What’s growing in the hoophouse; reading; planning for winter.

Tokyo Bekana in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse we are perhaps half way through our bed preparations. The Tokyo Bekana was the first crop we transplanted from our outdoor nursery bed, and it’s looking very sturdy now.  We’ve also transplanted some Yukina Savoy and the first of the lettuces.

Cherry Belle radishes in the hoophouse, early October.
Photo Pam Dawling.

The crops we direct sowed in early September are growing well, and we are harvesting the radishes and some of the tatsoi and Bulls Blood beet greens (thinning to 6″ apart). The spinach is big enough to start harvesting but we haven’t needed to yet.

Hoophouse tatsoi in early October.
Photo Pam Dawling

The newer sowings (the second radishes and the first brassica baby salad mix (mustards) have emerged and are ready to thin to 1″. Sometimes we use thinned seedlings as a salad garnish, but it takes more time than simply pulling them out, and it takes attention to keep them clean.

This summer we grew more cover crops rather than seed crops, which we have been growing in summer for several years, because we were short of workers. In the photo below you can see some healthy cowpeas I’m going to be pulling up later today, as well as some pulled up and dried buckwheat. We don’t dig our cover crops under, just let them die on the surface for as long as possible, shedding bits of dead leaf, then haul them to the compost pile. With the cowpeas, we hope to leave the nitrogen nodules from the roots, by ripping the plants up roughly!

Iron and Clay cowpeas as cover crop in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

These cowpeas have been cut back two or three times over the summer, to keep them manageable. At one point, they were black with sooty mold growing on aphid honeydew. We wondered if it was going to be a bigger problem, but after we cut the plants back, most of the aphids seem to have died. We also got a healthy population of ladybugs.


December beds with row cover.
Photo Wren Vile

I gather readers are planning for winter, as many folks have been visiting my Winter-Kill Temperatures List of hardy crops. I update this list every spring, with the info from the previous winter. It’s useful for planning harvests based on forecast temperatures, and it’s useful for planning which winter crops will grow in your location, either inside or out.

On the same theme, I just discovered the WeatherSpark website which provides “The Typical Weather Anywhere on Earth”. Enter your nearest town or airport and you get clearly explained info with fascinating graphics of how the weather goes over the year in your locality. Note this is not a forecast site, it’s about average weather for each place. Useful to people who’ve recently moved and want to know what to expect this winter, or to new gardeners who haven’t paid so much attention previously. Or to those who want to check their assumptions (I really thought the wind was out of the west more of the time than records say). There are charts of high and low temperature, temperature by the hour each month, cloud cover, daily chance of precipitation (both rainfall and snowfall), hours of daylight, humidity, wind speed and direction and solar energy. A big help in making wise decisions. I know that climate change is going to cause havoc with averages, and we’ll need to learn to become better weather forecasters individually, and to use soil temperature and other metrics to decide when to plant. But this website explains things well.


Tomato seed strained in a sieve.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote a more concise description of saving tomato seed for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. For the full length version, see my two posts here and here.

The October Growing for Market is out. Flower farmer Erin Benzakein writes about getting to grips with the marketing side of running a farm. She encourages farmers to get good photos, step out from behind the camera, and dust off their website. I could use some of this advice! (I’ve been very busy writing a hoophouse book, and have necessarily paid less attention to giving presentations and to rejuvenating this website!

Kai Hoffman-Krull writes about on-farm trials of bio-char. I’m looking forward to reading that. Jesse Frost writes about winter CSAs and profiles some he visited. Chris Bodnar covers Italy’s thriving agricultural co-ops and asks if this could be a model for the next phase of the locally-grown movement. Lastly Zach Loeks offers the first of a two-part series on Transitioning to a permaculture market garden.

The September/October issue of Organic Broadcaster is also out. Articles include attending to soil health to improve production; the top reasons customers buy organic foods (accountability, environment, health); interseeding cover crops in cash crops; an interview with farmers in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program; designing an efficient pack shed; and selecting the right meat processor.

Lastly, the campaign www.keepthesoilinorganic.org has posted a letter a letter recently sent out by farming mentor Eliot Coleman about the travesty of allowing hydroponics to be certified as Organic. Hydroponics is a system of growing plants anchored in holes in plastic tubes, or in blocks of inert material, and feeding them with a liquid solution of things that work to produce mature plants. The arrogance of imagining we know everything a plant needs is astounding! The idea that all the many complex ingredients of soil can be replaced with a synthetic concoction is staggering!

