Last Chance Sowings

This week we’ve been busy tilling and raking beds in preparation for some Last Chance sowings.

In our climate zone, with an average first frost date of October 14, the first half of August is the last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. It’s important to know the last date for planting each crop so that you have a reasonable chance of success. For this part we got help from the Virginia Tech Extension Service: Fall Vegetable Gardening. 

The first group of Last Chance sowings are the warm weather crops, such as green beans, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash.

Here’s the formula (for frost tender crops), for figuring the number of days to count back from the expected first frost date; add the number of days from seeding to harvest, the average length of the harvest period, 14 days to allow for the slowing rate of growth in the fall, and 14 days to allow for an early frost. For example, yellow squash takes maybe 50 days from sowing to harvest, and the plants are good here for 21 days, so the last date for sowing would be 50+21+14+14= 99 days before the first frost. For us that means 99 days before 10/14, so 7/7. But with rowcover to throw over the last planting when it gets cold, the growing doesn’t slow down, and the season is effectively 2 weeks longer, and we can ignore the 14 days for an early frost. So our last planting of squash is 8/5, a whole month later than if we didn’t use rowcover..

But August is way to soon to be thinking about frosty weather, except to ensure we have enough rowcover on hand when the time comes. Here, and in many parts of the country, a frost or two will often be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is the effort. It’s easy to get extra harvests for a month or two from mature plants you already have.

We sow our #6 planting of beans 8/3, 15 days after #5; cukes #5 (slicing), by 8/5 at the latest; and zucchini and summer squash #5 by 8/9.

The second group of Last Chance sowings are cool weather crops that grow here in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in the summer. Beets, carrots, chard, turnips and radishes all fall in this group. It can be hard to get some of these to germinate when the soil is still hot.

On 8/1 we sow beets dry or presoaked for 2-12 hours in a little water – not too much water or for too long, as they need to breather air, or could drown. We sow them 1/2″-1″ deep, tamp the soil, and keep the surface damp with daily watering for the 5 or 6 days they take to emerge. We have tried using shadecloth to help keep the soil moist, but it does cut down the airflow and our climate is humid and fungus-inducing. I like the Formanova/Cylindra/Forono beet. The shape is long (good for slicing), and the flavor is very sweet and the texture tender.

Very early in August, or sometimes in late July, we sow a large planting of fall carrots, enough to store and feed us all winter. Danvers 126 is our workhorse carrot. We use an EarthWay seeder, which is light, easy to use and to empty, and comes at a reasonable price. There are more expensive precision seeders that put the seed out more evenly, and so don’t require the amount of thinning that using the EarthWay does, but we’re happy with our choice. We use pre-emergent flame weeding to remove the first flush of weeds, making it easy to then hoe between the rows.

Carrots and beets are ideal crops for this technique. The goal is to flame the bed the day before the expected emergence of the crop. use a soil thermometer and a table of how many days the crop needs to germinate at various soil temperatures, to figure out which day to flame. For carrots it’s possible to sow a few “indicator beets” at one end of the bed, and as soon as you see the red loops of the beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case!) Beets are always a bit quicker than carrots to germinate. Tables of Days to Germination can be found in Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook (Wiley, 2006), by Donald Maynard and George Hochmuth, and Nancy Bubel’s New Seed Starter’s Handbook. (Rodale, 1988)

We use a handheld flamer attached to a propane cylinder that is in a wheelbarrow pushed by a second person behind the first. this person also acts as a “fire warden”. Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame. Walking along the aisle between the beds, and wafting the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed takes about 10 minutes for a 100′ (30 m) bed. Flame weeding alone can reduce the hand weeding to one hour/100′. Hand weeding can be reduced to 6 minutes/100′ by flaming after using stale beds which have been hoed 3 or 4 times.

Swiss Chard can also be sowed here in August, for a nice fall harvest. We sow ours in April and just keep it going all summer, fall and (if covered) winter too.

At the beginning of August we sow winter storing radishes, China Rose, Red Meat, Shindin Risoh Daikon and Shunkyo Semi-Long. We also sow Easter Egg small radishes. We can have trouble with flea beetles as well as harlequin bugs on our fall brassica sowings, as the pest numbers have built up over the summer. To avoid these troubles, we put rowcover over the beds until the plants are big enough to stand up for themselves against “pest bullying”.

