Book Review: Whole Farm Management from Start-Up to Sustainability, Garry Stephenson

Book Review: Whole Farm Management from Start-Up to Sustainability,

edited by Garry Stephenson et al, Storey Publishers, 2019. 312 pages, 8” x 10” format, full color photos throughout, $26.95

This is an encouraging and inspiring practical resource for beginning farmers and those growing and maintaining a farm business. It uses examples drawn from twelve farms (16 farmers). Nine of the farms are in Oregon, with one each in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. As for diversity, three of the twelve farms have people farming while black, one has an Asian-American family, and there is a range of family relationships, including single farmers. What this book is not: how to grow lettuce, how to practice rotational grazing, how to slaughter chickens, how to prune apple trees.

Whole Farm Management is based on the curriculum from the Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems at Oregon State University. The course is available online, and focuses on small-scale organic and sustainable agriculture through the Extension Service Small Farms Program. Royalties from book sales will support OSU beginning farmer education.

“Operating a farm business requires managing dreams, crops, people, markets, money and reality.” Whole Farm Management blends advice and inspiration from experienced farmers with guidance from ag educators. Recognizing the Manage/Learn/Succeed cycle, one of the farmers advises “You can’t know it all at once. Growing is where it starts. You have to know you can grow something before you can figure out how to sell it. But once you grow it, you have to figure out how to market. And once you’ve sold a few things, then you’re in a position to ask: can I afford to keep doing this?”

The first one to three years of farming are about proving we can grow and sell. The next couple of years are more deliberate, less frantic. The next few years focus on how to make money. After that the question becomes “We can. Should we?” In terms of using the book, if you are in the first few years of farming, you know you can’t learn everything at once. You grab onto the bits of information you know you need. You skip over the things you don’t see an immediate need for. Learning is endless. How do you define success? Success can include the elements of social, operational, lifestyle and financial well-being.

The book follows the logical progression of training used in the OSU Growing Farms program and we can all benefit from following their well-traveled ten-year path. One or two individual farms are introduced in each chapter to illustrate particular points or aspects and the photos draw us in. There are six sections, each opening with a list of what you’ll be able to do after reading that chapter:

  1. Dream It – Strategic Planning. (Values, vision, mission; assessing your resources and needs; creating a foundation that matches your plan with your resources.)
  2. Do It – Farm Infrastructure, Labor and Energy. (How to put your resources – equipment, infrastructure, people, processes – to work.)
  3. Sell It – Markets and Marketing. (Developing a marketing strategy in line with your farm values, vision, mission before deciding what you will grow or raise.)
  4. Manage It – Business Management for the Farm. (Learning to be successful.)
  5. Grow It – Managing the Whole Farm Ecosystem. (Understanding the big picture and the basic principles and practices of sustainable agriculture.)
  6. Keep It – Entrepreneurship, Family Business Dynamics, and Managing Risk. (Planning for the long haul.)

These chapters are followed by appendices with 23 worksheets (also available online from Storey Publishers) and resources.

The arrangement of the book facilitates the learning style/stages the editor recognizes as the real way people learn. This is a book to browse initially, reading the farm profiles to get inspiration, and then return to more methodically learn specific information and skills, using the text and the worksheets. Thus fortified, you’ll be ready to assess what you need to focus on learning next. By clarifying priorities and direction, this approach helps avoid panic and the feeling of being over-whelmed.

In chapter 2 six of the farmers share their experiences about essential equipment and infrastructure, to help new farmers make a shopping list. Here is information about different systems of irrigation (although biased towards methods for Western soils). In Oregon, you can’t farm without Water Rights. For Easterners, it can be hard to understand, as can using glacier water, snow melt or getting only 9” of rain a year. I got lost on the explanation of water drawdown and pressure head requirements. A case of skimming or skipping what you don’t need to know!

In the chapter on Markets and Marketing, six of the farms discuss aspects such as envisioning the market that will meet your needs, overcoming challenges, keeping your focus on values and goals, listening to customers, adapting a CSA model, and evolving marketing strategies over time. This chapter also looks at agritourism, u-pick, farm stands, wholesale and retail markets, and pricing.

Garry Stephenson

Business Management will be vital, sooner or later in your journey. It is a process of continuous learning, continuous improvement. Here is a four-part cycle of planning and setting financial goals; implementing your plan; keeping records; assessing and analyzing your season, then round to more planning. If you want to earn your living from farming, here’s the help you might need. Consider expenses as well as sales, understand depreciation, calculate your profit (your earnings). Remember to include your management overhead time, such as making a new To Do List. Find out if it’s a better use of your time to make hay or buy it. Plan your cash flow month-by-month over the whole year, to make sure there are no avoidable dips into the red. Learn various ways farmers manage cash flow and get loans when needed. Here’s help choosing an accounting system and a record-keeping method. Here are explanations of all the accounting terms that might have left you with a sinking feeling. As Melanie Kuegler of Blue Fox farm says in closing the chapter, “So our highest value is making sure that we’re all taken care of while producing good product for people.”

Chapter 5 on Managing the Whole Farm Ecosystem starts by reviewing the key elements needed to create a successful farm business. This chapter helps you see the whole woodland, not just the trees. Here we look at planning, and contrast that with intervention (what you do when the plan doesn’t work out). For example, in sustainable pest control, the planning might include ways to create healthy crops/livestock to resist pests; making it difficult for pests to settle in and reproduce; boosting populations of beneficial organisms. Intervention includes what you do when pest problems happen. The best interventions include adjusting your plans for the future to avoid that problem. This chapter includes cycles of energy flow, nitrogen, carbon, water, all to help us come up with strong integrated production strategies. Reading the accounts of how various farmers dealt with problems and adjusted their plan contains food for thought for all of us.

The last chapter is guidance on keeping the farm over the long haul. Risk Management is exactly as it sounds. In farming there is always risk. There are so many variables, and some of them we don’t control. We seek the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference, as Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity prayer puts it. Also the skill to mitigate the impact of things we cannot control but may be able to change a bit. This chapter helps us understand business opportunities, legal requirements and options, and the challenges and rewards of farming. It helps us identify steps to address risk. Several business structures are compared, along with possible interpersonal dynamics. Planning for the long term future includes handing on the farm to the next farmers, whether those are family members or not. Licenses and certifications need to be attended to, and the farmers in this book explain how they tackle those regulations and use them to distinguish the quality of their business and farm products.

The text ends with a short section of challenges and advice from seven of the farms. Staying sane by separating farm work life from non-work life; avoiding burnout by having enough workers that no-one over-does it; taking a day off each week; giving some attention to the health of the farmers as well as the soil, crops and livestock; being really clear about why you are choosing this life; accepting results that are good enough rather than being a perfectionist; distinguishing your farm by doing something superb and/or unusual; paying attention, studying and reading, talking with more experienced farmers; enjoying the sense of satisfaction and pride.

Whole Farm Management is a valuable book to make farming sustainable for the farmers, who can then provide good food for people, and contribute to a better world.

New Page of Videos and Podcasts Added

 

This is a bonus blog post!

Like almost everyone else, I’m at home, under the Virginia Governor’s Stay-At-Home order. Our farm is closed to anybody coming in, except for pre-arranged deliveries.

