Time to sow fall broccoli and cabbage

Broccoli head after rain
Photo Wren Vile

We are almost at a big turning point of the growing season, the Summer Solstice, the longest day. We know that day-length influences plant growth, and that after the Solstice, some crops will gradually take longer and longer to reach maturity (others will bolt). Crops more influenced by temperature (like sweet corn) will continue to mature faster while the summer temperatures rise.

Here in central Virginia, most brassicas are planted in spring and again in fall. Unless your broccoli keeps going all summer, consider sowing a new crop for fall. Although it can be hard to think about sowing seeds in mid-summer, it’s very worthwhile to grow fall brassicas because as they mature in the cooler fall days they develop delicious flavor, while weeds and pests slow down. These crops need little care once established. The most challenging part is getting the seedlings growing well while the weather is hot. However, unlike some cool weather vegetables such as spinach and lettuce, brassica seeds actually germinate very well at high temperatures. The ideal is 77-85°F (25-29°C), but up to 95°F (35°C) works. Given enough water, summer seedlings will emerge in only 3 days. Once they have emerged, the challenge begins. As well as temperature and moisture in the right ranges, the seedlings need light (very plentiful in mid-summer!), nutrients, good airflow, and protection from bugs. We deal organically with flea beetles, Harlequin bugs, and sometimes cabbage worms. Our main defenses are farmscaping, and netting (and previously, rowcover).

My book Sustainable Market Farming, has a chapter devoted to Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale and Collards in Fall.

Fall broccoli patch.
Photo Kati Falger

Timing sowing of fall broccoli and cabbage

The number of days to harvest given in seed catalogs is usually that needed in spring – plants grow faster in warmer temperatures. To determine when to sow for fall plantings, start with your average first frost date (as an indicator of cooling temperatures), then subtract the number of days from seeding to transplant (21-28), the number of days from transplanting to harvest for that variety (given in the catalog description), the length of harvest period (we harvest broccoli for 35 days minimum), and another 14 days for the slowing rate of plant growth in fall compared to spring. For us, the average first frost is 10/14-10/20, and we sow 53-day broccoli 21+53+35+14 days before 10/14, which is 6/13-6/19.  The last date for sowing broccoli and cabbage is about 3 months before the first fall frost date. In our case that means July 14–20.

Planning and crop rotations for fall brassicas

Our rotation plan shows us a long way ahead how many row feet of fall broccoli and cabbage we can fit in. By the time we order our seeds in the New Year, we know roughly what we expect to grow. In February we draw up a spreadsheet of how much of what to sow when.

Because fall brassicas are transplanted in summer, it’s possible to grow another vegetable crop, or some good cover crops, earlier in the year. An over-wintered cover crop mix of winter rye and crimson clover or hairy vetch could be turned under at flowering, and be followed by a short-term warm weather cover such as buckwheat, soy or cowpeas. Brassicas are heavy nitrogen consumers. To minimize pests and diseases, don’t use brassica cover crops.

Systems for growing fall broccoli and cabbage transplants

The same systems you use for growing transplants in spring can also work well for fall. It can help to have your plants outside on benches, above the 3’ (1m) height of flea beetles. A shade-house might be ideal too. Direct sowing, in “stations” (groups of several seeds sown at the final crop spacing), works for small areas.

We use an outdoor nursery seedbed and bare root transplants, which suits us best. The nursery bed is near our daily work area, so we’ll pass by and water it. Having the seedlings directly in the soil “drought-proofs” them to some extent. They can form deep roots, and do not dry out so fast.

For the seedbeds we use ProtekNet on wire hoops. Choose the mesh size carefully. One with small holes is needed to keep flea beetles away – 25 gm or 47 gm. Overly thick rowcover can make the seedlings more likely to die of fungal diseases in hot weather – good airflow is vital.

Sowing fall broccoli and cabbage

Brassica seedlings growing outdoors under insect netting.
Photo Pam Dawling

 Our rough formula for all transplanted fall brassicas is to sow around a foot (30 cm) of seed row for every 12-15’ (3.6-4.6 m) of transplanted crop row. We aim for 3 seeds per inch (about 1 cm apart). This means sowing 36 seeds for 10 plants transplanted on 18” (46 cm) spacing. And we do that twice (72 seeds for 10 plants!), in two sowings a week apart, to ensure we have enough plants of the right size.

