Growing Vegetables in Space — Eat Like an Astronaut

Tokyo bekana in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

When I check to see which blog posts are gathering interest, the ones featuring Tokyo bekana are doing well this past year. You might wonder why. It’s because it’s one of the greens being grown on the International Space Station, and most people haven’t heard of it before. I’ve written about Tokyo bekana as a winter hoophouse green here on earth, and as a summer alternative to lettuce in places with hot summers (Virginia, Jamaica, Cuba).

According to an article in The Atlantic, the first plant to grow in space was thale cress, Arabidopsis thaliana, a spindly plant with white flowers, related to mustards, mature 6 weeks after sowing. This was in 1982, on board Salyut, a Russian space station of the era. Thale cress was chosen for practical reasons: a fairly quick life cycle that allows for many analyses in a short time.

Young Outredgeous lettuce in late November. The persistent galinsoga shows that our hoophouse has not yet reached freezing temperatures.
Photo Pam Dawling

The first vegetable grown and eaten on the International Space Station space was Outredgeous red romaine lettuce, in 2015. Bred by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. 64 days to maturity on earth, 33 days in space, with intensely dark red, slightly ruffled leaves forming loose upright heads. “We are an organic seed farm in the Pacific Northwest, established in 1994, owned and operated by Frank and Karen Morton. We are known for farm-original varieties of many salad greens, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.” This is an Open Source Seed Initiative variety. The OSSI pledge: “You have the freedom to use these OSSI-Pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.” Read more about OSSI here!

Read Astronauts are about to eat the first food grown in space 2015.  The lettuce was grown for 15 months [? I think several rounds of planting], and the astronauts cleaned the lettuce with citric-acid-based sanitizing wipes before eating it.

Outredgeous lettuce growing in the Veggie module. NASA photo

Space Hydroponics – Veggie 2015

Space gardening has to be hydroponic – there is no soil involved. I am a big proponent of “Keep the Soil in Organic”, as I believe there are nutrients we don’t yet know about, that the plants take up from the soil in the proportions they need. But in space, you can’t do that, soil is way too heavy. If you watched The Martian movie, you saw some hilarious efforts to grow potatoes in “soil”.

In the Space Station is a plant growth system Veg-0, fondly called “Veggie,” a chamber about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage, typically holding six plants. The magenta light bathing the plants in Veggie is the result of a combination of red and blue LED lights. the most efficient way to get good plant growth. Green LEDS were added later so the plants look like edible food rather than strange decorations. Without gravity, plants use other environmental factors, such as light, to orient their growth.

To grow the first food crop, a root mat and six plant “pillows,” each containing ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce seeds, were put into Veggie. Inside each plant pillow is a growth medium including controlled-release fertilizer and calcined clay as used on baseball fields. This clay increases aeration and helps the plants grow. The plants get about 100 milliliters of water each to start the seeds growing. The pillows distribute water, nutrients and air around the plant root, to prevent the roots from drowning in water or being trapped in air (because of the way fluids in space tend to form bubbles).

Veggie remains on the station permanently as a research platform for other leafy plant experiments (and a source of food and psychological comfort!). The crew does get some fresh fruits and vegetables when a supply ship arrives at the space station, but the quantity is limited and they are soon gone.

See the 2015 article Meals Ready to Eat: Expedition 44 Crew Members Sample Leafy Greens Grown on Space Station

Watch this video to learn more about growing plants in space: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFdwv9yrxD0&feature=youtu.be

For technical information about Veggie, visit here, and also see the 2020 Veggie Fact Sheet

2017-2018 More Space Crops

Next up in 2017 was our friend Tokyo bekana (a frilly Japanese mustard greens).

NASA photo

See the Modern Farmer article from February 2017: The Astronauts on the International Space Station Are About to Harvest Chinese Cabbage (Tokyo bekana)

Tokyo bekana was chosen for its fairly short stature and fast growth. Other contenders included Swiss chard, spinach and beets. The scientists who noted Tokyo bekana’s short stature haven’t seen the healthy 24” (60 cm) ones I just pulled up in our hoophouse today! In our hoophouse climate, it bolts in January, so our plan includes clearing the crop then and sowing spinach for bare-root transplants.

“We conducted a survey of several leafy green vegetables and looked at how the crops grew, how nutritious they were, and how a taste panel felt about them,” Gioia Massa, a scientist on the project, told Modern Farmer in an email. “The ‘Tokyo bekana’ Chinese cabbage variety was rated as the top in growth and the favorite of tasters.”

Waldmanns Dark Green lettuce https://www.johnnyseeds.com

Next the cut-and-come-again harvest method was tried with a few leafy salad greens using: Mizuna mustard, Outredgeous red romaine lettuce and Waldmann’s Green lettuce.

Green mizuna in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

In some reports the little known Tokyo bekana is called, rather generally, but confusingly, Chinese cabbage or, more specifically, but mistakenly, bok choy, but we growers know the difference! Different sources in English use different names for Asian vegetables. I have a series of blogposts Asian Greens for the Month, which you can find by clicking that Category or using the search box.

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Asian greens divide into 3 groups:

  1. The turnip family, Brassica rapa, of Asian origin

Some crops are Brassica rapa pekinensis (napa cabbage, michihli, celery cabbage);

Others are Brassica rapa var. chinensis (bok choy): Tokyo bekana is either Brassica rapa var. pekinensis or var. chinensis

Brassica rapa var. japonica (mizuna),

Brassica rapa var. narinosa (tatsoi),

Brassica rapa var. perviridis (komatsuna)

2. The cabbage family, Brassica oleracea, of European origin (Kai-lan, Chinese kale)

3. The Chinese Mustard family, Brassica juncea (Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Red Rain)

Returning to 1a Brassica rapa var. pekinensis, there are two types: Wong Bok (Napa cabbage such as Blues, and cylindrical Michihli types) and Celery cabbage (pe tsai), which includes Tokyo bekana and the very similar Maruba Santoh.

  • A fast-growing, looseleaf, non-heading vegetable with light green leaves and white petioles.
  • Mild flavor, tender texture: can be substituted for lettuce
  • Can be ready for harvest in 3–4 weeks after sowing.
  • More heat tolerant than Napa cabbage. Cold tolerant to 25°F (-4°C)
  • Fairly bolt resistant

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Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor harvests red Russian kale and dragoon lettuce from Veggie on Nov. 28, 2018, just in time for Thanksgiving. The crew got to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack with balsamic vinegar, and Auñón-Chancellor reported the lettuce was “delicious!”
Credits: ESA/Alexander Gerst

Advanced Plant Habitat 2018

There are two Veggie units aboard the station, along with a more sophisticated growth chamber, the Advanced Plant Habitat.

The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is a growth chamber on the Space Station for plant research like Veggie. It uses LED lights and a porous clay substrate, and a controlled-release “fertilizer” delivering water, nutrients and oxygen to the plant roots.

Unlike Veggie, APH is sealed, and automated with cameras and more than 180 sensors that are in constant interactive contact with a team on the ground at Kennedy, so it doesn’t need day-to-day care from the crew. It has more colors of LED lights than Veggie, and also white, far red and even infrared to allow for nighttime imaging.

APH had its first test run on the space station in Spring 2018 using Arabidopsis thaliana (good old thale cress) and dwarf wheat.

Astronauts have grown eight different types of leafy greens in Veggie at different times. NASA is building up the ingredients for a pick-and-eat salad; or rather, a pick, sanitize and eat salad since there is no way to cook on the station yet.

Dragoon lettuce, Johnny’s Seeds

In 2018, the Space Station grew Dragoon lettuce, a green mini romaine. Compact and uniform. Leaves are thick and have an excellent, crisp texture. Heads are very dense, hold well in the field. Bolting and tipburn tolerant. Resistant to downy mildew, lettuce dieback lettuce mosaic virus and an aphid. For spring, summer, and fall on earth, anytime in space. Suitable for hydroponic systems. By contrast with Outredgeous, Dragoon is Utility Patent granted, meaning other people are prohibited from making, using, or selling the “invention” without authorization.

Another 2018 crop was Red Russian kale

Red Russian kale March 7
Photo Pam Dawling

Recent Space Veggies 2019-2020

In 2019 the Space Station crew cultivated Wasabi mustard (eaten as a microgreen after 10 days of growth, or after 40-45 days as leafy greens) and Extra Dwarf pak choi (Harvest around 2-3″ tall, 30 days after sowing)

Wasabi mustard. Photo Specialty Produce

 

Extra Dwarf pac choi, Kitazawa Seeds


Astronauts Enjoy Space Veggies and Look to the Future of Cosmic Salads Nov 2019

In experiment Veg-04B (see list below) with Veggie, a plant growth unit on the space station, the researchers tested how the quality of light and fertilizer affects the microbial safety, nutritional value and taste of mizuna. Astronauts completed the second of three harvests of this mildly tangy, leafy salad vegetable.

Growing Plants in Space | NASA, January 2020

“A lack of vitamin C was all it took to give sailors scurvy, and vitamin deficiencies can cause a number of other health problems. Simply packing some multi-vitamins will not be enough to keep astronauts healthy as they explore deep space. They will need fresh produce.

Right now on the space station, astronauts receive regular shipments of a wide variety of freeze-dried and prepackaged meals to cover their dietary needs – resupply missions keep them freshly stocked. When crews venture further into space, traveling for months or years without resupply shipments, the vitamins in prepackaged form break down over time, which presents a problem for astronaut health.

NASA is looking at ways to provide astronauts with nutrients in a long-lasting, easily absorbed form—freshly grown fresh fruits and vegetables. The challenge is how to do that in a closed environment without sunlight or Earth’s gravity.”

Microbes in Space

March 2020 Researchers examined the microbial communities growing on the Space Lettuce. A diverse community of microbes lives on typical Earth-grown plants. These may include commensals (which neither harm nor benefit their host), or other microbes. Because microbes can affect the health of plants and those who eat the crops, researchers studied the communities of fungi and bacteria growing on the lettuce.

They identified the 15 most abundant types of microbes on the leaves and 20 in the roots, and found that the identity and range of these microbes was similar to Earth-grown lettuce. This was surprising, given the unique conditions in the Space Station. The scientists had expected to find different microbial communities present.

