Growing for Market article, CSA Day, Organic Growers School, VA raw milk threatened

Our hoophouse hydrant with drip irrigation supply equipment.
Photo Pam Dawling

The February Growing for Market issue is out, including my article on drip irrigation, which will help people new to drip get started. I was a reluctant adopter myself, maybe 10 years ago, and I’ve become a big convert. I explain the basics and include the options on tape width, wall thickness, emitter spacing and flow rate, to help everyone get the options that’s best for them.  I have a worked example of the calculation and links to more information. I show how to figure how long to run the system for each week, and the pieces of equipment you’ll need. I talk about maintenance and repair too.

Other articles in this issue include Chris Blanchard on the Food Safety Modernization Act (pronounced Fizma). Of course none of us want to make anyone sick from eating crops we grow, but if you are a farm with average sales of more than $25,000 worth of produce a year , this new rule applies to you. All the details of exceptions and compliance are in the article.

Sam Knapp writes from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan about tackling quackgrass (Elymus repens) without chemicals. We know this as couch grass, a cool weather wandering perennial with long sturdy white roots. It’s not the same as wiregrass, a bigger problem in the South. That’s Cynodon dactylon, also known as Bermuda grass and scutch grass. It’s a fine-leafed wandering perennial that dies back in the winter. If your problem grass is brown in winter, suspect wiregrass; if it’s green, suspect couch grass. Sam Knapp advises on how to deplete the rhizomes of couchgrass/quackgrass with repeated tillage going into the winter and mowing in summer.

Ricky Baruc writes from Orange, Massachusetts, about mulching with cardboard (topped with hay or manure)and silage covers to control weeds and replace the need to till. The editor adds a note that some organic certifiers prohibit cardboard that has ink in colors other than black. Check with your certifier if you are certified organic. Ricky Baruc also uses cover crops, which he crimps and plants into. He is able to manage several acres of intensively planted crops on his own.

If you’ve ever coveted those Bumble Bee tomatoes in the Johnny’s catalog, you’ll enjoy the interview with Fred Hempel, their breeder.

The last article is about winter cut flower planning, and is by Gretel Adams who regularly writes about cut flowers for GfM.


February 23 is CSA Day. CSAs will be promoting their work and signing up new members. Data gathered by Small Farm Central  showed that the most popular day for CSA signups was  Fri Feb 28. And so CSA Day is celebrated on the last Friday of February to encourage more signups and to publicize the whole idea of community-supported agriculture. CSA is a way for farmers to sell directly their customers. In the original CSA model, people pay for a season’s worth of produce (a membership), at the beginning of the season. The members then receive a box of produce every week throughout the harvesting season. The members are supporting their farmer by paying up front, when the farmers most need the income to get ready for the growing season. Today there are variations on this theme, so look around and see what’s available near you.


The Organic Farm School Spring Conference is Friday–Sunday, March 9–11, 2018, at UNC Asheville, NC. Click the link to read more and to get to registration. Pre-conference workshops are on Friday March 9, with the main conference 90-minute sessions on Saturday and Sunday. I’m offering two workshops on Saturday, which I’ll repeat on Sunday. This conference tends to offer workshops twice, so people who can only come on one day can choose which is best for them, and fewer people have to miss a topic they are interested in. My workshops are Sustainable Farming Practices and Growing Sweet Potatoes from Start to Finish.

Sweet potatoes on a plate.
Photo Brittany Lewis


Lastly I want to mention an alert I received from the Homesteaders of America at the end of January. (Note theirs is not a secure webpage)

House Bill 825 (HB 825), introduced by Virginia House of Delegates Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), would require herd share dairies to register with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, be open to premises and paperwork inspections, and adhere to stipulations put forward by VDACS.

“While the sale of raw milk is illegal in Virginia, raw milk advocates have used the concept of herd sharing to obtain the revered, nutrient-dense food for decades. In a herd share agreement, consumers pay a farmer a fee for boarding their animal (or share of the animal), caring for the animal, and milking the animal. The herd share owners then collect the milk from their own animal. No sales occur, the animals are taken care of, and everyone gets to enjoy the magical elixir that is raw milk. Herd share agreements have been in use in Virginia since the mid-1970s” Christine Solem, Virginia Independent Consumers & Farmers Association (VICFA).

