Book Review: Mycelial Mayhem

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageBook Review: Mycelial Mayhem: Growing Mushrooms for Fun, Profit and Companion Planting by David Sewak & Kristin Sewak

Paperback – 288 pages, 7.25 Inches × 9 Inches (w × h),
Weight: 579 Grams ISBN: 9780865718142
Publisher: New Society Publishers. Publication Date: 2016-03-14

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this book, and wrote an endorsement for it. Now it is hot off the press, and a very attractive book it is too. The dedication includes the exhortation: “Keep spreading the spores”, by which the authors mean becoming a proponent of mushrooms, as well as growing them yourself.

Initially, from just the title, I thought this book would be about mycoremediation or mycorestoration, improving polluted or depleted soils by inoculating them with fungi. But the subtitle and the photos on the cover make it plain that this is a handbook for people wanting too grow diverse mushrooms for food and medicinal uses.

This is not a dull textbook – it is written by a couple inspired by and knowledgeable about mushrooms, and eager to bring along beginners, or those whose efforts have so far been limited to shiitakes. It’s accessible, friendly and lively. It demystifies this less known life-form with clear explanations, step-by-step instructions and some stunning photos. The sections of the book are labeled Mycelia, The Stem, The Fruit of Your Labor and Spreading the Spores, mimicking the development of the mushroom to lead us through what we need to know to become a successful mushroom grower.

The first section covers mushroom basics,life cycle, requirements for growth and place in the ecosystem. Along with infectious enthusiasm for including fungi as part of a small-scale sustainable farming venture, or simply as a backyard hobby.

Another thing this book is not is a field guide to identify wild-growing mushrooms. There are tips on wild-crafting along with cautions against misidentifying, or harvesting from herbicide- or pesticide-treated areas, or from naturally poisonous trees. There is a checklist of 15 tenets of safe collecting and 9 tenets for purveying (did you know you might need to get a permit to collect wild mushrooms for sale?)

A nice Oyster mushroom Photo Ezra Freeman

A nice Oyster mushroom
Photo Ezra Freeman

The second section covers growing mushrooms both outdoors and indoors, descriptions of various kinds, wild-collecting, and sustainable growing methods, including alongside vegetables. The different types of mushrooms are classified by ease of growing, so we can start with an easy one. Many different methods, using media such as wood, sawdust, straw, hemp rope, logs and tree stumps are discussed. How to set up an indoor mushroom grow room is explained, along with how to avoid disasters.The book explains the pros and cons and best choices for the various types of fungi. It also considers economics versus ecology, sustainability versus resilience, taking nature as a model, permaculture principles, and how you might pull this all together to design a system for your particular circumstances. I appreciated the thoughtfulness and the checklists – a refreshing change from some ardent scripts I have seen. I put this down to the balance of the two authors and their combined skills. It makes for an impressively grounded and practical book.

Oyster mushrooms Photo Ezra Freeman

Oyster mushrooms
Photo Ezra Freeman

The third section explains umami, nutrition, medicinal mushrooms, and the business side of growing for market, selling and evaluating your marketing efforts.

The last section (Spreading the Spores) includes resource info, references and photographed examples of marketing materials from Berglorbeer Farma, the authors’ previous home and business in Windber, PA. Their new ventures are in Montana, where Kristin Sewak runs Natural Biodiversity, a non-profit dedicated to restoring biodiversity in landscapes, and David Sewak is a fly fishing guide as well as a mushroom grower.

To sum up, a very good book for anyone wanting to grow edible or medicinal mushrooms!

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

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

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

Deadon cabbage Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

Deadon cabbage
Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

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

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green, Credit Kathryn Simmons

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green,
Credit Kathryn Simmons

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

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

Garlic planting in November. Credit Brittany Lewis

Garlic planting in November.
Credit Brittany Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s still alive at 14F?

Winter garden scene. Credit Ezra Freeman

Winter garden scene.
Credit Ezra Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

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

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

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

Upcoming workshops, winter weather, preparing seed orders

First up, note this change of location for my workshop on December 11th. Adrianna Vargo from the Local Food Hub sent this notice of a change of location:

“Due to overwhelming demand (and a few grumpy farmers!) we have moved the location of next week’s workshop with Pam Dawling to accommodate more people.

