My Cuba farming trip. Conference season!

I’ve just got back from a wonderful Agroecology Tour of Cuba with the Organic Growers School. Click the link to sign up for the 2021 tour. I have lots of photos and much to say, but so little time today! In 9 days we visited 9 farms, had several speakers address aspects of life (and particularly farming and environmental issues) in Cuba, had a couple of walking tours, ate many delicious farm-to-table type dinners and still had time for a salsa lesson

We are having trouble with our internet connection today, so this post will either be short or very short.


I’m headed to the Little Rock, Arkansas conference of the Southern Sustainable Working Group

Go to my Events Page for a full list of where to look for me. Not long after getting home from SSAWG I’m headed to PASA in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Then the West Virginia Small Farms Conference

Then OAK, in Louisville, Kentucky,

Then Organic Growers School in Mars Hill, North Carolina

Videos, podcasts, weevils, rainwater harvesting, UK Farming net zero by 2020, carbon footprint calculators, climate change books

Funny Farm Videos,

located by Modern Farmer

Lil Fred, Farm It Maybe.

Derek Klingenburg, Serenading the cattle with my trombone (Lorde – Royals)

Pasture Road, Peterson Farm Brothers,

Goat Busters, Dana McGregor


Origami Weevils by Charley Eiseman

I saved this post on Origami Weevils to share. It transitions us from the ridiculous (funny animal videos) to the sublime.

Charley Eiseman describes himself this way: “I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.” He is an exceptional photographer, an exceptional entomologist, and one of those people who pays exquisite attention to what he does. These factors make his blog a special treat.

I always get excited when I encounter the work of leaf-rolling weevils (Attelabidae), even though they are by no means uncommon. I just find it fascinating that these insects have learned to fold leaves into neat little cylindrical packets for their larvae to live inside, without the use of silk or any other adhesive. The […] Read more of this post

 

 

—————————————————————————————————

Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

Modern Farmer did the research and found the best. Read More

———————————————————–Essential Rainwater Harvesting Spreadsheet Toolkit

 

Now we might be ready to move off the holiday couch, at least enough to get pencil and paper and start some planning. Here is an Essential Rainwater Harvesting Spreadsheet Toolkit from Verge Permaculture: https://vergepermaculture.ca/product/spreadsheet-tool/ $29.00 CAD (Canadian dollars)

The Essential Rainwater Harvesting Tool is a spreadsheet tool for analyzing the feasibility of a rainwater storage system on your farm. It contains tables, formulas and logic from the Verge Essential Rainwater Harvesting book, pre-programmed and ready-to-go, plus a substantial number of extra features.

They are also offering a FREE WEBINAR on Jan 14, 6:30 pm MT: IS RAINWATER SAFE? with pioneering Australian hydrology engineer, economist, policy analyst, educator, UN adviser and researcher Peter Coombes

———————————————————————————————————–

UK Farming goal net zero by 2040

https://www.nfuonline.com/nfu-online/business/regulation/achieving-net-zero-farmings-2040-goal/

The National Farmers Union in the United Kingdom has announced in this 12-page report their ambitious goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. This is farming’s contribution to the UK’s ambition of net zero by 2050. In the UK, agriculture’s contribution to Greenhouse Gas Emissions is 10% of the nation’s whole. (27% is from transportation)

———————————————————————————————————–

For those with serious New Year Resolutions here are 6 Personal Carbon Footprint Calculators (and How to use Them Efficiently) from Mother Earth News

https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/carbon-footprint-calculators-and-how-to-use-them-efficiently-zbcz1812?newsletter=1&spot=headline&utm_source=wcemail&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=MEN%20HE%20eNews%2001.07.2019&utm_term=MEN_HE_eNewsAll%20Subscribers&_wcsid=79E96C01FC4AFE8B2C8184EBA1FEB58413B54C4386F47764

———————————————————————————————————–

And here are 12 books on climate change and the environment,

from Yale Climate Connection

https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/12/gift-guide-12-books-on-climate-change-and-the-environment/?utm_source=Weekly+News+from+Yale+Climate+Connections&utm_campaign=f83923d619-Weekly_Digest_of_December_9_13_2019&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e007cd04ee-f83923d619-59330105

———————————————————————————————————–

Cooking Greens in January

Morris Heading collards, a reliable winter crop. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in January

Harvest in time! Freezing or Bolting Greens!

Outdoors, the temperatures continue to get colder in January. In our garden outdoors, there are collards, kale, spinach, and sometimes chard,  senposai, and Yukina savoy, and over-wintered cabbage (not for much longer!).

Hopefully there is also cabbage stored in the cooler. The most cold-hardy greens are what we depend on for the next two months.

Tatsoi in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

From the hoophouse we continue harvesting chard, Chinese cabbage, kale, frilly mustards, pak choy, senposai, spinach, (including thinnings from the newer sowings),   tatsoi (thinnings from the newer sowings, whole plants from the September 7 sowing), Tokyo bekana/Maruba santoh plants, turnip greens, yukina savoy.

In the hoophouse, the extra warmth combined with the lengthening days causes some of the brassicas to start bolting. After the Winter Solstice the order of bolting of our hoophouse greens is: tatsoi #1 (meaning, our first sowing 9/6), Tokyo bekana, Maruba santoh (all in early January); pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy #1 (late January); turnip greens #1 (mid-February); Komatsuna, Yukina Savoy #2, tatsoi #2, spinach #1, turnip greens #2 (early March); Senposai, turnips #3, (mid-March); Russian kales (early April); chard, beet greens, later spinach sowings (late April or even early May.)

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

Our knowledge of what will bolt first informs our plan of where to put the new crops we want to plant. To make space to sow spinach on 1/16, we need to clear the Tokyo bekana (and Maruba santoh) and the first tatsoi by 1/14. We keep a close eye on the Chinese cabbage and pak choy. Normally these will bolt in January, and we harvest the whole plants this month. They will be followed by sowings of kale and collard starts for outdoors on 1/24.

Chines cabbage in November, not yet fully headed.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

It might seem sad, at first glance, that these big greens will bolt this month if we don’t harvest them in time, but in fact, it all works out rather well. The rate of growth of the “cut-and-come-again” leaf greens slows down in December and January, and while we eat the big heads of Tokyo bekana, Maruba santoh, Chinese cabbage, pak choy and the not-tiny tatsoi, we ignore the leaf greens, giving them more time to grow.

Pak Choy in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

December 15-February 15 is the slowest growing time for our hoophouse crops.

When the daylight is shorter than 10 hours a day, not much growth happens. The dates depend on your latitude. In Central Virginia, at latitude 38° North, this Persephone period (named by Eliot Coleman) lasts two months, from November 21 to January 21. We have found in practice, that soil temperature also affects the growth rate. And so we have a three week lag in early winter before the soil cools enough to slow growth, and then another 3 week lag  in January before it warms up enough again.

Transplanting spinach from a Speedling flat.
Photo Denny Ray McElya

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in January

Outdoors, we sow nothing.

In the greenhouse we tidy up the workspace, “fire up” the germinator fridges (germination chambers made from the carcasses of dead fridges), and prepare our new Seedlings Schedule (see Special Topic for January below)

Around 1/17 we sow some fast early cabbage, such as the OP Early Jersey Wakefield and the hybrid Farao. (We sow lettuce and scallions then too, to keep them company.) At the end of January we sow spinach in Speedling flats if our hoophouse sowings have been insufficient. We have trialed the bare-root spinach against the Speedling spinach and both do equally well.

In the hoophouse, in mid-January we sow Spinach #4, to transplant in gaps in the hoophouse. We usually clear Tatsoi #1 to make space for this. Of the varieties we tried, Reflect does best for this planting, followed by Acadia and Escalade. This winter we have had difficulty buying Acadia and Escalade and are going to try Abundant Bloomsdale alongside Reflect.

Spinach seedlings in our hoophouse for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also sow Spinach #5 for bare-root transplanting outdoors in February or early March under rowcover. This follows the Tokyo bekana or Maruba Santoh as noted above. Reflect and Acadia do well for this purpose, with Escalade close behind. We’ll have to improvise this spring.

In late January (1/24, 1/25), we sow kale and collards for transplanting outdoors in March. I have written before about how well these bare-root transplants work for us, compared to starting these seeds in flats in the greenhouse. It doesn’t work for lettuce at this time of year though – the tiny plants are too fragile and tender.

