Hoophouse Squash Variety Trial, Garlic Recap, Flowers for Organic IPM

Golden Glory Squash in our hoophouse in mid-June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse Squash Variety Trial

A month ago I wrote about our hoophouse squash variety trials for pollination issues and blossom end rot. I think our problem was mostly unpollinated squash, rather than blossom end rot. Go to last month’s post for valuable links to distinguish the two conditions.

We planted 15 Golden Glory zucchini (good at setting fruit without pollinators) along with 25 Gentry yellow squash (a favorite variety, except that we had pollination troubles with it in our hoophouse for several years). The trial is almost over, we’re about to pull those plants, and we have plenty of squash coming in from our outdoor plantings now. The first outdoor planting includes some Golden Glory too, so if I have more news I write about it when it happens.

Gentry yellow squash in our hoophouse in mid-June
photo Pam Dawling

As I said last time, I recorded the number of small rotting squash we removed. The Golden Glory produced far fewer rotten unpollinated fruit.

Date 15 Golden Glory plants: rotted fruit Golden Glory: rotted fruit per plant 25 Gentry plants:

rotted fruit

Gentry:

rotted fruit per plant

5/13 2 0.13 12 0.48
5/14 2 0.13 5 0.2
5/17 0 0 32 1.28
5/21 15 1 54 2.16
5/27 9 0.6 39 1.56
6/4 13 0.9 29 1.2
6/10 2 0.13 11 0.46
6/14 2 0.13 9 0.43
Average per plant   0.38   0.97

 But low numbers of rotted fruits is not the only goal! Yield is important too, and the healthiness of the plants (which relates to yield).

We noticed that the plants were starting to die, and we thought of bacterial wilt. But when I tried the test for that disease, the results were negative. The test is to cut through the plant stem, rub the cut ends together, then slowly separate them. If the plant has bacterial wilt, there will be bacterial slime in strings between the stem ends when you slowly draw them apart. We got nothing like that. More research needed!

We pulled the dying squash, put them in a black trash bag and set that in the sun to cook.

Diseased squash, mid-June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Here’s what we found:

Date 15 Golden Glory plants: Number of healthy plants Golden Glory: Percentage of plants healthy 25 Gentry plants:

Number of healthy plants

Gentry:

Percentage of plants healthy

6/4 15 100% 25 100%
6/10 15 100% 24 96%
6/14 15 100% 21 84%
6/18 10 67% 20 80%
6/24 6 40% 18 72%

Initially, the Gentry started to keel over, then suddenly the Golden Glorys weren’t so glorious!

As far as yield, we did not measure it much. We only have notes from one day, 6/10. We harvested 7 squash from 15 Golden Glory plants (47%) and 14 Gentry from 24 plants (60%). Different people harvested on different days, meaning sometimes they were picked bigger than on other days. My sense is that the Golden Glory were not as productive throughout their harvest period. They are beautiful, the plants are open, easier to harvest from, and we had fewer rotten squash, and initially fewer dying plants. Is this enough to recommend them for an early hoophouse crop in future years?

My inclination is to also try another variety that is rated well for setting fruit without pollinators (hence fewer tiny rotting squash) and try harder to also record yield as well as problems next year!

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Garlic Recap

Our garlic is at the “Trim and Sort” stage, but depending where you garden, yours may be at a completely different stage. See my blogposts from the previous year, when I posted my Alliums for the Month Series.

Trimming garlic stems.
Photo by Brittany Lewis

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For people in colder climates than Virginia, you may be just starting to harvest your garlic. Learn from Margaret Roach (who grows in Massachusetts) in A Way to Garden

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Here are a couple of allium resources that didn’t make it into the Alliums for the Month Series

Mulching alliums

The Nordells on mulching alliums

RAMPS

Barry Glick sells ramps

“The Cat Is Out Of The Bag”!!!
Sunshine Farm & Gardens
696 Glicks Road
Renick WV 24966 USA

Ramps plants.
Photo Sunshine Farm and Gardens

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Flowers for Organic IPM

This is my post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog

Organic Integrated Pest Management involves tackling pest problems one step at a time with ecologically-based practices, starting with reducing the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops. Follow prevention with avoidance, and finish with pest-killing if needed. I recommend the ATTRA online publication Organic Integrated Pest Management. Each  page is a poster, complete with good photos and concise clear info.

In May we transplant flowers in our vegetable garden to attract pollinators and pest predators. We like a combination of sunflowers, dill, borage, cosmos, calendula, tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), zinnias. See my earlier Mother Earth News post Insectaries: Grow Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects

We sow sunflowers about every 10ft (3 m) in each of our bean beds. We are growing sesame surrounded by French marigolds in our hoophouse to deter nematodes, which we have in parts of our hoophouse soil. Sesame is apparently particularly good in deterring root knot nematodes, the type we have.

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

Our Organic Integrated Pest Management

French Marigolds and sesame to combat root knot nematodes in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Organic Integrated Pest Management involves tackling pest problems one step at a time with ecologically-based practices, starting with actions chosen to reduce the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops.

