Root Crops in January

No Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in January!

Closing rowcovers after a winter spinach harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in January

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

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

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

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

Young midwinter turnips in our hoophouse.
photo Pam Dawling

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

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in January

Check stored vegetables

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

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

Inner tunnels in the hoophouse for cold nights

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

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

Special Root Crop Topic for January in Central Virginia

Garden Plans Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

See my Mother Earth News  Garden Planning online course for details

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

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

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

 

Preparing to order seeds

Preparing to order seeds: 6 steps + 3 extra tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Earth News Fair

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

I have a couple of slideshows on SlideShare.net,

See Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production 2019 Pam Dawling

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

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

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

 First, a basic 6 steps of garden planning

  1. See How to Decide Which Crops to Grow.

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

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in a Winstrip tray
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

Seeds stored in glass jars
Photo courtesy of Monticello

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • How Much Garlic to Plant

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Choosing varieties.

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

 

  1. Formatting and placing seed orders

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

Here are a few more thoughts on crops to consider:

  1. Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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

Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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

West Indian gherkins on a trellis.
Photo by Nina Gentle

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

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

Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

  1. VEGETABLE CROPS THAT OFFER FAST RETURNS

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

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

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

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

Book Review: No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, by Bryan O’Hara

Cover of No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture by Bryan O’Hara

Book Review: No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, by Bryan O’Hara

Chelsea Green, 2020. 250 pages, full color photos throughout, $29.95.

Bryan O’Hara’s No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture is the work of an expert. His bio says he is known for “providing mountains of details in a concise, practical and cohesive manner”, which sounds like my kind of writer!

His book includes science, art, and philosophy. It is an example of something I realized a while ago: if a farmer pays good attention to what works well, and acts in accordance with their observations, it doesn’t seem to me to matter exactly why they think it works! Although I don’t share the author’s spiritual outlook, or practice of Biodynamics, I do highly value healthy soil, diverse ecosystems, crop rotations, nutritious food, good relations with our neighbors and peace in the world. And so I can use the pointers to achieve some of these goals. Bryan has been paying exquisite attention for decades!

This no-till book is very different from Andrew Mefferd’s Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers which I reviewed in May 2019. That book provides a menu of varied methods for those who want to increase the amount of no-till growing on their small-scale farm. Any reduction in tillage is a good step: you don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere. Read Andrew’s book first and choose the reduced-tillage options that suit your farm. Then read Bryan’s book on one particular way of no-till vegetable production and see which parts will work for you.

Bryan and his partner Anita started farming in Connecticut in the early 1990s. Experienced, enthusiastic and energetic, they quickly succeeded, and prepared to expand Tobacco Road Farm. Fortunately, Anita realized the three acres of vegetables they already had was a better fit with their goals: providing for their family year-round, keeping them healthy and happy, providing a service to fellow humans, and freedom from economic subjugation. They embraced Biodynamics as a way to improve crop health, and then Korean Natural Farming. KNF (developed by a Korean, Cho Han Kyu) and making brews of microorganisms (IMOs).

After noticing that tillage was detrimental to their soils, they switched to no-till and were stunned at the differences. The vegetables taste wonderful!

Bryan writes an inspirational narrative, without any fluffy chat. It’s like being in conversation with him. Not everyone can make a discussion of soil quality so engaging! He has a suitable humility about stepping in and influencing the fine balance of the ecosystem. His advice: “be careful not to get in the way of delicate, naturally functioning systems.”

I was surprised to find that Bryan believes that long-lasting condensation trails left by high-flying aircraft under certain conditions are actually “chemtrails” of chemical or biological agents secretly sprayed on us, rather than water-vapor. I do agree that airplane flights significantly add to climate chaos. We who sometimes fly have the responsibility for this, not secret government departments. Like Bryan, I lament the erratic weather, the decline in insect populations, and the struggle to provide water for our livestock and crops in appropriate quantities and rates of distribution.

Bryan describes increasing or decreasing the strength of both or just one side of the growth/reproduction polarity of plant development. Keep the balance of air and water in the soil. Steer things in the direction your crops need. Don’t let the soil dry out, as many life-forms will die, and recovery won’t be instant. But how do we get there from here? Bryan offers suggestions for what to look for when “reading” the appearance of crops in terms of balance. Rank growth? Stunted? Sparse? Obvious nutrient deficiencies? Good yield? Color?

Bryan suggests monitoring the conditions of the soil, air, sunlight and water. Whether you see this as a manifestation of Pagan Earth/Air/Fire/Water elements, or a simple description of aspects of farming doesn’t matter to me. As an example, if you want consistent supplies of an annual cool weather crop, sow several successions in spring (because they will quickly bolt) but fewer in late summer because they will not bolt. Once you understand this, you can follow the cycle of “plan/execute/observe/adjust plan” and get the best possible fit of crops with markets. Your approach may be mystical or pragmatic, but your attention to results will be detailed either way.

If you are drawn to Biodynamics, I think you’ll love this book. If you are drawn to very successful crops, I think you’ll also love this book. You just might skim some it.

