Asian Greens for December: Pak Choy

Pak Choy in the hoophouse in December.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

December and the first three weeks of January are the season we harvest mature pak choy heads in our hoophouse. Pak choy, also known as bok choi, pac choy, and similar names, is a large 12″-15″ (30–38 cm) tall heading green, usually cut as a full head. If you prefer, you can harvest a leaf or two from each plant each time you want to eat some. It is hardy at least down to 32F (0C) outdoors. Some varieties are hardy down to 25F (-4C).

Botanically, pak choy is a Brassica rapa var. chinensis. If you plan to grow seed of more than one Asian green, carefully choose ones that won’t cross. Be aware of the possibility of brassica crops being wrongly classified.

Pak Choy in the hoophouse in early November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Pak Choy generally has thick rounded white stems, dark glossy leaves and a mild flavor. There are varieties with green stems, some with red-purple leaves such as Red Choi from Kitazawa, and some miniature varieties, such as Mei Qing Choi from Kitazawa, but we grow the full-sized white and green kinds, such as Joi Choi from Johnny’s and Prize Choy from Fedco. For the most choice, go to Kitazawa Seeds, as they stock 23 varieties (although 4 are tatois).

Like all Asian greens, pak choy is nutritious as well as tasty. It’s high in carotenoids, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, magnesium and fiber. It contains antioxidants which fight against cancer and protect eyes from macular degeneration.

Brassica seedbed protected from insects with ProtekNet and hoops.
Photo Bridget Alsehsire

We sow for this planting in an outdoor nursery seedbed on September 15, and cover the outdoor seedbeds with insect netting. The ideal germination temperature range for Pak Choy is 45-70F, it’s very easy-going. Ideal  temperatures for growth are 60-70F. Hoophouses are perfect. The plants grow fast and we only get a few weeds to deal with.Asian greens have similar care requirements to other brassicas, and very fertile soils grow the best Asian greens.

We transplant as bare root transplants into the hoophouse just 3 weeks after sowing, around Oct 3. We plant 10″ apart, with 4 rows in a 4ft wide bed. We reckon on 52 pak choy plants for 100 people. Because the harvest period is short, it is not wise to grow too many.

Young Pak Choy transplants.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Pak choy is shallow rooted, so pay extra attention to providing enough water during hot weather , 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week; 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather. This will prevent bitter flavors and excess pungency.

Do closely monitor for pests, which can cause havoc. We have had trouble in the hoophouse from the vegetable weevil larva. Click the link for information and great photos from Debbie Roos at Growing Small Farms. Other possible pests include flea beetles, aphids, harlequin bugs, cabbage caterpillars, grasshoppers and slugs.

Only about 8 weeks after transplanting, pak choy is ready to harvest. Because we want to keep all our hoophouse space in full use, we pull the plant out, then cut off the root. This is easier than cutting the head off at ground level, then trying to pry out the root.

Young Pak Choy plants in early November, with some darker Yukina Savoy on the right.
Photo Wren Vile

That same day we fill the gaps with some younger transplants (sown 10/10 in the hoophouse), that we have in reserve. We call these “filler greens.” We stop filling gaps with Asian greens (and lettuces) on Jan 25, and follow the pak choy with a sowing of kale to be transplanted outdoors in early March.

There’s a good publication from Iowa State Extension on  Commercial Production of Pak Choi. As an organic grower, I don’t use the herbicides and pesticides they mention, but the publication is good on identifying pests and diseases as well as covering the basic growing needs.

See ATTRA’s Cole Crops and Other Brassicas: Organic Production for more information than I can cover here.

In areas with cool or mild springs, pak choy can be a spring green, but that doesn’t work with our short springs – they just bolt rather than size up. Growing outdoors for fall harvest and in the hoophouse for winter use works best here in central Virginia.

Cold nights, Cool season hoophouse crops, CASA conference

Ginkgo Golden Puddle Day
November 10 2017.
Photo Pam Dawling

We had a few 24F nights and the ginkgo trees responded by instantly dropping all their leaves. A beautiful sight.


At the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference I gave a presentation called Sequential Planting of Cool Season Crops in High Tunnels as part of the Friday morning High Tunnel Crop Production Intensive workshop. It’s a new workshop I prepared especially for the CFSA. I usually call the structures hoophouses rather than high tunnels, but either name is fine. It used to be said that farmers called them hoophouses and researchers and academics called them high tunnels. Nowadays there is not such a binary distinction; farmers do research and teach, researchers and academics grow crops. Here is the longer version of the slideshow, including “bonus material” I didn’t include in the 60 minute presentation. Click the diagonal arrow icon to view full screen.

On the Sunday I gave a presentation on Year-Round Hoophouse Production which was a back-to-back presentation of the Hoophouse in Spring and Summer and the Hoophouse in Fall and Winter.  You can view those slideshows by clicking the links to them on the SlideShare.net site.


I’ve added a new event to my calendar for January. You can see all the events I plan to speak at, by clicking the Events tab at the top of the screen on my home page. This one is the Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture Future Harvest Conference January 11-13, 2018 at College Park, MD.