Happily, none of the bacteria they detected are known to cause disease in humans. Tests confirmed the absence of dangerous bacteria known to occasionally contaminate crops, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. The numbers of fungal spores on them was also in the normal range for produce graded as fit for human consumption.

The Next Frontier -Roots in Space

On Nov. 27, 2020, NASA astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Kate Rubins checks out radish plants growing for the Plant Habitat-02 experiment that seeks to optimize plant growth in the unique environment of space and evaluate nutrition and taste of the plants.
Credits: NASA

See the latest (December 2020) Astronauts Harvest Radish Crop on International Space Station

Watch Radishes Growing in Space: 27 Days in 10 Seconds

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins harvested radish plants growing in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) aboard the International Space Station. She carefully wrapped each of the 20 radish plants in foil, putting them in cold storage for the return trip to Earth in 2021, for further study. Note they didn’t get to eat any.

This is the first time NASA has grown radishes on the orbiting laboratory in the APH. Radishes were chosen because they are well understood by scientists and reach maturity in only 27 days on Earth, under optimal conditions. Radishes are genetically similar to Arabidopsis, thale cress, that researchers have long studied in microgravity.

Radishes are a different kind of crop from the leafy greens that astronauts previously grew on the space station, or dwarf wheat which was the first crop grown in the APH. Root crops require certain triggers to initiate root swelling, and also flowering (not wanted if you want to eat the roots!) Growing a range of crops helps determine which plants can thrive in microgravity and be part of offering variety and nutritional balance for astronauts on long missions.

Unlike previous experiments in NASA’s APH and Veggie, which used clay pillows loaded with a slow-release fertilizer, this trial relies on precise quantities of minerals.

Sophisticated control cameras and more than 180 sensors in the grow chamber let researchers at the Kennedy Space Center monitor growth and regulate moisture levels, temperature, and carbon dioxide concentration.

For the future, NASA hopes to figure out how to grow tomatoes, peppers, beans, and berries in space. And microgreens.

For more generally space diet info, see: Space Food Photos: What Astronauts Eat in Orbit 2013

All Veggie Crop Experiments for Human Consumption 2015-2019

Overall, 15 different types of plants have grown in space in Veggie. Researchers at Kennedy Space Center have tested more than 100 crops on the ground. Click the link to read about them all.

Veggie Crops not for human consumption include more of the same crops, and also zinnias, lentils, mustards and radishes, brome grass, algae and tests of a new type of grow chamber, the Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS)

Cuban Agriculture, Las Terrazas Ecovillage, Artemisa

The view from the top of Las Terrazas.
Photo Pam Dawling

Las Terrazas Ecovillage, Artemisa, Cuba

This is the continuing journal of my Agroecology Tour of Cuba with Organic Growers School in January 2020. For other posts in the series, click the category “Cuban Agriculture” Our visit to Las Terrazas was on day 6 of our trip.

Las Terrazas is located in Pinar del Rio, in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range, Artemisa, Cuba.

Map of Cuba showing location of Artemisa, where Las Terrazas is located.
Map of the Pinar del Rio area of Cuba
Map of Las Terrazas

Also see https://www.lasterrazas.cu/en/

Talk by Juan and a tour of some of Las Terrazas

We sat in their outdoor classroom for a presentation before the tour.

Las Terrazas Welcome Sign

Las Terrazas, an Ecovillage and Intentional Community, covers 5000 hectares in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. They started with 100 people living there in 1971, and now there are 1400 people (about 273 families), a vegetarian restaurant, a hotel, a hospital, a university, schools and jobs for everyone there. Membership is “frozen” and very few people leave. The housing is government-owned and can be passed down in the family but not sold.

Housing built for the original Las Terrazas ecocomunidad residents, and still in use

The life expectancy of the residents is 79 years and infant mortality has been zero for at least ten years. Las Terrazas has a young population, with an economically active population of 629 people, of whom 62% work in tourism, 30% in community services and 8% in forestry.

More recent housing at Las Terrazas Ecovillage

The land was once coffee plantations and charcoal production sites worked by enslaved people. The soil was not right for coffee, and reforestation was started in 1968. There are now 6 million hardwood trees of 22 species, including native ones as well as mahogany, tea, eucalyptus.

There is an additional 25,000-hectare park (Biosphere Reserve and Eco Station).

1793-1804 saw the immigration of French landowners who started coffee plantations in the area of Artemisa. They left archeological treasures, including 6 coffee plantations which have been “rescued”. (We visit the restored one next. It will be my next Cuban Agriculture post.) Up until 1968, the land was eroded. The slopes were treeless because they had been logged for export, for charcoal production and for ship-building. In 1968 a special comprehensive plan was made and reforestation started all across Cuba. In the Biosphere Park 1500 km of terraces were built to prevent erosion, enable transportation through the mountains, and grow a good forest. The reforestation project took 20 years.

Homes at Las Terrazas Community

In 1985 the 250,000 km2 site (Sierra del Rosario) became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (Reserva del Biosfera). It is a protected area of managed resources. It has three parts: El Salón for research and public use; a natural reserve with shrubs; and an evergreen pine forest. It receives 2000 mm (79”) of rain each year. It is driest in December, wettest in May and June, with an average temperature of 24.4C (75F). A drainage system was installed. There are 889 plant species, 608 land species [flowering species?] and 281 fungi, mosses and lichens, and 126 bird species, currently. The ecology of bird species is evolving, as shown by official counts. They measure water and soil pollution. Invasive trees (locust) are converted to charcoal for export to the US, by private businesses. They are working to control invasive aliens, such as The Giant African Snail. The government employs people to eliminate the snail and volunteers help, there are Public Service Announcements on TV (their TV has no ads).

There is also a community Seed Bank (a SNAP cooperative) in the Ecovida Sierra del Rosario, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve .

In 1990, tourists were introduced, and are now a major source of income.

Lunch in Las Terrazas at the vegetarian Restaurant El Romero and visit to artist, Ariel.

Quilted floor mat at restaurant El Romero in Las Terrazas.
Photo Pam Dawling
Tree Leaf Quilt at El Romero restaurant, Las Terrazas.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our lunch included lots of vegetables, with delicious good sized portions. It was nice not to have big piles of meat. There were quilts on display in the restaurant, including the one above, showing leaves of various tree species.

Later we visited the workshop of an artist in recycled paper, Ariel. I bought 5 small cards and 1 big one. They have beautiful paintings of flowers and birds.

Beautiful hand-painted cards by artist Ariel, on hand-made recycled paper at Las Terrazas.
Photo Pam Dawling

Search YouTube for Franny Travels to Cuba 8 videos. Franny was in my travel group, so she saw what I saw!

See this intro: Top 5 Things to Know When Traveling to Cuba

YouTubes about Las Terrazas include

Las Terrazas, Pinar del Río. Cuba

Las Terrazas – Cuba – YouTube

And here is a Cuba Unbound blog post

Lots of photos here

Las Terrazas comunidad

Root Crops in January

No Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in January!

Closing rowcovers after a winter spinach harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of root crops that we sow outdoors here in January. Nor are there any root crops to sow in the greenhouse. Most root crops do not transplant well, as the replanting does too much damage to the taproot. Some exceptions are celeriac and kohlrabi (a stem vegetable more than a root, although I do tend to lump it in with root crops.) I have heard beets can be transplanted, especially if in soil blocks or plugs, and I’ve even heard of people up north transplanting plugs of rutabagas. I tend to be skeptical of books saying this or that can’t be transplanted, as I have transplanted many things. But not yet rutabagas or beets. I did roll my eyes when I heard someone propose transplanting mini-soil-blocks of carrots, using a pair of tongs made with popsicle sticks!

We are in winter-hardiness sub-zone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C).

An Easter Egg radish in the hoophouse in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Around January 26, we sow our last hoophouse radishes (sowing #6), Easter Egg, and White Icicle. This is our absolute last worthwhile sowing date. They will be ready for harvest from mid-March to mid-April, but if the weather is warm, or we fail to open the doors when we should, they will bolt before we get roots.

Our hoophouse radish sowing dates are 9/7, 9/30, 10/28, 11/22, 12/20, 1/27. Note that the sowing intervals are 23, 28, 25, 28, 38 days. The interval is much longer in December-January, as the rate of growth is so slow. There really is no point in sowing closer to the #5 sowing date, as the #6 will catch up in the warming days of late February and early March. The daylength is also increasing a lot by then, too.

If your hoophouse planting plans exceed the space you have, simply tweaking to a less frequent new harvest start could free up space to grow something else. Also consider a gap in radish supply, if other crops could make better use of the space. See Root Crops in September for more about our succession of hoophouse radish sowing dates.

In our double-layer hoophouse, turnips (and many cooking greens) can survive a hoophouse air temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan).

January photo of radishes sown in our hoophouse at the end of November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in January

In central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in January except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish. The months with R in them are the horseradish harvest months. September to April have R in them, and the summer months do not!

We have already had outdoor night temperatures of 16°F/-9°C and 18°F/-8°C. Until temperatures drop to 12°F/-11°C, we could dig Danvers carrots, Cylindra beets, and any rowcovered rutabagas (swedes). Albina Verduna, and Lutz Winterkeeper beets are hardy down to 15°F (-9.5°C), as are most kohlrabi, rutabagas and rowcovered turnips. Covered beets, covered winter radish are OK down to 10°F (-12°C). This is too chancy for us! We like to gather our root crops in and have them safely stored.

We store our root crops washed, in perforated plastic bags, in a walk-in cooler. Root cellars and cool basements are also possible storage sites, and in the past, I stored root crops in boxes of damp sand or woodash.

In the hoophouse we can normally harvest radishes #3 (sown October 30) all through January, from 12/15 to 2/1. This winter I notice we have already harvested most of them (1/6). We harvest our first turnips (sown around October 13) by pulling out the biggest from January 5 (or even late December), until mid-February, by which time we can have made a start on the second sowing (October 25). We thin the second sowing in early January or late December.

Young midwinter turnips in our hoophouse.
photo Pam Dawling

See my list of Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables 2020 for a more complete picture of “Harvesting in Time”

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in January

Check stored vegetables

From storage, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips, if we grew them. Stored crops need to be checked for decay at least once a month.

