Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food: Step-by-Step Vegetable Gardening for Everyone

Joseph Tychonievich and Liz Anna Kozik, Ten Speed Press, 2021. 90 pages, color throughout, $19.99 paperback, $12.99 Kindle.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a comic book, and it makes a refreshing change from my usual (less comic) gardening and farming reading. This small book, with text by Joseph Tychonievich and drawings by Liz Anna Kozik, is a delight. The art is wonderfully clear and realistic, even though they are not botanical drawings. The page of seven herbs makes them all distinguishable. The characters have character, keeping the reader engaged with the plot (oh, not a deliberate pun!)

This will be a great book for new gardeners (of whom there are acres, as a result of Covid-19). It will also particularly help recovering failed gardeners get a fresh, more successful start. It is perfect for visual learners, gardeners with English not their first language, and young gardeners. I have a gardening friend who says her teenager reads only graphic novels and she hopes this book will lead him to do more gardening, more enthusiastically!

It is easy to read/look at, entertaining and accurate (therefore helpful). The breezy, friendly conversations between the fictional characters, young novice gardener Mia (who writes code as a day job) and retired neighbor George, show a great example of food-growing (and computer help) as mutual aid. Gardening as a step to a more peaceful and productive future.

The book covers location, choosing crops, timing, soil testing, bed prep, buying plants, starting seeds, planting in the garden or in containers, and maintenance. This is followed by troubleshooting, harvesting, celebrating, and a “Cheat sheet of cheat sheets” and further reading. The cheat sheets throughout step us aside from the story to dive into some aspect more deeply. Come back to those when you need them.

Mia is savvy about technology, finding a compass app or a last frost date when she needs it. George has the gardening experience to share, including his ever-changing Rule #1! (Grow what you like to eat. Grow what’s easy to grow. Always grow herbs. Grow flowers. Get a soil test.)

Important points are included, such as even though organic fertilizer is best, using too much is a bad thing. Check for lead in city soils and if you find it, garden elsewhere (community garden?), grow vegetables in containers of bought-in soil, or grow flowers, not food. Why is Swiss chard easier to grow than spinach? Do you actually like radishes?

Packed in this little book, you will find how to build raised beds, how to mulch, how to choose healthy plants to buy, which crops do better from seed, the most important bugs to watch out for and more. Joseph the writer has been gardening most of his life, and Liz Anna the artist clearly knows her vegetables too.

Pages from the Comic Book Guide to Growing Food. Art by Liz Anna Kozic. Text by Joseph Tychonievich

What is missing that I would have included? Making compost (can be an issue in city gardens, I know); more about choosing seed varieties in stores, catalogs or online; sowing seeds (like carrots) in rows rather than individual holes.

What is included that I would not have thought of? Root-pruning bought plants to encourage good outward growth. A flow chart of whether or not to water that day. Ideas for garden party snacks! The value of a smartphone as a gardening tool!

This is a real book – it has an index! (Some of my readers may know I live with people who index books, and the index is a better way to judge a book than the cover!)

Yes, this book works as a guide for new vegetable gardeners, and right now when you can’t garden with your neighbor physically at your side, this could be the next best thing. It packs a lot in a small space, which is probably what most of the readers are also hoping to do in their gardens!

For sure, the topics are simplified, but the most important bits are all there, including plenty of cautions to help prevent common mistakes, and make it more likely that readers will continue to garden and learn in the future. There are a few resources listed at the end, useful pointers of where to turn when this book can’t get into enough details, or you’ve found a bug that the authors don’t include. This book and a smartphone will help you start growing your own food successfully.


I wrote an earlier version of this review for the Comics Journal.

Joseph Tychonievich
Liz Anna Kozic

Flame Weeding

Commiseration and sympathy to ice-blasted farmers and gardeners

Visits to my website shot up over the weekend. People are checking out my Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables as they are dealing with temperatures considerably colder than they ever expected for their region.  I hope you can find some helpful information there while you triage your crops into “OK with these temperatures, can be left alone”/”might die, need help”/”will definitely die, no point in trying to save them”.

Q and A

Next a couple of questions that people left on the contact form, that I thought others might be interested in.

Q1. Is there an easy way to figure out what vegetables I can plant to maximize my space and yield. I am not sure if its my soil or sunlight availability in my backyard garden.

A. Most vegetables do need at least 6 hours a day of sunlight, so as we get closer to spring, assess various spots in your backyard. Maximizing use of the space includes careful choice of plant spacing, but also following one crop with another, or squeezing crops in between others. There’s no quick answer. Search my site for Succession Planting, Crop Spacing, Choosing Crops.

Q2. I am currently looking for Onion seeds or seedlings to purchase for approximately 1hector to plant. We based in the Free State Area.

A. South Africa? Sorry, I have no idea what is available where you are. 1 hectare is a huge area for onions, especially if you have never grown them before. Use transplants, not direct-seeded onions. Choose varieties adapted to your latitude, or else they may never grow big, or may not dry down and store well.

Flaming can be used for weed control, pest control, or crop termination.

Flame weeding can be used for carrots and beets before emergence.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Our introduction to flame-weeding was via the first article I ever read in Growing for Market magazine. It was about flaming for pre-emergence weed control in carrots. It sounded like such an effective method that we bought a Red Dragon flamer and never looked back! I remember saying and writing that it worked so well it felt like cheating!

Our flamer

We use a handheld flamer attached to a propane cylinder that is in a wheelbarrow pushed by a second person behind the first. This person also acts as a “fire warden.” Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame. Walking along the aisle between beds and wafting the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed takes about ten minutes for a 100′ (30 m) bed. Flame-weeding alone can reduce hand-weeding to one hour/100′ (30 m). Hand-weeding can be reduced to 6 minutes/100′ (30 m) by flame-weeding after using stale beds which have been hoed three or four times.

Stale seedbed flaming for weed control

In the stale seedbed technique, the bed is prepared and watered ahead of planting time and one or more flushes of weeds are germinated and flamed or hoed off. Flaming avoids bringing any new weed seeds to the surface. To sow large crop seeds into a seedbed that has already had the weeds removed (by flaming or other stale seedbed technique), you can use a stick seeder or easy-plant jab planter. Making furrows for small seeds will inevitably activate a few weed seeds along the rows.

Flame weeding, pre-emergence

Flame weeding a carrot bed.
Photo Kati Falger

Carrots, beets and parsnips are ideal crops for pre-emergence flame-weeding. They do very poorly with competition, and grow more slowly than weeds, consuming lots of time hoeing, cultivating and hand weeding to get good yields. Flame weeding can change all that, with pre-emergence either as part of a stale seedbed technique, or post-sowing.

The latter method is to prepare the bed, sow the seeds, water, and then monitor carefully. The day before you expect the carrots to emerge, flame across the whole surface of the bed. Use a soil thermometer and the table here to figure out which day to flame.

Table of vegetable seed germination as a function of soil temperature

 

Days to Germinate 50F (10C) 59F (15C) 68F (20C) 77F (25C) 86F (30C) 95F (35C)
Carrots 17.3 10.1 6.9 6.2 6.0 8.6
Beets 16.7 9.7 6.2 5.0 4.5 4.6
We sow “indicator beets” with our carrots so that we know when to flame-weed them
Photo Kathryn Simmons

People who use pre-emergence flame-weeding for carrots can use a few “indicator beet” seeds sown at one end of the bed to show when to flame. As soon as you see the red loops of the beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case!) Beets are always a bit quicker than carrots in germinating. Note that beets are about half a day ahead of carrots at 50°F–68°F (10°C–20°C), but more than a day at 77°F–95°F (25°C–35°C). The challenge with carrots is to keep the soil surface damp until they come through. As an indicator for beet seeds, you can use a few radish seeds.

Another way to get an alarm call is to put a piece of glass over part of a row. The theory is that the soil under the glass will be warmer and the crop there will come up sooner than the rest. I tried this once, but the soil under the glass dried out, and those carrots came up later than the rest! Nowadays we have a “no glass in the garden” rule, for safety, so I use beets, the thermometer and the chart.

See the useful resource Flame Weeding for Vegetable Crops  from ATTRA

Flame-weeding growing crops

Potatoes can get impossible to hill when you’d like to if you have wet weather, and this is where flaming can save the day. Potatoes may be flamed at 6″–12″ (15–30 cm) tall, to kill weeds without damaging the potato plants. After that, flaming is not recommended.

Sweet corn can be flame-weeded after planting, either pre-emergence or, with care, after the crop is two inches (5 cm) tall, using a directed flame.

Onion and garlic crops can be flame-weeded when relatively mature. Flame-weeding can achieve as good results as hand-weeding using one-third of the labor. Flame-weeding can damage young plants (four or fewer leaves), so bide your time. Direct the flame at the base of the plants, in the morning, when the plants are turgid. This technique is for unmulched crops. Naturally, if you have used straw or hay mulch, flame-weeding is not such a smart idea!

Peanut seedlings can be slow to emerge, so pre-emergence flame-weeding may be helpful. The seedlings look somewhat like peas or clover. Because they grow slowly for the first 40 days, they will not thrive if you lose them in weeds (guess how I know?!).

Flaming for ending potato growth

Potato plants come to a natural end when the leaves die, after which no further growth can be induced in them. Once the tops die, the potato skins start to toughen up. If you are growing storage potatoes and are impatient for the end to come, you can mow off the tops or flame them, to start the skin-thickening process, which takes around two weeks. The potatoes are ready when you can rub two together without any obvious damage to the skins.

Flaming for pest control

Pest habitat includes all those half-wild edges and odd corners. You can reduce the pest count in these havens by mowing, hand weeding, or flaming. Be sure not to remove all the habitat for beneficial insects while you do this.

Colorado Potato beetle late stage larva
Photo Pam Dawling

Colorado potato beetles can be tackled by flaming while the potatoes are less than eight inches (20 cm) tall, as an effective pest control measure. It won’t kill the potato plants. Choose a warm sunny day when the pests are at the top of the plants. Flaming can kill 90 percent of the adults and 30 percent of the egg masses, according to ATTRA.

Harvesting from bean plants with bad bean beetle damage.
Photo Wren Vile

Mexican bean beetles can be killed by flaming after harvest for that planting is finished. Flaming will kill the plants too. We used to plant six or seven successions of beans, every two weeks, then flame the old plants when the pest count got too high, and move on to a newer planting. Nowadays we buy the Pediobius parasitic wasp to deal with the MBB, and we can sow beans less often and harvest them for longer.

