Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes

We won't starve or get scurvy! Plenty of food in the hoophouse!  Credit Twin Oaks Community

We won’t starve or get scurvy! Plenty of food in the hoophouse!
Credit Twin Oaks Community

This morning we have about 6 inches of snow. Knowing it was coming, we stocked the kitchen with extra potatoes from the root cellar (for those who don’t know, it’s next to impossible to pull a loaded garden cart through loose snow). We also braved the begiinning of the snow yesterday afternoon to harvest some spinach outdoors. We did try digging leeks, but the ground was frozen too deep. If the weather forecast holds true, we won’t see the soil for a week, as not much thawing is predicted. But the hoophouse will feed us. One winter the outdoor crops were inaccessible due to snow, ice or freezing weather, for a whole month, and we were able to feed 100 people in salads and cooking greens from the hoophouse. That wasn’t typical central Virginia weather. But typical isn’t typical any more.

Young blueberry bush in the snow. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Young blueberry bush in the snow.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

Our hoop house is a 30 x 96 ft Clearspan Gothic Cold Frame type from Farmtek. We made ours with bows four feet apart for better strength against ice and snow build up, and the gothic arch shape helps shed snow, as does the rigidity provided by having two layers of plastic and an air bubble. A couple of years ago when we were changing the plastic we added some reinforcement props to the west wall, which was leaning in from the force of winds. On Sunday night I was very glad of that, because we had very high gusty winds, and I lay in bed trying to ignore the sound of the wind, imaging we would lose our hoophouse. Imagine my relief to wake up to see it still in place!

We did have a big pine tree come down near our dining hall, but it missed the big propane tanks and didn’t even block the road by the Tofu Factory. We didn’t lose electric power either, so we have been lucky in several ways. Now I am watching the forecast for Thursday night. At one point the forecast was for a low of -9F, which is unthinkably low! Even the Vates kale won’t survive that – unless we have snow covering, which we still might! Currently the forecast has “warmed” to -2F. We always subtract 5F from the Louisa forecast, because it is often that much colder here.


Meanwhile, here are some warming photos from Hawai’i. Following my article in Growing for Market about dealing with nematodes in the hoophouse, I heard from Gerry Ross at Kupa’a Farms on Maui, at  2000 feet above sea level. (Take a look at their beautiful website, and feel the sunshine!) Root Knot Nematodes are a warm weather problem – they are inactive if the soil is colder than 50F. We had never seen their damage until a few years ago. In warmer climates they may have to deal with them constantly. On Maui the soil temperatures never go below 59F! Their high tunnel is for insect exclusion, not warmer temperatures, so it is covered with insect mesh, not polyethylene.

Nematode-susceptible food crops. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a farms

Nematode-susceptible food crops.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a farms

Gerry wrote that he is trying a hoophouse crop rotation: “We started with cukes, tomatoes, zukes, and peppers for the hotter summer weather. We then moved to sunn hemp-Piper sudan cover crop for about 45 days, and then to a winter rotation of brassicas with peas and cukes. We will mow and disc the brassicas down in about a month when it starts to get on the warm side and harvest is over and plant directly into the debris with peppers, tomatoes and cukes/zukes. So far we are really pleased with the results…..the brassicas are really clean with no cabbage moth damage. This is just one way to manage the RKN I suspect but so far so good.”

Nematode -fighting cover crops. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a Farms

Nematode -fighting cover crops.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a Farms

Outdoors, for field crops, Gerry said:

” we usually do 2-4 month cover crop like sunn hemp and Piper sudan grass and then follow that with our most susceptible crops (potatoes, carrots, beans, beets). When those come out we follow with brassicas, lettuce, onions. We usually grow row crops for 8 months in a field and then do a cover crop. The sunn hemp we use is called “Tropic Sunn” and the USDA on Molokai has developed it and bred the alkaloids out of it. Not sure it is widely available but try http://oahurcd.org/ and see if they will mail it to you. We also use vetch as a cover but it can get whacked with RKN so we co-plant with a scaffolding nonhost like the Piper sudan or oats.”

Brassicas in nematode-fighting hoophouse crop rotation. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a Farms

Brassicas in nematode-fighting hoophouse crop rotation.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a Farms

“Buried in some of the research by the sugar cane companies was a comment that molasses seems to drive down populations of RKN in the soil. We found application of local molasses to be difficult because it is so thick and viscous and hard to make spreadable BUT a local farming store did get us some dried molasses which is used as a horse supplement in the Mainland and applying that to the soil seemed to really help. That might be something you could try.

We have tried lots of compost (food-waste based as manure is not easily available here) and have created beds with loads of earthworms but the RKN persists.
We have found that some lima beans perform well even with heavy RKN infestation esp the Florida speckled butterbeans (huge purple speckled beans on wild vines that live for three years here!) and Fordhook that seem to just carry on regardless of RKN infestation. Fava beans on the other hand suffer mightily and do not produce at all. 
Thank you for the list of remedies and resistant cultivars. We have used the NemaQ and it seems to work if we run through our drip lines or water it in in diluted form in our raised beds. We might try grafted tomatoes too because one of the available rootstocks is RKN resistant. “

So, here I sit with “good garden planning weather” and fight my desire to just hibernate till it warms up!
Field manual Vabf unnamed

Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs, PA, and the Heritage Harvest Festival

Photo: 12-year-old FAIR Presenter Eleanor Wilkinson receives a signed copy of SUSTAINABLE MARKET FARMING by Pam Dawling, her favorite author and inspiration to start her own market farming business! They're both very special people. #MENFair

“12-year-old FAIR Presenter Eleanor Wilkinson receives a signed copy of SUSTAINABLE MARKET FARMING by Pam Dawling, her favorite author and inspiration to start her own market farming business! They’re both very special people. #MENFair”

I just got home from the Mother Earth News fair in Seven Springs, PA and found this already up on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR Facebook page. 

