Summer hoophouse slideshow, starting sweet potato slips, Growing for Market March issue

I’m back from the West Virginia Small Farms Conference, where I gave three presentations, including this new one, The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer:

I ran out of handouts, and I know some people want to view the slideshow again, to catch the bits they missed. Before next Tuesday, I’ll upload The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter as well. Maybe even later today, if I get my more urgent tasks done first.


Yesterday I brought our seed sweet potatoes, which we’d selected and set aside at harvest-time, up out of the basement and into the greenhouse, to start growing them.  I wrote about growing sweet potato slips previously. The first step was to see if they float or sink. We save extra seed roots so that we can discard the less promising and still have plenty to grow. Sweet potatoes that float will grow better and yield higher. We had saved 100 roots for a goal of 320 slips. After removing a few rotten roots and discarding the sinkers, next I tested for white streaks, called sweet potato chimeras. I cut a small piece off the distal end (the string root end), not the stem end. The idea is to throw out roots with white streaks bigger than a pencil lead. I only found a few. It’s a genetic mutation that can occur at any time. Because sweet potato slips are clones of the mother root, if you propagate from chimeras you get more chimeras. I succeeded in my goal of having 80 good roots from each batch of 100. I set the cut roots in shallow bins in our germinating chamber to heal the cut surfaces and warm the roots ready for sprouting. In two weeks I’ll “plant” them in flats of compost and return them to the germinating chamber to start growing the slips. They’ll look like this:

Sweet potato slips growing in our germination chamber. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Sweet potato slips growing in our germination chamber.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Meanwhile the March issue of Growing for Market magazine arrived, and I found a fascinating article about a new method of growing sweet potato slips, from Anthony Boutard and Caroline Boutard Hunt. They write first about “discovering” sweet potatoes and then deciding to grow them, ordering 20 varieties from the Sand Hill Preservation CenterTheir propagation method involves cutting each slip into one-node pieces and growing a plant from each short length. This reduces the number of roots to set, which saves propagation space. The single-node cuttings are set in 50-cell plug flats, trimmed of their leaves and grown in the greenhouse for only two weeks before planting out in the field. This reduces the time caring for the young plants by a lot, which once again saves greenhouse space. They say “The resulting crop is better quality because all of the resulting tubers grow from a single node instead of several, concentrating the production. Better yet, there is absolutely no drawback to the technique, at least in our experience to date.” And then, this lovely sentence “Certainly no reason to keep it within the family.” I love the way small farmers share information and tips!

Amusingly, they refer to the method I have written about as “traditional sweet potato slip production”! When I was starting out propagating our own, I followed advice to use cold frames, which clearly doesn’t work in Virginia in March and April. I couldn’t figure how those methods could produce enough slips in time unless a huge number of roots were used to start them. I found out that growers were actually using electrically heated beds. I tried a soil heating cable but it was nothing like warm enough. I searched for more advice and found the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group the previous year had an Organic Farmer Network, who were exchanging tips. Someone, I think Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms, answered others’ questions about growing sweet potato slips with something like  “I just grow them in flats.” That was a lightbulb moment for me – I knew how to grow things in flats! It didn’t seem like it was the traditional method at that time, but it certainly worked, so I adopted it and spread the word.


GFM-March2015-cover-300pxFor this issue of Growing for Market, I wrote about West Indian Gherkins as a trouble-free alternative to regular pickling cucumbers. We’re growing them in our hoophouse this spring, on a trellis net.

Andrew Meffert continues his series on greenhouse nightshade crops for colder climates. This month he provides part two of his detailed work on greenhouse peppers: Pruning and training for maximum production all season.

Lynn Byczynski gives some leads on finding and enjoying farming podcasts, while we are sowing seeds, potting up or otherwise engaged in manual not-mentally-demanding work.

Gretel Adams offers information about weed control in cut flower fields, and of course, it’s equally useful for vegetable fields! Crop planning to rotate crops with different growth habits and timing; neighboring up crops that will have similar cultivation requirements; using the most suitable tractor cultivation equipment; co-ordinating spacing of crops to fit the different equipment (including hands!) to be used for sowing and cultivating. It all adds up to efficient weed control, and maximizing yields from the space.

The lead article is by Lynn Byczynski, and provides a warning about a shortage of hybrid kale seed for the second year running. This has been caused by an increased demand for kale (yay!), a widespread case of black rot disease (boo!) and the fact that the biennial nature of brassica seed production means it takes two years to ramp up seed production.

There are some great new OP kales out there. We have our eyes on Olympic kale, available from High Mowing Seeds.

Olympic kale. Credit High Mowing Seeds
Olympic kale.
Credit High Mowing Seeds

Peterson Pawpaws Success, more cold weather, sturdy seedlings

ffac5b6bec40f9b6194c44df0fe3126d_originalphoto-1024x768A few weeks ago I wrote about Neal Peterson’s Kickstarter campaign to raise money to pay for trademarks for the six varieties of pawpaw he has been breeding during the last 38 years. This will enable him to export the plants to nurseries in japan and Europe, which are enthusiastic to stock his varieties. The great news is that the Kickstarter Campaign has been successful, with less than 22 hours to go. He’d still accept more donations, naturally, to help defray costs. The website has lots of interesting information, including his video, an NPR video report, the history of this project, some photos of pawpaws from his varieties, press reviews, and an explanation of why trademarks are necessary and important for exports like this. Congratulations Neal! And all the best with the enterprise!