Vates kale seedlings in our hoophouse for bare-root transplanting outdoors.
Photo Pam Dawling

Follow-on Winter Hoophouse Crops

This is a  sequence of different crops occupying the same space over time. We try to keep the hoophouse fully planted all the time, and one aspect of this is knowing what we are going to sow when we pull an old crop out. Here’s our winter list:

  • 11/17: We follow our 1st radishes with 3rd  scallions
  • 12/23: 1st baby brassica salad mix with 5th radishes
  • 12/31: Some of our 1st spinach with our 2nd  baby lettuce mix
  • 1/15: Our 1st tatsoi with our 4th spinach
  • 1/16: Our Tokyo Bekana with spinach #5 for planting outdoors
  • 1/24: Our pak choy & Chinese cabbage with kale & collards for outdoors
  • 2/1: Our 2nd radishes with our 2nd baby brassica salad mix
  • 2/1: Our 1st Yukina Savoy with our 3rd mizuna/frilly mustards
  • 2/1: Some of our 1st turnips with our 3rd baby lettuce mix
  • 2/1: More of our 1st spinach with dwarf snap peas

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in January

Outdoors, we transplant nothing.

In the hoophouse, we fill gaps that occur in the beds. We replace spinach with spinach, brassicas with brassicas wherever possible. We use the Filler Greens which were sown October 10 and October 20 (brassicas such as senposai, Yukina savoy and the frilly mustards) and October 24 and November 9 (spinach). In December I mistakenly said that December 25 is our official last date for using the brassica fillers because there is not enough time for them to make worthwhile growth before they bolt. But I really meant January 25! Sorry!

  • Until January 25, fill gaps with Asian greens, spinach or lettuces as appropriate to match their neighbors.
  • From January 25 to February 20 fill all gaps everywhere with spinach transplants, except for places that will be sown in new crops in February.
  • From February 20, only fill gaps on the outer thirds of the beds, leaving the bed centers free for tomatoes, etc. in mid-March.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in January

We continue to harvest the hardier greens, and if (when) low temperatures are forecast, we might decide to clear the vulnerable crops and put them in the cooler.

See Cooking Greens for November for more details on winter-kill temperatures

During December we had two nights at 17°F (-8.5°C). The Koji are looking quite damaged. We grew more of this than we could eat before temperatures got too cold. Next year I hope for a return to the more cold-tolerant Yukina Savoy instead. We have not covered the spinach, because of issues with rowcover fibers getting in the food, and we’ll see how much production we get without rowcover. I’m expecting it to be a lot less, as spinach (like kale and lettuce) makes some growth whenever the temperature is 40°F (4.5°C) or more. That happens much more often under rowcover on sunny days than in the open. Savoyed spinach which we prefer) is hardier than smooth-leafed varieties. 10°F (-12°C) could kill the larger leaves and 5°F (-15°C) could kill it off entirely. This would be unfortunate as we expect to harvest a lot from out over-wintered spinach in the spring. Maybe temperatures won’t get that cold this winter, but I’m not holding my breath. Some spinach (Bloomsdale Long Standing, Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia) is hardy down to 0°F (-18°C). We, however, have not been focused on growing the variety with the best absolute cold-tolerance.

Our chard is pretty much dead. The green is hardier than the multi-colored, which died a while back. Green chard is hardy to 12°F (-11°C), but ours is already weather-beaten. Because we have nice chard in the hoophouse, we no longer try to preserve the outdoor crop in winter.

I’m expecting January temperatures to bring the outdoor Koji and senposai to an end.

Spotting cabbage seedlings from a seed flat into a transplant flat.
Photo Wren Vile

Special Cooking Greens Topic for January: Lots of Planning!

We get our Crop Review, Seed Inventory and Seed Orders out of the way before the end of the year, then dive in during January to line everything else up for the next growing year. We use a lot of spreadsheets, and also maps and lists. First we prepare our new Seedlings Schedule, then our complex Fall Brassica Spreadsheet and Map, Field Planting Schedule, Hoophouse Schedule for March to September crops (those are not cooking greens!), and then our Raised Bed Plan and our monthly Garden Calendar.

The Seedlings Schedule Spreadsheet is most pressing, as we start greenhouse sowings in mid-January. Updating the spreadsheet from last year’s to create the new spreadsheet takes us three hours, plus proofreading and corrections. As we go, we make a list of questions or points to fix later, and we use highlighter on cells with unsure data to go back to. Our seedlings schedule has a column for the planned sowing date, one to write in when we actually do that sowing (in case it’s different), columns for the germination date, and the hoped-for transplant date, the vegetable, variety, how many row feet we want to plant, how many plants we will transplant in 100ft, and then a column with a calculation of how many plants we want to grow (allowing 20% extra on most crops). We will be spotting our transplants into flats of 40 plants, so next we calculate how many spotted flats we will need (simply the number of plants divided by 40). From that we calculate how many seed flats to sow. We reckon on getting 6 spotted flats from one seed flat, so again it’s a simple division. And we round up.

For crops that we sow in cell-packs (plug flats) we add another 20% to the Plants number. Lots of things can go wrong in January and February and we want to be sure to have enough plants. Also a lot of these early cell-packs are tomatoes for the hoophouse and we might want 15 different varieties.

All our spreadsheets have a Notes column, either with a pre-recorded reminder or hint, or with space to write in anything unusual or a different idea for next year. We check this and revise the sowing and transplanting dates accordingly.

Once we have the new spreadsheet set up, we get ready for the slow part of the job. One nice thing about spreadsheets is that you can sort the data each time you want a different perspective. We want to end up with a schedule in date order, but as far as feeding in the crop data, an alphabetical list by crop is much easier.

First we go through the current year’s Seed Order updating Varieties and Row Feet. Then we go through the Seed Order line by line, cross-checking to ensure that everything ordered gets sown (crops for transplanting only).

When we’re satisfied with that, we resort the data by transplant date, then by Vegetable, then Variety. We take the previous year’s Outdoor Planting Schedule (Field Planting Schedule) and revise the Seedlings Schedule accordingly.

Before we’re done, we check the highlighted cells and resolve any unresolved issues on our piece of paper. We check germinator shelves in use on any one day: We have space for 24 flats at once. Check the number of Speedlings in use at one time, we have 27. We refer to last year’s Seedlings Schedule for days to germination.

With all that work done, we can resort the data by Sowing date, then by Vegetable, then Variety. We proofread for sense before tidying up the formatting, and making sure all the columns fit on one sheet. We revise the instructions before we forget!

Hoophouse video interview, plus 2019 Round up of favorite topics and posts you missed

No-Till Growers and Josh Sattin collaborated to post this Hoophouse Tips video interview of me talking about our hoophouse:

 

After a Best Ever day on November 7, 2019, when 876 people viewed my website (4,855 that week), December has been quiet. It’s not a big gardening month for most of us, and the month is full of holidays. And then there’s the urge to hibernate.

Nonetheless, I have been reliably posting every week, and you might have accidentally missed something, while entertaining the visiting aunts and uncles, or rushing to get the carrots harvested, or something involving food and drink. Here’s a chance to  find the lost treasures!

December 24, I posted a Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

———————————————————

Three potato forks to the left, four digging forks to the right.
Pam Dawling

On December 18, I posted Making Use of Greenhouse Space in Winter and Getting the Right Fork

———————————————————–

Purple ube grown in North Carolina by Yanna Fishman

December 10, did you miss Yanna Fisher’s splendid purple ube?

And Josh Sattin’s video interview with me? Legendary Farmer on a Legendary Commune  https://youtu.be/vLzFd4YP9dI

And Jesse Frost’s interview with me on his podcast No-Till Growers ?  You can listen to it here and it’s also on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p75gRIl0Hzs


Reflect spinach in the open got damaged but not killed at -9F.
Photo Pam Dawling

On December 3, I posted Cooking Greens in December

———————————————————–

On November 26, I offered you a Book Review: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening


My Top Six. no Seven,  posts of all time:

Winter-kill Temperatures  of Winter-hardy Vegetables 2016 with 23,776 views, peaking in November. Clearly lots of people want to know which crops will survive and which to hurry and harvest, or protect with rowcover.

Garlic scapes with 11,202 views. Garlic and sweet potatoes are the favorite crops on this site. Garlic scapes used to be under-appreciated and under-used. Not now!

