I’ve just received confirmation that I will be a presenter at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Virginia, March 20-24 2013. I’ll be talking about my book Sustainable Market Farming, and growing vegetables sustainably to feed ourselves and our community. My panel discussion, the Locavore track, will be on Thursday March 21 at 6pm, at CitySpace, 100 5th St NE. I’ll post more when I have more information.
I’ve also agreed to do a workshop at a Virginia university in January on Planning for Successful Sustainable Farming – no details yet.
Then at the Virginia Biofarming Conference in Richmond, Virginia on February 8-9, I’m giving a workshop on Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops.
After the Virginia Festival of the book in March, I have no workshops planned until September. I’ll be at the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs, PA September 20-22, 2013. If you haven’t been to a MEN Fair before, consider going. They’re a lot of fun and a lot of useful information, all at a very reasonable price. Weekend tickets are $15 up until January 31. (Price at the gate: $35). There are workshops on renewable energy, small-scale agriculture, gardening, green building and more. There are vendors of books, tools and organic foods. You can book a room at the Seven Springs resort, or camp nearby. Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/fair/SevenSprings.aspx#ixzz2F3JVesVm
We just had a cold night of 17F, considerably colder than our previous coldest this year (22F). Several people remarked how cold this November has been. Perhaps even colder than any month last winter? I decided to find out.
November 2011 had a low of 22F on 11/12, 11/18 and 11/19. The highest low was 56F on 11/21. The average low was 35.3F. December 2011 had a lowpoint of 18F on 12/12, a warmest night at 60F on 12/7, and the average low was 29.2F. January 2012 had a low point of 9F on 1/25, a “warmest” night of 39F just two days later on 1/27, and an average night low of 22.5F. February 2012 had a coldest night (10F) on 2/13, a warmest night (49F) on 2/2, and an average low of 29.3F.
So how does this November compare? Our coldest night has been 17F on 11/29, our warmest night 44F on 11/19, with an average of 27.5F. So, November 2012 has had colder nights than Nov 2011 and Dec 2011, but not January 2012.
What about the daytime? Has it been chillier than usual? This November has had a max of 78F on 11/11, a coldest day on 11/27 (46F) and an average of 58.4F, not counting today. November 2011 had a 78F day too (11/14) and much warmer days, the lowest was 50F on 11/17 and 11/18. The average daytime high was 65.9F. Positively balmy! Dec 2011 had a high of 68F on 12/15 and a coldest day at 44F just two days later. The average daytime high was 55.2F. Colder than this November. January 2012 had a high point of 72F on 1/31, a coldest day of 34F on 1/21 and an average daytime temperature of 53F. Also colder than this November.
We record our daily max and min temperatures and rainfall, enabling us to compile the weather data from the past several years into some interesting graphs. Each year around this time we write up a report for the community about how our gardening year has gone, which crops were successful, which not. We also include an appendix about the weather that year and previous years. The appendix gets longer with each added year, so we shorten the reports from the oldest years, so as to give prominence to weather most people can remember. Here I’ll include just the past four years.
The Weather Appendix
As always, the weather changes –
Our 2012 earthquakes numbers 61-82 were recorded between January and July 31. No more aftershocks of the Aug 23 2011 big quake have been recorded since, although I felt two in August. It’s nice to have that piece of history behind us after a year of nervousness. Our last frost was on 4/24, a very patchy light frost. The previous frosts were 4/11-4/14. This fall we had a patchy frost on 10/13, but no serious one till 11/1. January was cold and dryish with freezing rain on 1/20. February was mild and wet, with one 5″ snowfall. March and April were warm. May was twice as wet as average (7.4″), and warm. We had four days of 90F or more from 5/25. June heated up, with temperatures of 99F on 6/20, and 105F on 6/29. Seven days of 92F or more. July was brutally hot, with 17 or 18 days at 95F or hotter, nine of them 100F or more. The hottest was 107F. Slightly more rain than normal. And of course, the impressive/oppressive humidity. August had “only” six days above 95F, September was milder and rainier, with 5.5″, and no major hurricanes for us. October was warm, with daytime temperatures of 70-86F until the last week (the Hurricane Sandy week). We were extremely lucky with that, only getting about 3″ of rain. In my memory, there were long drought periods when the need to irrigate was relentless, but the data don’t support this memory. Funny, that. We actually had 2-7.4″ every month and the longest dry spell was the first two weeks of April.
