Preparing your hoophouse for fall and winter

December lettuce and spinach in our hoophouse. Photo Wren Vile

Recently I traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas to give my presentation Extend Your Growing Season into Colder Weather with High Tunnels. Run the mouse over the slide and click on the lower left.

CAFF - Extend Your Growing Season into Colder Weather with High Tunnels

We are getting ready for fall and starting to plant our winter crops in the hoophouse.

I have written about transition to winter crops here: Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables (August 16, 2022). This post includes a bed plan, and links to lots of related posts, such as selecting and planning winter crops, bed prep, direct sowing and transplanting, and then caring for the crops, optimizing use of the space, harvesting, and what to do if something goes wrong,

Fall Lettuce Transition

From September 11-17 we sow to transplant in our greenhouse, and on September 15 and 24 to transplant in our hoophouse. This is our fall transition and I’ll write about that when the time comes.

On September 15 and 24, we sow leaf lettuces and romaines in an outdoor nursery bed. We transplant these into our hoophouse at 10” (25 cm) spacing. This is a bit closer than the 12” (30 cm) spacing we use outdoors. We will harvest outer leaves from the hoophouse lettuce all winter, so the plants won’t get as big as they do outdoors.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Wren Vile

On October 23 we start sowing lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall, longer in colder weather. Our first sowing will be harvestable form 4 December to 15 May if we’re lucky, although if it gets too hot, this planting will get bitter and we’ll need to pull it up.

Baby lettuce mix is a direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop, the plants regrow and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. We sow 10 rows in a 4’ (1.2m) bed, 4.5” (11cm) apart. Weed and thin to 1″ (2.5 cm). When 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cut 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. Gather a small handful in one hand and cut with using large scissors. Immediately after harvesting, weed the just-cut area so the next cut won’t include weeds. Rake after harvest with a fine leaf rake to remove outer leaves and cut scraps. If you want to make more than one cut, you will need to remove anything that isn’t top quality salad while you can see it. Larger scale operations have harvesting machines.

We make four or five sowings of baby lettuce mix, sowing our last one on 15 February, for harvest starting mid-March, and ending in May when it gets too hot. By then we should be happily harvesting juicy lettuce heads outdoors and will have lost interest in the lettuce mix.

The soil temperature range for germination of lettuce seeds is 35-85°F (2-29°C), with 40-80°F (4-27°C) being the optimum range and 75°F (24°C) the ideal. At 41°F (5°C) lettuce takes 15 days to germinate; at 50°F (10°C) it takes 7 days; at 59°F (15°C) 4 days; at 68°F (20°C) only 2.5 days; at 77°F (25°C) 2.2 days. Then time to germination increases: 2.6 days at 86°F (30°C); after that it’s too hot.

Removing Shadecloth from our Hoophouse

We are now removing our shadecloth. Normally we would have removed the shade cloth in mid-September, or at least by the Equinox, but this year we are delayed a week. After 15 years with our initial piece of shadecloth we ordered a new piece. Well, we ordered two new pieces, because we mistakenly ordered a piece only half long enough. We bought a matching piece for the other half, and this winter we are going to sew the two pieces together with nylon twine, because the ends of each piece roll back, leaving a central gap about 6 feet long by September. Measure twice, order once!

Our hoophouse with two pieces of shadecloth (by mistake). Photo Pam Dawling

Before next spring we need to replace quite a lot of the hooks the shadecloth ropes attach to. Next time we replace the big plastic we also need to replace the baseboards, as they are rotting and not holding the hooks well.

My post Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal includes spreading compost, broadforking, and a step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep.

Also see September in the Hoophouse for more about removing shadecloth

A reader passed on this tip:When I ordered shadecloth for my hoophouse, I overshot each end by ten or twelve feet. We stake that out on either end, using six-foot T-posts, to give us a shaded area where air moving into the hoophouse’s open ends can be cooled before entering the structure. Every year in July and August, I’m grateful we did.”

Washing Down the Salts in the Hoophouse

Effects of excess soil salt levels on crop foliage.
Photo Rose Ogutu, Horticulture Specialist, Delaware State University

Next week we will leach the salts that have risen to the surface of the soil and dried out there. My book The Year-Round Hoophouse has a whole chapter on recognizing, monitoring and reducing salts that have built-up in the hoophouse, and reducing the likelihood of problems in the future. There is also a chart of salt tolerance of various vegetables, so you can choose what to grow while you remediate your soil. Here I’ll just give a very short intro, in three slides. Click in the lower left of the first slide to move to the next one.

Salt Build-up

Closing Hoophouse Doors and Windows at Night

We are starting to close the doors at night when the temperature looks likely to drop below 50°F (10°C) outside. We had to trim down the grass to be able to push the doors to. We had to re-drill the holes the door-bolts (“cane bolts”) go down into. The doors have been wide open all summer.

View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

In fall/winter/spring, if night time outdoor low temperatures will be below 40°F (4.5°C) here, we close the windows as well as the doors.

See my post Hoophouse Sliding Doors if you might want to replace your doors with sliding ones.

One of the sliding doors on our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Be Ready for Winter

See my post Dealing with winter weather in your hoophouse (Jan 2022). Be ready to deal with snow and strong winds, extra cold temperatures, and holes in the plastic letting cold air in. If you have a double layer hoophouse, the air inflated between the layers adds strength to the structure, as well as thermal insulation. Holes are bad news.

Hoophouse snow scraping tool on a telescoping painter’s pole. Photo Pam Dawling

Winter Kit

  • SnoBrum and telescoping painter’s pole
  • Hat with visor
  • Long-handled broom with bristles covered with a towel or some bubblewrap
  • Rowcover or inner tunnels
  • Some spare plants, back-up plans or a list of fast-growing crops to replace disasters with successes.
  • PolyPatch tape for fixing holes in the plastic
  • Gorilla tape for fixing many problems
  • Pond noodles or other draft-excluding sausages if your doors let air under them
  • Perhaps some sturdy poles or 2x4s to help support the roof in case of very heavy snow.
  • Hot chocolate/tea/coffee for when you get back indoors.
Plan D: seed flats in our hoophouse on Oct 16, a late attempt to make up for things that went wrong!
Photo Pam Dawling

Nematode-resistant food crops and cover crops

Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills, two Juncea mustards that resist nematodes. Photo Pam Dawling

A few weeks ago I wrote about clearing tomato plants, and mentioned our hoophouse troubles with nematodes. Nematodes are tiny soil-dwelling worms that have a wide host range and are hard to control. They move only 3’–4′ (1–1.2 m) per year on their own, but people move them on shoes, tools, etc. We have had peanut root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne arenaria) since 2011 when we found them in spinach transplants we were growing for outdoors in early spring.

My article on nematodes in Growing for Market  in November 2014 describes our discovery of the beasties and our first attempts to deal with them.

White Russian kale in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In my August 2014 post Good news – great hoeing weather! Bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse I wrote about solarization to fight nematodes in our hoophouse (scroll down to the end of the post). The post includes a photo of our first attempt at solarizing – a  bit of a How Not To! Be sure to use UV-inhibited polyethylene. This year we somehow got some construction plastic mixed in. It doesn’t work! It goes cloudy (thus not heating up the soil) and it shatters into little pieces.