On Saturday January 13 11.30am -12.30pm I’m presenting Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables – Why farm in winter? Information includes tables of cold-hardiness; details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops; overwintering crops for spring harvests; scheduling; weather prediction and protection; hoophouse growing; and vegetable storage.

I might also be participating with other speakers in a new format Lightning Session, where we each get 10 minutes to tell the audience the top 5 things we want them to know about a certain topic. That isn’t decided yet.

I also hope to be signing books at the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange booth at some point.


Meanwhile here on the farm it’s got colder, as I said at the beginning, and even dreary some days. We are getting our winter carrots harvested, getting ready to plant garlic, adding draft-proofing strips to our hoophouse doors, and admiring and harvesting our hoophouse salad crops.

November hoophouse lettuce bed.
Photo Wren Vile

Making baby salad mix

Salad Mix freshly harvested.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our salad mix season has started! Very exciting! During the summer we have heads of lettuce and the warm weather salad crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. But now we’ve had a couple of frosts and we are starting to harvest mixed salads, mostly from our hoophouse. This involves snipping the outer leaves of various crops into ribbons, cutting small individual leaves from other crops and mixing the ingredients. In the photo above are spinach, Tokyo Bekana, Bull’s Blood beet leaves and a speck of Ruby Streaks. There is no lettuce in the picture. In October and early November we harvest the last of our outdoor lettuce and mix that in.

Tokyo Bekana in our hoophouse in late October.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our general salad mix harvesting approach is to mix colors, textures and crop families. I like to balance lettuce of different kinds with chenopods (spinach, baby chard, Bull’s Blood beet leaves) and brassicas (brassica salad mix, baby tatsoi, thinnings of direct-sown brassicas, chopped young leaves of Tokyo bekana, Maruba Santoh or other Asian greens, mizuna, other ferny mustards such as Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills).

Ruby Streaks and mizuna.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

I prefer to harvest and chop as I go, mixing everything at the end. It might seem easier to harvest first and then cut and mix, but that requires handling the greens a second time which causes more damage. Incidentally, tearing damages more  than cutting, so just get a good pair of scissors and keep them sharp. I cut and gather until I have a handful of leaves, then roll them lengthwise and cut into ribbons. The width of the ribbon depends on the crop. I like to have different size shreds. Mild flavor and plentiful items I cut on the wider side, stronger flavors narrower. I also want every bowlful to get some red highlights, so if red leaves are in short supply that day, I cut those thin.

Bull’s Blood beet greens in our hoophouse in late October.
Photo Pam Dawling

Use knives to cut whole heads, if you are doing that. Ceramic or serrated plastic knives cause less rapid browning to cut leaf edges, but almost all growers I know use metal knives.

Brassica salad mixes are easy to grow. There are various mustard mixes you can buy, to complement your baby lettuce mix. It doesn’t work well to mix lettuce seed and brassica seed together when sowing, as the crops grow at different rates. It is better to grow separate patches and customize your mix when you harvest. Wild Garden Seed has Wild Garden Pungent Mix, and the mild Pink Petiole Mix. Some seed companies now sell individual crops for mixes (see Johnnys Selected Seeds or Fedco Seeds Asian Greens for example). We mix our own Brassica Salad Mix from leftover random brassica seeds. For a single cut, almost all brassicas are suitable, except very bristly turnips. We sow in early February for March and early April harvests. Even if you don’t plan to grow brassica salad mix, keep it in mind as a worthwhile backup plan if other crops fail, or outdoor conditions are dreadful and you need a quick crop to fill out what you have.

Our first sowing of brassica salad mix, ready to harvest in mid-October.
Photo Pam Dawling

To harvest baby lettuce mix or brassica salad mix (also called mustard mix), use scissors, shears or a serrated knife, and cut an inch (a few centimeters) above the soil to spare the growing point of the plants for regrowth. Some growers use a leaf rake to pull out debris after each harvest of baby leaf lettuce, and minimize the chance of including bits of old rotting leaves in the next cut. For small plants, it works fine to pinch off individual leaves, provided you are careful not to tug–small plants may not be very firmly anchored in the soil! Small leaves can go in the mix whole

Young lettuce mix growing in our hoophouse.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Baby lettuce mix can be cut 21 days from seeding in warm weather, but from November to mid-February, it may take two or three times as long from sowing to first harvest. Cool season lettuce mix may provide four or more cuttings, but in warm weather it will only provide a single harvest. Excessive milkiness from the cut stems is a sign of bitterness. You can also test by nibbling a piece of leaf. Our winter salad mixes end at the end of April, when our outdoor lettuce heads are ready for harvest.

Asian Greens in October: Yukina Savoy, Tatsoi

Yukina Savoy
Photo Wren Vile

Yukina Savoy is a very  delicious cold tolerant cooking green. It grows in a rosette, like  tatsoi, but bigger, less shiny, more blistered. It survives down to 10°F (-12°C) outdoors, so is a good outdoor crop in late fall. Ours is doing so well this year that we started eating outer leaves in early October, planning to eat more later. We eat from the outdoor crop from mid-October until  mid-December. Outdoors, we transplant them 12″ (30 cm) apart.