I think Eleanor is 13 now. You might remember I mentioned her last year after I met her at the MEN Fair. She succeeded in clearing $6000 in her first year, when she was 11. She now sells at two farmers’ markets. Her talk, Lemonade to Lettuce,  with help from her dad Matt Wilkinson, was clear, informative and engaging. I thoroughly enjoyed making the surprise presentation of my book at the end of her talk. Despite the shock, Eleanor was quickly professional in dealing with all the photographers and the public. A “growing farmer” to watch!


Myself, I gave two presentations twice each. Here’s Crop Rotations, in case you missed it, from SlideShare.net

<iframe src=”//www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/16456412″ width=”427″ height=”356″ frameborder=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ scrolling=”no” style=”border:1px solid #CCC; border-width:1px; margin-bottom:5px; max-width: 100%;” allowfullscreen> </iframe> <div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/crop-rotations” title=”VBF 2013 – Crop rotations – Pam Dawling” target=”_blank”>VBF 2013 – Crop rotations – Pam Dawling</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming” target=”_blank”>Pam Dawling</a></strong> </div>

I gave out 300 handouts for this one, and some couples shared a copy.

For Fall Vegetable Production, I revised my presentation from last year’s (which can still be found on SlideShare). I’ll be putting the new one up in a few days. I gave out 360 handouts on that one.

I had a very busy day Saturday, two workshops, one booksigning, one interview, one book presentation, one MEN Bloggers’ lunch, one promoter’s dinner with many speeches. Lots of walking from A to B. And it was raining in the morning, so I was schlepping handouts and posters in several shifts through the rain to the tent where my morning presentation was. I’ll say this for MEN readers – they don’t let bad weather put them off! Sunday I had a lighter day and managed to get to workshops by others. Doug Stevenson lives at the Farm Community in Tennessee. Here’s the blurb from the MEN Fair website:

Creating a Permaculture Ecovillage: My 40 Years at The Farm Community
Douglas Stevenson – The Farm Community
Douglas Stevenson has two books out this year: In one, he describes The Farm’s colorful story and its evolution from world’s largest hippie commune to modern ecovillage. In the second work, he digs deeper and examines the building blocks of community and sustainability. In this workshop, he’ll cover both in a fascinating and inspiring presentation.Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/fair/workshops-and-speakers-pennsylvania.aspx#ixzz3DULQBK3R

and I shared a dinner table with Ros Creasy and later traveled home with her (and Ira Wallace and Gordon Sproule). Long ago, when I was looking for a publisher for my book, Ros advised me that writing a book was going to be a lot of hard work. Her advice was good: she was right, and she didn’t dissuade me!

Edible Landscaping: The why and how
Rosalind Creasy – Freelance writer/ landscape designer
Join Rosalind Creasy, a pioneer in the field of edible landscaping, as she gives a PowerPoint presentation on the whys and hows of designing a beautiful landscape with edible plants. Among the topics she covers is an A to Z of her recommended beautiful edible plants for home gardens, the positive effects of edibles on the environment, an overview of the wide variety of individual edible landscapes, and styles as well as principles of landscape design particular to edibles.Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/fair/workshops-and-speakers-pennsylvania.aspx#ixzz3DUKpuV8Y


And on Friday I was at the Heritage Harvest Festival, closer to home, in Virginia. I gave my Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables presentation. And I signed books in their bookstore Gift Shop. Sadly, this year HHF and MEN Fair PA were on the same weekend, and I had to leave not long after my workshop, to drive to Pennsylvania. Next year they won’t be on the same dates. In case you too, are planning a year ahead, here are the dates:

Heritage Harvest Festival September 11-12 2015

Mother Earth News Fair, Seven Springs, PA September 18-20 2015


 

And meanwhile in the garden, the spinach seedlings are battling with faster-growing buckwheat seedlings, because we didn’t till the preceding cover crop of buckwheat in time. The weather is cooling down, and remaining dry. An advantage as far as hoeing goes. I just have to remember to keep switching irrigation on and off.

My next speaking event is the Mother Earth News Fair at Topeka, Kansas, Oct 25-26.

 


 

Good news – great hoeing weather! Bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse

Fall broccoli last year. Credit Ezra Freeman

Fall broccoli last year.
Credit Ezra Freeman

Last week I wrote about transplanting cabbage and sowing kale. We were having “great transplanting weather”, that is, it rained a lot! We filled all the gaps in all 12 rows of broccoli and cabbage in a single hour with four people. There weren’t many gaps, happily. That’s about 1400 broccoli plants and 700 cabbages, our usual amount to feed a hundred people.

This week in the garden, it’s about three weeks since we started the transplanting, so the first rows are ready to be uncovered and hoed. Happily, we now have great hoeing weather! No rain in sight for a week. Central Virginia weather is very variable, and our particular spot is drier than the surrounding area, so if the forecast says 30% chance of rain or less, we are very unlikely to get any. There’s currently a forecast with a 50% chance of rain in 6 days (Monday night). If we can get all the hoeing done, and till or wheelhoe between the rows, then I can broadcast a clover mix and welcome some rain! We like the wheel hoe if the weeds are not too big and not too grassy. The first few rows were quite grassy, so we used our BCS 732 tiller from Earth Tools.

