Cover Crops for March: Sowing Options and Incorporating Cover Crops

In March, where we undersowed clovers in the broccoli patch in August, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

In December I wrote about Cover Crop Planning for Next Year, including 5 steps of cover crop planning for all opportunities. I have a slideshow Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops, which I find to my surprise that I haven’t posted here since my 2014 version.

Here it is now

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In January I shared some resources to give the Big Picture of Cover Crops, including a compilation of slides for SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers.

In February, I described limiting winter annual weeds by sowing oats in spaces without a cover crop and no planned food crop for 6-10 weeks. Six–ten weeks (depending on your climate) is long enough in early spring to get worthwhile growth from oats before prepping for the food crop.

This month I will include some options for cover crops you might sow in March (in central Virginia and similar climates), and then talk about incorporating cover crops, which surely you will be doing this month!

Cover crops to sow in March, and other options

Purple stemmed mizuna. Mizuna and other frilly mustards are fast-growing crops, attractive to the eye and the palate.
Photo Pam Dawling

Depending on the stage of the year where you are, you could revisit any of those posts.

  • In early March the oats plan still works for us.
  • In early spring, the air and the soil are cold, and sowing a fast-growing vegetable crop will not be successful with a gap of less than eight weeks. Crops take too long to grow at this time of year.
  • If you have more than eight weeks you could try those fast-growing vegetables: kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, land cress. Or try Eat-All Greens, an idea from Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.
  • In late March or April in climates like ours, we can sow winter wheat or winter rye – they will not head up, but will “wimp out” when it gets hot. That is, they will stop growing, so you won’t get a lot of biomass, but you will have some live roots in the soil, holding it together and taking care of the soil microfauna, and discouraging weeds form germinating. One year when our spring-planted potatoes got flooded, we transplanted potato plants to the drier end of the patch and sowed winter rye in the lower end, once the floods had subsided. This kept the soil covered, scavenged the compost we had spread for the potatoes, and was easy to deal with in July when we harvested the potatoes. It was also much more hopeful; to look at an area of green cover crop than an area of green weeds!
  • Once we get to March 31 here, it is too late in the year for us to sow oats (they will quickly head up after making very little growth) and too soon to rely on frost-tender cover crops. See the section in February’s post on the Stale Seedbed and Tarping Techniques.

    Tarping beds to kill weeds.
    Photo Cornell Small Farms Unit
  • By mid-April, it is an option to sow a mix of oats and buckwheat. The oats will protect the buckwheat somewhat from the cold. I’ll come back to that idea next month.

Incorporating cover crops, or not

See Barbara Pleasant: How to Take Cover Crops Down. Gardeners working with small tools can start by mowing their live cover crops, grazing poultry on them, or scything them and hauling them aside to use later for mulch. On a very small scale, you can pull your cover crop plants, although I think it is valuable to leave the roots in the soil. On a larger scale, you can graze larger animals, or cut the cover crop down. If the cover crop was winter-killed, the stems will easily disintegrate, so you can skip the cutting down part of these instructions.

If you plan to incorporate the cover crop, choose a mowing method that cuts the plants into small pieces, making them easier and faster to incorporate. On a small scale, this could be a weed whip or a lawn mower; on a larger scale a bush hog. If you plan to use the cover crop for mulch, cut it in a way that leaves the stems as whole as possible. On a small scale this means a sickle or scythe, on a bigger scale, the kind of machinery you might use to cut hay.

Cover crop of rye, vetch and crimson clover in March.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
Rows of Roma paste tomatoes, some on bioplastic, some no-till. Credit Bridget Aleshire

After getting the cover crop down, you could tarp for a minimum of three weeks (allow for more), or you could work the residue into the soil, with a chopping hoe or by digging it in, or using a walk-behind two-wheel tractor such as BCS with a rototiller or a power harrow, or a four-wheel tractor and discs. Cornell has posted a webinar Pairing Tarping with Cover Crops, by Brian Marr.

If you incorporate the cover crop into the soil green, you will also need to wait two or three weeks (or more in early spring) to plant or sow, to give the cover crop time to break down in the soil before it can be available for your crop.

Winter rye produces allelopathic substances that can temporarily inhibit the germination and growth of small seeds. Wait three weeks after turning under before sowing. Transplants don’t suffer the same problem. Oats, wheat, and other cereals also have this tendency, but to a much smaller degree, usually small enough to ignore. Sorghum-Sudan grass hybrid incorporated fresh in the soil hinders the growth of tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli, but that’s a summer cover crop you won’t need to think about for several months.

I still haven’t got to my Conference notes on cover crop workshops, 2023-2024, but this is enough for one post!

