Preparing for spring, sowing seeds, Crop Planning slide show

 

Here’s my updated Crop Planning slideshow, which I presented last weekend at the Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference. To view it full screen, click the diagonal arrow in the lower right.

I will upload my other presentations bit by bit. January and early February are choc-a-bloc with conferences and slideshows, so there will be plenty to see in the next couple of months!

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Seed flats in the greenhouse in early spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Spring starts in January in Virginia! On January 17 we make our first sowings in the greenhouse. We sow some early cabbage, the first lettuce, and some scallions. The week after that we sow our hoophouse tomatoes! Ah! Signs of spring! Even if we did manufacture them, so to speak!

Our germinator cabinet is made from a broken fridge, warmed by an incandescent light-bulb. We’ve got maybe one more year before we run out of incandescent light-bulbs. Then we’ll have to get a different form of heating. But we’re shelving that problem for now. We check twice a day to make sure the light-bulb is still working and the temperature in the germination chamber is still OK.

By the end of February, we’ll have sown tomatoes and peppers for growing in our hoophouse, and spinach, kale, collards, cabbage, lettuce, scallions, broccoli and senposai for planting outdoors.

When the cabbages emerge, we’ll need to make space for the flat in the greenhouse near the window. When the hoophouse tomatoes have germinated, they will go in a plastic tent on a seed heating mat by the greenhouse windows. We have the 48″ x 20″ size mat, and we extend the plastic tent and graduate the older seedlings off the mat, but still under the tent for extra protection.

Screening compost to fill our greenhouse beds in September.
Photo Wren Vile

Our system for seed compost is to screen a big pile of our homemade compost in September, and fill the cinder-block beds in the greenhouse. Then we pop lettuce transplants at 10″ spacing into the beds. Those lettuces give us salad from November to February. As we need space in the greenhouse, we pull the lettuce. We can then scoop out the compost to fill the flats for seedlings. This system works well time-wise –we benefit from this lettuce supply in the winter. It also works well in providing us with a large quantity of mellow screened compost for seed flats, indoors and not frozen. The soil organisms have had time to colonize the compost, so it is full of life.

Walking the gangplank to fill greenhouse beds with compost in September. Photo Wren Vile

As the seedlings grow, we spot them out into bigger flats, with about 2.5″ between plants. My favorite tool for this job is a butter knife! For lettuce we use 3″ deep flats, but for most crops we use 4″ deep flats, so the roots have plenty of space. We use a dibble board to make the evenly spaced holes in the compost in the bigger flats, to move the tiny seedlings into. It’s a piece of plywood with fat dowel pegs glued into holes at the right spacing, 40 in a 12″ x 24″ flat. On the other side of the board are two small wood handles to make it easy to use.

A flat of scallions to transplant in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

There is a great website on Vegetable Transplant Production from the University of Florida Vegetable horticulture Program. It has a collection of excellent articles developed by Charles Vavrina in the late nineties. Plants still grow the same way! Check out the site for lots of useful tips about growing and using transplants. This is a good time of year to make plans to do something in a different way, to avoid repeating last year’s less successful episodes!

You can see our Twin Oaks Month-by-month Garden Task List here on my website.

 

Alliums for January: sow scallions, cipollini, shallots

Clumps of scallion transplants in a plug flat, ready to transplant.
Photo Pam Dawling

Plant scallions, shallots, cipollini mini-onions, small potato onions

In January, one of the first crops we sow is scallions for transplant. We sow in 200-cell plug flats, on January 17, aiming to get 4-6 seeds per cell. It takes 4 gm of seed for 200 cells. We transplant these clumps on March 21, with 3″ (7 cm) space between plugs. We need about 50 row feet (15 m) This grows us scallions already in bunches, and makes excellent use of the space. We make a second sowing of the same size on February 17 and transplant April 14. We also grow scallions in the hoophouse in winter.

French Red Shallot bulbs. Photo Raddysh Acorn

 Plant shallot bulbs January-February, if you haven’t done so before the winter.

Between late January and mid-February, sow shallot seeds. Transplant in late March. Shallots from seed will be ready for harvest 7/4-7/30, about a month later than harvests from replanted bulbs.

Cipollini, Mini-onions, Pickling Onions

Like bulb onions and scallions, cipollini are a biennial crop grown as an annual (A. cepa var. cepa). They are small bulb onions used whole for kebabs, pickles, casseroles, and stews. Depending on your latitude and the variety’s adaptation, these will provide bulbs from the size of large cherries to ping-pong balls. They tend to dry down nicely and store well. White varieties get sunburn here. Red Marble is good, stores well. Purplette doesn’t store well.

Mini-onions are viewed as a gourmet item, so the prices you can get may justify giving them greenhouse bench space, or even growing space in a hoophouse. We can grow these outdoors from seed sown 1/17-1/25, transplanting 3/10-3/21, leading to harvest 7/1-7/17.

Red Marble cipollini.
Photo Fedco Seeds

Small potato onions

In late January, plant small potato onions (smaller than 1.5″/4 cm) late January as soon as the ground can be worked. Or early February, if January is not possible. See Alliums for December for planting medium-sized bulbs, Alliums for September for information on planting the large ones. In order to make January planting possible, we prepare the bed for the small potato onions in the late fall and cover it with mulch for the winter. In late January or early February, we remove the mulch, make 4 deep furrows, plant the small onions (<1½”, 4 cm) on 4″ (10 cm) centers, cover with ½”-1″ (1-3 cm) soil, tamp down, and replace 4″-8″ (10-20 cm) of mulch. Label and write down how much seed was used. Eat any leftovers or give them to a friend. For 360′ (111 m) at 4″ (10 cm), we need 1080 bulbs plus 20% spare. (Approx 1300 bulbs). 425 bulbs = 18-20lbs (8-9 kg), 1lb (500 gm) =20-33 bulbs.

Harvesting and Eating

Eat onions and garlic from storage, including bulbils from Egyptian onions if you stored those.

You can enjoy eating Perennial leeks as leeks, September to February. See Alliums for December

If still green and visible, you can eat leaves of Egyptian onions and perennial leeks, September to April.

This is the time to enjoy winter leeks. We try to grow enough to supply 1 bed (720 leeks) each month, December to February

Other Allium Tasks

How to harvest and trim leeks.

Use a sturdy digging fork to harvest leeks.
Photo Pam Dawling

Be sure to get the prongs/times of the fork downwards into the soil, not at an angle that will stab the leek. Step on the fork and go deep enough to dislodge the leek when you lever back on the fork.

Trim the leek roots off with a big knife.
Photo Pam Dawling

After removing the roots, hold the leek upside down and slash diagonally at the leaves. This will remove the damaged parts of the tougher outer leaves and leave the tender inner leaves to eat.

A trimmed leek showing how the inner leaves are left longer than the outer ones.
Photo Pam Dawling

If you haven’t done it already, free trapped garlic shoots. Look for garlic shoots at whatever spacing you used.

Young garlic shoots which emerged through the mulch on their own.
Photo Pam Dawling

A trapped garlic shoot that was freed with human intervention.
Photo Pam Dawling

If you don’t see a garlic shoot where there should be one, part the mulch just enough to let the pale shoot see the light. Don’t leave any soil bare, it only leads to weeds!

Unusual Alliums List. (There are others)

While you are perusing seed catalogs, look out for these less common alliums, and consider if they have a place in your garden. The Clove Garden has lots of info on all types of onion. The Backyard Larder: Ali’s Alliums is also a good read.

