We’ve already prepared our first bed in the hoophouse and sowed our first few crops (spinach, radishes, scallions, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beets and cress). We spread the bed prep out over 5 days and the sowings over 2 days. I’ve written lots about our fall hoophouse planting, so I’ll give you links, mention a few updates and stick to photos otherwise.
Hoophouse Winter Schedule Tweaks and Improvements (pack more crops in, get higher yields, reduce or spread the workload). One change we made was to sow some early catch crops in areas that weren’t needed for all-winter crops until later. We mostly used tatsoi and Tokyo bekana, both fast–growing leafy greens. We intended to grow some early beets too, but the seed didn’t germinate. A new crop last winter was cress, Creasy Greens Upland Cress and Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure. They take 50 days to maturity (in spring). We had two good intentions we did not manage to follow through on. One was to let some of the cress flower, to feed beneficial insects. And I think we got too impatient. The other was to notice which one of the two kinds we prefer and just grow that one. We didn’t manage to keep good enough records on that, so this winter we are obliged to repeat the experiment, with more good intentions!
Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal (packing away the giant piece of shadecloth until May, spreading compost, broadforking and raking the beds, direct sowing the first bed, sowing seeds in an outdoor nursery bed to transplant into the hoophouse a few weeks later). This post includes a step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep. Our soil is improving each year, becoming easier to broadfork and rake. That counters the aging process of our human bodies! One change we made last year was to measure and pin down the drip tapes 12” (30 cm) apart, and use the drip tape as a guide to making furrows (drills). This is easier than using the row marker rake, as we used to do.
Sowing hoophouse winter crops(more details on bed prep tools and techniques, including the row marker rake if you want to use that, and links to posts about winter lettuce varieties we used in 2017/2018.)
Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables(hoophouse crop map, many links to other posts including a video and three slideshows, crop rotations, choosing winter hoophouse crops, posts about specific crops (with all the details), back up plans in case something goes wrong, and harvesting.)
Preparing your hoophouse for fall and winter(includes one of my slideshows, and a more detailed discussion of lettuce types and sowing dates, information about salt build-up and our wash-down strategy in a 3-slide mini slide show, when we close and open the doors and windows, and a Be-Prepared Winter Kit list)
Winter hoophouse growing (includes a round-up of earlier posts, and a discussion about the value of crop rotation in the hoophouse, and a list of 20 benefits of having a hoophouse.)
Spinach variety trial conclusions This year we are growing Acadia. Johnny’s do not recommend this variety for late fall or winter sowing, but it did very well in our hoophouse, sown in September, October, November and January.
I’m always on the lookout for ways to pack more crops in, get higher yields, reduce or at least spread the workload. All while nurturing healthy soil and organic food that people enjoy.
Tweaking the Salt Wash-Down Dates
I wrote about Preparing your Hoophouse for Fall and Winter on September 28. I belatedly realized that in my hurry to publish the post I let some out-of-date info slip in. We don’t do our fall salt wash-down in November any more – we prefer early October, while it is still warm enough for the plants to be improved by extra water, rather than drowned and miserable. We have switched from two days in the spring to three, as we think two days wasn’t quite enough water to get all the salt back deep in the soil profile. We had ambitions of doing three days in the fall as well, but I can tell you now, from experience, that we can fit in two days but no more.
I’ve described how we broadfork and rake all the beds in the fall, and the amount I can do in one day (along with all the other tasks) is 1/3 of a 96ft x 4ft (29m x1.2m) bed. That human limitation, and the logistics of crop rotation and planting dates, leaves a small window between preparing the first three beds to get planted (9/6-10/6), and the remaining four (10/10-10/24). It really doesn’t work well to broadfork and rake saturated soil! It’s better to have a few days for the water to soak in. So, we are satisfied with two days of salt wash-down in fall, for the time being.
Last fall I noticed that some areas of some of our beds were idle between being prepped and planting dates in November and December. I hate to waste prime real estate like hoophouse bed space, So this year when we planned our bed layout, we herded all the little late sowings into one bed with the intention of finding some fast-growing crops to put in that space first. We also managed a more rational layout in each bed, planting the various crops in chronological order from the east end to the west.
Next, I researched what we might grow ahead of the main crop. There are some unknowns here. We have numbers of days to maturity for crops in ideal conditions (nice warm spring temperatures), but we are heading into colder temperatures and shorter days. So it might not work out as we hope. However, given our fondness for salad mixes, anything we have to pull up immature will still be eaten and enjoyed!
The bed in question was all ready to plant on September 30. The areas I could see for catch crops included 11/9 “filler” spinach and filler lettuce, 11/15 tatsoi #2, 12/7 lettuce mix #2, 12/18 mustard salad mix, and 12/20 radish #5.
I decided to put the 16ft (5m) of areas for November 9-15 sowings (39-45 days to go) into 45day Tokyo bekana and the 18ft (5.5m) of areas for sowings after December 7 (79 days available at that point) into 60day Cylindra beets. The Tokyo bekana came up very quickly, and I expect it will be destined for salad greens, which will be very useful as our outdoor lettuce is waning and we’ve just had a patchy frost (early for here) – the colder weather will slow crops down.
The beets have still not come up 9 days later, and the soil is 60F (15.5C). I’ll check again tomorrow. 10 days should be long enough with soil at that temperature. My niggling worry is that the salt wash-down has drowned the seeds. See Root Crops in August. If they are not up at 10 days, I think I will hoe the area and resow with something quicker – perhaps tatsoi(45 days). I was disregarding tatsoi because it will bolt in January. Umm, but this is a catch crop, that we’ll need to pull up in early December – January isn’t even on its calendar!
Carrots out! Cress in!
Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Last winter we grew a small patch of carrots because one of the crew really wanted to try them in the hoophouse. I wasn’t a fan because carrots are so slow-growing and provide only one harvest (usually). But I am a fan of democracy and participation, so we grew carrots. We could have harvested them sooner than we did and planted something else (in my opinion), but there they sat all winter.
Oh yes, about that “usually”: you can eat carrot tops and I have used finely chopped carrot leaves as a garnish. A major brand of crackers has carrot tops as one the herbs in their Herb Crackers. Read the small print!
This fall, as we planned our crops, I said I’d prefer not to grow carrots again, but I was out-voted, and hence we sowed carrots. Now those crew members have left, and I gave the evil eye to the carrots. I’d just read an interesting article about nutrient-dense vegetables, and learned that The 5 Most Nutrient-Dense Vegetables Based on Science are watercress, Chinese (Napa) cabbage, Swiss chard, beet greens, and spinach. We’re growing all the others, but no watercress. For the next-best thing, I wanted to try land cress/Upland Cress in our winter hoophouse. So I hoed off the little carrots and sowed Creasy Greens Upland Cress and Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure. They take 50 days to maturity (in spring) and I note:
“The yellow blossoms help nourish ladybugs, syrphids, and other beneficial insects”
So I plan to let some flower in spring for the beneficial insects.
Flowers for beneficial insects
Last year, one of our trials was a collection of annual flowers to attract more pollinators into the hoophouse. None of the ones we tried seemed to do much, except for one shingiku (chrysanthemum greens) which is still flowering! Readers suggested I’d do better to just let some winter brassicas flower instead of growing special flowers. So upland cress might become part of our solution for that! We’re also growing a perennial, yarrow, to attract beneficials.
The other hoophouse tweaks on my list are more for spring and summer, so I’ll leave those for another post.
Last week I wrote about Winter Preparations for Vegetable Gardens. For those with a hoophouse, here are some notes on all the work we can do to grow winter crops there! For those without a hoophouse as yet, scroll to the end for Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse
First, a roundup of previous blogposts on winter hoophouse topics.
Planning winter hoophouse crops includes a description of how we do our hoophouse crop planning so we can maintain a crop rotation and still pack the beds fully with hardy crops.
After the set-backs with our winter hoophouse greens transplants that I wrote about in Hoophouse fall bed prep Plans A-D and spider-webs, we worked really hard and got the whole house planted up. Most of the transplants have recovered from their transplant shock (wilting each day), during the cloudy weather we had.
The new seedlings are coming up fast and calling on us to thin them. We ended up not needing so many of the Plan D plug flat plants, but we’ve kept them for now “in case” .
Ultimately if we don’t need them, they’ll go in a salad mix. I wrote about Making baby salad mix last year. The past two days I have been able to harvest a mix in the hoophouse. The ingredient we are shortest of is lettuce. My first mix was spinach, Bulls Blood beet leaves, a few leaves of Tokyo Bekana, Bright Lights chard, Scarlet Frills, Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills, and a handful of lettuce leaves Red Tinged Winter is growing fastest, of all the varieties we planted this year.
In the winter 2019-2020, a reader in the Pacific Northwest wrote: “This winter I have been re-thinking my crop rotation plan after having some issues (with flea beetle larvae in the soil outsmarting my diligent insect netting of my brassica salad crops). These days I see intensive market gardeners seeming to not worry so much about rotation (i.e. Neversink farm, etc), and yet I’ve always been taught that it is such an important principle to follow. I reviewed your slideshows on crop rotation and also cool crop planning in the greenhouse (which briefly addresses salad brassica rotation with other crops). With how much space I have and the high demand I have for brassicas, for salad mix (mustards) and also the more mainstay cole crops, I had settled on a 2.5 yr between brassica crop rotation (but planting two successions of mustards in the same bed within one year, in the year the bed was in mustards, with a lettuce or other crop breaking up the successions, with the idea that they were very short day and also light feeder crops). Wondering if you think this just doesn’t sound cautious enough, or if this sounds like a reasonable compromise with not having more space to work with (and wanting to satisfy the market demand for brassicas).”
I replied: “Yes, I do think crop rotation is important. I do know some farms seem to have given it up. I think what you are seeing shows one reason why rotation is important. In our hoophouse, we do as you do, allocating brassicas to a space for that winter season and perhaps doing more than one round of brassica crops. Then moving away from brassicas for the next two winters. If doing that doesn’t get rid of the flea beetle problem, and you are being thorough about netting with small-enough mesh netting (sounds like you are, but maybe check the mesh size), then my next step would be spinosad when the flea beetles appear. You can spray the inside of the netting too, and close it quickly. It’s that or a longer rotation, which it sounds like is not financially viable. You could also try farmscaping and/or importing predatory insects (not sure if there are any), Are there beneficial nematodes that attack flea beetle larvae? These are things I don’t know about, but might be worth looking into.”
Doing a spot of research today, I find that Heterorhabditis bacteriaphora, (Hb nematodes) a beneficial nematode fromArbico Organics will attack flea beetles. also known as NemaSeek, and sold separately. This is the wrong time of year for introducing nematodes in most of the US. They need warm weather to thrive.
Another suggestion from Arbico is BotaniGard Maxx & other B. bassiana sprays, which infect and kill adult flea beetles. Repeat applications as needed throughout the growing season.
For those of you wistfully thinking about a hoophouse, let me help you a step closer to having one next year! Sales of my Year-Round Hoophouse book are doing well, which suggests to me that quite a few gardeners and growers are thinking in this direction.
Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse
An extended growing season because plants are protected from cold weather.
Faster growth and higher total yields.
Beautiful unblemished crops not battered by the elements.
Fewer foliar diseases because the leaves can stay dry.
Crop survival at lower temperatures in the hoophouse than is possible outdoors.
Better crop recovery in winter due to warm sunny days following the cold nights.
Some protection from deer and other pests large and small.
