Spring delayed, Organic Trade Assoc suing government

Hoophouse chard with spots cleared for planting tomatoes. Photo Pam Dawling

We normally (or do I mean “used to”?) transplant our hoophouse tomatoes on March 15 here in central Virginia. But this year spring is late and cold. Our starts have been struggling in our greenhouse, not helped by our heat mat deciding to give up the ghost. Plus a spot of learning curve errors in not noticing this quickly, or that our germination chamber wasn’t as toasty as it needed to be. Yesterday I decided it was time to adapt to reality, and turned our greenhouse heater up from 45F to 50F. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are not going to do well at only 45F. We’re not getting any solar gain lately because it’s been cloudy. In fact, we’re bracing for snow tonight and tomorrow.

We have measured out spots 2ft apart down the middles of the two tomato beds in the hoophouse, cleared the winter crops from those spots (see the photo above), dug holes, added a shovelful of compost to each hole, and now we’re waiting for the plants to reach a sensible size to transplant.

Bare-root Vates kale transplants to go outdoors from our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Meanwhile outdoors, we have finished transplanting spinach as bare-root transplants from our hoophouse, and next up are the kale and collards. I wrote about bare-root transplants in January 2017.

In the hoophouse we are encouraged by watching our snap peas grow.We planted these February 1, a month earlier than we plant outdoors. That “month earlier then outdoors” is our general guideline for hoophouse sowings after the winter solstice.

Sugar Ann snap peas in our hoophouse March 7, 5 weeks after sowing. Photo by Pam Dawling

Our lettuce suffered a big setback/death knell in the New Year cold snap, and it’s a challenge to come up with 5-10 gallons of salad mix each day. Happily we have lots of spinach, several patches of baby lettuce mix and several of brassica salad mix (mustards). For cooking greens, our Red Russian and White Russian kales are doing very well.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse March 7
Photo Pam Dawling


The Organic Trade Association is suing the US Department of Agriculture to defend Organic standards for handling of livestock and poultry. On September 13, 2017, the OTA filed a lawsuit against USDA over their failure to implement the new Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices regulation. These regulations would protect Organic integrity, advance animal welfare, and safeguard the process for developing Organic standards. USDA unlawfully delayed the effective date to implement the final livestock standards, several times over. The USDA violated the Administration Procedure Act, because the delays were issued without public process. They ignored the overwhelming public record in support of these Organic standards.

The Organic Welfare Rule is the result of 14 years of transparent public work within the process established by Congress. It addresses four areas of practice: living conditions, animal healthcare, transport and slaughter.

The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule was published on Jan. 19, 2017, in the Federal Register, and the government has now attempted to delay the implementation of the rule 6 times – either through the rule-making process or through court filings.

It was delayed to May 19, 2017 (because there was a regulatory freeze on new rules). In May it was further delayed to November 14, 2017 and the USDA opened a 30-day period for comment including options to go forward or to withdraw the Rule. There were 47,000 comments, of which 99% supported the rule as written becoming effective as soon as possible. There were only 28 comments to withdraw the rule. On December 15 USDA announced its plan to withdraw the regulation, giving 30 days for comment. Not that this 30 days included 3 Federal holidays.

USDA received roughly 72,000 comments (in this short comment period during the holiday season) with an overwhelming majority supporting OLPP. USDA also recognizes that of those comments, only approximately 50 supported the withdrawal – another clear disregard of the record by USDA in its attempts to kill the final rule.

Organic producers (the people directly impacted by the rule) overwhelmingly support the rule. Most of the (tiny amount) of opposition is from outside the organic sector. See the Washington Post of January 16, 2018 from 29 Organic organizations demanding a return to honoring the public process previously in place.

On March 12, The Washington Post (search for Ag Department kills animal welfare rule for organic meat) announced that the Trump administration, via USDA, has withdrawn the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule published in January 2017 by Barack Obama’s government.

The regulation would have ensured that organically grown livestock and poultry had enough space to stand up, turn around, fully stretch, lie down, and had ventilation and access to fresh air.

So frustrating!

Chickens and a guinea hen.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Asian Greens for December: Pak Choy

Pak Choy in the hoophouse in December.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

December and the first three weeks of January are the season we harvest mature pak choy heads in our hoophouse. Pak choy, also known as bok choi, pac choy, and similar names, is a large 12″-15″ (30–38 cm) tall heading green, usually cut as a full head. If you prefer, you can harvest a leaf or two from each plant each time you want to eat some. It is hardy at least down to 32F (0C) outdoors. Some varieties are hardy down to 25F (-4C).

Botanically, pak choy is a Brassica rapa var. chinensis. If you plan to grow seed of more than one Asian green, carefully choose ones that won’t cross. Be aware of the possibility of brassica crops being wrongly classified.