Yukina Savoy outdoors in December, after several nights at 16-17°F (-8 to -9°C)
Photo Ethan Hirsh

We have also transplanted some in our hoophouse (sown 9/15) to feed us in December and January. A second sowing (9/24) will feed us in January and February. It is fast-growing in the fall, taking 21 days to reach baby size, 45 days to full size. The plants grow quite large, we transplant them at 10.5″ (26 cm) apart. They grow 12″ (30 cm) tall.

In the spring (which comes early indoors) Yukina Savoy has the advantage of being somewhat heat-tolerant – it doesn’t bolt until the middle of March in there. Of course, we aim to have eaten it all before they get a chance to bolt.

For commercial sales, the whole plants are cut, gathered and fastened with a tie. For home use, you have the option of simply taking the leaves you want for immediate use, and letting the heart of the plant continue to make more growth.

Open-pollinated Yukina Savoy.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

The photo to the left shows the open-pollinated variety we used to buy from Fedco Seeds, but sadly they no longer have that. Instead we bought a hybrid Koji from Johnnys Selected Seeds. Koji claims to be “attractive, upright, and earlier maturing than Yukina Savoy, which it replaced.” I think the “more upright” and possibly the “earlier maturing” parts are true.  Attraction is in the eye of the beholder. I think Koji is less cold-hardy and less blistered than the OP type, shinier, and with greener stems.

Yukina Savoy Koji.
Photo Wren Vile

I’ve found the OP one at Kitazawa Seeds, where it is classified as Chinese cabbage, loose head type. It’s a Brassica Rapa Pekinensis Group, for those considering saving seed.

 The only photo of the Koji fully grown that we have is here on the left. This one is bolting, so it’s not a totally fair comparison.

Both types are delicious, and easy to cook.

We had been including Yukina Savoy in our hoophouse bed which has nematodes, thinking it is Brassica Juncea, which has some resistance to root knot nematodes. Back to the drawing board, on that plan!


Tatsoi.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Tatsoi is a smaller, shiny dark-green leafed plant with whiter stems. The leaves are sometimes described as “spoon-shaped” – the white stem is the spoon handle and the leaf blade is the bowl of the spoon. The plant grows as a flat rosette if it has plenty of space, but more upright if crowded as in the photo above. The flavor is milder than Yukina Savoy. In the fall, it takes 21 days for baby salads; 45 days for cooking. We don’t plant tatsoi in spring, as it would bolt before growing in our “Instant Summer” climate.

Tatsoi is also very cold-tolerant, similarly hardy to 10°F (–12°C). We no longer grow this one outdoors, because Yukina Savoy is bigger and easier. We prefer our small plants be in the hoophouse, where there are almost no weeds, and we don’t mind spending longer harvesting in winter. (More tatsoi per bucketful than Yukina Savoy = more time).

We direct sow in the hoophouse on Sept 6, one of our first fall hoophouse sowings. We sow rows 6″ apart, knowing they will get crowded. We thin into salad mixes, leaving some plants to mature at 10″ (25 cm) across for cooking greens. Tatsoi also transplants easily – I’d probably go for 6″ (15 cm) spacing if transplanting. The first sowing feeds us from 10/20 – 12/31, with thinnings for salad from Oct 8.

We make a second hoophouse sowing on November 15. This one takes 8 days to germinate. It will feed us from 2/12-3/12 (thinnings 12/27-1/21). So, altogether, we have full size tatsoi to harvest from October 25 – March 5. We usually either thin out the plants, or cut outer leaves until we see the plants are about to bolt, then cut heads.

Kitazawa Seeds have a  Red Tatsoi, a Red Violet tatsoi/pak choy hybrid, with an upright habit, and several tatsoi crosses, such as Misome (a fairly recent hybrid between Komatsuna and Tatsoi); Da Cheong Chae (with qualities of both Tatsoi and Pak Choi); Choho (one of several hybrids of Komatsuna and Tatsoi); and Savoy Tatsoi (dark green, heavily savoyed leaves with pale green petioles, giving it a spinach-like appearance).

Tatsoi in the hoophouse morning mist. Photo Wren Vile

 

What’s growing in the hoophouse; reading; planning for winter.

Tokyo Bekana in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse we are perhaps half way through our bed preparations. The Tokyo Bekana was the first crop we transplanted from our outdoor nursery bed, and it’s looking very sturdy now.  We’ve also transplanted some Yukina Savoy and the first of the lettuces.

Cherry Belle radishes in the hoophouse, early October.
Photo Pam Dawling.

The crops we direct sowed in early September are growing well, and we are harvesting the radishes and some of the tatsoi and Bulls Blood beet greens (thinning to 6″ apart). The spinach is big enough to start harvesting but we haven’t needed to yet.

Hoophouse tatsoi in early October.
Photo Pam Dawling

The newer sowings (the second radishes and the first brassica baby salad mix (mustards) have emerged and are ready to thin to 1″. Sometimes we use thinned seedlings as a salad garnish, but it takes more time than simply pulling them out, and it takes attention to keep them clean.