Fall Brassica Schedule

Our seedbeds have an 8-week program – see the spreadsheet above for examples of our timing, quantities and varieties. I like to have a regular afternoon every week to grow the transplants. If you’re growing for fewer than 100 people, you won’t need a whole afternoon! Each week after the first week, we also weed the previously sown plants, and thin to 1” (2.5 cm) apart. Then we check the germination, record it, and resow if needed to make up the numbers.

 

Bare root brassica transplants under Proteknet.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Transplanting fall broccoli and cabbage

We transplant most brassicas at 4 true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing at this time of year). It is best to transplant crops at a younger age in hot weather than you would in spring, because larger plants can wilt from high transpiration losses. If we find ourselves transplanting older plants, we remove a couple of the older leaves to reduce these losses.

We transplant 6 days a week for an hour and a half or two hours in late afternoon or early evening, for 2-3 weeks. We water the soil in the plot an hour before starting to transplant. It is very important at this time of year to get adequate water to the plants undergoing the stress of being transplanted. Likewise, good transplanting technique is vital. Water a lot more than you do in spring. If you have drip irrigation, you can easily give a little water in the middle of each day too, which will help cool the roots.

One of our impact sprinkler tripods, in a broccoli patch.
Photo Pam Dawling

We transplant broccoli and cabbage in 34” (86 cm) or 36” (91 cm) rows, which is wider than necessary. Beds or paired rows can fit more plants in the same space, while still allowing room to walk. We hammer in stakes along the row, and attach ropes between them. These both mark the rows for transplanting, and support the netting that we use after transplanting to keep the bugs off. An 84” (2.1 m) width netting can form a square tunnel over two crop rows, giving good airflow. Wire hoops are an alternative. Watering the soil before planting, as well as afterwards, helps survival during the hot summer days.

Aftercare of fall brassicas

About a month after transplanting the broccoli and cabbage (late August-early September), we remove the netting, stakes, ropes and the sticks we use to hold down the netting edges, then hoe and till between the rows. Next we broadcast a mix of mammoth red clover, Ladino white clover and crimson clover. We use overhead sprinkler irrigation to get the clover germinated, and it also helps cool the brassicas. The ideal is to keep the soil surface damp for the few days it takes the clover to germinate. Usually watering every two days is enough. We may replace the netting if pest pressure seems bad.

 

Fall broccoli undersown with a mixed clover winter cover crop.
Photo Nina Gentle.

If all goes well, we keep the clover growing for the whole of the next year, mowing several times to control annual weeds. You could, instead, till in the clover in late spring or early summer to plant a food crop then.

Harvesting fall broccoli and cabbage

We harvest all our brassicas three times each week, and take the produce directly to our cooler.

Broccoli side shoots.
Photo Nina Gentle

Our main broccoli harvest period is 9/10-10/15, with smaller amounts being picked either side of those dates We like our broccoli heads to get as large as possible (without opening up) before we harvest. We test by pressing down on the head with our fingertips and spreading our fingers. We harvest as soon as the beads start to “spring” apart. This may be a little late for other growers. We also look at the individual beads and aim to harvest before the beads even think about opening. We cut the stem diagonally to reduce the chance of dew and rain puddling, which can cause rotting of the stem. Later we harvest the side shoots, until they are too small to bother with.

A storage cabbage, with curled-back leaf on the head, showing maturity.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Cabbage heads up from 9/25 and holds in the field till late November. Cabbage is mature when the outer leaf on the head (not the outer plant leaves which are left in the field) is curling back on itself. For storage cabbage, we set the cut heads upside down on the stump, in the “basket” of outer leaves, and come back an hour later to gather them into net bags. This allows the cut stem to dry out and seal over, improving storability.

If you are already looking ahead to the fall, see my post Fall and Winter Vegetable Growing, Harvest and Storage, for lots of links to more info on season extension into cold weather; fall and winter vegetable harvests; and fall and winter vegetable storage. I will write more about other fall brassicas in the near future.