Steps:

  1. Cultivate a good environment for your crops: healthy soil, sufficient space, nutrients and water, suitable temperature, soil pH. Practice crop rotation to reduce the chances of pests and diseases carrying over from one crop to the next. Clear old crops promptly, so they don’t act as a breeding ground for the pest. Choose suitable varieties that resist the pests you most expect.
  2. Cover or protect the plants physically from the pests (mulches to stop soil-dwelling pests moving up into your crops, netting, rowcover, planting diverse crops, and even trap crops)
Young cucumber plant under insect netting in June.
Photo Pam Dawling
  1. Provide habitat for natural enemies and other beneficial insects
  2. Monitor crops regularly at least once a week and identify any pests you see.
  3. Introduce natural enemies of the pest (bacteria, fungi, insect predators or parasites)
  4. Hand pick (or trap) and kill the pests if the pest population is above the action threshold. Many fruit and root crop plants can take 30% defoliation before any loss of yield. Where the crop is the foliage, this may be too much!
  5. Use biological controls (often derived from natural enemies) if the damage is still economically significant after trying the earlier steps in the process.

I recommend the ATTRA online publication Organic Integrated Pest Management.

Each of the 22 pages is a poster, complete with good photos and concise clear info.

Our motion sensor sprinkler and the outer layer of our fence around the sweet potato patch at the end of May. The inner fence was installed later.
Photo Pam Dawling

One of our biggest garden pests is the deer, which are especially fond of sweet potatoes. We use motion-sensor water sprayers initially or in years when the deer pressure is low. For worse years we install an electric fence with a solar-powered charger.  Last year our electric fence didn’t keep the deer out, so this year we have a double layered fence to make sure.

Broccoli bed with alyssum to attract aphid predators.
Photo Pam Dawling

At the other end of the size scale are aphids.  We plant sweet alyssum in our beds of broccoli and cabbage to attract insects that will eat aphids. We sow about 200 plugs for 1500 row feet (450 m) of brassicas planted as two rows in a bed, and pop one alyssum plug in the bed centers every  4ft of bed or about one alyssum per  4 plants. We transplant these the same day that we replace any casualty broccoli and cabbage plants.

Nasturtiums planted in with squash to deter pests. Does it work?
Photo Pam Dawling

We transplant some bush nasturtiums in with our first plantings of cucumber and summer squash. They are said to repel some cucurbit pests such as squash bugs., but I can’t vouch for that. Radishes in cucumber or squash rows are said to repel cucumber beetles and squash bugs. I haven’t tried that. There are a lot of companion planting ideas out there, but most have no scientific evidence for effectiveness.

An insectary circle in early June. The flowers will attract beneficial insects.
Photo Pam Dawling

In late May or early June, we transplant some flowers in our garden to attract pollinators and pest predators. We use circles cut from plastic buckets to surround these clusters of flowers so that inexperienced helpers don’t pull them out as weeds.  We use a combination of sunflowers, dill, borage, cosmos, calendula, tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), zinnias.

Sunflower bee and bug.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We also sow sunflowers in our bean beds at each succession. These attract birds and pollinators, while also acting as landmarks for our harvest progress.

In our hoophouse we have been tackling nematodes for several years. This year we have planted the nematode areas in French marigolds and sesame (apparently particularly good in deterring root knot nematodes, the type we have.) Some other nematode areas have been planted with Iron and Clay cowpeas. Unfortunately we now have an aphid infestation on the cowpeas! We are trying blasting the aphids off the plants with a strong stream of water from a hose. Later in the summer we will solarize some of the nematode areas.

We planted Iron and Clay cowpeas to deter nematodes, but got aphids!
Photo Pam Dawling
Flowering sesame in our hoophouse, surrounded by French marigolds. We hope they will fight the root knot nematodes.
Photo Pam Dawling

Squash variety trial for pollination issues and blossom end rot

Golden Glory zucchini in our hoophouse in late May.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote about our problems last year with unpollinated squash and our decision to try squash varieties that were less dependent on pollination. So this year we planted some Golden Glory zucchini along with Gentry yellow squash that we had troubles with for several years. The trial is not over, but the early results are promising.

We planted 15 Golden Glory and 25 Gentry and I recorded the number of small rotting squash we removed on 5 dates so far.

Gentry yellow squash in our hoophouse in late May.
Photo Pam Dawling
Date 15 Golden Glory rotted fruit Per plant 25 Gentry rotted fruit Per plant
5/13 2 0.13 12 0.48
5/14 2 0.13 5 0.2
5/17 0 0 32 1.28
5/21 15 1 54 2.16
5/27 9 0.6 39 1.56

The unscientific parts of this trial are

  • we are also removing rotten fruits on other day but not counting them (hey, we’re busy!). But we make sure not to leave rotted squash near the plants and confound the next count.
  • It’s early days still, and we may get different results over the whole of the (short-lived!) hoophouse squash season.
  • Productivity is also important. We won’t be as impressed if we get low yields from the (beautiful) Golden Glories

I’ll keep you posted.Later I learned  that summer squash can get blossom end rot, and wondered if we had that problem rather than a pollination issue.

