Hoophouse seasonal transition to tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers

This past weekend I was at the Organic Growers School spring conference in Asheville, NC. I presented my workshop on Spring and Summer Hoophouses twice. This link will take you to a blog post where you can get the handout. An older version of the slideshow is at this SlideShare link. Later this week I will tweak the presentation a little and upload the revised version. It wasn’t very spring-like in Asheville. We got 3″ snow, but gardeners and farmers are a hardy lot, and attendance was still good. My workshops were packed (the room was quite small).


Young tomato plant in our hoophouse.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Now I’m home and we had snow in the forecast for Monday night, but got ice pellets instead. The worst of the weather passed us by. It’s still very cold though, and so we are delaying transplanting our early tomatoes in our hoophouse, which we had scheduled for 3/15 and 3/16. The photo above shows where we’re headed: sturdy transplants in the middle of the bed, with wire hoops to hold rowcover on cold nights. Here’s where we are now:

March hoophouse bed prepared for tomato planting.
Photo Wren Vile

When we make the transition from hoophouse winter crops to early spring crops, we don’t clear the whole bed. First we harvest out the greens down the middle of the bed, then measure and dig holes every two feet and put a shovelful of compost in each hole. Within a couple of weeks after transplanting the tomatoes, we harvest the greens on the south side of the bed, as they will block light from the new crop. After that we harvest the greens on the north side. This allows us to keep the greens later, which covers the time (the Hungry Gap) until the new spring plantings of outdoor greens start to produce.

Tomato transplants in March, ready to plant in our hoophouse in milder weather.
Photo Wren Vile

Meanwhile the tomato transplants are in pots in our greenhouse, where we can keep them warmer at night with rowcover. Our greenhouse stays warmer at night than our double-poly hoophouse. It has a solid north wall and double-pane glass windows (old patio doors).

We use the same method for our peppers, cucumbers and yellow squash, transplanted 4/1. In the photo below you can see the winter crop of Bulls Blood beets, which we grow for leaves for salad mixes, discarded beet stems, young squash plants and one of the wire hoops that hold rowcover on freezing nights.

Young summer squash plants in the hoophouse, surrounded by Bulls Blood beets.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

In the hoophouse we have three crop seasons:

  1. winter crops planted in the fall, harvested November to April (some spinach to May)
  2. early warm weather crops planted in March and April, harvested June and July (peppers to November)
  3. high summer crops planted in July and harvested August to October.

 

Lettuce in November, Twin Oaks Garden blog

Red Salad Bowl lettuce.. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Red Salad Bowl lettuce..
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I have written blogposts about growing lettuce in October, September, August, July, June and May. On October 25, I reported that we have covered our last outdoor bed of head and leaf lettuce, and an “emergency” bed of baby lettuce mix with double hoops and rowcover. Now, one month later, we are waiting out this cold snap (19F/-7C last night) until we get a mild spell to uncover those beds and finish harvesting them. We want to move the hoops and row covers to the outdoor spinach beds.

We are now harvesting only winter salad mixes, no more big bowls just of lettuce. We are using leaves from the outdoor lettuce, the outdoor lettuce mix, or leaves from the lettuce in the greenhouse, according to whatever is most ready. We chop the lettuce up as we harvest. I start with about half of the harvest bucket full of chopped lettuce. I notice that it takes 3 half-buckets of harvested greens to fill one bucket! The greens settle, and when mixed they take less space than they started out using.

Late October Starfighter and Red Salad Bowl lettuce in our hoophouse. Photo Wren Vile

Late October Starfighter and Red Salad Bowl lettuce in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Lettuce varieties we are currently harvesting include Green Forest, Hyper Red Wave, Merlot, new Red Fire, Oscarde, Panisse, Red Salad Bowl, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Salad Bowl, Star Fighter, Tango, Winter Marvel and Winter Wonderland. Last winter we grew some Osborne Multileaf varieties we liked a lot. This year I learned the hard way that pelleted seed doesn’t store well. As pointed out by Johnnys Seeds in their JSS Advantage Newsletter January 2012

“Some seeds, particularly lettuce, are primed before pelleting, which begins the metabolic process leading to germination. Because some of the early steps toward germination are completed before the seed is planted, germination happens more quickly. Germination times can be 50% faster with primed seed. When seeds germinate quickly, they may avoid potential problems including soil crusting, weeds, and soilborne diseases. On the down side, primed seed doesn’t have the same storage life as unprimed seeds, so we recommend that you purchase only enough for the current season.”

