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

Year Round Lettuce

I’ve now completed 12 monthly posts about suitable lettuce varieties and growing techniques. You can see these by clicking the Lettuce Varieties Category tab, but you can also get the overview here. They run from May to April because that’s how I wrote them. Click the name of the month to view the original post.

Sword Leaf Lettuce
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

May: Sword leaf lettuce

Star Fighter lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June: Starfighter: Lettuce Variety of the Month

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bed of young Green Forest lettuce.
Photo by Wren Vile

July: Green Forest – Lettuce variety for early July

Pablo Batavian lettuce
Photo Nina Gentle

August:Batavian lettuces for August

Freckles lettuce is a cheering sight in spring or fall.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

September: Lettuce in September,

Young lettuce plants in greenhouse beds in October. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

October: Lettuce growing in October

Starfighter and Red Salad Bowl lettuce in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

November: Lettuce in November

Rouge d’Hiver hardy romaine lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

December: Lettuce in December

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

January: Lettuce varieties for January, new year, fresh start

Reliable Red Salad Bowl lettuce, one of our standbys.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Extra: Lettuce Varieties for 2017

Baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse in winter.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

February: Lettuce in February

Bronze Arrow lettuce is a beautiful and tasty early spring variety.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

March: Lettuce for March and all year

April: Lettuce in April

Spring lettuce bed.
Photo Wren Vile

Our Vegetable Gardens in May, Year Round Lettuce, Sprouts and Salads

Spring cabbage planted in hay mulch, a few weeks after transplanting.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Our broccoli and cabbage transplants enjoyed the cool rainy weather and got through the dry hot weather. Yes, it’s been very changeable. Last night the temperature dropped to 33F (0.5C).  We’re harvesting rhubarb, kale, spinach, collards, senposai and garlic scallions outdoors, and are deep into our garlic scape harvest.

Pulling garlic scapes in May
Photo by Wren Vile

How to harvest garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

The above photo shows our preferred garlic scape harvest method: grasp the scape firmly below the head and pull steadily directly upwards. There will be a popping sound when the stem breaks. This method gets us the largest amount of the scape, and more importantly, the lower part is the most tender, and we don’t want to leave it behind.

Flowering squash plants with a row of snap peas in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

In our hoophouse we are harvesting the last of the winter scallions, some snap peas and today, May 9, the first yellow squash (Gentry). You can see in this photo taken last week, that the squash are flowering and have tiny fruits developing.

Our first bed of outdoor lettuce (and weeds!) Photo Wren Vile

My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blogpost about Growing Lettuce Year Round: Succession Planting for a Continuous Supply is up. This acts as a follow up to one of my workshops at the Asheville MEN Fair last weekend on Succession Planting for a Continuous Supply of Vegetables.

I had a good time at the Fair. My Saturday workshop on Sweet Potatoes was addressed to a full tent of extremely hardy sweet potato lovers. The weather was cold and windy, especially hard on speakers – at least the audience sat shoulder-to-shoulder for warmth. I was glad to get indoors for the book-signing afterwards. My Sunday workshop on Succession Planting was the last session of the Fair, but even so, there was good attendance.

My fellow Twin Oaker Winnie has written about using our seasonal vegetables in her blog

sustainexistence. Check out her Beet, Spinach, & Garlic Scape Salad

Lettuce in April

Spring lettuce bed.
Photo Wren Vile

We’re on the brink of starting to harvest our first outdoor lettuce, switching over from the last of the baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Our goal for this transition is April 15, but naturally the exact date will depend on the weather in the spring, the coldness of the late winter, the rate at which we are eating lettuce and other factors beyond the grower’s control.

Hoophouse baby lettuce mix. Photo Kathleen Slattery

We make three sowings of baby lettuce mix: 10/24 to harvest early December to early March (after we’ve cut it several times, and it is starting to tun bitter); 12/31 to harvest from late February till the end of March Later if it doesn’t get bitter from hot weather); and 2/1 to harvest mid March to the end of April. This year the #2 sowing is still edible in mid April, so we have two patches feeding us for a little longer.