Winter-kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2018 with 9,979, also peaking in November. My list gets updated each year as I learn new information. But the older ones come higher on internet searches.

Soil Tests and High Phosphorus Levels close behind at 9,503. High phosphorus is a worry for organic growers, especially those using lots of compost, as it can build up each year.

How to Deal with Green Potatoes at 8,613, with sustained interest through August, September and November. Obviously we are not the only growers with this problem, caused by light getting to the tubers.

Tokyo Bekana at 2,199 (who knew that was so popular?)

In 2019 other popular posts included Hunting Hornworms and the newer Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2019. It takes a while for newer posts to gain on the older favorites.

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Harness the Power of Microbes to Create Your Best Garden Ever

Storey Publishing, January 2020

  • Price: $16.95
  • Size: 6 x 9
  • Pages: 176
  • Format: Paperback ISBN: 9781635862072
  • Other formats: Ebook

Grow Your Soil! is an introduction to soil biology and gardening in eight chapters. It is written as if describing how to build a house (but starting with the roof!). Diane Miessler writes in plain English, with a light style, and her book has the endorsement of Elaine Ingham, who writes the foreword, saying that Diane’s humor and tongue-in-cheek joy make this book a joy to read. People were once told that using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides was the only way to grow enough food for a starving world. Elaine simply states “That was a flat-out lie.”

Diane’s encouragement to garden in partnership with the soil food web lists the many benefits of a healthy environment, healthy flavorful food, and the satisfaction of doing what you believe is right. She has a ten-point list of suggestions for creating healthy living soil using no-till systems, lots of mulches, home-grown fertilizers, and by encouraging biodiversity. The fundamentals of soil science are explained – soil is about 45% minerals (sand, silt and clay), 20-30% air, 20-30% water and 5-10% organic matter. A teaspoon of good soil contains more microbes than there are people in the US, more species than all the vertebrates on Earth, several yards of fungal hyphae, a few thousand protozoa and several dozen nematodes (mostly good ones). Soil is our planet’s third largest carbon sink (after the oceans and fossil fuels). Healthy soil is continually pulling carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the organic matter and humus. We want to have as much sequestered carbon as possible, both to reduce the amount in the atmosphere and so that we can use it to grow food.

 Diane’s mulch recommendations are to generally aim for a mix of one-third green matter (which feeds bacteria) and two-thirds brown (which feeds fungi), but steering towards more green matter for annual vegetables, more brown for woody perennials, in line with the predominant life-form each type of crop does best with.

The cover crops section first describes the plants, then how and when to use them. I had a brief worry that people would go out and plant buckwheat or sweet potatoes in winter, until I read on! In fact, Diane does suggest you can sow buckwheat whenever you like, and it will be dormant until the right spring weather occurs. In our central Virginia climate this does not work. Buckwheat seed rots in cold wet soil. Buckwheat can germinate in a warm early spring spell and be struck down by a following frost before it has made much growth at all. As always, it pays to discuss ideas you haven’t tried before with nearby gardeners.

This book has a good basic description of the Soil Food Web, for new gardeners or anyone who is a bit mystified about what’s happening in the soil. And for those over 50 whose biology classes only included the two plant and animal “kingdoms”, here are explanations of the classes of bacteria, fungi and archaea, the main types of soil microbes. Archaea are neither bacteria nor eukaryotes (tiny organisms that have their DNA in a nucleus). Archaea are similar to eukaryotes in some ways, but have more resistance to extreme conditions. In the soil they work as decomposers.

Next up are the algae, protozoa and nematodes. The algae spectrum goes from one-celled photosynthesizing life-forms to giant kelp. In the soil they provide nutrients and increase plant resistance to diseases. Protozoa are one-celled animals, which release excess nutrients from their meals of bacteria and fungi, in a plant-available form. They help balance the numbers of bacteria in the soil. Nematodes are (mostly) microscopic roundworms that are mostly benign, from our perspective, and healthy populations keep the destructive nematodes in check. Arthropods (including insects, spiders, mites, ticks and scorpions) are shredders of organic matter in the soil (while eating smaller life-forms).

Bigger soil-dwellers include worms, slugs, snails, and small mammals. By the way, Diane explodes the myth that coffee grounds can control slugs, and claims to have videos to prove it untrue. And she tells us that fence lizards eat harlequin bugs. (I think she lives in California). Western fence lizards are centered in California, and according to the National Wildlife Federation, Eastern fence lizards are found between New York and northern Florida and as far west as Ohio and Arkansas. I want some!

The next section of the book explains Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), a measure of how many positively charged ions (cations, nutrients like Mg, K, Ca, ammonium) can be held by the negatively charge soil particles. Diane likens this to the pantry. Soils with a low CEC can’t hold many cations, and the key to increasing the CEC is to increase the soil organic matter content. Clay soils may have a high CEC, but the nutrients may be held too tightly to be useful to plants. The solution to this problem is also to increase the soil organic matter content.

Diane offers several ways to increase the organic matter, and one of her favorites is biochar. Biochar in its original form is more or less sterile, not nutritious at all, but in the soil it can act like humus on steroids – it is very good at absorbing water, hosting microbes, reducing plant diseases and lasting a long time in the soil. I have been skeptical about some of the claims for biochar, and of the net gains in reducing global heating. Diane does not make any wild claims (she’s not selling the stuff). She is open about the fact that the mechanism for suppressing disease is not yet understood.

As I said, Diane is not selling biochar. In fact she describes how to make your own on a small scale with an “upside-down” outdoor fire (with all due safety precautions). Big pieces of wood are arranged on the ground in an open airy stack, and a small fire is lit on top with tinder and kindling. This means the fire produces little smoke (all smoke is air pollution). The fire is thoroughly doused with water once everything is glowing but not flaming. Those wanting to make biochar on a bigger scale are referred to a double-barrel biochar burner on YouTube.

Diane Miessler

The next section is on photosynthesis, minerals and soil testing. Diane describes the effects of too much, too little and just right amounts of the main soil nutrients first. A deficiency of phosphorus shows up as blue-purple colors on the older leaves. She doesn’t mention phosphorus surplus, although she does confirm that excess phosphorus added to the soil will usually be locked up and become inaccessible to plants. Potassium deficiency can cause yellow leaf edges. Next up are other macro-nutrients, such as Calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Calcium deficiency leads to stunted new growth, brown around the edges, perhaps with yellowing between the veins. Bulb and fruit formation can be damaged, as with blossom end rot of tomatoes, caused by insufficient calcium reaching the fruits. By contrast, a magnesium deficiency leads to older leaves becoming yellow between the veins and around the edges, perhaps with purple, reddish or brownish discoloration. Sulfur shortage can lead to “unthrifty” plants. Shortages of any of these can be remedied by the addition of more organic matter.

Micronutrient shortages can also be helped by organic matter, although in Virginia I have noticed that we do sometimes need to add boron on its own (in tiny amounts).

Diane describes how to test soil, understand the results, and remedy the situation. Try adding organic matter first, and only tinker with the specifics if the general remedy is not enough. For instance, if your soil biological activity is low, you may find that piling on organic matter doesn’t help. Use compost to add  some more life to the soil and get a better balance of diners to dinners. There is a helpful one-page “Order of Operations for Fixing Soil”: Correct the pH; correct the calcium level; correct any excesses (usually by adding gypsum); correct the macronutrient deficiencies and lastly correct the micronutrient and trace element deficiencies. Clear instructions like this are so valuable to newer gardeners!

There is a chapter on making compost and compost tea. She suggests thinking of compost as a sourdough starter, and mulch as the flour. Both are valuable, and they work well together. Making good compost is a valuable skill to learn. Try for the a good balance of high nitrogen materials and high carbon materials, with enough water. Turn the pile, assess its progress, add what it seems to need. Rinse and repeat. Diane recommends against spending money on fancy compost bins. “Compost needs love, not a container.” There is value in turning the pile and seeing how it’s doing. If it’s fully enclosed in a tumbler, you might miss the signs that it needs a specific kind of care. Here is encouragement to learn the art and science of compost making.

Worm bins are a great way to use kitchen scraps to produce worms and compost, especially in winter, as worm bins need to be in a non-freezing place to stay alive. I disagree with Diane about using the liquid leaching from the bottom of the bin as a “compost tea” See my review of The Worm Farmer’s Handbook by Rhonda Sherman. This liquid might not be good for your plants. To make compost tea, put some of the wormcastings in water and bubble air though it. Instructions are in Diane’s book a few pages later.