2011 was often too rainy. January 1st had a high of 62°F, then the month cooled, with several nights of 10°F, one at 4°F, and two snowfalls. February included 6 days with highs over 68°F, (80°F on 2/18), a dusting of snow, a few nights in the teens and a normal amount of rain (1.9”). March was wet with 6.7” rain (twice normal), 7 days at 70°F or more, 6 nights below 25°F. April had 7 very hot days (90°F or more), average rain, and a patchy last frost on 4/14. May was very wet (6.6”), and warm, ending with a string of days above 90°F. June was also wet (6.2”, including one deluge of 4.1”), hot at each end , two days at 100°F, and milder in the middle. July had a brutal two week drought at the end, and a string of 14 days (including 8/1-8/2) with temperatures above 95°F. The highest was 104°F. August continued with high temperatures, but only 7 days over 95°F. We got too much rain (7.7”), including Hurricane Irene, which gave us 2.8” but could have been so much worse. And there was the 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered a few miles from us on 8/23, and the 59 aftershocks registering 1.8 or higher between then and the last for the year on December 24 (mag 2.4) . November gave us a 17 day gap in aftershocks, up until the 5 in 48 hours 11/19-20. September brought another huge 7.7” rain, including Tropical Storm Lee. Temperatures were nice, although it was often hard to work with the soil getting saturated so often. October was pleasant, if still wet (5.5”), delaying harvest of our potatoes and rotting our winter squash. The first frosts came decisively at 25°F on 10/30 and 10/31. November had 3.9″ of rain, December 5.4″.
The winter of 2009-2010 was remarkable for heavy snowfalls. The lowest temperature of the winter was –5°F (1/30). There was a series of 22 Nor’easter storms December to March. The last frost was 5/9, long after the first days above 95°F (4/6 &4/7). 2010 had a brutally hot summer. The days above 95°F were 13 in June, 19 in July, 14 in August, 10 in September. Days above 100°F were 2, 11, 2, 2 for those months. The hottest day was 107°F on 7/24. No major hurricanes affected us, although Nicole gave us 2.5” rain 9/29. Statistically speaking, the rain was a normal amount, but when temperatures are so hot, much more evaporates. On 10/2 there was a magnitude 3.0 earthquake with an epicenter between Mechanicsville and Fredericksburg, and another at Ashland, magnitude 2.4 on 10/30. First frost was 10/23. November was mild, but the cold weather kicked in 12/4/10.
2009 started mild then got extremely cold in mid-January, with temperatures below –5°F. We had the first significant snowfall in a few years, and the pond froze over for the first time in at least 3 years. Last frost 4/18. We had average precipitation overall, but it was flood or drought, which isn’t good for the garden. We lost the new Ag Well pump and tank in the Tobacco Barn fire, and had difficulties with irrigation. The hottest day was 98°F. We had a heat wave in early June, but only eight days of 95°F or higher all year. In early November it rained for about four days straight. First frost was 10/18.
Feeling “back-endish” as we used to say in England about the lowering of energy farmers feel as the growing season slows down, I spent a bit of time in the cozy office this morning, reading the statistics on my blog. I’m only mildly embarrassed. It is rather chilly outside and I spent a chunk of time outdoors yesterday afternoon sorting potatoes. I reckon I’m due for some indoors time.
I was curious to see where in the world readers of my blog come from. 71 different countries so far. Naturally the biggest number of people looking at this website are here in the US: 2444 of those. And naturally enough, the other main English-speaking countries are next on the list: 156 in Canada, 79 in the UK, 50 in Australia, 37 in India. Indian readers just leaped from 28 a few days ago. Who knows why? If you’re one of them, please leave a comment on what sparked interest there.
There have so far been 18 readers in Kenya, 9 in Ukraine, 3 in the British Virgin Islands, 2 in Peru and one in each of 23 countries including Qatar, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Moldova and Estonia. I’m curious as to how those people found this site before anyone else in their country. Do tell. . .
Most fun was finding a link to my recent post on winter radish and planting garlic via a translation service that rendered it into Slovenian! Welcome, whoever you are in Slovenia!
Unsurprising to those who love Facebook is the fact that more people view my posts via my page on Facebook than any other way.
And yesterday the site got more visitors than ever before. It’s all a bit of a mystery why this should be. I look at the stats. Some weeks more people look at the site on weekends. Other weeks some random day like Thursday attracts readers.
OK, enough navel-gazing! I’ve got workshops to prepare for, and winter planning to do for our gardens. I’m probably speaking at an event in the Charlottesville, Virginia area in March. More on that soon.