Big frosty fall cabbage.
photo Lori Katz

Workhorse Crops for February

 

White Russian kale in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

This is my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as January.

At last the daylight is getting noticeably longer, although we still have very cold weather. We reach 10 hours of daylight on January 21, and 11 hours on February 20. In our hoophouse we are clearing crops before they bolt, and planting some quick crops before the warm weather ones go in in March and April. In the greenhouse we are starting seedlings and clearing lettuce that is thinking about bolting. Our seed orders are arriving and we are finishing up our various planting schedules and crop maps.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in February

Young carrots after their first thinning.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

We sow carrots in mid-February, and again at the end of February. Yes, they take a long time to emerge when the soil is still so cold. But it’s a task we can get done now, and won’t have to do later, when we are busier. Carrots take 50 days to emerge at 41˚F (5˚C), (although of course it will have warmed up some before 50 days pass!); 17 days at 50˚F(10˚C); 10 days at 59˚F (15˚C); 7 days at 68˚F (20˚C); 6 at 77˚F (25˚C); 5 at 86˚F (30˚C) and don’t try hotter than that!

An EarthWay seeder, widely used for sowing small seeds like carrots.

We use an EarthWay seeder and the Light Carrot plate (although that still puts out lots of seed!) We can’t really justify the cost of a precision seeder like the Jang, for the amount we’d use it.

Asparagus

If you are planning to start a new asparagus patch, early spring is the best time to plant. This will give them as much time as possible that first year, to grow strong roots. The usual suggestion is to plant at least 10 crowns per diner.

Most growers purchase two-year-old crowns, although it is possible to grow your own asparagus from seed, if you can find seed of your preferred variety. The old OP varieties are still available, but newer all-male hybrids yield far more heavily, often more than twice as much. We chose Jersey Giant, a male hybrid resistant to asparagus rust and well-adapted to the mid-Atlantic. It produces big, tender, succulent spears each spring.

The best soil temperature for planting asparagus is 50°F (10°C) –  planting in cold soil encourages disease and offers no advantage. Remove shipped asparagus roots from the box as soon as they arrive, and untie the bundles. Don’t water them. If you need to store the roots longer than two weeks, spread them in trays or crates, in a cool, fairly dry place, until planting conditions are right. You can read more about growing asparagus in Sustainable Market Farming, and my recent article in Growing for Market magazine.

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons
Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In our greenhouse we have started a couple of flats of fast-maturing cabbage. We like Farao (60d) and Early Jersey Wakefield (63d). Both numbers are seed to harvest. Subtract 20 days if counting from transplanting to maturity.

Open flats of cabbage seedlings. The nearer flat is a 3″ deep seed flat with four rows of seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We have already sown our kale and collards for outdoor spring crops, in our hoophouse. Here’s the info on that: On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed. We will transplant these outdoors as bare root transplants in mid-March.

Vates kale seedlings for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

We don’t sow our chard and leaf beet until 3/24, because we want them for summer greens, after the kale, collards, broccoli and Asian greens have all bolted. But you can start them earlier, if you want earlier harvests. I’ll say more next month about chard, but if you want to get a start sooner, know that the seed will germinate from 41°F (5°C) to 95°F (35°C), and the best temperature is 86°F (30°C), when it needs only 4 days to pop up.

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in February

We do sow a few hoophouse greens successions during February, a row of snap peas, some lettuce mix, but nothing that qualifies as a Workhorse.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in February

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

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested outdoors here in February. About once per bed during each of the coldest months, January and February. We’ll be able to harvest those beds once a week each in March. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one! I actually prefer to get all our carrots safely harvested and stored, rather than have them still in the ground, where more things can go wrong! We have had 3 nights in January down to 10°F (-12°C), and I don’t think even Deadon cabbage would survive that many cold nights! Some of our Tadorna leeks are looking quite damaged. We don’t usually have that problem.

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in February

Bulls blood beet greens, chard, and some greens not in our Workhorse group, (turnip greens, Yukina Savoy, spinach) are still going strong. Our experimental carrots are still doing OK, although I’m not a fan of giving them hoophouse space for such a long time with no harvests. I notice I’m slipping into mentioning non-workhorses more often now the winter is biting us.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

At last we can start harvesting our Russian kales in the hoophouse. We were late getting them established last fall, and growth has been slow. Now many of the other greens (Tokyo bekana, Napa cabbage, pak choy, the first tatsoi and the first mizuna) have all been eaten, we are very ready for the kale. Russian kale wilts easily and is best harvested into buckets as if a bouquet of flowers, with a little water in the bucket.

