2023-2024 Vegetable Growing Conference Tips 4

 

Alkindus lettuce from High Mowing Seeds

This is the last of my series on tips I learned at sustainable farming conferences the past winter. The sessions reported on here were at PASA.

Harvesting Techniques for Small and Medium Scale Farms

This was presented by Julie Henninger and Andy Russell of Goodkeeper Farm in Gardners, PA. They run a Full Diet CSA, with 7.5 acres of vegetables including five high tunnels and outdoor vegetables, and turkeys, cows and pigs. Their well-organized workshop covered their Top Crops (head lettuce, baby greens, carrots, bunched greens and roots); Pre-Harvest Prep (check list, harvest pouch, rubber bands, sharp knives, bins, other equipment); Techniques; Post-Harvest Work; Pitfalls to Avoid and Meet the Farmers.

For a harvesting pouch they use a nailbag that clips on the waistband, to carry their knives and rubber bands. For harvesting crops, they recommend the Hoss harvest bag. Both leave both hands free for picking.

Hoss Harvesting Satchel leaves hands free.

Goodkeeper Farm practices flaming or tarping to deal with weeds before they become a threat to their crops. All their lettuce is transplanted using a paperpot transplanter. This Japanese designed implement is imported to the US and is now also being made in the US. They favor the red butterhead Alkindus lettuce. See photo above.

For carrots, they grow 6 rows on a 30” bed, spaced as 3 pairs of rows with 2” between the pair. As they harvest the carrots by hand, they broadcast rye, to get the cover crop established as early as possible, and keep live roots in the ground for the most time. They have made a carrot washer from a cement mixer, reducing the size of the belt to slow the machine down. See Root Washers for Produce Farms.

Root Washers for Produce Farms, from University of Vermont Extension Ag Engineering

Top of their tips for techniques is to ensure each person masters the tasks first, limiting distractions. A strong role model demonstrates the technique and the expected pace. After getting those two aspects as second nature, the learner can start to have conversations and other distractions.

In the Pitfalls to Avoid, they list damaging the crops while harvesting, overloading harvest bins, using the wrong harvest gear, failing to invest in good appropriate equipment, dull cutting tools, and actions such as gathering different size bunches, that require re-bunching – try not to need to touch the crops again after harvesting!

Winter Market Gardening

by Catherine Sylvestre, the farm manager at Ferme de Quatre Temps, in Quebec, and co-author (with Jean-Martin Fortier) of the book Winter Market Gardener. Read my review here.

Cover of The Winter Market Gardener

Catherine gave both an introductory presentation and an advanced session with an excellent handout. At their zone 5b teaching farm, they have 27,000 sq ft of sheltered growing: 4 high tunnels, 3 greenhouses and one multi-bay shelter. They offer a two year program for students wanting to learn sustainable farming. They close for a two week break over the winter holidays, and plan their crops to be ready for harvest either side of that break. They need to sow in June for harvests before the break. They have five Principles of Winter Gardening:

  1. Use simple shelters, plastic-covered tunnels, for best profitability
  2. Add minimal heating. By adding 3 Celsius degrees (5.4 F degrees), they double their yields, and avoid using rowcover. Evening out the temperature between day and night reduces stress on the plants. Nutrients are more active if the soil is warmer.
  3. Increase the cold tolerance of the crops. This increases the sugars in the cells, making them more cold-tolerant from then on. Increase the airflow and expose plants to cold temperatures. They start this hardening off at the first frosts, and find that 7-10 days of chilling is needed to create a lasting result.
  4. Be aware that light is the limiting factor (especially for spinach). Their light in November is only one quarter of what they get in August. They plan to grow many crops to size in September and October. Although Asian greens can make some growth Nov-Feb, many crops will not. The ratio depends on your latitude, and is less extreme where we are in Virginia. Grow crops that are less affected by light shortage. Adding artificial lighting is not financially worthwhile.
  5. Well, my notes don’t include #5! It was something to do with appropriate crops, I think. Crops they can grow under shelters with no additional heating: spinach, baby kale, tatsoi, mustards, corn salad (mâche), claytonia, if T19 rowcovers are added for temperatures below 0°C (32°F). They use two layers of rowcover for temperatures below -5°C (23°F) and three layers below -10°C (14°F). They use minimal heating for chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, kale, lettuces, turnips, radishes, arugula, sorrel, celery, cilantro, parsley. You could consider soil-heating with PEX tubing filled with glycol (poisonous), 24″ (60 cm) deep in the soil, below cultivation level. At Quatre Temps they use above ground perforated polyethylene tubing in the pathways (it’s OK to step on it, it’s not high pressure).
Tatsoi at Twin Oaks ready for harvesting of whole plants.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the advanced session, we learned more details of their techniques and systems.

  • They start seeds for their winter crops in large cells (4″, 10 cm) so that they can keep their summer crops in the ground for 1-3 weeks longer. When they transplant these, they are careful about spacing, aiming to increase the light falling on each leaf. They plant the crops twice as close in the row, with double-wide spaces between rows, compared to warmer, more light-filled times of year.
  • They irrigate twice a week for 20 minutes, but I don’t know the flow rate of their driptape. From November to January they do not irrigate at all, as growth is so slow.
  • They fertilize in two doses, a little at planting time and more in February, using a mixture of compost, chicken manure and cotton meal, with the addition of feather mela in February. Bacterial activity increase with soil temperature. “Fertilizing cold soils is mysterious. . .”
  • Diseases in winter are mostly fungal. Use strong transplants, with a Rootshield dip before transplanting. They open the sidewalls every 4 hours to remove excess humidity and pay close attention to airflow. If needed, they use Contans.
  • Aphids survive at 5°F (-15°C). At 50°F (10°C) an adult female can create 20 offspring (per day?). At Quatre Temps, they use a three week winter break with no crops to freeze out their shelters. It gets down to -4°C (25°F). They disinfect in spring, removing all plant material, cleaning the structure itself with water and SaniDate (although it also kills beneficials).
  • For heating, a heat pump is very expensive but very efficient. An electric coil is less expensive. A climate battery (aerothermal energy) costs $20,000 and includes 24” (60 cm) diameter pipes deep in the soil, and a large fan. They use one to pre-heat air for the air-tube heating system. Something most of us can only dream about.
  • After the winter break, they direct sow new crops. To provide food for April, they plan gradual crop successions to bridge the gap between winter and spring. This also evens the workload.

Senposai is our star of Asian greens at Twin Oaks. Here’s a bed of senposai outdoors in spring. it grows really well in the winter hoophouse. Photo Kathryn SimmonsCrops they have been trialing include perennial sorrel, which regrows early (mid-Feb); celery and parsley (both very successful winter crops); Tokyo bekana, senposai and komatsuna (grow well in low light); green onions in fall and spring (don’t do well with light levels they get in winter); chrysanthemums regrow well, even in low light.

Vegetable Growing Tips, Winter 2023-2024. Part 2 VABF-SFOP Summit

VABF/SFOP Summit conference January 2024

 At the VABF-SFOP Summit in January, I attended the half-day intensive by Jean-Martin Fortier, Market Gardening 2.0. He covered a brief description of what market gardening is, five different crops that are most profitable, and three management tools for profitable farming. He briefly covered his career from 2004 establishing the 1.5 acre vegetable farm La Grelinette with his wife Maud-Hélène Desroches; his 2015 move to run a training farm school, La Ferme des Quatre-Temps,  with 10 2-year trainees per year; his 2023 move to set up a farm-to-table restaurant, Espace Old Mill, very close to home.

Jean-Martin Fortier with his broadfork.

J-M’s five crops for optimal profitability are summer squash, greenhouse tomatoes, garlic, carrots, small eggplants.

For squash, J-M recommends Romanesco, Safari, Gold Mine and Zephyr, harvesting each of their two plantings (in Quebec) for 10-12 weeks. They plant on landscape fabric with melted holes. The squash are netted until flowering. His workshop included all the details. See J-M’s video about using insect netting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWI30jSQa40. He recommends three types of net: 25 gm net, 47 gm net, and the newer heavy-duty woven net, all from ProtekNet. DuboisAg.com.

Marbonne tomato.
Photo credit Johnny’s Selected Seeds

For greenhouse tomatoes, which are 10% of their sales, they grow Marbonne, Margold, Aurea, Big Dena, Marnero and Beorange, all grafted at 4 weeks of age onto Maxifort or Trust rootstock. This is a highly technical crop, grown with some heating, harvested from early June to October. The spacing is intensive, one row per 30” (75 cm) bed, plants every 13” (33 cm), with the centers pinched out to produce double-header plants. The tomato vines are trained to wires, and the lower-and-lean system is used.

The famous Music garlic.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

For garlic, they grow Music hardneck and Siberian softneck, saving their own seed to avoid buying seed lots infested with disease or pests. They plant 2” (5 cm) deep using a dibbler, 3 rows per 30” (75 cm) bed, with plants 5” (14 cm) apart. They combat the leek moths with Tricho-Gard cards containing pupae of the parasitoid Trichogramma wasp. Their garlic sells at $3-$5 per bulb.

