

Tatsoi in the mist, November.
Photo Wren Vile

Busy Conference Season is here!

I just got back from the Virginia Association for Biological Farming conference in Roanoke. There I gave a half-day presentation on Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables, which you can watch here:

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables 240m

The conference was very well-attended, and not everyone at my workshop on Friday, or the Alliums Year-Round 90 minute workshop on Sunday morning got a handout. I promised to post them here, and now I’m making good. I’m also posting the handout for the third workshop I gave, Asian Greens in the Winter Hoophouse. This rounds out the set, and gives a chance to those who went to a different workshop at that time to get a look in.

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables 8 pg handout 2023 Alliums Year-Round Asian Greens in the Winter Hoophouse 2023

This coming weekend I will be venturing north to NOFA-Mass and giving a presentation on Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production.

To those who are wondering what happened to my monthly post Fruit for the Month, I postponed it. There isn’t so much fruit in January, is there?

Conference Season, cold damage update, potato yield error in my book

Conference Season

It’s busy season for conferences, so I’ll tell you about the next two I’m speaking at. You can go to my Events page to see what’s further ahead.

This weekend (January 6-8 (Fri-Sun), 2023) is the Virginia Association for Biological Farming at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center

VABF 2023 Conference banner

Virginia Association for Biological Farming

23rd annual Virginia Biological Farming Conference

VABF Conference INFO Home Page

The 23rd annual Virginia Biological Farming Conference is Virginia’s premier organic and sustainable agricultural conference! The Conference brings together farmers, gardeners, eaters, educators and advocates of biological and organic farming and gardening. The Conference will be held in person January 6-8, 2023 at The Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center.

The three-day Conference includes:  Full and Half Day Pre-Conference intensive workshops, 50+ sessions and workshops, presentations and panel discussions, 40+ tradeshow exhibitors, locally sourced farm meals and book signings. The Conference features a Silent Auction and networking opportunities including regional networking meetings, and the Taste of Virginia Expo & Social! 

Keynote Speakers

Dr. Elaine Ingham, Soil Food Web School

Leah Penniman, Founding Co-director Soul Fire Farm

I will be presenting a half-day workshop 8am-noon on Friday Jan 6, on Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables

90 minute workshop Sunday January 8, 8.30 am – 10 am Alliums Year Round
90 minute workshop Sunday January 8, 10.30 am – noon, Asian Greens in the Winter Hoophouse

See the 2023 Session Summaries

Taste of Virginia Expo and Market & Social

Included in the Conference Registration and free and open to the public is the Taste of Virginia Expo & Market on Saturday, January 7, 2 – 9 PM in the Crystal Ballroom at Hotel Roanoke. Featuring sampling and sales of Virginia-crafted foods, local libations, handicrafts, and herbals. Complete the evening with music, dancing, and socializing from 8-10 PM.

Locally Sourced Meals

VABF and LEAP Local Food Hub are working together to procure the majority of our Conference food from local member farms. We look forward to supporting our member farms and enjoying delicious, fresh, local food from the farms below! All Conference Registrations include lunch and dinner on Saturday, lunch on Sunday and morning coffee and tea.

VABF logo

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NOFA-Mass Annual Winter Conference, January 12-14, 2023

Northeast Organic Farming Association, Massachusetts Chapter.

The Conference will be held at Worcester State University on Saturday January 14 and online Sunday January 15. We encourage you to make the most of the range of possibilities – i.e. tastings in person, international discussions over Zoom, tool modifications, storytelling. Creativity is welcome!

An organic lunch on Saturday is sandwiched by over 40 educational workshops for a full day of learning and socializing.

This is a valuable opportunity for farmers, gardeners, homesteaders, educators, and environmentalists to share resources and ideas to grow our vibrant organic community. We are excited to come together around this winter’s theme, “Cooperative Foodways: Building Our Future Together.”

The conference hosts 40+ workshops and draws hundreds of attendees from throughout the Northeast.

I will be giving a workshop on Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production

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Cold damage update

Bright Lights chard with cold-damaged stems.
Dec 27.
Pam Dawling

I reported very little damage to our hoophouse crops last week when it was 2F (-17C) outdoors. Since then, no plants keeled over, but some leaves are showing tan patches of dead cells, either where the leaves touched the rowcover. or where they were not properly covered. So, we have lost some leaves of senposai, a few of spinach, some on the yarrow we planted for beneficial insects. But, overall, I’m extremely happy with the good condition of our crops.

