Cover Crops for March: Sowing Options and Incorporating Cover Crops

In March, where we undersowed clovers in the broccoli patch in August, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

In December I wrote about Cover Crop Planning for Next Year, including 5 steps of cover crop planning for all opportunities. I have a slideshow Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops, which I find to my surprise that I haven’t posted here since my 2014 version.

Here it is now

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In January I shared some resources to give the Big Picture of Cover Crops, including a compilation of slides for SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers.

In February, I described limiting winter annual weeds by sowing oats in spaces without a cover crop and no planned food crop for 6-10 weeks. Six–ten weeks (depending on your climate) is long enough in early spring to get worthwhile growth from oats before prepping for the food crop.

This month I will include some options for cover crops you might sow in March (in central Virginia and similar climates), and then talk about incorporating cover crops, which surely you will be doing this month!

Cover crops to sow in March, and other options

Purple stemmed mizuna. Mizuna and other frilly mustards are fast-growing crops, attractive to the eye and the palate.
Photo Pam Dawling

Depending on the stage of the year where you are, you could revisit any of those posts.

  • In early March the oats plan still works for us.
  • In early spring, the air and the soil are cold, and sowing a fast-growing vegetable crop will not be successful with a gap of less than eight weeks. Crops take too long to grow at this time of year.
  • If you have more than eight weeks you could try those fast-growing vegetables: kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, land cress. Or try Eat-All Greens, an idea from Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.
  • In late March or April in climates like ours, we can sow winter wheat or winter rye – they will not head up, but will “wimp out” when it gets hot. That is, they will stop growing, so you won’t get a lot of biomass, but you will have some live roots in the soil, holding it together and taking care of the soil microfauna, and discouraging weeds form germinating. One year when our spring-planted potatoes got flooded, we transplanted potato plants to the drier end of the patch and sowed winter rye in the lower end, once the floods had subsided. This kept the soil covered, scavenged the compost we had spread for the potatoes, and was easy to deal with in July when we harvested the potatoes. It was also much more hopeful; to look at an area of green cover crop than an area of green weeds!
  • Once we get to March 31 here, it is too late in the year for us to sow oats (they will quickly head up after making very little growth) and too soon to rely on frost-tender cover crops. See the section in February’s post on the Stale Seedbed and Tarping Techniques.

    Tarping beds to kill weeds.
    Photo Cornell Small Farms Unit
  • By mid-April, it is an option to sow a mix of oats and buckwheat. The oats will protect the buckwheat somewhat from the cold. I’ll come back to that idea next month.

Incorporating cover crops, or not

See Barbara Pleasant: How to Take Cover Crops Down. Gardeners working with small tools can start by mowing their live cover crops, grazing poultry on them, or scything them and hauling them aside to use later for mulch. On a very small scale, you can pull your cover crop plants, although I think it is valuable to leave the roots in the soil. On a larger scale, you can graze larger animals, or cut the cover crop down. If the cover crop was winter-killed, the stems will easily disintegrate, so you can skip the cutting down part of these instructions.

If you plan to incorporate the cover crop, choose a mowing method that cuts the plants into small pieces, making them easier and faster to incorporate. On a small scale, this could be a weed whip or a lawn mower; on a larger scale a bush hog. If you plan to use the cover crop for mulch, cut it in a way that leaves the stems as whole as possible. On a small scale this means a sickle or scythe, on a bigger scale, the kind of machinery you might use to cut hay.

Cover crop of rye, vetch and crimson clover in March.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
Rows of Roma paste tomatoes, some on bioplastic, some no-till. Credit Bridget Aleshire

After getting the cover crop down, you could tarp for a minimum of three weeks (allow for more), or you could work the residue into the soil, with a chopping hoe or by digging it in, or using a walk-behind two-wheel tractor such as BCS with a rototiller or a power harrow, or a four-wheel tractor and discs. Cornell has posted a webinar Pairing Tarping with Cover Crops, by Brian Marr.

If you incorporate the cover crop into the soil green, you will also need to wait two or three weeks (or more in early spring) to plant or sow, to give the cover crop time to break down in the soil before it can be available for your crop.

Winter rye produces allelopathic substances that can temporarily inhibit the germination and growth of small seeds. Wait three weeks after turning under before sowing. Transplants don’t suffer the same problem. Oats, wheat, and other cereals also have this tendency, but to a much smaller degree, usually small enough to ignore. Sorghum-Sudan grass hybrid incorporated fresh in the soil hinders the growth of tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli, but that’s a summer cover crop you won’t need to think about for several months.

I still haven’t got to my Conference notes on cover crop workshops, 2023-2024, but this is enough for one post!

Cover crops for August: Oats and Barley

From the USDA Barley Plant Guide

Note: I edited this post in September when I found I was mistaken in believing barley was less cold-hardy than oats.

Focus Cover Crops for August: Oats, barley and other winter-killed cover crops

In August we are looking ahead, thinking about how our cover crops will be impacted by future cold weather. In July I wrote about hot weather grass cover crops, including Sorghum-Sudan hybrid (Sudex), and the millets, which are not frost-hardy.

German/Foxtail and Japanese millets are day-length sensitive. Growth is considerably less if they are sown after the summer solstice, so they are likely to be of limited use as cover crops once we reach August.

Browntop Millet could be useful in August in the mid-Atlantic. Proso/Broomcorn Millet I’m not so sure about. Pearl/ Cattail Millet is not day-length sensitive. To winter-kill and avoid seed formation, sow 60-85 days before your expected first frost.

See Working with the time you have left in the post Cover Crops in Summer. See No-Till summer cover crops in that same post (Soy, southern peas, foxtail millet). Also there, see Five Easy Summer Cover Crops that Die with the Frost (buckwheat, sorghum-sudan grass, soybeans, southern peas and sunn hemp.)

Buckwheat cover crop in flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Buckwheat can be sown up to 28 days before the first frost.  See my article about buckwheat. Soybeans can be sown up to 45 days before frost. A mix of sunn hemp, soybeans or southern peas and other frost-tender cover crops can be grown during August (60-80 days before frost) before planting garlic in mid-fall. This method will work more easily if you mow the cover crop around your frost date, so that it is easier to make furrows in the soil. Forage radish, lab-lab beans or bell beans sown now will die back and leave almost bare soil. This is a boon for the very earliest spring transplants or sowings.