  1. Pearl onions (Allium ampeloprasum sectivum), also known as button or baby onions in the UK, or creamers in the US, are a close relative of leeks, with thin skins and a mild, sweet flavor. They grow up to 1′ (2.5 cm) in diameter. They are especially popular in the Netherlands and Germany. Unlike bulb onions, they do not have layers of storage leaves but only a single storage leaf, like the non-layered cloves of garlic. The onions are ready to harvest 90 days from sowing. They are mostly used for pickling. Most onions grown for pickling today are simply small crowded bulb onions, with layers. Also see the Useful Temperate Plants Site  and How to grow Pearl Onions by Jenny Harrington
  2. Perennial Rakkyo (aka as true pearl onions, Japanese scallions, Vietnamese leeks) are Allium Chinense. These small onion bulbs are generally pickled.
  3. Canada onion (aka Wild onion) (Allium canadense) is a perennial sounding very like what we call onion grass or wild garlic in Virginia, although that is Allium vineale (crow garlic). The leaves of onion grass are hollow and round, while those of Canada onion are more flat and ‘solid’.
  4. Kurrat ( kurrat), is a Middle-Eastern cultivated leek, used mainly for the greens, which may be cut from the plant repeatedly.
  5. Field garlic Allium oleraceum is native to most of Europe, where it is a wild perennial, growing tall leaves (the part that is used).
  6. Ramsons Allium ursinum, buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, or bear’s garlic, common in Europe. Looks like Ramps, (Allium tricoccum) but is not the same. The broad flat leaves are the part used.
  7. Japanese bunching onion and Welsh onion (native to Siberia or China, not Wales) are Allium fistulosum. They are sometimes used as scallions, as are some A. cepa. Young plants of A. fistulosum and A. cepa look very similar, but may be distinguished by their leaves, which are circular in cross-section in A. fistulosum rather than flattened on one side.  A. fistulosum has hollow leaves (fistulosum means “hollow”), scapes and does not develop bulbs – the leaves are the part which is eaten.

Back-up plans for winter hoophouse crops

Lettuce “filler” transplants to fill gaps.
Photo Pam Dawling

Because crops grow slowly in cold weather, if something goes wrong at the beginning of the winter, or in the fall, the consequences can cast a long shadow. It is not easy to make up for lost time. In spring, the weather is getting warmer, the daylight is lengthening, and you may have noticed that later sowings can catch up with ones a week or two earlier, allowing for a second chance. In the fall, the rate of growth is moving in the opposite direction, and later sowings will stand no chance of catching up. Even worse, they may get “trapped” like Persephone in the Underworld during the dark Persephone Days. But don’t despair – there are things you can do ahead of time to be prepared for plans going awry, and there are even a few things you can do instead of your original plan, to ensure you get some crops to harvest.

Transplant seedlings under insect netting outdoors.
Photo Pam Dawling

Starting outdoors in September

We sow a lot of our winter crops outdoors in September, and transplant them into the hoophouse in October. This gives us an extra few weeks to prepare the hoophouse beds, and gives the seeds the cooler outdoor conditions to germinate in. We have three sowing dates.

On September 15, we sow 10 varieties of hardy leaf lettuce and romaines; pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo Bekana, Maruba Santoh and chard

On September 24, we sow another 10 varieties of lettuce; Red and White Russian kales, Senposai, more Yukina Savoy, mizuna and arugula, and we resow anything that didn’t do well in the 9/15 sowing

On September 30, we resow anything that didn’t do well in the 9/24 sowing, or substitutes.

Emergency back-up seedlings for the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

This year, we had poor germination of a lot of the 9/15 sowings and too many of the 9/24 sowings. As a back-up for the back-up plans we sowed some crops in Winstrip trays, and spotted lettuce in open flats, which we kept inside the hoophouse. By that point, conditions in the hoophouse were more crop-friendly than outdoors. We did need some of these, and the rest we harvested for salad mixes right out of the flats! We were short of salad items because of the late establishment of the plants, so every plant was a help!

A flat of lettuce transplants in the path in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our goal is to keep the space filled with useful crops.

Success with this goal relies on a cluster of strategies

  1. The fall transplant program I describe above.
  2. Follow-on crops: A sequence of different crops occupying the same space over time. It’s important to know when crops will bolt, and how to plant sensible quantities
  3. Filler crops: As well as scheduled plantings, in October we sow a few short rows of spinach, lettuce, Senposai, Yukina Savoy, Maruba Santoh, Tokyo Bekana to transplant into gaps as soon as they occur. We simply dig them up, replant where needed and water well. Bare-root transplants are much easier than many fear. They save time and money, compared to growing starts in flats, and save on greenhouse space. They are very sturdy plants, as they have the full depth of soil to develop big roots. Little extra care is needed, as they are less prone to drying out than seedlings in flats. Alternatively you could keep some plug flats of these plants handy. We fill gaps with Asian greens, spinach or lettuces as appropriate, until Jan 25. From Jan 25 to Feb 20 we fill all gaps everywhere with spinach From Feb 20, we only fill gaps on the outer thirds of the beds, leaving centers free for tomatoes, etc.

    Filler brassica transplants in our hoophouse in November.
    Photo Pam Dawling

  4. Interplanting: After 2/20, we harvest the winter crops from the center rows first, plant the new early summer crops down the center, then harvest the outer rows bit by bit as the new crop needs the space or the light. This overlap allows the new crops to take over gradually. Our winter and spring crops end in April
  5. Fast Catch Crops. Some cool-weather crops mature in 60 days or less. Mostly these are greens and fast-growing root crops. Useful if a crop fails, or you have a small empty space. Details on some of these follow the list.
  • Ready in 30–35 days in fall, longer in winter: arugula, many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy,.Senposai, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy), brassica salad mixes, chard, kale, radishes, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) spinach and winter purslane. Peashoots in late winter or spring.
  • Ready in 35–45 days in fall: chervil, corn salad, land cress, parsley and sorrel.
  • Ready in 60 days in fall: beets, small fast cabbage, collards, kohlrabi and turnips.

 Asian Greens

Asian greens are better able to germinate in hot weather than lettuce, and are faster growing than lettuce. Transplant 2-3 weeks after fall sowing, or direct sow.

Asian greens are nutritious as well as tasty – flavors vary from mild to peppery – read the catalog descriptions before growing lots. Colors cover the spectrum: chartreuse, bright green, dark green and purple. A diversity of crops without a diversity of growing methods!

Brassica (Mustard) Salad Mixes

Interesting mustard mixes are sold for salad mixes. We often mix our own Brassica Salad Mix from leftover random brassica seeds. For a single cut, almost all brassicas are suitable – just avoid turnips and radishes with prickly leaves! We sow between 10/2 and 11/14 for winter harvest and from 12/4 to 2/12 for March and early April harvests. We’re zone 7, central Virginia.

Chard and Beet Greens

Green chard is hardier than the multi-colored Bright Lights. Days to maturity: 61 – 103 days, a big difference, depending when you sow. Sow 9/15, harvest 11/15 – 5/10; Sow 10/26, harvest 2/6 – 5/10.

Radishes in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

Radishes

Varieties we like: Easter Egg, White Icicle, and Cherry Belle.  Sparkler got too fibrous for us, as did Cherry Belle after mid Oct. We make 6 sowings 9/6 – 1/26. Small radishes take 27–52 days to maturity, not counting days too cold to grow.

Scallions in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Scallions

We sow 9/6 for harvest 12/1 – 3/1; 11/18 (following radishes) for harvest in early spring. This winter we are trying a sowing 10/20 also (we happened to have a space at that time, in a spot where it fitted our rotation). Evergreen Hardy White and White Lisbon scallions are hardy down to 0°F (-18°C)

Spinach

We loved Tyee and now grow Escalade, Reflect, Acadia and smooth leaf Renegade. Renegade makes good Nov/Dec growth; Acadia, Escalade yield well Jan – April; January sown Reflect does well.

  1. Succession Planting for Winter Hoophouse Crops

We do 2 sowings of chard, scallions, tatsoi and yukina savoy; 3 sowings of  mizuna, turnips and bulb onions; 4 sowings of baby lettuce mix and brassica salad mix; 5 sowings of spinach and radish. Our goal is to provide a continuous supply.