The next section of the book is about preparing land for a gradual transition to no-till. Don’t expect to make an overnight change! Try various approaches on small areas. Reduce your tillage until you no longer need any, or just need occasional tillage. Don’t worry that opening a furrow for big seeds, or digging up root vegetables, will get you expelled from the No-Till School! Try to avoid tilling simply to prepare seed beds.

Various conversion methods are explained, even clearing woody growth. First set up a system that doesn’t need primary tillage (usually heavy tractor equipment), but uses secondary tillage tools (rototillers, disk harrows, field cultivators, walking tractors, hand rakes and hoes) for bed prep (and occasional subsoiling to deal with hardpan).

Bryan recommends a three step process for killing old crops or weeds. First is mowing: Bryan most often uses a flail mower on a 16 hp BCS 850. Second is preventing regrowth by solarizing using clear plastic sheeting to heat the soil surface to 125F or more, for a day. Unlike solarizing to kill pathogens deeper in the soil, killing annual crops or weeds is very quick, provided air temperatures are 75F or more. Perennial roots will not solarize quickly – it’s best to remove these before transitioning. Those that arrive later will need digging out, or longer term solarizing using black silage tarps over the winter. For anti-plastic growers, organic mulches of cardboard covered in 2 ft of fresh cut hay can substitute. There is a good review of various mulching materials, and the photos show his own trials. Oak leaves (and coffee grounds) seem to repel slugs!

Mowing or rolling and crimping is another method, given a thick cover crop and good timing. Flaming can work to kill emerging weeds if any mulch is well-watered first. Reading the book will save you trying all the cover-management methods that don’t work well. At Tobacco Road Farm, they now solarize as much as ¼ acre at a time, moving the covers from plot to plot.

The chapter on seeding and transplanting includes a chart of planting methods, seeding rates and spacing for about 65 crops (not just the top twenty!), instructions for hand broadcasting, sowing in rows by hand or by EarthWay. They have learned to get the most from their Earthway, customizing plates, leaning right while pushing, and only half-filling the hopper for round seeds (to avoid the “brassica grinder” effect).

The transplanting section describes clearly how to make use of outdoor nursery seedbeds for growing bare root transplants as we do. For more delicate seedlings February-June, Bryan likes soil blocks on benches under shadecloth or rowcover tunnels.

Watering by hand must be a joy once the farm gets to the point of only needing water for new seeds and new transplants. We’re not there yet, and so must continue dealing with drip “irritation” and sprinklers.

The crop rotation chapter includes a planning chart showing what goes in each plot when throughout the course of a year. The system includes flexibility: if a crop continues to grow well in a spot, it doesn’t get rotated. That challenges one of my cherished beliefs! My next challenge came with the information about the influence of the moon on crop growth. I have raised eyebrows myself, claiming that frosts are more likely with a full moon. It sounds so woo-woo, but it fits my observations. Perhaps Bryan is more observant of details, more woo-woo than me, or both. I’m happy he acknowledges that sometimes a crop needs to be planted regardless of lunar position.

Bryan O’Hara, author of No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture

Next is a valuable chapter on soil fertility and crop health assessment. This is an area I would like to practice in more. Not just testing pH and the main minerals, but also the Brix measurement of sugar in the crop sap, the electrical conductivity, and soil compaction. Bryan gives a good explanation of cation exchange capacity (the nutrient-holding capacity), and points out the challenges of achieving a good high CEC and then of adjusting the elemental nutrient balance: you need large amounts of material to bring the elements into balance, compared with a low CEC soil. And never forget: “the objective is not to balance a soil test but to get results in the field.” Strong biological activity can outweigh chemical element imbalances.

A slightly acid pH of 6.5 helps cations be more available to the plants: the acidity favors a higher level of fungal activity, which releases nutritional elements held in bonds that resist bacterial action.

Phosphorus buildup is an issue for us growers who use a lot of compost. It is hard for labs to assess phosphorus levels, because many factors influence its soil availability. Compost grows strong plants which in turn reduce water pollution, including phosphorus. Looking at the big picture leads to different solutions than focusing down on soil phosphorus content. Soils high in OM often test high in P because the test includes all the P-containing living fragments. Water-quality regulators are focused on phosphorus contamination of waterways above and beyond that of other pollutants like excess synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and industrial byproducts.

The information on composting is thorough, and Bryan recommends up to 100 tons per acre for a new vegetable patch. Thereafter, 30 tons or more per acre pre-plant. There is a good comparison of various organic fertilizers, and instructions on making bonemeal after cooking meat. There are fish fertilizer recipes which (to my surprise) call for “unprocessed brown sugar.” When I was a hippy grocer in the 70s, our sugar supplier told us there was really no such thing as unprocessed brown sugar – all brown sugars are white sugar with various proportions of molasses added back in. There’s no more nutritional value in brown sugar than in white sugar. Even “raw” sugar isn’t raw. I guess the only unprocessed sugar is a length of sugar cane or a chunk of sugar beet! Is sugar a big evil, like a synthetic fertilizer, that we don’t want to add to our gardens, or does it have a place?

