Permaculture questioned, Growing for Market, Mother Earth News blogpost, Longhorn tick.

I’ve long had some misgivings about the almost religious fervor of some permaculturists, while at the same time appreciating their seriousness about sustainable land use. (In fact I have written for Permaculture North America, and I have friends who are Permaculturists.) My first impressions of Permaculture were that it was a combination of common sense farming practices gussied up with new labels, other ideas that seemed to me very impractical, and ideas that might work fine in the tropics but not so well in the rest of the world. But it seemed rude to say so publicly. Like picking a fight with allies when there are so many more important campaigns. And more recently I have met some gardeners and even farmers who apply the Permaculture ideas that work in their context, without becoming evangelical about it. I would love to read a practical book written by someone farming commercially, explaining how they apply some of the Permaculture ideas, and make a living.

Curtis Stone (author of The Urban Farmer) has given all this consideration and has written an interesting, thoughtful article in his blog From the Field Friday.

It’s titled What Permaculture got Wrong – Dispelling Five Common Myths

Curtis describes how many people new to farming are a bit starry-eyed, and are (as he was) inspired by Permaculture ideas. In his experience, many of the promises of Permaculture don’t pan out, especially if you try to make them work on a commercial scale as opposed to a hobby, when it doesn’t matter how long a method takes, or how much money it costs.

He has identified five slogans of Permaculture he believes should disappear. He wants to save farmers from burning out while holding these unrealistic tenets. At the same time, he is not disrespecting any individual Permaculture teachers or students, authors or farmers. He just wants everyone to have realistic expectations and for commercial growers to use viable methods.

Permaculture aims to keep the topsoil in place, along with all its biodiversity, and grow food, following patterns in nature. This is a great approach. The problems come with some of the specific prescriptions. Curtis Stone labels five problematic cultural memes The Self-Sustaining Farm; The Lazy Gardener; Mulch Everything; Swale Everything; and No Pests!

The Self-Sustaining Farm

The Forest Garden can work for someone with enough land, providing food for just a few people. There are fruits and nuts, some perennial vegetables, and annual vegetables between the trees. But in order for a food system to feed lots of people, we invented agriculture (which is not natural) to dependably produce quantities of food in an efficient (affordable) way. Most vegetables are annuals, not perennials, and that where the work is, and the bulk of our food. A lot of food can be produced efficiently from a relatively small area of land using annual crops. A Forest Garden is not going to feed the world, and it’s unfair to new farmers to tell them it will. It’s also untrue to suggest that forest, orchard and vineyard crops require almost no work once they are established. Growing food for lots of people is hard work, even when you apply smart methods.

The Lazy Gardener

This idea comes from Bill Mollison, suggesting you can plant crops and ignore them, and get good harvests. Planting potatoes by covering them with mulch rather than soil is one suggestion. Most of these “Lazy Gardener” ideas are not workable on a commercial scale. You can ignore weeds and use “lazy” methods if you are not earning your living from farming, or expecting to feed many people. It’s a lifestyle choice, not a career.

Mulch Everything

Straw mulch is very popular with some Permaculturists. It is used in thick layers to smother weeds. It also adds organic matter to the soil. Straw is the stems of small grains. It’s not bio-regional where I live, or where most of us live. If you don’t see fields of wheat, barley, oats, rye in your area, straw would have to be shipped in. It won’t be cheap. It’ll be more expensive if it’s organic. Curtis Stone points out that it is not really sustainable on a commercial scale to cover all the soil with straw. It also doesn’t work well for fast turn-over crops, where you want to plant a follow-on crop (to get most use of your land). Plus, it keeps the soil cool, which is not what you need for warm-season crops. While it can work for home gardeners to push aside mulch to plant two squash plants, it’s not practical for a 200 foot row of squash. (I always enjoyed Ruth Stout’s little books, but I wondered how she could afford all the straw.)

Swale Everything

Swales are shallow ditches running along the contours, to catch and hold water – a lovely idea to conserve water resources. Constructing these on a farm scale is time-consuming. Navigating swales while growing rows or beds of annual crops is not very practical. Not all soils or all crops benefit from water retention. Curtis Stone claims he has heard of permaculture consultants putting in swales which led to too much water retention and then landslides! Nowadays Key-line plowing has made water-retention far more practical. But we shouldn’t all install water retention everywhere. The need will depend on the soil, the climate and the crop.

No Pests!

This slogan I have also taken issue with, myself. It’s the mistaken belief that if you garden or farm well, you won’t have any pests. It’s a “Blame the Victim” thing – if you have pests, you must be doing something wrong. I’m all for planting flowers to attract beneficial insects, and encouraging bees, good bugs and birds. But pests and diseases do still happen to good people! It’s important to work to prevent and avoid pests and diseases – but still, keep on scouting! You can’t safely assume you won’t get pests.

Curtis says that for him the oddest irony is the people in Permaculture who critique other farmers as if one problem is the root cause of all that goes wrong, while themselves believing that a particular permaculture idea applies always and everywhere, rather than being dependent on the wider context. This he calls “a monoculture of thinking”. Truly there is no one sustainable solution for all farming situations. It’s easier to have simple beliefs, but it doesn’t work. Every permaculture method is not going to work on every farm. We need to stay adaptable and flexible in our thinking, and respect and look for diversity in our approach.


The June/July issue of Growing for Market magazine is out. The lead article, by Carolina Lees, is for farmers who are venturing into hiring employees. How to benefit from the help, absorb their enthusiasm, and also reduce confusion of crops, tools, harvest specs? How to balance teaching and doing? How to balance the desire for competence and success with compassion for learners? How to change from an idiosyncratic, spur of the moment decision-making to something that’s easier for others to predict and understand? As Carolina Lees says:

“You can get away with a lot less training if you can make the task easier to learn in the first place.”

Her suggestions include reducing the number of different varieties, labelling all beds clearly, having clear standards and measurements, having only one kind of watering wand and timer, only a few sizes and types of harvest container, having clear places where information is written and stored, using checklists, so workers can be more independent.

Jesse Frost writes about making effective use of social media to increase farm sales. You Tube and email might do better than Facebook. Paying to advertise on Facebook can be more effective than merely posting something. And remember that people want a personal connection, not a hard sell.

Jenny Quiner writes about her urban farmstand’s struggle with changing county regulations. This will be useful to anyone in a similar situation.

Anne and Eric Nordell, well-known long-established horse-powered vegetable farmers from Pennsylvania, have been re-thinking plant spacings, after surveying seven other teamsters’ cropping methods. They compare the plant densities used by horse farmers with tow common tractor-farming spacings and two intensive bed densities. Food for thought.

Ellen Polishuk has interviewed Joanna Letz of Bluma Flower Farm for this issue.


A misty November morning in the hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

I have a post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog: 20 Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

If you have been wondering whether a hoophouse (high tunnel) would be worthwhile, this list of twenty reasons to have one can help you decide. The benefits include more and better crops, extended seasons, food self-reliance and a very pleasant work environment.


Longhorn tick.
Photo West Virginia State Department of Agriculture

Don’t think of this as ending with bad news, think of it as saving your health. There is a new tick. The Longhorn Tick has now been found in West Virginia and Virginia, as well as New Jersey.

The longhorn tick is small and difficult to detect.  It is known to carry several diseases that can affect humans, as well as livestock, including some diseases that are not prevalent in the United States, but have affected people in Asia.

This species was first identified by the Animal and Plant Inspection Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Jersey in November 2017. The West Virginia State Department of Agriculture has confirmed the presence of the tick in West Virginia. The longhorn ticks were identified by samples collected from two separate farms in Hardy County WV, both of which are near the Virginia border.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed the presence of the tick in Warren County in northern Virginia (on horses), and in Albemarle County on a calf. A list of common ticks found in Virginia can be found here.