This summer we grew more cover crops rather than seed crops, which we have been growing in summer for several years, because we were short of workers. In the photo below you can see some healthy cowpeas I’m going to be pulling up later today, as well as some pulled up and dried buckwheat. We don’t dig our cover crops under, just let them die on the surface for as long as possible, shedding bits of dead leaf, then haul them to the compost pile. With the cowpeas, we hope to leave the nitrogen nodules from the roots, by ripping the plants up roughly!

Iron and Clay cowpeas as cover crop in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

These cowpeas have been cut back two or three times over the summer, to keep them manageable. At one point, they were black with sooty mold growing on aphid honeydew. We wondered if it was going to be a bigger problem, but after we cut the plants back, most of the aphids seem to have died. We also got a healthy population of ladybugs.


December beds with row cover.
Photo Wren Vile

I gather readers are planning for winter, as many folks have been visiting my Winter-Kill Temperatures List of hardy crops. I update this list every spring, with the info from the previous winter. It’s useful for planning harvests based on forecast temperatures, and it’s useful for planning which winter crops will grow in your location, either inside or out.

On the same theme, I just discovered the WeatherSpark website which provides “The Typical Weather Anywhere on Earth”. Enter your nearest town or airport and you get clearly explained info with fascinating graphics of how the weather goes over the year in your locality. Note this is not a forecast site, it’s about average weather for each place. Useful to people who’ve recently moved and want to know what to expect this winter, or to new gardeners who haven’t paid so much attention previously. Or to those who want to check their assumptions (I really thought the wind was out of the west more of the time than records say). There are charts of high and low temperature, temperature by the hour each month, cloud cover, daily chance of precipitation (both rainfall and snowfall), hours of daylight, humidity, wind speed and direction and solar energy. A big help in making wise decisions. I know that climate change is going to cause havoc with averages, and we’ll need to learn to become better weather forecasters individually, and to use soil temperature and other metrics to decide when to plant. But this website explains things well.


Tomato seed strained in a sieve.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote a more concise description of saving tomato seed for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. For the full length version, see my two posts here and here.

The October Growing for Market is out. Flower farmer Erin Benzakein writes about getting to grips with the marketing side of running a farm. She encourages farmers to get good photos, step out from behind the camera, and dust off their website. I could use some of this advice! (I’ve been very busy writing a hoophouse book, and have necessarily paid less attention to giving presentations and to rejuvenating this website!

Kai Hoffman-Krull writes about on-farm trials of bio-char. I’m looking forward to reading that. Jesse Frost writes about winter CSAs and profiles some he visited. Chris Bodnar covers Italy’s thriving agricultural co-ops and asks if this could be a model for the next phase of the locally-grown movement. Lastly Zach Loeks offers the first of a two-part series on Transitioning to a permaculture market garden.

The September/October issue of Organic Broadcaster is also out. Articles include attending to soil health to improve production; the top reasons customers buy organic foods (accountability, environment, health); interseeding cover crops in cash crops; an interview with farmers in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program; designing an efficient pack shed; and selecting the right meat processor.

Lastly, the campaign www.keepthesoilinorganic.org has posted a letter a letter recently sent out by farming mentor Eliot Coleman about the travesty of allowing hydroponics to be certified as Organic. Hydroponics is a system of growing plants anchored in holes in plastic tubes, or in blocks of inert material, and feeding them with a liquid solution of things that work to produce mature plants. The arrogance of imagining we know everything a plant needs is astounding! The idea that all the many complex ingredients of soil can be replaced with a synthetic concoction is staggering!

Eliot Coleman’s letter includes these quotes:

Organic farming is best defined by the benefits of growing crops on a biologically active fertile soil.

The importance of fertile soil as the cornerstone of organic farming is under threat. The USDA is allowing soil-less hydroponic vegetables to be sold as certified organic without saying a word about it.

The encouragement of “pseudo-organic” hydroponics is just the latest in a long line of USDA attempts to subvert the non-chemical promise that organic farming has always represented. Without soil, there is no organic farming.

 

Eliot Coleman will be a speaker, along with Fred Kirschenmann, Enid Wonnacott, Jim Riddle, Will Allen, Jeff Moyer, Dave Chapman, Anaise Beddard, Lisa Stokke, Tom Beddard and  Linley Dixon at the Jacksonville Rally of the Keep the Soil in Organic movement. Oct 31, 2017 at 12:45 pm – 2:00pm EDT. Omni Jacksonville Hotel, 245 Water St, Jacksonville, FL 32202, USAThis Rally will be a gathering of organic farmers and eaters from all over the world. The march will begin at the Omni Jacksonville during the lunch break from 12:45 to 2 PM on Tuesday, the first day of the NOSB meeting. There will be a 5 minute march to The Landing from the Omni. Lunch will be available at the Rally. For more information, call Dave Chapman at 802-299-7737.

Replacing hoophouse plastic

Pulling new plastic over our hoophouse frame, using ropes and tennis balls.
Photo Wren Vile

Last week was a busy one. We replaced both layers of hoophouse plastic and did some running repairs. A mere two years ago we replaced just the outer layer, thinking we had hail storm damage on top where we couldn’t see. Then we suffered from over-zealous snow removal in the winter and made lots of holes in our new plastic. We decided to take it back to the skeleton this time. The inner plastic was 4 years old. Sometimes plastic will last 5 years in our climate.