Cover Crops in January: The Big Picture

Winter rye and crimson clover cover crop
Photo by McCune Porter

Since May 2023 I have written a post at the beginning of each month about cover crops. In most parts of the US,  January is too late to plant any cover crops, and too early to terminate any  in preparation for sowing(except winter-killed ones!). This is a great time to ponder your cover crop strategies for the coming year, and perhaps plan some changes or tweaks.

I found a great treasure trove of cover crops resources from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education). The Resources and Learning tab led me to the Cover Crops Topic and the four page publication Cover Crops for Sustainable Crop Rotations.  

My search for slideshows didn’t immediately turn up the collection I had saved previously, but there is plenty there to usefully inspire you on a rainy day, when you’re all caught up on the accounting and the tool repairs! Or even sooner.

Here’s a compilation of slides I made from SARE’s materials. There are slides on reasons to grow cover crops, some beautiful photos of some good “starter” cover crops, factors to consider when choosing cover crops, information of planting equipment options and opportunities, and several slides of further resources.

Sit back and enjoy the show!

SARE Cover Crops Materials Digest

 

I can also give you to the most recent version I have of my own cover crops slideshow

Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers 2023 60 mins

 

Cover of Managing Cover Crops Profitably book from SARE

Happy New Year , and all the best for a great 2024 growing season!

Bell’s Bend Tennessee Farming and Education

Normally you could expect a “Cover Crops for the Month” post in the first week of the month, but October’s will be next week. I have been teaching at several events in middle Tennessee, and want to tell you about those, and include the slideshows for those that want a second look, or those who wish they had been there.

LONG HUNGRY CREEK FARM –
© 2012 photograph by Alan Messer [alanmesser.com]
We had a day and a half at Jeff Poppen’s 250 acre Long Hungry Creek Farm, where a very laid back outdoor Southeast Regional Biodynamic Farming Conference was going on. It’s in Red Boiling Springs, TN. Jeff is also known as the Barefoot Farmer, for  reasons that are obvious once you meet him. Jeff began making biodynamic preparations and using the biodynamic farming method in 1986. Jeff and colleagues ran a community-supported agriculture program from 1988-2022, and they have offered internship opportunities since 1997.
Jeff Poppen’s logo
Not all the participants practice biodynamics (I don’t), and the conference was quite eclectic. I gave a presentation about growing Asian Greens to a very lively, question-filled group. Here’s the slideshow:
Ira Wallace and I also hosted a Q&A session on Seed Saving and Community Living. We did answer two short questions about seed saving, but most of the interest was in community living. The questioners were thinking about cohousing, or cooperative farming, or intentional communities, and had very considered questions.
We stayed two nights in the eccentric historic Armour’s Hotel with many theme-decorated rooms. Mine was about Red Hats. Definitely an experience.
A room at the Armour’s Hotel, Red Boiling Springs. The hotel’s photo.
Then we went to the Nashville Food Project on Sunday. Nashville Food Project is a community food project that brings people together to grow, cook and share nourishing food. They do community gardens, food recovery and community meals including thousands of after-school meals for kids, meals for nursing homes and all sorts. They have a lovely building for meetings, meals, cooking and everything related.

In their gardens, they grow organic food intensively and share resources with others interested in growing their own food.

In their sparkling commercial kitchens, they use recovered, donated and garden-grown food to prepare and cook made-from-scratch meals. Donations come from farmers, grocers, restaurants and markets. 1 in 7 Nashvillians do not have access to the food they want and need. Currently 40% of all food produced in the USA is thrown away. This knowledge drives the Nashville Food Project to continually explore new ways to recover would-be wasted food and steward it toward its best and highest use… and what better use for food than to feed neighbors!In their community, they share nourishing meals in partnership with local poverty-disrupting nonprofits and community groups.

My presentation was on Year Round Vegetable Production, Year Round Vegetable Production Dawling 2023 60mins

We stayed two nights with Dr Brenda Butka and her husband Dr Tom John, who  were very welcoming hosts.They are founding members of the Bell’s Bend Organic Farms Conservation Corridor. Bells Bend Conservation Corridor’s mission is to promote and protect the rural character of the Bells Bend. (It’s within the city limits, and yet has never been built on.) They are working to establish an outdoor recreational, agricultural, and residential conservation district that serves as a county, state and regional planning model for open space preservation.

They are raising money to provide funding to individual land owners seeking conservation easements from the Land Trust for Tennessee. While developing and funding programs that promote farm education, environmental stewardship, and the importance of land preservation. They currently have over 350 acres in Tennessee Land Trust Conservation Easements.