Is this an unpollinated squash or one with Blossom End Rot? It is shrunken, so I suspect poor pollination.
Photo Pam Dawling

See this excellent article Why Are My Squash Rotting? by Charlotte Glen. Here are some of the points she makes:

  • Blossom end rot is not a disease, but a physiological disorder caused by a shortage of calcium. Many factors can slow the absorption or movement of calcium in the plant, leaving it prone to blossom end rot.
  • Depending on what is stopping calcium from reaching the developing fruits, blossom end rot can be temporary or persistent.
  • Low soil calcium levels are rarely a cause of blossom end rot.
  • Blossom end rot is most usually caused by acidic soil (low pH). In soils with pH below 5.5, nutrients (including calcium) can get chemically locked up and unavailable to the plants (even if abundant in the soil). If low soil pH is the cause of blossom end rot, the problem usually lasts the whole growing season.
  • Too much high-nitrogen fertilizer can also cause blossom end rot. Fast-growing plants often cannot move enough calcium into fruits to support healthy development.
  • Stressors such as unusually cool or hot weather, low nighttime temperatures, drought, or over-wet soil can also trigger BER.
  • Any conditions that cause root damage can lead to poor nutrient absorption and blossom end rot. The most common causes of root damage are wet soils following heavy rain or over-irrigation.
  • Another leading cause of blossom end rot is drought – roots cannot absorb nutrients from dry soil, they need a film of water to convey them.
  • To prevent blossom end rot, the most important thing you can do is to keep the soil evenly moist.
Rotting unpollinated squash. Or some other problem?
Photo Pam Dawling

Here’s how I think our squash stacks up on those factors:

  • Our soil pH and our soil calcium level are both fine, we test the soil every year.
  • Home-made compost is our only source of nutrients in our hoophouse apart from occasional cowpea cover crops. I don’t think we overdid the nitrogen this way.
  • Yes, cool night-time temperatures when we first planted the squash in early April could have been a factor then, but now it’s reliably warm and the problem persists (at least with the Gentry)
  • Root damage? We did transplant these, but carefully. Maybe.
  • Uneven irrigation? We try to run the irrigation every day once it warms up. I don’t think that’s the issue. I don’t think we over-irrigated.
Healthy Gentry squash plants in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Then to help my deliberations, I found this
Squash and Cucurbit Problem Solver with many photos of fruit disorders (also leaf, root, stem, seedling and insect problems)Choanephora RotChoanephora Cucurbitarum is a soft rot of the blossom end, but rapidly developing grey-black fungal spores. I have seen that other times, but it’s not what we have in our hoophouse.Gray MoldBotrytis cinerea is another fungus that enters through the blossom end, leading to yellowed ends with grey furry mold. Bothe these fungal diseases are soil-borne, so more common in fruits touching the soil.Their photo of Blossom End Rot shows margins, and their description says: “The blossom end of the fruit fails to develop normally, turning black-dark brown and eventually shriveling and becoming hard.”Their description of poor pollination is this: “Fruit fail to expand normally, quickly turning brown at the blossom end and falling off the plant.” I’ve seen them fall off sometimes.For further help distinguishing between poor pollination and blossom end rot, I turned to the Garden Mentors (Robin Haglund).  She has helpful photos of these the two cause of problems, and these pointers:

  • Shriveling is due to poor pollination, not blossom end rot. Poorly pollinated fruits become obvious much sooner than fruits with blossom end rot. The fruits start to shrivel and yellow (harder to spot on yellow squash!)
  • If the squash was well pollinated, but has blossom end rot, it will grow plump with a sturdy stem, but rot at the end.

Poor pollination can be exacerbated if you use daytime overhead irrigation when the  female flowers are open. Squash flowers open flowers early in the day and close by early afternoon (and are open for only one day). Daytime overhead watering can discourage bees , leaving  your flowers unpollinated.So, more study needed! We definitely have been having poor pollination (shriveled rotten-ended squash that drop off.) maybe we have some Blossom End Rot too. I’m going to pay more attention! And eat lots of squash!

Date 15 Golden Glory rotted fruit Per plant 25 Gentry rotted fruit Per plant
5/13 2 0.13 12 0.48
5/14 2 0.13 5 0.2
5/17 0 0 32 1.28
5/21 15 1 54 2.16
5/27 9 0.6 39 1.56

Hoophouse Greens Clearance, Warm Weather Crops Established

April 23 hoophouse view.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our hoophouse is in transition from the winter greens to the early warm weather tender crops. The photo above shows the old lettuce mix we are about to pull up, young tomato plants edged with late spinach, and a row of early snap peas. We usually grow the quick dwarf Sugar Ann, but seed was not available this year so we are growing Sugar Snap – much taller and slower! Usually we snap the peas in three pieces and put them in our salad mix, but I think we will have finished harvesting hoophouse salad mix and moved on to cutting outdoor lettuce heads when these peas are ready. This amount of peas is far too little to be served alone as peas for our hundred people!

Bulls Blood beets with spots cleared to plant tomatoes in mid-March
Photo Pam Dawling

Transition from cool to warm weather crops

  • We flag planting spots every 2’ (60 cm) down the mid-line of the bed – see the photo above.
  • Harvest crops that are too close
  • Dig holes
  • Add a shovelful of compost in the hole
  • Plant the warm weather crop
  • Over the next few weeks, harvest to the south of the new plants, and anything between them that’s too close
  • Over the following few weeks, harvest the rest of the greens between the new plants and then crops to the north.
  • This overlap allows the new crops to take over gradually, and the winter greens to continue harvest in March and April
  • Having hoophouse greens in March and April is very valuable, because the newly planted outdoor crops are not ready to harvest yet, and the overwintered ones are getting sparse.
Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills.
Photo Pam Dawling

We still have some patches of winter greens, such as the Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills mustards above. We grow different types of frilly mustard to add zip to our salad mixes when they are small. Also, the Brassica juncea group  is resistant to Root Knot Nematodes, which we have been dealing with. We just learned that Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills are both more bolt-resistant than the pretty pink-stemmed mizuna (not a juncea mustard) and Ruby Streaks.