On 2/5/18 The Subcommittee #1 recommended striking this bill from the docket. On 2/13/18 the House left this with the ANCR (Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources) Committee.

Transplanting season!

Cow Horn okra seedlings in a WInstrip 50 cell flat in our greenhouse in April. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Cow Horn okra seedlings in a WInstrip 50 cell flat in our greenhouse in April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is our busiest time of year for transplanting. We’re beyond frosts, and we have thousands of warm weather plants to get in the ground. Sure, we were busy in spring and will be again in July with cabbage and broccoli. But this time of year the transplanting includes many different crops, and involves setting out drip systems and biodegradable plastic mulch as well.

Growing sweet potato slips, using an old fridge as an insulated chamber. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Growing sweet potato slips, using an old fridge as an insulated chamber.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We’re part way through setting out sweet potatoes. We are using ridges, drip irrigation and biodegradable plastic mulch. We grew all our own sweet potato slips, and this allows us to spread out our planting over several days. We used to mail-order slips, and when they arrived we always had to scramble to get them in the ground, so they could recover from their travel stress.


What we're looking forward to - Malabar spinach. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
What we’re looking forward to – Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange


At the beginning of May we planted out Redventure celery, Cow Horn okra, and Malabar spinach, a new trial crop for us. A different warm weather cooking green.

Young tomato plants with their first round of string-weaving. Photo Wren Vile
Young tomato plants with their first round of string-weaving.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve already planted out slicing and cherry tomatoes.We’ve got our big planting of Roma paste tomatoes in, and our peppers. They’re also on drip irrigation and biodegradable plastic. I find it helpful to take a copy of the crop map for each garden and make a Drip Irrigation Map, using a waterproof red pen to draw in each run of drip tape and header pipe. This helps me identify which pieces of header pipe I can reuse and how many lengths of drip tape to bring from the barn. We try hard to make storing and reusing drip irrigation supplies easy, using shuttles to store tape and coiling and labeling the header pipe.

We haven’t planted out our eggplant yet. We’re also behind with cantaloupes and watermelons, and a bit behind with our weekly planting of 120 lettuces.

We like to have lettuce all year, so I have experimented, planned and tweaked until we can usually get a continuous supply. In winter we have leaf lettuce and baby salad mix from the hoophouse. From mid April we aim to have lettuce heads from outdoors. We reckon on growing 120 lettuce/week for 100 people. This inevitably involves some losses and wastage, as we don’t control the weather or the appetites of our diners!

This year we made a late start on harvesting the outdoor lettuce as it was growing slowly and we still had good supplies in the hoophouse. Now we have started outdoor harvests and suddenly have lots ready at once. So it goes! generally we sow 4 varieties each time, to spread the risk and increase the diversity. Our first sowing was 1/17, transplanted 3/31. The Hyper Red Wave wasn’t a good choice – it has bolted and become bitter. Reliable old  Salad Bowl is holding well, and Bronze Arrow looks good. The second sowing, 1/31, is mostly ready, and some of the third also (2/14). I see our labeling wasn’t so good this spring, but the Outredgeous looks surprisingly good for May and there’s a lovely green Bibb too.

Bronze Arrow lettuce. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Bronze Arrow lettuce.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange



We run out stored drip-tape using a garden cart, rebar axle and four spring clamps. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.
We run out stored drip-tape using a garden cart, rebar axle and four spring clamps. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.

It’s hot, it’s dry, and a vegetable grower’s mind turns to irrigation. Originally the manuscript for my book Sustainable Market Farming had a chapter on irrigation, but when it became clear that the manuscript was way too long, I had to cut out some chapters. One of them was on irrigation.

