I wrote a post recently that discussed transplanting, mainly as a way to get earlier crops in spring. Now I’m going to write about direct-sowing. This is the word for putting the seeds directly into the ground outdoors.
As with transplanting, some crops are just not going to thrive if you start too soon: cucumbers, peppers, and even tomatoes, for example. Make sure you can provide conditions that meet the minimum temperature requirements for these tender crops. See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for the details, and The Year-Round Hoophousefor a chart of germination temperatures, telling you how many days each crop will take to emerge at various temperatures. Buy a soil thermometer and push the stem all the way into the soil to measure at a depth of 4” (10 cm) I find it helpful to push the thermometer stem through a larger colorful plastic lid, or stake flag. And install it somewhere safe, where it won’t get stepped on, mowed, or tilled up.
March conditions have become more unreliable, often colder. For example, if the soil at 4” (10cm) deep is 40F (4.4C), you might do better to wait if your chosen crop will take more than 21 days. In cold wet soils, seeds can rot rather than sprout. Write down your sowing date and check the soil for emergence. If nothing has come up when it should have, consider resowing. You could rake or till the whole row or bed and start over, or you could hedge your bets and sow new rows in between the original rows. This might mean ending up with fewer rows, or rows closer to the bed edge than you like, but you will be salvaging an unfortunate situation, so it will be better than a crop failure. If the original rows do come up, you can hoe off the new rows, and it won’t have cost you that much time or money. If the original rows are patchy, hoe them off and keep the new ones.
The pros and cons of transplanting and direct sowing
Before you even venture out there to sow seeds, consider the pros and cons of transplanting versus direct sowing, and when each is most appropriate.You can read these in my post about Garden Planning
How to sow a row of seeds
Find out how deep the seeds should be: bigger seeds go deeper. If you sow too deep, down where the soil is colder, the seedlings will struggle to reach the surface and may fail. Up to three times the seed diameter, is a concept I’ve often read. Not that you need to measure it!
Drag a triangular hoe (warren hoe) or the corner of a regular hoe, along the ground where you want the plants to grow. If your line is not as straight as you like, fill it in and set out stakes and twine. Either use the shadow of the twine as your mark, or eyeball a constant distance from the twine to the hoe. Remember the depth you need. Fix any deep excavations, or superficial scratches.
Next open the resealable end of the seed packet and pour some out (not over the gum!) into a small dish or the palm of a dry hand. Keep in mind the plant spacing you are aiming for. Radishes, spinach, chard and beets can easily be seen, and sown at one per inch. Avoid the beginner mistake of tumbling many more times the seed you need in the furrow. It causes more work and weaker plants, because they grow up overcrowded, and you will have to thin them. For small seeds, aim at two or three seeds per inch. Really! It’s hard to get good at this skill, but it is well worth learning.
If you mess up, don’t pick up damp seeds and put them back in the packet. They will damage the dry seeds already in there.
Use the hoe or a rake to draw soil in over the seeds to the previous soil level, not mounded up. Next tamp the soil down over the rows, using a hoe or rake on end. This lets the seeds have good contact with damp soil, so they can get the air and water they need.
Cover with rowcover if needed, or if wanted to speed up growth. With rowcover, you will be biding time while spring warms up. The cold weather crops will not benefit from being overheated. Spinach, lettuce and Asian greens will all bolt if their environment in spring is too warm. Read about factors influencing bolting. You will probably have some warmer weather crops going in and you can move the rowcover on those rows.
Use insect netting if you need to protect your vulnerable seedlings from being gobbled up. You will need to remove the netting once flowers appear, so that the crops can get pollinated. If you have serious trouble with a particular pest, look in seed catalogs for parthenocarpic varieties, ones that set fruit without any pollination.
If it doesn’t rain, water the next day (day 2), then whenever the soil surface is dry. It is better to water deeply less often, than to water lightly each day. Light watering may simply not be enough, and will encourage the seedlings to make shallow roots, which will then die back if you don’t water often enough. Deep watering saves water, as a good depth of soil stays wet, and is protected from evaporation by the surface soil. Some people even go so far as to hoe very shallowly to create a “dust mulch” which prevents warm days wicking the moisture out of the soil. For most of use, this is more of a summer issue than a spring one.
Soaking and pre-sprouting seeds
Some larger seeds benefit from soaking before sowing. Peas and beans can be soaked overnight, but smaller seeds need less soaking. Be careful with beet seeds as they can easily drown and rot if soaked for too long.
Pre-sprouting can help with germination when soil temperatures are too cold or too hot for the crop to germinate in a timely way. In spring, if you presprout, be very careful not to overwater the soil until you see the seedlings emerging. This task is not as exacting as growing bean sprouts to eat. You don’t need to rinse them more than once every few days, if that.
To sow soaked or pre-sprouted seeds, first drain off the free water. If the wet seeds tend to clump together in your fingers, either spread the seeds out on a try or a piece of rowcover or similar, until the problem is solved (an hour?) or else mix the damp seeds with a dry, inert, organic dust, such as oat bran, or uncooked corn grits. Some people use dry sand, but if you have a lot to sow, you will find this quite abrasive to your fingers or to the plastic plate of the mechanical seeder.
If your seeds are expensive, or you don’t have many, or the germination is questionable, you can station sow, rather than sowing in a furrow (drill). Simply press a small divot in the soil at the chosen spacing and put about 3 seeds in the hole. Close the soil over the top. This works well if direct-sowing big crops like okra.
Using a push seeder
If you have long rows, you might use an EarthWay type seeder. These inexpensive push seeders are very quick and easy to use, and come with a set of relatively easily-changed plates with holes for seeds of different sizes. They are lightweight and can be used at a fast walking pace.
Market Gardeners will look longingly at the Jang Seeder, which is much more accurate at spacing seeds, and costs an undeniably much larger amount of money. At one time we kept our EarthWay just for carrot sowing (we grew a lot of carrots!), and we used a Planet Junior push seeder for other crops. These are heavy-duty seeders, with plates that are a confounded challenge to change over. In the wrong hands, or on the wrong day, the whole hopper and plate mechanism would fall off. Other people like them for their sturdiness and don’t have the problems I had.
Growers doing no-till seeding might be interested in the very heavy duty Haraka planterI wrote about last year. It is made in South Africa.
Gap-filling with transplants
A special application of direct-sowing is to prepare for incomplete rows emerging, by having some back-up transplants for gap-filling. We have often done this with our first sweet corn, in case the weather turns cold, or cold rain lands on the plot. Sweet corn can be successfully transplanted up to about 2” (5 cm) tall. We sowed ours in Styrofoam Speedling flats. In cold areas, some growers transplant their whole first planting.
Gap-filling in transplanted crops with station-sowed seeds
Another special application of direct-sowing is to fill gaps in rows of transplanted crops when you have no reserve, backup transplants. This only works for fairly fast-growing crops with long harvest periods. You will need to decide if your seeds will have time to reach harvestable size before the transplanted ones are pulled up.
Small-Scale Equipment and Innovative Techniques for Boosting Productivity, Zach Loeks, New Society Publishers, 2023. 232 pages, $39.99.
Although there is a definite “Tilling-is-bad” mantra in some circles, recent no-till books have spoken in favor of less tilling, rather than never any tilling. Even those in favor of minimizing tilling understand that some circumstances call for tilling, so let’s do it well. This very practical manual will help us deeply understand our two-wheel tractors and get the best out of them while giving them our best. Mindful, good use of machinery is important! This book will be useful to gardeners, homesteaders, landscapers, and small-scale farmers.
One of the author’s goals with this book is “to return the two-wheel tractor to its rightful place as a small-scale solution for land management, especially for diversified and highly profitable stewardship of farms, homesteads, and landscape.” Bigger is not necessarily better. Intensive agriculture can bring more profits than extensive acres of one crop.
Too many of us who use two-wheel tractors (still called rototillers by some, but in actuality two-wheeled tractors are much more versatile than that), look at the manual only when things go wrong. This book gives us the chance to really understand our machines. These are machines that we can maintain ourselves with regular tools. Knowledge is power.
Two-wheel tractors are affordable for new growers, easy to maneuver in small plots of different crops, adaptable with various pieces of equipment for many different cultivation tasks. They have a Power Take Off (PTO) and hitch system similar to four-wheel tractors, and they can connect to multiple implements. Those machines with the ability to rotate the handlebars can be used with a choice of rear-mounted or front-mounted implements.
Two-wheel tractors compact the soil much less than four-wheel tractors, and can use less fuel.
This book explains the various types of two-wheel tractors (BCS, Planet Junior, Ferrari, Grillo and others), so that you can buy the one best suited to the work you need it for. There is help in figuring out how much horse-power you need. The page on safety design will help those planning long hours of operation to get a durable machine. After reading this book, I think you will be able to increase the life of your machine (and maybe your knees).
There are plenty of clear color photos and drawings to help you make sense of it all. As in real-life farming in the US, nearly all of the people in the drawings appear to be white males. It’s hard to be certain when everyone is wisely wearing all the protective gear needed, but I wish the farmers had been more diverse! There is a deep look into the functions of each kind of implement, so you can be informed when choosing between a rotary plow and a furrower, for example. “Remember, equipment decision-making is where growers can make the biggest mistakes or have the greatest successes. Having the right equipment can revolutionize your homestead or farm, but the wrong equipment choices can begin to dictate how you grow instead of facilitating your chosen production.” One example is your preferred bed-width, and how well that matches the width of your equipment.