There is info on dealing with nematodes from Garry Ross in Hawaii, where nematodes are a fact of daily life, in my post Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes from February 2015.

My most thorough blogpost about nematodes was in 2018 for Mother Earth News:  Managing Nematodes in the Hoophouse.

Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

My post Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes in August 2019 includes a photo of a much better way to solarize an individual bed. In that post I gave a list of nematode-resistant food crops, and also talked about cover crops. There is a photo of nematodes on cucumber roots there too).

Food crop choices to fight nematodes

Most resistant and most helpful are the Juncea group of mustards. I did some research into more Juncea options in Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes. We don’t like very pungent greens, so we have not yet taken the route of planting a whole bed of Juncea types. Instead we have mapped and flagged the nematode-infested areas of our beds, and try to be mindful of what we plant in those spots. Three of our seven beds have no nematodes so far.

Open-pollinated Yukina Savoy.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

This year we looked at the nematode map we had made and decided to focus our attention on the bed with the highest number of nematode patches, and grow the most resistant winter crops (of the ones we like to grow) there. That’s the frilly mustards (Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills, all Juncea mustards, and Mizuna, a Japonica mustard), Yukina Savoy (variously reported to be Brassica juncea,  Brassica rapa pekinensis, and Brassica rapa), and Russian kales (Brassica rapa).

Mapping nematode areas

See the post with info from Gerry Ross I mentioned above. We have previously tried for a “Two years good, One year bad” strategy. This was to grow nematode-resistant crops in the infected areas for two years, then try risking one year of susceptible crops. That was a bit demanding on careful management, and we haven’t kept that up.

Nematode map 2022

Cover crop choices to fight nematodes

French marigolds and sesame to deter Root Knot nematodes in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

A reader asked about cover crop choices to fight nematodes. In June 2019 I wrote about using marigolds, sesame, Iron and Clay cowpeas as warm-weather nematode resistant cover crops. We’ve also used winter wheat (in winter!), and white lupins (not worthwhile, in my experience). See that post for a few other ideas on nematode-fighting cover crops, and why we decided against some options. At that time, we decided not to grow sunnhemp (Crotolaria) because it is poisonous, although newer varieties of Crotolaria have lower toxin levels. More recently we have been growing sunnhemp, after I saw it growing so well in North Carolina. It is a warm-weather legume, so it is feeding the soil while tackling the nematodes. It does grow tall in the hoophouse, and we have taken to chopping it down with hedge shears to an ergonomic elbow-height every few weeks whenever it gets too tall. The cut tops create a nice “forest-floor” mulch effect. You can almost feel the extra organic matter nurturing the soil! (High OM levels deter nematodes.) 60-90 days to maturity.

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

We previously used soybeans as a short-term leguminous summer cover crop, but they do not offer the nematode resistance. Iron and Clay, Mississippi Silver and Carolina Crowder cowpeas are all nematode-resistant and can be grown in summer instead of soybeans. Sesame is a legume that is particularly good against peanut root-knot nematodes.

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

See Our Organic Integrated Pest Management post for an organized approach to pest management, including nematodes.

A Florida reader gave me information about partridge peas, which I have not yet tried: After terminating cool-season brassicas and celery between April and June, their late spring sowing of partridge peas were too late this year to be productive, because the hard seed was very slow to germinate. Partridge pea could be a good cover crop for mid- to late-summer, if you scarify those hard seeds to speed germination.

Some cover crops can be alternate hosts for pathogens like cercospora, rust, or bacterial leaf spot, so be on the lookout for new problems while solving old problems. In the deep south, beans, yard-long (asparagus) beans, and cowpeas can succumb to heat, nematodes, rust, bacterial spots, and other pathogens and pests. Senna (tall) and Partridge pea can provide “chop-and-drop” organic matter as sunnhemp does. Sunn Hemp can host foliar pathogens (some possibly seed-borne), in Florida, and does not reliably form nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots, even when inoculated. Even so, it is useful as a fast warm season green manure cover.

The flower Gaillardia (blanket flower) is a quick-to-compost, chop and drop option for late winter to late spring, It decomposes quickly, and can provide a quick green manure. Gaillardia is nematode-resistant, great for beneficials and pollinators, but is susceptible to some foliar pathogens later in the season. You can sow Gaillardia in August, or even later in fall for early spring flowering.

Due to climate change, and the more year-round activity of nematodes, pathogens, and pests in Florida, they’ve been including more nematode-resistant grasses into their rotations. We all need to be thinking more about warmer-climate options, as climate change continues to push pathogens and pests farther north, earlier each year.

Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables

 

Hoophouse winter greens.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

If you have a hoophouse, you may now be planning or planting crops for fall, winter and spring. If you don’t have a hoophouse, this is a good time of year to consider getting one. See Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse at the end of that post. There are grants available from NRCS, including reparation levels of funding from traditionally underserved groups of people. There are now companies that will construct your hoophouse for you, if you don’t want to do it yourself, or can’t. If you do want to build your own, there are detailed instructions in my book The Year-Round Hoophouse. You can buy the book here on my Books page direct from me, or from my publisher New Society, or you can buy it wherever books are sold.

The Year-Round Hoophouse cover

I have many posts about winter hoophouse vegetables, so rather than try to write something completely new on the topic, I am going to give you a guide to find your way around the information already here.

General Hoophouse Info

Winter hoophouse growing

Hoophouse video interview

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables slide show

Hoophouse Cool Season Crops slideshow

Hoophouse Many Crops slideshow

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse Crop Planning

Planning winter hoophouse crops

Hoophouse Crop Rotations

Preparing for spring, sowing seeds, planning

Hoophouse Greens Clearance, Warm Weather Crops Established

Hoophouse Crops Winter 2022-2023

Hoophouse Bed Prep

Hoophouse fall bed prep

Fall hoophouse bed prep

Hoophouse bed broadforked to loosen up slumped soil. I’m happy to say our soil structure has improved in the 18 years since this photo was taken!
Photo Pam Dawling

Choosing Hoophouse Winter Crops

(see also my post categories on the right side of the computer screen, for special posts on Asian Greens, Cooking greens, lettuce and root crops)

How to decide which vegetable crops to grow

Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021

Spinach variety trial conclusions

September in the hoophouse: sowing spinach

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sow onions in a hoophouse

Frilly Mustards in our Winter Hoophouse

Three cheers for Ruby Streaks!

Yukina Savoy in the Hoophouse

Cooking Greens in December

Cooking Greens in February

Cooking Greens in March

Yukina Savoy in the early morning mist.
Photo Wren Vile

Asian Greens in October: Yukina Savoy, Tatsoi

Asian Greens for December: Pak Choy

Asian Greens for January: Chinese Cabbage

 

Green Panisse and red Revolution lettuce in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Lettuce All Year in a Changing Climate

Year Round Lettuce

Lettuce growing in October

Lettuce in December

Lettuce varieties for January

Early Lettuce Production

Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest

Tango lettuce from our September 24 sowing on January 10.
Photo Pam Dawling

Planting in the Hoophouse (Both Transplanting and Direct Sowing)

The decision between transplanting and direct sowing

Sowing hoophouse winter crops

Seedling winter crops

Starting Seedlings

Bare Root Transplants

September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile

Keeping Every Hoophouse Bed Fully Planted and Productive

Using all the space in the winter hoophouse

Fast Growing Vegetables

Sequential Planting slideshow

Young Tokyo bekana transplant in our hoophouse .
Photo Pam Dawling

Caring for Hoophouse Crops

What makes vegetable crops bolt and how can I stop it?