We sow 6 beds of kale, two each every 6 days, (8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24) until we succeed in getting enough established. Often we’ll get patchy emergence and end up transplanting plants from one bed or one end of a bed to fill out the blank areas.

We sow our turnips 8/15 or up until 9/15 (our absolute latest). Rutabagas need longer than turnips, and we’ve given up growing them because late July weather is just too hot and dry. Brassicas will germinate just fine in hot temperatures – the challenge is keeping the soil moist.

Turn Here Sweet Corn, by Atina Diffley. Book Review

 

This new book (published by the University of Minnesota Press) offers a real-life organic vegetable farmer’s memoir. Normally, I look for inspiring reading during the winter, to refresh myself for the next farming season. This book, however, is a perfect mid-summer revival aid for farmers and gardeners flagging in the heat. It gives us perspective on our troubles as we read of Atina’s and husband Martin’s struggles with wild weather (hailstones the size of B potatoes!), continuous hard work, and land lost to developers and threatened by a pipeline. The immediacy of their powerful and tender story and Atina’s decision to stand up and become a leader for what she believes in gives us inspiration. We can feel validation of our work as organic vegetable growers as we read that 1¼ acres of kale can produce 182,000 servings, and if our marketing is as good as the Diffleys’, we can sell them all within 42 miles of the farm! Organic farming sequesters 15-28% more carbon than industrial farming, with a 33% reduction in fossil fuel use.

Atina and Martin owned and operated Gardens of Eagan (one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest) from 1973-2007, so you can be sure Atina knows farming! Starting as a confused teenager (as many of us do), Atina grew into a strong, committed passionate leader of the organic farming movement. Her descriptions of the beauty, deep satisfaction, multiple stresses and sheer exhaustion of farming ring so true. She talks about the meaning in the daily life of organic farmers, of investing in the soil life, creating balance, seeing the potential of each field, and bringing that out. “Dirt is just soil that’s out of place. Soil has structure. Dirt does not.”

Early in the book, you might wonder if she’ll ever make it as a farmer, but her determination and perseverance, and the quality of attention she brings to what happens on the farm ensure her success, and our gripping reading. The Diffley family farm is lost to developers, who carve and churn up the soil even while Atina, Martin, their two children and their crew rush to harvest their crops. They decide to piece together a farm from patches of land they buy and rent, until they find the perfect farm to buy. Being itinerant farmers is no easy choice, and requires exceptional organizational skills.

One of their organizational strengths comes from using Holistic Management tools learned at a workshop. She and Martin each write “quality of life” statements, answering the question “If we lived perfect lives, what would it look like?” Each winter they quit farming for a week, party and relax in clean clothes, with clean fingernails. Even talking about the weather is an “illicit act” during the Quitting Week. Then they state their goals for the year and recommit. When they farm again it is a conscious choice. Decisions have to fit their quality of life statements.

Atina says: “I have the same nightmare every winter. If I think about everything it takes to pull off a successful season, it seems impossible . . . [but] if we have a plan in place and I stay in the present, then the work is manageable. . . I just have to remember not to look too far ahead.” Exactly the same is true for me, maybe for you too.

One year they decide to simplify their crops and cut a deal where each picks a crop to drop. Goodbye to potatoes, onions, winter squash, leeks. Sort of. Atina admits that she and Martin then each sneak some winter squash in, unable to completely let go of the experience they have gained in growing this crop.

This amazing book also has gems of practical information embedded in the story, and they’re worth noting. Techniques include the use of farm micro-climates (the first place the purslane germinates is the best spot for early tomatoes and melons); moving flats of aphid-infested seedlings out into the center of a field of vetch for the day, to have the insects in the vetch feast on the aphids; accepting up to 50% defoliation of broccoli plants between the six-leaf stage and heading, because it will not decrease the yield; reducing the chance of aphid-vectored diseases in a squash planting by sowing a “toothbrush strip” of wheat around the perimeter (when the aphids chew on the wheat it cleans the viruses from their mouthparts, so the squash stay virus-free).

The farm grows in size and complexity each year, with a bigger work crew and more refrigerated trucks. They also develop a massive supportive community of consumers and produce retailers, which is to prove its worth as the story develops. When the Diffleys find their new farm, they can finally set the washing-line poles in concrete. But a big cloud comes over the perfect horizon – Koch Industries claim eminent domain to route their pipeline through their farm. Atina fights this, not just for their farm, but for other organic farmers too, establishing a protocol for safeguards to be taken if organic farm soil and wildlife habitat is disrupted.