The other topics I cut out (radishes, mulches, tools, shade cloth and row cover) have since all made it into print in Growing for Market magazine or in this blog. But not irrigation. Recently I got an email from a reader who wanted to know if I had written anything on the topic, so I dusted the chapter off, and made it a pdf. You can see it here: Irrigation text only

One of  our drip tape shuttles. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.}
One of our drip tape shuttles. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.}



We haven’t changed much since I wrote this, except for twice accidentally buying medium-flow drip tape rather than the low-flow we really like. I just finished separating it all out, and passed the medium-flow tape on to some other growers. We like the low-flow versus the medium-flow drip tape because you can run more at once. Naturally, you need to water for twice as long as with the medium-flow, but that suits us better too. Having two kinds was too confusing!

Stay cool, stay hydrated! Water for growers as well as crops is important.

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!

Review of Lynn Byczynski’s Market Farming Success

648Book Review of Market Farming Success: The Business of Growing and Selling Local Food by Lynn Byczynski. Published by Chelsea Green, October 2013

7” x 10”, 276 page paperback, full color photos throughout, $29.95.

A thorough revision and updating of a book originally written in 2006.

I write about the planning and crop production aspects of market farming. I leave the equally important marketing side to be covered by those who know more. Lynn Byczynski is an extremely knowledgeable mentor. Her overview of the business of market farming is a survival kit for new and aspiring vegetable farmers. It can save you from many pratfalls on the learning curve. Lynn explains each challenge of professional small-scale vegetable production (including some you never even realized you needed to know) in a calm, clear, confidence-boosting voice. She writes from her own experience seasoned with sifted information gleaned from the many growers she knows as editor of Growing for Market magazine.

There are eight chapters identifying and explaining aspects of market farming that new growers need to tackle. The book covers getting started, finding markets, choosing crops to grow, tools and equipment, planning, crop production, post-harvest handling and business management. Lynn gives useful information on resources and helps growers work towards success.

Should you quit your day job to start market farming? Lynn’s advice is to work towards that without jumping into the deep end. Learn as much as you can about farming while your income still reliably comes from another source. Teach yourself, learn from other farmers, practice with a big garden. If possible, keep some other part-time job going even while you start to earn a living from farming. Balance the inspiration and the perspiration!

Lynn explains the naming of small farms: less than 3 acres is generally called market gardening (or micro-farming). One person full time can handle one acre of intensive vegetable production, earning $20,000-35,000 per acre with a margin of 50-60%. Equipment consists of basic manual tools. Working between 3 and 12 acres is generally called market farming. Hand labor is not enough, therefore there are more capital costs. Income varies widely – finding enough markets to sell all the crops at retail prices can be a challenge. Vegetable farms cropping more than 12 acres need mechanization. Production is less intensive, and so the income/acre is less – up to $10,000/acre. Earning a good income relies on using more land, with a smaller profit margin – 10-50%. Of the gross income, one third each may go to paid labor, non-labor expenses and net income for the farmers.

When buying a farm, look for good soil: check the Web Soil Survey and talk with NRCS. Get help from programs for new farmers and, a single site which collects all the free resources. Johnny’s has a free manual on building moveable caterpillar tunnels. Study drainage, texture and slope. Fertility can be improved, but rockiness will damage machinery and joint cartilage. Know how you will irrigate – never assume enough water will drop from the sky.

Drip irrigation can work with low water pressure, save water and money, reduce foliar diseases, as well as weed growth between the rows. It can be intimidating for beginners. Lynn gives step-by-step instructions to set up a basic drip system (I wish I’d had this when I was first venturing into the mysteries of drip irrigation!) Once you have the basics, you’ll learn whatever you need to upgrade. “Once you see how easy it is, you’ll be thrilled.” Such plain-spoken encouragement lightens up the book, as do the instances of novel solutions like wearing a Mardi-Gras necklace to remind you the irrigation is running.

You’ll need a diversity of crops, not just a couple of profitable items. You’ll need critical mass for the whole of your chosen season, not just early crops. Of course, grow what yields well for least labor at your farm, grow what sells best at the highest price, but also grow what fills gaps between your major crops. Keep records! “The only way to benefit from your experience is to keep records of everything you do. You may think that you will remember when you planted which variety, and when you started to harvest it. And there may be a few geniuses out there who really can remember the details on their crops. But when you are growing five, six, seven varieties of 20 different crops, you are not going to remember it all.” Lynn backs up these words of wisdom with example record sheets.