You don’t want this! Bolting lettuce outdoors in July
Photo Alexis Yamashita

What to Do If Something Goes Wrong with Your Hoophouse Crops

Back-up plans for winter hoophouse crops

Plans A-D

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

Harvesting in the Winter Hoophouse

Winter hoophouse harvests

Mid-winter hoophouse harvests

This winter week in the hoophouse

Young greens in the hoophouse

Winter Harvests

Making baby salad mix

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Clearing Tomato Plants

These tomato plants have served us well, and their time is up. We have pulled them out of the ground and left them suspended in the twine to wilt, before hauling them to the compost pile. The bed behind the tomatoes is being solarized to kill fungal lettuce diseases. Photo Pam Dawling

Here in Virginia, we pull up our two beds of tomatoes in the hoophouse at the very end of July or early in August. I realize this will horrify people in colder climates. I’ve been there. Every tomato plant was to be cherished until the frost took it. But in hot, humid Virginia, we have harvested from these plants for nine weeks, and the outdoor plants are coming in strongly. We don’t need the hoophouse ones; they’ve grown taller than we can reach, and we’ve lopped the tops off with hedge shears several times. Fungal diseases are to be reckoned with, and we only manage a two-year rotation in each bed, as far as nightshades go. In the past, we grew “high summer” food crops or seed crops, and needed to get the tomatoes out to make way for the new crops. Nowadays we only grow cover crops in the summer, until it’s time to prepare the beds for fall planting.

String-weaving diagram from Extension.org

We use the Florida String Weaving method of supporting our tomatoes. One thing I like about this method is that it is easy to take down, and all you have to store for next year are the stakes, which take less space than cages, or individual T-posts. We have a descriptive list of steps, and also a Worksheet – see below.

Another feature of our life with our hoophouse tomatoes are the Peanut Root-Knot Nematodes. When we pull our tomatoes, we examine the roots and carefully remove the ones with nematode lumps in them, usually to the parking lot on a dry sunny day, to die in the heat and be run over by cars. We don’t even want to send them to the landfill, because we don’t want to do anything that increases the number of nematodes anywhere. Nematodes need a film of water to survive, and the parking lot deprives them of that.

Cucumber roots with nematodes (see circles). We forgot to take photos of the tomato roots.
Photo Pam Dawling

We spread the tomato clearance job out over a week, doing one step each day, so we don’t have to be in the hoophouse after 11 am, when the temperature becomes unbearable. After harvesting all the fruit (ripe and unripe, separately) in the first bed, we pull up the plants and check the roots. If we see nematode lumps, we carefully cut off the roots and take them outside. We mark the area with a blue flag in each corner, and later measure the distance from the end of the bed and mark the problem area on a map of the beds. This is in case the flags mysteriously fall out.

When we plan the winter crops, we plant the more nematode-resistant crops in the infested areas.With the non-nematode infected plants (most of them) we shake the soil off the roots to speed up the wilting. Plus of course, we don’t want to be removing precious topsoil from the hoophouse! We leave all the plants still hanging in place in the rows of twine, to dry out for a couple of days. We are going to haul them to the compost pile, and it’s a lot less work (fewer cartloads) once the plants have wilted.

Cutting down through the layers of twine in preparation for clearing string-woven tomatoes. Photo Pam Dawling

The second day, we collect up the plant labels and put them in either the “Successes” bucket or the “Failures” bucket according to whether we want to grow that variety again. We cut the twine, pull out the long pieces and collect them in a trash bucket. We don’t try to save the twine, partly because it would take a lot of time, and partly because we don’t want to use twine that might be infected with fungal diseases. The easy way to remove the twine is simply to cut downwards beside a stake, through each of the pieces of twine, then go to the next stake and do the same, but this time gather the twine in the non-knife hand. Next, slice down the other side of the same stake, to reduce struggle, and make the lengths of twine easy to pull out! We use sisal twine, so we let the small pieces, which were wrapped around the stakes, drop to the ground. Most of them will get collected up when we pull the stakes, and a few will go with the plants to the compost pile.

Gathering the lengths of twine after cutting at both sides of each tomato stake. Photo Pam Dawling
Tomato clearance, after cutting and pulling the twine, and removing the stake extenders in the near bed. The bed to the right still has the extenders in place. Photo Pam Dawling

The third day we pull up the stakes. To reach the full height we needed, we have tied an extension stake onto each one, so first we remove those, then we pull the stakes that are in the ground. We like to use a T-post puller for this job, as it gets the wood posts out nicely without breaking them off in the ground. We only use the wood stakes for hoophouse tomatoes once, and the next year we use them outdoors, often for the snap peas. This is to reduce spread of diseases. When we pull out the metal T-posts we scrape the soil off, then spray them down and scrub with a brush.

Our (welding-repaired) T-post puller makes fast effective work of removing wood stakes too. 15 seconds per stake.
Photo Pam Dawling
When I’m collecting things togethe, I throw them into clusters as I work, and make them ready to move easily. Photo Pam Dawling

The fourth day we haul the wilted plants to the compost pile. We make a little effort to keep the zipper spiders in the hoophouse, but they have minds of their own! We do gather up any egg cases we see, and hang those on the metal framework of the hoophouse, to provide spiders next year.

A large zipper spider in our hoophouse in early August. Photo Pam Dawling
Zipper spider egg cases overwintering in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

On day 5 we rake and (if in time) sow a summer cover crop. We like to use soy as a warm weather legume that will supply some nitrogen, but it needs 6 weeks to be worthwhile. If we are a bit late, we’ll just sow buckwheat. We need our first bed for fall and winter crops on September 6. The others won’t be needed until Early October or later.

The steps for the second bed happen one day later than they happen in the first one. See the worksheet to get the full story.

Hoophouse Tomato Clearing Worksheet

If you live in a cooler climate than I do and you want to learn about keeping tomato plants growing (and accessible) in a hoophouse, read Andrew Mefferd’s book The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook. There he explains the lower and lean method of supporting tomato vines.

And I’ll close out with this photo which shows a tomato stem that I accidentally broke when doing the first round of stringweaving. I bandaged it back together with electrical tape from our drip tape first aid box. In the past I have also repaired stems with band aids. It works really well and the plants recover to live a normal productive life.

Yes, this really works! Tomato stem repaired with electrical tape 5 months earlier.
Photo Pam Dawling

Speaking Events September 2022-April 2023

 

Signing books at a winter conference.
Photo P J Kingfisher

I started to make in-person bookings again a year ago, then Omicron arrived and lots of conferences switched to being virtual. The only in-person event I attended this spring was the PASA conference, which I enjoyed a lot. I am still doing some virtual events, and planning some live ones too. Everything is subject to change!

As of right now I have two in-person events booked, and one new podcast interview. June and July are the months for speakers to apply to make winter and spring conference presentations, so I’ll be doing that! See my Events Tab for ideas I have of which events to apply to.