Snow Yucca. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Snow Yucca.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

Yes, more cold weather! We had been planning to have garden shifts four times a week, with up to ten people working for three hours each shift. None of this has happened since it started to snow on Monday 16 February. The garden has been inaccessible, under snow and ice. That’s 180 hours of work we haven’t done, and the prospect is for losing another 180 and even then the soil will be too wet to till.

Oh well! This gives us time to sharpen tools, repair them and cold frame lids and wooden flats. On that subject, Cindy Conner has written about using wood flats on her blog Homeplace Earth. She writes about different sizes of wood flat. Her choice would be 8 x 18¾” x 3-4″. We make two sizes: 12 x 24 x 3″ for seedlings and 12 x 24 x 4″ for spotted out seedlings, as I said in my reply to the comment by Jeff. I prefer cedar or pine, rather than oak (which we have lots of). This is mostly about the weight, but also that oak gets splintery, and I’ve had too many hand injuries while enthusiastically spotting seedlings. After we decided No More Oak Flats we made a new batch in cedar. We made them 15 x 24 x 4″ and those are now heavier than I care to lift once they are full of compost and plants. They (along with other flats) make great sweet potato storage boxes, though!

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

All the plants in our hoophpouse and our greenhouse have survived the horrific weather (down to -12F one night!). We have been covering the plants at night with thick rowcover, which we have only needed to do on occasional super-cold nights in the past few years. We have also started using an electric heater in the greenhouse, with the thermostat set to 45F, to fend off the worst. Our efforts have been worthwhile, and we have a hoophouse full of food (very fortunate considering that we can’t get at the spinach, leeks and kale in the outdoor garden). We also have very sturdy seedlings in the greenhouse. The tomato plants (for the hoophouse in mid-March) are in the greenhouse on a heating mat under a poly tent. They look very good indeed. Here’s a picture from a previous year.

This time next week? Tomato seedlings potted up in the greenhouse.  Credit Kathryn Simmons
This time next week? Tomato seedlings potted up in the greenhouse.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes

We won't starve or get scurvy! Plenty of food in the hoophouse!  Credit Twin Oaks Community
We won’t starve or get scurvy! Plenty of food in the hoophouse!
Credit Twin Oaks Community

This morning we have about 6 inches of snow. Knowing it was coming, we stocked the kitchen with extra potatoes from the root cellar (for those who don’t know, it’s next to impossible to pull a loaded garden cart through loose snow). We also braved the begiinning of the snow yesterday afternoon to harvest some spinach outdoors. We did try digging leeks, but the ground was frozen too deep. If the weather forecast holds true, we won’t see the soil for a week, as not much thawing is predicted. But the hoophouse will feed us. One winter the outdoor crops were inaccessible due to snow, ice or freezing weather, for a whole month, and we were able to feed 100 people in salads and cooking greens from the hoophouse. That wasn’t typical central Virginia weather. But typical isn’t typical any more.

Young blueberry bush in the snow. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Young blueberry bush in the snow.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

Our hoop house is a 30 x 96 ft Clearspan Gothic Cold Frame type from Farmtek. We made ours with bows four feet apart for better strength against ice and snow build up, and the gothic arch shape helps shed snow, as does the rigidity provided by having two layers of plastic and an air bubble. A couple of years ago when we were changing the plastic we added some reinforcement props to the west wall, which was leaning in from the force of winds. On Sunday night I was very glad of that, because we had very high gusty winds, and I lay in bed trying to ignore the sound of the wind, imaging we would lose our hoophouse. Imagine my relief to wake up to see it still in place!

We did have a big pine tree come down near our dining hall, but it missed the big propane tanks and didn’t even block the road by the Tofu Factory. We didn’t lose electric power either, so we have been lucky in several ways. Now I am watching the forecast for Thursday night. At one point the forecast was for a low of -9F, which is unthinkably low! Even the Vates kale won’t survive that – unless we have snow covering, which we still might! Currently the forecast has “warmed” to -2F. We always subtract 5F from the Louisa forecast, because it is often that much colder here.


Meanwhile, here are some warming photos from Hawai’i. Following my article in Growing for Market about dealing with nematodes in the hoophouse, I heard from Gerry Ross at Kupa’a Farms on Maui, at  2000 feet above sea level. (Take a look at their beautiful website, and feel the sunshine!) Root Knot Nematodes are a warm weather problem – they are inactive if the soil is colder than 50F. We had never seen their damage until a few years ago. In warmer climates they may have to deal with them constantly. On Maui the soil temperatures never go below 59F! Their high tunnel is for insect exclusion, not warmer temperatures, so it is covered with insect mesh, not polyethylene.