Flaming trap crops

Young turnips (with flea beetles!) in need of thinning for cooking greens.
Photo Pam Dawling

Flea beetles can be lured by a row of mustard greens. They like the pungent compounds in brassicas. Once you have lured the flea beetles you need to deal with them before you create a flea beetle breeding ground. Flaming the mustard plants is one possibility.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower. Photo Pam Dawling

Cucumber beetles  have a preference for some particular squash varieties, which may be grown as a trap crop: Cocozelle summer squash, Seneca and Dark Green zucchini are all “cucumber beetle preferred”! When beetles accumulate in the trap crop, flame it or till it in.

Stink bugs: Russ Mizell has published a paper on trap cropping for native stink bugs in the South. He recommends buckwheat, triticale, sunflower, millet, field pea and sorghum. A succession of trap crops including these and others such as pumpkins, cowpeas and other small grains (which are most attractive in the milk or soft dough stage) could help. Flame the trap crops when the stink bug numbers in the trap crop build up.

Excerpted and adapted from Sustainable Market Farming

Repurposed stroller makes a fine flame weeder.
Photo Sustainable Harvest Farm Kentucky

Early Lettuce Production

Young Salad Bowl lettuce
Photo Wren Vile

Early Lettuce Production

Growing early season lettuces involves choosing suitable types and varieties (cold-tolerant and fast-growing), having successful production methods, and a good schedule. Harvesting early in the year might mean fast production in January and February, or it might mean starting in the fall and overwintering the plants. See my post series Lettuce of the Month, for ideas on varieties and techniques throughout the year.

Our Climate Zone in central Virginia is 7a, which means our annual minimum temperature averages 0°F to 5°F (-18 to -15°C).  The average date of the last spring frost is April 30 (later than 5/14 one year in 10). We grow lettuce outside from transplants from February to December, in a solar greenhouse from October to early March, and in a solar-heated double-layer hoophouse from October to April.

Swordleaf, Red Salad Bowl and Bronze Arrow lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Lettuce Types

There are several different general types of lettuces. In terms of growing speed, the baby lettuce mixes and the leaf lettuces produce harvests soonest after sowing. Loose-leaf lettuces are very useful because you can harvest individual leaves while you’re waiting for the heads to reach full size.

Leaf types are ready for harvest 45-60 days from direct seeding, 30-45 days from transplanting. Bibbs mature in 60-75 days, most head lettuce need up to 80 days from seeding, or 60-70 days from transplanting in spring. Romaines are slower-growing (70 days or more). Batavian lettuces (also called French Crisp) are tasty, thick-leafed varieties that have excellent heat and cold tolerance. Icebergs mature in 75-100 days.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
photo Wren Vile

Baby lettuce can be cut 21 days from seeding, (except from November to mid-February, when it may take 2 or 3 times as long).

Bolt-resistance generally goes from Leaf types (first to bolt), through Romaines, Butterheads, Bibbs, to Crispheads.

I like to sow four lettuce varieties each time (for the attractive harvests, and to reduce the risks if one variety bolts or suffers disease): at least one red and one romaine. We have 5 lettuce seasons, with different varieties:

  1. Early Spring (Jan – Mar), 6 sowings
  2. Spring (April – May 15), 5 sowings
  3. Summer (May 15 – Aug 15), 17 sowings
  4. Fall (Aug 15 – Sept 7), 9 sowings
  5. Winter indoors, Sept 8 – 27, 9 sowings

 Lettuce Varieties

Bronze Arrow lettuce ultra-closeup. Photo Bridget Aleshire

It’s important to grow the right lettuce variety for the conditions. For earliest harvests, consider a different, faster, variety than you have usually grown. Some of the early spring lettuce varieties are often useless here if sown after mid-March, or even mid-February, because they bolt prematurely as the Virginia spring flips from cold to hot (and back again, grrr!). Varieties we only sow until 2/15 include Bronze Arrowhead (46 day leaf lettuce); Buckley, Ezrilla and Hampton (55d multi-leaf types); Merlot (60d), Midnight Ruffles (48d) and Oscarde (45d) (leaf lettuces). Antares (48d) Panisse (48d) and Revolution (38d) leaf lettuces we can sow until 3/15.

Nancy bibb lettuce
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Others that we like in early spring go on to be useful later in spring too. In this category are Buttercrunch (a small 50d bibb); Nancy (58d) and Sylvesta (52d) (two big green bibbs); Pirat (55d red bibb), Green Forest (56d), Kalura (57d) (two green romaines); and New Red Fire (55d), our reliable Salad Bowl (45d) and Red Salad Bowl (46d), Starfighter (52d), and Swordleaf (53d) (leaf lettuces)

New Red Fire lettuce.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

The baby lettuce mixes we like are Fedco’s 2981 LO Lettuce Mix OG (contains at least six different lettuces) or Johnny’s Allstar Gourmet Lettuce Mix #2310 (including green and red oakleaf, green and red romaine, lollo rossa, and red leaf lettuces). One gram sows 25 ft, one ounce will sow about 600 feet.

For those with challenging growing conditions, both companies offer other specialized selected mixes.

Cold-tolerance of lettuce

Red Tinged Winter and Tango lettuce in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

Lettuce is more cold tolerant than many people realize. If plants are sufficiently hardened (prepared by growing in gradually lower temperatures), they can withstand freezing. At 22°F (-6°C), large leaves of some lettuce will die. Medium-sized plants with 4-10 leaves (Marvel of Four Seasons, Olga, Rouge d’Hiver, Tango, Winter Density may survive unprotected down to 15°F (-9.5°C). Half-grown lettuces are more cold-hardy than full-sized plants.

Lettuce Crop Requirements

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

Lettuce seed remains dormant unless triggered by adequate levels of light and temperature. It needs light to germinate, so don’t sow too deep: ¼-3/8″ (6-9 mm) is enough. Some sources recommend not covering the seed at all, but this can make it hard to keep the seed damp. The light dormancy is more pronounced in fresh seed, which has higher levels of the hormone that controls germination.

Soil temperature is important. I have a table of optimum soil temperatures for germination in The Year-Round Hoophouse The optimum temperature range for lettuce germination is 68-80°F (20-27°C). It takes 7 days to germinate with a soil temperature of 50°F (10°C) or 15 days at 41°F (5°C), and only 4 days at 59°F (15°C). Even a few hours at temperatures higher than the optimum can induce dormancy.

Lettuce transplants prefer a well-draining soil high in organic matter, and with a pH of 6.0-7.0, not lower. Optimum growing temperatures are 60-65°F (15-18°C), with a minimum of 40°F (4.5°C) for any growth to occur. Lack of water will lead to bolting, and/or bitterness. Keep them growing quickly for good flavor.

Lettuce in January

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We plan to start harvesting heads of lettuce outdoors from April 15. Before then we will harvesting lettuce in our greenhouse and hoophouse.

In mid-January we sow four lettuce varieties, to become our first outdoor transplants. I recommend sowing several varieties each time to spread your risks, if one kind bolts or suffers disease. I choose varieties that cover the range of colors and shapes. I select hardy types that are fast-maturing. Buttercrunch green bibb lettuce is one of my favorites for early spring. One of the Salad Bowl lettuces, red or green, is also usually in my first sowing. The Salad Bowls are so reliable and productive! New Red Fire has become another reliable lettuce stand-by for us. It was suggested to me by neighboring Virginia farmer, Gary Scott of Twin Springs Farm. It is more of a leaf lettuce, and doesn’t exactly head up, although it can be cut as admittedly lightweight heads. It works fine as a leaf lettuce, harvested by the cut-and-come-again method. We grow New Red Fire year round, it’s that adaptable and easy-going. We haven’t found many good full-size red romaines. Bronze Arrow  has worked well for us and we were harvesting it in early May.

We grow all our outdoor lettuce as transplants. In spring we sow in 3″ (7.5cm) deep open wood seed flats, 12″ x 24″ (30 x 60cm). We make four little furrows by pressing a 12″ (30 cm) plastic strip (aka a ruler!) into the seed compost. We sow the seed, label it, cover it lightly, water, and put the seeded flats in our germinator cabinet. The first flat of the year takes about 9 days to germinate.

Spotting cabbage seedlings from a seed flat into a transplant flat.
Photo Wren Vile

Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, we spot them out into 4″ (10 cm) deep flats (also 12″ x 24″/30 x 60cm). We have a plywood dibble board with pegs evenly spaced about 2.5″ (6 cm) apart. We aim to harden off the lettuce for two weeks in the cold frame before transplanting into the garden beds with thick rowcover on hoops to protect the lettuce from the still-cold outdoors. To be ready for harvest 4/15, these seeds have to become full size lettuces in 88 chilly days.

Seeds can instead be sown in cell packs or plug flats, putting three seeds in each cell, and later reducing to one seedling with scissors. Cells or pots with diameters from 1-2½” (2.5-6cm) can be used. The 96-cell size (1×1½”/2.5x4cm) works well, although the 200-cell size (1×1”/2.5×2.5cm) is possible if you can be sure to get the transplants out before they get root-bound. If warm germination space is limited in early spring, sow seed in a small flat, then “spot” the tiny seedlings into bigger flats, 606 (2×2¼”/2.5x6cm) cell packs, or 32-pack square pots to grow on in cooler conditions before planting out. Soil blocks are also possible, but take more time.

We make a second sowing on January 31. The intervals between sowings at the beginning of the year are long, because later sowings will catch up to some extent with earlier ones. Most crops grow faster in warmer weather.

Lettuce in February

We sow lettuce twice in February – 14 days apart. We get ready to transplant our first outdoor lettuce, to feed us mid-late April. Our first sowing of baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse comes to the bitter end, and the second sowing is awaited. We continue to harvest leaves from the large lettuce we transplanted in the hoophouse in October.

Lettuce in March

Lettuce with sclerotinia drop.
Photo Pam Dawling

We sow flats of lettuce every 10 days in March. March 9 is our goal for a transplanting date outdoors for our first 120 lettuce (about one week’s worth for 100 people).

Here is a link to a helpful publication from eXtension: Disease Management in Organic Lettuce Production. Horribly useful photos!

Baby Lettuce Mix

Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall, longer in early spring. A direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop, the plants regrow and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. We sow 10 rows in a 4’ (1.2m) bed, 4.5” (11cm) apart. Weed and thin to 1″ (2.5 cm). When 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cut 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. Gather a small handful in one hand and cut with using large scissors. Immediately after harvesting, weed the just-cut area so the next cut won’t include weeds. Rake after harvest with a fine leaf rake to remove outer leaves and cut scraps. If you want to make more than one cut, you will need to remove anything that isn’t top quality salad while you can see it. Larger scale operations have harvesting machines.