 

 

Alliums for June: planting leeks, harvesting garlic and bulb onions

Dibbling holes for planting leeks.
Photo Wren Vile

This month is a big harvest time for alliums, and it’s also leek planting time in Virginia.

Transplanting leeks

We do this job in early June. I have written about leek planting in 2015 and in 2014 (from flats), and from a nursery seedbed in 2013 . Initially we liked the nursery seedbed method of growing transplants because it freed up space in our greenhouse and coldframes for the crops that really needed protection from the cold, which leeks really don’t. But leek seedlings are skinny, and easily lost to weeds, which we had a lot of in some beds. While planning to really clean up our act with the weed seed-banks in the beds (and plan to use only the cleanest bed for our leek nursery), we tried sowing in flats, and that’s the method we now use. We put the flats directly in the coldframes – we still save the greenhouse space. We found we got better seedling survival in the flats, so we didn’t need to plant as many as we did with the old method. We were able to cut back to 50% of what we had planted. Also the seedlings grew faster and we have been able to transplant 2-3 weeks earlier than with our outdoor seedbed method, from the same sowing dates.

Leek seedlings in flats in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also learned that weeding leeks is really, really important, and that it can be worthwhile to side-dress leeks part-way through their very long growing season. We made the mistake one year of letting weeds get big before we pulled them up (it was a wet year, not conducive to successful hoeing). We got miserable leeks that year, not just from the smothering effect of the weeds, but we now think that the weeds removed a lot of the soil fertility. We decided to plant fewer leeks and focus on taking better care of them! That has paid off.

Garlic harvest underway.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

Allium harvests in June

We are still happily harvesting scallions (see Alliums for May)

Our June allium harvests have generally occurred in this order:

5/31–6/14 hardneck garlic,

6/10–6/25 Spring-planted potato onions. By “spring”, I mean Jan-late Feb here.

6/11–6/18 Softneck garlic

6/15–6/30 bulb onions. See the SESE Onion Growing Guide for more info:

“When most of the tops have fallen over, pull onions, cure in partial shade for 2-3 weeks until necks have thoroughly dried. Clip tops to within 1″ of the bulb. Breaking over the tops by hand to accelerate harvest harms the keeping quality of some varieties and helps the keeping quality of other varieties.”

Elephant garlic will also be ready in June, but we stopped growing it when so much winter-killed that we harvested less than we’d planted! Elephant garlic is botanically a leek (A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum).

The small Cipollini bulbs (aka cocktail onions, boiling onions, pickling onions) may also mature this month. The larger ones can be used as fresh bunching onions. All may be cured. Some of those store well (Red Marble for instance). Others such as the flat Gold Coin do not at our latitude, as the necks don’t dry tight, so those should be used soon or pickled. Cipollini naturally have more sugar than most onions, which makes them ideal for caramelizing in butter or oil or roasting whole.

Hanging garlic in netting to cure.
Photo Nina Gentle

Harvesting garlic

As I noted last month, hot weather above 91°F (33°C) ends bulb growth and starts the drying down process. I wrote Garlic Harvest step by Step and Drying and Curing Garlic Step by Step here in 2016, along with some ponderings about whether a ground floor shed or an upstairs barn offers the better airflow, and whether better airflow is worth hauling all the garlic upstairs and down again. We didn’t come to a conclusion, but we didn’t find time to build our new barn. So once again, we are hauling the garlic upstairs to cure and down again after it’s trimmed and sorted next month.

Hopefully you will have removed any mulch when you got the scape-appearing signal, and the soil will have had a chance to dry to a workable level. We were doing quite well until we got 3.5″ of rain in one day. Now it’s all much wetter than ideal.

Hang your garlic to cure for 3-6 weeks or even longer, with fans if the humidity is high. Don’t set the fans too close to the garlic, your goal is to improve the air flow, not blast the bulbs and shrivel them up. I’ll come back to the question of how to tell when the garlic is cured and what to do then next month. If your garlic is ahead of ours, see my book Sustainable Market Farming, and know that the key is dry necks.

Garlic bulb cut horizontally to check maturity (good now or soon).
Photo Wren Vile

Signs of garlic maturity

If you live in a cooler climate than us, you might be puzzling over when to harvest your garlic. Margaret Roach in the Hudson Valley, New York, has a great article on determining garlic maturity on her blog A Way to Garden. Harvest there happens 7–8 weeks after ours. Margaret has a good collection of articles on growing, harvesting and curing garlic.

Watch the color of your garlic patch for a general “fading” and also count how many fully green inner leaves there are on a dozen random sample plants. Green leaves represent intact “wrappers” on the bulb, and having at least 4 will help your bulbs store well.  Six is better, five is enough, if your garlic doesn’t have to travel to distant markets. If you wait too long, the wrappers will rot in the soil.

Another sign of maturity that we use with our hardneck garlic is to dig a few sample bulbs, and cut them in half horizontally. If there are small air spaces open between the remains of the stem and the cloves, the bulbs are ready. If the cloves have not even differentiated, and you are viewing a single mass of garlic, you are too early by quite a bit. Test once a week. If your cloves are already springing apart from each other, you are late. Your delicious garlic will not store for long. You might need to mince and freeze it in ice cube trays, if you want to preserve some for a while.

Softneck garlic

We grow Polish White. Softneck garlics tend to store for longer than hardnecks, so we always save ours till we’ve eaten the hardneck garlic. The big reason we don’t grow only or mostly softneck garlic is that the bulbs have lots of tiny cloves in the center, and these are tedious to peel, when you are cooking for a hundred. According to Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, most hardnecks store 4-6 months, although Music and Chesnok Red can keep 7 months or more in central Virginia. Softnecks such as Italian Softneck, Inchelium Red and Silverskins can store for up to 12 months under good conditions. 

Potato onions.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Harvesting spring-planted potato onions

The harvesting process is the same as for fall-planted potato onions. Lift them gently when the tops have died down, and put them to cure on racks with fans. If any of your spring-planted bulbs have produced bulbs larger than 2.5″ (about 6 cm), go ahead and eat those, or refrigerate them till September and replant. Those giants do not store well.

Sorting potato onions

Potato onions need sorting about once a month to remove any that are rotting. If it is already a month since you harvested your fall-planted multipliers, do the first sorting now. Timely sorting will minimize waste, because you will stop rot spreading. And you might get to some that are still “good in parts”.

Onion bed in late April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Harvesting bulb onions

There are many different onion varieties and the ones for your area will depend on your latitude. I wrote about this in my book Sustainable Market Farming, and for now, I’ll skip that complex issue. I’ll come back to it in the fall. Assuming you have grown some bulb onions, it’s now time to harvest, as they mature.

If the varieties you grew are not storing types, simply pull them up when you want to eat them, or when the tops fall over. Most kinds will keep for a few weeks, but some not much longer than that. Be realistic! If you have lots of non-storing ones, you can sell, trade or give them away. Or you can chop and freeze them. Or use them in salsa.

The tops of the onions start flopping over here in mid- to late-June; this is the sign that they are ready to harvest. It’s best to harvest during drier weather, but sometimes you have to harvest wet just to get them out of the ground. Hot, wet weather is the worst, so it is best not to let the onions sit around in wet soil during very hot days.

Start to harvest a variety when about 50% or more of the tops have flopped over. Gently lift the onions out of the soil—harvest only the onions with floppy tops, leaving the upright onions in the ground to harvest another day. Harvest each bed twice—once to get just the floppy ones, and then the second time to get all the rest.

Storable varieties should be cured on racks for best airflow, until the necks are dry – about two weeks after hanging the onions. Rub the necks between finger and thumb to determine if they are dry and strawy, or still damp. Trim tops and roots of dry bulbs.

No matter what, do not wait more than three weeks after harvest to clear a rack and get the onions in storage. The longer you leave the onions to hang, the more rot you will have to deal with. After three weeks they start to get worse, not better.