I’ve written twice on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about this: How to Put New Plastic on a Hoophouse (High Tunnel): A Step-by-Step Guide and Mistakes to Avoid When Putting New Plastic on Your Hoophouse. I won’t repeat all that info here.

We’ve found that mid-September is the best time of year for us to replace hoophouse plastic. We remove the summer shadecloth early in September, so we’ve got that out of the way. October is our busiest hoophouse month with lots of sowings and transplanting of winter greens. It’s good to get the plastic replaced before then. Also in September the temperature is more moderate. Not too cold, so that the plastic is shrunken, not so hot that it gets overstretched. Mind you, September is hurricane season and we are on the east coast. We watched the forecasts carefully. We were lucky: no big hurricanes came our way, it didn’t rain, and we even chose a week with fairly calm winds. We set aside 5 whole days. The second day was too breezy to fly plastic – more than 5 mph. It actually reached about 9 mph, which I know some of you will still say is not very windy, but people with 48 ft x 100 ft kites have to be careful!

Removing old inner layer of hooophouse plastic.
Photo Wren Vile

We assembled a crew of five people, and as we always have some new people each year, we arranged to have at least two experienced people present at all times. The first day we removed and rolled up the two layers of old plastic. We’re storing it in case of emergency! We removed the blower hose, the manometer tubing and the two jumper hoses that make sure air flows from the air-intake side of the house to the other (theoretically not needed in our model, which has no pinch-point ridge-pole). We spent the rest of the day removing the crumbling old duct tape that covered all the connectors in the framework, and cleaning out soil that had got in the channels that keep the wigglewire in place along the south and north sides.

Loosening wigglewire on the end wall of the hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse renovation: replacing duct tape over the metal connectors.
Photo Wren Vile

The second day was the breezy day, and we made good use of it to finish removing old duct tape and replacing it with new. We used over 8 rolls of duct tape for our 30′ x 96′ house. We had an urgent trip to town, as we had expected 6 rolls to be enough. We found an exterior grade of duct tape, which is a darker, pewter, grey. We’ll let you know in five years how it holds up. It didn’t cost much more than the regular grade. We also replaced a rotten part of the hipboard on the north side.

Replacing a rotten part of the hipboard on the hoophouse north wall.
Photo Wren Vile

The third day was calm, and we finished the duct-taping and installed the new plastic. We unrolled the inner plastic along the south side of the house and tied 5 tennis balls into the edge of the plastic, with 60′ ropes attached. One-by-one, we tied a water bottle in a sock to the ropes and threw them over. The inner plastic has a “This Side Down” notice, so we paid attention to that. With the outer plastic, we wanted to pull it over so the side touching the grass would end up outside (ensuring no water or grass mowings got trapped between the layers). Some people are better than others at visualizing how things will be after turning them round!

Throwing a rope attached to a plastic bottle of water in a sock over the hoophouse to pull the new outer plastic over.
Photo Wren Vile

To our dismay, the inner plastic wasn’t tough enough, and we ended up with three holes up high in the roof, from the tennis balls. We’ve never had that happen before, so I’m left wondering if dripless inner hoophouse plastic isn’t what it used to be. We taped up the holes with PolyPatch tape. We decided to wait till the next day to inflate the hoophouse, as we didn’t want to risk exploding it in the night.

Day 4, we switched on the blower. Golly, it took all day to inflate. So we unplugged it at night and closed the air intake, hoping to preserve the air we’d blown into the space. But the air intake flap was too gappy, so the next day was almost like a fresh start. We trimmed the excess plastic round the edges, tidied away the tools and continued tinkering with getting the right setting on the air intake flap.

Hoophouse inflation blower air intake.
Photo Kathryn Simmons.

 

Sowing hoophouse winter crops

New spinach seedlings in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

To prepare hoophouse beds for winter crops, we first remove the summer crops to the compost pile, then spread a generous layer of compost over the surface. We use about five wheelbarrowsful for one bed 4’ x 90’. Next we move the three lengths of drip tape off to one side or the other, and broadfork the whole area. We have an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools that we really like. To use a broadfork, work backwards either going the length of the bed or the width. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the bar touches the soil, with the tines all the way in, then step off backwards, pulling the handles towards you. This loosens a big area of soil, which hopefully crumbles into chunks. Lift the broadfork and set it back in the soil about 6” back from the first bite. Step on the bar and repeat. We’ve found it’s important to only broadfork the amount of space you have time to rake immediately, otherwise the warm hoophouse conditions dry out the soil and make it harder to cultivate into a fine tilth, which is the next task. Sometimes we use a rake, breaking the clumps up with the back of the rake, then raking the soil to break up the smaller lumps, and reshape the bed.

7″ stirrup hoe.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

Sometimes we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job scuffle hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing, and hence why we call them scuffle hoes), but the sharp hoe blade does a good job of breaking up clumpy soil. We’ve also found it important to lay the drip tapes back in place in between each day’s work, so that the soil gets irrigated when we run the system and stays damp. We don’t want dead, baked soil.