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Mistake about potato yields

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

Yes made a mistake back in 2012, when I wrote Sustainable Market Farming, which I hope has been corrected in reprints since I was first notified of this in August 2019. If you have an older edition of my book, it might still have the error. In yield numbers on page 376, it says about potatoes, “Yields are likely to be 150 lbs/ac (168 kg/ha); 200 lbs/ac (224 kg/ha) is a good yield”.

“Yes, my mistake indeed! On page 45, I have the (better!) info that potatoes can yield at least 110 pounds/100 feet, or 49.9 kg/30m. I think I probably meant to write on page 376, that a low yield could be 150 pounds/100ft, which is equivalent to 11 tons/acre. In the metric system, that’s 223 kg/100m, or 24.4 tons/ha. Other sources suggest average yields could be almost twice this. And good yields, even 4 times the low numbers.

So it should say

“Yields are likely to be 11 tons/ac (24.4 tons/ha); 22 tons/ac (48.8 tons/ha) is a good yield”

That’s US tons of 2000 pounds, metric tons of 1000 kg. Or for a smaller scale, probably closer to what most of us are growing,

“Yields are likely to be 150 lbs/100ft (223 kg/100m); 200 lbs/100 ft (300 kg/100m) is a good yield”

I hope I’ve got all the conversions right.

How cold can leafy greens and salad crops survive?

Our hoophouse beds after the nights at 2F (-17C) and 8F (-13C). Looking amazing! Pam Dawling

We were luckier with the weather than many people over the weekend (12/23-12/26/2022). And so were our vegetable crops. On Friday 12/23 we prepared for a suddenly very cold night. It was very windy as we battled to stop the hoophouse windows from blowing open. We finally got some shims, a hammer and a stepladder, and wedged them closed. They stayed that way until Tuesday 12/27. We were fortunate in getting no precipitation (I hate ice!) and no power outage.

Pool noodles repurposed as draft excluders.
Pam Dawling

We fortified the doors with our rock collecting buckets, and prevented most of the under-door drafts with our pool noodle draft excluders. They have a rope running through them, which is hooked onto small cup-hooks on the door frame. We repurposed noodles that had been used as props at a party or some other kind of event. They had been covered in tube socks and had glued-on googly eyes.

Rolls of rowcover at the ready in our hoophouse.
Pam Dawling

It was a bit unnerving being in the hoophouse as it creaked and groaned in the wind. In the winter we keep rolls of rowcover ready for any night we think will be below 8F (-13C). We unrolled the rowcovers by lunchtime and laid tools on the ends nearest the doors. I was worried that if we lost power, and therefore the inflation, it would get very cold indeed in the hoophouse.

The DIY manometer in our hoophouse. (the background lines have faded). Pam Dawling

Since we last changed the plastic we haven’t managed to get the recommended 1/3” (8.5mm) pressure difference in the “bubble” between the plastic layers, compared to our normal air pressure. Mostly we don’t even get ¼” (6.5mm). The “bubble” provides thermal insulation as well as physical strength against snow or ice buildup, and strong winds.

It got down to 2F (-17C) outdoors Friday night, and Saturday didn’t warm up much. I don’t actually know what the night temperature was in the hoophouse as our recorded low temperatures don’t make sense: 14F (-10C) for four consecutive nights (Fri to Mon). I suspect we didn’t reset the thermometer correctly. Usually the hoophouse can hold 8 F (4.5 C) degrees warmer than outdoors, but not 12 F (7 C). It looks like it did, perhaps because we didn’t open it all day!

Soil thermometer in our hoophouse on 27 December 2022.
Pam Dawling

The soil is still nice and warm in there: 59F (15C). That really helps. The rowcovers are usually removed in the daytime, either pulled aside if we expect to need them again the next night, or rolled up out of the way. Most of the time they stay rolled up at the east end of the hoophouse. We appreciate not needing to deal with rowcovers most of the time! On Saturday 24th, the temperature maximum for the day outdoors was 24F (-4.5C), and we kept the rowcovers in place over the crops. On Sunday the high outdoors was 28F (-2C) so we pulled the rowcovers aside until the night. On Monday 26th the night-time forecast was benign enough that we rolled the rowcovers up. And now we get a milder spell.

Hakurei turnips with frozen yellow leaves where they touched the plastic (rowcover protected the plants). Pam Dawling

How did the crops fare? It’s not always obvious at first if a crop has been killed by cold or not, But I can now say with confidence that nothing died. The edge beds are always the coldest. The south edge bed had Hakurei turnips, delicious and notoriously the least cold-hardy turnip variety. Most of the globe of the turnip sits on the surface of the soil. You can see in the photo that some of the leaves, the ones right by the wall plastic, have been killed and turned yellow. But the roots themselves (with rowcover over them) seem fine.