We are hesitant to fully embrace the use of agricultural plastics because of decreasing world stocks of oil, increasing air pollution, global warming, and problems of how to dispose of plastics responsibly. But sometimes plastics are so useful they’re irresistible! So our policy is to use plastics if they offer a significant advantage; to make them last as long as possible; to find uses for the scrap plastics where possible, and to find somewhere to recycle the final mess. Drip tape is a good example: drip irrigation reduces water use and decreases foliar diseases compared with over-head irrigation; and it enables larger areas to be irrigated well with a given amount of water, which is increasingly important as droughts become more common. We buy the thickest drip tape, 15mil, so that it will last as long as possible (10 years?). We have various tricks to get the longest life out of our drip tape, which I might write about some other time. What’s on my mind at this time of year is pulling up the drip tape and storing it, which I guess quite a few other growers are doing right now too.
We use shuttles to store the tape, and garden carts as a base to hold the shuttles while winding and unwinding. Winter is a great time to make yourself a set of shuttles. Or you could cut a set of parts and make them up on rainy days in the spring.
At a Virginia Association of Biological Farmers field day at Glen Eco Farm some years ago, we saw a shuttle system with an A-frame shuttle holder, developed by Marlin Burkholder. Marlin’s system of raising beds, laying drip tape and plastic mulch is tractor based and involved some impressive tractor gymnastics on Marlin’s part. I got together later with another grower at the field day, Melissa Wender of Shannon Farm, to modify Marlin’s system for use without tractors. Here’s our original rough drawing of how to make a shuttle:
Our shuttles rotate on lengths of rebar resting on the top of a garden cart. The rebar is held in place on each side of the cart by two large spring clamps. Visegrips would work, if you have enough. Or you could make permanent wood or metal additions to the sides of your cart to hold the rebar. We have 6 carts, and they stray a lot, so we could never be sure of finding the cart with the axle set-up, so it’s easier for us to find 4 spring clamps each time.
Our shuttles are made from scrap white oak stretcher bars from our hammocks business. The dimensions are 1.25” x 0.75”, but I’m sure anything similar would work. We have the larger style of garden cart (Carts Vermont, Johnny’s have them). We found that a 28” height of shuttle was the tallest workable. Melissa has the smaller style of cart, and I think she decided to go with 24” shuttles. Here’s a parts list for one large shuttle:
1.5” x 1” lumber: 2 pieces 28” long
2 pieces 13 & 5 eighths inches
2 pieces 12” long
16 screws approx 1.5” long
Drill a hole in the center of each of the 28” lengths through the flat side, wide enough to easily fit your rebar axle. Screw the 12” pieces between the 28” pieces, about 5” in from the ends of the long pieces. Screw the other pieces across the shuttle offset from each other, a little above and below the axle holes. These cross-braces strengthen the shuttles and give a handy place to tuck the starting end of the drip tape. One shuttle this size can hold 400’ of tape, maybe more. We generally wrap two lengths at once onto one shuttle.
To wind up used drip tape from the field, first open the ends of the drip tape. Then bring your cart with a shuttle on the axle and line it up between two runs of drip tape. If there is any slope at all, it will be drier work if you are at the high end of the field and the drip tape is draining as you wrap it. Disconnect the drip tape from the supply pipe, and tug at the end of the tape nearest the cart. Sometimes it will just pull through any accumulated crop debris and weeds, sometimes it won’t. If it won’t, walk back down the line tugging the tape and looking for what is snagging it. Free it up and go back to the cart. If you have two people to work on each shuttle, two lines can be wrapped at once. Tuck the starting ends of the drip tape around the shuttle and under one of the cross-braces. Then steadily turn the shuttle end over end, wrapping the tape around the shuttle. If you’re rolling two lengths at once, obviously the two people will need to co-operate, and stop if one length gets snagged up. When you get to the final end of the drip tape, write the length on the tape with a white china marker (grease pencil) and tuck the loose end under a couple of rounds of wrapped tape. We also write the contents of the shuttle on the side with a permanent marker, eg “ 2 @ 150’ ”. We store our shuttles of drip tape in a barn, tied by rope thrown over a beam, as if storing food safe from bears when backpacking. Another shuttle balances the weight of the first. This keeps the drip tape fairly inaccessible to mice.
To reuse the drip tape next season, use the cart and the rebar axle again. Unrolling is much quicker than wrapping it up, especially if you have two lengths of drip tape on one shuttle. Two shuttles can be put on one axle side by side, and two people can walk out with two runs of drip tape each, one in each hand.
This week I did some research into grasshoppers, as we have have been losing lots of new seedlings (kale, spinach, beets and turnips), and the beds are leaping with little jumping critters. Definitely bigger than flea beetles, I think they are baby grasshoppers. usually we get them in mid-August, not the first part of September, but climate change is here, so things are not “as usual” any more.