We cultivate around the brassica plants, then broadcast a mix of clovers: 1 oz crimson clover, 1 oz large white Ladino clover and 2 oz common red clover (medium, multi-cut) per 100 square feet. Then if it doesn’t rain, we water like crazy for a few days, which is all it takes to get the clover germinated. We have drip tape for the brassicas, but we need overhead sprinklers for the clover mix. The crimson clover is the fastest growing in the fall, and the others gradually take over in the spring and summer of the next year. We like watching the progression from crimson clover to red to white as each type comes into its strength.

This method of undersowing clovers in fall brassicas works well for us. It provides cover for the soil, legumes which provide nitrogen for the crop. The clovers survive the winter, and in the spring, we mow off the dead broccoli stems and let the clover grow. If all goes well, we keep the clover mix for a whole year (our Green Fallow Year), feeding the soil and eliminating weed seeds. We mow it to prevent the crimson clover seeding (which could be a nuisance) and when ever any weeds seem to be gaining. Here’s a couple of pictures from a previous year. (That’s our Dairy Barn by the side of the driveway, and our Hay Barn in the distance.)

Broccoli in fall after the clovers grow. Twin Oaks Community

Broccoli in the late fall after the clovers grow.
Twin Oaks Community

In March, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

In March, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

I’ve written up this method as part of an article for Growing for Market magazine, for the September issue.


And now our bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse. When we pulled up our early tomatoes, the roots of four of them in one bed were gnarly with lumps. It’s the return of the Root Knot Nematodes.

Credit University of Maryland

Credit University of Maryland

In the early spring of 2011 we found spinach with lumpy roots. We sent some plants with  soil attached, to the Plant Diseases Clinic and got the diagnosis of Peanut Root-Knot Nematodes. We put that half a bed into a series of cover crops, (wheat and white lupins in the winter, French marigolds and sesame in the spring) and solarized it each summer, for two years. In the summer of 2013, we grew Mississippi Silver cowpeas there (resistant to RKN). This past winter we grew lettuce in the that affected half-bed. We benefited – no sclerotinia drop in that lettuce crop, thanks to the summer solarization!

Meanwhile in the early summer of 2013, we found some beans with lumpy roots in the other half of the bed, so we started the same treatment there. Next summer (2015) we could grow the cowpeas there.

Our first (baggy) attempt at solarization in the hoophouse. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Our first (baggy) attempt at solarization in the hoophouse.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

But now the next bed over has nematodes. Having a half-bed out of production is manageable, but one and a half is more of a blow. We are considering whether we need to be as cautious, or whether we should accept that some level of nematode infestation is likely in hoophouses in the south. We are looking at various scenarios. This research has consumed all my available time this week. Information about nematodes is sometimes too general to be useful, as there are many kinds other than root-knot ones. Plus, what’s true for Peanut RKN is not necessarily true for Southern RKN or Northern RKN. Grr!

I’ve assembled a long list of tomato varieties resistant to some kind of RKN, although I don’t yet know which of them are resistant to Peanut Root-Knot Nematode. Many, many food crops are susceptible. Most of the resistant crops are ones we don’t want to grow in the hoophouse: Jerusalem artichokes, globe artichokes, asparagus, horseradish, rhubarb, maybe sweet corn (opinions vary on its resistance/susceptibility).

Maybe we could grow West Indian gherkins one summer. We’d get soooo many pickles! It’s a very productive crop for us. One idea was to build a second hoophouse and use the old one for (resistant) strawberries for two years! We’re not really at the place to do that, though, financially or time-wise.

Currently I’m studying a list of biocontrols to see what’s available and affordable. Life goes on. Hopefully we can decide at our crew meeting on Thursday, because we can’t start to implement our fall planting schedule in the hoophouse until we decide about the nematodes.

Planting fall crops, receiving rain

Young turnip and radish plants. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Young turnip and radish plants.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’re in cold-hardiness zone 7, and our average first frost date of October 14. This makes the first half of August our last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. In 2012 I wrote Last Chance Sowings. Depending on your climate zone, your dates might need to be earlier or later than ours. Fall vegetable growing provides fresh harvests, storage crops and possibly some crops to overwinter.

There are three categories of vegetable crops to consider planting at this time of year:

  • Warm weather crops that die with frost.
  • Cool weather crops that grow well in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in the summer.
  • Cold-hardy crops to grow over winter and get off to a fast start in early spring.

Planning and timing are crucial – if germination fails, you may not get a second chance with that vegetable. The twin challenges of fall crops are sowing in hot weather, followed by keeping the crop happy in cold weather. 

Warm weather crops

Don’t stop too soon! But don’t plant too late to have a reasonable chance of success. For crops to be harvested before killing frosts arrive, the formula to find the last sowing date for frost-tender crops is:

Number of days from outdoor planting to harvest (read the seed packet or catalog)

+ Number of days from seed to transplant if growing your own starts

+ Average number of days of harvest period

+ 14 days “Fall Factor” to allow for the slowing rate of growth as the weather cools

+ 14 days from your average first fall frost date (in case of an early frost)

______

= Days to count back from your average first fall frost date

 

For example, yellow squash takes 50 days from sowing to harvest, and our last planting is 8/5, a whole month later than we could risk without rowcover to throw over on chilly nights. Don’t worry that rowcover prevents pollination – you don’t need to get every flower pollinated, just keep the developing fruits growing. In many parts of the country, a frost or two will be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is worth the effort. (Unless you’ve reached the exhaustion point we call “Praying for a Killing Frost.”) It’s easy to get harvests for an extra month from mature plants you already have.