Some growers apply raw manures, or uncomposted food byproducts directly to the soil, (“sheet composting” or “trench composting”) in the fall for crops the following spring. It’s certainly less work than making a compost pile, but is the result as balanced as a composted mix? Everyone has to make their own decisions. Bryan takes a thoughtful look at these options, and milk, seaweed, charcoal, vinegar and more.

He gives us his precise recipes for liquid and solid feeds for seed-starting, for young plants, and for flowering plants; recipes to be modified by growers for their own conditions. He adds particular ingredients to the base recipe of 30% wood chips, 20% dead leaves or straw, 40% cattle manure and 10 % vegetable scraps.

After this we get into the production of Biodynamic preparations, which do seem to require faith. Working barefoot and stirring a bucket of potion to create a vortex is a step too far for me. But for the grower who wants to learn about these techniques from an expert farmer rather than another beginner, this is a good place. Here are recipes for Biodynamic horsetail tea and Preparations 501 (ground quartz) and 500 (horn manure) as well as Oriental Herbal Nutrient (OHN), a fermented herbal preparation, and Fermented Plant Juice (FPJ) from Korean Natural Farming. “With this stirring comes the opportunity to impart the forces of will or prayer into the material, so this is a time of concentration or maybe a song.”

Bryan O’Hara’s Tobacco Road Farm is three acres of intensive vegetable farming at Lebanon, Connecticut.

Next are the Indigenous Microorganisms (IMO). This is part of Korean Natural Farming, and involves “farming” captured forest microorganisms (most noticeably, fungi) with a bait of cooked grain. There are four stages. Making IMO #1 involves incubating cooked grain (mixed with sugar) perhaps with some duff from the forest floor. The lidded box is set in a forest, covered over with more duff, and left for a week. Once white fungal mycelia (and perhaps other colors of fungi) cover the surface of the grain, you have IMO #1. The box is brought back from the forest and further processed to produce a large pile of active life.

Mix IMO #1  with sugar 1:1 by weight in a crock, cover it with paper and keep at room temperature for a week. This is IMO #2. To make IMO #3, stir this material in water and mix with bran. Pile the damp material on the forest floor, cover with wet leaves, straw or cardboard and tarp if it’s rainy. The pile heats up and produces more white fungal growth. After about 5 days, make IMO #4. Add an equal volume of soil to the bran pile and mix in. After about a week the material is ready to use. IMO #4 can be spread directly on the beds at 5 gallons per 250 ft2, approximately every other year. Or it can be used as a foliar feed. It acts as a catalyst to grow stronger plants. Improvements to the soil can include better aggregate structure, and better release of nutrients.

Weed, insect and disease control come next in the book, necessary but not directly income-earning aspects of farming. Increasing crop health and vitality for the long term is of fundamental importance here. There is a sense in which pests can be useful: as indicators of an imbalance that the grower would do well to address.

Reducing the weed seed bank is a long-term improvement. Destroy weeds as they germinate, and do not bring up weed seed by tilling. Try not to import weed seed with brought-in materials. Since Bryan was able to stop tilling, galinsoga no longer pops up [envy!]. Crop rotation can help break weed cycles by altering the growing environment. Switch between cool weather and warm weather crops, soil-covering crops and vertical crops, and keep roots in the ground all the time.

Stale seed beds and shallow hoeing can kill weeds without tillage, and solarization can kill not only germinated seeds but ungerminated ones near the surface. Mulches can prevent weed seed germination. Good hoeing technique and tools can remove the weeds that still pop up.

Don’t over-react if problems arise. Monitor pests or diseased plants and count a sample. Determine if the pest numbers warrant your intervention. Also determine if it’s too late to save that crop. Learn if managing the crop differently next time might make it more resistant to pests or diseases. It might take a season or two for changes to pay off in terms of stronger crops. Carefully look for any improvement, as an indicator that your actions are steering things in the right direction.

Beneficial insects, rowcovers, insect netting, shadecloth, shelterbelts and other kinds of crop protection all help crops grow stronger. I learned that our friends, the Cotesia glomerata wasps that parasitize brassica caterpillars, and overwinter as pupal cocoons on the undersides of brassica leaves, will hatch out in spring on the very day the overwintered brassicas start to flower. The 20-50 day lifecycle needs brassica flowers, so don’t be in a hurry to cut down all your bolting greens! The flowers provide nectar for the adult wasps. The leaves, as we know, provide food for the caterpillars, which provide the host for the wasps to lay eggs in. The wasp larvae feed on the caterpillar until it dies, then pupate.

There’s an incredible National Geographic video of this cycle, showing parasitic wasp larvae swimming around inside a caterpillar, bursting out through its skin. The weirdest bit is that it is the dying caterpillar that spins the protective cocoons around the pupating larvae. And us who plant the brassicas that feed the caterpillars! Who is the farmer and who is farmed?