The land currently includes Beaman Park and Bell’s Bend Park, open to the public.
Beaman Park, Bell’s Bend, Nashville, TN
On Monday, I spoke to the Women Farmers of Middle Tennessee at Old School Farm, where a Scottish philanthropist bought and renovated an abandoned school house and set up a non-profit farm employing people with disabilities.
They work together with MillarRich, a healthcare company that specializes in providing family-style foster care and employment services for adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They also work with The Store which operates a year-round free grocery store allowing people referred to them (and the referring agencies) to shop for their basic needs at no charge. They may shop for food to supplement their income during times of crisis and as they work toward self-sufficiency.
I gave a presentation for the Women Farmers of Middle Tennessee on Production Planning for Late Fall, Winter and Early Spring Vegetable Crops. Here’s the slideshow:
It was inspiring to find so many places doing good work around healthy food, good livelihood, food justice, fresh air and cooperation.

Planting winter hoophouse crops

Our first hoophouse radishes germinated three days after sowing. We sowed Cherry Belle and White Icicle. We would have sowed Easter Egg if we’d had enough seed left after the outdoor fall sowings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’ve already prepared our first bed in the hoophouse and sowed our first few crops (spinach, radishes, scallions, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beets and cress). We spread the bed prep out over 5 days and the sowings over 2 days. I’ve written lots about our fall hoophouse planting, so I’ll give you links, mention a few updates and stick to photos otherwise.

Mid-October photo of September-sown tatsoi and August-sown Tokyo bekana. Fast-growing crops make good use of small windows of time.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Hoophouse Winter Schedule Tweaks and Improvements (pack more crops in, get higher yields, reduce or spread the workload). One change we made was to sow some early catch crops in areas that weren’t needed for all-winter crops until later. We mostly used tatsoi and Tokyo bekana, both fast–growing leafy greens. We intended to grow some early beets too, but the seed didn’t germinate. A new crop last winter was cress, Creasy Greens Upland Cress and Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure. They take 50 days to maturity (in spring). We had two good intentions we did not manage to follow through on. One was to let some of the cress flower, to feed beneficial insects. And I think we got too impatient. The other was to notice which one of the two kinds we prefer and just grow that one. We didn’t manage to keep good enough records on that, so this winter we are obliged to repeat the experiment, with more good intentions!
Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
  • Using all the space in the winter hoophouse (filler crops for random spaces, fast-growing catch crops, radish sowing dates for seamless harvests.)
  • Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal (packing away the giant piece of shadecloth until May, spreading compost, broadforking and raking the beds, direct sowing the first bed, sowing seeds in an outdoor nursery bed to transplant into the hoophouse a few weeks later). This post includes a step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep. Our soil is improving each year, becoming easier to broadfork and rake. That counters the aging process of our human bodies! One change we made last year was to measure and pin down the drip tapes 12” (30 cm) apart, and use the drip tape as a guide to making furrows (drills). This is easier than using the row marker rake, as we used to do.

    Our hoophouse with shadecloth for growing summer crops. Photo Pam Dawling. We have now sewed the two pieces together, to avoid the gaping hot spot in the middle!
  • Hoophouse fall bed prep (includes an appreciation of spiders and a video of spider “ballooning”)
  • Sowing hoophouse winter crops (more details on bed prep tools and techniques, including the row marker rake if you want to use that, and links to posts about winter lettuce varieties we used in 2017/2018.)
  • Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables (hoophouse crop map, many links to other posts including a video and three slideshows, crop rotations, choosing winter hoophouse crops, posts about specific crops (with all the details), back up plans in case something goes wrong, and harvesting.)

    Mid-October emergency back-up seedlings for the hoophouse.
    Photo Pam Dawling. We needed to compensate for poor germination that year.
  • Preparing your hoophouse for fall and winter (includes one of my slideshows, and a more detailed discussion of lettuce types and sowing dates, information about salt build-up and our wash-down strategy in a 3-slide mini slide show, when we close and open the doors and windows, and a Be-Prepared Winter Kit list)
  • Planning winter hoophouse crops – our step-by-step process for hoophouse crop planning.

    Spinach seedlings (from pre-sprouted seed) emerged on the third day after sowing. here they are on day 4. Photo Pam Dawling
  • Winter hoophouse growing (includes a round-up of earlier posts, and a discussion about the value of crop rotation in the hoophouse, and a list of 20 benefits of having a hoophouse.)
  • Spinach variety trial conclusions This year we are growing Acadia.  Johnny’s do not recommend this variety for late fall or winter sowing, but it did very well in our hoophouse, sown in September, October, November and January.
  • September in the hoophouse: sowing spinach 
Two jars of sprouted spinach seeds and grits to prevent the damp seeds clumping. presprouting spinach seeds for a week in a fridge gets round the impossibility of getting spinach to germinate in hoophouse soil at 80F (27C) as it is September 11.
Photo Pam Dawling
One side of our hoophouse on Sept 10. Three beds with cover crops of buckwheat and sunnhemp (which got bitten down at a young age by Something), and one bed under solarizing plastic in hopes of killing nematodes. Photo Pam Dawling
Zipper spider on the pepper plants in our hoophouse September 10.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cover Crops for September: wheat and crimson clover

Crimson clover is a beautiful and useful cover crop.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Note: the day after I posted this I found I was mistaken in believing barley to die at a warmer temperature than oats, so I’ve edited it.