Nematode-susceptible food crops. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a farms
Nematode-susceptible food crops.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a farms

Gerry wrote that he is trying a hoophouse crop rotation: “We started with cukes, tomatoes, zukes, and peppers for the hotter summer weather. We then moved to sunn hemp-Piper sudan cover crop for about 45 days, and then to a winter rotation of brassicas with peas and cukes. We will mow and disc the brassicas down in about a month when it starts to get on the warm side and harvest is over and plant directly into the debris with peppers, tomatoes and cukes/zukes. So far we are really pleased with the results…..the brassicas are really clean with no cabbage moth damage. This is just one way to manage the RKN I suspect but so far so good.”

Nematode -fighting cover crops. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a Farms
Nematode -fighting cover crops.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a Farms

Outdoors, for field crops, Gerry said:

” we usually do 2-4 month cover crop like sunn hemp and Piper sudan grass and then follow that with our most susceptible crops (potatoes, carrots, beans, beets). When those come out we follow with brassicas, lettuce, onions. We usually grow row crops for 8 months in a field and then do a cover crop. The sunn hemp we use is called “Tropic Sunn” and the USDA on Molokai has developed it and bred the alkaloids out of it. Not sure it is widely available but try http://oahurcd.org/ and see if they will mail it to you. We also use vetch as a cover but it can get whacked with RKN so we co-plant with a scaffolding nonhost like the Piper sudan or oats.”

Brassicas in nematode-fighting hoophouse crop rotation. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a Farms
Brassicas in nematode-fighting hoophouse crop rotation.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a Farms

“Buried in some of the research by the sugar cane companies was a comment that molasses seems to drive down populations of RKN in the soil. We found application of local molasses to be difficult because it is so thick and viscous and hard to make spreadable BUT a local farming store did get us some dried molasses which is used as a horse supplement in the Mainland and applying that to the soil seemed to really help. That might be something you could try.

We have tried lots of compost (food-waste based as manure is not easily available here) and have created beds with loads of earthworms but the RKN persists.
We have found that some lima beans perform well even with heavy RKN infestation esp the Florida speckled butterbeans (huge purple speckled beans on wild vines that live for three years here!) and Fordhook that seem to just carry on regardless of RKN infestation. Fava beans on the other hand suffer mightily and do not produce at all. 
Thank you for the list of remedies and resistant cultivars. We have used the NemaQ and it seems to work if we run through our drip lines or water it in in diluted form in our raised beds. We might try grafted tomatoes too because one of the available rootstocks is RKN resistant. “

So, here I sit with “good garden planning weather” and fight my desire to just hibernate till it warms up!
Field manual Vabf unnamed

Busy week: Asian Greens slideshow, Growing for Market, packing for PASA Conference

Here’s the updated version of the Producing Asian Greens presentation I gave last weekend at the Virginia Biofarming Conference for those who want to watch again, or those who missed it:

I thoroughly enjoyed the VBF conference. I think about 60 people came to that workshop, and 80 to my other presentation, Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests. I enjoyed catching up with old friends and meeting new fellow vegetable growers.

Now, almost without a break, I am packing for the PASA Conference.

There I will also do two workshops, Growing Great Garlic and Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables, and some book signing. Hope to meet some of you there – do come and introduce yourself as one of my blog readers!


Transplanting bare-root spinach. Drawing by Jessie Doyle
Transplanting bare-root spinach.
Drawing by Jessie Doyle

The February issue of Growing for Market magazine has just come out. It includes my article about bare-root transplants, where I hope to encourage more people to try this technique. Bare-root transplants are plants dug up from a nursery seedbed outdoors or in a hoophouse and transplanted elsewhere. Plants grown this way have a lot of space to grow big sturdy roots, which to some extent drought-proofs them, compared to those in plug flats, which need watering multiple times a day in sunny weather. This can save valuable greenhouse bench space for more delicate plants. Starts grown in outdoor seedbeds are already acclimated to outdoor weather. We grow bare-root transplants in the ground in our hoophouse during the winter, to plant outdoors in spring. In spring and summer we grow transplants in an outdoor seed-bed to plant out with more space elsewhere later. In the fall we sow crops in an outdoor seed-bed to move into our hoophouse later, when the summer crops are over, and the conditions inside have cooled down a bit. Additionally, bare-root transplants have more flexibility about exactly when you move them out to their field space, because the open ground is not going to run out of nutrients if you need to wait an extra week. So – have a go! And let me know how it goes.

GFM-February2015-web-cover-300pxRichard Wiswall (of the Organic Farmers Business Handbook fame) has written an article on how to make your CSA more profitable. Lynn Byczynski has analyzed the current state of farmers’ markets across the US. Andrew Mefford has an a article about high-yielding greenhouse peppers, especially good for those in cold climates. Lynn Byczynski has an article about a newly fashionable crop, celtuce, or stem lettuce. Anyone who has grown Cracoviensis has probably noticed how it can bolt without getting bitter. Stems from varieties such as this are served as a vegetable in their own right. Gretel Adams has a useful article on the top cut flowers for supermarket sales and florists. Something for everyone!

