VABF and Pasa Conferences 2024

I’m busy getting ready for presenting three workshops in Roanoke at VABF, and two in Lancaster, PA at Pasa. I hope to meet some of you there.

January 2024 Event

Virginia Association for Biological Farming

and VSU Small Farm Outreach Program

January 19-21 2024

VABF/SFOP Summit conference January 2024
VABF-SFOP Summit

REGISTER HERE!  (at the bottom of their page)

The inaugural Virginia Association for Biological Farming-Small Farm Outreach Program Summit 2024 brings together farmers, gardeners, eaters, educators, industry professionals, and advocates of sustainable, biological, regenerative, and organic agriculture!

The three day Conference includes:  Full and Half Day Pre-Conference intensive workshops, 60+ sessions and workshops, presentations and panel discussions, 40+ tradeshow exhibitors, locally sourced farm meals and book signings. The Conference features a Youth & Teen Program, a Silent Auction and networking opportunities including regional networking meetings, and the Taste of Virginia Expo & Social! 

Learn more: VABF-SFOP Summit pre-conference sessions

Keynote Speakers

Jean-Martin Fortier

Jean-Martin (JM) Fortier is an organic farmer, author, educator and internationally recognized advocate for regenerative, human-scale and profitable agriculture. JM Fortier founded the Market Garden Institute. He is the author of The Market Gardener, and co-author with Catherine Sylvestre  of the Winter Market Gardener. His presentation is Friday 1-5 pm.

We regret to inform you that Niaz Dorry has had to cancel her keynote speech due to understandable personal reasons. Fortunately, she has kindly connected us to another exciting speaker, Ray Jeffers.

Ray Jeffers

Ray is a native of  Person County, NC, where he also operates the family’s century farm purchased by his great-grandfather in 1919. Previously Ray served for 12 years as an elected Person County Commissioner (2008-2020), and was most recently elected in 2022 to the North Carolina House of Representatives where he serves on the Agriculture committee.  Ray continues to serve on several local and state boards promoting agriculture and rural communities. Ray attended Piedmont Community College and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

B. Ray Jeffers joined the RAFI-USA team in June 2021 and near the end of 2022 became Director of the Farmers of Color Network. Ray is no stranger to the job as he currently grows seasonal vegetables for wholesale and direct sale at his B.R. Jeffers Farms in Roxboro, NC, as well as raises heritage breed hogs for direct sale at markets and restaurants.

We’re excited and grateful to have Ray join us for Part 1 keynote address during Saturday evening and a Part 2 keynote address during Sunday lunch.

Pre-Conference Workshops

7 Full and Half-Day Pre-Conference workshops and a farm tour are available on Friday, January 19. In 2024, thanks to grant funding from USDA-NOP-TOPP and a sponsorship by Sand County Foundation, all workshops and the farm tour are being offered free of charge to VABF-SFOP Summit attendees. Workshops may be added on free of charge to your Summit Registration. Spaces are limited.

The Full Day Workshop, Holistic Farming Methods: How Organic, Biodynamic, Permaculture, & Beyond Integrate for a Sustainable Future, includes the Hotel Lunch Buffet free of charge. The Lick Run Farm Tour includes a bagged lunch on the farm. All other pre-conference workshops have the option of purchasing the Hotel Lunch Buffet for $35.

on Friday 1/19, 9 am to noon,I am presenting a half -day workshop: Year-Round hoophouse Vegetables

Hoophouse with winter crops

Fill your hoophouses (high tunnels, polytunnels) all year round with productive crops. In this course you’ll learn how to decide which crops to grow—with an emphasis on vegetables—how much to plant and how much to harvest by making maps, schedules and crop rotation plans. We’ll discuss which market crops are best at various times of year—cold-hardy, early warm-weather and high summer crops—and consider less common crops, such as seed crops and flowers, and cover crops for soil improvement. Learn how to maximize the use of space by clever seasonal transitions, succession planting and follow-on cropping. The course will also provide strategies for managing challenges such as extreme temperatures, nitrate accumulation in leafy greens, soil-borne diseases, pests and nematodes, salt buildup, and maintaining soil organic matter.

Session Schedule

Explore the conference schedule and see when different sessions will be held.

On Saturday 1/20, 4-5.30 pm, I am presenting Storage Vegetables for off-season sales, in the Buck Mountain Room.

Our winter squash storage cage. Photo Twin Oaks Community

Grow crops you can sell during the winter, while allowing yourself some down-time and reprieve from outdoor work. Choose suitable crops, schedules and storage conditions. Understand your weather and basic crop protection. This workshop will provide tables of cold-hardiness and details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops (warm and cool weather crops to harvest and store before very cold weather; crops to keep alive in the ground further into winter, then store; hardy crops to store in the ground and harvest during the winter, and overwinter crops for early spring harvests before the main season). It includes tables of storage conditions needed for different vegetables and suggestions of suitable storage methods, with and without electricity.

On Sunday 1/21, 8.30-10 am, I am presenting Lettuce Year-Round, in the Mill Mountain Room.

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

This presentation includes techniques to extend the lettuce season using rowcover, coldframes and hoophouses to provide lettuce harvests in every month of the year. The workshop will include a look at varieties for spring, summer, fall and winter. We will consider the pros and cons of head lettuce, leaf lettuce, baby lettuce mix and the newer multileaf types. Information will also be provided on scheduling and growing conditions, including how to persuade lettuce to germinate when it’s too hot​​, and the Asian greens used as lettuce in tropical climates.

Taste of Virginia Expo and Market & Social

Included in the Conference Registration and free and open to the public is the Taste of Virginia Expo & Market on Saturday, January 20, 2 – 9 PM in the Crystal Ballroom at Hotel Roanoke. Featuring sampling and sales of Virginia-crafted foods, local libations, handicrafts, and herbals. Complete the evening with music, dancing, and socializing from 8-10 PM.

Youth Program

VABF is offering a Youth Program for children ages 5 – 12, and a special teen program for 12-18 year olds for only $60, including Saturday lunch and dinner and Sunday lunch . Youth Program Registration is offered as an add on to Conference registration or as a stand alone registration.

Lodging

Hotel Roanoke

Rooms in the VABF room block at Hotel Roanoke are $135 + tax  a night. Rooms may be booked online here or by calling (540) 985-5900 (or toll free at 866-594-4722) between the hours of 8am-5:30pm Monday – Friday and say you’re with the VABF Room block. Cut off date is Friday, December 29, 2023.

Book with the VABF-SFOP group rate at The Hotel Roanoke

Check out our Lodging page for more info! 

Silent Auction

Always a fun experience to bid on unique and useful farm and garden products! If you have homemade gifts, books, or items on your farm that you no longer need that may be valuable to someone else, bring them on to the Silent Auction at the Conference! Great way to donate to VABF!

Locally Sourced Meals

VABF is working to procure the majority of our Conference food from local member farms. We look forward to supporting our member farms and enjoying delicious, fresh, local food from the farms below! All Conference Registrations include lunch and dinner on Saturday, lunch on Sunday and morning coffee and tea.

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February 2024 Event

Pasa 2024

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Thursday Feb 8 – Saturday February 10

Pasa’s 2024 Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Lancaster, Pennsylvania on February 8–10

On Thursday February 8, 4-5 pm, I am presenting Storage Vegetables for off-season sales

Sweet potatoes crated in the field.
Photo Nina Gentle

Grow crops you can sell during the winter, while allowing yourself some down-time and reprieve from outdoor work. Choose suitable crops, schedules and storage conditions. Understand your weather and basic crop protection. This workshop will provide tables of cold-hardiness and details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops (warm and cool weather crops to harvest and store before very cold weather; crops to keep alive in the ground further into winter, then store; hardy crops to store in the ground and harvest during the winter, and overwinter crops for early spring harvests before the main season). It includes tables of storage conditions needed for different vegetables and suggestions of suitable storage methods, with and without electricity.

On Saturday, February 10, 11.30 am -12.30 pm, I am presenting Crop Rotations for Vegetables and COver Crops

Crop Rotation Pinwheel

This workshop offers ideas to design a planting sequence that maximizes utilizing cover crops and reduces pest and disease likelihood. Pam discusses formal rotations and ad hoc systems for shoehorning minor crops into available spaces. She also discusses cover crops suitable at various times of the year, particularly winter cover crops between vegetable crops in successive years. Pam provides examples of undersowing cover crops in vegetable plantings and no-till options.

In addition to my sessions, you’ll find 70+ other workshops and discussions on a diverse array of farming and food system topics:

Keynote Speaker Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin

Plenary keynote speaker Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is a farmer and the founder of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on scaling up a systems-level regenerative poultry solution that restores ecological balance, produces nourishing food, and puts money back into the hands of farmers and food chain workers. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Tree-Range® Farms, the for-profit market-facing arm of the system working with family farms to raise chickens in their natural habitat—the jungle!

Dr Heber M Brown

Rev. Dr. Heber M. Brown III, another plenary speaker at this year’s conference, is a pastor, public speaker, community organizer, and social entrepreneur. He is the founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, which advances food security and food sovereignty by co-creating Black food ecosystems anchored by Black congregations in partnership with Black farmers and others.

Ira Wallace

Other featured speakers include Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Zach Loeks of Ecosystem Solution Institute, Catherine Sylvestre of Ferme des Quatre-Temps, Allyson Levy & Scott Serrano of Hortus Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, Russ Wilson of Wilson Land & Cattle Co. and the FairShare CSA Coalition.

Zach Loeks
Catherine Sylvestre

 Learn more & register

Book Review The Winter Market Gardener, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre

 

Cover of The Winter Market Gardener

The Winter Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Year-Round Harvests, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre, New Society Publishers, October 2023. 256 pages, 7.5 x 9 inches, with color photos and drawings throughout. $39.99.

 Jean-Martin Fortier’s first book, The Market Gardener, is a well-loved international best-seller. In this new book, he has worked with Catherine Sylvestre, to focus on cold-weather growing. Catherine is the director of vegetable production and leader of the market garden team at la Ferme des Quatres-Temps, in Hemmingford, Southern Quebec, Canada. The farm includes mixed livestock, an orchard and an 8-acre market garden designed and established by Jean-Martin Fortier. FQT was initiated by a local multi-millionaire who wanted to set up an experimental farm to demonstrate what was possible and to resolve some of the challenges in developing a diversified farm using efficient regenerative methods. The farm now has a second site, in Port-au-Persil, five hours away in the northern Charlevoix region.

