Book Review Compact Farms by Josh Volk

Compact farms by Josh Volk, front cover

Compact Farms: 15 Proven Plans for Market Farms on 5 Acres or Less, Josh Volk

Storey Publishing, 2017. 226 pages, 8” x 10”, full color photos and illustrations, charts. $19.95.

This book will be very useful to those preparing to buy or rent land for a small vegetable or flower farm, or those expanding, or downsizing, or re-thinking their small farm model. It is both practical and inspirational. The photos are treasure troves of beauty and ideas. The main part of the book consists of 15 well-organized presentations of a small farm, offering a range of possibilities. The same format is used for each, making comparisons quick and straight-forward. The intro page gives the “vital statistics’ of area in production, location (including whether urban/peri-urban/sub-urban/rural), crops grown, markets and year started. We meet the farmers, and hear a potted history.

The introduction to the notion of thinking small (or “compact” as Josh teaches us to call this scale) explains that compact farms are easily manageable, with many tasks done with hand tools. Start-up and operating costs are reasonable, and money can be invested as success builds. They help build a sense of community, by virtue of being small enough for non-farmers to understand. They usually rely on a diversity of crops to spread risks, rather than an arsenal of pesticides to kill all the problems. The author lists the keys to success for compact farms as paying attention (to the land, crops, weather, seasons, markets, and maintaining resilience); setting yourself apart from large scale growers by growing appropriate crops and adding value; and developing stable systems that work (making improvements over the years, tied to the particulars of the farm and farmers).

Josh Volk, author of Compact Farms

The area in vegetable or cut flower production ranges from Josh Volk’s own 0.15 acres in Oregon to Peregrine Farm’s 4 acres in North Carolina, and includes 2.5 acres of rooftops in New York. Some of the farms also include fruit trees, poultry or bees.

For each farm there is a two-page spread with an attractive hand-drawn farm map with the important items tagged. These layouts will be a big help to anyone pondering how to efficiently pack in all the growing space and facilities needed. A compass North would have been helpful, but usually this can be deduced from the alignment of the greenhouses and hoophouses. If you buy the paperback book you could cut it apart and spread the maps round a table for direct comparisons.

The next, very helpful item is a big chart of the crops harvested each month. Here there is a lot of diversity. Some sell nothing till April or May, and close again at the end of October, some are almost year-round. Some have a full page of crops; one has lettuce year-round and coffee and 5 other crops (that’s in Hawaii). One sells winter crops, because their land is too wet to make an early start in spring. Many ways to produce healthy local food are demonstrated.

After each introduction, there are sections on customers and markets; labor; water; fertility; tools and infrastructure; greenhouses and propagation; seeding and planting; crop care (weed control, season extension, pest and disease control, trellising and pruning); harvesting and post-harvest; sales, communication and record-keeping. Studded throughout are the gems that tell how each farmer has adapted to their situation. Sidebars explain some practices with a bit of detail. How to do flame-weeding, make use of WWOOFers, learn useful skills, make use of hoophouses. Photos (worth more than a thousand words) demonstrate details of cart designs, root washers, a car port used as a wash-pack area, and rods welded onto the hood of a rototiller to mark rows.

The back of the book includes a section called “Nuts and Bolts” with gathered thoughts on planning and designing a farm, all the way from clarifying your goals, listing what you need as a minimum to achieve those goals, what you want to be doing on a day-to-day basis (managing a big crew or having your hands in the soil?), on to what you need to make your farm work (land, location, water quantity and quality, storage, roads, greenhouses, hoophouses, harvest, packing and storage space and equipment, livestock, retail space, office, a restroom near the fields, and housing. Lastly there is a chapter on making it work financially.

The farmers in this book tend towards organic, sustainable, socially conscious, ecological, biological, regenerative. This tendency is always a work in progress, not perfect. We know tractors pollute. These farms consider and value the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit, as the three pillars of sustainability. Crop rotation develops healthier soils, stronger crops (therefore potentially profit) and healthier people compared to pesticide-farming. Sustainability does not seek a static state, but continual improvement, so that we leave future generations at least as well off as we are.

Josh Volk was inspired by John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. . .
Photo by Penguin Random House

John Jeavons of Ecology Action and the ground-breaking book How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, was an early inspiration for the author. Jeavons promoted sustainability, soil fertility, food with high nutritional density, while using as little space and as few resources as possible. The many detailed charts in his book have been used by generations of growers since, to plan their small farms. Although we might not favor double-digging, as Jeavons once did, his biointensive methods are used around the world to maximize production of healthy local food.

Devising a system that will work very well for your farm will be helped by studying these 15 examples and learning how a decision about one aspect leads to a particular decision about another aspect. The details of each farm might set you thinking about aspects you had not yet considered, or might reassure you that what you see as a major obstacle can be overcome or side-stepped. Tractors are not essential. Pasture for a horse may use as much land as the production area. Don’t plan to farm alone: all the farms in this book have at least two workers. Everyone gets sick sometimes, or has to take a day to go to the city for a dentist appointment.

I wrote a short summary of each farm, but there isn’t space for all that here, so I’m shortening my notes right down. Most of these farms offer 24-36 crops during the season, grow on raised beds, have at least one hoophouse, and a wash/pack area. All have at least two workers, most also with seasonal help. Most use three markets: CSA, farmer’s market, restaurant or wholesale. Here, I’ve focused on the diversity.

Josh starts with his own compact farm (Slow Hand Farm) in Oregon, the smallest in the book, at 0.15 acres. Josh wanted a hand-scale operation where he himself tended all the crops. Josh focused on specialty crops that gave high yields from small spaces, and could take a few days without attention, as he was only on the farm two days a week He designed a CSA with small shares, based on salad crops and a few other items. Deliveries were by a leased Bullitt cargo bike with an electric assist.

Four Season Farm, from their website

The second example is Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s famous Four Season Farm in rural coastal Maine. There are two acres in crops and 8 acres in chicken pasture. Eliot is well-known for his ground-breaking books. Employees learn by working with mentors. Poultry are used in rotation to provide fertility for the soil that will later grow vegetables to sell year-round. Everything is very well-thought-out – you can read more in Eliot’s books.

Stephen Cook of the 0.75acre Cook’s Garden in a peri-urban setting in Ohio sells vegetables, plant starts, strawberries, cut flowers and honey. The farm layout has very little unused space. The vegetable beds have 2.5ft paths (considerably wider than most bed systems). Crops are sold May-October, plus asparagus in April. The farmstand has a bell to summon Stephen on his bike. He custom-harvests the vegetables. Stephen does not use winter cover crops, but instead sows buckwheat in empty beds in August, providing forage for his bees until it gets frost-killed. He uses tarps. Initially, he used landscape fabric and old hoophouse plastic that he already had. He is moving to just using landscape fabric. Wide beds require a way of reaching the center: he has a low-lying transplanting cart that straddles the bed, holding the plants and the farmer, moving backwards down the bed, kneeling on the cart while planting.

Linda Chapman, Jocko and the golfcart

Linda Chapman at Harvest Moon Farm in rural Indiana produces vegetables, cut flowers and bedding plants on 2.5 acres. As she already owned the land, her start-up costs were minimal ($400). She enclosed her porch with plastic to make a greenhouse and used an old Gravely garden tractor for tillage. The farm includes blueberries and woodies (cut flowers with woody stems). Linda focuses more on the 39 flower crops in the warm season, then 24 vegetables in the cold months. Almost all annual crops are transplanted, from starts propagated in a 16x30ft well-insulated solar greenhouse attached to the barn. Linda uses an electric golf cart to move trays of plants to the garden and harvest buckets to the barn.

Peregrine Farm, from their website

Peregrine Farm in rural North Carolina has 4 acres in production. Alex and Betsy Hitt grow vegetables, cut flowers, and blueberries. The Hitts created a corporation with 18 friends who invested $80,000 to start the 26acre farm. After the farm started to make a profit, Alex and Betsy were able to buy out all the other shareholders. They continued to live as if they weren’t making money, and now have a retirement fund. Their farm includes twelve seasonal Haygrove tunnels with sets of legs installed in multiple places, enabling rotation. Their 34 vegetables provide crops year-round. Water comes from two ponds, a creek and a well. They used to run 100 turkeys through the quarter-acre rotational blocks, depositing 500lbs manure per block during each stay. This great system had to stop when the local poultry processing plant closed.

Jeff Frank and Kristin Illick operate Liberty Gardens in rural Pennsylvania, growing on 1.5acres of family land which they use for free. January has no sales, and the other eleven months’ production involves 34 crops, peaking in September and October. Cover crops provide the basis of their soil fertility plan. They also make compost from leaf waste and crop residues. Orders for New York are shipped next-day delivery with UPS.

Kealaola Farm, from their website

Kealaola Farm in Hawaii sells lettuce, other greens, beans and coffee grown on 3.8acres by Barry Levine and his rotating crew of six WWOOFers who stay in a row of tents. The crop calendar is very different from other farms in the book: seven year-round crops, with full-size and baby lettuce providing nearly all of the income and occupying most of the space. A bed can grow 6 crops of lettuce in one year, or 18 crops of baby lettuce. Unsurprisingly, there are no greenhouses or hoophouses here. Seed germination happens inside a tent, and seedlings grow to transplanting size on outdoor tables. Living on a remote island, Barry has to improvise when the unexpected happens, or supplies run out sooner than planned.

La Grelinette farm family.
Photo from their website

Les Jardins de la Grelinette in rural Quebec is run by Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Hélène Desroches. Jean-Martin is well-known for The Market Gardener, training classes, and work researching and teaching at La Ferme des Quatre-Temps. At les Jardins de la Grelinette, the farmers produce vegetables on 1.5acres. The map shows a very tightly-packed layout of 10 plots of beds, 4 hoophouses, a beeyard and chickens in the orchard. They are pioneers in tarping as a sustainable method of weed control and no-till soil preparation. They have 27 crops for sale from June to October, and a few in November. Purchased compost is used, with many beds growing more than one crop a year. A ten-year rotation plan helps ensure care of the soil. Their delivery van runs on straight vegetable oil.

Zoe Bradbury at Groundswell Farm, OR.
Photo from Ecopreneuring

At Groundswell Farm in rural Oregon, Zoe Bradbury grows 2.5 acres of vegetables, berries and flowers, and 1.5 acres of orchards, leasing family land alongside her sister’s salad greens farm and her mother’s greenhouse business. The women work like a producer cooperative, marketing together. They share a tractor, and handle CSA and restaurant orders, and deliveries collectively. Zoe has a full-time year-round foreman, and does some of her field cultivation with a Belgian draft horse. 32 crops are available during the February to early December season. They water from the creek, using pumps and drip irrigation. The greenhouse has a 4x32ft germination table with water pipes buried in sand. Thermostatically-controlled propane heat the water. Their cool summers mean field crops needing extra warmth are grown in chenilles (poly low tunnels covering two beds).

Mellowfields FArm, Lawrence, Kansas.
Photo from their website.

Mellowfields Urban Farm has 3acres in production in Lawrence, Kansas. Jessie Asmussen and Kevin Prather grow vegetables, culinary herbs and berries. Their farm is divided between two acres leased from the city and another acre at their home. The city’s Common Ground Program (owners of the land) aims to “transform vacant or under-utilized city properties into vibrant sites of healthy food production.” The two farmers took on a part-time harvest worker, and were able to increase market sales 40% above working alone, stay on top of things, and have more family time. Produce is available May to December. The Common Ground Program provides free compost made from city yard waste.

Full Plate Farm, Washington, CSA PIckup art from their website

Full Plate Farm in the peri-urban Ridgefield, Washington area, where Danny Percich grows 3 acres of winter vegetables. The land is very wet in spring, so Danny chose a November-March CSA. April is time off, before planting starts in May. The map shows an intensively used area, including his house, and beds of root crops, alliums, long-season greens, winter squash, fast-growing greens, and popcorn. If you think this limited season does not offer many crop choices, note that they list 30, including stinging nettles in March! Danny works about half- to three-quarters of his time on the farm, saving 4 hours daily for his three children and partner.