Bright Lights chard with cold-damaged stems in our hoophouse north edge bed after nights at 2F and 8F
Pam Dawling

Over the other side, in the north bed, we have some Bright Lights chard, among other things. Multi-colored chards are less cold-hardy than red ones, which in turn are less cold-hardy than green ones. We know we take a risk in growing Bright Lights through the winter, but we so enjoy the sight of the short pieces of colored stems in our salad mixes that we take the risk. Some of the stems have curled over, probably on their way to dying, but the plants live on, to provide many more salads this winter! And some cooked greens too.

Some of the giant senposai leaves, where not fully protected by the relatively narrow rowcover, have developed tan dead spots, so those leaves can just continue as the plants’ solar panels until we get tired of looking at them and decide they are no longer needed.

Each winter I update my Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables list, except this past spring I had nothing new to add. Outdoors, I noticed today that the tatsoi has definitely died, the Vates kale and the spinach have survived (uncovered) and the small garlic leaves don’t seem troubled. The leftover lettuce transplants have been damaged, if not killed.

Winter lettuce and other salad crops

Salad Mix freshly harvested. Lettuce-free mix!
Photo Pam Dawling

We are feasting on our winter salad mixes now, so I decided to write a post to encourage more people to grow winter salads.

Just how viable this is for you depends on your winter climate zone and your facilities. In the coldest of places with nowhere except your kitchen or a windowsill, you can grow sprouts and microgreens.

To grow sprouts, get some organic seeds, soak them in a jar, then fit a straining lid, which can simply be a piece of fabric held in place over the open mouth of the jar with a strong rubber band, or, if using a Mason jar, the metal ring part of the lid. Drain off the extra water, then set the jar on its side, with the seeds distributed evenly along the side. Rinse and drain twice a day, until the sprouts are the size you want. Here’s a couple of websites.

See How to Grow Sprouts at Home, by Beth, or Growing Sprouts at Home, by The SproutPeople

You don’t need to follow these directions word by word, but if you do, it will work. Other methods can also work. Just be sure to rinse and to drain!

The enthusiastic author of How to Grow Microgreens, Sylvia Fountaine, lays out a 6-step process and provides a video. Microgreens are basically seedlings, with stems and green seed leaves. Sprouts are mostly root and stem, as you may have noticed.

For those wanting to grow microgreens professionally, I recommend Andrew Mefferd’s chapter in his Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook.  

I wrote about our Fall Lettuce Transition in my post Preparing your Hoophouse for Fall and Winter 9/28/22 – This post includes days to germination of lettuce at various soil temperatures. Here are dates when we sow lettuce for growing in various places (not just our hoophouse).

·        For outdoor lettuce I stop sowing August 29, transplant those 9/22 and expect to harvest them 12/10 – 12/31. I add hoops and thick rowcover when it gets cold to keep it growing.

Buttercrunch Bibb lettuce in December. Photo Kathleen Slattery

·        For winter growing in coldframes, I sow 9/1, 9/3, 9/5, 9/7, 9/9 and transplant 9/25 -10/8. Leaves from those plants can be harvested all winter until we need the cold frames to harden off spring transplants in mid-late February. We cover the coldframes with rowcover when it starts to get cold, then plastic-glazed lids as it gets colder, and quilts for really cold spells. These days we are more likely to direct sow spinach in the frames than transplant lettuce. It’s hardier and faster growing.

·        From September 11-17 we sow lettuce every other day in our outdoor nursery bed, to transplant in our unheated greenhouse (double glass windows, solid north wall, rarely freezes in there). We harvest those lettuces by the leaf all winter until we need to dig out the compost they are growing in to fill our seed flats in early February.

Lettuce growing in our greenhouse in November.
Photo Wren Vile

·        On September 15 and 24 we sow lettuce outdoors in a nursery bed, to transplant in our hoophouse 10/15 and 10/24. Those lettuces will feed us all winter, 11/16-3/1, if we simply harvest the outer leaves, rather than cut the head.

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

·        On October 23 we start sowing lettuce mix in the hoophouse. We sow successions of baby lettuce mix directly in the soil 10/24, 12/31, 2/1, 2/15. The last one, on 15 February, will be 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. We like Fedco’s 2981LO Lettuce Mix OG or Johnny’s Allstar Gourmet Lettuce Mix #2301. For those with challenging growing conditions, both companies offer other specialized selected mixes. 1 oz (28gm) of seed sows about 600 ft, (200m) 

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

·        We sow “filler leaf lettuces” in our hoophouse 10/23, and 11/9, to use for gap filling (replacing casualties). 1/25 is our last date for filling any gaps in the hoophouse beds with lettuce plants. After that, we fill all gaps with spinach plants.