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Center for Arkansas Farms and Food logo

September 2022 Event

Center for Arkansas Farms and Food

https://farmandfoodsystem.uada.edu/

Sunday September 18, 2022, 1-4.30 pm

High Tunnel Season Extension (Cool Season)

View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

Contact 479-575-2798 or CAFF@uark.edu

CAFF Beginning Farmer/Apprenticeship Farm Tours and Workshops

Workshop: In-person. CAFF Farm, 1005 Meade Ave, Fayetteville

CAFF was developed to strengthen and expand our food and farming system, enhance local communities, and provide opportunities for farmers, food entrepreneurs and food system leaders.

Combining traditional and experiential learning opportunities, their Farm School and Apprenticeship programs teach the production and business skills to develop resilient and sustainable businesses.

CAFF is dedicated to increasing the number of thriving farms and farmers in Arkansas. To accomplish this, the center provides farm education, training, networking, and resources. Creating a supportive farm community network will bring more people into farming and help retain current farmers by increasing their success.

Join CAFF at the farm to learn about extending your growing season with high tunnels. Space for this class is limited.

The CAFF Jan. 11 to March 1 two-hour courses remain available for viewing through Oct. 31. To pay the $10 access fee, please visit the registration page and email Heather Friedrich, program manager, at heatherf@uark.edu to confirm receipt.


March 2023 Event

John C Campbell Folk School 

https://www.folkschool.org/index.php www.folkschool.org

March 26-April 1 2023

One Folk School Road, Brasstown, NC 28902

A week-long course:

Growing Vegetables Year Round

A harvest cart with cabbage, kale, squash and lettuce.
Photo by Wren Vile

Make the most of your space and time growing vegetables at home using planting schedules and techniques timed to the seasons, seed varieties, crop rotation, and use of protective structures such as coldframes and greenhouses. Learn labor saving and innovative planting and soil fertility techniques for growing and harvesting a full range of fresh, delicious, organic vegetables. Fill your salad bowl and dinner plate year round!

Folk School logo

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Accidental Gods Podcast

Exploring the liminal space between science and spirituality, philosophy and politics, art, creativity – working towards the conscious evolution of humanity.

Accidental Gods is two women, Manda Scott and Faith Tilleray, dreaming of a different future. Faith Tilleray designs the website and the Instagram feed. Manda Scott is a podcaster (also: novelist, smallholder, renegade economist etc. etc. ). Both are living in the UK.

Accidental Gods Blog

Recent posts include Imagination Activism, Bioregionalism, Sacred Earth Activism, managing the New Economy (based on SEEDS regenerative currency), and Making Use of Methane.

Workhorse Crops for March

 

Flats of transplants in our cold frame ready for transplanting.
Pam Dawling

We’ve just got a few months left in my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of weather conditions. You can use the search box to find other posts in the series, such as February.

Spring is on the way! Many more crops to plant this month! Our average last frost (over the past 14 years) here in central Virginia is April 29. We reach 11 hours of daylight on February 20, and we and everyone else will reach 12 hours on the March 20 Equinox. It’s all go!

In our hoophouse we are clearing bolting crops and transplanting spinach (the “Racehorse” of this series) wherever we have space along the edges of the beds. The tomatoes go in in March and squash, cucumbers, and peppers in April. Those crops will occupy the centers of the beds, before taking over the whole width. Our greenhouse is filling up with transplants.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in March

Young spring cabbage with a hay mulch. Wren VIle
Cabbage

We transplant our early cabbage around March 6. We had trouble with mice in the greenhouse in early February and lost quite a few seedlings. We also made the mistake of using seed that was too old. So we will have only one bed of early cabbage this year, not two. We did try to make up for the losses by resowing fast-maturing varieties, but we still ended up short. We like Farao (60d) and Early Jersey Wakefield (63d). Both numbers are seed to harvest. Subtract 20 days if counting from transplanting to maturity. We will cover the bed with thick rowcover for the first few weeks after transplanting.

Carrots
Newly emerged carrots with indicator beets.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We sow carrots in mid-March, and again at the end of March. The mid-March sowing takes from 9-19 days to germinate, depending in on the soil temperature. The end of March sowing takes 9-12 days. We sow a few Indicator Beets at the beginning of the bed. Beets germinate one day sooner than carrots at almost any temperature. When we see the red loops of the beet stems emerging, we know it’s the day to flame weed the carrots.

Chard

We sow chard (and leaf beet, the type of chard closest to spinach) on March 24, but you can start earlier if you want earlier harvests. Chard seed will germinate from 41°F (5°C) to 95°F (35°C), and the best temperature is 86°F (30°C), when it needs only 4 days. Our goal is to use chard as our main summer leafy green after the kale, collards, broccoli and Asian greens have all bolted. In spring we usually have lots of cabbage, broccoli, collards and kale. Maybe we should do some earlier chard this year to make up for lack of broccoli and troubles with cabbage and over wintered kale?

Collards and kale
Young collard plant (Morris Heading, I think) Pam Dawling

In mid-March we will be transplanting Vates kale and Champion or Georgia Green collards directly from the soil in our hoophouse out into the garden. We usually grow Morris Heading collards but this year we are trying something different. We’ll use rowcover for the first few weeks. I have written before about bare-root transplants. This method saves us a lot of time, and saves greenhouse space. See Workhorse Crops in February for details about sowing these crops in the hoophouse.

Potatoes

Another mid-March task for us is potato planting. I wrote a whole series about every stage of potato growing last year. So I won’t say more here.

Hoophouse beans
Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers in June.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

We don’t grow green bush beans in our hoophouse every year, but this year we will. As with other late winter/early spring hoophouse crops, we sow beans in our hoophouse a month earlier than we can sow outside. We aim to sow in the hoophouse on March 20. Of course, if it is particularly cold then, we will wait. We’ve found that beans sprawl more in our hoophouse, so we buy an upright fast-maturing variety, such as Strike.  We’ve also found that the edge beds are too cold for beans in late March, so if the crop rotation would have us use an edge bed, we sow beets or some other crop instead. We will use thick rowcover on nights that are forecast to be frosty outdoors. See mention of hoophouse beans in January.

Hoophouse tomatoes
March hoophouse bed prepared for tomato transplants – holes dug, compost added.
Photo Wren Vile

Mid-March is our target transplanting time for tomatoes in the hoophouse. We grow two beds, one of earlies (less than 71 days) and one bed of reliable favorites (Tropic, Jubilee) along with two plants each of other varieties we like or are trying out. Each 96ft (29 m) bed has two cherry or grape tomato varieties, with two plants of each. We plant the shortest varieties at the east end and the tallest (the cherries) at the west end, so that all the plants get the best possible light. (Our hoophouse has the long walls on the south and north.) We update our Tomato Rampancy Rating list each year.

This year in the early bed, we are growing Five Star Grape 62d, Sun Gold 57d, Garden Peach 71d, Mountain Magic 66d, Stupice 62d and Glacier 56d. Mountain Magic is a new favorite (it doesn’t suffer from green/yellow shoulders) and we have increased the number of those plants, reducing numbers of Stupice and Glacier.