Once the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags. Next we use our row-marker rake (bed prep rake) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Johnny’s Bed Prep rake with row marker pegs.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

We plant crops closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and closer to the edges of the beds. We don’t have many weeds in the hoophouse, and the paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds, compacting the soil. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, even if we don’t step on the edges (and of course, some feet do find themselves on the bed edges sometimes), hence the once-a-year broadforking. We found out how valuable the soil loosening is, because one year before we started broadforking, we decided to loosen the edges with a digging fork to make up for several years of accidental steps. The edge rows of spinach grew much bigger than the inner rows, and we realized that the whole bed needed loosening.

After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds. We pre-sprout our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. Just soak the seed overnight, drain it in the morning, fit a mesh lid on the jar, and lay it on its side in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to tumble the seeds and even out the moisture. This year the seeds were a bit wet when I came to sow them, and clumped together. I poured them out on a cloth to dry a bit before I sowed. This year we are growing two varieties (Avon and Reflect) side by side, still seeking a replacement for our much loved Tyee, which was pulled from the market, because it was prone to a disease prevalent in the West.

Easter Egg radish seedlings in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

The spinach, tatsoi and radishes came up very quickly, with the beets a day or two behind. The scallions came up in a week, which is quicker than at other times of year.

One week after the sowings, I thinned the spinach and radishes to 1” apart in the row. We are growing Easter Egg, Cherry Belle and White Icicle radishes. The Cherry Belle will be ready first, Easter Egg next (they mature relatively gradually, giving us a nice harvest period). Icicle are unusual long white radishes which are slower to mature, and slow to get woody.

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

Meanwhile, outdoors on September 15 we sowed the first half of the crops that we transplant bare-rooted into the hoophouse. Our planned schedule called for 10 varieties of lettuce, but I ended up sowing 12, partly because we are trying three new Vitalis one-cut lettuce varieties from High Mowing Seeds: Ezrilla, Hampton and Buckley.  These are bred to provide lots of similar-sized leaves from cutting. They can be cut and mixed for baby salad mix or cut as whole heads for easy-to-prepare salads, or harvested by the leaf (or layers of leaves) once the plant has grown to full size. This is how we use them. They were previously called Eazileaf varieties, and are now called One-cut lettuces. They are only available as pelleted seed, so I regard them as too pricey to grow for baby salad mix, and best used for multiple harvests.

Johnny’s Green Sweet Crisp Salanova lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Seeds

Osborne’s Multigreen 3 lettuce.
Photo Osborne Seeds

You can click here to read the New Head Lettuces article Andrew Mefferd wrote about this new type of lettuce in Growing for Market magazine. We have previously grown Johnny’s Salanova and Osborne’s Multileaf varieties and I wrote about them here and here. This year we are trying the High Mowing ones. We did a small trial of them outdoors in spring, knowing that in our climate (very different from High Mowing’s in Vermont) they might well bolt. They grew into handsome plants, but clearly they are more suited to fall than spring in our quickly-heating-up climate.

Other lettuces we sow for our winter hoophouse crops include Oscarde, Panisse, Tango which have a similar shape of lots of same-sized leaves, and Green Forest (romaine), Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Merlot, Revolution, Salad Bowl and Red Salad Bowl. I would have sown Red Tinged Winter but we seem to be out of seed.

Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Heritage Harvest Festival, Carolina Farm Stewardship Assoc Conference, Succession Planting Podcast

After a couple of summer months off from speaking at events, I am gearing up for the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, near Charlottesville. This two day festival has a day of ticketed workshops on Friday September 8 and a field day on Saturday September 9. Saturday workshops, demonstrations, tours and kids events are all included with the price of admission.

Never been to Monticello’s annual Heritage Harvest Festival? What exactly is it? Get your tickets now to join in 9/8-9/9. You’ll find a variety of interesting events and workshops focused on all things related to gardening, cooking and food. You can learn everything from how to make cider, how to keep your garden alive throughout the winter, or even how to become a chicken whisperer.  There is something for everyone! See the schedule of events here.

Sweet potato harvest
Photo Nina Gentle

This year I am presenting my workshop Growing Sweet Potatoes on Friday at 3.30 pm, followed by book-signing at the Bookshop at 4.45 pm. Bring your grubby well-thumbed old copy of Sustainable Market Farming for me to sign, or buy a fresh new one for yourself, or as a gift, at the Bookshop.

Come and participate in the 11th Annual Old Timey Seed Swap at Monticello’s Heritage
Harvest Festival  and learn more from Ira Wallace, one of the founders of HHF and worker/owner of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Seed savers of all levels are welcome! #HHF2017.

Seed Swap jars at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival
Photo courtesy of Monticello

Tour Monticello’s 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden: an “Ellis Island of edible curiosities” at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival .

Peter Hatch giving a tour of the Monticello vegetable garden.
Photo courtesy of Monticello

Come and sample more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, heirloom peppers and melons in the Tasting Tent.

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


My next event after that will be the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference.  November 3-5, 2017 in Durham, NC. I will be talking about hoophouse growing, both in the Friday morning pre-conference and on Sunday. See my Events page (tab) for more.