Napoli carrots. Credit Johnny’s Selected Seeds

For carrots, they grow Adelaide for earlies, Napoli for fall and winter. They found the tops of Mokum too weak. They rowcover the bed for a week before sowing, to pre-germinate weeds. After removing the rowcover and flaming, they sow the carrots with a Jang seeder. They sow some beets as an indicator, flaming the bed as soon as the beets emerge. For cultivating between the rows of carrots, they use Biodisks on a Terrateck wheelhoe. The bio-disc tool consists of two parabolic discs and two straight discs. It provides precision weeding and hilling on rows on light soils. To harvest, one person loosens the carrots with a broadfork, two people pull bunches.

Fairy Tale Eggplant. Photo johnny’s Selected Seeds

For baby eggplants, they grow small fast-maturing varieties such as Fairy Tale, Orient Express, Orient Charm, Hansel and Nadia, on landscape fabric in an unheated caterpillar tunnel, 1 row per 30” bed, 18” in-row spacing. They transplant at 7-8 weeks, large plants just starting to flower.

Terrateck Biodiscs.
Photo Taerrateck

As well as the Jang seeder and Terrateck bio-disks, they recommend tarping, mini-tunnels, the flextine weeder, and a bubbler (Jacuzzi pump) in the wash tank.

J-M’s management tips include a Monday Morning Game Plan, touring the farm and listing the tasks; making a map and task calendar for every week; sharing the week’s task list with the crew on Monday afternoons, and finishing the day with a preview of the next day’s action list, which helps the crew be ready for an efficient start the next morning. Cap the number of hours of work expected each day. Cap the number of each plant you set out – don’t plant more hoping for the best – this adds costs! Every week, at a consistent time, hold a compulsory Roses, Thorns and Buds session for up to one hour, where each person takes a few uninterrupted minutes to describe their Rose highlight that week (something that made them excited, proud and happy); then the Thorns (something that left them sad, frustrated, angry and why) and finishing with the Buds (something they are looking forward to in the coming week). If a big issue comes up, you could go back to it after the round is completed.

I also attended a workshop on perennial cover crops, that I’ll go into details of in a future cover crops post. It was led by Cerruti R2 Hooks, Veronica Yurchak, from the Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, and Hanna Kahl of UC Davis.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore IPM Center has more information on IPM.

I also attended a workshop on Securing Organic Vegetable Production in Virginia Through Increased Disease Management, by Steve Rideout of Virginia Tech. His recent work has been on Septoria on cilantro and parsley, bacterial spot, bacterial speck and early blight on tomato, anthracnose on peppers, powdery mildew and downy mildew on squash.

Steve described the Disease Management Pyramid, with a base layer of the cropping system chosen. Once this is optimized cultural practices and disease-resistant varieties can be used to further reduce the chance of a disease. Chemical control is a last resort, if all else fails. Heat seed treatments can be used to prevent bacterial spot and bacterial speck. Rutgers has step-by-step instructions for avoiding bacterial canker of tomato including sanitation measures.  To reduce tomato diseases that are soil-borne, support the plants up off the ground, use mulch to prevent splash-back, remove the lower leaves of the plants, and use drip irrigation if possible.

Pepper anthracnose. Photo Bayer.

Pepper anthracnose is hard to control by any means, and some resistant varieties are low-yielding. A 2 or 3-year rotation, using certified seed, reducing humidity in the plant canopy (increasing airflow), removing infected fruit, and using mulch and drip can help.

Cucurbit powdery mildew and downy mildew are very different from each other. Downy mildew strikes cucumbers worst of all the cucurbits. There are two strains. Time your planting to avoid DM, by planting in spring in full sun. There is a Cucurbit DM Forecast Site, which shows the annual spread by county. (Nothing to see in February!). The main symptoms are leaf spots that are yellow turning brown on the upper surface and fuzzy on the underside. Steve recommended DMR401, DMR264, SV4179S, Bricky Brickyard?), Bristol and Common Wealth Seeds South Wind as varieties with best resistance.

Cucumber leaves with downy mildew.
Photo Research Gate.

Cucurbit PM does not trouble cucumbers as much as other cucurbits. It forms a sparse white dusty-looking coating, and does best on dry days with dewy nights of 6 hours or more. Better results are found with a homozygous rather than heterozygous resistant variety. Spraying with water can help, but don’t spray cucurbits with anything if the sir temperature is more than 90F. Sulfur, copper, M-Pede, Serenade and Regalia can help. M-Pede may also reduce pests including deer!

Virginia’s biggest pumpkin disease is Plectosporium blight, which can also affect cucumbers and squash, starting as tiny leaf spots, then scarring the leaf veins on the underside, and the stems. Look for resistant cultivars.

Broccoli head with Alternaria fungus. Photo UCANR

Stepping away from cucurbits and considering brassicas, especially broccoli, next. Alternaria lesions of concentric rings can be hidden in the broccoli crown. Bacterial Rot lesions are seen on the leaf margins, moving in as blocks of affected tissue. It smells bad. Some most-resistant varieties include Emerald Jewel, Green Magic, Marathon, Avenger, Vallejo. Also good are Gypsy, Belstar, Eastern Magic, Burney in hot weather. Expo, Montflor were also recommended. Fungicides are not very effective, but OSO (polyoxin zinc) is the best if you have to.

The Plant Diseases Clinic charges $25 per sample sent to them (this may vary from state to state). See the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations and the 2020 Southeastern Commercial Vegetable Crop Handbook and choose your Organic solutions from those resources.

This post is long enough! I also attended workshops on Meeting the Climate Challenge with Mark Schonbeck, and Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith. I hop to tell you more about those soon!

Rick and Janice Felker of Mattawoman Creek Farms on the Eastern Shore, VA extended an offer to provide a limited amount pf free assistance to farmers interested in learning more about their crop production and organic certification experiences. Contact Rick and Janice to find out if they still have spare time!

Vegetable Growing Tips from Conferences, Winter 2023-2024. Part 1 CFSA

 

A Spacemaster cucumber plant in our hoophouse on April 23.
Photo Pam Dawling

I love learning new things and getting tips for improving our vegetable production. My events page tells you about recent and upcoming conferences. After I get home from conferences, I usually need to dive back into work, and am in danger of ignoring things I learned. Hence this blogpost. I’ll pass tips on, and extract the gems from my hand-written notes, making it more likely I’ll do something useful with them!

CFSA SAC 2023 banner

In November 2023 I took part in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference. I went to an engaging workshop called On-Farm Cover Crops Research in the Carolinas by Justin Duncan from NCAT/ATTRA, Jason Lindsay from the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, and Steve McAllan, a last-minute substitute. I’ve got a blogpost brewing about native cover crops in vegetable production, so I’ll save the content for that post. Patrick Johnson also gave a presentation on native cover crops, which I’ll include more about in the promised post.

https://www.youtube.com/c/clem’sorganicgardens

I also participated in a workshop on Advanced Organic Weed Management for Vegetable Growers, given by Clem Swift of Clem’s Organic Gardens, from Pisgah Forest, NC, where they have 8 acres in field production of vegetables. I hadn’t realized the workshop was mostly machinery-focused, but I learned actionable tips anyway! I watched his video on potato planting, cultivation and harvest, which is similar to the way we grow potatoes. I learned a way of covering the edges of plastic mulch by walking backwards with one foot on the plastic to tension it, hoeing soil up onto the plastic. That sounds easier than our method using shovels, but sounds like it does require looser soil than we sometimes have where we use plastic. Clem has a well-organized system of first removing perennial weeds, then cultivating early and often to deal with annual weeds, including using a double-wheeled wheelhoe with a scuffle on either side of the row. Perhaps like one of these:

Double-wheeled double-scuffle wheelhoe. Hoss Tools
Double-wheel double-sweeps wheelhoe. Sweeps available as a conversion kit from Earth Tools.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a Wheelhoe Selection Guide in their Tool Library

Next I attended Precise Nutrient Management for Small-Scale Farms by Kyle Montgomery of Advancing Eco Agriculture. Kyle’s goal was to help us answer the question: How could marketable yields be significantly increased with minor changes to a fertility program? Plants have different nutrient requirements at different stages of growth. Sap analysis can show what the plant is taking out of the soil. In each 24 hour period, we want all soluble nitrogen to be converted to stable forms. This was something new for me to think about. I didn’t bring away anything specific to work on.

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

High Tunnel Cucumber Production by Joe Rowland, CFSA’s Organic Initiatives Coordinator, covered preliminary findings from year one of CFSA’s SARE-funded organic high tunnel cucumber project. They trialed 6 varieties of cucumbers grown on 2 different trellis types (drop lines vs Hortanova netting) to compare disease occurrence and severity and marketable yield. Three participating farms replicated the trial to see what works best throughout the region.