The next chapter is on organizing things to produce vegetables year round. Off-season growing takes more attention and understanding than growing the crops at the easiest time of year. And can bring higher prices and more appreciation. People do want to eat year-round! Protective structures can earn their keep. Tobacco Road Farm uses lots of low tunnels in their snowy winters. Snow cover is actually a benefit to low tunnels, holding the covers in place, and providing insulation. In our climate, I think hoophouses work better. Because our winter weather switches back and forth from cold and icy to warm and sunny, we would spend a lot of time ventilating low tunnels. Without snow cover, we suffer wind and radiation losses through the clear plastic on cold nights.

We need to harvest more frequently than growers in colder climates (not complaining!), and the stooping over, opening and closing of low tunnels gets tiresome. We appreciate walking around in our (no-till) hoophouse, where all the crops are visible at once. Different climates call for different solutions.  If you are working with winter low tunnels, read this book and learn how to customize a snow shovel for clearing snow from the tunnels, by rounding and smoothing the corners of the blade. And here are tips for charring sawdust to melt thicker snow. They use a pump to blast a slurry of charred sawdust, salt and molasses over the tunnels. Sounds like a fun winter activity!

Bryan points out how healthy, sturdy crops will have a longer shelf life after harvest, paying back the year-round attention to soil and environmental health. Here are tips on ergonomic harvesting of small crops at ground level (rest one elbow on your knee) and efficient harvesting (while cutting, decide where to make the next cut). The speed of decision-making can be the bottleneck in harvesting, so practice to speed your decision-making.

Why do we grow vegetables? To meet basic human needs for health and happiness; to provide healthful foods, with the potential for job satisfaction and happiness. Sometimes slogging through and finishing a project is the most efficient. Sometimes switching to a different plan is more efficient (or at least, effective). Efficiency includes having a plan and having the flexibility to change plans.

The Further Reading includes a list of twenty books, and I am honored to be among those 26 authors. There is only one other woman among the authors. Bargyla Rateaver is from Madagascar, and with her son Gylver Rateaver, she wrote The Organic Method Primer in 1993. Some reviewers and obituary writers refer to Bargyla as “he”. Farmers are not all of one gender (or of one color). Thanks Bryan, for including some of the diversity that exists.

At the beginning of this review I said it was not a “menu” book, but a “specific method” book. Then I found myself picking and choosing from the ideas Bryan presents. It really isn’t a fixed meal. There is something everyone will love in this accomplished work. You don’t have to add all the Special Sauces.

Alliums for February: garlic scallions, digging leeks from frozen soil

September-planted (left) and November-planted (right) beds of potato onions in April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
  • Plant small potato onions (less than 1.5″ (4 cm) diameter) in early Feb, if not Jan. See Alliums for January
  • Sow shallot seed. See Alliums for January
  • Sow scallions for transplant See Alliums for January
  • Transplant fall-sown bulb onions late in the month. see Alliums for November
  • Plant shallot bulbs Jan-Feb. See Alliums for January
  • Plant soft neck garlic cloves or bulbs for garlic scallions. See Alliums for November and learn a new trick. Some growers are finding they can get a better income from garlic scallions than from bulb garlic, and so they are working to extend the garlic scallion season. We have only ever planted small cloves for garlic scallions in early November immediately after planting our maincrop garlic. By planting later it is possible to stretch the harvest period out later. Softneck garlic varieties can make worthwhile growth for scallions even if planted after the start of January. Some growers have experimented with replanting small bulbs of garlic, not even dividing the bulbs into separate cloves. This could be a good way to salvage value from a poorly-sized garlic harvest.

Allium Harvests in February

An October 20 sowing of scallions in the hoophouse in January. Maybe they’ll be ready mid-February?
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Harvest the last hoophouse scallions 9/6 at the beginning of Feb; harvest the 10/20 sowing later in Feb (and the 11/18 sowing from mid-March.)
  • Harvest perennial leeks as leeks (see Jan or Dec) Sept-Feb last month. See Alliums for December
  • Harvest leaves of Egyptian onions & perennial leeks, Sept- April
  • Harvest winter leeks Dec- March. See Alliums for January and Alliums for November
A colorful salad of rainbow chard, onion scallions and garlic scallions.
Photo (and salad) by Bridget Aleshire.

Special Allium Topic for February:: Harvesting Leeks from Frozen Soil.

When the soil is frozen there are two risks with trying to pry leeks out of the ground. One is breaking the frozen leek. The other is breaking your digging fork. If you only need a few leeks, there is a less risky method. (It’s still less risky for larger quantities, but also less practical.) Gather your digging fork, trimming knife and a container for the liberated leeks. Boil a kettle or two of water and pour the water on the soil around the leeks. If you still can’t dig the leeks up, go boil more water. If two trips with boiling water doesn’t work, I’d give up at that point! Obviously this isn’t going to work in climates with solidly frozen ground, until warmer weather arrives. But at some point it will get warm enough to use this trick and enjoy the leeks you’ve been craving.

This long view of our winter leeks was taken in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

Alliums to Eat from Storage in February

  • Eat softneck garlic from storage once all the hardneck has been used (softneck stores longer)
  • Eat bulb onions from storage, including bulbils from Egyptian onions if you stored those. Read more about garlic and onion storage in the Alliums for September post. Here’s the headlines:

Not too dry, not too damp.