I learned that we had inadvertently been providing ideal grasshopper habitat by two things we have been doing. Or rather, two things we have not been doing. Grasshoppers like tall unmowed grass, and yes, we have been very slack about mowing around the edges of the gardens this year.Next I read that if you want to keep grasshoppers away from your vegetables you could sow a small patch of grains nearby, but not too close. The light-bulb lit up! We use a lot of buckwheat and soy as summer cover crops in our raised beds and for one reason and another, some of them got over-mature and the buckwheat set seed. No doubt the grasshoppers were having a feeding frenzy there! We paid in other ways too – the self-sown buckwheat has come up in our fall crops, and been a challenge to remove before it swamps the crops. Next year, more timely mowing and tilling. (We have a mantra not to repeat the same mistake two years running.)
I read up about Nosema Locustae bait. It’s a parasite of grasshoppers that you can spray in the spring when there is a growing population of young grasshoppers. Some of them eat the bait and incubate the parasite, then other grasshoppers eat those ones, and the disease spreads. It’s an organic answer, and doesn’t give an instant result. Some people say it’s the following year after applying it, that you’ll see a diminished horde. Sounds worthwhile, to me.
Meanwhile, our main task this week has been replacing the plastic and doing major renovations to our 30′ x 96′ hoophouse (high tunnel). We scheduled this last week, but got too much rain and wind. It’s time to replace the plastic, and we also need to replace the baseboards and shore up the west wall, which has been leaning in for some time. The two layers of plastic came off fairly easily, but it’s been tough going since. All the screws and bolts are rusted up, of course.
In order to stabilize the framework, we decided to put a screw in each connector where the purlins join the bows. That’s 25 x 6! And to prop the west wall up, we got some steel tubing to make diagonal braces. Dim-wittedly, I bought connectors that only work on two pieces of tubing at right angles to each other, not on a diagonal. So I had to do some hasty shopping. We had hoped to finish before rain and before Tuesday, but I think we’ll be there longer than that. Every little thing that doesn’t go according to plan sets us back a bit more. I’ll tell you how it’s gone next weekend.
It’ll be a joy when it’s all done and cozy in there for the winter, and we have lots of salads and cooking greens. Can’t wait!
It can be hard to find out just how cold a temperature various vegetable plants can survive. Reading books written in different parts of the country can be confusing: “survives all winter” is one thing in the Pacific Northwest and another in Montana. So for some years I have been collecting data and exchanging information with my friend and neighbor Ken Bezilla at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Each winter I try to record what dies at what temperature. Below is my current list, which should be treated as a work in progress.
Your own experience with your soils, microclimates and rain levels may lead you to use different temperatures. If you have data from your garden, please leave a comment. Likewise if you have found particular varieties to be especially cold-tolerant, I’d love to learn more. Central Virginia isn’t the coldest spot in the US, but if I can grow something without rowcover, I’m happy to hear it!
Here’s our temperature list at which various crops die:
35°F (2°C): Basil.
32°F (0°C): Bush beans, cauliflower curds, corn, cowpeas, cucumbers, eggplant, limas, melons, okra, some Pak Choy, peanuts, peppers, potato vines, squash vines, sweet potato vines, tomatoes.
27°F (-3°C): Most cabbage, Sugarloaf chicory (takes only light frosts), radicchio.
25°F (-4°C): Broccoli heads, chervil, chicory roots for chicons, and hearts, probably Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), dill, endive (hardier than lettuce, Escarole more frost-hardy than Frisée), annual fennel, large leaves of lettuce (protected hearts and small plants will survive even colder temperatures), some mustards and oriental greens (Maruba Santoh, mizuna, most pak choy, Tokyo Bekana), onion scallions, radicchio. Also white mustard cover crop.
22°F (-6°C): Arugula, Tatsoi. (both may survive colder than this.) Possibly Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), Maruba Santoh, Mizuna, Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana with rowcover.
20°F (-7°C): Some beets, cabbage heads (the insides may still be good even if the outer leaves are damaged), celeriac, celtuce (stem lettuce), some corn salad, perhaps fennel, some unprotected lettuce – some OK to 16°F (-16 °C), some mustards/oriental greens (Tendergreen, Tyfon Holland greens), radishes, turnips with mulch to protect them, (Noir d’Hiver is the most cold-tolerant variety).
17°F (-8°C): Barley (cover crop)
15°F (-9.5°C): Some beets (Albina Verduna, Lutz Winterkeeper), beet leaves, broccoli leaves, young cabbage, celery (Ventura) with rowcover (some inner leaves may survive at lower than this), cilantro, endive, fava beans (Aquadulce Claudia), garlic tops may be damaged but not killed, Russian kales, kohlrabi, perhaps Komatsuna, some covered lettuce, especially small and medium-sized plants (Marvel of FourSeasons, Rouge d’Hiver, Winter Density), curly leaf parsley, flat leaf parsley, oriental winter radish with mulch for protection (including daikon), large leaves of broad leaf sorrel, turnip leaves, winter cress.