Pak Choy in the hoophouse in early November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Pak Choy generally has thick rounded white stems, dark glossy leaves and a mild flavor. There are varieties with green stems, some with red-purple leaves such as Red Choi from Kitazawa, and some miniature varieties, such as Mei Qing Choi from Kitazawa, but we grow the full-sized white and green kinds, such as Joi Choi from Johnny’s and Prize Choy from Fedco. For the most choice, go to Kitazawa Seeds, as they stock 23 varieties (although 4 are tatois).

Like all Asian greens, pak choy is nutritious as well as tasty. It’s high in carotenoids, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, magnesium and fiber. It contains antioxidants which fight against cancer and protect eyes from macular degeneration.

Brassica seedbed protected from insects with ProtekNet and hoops.
Photo Bridget Alsehsire

We sow for this planting in an outdoor nursery seedbed on September 15, and cover the outdoor seedbeds with insect netting. The ideal germination temperature range for Pak Choy is 45-70F, it’s very easy-going. Ideal  temperatures for growth are 60-70F. Hoophouses are perfect. The plants grow fast and we only get a few weeds to deal with.Asian greens have similar care requirements to other brassicas, and very fertile soils grow the best Asian greens.

We transplant as bare root transplants into the hoophouse just 3 weeks after sowing, around Oct 3. We plant 10″ apart, with 4 rows in a 4ft wide bed. We reckon on 52 pak choy plants for 100 people. Because the harvest period is short, it is not wise to grow too many.

Young Pak Choy transplants.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Pak choy is shallow rooted, so pay extra attention to providing enough water during hot weather , 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week; 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather. This will prevent bitter flavors and excess pungency.

Do closely monitor for pests, which can cause havoc. We have had trouble in the hoophouse from the vegetable weevil larva. Click the link for information and great photos from Debbie Roos at Growing Small Farms. Other possible pests include flea beetles, aphids, harlequin bugs, cabbage caterpillars, grasshoppers and slugs.

Only about 8 weeks after transplanting, pak choy is ready to harvest. Because we want to keep all our hoophouse space in full use, we pull the plant out, then cut off the root. This is easier than cutting the head off at ground level, then trying to pry out the root.

Young Pak Choy plants in early November, with some darker Yukina Savoy on the right.
Photo Wren Vile

That same day we fill the gaps with some younger transplants (sown 10/10 in the hoophouse), that we have in reserve. We call these “filler greens.” We stop filling gaps with Asian greens (and lettuces) on Jan 25, and follow the pak choy with a sowing of kale to be transplanted outdoors in early March.

There’s a good publication from Iowa State Extension on  Commercial Production of Pak Choi. As an organic grower, I don’t use the herbicides and pesticides they mention, but the publication is good on identifying pests and diseases as well as covering the basic growing needs.

See ATTRA’s Cole Crops and Other Brassicas: Organic Production for more information than I can cover here.

In areas with cool or mild springs, pak choy can be a spring green, but that doesn’t work with our short springs – they just bolt rather than size up. Growing outdoors for fall harvest and in the hoophouse for winter use works best here in central Virginia.

Hoophouse winter greens, transplanting spinach, crocus flowering

Russian kale, yukina Savoy and lettuce from our winter hoophouse .
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse is bursting with winter greens. We just decided to hold back on harvesting our outdoor Vates kale and focus on the greens  which are starting to bolt in the hoophouse. That includes the last turnips (Hakurei, Red Round and White Egg), Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frill and Golden Frills mustards. Big but happily not yet bolting are the spinach, Rainbow chard and Russian kales. A row of snap peas has emerged. Time to stake and string-weave them!

The lettuce situation is changing as we are eating up more of the overwintered leaf lettuce in the hoophouse. The lettuces in the greenhouse have all gone, to make way for the flats of seedlings. Plus, we needed the compost they were growing in, to fill the flats. More about lettuce in February next week.

We have also cleared the overwintered spinach in one of our coldframes, so we can deal with the voles and get them to relocate before we put flats of vulnerable seedlings out there. The voles eat the spinach plants from below, starting with the roots. We had one terrible spring when they moved on to eat the baby seedlings when we put those out there. After trial and error a couple of years ago, we now clear all the spinach from one frame, then line the cold frame with landscape fabric (going up the walls a way too), wait two weeks, then put the seedlings out on top of the landscape fabric. The voles by then have decided nothing tasty is going to appear there, so they move on.

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo Wren Vile

Outdoors, we have just started transplanting new spinach. We have four beds to plant, a total of  3600 plants, so we have to keep moving on that! We are trialing several varieties again, as we did in the fall. We have the last Tyee, alongside Reflect and Avon this spring. Inevitably things are not going perfectly according to plan. Yesterday I forgot to follow the plan, and we started with Avon and Tyee at opposite ends of a bed we had planned to grow Reflect in! Anyway, we are labeling everything and hoping to learn which have best bolt resistance. Watch this space.