The book starts with a history of farming with horses and then their mechanical replacements. Next comes discussion of two-wheeled tractor essential components, types, and the benefits of each. The third chapter talks about specific accessories and adjustments you can make. This is followed by helpful discussion of which equipment is best suited to which scale and type of operation, and also the stage of development of the enterprise. Are you starting up, scaling up, or doing what Zach calls pro-ing up? Keep your later goals in mind and buy equipment now that will fit with what you need next.
There is a good chapter on maintenance and care. Be sure to do regular checks and maintenance, and provide good care and storage, starting with day one. Keep a special toolkit for timely repairs. This chapter includes recommended brands of maintenance supplies, a checklist of maintenance tips, and winter storage preparations.
For me, the main value of the book is in the first 5 chapters and chapter 8 on maintenance and care. The other two chapters will appeal most to permaculturists who like the classification of things and spaces into guilds, and circular diagrams. There is information there for everyone on techniques that could save you time and effort.
I learned valuable understanding in the “Two-Wheel Tractor Essential” chapter. I wasn’t raised on a farm and have approached machinery with a “need-to-know” style. I know which way to set switches but forget which setting of the choke is “in” and which is “out.” Now I understand better. Likewise, I followed the machinery manual in clipping the “operator presence control” and clutch into the U-shaped wire clip when putting the machine in the shed, but I didn’t know why it was important to do that. I passed the instruction on to all the people I trained, but noticed they frequently didn’t do it. The reason is to prevent a stuck clutch, which can happen if the two cone parts of the clutch are left touching while the machine is stored. Disengaging the clutch leaves a space between the two cones, so they don’t stick together.
Zach lists eleven Two-Wheel Tractor Benefits, including that the range of engine sizes gives us the ability to avoid over-large engines for small tasks. Another from the list is that two-wheeled tractors are easy to maneuver in small spaces, between diverse crops, including the ability to make tight turns.
There is a fundamental difference between multi-functional 2-wheel tractors with a PTO, and those without, which are mainly for row-crop cultivation, and can be made with smaller engines and a higher clearance for tall crops. The latter crop includes Planet Junior, Tuffy, and Tilmor Ox. The Tilmor Power Ox now has a wide range of cultivation tools made by Thiessen.
Multi-functional tractors with a PTO are more widely used than the cultivator types. Those such as BCS with reversible handlebars, can be used for front-mounted mowers and rear-mounted earth-moving implements. They have a lower clearance than cultivating tractors and therefore are more stable because of the lower center of gravity.
The section on tractor components includes labeled bird’s-eye-view diagrams of three BCS models. How much horsepower do you need? Various brands and sizes of engine are compared, and the pros and cons of each are discussed. Some pieces of equipment need more horsepower than others, so before buying anything, consider all the implements you might need. There is also a page on choosing and using used engines.
I had not considered the value of being able to lower the handlebars for more compact storage or to lift the tractor when using heavy pieces of equipment. Likewise, we here have all been in the habit of walking directly behind the tiller for better ergonomics, and have not fully explored the benefits of turning the handlebars slightly to one side. BCS handlebars are very easy to adjust!
There is design box explaining which gear to use for best results with which job. There is a bit of a human tendency to think faster is better. It ain’t necessarily so! Likewise, pressing down on the handlebars to get deeper tilling will cause the tractor to “walk” on its tines, removing the center of power from the engine and wheels (where the operator is in control). If you need deeper tilling, set the depth deeper! The mechanics of the tractors and implements are very clearly explained.
Tractors with a differential drive can make tighter turns when you unlock one wheel, meaning only one wheel is then being driven. The differential should be locked for field work (greater stability) and only unlocked for turning or negotiating tight spaces.
I like understanding the tractor better. I now appreciate what a wonderful thing a PTO is, and don’t take it for granted. It enables us to power a range of implements from the engine, rather than simply being ground-driven, or pulled. Having both color photos and hand-drawn diagrams makes it easier to understand the machines.
I don’t plan to need wheel weights, front weights or implement weights, but I know where to turn if I end up needing to know. Likewise, if we need a different space between the wheels, I can find out how to do it. I did learn that our rotary plow would work better on our BCS 732 if we had slightly larger wheels. Choosing the implements is only half of the job, the other half is learning how to get best use under your circumstances.
Safety is about design, maintenance, operation and protective gear. In this book you can read about the safety features designed into your BCS or other two-wheeled tractor, a list of operating safety tips, and a list of protective clothing and equipment.
The next chapter is about implements and their uses, and instructions for getting them on and off the tractor, with good clear photos. I’m a big fan of the BCS Quick-hitch. We graduated from one BCS with a quick-hitch, tiller, hiller and rotary brush mower, to two BCS machines. We kept one set up for mowing, one for tilling, but each had a quick-hitch and so could be called in as a backup if one machine was down.
Zach addresses the misconceptions around tilling. All working of the soil is a form of tillage, however you do it. No-till and low-till methods reduce tillage. But you cannot successfully (organically) eliminate all earthworking from a farm. If the soil was not tilled previously by someone else, you will need to do primary tillage to open new land. Tarping will not deal with soil compaction. You can move towards the 4-S tillage principles: Seldom, Shallow, Softly (minimal depth?) and Sorted (patterned, meaning leaving a patchwork of untilled areas while tilling the areas you need soon). (There might be some specialized permaculture terminology there that I didn’t quite understand.)
The chapter on equipment decision-making alone is worth the price of the book. It can save expensive purchasing mistakes. Chose implements matching the scale of your enterprise (bearing in mind planned future expansion). How many acres do you have in actual production? This is a more important number than the total acreage of your farm. Market growers working more than 2-3 acres might need a two-wheeled cultivating tractor as well as a multipurpose BCS-type tractor. They may even need a 4-wheeled tractor.
Consider “investment” as a concept including space, time, energy and money. Growing more extensively will use more space, while saving time by using a bigger tractor. That will involve more fuel use (energy) and more money. Trade-offs. Zach has a chart of three scales of enterprise and the tools needed for each of four tasks for each scale. The discussion of extensive versus intensive agriculture shows that either type can be done on a small acreage (consider an acre of garlic in rows 6” apart (intensive) or 15” apart (extensive)). Intensive agriculture can bring in higher profits from the same space without requiring investment in more equipment. The investment there is of more time. Extensive land management uses more land, but less time, and it can save on money too, as when hay, mulches and green manures are grown on site, rather than bought-in.
Projects can develop and grow over time, changing the scale and the needs of the operation. Be mindful of your goals, and prepare a “Static Goal” rather than do continuous random expansions. When you reach the static-state goal, everything should be in balance, equilibrium. Zach then leads us through an example towards a static state 3-acre farm. For example, better to buy a 30” tiller at start-up than the initially-adequate 26”.
Here the book dips more towards permaculture terms, diagrams and ideas for a chapter. The information on deciding which implements you need is accessible, and you can either embrace or ignore the guild terminology. The glossary at the end will save you from getting lost in the TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). Some of the same implements are mentioned more than once, to fit the format. There are many pieces of equipment I did not even know of.
Other aspects of farming to consider (apart from intensive/extensive) are profit per square foot and resiliency. Diversity of crops and crop rotation can provide resiliency, but continuous fancy lettuce grown with bought-in inputs can make a higher money profit.
Chapter 5 looks in detail at several example farms, from a backyard gardener to several market gardens. Interesting narratives, with drawings of soil prep stages using various equipment. And separately, lists of tasks to be undertaken. I started by assuming the numbered tasks correlated with the drawings, but it’s not as precise as that. There is a useful “Design Box” on cultivation for row-based planting, useful to those of us who haven’t tackled that yet. Another is about tree nurseries, a side of farming that doesn’t get many manuals (that I’ve seen).
In chapter 6, there are instructions for farming on terraces, and then the permaculture “Permabeds” system. In this chapter you can also learn how to add wheel extensions.
Chapter 7 starts with ways to clear new land, micro-plow it, and form beds with the formidable BCS power ridger, which goes on the front of the tractor. Using tarps to get rid of weeds is also briefly explained, and shown in a series of photos. Zach recommends making life simple by choosing five variations of row spacing, centered on a constant center row.
Chapter 8 is a mini-manual on maintenance and care, another useful section written in a very accessible way. The tool kit drawings are helpful, as is the advice to keep the tractor tools in a special bag on a special shelf, ready to grab if you need to take it down the field. There’s a good list of maintenance supplies, including recommended brand names. There is information on winter storage, and specific instructions for checking and tightening cables, changing Honda engine oil, understanding oils (making it more likely we’ll use the right kind).
Those who start early in “spring” (late winter) might get earlier crops, but when is it worth it?
Some crops are just not going to thrive if you start too soon: cucumbers, peppers, and even tomatoes, for example. Make sure you can provide conditions that meet the minimum temperature requirements for these tender crops. See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for all the details. We used to start these tender crops earlier than we do now. March conditions have become more unreliable, often colder.