Rolls of rowcover in our hoophouse ready to pull over the beds on cold nights.
Photo Wren Vile

Inner tunnels in the hoophouse for cold nights

As noted above, inner rowcovers can make a big improvement to nighttime air temperatures in a hoophouse. We are fortunate to have a climate in central Virginia that means we don’t need inner covers most of the time. We watch the forecast and if we think it will drop to 8°F (-13°C) outdoors, we pull over the rowcovers. For winter crops we don’t use hoops. We have separate lengths of rowcover for each bed. Some people prefer a single large sheet. We find we can set the roll of rowcover at one end of the bed and simply walk with the free end down to the far end of the bed, leaving only a little bit of tweaking to get everything covered.

In the morning, if we feel pretty sure we’ll need the rowcovers again, we just pull the covers into the aisles, leaving every other path free to walk in. If we think we won’t need the rowcovers the next night we roll them up, giving us more space to work, and lengthening the lifespan of the rowcover by not exposing it to much sunlight.

Special Root Crop Topic for January in Central Virginia

Garden Plans Part Two

This garden planning task is not just about root crops. We had our Crop Review in November, and then inventoried our leftover seeds, planned what to grow for next year, and ordered our seeds. See Preparing to order seeds, if you haven’t sent in your orders yet.

We have made our garden maps, and specific plans for important crops with either lots of varieties (tomatoes), lots of sowings (sweet corn) or some combination (lettuce, broccoli and cabbage).

One task we need to complete by mid-January is to prepare our greenhouse seedlings schedule, because here we start sowings in mid-late January. We also tidy up the greenhouse (currently growing lettuce) and test, repair or replace vital equipment (like a seedling heating mat) and supplies like Bt and cover crops seeds.

Tomato seedlings (for our hoophouse) on a heat mat in our greenhouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another January task is to prepare a new Field Planting Schedule, or Outdoor Planting Schedule, as we call it here to distinguish it from our hoophouse schedule and our seedlings schedule. This is a list in date order of what to sow or transplant, how long the rows are, the space between rows, the space between plants (for transplants) and where to plant.

We also plan crops that will go in our raised beds from January to July. We plan the second part of the year in June, giving ourselves more flexibility.

See my Mother Earth News  Garden Planning online course for details

The map of our raised bed area, showing several years of crops using colored pens.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also revise and update our Garden Calendar (monthly task list). For those who want to think more widely about the coming year, here’s a link to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month

Our garden planning wraps up by mid-February, with all the budgets, crew selection and shift decisions (afternoons in cold weather, mornings in hot weather –  we’re mostly half-day gardeners, with one or two stalwart all-day workers)

 

Preparing to order seeds

Preparing to order seeds: 6 steps + 3 extra tips

Leeks grow slowly. Sow in March to have seedlings this size in May. Order seed soon! Photo Pam Dawling

There are lots of new gardeners now, as a result of the pandemic causing people to stay at home, cook more and want more food security without going inside grocery stores. Maybe last year you bought packets of seeds in a hurry, either online or off a rack in as store. Maybe you hope your garden will go more smoothly this year and I’m here with this blog post to help you.

Or perhaps you are a new professional grower, seeking to improve your game. Or an established one, looking to hang in there by farming smarter in these hard times.

‘Tis the season for garden planning. Inventory your seeds left from last year, peruse the catalogs and prepare your seed orders. The earlier you get them in, the more likely you are to get the varieties you want, before anything is sold out. Be prepared, note your second choice, and fend off disappointment!

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

I have a course on garden planning for home gardeners, on the Mother Earth Fair Online. It consists of eight half-hour workshops, covering all aspects of garden planning from clarifying your goals, choosing crops, making maps of what will go where, planning when you want to harvest, determining how long your rows will be and how much seed to order, deciding when to plant and scheduling everything to make the year go smoothly. There are also workshops on ways to pack more in, and how to be prepared for things that don’t go according to plan!

Mother Earth News Fair

Commercial growers and energetic home growers will also be interested in the information on garden planning in my book Sustainable Market Farming.

I have a couple of slideshows on SlideShare.net,

See Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production 2019 Pam Dawling

To view it full screen, click the diagonal arrow in the lower right.

For long-term soil health and sustainability, think about crop rotations. See Crop rotations for vegetables and cover crops 2014, Pam Dawling

Buckwheat seedlings. Buckwheat is our quickest easiest summer cover crop.
Photo Pam Dawling

 First, a basic 6 steps of garden planning

  1. See How to Decide Which Crops to Grow.

Think about what you grew last year, and whether you want the same again. Think about what you wished you’d grown. Every year we try to introduce a new crop or two, on a small scale, to see if we can add it to our “portfolio.” Some-times we can successfully grow a crop that is said not to thrive in our climate. (Brussels sprouts really don’t). We like to find the varieties of each crop that do best for our conditions. Later we check how the new varieties do compared with our old varieties. We use heirloom varieties if they do well, hybrids if they are what works best for us. We don’t use treated seeds or GMOs, because of the wide damage we believe they do. For ideas of what you might grow, see our Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Crop.

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in a Winstrip tray
Photo Pam Dawling

2. Are any of your leftover seeds OK to keep?

See making an inventory, and Ordering seeds! Seed Viability Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook. Frank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

Seeds stored in glass jars
Photo courtesy of Monticello

A simplified version of how long to keep seeds is as follows:

  • Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera
  • 2 years: Corn, Beans and Peas of all kinds, Chives, Dandelion, Martynia, Okra, Onions,
  • 3 years: Asparagus, Carrots, Leeks, Rutabagas, Turnips,
  • 4 years: Artichokes, Basil, Cardoons, Chard, Peppers, Pumpkins, Spinach, Squash, and Watermelons,
  • 5 years: Beets, most Brassicas, Celery, Celeriac, Chicory, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Endive, Lettuce, Muskmelons, Tomatoes,

Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce).

The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. Keep seed cool, dark, dry in airtight, mouseproof containers.

An old hand-drawn map of one of our garden areas.
Image Pam Dawling
  1. How Much of What to Grow?

Make a rough map of your garden space and see what will fit. Remember you can plant a later crop in the same space after an earlier one finishes. See below for more info on quantities of potatoes and garlic, two staples.

  • How Much Garlic to Plant

A yield ratio of 1:6 or 7 seems typical, and makes complete sense when you consider you are planting one clove to get a bulb of 6–7 cloves. Divide the amount you intend to produce by six to figure out how much to plant. For large areas 750–1,000 lbs/ac (842–1,122 kg/ha) are needed for plantings in double rows, 3″–4″ in-row (7.5–10 cm), beds 39″ (1 m) apart. For single rows, 8 lbs (3.6 kg) of hardneck or 4 lbs (1.8 kg) of softneck plants about 100′ (30 m). In the US, one person eats 3–9 lbs (1.4–4.2 kg) per year.

Music hardneck garlic.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
A row of potato seed pieces ready to cover.
Photo by Wren Vile
  1. How Much Seed to Order?

Hopefully you kept some kind of record on whether the amount you bought last year was enough. When we figure out how much seed to order we add in some extra for some things – crops that can be difficult to germinate, or we really don’t want to cut too close. We add 20 percent extra for most crops, but only 5 percent for kale, 10 percent for onions and collards and 30 percent for melons. These numbers are based on our experience – yours might be different. We also know which seed we can buy in bulk and use over several years. This gives us an additional security against poor germination, or plagues of grasshoppers or caterpillars. For me, a big bag of broccoli seed for each of our main varieties gives some kind of warm glow of horticultural security! Buying too much either leads to wasting money (if we throw it away) or wasting time and money (if we sow old seed that doesn’t come up well, then have a crop failure).

If you use spreadsheets, see my post Cooking Greens in December Special Topic: Ordering Seeds.

Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops. Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts – have your calculator at the ready, or easier still, just type “Convert ½ oz to grams”into your search engine.

 

  1. Choosing varieties.

See How to read seed catalogs for tips on getting what you really want by paying attention to what’s in the small print and what isn’t mentioned. We carefully look for varieties that offer the flavor, productivity and disease resistance we need. The catalogs are starting to appear in my mail box. The early bird catches the preferred varieties! The main companies we order from are Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and of course, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We like SESE for regionally adapted varieties, Fedco for great prices on bulk sizes, and Johnny’s for some varieties we really like that aren’t available from the other two.

 

  1. Formatting and placing seed orders

We grow lots of different crops, so we make a spreadsheet, and include columns for the name of the supplier we buy each variety from (we just use the initial), the item number in the catalog, the packet size and the price. (Be careful though, if you carry this information over from year to year – prices change.) Once we have composed our total seed order, we sort the orders by the name of the supplier. Then we can calculate the total price for each supplier. This also gives us the opportunity to look at price breaks for large orders and move an item from one supplier to another, if that makes sense. At this point we usually make a cup of tea and reward ourselves with an “impulse buy” or two, if that doesn’t push us up into a higher shipping cost bracket or blow the budget. We place our orders online these days, nice and early, to increase the chances of getting exactly what we want.

Here are a few more thoughts on crops to consider:

  1. Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

For an overall sense of success, grow some “Insurance Crops”. These are reliable vegetable crops that grow without much attention and quietly wait until needed. Chard is one of those. We sow chard in April, after the early spring rush. We plan for it to provide us with leafy greens in the summer, after the brassicas have bolted. We prepare a bed, unroll hay mulch over it, then make “nests” in the hay for planting. Nests are holes in the hay down to soil level, at each spot where we want to plant. After transplanting. we water and tuck the hay tight around the plants to keep the weeds at bay. Some years there isn’t much demand for chard and we just leave it growing. If we need it, there it is with a generous supply of leaves. If we ignore it, nothing goes wrong. It’s worth having some crops like this in the garden, to help ensure there’s always something to eat.

Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

One year we grew Malabar spinach and it played a similar role: hot weather leafy cooking greens. Malabar can be used when small for salads, or when larger for cooking. It wasn’t hugely popular in either role, but it was beautiful. To be fair, I don’t think we did the best by it. Because it was new, and because it had the word “spinach” in its name, some cooks served large leaves for salad. Alone. I don’t recommend that.

Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Another insurance crop for us is asparagus beans, also known as yard long beans. Once trellised, the plants need no attention, other than regular picking. If not picked, the pods grow puffy and useless, so this is not a crop to ignore for too long. Asparagus beans are related to southern peas (cowpeas), and are more resistant to Mexican bean beetles than regular green beans are. They do need trellising, but once you’ve done that, the same plants will feed you all season. Very little seems to trouble them.

West Indian gherkins on a trellis.
Photo by Nina Gentle

While we’re on the topic of crops that do need trellising, but can then produce all season, I’ll add in the West Indian gherkins. I found I did need to tuck these plants into the netting, so they weren’t work free. But the plants were disease-free and very productive. If you have trouble with regular pickling cucumbers, you might sow some of these as well, to be sure of being able to have something to pickle.

Another insurance crop is Tokyo bekana, or its cousin Maruba Santoh in late summer as a substitute for lettuce. It can be hard to germinate lettuce in hot weather, but these tender brassicas germinate under hot conditions and produce fast-growing very tender leaves with crunchy stems. Some people don’t know they’re not eating lettuce!

Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile

Senposai is a cooking green that does well in spring and fall outdoors, and in our hoophouse in the winter. It’s fast-growing, productive, disease-resistant, easy to cook and delicious to eat.  In spring it needs an early start in our climate, so that it has time to be productive before it bolts. In fall it’s cold-hardy down to 12F.  Its Achilles Heel is that it can really attract Harlequin bugs! We did spend time every day for a while squashing the bugs on the senposai leaves, and we made a difference in the number of bugs.

Well, I hope this has given you some thoughts about ordering seeds of some insurance crops for next year, when you plan your seed order.

  1. VEGETABLE CROPS THAT OFFER FAST RETURNS

Because things can go wrong in agriculture, (we are, after all, not in control of the universe!) I like to have on hand seeds for fast-growing crops that can fill unexpected gaps.

Some Eat-All Greens in early November.
Photo Lori Katz
  1. Eat-All Greens

Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening introduces us to the concept of Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives. I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, as our spring planted greens only have a short season before they bolt. And summer is too hot, winter too cold. . . We sowed in mid-September.

These can also be insurance crops, in that, if you don’t need them, you can cut and compost them, to let fresh leaves grow. I wrote three posts on Eat-All Greens, because they were such fun and so productive

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm, Daniel Mays

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm: How to Start and Run a Profitable Market Garden That Builds Health in Soil, Crops, and Communities 

Daniel Mays, Storey Publishers, 2020. 230 pages, color photos throughout, $24.95.

The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm is a great help to those moving towards more No-Till. This book is full of practical details, and efficient and effective no-till practices, such as how to manage large tarps. This is also a beautiful book. The photos are crisp and inspiring, the drawings clear and informative, the charts well organized and easy to use. The aerial photo shows a poster-farm! Frith Farm is a small-acreage vegetable farm using raised beds, in the style of Jean-Martin Fortier, Ben Hartman, Curtis Stone and others. “No-till human-scale farming is about so much more than avoiding tillage.” Here we can learn about healthy soil, high productivity, fewer weeds, lower costs and a more natural way of growing food.

We have had several new books on no-till in the past year or so. I have reviewed Bryan O’Hara’s No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, and Andrew Mefferd’s Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers. Any reduction in tillage is a good step: you don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere. I’m glad we’ve moved on from the early no-till days when it was considered that all tilling was always bad, but practical advice was lacking.

The book includes some hard-to-find topics, such as acquiring capital, designing and setting out drainage and irrigation systems for both drip and sprinklers, and integrating livestock in a vegetable farm. Minor grumble: the index seems a little light. Fortunately, the book, like Frith Farm, is well-organized, and topics are easy to find.

Daniel started Frith Farm in Scarborough, Maine, in 2010, in his mid-twenties, borrowing $180,000 at 3.8% interest and buying a property with five open acres and a crumbling house and barn.  He had “eighteen years of expensive education and an embarrassing lack of hard skills.” His first year, he provided for a 40-member CSA from less than one acre. The farm now supplies a 150-member CSA, four natural food stores, a farmers’ market and a farm stand. They sell about $300,000 worth of food, using 2.5 acres in cultivation and 2.5 acres of pasture. Almost all of the work is done by hand, by a crew working  a 45-hour-week for 8 months, then having four months off.

Daniel recommends consistent bed dimensions, even if compromising the land geometry. He has 16 plots of 12 beds, each 100ft long, on 5ft centers. This bed-width increases the amount of growing space compared to 30ins beds. He’s over 6ft tall, so jumping over a bed is no problem. I don’t know about the rest of the crew. There are driveable surfaces between the plots and wood chip paths between beds. Without tilling, you minimize erosion, and the conventional wisdom of keeping rows across the slope, not up and down it, isn’t so vital.

Daniel recommends soil testing and an initial supply of inputs to jump start your soil health and enable you to earn a living. You’ll probably be buying compost your first year: 54 cubic yards ($25-$50/cubic yard) will provide 3ins cover on 6,000 sq ft (one Frith Farm plot). Once biological soil health is established, few imported soil amendments will be needed. You will need lots of mulch every year, such as leaves, straw, woodchips. Frith Farm uses 130 cubic yards of leaves per acre each year.

To go from a grass field to a set of ready-to-plant beds, some no-till growers do one initial tilling and maybe subsoiling to establish beds (rent or borrow the equipment). Daniel says “Don’t let purism keep you from actually breaking ground – it is better to start farming imperfectly than never to start at all!” Frith Farm tills with a Berta rotary plow on their BCS walking tractor, one 10ins strip at a time. We use a Berta plow to remake paths in our raised beds – it is a wonderful tool for that.

A second method of killing grasses and weeds is to mow closely and smother the plants with tarps. This takes 3-52 weeks, depending on the weather and plant species. This works for beds you plan to bring into production next year. Use a 5-6 mil thick black and white silage trap, black side up. Weight and wait! Daniel’s ingenious “tarp kit” consists of a pallet with enough cinder blocks to hold down a 24×100 ft tarp, which is folded and set up on top of the blocks, safely out of the way of tractor forks. The kit is moved to the next site, then returned to the pallet when its work is done. I’ve been interested in trying tarping, but muscling huge sheets of silage tarp and enough weights to hold it down was quite off-putting. Here’s an answer!

When you and the dead plants are ready, remove the tarp, spread compost thickly and plant. If the soil is compacted, use a broadfork before spreading compost. Tarping is also a valuable method for flipping beds between one crop and the next.

A third method of establishing new beds is to mow, amend the soil, cover the whole area with thick mulch, topped with compost and plant into that. To succeed, use an initial layer that lets no light through.  This method involves lots of work and mulch.

Seedling production is major at Frith Farm, as transplanting fits well with no-till. They recommend 500 sq ft of greenhouse space per acre of field production. They have some very practical “benches” which are sawhorses topped by custom pallets holding 12 standard 1020 flats. Two people can carry a full pallet, saving lots of time transferring one flat at a time.

Frith Farm uses soil blocks, mixing in a cement mixer. Winstrip trays are much quicker than making blocks, but they prefer the smaller cost and space saving of soil blocks. They use four sizes of standup blockers, but not the ¾” miniblocks, because those dry out too fast. They have tried the paperpot planter and found it unsuccessful when planting into stubble, worth considering before spending $3000.

One key to successful transplanting is appreciating the sublime experience of setting a plant in the ground with your own hands. Another is to have enough hands to get the job done! A third is watering soon after planting. They use a rolling Infinite Dibbler, a homemade oil-drum dibbler and a special 6-plant garlic dibbler For direct seeding, Daniel likes the humble Earthway seeder, even using it for cover crop seeds (the beet plate for the grasses). The Earthway is rugged, affordable, and works well in no-till beds.

Irrigation is another aspect of vegetable production that Daniel has well figured out. Here is a good clear explanation about well depth, flow, recharge rates, costs, water quality and all the facts you never needed to know if you use city water. The book includes a very clear pipe layout superimposed on the bed plan.

Daniel will help you decide between drip irrigation and sprinklers (or some of each). He recommends Senninger Xcel Wobblers with a 1gpm flow each, covering 6 beds with a line of 4 sprinklers. They run 12 sprinklers at once. This kind of detailed step-by-step calculation can be hard to find. Here’s another instance where the book pays for itself with just one piece of information! Daniel uses driptape only for long-season crops that are prone to foliar diseases, otherwise, he likes the simplicity of sprinklers. Follow Daniel’s advice and bury all main and lateral pipelines deep enough not to hit them when digging. A hose reel cart is a helpful thing to have to make hand-watering less of a tangled mess.

Daniel avoids rowcover unless a crop has two reasons simultaneously. Pests and diseases indicate imbalance, underlying issues with soil health, crop rotation, biodiversity. Work to rebalance and make improvements. Work towards being a No-Spray farm as well as No-Till.

The chapter on weeds opens with the saying “We till because we have weeds because we till . . .!” Weeds are an ecological mechanism for keeping the soil covered and full of roots. The “simple” solution of never letting weeds seed is less work in the long run, more work at first. It relies on working only the amount of land you have enough skilled hands to deal with. Two skilled fulltime workers per acre.

When is thick mulch not helpful? In early spring when you want to warm the soil. At Frith Farm, the soil is frozen from November to late March. Beds that finish too late to plant an overwinter cover crop get composted and covered in leaf mulch. They rake this leaf mulch off the beds into the paths in early spring, and spread a layer of compost on the beds, allowing some warm-up time. The dark compost absorbs the heat from the sun.

“Flipping the bed” after a crop may be simple if it was a root crop with few weeds. If the crop leaves a lot of bulky residues, mowing and tarping can restore the soil to a usable state in 5-10 days in warm weather. You may need to dig out perennial weeds, or add soil amendments, and another 7 barrows of compost per 100ft bed (2.5 cu yards/1000 sq ft), but soon you are good to go. They have a smooth compost spreading operation. A tractor driver delivers buckets of compost directly into wheelbarrows lined up at the head of the beds. People push the barrows down the paths, dumping out several shots of compost, raking the compost out to cover the whole bed surface.