Soil temperature stays above 50F (10C) in zone 6b. Warm soil = faster cold weather growth.
Higher proportion of usable crops – more food, higher sales dollars.
Diverse crop portfolio – grow crops that wouldn’t succeed outdoors in your climate.
Harvest whenever you need the crops, even during pouring rain!
Wonderful working conditions – no need for gloves and hats; take off your coat.
A food garden on a manageable scale.
A place to enjoy practicing intensive food production.
The chance to have an area completely free of weeds – new weed seed doesn’t blow in.
No need to work with heavy machinery.
Much better value for producing crops (per dollar invested) than a heated greenhouse.
Can be constructed by generally-handy people. Specialists are not needed.
Ecological energy use. The embodied energy of the plastic is less than the energy that would be used to ship similar produce from somewhere warmer (Eliot Coleman, Four Season Harvest). Another study found this was not true for smaller (9 x 12 m) hoophouses – although the economic incentive for growers is still true, there is no energy efficiency advantage to the planet. Smaller carbon footprint: shipping 1 kg lettuce has 4.3 times the CO2 footprint of locally grown hoophouse lettuce. Plawecki, R., Pirog, R., Montri, A., & Hamm, M. (2014). Comparative carbon footprint assessment of winter lettuce production in two climatic zones for Midwestern market. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems,29(4), 310-318. doi:10.1017/S1742170513000161.
Know your climate
The WeatherSpark website provides “The Typical Weather Anywhere on Earth”. Enter your nearest town or airport and you get clearly explained info with fascinating graphics of how the weather goes over the year in your locality. Note this is not a forecast site, it’s about average weather for each place. Useful to people who’ve recently moved and want to know what to expect this winter, or to new gardeners who haven’t paid so much attention previously. Or to those who want to check their assumptions (I really thought the wind was out of the west more of the time than records say). There are charts of high and low temperature, temperature by the hour each month, cloud cover, daily chance of precipitation (both rainfall and snowfall), hours of daylight, humidity, wind speed and direction and solar energy. A big help in making wise decisions. I know that climate change is going to cause havoc with averages, and we’ll need to learn to become better weather forecasters individually, and to use soil temperature and other metrics to decide when to plant. This website explains things well.
Winter gives a time for most of us to ponder success, failure, and possibilities for doing things differently.
Josh Sattin has another video from my interview in November. Creative Ways to Maximize the Winter Greenhouse is about 11 minutes long and includes our greenhouse planted with leaf lettuce for the winter and Dave Henderson of Red’s Quality Acre in his hoophouse with kale growing in pots on upside down tables.
Too often I hear new gardeners mistakenly call a digging fork a pitchfork, for reasons I have not grasped. So I set out to learn more about the names of forks.
Americans are familiar with pitchforks from the famous American Gothic painting. The pitchfork has a long handle (often longer than the 4 ft one in the painting). It has curved slender round-section tines (prongs). Sometimes three, often only two. You couldn’t dig your garden with this tool! It is made for pitching hay up onto wagons, originally for loose hay (or straw), but also for small square bales. I used pitchforks in England when I was in my twenties. The trick is to vigorously stab the fork down into the middle of a bale on the ground. The next step is to lift the bale up vertically on the fork (hence the need for a long handle!) This trick is achieved by holding the pitchfork with one hand near the tines and the other as far back up the handle as you can comfortably reach. Then you quickly pivot the pitchfork so the bale is up in the air, still impaled on the pitchfork. If you have to wait for the wagon, set the other end of the handle on the ground. This is less work than supporting the whole weight of the bale. When the wagon is alongside, (carefully) “offer up” the bale to the person on the wagon stacking the bales. Sometimes you have to walk to the wagon a short distance. Keep the bale up in the air for this!
Manure or compost forks are long-handled forks similar to pitchforks but with more, thicker tines, maybe 5 or 6 tines. They are for lifting manure, woodchips, or compost from a pile and setting it down again not far away. Or for mucking out stables and cow byres. They excel at separating layers of wet sticky materials. Stick the tines into the pile horizontally, not too far down the pile. Lift up a flake of whatever it is. Don’t dig the garden with those either. And don’t use them for pitching hay, as the tines are too close together to do a good job of stabbing hay bales.
The Garden Tool Companydistinguishes manure forks from compost forks, which they say are the same as pitchforks usually with four or more long slender, pointed tines that are turned up slightly for scooping or moving loose material without bending. Great for turning your compost pile or moving loose materials. Pitchforks are too lightweight to handle the heavy weight of compost, so many gardeners opt to use the heavier duty garden fork…also, manure forks look very similar, but are not for lifting heavy loads.
Long-handled potato fork
See below for information on short-handled potato forks. Less common is a long-handled type of potato fork with up to 9 slender tines, like a manure fork but with blunt ends so as not to damage the root crops. This type of potato fork is for lifting the crops up off the ground, not digging.
The short-handled forks always have four tines. These forks may have a D or a T handle. These days more people prefer a D handle.
There’s also the newer Radius PRO Stainless Digging Forkwith a circular handle. The handle design is ergonomic, and looks odd, but actually works well. We bought these because we wanted to try a stainless steel fork (less mud, rust and additional weight).
also known as garden forks or spading forks, have sharp, pointed, square-section tines, usually 7”-9” (18-23 cm) long. Wikipedia also gives these tools the name “graip.” The best garden forks are forged from a single piece of strong carbon steel and have either a long riveted socket or strapped handle connection. They are used for loosening, lifting and turning over the soil. They are good at penetrating hard soil, digging to incorporate compost or cover crops, and double digging (if you do that). They can also be used to dig up root crops, or shrubs. It is much easier to get a digging fork into the ground at depth than a shovel or a spade (no, they’re not the same thing), and the tines can work their way between rocks and large roots.