We still have some baby lettuce mix in good shape. Here is our fourth sowing:

Our fourth sowing (Feb 15) of lettuce mix.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our salad mixes currently are spinach, pea shoots, lettuce mix and small Frills or a homemade brassica salad mix. We are starting to crave the crunch and juiciness of big lettuces! We have a few still in the hoophouse, the last of the ones we have been harvesting leaves from all winter and spring. Most of those October-transplanted lettuces have bolted now, and have been chopped up to cycle back into the soil.

Pea shoots make a delightful spring salad ingredient.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our warm-weather crops include two beds of tomatoes, one each of peppers, cucumbers and squash. Here are photos I took yesterday. This year we are trying out Golden Glory squash (yellow zucchini), because they are able to set fruit without pollinators, and we have been having lots of trouble with what I believe are unpollinated squash with brown ends failing to develop.

Hoophouse squash: Gentry on the left, Golden Glory on the right. April 23
Photo Pam Dawling

More recently I heard that they may in fact have blossom end rot. I had not known this can affect squash. It has the same cause as the malady in tomatoes: a shortage of calcium reaching the top of the plant. This can be because of a shortage in the soil, or because cold temperatures slow down its transport. Less likely to be a problem in the hoophouse! In fact it is so hot some days that we have already scheduled a date to pull the big shadecloth over the top.

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

Spring hoophouse harvests and greenhouse seedlings

Pink stemmed mizuna in our March hoophouse Pam Dawling

Sorry for the delay in posting this. Apparently a driver hit an all-important cable and the whole county is without internet. Rural living can’t be beat!

Here we are in March. Nothing new to harvest outdoors yet, although the garlic scallions are getting close. But the hoophouse is serving us well. Every day we harvest 5 or 10 gallons of salad mix and either some cooking greens, radishes or scallions. The photo above is a new delight: Pink Stemmed Mizuna from Osborne Seeds

We’ve finished the hoophouse turnips, and are now making serious headway on the kale. We grow both Red Russian and White Russian kales.

White Russian kale from Fedco Seeds in our hoophouse in March.
Photo Pam Dawling
Red Russian kale from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in our hoophouse in March.
Pam Dawling

We use orange flags to denote where to harvest next, as we have a large hoophouse (30 x 96 ft) and many different crops. It is often obvious as we get closer. Here’s three different ways we are harvesting right now:

Baby lettuce mix after and before harvesting.
Photo Pam Dawling

As you can see we harvest baby lettuce mix by cropping it about an inch above the soil. I think this is the third cutting of this patch. I like to make our salad mixes about one third lettuce, one third brassicas of some kind and one third spinach. The brassica mix below is now bolting, so I pulled it up as I harvested. All brassica flowers are edible, and the buds are just like tiny broccoli.

Brassica (mustard) salad mix after and before harvesting.
Photo Pam Dawling

The spinach I’m harvesting today is our third sowing, and we are cutting outer leaves and chopping them into the salad mix.

Spinach after and before harvesting.
Photo Pam Dawling

For those wondering what the silver stuff is: these three crops are all in our narrow north edge bed. We have 24″ (60cm) bubblefoil insulation stapled onto the hipboard. It reflects back both light (in short supply low on the north wall) and heat.

In the greenhouse we have reached Peak Broccoli Flats season. We have 16 flats for our first planting in the coldframe, 16 of the second and four of the (backup plan) third sowing in the greenhouse.

Some of the many flats of broccoli in our greenhouse in mid-March.
Photo Pam Dawling

We use open wood flats for these kinds of hardy seedlings. We sow 4 rows into 12 x 24 x 3″ flats and then spot out into 12 x 24 x 4″ flats (40 plants each) to grow to final transplant size.

Broccoli in an open seed flat, and seedlings spotted into deeper open transplant flats.
Photo Pam Dawling

That’s it for this week! Hope to see some of you tomorrow at the Virginia Festival of the Book! 

My panel is the Land Use and Foodsheds in the Mid-Atlantic,

Thu. March 21, 2:00 PM – 3:30 PM

New Dominion Bookshop

404 E Main St, Charlottesville, VA 22902

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables slide show, and the decision between transplanting and direct sowing

I’ve feeding in a flurry of slideshows I’ve been presenting at conferences this winter. You’ll notice a lot of them have a hoophouse theme, although not all. Here’s one from the four hour course I gave at the Virginia Association for Biological Farming conference.

To view the slideshow full screen, click the diagonal arrow icon. You can then hop, skip and jump through it, choosing the bits you are interested in.

My other main topic this week is choosing when to transplant and when to direct sow. I am a big fan of transplanting, so I’ll start with that.