At FQT, the authors train cohorts of employees and try out ideas that were not possible on the more limited budget of les Jardins de la Grelinette where Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches grew food for 200 families on two and a half acres. Since 2015, Maude-Hélène has been the solo operator of la Grelinette (an hour away from FQT).

With good techniques, equipment, and varieties, and enough personal energy, year-round production can provide premium local vegetables and make a profit. This book will inspire and help. It is packed with detailed vegetable profiles, tips for winter crop planning, and successful growing and storage of fall/winter crops. There is precise information on tool selection and best use, and on selecting shelters, from rowcover to high tunnels. The book was written in the authors’ native French and ably translated by Laurie Bennett. I love the word “shelters” to include all kinds of protected growing, and I hope it comes into common use in English!

The Winter Market Gardener builds on years of research, experimentation, and collaboration, as all who have read The Market Gardener will appreciate. It is a practical guide to winter vegetable production for small farmers in northern climates, and elsewhere. Initially I thought this would be a delight to read, but not of much practical use to me in central Virginia, a very different climate. I soon found I was wrong. Questions of the value and profitability of types of greenhouse and tunnel heating are thoroughly considered, in terms of heat sources, financial and planetary costs, and benefits. There is info on some crops I have never grown, not here nor in England. The crop planning calendars have solid info in a nice accessible intuitive format. There are charts, graphs, illustrations to help you get started or smooth your path in winter growing.

Don’t think for a minute that running a farm owned by a multi-millionaire means efficiency and results are unimportant! It does permit some enviable pricey equipment, but careful trials, record-keeping, and profitable products are essential to the purpose of the project.

The concept behind Ferme des Quatre-Temps is to find the sweet spot between intensive organic production, and a biodiverse landscape. Jean-Martin and a team of permaculturists came up with the design for the farm, including the livestock. The theories and practices are taught to a group of apprentices each year, and via the online Market Gardener Institute, and its Masterclass.

Whatever your level of experience or scale of production, The Winter Market Gardener will encourage and inspire you to value high-quality local vegetables all year, and give you tools to produce them in winter. There is an appendix for people wanting to use these methods on a backyard scale. 645 ft2 (60 m2) can grow enough vegetables for 3-5 people for the whole (Québécois!) winter. And, of course, you can grow summer vegetables there when winter is over.

Don’t think growing vegetables all-year means no time off – you just need to plan to include breaks, or rotate workdays around the crew. And remember that winter has shorter days and a slower pace than summer. For those growers pursuing an honest life of hard work on stuff that matters and makes a difference, here is a guidebook.

As the number of winter growers increases, the demand for fresh food increases, and we have job security! To be sustainable, winter harvesting must be profitable, so invest in this book. It may happen that small-scale winter food production becomes not just the tastiest option and least-damaging to the planet, but our only option. During the Covid pandemic, it became plain that in the Northeast of North America, 70% of vegetables come from California, Mexico, or even further afield. It took only three days to deplete the supply of fresh vegetables in the stores.

Some countries responded to this realization by providing grants for local food growing, including high tunnels and greenhouses. Catherine and Jean-Martin propose that giving the money to fifty or 200 small-scale farms would be a better investment than giving it to a twenty-hectare tomato greenhouse, (as happened in Quebec). Production of cold-hardy vegetables in winter uses much less energy than growing tomatoes! Additionally, growing summer vegetables in winter requires artificial lighting, causing light pollution, disrupting the circadian rhythms of humans and other animals. No one yet knows how artificial lighting affects the nutritional quality of food grown that way.

Catherine Sylvestre.
Photo New Society Publishers

Jean-Martin and Catherine identify five key principles of winter growing:

  1. Lack of sunlight in winter is more limiting than lack of heat.
  2. Many vegetables can withstand freezing temperatures.
  3. Cold-hardiness in crops can sometimes be bred for.
  4. Layered shelters (rowcover, tunnels) can allow more vegetable production in winter.
  5. Installing minimal heating can make winter growing more successful, and can be profitable.

A useful chart suggests how many layers of rowcover to use at various night temperatures and daylengths. This guideline that could work wherever you grow.

There are good descriptions of making low tunnels and caterpillar tunnels. High tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels, passive solar greenhouses) are permanently located and usable year-round, although unheated. Greenhouses are permanent structures, heated, somewhat insulated, made of glass or two layers of plastic. There is a small chart showing the outdoor killing temperatures of four crops, unprotected outdoors, in a high tunnel and in a high tunnel with P19 rowcover. For example, lettuce will die at 21°F (-6°C) outdoors with no protection, at 7°F (-14°C) outdoors if protected by a high tunnel, and at 0°F (-18°C) outdoors, if under rowcover in a high tunnel. This is followed by a comparison of the various shelters in terms of cost, thermal gain and features and uses.

Don’t consider adding heating unless you have at least a double layer of plastic and in-ground perimeter insulation. At la Ferme des Quatre-Temps they have perforated polyethylene tubing that distributes hot air along the beds. The increased revenue from faster growing crops must be covered by the increased costs of heating or adding more layers of rowcover. They present a table and a bar chart comparing cost of heating, cost of labor to manage row covers, and revenue. For their situation, heating to 37°F-41°F (3-5°C) trounces no heating, and beats heating to 54°F (12°C). It also matters how much workers are willing to move rowcovers, or enjoy doing that as part of winter growing.

To reduce heating costs, check your insulation. Regularly monitor and repair broken parts of your structure. If you are buying new, remember that bigger structures hold more warmth from the daytime. Ensure your heater is an efficient one, and you have blowers to push the heated air around.

Here’s a counterintuitive bit that makes complete sense once you’ve thought it through: On short cloudy days, there’s little point in adding heat, because the plants won’t be able to photosynthesize more. On warm sunny days, if the temperature is still low, your plants could gain photosynthesis with a higher temperature to balance the good light.

Avoid letting the humidity remain over 90% for more than a few days at a time. Ventilate, and if necessary, heat for an hour while doing that! Be sure to ventilate if the sun is shining. One of my hoophouse mantras this winter is “More air, less water!” – good airflow is vital to keep plants healthy.

As for heating, what fuel to use? Ecology is important, environmental awareness is a guiding value. Profitability has to be in there. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Electricity produced by coal or nuclear power has no appeal. In Quebec, growers are fortunate to have hydroelectricity, from a publicly owned utility. Even with such a benign fuel source, there is still a decision to be made about the delivery system: a furnace with an electric coil or a heat pump? A short physics primer on electric heating follows. This gem of info can save you from a permanent expensive mistake! For example, surface geothermal might cost $10,000, but regular geothermal could cost $125,000! There’s a thorough table comparing pros and cons of various types of heating, and a full-page color photo of hot air distribution tubes.

The next section is on winter crop planning. To grow healthy winter crops, first grow strong seedlings with good roots, then harden them off carefully to withstand winter. Use a larger cell size than you would in simmer. Seven days before transplanting into the ground, move the seedlings into colder conditions with more outside air. Gradually increase their cold tolerance over the week.

Lack of light is more limiting than low temperatures. Careful timing is needed to get plants to the right size before daylength reduces to ten hours and growing slows right down. The key is to get plants to 70% of their final size before this happens. Further south, the dark period is shorter, the soil holds temperature until later in the year, and you have more wiggle room. In northern climates, greenhouses and tunnels become outdoor storage rooms.

There is a chart of winter days to maturity of tatsoi, spinach and turnips, and days to reach 70% full maturity. Days to maturity increase as daylength decreases. Keep records of winter days to maturity of the crops you grow, calculate 70% of that time and work back from your last day of ten hours of daylight, and find the target date to sow that crop. Keep records of sowing dates and results.

For a continuous supply of cut-and-come-again leaf crops, calculations are more complicated. Keep good notes of when you sow, cut, and can come-again. You might get three cuts, or six, depending on your location. Figure a good sowing date, and don’t delay! You could do some trials with short rows sown on different dates.

The authors provide a table of winter sowing dates for twenty-five crops sown outdoors with P19 rowcover; in a caterpillar tunnel; high tunnel; and minimally-heated greenhouse. Plants can sometimes endure an hour or two at a temperature considerably colder than they can tolerate for several days.

Crop density may need to be decreased to ensure plants get enough light and airflow. Growing plants closer in the row, but with rows further apart (growing about 70% the number of summer plants), provides better light. There’s an appendix on crop spacing.

It is helpful to know when each crop is likely to bolt after the solstice. Some bolt earlier than others. Keep records and harvest accordingly.

The crop profile section follows. There are icons indicating semi-hardy crops (32°F to 25°F/0°C to –4°C), cold-hardy ones (23°F to 14°F/–5°C to –10°C); very cold-hardy crops (14°F to 22°F/ −10°C to –30°C); minimal heating, no heating, overwintering; transplanted, and direct-sown crops. The sidebar also includes recommended varieties, spacing and seeding and transplant dates in Quebec. Each profile has a beautiful full-page watercolor image. The text includes info on first harvest, succession sowing, intercropping strategies, pest and disease challenges, and good harvest practices.

Jean-Martin Fortier with his broadfork.

Next comes the section on recommended tools: broadfork, bed prep rake, (tilther perhaps), wheel hoe, two-wheel tractor (BCS), power harrow, rotary plow, (six-row seeder perhaps), Jang seeder, Earthway seeder, four-row pinpoint seeder (I could become a convert to this handy little tool!), stirrup hoe, collinear hoe, wire weeder, Terrateck wheel hoe with bio-discs, flex-tine weeder (looks good!), harvest knives, quick-cut greens harvester. 2023 prices are in an Appendix. I liked the home-made greens bubbler, a water tank with air bubbled into it, to agitate and clean the leaves.

Next is a section on tending your winter crops. How to have an unfrozen water supply (they don’t need any irrigation in unheated shelters in December or January). Why to avoid over-fertilizing (increased salt buildup, soil diseases, thrips and aphids). How to warm the soil, increase soil microbial activity, and rate of crop growth with landscape fabric, black plastic or rowcover. How to trap mice, and deal with pest insects when it is too cold for beneficial insects.