If you already have a place to grow protected crops, or you are experienced with rowcover and have plenty on hand, then the signs are good. Crops can be started earlier in a greenhouse or hoophouse (or even on a kitchen windowsill) than you can sow them outdoors. When the plants reach a good size, harden them off and then plant them out in a mild spell, with rowcover for the first couple of weeks. Pay close attention to weather forecasts.
“Hardening off” is a process of acclimating your plants to colder, brighter, breezier conditions, so that they won’t suffer when they are transplanted. If you have only a small number of plants, or of flats, you could actually bring them back indoors every night and set them out every morning for 10-14 days. Growers with lots of crops to harden off will make use of a coldframe. Depending on the actual temperature (or the expected night-time low) we might leave our plants uncovered, use rowcover, top the rowcover with transparent lids (“lights”) , and if it’s going to be really cold, quilted covers, weighted down with wood beams if it is the least bit windy.
After two weeks of hardening off, look for a few days of mild, calm weather to plant them out in the garden. Water the plants well the day before transplanting, and again one hour before transplanting. This allows the cells of the plants to fill up with water, enough to tide them over the period of “transplant shock”.
Even the most skillful of us end up doing some damage to the roots of transplants, and that means the plants have to regrow some lateral roots and root hairs before they can pull in water at the rate they were doing before your ministrations. As you transplant, avoid touching the roots of the plants. Our fingers damage the root hairs.
A way to minimize the root damage is to use soil blocks or Winstrip plug flats. These methods are more expensive in time or money than open flats or bare root transplants, but they allow the roots to get “air-pruned” as they grow. When the roots reach the air at the edges of the blocks, or at the vertical slits on the sides of the Winstrip cells, they stop growing, rather than circle around the cell, causing the plant to get root bound. Secondly, these tools work by helping the roots and compost form a coherent block, one that holds together as you pop it into the hole you create in the soil.
Speedling flats are styrofoam flats with tapered cells, and it is possible to slide the plugs out (or gently pull them out) with little damage. Regular cell packs (4-packs, 6-packs etc) can be encouraged to release their transplants by squeezing them at the base of a cell, while holding the pack sideways. Then spread your fingers over the compost around the pant, invert the pack and hopefully the plant and its compost stays as an item, with your fingers either side of the stem.
Hold the plant with one hand by a seed leaf, or if you have to, by the stem. The seed leaves are disposable, stems and roots are not! Hold the plant at the right height, usually with all the stem below the leaves in the ground and all the leaves above ground. Once the plant is in the ground at the right height, hold it there and use the other hand (maybe with a trowel) to push in soil to fill the hole. Firm the soil down quite well, pulling in more soil as needed to leave a level surface. You don’t want the plant to be in a divot, where water can accumulate.
About the degree of firmness: you are aiming to make good contact between the soil and the plant roots, so the roots are not in air pockets, but rather can suck in water from the between soil particles. Don’t firm so hard that you expel the air from the soil and make what feels like concrete the next day. With cabbages, I was taught to firm enough so that if you then grasp a leaf and pull, the leaf tears off, rather than pulling up the whole plant.
Plant for 20-30 minutes, then pause and water in each of the new transplants by hand. Some people will bring a watering can along the row and water each one, one at a time. I prefer to do little batches. At the end of you transplanting session, water the whole row or bed again. try to avoid having piles or dishpans of plants with roots exposed to the air. Definitely don’t take a tea break if you have exposed plants.
Cover with rowcover if needed, or shadecloth if the weather is very bright and sunny. This will just be for a few weeks, helping the plants recover from the transplant shock, and biding time while spring warms up.
If it doesn’t rain, water again the next day (day 2), then on days 4 and 6, then twice a week, then once a week forever after that, until harvest is completed.
We are still in the dormant period for most fruits, but in March, we get to appreciate and enjoy rhubarb! In case you didn’t already know, RHUBARB LEAVES ARE POISONOUS – don’t eat them!
I have a funny story related to this (no one died): One year a novice cook baked us a fine looking pie. She scrupulously cut off every scrap of leaf and put it in the compost bucket. She chopped the stems, added plenty of sugar, and baked the pie. The gardeners among the diners were surprised to get a rhubarb pie so late in the spring. Ah! She had used Ruby chard (sometimes even called Rhubarb chard). The pie was OK, but we were sad not to get to eat he leaves! The non-gardeners ate the pie and found nothing odd about it.
Rhubarb is the Focus Fruit for March: Weed, compost around the plants, or where you think the plants are! Mulch if not already done in the fall. Divide & replant if needed.
The information below first appeared in an article I wrote for Growing for Market magazine in October 2009. I have revised it slightly for this post.
This is a good time of year to plan and make preparations for planting new perennial crops. As well as the better known fruits, options include rhubarb, (also known as pie plant), and asparagus. Both are early harvesting crops, so can provide fresh crops to start your CSA season, or enhance your market booth or your offerings for restaurants. Rhubarb can also be used in jam-making, for growers looking for value-added products to extend the market season. Rhubarb is better known among older people, so supplying recipe cards and samples of baked goods or jam may be a good idea to help boost sales. As rhubarb is very tart and rarely eaten raw, you cannot offer raw samples. It needs cooking to bring out the aromatic mellow flavor.
Rhubarb will be in the ground for up to 20 years, so it is important to incorporate it into your field plans after a bit of long-term thinking. This article covers what you need to know to establish the crops, including a look ahead to what you might expect in the future.
Crop Requirements of Rhubarb
Rhubarb appreciates deep soil with high organic matter, and as with all long term crops, it pays to remove perennial weeds before planting. Moderate to high levels of phosphorus and potassium are desirable, and a pH of 6.2-6.8. This is a very easy care crop, with few pests or diseases, requiring little attention.
Rhubarb is a cool climate crop – the north of England is “Rhubarb Central” – the area where rhubarb grows best. I have visited the UK National Rhubarb Collection within Harlow Carr Gardens , near Harrogate in Yorkshire. It’s a collection of different rhubarb varieties, a kind of growing gene bank. Rhubarb does require a winter chill period to break the heat-induced dormancy and start spring growth. Varieties vary in their chill requirements, from about 500 hours at between 28°F (-2°C) and 49°F (9°C). We successfully grow rhubarb in central Virginia, USDA cold hardiness zone 7 and also National Horticultural Society zone 7 for summer temperatures. I was told by a plant nursery in Tennessee that rhubarb would not grow in such a warm place, but our experience says otherwise. Ideal summer temperatures for this crop average around 75°F (24°C). Our summer temperatures include many days above 90°F (32°C). To protect the rhubarb from the heat, we planted it in a single north-south row, directly west of our asparagus and east of our grapevines. In summer it is shaded on both sides. Choose a microclimate to protect from extreme temperatures, and from drying out. It is hardy down to –20°F (-29°C). Early season open sun exposure is valuable.
Ensure a good regular supply of water from spring when growth starts, until fall frosts. On the other hand, avoid water-logged sites, as Crown Rot is one of the few diseases rhubarb can suffer from. Very sandy soils aren’t good for rhubarb, unless you can make heavy additions of organic matter. To test drainage at a potential site, dig a 12” (30 cm) hole, fill with water. If the water has all percolated within 3 hours the site is suitable.
Choosing Rhubarb Varieties and Buying Plants
Although rhubarb can be grown from seed, it is much more usually grown from “crowns” (young plants), or from pieces of crowns divided from established plants. Plants started from seed will be two years old before harvest can start. Our plants at Twin Oaks are of unknown parentage, having been divided and moved around the farm a few times. Many people don’t even realize that rhubarb has distinct varieties, and many nurseries only offer one or two. Growers may wish to select either red or green stalks (green can be more flavorful), yield, disease resistance or winter chilling requirement. Try to get recommendations from other local growers, or buy several and see which does best. Here’s some information I’ve found, although there may be duplication of names for the same variety:
Macdonald: pinky-red, thin tender, upright stalks, some resistance to crown rot.
Victoria: green tall stalks, good vigor, tart flavor, makes many seed stalks.
Tilden: Good red color, thick stalks.
Valentine: Good red color, medium vigor, few seed stalks.
Crimson: Thick red stalks.
Canada Red: for cooler regions. Red stalks, high in sugars.
Red Cherry: for low winter chill areas. Grown in California.
Once you have some established rhubarb it is very easy to propagate and have more. The roots of rhubarb become enormous, and even small broken pieces will grow. To divide the crowns, use a sharp shovel or spade to chop through an unearthed crown, creating pieces with 2 or 3 buds on each. This can be done very early in the spring, before growth has started, or late in the fall. If fall is the recommended time for planting other fruits in your area, it will also work as a time for dividing rhubarb. After dividing, let the cut surfaces air dry for a day or two before replanting.
It is generally recommended to renovate rhubarb plantings every 5-10 years, by digging up and dividing the roots. This gives the opportunity to move or to increase the planting. If your stalks have become thin, brittle and hollow, it’s time to divide and renovate your planting.