Flywheel Farm, Washington farm stand.
Photo from their website

Flywheel Farm in rural Vermont is run by Justin Cote and Ansel Ploog. They (alone) are growing vegetables, culinary herbs, eggs and rabbits on two acres. They negotiated a five-year rolling lease with the owners, and decided to start on half the land and do that well. They live elsewhere. Their crops are available late May to early November. The farmers built a well-designed compact wash/pack area, including a 5x7ft cooler. Ansel has included a page “Why We Farm” that explains how they aim to be part of a vibrant sustainable regional agricultural economy. Receiving appropriate financial compensation for farming work (done efficiently) is one of their goals.

Box of melons from Leap Frog Farm.
Photo from their website.

Leap Frog Farm is 2.5acres of vegetables and 3 acres of fruit trees in rural California, farmed by Annie Hehner. She keeps goats for her own dairy supply. She lives in a simple house on the land, and pays rent to her parents for the cultivated land. The space includes a hay field, and orchards of young almonds, peaches, Asian pears, plums, and walnuts. Annie hires a friend to work full-time with her. Sales have a marked seasonality of 15 January-May crops, 14 June-December crops and several that mature in November. Annie borrows farm equipment from neighbors, and does a lot of improvising. She built a straw bale cooler that uses a CoolBot device in summer.

Cully Neighborhood Farm banner

At Cully Neighborhood Farm in the city of Portland, Oregon, Matt Gordon grows vegetables on 0.5 acres for restaurants, a 40-member CSA and a juice company. He found some open land belonging to a church and school, and arranged a lease, including delivering some excess produce to the church’s food pantry. Matt works 40 hours a week during most of the season, and 20 hours from December to February. June-August he employs an apprentice for 30 hours a week. There is an outdoor classroom and a children’s garden of 12 boxed beds, run separately, but supported by the farm. Matt (and apprentice) grow 36 different crops, distributed May-late November.

Brooklyn Grange Farm.
Photo from their website

Brooklyn Grange is a rooftop farm in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, growing 2.5 acres of mostly intensive vegetables. The farmers are Ben Flanner, Anastasia Cole Plakias, Gwen Schantz and Chase Emmons. At last! I was uneasy that all the photos of farmers so far in the book are white! Here we have a large diversity of farmers. Not particularly visible in the book, because the profile has no farmer photo, and the photos of workers all look white. But the Brooklyn Grange website shows many workers, and is worth a visit to see the roof top farm videos too.  Their first rooftop, in Long Island City, is 6 stories up, and the second (in Brooklyn Navy Yard) is a dizzying 12 stories above ground.  Everything goes up and down in freight elevators, although during construction they used cranes. They sell microgreens year-round, and 22 other crops May-November. There are 4 full-time farmers and extra seasonal workers. The 12” deep soil is light and fluffy, so hand tools do most of the work. They do sometimes carefully use a rototiller. A shipping container on the roof provides office space and a cooler.

This is a very practical book, and as I often say about farming books, the price of the book will steer you towards success and save you costly poor decisions.




Success with Growing Eggplants

Row of Epic eggplants with flea beetle holes. Photo Pam Dawling.

We are about to transplant our eggplants, so I can tell you all about it. I’ll skip over the details of sowing, assuming you’ve already done that. After the growing info, I’ll summarize our variety trials in case you are considering which to grow next year. If you already grow more than one variety, I encourage you to track how each one does, to refine your future plans.

Eggplant Crop Requirements

Eggplants benefit from fertile, well-drained soils high in organic matter, with a pH of 6.0-7.0, with 6.0-6.5 ideal. Average moisture with plenty of warmth and sunshine are needed. Ideal daytime growing temperatures are 70-85°F (21-29°C).

Epic eggplant transplants. Photo Pam Dawling

Care of Young Eggplant Starts

You may have sown in plug flats or pots, or in open flats. You will probably have potted up the plants into 3-4” (7.6-10 cm) pots. We keep ours away from doors in the greenhouse in the cozy south-west corner. Protect the seedlings from flea beetles, as well as drafts, either in the greenhouse or on benches outside. Flea beetles cruise at low altitudes, so setting your flats 3’ (1 m) above the ground may be all you need to do to keep them away. Or you may need netting. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has 6.9’ x 328’ ProtekNet for $375. They say:

“ProtekNet netting keeps insects as small as flea beetles and thrips off tender crops while providing maximum ventilation to prevent heat stress on hot summer days. Fine synthetic knitted mesh is UV resistant and lasts 1–3 seasons. Easy to see through, so crops can be inspected without removal. For best results, use over Quick Hoops or Wire Support Hoops, bury the edges, and ensure foliage is not touching the net, so insects can’t lay eggs through it. 0.0138″ x 0.0138″ (0.35 mm x 0.35 mm) mesh. 89% light transmission; 62% porosity; Weight: 0.74 Oz. per sq.yd. NOTE: Cut netting longer than needed to accommodate shrinkage.”


Young eggplant under netting May 9. photo Pam Dawling

Gardeners Edge (AM Leonard) has 6.9’ x 32’ of the same mesh size for $58.94

The Dubois Agrinovation US website offers several nets with mesh small enough (0.0138″ x 0.0138″ /0.35 mm x 0.35 mm) to keep out flea beetles: 25g, 47g, 56g, and 70g. Some are more durable than others, naturally. 164ft rolls cost from $198.32. We have found ProtekNet to more durable than rowcover.

Transplanting Eggplant

Plant spacings of 18-24” (45-60 cm) in-row and 30-36” (76-91 cm) between rows are usually recommended – or more to accommodate machinery. We used to grow two staggered rows in our 4’ (1.2 m) wide beds, aiming to have the plants 30” (76 cm) apart. This created crowded aisles, so we now plant a single row in each bed, with in-row spacing of 20-24” (50-60 cm), creating a “hedge” and leaving the paths more accessible. This fits with the approach that considers the area each plant has, rather than the intensive planting approach that favors equal space in all directions.

To harden off for planting out, reduce moisture rather than dropping the temperature, as this crop is easily stunted by cold temperatures. Ideally, keep eggplants above 55°F (13°). Transplant the 8-12 week old plants 1-2 weeks after the last frost date, in a warm spell. The transplants should be 6-10” (15-25 cm) tall, without any buds, flowers or fruit. We leave our eggplants to be one of the later crops set out, after tomatoes and peppers. To help warm the soil, you could spread black plastic mulch two weeks before transplanting. This will also deter flea beetles. Avoid organic mulches at planting time, as they cool the soil. In cool climates, rowcover on hoops is a good idea for new transplants, to keep the plants warm. Fine mesh netting will keep flea beetles away.

Eggplant transplants with aphids.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our technique for minimizing flea beetles while transplanting is to set out hoops, and sticks to hold the netting down on either side of the bed. The rolled netting is at the ready. One or two people transplant, and a third person with a hose and spray-head gives the plants a strong spray, directing the flea beetles out of the bed. A fourth person follows close behind, unrolling the netting and battening it down quickly after each plant.

Caring for the Eggplant Crop

Once the soil is fully warm, you can cultivate and spread organic mulch. Because the plants will be in the ground for a long season, and organic mulches break down, we use our eggplant beds as convenient places to drop off finished crop residues or weeds – only healthy, non-seeding material of course. In hot dry weather, weeds can be pulled from the mulch and laid on top to die.

Any stress from cold weather, disease, or low fertility will cause eggplant skins to thicken and become bitter. If your soil fertility is low, feed monthly with fish emulsion, or side-dress with compost. Don’t overdo the nitrogen or you will get lots of leaves but few fruit.

We don’t usually stake ours, but if your area is windy, you could stake tall varieties, with 3-5’ (1-1.5 m) stakes every third plant around the perimeter and twine every 12” (30 cm) up the stakes to corral the bushes. Upright bushes may produce better shaped fruit. When the branches threaten to take over the aisles, snip them off as you harvest.

September jungle of eggplants and okra.
Photo Pam Dawling

Some growers pinch out the growing tips to encourage branching, although ours branch just fine without, and I hate removing bits of healthy crop plants. Conversely, growers in cooler climates sometimes prune low branches and leave just two main stems to be sure of getting some ripe fruit. In the fall, if rowcover is used to keep the first few frosts off, the big plants can ripen existing fruits. No new fruit will set once the temperature drops below 70°F (21°C).

As with most crops, the critical time for irrigation is during flowering and fruit formation. Insufficient water during this stage can lead to blossom end rot, misshapen fruit and reduced yield.

The above information is from my book Sustainable Market Farming. In the eggplant chapter you can find more about sowing, crop rotations, pests and diseases, harvesting, storage and seed saving

Eggplant Variety Trials

Nadia eggplant.
Photo by Nina Gentle

Most of my prior posts about eggplant have been about the years of variety trials we did from 2013 to 2016.

In December 2012, I wrote about trying new eggplant varieties

Back at the beginning of the 21st century, we had tried lots of different eggplant varieties, and found that Nadia consistently did best. After the hot summer in 2012 when our Nadia eggplant refused to set fruit in the heat, I started looking for heat-tolerant varieties. For a while in early summer 2012 the Nadia didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit.  We chose large purple-black tear-drop shaped eggplant because that’s what our cooks want.

Listada de Gandia eggplant. Photo Raddysh Acorn

We didn’t include any green, striped, long skinny, orange, fluted or other unusual kinds. No judgment about people who like those! I looked at growing some combination of Nadia (67d, good set in cool conditions) with of

  • Epic F1 61-64d (early and huge!). Recommended in Florida and Texas.
  • Night Shadow F1 68d, (size claims vary from “similar to Epic” to “smaller.
  • Traviata F1 (variously recorded as 55-60d, 70d and 80d), small but good flavor. Recommended in Florida.
  • Irene F1 (mid-early). Large, shiny purple, traditional-shaped fruit 5″ x 6-7″. Great flavor, big plant, productive.
  • Classic F1 76d, heavy yields, high quality, does not perform well in cool conditions. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
  • Santana F1 80d, large, continuous setting. Recommended in Florida.
  • Florida High Bush OP 76-85d, reliable, large fruit, drought and disease resistant. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
  • Florida Market OP 80-85d, large, excellent for the South, not for the Northeast. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
Epic Eggplant
Photo by Nina Gentle

In 2013, alongside Nadia, we trialed: Florida Highbush, Epic and Traviata. Ironically, the summer of 2013 was not hot. One of the coolest we’ve had in a long time. We did a final harvest in preparation for our first frost, Sunday October 20/21, and I crunched the numbers. We planted 38 Nadia, 10 Florida Highbush, 10 Traviata and 12 Epic. Harvests started on July 25, later than our usual July 10, because of the cool weather. We harvested three times a week until 10/17. I was surprised how few fruit each plant provided – about 6. Initially, Nadia was providing by far the largest fruit, with Florida Highbush the smallest. Traviata doesn’t claim to be big. In the first week of harvests, Nadia produced most per plant, but this leveled off pretty soon. Final figures were 7.3 fruits/bush for Traviata, 6.3 for Florida Highbush, 6.1 for Nadia, and only 4.4 for Epic. We realized that we had stunted the Epic unintentionally by planting it at the stony end of the bed, near the road.

Florida Highbush OP eggplant
Photo by Nina Gentle

In 2014, we grew the same four varieties, to test them in a hot summer. But again it didn’t get hot! All four varieties have similar-sized fruit. We did better record-keeping, and found that the size and weight of each fruit was very similar across the varieties, varying only from Epic’s 0.61 lbs to Traviata’s 0.64 lbs per fruit average. Nadia yielded best per plant, at 13.4 fruits over the season. Epic was next at 12.5 fruits, then Traviata with 11.7 fruits. Florida Highbush was a poor fourth with an average of only 6.8 fruits per plant.