Above 60–70°F (15.5–21°C) or below 40°F (4.4°C) for garlic; 60–90°F (16–32°C) or below 41°F (5°C) for bulb onions. Do not freeze. (Chilling injury at 31°F)

Avoid 40–56°F (4.4–13°C) for garlic, avoid 45–55°F (7–13°C) for bulb onions

Garlic and Onions drying.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Excahnge

Lettuce slideshow, Mother Earth News Fair, FaceBook Live, Top summer blogposts, upcoming events

We drove home seven hours from the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair yesterday through the rain. The remnants of Hurricane Florence. We were among the lucky people. Earlier forecasts for Florence had the hurricane raging across central Virginia.

At the Fair, I gave two workshops: Fall and Winter Hoophouses and my new Lettuce Year Round, which you can view right here. Click the diagonal arrows icon to get a full screen view.

I had a bit too much material for a one-hour time-slot, so those of you who were there and felt disappointed at what I had to leave out, you can see it here.

While I as at the Fair I did a FaceBook Live Interview about gardening in hoophouses, with another author, Deborah Niemann. Look on Facebook for Deborah Niemann-Boehle or click the topic link above. She has several books: Raising Goats Naturally, Homegrown & Handmade, and Ecothrifty.

Shade cloth on a bed of lettuce in summer.
Photo Nina Gentle

Meanwhile, Mother Earth News tells me that my post 20 Tips for Success in Germinating Seeds in Hot Weather is in third place for most popular posts this summer.

The winner  An Effective and Non-Toxic Solution for Getting Rid of Yellow Jackets’ Nests by Miriam Landman got 43,328 views in 3 months!

Weeding rowcovered spinach in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

Looking at my own website statistics, I find that for this week, the most popular posts are

  1. Winter Kill Temperatures of Winter-Hardy Vegetables 2016
  2. Soil tests and high phosphorus levels
  3. How to deal with green potatoes
  4. .Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2018
  5. Alliums for September

For all-time, the bias is naturally on posts that have been around longest,

  1. Garlic scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest! Is most popular, followed closely by
  2. Winter Kill Temperatures of Winter-Hardy Vegetables 2016.
  3. How to deal with green potatoes is still #3.
  4.  The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month,
  5. Harvesting Melons
  6. Book Review, Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier
  7. Wnter Hardiness
  8. Book Review: The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman and
  9. Setting out biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Rolling biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Photo Wren Vile

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I’ve updated my Events page again, now that the September- April  “Events Season” has hotted up. I’ve added in a couple of new ones and updated some others. Click the Events tab to find conferences and fairs near you, and be sure to come and introduce yourself!

Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, at the Heritage Harvest Festival Tomato Tasting.
Photo courtesy of Monticello

The Heritage Harvest Festival  is September 21-22 Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia

I’m giving a Premium Workshop on Friday Sept 21, 3-4 pm Classroom 7. Click the link HERE to book for that.

Feeding the Soil

In this workshop I will introduce ways to grow and maintain healthy soils: how to develop a permanent crop rotation in seven steps, and why your soil will benefit from this; how to choose appropriate cover crops; how to make compost and how to benefit from using organic mulches to feed the soil. Handouts.

Book-signing Friday 4.15 – 4.45 pm.

On Saturday there are events all day from 10am to 5pm. $26 general admission.

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Saturday September 29, 2018  Allegheny Mountain Institute Farm at Augusta Health,  Fishersville, VA 22939. 9 am – noon

I’m giving a two-hour Class on Season Extension, followed by one-hour Q&A teaching tour of the hoophouse and greenhouse.

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

Potato onion plant with young shoots.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Alliums to Plant in September

Divide and replant Egyptian onions and perennial leeks

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

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

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

Sow ramp seeds in woodlands

Mature harvested ramp plants.
Photo Small Farm Central

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

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

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

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

Alliums to harvest in September

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

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

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

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

Other Allium Tasks for September

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

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

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

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

Special Allium Topic for September: Garlic Storage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storage of Seed Garlic

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

Siberian garlic.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Real Organic Project, Mother of a Hubbard, Twin Oaks Garden Calendar

The Real Organic Project is taking off where the Keep The Soil in Organic Project is stopping, after several USDA decisions that disregard what organic farmers have to say (allowing hydroponics, setting aside animal welfare, and reducing the role of the National Organic Standards Board.) The hard-working campaigners for genuine organic standards are  disappointed, but are not giving up. Dave Chapman, a leading light of Keep the Soil in Organic, has this report:

“The Past

It has not been a good year for the National Organic Program. Since the November NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) meeting in Jacksonville failed to prohibit HYDRO, the organic community has gone through a period of questioning and searching. We are wrestling with the basic question, “Can we trust the USDA to protect organic integrity?”

