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.

Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal

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

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

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

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

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

Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on winter hoophouse crops, see

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

Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest, our January 2018 assessment of the varieties we grew that winter and which survived the unusually cold spell we had.

Summer pests and diseases

Hornworm on a tomato plant.
Photo Pam Dawling

It’s August, which for us is the peak time for pest insects as well as for fungal diseases.

This year, we have been collecting Japanese beetles from our okra plants, to prevent the leaves getting stripped off. It seems to be working. Many plants can take 30% defoliation without a loss of yield, but some years, our okra plants end up as just a bunch of stalks, and you know that means almost no photosynthesis can happen. Japanese beetles are one of the insects that have an aggregation pheromone, so those commercial traps are not only gathering up your own Japanese beetles, but also attracting neighbors’ beetles. Sometimes this means no net improvement, as the newcomers eat crops before going into the trap.

Another bad summer pest here is the Harlequin bug, a brightly colored stink bug. We try to have July be “No Visible Brassicas Month” aiming to disrupt their lifecycle. We use insect netting over the fall brassica seedlings we sow in June, and we clear our spring brassicas before the end of June. In July and July we use netting over any new brassica transplants, and sowings of turnips. During August we remove netting from older transplants and sowings, on to newer ones, such as kale and collards.

Leaf-footed bug, one of the stink bugs. Photo Kati Falger

Here’s a link to an article on Stink Bug Identification and Management in Vegetables, from the Alabama IPN Communicator Newsletter. Read More

I wrote about squash bugs and cucumber beetles on our hoophouse squash in June.

Squash bug nymphs and eggs
Photo Pam Dawling

Margaret Roach at A Way to Garden has a good post on distinguishing between the tobacco and the tomato hornworm.

The tobacco hornworms, Manduca sexta, is close cousins with the tomato hornworm,

Both species eat Solanaceous crops (nightshades) such as tobacco, tomato, peppers, eggplant and potatoes. The differences are in the stripes and the horns.

We have tobacco hornworms (this land was a tobacco farm before Twin Oaks bought it 51 years ago. This year, for the first time, we haven’t had any hornworms in the hoophouse. We’ve pulled up our tomato plants in there – we only grow the earlies in there, as it’s plenty warm enough to grow tomatoes outdoors here from May to October. I might be celebrating too soon – we still have a bed of peppers in the hoophouse and I think I might have seen evidence of a hornworm at work, although I could not find the culprit yesterday.

Tomato plant badly damaged by hornworm
Photo Pam Dawling

Pictures of Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus and other tomato diseases

We’re always a bit anxious that TSWV might show up one day, but luckily it hasn’t. Meanwhile we forget what it looks like. Here’s a few photos on the Cornell Vegetable MD Online site.

And here’s a good collection of tomato disease photos on the You Should grow site.

Spotty tomato leaves. I think this is Septoria Leaf Spot.
Photo Pam Dawling

All the news is not bad! Here’s a satisfying photo:

Hornworm mother Hawk Moth trapped by a zipper spider.
Photo Pam Dawling

Zipper spider.
Photo Wren Vile

 

Year-Round Hoophouse book update, Nematodes in hoophouse cucumbers, Organic Broadcaster.

Removing old hoophouse plastic. Photo Wren Vile

I just completed another step on the way to getting my new book, The Year-Round Hoophouse, published. I proofread aver 300 pages of text over the course of five very intensive focused days. In the next four days I checked all the photos, including the color section. I replaced a few photos that didn’t come out clearly, fixed a couple of glitches (that’s what proofreading is for!) And I added up to 17 more photos wherever there was enough space at the ends of chapters. The index is being prepared, and another proofreader is also carefully working through the text.

Then the corrected pre-press proof will be prepared by early August, and we’ll be on track for the November 20 publication date, with the books coming off-press in mid-October and heading to the stores. ISBN 978-0-86571-863-0.

The finished paperback book will be 288 pages, 8″ x 10″ (20 x 25 cm) for $29.99 (US or Canadian). It will also be available in digital formats.


Cucumber roots with nematodes (see circles).
Photo Pam Dawling

When we were clearing our early bush cucumbers from the hoophouse a couple of weeks ago, I found four plants at the east end of the bed with nematodes. I’ve written before about our struggles with root knot nematodes in our hoophouse, and indeed, you can read everything I know about nematodes in the Year-Round Hoophouse.