Excelsior pickling cucumber. Photo Johnny’s Seeds

Their standout varieties were Itachi, an Asian white slicer (low yield but good disease resistance), and Excelsior pickler (highest yield).

Itachi white Asian slicing cucumber. Johnny’s Seeds

Poniente (a parthenocarpic European slicer) had the most disease of the 6 in the trial; Shintokiwa had the least disease, but was a slow producer, with low yields. The dropline system uses a single leader, more clips, more pruning and twirling than the Hortanova, where two “rows” could be made per bed, training two leaders from each plant in a V. This gave good airflow, slowed down the height-increase compared to single leader plants, and enabled herbs to be intercropped. We grow a succession of five or six plantings of cucumber, mostly outdoors, sprawled on the ground. Only for the early crop does it seem worthwhile to us to grow them in the hoophouse. But I’ve no idea how our yield compares with trained high    tunnel cukes, and perhaps measuring it would lead me to a different plan!

 Poniente cucumber. Territorial Seeds. Note trellis.
Shintokiwa cucumber High Mowing Seeds

VABF and Pasa Conferences 2024

I’m busy getting ready for presenting three workshops in Roanoke at VABF, and two in Lancaster, PA at Pasa. I hope to meet some of you there.

January 2024 Event

Virginia Association for Biological Farming

and VSU Small Farm Outreach Program

January 19-21 2024

VABF/SFOP Summit conference January 2024
VABF-SFOP Summit

REGISTER HERE!  (at the bottom of their page)

The inaugural Virginia Association for Biological Farming-Small Farm Outreach Program Summit 2024 brings together farmers, gardeners, eaters, educators, industry professionals, and advocates of sustainable, biological, regenerative, and organic agriculture!

The three day Conference includes:  Full and Half Day Pre-Conference intensive workshops, 60+ sessions and workshops, presentations and panel discussions, 40+ tradeshow exhibitors, locally sourced farm meals and book signings. The Conference features a Youth & Teen Program, a Silent Auction and networking opportunities including regional networking meetings, and the Taste of Virginia Expo & Social! 

Learn more: VABF-SFOP Summit pre-conference sessions

Keynote Speakers

Jean-Martin Fortier

Jean-Martin (JM) Fortier is an organic farmer, author, educator and internationally recognized advocate for regenerative, human-scale and profitable agriculture. JM Fortier founded the Market Garden Institute. He is the author of The Market Gardener, and co-author with Catherine Sylvestre  of the Winter Market Gardener. His presentation is Friday 1-5 pm.

We regret to inform you that Niaz Dorry has had to cancel her keynote speech due to understandable personal reasons. Fortunately, she has kindly connected us to another exciting speaker, Ray Jeffers.

Ray Jeffers

Ray is a native of  Person County, NC, where he also operates the family’s century farm purchased by his great-grandfather in 1919. Previously Ray served for 12 years as an elected Person County Commissioner (2008-2020), and was most recently elected in 2022 to the North Carolina House of Representatives where he serves on the Agriculture committee.  Ray continues to serve on several local and state boards promoting agriculture and rural communities. Ray attended Piedmont Community College and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

B. Ray Jeffers joined the RAFI-USA team in June 2021 and near the end of 2022 became Director of the Farmers of Color Network. Ray is no stranger to the job as he currently grows seasonal vegetables for wholesale and direct sale at his B.R. Jeffers Farms in Roxboro, NC, as well as raises heritage breed hogs for direct sale at markets and restaurants.

We’re excited and grateful to have Ray join us for Part 1 keynote address during Saturday evening and a Part 2 keynote address during Sunday lunch.

Pre-Conference Workshops

7 Full and Half-Day Pre-Conference workshops and a farm tour are available on Friday, January 19. In 2024, thanks to grant funding from USDA-NOP-TOPP and a sponsorship by Sand County Foundation, all workshops and the farm tour are being offered free of charge to VABF-SFOP Summit attendees. Workshops may be added on free of charge to your Summit Registration. Spaces are limited.

The Full Day Workshop, Holistic Farming Methods: How Organic, Biodynamic, Permaculture, & Beyond Integrate for a Sustainable Future, includes the Hotel Lunch Buffet free of charge. The Lick Run Farm Tour includes a bagged lunch on the farm. All other pre-conference workshops have the option of purchasing the Hotel Lunch Buffet for $35.

on Friday 1/19, 9 am to noon,I am presenting a half -day workshop: Year-Round hoophouse Vegetables

Hoophouse with winter crops

Fill your hoophouses (high tunnels, polytunnels) all year round with productive crops. In this course you’ll learn how to decide which crops to grow—with an emphasis on vegetables—how much to plant and how much to harvest by making maps, schedules and crop rotation plans. We’ll discuss which market crops are best at various times of year—cold-hardy, early warm-weather and high summer crops—and consider less common crops, such as seed crops and flowers, and cover crops for soil improvement. Learn how to maximize the use of space by clever seasonal transitions, succession planting and follow-on cropping. The course will also provide strategies for managing challenges such as extreme temperatures, nitrate accumulation in leafy greens, soil-borne diseases, pests and nematodes, salt buildup, and maintaining soil organic matter.

Session Schedule

Explore the conference schedule and see when different sessions will be held.

On Saturday 1/20, 4-5.30 pm, I am presenting Storage Vegetables for off-season sales, in the Buck Mountain Room.

Our winter squash storage cage. Photo Twin Oaks Community

Grow crops you can sell during the winter, while allowing yourself some down-time and reprieve from outdoor work. Choose suitable crops, schedules and storage conditions. Understand your weather and basic crop protection. This workshop will provide tables of cold-hardiness and details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops (warm and cool weather crops to harvest and store before very cold weather; crops to keep alive in the ground further into winter, then store; hardy crops to store in the ground and harvest during the winter, and overwinter crops for early spring harvests before the main season). It includes tables of storage conditions needed for different vegetables and suggestions of suitable storage methods, with and without electricity.

On Sunday 1/21, 8.30-10 am, I am presenting Lettuce Year-Round, in the Mill Mountain Room.

Buckley One-cut (Eazileaf) lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

This presentation includes techniques to extend the lettuce season using rowcover, coldframes and hoophouses to provide lettuce harvests in every month of the year. The workshop will include a look at varieties for spring, summer, fall and winter. We will consider the pros and cons of head lettuce, leaf lettuce, baby lettuce mix and the newer multileaf types. Information will also be provided on scheduling and growing conditions, including how to persuade lettuce to germinate when it’s too hot​​, and the Asian greens used as lettuce in tropical climates.

Taste of Virginia Expo and Market & Social

Included in the Conference Registration and free and open to the public is the Taste of Virginia Expo & Market on Saturday, January 20, 2 – 9 PM in the Crystal Ballroom at Hotel Roanoke. Featuring sampling and sales of Virginia-crafted foods, local libations, handicrafts, and herbals. Complete the evening with music, dancing, and socializing from 8-10 PM.

Youth Program

VABF is offering a Youth Program for children ages 5 – 12, and a special teen program for 12-18 year olds for only $60, including Saturday lunch and dinner and Sunday lunch . Youth Program Registration is offered as an add on to Conference registration or as a stand alone registration.

Lodging

Hotel Roanoke

Rooms in the VABF room block at Hotel Roanoke are $135 + tax  a night. Rooms may be booked online here or by calling (540) 985-5900 (or toll free at 866-594-4722) between the hours of 8am-5:30pm Monday – Friday and say you’re with the VABF Room block. Cut off date is Friday, December 29, 2023.

Book with the VABF-SFOP group rate at The Hotel Roanoke

Check out our Lodging page for more info! 

Silent Auction

Always a fun experience to bid on unique and useful farm and garden products! If you have homemade gifts, books, or items on your farm that you no longer need that may be valuable to someone else, bring them on to the Silent Auction at the Conference! Great way to donate to VABF!

Locally Sourced Meals

VABF is working to procure the majority of our Conference food from local member farms. We look forward to supporting our member farms and enjoying delicious, fresh, local food from the farms below! All Conference Registrations include lunch and dinner on Saturday, lunch on Sunday and morning coffee and tea.

———————————

February 2024 Event

Pasa 2024

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Thursday Feb 8 – Saturday February 10

Pasa’s 2024 Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Lancaster, Pennsylvania on February 8–10

On Thursday February 8, 4-5 pm, I am presenting Storage Vegetables for off-season sales

Sweet potatoes crated in the field.
Photo Nina Gentle

Grow crops you can sell during the winter, while allowing yourself some down-time and reprieve from outdoor work. Choose suitable crops, schedules and storage conditions. Understand your weather and basic crop protection. This workshop will provide tables of cold-hardiness and details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops (warm and cool weather crops to harvest and store before very cold weather; crops to keep alive in the ground further into winter, then store; hardy crops to store in the ground and harvest during the winter, and overwinter crops for early spring harvests before the main season). It includes tables of storage conditions needed for different vegetables and suggestions of suitable storage methods, with and without electricity.