Cool weather spring and fall crops

Beets, carrots, chard, spinach, lettuce, scallions, peas, potatoes, Asian greens and other leafy brassicas, turnips, rutabagas and radishes all fall in this group. Fall gives you a second chance to enjoy these crops. The flavor of crops produced during warm sunny days and cool nights can be a delightful combination of sweetness and crunchy succulence.

We sowed 60% of our fall carrots last week, along with some “indicator beets,” and I ran overhead irrigation Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, on a third of the length each time. The indicator beets started to germinate on Sunday, and so yesterday (Monday) we flame-weeded the beds. Last night we got a little rain. Today there are hazy rows of green – germinated carrots! Maybe you’re wondering why we only sowed 60% of what we wanted. Well, we ran out of seed! Embarrassing and annoying, but oh well. More is on order, and it’s not too late to sow them, although they have less time to grow big. Every day counts in the fall!

Flame Weeding. Credit Brittany Lewis

Flame Weeding.
Credit Brittany Lewis

The formula for calculating last sowing dates for frost-tender crops can be modified for hardier vegetables. For example, Early White Vienna Kohlrabi takes 58 days from sowing to harvest (line 1). You can direct sow, so line 2 = 0. You can harvest it all at once and store it in your cooler, so line 3 is 1 day. Assuming you don’t want to use rowcover for this, line 4 = 14. Line 5 = 14 also. That all adds up to 87 days. Kohlrabi is hardy to maybe 15°F. The temperature is not likely to drop to 15°F before the beginning of November here, so counting back 31 days in October, plus 30 in September, plus 31 in August – that’s 92 days already, more than enough. We could sow kohlrabi in early August and get a crop at the end of October.

We have made ourselves a chart for fall harvest crops so that we don’t have to calculate each time. It helps us ensure we don’t sow too late to get a decent harvest.

Sowing dates for crops with various days to maturity

Days to   Harvest Harvest Harvest
Harvest   mid-Sept- late Sept- from  
    mid Oct mid-Oct mid-Oct
30d   27-Jul 16-Aug 31-Aug
40d   17-Jul 6-Aug 21-Aug
50d   7-Jul 27-Jul 11-Aug
60d   27-Jun 17-Jul 1-Aug
70d   17-Jun 7-Jul 22-Jul
80d   7-Jun 27-Jun 12-Jul
90d   28-May 17-Jun 2-Jul
100d   18-May 7-Jun 22-Jun
110d   8-May 28-May 12-Jun
120d   28-Apr 18-May 2-Jun
130d   18-Apr 8-May 23-May

We’ve sown two beds of beets, one of kale, some winter radish and fall radish. We’re behind on tilling and prepping beds, or we would have more. We’re experiencing the domino effect of getting late with one task, and then struggling to catch up as more and more tasks get behind-hand. We were late with our potato harvest. And therefore with our broccoli and cabbage transplanting (which uses that plot). Because we are transplanting older plants, we’re removing a couple of the older leaves from each one as we plant, to reduce transpiration losses. We’re late with tilling and bed prep, and therefore with planting. But we do still have hope. One of our mantras (learned from another farm) is “Prioritize planting during the planting season.” Here the planting season extends from early February to November outdoors.

We don’t sow spinach till September, so we’re not behind on that yet! Because spinach germinates so poorly in warm soil, we wait for temperatures to drop. This “summer” has been extremely cool, but we’re in no hurry to start spinach earlier than usual, because of all the other tasks. This year it would probably work. I saw fall dead nettle germinating on 8/4. That’s a phenology sign that the soil is cool enough for spinach.

I’ve been recording phenology data here since 2003. 8/4 is the earliest date I have for dead nettle, by a margin of 11 days! It has been as late as 9/1 (2004).

Cold-hardy crops to grow over winter

I covered this topic in detail in Growing for Market in September 2010, and in my slideshow Cold-hardy winter vegetables. The gist is “Before taking the plunge, know your climate, know your resources, know your market, know your crops, and when you don’t know, experiment on a small scale.” Useful information includes the winter-kill temperature of your desired crop. Choose hardy varieties, and be clear about whether you intend to harvest outdoors all winter (kale, spinach, leeks, parsnips, collards for us), or whether you want to have small crops going into winter so you can rest during the winter and be first out the gate in early spring, with crops waiting for you.

 

Hoeing corn, planting potatoes, sowing fall broccoli and cabbage

Corn at sunrise. Credit Wren Vile

Corn at sunrise.
Credit Wren Vile

More of our time in the garden this week is taken up by harvesting (a sign of success), leaving less time to stay on top of the weeds. On Thursday (June 19) we sowed our fourth of six sweet corn plantings. We have a system I like that helps us stay on top of sweet corn weeds. Each time we sow sweet corn, we hoe the previous planting, thin the plants to one every 8-12″ in the row, and wheel hoe or till between the rows. We have got two Valley Oak wheel hoes that we really like. The handle height is adjustable and they are available with different width hoes (and other attachments).

Courtesy of Valley Oak

Courtesy of Valley Oak

We also hoe the rows of the corn planting before that, and till between the rows and sow soybeans. Soybeans will grow in partial shade, handle the foot traffic of harvesting, and provide some nitrogen for the soil. When we harvest the corn we pull out any pigweed that has somehow survived our earlier efforts. I learned at a workshop on Sustainable Weed Management, that pigweed puts out its seeds in one big burst at the end, so pulling up enormous pigweed is worthwhile, if it hasn’t yet seeded. (Actually you can see it for yourself, but before the workshop I hadn’t noticed!) Our soil has improved over the years, so it is now possible to uproot the 5ft pigweeds. Sometimes we have to hold the corn plant down with our feet, but we do almost always succeed in getting the weeds out.