As temperatures and day-length decrease in the fall, the time to maturity lengthens – a day late in sowing can lead to a week’s delay in harvesting. As temperatures and day-length increase after the Winter Solstice, the time to maturity shortens – later sowings can almost catch up with earlier ones. To get harvests starting an equal number of days apart, vary the interval between one sowing date and the next accordingly. Here’s the most dependable method:

Making a Close-Fit Plan Using Graphs

  1. Gather sowing and harvest start and finish dates for each planting of each crop you are growing as successions.
  2. Make a graph for each crop: sowing date along the horizontal (x) axis; harvest start date along the vertical (y) axis. Mark in all your data. Join with a line. Smooth the line.
  3. From your first possible sowing date find the first harvest start date.
  4. Decide the last worthwhile harvest start date, mark that.
  5. Divide the harvest period into a whole number of equal segments, according to how often you want a new patch.
  6. Mark in the harvest start dates and see the sowing dates that match those harvest dates

Overgrown hoophouse filler greens in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Wren Vile

Working around the Persephone Days

In Indiana (in Zone 5b) Ben Hartman (The Lean Farm) sows salad greens & spinach for winter harvests every week Sept 15–Oct 15. Baby lettuce sown before Oct 22 takes 5–6 weeks until harvest. If sown Oct 24–Nov 16, it takes 8–17 weeks to harvest. In Zone 5b, if you want baby lettuce mix before December, sow before Oct 22.

Spinach sown before Oct 11 takes 4–6 weeks to harvest. If sown from Oct 20–Nov 1, it takes 12–15 weeks. To harvest spinach before December, he sows before the middle of October.

For new year harvests he sows every week Oct 15–Nov 1. He then takes a two month break from planting (Nov-Dec). Jan 1–Jan 15 he sows both salad greens and spinach for late winter.

In Zone 7 we can harvest outdoor lettuce and spinach in December, and we have less urgency about early hoophouse sowings (and we get no winter break!).

 

 

 

 

Alliums for November: Plant garlic, sow onions in a hoophouse, eat leeks

Tadorna winter leeks in October.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cold-Tolerance of Alliums

Alliums are more cold-tolerant than most people believe. Here are my observations of killing temperatures for outdoor crops. Note that crops often survive night-time lows in the hoophouse that would have killed them outdoors.

  • 12°F (−11°C): garlic tops if fairly large, most fall or summer varieties of leeks (Lincoln,King Richard), large tops of potato onions
  • 10°F (−12°C) some leeks (American Flag aka Musselburgh and Scottish Flag, Jaune du Poiteau)
  • 5°F (−15°C): garlic tops if still small, some leeks (Bulgarian Giant, Laura, Tadorna, Bandit), some bulb onions, potato onions and other multiplier onions
  • 0°F (−18°C): chives, garlic, a few leeks (Alaska, Durabel); some bulb onions, yellowpotato onions, some onion scallions (Evergreen Hardy White, White Lisbon), Walla Walla onions sown in late summer (with rowcover for winter)

Planting Garlic

Planting garlic.
Photo Brittany Lewis

You can see my garlic slideshow for more info. I was surprised to find I haven’t written much in my blog about planting garlic, so here goes! See the alliums chapter in Sustainable Market Farming for more on types, varieties, and garlic genetics. The information here comes form that chapter.

When to Plant Garlic

Plant when the soil temperature at 4″ (10 cm) deep is 50°F (10°C) at 9 am. If the fall is unusually warm, wait a week. Instructions from Texas A&M say less than 85°F (29°C) at 2″ (5 cm) deep. We plant in early November. In New Hampshire, mid-October is the time. The guideline for areas with cold winters is 2-3 weeks after the first frost but before the ground freezes solid for the winter. In Michigan, planting time is 6 weeks prior to the ground freezing, giving enough time for root growth only, to avoid freezing the leaves. In California, garlic can be planted in January or February.

Both hardneck and softneck garlic do best when planted in the fall, though softneck garlic may also be planted in the very early spring if you have to (with reduced yields). If you miss the window for fall planting, ensure that your seed garlic gets 40 days at or below 40°F (4.5°C) in storage before spring planting, or the lack of vernalization will mean the bulbs will not differentiate (divide into separate cloves).

Garlic shoots emerging from the mulch a few weeks after November planting. Photo Twin Oaks Community

Garlic roots will grow whenever the ground is not frozen, and the tops will grow whenever the temperature is above 40°F (4.5°C). In colder areas the goal is to get the garlic to grow roots before the big freeze-up arrives, but not to make top growth until after the worst of the weather. In warmer areas, the goal is to get enough top growth in fall to get off to a roaring start in the spring, but not so much top growth that the leaves cannot endure the winter. If garlic gets frozen back to the ground in the winter, it can regrow and be fine. If it dies back twice in the winter, the yield will be lower than it might have been if you had been luckier with the weather. When properly planted, it can withstand winter lows of –30°F (–35°C). If planted too early, too much tender top growth happens before winter. If planted too late, there will be inadequate root growth before the winter, and a lower survival rate as well as smaller bulbs.

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.

Popping garlic cloves in preparation for planting
Photo  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Popping Garlic Cloves for Planting

The garlic for planting should be taken apart into separate cloves 0–7 days before planting. We are doing this on November 7, along with our crop review meeting when the crew meets to make notes on the past season. This task is a good group activity. Twist off the outer skins and pull the bulb apart, trying not to break the basal plate of the cloves (the part the roots grow from), as that makes them unusable for planting. With hardneck garlic, the remainder of the stem acts as a handy lever for separating the cloves. We sort as we go, putting good size cloves in big buckets, damaged cloves in kitchen buckets, tiny cloves in tiny buckets and outer skins and reject cloves in compost buckets. The tiny cloves get planted for garlic scallions. Don’t worry if some skin comes off the cloves — they will still grow successfully. Cloves for planting should be from large (but not giant) bulbs and be in good condition.

Click the link to read about hot water treatment for seed garlic at WeeBee Farms. 

Pre-plant Seed Garlic Treatments

Many of us do nothing special with the cloves before planting, but if you have pest and disease problems, use pre-plant soaking treatments, usually done the night before planting. Some growers find they get better yields from treated cloves even if no problem was obvious.

To eradicate stem and bulb (bloat) nematode (Ditylenchus dipsaci), soak the separated cloves for thirty minutes in 100°F (37.7°C) water containing 0.1% surfactant (soap). Or soak for twenty minutes in the same strength solution at 120°F (48.5°C), then cool in plain water for 10-20 minutes.

Allow to dry for 2 hours at 100°F (37.7°C) or plant immediately. Anytime your garlic grows poorly and you can’t tell why, send a sample with the soil it’s growing in to your Extension Service to be tested for nematodes. Mites can eat the skins of the cloves, survive the winter and multiply all spring long, seriously damaging or even killing your crop. To kill mites (which hide between the wrappers) before planting, separate the bulbs into cloves and soak them overnight (up to 16 hours) in water.

Possible additions to the water include one heaping tablespoon of baking soda and one tablespoon of liquid seaweed per gallon (around 8 ml baking soda and 4 ml liquid seaweed per liter). Just before planting, drain the cloves and cover them in rubbing alcohol for three to five minutes, long enough for the alcohol to penetrate the clove covers and kill any mites inside. Then plant immediately. The long soaking will loosen the clove skins so that the alcohol can penetrate. Mite-infested garlic soaked like this does much better than unsoaked infested garlic. The solution used to kill mites can also be used to kill various fungal infections. The cloves need only fifteen to thirty minutes soaking.

In trials comparing treated and untreated cloves, treated cloves were larger and healthier than untreated ones. Fusarium levels can be kept down by adding wood ashes when planting and then possibly dusting the beds with more ashes over the winter (use moderation — don’t add so much that you make the soil alkaline). Or you could soak the cloves in a 10% bleach solution, then roll them in wood ash (wear gloves for handling ashy cloves). The wood ash soaks up the dampness of the bleach and provides a source of potassium. This information came from the Garlic Seed Foundation. Join GSF to find out all the details!