Another small industrious worker is the black soldier fly. The (harmless) maggots of these (harmless) flies will out-compete other (disease-carrying and/or biting) flies in eating up kitchen scraps in an odorless way. They are also a favorite food of poultry, and there are clever ways of setting up a bsf bin so that the pupal stage will “self-harvest” by walking up a ramp and dropping into a collecting box. See YouTube for all the details.

After explaining these various aspects of growing good soil, Diane pulls everything together into a chapter on Building a Garden That Feeds Itself. Here you can learn about sprinkler irrigation,  mulching, planting, and selecting good tools. The next chapter covers being a good neighbor, by having a good-looking, good-smelling, productive garden that gets frequent attention. Diane advocates for pulling weeds and dropping them on the bed, without worrying about weed seeds or plant diseases. I can see this would work best in a smaller garden where things don’t get out of control, and in drier climates with fewer diseases and less chance for weeds to re-root. There’s a panel about roses that I didn’t read. (Roses are a great trap crop for Japanese beetles; I’m not a flower grower!)  A big help to beginners is the glossary at the end, and the bibliography of books on soil life.

If you are a beginner organic gardener, or you’re looking for a book for someone in that category, this book has a clear user-friendly approach. It won’t scare off newbies with too much detail.

Making Use of Greenhouse Space in Winter and Getting the Right Fork

Making Use of Greenhouse Space in Winter

Josh Sattin has another video from my interview in November. Creative Ways to Maximize the Winter Greenhouse is about 11 minutes long and includes our greenhouse planted with leaf lettuce for the winter and Dave Henderson of Red’s Quality Acre in his hoophouse with kale growing in pots on upside down tables.

https://youtu.be/YcHhn9RT5XI


American Gothic with Pitchfork

Get the Right Fork for the Task at Hand

Too often I hear new gardeners mistakenly call a digging fork a pitchfork, for reasons I have not grasped. So I set out to learn more about the names of forks.

Pitchforks

Americans are familiar with pitchforks from the famous American Gothic painting. The pitchfork has a long handle (often longer than the 4 ft one in the painting). It has curved slender round-section tines (prongs). Sometimes three, often only two. You couldn’t dig your garden with this tool! It is made for pitching hay up onto wagons, originally for loose hay (or straw), but also for small square bales. I used pitchforks in England when I was in my twenties. The trick is to vigorously stab the fork down into the middle of a bale on the ground. The next step is to lift the bale up vertically on the fork (hence the need for a long handle!) This trick is achieved by holding the pitchfork with one hand near the tines and the other as far back up the handle as you can comfortably reach. Then you quickly pivot the pitchfork so the bale is up in the air, still impaled on the pitchfork. If you have to wait for the wagon, set the other end of the handle on the ground. This is less work than supporting the whole weight of the bale. When the wagon is alongside, (carefully) “offer up” the bale to the person on the wagon stacking the bales. Sometimes you have to walk to the wagon a short distance. Keep the bale up in the air for this!

Manure forks

Two long-handled manure forks flanked by two short-handled digging forks.
Pam Dawling

Manure or compost forks are long-handled forks similar to pitchforks but with more, thicker tines, maybe 5 or 6 tines. They are for lifting manure, woodchips, or compost from a pile and setting it down again not far away. Or for mucking out stables and cow byres. They excel at separating layers of wet sticky materials. Stick the tines into the pile horizontally, not too far down the pile. Lift up a flake of whatever it is. Don’t dig the garden with those either. And don’t use them for pitching hay, as the tines are too close together to do a good job of stabbing hay bales.

Here you can see the long handles of the manure forks.
Pam Dawling

The Garden Tool Company distinguishes manure forks from compost forks, which they say are the same as pitchforks usually with four or more long slender, pointed tines that are turned up slightly for scooping or moving loose material without bending. Great for turning your compost pile or moving loose materials. Pitchforks are too lightweight to handle the heavy weight of compost, so many gardeners opt to use the heavier duty garden fork…also, manure forks look very similar, but are not for lifting heavy loads.

Long-handled potato fork

See below for information on short-handled potato forks. Less common is a long-handled type of potato fork with up to 9 slender tines, like a manure fork but with blunt ends so as not to damage the root crops. This type of potato fork is for lifting the crops up off the ground, not digging.

Short forks

Radius-Pro digging fork

The short-handled forks always have four tines. These forks may have a D or a T handle. These days more people prefer a D handle.

There’s also the newer Radius PRO Stainless Digging Fork with a circular handle. The handle design is ergonomic, and looks odd, but actually works well. We bought these because we wanted to try a stainless steel fork (less mud, rust and additional weight).

Digging forks

also known as garden forks or spading forks, have sharp, pointed, square-section tines, usually 7”-9” (18-23 cm) long. Wikipedia also gives these tools the name “graip.” The best garden forks are forged from a single piece of strong carbon steel and have either a long riveted socket or strapped handle connection. They are used for loosening, lifting and turning over the soil. They are good at penetrating hard soil, digging to incorporate compost or cover crops, and double digging (if you do that). They can also be used to dig up root crops, or shrubs. It is much easier to get a digging fork into the ground at depth than a shovel or a spade (no, they’re not the same thing), and the tines can work their way between rocks and large roots.

Three potato forks to the left, four digging forks to the right.
Pam Dawling

Border forks are smaller digging forks, narrower and shorter. (Hard on tall people that want to dig out weeds in their close-packed flower borders!) I think there’s an assumption that it will be the shorter people (women, mostly) working in the flower borders. But any company that makes tools sized for women gets my vote.

Green Heron Tools sells U.S.-made, hergonomic® tools for women to make farming & gardening as enjoyable, painless & productive as possible. Products include Digging Tools, Cutting Tools, Weeders/Cultivators, Ergonomic Grips, Tractor Hitch, Hats & Gloves and more.

Potato forks have flat-fronted triangular-section tines. They are not so good for digging over the soil. They are for gentle diagonal probing and lifting of root crops and tubers from relatively loose soil. They do less damage than the same person with a digging fork. They can be used as digging forks in loose soil if you have nothing better.

In Choosing a Garden Fork, the Garden Tool Company distinguishes between Digging, Spading, Garden (English), Manure, Compost, Potato, Broadfork and Border forks. Their distinctions are not entirely the same as mine. They distinguish garden forks from digging and spading forks (lighter weight flat-bladed types good for loose soil). This leads to confusion when trying to distinguish potato forks from digging forks. I prefer to think of square-tined forks as for digging and flat-tined forks as for lifting potatoes. Good potato forks should also be of strong steel. “Nobendium” as I’ve heard it called!

The Broadfork

Our all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Pam Dawling

Although very different in appearance from a traditional garden fork, the two handled broadfork does a lot of the same chores, but on a bigger scale. With two steel or hardwood handles fitted about shoulder width on a steel horizontal bar and 4, 5,  6 or more long tines; the broadfork is a large, heavy tool made to cultivate and aerate soil without fossil fuels. Hold the handles upright, stab the tines into the soil, step up onto the crossbar with both feet, pushing the long tines into the ground. Step off backwards and pull the handles towards you, causing the tines to lift and loosen the soil, opening up air channels. A broadfork can replace tilling in ground that has been worked before. After broadforking, rake the surface to get a fine tilth for sowing. Those with small gardens can do the same thing with a spading fork, which is what I always did before our gardens got to be so big we needed a rototiller. A broadfork might well be the right scale for those gardens too big to dig with a spading fork and small enough to manage without a tiller.

Here for scale is a potato fork beside our broadfork.
Pam Dawling

Barbara Damrosch wrote The fork: A gardener’s essential tool

Barbara and I are alike in wanting to reduce fork confusion, and mostly agree on terminology, As with everything agricultural, there are some differences. She uses the name Spading Fork for what I call Digging/Spading/Garden Forks, and the name Digging fork for flat-tined forks that I call Potato Forks. Here’s her helpful distinction between manure forks and pitchforks:

“A manure fork . . . is more rugged than a pitchfork, it is nevertheless a lifting-and-pitching tool. Confusingly, the name is often used interchangeably with bedding fork, ensilage fork, scoop fork, stall materials that have not decomposed much, can be moved with a few tines, widely spaced. More-crumbly compost, and mulches such as shredded bark and wood chips, require the type with many tines, spaced close together, so the material does not fall through. (The manure fork was designed to scoop lumps of solid manure from even finer material such as wood shavings, letting that bedding fall back into the stall.)”