That section is followed by one about planning fall harvests of storage crops, which combines well with winter harvest of leafy greens, for more sales. Think not only of carrots, turnips and potatoes, but also of beets, cabbages, winter squash, parsnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi, onions, leeks, celeriac. There is. as always, encouragement to keep good records.

I really like their planting charts, where each crop is shown in its special color, occupying a physical amount of space (a column for each bed), and a time (rows for the weeks). With this plan in place, quick late summer crops can be squeezed into some beds, or cover crops. Each outgoing crop is flail-mowed, and covered with a silage tarp for two or three weeks.  The soil micro-organisms break down the plant matter under the tarp, leaving the bed ready to replant without tilling. Tarping takes longer than tilling, but the method treats the soil and micro-organisms more holistically.

The general material about fall growing is followed by crop profile pages for suitable storage crops. Their method of transplanting beets gets better germination rates and uniformly filled beds. It gives me the idea of transplanting beets from thickly-emerged areas to gaps in our direct-sown beds, as we do with fall kale. There are helpful tips about carrots following garlic (we do this) because the soil will be relatively weed-free after months of garlic mulch; growing celeriac on landscape fabric, because it is in the bed for so long; storing Napa Chinese cabbage for 3 months in closed bins at high humidity; making sure not to create cracks in kohlrabi for storage; transplanting rutabagas. I’m a big fan of transplanting, but I’m learning about more crops that transplant well.

The authors advocate the same system we use for harvesting crops in the fall: determine the winter-kill temperature for each crop, list them in descending order, and work down the list, monitoring the weather forecast.

There is encouragement to build a well-insulated room with a household air-conditioner reconfigured using the CoolBot device to run at lower temperatures. If possible, make two storage rooms, one at 50°F-59°F (10°C-15°C) and one at 32°F-39°F (0°C-4°C). This is the first time I’ve seen advice to also install a heater, for occasions when outdoor temperatures are just too cold. I think we don’t need that in Virginia, but I believe Northerners do!

There are instructions about humidity, about managing ethylene and CO2, and managing inventory. There is a two-page table of storage conditions, containers, and length of storage for thirteen crops.

The last section of the book is Growing and Selling Vegetables Year-Round. Plan not to stand in the freezing cold all day at market! Options include a CSA; an online store with once-a-week deliveries to a select few locations; restaurant sales with a weekly Fresh List. Being reliable and communicating clearly is key, as is coordinating the orders and making a harvest list for the crew.

The world needs more small-scale year-round growers, supplying local markets. In Quebec in 2020, there were more start-up farms than farms closing down – the first time in fifty years! We do not need vertical farms of hydroponic vegetables, using large amounts of energy, priding themselves, curiously enough, on not using soil to produce food. Or food-like products. The diversity and flavor of four-season vegetables grown in soil can’t be beat.

Farmers at la Ferme des Quatre-Temps

Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024

 

Preparing to sow Rainbow Chard in 2018.
Photo Pam Dawling

Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024

Have you ordered your seeds for next year yet? The earlier you order, the best chance you have of getting the varieties you want. Later, some will sell out. It’s true that when you order very early, some seeds won’t be available yet. The seed growers are still drying and cleaning them, weighing them and running them through germination testing. Your patience will be rewarded with high quality seeds.

I love looking through catalogs to find new exciting-sounding varieties! After so many years of gardening, I’ve tried lots of different kinds, and have definitely grown attached to some reliable favorites. I recommend planting a small amount of a variety new to you that sounds good, alongside your usual well-loved variety. And what do I mean by “sounds good”?

In 2014 I wrote Reading Between the Lines in the Seed Catalogs to share what I’d learned about decoding catalog-speak, and not getting distracted by wondrous claims, failing to notice the catalog never even claimed it had good flavor. Or high yields. Or good disease-resistance. That post lists 15 features to look for.

We look for flavor, productivity, disease-resistance, an appropriate fit with our climate or latitude, general adaptability, varieties that don’t require erecting elaborate trellises, ones that don’t sprawl too widely, ones that don’t take a really long time to reach maturity.

If we’ve had a few years of poor performance from a crop, we’ll try several new varieties. We have done trials of heat-tolerant eggplants, winter spinach for the hoophouse and outdoors, storage cabbage, and now we need to start over with broccoli.

Green Magic broccoli Credit Johnnys Seeds

For many years we grew three varieties of hybrid broccoli with different number of days to maturity. That enabled us to sow them all on the same day, transplant them all on the same day (or in the same week), and get an extended harvest period. Some of our favorites dropped out of the market, we floundered with various kinds, including some Open Pollinated varieties that sounded good. This year I am advocating for Green Magic (57d F1, 6-8″ main head and sideshoots too); Belstar (65d F1, also 6-8″ main head, plus sideshoots); and Marathon (68d F1) or Fiesta (70d F1, 6-7″ head, few sideshoots, short harvest window). Marathon has done well for us in the past. In my experience, broccoli is a crop where hybrids are much more productive than OP types.

Green Machine zucchini. Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Our much-loved Tendergrey zucchini, one of the flecked pale green types, isn’t easily available this year. But Green Machine (45d F1) sounds very good! Open plant habit is a phrase I like. Moderate spines is one I don’t like, but we have some pull-on plastic sleeves to deal with irritating plants. Widely adapted, excellent disease package, and high yields all appeal to me.

We rely on Provider (50d OP) and Bush Blue Lake snap beans every year, with a short row of Strike in the hoophouse a month earlier than outdoors. We found we need an upright variety to get nice beans undercover, as the bean plants grow sprawlier than they do outside, and we don’t want to be treading on them.

Washing Cylindra beets for storage.
Photo Wren Vile

We rely on Cylindra or Formanova (54d OP) beets, long-shaped tender ones that grow up out of the ground, are tender and easy to peel after cooking. Seems like the yield must be high when half the root is above ground, and half below!

Premium Late Dutch cabbage (100d OP) has done well for us. Johnny’s has a lovely-sounding storage cabbage, Promise (96d F1). 6 ½ lbs at 18″ spacing, 9-10 lbs at 24″ spacing. And two attractive purplish Chinese cabbages Red Trumpet (60d F1), a tall Michihili type, and Merlot (60d F1), said to be an improved Red Dragon Napa type. I hadn’t got round to trying Red Dragon yet, so I can’t speak to its shortcomings. Merlot admits to being more prone to tipburn than green varieties and to be somewhat susceptible to bolting. Some trials on a small-scale are called for!

Merlot purple Chinese cabbage.
Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Carrots – oh why so many yellow, purple, red and black ones? None in my experience match the succulence and growth rate of orange Danvers 126.

Collards – for years I have loved Morris Heading, but the recent explosion of options brought us by the Heirloom Collard Project is leading us to try others. Some have remarkable colors, combined with high yields.

The delicious early Bodacious sweet corn is harder to find. Thanks Southern Exposure for carrying it. Our reliable favorite Kandy Korn has become hard to find.

Our favorite slicing cucumber has been renamed by Fedco as Generally, a name we’ve been using for years. This year we also tried South Wind from Common Wealth Seed Growers and were quite taken with its sweetness.

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

As always, there are new frilly mustards for baby greens and salad mixes. We like Mizuna, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills and especially Ruby Streaks. I feel drawn towards purple stemmed Ember and dark red Miz America.

For leeks, we grow King Richard and Lincoln for fall and Tadorna for overwintering in our Zone 7a climate. No complaints there. all are very good for their purpose.

I’m always on the lookout for new lettuces. This summer we tried Albachiara from High Mowing, and it did very well. We’ll get more for this coming year. It’s a Batavian heat-tolerant type. Now our climate is changing, we need to grow Batavians for more weeks of heat. Finding a new one is great! Dark red Cherokee has been my favorite.

I shouldn’t even look at the spring lettuce selection, or I’ll order more than we can use in the short spring season we have. Most spring varieties can be grown in the fall here too, but we like to switch to cold-tolerant ones.

Ezrilla, a favourite cold-hardy lettuce.
Photo Wren Vile

This winter we are growing the beautiful Rhone in our hoophouse bed of cut-and-come again leaf varieties, along with Ezrilla, Hampton, Brentwood, Tango, Revolution, Oscarde and Panisse.

For scallions we like Evergreen Hardy White (65d OP) every time, and feel no need to try another.

We have been growing Sugar Ann early dwarf snap peas in our hoophouse (sown Feb 1), but next year we are trying Oregon Giant snow peas instead. We think snap peas are best raw, and used to cut them into our salad mixes. But over the past few years, by the time the snap peas are ready to harvest, our winter salad mix days are coming to a close, and our outdoor lettuce head harvest is starting. We don’t grow enough snap peas to serve them on their own in big bowlfuls. We think we’ll be able to pick enough snow peas for stirfry mixes instead! In March we sow Sugar Ann outdoors and get plenty.

For sweet peppers our keywords are prolific, thick-walled, tasty, and 90 days or less from transplant to ripe harvest (76d to green). We like fairly large peppers too, and avoid small pointy ones that could get confused with hot peppers in the fridge.

Tomatoes are a whole topic on their own. We love Sun Gold and Black Cherry, Mountain Magic and Garden Peach. Others come and go. Next year we are trying Damsel  (73d F1). Damsel is in the new tomato category called “Hylooms” – hybrids resembling heirlooms in color and flavor, with added disease resistance.

Damsel (71d F1) Hyloom tomato.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Vegetable Storage Tips

Our winter squash storage cage. Photo Twin Oaks Community

Key factors to consider when selecting vegetables for long-term storage

  • Most storable vegetables are roots or tubers.
  • Winter squash, onions and garlic are the main exceptions.
  • And tree fruits such as apples and pears.
  • There are hard-headed storage cabbages too, but those varieties are getting harder to find, as fewer people grow for storage. Search the seed catalogs for the word “storage”. Other varieties are for fresh market, or processing, and won’t store for long.
  • Don’t plan to grow a specific crop unless you have the right kind of place to store it!
  • You also need a likely market. I love celeriac, but it’s not widely known, so I wouldn’t recommend growing lots until you have an idea of the demand.
  • Choose varieties that are sturdy and chunky, not slender carrots, for instance. (Shriveling is related to the ratio of volume to surface area.)
  • Ideally, practice that variety on a small scale the year before growing a very large amount, to see how it does in your soil.
  • If it’s too late to do that, try three different varieties and keep records of how they do.
  • Read the small print in the seed catalogs! Moschata winter squashes such as butternuts. Long Island Cheese and Seminole store all winter, but acorn squash do not. You can store acorn squash for a couple of months, but then move them along to people’s dinner plates.