Other November Allium Planting

Plant shallot bulbs before the end of November and medium-sized potato onions (1.5″ – 2″, 4-5 cm) at the end of November or early December in zone 7. Finish dividing and replanting perennial leeks and Egyptian walking onions this month

Young onion plant in March.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Special Allium Topic for November: Sow Bulbing Onions in the Hoophouse

We developed a system of growing onion starts in our hoophouse over the winter and transplanting them bare-root outdoors in very early March. I wrote about choosing onion varieties for your latitude last month. There I explained that to grow big onions we need to have large transplants on March 1, so we can have big vegetative plants before bulbing is triggered by the daylength.

The method involves making two sowings of bulbing onions, each enough for the whole planting. This provides insurance in case one date turns out better than the other. Then we follow this up with a partial third sowing to make up numbers of any varieties that didn’t germinate well. We make our first sowing November 10, our second November 20, and a third on December 5 as a back-up in case of problems. Our formula is: divide the number of onion plants wanted by 20, to give minimum length of row to sow, in feet. And sow this amount twice, 10 days apart. The onions will be planted out at 4″ (10 cm) apart. We add 20% to provide some slack. For a final row of 100′ (30.5 m), we’d need 100′ × 3 per foot × 1.2 (adding 20%) plants. 360 plants. We sow 3 seeds per inch (approx. 1 cm apart), 36 per foot (30 cm). At this sowing rate, we need 120″, or 10′ (3 m).

See The Year-Round Hoophouse for more on growing onions this way. If we find ourselves with extra onion plants in March, we usually re-categorize them as scallions. But we have also transplanted them in early March in a single row along the south edge of hoophouse beds, for an early crop. We got good onions but they dwarfed the pepper plants behind them. Maybe planting them on the north side of the bed is better?

Trimming roots from a leek in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

Storing Leeks

I wrote about how to dig up leeks last month. In zone 7 we leave our leeks in the ground till we need them, being sure to harvest the less hardy Lincoln and King Richard first. We use a walk-in cooler for short term storage (up to a week) and keep the root ends in water. Leeks are best stored at 33°F (0.5°C) and 65% relative humidity. In colder zones, leeks can be harvested and stored in a root cellar or basement. This is helpful in areas where the ground freezes solid for weeks on end. You can store leeks with the roots packed in soil, shoulder to shoulder in a crate or box in a root cellar, where they will keep for six weeks. They can be stored in plastic bags for two to three months at the right temperature, or frozen. Another possibility is to leave them in the garden, mulched with a foot (30 cm) of straw or hay as well as rowcover, if temperatures are below 10°F (–12°C). Our winter temperatures fluctuate a lot, so covering in-ground crops with mulch doesn’t work well for us.

Book Review: Start Your Farm, by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk

Start Your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer.  Essentials for Growing and Raising Vegetables, Fruits, Livestock, Grains for Market. Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk, The Experiment, New York. ISBN 978-1-61519-489-6

This is a book for new farmers, from two Virginia farmers. It is not an instruction manual on growing crops or raising livestock, nor on accounting and marketing. It is a book of suggestions on what aspiring sustainable farmers need to ponder, reflect on, take a cold hard look at before starting a farm of their own. It is a hybrid of insights, self-help wisdom, business savvy, and experience at the pointy end. The book addresses the huge problem of finding affordable land, and coming up with retirement plans that let you pass the farm down to the next generation, rather than selling it so you have a retirement fund. Their goal is to inspire as many new farmers as possible, so the focus is on small-scale manageable operations, which can provide success, and a very satisfying, joyful experience, along with the long hours of hard work.

The last chapter of the book, “Go!” can stand alone as a wonderful encouragement to new or beginning farmers – or actually old and retiring farmers too! The chapter is beautifully poetic. It leads us step by step through Your First Day, Your First Harvest, Your First Sale, imagining what that will be like. Next follows the caution: “It’s not rainbows and sweet breezes all the time.” Here’s encouragement to be prepared, to do what you have to, to respect the forces of nature, and be ready for the amazement, the unexpected awe and respect for nature. “The only thing we know for sure is that when we pour our passion into what we love, we end up with more than we give.”

Forrest Pritchard

Forrest is a seventh-generation farmer, raised on a 2000 acre farm that has provided corn, soybeans, apples, cherries, cattle, pigs, chickens. When his turn at the helm came, he transitioned the farm to sustainable livestock. Ellen is a first-generation farmer, growing vegetables since she was a teenager. She was hired in the 1990’s to manage one arm of Potomac Vegetable Farms, and went on to own this much admired and successful operation. This book provides different sorts of wisdom from each author. Hence each writes the chapters they have most expertise in, with some cross-fertilization of ideas. Both are very engaging writers.

Ellen Polishuk

As recently as 100 years ago, almost 40% of Americans were full-time farmers. Today it is less than 2%. The responsibility for feeding our society rests on the independent, altruistic farmers who devote their efforts to produce food for everyone else. Forrest calls them volunteers.

The authors caution that farming is for pragmatists, not perfectionists. Getting something 100% right in farming is not only rarely possible, it’s also rarely necessary. It’s better to be able to hoe beans quickly, with a few casualties, than to spend forever hoeing perfectly. There’s just too much to get done in a timely way. Good enough is better than perfect. Time is as valuable as money. In the short-term, you may be able to use off-farm income to help you get your farm up and running. Long-term (or sooner!) you’ll need to make enough for the farm to pay for all work done, and also make a profit (for retirement, kids’ college fund, a new tractor, another hoophouse).

Each chapter ends with a few searching questions, to help you get the most out of what you just read. Questions to help you assess your strengths and weaknesses, explore things you were ignoring and generally prepare yourself for the exciting huge task ahead. They also caution against biting off more than you can chew initially. Don’t grow every vegetable and flower and raise every possible kind of livestock! Start simpler and build up to your ideal level of diversity.

Don’t assume you should start by buying land. Life will be easier if you find land to farm that you don’t have to buy. The key is access to land, not acquisition, and the authors provide many models of how this can come about. There is a whole generation of farmers who want to retire, help a new generation of farmers start farming and see their land continue in agriculture. Debt-financed land purchasing is their least-recommended route. If that’s what you have to do, bypass conventional banks, go to the Farm Services Agency, which offers farm-friendly financing options, or look around for companies specializing in loans to farmers.

Forrest explains the blind-spot many of us have about compensating for the value of the land. The land, as an investment, needs to provide a financial return, in the same way that you’d expect from a pile of cash equal in value to the land. You wouldn’t leave the pile of cash under the mattress – you’d invest it so it would grow in value at least as much as annual inflation. And yet it can be hard to see that if we don’t get a similar return from a piece of land, it becomes an asset that steadily loses value that we are subsidizing with our time.

Forrest explains how the nation came to expect cheap food, and the consequences this has for farmers, and farming land. He explains how, from the sixteenth century onwards, land in North America was given free (we know who they took it from) to those favored by the people in power; to soldiers returning from the Revolutionary War; to those willing to farm in Florida (by Spain), or California (by Mexico); and then under the 1862 Homestead Act 270 million acres were given to 1.6 million farmers, a practice that continued as late as 1986 in Alaska. This lead generation after generation to not account for the value of the land properly. And so, cheap lettuce, cheap hamburgers, and a big challenge for farmers today to make a living and buy land.

Ellen writes an important introduction to soil physical composition, chemistry, biology, and explains replacing nutrients removed in crops. When visiting potential farms, give the soil good attention. This topic comes up again when Forrest writes about the importance of “putting things back” whether that’s tools or soil nutrients.