When deciding which equipment to buy first, start with machinery for tasks you can’t easily hire out. For example, secondary tillage, because this needs to be done in a timely way. It is easier to hire out primary tillage, such as plowing or disking, which needs big tractors. Tips like this can save you from tying up your limited capital in poor-choice gear, and can even save you from going under. Be sure to make a cash-flow projection so you don’t spend more than you have, or will have when you go shopping.

There are four types of seeder: the cheap plate seeders such as the EarthWay, which does a great job for the price, and leaves your crew to do the thinning; drills such as the Planet Junior; pinpoint seeders used for precision seeding of small seeds, closely sown; and precision planters which space seeds accurately, for a price. Start cheap, don’t rush to spend money. If you are growing many different crops, you might not benefit from hard-to-adjust precision seeders, so don’t spend money unless it will pay you back.

“Having great produce is essential to your success as a market gardener, but growing is only half the job. As a market farmer, you still have the selling ahead of you, but even that is not the end of the work. You still have five additional skills to master: food safety; post-harvest handling; value-added processing; pricing and presentation.” Lynn provides this clear list and then suggests you can and will master these skills and that you can measure your progress. Never sell cheap – you won’t earn a living and you might alienate people who could be your mentors.

On-Farm Food Safety Assessment helps you figure out how to handle produce safely on your farm. “Many market gardeners get into the business by gradually transitioning from home gardening to commercial gardening. If you are somewhere on that continuum, stop right now and decide that from this day forward you will act like you are in business.” Deal with taxes, legal structures, hiring, insurance. Get professional advice.

Here’s the reward: “When your business is also an activity that you enjoy, your pleasures become tax-deductible . . .  Maybe you would like to grow 50 varieties of lilies in your garden just because you love the look and fragrance of lilies. When you are in the cut-flower business, you can grow all the lilies you want and deduct the cost.” Her exuberance lightens this somber subject.

It is a general rule that one person working full-time can handle only one acre of production. Then you’ll need to hire workers from one of the four possible pools:

  • your kids (good tax benefits, as well as teaching them skills and responsibility);
  • interns or apprentices (low cost, involves training and wider education);
  • H-2A program workers (temporary immigrants);
  • local workers.

Insurance is a minefield. Beware of not expecting to get sued ever. Some people’s insurance may require them to sue you to compensate for receiving insurance payments or claims. “it is important to understand. . . you cannot depend on the fact you deal with your friends, to assume they won’t sue you if something goes wrong. In most cases they will not be making this decision, the insurance company will, and insurance companies are not interested in friendships.”

Lynn explain the possible relative costs and benefits of paying workers’ comp insurance for your employees versus adding employees to your farm liability policy. This could save you $400/person/year.”

Lynn is committed to helping new farmers meet success. She plans to put the whole “Where to Learn More” chapter on the Growing for Market website so that we get one handy access point with live links to all the sites mentioned. Go to click the button for Market Farming Success.

I started out recommending this book for all new market farmers. As I read it, I see that this book is so dense with helpful tips that any market grower could quickly save the cover price many times over, just learning and applying one new trick.

Motivation, saving time, rain, cold night

Transplanting Trowel Chart 2 2013.jpegI reported last time how quickly we managed to get our broccoli and cabbage transplanting done this year. Some of us talked about devising a “thermometer” style chart to measure our progress. The outcome was this “Trowel Chart”, based on our favorite Wilcox 102 trowels, which transplanted 2267 broccoli and cabbage with us over the course of 10 evenings.

I always like to learn new time-saving tricks, and this year I gained a great one from one of our newer crew members. When we are replacing casualties in our transplants a couple of weeks after the transplanting, we have to look under the rowcover to find the no-good plants. Some people completely remove the rowcover to one side, which takes time, and seems unnecessary when there are relatively few to replace. The problem with saving time by lifting the edge and peeking under is finding a way to mark the spots where a new plant is needed. It had never occurred to me: pull up the damaged plant and lay it on top of the rowcover marking the spot! Like many good ideas, this one seems obvious once you know!