Bulb onions curing on a rack.
Photo Wren Vile

Challenges with hoophouse squash

 

Gentry yellow squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

We grow one bed (90 ft or so) of yellow squash in our hoophouse, to extend the season earlier. This year it is a dismal failure. We have had splendid success some years, with good harvests for several weeks before our outdoor squash are ready. What has changed?

One aspect is climate change including more variable temperatures in spring. This makes it harder to get frost-tender crops started in our greenhouse, and causes us to delay transplanting into our hoophouse, to avoid a wipe-out. We do have good thick rowcover to put over the hoophouse crops, but rowcover can only do so much. Also, it’s not simply a matter of life or death. Extended cold can permanently stunt tender plants.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Striped Cucumber Beetles

Our second biggest problem is striped cucumber beetles. We reckon if we can deal with the cucumber beetles in the hoophouse, we’ll be dealing with the mothers of that year’s population, and things won’t get so bad outdoors. Or, rather, if we don’t deal with them in the hoophouse, they’ll get really bad outdoors (we’ve seen that happen on nearby watermelons and squash).

Our approach is to nip the beetles in the squash flowers first thing each morning, with tweezers. It’s important to tackle them early in the morning, because as the day warms, so do they, and they take off flying around, making them hard to catch. We ignore the more numerous, smaller, cucumber flowers, because the beetles prefer squash flowers, and we’re only prepared to spend a limited amount of time on this task.

The hunting season for cucumber beetles here is on average about a month long. In 2017 it was early and only 8 days 4/25 to 5/3. This year we didn’t start till 5/4 and we’re still finding some 6/5.

One year we tried trapping the beetles using pheromone lures from Johnny’s. We hung the pheromone with a yellow sticky card from the wire hoops that previously held up the rowcover. I thought they were successful, but others on the crew didn’t want to use that method again.

One year we sprayed with Spinosad, which is organic and was very effective, but we try to avoid any spraying if we can. Recently we revisited the decision, and re-committed to hand picking.

Yarn-wrapped tweezers intended to kill cucumber beetles and pollinate squash at the same time (with prey).
Photo Pam Dawling

To attempt to deal with our third problem while addressing the second, I just tried wrapping yarn round the tweezer arms, thinking they might do some pollinating for no extra effort, while I hunted beetles. It wasn’t very successful. The tweezers we’re using are very pointed and the yarn slides off. Too much yarn prevents the tweezers closing aggressively enough.

Unpollinated squash
Photo Pam Dawling

Unpollinated squash

Our third problem is unpollinated squash. The baby squash are hollow, and sometimes rot at the ends. We spend too much time removing the unpollinated ones to encourage the plants to try harder producing new squash, and to prevent the spread of molds which sometimes grow on the hopeless squash.

We look for bush varieties, as we don’t want sprawling vines in the hoophouse. In order to get harvests as early as possible we choose varieties that are fast-maturing. Since 2008 we have usually grown Gentry, a hybrid yellow crookneck squash with a bush habit, that mature in just 43 days from sowing in normal temperatures.

Early in the season some varieties of squash produce a lot of female flowers, which can’t get pollinated until some male flowers appear. Low temperatures and high light intensity promote this female sex expression, ie female flowers rather than male flowers. But our problems went on beyond the arrival of male flowers.

In 2006 we grew Zephyr, a beautiful bi-color hybrid yellow squash with green ends, which is our favorite for outdoor crops. It takes 54 days to maturity. In 2007 we grew Zephyr and a few Supersett, a 50-day hybrid crookneck yellow squash. We didn’t choose Supersett again, so I suppose we didn’t prefer it. What did we grow in the first few years 2004-2005? We didn’t keep good records.

In 2015 we tried Slick Pik YS 26, a 49 day hybrid, attracted by the claim to spinelessness. It didn’t do well for us, and we came to call it Slim Pickins. Some of the plants were weird. About 4 out of about 45 plants had darker green leaves and no female flowers. The male flowers were abnormal, halfway to being leaves. The petals were thick and greenish, and the flowers were small. Then the flowers dropped off, producing no fruit, so we didn’t grow that variety again.

Rotting unpollinated squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another option we once tried is a parthenocarpic variety. Parthenocarpic crops can set fruit without pollination. Some squash varieties, like Sure Thing (48d), Partenon (48d), Cavili (48d), and Easypick Gold (50d), are sold on the strength of being very good at setting fruit without any pollinators. See this article for all the details.

It’s not an all-or-nothing attribute – a number of squash varieties have some level of parthenocarpic capability.

In one study of zucchini (see the article link above), fruit set without pollination varied from zero to 42%, depending on the variety. In the 1992 study, 33 varieties of yellow summer squash were compared. Follow-up studies in the next few years. Chefini (51d  Breeder: Petoseed Co (SQ 28) Seems not to be commercially available any more), Gold Strike (a yellow straight-neck squash, likewise seems unavailable), Black Beauty (50d) and Black Magic (50d)  all did well. In a study including yellow squash and zucchini, most of the high-parthenocarpic producers were zucchini rather than yellow squash. Of yellow squash, Gold Strike seems unavailable, but Gold Rush (52d), Golden Glory (50d) look promising

See also Steve Reiners’ paper Producing summer squash without pollination – Ranking varieties

In that study Golden Glory (50d) is the big winner. Runners up are mostly zucchini: Dunja (47d), Noche (48d), Partenon (48d), Costata Romanesco (52d semi- bush variety), Safari (50d), Multipik (50d yellow squash). After that there are several that scored 29% down to 6% in the trial, and then a bunch of zeroes. Our much-beloved Zephyr scores zero in that trial!  I read that the retail demand for yellow squash is less than for zucchini, so most of the research goes into zucchini.

Next year, I’ll propose we try Golden Glory and Noche (a zucchini that does well for us in hot weather). Or perhaps Dunja, which scores higher.

A bee pollinating squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Encourage pollinators

This is something else we could pay more attention to next year. We have now got honeybees again, after several years without. We could also plant a succession of flowers that attract pollinators, timed to flower the same time as the squashes. If we plant them in big pots we can cycle them in and out of the hoophouse for their “work shifts” and retire them when they stop flowering. See this blog post from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: 10 tips for Attracting Bees and other Pollinators and Harvesting Great Cucumbers, Squash and Melons. Carolina Farm Stewardship Association also has some useful info about native squash bees. I’ll need to study up before next spring!

Import pollinators

We could buy boxes of bumblebees from Koppert. But that gets pricey. I prefer attracting existing pollinators.

Squash bugs making more squash bugs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Minor Problems; Squash bugs

We also have squash bugs, but they aren’t such a big problem for us.

Squash bug eggs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Update on my new book, and how to garden when it rains a lot

Update on the progress of my new book, The Year-Round Hoophouse.

My upcoming book has reached its next stage: copy editing. My publisher, New Society, pays a professional copy editor, who has just sent me his edits. My job this week is to look through them, approve or reject the proposed changes and fix anything only I can do (reformatting the dates in the tables is one of those things). I used many more commas than necessary, and had some clumsy phrases, which will all be swept away before you see the final book.

You’ve already seen the cover (above) and the table of contents. The book can be pre-ordered from New Society, for a 20% discount off the cover price of $29.99 ($23.99). Buying from NSP supports publishers and writers like me. You can also pre-order from Amazon, where the price today is $27.40. Publication date is 11/20/18.

Once the copy edits are finished, NSP’s designer will work on the interior layout of the book for a couple of weeks, then advance proof copies go to a professional proofreader and me again, and also to the person writing the foreword and those writing the endorsements on the back cover and inside.

When the corrections are made and all the contributions gathered, the book comes back to Twin Oaks for indexing, by the Twin Oaks Indexing crew for about a month (July/Aug). After that, it goes to the printers for about 5 weeks, then to the warehouse. If all goes well, I’ll have a copy in my eager hands in late October. I’ll be signing and selling copies at events I attend after that date. See my Events Page.


Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

How to garden when it rains a lot.

We’ve been getting a lot of heavy rain in the past two weeks, and sometimes it’s a challenge to find garden work we can do. Of course, it’s very tempting to take some time off, and sometimes that is the very best thing. But the danger is of falling too far behind, so that the next couple of weeks become impossible. Here’s my list of tasks to consider before, during and after rain.

If you are expecting rain, get your transplanting done!
Photo Denny Ray McElyea

Gardening before heavy rain:

  • Transplant anything even remotely big enough, where you have the beds or rows prepared.
  • Sow anything due to be sown that week.
  • Prepare rows and beds (especially raised beds), so that you can plant as soon as possible, and won’t have to wait for the soil to dry enough to till.
  • Harvest enough to tide you over the rainy spell.
  • If you have 4 hours of good sunshine before the rain is expected, hoe small weeds and let them die.

While it’s raining you can catch up on work in your hoophouse or greenhouse. Photo Wren Vile

Garden activities while it’s raining hard:

  • Catch up on planning, organizing, record-keeping and bill-paying.
  • Prepare some spare blog posts, newsletters or Instagrams.
  • Give careful consideration to contingency plans – perhaps you will need to drop a planting if too much time passes before the soil is workable again.
  • Update your task list and mark the priority tasks, so you can hit the ground running!
  • Repair equipment, sharpen tools.
  • Wash and sort gloves.
  • Order supplies.
  • Watch inspiring farming videos or webinars, or listen to podcasts. Include the crew, and follow with a discussion. The Twin Oaks Garden blog has a new post!
  • Research those burning questions you didn’t have time for before the rain. Exactly what does a spined soldier beetle look like?
  • If you have a hoophouse or greenhouse, get all caught up with tasks under cover.
  • Spring clean your packing shed.
  • If heavy rain is expected any minute, and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. Bring only the minimal number of tools and supplies. Be ready to leave as soon as it thunders! Don’t hoe if it’s about to rain, it’s a waste of time. Likewise don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain. They’ll re-root.

Dreary raised bed scene. Photo Ezra Freeman

Gardening after heavy rain:

  • Work on mulched areas and perennial crops first, where you won’t get bogged down in mud. Weed asparagus, rhubarb and garlic. If no more rain is expected, you may be able to lay the weeds on top of the mulch (whether organic or plastic) and let the weeds bake. The mulch will stop them re-rooting. But if more rain is expected, haul the weeds off to the compost pile.
  • If you have very wet soil, where your boot-prints have depth, don’t go there! Sinking mud compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, which will stunt their growth and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains. Standing on boards is an option for harvesting or planting. Take two boards about as long as you are tall (or a little more), and set them end-to-end in the path or aisle. Work your way along the plants to the far end of the second board, go back and pick up the first board, and set it down on the mud ahead of you. The helps distribute your weight over a much bigger area, so there’s less compaction, and the boards leave a smoother surface for next time. You may have to backtrack one board at a time to extricate yourself from the mess, but this can often be worth doing.
  • Use a rain gauge to see how bad it was.
    Photo Nina Gentle

    Some crops are best not picked while the leaves are wet: cucurbits (squash, melons and cucumbers) nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplants) strawberries and legumes (peas and beans) until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.

  • Mowing or weed-whacking will be possible before the soil dries enough to till. These are valuable weed control strategies.
  • Flame-weeding is another way to control weeds in some crops if the soil is too wet. One spring we could not hill our potatoes because of all the rain. Although it took a long time, we flamed the weeds in the potato patch, which left it clean enough to hill when the soil water soaked down enough.

Flaming (pre-emergent)
Photo Brittany Lewis

Time to watch for pests

The season is warming up and insect pests are jumping into action. Here’s some old foes and some new ones to watch out for, and some friends too.

Gray garden slugs, Deroceras reticulatum, with chewing damage and slime trails on leaves.
Photo UC IPM

Slugs and Snails

We have very few snails, and compared to some other places I’ve lived, few slugs. But the slugs we do have really like the hoophouse. I found two this morning on the cucumber plants. (It was an overcast morning – they don’t like high temperatures.) My reaction was to flip them onto the path and stomp on them. We rarely have to take stronger action. If we do, we sink shallow plastic dishes into the soil, with the rim at soil level and fill the dishes with a dilute version of beer or soda, or sugary water. I don’t know if it has to be fermenting to be attractive to slugs, but any sugary liquid in our hoophouse warmth is going to start fermenting after a day. If numbers are really high and damage is extensive, we need to hunt the slugs down. Do this at dusk or later, with a headlamp and either a pair of scissors or a bucket of soapy water.

There is a good blog post by Joe Kemble on the Alabama Commercial Horticulture website:

Slugs or Snails in Your Greenhouse or High Tunnel? What Do I Do?

The post helps us understand our foe:

“Slugs are very sensitive to ambient temperature and can detect temperature changes as gradual as 2°F per hour. Slugs prefer to remain at 62 to 64°F although they lay eggs and develop normally (but slower) at lower temperatures. Development ceases below 41°F. Slugs can withstand slight freezing temperatures although their tendency to take shelter in cold weather protects them from freezing. Slugs try to escape from temperatures higher than 70°F. “

Joe Kemble offers  4 approaches to dealing with them: trapping, hunting, iron phosphate (Sluggo) and metaldehyde bait. Metaldehyde works very quickly, but it can poison and even kill dogs, cats and other mammals that might feed on it. So I don’t recommend that! Iron phosphate is much safer but also much slower – snails can take up to seven days to die. Neither should be used near waterways. Use of Sluggo has been allowed if conditions leave no less toxic option, under the National Organic Standards since 2006

Another good resource is the UC IPM site which takes the IPM steps one at a time and applies them to slugs. How to Manage Pests/ Pests in Gardens and Landscapes/ Snails and Slugs which has good photos.

Grow Smart Grow Safe  looks at many options. See their Table of Molluscicides. It explains all the current options.

Jumping Worms

Invasive Jumping Worm
Photo Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A new troublesome  invasive earthworm has arrived from East Asia. Here is a handy ID card

“Jumping worms (Amynthas spp.) dwell on the soil surface and eat leaf litter.  They can turn up almost anywhere from urban parks, to suburban backyards, to rural forests. Because they reproduce on their own, a single worm can start a new population. You can help prevent jumping worms from spreading to new areas by knowing what to look for.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has good information, including photos.

These worms eat up all the leaf litter under trees, causing desert-like conditions. The surface soil becomes grainy, with a texture like dry coffee grounds, and no longer supports the growth of under-story plants.The 1.5″-8″ worms thrash around if picked up. Visually they can be distinguished from other earthworms with a clitellum (saddle), because theirs is cloudy white and smooth.

Use the jumping worm identification card [PDF] and brochure [PDF] and watch for this pest. Report finds to the DNR or your Extension Office.

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Spotted Lanternfly.
Photo from Virginia Cooperative Extension

Spotted Lanternfly

Another invasive alien is the Spotted Lanternfly, a pretty hopper. Lycorma delicatula (White), an invasive plant hopper, has been discovered in Berks County, Pennsylvania. It is native to China, India, Vietnam, and introduced to Korea where it has become a major pest.  As well as Eastern Pennsylvania, the pest has been found in Virginia, Maryland and New York.

The red bands on the hind wings are not visible when the insect is at rest with the wings folded up over the back. It can easily blend in on tree bark. Note that the earlier stages of this pest look very different. The first nymphs are black and white, later ones, red, black and white. All stages are spotted.

Adult Spotted Lanternfly (pinned). Photo USDA Aphis

This insect has the potential to greatly impact almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, hops, nectarines, peaches, plums and walnuts, as well as these trees: maples, oaks, pines, poplars, sycamores and willows.