Focus Cover Crops for September: Winter Wheat and Crimson Clover

In August I wrote about cover crops such as millets, southern peas, buckwheat which are frost-killed. If it’s still too early to sow your winter cover crops, sow summer cover crops. Before I get to the wheat and crimson clover, I’ll mention some other useful seasonal cover crops.

Winter-killed, not frost-killed, cover crops

There are also cover crops that are not frost-killed, but die later in the winter, at colder temperatures, such as oats and barley. Only sow oats or barley if you are sure you can get them turned under or killed by cold winter weather before they seed. They will not mow-kill, so if the weather doesn’t kill them, you will have to turn them under. Be careful buying feed-grade seeds (rather than Organic seed-grade), as they can contain weed seeds including GMO canola.

Late corn undersown with oats, now mowed high, and the sweet potato patch now sown in winter wheat and crimson clover.
Credit Ezra Freeman

If the area is clear of vegetable crops by 40-60 days before frost, sow oats to winter-kill. If possible add a legume (soy and spring peas are easy, and will be killed by the frost, so they won’t complicate food crops next year). For us with a first frost date of October 14-20, the cut-off date for oats is September 7, or September 15 if we really push it. Sowing too late means you don’t get enough growth in the fall, and the soil is not adequately protected from erosion or from weed growth.

We sow oats after growing early sweet corn, spring broccoli, spring-planted potatoes, cabbage, kale, or early season spinach, lettuce, beets, carrots. Spring oats die after three nights at 20°F (-7°C), or a single plummet to 6°F (-17°C), leaving the plot quick to prepare for early crops next year. Winter oats are hardier, but my goal with growing oats is for them to die in winter. After oats or other winter-killed cover crop, we like to plant our early spring food crops, peas, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, March-planted potatoes, spinach and the first sweet corn.

Don’t let your cover crop barley go to seed! Photo USDA

Fall-sown barley (Hordeum vulgare), grows even faster than oats, but not as quickly as winter rye, and it won’t die as early in the winter as oats. Barley dies at 17°F (-8°C). It usually will die in Zone 7 and colder regions. The dead barley residue protects the soil through the winter, and dries into what Barbara Pleasant calls “a plant-through mulch” in spring in cold zones.

See Planning Winter Cover Crops, a post that includes my Short Simple Guide to Winter Cover Crops and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers. Oats, barley, wheat and rye sown too early can head up and seed before you get to winter, making them less useful, and more of a weed problem.

Winter-hardy grass cover crops to sow in September

It is too late for us to usefully sow cover crops that are not frost-hardy, as they won’t make enough growth before getting killed.

Winter rye and winter wheat are two grass cover crops that can be sown in the mid-Atlantic in September. Wheat is easier to incorporate than rye and has less of an allelopathic effect on small seeds, the inhibition of germination that lasts three weeks after rye is turned under. It’s true wheat doesn’t produce as much biomass as rye, so there’s the tradeoff. We sow wheat if the area is ready for cover crops 20-40 days before frost. This allows us to make faster use of those plots in the spring, compared to plots sown to rye.

Winter wheat
Photo USDA

For us wheat is a good, trouble-free winter cover crop. Winter wheat prevents erosion, suppresses weeds, scavenges excess nutrients, adds organic matter, encourages helpful soil microorganisms, and the fine root system improves the tilth. It is less likely than barley or rye to become a weed; easier to kill than barley or rye; cheaper than rye; easier to manage in spring than rye (less bulk, slower to go to seed); tolerates poorly drained, heavier soils better than barley or oats. If you have leftover seed, wheat can be sown in spring – it will not head up, but “wimps out” when the weather gets hot.

The challenges of wheat are that it does not have good tolerance of flooding, and is a little more susceptible than rye or oats to insects and disease.

Secondary cover crops in September:  Include legumes where possible

With careful planning, you can grow next year’s fertilizer for your later spring-planted vegetables! Legumes grow nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots, which can feed the next food crop. You may need to buy a suitable inoculant if you are introducing a new legume species. You may decide to inoculate anyway, for insurance, even if that type of legume is already somewhere in your garden. Before sowing the legume seed, dampen it, sprinkle the inoculant over the seed at a “pepper on your dinner” rate, and stir it in. Then sow the seed. Be sure not to make the seed wetter than slightly damp, or you’ll need to spread it out to dry a bit before you sow.