Workhorse Crops from storage in February

From storage in February we can eat carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash. Also frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for February: Phenology

Chickweed flowers.
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/S/W-CP-SMED-FL.006.html
Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

I wrote about seed germination temperatures and phenology signs in April 2021. I have an earlier post about phenology here, and one about Harbinger Weeds of Spring.

Certain natural phenomena are related to the accumulated warmth of the season (rather than, say, the day-length), and by paying attention to nature’s calendar you will be in sync with actual conditions, which vary from year to year, and are changing over a longer time-scale.

You can learn when to plant by natural signs. For instance, we sow sweet corn when white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. I got excited one weekend (April 10) when I saw wind-driven twigs on the ground with oak leaves definitely bigger than squirrels’ ears. But they were Red Oak, not White Oak.

Keeping your own phenology record is a useful guide to when to plant certain crops, and a way to track how fast the season is progressing right where you are. Phenology involves recording when certain wild and cultivated flowers bloom, seedlings emerge, or various insects are first seen. These natural events can substitute for Growing Degree Day calculations. Your phenology record will help build resilience in the face of climate change. Ours might be interesting to you, but unless you live in central Virginia, you can’t use our dates. You do need to make your own. This can be a great home-schooling project, or a crew I-Spy competition, or a calming end-of-day walk around your gardens.

Phenology Record

Workhorse Crops for January

Our hoophouse with a December snowfall. Pam Dawling

We’re solidly in the darker and colder half the year for our monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as December.

Winter is a natural opportunity to reconsider the size of your garden, which crops to grow, and your growing methods. Perhaps this will be your first gardening year? If so, welcome! Use the search box to find specific info, or click the blog category to find some further reading. Hopefully, we all have our garden plans made and our seeds ordered. Maybe we are already looking at a planting schedule.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in January

Potato Onions

Yellow Potato Onions.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In January, we can plant small small potato onions outdoors.  We prepare the bed in the late fall and mulch it with hay, to plant in January. We rake off the mulch, plant the onion bulbs and then lay the mulch back on the bed, to control weeds and somewhat to insulate the little onion bulbs. These smallest potato onions are very cold-hardy, and will grow up to produce a single 3” (7.5 cm) large onion. A few will grow and subdivide to produce more small onions. Click the link to read the details.

Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In our greenhouse we fire up our germinator cabinets and sow our first lettuce and early cabbage (Early Jersey Wakefield and Faroa) and scallions in mid-January. The following week we sow our tomatoes to plant out in the hoophouse, and at the end of the month, spinach if we have not got enough sown in our hoophouse to transplant as bare-root transplants.

Flats of cabbage seedlings in our greenhouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in January

In the hoophouse we are sowing a second or third round of crops, mostly successions of greens and radishes. We have already pulled our first and second radishes, and some of the Asian greens.

This March we will be using a half-bed in the hoophouse for some early green bush beans. Like our other warm weather crops, these can be planted in the hoophouse a month earlier than outdoors. Two cautions with green beans in the hoophouse: buy a very upright variety, as the plants will be more sprawling than they are outdoors. Outdoors we grow Provider and Bush Blue Lake (both very reliable and productive), and in the hoophouse we like Strike. The second bean caution is that we have found the edge beds too cold for beans when we need to sow them, in March. Don’t plant them now, but order seeds of an upright variety and plan a non-edge bed. I’ll say more in March.

We have also planned our next round of early warm-weather crops, which we will transplant in late March and early April. Tomatoes and zucchini/summer squash are on our Workhorse list

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We stop filling gaps in most of the Asian greens at the end of December, because they will start to bolt in January and/or because they are mature and we will be clearing the space to sow something else. Tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana, Pac Choi, Chinese Cabbage, Yukina Savoy, all need to be eaten during January.  We sow spinach (the Racehorse Crop) in mid-January, to transplant in the hoophouse and outdoors.