Following a series of devastating articles about the NOP (National Organic Program) in the Washington Post last year, all the news from the USDA has been bad. In September, the USDA exonerated the enormous Aurora Dairy CAFO (Confinement Animal Feeding Operation) of any wrongdoing at their Colorado “farm.” This dairy operation was described in detail in one WaPo article, along with compelling test results to prove the cattle weren’t on pasture. The government approval set the stage for Aurora to build several new CAFOs that will dwarf the current 15,000-cow operation.

Then the USDA abandoned the animal welfare reforms (called OLPP) which had finally been approved under Obama. This rejection by the USDA was the result of intense lobbying from such groups as the Coalition For Sustainable Organics (in their Senate testimony), American Farm Bureau, and the National Pork Producers Council. They were championed by the ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, protecting enormous “organic” egg CAFOs in their home states. The USDA thus cleared the way for CAFOs to continue receiving “organic” certification.

Then in January, the USDA announced that “Certification of hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic operations is allowed under the USDA organic regulations, and has been since the National Organic Program began.” This was an interesting rewriting of history, but who cares about the facts?

Finally, the USDA recently told the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that, going forward, they will be severely limited in the scope of their work. They will not address big questions about organic integrity. They will not set their own agenda. They will limit their focus to defining what substances will be permitted in organic certification.

These outcomes (allowing hydro, setting aside animal welfare, and reducing the role of the NOSB) are exactly what Theo Crisantes of the Coalition For Sustainable Organics called for when he testified before the Senate Ag Committee last year.

It would appear that the USDA is no longer even bothering to woo the organic community with sweet talk. They are bluntly speaking their truth, which is that “Certified Organic” means whatever they want it to mean, and to hell with the organic community. And apparently, to hell with OFPA as well. Organic is all about marketing, isn’t it?

For the many people who have spent years working hard to build the integrity of the NOP, this is a dismal moment. We have lost the helm, and the New Organic will not have much to do with the ideals of such pioneers as Albert Howard and Eve Balfour. It will have to do with money. Money will decide what is called “certified organic” and what isn’t.

And so, if we still care about those ideals, we must move on. The National Organic Program will continue to flourish. Many people will still turn to it to find safer food. Many good people will still work hard to make the NOP as honest and positive as possible. But the NOP will be controlled by politicians and lobbyists who have no belief in the mission of the organic farming movement.

What happens now?

This winter, a growing group of farmers and eaters have formed the Real Organic Project. The Real Organic Project will work to support real organic farming.

This will involve a number of efforts, starting with the creation of a new “Add-On” label to represent the organic farming that we have always cared about. It will use USDA certification as a base, but it will have a small number of critical additional requirements. These will differentiate it from the CAFOs, HYDROs, and import cheaters that are currently USDA certified.

This group grew out of several meetings of Vermont farmers who believed that the USDA label was no longer something that could represent us. Starting a new label is not a small task, but we can no longer find an alternative. That small group of Vermonters has grown quickly into a national group. This amazing group of organic advocates has gathered to build something new.

Standards Board // We now have a 15-member Standards Board, based on the model of the NOSB, but with much greater representation from the organic community. The 15 volunteers have a wealth of experience in both farming and regulation. There are 9 farmer members, as well as representatives from NGOs, stores, consumers, scientists, and certifiers.

The group includes 5 former NOSB members, as well as leading farmers and advocates from across the country. They will meet in March to set the first standards. They will continue to meet once a year after that to review and update. This first year there will be a pilot project with a small number of farms to test the certifying process and work out the details.

Advisory Board // There is also a distinguished Advisory Board that currently has 18 members, including 4 former NOSB members and 3 current NOSB members. It also includes many well known organic pioneers such as Eliot Coleman and Fred Kirschenmann.

Executive Board // And finally, there is an Executive Board of 5 people that includes one current NOSB member.

These boards will work together to reconnect and unite our community. Our intent is transformational. We will create a label that we can trust again.

We can only succeed with your support. Go to realorganicproject.org to become a member. Make a donation to help make this new label into a reality. We are only supported by our sweat and your generosity. We can reclaim the meaning of the organic label together.

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Mother of a Hubbard Cathy Rehmeyer ran a wonderful blog in 2012-2015, with great tips for serious food gardening. Her work Garden Under Cover: Winter Vegetable Production in Low Tunnels is on SlideShare. So far, I don’t think it has appeared as a book. (But it should!)


A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

And here’s a seasonal reminder about the Twin Oaks Garden Calendarour month-by-month task list for our 3.5 acre, central Virginia winter-hardiness zone 7a vegetable garden that feeds 100 people year round. At the link you will find a photo from each month, which you can click to get to the list for that month. A new season, a new opportunity, using lessons learned last year, along with fresh ideas, inspiration and plain old hard work!

Rhubarb is on its way! So far just clusters of leaves near the ground, but the promise is there! And next week I’ll tell you more about my upcoming book, The Year Round Hoophouse.

Rhubarb in early spring, not yet ready to harvest.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Garden Planning, Winter Harvests and Speaking Events

Garden Planning Field Manual
Photo VABF

‘Tis the season – after the relaxation of the holidays – time for garden planning. Inventory your seeds left from last year, peruse the catalogs and prepare your seed orders. The earlier you get them in, the more likely you are to get the varieties you want, before anything is sold out.