Our winter salad mixes are very popular, but we can only continue with those as long as the spinach and the salad brassicas hold up. Part of me is always sad to stop eating salad mix, but the other part welcomes the juicier, crunchier, tastier head lettuce. Baby lettuce mix is very pretty, but honestly I find it a bit short on flavor and texture! It’s the other ingredients in the salad that make it interesting for me, especially spinach.

The first outdoor lettuce were sown 1/17, planted out 3/9, to feed us 4/15 to 5/8, when the second sowing should be ready. We cover these with rowcover on hoops when we transplant, for about a month, or until the weather seems settled at a reasonable temperature.

Our raised beds outdoors are 4 ft wide, with 1 ft paths. we plant four rows of lettuce, spaced 12″ apart, and plant about 120 from each sowing. That usually fills a third of a 90 ft long bed, so we have 3 different plantings in each bed of lettuce. We continue at this pace until our last outdoor plantings around the fall equinox.

This spring we are going to continue the salad mixes a bit longer by harvesting the outdoor lettuce by the leaf. We have lots of really good looking spinach to mix in, and the last few mizuna and ferny mustards. We used to only sow these twice, 9/24 to transplant in the hoophouse, and 11/9, which feeds us until late March. We added in a third sowing of mizuna and ferny mustards 2/1 which we harvest 3/24 to 4/23 approximately. That extra month is really worth having!

We also have a short row of Sugar Ann snap peas in the hoophouse (sowed 2/1) that we like to snip into thirds and add to salad mix. This makes for a nice little surprise for everyone. We couldn’t feed a hundred on 50 ft of snap peas! These are an incentive to keep the salad mixes going while the peas are being harvested.

Sugar Ann snap peas in our hoophouse, a month earlier than outdoor peas.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

 

Lettuce for March and all year

Bronze Arrow lettuce is a beautiful and tasty early spring variety.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We’re continuing to have enough lettuce. We have pulled the first baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse, and have started pulling some heads in there.  Of course, we want to harvest the hoophouse head lettuce before it gets too bitter, but we also don’t want to get too far ahead with the harvesting and run out! Our second baby lettuce mix is now ready for cutting, and the third sowing is not far behind.

March 9 is our goal for a transplanting date outdoors for our first 120 heads of lettuce (about one week’s worth for 100 people). We sow four varieties each time, some green, some red, different shapes and textures, different numbers of days to maturity. This way we hope to have a constant supply, and hedge our bets if something goes wrong with one variety.

In our first sowing we have Parris Island green romaine, Buttercrunch green bibb, and Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, a very red leaf lettuce, as well as Bronze Arrow, shown above. Our second sowing includes Cosmo, another green romaine, Star Fighter, which I wrote about last June, Oscarde, a red wavy leaf lettuce and one of our work-horses, Red Salad Bowl. Our third sowing has Panisse, a green wavy-leafed variety, Revolution, a red leaf lettuce, Swordleaf, which I wrote about last spring, and green Salad Bowl.

Ezrilla Tango-type one-cut multileaf type lettuce
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Buckley red oakleaf one-cut multi-leaf lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Our fourth sowing includes New Red Fire and three Eazyleaf lettuces ( Ezrilla, Hampton and Buckley) sold by High Mowing Seeds. We are simply trying these out this spring, to find out if we want to grow them next winter. In our climate these are unlikely to stand for long in the spring, and much more likely to grow well in our hoophouse in winter.

 

Hampton one-cut multi-leaf lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

These are varieties that produce lots of small leaves (no big leaves) enabling growers to get an instant salad by cutting a whole head. We are more likely to harvest them multiple times, taking some leaves each time. It’s exciting to see more lettuces of this type on the market. I wrote previously about Osborne’s Multileaf lettuces and Johnny’s Salanova varieties.

Here’s a link to our Lettuce Log, our schedule of lettuce planting and harvesting dates, that provides a succession of outdoor lettuce from April to November:

http://file:///X:/GARDEN/Planning/Lettuce%20Log%202017%20in%20Htm.htm

Gardening is not all about lettuce! We have sowed two beds of carrots outside and also a bed of turnips (Purple Top White and White Egg), with a row of radishes to pull before the turnips need the space. And we are still “recovering” from transplanting 3600 spinach plants. They are all doing well, despite my mix-up about which varieties were intended to be planted in which bed. We are comparing three varieties this spring: Tyee, Avon and Reflect.