Plant in very early spring (or late fall). If you buy crowns and cannot plant them when they arrive, store them in a refrigerator, and check to prevent mold growing during storage. After preparing your site and removing perennial weeds, incorporate about 15 tons of compost per acre (34 metric ton per hectare). On a smaller scale, this translates to one or two shovelfuls of compost per plant. Crowns should be planted 2-3 ft (0.6-1 m) apart, with the bud about an inch (2.5 cm) below the soil surface. Make trenches or holes 6” (15 cm) deep. Fill in the holes or trenches, pack firmly (except directly over the bud), and water well. For multiple rows, space the rows 3-4ft (1 m or so) apart. Rhubarb is a large plant and will easily use this amount of space. To combat over-wet soils, use raised beds. Organic mulch will help prevent weeds and keep the soil cool and moist.
Rhubarb grows actively in the spring, and then in most climates, goes dormant for the summer. Once fall frosts arrive, the leaves and stems will die back to the ground and you can do the annual maintenance.
Give an annual application of compost in the fall when the plant goes dormant, and mulch around the plants with straw or spoiled hay. In early spring come back to your plants, weed, and add more mulch and perhaps more compost if needed as soon as you see the big pink buds emerging from the soil. Provide 1-2” (0.5-1 cm) of water per week.
The warmer your climate, the more flower stalks you will see. Unlike the squarish leaf stalks, flower stalks are round. They quickly grow tall, above the leaves, and have big buds at the top. For maximum rhubarb yield, remove these flower stems as soon as you see them, by cutting them low down, or at least by cutting off the flower buds as you go by. We harvest stalks twice a week in April and May, and cut the flower stems out at the same time.
In the Rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire, England, there are farms with dark forcing sheds, where pale pink rhubarb grows. It is harvested by candlelight. Click the link for the audio slideshow.
Rhubarb emerges from hibernation once temperatures have reached the upper 40°F (5°C) range for several weeks. Do not harvest stalks the first year after planting, as it is important to help the plant get well established.
Most people harvest by grasping a thick stem near the base, and twisting and pulling. We like to pull 1/3 of the stalks available and leave at least 2/3 of them growing, but with big plants you can remove half of the stalks, provided you leave at least 10 stalks per plant. I believe it is possible to cut all the stems at ground level, if you have a big commercial planting and need a fast harvesting technique. This may only apply to those growing rhubarb as an annual, setting new plants each year.
The leaves (and any frosted stalks) of rhubarb are poisonous, as noted above. This is due to the presence of oxalic acid, so play it safe and cut the leaves off in the field, bringing only the stalks to the shed. We like to stand the stalks upright in buckets and add an inch (2.5 cm) of water to keep them crisp.
As well as the 6-8 weeks of spring harvest, it is also possible to take one or two harvests in September, in most regions. Some people “force” rhubarb for an earlier spring yield, using rowcovers or field houses, or digging up the roots in late fall and replanting them in a heated greenhouse. Forced plants can be harvested twice a week for 4-6 weeks, but then they are fairly exhausted.
A respectable yield is 2-3 pounds (1-1.5 k) of stalks per mature plant per year, or 15 tons per acre (34 metric tons per hectare).
It’s not just pies and crumbles (similar to cobblers). I recently saw a recipe for mackerel with rhubarb. Roasted rhubarb, topped with mackerel fillets, broiled (that’s “Grilled” in the UK), and served with watercress. Back in the dessert realm there are cold summer dishes like rhubarb fool, a kind of fluffy soufflé.
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Other small fruits still available in March
Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears are all we are likely to have, apart from buying imports. Remember that vegetables are at least as nutritious as fruit, but simply have fewer sugars. The vitamin C content of green leafy vegetables is as good as oranges. Even potatoes have a fair amount of vitamin C, as Carol Deppe points out in a very interesting article The 20 Potato a Day Diet versus the Nearly All Potato Winter about the nutritional and gastronomic wonders of potatoes. It will inspire you to grow and eat more potatoes! (if you can find it. I can’t now.) Try https://www.resilience.org/resilience-author/carol-deppe/
The vitamin C is concentrated just under the skin, so hopefully you have grown organic potatoes and will eat the skins too.
Other fruit care in March in the mid-Atlantic
Complete any weeding, fertilizing, mulching, and planting new plants early in March! Mow aisles (a regular task from now on.)
Blueberries: Plant new bushes now, before buds break. Weed, and restore mulch if it is thin. Set up irrigation – we’ve often been surprised how early in the year we need to start irrigating.
Summer-fruiting raspberries: Mulch, water. Weed shallowly. Set up ropes or wires to hold the canes in check.
Fall raspberries: Weed and water all raspberries. Plant new canes if needed, keep the roots damp during planting. Once the beds are all prepared, go ahead and set T-posts and ropes or wires to corral the newly emerging canes. We like to use T-pots so we can remove them at the end of the season and mow right over the beds. Fall raspberries start from scratch growing new canes each year. It’s a great help with weeding!
Strawberries: Weed this month, before the winter annual weeds seed all over the place. Water new beds if they need it. Get rowcover out once you see flowers. That’s not till April here, but if you are in a warmer climate you need to know to cover any flowers on frosty nights. The leaves will be fine, so if your rowcover is skimpy, it’s OK if leaves are exposed for the night. Keep deer off (electric fence?) Set up drip irrigation and water twice a week from now till November, unless it rains enough. Top up wood chip path mulch. Fill any gaps using runners.
Grapes: Mow if needed. Water if there is a spring drought. Weed, top up mulch if needed. This is the last chance this year to plant new vines. Prune them after planting, and tie them to a sturdy cane or the low wire of the trellis. If using the Geneva Double Curtain method, note that vines are trained to alternate sides of the bottom wire and then to alternate sides of top wires, where they will have space to spread.
Random fruits: Depending on your climate, you could still plant new fruit bushes and canes, and there may still be pruning to take care of. This is a good time to repair or replace broken support frameworks.
I wrote about the Real Organic Project here in June 2018. In February 2023 I found their booth at the Pasa conference and chatted with the people there. I picked up a few leaflets, and signed up for their electronic newsletter. They also have a podcast; I also discovered they are in the middle of their 2023 Virtual Symposium on Sunday Feb 26 and Sunday March 5 3-5pm EST. A virtual series of talks with more than 30 prominent organic farmers, scientists, chefs, and climate activists.
The Real Organic Project was formed in January 2018 to educate, promote, and advocate for traditional biological farming, which used to be called “Organic Farming.” The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) was a great idea that has gone wrong. Much about the National Organic Program is a success, and most of the farms being certified deserve to be called real organic. But the farm products from a tiny minority of large industrial operations now being certified are at odds with the original intent of organic farming. Unfortunately, these few operations produce a large, and growing, proportion of the food labeled organic on the market today.
The NOP has been increasingly reduced to a marketing brand, focused on the verifiability of inputs: seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock feed and medications, with little regard to other aspects of sustainable regenerative, biological farming.
As CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and hydroponics (growing crops in a solution of plant nutrients) became an ever bigger part of the certified organic products, the public has been misled. The real organic farms who still make up the vast majority of certified operations (if not the volume of products) are being lost in the smoke and mirrors. A story written by Cornucopia noted that the remaining 6 “organic” dairy farms in Texas (all large CAFOs) produce one and a half times more milk than the 450 certified family dairy farms in Wisconsin. Organic family dairy farms being driven out of business in Vermont and California by CAFOs every day.
The Cornucopia Institute was founded about ten years ago. One of their first activities was to expose industrial-scale confinement dairies with 4,000-10,000 cows producing organic milk.
The Real Organic Project is intended as a catalyst to reinvigorate the organic farming movement to fill the void left by failures of integrity, transparency, and public process in setting the NOP standards. To support the Real Organic Project, please visit their website to become a member.
The Real Organic Project requires tomatoes to be grown in fertile soil. The USDA allows hydroponic tomatoes to be certified organic.
The Real Organic Project requires berries to be grown in fertile soil. The USDA allows hydroponic berries to be certified organic.
The Real Organic Project requires cows to be raised on pasture. The USDA allows confinement dairy operations to be certified organic.
The Real Organic Project requires chickens to be raised on pasture. The USDA certifies eggs from chickens who have never been outside.
Real Organic has an add-on label to the USDA Organic label. This wrap-around label prohibits hydroponic and CAFO production, instead requiring practices that maintain and improve the health of the soil. With this add-on label, farmers are creating a new way of communicating their practices to consumers who care. The Real Organic Project’s goal is transparency in the marketplace through “Know Your Farmer” videos. Through this effort, they have brought together farmers, scientists, eaters, and advocates whose common interest is to support real organic farming.
Origin of Livestock. In NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
Grazing Requirement. There is strong evidence that current NOP grazing requirements are not being met. This standard tightens the current standard, and it will be enforced.
Grown in the Ground. Current NOP decisions permit 100% hydroponic production with no relationship between the soil and plants. This standard mirrors the EU standard that requires crops to be grown in the soil, in contact with the subsoil, in contact with the bedrock.
Soil Management. Current NOP language requires certified farms to maintain and improve the fertility of the soil, but these standards are often not being met. This standard simply reinforces the language and intention of OFPA (Organic Foods Production Act) and the NOP language.
