Late carrot sowing, plenty of corn and okra, spotty tomatoes.

Newly emerged carrots with indicator beets. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Newly emerged carrots with indicator beets.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We finally got our big planting of fall carrots sown. Much later than I’ve ever sown carrots before. Our goal is early August, so we are a month behind. We usually harvest all our carrots at some point in November and store them for the winter. If carrots take 75 days to grow and we’ve lost 30, how big will the carrots get? The rate of growth will slow as it gets colder.We can’t just harvest a  month later and expect the same size carrots as usual. It’s not a linear rate of increase. Some crops double in size in their last month of growth. if that’s true of carrots, we’ll get about half the yield we usually do, if we harvest at our usual date.

We had challenges preparing the soil (too much rain, too many grass weeds, not enough rain, not enough time. . . ). This morning we finally got it all raked and rocks picked out, and seeds put in. We mark the beds with the Johnny’s rowmarker rake five rows in a four foot wide bed. Then we sow with an EarthWay seeder. It’s very quick and easy. We sow about 12″ of beet seeds at one end – these are our “Indicator Beets”. When the beets germinate, we know the carrots will be up the next day and it’s time to flame weed the carrot beds.

Flame weeding carrots. Photo by Kati Falger

Flame weeding carrots.
Photo by Kati Falger

Once you get over the hesitation about using a fiercely hot propane burner, flame weeding is also quick and easy. And boy, it saves so much hand weeding! We bought our Red Dragon backpack flame weeder from Fedco. As you see, we decided to use wheelbarrow rather than carry the propane tank on our backs, and include a second person (and in this picture, a third!). The second person is the safety monitor and looks out for unwanted things (like hay mulch burning).

We do hope our carrots will have ideal growing weather and catch up a bit. We’ve sowed 4000 feet of them. Here’s a picture of fall carrots from a previous year:

Fall carrots. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Fall carrots.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

I did a bit of research on last sowing dates for carrots in our area.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in their useful Fall & Winter Vegetable Gardening Quick Reference suggests 8/31. We’re five days later than that. The National Gardening Association on their customizable Garden Planting Calendar for our zipcode comes up with September 4. The news is getting better! They have planting dates for spring and fall, in a very user-friendly format. The How Do Gardener Page says August 31 is the last planting date for carrots in Virginia. Fingers crossed!

Sweet corn plantings 3, 4 and 5 (left to right, 4 rows of each) earlier this summer. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Sweet corn plantings 3, 4 and 5 (left to right, 4 rows of each) earlier this summer. Planting 5 is under the ropes to the right.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Meanwhile our sweet corn is doing very well. We’re eating the Bodacious sweet corn and the Kandy Korn of our fifth sowing. In a couple of days the Silver Queen of our fifth sowing will be ready. After that we have sowing number 6, the same three varieties. That’s it: six sweet corn sowings through the season.

Another crop being very successful is okra. We grow Cow Horn okra from Southern Exposure. We like it for its tall plants, high productivity and the fact that the pods are tender at 5-6″. We do find it hard to convince our cooks that we have specially chosen this “commune-friendly” variety so they don’t have to deal with fiddly little okra pods when cooking for 100. We used to harvest at 5″, we’ve had to compromise and harvest at 4″.

Cow Horn okra. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Cow Horn okra.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

And then the not-so-good news – spotty tomatoes. We have been getting anthracnose,

Anthracnose spot on tomato. Photo courtesy of T.A. Zitter, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Anthracnose spot on tomato.
Photo courtesy of T.A. Zitter, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

small water-soaked spots. The Vegetable MD Online site is one I often turn to. I go to the “Diseases by crop” page, then click on the vegetable I’m worrying about. Sometimes the vitally helpful photos are down the page, below the horizon. Here’s the info which I think tells us where we went wrong:

” In late spring the lower leaves and fruit may become infected by germinating sclerotia and spores in the soil debris. “

While we were determining what was wrong when our plants got hit with some hot weather herbicide drift, we didn’t touch the plants in case it was a viral disease.  We didn’t do the string weaving. The plants sprawled on the ground. Later we made a bit of an effort to catch up but failed. The plants were a sprawly mess, even though the foliage recovered and the plants were loaded with fruits. Far too much contact with the ground! (Even though we used the biodegradable plastic, each plant had a hole in the plastic, and soil ‘appeared’). I also noted that anthracnose is more prevalent on poorly drained soils, and the area we had planted in was one of the lower lying plots, and July had lots of rain.