 

Book Review: The Chinese Greenhouse, Dan Chiras

Book Review: The Chinese Greenhouse: Design and Build a Low-Cost, Passive Solar Greenhouse, Dan Chiras

New Society Publishers, 2021. 230 pages, color photos and diagrams throughout, $34.99.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book, after attending several of Dan Chiras’ workshops where he talked about the evolution of Chinese Greenhouses. This is a next step for those of us thrilled with what we can grow in a passive solar hoophouse. As we harvest our abundant winter greens, we might ponder “What if it were possible to grow warm weather crops in winter without fossil fuels, given a careful greenhouse design with attention to insulation and so on?” The Chinese Greenhouse provides the answers, design and construction tips for pioneers in this new kind of greenhouse. Don’t reinvent the wheel – get this book and learn from those who have gone before.

Chinese Greenhouses are not readily available off the shelf, and are best designed to suit the particular site. This book tells you, step-by-step, how to build your own. Naturally, building one of these high-performing structures is more work than putting up a standard hoophouse (high tunnel), but once you have put up one of those, you might be ready for more challenge (and rewards).

Chinese greenhouses are solar-heated, earth-sheltered, well-insulated, plastic-glazed structures, using heat-banking, and shaded and curtained when appropriate. They are always oriented with a long side facing the sun. In the winter, this allows maximum (low-angle) sun exposure. In the summer, the high arc of the midday sun goes over the roof, and crops don’t get baked. The energy-intelligent design reduces your carbon footprint and saves you from future fuel bills, or imported vegetables.

Dan identifies six design problems with standard greenhouses that are solved with Chinese greenhouses. If you have a standard greenhouse, you can modify it to reduce the impact of the short-comings, by adding water for heat storage, using compost as a heat source, or storing pumped hot air in pipes in the soil. Dan Chiras has tried some of those. Also see The Bio-Integrated Farm by Shawn Jadrnicek. Or you can keep your existing hoophouse for growing winter greens, and put up a Chinese greenhouse for winter tomatoes and citrus trees.

Enclosing the north (south in southern hemisphere) side in the ground (which is 50-55°F (10-13°C) below the frost line year-round) is an important feature of these Chinese greenhouses, helping stabilize the temperature. To grow warm weather crops you need to maintain a greenhouse minimum temperature of 40-50°F (4-10°C). These crops may survive lower temperatures, but they will not thrive or be productive.

A Chinese greenhouse with metal roof trusses and a heat-banking back wall. A path by the wall gives access for harvesting and tending to plants. Photo by Dr. Sanjun Gu, courtesy of Dan Chiras

Dan Chiras met Dr Sanjun Gu, a world authority on Chinese Greenhouses, in Iowa in 2014, and gathered the available information (it wasn’t much, most was in Dr Gu’s slides!). Chinese greenhouses emerged in the mid-1980s, as a way to feed the expanding population. There have been three generations of such greenhouses, and traditional materials such as bamboo posts and external straw mat night curtains have now been replaced by easier-to-use modern materials. The first generation Chinese greenhouses had a bowed roof framing of bamboo poles in a mesh of tensioned steel wires. This framing was supported by many posts, and plastic sheeting was stretched over the top. At night, straw matting was unrolled on top of the roof (effective but labor-intensive). The second generation design reduced the number of posts supporting the roof, allowing the use of small machinery to till the soil. Third generation Chinese greenhouses don’t need posts at all, but have curved steel roof trusses (bows).

Newer models have replaced the straw matting on the outside with synthetic insulated blankets, or with reflective curtains on the inside of the roof, and replaced the hours of manual adjustments with mechanization. There are now billions of acres of these greenhouses in China. About one-third of Beijing’s winter vegetables are grown in greenhouses (I’m unclear if that’s one third of all their vegetables, or one third of warm weather crops.)

Dan has logged winter indoor and outdoor temperatures at his home-built modified Chinese greenhouse in Missouri, and found an indoor minimum of 48°F (9°C) with outdoor temperatures of -10°F (-23°C) for the first two winters. One feature of this book that especially appeals to me is that Dan describes the pros and cons of multiple options for achieving various goals – thermal mass, insulation, glazing, trusses – no need for expensive mistakes!

To build your Chinese greenhouse, you first need to choose a site, excavate it and take steps to prevent water leaking into your greenhouse. Yes, you really do need to earth-shelter your Chinese greenhouse, unless you are in the southern tier of the United States. While you are planning your excavation, consider the options of geo-thermal heating/cooling tubes, or tubing to take excess hot air from the greenhouse and store it in the earth berm until winter.

Check the slope of your land and draw a scale plan to make sure it will work. The perfect slope is 20° south, but anywhere between 10° and 30° will work. It partly depends on the height you want inside. You can also import soil if you need more than your excavation will provide. Stake out the site, using a compass to get the best orientation, correcting for magnetic declination (it’s all in the book). Ensure you are not excavating in a natural drainage path – observe the path of heavy rainfall or snowmelt. Look for subsurface springs or seeps. Look for wet areas in spring. You don’t want to have to incorporate a “water feature” in your new greenhouse! Perhaps consult a water engineer or locally experienced excavator. If necessary, construct swales uphill from your site, to divert water away from your greenhouse. Details of these and various drainage possibilities are in the book.

Dan recommends renting a skid steer loader with tracks rather than tires, or a small excavator. Keep the topsoil and subsoil separate, and covered if it might rain before you finish. Get seed on hand to sow on the berm as soon as possible after creating it, and/or transplant native ground cover plants.

If you really can’t do earth-sheltering, you can compensate to some extent in an above-ground greenhouse by adding lots of thermal mass in the floors and walls. I have some mixed feelings about the use of interior thermal mass. In the 1970’s there were greenhouse books advocating so many barrels of water to store heat, that there was little space left to grow plants!

After completing the excavation you can start incorporating heat-absorbing dark colored thermal mass in the floor and back wall, up to the optimal 4” (10 cm) thick, to store heat gained during sunny days. Dan discusses several possible materials: poured concrete, bricks, flagstones, soil-cement, cement blocks, bin blocks, adobe, cob and rammed earth. How’s that for a thorough review of options? Beware earthen materials that can disintegrate in a damp environment (you can’t use them underground). An adobe, stone or blockwork north wall works. Be aware of all the ecological pluses and minuses of concrete. Bin blocks are large concrete blocks made by concrete contractors when emptying out returning concrete mixers. The price is good! Paying for transportation is expensive! The smallest ones weigh half a ton, so you’ll need at least a tractor with a bucket, if not a crane, to stack them.

If this sounds like a lot of work and you start thinking about installing a wood stove instead, Dan invites you to think again: wood heat is “the black sheep of the renewable energy field.” Burning wood produces carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. It also produces toxins such as sulfur and nitrogen oxide gases, which form acid rain. And particulates that irritate lungs.

Author Dan Chiras.
Photo Dan Chiras and New Society Publishers

The next group of decisions is about wall framing and glazing. Will your framework be curved or in flat planes? Only some kinds of glazing curve, so figure these two items out together. Soil is not a good insulator, as many people wrongly assume. The water in the soil conducts heat, so it is important to insulate the north wall, north roof, and the east and west ends.  You’ll need deep walls with space for R-40 to R-50 insulation. Dan discusses options: loose-fill cellulose and fiberglass; batts of fiberglass, rock wool and cotton; rigid foam sheets of polystyrene, polyisocyanurate, and mineral wool board; liquid foams like Icynene and Air Krete. He recommends loose-fill cellulose, which is made from old newspapers.

Framework options include traditional lumber, home-made or purchased laminated wood rafters (straight or arched), steel tubing (round or square), or metal trusses. There are photos and tips for each of these. Be sure to consult a structural engineer or architect to ensure your roof will support the snow and wind loading that you might experience in your location. While tubing is adequate for smaller greenhouses, steel trusses are stronger and advised for wider greenhouses.

If you are using standard lumber and vertical walls, you will need to carefully determine the roof angle giving the best light transmission without too much summer heat gain. Light hitting the glazing at small angles will reflect rather than pass through. The rule of thumb is to add 20° to your latitude to get the ideal roof angle for maximum winter sun transmission. I found this particular sidebar confusing, but happily, I don’t need to know right now. Dan recommends a lower sloped roof than the calculation suggests, perhaps 30°.

Options for glazing include glass, ETFE, rigid polycarbonate, poly reinforced polyethylene sheeting, and polyethylene film. Light transmission ranges from 75-95%, but light transmission is not all we care about. Plants can do better with light diffused through translucent materials, bouncing around at all angles rather than beaming straight in. Glass is fragile and expensive.

The price of the plastics starts with a high for ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), For most of us, this is outside the budget: $9,000 for a 20 ft (6 m) greenhouse. Sell 7,000 bags of lettuce to pay for it! Double-wall acrylic is another very pricey option, with very pricey shipping costs. Solawrap looks like bubble-wrap on steroids, provides some insulation (R-1.7) It is sold in rolls the width of the gap between bows (or rafters). A roll 4’ x 328’ (1.2 x 100 m) costs about $2,200 plus shipping. Polycarbonate has channels of air providing some insulation. The price is lower than Solawrap, but the special hardware adds to the cost. Poly reinforced polyethylene (PRP) resembles rip-stop fabric used for outdoor gear, with a reinforcing mesh embedded in it. It comes with a ten-year UV warranty. Avoid wearing holes in your PRP by fitting it snugly after duct-taping any hardware that will contact the sheeting. The price is one-tenth that of Solawrap (but it provides no insulation). Standard 6 mil greenhouse poly is much cheaper, and using two layers with an inflated air space provides some insulation. You’ll need to replace the plastic every 5-7 years.

Watch this YouTube of Dan Chiras talking about the Chinese Greenhouse

To reduce heat losses through the glazing at night, install a blanket. White shadecloth resting on plastic-coated cables or laundry line works well. Aluminet and Tempa Interior Climate Screen work even better as heat reflectors, keeping heat out in summer, in during the winter. Radiant heat barriers can be used on the inside surfaces of roofs and walls to reflect heat back. One kind is a shiny aluminized sheet with a scrim backing, another kind is reflective bubble wrap.

The next part of the book explains ways to improve on the performance of Chinese greenhouses, to consider before you start. Use the excess heat on sunny winter days to mitigate the cold night temperature. Hot air from the top of the greenhouse can be pumped into porous pipes running through an in-floor storage medium such as a bed of gravel. You can wire thermostatically-controlled low-wattage DC fans directly to 50-watt photovoltaic modules, without batteries. When the sun shines, the fans operate. Having air movement in a greenhouse is helpful in managing fungal diseases and bugs, even when it isn’t banking heat. And bringing hot damp air through a gravel bed allows condensation to form in the gravel bed, effectively reducing the humidity of the air above.