Cracoviensis lettuce, or "red celtuce" Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Cracoviensis lettuce, or “red celtuce”
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

2015 Events Calendar and pawpaws

virginia-biological-farming-conference-2015-richmond

Virginia Biological Farming Conference  January 29-31 2015 in Richmond, Virginia.  Conference registration covers your choice of the 25 workshops on Friday and Saturday; Friday dinner and Saturday lunch; access to the trade show, where you can handle the tools you’re considering buying, and ask questions of the vendors.

Cole Planet Junior Push Seeder
Cole Planet Junior Push Seeder

Speaking of tools, I hope to sell our (long-unused) Cole Planet Junior push seeder at the conference. They are $760 new. Ours is in working order with all the seed plates and an attached bag to keep them in. I’ll sell it for $350 cash or check. Should you ever need them, spare parts are readily available, for instance from Woodward Crossings. It’s not a museum piece or lawn ornament, it’s a working piece of equipment.

At the VBF Conference, there are 3 pre-conference workshops (4 to 7 hours each) on Thursday, for $60-$75: Essential Tools & Techniques for the Small Scale Organic Vegetable Growers by Jean-Martin Fortier of The Market Gardener fame, Urban Farming Intensive with Cashawn Myer & Tenisio Seanima, and Edible Landscaping with Michael Judd and Ira Wallace (of Southern Exposure fame).

I’m giving two workshops. Friday at 3pm: Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests – How to plan sowing dates for continuous supplies of popular summer crops, such as beans, squash, cucumbers, edamame and sweet corn, as well as year round lettuce. Using these planning strategies can help avoid gluts and shortages  and on Saturday at 10.30 am, Producing Asian Greens – Detailed information for market and home growers. Many varieties of tasty, nutritious greens grow quickly and bring fast returns. This session covers production of Asian greens outdoors and in the hoophouse. It includes tips on variety selection of over twenty types of Asian greens; timing of plantings; pest and disease management; fertility; weed management and harvesting. I’ll also be signing and selling books during Saturday lunchtime.

Bring a dish for the Friday potluck picnic at lunchtime, seeds for the seed swap, a notebook and two pens, a bag to collect handouts and so on, and if you play music, bring an instrument and some songs for the jam on Friday night.


 

logoThen the next weekend, I’m at the  Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Farming for a Future Conference February 4-7, 2015, at State College, PA. There are extra pre-conference sessions on Tuesday 3rd and Wednesday 4th, then the main conference on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I am speaking on Growing Great Garlic (Saturday 3.10 pm) and also on Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables (Friday 8.30 am). I will also be doing book-signing and sales.


 

small-farm-center_bannerFebruary 26-28, 2015 I will be speaking at the West Virginia Small Farms Conference in Charleston, WV. My workshops will be Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests on Saturday 2/28 at 9.30 am and two new ones on Friday 2/27, Hoophouse Summer Crops at 9.30 am and Hoophouse Winter Crops at 10.30 am. They are currently listed as High Tunnel workshops. Some say that researchers and Extension agents call them High Tunnels and growers call them Hoophouses, but whatever you call them, high tunnels and hoophouses are the same thing.


 

MENFairLogoMy next booking is at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina, April 11-12, 2015. I haven’t firmed up my workshops and book signings yet, but I might do the hoophouse workshops again (from WVSFC)


HHF Save the Date_2015The next booking after that that I have is at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello September 11-12, 2015. Too soon to name the topic. Maybe Crop Rotations and Asian Greens. And I expect to be doing book signings at the Monticello Bookshop.

 


 

As far as future events I hope to be at, there are the Mother Earth News Fairs in Seven Springs, PA September 18-20 2015 and Topeka, KS October 24-25 2015.


Now then, about pawpaws. Neal Peterson has worked for years developing superior flavored pawpaw varieties, and he wants to go global! That is, he wants to secure contracts to sell plants of his varieties worldwide. To do this, he has to have trademarked varieties. So he has set up a Peterson Pawpaws Kickstarter campaign to raise at least $20,000 by . If you’ve tasted pawpaws and if you support fruit diversity, consider if you can back up your support with some hard cash.

You can watch his video here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1750376414/peterson-pawpaws-go-global?ref=card

photo-1024x768

 

Preparing for spring, sowing seeds, planning

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings Photo Kathryn Simmons
A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Last Saturday, January 17, I made our first sowings in the greenhouse. I switched on the germinator cabinet made from a broken fridge, and the old incandescent light-bulb came back to life. Before I run out of incandescent light-bulbs, I’ll have to make a germination cabinet with a different form of heating. But I’m shelving that problem for now. On Saturday I sowed some early cabbage, the first lettuce, some scallions and some Red Marble mini-onions. I’ve been checking twice a day to make sure the light-bulb is still working and the temperature in the germination chamber is still OK. Nothing has needed watering. Today one of the cabbage varieties is emerging, so this afternoon I will clear some space for the flat in the greenhouse near the window. Ah! Signs of spring! Even if I did manufacture them, so to speak!