Bulls Blood Beet leaves Photo Bridget Aleshire

Bulls Blood Beet leaves
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I like to mix three crop families in every salad mix: lettuce, spinach/chard/beet greens/brassicas. I also like to mix the colors and textures, so if most of that day’s lettuce leaves are green, I’ll be sure to get some Bulls Blood beet leaves or Ruby Streaks or Scarlet Frills. I don’t make the same mix every day, as variety is the spice of life!

Ruby Streaks. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Ruby Streaks.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I love the taste of spinach leaves in salad, and we have lots of spinach (outdoors, in cold frames and in the hoophouse). I love the colors of baby Bright Lights and Rainbow chard. I chop those stems small – not everyone likes a big hit of chard flavor in their salad. When I harvest Bulls Blood beets I snip the stems close to the base of the plant, line up a handful of leaves, then snip off the stems just below the leaf blades, before chopping the leaves into the bucket. These stems are kind of wiry, not good food. I don’t like to leave the leaf stems on the plant for two reasons. One is that the stems “cage in” the developing plant, reducing the access to sunlight and photosynthesis. The other is that the stems die back later and rot. Better to remove them right away. I do the same with spinach.

Last month I mentioned the brassica salad mix we sowed in our hoophouse 10/2. We have made three cuts already – very good value for the tiny amount of space occupied. Mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills and Golden Frills add a ferny shape and some loft to the mix. Mizuna is very mild, the other three are spicy. Other brassicas we are currently cutting small for our salad mixes include tatsoi and Russian kales (red and white). At some point, deeper in the winter, we’ll try to leave the kale alone to grow big for cooking greens. This will happen when we are shorter of cooking greens than salad items, and the kale has become more robust. Some of the crew are more hardcore than me, and include sturdier greens, like senposai. Later in the winter, other crops will come to the fore.

We also include as microgreens any thinnings from recently sowed rows of almost any greens, including radishes and turnips if they are not bristly-leaved varieties.

Traditional Chinese Scissors from Lee Valley

Traditional Chinese Scissors from Lee Valley

Our 10/24 hoophouse sowing of baby lettuce mix is almost ready to harvest – maybe in the next week or so. We have made an 11/2 second sowing of mizuna and friends, but the seedlings are still tiny, showing a big difference between the temperatures on 10/24 and those a week later on 11/2.

For cutting lettuce I like the plain steel scissors from Lee Valley. They are sturdy, easy to tighten and sharpen and ambidextrous. They are a traditional Chinese style.


Lastly, for those of you who want to know more about the Twin Oaks garden specifically, let me introduce you to the Twin Oaks Garden blog. It’s written by Wren Vile, one of the upcoming managers. I will be retiring as garden manager on March 1 2017, and Wren and Brittany will take over the day-to-day running of the garden. I won’t be going away, I’ll be around to answer questions, and I will continue to do some work in the garden, around the “edges”, rather than in the thick of the shifts. I’ll have more time for my writing and speaking on vegetable growing, and I’ll have more time off!

Brittany resting in the potato rows. Photo Wren Vile, https://twinoaksgarden.wordpress.com/

Brittany resting in the potato rows.
Photo Wren Vile, https://twinoaksgarden.wordpress.com/

Hoophouse tomatoes and squash, garden tour, class.

Tomato plants in our hoophouse, planted among the winter greens Photo Kathryn Simmons

Tomato plants in our hoophouse, planted among the winter greens
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We have planted our two beds of tomatoes in our hoophouse – 92 plants – can’t wait! It will be the very end of May before we get any to eat. We have one bed of fast-maturing kinds, mostly Glacier and Stupice, but also a couple each of Five Star Grape, Sun Gold, Atkinson (trying this for the first time), Garden Peach, Mountain Magic, and Ozark Pink (first year for this too.). Except for Atkinson and Ozark pink these are all tried and tested here. They all mature in 56-71 days from transplanting.