Water-soaked circular sunken spots of anthracnose (Colletotrichum coccodes) usually appear on the shoulders of mature fruit. Photo courtesy of T.A. Zitter, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Water-soaked circular sunken spots of anthracnose (Colletotrichum coccodes) usually appear on the shoulders of mature fruit.
Photo courtesy of T.A. Zitter, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Well, lessons learned! Fortunately our other tomatoes on higher ground didn’t get anthracnose, and some of them will feature in Southern Exposure‘s Tomato Tasting at the Heritage Harvest Festival this weekend.

An amazing array of tomaotes. Photo by Epic Tomatoes author Craig LeHoullier

An amazing array of tomatoes.
Photo by Epic Tomatoes author Craig LeHoullier

 

 

Reviewing tomatoes, checking garlic, Growing for Market magazine

Hoophouse tomatoes at full height. Photo Nina Gentle

Hoophouse tomatoes at full height.
Photo Nina Gentle

One of the crops we grow in our hoophouse in spring is a range of open-pollinated and heirloom tomatoes. Because it doesn’t rain in there and we use drip irrigation, our plants don’t get water put on the leaves. Naturally, they have some dew in the mornings, but this dries up early. So there is less fungal disease pressure than outdoors. Additionally, we do a better job of monitoring the indoor crops than those in the field. So the hoophouse is a good place to “audition” varieties we haven’t grown before, and to grow those delicious but temperamental ones that we no longer grow outside. This year we grew 20 varieties, with at least two plants of each. A few are F1 Hybrids, most are OP.

We are lucky enough to be able to grow some of what we like best without a lot of attention to whether it would be a commercial success or not. But there comes a point (usually in the heat and busyness of summer!) when we want to know which varieties are productive and disease-resistant, as well as delicious. We haven’t time to cosset the losers. We want to invest our time wisely and get good results. And we want to boot the worst to make way for trying some other varieties next year.

I already wrote about the “Rampancy Rating” tomato height chart which we use to plan for the shortest plants at the east end and tallest on the west (for best lighting along the rows). Now here are some notes on the varieties we grew this spring, in terms of productivity and disease resistance. Flavor is very important and more subjective. All of these were tasty.

 

This year’s most productive tomatoes among the ones we grew in our hoophouse include Amy’s Apricot, Amy’s Sugar Gem, Five Star Grape (F1 hybrid), Garden Peach, Glacier, Mountain Magic, Stupice, Sun Gold (F1 hybrid) and TC Jones.

Amy's Sugar Gem tomato. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Amy’s Sugar Gem tomato.
Photo  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Reasonably productive for us were Black Cherry, Green Zebra, Nepal, Riesentraube, Tropic and Yellow Oxheart.

Riesentraube cherry tomatoes. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Riesentraube cherry tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

We got poor yields from Cherokee Purple, Jubilee, Moskvich, Striped German and Valencia. Now, in all fairness to tomato plant breeders, I should say these productivity ratings sometimes cause me to wonder if the plants have been “browsed” by my fellow communards. Black Cherry, Cherokee Purple and Striped German are well-known for exceptional flavor. It could be that the yield was much higher than I saw.

Cherokee Purple tomatoes. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Cherokee Purple tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In terms of disease, we got some Early Blight and Septoria Leaf Spot. Our most disease-resistant tomatoes were Amy’s Apricot, Amy’s Sugar Gem, Black Cherry, Five Star Grape, Jubilee, Mountain Magic, Riesentraube and Sun Gold. We usually get good disease-resistance from Tropic but it was only so-so this year. Other so-so varieties we grew were Cherokee Purple, Garden Peach, Striped German and TC Jones. More prone to diseases were Green Zebra, Moskvich, Nepal, Valencia and Yellow Oxheart.

Glacier early tomatoes. photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Glacier early tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

We didn’t record disease-resistance for Stupice or Glacier. We grow these two because they are the fastest and have pretty good flavor for early varieties. We don’t plan to keep them long-term. As soon as we can have bigger slicing varieties and ones without green shoulders, we’re on to them!

Garden Peach fuzzy tomato. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Garden Peach fuzzy tomato.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

So, looking at both productivity and disease-resistance, next year we’ll likely grow Amy’s Apricot, Amy’s Sugar Gem, Black Cherry, Five-Star Grape, Garden Peach, Glacier, Jubilee, Mountain Magic, Riesentraube, Stupice, Sun Gold and Tropic. Maybe not Cherokee Purple or Striped German unless some people fess up to surreptitious private harvesting. Maybe not Green Zebra, Moskvich, Nepal, TC Jones, Valencia or Yellow Oxheart.