Eliot Coleman’s letter includes these quotes:

Organic farming is best defined by the benefits of growing crops on a biologically active fertile soil.

The importance of fertile soil as the cornerstone of organic farming is under threat. The USDA is allowing soil-less hydroponic vegetables to be sold as certified organic without saying a word about it.

The encouragement of “pseudo-organic” hydroponics is just the latest in a long line of USDA attempts to subvert the non-chemical promise that organic farming has always represented. Without soil, there is no organic farming.

 

Eliot Coleman will be a speaker, along with Fred Kirschenmann, Enid Wonnacott, Jim Riddle, Will Allen, Jeff Moyer, Dave Chapman, Anaise Beddard, Lisa Stokke, Tom Beddard and  Linley Dixon at the Jacksonville Rally of the Keep the Soil in Organic movement. Oct 31, 2017 at 12:45 pm – 2:00pm EDT. Omni Jacksonville Hotel, 245 Water St, Jacksonville, FL 32202, USAThis Rally will be a gathering of organic farmers and eaters from all over the world. The march will begin at the Omni Jacksonville during the lunch break from 12:45 to 2 PM on Tuesday, the first day of the NOSB meeting. There will be a 5 minute march to The Landing from the Omni. Lunch will be available at the Rally. For more information, call Dave Chapman at 802-299-7737.

Sowing hoophouse winter crops

New spinach seedlings in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

We are on our way with our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. On September 6 and 7 we sowed five crops in our first bed – spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet greens, radishes and scallions. On September 15 we sowed lettuces, chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy, in an outdoor bed to be transplanted into the hoophouse in a few weeks, after we’ve prepared another bed.

Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

To prepare hoophouse beds for winter crops, we first remove the summer crops to the compost pile, then spread a generous layer of compost over the surface. We use about five wheelbarrowsful for one bed 4’ x 90’. Next we move the three lengths of drip tape off to one side or the other, and broadfork the whole area. We have an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools that we really like. To use a broadfork, work backwards either going the length of the bed or the width. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the bar touches the soil, with the tines all the way in, then step off backwards, pulling the handles towards you. This loosens a big area of soil, which hopefully crumbles into chunks. Lift the broadfork and set it back in the soil about 6” back from the first bite. Step on the bar and repeat. We’ve found it’s important to only broadfork the amount of space you have time to rake immediately, otherwise the warm hoophouse conditions dry out the soil and make it harder to cultivate into a fine tilth, which is the next task. Sometimes we use a rake, breaking the clumps up with the back of the rake, then raking the soil to break up the smaller lumps, and reshape the bed.

7″ stirrup hoe.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

Sometimes we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job scuffle hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing, and hence why we call them scuffle hoes), but the sharp hoe blade does a good job of breaking up clumpy soil. We’ve also found it important to lay the drip tapes back in place in between each day’s work, so that the soil gets irrigated when we run the system and stays damp. We don’t want dead, baked soil.

Once the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags. Next we use our row-marker rake (bed prep rake) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Johnny’s Bed Prep rake with row marker pegs.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

We plant crops closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and closer to the edges of the beds. We don’t have many weeds in the hoophouse, and the paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds, compacting the soil. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, even if we don’t step on the edges (and of course, some feet do find themselves on the bed edges sometimes), hence the once-a-year broadforking. We found out how valuable the soil loosening is, because one year before we started broadforking, we decided to loosen the edges with a digging fork to make up for several years of accidental steps. The edge rows of spinach grew much bigger than the inner rows, and we realized that the whole bed needed loosening.

After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds. We pre-sprout our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. Just soak the seed overnight, drain it in the morning, fit a mesh lid on the jar, and lay it on its side in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to tumble the seeds and even out the moisture. This year the seeds were a bit wet when I came to sow them, and clumped together. I poured them out on a cloth to dry a bit before I sowed. This year we are growing two varieties (Avon and Reflect) side by side, still seeking a replacement for our much loved Tyee, which was pulled from the market, because it was prone to a disease prevalent in the West.

Easter Egg radish seedlings in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

The spinach, tatsoi and radishes came up very quickly, with the beets a day or two behind. The scallions came up in a week, which is quicker than at other times of year.

One week after the sowings, I thinned the spinach and radishes to 1” apart in the row. We are growing Easter Egg, Cherry Belle and White Icicle radishes. The Cherry Belle will be ready first, Easter Egg next (they mature relatively gradually, giving us a nice harvest period). Icicle are unusual long white radishes which are slower to mature, and slow to get woody.