Or, instead of sowing a cover crop now, you could sow a fast-growing vegetable crop. Kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, or land cress. Try Eat-All Greens, an idea form Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Winter-killed, not frost-killed, cover crops

In August, we can sow winter cover crops to be winter-killed for easy soil cultivation before early spring vegetables. Oats and barley are in this category. Oats will be killed by three nights of 20°F (-7°C) or a single night of  6°F (-14°C). Sow oats 5-8 weeks before your average first frost to get good size plants before they get winter-killed. We sow in late August and early September in Zone 7a. See Cover Cropping Your Garden by Chris Blanchard in 2002:

“Inexpensive and easy to grow, oats are a standard early fall cover crop in the northern and middle sections of North America.  A quick-growing, non-spreading grass, oats will reliably die in Hardiness Zone 6 and colder, and often in zone 7.”

It used to be nine years out of ten, here in Louisa County, VA, but our climate is shifting to be too warm in winter to reliably kill oats. This past winter (2022/2023) oats did not die. They were cold-damaged, and set back, but definitely not dead.

We can no longer rely on our winter cover crop oats getting winter-killed. March photo by Pam Dawling

Fall-sown Barley (Hordeum vulgare), grows even faster than oats, although not as fast as winter rye, and it won’t die as early in the winter as oats. Barley dies at 17°F (-8°C). It usually will die in Zone 7 and colder regions. The dead barley residue protects the soil through the winter, and dries into what Barbara Pleasant calls “a plant-through mulch” in spring in cold zones.

See Planning Winter Cover Crops. If the area has been fully harvested of food crops by 60-80 days before frost, sow a frost-killed cover crop or even a fast-growing food crop.  In central Virginia, it’s a mistake to sow rye as early as August, as it can set seed.

Winter-hardy cover crops to sow in August

Not all winter cover crops can be sown as early as August in the mid-Atlantic. Don’t sow winter rye, or it may head up before winter and drop seeds. Only sow oats or barley if you are sure you can get them turned under or killed by cold winter weather before they seed. They will not mow-kill. Be careful buying feed-grade seeds (rather than seed-grade), as they can contain weed seeds including GMO canola.

Clovers can be sown in August (provided you can supply enough overhead irrigation). September is a better time to sow clovers here, if you are sowing them in bare ground. They will make some growth in our climate before winter, and then a lot more once spring arrives.

Secondary Cover Crops in August: Undersowing for more cover crops

  • Choose vigorous food crops, but cover crops that are only moderately vigorous.
  • Timing is critical: Sow the cover crop late enough to minimize competition with the food crop, but early enough so it gets enough light to grow enough to endure foot traffic when the food crop is harvested. Often the best time is at the last cultivation.
  • The leaf canopy of the food crop should not yet be closed. With vining food crops, sow the cover crop before the vines run.
  • Ensure a good seedbed and a high seeding rate.
  • Irrigate sufficiently. The food crop will have good roots by then, but the cover crop seed will be just below the surface and will need some help to germinate.

 Green fallow (Full year cover crops)

Fall broccoli undersown with a mixed clover winter cover crop.
Photo Nina Gentle.
  • Our main use of clovers is to undersow fall brassicas such as broccoli and cabbage, with a mix of Crimson clover, white clover and medium red clover in August, to form a green fallow crop (all-year cover crop) for the following year, replenishing the soil and reducing annual weeds.
  • 2 weeks after transplanting the brassicas (August), we hoe and till between the rows, or wheelhoe.
  • We repeat at 4 weeks after transplanting, and broadcast a mix of clovers (late August-early September): 1 oz (30 g) Crimson clover, 1 oz (30 g) Ladino white clover and 2 oz (60 g) Medium red clover per 100 sq ft (9 m2)
  • In March, we bush hog the old brassica stumps and let the clovers flourish, mowing once a month to prevent the crimson clover and the annual weeds from seeding.

See my Mother Earth News post: Late summer and fall intercropping of cover crops in vegetable crops, aka undersowing.

If you have difficulty getting even coverage when broadcasting clovers or other cover crop seeds, try seeding half the crop walking in one direction, and then seed perpendicularly across your original path

In mid-August, we undersow our last sweet corn planting with oats and soybeans, as the winter cover crop, which winter-kills, leaving a plot that is easily worked up next spring. Our 6th sweet corn is sown 7/16. 4 weeks after seeding, we cultivate and sow oats and soy. In mid-March we follow with our spring potatoes. Both oats and soybeans have some tolerance for shade and for foot traffic (harvesting corn!).

Late season sweet corn undersown with oats and soy
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Sweet corn can be undersown with clover rather than soy or oats in some climates. We tried clover but found it harder to germinate in hot weather, and harder to keep the tiny seed damp. Buckwheat can be undersown in corn as a short term summer cover, but according to Sue Ellen Johnson, (co-editor of Crop Rotation On Organic Farms: a planning manual, it grows rather straggly in the shade of the corn. Soy has the advantages of tolerating shade as well as foot traffic.

We tried an idea from NY State, or undersowing winter squash with buckwheat and tilling it under just before the vines run (that was June), but here in the south, the vines ran too fast. We ended up having to wade in among the vines to pull up the buckwheat by hand!

You can drill cover crop seeds using a push seeder. See VABF Using Manually-Operated Seeders for Precision Cover Crop Plantings on the Small Farm. Don’t worry if the seed ends up deeper than ideal. It will still germinate. On a small scale, you can sow by hand, either broadcasting and raking in, or in close rows using a hoe, as if sowing

Cover Crop Planning

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and 9 pages of charts about particular options.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book for $19 or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

Resilience: Survive, thrive and farm another season!

 

A willow tree behind out herb garden.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

“The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it.” Sir Walter Scott

I’m reading Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture, (review coming soon) and thinking about how growers thrive under varying situations, some of which we have no control over. To adjust to changing weather conditions, to continue after challenges and get the best possible outcome whatever happens, we need to be alert, adaptable and quick on our feet, a bit like a Ju-Jitsu practitioner.

Being ready to tackle whatever happens includes recognizing and building in many options, keeping all options open until the future is clearer, and knowing when and which way to jump. It involves being prepared with needed equipment (or at least phone numbers), and having our filing systems be accessible all year, not in a big heap!

It includes getting good at understanding current conditions and predicting the future, getting to grips with radar maps and how to use Growing Degree Days. It involves keeping records of when certain flowers bloom (phenology), and soil temperatures. This information helps us figure out when to plant according to actual conditions, rather than simply by the calendar, a method which is not useful as climate change takes hold.

