Planning to grow potatoes again

Planning to grow potatoes again 

Potato plant emerging in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the last part of a monthly series on growing potatoes, a dietary staple.

I have a whole chapter about potatoes in Sustainable Market Farming, where the basics of potato growing can be found. Below are more details about growing potatoes that you may not have wanted or needed this year. Use your own records and this information to plan for bigger harvests, at times of year suited to your farm.

Varieties

Some varieties store better than others, so advance planning will help achieve good results. Scrutinize the small print in the seed catalogs before your next seed order.

Covering a row of seed potato pieces aligned under a rope.
Photo Ira Wallace
Photo Ira Wallace

Potato types: determinate and indeterminate

We have mostly grown Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold and Kennebec. They all seem to be determinate varieties — they grow as a bush, then flower and die. I only learned this year that there are determinate (varieties with naturally self-limiting growth, generally “early” varieties) and indeterminate varieties (such as “Russet Nugget,” “Nicola,” “German Butterball” and “Elba”). The distinction is explained in Potato Bag Gardening. Growers using towers, grow bags, and cage systems want indeterminate potatoes, which continue to produce more layers of tubers on the stems as they are progressively covered with more soil. Growers wanting a fast reliable crop in the field mostly choose determinate types, which grow as a bush, then flower and die. The Internet does seem to have some contradictory statements about which varieties are determinate and which indeterminate, and some dedicated container growers make assertions not supported by experienced commercial growers. So Reader Beware! I trust Extension and here’s a link to their Ask an Expert page on potato types.

Crop rotation, including cover crops

This is very important for potatoes, which are nightshades like potatoes, peppers and eggplant. Colorado potato beetles emerge from the soil in spring and walk (they don’t fly at this stage) towards the nearest nightshades they can detect. Give them a long hike! A distance of 750′ (230 m) or more from last year’s nightshade plots should keep them away. A three- or four-year rotation out of nightshades in each plot is ideal.

Suitable cover crops before potatoes include brassicas (which can help reduce root knot nematodes and Verticillium), Japanese millet (which can reduce Rhizoctonia) and cereals in general. Beware beets, buckwheat and legumes such as red and crimson clovers, and some peas and beans, as these can host Rhizoctonia and scab.

Late corn undersown with oats, mowed high in October to deal with weeds, and the ex-sweet potato patch sown in winter wheat and crimson clover. Credit Ezra Freeman

In our ten year crop rotation, our March-planted potatoes follow a winter of oats and soy (which winter-kill in our zone 7a climate). This cover crop is undersown in our late sweet corn about 30 days after sowing. Our June-planted potatoes follow a winter cover crop mix of winter wheat or winter rye and crimson clover. This mix is sown in early-mid October after our middle planting of sweet corn. (Yes, we risk the clover.) We had read that potatoes are said to do well after corn, so when we set up our crop rotation, that’s what we did. I have no scientific proof that the assertion is true, but we often have good potatoes, so at least it does no obvious harm!

Fall broccoli transplanted after July potato harvest, and undersown with a mixed clover cover crop.
Photo Nina Gentle.

After harvesting our March-planted potatoes in mid-July, we regularly did a fast-turnaround and transplanted our fall broccoli and cabbage in late July. We undersowed that with a clover mix 4 weeks after planting the brassicas. We kept the clover mix for an all-year Green Fallow, right round until the February a year and a half later. This fast-turnaround was a bit nerve-wracking, so we no longer do that, simply following the potatoes with the clover mix, while transplanting the brassicas in another plot.

After harvesting our June-planted potatoes in October, we sow winter wheat or winter rye with crimson clover or Austrian Winter Peas, depending when we are ready to sow. (Wheat and clover if by 10/15, rye and peas if later)

Preparing the Soil

A bed ready for tilling after mowing the cover crop and spreading compost.
Photo Pam Dawling

Potatoes benefit from generous amounts of compost or other organic matter (they use 10 tons/ac, 22,400 kg/ha) and will grow in soils with a pH of 5.0–6.5. They use high amounts of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), and need adequate soil levels of iron and manganese. They are less affected by low levels of copper and boron. Hay mulch can be a good source of K. As Carol Deppe points out, potatoes will still produce an OK crop in poor soil, where you might not be able to grow much else. See the ATTRA publication Potatoes: Organic Production and Marketing.