Here is another photo of the lumpy roots, with circles outlining the nematode lumps.

A different cucumber root with nematode lumps (see circles).
Photo Pam Dawling


The July/August Organic Broadcaster is out. The first article is about a poultry system compatible with regenerative agriculture. Regenerative Agriculture is one of the sustainable agriculture movements that are springing up as an alternative to USDA Organic, which now allows CAFOs, hydroponics and other unhealthy, non-sustainable methods. The regenerative poultry system includes trees for shade, ranging paddocks where the poultry are rotated, and night shelter. The aim of the author, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, is a fully regenerative supply chain, starting with what kinds of grains they feed the poultry and how they are grown. Farmers can reach the organizers of Regeneration Midwest by emailing [email protected].

The second article explains the consequences of USDA halting the Organic check-off as part of their program. The editorial introduces Organic 2051, a one-day conference (Feb 21, 2019) prior to the MOSES Conference, “to bring together leaders in the organic and sustainable farming community to chart the path forward for truly sustainable farming by the year 2050 and beyond, demonstrating our capacity to feed the world.”

Another article (by Matthew Kleinhenz) discusses biofertilizers and explores differences between an average yield increase which is sustained and throughout the field, and one that might lead to a similar average yield increase, but with a result that is widely fluctuating between one plant and the next, producing a few start yielders but fewer plants with an actual yield increase.

Bailey Webster writes about industrial hemp, an up and coming crop with mostly non-food uses, although the seeds are finding favor, touted as a “superfood”. Brittany Olsen writes about the MOSES farm mentorship program, Teresa Wiemerslage writes about the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Regulation and Laura Jessee Livingston writes about a new apprenticeship program training farm managers.

Carlos Valencia and his dog, Paco, live on a farm in rural Kansas. He has faced numerous issues with officials and vandals that have prevented him from achieving his farming goals. Photo submitted

Another article by Bailey Webster explores a shocking case that looks like racism in rural Kansas (although of course it could be almost anywhere). Kansas farmer Carlos Valencia, who is is black and Hispanic, began managing a farm in Norton, Kansas that was owned by Golden Duck LLC in 2007. He was working for equity in the farm, rather than for wages, with the goal of owning it himself one day. He planned to raise poultry, and had submitted documents to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to get farm operating permits to raise geese on a commercial scale. The paperwork was taking a long time, and if he was to raise geese that year and earn his living, he needed to get goslings on the farm while they were available. Geese do not produce young year-round, only February-June. Fully expecting to get his permits (the previous farmers there had an industrial hog unit), he bought 20,000 goslings. This sounds like a huge number to me, but I understand from the article that this is a modest start. In June, disaster struck in the form of an unusually strong hail storm that killed 800 of Valencia’s young geese. He chose a common practice on poultry farms: incinerating them. The local authorities caught wind of it, and worried that the poultry had died of disease. The USDA and the state biopsied the dead birds to check for disease, and found that there was no disease present. Continue reading

BCS Berta Plow, Proofreading The Year-Round Hoophouse, Tomato Foliage Diseases

Our new equipment – a Berta rotary plow.
Photo Pam Dawling

In recent years we have mostly hand-shoveled the paths between our 90ft x 4ft raised beds. If we have two neighboring beds ready to prepare at the same time, we might use the hiller-furrower on our BCS 732 walk-behind tiller. But frankly that didn’t do as good a job as the old Troybilt hiller-furrower we used to have, and if you went off-course, there was no chance of a re-run to fix it. With the Troybilt you could fix a wiggle by steering hard on a re-run, but the BCS wouldn’t co-operate on that. So there was less incentive to use the BCS. We would measure and flag the bed, and have a person with a shovel at each end of each path, shoveling towards each other. Then we raked the bed, breaking up the big shovel-dollops.

Using the Berta rotary plow to make paths between our raised beds.
Photo Pam Dawling

Now we have a Berta Rotary Plow from Earth Tools BCS, and we are hopping with joy. It is easy to fit and unfit on our BCS, easy to use and does a lovely job. We flag the midline of the path, plow up one side of the path and back down the other. We get straighter paths, beds almost ready to use (no shovel-dollops!), and we save a lot of time, and don’t feel so tired!