Seasonal heat banking is designed to store excess heat from the summer to use in the winter. The usual method is to construct a large heat exchanger, composed of lots of plastic pipe deep underneath the greenhouse. Underground heat at 7 m (23 ft) deep moves through the soil by conduction at a rate of 1 m (3.3 feet) per month. Another method (without pipework) is to install a skirt of rigid board insulation just underground, all around the building to 20 feet (6 m) out. This catches the heat escaping from the building as well as that coming up from deeper in the earth.

I’m going to slide right over the details of designing and building heat bank systems. They involve pumps capable of providing five air changes per hour, thermostats, fans, piping sufficient to allow an airflow rate of 5 feet (1.5 m) per second – that’s 3 mph! Before installing any expensive heat banking and recovery systems, talk with people already using such a system. Once you have literally sunk a lot of money underground, it is very expensive to change. “If you get it right, you should be able to create a structure whose internal temperature in the winter is a heart-warming 35-40 F higher than ambient temperatures.” And pleasant summers too.

Next we have a chapter on minimizing summertime heat gain. One aspect is the roof angle, which we already looked at. A design that works at one latitude won’t be as good at a location with different sun angles. You can shade, vent and (if not in a humid climate) mist, in order to cool the space. That should provide for an extended period of summer use, if not the whole of the summer. Your cooling efforts might need to be moderated by your bug-excluding efforts. You could build a pond (10-15 feet (3-5 m) deep) with cooling loops of pipe. That’s one improvement you can add after construction, adding a fan to spread the cooled air inside.

Next there is info about supplementing the lighting with LEDs, for cloudy areas, or if you are growing commercially. There are explanations about different wavelengths of light, which ones plants use, and in what proportions (65% red, 15% blue, 20% green), and about total PAR, photosynthetically active radiation, the proportion reaching your plants, and the varying PAR requirement at different stages of plant growth. Another consideration is the total amount of light the plants receive each day (the daily light integral).

The final chapter of the book is Dan’s illustrated description of building his Chinese greenhouse in Missouri. His goals are to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly. For simplicity, Dan chose a lumber vertical south wall and sloped (not arched) roof, a departure from the usual curved Chinese greenhouse look. It appears to be about 21 ft long and 30 ft wide/deep. He used 3ft x 16ft (1 m x 5 m) polycarbonate roofing sheets, with plastic H-profile connector strips.

Dan does not gloss over the problems he and his band of helpers met during the 2-3 years spent building his greenhouse. His site was only slightly sloped, so he needed to dig down till he hit bedrock at 6 ft (2 m), then build up and import topsoil to complete the berm. His greenhouse uses rammed earth-filled tires (two summers of work). This is a labor-intensive method, physically draining. Think twice. You’ll need sturdy friends to help you. Even Dan says he would make a different choice if he had it to do over.

There are photos of the gravel footings, the underground pipework, the thermal mass north side and end walls and their insulation, concrete foundations, the Herculean rammed earth tire walls, earth cooling tubes, L-bolts to anchor the tire walls to the sill plate for the glazing, waterproof membranes for the walls that will be in the ground, framing, roofing, and glazing. Keep the chickens from pecking your cob infill, the new berm, suitable groundcover plants, and foam insulation board! Finally a photo of the first plateful of spinach!

Dan ends the book with two of his newest ideas – wind scoops and a methane digester. Of course, all these engineering tweaks won’t help if you’re not a good plantsperson to start with, so you might brush up those skills too, with a different book.

Remember, these are the pioneering days for Chinese greenhouse builders and growers. Not everything has been figured out, especially for locations very different from China or Missouri. You can’t buy exactly what you need “off the shelf”. You have to figure out some things for yourself. Some ideas in this book are untested. Don’t take anyone else’s ideas as the perfect solution, This book would have benefited from a bit tighter editing to remove a few slip-ups. Growing warm weather crops in winter, without fossil fuels, in countries outside sub-tropical zones is a goal worth working for.

Root Crops in January

No Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in January!

Closing rowcovers after a winter spinach harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of root crops that we sow outdoors here in January. Nor are there any root crops to sow in the greenhouse. Most root crops do not transplant well, as the replanting does too much damage to the taproot. Some exceptions are celeriac and kohlrabi (a stem vegetable more than a root, although I do tend to lump it in with root crops.) I have heard beets can be transplanted, especially if in soil blocks or plugs, and I’ve even heard of people up north transplanting plugs of rutabagas. I tend to be skeptical of books saying this or that can’t be transplanted, as I have transplanted many things. But not yet rutabagas or beets. I did roll my eyes when I heard someone propose transplanting mini-soil-blocks of carrots, using a pair of tongs made with popsicle sticks!

We are in winter-hardiness sub-zone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C).

An Easter Egg radish in the hoophouse in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Around January 26, we sow our last hoophouse radishes (sowing #6), Easter Egg, and White Icicle. This is our absolute last worthwhile sowing date. They will be ready for harvest from mid-March to mid-April, but if the weather is warm, or we fail to open the doors when we should, they will bolt before we get roots.

Our hoophouse radish sowing dates are 9/7, 9/30, 10/28, 11/22, 12/20, 1/27. Note that the sowing intervals are 23, 28, 25, 28, 38 days. The interval is much longer in December-January, as the rate of growth is so slow. There really is no point in sowing closer to the #5 sowing date, as the #6 will catch up in the warming days of late February and early March. The daylength is also increasing a lot by then, too.

If your hoophouse planting plans exceed the space you have, simply tweaking to a less frequent new harvest start could free up space to grow something else. Also consider a gap in radish supply, if other crops could make better use of the space. See Root Crops in September for more about our succession of hoophouse radish sowing dates.

In our double-layer hoophouse, turnips (and many cooking greens) can survive a hoophouse air temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan).

January photo of radishes sown in our hoophouse at the end of November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in January

In central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in January except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish. The months with R in them are the horseradish harvest months. September to April have R in them, and the summer months do not!

We have already had outdoor night temperatures of 16°F/-9°C and 18°F/-8°C. Until temperatures drop to 12°F/-11°C, we could dig Danvers carrots, Cylindra beets, and any rowcovered rutabagas (swedes). Albina Verduna, and Lutz Winterkeeper beets are hardy down to 15°F (-9.5°C), as are most kohlrabi, rutabagas and rowcovered turnips. Covered beets, covered winter radish are OK down to 10°F (-12°C). This is too chancy for us! We like to gather our root crops in and have them safely stored.

We store our root crops washed, in perforated plastic bags, in a walk-in cooler. Root cellars and cool basements are also possible storage sites, and in the past, I stored root crops in boxes of damp sand or woodash.

In the hoophouse we can normally harvest radishes #3 (sown October 30) all through January, from 12/15 to 2/1. This winter I notice we have already harvested most of them (1/6). We harvest our first turnips (sown around October 13) by pulling out the biggest from January 5 (or even late December), until mid-February, by which time we can have made a start on the second sowing (October 25). We thin the second sowing in early January or late December.

Young midwinter turnips in our hoophouse.
photo Pam Dawling

See my list of Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables 2020 for a more complete picture of “Harvesting in Time”

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in January

Check stored vegetables

From storage, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips, if we grew them. Stored crops need to be checked for decay at least once a month.

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

Inner tunnels in the hoophouse for cold nights

As noted above, inner rowcovers can make a big improvement to nighttime air temperatures in a hoophouse. We are fortunate to have a climate in central Virginia that means we don’t need inner covers most of the time. We watch the forecast and if we think it will drop to 8°F (-13°C) outdoors, we pull over the rowcovers. For winter crops we don’t use hoops. We have separate lengths of rowcover for each bed. Some people prefer a single large sheet. We find we can set the roll of rowcover at one end of the bed and simply walk with the free end down to the far end of the bed, leaving only a little bit of tweaking to get everything covered.

In the morning, if we feel pretty sure we’ll need the rowcovers again, we just pull the covers into the aisles, leaving every other path free to walk in. If we think we won’t need the rowcovers the next night we roll them up, giving us more space to work, and lengthening the lifespan of the rowcover by not exposing it to much sunlight.

Special Root Crop Topic for January in Central Virginia

Garden Plans Part Two

This garden planning task is not just about root crops. We had our Crop Review in November, and then inventoried our leftover seeds, planned what to grow for next year, and ordered our seeds. See Preparing to order seeds, if you haven’t sent in your orders yet.

We have made our garden maps, and specific plans for important crops with either lots of varieties (tomatoes), lots of sowings (sweet corn) or some combination (lettuce, broccoli and cabbage).

One task we need to complete by mid-January is to prepare our greenhouse seedlings schedule, because here we start sowings in mid-late January. We also tidy up the greenhouse (currently growing lettuce) and test, repair or replace vital equipment (like a seedling heating mat) and supplies like Bt and cover crops seeds.

Tomato seedlings (for our hoophouse) on a heat mat in our greenhouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another January task is to prepare a new Field Planting Schedule, or Outdoor Planting Schedule, as we call it here to distinguish it from our hoophouse schedule and our seedlings schedule. This is a list in date order of what to sow or transplant, how long the rows are, the space between rows, the space between plants (for transplants) and where to plant.

We also plan crops that will go in our raised beds from January to July. We plan the second part of the year in June, giving ourselves more flexibility.

See my Mother Earth News  Garden Planning online course for details

The map of our raised bed area, showing several years of crops using colored pens.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also revise and update our Garden Calendar (monthly task list). For those who want to think more widely about the coming year, here’s a link to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month

Our garden planning wraps up by mid-February, with all the budgets, crew selection and shift decisions (afternoons in cold weather, mornings in hot weather –  we’re mostly half-day gardeners, with one or two stalwart all-day workers)

 

Preparing to order seeds

Preparing to order seeds: 6 steps + 3 extra tips

Leeks grow slowly. Sow in March to have seedlings this size in May. Order seed soon! Photo Pam Dawling

There are lots of new gardeners now, as a result of the pandemic causing people to stay at home, cook more and want more food security without going inside grocery stores. Maybe last year you bought packets of seeds in a hurry, either online or off a rack in as store. Maybe you hope your garden will go more smoothly this year and I’m here with this blog post to help you.

Or perhaps you are a new professional grower, seeking to improve your game. Or an established one, looking to hang in there by farming smarter in these hard times.