Dormancy

See Part 5, Storing Potatoes, for an introduction to this topic. When potatoes sprout and whether they grow one or more sprouts, can be controlled by manipulating the storage conditions.

For extra-early spring planting, aim to sprout relatively few eyes per potato, so that relatively few shoots will grow and the seed pieces will be big enough, with enough nutrients for the plants. Do this by priming the seed potatoes at 65°F (18°C) until the eyes at the rose end just start to sprout. Store at 45°F (7°C) until two weeks before planting time, then finish the sprouting in warmth and light. The early sprouting of the rose-end eyes suppresses the sprouting of the other eyes. If needed, break off extra sprouts before planting.

To avoid sprouting, keep the potatoes below 50F (10C) once they are more than a month from harvest, avoid excess moisture, and avoid “physiological aging” of the potatoes, caused by stressing them with fluctuating temperatures, among other things. If eating potatoes do start to develop sprouts, it’s a good idea to rub off the sprouts as soon as possible, because the sprouting will produce ethylene, which will encourage more sprouting.

Physiological age of seed potatoes

Seed potatoes can act differently depending on their “physiological age.” The warmer the conditions are after dormancy ends, the quicker the sprouts grow and the faster the tubers “age.” When we buy seed potatoes the storage conditions they have already received are beyond our control. As a guide, the length of the longest sprout, and the number of sprouts are measures of physiological age (if the sprouting has taken place in the light). Varieties do not all show these effects to the same degree.

Don’t let your potatoes sprout in storage
Photo Jesse Strassburg

Deliberately adjusting storage temperatures is a way of manipulating the physiological age, in order to get higher yields or earlier maturity. To age seed potatoes, buy the seed in late fall or early winter before they break dormancy and store them rose (eye) end up in daylight at 50°F (10°C) until just before the planting date. In spring, reduce the temperature just before planting, to minimize the thermal shock from the cold soil.

Physiologically “young” tubers will have just one or two sprouts, due to apical dominance (when the leading bud inhibits the other eyes from developing shoots). The plants will have fewer stems, leading to fewer, but larger, potatoes. They will need longer to grow, and so give a later harvest. If you hurry and dig them early, you will only get low yields.

“Middle-aged” tubers give the best yields (27% higher than young or old tubers). “Middle-aged” seed potatoes have multiple short sprouts, without the hairy look of “old” ones. The pre-sprouting instructions given in Part One: Planting potatoes aim to produce “middle-aged” seed.

Physiologically “old” seed potatoes will have many “hairy-looking” branched sprouts, coming from eyes all over the potato. These potato plants emerge faster and start tuber formation sooner. The final plant size will be smaller (because the shoots are weak) and the plants will be more susceptible to drought and die sooner. Because the tubers do mature quickly, they may be good if you seek an early harvest, or are planting a fall crop a bit too close to the frost date. The total yield will be lower (but earlier) than from “younger” seed.

See the University of Maine Extension Service Bulletin #2412, Potato Facts: Selecting, Cutting and Handling Potato Seed  Their drawings are reproduced here. Also see Know and Grow Vegetables by Salter, Bleasdale, et al. for more on this complex topic.

More POTATO resources

The University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Info Center Potatoes

University of Maryland IPM series on potatoes, which is a troubleshooter sheet on causes and solutions for problems

Cornell 2016 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Potatoes (104 pages)

The Potato Association of America, Commercial Potato Production in North America 2010. (90 pages)

The Government of Canada Biofungicides provide Post-harvest Disease Protection in Potatoes

Other related Blog Posts

Potato Research on Harvest and Storage

What Makes Potatoes Sprout, Nov 2017

How to Deal with Green Potatoes (one of my most-read blog posts!)

Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating in Mother Earth News

Virginia Farming Workshop, and Cuban AgroEcology Tour: La Palma Farm, Pinar del Rio Province

Introduction to Permaculture and Organic Farming and Gardening Workshop 2020

Saturday August 8, 2020 2.30-8.30 pm. Cost: $75

Day Spring Farm, 842 Buena Vista, Shacklefords, VA 23156

Click the link in the title for all the details. Social distancing and face coverings required.

Organic Farming Workshop 2020-1

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Cuban AgroEcology Tour: La Palma farm, Pinar del Rio Province

Roberto or Eduardo cultivating tobacco with oxen. La Palma, Pinar del Rio, Cuba
Photo Pam Dawling

Here’s another post about the Organic Growers School Agroecolgy Tour I participated in back when we could travel! I feel so fortunate to have made this trip this January. You can read about other parts of this Tour under the Cuban Agriculture category or at these links:

My Cuba farming trip.

Alamar Urban Organic Farm

Finca Marta

Finca Hoyo Bonito Bean Seed Bank

After our initial stay in Havana, we traveled west for three hours to stay a few days in the Viñales Valley in the province of Pinar del Rio.

Day 5 – Saturday January 11, morning

Our day started with an 8 am breakfast at our casa particulare in Viñales. We enjoyed fruit, tea, coffee, juice, cookies, bread, pancakes, cheese sandwiches, and ham. No eggs today.

The oxen team at la Palma, Pinar del Rio, Cuba
Photo by Pam Dawling

We took our tour bus to visit the ANAP (National Association of Small Farmers) cooperative agricultural project La Palma. ANAP farmers have less than 67 hectares each. According to Wikipedia, currently ANAP members produce 52% of the vegetables, 67% of the corn, and 85% of the tobacco grown in Cuba.

We met tobacco producers Roberto and Eduardo, who are brothers. Each farm is allowed a certain tobacco quota by the Cuban government. They are growing 40,000 tobacco plants as their quota and another 40,000 using a neighbor’s irrigated land in trade for their use of some dry land. Tobacco needs irrigated land, and their neighbor did not have the other resources to grow a tobacco crop this year. The government agreed to this swap because of the poor state of the national economy.

How to hang tobacco leaves on sticks. La Palma farm, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

La Palma also grows vegetables (tomatoes, beans with some interplanted corn plants to protect the beans from pests), and cassava. They use oxen for cultivating the fields. We had some juice, a taste of red mamey fruit (Pouteria sapota), and the chance to buy cigars for $2 each.

Tomato plants at La Palma, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, grown right up against the amazing limestone cliffs.
Photo by Pam Dawling

Next we paid a visit to a farm with a small cigar manufacturing business, Manolo Tobacco Farm, for a demonstration of cigar-making, and a chance to buy different kinds of cigars. All the cigars are rolled by hand and the men demonstrating the technique are also professional in engaging the audience. After rolling a cigar for us, the demonstrator lit it, showed how to smoke cigars and passed it round.

Closeup of limestone cliff at La Palma, Rio del Pinar, Cuba
Photo by Pam Dawling

See this video of cigar making at Manolo Tobacco Farm, made by Franny’s Farmacy, two of the other people on my Organic Growers School Tour:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_mXuImolMQ

At this place I was dismayed to find a nasty toilet (not the first of this trip): no seat, no paper, no flush. The toilet tank was not connected to a water supply. The water at the sink was very slow, and even though a bucket was provided, filling it to flush the toilet seemed very challenging. How can a tourist attraction have such terrible toilets? Why are there not more composting toilets?

Cuba, at least in the northwest, suffers from a shortage of water, and ancient mainline plumbing that leaks a lot. When we arrived at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the water supply had been temporarily shut off to the restrooms. Havana has a natural port, but no river drains into it. See Rivers in Cuba map to appreciate the unfortunate geography!