We have grown our spinach transplants (as well as kale and collards) in the soil in our hoophouse, sowing them in late January. I wrote about bare root transplants in early January this year. You can find more links and info in that post. Growing bare root transplants saves a lot of work and a lot of greenhouse space.

For those relatively new to this blog but living in a similar climate zone, I want to point you to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. It includes a link for each month’s task list. I notice from the site stats that some of you are finding your way there, but now there are so many years’ worth of posts it’s perhaps harder to find. Happy browsing!

Following on from last week’s mention of harbinger weeds of spring: chickweed, hen-bit and dead-nettle, I can now report that I’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17), another marker on our phenology list. The average date for first crocuses here is February 8, so they are later than usual. I did notice however, that the foot traffic over the patch of grass has been heavier than usual.

Anne Morrow Donley sent me a link to WunderBlog®, the blog from Wunderground, my favorite weather forecast station, to an article by Bob Henson: This is February? 80°F in Denver, 99° in Oklahoma, 66° in Iceland, 116° in Australia. It includes a map of the Daily Spring Index Leaf Anomaly, Figure 1.

Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

Figure 1. An index of the seasonal progress of leafy plants shows conditions 20 days or more ahead of schedule over large parts of the South and Southwest as of Sunday, February 12. Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

The post has lots of other interesting weather info too. Thanks Anne!


I remembered another of the items lost in the hacked post a few weeks ago: My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blogpost on Heat Tolerant Eggplant Varieties made it into their 30 Most Viewed blogposts for 2016. I’ll be writing up more about those varieties, linking the 2016 results to the weather each week (especially the temperatures) and adding what I learn in 2017.

Bare Root Transplants

Lettuce seed bed, with Muir, Jericho, Sierra lettuces. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Lettuce seed bed, with Muir, Jericho, Sierra lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Last week when writing about Lettuce Varieties for January I mentioned how we grow all our outdoor lettuce as bare root transplants. From January through to the end of April, we sow lettuce seed in open flats. After that date, we sow in outdoor nursery seed beds, and simply dig up the transplants when big enough and replant them in our raised beds. We transplant 120 lettuce outdoors each week until early October and then transplant in our greenhouse and our hoophouse. We also grow many other crops (all the easy to transplant ones) in open flats, or in nursery seed beds.

This method has gone “out of fashion”, but perhaps it will come back in! Atina Diffley (Author of Turn Here Sweet Corn and Wholesale Success) has written a blog post about bare-root brassica transplants at atinadiffley.com/blog/. She has written a thorough-and-concise 9 page manual Seed Beds: Bare Root Field-grown Brassica Transplant Production.  It includes a chart of pros and cons of bare-root transplants compared to container-grown greenhouse transplants.

Using bare-root transplants does require a bit more attention to technique than popping plugs into the ground. But it’s not that difficult and we train new people every year with success.

Why bare-root transplants?

Bare-root transplants save a lot of time and money, compared to growing in flats. They also save on valuable greenhouse space. The plants get very sturdy, because they have the full depth of soil in which to develop big roots. Starts grown in outdoor seedbeds are already acclimated to cooler conditions than plants in your greenhouse. They are less prone to drying out than seedlings in flats, but do be ready to protect them from bugs.

Which crops work best?

Bare-root transplants can suffer more transplant shock than plugs, so start with “easy to transplant” crops, such as brassicas (cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi), lettuce, onions and leeks. Tomatoes and peppers are worth trying next. See the Chart “Relative Ease of Transplanting Bare-Root Vegetable Seedlings” free online in Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers. Avoid trying bare-root cucurbits (squash, melons, cucumbers).

Bare-root transplants can be used on any scale, from backyard to large farm. See the impressive photos of huge beds of cabbage transplants in Atina Diffley’s manual. They can be used at various times of year, and from indoors to outdoors and vice-versa.

Spring bare-root transplants started in a hoophouse, planted outdoors.

For the earliest spring transplants, bare-root hoophouse starts are a nice option. For us, onion seedlings overwintered in the hoophouse have worked very well. Seedlings outdoors or in a cold-frame suffer too much winter-kill. We don’t want to fuss with flats in November-February. We’re in zone 7, at 38̊ N. We sow onions in the soil in the hoophouse November 10 and 20, with a backup sowing on December 5. We plant them outdoors as early in March as we can. The onions get to thin-pencil-size by March 1, which we couldn’t do from a spring sowing. Onion roots are tough and thick, not thread-like – they are easy as bare-root transplants.