The signs and symptoms of a possible infestation include

  • Plants that ooze or weep and have a fermented smell
  • Buildup of sticky fluid (honeydew) on plants and on the ground underneath infested plants
  • Sooty mold on the infested plants

If you find a spotted lanternfly, report it to your Extension Office.

Click here to learn more from Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and here to read more from USDA APHIS.

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A zipper spider on a tomato plant, catching anything that lands on its web. Photo Wren Vile

We mostly have good bugs. While working in the hoophouse this morning, harvesting scallions out of the way of advancing enlarging cucumber plants, I also found many tiny zipper spiders and their tiny webs. These will get impressively huge. We made a point of saving their egg-cases on the bows of our hoophouse over the winter.

Zipper spider egg cases overwintering in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

I also saw a tiny praying mantis, another creature whose egg-cases we make a point of storing in the hoophouse over the winter.

And I saw a tattered Monarch butterfly. I had to check the Monarch or Viceroy? Page to be sure.

Alliums for May: harvesting garlic scapes, scallions and fall-planted potato onions

Pickled garlic scapes, okra and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

This is the first of a new monthly series of blog-posts on Alliums for the Month, which, like my previous series on lettuce and Asian greens, I plan to run for a year. Alliums are the onion family. With this series, I’m going to talk about which alliums to harvest each month, which to plant, and which need other kinds of attention.

Weeding alliums

I haven’t thought of any alliums to plant in May (at least, not here in central Virginia), but there’s plenty to harvest, and don’t forget to weed! Because alliums don’t have big spreading leaves, they are not good at shading out weeds, so we have to take care of the weeds for them! Particularly bulb onions and garlic this month, as they are only a few weeks away from harvest and will benefit from removing weeds and mulch to let in fresh air to help the bulbs dry down (rather than get fungal diseases!)

Harvesting garlic scapes

Starting any day now, we will begin harvesting garlic scapes (the firm, edible flower stems of hardneck garlic). My previous posts about scapes are some of my most popular ones.

Pulling garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

See last year’s Garlic scapes, upcoming events, hoophouse seed crops, posted on May 2, 2017. There I noted that in 2017, scapes came early, as did Tulip Poplar flowers, at the end of April. We harvest scapes two or three times a week for about three weeks, until no more appear. Garlic scapes are one of the first outdoor crops of the year, apart from rhubarb and asparagus, and their flavor is refreshingly different from leafy greens (the staple hoophouse crops of early spring) and stored winter roots.

I posted Garlic scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest on May 11, 2015. That year scapes were later than average. This post is a very popular one, and I’m still wondering if I was over-confident in predicting 3 weeks to bulb harvest everywhere in the US! Please do leave a comment if you have records for how long you get between scapes and garlic bulb harvest.

I’ve done some research into what triggers flowering in garlic, but haven’t found much solid info yet.  In general, plant flowering is triggered by some combination of enough vernalization (chilling hours during the winter and early spring – maybe 10 weeks below 40F), plant maturity, temperature and photo-period (the relative length of day and night). In cold weather the plants suppress the flowering signal. The leaves perceive the amount of daylight, and when the temperature is also right, they trigger flowering by sending a signal (called Florigen) to the shoot tips. Florigen may be an actual compound, or may be some combination or ratio of several plant hormones, produced by one or more genes in the plant. Almost all these factors are outside our control, once the plant is in the ground, so the best we can do is pay attention and be ready to act.

There is a bit more information about the triggers for bulb initiation and for drying down. Garlic bulb initiation (and the end of leaf growth) is triggered by daylight increasing above13 hours in length (April 10 here at 38°N). Soil temperatures over 60°F (15.5°C) and air temperatures above 68°F (20°C) are secondary triggers. When I was in Jamaica last May, I researched growing garlic in the tropics, and it may be that temperature is a bigger trigger and daylength is less important in tropical latitudes where daylength does not vary much. Certainly some growers had produced garlic when I didn’t expect it to be possible.

Hot weather above 91°F (33°C) ends bulb growth and starts the drying down process. I don’t yet know how many hours over that temperature the garlic needs before drying down is triggered. We had a few very hot days last week.

It is important to get plenty of good rapid growth before conditions prevent any more growth. Garlic can double in size in its last month of growth, and removing the scapes (the hard central stem) of hardneck garlic can increase the bulb size 25%.

In the 2015 post I described how we pull our garlic scapes, to get the most out–we love this crop! We also appreciate a late-morning task that’s done standing up! In that post I described the value of mulch and when to remove it.

Garlic scapes to cheer us up posted on May 10, 2013 has been reread a lot–whether that’s because readers love garlic scapes, or seek cheering up, I can’t say.

Pulling garlic scapes – the long view.
Photo Wren Vile

Our harvest process

Here’s the short version. Those looking for more detail can go to my 2015 post.

  1. When scapes arrive, plan some late morning or early afternoon time two or three times a week to harvest them.
  2. As soon as the pointed cap of the scape has emerged above the plant center, firmly grasp the stem just below the cap and pull slowly and steadily straight up. The scape pops as it leaves the plant and you have the whole length of the scape, including the tender lower part.
  3. Gather them into buckets, with the scapes upright, so they are easy to bunch or cut up.
  4. Put a little water in the bucket.
  5. They store well in a refrigerator for months if you don’t use them sooner.
  6. In a few days, more scapes will have grown tall enough to pull, and you can have a second chance on any that broke at your earlier attempt.

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Clumps of scallion transplants in a Speedling flat, ready to transplant earlier in spring.
Photo Pam Dawling

Harvesting scallions

In May our outdoor planted scallions start. For outdoors, we use transplants, started in January and February, and transplanted in March and April. We sow in Speedling plug flats, a small pinch of seed in each cell, and transplant the undivided clump/plug. We can get a lot of scallions in a small space. Around May 10, the first ones are big enough to harvest (just as the hoophouse ones finish up – what planning!)

To harvest, we loosen the soil with a digging fork, then lift out a clump. We shake the plants, keeping them in a cluster, and trim off the roots and the ragged tops. Holding the bunch in one hand, we pass the scallions one at a time to the other hand, pulling off a single outer leaf and giving the base of the plant a wipe with our spare hand. Next we set the scallions in a small bucket in water. When the bucket is full enough, we dunk the scallions up and down, and transfer them to a clean bucket with a small amount of water to keep them fresh.

Scallions planted in bunches, ready-to-harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

It’s good to develop an efficient method with little scallions or the harvest takes way too long. Deal with scallions in bunches as much as possible (digging up, trimming), rather than one at a time. Pass them from hand to hand when cleaning rather than set them down on the ground and pick them up again one at a time. Set them into water so they are cleaning themselves while you work on the rest. Don’t fuss with them too much – pull off a single outer leaf, not more. Don’t pick at little bits of skin, unless quite gross. If you are going to band them, start out with a bunch of rubber bands around three fingers on the hand that holds the bunches (leaving the forefinger free for tasks demanding dexterity). When you’re ready to band them, use the other hand to pull a rubber band into position.

Roxbury Farm in New York State has a wonderful Harvest Manual. Page 45 on scallions says they harvest 50 bunches an hour, including trimming tops as needed, but not roots. They wash 100 bunches an hour on a bench, in bunches, with a power spray.

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A potato onion plant in early spring, showing the cluster that has developed.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Harvesting fall-planted potato onions

Potato onions (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are a type of hardy, perennial multiplier onion–once you have them you are self-sufficient. You don’t need to buy seed each year, but select the best bulbs from the ones you grew to replant for the next crop. Also known as Hill Onions, Mother Onions and Pregnant Onions, they produce a cluster of tasty (but not too pungent) bulbs from a single planted bulb, or a large bulb from a small one.