Ideas of complete independence and creative freedom as farmers can be a figment of our imaginations. We get a clear explanation of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and how this is going to have effects (which we have no control over) on our costs and our income. Your hard-striven-for crop might end up losing in the competition with an imported bumper crop being sold at rock-bottom prices. I’m also thinking about this year’s US soybean farmers whose markets in China have been strongly damaged by tariffs. For maximum independence from uncontrollable factors, look for sustainable markets that are less dependent on mainstream commodity system supplies or outlets. Identify a need, find the angle that is the best fit between your local customer and your strengths, foster your relationships.

Ellen’s chapter on Tai Chi Economics suggests methods to deal with uncontrollable outside economic forces, such as regional competition, government policies, national drought, international competition. What we can charge for tomatoes in Oregon is impacted by the price of natural gas in Pennsylvania, or the wages of underpaid farm workers in Florida. In Tai Chi, use grace to meet incoming force, engage that force until it wears itself out, and learn from your opponent. “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and the strong” (Lao-tzu). Develop holistic skills to make a profit while growing nutritious food for the world. “Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

“Profit” is not a dirty word – profit allows the farm to grow and develop, pay decent wages, and provide security in case of disaster, and generally fund your life. The Tai Chi opportunity: make a profit while achieving the triple bottom line of a sustainable business: ecological stewardship, social justice, and economic viability.

Veggie Compass is a free farm management tool for diversified fresh market vegetable growers. It uses a spreadsheet to help farmers compute the real costs of growing a hundred crops and several different marketing channels. This tool can help farmers find which crops are their most successful, and which are the losers. The choices become clearer. If you are selling eggs at $6 a dozen, but they cost you $7 to produce, you’d do better just handing out dollar bills and not keep the hens at all. Let the antiquated notion of cheap food flow right past you! No other business apologizes for supplying a high quality product at a fair price. Record-keeping (noticing and writing down what happens and how well it worked) enables you to make improvements, rather than random changes.

Forrest introduces the Money Triangle. Financial stability depends on your potential to earn money, save money, and give money, in a balanced way. Savings are the catalyst for financial success. He suggests the 10% Plan. Make at least 10% net profit, save at least 10% of the profits (invested at 10% interest), give away 10% of what your investments make for you. It’s also a good rule for debt: never borrow more than 10% of your gross annual income, or pay more than 10% interest, preferably not more than 5%.

Three rules for beating the odds in farming: 1. If it’s broken, stop and fix it (relationships as well as tools); 2. Put it back where you found it (soil nutrients as well as tools); 3. Do what you say you are going to do (your customers’ trust, as well as faith in yourself.)

Forrest points out the wisdom of accepting that you won’t be able to function as a superior producer, an excellent bookkeeper and an all-star salesperson for more than a couple of years – you will need to get some help. Perhaps temporarily hire a professional salesperson who seems a good match, to identify good sales channels for you.

Ellen writes on Love, Work and Harmony. Grumpiness should be reserved for the time working alone! Build up relationship skills, you’ll need them with workers, friends and customers. To earn an annual income of $40,000 to $50,000, you would need to grow, harvest and market $125,000 worth of agricultural products. This is very difficult for one human alone. You need a workforce, and for that, you need good communication. Interns are students, not unpaid workers. The farmer has an obligation to educate, coach, encourage, and train any interns. This takes time away from production. Communication dramas can be the hardest part of farming. Learn early on how to speak your truth without criticism or blame and learn how to listen without taking offense. Keep time for the important people in your life, learn to leave the stresses outside your house, stick to daily finishing times. And don’t expect too much of yourself. “If you think you can farm and parent small children at the exact same time, you are doing neither activity well.” (Jean-Martin Fortier). If you have more than six people working for you, then keeping them, happy and productive is a full-time management job (Chris Blanchard). Don’t expect to cope with farming on your own in a place where you don’t know anybody – make a priority of finding folks to connect with.

Forrest writes on the Beautiful Paradox of Failure. No two seasons are the same. “Sustainable farming is built around the expectation that things change, that adaptability and innovation remain paramount, and that failure, when it occurs, is a critical teaching tool.” Failure arrives in many forms, despite all efforts to prevent it. And yet, without failure, we are less likely to improve. Forrest also discusses failures of faith, periods of despondency (mostly during droughts). He invites us, in the end-of-chapter questions, to think back to our biggest failures, how they shaped us, what we learned, and whether it still feels like a failure, in hindsight. Mine was the year I left the sweet potatoes in the ground too late, hoping for more growth to make up for a late start. Fall turned wet and cold and the sweet potatoes rotted or got chilling injury. It was a big mess. I learned a lot more about sweet potatoes as a result. It does still feel like a failure, although one of understandable ignorance. No-one around me knew any better at that time. I think it lead to me doing more research and record-keeping, perhaps even helped shape my path as a writer.

Ellen writes about how to appreciate the beauty around us, the daily moments of wonder, and our healthy lifestyle, although perhaps not the midnight struggles in the rain to set some emergency to rights. We do learn that it doesn’t matter if we have a headache, or feel lazy or sad, somethings just have to be done. Ellen calls this the priority of biology over attitude. We can call upon the grounding resources of clean air, vibrant plants, as remedies for our off days. We know producing food is a good and noble cause. If you read the final chapter first, read it again now!

Alliums for September: plant potato onions, sow ramps, eat Welsh onions, move stored garlic

Potato onion plant with young shoots.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Alliums to Plant in September

Divide and replant Egyptian onions and perennial leeks

Divide and replant perennial alliums in September (August-October) to increase the size of the patch and get more next year.

Plant large potato onions (2-2½”, 5-6 cm)

  • It’s better not to try to store very large potato onions over 2½” (6cm) for planting, just eat them (they sprout easily).
  • All large potato onions store poorly, so keep planting stock in the refrigerator until planting in late September or early October. Jeff McCormack does not recommend planting before September.
  • For 360′ (110m) @ 8″ (20cm) you need 540 bulbs plus 30%-40% spare. Approximately 760 bulbs. 150 large bulbs weigh about 25# (11kg)
  • Plant them at 8″ (20cm). If there are not enough large onions available, increase spacing or fill out with medium onions.
  • Cover with ½-1″ (1-2cm) soil, and add 4″-8″ (10-20cm) mulch.
  • Refrigerate any leftovers for November planting with the medium-sized onions, or eat or sell now.
  • Yields can be 3 to 8 times the weight of the seed stock, depending on growing conditions.
  • Individual bulbs can be grown indoors in a pot to produce a steady supply of green onions during the winter.

Sow ramp seeds in woodlands

Mature harvested ramp plants.
Photo Small Farm Central

In zones 3-7, sow ramps seed during August and September (see August blogpost)

Ramps (also known as Wood Leeks or Wild Leeks) are a native woodland perennial, and can be found throughout the eastern-half of the United States, as far west as Oklahoma and as far north as the central and eastern provinces of Canada.

Ramps, (Allium tricoccum) have some of the flavor components of leeks, onions, and garlic. There are projects to re-establish ramps in a number of regions in the Eastern United States.  Carriage House Farm is one such attempt by Grow Appalachia, which is a program of Berea College in Kentucky, Grow Appalachia works with farmers, gardeners, ranchers, and conservationists across a five state area to reintroduce old native and heirloom species of plants.  Ramps is/was one plant in this program. It takes two years for ramp seeds to germinate and another 2-3 years till they hit harvestable levels.

Having Your Ramps and Eating Them Too is a book by Glen Facemire

Alliums to harvest in September

Harvest Egyptian walking onions (topset onions, tree onions) for pickling, leaves of Egyptian onions and perennial leeks (September-April for cutting those)

Egyptian onions produce tiny red-purple bulbs in the umbel instead of flowers, and were previously named Allium cepa var. proliferum. According to Wikipedia, they are now known to be a hybrid of A. cepa and A. fistulosum.