Border forks are smaller digging forks, narrower and shorter. (Hard on tall people that want to dig out weeds in their close-packed flower borders!) I think there’s an assumption that it will be the shorter people (women, mostly) working in the flower borders. But any company that makes tools sized for women gets my vote.
Potato forks have flat-fronted triangular-section tines. They are not so good for digging over the soil. They are for gentle diagonal probing and lifting of root crops and tubers from relatively loose soil. They do less damage than the same person with a digging fork. They can be used as digging forks in loose soil if you have nothing better.
In Choosing a Garden Fork, the Garden Tool Companydistinguishes between Digging, Spading, Garden (English), Manure, Compost, Potato, Broadfork and Border forks. Their distinctions are not entirely the same as mine. They distinguish garden forks from digging and spading forks (lighter weight flat-bladed types good for loose soil). This leads to confusion when trying to distinguish potato forks from digging forks. I prefer to think of square-tined forks as for digging and flat-tined forks as for lifting potatoes. Good potato forks should also be of strong steel. “Nobendium” as I’ve heard it called!
Although very different in appearance from a traditional garden fork, the two handled broadfork does a lot of the same chores, but on a bigger scale. With two steel or hardwood handles fitted about shoulder width on a steel horizontal bar and 4, 5, 6 or more long tines; the broadfork is a large, heavy tool made to cultivate and aerate soil without fossil fuels. Hold the handles upright, stab the tines into the soil, step up onto the crossbar with both feet, pushing the long tines into the ground. Step off backwards and pull the handles towards you, causing the tines to lift and loosen the soil, opening up air channels. A broadfork can replace tilling in ground that has been worked before. After broadforking, rake the surface to get a fine tilth for sowing. Those with small gardens can do the same thing with a spading fork, which is what I always did before our gardens got to be so big we needed a rototiller. A broadfork might well be the right scale for those gardens too big to dig with a spading fork and small enough to manage without a tiller.
Barbara and I are alike in wanting to reduce fork confusion, and mostly agree on terminology, As with everything agricultural, there are some differences. She uses the name Spading Fork for what I call Digging/Spading/Garden Forks, and the name Digging fork for flat-tined forks that I call Potato Forks. Here’s her helpful distinction between manure forks and pitchforks:
“A manure fork . . . is more rugged than a pitchfork, it is nevertheless a lifting-and-pitching tool. Confusingly, the name is often used interchangeably with bedding fork, ensilage fork, scoop fork, stall materials that have not decomposed much, can be moved with a few tines, widely spaced. More-crumbly compost, and mulches such as shredded bark and wood chips, require the type with many tines, spaced close together, so the material does not fall through. (The manure fork was designed to scoop lumps of solid manure from even finer material such as wood shavings, letting that bedding fall back into the stall.)”
If you are above average height, buy tools with longer handles than standard.
Stainless or carbon steel
Carbon steel is usually stronger than stainless, but stainless is easier to look after, slides through the soil smoothly and won’t weigh you down with accumulations of mud. For digging forks, I have become a fan of stainless.
has a wide selection of good quality wood handles online. They specialize in hickory, white oak and ash. Be careful making your selection, and get the handle that’s just right for the tool you are repairing. You can see a lot of their handles in our photos. During the winter we usually have a “Santa’s workshop” day when we repair tools.
There are YouTube videos showing how to make sturdy repairs. Just be sure to shape the handle for a good fit before drilling any holes for rivets. And learn how to make rivets from large nails if none are supplied with your replacement handle. Sharp edges on poking-out badly finished rivets, or nuts and bolts can cause injuries. Sweat we might need. Blood and tears we can do without.
As growers, we do not have control over everything that happens. The main thing outside of our control is the weather, and it’s only going to get more chaotic as climate change bites. Heavy rain events can leave soil impossible to work, because the water can’t drain away fast enough. What can we do when it’s too wet?
Laura Lengnick in Resilient Agriculture views climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as exposure, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). As for adaptive capacity, the main feature is our personal capacity to respond and plan. We need to pay greater attention to the climate as a critical factor in our decision-making.
See Weatherspark.comfor easy-to-understand graphics showing the average weather in your locality. Figure out which crops are most marginal already in your climate, and decide whether they are worth keeping in your crop portfolio, and whether they are important enough to be worth providing more protection for.
Using raised beds can help excess water to drain sooner.
Increasing the organic matter content of the soil helps it absorb more water in a manageable way, without compacting and going anaerobic. Compost improves the soil structure, organic matter and humus. The effects last longer than cover crops and crop residues, especially in humid conditions where the breakdown of plant material is very rapid.
Maximize the volume of living roots (food crops and cover crops) throughout the soil profile (use both deep-rooted and shallow-rooted crops).
Cover crops. The root channels improve the soil structure — fine roots make up 70% of the root biomass of crimson clover, vetches, and field peas, and when the cover crops are mowed, these roots support microbial growth, form active organic matter, and rapidly release N to the plants. Keeping roots in the soil all the time, or as much of the time as possible, will help prevent erosion.
Consider no-till cover crops which become mulch.
Avoid “bare fallow” at times of year when you could get a lot of rain. That might mean not just hurricane season, but year-round. Low-growing non-invasive cover crops can be planted in pathways.
Minimize tillage because tilling accelerates nutrient burn-up and hence the loss of organic matter. Avoid tilling or disking right before a forecast of heavy rain.
Another option is a “drywell” or French drain, a big hole full of rock. We calculated that for our hoophouse, ours would need to be 11′ × 11′ (3.4 × 3.4 m) and 4′ (1.2 m) deep. It would have been a big area and a lot of rock (and money), and not inconsiderable maintenance to keep it free of sediment and leaves.
Field tile drainage
Keyline plowing (along contours).
