Watching the Weather

Dark stormy sky over our hoophouse and solar panels. Photo Wren Vile

Farmers and gardeners have always watched the weather, and now, as the climate crisis gets worse and the weather more chaotic, we need to hone our skills. I’ve written in the past about

Where does your weather come from?

Our mid-Atlantic weather mostly comes from one of three directions,

  • mainly from the Gulf of Mexico, (wet, maybe windy)
  • the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer, (hot and dry)
  • recurrent waves of cold air from Canada in winter (from a disrupted polar vortex).
  • Due to the erratic movement of thunderstorms, some parts of our area may experience long periods of drought. September–November is the dry season but also the hurricane season.
Such grey weather! But will it rain?
Photo Wren Vile

Find a weather station that is a good match for your area, and learn how to adapt it

We use for Louisa Northside, but subtract 5F° from their forecast night lows, and mentally downgrade the chance of rain by 10%, as rain often passes us by as it scoots along the river valley north of us. I use the ten-day forecast to get the general idea, the hourly one when planning tasks, the Roanoke animated radar on the daily page to see what’s on the way and when it’s likely to arrive, and the alerts, watches and warnings. The forecast for the month is under the Calendar tab, although the further out the forecast is, the less reliable it will be. In hurricane season I check the Severe Weather tab with the Hurricane and Tropical Cyclones information.

Make yourself a Frost Alert Card of conditions that are likely to lead to an early or late frost, so you can quickly take avoiding actions without dithering.

Learn about recent average weather at your location.

I recommend Weather Spark for browsing on a rainy day, or a too-hot afternoon. “The weather year round anywhere on earth”

Weather Spark chart of average daily temperatures in Louisa County, Virginia

I rechecked our area on Weather Spark recently and realized how much has changed since I started quoted information from our Extension Service twenty or more years ago.

  • The climate in Louisa County, Virginia, is changing on average in the past ten years to drier weather with milder winters, hotter summer nights.
  • Twin Oaks is in USDA Winter Hardiness Zone 7a: the average annual minimum winter temperature is 0°F–5°F (–18°C to –15°C).
  • The average rainfall for a year is 37” (100 cm), fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, at 2.2”–3.6” (5.6-9.1 cm) per month. October is the driest, May the wettest.
  • The average daily maximum temperatures are 49°F (9.4°C) in December and January, 89°F (31.7°C) in July. The average night low temperatures are 29°F (–1.7°C) in January, 69°F (20.5°C) in July.
  • The season from last frost to first frost, is around 211 days. The average date of the last spring frost is April 24 (later than May 7 only happens one year in ten); the average date of the first fall frost is Oct 14 (earlier than Oct 1 only happens one year in ten).

Weather SparkOn Weather Spark you can study artfully-made colorful charts of temperature, precipitation, cloud coverage, humidity and tourists (!) month by month. There is a chart of average high and low temperatures over the year, and one showing the average hourly temperature over the year (we are currently in the big red blob of hot afternoons). There’s a grey and blue chart of cloud coverage, and a green one of the daily chance of rain (with touches of blue and purple frozen precipitation). The average monthly rainfall chart is all greys, as is the snowfall one. Our greatest chance of snow is February with an average of 4.2” for the month.

You can compare your nearest city to another you might dream of moving to.

There are charts of hours of daylight and twilight, sunrise and sunset, the solar elevation and azimuth (for those planning greenhouses); moon rise, set and phases for a choice of years; and – oh – humidity! Color-coded from a comfortable green, humid yellow, tan mugginess, pink oppressive and orange misery (over 75%).

There’s a chart of average wind speed over the year; wind direction, which shows my wrong belief that most of the wind here comes from the west (true in July, December and January only). There’s also (keep scrolling) a chart about the growing season, by which they mean the longest continuous period on non-freezing temperatures, although the chart provides a very visual bigger picture of periods in various temperature bands.

There’s a Growing Degree Days chart! We’re on average at 2000 F GDD at this point in July. Next is a chart of solar energy (average daily incident shortwave solar energy), with kWh peaking in June at 6.9 per day.

There’s more details, but I’m moving on.

Check extreme weather

Lightning Strike map

For when you need to know, check out Real Time Lightning On the map, enlarge the area you are concerned about., and watch for the activity sparking, or click for sound. There’s an explanation of how the data is gathered and what the various color dots mean. has a colored map with streaming arrows, and other settings for rain and thunder, clouds, temperature and more. For those at seas, you can check the waves and swell. has a quick-to-read dial of air quality, fire and smoke maps, ozone, fine particulates, lots of information about air quality

Not exactly weather, but if you experience an earthquake, go to Did You Feel It? And register your experience. It helps USGS build a clearer picture of earthquake events in your area. You can see maps of recent earthquakes globally or a world map to give understanding of tectonic plates.


Cover Crops for July: Millet and Sorghum-Sundangrass

Focus Cover Crops for July:                     Millet and Sorghum-Sudangrass (Sudex)

In July we are very much looking for cover crops that will grow in hot weather. Last month I wrote about sunn hemp, with some notes about other hot weather legumes. This month we are turning our attention to good hot weather grass cover crops. Warm weather grass cover crops we use include Sorghum-Sudan hybrid (Sudex), and the millets.

Next month I will discuss winter-killed winter cover crops before early spring vegetables and undersowing winter-hardy cover crops in standing vegetable crops.

Also see my post Cover Crops in Summer for much more information, including  making space, sowing small spaces and finding time for the work.

Don’t sow a winter cover crop yet. If sown too early, oats head up in the fall and even drop seed. Only sow oats or barley in July in southern regions if you are sure you can get them turned under before they seed. They will not mow-kill.

Cover crop seeds are usually easier to find and cheaper at a local feed store, rather than online. Also you’re likely to find a regionally-adapted variety. But, of course, you may not find USDA Organic seed there. Be careful buying feed-grade seeds (rather than seed-grade), as they can contain weed seeds including GMO canola.

Variation in spring field corn root development at harvest following various summer cover crops. Preceding cover crop from left to right: sunn hemp (residues mulched in), pearl millet without fertilizer, sorghum-sudangrass, corn, pearl millet with fertilizer, and sunn hemp (residues harvested). Credit: Z. J. Grabau, UF/IFAS

Types of millet

Millet has good insect resistance and is relatively free of diseases. Read the descriptions below and especially the final height, the days to maturity and whether or not it mow-kills at any stage. See Working with the time you have left in the post Cover Crops in Summer. Avoid the trouble I had battling pearl millet with small walk-behind equipment, having to mow it frequently to keep it manageable.

German/Foxtail Millet

Foxtail millet seed heads.
Photo Eden Brothers Seed Supply

Setaria italic, 3-4’ (1-1.3 m) Fast growing annual (60-70 days). 75-90 days to seed formation. Not frost hardy. Mow-kills or roll-kills reliably after heading.

Sowing date: Needs warm soil. From 2 weeks after last frost onwards. Growth is considerably less if sown after summer solstice – day-length sensitive.

Sowing rate (US): Drilled:20 #/ac, Broadcast:30 #/ac, B:1-1.5 oz/100 ft2

Sowing rate (metric): D:22 kg/ha, B:34 kg/ha, B:3-4.5 gm/m2,

Uses and Cautions: Can be followed by late summer and fall crops. Fairly well-behaved – unlikely to become a weed. Easier than most other millets to incorporate.

Notes: Small seeds need good seedbed and few weed seeds. Fairly drought-tolerant once established. Shallow roots.

Japanese Millet

Japanese Millet
Photo Hancock Seed Company

Echinochloa esculenta 3-5’ (1-1.6 m). Fast growing annual, 45 days. Not frost hardy. Foxtail type, grown more in the north. Cannot mow-kill or roll-kill reliably.

Sowing date: From corn planting date. May and early June are best in the mid-Atlantic. Can be sown until early July, but growth is considerably less if planted after summer solstice because it is day-length sensitive.

Sowing rate (US): D:15-25 #/ac, B:35 #/ac, In mix with soy:54 # soy:12 # millet/ac, B:2 oz/100 ft2

Sowing rate (metric): D:17-28 kg/ha, B:40 kg/ha, In mix with soy:60 kg soy:14 kg millet/ha, B:6 gm/m2

Uses and Cautions: Can be followed by summer and fall vegetable crops.

Notes: For best re-growth, mow at 60 days when 3’ (1m) tall, and before heading. Cut to 3-8” (8-20 cm) and repeat every 40 days after that. If cut after heading, it will flower again in 2-4 weeks on short stems and set seed. Tolerates drought and wet soils, including cold wet soils.

Browntop Millet

Urochloa ramosa (L.) Nguyen. 2-5’ (0.6-1.5 m). 50-60 days. Cannot mow-kill. Foxtail type, grown more in the south.

Sowing date if last frost is 4/30, first frost 10/14. May – August

Sowing rate (US): D:20-30#/ac, B:30-40 #/ac, B:3 oz/100 ft2

Sowing rate (metric): D:22-34 kg/ha, B:34-45 kg/ha, B:9 gm/m2

Notes: Tolerant of acidic soils, low fertility and flooding.

Proso/Broomcorn Millet

Jean Hediger grows Proso millet on her Nunn, Colorado farm
Photography courtesy of Jean Hediger

Panicum miliaceum, More than 5’ (1.6 m) 60-90 days to maturity.

Sowing: Optimum soil temperature ranges from 55°F-65°F (13°C-18°C)

Sowing rate (US): D:20 #/ac, B:30 #/ac

Sowing rate (metric): D:22 kg/ha, B:34 kg/ha

Uses and Cautions: Can be followed by summer and fall crops. Seed heads may shatter once the topmost seeds are mature.

Notes: Cut after 60 days before it gets tough. A much finer textured grass than Pearl or Japanese millets. Makes a good mulch.

Pearl/ Cattail Millet

Pearl Millet
Photo USDA i7wiafe6

Pennisetum glaucum or P. Americanum, 5-10’ (1.6-3.2 m) Fast growing, 60-75 days. Not frost hardy. To winter-kill and avoid seed formation, sow 60-85 days before expected frost.

Sowing date: From corn-planting date until 60 days before fall frost. Soil temperatures of 75-90°F (24-35°C) are ideal.

Sowing rate (US): D:15#/ac in 18” rows, B:25-40 #/ac, B:1-1.5 oz/100 ft2

Sowing rate (metric): in 45 cm rows, B:28-44 kg/ha, B:3-4.5 gm/m2

Uses and Cautions: Can be followed by summer and fall crops. Or by early spring crops, if winter-killed.

Notes: Does OK in poor soils. Does not tolerate water-logging. Excellent biomass, even if sown in late summer, as it is not day-length sensitive. Mow before heading for fast regrowth. After heading it is fairly easy to mow-kill, although not as easy as German and Japanese millets.

How to broadcast seeds

To broadcast seeds, you can buy a shoulder-bag with a hand-crank that shoots out the seeds. Or you can develop a manual technique: take a handful of seeds from a bag or bucket you carry with you. Fling the seed confidently in front of your body in a wide fanning motion. Use a loose touch, don’t grip the seeds! Aim for about two seeds per square inch—but don’t worry if you don’t hit that goal. Broadcasting seeds is an art, and the exact density and pattern doesn’t matter.

While you are learning, try seeding half the crop walking in one direction, and then repeat at 90˚ to your original direction. After seeding, rake the seeds in, aiming to bury most of them ½-1” (1-2 cm) below the surface, but don’t sweat the details. Next, especially if water is in short supply, roll or tamp the soil so that the seed is in good contact with the soil, which will help it get the water it needs rather than drying out in an air pocket. Then irrigate with rain, a hose or a sprinkler to keep the soil moist until germination. Drip irrigation won’t do it.

EarthWay push seeder.
Photo from EarthWay

Alternatively drill the seed by hand with a hoe, or using a seeder. See VABF Using Manually-Operated Seeders for Precision Cover Crop Plantings on the Small Farm. Don’t worry if the seed ends up deeper than ideal. It will still germinate.

Sowing millet in mixes

See No-Till summer cover crops. A mix of soybeans or southern peas and foxtail millet can be grown during the summer and mow-killed (after heading), before planting in the fall. Garlic perhaps?

Mixes can generally be sown at a depth of 1” (2.5 cm), regardless of seed size. Major ingredients for a summer mix could include soy, southern peas and buckwheat. Lesser ingredients could include pearl millet, proso millet, radish, turnips, sunflowers and sunn hemp.

  • When legumes and grasses are mixed, sow on the date for the grass.
  • When 2 grasses are mixed, reduce the seeding rate of each by a third.
  • Do not reduce the seeding rate of legumes in mixtures.


Taking down large cover crops

Don’t grow sorghum-sudangrass unless you have tractor-mounted equipment. Even some of the millets are quite large. Before planting, have a plan for how you will terminate the cover crop. You don’t want to delay getting your fall vegetable crops established.

On a small scale, most gardeners mow cover crops down, or pull them, and use for mulch (chop-and-drop) or compost. It may be that composting produces a more balanced soil amendment compared to incorporating raw residues directly into the soil.

If you avoid incorporating the cover crop, you can plant the next crop right away. Some cover crops (such as Sorghum-Sudangrass) produce allelopathic substances that can temporarily inhibit the germination of seeds, meaning you have to wait three weeks to plant.

If cover crop residues are left on the surface rather than incorporated, the rate of decomposition is slowed. Some N is lost to the air (denitrification), but the increased organic matter can increase the diversity of micro-organisms at the surface. 80% of the carbon from cover crops is below the top 8” (20 cm), where almost all soil data are collected. Remember the value of the roots!



Sorghum-Sudangrass hybrid/Sudex grows 5’-12’ (1.5-3.6 m) tall in 60-70 days and produces an impressive amount of biomass.

  • It cannot be mow-killed. It is not frost hardy.
  • Sow ½-1 ½” (1-4 cm) deep (less deep than corn). Plant seeds 1.5” (4 cm) apart in rows 8” (20 cm) apart (for best weed-suppression), or up to 36-42” (90-110 cm) apart.
  • Sowing date: From 2 weeks after corn-planting date (needs warm soil) and anytime onward until six weeks before frost. In zone 7, mid-May to late August. Plant earlier at your own risk – I think we’ve had some success despite the warnings.
  • Sowing rate (US): Drilled:25-40 #/ac, less if rows 36-42” apart. Broadcast:40-50#/ac. Broadcast:2 oz/100 ft2
  • Sowing rate (metric): Drilled:28-56 kg/ha, less if rows 90-110 cm apart Broadcast:45-56 kg/ha, Broadcast:6 gm/m2
  • Sorghum-sudangrass will smother weed competition, and make big improvements to the soil texture and the levels of organic matter.
  • Fast growing, deep rooting.
  • Good in preparation for new strawberry beds.
  • Suppresses root-knot nematodes, soybean cyst nematode and annual ryegrass.
  • After it’s established, sorghum-sudangrass is highly drought-resistant and thrives in summer heat
      • Sorghum-sudan cover crop after mowing to encourage regrowth.
      Photo Kathryn Simmons

    When the sorghum-sudangrass reaches 4’ (1.2 m) tall, cut it down to 6”-12” (15-30 cm) to encourage regrowth and more, deeper, root growth that will loosen compacted soil.