Japanese bunching onion and Welsh onion (native to China, not Wales) are Allium fistulosum. They are sometimes used as scallions, as are some A. cepa bulbing onions. Young plants of A. fistulosum and A. cepa look very similar, but may be distinguished by their leaves, which are circular in cross-section in A. fistulosum rather than flattened on one side.  A. fistulosum has hollow leaves (fistulosum means “hollow”), scapes and does not develop bulbs – the leaves are the part that is eaten. Welsh onions are also known as cibol, chibbles (in Cornwall), escallion (in Jamaica), negi (in Japan), pa (in Korea), as well as green onions, salad onions, spring onions,. These general last names are also used for other kinds of onions where the leaves are the part eaten.

Perennial leeks are Allium Ampeloprasum. Common leeks are Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum (more about leeks in October and March). Elephant garlic is botanically a leek (A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum).

Other Allium Tasks for September

See Alliums for August for more on all of the following jobs which continue into September:

  • Snipping and sorting garlic and potato onions
  • Trimming, sorting and storing bulb onions
  • Eating onions and garlic from storage
  • Inspect onions and garlic at least once a month. Remove bulbs which are sprouting or rotting or else the whole batch may spoil.
  • At the end of September I make the decision about how many potato onions to keep back for planting (see August for our calculations).
  • We also move garlic from warm storage to cool storage (more info below)

Potato onions store very well through the winter so long as they are well-cured, dry, well-ventilated, and not packed over 4″ deep. Ideal conditions are a temperature between either 32–41°F (0–5°C) or 50–70°F (10–21°C) with 60-70% humidity.

Polish White – our softneck garlic variety.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Special Allium Topic for September: Garlic Storage

Before trimming your garlic, I hope you were sure it was fully cured, and you set aside any non-storing bulbs, such as those with damaged cloves, or any over-mature, springing-open bulbs. It usually works to select your seed-stock bulbs at the same time.

Commercially, garlic is stored in the dark at about 32°F (0°C) and 65% humidity, and depending on the species and variety, it may keep six months or more. I have heard that garlic can be stored for up to nine months at 27°F (-2.7°C), but I have not tried that myself. It does not freeze until 21°F (-6°C). Do not store peeled garlic in oil, as garlic is low in acidity and the botulin toxin could grow.

For storage, garlic (like onions) does best with a humidity of 60%–70%. Refrigerators are usually more humid than ideal.

Garlic will sprout if kept in a temperature range of 40–56°F (4.4–13°C), or if it is allowed to get cold then warm. So long as temperatures remain over 56°F (13°C) you can store garlic almost anywhere. You can use an unheated room in your house, a root cellar, garage, etc. Maintain good air circulation. Most varieties store reasona­bly well in a cool room if hung from the ceiling in mesh bags, or spread on shelves in a layer less than 4″ deep.

In our climate, with a long period in the danger zone temperatures of 40–56°F (4.4–13°C), we keep alliums in the warmer storage range (60-70°F (15.5-21°C) or hotter) in a basement until late September or sometime in October when ambient temperatures in the basement drop close to 56ºF (13°C). We then move our eating garlic from the basement to the walk-in refrigerated cooler at 32–41°F (0–5°C), 95–100%. The low shelves in the cooler near the compressor are damper and do not work well. We use the high and dry shelves.

Juggling space for various crops, moving the garlic out of the basement makes space available for the winter squash harvests in September and October. By this time most of the apples from the walk-in cooler have been eaten, and space is available there. Also there is no longer the problem of ethylene emitted by the apples, which causes garlic to sprout. Ideally ripe fruits and garlic would never be in the same storage space.

Softneck garlics store longest. Silverskins store up to 12 months under the best conditions. Most hardnecks last 4-6 months but Music and Chesnok Red can keep 7 months or more here in central Virginia.

Storage of Seed Garlic

We store our seed garlic on a high shelf in the garden shed, at quite variable ambient temperatures, where it does fine until late October or early November when we plant it. Seed garlic does not require long-term storage conditions! The ideal storage conditions for seed garlic are 50-65°F (10-18°C) and 65-70% relative humidity. Storing in a refrigerator is not a good option for seed garlic, as prolonged cool storage results in “witches-brooming” (strange growth shapes), and early maturity (along with lower yields). Storage above 65°F (18°C) results in delayed sprouting and late maturity.

Siberian garlic.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal

Our hoophouse is covered mid-May to early-September with a large shadecloth.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Today we’re removing the giant piece of shadecloth that has been over the top of our hoophouse since mid-May. We’ll unclip the ropes, roll them up, then pull the shadecloth off onto the ground, roll and bundle it up. It’s important to store it so mice can’t get into the bundle and make holes. We already have a few of those!

The shadecloth is held on by ropes zig-zagging between snap grommets on the shadecloth and large hooks on the baseboard.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We’ve just finished preparing the first of our 7 hoophouse beds for the winter greens. Crops grow so fast in the hoophouse, and the organic matter in the soil is consumed at a rapid rate. Every new crop requires a fertility boost. In the fall, we prepare our beds by removing all the summer crops, and spreading four or five wheel­barrows of compost per 4′ × 96′ (1.2 × 29 m) bed. This is a generous 46 gals/100 ft2 (or 680 L/36 m2 bed)or more. A full wheelbarrow generally holds six cubic feet (44 gallons or 170 liters). 1 ft3 = 7.5 US gals. An inch of compost is about 8 ft3/100 ft2, or 60 gals/100 ft2; 20 gals/100 ft2 is 15 tons/acre (8.6 L/m2). Other professional growers use any­where from 12–40 gals/100 ft2 (5–17 L/m2). Some use much more.

There are 3 concerns about using too much compost: high phosphorus levels, raised salt levels and nitrate accumulation. Some growers like to do two years of high compost rates (40 gals/100 ft2, 17 L/m2 or more), then reduce the rate to half that and add fish or kelp, at only 5 oz–8 oz/100 ft2 (15–24 gm/m2) per year. Sustainable alternatives to compost in­clude organic pelleted chicken manure, alfalfa meal, etc.

Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

A few years after we put up our hoophouse,  we noticed that despite our best efforts, we were walking on the edges of the beds and compact­ing them. Initially we simply loosened the edges of the beds with a digging fork. We then noticed that the plants on the edges grew better, and we realized the whole bed width needed loosening. If you have designed your hoophouse to use trac­tor equipment there, that will deal with soil com­paction. We wanted our hoophouse to be free of internal combustion engines and fossil fuels, and the broadfork has provided the solution. Ours is an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools. We do an annual broadforking each fall, before planting our winter greens.

We set nylon twine to mark the bed edges, holding it in place using sod staples. The string alone has not been enough to stop us walking on the bed edges. Loose soil is important because our winter crops grow all the way to the edges of the beds. After spreading compost, we broadfork the beds, then vigorously work the compost into the top of the soil with scuffle hoes and rakes. We learned the hard way the importance of raking the soil to a fine tilth immediately after broadforking — you don’t want to let the broadforked clumps dry out into bricks before you rake! See the photo below and imagine what could happen!

Hoophouse bed broadforked to aerate the soil without inverting.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote about our bed prep method and tools, and also our outdoor sowings for transplanting into the hoophouse, with a special focus on suitable lettuce varieties in my post Sowing hoophouse winter crops here in Sept 2017.

We have just started planting our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. We are  pre-sprouting our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. Soak the seed overnight, drain it in the morning, fit a mesh lid on the jar, and lay it on its side in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to tumble the seeds and even out the moisture. If the seeds are a bit wet when you need to sow them, and clumped together, pour them out on a cloth to dry a bit before sowing.

We will sow five crops in our first bed on September 6 and 7– spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet greens, radishes and scallions. On September 15 we sow lettuces, chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy, in an outdoor bed to be transplanted into the hoophouse in a few weeks, after we’ve prepared another bed.

We plant crops closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and closer to the edges of the beds. We don’t have many weeds in the hoophouse, and the paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, even if we don’t step on the edges (and of course, some feet do find themselves on the bed edges), hence the once-a-year broadforking.