12°F (-11°C): Some cabbage (January King, Savoy types), carrots (Danvers, Oxheart), multi-colored chard, most collards, some fava beans (not the best flavored ones), garlic tops if fairly large, most fall or summer varieties of leeks (Lincoln, King Richard), most covered lettuce (Freckles, Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Parris Island, Tango) , large tops of potato onions, Senposai, some turnips (Purple Top).
10°F (-12°C): Beets with rowcover, Purple Sprouting broccoli for spring harvest, Brussels sprouts, chard (green chard is hardier than multi-colored types), mature cabbage, some collards (Morris Heading), Belle Isle upland cress, some endive (Perfect, President), young stalks of Bronze fennel, perhaps Komatsuna, some leeks (American Flag), Oriental winter radish, (including daikon), rutabagas, (if mulched), tops of shallots, large leaves of savoyed spinach (more hardy than flat leafed varieties), tatsoi, Yukina Savoy. Also oats cover crop.
5°F (-15°C): Garlic tops if still small, some kale (Winterbor, Westland Winter), some leeks (Bulgarian Giant, Laura, Tadorna), some bulb onions (Walla Walla), potato onions and other multiplier onions, smaller leaves of savoyed spinach and broad leaf sorrel.
0°F (-18°C): Chives, some collards (Blue Max, Winner), corn salad, garlic, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, Vates kale (although some leaves may be too damaged to use), Even’ Star Ice-Bred Smooth Leaf kale, a few leeks (Alaska, Durabel); some onion scallions (Evergreen Winter Hardy White, White Lisbon), parsnips, salad burnet, salsify, some spinach (Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia, Tyee). Also small-seeded cover crop fava beans.
Even Colder: Overwintering varieties of cauliflower are hardy down to -5°F (-19°C).
Here’s the list of what we plan to do in our garden this month. We’re in central Virginia. Our average first frost is October 14
During the month:
Lettuce Factory: Sow lettuce every 5 to 3 days. Switch to cold-tolerant varieties after 20th. Transplant sowings #22, 23, 24, 25, 26.Set out 120 plants every 6-5 days (1/3 bed). Store seed in fridge.
Sortpotatoes 2 weeks after storing. Ventilate root cellar every few nights when coolest. Gradually get temperature down to 65°F by the end of the month. Try not to have temperature reversals.
String weave tomatoes once a week until plants reach top of posts.
Onions: move from basement to walk-in cooler as soon as space allows.
Monitor for grasshoppers on brassicas, carrots, beets.
Prevent nutsedge tuber formation by weekly cultivation in Aug and Sept.
Seed saving: Roma tomatoes –select plants, based on yield and septoria resistance. Mark & harvest seeds (usually 1 bucket each time) on days before bulk harvests. Don’t use diseased fruit or fruit from plants in decline. Keep 4-5 days till dead ripe, scoop seeds on Food Processing shift days. Ferment at 70°F for 3 days. Stir 3x/day. Wash, dry. Eg: Harvest Mon, scoop Friday, wash and dry Monday. Save 4 buckets tomatoes for 130gm seed.
Crimson Sweet Watermelon Seed: Overmature 10 days, harvest, scoop seeds, ferment 4 days at 70°F. Stir 3x/day. Wash, dry. Eg: Harvest and scoop Tuesday, wash Saturday. 1 melon = 22 g seed. 22 melons = 1 lb seed.
Perennials: Make new strawberry beds: Compost, till, raise, drip tape, newspaper and hay mulch. Chip or sawdust paths. One new patch follows corn #3, other follows part of the Green Fallow area. Plantnew strawberries using plugs, rooted potted runners or plants carefully thinned from last year’s beds. Water strawberry plants for next year’s crop, weed, and give compost. Mow aisles for fall raspberries, grapes. Remove blueberry roof netting if not done in July. Mow, weed, water in general. Grapes:visit, log progress, tie in, once in early August, once in late August.
Cover crops:Sow spring oats and soy for winter-killed cover in empty beds. (Not rye – may head up before winter.) Can sow buckwheat, soy, sorghum sudan, clovers; possibly winter barley, Miami peas; or Lana woolypod vetch at 2-3 oz /100 sq. ft. with oats
Sowbeans #6 (8/3, 15 days after #5), cukes#5 (slicing, by 8/5, latest) & zucchini and summer squash #5 (by 8/9), winter & fall radishes, turnips (by 8/15 if possible, by 9/15 latest), Swiss chard, 6 beds kale (2 each on 8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24 until enough is established. Use rowcover against fleabeetles), beets (can sow dry or presoak 12 hours; sow 1/2″-1″ deep, tamp soil, keep damp, use shadecloth?). Sow all the fall carrots if not sown in late July & flame weed. Sow fall brassicas. Consider sowing sunflowers in kale beds to encourage grasshopper-predator birds.