Harvesting tips to maximize the storage life of stored vegetables

Carrot harvest cart
Photo Mari Korsbrekke
  • Storing vegetables is very much a Garbage In-Garbage Out type of thing. If you put unsound vegetables into storage, they will rot and the rot could spread.
  • Good storability starts with good growing techniques
  • During growth, fend off any serious pest predation, as crops with holes in may not store well.
  • Be sure you know the temperature at which each crop will suffer cold damage, and get it harvested before that happens.
  • Harvest when the crops are optimum size and in peak condition.
  • Ideally, harvest in dry weather.
  • Handle the vegetables gently. Bruises can happen invisibly, so if you drop something, don’t store it.
  • White potatoes can reach a storable state two weeks after the tops die in the field. If you are in a hurry, mow the tops off, then wait two weeks. Check that the skins are “set” and don’t tear, if you rub the potato with your thumb.

    Sweet potato harvest crates
    Photo Nina Gentle
  • Trim leafy tops from root vegetables, leaving very short stems on beets and carrots. During long storage, the stubs of the leaf stems may die and drop off, but this is nothing to worry about.
  • If you cut the tops off beets completely, the red color will wash out during cooking. Definitely don’t cut into the root part of beets when trimming. Some people trim the long ends of beet roots, but I never have. They don’t take up much space!
  • I do trim the roots from kohrabi, and for that task, I do cut into the bulbous part of the root, as the skinny root has such a high concentration of fibers that it’s like a steel cable! The cut surface soon heals over.
  • Look each vegetable over and only store ones without soft spots or deep holes. Carrots or sweet potatoes snapped in half can heal over and store just fine, but stabbed potatoes won’t. Superficial bug bites will heal over but not tunneling.
  • Small roots won’t store well. We have a “training tool” for new crew members which is a bucket lid with holes cut in it. If the carrot can pass through the carrot hole, it’s too thin to store well. Potatoes less than about an inch are not worth storing. Likewise tiny turnips.

    Bucket lid with holes for sorting root vegetables for storage.
    Photo Wren Vile
  • For traditional storage without refrigeration, most roots store best unwashed (less wrinkling). This can make them harder to clean later.
  • If you are going to store root crops unwashed, consider setting them in a single layer on the field and making a second trip round to pick them up into crates when the skins are dry. If you are going to wash them, the opposite is true! Get them into water before the skins dry, to help the washing go quicker. We don’t wash sweet potatoes, white potatoes or squash. We do wash all the other root crops, as it’s harder to get them really clean if the soil dries on them. Provided you store them in humid enough conditions, they will not shrivel.
  • Some crops need curing before storing (alliums, peanuts, sweet potatoes, white potatoes).
  • Tops of garlic and onions can be trimmed after the crops have cured and the leaves died. Making braids or ropes of alliums with their tops on can be a profitable option.

The best storage conditions for different types of vegetables

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle
  • In my book, Sustainable Market Farming, I have a whole chapter on Winter Vegetable Storage.
  • Growers have only good things to say about the CoolBot system from Store-It-Cold. Basically you build a well-insulated space (shed, room, truck body), buy a window AC unit and the CoolBot and follow their excellent instructions to install the device which lets you run the AC at a lower temperature, like a refrigerator, at a fraction of the cost.
  • Hang a thermometer in your storage spaces, so you know when to warm or cool them. Digital thermometers might measure humidity too.
  • You can get a small electronic device that will send an alert to your phone if the temperature goes too far out of range.
  • For storing white potatoes without refrigerators, the best place is a root cellar. You are aiming for cool and moist conditions: 40-50°F (5-10°C), with 85-90% humidity. You really don’t want to store potatoes below that range, or they go black when you make fries.
  • Most other vegetables fit into four other sets of storage conditions:

A. Cold and Moist (33-40°F/1-4°C, 95-100% humidity, works for most root crops, and also cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi and leeks.

B. Cool and Moist is mostly potatoes, as I already mentioned. Pears, apples and cabbage also store well in these conditions but not sharing space with potatoes! More on that later.

C. Cool and Dry is for garlic and onions. 32-40°F/0-4°C and 60-70% humidity. It’s also possible to store alliums warm and dry at first, 65-85°F/18-30°C, but definitely not 40-56°F (4-13°C) for garlic, or 45-55°F (7-13°C) for bulb onions or they will sprout. Never warm after cold either.

D. Warm and Dry to Fairly Moist is for winter squash and sweet potatoes. Never below 50°F (10°C). Ideal temperature 55-59°F (13-15°C). Temperatures above 65°F (18°C) hasten sprouting. Also ripening green tomatoes like 55-70F/13-21C and moist (75-85%).

  • For the warmer options, barns or basements might be suitable in the fall, before they get too cold.
  • If you are planning a new barn, consider installing an insulated basement to be a root cellar.
  • There are traditional in-ground storage methods, such as clamps, pits and trenches. The easiest version of this, in the right climate, is to mulch heavily with about 12″ (30 cm) of insulation (such as straw, dry leaves, chopped corn stalks, or wood shavings) over the row, and maybe add low tunnels over the mulch.

    In-ground vegetable storage Drawing from WSU
  • Clamps are made by setting down a layer of insulation on the ground, piling up the crops in a rounded cone or ridge shape, covering thickly with straw, then working round the mound digging a ditch and slapping the soil up on the mound.
Vegetable storage clamp.
Drawing from WSU
  • Pits and trenches start by digging a hole, lining it with straw or an old chest freezer, layering in the vegetables with straw and covering with boards and a thick layer of insulation. Insulated boxes stored in unheated areas need 6-8″ (15-20 cm) of insulation on the bottom, sides, and top.
  • This all takes a lot of work, so look into the CoolBot idea first!

Suitable containers for storing vegetables

  • We use perforated clear plastic sacks for roots, cabbages and kohlrabi. They reduce the water losses that lead to wrinkling.;
  • We use net bags for onions and garlic; plastic milk crates for potatoes;
  • We use folding plastic crates for squash and sweet potatoes.
  • We leave horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes and leeks in the ground here in zone 7a, but we don’t get frozen soil for much of the winter.
  • We don’t use any packaging materials, but in England in the past I stored roots in boxes of damp peat moss, sawdust, sand or wood ash. I find it better to get the right storage conditions for the vegetables, rather than try to insulate them in their crates.
  • Set the containers on pallets, not directly on concrete floors, to reduce condensation.
  • When stacking your containers, allow gaps along the walls and between stacks, for airflow. Celeriac needs more ventilation than beets or kohlrabi, for instance.
  • Sometimes night ventilation offers cooler drier air than you can get in the daytime.

Vegetables that have particular needs for long-term storage

Sweet Potatoes in storage.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Sweet potatoes must be cured before storage. This means hot humid conditions until the skins don’t rub off when you rub two together. After that you can move them to storage conditions (or turn down the heater and humidifier!)
  • It is important that sweet potatoes never go below 50°F (10°C) or they will suffer a permanent chilling injury that makes them almost impossible to cook. I know because I’ve made that mistake, leaving them in the ground too long, hoping they’d grow bigger.
  • White potatoes also need to cure until the skins toughen, in moist air (90% humidity) for 1-2 weeks at 60-75°F (15-24°C). Wounds in the skin will not heal below 50°F (10°C).
  • We sort our potatoes after two weeks of curing and find that sorting at this point usually reduces the chance of rot so that we don’t need to sort again.
  • They need to stay moist so they don’t wrinkle. They have fairly exacting temperature requirements so they don’t sprout.
  • Remember to keep white potatoes in the dark while curing as well as during storage.
Home vegetable storage options, from WSU
  • Some vegetables exude ethylene in storage: fruits, damaged produce, sprouting vegetables. Some crops are not much affected by ethylene (greens for example) and can be stored in the same space with ripening tomatoes, for instance.
  • Other vegetables are very sensitive to ethylene, and will deteriorate in a high-ethylene environment. Potatoes will sprout, ripe fruits will go over the top, carrots lose their sweetness and become bitter.
  • When storing ripe fruit, ventilate with fresh air frequently, maybe even daily, to reduce the rate of over-ripening and rotting.
  • Ethylene also hastens the opening of flower buds and the senescence of open flowers.
  • Alliums like it drier than most crops. Heed my warning about the “danger zone” sprouting temperatures. Not 40-56°F (4-13°C) for garlic, or 45-55°F (7-13°C) for bulb onions or they will sprout.

Tips for extending the storage life of vegetables

  • For non-refrigerated storage, unless using outdoor pits or clamps, several smaller containers of each crop are often a safer bet than one giant one, in case rot sets in.
  • For crops that store best at 32°F (0°C), if you can only store them in warmer temperatures (up to 50°F/10°C), provided they do have high humidity, you can expect to get about half the storage life they’d last for in ideal conditions.
  • After you’ve put your produce into storage, don’t completely forget about it! Keep a record of what is stored where and perhaps a check sheet for inspection. Monitor the rate of use and notice if you’d benefit from more or less of each crop next winter.
  • Regularly check the storage conditions are still meeting your goal, and check thorough the crops at least once a month, removing the bad ones. Shallow crates make this easier.
  • For root crops and squash, and maybe alliums, the initial storage period is the most likely to show up trouble. Later the crops become more dormant and less change happens.
  • Keeping root cellar temperatures within a narrow range takes human intervention, or sophisticated thermostats and vents.
  • If needed, electric fans can be used to force air through a building.
  • Make a realistic assessment of how long your crop will last in the actual conditions you are providing, and plan to move them all on before then.
  • You may be able to reallocate crops to some colder spaces as some of the original produce stored there gets used.
  • After long storage, some vegetables look less than delicious, and benefit from a bit of attention before the diners get them. Cabbages can have the outer leaves removed, and can then be greened up by exposing to light for a week at 50°F (10°C). This isn’t just cosmetic – the vitamin C content increases ten-fold. Carrots can lose their sweetness over time, unless frequently exposed to fresh air, by ventilating well.
Storage #4 green cabbage. The name says it all.
Fedco Seeds

How cold can leafy greens and salad crops survive?