Watermelon transplants in a Winstrip plug flat. Watermelons give earlier harvests from transplants, and plants in plug flats transplant easier than from open flats.
Photo Pam Dawling

Advantages of transplanting:

  • You can start earlier in the year than you can outside, and so get earlier harvests
  • By starting seed in more ideal conditions in a greenhouse, (or on a kitchen windowsill), you’ll get better growth, more satisfaction!
  • It is easier to care for new seedlings indoors – major weather events stay outdoors!
  • You can fit more crops into each bed throughout the season, because each crop is occupying the bed for less time than if direct-sown.
  • Transplanting. can help you grow more successions of summer crops, as each one needs less time in the garden or field. This helps you always have good quality fresh produce for harvest.
  • If you don’t want or need to plant more food crops, you can use those time windows for quick cover crops, such as buckwheat in warm weather, mustards in cold weather.
  • You will save on seed costs, because you’ll be sowing and spotting or potting up, then transplanting, not sowing long rows and thinning most of the plants out.
  • Using transplants fits (better than direct sowing does) with using plastic (or paper) mulches, which can help with weed control and soil warming (or cooling).
  • Using transplants fits well with no-till cover crops. Mow or roll-and-crimp the cover crops, transplant into it, and the dead mulch keeps the weeds away for 6-8 weeks in our climate, longer in cooler and drier climates.
  • Transplanting works well for crops where you want several varieties, such as tomatoes and peppers.

    Amy’s Apricot tomato from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Transplanting works well for crops where you want a few plants each of several varieties.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  • You have more flexibility if the weather turns bad, for example if spring is cold and/or wet. You can delay transplanting. Your plants still grow, provided the roots have enough space. If you know they won’t, you can pot them up to provide more root space.
  • At transplanting time, you can select the sturdiest plants, and compost the rest, meaning you have the best chance of good yields.

Disadvantages of transplanting:

  • If you extend the season and start earlier, you will have more work. . .
  • You’ll need to spend extra time caring for the starts indoors, as they won’t get water if you don’t provide it.
  • Transplant shock can delay harvest, so be sure to learn and practice good techniques
  • More attention is needed to watering new plants after transplanting, (compared to direct seedling) as some root damage is almost inevitable. (Plug flats and soil blocks minimize root damage)
  • If you don’t have a good irrigation system or water supply, growing many transplants will be a challenge.
  • Likewise you do need a good greenhouse set-up to grow many transplants.

Advantages of direct seeding:

  • See the disadvantages of transplanting.
  • Direct seeding is less work than transplanting. Put the seed in the ground, water as needed and stand back!
  • You do not need a greenhouse or special transplanting equipment
  • Compared to buying starts, direct sowing has lower costs
  • Direct sown crops have better drought tolerance – the roots grow without damage
  • Some crops just don’t transplant easily: melons which have fragile stems and roots for instance, or carrots which get distorted roots if transplanted.
  • Some crops have millions of plants and you couldn’t possibly transplant enough:  (Carrots)

    Carrot rows thinned to 1 inch. Carrots are too numerous to transplant and transplanting stunts and distorts the roots, so they are best direct sown.
    Photo Kathryn Simmons

Disadvantages of direct sowing:

  • See the advantages of transplanting.
  • Direct sowing uses more seed than transplanting.
  • Direct sowing requires more time thinning
  • Direct sown crops occupy the land longer than the same crop transplanted.
  • Some direct-sown crops may be harder to get started in cold (or hot) conditions.

There are probably others, do let me know!

For those wanting to sow large-seeded crops through plastic mulch, see below for how we planted beans.

To sow beans through biodegradable plastic mulch, we made this dibble from bamboo, dowels, a culled hammock stretcher bar and plumbing strapping. Photo Nina Gentle
Using the bean dibble to punch holes through the plastic mulch (the soil is holding down the edges of the mulch).
Photo Brittany Lewis
Sowing beans through holes we made in the biodegradable plastic mulch.
Photo Nina Gentle
Beans growing on biodegradable plastic mulch.
Photo Nina Gentle

Farming Conference Tips, Hoophouse Cool Season Crops slideshow.

I’ve just been on an intensive conference hopping jaunt, three weekends in a row with not much time at home mid-week. One notion I heard discussed is the “Actionable Nugget”. It’s an idea you learn from someone else that inspires you as a possible solution to a problem or challenge you’ve noticed. I’m going to share some I picked up this month.

First I’m going to share my half-day presentation on Hoophouse Production of Cool Season Crops. To view it full screen, click on the diagonal arrows icon. Use the forward pointing triangle to move to the next slide. There are a lot! It was a full afternoon!

Here are some of the Actionable Nuggets:

Asparagus Beans (Asian Long Beans, Yard-Long Beans) as a summer hoophouse crop.

Purple-podded asparagus bean.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I got this idea from a Year-Round Organic Vegetable Production workshop at the Virginia Association of Biological Farmers Conference. It was presented by Rick Felker of Mattawoman Creek Farms on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Rick said that Asian long beans are a star crop for them, and  produce extremely high yields compared to outdoors. Yes, they need trellising, and yes, they need frequent harvesting.  On the plus side they are a legume, so they are adding nitrogen to the soil the whole time they are growing. At Mattawoman Farm, they harvest these from June to October.  In recent years we have not been growing bean seed crops in the summer hoophouse as we used to do. Last summer we grew Iron and Clay cowpeas as a cover crop, but were disappointed to need to cut them back every 6 days, because we’d decided not to stake them in any way.