Florida Market OP eggplant
Photo by Nina Gentle

In 2015, we still did not get a hot summer! We had added a fifth variety for 2015: Florida Market, (like Florida Highbush, this is also open-pollinated.). By late august, Epic was winning, at 4.1 fruits and 3.4 pounds per plant, with an average of 0.84 pounds per fruit. Traviata was running second, at 3.1 fruits and 2.4 pounds per plant (average of 0.79 pounds per fruit). Nadia was third, at 2.3 fruits and 1.8 pounds per plant (average 0.75 pounds per eggplant). Florida Highbush (yes, it is a tall plant!) was beating Nadia on tonnage (2.1 pounds/plant) but losing on size (in other words, more, smaller eggplant). Florida Market was trailing, with many days providing no harvest. Our final figures for 2015 showed Florida Market’s fruits were smaller and rounder, and it had a lower yield. It was at the dry stony end (so unfair!) Epic did best, both in number of fruit/plant (10.7) and weight per fruit (0.77 lbs). Good thing we didn’t give up on it after 2013! Traviata provided 8.9 fruits/plant, Florida Highbush 8.2, Nadia only 8.0 (we did get a lot of culls too), and the Florida Market just 7.5.

Traviata eggplant with thumbnail dents!
Photo by Nina Gentle

In 2016,  we actually had some hot weather! We dropped the OPs and planted only the higher yielding Epic, Traviata, and Nadia. The September assessment showed of the three, Epic was winning! From the first harvest on 7/18, up to the end of August, Epic had produced a staggering 287 eggplants, averaging 0.9 pounds each; Nadia, 125 eggplants, averaging 0.76 pounds each; Traviata, 124 averaging 0.72 pounds. That year we also logged the cull rate: Nadia was best (least) at 21%; Epic was close at 22%, while Traviata produced a surprisingly high proportion of culls at 29%. During September, Traviata produced the largest number of saleable fruits (145) compared to 138 Nadia and 135 Epic. Probably not statistically different from each other. As I’ve noted before, the eggplants are all a similar size, and so it’s no surprise that Traviata’s 145 fruits totaled the highest weight (112.5 pounds), with Nadia at 98 pounds and Epic at 95.5. Nadia had an 8% cull rate, Traviata 9% and Epic only 6.8%. Clearly, all three are good varieties.

Adding September to the figures for August and July, Epic was the winning eggplant in terms of total yield, saleable yield, low cull ratio, and weight per fruit. That impressive leap off the starting blocks that Epic made was still holding it ahead of the pack. The ripe fruits got a little smaller, and there was been a noticeable drop-off in yield since the equinox.

Ping Tung Long eggplant. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

After that, we grew Nadia and Epic, to cater for both types of summer. Recently some cooks developed an interest in Ping Tung Long, so we have been growing that as well as Epic.

Hoophouse Baseboards: wood, steel or recycled plastic?


Our first year shadecloth with ropes to hooks in our cedar baseboards.

This post is not for everyone, but it shows where my head has been this week. Even if you don’t have a hoophouse, or are not even thinking about getting one,you might be interested in recycled plastic decking boards, or buying repurposed material from an “industrial thrift store”!

We made cedar baseboards when we put up our hoophouse 20+ years ago, and they have rotted. We have done partial replacements, including a major one maybe five years ago, but are now considering either plastic decking “lumber” (recycled plastic, with or without any wood filler), or steel.

I did some research: Lewis Jett (WV Extension)

“Baseboards and hip boards add strength to the base of the frame (Figure 8). For most high tunnel frames, 2 inches x 6 inches x 10 feet wood (or recycled plastic) boards are suitable. Pressure-treated wood can be used for both hipboards and baseboards. Each section of baseboard is bolted onto the ground post or secured with a pipe strap. The baseboard and hipboard must be level across the length of the high tunnel. Each joint between sections can be spliced with a small segment of board.” Our hoophouse is 96ft long, so we’d need 192ft plus some way of joining them (metal brackets?)

So, same dimensions, whether wood or plastic. 2” x 6” x 10’. We don’t need “structural grade” lumber (wood or plastic) as the ground-posts provide the strength and are not going to move sideways.

Next, I asked local growers: Do any of you have advice based on experience?

Replies ranged across the spectrum

  1. Sounds like cedar serves well for that. 20 years is a good run for wood. Maybe locust or old chestnut barn boards would serve well, too.
  2. We replaced the rotting wood baseboard with plastic deck “wood” about 5 years ago and haven’t had any problems with it.  Didn’t even think about using steel.   Ignorance is bliss.
  3. When we redo base boards I would like to go with hat channel.  I think sidewalls would air seal better and I’m finding that more important than insulation value. We’ve been putting straw on the tunnel edges for weed control and insulation for the winter.

I replied: We’re not content with living with the state of decline of the wood. Currently we have about 12 ft of the south wall where the plastic and wigglewire channel are not attached to the earth. We have to fix that before the chills of winter get in!


See the ATTRA publication Pressure-Treated Wood: Organic and natural Alternatives 2011. Be aware that many of the alternative lumber treatments described in the ATTRA article are NOT currently allowed for use on organic farms.  Certified farms should consult their Organic certifier.

“Lumber treated with prohibited materials is not allowed under the National Organic Program (NOP) Regulations. The NOP prohibits most but not all synthetics. Lumber is pressure treated to resist insects and fungi, but the materials used are toxic to humans. For posts and lumber that are in contact with soil, crops, or livestock, the options include untreated lumber, alternatively treated lumber, alternative plywood products, and untreated fence posts.

Borates (boric acids and borax) have long been used for alternative wood protection and can be used with all types of lumber, logs, and ply-wood. Borax, a naturally occurring mined material, is allowed for organic production. Borates and boric acid are synthetic substances allowed for use as an insecticide in organic production as what is described in the National List 205.601 as a “structural pest control, [not in] direct contact with organic food or crops.” Borate-treated lumber and borate wood treatments are available commercially.

Borate wood treatments will penetrate to the center of the wood when the wood is dipped, especially when the wood is freshly cut or when seasoned wood is rewetted. Because borates are water soluble; however, they will leach from the wood when in contact with water in the soil, leaving the wood unprotected. This is the reason that borate-treated lumber should be used only in locations that are at least six inches above the ground and protected from excessive rain. Borate-treated wood is not considered suitable for unprotected outdoor use, such as for fence posts or poles, but it is suitable for most building-construction purposes.”

Recycled Plastic Lumber and Plastic/Wood Composite Lumber

(from ATTRA 2011)

“Lumber” made of recycled plastic or composites of plastic and wood can provide durable weather-resistant alternatives to wood for some applications. In organic operations, formed plastic is approved only for use in nonstructural applications because it doesn’t have strength comparable to wood. However, plastic lumber can easily substitute for treated wood in nonstructural applications such as fences, sill plates, and raised beds. The plastics are rot- and corrosion-proof and don’t crack, splinter, or chip. Even in exposed and sub-grade conditions, plastic lumber has a long life expectancy. It will not leach chemicals into the ground, surface water or soil as treated wood can. A challenging aspect of working with plastic lumber is its relatively high likelihood of expanding, which varies for each product and manufacturer and has to be considered during installation. Thermal expansion is the change in dimensions of a material due to temperature changes.

The number of plastic-lumber manufacturers and their variety of products has notably increased recently. Some companies use only High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) plastic, while others use commingled plastic wastes. A few manufacturers even mix plastic with recycled tire rubber. Some plastic lumber will contain wood fiber, which helps strengthen the plastic and reduces expansion.

Plastic lumber is available in many configurations and sizes, including solid- and hollow-core dimensional products and tongue-and-groove designs. The quality and product performance will vary by manufacturer; many manufacturers have independent testing results available.”


The Composite Lumber Manufacturers Association offers publications and links to member companies that manufacture and distribute plastic lumber. See All About Composite Decking. It requires no maintenance, comes in lengths up to 20ft, can be fastened with self-drilling screws, and can be drilled and sawn with power or hand tools used for wood.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board Recycled Plastic Lumber website provides a good introduction to the types and uses of recycled-plastic-lumber products.


Suppliers of plastic lumber

Growers Supply has 2” x 6” x 8’or 12’ recycled plastic boards in black (Expands in heat, don’t buy dark color?). We’d need 16 boards at 12ft long ($1887.20 plus shipping), or 24 at 8ft long ($1894.80 plus shipping). Can get 10% discount. “A 12foot board will shrink .029/inches over a 5 degree drop in temperature. Note your starting point is what temperature the board started at when assembled. Typically use 60 degrees as a baseline. In this case a temperature drop to 0 degrees will net 11/32″ over the 60degree swing. A direct sunlight board will shrink less in a temperature drop and expand more in a temperature increase.”

On decks, the boards are tightly fastened every 16” and can’t go anywhere much sideways.

Home Depot and Lowes only have short pieces.

Plastic Lumber Yard, PA. Can get 5% discount.

Premium Grade is the nicest looking, and best for decking. Structural grade is reinforced with fiberglass, making it stiffer, the best under high traffic. Molded grade is recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE), suitable for landscaping, buildings and near food.

Molded grade 2” x 6” x 12’ $126.23 each. $2,019.68 for us (plus shipping) Available in 8, 10, 12, 14, 16ft lengths and many colors. This grade would work for baseboards.

Their Clearance dept might be useful, as we probably don’t care exactly what color it is, or even if it’s all the same color. Currently they have 2” x 6” x 12’ in white for $76.50 each ($1224 for 192 ft) and a grey board with peg joins 1 7/8’ x 5 7/8” x 12’ for $50 each, but they only have 9 left! 2” x 6” x 8‘ black (severe “dog-bone”, meaning the boards are thinner in the middle than along the edges. (Oops! We all have days like that) for $30.16 each – must buy all 36 pieces. We only need 24. or call (610) 277-3900 for shipping info.

Markstaar 888-846-2693 Offering double discounts right now. Recycled lumber boards.

2” x 6” x 12’ $48.96; 2” x 6” x 8’ $32.64. (24 for $783.36) Black is cheapest.


Metal baseboards

Steel is available as either “hat” profile strips from greenhouse suppliers, or metal joists, 6″ wide, C-cross-section. They look easiest to use, but have zero insulating value.

I’ve found some steel joists on . This is a fun website, saving all sorts of good stuff from going to the landfill.

  1. Hat channel Join by overlapping sections and using self-tapping screws. Tunnel Vision has an installation video on Hat Channel. $54.74 for a 12’3” length 5” wide. 18-gauge steel. ($875.84 plus shipping for 16 lengths) Truck delivery for full-length strips, or they will cut them in half for ground delivery.

Boot Strap Farmer also has a video with hat channel. 6.5’ lengths, $452.99 for a 10-pack. (65’). We’d need three 10-packs, $1358.97 plus shipping. And lots of joins. . .

  1. Square tubing
  2. Steel C-section joists

RepurposedMaterials is a fun website, saving all sorts of good stuff from going to the landfill. I need to compare prices, shipping and practicality. Steel is looking better right now.  has different things at different times, naturally enough.

Structural Steel Stud

$78 for almost 20ft length. 12″ x 2″ 14 gauge C-shape plus curved over edges. We’d need 10 lengths and would spend $780 Plus Shipping

Track square cornered c-shape

$48 for 20ft.  10″ x 1.25″ 18 gauge We’d spend $480 plus shipping from SC

Structural Steel Track

$45. 20′ x 11-1/4″ x 1-1/2″. 18 gauge. Square cornered, no curved in edges. We’d spend $450 plus shipping.

Wood Recycled Plastic Hat Channel Repurposed joist
Price $783.36/


$1887.20/ $2,019.68



$450 /

$480 /



Pluses Recycled,

No maintenance

No maintenance Saving waste

Price is good

Minuses Rots Expands.