Young spinach plants (and henbit!) in our hoophouse in December. This is our second sowing, not the early September one.
Photo Pam Dawling

Step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep:

  1. Remove the summer crops to the compost pile,
  2. Spread a generous layer of compost over the whole bed surface.
  3. Gather the soil staples and move the drip tape off to one side or the other,
  4. Broadfork the whole bed, but not all at once. Only broadfork the amount of space you have time to rake immediately, otherwise the warm hoophouse conditions dry out the soil and make it harder to cultivate into a fine tilth, which is the next task. We tackle 1/3 bed each day.
  5. To use a broadfork, go backwards working the width of the bed. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the crossbar touches the soil, with the tines all the way in, then step off backwards, pulling the handles towards you. This loosens a big area of soil, which hopefully crumbles into chunks. Lift the broadfork and set it back in the soil about 6” (15 cm) back from the first bite. Note: you are not inverting the soil – this is not a “digging over” process. Step on the bar and repeat.
  6. Sometimes we use a rake, breaking the clumps up with the back of the rake, then raking the soil to break up the smaller lumps, and reshape the bed. More often we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job stirrup hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing), but the sharp hoe blade does a really good job of breaking up clumpy soil.
  7. We’ve found it important to lay the drip tapes back in place in between each day’s work, so that the soil gets irrigated when we run the system and stays damp. We don’t want dead, baked soil.
  8. When the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags.
  9. Next we use our row-marker rake (bed prep rake) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
  10. After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds.

For more on winter hoophouse crops, see

Planning winter hoophouse crops for our step-by-step process for hoophouse crop planning

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.

Year-Round Hoophouse Book update, Growing for Market, Mother Earth News post

 My upcoming book The Year-Round Hoophouse is being copy-edited this month. I was lucky enough to get the same copy-editor who I worked with on Sustainable Market Farming. Meanwhile the designer is working on the layout design, and a bookmark. I already have the pre-publication postcards to give away at events I attend. See my Events Page for that information.

My hoophouse book will be published November 20, which means it will come off-press (all being well) on October 12. Between now and then, we will finish the copy-edits, proofread for errors, then go back to the designer to enter the corrections (in June). In July the index gets made, by one of the Twin Oaks Indexing crew. That can take three weeks. Then there’s a last check (August) before the book goes off to the printers. The press needs five weeks to turn the book around (September and some of October). Meanwhile the electronic version (Ebook) is prepared.

The foreword will get written, as will those endorsements you see on book covers from well-known people who have been given a copy of the advance page proofs to read. Also happening is a lot of attention to marketing–sending information to the sorts of people who will be interested in the book.


The May issue of Growing for Market is out. The cover article is about wholesaling, by Jed Beach. His purpose is to encourage growers who are dissatisfied with the stiff competition in retail, to look carefully at comparative costs of selling wholesale. Receiving a lower price (wholesale) will not lead to lower income if you costs are considerably lower.

High Mowing Seeds is sponsoring farmer emeritus Ellen Polishuk to travel the country interviewing farmers for a Farmer to Farmer Profile series, which will be featured in Growing for Market each month.  This month her profile is of High Ground Organics in California, just two miles from the ocean. As well as the climate, Ellen tells us about the state laws that require overtime to be paid at 1.5 times the regular wage, and the requirement for wages for agricultural work to line up with other employment and achieve a minimum wage of $15 in six years’ time. This is causing big increases to labor costs. In addition, the national political situation is causing fewer immigrants to reach the farms. Hence, some farmers are selling up. The farmers at High Ground are selling one of their two farms in order to focus on farming one well. Eco-stewardship is an important value.  They are excited about improving at managing people and weeds, transitioning to only organic seeds, and growing strawberries with anaerobic soil disinfestation (ASD).

Photos of all the  farms featured in Profiles are here.

Ellen has written an upcoming book, with Forrest Pritchard, called Start Your Farm.It will be published in September 2018.

Morgan Houk compares a trip to the accountant very favorably with a trip to have teeth pulled. She encourages all farmers to learn from an accountant:

“the financial success of my business is critical in order for me to continue building community and growing healthy food”

 

Kai Hoffman-Krull writes about two no-till methods: tilling with chicken tractors, and occultation (the cumbersome name of a system using impermeable plastic silage covers to kill weeds and cover crops and leave the soil ready-to-use). The main purpose of using no-till methods for Kai is to keep the carbon in the soil, as both social and environmental activism.

Gretel Adams closes this issue with her usual solid information on growing cut flowers, This issue the topics are ranunculus and anemones. As always, the flower photos are mouth-watering.


A hose with pinholes repaired using bicycle inner tube and old repair clamps. Photo Pam Dawling

I have a new blog post on Mother Earth News This one is a tip for repairing pin-holes in garden hoses. Cheap hoses don’t spring pin holes, they just crack up. But if you invest in good quality hoses, eventually they start to develop pin holes. Cutting the hose and inserting a repair connector is unnecessary. You just need a leftover clamp from a repair coupling (I found I had a whole boxful!) and a square of inner tube. Mark the hole before turning off the water. Wrap the rubber inner tube over the hole, then assemble the old clamp over that.


Meanwhile in the garden this week, we have transplanted tomatoes outdoors, as well as the first cucumbers. The first lettuces are almost ready to harvest, just as the last hoophouse lettuce mix is getting less desirable – milky sap, slightly bitter flavor. We’ve planted out six sowings of lettuce so far. We’ve hilled the potatoes and disked lots of areas for sweet corn and  sweet potatoes.

Lettuce bed in May.
Photo Wren Vile

Tools for small-scale growers

Rolling drip tape on shuttles for storage and reuse.
Photo Luke Stovall

It’s been raining all day, so I look around for inspiration and useful rainy day work. Repairing things and making useful tools are usually satisfying.And I found a couple of fun and inspiring inventions by others to share.

Drip tape shuttles and winding system

I’ve written before about our drip tape shuttles, which enable us to save and reuse drip tape. Here’s our Perfect Drip Tape Pack-up Check List

  1. Gather spring clamps (4 per cart), rebar axles, carts, small bucket for end caps, black marker, yellow or white grease pencil (in Drip Tape First Aid Kit), a few pieces of rope 2-4 ft long.
  2. Remove end caps and collect in small buckets
  3. Remove any rope/cord tying drip tape to end stakes (if any)
  4. Pull up stakes
  5. Disconnect drip tape at main pipe, by unscrewing the connector from the tape, not by pulling the connectors out of pipe. Don’t disconnect any short drip tape blank ends, leave them in the pipe.
  6. One person coils the mainline pipe in big 4-5 ft diameter loops, with NO kinks. Tie in three places with rope. Make and affix a plastic label if there is not already one attached. Describe what crop it was used for, and what row spacings, number of rows. Store.
  7. Meanwhile, other people free up the drip tape without destroying the crop too much, and write the length on the ends, using the grease pencil.
  8. Set up the cart with the axle and spring clamps, on the uphill side of the patch (helps drain the tape as you roll it)
  9. Then roll it on appropriately labeled shuttles, two lengths at a time, tightly and tidily, each keeping to cos own side of the shuttle (so they can be unwound separately). Tuck last end in, and ensure the end of the drip tape is labeled with the length, and both sides of the shuttle are labeled.
  10. Take all the shuttles to the barn, and hang them in pairs over the beams using rope. Use knots that a normal human will be able to undo easily. Hang shuttles high enough so people won’t bang their heads, but low enough to be reachable by someone standing on a chair.
  11. Return all the tools and supplies.

Unrolling drip tape from shuttles, using a garden cart as support.
Photo Luke Stovall

I was reminded of our drip tape system when I came across this Rowcover roller

Rowcover rolling with crank handle.
Photo Rodale Institute

Taming the floating row cover is a blog post on the Rodale site by John and Aimee Good. They say

The row cover reel is our favorite part of our system, and it is super low-tech. It is comprised of two portable saw horses with pipe straps attached and a PVC crank we made to fit on the end of the row cover pipe. We set up the saw horses at the end of the bed about eight feet apart. We then push the PVC pipe through the pipe straps on each saw horse and hammer our crank onto the end of the pipe with a rubber mallet.