The new location is:
Albemarle County Office Building
Room A
1600 5th Street Extended
Charlottesville VA 22902
Other details remain the same:

Providing for the Full Eating Season: Succession Planting for Continuous Harvests of Summer Vegetables, and Growing and Storing Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables

Date: Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Time: 3:00 – 6:00 pm
Location: Albemarle County Office Building, Room A (1600 5th Street, Charlottesville, Virginia, 22902)
Cost: $25 (free for Local Food Hub Partner Producers)
Questions: [email protected]

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Secondly, I am planning a workshop with Cindy Connor, author of Grow a Sustainable Diet and Ira Wallace, author of the Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. It’s at Lynchburg College, in SW Virginia, on Saturday February 15. I’ll give more details once we have them sorted out.

Cindy has written a blog post about Ira Wallace’s new book, Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. See http://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/

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The weather here has turned wintry. We are bracing for the big ice storm expected Saturday night and Sunday, likely followed by power outages, during which the electric lines-people struggle to restore power over a big area, as this storm looks (on the radar) like it covers a big swath. Here’s the regional radar from Weather Underground this afternoon

Weather Underground regional radar for December 7 2013

Weather Underground regional radar for December 7 2013

In case you couldn’t tell from my slack blogging recently, I’ve been on vacation. My fellow communard, Ezra Freeman, has been tracking the weather here, and reported in his blog on a low of 10F on Saturday 23 November. The previous low had been 18F on November 13, reported to me by Ken Bezilla at Acorn Community and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Here are some seasonal photos of our gardens taken by Ezra:

East Garden with frost. Credit Ezra Freeman

East Garden with frost. Credit Ezra Freeman

Raised beds November 2013 Credit Ezra freeman

Raised beds November 2013
Credit Ezra Freeman

Ice on the pond. Credit Ezra Freeman

Ice on the pond.
Credit Ezra Freeman

Blackberry leaf with frost. Credit Ezra Freeman

Blackberry leaf with frost.
Credit Ezra Freeman

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Meanwhile, our garden work turns towards planning for next year. We have done an inventory of our remaining seeds and decided what to keep and what to throw out. Opinions vary a bit about how many years seeds of different vegetables are good for. The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. You can make your own decisions, weighing up the information supplied, your knowledge of how carefully you stored the seeds, the information on each packet about percentage germination when you bought it, and the economic importance to you of that particular crop. If you always transplant lettuce, as I do, you can risk one of your four varieties in that sowing coming up poorly, and just plant out more of the other three if it fails. Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook. Frank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

A simplified version of how long to keep seeds is as follows:

Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the even rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera

2 years: Corn, Peas and Beans of all kinds, Onions, Chives, Okra, Dandelion, Martynia,

3 years: Carrots, Leeks, Asparagus, Turnips, Rutabagas

4 years: Spinach, Peppers, Chard, Pumpkins, Squash, Watermelons, Basil, Artichokes and Cardoons

5 years: most Brassicas, Beets, Tomatoes, Eggplant, Cucumbers, Muskmelons, Celery, Celeriac, Lettuce, Endive, Chicory

Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce).

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We are working towards ordering seeds. The catalogs are starting to appear in my mail box. The early bird catches the preferred varieties! The main companies we order from are Fedco, Johnny’s and of course, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We like SESE for regionally adapted varieties, Fedco for great prices on bulk sizes, and Johnny’s for some varieties we really like that aren’t available from the other two. If you are ordering from Fedco and don’t yet have my book, they are now selling it at a very decent price (cheaper than signed copies direct from me). If you need to economize, but don’t want to buy from the big online company that doesn’t pay its workers much, try Fedco, who are a co-operative.

Crop review time, harvesting potatoes, frosts and foliage

Beech tree in November foliage, Credit Ezra Freeman

Beech tree in November foliage,
Credit Ezra Freeman

We’ve had a night of 24F and two of 26F, so the season is really changing. Here’s a photo from Ezra’s blog A Year In the Woods of a beech, one of the last trees with good foliage.

In the garden we’ve been setting up the spinach beds for the winter, weeding and filling gaps. We had really good spinach germination this fall, but then the seedlings got eaten by grasshoppers or something, so we have been moving plants from where they are closely spaced to where there are gaps. Spinach is an important winter crop for us. Kale is another, and happily we finally got a good stand of that, after resowing.