On Saturday, February 10, 11.30 am -12.30 pm, I am presenting Crop Rotations for Vegetables and COver Crops

Crop Rotation Pinwheel

This workshop offers ideas to design a planting sequence that maximizes utilizing cover crops and reduces pest and disease likelihood. Pam discusses formal rotations and ad hoc systems for shoehorning minor crops into available spaces. She also discusses cover crops suitable at various times of the year, particularly winter cover crops between vegetable crops in successive years. Pam provides examples of undersowing cover crops in vegetable plantings and no-till options.

In addition to my sessions, you’ll find 70+ other workshops and discussions on a diverse array of farming and food system topics:

Keynote Speaker Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin

Plenary keynote speaker Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is a farmer and the founder of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on scaling up a systems-level regenerative poultry solution that restores ecological balance, produces nourishing food, and puts money back into the hands of farmers and food chain workers. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Tree-Range® Farms, the for-profit market-facing arm of the system working with family farms to raise chickens in their natural habitat—the jungle!

Dr Heber M Brown

Rev. Dr. Heber M. Brown III, another plenary speaker at this year’s conference, is a pastor, public speaker, community organizer, and social entrepreneur. He is the founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, which advances food security and food sovereignty by co-creating Black food ecosystems anchored by Black congregations in partnership with Black farmers and others.

Ira Wallace

Other featured speakers include Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Zach Loeks of Ecosystem Solution Institute, Catherine Sylvestre of Ferme des Quatre-Temps, Allyson Levy & Scott Serrano of Hortus Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, Russ Wilson of Wilson Land & Cattle Co. and the FairShare CSA Coalition.

Zach Loeks
Catherine Sylvestre

 Learn more & register

Book Review The Winter Market Gardener, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre

 

Cover of The Winter Market Gardener

The Winter Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Year-Round Harvests, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre, New Society Publishers, October 2023. 256 pages, 7.5 x 9 inches, with color photos and drawings throughout. $39.99.

 Jean-Martin Fortier’s first book, The Market Gardener, is a well-loved international best-seller. In this new book, he has worked with Catherine Sylvestre, to focus on cold-weather growing. Catherine is the director of vegetable production and leader of the market garden team at la Ferme des Quatres-Temps, in Hemmingford, Southern Quebec, Canada. The farm includes mixed livestock, an orchard and an 8-acre market garden designed and established by Jean-Martin Fortier. FQT was initiated by a local multi-millionaire who wanted to set up an experimental farm to demonstrate what was possible and to resolve some of the challenges in developing a diversified farm using efficient regenerative methods. The farm now has a second site, in Port-au-Persil, five hours away in the northern Charlevoix region.

At FQT, the authors train cohorts of employees and try out ideas that were not possible on the more limited budget of les Jardins de la Grelinette where Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches grew food for 200 families on two and a half acres. Since 2015, Maude-Hélène has been the solo operator of la Grelinette (an hour away from FQT).

With good techniques, equipment, and varieties, and enough personal energy, year-round production can provide premium local vegetables and make a profit. This book will inspire and help. It is packed with detailed vegetable profiles, tips for winter crop planning, and successful growing and storage of fall/winter crops. There is precise information on tool selection and best use, and on selecting shelters, from rowcover to high tunnels. The book was written in the authors’ native French and ably translated by Laurie Bennett. I love the word “shelters” to include all kinds of protected growing, and I hope it comes into common use in English!

The Winter Market Gardener builds on years of research, experimentation, and collaboration, as all who have read The Market Gardener will appreciate. It is a practical guide to winter vegetable production for small farmers in northern climates, and elsewhere. Initially I thought this would be a delight to read, but not of much practical use to me in central Virginia, a very different climate. I soon found I was wrong. Questions of the value and profitability of types of greenhouse and tunnel heating are thoroughly considered, in terms of heat sources, financial and planetary costs, and benefits. There is info on some crops I have never grown, not here nor in England. The crop planning calendars have solid info in a nice accessible intuitive format. There are charts, graphs, illustrations to help you get started or smooth your path in winter growing.

Don’t think for a minute that running a farm owned by a multi-millionaire means efficiency and results are unimportant! It does permit some enviable pricey equipment, but careful trials, record-keeping, and profitable products are essential to the purpose of the project.

The concept behind Ferme des Quatre-Temps is to find the sweet spot between intensive organic production, and a biodiverse landscape. Jean-Martin and a team of permaculturists came up with the design for the farm, including the livestock. The theories and practices are taught to a group of apprentices each year, and via the online Market Gardener Institute, and its Masterclass.

Whatever your level of experience or scale of production, The Winter Market Gardener will encourage and inspire you to value high-quality local vegetables all year, and give you tools to produce them in winter. There is an appendix for people wanting to use these methods on a backyard scale. 645 ft2 (60 m2) can grow enough vegetables for 3-5 people for the whole (Québécois!) winter. And, of course, you can grow summer vegetables there when winter is over.

Don’t think growing vegetables all-year means no time off – you just need to plan to include breaks, or rotate workdays around the crew. And remember that winter has shorter days and a slower pace than summer. For those growers pursuing an honest life of hard work on stuff that matters and makes a difference, here is a guidebook.

As the number of winter growers increases, the demand for fresh food increases, and we have job security! To be sustainable, winter harvesting must be profitable, so invest in this book. It may happen that small-scale winter food production becomes not just the tastiest option and least-damaging to the planet, but our only option. During the Covid pandemic, it became plain that in the Northeast of North America, 70% of vegetables come from California, Mexico, or even further afield. It took only three days to deplete the supply of fresh vegetables in the stores.

Some countries responded to this realization by providing grants for local food growing, including high tunnels and greenhouses. Catherine and Jean-Martin propose that giving the money to fifty or 200 small-scale farms would be a better investment than giving it to a twenty-hectare tomato greenhouse, (as happened in Quebec). Production of cold-hardy vegetables in winter uses much less energy than growing tomatoes! Additionally, growing summer vegetables in winter requires artificial lighting, causing light pollution, disrupting the circadian rhythms of humans and other animals. No one yet knows how artificial lighting affects the nutritional quality of food grown that way.

Catherine Sylvestre.
Photo New Society Publishers

Jean-Martin and Catherine identify five key principles of winter growing:

  1. Lack of sunlight in winter is more limiting than lack of heat.
  2. Many vegetables can withstand freezing temperatures.
  3. Cold-hardiness in crops can sometimes be bred for.
  4. Layered shelters (rowcover, tunnels) can allow more vegetable production in winter.
  5. Installing minimal heating can make winter growing more successful, and can be profitable.

A useful chart suggests how many layers of rowcover to use at various night temperatures and daylengths. This guideline that could work wherever you grow.

There are good descriptions of making low tunnels and caterpillar tunnels. High tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels, passive solar greenhouses) are permanently located and usable year-round, although unheated. Greenhouses are permanent structures, heated, somewhat insulated, made of glass or two layers of plastic. There is a small chart showing the outdoor killing temperatures of four crops, unprotected outdoors, in a high tunnel and in a high tunnel with P19 rowcover. For example, lettuce will die at 21°F (-6°C) outdoors with no protection, at 7°F (-14°C) outdoors if protected by a high tunnel, and at 0°F (-18°C) outdoors, if under rowcover in a high tunnel. This is followed by a comparison of the various shelters in terms of cost, thermal gain and features and uses.

Don’t consider adding heating unless you have at least a double layer of plastic and in-ground perimeter insulation. At la Ferme des Quatre-Temps they have perforated polyethylene tubing that distributes hot air along the beds. The increased revenue from faster growing crops must be covered by the increased costs of heating or adding more layers of rowcover. They present a table and a bar chart comparing cost of heating, cost of labor to manage row covers, and revenue. For their situation, heating to 37°F-41°F (3-5°C) trounces no heating, and beats heating to 54°F (12°C). It also matters how much workers are willing to move rowcovers, or enjoy doing that as part of winter growing.

To reduce heating costs, check your insulation. Regularly monitor and repair broken parts of your structure. If you are buying new, remember that bigger structures hold more warmth from the daytime. Ensure your heater is an efficient one, and you have blowers to push the heated air around.

Here’s a counterintuitive bit that makes complete sense once you’ve thought it through: On short cloudy days, there’s little point in adding heat, because the plants won’t be able to photosynthesize more. On warm sunny days, if the temperature is still low, your plants could gain photosynthesis with a higher temperature to balance the good light.

Avoid letting the humidity remain over 90% for more than a few days at a time. Ventilate, and if necessary, heat for an hour while doing that! Be sure to ventilate if the sun is shining. One of my hoophouse mantras this winter is “More air, less water!” – good airflow is vital to keep plants healthy.