Greenhouse Production. NOP standards around greenhouse production have never been set. This standard prohibits the use of 100% artificial lighting and requires an energy plan to show steady progress in reducing the carbon footprint.
Animal Welfare. Following the recent rejection of the animal welfare standard (known as OLPP, Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices), CAFO production of poultry has become accepted in NOP certification. Our standard requires genuine outdoor access for all animals. It also addresses other animal welfare concerns, such as tail docking and beak trimming, that are needed in farming systems that allow overcrowding of livestock.
Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.
Book Review Practical No-Till Farming: A Quick and Dirty Guide to Organic Vegetable and Flower Growing by Andrew Mefferd, New Society Publishers, November 2022, 240 pages, $34.99.
This is a valuable quick-start guide to small-scale and medium-scale no-till farming, for which many growers will be grateful. Get a tarp, get started and learn as you go, reading this and Andrew Mefferd’s earlier book, Organic No-Till Farming Revolution as needed. Practical No-Till Farming cuts to the chase with a decision-making matrix for choosing the best methods at each transition point, methods that are regenerative, efficient and earn you a living.
Done well, organic no-till growing can produce more for the time you put in, while improving the biodiversity in the soil. Yields can also be higher per area, while weed management is easier and to add to the benefits, you can sequester carbon in the soil at the same time.
WHAT IS NO-TILL?
The author’s definition of no-till includes any method that doesn’t invert the soil profile. There are no-till farmers who go further and avoid growing root crops, because digging them out resembles tillage. Everyone sets their own limits. Andrew encourages all to try reducing tillage, as a step to good care of the soil.
There are many no-till methods, including covering with silage tarps, mulching with cardboard, straw, or compost. And there are many opinions on the best way to get started. Practical No-Till Farming will help you choose the methods best suited to your situation. This book includes how to:
assess no-till options for your farm, considering soil, climate, and the crops you want to grow;
balance the pros and cons, and assess the materials and the relative costs of popular no-till methods;
use a decision-making matrix for choosing good no-till methods at each stage of your journey;
maximize productivity of no-till production;
deal with bindweed, symphylans, and other difficult weeds and pests;
make a task list of what to do and when, for each no-till method;
learn from Andrew’s experience of organic vegetable and flower no-till market farming.
WHY DO NO-TILL?
The first 70 pages of the book, approximately, are full with the Why of No-Till. The Why is followed by about 130 pages of the How of No-Till, including advantages and disadvantages of tilling and no-till, tarping, mulching, cropping strategies, transitions between crops, and good crops to focus on. You can even skip the Why section and go straight to the How section (although you’ll probably want to come back later).
It has been three years since Andrew’s first no-till book, The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution, and many kinds of no-till are underway, (some for 10,000 years): lasagna gardening, no-dig, and permanent mulch. What’s fairly new is doing this on a farm scale rather than a backyard scale. Chemical no-till farming has taken off in the US, paired with GMO crops that don’t die when sprayed with herbicides. Without tillage, there is less soil erosion, but the runoff water from chemical no-till fields has high levels of herbicides and pesticides, so the environment is far from improved. Many organic, sustainable, regenerative farmers want to use no-till methods without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, in order to take better care of the soil and the wider environment.
We take care of the soil biology so it can cycle nutrients to our plants. Soil micro-organisms release nutrients that would otherwise stay locked up in the soil. We can consciously farm these little creatures, ensuring they have conditions where they can thrive and thus make nutrients available to our crops. Tillage kills many soil micro-organisms, especially the larger ones, leaving the soil dominated by bacteria rather than fungi. No-till methods favor the symbiotic relationships in the soil, some of which were only discovered in the past 20 years.
Tillage burns up the organic matter. We then have to add more back to grow crops. Tillage dries out the soil, and we then have to irrigate. No-till is less wasteful, more regenerative and more profitable. This book explores the advantages of no-till in a reader-friendly informative way.
No-till farming is particularly valuable to new farmers as it does not require large pieces of land or large equipment (aka lots of money). One person with access (not even ownership) to one acre (0.4 hectare) of land, and hand tools and tarps can start a small farm with very little else, and make a living. No-till enables farming on land otherwise unsuitable: too steep, too small, an awkward shape. Also on land with contaminated soil – grow flowers, or grow food crops in containers on a tarp over the soil.
No-till gives you more flexibility about when fields are prepped and planted. Tarping allows beds to be “saved” for later. In an urgent situation, use tarps slow down the descent into chaos that can overcome a beginner farmer or one whose life has taken an unexpected turn.
Andrew is upfront about the disadvantages of no-till: soils are slower to warm up in spring, and slower to provide nutrients to very early crops; the first year or two may be difficult, as the weed pressure takes time to reduce. Some methods are hard to scale up (think about acres of tarps). Some pests flourish in high-residue fields. Field-scale no-till methods tend to suppress weeds but not eliminate them. Perennial weeds can become a bigger problem as years go by, and you’ll have no mechanical way to eliminate them.
Some no-till methods require patience. You could tarp a piece of land in grass in the fall, and leave the tarp in place until spring, to plant annual crops. Tarping works by smothering plants and depriving them of light. If the soil is damp when tarped, weed seeds can germinate, but will then die due to lack of light. Tarping or heavy mulching do take longer to kill weeds, but passively: during that time you can do other tasks.
To succeed in feeding the soil, make sure the soil contains something to digest the weeds or crop debris – the soil microbiome. Take care of the micro-livestock, and they will convert the nutrients into forms the future crops can use.
Sometimes preparation for no-till involves tilling (one last time). “You can’t grow a carrot in a lawn.” Tillage is a reset button for turning pasture or a lawn into arable land. Likely you will need to make a trade-off between using your ideal no-till method, and earning some money from your farming sooner than the year it could take to tarp the sod to death.
Some no-till methods are more suited to large areas. One example is the roller-crimper method of terminating cover crops with a crimping roller to form a mulch in place, into which the new crop is transplanted. There are special no-till drills that can plant seed into a fairly thick killed cover crop residue. These are large machines. Not all no-till growers can (or want to) plant large areas with large machines.
On a small scale, transplanting into mow-killed or roll-killed cover crops works much better than direct seeding. Likewise, transplants are easier in the looser soil of a no-till system with raised beds, where you remove the old crop, add needed compost and amendments on top, and plant the new crop. Transplants can root in rougher soil than a seed can germinate in. If seeding, the bigger the seed, the easier the task. You might be surprised to learn that most crops can be transplanted, including sweet corn, watermelon, winter squash, peas and beans. Another advantage of using transplants is that you have living roots in the soil for a higher proportion of the time, compared with direct seeding. Another is the gain of effective growing season: you may be able to grow two or three crops in sequence, because each is in the ground for several weeks less than when you direct-sow. Sometimes transplanting the crop will be easier than making a fluffy seedbed to drill into. Transplanting one-cut lettuce rather than sowing baby salad mix, is an example of changing techniques to fit the no-till paradigm.
Compacted soil can present a challenge in no-till systems. Test by pushing a wire flag into the oil. Use a broadfork to loosen the compacted soil without turning it. Instructions and photos are in the Getting Started chapter.
To use the tarping method, first do soil tests and a test of your compost. Amend your soil as needed, let your compost mature longer if that’s what the tests indicate. Then reduce the height of whatever is growing on the land, as much as possible, by mowing or grazing. If you want the plants to rot away, be sure to run irrigation under the tarp. Dry soil will not rot plants. Cutting the plant matter into small pieces before tarping (with a weed whip or flail mower) will speed up decomposition.
Next, reduce the weed seed bank, by a process called “stale seed-bedding” where you prepare the bed ahead of time, deliberately germinate the weed seeds, then kill the weeds before the crop is planted. Tarping, (provided you leave the tarp down long enough, at least 4 weeks) can germinate and kill the newly emerging weeds.
If that doesn’t happen, you will need to manage the weeds another way. Flame-weeding of tiny weeds provides a clean seedbed. If you miss the white-thread stage of weeds, use a wire weeder, stirrup hoe (scuffle hoe), or a fine-tined weeder to kill small weeds in an existing crop, without inverting any soil. “Blind cultivation” is a method of cultivation after sowing the crop, pulling flexible fine tines shallowly (and fairly quickly) over the surface, killing white-thread-stage weeds. Blind cultivation tools were previously only available as tractor implements, but they are now also made in a manual version. You could instead, lay thick organic mulch, or a sheeting mulch over the soil. There are photos of these tools in action in the book.
Solarization in sunny weather with temperatures above 65°F (18°C), will kill existing weeds in just a couple of days. Solarization involves installing clear hoophouse plastic (UV-inhibited) in close contact with the soil, with the edges firmly held down to trap heat. There is a whole chapter on tarping (aka occultation) and solarization, with everything you need to know to start using these techniques. For small weeds, solarizing is quicker than tarping. Weed seeds and roots of perennial weeds will not die as fast as small weeds.
Mulches are inert materials put on top of the soil to keep weeds and moisture in, to keep light and weed seeds out, or both. The term includes tarps, clear plastic, landscape fabric, plastic mulch, cardboard, paper, straw, tree leaves, woodchips, thick layers of compost, and more. Organic mulches cool the soil (for better or worse), and can attract and harbor some pests (voles, slugs).