We sow spinach, collards and kale in the hoophouse in mid-late January and plant them outdoors in early March. This is a lot less work than using flats, and our comparison trials with bare-root spinach showed results were just as good as spinach in Speedling plug flats. We have tried early lettuce transplanted from the hoophouse, but the plants were not as sturdy as those in flats.

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green, Credit Kathryn Simmons

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green,
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Outdoor bare-root transplants

See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for more details of growing outdoor bare root transplants. We grow lettuce this way from April to September, and fall brassicas in June and July, in one of our permanent raised beds where the soil is friable and free-draining. Also see Atina Diffley’s manual for cultivation tips.

We grow outdoor cabbage, broccoli, collard, senposai and Yukina Savoy transplants in seedbeds for 3-4 weeks in June and July, covered with ProtekNet on hoops. We transplant in July and early August for harvest in October and November. We prefer this to direct sowing, because it is much easier to keep the relatively small seedbed watered and bug-free. For large amounts use an EarthWay seeder. Atina Diffley recommends the leek seed plate for brassicas.

Outdoors to indoors

In September we make an outdoor seedbed for crops to transplant into our hoophouse in October. The late summer hoophouse crops get a few extra weeks to finish up. Because the hoophouse can be warmer than ideal for lettuce germination until well into fall, it often works better to start plants in a cooler location, then move the plants. In September in our climate, four-week old lettuce plants will be a good size.

As well as ten varieties of lettuce, we sow various Asian greens and Brite Lites chard. Nine days later we sow another ten varieties of lettuce, white and red Russian kales, senposai and frilly mustards such as Ruby Streaks, Red Rain, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills as well as green mizuna. We cover the seedbeds with hoops and ProtekNet and water daily. Transplanting these plants starts October 1 with the fast-growing pak choy, Chinese cabbage and Tokyo Bekana. The other transplants follow, as they reach the right size.

Brassica seedbed protected from insects with ProtekNet and hoops. Photo Bridget Alsehsire

Brassica seedbed protected from insects with ProtekNet and hoops.
Photo Bridget Alsehsire

Stay indoors in winter

In October in the hoophouse we sow short rows of “brassica fillers”, mostly senposai, Tokyo Bekana and Maruba Santoh. These grow fastest, which becomes more important in the dark winter days. We fill gaps in any brassica bed, that occur either because of disease, or of harvesting. In late October and early November we sow filler leaf lettuce varieties and filler spinach. These extra plants help us out if something goes wrong, and give us the chance to grow some extra crops after the first ones have been harvested.

How much to sow

Our formula for sowing seedbeds in the hoophouse is to divide the final row length of brassica plants by 10 to give the minimum length of seed row to sow. These plants will be transplanted 10″-12″ (25-30 cm) apart. For onions (to be transplanted 4″ (10 cm) apart), we divide the number of plants wanted by 20 to give the row feet (67/m), but we sow this amount twice, about 10 days apart. Outdoors for the fall brassicas, we sow around a foot (30 cm) of seed row for every 12′-15′ (3.6-4.6 m) of crop row, aiming for 3-4 seeds per inch (0.75 cm apart). These plants will be transplanted 18″ (46 cm) apart. It’s important to weed and thin the seedlings to 1″ (2.5 cm) apart soon after they emerge.

Transplant age and size

There is quite a lot of flexibility about when a start can be transplanted, but there are accepted ideals to be aimed for. The University of Florida Vegetable Horticulture Program Vegetable Transplant Production page  has a wealth of transplant information. Transplants grown over winter or in very early spring in a hoophouse will take longer to reach plantable size than those sown in spring or summer.

Suitable conditions for transplanting

The ideal conditions for outdoor transplanting are mild windless afternoons and evenings just before light steady rain. Transplanting late in the day gives the plant the chance to recover during the cooler night hours when transpiration is slower. Shadecloth or rowcover can reduce the drying effects of wind and sun. Damp soil is important before, during and after transplanting.

Bare-root transplanting technique

When you dig up your bare-root transplants, leave some soil clinging to the roots, to help the plants re-establish quicker. They don’t need a full handful of soil for each plant. Just dig up a clump and give it a light shake, to leave the majority of the soil behind, and some still on the roots. This means less damage to the root hairs. Be sure to dig deep enough so you don’t damage the tap roots. Water your plants the day before and an hour before lifting (pulling) them. In hot weather, keep the plants as shaded as possible while transplanting.If necessary water the soil ahead of planting.