Leaches? They say not

Shipping might be high (heavy)




Cover Crops for May: Buckwheat

Buckwheat in flower in September.
Photo Pam Dawling

This is the first of a monthly series on cover crops, which will take us through a whole year, to April 2024.

Why Grow Cover Crops?

<a title=”USDA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons” href=””><img width=”512″ alt=”Soil food webUSDA” src=””></a>

See my post Cover Crops in Summer.

  • Cover crops suppress weeds and provide a boost to soil organic matter.
  • Keep live roots in the ground as much of the time as possible, to feed the microorganisms in the Soil Food Web.
  • Here is a diagram of the Soil Food Web:
  • Roots anchor the soil, preventing erosion in heavy rains.
  • Dead roots also have a role, providing drainage channels in the soil and letting air in deeper.
  • Adding organic matter to the soil is a way of sequestering carbon, as well as providing nutrients for your crops.
  • Deep-rooted cover crops draw up nutrients, bringing them up where crop plants can access them.
  • Leguminous cover crops provide nitrogen, saving imports of organic fertilizers or a big compost-making operation.
  • Too often, gardeners grow cover crop only in the off-season, to protect the soil in winter, and assume it’s not a summer option. But it is, and planting summer cover crops provides many benefits.

Focus Cover Crop for May: Buckwheat

A bed of young buckwheat with a cosmos plant to attract beneficial insects. Photo Pam Dawling

I have a blog post Buckwheat, a wonderful summer cover crop, introducing an article I wrote for Growing for Market magazine. See that post for basic details I mostly won’t repeat here.

Buckwheat (Fagopyron esculentum) is a fast-growing warm-season broadleaf annual that is a very useful cover crop. Its special strengths are in weed-suppression, attracting beneficial insects, improving the soil tilth (aggregate structure) with its fibrous roots, and extracting potassium, calcium and phosphorus from the soil to the benefit of following crops. Buckwheat is almost three times as good as barley in scavenging phosphorus, and more than ten times better than rye (a poor phosphorus scavenger). Because buckwheat is not related to any of the common food crops, it is simple to include in rotations.

Buckwheat can be sown up from your last frost up to 35 days before first fall frost. Buckwheat can close its canopy in just two weeks, preventing the soil baking in summer conditions. Because it matures quickly, and self-sows, it can be used in several successions with tilling between, to suppress some perennial weeds.

Flowering buckwheat in September.
Photo Pam Dawling

Buckwheat can do fairly well on poor soils, is tolerant of a range of soil pH and is an easy crop to deal with manually or with small-scale equipment. Even mature buckwheat plants are easy to deal with using manual or small-scale equipment. You can just pull up the plants by hand, or use a hoe or scythe to slice them off at the soil line. You can chop them into the soil, or gather them up and compost them. Or you can use a no-till method, let the dead plants die into a surface mulch and plant through them.

Buckwheat yields only a couple of tons per acre, but does it in only six to eight weeks. If you want to increase the (admittedly sparse) biomass, cut down buckwheat just before it reaches 25% bloom, to a height above the lowest leaf node. Buckwheat will regrow rapidly and you may even be able to make a second cutting.

Buckwheat also makes good food for poultry or rabbits, and chickens love the seeds. It does not provide good forage for larger livestock.

Beds of young buckwheat.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Barbara Pleasant, in her 2009 article Cover Crops, described Rhizodeposition as a special advantage of using cover crops. Many plants release sugars and other substances through their root hairs into the soil. They are solar-powered pumps, sending energy down into the soil, causing the root tips to host colonies of useful microorganisms. As the roots move deeper, the microbes follow. With vigorous winter cover crop plants, like oats or rye, this process goes on down to 6 feet (much more deeply than you should dig). Buckwheat doesn’t go very deeply at all, but it can be working for you, which is much better than leaving the soil empty and drying out.

Buckwheat in flower in June. Photo Pam Dawling

Buckwheat Resources

Secondary Cover Crops for May

Soy, mustard, sunn hemp, southern peas are all also good summer cover crops, and I will say more about them in the next few months. See Cover Crops in Summer.

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

Sunn hemp, a nitrogen-fixing legume from the tropics, can grow as tall as 9’ (2.7 m) in a few months. Sow sunn hemp from a week after your sweet corn sowing date, up to 9 weeks before your first fall frost, which will kill it. It tolerates a wide range of soils (but not if waterlogged). Plant inoculated seed (use the same inoculant as for southern peas) 1” (2.5 cm) deep, with seeds 1.5” (4 cm) apart in the row, and with rows 6” (15 cm) apart. Sowing densely (as with all cover crops) will work better to smother the weeds.

If you sow sunn hemp in a summer gap between spring and fall vegetable crops, it will provide a nitrogen boost for the fall crop, because it is a legume. In dense plantings, it can fix more than 120 lbs (54 kg) of nitrogen and 12 pounds of biomass per 100 sq ft (0.56 kg/sq m). 60 days after sowing, the stems thicken and become fibrous and high in cellulose; cutting at this stage produces long-lasting mulches that increase soil carbon. If you cut the crop back at a younger stage, this will stimulate branching (more biomass) and more root penetration (better drainage).

Sunn hemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC
Photo Pam Dawling

We have taken to sowing sunn hemp as a summer cover crop in our hoophouse, and lopping it periodically with hedge shears to an ergonomic elbow height. This is because we don’t want it to shade crop plants further back (north). The fallen tops make a nice “forest floor” carbonaceous mulch.

Mustard we don’t grow as cover crops, although I do have experience of growing it in England, where it is one of the favorite cover crops for short crop gaps, or in preparing areas reclaimed from pasture or lawn. We have too many harlequin bugs, and we hope to break their lifecycle by having a summer month without any visible brassicas. (We do often have fall brassica seedlings growing under insect netting.) Also, our “crop portfolio” has plenty of brassicas already, and we’d rather have a better rotation, with brassicas less often.

Mustards can decrease weeds, or certain pest nematodes, if you grow the right kind.

Soybeans as a cover crop

Soybeans are a great summer cover crop and they are also a legume, so they add nitrogen to the soil. They have good shade tolerance and tolerance to foot traffic (that is, people harvesting crops on either side. Because of this, we like using soy to undersow in sweet corn.

Southern peas are another warm weather cover crop option. They are also a legume, and so will add nitrogen to the soil. Iron and Clay is the sprawl variety best known for cover crop use, but other varieties also work.

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

Cover Crop Planning

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and 9 pages of charts about particular options.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book for $19 or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

See Harvey Ussery  Four Outstanding Cover Crops for Summer.

Gathered Info on Weeds

Spiny amaranth – a weed to exterminate by careful pulling.
Photo Pam Dawling

Following on from my recent seasonal posts on How to succeed with transplanting crops and Direct sown vegetable crops, I reckon people are now thinking about weeds.

Below is material excerpted from the Sustainable Weed Management chapter in my book Sustainable Market Farming, which was also published in Growing for Market as New Ways to Think About Weeds, back in 2011.

Do you need a justification for having some weeds visible among your crops? Do you crave a system to help you get a grip on your to-do list, so you’re not overwhelmed? Sustainable (or Ecological) Weed Management does all this! In the earlier days of organic farming, maximum use was made of frequent cultivation to kill weeds. Now we know that too-frequent cultivation can cause soil erosion, and that each tilling or deep hoeing stirs air into the soil and speeds combustion of organic matter. The practice of sustainable weed management is about effectiveness – including removing weeds at their most vulnerable stage, or at the last minute before the seed pods explode – and ignoring weeds while they are doing little damage. Work smarter, not harder!

Strawberries need a lot of weeding if grown on bare soil.
Photo Twin Oaks Community (Renee)

A Holistic Approach to Organic Weed Management

As always, strive to restore and maintain balance in the ecosystem. Develop strategies for preventing weeds and for controlling the ones that pop up anyway. An obvious way to prevent weeds is to avoid adding new kinds to any part of your fields. Remove the hitch-hikers from your socks out on the driveway, not when you notice them as you squat to transplant onions! We use our driveway as a convenient place to “roadkill” particularly bad weeds by letting them die in the sun. Beware of Trojan plant swaps (nice plants in soil concealing nasty weed seeds)!

Weeds are not a monolithic enemy, but a diverse cast of characters. Applying biological principles is not an attitude of war, but more like ju-jitsu, using the weaknesses of the weeds to contribute to their downfall. This chapter aims to develop our understanding of weeds and the different types: annuals and perennials; stationary perennials and invasive perennials; cool weather and warm weather types; quick-maturing and slow-maturing types; and what Chuck Mohler (Manage Weeds on Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies) refers to as “Big Bang” types versus “Dribblers”.

One factor to consider is how vulnerable the crop is to damage from that weed at that time. Weeds that germinate at the same time as a vegetable crop usually do not really affect the crop’s growth until they become large enough to compete for moisture and nutrients. If allowed to grow unchecked, however, these early weeds have the greatest potential for reducing crop yields. We need to cultivate or otherwise control weeds before this 2-3 week grace period is over.

The critical period for weed control for the crop is the interval from the end of the initial grace period until the end of the minimum weed-free period, which is approximately the first third to one half of the crop’s life. In other words, the most important time to weed a crop is from 2 weeks after sowing until the crop is half-way to being finished. For vigorous crops like tomato, squash and transplanted brassicas this is four to six weeks; less vigorous crops like onion or carrot need weed-free conditions for eight weeks or more. During that time it is essential to control weeds to prevent loss of yield.

A carpet of weeds, but the crop is easily seen! A good time to hoe!
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Weeds that emerge later have less effect, and ones that emerge quite late in the crop cycle no longer affect the yield of that crop, although their seeds give a reason for removing them to improve future crops.

Know Your Weeds

Learn to identify the major weeds on your farm, and any minor ones that suggest trouble later. Observe and research. Start a Weed Log with a page for each weed. Add information about your quarry’s likes and dislikes, habits and possible weak spots. Find out how long the seeds can remain viable under various conditions, and whether there are any dormancy requirements. Note when it emerges, how soon it forms viable seed (if an annual), when the roots are easiest and hardest to remove from the soil (if a perennial), what time of year it predominates, which plots and which crops have the worst trouble with this weed. Monitor regularly throughout the year, each year. Look back over your records and see if anything you did or didn’t do seems to have made the problem worse or better.

Next think about any vulnerable points in the weed’s growth habit, life cycle, or responses to crops or weather that could provide opportunities for prevention or control. List some promising management options. Try them, record your results, decide what to continue or what to try next.

Most weeds respond well to nutrients, especially nitrogen. If you give corn too much nitrogen, even as compost, the corn productivity will max out and the weeds will use the remaining nutrients. Sun-loving weeds like purslane are more likely to thrive among crops (like carrots and onions) which never cast much shade at any point of their growth. They won’t be a problem for crops that rapidly form canopies that shade the ground.

Galinsoga – a fast growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil.
Photo Wren Vile

A few weeds, such as giant ragweed, emerge only during a 3-week interval, while others, such as pigweed and velvetleaf, can germinate during a two-month period, if temperatures are warm enough. Galinsoga seeds are short-lived and germinate only near the soil surface, but velvetleaf seeds can lie dormant for years deep in the subsoil, and germinate whenever they get brought close to the surface. Clearly, different strategies work best with different weeds.

Red Root Pigweed is a “Big Bang” weed – the plant grows for a long time, and then all its seeds ripen at once, as the plant starts dying. Most seeds come from a few large plants – pigweed-monsters that mature late in summer can shed 400,000 seeds! Pulling the largest 10% of the weeds can reduce seed production by 90% or better. We used to ignore pigweed growing in our sweetcorn, once it escaped two cultivations, believing anything that big must already have done damage. Now we pull while harvesting. Some pigweeds are as tall as the corn, but most don’t have mature seed heads. Since starting this a few years ago, we have noticed a considerable drop-off in the number of pigweeds we have to deal with. This is different from the “Seed Dribblers” like galinsoga, which mature seed while still quite small plants, shed some, make some more, and can carry on for a long seed-shedding season.