The Albear Aqueduct was constructed in Havana in 1858, in a neoclassical style and still supplies 20% of Havana’s water. A marvel of mid-19th century engineering, the water comes from the de Vento springs by gravity. This fresh water helped the city reduce the terrible cholera epidemics and earned a gold medal at the 1878 Paris Exposition

Tourist transportation in Viñales: vintage cars and horse and cart.
Photo by Pam Dawling

Cover Crops in Summer

 

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

Sow summer cover crops while it’s still too early sow your winter cover crops. Sow oats 5-8 weeks before your average first frost to get good size plants before they get winter-killed. Sow winter rye from 14 days before to 28 days after first fall frost. Oats, barley, wheat and rye sown too early can head up and seed before you get to winter, making them less useful. Instead, sow fast-growing summer cover crops in any space possible, for weed suppression and a boost to soil organic matter.

Keep live roots in the ground as much of the time as possible, to feed the microorganisms and anchor the soil, preventing erosion in heavy rains. Dead roots also have a role, providing drainage channels in the soil and letting air in deeper. Adding organic matter to the soil is a way of banking carbon, as well as providing nutrients for your crops.

Deep-rooted cover crops draw up nutrients, bringing them up where crop plants can access them. Leguminous cover crops provide nitrogen, saving imports of organic fertilizers or a big compost-making operation.

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

Advantages of Summer Cover Crops

Suppressing weeds. Weeds grow fast in summer, and fast-growing summer cover crops will suppress them. Sowing cover crops helps us stay on top of developing problems.

Growing biomass. Many summer cover crops can be mowed or scythed down (before flowering) to encourage regrowth. The cut biomass can be left in place, or raked out and used as mulch in another part of the garden. Some can even be used as feed or bedding for small livestock.

Feed the soil life. Cover crops are solar-power generators, transforming sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into leaves and roots. They also release carbohydrates and other nutrients that feed soil microbes, earthworms and other soil life forms that make soil fertile. This cycle of nutrients constantly passes through plants and back into the soil. When you aren’t growing vegetable crops, cover crops keep this cycle going.

Increasing biodiversity. Cover crops can attract beneficial insects, birds and amphibians to feed and reproduce. Biodiversity encourages ecological balance that can help reduce plant diseases and pest attacks.

No-Till summer cover crops. A mix of soybeans or southern peas and foxtail millet can be grown during the summer and mow-killed before planting in the fall. Garlic perhaps?

Overcoming the Challenges of Summer Cover Crops

Finding space. If you’ve been carefully filling every space with vegetables, you may think you have no room for cover crops, but because they feed the soil, it’s worth making space for them too. It’s part of the wholistic picture of sustainable food production. It’s worth making a priority to have one bed or one section of your garden in cover crops, because of what they can do for your soil.

  1. Have a goal of No Bare Soil. Seek out odd spaces to fill with cover crops.
  2. Use space beside rows of sprawly crops short-term. Undersow buckwheat in winter squash, watermelon or sweet potatoes, and mow or till as soon as the vines start to run.
  3. Take a cold hard look at aging crops: better than keeping an old row of beans to pick every last bean, is to pull up those beans and sow a quick cover crop. It will be a more valuable use of the space.
  4. Take a look at your planting plan. When is your next crop going in that space? Rather than till the soil to death to manage the weeds, use a cover crop. In the winter, see if you can re-arrange your crop rotation and planting plan to make more time windows of a month or more, with the plan of using more cover crops.
  5. Undersow growing crops with a cover crop when the vegetable crop has been in the ground for about a month. The food crop will be big enough to resist competition from the cover crop, and the cover crop will still get enough light to grow. This way fewer weeds grow, and your cover crop is already in place when the food crop is finished, giving it longer to reach a good size. We undersow our sweet corn with soybeans (soy and oats for the last sweet corn planting). Buckwheat can be under-sown in a spring vegetable crop, to take over after the food crop is finished. You can plant a short cover crop on the sides of a bed of any tall crop like tomatoes or pole beans. You will need to provide extra water, especially while the cover crop is germinating. Read my Mother Earth News post on undersowing in late summer and early fall.
  6. Sweet corn with undersown soy cover crop.
    Photo Kathryn Simmons

    You can also undersow winter cover crops during late summer and early fall to last over the winter and even the next year. We broadcast clover among our fall broccoli and cabbage with the plan of keeping it growing for the whole of the following year, mowing once a month to stop annual weeds seeding.