A raised bed prepared with our Berta Rotary Plow, with some lettuce transplants under shadecloth.
Photo Pam Dawling


This week I am proofreading the Advance Proof of The Year-Round Hoophouse. A professional proofreader is also working through the advance proof at the same time, and the foreword and the endorsements are being written (or more likely, being thought about!).

So far, I have found a few inconsistencies to align. I guess I thought one thing when I wrote one chapter and something else a few months later when I wrote another chapter! I found a few tiny typos, even after so much careful checking here and during the professional copy-editing process. I found a few unclear bits, which I hope will now be clearer!

I relearned a few things I’d figured out for the book and then forgotten about! I impressed myself with seeing again all the information packed in there, from helpful tips to expansive over-views. I’m very much looking forward to having the book in my hands. Several more months yet. Publication date is November 20. New Society is taking pre-orders. When I’ve got some actual boxes of books I’ll update the Buy Now button here on my website and you can support-an-author and buy direct. I’ll sign the book for you!

Grow abundant produce year-round in any climate

Growing in hoophouses reduces the impact of increasingly unpredictable climate on crops, mitigates soil erosion, extends growing seasons, and strengthens regional food supply. The Year-Round Hoophouse teaches how to site, design, and build a hoophouse and successfully grow abundant produce all year in a range of climates.

Pam Dawling has been farming and providing training in sustainable vegetable production in a large variety of climates for over 40 years, 14 of which have been hoophouse growing. Pam’s first book is the best-selling Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres.

PB 9780-086571863-0/ 8 x 10”/ 288 pages/$ 29.99/Available November 2018

Pre-order at www.newsociety.com before November 1 and receive a 20% discount.


Striped German tomato in our hoophouse. Note the lower leaves have been removed to reduce diseases.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

At the end of July or the first week of August we will pull up our hoophouse tomatoes and sow some soy as a cover crop until we are ready to prep the beds for winter greens. Our outdoor tomatoes are producing now, and as their yields increase, we’ll have no regrets about pulling up the aging hoophouse plants. We like to grow some heirlooms in there, and they are (in general) notorious for foliar diseases. I know some are disease-resistant, but we don’t only grow those ones! We did better this year at removing any lower leaves touching the ground, to dissuade any transfer of diseases from the soil.

Early in the season we had aphids and sooty mold, but ladybugs sorted out that problem. More recently we have had a little Early Blight, some Septoria leaf spot, and a sporadic issue that has concentrations of leaves with small silvery spots (dead leaf tissue). These are mostly located below webs of zipper spiders. Is it a disease, or the result of spider poop or dead prey detritus?

Zipper spider on a hoophouse tomato.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sowing fall brassicas, thoughts on Organic certification and organic farming

Brassica seedlings under insect netting.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sowing fall brassicas

We sow our fall broccoli and cabbage in mid-late June, followed by our outdoor Asian greens and collards. These will all get transplanted from nursery seedbeds covered with insect netting, to growing beds covered with insect netting. In the summer we try to have a No Visible Brassicas Month to break the lifecycle of the harlequin bugs. Once our spring kale is finished, the spring cabbage gathered in and the spring broccoli mowed down, the only brassicas are hidden under netting. Our hope is to starve out the harlequin bugs or at least deter them from making too many more.

Brassica transplants under ProtekNet.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I wrote a short piece about sowing our fall broccoli and cabbage in 2014 here

I wrote about our long evenings of transplanting in July and August in 2015 here:

Fall broccoli rows.
Photo Kati Falger

This year we have a simplified plan: one broccoli variety, one cabbage variety, Morris Heading collards, Koji (a hybrid Asian green a bit like Yukina Savoy) and Senposai.

The broccoli is an OP variety, Umpqua. It takes 96 days to maturity, has dark green 5-6″ heads and makes lots of side shoots. That’s a long wait compared to 54d Tendergreen and 60d Green Magic, so I hope it’s good! It’s certainly highly rated compared to other OP types.

The cabbage is Storage #4 a 4-8 lb 90-95d hybrid, for fresh use and storage.

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Zipper spider catching pest bugs on our hoophouse squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

After worrying about the challenges with our early squash in the hoophouse, I realized today that at least half of the plants are still producing, while the younger first outdoor planting has given up, before the second planting is ready to take over.

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Is Buying Organic Worth It?