More people with more time at home might need more sources of information, I thought. Of course, growing food never stops, and gardening and farming are so satisfying. Fresh air is good for our health.

I made up a new page (see menu tabs at the top of each page) with things that I have done for you to watch and listen to. Here’s the newest out:

Podcasts

Oliver Goshey, Abundant Edge, March 2020

How to produce fresh food year-round, even in cold climates! With Pam Dawling, author of “The Year-Round Hoop House”

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And news from ATTRA:  

Spring Update: You can now download any of our technical materials for FREE!

ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program

“ATTRA is a program developed and managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). The majority of funding for ATTRA is through a cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service. We are also partially funded through sales and subscriptions of a portion of ATTRA materials and through contributions from friends and supporters. We are committed to providing high value information and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, Extension agents, educators, and others involved in sustainable agriculture in the United States.

NCAT strives to make our information available to everyone who needs it. If you are a limited-access or low-income farmer and find that one of our publications is just not in your budget, please call 800-346-9140.”

The information from ATTRA is reliable, thorough and farmable! Way back before the internet, they operated by phone and mailed out publications free of charge. Technology has changed, but ATTRA’s commitment to getting information and technical help in the hands of people producing our food has not wavered.

Their sustainable agriculture information is organized under these topic areas:

Fast Growing Vegetables

Lettuce bed in May.
Photo Wren Vile

Maybe part of your response to Covid-19 is to grow more of your own food, and you are wondering what can bring fastest results. Or maybe you just want to leap into spring and have early harvests. Either way, here is information on some vegetable crops that offer fast returns; ways to get crops to grow faster; ways to get more crops from a small space and some sources for more information.

Vegetable Crops That Offer Fast Returns

In my blog post If Spring is Too Wet in March 2019, I included a paragraph on fast crops.

  • Ready in 30–35 days from sowing are baby kale, mustard greens, collards, radishes, spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) arugula, and winter purslane. Beet greens from thinnings can be cooked and eaten like spinach.
  • Many Asian greens are ready in 40 days or less: Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy). See my Asian Greens of the Month category of posts. There’s a huge range of attractive varieties, they’re better able to germinate in hot weather than lettuce, and faster growing than lettuce. Most reach baby salad size in 21 days, full size in 40 days. Transplant 4-5 weeks after spring sowing, or direct sow. Nutritious as well as tasty. Flavors vary from mild to peppery; colors cover the spectrum: chartreuse, bright green, dark green and purple. A diversity of crops without a diversity of growing methods! Grow when you normally grow kale. Be aware that Asian greens sown in spring will bolt as soon as the weather heats up, so be ready to harvest a lot at once (if you planted a lot, that is!) You can make Kim Chee.
  • Tatsoi and our August sown catch crop of Tokyo bekana.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  • One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size. We have also grown this at other times of year, when faced with an empty space we hadn’t planned for.
  • Mizuna and other frilly mustards are very easy to grow, and tolerate cold wet soil to 25°F (-4°C). In addition, they are fairly heat tolerant (well, warm tolerant). Use for baby salads after only 21 days or thin to 8″–12″ (20–30 cm) apart, to grow to maturity in 40 days. Mild flavored ferny leaves add loft in salad mixes and regrow vigorously after cutting.
  • Also ready in 30–35 days are spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) and winter purslane.
  • Ready in 35–45 days are baby carrots (thinnings or the whole row), turnip greens (more thinnings!) endive, corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil. Some of the faster smaller turnip roots can also be ready in 45 days or less.
  • Ready in 60 days are beets, dwarf snap peas, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield).
  • Also ready in 50-60 days once we are past frosts: zucchini, yellow squash, bush beans, small cucumbers can grow fast.
  • Garlic scallions can be grown over-winter, but will grow quickly in spring. Plant scrappy little garlic cloves you don’t want to cook with in close furrows and wait till the leaves are 7” (18 cm) tall before digging up the plant and preparing like onion scallions (spring onions). Can be eaten raw, but more often cooked. You can also plant whole bulbs without separating the cloves. This is a good use for extra bulbs that are already sprouting in storage.
Our garlic scallions in February. we usually space the rows much closer than this. We’ll start harvesting when they reach 7″ in height.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • See other blog posts in my Cooking Greens for the Month series, and Asian Greens for the Month, as well as Lettuce of the Month
  • Try Eat-All Greens, an idea form Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19.
Photo Bridget Aleshire
  • Spinach is good for salad or cooking uses. Be aware that the fastest biggest spinach may not last long once it warms up! We have found Acadia and Reflect have good bolt-resistance from outdoor spring sowings.

Fast Varieties of Lettuce and Greens

Bronxe Arrow lettuce.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
  • Grow the right lettuce variety for the conditions. Ones that do well in early spring are often useless here after the end of March, or even mid-February. I like to sow 4 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:
    • Early Spring (Jan – Mar), 6 sowings
    • Spring (April – May 15), 5 sowings
    • Summer (May 15 – Aug 15), 17 sowings (lots of seed!)
    • Fall (Aug 15 – Sept 7), 9 sowings
    • Winter Sept 8 – 27, 9 sowings
  • Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall. A direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop, the plants regrow and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. 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
  • Leaf lettuce can be harvested by the leaf much sooner than waiting for a whole head of lettuce.
  • Small-leaf lettuces (aka Eazyleaf, One-Cut, Multi-Cut, Multileaf): Johnny’s Salanovas, Osborne’s and High Mowing’s Eazyleaf; Tango, Oscarde, and Panisse (older varieties) too. Full-size plants can be harvested as a head, or harvested with a single cut, providing a collection of bite-sized leaves. Or just one side (or the outer leaves) of the plant can be cut and the plant will regrow for future harvests. Growing multileaf heads takes 55 days, compared to 30 days for baby lettuce.
Buckley red oakleaf single-cut multi-leaf lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds
  • Other greens can be sown in close rows for harvesting as salad crops at a height of 3”-4” (7-10 cm). These are called mustard mixes or brassica salad mixes.
  • Many cooking greens can be used as salad crops while plants are small, as you thin the rows of direct-sown crops.

Ways to Get Crops to Grow Faster

  • Sow when the conditions are right. Soil temperature is important. I have a table of soil temperatures in Year-Round Hoophouse on page 208. Vegetable Seed Germination: Optimum soil temperatures for germination and days to emergence, where known.
  • Grow transplants. By starting your plants in a place with close-to-ideal temperatures, rather than direct-seeding when it’s still a bit too chilly outside, you’ll get bigger plants sooner. You’ll also buy time to prepare the soil where you are going to plant out.
  • Find warm sheltered micro-climates, in front of a south-facing wall for example.
  • Make your own warm sheltered micro-climates with rowcover or low tunnels.
  • Take advantage of plastic mulch to warm the soil, for crops that like warmth. Regular black plastic mulch will need to be removed at the end of the growing season, but biodegradable mulch does not. However, if you are taking over part of your yard near your house, I should tell you that you will see shreds of the bioplastic next year. See Setting out biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Rolling biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Photo Wren Vile
  • Consider landscape fabric with planting holes burned in, as a reusable alternative to throw-away or biodegradable mulch.
  • Use mixes for salads: Our general salad mix harvesting approach is to mix colors, textures and crop families. I like to balance lettuce of different kinds with chenopods (spinach, baby chard, Bull’s Blood beet leaves) and brassicas (brassica salad mix, baby tatsoi, thinnings of direct-sown brassicas, chopped young leaves of Tokyo bekana, Maruba Santoh or other Asian greens, mizuna, other ferny mustards such as Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills). See Making salad mix
  • Microgreens: See Andrew Mefferd The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook.
  • When the weather warms up, consider using shadecloth for heat-sensitive plants, particularly lettuce, but any of the cool weather greens you still have by then.
  • In warm weather, greens and lettuces inside a tipi of pole beans will benefit from the shade.