Solarization with clear plastic during warm sunny weather is another way to kill weeds. If the edges of the plastic are buried, weed seeds and pathogenic fungal spores are also killed. If you want to kill weeds or crop residues without all the other life forms in the top layers of soil, using black plastic tarps is a safer way to go. The soil temperature does not get as high, but the removal of light does help kill plants. The book has a graph of days of tarping versus temperature. More than 25 days at an ambient temperature of 50F, about 9 at 65F, and only one day above 85F.

They have an ingenious foot-powered crimping tool for killing tall cover crops instead of mowing. Called the “T-post stomper”, this is a partner dance with one person at each end of a T-post lying across the bed. The T-post is tied with twine to the “inner” foot of each partner and includes a long twine loop that is hand-held.

No-till cover crop planning takes care. Plants die in three ways: they finish their lifecycle, they winterkill or they are starved of light or water. In no-till farming, the tools are the mower, winter, and tarping, or some combination of these. A sequence of photos shows beds from seeding the cover crop in September to healthy summer brassicas with no weeds in sight. A spring cover crop sequence shows peas and oats sown in April, tarped in June, direct seeded in storage radish in summer. Shorter sections on summer and fall cover crops follow.

Daniel has a chapter on integrating livestock with vegetable farming to increase diversity and net productivity of the farm. The symbiosis between soil, plants, animals can lead to creation of more soil, and increased fertility. Chickens are easy to keep, although if you want poultry that don’t scratch up the soil, get turkeys. (Daniel has a punny photo of turkey on rye.) Sheep are easier to fence than goats, and are smaller than cattle. Be wary of pigs. They can act like obsessed tillers and do lots of damage.

Harvested crops remove nutrients from the farm soil, and these nutrients can be replaced by farming for a very healthy soil biology. Healthy soil draws carbon and nitrogen from the air, and makes previously “inaccessible” stores of nutrients available to the following crops. Use compost, leaves and other organic mulches until you max out the recommended level of some nutrient. If your soil is then unbalanced, you will need to bring in missing nutrients.

The chapter on harvest sets out efficient user-friendly methods at Frith Farm. For a pleasant wash-pack space, you need a roof, a floor with good drainage (could be wood chips), mesh or slatted tables; hoses and sprayers; tanks to hold water; a salad spinner, a barrel root washer; good scales; flip-lid storage totes; walk-in coolers using CoolBot technology; and customized shelving. Think before buying a delivery truck – $1,500 worth of produce will fit in the back of a Prius! Almost no fuel costs! Daniel also recommends buying an insulated truck body to convert into a cooler. It can double as a screen for crew outdoor movie nights! Don’t forget to have fun!

We have a captive market at Twin Oaks (more politely called direct supply), so I‘m not the best reviewer of information about selling. But the section on their hiring process really grabbed me. “We are not just hiring a pair of hands to meet our labor needs; we are inviting someone into our community, our family, and our home.” Spell out and keep to high standards, provide a social experience, show care and camaraderie, train adequately, and compensate fairly. Interview well, check references, have a working interview (paid) if you can; write out your job offer. Provide guidelines with goals for pace and efficiency. Each person should be able to harvest, wash and pack about $80 worth of produce per hour. Share the joyful observations of life around you.

Daniel describes his recordkeeping, where the plan becomes the record. He recommends Holistic Management by Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield. Define your farms’ purpose, plan the season, plan the week. A plan is just a plan, sometimes plans change. Look for opportunities to record aggregate data, such as recording what you take to market and what you bring back, rather than each individual sale. At the end of the season, add up sales for each crop and divide by the number of beds to calculate the revenue per bed, and the yield of that crop. Having standard sized beds makes this simple. Add into pre-existing records and eliminate multiple versions of the same data. Make one spreadsheet of notes for next year. You can sort it by crop or by month, or by plot number.

Their Plan for the Week is an online spreadsheet accessible to all via a laptop in the barn. (Obviously they have better internet than we do!) Each week has a tab, each day has a column, and each plot has a row with tasks, times and sometimes a name. Once a week, the crew walks the farm and makes the list for each day, including any tasks carried over. Nothing is erased (it becomes a record!) When someone completes a task, they use a strike-through font and add notes. At the end of each day, remaining tasks are reprioritized for the rest of the week. This spreadsheet becomes the farm journal, and is easily searchable.

Frith Farm has a four-year rotation starting with smothering followed by transplanted cucurbits or nightshades and a winter-killed cover crop. The second year involves brassicas followed by root crops, with mulch over-winter. The third year is devoted to repetitions of salad crops, and a winterkilled cover crop. The fourth year is for alliums and an over-wintering cover crop. Consider the crop spacing you need for the new crop, and the spacing of the stubble from the previous crop. You often don’t need a clear bed, just clear rows where you intend to plant.

During the winter they create their attractive crop rotation plan where each plot has 12 rows (for the beds), with “under-rows” (for under-sowing) and 12 columns (for the months). It’s color coded for quick reference. From that rotation plan, they create a Greenhouse Plan and a Seed Order.

Next is a Harvest Plan for each harvest day, starting with walking the fields to take notes, balancing what is mature with what is needed. The evening before, the harvest manager makes a list of crops, quantities, and picking order. Each harvest day has a tab on the online spreadsheet, with a row for each crop. The sheet for that day is posted by the time the crew arrives. In this case, pickers use a pen to indicate who is picking what, when it’s done. People work down the list in order, taking the crops to the wash-pack station. That crew cleans the produce and stores it in a cooler, labeled with its destination.

There is a table of revenue data for 16 top-earning vegetables. (The other 45 crops are not shown.) In terms of revenue per bed, ginger wins at $2442, but it is in place all year (and I think it is in high tunnels). Taking bed-months into account, ginger still wins, but arugula is chasing it. Radishes don’t so well in revenue per bed-season, nor do onions and beets. Frith Farm does not record labor per crop. CSA growers need to provide variety, not just the “most profitable” crops.

Success includes sustainability, considering the people and the planet as well as the profit. Profit can be understood as ability to reinvest. Exactly where the profits end up is important, and to his credit, Daniel includes his 2018 farm revenue and where it went. Of the total $314,000, $120,000 went to the farm crew (an investment in the local community that makes the farm productive); $11,000 to family loan payments. $92,000 went back to the land (infrastructure, seeds and local biomass). $91,000 left the area, for taxes, insurance, fees, tools and equipment, and non-local inputs including the energy bill.

Purchases like plastic mulch, fossil fuels and manufactured equipment are part of a linear process that essentially convert resources to pollution. Strong words, and why not? We need to each face the full effect of our production.

Frith Farm works to increase food access to people in the community who cannot afford the usual prices of healthy food. They accept SNAP and WIC, donations, and offer gleaning groups the chance to help food pantries. They have sliding scale pricing, barter, work trades, and ride shares, all of which they advertise widely.

On the ecological front, their no-till practices are working daily to increase carbon sequestration by increasing organic matter (less than 4% in 2011, over 10% in 2019). A one per cent increase in OM in the top 10” of an acre of soil removes about 8.5 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Daniel Mays
Photo Storey Publishers

Cuba Agroecology: Patio Pelegrin organoponico in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Patio Pelegrin organoponico garden beds.
Photo Pam Dawling

Visit to Pelegrin Courtyard (Patio Pelegrin) artist family Community Agricultural Project (organoponico) in Pinar del Rio, close to Viñales, Cuba

Day 6 – Sunday January 12 (journey back to Havana)

This is the continuing story of my Agroecology Tour of Cuba with Organic Growers School in January 2020. Search the Cuban Agriculture Category for more posts about other farms we visited.

Our air-conditioned bus left at 8.30 am to visit Pelegrin Courtyard (Patio Pelegrin) artist family Community Agricultural Project (organoponico).

Pelegrin Patio artist community dolls, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

We were greeted by a group of children singing and performing a short sketch. Then we were given a tour, including a caged crocodile, guinea pigs (food?) a catfish pond (catfish are invasive aliens, which Cubans are trying to eliminate by eating them. [I wonder why they don’t feed them to tourists?]

Pelegrin Courtyard pond with turtles and catfish.
Photo Pam Dawling

We saw their vegetables in beds edged with roof tiles. We saw field crops including sweet potatoes and coffee.

Pelegrin Courtyard sweet potatoes (bonato).
Photo Pam Dawling

Again I saw cilantro and creole spinach. I’m still seeking other names for creole spinach.

Creole Spinach at Pelegrin Courtyard, Cuba. The blue fabric is for organic pest control.
Photo Pam Dawling
Close up of creole spinach in Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

Creole Spinach is different from Egyptian spinach (Corchorus olitorius), Lalo, Molokheya, Saluyot, Ewedu, West African Sorrel, Krin Krin, Etinyung, Jute leaves. Also see more about Jute Leaves at this link. Note pointed leaves.

Jute leaves. iStock photo

It is none of these tropical “spinaches” either:

Read about those in the Love of Dirt blog by Nicki McKay. Before you click to buy seeds, know that she is in Australia.

Click here to read what Tom Carey has to say about some of these:

  • Nor is it Callaloo (amaranthus spp), bayam, Chinese spinach.
  •           Nor Okinawa spinach (Gynura crepioides, Hong Tsoi, Longevity Spinach);
  •           Nor Malabar spinach (Basella alba, Basella rubra),
  •           Nor water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), Kangkong). Watch out, that can be invasive.
  •       Maybe Suriname spinach (Talinum fruticosum, (Talinum triangulareTalinum Spinach, Philippine spinach, Waterleaf, Ceylon spinach, Surinam purslane, Florida spinach)? Florida is geographically very close to Cuba. Similar pink flowers.
Talinum Spinach
(Talinum triangulare).
Photo Grow a Gardener Inc, Vegetable Gardening in SW Florida

Learning about these hot weather greens may be useful as our summers get hotter.

I have a bit more information about the Cuban oregano, Plectranthus amboinicus, I saw at several farms, including Alamar Urban Organic Farm . Cuban oregano is a member of the mint or deadnettle family. It has characteristic thick, fuzzy leaves with a strong pleasant odor. The flavor of Cuban oregano is said to be much stronger than Greek oregano.