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds. Fall deadnettle germination shows that conditions are cool enough to sow spinach. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Making good assessments of conditions is the first step in cultivating adaptability. The second necessary skill-set is the ability to know how to make a swift and effective decision and locate the resources to put that decision into practice. This includes information about soil temperatures and how long various crops take to emerge. Also, knowing how summer crops will respond to extra high temperatures. And how winter crops will respond to horrifying low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses on a struggling crop and till it in? I do a weekly tour of the gardens and re-prioritize tasks. Growing food is an organic process, non-linear!

These two skills are followed by a review process, so we can learn from what went wrong, as well as what went right! Usually this involves record-keeping, (dates, actions and results) to inform next season. You can list other possible responses to fine-tune your choices next time. Record-keeping can include photos, audio recording, video clips. Whatever works. You may only need to tweak your response in future, or you may want a completely different approach. One of our garden mantras is “Never repeat the same mistake two years running.”

Get Ready for Farming After Anything

Carol Deppe in The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times recommends building in slack, rather than planning to work flat out every day. When something unexpected happens, you’ll have a bit of extra time available to tackle the problem. Personal troubles like injury, health challenges, or family emergencies; or household events like financial problems can require time focused elsewhere; or disastrous weather that affects everyone around you. On her website, Carol has an interview called Food in Uncertain Times: How to Grow and Store the Five Crops You Need to Survive. She says: “The resilient garden is designed and managed so that when things go wrong, they have less impact.” Grow food requiring minimal external inputs, know how to grow staple crops and save seeds. Some years you won’t need to employ these skills, but you’ll be ready when you do.

Being Flexible About Growing Food

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

We have a Garden Shift Honchos Guide to help whoever is leading the crew. It includes general guidelines: “Try to at least get the harvesting done, whatever the weather, (unless torrential rain, tornado, ice storm, thunder and lightning).” It suggests how to choose jobs from our posted task list. My priority sequence is harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand weed. The Honchos Guide has hints for contingencies:

  • If the day is likely to be very hot, get the physically taxing tasks done first (especially anything involving shovels).
  • If the morning starts out with a heavy dew, postpone harvesting cucurbits, nightshades, strawberries and legumes until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.
  • After heavy rain: mulched perennials (fruit and asparagus) are the easiest places to work. Don’t work in sinking mud, it compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains. Standing on long boards is an option for harvesting or planting.
  • If heavy rain is expected and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. It’s a waste of time to hoe if it’s about to rain, or that crop is due for overhead irrigation. Don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain or irrigation. They’ll re-root.
  • If you feel frazzled: choose a big simple task lots of people can do, like weeding strawberries, or hoeing corn. Or choose two tasks geographically close, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everything happening.
  • Choreographing the crew can be hard. It’s handy if everyone finishes harvesting around the same time. Perhaps spread out at first for miscellaneous harvesting, and then end up together on the crop that takes a long time.

Building in Options on the Farm

Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, advocates for constructing buildings that are easy to modify later, in gradual or drastic ways to meet the changing needs of the people inside. Farms can be looked at similarly. Keep as many options as possible (for crops, cover crops, crop layout) open for as long as possible.

It can be helpful to do some scenario planning, which I learned about in The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz. Scenario Planning is a method of making flexible long-term plans, using stories (scenarios) to help us visualize different possible futures that include not only factors we don’t control, like the weather or the market’s enthusiasm for bulb fennel, but also intangibles such as our hopes and fears, beliefs and dreams. Different combinations of uncertainties and possibilities, including interactions of some major variables in plausible but uncomfortable as well as hoped-for combinations are used to create each scenario.

Sometimes the easiest way to compare scenarios is to set options out in a grid. For instance, in choosing which cover crop to sow following a spring crop that we clear in August-October in zone 7, we can say that the main variables are whether the season is dry or wet, and whether we are early or late planting. We can sow oats from mid-August to early September, to winter-kill, or winter rye once we reach September 1 (before that we risk the rye heading up before winter and self-seeding).

Dry and Early: Sow cowpeas or soybeans with oats, for a winter-killed cover crop. Dry and Late: Sow winter rye or wheat alone.
Wet and Early: Sow a clover mix in August, or hairy vetch with winter rye, 9/1-10/10 Wet and Late: Sow Austrian winter peas with winter rye

Often there are more variables, such as weediness. We might undersow our fall broccoli with a clover mix in August, intending the clovers to become a Green Fallow plot for the following season. The next summer, we assess the situation. If the weeds are bad in July, we disk in the clovers and sow sorghum-sudan hybrid mixed with soy, as a winter-killed cover crop. If all looks well in July, but the weeds are gaining the upper hand in August, we have the option of tilling it in, and sowing oats mixed with soy. If the clover is growing well, and the weeds are not bad, we over-winter the patch, and disk it in February.

Broccoli undersown with clover.
Photo Nina Gentle

Vegetable Crop Options

We have a few options recorded in our calendar:

  • If spring is cold and wet, grow transplants for the second planting of cucumbers and summer squash.
  • If the winter squash patch is too wet to disk, grow transplants, but don’t sow later-maturing varieties.
  • If the soil is to wet to hill the spring potatoes, flame weed instead.

Abundance Options

What to do if your yields are higher than planned: increase sales by giving out samples and recipes, and feature the item on your website. Find sales to new customers (restaurants), process the crop for future out-of-season sale (if you have time), or donate it to a local food bank.

Shortage Options

With a CSA you can keep a list of who gets Sun Gold tomatoes each week, until everyone has had some. This method has the advantage of keeping the time spent picking cherry tomatoes down to a reasonable level. The sharers get some as a treat a few times in the summer, but not every week.

You can mix leaves of several greens in an attractive bunch and call it braising mix, or add unusual crops to bagged salad mix, or make up stir-fry or ratatouille packages. If a crop is really poor, it is often best to till it in and plant something else. For me, this eases the soul and lets me move on. We keep a running list of crops looking for a home, so we can replace failures with fast-growing crops such as radishes, arugula, mizuna, Tokyo bekana, or salad mix. One year when our fall cabbage didn’t fill the area intended, we used senposai, a tasty, fast-growing leaf green. If rutabagas don’t come up, sow turnips – there are very fast-growing turnips, and a small turnip is a delicacy, but a small rutabaga is a sad thing.