As for heating, what fuel to use? Ecology is important, environmental awareness is a guiding value. Profitability has to be in there. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Electricity produced by coal or nuclear power has no appeal. In Quebec, growers are fortunate to have hydroelectricity, from a publicly owned utility. Even with such a benign fuel source, there is still a decision to be made about the delivery system: a furnace with an electric coil or a heat pump? A short physics primer on electric heating follows. This gem of info can save you from a permanent expensive mistake! For example, surface geothermal might cost $10,000, but regular geothermal could cost $125,000! There’s a thorough table comparing pros and cons of various types of heating, and a full-page color photo of hot air distribution tubes.

The next section is on winter crop planning. To grow healthy winter crops, first grow strong seedlings with good roots, then harden them off carefully to withstand winter. Use a larger cell size than you would in simmer. Seven days before transplanting into the ground, move the seedlings into colder conditions with more outside air. Gradually increase their cold tolerance over the week.

Lack of light is more limiting than low temperatures. Careful timing is needed to get plants to the right size before daylength reduces to ten hours and growing slows right down. The key is to get plants to 70% of their final size before this happens. Further south, the dark period is shorter, the soil holds temperature until later in the year, and you have more wiggle room. In northern climates, greenhouses and tunnels become outdoor storage rooms.

There is a chart of winter days to maturity of tatsoi, spinach and turnips, and days to reach 70% full maturity. Days to maturity increase as daylength decreases. Keep records of winter days to maturity of the crops you grow, calculate 70% of that time and work back from your last day of ten hours of daylight, and find the target date to sow that crop. Keep records of sowing dates and results.

For a continuous supply of cut-and-come-again leaf crops, calculations are more complicated. Keep good notes of when you sow, cut, and can come-again. You might get three cuts, or six, depending on your location. Figure a good sowing date, and don’t delay! You could do some trials with short rows sown on different dates.

The authors provide a table of winter sowing dates for twenty-five crops sown outdoors with P19 rowcover; in a caterpillar tunnel; high tunnel; and minimally-heated greenhouse. Plants can sometimes endure an hour or two at a temperature considerably colder than they can tolerate for several days.

Crop density may need to be decreased to ensure plants get enough light and airflow. Growing plants closer in the row, but with rows further apart (growing about 70% the number of summer plants), provides better light. There’s an appendix on crop spacing.

It is helpful to know when each crop is likely to bolt after the solstice. Some bolt earlier than others. Keep records and harvest accordingly.

The crop profile section follows. There are icons indicating semi-hardy crops (32°F to 25°F/0°C to –4°C), cold-hardy ones (23°F to 14°F/–5°C to –10°C); very cold-hardy crops (14°F to 22°F/ −10°C to –30°C); minimal heating, no heating, overwintering; transplanted, and direct-sown crops. The sidebar also includes recommended varieties, spacing and seeding and transplant dates in Quebec. Each profile has a beautiful full-page watercolor image. The text includes info on first harvest, succession sowing, intercropping strategies, pest and disease challenges, and good harvest practices.

Jean-Martin Fortier with his broadfork.

Next comes the section on recommended tools: broadfork, bed prep rake, (tilther perhaps), wheel hoe, two-wheel tractor (BCS), power harrow, rotary plow, (six-row seeder perhaps), Jang seeder, Earthway seeder, four-row pinpoint seeder (I could become a convert to this handy little tool!), stirrup hoe, collinear hoe, wire weeder, Terrateck wheel hoe with bio-discs, flex-tine weeder (looks good!), harvest knives, quick-cut greens harvester. 2023 prices are in an Appendix. I liked the home-made greens bubbler, a water tank with air bubbled into it, to agitate and clean the leaves.

Next is a section on tending your winter crops. How to have an unfrozen water supply (they don’t need any irrigation in unheated shelters in December or January). Why to avoid over-fertilizing (increased salt buildup, soil diseases, thrips and aphids). How to warm the soil, increase soil microbial activity, and rate of crop growth with landscape fabric, black plastic or rowcover. How to trap mice, and deal with pest insects when it is too cold for beneficial insects.

That section is followed by one about planning fall harvests of storage crops, which combines well with winter harvest of leafy greens, for more sales. Think not only of carrots, turnips and potatoes, but also of beets, cabbages, winter squash, parsnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi, onions, leeks, celeriac. There is. as always, encouragement to keep good records.

I really like their planting charts, where each crop is shown in its special color, occupying a physical amount of space (a column for each bed), and a time (rows for the weeks). With this plan in place, quick late summer crops can be squeezed into some beds, or cover crops. Each outgoing crop is flail-mowed, and covered with a silage tarp for two or three weeks.  The soil micro-organisms break down the plant matter under the tarp, leaving the bed ready to replant without tilling. Tarping takes longer than tilling, but the method treats the soil and micro-organisms more holistically.

The general material about fall growing is followed by crop profile pages for suitable storage crops. Their method of transplanting beets gets better germination rates and uniformly filled beds. It gives me the idea of transplanting beets from thickly-emerged areas to gaps in our direct-sown beds, as we do with fall kale. There are helpful tips about carrots following garlic (we do this) because the soil will be relatively weed-free after months of garlic mulch; growing celeriac on landscape fabric, because it is in the bed for so long; storing Napa Chinese cabbage for 3 months in closed bins at high humidity; making sure not to create cracks in kohlrabi for storage; transplanting rutabagas. I’m a big fan of transplanting, but I’m learning about more crops that transplant well.

The authors advocate the same system we use for harvesting crops in the fall: determine the winter-kill temperature for each crop, list them in descending order, and work down the list, monitoring the weather forecast.

There is encouragement to build a well-insulated room with a household air-conditioner reconfigured using the CoolBot device to run at lower temperatures. If possible, make two storage rooms, one at 50°F-59°F (10°C-15°C) and one at 32°F-39°F (0°C-4°C). This is the first time I’ve seen advice to also install a heater, for occasions when outdoor temperatures are just too cold. I think we don’t need that in Virginia, but I believe Northerners do!

There are instructions about humidity, about managing ethylene and CO2, and managing inventory. There is a two-page table of storage conditions, containers, and length of storage for thirteen crops.

The last section of the book is Growing and Selling Vegetables Year-Round. Plan not to stand in the freezing cold all day at market! Options include a CSA; an online store with once-a-week deliveries to a select few locations; restaurant sales with a weekly Fresh List. Being reliable and communicating clearly is key, as is coordinating the orders and making a harvest list for the crew.

The world needs more small-scale year-round growers, supplying local markets. In Quebec in 2020, there were more start-up farms than farms closing down – the first time in fifty years! We do not need vertical farms of hydroponic vegetables, using large amounts of energy, priding themselves, curiously enough, on not using soil to produce food. Or food-like products. The diversity and flavor of four-season vegetables grown in soil can’t be beat.

Farmers at la Ferme des Quatre-Temps

Putting new plastic on the hoophouse (again)

Our hoophouse with its new inner plastic. Gabby Schulz

Putting new plastic on the hoophouse (again)

Our hoophouse has been up since 2003, and in these 20 years has had several replacements of the big roof plastic. We’ve replaced the end wall plastic less often, as it isn’t inflated and a few holes don’t matter. It’s true that old dirty plastic doesn’t let as much light in, but we are firmly on the side of not replacing end wall plastic and roof plastic in the same year.

I wrote Replacing Hoophouse Plastic in September 2017. Six years later, here we are again. This year we needed to replace all the baseboards, too, as the 2″ thick cedar had rotted, and for a few months a section of wigglewire channel holding the plastic had completely detached from the baseboard. We considered whether to buy cedar, metal baseboards or plastic lumber baseboards. I wrote about the pros and cons of each in May (2023). We ultimately decided to go with the “Hat Channel” metal baseboards from Tunnel Vision Hoops. We wanted something long-lasting at a fair price. We have a small concern about the metal baseboards lacking thermal insulation, compared to lumber, or even plastic lumber, but on balance it seemed like our best bet. No regrets, and Tunnel Vision Hoops were really helpful.

Our new hoophouse metal baseboards with wigglewire channel attached. Gabby Schulz

We removed the old plastic in the middle of September, after we had planted one bed with early crops. We continued bed prep and planting in the fresh air until October 11, when we got the new plastic on.

One bonus is that we got several inches of rain one day and decided it was enough that we didn’t need to do our twice-yearly salt wash-down. (Tweaking the Salt Wash-down Dates) and Preparing your Hoophouse for Fall and Winter.

It took us a long time to remove all the rotted baseboards. We started out undoing as many bolts as possible, but then a helpful colleague showed up with a power reciprocal saw and cut through all the remaining ones. We also had to remove all the crumbling old duct tape we had bandaged the metal connectors and bolt heads with. Just in time, one of the crew suggested we buy Gorilla tape instead. We were pretty unhappy about all the silver dandruff of micro-plastics from the duct tape landing on our soil. Gorilla tape is thicker, stickier, less flexible, and most importantly lasts a lot longer. We saw we had used a little of it last time, in 2017, and it was still good. We had also used some pewter-grey exterior duct tape in 2017, and it was still good too. No idea where we bought that.