Our second bed is of slower ones – 75-85 days from transplanting. A quarter of them are our reliable standard red slicer Tropic. About another quarter are our favorite orange slicer Jubilee. The other half of the bed are special ones, such as Yellow Oxheart, Amy’s Apricot, Black Cherry, Vinson Watts (new to us this year, disease resistant), Green Zebra, Amy’s Sugar Gem, Rebelski (new to us), Mortgage Lifter, TC Jones and Striped German.

For the tender crops going into the hoophouse at this time of year, we don’t clear the whole bed, but dig holes at 2ft spacing down the middle, removing winter crops as needed.

Holes dug for our hoophouse tomatoes. Photo Wren Vile

Holes dug for our hoophouse tomatoes.
Photo Wren Vile

After planting, we prioritize harvesting the old crops directly to the south of the new plants, then gradually harvest the other “old” crops around , to make more space for the growing new crop. This way, we get maximum food from the space. When the surrounding “old” crops are big, we also get some protection on chilly nights. As you can see in the top picture, we also put wire hoops over the plants and use row cover if a frosty night is forecast.

Summer squash in the hoophouse, planted among Bulls Blood beets. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Summer squash in the hoophouse, planted among Bulls Blood beets.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Next to be planted is a row of squash. Today the plants are still in a flat in the greenhouse. Next weekend is forecast to be cold – below freezing. Do we plant soon and add row cover, or try to wait until after the weekend? By then the plants could be too big for the flat.


reynolds-logoToday I gave a garden tour to 15 horticulture students from J Sargeant Reynolds Community College, one of Betsy Trice’s three classes there.

logoOn Saturday I taught a class at New Country Organics in Waynesboro, on Succession Planting. I have many slideshows, and each time I prepare for a presentation I usually revise or at least tweak the one I’m about to give. And often after the event, I upload the slides to SlideShare.net so people can see them again (or the many people who missed the event can see them for the first time. I haven’t yet uploaded the slightly revised Succession Planting to Slide Share. I see I posted the previous version here as recently as 11/10/15.

Instead of reposting I went through my archives and made a new category “slide shows” and labelled all the ones I could find. So, if you are in a slide show watching mood, you can click on the Slide shows category in the side panel on the left and pick from the choices there. Also, Jillian Lowery filmed the class at New Country Organics, and I hope to be able to post the video.


Rhubarb in early spring, not yet ready to harvest. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Rhubarb in early spring, not yet ready to harvest.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Outdoors, we are weeding, composting and mulching our rhubarb. This is a borderline climate for rhubarb, but we manage to get a crop from it. Best if we provide summer shade.

 

What’s still standing after two nights below 0F?

Recently I reported on which crops were still alive after two nights at 14F (-10C) and What’s still alive after two nights at 4F?  We’ve now had the Polar Vortex, which brought us two nights at 4F, on 1/6 and 1/7. Then it got even colder.We got the Big Round 0F 1/22-1/23, then a few nights at 5F or 6F, and then the big insult: -4F on the night of 1/29-30.

What’s still standing?

The Tyee spinach under thick rowcover has sustained big damage, showing as patches of beige dead cells. It will recover. Meanwhile we can eat from the more-protected spinach in the coldframes and the hoophouse.

The Vates  kale without rowcover is still alive, but badly damaged. The big leaves are crunchy and brown round the edges, and some of the inner leaves are dead. I hope it will grow back, but we won’t be able to pick that for a while. The Beedy’s Camden kale looks worse – the big leaves have died and flopped over. Not sure if it will recover.

Many of our strawberry plants look dead – very disappointing!

Our hardneck garlic and Polish White softneck tops are killed back to about one inch up from the mulch. Equally hardy, it seems. 

We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. After the 4F assault we still had life in the centers of the Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest. Now only the Winter Marvel shows any signs of life. So that variety gets the prize for cold-tolerance here!

Red Round Turnip. Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Red Round Turnip.
Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover every night it looked like dropping below 10F inside. Almost everything survived – we only got some minor stem freezing on some turnips and Asian greens. We have been eating Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana, Yukina Savoy, various turnips and their greens (Hakurei, White Egg, Oasis, Red Round), also plenty of lettuce leaves, radishes, scallions, and some spinach. We lost our second sowing of spinach in there to over watering and flooding, and we are really noticing the lack right now. We’re short on spinach. We have small amounts of mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bright Lights chard, Bulls Blood beets to add to salad mixes, and Red Russian and White Russian kale growing slowly.