Pelegrin Courtyard meprobromato treats anxiety.
Photo Pam Dawling

I also saw meprobromato, a herb drunk as a tea or cold drink to treat anxiety. Meprobromate  was manufactured and marketed in the US as Miltown and Equanil. They were best-selling sedatives/minor tranquilizers for a time, until replaced by benzodiazepines. Nowadays, meprobromate is known to be addictive at doses not much higher than the medication dosages.

Mosaic steps at Pelegrin Courtyard farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

We saw many outdoor mosaics, including walkways, steps and pieces embedded in the walls.

Mosaic bench at Pelegrin Courtyard, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

Inside the galleries we saw pottery, dolls and paintings. I bought a painting of an old man for $25.

Pelegrin Courtyard pottery.
Photo Pam Dawling

There was a big porch with a mural and greetings from groups  who had visited from all over the world.

Porch on the artists’ gallery at Pelegrin Courtyard, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

They have received international support for some of their farming (irrigation) and their farm buildings.

Pelegrin Courtyard, Cuba. Outdoor classroom.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops in December

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in December

A stormy winter day, garlic, rowcovered spinach beds and our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Reread Root Crops in October for more ideas of things you might plant, if you are in a much warmer climate zone than us. We are in winter-hardiness subzone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C). We’re not planting anything outdoors in central Virginia in December. But in the hoophouse, we are sowing a couple of things.

Eliot Coleman has given the name Persephone Days to those with less than 10 hours of daylight, when little plant growth happens. Here in central Virginia, the Persephone Days last from November 21 to January 21.  Further north, the period is longer, and it is necessary to grow more of what you want to eat in winter and keep it in a holding pattern to see you through to the other side of the Persephone Days. The holding pattern could be crops in storage, which I wrote about in Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in November. Or it could be crops in the ground in a hoophouse.

Temperature also contributes to rate of growth and this is where hoophouse crops score big! It can be a lot warmer during sunny days inside a hoophouse, and our double-plastic hoophouse keeps nighttime temperatures about 8F (4.5C) degrees warmer than outdoors, sometimes 10F (5.5C) degrees warmer. In addition, plants can tolerate lower temperatures inside a hoophouse. The soil stays warmer and the plants recover in the warmer daytime conditions (it seems to be the night+day average temperature that counts). We find, in practice, the period of slowest growth here is December 15 to February 15: still two months long, but lagging the shortest days by three weeks. It takes time for the soil to cool down in late fall and time for it to warm up in early spring.

Hoophouse radishes and Yukina Savoy in December.
Photo Wren Vile

In our double-layer hoophouse, plants without any inner rowcover can survive 14F (7.7C) degrees colder than they could survive outside; with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan) inner covers, at least 21F (11.6C) degrees colder than outside. For example, salad greens in our hoophouse can survive nights with outdoor lows of 14°F (-10°C). Turnips (and many cooking greens) survived a hoophouse temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with.

In early December, we sow turnips #3. We sow Hakurei, Early White Egg, Oasis, and Red Round. They will struggle a bit to grow, so they are only worth sowing if we thin them promptly and harvest them on the small size, as the plants will start bolting in early March. See Root Crops in October, for details of thinning and harvesting.

In late December, we sow hoophouse radishes #5, Easter Egg and White Icicle. Cherry Belle and Sparkler types grow too fibrous at this time of year. See Root Crops in September for more about our succession of hoophouse radish sowing dates. Unlike the late October sowing which lasts for 8 weeks, the November sowing will only be good for the (slow-growing) four weeks of February, and this late December one for four weeks from mid-February to mid-March. In this case, it is because the temperature in the hoophouse and the daylength will have increased by then and the radishes will grow fast and start bolting.

Young Red Round turnips in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in December

In central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in December except parsnips. Jerusalem artichokes are hardy down to 0°F (-18°C), but we haven’t grown those in decades. Horseradish is similarly hardy, but not a mainstay of nutrition. The months with R in them are the horseradish harvest months. This is not woo-woo, it happens that September to April have R in them, and the summer months do not!

Horseradish regrowing up through the mulch in early spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

If temperatures have not yet dropped to 12°F/-11°C, we could dig Danvers carrots, Cylindra beets, and any rowcovered rutabagas (swedes). Albina Verduna, and Lutz Winterkeeper beets are hardy down to 15°F (-9.5°C), as are most kohlrabi and rowcovered turnips. But we don’t take that chance. We like to gather our root crops in and have them safely stored. We also like to put our feet up more in December!

Covered beets, covered winter radish are OK down to 10°F (-12°C).

In the hoophouse we can harvest radishes #2 until 12/25, #3 (sown October 30) from 12/15 to 2/1. We harvest our first turnips (sown around October 13) as thinnings from November 29 and by pulling out the biggest from December 5, until mid-February, by which time we can have made a start on the second sowing (October 25).

Turnips in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Wren Vile

See my list of Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables 2020 for a more complete picture of “Harvesting in Time”

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in December

From storage we can eat (if we grew them!) beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, turnips. Stored crops need to be visited at least once a month and checked for decay.

In our winter squash cage we keep some pancake turners rejected by the kitchen crew. If a squash is having a meltdown, I slide it onto a tray or a bucket lid and throw it outside. The first time I did that this year, I made the mistake of sliding a second squash on top of the first on my bucket lid. The first one couldn’t support the weight of the second. Messy! Sliding them into a bucket would have been safer.

A fine winter squash medley (no, they’re not root crops!)
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Special Root Crop Topic for December in Central Virginia

Crop Review and Planning Part One

This is a wider task, not restricted to root crops. In November we have a Crop Review, and then start to plan our crops for next year. We like to get our seed orders in early, to maximize our chances of getting the varieties and quantities we’d like. Some seeds might be in short supply this time, because of all the new gardeners and Covidsteaders that joined our ranks this year.

We consider how well our crops did in terms of plant vigor, disease-resistance, yield, quality, flavor and timing. Did they come in all at once? A benefit for storage crops or those you might sell wholesale. Not so great if you want an extended harvest period.

Planting dates, soil quality, sufficiency (or otherwise) of pest and weed control, plant protection from the elements are all factors that affect yield and crop quality. We can plan to make changes to those things next year. We can decide to plant a different amount, or spread out the planting dates. This can lead to a new calculation of how much seed to buy for the coming year.

By now the seed catalogs are starting to arrive and we can look at what varieties are on offer. Is there a faster-growing turnip? A different carrot we’d like to try? Something with more resistance to the disease we noticed this past year? Something more recommended for our climate or region? While you’re browsing, make a back-up plan if you can’t get your first choice, either from the same catalog, or another.

Hoophouse turnips and baby lettuce mix in December (note the low sun angles!)
Photo Wren Vile

New and Upcoming Online Events 2020-2021

I’m making this extra mid-week post because I haven’t offered many events this year, and you may have stopped looking on my Events Page!

Click here Make the most of the offseason by getting a step up on planning next year’s garden with this informative and enlightening course from author and Fair speaker Pam Dawling. Workshops include setting your garden goals (how to plan and which crops to grow), mapping, crop rotations, growing transplants, scheduling seedlings, interplanting, contingency plans, and so much more! (Note: If you’ve registered for the All-Access bundle, you now have access to this course!)

Mother Earth News Fair Online

My new contribution to the Mother Earth Fair Online has just arrived – a Garden Planning Course of eight workshops, with handouts, and a resource list.

Workshops include setting your garden goals (how to plan and which crops to grow), mapping, crop rotations, figuring out how much to grow of what, growing transplants, scheduling seedlings, interplanting, contingency plans, and so much more!

Click here to read more and sign up. You can get my Garden Planning course for $20 or the 2021 All-Access Package at $2.99/month or $35/year – the complete collection of online courses (currently 39) and recorded webinars – with more than a dozen new courses in the works! Each online course includes 6-8 video workshops of about 30 minutes each and supporting materials (called “handouts” in the days of physical in-person events).

I also have a workshop on Winter Cover Crops in the Winter Gardening course. There is a link to that course just below my photo on the page I linked to.

This can give you an inspiring way to invest some time this winter. We know lots of new gardens were started in 2020, and maybe you are dreaming of a bigger and/or better garden in 2021. Turn your dreams into plans and get off to a smooth start! 

This big Online Fair also makes a nice gift! (Scroll to the end of the View All Courses second page, for the All-Access Gift icon, 39 courses for $75. It includes a half-price offer on all courses that will be added during 2021.

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Organic Growers School 28th Annual Spring Conference

Online, March 13-21, 2021

The Organic Growers School Spring Conference 2021 is all virtual this time! Attendees will learn how to farm, garden and live organically through 12 tracks and more than 30 workshops.   You won’t have to choose between two or more great workshops that are on at the same time. This year you’ll be able to “attend” every one. In your pajamas if you want.

Kick-off Live Event on March 13, 2021  

  • Three live Keynote Talks
  • Teaser videos for our 12 Themed Tracks
  • Lunchtime Entertainment
  • A live Q&A with our Keynote speakers
  • A video social with other attendees
  • Access to our Exhibit Hall

March 14-19, 2021 – Themed Track Workshops

View 3 pre-recorded hour-long workshops in each of 12 Themed Tracks:

    • Keynote
    • Cherokee Foods
    • Cooking
    • Farming
    • Food Systems
    • Gardening
    • Herbs
    • Livestock
    • Mushrooms
    • Permaculture
    • Soils
    • Sustainable Living

March 20-21, 2021 – Live Track Closing Panel Discussion Sessions

  • Join a live Panel Discussion with each speaker from the Track workshops
  • Interact directly with panelists during the live Q & A portion

In the Gardening Track, Ira Wallace and I will be presenting The Seed Garden. Details to come, as we iron them out.

Garden cart with supplies for watermelon seed collection.
Photo Pam Dawling

I have been slow to join in the world of online events for a few reasons.

One is that in my rural county, we have poor internet connections and slow speed. I cannot reliably participate in a video conference where I’m one of the speakers. The service could just drop my connection at any time. This is a reality of many parts of rural America. We need something like the Rural Electrification Act to bring us into the 21st century. 2017 marked the 80th anniversary of that piece of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

A second reason is that I live as a member of Twin Oaks, an intentional community, where we share values of cooperation, sharing, nonviolence, equality, and ecology. We also share our resources. That includes our bandwidth. We have chosen not to spend a lot of our income on funding fast internet (it could be a deep black hole).