We’ve also finished screening compost into our cinder block greenhouse beds. This will be our spring seedling compost and we like having it all ready to use (not frozen in a lump as it would be when we start in mid-January if we stored it outside). Over the winter we grow lettuce in the compost in the beds, and the roots and the watering help mellow the compost into a lovely condition.

Yesterday we had our annual Crop Review meeting where we gather to talk over the successes and failures of the past season and start to consider what to do differently next year. Us five Full Crew were there, along with a few of the more casual helpers and also our Food Processing Manager and our Cooks Manager. This was a horribly hard season, starting with losing a couple of key people and having a very wet spring which grew lots of weeds and got us off to a very late start. We had to cancel several crops we had planned to grow (celeriac, lots of onions, kohlrabi, peanuts) and we lost several more to weeds after we’d planted them (leeks, Chinese cabbage, winter radish, some of the turnips and beets). Unsurprisingly, we are planning on a more manageable garden next year, so we can build up our strength and be more successful with what we do grow. Plus we’ll have a substantial bank of weed seeds to cope with.

We also used the meeting time to pop garlic cloves in preparation for planting later this week. I suppose most of you would call it next week. At Twin Oaks our weeks start on Fridays and end on Thursdays, for reasons almost lost in the mists of time. Nowadays I suspect we just like the quaintness of it.

Now we are starting to harvest our second potatoes (“Irish” potatoes) which we planted in July (late, like much else this year). We bush-hogged the tops two weeks ago, so that the potato skins could thicken up and be ready to harvest before it got too, too cold. Today we will remove the hay mulch and the dried up vines and weeds, to the compost pile, and tomorrow we’ll start harvesting.

We have a Checchi and Magli SP100 potato digger, which you can see in action on YouTube. Here’s ours

Our Checchi and Magli potato digger

Our Checchi and Magli potato digger

The other main work going on in the garden is getting cover crops planted. Here are before and after photos of one plot:

Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes Credit Ezra Freeman

Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes
Credit Ezra Freeman

Late corn undersown with oats, noew mowed high, and the sweet potato patch now sown in winter wheat and crimson clover. Credit Ezra Freeman

Late corn undersown with oats, now mowed high, and the sweet potato patch now sown in winter wheat and crimson clover.
Credit Ezra Freeman

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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Report from Mother Earth News Fair, and more to look forward to

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/coldhardy-winter-vegetables-pam-dawling-2013″ title=”Cold-hardy winter vegetables – Pam Dawling 2013″ target=”_blank”>Cold-hardy winter vegetables – Pam Dawling 2013</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming” target=”_blank”>Pam Dawling</a></strong> </div>

While I was checking SlideShare.net for my slideshows, to re-post my Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables one, I found this lovely one, from Alison and Paul Weidiger, two of my gardening gurus. They farm in Kentucky, which is the same winter-hardiness zone as us (zone 7) and the same latitude (38N).

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/awiediger/fall-and-winter-production-presentation” title=”Fall And Winter Production” target=”_blank”>Fall And Winter Production</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/awiediger” target=”_blank”>awiediger</a></strong> </div>

Alison and Paul will be presenters at the Virginia Biofarming Conference Jan 31 – Feb 1, 2014 in Richmond, VA at the Doubletree by Hilton HotelThey will give two workshops Growing Cool Season Vegetable Crops in High Tunnels  and  Greenhouse Herb and Transplant Production for Profit. There’s a great line-up of speakers including Mark Cain (another grower I much admire) on Cut Flowers, Harvey Ussery, The Modern Homestead,  the $43,560 Project by Clif Slade and our dear friend  Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange on How to Germinate Seeds Year-Round.

Also some speakers I haven’t met before, who sound really good: Successful Management of a Diversified Organic Farm by Stacy Brenner and John Bliss, of Broadturn FarmProfitable Vegetable Farming on 1.5 Acres: BioIntensive Market Garden  by Jean-Martin Fortier, of Les Jardins de la Grelinette, and Ray Archuleta, Conservation Agronomist, NRCS .and several more. See the VABF website for more details.