Two other key parts of being successful are to sow the legume early enough to establish before winter halts growth, and to plan not to need that plot next year until flowering time for that legume. At flowering time, legumes have the maximum amount of the nitrogen nodules they will have. Don’t let the legume flowers set seed, or they may become a weed problem. Take notes on when various legumes flower. If you have a legume that doesn’t reach flowering, it’s not the end of the world, you just get less nitrogen for your money, and won’t be able to supply all the N needs of the following food crop.

September (40-60 days before frost) is a good time to sow clovers here, provided you can supply enough overhead irrigation. They will make some growth in our climate before winter, and then a lot more once spring arrives.

Crimson clover cover crop with bumblebees.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Crimson clover is a good September choice, if you won’t need to prepare the area before it flowers (in central Virginia 4/16-5/2, most usually around 4/20).

For a cover crop to survive the winter, sow winter wheat with Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, hairy vetch, red clover, white clover or fava beans. Hairy vetch takes a few weeks longer than crimson clover to reach flowering. Which you choose will depend what you want to grow there next spring and when you need to plant it.

Clover for green fallow in early September

See August’s post for info on planting a Green fallow plot (Full year cover crops)

Time is running out on this for us, but you may still have enough warm weather where you are. A green fallow crop (all-year cover crop) will replenish the soil and reduce annual weeds for the following year. In late August, or early September, four weeks after transplanting your fall brassicas, especially cabbage and broccoli, but also kale and collards, broadcast a mix of clovers: 1 oz (30 g) Crimson clover, 1 oz (30 g) Ladino white clover and 2 oz (60 g) Medium red clover per 100 sq ft (9 m2). Crimson clover is a winter annual and will be the biggest and the first to flower, in April. Medium red clover is a biennial and will be the next to flower. White clover is perennial and will take over the plot as the others subside. Be sure to get the medium red clover, not the Mammoth kind that dies when mowed. Likewise, for maximum benefit, get the tall Ladino white clover, not the low-growing “wild” type. In March, mow down the old brassica stumps and let the clovers flourish. You will be mowing this patch about once a month from March to October next year to prevent the crimson clover and the annual weeds from seeding.

Cover crops to sow soon after your first frost date

I’ll say more about this next month, and because I want this website to be useful to a geographically wide range of growers, I’m including a preview here. If the area is ready for cover crops up to 10 days past the frost date, sow winter wheat or winter rye with hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas. Winter rye is hardier than any other cover crop and can take later planting dates. But it is a bit harder than wheat to incorporate in the spring. Sow winter rye from 14 days before to 28 days after first fall frost. See Working with the time you have left in the Summer Cover Crops post. Austrian winter peas can be sown later than other legumes, it’s too late for clovers.

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and many pages of charts about particular options.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book for $19 or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

Year-Round Growing on the Farm and Garden, starting now

At the Organic Growers School Conference, Ira Wallace and I co-presented a half-day workshop (twice!). I uploaded the slides as a pdf on SlideShare.net, and here they are.

Those who start early in “spring” (late winter) might get earlier crops, but when is it worth it?

Some crops are just not going to thrive if you start too soon: cucumbers, peppers, and even tomatoes, for example. Make sure you can provide conditions that meet the minimum temperature requirements for these tender crops. See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for all the details. We used to start these tender crops earlier than we do now. March conditions have become more unreliable, often colder.

If you already have a place to grow protected crops, or you are experienced with rowcover and have plenty on hand, then the signs are good. Crops can be started earlier in a greenhouse or hoophouse (or even on a kitchen windowsill) than you can sow them outdoors. When the plants reach a good size, harden them off and then plant them out in a mild spell, with rowcover for the first couple of weeks. Pay close attention to weather forecasts.

Our greenhouse full of seed flats and sunshine in March.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

“Hardening off” is a process of acclimating your plants to colder, brighter, breezier conditions, so that they won’t suffer when they are transplanted. If you have only a small number of plants, or of flats, you could actually bring them back indoors every night and set them out every morning for 10-14 days. Growers with lots of crops to harden off will make use of a coldframe. Depending on the actual temperature (or the expected night-time low) we might leave our plants uncovered, use rowcover, top the rowcover with transparent lids (“lights”) , and if it’s going to be really cold, quilted covers, weighted down with wood beams if it is the least bit windy.

Our coldframes and greenhouse at Twin Oaks. Photo Twin oaks Community.

After two weeks of hardening off, look for a few days of mild, calm weather to plant them out in the garden. Water the plants well the day before transplanting, and again one hour before transplanting. This allows the cells of the plants to fill up with water, enough to tide them over the period of “transplant shock”.

Even the most skillful of us end up doing some damage to the roots of transplants, and that means the plants have to regrow some lateral roots and root hairs before they can pull in water at the rate they were doing before your ministrations. As you transplant, avoid touching the roots of the plants. Our fingers damage the root hairs.