Ways to Get More Crops from a Small Space

  • With transplants, you can fit more crops into each bed throughout the season, because each crop is occupying the bed for less time than if direct-sown.
  • Transplanting can help you grow more successions of summer crops, as each one needs less time in the garden or field.
  • Grow a vertical crop on a trellis and something short in the space below it. You can even use the same trellis twice, growing tomatoes after peas, for instance.
Spinach and peas in a relay planting scheme.
Photo Twin Oaks Community
  • Relay Planting is a method of growing short crops alongside taller ones. We have often sown peas down the center of a bed of overwintered spinach. As the peas grow tall, we trellis them, and continue harvesting the spinach. When the spinach bolts, we pull it up. This overlap of bed use lets us get more crops from a bed in less time than if we sowed the crops one after another. We have also sowed peanuts down the middle of a bed of lettuce on the same date we transplant the lettuce. We make sure to use vertical romaine lettuces rather than sprawly bibbs or leaf lettuces. We have transplanted okra down the middle of a bed of early cabbage. This does involve breaking off outer leaves of the cabbage if they are about to smother the okra.
  • Sow some slower-maturing crops the same time as you sow the fast ones, so you have food later as well as sooner! Carrots, turnips, cabbages, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi,
  • Sow some multiple-harvest crops to save work later. Greens that are harvested by the leaf, rather than the head, offer good value.

Sources for More Information

  • In High-Yield Vegetable Gardening, Colin McCrate and Brad Halm point out that when planning what to grow, it’s important to consider how long the crop will be in the ground, especially if you have limited space.
  • Cindy Conner in Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth, leads you through the process of identifying suitable crops for food self-reliance, and provides a worksheet to help you determine Bed Crop Months. For each bed, determine how many months that food crop occupies that bed and so assess the productivity value of one crop compared with another. Short season crops grow to harvest size in 30-60 days, allowing series of crops to be grown in the space, and feeding people quickly. If all your nutrients are to come from your garden, you will need to pay attention to growing enough calories. Otherwise you’ll lack the energy to get to the end of the season!
  • Curtis Stone, in The Urban Farmer, distinguishes between Quick Crops (maturing in 60 days or less) and Steady Crops (slower maturing, perhaps harvested continuously over a period of time). He has designed a Crop Value Rating system based on 5 characteristics. To use this assessment, you look at each characteristic and decide if the particular crop gets a point for that characteristic or not. Then look for the crops with the highest number of points. Spinach gets all 5 points; cherry tomatoes only 3. The smaller your farm, the higher the crops need to score to get chosen. His 5 are:
  1. Shorter days to maturity (fast crops = chance to plant more; give a point for 60 days or less)
  2. High yield per linear foot (best value from the space; a point for1/2 pound/linear foot or more)
  3. Higher price per pound (other factors being equal, higher price = more income; a point for $4 or more per pound)
  4. Long harvest period (= more sales; point for a 4 month minimum)
  5. Popularity (high demand, low market saturation)
  • Steve Solomon in Gardening When it Counts provides tables of vegetable crops by the level of care they require. His Easy List: kale, collards, endives, chicories, spinach, cabbage, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, all cucurbits, beets, chard, sweet corn, all legumes, okra, tomatoes (followed by the more difficult eggplant, peppers).
  • See my blog post How to Decide Which Crops to Grow
  • See my article Intercropping: Minimize Your Effort While Maximizing Yields, in the Heirloom Gardener of Spring 2018.
  • Jennifer Poindexter on the Morning Chores Site has a nice simple web post on 16 Fast Growing Vegetables That Will Give You a Harvest Quickly
  • Steve Albert on the Harvest to Table website has a good post on Quick-Growing Vegetable Crops. It includes recommended fast-growing varieties of 29 crops.

Cooking Greens in March

 

White Russian kale in our hoophouse in March.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in March

Eat Your Greens! More Bolting Greens in the Hoophouse, Sigh.

Outdoors, we can still harvest collards, kale and spinach. We also have very nice spinach in our coldframes, where the crop gets better protection from the cold than the outdoor beds.

From the hoophouse, in the cooking greens department, we still have plenty of Bulls Blood beets (the leaves are getting a bit big and leathery for salads), chard, frills (frilly mustards such as Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills), White and Red Russian kales, and spinach.

In the hoophouse, the extra warmth (at last!) and the considerably lengthening days are causing lots of the greens to bolt. This year our turnips, tatsoi, senposai, and the Koji were all bolting before the end of February, although other years these have not bolted until mid-March (or the later sowings at least). We are harvesting lots of greens, trying to eat them all before we lose them!

We are keeping an eye on our Russian kales, chard, beet greens and later spinach sowings. They usually last till late April or even early May, but this milder winter may mean they will bolt earlier this year.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in March

Outdoors in early March, or preferably mid-February we direct sow spinach if our January transplant sowings failed. This year, we have plenty of transplants. In early March we sow turnips, and give them rowcover.

In the greenhouse in early March, we sow broccoli #3, in open 3” (7.5 cm) flats. This sowing is intended as a gap-filler for the first two sowings, if any plants die after transplanting, or if we don’t get enough plants from the first two sowings.

Winstrip tray with chard seeds.
Photo Pam Dawling

In late March, we sow sow chard and leaf beet. Leaf beet, also known as perpetual spinach, is a chard, with thinner stems and smaller leaves than most Swiss chard. It is the closest in flavor to spinach for growing in hot weather that I have found. Because it is a biennial, it will not bolt the first year.

In the hoophouse, we do not usually sow any cooking greens. Because the hoophouse is much warmer on sunny days, annual greens (all the brassicas) will quickly bolt. We do better to focus on outdoor planting.

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in March

Outdoors, we transplant cabbage #1 from flats in early March (3/10). These are fast-growing early varieties such as the hybrid Farao (65 days) and the OP Early Jersey Wakefield (63 days). This year we are also trying the larger but slower Early Flat Dutch (85 days)

A bed of Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage in mid-May.
Photo Pam Dawling

In mid-March, we transplant collards, mustard, kale (last date 4/1), and senposai. We use rowcover over all our early transplants outdoors, for a few weeks until the weather is milder. By then, we usually need the rowcover somewhere else for new transplants or sowings.

It is important to protect young cabbage and broccoli with 5-8 true leaves from cold stress (<40°F/4.5°C for a few days, or longer at 50°F/10°C). At this stage they are particularly sensitive to cold, which can cause early bolting (and very low yields).