Silver Queen sweet corn with wilting pulled pigweed amaranth. Corn is a C4 crop, amarnath (pigweed) a C4 weed. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Another useful piece of information is that a constant percentage of the seeds left from one year’s shedding dies each year. For lambsquarters in cultivated soil it’s 31% per year (only 8% in uncultivated soil). The number of seeds declines rapidly at first, but a few seeds persist for a long time. The percentage varies widely among species.

While seeds survive better deeper in the soil, they don’t germinate better down there. Larger seeds can germinate at deeper levels than small seeds. If you are trying to bury seeds deep, use inversion tillage; don’t rely on rototilling, as seeds somehow manage to stay near the surface with rotary tilling. Chuck Mohler has verified this with colored beads.

Most of the weeds in cultivated soils are annuals, but some of the worst ones are perennials, either stationary (tap-rooted) perennials like docks and dandelions, or wandering/invasive perennials with tubers, rhizomes or bulbs (Bermuda grass, quackgrass). Stationary perennials in their first year act like biennials – leaves, roots, but no flowers or seeds. In annually tilled areas, they get killed in year one and don’t often establish. Wandering perennials are a more difficult problem, and understanding apical dominance is important in tackling them – see Reducing the Strength of Perennial Weed Roots and Rhizomes in the book’s chapter.

Burdock is a large perennial weed with a huge root. Photo Bridget Aleshire

The chapter also includes information on Prevention of Weed Germination, Reduction of Weed Seeding, Reduction of Viability of Seeds, Reducing the Strength of Perennial Weed Roots and Rhizomes, and Two Examples (galinsoga and nut sedge).

Knowing and understanding the particular weeds that are giving you the worst problems enables you to design an approach that includes removing weeds at the most important point in their life-cycle, before they do their worst damage. While focusing on that you can relax and ignore weeds that are not doing much harm.


I have written here on my website about weeds previously. See my blog posts

Resources on Sustainable Weed Management

Book Review Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Cover of Plant Science for Gardeners

Plant Science for Gardeners: Essentials for Growing Better Plants, Robert Pavlis, New Society Publishers, June 2022. 224 pages, 6” x 9”, photos, drawings, diagrams. $22.99.

This is a valuable, concise, accessible book for home gardeners, homesteaders, market gardeners, small-scale and large-scale crop farmers. As I noted about Robert Pavlis’s first book in this series: Soil Science: “I recommend this book to all gardeners who have hesitated to open a soil science text for fear of dry, incomprehensible overloads of numbers.” The same is true of Plant Science. Robert Pavlis is a very good science writer. He disentangles false myths from facts, and teaches us how to make science-based decisions and grow healthier, more productive plants. I reviewed Soil Science for Gardeners, in 2020. As well Plant Science, he has a newer book: Compost Science for Gardeners, and coming soon, Microbe Science for Gardeners.

By understanding the science, we will better able to base our decisions on actual conditions, even as those conditions change in the climate chaos we are now dealing with. Our one-time rule “plant garlic in the third week of October” has gone by the wayside as the soil stays warmer later. We now plant garlic around the end of the first week of November. The author has a blog, called, that has had over 14 million visitors and discusses hundreds of garden myths.

After introducing Plant Basics, we get a tour of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds, and then the whole plant. Woody plants have their own chapter, as do environmental factors, selecting seeds, vegetative reproduction, and plant names. Each chapter includes sidebars exploding common gardening myths (six in the roots chapter!) and tips for assessing plant problems and finding solutions.

After absorbing this book, you will avoid wasting money on faddish garden products and techniques. You can marvel at the information that plant roots excrete chemicals to attract beneficial microbes which then ward off root pathogens.

You can fill any gaps in your knowledge of the xylem and phloem systems for transporting water and nutrients around the plant; and what actually happens during photosynthesis, when the energy of light converts carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen. When the sun goes down, photosynthesis stops, but roots continue to absorb water and nutrients, and the plant continues to grow and form flowers and leaves.

The awe-inspiring photo of root hairs makes it obvious that they increase the surface area of the roots by an order of magnitude. In this chapter you can also learn to distinguish between fibrous roots (lettuce), taproots (carrots), tuberous roots (sweet potatoes) and adventitious roots (growing out of the stem or leaves, such as on tomatoes).

Roots need a pH between 5.5 and 7.0; temperature between 40°F (4°C) and 90°F (32°C); easy access to nutrients, provided the levels do not become toxic; sufficient air and water.

Learn the real truth about soil mycorrhizal fungi – buying them is a waste of money! Learn about nitrogen-fixing bacteria (both free-living, and symbiotic bacteria in nodules on roots of legumes and certain other plants). The bacteria do not provide “free” nitrogen, but exchange it for photosynthetic compounds made by the plants. Annual plants excrete 40% of their photosynthates and other plants typically provide around 30%. Some of these exudates attract mycorrhizal fungi.

Some plants excrete 50% of the fixed carbon from photosynthesis through their roots into the soil, where microbes feed on them and die, after producing more microbes. The dead microbes provide lots of nutrients in the “soup” around the roots. Some of these nutrients can boost plant growth; some attract nitrogen-fixing bacteria; some inhibit the development of pest nematodes. Plants attract and herd the right microbe food sources towards their roots; they also change the pH around the roots, making insoluble minerals more available. They produce fewer sugars when they no longer need as many microbes. This is amazing plant chemistry in action. It is not a sign that plants are “intelligent” in our usual meaning of the word.

The chapter on stems will help you distinguish herbaceous and woody stems; vascular bundles of phloem and xylem; nodes and internodes; trichomes (stem hairs, scales or spines); terminal and lateral buds.

Rhizomes are not roots, but fleshy, modified stems growing laterally in the soil. Terminal buds develop along the rhizomes at the nodes, and then shoot upwards. When a rhizome is broken up, each piece can become an independent plant. Stolons (runners) are also a type of modified stem, growing horizontally on the soil surface, rather than underground. The baby plants are clones of the mother plant and can be separated to replant elsewhere.

Strawberry plants in their second year. Runners from mother plants create new baby plants. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Vines may curl clockwise or counter-clockwise, despite myths that abound. 90% of vines curl anti-clockwise as viewed from above. Cucumbers can curl either way. Pole beans and runner beans both curl counterclockwise. If you are giving your beans a helping hand, and you are right-handed, you may need to work against your instinct to twine them clockwise.

Leaves have upper and lower epidermis layers, sandwiching the mesophyll and the veins. The epidermis of some plants has extensions such as hairs, that secrete sticky, bad-tasting or smelly substances that can provide a defense against insects and other animals. The mesophyll is where photosynthesis happens. The surfaces of a leaf (especially the lower side) have fairly large openings called stomata. These control the water and air passing out, in response either to the internal state of the cells, or the dryness of the soil.

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

If you are spraying soft-bodied insect pests on your plants, the reason to use insecticidal soap made from potassium salts, rather than detergents like dish “soap” or bar soap (made from sodium salts) is to protect the waxy cuticle on the leaves. Sodium salt soaps and detergents can strip off all the wax coating, leaving the plant more vulnerable to insects.

Hardening off transplants for a couple of weeks before setting them out in the garden gradually acclimates the indoor-grown plants to brighter, windier, hotter or colder outdoor conditions. The leaf cuticle can grow thicker, the stomata smaller or fewer, the plant can grow smaller, tougher leaves. Read this chapter to learn why purple- and red-leaved plants grow slower, and why brassicas can show purple leaf coloration in cold and dry conditions (phosphorus isn’t moving fast enough).

The chapter on flowers provides an introduction to botany for those who have not met the information before, and a refresher to those who have. It includes information about night-length sensitivity (often called day-length sensitivity, although it is the length of the dark period that acts as the trigger to flowering), along with vernalization (a cold period preceding the night-length of the right duration.) In specific situations and climates, flowering may be triggered by strong far-red light, heavy rainfall, or sunlight intensity.

Outdoor lighting in your garden can interfere with blooming triggers. Red light is the most critical. If you have outdoor lights, it’s best to turn them off when you go indoors at night, to enable plants to get enough darkness.

Plants will not have more blooms if you give them extra phosphorus! “All parts of the plant need all the nutrients. An excess of one nutrient, like phosphate, does not make the plant grow better, nor does it cause a plant to bloom more. Don’t waste your money on bloom booster type products”

This chapter is mostly about plants grown for their flowers, rather than as vegetables. As a vegetable grower with a bit of a background in botany, I skimmed this chapter. Many vegetable growers also grow fruit trees or cut flowers, and this book covers all the basics.

The next chapter is about fruit. Fruit protects the developing seed, provides suitable humidity for the seeds, and sometimes provides nutrients for the seeds too. If the taste of the fruit attracts animals to eat the fruit, the seeds might then get dispersed further afield than if the fruit simply dropped near the tree.

Tomato sideshoot – pinch them out or leave them to grow? Photo Wren Vile

Should you sucker tomatoes? See the YouTube video: Suckering is a type of pruning, where side-shoots are pinched out while small. Some gardeners never sucker tomatoes, and deal with the ensuing mass of greenery and fruit. Some prune hard, especially for greenhouse tomatoes, leaving only one main stem. Others take a middle road, and let two or three main stems grow. The author has compiled a table, comparing three degrees of suckering (none, plants sprawled; none, plants in cages; single stem, all suckers removed). What are your tomato-growing goals? Hard suckering reduces the number of potential fruits on each plant, allowing you to plant closer together, increasing your total yield. Suckering also produces an earlier crop, as does any kind of staking, compared to sprawling your tomatoes on the ground. Suckering achieves earliest fruit, tidiness, large fruit, least chance of pests and diseases. These benefits come with the costs of much extra time on maintenance, medium numbers of fruit and lower yield.

The next chapter puts all the plant parts together and looks at the whole plant. While there are features common to all parts of all plants, there are also differences. The author divides plants into four types: annuals, biennials, trees and shrubs. Another difference explained in this chapter is that between determinate and indeterminate growth patterns. Some plants stop growing at some point. Determinate plants grow to a genetically pre-programmed size, then stop getting bigger. Most deciduous trees are determinate – each species has a maximum height.

Indeterminate plants are not genetically limited in size. They may be environmentally limited: tomato plants die with the frost. Some indeterminate plants (some evergreen trees) do continue growing, but the rate of growth slows to perhaps ¼” (6 mm) per year, an amount you might not notice. Determinate vegetable types (of peas, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes) are often called “bush types.” Despite labels, there are not determinate and indeterminate types of potatoes. This is a myth that I fell for. All potatoes are determinate. Some are faster-maturing than others.

Early September photo of hay mulched June-planted potatoes. They’re all determinates!
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Some plants go “dormant,” meaning there is no visible activity above ground. They are not truly dormant, as the roots are still active. Fertilize plants when they are actively growing, not when they appear to be dormant. You can’t usually “wake them up”, although you can overcome summer dormancy of grasses to some extent by watering a lot. After the summer solstice, the increasing night length signals deciduous shrubs to start the complex process of shedding leaves and going dormant.

The cycles of water in a plant are fascinating, and well-described. Water travels from the roots up the xylem channels to the leaves. As the leaves transpire (give off water), a suction force pulls water molecules upwards. The surface tension of the water, caused by the shape of the molecules, causes them to stick to each other as chains of magnets do. Once water leaves the xylem, it moves from a place of high water concentration to a place of lower water content, in a process called osmosis. Water flows towards cells that have less water.

A third water movement process is called guttation. You’ve probably seen it as beads of water hanging on the edges of leaves, in times of high humidity, such as early morning. The roots have absorbed too much water and sent it upwards to leaves that cannot hold any more, and cannot transpire water while the humidity is so high.