Purple Top White Turnips.
Photo Small Farm Central

White Egg Turnips.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Lettuce in February, Growing for Market, open seed flats

Baby lettuce mix in our winter hoophouse.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We still have plenty of lettuce to eat, although our first sowing of baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse has come to its bitter end, and the second sowing isn’t quite ready (I think we sowed it a bit later than intended). We are still harvesting leaves from the large lettuce we transplanted in October.  Soon we’ll have the second and third baby lettuce mix sowings to bring a welcome change. We are about ready to transplant our first outdoor lettuce, to feed us mid-late April.

Here is a month-by-month planting and harvesting narrative for our hoophouse lettuce in Zone 7, from September to April:

September: Sow cold-hardy varieties in the second and third weeks (outdoors or in your greenhouse) to transplant into the hoophouse at 4 weeks old .

October: 4 weeks after sowing, transplant those lettuces at 8” spacing to harvest leaves from mid-November to early March, rather than heads. In late October, sow the first baby lettuce mix, for up to 8 cuts from early December to late February, and sow a small patch of “filler lettuces” to replace casualties in the main plantings up until the end of December.

November: 11/9 sow more filler lettuce, to be planted out in the hoophouse during January. Transplant the first “filler lettuce” to replace casualties. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce.

December: Use the “filler lettuce #1” to replace casualties or fill other hoophouse space, for lettuce leaves in January and February, or heads in February. At the end of December, make a second sowing of baby lettuce mix, to harvest from late February to the end of March. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the first baby lettuce mix.

January: Use the “filler lettuce #2” to fill gaps in the lettuce beds up until January 25. After that is too late here for hoophouse lettuce planting, and we use spinach to fill all the gaps, regardless of the surrounding crop. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the first baby lettuce mix whenever it reaches the right size.

February: 2/1 sow the third baby lettuce mix, to provide up to three cuts, from mid-March to late April. In mid-February, consider a fourth sowing of baby lettuce mix, if outdoor conditions look likely to delay outdoor harvests. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the second baby lettuce mix when it sizes up. Harvest the first baby lettuce mix, clearing it at the end of February before it gets bitter.

March: Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the second baby lettuce mix whenever it reaches size. Cut the third baby lettuce mix when it sizes up.

April: In the first half of the month, harvest the last of the transplanted lettuce as heads . Continue to cut the third baby lettuce mix until it gets bitter. Cut the fourth baby lettuce mix when it sizes up. Outdoor lettuce heads are usually ready for harvest mid-April. Plan to have enough hoophouse harvests until the outdoor harvests can take over.

Lettuce transplants in soil blocks, on our custom-made cart. We don’t use soil blocks for lettuce any more (too time-consuming!) but I love this photo. Photo Pam Dawling


The February issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article How to decide which crops to grow which I previewed some of here last August. I also included some of the material in my slideshow Diversify Your Vegetable Crops. Click the link to see the slideshow. This past winter we used this kind of process to reduce the amount of garden work for 2017. I’m retiring from garden management and the new managers  want to stay sane and not be exhausted all the time. We have fewer workers this year (the past few years actually), so we needed to slim down the garden and not go crazy trying to do everything we’ve done in the past. I’ll still be working in the hoophouse, the greenhouse, and doing some outdoor work, as well as being available to answer questions and provide some training when asked.

Back to Growing for Market. There’s a great article for new small-scale growers, from Katherine Cresswell in northern Idaho, Year One Decision Making, about starting a farm with only one implement. Careful planning lead Katherine and her partner Spencer to focus on fall, winter and spring vegetables, as no-one else around them provided these, and they had experience of winter growing from working on other farms. Clearly a high tunnel (hoophouse) needed to be in the plan. It was essential that they hit the ground running and have saleable produce within six months. The expense budget was very tight. They bought a BCS 739 walk-behind tractor (which they both had experience of) and a rotary plow. A very down-to-earth article to encourage any new grower with limited means.