In January we have taken to sowing spinach, kale and collards in a hoophouse bed to transplant outdoors in early spring. We back this up with sowing some in flats if we don’t get good emergence for some reason. This year emergence is late. Is it just late, or is there a problem? We’re holding our breath for a few more days. . .

GFM_February2014_cover_300pxWe are not the only people tracking the effects of the unusually cold weather. The February Growing for Market magazine opens with an article by Ben Hartman “Testing the Limits of Cold Tolerance”. He farms in Goshen, Indiana, using two double-layer plastic greenhouses heated to 30F (yes. I said heated!) and two unheated. They planted kale, carrots, spinach, salad greens and arugula in their greenhouses for winter harvest. Their outdoor temperatures fell to -16F on 1/6 and 1/7. I imagine they’ve had worse since. They used mid-weight rowcover over their beds. Ben reports that baby greens and young spinach survived, as did their rosemary and their 3 fig trees (all farmers deserve some thrills!). They lost baby salad greens that had already been cut previously (all those cut edges didn’t do well). Crops in the outer beds were lost. The tips of full-grown kale leaves froze, but the plants survived.

In their unheated, single-skin plastic hoophouses, the soil froze down to 4″. They used two layers of mid-weight rowcover suspended over the crops. Despite this cold,  tiny salad greens less than 1″ tall survived. Spinach survived under just one layer of rowcover. The carrot tops froze and the roots may or may not be marketable. The (uncovered) fully mature kale looks dead. The mature salad with two layers of rowcover didn’t survive.

From this experience, Ben points out that salad greens and spinach less than 1″ tall are very cold-tolerant. Spinach and kale once larger, benefit from more protection than they got this time. Beware the outer beds!

My own article in this issue is about matching crop spacing with desired goals, such as maximum yield, optimum size, or convenience for cultivation.

Andrew Mefford has written some greenhouse tips for hoophouse growers, including tomato grafting, trellising. Chris Blanchard has written the second part of his piece on growing herbs – this is about harvest and maintenance. Erin Benzakain has undertaken a 59-variety trial of celosia.

 

What’s still alive after two nights at 4F?

Recently I reported on which crops were still alive after two nights at 14F (-10C) and several others in the teens. We’ve now had the Arctic Vortex, which in our part of central Virginia, meant two nights at 4F, last Monday 1/6 and Tuesday 1/7 nights. How did it go?

Before the Prelude to the Big Chill, when we got 9F, I harvested the odds and ends of small cabbages left in our main patch. Quite worthwhile, I got two 5-gallon buckets. Between the 9F and the 4F nights, I decided to gather the Deadon cabbage, which we grew with January harvests in mind. There was some freeze damage, so in future I’ll say that Deadon is good down to 10F, but not lower. I got two full net bags and two more buckets of small ones. I left one smaller and one larger cabbage as sacrificial victims in the cause of better information for next year. When we got 4F, the smaller one died and the larger survived.

Deadon cabbage Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

Deadon cabbage
Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

One of the other gardeners harvested the last of the outdoor senposai. Another couple of buckets of tasty food.

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green, Credit Kathryn Simmons

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green,
Credit Kathryn Simmons

I took another walk round the frozen garden after the Big Chill, to see what is still alive. We have Tyee spinach under rowcover, and Vates and Beedy’s Camden kale without rowcover. They are all still alive! There’s some freeze damage in spots on the spinach leaves, but plenty of good meals still to come!

Our hardneck garlic tops suffered some damage but didn’t get killed back to the mulch level. The Polish White softneck tops are considerably smaller and they too are still alive. They will grow back if they have died. 

Garlic planting in November. Credit Brittany Lewis

Garlic planting in November.
Credit Brittany Lewis

We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. A good chance to see which ones are hardiest! Here’s the scoop:

Still alive in the centers – Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest.                  No longer alive – Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, Winter Wonder, Red Tinged Winter, Merlot, Red Sails, Outredgeous, Roman Emperor, Revolution.