‘Tis the season for garden planning. Inventory your seeds left from last year, peruse the catalogs and prepare your seed orders. The earlier you get them in, the more likely you are to get the varieties you want, before anything is sold out. Be prepared, note your second choice, and fend off disappointment!

Vates kale seedlings for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

I have a course on garden planning for home gardeners, on the Mother Earth Fair Online. It consists of eight half-hour workshops, covering all aspects of garden planning from clarifying your goals, choosing crops, making maps of what will go where, planning when you want to harvest, determining how long your rows will be and how much seed to order, deciding when to plant and scheduling everything to make the year go smoothly. There are also workshops on ways to pack more in, and how to be prepared for things that don’t go according to plan!

Mother Earth News Fair

Commercial growers and energetic home growers will also be interested in the information on garden planning in my book Sustainable Market Farming.

I have a couple of slideshows on SlideShare.net,

See Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production 2019 Pam Dawling

To view it full screen, click the diagonal arrow in the lower right.

For long-term soil health and sustainability, think about crop rotations. See Crop rotations for vegetables and cover crops 2014, Pam Dawling

Buckwheat seedlings. Buckwheat is our quickest easiest summer cover crop.
Photo Pam Dawling

 First, a basic 6 steps of garden planning

  1. See How to Decide Which Crops to Grow.

Think about what you grew last year, and whether you want the same again. Think about what you wished you’d grown. Every year we try to introduce a new crop or two, on a small scale, to see if we can add it to our “portfolio.” Some-times we can successfully grow a crop that is said not to thrive in our climate. (Brussels sprouts really don’t). We like to find the varieties of each crop that do best for our conditions. Later we check how the new varieties do compared with our old varieties. We use heirloom varieties if they do well, hybrids if they are what works best for us. We don’t use treated seeds or GMOs, because of the wide damage we believe they do. For ideas of what you might grow, see our Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Crop.

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in a Winstrip tray
Photo Pam Dawling

2. Are any of your leftover seeds OK to keep?

See making an inventory, and Ordering seeds! Seed Viability Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook. Frank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

Seeds stored in glass jars
Photo courtesy of Monticello

A simplified version of how long to keep seeds is as follows:

  • Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera
  • 2 years: Corn, Beans and Peas of all kinds, Chives, Dandelion, Martynia, Okra, Onions,
  • 3 years: Asparagus, Carrots, Leeks, Rutabagas, Turnips,
  • 4 years: Artichokes, Basil, Cardoons, Chard, Peppers, Pumpkins, Spinach, Squash, and Watermelons,
  • 5 years: Beets, most Brassicas, Celery, Celeriac, Chicory, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Endive, Lettuce, Muskmelons, Tomatoes,

Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce).

The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. Keep seed cool, dark, dry in airtight, mouseproof containers.

An old hand-drawn map of one of our garden areas.
Image Pam Dawling
  1. How Much of What to Grow?

Make a rough map of your garden space and see what will fit. Remember you can plant a later crop in the same space after an earlier one finishes. See below for more info on quantities of potatoes and garlic, two staples.

  • How Much Garlic to Plant

A yield ratio of 1:6 or 7 seems typical, and makes complete sense when you consider you are planting one clove to get a bulb of 6–7 cloves. Divide the amount you intend to produce by six to figure out how much to plant. For large areas 750–1,000 lbs/ac (842–1,122 kg/ha) are needed for plantings in double rows, 3″–4″ in-row (7.5–10 cm), beds 39″ (1 m) apart. For single rows, 8 lbs (3.6 kg) of hardneck or 4 lbs (1.8 kg) of softneck plants about 100′ (30 m). In the US, one person eats 3–9 lbs (1.4–4.2 kg) per year.

Music hardneck garlic.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
A row of potato seed pieces ready to cover.
Photo by Wren Vile
  1. How Much Seed to Order?

Hopefully you kept some kind of record on whether the amount you bought last year was enough. When we figure out how much seed to order we add in some extra for some things – crops that can be difficult to germinate, or we really don’t want to cut too close. We add 20 percent extra for most crops, but only 5 percent for kale, 10 percent for onions and collards and 30 percent for melons. These numbers are based on our experience – yours might be different. We also know which seed we can buy in bulk and use over several years. This gives us an additional security against poor germination, or plagues of grasshoppers or caterpillars. For me, a big bag of broccoli seed for each of our main varieties gives some kind of warm glow of horticultural security! Buying too much either leads to wasting money (if we throw it away) or wasting time and money (if we sow old seed that doesn’t come up well, then have a crop failure).

If you use spreadsheets, see my post Cooking Greens in December Special Topic: Ordering Seeds.

Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops. Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts – have your calculator at the ready, or easier still, just type “Convert ½ oz to grams”into your search engine.

 

  1. Choosing varieties.

See How to read seed catalogs for tips on getting what you really want by paying attention to what’s in the small print and what isn’t mentioned. We carefully look for varieties that offer the flavor, productivity and disease resistance we need. The catalogs are starting to appear in my mail box. The early bird catches the preferred varieties! The main companies we order from are Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and of course, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We like SESE for regionally adapted varieties, Fedco for great prices on bulk sizes, and Johnny’s for some varieties we really like that aren’t available from the other two.

 

  1. Formatting and placing seed orders

We grow lots of different crops, so we make a spreadsheet, and include columns for the name of the supplier we buy each variety from (we just use the initial), the item number in the catalog, the packet size and the price. (Be careful though, if you carry this information over from year to year – prices change.) Once we have composed our total seed order, we sort the orders by the name of the supplier. Then we can calculate the total price for each supplier. This also gives us the opportunity to look at price breaks for large orders and move an item from one supplier to another, if that makes sense. At this point we usually make a cup of tea and reward ourselves with an “impulse buy” or two, if that doesn’t push us up into a higher shipping cost bracket or blow the budget. We place our orders online these days, nice and early, to increase the chances of getting exactly what we want.

Here are a few more thoughts on crops to consider:

  1. Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

For an overall sense of success, grow some “Insurance Crops”. These are reliable vegetable crops that grow without much attention and quietly wait until needed. Chard is one of those. We sow chard in April, after the early spring rush. We plan for it to provide us with leafy greens in the summer, after the brassicas have bolted. We prepare a bed, unroll hay mulch over it, then make “nests” in the hay for planting. Nests are holes in the hay down to soil level, at each spot where we want to plant. After transplanting. we water and tuck the hay tight around the plants to keep the weeds at bay. Some years there isn’t much demand for chard and we just leave it growing. If we need it, there it is with a generous supply of leaves. If we ignore it, nothing goes wrong. It’s worth having some crops like this in the garden, to help ensure there’s always something to eat.

Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

One year we grew Malabar spinach and it played a similar role: hot weather leafy cooking greens. Malabar can be used when small for salads, or when larger for cooking. It wasn’t hugely popular in either role, but it was beautiful. To be fair, I don’t think we did the best by it. Because it was new, and because it had the word “spinach” in its name, some cooks served large leaves for salad. Alone. I don’t recommend that.

Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Another insurance crop for us is asparagus beans, also known as yard long beans. Once trellised, the plants need no attention, other than regular picking. If not picked, the pods grow puffy and useless, so this is not a crop to ignore for too long. Asparagus beans are related to southern peas (cowpeas), and are more resistant to Mexican bean beetles than regular green beans are. They do need trellising, but once you’ve done that, the same plants will feed you all season. Very little seems to trouble them.

West Indian gherkins on a trellis.
Photo by Nina Gentle

While we’re on the topic of crops that do need trellising, but can then produce all season, I’ll add in the West Indian gherkins. I found I did need to tuck these plants into the netting, so they weren’t work free. But the plants were disease-free and very productive. If you have trouble with regular pickling cucumbers, you might sow some of these as well, to be sure of being able to have something to pickle.

Another insurance crop is Tokyo bekana, or its cousin Maruba Santoh in late summer as a substitute for lettuce. It can be hard to germinate lettuce in hot weather, but these tender brassicas germinate under hot conditions and produce fast-growing very tender leaves with crunchy stems. Some people don’t know they’re not eating lettuce!

Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile

Senposai is a cooking green that does well in spring and fall outdoors, and in our hoophouse in the winter. It’s fast-growing, productive, disease-resistant, easy to cook and delicious to eat.  In spring it needs an early start in our climate, so that it has time to be productive before it bolts. In fall it’s cold-hardy down to 12F.  Its Achilles Heel is that it can really attract Harlequin bugs! We did spend time every day for a while squashing the bugs on the senposai leaves, and we made a difference in the number of bugs.

Well, I hope this has given you some thoughts about ordering seeds of some insurance crops for next year, when you plan your seed order.

  1. VEGETABLE CROPS THAT OFFER FAST RETURNS

Because things can go wrong in agriculture, (we are, after all, not in control of the universe!) I like to have on hand seeds for fast-growing crops that can fill unexpected gaps.

Some Eat-All Greens in early November.
Photo Lori Katz
  1. Eat-All Greens

Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening introduces us to the concept of Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives. I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, as our spring planted greens only have a short season before they bolt. And summer is too hot, winter too cold. . . We sowed in mid-September.

These can also be insurance crops, in that, if you don’t need them, you can cut and compost them, to let fresh leaves grow. I wrote three posts on Eat-All Greens, because they were such fun and so productive

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm, Daniel Mays

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm: How to Start and Run a Profitable Market Garden That Builds Health in Soil, Crops, and Communities 

Daniel Mays, Storey Publishers, 2020. 230 pages, color photos throughout, $24.95.

The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm is a great help to those moving towards more No-Till. This book is full of practical details, and efficient and effective no-till practices, such as how to manage large tarps. This is also a beautiful book. The photos are crisp and inspiring, the drawings clear and informative, the charts well organized and easy to use. The aerial photo shows a poster-farm! Frith Farm is a small-acreage vegetable farm using raised beds, in the style of Jean-Martin Fortier, Ben Hartman, Curtis Stone and others. “No-till human-scale farming is about so much more than avoiding tillage.” Here we can learn about healthy soil, high productivity, fewer weeds, lower costs and a more natural way of growing food.

We have had several new books on no-till in the past year or so. I have reviewed Bryan O’Hara’s No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, and Andrew Mefferd’s Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers. Any reduction in tillage is a good step: you don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere. I’m glad we’ve moved on from the early no-till days when it was considered that all tilling was always bad, but practical advice was lacking.

The book includes some hard-to-find topics, such as acquiring capital, designing and setting out drainage and irrigation systems for both drip and sprinklers, and integrating livestock in a vegetable farm. Minor grumble: the index seems a little light. Fortunately, the book, like Frith Farm, is well-organized, and topics are easy to find.