Potato onions have good drought resistance, pink root resistance, onion fly resistance and are widely adapted for different growing regions (not Florida or southern Texas). When properly planted they can withstand sub-freezing temperatures in every area of the continental U.S.

You can order potato onions from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and other suppliers to be shipped in the fall. See SESE’s Perennial Onion Growing Guide and Garlic and Perennial Onion Growing Guide for growing information.

Yellow potato onions.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The potato onions which were planted earliest (September for us) will be ready to harvest first, at the end of May or early in June in our central Virginia climate. Once you see the tops start to fall over, stop watering the onions and let them dry down.

Potato onions are ready to harvest when the tops die. Not all will be ready the same day. Because onions easily get sunscald if left exposed after they are mature, it’s best to harvest the mature ones every few days. Don’t break over the tops in hopes of a single harvest–it really reduces the storage life. The potato onions sit on the surface and are easily picked up without tools. Handle them gently, to prevent bruising and scratching. Put them into crates or buckets, without pulling off any leaves.

The September planted potato onions were the largest bulbs when planted, and they will usually have divided and produced clusters of small onions. Do not break up the clusters as you harvest, because this triggers sprouting. Set the clusters in a barn or shed, on an airy bench or horizontal rack. The tops break easily, so you cannot hang them as you might hang garlic. Potato onions need good ventilation: we use box fans continuously.

If you find any bulbs larger than 2.5″ (about 6 cm), go ahead and eat those. The giants do not store well. Alternatively, refrigerate them till September and replant. The small and medium-sized bulbs keep 8-12 months under good conditions, and are the best to replant to grow more onions.

Potato onions need sorting about once a month to remove any that are rotting. We plant our large ones in September or early October, our medium-sized ones in late November and our small ones in late January. I’ll tell you more about those when the time comes.

Two beds of potato onions in spring, of different planting dates.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Year-Round Hoophouse Book update, Growing for Market, Mother Earth News post

 My upcoming book The Year-Round Hoophouse is being copy-edited this month. I was lucky enough to get the same copy-editor who I worked with on Sustainable Market Farming. Meanwhile the designer is working on the layout design, and a bookmark. I already have the pre-publication postcards to give away at events I attend. See my Events Page for that information.

My hoophouse book will be published November 20, which means it will come off-press (all being well) on October 12. Between now and then, we will finish the copy-edits, proofread for errors, then go back to the designer to enter the corrections (in June). In July the index gets made, by one of the Twin Oaks Indexing crew. That can take three weeks. Then there’s a last check (August) before the book goes off to the printers. The press needs five weeks to turn the book around (September and some of October). Meanwhile the electronic version (Ebook) is prepared.

The foreword will get written, as will those endorsements you see on book covers from well-known people who have been given a copy of the advance page proofs to read. Also happening is a lot of attention to marketing–sending information to the sorts of people who will be interested in the book.


The May issue of Growing for Market is out. The cover article is about wholesaling, by Jed Beach. His purpose is to encourage growers who are dissatisfied with the stiff competition in retail, to look carefully at comparative costs of selling wholesale. Receiving a lower price (wholesale) will not lead to lower income if you costs are considerably lower.

High Mowing Seeds is sponsoring farmer emeritus Ellen Polishuk to travel the country interviewing farmers for a Farmer to Farmer Profile series, which will be featured in Growing for Market each month.  This month her profile is of High Ground Organics in California, just two miles from the ocean. As well as the climate, Ellen tells us about the state laws that require overtime to be paid at 1.5 times the regular wage, and the requirement for wages for agricultural work to line up with other employment and achieve a minimum wage of $15 in six years’ time. This is causing big increases to labor costs. In addition, the national political situation is causing fewer immigrants to reach the farms. Hence, some farmers are selling up. The farmers at High Ground are selling one of their two farms in order to focus on farming one well. Eco-stewardship is an important value.  They are excited about improving at managing people and weeds, transitioning to only organic seeds, and growing strawberries with anaerobic soil disinfestation (ASD).

Photos of all the  farms featured in Profiles are here.

Ellen has written an upcoming book, with Forrest Pritchard, called Start Your Farm.It will be published in September 2018.

Morgan Houk compares a trip to the accountant very favorably with a trip to have teeth pulled. She encourages all farmers to learn from an accountant:

“the financial success of my business is critical in order for me to continue building community and growing healthy food”

 

Kai Hoffman-Krull writes about two no-till methods: tilling with chicken tractors, and occultation (the cumbersome name of a system using impermeable plastic silage covers to kill weeds and cover crops and leave the soil ready-to-use). The main purpose of using no-till methods for Kai is to keep the carbon in the soil, as both social and environmental activism.

Gretel Adams closes this issue with her usual solid information on growing cut flowers, This issue the topics are ranunculus and anemones. As always, the flower photos are mouth-watering.


A hose with pinholes repaired using bicycle inner tube and old repair clamps. Photo Pam Dawling

I have a new blog post on Mother Earth News This one is a tip for repairing pin-holes in garden hoses. Cheap hoses don’t spring pin holes, they just crack up. But if you invest in good quality hoses, eventually they start to develop pin holes. Cutting the hose and inserting a repair connector is unnecessary. You just need a leftover clamp from a repair coupling (I found I had a whole boxful!) and a square of inner tube. Mark the hole before turning off the water. Wrap the rubber inner tube over the hole, then assemble the old clamp over that.


Meanwhile in the garden this week, we have transplanted tomatoes outdoors, as well as the first cucumbers. The first lettuces are almost ready to harvest, just as the last hoophouse lettuce mix is getting less desirable – milky sap, slightly bitter flavor. We’ve planted out six sowings of lettuce so far. We’ve hilled the potatoes and disked lots of areas for sweet corn and  sweet potatoes.

Lettuce bed in May.
Photo Wren Vile

Spinach variety trial conclusions

Outdoor spinach on the Spring Equinox (with peas interplanted).
Photo Lori Katz

Spinach Variety Trial Conclusions

Unable to buy our long-time favorite spinach variety, Tyee, we have tried various other varieties. This winter and spring we compared Avon, Reflect, Acadia, Escalade, and Renegade, in the hoophouse and outdoors. We are looking for a dark-leaved savoy type, with good cold tolerance and good bolt-resistance once spring arrives.

Hoophouse plantings

Sowing #1 9/7/17, all pulled up by 4/24/18, after a productive winter.

Sowing #2: 11/8 (normally 10/24, but we failed to water, and had to resow)

In November and December, Renegade had the largest leaves, so its advantage in central Virginia hoophouses is probably as a faster-growing type.

1/10/18:

  • Reflect is growing bigger/faster than Avon.
  • Renegade is faster/bigger but paler than Avon.
  • Acadia has more leaves than Avon, Reflect, Renegade.
  • Escalade is also faster and bigger than Avon, Reflect, Renegade.

4/3/18: Bolters pulled: Reflect 2, Avon 1 , other varieties zero bolters

4/10/18: The plants have not changed much in the last month, although in comparison with the February photo, you can see the leaves are starting to become pointed in shape. We are waiting to see which of the varieties bolts first. 

4/24/18: Reflect, Avon, Acadia, Escalade, Renegade. All are now growing thinner pointy leaves and starting to bolt. Renegade has large leaves, but the color is paler than the others and the texture is less exciting to us.

Counting bolted plants along the rows, I found

  • Avon 10 bolters
  • Acadia zero bolters
  • Escalade 4 bolters
  • Renegade 6 bolters.

Acadia and Escalade both had thick, well-textured leaves.

5/1/18. On My final tally date of the spinach in the hoophouse, I counted bolters:

  • Avon was much more bolted than Reflect
  • Acadia had 12 bolted, 18 not. 60% resistance
  • Escalade had 13 bolted, 17 not. 57% resistance
  • Renegade had 20 bolted, 6 not. 23% resistance
  • Avon had 19 bolted, 2 not. 10% resistance
  • Pity I did not directly compare Reflect and Acadia!