Today we at last got our June potatoes in the ground. We had planned for Saturday, but the forecast had rain in it, which would have messed up our chance to do the tractor work to cover and hill them. So we postponed till Monday. Well, no rain happened on Saturday, but a big rain happened early Sunday morning! Grrr! So we postponed till today (Tuesday), and happily were successful. June 16 is our ideal date, giving the potatoes plenty of time to grow before our average first frost date of October 21.

I found some interesting maps at Plantmaps.com. You can zoom in on your land. The site also has last frost, winter-hardiness zone, heat zone, drought monitoring, record highs and lows, ecoregions and native plants, on maps for the whole of the USA, and at least parts of Canada. Twin Oaks is in ecoregion 64b – Trap Rock and Conglomerate Uplands!

Yesterday I sowed our first round of broccoli and cabbage for the fall. I sowed 6 kinds of broccoli (Tendergreen, Fiesta, Diplomat, Green magic, Gypsy and Arcadia) and 6 of cabbage (Faroa, Early Jersey Wakefield, Tribute, Kaitlin, Melissa and Deadon)

A happy cabbage plant. Credit Kathryn Simmons

A happy cabbage plant. Credit Kathryn Simmons

We also sowed more squash (Zephyr and Spineless Perfection Zucchini) and cucumbers (our standard General Lee, or Generally, as we prefer to call it) this week. And released some pedio wasp mummies to kill the Mexican Bean Beetles organically. You can read more about how we do this here.

Now we’re fully caught up on planting, we can attack more of the weeds.

Qualified praise for biodegradable plastic mulch

Tomato transplants waiting in the cold frame. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Tomato transplants waiting in the cold frame.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’re having a very busy time in the garden. Because of late cold weather followed by too much rain at once, all our transplanting has been delayed. We’re up-to-date in the permanent raised beds – we’ve planted out lots of lettuce, senposai, early cabbage, scallions, our first cucumbers and summer squash, and chard, tomatoes, eggplant, celery and okra. We’re also up-to-date on raised bed sowings of carrots, turnips, beets, snap peas, snow peas, bush beans, edamame and asparagus beans. But in the row-crop areas, it’s a different story. We have planted out our main-crop cabbage and broccoli, our “spring” potatoes and sown our first corn. We’re about a week behind on our big transplantings of Roma paste tomatoes, peppers, melons, sweet potatoes, and therefore watermelons. It’s also time to sow more beans, cucumbers and squash. But we’re getting to it as fast as we can!

We’ve added in late afternoon transplanting shifts, and some random evening weeding (which has helped us get the first round of carrot and beet thinning done). Yesterday I measured and flagged the areas for Roma tomatoes, peppers, melons, beans, edamame, watermelon, and sweet potatoes. I set out the mainline tubing for the drip irrigation and dropped the shuttles of drip-tape at the ends of the patch. I wrote about our drip tape shuttles a while back. They are part of our commitment to minimize our agricultural plastic usage by making our plastic stuff last. The shuttles let us fairly easily reuse the drip tape.

Re-using drip tape, unreeling it using our shuttle and garden cart system. Photo credit Luke Stovall

Re-using drip tape, unreeling it using our shuttle and garden cart system.
Photo credit Luke Stovall

After running out the drip tape, flushing the lines, capping them off and testing (and fixing!) any leaks, next we’ll roll out biodegradable plastic mulch. This wonderful product has changed our lives! And yet we are not all firmly convinced it is an ecological choice. The language in the accessible information can be confusing.

We like using biodegradable plastic because it warms the soil, leading to much earlier crops, it keeps the weeds down for a few months, and then it falls apart, so we don’t have to remove it and add to the heaps of agricultural plastic trash. It’s especially good for vining crops like watermelons and sweet potatoes, because by the time the mulch disintegrates, the vines cover the ground and weeds have little chance. Why we qualify our praise is because it has been hard to find out what it’s made of, and what it disintegrates into. And for some, there’s that knee-jerk reaction to anything plastic!

Biodegradable is not the same as bioplastic, nor as bio-based. Bioplastics are a type of plastic made from biological substances rather than from petroleum products alone. Some are biodegradable, some are not. Wikipedia distinguishes two types of bioplastics 1. Oxo-biodegradable plastics (made partly from natural sources, with non-biological additives) – they break down into biodegradable materials;  and 2. Plastics made wholly or in part from vegetable material. The second type are often made of cornstarch or sugarcane, but could be made from other agricultural crops. Some biodegrade, others don’t (eg those made from sugarcane ethanol). I found the Wikipedia explanations confusing and some read as if they were funded by petrodollars: “It is difficult to see why . . . resources . . . should be used to produce them when the raw material for conventional plastics is so inexpensive and is available in unlimited quantities.” Really.

I found a European Factsheet on bioplastics which clears some of the confusion. There are conventional (petroleum-based) plastics and there are bioplastics. Bioplastics may be divided into three categories. The first is the bioplastics which are not biodegradable. The other two are biodegradable, and differ in whether or not they contain fossil-based materials or only bio-based materials. Our goal would be to get biodegradable bio-based materials.

The two most commonly available biodegradable plastic mulches in the US are Eco-One and Bio360  from Canada. Novamont, an Italian company, imports Biotelo, the original mulch film made from their product Mater-Bi.

Eco-One describes itself as Oxo-degradable. It claims “Environmentally sound degradation: Laboratory studies indicate that this degradable plastic breaks down into CO2, H2O and biomass without toxic residues. Degrades fully both above and below the soil.” It’s available clear (for encouraging early emergence of sweet corn) and black, including an extended lifespan version for those wanting a 5-6 month window before it degrades, rather than the usual 3-4 months.