Buckley One-cut (Eazileaf) lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Meanwhile, outdoors on September 15 we sowed the first half of the crops that we transplant bare-rooted into the hoophouse. Our planned schedule called for 10 varieties of lettuce, but I ended up sowing 12, partly because we are trying three new Vitalis one-cut lettuce varieties from High Mowing Seeds: Ezrilla, Hampton and Buckley.  These are bred to provide lots of similar-sized leaves from cutting. They can be cut and mixed for baby salad mix or cut as whole heads for easy-to-prepare salads, or harvested by the leaf (or layers of leaves) once the plant has grown to full size. This is how we use them. They were previously called Eazileaf varieties, and are now called One-cut lettuces. They are only available as pelleted seed, so I regard them as too pricey to grow for baby salad mix, and best used for multiple harvests.

Johnny’s Green Sweet Crisp Salanova lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Seeds

Osborne’s Multigreen 3 lettuce.
Photo Osborne Seeds

You can click here to read the New Head Lettuces article Andrew Mefferd wrote about this new type of lettuce in Growing for Market magazine. We have previously grown Johnny’s Salanova and Osborne’s Multileaf varieties and I wrote about them here and here. This year we are trying the High Mowing ones. We did a small trial of them outdoors in spring, knowing that in our climate (very different from High Mowing’s in Vermont) they might well bolt. They grew into handsome plants, but clearly they are more suited to fall than spring in our quickly-heating-up climate.

Other lettuces we sow for our winter hoophouse crops include Oscarde, Panisse, Tango which have a similar shape of lots of same-sized leaves, and Green Forest (romaine), Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Merlot, Revolution, Salad Bowl and Red Salad Bowl. I would have sown Red Tinged Winter but we seem to be out of seed.

Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Saving watermelon seed, rainy day reading, Heritage Harvest Festival

Scooping watermelon seed.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote recently about saving tomato seed, and here I’ll write about extracting watermelon seed. We grow Crimson Sweet Virginia Select, which we sell to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I walk through the patch with a grease pencil (china marker) in July when the melons are forming and write numbers on 40 nice-looking big melons. I’m selecting for earliness, size, disease resistance and flavor.

Selected watermelon with an identifying number.
Photo Nina Gentle

Once the melons start to ripen, I go out to the plot once a week with my trusty garden cart and a collection of clean buckets, a notebook and pen, a big knife, a large slotted spoon, a couple of damp rags, a bottle of water and a big straw hat. I start testing the numbered ones for ripeness. If they are ripe I decide if they are seed-worthy, demoting any with dead vines (not disease-resistant!) or too small. I find promising replacements for any I decide not to save seed from, and number those.

Garden cart with supplies for watermelon seed collection.
Photo Pam Dawling

When I have a good one, I cut it in half and scoop the heart out into a very clean bucket. I taste a piece (that’s the “good flavor” test). These days they all seem to taste good, but the first few years of seed selection, I had some I didn’t like much, so I didn’t save seed from those. See the first photo for the scooping task. Once the heart is scooped out, there is a layer of flesh with seeds in, which I scoop out into a moderately clean bucket. Then a layer of flesh without seeds for the food bucket.

Watermelon seed bucket and food bucket.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the blue bucket is my “dry zone” with my notebook. I write down which melons I harvested, any I discarded, any new ones I added, and how many are left to find in the coming weeks. Generally I harvest 7-10 watermelons per week, generating two buckets of fruit and two half-buckets of seeds. The watermelon seeds are fermented for four or five days, then washed – just like processing tomato seeds I wrote about last week.

Dried watermelon seeds in a paper bag.
Photo Pam Dawling

I harvest 5 or 6 times, from Late July to early September. I don’t want to be selecting for late-ripening melons so I stop harvesting seed long before the fruits are over.


My most recent blog post for Mother Earth News is about repairing garden hoses, most of which you already read about here. It’s in the DIY blog this time (most of my posts go in the Organic Gardening blog). I just heard some numbers for how various of my Mother Earth News blogposts this year are doing, and the big favorite topic is Growing Lettuce Year Round: Succession Planting for a Continuous Supply: 10,924 views! Growing Winter Lettuce: 4,620 views, is second favorite. people sure do love lettuce! Other popular topics this year have been Winter Hoop House Harvest Schedule, Using Open Flats (Seed Trays) to Grow Sturdy Seedlings EasilyHeat-Tolerant Eggplant Varieties, and Planting Leeks. 