Put spinach seeds in freezer now, two weeks before sowing, to improve germination .
Till between rows of corn #5, undersow with soy.
Transplant lettuce #22, 23. Finish transplanting all brassicas. Hoe and wheel-hoe the brassica patch, one section each morning. Re-cover or take covers from earlier plantings.
Watersweet potatoes when vines fully extended, (critical period for water).
Potato Onions, third sorting 8/5-10: check through, snip tops, separate clusters, sort by size, and weigh or estimate yield. Save 6 racks (150#) large (2-2½”), 5 racks (100#) medium (1½-2”), 4 racks (80#) small (<1½”) per 360 row foot bed wanted. Sell spare.
Plan and map next year’s main garden so best cover crops can be planted. Order winter cover crop seed.
Mid Aug: DON’T sow carrots or kale w/o cover (grasshoppers).
Till or wheel-hoe between broccoli rows (uncover), and undersow with mammoth red clover, white clover and crimson clover mix. Till between rows of corn #6 and undersow with oats & soy
Transplant lettuce #24
Sowkale #2, 3 (2 beds each time), fall radishes #2. Thin rutabagas to 10”, by 4 weeks-old.
Order seeds if needed: winter lettuce, early cabbage, other salads, kale, spinach, beets, onions, peppers, hoophouse tomatoes, winter hoophouse greens.
Late Aug: Sow kale as needed, scallions #5.
Finish fall carrot sowing if unable to get it done by early August – Flame weed.
Really finish transplanting brassicas, including kale from #1 beds. Transplant lettuce #25, 26
1st Fall disking: Disk corn #1 (future garlic), maybe form beds, sow buckwheat, soy (and Sorghum Sudan?) Disk corn #2 patch, sow oats & soy (future spring broccoli & cabbage). Or sow corn #1&2 in oats & soy and make garlic beds in October.
Disk old spring broccoli (may be already in summer cover crops), in time to sow rye and vetch 9/7.
August Harvests: Asian melons, asparagus beans, beans, cantaloupes, carrots, celery, chard, corn, cow peas, crabapples, cukes, edamame, eggplant, grapes (early or late Aug), komatsuna, lettuce, limas, maruba santoh, okra, pak choy, peppers, hot peppers, fall raspberries, Romas, senposai, summer squash, Tokyo bekana, tomatoes, turnip thinnings, watermelons, winter squash (acorn & cha cha ), yukina savoy, zucchini.
This new book (published by the University of Minnesota Press) offers a real-life organic vegetable farmer’s memoir. Normally, I look for inspiring reading during the winter, to refresh myself for the next farming season. This book, however, is a perfect mid-summer revival aid for farmers and gardeners flagging in the heat. It gives us perspective on our troubles as we read of Atina’s and husband Martin’s struggles with wild weather (hailstones the size of B potatoes!), continuous hard work, and land lost to developers and threatened by a pipeline. The immediacy of their powerful and tender story and Atina’s decision to stand up and become a leader for what she believes in gives us inspiration. We can feel validation of our work as organic vegetable growers as we read that 1¼ acres of kale can produce 182,000 servings, and if our marketing is as good as the Diffleys’, we can sell them all within 42 miles of the farm! Organic farming sequesters 15-28% more carbon than industrial farming, with a 33% reduction in fossil fuel use.
Atina and Martin owned and operated Gardens of Eagan (one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest) from 1973-2007, so you can be sure Atina knows farming! Starting as a confused teenager (as many of us do), Atina grew into a strong, committed passionate leader of the organic farming movement. Her descriptions of the beauty, deep satisfaction, multiple stresses and sheer exhaustion of farming ring so true. She talks about the meaning in the daily life of organic farmers, of investing in the soil life, creating balance, seeing the potential of each field, and bringing that out. “Dirt is just soil that’s out of place. Soil has structure. Dirt does not.”
Early in the book, you might wonder if she’ll ever make it as a farmer, but her determination and perseverance, and the quality of attention she brings to what happens on the farm ensure her success, and our gripping reading. The Diffley family farm is lost to developers, who carve and churn up the soil even while Atina, Martin, their two children and their crew rush to harvest their crops. They decide to piece together a farm from patches of land they buy and rent, until they find the perfect farm to buy. Being itinerant farmers is no easy choice, and requires exceptional organizational skills.