The Cornell Vegetable MD Online has a wonderful chart of disease-resistance in tomato varieties. 38 diseases, 7 physiological disorders and almost 300 varieties listed. The list is a few years old, so really new varieties won’t be there, but the heirlooms and the standard F1s are there.

Research at Penn State Extension provides this list of “Best Tunnel Tomatoes”:BHN 589***, Scarlet Red, Primo Red, Red Mountain*, Red Deuce, Rally **, Charger, Finishline, Rocky Top, BrandyBoy, Conestoga, Carolina Gold, BHN 876, and Big Dena. Mostly they focused on red determinate slicers.

Amy Goldman’s Book The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit will tell you all the pros and cons of many heirloom varieties.

So will Craig LeHoullier’s Epic Tomatoes which I reviewed when it first came out.


Growing for Market magazine

Growing for Market magazine

The august issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, along with my article about garlic. This is in the form of a checklist for each stage of harvesting, curing, snipping, sorting and storage.

The cover article, by Joanna and Eric Reuter, whose interesting Chert Hollow Farm blog I often refer to, is about learning to successfully farm together as a couple. (The June/July issue of Growing for Market carried an article about farming as a family with a young child.) This month, Joanna and Eric have interviewed five couples, and asked probing questions about communication of information and emotional states, division of labor, dealing with the jobs neither partner likes to do, balancing sharing decision-making with allowing each other some autonomy and accepting following the other’s lead on some decisions. They also address time off, in particular, how to get time off together, as well as the general issue of limit setting. Managing stress comes up, including the challenges of supporting each other while in the midst of a farm crisis. And they close with some words of advice. I appreciated having this aspect of farming get serious consideration. It’s as vital as good transplants and good tools!

In this issue is also a picture and info about a sloping deer fence that is effective without making you feel like you are working in a cage, a review of the USDA cover crops chart, where each “tile” of the chart opens up when clicked to provide more information, and  Gretel Adams write about growing dried flowers and grains for winter flower arrangements. Lastly there is the encouraging and heart-warming story of Anne and Brian Bates who went from zero land and zero farm income to a 75 acre farm making $100K two years later. they financed the farm with loans from parents, USDA, NRCS and a crowd-funded 3 year loan from Kiva Zip. Their financial plan includes one-third of their income going to pay off the loans, one third in salary and one third to operating costs. Careful planning and hard work are bringing success.

 

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.)

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.

Back from Asheville, potatoes planted, UN urges small-scale organics

MENFairLogoI got home from the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC yesterday, happy with a successful and enjoyable weekend. My workshops The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer, and The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter are viewable if you click on SlideShare.net. The fall and winter one has bonus material, because I couldn’t show all the slides in the time available! 200-250 people attended each workshop, all my handouts disappeared. The Spring and Summer one on Saturday morning had some technical hitches. It was windy and the handouts and raffle tickets (for a copy of my book) blew around despite my weighting them down with the biggest rocks I could find in the parking lot. The microphone didn’t work well, and not everyone could get a good view of the screen. And some people were stuck in traffic and couldn’t get to my workshop (the first of the event) in time. But the Fall and Winter one on Sunday had no traffic, microphone or weather challenges, and all went well. The weather was beautiful. Attendance at the Fair was up from last year’s 16,000 figure to 20,000!

Photo Barnes and Noble

Photo Barnes and Noble

I enjoyed attending two workshops by Craig LeHoullier about tomato growing and which to choose for best flavor. I reviewed his lovely book Epic Tomatoes earlier. Craig is now working on another book, this one about straw-bale gardening. Another workshop I enjoyed was Joel Dufour from BCS Earth Tools. Entitled “Garden Tools 202: The stuff you won’t learn at a big box store,” it included information on tool ergonomics and materials, including steel hardness. I loved this advice on how to tell a good hoe from a bad one: if you finish hoeing and the hoe has specks of white dust on it, you have a good hoe that is harder than the rocks you nicked. If instead your hoe has dings where the rocks nicked it, your hoe is very inferior. Earth Tools sells good hand tools as well as good engine-powered tools. Two things Joel didn’t tell us in his workshop –  their customer service is among the best around, and their business is very ecological: they really walk their talk. See their website for more.