Hoophouse tomatoes with yellow shoulders. Glacier or Stupice.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the other bed we are growing Cherry Bomb 64d, Black Cherry 64-75d, Geronimo78d, Striped German 78d, Amy’s Sugar Gem 75d, Green Zebra 72-86d, Cherokee Purple 72-85d, Tropic 80d, Jubilee 80d, Estiva 70d, Pink Boar 75d, and Mountain Fresh Plus 75d.

We use the Florida string-weaving (or basket-weaving) technique to support our plants. More about that task in future.

Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In March we will sow our hoophouse cucumbers and squash, and our outdoor peppers, eggplant, maincrop tomatoes, and our first outdoor zucchini and summer squash. And some non-workhorse crops. Also, we start our sweet potato slips. I covered growing sweet potato slips in another post. On March 24 we start our chard, as already mentioned.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in March

Collards and Kale can be harvested outdoors here in March, from overwintered plants. This past fall, we were late getting our kale established and the combination of a mild December and a cold January has damaged them badly. We had 3 nights in January down to 10°F (-12°C). Normally we can harvest those beds once a week each in March. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one!

Garlic scallions prepared for sale. Typepad.com

Garlic scallions are ready to harvest here from mid-March. These baby garlic plants offer a welcome change form leafy greens and root vegetables. We start to dig the plants once the leaves have reached 7” (18 cm). Wash and trim, cook and enjoy! Yes, you can eat them raw if you like! Some years we have made a big planting, and it has provided for us into May (when they are starting to bulb).

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in March

Our Red and White Russian kales are now producing well. These are Siberian-type kales, that keep growing (a bit!) in cold weather. We harvest the outer leaves and stand them on end in a bucket in a little water. The wilt very easily, so we try to keep them in the shade and get them to the cooler promptly.

White Russian kale ready for harvest in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

Bulls blood beet greens, chard, and some greens not in our Workhorse group, (turnip greens, and spinach) are still going strong. Our experimental carrots are still doing OK, although I’m not a fan of giving them hoophouse space for such a long time with no harvests. I think we would have done better to harvest them in December. The foliage is getting bedraggled, and I fear the roots are getting woody and less sweet. This is all an experiment by one of the others on the crew, who will be studying the results.

Workhorse Crops from Storage in March

In March we can eat carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and cabbage from storage, while they last. We do still have potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Also we have frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

Garlic beds next to rowcovered broccoli beds, under a stormy sky.
Photo Wren Vile

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for March: DIY Weather Forecasting

Learn your local weather patterns by keeping records of daily max and min temperatures and rainfall, and watching what happens.

Our mid-Atlantic climate is controlled by three weather systems, mainly by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer, and recurrent waves of cold Canadian air in winter.

Rain (statistically fairly evenly distributed throughout the year in our county) has slight peaks in January, February and March and again in early June and August.

Some parts of our area can experience long periods of drought: September-November is the drier season but it’s also the hurricane season, so the net result is very variable.

We use Wunderground forecasts, but subtract 5F° (2.5C°) from their forecast night lows for our nearest town, and mentally downgrade the chance of rain by 10%, as rain often passes us by as it scoots along the river valley north of us. 3/30 pm in winter is a good time to look at the night forecast.

WeatherSpark is a great resource. You can enter your zipcode or town and discover a large range of charts and graphs about weather in your area. It will help you learn what to expect.

Immature frosty cabbage. Photo Lori Katz

As for predicting frost, here are some of the factors to consider, that make frost more likely here:

  • If the date is after 10/14 or before 4/30 (ie within the average range for frosts here)
  • If the Wunderground forecast low for Louisa Northside is 37°F (3°C) or less.
  • If the daytime high temperature was less than 70°F (21°C).
  • If the temperature at sunset is less than 50°F (10°C).
  • If the sky is clear.
  • If the soil is dry and cool.
  • If the moon is full or new.
  • If there is little or no breeze, although if temperatures are falling fast, the wind is from NW and the sky is clear, then polar air may be moving in, and we’ll get a hard freeze.
  • If the dew point forecast is low, close to freezing, a frost is more likely. Frost is unlikely if the dew point is 43°F (6°C) or more.

More on Insectary Flowers; Vegetable Crop Resources, Especially Weeds

 

Borage flowers attract many beneficial insects. Spot the honeybee! Photo Raddysh Acorn

More on Insectary Flowers (to attract beneficial insects)

A reader responded to my post Growing flowers to attract aphid predators in early spring

“Isn’t too cold for the predators to be around, Pam? unless they hibernated in the greenhouse. but even so, it’s still cold in there at night. We have some aphids too in the tatsoi and some of the lettuce, so thank you for all the tips, and the life cycle. I had not quite realized that the cycle was so short. I grow borage in the hoophouse but in the ground – the plants get large and gorgeous with clouds of blue flowers in March and April – much bigger and healthier than anything I try to grow outside. The honeybees absolutely love it and they attract are a lot of other insects too.”

Yes, it has been still too cold for predatory insects to be around, until this week, when ladybugs greet us around every corner. Our idea with the flowering plants was that by starting the plants in the fall, we’d have actual flowers earlier than if we started in “spring”, and that perhaps the extra stresses would even cause the plants to flower earlier. Apart from the borage, none of the others have flowered yet (Feb 23). We likely need to fine tune our sowing dates. We sowed at the very beginning of September and the very end of October. That two-month gap probably has better sowing dates! We noticed that some of our plants were not very cold-hardy. Some died and some had to be pruned of dead bits. Since then, we started more flowers in our greenhouse on February 1. Another thing we’re noticing since early February is that the plants in pots dry out very fast. It’s probably better to get the flowers in the ground in the hoophouse and greenhouse as soon as they are big enough, as suggested by the results of my reader quoted above, with borage.We had thought that having them in pots would enable us to move them into trouble spots.

Vegetable Crop Resources, Especially Weeds

Spiny amaranth – a weed to exterminate by careful pulling.
Photo Pam Dawling

A newly released handbook from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), Manage Weeds On Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies by Charles L. Mohler, John R. Teasdale and Antonio DiTommaso, is set to help us all. I haven’t read it yet (although I am looking forward to that!), so this is not a review, But these are three big names in weed science, and SARE is well-known for providing solid information on sustainable farming.

Silver Queen sweet corn with a wilting pulled amaranth plant in the center
Photo Kathryn Simmons

I had the great good fortune to attend a workshop by Chuck Mohler years ago, and got some realizations that forever changed my approach to weeds. Top of the list is that some weeds, such as pigweed (amaranth species), don’t distribute any seeds until they have grown very big. Until that point they are not threatening next year’s farming efforts. We used to get huge pigweed plants in our sweet corn, and fatalistically did nothing once we were in there harvesting, somehow believing it was “too late”. No, it’s not! They hadn’t seeded. We started to make a practice of pulling the huge pigweed every two days while harvesting corn. Often it was necessary to stand on the base of the corn plant to hold it in place, while pulling the weed. Then all we had to do was drop the pigweed between the rows. Sweet corn ripens in hot weather and the weeds soon died, rather than re-rooting. All those big leaves sucked the moisture right out of the plants. Be extra careful if you have spiny amaranth. We have twice eliminated this weed form our gardens, by diligent hand-pulling, only to have it reappear a few years later!