Swales (also called “infiltration trenches”) allow water to gradually seep into the soil, while sending sudden large volumes downhill to an area which can absorb more water. A swale 18″ (45 cm) wide by 8″ (20 cm) deep in averagely draining soil can infiltrate approximately 1.6″ (4 cm) rain per hour per 20 ft2 (1.86 m2) of contributing area.
Physically cover the soil: hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels can help keep crops from deluges. Large structures do have the issue of runoff, but you can plan ahead for that and make a drainage system. When we built our hoophouse, we made a ditch around three sides of it, to channel runoff downhill. Some people who have roll-up or drop-down sidewalls install plastic guttering on the “hipwall” lumber that these structures need, and collect the rainwater for irrigation. Bear in mind that the water catchment barrel will be low down and the water will need pumping or dipping and hauling to be useful. Read the NRCS Code 558 Roof Runoff Structure.
Before the storm moves in, cover the soil where you plan to plant: temporary caterpillar tunnels (field houses), low tunnels, plastic mulches and tarping (occultation) can keep some of the soil dry, at the expense of causing runoff that makes other areas wetter. This can help get crucial plantings done in a timely way, leaving the wider problem to resolve later.
First Aid if you can’t plant when you want to
Consider transplanting instead of direct seeding. We did this one year with our winter squash, when the plot was hopelessly too wet. We were able to transplant the squash fairly young, and did not have a big harvest delay.
Consider a different, faster, crop that you can sow or transplant later. Keep your crop rotation in mind, as well as the next crop you intended to plant in that spot. Here are some fast-growing crops:
Ready in 30–35 days are some Brassicas such as kale, arugula, radishes (both the fast small ones and the larger winter ones); many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai(40 days) tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy). See my Asian Greens of the Month category of posts
One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size.
Also ready in 30–35 days are spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) and winter purslane.
Ready in 35–45 days are corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil.
Ready in 60 days are beets, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield).
Could you mow? This will prevent weeds seeding, and prevent the cover crop or previous food crop from getting any bigger. It will be easier to till once that does become possible.
If you can’t get a mower across the beds, can you use a weed whip (string trimmer) or a manual weed whacker or a scythe? This will buy you some time.
Could you use a broadfork? This will open up the soil, allowing it to dry faster.
Could you lay tarps over the whole mess, and wait for the cover crop or weeds to die?
Could you use a flame weeder to kill the existing vegetation? Flamers are intended to kill small weeds, not big ones, but we successfully used our wand-type flamer to kill weeds in the potato patch one spring when it was too wet to hill the potatoes.
Dealing with Floods
If your soil floods, drain it promptly, or you may end up with drowned plants (insufficient air) and with a high salt level caused by evaporation. Dig shallow trenches to let the flood water flow away.
After the flood recedes, you could lose yield from loss of soluble nutrients. The soil may have become anaerobic, reducing available nitrogen. If you have a suitable source of nitrogen, apply some. You may also get a flush of weeds, competing with your slow-to-recover crop.
Today we’re removing the giant piece of shadecloth that has been over the top of our hoophouse since mid-May. We’ll unclip the ropes, roll them up, then pull the shadecloth off onto the ground, roll and bundle it up. It’s important to store it so mice can’t get into the bundle and make holes. We already have a few of those!
We’ve just finished preparing the first of our 7 hoophouse beds for the winter greens. Crops grow so fast in the hoophouse, and the organic matter in the soil is consumed at a rapid rate. Every new crop requires a fertility boost. In the fall, we prepare our beds by removing all the summer crops, and spreading four or five wheelbarrows of compost per 4′ × 96′ (1.2 × 29 m) bed. This is a generous 46 gals/100 ft2 (or 680 L/36 m2 bed)or more. A full wheelbarrow generally holds six cubic feet (44 gallons or 170 liters). 1 ft3 = 7.5 US gals. An inch of compost is about 8 ft3/100 ft2, or 60 gals/100 ft2; 20 gals/100 ft2 is 15 tons/acre (8.6 L/m2). Other professional growers use anywhere from 12–40 gals/100 ft2 (5–17 L/m2). Some use much more.
There are 3 concerns about using too much compost: high phosphorus levels, raised salt levels and nitrate accumulation. Some growers like to do two years of high compost rates (40 gals/100 ft2, 17 L/m2 or more), then reduce the rate to half that and add fish or kelp, at only 5 oz–8 oz/100 ft2 (15–24 gm/m2) per year. Sustainable alternatives to compost include organic pelleted chicken manure, alfalfa meal, etc.
A few years after we put up our hoophouse, we noticed that despite our best efforts, we were walking on the edges of the beds and compacting them. Initially we simply loosened the edges of the beds with a digging fork. We then noticed that the plants on the edges grew better, and we realized the whole bed width needed loosening. If you have designed your hoophouse to use tractor equipment there, that will deal with soil compaction. We wanted our hoophouse to be free of internal combustion engines and fossil fuels, and the broadfork has provided the solution. Ours is an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools. We do an annual broadforking each fall, before planting our winter greens.
We set nylon twine to mark the bed edges, holding it in place using sod staples. The string alone has not been enough to stop us walking on the bed edges. Loose soil is important because our winter crops grow all the way to the edges of the beds. After spreading compost, we broadfork the beds, then vigorously work the compost into the top of the soil with scuffle hoes and rakes. We learned the hard way the importance of raking the soil to a fine tilth immediately after broadforking — you don’t want to let the broadforked clumps dry out into bricks before you rake! See the photo below and imagine what could happen!
I wrote about our bed prep method and tools, and also our outdoor sowings for transplanting into the hoophouse, with a special focus on suitable lettuce varieties in my post Sowing hoophouse winter crops here in Sept 2017.
We have just started planting our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. We are pre-sprouting our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. Soak the seed overnight, drain it in the morning, fit a mesh lid on the jar, and lay it on its side in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to tumble the seeds and even out the moisture. If the seeds are a bit wet when you need to sow them, and clumped together, pour them out on a cloth to dry a bit before sowing.