While I was at the Fair this weekend, our Garden Crew was busy planting potatoes – at last – we have been held back by cold weather and wet soil. A full month late, so we’re looking at lower yields unless we can harvest later. Not straightforward, as we usually clear the potatoes and transplant our fall broccoli and cabbage on that plot. And we can’t delay that, or we won’t get a decent harvest before the weather cools down too much. . .

Flats of broccoli seedlings in our cold frame. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Flats of broccoli seedlings in our cold frame.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We’ve also got the beds prepared for transplanting the spring broccoli and cabbage. We’re 10 days late on that, but the plants were slow-growing earlier, and they’re in nice deep flats, so they might not be set back at all.

The weather changed over the weekend (frost on Saturday night) to warm and sunny. Our over-wintered Vates kale is now all bolting, and a couple of members are enthusiastically making kale chips. There’s a simple recipe here. Kale chips are especially good sprinkled with nutritional yeast. Quite addictive. Also because the kale shrinks, you can move a lot of kale by making chips, and it no longer seems sad that it’s all bolting!


The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group posted this  news (encouraging sustainable farmers on a distressing topic):

UN Report Urges Return to Small-Scale Organic Farming

A UN farming report, Wake Up Before It’s Too Late, is publicly  recognizing and acknowledging that it’s time to return to a more sustainable and organic food system. Increasing species diversity and reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, are two of the changes desperately needed, according to the UN report. The report also covers topics such as land use, climate change and global food security.The conclusion of the report is, “This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”
Read more on the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy blog.

UNCTAD Report Wake Up Before It Is Too Late

UNCTAD Report, Wake Up Before It Is Too Late

Spring underway at last!

This past week has seen real forward progress in the garden. The last of the rows of snap peas got planted. As I explained in a previous post, we plant peas in the middles of beds of spinach. I wrote more about this and other examples of interplanting in my post for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog.

We also transplanted 4 beds of spinach (360 row feet each). Tilling was delayed by wet soil, so I was happy we had enough transplants to get us off to a fast start. Hot weather arrives early here, and causes the spinach to bolt, so having transplants helps us get a longer harvest season. Many of the plants were bare-root transplants which had been growing in the hoophouse since 1/25.

Speedling flats. Photo from EPS Manufacturing

Speedling flats.
Photo from EPS Manufacturing

We ended up with spare spinach which we had sown in Speedling flats in the greenhouse. Speedlings are available from many grower supplies places, or look for them (organically) used. They are expanded styrofoam, which makes them very lightweight, and in fact they float, a feature which we make use of when we sow sweet corn starts to fill gaps in rows of our first (chancy) corn planting. We have a big tank where we float 8 Speedlings of corn. They need no watering and don’t get stunted. Carefree! They are a tad fragile in novice hands, and as we like to make our plastics last as long as possible, we make sure to instruct people to pick them up when transplanting, not drag them by putting a thumb in a cell and pulling. Butter knives make great transplanting tools for the 200 cell or bigger Speedlings. Jab the knife in the soil, wiggle it from side to side, making a wedge-shaped hole. Then slide the knife down the sloping side of a cell, hold the plant gently in the other hand, pulling slightly while lifting the knife in the first hand with a scooping motion. The plug then rests on the horizontal blade of the knife. Slide the plant into the hole, firm the soil, and repeat 719 times for one bed of spinach! Or get help.

Transpalnting spinach from Speedling flats. Photo Denny Ray McElyea

Transplanting from Speedling flats.
Photo Denny Ray McElyea

A carrot bed showing the indicator beets. Credit Kathryn Simmons

A carrot bed showing the indicator beets.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We sowed 3 beds of carrots 3/23, along with some “indicator beets”, which should germinate a day before the carrots, and so tell us when to flame-weed. Typically carrots take 9-12 days at this time of year, but I think the soil is still colder than normal for the time of year. They’re not up yet (day 8). It’s time we moved the soil thermometer from the flats on the heat mat in the greenhouse out to the carrot beds. [Why not buy another soil thermometer, Pam?]

We also got two beds of beets sown, with more to do today. And we’re ready to transplant our first three sowings of lettuce. That will give us some much needed space in the coldframe. (Not to mention some much needed lettuce in a few weeks!) The delayed outdoor plantings have caused a lot of back-up congestion in the greenhouse and cold frame.