  • The cut tops make a good long-lasting mulch, in place, or to haul elsewhere.
  • Good ahead of fall crops if given 8-10 weeks of growth.
  • Winter-killed Sorghum-Sudan can be followed by early spring crops.
  • Sorghum-sudangrass roots exude allelopathic compounds that suppress pest nematodes and inhibit small seeds (weeds and crops) from germinating and even inhibit the growth of tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli.
  • Wait at least 6 weeks after incorporating sorghum-sudangrass before planting a susceptible crop in the same spot.
  • Does well in mixes with buckwheat, soy, and/or viney legumes.
  • Can mix 10 # with 50 # southern peas/ac (11 kg with 56 kg southern peas /ha).
  • Sunn hemp and sorghum-sudangrass grow well mixed together. Try a 50:50 mix to start with. This mixture can increase overall biomass and the diversity benefits soil microorganisms and therefore nutrient cycling.
  • Be careful if feeding to livestock. Read up about prussic acid poisoning from this cover crop. Young plants (less than 24” (60 cm) tall) and those stressed by drought or killed by frost, can cause prussic acid poisoning. Ducks, geese and goats enjoy the forage.
  • It’s undeniable that Sorghum-Sudangrass can be hard to incorporate once tall, unless you have tractor-based equipment. It is too massive to tackle with small mowers or weed whips.


Secondary Cover Crops in July

In July, legumes such as sunn hemp, soybeans, southern peas, and Partridge pea are good legumes to consider. See June’s post for more about those and also Senna Ligustrina a native perennial legume. Another option is summer, if you have a weedy area or suffer with nematodes or foliar fungal diseases, is solarization.


Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

Solarization uses clear plastic (old hoophouse plastic is ideal) to kill pests, diseases and weed seeds near the surface of the soil by covering the soil for six weeks or more in hot weather.

If you are solarizing to kill weeds, you can see when they are dead. Bryan O’Hara poked a thermometer probe through solarization plastic and found a 50F degree (28C) difference between the outside air and the soil immediately under the plastic; a 10F (6C) difference at 1″ (2.5 cm) deep and little temperature gain lower than that. Solarization does not kill all the soil life below the surface level!

Extension offers Solarization and Tarping for Weed Management on Organic Vegetable Farms in the Northeast USA which can, of course, be modified for those of us in other regions.


I’ve written here before about our struggles with root knot nematodes in our hoophouse, and you can read everything I know about nematodes in my book The Year-Round Hoophouse. Nematodes are only active in warm weather, and we have not had problems with them outdoors yet, but of course, it’s warmer in the hoophouse!

Cucumber roots with nematodes (see circles).
Photo Pam Dawling

My article on nematodes in Growing for Market  in November 2014 describes our discovery of the beasties and our first attempts to deal with them. My most thorough blogpost about nematodes was for Mother Earth News  Managing Nematodes in the Hoophouse.

Good news – great hoeing weather! Bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse August 2014 includes a photo of our first attempt at solarizing – a  bit of a How Not To! There is info on dealing with nematodes from Garry Ross in Hawaii, where nematodes are a fact of daily life, in my post Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes from February 2015.

Warm-weather cover crops that resistant or deter nematodes include sesame, Iron and Clay cowpeas, some OP French marigold varieties (but avoid Tangerine Gem or hybrid marigolds); chrysanthemum; black-eyed Susan; gaillardia (blanket flower, Indian blanket); a sesame/millet mix, sunnhemp, partridge pea, California poppy. Some of these require a long growing season to achieve much. See Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes.

 Cover Crop Planning

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and 9 pages of charts about particular options.

Cover of managing Cover Crops Profitably book from SARE

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book for $19 or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

See Harvey Ussery in  Four Outstanding Cover Crops for Summer.

“Too often, gardeners practice cover cropping only in the off-season — for instance, to protect soil in winter — and assume it’s not a summer option. But it is, and planting summer cover crops provides big payoffs.

We too often think gardening reduces soil fertility, but in fact, the more you keep live plants growing, the richer your soil will become. Roots exude substances that feed beneficial soil organisms, including the amazing mycorrhizae (see Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Amazing Underground Secret to a Better Garden). Deep-rooted plants draw minerals from subsoil, which makes the minerals available to shallow-rooted crops. Dead plants, including invisible roots, decompose and release nutrients for use by subsequent crops. Plants also prevent soil erosion, and decomposing roots open channels for oxygen and rain, and provide pathways through which earthworms and other important organisms can migrate. Repeated seasons of organic matter deposition will increase soil carbon, or “humus,” which is crucial to soil fertility, friable texture and water retention.”


Success with Storing Garlic

Garlic hanging in vertical netting to cure and dry.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

I have written often about garlic, and now I am going to focus on the steps to take to ensure your garlic stores as long as possible. This assumes you have become successful at growing all you need for many months, if not most of a year, and your challenge now is keeping it in good shape.

Everything You Need to Know About Garlic June 2020 includes many, many links on all stages of garlic growing. And to sum it all up see My Garlic Slideshow

Much about garlic is to be found in my Alliums for the Month Series from 2018-2019. The April 2019 post gives links to each of them.

Here’s a sequence of tips, from choosing good varieties to storage, to maximize your chances of success with storing garlic.

Siberian hardneck garlic.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Choosing good storing varieties

  • See Garlic Almanac and Phenotypic Plasticity May 2021. Includes many links. Read this post to learn which characteristics are determined by the growing conditions, including climate, and which are inherent in that variety. Don’t rush to buy a variety that does well in California if you are in New England! Size isn’t everything, but for good size, predictably colored and flavored garlic, buy seed garlic grown locally that yields well. Over time, garlic saved and regrown each year in a certain locality (particular soil type, water availability, local temperatures, latitude, altitude, cultural practices) will adapt itself to that location, and yields can improve. For example, studies have shown that varieties grown in drought-prone areas can, over years, develop more drought-tolerance. Commercial cultivars can have the highest yield under well-watered conditions, but drought will show up the adapted strains in a comparison trial.
  • Get a soil test a month or so before planting, and determine if any soil amendments will help your garlic grow big and strong.
  • Soft neck varieties generally store longer than hardneck varieties. But you don’t need to give up on hard neck varieties! We like our hardneck garlic for flavor and for the large cloves. Most soft-necks have a group of small cloves in the center of each bulb. We grow hardneck to last us 4-6 months, and softneck to use after that, for another 4-6 months or until it’s all gone.
  • According to Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, although most hardnecks store 4-6 months, Music and Chesnok Red can keep 7 months or more in central Virginia. Other hardnecks also rated by SESE as good for storage include German Extra-Hardy and Romanian Red. Softnecks such as Italian Softneck, Inchelium Red, California Early and Silverskins such as Nootka Rose and Silver Rose can store for up to 12 months under good conditions. Order in summer for delivery September to November according to your local planting date.
Garlic scallions prepared for sale.
  • Make your best use of garlic scallions and garlic scapes to extend the garlic season. Experiment with planting small cloves, or cull bulbs of softneck varieties, to grow scallions at various times of year to see what the range is where you are. See Alliums for November. Some growers are finding they can get a better income from garlic scallions than from bulb garlic, and so they are working to extend the garlic scallion season. We have only ever planted small cloves for garlic scallions in early November immediately after planting our maincrop garlic. By planting later, it is possible to stretch the harvest period out later. Softneck garlic varieties can make worthwhile growth for scallions even if planted after the start of January.

Planting garlic for strongest growth

  • Watch your soil temperature to determine when to plant your garlic. Ideally, the soil temp at 4″ (10 cm) deep will be 50°F (10°C) at 9 am, for a few consecutive days. If the fall is unusually warm, wait a week.  We plant in early-mid November. If you plant too early, the garlic will make too much lush leafy growth before cold weather (12°F/−11°C) and could get set back by freezing. If you plant too late, the garlic may not be able to grow enough strong roots before freezing conditions prevent growth. This will limit the size of the bulbs, and may lead to high winter-kill of the plants.
having fun popping garlic and talking about next year’s planned crops.
Photo Bell Oaks
  • Select large cloves from large bulbs, 2-2.5” (5-7.5 cm). Using large cloves from large bulbs usually gives the highest yields, and will, if repeated every year, steer your crop towards bigger bulbs. However, there is a limit: the very largest bulbs are often irregular, and have got large by growing lots of cloves, some of which are very small. As this is probably not what you want to steer towards, don’t use very large irregular bulbs as planting stock.
  • See Garlic Planting and Freeing Trapped Shoots for a summary and links to other posts.
  • See Plant Garlic (Alliums for November) for lots of info, including how much garlic to plant, popping cloves for planting, pre-plant seed treatments to reduce pests and diseases. Start your garlic off well by eliminating problems before you plant!
  • Mulch? At planting time, the soil is still warm, and the newly separated cloves are primed to start growing. If you want to roll out mulch as we do (big round bales of spoiled hay), then you need to act before fragile garlic shoots emerge from the soil. If you are using loose mulch you can blow or throw it over the beds, and a few emerged shoots are no big deal. If you don’t mulch, the soil and the garlic experiences more and wider temperature swings, including freezing conditions, which can dislodge the roots and reduce the rate of growth.
  • In areas where oats reliably winter-kill, if you have a lot of space, you can plant garlic between beds of oats, then later mow the oats and spread the straw between the rows. You do need quite widely-spaced rows of garlic to make this possible, and a bigger area in oats than in garlic.

Cultivating garlic for biggest plants

  • Free Trapped Garlic Shoots (Alliums for December). Watch your mulched garlic beds and when the shoots start to emerge, choose the moment to free any trapped shoots. Usually, most of the shoots will emerge on the same day. Work along the rows, investigating each spot where you expect a garlic plant to be, but nothing has emerged. This will help you with the goal of having a big harvest. After all, improving storability does imply having plenty!

    Garlic beds in April. Weed once a month from March. Photo Kathryn Simmons
  • Because of their vertical tubular or strap-like leaves, alliums do not compete well with broadleaf weeds and can easily become stunted in high weeds. All overwintered alliums will need weeding in March and once a month after that until harvest.
  • Mulched crops can be weeded during wet weather, if necessary, and the pulled weeds can be discarded on top of the mulch, where they stand a much better chance of dying then weeds discarded on bare soil.

Preparing garlic for harvest: removing scapes and mulch

  • Garlic Scapes (Alliums for May). Pulling scapes as soon as you can get a good grip below the head of the stem helps the garlic grow bigger. Removing the scapes does not reduce the storage life, as was once thought. Removing the mulch gives the garlic good airflow and helps it dry down. We do these jobs as soon as we start to see scapes (ours arrive 3 weeks before we need to harvest the bulbs):
  • Hot weather above 91°F (33°C) ends bulb growth and starts the drying down process. Watch the garlic, not the calendar!

    Pulling garlic scapes.
    Photo Wren Vile

Harvesting garlic

  • See Harvesting Garlic, Signs of maturity (Alliums for June) and Garlic signs of maturity October 2020. 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. The gold standard (Ron Engeland) is if the sixth leaf down is starting to brown on 50% of the crop, then it’s ready to harvest.
  • 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 open air spaces 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, like an opening flower bud, 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.
  • See Garlic Harvest step by Step June 2016
Hanging garlic in vertical netting.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier
  • Harvesting Garlic June 2013. Careful harvest extends storage life. Here’s our system:
  1. If the soil is very dry, water the night before – Very hard soil can damage the bulbs.
  2. Plan equal time to dig garlic and to hang it up. It’s important not to leave garlic in airless buckets.
  3. Dig the garlic carefully. Treat the bulbs like fragile, sun-sensitive eggs. Don’t bang, throw or drop the bulbs. Bruised bulbs won’t store well
  4. Loosen them with digging forks, without stabbing them. Pulling on unloosened garlic damages necks, they won’t store well
  5. If they have a lot of soil on the roots, use curled fingers to “brush” soil out
  6. Try not to rub or pick at the skin. Bulbs need several intact skin layers to store well.
  7. Don’t wash the bulbs, no matter how dirty. They need to dry, not get wetter. Dirt will dry and drop off during curing.
  8. Get the dug garlic indoors and hung up promptly. Air above 90°F (33°C) can cook the bulbs, sun can scorch them
Hauling the harvested garlic (and a tired worker) to the barn. Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier
  • Garlic Harvest June 2012. Our hardneck variety is always ready before our softneck variety.

Drying, curing, snipping, and sorting garlic for best keeping qualities

  • Garlic drying and curing methods Feb 2020. A useful roundup of approaches.
  • Drying and Curing Garlic June 2016
  • Drying and Curing Garlic Step by Step with Vertical Netting February 2020. This post has a complete step-by-step list of all the tasks from determining curing is finished, to storing for the winter. Here I am just picking out the bits that make the most difference to how well your garlic will store.
    • We hang our curing garlic in vertical netting around the walls of a barn. Some growers use horizontal racks, others tie garlic in bunches with string and hang the bunches from the rafters.
    • Hang curing garlic with fans if the humidity is high. Don’t set fans too close to the garlic, your goal is to improve the air flow, not blast the bulbs and shrivel them up. See my book Sustainable Market Farming.
    • A sequential arrangement of hanging in order of harvesting, simplifies trimming, and makes best use of the fans, giving the garlic the best chance of drying evenly.
    • Wait 3-4 weeks, then test some bulbs for dryness by rolling the neck of the garlic between your finger and thumb. It should feel dry, papery, strawy. If many bulbs are slippery, gooey, or damp in any way, delay the trimming until at least 90% of the necks are dry.
Trimming garlic stems prior to long-term storage.
Photo by Brittany Lewis

Snipping and sorting

  • Gently remove plants from the netting. Handle the bulbs gently so as not to bruise them. We need long storage, which means no damage.
  • Set up a comfortable place to work. Being comfortable aids good quality work!
  • Some people like to mark off 2”and 2 ½” on the arm of the chair, a nearby wood structure, or their knee.
  • Cut the roots off the garlic as close as possible in one or two snips. This stops them reabsorbing water from the air, and becoming undry.
  • Cut the tops off the garlic, leaving a ¼ – ½” stub. Cutting too close reduces the storage life.
  • Do not remove any skin. We want long storage not pretty-pretty.
  • If damaged, sprung apart or mushy anywhere, put that bulb on the Farm Use rack.
  • Feel the cut neck. The remains of the stem may have a Styrofoam texture. If damp at all, put the trimmed bulb on a rack to dry further.
  • If dry, select bulbs for replanting: If it’s not springing open and it could be between 2 and 2 ½” (5-7.5 cm), and is not obviously more than 10 cloves, measure it.
  • If it’s seed size and quality, put it in a green net bag. Green for Growing. If smaller or larger, put in a red bag for eating.
  • Lay down any bags that are more than 1/3 full, as the weight of garlic in a vertical bag can damage the bulbs at the bottom.
  • Periodically weigh the tied-off bags, make neck tags from masking tape, saying type, quality and weight.
  • Snipping, Sorting and Storing Garlic July 2013. A different step-by-step list.
  • Snip and Sort Garlic (Alliums for July)
Nootka Rose Silverskin softneck garlic is one of the best for long storage. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Storing garlic for a long season of good quality

  • Garlic does not need to be refrigerated immediately after trimming. Garlic bulbs can be stored in the high temperature range of 60ºF-90°F (16ºC-32°C) if they have never been refrigerated, the same as bulb onions. We store initially in a basement. Seed garlic can stay in the high temperature range until planting time.
  • It is important to avoid the sprouting temperature range of 40-55°F (5-13°C)
  • 32-39°F (0-4.5°C) is also a good temperature range.
  • See Storing through the winter: When temperatures seem likely to drop to below 55°F in our basement, we clear the top left shelves in the walk-in cooler and move the garlic there. The low shelves near the compressor do not work well. Use the drier high shelves.
  • See Move Stored Garlic (Alliums for September).
  • Commercially, garlic is stored in the dark at about 32°F (0°C) and 65% humidity, and depending on the species and variety, it may keep six months or more. I have heard that garlic can be stored for up to nine months at 27°F (-2.7°C), but I have not tried that myself. It does not freeze until 21°F (-6°C). Do not store peeled garlic in oil, as garlic is low in acidity and the botulin toxin could grow.
  • For storage, garlic (like onions) does best with a humidity of 60%–70%. Refrigerators are usually more humid than ideal.