Bio360 is made by Dubois. It’s entirely biodegradable, and made from Mater-Bi, a non-genetically-modified starch with vegetable oil resin. Mater-Bi® is a wide family of fully biodegradable bioplastics, sold in pellet form to the industry of bioplastic converters. Mater-Bi®’s ingredients consist of plant starches, “mainly corn starch, with fully biodegradable aliphatic-aromatic polymers from both renewable raw materials (mainly vegetable oils) and fossil raw materials. Mater-Bi breaks down into carbon dioxide and water, with no mulch residues in the soil.” (see also the Cornell University 2006, Biodegradable Mulch Product Testing). Ah! So even Mater-Bi contains some fossil raw materials. And of course, fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing process. Life is so full of trade-offs!

I found explanation of the chemistry from the Biodegradable Products Institute, as part of a 2012 petition to the USDA National Organic Standards Board to allow “Biodegradable Mulch Film Made From Bioplastics”.  The bioplastics they were petitioning for are not polyethylene like regular plastic mulch, but “polyesters, polymers formed by the reaction of a hydroxyl group and a carboxyl group. The natural world is full of ester linkages. Living cells and organisms have developed enzymes to hydrolyze the ester linkage. Examples of natural esters are fats and oils, where three fatty acid molecules are esterified to glycerol/glycerin; natural waxes, where long-chain alcohols are esterified to a fatty acid; and some natural flavors, such as banana flavor, n-amyl acetate, an ester of n-amyl alcohol and acetic acid.” Biodegradable bioplastic mulch film materials can contain carbon black to make the film black to absorb heat from the sun. Or titanium dioxide to create  white mulch, which can cool surface soil temperatures slightly, by reflecting most of the sun’s heat.

NatureWorks‟ PLA INGEO, Ecoflex® F Blend C1200, Ecovio® F Film and Ecovio® F Blend, Mirel™, were also listed in the petition as suitable Biodegradable Mulch Films made from bioplastics. In contrast, oxo-biodegradable materials were not included in their petition, because they did not fulfill the two criteria proposed to address the concept of “fully biodegradable plastics”.

The Organic Standards are inconsistent, as §205.206(c)(1) permits “mulching with fully biodegradable materials” but §205.206(c)(6) requires that “plastic or other synthetic mulches . . . are removed from the field at the end of the growing or harvest season.”

I’ve been buying from Nolt’s Produce Supplies in Leola, PA (717) 656-9764. They sell Bio360 BTB645 4′ x 5000′ for $345 plus shipping, and Eco-One E1B548 4′ x 8000′ for $243 plus shipping. They are a company that doesn’t use email or websites, and they’re closed on major Christian holidays, so don’t call then! Johnny’s sells 32′ lengths for $17.95. Robert Marvel sells whole rolls of Eco-One and Bio360 (call for prices).

The first biodegradable plastic we used was Bio-Telo, (Mater-Bi). Since then we have sometimes bought that and sometimes Eco-One. I had not appreciated the difference. Knowing what I know now, I’ll buy the Mater-Bi types in future, rather than the oxo-biodegradable ones.

Next time I’ll write about how we set out biodegradable mulches without he use of any machines. Sorry for the delay in posting. I’m working on making improvements to my website, honest!

Home from Asheville, potatoes planted, more rain and cold weather.

Last night I got home from a very successful Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina. This location was new one for Mother Earth News, and attendance was higher than expected. On Sunday evening one of the staff told me there had been 7000-8000 people. That’s not official. The weather was perfect, and the setting beautifully backed by the mountains. I gave two presentations: Cold-hardy winter vegetables, and Crop rotations for vegetables and cover crops, which I revised for the occasion to be clearer, I hope! Tomorrow I’ll upload it to Slideshare.net, so attendees can watch again, and people who didn’t go can see it for the first time. I did a book-signing, and had a marketing talk with my publishers.

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I got home to find our garden crew had managed to seize the moment with dry enough soil and get the potatoes planted. It did involve an evening shift covering them. The beds had been prepared for planting broccoli and cabbage, but time ran out. Just as well, maybe. We now have the possibility of a night-time low temperature of 25F tonight and 26F tomorrow. The transplants are better off in the coldframe under several layers of covers.

I spent a lot of the day setting rooted sweet potato slips into flats.The link takes you to last spring’s blog post telling more about how we do it.  Ten days ago I was behind on my goal for the number of slips in flats. Today I am two weeks ahead, suddenly!

Cut sweet potato slips put in water to grow roots. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Cut sweet potato slips put in water to grow roots.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Growing sweet potato slips in a germinating cabinet. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Growing sweet potato slips in a germinating cabinet. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Another piece of good news is that the glitch that sometimes made my website repeatedly unavailable has been solved!

 

 

 

Potato yields, Salanova lettuce review, Yet more snow!

Newly emerging potato plant in the spring Credit Kathryn Simmons

Newly emerging potato plant in the spring
Credit Kathryn Simmons

After my Feed the Soil presentation at Lynchburg College on 3/16, one of the participants emailed me to ask the relative potato yields from our twice a year plantings. The question sent me back to my records. Interestingly (to me) I’d recorded yield almost every time, but never compared the two. Now I know:
15 years of records on spring plantings (mid-March) gave yield ratios from a very low 3:1 to a happy 13:1. The average was 8.2:1 and the median 8:1.
16 years of records on the mid-June planting gave yield ratios ranging from a miserable 3:1 to a high of 10.7:1. The average was 7:1, and the median the same.

We used to plant at 10″ in-row spacing and have shifted to 12″. These figures contain both, with no obvious difference.