Hakurei turnips harvested late January.
Photo Pam Dawling

It helps to have a clear and simple rotation. Our raised bed plan is ad-hoc. We make use of the flexibility: one August we were a bit late getting some tilling done, and we sowed the last cucumbers in the bed which was to have been squash. Cucumbers take a bit longer than squash to reach maturity, and I wanted to get them in the ground as soon as possible. The squash had to wait two more days. Two days can make a lot of difference when planting for fall.

Finding Resilient Crop Varieties

We always read the information about disease resistance when choosing varieties, because mid-Atlantic humidity is so conducive to fungal diseases. Depending on your climate you might pay more attention to the cold-tolerance, or the number of days to maturity. Every year we trial small quantities of one or two new varieties of important crops alongside our workhorses.

SSAWG Conference, Mother Earth News and Eat-All Greens, Growing for Market

I’m home from a very successful Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference in Lexington Kentucky. It was the biggest so far, with 1400-1500 participants. My workshop Intensive Vegetable Production on a Small Scale ran out even of standing room, so I was asked to repeat it in the afternoon. I did that and the new room was half full. I gave out over 230 handouts. The impossibly broad topic was a challenge for a 75 minute workshop, but I did my best. Last week I blogged the info on Bio-intensive Integrated Pest Management that I had to drop from the slideshow.

I love the SSAWG conference. I learned so many useful tips that will improve my farming this year and in the future. Such as another way to tell a ripe watermelon: stroke it and feel the texture of the skin. If it’s slick the melon isn’t ready. When it becomes a little rough, it is. Such as, yes a 60cfm inflation blower really should be adequate for a 30′ x 96′ hoophouse, so we almost certainly have holes in the plastic. Such as ways to deal with tomato diseases in the Southeast (thanks Joe Kemble of Auburn University).

If you are now wishing you’d been there, go to SlideShare.net and search for SSAWG. There are so many valuable presentations from conferences over the years. Also the audio of this year’s presentations (and last) are available from Rhino Technologies. Wait a few days for them to get home and load everything on their website.


Eat-All Greens on October 19 Photo Bridget Aleshire
Eat-All Greens on October 19
Photo Bridget Aleshire

And while the soil outside is waterlogged and you can’t do much gardening or farming, what better than more veggie-reading? Mother Earth News Feb/March issue has an article by Carol Deppe,  on How to Easily Grow High-Yielding Greens. Carol is the inventor/discoverer of Eat-All Greens, which I have been writing about on this blog. Her 20 years of trialing this method of growing cooking greens quickly with very little work has led her to now recommend seven greens as particularly suitable. Green Wave mustard, Shunkyo and Sensai radishes (I was interested to read that Carol also harvested the radish roots as we did with ours in December), Groninger Blue collard-kale (must get that this year), Burgundy amaranth, Tokyo bekana (check!), and Red Aztec huazontle. No mention this time of peas. Peas provided our earliest harvests this fall. Keeping them tender was a challenge though. The article includes information on where to buy the varieties she recommends. Carol also has her own seed company Fertile Valley Seeds, selling varieties and strains that she has developed.


Potato harvest in November Photo by Lori Katz
Potato harvest in November with our Checchi and Magli harvester
Photo by Lori Katz

In the same issue of Mother Earth News is some of what I have written about dealing safely with green potatoes.


GFM_February2016_cover_300pxLastly for this week, the February Growing for Market is out. This is the first issue from the new editor, Andrew Mefferd. He tackles the thorny topic of hydroponics and whether it can ever be considered Organic. (Many organic and biological growers believe it is important to Keep the Soil in Organic)  As well as the Organic status of hydroponics, he describes the various types of hydroponic production for those that want to grow food that way, and for the rest of us to understand what we are talking about.

There is an article by Nick Burton about his hydroponic system and developing a trust-based sales system in a gym for people on a “paleo diet”, who eat lots of vegetables. Then a salad mix kit. He had moved from running a plant nursery to selling produce to selling convenience for people short of time and enthusiasm for shopping and preparing food. I admit to being skeptical about the paleo diet. Didn’t those paleo people spend all day scavenging for food?

Gretel Adams writes about running a bouquet business efficiently. (I’d be no good, I would dither for too long!)

My own article this issue is very down-to-earth: growing oats as a cover crop. They are easy-care and in climates in zone 7 or colder, they reliably die in the winter, making for easy early spring cultivation. We like to undersow oats and soy in our last sweet corn patch. This saves us from having to disk up the patch to establish a winter cover crop (it’s already there!), and means we can follow the late sweet corn with an early spring crop the next year. In our case it is the March potatoes.

Late season sweet corn undersown with oats and soy Photo Kathryn Simmons
Late season sweet corn undersown with oats and soy
Photo Kathryn Simmons

 

Virginian Eat-All Greens

Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening introduces us to the concept of Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 9. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 9.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, as our spring planted greens only have a short season before they bolt. And summer is too hot, winter too cold. . . We sowed in mid-September, and are about to make our third harvesting foray. Unlike Carol, we sowed our greens in rows side by side. This fitted better with the space we had, a large rectangle where our asparagus used to be. The organic matter content of the soil is lovely, as we used to mulch the asparagus with hay twice a year. But the weed seed-bank is awful! After each asparagus harvest season we let the ferns grow up and the plot became impenetrable. So we got lots of summer weeds, especially morning glories and cocklebur. After about 12 years or so, we decided to give up on that asparagus patch and grow a series of cover crops until we got the weeds under control again. Having the Eat-All Greens in rows, and hoeing between the rows, fit that strategy nicely.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We sowed on 9/16. I had a lot of help that day. Somehow the seed got sowed very thickly. Carol recommends leaf or pod radishes, some beets, some chards, quinoa, some mustards, some snow peas, some Napus kales, some amaranths, some leafy Asian greens (mustards but less spicy). She has put a lot of research into which grow best – see her book for the details. We decided to use some seeds we had on hand and some we got given, that resembled the things Carol recommends. We didn’t want to invest a lot of money first time around, nor wait for a seed company to fill our order. We knew our results wouldn’t be the same as if we lived in the Pacific Northwest anyway.

Most of the seeds emerged by 9/21 (5 days), and we hoed between the (wavy) rows on 9/23. We also thinned some of the radishes, because they were sown too thickly. The fava beans didn’t come up till 9/30, but then they grew fast, and became one of the first crops big enough to harvest. Eating the tips of fava bean plants is a practice I learned in England, so I knew these unusual plants are edible. I noticed the beets and chards are all slow-growing in our climate at this time of year, as are the kohlrabi. We had lots of seed of Early Purple Vienna kohlrabi and the seedlings are so pretty I thought they might work for Eat-All Greens, but no, not at this time of year anyway..