An interesting blog post cones from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, exploring the meanings of “organic”, and I will summarize it here. Paying the higher price for organic products is always a personal decision, and whether buying USDA Organic food is “worth it” depends on the relative value that the consumer puts on food The Real Organic Projectbeing produced in accordance with USDA Organic standards.

The word “organic” is used to mean different things:

Formally: When used to advertise and sell a farm product, the word “organic” is regulated by federal law—the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the related USDA Organic regulations. This legal meaning of the word “organic” as defined by Congress and the USDA has only been around since 1990 (when OFPA was signed into law). USDA Organic standards are the same from state to state and from store to store. Because the USDA tracks the sales of certified Organic products, buying USDA Organic food is a great way to vote with your dollar.  The core principles of organic agriculture were initially developed by organic farmers, not the USDA.

Informally: In daily life, many people use the word “organic” for agricultural products that were grown using methods that are similar to or even completely consistent with the USDA Organic standards but are grown by uncertified farms.  The cultural practice of farming using organic methods has been around for a at least a hundred years. Many outstanding organic farmers were growing organically before 1990 and either have never bothered to become USDA certified Organic or have given up their certification since then. However, after 1990, they could no longer market their products as organic. 

What exactly does USDA Organic certification mean? Continue reading

Permaculture questioned, Growing for Market, Mother Earth News blogpost, Longhorn tick.

I’ve long had some misgivings about the almost religious fervor of some permaculturists, while at the same time appreciating their seriousness about sustainable land use. (In fact I have written for Permaculture North America, and I have friends who are Permaculturists.) My first impressions of Permaculture were that it was a combination of common sense farming practices gussied up with new labels, other ideas that seemed to me very impractical, and ideas that might work fine in the tropics but not so well in the rest of the world. But it seemed rude to say so publicly. Like picking a fight with allies when there are so many more important campaigns. And more recently I have met some gardeners and even farmers who apply the Permaculture ideas that work in their context, without becoming evangelical about it. I would love to read a practical book written by someone farming commercially, explaining how they apply some of the Permaculture ideas, and make a living.

Curtis Stone (author of The Urban Farmer) has given all this consideration and has written an interesting, thoughtful article in his blog From the Field Friday.

It’s titled What Permaculture got Wrong – Dispelling Five Common Myths

Curtis describes how many people new to farming are a bit starry-eyed, and are (as he was) inspired by Permaculture ideas. In his experience, many of the promises of Permaculture don’t pan out, especially if you try to make them work on a commercial scale as opposed to a hobby, when it doesn’t matter how long a method takes, or how much money it costs.

He has identified five slogans of Permaculture he believes should disappear. He wants to save farmers from burning out while holding these unrealistic tenets. At the same time, he is not disrespecting any individual Permaculture teachers or students, authors or farmers. He just wants everyone to have realistic expectations and for commercial growers to use viable methods.

Permaculture aims to keep the topsoil in place, along with all its biodiversity, and grow food, following patterns in nature. This is a great approach. The problems come with some of the specific prescriptions. Curtis Stone labels five problematic cultural memes The Self-Sustaining Farm; The Lazy Gardener; Mulch Everything; Swale Everything; and No Pests!

The Self-Sustaining Farm

The Forest Garden can work for someone with enough land, providing food for just a few people. There are fruits and nuts, some perennial vegetables, and annual vegetables between the trees. But in order for a food system to feed lots of people, we invented agriculture (which is not natural) to dependably produce quantities of food in an efficient (affordable) way. Most vegetables are annuals, not perennials, and that where the work is, and the bulk of our food. A lot of food can be produced efficiently from a relatively small area of land using annual crops. A Forest Garden is not going to feed the world, and it’s unfair to new farmers to tell them it will. It’s also untrue to suggest that forest, orchard and vineyard crops require almost no work once they are established. Growing food for lots of people is hard work, even when you apply smart methods.

The Lazy Gardener

This idea comes from Bill Mollison, suggesting you can plant crops and ignore them, and get good harvests. Planting potatoes by covering them with mulch rather than soil is one suggestion. Most of these “Lazy Gardener” ideas are not workable on a commercial scale. You can ignore weeds and use “lazy” methods if you are not earning your living from farming, or expecting to feed many people. It’s a lifestyle choice, not a career.