Trellised Liana asparagus bean.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Sulfur: The Forgotten Nutrient, Secret Ingredient for Healthy Soils and Crops.

At the Future Harvest Chesapeake Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference, I much appreciated this workshop by Ray Weil. A whole workshop on one element! When deficient, the plant has symptoms resembling nitrogen shortage. It caused me to wonder how often I have made this mistake. Brassicas and legumes are the crops to pay closest attention to. I learned that the standard soil test for sulfur is fairly meaningless – I have been putting my faith in a poor source of information. The key piece of information from Ray Weil is that with a S shortage, the yellowing starts on the younger leaves, which is opposite to nitrogen shortages, when the yellowing begins on the older leaves.

S-deficient plants will be thin, spindly and slow-growing. The leaves will be high in nitrates, because the poor plant can’t use all the N it has absorbed from the soil. I already know from winter hoophouse growing that high levels of nitrate are not healthy. Legumes cannot do a good job of fixing nitrogen if S is too low. Sulfur shortages can affect the nutrient density of the crops, the protein level in beans. Now I know what to look for and what to do if I find the problem. Add 5-10 pounds per acre of S if plants seem deficient.

Cucurbit Blossom End Rot

Is this an unpollinated squash or one with Blossom End Rot?
Photo Pam Dawling

At the same FHCASA conference, I learned about cucurbit BER in a workshop by Emily Zobel. I had not known cucurbits could suffer from blossom end rot, which is a problem caused by limited calcium uptake, often in cold weather and when water supplies are too variable. I do see a little BER on our first hoophouse tomatoes to ripen, but the plants quickly grow out of it as the weather warms up.  The photos of young yellow squash Emily Zobel showed  looked just like what I have been thinking was lack of pollination!! Now I will need to see if encouraging the plants to take up more calcium can solve the problem. This “actionable nugget” arrives in good time for this growing season!

I also learned that duct tape can be used to remove squash bug eggs. (I’d given up trying)

Yellow Shoulders on Hoophouse Tomatoes

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

From a workshop on Organic Soil Management for High Tunnels at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference, presented by Krista Jacobsen, I learned some valuable tips about dealing with salt build-up in hoophouse soils. – she referred to hoophouses as “irrigated deserts”!

I also learned  about yellow shoulders on tomatoes. Previously I had read that the green/yellow shoulders were (unfortunately) genetically linked to good flavor in some varieties. At this workshop I learned that yellow shoulders (as opposed to green), can be a sign of potassium deficiency. Temperatures above 90F can also be a factor. The determinant hybrids have less of a problem than other varieties. Excess magnesium can be a factor, as can the choice of variety, a virus infection, pH over 6.7. Our pH isn’t over 6.7. Ideally, the grower would increase the magnesium to calcium ratio to 1:6 or 1:4, and/or increase the potassium. Perhaps we are short of magnesium. I will need to study our soil tests more carefully.

Organic Weed Management

A carpet of weeds, but the crop is easily seen!
Photo Bridget Aleshire

In this SSAWG workshop by Daniel Parson, I learned a technique for training newbies on weed control: Make them get down on the knees and point to and touch the crop plants before hoeing or pulling weeds. He says : “If you can see the weeds without getting down on the ground, you’ve waited too long! ” Weeds should be dealt with while tiny. Bring your trainees back in a week to to see the results of their hoeing. I like this idea! Too often it is hard for new workers to learn from their experience because they don’t study and critique their work as they learn!

Lean Farm Ideas

Ellen Polishuk gave this workshop, and I went because I had both enjoyed and been challenged by Ben Hartman’s Lean Farm book. I wanted to hear someone else’s perspective and remind myself of the best bits. To my surprise, one idea that stuck out was to work in 90 minute chunks, with short breaks (or longer meal breaks). I’m not sure I fully embrace this idea, but I’m mulling it over.

The Hoophouse Year in Pictures

Here’s an end-of-year pictorial post with photos from our hoophouse through the year. Few words! Enjoy your holidays. Maybe Santa will bring you a hoophouse?

January spinach from our second sowing.
Photo Pam Dawling
Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in February.
Photo Wren Vile
Hoophouse beds, marking spots to transplant tomatoes in mid-March.
Photo Wren Vile.
April snap peas with young squash plants.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
The snap peas in May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire
Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers in June.
Photo Alexis Yamashita
Tomatoes, yellow squash and more tomatoes in July.
Photo Alexis Yamashita
Young cowpeas in August.
Photo Nina Gentle
Radish seedlings on September 25.
photo Pam Dawling
September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile
Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile
November in paradise.
Photo Wren Vile
Young pak choy in November.
Photo Wren Vile
Tatsoi in the mist, November.
Photo Wren Vile
Prolific beds in November.
Photo Ethan Hirsh
Lush greens in December.
Photo Wren Vile
View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

Back-up plans for winter hoophouse crops

Lettuce “filler” transplants to fill gaps.
Photo Pam Dawling

Because crops grow slowly in cold weather, if something goes wrong at the beginning of the winter, or in the fall, the consequences can cast a long shadow. It is not easy to make up for lost time. In spring, the weather is getting warmer, the daylight is lengthening, and you may have noticed that later sowings can catch up with ones a week or two earlier, allowing for a second chance. In the fall, the rate of growth is moving in the opposite direction, and later sowings will stand no chance of catching up. Even worse, they may get “trapped” like Persephone in the Underworld during the dark Persephone Days. But don’t despair – there are things you can do ahead of time to be prepared for plans going awry, and there are even a few things you can do instead of your original plan, to ensure you get some crops to harvest.