Cucumbers and squash in our hoophouse.
Photo Nina Gentle

I’m doing fewer speaking events this fall/winter/spring season. I’m writing my second book, on year round vegetable production in hoophouses. I need to stay home and write, take photos, write some more, edit, draw diagrams, write more, make charts, etc.


In June, at the Vermont Mother Earth News Fair in Burlington, I took part in a podcast on Succession Planting. I thought I could embed it right here, but the closest I can manage today is this link: https://www.podbean.com/media/player/9s7a3-6cafa3?from=yiiadmin&vjs=1&skin=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=1&download=1&rtl=0

https://motherearthnewsandfriends.podbean.com/e/ep-13-succession-gardening/



Debbie Roos of Chatham County, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, steward of the very useful Growing Small Farms website, sent a heads up about a special feature of this week:

The week of August 6-12 has been declared National Farmers’ Market Week by the Farmers’ Market Coalition. It’s a great time to reflect on the importance of farmers’ markets to our communities and pledge to support our local markets, farmers, and vendors.

As demand for local food continues to grow, so too have the opportunities for America’s farmers to market fresh food directly to the consumer. The number of markets listed in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Market Directory has grown from 2,863 in 2000 to 8,675 in 2016.
According to statistics recently released by the USDA, farmers’ markets and farm stands account for roughly $2 billion of the $3 billion that Americans spend annually on direct-to-consumer farm product sales. This revenue, in turn, supports the livelihoods of more than 165,000 mostly small and mid-sized farms and ranches.

Farmers’ markets strengthen rural economies. According to the Farmers’ Market Coalition, farmers selling locally create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million in revenue earned, compared to three jobs created by farmers who don’t sell locally. Farmers’ markets provide a low-barrier entry point for farmers and food entrepreneurs who are just starting out and/or want to test new products by getting feedback directly from customers.

Farmers’ markets support healthy communities by increasing access to fresh, nutritious, and flavorful food. Markets also provide important opportunities for social interactions and vendors help educate the non-farming public about agriculture and local foods.

So, support your local Farmers Market, unless you grow all your own food! You can probably find something to buy, or some way to offer help. Or buy a farmer a cup of tea!

Hunting Hornworms on Tomato Plants

Tobacco Hornworm eating a tomato plant
Photo Pam Dawling

Perhaps you also have hornworms eating your tomato plants? The upper leaves stripped to stems, the fruit munched, and big fat caterpillars getting bigger and fatter? Ours are tobacco hornworms, not tomato hornworms, but both are bad news. Fifty years ago, the Twin Oaks land was a tobacco farm. Tobacco hornworms have a red (not black) horn, and diagonal white lines, not arrowhead vees.

Outdoors our hornworms often get parasitized by a tiny braconid wasp whose larvae develop white rice-grain-like cocoons sticking out of the back of the hornworm. But the parasitic wasps don’t usually fly into the hoophouse, so we have to provide the pest control ourselves. We could prevent the night-flying hornworm-mother Carolina sphinx moth or  Tobacco hawk moth from entering our hoophuse by closing it up every night, but we don’t want to do that, as it means we have to reliably open it every morning before it gets too hot.

Hornworms strip the upper tomato leaves until only stems remain.
Photo Pam Dawling

When I find these beasties, I pull them off the plants (it can take quite a tug, their legs are strong), drop them on the ground and stomp on them. They can grow to be 4″ caterpillars. One day when I’d finished my safari along the first tomato bed and was working my way along the back of the second bed, I saw a cardinal fly in twice and fly off with a dead hornworm in its beak. I guess they can’t tackle live ones. (If only . . .)  I’m intrigued by how they knew I had provided dinner. Did they smell the hornworms? Or see the dead ones on the path? Sight seems more likely to me than smell.

So, why are these big caterpillars hard to find? You might imagine such big worms with such vivid stripes would be easy to see, but not so. They are, of course, the exact same shade of green as tomato leaves. Curled tomato leaves can look remarkably similar to hornworms. The stripes mimic the veins on the undersides of the leaves.

Tomato plant badly damaged by hornworms
Photo Pam Dawling

I do my hornworm hunting when it’s warm but not too hot, on the theory that then the caterpillars are more likely to be active, rather than snoozing in a sheltered spot. I walk along the row looking for damaged leaves. When I find some, I gaze at the area, looking for discrepancies in the pattern – bare stems with lumps on them. Usually the caterpillars are on the underside of a chewed stem, and often (but not always) they have their heads raised as in my second photo.

If I’m looking at damaged young leaves I’m pretty confidant that there’s a hornworm somewhere in the vicinity. If there are newer leaves that are intact, it might mean there was a hornworm, but it’s been removed already. Another sign that a hornworm is nearby is what safari hunters call fresh spoor – caterpillar poop. Hornworm poop looks like miniature brown pineapples or grenades (use whichever comparison you are more familiar with.)

Hornworm poop on tomato leaf.
Out-of-focus photo Pam Dawling

If I see damaged fruit, I redouble my efforts to find the culprit.