Close up of new shadecloth hook in place in baseboard. Gabby Schulz

We had a hope to be ready for the new plastic on October 6, but we had to deal with our slightly nervous inexperience installing metal baseboards. By this point in the year, we had to watch the forecast not only for days without rain, but also one with calm winds (below 5 mph) and we had hit a breezy spell. Our average first frost is October 15 or so, and the nights started to get chilly. Juggling all these factors, we did really well and got the plastic on during the one day that week without winds above 5 mph. We also kept up with all the October bed prep and planting, which is intense. Yay, team!

I won’t repeat what I’ve said before (click the links). If you are launching on a similar recovering, study our step-by-step instructions. If not, simply enjoy the photos.

Hoophouse frame with silage tarp spread to unroll new plastic on. Gabby Schulz

Another new idea this year was to take a 25 x 100′ silage tarp that was handy, and spread it out along the south side of the hoophouse to unroll the new plastic on. Another is to lift the roll of new plastic by inserting hoe handles in the cardboard tube, lift, and have someone walk out the free end. Much easier than pushing the roll along the ground!

2017 photo throwing a water bottle over the hoophouse to help pull the plastic. Wren Vile

We really like to have 6-8 people, who we hand pick and invite. I have found out the hard way that being open to all volunteers leads to things going wrong. We also think 5 ropes is the minimum for this length of hoophouse. We plan to have 7 next time. We value having a spotter inside the hoophouse to push up on any jammed tennis balls, and a spotter on the south side (outside), who can see progress with the outer layer going up and call to individuals to pull more or pause, so that the plastic goes up evenly.

New inner plastic being pulled up and over the frame. Wren Vile

We had some trouble with the outer layer snagging, and speculated that it might be because our frame does not have a ridge pole, just two high purlins. The tennis ball lingered in the saggy bit of plastic too much. I also think we could practice smoother knots, to reduce the chance of snags.

We ordered 48′ x 100′ Tufflite IV and Tufflite IR and PolyPatch tape for our 30′ x 96′ gothic-shaped tunnel from Nolts Greenhouse Supplies in PA. We use the wigglewire and aluminum channels (also called Polylock), which are reusable over and over.

Bucket of tools for setting wigglewires. Gabby Schulz

Tool List:

  • Tall stepladder and 2 pairs of shorter stepladders
  • For a 30′ x 96′ tunnel, at least 8 rolls of high quality Gorilla tape. Stinginess doesn’t pay.
  • Tools for each person: pliers, soup spoon, flat-bladed screwdriver, scissors.
  • Utility knives to trim the plastic when it’s on right. Bolt cutters (for the wigglewire)
  • Tennis balls and ropes to pull the edge of the plastic over the top. At least 5 sets for a 96′ house. Use ropes long enough to go over to the other side – say 5′ longer than the width of your plastic.
  • A sock and a plastic water bottle (to attach to the throwing end of the rope)
  • Polypatch tape and scissors. Accidents will happen. Try to be gracious and forgiving!
Bed Prep continued alongside renovations. Notice taped frame connectors on left, not yet taped on right. Raen Thornberry

New Hoophouse Plastic Step-by-Step Instructions

New Hoophouse Plastic Step-by-Step Instructions

Planting winter hoophouse crops

Our first hoophouse radishes germinated three days after sowing. We sowed Cherry Belle and White Icicle. We would have sowed Easter Egg if we’d had enough seed left after the outdoor fall sowings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’ve already prepared our first bed in the hoophouse and sowed our first few crops (spinach, radishes, scallions, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beets and cress). We spread the bed prep out over 5 days and the sowings over 2 days. I’ve written lots about our fall hoophouse planting, so I’ll give you links, mention a few updates and stick to photos otherwise.

Mid-October photo of September-sown tatsoi and August-sown Tokyo bekana. Fast-growing crops make good use of small windows of time.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Hoophouse Winter Schedule Tweaks and Improvements (pack more crops in, get higher yields, reduce or spread the workload). One change we made was to sow some early catch crops in areas that weren’t needed for all-winter crops until later. We mostly used tatsoi and Tokyo bekana, both fast–growing leafy greens. We intended to grow some early beets too, but the seed didn’t germinate. A new crop last winter was cress, Creasy Greens Upland Cress and Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure. They take 50 days to maturity (in spring). We had two good intentions we did not manage to follow through on. One was to let some of the cress flower, to feed beneficial insects. And I think we got too impatient. The other was to notice which one of the two kinds we prefer and just grow that one. We didn’t manage to keep good enough records on that, so this winter we are obliged to repeat the experiment, with more good intentions!
Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
  • Using all the space in the winter hoophouse (filler crops for random spaces, fast-growing catch crops, radish sowing dates for seamless harvests.)
  • Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal (packing away the giant piece of shadecloth until May, spreading compost, broadforking and raking the beds, direct sowing the first bed, sowing seeds in an outdoor nursery bed to transplant into the hoophouse a few weeks later). This post includes a step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep. Our soil is improving each year, becoming easier to broadfork and rake. That counters the aging process of our human bodies! One change we made last year was to measure and pin down the drip tapes 12” (30 cm) apart, and use the drip tape as a guide to making furrows (drills). This is easier than using the row marker rake, as we used to do.

    Our hoophouse with shadecloth for growing summer crops. Photo Pam Dawling. We have now sewed the two pieces together, to avoid the gaping hot spot in the middle!
  • Hoophouse fall bed prep (includes an appreciation of spiders and a video of spider “ballooning”)
  • Sowing hoophouse winter crops (more details on bed prep tools and techniques, including the row marker rake if you want to use that, and links to posts about winter lettuce varieties we used in 2017/2018.)
  • Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables (hoophouse crop map, many links to other posts including a video and three slideshows, crop rotations, choosing winter hoophouse crops, posts about specific crops (with all the details), back up plans in case something goes wrong, and harvesting.)

    Mid-October emergency back-up seedlings for the hoophouse.
    Photo Pam Dawling. We needed to compensate for poor germination that year.
  • Preparing your hoophouse for fall and winter (includes one of my slideshows, and a more detailed discussion of lettuce types and sowing dates, information about salt build-up and our wash-down strategy in a 3-slide mini slide show, when we close and open the doors and windows, and a Be-Prepared Winter Kit list)
  • Planning winter hoophouse crops – our step-by-step process for hoophouse crop planning.

    Spinach seedlings (from pre-sprouted seed) emerged on the third day after sowing. here they are on day 4. Photo Pam Dawling
  • Winter hoophouse growing (includes a round-up of earlier posts, and a discussion about the value of crop rotation in the hoophouse, and a list of 20 benefits of having a hoophouse.)
  • Spinach variety trial conclusions This year we are growing Acadia.  Johnny’s do not recommend this variety for late fall or winter sowing, but it did very well in our hoophouse, sown in September, October, November and January.
  • September in the hoophouse: sowing spinach 
Two jars of sprouted spinach seeds and grits to prevent the damp seeds clumping. presprouting spinach seeds for a week in a fridge gets round the impossibility of getting spinach to germinate in hoophouse soil at 80F (27C) as it is September 11.
Photo Pam Dawling
One side of our hoophouse on Sept 10. Three beds with cover crops of buckwheat and sunnhemp (which got bitten down at a young age by Something), and one bed under solarizing plastic in hopes of killing nematodes. Photo Pam Dawling
Zipper spider on the pepper plants in our hoophouse September 10.
Photo Pam Dawling

Success with Spinach for Fall, Winter and Spring

January spinach from our second hoophouse sowing.
Photo Pam Dawling

Success with Spinach for Fall, Winter and Spring

Spinach is a much-loved crop for us. We sow outdoors and in the hoophouse in early September for harvesting from fall through to spring (April). We sow outdoors in late September for a crop to overwinter as small plants and be harvested in the spring. We also sow in our coldframes in mid-September. These are more sheltered than the beds outdoors, and the spinach makes faster growth. We sow more spinach in the hoophouse in October and November. We sow in the hoophouse in January to transplant outdoors and in the hoophouse in February for spring harvests. We are able to keep harvesting spinach (leaves, not whole plants) from October 15 to May 25, all the way through the winter. Central Virginia is too hot to have spinach during the summer (we switch to chard).

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo wren Vile

Unsurprisingly, I have written about spinach several times.

Spinach Variety Trials Conclusion in May 2019. Our top general favorite is Acadia, although Reflect does better outdoors overwinter. This post includes links to earlier posts about spinach varieties, including Spinach Trials Update, April 2018.

What causes spinach leaves to turn yellow, in May 2019

yellowed spinach in May. We had transplanted too soon after tilling under some big weeds.
Photo Pam Dawling
A bed of healthy green Reflect spinach on May 3
Photo Pam Dawling

What makes vegetable crops bolt and how can I stop it? March 2021

Spinach Varieties

Choose varieties that do well in climates similar to yours, in the conditions you have when you plant and harvest. We used to grow Tyee for all plantings, and were very happy with it. But it has been pulled from the market because it had disease problems in the Pacific North West, where spinach seed is grown. We have tried and not continued Chevelle, Corvair, Renegade (grows fast, but has thin leaves and bolts early in spring), Avon (Downy Mildew in winter).