We use plastic dish-pans to carry our plants from seedbed to field, and I tell people to only dig up what they think they can transplant in half an hour, so that plants don’t sit around for too long. Push the trowel into the soil, using the dominant hand, push it forwards, shake a plant loose from the clumps in the dish-pan with the other hand, and slip a plant in behind the trowel. Pull out the trowel, keeping it in your hand while you close the soil against the stem with your planting hand and the trowel. (Efficient workers keep a hand on the trowel at all times, never setting it down.) Move to the next spot and repeat. When setting out a large number of plants, water every 20-30 minutes if you don’t have drip irrigation running (a bit less often if you do) regardless of the number of plants set out. If the person is skilled and moving fast, and the weather is not outrageously hot or windy, I might let an hour go by before pausing to water. The advantage of getting a lot of plants in the ground proficiently and quickly might outweigh the need to water more often, as the plants are not having their roots exposed to the air for as long when they are planted fast. The hand-watering really helps the soil settle around the roots, and after that the damp soil can wick moisture from the irrigation towards the plant.

Aftercare: water, rowcover, shadecloth

Water your plants the day after transplanting, on days 3, 7 and 10, and then weekly, if it doesn’t rain when you’d like it to. Shadecloth draped over recently transplanted crops can help them recover sooner from the shock in hot sunny weather. We use 50% shade, in 6′ (1.8 m) width, with wire hoops to hold the shadecloth above the plants. This improves the airflow as well as reducing the abrasion or pressure damage done to the plants. The airflow through shadecloth is better than with floating rowcovers. ProtekNet allows good airflow too, and keeps bugs off.

Shade cloth on lettuce seed bed. Photo Nina Gentle

Shade cloth on lettuce seed bed.
Photo Nina Gentle

 

 

 

Garlic harvest, Intercropping, Summer lettuce,

Well, it’s really hot here – see the AccuWeather page on the Dangerous Heat Wave. Since June 1st we’ve had 9 days of 95F or more, including two at 97F and today is forecast to be the hottest yet. Tropical Storm Bill only gave us 0.7″ –  I’m looking forward to the trough predicted for next weekend, although I should be careful about what I wish for. It might bring record low temperatures for the time of year, and such whacky yo-yos of conditions are hard on us as well as our crops.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cured garlic being removed from the drying nets to be trimmed and sorted.                   Photo Wren Vile

Our garlic is all drying in the barn, with fans and in a few days we expect it to have dried down enough for us to start trimming and sorting. We usually do that in the afternoons, as it’s indoors and includes fans.

If you live in a cooler zone, you might be wondering when to harvest your garlic. Margaret Roach has a great article on determining garlic maturity on her blog A Way to Garden. Her harvest time is 7 or 8 weeks after ours. She has a whole set of articles on growing, harvesting and curing garlic. One sign of maturity that I don’t think Margaret mentions, that we use with our hardneck garlic is to dig a few sample bulbs, and cut them in half horizontally. If the bulbs are ready, there will be small air spaces open between the remains of the stem and the cloves.


I just posted an article about Intercropping Vegetables in Late Spring and Early Summer, aka Relay Planting on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog. Depending where you live these ideas might be very timely, or else suggestions to consider in your planning for next year. Interplanting, intercropping, or relay planting, is a version of companion planting where the second crop is planted while the first is still growing. The goal is to get maximum use of the space, double use of any crop protection such as rowcover or shadecloth, (or irrigation) and let one round of hoeing clean up two crops.

We have successfully planted peanuts in the middle of a bed of romaine and small Bibb lettuces transplanted around the same date the peanuts are sown. We have also transplanted okra in the center of a bed with two rows of early spring cabbage. As the plants grow, we remove outer leaves of the cabbage that might overshadow the okra. Soon the okra is tall and the cabbage is being harvested. Two crops in one season, with no tilling needed between the two.

Cow Horn okra. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Cow Horn okra.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This year we planned to transplant the okra in a spinach bed. The spinach came to an early end, but the okra is doing very well, and we have just started harvesting it, a bit earlier than in other years.


Today, despite the heat, it’s the day for sowing lettuce. At this time of year it’s often the day for sowing lettuce! Every 5 days. Success with summer lettuce is hard-earned. From May to late September I use an outdoor nursery seedbed and do bare-root transplants of heat-tolerant varieties. The soil temperature does not vary as much as the air temperature, although it does get warm! My hot weather lettuce sowing trick is to wait till the last half-hour before sunset, Sow the lettuce seed in the nursery bed, draw the soil over to cover the seed, and tamp it down, water it with fresh drawn water (cool from the well, not siting around all day in a can). Then I put ice on the lettuce seed rows! Crushed ice is easiest, but these days I just line up ice cubes where the rows are. Then I put a piece of shade-cloth over the planting. I make sure to keep the seedbed damp, using cold water each time.

Of course, transplanting lettuce in hot weather takes care too. I do that late in the day, and water as I go. I cover the transplants with hoops and shade-cloth, and water daily until they are well established. here’s the lettuce log I am using this year.