Short rows of filler greens in the north edge bed of our hoophouse in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

·        So, we have different “stop-dates” for the different types and locations, but no complete Lettuce Stop-date.

o   8/29 Last date for sowing for outdoor row-covered lettuce

o   9/9 last date for sowing to transplant in coldframes

o   9/21 last date for sowing for planting in an unheated greenhouse.

o   9/24 last date for sowing for planting into a double-layered hoophouse

o   11/9 last date for sowing “filler leaf lettuces”

o   2/15 last date for sowing baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse.

How should people not in central Virginia calculate their own stop dates? Using the same numbers as above for the various types and locations:

  1. ​Figure out how late in the year it’s worth having lettuces outdoors. When does the temperature drop to 20°F (-7°C)? Stop sowing for outdoors 3-4 months before then. (Our 8/29 sowing is harvested by 12/31, but our 8/20 sowing is harvested by 11/25). It’s worth experimenting to find which date works best. Outdoors, I have found that lettuce may survive an occasional dip to 10°F (-12°C) with good rowcover. Consult your Extension Service and the website WeatherSpark.com. Fill in your location and look at pages of useful info about the weather where you are.
  2. Figure when your coldframes get down to say 15°F (-9°C). This might be when the outdoor night-time low is 10°F (-12°C), lower if you have a well-insulated coldframe. We have some old quilts to roll on top of our coldframe on nights below 15°F (-9°C). Perhaps lettuce won’t make it all the way through winter in a coldframe in your climate. If so, be prepared to clear the plants when it gets too cold. Calculate back to figure when to sow – allow 4 months to get full sized lettuces.
  3. Figure when your solar double-paned-glass and masonry wall greenhouse gets down to ° (-9°C), or add a small heater with a thermostat to keep it warmer than that. Calculate back to the sowing date, allowing for the fact that plants grow quicker in a greenhouse than outdoors or in coldframes. Maybe allow 3 months.

    Our greenhouse with young lettuce transplants in early October.
    Photo Bridget Aleshire
  4. As far as daylight goes, on 9/24 everyone everywhere is pretty much getting the same amount wherever we live. With a hoophouse, the goal is to grow plants to harvestable size by the time you no longer have lettuce from outdoors (refer to #1). It probably only takes 2 months to grow a lettuce big enough for leaf harvest in a double layer hoophouse. Just be sure not to over-harvest in the winter. We have had lettuce survive a double layer hoophouse temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without any rowcover (sometimes called an inner tunnel), and -2.2°F (-19°C) with.
  5. At this point calculations switch to what happens after the Winter Solstice. When do you plan to start harvesting your first outdoor lettuce again? Aim for a two-week overlap with both hoophouse and outdoor lettuce available in the spring. Work back from your hoophouse harvest end date to find the last worthwhile sowing date for filler lettuces. Because lettuce bolts easily when it gets warm in spring, play it cautious. We plan to start outdoors 4/15. We stop transplanting lettuce in the hoophouse 1/25, 2 1/2 months before then. Sowing filler lettuce too late is not really a problem – you can cut it as baby lettuce. But avoid transplanting it just to have it bolt.
  6. If your climate is cold, or you don’t mind only getting one or two cuts from baby lettuce mix, you can carry on sowing it until the soil temperature reaches 86°F/30°C (max temp for lettuce germination). If it is warm, do be sure to water often, so the lettuce doesn’t turn bitter. Otherwise look to you first outdoor lettuce and clear the baby mix when the outdoor crop is ready.
Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Wren Vile

See my post Lettuce All Year in a Changing Climate 8/31/21. It includes links to all my Lettuce of the Month series, and includes my slideshow Lettuce Year Round and our 2022 Lettuce Varieties List, to help you choose varieties we recommend for different times of year.

For ideas on mixing various crops in winter salads, see Making Salad Mix 10/31/17 and Fast Growing Vegetables 3/24/20. Winter salad mix is also known as mesclun or spring mix (even though we are growing it in the winter). Spinach and many brassicas grow faster than lettuce in cold weather, and make delicious salads.

Bulls Blood Beet leaves
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Also, check my Asian Greens of the Month posts. This post from April 2018, includes at the end links to each of the series. Many Asian Greens make great salad crops. The frilly mustards featured in this post are a good example.

For information on the temperatures that many crops will die at from cold, see Winter Kill Temperatures 2021. I was updating this list each spring. 2022 seems to have slipped by. I don’t think I had any new information, as the winter wasn’t extreme (although we had a long and memorable power outage!).