The normal legal process for a farm trying to prevent a pipeline across their land involves proposing other people’s farms as possible alternative routes. This process divides us and causes each of us to need to compete with each other and fight individually. Atina Diffley created an Organic Appendix to the Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan (AIMP) that is legally required when farmland is dsirupted. Atina and her legal team got the pipeline company to accept that (in the words of Dr Deborah Allen) “The losses to an organic vegetable farm from diminished soil quality are of a different character and order of magnitude than on a conventional crop farm.” Healthy soil is necessary for a successful organic farm. By creating this Organic Appendix and getting the pipeline company to accept it, Atina made something other organic farms could also use to prevent eminent domain devastation on their farms. It could also encourage other farms to transition to certified organic and benefit from the Appendix. Far from falling for the individual solution and fighting only for her farm, while further jeopardizing other farms, Atina found a way to unite with other organic farmers in fighting the assault.

This mixture of heart-breaking and encouraging is what makes the book so engaging. Atina tells us: “Every winter I do recover from the season’s exhaustion, but if I push too far, I won’t. As we age, personal balance will require more consistent time for renewal.” In keeping with her wisdom, after 35 years of farming, Atina and Martin retired from active farming to become educators and consultants about organic farming. See their Organic Farming Works website for more info.

Twin Oaks July Garden Calendar

(LOTS TO HARVEST)

Here’s this month’s task list, which you can adapt for your own vegetable plot. We’re in central Virginia. It’s 100F just so you know! October 14 is our average first frost date.

During the month:

Mow clovers, and sorghum sudan cover crop areas.

Lettuce Factory: Sow heat-resistant lettuces, every 5 days, (sowing #20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25), using shade-cloth & burlap to cool the soil after and before sowing. Soil temp must be below 80°F – use Jericho if very hot, with ice on seed rows, or sow in plastic flat in fridge. Transplant #16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 this month under shadecloth – 120 heads (1/3 bed) /planting. Store seed in fridge.

String weave tomatoes once a week with binder twine.

Seed selection: Romas: Select for high early yield and healthy foliage. Mark with ribbons on T-posts (bows on good side). Select 100 from 260 plants. Remove off-types, don’t select from plants within 150’ of other tomatoes.

Perennials: Water blueberries, take up & store roof netting.  Mow, weed & water all perennials.

Cover crops: can sow buckwheat, soy and sorghum sudan during July. Also white clover if damp enough.

Early July:

Mow spring potato tops if they have not died by 7/1. Spread compost for fall brassicas following potatoes.  Disk in compost ASAP, or if disking impossible, till.

Sow brassicas for fall, resow earlier brassicas if needed. Use rowcovers, water and your best powers of memory.

Sow carrots #8 (if needed), corn #5. Last date for limas is 7/6.

Asparagus: First week of July (or sooner) is a good time for weeding, composting and tucking mulch.

Transplant lettuce #16, 17.

Hill up peanuts at 12” tall, and mulch them.

Clear any remaining spring carrots, for best flavor.  Stop harvesting broccoli when it gets bitter.

Potato OnionsJuly 10-15 Second sorting: check through curing bulbs, starting with the largest. Eat any > 2”, or refrigerate and plan to plant them in September. Use Worksheet and Log Book.

Strawberries – July 6-8: If propagating from our plants, pot up 600-900 for each planting, pencil-sized crowns, 2 or 3 leaves, 4” petioles. Use current favorite method. Remember irrigation. 580 for 1 bed in East Garden, 900 for 2 beds in  Central Garden, 800 for 2 beds in West Garden. Finish renovating strawberries by mid-July, restore 20″ paths.

Plan, inventory and order winter cover crops.  Make cover crop maps.

Summer Disking: Get spring broccoli & cabbage area bush-hogged, disked, sown in summer covers – same time as second disking for corn #6.  Disk some of the Green Fallow area for new strawberries, sow buckwheat & soy.


Mid-July:

Harvest spring potatoes 2 weeks after tops have died; air the root cellar and warm to 70°F. Store potatoes in the early morning. Ventilate the cellar every night or two, especially if it’s wet in there.

Sow brassicas for fall; cukes #4 (slicers & picklers), zucchini and summer squash #4 7/15, corn #6 7/16, beans #5 7/19, edamame #5, storage melons. (Could sow snap peas 7/15, swiss chard, leaf beet, kale; rutabaga 7/15-8/15.)

