I’ve started my year of monthly posts about Asian greens with one about senposai and at the Mother Earth News Fair in Vermont this past weekend, I presented my slide show on Asian Greens, which is here for those who missed it. Click the diagonal arrow symbol to get the full screen version.
Today, back on the farm, I spent the morning in the hoophouse. I harvested 4 buckets of cucumbers from one 90′ bed of Spacemaster bush cucumbers. We harvested 2 buckets two days ago, and today they have really taken off!
I also harvested 3 gallons of green beans – we planted Strike, a very upright variety. We find that bush beans tend to sprawl in the hoophouse, and the varieties that do well for us outside (Provider and Bush Blue Lake, from Fedco Seeds), grow straggly inside and the beans curve. It’s probably because the shadecloth on the hoophouse is too dark for beans.
The Gentry yellow squash are doing very well. I’ll harvest those tomorrow (we’re alternating cucumber and squash harvest days currently)
The other crops in our hoophouse now are peppers (we’ve had a handful of green bells). two beds of tomatoes that have been struggling with aphids and sooty mold, and some Iron and Clay cowpeas as cover crops. See this sad picture of the aphids and sooty mold:
Aphids excrete a sweet liquid called honeydew. In warm moist conditions this sugary substance grows a black mold on every deposit. This is called sooty mold. We have been dealing with it by jet-washing some of the tomatoes every sunny day, and we are winning. The photo above was specially chosen to demonstrate the problem – it’s not a crop to be proud of at this point! We use a brass jet-spray nozzle on a hose and wash them in the middle of the day, so the leaves can dry quickly – we don’t want any more fungal tomato diseases moving in!
I recently posted on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog, encouraging people to make some of their own seedling compost by screening home-made compost. Here I will tell you more about ours. We have a very skilled compost maker who provides a plentiful supply of very good compost for our gardens. In the warmer months, compost piles work fast, and we build up a good stockpile. We set aside some time before cold weather, usually in early September, to screen the compost we will need for seedlings in the spring. Screening removes large particles which seedlings would struggle against. Because we use a large amount of compost, this job takes us days. It’s a job we fit in around more urgent tasks, over a period of weeks. We appreciate being self-sufficient in organic seedling and potting compost. It’s certainly nice to know what our plants are growing in, and not to have to lug bags of mix back from the store.
We store the screened compost in our greenhouse, and so we have unfrozen compost ready to use when we need it in mid-January. Our greenhouse is designed mainly for spring seedling production. In summer it’s empty down to the concrete floor – we don’t grow anything there.
For extra value, we put the screened compost into our greenhouse beds and transplant lettuce into it in October. The watering that keeps the lettuce growing also helps the compost organisms to mellow out the compost over the winter. Worm eggs hatch, the lettuce roots make air channels throughout the bin, and we harvest the lettuce before we need to sow seedlings. If you want to try this method, but you have a smaller operation, you can simply fill bins, tubs or boxes inside your greenhouse. Get them in position near the windows before you fill them.
Our greenhouse beds are built of loose-fit cinder blocks, and we set up boards across the tops of the beds, all the way to the far end of the greenhouse. It’s a challenge to summon the courage to “run the boards”, but the worst that can happen is to tip the barrow or to fall 18″ off the boards!
Making compost screens
Compost screens come in two basic styles. We make flat compost frames that fit over a wheelbarrow, and screen into the barrows. The other main approach is to use a free-standing frame and throw compost at it, so that it (more or less) screens itself. After that, you shovel the compost into a wheelbarrow. Each style has its advantages.
To make a flat screen, cut lengths of wood to make two frames that will sit on top of a wheelbarrow. Cut some rat wire (hardware cloth), sandwich it between the two frames and bolt the layers together. Then it will be easy to switch to new mesh when the old piece wears out. For a lighter, less durable model, make one frame and staple the hardware cloth to it.
To make a free-standing compost frame, see the photos.
A third alternative would be a flat compost screen suspended by ropes or chains attached to the corners from a swing-set frame or a convenient horizontal tree limb. Put a tarp on the ground, or position a wheelbarrow under the frame, and shuffle the frame as archeologists do when sifting through soil looking for ancient artifacts. It is a definite advantage to arrange for the compost to land in a wheelbarrow, so it doesn’t need to be shoveled back up off the ground.
How to screen compost
We use the flat screens on wheelbarrows. We have a bucketful of special compost-screening tools, which are mostly regular hoe heads on short handles. These are easily made from broken hoes! Some people use the Korean Ho-Mi tool for this task. We also have an unusual yellow plastic ergonomic trowel designed for people with wrist problems. It’s excellent for this particular job! Any comfortable hand tool that will not destroy the wire is worth trying.
Using a flat compost screen on a wheelbarrow.
Photo by Wren Vile
We shovel a modest amount of compost onto the screen at one end, and use the tool to push the compost back and forth so that small particles fall through and bigger pieces stay on the screen. Try to minimize direct contact between the tool and the wire, by keeping the tool on top of the compost on the screen. It’s important to avoid scraping the compost back and forth, as the metal tools can break up the wire mesh quite quickly.