Dwarf Grey snow peas as Eat-All Greens. Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Dwarf Grey snow peas as Eat-All Greens.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We got our first harvest on 10/21, 35 days after sowing. The biggest varieties were the fava beans (seed we’d bought, then decided not to grow) and dwarf grey sugar snow peas (seed from last year – we don’t like these as snow peas any more). We cut along the rows with scissors. People found it hard to cut at 3″, high enough to leave the tough stem behind. I noticed we all tended to cut low. The plan was to lay the cut greens in shallow crates with the stems all aligned to make it easier for the cooks. Some people didn’t do this with the peas, putting them in a big mat in the crate. The peas got served raw, which wasn’t my intention. The stems were too tough for most people – even for cooking, we should have cut higher. We got 3 cratefuls, a generous amount, which we didn’t make the best use of, despite an instructional label. Presentation and instructions are our version of marketing to our cooks.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on Oct 22. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on Oct 22.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

One week later (10/28) we went for our second harvest. By then the radishes had clearly come into their own, and one of the rows of dwarf grey peas that we harvested the week before had already made enough growth for a second cut. You can see in the photo above the big difference in growth rate between the radishes and everything else. The harvest was bigger than we’d hoped for. We got 10 crates and two very stuffed 5-gal buckets we decided to give to the chickens as a sign of our appreciation.

What next? I ‘m looking forward to the Maruba Santoh, and the Ruby Streaks especially. But we have to explain more carefully how these should be cooked, to people unaccustomed to cooking mixed greens. And we need to switch to more frequent forays and smaller harvests at a time. And cut higher up the stems. And then, it depends on the weather. The kohlrabi already got some frost damage. Currently the nights are mostly above freezing. Some of these crops are good down to 25F, some better than that.

I’m already thinking what would I do different if we do this again. No chards, no beets, no kohlrabi. Thinner seed sowing, straighter rows (easier hoeing). Try some other Asian greens? Buy some of the specific varieties that Carol Deppe recommends. Maybe sow a week earlier. And a smaller patch! It’s being fun!

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens - Ruby Streaks. Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens – Ruby Streaks.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

VABF Richmond Area Farm Tours, Buckwheat Trials, Methane and Climate Change

2015rvafarmtour8x11The Virginia Association for Biological Farming has organized this event, and Twin Oaks Community Garden will be tourable at 1pm, 3pm and 5pm on Saturday and Sunday (ONLY!). Tickets (per vehicle) are $25 in advance, $30 on the day, for as many farms as you care to tour.

BUY TICKETS

Download Farm Tour Guide

Read all about it: 2015 Richmond Virginia Area Farm Tour #RVAFarmTour

Shake the Hands that Feed You!  October 3 & 4, 2015 1 PM to 6 PM
Spend the weekend of October 3 & 4 touring Richmond area organic farms!
Buy your ticket now. Load up your car with friends and family (one ticket covers everyone!) and head out for a day — or two — of meeting area biological farmers and seeing where and how your food is grown. Go at your own pace. This farm tour weekend is self-paced with farms located throughout the area.

Interested in volunteering? Help us support the local organic food movement in Richmond. Volunteer on one day of the tour and receive a free pass to take the tour on the other day of the tour with a carload of people. Please contact Sue Ellen Johnson at SueEllen@VABF.org.

More info on the tour and the farms

FARMS:
Amy’s Garden, Avery’s Branch Farms, Broadfork Farm, Byrd Farm, ChiknEGG Cook ‘N Nook,  delli Carpini Farm, Elim Springs Farm, Forrest Green Farm, Reynolds Community College Gardens, Keenbell Farm, Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, Renew Richmond Community Farm,  Shalom Farms, Tricycle Gardens, Twin Oaks Community Garden, Victory Farms, Virginia Vegetable Company, Waverly Farm

Read More About the Farms Here


Welcome to Twin Oaks Photo Wren Vile
Welcome to Twin Oaks
Photo Wren Vile

And if you can’t make it then, maybe you have enough interest in buckwheat and other technical gardening details to join the VABF-VSU Buckwheat Trials Field Tour at Twin Oaks:

Twin Oaks Garden Tour: Oct 7, 2015, 4pm – 6pm

Buckwheat trials are now underway on four Virginia farms. A field tour at Old Crowe Farm in Red Oak happened on August 22. Now it’s the turn of Twin Oaks. The buckwheat trial plots are unlikely to still have buckwheat. Instead you can see the next stage of our experiment – a version of Carol Deppe’s Eat-All Greens. I reviewed her lovely book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening here. Carol lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she broadcasts small patches of various carefull;y selected crops to cut at an adolescent stage and use for salads or cooking greens. Here in the mid-Atlantic, we are experimenting with fall sowing of rows of various crops that she recommends, and a few others to see what happens.

We can also talk about about cover crops, year-round vegetable production and fall season crops.

http://www.twinoaks.org/

Twin Oaks Community, 138 Twin Oaks Road, Louisa, VA 23093


Methane and Climate Change.

I received a comment on my review of Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture. I’ve given Randall Snyder’s comment more thought and replied to him. Here is some information I found while reading Ben Hartman’s Lean Farm (review coming soon, I promise!)

a0701e00Is animal farming the chief cause of climate change? Not according to what I’ve read. A UN report (FAO Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2006) says that cattle-rearing generates 18% of greenhouse gas emissions measured as the CO2 equivalent. 37% of all human-induced methane  (which is 23 x as warming as CO2) is largely produced by the digestive systems of ruminants. So, clearly livestock farming makes a big contribution to climate change. But the high level of pollution from cattle is because of intensive agriculture. Specifically, feeding grain to cattle rather than grazing them. In order to produce lots of meat cheaply, industrial farmers feed grain, which is not a natural part of the ruminants’ diet.The UN says we need to improve animal diets in order to reduce enteric fermentation and methane emissions. Cost-cutting by industrial farming has simply passed even larger costs to all of humanity.