I left for the Mother Earth News Fair in PA on Thursday, and got home on Monday. It was a huge event! Over 240 workshops at 14 different locations, some indoor stages, some outdoors. Saturday was rainy, Sunday cold. I think it’s the first time I’ve given a presentation while wearing my jacket. but these Fair-goers are a hardy lot. The tent was packed. As well as the presentations, there were almost 400 booths with exhibitors, vendors and demonstrations, and the large MEN Bookstore, where I did book-signing on Sunday after my presentation.

Here’s a lovely piece of feedback I got: “I thought your presentation was excellent – best I went to. – you seem to really love your vocation and your information was all practical with no trite filler (like some). Well done.”

I also (at last, after a few years of emailing), had the pleasure of meeting my editor, Ingrid Witvoet, and my marketing person, Sara Reeves, from New Society Publishers. At the NSP authors’ reception, I got the chance to talk with other writers, comparing our experiences.

I joined the MEN Blog Squad at a lunch meeting, and signed up to also blog for them. Don’t worry, I won’t close this one down any time soon.

I hope to go to the Asheville, NC MEN Fair April 12-13 2014. I might need a new slideshow – so many of mine are intended for winter and fall conference audiences.

And now, back at home, fixing irrigation systems, sowing seeds for winter hoophouse crops and unpacking my cold weather clothes. there has been a decided shift in temperature in the past few weeks. Fall is beautiful here.

Fall spiderweb photo from Ezra's blog ObserVA

Fall spiderweb photo from Ezra’s blog ObserVA

Heritage Harvest Festival, corn, more raccoons, stray cat.

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/succession-planting-for-continuous-vegetable-harvests-2013-pam-dawling-26037044″ title=”Succession planting for continuous vegetable harvests 2013 Pam Dawling” target=”_blank”>Succession planting for continuous vegetable harvests 2013 Pam Dawling</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming” target=”_blank”>Pam Dawling</a></strong> </div>

You can watch my Succession Planting slide show here, and my Asian greens slideshow at SlideShare.net. I presented both at the Heritage Harvest Festival this weekend.

While at the festival I also did two sessions of book-signing at the Museum Shop, toured the booths, and attended several other workshops.

Cindy Connor ‘s workshop was entitled Grow a Sustainable Diet, which is the name of her book. It will be published by New Society in March 2014.

Also busy at work on a book is Criag LeHoullier, aka NCTomatoman. he spoke on Tomatoes for Southeast Gardens. He has grown hundreds of tomato varieties, mostly in 5 gallon pots along his driveway. Here are some of the open pollinated varieties her recommends for the southeast:

Reds: Red Brandywine (not the pink one!), Livingston’s Favorite (a canner), Aker’s West Virginia (delicious and disease tolerant), Nepal (salad size from Johnny’s).

Pinks: Salzar’s Ferris Wheel, Anna’s Russian (heart-shaped, wonderful and very early), Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, Cherry Pearl (pretty pink cherry with so-so flavor)

Purple/black: Cherokee Purple, Black Cherry, Purple Calabash

Chocolate: Cherokee Chocolate (really good)

Green: Cherokee Green, Green Giant (great flavor), Aunt Ruby’s (wonderful).

Yellow: Lilian’s Yellow Heirloom (delicious), Hugh’s, Yellow Bell (Roma type)

Orange: Yellow Brandywine, Annie, Orange Strawberry, Jaune Flamme, Kellogs Breakfast

White: Coyote (cherry)

Bicolor: Lucky Cross (tastes like Brandywine)

Stripes: Don’s Double Delight, Striped Roman

I’m sure I didn’t write down all the good ones, but these ones appealed to me.

Next I went to hear Clif Slade talk about his $43,560 project. Clif’s goal is “to demonstrate that farmers working with limited resources and using organic methods can make an average of $1 per square foot growing and marketing vegetables from one acre (43.560 square feet)” as explained in the Virginia Association for Biological Farming document I’ve linked to here. The Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote up the project in early July. Clif used to grow 10 acres of vegetables, but it didn’t pay much. He once planted two GMO corn varieties and 18 non-GMO. The deer ate the non-GMOs, but didn’t touch the GM ones. Since then he has gone Organic, grows some seed crops for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and has developed his 43560 project, finding crops that produce a head or a pound of crop per square foot. As well as growing the most suitable crops (and ignoring the others), he stresses the importance of building good soil, putting a quarter of the land into cover crops at any one time, and paying attention to marketing.