Tomato fruit damaged by hornworm
Photo Pam Dawling

If I still can’t see the worm, I sway a bit from side to side, viewing the plants from various perspectives. Sometimes I scrunch down a bit, so that the top of the plant is back-lit – that helps. Hunt frequently, every day or two. Knowing the signs of hornworm presence can save you time looking high and low. Instead you focus your attention on where you are most likely to find them.

Hoophouse tomato varieties

Tall tomatoes with beans and cucumbers in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse tomatoes are doing well this year. Apart from the determinate Glacier, they’ve reached the top of the stakes and as high as we can string-weave or pick. We transplanted them March 15, a month before our last frost date. We harvest each of our hoophouse beds every two days,alternating them to smooth supplies.We plan to harvest for ten weeks from May 25 till July 31, by which time our first outdoor planting is yielding well. In the South many of us grow only our early tomatoes in hoophouses, as outdoor crops produce abundantly once the weather warms. We harvest our outdoor tomatoes (sown 3/15) from July until frost, initially overlapping with our hoophouse earlies, then on their own.

Ken Dawson in Cedar Grove, NC, has a succession planting plan for outdoor tomatoes. He makes four field plantings at three week intervals. In cooler climates, because yields will be higher, it is more common to grow tomatoes in hoophouses whenever possible, and keep them growing for the whole season.

Glacier tomatoes in our hoophouse in late June.
Photo Pam Dawling

It is possible to grow successions of determinate tomatoes in a hoophouse, but any advantages are usually outweighed by the disadvantages of disease spread and the extra time plants spend before they reach production. In the past we grew a late hoophouse crop, to take us beyond the first frosts. We sowed June 18 and transplanted at a relatively young age (tomatoes grow quickly by that point of the year). We gave this up in favor of growing more leafy greens.

Each year I take notes on the varieties we have in the hoophouse, and often we run a taste test. I have also been gathering information from other growers, on which varieties do well for them. Before I get into talking about specific varieties, I want to say a bit about types of tomatoes.

Determinate Varieties

Varieties can be divided into two main growth types and then the exceptions. Determinates (bush tomatoes) are compact varieties that stop growing at a height of 2′-4′ (0.6-1.2 m). The number of stems, leaves and flowers is part of the genetic makeup of that variety. The number of leaves between one fruit cluster and the next decreases by one each time a cluster is produced, until the terminal cluster forms. No more leaves or flowers develop after that. The fruit ripens and the plant starts to die back. Harvest can be 1-3 months from start to finish. Because they are faster to mature than indeterminates, they are often chosen for early crops. Determinate varieties usually bear lightly the first third of the  harvest period, heavily the second, then lightly for the last third, so it is not very productive to plant crops so late that they don’t reach their second (main) month of production before frosts. Determinates need no pruning as the yield of fruit is inherently limited. Most need little staking, but some determinates are quite tall, and produce for quite a long season.

Tomato Mountain Magic in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Fast-maturing Tomato Varieties

Currently Glacier (56d det red) is the only determinate we grow. We simply choose varieties for our early bed based on days to maturity, past experience and inspiring catalog write-ups! They have to be 71 days or fewer from transplant to maturity. We like Stupice (61d ind red), Mountain Magic (66d ind red), Garden Peach (71d ind yellow) and the very fast and delicious cherry Sun Gold (57d ind orange) and Five

Sun Gold cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Star Grape (62d red). We found out the hard way that growing too many cherries is not wise – they take a long time to harvest and when you compare yields it’s clear they don’t add up to much. We grow two plants each of Sun Gold and Five Star Grape, 6 each of Garden Peach and Mountain Magic, 13 Stupice and 16 Glacier. Very biased towards the earliest.

 

Indeterminate Varieties

Jubilee tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

We choose our favorite workhorses along with some unusual heirlooms for our second bed. Most heirlooms are indeterminate. We grow lots of Jubilee (80d ind orange) and Tropic (80d ind red). The just two or three each of the fun and interesting Green Zebra (76d ind green stripes on gold), Striped German (78d ind red/yellow), Amy’s Sugar Gem (75d ind red), Rebelski (75d ind red) and two each of two more cherries, Amy’s Apricot (75d ind apricot) and Black Cherry (70d ind purple-brown)

Green zebra tomato in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

Indeterminate varieties can continue to grow and produce more fruit as long as the weather is warm enough, and as long as they don’t get struck down by frost or disease. The number of leaf nodes between one cluster and the next remains the same all the way up the vine. Indeterminate tomatoes need substantial support. Pruning is not essential – whether or not to prune depends on your climate, the varieties you are growing and how long you plan to keep the plants for.

Amys Apricot cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Semi-determinate varieties

Semi-determinate tomato varieties are larger than determinate but smaller than indeterminate plants. Some seed suppliers just call them large determinates. These plants usually require staking.

Making Choices

If you are growing in a cold climate you will probably want to grow indeterminates in your hoophouse and keep them all season, as it takes a long time to grow a tomato plant. If you are growing in hot climates, you will probably only grow your earlies in your hoophouse and then grow a succession of outdoor tomato crops. If you grow where there are lots of tomato diseases, you will do better with succession planting than having all your eggs in one tomato basket. If your season is long enough for multiple plantings, you might choose to start with fast determinates to catch the early market.