By using long pipes to roll the row cover on, they have handles to hold, and a space to label length, width, condition of the row cover.


While researching a term new to me: “Personalized Harvie Farm Shares

I learned from the Small Farm Central blog that Harvie connects customers directly with  local farms who deliver shares of farm fresh produce customized to meet personal preferences. Like a CSA, but with choices.


Towards the end of that post I got a chuckle when I saw this flame weeder:

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

The blog post is entitled

3 Themes from 2,000 miles of driving visiting farms in TN and KY

and the inventive farmers Ford and Amanda are from Sustainable Harvest Farm in Kentucky.

I’ve written before about the wonders of flame weeding. We bought our Red Dragon backpack flame weeder from Fedco.

We’re going to need the stroller! Single-torch flamer saves lots of weeding time.
Photo Kati Falger


Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

Another tool we love is our all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools.

I wrote about it last September, when we were preparing our hoophouse beds for winter crops.

This tool is great for aerating compacted soil without inverting it. The soil beasties thank us.

Below is a photo of a hoophouse bed after broadforking before the (immediately following) task of raking to break up the big clumps and produce a fine tilth. It’s important not to let the soil dry out into bricks before raking, or life will be hard (and those soil beasties may be dead).

Hoophouse bed broadforked to aerate the soil without inverting.
Photo Pam Dawling


Lastly I’ll mention our blueberry hoop method. Maybe your bushes, like ours, are flowering now, and maybe you are determined to have a better netting system than you had last year. I described our (then new) blueberry hoop system in 2013. The blueberry area is 16′ x 65′ approx. Height of the netting supports needs to be 7′ or more for most of the space. The 20 blueberry bushes are 66″ apart, in two rows.

We chose PVC Electrical conduit to make our hoops. Unlike PVC water pipe,  plastic electrical conduit is UV-inhibited for outdoor use. Lengths have flanged (bell) ends, and can be joined without any connector pieces. It’s lightweight, and no bending tools are needed (unlike for metal conduit or fencing top-rail). It packs flat for out-of-season storage, and is relatively cheap.

We made a “Spider-House” temporary framework: An idea used for temporary “field houses”. It consists of pairs of bows fastened together at the apex, in a way that spreads out into a 4-legged structure. A row of these make up the frame. An advantage is that the spiders are stronger than simple bows, and that the whole thing can be dismantled relatively easily. The shape helps add strength to lightweight bows.

Blueberry netting on hoops.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Asian Greens for April: Mizuna and ferny mustards

Green mizuna in its prime in our hoophouse in November. Photo Pam Dawling

In April, sadly, our last mizuna and ferny mustards will come to an end. In our hoophouse we do three plantings of these frilly leaved greens, which we use for salads all winter and early spring.

Mizuna (also known as kyona  and shui cai) is a Brassica rapa var. japonica, meaning it’s in the turnip family. The other frilly mustards, such as Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Red Rain are Chinese Mustards, B. juncea. We tend to treat them as if they are all types of mizuna. True mizuna is available in green or purple (but Ruby Streaks and Scarlet Frills mustards are much better colors than Purple Mizuna.)

Golden Frills and Ruby Streaks in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

All are very easy to grow, can be transplanted or direct-sown, and tolerate cold wet soil. They are ready to be harvested for baby salads only 21 days after sowing in the fall (longer in winter). They grow to maturity in 40 days. They are easy-going vegetables, fairly heat tolerant (well, warm tolerant) and cold-tolerant to 25°F (-4°C).  All regrow vigorously after cutting. The ferny leaves add color and loft in salad mixes, as well as an attractive leaf shape.

Mizuna is very mild-flavored. The ferny mustards vary in pungency, but most only become markedly spicy when they start bolting.

Like all Asian greens, they need similar care to other brassicas, doing best in very fertile soils. They are shallow-rooted – pay extra attention to providing enough water during hot weather to prevent bitter flavors and excess pungency, especially with the B. juncea ones. Provide 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week, 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather.

Do close monitoring of pests, which can build up large populations during the summer. Growing these over the winter, as we do, we have not had many pest problems. Flea beetles sometimes, once the weather starts to warm.

Young Ruby Streaks (our second planting) in our hoophouse in early February. We thin for salads until the plants are at final spacing.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our mizuna schedule

On September 24 we sow these little crops in our outdoor nursery seedbed, which is covered with insect netting on hoops. We sow 7.5′, with roughly equal amounts of Green Mizuna, Golden Frills, and Ruby Streaks or Scarlet Frills. Red Rain is another we like. We are aiming for about 75 transplants on October 20. We transplant them 8″ apart with 6 rows in a 4′ bed. This takes 8′ length of a bed. This first planting will feed us from November 27 to January 25, with light harvests possible from November 5, and flowers and sprouting shoots as late as February 10.

Our second planting is direct sown in the hoophouse on November 9. We sow 6 rows about 6′ long (depending on available space). We thin these into salad mixes several times as they grow, increasing the spacing until they are about 6-10″ apart. After that we harvest by cutting off the larger leaves, sometimes individually, sometimes by “buzz-cutting” (snipping off leaves on one half of the plant an inch (25 mm) above the ground). Leaving half of the leaves growing seems to help the new leaves grow faster. Next time we harvest, we cut the other side. This planting provides harvests from February 26 to March 24 – just one month, although we get the thinnings from January 20, and the flowers and bolting shoots until mid-April.

Our third planting, green mizuna and Scarlet Frills, in our hoophouse in mid April. The mizuna is bolting, but the Scarlet Frills is hanging in there.
Photo Pam Dawling

A couple of years ago we added in a third planting, because we had some open space in the hoophouse. It follows the first Yukina Savoy. I wrote about some differences between the OP Yukina Savoy and the hybrid Koji. Perhaps Koji is less bolt-resistant than the OP. Late January brings it to an end.

We sow this third planting on February 1 and harvest it for a month from March 24 to April 23. This year this third planting is bolting April 15. (We have had a lot of temperature reversals this spring, which encourage bolting in brassicas.) Scarlet Frills and Golden Frills bolt later than Ruby Streaks and Green Mizuna. The timing of harvest fits perfectly with the second planting. We have sown it as late as March 3 and harvested April 10-April 30 (only 3 weeks when we sow that late).

Seed sources

Kitazawa Seeds sell 18 baby leaf mustards, including four red, purple or streaked mizunas. The other 14 are B. juncea, although a few don’t say. Most are frilly or ferny, a few merely wavy. Something for everyone.

Johnnys lists their selection under “Greens” along with arugula, large Asian greens, mixes. I counted about 15 mustards that fit the loose category I’m talking about here.

Fedco lists theirs under “Asian greens”. Scroll down past Mizuna to Mustards to find several interesting gene pool offerings such as Pink Lettucy Mustard (Variations of greens with pink or purple pigments in midribs) for those seeking milder flavors; and the medium hot Purple Rapa Mix Gene Pool (sold out as I write this): Very vigorous tall serrated green leaves with purple veins and shading.

Bye bye mizuna! Bolting mizuna (our third planting) in our hoophouse in mid-April.
Photo Pam Dawling

This is my twelfth and last Asian Greens of the Month series. You can see the others here:

May Senposai outdoors

June Tokyo Bekana

July Maruba Santoh

August Fall Senposai, winter Yukina Savoy

September Komatsuna outdoors

October Yukina Savoy outdoors, Tatsoi

November Daikon and other winter radish

December Pak Choy

January Chinese cabbage

February Tatsoi

March Yukina savoy in the hoophouse

Next month I’ll start another year-long series Allium of the Month