We need to eat. Some people like to eat meat. There are parts of the world where farming with grazing animals makes best use of the land. For example, slopes and highly erodeable soils are best kept under sod, rather than plowed up for crop farming. On many farms some combination of vegetable, grain, tree crop and meat farming makes sense, and indeed the diversity can be a strategy for dealing with a changeable and unpredictable climate, as Laura Lengnick points out in Resilient Agriculture. Ducks, chickens and pigs can eat food scraps and vegetable crop residues, and contribute manure.

Reducing food waste is an important step to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Organic matter (including food) in landfills accounts for 16% of US methane emissions (Dana Gunders, “Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40% of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Natural Resources Defense Council, August 2012.)


And I’ll leave you with this fun, surprising, interactive website from the LA Times on the Food-Water-Footprint, where you can see how much water is used to produce the plate of food you choose. Inevitably the choices are limited, and the foods are all “Commercial US Average” (let’s hope we’re doing better!), but the information from the relative values is useful.

Chickpeas Photo LA Times
Chickpeas
Photo LA Times

 

Book Review: The Tao of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe

9781603584876_p0_v3_s260x420Book Review

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy and Serenity

Carol Deppe, Chelsea Green, 2015

I enjoyed Carol Deppe’s other gardening books, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and The Resilient Gardener. I haven’t read her renditions of Taoist Stories or the Tao Te Ching, but this new book offers entwined wisdom from both aspects of Carol’s life. Something for beginners and experienced growers alike. A combination of Carol’s exquisite attention to detail, solid grounded-in-experience advice and application of Taoist philosophy can help make us better and happier gardeners. Better understanding, more inner harmony. Carol is an independent and iconoclastic gardener, and she introduces each chapter with a passage from her own translation of the 2500 year old Tao Te Ching and intersperses fables from her anthology Taoist Stories.

Resilient Gardener_Small BYOVegVarieties_SmallThe Resilient Gardener focused on growing basic food staples – corn, potatoes, dry beans, winter squash and eggs. This new book moves us onward to groups of nutritionally- and economically-valuable vegetables we love to eat (and therefore to grow): tomatoes, summer squash, peas, green beans, greens. Each crop is used as an opportunity to explain a technique or concept. 13 chapters with titles like “Honoring Your Own Essential Nature”, “Non-Doing” and “Joy” lead us into the practicalities of crop requirements, plant genetics, lacto-fermentation and preserving land-races.

The tomato chapter covers how to grow and plant transplants, how to choose the best-tasting varieties, then how to breed late blight resistant tomatoes. The chapters on peas and green beans explain how to direct sow big seeds. That on greens tells how to sow small seeds, and introduces the Eat-All Greens Garden, a new way of growing direct-sown greens, producing high yields from small amounts of work. The final chapter explains why and how to grow your own seeds and prepare them for long-term storage

Carol clearly thinks for herself. I enjoy reading her take on the recent “accepted wisdom” of “imitating nature,” by prioritizing perennials, growing in polycultures (the carrots-love-tomatoes school), increasing diversity – “Ant agriculture violates all these principles.” I have long felt irritated and frustrated by the carrots-love-tomatoes belief, so I got special pleasure from reading Carol’s amusing story of actually trying to make interplanting carrots and tomatoes work, despite different needs for temperature, soil texture, soil fertility, watering, plant spacing, mulch, fencing, and length of time occupying a garden bed. And the competition for sunlight. I am a practitioner of some interplanting (spinach and peas, lettuce and peanuts, cabbage and okra), saving space, work, and in some cases, mulch or rowcover. But the almost religious belief that certain crops “like” each other, despite lack of data and lots of practical impediments, drives me potty. Carol takes the time to explain which pairs of crops stand a chance of complementing each other, and to point us towards a study by R Fred Denison (sorry I can’t find the link) that showed that yields of the best intercrop combos were somewhat better than the lower-yielding of the pair as solo occupant of the space, but less than the higher-yielding of the pair was capable of. So don’t plant crops together hoping for increased yields.

Carol encourages us to look at what actually happens in nature, and in the garden. Is this particular USDA-Organic-approved pesticide actually less damaging to non-target organisms and the general environment than the synthetic alternative? Will planting extra to “share” with pests like gophers still provide enough of a harvest? (“Lots of luck with that,” says Carol.) In the Balance chapter, Carol cautions against unrealistic beliefs about what to always or never do. “Prudence trumps completion when it comes to your health or safety.” “Ultimate Knowing does not create emergencies.”

Carol gives examples of intercropping that work for her. She sometimes plants her Eat-All Greens between alternate rows of corn (not sweet corn, which is quickly over), after the corn is up and has been cultivated twice. I’d guess that’s about 4 weeks after planting, the same age corn would be if sowing pole beans to grow up the corn stalks. The greens can grow fast enough in the shade of the corn to need no weeding, and the corn can be harvested from the alternate aisles without trampling the greens.

Russian Hunger Gap Kale from Adaptive Seeds
Russian Hunger Gap Kale from Adaptive Seeds

Carol names her “Perfect Polyculture” as Russian Hunger Gap kale (a tall, hardy Brassica napus, unlike the Hungry Gap kale I grew in England, which is an oleracea type), and vining winter squash. Initially an accident, the self-sown kale came up after she planted her squash. It grew rapidly, and timely harvesting of the kale nearest the squash was important to maintain enough space for the squash to thrive. Carol recommends her Candystick Dessert Delicata C.pepo fall squash; Sweet meat – Oregon Homestead C. maxima and fast-maturing Lofthouse Landrace Moschata C. moschata winter squashes. The Lofthouse squash is not sweet, so works well for soups and other savory dishes.

Although the USDA doesn’t regard tomatoes as an essential food group, most gardeners act as if tomatoes are fundamental. Indeterminate varieties for full season crops give the highest yields and the best flavors. Determinates provide the earliest harvests and come to an early end. Plenty of large leaves will be more likely to produce lots of sugar and flavor for the fruit, compared to what is possible with less well-endowed plants. (But keep an eye on Craig LeHoullier’s new Dwarf Tomatoes.)

Not simply under-ripe. See http://windowsillarranging.blogspot.com/2012_06_01_archive.html
Not simply under-ripe. See http://windowsillarranging.blogspot.com/2012_06_01_archive.html Nancy Ross Hugo

I was fascinated to learn that the green shoulders of some heirloom varieties are a cause of good flavor. The extra chlorophyll develops more sugars and flavors. Modern breeders decided to eliminate the undesired green shoulders and got uniform ripening at the expense of good flavor! My respect for Glacier and Stupice grew! Carol’s favorites for her shady Oregon garden include Amish paste – Kapuler, Pruden’s Purple (flavor, size, earliness), Black Krim, Legend (not for flavor, but for earliness, size, dependability, and especially for late blight resistance), Geranium Kiss (late blight resistance, lots of 1 ounce fruit).