Mulch Everything

Straw mulch is very popular with some Permaculturists. It is used in thick layers to smother weeds. It also adds organic matter to the soil. Straw is the stems of small grains. It’s not bio-regional where I live, or where most of us live. If you don’t see fields of wheat, barley, oats, rye in your area, straw would have to be shipped in. It won’t be cheap. It’ll be more expensive if it’s organic. Curtis Stone points out that it is not really sustainable on a commercial scale to cover all the soil with straw. It also doesn’t work well for fast turn-over crops, where you want to plant a follow-on crop (to get most use of your land). Plus, it keeps the soil cool, which is not what you need for warm-season crops. While it can work for home gardeners to push aside mulch to plant two squash plants, it’s not practical for a 200 foot row of squash. (I always enjoyed Ruth Stout’s little books, but I wondered how she could afford all the straw.)

Swale Everything

Swales are shallow ditches running along the contours, to catch and hold water – a lovely idea to conserve water resources. Constructing these on a farm scale is time-consuming. Navigating swales while growing rows or beds of annual crops is not very practical. Not all soils or all crops benefit from water retention. Curtis Stone claims he has heard of permaculture consultants putting in swales which led to too much water retention and then landslides! Nowadays Key-line plowing has made water-retention far more practical. But we shouldn’t all install water retention everywhere. The need will depend on the soil, the climate and the crop.

No Pests!

This slogan I have also taken issue with, myself. It’s the mistaken belief that if you garden or farm well, you won’t have any pests. It’s a “Blame the Victim” thing – if you have pests, you must be doing something wrong. I’m all for planting flowers to attract beneficial insects, and encouraging bees, good bugs and birds. But pests and diseases do still happen to good people! It’s important to work to prevent and avoid pests and diseases – but still, keep on scouting! You can’t safely assume you won’t get pests.

Curtis says that for him the oddest irony is the people in Permaculture who critique other farmers as if one problem is the root cause of all that goes wrong, while themselves believing that a particular permaculture idea applies always and everywhere, rather than being dependent on the wider context. This he calls “a monoculture of thinking”. Truly there is no one sustainable solution for all farming situations. It’s easier to have simple beliefs, but it doesn’t work. Every permaculture method is not going to work on every farm. We need to stay adaptable and flexible in our thinking, and respect and look for diversity in our approach.


The June/July issue of Growing for Market magazine is out. The lead article, by Carolina Lees, is for farmers who are venturing into hiring employees. How to benefit from the help, absorb their enthusiasm, and also reduce confusion of crops, tools, harvest specs? How to balance teaching and doing? How to balance the desire for competence and success with compassion for learners? How to change from an idiosyncratic, spur of the moment decision-making to something that’s easier for others to predict and understand? As Carolina Lees says:

“You can get away with a lot less training if you can make the task easier to learn in the first place.”

Her suggestions include reducing the number of different varieties, labelling all beds clearly, having clear standards and measurements, having only one kind of watering wand and timer, only a few sizes and types of harvest container, having clear places where information is written and stored, using checklists, so workers can be more independent.

Jesse Frost writes about making effective use of social media to increase farm sales. You Tube and email might do better than Facebook. Paying to advertise on Facebook can be more effective than merely posting something. And remember that people want a personal connection, not a hard sell.

Jenny Quiner writes about her urban farmstand’s struggle with changing county regulations. This will be useful to anyone in a similar situation.

Anne and Eric Nordell, well-known long-established horse-powered vegetable farmers from Pennsylvania, have been re-thinking plant spacings, after surveying seven other teamsters’ cropping methods. They compare the plant densities used by horse farmers with tow common tractor-farming spacings and two intensive bed densities. Food for thought.

Ellen Polishuk has interviewed Joanna Letz of Bluma Flower Farm for this issue.


A misty November morning in the hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

I have a post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog: 20 Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

If you have been wondering whether a hoophouse (high tunnel) would be worthwhile, this list of twenty reasons to have one can help you decide. The benefits include more and better crops, extended seasons, food self-reliance and a very pleasant work environment.


Longhorn tick.
Photo West Virginia State Department of Agriculture

Don’t think of this as ending with bad news, think of it as saving your health. There is a new tick. The Longhorn Tick has now been found in West Virginia and Virginia, as well as New Jersey.