High temperatures. Most summer cover crop seeds will germinate just fine at high temperatures provided they get enough water.

Drought. If it doesn’t rain much in your summers, or your irrigation water is limited, choose cover crops that are drought-tolerant once germinated. After sowing, work the seed into the soil and roll or tamp the soil so that the seed is in good contact with the soil, which will help it get the water it needs rather than drying out in an air pocket. To get good germination, keep the soil surface visibly damp. You can use shadecloth, a light open straw or hay mulch, or even cardboard to reduce evaporation. Be sure to check every day and remove the cardboard as soon as you see the first seedlings.

Sowing small spaces. You can sow cover crops in rows by hand in very small spaces, or use an EarthWay seeder. Or you can broadcast: tuck a small bucket of seeds in one arm, take a handful of seeds and throw them up in front of yourself in a fanning movement, trying not to spread seed into neighboring beds where you don’t want them. Aim for about two seeds/sq in (1 sq inch is 6.5 sq cm, I’ll leave you to think what it looks like). Don’t sweat the details, you will get better with practice! This isn’t brain surgery! For more even coverage, try broadcasting half the seed walking up and down the length of the patch, then sow the other half while walking at 90 degrees to your original direction. Rake or till the seeds in, trying to cover most of the seeds with 0.5-1” (1-2.5 cm) of soil. Water with a hose wand or sprinkler to keep the soil damp until germination.

A bed ready for tilling after mowing the cover crop and spreading compost.
Photo Pam Dawling

Working with the time you have left.

  • If you have only 28 days until the patch is needed for a food crop, you can grow mustard or buckwheat. Or weeds, if you’re careful not to let them seed!
  • If you have at least 45 days, you can grow soy or Japanese millet.
  • If you have only 40-60 days before frost you can sow oats with soy beans or spring peas as a winter cover crop to winter-kill.
  • If you have 50–60 days until frost, or between crops, Browntop millet is possible. In the right climate, sunn hemp can mature in 60 days.
  • With 60–80 days until frost, or between one crop and the next, you could sow buckwheat, soy, southern peas, spring peas, German foxtail millet, pearl millet, Japanese millet, or sorghum-sudangrass to frost-kill. Or you could sow oats with Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, or red clover to grow into winter.
  • If you have longer than 80 days you can sow any of the warm weather cover crops now and then move on to winter cover crops 40 days before your frost. Or you could sow a fast-growing vegetable crop.

Five Easy Summer Cover Crops that Die with the Frost

Buckwheat

Buckwheat cover crop in flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Buckwheat is the fastest and easiest cover crop, a 2’-3’ (60-90 cm) tall broadleaf annual that can be flowering within three weeks in very warm weather, 4 weeks in regular warm weather. Because it grows so fast, it quickly crowds out germinating weeds. Plant buckwheat after all spring frosts have passed, until 35 days before the fall frost at the latest.

If you have longer than 4 weeks for cover crops, you have the option of letting the buckwheat self-seed and regrow (only do this if you’ve finished growing vegetables for that year in that space). Another option if you are not close to the frost date is to incorporate the buckwheat in the soil and then sow fresh seed.

Buckwheat is very easy to incorporate into the soil. Use a mower or scythe to cut it down 7-10 days after it starts flowering, and then either let the dead plants die into a surface mulch and plant into that, or rake it up and compost it, or dig or till it into the soil. For small areas, you can simply pull up buckwheat by hand – this is what we do in our hoophouse.

Buckwheat can be used as a nurse crop for fall-planted, cold-tolerant crops, which can be difficult to germinate in hot weather. Sow a combination of buckwheat and a winter vegetable to shade and cool the soil. When frost kills the buckwheat, the vegetable crop can continue growing with no competition.

Buckwheat is not related to any of the common food crops, and so it is simple to include it in crop rotations.

See my post and article about buckwheat here.