Book Review Compost Science for Gardeners, by Robert Pavlis


Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Compost Science for Gardeners, Simple Methods for Nutrient Rich Soil, Robert Pavlis,

New Society Publishers, January 2023. 224 pages, 6 x 0.52 x 9 inches, charts, diagrams and photos. $19.95.

Robert Pavlis has been a gardener for over 45 years, and is a very good science writer. I have previously reviewed Soil Science for Gardeners and Plant Science for Gardeners. This is a valuable, concise, accessible book for home gardeners, and also homesteaders, market gardeners, small-scale and large-scale crop farmers.

The book gives an introduction to the what and why of compost, and then covers the role of compost in the soil, the science of composting, compostable materials, managing the composting process, the options of piles, bins and tumblers, easy composting methods, vermicomposting, Bokashi composting, eco-enzyme composting, buying compost, compost tea, choosing a composting method, using compost and discarding compost myths. There are some almost cult-like groups with beliefs about how to make compost that are not science-based. The author has formed a Facebook group, Garden Fundamentals, you can join, to learn science-based information and help bust some myths yourself.

Garden Fundamentals logo

The introduction explains the importance of high organic matter in the soil, and the cycling of carbon and energy that can increase soil OM. Soil with more organic matter holds onto nutrients better, leaching less, keeping more nutrients in place for the crops. As gardeners we can help the process. We can leave extra plant material where it falls, spread tree leaves around our plants, and establish bug hotels. We can make compost from inedible and unaesthetic plant matter and use the mature compost to fertilize and build the soil, and feed the soil biology.

Nationally, 30% of garbage is yard waste and food scraps. At the landfill, these produce methane, a greenhouse gas with 25 times more global heating power than carbon dioxide. And then add on the pollution from the garbage trucks. It’s plain to see that making compost benefits everyone (except companies selling fertilizer).

There are quick and easy ways of returning garden waste to the soil (chop and drop), and there are labor-intensive ways that kill some weed seeds and diseased plants, and break down woody fibrous materials. You choose. When you do it right, there are no noxious smells. There are even methods you can use inside your house.

Screening a large pile of compost for the greenhouse beds. Photo Wren Vile

The Role of Compost

  • Mulch: keeps soil cooler, damper; may or may not reduce weeds.
  • Fertilizer: contains lots of plant nutrients including micronutrients, that are slowly and steadily released. Because compost has a high Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC, meaning it can hold lots of nutrients), nutrients stick to it, reducing the leaching rate.
  • Soil Builder: adds organic matter, improving aggregation in both sandy and clay soils, helping soil ingredients combine into larger soil particles, upgrading soil structure.
  • Water retainer: a 5% increase in organic material quadruples the soil’s ability to hold water.
  • Toxin remover: compost attracts and binds toxins, preventing plants absorbing them.
  • Acidity buffer: compost brings soil pH closer to neutral, from either side of the scale.
  • Microbe feeder and habitat: More microbes = healthier soil. Add compost, don’t add microbes! Provide the right conditions and they will multiply.
  • Reducer of landfills and greenhouse gas.

If you haven’t already read the author’s earlier book Soil Science for Gardeners, I recommend that. There is a brief description in this book, and charts and a diagram of the soil nitrogen cycle. Plants cannot use large pieces of organic matter, but need it to have it decomposed enough to release the ions. Ions from organic sources or bags of chemical fertilizer are identical. What is different is the ratios and mixtures of ions you are applying.

Tilling is controversial, because it destroys soil aggregates, and brings up weed seeds from lower in the soil profile. Tilling adds air to the upper level of soil, increasing the rate of decomposition of the organic matter. However, it has been found that the organic matter deeper in the soil increases after tilling, so that the total in the top 12” (30 cm) remains unchanged. This may be due to plants making deeper roots (roots are OM!). If you don’t need to dig it in, it is better for the soil and the planet to add materials to the surface.

Digging compost into our cold frames in preparation for fall planting.
Photo Wren Vile

What happens during the composting process? Understanding this helps you make informed decisions in selecting materials and managing the process. Larger life forms play a role in composting by mechanically reducing material to smaller pieces, making the foods accessible to microbes. These macroorganisms do not thrive in hot conditions – they leave when things heat up, and return later. It doesn’t work to second-guess what the compost pile needs. Adding earthworms doesn’t help. They’ll make their own way when conditions are right.

Composting happens when microbes decompose organic matter. Different microbes will self-select for the conditions you provide, just as macroorganisms do. They will multiply and thrive if temperatures and moisture suit them.

Plants are made of cells, and cells are made of molecules. Manure is plant matter that an animal has started to decompose. It’s still made of molecules, mostly unchanged as yet. After composting, all the large molecules have been changed into smaller, simpler molecules: amino acids, simple sugars, the stuff that microbes seek out for dinner. After dinner, and also after life, microbes release nutrients that plants can use. Compost happens!

Here is a clear explanation of the various stages of hot composting and the various kinds of microbes active during the different phases of the process. Worth buying the book for this alone! If you have a lot of seeding weeds, choose a hot composting method, but also chose better gardening techniques that control weeds!

At a garden scale, it will take at least 3 warm months to complete a hot-composting process. In colder climates, it will take 4-6 months or more. Cold compost piles can take 1-2 years. Commercial compost can be “made” in two weeks, but it needs another month to mature. “The first phase of bokashi is done in two weeks, but it is not really composting,” says the author.

We are encouraged to understand the C:N ratio of the materials we use, rather than use the simplistic (and confusing) Browns/Greens concept. Mostly we are feeding microbes, and their perfect food has a 24:1 C:N ratio. There is a helpful table of the C and N content of various compost materials you can use to calculate a recipe, using what you have available. The author offers an Accurate Calculation Method, an Easier Method, and an Even Easier Method.

Don’t worry about the pH. You don’t need to add lime. Home-made compost is usually in the 7.0-7.5 range initially, and drops a bit once in the garden.

A large proportion of the nutrients in finished compost are only released slowly (over maybe 5 years). If you run short of compost one year, don’t worry, your soil probably has enough from previous applications. When is a pile of compost ready to use? Try the Seedling Test. Put some compost mixed 50:50 with soil in a pot. Compare with a pot of just soil. Sow some quick-germinating seeds in each pot. As they emerge, compare the seedlings in each pot. If the plants grow equally well in both pots, your compost is fit for purpose. If the seeds in the compost/soil mix don’t emerge, or are stunted, allow the compost to age longer.

Robert Pavlis has three lists of compostable materials: Good, Bad and Controversial. He addresses antibiotics in animal manures, herbicides in animal fodder and yard trimmings; unnecessary worries about coffee grounds and various food scraps; eggshells, woody branches and used potting soil (OK but pointless); paper and its possible included toxins (not enough to worry about, in the author’s opinion, but not a particularly useful compost ingredient anyway).

The controversial ingredients include diseased plant material (know which disease, advises Pavlis); “compostable” plastics (they don’t break down using garden compost methods); human waste (too much sodium in urine, maybe transmissible diseases in feces); pet waste (maybe your own dog or cat, whose parasites and diseases you already risk, but not other people’s pets, unless you do a good hot composting method); toxic plants (diluted by other ingredients, digested by microbes, don’t worry); weeds (if you don’t let weeds seeds, you won’t have to worry about the compost; if they do seed, you’ll need hot composting the render them unviable; pernicious perennial weeds are best killed before composting); wood ash –  no point as it doesn’t compost, useful to add directly to acid soil.

Bad composting materials include “disposable” diapers (contain plastic and hydrogels); thorny plants; dryer lint, carpet fluff, vacuum cleaner bag contents, fabrics (these days these are largely synthetic fibers or cotton treated to be crease-resistant).

Compost-making is both art and science, and individual gardeners have their preferred twists on the basic method. Basic principles include

  • Location: indoors or outdoors? Indoors limits your options of method. Outdoors, you’ll need a water supply, proximity to the garden and other sources of materials (truck access?), a flat area with drainage and sunshine, and distance from neighbors. Check local laws.
  • Storage of ingredients: to use a hot method, you’ll need to store ingredients until you have a quantity and balance of inputs to build a pile. If you can’t do this, go for a cold system.
  • Air: turn the pile, or stir with an aerator, or make the pile with vented piping included, or layer the materials as you make the pile.
  • Water: add some every few inches as you build the pile. When you turn the pile, squeeze some of the material – it should be damp like a sponge, not sodden, not dry. Add more as needed. In wet climates, add a roof or a tarp over the top. If the pile gets too wet, turn it and fluff it up.

Get a compost thermometer, and once the pile reaches 145ºF (63ºC) – possibly as often as once a week – turn it to mix things up and start it reheating. Compost tumblers make turning easy. Three-bin systems give you somewhere to turn the pile into. A fork is the best tool for turning compost. One way to speed things along is to pre-shred your ingredients, perhaps by spreading them on a patch of grass and mowing them.

You do not need to add compost activators. These may be just microbes, which you should have plenty of. Or they may contain some fertilizer, in an expensive form. You don’t need to add phosphorus or potassium, but you might benefit from adding some nitrogen. Urine diluted 10:1 with water can provide that.

Once the pile no longer reheats, you have reached the curing stage, which takes about two months. Immature compost has a high C:N ratio, and is acidic. It could damage plants. If you are spreading your compost on the soil rather than incorporating it, you don’t need to cure it. This minimizes leaching. If you plan to dig it in just before planting, better to fully cure it first.

There is a troubleshooting chart of things that can go wrong and how to fix them. There are some photos and tables of pros and cons of each outdoor composting system. Resist any urge to turn your compost tumbler more than once a week, or you will disrupt the heating cycle and slow things down.

Pit and trench composting are methods involving gradually filling holes in the garden with compost materials and then covering with soil. This method works well for kitchen winter and spring, when there are fewer other ingredients. A keyhole bed with a central cylindrical cage for compost materials is a version of this idea.

There are electric “composters” which grind and dry kitchen scraps. They do not actually compost the food scraps, or even finely grind them. They use your money to produce dried food scraps, not fertilizer. And they use electricity doing it. When mixed with soil, the food rehydrates and grows mold.

Six worm bins.
Photo NCSU

Vermi-composters are bins holding worms, food scraps and other organic material, which together produce worm castings, which can be used as fertilizer. Vermicomposting is faster than traditional hot composting and can be done indoors, even in winter. The book contains enough detail for you to know whether this practice is one you want to try.

Microbes are the worms’ main food. Worms only digest 5%-10% of their food intake. The rest is excreted, along with a lot of microbes. Learn how much to feed, so that it has mostly gone by the next feeding. 1000 worms (1lb, 0.5 kg) will eat about 0.5lb (0.25 kg) each day. When food runs out, the worms will eat the bedding. Shredded newsprint, fall leaves, aged wood chips and more, make good bedding. There is a trouble-shooting chart.

The worm bin material (“vermicompost”) is a mix of worm castings, bedding material, uneaten food scraps, nutrients, worms, worm egg cocoons and microbes. While the worm bin is active, leachate liquid drops out from a drain hole in the bottom of the bin. This contains organic matter, nutrients and microbes. It can get smelly. It can be diluted 10:1 with water, to use on potted plants, or to water the garden.

Vermicompost will be ready to harvest 6-24 weeks after setup. Ideally, about 50% of the bin will be bedding and compost, and 50% castings. You can use the castings and compost mix in your garden right away. Worm castings have 10-20 times as much microbial activity as soil or most other forms of organic matter. They compost themselves once in the garden. To use for potting soil store it for two months, then mix 20% by volume in your potting mix.

The composition of vermicompost is a little higher in N than regular compost made from the same materials, and the potassium is the same, but the phosphorus is almost four times the level in the regular compost, which can be a problem if your soil is already high in P.

Next the mysteries of Bokashi fermentation (often called composting) are revealed. It’s an anaerobic process, similar to making silage, but usually done in small batches for small gardens. Most pathogens are killed. Waste organic matter is combined with sweetened “Bokashi bran” which contains fermentation microbes in a lidded bucket. Bokashi can be made indoors, and is a useful option in climates with cold winters. All kinds of food can be included with no worries about rodents.

Ignore the claims about “Effective Microbes,” because a study has found them unnecessary. Farmers often start Bokashi with naturally occurring microorganisms rather than buying the 80-microbe EM-1 product. One study found. no difference between using indigenous microorganisms, yeast or nothing at all.

A dark liquid leachate is drained out of the bottom and used as fertilizer, diluted 1:50 with water. It is low in nitrogen, but high in phosphorus, sodium and chloride. See the photos in the book for proof that it is not a good solo fertilizer.

The full bucket is left for a couple of weeks, and then the material is either added to a compost pile or to a large worm bin. It is not ready to be used for plants. You could save time and just feed the raw materials directly to the worms. The pH of Bokashi is around 4 (quite acidic), whereas the pH of compost is about 7.

The Eco-enzymes process, also known as Garbage Enzymes, is similar to making Bokashi or sauerkraut, and is popular in some households in Thailand and nearby countries. It reduces the amount of garbage going to the landfill. The system relies on the microbes already on the surface of the foodstuffs. None are added. Anaerobic conditions prevent pathogens from growing.