This year, thanks to good crew, lucky weather, drip irrigation and new or fairly new rowcover, we didn’t have many casualties. The main culprits were rabbits who bit the centers out of a few.

We ran the drip irrigation every day while we were transplanting, and twice a week since, but on Saturday (after the end of our garden shift) we had a big downpour. Here’s a picture

Soggy Saturday garden. Credit Ezra Freeman
Soggy Saturday garden. Credit Ezra Freeman

This was taken by Ezra and posted on his blog ObserVA: A Year of Observing Nature in Rural Virginia. His blog is full of mushrooms, plants, animals and  derring-do.

Last night we recorded a low of 49F (9.5C), very chilly for mid-August in central Virginia! The nearby town of Louisa recorded a low of 53F, equaling the record low set in 1983. NOAA already recorded March-May as the coldest spring since 1996

Sowing beets, radishes and kale, transplanting cabbage.

Cylindra Beets. Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Cylindra Beets.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In line with my advice in the August issue of Growing for Market magazine, we are working on our First Chance to start again with the spring and fall crops. We sowed beets, and I found out I meant to order more seed before this point. In spring we sowed our beets with the Earthway seeder,EarthWay rather than our more usual manual sowing of lightly soaked seed. I was working on my own and rain was approaching, so I just used the seeder with dry seed. The radish plate was best for the Cylindra beets, if I remember right. Consequently I used more seed. We’ve managed to sow of the three beds we intended.

I put in a hasty online order to Fedco. After clicking Send I remembered we need more carrot seed too. Argh! Happily the people at Fedco are so helpful that they agreed to my email request to add carrot seed to the order. We love buying from Fedco. They don’t waste our money on glossy catalogs. They offer great bulk discounts. And the newsprint catalog is full of pithy comments on food politics. Fedco is one of the main three seed companies we buy from – along with Johnny’s and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

We did have enough carrot seed to complete our large fall planting (3 beds of five rows at 265′ – almost 4000ft). But we want to try a slightly later bed of carrots to overwinter. It worked well last year – the voles stayed away. Last August I blogged about fall carrot planting in my post Risking zombie carrots. The year before we ended up not managing to weed all our fall carrots, so we mowed them for weed control, then left them overwinter. We were able to harvest them in the early spring.

Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale Photo by Kathryn Simmons
Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Today we sowed winter radish and two beds of Vates kale. Next up are turnips and more kale. We sow two beds every four days until we have enough established. The rain today is perfect. I think the first two beds should have no problem germinating. The rain will also help the big carrot planting. I have been running a sprinkler overnight on them, but it takes five nights to get all the way to the bottom of the patch. And one night the well meter stopped working and it stopped the water running. So that night was a loss as far as irrigation went. We did the pre-emergence flame-weeding of the carrot beds on Saturday, thinking they might germinate Monday (and no-one wanted that flaming job on Sunday), but in fact they only started germinating this morning.

Flame Weeding. Credit Brittany Lewis
Flame Weeding.
Credit Brittany Lewis

Our evening transplanting shifts have gone very well. If it isn’t raining too hard this evening, we should be able to finish tonight. That’s a mere ten shifts. Sometimes it takes us a lot longer. The unknown is how much time we’ll need to spend replacing casualties, but I think 3 evenings max. We have run the drip irrigation every evening while we are working there, and some more on dry days. We’ve had some rain too, which helps. I haven’t had a thorough look under the rowcovers, but there are shadowy green things in most of the right places, so I’m optimistic. The peculiarly mild temperatures have made transplanting the overgrown plants easier than it could have been. Feels like we are making up for lost time.

Summer reading

GFM-August 2013-cover-300px


The August issue of Growing for Market magazine is out (the June-July issue was the most recent previous one). This one includes my article on Last Chance Sowings.

In line with my advice, at home we are busy preparing beds and sowing beans, bulb fennel, cucumbers and squash. As well as being our last chance with these warm weather crops, it’s now our first chance to start again with the spring and fall crops such as carrots, beets, kale, scallions, turnips (no rutabagas for us these days – it needs extra time to grow to a good size, and we’re never ready soon enough). It’s too soon for us to sow spinach (although the weather is surprisingly cool for August!) – we wait till the fall chickweed, dead nettle and henbit germinate before sowing spinach. we’re also out in the garden every evening transplanting broccoli and cabbage. We’re over half way, and the mild weather is really helping.