I notice that readers of my blog have been looking up the Twin Oaks Garden Calendar,  also known as The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. You can search the category Garden Task List for the Month, or you can click on the linked name of the month you want. At the end you can click on “Bookmark the Permalink” if you might want to refer to this in future. Remember, we’re in central Virginia, winter-hardiness zone 7a. Adjust for your own climate.

Meanwhile, despite the turn to cold weather, we are not huddled indoors all the time. Each day, one or two of us sally forth to harvest enough vegetables to feed the hundred people here at Twin Oaks Community. Outdoors, in the raised bed area, we have winter leeks, Vates kale, spinach and senposai. We could have had collards but we lost the seeds during the sowing period, so we have lots of senposai instead. Senposai leaves (the core of the plant may survive 10F), are hardy down to about 12F. I noticed some got a bit droopy when we had a night at 15F. Collards  are hardier – Morris Heading (the variety we grow) can survive at least one night at 10F.

Hoophouse December View
Photo Kathleen Slattery

In the hoophouse, we have many crops to choose from: lettuce, radishes, spinach, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo Bekana, turnips and turnip greens, scallions, mizuna, chard, Bull’s Blood beet greens.

Hoophouse scallions ready to harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

Pak Choy and Chinese cabbage heads are filling out, ready for harvest in January.

Tokyo Bekana, a non-heading Asian green,  has large tender leaves, which we are adding to salad mixes. It can be used as a cooking green, but only needs very light cooking. It will bolt soon, so we are harvesting that vigorously, not trying to save it for later.

The kale and senposai in the hoophouse are being saved for when their outdoor counterparts are inaccessible due to bad weather. The spinach is added to salad mixes, or harvested for cooking when outdoors is too unpleasant, or growth slows down too much.

Hoophouse winter lettuce: Green Forest and Red Salad Bowl, two of our fifteen varieties.
Photo Wren Vile

Another kind of planning I’m doing right now is scheduling my speaking events for the coming year and practicing my presentations. Last week I updated my Events page, and this week I’m adding a new event: The September 21-22 Heritage Harvest Festival.

I might pick up a couple of events in late April and early June, but that’s just speculation at this point.

Right now I need to practice for the CASA Future Harvest Conference January 11-13. Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables and a 10-minute “Lightning Session” on using graphs to plan succession plantings for continuous harvest. Click the link or my Events page for more on this.

Hoophouse winter greens, transplanting spinach, crocus flowering

Russian kale, yukina Savoy and lettuce from our winter hoophouse .
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse is bursting with winter greens. We just decided to hold back on harvesting our outdoor Vates kale and focus on the greens  which are starting to bolt in the hoophouse. That includes the last turnips (Hakurei, Red Round and White Egg), Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frill and Golden Frills mustards. Big but happily not yet bolting are the spinach, Rainbow chard and Russian kales. A row of snap peas has emerged. Time to stake and string-weave them!

The lettuce situation is changing as we are eating up more of the overwintered leaf lettuce in the hoophouse. The lettuces in the greenhouse have all gone, to make way for the flats of seedlings. Plus, we needed the compost they were growing in, to fill the flats. More about lettuce in February next week.

We have also cleared the overwintered spinach in one of our coldframes, so we can deal with the voles and get them to relocate before we put flats of vulnerable seedlings out there. The voles eat the spinach plants from below, starting with the roots. We had one terrible spring when they moved on to eat the baby seedlings when we put those out there. After trial and error a couple of years ago, we now clear all the spinach from one frame, then line the cold frame with landscape fabric (going up the walls a way too), wait two weeks, then put the seedlings out on top of the landscape fabric. The voles by then have decided nothing tasty is going to appear there, so they move on.

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo Wren Vile

Outdoors, we have just started transplanting new spinach. We have four beds to plant, a total of  3600 plants, so we have to keep moving on that! We are trialing several varieties again, as we did in the fall. We have the last Tyee, alongside Reflect and Avon this spring. Inevitably things are not going perfectly according to plan. Yesterday I forgot to follow the plan, and we started with Avon and Tyee at opposite ends of a bed we had planned to grow Reflect in! Anyway, we are labeling everything and hoping to learn which have best bolt resistance. Watch this space.

We have grown our spinach transplants (as well as kale and collards) in the soil in our hoophouse, sowing them in late January. I wrote about bare root transplants in early January this year. You can find more links and info in that post. Growing bare root transplants saves a lot of work and a lot of greenhouse space.

For those relatively new to this blog but living in a similar climate zone, I want to point you to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. It includes a link for each month’s task list. I notice from the site stats that some of you are finding your way there, but now there are so many years’ worth of posts it’s perhaps harder to find. Happy browsing!

Following on from last week’s mention of harbinger weeds of spring: chickweed, hen-bit and dead-nettle, I can now report that I’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17), another marker on our phenology list. The average date for first crocuses here is February 8, so they are later than usual. I did notice however, that the foot traffic over the patch of grass has been heavier than usual.