Vates kale seedlings for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed.

See November’s information on Follow-On Crops, and Filler Greens (short rows of greens sown in October to fill unexpected spaces).

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in January

We still have workhorse crops to harvest outdoors: chard, kale and collards, and perhaps cabbages. We’re down to three of our 14 workhorse crops to harvest outdoors in January, but we have the Racehorse Crop, spinach, too, and also luscious hoophouse greens.

Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C), the lowest temperature I’ve seen it survive. We just had one night at that temperature, much colder than anything else so far this winter.

Chard can still be harvested outdoors if we covered it with hoops and rowcover. The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). We have succeeded in keeping chard alive outdoors right through the winter, if we cover it.

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested in January. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow. In October, November, February and March, we can harvest leaves from these plants once a week. In December and January, once each month is more like what we can hope for. Chard and senposai do OK with only 6 leaves left.

Hoophouse Workhorse harvests in January

We are harvesting leaves from our hoophouse Bright Lights chard at an adolescent size, cutting them into ribbons, and chopping the colorful stems, for salad mixes. Later, when the days lengthen, we’ll be able to harvest leaves for cooking.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

The Red Russian and White Russian kales are ready to harvest now (we were a bit late with getting a successful sowing in September). Russian kales belong to the napus group of kales, which are better able to make growth in low light levels than oleracea types like the Vates we grow outdoors. Vates is our star outdoors, because it is more cold-hardy than any other kale I’ve found. The Russian kales have a tendency to wilt after harvesting, so we move fast and stand the leaves up in the buckets. We add some water to the buckets before rushing them to the walk-in cooler. (We do this with chard, turnip greens and Tokyo bekana too.)

The hoophouse senposai is on its third round of harvests, just two weeks after the second, which was one week after the first. This clearly demonstrated the slower rate of growth as temperatures and daylight decrease. The short days do cause plant growth to slow down, but this is not the only factor. Soil temperature is another. In our hoophouse, the soil temperature is still 50F (10C) in early January.

But hey! The length of daylight is now increasing! On the shortest day, December 21, we have 9 hours and 34 minutes of daylight, from 7.21 am to 4.55 pm. The mornings continue to get darker by a few minutes, taking a month to get back to 7.21, from a latest of 7.25 am. Meanwhile the evenings are getting lighter, gaining us 6 minutes by January 5. I’m typing this on my laptop onto a USB stick, as we are in day 3 of a power outage. I appreciate the lighter evenings! By January 21 we will be up to 10 hours of daylight!

Workhorse Crops from storage in January

Storage crops come into their own in December and January, once outdoor growth has slowed down. The flavor of stored sweet potatoes reaches its peak in late January! Besides the Workhorse Crops of carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and garlic, there are many other root crops. See my posts Root Crops for the Month. Use hardneck garlic first, as it stores for only for 4-6 months. Softneck garlic can store for up to 7 months.

Eat up your acorn and other pepo types of winter squash, as they store for only 1-4 months. Maximas such as Cha Cha, Jarrahdale and Kabochas store for 3-5 months; Moschatas such as Butternuts and Cheese pumpkins will store for 8 months or even more. Seminole pumpkin can easily store for a whole year at room temperature. They do have hard shells and need a hefty cleaver to cut them open.

Our white potatoes are keeping well in the root cellar down at 40F-50F (5C-10C). We air it about once a week. We open the door on mild nights or chilly overcast days, depending what we get and what we need. Potatoes in storage after their first month are no longer respiring much at all. They should be dormant, and not in need of many air changes.

Sweet potatoes on a plate.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Our sweet potatoes are very delicious. We are eating about 40-50lbs (19-23 kilos) a week.

Stored cabbage can also be a boon, and this is also a good time to explore all the pickles and canned and frozen produce you put up earlier.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for January: Making Schedules.

Screenshot Crop Planning Cycle

We continue our Garden Planning, ordering seeds and planning schedules of field planting and greenhouse seedling starting. In January we start sowing seeds indoors, and need our schedule figured out for that. We also need to pay attention to germination temps for various crops, so that we get them off to a good start, matched with crops needing similar temperatures in each germination cabinet.

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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