Handle length

If you are above average height, buy tools with longer handles than standard.

Stainless or carbon steel

Carbon steel is usually stronger than stainless, but stainless is easier to look after, slides through the soil smoothly and won’t weigh you down with accumulations of mud. For digging forks, I have become a fan of stainless.

Replacement handles

House Handle Company  https://www.househandle.com/search.html. Telephone: (417)847-2726

has a wide selection of good quality wood handles online. They specialize in hickory, white oak and ash. Be careful making your selection, and get the handle that’s just right for the tool you are repairing. You can see a lot of their handles in our photos. During the winter we usually have a “Santa’s workshop” day when we repair tools.

Quality Garden Tools has a smaller selection. I haven’t tried theirs.

There are YouTube videos showing how to make sturdy repairs. Just be sure to shape the handle for a good fit before drilling any holes for rivets. And learn how to make rivets from large nails if none are supplied with your replacement handle. Sharp edges on poking-out badly finished rivets, or nuts and bolts can cause injuries. Sweat we might need. Blood and tears we can do without.

Strange Roots, Podcast and Video, News Round-Up

Strange Roots

 

A 10 pound purple ube grown in North Carolina by Yanna Fishman.

Here’s an ube, a true yam/Dioscorea alata. This amazing photo is from Yanna Fishman in Union Mills, NC. She grew this in her garden. It’s all one root, one season’s growth from a small section of a root. She has also had success growing both the white and purple yam from aerial tubers.

Grower Jim in Florida has more information on ubes.

 Yanna’s second photo shows a selection of unusual roots she grew. She is launching herself on a ‘tropical perennials as temperate annuals’ trial

Tropical roots grown in North Carolina by Yanna Fishman. See key below

Clockwise from top root with green stem:

Taro (2 types)    Colocasia esculenta

Arrowroot    Maranta arundinacea

Malanga     Xanthosoma  sagittifolium

White yam      Dioscorea alata

Purple ube yam     Dioscorea alata

Jicama     Pachyrhizus erosus

Yuca/cassava     Manihot esculenta

Groundnut     Apios americana

Ginger   Zingiber officinale

Yacon      Smallanthus sonchifolius

Achira   Canna edulis

Center:

Water chestnut    Eleocharis dulcis

Turmeric (3 types)    Curcuma longa

——————————————————

A video and a podcast

Josh Sattin of Sattin Hill Farm  came out to our farm to film me talking about farming and Twin Oaks Community and you can see that here. Not sure if I’ve been around long enough to be a legend, but Twin Oaks has.

Legendary Farmer on a Legendary Commune

https://youtu.be/vLzFd4YP9dI

If you want to see more of Josh’s videos, here’s his contact info:

Josh Sattin – YouTube

Instagram (@sattinhillfarm) – www.instagram.com/sattinhillfarm

Website – https://www.sattinhillfarm.com/

Jesse Frost of No-Till Growers

interviewed me for his No-Till Market Market Garden Podcast and you can listen to it here:

Scroll down past the photo and the sponsor plugs to get to the place to click for the podcast.

It’s also on You Tube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p75gRIl0Hzs

Here’s Jesse’s contact info:

No-Till Growers Website – https://www.notillgrowers.com/ Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/FarmerJesse YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLhu… Instagram @notillgrowers – https://www.instagram.com/notillgrowers/

Following the interview, Jesse’s friend and colleague Josh Sattin visited and made his video.


Cold-hardiness

Frosty Mizuna in January.
Photo Bridget Aleshire
Mother Earth News

has published my blog post Which Vegetable Crops Survive Cold Weather? Knowing at what temperature various crops will die, and watching weather forecasts will help us act in time to save our crops.

Cold-hardiness of Cauliflower

And a blog reader, Andy Montague, has passed along the info that his cauliflower was damaged by temperature around 19F (-7C), while his broccoli, cabbage, collards, and Brussels sprouts were unharmed.  This illustrates that cauliflower is the cole crop most susceptible to cold.

——————————————————-

Growing for Market Newsletter

Growing for Market magazine has launched a free monthly newsletter. The current issue includes articles on How to Improve CSA Retention Rates, and growing garlic (I wrote that one), and a special offer on a bundle of two no-till books. I see you can even get the newsletter translated instantly into a wide range of languages!

———————————————————-

Sustainable Farming News Round-up

Study Demonstrates Economic Efficiency of Agroecological Management
A study published in Scientia Horticulturae compared conventional, organic-input, and organic agroecological blueberry production systems in Chile. A farm that used organic management based on agroecological principles achieved the highest yield and also had the lowest cost of production, showing agroecology as the most efficient production system from both an environmental and an economic perspective.
Related ATTRA Publication: Blueberries: Organic Production

Key Perennial Crops information sheets (info from ATTRA)

The Savanna Institute has produced a new series of free “Key Perennial Crop” information sheets in collaboration with the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the USDA-SARE program. The information sheets offer descriptions of 12 key Midwestern agroforestry crops: Aronia, Asian Pear, Black Currant, Black Walnut, Chinese Chestnut, Cider Apple, Elderberry, Hazelnut, Honeyberry, Northern Pecan, Pawpaw, and Serviceberry. They are available free online.
Related ATTRA Publication: Fruit Trees, Bushes, and Vines for Natural Growing in the Ozarks

Forest Farming Could Make Medicinal Plant Harvest Sustainable (from ATTRA)

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University say that forest farming could provide a model for the future of forest botanical supply chains. They say that transitioning from wild collection to forest farming as a source of medicinal herbs such as ginseng would create a sustainable supply chain, not only in terms of the environment, but also in terms of social justice for people who harvest the plants. The researchers point out that forest farming would allow more transparency in the supply chain, which could lead not only to better-quality herbal products, but also to a reliable and stable income for forest farmers.

Related ATTRA Publication: Ginseng, Goldenseal, and Other Native Roots

eOrganic has published a Weed Tour

A Virtual Tour of Major Weed Plant Families

by Mark Schonbeck of the Organic Farming Research Foundation

Harvesting, Curing and Post Harvest Care of Pumpkins and Winter Squash

You’ve worked hard to grow healthy pumpkins and winter squash. Keep them that way off the vine using these best practices.

There’s An App for That!

Wondering where to dig post holes or construct a pond or building on your property? Want help determining the production capability of your land? You can answer those questions and many more with SoilWeb, a free app that gives you quick access to Soil Survey data through your mobile device

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/newsroom/releases/?cid=NRCSEPRD1466260

——————————————–

A Conference to Look Forward to

 

The Southern SAWG Annual Conference is well-known for providing the practical tools and solutions you need at our annual conference. It is the must-attend event for those serious about sustainable and organic farming and creating more vibrant community food systems! This popular event attracts farmers and local food advocates from across the nation each year. This year, we have 101 “field-tested” presenters, a full slate of hot-topic conference sessions and pre-conference courses, five field trips, a forum, a poster display and a trade show. New this year! 2020 Special Topic: Agricultural Resilience in a Changing Climate.

There are scholarships for limited-resource farmers. Pre-conference intensives, a two-day general conference, a trade show, networking opportunities, research posters. Learn more about the great sessions planned for 2020.

Cooking Greens in December

Reflect spinach in the open got damaged but not killed at -9F one January. Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in December

In December there’s chard, collards, kale, komatsuna, senposai, , spinach, tatsoi, and Yukina savoy, Eat-All Greens from the outdoor garden and also stored cabbage. The most cold-hardy greens start to come into their own.

From the hoophouse we continue harvesting chard, kale, senposai, spinach, tat soi thinnings or leaves, Tokyo bekana/Maruba santoh leaves (if we have not yet harvested whole plants because we saw signs of bolting), turnip greens, Yukina Savoy.

From late December we keep a close eye on the Chinese cabbage and pak choy, for signs of bolting. Normally these will bolt in January, so we harvest the whole plants that month. But we have sometimes needed to harvest the plants before we get to January.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in December

Outdoors, we sow nothing

Brassica (mustard) salad mix in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse, on December 18 we sow brassica salad #2. Sometimes called mustard mixes, these are mixed brassicas to cut like baby lettuce mix when they are still small. Often we make our own mix at this time of year, using leftover seeds that we don’t want to keep for next year. We are busy working on our seed inventory and seed orders, so it gives us a use for odds and ends of packets. Just avoid bristly-leaved radishes and turnips! Using random seeds works for us because we do not expect yield-miracles. We will not get a lot of cuts from these plants before they bolt in March or early April. Our first round of Brassica Salad Mix is sown October 2 and is harvested several times between October 29 and December 21. Much faster growth in October and November than in December and January! We make a third sowing on New Year’s Day.