Transplant seedlings under insect netting outdoors.
Photo Pam Dawling

Starting outdoors in September

We sow a lot of our winter crops outdoors in September, and transplant them into the hoophouse in October. This gives us an extra few weeks to prepare the hoophouse beds, and gives the seeds the cooler outdoor conditions to germinate in. We have three sowing dates.

On September 15, we sow 10 varieties of hardy leaf lettuce and romaines; pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo Bekana, Maruba Santoh and chard

On September 24, we sow another 10 varieties of lettuce; Red and White Russian kales, Senposai, more Yukina Savoy, mizuna and arugula, and we resow anything that didn’t do well in the 9/15 sowing

On September 30, we resow anything that didn’t do well in the 9/24 sowing, or substitutes.

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

This year, we had poor germination of a lot of the 9/15 sowings and too many of the 9/24 sowings. As a back-up for the back-up plans we sowed some crops in Winstrip trays, and spotted lettuce in open flats, which we kept inside the hoophouse. By that point, conditions in the hoophouse were more crop-friendly than outdoors. We did need some of these, and the rest we harvested for salad mixes right out of the flats! We were short of salad items because of the late establishment of the plants, so every plant was a help!

A flat of lettuce transplants in the path in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our goal is to keep the space filled with useful crops.

Success with this goal relies on a cluster of strategies

  1. The fall transplant program I describe above.
  2. Follow-on crops: A sequence of different crops occupying the same space over time. It’s important to know when crops will bolt, and how to plant sensible quantities
  3. Filler crops: As well as scheduled plantings, in October we sow a few short rows of spinach, lettuce, Senposai, Yukina Savoy, Maruba Santoh, Tokyo Bekana to transplant into gaps as soon as they occur. We simply dig them up, replant where needed and water well. Bare-root transplants are much easier than many fear. They save time and money, compared to growing starts in flats, and save on greenhouse space. They are very sturdy plants, as they have the full depth of soil to develop big roots. Little extra care is needed, as they are less prone to drying out than seedlings in flats. Alternatively you could keep some plug flats of these plants handy. We fill gaps with Asian greens, spinach or lettuces as appropriate, until Jan 25. From Jan 25 to Feb 20 we fill all gaps everywhere with spinach From Feb 20, we only fill gaps on the outer thirds of the beds, leaving centers free for tomatoes, etc.

    Filler brassica transplants in our hoophouse in November.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  4. Interplanting: After 2/20, we harvest the winter crops from the center rows first, plant the new early summer crops down the center, then harvest the outer rows bit by bit as the new crop needs the space or the light. This overlap allows the new crops to take over gradually. Our winter and spring crops end in April
  5. Fast Catch Crops. Some cool-weather crops mature in 60 days or less. Mostly these are greens and fast-growing root crops. Useful if a crop fails, or you have a small empty space. Details on some of these follow the list.
  • Ready in 30–35 days in fall, longer in winter: arugula, many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy,.Senposai, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy), brassica salad mixes, chard, kale, radishes, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) spinach and winter purslane. Peashoots in late winter or spring.
  • Ready in 35–45 days in fall: chervil, corn salad, land cress, parsley and sorrel.
  • Ready in 60 days in fall: beets, small fast cabbage, collards, kohlrabi and turnips.

 Asian Greens

Asian greens are better able to germinate in hot weather than lettuce, and are faster growing than lettuce. Transplant 2-3 weeks after fall sowing, or direct sow.

Asian greens are nutritious as well as tasty – flavors vary from mild to peppery – read the catalog descriptions before growing lots. Colors cover the spectrum: chartreuse, bright green, dark green and purple. A diversity of crops without a diversity of growing methods!

Brassica (Mustard) Salad Mixes

Interesting mustard mixes are sold for salad mixes. We often mix our own Brassica Salad Mix from leftover random brassica seeds. For a single cut, almost all brassicas are suitable – just avoid turnips and radishes with prickly leaves! We sow between 10/2 and 11/14 for winter harvest and from 12/4 to 2/12 for March and early April harvests. We’re zone 7, central Virginia.

Chard and Beet Greens

Green chard is hardier than the multi-colored Bright Lights. Days to maturity: 61 – 103 days, a big difference, depending when you sow. Sow 9/15, harvest 11/15 – 5/10; Sow 10/26, harvest 2/6 – 5/10.

Radishes in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

Radishes

Varieties we like: Easter Egg, White Icicle, and Cherry Belle.  Sparkler got too fibrous for us, as did Cherry Belle after mid Oct. We make 6 sowings 9/6 – 1/26. Small radishes take 27–52 days to maturity, not counting days too cold to grow.