How to harvest garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

When I look to see which posts on this blog people visit most often, I see that garlic harvesting and garlic scapes are very popular, as are posts about sweet potatoes.


Sometimes I post links to my slideshows, but here’s a You Tube I’ve been meaning to tell you about. This is my presentation of Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests at New Country Organics.


The September Growing for Market is out. The cover article, by Carolina Lees, advocating a Farmer Retreat. This is a wintertime regional gathering of farmers, with scheduled time for discussion and also for casual hanging-out. No imported speakers! The author is in Oregon, and envy-inducing photos of the beach-side retreat are included. But, what a good idea!

David Ross writes about grower relationships with wholesalers. Shawn Jadrnicek, author of The Bio-Integrated Farm: A Reveolutionary Permaculture-Based System . . .  writes about mulching and crimping techniques for no-till vegetables, including how to have weed-free cover crops, and get the right machinery to roll and crimp them. he uses a manure spreader to spread tree leaf mulch, and shows photos of a very tidy farm.

Rowan Steele writes about obtaining used silage tarps (as advocated by Jean-Martin Fortier) for covering beds to control weeds organically. Rowan writes about how to use the tarps and suggests coordinating a used silage tarp delivery for your small farm community. Contact Travis Quirk at the nonprofit Simply Agriculture Solutions Inc. in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan ([email protected]).  The tarps may be delivered for the cost of shipping. Canadian farmers are required to recycle their “grain bags”, but it’s hard for them to find a recycling facility in Canada, so the plastics are sent to the US. They are happy to be able to divert the material for a second use. Sounds great to me!

Jane Tanner writes about William’s WIldflowers, a floral design business run by two sisters, using lots of native flowers, especially perennials, for weddings and other formal occasions.


See you at the Heritage Harvest Festival on Friday September 8 (my premium workshop on growing sweet potatoes from start to finish) or Saturday (strolling around). Last time I looked there were still tickets available for my workshop ($20)

Heritage Harvest Festival

More about Jamaica’s Source Farm Project

A bunch of bananas growing at face level outside my door on the path to the office at Source Farm, Jamaica.
Photo Pam Dawling

At last I got the photos from my Jamaica trip from my camera to the computer. I didn’t take many photos – as I said in my other Jamaica post, it rained most of the time. As you see in the photo above, bananas grow well, the land at Source Farm is hilly, the office is a repurposed and repainted shipping container

At the beginning of June the BBC visited Source Farm and made a podcast as part of the On Your Farm series, and called it Jamaica’s Organic Revolution.

You can listen to all 22 minutes of it for free, and hear the people I stayed with at Source Farm as well as Mr Brown, one of the farmers I met with. I can only link to the program, not embed it, so click the link below

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08skyk0

Source – BBC News

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the voices of my new friends, and being reminded of the farm and the countryside.

Viewing my photos reminded me also of the “domestic wildlife.” First the friendly ones:

Gecko or “Croaking Lizard” on my wall at Source Farm
Photo Pam Dawling

Then the creepy crawlies, the two inch millipedes that were everywhere. You have to be careful not to crush them, because the liquid inside them can cause burns. I never had that problem, and scooped them up by the handful to throw outside each night, only to find them back inside by morning. I concluded that each house had its allotment of millipedes and it was best to ignore them!

Millipede and electric outlet in my room at Source Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Things I noticed and learned from the farmers about growing crops in the tropics have led me to think more about how plants respond to temperature and day-length, and I want to learn more about this when I have time. As I said in my Asian Greens for June post:

“Last month I was in Jamaica and saw how they can grow kale in very hot weather. “

I had a comment from a reader about successfully growing Joy Choi in hot summers as well as Tokyo bekana. It’s revelation to me that at least some brassicas can grow in hot weather as long as the temperature never drops below 50°F (10°C), which triggers bolting.

Swiss chard I take for granted as a summer leafy green – it’s a biennial and usually won’t bolt until the second year. The Ruby chard seems the most prone to bolting. We’ve given up that one in favor of Bright Lights, as well as Fordhook Giant green chard. Chard is popular in Jamaica too.

Fordhook Giant green chard.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

A green which is not common here in the US, but is very popular in Jamaica is callaloo, which is a type of amaranth. I enjoyed eating it at Source Farm. I tried growing it in Virginia one year, when I was researching summer cooking greens in spring 2015 for an article in Growing for Market. Here’s what I said then (when I maybe misspelled callaloo):

Vegetable amaranth,  Amaranthus species.