Sorghum-Sudangrass

Sorghum-sudan cover crop after mowing to encourage regrowth.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

One of our favorite summer cover crops is sorghum-sudangrass, a hybrid that grow 5’-12’ (1.5-3.6 m) tall in 60-70 days and produces an impressive amount of biomass. You’ll need big machinery, at least a big BCS mower, to deal with sorghum-sudangrass. If you have only hand tools and a lawnmower, I recommend growing German foxtail or Japanese millet instead.

Plant sorghum-sudangrass about two weeks after your first sweet corn planting date and anytime onward until six weeks before frost. After it’s established, sorghum-sudangrass is highly drought-resistant and thrives in summer heat. Plant in rows 8” (20 cm) apart, with seeds 1’ (2.5 cm) deep, 1.5” (4 cm) apart. Sorghum-sudangrass will smother weed competition, and make big improvements to the soil texture and the levels of organic matter.

When the sorghum-sudangrass reaches 4’ (1.2 m) tall, cut it down to 1’ (30 cm) to encourage regrowth and more, deeper, roots growth that will loosen compacted soil. The cut tops make a good mulch, or you can leave them in place.

Sorghum-sudangrass roots exude allelopathic compounds that suppress damaging nematodes and inhibit small seeds (weeds and crops) from germinating and inhibits the growth of tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli. Wait at least 6 weeks after killing sorghum-sudangrass before planting another crop in the same spot. Plant earlier at your own risk – I think we’ve had some success despite the warnings. Be careful if feeding to livestock. Read up about prussic acid poisoning from this cover crop.

Soybeans

Soybeans as a cover crop
Photo agcrops.osu.edu

These are a quick easy leguminous cover crop for warm weather. Buy organic seed if you don’t want GMOs, as almost all non-Organic soybeans in the US are GMOs. We plant these whenever we have a minimum of six weeks for them to grow before frost or before we’ll need to turn them under. They aren’t the highest N-producing legume, but they are very fast-growing and easy to manage.

Southern Peas

Iron and Clay southern peas as cover crop in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Also known as cowpeas, although I have heard this might be perceived as insulting by African-American families who use them as food. Southern peas grow fast (60-90 days), thrive in heat, and are very drought-tolerant. Their taproots can reach almost 8’ (2.4 m) deep. They grow well in almost any soil, except highly alkaline ones. Southern peas attract beneficial insects.

Sow southern peas 1-2 weeks after your sweet corn, when the soil has warmed up. You can continue sowing until 9 weeks before a killing fall frost. Sow seeds 2” (5 cm) apart, 1” (2.5 cm) deep in rows 6” (15 cm) apart (give vining types more like 15” (40 cm) between rows. Close planting is needed to shade out weeds.

Because they are fast-growing, southern peas can follow spring vegetable crops and fix nitrogen in time to feed heavy-feeding, fall-planted onions or garlic.

Sunn Hemp

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

Sunn hemp is a nitrogen-fixing legume from the tropics, which can grow as much as 9’ (2 m) tall in just weeks. Sow sunn hemp from 1-2 weeks after your sweet corn sowing date, up to 9 weeks before a killing frost. It tolerates a wide range of soils (but not if waterlogged), and dies with the frost. Plant inoculated seed (use the same inoculant as for southern peas) 1” (2.5 cm) deep, with seeds 1.5” (4 cm) apart in the row, and with rows 6” (15 cm) apart. Sowing densely will smother the weeds.

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

Late Summer Cover Crops for Winter: Oats and Barley

Occasionally our winter cover crop oats don’t get winter-killed. March photo by Pam Dawling

In late summer you can sow oats for a winter cover crop that will be killed at 6°F (-14°C). We sow in late August and early September in Zone 7. Inexpensive and easy to grow, oats are a standard fall cover crop: a quick-growing, non-spreading grass, oats will reliably die in Hardiness Zone 6 and colder, and nine years out of ten in zone 7.

Barley grows even faster than oats, and on average it will get killed later in the winter. It usually dies at 17°F (-8°C), making barley another choice for gardeners in regions where oats are used.

Cover Crop Resources

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

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

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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