We will sow five crops in our first bed on September 6 and 7– spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet greens, radishes and scallions. On September 15 we sow lettuces, chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy, in an outdoor bed to be transplanted into the hoophouse in a few weeks, after we’ve prepared another bed.
We plant crops closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and closer to the edges of the beds. We don’t have many weeds in the hoophouse, and the paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, even if we don’t step on the edges (and of course, some feet do find themselves on the bed edges), hence the once-a-year broadforking.
Step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep:
Remove the summer crops to the compost pile,
Spread a generous layer of compost over the whole bed surface.
Gather the soil staples and move the drip tape off to one side or the other,
Broadfork the whole bed, but not all at once. Only broadfork the amount of space you have time to rake immediately, otherwise the warm hoophouse conditions dry out the soil and make it harder to cultivate into a fine tilth, which is the next task. We tackle 1/3 bed each day.
To use a broadfork, go backwards working the width of the bed. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the crossbar touches the soil, with the tines all the way in, then step off backwards, pulling the handles towards you. This loosens a big area of soil, which hopefully crumbles into chunks. Lift the broadfork and set it back in the soil about 6” (15 cm) back from the first bite. Note: you are not inverting the soil – this is not a “digging over” process. Step on the bar and repeat.
Sometimes we use a rake, breaking the clumps up with the back of the rake, then raking the soil to break up the smaller lumps, and reshape the bed. More often we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job stirrup hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing), but the sharp hoe blade does a really good job of breaking up clumpy soil.
We’ve found it important to lay the drip tapes back in place in between each day’s work, so that the soil gets irrigated when we run the system and stays damp. We don’t want dead, baked soil.
When the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags.
It’s been raining all day, so I look around for inspiration and useful rainy day work. Repairing things and making useful tools are usually satisfying.And I found a couple of fun and inspiring inventions by others to share.
I’ve written before about our drip tape shuttles, which enable us to save and reuse drip tape. Here’s our Perfect Drip Tape Pack-up Check List
Gather spring clamps (4 per cart), rebar axles, carts, small bucket for end caps, black marker, yellow or white grease pencil (in Drip Tape First Aid Kit), a few pieces of rope 2-4 ft long.
Remove end caps and collect in small buckets
Remove any rope/cord tying drip tape to end stakes (if any)
Pull up stakes
Disconnect drip tape at main pipe, by unscrewing the connector from the tape, not by pulling the connectors out of pipe. Don’t disconnect any short drip tape blank ends, leave them in the pipe.
One person coils the mainline pipe in big 4-5 ft diameter loops, with NO kinks. Tie in three places with rope. Make and affix a plastic label if there is not already one attached. Describe what crop it was used for, and what row spacings, number of rows. Store.
Meanwhile, other people free up the drip tape without destroying the crop too much, and write the length on the ends, using the grease pencil.
Set up the cart with the axle and spring clamps, on the uphill side of the patch (helps drain the tape as you roll it)
Then roll it on appropriately labeled shuttles, two lengths at a time, tightly and tidily, each keeping to cos own side of the shuttle (so they can be unwound separately). Tuck last end in, and ensure the end of the drip tape is labeled with the length, and both sides of the shuttle are labeled.
Take all the shuttles to the barn, and hang them in pairs over the beams using rope. Use knots that a normal human will be able to undo easily. Hang shuttles high enough so people won’t bang their heads, but low enough to be reachable by someone standing on a chair.
Return all the tools and supplies.
I was reminded of our drip tape system when I came across this Rowcover roller
The row cover reel is our favorite part of our system, and it is super low-tech. It is comprised of two portable saw horses with pipe straps attached and a PVC crank we made to fit on the end of the row cover pipe. We set up the saw horses at the end of the bed about eight feet apart. We then push the PVC pipe through the pipe straps on each saw horse and hammer our crank onto the end of the pipe with a rubber mallet.
By using long pipes to roll the row cover on, they have handles to hold, and a space to label length, width, condition of the row cover.
I learned from the Small Farm Central blog that Harvie connects customers directly with local farms who deliver shares of farm fresh produce customized to meet personal preferences. Like a CSA, but with choices.
Towards the end of that post I got a chuckle when I saw this flame weeder:
I wrote about it last September, when we were preparing our hoophouse beds for winter crops.
This tool is great for aerating compacted soil without inverting it. The soil beasties thank us.
Below is a photo of a hoophouse bed after broadforking before the (immediately following) task of raking to break up the big clumps and produce a fine tilth. It’s important not to let the soil dry out into bricks before raking, or life will be hard (and those soil beasties may be dead).
Lastly I’ll mention our blueberry hoop method. Maybe your bushes, like ours, are flowering now, and maybe you are determined to have a better netting system than you had last year. I described our (then new) blueberry hoop system in 2013. The blueberry area is 16′ x 65′ approx. Height of the netting supports needs to be 7′ or more for most of the space. The 20 blueberry bushes are 66″ apart, in two rows.
We chose PVC Electrical conduit to make our hoops. Unlike PVC water pipe, plastic electrical conduit is UV-inhibited for outdoor use. Lengths have flanged (bell) ends, and can be joined without any connector pieces. It’s lightweight, and no bending tools are needed (unlike for metal conduit or fencing top-rail). It packs flat for out-of-season storage, and is relatively cheap.
We made a “Spider-House” temporary framework: An idea used for temporary “field houses”. It consists of pairs of bows fastened together at the apex, in a way that spreads out into a 4-legged structure. A row of these make up the frame. An advantage is that the spiders are stronger than simple bows, and that the whole thing can be dismantled relatively easily. The shape helps add strength to lightweight bows.