Our over-wintered Vates kale isn’t looking too good, after the extreme cold weather we had this winter. And unfortunately our spring-sown kale didn’t come up, so we’re on course for a spring kale shortage. We can plant more collards, as we have lots of those plants, and maybe some more senposai.


The number of people reading my blog grew from a lower point in September, through October, November and December to a steady 4200 per month in January, February and March. That’s 140 a day. I’m very happy with that. My blog now has 88 followers. If you want to leave a comment, look for the button at the end of the comments section, or the speech bubble at the top right of the blog.

My review of Craig LeHoullier’s wonderful book Epic Tomatoes continues to be a very popular post, and I’m embarking next on a review of another great book: The Tao of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe

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How to Read Seed Catalogs

2013-catalog-cover-DROPThis is a long post, but if your weather is set for all-day drizzle like it is here, you’ll have time to read it. I’m also sending a much shorter version to Mother Earth News, where I’m joining their Blog Squad. So if you are very short of time, you can look there in a few weeks.

This season is becoming past-tense, and some of us are already starting to think about next year. Seed companies are putting their catalogs together, and soon we’ll be snuggled beside our woodstoves perusing them, hoping to find varieties that will not repeat this year’s problems. Reading between the lines of the variety descriptions is a science and an art. How not to get carried away by all the positive exclamations and miss some basic fact that would tell you this variety is not for your farm?

Which catalogs do you buy from? See the Safe Seed Pledge list for companies that do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants. You may want to buy from local small seed companies who specialize in locally adapted varieties. Crops that overwinter in zone 7 could die in zone 5.

 “Adaptable” “easy to grow” are good phrases to look for. Naturally, your climate will affect what grows well. Here it’s too hot for us to grow runner beans, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower. We don’t buy our okra seed from companies in the north – they are focused on varieties which will produce a decent crop in their climates. Our worries are different. “Requires an attentive grower” is a helpful warning. The size and skill of your labor force matter. Can you pick beans quickly enough to earn a decent living? “Best for organic production” means it doesn’t require lots of pesticides to keep it producing.

Heirlooms, OPs or hybrids?

9781596912915What does your market want? Are they truly committed to heirlooms, or is flavor actually more important? Those are not the same thing! Some old varieties are rare for a reason! People didn’t like them much! Others are fantastic and easy to grow in quantity. Finding which are which is difficult. Heirloom tomatoes are a special challenge: which ones crack and split?  The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit by Amy Goldman is not just a beautiful book, but a very useful one. The author spills the beans on which varieties are worth growing. She has books on squash and melons too, but I haven’t had the joy of reading those yet. Another reliable source on tomatoes is Craig LeHoullier.

Comparing varieties

An early zucchini might be 47 days from direct sowing, but even the late Costata Romanesco is only 52 days. How important is it to have zucchini 5 days earlier? And after your first sowing, is it still as important to have a 47-day variety? Or could you choose a different one (with other good qualities) and simply sow it a day or two sooner?

Raven zucchini has no listed disease-resistance, while Dunja withstands Powdery Mildew, Papaya Ringspot Virus (I had no idea. . .), Watermelon Mosaic Virus and Zucchini Mosaic Virus. Dunja has high yields of dark green zucchini, and so does Raven. Dunja has open plants and only small spines, so harvest is easy. Raven has open plants too. No mention of spines – are they wicked? Dunja is organically grown, Raven is not. How about price? Dunja costs twice as much as Raven! What price organic seed, disease-resistance and short spines?

Tender Grey Zucchini from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Tender Grey Zucchini from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Spineless Perfection (45 days) and Tigress (50 days) offer the same disease-resistance package. Both are medium green, high yielding, cylindrical zucchini. Spineless Perfection has an open plant, Tigress is only semi-open, and makes no promises about lack of spines. Price is very similar. Risk the five-day delay, the spines and the only “semi-easy harvesting” to save a dollar on 1000 seeds?

Disease resistance and tolerance

Good catalogs have a wealth of information about disease resistance or tolerance of their varieties. Do read their list of codes or abbreviations. (Admittedly the lists can sometimes be hard to find.) Don’t be a vegetable hypochondriac! Don’t let the length of the list scare you off – your plants won’t get everything listed. Johnny’s had 66 items in their Vegetable Disease Code list last time I counted.

It really helps if you monitored your plants and know which diseases you are trying to avoid. We don’t worry about Pea Leaf Roll Virus or Enation Mosaic Virus of peas because our pea season is so short that the plants will be dead of heat stroke before they get sick with anything.