There are reviews of three new books by GfM writers: Compact Farms by Josh Volk, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden and The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Growers Handbook by Andrew Mefferd, the editor of GfM. Brett Grohsgal has written a valuable article about his 15 years experience with on-farm breeding of winter-hardy vegetables, both in the field and under protection of hoophouses. Informative and inspiring. Erin Benzakein has written about rudbeckias, the unsung heroes of summer bouquets, and Gretel Adams has written on new flower varieties to try in 2017.


I have a new post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, Using Open Flats (Seed Trays) to Grow Sturdy Seedlings Easily – How to make reusable wood flats (seed trays) for seedlings, and use them to grow sturdy vegetable starts to transplant into your garden. This is a way to avoid contributing to the problem of agricultural plastic trash and be self-reliant in gardening equipment. You can also grow stronger plants by giving them a larger compost volume than plug flats or cell packs provide.

Open flat of broccoli seedlings.
Photo Wren Vile

I heard that my MEN blogpost Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating was very popular in January, coming sixth in their table of most-viewed posts on all topics. This has been out there in the blog-iverse for almost 18 months, so clearly there is a lot of concern about eating healthy food and not wasting what we’ve grown.

Sorting potatoes two weeks after harvest to remove problem potatoes before rot spreads.
Photo Wren Vile


The false spring has been barreling along. Last week I reported that we’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17). Since then, we’ve seen daffodils and dandelions flowering, heard spring peppers and already the maple is flowering (2/25). These are all markers on our phenology list. The maple flowers on average 3/12, with a range (before this year) of 2/28 in 2012 to 4/2 in 2014. A 9-year record broken!

Lettuce Varieties for 2017

We’ve just updated our Lettuce Varieties List for 2017, removing ones that didn’t do well last year, highlighting ones that did do well, and checking which dates work for which varieties in our climate (central Virginia, cold-hardiness zone 7).

I tried to paste in the list, but failed (I know I’ve done it successfully before!) so here’s a link and some photos

Lettuce Varieties

Reliable Red Salad Bowl lettuce, one of our stand-bys.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Young Parris Island romaine lettuce.
photo Bridget Aleshire

Lollo Di Vino lettuce, developed by Wild Garden Seeds. Photo by https://www.wildgardenseed.com

Merlot red lettuce, from Wild Garden Seeds. Photo by https://www.wildgardenseed.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I posted my Lettuce Varieties for January article, Wanda commented on the great varieties available from Frank Morton at wildgardenseeds.com. They do have some wonderful lettuces, so I’ve included a couple of pictures of their varieties  that we grow, above.


I’m short of time today, I’m getting ready for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference. Check out my Events page for more about what I’m doing there. Two brand new workshops, and book signing. I hope to see some of you bringing your dog-eared and mud-splattered copies of Sustainable Market Farming for signing on Thursday evening. I’d love some photos of well-used copies of my book!

Lettuce varieties for January, new year, fresh start

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Maybe you aren’t ready to think about sowing lettuce, but I am! In mid-January we sow a flat of four lettuce varieties, to become our first outdoor transplants. I like to choose four varieties that cover the range of colors and shapes.

Buttercrunch bibb lettuce. Photo Kathleen Slattery

Buttercrunch bibb lettuce. Photo Kathleen Slattery

I also like to choose hardy types that are fast-maturing. Buttercrunch green bibb lettuce is one of my favorites for early spring. One of the Salad Bowl lettuces, red or green, is also usually in my first sowing. The Salad Bowls are so reliable and productive!

Young Salad Bowl lettuce. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Young Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

New Red Fire has become another reliable lettuce stand-by for us. It was suggested to me by neighboring Virginia farmer, Gary Scott of Twin Springs Farm. It is more of a leaf lettuce, and doesn’t really head up, although it can be cut as admittedly lightweight heads. And it works fine as a leaf lettuce, to be harvested by the cut-and-come-again method. We grow New Red Fire year round, it’s that adaptable and easy-going.