We are on our way with our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. On September 6 and 7 we sowed five crops in our first bed – spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet greens, radishes and scallions. On September 15 we sowed lettuces, chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy, in an outdoor bed to be transplanted into the hoophouse in a few weeks, after we’ve prepared another bed.
To prepare hoophouse beds for winter crops, we first remove the summer crops to the compost pile, then spread a generous layer of compost over the surface. We use about five wheelbarrowsful for one bed 4’ x 90’. Next we move the three lengths of drip tape off to one side or the other, and broadfork the whole area. We have an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools that we really like. To use a broadfork, work backwards either going the length of the bed or the width. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the bar touches the soil, with the tines all the way in, then step off backwards, pulling the handles towards you. This loosens a big area of soil, which hopefully crumbles into chunks. Lift the broadfork and set it back in the soil about 6” back from the first bite. Step on the bar and repeat. We’ve found it’s important to only broadfork the amount of space you have time to rake immediately, otherwise the warm hoophouse conditions dry out the soil and make it harder to cultivate into a fine tilth, which is the next task. Sometimes we use a rake, breaking the clumps up with the back of the rake, then raking the soil to break up the smaller lumps, and reshape the bed.
Sometimes we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job scuffle hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing, and hence why we call them scuffle hoes), but the sharp hoe blade does a good job of breaking up clumpy soil. We’ve also found it important to lay the drip tapes back in place in between each day’s work, so that the soil gets irrigated when we run the system and stays damp. We don’t want dead, baked soil.
Once the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags. Next we use our row-marker rake (bed prep rake) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
We plant crops closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and closer to the edges of the beds. We don’t have many weeds in the hoophouse, and the paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds, compacting the soil. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, even if we don’t step on the edges (and of course, some feet do find themselves on the bed edges sometimes), hence the once-a-year broadforking. We found out how valuable the soil loosening is, because one year before we started broadforking, we decided to loosen the edges with a digging fork to make up for several years of accidental steps. The edge rows of spinach grew much bigger than the inner rows, and we realized that the whole bed needed loosening.
After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds. We pre-sprout our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. Just soak the seed overnight, drain it in the morning, fit a mesh lid on the jar, and lay it on its side in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to tumble the seeds and even out the moisture. This year the seeds were a bit wet when I came to sow them, and clumped together. I poured them out on a cloth to dry a bit before I sowed. This year we are growing two varieties (Avon and Reflect) side by side, still seeking a replacement for our much loved Tyee, which was pulled from the market, because it was prone to a disease prevalent in the West.
The spinach, tatsoi and radishes came up very quickly, with the beets a day or two behind. The scallions came up in a week, which is quicker than at other times of year.
One week after the sowings, I thinned the spinach and radishes to 1” apart in the row. We are growing Easter Egg, Cherry Belle and White Icicle radishes. The Cherry Belle will be ready first, Easter Egg next (they mature relatively gradually, giving us a nice harvest period). Icicle are unusual long white radishes which are slower to mature, and slow to get woody.
Meanwhile, outdoors on September 15 we sowed the first half of the crops that we transplant bare-rooted into the hoophouse. Our planned schedule called for 10 varieties of lettuce, but I ended up sowing 12, partly because we are trying three new Vitalis one-cut lettuce varieties from High Mowing Seeds: Ezrilla, Hampton and Buckley. These are bred to provide lots of similar-sized leaves from cutting. They can be cut and mixed for baby salad mix or cut as whole heads for easy-to-prepare salads, or harvested by the leaf (or layers of leaves) once the plant has grown to full size. This is how we use them. They were previously called Eazileaf varieties, and are now called One-cut lettuces. They are only available as pelleted seed, so I regard them as too pricey to grow for baby salad mix, and best used for multiple harvests.
You can click here to read the New Head Lettuces article Andrew Mefferd wrote about this new type of lettuce in Growing for Market magazine. We have previously grown Johnny’s Salanova and Osborne’s Multileaf varieties and I wrote about them here and here. This year we are trying the High Mowing ones. We did a small trial of them outdoors in spring, knowing that in our climate (very different from High Mowing’s in Vermont) they might well bolt. They grew into handsome plants, but clearly they are more suited to fall than spring in our quickly-heating-up climate.
Other lettuces we sow for our winter hoophouse crops include Oscarde, Panisse, Tango which have a similar shape of lots of same-sized leaves, and Green Forest (romaine), Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Merlot, Revolution, Salad Bowl and Red Salad Bowl. I would have sown Red Tinged Winter but we seem to be out of seed.
The Market Gardener’s Toolkit is an educational documentary featuring Jean-Martin Fortier, small-scale vegetable grower and author of the bestselling book The Market Gardener. In the film, he shares his tools and techniques for successful, profitable, human-scale vegetable growing. From soil preparation to strategies on dealing with insect pests, discover how this micro-farm manages to generate $150,000 in sales annually – without the use of a tractor or any heavy machinery.
I participated in the crowd-funding effort to help get this video made, and so I am now the happy owner of a digital download. I’ve watched it once, and am now organizing a group showing for our crew and neighboring gardeners.
I loved every precious minute of this video. It made me proud to be a vegetable grower, using sustainable techniques, contributing to a healthy local food supply. It made me inspired to try harder to use more effective and efficient methods. The aerial views and plan of their plots and crop rotation are inspiring and beautiful.
It was valuable to see tools in action, such as the broadfork, the five row flamer, the Terrateck manual mulch layer and the home-made precision vacuum seeder.