Our system is to screen compost in September, to fill the cinder-block beds in the greenhouse. Then we pop lettuce transplants at 10″ spacing into the beds. Those lettuces are big now, and we have started harvesting leaves from them for salad mixes. On Saturday, I pulled a few lettuces and scooped out some compost to fill the flats for my sowings.

As we need more space in the greenhouse, we’ll pull more of the lettuce. This system works well time-wise – lettuce is still only growing slowly, and we can benefit from this supply right now. It also works well in providing us with a large quantity of mellow screened compost for seed flats, that is indoors and not frozen. The tiny critters have had time to colonize the compost, so it is full of life. (Some of that life will be big white grubs, but I’ll kill those.)

Overwintered Vates kale. Photo credit Twin Oaks Community
Overwintered Vates kale.
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

Meanwhile, we’re spending more time planning than doing production work. We are still harvesting from the hoophouse, making new sowings there (mostly spinach, some to plant in the hoophouse, some to plant outdoors), and harvesting the remaining outdoor crops. We had to rest the kale as we were in danger of over-harvesting it. We had some very cold weather, including one night at 3F.

The planning this week has included finishing up our Outdoor Planting Schedule (Field Planting Schedule) and doing the complex assigning of crops to our permanent raised beds. We managed to find a home for everything we want to grow, partly by employing some tricks. We will transplant our okra in the middle of beds of existing crops, one spinach and one kale. The okra starts will grow up tall and we’ll finish harvesting the kale and spinach, hoe off the debris, add some more compost and mulch around the okra plants. We’re going to have to finish off one bed of kale sooner than we might like to make way for the following crop, but by then we should have had plenty of kale (three spring beds added to 7 fall-planted beds).

Next week we’ll spread compost on the future spinach, turnips and the first couple of carrot beds. Then we’ll be ready to till those beds when the soil and weather suggest it’s time.

A bed of young transplanted lettuce. Credit Wren Vile
A bed of young transplanted lettuce.
Credit Wren Vile

While writing an article for Growing for Market magazine I came across the website on Vegetable Transplant Production from the University of Florida Vegetable horticulture Program. It has a collection of great articles developed by Charles Vavrina in the late nineties. Plants still grow the same way! Check out the site for lots of useful tips about growing and using transplants. This is a good time of year to make plans to do something in a different way, to avoid repeating last year’s less successful episodes!

My reading material has included the Jan/Feb issue of the Organic Broadcaster. This issue includes exciting news about a new open pollinated bi-color sweet corn variety Who Gets Kissed which has been developed for organic growing by co-operation between farmers, breeders and researchers. It is available from High Mowing Seeds. Next year Abundant Bloomsdale spinach, a variety bred with collaboration from eight organic farms, will be released by the Organic Seed Alliance. I’m looking forward to trying that.

The Organic Broadcaster includes an article about pesticide drift by Harriet Behar, arguing for compensation for organic farmers whose land is polluted by pesticides. This topic is a hot one for Joanna and Eric Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm. They are writing a three part blog post about experiencing pesticide drift. So far, the crop testing they had done has been paid by taxpayers, and the perpetrators seem to be getting off with just a reprimand. No fine to balance the costs of testing. The injustices stack up.

Other articles in the Broadcaster include one about John Jeavons’ GrowBiointensive method, another advising offering free-choice minerals to livestock, rather than a commercial mix, as this can cause animals to over-consume the mix to try to get the one mineral they are short of, and one on wholistic poultry welfare. There’s a book review of Farming with Native Beneficial Insects from the Xerces Society. I’m adding this to my wish list. There’s more we could be doing to encourage more beneficial insects in our garden. There’s an article recommending grain farmers add small grains to their crop rotations, and there’s information from a potato variety trial on Midwest organic farms. There’s another about “cottage food laws” which allow some home-made food products to be sold to the public, and more about value-added products of different types. And there’s advice from some “second career” farmers to others choosing farming after retiring from their other jobs. And one about how good record-keeping will pay fro itself when it’s time to prepare your taxes.

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds. Credit Kathryn Simmons
A honeybee on deadnettle weeds.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Public speaking, Garden Calendars, Winter-kill temperatures

GFM-January2015-cover-300pxThe January issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, along with my article about giving talks. I want to encourage more gardeners and farmers to “grasp the nettle” and offer to give a workshop on a topic you know about. I speak at about 9 or 10 events each year now, but I used to be completely terrified of public speaking. So, if I can do it, I think you can too! It’s a way of sharing useful information to help improve the quality and quantity of fresh healthy food in the world. It’s a part of a co-operative model of spreading information rather than hording it. It can be a way of “singing for your supper”, as conference speakers usually get free registration to the conference and accommodation. Sometimes traveling expenses are covered, sometimes meals, sometimes there’s an honorarium. Start small and local and offer a farm tour, perhaps after joining a local group like CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training). At Twin Oaks, we have been part of the Piedmont CRAFT group of central Virginia. Each month in the main season, there is a gathering at one of the involved farms, with a tour and a discussion topic. Todd Niemeier of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville was the starting energy for that group too.