Okra seedlings in a Winstrip tray in the greenhouse.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

A way to minimize the root damage is to use soil blocks or Winstrip plug flats. These methods are more expensive in time or money than open flats or bare root transplants, but they allow the roots to get “air-pruned” as they grow. When the roots reach the air at the edges of the blocks, or at the vertical slits on the sides of the Winstrip cells, they stop growing, rather than circle around the cell, causing the plant to get root bound. Secondly, these tools work by helping the roots and compost form a coherent block, one that holds together as you pop it into the hole you create in the soil.

Speedling flats are styrofoam flats with tapered cells, and it is possible to slide the plugs out (or gently pull them out) with little damage. Regular cell packs (4-packs, 6-packs etc) can be encouraged to release their transplants by squeezing them at the base of a cell, while holding the pack sideways. Then spread your fingers over the compost around the pant, invert the pack and hopefully the plant and its compost stays as an item, with your fingers either side of the stem.

Transplanting spinach from a Speedling flat. Butter knives are the tool of choice for easing the little wedges out of the tapered cells.
Photo Denny Ray McElya

Hold the plant with one hand by a seed leaf, or if you have to, by the stem. The seed leaves are disposable, stems and roots are not! Hold the plant at the right height, usually with all the stem below the leaves in the ground and all the leaves above ground. Once the plant is in the ground at the right height, hold it there and use the other hand (maybe with a trowel) to push in soil to fill the hole. Firm the soil down quite well, pulling in more soil as needed to leave a level surface. You don’t want the plant to be in a divot, where water can accumulate.

About the degree of firmness: you are aiming to make good contact between the soil and the plant roots, so the roots are not in air pockets, but rather can suck in water from the between soil particles. Don’t firm so hard that you expel the air from the soil and make what feels like concrete the next day. With cabbages, I was taught to firm enough so that if you then grasp a leaf and pull, the leaf tears off, rather than pulling up the whole plant.

Plant for 20-30 minutes, then pause and water in each of the new transplants by hand. Some people will bring a watering can along the row and water each one, one at a time. I prefer to do little batches. At the end of you transplanting session, water the whole row or bed again. try to avoid having piles or dishpans of plants with roots exposed to the air. Definitely don’t take a tea break if you have exposed plants.

Cover with rowcover if needed, or shadecloth if the weather is very bright and sunny. This will just be for a few weeks, helping the plants recover from the transplant shock, and biding time while spring warms up.

If it doesn’t rain, water again the next day (day 2), then on days 4 and 6, then twice a week, then once a week forever after that, until harvest is completed.

A bed of young transplanted lettuce.
Photo Wren Vile

More on Blueberries; Crop Planning Slideshow

Admiring a cluster of blueberries.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

More Resources on Blueberries

Since my post on Fruit for the Month of February, I have found some more really good resources on blueberries

Blueberries are easy to grow if conditions are right. They are a popular choice with organic growers, because they don’t need any pesticides to produce a good crop. They do, however, need annual pruning to be sure of a high quality crop. Pruning also keeps the bushes at a height easy to harvest from. Pruning is done during the dormant season, usually between December-early March in the Piedmont.

Some people are reluctant to prune because it does remove some of the flower buds and reduces berry production for that year, but if pruning is not carried out, berries become smaller each year and the health of the bushes declines. Pruning is an investment in the long-term success of your plants!

The Growing Small Farms website links to many how-to videos and fact sheets, with diagrams and photos. There are excellent resources on pruning and blueberry production in general. Everything you need to know about pruning blueberry bushes!

Side-by-side comparison of blueberry bushes before and after pruning. Slide by Bill Cline
Read more at: https://growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu/2023/01/february-is-a-great-time-to-prune-blueberries/

Another good resource is this article in the Agricultural Research Service newsletter

More People are Getting the ‘Blues’

By Scott Elliott, ARS Office of Communications.

Here is some recent information on blueberry research. New varieties, and a disease to watch out for.

Researchers at the Horticultural Crops Production and Genetic Improvement Research (HPCGIR) Unit in Corvallis, Oregon, are developing new cultivars of not just blueberries, but also blackberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, and strawberries to meet the particular needs of growers in the Pacific Northwest. Also useful to those in other areas.

“We focus on improving the shelf life of fruit so that it reaches consumers with consistently better texture and flavor,” said Claire Luby, plant geneticist with HCPGIR. Perhaps a large challenge for Luby and her colleagues is developing a cultivar that is resistant to a disease known to be a scourge of the berry: blueberry shock virus.

Blighted flower clusters due to blueberry shock virus infection. https://www.ncipmc.org/projects/pest-alerts/blueberry-shock-virus-bromoviridae-harvirus/

Click to download a PDF version of the Blueberry Shock Virus publication.