Nutrients also move through the xylem from the roots to the rest of the plant. Once at their destination, small, mobile nutrients such as ammonium, potassium, phosphate, and magnesium ions, can move through the phloem cells to other parts of the plant.  Larger molecules, like calcium, iron, manganese, zinc, boron, sulfur, and copper ions, are immobile, showing as color changes in older leaves. Mobile nutrients move out of the leaves in the fall, causing the color changes we see. Plant biology is complicated and there is no simple way to determine which nutrients are deficient in your soil, by looking at the leaves. This is another myth I had bought into, but found surprisingly hard to make use of! One fact is that deficiencies of mobile nutrients show up in the older leaves first, then move to the younger leaves. Deficiencies of immobile nutrients show up in the new growth.

Foliar feeding is widely misunderstood. Nutrients absorbed from foliar sprays enter not via the stomata, but through the transcuticular pores. Heard of those? These are small holes admitting small molecules only, in small quantities. Only 15-20% of nutrients applied to leaves actually get absorbed. Roots are much better at absorbing the large quantities of nutrients plants require.  Save money and get better results, by fertilizing the roots!

Sunflowers turn to face the sun.
Photo Pam Dawling

This book provides explanations of how plants respond to damaged leaves and roots; grow taller; turn to follow the sun (until the seeds are set); and respond to gravity, growing into the typical shape for that plant. When light levels drop (as fall arrives, or after transplanting in shade), plants focus on the more essential root and leaf development, and stop making flowers. Nothing compensates for a shortage of light.

Perennial woody plants are the focus of the next chapter. Many perennial herbs like sage, thyme and lavender are sometimes simply called perennials, masking the secret of good care for them: prune them as shrubs. Learn about the structure of woody stems, the existence of lenticels (openings in the bark) and the differences between softwood and hardwood cuttings. Most trees do not need staking after planting, instructs Robert Pavlis, as he explodes a few more myths. Here are directions for removal of tree branches for best recovery. It doesn’t involve any paint.

Apical dominance is explained, along with a photo of a fruit tree trained flat on a wall, an effect created by managing apical dominance – bending down leaders where you want to create a new branch. Positioning the apical bud lower than the other buds lets the next one back grow out.

Environmental factors are discussed next, including how plants adapt to environmental changes. US winter-hardiness climate zones are explained, along with the limitations of this classification. Dave’s Garden ( is recommended as a reliable site for its classifications of hardiness of various plants. Read about how plants cope with the cold. Soil temperature can make a lot of difference to plant survival. Hence the usefulness of organic mulches (including snow), and of hoophouses. Sugars, fats, proteins and minerals in the cells act as antifreeze and prevent the cell liquids freezing until the air temperature is colder than a mere frost. Buy hardy plants, hardy varieties, give them enough water.

Plants actually have more difficulty acclimating to heat than to cold. Water loss, lower photosynthesis and respiration rates all take a toll. The author explains that plants, animals (including people, I assume), and microorganisms, produce proteins called heat shock proteins, that act as a protective coating around enzymes and nucleic acids. Leaf rolling minimizes exposure to the sun. Hairs on leaves provide some shade (every bit helps!).

Young sweet corn with a sprinkler for overhead watering.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

For new gardeners, figuring out when the soil has dried enough to require watering is one of the hardest things to learn. Push your finger into the soil, and if the soil feels dry, water. Not otherwise. When you do water, water deeply. Shallow watering produces only shallow roots, leaving deeper roots to die. Shallow roots are not drought-resistant.

Climate change is more than warmer average temperatures. It includes increased frequency and severity of droughts, heavy precipitation, strong winds. Plant a diversity of crops, and watch how they do. Consider plants that grow on riverbanks, those that grow in dry places, sites with high elevation and harsh conditions.

Chapter 10 is a guide to understanding and starting seeds. Some seeds are “recalcitrant” (slow to sprout). Once fully mature, some seed can remain dormant for a very long time. Some requires light to break dormancy; some a particular ratio of one plant hormone to another; some need the seed coating to be degraded before germination can happen (walnut trees are a good example); some need fire or a hot temperature (redbud trees). Most vegetables (and 80% of all seeds) are “orthodox” sprouters, and can be stored for that year’s use in paper packets at room temperature. For use in future years, make sure they are mature and dry, then store in an air-tight container under refrigeration. Recalcitrant seeds need different conditions – read the book.

Tomato transplants in pots, ready to plant out in mild weather.
Photo Wren Vile

For starting seeds there are links to a series of five videos covering pots, damp paper towels, and special outdoor winter-sowing methods. In this chapter are pros and cons for each, and tips on which method is best for different situations.

Chapter 11 includes information on plant genetics, heirlooms, hybrids, and GMO seeds. Unlike me, the author considers GMO seeds a safe way to produce food. Be reassured that GMO vegetable seeds are not available to home gardeners, being sold only in large quantities and requiring the purchaser to sign a contract. White Russet potatoes, and very small amounts of summer squash and zucchini may have reached retail sales. (

See also

Chapter 12 covers vegetative reproduction, which is energetically less demanding on the plant than producing flowers and seeds. The downside is that all plants produced vegetatively are genetically identical. When stolons or rhizomes break, the fragments can grow as separate plants. Bulblets, bulbils, cormels are forms of baby bulbs or corms that can grow into new plants. Gardeners use vegetative methods to increase the numbers of plants for the next season. Layering, stem and root cuttings, leaf cuttings, root division – you can learn these from this book. Be skeptical of homemade “rooting hormones”. Willow water does contain low levels of rooting hormones; small amounts of aspirin, cinnamon, peroxide, may help control fungal or other infections or help root hairs grow. None of aloe vera juice, vitamin C, apple cider vinegar has any scientific evidence whatsoever, so don’t waste your time on these.

Chapter 13 is on plant names, and explains the conventions used when providing Latin botanical names. Conventions for naming hybrids are explained. The distinction between cultivar and variety is made clear. Varieties are naturally occurring in the wild. Cultivars are human-bred, including both hybrids and established open pollinated types. If you develop your own strain, you should give it a unique cultivar name. Don’t reuse a name already in existences, as this is inaccurate and leads to confusion.

How to succeed with transplanting crops

Young senposai transplant.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote very recently about Direct Sown Vegetable Crops

There I referred to my Nov 2021 post, Preparing for Spring Transplants  (handle replacements, seed compost, aphids, soil blocks, Winstrip trays).

I have written previously about the Advantages and Disadvantages of Direct sowing and Transplanting and also about  using Bare Root Transplants.

Here I am going to give many tips for success with transplants.

Succeeding with transplanted crops

Tomato transplants in pots, ready to plant out in mild weather. These are for our hoophouse. Outdoor tomatoes are started here in March.
Photo Wren Vile
  1. Grow good transplants: sturdy, not spindly; good size cells or good depth flats; grow enough plus 20% (less for kale, more for melons)
  2. Harden off for two weeks before transplanting: cold frame. Cooler temperatures, more breeze, brighter light.
Flats of transplants in our cold frame ready for transplanting.
Pam Dawling

3. Prepare the bed or row: detach all weeds (hoe). Loosen the soil (till or broadfork as needed).

4. Stale seed bed technique: water, hoe off the new weeds. Hoe the day before transplanting (easier to hoe soil without crop plants to work around). Or tarp to smother weeds. Or use an organic mulch to smother weeds, once the soil is warm enough for that crop.

5. Mark the row spacing with a row marker rake, or lines in the soil with the corner of a hoe, or stakes and string. Don’t plant too close to the bed edge, or navigating the path becomes tricky (and wet in the morning dew). To plant two rows of broccoli or chard in a 4 ft (1.2m) bed, I’d set the two rows 16-18” (41-46 cm) apart, with 16-15” (41-38 cm) between the row and the bed edge.

Johnny’s Bed Prep rake with row marker pegs.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

6. Water your transplants well on the day before transplanting.

7. Check you still have enough plants for the desired spacing. This is your last chance to make the space between one plant and another bigger (if you have fewer plants now), or smaller (to fit in some extras, perhaps sacrificing the size of each head).

8. Either mark the spacing now, with a rolling dibble or using a measuring stick, or mark them as you go along transplanting. I prefer to offset the rows, so they are in a zigzag from each other, rather than have them square set, where the plants are directly opposite those in the next row. The offset method gives each plant the most even space all round before it encounters roots or leaves of its neighbor.

A bed of young transplanted lettuce, with plants in each row offset from neighboring rows. the plants form diagonal rows, easy for hoeing.
Credit Wren Vile

9. Plan to transplant late in the day, unless it is cool and overcast, or drizzling (“ideal transplanting weather”. The plants then have the cooler night to recover from the surprise of transplanting before facing hot or bright sunshine. It really makes a difference! You can get everything ready earlier in the day: shade cloth or rowcover and weights to hold it down, wire hoops if needed, watering equipment (cans or hose), labels, tools.

10. Water thoroughly again one hour before transplanting. This ensures the plant cells are holding as much water as they can before their roots or root hairs get a bit damaged during transplanting.

Transplanting spinach from a Speedling flat. Butter knives are the tool of choice for easing the little wedges out of the tapered cells.
Photo Denny Ray McElya

11. Pop a transplant out of its cell, holding it by a leaf if possible, not the stem (there are spare leaves, but no spare stems, and you want to preserve all the roots too). Develop a good technique in order to preserve the life of plastic cell packs. Perhaps tilt the cell pack diagonally and squeeze the bottom of a cell, pushing the plug upwards. Perhaps use a butter knife to slide down the side of a cell and flip the transplant upwards while holding the plant with your other hand. Some plug flats have holes in the bottoms of the cells, where you can push up with a finger or a dowel. All the soil/compost in the cell should come out with the plant. You are definitely not “digging” the plants out of the cells.

Transplanting bare-root spinach.
Drawing by Jessie Doyle

12. Or scoop a plant out of an open flat with a good handful of compost, keeping your hand under the root-ball. This gets easier once the first plant has been extricated.

13. Make a big-enough hole in the soil where you want to plant, without actually digging out any soil. It’s a waste of time to make a pile of soil. Try instead to insert the trowel to the correct depth and wiggle it back and forth to open up a slot. I like the Wilcox stainless steel trowels rather than the “traditional” wide scoop-shaped trowels for transplanting. We have Wilcox 102 and 104 models, and the smaller 50S.

Wilcox 12″ (30cm) 102 stainless steel trowel.

14. Slide the plant into the hole, keeping a hold with one hand, so you can set the plant at the correct depth. Use the trowel in the other hand to push or pull soil back into the hole until it is filled.

15. Press the soil down around the stem quite firmly. You don’t want compressed soil that won’t drain well, nor do you want loose soil with lots of air pockets, as these prevent roots from drawing water from the soil. Good root contact with soil is important. I was taught to take the end of a leaf after transplanting and tug gently. If the leaf tears, you have planted firmly enough. If the plant pulls out of the ground, try again.

16. For a long, satisfying gardening life, develop a technique where you don’t set the trowel down. Just keep it in one hand and do the other tasks with your other hand. This will be more efficient. Gardeners with only one working hand will have to ignore this piece of advice, of course.

17. If you have not pre-marked your planting spots, measure to the next spot. You only need to measure one row in the bed, as it works better to eyeball the other rows.

18. Continue until you have been transplanting for 20 minutes, or 30 minutes in cooler overcast conditions, then pause and water in what you have planted.

19. Some people prefer to have a watering can beside them and water each plant immediately after planting. If conditions are very hot, this is definitely best. Otherwise, I make faster progress in 20-30 minute sections. Another alternative is to use a hose with a valve on the end. The goal is 6-12 seconds of water per plant, depending how free draining your soil is and how fast the water is flowing.

Spring cabbage planted in hay mulch, a few weeks after transplanting.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

20. Remember, with transplanting, you have the opportunity to select the sturdiest plants and leave the wimps in their cell or a corner of an open flat, for replacing casualties in a week. Really poor specimens can be thrown over your shoulder!