New Red Fire lettuce. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

New Red Fire lettuce.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

After last year’s success with Sword Leaf lettuce, which I wrote about last May, we have added this variety to our list of favorite lettuce varieties. But if I start those four, I won’t have a romaine and will have only one red. We haven’t found many good full-size red romaines. Rouge d’hiver is a possibility, although I wonder if it would bolt too easily (it’s more famous for growing in winter). A better choice might be Bronze Arrow (it worked well last year and we were harvesting it in early May).

We expect/intend/plan to start harvesting heads of lettuce outdoors starting 4/15. Before that we will harvesting the lettuce in the greenhouse and the hoophouse.

As you see from the top photo, we grow our outdoor lettuce as bare root transplants, starting in open flats. I’ll write about bare root transplants next week. We find it an easy, forgiving method for many crops.  For now, I’ll just talk about the lettuce. We sow in 3″ deep open wood seed flats, 12″ x 24″. We make four little furrows by pressing a 12″ plastic strip (aka a ruler!) into the seed compost. We sow the seed, label it, cover it lightly, water, then put the seeded flats in our germinator cabinet. The first flat of the year takes about 9 days to germinate. According to tables in Nancy Bubel’s Seed Starter Handbook and in Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook available free online as a pdf here, lettuce takes 7 days to germinate with a soil temperature of 50F (10C) or 15 days at 41F (5C), and only 4 days at 59F (15C).

Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, we spot them out into 4″ deep flats (also 12″ x 24″). We have a plywood dibble board with pegs evenly spaced about 2.5″ apart. You can see the offset pattern in this next photo:

Lettuce seedlings spotted out into deep flats. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Lettuce seedlings spotted out into deep flats.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We aim to harden off the lettuce for two weeks in the cold frame before transplanting into the garden beds with thick rowcover on hoops to protect the lettuce from the still-cold outdoors. To be ready for harvest 4/15, these seeds have to become full size lettuces in 88 chilly days.

We make a second sowing on 1/31. The intervals between sowings at the beginning of the year are long, because later sowings will to some extent catch up with earlier ones. Almost all crops grow faster in warmer weather (up to a point). We sow lettuce twice in February (every 14 days), then every 10 days in March, reducing the interval down to every 6 or 7 days by the summer.

As far as varieties go, we think of The Lettuce Year as having 5 seasons: Early Spring January – March, Spring April 1 – May 15, Summer May 15 – Aug 15, fall August 15 – September 7 and Winter September 8 till the end of September and our break from sowing lettuce.

Some of the early spring lettuce varieties will bolt prematurely here if sown after March 31. Examples include Bronze Arrow, Freckles, Merlot, Midnite Ruffles, Oscarde and Panisse.

Others that we like in early spring go on to be useful in spring too. All the ones mentioned as possibilities for sowing #1 are in this category, as are Green Forest, Parris Island, Kalura (three green romaines), Nancy and Sylvesta (two big green bibbs), Pirat (a red bibb), and Star Fighter (a green leaf lettuce)

Freckles lettuce has to be sown here before the end of March, or it bolts prematurely. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Freckles lettuce has to be sown here before the end of March, or it bolts prematurely.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Lettuce in December, events updates

Rouge d'Hiver hardy romaine lettuce. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Rouge d’Hiver hardy romaine lettuce.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Here’s my monthly article on lettuce varieties month-by-month. I wrote about Lettuce in November a month ago. Of course, at this dark and chilly time of year, plants don’t grow much and our lettuce story is very similar this month to last. Except that we have so much! We are harvesting our hoophouse lettuce mix as well as leaves from the big lettuces in the unheated greenhouse and the hoophouse.

In the unheated greenhouse, we have Green Forest romaine, Hyper Red Wave leaf lettuce, Red Tinged Winter leaf lettuce, Oscarde red leaf lettuce and North Pole bibb. all are looking well.

In the hoophouse in the first planting we have Green Forest, Hyper Red Rumpled Wave,  Oscarde, Panisse, Red Salad Bowl, Revolution, Star Fighter and Tango. In the second planting we have some of the same and some different ones: Green Forest, Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Merlot, Panisse, Revolution, Red Tinged Winter, Salad Bowl, Star Fighter and Winter Wonderland. We are currently harvesting leaves from all the greenhouse and hoophouse lettuces in turn.