Twin Oaks Lettuce Log

Twin Oaks Lettuce Log

 

 

Colorado potato beetles, germinating lettuce, wheelhoes

A ladybug on a potato leaf, looking for pests to eat Photo Kathryn Simmons

Not a Colorado potato beetle: A ladybug on a potato leaf, looking for pests to eat
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Our spring-planted potatoes are just starting to flower, and I’m now in my weekly routine of monitoring for Colorado potato beetles. I walk the length of the patch and back, switching rows every 9 paces or so. I squish and count the adult CPB, and also count the larvae (I don’t always squish all of those). Did you know you can tell a squashed female CPB from a squashed male? The females are full of orange eggs, until you squash them, that is, then the orange eggs are all over your fingers!

Potato plants can tolerate 30-40% defoliation early in life, 10-60% defoliation during middle age, and up to 100% defoliation at the end of the season without reducing the yield.So don’t panic! But do pay attention. The Action Level for Colorado potato beetle is 1 adult per plant, and that for larvae is 2 per plant. Our rows are 265 ft this year, and the plants are 12″ apart, so I’m looking at 530 plants when I go down and back. So far, we’re doing great. Last week I found 12 adults. This week I found 5 adults and 41 larvae. I still don’t need a mass slaughter program. If we need to spray I’ll use Spinosad. For home gardens you can buy Monterey Garden Insect Spray from Seven Springs Farm in Virginia. Or elsewhere. It is OMRI approved but is very toxic to bees (and Eastern Oysters, should you need to know), so we only spray Spinosad at dusk when the bees have gone home, and make sure not to pour the rinse water from the sprayer into the drains (which go via our septic system into the creek). Generally I use the driveway as a large inert area to spread the wash water over.

But I only use Spinosad if we have to. Another part of my plan is timely mowing of the clover patch next to the potatoes. The clover mix was undersown in the fall broccoli last year, and in the spring we simply bush hog that patch every time the weeds are getting too successful compared to the clover. Or ideally, before that happens. We had flowering crimson clover there earlier, and mowed that. Now what we see is white clover. there is red in the mix too, but I haven’t seen that flowering yet. Our hope/plan is that when we mow the clovers, many of the beneficial insects move over to the potato patch and eat the CPB.

At the great link I gave earlier, Andrei Alyokhin provides good information on the life cycle of the CPB, lots of resources, and a lovely collection of Colorado potato beetle haiku (traditional Japanese poetry) written and illustrated by Mrs. O’Malley’s second-grade students from the Old Town Elementary School in 2008 or so, somewhere in Maine I think. The poetry gives new perspectives as we walk the rows searching for the wee beasties.


Germinating lettuce seed

Some weeks I wonder what to blog about. This week I was helped by a neighboring grower who asked me questions about how I germinate lettuce. Aha! A timely topic! We try to grow lettuce for harvest all year round, here in central Virginia, and exactly how we do that varies with the season.
New flats of lettuce seedlings Credit Kathryn Simmons

New flats of lettuce seedlings
Credit Kathryn Simmons

From January until mid-March I sow in flats in the greenhouse, with heating to get the seeds germinated, then good old solar energy to grow them to transplanting size.

From mid-March to the end of April I sow in flats in the greenhouse, without extra heat.
Spring lettuce bed. Photo Wren Vile

Spring lettuce bed.
Photo Wren Vile

From May to late September I use an outdoor nursery seedbed and do bare-root transplants (heat-tolerant varieties). The soil temperature does not vary as much as the air temperature, so I don’t worry about cool nights.

From June I put shade-cloth over the lettuce seedbed, and only sow in the evening.
In July and August I put ice on top of the newly sown rows, under the shade-cloth.
baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Photo Twin Oaks COmmunity

Baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

After that I sow lettuce mix in the hoophouse. (Click the link to see my Hoophouse in Fall and Winter slideshow.)

New Seed-Starters Handbook

Knotts handbook

Knotts handbook

There’s a chart of germination at various temperatures in Nancy Bubel’s New Seed Starter’s Handbook and in the Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers which is all online.The soil temperature range for germination of lettuce seeds is 35-85F, with 40-80F being the optimum range and 75F the ideal soil temperature. At 41F (5C) lettuce takes 15 days to germinate; at 50F (10C) it takes 7 days; at 59F (15C) it takes 4 days; at 68F (20C) only about 2.5 days; at 77F (25C) 2.2 days. Then time to germination increases: 2.6 days at 86F (30C); after that it’s too hot.

A soil thermometer soon pays for itself and saves lost crops and frustration. If it’s too hot, find a cooler place (put a seeded flat in a plastic bag in the fridge or on the concrete floor in the basement). Or cool down a small part of the world. That’s what I do when I sow in the evening, water with freshly drawn cold water, line up ice cubes along the seed rows, and cover with shade cloth.