21. When you finish planting, install any hoops, shadecloth or rowcover and weights.

22. Water the plants well the following day (day 2), and again on days 3,5,7, and 10, if it doesn’t rain well.

23. After that give an inch of water a week, if nature doesn’t. To determine your watering rate, set a vertical-sided empty tuna can or other shallow container in the row while you water (or while it rains).

One of our impact sprinkler tripods, in a broccoli patch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Also see Spring broccoli planting and here.

We aim to plant out our broccoli in the first two weeks ofApril. We may have delays due to wet soil. When we plant late (and big), we sometimes struggle to keep them thriving if the weather is hot. The we have to water a lot, even though the soil was still saturated from the heavy rains.

In those posts you can read about how we mulch our spring broccoli and cabbage planted in temporary raised beds, 4ft (1.2m) wide with one foot (30 cm) paths. We unroll big round bales of spoiled hay over the beds and the paths too. We make two rows of “nests” in each bed, using a measuring stick to get the right spacing. We use our hands to tease the hay apart down to soil level. Then we transplant, water in and close the hay over the soil around the stem of the plant. We cover with rowcover to protect from cold nights, bugs and stiff breezes. We use sticks to hold the rowcover down, rolling the edges under rather than over, which helps them stay in place and not tangle with hoses or feet.

Not much to see – spring broccoli under rowcover.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Not much to see – spring broccoli under rowcover.
Photo Kathryn Simmons


Fruit for the Month: April, and all-year summary

Reliable rhubarb, the earliest fruit. Photo Bridget Aleshire

This is the last of my monthly series about small fruits that grow in the Mid-Atlantic and other places with a similar climate. Here are links to each of the other posts:

March: Rhubarb

February: Blueberries

January: Grapes

December: Quince

November: Persimmons

October: Fall Raspberries

September: Watermelons

August: Grapes

July: Melons

June: Blueberries

May: Strawberries

The focus fruit for April is still rhubarb, as it was in March

The book, Rhubarbaria by Mary Prior.

I have just learned about a fascinating book, Rhubarbaria, by Mary Prior, published in the UK by Prospect Books 2009. (The book is available in the US, both new and used.)

This is the first British book devoted to rhubarb recipes through the ages, from around the world, as well as rhubarb history. Rhubarb was first grown in Mongolia, Siberia and the Himalayan foothills, for the medicinal uses of the root. Gerald’s Herbal of 1597 says that the dried root was imported to Britain for use as a blood purifier. Early culinary uses are as likely to be with fish or meat, as they are for desserts. See March’s recipe idea which combines roasted rhubarb with grilled mackerel.

As a dessert item, rhubarb became a familiar staple after the enslavement of people in the Caribbean on sugar plantations led to cheap sugar, from around 1840. The common or slang name for rhubarb in the US, is pie plant (Merriam-Webster dates this name from 1838). In England, the Victorian royal chef Charles Francatelli, included rhubarb pie in his Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852)

A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes

Rhubarb is slug-proof, and resistant to both drought and flooding.

Other small fruits still available in April

Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears are all we are likely to have, apart from buying imports. Remember that vegetables are at least as nutritious as fruit, but simply have fewer sugars. The vitamin C content of green leafy vegetables is as high as oranges.

Other fruit care in April in the mid-Atlantic

Weed and mow aisles between fruit bushes as needed. Provide 1” (2.5cm) of water each week if nature doesn’t. Finish pruning any fruit bushes and canes you haven’t yet dealt with.

If you plant strawberries in spring, you need to pinch off the flowers the first year, to strengthen the plants for a good yield in year two.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Pinch flowers off any new spring-planted strawberries. (If you planted in the fall, your plants should have big enough roots to support a harvest without stunting the plants for the second year.) Cover strawberries if frost threatens after flowering has started.

We used to have a coordinated plan of rowcover use that minimized rolling up and storing rowcovers, only to need them again soon after. We would move the rowcovers and sticks from overwintered or spring planted spinach directly to the strawberry beds before flowering. By that point, the cold-hardy spinach was better off without rowcover. We would already have moved rowcover from turnips, senposai, and early cabbage as needed for broccoli, until the end of April, when the broccoli would have hardened off and benefit more from ambient temperatures. By that point, the watermelons needed rowcover. In mid-April we would take rowcover from kale, collards, and early lettuce for the frost-tender crops.

Two rows of floricane raspberries with a willow and grapes in the background. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Thin raspberries to six canes per foot (30 cm) of row. For beds wider than 1 row, thin to 2” (5 cm) apart.

If you care about large grapes, it is time to thin the fruitlets in the bunches, we grow mostly Concord types, which make delicious juice (especially after storing a few months to mature). We don’t thin at all.

Special Topic for April: Books about Fruits

See my book reviews of

Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts by Levy and Serrano

Farming on the Wild Side, The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery, Nancy and John Hayden

The Berry Grower, by Blake Cothron

Pawpaws, The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide by Blake Cothron

For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd

If you have a suggestion for the topic for the upcoming annual monthly series on a type of food crop, please leave a comment.

Direct-sown vegetable crops


Young rows of September-sown Eat-All Greens in early October. Direct sown in September. Photo Bridget Aleshire

I wrote a post recently that discussed transplanting, mainly as a way to get earlier crops in spring. Now I’m going to write about direct-sowing. This is the word for putting the seeds directly into the ground outdoors.

As with transplanting, some crops are just not going to thrive if you start too soon: cucumbers, peppers, and even tomatoes, for example. Make sure you can provide conditions that meet the minimum temperature requirements for these tender crops. See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for the details, and The Year-Round Hoophouse for a chart of germination temperatures, telling you how many days each crop will take to emerge at various temperatures. Buy a soil thermometer and push the stem all the way into the soil to measure at a depth of 4” (10 cm) I find it helpful to push the thermometer stem through a larger colorful plastic lid, or stake flag. And install it somewhere safe, where it won’t get stepped on, mowed, or tilled up.

Soil thermometer with colorful background to help us keep it safe,
Pam Dawling

March conditions have become more unreliable, often colder. For example, if the soil at 4” (10cm) deep is 40F (4.4C), you might do better to wait if your chosen crop will take more than 21 days. In cold wet soils, seeds can rot rather than sprout. Write down your sowing date and check the soil for emergence. If nothing has come up when it should have, consider resowing. You could rake or till the whole row or bed and start over, or you could hedge your bets and sow new rows in between the original rows. This might mean ending up with fewer rows, or rows closer to the bed edge than you like, but you will be salvaging an unfortunate situation, so it will be better than a crop failure. If the original rows do come up, you can hoe off the new rows, and it won’t have cost you that much time or money. If the original rows are patchy, hoe them off and keep the new ones.

The pros and cons of transplanting and direct sowing

Before you even venture out there to sow seeds, consider the pros and cons of transplanting versus direct sowing, and when each is most appropriate.You can read these in my post about Garden Planning

Young sweet corn plants after imperfect hoeing.
Photo Pam Dawling

How to sow a row of seeds

Find out how deep the seeds should be: bigger seeds go deeper. If you sow too deep, down where the soil is colder, the seedlings will struggle to reach the surface and may fail. Up to three times the seed diameter, is a concept I’ve often read. Not that you need to measure it!

Drag a triangular hoe (warren hoe) or the corner of a regular hoe, along the ground where you want the plants to grow. If your line is not as straight as you like, fill it in and set out stakes and twine. Either use the shadow of the twine as your mark, or eyeball a constant distance from the twine to the hoe. Remember the depth you need. Fix any deep excavations, or superficial scratches.

Preparing to sow Rainbow Chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

Next open the resealable end of the seed packet and pour some out (not over the gum!) into a small dish or the palm of a dry hand. Keep in mind the plant spacing you are aiming for. Radishes, spinach, chard and beets can easily be seen, and sown at one per inch. Avoid the beginner mistake of tumbling many more times the seed you need in the furrow. It causes more work and weaker plants, because they grow up overcrowded, and you will have to thin them. For small seeds, aim at two or three seeds per inch. Really! It’s hard to get good at this skill, but it is well worth learning.

If you mess up, don’t pick up damp seeds and put them back in the packet. They will damage the dry seeds already in there.

Use the hoe or a rake to draw soil in over the seeds to the previous soil level, not mounded up. Next tamp the soil down over the rows, using a hoe or rake on end. This lets the seeds have good contact with damp soil, so they can get the air and water they need.

Cover with rowcover if needed, or if wanted to speed up growth. With rowcover, you will be biding time while spring warms up. The cold weather crops will not benefit from being overheated. Spinach, lettuce and Asian greens will all bolt if their environment in spring is too warm. Read about factors influencing bolting. You will probably have some warmer weather crops going in and you can move the rowcover on those rows.

Use insect netting if you need to protect your vulnerable seedlings from being gobbled up. You will need to remove the netting once flowers appear, so that the crops can get pollinated. If you have serious trouble with a particular pest, look in seed catalogs for parthenocarpic varieties, ones that set fruit without any pollination.

If it doesn’t rain, water the next day (day 2), then whenever the soil surface is dry. It is better to water deeply less often, than to water lightly each day. Light watering may simply not be enough, and will encourage the seedlings to make shallow roots, which will then die back if you don’t water often enough. Deep watering saves water, as a good depth of soil stays wet, and is protected from evaporation by the surface soil. Some people even go so far as to hoe very shallowly to create a “dust mulch” which prevents warm days wicking the moisture out of the soil. For most of use, this is more of a summer issue than a spring one.

Soaking and pre-sprouting seeds

Some larger seeds benefit from soaking before sowing. Peas and beans can be soaked overnight, but smaller seeds need less soaking. Be careful with beet seeds as they can easily drown and rot if soaked for too long.

Pre-sprouting can help with germination when soil temperatures are too cold or too hot for the crop to germinate in a timely way. In spring, if you presprout, be very careful not to overwater the soil until you see the seedlings emerging. This task is not as exacting as growing bean sprouts to eat. You don’t need to rinse them more than once every few days, if that.

To sow soaked or pre-sprouted seeds, first drain off the free water. If the wet seeds tend to clump together in your fingers, either spread the seeds out on a try or a piece of rowcover or similar, until the problem is solved (an hour?) or else mix the damp seeds with a dry, inert, organic dust, such as oat bran, or uncooked corn grits. Some people use dry sand, but if you have a lot to sow, you will find this quite abrasive to your fingers or to the plastic plate of the mechanical seeder.

Station-Sowing Seeds

If your seeds are expensive, or you don’t have many, or the germination is questionable, you can station sow, rather than sowing in a furrow (drill). Simply press a small divot in the soil at the chosen spacing and put about 3 seeds in the hole. Close the soil over the top. This works well if direct-sowing big crops like okra.

Using a push seeder

EarthWay push seeder.
Photo from EarthWay

If you have long rows, you might use an EarthWay type seeder. These inexpensive push seeders are very quick and easy to use, and come with a set of relatively easily-changed plates with holes for seeds of different sizes. They are lightweight and can be used at a fast walking pace.

Jang push seeder.
Photo Johnny’s Seeds

Market Gardeners will look longingly at the Jang Seeder, which is much more accurate at spacing seeds, and costs an undeniably much larger amount of money. At one time we kept our EarthWay just for carrot sowing (we grew a lot of carrots!), and we used a Planet Junior push seeder for other crops. These are heavy-duty seeders, with plates that are a confounded challenge to change over. In the wrong hands, or on the wrong day, the whole hopper and plate mechanism would fall off. Other people like them for their sturdiness and don’t have the problems I had.

Haraka seeder from Eden Equipment

Growers doing no-till seeding might be interested in the very heavy duty Haraka planter I wrote about last year. It is made in South Africa.

Gap-filling with transplants

A special application of direct-sowing is to prepare for incomplete rows emerging, by having some back-up transplants for gap-filling. We have often done this with our first sweet corn, in case the weather turns cold, or cold rain lands on the plot. Sweet corn can be successfully transplanted up to about 2” (5 cm) tall. We sowed ours in Styrofoam Speedling flats. In cold areas, some growers transplant their whole first planting.