 

Flowers Against Aphids – The Research Continues

I missed Giving Tuesday, but I do have a donation button for anyone who is able to support my work! I appreciate the help, as blogposts don’t exactly pay for themselves.

September-sown Borage flowering in our hoophouse in January. Photo Pam Dawling

It’s late November as I write this. Starting last fall (2021) we sowed a range of flowers to attract beneficial insects, to plant in our hoophouse in hopes of reducing the early spring aphids. Aphids can get out of control in early spring in our greenhouse and hoophouse, as they become active before their native predators, such as ladybugs, emerge from hibernation. In January we get bad aphids on the lettuce and, of the flowers we planted to attract beneficials, borage was the only one flowering. It was not enough. We did three sprays of soapy water at 5 day intervals to kill the aphids. We also have a particular problem in our hoophouse and in our greenhouse on the eggplant, pepper and tomato transplants from mid-April to mid- to late- May depending when we manage to get them under control.

Young eggplant struggling against lots of aphids.
Photo Pam Dawling

Most flowers in our trials were annuals, and they flowered and died. We still have four yarrow plants and one bushy shungiku. Shungiku is Glebionis coronaria, (formerly called Chrysanthemum coronarium, Ismelia coronaria, Xanmthophthalmum coronarium, or Pinardia coronaria), and commonly called Crown Daisy. Most chrysanthemums are perennial with poisonous leaves, but shungiku is an annual. Our plant seems not to know this.

September-sown shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Shungiku is the eastern Japanese name for the edible chrysanthemum, also known as “garland chrysanthemum” or “chop suey greens” in English. It is known as “Kikuna” in western Japan, “tong hao” in Chinese, ssukgat in Korean and cải cúc or tần ô in Vietnamese. There are various colors of flowers. Ours are yellow, not banded with other colors. We bought seed from Small House Farm. Bevin Cohen says it does attract bees, butterflies and predatory insects, and would probably do well in the winter hoophouse, and could be provoked into bolting early in the spring.

After our research and trials, we decided it isn’t worthwhile growing the annuals, as they didn’t flower when we needed them (except this shungiku!). We might try borage again, as it was quick to flower last year, and other people have done well with borage. Ours died. We also decided (as recommended by a reader) to leave some overwintered brassicas to flower. We are starting to find bolting mizuna, so that may be perfect.

Bolting mizuna in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

Two of the four yarrow plants have flowers (in November) and we will keep them. Having perennials seems a good way to get flowers in early spring. These plants were too young to flower last spring. We still have some seeds of the perennial phacelia, so we could try that again, although perhaps it isn’t cold-hardy enough.

Anti-aphid yarrow flowering in our hoophouse in late November, 13 months after sowing. Photo Pam Dawling

If you want to read the trials and research that led us to this point, see two posts from February 2022: More on Insectary Flowers. It was too cold for predators in early February, even with enticing flowers. Ladybugs showed up in late February and we had borage flowers for them, but no other flowers. We had sowed at the very beginning of September and the very end of October. After that, we started more flowers in our greenhouse on February 1. We noticed that plants in pots dry out very fast in the hoophouse, and they have to be hand-watered, as the drip tape doesn’t do it. It’s probably better to get the flowers in the ground in the hoophouse and greenhouse as soon as they are big enough.

Earlier in February, I posted Growing flowers to attract aphid predators in early spring

I listed aphid predatory insects such as ladybugs, lacewings, aphid parasites, damsel bugs, braconid wasps, rove beetles, syrphid flies, and spined soldier beetles, as are attracted to plants with small flat open flowers, like alyssum, dill, yarrow, buckwheat, sunflowers, and cosmos.

On a big scale this is known as Farmscaping, and you can read about it in a publication from ATTRA; Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control . You can use this publication to make a specific plan to tackle particular pests. Ladybugs are a good general help because they eat the eggs of many different pest species.

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

Organic Integrated Pest Management involves tackling pest problems one step at a time with ecologically-based practices, starting with actions chosen to reduce the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops. You can find various listings of steps online and in print. They are all in basic agreement – start with prevention, follow with avoidance, and finish with pest-killing if needed. I recommend the ATTRA Organic IPM Field Guide. Each of the 22 pages is a poster, complete with good photos and concise clear info.

eOrganic has many articles on Insect Management in Organic Farming Systems that explain ways to tackle pest problems with ecologically-based practices, starting with actions chosen to reduce the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops.

A pepper leaf with tiny aphids.
photo Pam Dawling

That post describes the lifecycle of aphids, starting in spring with eggs hatching into wingless females that give birth via parthenogenesis to more females. Within a week, one female can produce 100 clones, which can repeat the process at the age of one week.  This continues until adverse weather or predators trigger production of a generation of winged female aphids that moves to new plants. Later in summer male aphids are born and females lay fertilized eggs that overwinter on host plants, to hatch the following spring.