Enzymes are proteins created in living organisms. They carry out most of the chemical reactions that take place in the cells, including digesting organic matter. To start an eco-enzyme process, combine 3 parts of chopped organic matter, 1 part of sugar and 10 parts of water in a closed container. Open the lid once a week to let excess pressure escape. Wait three months at room temperature. Then separate the liquid from the solid ferment.

The liquid contains acids, alcohols, bacteria, yeast and protease, amylase and lipase enzymes, as well as plant nutrients.  It can be used to fertilize plants, or as a cleaning product with antifungal and antibacterial properties. The solid ferment is similar to Bokashi ferment, and needs composting to be useful to plants.

A commercial compost windrow turner.
Photo by Pam Dawling

Not everyone can make their own compost in large enough quantities. Some municipalities collect compost materials and make compost, which is then sold locally. Because a hot composting process is used, there will be no pathogens or weed seeds. There are no national US standards for compost, so read the small print.

Bits of food packaging, microplastics (less than 5mm in length) and nanoparticles (smaller) will be in municipal compost. A 2021 US EPA study found 300 pieces of microplastics per gram (8,400 per ounce) of food waste collected from grocery stores. Make your own compost if you can!

Chemical contamination is another concern. Pesticide residues will mostly (not entirely) decompose during composting. Leaves from city streets may have picked up oils and car exhaust compounds. Heavy metal contamination can come in with industrial wastes, or sewage sludge (biosolids), and unlike pesticides, will not degrade. Class A biosolids are tested for fecal coliform, salmonella, heavy metals and a few chemical contaminants. They can be sold as suitable for garden use, although not on Organic farms.

Some herbicides are digested by grazing animals, some degrade if composted, some bind to the soil. Some plant growth regulator herbicides, however, pass straight through livestock and kill the plants they land on. The list includes clopyralid, aminopyralid, aminocyclopyrachlor and picloram. Manure, compost, straw or commercial organic fertilizer can be contaminated. Organically produced materials should not contain these toxins.

Mushroom compost is pasteurized after the mushrooms are grown, and sold to vegetable growers. The material does not contain the right nutrients to grow a second round of mushrooms, but is useful for vegetables, with an NPK of 1-0.7-1, with a high calcium level.

Compost tea comes in two main kinds: anaerobic and aerobic. The anaerobic method is to put some organic matter in a container of water. Wait at least a few days, then draw off the liquid. Microbes will have decomposed some of the material and released some nutrients. Some people call this type of tea a “watery extract” to distinguish it from aerobic compost tea, which has air bubbled through it until done. To make “tea” you can use finished compost, weeds, comfrey, vermicompost, manure.

Compost tea does have some benefits in the garden, but not as many as some wishful thinkers believe. An increase in plant growth has been shown in studies in comparison with water. Not surprising! No study has shown better results from compost teas than other plant fertilizers with similar amounts of the same nutrients. It’s cheaper for you to make compost tea than buy fertilizer. But it may be better value for your time and money to use the organic matter you would have made into tea, in some other kind of compost.

Does compost tea build healthier soils? It is mostly water, which doesn’t build soil. The solid matter left behind might improve soil structure if added directly. The tea does not. Adding microbes via compost teas does not increase the number of microbes in the soil, except very short-term. Microbes will die and feed each other, go forth and multiply until the number of various types have rebalanced, back to the same numbers before your intervention. In a 5-year tree study, compost contained 50% more microbes than compost tea did. Skip the tea-making!

If compost teas are sprayed on foliage, some of the microbes may outcompete some existing microbes, including plant pathogens. Some plant diseases (powdery mildew in some cases) were helped by compost tea. Others (gray mold, downy mildew) seem unaffected. Washington State University has done extensive research. Composts vary, tea-making varies, weather varies. Compost tea is far from a cure-all, that much is clear.

Which composting system suits your conditions best? The trench method works for gardens with no space for bins or piles. Eco-enzyme and compost tea are small scale activities. Vermicomposting and Bokashi can be done indoors in winter. A chart compares traditional composting, vermicomposting and Bokashi Ferment, and another chart compares six traditional compost methods.

If your compost is high carbon, with lots of visible leafy or woody particles, spread it on the surface. If dug in, it would need to find plenty of nitrogen to continue decomposing the carbon. If your compost is still “hot”, and not fully mature, don’t dig it in, as it could hurt your plants.

Robert Pavlis tackles the issue of using too much compost, leading to problems with very high phosphorus levels in the soil, by recommending 1” (2.5 cm) of compost a year as a sustainable amount. Commercial compost may contain an NPK ratio of 1-1-1, whereas plants use 3-1-2. Homemade plant-based compost might have an NPK of 3-0.5-1.5. If you use compost to supply all the P the plants need, you will need to supply more N. This is safer than using compost as your main source of N, and building up too much P in the soil.

Excess phosphate gets locked up in the soil, and it could make it hard for your plants to absorb iron and manganese. If this happens you may see interveinal chlorosis. Some crops are good at integrating and removing phosphorus from the soil, so the situation can improve over time, if you minimize the P you are adding each year. If you see no excess phosphate problems, I advocate for not worrying too much! Expect to get some of the nitrogen you need from cover crops, and added fertilizer.

As well as your preferences and conditions, environmental concerns are important to consider. How much carbon is lost as CO2 or as methane? How much nitrogen is lost? If you didn’t compost, what would your alternative be? Would that produce more or less greenhouse gas? Sending organic matter to the landfill is the worst option. In general, the more aerobic your compost process is, the better for the environment. Bokashi and vermicomposting only take the material halfway to being composted. Remember that producing your own compost helps your garden soil and crops, and your wallet.

Robert Pavlis has a new book Microbe Science for Gardeners, coming soon.

Success with Growing Melons, Part 2


Mayor Canary melon in July. Photo Pam Dawling

I recently posted Success with Growing Melons, Part 1, which took us from the gleam in the eye to transplanting or sowing. Here I cover the rest of the season, and finish with more resources.

Care of Melon Plants

Avoid working the crop (including harvesting) when the foliage is wet, as fungal diseases spread this way. In bare soil, hoe soon after the seedlings emerge, and thin the plants if you sowed thickly. Larger spacing can be used later in the year when vines grow faster.

If the weather is less warm than you hoped, use hoops and thick rowcover until you are more confidant in the temperatures, then switch to insect netting, such as ProtekNet. We hoop and net our melons immediately after transplanting or sowing, to keep the bugs off. We keep the netting on until we see female flowers (they have miniature melons between the flower and the plant). Melons require pollination, so it is important to remove the netting.

Muskmelons on black plastic mulch over drip tape, flowering in early July. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Drip irrigation and plastic mulch can do a lot to improve the quality, yield and earliness of melons. Plastic mulches work well with rowcover, as there will not be weeds growing out of sight, concealed by the rowcover during the critical weed-free period as the vines grow. Plastic mulches can also reduce cucumber beetle numbers, as they deter egg laying and larval migration. Reflective mulches especially reduce beetle populations.

If weeds emerge through the mulch, pull them slowly, while stepping next to the melon stem. Melon roots near the surface can easily be injured. As melons ripen, put a piece of cardboard under the fruit to help prevent rot. With the late summer planting, you can pinch off new flowers to steer the plant’s energy into fruit that has already set. Keep the soil around melons watered with 1-2” (2-5cm) per week, up until the last week or two before harvest. Holding back on water during this time leads to sweeter melons.

Crop Rotations for Melons

Because of the many cucurbit pests and diseases, good crop rotation is important. We have only two big cucurbit plantings, winter squash and watermelon. These are three years and seven years apart in our ten-year rotation. Our other melons are grown in smaller amounts and fitted into spaces that also fit in with the rotation concept. Cucumber beetles are quite mobile, so rotation to a plot next to last year’s crop will not reduce their numbers.

August harvest of Pike muskmelons. Photo from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Succession Crops of Melons

In our climate we can sow melons four times, a month apart. The first row is from transplants, set outside May 3-6. We direct sow the second bed on May 25, then June 25 and July 6-15 for a “Last Chance” crop. The recommended last date for sowing melons is 100 days before your average first frost date.

Pests of Melons

Like most cucurbits, melons are vulnerable to striped and spotted cucumber beetles. These pests chew on plants and spread diseases, such as bacterial wilt and mosaic virus. Protect against cucumber beetles with rowcover or insect netting on hoops, installed at sowing or transplanting, or hunt them with tweezers every morning on leaves and inside flowers, when beetles are more slow-moving.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Watch for aphids, as they can also spread viruses. You can usually hose off leaves or apply an insecticidal soap to kill aphids before they inflict too much damage.

As always, encouraging beneficial insects and predators will reduce pest numbers. Soldier beetles (Pennsylvania Leatherwings) and Wolf Spiders are good predators. Predatory stink bugs, assassin bugs, spined soldier bugs and two native egg parasitoids will reduce Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) numbers, but do not give adequate control. Soapy water will kill BMSB nymphs – be cautious: cucurbit seedlings are sometimes damaged by soap sprays. In one study, one spraying killed about two thirds of the adult bugs. Other studies found soaps ineffective. Heterohabditis nematodes, available commercially, can control cucumber beetles, and may carry over into the next year.

Rowcover or insect netting will keep beetles from vines, but will need to be removed (except for parthenocarpic varieties) when the female flowers open. Some people report good control using the yellow plastic sticky traps along with the cucumber beetle lure sachets sold by Johnny’s Seeds. These can last a whole season and be moved from one crop to the next, suspended on wire hoops. To make your own sticky traps, use yellow plastic cups stapled to sticks so the cups are just above foliage height. Coat the cups with 1 part petroleum jelly to 1 part household detergent (if you are not prevented by USDA Organic certification) or the insect glues available commercially. Cucumber beetles are attracted by clove and cinnamon oils, which can be used to lure them. Use one trap per 1000 ft2 (92 m2). Another approach is to grow a trap crop of a crop particularly attractive to the beetles, such as Cocozelle summer squash, Seneca or Dark Green zucchini, along the edge of the field. The trap crop is then flamed or tilled in when pest numbers build up. If all else fails, and action is imperative, Spinosad will kill them. Neem doesn’t kill them, but does deter them.

Ice Cream personal sized melon. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Diseases of Melons

To minimize diseases, choose disease-resistant melon varieties, provide favorable growing conditions, plow in or remove and compost any plant refuse, and control insect pests. Diseased foliage reduces the ability of the fruit to develop sugars.

In warm, humid climates like ours, melons are subject to powdery mildew, which can wipe out a melon crop if not caught in time. Mildewed leaves cannot photosynthesize well, so the yield and flavor of the melons will not be as good.

There are good photos in Identifying Diseases of Vegetables from Penn State. The University of Tennessee has a concise list of melon diseases and pests in its publication Producing Cantaloupes in Tennessee. The Cornell University Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management has information on dealing organically with most common diseases:

  • Angular Leaf Spot (bacterial) occurs during cool, wet weather. Symptoms include interveinal browning of the leaf and small round spots on the fruit. The leaf damage is tan, not dark.
  • Anthracnose, a fungus disease, is most common during warm rainy weather. It causes angular haloed dark-brown spots on the leaves and dark, round, sunken spots on the fruit.
  • Bacterial Wilt (Erwinia) causes sudden dramatic wilting and death of the vines.
  • Black Rot/Gummy Stem Blight (Didymella bryoniae) is a fungus occurring with cool or warm wet weather.
  • Downy Mildew occurs in wet, cool spells and plants may recover if the weather heats up.
  • Mosaic Virus causes a yellow and green mottling of the leaves and reduces plant vigor.
  • Phytophthora Blight occurs in some regions but not others.
  • Powdery Mildew occurs during hot, dry spells.
  • Scab is not usually a problem to those growing resistant varieties. The fungus, Cladosponum cucumerinum, is worse in cold wet weather. Try compost teas or baking soda spray.
Pike muskmelons being harvested August 26.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Harvesting Melons

See my post on harvesting melons

“Days to maturity” in catalogs are usually from direct seeding; subtract about 10 days to calculate from transplanting to harvest date. At the beginning of July our Asian melons start coming in, following those, our Kansas muskmelons.

I recommend harvesting daily, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases.

With muskmelons, when the background-color of the skin beneath the “netting” changes from gray-green to buff or a yellowish color, the melon is almost ripe. A honeydew melon will turn a light yellow-white color when it’s ripe.

“Full slip” is the term for melons that separate cleanly from the stem with only the very lightest pressure. Waiting too long leads to rotten fruit, especially in hot weather. Look carefully at the point where the stem joins the melon, and as it ripens you will see a circular crack start to open around the stem. This small disk of melon stays with the stem when it slips off the vine. More usually, growers give the stems a “little nudge” to see if the melon will fall off the vine. Depending on the delay between harvest and sale, you may need to pick at half-slip or three-quarter slip (when half or a quarter of the stem disk sticks and breaks rather than slipping free). Harvest your melons at half-slip if you are going away for the weekend, or you worry the groundhogs will get it if you don’t. But if you are harvesting to eat right away, harvest at full slip for best flavor and aroma.

Ripe Mayor Canary melon.
Photo Wren Vile

Crenshaw and Canary melons require a good tug (“forced slip”). Honeydew, Charentais, and Piel de Sapo must be cut from the vine – don’t wait for them to slip!

If you are growing melons on a large scale, it will be worth buying a refractometer to test sugar levels. Melons at full slip should register 12-14%, while those at half-slip should show at least 10%. Half of the final sugars accumulate in the last week of ripening. Full flavor develops a day or two after picking, but the sugar content does not increase. I like nothing better than eating fruit fresh from the field, still warm from the sun.

Melons do not need to be rushed to the cooler as greens and sweet corn do, so they can be picked and set in the shade until a full load of produce is ready to be moved. Melons are subject to sun-scald if left unprotected in the sun after harvest.

Kansas muskmelon.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Melon Storage

Storage time for melon depends on the type. Relative humidity should be 85-95% for best results. Refrigeration is a tad too cold. Honeydew can be stored up to three weeks at 50°F (10°C). Store other melons at 45-50°F (7-10°C) for 7-14 days.

Muskmelons can be stored at 36-41°F (2-5°C) and 95% relative humidity, for up to 2 weeks.

Muskmelon bruising and splitting can happen if melons are dropped more than 8” (20 cm) onto hard surfaces. When they are stacked more than six layers deep or are transported over rough roads, pressure bruising can result, leading to discolored flesh.

Sun Jewel Asian melon. Fast-maturing “early” melons can also be grown late in the season.
Photo Mary Kranz

Season Extension for Melons

Early crops can be grown in a hoophouse, using transplants, with rowcover while the nights are chilly. Research at Virginia State University has shown success with Asian melons transplanted into hoophouses at the end of March at Randolph Farm, in Petersburg, Virginia.