Our hoophouse beds after the nights at 2F (-17C) and 8F (-13C). Looking amazing! Pam Dawling

We were luckier with the weather than many people over the weekend (12/23-12/26/2022). And so were our vegetable crops. On Friday 12/23 we prepared for a suddenly very cold night. It was very windy as we battled to stop the hoophouse windows from blowing open. We finally got some shims, a hammer and a stepladder, and wedged them closed. They stayed that way until Tuesday 12/27. We were fortunate in getting no precipitation (I hate ice!) and no power outage.

Pool noodles repurposed as draft excluders.
Pam Dawling

We fortified the doors with our rock collecting buckets, and prevented most of the under-door drafts with our pool noodle draft excluders. They have a rope running through them, which is hooked onto small cup-hooks on the door frame. We repurposed noodles that had been used as props at a party or some other kind of event. They had been covered in tube socks and had glued-on googly eyes.

Rolls of rowcover at the ready in our hoophouse.
Pam Dawling

It was a bit unnerving being in the hoophouse as it creaked and groaned in the wind. In the winter we keep rolls of rowcover ready for any night we think will be below 8F (-13C). We unrolled the rowcovers by lunchtime and laid tools on the ends nearest the doors. I was worried that if we lost power, and therefore the inflation, it would get very cold indeed in the hoophouse.

The DIY manometer in our hoophouse. (the background lines have faded). Pam Dawling

Since we last changed the plastic we haven’t managed to get the recommended 1/3” (8.5mm) pressure difference in the “bubble” between the plastic layers, compared to our normal air pressure. Mostly we don’t even get ¼” (6.5mm). The “bubble” provides thermal insulation as well as physical strength against snow or ice buildup, and strong winds.

It got down to 2F (-17C) outdoors Friday night, and Saturday didn’t warm up much. I don’t actually know what the night temperature was in the hoophouse as our recorded low temperatures don’t make sense: 14F (-10C) for four consecutive nights (Fri to Mon). I suspect we didn’t reset the thermometer correctly. Usually the hoophouse can hold 8 F (4.5 C) degrees warmer than outdoors, but not 12 F (7 C). It looks like it did, perhaps because we didn’t open it all day!

Soil thermometer in our hoophouse on 27 December 2022.
Pam Dawling

The soil is still nice and warm in there: 59F (15C). That really helps. The rowcovers are usually removed in the daytime, either pulled aside if we expect to need them again the next night, or rolled up out of the way. Most of the time they stay rolled up at the east end of the hoophouse. We appreciate not needing to deal with rowcovers most of the time! On Saturday 24th, the temperature maximum for the day outdoors was 24F (-4.5C), and we kept the rowcovers in place over the crops. On Sunday the high outdoors was 28F (-2C) so we pulled the rowcovers aside until the night. On Monday 26th the night-time forecast was benign enough that we rolled the rowcovers up. And now we get a milder spell.

Hakurei turnips with frozen yellow leaves where they touched the plastic (rowcover protected the plants). Pam Dawling

How did the crops fare? It’s not always obvious at first if a crop has been killed by cold or not, But I can now say with confidence that nothing died. The edge beds are always the coldest. The south edge bed had Hakurei turnips, delicious and notoriously the least cold-hardy turnip variety. Most of the globe of the turnip sits on the surface of the soil. You can see in the photo that some of the leaves, the ones right by the wall plastic, have been killed and turned yellow. But the roots themselves (with rowcover over them) seem fine.

Bright Lights chard with cold-damaged stems in our hoophouse north edge bed after nights at 2F and 8F
Pam Dawling

Over the other side, in the north bed, we have some Bright Lights chard, among other things. Multi-colored chards are less cold-hardy than red ones, which in turn are less cold-hardy than green ones. We know we take a risk in growing Bright Lights through the winter, but we so enjoy the sight of the short pieces of colored stems in our salad mixes that we take the risk. Some of the stems have curled over, probably on their way to dying, but the plants live on, to provide many more salads this winter! And some cooked greens too.

Some of the giant senposai leaves, where not fully protected by the relatively narrow rowcover, have developed tan dead spots, so those leaves can just continue as the plants’ solar panels until we get tired of looking at them and decide they are no longer needed.

Each winter I update my Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables list, except this past spring I had nothing new to add. Outdoors, I noticed today that the tatsoi has definitely died, the Vates kale and the spinach have survived (uncovered) and the small garlic leaves don’t seem troubled. The leftover lettuce transplants have been damaged, if not killed.

Workhorse Crops for January

Our hoophouse with a December snowfall. Pam Dawling

We’re solidly in the darker and colder half the year for our monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as December.

Winter is a natural opportunity to reconsider the size of your garden, which crops to grow, and your growing methods. Perhaps this will be your first gardening year? If so, welcome! Use the search box to find specific info, or click the blog category to find some further reading. Hopefully, we all have our garden plans made and our seeds ordered. Maybe we are already looking at a planting schedule.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in January

Potato Onions

Yellow Potato Onions.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In January, we can plant small small potato onions outdoors.  We prepare the bed in the late fall and mulch it with hay, to plant in January. We rake off the mulch, plant the onion bulbs and then lay the mulch back on the bed, to control weeds and somewhat to insulate the little onion bulbs. These smallest potato onions are very cold-hardy, and will grow up to produce a single 3” (7.5 cm) large onion. A few will grow and subdivide to produce more small onions. Click the link to read the details.

Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In our greenhouse we fire up our germinator cabinets and sow our first lettuce and early cabbage (Early Jersey Wakefield and Faroa) and scallions in mid-January. The following week we sow our tomatoes to plant out in the hoophouse, and at the end of the month, spinach if we have not got enough sown in our hoophouse to transplant as bare-root transplants.

Flats of cabbage seedlings in our greenhouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in January

In the hoophouse we are sowing a second or third round of crops, mostly successions of greens and radishes. We have already pulled our first and second radishes, and some of the Asian greens.

This March we will be using a half-bed in the hoophouse for some early green bush beans. Like our other warm weather crops, these can be planted in the hoophouse a month earlier than outdoors. Two cautions with green beans in the hoophouse: buy a very upright variety, as the plants will be more sprawling than they are outdoors. Outdoors we grow Provider and Bush Blue Lake (both very reliable and productive), and in the hoophouse we like Strike. The second bean caution is that we have found the edge beds too cold for beans when we need to sow them, in March. Don’t plant them now, but order seeds of an upright variety and plan a non-edge bed. I’ll say more in March.

We have also planned our next round of early warm-weather crops, which we will transplant in late March and early April. Tomatoes and zucchini/summer squash are on our Workhorse list

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We stop filling gaps in most of the Asian greens at the end of December, because they will start to bolt in January and/or because they are mature and we will be clearing the space to sow something else. Tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana, Pac Choi, Chinese Cabbage, Yukina Savoy, all need to be eaten during January.  We sow spinach (the Racehorse Crop) in mid-January, to transplant in the hoophouse and outdoors.

Vates kale seedlings for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed.

See November’s information on Follow-On Crops, and Filler Greens (short rows of greens sown in October to fill unexpected spaces).

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in January

We still have workhorse crops to harvest outdoors: chard, kale and collards, and perhaps cabbages. We’re down to three of our 14 workhorse crops to harvest outdoors in January, but we have the Racehorse Crop, spinach, too, and also luscious hoophouse greens.

Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C), the lowest temperature I’ve seen it survive. We just had one night at that temperature, much colder than anything else so far this winter.

Chard can still be harvested outdoors if we covered it with hoops and rowcover. The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). We have succeeded in keeping chard alive outdoors right through the winter, if we cover it.

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested in January. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow. In October, November, February and March, we can harvest leaves from these plants once a week. In December and January, once each month is more like what we can hope for. Chard and senposai do OK with only 6 leaves left.

Hoophouse Workhorse harvests in January

We are harvesting leaves from our hoophouse Bright Lights chard at an adolescent size, cutting them into ribbons, and chopping the colorful stems, for salad mixes. Later, when the days lengthen, we’ll be able to harvest leaves for cooking.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

The Red Russian and White Russian kales are ready to harvest now (we were a bit late with getting a successful sowing in September). Russian kales belong to the napus group of kales, which are better able to make growth in low light levels than oleracea types like the Vates we grow outdoors. Vates is our star outdoors, because it is more cold-hardy than any other kale I’ve found. The Russian kales have a tendency to wilt after harvesting, so we move fast and stand the leaves up in the buckets. We add some water to the buckets before rushing them to the walk-in cooler. (We do this with chard, turnip greens and Tokyo bekana too.)

The hoophouse senposai is on its third round of harvests, just two weeks after the second, which was one week after the first. This clearly demonstrated the slower rate of growth as temperatures and daylight decrease. The short days do cause plant growth to slow down, but this is not the only factor. Soil temperature is another. In our hoophouse, the soil temperature is still 50F (10C) in early January.

But hey! The length of daylight is now increasing! On the shortest day, December 21, we have 9 hours and 34 minutes of daylight, from 7.21 am to 4.55 pm. The mornings continue to get darker by a few minutes, taking a month to get back to 7.21, from a latest of 7.25 am. Meanwhile the evenings are getting lighter, gaining us 6 minutes by January 5. I’m typing this on my laptop onto a USB stick, as we are in day 3 of a power outage. I appreciate the lighter evenings! By January 21 we will be up to 10 hours of daylight!

Workhorse Crops from storage in January

Storage crops come into their own in December and January, once outdoor growth has slowed down. The flavor of stored sweet potatoes reaches its peak in late January! Besides the Workhorse Crops of carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and garlic, there are many other root crops. See my posts Root Crops for the Month. Use hardneck garlic first, as it stores for only for 4-6 months. Softneck garlic can store for up to 7 months.

Eat up your acorn and other pepo types of winter squash, as they store for only 1-4 months. Maximas such as Cha Cha, Jarrahdale and Kabochas store for 3-5 months; Moschatas such as Butternuts and Cheese pumpkins will store for 8 months or even more. Seminole pumpkin can easily store for a whole year at room temperature. They do have hard shells and need a hefty cleaver to cut them open.

Our white potatoes are keeping well in the root cellar down at 40F-50F (5C-10C). We air it about once a week. We open the door on mild nights or chilly overcast days, depending what we get and what we need. Potatoes in storage after their first month are no longer respiring much at all. They should be dormant, and not in need of many air changes.