There is a chart in the post, giving details of the flowers we chose, where we found the seed, and which months we decided to plant them in.

Our first sowing, in September, was of borage and shungiku (Chrysanthemum greens) only. We thought having some flowering plants in large pots would enable us to move them to the trouble spots, but plants in pots dry out too fast. The borage flowered with pompom-like clusters, much more compact than spring outdoor borage does.

Anti-aphid flowers yarrow in pots in January (October sown)
Photo Pam Dawling

The second sowing, in late October, included Meadowfoam, Tidy Tips, Phacelia and Yarrow. Those plants were still small at the beginning of February. No flowers, no help against January lettuce aphids.

The third sowing was February 1, and included borage, shungiku, Meadowfoam, Phacelia, Tidy Tips and yarrow.

The September-sown borage and shungiku both had trouble with cold temperatures during January – three non-consecutive nights at 10F (-12C). Some of each got cold-damaged.

By February, no beneficial insects had been seen on the borage flowers, and no aphids had been killed as a result.

Shungiku in November with a bee.
Pam Dawling
Shungiku with spider, in November. Pam Dawling
Shungiku with a fly in November. Pam Dawling
This looks like a leaf-footed bug on the shungiku in November. Not good news to have this pest around! Pam Dawling

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The background to these 2022 trials included a lot of research. In July 2021 I posted Controlling Aphids in Early Spring

Climate change is making the problem worse: for every 1degree Celsius rise in average temperature (about 2 F degrees), aphids become active two weeks earlier.

Organic Integrated Pest Management

I have a blog post about our organic integrated pest management, a 7 step method of pest management which starts with actions least harmful to the ecosystem, only employing biological controls such as botanical sprays and selective pesticides if necessary after all other steps have been insufficient.

Pepper plant with aphids and ants farming them.
Photo Pam Dawling

Applying these principles to dealing with early spring aphids

  1. Prevent infestation Control ants (which farm aphids for their sweet excretions). Try repellents, or trap crops of nasturtiums.
  2. Cover or protect physically with fine mesh netting.
  3. Provide habitat for natural enemies. Plant for a continuous supply of insect-attracting blooms, that flower early in the year and attract predators such as ladybugs, lacewings, syrphid flies (hoverflies), damsel bugs, big-eyed bugs, and spiders. Grow early flowers with pollen and nectar they can use as alternative foods. Sow seed in fall for earliest bloom.
  4. Monitor crops at least once a week
  5. Introduce natural enemies: We do have an aphid parasite in the hoophouse as we do find mummies, but not enough to control an aphid outbreak in spring. Parasitic wasps for aphids include Aphidus colemani from Arbico Organics; Aphidus ervi from Arbico; a predatory gall-midge, Aphidoletes aphidomyza, (cost $125 including shipping per week, perhaps $375 total); Green Lacewings (more affordable); Ladybugs, notorious for flying away.
  6. Hand pick and kill. Handpicking aphids is likely impossible, so blast them off the plants with a water jet from a hose.
  7. Use biological controls. Failing success with the methods above, a soap spray can be effective, although aphid predators will also be harmed. We use 3 Tablespoons (15 ml) per gallon (3.8 l) of biodegradable Murphy’s Oil Soap, in a sequence of 3 sprayings 5 days apart.

Also see that post for details about Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa), a spring flowering wild annual in the aster (sunflower) family; Meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii), a fast-growing bushy annual commonly known as poached egg plant and Douglas’ Meadowfoam; Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii), a low spreading, shrub-like annual; Borage, a warm-season annual, taking only about 8 weeks to flower from sowing; Sweet Alyssum, a small annual; Shungiku, described above. We considered, but did not plant two biennials: Dill and Angelica, as they sound quite large. The perennials we chose, are also large (30” tall, or much more, and might need staking), but the advantages of having permanent working plants won us over. Yarrow is hardy to zone 5. Common Yarrow (with flowers that range from white to red) is hardy down to zone 3. It attracts an array of beneficial insects. Phacelia is particularly useful in early spring if it has overwintered as it is an early pollen source for bees coming out of hibernation. Sow in the fall for early spring blooms But it winter-kills at approximately 18˚F (-8˚C), and I think that’s what happened to ours. We also considered Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare (common fennel) but it blooms from mid-summer to frost. Too late and too tall for our goal of attracting spring aphid predators in the hoophouse. Coyote bush, (Baccharis pilularis), also called chaparral broom, is a native shrub related to sunflowers, that sounds way too much of a space hog. And Dandelions – I just couldn’t bring myself to risk planted this sturdy weed in the hoophouse!