Septoria Leaf Spot of tomato. Photo University of Minnesota Extension Service

Septoria Leaf Spot of tomato. Photo University of Minnesota Extension Service

When I was new to Virginia it took me several years to realize our tomato leaf disease was Septoria Leaf Spot. I even bought Early Blight resistant tomato seed one year and was sorely disappointed at the spotty leaves they got.

Beet greens resistant to cercospora will provide beautiful greens as well as roots. Early Wonder Tall Top is rated by Johnnys as the best beet for greens.

Days to maturity

Johnnys gives days-to-maturity from cool weather spring transplanting. They suggest adding 14 days from direct sowing (direct-sown crops suffer no transplanting shock, so grow faster overall, but you need to add in extra time from seeding to transplant size). Subtract 10-14 days for warm weather transplanting (as crops grow quicker then). Fedco lists days from direct seeding for many crops.They suggest subtracting 20 days from date of transplanting. With warm weather crops they list days from transplanting. For peppers the days listed are from transplanting to full-color maturity. Some catalogs list days to full-size green peppers only. “Early maturing” isn’t so useful if the seed rots in cold soil, so check for both pieces of info. Provider bean is cold-soil tolerant and fast-maturing.

Packet sizes: grams, ounces and seed counts 

Take a steady look at packet size and seed specs (seeds/ounce or seeds/gram). Alas, this country has not yet fully metricated. Seeds are measured out in many ways. Go to www.metric-conversions.org/ and print yourself some conversion tables, or use the online calculators. Take a dark pen to your catalogs and write in the relevant numbers.

Flavor.

For a particular crop is “mild” better than “rich” or “robust”, or not? There are mild-flavored Asian greens such as mizuna, available in green, red and purple, and there are spicy mustard greens that look very similar: Golden Frills, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills, Red Splendor.

Ruby Streaks beside green mizuna.  Credit Ethan Hirsh

Ruby Streaks beside green mizuna.
Credit Ethan Hirsh

Ruby Streaks is an exceptionally beautiful plant. We tend not to like spicy mustard greens, but cut small into a salad mix, we have no trouble enjoying it.

“Compact”, “Mini” = small. Do your customers cook for just themselves? They’ll want mini. Are you supplying institutional kitchens? They’ll usually want full-size crops, unless they like “snack-size cucumbers” which they serve whole, with less work. If you want big cabbages, don’t buy from catalogs which have carefully chosen small to medium-sized heads because that’s what most people want these days. It can be hard to compare weights with measurements. Small = 2-4lbs, 4-6”. “Mini-broccolis” SanteeDe Cicco won’t produce a big head, ever, just florets. Be sure your crew knows what size to pick.

Mache (corn salad) is a very small vegetable, usually eaten when the whole plant is 3-4” across. Even if the variety description says “long leaves” it’s all relative – maybe they’ll be 4” rather than 3” if you let them really grow.

At the other end of the Rampancy Rating are these key phrases: “needs room to roam,” “vigorous vines”: you can’t sell vines! Are they worth the space? Be sure you plant with appropriate spacing. “Needs sturdy trellis”: is it worth the time?

  “Will be bitter in hot weather.” “Prefers warm days and nights – expect reduced yields in cooler areas” – you have been warned! Remember to check this. It’s refreshing that some catalogs now are more upfront “Not heat-tolerant” says Fedco about Bush Blue Lake bean. If your spring heats up quickly, you’ll want greens that are bolt-resistant as well as cold-tolerant, so you can set them out early. Giant Viroflay spinach sure grows big leaves, but they don’t last long in our climate. Tyee is more bolt-resistant, much better for us. Big chicory, radicchio and endive leaves are going to be bitter if grown at the wrong time of year and not blanched. And sometimes even if you do: they are not uniform varieties.

Concentrated Fruit Set” versus “long harvest season”: length of harvest season is best viewed as potential rather than promised. If Mexican bean beetles or downy mildew are likely to take down your crops, you might do better to sow successions more frequently and not worry about long harvest periods. “Uniform maturity” is definitely a plus if you are growing a drying bean, popcorn, edamame or other single harvest crop. “Holds well in the field” is to your advantage if you hope to pick three times a week for a month.