Late crops can be covered with rowcover to fend off a few light frosts. Pollinators won’t be able to get at the flowers, but that doesn’t matter if you already have enough fruits on the plants. You can pinch off immature fruits to concentrate the plants’ energy into ripening the bigger fruits. It isn’t worth it to coddle every last little nubbin of a fruit, as the smallest ones won’t ripen in cool temperatures and will get killed by heavier frosts.

A true cantaloupe melon: Noir des Carmes. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Melon Seed Saving

Melon varieties need to be isolated by 660’ (200 m) for home use, and a minimum of 0.5-1 mile (0.8-1.6 km) for seed for sale. Note that all 8 melon groups cross with each other.

Resources for Growing Melons

Melons for the Passionate Grower, Amy Goldman

ATTRA, Cucumber Beetles: Organic and Biorational Integrated Pest Management

Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Guide for Identification and Management of Diseases of Cucurbit Vegetable Crops (Cantaloupe, Cucumber, Pumpkin, Squash and Watermelon)

Cover Crops for June – Sunn hemp


Sunn hemp flowering in November at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC. Photo Pam Dawling

Focus Cover Crop for June: Sunn hemp

Last month I wrote about buckwheat. For small areas that will be needed back in production soon, buckwheat continues to be a good choice, unless irrigation is in short supply. You don’t get much biomass from buckwheat in a drought!

In June we are mostly looking for cover crops that will grow in hot weather. One we have recently started to use in our hoophouse is Sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea). It looks promising as an outdoor cover crop here too. Sunn hemp is not at all related to cannabis – don’t smoke it.

Sunn hemp, a tropical legume, can grow as tall as 9’ (2.7 m) in as many weeks.  It needs 8-12 weeks frost-free to grow to full productivity. In the US it is grown as a summer annual, except in Hawaii, where it can be grown to seed at lower elevations. With adequate moisture, temperature and fertility, researchers have recorded a growth rate of 1 foot per week. It comes from India, where it is grown for fiber production and as a forage, as well as a cover crop. It is recommended for warm season use in US hardiness zones 8-13, but has been successfully cultivated as far north as Washington State.

Sunnhemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC.
Photo Pam Dawling

Benefits of growing sunn hemp

If you sow sunn hemp in a summer gap between spring and fall vegetable crops, it will provide a nitrogen boost for the fall crop, because it is a legume. Also, as a branching vertical plant, it avoids the problems of sprawling legumes. In dense plantings, it can fix more than 120 lbs (54 kg) of nitrogen and 12 pounds of biomass per 100 sq ft (0.56 kg/sq m). It can fix over 100 lbs of nitrogen and produce over 5000 lbs of biomass per acre (112 kg/ha and 5604 kg/ha respectively).

Most studies of vegetables grown following sunn hemp have found higher vegetable crop yields, because of the nitrogen boost, and the large amount of biomass increasing the soil organic matter. The large production of biomass means it is useful as a way to sequester carbon. The well-developed root system with a strong tap root also provides erosion control.

Sunn hemp suppresses weeds and also conserves soil water, storing summer rainfall for fall crops, and reducing runoff. Sunn hemp may enhance soil microbiota. Sunn hemp residue contains allelochemicals, that inhibit or delay germination of weed seeds and small crop seeds. Because of this, do not sow small-seeded crops or cover crops for several weeks after incorporation.

Sunn hemp suppresses plant-parasitic nematodes such as root-knot (Meloidogyne incognita) and reniform (Rotylenchulus reniformis) nematodes by producing allelochemicals that disrupt nematode life cycles. It promotes the growth of both antagonistic microorganisms and beneficial nematodes. Pest nematode numbers can be reduced for several weeks after incorporating sunn hemp into the soil. (I was disappointed to read “weeks” rather than “months” as I was hoping, although the EDIS ENY-717(see resources section) offers “a few months”)

Variation in spring field corn root development at harvest following various summer cover crops. Preceding cover crop from left to right: sunn hemp (residues mulched in), pearl millet without fertilizer, sorghum-sudangrass, corn, pearl millet with fertilizer, and sunn hemp (residues harvested).
Credit: Z. J. Grabau, UF/IFAS

Sunn hemp can be grown as a wind break to protect sensitive vegetable or flower crops, or young trees. Mow or cut the sunn hemp at 60 days, or lop the tops, to prevent too much shading.

Sunn hemp seeds at the start of a seed germination test. Photo Pam Dawling

Sowing sunn hemp

Sow sunn hemp starting a week after your sweet corn sowing date, up to 9 weeks before your first fall frost, when it will die. A soil temperature of 68°F (20°C) or more is good. It tolerates a wide range of soils (but not if waterlogged), doing better in poor sandy soils than most crops. Water for the first two weeks of growth, but do not overwater.

Plant inoculated seed (use the same inoculant as for southern peas) up to 1” (2.5 cm) deep, with seeds 1.5” (4 cm) apart in the row, and with rows 6” (15 cm) apart. Sowing densely (as with all cover crops) will work better to smother the weeds. On a field scale, drill at 25-50 lbs/ac (28-56 kg/hectare), or broadcast at 40-60 lbs/ac (45-68 kg/ha).

Another opportunity is to sow sunn hemp in the late summer or fall, 7-9 weeks before a frost. The frost-killed mulch covers the surface for an early spring food crop planting.

Sunn hemp seeds germination test. Photo Pam Dawling

Sowing sunn hemp in mixes

Sunn hemp and sorghum-sudangrass grow well mixed together. Try a 50:50 mix to start with.

This mixture can increase overall biomass and the diversity benefits soil microorganisms and therefore nutrient cycling. Only grow this very tall cover crop mix if you have tractor-based equipment. It is too massive to tackle with small mowers or weed whips.

Sunn hemp can also be mixed with other legumes, such as American joint vetch (Aeschynomene americana), southern peas (Vigna unguiculata), hairy indigo (Indigofera hirsuta), and slender leaf rattlebox (Crotalaria ochroleuca). This list comes from Florida and may not apply where you live. The shorter height of northern sunn hemp varieties, such as day-neutral ‘AU Golden’ and ‘Ubon’, may work better for cover crop mixtures. ‘Crescent Sunn’ is a short-day variety which will carry on growing if sown out of season.

Growing sunn hemp

Sunn hemp is fairly drought-tolerant from two weeks after germination, and requires little care. For maximum growth, irrigate until 75% of the plants are flowering (perhaps at the end of the third month), then you can stop irrigating.

Cutting the crop back at less than 60 days after sowing stimulates branching (more biomass) and more root penetration (better drainage). In our hoophouse, we have used hedge shears to do this at a nice ergonomic elbow height. Cutting at around 60 days produces long-lasting mulches that increase soil carbon. After 60 days, the stems thicken and become fibrous and high in cellulose. It is best to mow Sunn hemp before 90 days, due to the toughness of the fiber, making it hard to incorporate.

On a field scale, a roller-crimper can be used to break the plant stems, leaving a layer of mulch suitable for no-till transplanting of fairly large transplants. The sunn hemp is killed by crimping, and does not regrow.

A long bed of sunn hemp in November at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC. Photo Pam Dawling

Challenges with sunn hemp

Sunn hemp is notorious for seeds that are high in toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Ingesting lots of seeds can cause damage to the liver, lungs, heart and nervous system. Susceptibility depends partly on the animal species: pigs are most vulnerable, followed by chickens, horses, cattle and sheep. Goats have the lowest risk.

Tropic Sun has reduced levels of these alkaloids, and is non-toxic to poultry and livestock. This and other southern varieties may be less tolerant to cold climates than northern varieties such as AU Golden and Ubon. AU Golden may flower 5-6 weeks after sowing

In some states (in 2005, Arkansas for example), Sunn hemp is regarded as a noxious weed, so do check the rules where you are, at your local NRCS office, Extension Service or state agricultural service. Some Crotolaria are noxious weeds, but as sunn hemp will not set seed consistently north of 28° N latitude (slightly north of Corpus Christi, TX), it has little potential for becoming a weed.

Deer and rabbits may browse on sum hemp, and some moths and pod boring insects may attack the stems, leaves or seedpods.

Sunn hemp growing in southern Florida.
Credit: Qingren Wang, UF/IFAS

More resources on sunn hemp

USDA Sunn hemp Plant Guide, 2005:

Ask Ifas: Questions and Answers for Using Sunn Hemp as a Green Manure Crop

EDIS SL 306 Sunn Hemp – A Promising Cover Crop in Florida

EDIS ENY-717 Management of Nematodes and Soil Fertility with Sunn Hemp Cover Crop.

NRCS USDA 1999 Sunn Hemp: A Cover Crop for Southern and Tropical Farming Systems

USDA Plant Materials Program


Secondary Cover Crops in June

In my May post I mentioned secondary cover crops such as soy, mustard, sunn hemp, and southern peas. I explained why we don’t grow mustards as cover crops (too many brassica food crops, too many harlequin bugs).

If you have only 28 days until the patch is needed for a food crop, you can grow mustards or buckwheat. Or weeds, if you’re careful not to let them seed!  If you have at least 45 days, you can grow soy or Japanese millet.

In June, legumes such as soybeans, southern peas, and Partridge pea are other good legumes to consider.

Soybeans as a cover crop

Soybeans are a great summer cover crop and they are also a legume, so they add nitrogen to the soil. They have good shade tolerance and tolerance to foot traffic (that is, people harvesting crops on either side). Because of this, we like using soy to undersow in sweet corn.

Iron and Clay southern peas as cover crop in the hoophouse, smothering weeds.
Photo Pam Dawling

Southern peas are another warm weather cover crop option. They are also a legume, and so will add nitrogen to the soil. Iron and Clay is the sprawly variety best known for cover crop use, but other varieties also work.

Senna Ligustrina, a native perennial legume, is another warm season cover crop possibility. I was given this suggestion last September by a reader in Florida. She suggested I look for a senna native to my region. Ernst Conservation Seeds sells Maryland Senna, which tolerates wetlands and dry roadsides. The idea here is to find a plant adapted to your region, meaning it will grow well. The other side of the coin is that if you are growing annual crops, you will need to pay attention and prevent self-seeding, unless you are able to cope with the chaos.

At Ernst Conservation Seeds, they “grow, process, and sell hundreds of species of native and naturalized seeds and live plant materials for ecological restoration, sustainable landscaping, reclamation, wetlands, and natural resources conservation.” If you are looking for some less usual cover crops seeds, this is the place to turn to.

Next month I will write about sorghum-sudangrass and the millets. If you are in a warmer climate than I am (central Virginia) or you want to consider more options, those are good hot weather grasses. Also see my post Cover Crops in Summer for much more information, including  making space, sowing small spaces and finding time for the work.

If you have only 28 days until the patch is needed for a food crop, you can grow mustards or buckwheat. Or weeds, if you’re careful not to let them seed!  If you have at least 45 days, you can grow soy or Japanese millet.

Cover Crop Planning

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and 9 pages of charts about particular options.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book for $19 or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

Harvey Ussery  Four Outstanding Cover Crops for Summer.

ATTRA Cover Crop Options for Hot and Humid Areas

Success with Growing Melons, Part 1


Pike muskmelon. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I have written a couple of posts about growing melons, so go to those links for the basics. Here I am going to dive deep into tips for increasing your success by paying attention to the details. I dove so deep I made two pots. part 2 will follow in a couple of weeks.

I wrote a post, Fruit for the Month: July, in my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate, with melons as the focus. In our climate, July is the month to start harvesting muskmelons (often called cantaloupes), Asian melons, and canary melons. Watermelons are slower to ripen.

Basic needs for success with growing melons

Melons love warm, sunny days and need 80-100 days from seed sowing to harvest. For good production, melons need warm weather, along with a steady supply of water. Melon plants also need good air circulation, so leaves and fruit can dry fairly quickly after dew or rainfall. To help prevent the spread of diseases, rotate crops and avoid growing them where other cucurbits were planted in the previous year or two.

Melons thrive in well-drained soil, sandy loam, or in clay soils that have been good levels of organic matter, so long as they get plenty of sunshine and warmth. Soil pH should be 6-7 for healthy melons and good yields. Encourage drought-resilient crops by using drip irrigation, so that roots grow deep. Look for resistance to diseases you know to be a problem in your area.

They have no frost tolerance. Vines can sprawl and cover a 4’ (1.2 m) bed, or fill even a 7’ (2.13 m) row when grown on the flat, and for a longer harvest from each planting, do not crowd them.

A melon plant in July. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Melon seed specs are the same as cucumbers for size and weight: 1000 seeds/oz, 36 seeds/gm. 0.5oz sows 100′, 6 oz/1000’ at 6 seeds/ft. (100 seeds, or 11gm/m at 2.5 cm spacing.). Melon yields will be affected by irrigation during fruit development, but not by watering levels during vegetative or flowering stages. Adequate water is especially important in the seedling stage and during fruiting. Marketable yields of muskmelons can be 7,000-10,000 fruits per acre (17,500-25,000 per hectare) when grown on plastic mulch, and down to half that on bare ground. Most melon plants will yield 3 or 4 good melons.


Types of melons

Cucumis Melon Varieties

Jeff McCormack of Saving Our Seeds distinguishes 8 types of Cucumis melon:

  • Cucumis melo reticulatus Muskmelons (which we commonly call cantaloupes) are in this group. They have orange or green flesh and usually have netted skin. They slip from the vine when ripe (perhaps with a nudge).
  • True cantaloupes, Cucumis melo cantalupensis, are rare in the US. They are rough and warty rather than netted. Fedco Seeds sells Prescott Fond Blanc and Petit Gris de Rennes. Charentais melons are true cantaloupes. They are smaller, round, good-flavored orange-fleshed melons. I have successfully grown 78-day Savor, a 2lb (0.9kg) melon with a green-grey skin and deep orange flesh.
  • Cucumis melo inodorus is the group of winter melons: Casabas, Crenshaws, Honeydews and Canary melons. They have a smooth rind, no musky odor, and they must be cut from the vine – they will not slip. Crenshaw melons are large oblong 78-day melons with light yellow skin and very aromatic pale creamy orange flesh. Canary melons are smooth yellow 4lb (1.8kg) fruits with white flesh and are quite sweet.75 days to maturity. We have had good success with Mayor. Honeydew melons are fast-maturing, smooth skinned oval melons, usually with pale-green flesh, although Honey Orange is salmon-colored. 3lbs (1.4kg), 74 days.

    Mayor canary melon. Photo Wren Vile
  • Cucumis melo dudaim includes Plum Granny and Queen Anne’s Pocket Melon, grown for aroma, not flavor.
  • The four groups less-common in the US are m. flexuosus (snake melons including Armenian cucumbers), C. m. conomon (Asian and Oriental pickling melons), C. m. chito (mango melon and others named after other fruits), C. m. momordica (snap melons).