The longhorn tick is small and difficult to detect.  It is known to carry several diseases that can affect humans, as well as livestock, including some diseases that are not prevalent in the United States, but have affected people in Asia.

This species was first identified by the Animal and Plant Inspection Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Jersey in November 2017. The West Virginia State Department of Agriculture has confirmed the presence of the tick in West Virginia. The longhorn ticks were identified by samples collected from two separate farms in Hardy County WV, both of which are near the Virginia border.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed the presence of the tick in Warren County in northern Virginia (on horses), and in Albemarle County on a calf. A list of common ticks found in Virginia can be found here.

 

 

Challenges with hoophouse squash

 

Gentry yellow squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

We grow one bed (90 ft or so) of yellow squash in our hoophouse, to extend the season earlier. This year it is a dismal failure. We have had splendid success some years, with good harvests for several weeks before our outdoor squash are ready. What has changed?

One aspect is climate change including more variable temperatures in spring. This makes it harder to get frost-tender crops started in our greenhouse, and causes us to delay transplanting into our hoophouse, to avoid a wipe-out. We do have good thick rowcover to put over the hoophouse crops, but rowcover can only do so much. Also, it’s not simply a matter of life or death. Extended cold can permanently stunt tender plants.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Striped Cucumber Beetles

Our second biggest problem is striped cucumber beetles. We reckon if we can deal with the cucumber beetles in the hoophouse, we’ll be dealing with the mothers of that year’s population, and things won’t get so bad outdoors. Or, rather, if we don’t deal with them in the hoophouse, they’ll get really bad outdoors (we’ve seen that happen on nearby watermelons and squash).

Our approach is to nip the beetles in the squash flowers first thing each morning, with tweezers. It’s important to tackle them early in the morning, because as the day warms, so do they, and they take off flying around, making them hard to catch. We ignore the more numerous, smaller, cucumber flowers, because the beetles prefer squash flowers, and we’re only prepared to spend a limited amount of time on this task.

The hunting season for cucumber beetles here is on average about a month long. In 2017 it was early and only 8 days 4/25 to 5/3. This year we didn’t start till 5/4 and we’re still finding some 6/5.

One year we tried trapping the beetles using pheromone lures from Johnny’s. We hung the pheromone with a yellow sticky card from the wire hoops that previously held up the rowcover. I thought they were successful, but others on the crew didn’t want to use that method again.

One year we sprayed with Spinosad, which is organic and was very effective, but we try to avoid any spraying if we can. Recently we revisited the decision, and re-committed to hand picking.

Yarn-wrapped tweezers intended to kill cucumber beetles and pollinate squash at the same time (with prey).
Photo Pam Dawling

To attempt to deal with our third problem while addressing the second, I just tried wrapping yarn round the tweezer arms, thinking they might do some pollinating for no extra effort, while I hunted beetles. It wasn’t very successful. The tweezers we’re using are very pointed and the yarn slides off. Too much yarn prevents the tweezers closing aggressively enough.

Unpollinated squash
Photo Pam Dawling

Unpollinated squash

Our third problem is unpollinated squash. The baby squash are hollow, and sometimes rot at the ends. We spend too much time removing the unpollinated ones to encourage the plants to try harder producing new squash, and to prevent the spread of molds which sometimes grow on the hopeless squash.

We look for bush varieties, as we don’t want sprawling vines in the hoophouse. In order to get harvests as early as possible we choose varieties that are fast-maturing. Since 2008 we have usually grown Gentry, a hybrid yellow crookneck squash with a bush habit, that mature in just 43 days from sowing in normal temperatures.

Early in the season some varieties of squash produce a lot of female flowers, which can’t get pollinated until some male flowers appear. Low temperatures and high light intensity promote this female sex expression, ie female flowers rather than male flowers. But our problems went on beyond the arrival of male flowers.

In 2006 we grew Zephyr, a beautiful bi-color hybrid yellow squash with green ends, which is our favorite for outdoor crops. It takes 54 days to maturity. In 2007 we grew Zephyr and a few Supersett, a 50-day hybrid crookneck yellow squash. We didn’t choose Supersett again, so I suppose we didn’t prefer it. What did we grow in the first few years 2004-2005? We didn’t keep good records.