Sweet potatoes on a plate.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Our sweet potatoes are very delicious. We are eating about 40-50lbs (19-23 kilos) a week.

Stored cabbage can also be a boon, and this is also a good time to explore all the pickles and canned and frozen produce you put up earlier.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for January: Making Schedules.

Screenshot Crop Planning Cycle

We continue our Garden Planning, ordering seeds and planning schedules of field planting and greenhouse seedling starting. In January we start sowing seeds indoors, and need our schedule figured out for that. We also need to pay attention to germination temps for various crops, so that we get them off to a good start, matched with crops needing similar temperatures in each germination cabinet.

More About Winter Vegetable Storage

 

Bucket of freshly harvested Detroit Dark Red beets for storage.
Photo Pam Dawling

 See my previous posts

Here I will tell you more about storage of various crops.

  • Storing crops maximizes their season of availability
  • Many crops can be stored without electricity, perhaps in buildings that serve other uses at the height of the growing season.
  • The Washington State University Extension publication, Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home, is a good introduction to alternatives to refrigerated storage, using pits, clamps and root cellars. Drawings below are from WSU Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home
  • There is also good information in old versions of the USDA Agriculture Handbook 66.
  • Some vegetables need to cure before storage in different conditions from those needed for storage. Curing allows skins to harden and some of the starches to convert to sugars.
A storage cabbage, with curled-back leaf on the head, showing maturity.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Four Sets of Vegetable Storage Conditions

See the chart in my book Sustainable Market Farming, for more details.

By providing storage spaces with just 4 types of conditions, at least 25 crops can be stored.

A= Cold and Moist: 32°F–40°F (0°C–5°C), 80%–95% humidity — refrigerator or winter root cellar conditions. Most roots, greens, leeks. Use ventilated crates, or perforated plastic bags (or mesh net bags for cabbages) indoors. If above 45°F (7°C), roots will start to sprout. Greens benefit from light. See more about root cellars below. Roots can be stored in clamps or pits outdoors – more on those options below.

B= Cool and Fairly Moist: 40°F–50°F (5°C–10°C), 85%–90% humidity — root cellar. Potatoes. Use ventilated crates. Keep in darkness to prevent greening. See the links to my potato storage info.

Trimming garlic stems prior to long-term storage.
Photo by Brittany Lewis

C= Cool and Dry: 32°F–50°F (0°C–10°C), 60%–70% humidity — cooler basements and barns. Garlic and onions. Use net bags or shallow racks. Avoid temperatures of 40°F-56°F (4°C-13°C), or they will sprout. Also avoid reversals of temperature (warm conditions after cold ones). Newer info says 32°F-40°F (0°C-4.5°C). is best for garlic.

Sweet potatoes stored in off-duty wood seed flats.
Credit Nina Gentle

D= Warm and Dry to Fairly Moist: 50°F–60°F (10°C–15°C), 60%–70% humidity — basements. Sweet potatoes and winter squash. Use shallow racks or perforated trays. Sweet potatoes need curing at higher temperatures and humidity before storing.

The entrance to our root cellar.Photo Twin Oaks Community

Root Cellars

  • Potatoes can be stored for five to eight months with a good in-ground root cellar.
  • Potatoes are best stored in a moist, completely dark cellar, at 40°F (5°C) to 50°F (10°C). Ventilate as needed for air exchange and to keep the cellar in the ideal temperature range.
  • Also for apples, cabbage, or root vegetables, but be careful what you mix, because ethylene from the apples, for example, will cause potatoes to sprout!
  • Some people pack unwashed vegetables in boxes of sand, wood ash, sawdust or wood chips. Perforated plastic bags are a modern alternative.
  • Cabbages or pepper plants can be hung upside down in the cellar to ripen, or simply to store.
  • Celery and leeks can be replanted side by side in tubs of soil.
  • See Nancy and Mike Bubel’s book Root Cellaring to learn how to design, build and use a root cellar.
Using a sturdy digging fork to harvest leeks in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

In-Ground Storage

  • Depending on your winter temperatures, some cold-hardy root crops (such as turnips, rutabagas, carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish) and also leeks can be left in place in the ground, with about a foot (30 cm) of insulation (such as straw, dry leaves, chopped corn stalks, or wood shavings) added after the soil temperature drops to “refrigerator temperatures.”
  • Hooped rowcovers or polyethylene low tunnels can keep the worst of the weather off.
  • There could be some losses to rodents, so experiment on a small scale the first winter to see what works for you.
  • Besides being used as a method for storage of hardy crops deep into winter, this can be a useful method of season extension into early winter for less hardy crops such as beets, celery and cabbage, which would not survive all-winter storage this way.
  • In colder regions plan to remove the crops before the soil becomes frozen, or else wait for a thaw.

Drawing credit WSU Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home

Harvested turnips ready for storage.
Photo Pam Dawling

Storage Clamps (Mounds)

  • Cabbage, kohlrabi, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, parsnips, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, salsify and winter radishes can be stored with no electricity use at all, by making temporary insulated outdoor storage mounds (clamps).
  • Mark out a circular or oval pad of soil, lay down some straw or other insulation, pile the roots up in a rounded cone or ridge shape, and cover them with straw and then with soil, making a drainage ditch round the pile. As a chimney for ventilation, leave a tuft of straw poking out the center. Slap the soil in place to protect the straw and shed rainwater.
  • For the back-yarder, various roots can be mixed, or sections of the clamp can be for different crops. Those growing on a large scale would probably want a separate clamp for each crop. It is possible to open one end of a clamp or pit, remove some vegetables, then reseal it, although it takes some care for it to be successful.
  • There is a balance to be found between the thermal buffering of one large clamp and the reduced risk of rot that numerous smaller clamps provide.

Drawing credit WSU Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home

 Pits and Trenches

  • Dig a hole in the ground, line it with straw, lay in the vegetables, then cover with more straw and soil.
  • To deter rodents, bury large bins such as metal trash cans, layer the vegetables inside with straw, and cover the lid with a mound of more insulation and soil.
  • Trenches can have sidewalls made with boards to extend the height.
  • You can bury insulated boxes in the ground inside a dirt-floored shed or breezeway. Insulated boxes stored in unheated areas need six to eight inches (15–20 cm) of insulation on the bottom, sides and top.

Drawing credit WSU Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home

Cherokee Purple tomatoes. Don’t store ripening tomatoes with your potatoes!
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Ethylene

  • Ethylene is associated with ripening, sprouting and rotting.
  • Some crops produce ethylene in storage — apples, cantaloupes, ripening tomatoes all produce higher than average amounts.
  • Chilling, wounding and pathogen attack can all cause damaged crops to produce ethylene.
  • Some crops, including most cut greens, are not sensitive to ethylene and can be stored in the same space as ethylene-producing crops.
  • Other crops are very sensitive and will deteriorate in a high-ethylene environment. Potatoes will sprout, ripe fruits will go over the top, carrots lose their sweetness and become bitter.

 

Drawing credit WSU Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home

Fall and Winter Vegetable Growing, Harvest and Storage

 

China Rose Winter Radish.
Photo Seed Savers Exchange

You can find a wealth of information on my website about growing, harvesting and storing winter vegetables. There are many links here in this post (all should open in a new tab, so you won’t go down a rabbit hole), and you can also use the search box in the upper right to enter whatever vegetable you are wondering about, and “grow” “harvest” or “store”, Remember I also have several annual series of posts, on Asian greens, root vegetables, workhorse crops, alliums, cooking greens, and lettuce. Just don’t look for “Storage lettuce” until April 1st.

I’ve also included some good blogs that I sometimes consult.

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Growing

Season extension into cold weather

Prepare your garden for colder weather: plant winter crops if there is still time, use rowcover on hoops to protect crops from wind and cold weather, plant up every little bit of space in your greenhouse or hoophouse.

See my posts

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo wren Vile

And here’s a post by Shannon Cowan, the blog editor at Eartheasy.com:

Winter Gardening: Best Crops to Extend Your Harvest

Shannon suggests using a variety of strategies. “Plant some vegetables that will mature quickly, others that will hold well in your garden beds, and still others that will overwinter and begin growing again when the days lengthen.”

This is also my approach. See my posts

Fall-grown senposai.
Photo Pam Dawling

Good late season vegetables: salad greens, Swiss chard, beans, peas (in climates milder than 7), carrots, radishes, senposai, spinach, pak choy, cabbage and winter lettuces.

Good cold hardy vegetables: Plant in late summer and fall to harvest throughout the winter. These late-sown crops reach full maturity before seriously cold weather, and hold so you can harvest them when the rest of your crops have been eaten. They don’t usually grow much during the winter, but they do stay fresh. Grow enough to supply your needs without depending on any further growth. This category includes Asian greens, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, leeks, scallions, spinach, turnips and other root vegetables,

Good crop protection so you can grow some crops through the winter. If your winter temperatures routinely drop below 25 F (- 4 C), crops need protection, from simple rowcover to hoophouses or greenhouses. This improves the temperatures, but it’s hard to address the reduced amount of daylight or sunlight. The increased warmth, plus the protection from winds, can be enough for some, such as spinach, kale and lettuce, to make some growth whenever their temperature is greater than 40F (5C).

Using a sturdy digging fork to harvest leeks in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

Good slow growing crops to harvest outdoors in late winter or early spring. In this category are crops that go into the winter less than fully grown. After the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, crops start growing again, making them usually ready for harvest very early, much earlier than any crops planted after the solstice. They don’t usually need winter protection and include beets, some types of broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, onions, garlic, garlic scallions, spinach, kale and collards.

See my post Winter radishes, planting garlic.

Good crops to grow in hoophouses include arugula, beets, chard, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, lettuce, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, mustards, pak choy, parsley, radishes, spinach, tatsoi, Tokyo bekana, turnips and Yukina Savoy

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

See my posts

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Harvest

See my posts

Harvested Purple Top Milan and White Egg turnips.
Photo Pam Dawling

Here are some links to a couple of good sources for more harvest information:

Piedmont Master Gardeners Garden Shed Newsletter

Guidelines for Harvesting Vegetables by Pat Chadwick

A list of seven basic principles of harvesting, followed by a crop-by-crop list of almost 50 individual crops and a resource list of 18 publications (focused on the mid-Atlantic and Southeast)

Roxbury Farm Harvest Manual (Roxbury Agriculture Institute at Philia Farm)

October Tips from Harvest to Table, by Steve Albert covers all climate zones and comes complete with a USDA Hardiness Zone Map

Links to other posts by Steve Albert

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Storage

I already have posts on root cellar potato storage, onion storage (alliums for August), Garlic storage, Storage vegetables slide show, Root Crops April, Feb, Jan, Dec, Nov.