Of these types, we mostly grow muskmelons. Externally, they turn beige and slip from the vine when ripe. They have a yellowish-buff skin with a raised netting, and sometimes lengthwise sutures (ribbing).  They have soft sweet orange flesh, with a complex sweet aromatic flavor, and the 3–7lbs (1.5–3kg) fruits take 75-84 days to mature. They are sometimes divided into two types: Eastern varieties are sutured (scalloped in shape) and can have a very short shelf life, while Western ones are typically not sutured but are netted (covered with a corky mesh of lines), and they will usually hold for two weeks after harvest. I see many netted and scalloped melons, so I don’t use this classification.

Kansas muskmelon. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Kansas (90d from transplanting) is an heirloom muskmelon with excellent flavor, fine texture and enough sturdiness to stand up to humid weather and variable rainfall. The 4lb (1.8 kg), oval fruits are sutured and moderately netted. They are hardy, productive, with good resistance to sap beetles that can destroy fruit of other varieties. They ripen almost all the way out to the rind (not much waste!).   Pick these at full slip, and be sure to inhale the aroma at the stem end, as you carry them to the table.

Pike (85d) (see photo at top of the post) was bred for growing in unirrigated clay soil. It is vigorous, high-yielding, disease-resistant and (depending on irrigation) it produces 3-7lb (1.4-3.1 kg) fruits with great flavor. We have also had success with Edisto 47 (88d OP) about 6-7″ (15-17 cm) in diameter.  With resistance to ALS, PM, and DM, it exceeds the disease resistance of many hybrids. Hales Best has also done well here. For Downy mildew resistance, tolerance to cucumber beetles, and great flavor, grow Trifecta from Commonwealth Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Trifecta muskmelons from Commonwealth Seeds.

Other melon types

 The University of Kentucky has a publication on specialty melons.

Sun Jewel Asian melon. Photo Mary Kranz

Fastest to produce a crop are the 65-day Asian melons such as Torpedo (replaced Sun Jewel), or Early Silver Line. A good type for people with short growing seasons, provided you can make a warm spot for them. These 1-2lb (0.5-1kg) melons have refreshing crisp white flesh and are pleasantly sweet without over-doing it. The long oval fruits average 7″ x 3 1/2″ and are pale yellow with shallow white sutures (“seams”). Some people disparage them as “cucumber melons,” but their good points are earliness, tolerance of chilly weather, being easy to grow and having a pleasant flavor. They ripen to a more buttery yellow and slip off the vine when ripe. Plants are resistant to downy and powdery mildews, and can be very productive. We buy seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Galia tropical melons have green flesh, yellow-tan skins and a round shape.

Arava Galia-type melon.
Photo Fedco Seeds

Personal-sized melons

I wrote a post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog about personal size melons, something we tried for a couple of years. These “individual serving” melons weigh about 2-2.5 lbs (1 kg) each, compared to standard cantaloupes at 3-6lbs (1.5-2.5kg) each. To serve, just cut in half and scoop out the seeds. Add ice cream if you like. We tried Tasty Bites (they top out at 3lbs/1.4kg) and Sugar Cube 2–2 1/2 lb (1kg). The advantage of having a smaller fruit was not more than the disadvantage of harvesting smaller fruits for us.

Tasty Bites personal-sized melon
Photo Territorial Seeds

Sowing melon seeds indoors

More and earlier success comes with sowing melon seeds indoors, where the right temperatures can happen earlier in the year. Melons are a bit finicky in their youth, but given a strong start, they can do very well. Melons need slightly warmer temperatures than cucumbers. The seeds take 8.4 days to emerge at 68°F (20°C), 4 days at 77°F (25°C), and 3.1 days at 86°F (30°C).

Cucurbits are not very easily transplanted, so choose a method that minimizes root damage, such as soil blocks, Winstrip trays or 2” (5 cm) deep cell flats that are easy to eject plants from. Sow 2-3 seeds per cell 0.5” (1 cm) deep.

Watermelon transplants in a Winstrip plug flat. Watermelons give earlier harvests from transplants, and plants in plug flats transplant easier then from open flats.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sow 3-4 weeks before you intend to plant out: we sow our first melons 4/15 to transplant with hoops and rowcover 5/6, which is a week after our last frost date. Temperatures below 45°F (7°C) can stunt growth. If the spring is cold, just wait it out. Melons will do OK with fluctuating temperatures, provided they are not too cold.

After germination, the temperature should be reduced to 75°F (24°C). We always ensure our melons get a spot in the greenhouse with very good light and no drafts.

Keep the soil moist and when seedlings have reached 2” (5cm) in height, single them (thin to one plant per cell) by cutting off weak seedlings at soil level, leaving one strong seedling per pot or cell. Keep temperature above 70°F (21°C) during the day and 60°F (16°C) at night.

Once the first true leaves appear, lower the temperature to 65°F (18°C) and reduce watering a little. Cucurbit seedlings are sometimes damaged by foliar sprays, especially ones including soaps, so avoid killing by mistaken kindness.

Harden off the plants for a week, by reducing water, before you set them into the garden. Set them outside in a shady area on warm days, gradually increasing the time outside each day from one hour to two hours, to three, and so on. Alternatively, use shadecloth and increase the sun exposure by an hour a day.

If you want a faster harvest than you’d get from direct sowing, but you don’t want to do transplants, you can chit (pre-sprout) the seed. Put the seed on damp paper towels, roll them up and put the bundles in plastic bags loosely closed, or plastic sandwich boxes, not sealed. Keep at 70-85°F (21-29°C). Check twice a day (this also introduces fresh air to the seeds), and sow before the root reaches the length of the seed. Seeds which are already sprouting will not need more watering after sowing until the seedlings emerge, unless the soil is dry as dust.

Stephen Albert writes the very informative Harvest to Table website, which includes step-by-step details on pre-sprouting melon (and other) seeds. It takes only a few days, and gets the tiny seedling through the tough seed coat. How to Plant and Grow Melons

Direct sowing of melon seeds

Summer squash plants under ProtekNet insect netting.
Pam Dawling

For sowing in open ground wait until the soil temperatures is 59°F (15°C), the minimum to germinate melon seeds. We make a furrow 0.5-0.75” (1.3-1.8cm) deep, water the furrow if the soil is dry, put one seed every 6” (15 cm), pull the soil back over the seeds and tamp down. Growers commonly space seeds at 2” (5cm), but using the wider spacing gives us no problems, and uses less seed. We cover all our early cucurbit sowings with rowcover until the plants start to flower (about a month) as we have many pests and diseases. Later sowings get ProtekNet insect netting rather than rowcover. When the plants start to flower, we remove the covers, hoe and thin to 18-24” (45-60 cm). Melons can use 7.5-15 ft2 (0.7-1.4 m2) each on plastic mulch, and double that space on bare ground. Melon rows are typically up to 6-10’ (2-3 m) apart.

It is possible to sow cucurbits through plastic mulch by jabbing holes in the plastic and popping the seeds in. This method leads to earlier harvests, as the mulch warms the soil, and there will be no weeds.

For a main crop, we direct sow 5/25 and 6/25. Maximum germination temperature is 100°F (38°C).

Transplanting melons

Melons are admittedly delicate to transplant. Wait for the right conditions and take great care when handling the plants.

Check your local weather forecast to ensure that your melon plants will not be subjected to chilly, windy conditions when they are newly transplanted. Warm overcast conditions late in the day are best for transplanting, and rowcover (preferably on hoops to reduce abrasion) can be used to provide warmer and less breezy conditions.

Before starting transplanting, check the soil temperature: the soil should be at least 70°F (21°C) for melon survival. Melon plants exposed to temperatures cooler than recommended might not set fruit later on. One way to speed up soil warming is to cover the area with black plastic mulch for 1-3 weeks prior. Cut an x-shaped slit where for each plant and hold the edges of the plastic down with rocks. We space our melons at 2’ (60cm) apart in the row, with rows 6’ (2m) apart.

To help reduce transplant shock, water the flat (or pots) well the day before and again one hour before transplanting. Avoid disturbing the roots when transplanting. Cucurbit transplants are often leggy, and they should be planted so that the entire stem up to the base of the leaves is below soil level, otherwise the fragile stem is liable to get broken. The stems will do better protected in the ground. Water the soil thoroughly. If you are not using plastic mulch, hoe as needed for a few weeks, and wait until hot weather before spreading organic mulch (straw, spoiled hay or dry tree leaves), as this keeps the soil cool, and as I stressed already, melons like heat. Depending on soil fertility, you may want to add fish emulsion to encourage growth.

Another tip for protecting transplants against insect damage is to mix up a kaolin clay soup, invert the plug flat and dip the upside-down plants in the liquid before taking them to be transplanted. Three cups to one gallon of water make up into a suitably thick mix for this technique. Surround is the best-known brand. You can also spray the plants during their growth, with Surround. This does wash off if it rains or you use overhead irrigation, and you will need to reapply (or switch to netting if the plants are not yet flowering.)

Muskmelons flowering in early July. Planted on biodegradable plastic mulch. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Book Review Compact Farms by Josh Volk

Compact farms by Josh Volk, front cover

Compact Farms: 15 Proven Plans for Market Farms on 5 Acres or Less, Josh Volk

Storey Publishing, 2017. 226 pages, 8” x 10”, full color photos and illustrations, charts. $19.95.

This book will be very useful to those preparing to buy or rent land for a small vegetable or flower farm, or those expanding, or downsizing, or re-thinking their small farm model. It is both practical and inspirational. The photos are treasure troves of beauty and ideas. The main part of the book consists of 15 well-organized presentations of a small farm, offering a range of possibilities. The same format is used for each, making comparisons quick and straight-forward. The intro page gives the “vital statistics’ of area in production, location (including whether urban/peri-urban/sub-urban/rural), crops grown, markets and year started. We meet the farmers, and hear a potted history.

The introduction to the notion of thinking small (or “compact” as Josh teaches us to call this scale) explains that compact farms are easily manageable, with many tasks done with hand tools. Start-up and operating costs are reasonable, and money can be invested as success builds. They help build a sense of community, by virtue of being small enough for non-farmers to understand. They usually rely on a diversity of crops to spread risks, rather than an arsenal of pesticides to kill all the problems. The author lists the keys to success for compact farms as paying attention (to the land, crops, weather, seasons, markets, and maintaining resilience); setting yourself apart from large scale growers by growing appropriate crops and adding value; and developing stable systems that work (making improvements over the years, tied to the particulars of the farm and farmers).

Josh Volk, author of Compact Farms

The area in vegetable or cut flower production ranges from Josh Volk’s own 0.15 acres in Oregon to Peregrine Farm’s 4 acres in North Carolina, and includes 2.5 acres of rooftops in New York. Some of the farms also include fruit trees, poultry or bees.

For each farm there is a two-page spread with an attractive hand-drawn farm map with the important items tagged. These layouts will be a big help to anyone pondering how to efficiently pack in all the growing space and facilities needed. A compass North would have been helpful, but usually this can be deduced from the alignment of the greenhouses and hoophouses. If you buy the paperback book you could cut it apart and spread the maps round a table for direct comparisons.

The next, very helpful item is a big chart of the crops harvested each month. Here there is a lot of diversity. Some sell nothing till April or May, and close again at the end of October, some are almost year-round. Some have a full page of crops; one has lettuce year-round and coffee and 5 other crops (that’s in Hawaii). One sells winter crops, because their land is too wet to make an early start in spring. Many ways to produce healthy local food are demonstrated.

After each introduction, there are sections on customers and markets; labor; water; fertility; tools and infrastructure; greenhouses and propagation; seeding and planting; crop care (weed control, season extension, pest and disease control, trellising and pruning); harvesting and post-harvest; sales, communication and record-keeping. Studded throughout are the gems that tell how each farmer has adapted to their situation. Sidebars explain some practices with a bit of detail. How to do flame-weeding, make use of WWOOFers, learn useful skills, make use of hoophouses. Photos (worth more than a thousand words) demonstrate details of cart designs, root washers, a car port used as a wash-pack area, and rods welded onto the hood of a rototiller to mark rows.

The back of the book includes a section called “Nuts and Bolts” with gathered thoughts on planning and designing a farm, all the way from clarifying your goals, listing what you need as a minimum to achieve those goals, what you want to be doing on a day-to-day basis (managing a big crew or having your hands in the soil?), on to what you need to make your farm work (land, location, water quantity and quality, storage, roads, greenhouses, hoophouses, harvest, packing and storage space and equipment, livestock, retail space, office, a restroom near the fields, and housing. Lastly there is a chapter on making it work financially.

The farmers in this book tend towards organic, sustainable, socially conscious, ecological, biological, regenerative. This tendency is always a work in progress, not perfect. We know tractors pollute. These farms consider and value the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit, as the three pillars of sustainability. Crop rotation develops healthier soils, stronger crops (therefore potentially profit) and healthier people compared to pesticide-farming. Sustainability does not seek a static state, but continual improvement, so that we leave future generations at least as well off as we are.

Josh Volk was inspired by John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. . .
Photo by Penguin Random House

John Jeavons of Ecology Action and the ground-breaking book How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, was an early inspiration for the author. Jeavons promoted sustainability, soil fertility, food with high nutritional density, while using as little space and as few resources as possible. The many detailed charts in his book have been used by generations of growers since, to plan their small farms. Although we might not favor double-digging, as Jeavons once did, his biointensive methods are used around the world to maximize production of healthy local food.

Devising a system that will work very well for your farm will be helped by studying these 15 examples and learning how a decision about one aspect leads to a particular decision about another aspect. The details of each farm might set you thinking about aspects you had not yet considered, or might reassure you that what you see as a major obstacle can be overcome or side-stepped. Tractors are not essential. Pasture for a horse may use as much land as the production area. Don’t plan to farm alone: all the farms in this book have at least two workers. Everyone gets sick sometimes, or has to take a day to go to the city for a dentist appointment.

I wrote a short summary of each farm, but there isn’t space for all that here, so I’m shortening my notes right down. Most of these farms offer 24-36 crops during the season, grow on raised beds, have at least one hoophouse, and a wash/pack area. All have at least two workers, most also with seasonal help. Most use three markets: CSA, farmer’s market, restaurant or wholesale. Here, I’ve focused on the diversity.

Josh starts with his own compact farm (Slow Hand Farm) in Oregon, the smallest in the book, at 0.15 acres. Josh wanted a hand-scale operation where he himself tended all the crops. Josh focused on specialty crops that gave high yields from small spaces, and could take a few days without attention, as he was only on the farm two days a week He designed a CSA with small shares, based on salad crops and a few other items. Deliveries were by a leased Bullitt cargo bike with an electric assist.