The January Growing for Market also contains a helpful article about using hot water seed treatments to reduce seed-borne diseases (by Chris Blanchard). The idea of soaking seeds in hot water for half an hour or even more, and then drying them out to sow later can be daunting. But with this step-by-step guide and encouraging reports from different growers, it all becomes manageable.

Andrew Mefferd has branched out from his detailed series on hoophouse tomato growing, to talk about growing eggplant in hoophouses or greenhouses. Very useful for people in climates colder than ours here. And, of course, there are tips that are helpful to people who thought they had already read everything about growing eggplants!

Kyle and Frances Koehn write about the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), a federally assisted Farm to School Program suited to small-scale growers. FFVP supplies elementary schools with fresh produce as snacks (so you don’t have to grow enough to supply a whole lunch every day). For the authors, this has been a great fit with winter leafy greens grown in their NRCS funded high tunnel. Search for the FFVP program in your state. Virginia, for example, covers FFVP in their Farm to School Program Resource Guide.

Lynn Byczynski writes about growing heirloom mums, and Valley Oak Tools advertises the debut of their Electric Cub crop cultivating tractors.


Flats of seedlings in our greenhouse. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Flats of seedlings in our greenhouse.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

And, here we are with another new year, thinking about the next growing season. I recently read a post in Margaret Roach’s  A Way to Garden. She has gathered regional garden calendars. I found the one from West Virginia Extension Service particularly helpful and attractively set out. This put my in mind to give the link to our Twin Oaks Garden Calendar for all vegetable growers in the mid Atlantic. Especially as one of my local farmer friends asked me about it recently. And let’s not forget that on Saturday 1/17 we are scheduled to start some cabbage, lettuce and mini-onions!

Red marble mini-onions. Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds
Red Marble mini-onions.
Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

Part of my attention at this time of year goes to Winter-kill temperatures for different crops. We’ve had a couple of unusually-cold-for-this-early-in-winter nights already.  What did I learn?

At 14F, Cylindra beets were OK, as were Tribute and Kaitlin cabbages. The remaining broccoli shoots became rubbery.

At 10F, some of the Tribute and Kaitlin cabbage heads were damaged; Some carrot tops were killed, but the roots were OK; Senposai was damaged, but not killed; the winter radish (daikon, China Rose and Shunkyo Semi-long) were OK; the celery is over; most of the chard leaves were killed, and the medium-sized non-headed oats cover crop took quite a hit. Outredgeous lettuce is not as cold-tolerant as I thought. Olga was damaged, but Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, Pirat, Red Cross, Sylvesta and Winter marvel were fine under hoops and thick rowcover.

Before it got any colder, we harvested the last of the Melissa savoy cabbage and the bed of Deadon cabbage (we could have covered it if we’d really wanted to preserve it for longer, but we were ready for some fresh cabbage – it does make the stored cabbage look rather wan.

Lettuce bed. Credit Wren Vile
Lettuce bed. Salad Bowl and Outredgeous in early spring.
Credit Wren Vile

Book Review “Potato: a history of the propitious esculent” John Reader, Yale University Press 2008

9780300141092I came upon this book by chance. The Economist said “The spud now has the biography it deserves.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and appreciated the way John Reader explores the whole picture – history, farming, politics, science, nutrition, greed, deceit, compassion, generosity, climate change, global food supplies, population growth, land ownership, colonialism and hopes for the future. His style is clear and engaging. Unfortunately the book is out of print (it deserves a reprint!), so try your library or look for a used copy.

This review is long. I used the “Read More” button for the first time. There are also more photos in the second part. While writing this I remembered that Carol Deppe has good things to say about potatoes. Read a post I wrote about her perspective.

This book divides into three parts: the first tells of the potato’s origins in South America; the second the impact of importing the potato to Europe, and the third, how the potato spread throughout the world, finishing with a chapter on China, currently the world’s largest producer and largest consumer of potatoes. Measured in tons per country, not girth. NASA plans to supply astronauts one day, on the three-year trip to Mars with various “home-grown” crops. Potatoes will be the star of the garden, using the astronaut-exhaled carbon dioxide to grow, and providing a fresh supply of oxygen as well as all-they-care-to-eat potatoes.

Back in the Andes, where potato ancestors grow wild, at least 400 varieties are cultivated. They divide into three distinct groups, for growing at different altitudes: 3000-3500 metres, 3500-4000 metres and above 4000 metres. The International Potato Center (CIP), which has headquarters in Lima, is an internationally-funded scientific research organization aiming to increase food security and reduce poverty in the developing world. Their Peruvian station preserves potato genetics.

Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting. Credit Kati Folger
Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting.
Credit Kati Folger

Although potatoes tend to be denigrated as “pure starch’ and “empty calories” in developed country, these opinions are far from the scientific fact. The ratio of carbohydrate to protein in potatoes ensures that anyone eating enough potatoes to fulfil their energy needs will automatically get enough protein too. In addition there are significant amounts of various minerals and vitamins. For example, 100 gm of potato provides half the daily requirement of vitamin C. Potato protein is of high biological value (easily absorbed and retained), second only to that in eggs. The starch provides a steady stream of energy, healthier than the rush from sugars and fats. And compared to many food crops, the percentage of the total biomass that can be eaten is very high, at around 75%. Compare with grains at 33% of the mature plant total. An efficient use of land, water and labor. If needed, people can maintain an active working life for months, eating 2-3 kilos of potatoes a day, with a little fat, and nothing else.