See my posts

Sweet potatoes in storage. An ideal crop for winter meals, as they store at room temperature for a long time, maybe seven or eight months. Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops in April – the Hungry Gap

Young Cylindra beets in early May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in April

We are in cold-hardiness zone 7a, with an average last frost of 4/29. Those in other climate zones can study our Root Crops in May or Root Crops in March for information more useful in their area.

Outdoors we can sow  carrots #4 & #5, parsnips, radishes #2, (last date 4/15, sow on the shoulders of a newly transplanted lettuce bed to save space), beets (last date 4/15, hand sown or with an EarthWay seeder Chard plate, 2 or 3 passes. 1 cup sows 360 ft/110m)

Here we can plant potatoes anytime in April.

It is too late for us to sow any root crops in the hoophouse. (Besides, we want tomatoes!)

Having good stored crops like these beets will feed you through the Hungry Gap.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in April

As in January, February and March in central Virginia, in most of April there are still no roots to harvest outdoors except overwintered parsnips and maybe carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish.  Radishes from the first outdoor sowing will be ready at the end of April. We can usually harvest radishes until the end of May. Our hoophouse radishes usually finish in early April. By then it is hot and any remaining radishes bolt.

From storage, if we still have them, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips.

This is the Hungry Gap (see Special Topic for April below)

Colorado Potato beetle late stage larva
Photo Pam Dawling

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in April

  • If you are growing your own sweet potato slips, cut 6-12” (15-30cm) slips daily and stand them in water. Once a week, plant rooted slips in 4” (10cm) flats.
  • Hill up potatoes when 6” (15cm) high. Cover half the vine. Repeat after 2 weeks. This deals well with weeds and gives the potatoes more soil to grow into.
  • Potato beetles: Use Spinosad [or Neem] once larvae are seen, if there are more than 50 adults/50 plants or more than 200 larvae/100 plants. If you have fewer, you can leave them alone. Spinosad: Spray when bees are not flying (early morning or late evening.) Shake well, 1-4 Tbsp/gall (1fl.oz=2Tbsp=30ml.) Approx 8-30 ml per liter. Repeat in 6 days. Clean and triple rinse the sprayer. Do not flush Spinosad into creeks or ponds.
  • Thin and weed carrots.
  • Mow cover crop mixes in late vegetable plots when rye or wheat heads up, to help legumes develop.
  • Take rowcover from turnips that were sown 3 or more weeks earlier, to use on newer and more tender crops.
  • Till beds you’ll plant in a week or two, as heavy rain may prevent tilling close to sowing time. My ideal is to till as deep as needed ahead of time, then do a superficial tilling or scuffle hoeing the day before planting. This gives the best weed control.
  • Spread compost on beds you’ll plant in 3 weeks or so, and till in the compost when the soil is not too wet, not too dry.
  • If exposed to 10 consecutive days below 45°F (7°C), celeriac will bolt.
  • Store spring and fall seeds (spinach, peas, beets) in a cool place for the summer.
Vates kale outdoors. An oleracea type, Vates is very cold-hardy.
Photo by Nina Gentle

Special Root Crop Topic for April in Central Virginia: the Hungry Gap

What is the Hungry Gap?

The Hungry Gap happens in temperate climates with four seasons. In winter the short day-length reduces plant growth, and when it’s cold, maybe damp, windy, and overcast, the rate of crop growth drops further. The Hungry Gap is the annual period of the shortfall in local fruit and vegetables. April is the leanest month of the year in northern temperate climates, and the period can extend from January to May. This may be a factor in the origin of the 40 days of Lent.

Spring is not the time of overflowing bounty you might expect – leaves are growing, but not much else. Depending on your particular climate, there may be some vegetables that are winter-hardy. Almost every vegetable lover yearns for more variety than that!

In the spring, any remaining winter vegetables are getting ready to bolt (produce flowers and seeds rather than more leaves). Growers and gardeners are enthusiastically sowing and transplanting new crops, but planting too early would be a sad mistake and it takes time before those new crops can be harvested. That gap between the last of the winter crops and the first of the early spring crops, is called the Hungry Gap.

It’s not a familiar term these days, because importing produce from warmer climates hides the reality. Vegetable consumption in much of the Western hemisphere has shifted from Medieval (leaves and roots) to Mediterranean (“ratatouille vegetables” and salads). Importing or long-distance hauling demands more energy usage, as does the refrigeration they often require in transit.

Also there has been a practice of growing vegetables with artificial heat and light. This is not ecological, as use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change. The food sector accounts for 30% of global energy consumption and produces about 20% of GHG emissions (see the 2011 FAO report). Most of this energy consumption comes from oil and gas in the form of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, on-farm machinery and food processing.

Sweet Potatoes in storage.
Photo Pam Dawling
Sustainable Ways to Bridge the Hungry Gap

How did people survive the hungry gap in times gone by, and what can we learn from those strategies? Eating in the hungry gap used to be both hard and uninspiring – a restricted diet with few options. Adding options involves advance planning and advance work.

  1. Use stored food, such as root crops, winter squash and pumpkins
  2. Preserve fruits and vegetables from other seasons. Consider jams, pickles, canning in jars, freezing, drying, salting and fermenting (think sauerkraut)
  3. Grow more winter-hardy crops that start regrowth early in the spring, and may be harvestable during the winter. Consider covering the rows with rowcover or polyethylene low tunnels.
  4. Grow more perennial crops, such as asparagus, rhubarb, sea kale and sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima, wild beet). Although they take several years to establish, they will then yield earlier in the year than crops grown from seed in spring. Asparagus and rhubarb provide new flavors early in the year and signal the change to come.

    Asparagus in early April.
    Credit Wren Vile
  5. Sow fast-growing cold-hardy crops as early as possible after the winter solstice, for example spring leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collards, fast cabbage varieties, and lettuce.
  6. Add crop protection in the form of rowcovers, low polyethylene tunnels (cloches), caterpillar tunnels, high tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels) to create a warmer environment, trapping heat and humidity and warming up the soil, providing earlier harvests. Protect early sowings of quick crops, like radishes, arugula, land cress, salad greens, and also the first few weeks of newly planted kale, collards, spinach, mizuna, pak choy).
  7. Forage sustainably for edible wild greens as a spring ‘tonic’, even if not a major item in your diet. The strong flavors provide a welcome change after repetitive winter vegetables, and a useful top-up to the supply of produce as stores run low. Spring is one of the best seasons for foraging, but you do have to reliably identify what you’re picking, so get yourself a good guide book or phone app. Ramps, nettles, violets, chickweed, dandelion, garlic mustard, and lamb’s quarters are some of the many wild greens available in spring. See Rustic Farm Life: Wild Spring Greens You Should Be Eating

    Ruby chard.
    Photo Kathryn Simmons
  8. Maximize the number of annual and biennial crops you grow that are in season during the Hungry Gap. Some are mentioned already. Here are more ideas: chard, globe artichokes, herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, kale (one variety is called “Hungry Gap” because it crops during this period. It was introduced to UK agriculture during WWll in 1941), leeks. If your winter climate is mild enough (zone 8 or 9): over-wintered Purple sprouting broccoli, and spring greens (immature close-spaced dark-green cabbages).

    Brassica oleracea ‘Hungry Gap’ – kale
    Photo Chiltern Seeds, UK
  9. Indoor gardening. Grow sprouts and microgreens. These don’t take much advance planning and can perk up a winter or spring meal. Microgreens grow in compost or on special “blankets”, but sprouts are generally grown in jars or trays. Pea shoots are an easy one to start with, and you can use dried peas from the supermarket. When sprouting it is important that you buy organic seeds, to be sure that they have not been treated with any chemicals. Rinse your sprouts twice a day, and keep everything clean.

Read more about the Hungry Gap

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbZfTAYDA88

https://theunconventionalgardener.com/blog/what-is-the-hungry-gap/

https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/spring-plate-eating-hungry-gap/

https://www.farmdrop.com/blog/hungry-gap-seasonal-british-produce/

This is the last post in the monthly series on root crops. You can see them all here:

Root Crops in May

Root Crops in June

Root Crops in July

Root Crops in August

Root Crops in September

Root Crops in October

Root Crops in November

Root Crops in December

Root Crops in January

Root Crops in February

Root Crops in March

Workhorse Crops for the Month

Next month I will start a new monthly series. Workhorses are crops that are reliable under a wide range of conditions, including weather, soil, date and other variables. Some are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops” like chard that stand in your garden until you need to harvest them. Part of my motivation for this series is to help all the “Covid-steaders” who started growing food during the pandemic and want to up their game without investing a lot more time. Part is to help established gardeners and growers who need to make a living while dealing with the changes the past year has brought to their markets and to our climate. We need some easier days!

 

Root Crops in March

We shovel many wheelbarrows full of compost to our raised beds every year.
Photo Wren Vile

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in March

As soon as the soil is dry enough and not frozen, we spread compost on the raised beds we plan to plant in February and March, and till in the compost. We make ourselves a Spring Start-up Plan, so we know where to focus our energy when the weather gives us a chance.

Spring Start-up Plan

We aim to spread compost 4-6 weeks before planting, rototill 2-4 weeks before planting, and prep the bed a week or two before. This is more time than we allow later in the year, but in early spring it’s good to seize the opportunities that arise and not take the weather for granted.

This means in January we compost and till beds for spinach, turnips and our first carrots. In the first half of February we till the turnip beds and any beds of winter-killed oats cover crops that we will be planting soon. We compost the first lettuce bed, the kale and collard beds, and those for cabbage, beets, more carrots, senposai and peas (all have planting dates March 9 to 15). In the second half of February, we compost the third carrot bed and till the ones we already composted. In early March we till the third carrot bed.