When it seems like no more compost from that screenful will go through the screen, we deal with the leftovers. We collect rocks in buckets with holes in the bottom to let the rain drain out. Our rock buckets can sit around for months collecting rocks, and we don’t want to incubate mosquitoes every time it rains! We use our rocks to fix holes in the roads. We use different holey buckets to collect up any woody materials or undigested compost materials, to go back around the compost process once more.
It helps to have fairly dry compost for screening. If it’s too wet, we abandon the task for that day, leaving some to dry on top of the screen, and turn to some other task. In very hot weather, we have even erected a canopy over our screening site, to provide shade and make the job more pleasant.
Growing winter greenhouse lettuce
When the greenhouse beds are full, we water the compost enough to keep it damp and alive. We transplant our greenhouse winter lettuce in early October (our first frost is mid-October), using cold-hardy leaf types or romaines. If you try this and are ready a long time before winter lettuce transplanting time, you could perhaps grow a different short-term crop in the compost first.
We harvest outer leaves from the lettuce whenever they are big enough, all winter long. Then we start to clear them when we need to use the compost for spring seedlings.
Using home-made compost for seedlings
We start our first seedlings in mid-January, although we only sow a few things the first week (cabbage and lettuce for outdoors and tomatoes for our hoophouse), and harvesting just one or two lettuces would provide compost for those few flats. We use 100% home-made compost for sowing seeds, or for potting up transplants. We don’t mix in any other ingredients. We make great compost and it grows big strong plants. The only issue we sometimes have is aphids. Here’s what we do to deal with early spring greenhouse aphids:
jet the plants with water to project the aphids into outer space (OK I’m exaggerating),
gather up lady bugs, or
if numbers of aphids are really high, we use a soap spray.
We have at last finished planting out our broccoli – over two weeks late. The delays were due to wet soil preventing cultivation. Happily the plants were thriving in their 4″ deep wood flats. But it was tough to get them to thrive when transplanted that big. The weather was hot on most of those days, so we had to water a lot, even thought he soil was still saturated from the heavy rains.
Here you can see how we mulch our spring broccoli and cabbage: we make temporary raised beds, 4′ wide with one foot paths. then we unroll big round bales of spoiled hay over the beds and the paths too. They are just the right width for the bales. After that we make two rows of “nests” in each bed, using a measuring stick to get the right spacing. We use our hands to tease the hay apart down to soil level. Then we transplant, water in and close the hay over the soil around the stem of the plant. Then we cover with rowcover to protect from cold nights, bugs and stiff breezes. We use sticks to hold the rowcover down, rolling the edges under rather than over, which helps them stay in place and not tangle with hoses or feet.
A week after transplanting, we’ll go through and replace any casualties with slightly younger plants. We’ll also put one plant of alyssum every 6ft down the center of each bed. After we remove the rowcover, this little flowering plant will attract beneficial insects like Braconid wasps, aphid parasites, and syrphid flies. These will deal with aphids and cabbage caterpillars. The paper wasps also carry off the cabbage caterpillars, so we rarely have serious caterpillar trouble.
Completing the broccoli planting means we now have 3 of our 10 row-crop plots planted out. Another one will be cover crops, so we have 6 left to go. Next up will be the Roma paste tomatoes and peppers, on biodegradable plastic. I need to sort out the drip tape for that this week.
In the hoophouse we are making the transition from winter and spring crops to early summer crops. We have planted tomatoes, peppers and summer squash in the middles of the beds (gherkins to come soon), and we are hurrying up the harvesting of the winter crops which are competing for space and sunlight. We prefer to let the winter crops continue as late as possible, for maximum harvests. Soon we won’t need the hoophouse lettuce or greens as the outdoor senposai is ready to start harvesting and the lettuce heads are not far behind.
We’ve moved a lot more flats out of the greenhouse to the coldfarmes to harden off for two weeks before we plant them out in the garden. Not everything goes to the coldframes – we keep the melons and celery inside so they don’t get too chilled, and the eggplant so they don’t encounter fleabeetles. the greenhouse work is starting to taper off for the season. One of the biggest occupiers of space are the flats of sweet potatoes – you can see the first two in the foreground of this picture. they are limp because they have only just been set in the flats. We’ll plant them out about May 10. You can read more about our method of growing sweet potato slips here and here. We’re well on track to have enough by the time it’s warm enough to plant out.
The weather here in central Virginia has been teasing us. It was hot, then cold again. We thought we were done with frosts, then we had some cold forecasts. We covered the strawberries for two nights to protect the flowers, and built height-extenders on the walls of the cold frames with plastic crates, so we could put the lids on without squashing the very tall plants we had in there. Then we got nights of 36F, 36F, 34F, 33F. We had covered the strawberries for the 36F nights, but not the 34F or the 33F, as we followed the forecasts too gullibly! Later today I’ll go to see if the strawberry flowers have black centers – the sure sign of a frost hitting the blossoms.
We always like to think we are done with frosts once we pass April 20, but the truth is our average last frost date for the past ten years is April 30, and the range has been 4/14 to 5/14, with a mean of 5/3.