Looking at these results points out to me an advantage of doing two plantings that I didn’t mention during my presentation: a poor spring result can be followed by a good summer result. And vice versa. The 13:1 spring result was followed by 4.8:1 in the summer. The 3:1 spring yield was followed by 7.2:1 from the June planting. Doing two plantings spreads the risk.

The questioner also asked if we get potato beetles. We do get them in the spring and spray once, occasionally twice, with Spinosad, which is organically acceptable. In the summer we get no potato beetles. I think the mulch helps. Adult potato beetles emerging from the soil have to walk to find potato plants, and I bet the mulch is very challenging!

We use the same varieties in both plantings, Red Pontiac and Kennebec. Kennebec stores better, Red Pontiac gives higher yields, but isn’t good for long term storage. That said, we recently finished eating Red Pontiacs from our October harvest. I haven’t done much research into trying other varieties because we just buy what’s available locally.The Irish Eyes catalog has descriptions of varieties better for certain conditions. Moose Tubers (Fedco Seeds) has a useful comparative chart of varieties.

Salanova Lettuce Review

My impulse buy when ordering seeds last year was the full set of Salanova Lettuce from Johnny’s. These are varieties of lettuce bred for baby salad mix. You grow them as transplanted heads, and when the head is mature you cut the whole thing and bingo – you get a bowlful of small leaves. They do not grow big leaves, just more and more small leaves. Some of them have a core which you need to cut out in order to make the leaves fall apart. Others you just cut across at the base .If you’ve ever grown Tango, you’ll now the kind of thing.  As well as being very pretty, these lettuces are said to save you time at harvesting compared to cutting along a row of baby lettuce mix. This aspect really appealed to some of our crew.

Johnny's Foundation Collection of Salanova. Photo from their catalog

Johnny’s Foundation Collection of Salanova. Photo from their catalog

Because the seed is expensive (100 pelleted seeds for $15.95), we decided to grow these for our hoophouse “filler” heads, which we transplant into gaps that happen in our beds of head and leaf lettuce. That way we’d get them at the time of year (late winter/early spring) when we grow baby lettuce mix and we could do a direct comparison.

We bought the full set, 100 seeds of the Foundation Collection (the more frilly types) and 100 seeds of the Premier Collection (the more flat and lobed types). Each collection is 25 seeds each of four varieties. We sowed each type in a 4′ seed row (seeds 2 inches apart) on 10/23. They came up well, and we transplanted them 1/2/14. We just started using them 3/20, so the jury is still out. Some unfortunately got cut before reaching full size. I’m not sure what full size is yet. Next year, I’d sow them earlier, so that the heads mature sooner. This winter has been very cold, they may have grown slower than they could have – some other seedlings are certainly slowed down.

A couple of them are exceptionally pretty. The Red Butter type has beautiful very dark red simple shaped leaves. The Red Sweet Crisp reminds me of a fine seaweed in looks – green at the base and intense dark red at the tips. The Green Sweet Crisp is surprisingly sweet, in a good way. Winter lettuce mixes are not usually crisp or sweet.

Osborne Seeds Multileaf Multi-red Lettuce. Photo from their website.

Osborne Seeds Multileaf Multi-red Lettuce. Photo from their website.

Also next year, I’d like to compare these with some “Multileaf” varieties from Osborne Seeds. They have 7 varieties, 3 green and 4 red. It took me a little while to realize “multired” was “multi-red” and not the past tense of “to multire”, a verb I was pondering the meaning of! They are $7 – $7.47 for 500 pelleted seeds. Some are back-ordered right now, but I’d want them next winter anyway. I’d also like to do a side-by-side comparison with Tango, Oscarde and Panisse which are inclined towards packing in many small leaves without further marketing.

And finally, yes, we’re expecting some more possible snow tomorrow morning. Can you believe it? Maybe we’ll just get rain.

Chert Hollow Farm on Organic certification, More Snow, Feed the Soil presentation.

Chert Hollow Farm's photos of their farm gate before and after.

Chert Hollow Farm’s photos of their farm gate before and after.

For some time I have been following the blog of Eric and Joanna Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm near Columbia, Missouri. I admire their commitment and creativity. Recently they have posted a three-part series on why they have decided to drop their USDA Organic certification. I found it a very thought-filled and coherent piece of writing and want more people to read it and ponder the points they make.

Dropping organic certification, part I talks about some of their concerns with the USDA Organic system as a whole, and how some of the Organic rules are increasingly at odds with their “beliefs and standards for sustainable and ethical food production.” Their work creating a diverse deeply-sustainable farm with minimal bought-in inputs isn’t easily reconciled with the USDA certification process. “Trying to use our own resources in a creatively sustainable way created an unusually-shaped peg that the organic system’s round holes don’t expect. And thus there’s a lot of subtle pressure on organic farms just to buy stuff rather than be more diversified and creative in their farming approach.” According to their Organic inspectors over the years, they have been star poster-child Organic farmers for five years, and their decision to leave Organic certification will be “a major loss to the organic certification community/process in this part of the country”.

In addition to the differing philosophy and practice between Joanna and Eric’s approach and the USDA, the costs are too high and the benefits too few.

Dropping organic certification, part II  goes into some of their specific issues with the certification. Concerns include costs, including the uncertainty of whether the government will continue the cost-share program; bureaucracy (why don’t chemical farmers have to track and report their inputs and applications??); and the degree of usefulness of USDA certification for direct marketing. As a CSA farm, Eric and Joanna are no longer competing for customers with self-proclaimed “organic” farmers at the market.