In the hoophouse, after February 20 we use young spinach transplants to fill gaps only in the outer thirds of the beds, leaving the bed centers free for tomatoes, etc. in mid-March.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in March

Open flat of broccoli seedlings.
Photo Wren Vile

In the greenhouse, we are busy spotting (see February Special Topic) all our plants to give them two weeks of greenhouse protection and 10-14 days in the coldframe before their transplant date. During early to mid-March, this means the senposai, mustard, broccoli and main crop cabbage, as well as collards and kale (if we don’t have enough of those for bare-root transplanting from the hoophouse).

Special Cooking Greens Topics for March: Trap Flea Beetles, Extra Month of Greens in the Hoophouse

A row of mustard greens can be used to lure flea beetles.

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. If you have poultry that likes eating flea beetles, you could cut off some of the leaves and carry them to the chicken run. Bug vacuums are also a possibility. Another approach is to hold an inverted bucket lined with sticky trap compound over the plants and rap the stems with a stick. If you’re lucky, the pests will stick in the bucket.

North edge bed in our hoophouse flagged up for digging holes to plant peppers.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse transition to give an extra month of greens.

Preparing our hoophouse beds for our early tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash is very different from our fall bed prep for winter greens. We stretch a long tape measure down the center of each bed, and put a flag every 2 ft (60 cm). All our transplanted crops in spring are at this spacing. We then prioritize harvesting the greens which are close to the flags. A day or two before transplant day, we dig a hole at each flagged spot and add a shovelful of compost to each hole. After transplanting the new crop plants, and watering them in, we start harvesting the greens directly to the south (in front of) the new plants. As the plants get larger, we pull more of the greens between the transplants. Anything that is touching leaves is too close and has to go. After a few weeks we also need to harvest the last of the greens, to the north of the transplants, which by then have reached a good size. This method gives us an extra month of greens and initially the relatively large greens protect the small transplants from too much direct sun or from cold breezes. If the night will be frosty, we pull rowcover over the beds – the greens hold the rowcover off the tender plants.

Tomato plants in our hoophouse, in early April, planted among the winter greens
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Garlic drying and curing methods

Hanging garlic of many varieties (and onions) in bunches.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I’m prompted to write about garlic drying and curing by an inquiry from a reader in Idaho. Their family has a new garlic business and they need to upgrade their drying and curing method. This year they have planted 3 acres (12 varieties), so they really need a method that will be reliable. Do leave a comment if you have suggestions. Here I’ll review methods I know about, for areas from backyard to small commercial size.

Hanging garlic in vertical netting.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

I also think this is a good time of year to plan and construct infrastructure you will need later in the season, when planting, cultivating and harvesting have top priority. First, so you know when you’ll need the space ready, here are some links to information to help with that.

When and How to Harvest Garlic

Garlic bulb cut horizontally to check maturity (good now or soon).
Photo Wren Vile

Signs of garlic maturity: Alliums for May

Alliums for June: planting leeks, harvesting garlic and bulb onions

Garlic bulb initiation (and the end of leaf growth) is triggered by daylight increasing above13 hours in length (April 10 here at 38°N). Soil temperatures over 60°F (15.5°C) and air temperatures above 68°F (20°C) are secondary triggers. The drying down process is started by hot weather above 91°F (33°C) which ends bulb growth. In tropical latitudes where daylength does not vary much, it may be that temperature is a bigger trigger and daylength is less important. See Alliums for May for more

Harvesting garlic: Garlic Harvest step by Step

Methods for Drying and Curing Garlic

Faragut Farm in Alaska dries their garlic in a hoophouse (but beware of over-heating )
Photo Chris Blanchard

Growers of small amounts of garlic (or complicated harvests of relatively small amounts of many varieties) sometimes tie the garlic plants in bundles and hang them from nails or hooks in beams. This method takes a lot of twine, and can be slow.

Garlic spread to dry on an upper story wood barn floor.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We once spread a single layer of garlic on a wood upstairs floor of the barn, when our harvest exceeded our storage racks. “Shingle” the garlic plants so that the bulbs and roots are all uppermost, for best airflow.

Garlic hanging in vertical netting.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We hang our garlic in nylon netting fastened vertically around the walls of our old tobacco barn. This is a good method for humid areas as the garlic is in a single layer and can get good airflow. Other growers have used chicken wire or snow fencing. We have considered making free-standing frames covered in netting, so we can deal with higher yields. The walls of the barn limit the amount we can hang there. It’s a slower method than laying plants on horizontal racks.

Garlic in vertical netting and onions on stackable wood racks.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier.

Horizontal racks need to be sturdy. We made stackable wood slatted racks to dry our bulb onions, as onion necks are not strong enough to hang onions by. Later we made larger netted wood frames that we hang from a pulley in the beams. We can fill them layer by layer, starting at the lowest one, and gradually lower the upper racks as we need to fill them. This kind of system would work for garlic too, but is not practical on a large scale.

Bulb onions curing on a rack.
Photo Wren Vile

Horizontal racks can either have the garlic threaded bulbs up through the holes of the netting (as we do for onions), or the plants laid flat, shingled. Shingling saves space (racks can be closer to each other vertically) but it is harder to dry garlic this way in a humid climate.

For a nice design of racks for drying onions, and perhaps garlic, see this post about the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, Virginia

Onion racks at the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, Virginia (their photo)
Drying and Curing Garlic Step by Step with Vertical Netting

Hang your garlic to cure for 3-6 weeks or even longer, with fans if the humidity is high. Don’t set the fans too close to the garlic, your goal is to improve the air flow, not blast the bulbs and shrivel them up. See my book Sustainable Market Farming.

  1. We like our garlic arranged in order of harvesting, to make it easier to find dry garlic when the time comes to trim it. We hang our curing garlic in vertical netting hanging around the walls of our barn. Some growers use horizontal racks, others tie garlic in bunches with string and hang the bunches from the rafters.
Garlic threaded into vertical netting.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

2. We start at knee height, threading one garlic plant in each hole of the netting. (The netting stretches downward with the weight of the garlic. Starting lower would lead to garlic piling up on the floor.)

3. Take a garlic plant, fold over the top quarter or a third of the leaves, and push the leafy part through the netting. The leaves will unfold behind the netting. Leaves shouldn’t poke through to the front.

4. We work back and forth in rows, filling a 4-6 ft wide strip per person, working upwards.

5. We continue as high as we can reach before moving to the next section. We make walls covered with garlic, day by day until done. This sequential arrangement simplifies trimming, and makes the best use of the fans, giving the garlic the best chance of drying evenly.

6. Damaged bulbs are “Farm Use” quality and are set on horizontal racks to dry.

7. Arrange box fans to blow on the drying garlic. Even in an airy old tobacco barn, fans are essential in our humid climate.

After curing, this garlic has dry necks and is ready to snip and store. Photo Wren Vile

8. Wait 3-4 weeks, then test some bulbs for dryness by rolling the neck of the garlic between your finger and thumb. It should feel dry, papery, strawy. If many bulbs are slippery, gooey, or damp in any way, delay the trimming until at least 90% of the necks are dry.

In 2016, we pondered whether a ground floor shed or an upstairs barn offers the better airflow, and whether better airflow is worth hauling all the garlic upstairs and down again. We didn’t come to a conclusion, but we didn’t find time to build a new barn.