These are all looking well too, apart from a few Salad Bowl that have crashed with Sclerotinia Lettuce Drop, known “affectionately” to us as Solstice Slime. It happens at this time of year, around the Solstice – cold damp soil and the presence of spores of this widespread fungus cause destruction of the crown of the plant, which spreads to the leaves and causes the whole plant to collapse into a slimy beige lettuce pancake.

Sclerotinia Drop of lettuce. Photo http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/r441100711.htmlSclerotinia Drop of lettuce.
Photo
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/r441100711.html

Here is a link to a helpful publication from eXtension: Disease Management in Organic Lettuce Production

Our approach is to try not to over-water in cold weather, and to carefully remove pancaked plants, just before leaving the hoophouse, throw them down-wind into the pasture, and then wash our hands before returning.

Other winter-hardy lettuce we have grown in other years include Marvel of Four Seasons, New Red Fire,  Pirat, and Rouge d’Hiver. There are hardy bibb lettuce too: North Pole, Red Cross, Sylvesta, and Winter Marvel, but we have stopped growing them in the winter hoophouse as they are not so useful for harvesting by the leaf and they are more prone to collecting dampness and getting diseased.

I’m sad about the poor showing of our Multileaf lettuces, due I think to keeping pelleted seed too long. My consolation is that we have three lettuce varieties that have a somewhat similar plant type (lots of small leaves that can be removed, letting more grow):  Oscarde, Panisse and Tango.

Oscarde letuce Photo Washiington State U Ag Research

Oscarde lettuce
Photo Washington State U Ag Research

Panisse lettuce. Photo Johnnys Seeds

Panisse lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Seeds

Tango lettuce Photo Kathryn Simmons

Tango lettuce
Photo Kathryn Simmons


I’ve been taking more bookings for speaking events and groups touring our gardens here. It’s looking promising for me to be at the Mother Earth News Fairs in Asheville (May 6-7) and Vermont (June 10-11). I’ve added in a visit here from the Tricycle Gardens group from Richmond on March 24 and one from the Louisa Master Gardeners on April 13. I’ll add info to my Events page (see the tab at the top of this page) as I get it.

I’ve got my slideshows and handouts ready for the Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference which is coming up in just a few weeks, January 10-11.

banner-18th-annual-conference-1-e1480529516503

Keep the Soil in Organic, Mother Earth News, winter reading

Photo from Dave Chapman, Organic Soil Movement

Photo from Dave Chapman, Keep the Soil in Organic

Did you know that nearly all the supermarket “organic” tomatoes are not grown in soil drawing the nutrients they need from the complex array in the soil, but in an inert material (rockwool, coir or plastic pipes with holes in), receiving as nutrients only what the growers provide in a solution that passes by the roots?

Did you know that your understanding of “organic” might be different from USDA’s? Driscoll’s Berries has over a thousand acres of “organic” hydroponic production in hoophouses in California and Mexico. They are the biggest hydroponic “organic” producer in the world.

Did you know that hydroponics is large-scale? Melody Meyers of UNFI testified at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that her company’s hydroponic “organic” sales exceeded $50,000,000. (Wholesale value – double it to get the retail value.)

Dave Chapman said

One of the challenges of the USDA takeover of organic certification has been the loss of involvement on the part of the organic farmers. As we have all struggled to make a living in a tough arena, it has been easy to give into a sense of helplessness around maintaining strong standards. At the same time that organic farmers have retreated from the process, the USDA has been profoundly influenced by large corporate farming interests.

Three quarters of US hydroponics sales go to only three or four farms – this is a huge concentration of money, power, and influence in a very few hands. And the industry is engaging in heavy lobbying, not just at NOSB, but throughout the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

How did this happen? How did “organic farming” change so drastically in six years? My report is based on Dave Chapman’s in his blog Keep the Soil in Organic.