Cut down all the celery to encourage a second harvest.

Transplant lettuce #18, 19; 2 week-old Blues cabbage,Tokyo bekana, maruba santoh;

Transplant senposai, yukina savoy, komatsuna, other fall brassicas – cover all with rowcover. Keep watered.

Water soil for transplants if dry: Set out drip tape for fall broccoli and cabbage. Transplant broccoli, cabbage, [cauliflower] at 4 leaves (3-4 weeks old?) in 34-36″ rows,

If eggplants are suffering from fleabeetle, start foliar feeding.

Seed Selection: watermelons: mark 30 early large watermelons from healthy plants for seed (use grease pencil).

Late July:

Sow fall brassicas, corn #7, scallions #4, fall carrots and bulb fennel in the last week of July, if not too hot and dry.

Flameweed carrots before emergence. (Get propane tank filled in good time.)

Transplant more brassicas, incl kohlrabi, collards, preferably not older than 5 weeks. Transplant lettuce #20 & 21.

 

July Harvests: Asian melons, asparagus beans, beans, beets, blueberries, broccoli (early July), cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, celery, chard, corn, cow peas, crabapples, cukes, edamame, eggplant, lettuce, okra, onions, peppers, hot peppers, potatoes, raspberries, Roma paste tomatoes, scallions, squash, tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash.

Review of Richard Wiswall’s Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook

Here’s a book review I wrote for the newsletter of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. 

Richard Wiswall’s Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook is the perfect book for organic farmers like me who focus on the production side while intending (hoping?) to use time wisely and effectively. If you want to make a living directly from sustainable food production, as opposed to making a living from something else in order to fund your passion, this is the place to look for help. Mostly this is a book about vegetable growing – I think it would also be directly useful to organic growers raising fruit, flowers, seed crops, hay or feedstocks. Livestock farmers would also get value from applying the principles.

Don’t worry that this book will be dry and inaccessible – not so! Richard Wiswall’s wholistic approach to getting us to investigate how successful our farm ventures are includes starting with a questionnaire on personal values, and consideration of goals, quality of life and the meaning of true sustainability.

Next he leads us into a closer look at how some apparently humdrum crops (kale) can be great money-earners while other apparent  basics (beans) can be a loss leader at best. In this  way he encourages us to track production and sales via a Crop Journal with a page for each crop and a note made each time any task is performed on a crop (at the end of each day).

Peppered throughout the book, at just the spots where you might start to think you can’t do it, are encouraging messages: “It’s so easy!” “Think like the bank statement. Be the bank statement!” “Checkbook balancing is just a different crossword puzzle” “That’s it! No rocket science in there.” Richard Wiswall has the gift of making spreadsheets nice and easy, clear and useful. He leads us through making crop budgets for each crop in a simplified way so we can then list all our crops or enterprises in order of net return. Then we have the information we can use to make decisions for the future.

One chapter steers us through labor costs and overheads so that we can clearly see whether it’s better financially to raise transplants or buy them in (assuming they are available). We can compare the income from restaurant sales with farmers’ markets, with CSA sales for a good balance. Tractor and implement use is not free, even if you’ve already got the machines in the barn. Hand transplanting is more efficient for areas of ¼ acre or less. There is a whole chapter on production efficiencies with photos of useful implements and a box warning on avoiding hearing loss.

And just in case you think the rest of the book is going to be all profit calculations, Richard takes a deep look at how to be an effective manager, write a good crew job description and be the kind of farmer people want to work with. He spends time on coaching in simple ways to prevent money leaking away, and how to plan for comfortable retirement.

Next, Richard leads us step by step through writing a business plan, making a balance sheet and cash flow projections. This is all explained beautifully clearly and the chapter ends with congratulations on creating a road map for the future of your farm.

An appendix includes examples of all the worksheets he advocates, including crop budgets for 24 crops, including greenhouse tomatoes. And the best bit is – the book includes a CD you can copy and use to create your own budgets, timesheets, payroll calculator, and a farm crew job description template as well as the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program Farm Financials Workbook, compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux. Buy it, it will soon repay you the $34.95; or order it from the library.

Richard Wiswall,Sally Colman and family at Cate Farm in Central Vermont cultivate 22 acres and seven 100-foot long greenhouses of organic vegetables, medicinal herbs,  and flowers. You can buy the book directly from Cate Farm.