Mulch can be grown in place, then mowed or rolled at the right stage, to kill the cover crop. Cover crops start to decompose as soon as terminated, so don’t do it ahead of time. When cover crops start to decompose, weeds start to germinate. You need to plan the timing for this system to work well: when to sow the cover crop, when to terminate, when to transplant the food crop. You need a dense cover crop planting. This system doesn’t fit with frequent plantings of small amounts of crop, but can work well for larger areas of warm-weather transplanted crops. You may have to hand-pull weeds that do come up. If your scale is too small for a tractor-mounted crimping roller, you can try the small-scale method involving two people stepping on a T-post laid across the bed. You can tarp after crimping or mowing. Keeping the cover crop dry delays decomposition.
Winter-killed cover crops provide another opportunity to transplant into mulch grown in place. This only works in early spring, and will keep the soil cooler, and the soil nutrients less available than in bare soil. Be warned – this can delay and reduce harvests of early spring crops.
There is a useful chart summarizing the turning points in a season where a decision needs to be made between one management decision or another. The beginning of season: are there few or many weeds? Time to prep beds: will you be sowing or transplanting? Time to deal with weeds: do you have mulch or not? At the end of the crop: do you have low or high crop residue? At the end of the season: will you use tarps or cover crops?
The best crops to focus on are ones that are in demand, and ones that bring a high price. If space is short, don’t grow sweet corn! One-cut lettuce, with all-small leaves can be a good no-till alternative to baby lettuce mix. Harvest and replant from plugs. You can earn more money, because of the higher yield. Harvest each new planting 30 days later (longer in midwinter). This method keeps living roots in the soil all the time. (unlike baby salad mix). One-cut lettuce has a longer shelf life and fewer brown edges than cut leaves. The seed does cost more, and you need a propagation greenhouse to grow the transplants. For many growers the disadvantages are much fewer than the advantages.
Quick crops lead to multiple crop transitions, and no-till methods make transitions quicker. Cut the old crop (and weeds) off at the soil line, add compost and amendments, and replant. Or tarp the bed, weeds and all, and replant when the residues have died. Flail mowing the residues will speed up the decomposition, whether you are tarping or not.
Andrew includes a case study growing hemp in a quarter-acre (0.1 hectare) field that had not been used for two years, and had partly returned itself to grass. He limed first, then tarped for the month of May, using a cobbled-together mix of some clear greenhouse plastic and some opaque tarps. The weather was cool and rainy (not ideal). The tarps were removed in mid-June. Not much vegetation had survived. Andrew did a soil test, added fertilizer and 4” (10 cm) of compost, then unrolled hay on 5’ (1.5 m) centers, leaving 1’ (30 cm) unmulched in center of each bed, where the plants would go. He transplanted 4” (10 cm) seedlings, and one month later, the weeds were as tall as the crop. He spent eight hours hand-weeding, and two hours with a weed whip. The plants grew to 6-7’ (2 m) by the end of the season, and had closed the canopy, preventing any more weeds from growing. No time was saved compared to tillage method! But the weed seed bank was reduced, and the soil life was conserved, and carbon was sequestered in the soil Definitely successful!
The book finishes up with an appendix, glossary, notes, citations, bibliography, and index. A valuable resource for all of us aspiring to do less tillage, and especially for those hoping to eliminate tillage altogether.
Blueberries are easy to grow if conditions are right. They are a popular choice with organic growers, because they don’t need any pesticides to produce a good crop. They do, however, need annual pruning to be sure of a high quality crop. Pruning also keeps the bushes at a height easy to harvest from. Pruning is done during the dormant season, usually between December-early March in the Piedmont.
Some people are reluctant to prune because it does remove some of the flower buds and reduces berry production for that year, but if pruning is not carried out, berries become smaller each year and the health of the bushes declines. Pruning is an investment in the long-term success of your plants!
The Growing Small Farms website links to many how-to videos and fact sheets, with diagrams and photos. There are excellent resources on pruning and blueberry production in general. Everything you need to know about pruning blueberry bushes!
Another good resource is this article in the Agricultural Research Service newsletter
“We focus on improving the shelf life of fruit so that it reaches consumers with consistently better texture and flavor,” said Claire Luby, plant geneticist with HCPGIR. Perhaps a large challenge for Luby and her colleagues is developing a cultivar that is resistant to a disease known to be a scourge of the berry: blueberry shock virus.
“We’re studying diverse blueberry plants to understand the genetic basis for blueberry shock virus, which can significantly impact yields for farmers,” she said. “Our hope is to use the insights from this project to develop new cultivars that are resistant, or at least more tolerant to, the disease.” Blueberry shock virus has caused annual crop losses of 34-90% in the Pacific Northwest.
Researchers combine traditional plant breeding with genomics to create their disease-resistant cultivars. The traditional technique (used in one form or another by people trying to improve agricultural crops for millennia) is to take pollen from one plant and use it to pollinate a different plant with complementary characteristics. They study the progeny of these crosses, looking for new characteristics that meet the goals of the breeding programs. Traditional blueberry breeding can take more than 20 years from the time an initial cross is made to when a consumer might eat from a resulting cultivar.
“We try to improve the accuracy and speed of the plant breeding process,” Luby explained. “We are now able to obtain a lot more genetic information about the plants and we can use that information to potentially predict whether an offspring of a given cross might have the characteristics we are looking for before we plant it out in the field. This is important because it can increase the speed of the plant breeding process.”
“Our goals are to develop blueberries that require fewer chemical inputs to fight disease, which can be better for both the environment and for growers’ bottom lines,” Luby said.
The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in U.S. agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.
Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production
At the in-person Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference, I gave two presentations. I also sent a recorded workshop for their virtual conference in January. That one was Feeding the Soil. I’ve just scoured through all 8 pages on my website that check the category “Slideshows”. I found Feeding the Soil twice.
My Alliums Year Roundpresentation is new this year and I posted the handoutafter my presentation at VABF. Pasa had shorter workshops, so I pruned the slideshow, but left the handout with the “bonus material”.
My other presentation at Pasa was Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production. That is one of the very first topics I tackled when I started out as a speaker, so the three versions on this website span the past ten years. 2014, 2016, 2019. Here is the 90 minute 2023 version and ts handout:
We are in the dormant period for most fruits, with really none to harvest, although this is a good month to eat stored and preserved fruit.
Depending on your climate, you could start to plant new fruit bushes and canes, and whether you do that or not, there is plenty to prune and care for.
Blueberries are the Focus Fruit for February
Blueberries were also the Focus Fruit for June, when I wrote about harvesting them, and about the differences between Rabbiteyes, Northern Highbush and Southern Highbush types, and about planting. If you are about to buy plants, let me remind you that we have bought good plants from Finch Blueberry Nursery in Bailey, North Carolina, as well as from a more local source in SW Virginia (now retired). If you only want a few plants, buy potted blueberry plants locally. Otherwise, order bareroot plants shipped to you. In Virginia Edible Landscaping offers a wide choice.
It used to be a tradition here, that the first garden shift of the year, in late January or early February, after the winter break, was spent pruning blueberries. During December and January, only a few people were working in the gardens, harvesting hardy crops, and tending to the hoophouse and greenhouse. Once the rest of the crew returned, we cleaned, sharpened and oiled the pruners, and set to work.
We have two patches of blueberries, both Highbush, despite being in a climate where you might expect Rabbiteyes to do better. The older patch has four rows of eleven bushes, which have been growing there since before 2007. Mostly we don’t know the names of these varieties. We have replanted to fill gaps over the years, and each spring we have logged how they are doing, whether they are early or late, productive or not, small or large berries, delicious or OK.
The newer patch was planted in November 2007, with 4 plants each of five varieties, planted in two rows in the order we expected them to ripen: first Duke, then Spartan, Bluecrop, Chandler and Aurora. The Duke variety has by far been the best, both productive and tasty. The Spartan early on declared itself to not be suited to our location. We have digital records of this patch from 2016-2019. Probably we have paper records from 2007-2015. At the last count, we had 4 Duke, 1 Spartan, 6 Bluecrop, 3 Chandler and 6 Aurora. We have propagated Duke to replace casualties in the old patch.
If you are looking for good varieties for central Virginia, here’s what I gleaned from our notes:
Duke: Good strong, productive plants
Spartan: Not right for this area, didn’t thrive
Bluecrop: Did well initially, started to die out by 2016
Chandler: maybe earlier than Bluecrop, large berries.
Aurora: Very late, large berries, so-so flavor.
Blueberry Plan/Annual Calendar
Late January/February in a mild spell: Pruning (See Special Topic below)
Late January/early February:
Add soil amendments such as sulfur, if soil test indicates a need.
Renew mulch: Rake remains of old mulch aside first. Double cardboard, then replace old woodchips and top up to 3” with new woodchips or sawdust. The new patch had landscape fabric underneath at first, but that was removed, so it now needs double cardboard and new chips, just like the old patch.
Plant new bushes to replace casualties.
Repair fencing if needed.
Early Spring (April? March if there’s a drought):
Check irrigation and start irrigating twice a week. Weed.
Late Spring (May):
Old patch – tackle Nut Sedge by several repeated cultivations with rakes or hoes when nut sedge is 3-4” tall.