Also see the 2015 Greenbank Farm Spinach Variety Trial. The farm is in Washington State. They evaluated 10 varieties of savoyed and semi-­‐savoyed spinach with two side-­‐by-­‐side replication in spring. Abundant Bloomsdale, Bloomsdale Long Standing, Butterflay, Giant Winter, Dolce Vita, Longstanding Bloomsdale, Lyra, Solstizio, Tyee, Winter Bloomsdale. The overall star of their trial was Solstizio from Nash’s Organic Produce.

Spinach plants on February 5. left to right: Avon, Renegade, Escalade, Acadia.
Photo Pam Dawling

Paul and Sandy Arnold in Argyle, New York, made a great slide show reviewing Spinach Varieties in High Tunnels.  I think it’s no longer available online, but I did learn that in 2019, their top Winter Spinach Varieties were Escalade, Carmel, Whale, Space, Reflect; top Summer Spinach Varieties: Banjo, Seaside, Woodpecker.

In 2011-2012, High Mowing Seeds in northern Vermont did a spinach variety trial with 24 varieties. Three farmers in Iowa conducted a 2021 trial of spinach varieties and seedling methods. They compared yield, bolting and yellowing among three spinach seeding methods: seeder (1x rate), seeder (2x rate), hand-seed (2x rate); and between two varieties (Kolibri, Kookaburra). Two of them found no statistically significant difference of seeding method on yield; one found no difference in yields between the two varieties, but using a seeder at a double rate produced significantly higher yields than the other two methods.

When to sow fall spinach

Spinach does not germinate in hot soil! Use a soil thermometer and wait for the soil to cool to 68F (20C), or see the next section about sprouting spinach seed in a cold place. If you have no soil thermometer, see my post chickweed, hen-bit and dead-nettle, and use the info that was originally written with lettuce in mind, for spinach! There are photos there of these three plants at seedling stage. These are winter annual weeds here, that don’t grow in summer. Once we see their seedlings emerging in late August (a cool summer year like 2023) or September (most years) we know the soil has cooled enough to sow lettuce and spinach directly in the ground.

A trick for getting good timely germination of spinach seed is to put it (in sturdy resealable plastic bags or jars) in the freezer for about two weeks. Take the seeds out of the freezer the day before you want to sow (or start sprouting them), but – important – do not open the bag or jar. Leave it to warm to ambient temperature before opening. Otherwise the warm humid air will rush in and coat the cold seeds with condensation, reducing the shelf life of whatever seed you have left over for another time.

See our Spinach Variety Trials and Planting Plan, in February 2018:

  • September 6 is our first sowing (sprouted seeds) in the hoophouse for winter harvest 10/30-2/15, or later if it doesn’t bolt.
  • We sow outdoors on September 7 (sprouted seeds) for growing under rowcover and harvesting in fall and winter.
  • September 18-20 we sow in our coldframes and outdoors for harvest in early spring, until late May.
  • October 24 we make our second hoophouse sowing, to feed us November 25 to May 7.
  • On November 9,we make a third hoophouse sowing, intending to use these plants to fill gaps in our hoophouse as other winter crops come to an end.
  • January 16 we make more sowings in the hoophouse, some to continue to fill gaps there along the edges of the beds where they won’t fight with the tomatoes and so on, which we transplant starting March 15. Most of the spinach sown on this date is for transplanting outdoors on February 21.
  • January 29 we sow in flats in the greenhouse if we see we haven’t got enough bare-root transplants in the hoophouse.
  • February 10 If we don’t have enough transplants, then on this date we sow outdoors with rowcover, for spring harvests until May 25 if we’re lucky. We have backup plans on backup plans for this!
  • In the hoophouse we continue transplanting spinach to fill gaps until March 31.

 

Sprouting seeds before sowing is a way to success in hot or very cold weather.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sprouting Spinach Seed

This very easy work-around involves soaking the spinach seed in water overnight, draining it, and putting the jar on its side in the fridge for a week. If you remember, give the jar a quarter-turn each day to even out the moisture. You are not growing bean sprouts! A little neglect will not cause harm. The ideal is to have short sprouts, not long ones, as those break off more easily.  Sow the seed in the furrows gently, by hand. If the sprouts have got tangled, add some water to float them apart, drain them, spread them on a tray, or a layer of rowcover, to dry a bit, then mix with some inert dry soil-friendly material like uncooked corn grits or bran, which will help them not stick together.

Sowing Spinach in Speedling Flats and Floating them in Water

Another option is to start the spinach in flats and transplant it all. That’s a lot of work, but we found we could save on the daily attention time and the transplant time by using 120-cell Styrofoam Speedling flats. Sow one or two seeds per cell, then float the flats all day in water. Depending on your scale, this could be a baby bath or a stock tank. Remove the flats each evening and let them drain all night (while it is hopefully cooler). With just twice a day visits and no hand-watering, this is a big time saver, and we have got good germination rates.

Transplanting spinach from a Speedling flat. Butter knives are the tool of choice for easing the little wedges out of the tapered cells.
Photo Denny Ray McElya

When it comes time to transplant, the tool of choice is a butter knife. Use the knife to wiggle a wedge-shaped hole in the bed. Slide the knife down the sloping side of the cell, and, holding the base of the plant with one hand, use the knife hand to lift and flick the plug out. If all goes well, the plug will be then be resting on the now-horizontal knife, and you can slide it into the pre-made hole and firm it in.

Growing Spinach

Spinach makes growth whenever the air temperature is 40F (4.4C) or more. So any winter protection you can provide, in the way of cozy microclimates, rowcover, coldframes, or a hoophouse, will increase your yield. Spinach is more cold-hardy than many people realize. It dies at 0°F (-18°C) unprotected outdoors. Savoyed varieties tend to be a little hardier than smooth-leaved types. Large-leaved savoyed spinach outdoors with no protection can get seriously damaged at 10F (-12C). Small-leaved plants are OK down to 5F (-15C).

Weeding rowcovered spinach in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

Our outdoor spinach gets hoops and thick rowcover (Typar, 1.25 oz/sq yd spunbonded polypropylene, with 75% light transmission, and about 6 F (3.3 C) degrees of frost protection). It can last for 6 years or more. When we got 0F (-18C) the spinach leaves that touched the rowcover got big patches of beige/tan dead cells, but the plants recovered to produce more leaves.

Ben Hartman (author of The Lean Farm) wrote Testing the Limits of Cold Tolerance in Growing for Market magazine in February 2014. He reported that his young hoophouse spinach in Goshen, Indiana, with mid-weight rowcover survived -16F (XXX). Ben points out that spinach less than 1″ (2.5 cm) tall is very cold-tolerant. Bigger plants need more protection if it’s going to get that cold.

 You can read more about growing spinach in my Cooking Greens monthly series.

Growing bare root spinach transplants

Small spinach seedlings for bare root transplants. Photo Pam Dawling

We grow our spring spinach transplants (as well as kale and collards) in the soil in our hoophouse, sowing them in late January. See bare root transplants . You can find more links and info in that post. Growing bare root transplants saves a lot of work and a lot of greenhouse space.

Harvesting Spinach

Our goal is sustainable long-season harvesting. This is important for winter crops, as making a new sowing during cold dark days will not produce much food until spring comes around. It’s like the goose that lays the golden eggs – keep the leafy “golden eggs” coming

We harvest spinach by cutting individual leaves and leaving the plant to continue to produce more.

Our rule is “Leave 8 for later” – cut off large outer leaves close to the base of the plant, being sure to keep at least 8 of the inner leaves growing on each plant. Over-harvesting leads to decline.

When we finally pull up the bolting plants in spring, I’m always amazed to see how many leaf-scars there are on each plant, showing just how much we’ve harvested.

Hoophouse spinach. Far row: bolting Renegade; Near row: Escalade.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

Tomato Varieties We Tried in our Hoophouse

Hoophouse squash between beds of tomatoes in July.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

Each year we grow two 96′ (29 m) beds of early tomatoes in our hoophouse. We plant them mid-March, start harvesting at the end of May, and pull them up at the end of July or beginning of August. By that point the plants have reached as high as we can go and the outdoor plants have started producing large amounts, so we don’t need to ask more of the hoophouse plants. Each year we grow varieties that we’ve had years of success with, plus a few new ones.

Cherry Bomb tomato.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

Last year I wrote My favorite tomato varieties, about the four we trialed then: Pink Boar, Geronimo, Cherry Bomb and Estiva. We decided to grow Pink Boar and Cherry Bomb again, but somehow we didn’t! Pink Boar developed more splits and more disease in the last few weeks as the season reached its end. Cherry Bomb was out of stock when we placed our seed orders, so we tried another red cherry, Sakura.