That post also includes details of natural enemies you can buy, and how to make a soap spray if none of those efforts work. Also there you will find the approach we decided on as the Best Options for our Hoophouse and Greenhouse in April and May

November photo of shungiku flowering in our hoophouse alongside Yukina Savoy, senposai and Hakurei turnips. Pam Dawling

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Way back in July 2016, I posted  Insectary Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects

This post covers insectary flowers outdoors and in, at various times of year. At the end of April we sow several plug flats of different flowers to plant out in Insectary Circles at the ends of our outdoor raised beds.

See my July 2017 Mother Earth News post Insectaries: Grow Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects In late May or early June, we transplant IPM

flowers in our outdoor Insectary Circles in the vegetable garden to attract pollinators and pest predators. We use circles cut from plastic buckets to surround these clusters of flowers so that inexperienced helpers don’t pull them out as weeds.  We use a combination of sunflowers, dill, borage, cosmos, calendula, tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), zinnias.

Cindy Conner suggested leaving parsley and celery plants to overwinter and flower early.

Resilience: Survive, thrive and farm another season!

 

A willow tree behind out herb garden.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

“The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it.” Sir Walter Scott

I’m reading Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture, (review coming soon) and thinking about how growers thrive under varying situations, some of which we have no control over. To adjust to changing weather conditions, to continue after challenges and get the best possible outcome whatever happens, we need to be alert, adaptable and quick on our feet, a bit like a Ju-Jitsu practitioner.

Being ready to tackle whatever happens includes recognizing and building in many options, keeping all options open until the future is clearer, and knowing when and which way to jump. It involves being prepared with needed equipment (or at least phone numbers), and having our filing systems be accessible all year, not in a big heap!

It includes getting good at understanding current conditions and predicting the future, getting to grips with radar maps and how to use Growing Degree Days. It involves keeping records of when certain flowers bloom (phenology), and soil temperatures. This information helps us figure out when to plant according to actual conditions, rather than simply by the calendar, a method which is not useful as climate change takes hold.

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds. Fall deadnettle germination shows that conditions are cool enough to sow spinach. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Making good assessments of conditions is the first step in cultivating adaptability. The second necessary skill-set is the ability to know how to make a swift and effective decision and locate the resources to put that decision into practice. This includes information about soil temperatures and how long various crops take to emerge. Also, knowing how summer crops will respond to extra high temperatures. And how winter crops will respond to horrifying low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses on a struggling crop and till it in? I do a weekly tour of the gardens and re-prioritize tasks. Growing food is an organic process, non-linear!

These two skills are followed by a review process, so we can learn from what went wrong, as well as what went right! Usually this involves record-keeping, (dates, actions and results) to inform next season. You can list other possible responses to fine-tune your choices next time. Record-keeping can include photos, audio recording, video clips. Whatever works. You may only need to tweak your response in future, or you may want a completely different approach. One of our garden mantras is “Never repeat the same mistake two years running.”

Get Ready for Farming After Anything

Carol Deppe in The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times recommends building in slack, rather than planning to work flat out every day. When something unexpected happens, you’ll have a bit of extra time available to tackle the problem. Personal troubles like injury, health challenges, or family emergencies; or household events like financial problems can require time focused elsewhere; or disastrous weather that affects everyone around you. On her website, Carol has an interview called Food in Uncertain Times: How to Grow and Store the Five Crops You Need to Survive. She says: “The resilient garden is designed and managed so that when things go wrong, they have less impact.” Grow food requiring minimal external inputs, know how to grow staple crops and save seeds. Some years you won’t need to employ these skills, but you’ll be ready when you do.

Being Flexible About Growing Food

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

We have a Garden Shift Honchos Guide to help whoever is leading the crew. It includes general guidelines: “Try to at least get the harvesting done, whatever the weather, (unless torrential rain, tornado, ice storm, thunder and lightning).” It suggests how to choose jobs from our posted task list. My priority sequence is harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand weed. The Honchos Guide has hints for contingencies:

  • If the day is likely to be very hot, get the physically taxing tasks done first (especially anything involving shovels).
  • If the morning starts out with a heavy dew, postpone harvesting cucurbits, nightshades, strawberries and legumes until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.
  • After heavy rain: mulched perennials (fruit and asparagus) are the easiest places to work. Don’t work in sinking mud, it compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains. Standing on long boards is an option for harvesting or planting.
  • If heavy rain is expected and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. It’s a waste of time to hoe if it’s about to rain, or that crop is due for overhead irrigation. Don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain or irrigation. They’ll re-root.
  • If you feel frazzled: choose a big simple task lots of people can do, like weeding strawberries, or hoeing corn. Or choose two tasks geographically close, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everything happening.
  • Choreographing the crew can be hard. It’s handy if everyone finishes harvesting around the same time. Perhaps spread out at first for miscellaneous harvesting, and then end up together on the crop that takes a long time.