Snipping, Sorting and Storing Garlic 

You won’t need this for  a while, but it’s helpful to have next steps in mind when designing your hanging and curing space – see the link to Garlic harvest, new barn plans, Mother Earth News post on sweet potatoes which includes the question of how to tell when the garlic is cured, and setting up, snipping and sorting garlic into three categories for replanting, for storing and for using soon. Garlic can be stored in the same high temperature range as bulb onions, provided it has never dropped into the sprouting temperature range of 40-55°F (5-13°C). The key to good storage is dry necks

For pictures of our onion drying racks see Alliums for July: harvest minor alliums, finish harvesting bulb onions, snip and sort garlic and bulb onions.

If weather prevents gardening and farming, knit your own garlic potholders and felt them! Photo Pam Dawling

Book Review: The Farmer’s Office by Julia Shanks

Book Review: The Farmer’s Office: Tools, Tips and Templates to Successfully Manage a Growing Farm Business,  Julia Shanks, New Society Publishers, 2016

Farmers don’t go into farming because they want to do accounting or develop their business skills, and yet these skills are vital to success. We all want success! Get Julia Shanks’ book, quickly understand what you need to do, make time to do that as often as you need to, and move on to your next production task. You can save the time you would have thrown away on exhausting but wasted work. Be more successful, be less exhausted! This book review will be shorter than my usual ones. Just because I’ve no intention of leading you through the technicalities step-by-step. It’s an extremely useful and well-written book.

This is a very user-friendly book. Julia understands that farming is exhausting work. Julia understands farming, and has earned her stripes growing vegetables. Julia understands accounting and business management too. She explains concisely, very clearly, and provides examples and little stories to help us get to grips with the subject. She leads us to take a clear-eyed look at where we make money and where we don’t, which empowers us to make the decisions that are ours to make. We owe it to ourselves to stop the magical thinking that if we only work harder, everything will come out OK. Too many farmers have crashed and burned that way.

Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Julia tells how (in her first year of business school) she used a computer model to help a farmer friend determine how much of each of ten crops to grow. The silly computer program answer was to grow only okra and sweet potatoes! But behind that foolish suggestion was the information that his tomatoes were only earning 12 cents/case! Now that is useful information! What would you do if that’s what your tomatoes were earning? Raise the price and explain to your customers? Stop growing tomatoes? Knowingly sell tomatoes at that low profit as a way to attract customers? Any of these decisions might be the right one for your farm.

Like all money management texts, this book has warnings: Julia has used a simplified approach good enough for agriculture but not for taxes! She tells us when we should consult an accountant, tax advisor or payroll service provider. This 250 page book has 10 chapters of 6-30 pages, a glossary and 5 appendices. Everyone is advised to start with chapters 1 and 2. After that you can pick the ones you need and plan your own DIY course of study. Always eat your elephants one bite at a time! See the chart on page xxi, which points out lines of inquiry depending on your situation.

And here’s another aspect that makes this book special: there are pointers towards videos and webinars that Julia has made, on her website. But buy the book first, and know where you’re going! The price of the book includes the download price of many of the templates. Julia tells how she took a business class for farmers, after her first year of farming. She had kept absolutely no financial records! The instructor told her to guess, so they could make a cash flow plan for Season Two. Julia used that as a road map, and it saved her from ruin. She could see what she could afford, what she couldn’t, when she needed to hustle to bring in a bit more income. It wasn’t a coincidence that she ended up so close to where she needed to be!

Glacier early tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

This book will help you determine whether to prioritize tomatoes or cucumbers, eggs or chickens. You’ll need three primary financial statements: the income statement, the balance sheet, and the statement of cash flows. Don’t panic! There’s a webinar and a very readable chapter, with diagrams. There’s a video on depreciation! One of my colleagues calls depreciation “an enforced savings fund” – it pushes you to pace your spending and saving so you can replace a worn-out tractor. At the end of the chapter are instructions on which chapter to read next, according to your situation (creating projections about the future, or statements about your past)

Julia Shanks

Chapter 3 includes a set of questions and worksheets to ensure you have the skills you need to set out in starting your own farming business. The questions cover skills, knowledge, access to mentors or farming partners, your own energy levels, money to float your first year, tolerance of risk and uncertainty.

Chapter 4 covers the business planning process. Follow the stories, diagrams and instructions and choose between a Level One “Quick and Dirty” plan, a Level Two more detailed plan and a Level Three full business plan. You might not need the full plan to get started. Remember “A plan is just a plan” – don’t expect everything to go according to this plan! But the plan still has real value – writing it nudges you to think everything through, providing you with the resources you need to think on your feet and solve the problems that come up on the way. Julia leads us step-by-step through the process of writing a business plan, financial projections, operating assumptions (including the “Gut Check”), a list of funding sources, and an executive summary. Scale back your projections to see what it would be like if something went wrong. Test out a worst case scenario. Could you survive? What would it take?

Chapter 5 is all about financing: savings, loans from family and friends, loans from institutions, prepayments from customers and supporters. Be professional, look as professional as needed when asking to borrow money!

Chapter 6 is on setting up QuickBooks, the industry standard accounting software for small businesses. Other small non-farming businesses using QuickBooks could find this useful too. Julia has two webinars, and this chapter includes sample spreadsheets with the relevant bits circled. Chapter 7 shows how to use QuickBooks daily for cash management. It opens with Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper (living in the moment) and the Ant (stashing grain for the winter). Just as we can tomatoes in summer for eating in winter, we need to set aside cash we earn during peak season for the slower times of year. 10 minutes a day, plus 30 minutes a week, plus 1-2 hours at year end. Doesn’t sound too bad.  And it’s going to help with saving time and money next year!

Chapter 8 digs into managerial accounting – how to get meaningful information about your business. It includes determining the costs of producing various products/crops. There are several examples. Inventory management is also important, and requires a quick, smooth and simple system of tracking. Here are examples.

Chapter 9 covers stabilizing your business, so you don’t fall into a hole. There are some sad stories in this chapter. Chapter 10 has the more upbeat title “Growing Your Business”. Here’s help in making thoughtful decisions when considering new projects, or expansion of old ones. This is like having an older and wiser experienced farmer at you side. One who will be very honest with you, will share your excitement, and question things you seem to be ignoring.

The appendices give examples of questions to consider at each step of the way, sample spreadsheets and a list of the templates used in the book, which can be accessed from Julia’s website. What a wealth of information for just $24.95. It will pay for itself, I’m sure! And remember, if you feel out of your depth, Julia also works as a consultant, providing technical assistance and business coaching. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather ask for help! Go to https://thefarmersoffice.com/ for more info, including a free basic accounting course, and a 6-course free Self-Paced Farmer’s Office Basic Course, available 24/7, including videos, quizzes and case studies. There’s also fuller Farmer’s Office courses for $49/month.

Videos, podcasts, weevils, rainwater harvesting, UK Farming net zero by 2020, carbon footprint calculators, climate change books

Funny Farm Videos,

located by Modern Farmer

Lil Fred, Farm It Maybe.