Daniel started Frith Farm in Scarborough, Maine, in 2010, in his mid-twenties, borrowing $180,000 at 3.8% interest and buying a property with five open acres and a crumbling house and barn.  He had “eighteen years of expensive education and an embarrassing lack of hard skills.” His first year, he provided for a 40-member CSA from less than one acre. The farm now supplies a 150-member CSA, four natural food stores, a farmers’ market and a farm stand. They sell about $300,000 worth of food, using 2.5 acres in cultivation and 2.5 acres of pasture. Almost all of the work is done by hand, by a crew working  a 45-hour-week for 8 months, then having four months off.

Daniel recommends consistent bed dimensions, even if compromising the land geometry. He has 16 plots of 12 beds, each 100ft long, on 5ft centers. This bed-width increases the amount of growing space compared to 30ins beds. He’s over 6ft tall, so jumping over a bed is no problem. I don’t know about the rest of the crew. There are driveable surfaces between the plots and wood chip paths between beds. Without tilling, you minimize erosion, and the conventional wisdom of keeping rows across the slope, not up and down it, isn’t so vital.

Daniel recommends soil testing and an initial supply of inputs to jump start your soil health and enable you to earn a living. You’ll probably be buying compost your first year: 54 cubic yards ($25-$50/cubic yard) will provide 3ins cover on 6,000 sq ft (one Frith Farm plot). Once biological soil health is established, few imported soil amendments will be needed. You will need lots of mulch every year, such as leaves, straw, woodchips. Frith Farm uses 130 cubic yards of leaves per acre each year.

To go from a grass field to a set of ready-to-plant beds, some no-till growers do one initial tilling and maybe subsoiling to establish beds (rent or borrow the equipment). Daniel says “Don’t let purism keep you from actually breaking ground – it is better to start farming imperfectly than never to start at all!” Frith Farm tills with a Berta rotary plow on their BCS walking tractor, one 10ins strip at a time. We use a Berta plow to remake paths in our raised beds – it is a wonderful tool for that.

A second method of killing grasses and weeds is to mow closely and smother the plants with tarps. This takes 3-52 weeks, depending on the weather and plant species. This works for beds you plan to bring into production next year. Use a 5-6 mil thick black and white silage trap, black side up. Weight and wait! Daniel’s ingenious “tarp kit” consists of a pallet with enough cinder blocks to hold down a 24×100 ft tarp, which is folded and set up on top of the blocks, safely out of the way of tractor forks. The kit is moved to the next site, then returned to the pallet when its work is done. I’ve been interested in trying tarping, but muscling huge sheets of silage tarp and enough weights to hold it down was quite off-putting. Here’s an answer!

When you and the dead plants are ready, remove the tarp, spread compost thickly and plant. If the soil is compacted, use a broadfork before spreading compost. Tarping is also a valuable method for flipping beds between one crop and the next.

A third method of establishing new beds is to mow, amend the soil, cover the whole area with thick mulch, topped with compost and plant into that. To succeed, use an initial layer that lets no light through.  This method involves lots of work and mulch.

Seedling production is major at Frith Farm, as transplanting fits well with no-till. They recommend 500 sq ft of greenhouse space per acre of field production. They have some very practical “benches” which are sawhorses topped by custom pallets holding 12 standard 1020 flats. Two people can carry a full pallet, saving lots of time transferring one flat at a time.

Frith Farm uses soil blocks, mixing in a cement mixer. Winstrip trays are much quicker than making blocks, but they prefer the smaller cost and space saving of soil blocks. They use four sizes of standup blockers, but not the ¾” miniblocks, because those dry out too fast. They have tried the paperpot planter and found it unsuccessful when planting into stubble, worth considering before spending $3000.

One key to successful transplanting is appreciating the sublime experience of setting a plant in the ground with your own hands. Another is to have enough hands to get the job done! A third is watering soon after planting. They use a rolling Infinite Dibbler, a homemade oil-drum dibbler and a special 6-plant garlic dibbler For direct seeding, Daniel likes the humble Earthway seeder, even using it for cover crop seeds (the beet plate for the grasses). The Earthway is rugged, affordable, and works well in no-till beds.

Irrigation is another aspect of vegetable production that Daniel has well figured out. Here is a good clear explanation about well depth, flow, recharge rates, costs, water quality and all the facts you never needed to know if you use city water. The book includes a very clear pipe layout superimposed on the bed plan.

Daniel will help you decide between drip irrigation and sprinklers (or some of each). He recommends Senninger Xcel Wobblers with a 1gpm flow each, covering 6 beds with a line of 4 sprinklers. They run 12 sprinklers at once. This kind of detailed step-by-step calculation can be hard to find. Here’s another instance where the book pays for itself with just one piece of information! Daniel uses driptape only for long-season crops that are prone to foliar diseases, otherwise, he likes the simplicity of sprinklers. Follow Daniel’s advice and bury all main and lateral pipelines deep enough not to hit them when digging. A hose reel cart is a helpful thing to have to make hand-watering less of a tangled mess.

Daniel avoids rowcover unless a crop has two reasons simultaneously. Pests and diseases indicate imbalance, underlying issues with soil health, crop rotation, biodiversity. Work to rebalance and make improvements. Work towards being a No-Spray farm as well as No-Till.

The chapter on weeds opens with the saying “We till because we have weeds because we till . . .!” Weeds are an ecological mechanism for keeping the soil covered and full of roots. The “simple” solution of never letting weeds seed is less work in the long run, more work at first. It relies on working only the amount of land you have enough skilled hands to deal with. Two skilled fulltime workers per acre.

When is thick mulch not helpful? In early spring when you want to warm the soil. At Frith Farm, the soil is frozen from November to late March. Beds that finish too late to plant an overwinter cover crop get composted and covered in leaf mulch. They rake this leaf mulch off the beds into the paths in early spring, and spread a layer of compost on the beds, allowing some warm-up time. The dark compost absorbs the heat from the sun.

“Flipping the bed” after a crop may be simple if it was a root crop with few weeds. If the crop leaves a lot of bulky residues, mowing and tarping can restore the soil to a usable state in 5-10 days in warm weather. You may need to dig out perennial weeds, or add soil amendments, and another 7 barrows of compost per 100ft bed (2.5 cu yards/1000 sq ft), but soon you are good to go. They have a smooth compost spreading operation. A tractor driver delivers buckets of compost directly into wheelbarrows lined up at the head of the beds. People push the barrows down the paths, dumping out several shots of compost, raking the compost out to cover the whole bed surface.

Solarization with clear plastic during warm sunny weather is another way to kill weeds. If the edges of the plastic are buried, weed seeds and pathogenic fungal spores are also killed. If you want to kill weeds or crop residues without all the other life forms in the top layers of soil, using black plastic tarps is a safer way to go. The soil temperature does not get as high, but the removal of light does help kill plants. The book has a graph of days of tarping versus temperature. More than 25 days at an ambient temperature of 50F, about 9 at 65F, and only one day above 85F.

They have an ingenious foot-powered crimping tool for killing tall cover crops instead of mowing. Called the “T-post stomper”, this is a partner dance with one person at each end of a T-post lying across the bed. The T-post is tied with twine to the “inner” foot of each partner and includes a long twine loop that is hand-held.

No-till cover crop planning takes care. Plants die in three ways: they finish their lifecycle, they winterkill or they are starved of light or water. In no-till farming, the tools are the mower, winter, and tarping, or some combination of these. A sequence of photos shows beds from seeding the cover crop in September to healthy summer brassicas with no weeds in sight. A spring cover crop sequence shows peas and oats sown in April, tarped in June, direct seeded in storage radish in summer. Shorter sections on summer and fall cover crops follow.

Daniel has a chapter on integrating livestock with vegetable farming to increase diversity and net productivity of the farm. The symbiosis between soil, plants, animals can lead to creation of more soil, and increased fertility. Chickens are easy to keep, although if you want poultry that don’t scratch up the soil, get turkeys. (Daniel has a punny photo of turkey on rye.) Sheep are easier to fence than goats, and are smaller than cattle. Be wary of pigs. They can act like obsessed tillers and do lots of damage.

Harvested crops remove nutrients from the farm soil, and these nutrients can be replaced by farming for a very healthy soil biology. Healthy soil draws carbon and nitrogen from the air, and makes previously “inaccessible” stores of nutrients available to the following crops. Use compost, leaves and other organic mulches until you max out the recommended level of some nutrient. If your soil is then unbalanced, you will need to bring in missing nutrients.

The chapter on harvest sets out efficient user-friendly methods at Frith Farm. For a pleasant wash-pack space, you need a roof, a floor with good drainage (could be wood chips), mesh or slatted tables; hoses and sprayers; tanks to hold water; a salad spinner, a barrel root washer; good scales; flip-lid storage totes; walk-in coolers using CoolBot technology; and customized shelving. Think before buying a delivery truck – $1,500 worth of produce will fit in the back of a Prius! Almost no fuel costs! Daniel also recommends buying an insulated truck body to convert into a cooler. It can double as a screen for crew outdoor movie nights! Don’t forget to have fun!

We have a captive market at Twin Oaks (more politely called direct supply), so I‘m not the best reviewer of information about selling. But the section on their hiring process really grabbed me. “We are not just hiring a pair of hands to meet our labor needs; we are inviting someone into our community, our family, and our home.” Spell out and keep to high standards, provide a social experience, show care and camaraderie, train adequately, and compensate fairly. Interview well, check references, have a working interview (paid) if you can; write out your job offer. Provide guidelines with goals for pace and efficiency. Each person should be able to harvest, wash and pack about $80 worth of produce per hour. Share the joyful observations of life around you.

Daniel describes his recordkeeping, where the plan becomes the record. He recommends Holistic Management by Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield. Define your farms’ purpose, plan the season, plan the week. A plan is just a plan, sometimes plans change. Look for opportunities to record aggregate data, such as recording what you take to market and what you bring back, rather than each individual sale. At the end of the season, add up sales for each crop and divide by the number of beds to calculate the revenue per bed, and the yield of that crop. Having standard sized beds makes this simple. Add into pre-existing records and eliminate multiple versions of the same data. Make one spreadsheet of notes for next year. You can sort it by crop or by month, or by plot number.

Their Plan for the Week is an online spreadsheet accessible to all via a laptop in the barn. (Obviously they have better internet than we do!) Each week has a tab, each day has a column, and each plot has a row with tasks, times and sometimes a name. Once a week, the crew walks the farm and makes the list for each day, including any tasks carried over. Nothing is erased (it becomes a record!) When someone completes a task, they use a strike-through font and add notes. At the end of each day, remaining tasks are reprioritized for the rest of the week. This spreadsheet becomes the farm journal, and is easily searchable.