One of their organizational strengths comes from using Holistic Management tools learned at a workshop. She and Martin each write “quality of life” statements, answering the question “If we lived perfect lives, what would it look like?” Each winter they quit farming for a week, party and relax in clean clothes, with clean fingernails. Even talking about the weather is an “illicit act” during the Quitting Week. Then they state their goals for the year and recommit. When they farm again it is a conscious choice. Decisions have to fit their quality of life statements.
Atina says: “I have the same nightmare every winter. If I think about everything it takes to pull off a successful season, it seems impossible . . . [but] if we have a plan in place and I stay in the present, then the work is manageable. . . I just have to remember not to look too far ahead.” Exactly the same is true for me, maybe for you too.
One year they decide to simplify their crops and cut a deal where each picks a crop to drop. Goodbye to potatoes, onions, winter squash, leeks. Sort of. Atina admits that she and Martin then each sneak some winter squash in, unable to completely let go of the experience they have gained in growing this crop.
This amazing book also has gems of practical information embedded in the story, and they’re worth noting. Techniques include the use of farm micro-climates (the first place the purslane germinates is the best spot for early tomatoes and melons); moving flats of aphid-infested seedlings out into the center of a field of vetch for the day, to have the insects in the vetch feast on the aphids; accepting up to 50% defoliation of broccoli plants between the six-leaf stage and heading, because it will not decrease the yield; reducing the chance of aphid-vectored diseases in a squash planting by sowing a “toothbrush strip” of wheat around the perimeter (when the aphids chew on the wheat it cleans the viruses from their mouthparts, so the squash stay virus-free).
The farm grows in size and complexity each year, with a bigger work crew and more refrigerated trucks. They also develop a massive supportive community of consumers and produce retailers, which is to prove its worth as the story develops. When the Diffleys find their new farm, they can finally set the washing-line poles in concrete. But a big cloud comes over the perfect horizon – Koch Industries claim eminent domain to route their pipeline through their farm. Atina fights this, not just for their farm, but for other organic farmers too, establishing a protocol for safeguards to be taken if organic farm soil and wildlife habitat is disrupted.
The normal legal process for a farm trying to prevent a pipeline across their land involves proposing other people’s farms as possible alternative routes. This process divides us and causes each of us to need to compete with each other and fight individually. Atina Diffley created an Organic Appendix to the Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan (AIMP) that is legally required when farmland is dsirupted. Atina and her legal team got the pipeline company to accept that (in the words of Dr Deborah Allen) “The losses to an organic vegetable farm from diminished soil quality are of a different character and order of magnitude than on a conventional crop farm.” Healthy soil is necessary for a successful organic farm. By creating this Organic Appendix and getting the pipeline company to accept it, Atina made something other organic farms could also use to prevent eminent domain devastation on their farms. It could also encourage other farms to transition to certified organic and benefit from the Appendix. Far from falling for the individual solution and fighting only for her farm, while further jeopardizing other farms, Atina found a way to unite with other organic farmers in fighting the assault.
This mixture of heart-breaking and encouraging is what makes the book so engaging. Atina tells us: “Every winter I do recover from the season’s exhaustion, but if I push too far, I won’t. As we age, personal balance will require more consistent time for renewal.” In keeping with her wisdom, after 35 years of farming, Atina and Martin retired from active farming to become educators and consultants about organic farming. See their Organic Farming Works website for more info.
One of my tasks this week has been sowing fall greens. I start sowing in the third or fourth week of June, and set aside time once a week for about six weeks, to sow more and weed and thin the older seedlings. The first two weeks are the most intense, and if I’m successful with those, I have a lot less work in the weeks following. If something goes wrong, I resow whatever didn’t come up, or died.
For fall greens, we don’t sow in flats but directly in a nursery bed, covered with rowcover on hoops to keep the harlequin bugs and flea beetles off. It’s less work, easier to keep them all watered, and they are not cramped in small cells: they make good roots and are more tolerant of hot conditions.
This year we are growing twelve different varieties of broccoli and eleven of cabbage! We hope to compare them and next year just grow the best few varieties of each crop. We are growing to feed the hundred members of Twin Oaks Community, not to sell to a wholesaler, so we want a long broccoli season, and sideshoots are as important to us as main heads. We want cabbage that stores, as well as cabbage that is ready quickly. Our broccoli patch is part of the Novic trials, so we hope others will learn from our plants too.
