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.
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.
They still had peppers bearing well in one high tunnel
Another interesting feature was the opening roof vent, which I had not seen in operation on a hoophouse before.
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!
At the ends, the plastic is gathered up and tied to well-anchored stakes, as you can see here.
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.
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.
We drove home seven hours from the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair yesterday through the rain. The remnants of Hurricane Florence. We were among the lucky people. Earlier forecasts for Florence had the hurricane raging across central Virginia.
At the Fair, I gave two workshops: Fall and Winter Hoophouses and my new Lettuce Year Round, which you can view right here. Click the diagonal arrows icon to get a full screen view.
I’ve updated my Events page again, now that the September- April “Events Season” has hotted up. I’ve added in a couple of new ones and updated some others. Click the Events tab to find conferences and fairs near you, and be sure to come and introduce yourself!
I’m giving a Premium Workshop on Friday Sept 21, 3-4 pm Classroom 7. Click the link HEREto book for that.
Feeding the Soil
In this workshop I will introduce ways to grow and maintain healthy soils: how to develop a permanent crop rotation in seven steps, and why your soil will benefit from this; how to choose appropriate cover crops; how to make compost and how to benefit from using organic mulches to feed the soil. Handouts.
Book-signing Friday 4.15 – 4.45 pm.
On Saturday there are events all day from 10am to 5pm. $26 general admission.
We keep a list of lettuce varieties for each season. We had extremely cold weather at New Year, -3F on Jan 2 and Jan 3, followed by -8F on Jan 6 and -9F on Jan 7. In past years we did not often need to add inner rowcover over our crops in the hoophouse at night, but in recent years, this has become more common. Our guideline is that if we expect the night-time low to be 8F or lower, we use rowcover. This winter, even with rowcover, we lost some lettuce and pak choy. Here are some before (December 20) and after (January 10) photos and notes.
Merlot is one of our favorite reds and previously we regarded it as one of our more hardy varieties. Other ones from last year’s list of hardy varieties include Green Forest, Hyper Red Rumple Wave, Tango, Winter Marvel and Red Tinged Winter. Hyper Red Wave (as we call it for short) didn’t do so well either.
Nor did Outredgeous from the earlier sowing, although the later sowing did better – the plants were smaller. Often smaller (younger, not stunted!) plants can survive colder temperatures.
The real stars of red lettuce for cold-hardiness this winter have been Revolution from Fedco Seeds and Buckley from High Mowing.
Another big star is Red Tinged Winter from Fedco Seeds. That’s the one I harvested leaves from on January 10.
And, for green lettuce, Tango, also from Fedco, came through, as always.
Our Green Forest romaine had mixed results. Once again the bigger, older sowing survived less well.
Other green lettuces include Hampton and Ezrilla, two more of High Mowing’s Eazyleaf lettuce varieties. Not as hardy as their red Buckley, but not as wimpy as some. The older sowing of Hampton died, but the younger (seen here) mostly survived. We did not have any Ezrilla in our later planting. Now I wish we had, as I like this lettuce.
Remember that these lettuces have been through very cold temperatures. That any survived is remarkable. We will learn from this and adjust our variety list before next winter!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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, Buttercrunchgreen 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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!