Frith Farm has a four-year rotation starting with smothering followed by transplanted cucurbits or nightshades and a winter-killed cover crop. The second year involves brassicas followed by root crops, with mulch over-winter. The third year is devoted to repetitions of salad crops, and a winterkilled cover crop. The fourth year is for alliums and an over-wintering cover crop. Consider the crop spacing you need for the new crop, and the spacing of the stubble from the previous crop. You often don’t need a clear bed, just clear rows where you intend to plant.

During the winter they create their attractive crop rotation plan where each plot has 12 rows (for the beds), with “under-rows” (for under-sowing) and 12 columns (for the months). It’s color coded for quick reference. From that rotation plan, they create a Greenhouse Plan and a Seed Order.

Next is a Harvest Plan for each harvest day, starting with walking the fields to take notes, balancing what is mature with what is needed. The evening before, the harvest manager makes a list of crops, quantities, and picking order. Each harvest day has a tab on the online spreadsheet, with a row for each crop. The sheet for that day is posted by the time the crew arrives. In this case, pickers use a pen to indicate who is picking what, when it’s done. People work down the list in order, taking the crops to the wash-pack station. That crew cleans the produce and stores it in a cooler, labeled with its destination.

There is a table of revenue data for 16 top-earning vegetables. (The other 45 crops are not shown.) In terms of revenue per bed, ginger wins at $2442, but it is in place all year (and I think it is in high tunnels). Taking bed-months into account, ginger still wins, but arugula is chasing it. Radishes don’t so well in revenue per bed-season, nor do onions and beets. Frith Farm does not record labor per crop. CSA growers need to provide variety, not just the “most profitable” crops.

Success includes sustainability, considering the people and the planet as well as the profit. Profit can be understood as ability to reinvest. Exactly where the profits end up is important, and to his credit, Daniel includes his 2018 farm revenue and where it went. Of the total $314,000, $120,000 went to the farm crew (an investment in the local community that makes the farm productive); $11,000 to family loan payments. $92,000 went back to the land (infrastructure, seeds and local biomass). $91,000 left the area, for taxes, insurance, fees, tools and equipment, and non-local inputs including the energy bill.

Purchases like plastic mulch, fossil fuels and manufactured equipment are part of a linear process that essentially convert resources to pollution. Strong words, and why not? We need to each face the full effect of our production.

Frith Farm works to increase food access to people in the community who cannot afford the usual prices of healthy food. They accept SNAP and WIC, donations, and offer gleaning groups the chance to help food pantries. They have sliding scale pricing, barter, work trades, and ride shares, all of which they advertise widely.

On the ecological front, their no-till practices are working daily to increase carbon sequestration by increasing organic matter (less than 4% in 2011, over 10% in 2019). A one per cent increase in OM in the top 10” of an acre of soil removes about 8.5 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Daniel Mays
Photo Storey Publishers

Root Crops in December

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in December

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

Reread Root Crops in October for more ideas of things you might plant, if you are in a much warmer climate zone than us. We are in winter-hardiness subzone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C). We’re not planting anything outdoors in central Virginia in December. But in the hoophouse, we are sowing a couple of things.

Eliot Coleman has given the name Persephone Days to those with less than 10 hours of daylight, when little plant growth happens. Here in central Virginia, the Persephone Days last from November 21 to January 21.  Further north, the period is longer, and it is necessary to grow more of what you want to eat in winter and keep it in a holding pattern to see you through to the other side of the Persephone Days. The holding pattern could be crops in storage, which I wrote about in Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in November. Or it could be crops in the ground in a hoophouse.

Temperature also contributes to rate of growth and this is where hoophouse crops score big! It can be a lot warmer during sunny days inside a hoophouse, and our double-plastic hoophouse keeps nighttime temperatures about 8F (4.5C) degrees warmer than outdoors, sometimes 10F (5.5C) degrees warmer. In addition, plants can tolerate lower temperatures inside a hoophouse. The soil stays warmer and the plants recover in the warmer daytime conditions (it seems to be the night+day average temperature that counts). We find, in practice, the period of slowest growth here is December 15 to February 15: still two months long, but lagging the shortest days by three weeks. It takes time for the soil to cool down in late fall and time for it to warm up in early spring.

Hoophouse radishes and Yukina Savoy in December.
Photo Wren Vile

In our double-layer hoophouse, plants without any inner rowcover can survive 14F (7.7C) degrees colder than they could survive outside; with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan) inner covers, at least 21F (11.6C) degrees colder than outside. For example, salad greens in our hoophouse can survive nights with outdoor lows of 14°F (-10°C). Turnips (and many cooking greens) survived a hoophouse temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with.

In early December, we sow turnips #3. We sow Hakurei, Early White Egg, Oasis, and Red Round. They will struggle a bit to grow, so they are only worth sowing if we thin them promptly and harvest them on the small size, as the plants will start bolting in early March. See Root Crops in October, for details of thinning and harvesting.

In late December, we sow hoophouse radishes #5, Easter Egg and White Icicle. Cherry Belle and Sparkler types grow too fibrous at this time of year. See Root Crops in September for more about our succession of hoophouse radish sowing dates. Unlike the late October sowing which lasts for 8 weeks, the November sowing will only be good for the (slow-growing) four weeks of February, and this late December one for four weeks from mid-February to mid-March. In this case, it is because the temperature in the hoophouse and the daylength will have increased by then and the radishes will grow fast and start bolting.

Young Red Round turnips in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in December

In central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in December except parsnips. Jerusalem artichokes are hardy down to 0°F (-18°C), but we haven’t grown those in decades. Horseradish is similarly hardy, but not a mainstay of nutrition. The months with R in them are the horseradish harvest months. This is not woo-woo, it happens that September to April have R in them, and the summer months do not!

Horseradish regrowing up through the mulch in early spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

If temperatures have not yet dropped to 12°F/-11°C, we could dig Danvers carrots, Cylindra beets, and any rowcovered rutabagas (swedes). Albina Verduna, and Lutz Winterkeeper beets are hardy down to 15°F (-9.5°C), as are most kohlrabi and rowcovered turnips. But we don’t take that chance. We like to gather our root crops in and have them safely stored. We also like to put our feet up more in December!

Covered beets, covered winter radish are OK down to 10°F (-12°C).

In the hoophouse we can harvest radishes #2 until 12/25, #3 (sown October 30) from 12/15 to 2/1. We harvest our first turnips (sown around October 13) as thinnings from November 29 and by pulling out the biggest from December 5, until mid-February, by which time we can have made a start on the second sowing (October 25).

Turnips in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Wren Vile

See my list of Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables 2020 for a more complete picture of “Harvesting in Time”

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in December

From storage we can eat (if we grew them!) beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, turnips. Stored crops need to be visited at least once a month and checked for decay.

In our winter squash cage we keep some pancake turners rejected by the kitchen crew. If a squash is having a meltdown, I slide it onto a tray or a bucket lid and throw it outside. The first time I did that this year, I made the mistake of sliding a second squash on top of the first on my bucket lid. The first one couldn’t support the weight of the second. Messy! Sliding them into a bucket would have been safer.

A fine winter squash medley (no, they’re not root crops!)
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Special Root Crop Topic for December in Central Virginia

Crop Review and Planning Part One

This is a wider task, not restricted to root crops. In November we have a Crop Review, and then start to plan our crops for next year. We like to get our seed orders in early, to maximize our chances of getting the varieties and quantities we’d like. Some seeds might be in short supply this time, because of all the new gardeners and Covidsteaders that joined our ranks this year.

We consider how well our crops did in terms of plant vigor, disease-resistance, yield, quality, flavor and timing. Did they come in all at once? A benefit for storage crops or those you might sell wholesale. Not so great if you want an extended harvest period.

Planting dates, soil quality, sufficiency (or otherwise) of pest and weed control, plant protection from the elements are all factors that affect yield and crop quality. We can plan to make changes to those things next year. We can decide to plant a different amount, or spread out the planting dates. This can lead to a new calculation of how much seed to buy for the coming year.

By now the seed catalogs are starting to arrive and we can look at what varieties are on offer. Is there a faster-growing turnip? A different carrot we’d like to try? Something with more resistance to the disease we noticed this past year? Something more recommended for our climate or region? While you’re browsing, make a back-up plan if you can’t get your first choice, either from the same catalog, or another.

Hoophouse turnips and baby lettuce mix in December (note the low sun angles!)
Photo Wren Vile

New and Upcoming Online Events 2020-2021

I’m making this extra mid-week post because I haven’t offered many events this year, and you may have stopped looking on my Events Page!

Click here Make the most of the offseason by getting a step up on planning next year’s garden with this informative and enlightening course from author and Fair speaker Pam Dawling. Workshops include setting your garden goals (how to plan and which crops to grow), mapping, crop rotations, growing transplants, scheduling seedlings, interplanting, contingency plans, and so much more! (Note: If you’ve registered for the All-Access bundle, you now have access to this course!)

Mother Earth News Fair Online

My new contribution to the Mother Earth Fair Online has just arrived – a Garden Planning Course of eight workshops, with handouts, and a resource list.

Workshops include setting your garden goals (how to plan and which crops to grow), mapping, crop rotations, figuring out how much to grow of what, growing transplants, scheduling seedlings, interplanting, contingency plans, and so much more!

Click here to read more and sign up. You can get my Garden Planning course for $20 or the 2021 All-Access Package at $2.99/month or $35/year – the complete collection of online courses (currently 39) and recorded webinars – with more than a dozen new courses in the works! Each online course includes 6-8 video workshops of about 30 minutes each and supporting materials (called “handouts” in the days of physical in-person events).

I also have a workshop on Winter Cover Crops in the Winter Gardening course. There is a link to that course just below my photo on the page I linked to.

This can give you an inspiring way to invest some time this winter. We know lots of new gardens were started in 2020, and maybe you are dreaming of a bigger and/or better garden in 2021. Turn your dreams into plans and get off to a smooth start! 

This big Online Fair also makes a nice gift! (Scroll to the end of the View All Courses second page, for the All-Access Gift icon, 39 courses for $75. It includes a half-price offer on all courses that will be added during 2021.

———————————————————–

Organic Growers School 28th Annual Spring Conference

Online, March 13-21, 2021

The Organic Growers School Spring Conference 2021 is all virtual this time! Attendees will learn how to farm, garden and live organically through 12 tracks and more than 30 workshops.   You won’t have to choose between two or more great workshops that are on at the same time. This year you’ll be able to “attend” every one. In your pajamas if you want.