Scallions in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Scallions

We sow 9/6 for harvest 12/1 – 3/1; 11/18 (following radishes) for harvest in early spring. This winter we are trying a sowing 10/20 also (we happened to have a space at that time, in a spot where it fitted our rotation). Evergreen Hardy White and White Lisbon scallions are hardy down to 0°F (-18°C)

Spinach

We loved Tyee and now grow Escalade, Reflect, Acadia and smooth leaf Renegade. Renegade makes good Nov/Dec growth; Acadia, Escalade yield well Jan – April; January sown Reflect does well.

  1. Succession Planting for Winter Hoophouse Crops

We do 2 sowings of chard, scallions, tatsoi and yukina savoy; 3 sowings of  mizuna, turnips and bulb onions; 4 sowings of baby lettuce mix and brassica salad mix; 5 sowings of spinach and radish. Our goal is to provide a continuous supply.

As temperatures and day-length decrease in the fall, the time to maturity lengthens – a day late in sowing can lead to a week’s delay in harvesting. As temperatures and day-length increase after the Winter Solstice, the time to maturity shortens – later sowings can almost catch up with earlier ones. To get harvests starting an equal number of days apart, vary the interval between one sowing date and the next accordingly. Here’s the most dependable method:

Making a Close-Fit Plan Using Graphs

  1. Gather sowing and harvest start and finish dates for each planting of each crop you are growing as successions.
  2. Make a graph for each crop: sowing date along the horizontal (x) axis; harvest start date along the vertical (y) axis. Mark in all your data. Join with a line. Smooth the line.
  3. From your first possible sowing date find the first harvest start date.
  4. Decide the last worthwhile harvest start date, mark that.
  5. Divide the harvest period into a whole number of equal segments, according to how often you want a new patch.
  6. Mark in the harvest start dates and see the sowing dates that match those harvest dates
Overgrown hoophouse filler greens in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Wren Vile

Working around the Persephone Days

In Indiana (in Zone 5b) Ben Hartman (The Lean Farm) sows salad greens & spinach for winter harvests every week Sept 15–Oct 15. Baby lettuce sown before Oct 22 takes 5–6 weeks until harvest. If sown Oct 24–Nov 16, it takes 8–17 weeks to harvest. In Zone 5b, if you want baby lettuce mix before December, sow before Oct 22.

Spinach sown before Oct 11 takes 4–6 weeks to harvest. If sown from Oct 20–Nov 1, it takes 12–15 weeks. To harvest spinach before December, he sows before the middle of October.

For new year harvests he sows every week Oct 15–Nov 1. He then takes a two month break from planting (Nov-Dec). Jan 1–Jan 15 he sows both salad greens and spinach for late winter.

In Zone 7 we can harvest outdoor lettuce and spinach in December, and we have less urgency about early hoophouse sowings (and we get no winter break!).

 

 

 

 

This winter week in the hoophouse, Virginia Biological Farming Conference

This post will be mainly photos. Outdoors the weather has been grey and dreary, and November was the coldest in 38 years, according to AgWeb, from the Farm Journal. But in our Virginia hoophouse, crops are growing well, and we have been harvesting salads every day, radishes every week, and have even started harvesting cooking greens. (I say “even” because we still have spinach, kale, collards outdoors too, which we normally harvest while we can.)

Koji greens in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’ll start harvesting the outer leaves of these Koji greens soon. Koji is a hybrid, rather like the open pollinated Yukina Savoy. Here’s our senposai just after I harvested 10 gallons of the biggest leaves:

Freshly harvested senposi. In just three days, the plants had grown enough to be ready for another harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

Soon we will start harvesting leaves from our Russian kale

White Russian kale ready for harvest in our hoophouse at the end of November.
Photo Pam Dawling

.For salad mixes, we are harvesting outer leaves from the leaf lettuces, along with spinach, Bulls Blood beet leaves, and often the brassica component has been tatsoi.

Outredgeous lettuce in late November. The persistent galinsoga shows that our hoophouse has not yet reached freezing temperatures.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tatsoi, which we sowed September 6, has been very prolific. We have been harvesting the outer leaves and chopping them for salad mix, after removing the stems. These causes the patch to look messy, but feeds us well.

Hoophouse tatsoi in late November, with harvested plants to the lower right and not-recently-harvested plants to the left.
Photo Pam Dawling

Once we’ve chosen our basic three ingredients (lettuce, spinach/chard/beet leaves, and a brassica), we customize the mix with other ingredients, such as Tokyo bekana, baby chard or frilly mustards such as Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills and Ruby Streaks. We are harvesting our first sowing, cutting outer leaves, and thinning our second sowing.

Our second hoophouse sowing of frilly mustards. Here you see Golden Frills and Ruby Streaks.
Photo Pam Dawling
Our first hoophouse sowing of scallions is ready for harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

Looking to the future, the first sowing of baby lettuce mix is almost big enough to harvest. We grow both leaf lettuce to keep alive all winter, and several sowings of baby lettuce mix to cut whenever it is big enough. Growing both gives us more resilience when the weather is so unpredictable.

Red Round turnips are beautiful, and the tops make good cooking greens.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’re also looking forward to turnips and chard.

Our second hoophouse planting of Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

The Virginia Biological Farming Conference will be held January 11-13, 2019 in Richmond, VA. See you there! See my Events page for more about my presentations.