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.

Hoophouses I visited this month

In early November, during the Carolina Farm Stewardship conference I went on the afternoon bus tour to see 10 high tunnels and how they’re used for season extension,  irrigation, disease control, pest protection, and trellising. Red Hawk Farm grows salads and greens year-round in six high tunnels (more under construction!), and sells primarily to local grocery stores and restaurants.  Funny Girl Farm grows produce year-round for its popular farmstand and CSA, with four high tunnels and a greenhouse.They were focusing on the sweet potato harvest outdoors when we visited.

Red Hawk Farm hoophouse densely planted with multileaf lettuces.
Photo Pam Dawling

At Red Hawk Farm I was astounded to see this whole hoophouse planted wall-to-wall with multileaf lettuces. No aisles! The farmer Brett Evans plans to harvest with a walk-behind motorized salad harvester machine that makes a 4 ft wide cut. Then he’ll leave the lettuces to regrow. He uses the paperpot transplanter  which I mentioned last week. Here are the starts growing in their propagation house.

Lettuce starts in paperpots at Red Hawk Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

They still had peppers bearing well in one high tunnel

Early November pepper harvest at Red Hawk Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another interesting feature was the opening roof vent, which I had not seen in operation on a hoophouse before.

Opening roof vent on a hoophouse at Red Hawk Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

And this past week, I went to Potomac Vegetable Farms in northern Virginia for a talk with Future Harvest CASA members, and a tour of the hoophouses used there led by farmer Zach Lester.  I was interested in seeing the success he is having with caterpillar tunnels. These are smaller tunnels with a single layer of plastic, held in place by ropes, as you see in the photo below. They can be temporary or short-term, and Zach showed us one which is a “swing house” with two sites side by side, sharing one row of ground posts, and having just one row to move each time. Another way to deal with crop rotations and reduce the chances of pests and diseases!

Caterpillar tunnel at Potomac Vegetable Farms.
Photo Pam Dawling

At the ends, the plastic is gathered up and tied to well-anchored stakes, as you can see here.

How the ends of caterpillar tunnels are gathered and fastened to stakes.
Photo Pam Dawling

Zach got these frames custom made by Nolts. They have taller sidewalls than many models. He is also a firm believer in having a ridgepole in caterpillar tunnels, to reduce the likelihood of collapse with snow or high winds. As you can see here, they had some snow already.

Potomac Vegetable Farms caterpillar tunnel showing rolled up side.
Photo Pam Dawling

At both these farms, I learned the technique of laying landscape fabric along the side walls to reduce weed growth. You can burn holes in the landscape fabric where the ground posts go through, and it will keep the weeds away for a long time. I wish I’d known that technique when we put up our hoophouse. We have to hand weed, and in some places we have wiregrass (Bermuda grass) which has grown under the baseboards and even between the boards where there are joins.


Lastly, I have of course visited our own hoophouse at Twin Oaks, and have written a post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening on Dealing with Snow on Your Hoophouse. So if it’s snowing where you are, you can click on the link to read about that.

Hoophouse Many Crops slideshow, Hoophouse Squash article in Growing for Market, Modern Farmer

Here’s my Many Crops, Many Plantings slideshow from my shared Friday morning pre-conference intensive workshop at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference.

Scaling Up: Maximizing High Tunnel Production
Gena Moore, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and Pam Dawling, Twin Oaks Community

High tunnels provide high-value space for growing various crops throughout the year, but maximizing production comes with challenges. In this workshop, Gena and Pam will discuss how to effectively use high tunnels to maximize potential. Topics include monocropping for wholesale production, diversified high tunnel production, and effective management throughout the year.


The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article on Hoophouse Squash and Cucumbers for Crop Rotation.

We transplant one bed each of summer squash and bush cucumbers in our hoophouse on April 1st. This gives us harvests a month earlier than the outdoor crops. It also helps us have a crop rotation (compared to tomatoes and peppers in all the beds every year.) We find that people really enjoy early squash and cucumbers, as a welcome change from winter crops, and a harbinger of what is to come. We end the squash and cucumber sin July, once the outdoor plantings are bearing well, and use the hoophouse space for cowpeas or edamame, usually. Summer cover crops would be another fine option.

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


A great resource I discovered quite recently is Modern Farmer. 

Lots of interesting article, including the good news for certified Organic growers that the paperpot system is now accepted under Organic regulations. See

Machine Makes Planting a Breeze https://youtu.be/J_ia4KpVLKs via @YouTube

Paperpot transplanter.
Photo Johnny’s Seeds

There are sections on animals, how-to, politics, videos, environment, lifestyle, recipes, food & drink, plants and technology. You can sign up to receive their weekly newsletter.

While at teh CFSA Conference I participated in the High Tunnels Bus Tour, and saw a whole hoophouse planted wall-to-wall with lettuces at 6″ spacing using one of these. For next week, I’ll sort out my photos from that event and also my visit to Potomac Vegetable Farms where Zach Lester is focusing on protected crops using hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels.


Lastly (how can I forget), my publisher, New Society, is doing a Book Giveaway on Facebook this week (starting Nov 15) with my new book The Year-Round Hoophouse. It’s on their Facebook page and Instagram. Enter a question, I answer it, and someone wins a copy of the book at the end of the week (very soon!)