Kick-off Live Event on March 13, 2021  

  • Three live Keynote Talks
  • Teaser videos for our 12 Themed Tracks
  • Lunchtime Entertainment
  • A live Q&A with our Keynote speakers
  • A video social with other attendees
  • Access to our Exhibit Hall

March 14-19, 2021 – Themed Track Workshops

View 3 pre-recorded hour-long workshops in each of 12 Themed Tracks:

    • Keynote
    • Cherokee Foods
    • Cooking
    • Farming
    • Food Systems
    • Gardening
    • Herbs
    • Livestock
    • Mushrooms
    • Permaculture
    • Soils
    • Sustainable Living

March 20-21, 2021 – Live Track Closing Panel Discussion Sessions

  • Join a live Panel Discussion with each speaker from the Track workshops
  • Interact directly with panelists during the live Q & A portion

In the Gardening Track, Ira Wallace and I will be presenting The Seed Garden. Details to come, as we iron them out.

Garden cart with supplies for watermelon seed collection.
Photo Pam Dawling

I have been slow to join in the world of online events for a few reasons.

One is that in my rural county, we have poor internet connections and slow speed. I cannot reliably participate in a video conference where I’m one of the speakers. The service could just drop my connection at any time. This is a reality of many parts of rural America. We need something like the Rural Electrification Act to bring us into the 21st century. 2017 marked the 80th anniversary of that piece of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

A second reason is that I live as a member of Twin Oaks, an intentional community, where we share values of cooperation, sharing, nonviolence, equality, and ecology. We also share our resources. That includes our bandwidth. We have chosen not to spend a lot of our income on funding fast internet (it could be a deep black hole).

A third reason is that we have chosen to stay home as much as possible, to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection in our large household. Our group includes people who are more

vulnerable, due to age or health. We chose to self-quarantine, and think of ourselves as in a big bubble. It’s wonderful not to need masks or distancing at home. Anyone who goes off the farm has to be careful about masking and distancing, and about sanitizing on return, even quarantining alone for two weeks if the risk seems high. Going into a city to do video-conferencing is just not something I’m willing to do!

—————————————————————————————————————

Articles in Growing for Market

I’ve started a new run of writing articles in Growing for Market, a magazine. Upcoming is an article about collards. In recent months I’ve written about both wet and dry seed processing, planning garlic planting, and methods of growing sweet potato slips.

—————————————————————————————————————-

Articles in Mother Earth News

I have an article coming up in the Mother Earth News magazine, about making and using open wood flats for seedlings and transplants. I also contribute to their blog, in the Organic Gardening section.

Winter hoophouse growing

 

Hoophouse Yukina savoy at the end of November.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Last week I wrote about Winter Preparations for Vegetable Gardens. For those with a hoophouse, here are some notes on all the work we can do to grow winter crops there! For those without a hoophouse as yet, scroll to the end for Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

First, a roundup of previous blogposts on winter hoophouse topics.

Planning winter hoophouse crops includes a description of how we do our hoophouse crop planning so we can maintain a crop rotation and still pack the beds fully with hardy crops.

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

Hoophouse fall bed prep Plans A-D and spider-webs includes some lovely spider photos and a short video of ballooning, as well as info about our first-planted winter crops.

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

Young greens in the hoophouse

After the set-backs with our winter hoophouse greens transplants that I wrote about in Hoophouse fall bed prep Plans A-D and spider-webs, we worked really hard and got the whole house planted up. Most of the transplants have recovered from their transplant shock (wilting each day), during the cloudy weather we had.

The new seedlings are coming up fast and calling on us to thin them. We ended up not needing so many of the Plan D plug flat plants, but we’ve kept them for now “in case” .

Plan D: Winstrip seed flats in our hoophouse on Oct 16, a late attempt to catch up!
Photo Pam Dawling

Ultimately if we don’t need them, they’ll go in a salad mix. I wrote about Making baby salad mix last year. The past two days I have been able to harvest a mix in the hoophouse. The ingredient we are shortest of is lettuce. My first mix was spinach, Bulls Blood beet leaves, a few leaves of Tokyo Bekana, Bright Lights chard, Scarlet Frills, Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills, and a handful of lettuce leaves Red Tinged Winter is growing fastest, of all the varieties we planted this year.

Sowing hoophouse winter crops includes some discussion of the tools we like; pre-sprouting spinach seed and growing multi-leaf lettuce.

What’s growing in the hoophouse; reading; planning for winter is an October view of crops.

Frilly Mustards in our Winter Hoophouse is exactly what it sounds like. Four sowings, six varieties. All delicious.

Making baby salad mix includes a discussion of ingredients and methods, balancing nutrition, color, shape and loft.

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

Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest, our January 2018 assessment of the varieties we grew that winter and which survived the unusually cold spell we had. Includes sad photos of the casualties!

Also see my Mother Earth News blogpost from August 2018 Grow Great Lettuce in Winter

———————————————————–

Hoophouse seedlings growing outdoors under insect netting. Starting transplants outdoors helps the rotation by reducing the time the crop is growing in the hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

Do you value crop rotation in your hoophouse?

In the winter 2019-2020, a reader in the Pacific Northwest wrote: “This winter I have been re-thinking my crop rotation plan after having some issues (with flea beetle larvae in the soil outsmarting my diligent insect netting of my brassica salad crops). These days I see intensive market gardeners seeming to not worry so much about rotation (i.e. Neversink farm, etc), and yet I’ve always been taught that it is such an important principle to follow. I reviewed your slideshows on crop rotation and also cool crop planning in the greenhouse (which briefly addresses salad brassica rotation with other crops). With how much space I have and the high demand I have for brassicas, for salad mix (mustards) and also the more mainstay cole crops, I had settled on a 2.5 yr between brassica crop rotation (but planting two successions of mustards in the same bed within one year, in the year the bed was in mustards, with a lettuce or other crop breaking up the successions, with the idea that they were very short day and also light feeder crops). Wondering if you think this just doesn’t sound cautious enough, or if this sounds like a reasonable compromise with not having more space to work with (and wanting to satisfy the market demand for brassicas).”

I replied: “Yes, I do think crop rotation is important. I do know some farms seem to have given it up. I think what you are seeing shows one reason why rotation is important. In our hoophouse, we do as you do, allocating brassicas to a space for that winter season and perhaps doing more than one round of brassica crops. Then moving away from brassicas for the next two winters. If doing that doesn’t get rid of the flea beetle problem, and you are being thorough about netting with small-enough mesh netting (sounds like you are, but maybe check the mesh size), then my next step would be spinosad when the flea beetles appear. You can spray the inside of the netting too, and close it quickly. It’s that or a longer rotation, which it sounds like is not financially viable. You could also try farmscaping and/or importing predatory insects (not sure if there are any), Are there beneficial nematodes that attack flea beetle larvae? These are things I don’t know about, but might be worth looking into.”


Doing a spot of research today, I find that Heterorhabditis bacteriaphora, (Hb nematodes) a beneficial nematode fromArbico Organics will attack flea beetles. also known as NemaSeek, and sold separately. This is the wrong time of year for introducing nematodes in most of the US. They need warm weather to thrive.

Another suggestion from Arbico is BotaniGard Maxx & other B. bassiana sprays, which infect and kill adult flea beetles. Repeat applications as needed throughout the growing season.

Kaolin clay (Surround) is another possibility.

Also see Harvest to Table on the topic of dealing with flea beetles

———————————————————–

View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

Add a hoophouse to your food production

For those of you wistfully thinking about a hoophouse, let me help you a step closer to having one next year! Sales of my Year-Round Hoophouse book are doing well, which suggests to me that quite a few gardeners and growers are thinking in this direction.

Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

  1. An extended growing season because plants are protected from cold weather.
  2. Faster growth and higher total yields.
  3. Beautiful unblemished crops not battered by the elements.
  4. Fewer foliar diseases because the leaves can stay dry.
  5. Crop survival at lower temperatures in the hoophouse than is possible outdoors.
  6. Better crop recovery in winter due to warm sunny days following the cold nights.
  7. Some protection from deer and other pests large and small.
  8. Soil temperature stays above 50F (10C) in zone 6b. Warm soil = faster cold weather growth.
  9. Higher proportion of usable crops – more food, higher sales dollars.
  10. Diverse crop portfolio – grow crops that wouldn’t succeed outdoors in your climate.
  11. Harvest whenever you need the crops, even during pouring rain!
  12. Wonderful working conditions – no need for gloves and hats; take off your coat.
  13. A food garden on a manageable scale.
  14. A place to enjoy practicing intensive food production.
  15. The chance to have an area completely free of weeds – new weed seed doesn’t blow in.
  16. No need to work with heavy machinery.
  17. Much better value for producing crops (per dollar invested) than a heated greenhouse.
  18. Can be constructed by generally-handy people. Specialists are not needed.
  19. NRCS grants are available for some hoophouses. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, High Tunnel System Initiative.
  20. Ecological energy use. The embodied energy of the plastic is less than the energy that would be used to ship similar produce from somewhere warmer (Eliot Coleman, Four Season Harvest). Another study found this was not true for smaller (9 x 12 m) hoophouses – although the economic incentive for growers is still true, there is no energy efficiency advantage to the planet. Smaller carbon footprint: shipping 1 kg lettuce has 4.3 times the CO2 footprint of locally grown hoophouse lettuce. Plawecki, R., Pirog, R., Montri, A., & Hamm, M. (2014). Comparative carbon footprint assessment of winter lettuce production in two climatic zones for Midwestern market. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 29(4), 310-318. doi:10.1017/S1742170513000161.
September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile

———————————————————–

Know your climate

WeatherSpark climate summary for Louisa, Virginia. Go to the website to click for more information

The WeatherSpark website provides “The Typical Weather Anywhere on Earth”. Enter your nearest town or airport and you get clearly explained info with fascinating graphics of how the weather goes over the year in your locality. Note this is not a forecast site, it’s about average weather for each place. Useful to people who’ve recently moved and want to know what to expect this winter, or to new gardeners who haven’t paid so much attention previously. Or to those who want to check their assumptions (I really thought the wind was out of the west more of the time than records say). There are charts of high and low temperature, temperature by the hour each month, cloud cover, daily chance of precipitation (both rainfall and snowfall), hours of daylight, humidity, wind speed and direction and solar energy. A big help in making wise decisions. I know that climate change is going to cause havoc with averages, and we’ll need to learn to become better weather forecasters individually, and to use soil temperature and other metrics to decide when to plant. This website explains things well.

———————————————————–

Winter gives a time for most of us to ponder success, failure, and possibilities for doing things differently.