Cutting Zephyr yellow summer squash. Credit Brittany Lewis
Cutting Zephyr yellow summer squash.
Credit Brittany Lewis

Also in this Growing for Market issue are valuable articles by other growers, such as Ben Hartman on arranging their farm’s CSA into two separate seasons, spring and fall, with a two week gap in the middle. What a great idea. I got a two week gap myself, thanks to our stalwart crew keeping the crops happy while I was gone.

There’s encouragement from Lynn Byczynski, the editor,  to comment to the FDA on the proposed food safety rules for produce. cover4Jonathan Magee (author of the book Small Farm Equipment) writes about irrigation pumps, which will likely be a big stress-saver for anyone who has stood in exasperation over a non-working pump. Andrew Mefford writes about useful tools for the hoophouse, including some nifty little Harvest Scissors, worn like a ring, freeing up the hands to alternate with other tasks while working.Erin Benzakein, the regular writer on cut flowers, covers ideas for early spring blooms, and, as always, has some beautiful photos.

For the next issue I am writing on strawberry production systems, including our latest method – using landscape fabric with holes burned in it.

2013-berry-veggie1-80x300My presentation on Planning Fall Crops at the Virginia State University Commercial Berry and Vegetable Field Day  on June 27 is now a full blown video. you can view it at their website, along with those of the other presenters; Reza Rafie on specialty crops such as baby ginger, Steven Pao on food safety and Debra Deis from Seedway Seeds on their variety trials.

I’ve recently found a website I think will be very useful for help in predicting pest outbreaks, as well as counting accumulated Growing Degree Days and recording the weather. It’s called My Pest Page. It’s for the technically minded. To modify our page for your area, start with the map and zoom out then in again on your area, using your nearest weather station. Then you can choose which pieces of information to have displayed, by clicking on the plus button by each topic to expand the list of options. Then click on the big Refresh button and bookmark the site. I see we’re now at the point when Late Blight infection is possible. . . , so I’ll keep my eyes open.A few years ago when we thought we had Late Blight on our tomatoes we spent a lot of time removing infected leaves into trash bags. When we sent a sample to the plant diagnostic clinic they said we didn’t have Late Blight. I think it was a heat stress condition caused by us using the wrong kind of drip tape. (We had too much on at once, so not all the plants were actually getting the irrigation we thought they were.)

Talking of irrigation, It’s time I left my desk and went to switch over to today’s fourth sub-system.




The past few weeks in our garden

I’m just back from vacation. It’s a very lucky farmer who gets two weeks away in the height of summer – one of the benefits of living in community. (See the Twin Oaks website for more on that). The rest of the crew took care of things, and I missed the hottest week of the year (so far). Here’s some of the jobs I missed:

A much delayed planting of the summer potatoes on 7/18 (a whole month later than usual). Our smaller tractor was out of commission for a month, and when it came back, people were lining up to use it. We bought some new furrowers In June, but I missed seeing them in action. Our previous equipment didn’t make deep enough furrows, leading to potatoes popping up above the soil and turning green. We mulch our summer potatoes immediately after hilling, which is immediately after planting, so there is no chance of hilling again later. We like to mulch (with hay) to keep the soil damper and cooler in the hot weather.

Our Cecchi and Magli potato digger
Our Cecchi and Magli potato digger
Potatoes lifted Oct 09
An October 2009 picture of our lifted potatoes.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

I also missed the harvest of the spring potatoes. We had hoped to do this earlier too, but mowing the tops was delayed and so the skins didn’t thicken up till 7/22. The potatoes are now safely in the root cellar, and I’m opening the door at night to cool them and to provide fresh air. Newly harvested potatoes are still live plants, still respiring and so still need oxygen.  I learned this the hard way years ago, when I didn’t ventilate the cellar enough. The potatoes died in the centers (the condition is called Black Heart). A very disappointing waste of good food. Later the potatoes will go dormant, and won’t need daily air exchanges.