Dropping organic certification, part III looks at the benefits of dropping certification, while acknowledging what they learned by being part of the certified system, specifically the value of good record-keeping, good compost-making and careful sourcing of inputs. They credit being certified (and needing to check potential herbicide use on hay and straw they brought in for feed and mulch) with helping them avoid the “killer hay” incidents which are, sadly, all too common around the country. They write about what they are looking forward to, freed from the certification restrictions. They are increasing biological diversity on their farm, getting off mailing lists (!), and communicating more with customers and CSA members, know they’ll save time on certification paperwork. Finally, they discuss some of their regrets about no longer being part of “something bigger, a known collection of farms and consumers that stood for something different from the conventional agriculture model” they oppose. They will no longer have the support of USDA if they suffer from spray drift. They will no longer have an easy label to describe their farming practices to customers. Their hope is that more direct, personal communication with CSA members and the rest of the world will take over in addressing that need.

Meanwhile, here at Twin Oaks, we’ve had More Snow. Only about 3″, following rain. But it has brought a halt to our outdoor gardening pursuits for a while. Just before the snow we managed to get some disking done – the first of the year! We had got some raised beds tilled a few days earlier, so we managed to prepare those bed and sow beets, turnips, radishes and scallions, as well as the last of the snap peas. We haven’t transplanted anything except lettuce, scallions and spinach, because it has been so cold. We got beds ready for kale, cabbage, senposai and collards, before I realized the plants were too small to go outside! All our transplants have been growing slowly. We have postponed planting our tomatoes in the hoophouse because the weather is so unsettled (which is a mild way of saying scarily cold).

On Sunday 3/16, I co-taught Feeding Ourselves Sustainably Year Round with Cindy Conner and Ira Wallace. I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago. I spoke about Feeding the Soil. Here’s my slide show from that event:

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/feed-the-soil” title=”Feed the soil. Pam Dawling” target=”_blank”>Feed the soil. Pam Dawling</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming” target=”_blank”>Pam Dawling</a></strong> </div>

Crop Planning presentation, weather and resilience

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/crop-planning-60-min-presentation” title=”Crop Planning. Pam Dawling 60 min presentation” target=”_blank”>Crop Planning. Pam Dawling 60 min presentation</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming” target=”_blank”>Pam Dawling</a></strong> </div>

My presentation on Crop Planning to the CSA Expert Exchange Online Conference on Friday 3/7 went well, after a short delay due to slow website loading. Joys of rural living! I just learned that our Internet runs slow on rainy days because the water in the soil affects the underground cables. A s a farmer, I’m very used to considering the effects of the weather, But I never would have guessed this one. Now I realize I jinx myself when I work outside in nice weather and do my desk work while it’s raining!

Spinach bed with a row of peas in the middle. Photo

Spinach bed with a row of peas in the middle.
Photo Kathryn SImmons

This week has been challenging in the garden because of snow followed by very wet soil. On Monday we managed to transplant a bed of spinach and the first week’s round of lettuce. That felt like great progress! Even though it is a month later than we would “normally” hope to do those tasks! We chose to work on the driest section of the raised bed area. Before that we had been weeding the grapes and spreading compost. Having some perennials to take care of makes good use of our time in the winter, early spring, and whenever cultivated soil is too boggy to step on (in).

These considerations are all part of a list we keep to help us choose tasks suited to the conditions, so we can make best use of our time without doing damage. A lot of our garden work is done on 3 or 4 hour shifts with up to 11 people. The honcho needs to be on the ball to keep all those people gainfully employed! Our honchos/honchas are the more experienced people, and will usually prepare for the shift beforehand, making a list of possibilities.

Some of the shift time is harvesting (only spinach currently, apart from getting potatoes from the root cellar and sweet potatoes from the basement). That’s our top priority. We try to get some harvesting done even if it’s very cold or raining lightly. The crops that wilt fastest get picked close to the end of the harvesting period, so they don’t deteriorate while we get other crops.

We have a Task List for the week, and our sequence of priority is generally harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand-weed. “Prioritize planting during the planting season” is one of the mantras we embrace. Sometimes other factors come into play. A new member pointed out that all my answers start with “It depends. . . ”

We try to do the more aerobic jobs (especially jobs involving shovels) in the coolest part of the shift, or on the cooler days. We also try to offer each person some options, because people do better when doing tasks they prefer. Sometimes we just have to grin and bear it: “This is the job we need to finish today.”

We are often including visitors in our work, so we need to make sure we mix up members and visitors on each task, so that visitors get enough directions and help. We also need to check in to see how they’re doing with the heat/cold and level of physical activity. We don’t want them to collapse! We also need to be firm about pulling them off a job if they are causing damage, and trying to find some other task that might suit them better.

Having the entire crew finish the shift at the same time is complex choreography! Putting tools away as we go along helps reduce a mammoth task at the end, although having some people cleaning and storing tools as the finish time approaches can be a good way of evening out the workload. The honcho needs to pace the planting, watering and rowcovering. It’s no good transplanting 500 feet if you don’t get it watered and covered before leaving the scene.

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter

Sometimes it’s easier to start everyone on a big hoeing or weeding project, then leave an experienced person in charge of the straightforward task and most of the crew, while you pull out a couple of people to get a complicated task started. Next add more people once it’s up and running. Or send one or two experienced people over to set up, and then send more crew over as the set up work is done It’s awful having 9 people stand there while you try to figure out how to do a planting!.

We have contingency plans for specific situations:

If the day is likely to be very hot, have an “aerobic segment” at the beginning of the shift and 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 without getting bogged down. 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 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. Don’t hoe if it’s about to rain, it’s a waste of time. Hoeing is best done in an area that won’t get irrigated that night. Likewise don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain. 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.