To organize all these different sowings I have a spreadsheet and a map of the nursery beds. I prepare the bed, make the furrows, write a plastic label for each variety, measure the rows, set the labels in place, then water the furrows very thoroughly before sowing the seeds and covering them with (dry)soil from the sides of the furrows. This is a good way to help seeds germinate during hot dry weather: the seeds sit in the mud, where they have enough water to germinate and get up above ground. It’s much more successful than watering after sowing, when you sprinkle water on a dry surface and hope in goes down deep enough and doesn’t evaporate. And, contrary to some myths, brassica seeds can germinate very well at high temperatures. They just need the water right there where the seeds are.
We’ll transplant our seedlings when they are 3-4 weeks old, watering first, then
digging them up and setting the bare-root transplants out in their rows. We’re planning 2000 ft of broccoli, 1300 ft of cabbage, 540 ft of senposai (a delicious tender leaf green with some frost tolerance), 360 ft of kohlrabi, and 90 ft each of Chinese cabbage and Yukina Savoy (a cold-tolerant giant tatsoi). That’s plenty of plants to rehouse in a short time and keep alive and happy.
This year we are trying two new things. One is Proteknet in place of rowcover. It’s a fine mesh nylon fabric that keeps bugs out, but lets more light in than most spun-bonded rowcovers, and has much better airflow. We think we’ll have healthier plants. Also, we can see them through the mesh, so we know they’ve germinated and can spot problems early. One year we checked under our rowcover and found fleabeetles had got in and had a busy week, chomping along the rows. We got the ProtekNet from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland, suppliers of good tools with the personal recommendations from the company.
The second new thing we’re trying is drip irrigation in the field. We use drip for some of our crops, but previously we used overhead sprinklers for the fall greens. We’ve had trouble in recent years with the extremely hot weather in late July and early August when we transplant. We think setting out the drip irrigation and running the water while we plant will help the plants get over their transplant shock. And we’ll be able to give them an hour of water in the middle of each day for the first week, to help them face this brutal weather we’re having. And the best bit is: they can get their mid-day watering without me walking up and down dragging a hose. I can be indoors blogging!
Here’s this month’s task list, which you can adapt for your own vegetable plot. We’re in central Virginia. It’s 100F just so you know! October 14 is our average first frost date.
During the month:
Mow clovers, and sorghum sudan cover crop areas.
Lettuce Factory: Sow heat-resistant lettuces, every 5 days, (sowing #20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25), using shade-cloth & burlap to cool the soil after and before sowing. Soil temp must be below 80°F – use Jericho if very hot, with ice on seed rows, or sow in plastic flat in fridge. Transplant #16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 this month under shadecloth – 120 heads (1/3 bed) /planting. Store seed in fridge.
String weave tomatoes once a week with binder twine.
Seed selection: Romas: Select for high early yield and healthy foliage. Mark with ribbons on T-posts (bows on good side). Select 100 from 260 plants. Remove off-types, don’t select from plants within 150’ of other tomatoes.
Perennials: Water blueberries, take up & store roof netting. Mow, weed & water all perennials.
Cover crops: can sow buckwheat, soy and sorghum sudan during July. Also white clover if damp enough.
Mow spring potato tops if they have not died by 7/1. Spread compost for fall brassicas following potatoes. Disk in compost ASAP, or if disking impossible, till.
Sowbrassicas for fall, resow earlier brassicas if needed. Use rowcovers, water and your best powers of memory.
Sowcarrots #8 (if needed), corn #5. Last date for limas is 7/6.
Asparagus: First week of July (or sooner) is a good time for weeding, composting and tucking mulch.
Transplant lettuce #16, 17.
Hill up peanuts at 12” tall, and mulch them.
Clear any remaining spring carrots, for best flavor. Stop harvesting broccoli when it gets bitter.
Potato Onions – July 10-15 Second sorting: check through curing bulbs, starting with the largest. Eat any > 2”, or refrigerate and plan to plant them in September. Use Worksheet and Log Book.
Strawberries –July 6-8: If propagating from our plants, pot up 600-900 for each planting, pencil-sized crowns, 2 or 3 leaves, 4” petioles. Use current favorite method. Remember irrigation. 580 for 1 bed in East Garden, 900 for 2 beds in Central Garden, 800 for 2 beds in West Garden. Finish renovating strawberries by mid-July, restore 20″ paths.
Plan, inventory and order winter cover crops. Make cover crop maps.
Summer Disking: Get spring broccoli & cabbage area bush-hogged, disked, sown in summer covers – same time as second disking for corn #6. Disk some of the Green Fallow area for new strawberries, sow buckwheat & soy.
Harvest spring potatoes 2 weeks after tops have died; air the root cellar and warm to 70°F. Store potatoes in the early morning. Ventilate the cellar every night or two, especially if it’s wet in there.