“We’re studying diverse blueberry plants to understand the genetic basis for blueberry shock virus, which can significantly impact yields for farmers,” she said. “Our hope is to use the insights from this project to develop new cultivars that are resistant, or at least more tolerant to, the disease.” Blueberry shock virus has caused annual crop losses of 34-90% in the Pacific Northwest.

Researchers combine traditional plant breeding with genomics to create their disease-resistant cultivars. The traditional technique (used in one form or another by people trying to improve agricultural crops for millennia) is to take pollen from one plant and use it to pollinate a different plant with complementary characteristics. They study the progeny of these crosses, looking for new characteristics that meet the goals of the breeding programs. Traditional blueberry breeding can take more than 20 years from the time an initial cross is made to when a consumer might eat from a resulting cultivar.

“We try to improve the accuracy and speed of the plant breeding process,” Luby explained. “We are now able to obtain a lot more genetic information about the plants and we can use that information to potentially predict whether an offspring of a given cross might have the characteristics we are looking for before we plant it out in the field. This is important because it can increase the speed of the plant breeding process.”

“Our goals are to develop blueberries that require fewer chemical inputs to fight disease, which can be better for both the environment and for growers’ bottom lines,” Luby said.

 The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in U.S. agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.

Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production


Twin Oaks Garden Colored Spots Plan for crop planning

At the in-person Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference, I gave two presentations. I also sent a recorded workshop for their virtual conference in January. That one was Feeding the Soil. I’ve just scoured through all 8 pages on my website that check the category “Slideshows”. I found Feeding the Soil twice.

My Alliums Year Round presentation is new this year and I posted the handout after my presentation at VABF. Pasa had shorter workshops, so I pruned the slideshow, but left the handout with the “bonus material”.

My other presentation at Pasa was Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production. That is one of the very first topics I tackled when I started out as a speaker, so the three versions on this website span the past ten years. 2014, 2016, 2019. Here is the 90 minute 2023 version and ts handout:

Crop Planning 2023 90 min presentation Crop Planning 6 pg Handout 2023

 

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables slideshow, VABF Handouts

Tatsoi in the mist, November.
Photo Wren Vile

Busy Conference Season is here!

I just got back from the Virginia Association for Biological Farming conference in Roanoke. There I gave a half-day presentation on Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables, which you can watch here:

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables 240m

The conference was very well-attended, and not everyone at my workshop on Friday, or the Alliums Year-Round 90 minute workshop on Sunday morning got a handout. I promised to post them here, and now I’m making good. I’m also posting the handout for the third workshop I gave, Asian Greens in the Winter Hoophouse. This rounds out the set, and gives a chance to those who went to a different workshop at that time to get a look in.

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables 8 pg handout 2023 Alliums Year-Round Asian Greens in the Winter Hoophouse 2023

This coming weekend I will be venturing north to NOFA-Mass and giving a presentation on Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production.

To those who are wondering what happened to my monthly post Fruit for the Month, I postponed it. There isn’t so much fruit in January, is there?

My Cuban Agroecology Tour Summarized

January 2020 OGS Cuba Trip Group

In January 2020 I was part of a group tour of Cuban farming organized by the Organic Growers School. In 9 days we visited 9 farms, had several speakers address aspects of life (and particularly farming and environmental issues) in Cuba, had a couple of walking tours, ate many delicious farm-to-table type dinners and still had time for a salsa lesson.

When I got home I planned to follow up with a public slideshow, but instead we got the Covid pandemic. I made a series of blogposts, which you can revisit:

My Cuba farming trip. 1/20/20

A Cuban Bean Seed Bank 3/17/20

Finca Marta Agroecological Farm, Cuba 4/28/20

Cuban AgroEcology Tour: La Palma Farm, Pinar del Rio Province 8/4/20

Cuban Agriculture: Finca L’Armonia (Permaculture Farm), Viñales 9/29/20

Cuban Agroecology Tour: Finca Agroecológica El Paraiso, Viñales 10/27/20

Cuba Agroecology: Patio Pelegrin organoponico in Pinar del Rio, Cuba 12/15/20

Cuban Agriculture, Las Terrazas Ecovillage, Artemisa 1/13/21

Cuban Agriculture, French coffee plantation Cafetal Buenavista 3/03/21

Cuban Agroecology: FANJ and La Felicidad Permaculture Garden 3/31/21

Cuban Agriculture, Dinner at the Garden of Miracles restaurant with Rafael Betancourt 4/28/21

The roof garden at the Garden of Miracles Restaurant.
Pam Dawling

And now at last I have completed my slideshow, after begging photos from a couple of my tour group, to cover the gaps in my collection.