And finally, to a tool we use a lot at this time of year (when the weather is dry enough for hoeing to be successful): our Valley Oak Wheel Hoes. We have two, both with pneumatic tires (rocky soil jars your wrists, think long-term). We have one with the standard 8″ blade and one with a 10″ blade. We use them for the aisles in our raised beds, for between rows of corn, anywhere without mulch. They are very energy efficient, compared to a hand hoe. And some of the crew treat he opportunity to wheel hoe as a chance for an aerobic workout. Others use a more moderate speed.Cover more ground with less effort, and hence, get more done before the weeds get too big to hoe.
The handlebar height is readily adjustable, the blade assemblies can easily be switched from one tool to another (buy one wheelhoe and several different width blades), there are other attachments such as  a small furrower, a one-sided hiller and a 3-tine cultivator. And there are plenty of replacement parts available: we just ordered spare blades after wearing ours down to narrow strips.9_zoom_1413981475

 

Spring underway at last!

This past week has seen real forward progress in the garden. The last of the rows of snap peas got planted. As I explained in a previous post, we plant peas in the middles of beds of spinach. I wrote more about this and other examples of interplanting in my post for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog.

We also transplanted 4 beds of spinach (360 row feet each). Tilling was delayed by wet soil, so I was happy we had enough transplants to get us off to a fast start. Hot weather arrives early here, and causes the spinach to bolt, so having transplants helps us get a longer harvest season. Many of the plants were bare-root transplants which had been growing in the hoophouse since 1/25.

Speedling flats. Photo from EPS Manufacturing

Speedling flats.
Photo from EPS Manufacturing

We ended up with spare spinach which we had sown in Speedling flats in the greenhouse. Speedlings are available from many grower supplies places, or look for them (organically) used. They are expanded styrofoam, which makes them very lightweight, and in fact they float, a feature which we make use of when we sow sweet corn starts to fill gaps in rows of our first (chancy) corn planting. We have a big tank where we float 8 Speedlings of corn. They need no watering and don’t get stunted. Carefree! They are a tad fragile in novice hands, and as we like to make our plastics last as long as possible, we make sure to instruct people to pick them up when transplanting, not drag them by putting a thumb in a cell and pulling. Butter knives make great transplanting tools for the 200 cell or bigger Speedlings. Jab the knife in the soil, wiggle it from side to side, making a wedge-shaped hole. Then slide the knife down the sloping side of a cell, hold the plant gently in the other hand, pulling slightly while lifting the knife in the first hand with a scooping motion. The plug then rests on the horizontal blade of the knife. Slide the plant into the hole, firm the soil, and repeat 719 times for one bed of spinach! Or get help.

Transpalnting spinach from Speedling flats. Photo Denny Ray McElyea

Transplanting from Speedling flats.
Photo Denny Ray McElyea

A carrot bed showing the indicator beets. Credit Kathryn Simmons

A carrot bed showing the indicator beets.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We sowed 3 beds of carrots 3/23, along with some “indicator beets”, which should germinate a day before the carrots, and so tell us when to flame-weed. Typically carrots take 9-12 days at this time of year, but I think the soil is still colder than normal for the time of year. They’re not up yet (day 8). It’s time we moved the soil thermometer from the flats on the heat mat in the greenhouse out to the carrot beds. [Why not buy another soil thermometer, Pam?]

We also got two beds of beets sown, with more to do today. And we’re ready to transplant our first three sowings of lettuce. That will give us some much needed space in the coldframe. (Not to mention some much needed lettuce in a few weeks!) The delayed outdoor plantings have caused a lot of back-up congestion in the greenhouse and cold frame.

Our over-wintered Vates kale isn’t looking too good, after the extreme cold weather we had this winter. And unfortunately our spring-sown kale didn’t come up, so we’re on course for a spring kale shortage. We can plant more collards, as we have lots of those plants, and maybe some more senposai.


The number of people reading my blog grew from a lower point in September, through October, November and December to a steady 4200 per month in January, February and March. That’s 140 a day. I’m very happy with that. My blog now has 88 followers. If you want to leave a comment, look for the button at the end of the comments section, or the speech bubble at the top right of the blog.

My review of Craig LeHoullier’s wonderful book Epic Tomatoes continues to be a very popular post, and I’m embarking next on a review of another great book: The Tao of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe

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

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

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

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

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


Transplanting bare-root spinach. Drawing by Jessie Doyle

Transplanting bare-root spinach.
Drawing by Jessie Doyle

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

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

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

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

Books, blogs, conferences and seed-starting

Sustainable Market Farming on display. Credit Ken Bezilla

Sustainable Market Farming on display.
Credit Ken Bezilla

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

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

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

A bed of overwintered leeks Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

A bed of overwintered leeks
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

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

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

Yukina Savoy Credit Ethan Hirsh

Yukina Savoy
Credit Ethan Hirsh

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

Transplanting leeks, sowing sweet corn, hoeing weeds

Leek seedlings growing in an outdoor nursery bed. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Leek seedlings growing in an outdoor nursery bed.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Our late afternoon transplanting shifts with just four experienced people have been proving so successful that we decided to continue for another week and get our leeks transplanted in that time slot. Previously we have transplanted them in the mornings, on our regular shifts, using the logic that the leeks have narrow leaves that don’t lose water quickly, and we are planting deep in holes, where they will stay cool and damp.