When flowers are setting fruit, install the roof netting.
Weed. After harvest, remove and store the roof netting, check perimeter fencing.
Prepare new area if needed. Plant new bushes in November (or wait till Feb)
Weed, spread compost, mulch, take soil tests.
Special Topic for February: Prune Blueberries
Late January/February in a mild spell:
1-2 year old bushes: remove all flower buds (the plump round ones). Remove tiny weak shoots and leave a sturdy bush.
General, all ages: Remove all dead, diseased, damaged and dying wood.
Decide whether to propagate. To layer a low-lying branch, scrape the bark on the underside, pin it down to the ground with a 6” wire staple, weight the pin down, and flag it. Layering has been much more successful for us, but it is possible to make hardwood cuttings, with 3-5 buds hardwood sticks (not flowering tips), and root these.
Remove cross-overs, low-lying branches, branches heading for the center of the bush, branches hitting the roof of the netting.
For young bushes, up to 4-years old, that’s all the pruning you do. Aim to leave a sturdy, healthy bush. Focus on removing spindly stuff. For older bushes, continue with step 5 onwards.
Count the thick old trunks bigger than 1.5” diameter, divide by 5 and saw out this many, at ground level, (unless it would leave fewer than 6). Choose the oldest, scaliest, darkest ones for removal.
Remove any spindly growth, tangled clusters.
Remove a portion of the younger stems, to leave a balance. The ideal is something like 20% less than 1” diameter, 60% 1-2”, 20% larger than 2” diameter.
Bear in mind that the fruit buds are plump – don’t remove more than 50% in total, but don’t fret about removing up to this number. If the bush carries too much fruit, berries will be small, branches break and bush reserves get depleted.
“Until the end of the third growing season, pruning consists mainly of the removal of low spreading canes, and dead and broken branches. As the bushes come into bearing, regular annual pruning will be necessary. This may be done any time from leaf fall until before growth begins in the spring. A mature blueberry plant should produce three to five new canes per year.
During pruning, clean out old, dead wood, and keep the three best 1-year-old canes. Locate the oldest canes and prune out one of every six existing canes; cut as close to the ground as possible. A mature blueberry bush should have 10 to 15 canes: two to three canes each of 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old canes (fig. 3).”
Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves, or even stored apples and pears come into their own this month. Pawpaws can be eaten frozen like ice cream. Don’t eat the skins, and don’t eat cooked pawpaws, or you may get Tummy Trouble.
Wintergreen berries persist on the plants in the wild all winter, but don’t taste good at the end of the winter, though, so do a taste-test before harvesting lots. If you are allergic to aspirin, avoid wintergreen because all parts of the plant contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like compound.
Other fruit care in February in the mid-Atlantic
Summer-fruiting raspberries: cut out old canes (last year’s fruiting canes), Thin new canes (that didn’t bear fruit last year) to 6 per foot of row (ie at least 2” apart). Weed. Water.
Fall raspberries: Prepare future new beds. Plant new canes with compost. Mulch around them. Set new T-posts for trellising once the new canes start growing. In existing beds, cut all last year’s canes to the ground and dig up canes from aisles. Weed, compost, mulch.
Strawberries: Remove any winter hoops, polypropylene rowcover or slitted plastic and clips. Plant a new replacement bed if not done in August or September. Restore paths if needed. Weed. Compost if none in August. You could keep the rowcover handy for the flowering period, to cover in frosty weather. Or you could pack it away while you tidy up the beds and paths, and get it out again once you see flowers.
Rhubarb: Weed, compost around the plants, or where you think the plants are! Mulch if not already done in the fall
Grapes: Weed. Spread compost. Install irrigation. Prune: 50 buds per vine. Prepare sites for new vines.
The January newsletter of the Piedmont Master Gardeners (The Garden Shed) has this sobering article about Invasive Jumping Worms by Cathy Caldwell. The article includes the all-important information on how to distinguish an invasive jumping worm from any other kind of earthworm (it’s not hard!), and what to do if you find one.
Book Review Farming on the Wild Side, The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery, Nancy and John Hayden, Chelsea Green, 2019. 258 pages, $29.95.
This is a lovely, thoughtful, well-illustrated book, telling how Nancy and John Hayden changed their farm (formerly a conventional dairy farm) over three decades into a regenerative farm, now specializing in perennial fruit trees. Their focus has been on stewarding the land mindfully, restoring and increasing biodiversity. In these uncertain times, there is much we can’t do alone, and we worry if enough people will make enough of the necessary changes. We can, instead, focus on positive changes we can make to improve our world. Growing and nurturing plants will benefit you, the plants and the planet.
The Haydens have an 18-acre farm in northern Vermont with undulating land, and a wide range of soil types. Very different from central Virginia, where I live! Both moved to Syracuse, NY to study biology and ecology, and after meeting at university, they worked in the Peace Corps on opposite sides of the African continent. Nancy worked in Kenya, supporting small farmers installing fishponds. John was in Mali, helping market gardeners and farmers, especially in dealing with millet pests. They both grew intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, with broader worldviews, awareness of white privilege, and deeper understanding of solitude and loneliness.
After Peace Corps, they reunited, married and began graduate school at Michigan State U, studying entomology (John) and environmental engineering (Nancy). John hankered to start a farm, so when Nancy was offered a post at the University of Vermont, they packed up the family and moved. A few months later, they bought their farm. It was a well-manicured conventional dairy farm with a cathedral-like barn built in 1900. The lawns are now orchards, and the stream banks host fruit bushes and small trees. The focus these days is on biodiversity and a regenerative food system, not on “pretty”. You can see before and after photos, and sketch maps of their farm (The Farm Between).
The book includes a valuable chart summarizing their practices and events during each of the three decades of their farm life so far. This shows how changes can be made as interests and focus shift. Long-term sustainability for aging farmers!
In the initial years their goals were to feed their family high quality food (hard to find to buy in the 1990’s), treat livestock humanely, regenerate the land for long-term health, and generate income from farming. They grew organic annual vegetables and raised grass-fed poultry, rabbits, sheep and pigs for a meat CSA. They also raised young children, and a family cow. The farm hosted field trips from local elementary schools, and Nancy became an associate professor.
John and Nancy got inspiration from Holistic Resource Management, as well as many small-farming pioneers. HRM led them to learn and practice management intensive grazing. This involves carefully matching stocking density with the health of the pastures, leading to continuous improvement. Paddocks just large enough, and no bigger, encourage livestock to graze all the plants down, leading to lush and nutritious regrowth. Initially their pastures were overrun with reed canary grass, and just one year of intensive grazing management with sheep started to bring improvements.
They also raised chickens and rabbits in moveable pens (chicken tractors), and quickly devised improvements to the pen design and the choice of breed. They trained all their livestock to come running when they heard grain shaken in a bucket. This good habit saved them from problems when livestock got loose onto the busy state road.
In the middle decade (roughly the 2000’s), the children grew up and left home, John became a lecturer on Plant and Soil Science, the field trips included special needs children and summer camps for middle-schoolers. They became more focused on resilience, biodiversity and pollinators. Keeping livestock makes it hard for a farming couple or family to vacation at the same time, and well-trained farm sitters are worth a lot!
Raising animals in confined spaces, feeding mostly corn and soy and antibiotics, while exploiting workers and degrading the environment is a disgrace to our society. Slaughtering animals is tough, and where possible, the Haydens opted for on-farm slaughter, as less stressful and more humane. The Haydens cut back on meat production and expanded perennial and annual food crops.
After 20 years of learning and practicing with draft horses during visits to working horse farms, and after 10 years at The Farm Between, John bought his own team of two Clydesdales. This helped them successfully expand their vegetable and small fruit production. From 2004-2011, they put up five hoophouses, initially for tomatoes and other valuable vegetables. They could pay for the structures and the wages in one year by growing cherry tomatoes in each new hoophouse. This increased their resilience in the face of extreme weather of various kinds, and in 2009, they planted a few rows of fall raspberries in one of the hoophouses. These did so well that the next year they planted one whole hoophouse full.
The third decade (after serious flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011) brought a forceful introduction to the reality of climate change. Their focus on improving the soil has included a major composting operation. The Haydens have succeeded in doubling the organic matter in their soils from 2.5 to 6% over the years. Initially John collected food scraps to feed their chickens and then compost. But the heavy lifting and the rats got to him.
It takes 500 years or more to grow an inch of soil, which is all too easily lost to wind and water erosion. Growing cover crops holds the soil in place while adding organic matter. While they grew mostly annual vegetables, the Haydens used at least one-third of their land for growing cover crops, usually including legumes, to add nitrogen to the soil. Growing annual vegetables is stressful. Everything is urgent and important, all season! Perennials allow more flexibility, for example in the timing of weeding and pruning.
They committed more to perennial polyculture, retired the horses and bought a tractor. Fruit planting had expanded every year, with perennial vegetables and annual hemp in the alleys between the rows. Other alleys are left unmowed to encourage milkweed (selling seeds and floss). All the while, the edges and hedges have provided biological diversity for insects, birds and other creatures.