In 2015 we tried Slick Pik YS 26, a 49 day hybrid, attracted by the claim to spinelessness. It didn’t do well for us, and we came to call it Slim Pickins. Some of the plants were weird. About 4 out of about 45 plants had darker green leaves and no female flowers. The male flowers were abnormal, halfway to being leaves. The petals were thick and greenish, and the flowers were small. Then the flowers dropped off, producing no fruit, so we didn’t grow that variety again.

Rotting unpollinated squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another option we once tried is a parthenocarpic variety. Parthenocarpic crops can set fruit without pollination. Some squash varieties, like Sure Thing (48d), Partenon (48d), Cavili (48d), and Easypick Gold (50d), are sold on the strength of being very good at setting fruit without any pollinators. See this article for all the details.

It’s not an all-or-nothing attribute – a number of squash varieties have some level of parthenocarpic capability.

In one study of zucchini (see the article link above), fruit set without pollination varied from zero to 42%, depending on the variety. In the 1992 study, 33 varieties of yellow summer squash were compared. Follow-up studies in the next few years. Chefini (51d  Breeder: Petoseed Co (SQ 28) Seems not to be commercially available any more), Gold Strike (a yellow straight-neck squash, likewise seems unavailable), Black Beauty (50d) and Black Magic (50d)  all did well. In a study including yellow squash and zucchini, most of the high-parthenocarpic producers were zucchini rather than yellow squash. Of yellow squash, Gold Strike seems unavailable, but Gold Rush (52d), Golden Glory (50d) look promising

See also Steve Reiners’ paper Producing summer squash without pollination – Ranking varieties

In that study Golden Glory (50d) is the big winner. Runners up are mostly zucchini: Dunja (47d), Noche (48d), Partenon (48d), Costata Romanesco (52d semi- bush variety), Safari (50d), Multipik (50d yellow squash). After that there are several that scored 29% down to 6% in the trial, and then a bunch of zeroes. Our much-beloved Zephyr scores zero in that trial!  I read that the retail demand for yellow squash is less than for zucchini, so most of the research goes into zucchini.

Next year, I’ll propose we try Golden Glory and Noche (a zucchini that does well for us in hot weather). Or perhaps Dunja, which scores higher.

A bee pollinating squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Encourage pollinators

This is something else we could pay more attention to next year. We have now got honeybees again, after several years without. We could also plant a succession of flowers that attract pollinators, timed to flower the same time as the squashes. If we plant them in big pots we can cycle them in and out of the hoophouse for their “work shifts” and retire them when they stop flowering. See this blog post from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: 10 tips for Attracting Bees and other Pollinators and Harvesting Great Cucumbers, Squash and Melons. Carolina Farm Stewardship Association also has some useful info about native squash bees. I’ll need to study up before next spring!

Import pollinators

We could buy boxes of bumblebees from Koppert. But that gets pricey. I prefer attracting existing pollinators.

Squash bugs making more squash bugs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Minor Problems; Squash bugs

We also have squash bugs, but they aren’t such a big problem for us.

Squash bug eggs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Time to watch for pests

The season is warming up and insect pests are jumping into action. Here’s some old foes and some new ones to watch out for, and some friends too.

Gray garden slugs, Deroceras reticulatum, with chewing damage and slime trails on leaves.
Photo UC IPM

Slugs and Snails

We have very few snails, and compared to some other places I’ve lived, few slugs. But the slugs we do have really like the hoophouse. I found two this morning on the cucumber plants. (It was an overcast morning – they don’t like high temperatures.) My reaction was to flip them onto the path and stomp on them. We rarely have to take stronger action. If we do, we sink shallow plastic dishes into the soil, with the rim at soil level and fill the dishes with a dilute version of beer or soda, or sugary water. I don’t know if it has to be fermenting to be attractive to slugs, but any sugary liquid in our hoophouse warmth is going to start fermenting after a day. If numbers are really high and damage is extensive, we need to hunt the slugs down. Do this at dusk or later, with a headlamp and either a pair of scissors or a bucket of soapy water.

There is a good blog post by Joe Kemble on the Alabama Commercial Horticulture website:

Slugs or Snails in Your Greenhouse or High Tunnel? What Do I Do?