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in December

Outdoors, we transplant nothing

In the hoophouse, we transplant spinach, senposai, Yukina Savoy, Frills (frilly mustards) to fill gaps that occur in the beds. We replace spinach with spinach, brassicas with brassicas wherever possible, filling gaps caused by either harvesting whole plants or Bad Things (those are usually fungal diseases).

Our Filler Greens are sown October 10 and October 20 (brassicas) and October 24 and November 9 (spinach). JANUARY 25 (I originally mistakenly said December 25) is our official last date for using the brassica fillers because there is not enough time for them to make worthwhile growth before they bolt. After that date we fill all gaps with spinach plants.

Short rows of filler greens, lettuce and spinach in the north edge bed of our hoophouse in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in December

While watching the temperature forecasts, we continue to harvest the hardier greens, such as chard, yukina savoy, collards, kale, spinach and tatsoi. If low temperatures are forecast we might add rowcover to some of the beds, or decide to clear the vulnerable crops and put them in the cooler.

See Cooking Greens for November for more details on winter-kill temperatures

This winter we have already had 16°F (-9°C) and 18°F (-8°C) in mid-November. As temperatures drop, we clear these crops before their winter-kill temperatures happen:

15°F (–9.5°C): kohlrabi, komatsuna, some cabbage, red chard (green chard is hardy to 12°F (-11°C)), Russian kales, rutabagas if not covered, turnip leaves, most covered turnips.

12°F (-11°C): Some beets (Cylindra,), some broccoli, Brussels sprouts, some cabbage (January King, Savoy types), most collards, senposai, some turnips (Purple Top).

10°F (-12°C): Covered beets, Purple Sprouting broccoli for spring harvest (too cold in central Virginia for us to grow that), a few cabbages (Deadon), chard (green chard is hardier than multi-colored types), some collards (Morris Heading can survive at least one night at 10°F/-12°C), probably Komatsuna; Senposai leaves (the core of the plant may survive 8°F/-13°C), large leaves of savoyed spinach (more hardy than smooth-leafed varieties), Tatsoi, Yukina Savoy.

5°F (-15°C): some collards, some kale (Winterbor, Westland Winter), smaller leaves of savoyed spinach and broad leaf sorrel. Some tatsoi. Many of the Even’ Star Ice Bred greens varieties are hardy down to 6°F (-14°C).

0°F (-18°C): some collards (Blue Max, Winner), Even’ Star Ice-Bred Smooth Leaf kale, some spinach (Bloomsdale Long Standing, Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia). Vates kale survives.

Vates kale outdoors. An oleracea type, Vates is very cold-hardy.
Photo by Nina Gentle
Russian kale (napus type) gives us good yields in our hoophouse in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Special Cooking Greens Topic for December: Understanding kale types

Russian and other Russo-Siberian kales (napus varieties) do better in the hoophouse than Vates blue curled Scotch (and other European oleracea varieties). Napus kales will make more growth at lower temperatures than oleracea kales, although they are not as cold-tolerant. “Spring” kales (napus) will persist longer into warmer weather than Vates (oleracea) can, from a spring sowing. The vernalization requirement for napus kales with about eight leaves is 10–12 weeks at temperatures below 40°F (4°C). Brassica oleraceae kales will start flowering after 10–12 weeks below the relatively balmy spring temperature of 50°F (10°C).

Special Cooking Greens Topic for December: Ordering Seeds (Adapted from Sustainable Market Farming)

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. We read catalog descriptions carefully and try varieties that offer the flavor, productivity and disease resistance we need. 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.

Calculating the seed order

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!

This is the time of year we adjust the “seed rate” (seed/100′ or /30 m) column of our spreadsheet using information from our past year, and we feed in the next year’s crop plan for varieties and succession plantings – everything we have decided so far about next year. We make notes about any problems or questions we need to resolve later, and we’re sure to order enough seeds to cover these eventualities. We have found it worthwhile to proofread our inventory and order form carefully before making our final decisions, as mistakes not discovered until planting day can be a big problem.

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in the greenhouse
Photo Pam Dawling

Formatting and placing seed orders

On the Seed Order version of our spreadsheet, we 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.

 

Book Review: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening

Book Review: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening. Innovative Techniques for Growing Vegetables, Grains, and Perennial Food Crops with Minimal Fossil Fuel and Animal Inputs. Chelsea Green, 2015

In 1971, Will Bonsall went back to the land in Maine, with his wife, Molly Thorkildsen, and their two sons. They built the farm over the course of five years, “one foundation stone and one exquisitely harvested and finished piece of wood at a time. As neat and efficient as a ship’s cabin, Khadighar Farm rises up on a hillock in the midst of 85 acres.” (Press Herald 2014). Will Bonsall runs the Scatterseed Project, (as featured in the documentary “Seed: The Untold Story“), an organization for the collection, preservation and sharing of seeds. Jim Gerritson, in his endorsement says “The risk of describing [this book] as a gardening book is that the aspiring reader may miss the reality that it is really a book on life, centered as a good life should be, around a garden.”

Will Bonsall’s gardening (life) is focused on Veganism and Eco-efficiency, looking deeply into replenishing the soil by considering each organism’s intrinsic energy as a food in proportion to the food energy (or soil fertility) required to produce it. Only photosynthetic plants actually produce a net increase over the soil-derived nutrients they consume. All animals have a negative ratio. This is not to say all livestock are bad (or for that matter, that people are bad). Different animals vary in their Eco-efficiency and different terrains respond to different treatment. As the author says, you can pick and choose from the ideas presented, without needing to agree 100% with his ideology. And before anyone imagines that Will Bonsall advocates isolationist self-sufficiency, note that he points out that the most stable solutions for hard times involve cooperative, collective, community action.

The book starts with building soil fertility, moves on to growing and saving seeds and propagating plants, then discusses growing particular crops (vegetables, grains, pulses, oil seeds, and “permacrops”. Part 4 explains how these strategies are integrated to make best use of the land, and how to deal with pests and diseases. The book closes with some ideas for using and preserving the foods grown. As with all agriculture, there is not a linear progression of topics, but a network of ideas.

Using a flat compost screen on a wheelbarrow.
Photo by Wren Vile

The bottom line on soil fertility is that how we balance the efficiencies of tilth-building imports will determine the long-term sustainability of our farm (and our planet). What are the true costs of bringing in soil-building materials? Here are good instructions on making compost, from the variable ingredients you are likely to have. Will uses 900 pounds (408.2 kg) per 180 ft2 (16.7m2). For some time I’ve been curious about how much compost other growers use. We use about 46 gals/100 ft2 in our hoophouse. Most other professional compost-using growers who I know of use 12-40 gals/100 ft2. How to compare weights with volumes? Perhaps 3.5 lbs/gal? At that density, Will’s rate is 143 gals/100 ft2. It does look very generous in the photo, but perhaps I have miscalculated. He does not report excess phosphorus in his soil, which is one of the main concerns about using lots of compost. Because he commends buckwheat as a cover crop for making soil phosphorus available to plants, I deduce he doesn’t have a surplus. Perhaps the relatively closed nutrient system on his farm reduces the potential problem. Perhaps it is the lack of animal manure.

Among other cover crops discussed here, sweet clover comes out well, for tolerating sodium, making deep roots, fixing nitrogen and bringing up more phosphorus. And growing so tall it can be mowed and the top growth taken for compost-making. Alfalfa has similar features, but is not so cold-hardy. (Khadighar Farm is in Maine.)

While Will’s farm is veganic agriculture, he is still a grass farmer. He uses wood ash and ramial wood-chips (chipped small branches and brush) to improve his grassland, reckoning this more sustainable than farming cattle.

Golden Glory zucchini in late May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Will describes chopping out circles of cover crop to transplant squash into, as a way of extending the valuable life of the cover crop until the last minute. I’d caution southern growers about trying that. When squash grow fast they can quickly run over cover crops and make life difficult. I tried winter squash with buckwheat once and the crew never quite forgave me, as we had to wade in and pull up the buckwheat to prevent seeding.