“Easiest for hand harvest” (E-Z Pick beans) means they come off the vine easily; but “better for hand harvest” can mean simply unsuitable for machine harvest (plants sprawl). “Intended to be picked very slender” means tough when big, so be sure you get a high enough price to justify the lower yield and extra harvest time. And be sure you can harvest every 36-48 hours, or you won’t have anything edible.

Some broccoli has “good side-shoot production” (Gypsy, Amadeus, Belstar). If side-shoots aren’t mentioned, it’s likely that variety was bred for crown cuts.

“Short-term storage only” – we usually read this as “not for storage.” Tendersweet is a fine cabbage for fresh use – its leaves are thin and sweet. Thin leaves dry out fast, so it’s not good for storage.

“Retains flavor when frozen or canned”  “Best for sauerkraut” “Good for kimchee” “Easy to shell” These phrases are music to the ears of gardeners putting up produce for winter.

Onions and latitude

A bed of young onions. Credit Kathryn Simmons

A bed of young onions.
Credit Kathryn Simmons


Latitude makes a difference with onions. Happily, more catalogs now state which latitudes each variety is adapted for.  We’re at 38°N. No use us growing Red Bull (43°-65°), as the days never get long enough to initiate bulbing. Nor do we have much hope for Desert Sunrise (30°-36°) – because after the spring equinox, our hours of daylight are more than further south – they will start bulbing before having a chance to grow very big. A few small leaves cannot produce a big bulb.

Pumpkins or squash?

Some vegetables commonly thought of as winter squash are in catalogs as pumpkins. Many cans of pumpkin pie filling are not made from round orange-skinned pumpkins, but from squash. Choose squash varieties that grow well in your area and make all the pies you want. Or make no pies and serve the squash baked, or in soups. There are four types of squash: Pepo, the classic pumpkins, pattypans, acorn squash, delicata, dumplings,  zucchini and summer squash; Moschata, the long-storing usually tan ones with hard five-sided stems, such as butternut, cheese pumpkins and Seminole squash; Maxima, the (often large) ones with fat round corky stems, such as hubbards, buttercups and bananas; and Mixta, less-common older Southern types like Cushaws.

Research at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange this year showed that many Moschata squash varieties, the kind most resistant to bugs, are also tasty at the immature stage as “summer squash”. So ignore what you’re “supposed to do” and do what works!

“Parthenocarpic” plants can set fruit without pollination, so good for hoophouse growing or production under rowcover or insect netting. Some new varieties  of cucumbers and squash are parthenocarpic, and higher-priced, but some old favorites also happen to be parthenocarpic, Little Leaf pickling cucumber, for example.

“Gynoecious” plants have only female flowers, so yield can be higher. These plants still require pollination to set fruit, unless they are also parthenocarpic, so some seeds of another (pollinizer) variety are included in the packet. You’ll need to grow some of these, even though they won’t themselves give you the fruit you want. Sometimes the pollinizer seeds are colored, so you can be sure to sow some.

“Monogerm” beets produce only one seedling from each seedball/fruit. Others will need singling.  Trade-off price versus time singling.

Warring sweet corn types

Don’t plant any Super Sweet varieties unless you put them at least 100ft away from other kinds, or you make sure they don’t flower within 10 days of each other. Mistakes will lead to horrible starchy kernels in both plantings. Think about this also if you are growing popcorn, dent corn, flint corn. Those dry corns also need to be separated from all sweet corns. Ignore the small print on this at your peril.

Super Sweet corns have other challenging features: the seed is smaller than normal corn, so your planter may need adjusting; Super Sweet seed needs to absorb twice as much water to germinate as normal corn; Super Sweets  are more particular about seed depth (they do better at a shallower depth);  Super Sweets have twice as much sugar as other corn and get sweeter after picking. It can get too much, so refrigerate promptly after harvest.

Too good to be true 

New fancy types are often more risky. They don’t have all the problems resolved. Romanesco Broccoli – I don’t know anyone in Virginia who has successfully grown it. Flower Sprouts – hmmm. Try brand new things on a small scale first. All the fanfare over Indigo Rose tomato, the excitingly evil Deadly Nightshade color of the immature fruit, and then – blah flavor when ripe. “Good” flavor in a catalog may be the lowest rating. “Attractive purple pods” – Do they turn green when cooked? Purple carrots, striped green and white eggplant, white beets – will people buy them readily or will it be an uphill struggle? 

Enjoy your winter catalog browsing! Here’s a cheering photo of wonderful fall colors at Twin Oaks. This is from Ezra’s blog A Year In the Woods

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