Derek Klingenburg, Serenading the cattle with my trombone (Lorde – Royals)

Pasture Road, Peterson Farm Brothers,

Goat Busters, Dana McGregor


Origami Weevils by Charley Eiseman

I saved this post on Origami Weevils to share. It transitions us from the ridiculous (funny animal videos) to the sublime.

Charley Eiseman describes himself this way: “I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.” He is an exceptional photographer, an exceptional entomologist, and one of those people who pays exquisite attention to what he does. These factors make his blog a special treat.

I always get excited when I encounter the work of leaf-rolling weevils (Attelabidae), even though they are by no means uncommon. I just find it fascinating that these insects have learned to fold leaves into neat little cylindrical packets for their larvae to live inside, without the use of silk or any other adhesive. The […] Read more of this post

 

 

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Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

Modern Farmer did the research and found the best. Read More

———————————————————–Essential Rainwater Harvesting Spreadsheet Toolkit

 

Now we might be ready to move off the holiday couch, at least enough to get pencil and paper and start some planning. Here is an Essential Rainwater Harvesting Spreadsheet Toolkit from Verge Permaculture: https://vergepermaculture.ca/product/spreadsheet-tool/ $29.00 CAD (Canadian dollars)

The Essential Rainwater Harvesting Tool is a spreadsheet tool for analyzing the feasibility of a rainwater storage system on your farm. It contains tables, formulas and logic from the Verge Essential Rainwater Harvesting book, pre-programmed and ready-to-go, plus a substantial number of extra features.

They are also offering a FREE WEBINAR on Jan 14, 6:30 pm MT: IS RAINWATER SAFE? with pioneering Australian hydrology engineer, economist, policy analyst, educator, UN adviser and researcher Peter Coombes

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UK Farming goal net zero by 2040

https://www.nfuonline.com/nfu-online/business/regulation/achieving-net-zero-farmings-2040-goal/

The National Farmers Union in the United Kingdom has announced in this 12-page report their ambitious goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. This is farming’s contribution to the UK’s ambition of net zero by 2050. In the UK, agriculture’s contribution to Greenhouse Gas Emissions is 10% of the nation’s whole. (27% is from transportation)

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For those with serious New Year Resolutions here are 6 Personal Carbon Footprint Calculators (and How to use Them Efficiently) from Mother Earth News

https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/carbon-footprint-calculators-and-how-to-use-them-efficiently-zbcz1812?newsletter=1&spot=headline&utm_source=wcemail&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=MEN%20HE%20eNews%2001.07.2019&utm_term=MEN_HE_eNewsAll%20Subscribers&_wcsid=79E96C01FC4AFE8B2C8184EBA1FEB58413B54C4386F47764

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And here are 12 books on climate change and the environment,

from Yale Climate Connection

https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/12/gift-guide-12-books-on-climate-change-and-the-environment/?utm_source=Weekly+News+from+Yale+Climate+Connections&utm_campaign=f83923d619-Weekly_Digest_of_December_9_13_2019&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e007cd04ee-f83923d619-59330105

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Cooking Greens in January

Morris Heading collards, a reliable winter crop. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in January

Harvest in time! Freezing or Bolting Greens!

Outdoors, the temperatures continue to get colder in January. In our garden outdoors, there are collards, kale, spinach, and sometimes chard,  senposai, and Yukina savoy, and over-wintered cabbage (not for much longer!).

Hopefully there is also cabbage stored in the cooler. The most cold-hardy greens are what we depend on for the next two months.

Tatsoi in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

From the hoophouse we continue harvesting chard, Chinese cabbage, kale, frilly mustards, pak choy, senposai, spinach, (including thinnings from the newer sowings),   tatsoi (thinnings from the newer sowings, whole plants from the September 7 sowing), Tokyo bekana/Maruba santoh plants, turnip greens, yukina savoy.

In the hoophouse, the extra warmth combined with the lengthening days causes some of the brassicas to start bolting. After the Winter Solstice the order of bolting of our hoophouse greens is: tatsoi #1 (meaning, our first sowing 9/6), Tokyo bekana, Maruba santoh (all in early January); pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy #1 (late January); turnip greens #1 (mid-February); Komatsuna, Yukina Savoy #2, tatsoi #2, spinach #1, turnip greens #2 (early March); Senposai, turnips #3, (mid-March); Russian kales (early April); chard, beet greens, later spinach sowings (late April or even early May.)

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

Our knowledge of what will bolt first informs our plan of where to put the new crops we want to plant. To make space to sow spinach on 1/16, we need to clear the Tokyo bekana (and Maruba santoh) and the first tatsoi by 1/14. We keep a close eye on the Chinese cabbage and pak choy. Normally these will bolt in January, and we harvest the whole plants this month. They will be followed by sowings of kale and collard starts for outdoors on 1/24.

Chinese cabbage in November, not yet fully headed.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

It might seem sad, at first glance, that these big greens will bolt this month if we don’t harvest them in time, but in fact, it all works out rather well. The rate of growth of the “cut-and-come-again” leaf greens slows down in December and January, and while we eat the big heads of Tokyo bekana, Maruba santoh, Chinese cabbage, pak choy and the not-tiny tatsoi, we ignore the leaf greens, giving them more time to grow.

Pak Choy in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

December 15-February 15 is the slowest growing time for our hoophouse crops.

When the daylight is shorter than 10 hours a day, not much growth happens. The dates depend on your latitude. In Central Virginia, at latitude 38° North, this Persephone period (named by Eliot Coleman) lasts two months, from November 21 to January 21. We have found in practice, that soil temperature also affects the growth rate. And so we have a three week lag in early winter before the soil cools enough to slow growth, and then another 3 week lag  in January before it warms up enough again.

Transplanting spinach from a Speedling flat.
Photo Denny Ray McElya

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in January

Outdoors, we sow nothing.

In the greenhouse we tidy up the workspace, “fire up” the germinator fridges (germination chambers made from the carcasses of dead fridges), and prepare our new Seedlings Schedule (see Special Topic for January below)

Around 1/17 we sow some fast early cabbage, such as the OP Early Jersey Wakefield and the hybrid Farao. (We sow lettuce and scallions then too, to keep them company.) At the end of January we sow spinach in Speedling flats if our hoophouse sowings have been insufficient. We have trialed the bare-root spinach against the Speedling spinach and both do equally well.

In the hoophouse, in mid-January we sow Spinach #4, to transplant in gaps in the hoophouse. We usually clear Tatsoi #1 to make space for this. Of the varieties we tried, Reflect does best for this planting, followed by Acadia and Escalade. This winter we have had difficulty buying Acadia and Escalade and are going to try Abundant Bloomsdale alongside Reflect.

Spinach seedlings in our hoophouse for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also sow Spinach #5 for bare-root transplanting outdoors in February or early March under rowcover. This follows the Tokyo bekana or Maruba Santoh as noted above. Reflect and Acadia do well for this purpose, with Escalade close behind. We’ll have to improvise this spring.

In late January (1/24, 1/25), we sow kale and collards for transplanting outdoors in March. I have written before about how well these bare-root transplants work for us, compared to starting these seeds in flats in the greenhouse. It doesn’t work for lettuce at this time of year though – the tiny plants are too fragile and tender.