A third reason is that we have chosen to stay home as much as possible, to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection in our large household. Our group includes people who are more

vulnerable, due to age or health. We chose to self-quarantine, and think of ourselves as in a big bubble. It’s wonderful not to need masks or distancing at home. Anyone who goes off the farm has to be careful about masking and distancing, and about sanitizing on return, even quarantining alone for two weeks if the risk seems high. Going into a city to do video-conferencing is just not something I’m willing to do!

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Articles in Growing for Market

I’ve started a new run of writing articles in Growing for Market, a magazine. Upcoming is an article about collards. In recent months I’ve written about both wet and dry seed processing, planning garlic planting, and methods of growing sweet potato slips.

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Articles in Mother Earth News

I have an article coming up in the Mother Earth News magazine, about making and using open wood flats for seedlings and transplants. I also contribute to their blog, in the Organic Gardening section.

Book Review: Freedom Farmers, by Monica M White

Freedom Farmers Cover image

Book Review: Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, by Monica M White, UNC Press, 2020. 208 pages, with 11 b&w photos, hardback, $27.95, paperback $19.95.

This book will fill the gaps in your knowledge of Black US agricultural history, with a mix of narrative and evaluation. Here you can read about people such as Fannie Lou Hamer, who set up the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), offering a way for Black people of limited means to pursue self-reliance, health and a supportive community. Cooperatives offered an alternative to another wave of northern migration for African Americans – a way to stay in the South and help each other build a sustainable lifestyle.

It’s good to celebrate paths of hope, while also acknowledging the things that need to change. Freedom Farmers provides an uplifting perspective, showing agriculture was not only a site of oppression and exploitation of Black people, but also one of proactive political resistance and cooperative effort. Land access gives people the power to heal themselves, much more directly than food pantries and cooking lessons do.

Dr Monica White is assistant professor of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin. This is an academic book, so you’ll need to navigate some sociological terms, and I recommend you persevere even if this is challenging, in order to learn more of the important history of agriculture in the South. The book divides into two parts, starting with the intellectual traditions in Black agriculture, specifically Booker T Washington, George Washington Carver (my sweet potato hero) and WEB Du Bois. Part 2, Collective Agency and Community Resilience in Action, covers four specific cooperatives, the Freedom Farm Cooperative, North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

Dr Monica White speaking. Photo http://monicamariewhite.com

As a member of a cooperative community (Twin Oaks) myself, I always appreciate reading the stories of others who have chosen a collective path. As a food grower, I enjoy hearing other producers’ stories. No, I don’t enjoy stories of slavery, share-cropping, land loss, although I do need to know about them. I do enjoy hearing stories of those who found a way to earn a living on the land and lift others up while doing so.

Dr White’s framework of Collective Agency and Community Resilience (CACR) covers proactive approaches that build knowledge, skills, community and economic well-being. Collective agency is an intrinsic part of social activism. Community resilience refers to adaptation to adversity: social organization to adjust, withstand and absorb disturbance, and reorganize for best results.

Martin Luther King Jr pointed out that the broken promise of the US government to provide 40 acres and a mule to freed people happened at the same time that millions of acres of land (stolen from Indigenous people) were given to white people in the West and Midwest.

The Black Panther Party recognized the importance of land ownership in getting access to food. The free breakfast for children program fed 20,000 children at its height, as well as providing clinics, childcare centers, clothing programs and political education. The Nation of Islam also provided access to healthy food in cities. In the late 1960s, NOI owned 13,000 acres in the South, collectively known as Salaam Agricultural Systems. In 1994, Muhammad Farms was formed on 1,556 acres in south Georgia.

These movements built on Booker T Washington’s model for building community-based institutions, George Washington Carver’s scholarship as an agricultural scientist improving farming methods, and the work of WEB Du Bois in documenting the experience of southern Black farmers, particularly in Alabama.

In 1875, African Americans owned 3 million acres of land. Five years later, 8 million. By 1900, 12 million. The Tuskegee Institute welcomed its first class in 1881. Students worked on the two farms as part of paying tuition. In 1902, the USDA established the Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service, which offered information on modern farming methods. The Negro Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service sent farm and home demonstration agents into the field. The value of Black-owned land in the South increased more than sevenfold by 1920.

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute

George Washington Carver was a brilliant man with advanced botany degrees. He was committed to land conservation, plant breeding, scientific approaches to pests and disease. He left his plantation childhood at age 11, and made his way from Missouri to Iowa, where he enrolled in Simpson College, and later the college that became Iowa State University. There he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany, and became their first Black faculty member.

Carver accepted Booker T Washington’s 1896 offer of a job on the Tuskegee faculty although it entailed a loss of income. He said “The primary idea in all my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s dinner pail . . . My idea is to help the “man furthest down”.

WEB Du Bois studied race, inequality, Black political participation and social movements including agrarian production. He was convinced that cooperatives were the key to freedom. Du Bois’s theory of the power of cooperatives was that the key is distribution, rather than production.

Du Bois established the Negro Cooperative Guild to promote cooperation among African Americans, beginning with basic needs (food, clothing, jobs) and moving on to economic power.

He insisted the cooperatives adopt the Rochdale Principles of Cooperation, which I am familiar with from the Co-op movement and intentional communities in the UK. These Principles were set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England and are used by co-operatives around the world.

Colored Farmers’ Alliance Members.
Photo: Resources | Monica Marie White, Ph.D. monicamariewhite.com

Part Two tells of four specific organizations, one a single farm cooperative, one a county-wide program, one a regional federation of cooperatives and the last one an inner-city food security network.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and domestic worker, founded Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) in Sunflower County, MS in 1967, to fight poverty among displaced farm workers. Hamer wanted an opportunity for Black farmers to live off the land, as an alternative to a second wave of northern migration. “Someone with a pig and a garden need not starve to death.”

Between 1950 and 1960, the county population decreased by 20% as African Americans moved to northern cities to find work. Between 1960 and 1970, another 20% left.

Hamer’s boss fired and evicted her when she refused to withdraw her voter registration. She articulated the link between voter suppression by farm employers and starvation and homelessness. Her way to fight back was to set up a cooperative farm, providing workers with food, housing and the freedom to vote. Freedom Farm was a Black-led organization, with a triple focus on affordable, safe housing; a business incubator providing training; and an agricultural cooperative meeting the food needs of the most vulnerable people in the county. Thirteen of the first 40 acres were used to collectively grow subsistence vegetables. Freedom Farm was also a social and political organizing center, supporting activists.

In 1969, 50 pigs were donated to the farm as the “starter funds” for the “Bank of Pigs”. Families kept the sows and took them to the facility that kept the boars. From each litter, the family paid two piglets back into the pig bank. Heifer International (in its first US-based project) provided training and help. By 1973, more than 865 families were beneficiaries of the pig bank, which provided them with meat and income.

In 1971, Freedom Farm put down a deposit on 640 acres of additional land to build more housing, and the next year, the US Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) gave funding for 80 self-build houses, to include electricity and indoor plumbing. By 1972, their crops were feeding 1600 families. 540 acres were used for grazing cattle and a catfish cooperative. Two years later, they added 600 acres of cash crops of cotton, soybeans, wheat and cucumber. The income paid the mortgage on the land.

In 1973, FFC had 600 acres in crops, 300 families receiving livestock from the pig bank, 70 families living in affordable housing, and several people benefiting from college and business funds. Freedom Farm was a major employer in Sunflower County. As well as farm and office jobs, FFC started two sewing cooperatives. FFC paid all employees $10/day, often with housing, food and services in addition.

After four years of growing success, Freedom Farm Cooperative started to unravel in 1971. There were several tornadoes, leading to next year’s seed money being used for disaster relief. Donor funds started to dry up. The social service programs were wound up in order to focus on making the farming financially viable. A disastrous sequence of droughts and floods added to the troubles, and the seasonal employees could not be paid. The pig bank was closed as it was not paying its way. In 1974, FFC’s business manager died suddenly and Hamer became ill. In 1976 FFC had to sell its land to pay overdue taxes. The enterprise could not continue but many people had had their lives changed for the better. As Monica White says “FFC created an oasis of self-reliance and self-determination in a landscape of oppression maintained in part by deprivation.” We should not undervalue their successes.

Compared to the very local efforts of FFC, the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative (NBCFC) was a county-wide enterprise. The decline in need for farmworkers had left farmers unemployed, malnourished, ailing and in poor housing. Unfortunately, the area was a sea of racism. Black farmer-activists were glad of the support from Mound Bayou, an all-Black town founded right after the Civil War. The town included a health insurance cooperative, a hospital and a cottonseed oil mill worth $100,000, built and owned by African Americans.

In December 1967, sixty-four residents of Bolivar County, Mississippi started the NBCFC. They were mostly sharecroppers, tenant farmers, day laborers or domestic workers. Two Black landowners allowed the cooperative to use their land and another loaned his tools. For the first year, no one received pay, so members worked other jobs simultaneously. At the end of the first year, 953 families had joined and 120 acres were prepared for planting. Over one million pounds of produce was raised and distributed. The area was divided into 12 sections, each with two representatives on the board of directors.

Cooperative members who worked in the fields typically earned $4 cash per day plus $6 in produce. NBCFC created a Food and Nutrition Cooperative Project. They prioritized protein vegetables, then greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, okra and cucumbers. Starchy vegetables were at the bottom of the list, just above melons. They began processing their own vegetables because it was obvious to them that they lost value by selling their produce to distributors and then buying vegetables at market.

The third example in this book is on a regional scale: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC). Cooperatives had sprung up throughout the South, from Texas to Virginia, organized by the disadvantaged: Blacks, Latinx and some whites, working together in mutual aid. Some were farming, others manufacturing, sewing or consumer cooperatives. The FSC began in 1967 with twenty-two representatives of southern rural cooperatives as an umbrella cooperative for the Southeast with the goals of raising funds, providing technical assistance and developing resources.

By 1974, 134 cooperatives had joined FSC from 14 southern states. Through the Small Farmers School Program, FSC staff provided training in agricultural technology, hoophouses, irrigation systems, new crops, farm management, energy consumption and business decisions. They gave help to illiterate farmers with application forms, and made loans to members through an interest-free Revolving Loan Fund.