In 2010, the NOSB recommended saying no to hydroponics receiving Organic Certification by a 14:1 vote, in keeping with international standards, the federal law (the Organic Foods Production Act, OFPA) that created the National Organic Program (NOP), and the traditional practices of organic farmers.

At the NOSB meeting in fall 2016, despite hydroponics industry lobbying, there was not enough support to vote to overturn the 2010 recommendation and allow hydroponics, aquaponics and bioponics. (This would have needed a 2/3 majority). Also, the proposal (from the Crops Subcommittee) that would have eliminated hydroponics in organic was sent back for reconsideration. The stalemate means that the NOP will continue to certify “organic” hydroponic operations.

Dave Chapman reported that

Food Democracy Now! presented a petition with over 12,000 signatures to reject hydroponics. Cornucopia Institute presented 1400 proxy letters from farmers and eaters demanding that soil stewardship be a requirement for organic certification. Clearly, the people numbers were on the side of the soil.

National Organic Program (NOP)  director Miles McEvoy stated at the meeting that even if the recommendation allowing hydroponics was defeated, it would not affect NOP policy. The NOP continues to support certifying hydroponics as USDA Organic even though the OFPA law requires Organic farming be based on maintaining and improving soil fertility. The NOP support of hydroponics is also in direct opposition to the 2010 NOSB recommendation, as well as standards in most other countries. Across the world, hydroponic operations are being USDA Organic certified.

A resolution  passed 12 to 0 reading, “It is the consensus of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water-based substrate.” (This refers to “plastic pipe” hydroponics as opposed to rockwool and coir which are imagined to provide something more than physical support.) This resolution does show consensus in rejecting the idea that hydroponic growing can become organic simply by “adding biology” to plain water, and provides a small glimmer of sanity and common sense. NOSB refused to acknowledge that actual hydroponic farming is not limited to plants that grow in water, but includes those propped up by rockwool and coir. The current hydroponics industry move is to avoid the “H word” and talk about “containerized ” plants – ones held in a small amount of material, but still being fertilized by solutions flowing by.

What makes a system hydroponic is how the fertility is delivered to the plant, not the material that the roots sit in. In a hydroponic system, the fertility is supplied to the plant in the irrigation water. There are so-called “organic” fertilizers that are extremely processed organic materials. For example, the 16-0-0 hydrolyzed soy protein being used in hydroponics acts like a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. It has little similarity to unprocessed soy meal. In a genuinely organic system, the fertility results from the  complex soil food web interacting with organic materials we growers supply.

The companies speaking in support of hydroponics to the NOSB include Miracle Gro (chemical fertilizer company), Nature Gro (major supplier of substrates for conventional growers), the Organic Trade Association (lobbyists for the big hydroponic “organic” growers), Nature Sweet tomatoes (1400 acres of conventional greenhouses), Houweling’s Tomatoes (250 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), and Driscoll’s (already mentioned).

These companies all want  to get in on the “Organic” market without doing the honest hard work. The food industry spends more money lobbying Capitol Hill each year than the defense industry does!

Know your farmer! Buy local, from trusted growers. Do what you can to speak up for real food, grown in the soil.

Weeding overwintered spinach in March Wren

Weeding over-wintered spinach. Photo Wren Vile


I wrote about our winter lettuce (a summary of blog posts here) for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. You can read it here.

peerj-04-1582-g005Margaret Roach at A Way to Garden has had some interesting blog posts recently. One is about a recent study called “Arthropods of the Great Indoors: Characterizing Diversity Inside Urban and Suburban Homes,” and its lead author is Dr. Matthew Bertone. We are hosting an average of over 90 different arthropod types per home! I’ve noticed that we’ve accidentally brought camel crickets from our root cellar into our bathroom! I’ve been reducing their numbers. . .  They don’t appear to be in top 12 found in most people’s homes according to this article.

This post on Do Home Remedies for Weeds or Garden Pests Work? is a careful look at the options often recommended by others, with cautions about pouring lots of Epsom salts, vinegar, clove oil on your plants and soil.

Her Special Weed Issue has links to a lot of useful weed topics, as well as info on a  Baby Birds book with delightful-looking watercolors.

9780544206700_hres