Galinsoga – a fast growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil.
Photo Wren Vile

Conversely, galinsoga forms seeds very soon after germinating, while still small. This weed is one to strike early and repeatedly. It readily re-roots in damp soil. Our strategy when we are too late to hoe and have to hand-pull them, is to shake off as much soil as possible, then to either twist and break the stem (if there are not many), or “shingle” the weeds, laying them down with the roots of one on top of the leaves of the previously pulled plant, providing a surface of roots all exposed to the air, and none touching the soil. This works quite well. Timely hoeing is much better, of course!

Manage Weeds has chapters on How to Think About Weeds, Cultural Weed Management, Mechanical and Other Physical Weed Management Methods, Profiles of successful managers,  and then the alphabetical rogues gallery of grass weeds and broadleaf weeds.

This book and all the online information from SARE is free of charge. You can buy print copies if that suits you better. Other good resources from SARE, while you’re at their website, include several other books:

Building Soils for Better Crops

Managing Cover Crops Profitably For many of us, this is the “Cover Crops Bible”

Systems Research for Agriculture

Crop Rotation on Organic Farms 

There are also podcasts, bulletins, videos, Topic Rooms and interactive pages to explore.

Winter Vegetable Production Methods

For those who missed the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture conference, here is my slideshow Winter Vegetable Production Methods, From the Field to the Hoophouse

Winter Vegetable Production Methods, From the Field to the Hoophouse Dawling 60 mins 2022 2.11 9am

Some Highlights of the PASA Conference

I enjoyed attending the in-person conference of Pasa Sustainable Agriculture. This is the first conference I’ve been to in person in two whole years. PASA did a lot to ensure the conference was as Covid-safe as possible. They limited the number of attendees (there were still plenty to ensure lots of chances to exchange information). Everyone had to test on their day of travel to the conference, and speakers had to test every day of speaking. For me that was all three days. Everyone was masked, nearly all with KN95 “real” masks. The hotel housekeeping staff only came in after we left. (We could have requested the service, but, heck, I can make my own bed!) In the workshop rooms, the chairs were spaced 6 ft apart. The trade show had wide aisles, and meals could be taken out of the dining room to a quiet spot. Just getting to be there was a big highlight for me! I left feeling energized and enthused, and very grateful to the PASA team for preparing such a successful event.

There were four sessions of workshops each day, with one-hour breaks between, allowing time to visit uncrowded trade booths, catch up with old friends, and make new ones. We were well-supplied with snacks and beverages during the breaks. There were socials with more snacks at the end of the day.

I did have trouble with the conference app, but then, my phone is limited in what it can do. Likewise I failed to upload my slideshows to the platform, so I ran them off my flashdrive. My pdf handouts did make it onto the app, so if you wanted one of my handouts, you can find it there and here:

Young Yukina Savoy plants.
Photo Ethan Hirsh
Optimize your Asian Greens Production Dawling PASA handout 2022 2.10 9am
Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling
Winter Vegetable Production Methods From the Field to the Hoophouse Dawling 2022 2.11 9am 6 page handout
Sweet potatoes in storage. An ideal crop for winter meals, as they store at room temperature for a long time, maybe seven or eight months.
Photo Pam Dawling
Growing Sweet Potatoes from Start to Finish Dawling 4 pg handout 2022 2.12 11am.docx

Each of the ten workshop sessions had a choice of eight or nine workshops. I had thought I might hunker down in my hotel room when I wasn’t speaking, to minimize my chance of catching Covid, but as permaculture author Darrell Frey said “This feels safer than going to the grocery store!”

I enjoyed several workshops presented by others, including:

On-Farm Experience with Organic No-Till

Sam Malriat from Rodale

No-Till sequesters carbon in the soil, but simply never tilling does not improve the soil. Chemical no-till uses lots of herbicide. Don’t be obsessive about no-till. Shallow tillage can be a responsible choice, as incorporation of organic matter is valuable. Adding cover crops, compost or manure, grazing, and a good crop rotation, can increase the OM, and thus increase the soil water capacity enormously.

Crimson clover cover crop
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

To overcome the challenges of no-till, you need a very good cover crop stand that will provide a thick mulch when terminated; a competitive cash crop; a way to plant into the residue, and a back-up plan in case one of the requirements doesn’t pan out.

Sowing corn into rolled and crimped hairy vetch does not work well, because corn is a heavy feeder and not very competitive. Better is to undersow the corn at V5 or V6 (stages of vegetative growth) with white clover or crimson clover in September. It’s important to get good seed to soil contact. The clover grows when the corn dies. This is in Rodale Country in PA. If the clover can be left growing until the second year, cabbage can be transplanted into it. His slides showed the success of this system after an unpromising start.

Pumpkins can be direct seeded in crimped and rolled (or mowed) winter rye. There is a lot of difference in thickness of the mulch between rye sown in August and October.

Organic Solutions: Pest Management

Drew Smith and Emily Gantz from Rodale

There was a big drop in pesticide use in the mid 1990’s as GMO crops came in. But then a big uptick as resistance to the GMO crops developed. Currently, almost all non-Organic seeds contain neo-nicotinoids, even though they provide no economic benefits.

Crop rotation is the single most important thing you can do to manage pests. Drew showed us the IPM triangle, and we worked our way up. To succeed in preventing pest infestations, planning of all aspects of growing the crop is vital. As is regular scouting of each crop. Cultural controls include the physical aspects of the planting. Other physical controls include mechanical aspects of growing the crop. Biological controls include encourage beneficials, releasing biological agents. Greater biodiversity provides greater stability. See Cornell Entomology https://biocontrol.entomolgy.cornell.edu/index.php

Native Pollinators: Identification, Habitat Needs and Resources

Sarah Koenig and Ryan Stauffer from the Audubon Society

A bee pollinating squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

There are 4000 species of bees in the US (20,000 globally). 70% of food crop species rely on honeybee pollination to some extent. Native bees mostly nest in the ground. Don’t kill them by compaction (or weedkillers!). Use native flowers to attract native pollinators.

Using Tarps to Reduce Tillage on Small Vegetable Farms

Ryan Maher, Cornell Small Farms & Bob Tuori, Nook and Cranny Farm

More growers are trying tarping for weed control, killing cover crops, maintaining a good soil temperature, avoiding crusting and compaction, keeping beds dry enough for planting and reducing dependence on single-use plastics. Challenges include the heavy weight, the aggravation of using sand bags, especially in windy places, ponding of rainwater runoff, and the frustration of providing perfect vole habitat.

After 28 days in summer, you gain 200 GDDs. Plant-available soil N increases by 2 or 3 times from the plant residues. How soon does it dissipate after removing the tarp? Tarping for 3 weeks after shallow tilling kills the living weeds, improves crop establishment and reduces weed emergence by up to 83%. Think of tarps as a tillage tool! Do plan for weed management after removing the tarp. Pigweed and amaranth can become worse!

We haven’t tried tarps yet. Early September photo of hay mulched June-planted potatoes.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Bob Tuori spoke about a SARE trial of tarping in the Northeast. He compared potatoes grown with and without prior tarping, both patches with and without hay mulch after planting. The tarped area needed sandbags every 10-15 ft. The tarp was removed June 4, weeds were counted June 24, then the patches were mulched. (I hope I got that right). I did not write down all the results, but the only-mulch area grew 17.4 lbs per hour of work, and the tarp-only area grew 13 lbs per hour of work. See the SARE report for the details.