Leeks are slow growing, but easy to care for and frost tolerant.The ideal size for transplanting is between a pencil lead and a pencil in thickness. We plant at 6” (15 cm) spacing, with 4 rows to a 48” (1.2 m) bed. Before 2013, we sowed all our leek seedlings in an outdoor nursery bed, and transplanted the leeks as bare root starts. It worked fine if we had a relatively weed-free nursery bed, but was troublesome if we got a lot of weeds. We like the ease of having the seedlings outdoors – less congestion in the greenhouse and cold frames, one thing less to hand-water multiple times a day.

Last year we had a late wet spring and didn’t have the nursery bed ready, so we decided to sow in open flats, and it worked well. This switch was helped by deciding to cut celeriac and kohlrabi from our repertoire, freeing up lots of cold-frame space. We decided to repeat that method this year, and it looks like it is the way of our future.

We use a special planting technique, in order to develop long white shanks, which are prized more than the equally edible green parts. We find it efficient to divide the crew up and specialize in one part of the job.

First, if the soil is dry, water it well, preferably more than an hour ahead. Then one person makes parallel V-shaped furrows, 3” (8 cm) deep, along the bed. Next, a couple of people make holes 6” (15 cm) apart in the furrows. Tools for leek planting are called “dibbles” or dibblers, purpose-bought or homemade from broken digging fork handles, with the end sharpened to a point. The tool needs to have a diameter of 1½-2” (4-5 cm). The depth of the holes is determined by the height of the transplants. It’s likely to need to be 3”(8 cm) or more. If the holes cave in, you need to water the soil more before proceeding. Meanwhile another person digs up some of the transplants from the nursery bed or one of the open flats and transfers them to a small bucket containing an inch or so of water. We make useful little buckets from 1 gallon plastic jugs with the top cut off. A rope handle knotted into holes at the top of the new bucket make it easy to carry. Resist any temptation to trim either the roots or the tops of the leeks.

Chapter 52, Leek diagram

To transplant, take a leek, shake it free from its neighbors, and decide whether to plant it. Discard the ones thinner than pencil leads. If the plant is good size, and looks healthy, twirl it as you lower it into the hole to prevent the roots folding back on the plant, pointing at the sky – they need to grow downwards. This works best if the roots are still wet and muddy from the water bucket. Bobbing the plant up and down as you settle it in the hole will help a transplant that has slightly bunched roots. If at first you don’t succeed, remove the plant from the hole, dip it back in the water and try again. Soon you will develop this quirky planting skill, and will be able to move along the row at a good clip. Ideally the tops of the leaves will poke out of the furrow, not more. Get the depth of the hole-making adjusted to suit the prevailing plant height. This creates the depth for growing a long white shank. Surprising as it may sound, it is not necessary or desirable to fill the holes with soil (you don’t want to bury the seedlings). The soil fills in naturally as the plants become tall enough to survive the depth.

Next someone gently waters each hole, either from a low pressure hose or a watering can. The goal is to water the plant roots, not to wash soil into the holes. The shelter of the hole helps the plant get over the transplant shock, and because leeks have slender tough leaves, they do not lose a lot of water by transpiration. This means that transplanting in quite hot weather is possible, as is transplanting in the mornings.

Keep the soil damp for several days after planting, and then give 1” (2.5 cm) water per week as needed. Like other alliums, leeks do not compete well with weeds, so cultivate as needed. Some people hill up their leeks, but if you do, be careful not to get soil above the point where the leaves fan out from the stem, or they will be very hard to clean later.

So far, we have planted out almost 3 of our 5 hoped-far leek beds. At 90′ x 4 rows x 6″ spacing, that’s a total of 3,600 leeks! Makes winter so much more satisfying!

Also this week, we have been hoeing galinsoga everywhere, and sowing sweet corn, our third planting. We like to make furrows by hand, fill them with water, then drop the seed into the mud and cover it, tamping the soil to ensure good contact between seed and soil. We sow several varieties (with different numbers of days to maturity) on the same day, so a planting will give us at least two weeks of delicious corn. In this photo from a previous year, you can see (from left to right): later-maturing Silver Queen, not yet at full height; red-flowered Kandy Korn; fast-maturing shorter Bodacious.

Credit Kathryn Simmons