Vates kale seedlings in our hoophouse for bare-root transplanting outdoors.
Photo Pam Dawling

Follow-on Winter Hoophouse Crops

This is a  sequence of different crops occupying the same space over time. We try to keep the hoophouse fully planted all the time, and one aspect of this is knowing what we are going to sow when we pull an old crop out. Here’s our winter list:

  • 11/17: We follow our 1st radishes with 3rd  scallions
  • 12/23: 1st baby brassica salad mix with 5th radishes
  • 12/31: Some of our 1st spinach with our 2nd  baby lettuce mix
  • 1/15: Our 1st tatsoi with our 4th spinach
  • 1/16: Our Tokyo Bekana with spinach #5 for planting outdoors
  • 1/24: Our pak choy & Chinese cabbage with kale & collards for outdoors
  • 2/1: Our 2nd radishes with our 2nd baby brassica salad mix
  • 2/1: Our 1st Yukina Savoy with our 3rd mizuna/frilly mustards
  • 2/1: Some of our 1st turnips with our 3rd baby lettuce mix
  • 2/1: More of our 1st spinach with dwarf snap peas

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in January

Outdoors, we transplant nothing.

In the hoophouse, we fill gaps that occur in the beds. We replace spinach with spinach, brassicas with brassicas wherever possible. We use the Filler Greens which were sown October 10 and October 20 (brassicas such as senposai, Yukina savoy and the frilly mustards) and October 24 and November 9 (spinach). In December I mistakenly said that December 25 is our official last date for using the brassica fillers because there is not enough time for them to make worthwhile growth before they bolt. But I really meant January 25! Sorry!

  • Until January 25, fill gaps with Asian greens, spinach or lettuces as appropriate to match their neighbors.
  • From January 25 to February 20 fill all gaps everywhere with spinach transplants, except for places that will be sown in new crops in February.
  • From February 20, only fill gaps on the outer thirds of the beds, leaving the bed centers free for tomatoes, etc. in mid-March.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in January

We continue to harvest the hardier greens, and if (when) low temperatures are forecast, we might decide to clear the vulnerable crops and put them in the cooler.

See Cooking Greens for November for more details on winter-kill temperatures

During December we had two nights at 17°F (-8.5°C). The Koji are looking quite damaged. We grew more of this than we could eat before temperatures got too cold. Next year I hope for a return to the more cold-tolerant Yukina Savoy instead. We have not covered the spinach, because of issues with rowcover fibers getting in the food, and we’ll see how much production we get without rowcover. I’m expecting it to be a lot less, as spinach (like kale and lettuce) makes some growth whenever the temperature is 40°F (4.5°C) or more. That happens much more often under rowcover on sunny days than in the open. Savoyed spinach which we prefer) is hardier than smooth-leafed varieties. 10°F (-12°C) could kill the larger leaves and 5°F (-15°C) could kill it off entirely. This would be unfortunate as we expect to harvest a lot from out over-wintered spinach in the spring. Maybe temperatures won’t get that cold this winter, but I’m not holding my breath. Some spinach (Bloomsdale Long Standing, Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia) is hardy down to 0°F (-18°C). We, however, have not been focused on growing the variety with the best absolute cold-tolerance.

Our chard is pretty much dead. The green is hardier than the multi-colored, which died a while back. Green chard is hardy to 12°F (-11°C), but ours is already weather-beaten. Because we have nice chard in the hoophouse, we no longer try to preserve the outdoor crop in winter.

I’m expecting January temperatures to bring the outdoor Koji and senposai to an end.

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

Special Cooking Greens Topic for January: Lots of Planning!

We get our Crop Review, Seed Inventory and Seed Orders out of the way before the end of the year, then dive in during January to line everything else up for the next growing year. We use a lot of spreadsheets, and also maps and lists. First we prepare our new Seedlings Schedule, then our complex Fall Brassica Spreadsheet and Map, Field Planting Schedule, Hoophouse Schedule for March to September crops (those are not cooking greens!), and then our Raised Bed Plan and our monthly Garden Calendar.

The Seedlings Schedule Spreadsheet is most pressing, as we start greenhouse sowings in mid-January. Updating the spreadsheet from last year’s to create the new spreadsheet takes us three hours, plus proofreading and corrections. As we go, we make a list of questions or points to fix later, and we use highlighter on cells with unsure data to go back to. Our seedlings schedule has a column for the planned sowing date, one to write in when we actually do that sowing (in case it’s different), columns for the germination date, and the hoped-for transplant date, the vegetable, variety, how many row feet we want to plant, how many plants we will transplant in 100ft, and then a column with a calculation of how many plants we want to grow (allowing 20% extra on most crops). We will be spotting our transplants into flats of 40 plants, so next we calculate how many spotted flats we will need (simply the number of plants divided by 40). From that we calculate how many seed flats to sow. We reckon on getting 6 spotted flats from one seed flat, so again it’s a simple division. And we round up.

For crops that we sow in cell-packs (plug flats) we add another 20% to the Plants number. Lots of things can go wrong in January and February and we want to be sure to have enough plants. Also a lot of these early cell-packs are tomatoes for the hoophouse and we might want 15 different varieties.

All our spreadsheets have a Notes column, either with a pre-recorded reminder or hint, or with space to write in anything unusual or a different idea for next year. We check this and revise the sowing and transplanting dates accordingly.

Once we have the new spreadsheet set up, we get ready for the slow part of the job. One nice thing about spreadsheets is that you can sort the data each time you want a different perspective. We want to end up with a schedule in date order, but as far as feeding in the crop data, an alphabetical list by crop is much easier.

First we go through the current year’s Seed Order updating Varieties and Row Feet. Then we go through the Seed Order line by line, cross-checking to ensure that everything ordered gets sown (crops for transplanting only).

When we’re satisfied with that, we resort the data by transplant date, then by Vegetable, then Variety. We take the previous year’s Outdoor Planting Schedule (Field Planting Schedule) and revise the Seedlings Schedule accordingly.

Before we’re done, we check the highlighted cells and resolve any unresolved issues on our piece of paper. We check germinator shelves in use on any one day: We have space for 24 flats at once. Check the number of Speedlings in use at one time, we have 27. We refer to last year’s Seedlings Schedule for days to germination.

With all that work done, we can resort the data by Sowing date, then by Vegetable, then Variety. We proofread for sense before tidying up the formatting, and making sure all the columns fit on one sheet. We revise the instructions before we forget!

Hoophouse video interview, plus 2019 Round up of favorite topics and posts you missed

No-Till Growers and Josh Sattin collaborated to post this Hoophouse Tips video interview of me talking about our hoophouse:

 

After a Best Ever day on November 7, 2019, when 876 people viewed my website (4,855 that week), December has been quiet. It’s not a big gardening month for most of us, and the month is full of holidays. And then there’s the urge to hibernate.

Nonetheless, I have been reliably posting every week, and you might have accidentally missed something, while entertaining the visiting aunts and uncles, or rushing to get the carrots harvested, or something involving food and drink. Here’s a chance to  find the lost treasures!