Potatoes have been bred to adapt to many different climates. Today, potatoes are grown in at least 149 countries, from latitude 65°N to 50°S, and from sea level to higher than 4000 metres. Only wheat, maize and rice are globally more important food crops. No, not soy.

Potatoes have changed the course of history and evidence of potatoes has changed the interpretation of history. Around 10,000 years ago, in many parts of the world, agriculture began, perhaps following a period of global warming, glacial melting and sea level rise, itself followed by ten centuries of dry, even arid conditions. We don’t know exactly. We do know that the rise of agriculture went along with development of civilizations fuelled by development and growth of a staple food. Potatoes were that food for Andean civilizations. Contrary to the long-held belief that the Clovis culture of 11,200 years ago was the oldest in the Americas (people having migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia), the Monte Verde site in Chile has been dated at about 12,500 years old. The artifacts include none of the Clovis spear points, but mastodon bones with cut marks, clay-lined hearths, remains of food plants including potatoes. This site is older than any site in North America, suggesting these people did not reach the Americas by crossing the Bering bridge, and rapidly moving a long way south. The boggy conditions at Monte Verde preserved soft organic matter, not merely bones and stones. Assumptions that the residents were nomadic hunters were disproven. How often have early archeological digs suggested a “Man the Hunter” life, because evidence of agriculture has rotted away?

Newly emerging potato plant in the spring Credit Kathryn Simmons
Newly emerging potato plant in the spring
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Tiwanaku, the first state to be based on raising potatoes, lies in present day Bolivia. The site is 3845 metres above sea level. In its heyday, between 800 AD and 1200 AD, it was a powerful empire. Llama herds provided meat, transportation and fuel. The author is careful to avoid the Man the Hunter mindset. Plant foods enabled the people to settle and thrive. Potatoes, quinoa and kañihua were important crops. Agriculture was undertaken judiciously, using ridged fields to keep the land frost-free. (The ditches held water which moderated the soil temperature on cold nights by as much as 6-9 Celsius degrees.)

It isn’t known exactly when potatoes were first introduced to Europe, perhaps 1588 in Belgium, perhaps 1586 in England, certainly by the early 1600s. A poster from 1664 recommended planting potatoes to feed the family, or to sell. However, not all market farmers jumped at the chance. Some thought radishes or turnips a more worthwhile crop. It took a couple of centuries before the potato became Europe’s most widely consumed, cheap, nutritious food. This wasn’t simple prejudice about new foods – the first potatoes to reach Europe were not adapted to the growing conditions, where the day length varies much more than in the equatorial Andes. The plants produced lots of stems and leaves all summer, then struggled to grow tubers in the falling temperatures of late September. Word spread of disappointing yields. But the Spaniards in the Canary Islands had been developing adapted varieties, and this lead to better results. Continue reading “Book Review “Potato: a history of the propitious esculent” John Reader, Yale University Press 2008”

Books, blogs, conferences and seed-starting

Sustainable Market Farming on display. Credit Ken Bezilla
Sustainable Market Farming on display.
Credit Ken Bezilla

Sales of my book peaked during the holiday season (as also happened last December), so I conclude quite a few growers got a copy as a gift. I hope you are all happy with it! I also noticed that my reviews of Craig LeHoullier’s Epic Tomatoes and Jean-Martin Fortier’s Market Gardener have had a lot of visits, so many gardeners and growers will be curled up with a book, making plans for the next growing season.

I’ve also been catching up on reading, although if I had more time, I could give in to that urge even more! Last week I wrote a post for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, on Winter Vegetables in Your Hoop House and I firmed up a booking to present 3 workshops at the West Virginia Small Farms Conference February 26-28. On the Friday I’ll be presenting two new workshops back-to-back: winter hoophouse growing and summer hoophouse growing. Of course, I have mentioned these topics in other workshops I’ve presented. The winter crops feature in Cold Hardy Winter Vegetables (click the link to watch the slideshow). I won’t be presenting that workshop at Charleston (the WVSFC site) despite what I said a couple of weeks ago!

The summer crops featured in a presentation I gave at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group ConferencePractical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms.” This year it’s January 14-17, 2015, in Mobile, Alabama. I wish I was going, but I decided it was too far away this year. I intend to go in 2016, when I hope it will be nearer Virginia. My summer hoophouse crops workshop for SSAWG was way back in 2009, before I really got to grips with slideshows! And now I have a lot more photos than I did then! And at WVSFC my Saturday workshop will be the ever-popular Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests.