You can view the slideshow here:

Cuba Agroecology Tour 2020

Your Chance to go to Cuba

And now I hope I’ve inspired you to consider going on one of the Organic Growers School Cuba Trips in early 2023

https://organicgrowersschool.org/events/travel-cuba/ This link includes a YouTube of testimonials

January 3-12, 2023

April 4-13, 2023

“This 9-day tour of Cuba’s sustainable farms, community gardens, and historical centers provides a rare opportunity to learn about the Cuban food system and learn about alternatives to corporatized agriculture. Participants will have the chance to:

  • Learn from farmers and food activists about Cuba’s transition to agroecological farming practices and its national policies that prioritize sustainable farming and hunger remediation.

  • Connect with farmers, consumers, activists, NGOs, policymakers, and experts working to transform the global food system.

  • Acquire the knowledge and strategies to create just, sustainable, local, and healthy food systems in your own communities.”

Check out the linked presentation for a summary of the January 2022 tour and for a sneak peek of the types of activities involved in the tour. OGS successfully operated a tour group in January 2022. No-one got Covid. OGS brought the first educational trip from the United States to Cuba since the beginning of COVID

Finca Paraiso, Vinales, Cuba. Lettuce bed. Photo Pam Dawling

Please see the OGS website for more information.

On the website you can get your most likely questions answered: legal, financial and health requirements, sample itinerary, reasons to visit Cuba, reasons to go with OGS, reasons to value agroecology, and a one-hour Info session video. The trip includes bus transportation within Cuba, a minimum of 2 meals each day, 9 nights in casas particulares accommodation, a very good ag-knowledgeable tour guide and tour manager, and entry fees to various sight-seeing exhibitions.

Farmer Fernando Funes Monzote showing us the vegetable beds, terraced on contour, at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo by Pam Dawling

Events I’m speaking at this fall and winter

 

At CAFF (The Center for Arkansas Farms and Food) in September I presented High Tunnel Season Extension

<iframe src=”https://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/key/D7gjiECOI6i83w?hostedIn=slideshare&page=upload” width=”476″ height=”400″ frameborder=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ scrolling=”no”></iframe>

CAFF - Extend Your Growing Season into Colder Weather with High Tunnels I’m spending October home on the farm, preparing and planting the hoophouse with winter crops. Meanwhile I’m applying to speak at quite a few sustainable agriculture conferences and preparing slideshows, handouts and talks. I’m going back to in-person conferences. We have very limited Wi-Fi in this part of rural Virginia and video-conferencing is just not possible. I managed to make some recorded narrated slideshows during the pandemic and I picked up more writing work. But there is an undeniable something I get from in-person conferences!

In the past year I’ve been at two in-person events: The very safely and carefully orchestrated PASA conference back in February, and the September CAFF presentation, half of which was outside touring the farm and half in a large airy lecture room. Now I’m lining up quite a few conferences. Go to my Events page on this website to get all the details, including links to register. Hope to see you at one of these:

I will be facilitating the Farmer Roundtable: Working Through Production Challenges on Saturday, November 5, from 1:30 – 2:45 pm with time to linger afterwards.

CFSA 2022 Conference banner

I will be presenting a 75-minute workshop on Spring and Summer Hoophouse Use, especially how to manage extreme heat and diseases in hot and humid climates.

Tennessee Local Food Summit logo
  • January 6-8 (Fri-Sun), 2023, Virginia Association for Biological Farming is hosting the Virginia Biological Farming Conference, Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center. Conference INFO Home Page

I hope to be presenting a half-day pre-conference session on Friday January 6, on Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables. Also maybe a regular length session during the main conference.

VABF 2023 Conference banner
  • January 14, 2023 (Saturday), NOFA-MASS Annual Winter Conference. Northeast Organic Farming Association, Massachusetts Chapter. https://www.nofamass.org/conferences/ Worcester State University on Saturday January 14 and online Sunday January 15. I hope to give a presentation on Saturday.
  • February 8-11, 2023 (Weds to Sat 2.30pm), PASA 2023 Sustainable Agriculture Conference. Lancaster Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, 25 S Queen St, Lancaster, PA. https://pasafarming.org/conference/

I will be presenting two 60 min or 75 min workshops:

Alliums Year-Round (Brand New!)

Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production.

Virtual Conference: January 17–19

Feb 25-26, 2023, Organic Growers School Spring Conference, Mars Hill University, Asheville, North Carolina

Along with Ira Wallace, I will be presenting a half-day (3 ½ hours) workshop Year-Round Gardening 

The workshop will be on Saturday and repeated on Sunday

Organic Growers School logo

One Folk School Road, Brasstown, NC 28902

I will be teaching a week-long course, Growing Vegetables Year Round

Campbell Folk School logo

I will be presenting two 60 minute workshops, one each day

I will be presenting two 60 minute workshops, one each day. Different workshops from the Kansas Fair.

Check back on my Events page often, as events and details are firming up