By combining orders and maximizing savings, FSC broke the stranglehold that distributors of seeds and fertilizers had on farmers (charging high prices because there was no competition). Farmers also cooperated to plan their crops so that different farmers brought in cucumbers, say, in different weeks of the season.

FSC included cooperatives for aquaponics, shrimping, and catfish farming, as well as flowers, transplants and shrubs. In 1979 FSC expanded by collaborating with two other organizations, the Emergency Land Fund (addressing the issue of Black land loss) and the Southern Cooperative Development Fund (providing emergency loans to struggling co-ops).

FSC also trained agricultural workers to plan and build housing for displaced farmers. They operated the Black Belt Family Health Care Center in Epes, Alabama, an ambulatory preventative health care cooperative providing services on a sliding scale. FSC also ran the Right to Read Program, including in-home literacy classes for 500 members and small group classes. Incarcerated people got literacy training. There were also mini-libraries, GED training and vocational training. They developed credit unions, protected and expanded Black landholdings, and provided book-keeping and financial services. They advocated on policy issues for low-income cooperators.

There was white backlash. Some white business owners and white political officials had no moral qualms about destroying Black cooperatives. A group of Black farmers in 1965 formed the Grand Marie Vegetable Cooperative of Sunset, Louisiana. The low price they were getting for their sweet potatoes was about to force them off the land. They banded together and shipped $102,000 worth of sweet potatoes to market in 1971. In 1972 a group of white growers asked the bank to stop the line of credit to Grand Marie. Their checks bounced, leaving them in a precarious financial situation.

In 1979, a federal grand jury in northern Alabama ordered FSC to provide all documents relating to federal funding for the past four years. The 18-month investigation did not lead to any charges, as they found no wrongdoing. It was an exercise in grinding down FSC. Defending itself cost FSC $20,000 in legal fees, and lots of wasted time. There are other examples of such harassment. Alabama state troopers stopped a fleet of refrigerated cooperative trucks, keeping them at the side of the road until they ran out of fuel, causing the produce to rot after several hours in the Alabama heat.

Fifty-three years later, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is still organizing Black cooperatives in the southern states, running a land assistance fund, a food box program, rural training, networking opportunities, technical assistance, and more. They accept donations on their website.

The next chapter, about the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), tells the stories of some of the descendants of those who migrated north, specifically to Detroit, for work. Sadly economic decline arrived there too, starting with the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, resulting in white flight and car manufacture moving elsewhere. Black flight followed in the early 2000s. Knowing that returning to growing food was an effective strategy of survival and resistance, the remaining Black community resisted pressure to leave and formed agricultural communities.

Following the 2008-2010 foreclosure crisis, the population shrank further and public services were cut again. DBCFSN mobilized the Black community with conversations about food sovereignty and food security, mutual aid, collective wealth-building and general political education. Today, Detroit is a major center for urban farming and community food systems.

In 2008, D-Town Farm grew out of the school garden at the Nsoroma Institute, when the city of Detroit asked DBCFSN to consider a 2-acre space in Meyers Tree Nursery, Rouge Park. Five more acres were added in 2011. By 2016, D-Town Farm was producing over 30 different vegetables, as well as mushrooms and honey. Hoophouses and a large composting operation are included. They have an annual internship program and a volunteer program, as well as a paid manager and staff. Their produce is sold mainly at city farmers markets.

The farm participates in Keep Growing Detroit, which promotes Detroit as “a food sovereign city where the majority of fruit and vegetables Detroiters consume are grown by residents within the city limits.” Food is a gateway to foster a sense of self-determination and self-reliance. The major grocery chain in Detroit closed, and growing food became a necessity. Cooperatives help resources stay in the neighborhood and build it up, rather than get siphoned off to shareholders elsewhere.

The African American urban farming movement encourages us to “dig deeper,” further than the traumas of enslavement, sharecropping and exploitative tenant farming, back to roots as people of the land. This counter-narrative shows how food production is an aspect of self-reliance, collective resilience and resistance.  Aside from food resources, cooperatives offer information, community support, physical exercise, and solutions to problems in politics, education, housing and policing. Three strategies: sharing (resources, ideas, labor and solutions), participation in decision-making (politics) and economic autonomy, are the building blocks of community resiliency.

Collard Greens are having their Own Week!

Collards are a southern food icon and an underappreciated nutrition powerhouse that has sustained generations of southerners, both Black and white. At last this vegetable is getting the recognition it deserves! The first ever Collards Week is happening December 14-17 2020. I found out about this while researching for an article on collards for Growing for Market magazine. Yes, perhaps the title “Week” is aspirational, and four days is a jumping-off point for the post-Covid future.

There will be online presentations celebrating collards led by Michael Twitty, Ira Wallace, Jon Jackson, Amirah Mitchell and Ashleigh Shanti. This event includes food history, seed stewardship, gardening, farming, cooking and conversation and is part of the Heirloom Collard Project. Collards Week is a collaboration between the Culinary Breeding Network and The Heirloom Collard Project. You can register for free at www.heirloomcollards.org/collard-week-2020/. All events will be broadcast live through YouTube Live via the Culinary Breeding Network starting at 1:00pm Eastern time.

Chef Ashleigh Shanti preparing collards.
Photo Chris Smith

Michael Twitty’s kick-off presentation, The History and Significance of Collards in the South, will be a fascinating exploration of complex issues. Twitty states this himself on his blog, Afroculinaria, “The collard’s complicated story with African Americans really speaks to the way food can unravel the mysteries of complex identities.”

The Collards Tour and the Book

From 2003 to 2007, a team of four crisscrossed the South, mostly in North and South Carolina, searching for heirloom col­lards by word-of-mouth, by spotting them as they drove past, and by reading newspapers, attending small-town collard festivals, and visiting restaurants where collards were the only greens served. After the trip, USDA Plant Geneticist Mark Farnham grew out more than sixty of the heirloom collard cultivars in a trial garden at a USDA Agricultural Research Station. He published several papers, including the 2007 article “Neglected Landraces of Collard from the Carolinas.”

Two of the other road trip members, Edward H Davis and John T Morgan of Emory & Henry College, wrote a beautiful book: Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table to tell the stories of these varieties and the gardeners who steward them. Davis and Morgan noted that despite other wide diversity among the collard seed savers, most of them were older, with an average age of 70, and most of them had no family, friends, or neighbors will­ing or able to keep growing their special family collard variety into the future.

The Heirloom Collards Project

In 2016, Seed Savers Exchange in collaboration with Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange requested over 60 collard varieties from the USDA ARS National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) to trial at Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa. These were rare heirloom varieties collected by Davis and Morgan from seed savers across the Southeast. The goal of the Heirloom Collards Project is to support the tradition of heirloom collards, by finding growers and sharing the seeds nationally and also to celebrate the special stories associated with these heirloom collards.

The Heirloom Collard project is a national program led by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange, Working Food and The Utopian Seed Project. The Project is building a coalition of seed stewards, gardeners, farmers, chefs and seed companies to preserve heirloom collard varieties and their culinary heritage.

Ira Wallace has an article “A Southern Food Tradition: Saving Heirloom Collards” coming out in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Grit magazine. There she points out that giant seed companies have been buying out the smaller ones, and have reduced the number of open-pollinated collard varieties readily available to only five.  Saving heirloom collards is an act in food heritage. Ira’s article also includes some collard stories and directions for growing seed. You can also find good directions for growing seed in Jeff McCormack’s Organic Brassica Seed Production Manual.

Mosaic photo by Chris Smith

The Heirloom Variety Trial

The National Heirloom Collard Variety Trial was launched in 2020, with over 230 participants across the US. They are currently growing twenty different varieties from the large collection at Seed Savers Exchange and the USDA. This collection includes varieties from the Davis and Morgan collecting trips. There are eight trial sites growing all 20 varieties and also hundreds of citizen scientists growing and comparing randomly selected sets of three varieties. The growers are recording data for each collard variety on appearance, uniformity, vigor, disease resistance, flavor, germination, earliness, yield and winter hardiness. Their data will be recorded and analyzed via SeedLinked, a web platform connecting people with information on varieties written by people growing them.

The Heirloom Collard Project has a place for everyone interested in growing or eating this delicious vegetable, including home gardeners, experienced seed savers, commercial growers and chefs. Click the link to see photos of the 2020 varieties and the farms doing the full trial. Get ready to sign up for 2021. Novice seed growers may want to consider practicing with more common varieties first, and then, as they gain experience, they can sign up to become seed-saving stewards.

Morris Heading collards.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Growing collards

Collards are very easy to grow and harvest, providing months of harvests from a single sowing. They are cold-hardy and heat-tolerant, giving the possibility of harvests ten months of the year in the Southeast. Colder areas may need to provide some protection if wanting mid-winter harvests. Hotter areas may need a longer summer break. Growers can make sauerkraut to extend the season. There is a wide range of leaf shapes and colors including variegated types. For details of how to grow collards, see my article coming soon in Growing for Market.

Collard stecklings overwintering in a pot for seed saving.
Photo Seed Savers Exchange

There is a fascinating  blog post  published on the Heirloom Collard website written by Norah Hummel, who is a Seed Savers Exchange partner in the Heirloom Collards Project. It’s a really fantastic blog post with some really good photographs, talking you through the whole process of growing collard seed.

Growing Collard Seed

Like other brassicas, collards are a biennial seed crop. To save seed, keep your collard plants alive over winter. If you can’t do this outdoors or in a hoophouse, dig up the plants in late fall and trim off the leaves, preserving the growing point. Replant these plant stubs (stecklings) close together in a tub of soil or even damp sawdust, to replant in early spring. Make sure you have no other brassicas from the oleracea group (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, some kales, kohlrabi) in flower at the same time. Some kales (Russian, Siberian types) are Brassica rapa and do not cross-pollinate.

Winnowing collard seed with a box fan.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Read Margaret Roach’s interview on A Way to Garden, with Chris Smith of Utopian Seed Project, a crop-trialing nonprofit working to celebrate food and farming, and Sow True Seeds, talking about heirloom collards.