I was very interested to read that his squash plants, having grown surrounded by oats and peas (flattened and covered with tree leaves) never get troubled by striped cucumber beetles (one of our more pesky pests). Ramial wood chips are a great way to build soil, if spread on the surface rather than turned in. Fungi will break down the material overtime. The key is to get the woody material locally, to be eco-efficient. We ask our electric co-op to unload their line-clearance chips near the end of our driveway.

Because importing minerals and other soil builders over large distances is not sustainable, it is wise to conserve minerals and recycle those nutrients on your own land as long as possible. Humanure is worth considering, if you are not selling Organically-Certified produce to others, as long as you can be sure it doesn’t have medications or diseases in it, and you are quite choosy about which crops you apply it to.

Will says “boron is most vulnerable to erosion via the marketplace”, meaning selling produce can deplete your soils of some minerals.

Woodash is a valuable resource (although I reckon southern growers get less wood ash than northern growers).Wood ash can help reduce soil acidity, but probably don’t apply more than 10-15 lbs/1000ft2 (4.5-6.8 kg/92.9m2).

Sun Gold cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pan Dawling

The second section of the book is about understanding annual, biennial and perennial plants and how to propagate them by farming seeds, and storing them well to keep them viable. He doesn’t just work with open-pollinated varieties. He points out that some hybrids don’t contain much genetic diversity, “a detail no one wants you to know”. Many hybrid tomatoes will grow surprisingly true to type, as the parent lines are not very divergent to begin with. He suggests Sungold tomato as one example.

Next he explains various ways to clone plants (replicate them asexually) via suckers, layering, cuttings, grafting. I just learned that blood, sweat and tears are bad for grafting, as the cambium cells will be ruined!

The third section of the book (150 pages) is about various crops. These are divided into vegetables, grains, pulses, oilseeds and permacrops. Will Bonsall is, after all, aiming to grow a complete vegan diet. In the vegetables chapter, Will focuses on areas where he has a unique approach, or at least one not widely known about.

Overwintered spinach with spring-sown Sugar Ann snap peas.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

There is a valuable tip about not planting peas too early. Plant a week later, when the soil is warmer, and your harvest will start a few days later (not a full week later) than it would have, and more importantly, the yield will be higher. Early lettuce or Egyptian onions make good space-sharing companions with fava beans. Rather than pine because they are too far north to grow lima beans, the family grows white-seeded runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) to use as dry beans. I loved runner beans as a green bean in England and here I learn that many white runner beans have names with the word “Lima” in them. Confused? No wonder!

I might follow Will’s tip and grow only Early Jersey Wakefield, Danish Ballhead and a red storage cabbage. I’ve spent years seeking the perfect combination of cabbages for early eating, storage and sauerkraut. Perhaps this is it? I like the EJW well enough already, although I also like the hybrid Faroa. A trick Will has for getting best use of space is to plant the EJW at 18” (45 cm) spacing, with kohlrabi transplants in between. The kohlrabi are harvested first, leaving space for the cabbage to reach its (small) full size. Lettuce is another option.

Bare-root pak choy transplants in a dish pan.
Photo Pam Dawling

It’s always gratifying to read another garden author advocating for something we do too (bare-root transplants). He has details for growing your own bulb onion sets from a mid-July sowing (in NY). The keys to success include sowing thickly in very rich soil, and finding the right variety, as well as the right date – early enough to grow a plant bigger than a wispy seedling, but late enough so they can’t move straight into making seed heads the next spring when replanted. The plants need to die back and harden off for storage. It takes skill!

I’m going to look out for Chinese broccoli (B. oleracea var. alboglabra), Bonnie Best and Siletz early determinate tomatoes, yellow-fleshed potatoes (especially Granola) and Baxter OP sweet corn.

I appreciated reading Will’s explanation of the causes of the Irish Potato Famine. Food justice is as important as good gardening skills. Let’s stop blaming Late Blight (Phytophthera infestans) and look instead at the English landowners shipping out wheat, barley and beef, reducing their peasant workers to a diet of potatoes and dairy products, which (although very unjust) was adequate as long as the supply of milk lasted and until the reliance on a single variety of potato (Lumpers) brought them to starvation and desperation.

I just learned that cucumbers are rich in soluble silica, important for healthy teeth. Will describes this silica-dissolving property as “eating rocks”!

It’s often said how it’s hard to judge the mood behind someone’s email – are they angry? Tired and grumpy? Making a joke? Sometimes I was left wondering at some passages in this book. He starts one story out by mentioning his “patronizing chuckle” at his wife Molly’s suggestion of mulching their grain plots, follows it up with telling how well it worked when he did try it and how he always mulches grains now. He ends the paragraph with “Yep, I’m totally convinced that’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever had,” but I have to give him the benefit of my doubt. He’s sailing close to obnoxious realities that most women have had to endure.

I appreciated the section on the types of millet. I’ve often been confused about the different types and how best to use them as cover crops. Naturally, I need my “climate zone glasses” on – Virginia has different weather from New York, and what’s true there is not necessarily true here.

Japanese millet – not frost hardy, not suitable for human food (tight hulls)

Proso millet – not frost hardy, short, early maturing, not much biomass, loose-hulled. All are very attractive to birds once seeds form.

For those wanting to venture into small-scale grain-raising, this book has the basics for wheat, triticale, barley, oats, rye, millet, rice, field corn, buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa.

Pulses are dry peas, beans, lentils and other legumes. Not many books have the detailed information found here.

The oilseed chapter proposes the less usual idea of using the ground oily seeds in food, rather than extracting the oil from the seeds, adding it to cooking, and then dealing with a byproduct. I have not read much on this subject since I reviewed Cindy Conner’s book, Grow a Sustainable Diet. In this chapter, Will discusses sunflowers, pepitas, flax, poppies, hazelnuts and some experimental crops. In their climate, peanuts, olives, oil palm, safflower and sesame won’t mature. They don’t grow rape/canola as a seed crop because they value it more as an early greens crop. I was fairly horrified to read that they are trying chufa (tiger nuts) because we have serious weed problems with both yellow and purple nut sedge, also known as chufa. Will says that this food crop is not invasive, and will die with the frosts. I’m not going to try that in Virginia in case it hybridizes with the weed kinds – that would be too terrible!

Admiring a cluster of blueberries.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

The “permacrops” are tree nuts like chestnuts, hazels, acorns, pea-shrub and honeylocust, and tree fruits, cane fruits, blueberries, hardy kiwis, autumn olive (invasive in Virginia), dogwood cherry (cornelian cherry), rose-hips, ribes, apples, plums, pears, medlars, mulberries. Then there are the non-woody permacrops such as Jerusalem artichokes (terrasols) and apios. I’d never heard of those – they are groundnuts (but not peanuts), and they can get invasive. Various minor tuberous crops are discussed, such as cattails, Chinese yams, crosnes, daylilies and nanny-berries (wild viburnum).

The fourth section is “The Garden in Context” (Rocks, water, land; pests and diseases; and “smaller footprints” – ways of increasing yields from a given space). There are clear instructions on digging trenches to drain overly wet areas. I am still unclear though, on how big (deep, wide) drains need to be if you fill them with rocks. When I was doing calculations for our hoophouse, I concluded that the size of the drains if filled with rocks would have to be enormous, as most of the trench would be occupied by the rocks, leaving little room for the water. Obviously, the gradient of the ditch makes a difference too, as well as the quantity of water we’re talking about. Worth careful consideration before digging! I like Will’s drawing of a stone culvert in the bottom of the trench, to preserve some open space for the water to run in.

Not everyone likes jumbo sweet potatoes, but for those cooking for a hundred, they are a bonus.
Credit McCune Porter

As for increasing yields from a given area, Will clarifies the differences between Old World agriculture (many crops, methods, tools, livestock shared across a large area) and New World agriculture (more isolated, fewer crops (mostly frost-tender annuals), cultivation mostly in the lowlands, no plows, no livestock, mostly slash and burn cultivation with long crop rotations). Old World crops lend themselves better to close planting, although the vining New World crops make better use of vertical space, and fit better with mulched no-till systems.