Carol explains (Late Blight 101, page 96) why we need to be more careful about Late Blight now. Previously there were several strains of Late Blight, but they were all in the same mating group and could only reproduce asexually (requiring live plant material) – unless we left cull piles of potatoes in our fields, we only got the disease if we were unlucky enough to have spores blow in or be imported on diseased plants. This has now changed and newer strains of Late Blight, from both mating groups, have moved into the US. The disease will be able to evolve more rapidly, and the oogonia (sexually propagated ‘spores’) can persist in the soil. We will need to develop tomatoes and potatoes with stronger resistance. We will need to be more careful and not put any store-bought tomatoes in our compost piles. We will need to get better at recognizing late blight symptoms and acting swiftly. See http://usablight.org/.

Potato late blight lesion.  Image courtesy of Jean Ristaino, NC State University.
Potato late blight lesion. Image courtesy of Jean Ristaino, NC State University.

Legend and other of the more resistant open-pollinated and hybrid varieties are very useful in breeding work to produce more varieties resistant to late blight in future. Carol lists the resistance level of 10 promising hybrids (including Mountain Magic which we grow on our farm, Jasper, Golden Sweet, Juliet, Defiant PhR, Plum Regal, Iron Lady, Mountain Merit, Ferline and Fantasio) and 19 OPs (in order of earliness: Red Pearl, Stupice, Slava, Matt’s Wild Cherry, Yellow Currant, Geranium Kiss, Legend, Pruden’s Purple, Quadro, Black Plum, Red Currant, Tigerella, Old Brooks, Black Krim, Brandywine, West Virginia 63, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Aunt Ginny’s Purple and Big Rainbow. At the end of the book, Carol tells us how to do this. It’s not that difficult.

The chapter about the Eat-All Greens garden also has the title “Effortless Effort.” The idea is to broadcast seeds densely enough that no weeding is needed. Harvest when 10-16” tall by cutting the top 7-12” with a serrated knife, leaving the lower 3-4” of tougher stuff. Align the stems in the harvest tote or trug, to make chopping in the kitchen easier. Yields can be as high as 4.5 pounds per square yard (2.45 kg/sq m) in 8 weeks. The patch can be resown as many as three more times in the Willamette Valley climate. This is like a grown-up-tall version of growing baby salads, in that the entire tops of all the plants are harvested together. But salad mixes are cut small and may provide more than one cutting from the same plants. Eat-All Greens are usually harvested just once, then cleared., although it can work to harvest out the biggest plants, leaving others to grow bigger later in the increased space available.

Generally it’s best to grow just one type of Eat-All greens in one patch – mixes don’t do as well, because they grow at different rates to different heights. You can sow different patches right next to each other, and harvest whichever is ready. The Eat-All Greens system is a technique to perfect by practice. Spacing, timing, varieties – all can make or break your success. Timing will depend on your climate. Carol can sow in mid-March, harvest in mid-May and follow with a crop of tomatoes or squash.

Carol Deppe's Eat All Greens. Photo from The Tao of Vegetable Gardening
Carol Deppe’s Eat All Greens. Photo from The Tao of Vegetable Gardening

After years of work, Carol identified about a dozen good Eat-All crops. You can read the qualities of a good Eat-All crop in her book and test others, but I recommend taking advantage of her experience rather than re-inventing the wheel. Suitable greens include Green Wave mustard, Groninger kale, Tokyo Bekana, Spring Raab, several leaf radishes (Shunkyo Semi-Long, Saisai, Four Seasons, Hittorikun and Pearl Leaf) , several Chinese kales/gai lohns (Crispy Blue, South Sea, China Legend, Hybrid Blue Wonder, Hybrid Southern Blue, Green Lance Hybrid), three amaranths (All Red, although a bit slow-growing, Green Calaloo and Burgundy), Indian Spinach – Red Aztec Huauzontle, quinoa (choose a variety expected to grow well locally), pea shoots (Oregon Giant Sugar edible pod peas or Austrian Winter field peas) and shungiku (oh no! Chrysanthemum greens, I just haven’t managed to learn to like those!)

Another garden myth is exploded when Carol points out that we don’t necessarily get maximum nutrition out of greens when we eat them raw. Tables of vitamin C lost when greens are boiled and the water poured away are plain irrelevant if you steam your greens and use the liquid. Assays of nutrients present before and after cooking a food tell us nothing about what we actually absorb. All animals absorb nutrients better from starchy roots and tubers, meat and grains when they are cooked. That has been studied, but there is no information on cooked greens. Clearly raw greens are neither essential nor harmful in themselves. Unclear is whether the claim that raw greens are more nutritious than cooked ones has any basis in fact, or is just plain wrong. Interesting.

Carol wrote about dried beans in The Resilient Gardner. Here she writes about varieties suited for eating fresh. This chapter includes instructions for direct sowing of any large-seeded crop, and explains when trellises or plant supports are needed and what types there are. Edible-podded peas provide much more food from the same space and the same amount of garden labor (and less kitchen labor) than shelling peas do. You need no longer confuse snow peas (flat pods, not sweet, harvested before peas develop much at all), sugar peas (flat pods but sweeter), and snap peas (round cross-section pods harvested after the peas develop full size). Oregon Giant Sugar is a flat sugar type, although it has fleshy succulent pods that can be harvested with fully developed peas. Carol calls this a “flat-snap” type. In England we grew “mangetout” peas, which according to Wikipedia can be either snow or snap peas, but according to the BBC must have flat pods and can be either snow or sugar peas. Thompson & Morgan classifies Oregon Sugar Pod as a mange-tout. Mange-tout is French for “Eat-All”, so they fit right in with Eat-All Greens.

For those hoping to follow the Native American practice of growing pole beans on corn, Carol gives detailed instructions – there are so many ways to go wrong! I don’t grow field corn, so I didn’t take notes, but as always, I was very impressed with the helpful precision of Carol’s instructions. She can save so many of us from making wasteful mistakes.