Our root cellar. Credit McCune Porter
Our root cellar.
Credit McCune Porter

We follow the spring potatoes with the fall broccoli and cabbage, a slightly hair-raising fast turnaround. We have composted and disked the patch, set out driptape, stakes and ropes, rowcover and sticks to hold it down. Because of Harlequin bugs, we need to cover the new transplants for a few weeks until they have the strength to withstand the bugs. So we plant rows 34″ apart, under ropes on stakes. One piece of 84″ rowcover will form a square tunnel over two rows of brassicas. The rowcover is held up by the ropes.

This evening will be the first of many transplanting shifts. Because we are late, the transplants are larger than ideal. Ironically, this year the first sowings germinated very well, grew very well, and the bugs didn’t get under the ProtekNet. Fabulous transplants and they’ve had to wait and wait. Hopefully we can make up for some lost time by really putting our shoulders to the wheel and planting efficiently. having driptape really helps. We turn it on while we plant and so the plants get a drink as soon as they are in the ground. Watering is not a separate job.

While I’ve been away, the eggplants, pickling cucumbers, cantaloupes and okra have all started to produce. We are trying some West Indian Gherkins this year for the first time. I’ll let you know how the pickles turn out. They are strange things, like miniature prickly watermelons. Very prolific, disease-resistant and heat tolerant. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, though.

West Indian Gherkins
West Indian Gherkins
Credit Monticello Store

Twin Oaks Garden Task List for May

Turnips interplanted with radishes - two spring crops from one bed. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Turnips interplanted with radishes – two spring crops from one bed.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

During the Month:

Lettuce Factory: Sow heat-resistant lettuce outdoors, every 8 to 6 days, #10, 11, 12, 13, 14. Transplant 120/week (1/3 bed). #7, 8, 9, 10, 11 this month.

Deal with potato beetles with Spinosad [or Neem] once larvae are seen, if >50 adults/50 plants or >200 larvae/100 plants. Spinosad: Spray when bees not flying (early morning or late evening.) Shake well, 1-4 Tbsp/gall. Expect to need 1.5-2 hours and 9-10.5 galls. Clean and triple rinse the sprayer. Do not flush in creek or pond. Repeat if needed in 6-7 days – could spot spray where larvae are seen. Flame weed potatoes before 12” high, if needed.

Deal with asparagus beetles, if necessary. See notes under April.

Early May:

Flat of home-grown sweet potato slips. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Flat of home-grown sweet potato slips.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Continue cutting sweet potato slips until we have enough.

Transplant when hardened off: celery, celeriac, lettuce #7, main tomatoes (2’).

Set out drip tape & bioplastic mulch , transplant Romas (2’),  peppers (18” when soil 70°F, dogwood blooms dropping), hot peppers, and melons #1, sweet potatoes

Sow peanuts (120d), asparagus beans in bed w/ celery, okra, sunflowers. limas #1, cow peas #1 (68d)

Roll out driptape and bioplastic mulch for watermelons.

Cover Crops: Sorghum-Sudan, soy, buckwheat, or pearl millet as summer cover crops, now frost is past.


Plant sweet potatoes, 16″ apart, with 4-4.5′ between ridges, 5’ at edges of patch. Install drip irrigation on ridges and plant at every other emitter. Ideal if soil temp is 65°F for four consecutive days before planting.  If weather dry, dip roots in mud slurry before planting.  Plant 2-3” deep, with at least 2 nodes in ground, and at least 2 leaves above ground.  If slips are long, plant horizontally to increase production.

Transplant lettuce #8, eggplant (2’ apart, single row in center of bed, spray off flea beetles with jet of water & cover immediately), watermelon, insectaries, (okra if not direct-sown – mulch later, when soil warm).

Set out drip tape and biodegradable mulch and transplant melons and watermelons at four weeks old max. Cover for 3 weeks. Move rowcover off broccoli (12 pieces) and strawberries (~8 pieces) Watermelon needs 12 pieces.

In greenhouse sow tomatoes #3, filler watermelons & Romas. Sow cukes & squash #2 if spring is late and cold, and direct-sowing not wise.