It was helpful (and fun!) to see the speeded-up version of the farmers moving the large sheets of “occultation plastic” (poly silage covers) used for weed control. It was encouraging to be reminded (after too many years of battling weedy gardens) that clean productive gardens are possible and, indeed, wise. They are more productive, more satisfying, more profitable, with less wasted time. I get it that hand-pulling weeds is more like first aid for a garden gone sadly wrong. I know it’s better to hoe when weeds are tiny, to flame and to prevent weeds from coming up in the first place. We’ve been doing better this year on preparing “stale seed beds” by tilling and prepping the bed at least week before we need it, then scuffle-hoeing on the day before planting. This one change is really making a noticeable difference in our gardens.
Last winter I had been thinking we needed to get a cultivating tractor, and to re-arrange our garden plots for tractor access and accept the turnaround space lost to crops that tractors require. And accept the increased use of fossil fuels, and time spent fixing machines. Watching The Market Gardener’s Toolkit instead reaffirmed the high value of intensive use of garden soils and smart manual work. This fits with the series of books I’ve been reading recently: Ben Hartman’s The Lean Farm, Curtis Stone’s Urban Farmer, Colin McCrate and Brad Halm’s High-Yield Vegetable Gardening, and of course Jean-Martin Fortier’s Market Gardener and Eliot Coleman’s work.
These books emphasize the importance of thinking clearly about what crops you grow and why. In the case of purely commercial growers, it is plain to see that some crops are much more financially worthwhile than others. Some find more ready sales than others. Some grow much quicker than others, enabling the space to be used for another crop in the same season, meaning more income (or simply more food, if you aren’t selling your crops). Our situation at Twin Oaks Community is a bit different. We are growing food to feed the community of a hundred people, year round, as best we can manage it. Commercial growers can specialize in baby salad mix and sell it at a good price at market or to restaurants. They can put a large amount of land and time into such crops. They can ignore winter root crops, or space-hogging sweet corn or time-hogging green beans. We, instead, need to figure out how to efficiently grow as many different vegetable crops as possible. That is why my book, Sustainable Market Farming focuses on production techniques and organization and planning. Although we are not tied to growing according to the relative financial profitability of different crops, we do need to plan our use of space and time, and not get distracted growing demanding crops that are difficult in our climate and don’t provide a decent-sized chunk of our diet. This is why we have stopped growing bulb fennel and parsnips, for instance. And why we do grow sweet potatoes
You may remember I reviewed Jean-Martin’s Book The Market Gardener. His book has sold over 80,000 copies, and is the winner of the American Horticultural Society 2015 Book Award and the Living Now 2015 Book Award.
This week I feel we’ve turned a corner as far as being overwhelmed by the workload. We have been able to make progress on several projects, and the complete lack of rain since August 10th means that we are gaining on the weeds.
Our sorry Roma tomatoes have come to an end, but it’s not all bad. We got 270 5-gallon buckets. Last year we harvested 313 buckets, picking until October 16. By this point last year we had harvested only 225 buckets. It took us till September 17 to get beyond today’s 270, and then another month to get the last 40 buckets. Most of those were picked in a single day when we expected frost. The plants survived the light frost and we picked twice more.
Here are the silver linings of an early end to the Roma tomatoes:
Lots of time we won’t have to spend harvesting them any more.
We can get a good cover crop in, because we can clear the plot earlier.
No green tomatoes to deal with. (We usually store them and sort ripening ones out weekly – there is a demand for fried green tomatoes, but only so many. . . )
I was able to do good seed selection for Septoria tolerance or resistance. Some plants were much better at surviving than others.
We’re also winding down on watermelon harvests. We’ve picked 522, within our goal-range of 500-600. We’ve eaten a lot, given some away, dropped a few by accident and saved plenty of seed for the next couple of years.
Our groundhog tally went up by 4 this week, one of them caught by a dog, the rest by us. We had a raccoon in the corn, but after a groundhog occupied its trap and ate its can of cat food, it hasn’t been back. We’ve had very good sweet corn yields. Bodacious, Kandy Korn and Silver Queen are our big three favorite varieties. We’re trying a few others on a small scale: Early Sunglow, Incredible, Sparkler, and Tuxana. No collated comments on those yet. We gave up on Sugar Pearl (early, white) after trying it last year. We much prefer Bodacious (early, yellow).
Our grape harvest (mostly Concord) is almost over. Usually we harvest once a week for four weeks in August, sometimes running into September if a late spring frost froze off the flower buds and they had to develop new ones.
We watched in dismay as our June sowing of carrots suffered from Alternaria blight, which blackens the leaves. Now or never, harvest or till under? Today some of the crew, more optimistic than me, dug a third of them, and found plenty of good carrots. Some not so good, it’s true. But worth digging. No, the flavor in the hot weather is never as good as in cooler weather, but these won’t wait for cooler nights. We’re cutting our losses.
Another of our pressing projects is hoeing the big planting of fall carrots, which we sowed in early-mid August and flamed before the seedlings emerged. The flaming was well-timed, thanks to the “Indicator Beets” – a few beet seeds sown at he end of the bed. Beets germinate a bit quicker than carrots, so as soon as the beets emerge, it’s time to flame the carrots. This year, the bit that hasn’t worked so well (apart from the drought), has been the emergence of self-sowed buckwheat, resulting from the summer cover crop we planted there, and didn’t till in in time before it set seed. So the hoeing has become urgent (buckwheat grows so quickly!). We have made a good start.
We’ve finalized our plans the outdoor winter cover crops and next year’s main crops and also the hoophouse winter crops. We have spinach seeds sprouting in a jar in the fridge while we prepare the bed. This morning in the hoophouse I pulled buckwheat and shoveled 7 wheelbarrows of compost. I was motivated by the hope that if I got the compost spreading done, others would do the broadforking and raking before my next day in there on Friday!! The broadfork is a great tool, but energetic. I’d rather barrow compost!
I just got confirmation that I will be a presenter at the Southern SSAWG Conference January 29 and 30. I’m presenting Intensive Vegetable Production on a Small Scale.
Now, time to switch over the drip irrigation and water the blueberries.