They repurposed all their hoophouses to grow fruit, protected from the elements as well as pests and diseases. They have dwarf apple trees (blemish-free no-spray organic apples!), cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and raspberries. Outdoors they grow hazelberts, elderberries, aronia, honeyberry, gooseberries, blackcurrants, red and white currents, and many blueberries. The increased fruit production led them to work with cider producers and market other fruit products including selling at the Burlington Farmers’ Market. They started a retail nursey of fruit trees on the farm, alongside fruit sales. Operating a fruit tree nursey at the farm enables the farmers to attract customers who are very interested in what they are doing, and will encourage and support them in growing their own fruit. Nancy retired from UVM. They expanded on-farm workshops, field trips and classes for all ages.
They were able to provide free housing for their employees and pay them above minimum wage. Despite the obvious success of their farm stand, farmers’ market, meat and produce CSAs, restaurant and grocery accounts, they were not quite satisfied. The family were eating well, and Nancy’s off-farm income kept them afloat and allowed them to build up the farm infrastructure. John was working 60-80 hours a week on the farm, but not producing much net income for the four-child family they were now raising. John calculated he was earning half minimum wage, and the only way that was being “successful” was that the 80 hour weeks made two half-minimum wages! Their aging bodies had also become a factor to consider. Also, Nancy and John developed interests that vied for their attention, much as they were still committed to the farm.
They had noticed their soil structure was deteriorating, even though the organic matter content was increasing. They studied approaches to deal with soil loss and degradation, climate disruption, water and air pollution, declining food quality and loss of biodiversity. The book includes a valuable chart listing stressors in the categories of environmental, social, economic and personal stresses, and resilience strategies to tackle each.
The Haydens committed to be more proactive in benefiting the land, and becoming more economically resilient. Their approach was a synthesis of:
resilience (ability to bounce back from stresses and shocks),
organic farming (nurture healthy soil to grow healthy crops and healthy people: it’s about the soil, not about the certificate),
regenerative organic (rebuild soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, improve water quality and slow the pace of climate change),
agroecology (approaching agriculture by combining ecology, biology, agronomy, plant physiology and more, improving soils and water, biodiversity, species conservation, carbon sequestration),
permaculture (“permanent agriculture”, integrative perennial-based systems, working with the natural environment, providing for the needs of people locally),
agroforestry (intentionally incorporating trees and shrubs into farming systems for the benefit of the environment, the community and the farm,)
biodynamics (considering each farm as a unique integrated organism, raising crops and livestock synergistically)
wabi sabi (finding beauty and value in the impermanent, the natural cycles of growth, death and decay.)
rewilding (letting banks, ditches, shrubs and trees grow back, providing shelter and food for many more insects and birds; planting orchards in place of lawns,
personal spiritual traditions (focusing on nature and natural cycles)
As a result of considering all these approaches, Nancy and John found themselves drawn to wholesaling fruit, particularly to local wineries. They wanted no-spray organic fruit, pointing out that organic fungicides and broad-spectrum insecticides are toxic to pollinators and other beneficial insects, as well as the pest species.
In August 1995, a few years after John and Nancy moved to the farm, the summer drought was broken by three days of rain upstream of the farm. The river overflowed, flooding the low fields and the barn three feet deep. The water level receded the next day, leaving a big mess, including dead chicks and destroyed equipment. The house was on higher ground, and was not affected.
In 2011, they got a 500-year flood in April and a repeat with Hurricane Irene in August. They lost their potato and corn crops, and noticed that the perennial fruit bushes and conservation shrubs recovered just fine when the water receded. They decided not to grow annual crops in the low-lying Field Six any more, but instead plant elderberries and aronia, which tolerate some flooding.
As they transitioned to growing mostly perennials, they also stopped tilling. They sheet mulch around newly planted fruit trees and berry bushes, with either cardboard and woodchips, or with landscape fabric rolls with “seam-lines” along the planting rows. This means they can open the overlapping pieces in spring or fall to add soil amendments. They’ve also used this technique to grow pumpkins, sunflowers and CBD hemp in the alleys between young fruit trees. They also employ a “grow, mow and blow” in the alleys to deposit home-grown mulch around the trees.
Transitioning to more perennials in polyculture orchards led them to incorporate agroforestry practices such as hedges, biomass trees, and riparian forest zones (next to streams). Hedgerows act as windbreaks, as well as enhancing biodiversity, and reducing soil erosion and offering sanctuary to many kinds of wildlife.
The apple orchards provide scion wood for selling and for grafting to make new trees. Between new fruit trees, in the rows, they plant blackcurrants and other fruit bushes, nitrogen-fixing small trees and perennial wildflowers. These infill plants will be chopped or lopped for mulch when the apple trees need the space.
Perennial vegetables also have a place on the farm. Asparagus and rhubarb have been there for over 20 years. Sea kale and Jerusalem artichokes are more recent additions, in the alleys between apple trees. Remember this book is written in Vermont, where rhubarb ripens in June, blueberries in July and elderberries in late summer. Follow the concepts, not the details, if you are in a very different climate zone.
Climate change in Vermont has, so far, meant warmer, earlier springs, which can cause trees to break bud, risking crop death by frosts in May. Using hoophouses for fruit can reduce risk. Leave the hoophouse open all winter, but if a spring frost threatens during or after bloom, close the house up for the night. “Fruit trees can break your heart,” the authors warn.
The section on rootstocks, scion wood and grafting explains how to propagate trees. Growing polycultural orchards reduces dependency on any particular variety or type, and makes organic production much more viable, as pest or disease outbreaks are rarer and other crops compensate for whichever is taken down. There’s a nice list of the ten best apple varieties at the farm, and one of stone fruit cultivars. Again, remember this is Vermont, zone 4a.
The farm also grows many less common cold-hardy berries. Blackcurrants do well in Vermont, but I know from experience that they do poorly in the South. The yield is plentiful, but the harvest slow. Their target rate is ten pounds an hour. The variety Tatania is their highest-yielding, at 4.7 pounds per bush. A useful tip is to stand still and move the branches towards you, rather than moving yourself a lot. There are tips on good varieties of berries too.
Elderberries and Aronia have already been mentioned as flood-tolerant. Both also require full sun. they are high in anti-oxidants, and attract wildlife, unfortunately including Spotted Wing Drosophila, which cause the berries to drop before the whole panicle is ripe. The solution is to pick every few days, removing the ripe parts of the clusters. Note that American elderberries need to be cooked or fermented before eating, as they contain cyanide-inducing compounds.
The farm has an area of boxed propagation beds where they raise hardwood cuttings to grow bushes for sale. They have a space where customers can see full-size plants in a natural setting. This area supports many pollinators, as does their willow labyrinth. There is a mowed walking path around the pollinator sanctuary, where visitors love to observe plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife. The riparian zone is part of a contiguous wildlife corridor connecting the woods and the farm, and providing edges with meadows and cropland. Common milkweed in the orchard alleys is promoted by mowing the grass early, before the milkweed emerges.
The chapter on pests and diseases invites us to rethink these life-forms. Weed management is necessary. Birds can be “pests” on fruit crops during the harvest period. Netting the berries at this time and then removing the nets to let the birds in to clean up the dropped berries helps reduce other pest problems, such as SWD. At the time the book was written, their way of dealing with the SWD was to net individual panicles of elderberries using nylon “footies.” Crop diversity reduces potential crop losses and pest outbreaks.
The Haydens dispute the myth that pests on a plant show the plant is unhealthy or that the soil conditions are wrong. Having a diversity of insects shows a natural balance. If the number of pests increases to the point of causing economic damage, that’s a pest outbreak, and needs action. Having a low level of pest insects keeps predators and parasites provided for! Always look for parasites, such as the white fly eggs on the thorax of the Japanese beetles. Everything may be being taken care of! Wiping everyone out with pesticides causes imbalance, and the pest populations can come back faster than their predators. The true parasites are the pesticide companies, say the authors!
Attention is also paid to pollinators, providing nesting habitat as well as pollen and nectar sources. Native bees are perhaps in greater peril than (imported) honeybees. They just don’t have as good PR, despite flying earlier in the year and in colder, rainier, windier weather! There are 275 native bee species in Vermont (4,000 in the US). Most of us didn’t know that! There is a table of when various pollinator flowers start blooming in Vermont, to help anyone seeking to provide bee forage more of the season.
As Nancy and John produced more value-added fruit products for sale, they noticed an interesting thing: people would pay for the jam or syrup-topped snow cones, but balk at the price of the actual fruit! It’s time to move away from our expectation of cheap food (which likely derives from the history of enslaved people doing most of the farm-work in the US in the past).
Another change for the farm is to selling fruit wholesale, to wineries, breweries, cideries and soda makers. They like the big “over-and-done” sales, although selling retail direct from the farm is important for staying in touch with the public and diversifying income streams. Nancy and John point out that they could not have done all they’ve done without off-the-farm income. This is the reality for most farmers, particularly small-scale farmers. Nancy and John were fortunate in finding off the farm work that they enjoyed.
The book wraps up with an appendix of common and scientific names of plants and arthropods mentioned in the book, and an impressive twelve-page, triple-columned index. This is a book by people who really want to help us navigate our path through farming for the long haul.