December 24, I posted a Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

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Three potato forks to the left, four digging forks to the right.
Pam Dawling

On December 18, I posted Making Use of Greenhouse Space in Winter and Getting the Right Fork

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Purple ube grown in North Carolina by Yanna Fishman

December 10, did you miss Yanna Fisher’s splendid purple ube?

And Josh Sattin’s video interview with me? Legendary Farmer on a Legendary Commune  https://youtu.be/vLzFd4YP9dI

And Jesse Frost’s interview with me on his podcast No-Till Growers ?  You can listen to it here and it’s also on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p75gRIl0Hzs


Reflect spinach in the open got damaged but not killed at -9F.
Photo Pam Dawling

On December 3, I posted Cooking Greens in December

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On November 26, I offered you a Book Review: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening


My Top Six. no Seven,  posts of all time:

Winter-kill Temperatures  of Winter-hardy Vegetables 2016 with 23,776 views, peaking in November. Clearly lots of people want to know which crops will survive and which to hurry and harvest, or protect with rowcover.

Garlic scapes with 11,202 views. Garlic and sweet potatoes are the favorite crops on this site. Garlic scapes used to be under-appreciated and under-used. Not now!

Winter-kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2018 with 9,979, also peaking in November. My list gets updated each year as I learn new information. But the older ones come higher on internet searches.

Soil Tests and High Phosphorus Levels close behind at 9,503. High phosphorus is a worry for organic growers, especially those using lots of compost, as it can build up each year.

How to Deal with Green Potatoes at 8,613, with sustained interest through August, September and November. Obviously we are not the only growers with this problem, caused by light getting to the tubers.

Tokyo Bekana at 2,199 (who knew that was so popular?)

In 2019 other popular posts included Hunting Hornworms and the newer Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2019. It takes a while for newer posts to gain on the older favorites.

Cooking Greens in December

Reflect spinach in the open got damaged but not killed at -9F one January. Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in December

In December there’s chard, collards, kale, komatsuna, senposai, , spinach, tatsoi, and Yukina savoy, Eat-All Greens from the outdoor garden and also stored cabbage. The most cold-hardy greens start to come into their own.

From the hoophouse we continue harvesting chard, kale, senposai, spinach, tat soi thinnings or leaves, Tokyo bekana/Maruba santoh leaves (if we have not yet harvested whole plants because we saw signs of bolting), turnip greens, Yukina Savoy.

From late December we keep a close eye on the Chinese cabbage and pak choy, for signs of bolting. Normally these will bolt in January, so we harvest the whole plants that month. But we have sometimes needed to harvest the plants before we get to January.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in December

Outdoors, we sow nothing

Brassica (mustard) salad mix in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse, on December 18 we sow brassica salad #2. Sometimes called mustard mixes, these are mixed brassicas to cut like baby lettuce mix when they are still small. Often we make our own mix at this time of year, using leftover seeds that we don’t want to keep for next year. We are busy working on our seed inventory and seed orders, so it gives us a use for odds and ends of packets. Just avoid bristly-leaved radishes and turnips! Using random seeds works for us because we do not expect yield-miracles. We will not get a lot of cuts from these plants before they bolt in March or early April. Our first round of Brassica Salad Mix is sown October 2 and is harvested several times between October 29 and December 21. Much faster growth in October and November than in December and January! We make a third sowing on New Year’s Day.

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in December

Outdoors, we transplant nothing

In the hoophouse, we transplant spinach, senposai, Yukina Savoy, Frills (frilly mustards) to fill gaps that occur in the beds. We replace spinach with spinach, brassicas with brassicas wherever possible, filling gaps caused by either harvesting whole plants or Bad Things (those are usually fungal diseases).

Our Filler Greens are sown October 10 and October 20 (brassicas) and October 24 and November 9 (spinach). JANUARY 25 (I originally mistakenly said December 25) is our official last date for using the brassica fillers because there is not enough time for them to make worthwhile growth before they bolt. After that date we fill all gaps with spinach plants.

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

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in December

While watching the temperature forecasts, we continue to harvest the hardier greens, such as chard, yukina savoy, collards, kale, spinach and tatsoi. If low temperatures are forecast we might add rowcover to some of the beds, or decide to clear the vulnerable crops and put them in the cooler.

See Cooking Greens for November for more details on winter-kill temperatures

This winter we have already had 16°F (-9°C) and 18°F (-8°C) in mid-November. As temperatures drop, we clear these crops before their winter-kill temperatures happen:

15°F (–9.5°C): kohlrabi, komatsuna, some cabbage, red chard (green chard is hardy to 12°F (-11°C)), Russian kales, rutabagas if not covered, turnip leaves, most covered turnips.

12°F (-11°C): Some beets (Cylindra,), some broccoli, Brussels sprouts, some cabbage (January King, Savoy types), most collards, senposai, some turnips (Purple Top).

10°F (-12°C): Covered beets, Purple Sprouting broccoli for spring harvest (too cold in central Virginia for us to grow that), a few cabbages (Deadon), chard (green chard is hardier than multi-colored types), some collards (Morris Heading can survive at least one night at 10°F/-12°C), probably Komatsuna; Senposai leaves (the core of the plant may survive 8°F/-13°C), large leaves of savoyed spinach (more hardy than smooth-leafed varieties), Tatsoi, Yukina Savoy.

5°F (-15°C): some collards, some kale (Winterbor, Westland Winter), smaller leaves of savoyed spinach and broad leaf sorrel. Some tatsoi. Many of the Even’ Star Ice Bred greens varieties are hardy down to 6°F (-14°C).

0°F (-18°C): some collards (Blue Max, Winner), Even’ Star Ice-Bred Smooth Leaf kale, some spinach (Bloomsdale Long Standing, Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia). Vates kale survives.

Vates kale outdoors. An oleracea type, Vates is very cold-hardy.
Photo by Nina Gentle
Russian kale (napus type) gives us good yields in our hoophouse in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Special Cooking Greens Topic for December: Understanding kale types

Russian and other Russo-Siberian kales (napus varieties) do better in the hoophouse than Vates blue curled Scotch (and other European oleracea varieties). Napus kales will make more growth at lower temperatures than oleracea kales, although they are not as cold-tolerant. “Spring” kales (napus) will persist longer into warmer weather than Vates (oleracea) can, from a spring sowing. The vernalization requirement for napus kales with about eight leaves is 10–12 weeks at temperatures below 40°F (4°C). Brassica oleraceae kales will start flowering after 10–12 weeks below the relatively balmy spring temperature of 50°F (10°C).

Special Cooking Greens Topic for December: Ordering Seeds (Adapted from Sustainable Market Farming)

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. We read catalog descriptions carefully and try varieties that offer the flavor, productivity and disease resistance we need. 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.

Calculating the seed order

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!

This is the time of year we adjust the “seed rate” (seed/100′ or /30 m) column of our spreadsheet using information from our past year, and we feed in the next year’s crop plan for varieties and succession plantings – everything we have decided so far about next year. We make notes about any problems or questions we need to resolve later, and we’re sure to order enough seeds to cover these eventualities. We have found it worthwhile to proofread our inventory and order form carefully before making our final decisions, as mistakes not discovered until planting day can be a big problem.

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in the greenhouse
Photo Pam Dawling

Formatting and placing seed orders

On the Seed Order version of our spreadsheet, we 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.