Hoophouse spinach variety trial Avon Renegade Acadia Escalade in February. (Note long shadows!)
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse spinach variety trials in early April (note some cold damage). Left-Right Avon, Acadia, Escalade, Renegade.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse spinach variety trials in late April. L-R Avon, Acadia, Escalade, Renegade.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse spinach variety trials. Comparing bolt-resistance. May 1. L-R Avon, Acadia, Escalade, Renegade.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sowing #3 11/9

4/25/18: Avon – all pointy

Sowing #4 1/15 (for transplanting inside the hoophouse).

4/25/18: South side Avon – pointy; North side Reflect – bigger than Avon, less texture, also pointy.

Sowing #5 1/16 (for transplanting outdoors).

4/25/18: North side Reflect – a bit pointy, smaller than Avon and Acadia; South side Renegade, Escalade, Acadia. Acadia is bigger than Escalade, darker and more textured.

We transplanted from #4 and some #5, mostly not labelled. All look good 4/25. Avon transplanted 3/14, looks great. Big textured leaves. Reflect transplanted 3/16 – also good.

2018 conclusions for hoophouse spinach:

  • Renegade made fast early growth in November and December
  • Acadia and Escalade win on early harvests (December and January).
  • The smoother-leaved Renegade definitely has thinner leaves 4/10, and would yield lower weight (if we were weighing them).
  • Acadia and Escalade win in the hoophouse on 4/24, for bolt resistance and thick leaves
  • Acadia wins on bolt-resistance in the hoophouse on 5/1. Escalade is not far behind.
  • Reflect wins on 4/25 over Avon in the 4th hoophouse planting.
  • Acadia wins on 4/25 in this 5th hoophouse planting.
  • No clear better variety between Reflect and Avon in the late hoophouse transplanting from the 4th and 5th plantings.

We don’t like smooth-leaved spinach as much, so will maybe drop Renegade – it doesn’t shine on anything else except being earliest, but then becomes less productive.     Acadia did very well, Escalade not far behind. Perhaps drop Avon for hoophouse too. Perhaps continue Reflect, Acadia and Escalade, and do comparisons of the 3 only. Or just grow Acadia in the hoophouse.

Hoophouse spinach variety trial on May 1. Top: bolting Renegade; bottom: Escalade.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse spinach variety trial on May 1. Left of driptape: Acadia, right: Avon (see arrowhead leaves).
Photo Pam Dawling

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Outdoor Plantings

Reflect spinach in the snow in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Outdoors we had overwintered Avon and Reflect. Both did well.

2018 conclusions for outdoor over-winter spinach plantings: Grow Avon or Reflect. Both did equally well. For simplicity, maybe drop Avon.

Outdoors in early spring, we transplanted 4 beds with Avon, Acadia, Escalade, Renegade, Reflect:

3/21/18: Reflect looked really good. Acadia, Escalade, Renegade not so good.

4/26/18:

  • Bed 15W all Avon looks good. Good size, good color.
  • Bed 16W has 3 rows Avon, 1 row Renegade (north). Renegade is smaller and lighter color – a more yellowish cast.
  • Bed 20W mostly Reflect, doesn’t look that good, partly because of lots of weeds. Avon the same.
  • Bed 23W 2 rows Reflect (south), 1 row Acadia, 1 row Escalade (north). Escalade is smaller 4/26.

5/2/18:

  • Bed 15W all Avon Good size, but all yellow, especially south edge. May have drowned. Only slightly pointy.
  • Bed 16W has 3 rows Avon, 1 row Renegade (north) Both varieties are very yellow (drowned?)
  • Bed 20W all Reflect, less yellow than Avon in the other beds.
  • Bed 23W 2 rows Reflect (south), 1 row Acadia, 1 row Escalade (north).
  • Reflect is really good where not drowned, if a little pointy.
  • Acadia is even better than Reflect, also a bit pointy.
  • Escalade is still smaller than Reflect and Acadia, also less pointed.
  • Both Acadia and Escalade are a darker color than Reflect.

2018 conclusions for outdoor spring spinach plantings:

  • Avon wins over Renegade on 4/26
  • Reflect wins over Acadia, Escalade on 3/21 and 4/26.
  • No winner between Avon and Renegade on 5/2
  • Reflect wins over Avon on 5/2.
  • Reflect and Acadia win over Escalade for current productivity on 5/2. Of the two, Acadia has better color.
  • Escalade may win later as more bolt-resistant.

We don’t like smooth-leaved spinach as much, so maybe we’ll drop Renegade.

Reflect and Acadia did well for spring outdoor plantings. Maybe drop Avon. Maybe grow mostly Reflect and some Acadia for May harvests? Escalade may be more bolt-resistant, and warrant growing one bed of four. If not, drop Escalade for spring outdoor planting?

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My earlier blogposts about spinach variety trials

Oct 4, 2016: Three spinach varieties (Tyee, Avon, Chevelle)

October 2016:  Sowing Tyee, Avon, Chevelle

Feb 21, 2017 : Spinach overwintered in a coldframe; Transplanting the last Tyee, alongside Reflect and Avon this spring.

February 6, 2018: Spinach Variety Trials (Tyee, Chevelle, Avon, Reflect, Renegade, Escalade and Acadia) and Planting Plan. Details of the varieties.

April 10, 2018: Spinach Trials Update

 

Tools for small-scale growers

Rolling drip tape on shuttles for storage and reuse.
Photo Luke Stovall

It’s been raining all day, so I look around for inspiration and useful rainy day work. Repairing things and making useful tools are usually satisfying.And I found a couple of fun and inspiring inventions by others to share.

Drip tape shuttles and winding system

I’ve written before about our drip tape shuttles, which enable us to save and reuse drip tape. Here’s our Perfect Drip Tape Pack-up Check List

  1. Gather spring clamps (4 per cart), rebar axles, carts, small bucket for end caps, black marker, yellow or white grease pencil (in Drip Tape First Aid Kit), a few pieces of rope 2-4 ft long.
  2. Remove end caps and collect in small buckets
  3. Remove any rope/cord tying drip tape to end stakes (if any)
  4. Pull up stakes
  5. Disconnect drip tape at main pipe, by unscrewing the connector from the tape, not by pulling the connectors out of pipe. Don’t disconnect any short drip tape blank ends, leave them in the pipe.
  6. One person coils the mainline pipe in big 4-5 ft diameter loops, with NO kinks. Tie in three places with rope. Make and affix a plastic label if there is not already one attached. Describe what crop it was used for, and what row spacings, number of rows. Store.
  7. Meanwhile, other people free up the drip tape without destroying the crop too much, and write the length on the ends, using the grease pencil.
  8. Set up the cart with the axle and spring clamps, on the uphill side of the patch (helps drain the tape as you roll it)
  9. Then roll it on appropriately labeled shuttles, two lengths at a time, tightly and tidily, each keeping to cos own side of the shuttle (so they can be unwound separately). Tuck last end in, and ensure the end of the drip tape is labeled with the length, and both sides of the shuttle are labeled.
  10. Take all the shuttles to the barn, and hang them in pairs over the beams using rope. Use knots that a normal human will be able to undo easily. Hang shuttles high enough so people won’t bang their heads, but low enough to be reachable by someone standing on a chair.
  11. Return all the tools and supplies.

Unrolling drip tape from shuttles, using a garden cart as support.
Photo Luke Stovall

I was reminded of our drip tape system when I came across this Rowcover roller

Rowcover rolling with crank handle.
Photo Rodale Institute

Taming the floating row cover is a blog post on the Rodale site by John and Aimee Good. They say

The row cover reel is our favorite part of our system, and it is super low-tech. It is comprised of two portable saw horses with pipe straps attached and a PVC crank we made to fit on the end of the row cover pipe. We set up the saw horses at the end of the bed about eight feet apart. We then push the PVC pipe through the pipe straps on each saw horse and hammer our crank onto the end of the pipe with a rubber mallet.