Anne Morrow Donley sent me a link to WunderBlog®, the blog from Wunderground, my favorite weather forecast station, to an article by Bob Henson: This is February? 80°F in Denver, 99° in Oklahoma, 66° in Iceland, 116° in Australia. It includes a map of the Daily Spring Index Leaf Anomaly, Figure 1.

Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

Figure 1. An index of the seasonal progress of leafy plants shows conditions 20 days or more ahead of schedule over large parts of the South and Southwest as of Sunday, February 12. Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

The post has lots of other interesting weather info too. Thanks Anne!


I remembered another of the items lost in the hacked post a few weeks ago: My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blogpost on Heat Tolerant Eggplant Varieties made it into their 30 Most Viewed blogposts for 2016. I’ll be writing up more about those varieties, linking the 2016 results to the weather each week (especially the temperatures) and adding what I learn in 2017.

Garden Calendar, starting seedlings, ladybugs

One of the pages in our Field Manual, which we revise each winter. Photo VABF
One of the pages in our Field Manual, which we revise each winter.
Photo Virginia Association for Biological Farming

We’re busy planning our 2016 garden, and maybe you are too. Here’s a link to our Twin Oaks Garden Calendar, which is a month-by-month list of vegetable production tasks. It’s two years old and a few things have changed, but most crops stay the same. Margaret Roach on her website A Way to Garden gave links to various regional garden calendars. She even includes two links in England! I found the one from West Virginia Extension Service particularly helpful and well-organized, and useful in central Virginia too.

On the day before Christmas we got our seed orders sent in (Later than I like, but at least we got done). This week our main planning tasks have been around the Seedlings Schedule, getting ready for our first sowings on January 17. Yes, it always seems so early! But we want early harvests of cabbage, lettuce, scallions and hoophouse tomatoes, so that’s when we’re starting!

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

This photo is from late January or early February and you can see a mix of newly emerged close-packed seedlings and spotted out young plants in open flats. Also in the middle of the picture are some big lettuce plants that we have been harvesting leaf-by-leaf during the winter.

Our greenhouse is on a concrete pad and we have built beds with loose stacked cinder blocks. In September or October we screen compost into wheelbarrows and fill the beds. It’s an “exhilarating” job, balancing the wheelbarrows on boards across the tops of the beds. Once the beds are full we transplant lettuces into the compost. These will feed us during the winter and we pull them up in the new year as we need either the compost to fill seed flats, or the space to set the flats of germinated seedlings in the light. We put sticks across the tops of the beds and set the flats on the sticks. It makes great use of the space, but it isn’t very ergonomically efficient! We have to move the flats individually several times as we take maturing starts out to the cold frames for two weeks of hardening off before transplanting in the garden. I have fantasies of rolling bench tops set over the beds, so we wouldn’t have to do so much lifting and moving. One day!

We use 100% home-made screened compost for all our starts (transplants). This gives them a good boost of fertility and helps us reduce bought-in supplies. People sometimes ask if the compost “burns” the plants or if it’s too rich. or attracts aphids. We have a very good compost-making system that provides us with great compost. It has from October to February to mellow out while growing some lettuce for us. In the past we did have some lower-quality, less well-finished compost that did kill off some lettuce transplants in the fall. But for many years we’ve had reliably good compost and no problems of that sort. Compost gives the plants lots of stamina, so that if transplanting is held up, there are still enough nutrients to keep the plants actively growing. I have seen plants in commercial potting compost run out of oomph after a while, and get stunted and useless.

We do get aphids, starting just after the Solstice, when it is warm enough for them, but not yet warm enough for their predators. We also get aphids in the hoophouse, where the plants are growing in regular soil. So I don’t think having the seedlings in pure compost is the cause of the aphid population boom. Either way, we often need to deal them a blow, or in actuality 3 blows. We use soap spray three times, at 4-5 day intervals. This knocks out each new generation of hatching aphids (or catches ones that survived the previous spraying). Some aphids lay eggs, others bear live young (isn’t that a scary thought?). After we’ve got the aphid numbers down to manageable levels, we collect up ladybugs wherever we can find them, and take them to our greenhouse or hoophouse, to keep the levels under biological control from then on.

Ladybugs of Maine Poster from the Lost Ladybug Project
Ladybugs of Maine
Poster from the Lost Ladybug Project

Talking of ladybugs, we are hoping to join some research into breeding and releasing native ladybug species for biological control. There are many different kinds of ladybugs and two beautiful posters. See the Lost Ladybug Project and their Ladybug Identification Tools which include their own two page guide to common ladybug species. The posters are from Maine and South Dakota.

Ladybugs of South Dakota Lost Ladybug Project
Ladybugs of South Dakota
Lost Ladybug Project

Both a long way from central Virginia, but lovely to study nonetheless.

Our other main garden pest this month has been deer. We drained and stored our motion-activated sprinkler deer deterrents as well as our solar powered electric fence unit.

We also had a groundhog above ground in December – something to be on the look-out for in unseasonably warm weather. Grrr! On the other hand, I did enjoy seeing quince blossoms, even though it seemed weird.