A bed ready for tilling after mowing the cover crop and spreading compost.
Photo Pam Dawling

Once we get to March, day length has increased and temperatures are starting to climb. There is a noticeable increase in the rate of germination and growth (unlike for our February sowings, which are rooted in faith and optimism!) All being well with the weather (it’s extremely wet this year!), in early March, we direct sow turnips (3/6- 3/16), and radishes #1 (Cherry Belle or some other fast variety)

In mid-March, we can transplant kohlrabi. And we direct sow carrots #3 and beets. See below for more about beets. In late March, we direct sow our carrots #4, and more radishes and beets. We can sow kohlrabi if we have no transplants, and thin to 6” (15 cm) later.

Potatoes

A row of potato seed pieces ready to cover.
Photo by Wren Vile

We plant potatoes when the daffodils bloom, usually mid-March. Last year I wrote an extensive series of posts about growing potatoes.

See Planning to Grow Potatoes Again, the last part of a monthly series on growing potatoes, a dietary staple.

PART ONE: Planting potatoes (April)

PART TWO: Growing potatoes (May)

PART THREE: Potato pests and diseases (June)

PART FOUR: Harvesting potatoes (July)

PART FIVE: Storing potatoes (August)

PART SIX: Planning to grow potatoes again (September)

Beets

Detroit Dark Red beets in early June sunshine.
Photo Pam Dawling

Beets are workhorse root crops that thrive in mild weather, store well, and are popular traditional foods. They are crops that can provide high yields for the time invested.

Beets come in several types, round, top-shaped and long. The size and quality of the greens is a factor if you sell bunched beets with tops, or use the tops for greens. We like the 6” (15cm) long Cylindra/Formanova/Forono ones (55 days to maturity, OP). They are very tender and easy to cut into regular slices, for pickles or cooking. The skins come off easily, and the flavor is very sweet and the texture tender.

Among round ones we like Ace (50 days to maturity, F1 hybrid), and Detroit Dark Red (60d), a tender open-pollinated variety. Detroit Crimson Globe is said to maintain better flavor in hot weather than most others, which can develop off-flavors. Early Wonder Tall Top (48d), is also open-pollinated. Lutz Green Leaf (70d) is a big long-storage variety. There are also golden beets, white beets and candy-striped Chioggia beets, although in my experience, what they gain in appearance they lose in flavor and tenderness.

Beets seeds average 35,000 /lb. 2,200/oz, 80 seeds/gm. 1,285 seeds (2/3 oz, 18gm) sow 100’ (30m).  150’/oz, 2,300’/lb., 9 lbs/acre. 315,000 seeds/acre. Yield can be 40 lbs. (18kg) greens, 100 lbs. (45kg) roots/100’ (30m), or 14,000 lbs/acre, 2540 kg/ha.

Beets need a pH of 6.0-7.0, preferring 6.5-6.8.  They require abundant potassium, which can be supplied by woodash. Boron deficiency can show up in beets as internal browning, or dark dead tissue, as well as distorted leaf growth. It is most likely to occur in alkaline soils after long hot, dry spells. Beets can suffer from “zoning,” (white rings in the roots), if there are acute weather fluctuations.

Young Cylindra beets in early May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sow beets whenever the soil is between 50°F (10°C) and 95°F (35°C), so long as you can keep the surface damp. With beets we do a single sowing in mid-March and more in early August. We are growing for fresh use, pickling and storage, but not bunch sales, so we don’t need to do frequent sowings. For a continuous supply of greens and baby beets, sow every 2 weeks from spring until 8 weeks before regular frosts usually occur, or about 10 weeks before a heavy freeze is expected.

We direct sow either dry beet seed, or some we have presoaked for 1-2 hours. Beet seed drowns easily: don’t use too much water or soak for too long.  Sow 0.5″(1.2cm) deep in spring, deeper in hot summers, but never more than an inch (2.5cm) deep. We sow an inch (2.5 cm) apart in single rows 8-10” (20-25cm) apart. Others sow in bands 2-4″ (5-10cm) wide, at about 15 seeds/ft (2cm apart), with bands 12-18″ (30-45cm) apart. As for carrots, avoid soil crusting.

It is important to get good soil contact for the corky seedballs, so tamp or roll the rows after seeding. Keep the rows damp, by watering as needed for the 5-17 days they take to emerge. Beet seeds are actually seed balls (clusters of seeds) so each one you plant will produce several seedlings right next to each other. “Singling” the beets is an important step, and they will benefit from hoeing, thinning and weeding. Beets deal with weed pressure and crowding a lot better than carrots do, so if you have to choose which to weed, the carrots win! We thin in stages, so that at the second thinning, the baby beets can be used as a crop.

Detroit Dark Red beets , harvested, washed and trimmed.
Photo Pam Dawling

For mature beets, allow each a minimum of 3” (7.5cm). The Cylindra beets can be left a bit closer, and will push themselves up out of the soil as they grow. Know and Grow Vegetables recommends establishing 5 plants per square foot (54 per square metre) for early beets. This translates to a final spacing of 4 x 7” (10 x 18cm). For maincrop beets, aim for 10-15 per square foot (107-161 per square metre.) For maximum total yields of small sized roots use a spacing of 1 x 12” (2.5 x 30cm).

This info about growing beets is excerpted from my book Sustainable Market Farming. See the book for more on pests and diseases, harvesting and storing, and seed saving.

In our climate, beets are one of the crops that can be sown in spring and again in early fall (actually August for beets here in central Virginia). See my August post Sowing beets, radishes and kale, transplanting cabbage.

See Root Crops in August for more about fall beets. Beets can be tricky to germinate in hot weather, but to get good storable-sized roots, we need to get them established by 8/20. (Two months before our average first frost.)

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in March

From storage, if we still have them, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips.

As in January and February in central Virginia, there are no roots to harvest outdoors in March except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish. We do have horseradish, but not the others, but we don’t have a lot of demand for that.

We have had outdoor night temperatures of 12°F/-11°C and 11°F/-13°C. This winter we had some carrots outdoors over the winter. We harvested them and got 150 pounds from 400 row feet. Not a high yield but they do taste good! They are Danvers 126. The intended sowing date was August 14, but we didn’t get the seed in the ground until September 5.

A crate of overwintered Danvers 126 carrots

In the hoophouse our #4 radishes will get harvested during March. Our #5 radishes, sown 12/23, will then feed us until around April 7.

We still have some of our good size second hoophouse turnips until mid-March. We sowed those on October 25. The greens are a bit ragged now and less appetizing for cooking, although on cold rainy days, they make for more pleasant harvesting than any greens outdoors! Turnip greens (and Russian kale) are our last hoophouse greens to bolt, so we value them.  We need to harvest the turnips to make space to transplant our hoophouse tomatoes in mid-March.

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in March

  • Green chit (pre-sprout) seed potatoes, see Planting potatoes .
  • Buy seed potatoes for June planting, and refrigerate them. Keep at 40-50°F (4.5-10°C) in the dark, until 6/1.
  •  Test and condition sweet potatoes for 2 to 4 weeks at 75-85°F (24-29°C), 95% humidity if you are planning to grow your own sweet potato slips.
Sweet potato sprouting slips.
Photo Pam Dawling

Special Root Crop Topic for March in Central Virginia: What makes vegetable crops bolt?

Green mizuna bolting in our hoophouse in mid April. Although the mizuna is bolting, the Scarlet Frills is hanging in there.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Bolting is the term for plants going to seed. Rather than grow more leaves and bigger roots, the plants develop stems, skinnier and fewer leaves, then flower buds, flowers and seeds.
  •  The plants are switching their energy to survival of the species in the face of unsuitable conditions.
  •   When a plant starts to bolt, it is usually a sign to expect a poor harvest. It is also an indication that the plant will decline in terms of flavor. Lettuce become bitter. As long as you can harvest leaves or roots that are not too woody, you can eat bolting plants. But they do become too tough and inedible at some point.
  •  Crops inclined to bolt include arugula, basil, beets, brassicas (such as cabbage), carrots, celery, leeks, lettuce, onions, turnips and spinach.
  •  Bolting is initiated by plant hormones called gibberellins.
  •  Although bolting is usually seen on crops approaching maturity, it is initiated much earlier.
  •  It’s a complex business, understanding the various triggers to bolting.
  •  Stress factors, including changes in day length (usually an increase), high temperatures or low temperatures at particular stages in a plant’s growth cycle, plant size, plant type, root stress, and stresses such as insufficient water or minerals.
  • Increased day length: Bolting can happen when day length increases as summer approaches. This can be a problem if you planted your seeds too late in the spring. The extra hours of light trigger annual plants to run to seed.
  •  High soil temperatures: As soil temperatures increase in summer, plants are triggered to begin seed and flower production. This isn’t a problem late in the crop’s life, after bountiful harvests. But, when spring has unusually hot weather or if you plant crops too late into the growing season, your crop may bolt before any harvests. Cool weather crops like lettuce and spinach will bolt in spells of hot dry weather.
  • Cold temperatures: A sudden cold snap in spring can signal to biennials (such as onions, leeks, beets and carrots) that “winter” has happened and it’s time to develop seeds for the next season. If you start these crops too early in the calendar year, you risk exposing young plants to cold weather, priming the plants to develop flower stems as soon as the weather warms up again. 
  •  Plant size:
  •  Annual plants grow from seed, flower and set seed all in one year. That can be spring to winter or fall to summer. Annual crops are sensitive to daylength, and will start making flowers as the daylength (and temperature) increase. When an annual plant bolts, it’s the beginning of the end.
  • Biennial plants (onions, leeks, carrots, beets, and chard) grow big the first year, then seed the second year. They can initiate flowers in the first yea, due to unsettled weather early in the season. Bolting usually occurs after a prolonged cold spell, often during an immature stage. Cold nights, hot days and late frosts may also contribute to premature flowering.
  • Root stress: Bolting caused by root stress typically happens when you disturb a plant’s root system by transplanting, or if your plant runs out of growing space in a container that’s too small.
  • Stresses such as insufficient minerals or water: Healthy soil with plenty of nutrients and balanced moisture levels will encourage quick growth. Every grower should aim for this balance, especially those in hotter climates where it’s a race to plant leafy salads, cooking greens and root crops before the hot weather fights against you.

Collards bolting in late March.
Photo Pam Dawling

Next week I will provide information on avoiding, preventing and postponing bolting.