The post helps us understand our foe:

“Slugs are very sensitive to ambient temperature and can detect temperature changes as gradual as 2°F per hour. Slugs prefer to remain at 62 to 64°F although they lay eggs and develop normally (but slower) at lower temperatures. Development ceases below 41°F. Slugs can withstand slight freezing temperatures although their tendency to take shelter in cold weather protects them from freezing. Slugs try to escape from temperatures higher than 70°F. “

Joe Kemble offers  4 approaches to dealing with them: trapping, hunting, iron phosphate (Sluggo) and metaldehyde bait. Metaldehyde works very quickly, but it can poison and even kill dogs, cats and other mammals that might feed on it. So I don’t recommend that! Iron phosphate is much safer but also much slower – snails can take up to seven days to die. Neither should be used near waterways. Use of Sluggo has been allowed if conditions leave no less toxic option, under the National Organic Standards since 2006

Another good resource is the UC IPM site which takes the IPM steps one at a time and applies them to slugs. How to Manage Pests/ Pests in Gardens and Landscapes/ Snails and Slugs which has good photos.

Grow Smart Grow Safe  looks at many options. See their Table of Molluscicides. It explains all the current options.

Jumping Worms

Invasive Jumping Worm
Photo Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A new troublesome  invasive earthworm has arrived from East Asia. Here is a handy ID card

“Jumping worms (Amynthas spp.) dwell on the soil surface and eat leaf litter.  They can turn up almost anywhere from urban parks, to suburban backyards, to rural forests. Because they reproduce on their own, a single worm can start a new population. You can help prevent jumping worms from spreading to new areas by knowing what to look for.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has good information, including photos.

These worms eat up all the leaf litter under trees, causing desert-like conditions. The surface soil becomes grainy, with a texture like dry coffee grounds, and no longer supports the growth of under-story plants.The 1.5″-8″ worms thrash around if picked up. Visually they can be distinguished from other earthworms with a clitellum (saddle), because theirs is cloudy white and smooth.

Use the jumping worm identification card [PDF] and brochure [PDF] and watch for this pest. Report finds to the DNR or your Extension Office.

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Spotted Lanternfly.
Photo from Virginia Cooperative Extension

Spotted Lanternfly

Another invasive alien is the Spotted Lanternfly, a pretty hopper. Lycorma delicatula (White), an invasive plant hopper, has been discovered in Berks County, Pennsylvania. It is native to China, India, Vietnam, and introduced to Korea where it has become a major pest.  As well as Eastern Pennsylvania, the pest has been found in Virginia, Maryland and New York.

The red bands on the hind wings are not visible when the insect is at rest with the wings folded up over the back. It can easily blend in on tree bark. Note that the earlier stages of this pest look very different. The first nymphs are black and white, later ones, red, black and white. All stages are spotted.

Adult Spotted Lanternfly (pinned). Photo USDA Aphis

This insect has the potential to greatly impact almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, hops, nectarines, peaches, plums and walnuts, as well as these trees: maples, oaks, pines, poplars, sycamores and willows.

The signs and symptoms of a possible infestation include

  • Plants that ooze or weep and have a fermented smell
  • Buildup of sticky fluid (honeydew) on plants and on the ground underneath infested plants
  • Sooty mold on the infested plants

If you find a spotted lanternfly, report it to your Extension Office.

Click here to learn more from Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and here to read more from USDA APHIS.

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A zipper spider on a tomato plant, catching anything that lands on its web. Photo Wren Vile

We mostly have good bugs. While working in the hoophouse this morning, harvesting scallions out of the way of advancing enlarging cucumber plants, I also found many tiny zipper spiders and their tiny webs. These will get impressively huge. We made a point of saving their egg-cases on the bows of our hoophouse over the winter.

Zipper spider egg cases overwintering in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

I also saw a tiny praying mantis, another creature whose egg-cases we make a point of storing in the hoophouse over the winter.

And I saw a tattered Monarch butterfly. I had to check the Monarch or Viceroy? Page to be sure.

Asian Greens for April: Mizuna and ferny mustards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our mizuna schedule

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

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

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

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

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

Seed sources

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

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

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

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

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

May Senposai outdoors

June Tokyo Bekana

July Maruba Santoh

August Fall Senposai, winter Yukina Savoy

September Komatsuna outdoors

October Yukina Savoy outdoors, Tatsoi

November Daikon and other winter radish

December Pak Choy

January Chinese cabbage

February Tatsoi

March Yukina savoy in the hoophouse

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