Gap-filling in transplanted crops with station-sowed seeds

Another special application of direct-sowing is to fill gaps in rows of transplanted crops when you have no reserve, backup transplants. This only works for fairly fast-growing crops with long harvest periods. You will need to decide if your seeds will have time to reach harvestable size before the transplanted ones are pulled up.

Book Review: The Two-Wheel Tractor Handbook, Zach Loeks

The front cover of The Two-Wheel Tractor by Zach Loeks.

Book Review: The Two-Wheel Tractor Handbook

Small-Scale Equipment and Innovative Techniques for Boosting Productivity, Zach Loeks, New Society Publishers, 2023. 232 pages, $39.99.

Although there is a definite “Tilling-is-bad” mantra in some circles, recent no-till books have spoken in favor of less tilling, rather than never any tilling. Even those in favor of minimizing tilling understand that some circumstances call for tilling, so let’s do it well. This very practical manual will help us deeply understand our two-wheel tractors and get the best out of them while giving them our best. Mindful, good use of machinery is important! This book will be useful to gardeners, homesteaders, landscapers, and small-scale farmers.

One of the author’s goals with this book is “to return the two-wheel tractor to its rightful place as a small-scale solution for land management, especially for diversified and highly profitable stewardship of farms, homesteads, and landscape.” Bigger is not necessarily better. Intensive agriculture can bring more profits than extensive acres of one crop.

Too many of us who use two-wheel tractors (still called rototillers by some, but in actuality two-wheeled tractors are much more versatile than that), look at the manual only when things go wrong. This book gives us the chance to really understand our machines. These are machines that we can maintain ourselves with regular tools. Knowledge is power.

Two-wheel tractors are affordable for new growers, easy to maneuver in small plots of different crops, adaptable with various pieces of equipment for many different cultivation tasks. They have a Power Take Off (PTO) and hitch system similar to four-wheel tractors, and they can connect to multiple implements. Those machines with the ability to rotate the handlebars can be used with a choice of rear-mounted or front-mounted implements.

Two-wheel tractors compact the soil much less than four-wheel tractors, and can use less fuel.

This book explains the various types of two-wheel tractors (BCS, Planet Junior, Ferrari, Grillo and others), so that you can buy the one best suited to the work you need it for. There is help in figuring out how much horse-power you need. The page on safety design will help those planning long hours of operation to get a durable machine. After reading this book, I think you will be able to increase the life of your machine (and maybe your knees).

A raised bed prepared with our BCS 732 and  Berta Rotary Plow, with some lettuce transplants under shadecloth.
Photo Pam Dawling

There are plenty of clear color photos and drawings to help you make sense of it all. As in real-life farming in the US, nearly all of the people in the drawings appear to be white males. It’s hard to be certain when everyone is wisely wearing all the protective gear needed, but I wish the farmers had been more diverse! There is a deep look into the functions of each kind of implement, so you can be informed when choosing between a rotary plow and a furrower, for example.  “Remember, equipment decision-making is where growers can make the biggest mistakes or have the greatest successes. Having the right equipment can revolutionize your homestead or farm, but the wrong equipment choices can begin to dictate how you grow instead of facilitating your chosen production.” One example is your preferred bed-width, and how well that matches the width of your equipment.

The book starts with a history of farming with horses and then their mechanical replacements. Next comes discussion of two-wheeled tractor essential components, types, and the benefits of each. The third chapter talks about specific accessories and adjustments you can make. This is followed by helpful discussion of which equipment is best suited to which scale and type of operation, and also the stage of development of the enterprise. Are you starting up, scaling up, or doing what Zach calls pro-ing up? Keep your later goals in mind and buy equipment now that will fit with what you need next.

There is a good chapter on maintenance and care. Be sure to do regular checks and maintenance, and provide good care and storage, starting with day one. Keep a special toolkit for timely repairs. This chapter includes recommended brands of maintenance supplies, a checklist of maintenance tips, and winter storage preparations.

For me, the main value of the book is in the first 5 chapters and chapter 8 on maintenance and care. The other two chapters will appeal most to permaculturists who like the classification of things and spaces into guilds, and circular diagrams. There is information there for everyone on techniques that could save you time and effort.

I learned valuable understanding in the “Two-Wheel Tractor Essential” chapter. I wasn’t raised on a farm and have approached machinery with a “need-to-know” style. I know which way to set switches but forget which setting of the choke is “in” and which is “out.” Now I understand better. Likewise, I followed the machinery manual in clipping the “operator presence control” and clutch into the U-shaped wire clip when putting the machine in the shed, but I didn’t know why it was important to do that. I passed the instruction on to all the people I trained, but noticed they frequently didn’t do it. The reason is to prevent a stuck clutch, which can happen if the two cone parts of the clutch are left touching while the machine is stored. Disengaging the clutch leaves a space between the two cones, so they don’t stick together.

Zach lists eleven Two-Wheel Tractor Benefits, including that the range of engine sizes gives us the ability to avoid over-large engines for small tasks. Another from the list is that two-wheeled tractors are easy to maneuver in small spaces, between diverse crops, including the ability to make tight turns.

There is a fundamental difference between multi-functional 2-wheel tractors with a PTO, and those without, which are mainly for row-crop cultivation, and can be made with smaller engines and a higher clearance for tall crops. The latter crop includes Planet Junior, Tuffy, and Tilmor Ox. The Tilmor Power Ox now has a wide range of cultivation tools made by Thiessen.

Multi-functional tractors with a PTO are more widely used than the cultivator types. Those such as BCS with reversible handlebars, can be used for front-mounted mowers and rear-mounted earth-moving implements. They have a lower clearance than cultivating tractors and therefore are more stable because of the lower center of gravity.

We use our BCS to incorporate cover crops and compost in preparation for replanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

The section on tractor components includes labeled bird’s-eye-view diagrams of three BCS models. How much horsepower do you need? Various brands and sizes of engine are compared, and the pros and cons of each are discussed. Some pieces of equipment need more horsepower than others, so before buying anything, consider all the implements you might need. There is also a page on choosing and using used engines.

I had not considered the value of being able to lower the handlebars for more compact storage or to lift the tractor when using heavy pieces of equipment. Likewise, we here have all been in the habit of walking directly behind the tiller for better ergonomics, and have not fully explored the benefits of turning the handlebars slightly to one side. BCS handlebars are very easy to adjust!

There is design box explaining which gear to use for best results with which job. There is a bit of a human tendency to think faster is better. It ain’t necessarily so! Likewise, pressing down on the handlebars to get deeper tilling will cause the tractor to “walk” on its tines, removing the center of power from the engine and wheels (where the operator is in control). If you need deeper tilling, set the depth deeper! The mechanics of the tractors and implements are very clearly explained.

Tractors with a differential drive can make tighter turns when you unlock one wheel, meaning only one wheel is then being driven. The differential should be locked for field work (greater stability) and only unlocked for turning or negotiating tight spaces.

I like understanding the tractor better. I now appreciate what a wonderful thing a PTO is, and don’t take it for granted. It enables us to power a range of implements from the engine, rather than simply being ground-driven, or pulled. Having both color photos and hand-drawn diagrams makes it easier to understand the machines.

I don’t plan to need wheel weights, front weights or implement weights, but I know where to turn if I end up needing to know. Likewise, if we need a different space between the wheels, I can find out how to do it. I did learn that our rotary plow would work better on our BCS 732 if we had slightly larger wheels. Choosing the implements is only half of the job, the other half is learning how to get best use under your circumstances.

Using the Berta rotary plow to make paths between our raised beds.
Photo Pam Dawling

Safety is about design, maintenance, operation and protective gear. In this book you can read about the safety features designed into your BCS or other two-wheeled tractor, a list of operating safety tips, and a list of protective clothing and equipment.

The next chapter is about implements and their uses, and instructions for getting them on and off the tractor, with good clear photos. I’m a big fan of the BCS Quick-hitch. We graduated from one BCS with a quick-hitch, tiller, hiller and rotary brush mower, to two BCS machines. We kept one set up for mowing, one for tilling, but each had a quick-hitch and so could be called in as a backup if one machine was down.

Zach addresses the misconceptions around tilling. All working of the soil is a form of tillage, however you do it. No-till and low-till methods reduce tillage. But you cannot successfully (organically) eliminate all earthworking from a farm. If the soil was not tilled previously by someone else, you will need to do primary tillage to open new land. Tarping will not deal with soil compaction. You can move towards the 4-S tillage principles: Seldom, Shallow, Softly (minimal depth?) and Sorted (patterned, meaning leaving a patchwork of untilled areas while tilling the areas you need soon). (There might be some specialized permaculture terminology there that I didn’t quite understand.)

The chapter on equipment decision-making alone is worth the price of the book. It can save expensive purchasing mistakes. Chose implements matching the scale of your enterprise (bearing in mind planned future expansion). How many acres do you have in actual production? This is a more important number than the total acreage of your farm. Market growers working more than 2-3 acres might need a two-wheeled cultivating tractor as well as a multipurpose BCS-type tractor. They may even need a 4-wheeled tractor.

Consider “investment” as a concept including space, time, energy and money. Growing more extensively will use more space, while saving time by using a bigger tractor. That will involve more fuel use (energy) and more money. Trade-offs. Zach has a chart of three scales of enterprise and the tools needed for each of four tasks for each scale. The discussion of extensive versus intensive agriculture shows that either type can be done on a small acreage (consider an acre of garlic in rows 6” apart (intensive) or 15” apart (extensive)). Intensive agriculture can bring in higher profits from the same space without requiring investment in more equipment. The investment there is of more time. Extensive land management uses more land, but less time, and it can save on money too, as when hay, mulches and green manures are grown on site, rather than bought-in.

Author Zach Loeks

Projects can develop and grow over time, changing the scale and the needs of the operation. Be mindful of your goals, and prepare a “Static Goal” rather than do continuous random expansions. When you reach the static-state goal, everything should be in balance, equilibrium. Zach then leads us through an example towards a static state 3-acre farm. For example, better to buy a 30” tiller at start-up than the initially-adequate 26”.

Here the book dips more towards permaculture terms, diagrams and ideas for a chapter. The information on deciding which implements you need is accessible, and you can either embrace or ignore the guild terminology. The glossary at the end will save you from getting lost in the TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). Some of the same implements are mentioned more than once, to fit the format. There are many pieces of equipment I did not even know of.

Other aspects of farming to consider (apart from intensive/extensive) are profit per square foot and resiliency. Diversity of crops and crop rotation can provide resiliency, but continuous fancy lettuce grown with bought-in inputs can make a higher money profit.

Chapter 5 looks in detail at several example farms, from a backyard gardener to several market gardens. Interesting narratives, with drawings of soil prep stages using various equipment. And separately, lists of tasks to be undertaken. I started by assuming the numbered tasks correlated with the drawings, but it’s not as precise as that. There is a useful “Design Box” on cultivation for row-based planting, useful to those of us who haven’t tackled that yet. Another is about tree nurseries, a side of farming that doesn’t get many manuals (that I’ve seen).

In chapter 6, there are instructions for farming on terraces, and then the permaculture “Permabeds” system. In this chapter you can also learn how to add wheel extensions.

Chapter 7 starts with ways to clear new land, micro-plow it, and form beds with the formidable BCS power ridger, which goes on the front of the tractor. Using tarps to get rid of weeds is also briefly explained, and shown in a series of photos. Zach recommends making life simple by choosing five variations of row spacing, centered on a constant center row.

Chapter 8 is a mini-manual on maintenance and care, another useful section written in a very accessible way. The tool kit drawings are helpful, as is the advice to keep the tractor tools in a special bag on a special shelf, ready to grab if you need to take it down the field. There’s a good list of maintenance supplies, including recommended brand names. There is information on winter storage, and specific instructions for checking and tightening cables, changing Honda engine oil, understanding oils (making it more likely we’ll use the right kind).