At nearby Acorn Community, the home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, they had some young but mature heads of cabbage outdoors. The Late Flat Dutch, Early Flat Dutch and Chieftain Savoy all survived one night at 6F. (It’s usually two degrees warmer there than at Twin Oaks on winter nights).

Meanwhile I’m tracking the Blue Ridge kale grown by Clif Slade in his 43560 project at Randolph Farm, VSU. The Blue Ridge survived. It got down to 9F there. Not as cold as Louisa County! Blue Ridge is taller than the Vates we grow, and I’d like to try it here, if it can survive our winters. Otherwise not!

In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover on Monday afternoon, and didn’t roll it up till Thursday, after the warmer weather returned. There was a tiny bit of freeze injury on some turnip greens that poked out the side of the rowcover, and some on some stems of Tokyo Bekana. I think the rowcover saved the crops! Also, a bad thing happened. it was very windy Monday night and the west window blew open. Argh! Of all the nights to have an open window. Memo: fix the latch to make it stronger.

I didn’t enjoy the really cold weather. I was anxious about the crops and the plumbing! But I can see two silver linings: I now have more information about cold-hardiness of various crops, and hopefully some pests will have died. Now we’re getting ready for another two cold nights, tomorrow and Wednesday.

When we placed our seed orders we gave up for this year on our quest for a reliable red cabbage of at least medium size and fairly speedy maturity (90 days or less). We’re having a red-cabbageless year. We’re still open to recommendations (OP or hybrid) – please leave a comment. 

What’s still alive at 14F?

Winter garden scene. Credit Ezra Freeman

Winter garden scene.
Credit Ezra Freeman

One of my ongoing topics of interest in the garden is how cold-tolerant various vegetables are. We’ve now had two nights at 14F (-10C) and several others in the teens. I took a walk round the frozen garden this morning to see what is still alive. We have Tyee spinach under rowcover, and Vates kale. The senposai is still alive, but some of the midribs have brown streaks. Sadly we don’t have any leeks this winter, as we lacked enough workers to tend them in late summer. We have a nice bed of Deadon cabbage, and I notice that some small heads of Melissa savoy that missed the bulk harvest are also alive. The Gunma cabbage stumps have some leaves and tiny heads still alive, but the Tendersweet are done in.

Our ongoing quest for a reliable red cabbage of at least medium size and fairly speedy maturity (90 days or less) yielded no success story this year. We grew Super Red 80 happily for many years, but then it stopped working for us – variable heads, slower maturity. If you have any recommendations (OP or hybrid) please leave a comment. We are working on our seed orders now, and this would be a great time to have some suggestions.

Back to today – our chard had all the leaves cut off in November, and seems to be dead. Some winters it hangs on later, if we leave some foliage to help it regenerate. We have also some years deliberately kept it alive for spring by using rowcover on it. We do that if we go into winter short of spinach beds.

The oats cover crop we sowed in August and early September look pretty much dead. All the broccoli looks dead. That’s as expected for the temperatures. Often we don’t get nights this cold till January – the cold came early this winter.

Our hardneck garlic tops look to be in good shape. The Polish White softneck tops are considerably smaller and look like they are suffering. They will grow back if they have died. Some of our Chandler strawberry plants look dead. Either that or they are extremely dormant! The deer were killing them off by eating the leaves. Too many deer!

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

The hoophouse is still bursting with great food. Plenty of salad greens: lettuce; various kinds of mizuna and ferny mustards like Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills and Bulls Blood beet leaves. And for salads or cooking we have spinach, chard, tatsoi, radishes, scallions, baby Hakurei turnips and their tasty greens, Red and White Russion kales, and more senposai. Soon we’ll start on the heading Asian greens: pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo bekana and Yukina Savoy. The first sowing of tatsoi (9/7) is starting to bolt, so we’re clearing that. The second sowing (11/15) needs thinning to an inch. The first round of baby lettuce mix (10/24) is ready for its second cut. In a few days we’ll make a second sowing of that. I love working in the hoophouse on sunny winter days. This afternoon I plan to complete the transplanting of an 11/9 sowing of spinach. We just love the sweet nuttiness of winter spinach!

The hoophouse winter crops are an important part of feeding ourselves year-round

The hoophouse winter crops are an important part of feeding ourselves year-round