Four Season Farm, from their website

The second example is Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s famous Four Season Farm in rural coastal Maine. There are two acres in crops and 8 acres in chicken pasture. Eliot is well-known for his ground-breaking books. Employees learn by working with mentors. Poultry are used in rotation to provide fertility for the soil that will later grow vegetables to sell year-round. Everything is very well-thought-out – you can read more in Eliot’s books.

Stephen Cook of the 0.75acre Cook’s Garden in a peri-urban setting in Ohio sells vegetables, plant starts, strawberries, cut flowers and honey. The farm layout has very little unused space. The vegetable beds have 2.5ft paths (considerably wider than most bed systems). Crops are sold May-October, plus asparagus in April. The farmstand has a bell to summon Stephen on his bike. He custom-harvests the vegetables. Stephen does not use winter cover crops, but instead sows buckwheat in empty beds in August, providing forage for his bees until it gets frost-killed. He uses tarps. Initially, he used landscape fabric and old hoophouse plastic that he already had. He is moving to just using landscape fabric. Wide beds require a way of reaching the center: he has a low-lying transplanting cart that straddles the bed, holding the plants and the farmer, moving backwards down the bed, kneeling on the cart while planting.

Linda Chapman, Jocko and the golfcart

Linda Chapman at Harvest Moon Farm in rural Indiana produces vegetables, cut flowers and bedding plants on 2.5 acres. As she already owned the land, her start-up costs were minimal ($400). She enclosed her porch with plastic to make a greenhouse and used an old Gravely garden tractor for tillage. The farm includes blueberries and woodies (cut flowers with woody stems). Linda focuses more on the 39 flower crops in the warm season, then 24 vegetables in the cold months. Almost all annual crops are transplanted, from starts propagated in a 16x30ft well-insulated solar greenhouse attached to the barn. Linda uses an electric golf cart to move trays of plants to the garden and harvest buckets to the barn.

Peregrine Farm, from their website

Peregrine Farm in rural North Carolina has 4 acres in production. Alex and Betsy Hitt grow vegetables, cut flowers, and blueberries. The Hitts created a corporation with 18 friends who invested $80,000 to start the 26acre farm. After the farm started to make a profit, Alex and Betsy were able to buy out all the other shareholders. They continued to live as if they weren’t making money, and now have a retirement fund. Their farm includes twelve seasonal Haygrove tunnels with sets of legs installed in multiple places, enabling rotation. Their 34 vegetables provide crops year-round. Water comes from two ponds, a creek and a well. They used to run 100 turkeys through the quarter-acre rotational blocks, depositing 500lbs manure per block during each stay. This great system had to stop when the local poultry processing plant closed.

Jeff Frank and Kristin Illick operate Liberty Gardens in rural Pennsylvania, growing on 1.5acres of family land which they use for free. January has no sales, and the other eleven months’ production involves 34 crops, peaking in September and October. Cover crops provide the basis of their soil fertility plan. They also make compost from leaf waste and crop residues. Orders for New York are shipped next-day delivery with UPS.

Kealaola Farm, from their website

Kealaola Farm in Hawaii sells lettuce, other greens, beans and coffee grown on 3.8acres by Barry Levine and his rotating crew of six WWOOFers who stay in a row of tents. The crop calendar is very different from other farms in the book: seven year-round crops, with full-size and baby lettuce providing nearly all of the income and occupying most of the space. A bed can grow 6 crops of lettuce in one year, or 18 crops of baby lettuce. Unsurprisingly, there are no greenhouses or hoophouses here. Seed germination happens inside a tent, and seedlings grow to transplanting size on outdoor tables. Living on a remote island, Barry has to improvise when the unexpected happens, or supplies run out sooner than planned.

La Grelinette farm family.
Photo from their website

Les Jardins de la Grelinette in rural Quebec is run by Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Hélène Desroches. Jean-Martin is well-known for The Market Gardener, training classes, and work researching and teaching at La Ferme des Quatre-Temps. At les Jardins de la Grelinette, the farmers produce vegetables on 1.5acres. The map shows a very tightly-packed layout of 10 plots of beds, 4 hoophouses, a beeyard and chickens in the orchard. They are pioneers in tarping as a sustainable method of weed control and no-till soil preparation. They have 27 crops for sale from June to October, and a few in November. Purchased compost is used, with many beds growing more than one crop a year. A ten-year rotation plan helps ensure care of the soil. Their delivery van runs on straight vegetable oil.

Zoe Bradbury at Groundswell Farm, OR.
Photo from Ecopreneuring

At Groundswell Farm in rural Oregon, Zoe Bradbury grows 2.5 acres of vegetables, berries and flowers, and 1.5 acres of orchards, leasing family land alongside her sister’s salad greens farm and her mother’s greenhouse business. The women work like a producer cooperative, marketing together. They share a tractor, and handle CSA and restaurant orders, and deliveries collectively. Zoe has a full-time year-round foreman, and does some of her field cultivation with a Belgian draft horse. 32 crops are available during the February to early December season. They water from the creek, using pumps and drip irrigation. The greenhouse has a 4x32ft germination table with water pipes buried in sand. Thermostatically-controlled propane heat the water. Their cool summers mean field crops needing extra warmth are grown in chenilles (poly low tunnels covering two beds).

Mellowfields FArm, Lawrence, Kansas.
Photo from their website.

Mellowfields Urban Farm has 3acres in production in Lawrence, Kansas. Jessie Asmussen and Kevin Prather grow vegetables, culinary herbs and berries. Their farm is divided between two acres leased from the city and another acre at their home. The city’s Common Ground Program (owners of the land) aims to “transform vacant or under-utilized city properties into vibrant sites of healthy food production.” The two farmers took on a part-time harvest worker, and were able to increase market sales 40% above working alone, stay on top of things, and have more family time. Produce is available May to December. The Common Ground Program provides free compost made from city yard waste.

Full Plate Farm, Washington, CSA PIckup art from their website

Full Plate Farm in the peri-urban Ridgefield, Washington area, where Danny Percich grows 3 acres of winter vegetables. The land is very wet in spring, so Danny chose a November-March CSA. April is time off, before planting starts in May. The map shows an intensively used area, including his house, and beds of root crops, alliums, long-season greens, winter squash, fast-growing greens, and popcorn. If you think this limited season does not offer many crop choices, note that they list 30, including stinging nettles in March! Danny works about half- to three-quarters of his time on the farm, saving 4 hours daily for his three children and partner.

Flywheel Farm, Washington farm stand.
Photo from their website

Flywheel Farm in rural Vermont is run by Justin Cote and Ansel Ploog. They (alone) are growing vegetables, culinary herbs, eggs and rabbits on two acres. They negotiated a five-year rolling lease with the owners, and decided to start on half the land and do that well. They live elsewhere. Their crops are available late May to early November. The farmers built a well-designed compact wash/pack area, including a 5x7ft cooler. Ansel has included a page “Why We Farm” that explains how they aim to be part of a vibrant sustainable regional agricultural economy. Receiving appropriate financial compensation for farming work (done efficiently) is one of their goals.

Box of melons from Leap Frog Farm.
Photo from their website.

Leap Frog Farm is 2.5acres of vegetables and 3 acres of fruit trees in rural California, farmed by Annie Hehner. She keeps goats for her own dairy supply. She lives in a simple house on the land, and pays rent to her parents for the cultivated land. The space includes a hay field, and orchards of young almonds, peaches, Asian pears, plums, and walnuts. Annie hires a friend to work full-time with her. Sales have a marked seasonality of 15 January-May crops, 14 June-December crops and several that mature in November. Annie borrows farm equipment from neighbors, and does a lot of improvising. She built a straw bale cooler that uses a CoolBot device in summer.

Cully Neighborhood Farm banner

At Cully Neighborhood Farm in the city of Portland, Oregon, Matt Gordon grows vegetables on 0.5 acres for restaurants, a 40-member CSA and a juice company. He found some open land belonging to a church and school, and arranged a lease, including delivering some excess produce to the church’s food pantry. Matt works 40 hours a week during most of the season, and 20 hours from December to February. June-August he employs an apprentice for 30 hours a week. There is an outdoor classroom and a children’s garden of 12 boxed beds, run separately, but supported by the farm. Matt (and apprentice) grow 36 different crops, distributed May-late November.

Brooklyn Grange Farm.
Photo from their website

Brooklyn Grange is a rooftop farm in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, growing 2.5 acres of mostly intensive vegetables. The farmers are Ben Flanner, Anastasia Cole Plakias, Gwen Schantz and Chase Emmons. At last! I was uneasy that all the photos of farmers so far in the book are white! Here we have a large diversity of farmers. Not particularly visible in the book, because the profile has no farmer photo, and the photos of workers all look white. But the Brooklyn Grange website shows many workers, and is worth a visit to see the roof top farm videos too.  Their first rooftop, in Long Island City, is 6 stories up, and the second (in Brooklyn Navy Yard) is a dizzying 12 stories above ground.  Everything goes up and down in freight elevators, although during construction they used cranes. They sell microgreens year-round, and 22 other crops May-November. There are 4 full-time farmers and extra seasonal workers. The 12” deep soil is light and fluffy, so hand tools do most of the work. They do sometimes carefully use a rototiller. A shipping container on the roof provides office space and a cooler.

This is a very practical book, and as I often say about farming books, the price of the book will steer you towards success and save you costly poor decisions.




Success with Growing Eggplants

Row of Epic eggplants with flea beetle holes. Photo Pam Dawling.

We are about to transplant our eggplants, so I can tell you all about it. I’ll skip over the details of sowing, assuming you’ve already done that. After the growing info, I’ll summarize our variety trials in case you are considering which to grow next year. If you already grow more than one variety, I encourage you to track how each one does, to refine your future plans.

Eggplant Crop Requirements

Eggplants benefit from fertile, well-drained soils high in organic matter, with a pH of 6.0-7.0, with 6.0-6.5 ideal. Average moisture with plenty of warmth and sunshine are needed. Ideal daytime growing temperatures are 70-85°F (21-29°C).

Epic eggplant transplants. Photo Pam Dawling

Care of Young Eggplant Starts

You may have sown in plug flats or pots, or in open flats. You will probably have potted up the plants into 3-4” (7.6-10 cm) pots. We keep ours away from doors in the greenhouse in the cozy south-west corner. Protect the seedlings from flea beetles, as well as drafts, either in the greenhouse or on benches outside. Flea beetles cruise at low altitudes, so setting your flats 3’ (1 m) above the ground may be all you need to do to keep them away. Or you may need netting. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has 6.9’ x 328’ ProtekNet for $375. They say:

“ProtekNet netting keeps insects as small as flea beetles and thrips off tender crops while providing maximum ventilation to prevent heat stress on hot summer days. Fine synthetic knitted mesh is UV resistant and lasts 1–3 seasons. Easy to see through, so crops can be inspected without removal. For best results, use over Quick Hoops or Wire Support Hoops, bury the edges, and ensure foliage is not touching the net, so insects can’t lay eggs through it. 0.0138″ x 0.0138″ (0.35 mm x 0.35 mm) mesh. 89% light transmission; 62% porosity; Weight: 0.74 Oz. per sq.yd. NOTE: Cut netting longer than needed to accommodate shrinkage.”


Young eggplant under netting May 9. photo Pam Dawling

Gardeners Edge (AM Leonard) has 6.9’ x 32’ of the same mesh size for $58.94

The Dubois Agrinovation US website offers several nets with mesh small enough (0.0138″ x 0.0138″ /0.35 mm x 0.35 mm) to keep out flea beetles: 25g, 47g, 56g, and 70g. Some are more durable than others, naturally. 164ft rolls cost from $198.32. We have found ProtekNet to more durable than rowcover.

Transplanting Eggplant

Plant spacings of 18-24” (45-60 cm) in-row and 30-36” (76-91 cm) between rows are usually recommended – or more to accommodate machinery. We used to grow two staggered rows in our 4’ (1.2 m) wide beds, aiming to have the plants 30” (76 cm) apart. This created crowded aisles, so we now plant a single row in each bed, with in-row spacing of 20-24” (50-60 cm), creating a “hedge” and leaving the paths more accessible. This fits with the approach that considers the area each plant has, rather than the intensive planting approach that favors equal space in all directions.

To harden off for planting out, reduce moisture rather than dropping the temperature, as this crop is easily stunted by cold temperatures. Ideally, keep eggplants above 55°F (13°). Transplant the 8-12 week old plants 1-2 weeks after the last frost date, in a warm spell. The transplants should be 6-10” (15-25 cm) tall, without any buds, flowers or fruit. We leave our eggplants to be one of the later crops set out, after tomatoes and peppers. To help warm the soil, you could spread black plastic mulch two weeks before transplanting. This will also deter flea beetles. Avoid organic mulches at planting time, as they cool the soil. In cool climates, rowcover on hoops is a good idea for new transplants, to keep the plants warm. Fine mesh netting will keep flea beetles away.

Eggplant transplants with aphids.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our technique for minimizing flea beetles while transplanting is to set out hoops, and sticks to hold the netting down on either side of the bed. The rolled netting is at the ready. One or two people transplant, and a third person with a hose and spray-head gives the plants a strong spray, directing the flea beetles out of the bed. A fourth person follows close behind, unrolling the netting and battening it down quickly after each plant.

Caring for the Eggplant Crop

Once the soil is fully warm, you can cultivate and spread organic mulch. Because the plants will be in the ground for a long season, and organic mulches break down, we use our eggplant beds as convenient places to drop off finished crop residues or weeds – only healthy, non-seeding material of course. In hot dry weather, weeds can be pulled from the mulch and laid on top to die.

Any stress from cold weather, disease, or low fertility will cause eggplant skins to thicken and become bitter. If your soil fertility is low, feed monthly with fish emulsion, or side-dress with compost. Don’t overdo the nitrogen or you will get lots of leaves but few fruit.

We don’t usually stake ours, but if your area is windy, you could stake tall varieties, with 3-5’ (1-1.5 m) stakes every third plant around the perimeter and twine every 12” (30 cm) up the stakes to corral the bushes. Upright bushes may produce better shaped fruit. When the branches threaten to take over the aisles, snip them off as you harvest.

September jungle of eggplants and okra.
Photo Pam Dawling

Some growers pinch out the growing tips to encourage branching, although ours branch just fine without, and I hate removing bits of healthy crop plants. Conversely, growers in cooler climates sometimes prune low branches and leave just two main stems to be sure of getting some ripe fruit. In the fall, if rowcover is used to keep the first few frosts off, the big plants can ripen existing fruits. No new fruit will set once the temperature drops below 70°F (21°C).

As with most crops, the critical time for irrigation is during flowering and fruit formation. Insufficient water during this stage can lead to blossom end rot, misshapen fruit and reduced yield.

The above information is from my book Sustainable Market Farming. In the eggplant chapter you can find more about sowing, crop rotations, pests and diseases, harvesting, storage and seed saving

Eggplant Variety Trials

Nadia eggplant.
Photo by Nina Gentle

Most of my prior posts about eggplant have been about the years of variety trials we did from 2013 to 2016.