Later, On Saturday, I went to an inspiring presentation by Cory Fowler, a founder of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. His slideshow includes pictures of the village of Svalbard and the vault, outside and in, and the surrounding ice, snow and wildlife. Norway donated the structure, including the Norwegian requirement that every construction project includes 2% (I think) of art. The daily workforce on-site is zero – they monitor from close-by and remotely, but they really don’t want people coming and going!

Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Credit Mari Tefre, andCroptrust.org

Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Credit Mari Tefre, and Croptrust.org

He spoke about the incredible achievement of setting up this “fail-safe, state-of-the-art seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time – and of natural or manmade disasters.” Each country (and a very few non-governmental seed-saving groups) can submit sealed boxes containing 400-seed samples of each variety of each vegetable and grain crop they can obtain. This is as a backup to their national seed bank. The vault at Svalbard steps aside from political and individual self-interest. They are holding the boxes in safe-keeping, and do not open them, but will return them to the source if asked. There are some false stories circulating about what Svalbard is all about, so I encourage everyone to read the website – it’s an impressive project and a heart-warming success story.

The presentation ended with a beautiful short video Polar Eufori which you can see on YouTube.

Meanwhile, back at home, we are using the dry weather to start to catch up on hoeing and weeding. Here’s our fall broccoli (These photos are from Ezra’s blog ObserVA, which I’ve mentioned before.)

Fall broccoli rescued from weeds. Credit Ezra Freeman

Fall broccoli rescued from weeds.
Credit Ezra Freeman

and here’s our late corn and our sweet potatoes:

Sweet potatoes next to our last corn planting.  Credit Ezra Freeman

Sweet potatoes next to our last corn planting.
Credit Ezra Freeman

We are planning to set up a solar-powered electric fence around this corn, before the raccoons find it too. Maybe also to keep the deer out of the sweet potatoes. The previous corn still has new raccoon damage, but the most recent animal to go in our live trap was a stray cat! Not the first stray I’ve caught this year (I think it’s the third). Our spinach came up well this year, thanks to the cooler weather. We’re still working on getting enough kale established. Soon we’ll plant our new strawberries (a bit late, but the best we can do).

 

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

Phenology follow-up. Cicadas are coming!

Ezra's salamander

Ezra’s salamander

I wrote about phenology and shared our Twin Oaks phenology chart on 3/28. Since then I’ve read two related blogs I want to tell you about. One is my fellow Twin Oaker Ezra Freeman, whose blog ObserVa A year observing nature in Central Virginia has wonderful photos of plants and animals here at Twin Oaks and wherever he goes. Most recently a hike up Old Rag mountain in the Shenandoahs. The other is Chert Hollow Farm’s Bird list & other natural events. Eric and Joanna Reuter own and operate Chert Hollow Farm, a small, diversified farm featuring certified organic produce near Columbia, MO. They have a great website. Probably a thousand miles from Twin Oaks, so not the same as our backyard. In some ways that makes it all the more interesting. Another natural event I’m keeping tabs on is the emergence of the 17-year cicada. Debbie Roos  of the Growing Small Farms site posted a link to a news article about the coming emergence of Brood II of the 17-year periodical cicadas on her Facebook page and sent out a link to the Cooperative Extension’s Growing Small Farms website.

17 year cicada up close and personal

17 year cicada up close and personal. Credit Cicadamania.com

Cicada Mania is a great source for all cicada-related information.  The blog is amusing and packed with info. Adult cicadas begin to emerge when the soil temperatures reach 64F.  (My soil thermometer is monitoring temperature in a carrot bed I plan to flame-weed.) If you haven’t got a soil thermometer, Cicada Mania has an emergence calculator based on air temperature. http://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/cicada-emergence-formula/ Here is a map of the areas which can expect to see this cicada, for a month or so, starting in May. We’re right in there. Adult female cicadas damage young woody plants by tunneling in thin twigs to lay eggs. I didn’t plant any new fruit bushes this past winter, so don’t really think I have much to worry about. Damage to older bushes and trees is dramatic-looking, but not usually permanently harmful. b_02