By using long pipes to roll the row cover on, they have handles to hold, and a space to label length, width, condition of the row cover.


While researching a term new to me: “Personalized Harvie Farm Shares

I learned from the Small Farm Central blog that Harvie connects customers directly with  local farms who deliver shares of farm fresh produce customized to meet personal preferences. Like a CSA, but with choices.


Towards the end of that post I got a chuckle when I saw this flame weeder:

Repurposed stroller makes a fine flame weeder.
Photo Sustainable Harvest Farm Kentucky

The blog post is entitled

3 Themes from 2,000 miles of driving visiting farms in TN and KY

and the inventive farmers Ford and Amanda are from Sustainable Harvest Farm in Kentucky.

I’ve written before about the wonders of flame weeding. We bought our Red Dragon backpack flame weeder from Fedco.

We’re going to need the stroller! Single-torch flamer saves lots of weeding time.
Photo Kati Falger


Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

Another tool we love is our all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools.

I wrote about it last September, when we were preparing our hoophouse beds for winter crops.

This tool is great for aerating compacted soil without inverting it. The soil beasties thank us.

Below is a photo of a hoophouse bed after broadforking before the (immediately following) task of raking to break up the big clumps and produce a fine tilth. It’s important not to let the soil dry out into bricks before raking, or life will be hard (and those soil beasties may be dead).

Hoophouse bed broadforked to aerate the soil without inverting.
Photo Pam Dawling


Lastly I’ll mention our blueberry hoop method. Maybe your bushes, like ours, are flowering now, and maybe you are determined to have a better netting system than you had last year. I described our (then new) blueberry hoop system in 2013. The blueberry area is 16′ x 65′ approx. Height of the netting supports needs to be 7′ or more for most of the space. The 20 blueberry bushes are 66″ apart, in two rows.

We chose PVC Electrical conduit to make our hoops. Unlike PVC water pipe,  plastic electrical conduit is UV-inhibited for outdoor use. Lengths have flanged (bell) ends, and can be joined without any connector pieces. It’s lightweight, and no bending tools are needed (unlike for metal conduit or fencing top-rail). It packs flat for out-of-season storage, and is relatively cheap.

We made a “Spider-House” temporary framework: An idea used for temporary “field houses”. It consists of pairs of bows fastened together at the apex, in a way that spreads out into a 4-legged structure. A row of these make up the frame. An advantage is that the spiders are stronger than simple bows, and that the whole thing can be dismantled relatively easily. The shape helps add strength to lightweight bows.

Blueberry netting on hoops.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Asian Greens for April: Mizuna and ferny mustards

Green mizuna in its prime in our hoophouse in November. Photo Pam Dawling

In April, sadly, our last mizuna and ferny mustards will come to an end. In our hoophouse we do three plantings of these frilly leaved greens, which we use for salads all winter and early spring.

Mizuna (also known as kyona  and shui cai) is a Brassica rapa var. japonica, meaning it’s in the turnip family. The other frilly mustards, such as Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Red Rain are Chinese Mustards, B. juncea. We tend to treat them as if they are all types of mizuna. True mizuna is available in green or purple (but Ruby Streaks and Scarlet Frills mustards are much better colors than Purple Mizuna.)

Golden Frills and Ruby Streaks in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

All are very easy to grow, can be transplanted or direct-sown, and tolerate cold wet soil. They are ready to be harvested for baby salads only 21 days after sowing in the fall (longer in winter). They grow to maturity in 40 days. They are easy-going vegetables, fairly heat tolerant (well, warm tolerant) and cold-tolerant to 25°F (-4°C).  All regrow vigorously after cutting. The ferny leaves add color and loft in salad mixes, as well as an attractive leaf shape.

Mizuna is very mild-flavored. The ferny mustards vary in pungency, but most only become markedly spicy when they start bolting.

Like all Asian greens, they need similar care to other brassicas, doing best in very fertile soils. They are shallow-rooted – pay extra attention to providing enough water during hot weather to prevent bitter flavors and excess pungency, especially with the B. juncea ones. Provide 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week, 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather.

Do close monitoring of pests, which can build up large populations during the summer. Growing these over the winter, as we do, we have not had many pest problems. Flea beetles sometimes, once the weather starts to warm.

Young Ruby Streaks (our second planting) in our hoophouse in early February. We thin for salads until the plants are at final spacing.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our mizuna schedule

On September 24 we sow these little crops in our outdoor nursery seedbed, which is covered with insect netting on hoops. We sow 7.5′, with roughly equal amounts of Green Mizuna, Golden Frills, and Ruby Streaks or Scarlet Frills. Red Rain is another we like. We are aiming for about 75 transplants on October 20. We transplant them 8″ apart with 6 rows in a 4′ bed. This takes 8′ length of a bed. This first planting will feed us from November 27 to January 25, with light harvests possible from November 5, and flowers and sprouting shoots as late as February 10.

Our second planting is direct sown in the hoophouse on November 9. We sow 6 rows about 6′ long (depending on available space). We thin these into salad mixes several times as they grow, increasing the spacing until they are about 6-10″ apart. After that we harvest by cutting off the larger leaves, sometimes individually, sometimes by “buzz-cutting” (snipping off leaves on one half of the plant an inch (25 mm) above the ground). Leaving half of the leaves growing seems to help the new leaves grow faster. Next time we harvest, we cut the other side. This planting provides harvests from February 26 to March 24 – just one month, although we get the thinnings from January 20, and the flowers and bolting shoots until mid-April.

Our third planting, green mizuna and Scarlet Frills, in our hoophouse in mid April. The mizuna is bolting, but the Scarlet Frills is hanging in there.
Photo Pam Dawling

A couple of years ago we added in a third planting, because we had some open space in the hoophouse. It follows the first Yukina Savoy. I wrote about some differences between the OP Yukina Savoy and the hybrid Koji. Perhaps Koji is less bolt-resistant than the OP. Late January brings it to an end.

We sow this third planting on February 1 and harvest it for a month from March 24 to April 23. This year this third planting is bolting April 15. (We have had a lot of temperature reversals this spring, which encourage bolting in brassicas.) Scarlet Frills and Golden Frills bolt later than Ruby Streaks and Green Mizuna. The timing of harvest fits perfectly with the second planting. We have sown it as late as March 3 and harvested April 10-April 30 (only 3 weeks when we sow that late).

Seed sources

Kitazawa Seeds sell 18 baby leaf mustards, including four red, purple or streaked mizunas. The other 14 are B. juncea, although a few don’t say. Most are frilly or ferny, a few merely wavy. Something for everyone.

Johnnys lists their selection under “Greens” along with arugula, large Asian greens, mixes. I counted about 15 mustards that fit the loose category I’m talking about here.

Fedco lists theirs under “Asian greens”. Scroll down past Mizuna to Mustards to find several interesting gene pool offerings such as Pink Lettucy Mustard (Variations of greens with pink or purple pigments in midribs) for those seeking milder flavors; and the medium hot Purple Rapa Mix Gene Pool (sold out as I write this): Very vigorous tall serrated green leaves with purple veins and shading.

Bye bye mizuna! Bolting mizuna (our third planting) in our hoophouse in mid-April.
Photo Pam Dawling

This is my twelfth and last Asian Greens of the Month series. You can see the others here:

May Senposai outdoors

June Tokyo Bekana

July Maruba Santoh

August Fall Senposai, winter Yukina Savoy

September Komatsuna outdoors

October Yukina Savoy outdoors, Tatsoi

November Daikon and other winter radish

December Pak Choy

January Chinese cabbage

February Tatsoi

March Yukina savoy in the hoophouse

Next month I’ll start another year-long series Allium of the Month