Sow beans #2 (5/14, 28 days after #1), edamame #2, carrots #6, sunflowers.

Till between rows of corn #1 & transplant in gaps and/or thin to 8”.

A bed of various varieties of onions. Credit Kathryn Simmons
A bed of various varieties of onions.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Weed onions 3 weeks before expected harvest date, and broccoli.

Garlic: Harvest garlic scapes, remove mulch from garlic, and weed.  Move mulch to weeded broccoli.

Check maturity of potato onions and garlic. Likely harvest order is fall potato onions 5/25-6/10, hardneck garlic 5/30-6/15, spring potato onions 6/3-6/18, bulb onions 6/11-6/30, softneck garlic 6/5-6/15.

#4 Spring Tractor Work mid-May – Disk areas for June potatoes, corn 3,4,5, & later succession plantings of beans, squash, cucumbers.

Late May:

Mow between no-till paste tomato rows before mulching with hay. Fill gaps, weed, tuck mulch.  Set up posts and string weave the tomatoes, using thick baler twine for lower 3 rows. Really try to keep up with weekly string-weaving.

String weave 1 row around peppers, using short stakes.

Clear empty coldframe and mulch with cardboard or plant something.

Till each corn twice, undersowing at 2nd tilling (30 days), when 12” high, with soy for #1-5, oats/soy for #6. Thin corn to 8”. Avoid cultivating corn after it’s knee-high—roots are shallow.

Sow corn #2, cowpeas #2; cukes #2 (picklers and slicers), summer squash & zukes #2 5/24 (or in greenhouse 5/14, transplant 6/7), watermelons #3, winter squash 5/26 (put woodash with seeds to deter squash vine borer). If squash sowing is late, don’t sow Tahitian butternut – slow.  Cover cucurbits (perhaps not winter squash) against cucumber beetles. Max. cuke beetle population is mid-May; keep susceptible plants well-covered until flowering.

Transplant lettuce #9, 10, 11; Roma paste tomato replacements for casualties, insectary flowers. Fill gaps in eggplant, peppers, melons, watermelons.

Store any seeds not needed until fall or next spring, in basement (radishes, onions, winter squash, watermelon).

Harvest fall planted Potato Onions in dry weather, after tops have fallen, (5/25-6/10, spring planted 6/3-18).  May not all be ready at once. Handle gently. Dry as clusters in barn on wooden racks for 1-2 months, using fans. Service fans or buy new as needed. Eat potato onions >2.5” without curing, unless yield is very low, in which case label & refrigerate, then plant in September. Weight after drying for 1 week is approximately twice the final weight. First sorting is late June. Use the Worksheet and Log Book

Hanging garlic in vertical netting. Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier
Hanging garlic in vertical netting.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

Harvest garlic when 6th leaf down is starting to brown on 50% of the crop (ie .5 green leaves, so that 5 skins cover cloves), or cut open horizontally- when air space is visible between. stem and cloves it’s time to harvest.  [Could replant small cloves immediately for garlic scallions.] Allow 15 mins/bucket harvesting and 15 mins/bucket for hanging in netting in barn,.

Till garlic area, sow soy & buckwheat to control weeds until fall carrot planting.

Plan fall and winter crops for raised beds.

Cover crops: can sow buckwheat, soy, millet, and sorghum-sudan during May.

Perennials: Put up blueberry netting before fruit sets. Weed & water & top up mulch. Mow grape & fall raspberry aisles. New grapevines: remove side branches and fruitlets. Weekly: visit grapes and log progress 4/20-5/30. If asparagus weeds are getting out of hand, mow down one or more rows to keep control.

Our Concord grapes in late May. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Our Concord grapes in late May.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

Harvest: Asparagus, hoophouse beans, beets, beet greens, broccoli, cabbage, first carrots, chard, collards, garlic scallions, garlic scapes, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, peas, radishes, rhubarb, scallions, senposai, spinach, hoophouse squash, strawberries, turnips, hoophouse zucchini. (Clear spinach, senposai, collards, kale, probably in that order)DSC03323