In December 2012, I wrote about trying new eggplant varieties

Back at the beginning of the 21st century, we had tried lots of different eggplant varieties, and found that Nadia consistently did best. After the hot summer in 2012 when our Nadia eggplant refused to set fruit in the heat, I started looking for heat-tolerant varieties. For a while in early summer 2012 the Nadia didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit.  We chose large purple-black tear-drop shaped eggplant because that’s what our cooks want.

Listada de Gandia eggplant. Photo Raddysh Acorn

We didn’t include any green, striped, long skinny, orange, fluted or other unusual kinds. No judgment about people who like those! I looked at growing some combination of Nadia (67d, good set in cool conditions) with of

  • Epic F1 61-64d (early and huge!). Recommended in Florida and Texas.
  • Night Shadow F1 68d, (size claims vary from “similar to Epic” to “smaller.
  • Traviata F1 (variously recorded as 55-60d, 70d and 80d), small but good flavor. Recommended in Florida.
  • Irene F1 (mid-early). Large, shiny purple, traditional-shaped fruit 5″ x 6-7″. Great flavor, big plant, productive.
  • Classic F1 76d, heavy yields, high quality, does not perform well in cool conditions. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
  • Santana F1 80d, large, continuous setting. Recommended in Florida.
  • Florida High Bush OP 76-85d, reliable, large fruit, drought and disease resistant. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
  • Florida Market OP 80-85d, large, excellent for the South, not for the Northeast. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
Epic Eggplant
Photo by Nina Gentle

In 2013, alongside Nadia, we trialed: Florida Highbush, Epic and Traviata. Ironically, the summer of 2013 was not hot. One of the coolest we’ve had in a long time. We did a final harvest in preparation for our first frost, Sunday October 20/21, and I crunched the numbers. We planted 38 Nadia, 10 Florida Highbush, 10 Traviata and 12 Epic. Harvests started on July 25, later than our usual July 10, because of the cool weather. We harvested three times a week until 10/17. I was surprised how few fruit each plant provided – about 6. Initially, Nadia was providing by far the largest fruit, with Florida Highbush the smallest. Traviata doesn’t claim to be big. In the first week of harvests, Nadia produced most per plant, but this leveled off pretty soon. Final figures were 7.3 fruits/bush for Traviata, 6.3 for Florida Highbush, 6.1 for Nadia, and only 4.4 for Epic. We realized that we had stunted the Epic unintentionally by planting it at the stony end of the bed, near the road.

Florida Highbush OP eggplant
Photo by Nina Gentle

In 2014, we grew the same four varieties, to test them in a hot summer. But again it didn’t get hot! All four varieties have similar-sized fruit. We did better record-keeping, and found that the size and weight of each fruit was very similar across the varieties, varying only from Epic’s 0.61 lbs to Traviata’s 0.64 lbs per fruit average. Nadia yielded best per plant, at 13.4 fruits over the season. Epic was next at 12.5 fruits, then Traviata with 11.7 fruits. Florida Highbush was a poor fourth with an average of only 6.8 fruits per plant.

Florida Market OP eggplant
Photo by Nina Gentle

In 2015, we still did not get a hot summer! We had added a fifth variety for 2015: Florida Market, (like Florida Highbush, this is also open-pollinated.). By late august, Epic was winning, at 4.1 fruits and 3.4 pounds per plant, with an average of 0.84 pounds per fruit. Traviata was running second, at 3.1 fruits and 2.4 pounds per plant (average of 0.79 pounds per fruit). Nadia was third, at 2.3 fruits and 1.8 pounds per plant (average 0.75 pounds per eggplant). Florida Highbush (yes, it is a tall plant!) was beating Nadia on tonnage (2.1 pounds/plant) but losing on size (in other words, more, smaller eggplant). Florida Market was trailing, with many days providing no harvest. Our final figures for 2015 showed Florida Market’s fruits were smaller and rounder, and it had a lower yield. It was at the dry stony end (so unfair!) Epic did best, both in number of fruit/plant (10.7) and weight per fruit (0.77 lbs). Good thing we didn’t give up on it after 2013! Traviata provided 8.9 fruits/plant, Florida Highbush 8.2, Nadia only 8.0 (we did get a lot of culls too), and the Florida Market just 7.5.

Traviata eggplant with thumbnail dents!
Photo by Nina Gentle

In 2016,  we actually had some hot weather! We dropped the OPs and planted only the higher yielding Epic, Traviata, and Nadia. The September assessment showed of the three, Epic was winning! From the first harvest on 7/18, up to the end of August, Epic had produced a staggering 287 eggplants, averaging 0.9 pounds each; Nadia, 125 eggplants, averaging 0.76 pounds each; Traviata, 124 averaging 0.72 pounds. That year we also logged the cull rate: Nadia was best (least) at 21%; Epic was close at 22%, while Traviata produced a surprisingly high proportion of culls at 29%. During September, Traviata produced the largest number of saleable fruits (145) compared to 138 Nadia and 135 Epic. Probably not statistically different from each other. As I’ve noted before, the eggplants are all a similar size, and so it’s no surprise that Traviata’s 145 fruits totaled the highest weight (112.5 pounds), with Nadia at 98 pounds and Epic at 95.5. Nadia had an 8% cull rate, Traviata 9% and Epic only 6.8%. Clearly, all three are good varieties.

Adding September to the figures for August and July, Epic was the winning eggplant in terms of total yield, saleable yield, low cull ratio, and weight per fruit. That impressive leap off the starting blocks that Epic made was still holding it ahead of the pack. The ripe fruits got a little smaller, and there was been a noticeable drop-off in yield since the equinox.

Ping Tung Long eggplant. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

After that, we grew Nadia and Epic, to cater for both types of summer. Recently some cooks developed an interest in Ping Tung Long, so we have been growing that as well as Epic.

Hoophouse Baseboards: wood, steel or recycled plastic?


Our first year shadecloth with ropes to hooks in our cedar baseboards.

This post is not for everyone, but it shows where my head has been this week. Even if you don’t have a hoophouse, or are not even thinking about getting one,you might be interested in recycled plastic decking boards, or buying repurposed material from an “industrial thrift store”!

We made cedar baseboards when we put up our hoophouse 20+ years ago, and they have rotted. We have done partial replacements, including a major one maybe five years ago, but are now considering either plastic decking “lumber” (recycled plastic, with or without any wood filler), or steel.

I did some research: Lewis Jett (WV Extension)

“Baseboards and hip boards add strength to the base of the frame (Figure 8). For most high tunnel frames, 2 inches x 6 inches x 10 feet wood (or recycled plastic) boards are suitable. Pressure-treated wood can be used for both hipboards and baseboards. Each section of baseboard is bolted onto the ground post or secured with a pipe strap. The baseboard and hipboard must be level across the length of the high tunnel. Each joint between sections can be spliced with a small segment of board.” Our hoophouse is 96ft long, so we’d need 192ft plus some way of joining them (metal brackets?)

So, same dimensions, whether wood or plastic. 2” x 6” x 10’. We don’t need “structural grade” lumber (wood or plastic) as the ground-posts provide the strength and are not going to move sideways.

Next, I asked local growers: Do any of you have advice based on experience?

Replies ranged across the spectrum

  1. Sounds like cedar serves well for that. 20 years is a good run for wood. Maybe locust or old chestnut barn boards would serve well, too.
  2. We replaced the rotting wood baseboard with plastic deck “wood” about 5 years ago and haven’t had any problems with it.  Didn’t even think about using steel.   Ignorance is bliss.
  3. When we redo base boards I would like to go with hat channel.  I think sidewalls would air seal better and I’m finding that more important than insulation value. We’ve been putting straw on the tunnel edges for weed control and insulation for the winter.

I replied: We’re not content with living with the state of decline of the wood. Currently we have about 12 ft of the south wall where the plastic and wigglewire channel are not attached to the earth. We have to fix that before the chills of winter get in!


See the ATTRA publication Pressure-Treated Wood: Organic and natural Alternatives 2011. Be aware that many of the alternative lumber treatments described in the ATTRA article are NOT currently allowed for use on organic farms.  Certified farms should consult their Organic certifier.

“Lumber treated with prohibited materials is not allowed under the National Organic Program (NOP) Regulations. The NOP prohibits most but not all synthetics. Lumber is pressure treated to resist insects and fungi, but the materials used are toxic to humans. For posts and lumber that are in contact with soil, crops, or livestock, the options include untreated lumber, alternatively treated lumber, alternative plywood products, and untreated fence posts.

Borates (boric acids and borax) have long been used for alternative wood protection and can be used with all types of lumber, logs, and ply-wood. Borax, a naturally occurring mined material, is allowed for organic production. Borates and boric acid are synthetic substances allowed for use as an insecticide in organic production as what is described in the National List 205.601 as a “structural pest control, [not in] direct contact with organic food or crops.” Borate-treated lumber and borate wood treatments are available commercially.

Borate wood treatments will penetrate to the center of the wood when the wood is dipped, especially when the wood is freshly cut or when seasoned wood is rewetted. Because borates are water soluble; however, they will leach from the wood when in contact with water in the soil, leaving the wood unprotected. This is the reason that borate-treated lumber should be used only in locations that are at least six inches above the ground and protected from excessive rain. Borate-treated wood is not considered suitable for unprotected outdoor use, such as for fence posts or poles, but it is suitable for most building-construction purposes.”

Recycled Plastic Lumber and Plastic/Wood Composite Lumber

(from ATTRA 2011)

“Lumber” made of recycled plastic or composites of plastic and wood can provide durable weather-resistant alternatives to wood for some applications. In organic operations, formed plastic is approved only for use in nonstructural applications because it doesn’t have strength comparable to wood. However, plastic lumber can easily substitute for treated wood in nonstructural applications such as fences, sill plates, and raised beds. The plastics are rot- and corrosion-proof and don’t crack, splinter, or chip. Even in exposed and sub-grade conditions, plastic lumber has a long life expectancy. It will not leach chemicals into the ground, surface water or soil as treated wood can. A challenging aspect of working with plastic lumber is its relatively high likelihood of expanding, which varies for each product and manufacturer and has to be considered during installation. Thermal expansion is the change in dimensions of a material due to temperature changes.

The number of plastic-lumber manufacturers and their variety of products has notably increased recently. Some companies use only High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) plastic, while others use commingled plastic wastes. A few manufacturers even mix plastic with recycled tire rubber. Some plastic lumber will contain wood fiber, which helps strengthen the plastic and reduces expansion.

Plastic lumber is available in many configurations and sizes, including solid- and hollow-core dimensional products and tongue-and-groove designs. The quality and product performance will vary by manufacturer; many manufacturers have independent testing results available.”


The Composite Lumber Manufacturers Association offers publications and links to member companies that manufacture and distribute plastic lumber. See All About Composite Decking. It requires no maintenance, comes in lengths up to 20ft, can be fastened with self-drilling screws, and can be drilled and sawn with power or hand tools used for wood.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board Recycled Plastic Lumber website provides a good introduction to the types and uses of recycled-plastic-lumber products.


Suppliers of plastic lumber

Growers Supply has 2” x 6” x 8’or 12’ recycled plastic boards in black (Expands in heat, don’t buy dark color?). We’d need 16 boards at 12ft long ($1887.20 plus shipping), or 24 at 8ft long ($1894.80 plus shipping). Can get 10% discount. “A 12foot board will shrink .029/inches over a 5 degree drop in temperature. Note your starting point is what temperature the board started at when assembled. Typically use 60 degrees as a baseline. In this case a temperature drop to 0 degrees will net 11/32″ over the 60degree swing. A direct sunlight board will shrink less in a temperature drop and expand more in a temperature increase.”

On decks, the boards are tightly fastened every 16” and can’t go anywhere much sideways.

Home Depot and Lowes only have short pieces.

Plastic Lumber Yard, PA. Can get 5% discount.

Premium Grade is the nicest looking, and best for decking. Structural grade is reinforced with fiberglass, making it stiffer, the best under high traffic. Molded grade is recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE), suitable for landscaping, buildings and near food.

Molded grade 2” x 6” x 12’ $126.23 each. $2,019.68 for us (plus shipping) Available in 8, 10, 12, 14, 16ft lengths and many colors. This grade would work for baseboards.

Their Clearance dept might be useful, as we probably don’t care exactly what color it is, or even if it’s all the same color. Currently they have 2” x 6” x 12’ in white for $76.50 each ($1224 for 192 ft) and a grey board with peg joins 1 7/8’ x 5 7/8” x 12’ for $50 each, but they only have 9 left! 2” x 6” x 8‘ black (severe “dog-bone”, meaning the boards are thinner in the middle than along the edges. (Oops! We all have days like that) for $30.16 each – must buy all 36 pieces. We only need 24. or call (610) 277-3900 for shipping info.

Markstaar 888-846-2693 Offering double discounts right now. Recycled lumber boards.

2” x 6” x 12’ $48.96; 2” x 6” x 8’ $32.64. (24 for $783.36) Black is cheapest.


Metal baseboards

Steel is available as either “hat” profile strips from greenhouse suppliers, or metal joists, 6″ wide, C-cross-section. They look easiest to use, but have zero insulating value.

I’ve found some steel joists on . This is a fun website, saving all sorts of good stuff from going to the landfill.

  1. Hat channel Join by overlapping sections and using self-tapping screws. Tunnel Vision has an installation video on Hat Channel. $54.74 for a 12’3” length 5” wide. 18-gauge steel. ($875.84 plus shipping for 16 lengths) Truck delivery for full-length strips, or they will cut them in half for ground delivery.

Boot Strap Farmer also has a video with hat channel. 6.5’ lengths, $452.99 for a 10-pack. (65’). We’d need three 10-packs, $1358.97 plus shipping. And lots of joins. . .

  1. Square tubing
  2. Steel C-section joists

RepurposedMaterials is a fun website, saving all sorts of good stuff from going to the landfill. I need to compare prices, shipping and practicality. Steel is looking better right now.  has different things at different times, naturally enough.

Structural Steel Stud

$78 for almost 20ft length. 12″ x 2″ 14 gauge C-shape plus curved over edges. We’d need 10 lengths and would spend $780 Plus Shipping

Track square cornered c-shape

$48 for 20ft.  10″ x 1.25″ 18 gauge We’d spend $480 plus shipping from SC

Structural Steel Track

$45. 20′ x 11-1/4″ x 1-1/2″. 18 gauge. Square cornered, no curved in edges. We’d spend $450 plus shipping.

Wood Recycled Plastic Hat Channel Repurposed joist
Price $783.36/


$1887.20/ $2,019.68



$450 /

$480 /



Pluses Recycled,

No maintenance

No maintenance Saving waste

Price is good

Minuses Rots Expands.

Leaches? They say not

Shipping might be high (heavy)