Harvesting Techniques for Small- to Mid-Scale Vegetable Farms

Julie Henninger of Good Keeper Farm and Matthew Lowe

We saw good tool and equipment storage, and learned the benefits of growing head lettuce on landscape fabric (no rotten bottom leaves, no weeds). Muir is their favorite lettuce for spring, summer and fall. At $3/head, a 95ft row planted at 9” spacing earns them $1300, if they have a 15% loss.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

We learned the importance of sharp knives or scissors for cutting baby greens with minimal cell damage and browning. Theirs sells at $12/pound. They grow Salanova, which brings in $1140/bed at each cutting. If they cut whole heads, these bring in $1476 per bed.

For loose carrots, they sow rows in pairs 2” apart, with 6 rows on a 30” bed, using a stale seed bed and flaming. They sell 1000 lbs per week. Julie Henninger emphasized not wasting time by setting the carrots down in piles. Minimize the number of times each crop is touched. They have modified a cement mixer to wash 25-45 lbs at a time.

Training and communication are also very important. New workers must master the task first, before chatting. Minimize distractions. Send crews out with a strong role model each, to keep the crew working at a sustainable pace. If working with a crew with diverse abilities (eg children), provide a clear short task with a beginning and an end, to give a good sense of achievement.

I also attended the Plenary, Why Is Farming So Hard & What Can We Do About It?  on Friday with Brennan Washington, Sarah Mock and Dr Jessica Gordon Nembhard, who were livestreamed and recorded.

I participated in the book swap, setting out some spare handouts I had in exchange for a couple of magazines. I enjoyed the Farm Innovations poster display of tools and techniques to improve production or save resources (or both). I liked that previous years’ posters were available as pages in several ring binders.

In the Trade Show there were 60-odd vendors. I checked in with Nifty Hoops, a company who will deliver a hoophouse and put it up for you in one day, or help you put it up, teaching as you build. We put ours up ourselves, in 2003, and we were inexperienced and slow, and had to work on it in the (hot) afternoons, after spending the mornings farming. At events when I talk about hoophouse growing, I’ve sometimes been asked if there are companies who will erect hoophouses (high tunnels), so it’s good to be able to pass on this contact. Nifty Hoops also sell interesting components such as DC-powered inflation blowers. (734) 845-0079.  They have videos on their Facebook page

I picked up some publications from ATTRA, who have supplied me with great vegetable growing info since before the internet. (We used to call them up and ask for publications to be sent in the mail).

The Mini-Treffler manual harrow

I also was fascinated by the Mini-Treffler, from OrganicMachinery.net, a manual rolling tine harrow for crops in beds.

  • The TINY Treffler is a hand drawn harrow with the working width of 80cm (2 ft 7 in), 100 (3 ft 4 in) and 130cm (4 ft 3 in)
  • Shares the same principle with the big Treffler harrows: in the row harrowing, adjustable tension and the patented tine suspension
  • Each tine follows the contour of the field and the downward pressure remains constant
  • The TINY is effective throughout the growing season in greenhouses or for small enterprises in vegetable production or seed propagation
  • Wheels extendable from one or both sides to straddle a bed

I gathered literature for our garden crew as well as our dairy, orchard and poultry people, and an assortment of free pens, notebooks, stickers.

PASA also had a virtual conference, spread out over a couple of weeks in January. I’m sure there was great information there too, but our rural internet is not up to the task of virtual conferencing, so I’m in the dark. Pasa intends to keep a virtual conference next year as part of the mix – it works better for farmers who cannot easily leave the farm, it reduces the carbon footprint of travel, and saves on travel and hotel or BnB costs. Maybe next year I’ll have better internet. Maybe Covid will have receded. This year’s conference was great! I look forward to next year’s!

 

Growing flowers to attract aphid predators in early spring

Borage flowering in our hoophouse in January, among the lettuces. Photo Pam Dawling

Last July, when sheltering indoors from the heat, planning next winter and spring’s hoophouse crops, I researched and wrote up Controlling Aphids in Early Spring

I also have a post (another July information-gathering project!) about Insectary Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects outdoors and in, at various times of year. At the end of April we sow several plug flats of different flowers to plant out in Insectary Circles at the ends of our outdoor raised beds. We hope to find a similar approach that will work earlier in the year for hoophouse and greenhouse aphids.

Ladybugs of Maine
Poster from the Lost Ladybug Project

Aphid predatory insects such as ladybugs, lacewings, aphid  parasites, damsel bugs, braconid wasps, rove beetles, syrphid flies, and spined soldier beetles are attracted to plants with small flat open flowers, like alyssum, dill, yarrow, buckwheat, sunflowers, and cosmos. This is a rather loose and general statement. On a big scale this is known as Farmscaping, and you can read about it in a publication from ATTRA; Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control . You can use this publication to make a specific plan to tackle particular pests. Ladybugs are a good general help because they eat the eggs of many different pest species. Organic Integrated Pest Management from ATTRA gives wider information about managing pests organically.

 

Ladybugs of South Dakota
Lost Ladybug Project

eOrganic has many articles on Insect Management in Organic Farming Systems, that explain ways to tackle pest problems with ecologically-based practices, starting with actions chosen to reduce the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops.

Aphids can get out of control in early spring in our greenhouse and hoophouse, as they become active before their native predators, such as ladybugs, emerge from hibernation. We have a particular problem in our hoophouse and in our greenhouse on the eggplant, pepper and tomato transplants from mid-April to mid- to late-May depending when we manage to get them under control. We are implementing our plan that we made in the summer.

Insectary flowers against aphids

Meanwhile in January we got bad aphids on the lettuce and, of our flowers to attract beneficials, borage was the only one flowering. It was not enough. We did three sprays of soapy water at 5 day intervals to kill the aphids.

Pepper plant with aphids. Photo Pam Dawling

There are many kinds of aphids. The lifecycle of aphids starts in spring with eggs hatching into wingless females that give birth via parthenogenesis to more females. Within a week, one female can produce 100 clones, which can repeat the process at the age of one week.  This continues until adverse weather or predators trigger production of a generation of winged female aphids that moves to new plants. Later in summer male aphids are born and females lay fertilized eggs that overwinter on host plants, to hatch the following spring.

This week, I want to give a progress report on the flowers we are growing. The chart gives details of the ones we chose, where we found the seed, and which months we decided to plant them in.

September-sown Borage flowering in our hoophouse in January. Photo Pam Dawling

The first planting, in September, was of borage and shungiku (Chrysanthemum greens) only. We hoped these would give us early flowers to start the program. Those plants became big enough to transplant in the ground and in 8” (20 cm) pots. We thought having some in large pots would enable us to move them to the trouble spots.

September-sown shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

What I have noticed is that plants in pots dry out very quickly in both the hoophouse and greenhouse! The shungiku have looked close to flowering several times, and the accidentally dry conditions should have helped them to panic and bloom, but they haven’t. The borage flowered with pompom-like clusters, much more compact than spring outdoor borage does.