Young greens in the hoophouse, nematodes, upcoming events

Young senposai transplant in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

After the set-backs with our winter hoophouse greens  transplants that I wrote about last week, we worked really hard and got the whole house planted up. Most of the transplants have recovered from their transplant shock (wilting each day), during the cloudy weather we had.

The new seedlings are coming up fast and calling on us to thin them. We ended up not needing so many of the Plan D plug flat plants, but we’ve kept them for now “in case” .

Young Tokyo bekana transplant in our hoophouse .
Photo Pam Dawling

Ultimately if we don’t need them, they’ll go in a salad mix. I wrote about making salad mix last year. The past two days I have been able to harvest a mix in the hoophouse. The ingredient we are shortest of is lettuce. My first mix was spinach, Bulls Blood beet leaves, a few leaves of Tokyo Bekana, Bright Lights chard, Scarlet Frills, Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills, and a handful of lettuce leaves. Red Tinged Winter is growing fastest, of all the varieties we planted this year.

Ruby Streaks transplant in our hoophouse. Compare with Scarlet Frills below.
Photo Pam Dawling

Golden Frills mustard transplant in our hoophouse. I harvested a leaf for salad mix yesterday.
Photo Pam Dawling

Scarlet frills mustard in our hoophouse. Notice that this crop is frillier than Ruby Streaks.
Photo Pam Dawling

The mix I made today had fewer ingredients. I left the frilly mustards, the lettuces and the Tokyo bekana alone to grow some more. I used Bulls Blood beets, spinach, tatsoi outer leaves and a few Bright Lights chard leaves and stems.

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

I have a new Mother Earth News blogpost, about the nematodes in our hoophouse. And I’m preparing a new slide show for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference. See my Events page for details

For those of you on other social media, here are their handles and links (use the hashtag #CFSAC2018).

This week we will be popping garlic for planting and having our Annual Garden Crop Review meeting. Next week I’ll tell you more about garlic planting as part of the Alliums for November post.

Popping garlic cloves in preparation for planting
Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Hoophouse fall bed prep Plans A-D and spider-webs

Spiderweb glistening with dew, October hoophouse. Happy Halloween!
Photo by Bell Oaks

One of my colleagues noticed this beautiful web, like a crystal chandelier with dew drops. A few days ago I noticed lots of baby wolf spiders scurrying about. Next day they had started “ballooning” when they carry themselves on the breeze to a new place, spinning out a length of spider silk.

We’ve pulled our peppers, the last of the summer crop to remain in our hoophouse. This dislodged lots of spiders, both the zipper spiders and wolf spiders. We like to keep as many zipper spider egg-cases as possible in the hoophouse over the winter, so we have plenty of pest control next year. We move them off the plants onto the framework of the hoophouse or the hipboard “windowsill”.

Zipper spider egg cases hanging from the hoophouse plastic.
Photo Wren Vile

This fall we have kept up with our vigorous bed prep schedule, and tomorrow we will finish. Some years it’s a strain to keep up, but we’ve now set a one week-per-bed schedule in place, to reduce stress. This year our problem has been with getting transplants germinated and thriving. We’re now on Plan D! Plan A starts with making sowings on 9/15: ten varieties of leaf lettuce and romaines, chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy, in an outdoor bed to be transplanted into the hoophouse in a few weeks. See  Sowing hoophouse winter crops  9/19/2017.

Hoophouse seedlings growing outdoors under insect netting.
Photo Pam Dawling

On 9/24 we sowed ten more varieties of lettuce, Red Russian klae, White Russian kale, Senposai, Yukina Savoy #2, and several frilly mustards (Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills). We also resow anything that didn’t come up well in the 9/15 sowings (Plan B). This year, many crops did not come up well, or at all. Some seed was too old (mistakenly kept at inventory time last November). Some plants were eaten by cutworms.

On 9/30 we resow anything from the 9/24 sowings that didn’t come up well. This is Plan C. We resowed a lot this year. 9/30 is actually a bit too soon to tell if 9/24 lettuce will come up or not, if the soil temperature has cooled down a fair bit already.

Filling the greenhouse beds by barrowing compost along a gangplank.
Photo Wren Vile

We have some spare lettuce plants from the sowings made for our unheated greenhouse beds.They will help us out, as the outdoor seed bed only has half enough plants, and the numbers are going down daily as the cutworms feed!

Lettuce growing in our greenhouse in a previous November.
Photo Wren Vile

Given the situation, we moved to Plan D. This involved sowing plug flats of crops we were still hoping for, setting the flats on one of the empty hoophouse beds, shading them and watering whenever they looked at all dry. The idea is that there are no cutworms here, and the temperature inside the hoophouse is warmer and now more suitable for faster seedling growth. (In September it is often too hot in the hoophouse to germinate lettuce, spinach and some other crops, which is one reason we sow them outdoors).

Plan D: seed flats in our hoophouse on Oct 16, a late attempt to catch up!
Photo Pam Dawling

Usually we would have been busy every late afternoon transplanting all these crops, but because of our rounds of crop failures, we have had more time to devote to the bed prep.

For more about fall hoophouse planting, see these earlier posts:

Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal 9/4/18

Hoophouse Bed Prep for Fall Plantings in my Mother Earth News blogpost in August along with step-by-step instructions on using a broadfork, a scuffle hoe and a rake to produce a well-prepared bed with good tilth.

Hoophouse vegetable rotations in my September Mother Earth News blogpost

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

What’s growing in the hoophouse 10/10/17