Carol recommends we all try some seed-saving, in case of hard times, or for the benefits of selecting traits best suited to our climate and soil. She warns against buying a “Survival Kit” of seeds, as these won’t keep forever, and are unlikely to be varieties suited to your farm or garden. We need to pay attention and develop food crops that reliably feed us, not expect a miracle-in-a-can. Carol helps by leading us through a calculation of how much seed of a staple crop we will need, and how much land we will need to grow that amount of seed. She recommends a rotating stockpile of seed: grow and replace some of your seed every year.

At $24.95 this book will pay for itself many times over, and provide enjoyable reading, encouragement and inspiration on the way.

Laura Lengnick, Carol Deppe, Growing for Market April issue

51qEC5xzBVLImage-contributor-s_avatarHere’s a new book I’m really looking forward to reading: Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. $19.95 from New Society Publishers.

Like many farmers, I’ve been struggling not to get despondent about erratic and extreme weather, especially in the past few years. I worry about how and if we are going to be able to adapt to continue producing good food despite extreme heat, cold, drought and deluge. I don’t want to slide into catastrophic thinking about plagues of new pests and diseases. Obviously we’ll need to make changes to how and when we plant and harvest – old-timey calendars don’t work any more.

I’m already there with the need for good record-keeping (to figure out what works best); eating and supplying local food (to reduce transportation fuel use and to get the freshest food); and doing my personal best not to make climate change worse. And I need help in understanding how to be more resilient and use the options I have. And it’s definitely time to start this!

I went to a workshop given by Laura Lengnick at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference in 2012: Managing a Changing Climate:A Farm Vulnerability Assessment and I was encouraged by her grasp of both the science and of farming. Her book is one of three being launched by New Society at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC

Resilient Gardener_SmallResilience is a concept familiar to another author, Carol Deppe, whose new book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening will, sooner or later, get a review by me on this site. I enjoyed her earlier book, The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. That book focuses on staple crops for survival: potatoes, corn, dry beans, squash and eggs. Her new book includes other crops which make our lives richer and worth gardening for: tomatoes, peas, green beans, summer squash. I just read an interesting interview with Carol Deppe from Margaret Roach who blogs as A Way to Garden, and makes radio podcasts such as this interview.
GFM-April2015-cover-300pxAnd yet more reading! The April issue of Growing for Market is out. I’ve written the first of a pair of articles on hot weather greens. This one is about greens mostly cooked and eaten. next month my article will be about greens mostly eaten as salads. I know there is a lot of overlap, but I had to draw a line somewhere! This month’s article includes chard, Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, beet greens, Egyptian spinach, leaf amaranths, Aztec Spinach, Water Spinach, sweet potato leaves, squash leaves and shoots, crowder pea shoots and leaves and edible celosia. No need to go short of leafy greens, no matter how hot it gets!
Another article in this issue is about pesticide drift contamination, written by Joanna and Eric Reuter, whose fascinating blog I love to follow on their website Chert Hollow Farm. Their blog has a 3-part series of posts about their own experience of being contaminated by a neighbor. Their article tells their own story more briefly and also that of Terra Bella farm, an hour from them.
Jean-Martin Fortier has a great article on Six strategies to prevent weeds. We need them all! (Of course, we are already using some of them.) Raymond Cloyd from Kansas State University has written a timely article about the Spotted Wing Drosophila, a newly emerging pest of fruit, especially brambles. Gretel Adams, in her regular column on flower-growing, advises planting bulbs quickly and often. And Lynn Byczynski reports on what the ag census says about local food. Having the report read carefully and summarized for us is a great service.

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

9781603584876_p0_v3_s260x420

Potato Planting and Carol Deppe’s Writing

A ladybug on a potato leaf, looking for pests

We’ve just planted our second crop of potatoes for the year. At 3450 row ft (about a quarter of an acre), this planting is a bit bigger than our March planting. We aim to grow a whole year’s worth of potatoes for a hundred people. Planting in June has several advantages – for us the main one is that we can store this harvest in a root cellar over the winter, without using any electricity to control temperature. If we planted our whole year’s supply in March, we’d harvest in July and have to store them over the summer, and then all the way round till the next July. It’s also nice to split the work up into smaller chunks.

Up until this spring, we made furrows for our potatoes and covered and hilled them using a BCS 732 rototiller (or walk-behind tractor, as the retailers prefer to designate it). This is doable, but labor-intensive. This year we set up a toolbar on the tractor with sweeps to make furrows, and then discs to form hills. It’s been a learning process, with some teething troubles, but  I do think it’s the way of the future for us. (I just don’t have the stamina for all the rototilling any more!).

Compared to using the rototiller, the tractor needs a lot more space to manoeuver. We were lucky in having an area of cover crops next to the potatoes for this planting, so we could run over the edge onto “next door”. In the spring planting, we had a hydrant in the middle of the patch. that’s a minor problem with the rototiller, but a bigger problem with the tractor. Keeping the row spacing tight is harder with the tractor, and in the spring, we ended up with some wider spacings, which lead to more weeds than usual, and poorer hills. This week (our second time using the tractor), we managed much better row spacing. Next year, we’ll allow more space to turn the tractor, right from the planning stage.

Another “surprise feature” this time, was that it rained right after we’d planted (yes, before we’d covered the potatoes). The forecast had suggested a small chance of showers later in the day, but the 3/4″ drenching was a complete surprise! So we had to wait two days for the soil to dry out enough to take the tractor again. The soil was clumpy, but not impossible. Probably we could have covered and hilled sooner with the rototiller, as it weights less, and compacts the soil less. And the soil would have ended up with a finer texture. Overall I think the trade-offfs of using the tractor are worth it.

The potatoes came to no visible harm sitting in their furrow for two days. We had pre-sprouted them, so the sprouts grew a bit bigger and greener. Luckily we didn’t have extremely hot temperatures those days.

Recently I learned some new information about ideal soil temperatures for potato planting. This came from a workshop on Sustainable Potato Production by Rusty Nuffer at Southern SAWG in January 2012. In spring, wait for soil temperatures to reach 50F (10C) before planting. In summer, the ideal soil temperature is 60-75F (15-24C). Ours was 70F (21C). It’s possible to pre-irrigate to lower the soil temperature in summer. (And hopefully nature won’t mid-irrigate for you as it did for us this week!)

 Carol Deppe, author of the wonderful book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production And Self-Reliance In Uncertain Times, has written a very interesting article The 20 Potato a Day Diet versus the Nearly All Potato Winter about the nutritional and gastronomic wonders of potatoes.  It will inspire you to grow and eat more potatoes!