Sakura red cherry tomatoes from Johnny’s

Sakura is a 55 day indeterminate red cherry. It did well, resisted disease. But when I checked why it didn’t seem very productive, I discovered that a confused planter had planted only one Sakura and an extra Black Cherry instead! Next year, maybe we’ll try Cherry Bomb again, or try really planting two Sakura!

We stopped growing Stupice, a 62 day indeterminate red, in favor of

Mountain Magic tomatoes in mid-July.
photo Pam Dawling

more Mountain Magic, 66 day indeterminate reds. A plan is just a plan. Somehow, a bunch of Black Cherry (64-75 day indeterminate purple) got substituted for some  Mountain Magic and some Garden Peach at planting time, due to more worker confusion. We love Black Cherry, but they take longer to pick than larger tomatoes. Some might argue that Mountain Magic at 2 oz (56 g) are not that much bigger then Black Cherry at ½-1 oz (14-28 g), but as you see, they are at least twice as heavy. The disease-resistance of Mountain Magic, Glacier and Garden Peach was medium this year.

None of us missed the Stupice, with their green/yellow shoulder problem. As I noted last year, the lack of red lycopene in the shoulders might be due to too much heat. We did try not pruning the Glacier (56 day determinate red) at all this year, and we got less of a green shoulder problem with those, so that’s worth remembering. We’d like to keep that one, as it is so fast at ripening. Sungold is still faster, though catalogs claim Glacier should be one day ahead.

Tropic tomato in mid-July. Photo Pam Dawling

This year, I wanted to try several large red round fast-maturing tomatoes, and a couple of different colors. To be chosen for our hoophouse crops, tomatoes have to mature in 80 days or less. Our main red is Tropic (80 day indeterminate red). It’s good at setting in heat and has a good flavor, but this year had a lot of disease. This summer has been peculiarly mild, up until mid-August, so not a good test of heat-setting tomatoes.

Skyway tomatoes from Johnny’s

We tried two plants each of Skyway (78 day 8-12 oz (112-168 g) indeterminate red) and, for the second year, Estiva (70 day indeterminate red). Both looked impressive: big shiny unblemished fruit. But no flavor worth reporting. Estiva had good disease-resistance, and split resistance, but was slower to fruit than the 70 day claim.

Estiva tomatoes from Johnny’s

We planned to try Premio (60 day 4 oz (56 g) indeterminate red), but didn’t get any seed. Maybe next year?

Mountain Fresh Plus tomatoes from Johnny’s

We did try Mountain Fresh Plus (75 day determinate large 8-10 oz (112-224 g) red, short plants) for a second time. “The most widely-grown market tomato in the East and Midwest” Johnny’s Selected Seeds. We are a fan of many of Randy Gardner’s “Mountain” series of tomatoes, but not this one. It wasn’t very productive, and the flavor wasn’t exciting.

 

Tropic remains our main red slicer.

 

Jubilee tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Jubilee (80 day indeterminate orange) is our main orange slicer, and that did very well, with medium disease resistance this year. The fruit looked a little different this year. Possibly we were still sowing seed we bought during the pandemic, which came labelled “Probably Jubilee”. It’s also called Golden Jubilee.

Mountain Spirit tomato from Fedco

We also trialed Mountain Spirit (77 day indeterminate large yellow/red) and Purple Boy (80 day indeterminate large purple, Park Seeds). Neither of these wowed us much. Production was low and flavor was only so-so. We had hoped Purple Boy would be a good substitute for Cherokee Purple, which splits and yields poorly in our hoophouse. Mountain Spirit had a mushy texture.

I’m concluding (provisionally!) that large fruited tomatoes are not such a good idea for us. We do better with more productive, more modest sized tomatoes.

We came up with an idea to reduce the chance of misplanting in future. We didn’t want to write labels for every single potted tomato, so we have been labeling just the rows of 3 or 6 in a standard 1020 flat, which holds 18 pots. This means we often have more than one variety in a flat. We have small numbers of purple, brown and green pots, so we can use those for particular varieties. Mostly we have the standard black pots. Our new idea is colored dot stickers, which are often to be found in our office is oddly large numbers. I wonder if anyone else ever uses them?

Tomato seedlings potted up in the greenhouse.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Watching the Weather

Dark stormy sky over our hoophouse and solar panels. Photo Wren Vile

Farmers and gardeners have always watched the weather, and now, as the climate crisis gets worse and the weather more chaotic, we need to hone our skills. I’ve written in the past about

Where does your weather come from?

Our mid-Atlantic weather mostly comes from one of three directions,

  • mainly from the Gulf of Mexico, (wet, maybe windy)
  • the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer, (hot and dry)
  • recurrent waves of cold air from Canada in winter (from a disrupted polar vortex).
  • Due to the erratic movement of thunderstorms, some parts of our area may experience long periods of drought. September–November is the dry season but also the hurricane season.
Such grey weather! But will it rain?
Photo Wren Vile

Find a weather station that is a good match for your area, and learn how to adapt it

We use Wunderground.com for Louisa Northside, but subtract 5F° from their forecast night lows, 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. I use the ten-day forecast to get the general idea, the hourly one when planning tasks, the Roanoke animated radar on the daily page to see what’s on the way and when it’s likely to arrive, and the alerts, watches and warnings. The forecast for the month is under the Calendar tab, although the further out the forecast is, the less reliable it will be. In hurricane season I check the Severe Weather tab with the Hurricane and Tropical Cyclones information.

Make yourself a Frost Alert Card of conditions that are likely to lead to an early or late frost, so you can quickly take avoiding actions without dithering.

Learn about recent average weather at your location.

I recommend Weather Spark for browsing on a rainy day, or a too-hot afternoon. “The weather year round anywhere on earth”

Weather Spark chart of average daily temperatures in Louisa County, Virginia

I rechecked our area on Weather Spark recently and realized how much has changed since I started quoted information from our Extension Service twenty or more years ago.

  • The climate in Louisa County, Virginia, is changing on average in the past ten years to drier weather with milder winters, hotter summer nights.
  • Twin Oaks is in USDA Winter Hardiness Zone 7a: the average annual minimum winter temperature is 0°F–5°F (–18°C to –15°C).
  • The average rainfall for a year is 37” (100 cm), fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, at 2.2”–3.6” (5.6-9.1 cm) per month. October is the driest, May the wettest.
  • The average daily maximum temperatures are 49°F (9.4°C) in December and January, 89°F (31.7°C) in July. The average night low temperatures are 29°F (–1.7°C) in January, 69°F (20.5°C) in July.
  • The season from last frost to first frost, is around 211 days. The average date of the last spring frost is April 24 (later than May 7 only happens one year in ten); the average date of the first fall frost is Oct 14 (earlier than Oct 1 only happens one year in ten).

Weather SparkOn Weather Spark you can study artfully-made colorful charts of temperature, precipitation, cloud coverage, humidity and tourists (!) month by month. There is a chart of average high and low temperatures over the year, and one showing the average hourly temperature over the year (we are currently in the big red blob of hot afternoons). There’s a grey and blue chart of cloud coverage, and a green one of the daily chance of rain (with touches of blue and purple frozen precipitation). The average monthly rainfall chart is all greys, as is the snowfall one. Our greatest chance of snow is February with an average of 4.2” for the month.

You can compare your nearest city to another you might dream of moving to.

There are charts of hours of daylight and twilight, sunrise and sunset, the solar elevation and azimuth (for those planning greenhouses); moon rise, set and phases for a choice of years; and – oh – humidity! Color-coded from a comfortable green, humid yellow, tan mugginess, pink oppressive and orange misery (over 75%).

There’s a chart of average wind speed over the year; wind direction, which shows my wrong belief that most of the wind here comes from the west (true in July, December and January only). There’s also (keep scrolling) a chart about the growing season, by which they mean the longest continuous period on non-freezing temperatures, although the chart provides a very visual bigger picture of periods in various temperature bands.

There’s a Growing Degree Days chart! We’re on average at 2000 F GDD at this point in July. Next is a chart of solar energy (average daily incident shortwave solar energy), with kWh peaking in June at 6.9 per day.

There’s more details, but I’m moving on.

Check extreme weather

Lightning Strike map

For when you need to know, check out Real Time Lightning Maps.org. On the map, enlarge the area you are concerned about., and watch for the activity sparking, or click for sound. There’s an explanation of how the data is gathered and what the various color dots mean.

Windy.com has a colored map with streaming arrows, and other settings for rain and thunder, clouds, temperature and more. For those at seas, you can check the waves and swell.

AirNow.gov has a quick-to-read dial of air quality, fire and smoke maps, ozone, fine particulates, lots of information about air quality

Not exactly weather, but if you experience an earthquake, go to Did You Feel It? And register your experience. It helps USGS build a clearer picture of earthquake events in your area. You can see maps of recent earthquakes globally or a world map to give understanding of tectonic plates.