Building in Options on the Farm

Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, advocates for constructing buildings that are easy to modify later, in gradual or drastic ways to meet the changing needs of the people inside. Farms can be looked at similarly. Keep as many options as possible (for crops, cover crops, crop layout) open for as long as possible.

It can be helpful to do some scenario planning, which I learned about in The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz. Scenario Planning is a method of making flexible long-term plans, using stories (scenarios) to help us visualize different possible futures that include not only factors we don’t control, like the weather or the market’s enthusiasm for bulb fennel, but also intangibles such as our hopes and fears, beliefs and dreams. Different combinations of uncertainties and possibilities, including interactions of some major variables in plausible but uncomfortable as well as hoped-for combinations are used to create each scenario.

Sometimes the easiest way to compare scenarios is to set options out in a grid. For instance, in choosing which cover crop to sow following a spring crop that we clear in August-October in zone 7, we can say that the main variables are whether the season is dry or wet, and whether we are early or late planting. We can sow oats from mid-August to early September, to winter-kill, or winter rye once we reach September 1 (before that we risk the rye heading up before winter and self-seeding).

Dry and Early: Sow cowpeas or soybeans with oats, for a winter-killed cover crop. Dry and Late: Sow winter rye or wheat alone.
Wet and Early: Sow a clover mix in August, or hairy vetch with winter rye, 9/1-10/10 Wet and Late: Sow Austrian winter peas with winter rye

Often there are more variables, such as weediness. We might undersow our fall broccoli with a clover mix in August, intending the clovers to become a Green Fallow plot for the following season. The next summer, we assess the situation. If the weeds are bad in July, we disk in the clovers and sow sorghum-sudan hybrid mixed with soy, as a winter-killed cover crop. If all looks well in July, but the weeds are gaining the upper hand in August, we have the option of tilling it in, and sowing oats mixed with soy. If the clover is growing well, and the weeds are not bad, we over-winter the patch, and disk it in February.

Broccoli undersown with clover.
Photo Nina Gentle

Vegetable Crop Options

We have a few options recorded in our calendar:

  • If spring is cold and wet, grow transplants for the second planting of cucumbers and summer squash.
  • If the winter squash patch is too wet to disk, grow transplants, but don’t sow later-maturing varieties.
  • If the soil is to wet to hill the spring potatoes, flame weed instead.

Abundance Options

What to do if your yields are higher than planned: increase sales by giving out samples and recipes, and feature the item on your website. Find sales to new customers (restaurants), process the crop for future out-of-season sale (if you have time), or donate it to a local food bank.

Shortage Options

With a CSA you can keep a list of who gets Sun Gold tomatoes each week, until everyone has had some. This method has the advantage of keeping the time spent picking cherry tomatoes down to a reasonable level. The sharers get some as a treat a few times in the summer, but not every week.

You can mix leaves of several greens in an attractive bunch and call it braising mix, or add unusual crops to bagged salad mix, or make up stir-fry or ratatouille packages. If a crop is really poor, it is often best to till it in and plant something else. For me, this eases the soul and lets me move on. We keep a running list of crops looking for a home, so we can replace failures with fast-growing crops such as radishes, arugula, mizuna, Tokyo bekana, or salad mix. One year when our fall cabbage didn’t fill the area intended, we used senposai, a tasty, fast-growing leaf green. If rutabagas don’t come up, sow turnips – there are very fast-growing turnips, and a small turnip is a delicacy, but a small rutabaga is a sad thing.

Hakurei turnips harvested late January.
Photo Pam Dawling

It helps to have a clear and simple rotation. Our raised bed plan is ad-hoc. We make use of the flexibility: one August we were a bit late getting some tilling done, and we sowed the last cucumbers in the bed which was to have been squash. Cucumbers take a bit longer than squash to reach maturity, and I wanted to get them in the ground as soon as possible. The squash had to wait two more days. Two days can make a lot of difference when planting for fall.

Finding Resilient Crop Varieties

We always read the information about disease resistance when choosing varieties, because mid-Atlantic humidity is so conducive to fungal diseases. Depending on your climate you might pay more attention to the cold-tolerance, or the number of days to maturity. Every year we trial small quantities of one or two new varieties of important crops alongside our workhorses.