A bed of overwintered leeks Photo credit Twin Oaks Community
A bed of overwintered leeks
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

Meanwhile, this week in the garden, I have been taking my turn with the other crew members to harvest for our 100 community members. It takes about 3 hours each day to haul in enough fresh veggies for the masses. Outdoors we have kale, spinach, collards, leeks, cabbage and still some senposai, and the last dregs of celery and lettuce. The chard and the scallions have given up for now. Not dead, just resting. In the hoophouse we are harvesting salad mix, which includes some combination of baby lettuce mix, spinach, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bulls Blood beets, Tokyo bekana, Bright Lights chard and arugula). Each harvester gets to customize the mix as they like, so we don’t get the same thing every day.

We are also harvesting pak choy and Napa Chinese cabbage as well as baby turnips and turnip greens, radishes, tatsoi, Yukina savoy, and spinach for cooking. We are leaving the kale and the lettuce heads for later, when we have fewer other crops available (or if we are under snow). the hoophouse is a delightful place to work!

Yukina Savoy Credit Ethan Hirsh
Yukina Savoy
Credit Ethan Hirsh

Pretty soon we will be dusting off our heat mat, plugging in the germination chambers, tipping the spiders out of the pots and flats and starting our first seedlings of 2015. We usually start with some early cabbage, lettuce, and mini-onions Red Marble in mid January, and follow up with early tomatoes (to plant in the hoophouse) the week after that. At that time we also start kale and spinach, although nowadays we start those in the ground in the hoophouse and move them out to the garden as bare-root transplants.

Why we grow foods organically

Ice on the pond. Credit Ezra Freeman
Ice on the pond.
Credit Ezra Freeman
Hoophouse greens in November. Credit Ethan Hirsh
Hoophouse greens in November.
Credit Ethan Hirsh

Here we have a second day of cold grey drizzle. The day length is as short as it gets. I have little enthusiasm for working outdoors. But this is a good time of year to remind myself why I value growing good food in a sustainable way. I want people to live healthy happy lives, and I want us to leave a planet worth inheriting.

I’ve just been reading Can organic crops compete with industrial agriculture? by Sarah Yang from Media Relations at UC Berkeley. There is a common belief that while organic farming is better in terms of doing less damage to the environment than chemical agriculture, it cannot ever feed the world. Sarah Yang says “A systematic overview of more than 100 studies comparing organic and conventional farming finds that the crop yields of organic agriculture are higher than previously thought.” And the productivity gap could be shrunk from 19.2% to an 8-9% difference in direct yield by sustainable organic farmers adopting or improving on certain practices.

The full study, entitled Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap, by , Claire Kremen was published on 12/10/14 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Global food needs will likely increase enormously in the next 50 years, and even if we were prepared to accept hugely increased environmental degradation from chemical farming, the fact remains that chemical fertilizers cannot increase yields by much above current levels.

The researchers did a meta-analysis of 115 studies (three times more than any previously published study) comparing organic and currently-conventional agriculture in 38 countries and 52 crops over a period of 35 years. Yields from organic farms are on average 19.2% lower, although this may be an over-estimate. The various studies incorporated here show a very wide range. In some developing countries with few resources, adopting good sustainability practices increased yields 180% over the previous systems in place.

I doubt the recorded yields take into account the land lost by erosion, or that used for mining minerals for fertilizers or growing corn for bio-diesel for the extensive farm machinery used in currently-conventional farming.

Shifting away from environmentally damaging agriculture would be a good step. Increasing the land farmed organically from the current 0.9% and “Broad adoption of sustainable agricultural methods is unlikely, however, unless such methods are similarly productive and/or cost-effective, such that they improve livelihoods.”

How can organic farmers increase yields? The report suggests big yield improvements can come from giving more attention to crop rotations and multi-cropping (growing several crops together on the same field), two basic tenets of organic farming. (We can always aim to do these things better!) Other suggestions include increasing ecological diversity and harnessing ecological interactions by intercropping or cover-cropping with legumes to gain their nitrogen-fixing benefits.

More investment in research into organic management systems and breeding varieties (especially of cereals) suited to organic growing could (can!) reduce or in some cases eliminate the gap. Organic farming has been historically underfunded compared to agriculture which uses lots of products from Agribusiness, and crop varieties designed to work well with those synthetic inputs.

The senior author of the study, Claire Kremen, makes these important points: “It’s important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet. Eradicating world hunger requires increasing the access to food, not simply the production. Also, increasing the proportion of agriculture that uses sustainable, organic methods of farming is not a choice, it’s a necessity. We simply can’t continue to produce food far into the future without taking care of our soils, water and biodiversity.”


Another interesting piece of recent farming news is the 12/2/14 report by Ken Olson from ACES Cover crops can sequester soil organic carbon. This 12 year study at the University of Illinois showed that cover crops do not increase crop yields, but do increase the amount of sequestered carbon in the soil. This benefit accrues in no-till, chisel-plowed and moldboard plow methods. the no-till system including cover crops, sequestered the most carbon. Ken Olson said that soil organic carbon losses caused by tillage, water erosion, soil disturbance, aeration, nitrogen injection and mineralization were less than  soil organic carbon gained from cover-crops.

The complete study Long-Term Effects of Cover Crops on Crop Yields, Soil Organic Carbon Stocks and Sequestration can be read here.

A cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover. Credit Kathryn Simmons
A cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover.
Credit Kathryn Simmons