October-sown Meadowfoam plants in our hoophouse in January. Photo Pam Dawling

The second planting, in late October, consisted of Meadowfoam, Tidy Tips, Phacelia and Yarrow. Those plants are still small, as I write this at the beginning of February.

October-sown Phacelia in January. Photo Pam Dawling

They have been potted up from cells to 4” (10 cm) pots, and some are ready for bigger pots. No flowers, no help against January lettuce aphids.

October-sown Tidy Tips(and more phacelia) in our hoophouse in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

The third sowing has just happened, on February 1, and includes borage, shungiku, Meadowfoam, Phacelia, Tidy Tips and yarrow. I forgot to sow alyssum, so that will be a little later.

Slow-growing October-sown yarrow plants in January, using space in the path between lettuce beds. Photo Pam Dawling

The September-sown borage and shungiku both had some troubles with cold temperatures during January. We had a mild December, then a January with three non-consecutive nights at 10F (-12C). In our double-poly hoophouse, we roll out rowcover at night if it threatens to be 8F (-13C) or lower outdoors. That was about 6 times so far, but 10F (-12C) has been our coldest. Some of each of the borage and shungiku got cold-damaged, and some got rowcover-damaged (hasty pulling!)

So far, no beneficials have been seen on the borage flowers, and no aphids have been killed as a result. We’re still hopeful, especially about reducing aphid numbers on the peppers. More progress reports to come!

Flowers Against Aphids! Photo Pam Dawling

 

 

Workhorse Crops for February

 

White Russian kale in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

This is my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as January.

At last the daylight is getting noticeably longer, although we still have very cold weather. We reach 10 hours of daylight on January 21, and 11 hours on February 20. In our hoophouse we are clearing crops before they bolt, and planting some quick crops before the warm weather ones go in in March and April. In the greenhouse we are starting seedlings and clearing lettuce that is thinking about bolting. Our seed orders are arriving and we are finishing up our various planting schedules and crop maps.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in February

Young carrots after their first thinning.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

We sow carrots in mid-February, and again at the end of February. Yes, they take a long time to emerge when the soil is still so cold. But it’s a task we can get done now, and won’t have to do later, when we are busier. Carrots take 50 days to emerge at 41˚F (5˚C), (although of course it will have warmed up some before 50 days pass!); 17 days at 50˚F(10˚C); 10 days at 59˚F (15˚C); 7 days at 68˚F (20˚C); 6 at 77˚F (25˚C); 5 at 86˚F (30˚C) and don’t try hotter than that!

An EarthWay seeder, widely used for sowing small seeds like carrots.

We use an EarthWay seeder and the Light Carrot plate (although that still puts out lots of seed!) We can’t really justify the cost of a precision seeder like the Jang, for the amount we’d use it.

Asparagus

If you are planning to start a new asparagus patch, early spring is the best time to plant. This will give them as much time as possible that first year, to grow strong roots. The usual suggestion is to plant at least 10 crowns per diner.

Most growers purchase two-year-old crowns, although it is possible to grow your own asparagus from seed, if you can find seed of your preferred variety. The old OP varieties are still available, but newer all-male hybrids yield far more heavily, often more than twice as much. We chose Jersey Giant, a male hybrid resistant to asparagus rust and well-adapted to the mid-Atlantic. It produces big, tender, succulent spears each spring.

The best soil temperature for planting asparagus is 50°F (10°C) –  planting in cold soil encourages disease and offers no advantage. Remove shipped asparagus roots from the box as soon as they arrive, and untie the bundles. Don’t water them. If you need to store the roots longer than two weeks, spread them in trays or crates, in a cool, fairly dry place, until planting conditions are right. You can read more about growing asparagus in Sustainable Market Farming, and my recent article in Growing for Market magazine.

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons
Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In our greenhouse we have started a couple of flats of fast-maturing cabbage. We like Farao (60d) and Early Jersey Wakefield (63d). Both numbers are seed to harvest. Subtract 20 days if counting from transplanting to maturity.

Open flats of cabbage seedlings. The nearer flat is a 3″ deep seed flat with four rows of seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We have already sown our kale and collards for outdoor spring crops, in our hoophouse. Here’s the info on that: On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed. We will transplant these outdoors as bare root transplants in mid-March.

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

We don’t sow our chard and leaf beet until 3/24, because we want them for summer greens, after the kale, collards, broccoli and Asian greens have all bolted. But you can start them earlier, if you want earlier harvests. I’ll say more next month about chard, but if you want to get a start sooner, know that the seed will germinate from 41°F (5°C) to 95°F (35°C), and the best temperature is 86°F (30°C), when it needs only 4 days to pop up.

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in February

We do sow a few hoophouse greens successions during February, a row of snap peas, some lettuce mix, but nothing that qualifies as a Workhorse.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in February

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

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested outdoors here in February. About once per bed during each of the coldest months, January and February. We’ll be able to harvest those beds once a week each in March. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one! I actually prefer to get all our carrots safely harvested and stored, rather than have them still in the ground, where more things can go wrong! We have had 3 nights in January down to 10°F (-12°C), and I don’t think even Deadon cabbage would survive that many cold nights! Some of our Tadorna leeks are looking quite damaged. We don’t usually have that problem.

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in February

Bulls blood beet greens, chard, and some greens not in our Workhorse group, (turnip greens, Yukina Savoy, spinach) are still going strong. Our experimental carrots are still doing OK, although I’m not a fan of giving them hoophouse space for such a long time with no harvests. I notice I’m slipping into mentioning non-workhorses more often now the winter is biting us.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

At last we can start harvesting our Russian kales in the hoophouse. We were late getting them established last fall, and growth has been slow. Now many of the other greens (Tokyo bekana, Napa cabbage, pak choy, the first tatsoi and the first mizuna) have all been eaten, we are very ready for the kale. Russian kale wilts easily and is best harvested into buckets as if a bouquet of flowers, with a little water in the bucket.

Workhorse Crops from storage in February

From storage in February we can eat carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash. Also frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for February: Phenology

Chickweed flowers.
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/S/W-CP-SMED-FL.006.html
Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

I wrote about seed germination temperatures and phenology signs in April 2021. I have an earlier post about phenology here, and one about Harbinger Weeds of Spring.

Certain natural phenomena are related to the accumulated warmth of the season (rather than, say, the day-length), and by paying attention to nature’s calendar you will be in sync with actual conditions, which vary from year to year, and are changing over a longer time-scale.

You can learn when to plant by natural signs. For instance, we sow sweet corn when white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. I got excited one weekend (April 10) when I saw wind-driven twigs on the ground with oak leaves definitely bigger than squirrels’ ears. But they were Red Oak, not White Oak.

Keeping your own phenology record is a useful guide to when to plant certain crops, and a way to track how fast the season is progressing right where you are. Phenology involves recording when certain wild and cultivated flowers bloom, seedlings emerge, or various insects are first seen. These natural events can substitute for Growing Degree Day calculations. Your phenology record will help build resilience in the face of climate change. Ours might be interesting to you, but unless you live in central Virginia, you can’t use our dates. You do need to make your own. This can be a great home-schooling project, or a crew I-Spy competition, or a calming end-of-day walk around your gardens.

Phenology Record