I appreciated Will’s take on companion planting – it’s not so much that different crops “like” each other, as that they have few quarrels. Peas grow up a trellis and spinach, chard, lettuce or carrots can occupy the rest of the bed without competing with the shallow-rooted peas. The carrots use all the nitrogen from the soil, while the peas are self-sufficient. Edamame can grow in the aisles between sweet corn rows – Will sows the edamame seeds in the same furrows as the corn seed. The corn yields normally, but the edamame yield is reduced by about 50% compared to growing it in separate rows. But the overall yield of corn-plus-edamame is greater for the space. Will has tried and true examples and pointers on factors to consider when designing your own combinations: timing, root depth, fertility requirements, access to light.

Will Bonsall

There is something inherently unnatural in any kind of farming.” “Chaos, change and instability are more the norm; the best we can do is exploit them to our temporary advantage.” We must deal with pests! Will’s recommendation is to haul all vegetable crop residues to a hot compost pile, even if no disease is apparent. And to practice serious crop rotations. Animal pests are a problem in inverse proportion to their size: big deer can be excluded. Flea beetles are a bigger problem. Will recommends brewing toxic rhubarb leaves, being careful not to have them anywhere near human food in a way that could cause lethal mistakes. Apply as a fine mist.

The last section is on using the harvest, including milling, baking, sprouting, freezing, fermenting and drying. I didn’t take so many notes on this section, but for those wanting to mill wheat and corn, make buckwheat noodles and bake breads, the info is there. Also for sprouting, malting, freezing, fermenting and dehydrating. Also using oilmeals rather than pressing oil

At the back of the book there are lists of recommended tools and resources and a few thoughts about energy use and alternative technology. This is an excellent book for those wanting to produce as much of their needs from the land as possible, and also for those who enjoy reading about quirky persevering hard-working folk who are doing just that, perhaps with an eye to inching in that direction themselves. Even relatively experienced growers will find something new in this collection of detailed information based on lived experience.

Garlic Planting and Freeing Trapped Shoots

Garlic planting crew.
Photo Valerie Renwick

Planting Garlic

We are planting garlic, a topic I’ve written much about! Here are links to a few of my Allium of the Month posts from 2018-2019 and my slideshow.

Sign up for the free Growing for Market newsletter  and read my article How and when to plant garlic this month. That article mentions Get ready for garlic planting which you can read if you are a Full Access Member. I wrote these articles back in 2012, so I do have some newer info in my slideshow and my blog posts from last year.

See last year’s Alliums for November for

How Much Garlic to Plant

Popping Garlic Cloves for Planting;

Pre-plant Seed Garlic Treatments to reduce pests and diseases.

Planting garlic cloves, using a 5″ (13 cm) measuring stick.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Preparation for Garlic Planting

Cloves for planting should be from large (but not giant) bulbs and be in good condition. Garlic for planting should be separated into cloves 0–7 days before planting. Twist off the outer skins and pull the bulb apart, trying not to break the basal plate of the cloves (the part the roots grow from), as that makes them unusable for planting. With hardneck garlic, the remainder of the stem acts as a convenient lever for separating the cloves. We sort as we go, putting good size cloves for planting in big buckets, damaged cloves in kitchen buckets, tiny cloves in tiny buckets and outer skins and reject cloves in compost buckets. Don’t worry if some skin comes off the cloves — they will still grow successfully. The tiny cloves get planted for garlic scallions (see below).

When to Plant Garlic

Both hardneck and softneck garlic do best when planted in the fall, though softneck garlic may also be planted in the very early spring if you have to (with reduced yields). If you miss the window for fall planting, ensure that your seed garlic gets 40 days at or below 40°F (4.5°C) in storage before spring planting, or the lack of vernalization will mean the bulbs will not differentiate (divide into separate cloves).

Plant when the soil temperature at 4″ (10 cm) deep is 50°F (10°C) at 9 am. If the fall is unusually warm, wait a week.  We plant in early-mid November. (We used to plant at the end of October or early November, but we’ve moved later.) In New Hampshire, mid-October is the time. The guideline for areas with cold winters is 2-3 weeks after the first frost but before the ground freezes solid for the winter. In Michigan, planting time is 6 weeks prior to the ground freezing, giving enough time for root growth only, to avoid freezing the leaves.Instructions from Texas A&M say less than 85°F (29°C) at 2″ (5 cm) deep. In California, garlic can be planted in January or February.

Closing the furrows over the garlic cloves.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Mulch your Garlic Beds

After planting, pull soil over the cloves, tamp or roll to get the cloves in good soil contact to help the roots grow. Within a couple of days, mulch the beds. At planting time, the soil is still warm, and the newly separated cloves are now primed to start growing. If you want to roll out mulch as we do (big round bales of spoiled hay), then you need to act before fragile garlic shoots emerge from the soil. If you are using loose mulch you can blow or throw it over the beds, and a few emerged shoots are no big deal.

Garlic Scallions

Garlic scallions are small garlic plants, mostly leaves, the garlic equivalent of onion scallions (bunching onions, spring onions, escallions). Great for omelets, stir-fries, pesto, soups, and many other dishes. If you want to have Garlic Scallions to eat or sell in early spring, when new fresh vegetables are in short supply, and homesteaders may be running out of stored bulb onions, see my post Alliums for March.

You could plant these next to your main garlic patch, or in a part of the garden that’s easily accessible for harvest in spring. We plant our small cloves for scallions at one edge of the garden, and as we harvest, we use the weed-free area revealed to sow the lettuce seedlings for that week.

Planting garlic scallions is simplicity itself! Plant small cloves close together in closely-spaced furrows, simply dropping the cloves in almost shoulder to shoulder, any way up that they fall. (If you’ve just finished a large planting of main-crop garlic, you’ll probably be too tired to fuss with them anyway!) Close the furrow and mulch over the top with spoiled hay or straw.

November-planted garlic scallions in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

With a last frost date of 20–30 April, we harvest garlic scallions March 10 to April 30 in central Virginia, or even into May, if our supply lasts out, and we don’t need the space for something else. Harvesting is simple, although depending on your soil, you may need to loosen the plants with a fork rather than just pulling. Trim the roots, rinse, bundle, set in a small bucket with a little water, and you’re done!

Rather than dig up whole garlic scallion plants, some people cut the greens at 10″ (25 cm) tall and bunch them, allowing cuts to be made every two or three weeks. We tried this, but prefer to simply lift the whole plant once it reaches about 7″–8″ (18–20 cm). The leaves keep in better condition if still attached to the clove. Scallions can be sold in small bunches of three to six depending on size. A little goes a long way! If you do have more than you can sell in the spring, you could chop and dry them, or make pesto for sale later in the year.

Garlic scallions ready for harvest in early spring.
Photo Wren Vile

Cold-hardiness of Young Garlic Plants

  • At 12°F (−11°C): garlic tops that have grown fairly large will die
  • At 5°F (−15°C): garlic tops if still small will die.
  • When properly planted, cloves can withstand winter lows of –30°F (–35°C).
  • Garlic roots will grow whenever the ground isn’t frozen
  • Garlic tops will make growth whenever the temperature is above 40°F (4.5°C).

If the tops do get frozen back, do not despair! They will regrow. The growing point of alliums (garlic, onions and relatives) is close to the bulb, probably under mulch, certainly in or close to the soil, where temperatures are warmer. If your garlic gets frozen back twice, the yield will be less than if it had not got frozen, but we don’t control the weather. If your climate is getting colder in the garlic-planting season, plant deeper and/or earlier. But don’t plant earlier if climate change is giving you hotter fall weather!

Garlic shoots poking through the mulch in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Free Trapped Garlic Shoots

See last year’s Alliums for December for my post  Free trapped garlic shoots.

Watch your mulched garlic beds and when the shoots start to emerge, choose the moment to free any trapped shoots, by working along the rows, investigating each spot where you expect a garlic plant to be, but nothing has emerged. Your goal is simply to let the shoot see the daylight. Then it will right itself. Don’t reveal any bare soil, as that will grow weeds (and let colder winter air at the garlic.) Don’t over-work this – as soon as any part of a shoot is visible, leave that plant alone, and move on to the thousands of others. It isn’t necessary to make all the leaves visible, or to clear around the whole plant.

Choosing the right time is tricky. I used to say when half or more of the shoots are visible, but one year we were having a crop disaster, and we waited too long – we were never going to have half visible. Usually, most of them emerge at the same time. it would be helpful to note down how many weeks after planting this is likely to be. We somehow haven’t done that – I think it’s about 3 weeks. Leave a comment if you have an answer!