In spring use the young leaves for salad. Larger leaves make tender and nutritious cooked greens. Calaloo is an amaranth (but sometimes other crops have this name), used to make a green Caribbean stew. Joseph’s Coat, Amaranthus tricolor, is an eye-catching plant with red, green, and yellow leaves that may also include patches of pink, bronze, purple and brown. This tropical plant thrives in really hot weather. It is a huge plant, 4-6’ tall. Carol Deppe in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening recommends All Red for a spectacularly colorful leaf, especially for salads, and Green Calaloo and Burgundy for fast-growing greens. She reports they all taste the same to her raw, and all taste the same when cooked. So choose by preferred color and rate of growth.

Seeds should be started indoors in spring, and transplanted once all chance of frost has passed, when it is time to plant corn. Alternatively, broadcast with aim of getting plants 4” apart. Each time the plants reach 12” tall, harvest the top 8”. Pinch back often to push out new leaves and prevent reseeding (it can become a weed problem). If your farm has lots of amaranth weeds, you won’t want to risk adding another. Also, if weed amaranths are eaten by the striped fleabeetles, your cultivated amaranths will also suffer. (Those are the two reasons we gave up on them.)

William Woys Weaver (Saladings, Warm Weather, Mother Earth News) is a fan of ‘Bliton’ or ‘Horsetooth Amaranth’, Amaranthus lividus (Amaranthus viridis). He reports that it is the easiest and most prolific of summer greens. Seed should be started indoors, except in the South. Transplant seedlings when it’s warm enough to plant beans (Frequent advice for many of these hot weather greens). Alternatively, broadcast where it is to grow after all danger of frost is past. Thin the seedlings for salads or harvest plants about 12” tall and cook like spinach. When the plant is older, the stems get too tough, and then only the leaves and new shoots should be used. In parts of the South, it has become a weed – “Grow responsibly,” as Barbara Pleasant says in her Mother Earth News blogpost Warm Weather Spinach Alternatives.

Green Amaranth/Calaloo
Photo Baker Creek Seeds

 

 

Growing for Market, Sweet potato propagation and yields

The April issue of Growing for Market is out! For those of you growing sweet potatoes, Andrew Schwerin from NW Arkansas has written an interesting article. I’ve written about starting sweet potato slips before and I have a slideshow that includes three methods of  starting your own slips.  He and his wife Madeleine grow 1500 feet of sweet potatoes each year, a third of their growing area.

I was interested to note their reasons for growing so many sweet potatoes (apart from the obvious fact that they can sell that many). Sweet potatoes are not a big moneymaker in terms of the space occupied. Here at Twin Oaks we pondered similar issues this winter when deciding which crops to grow.  We worked down a list of 25 factors, deciding which were important to use. We chose our top handful of factors and then worked down a list of crops we might grow, awarding points (or not!) for each factor for each crop. This helped us narrow down what to focus on this year. And yes, we are growing sweet potatoes! I wrote about this in Growing for Market in February 2017.

These growers listed the following factors as their reasons to grow sweet potatoes:

  • Sweet potatoes produce well in our soil

  • They aren’t troubled by intense summer heat

  • Extensive vines will smother most weeds

  • Few pest or disease issues

  • Most of the labor is in early October, between intensive harvests of summer and fall crops

  • They store long-term for steady sales through the winter

Sweet Potato harvest at Twin Oaks. Photo McCune Porter

They like Beauregard, and wanted to try using the single node cutting method, as advocated by Anthony and Caroline Boutard – see my Sweet Potato slideshow for details. Initially they were excited about the single node cutting process, as their roots produced exponentially more growing shoots each week. OK, maybe exponential is a bit of an exaggeration, but it gives the sense of it. Because they had so much propagation material, they started making 5-node slips, rooting clusters of cuttings in pots of compost, 3 nodes in the soil for roots, 2 nodes above ground.

Some of their single node cuttings failed to thrive, both in the trays and in the field, so they developed a 2-node cutting system instead, and also used their five-node slips. And so they had a trial of three sweet potato cutting methods, with plants in different 100 ft beds. In the past (using the regular slips method) they have averaged yields of 500-600 lbs of sweet potatoes per 100 ft bed, with a range from a poor 250 lbs to a few successes with 1000 lbs/bed. Of course, yield is not the only important feature of a market crop, although understandably it has a high profile for those growing 1500 row feet for sale.

At harvest, they found that their single-node sweet potato plants were producing a couple of hundred pounds per 100 ft bed. The 2-node beds produced about 500 pounds per bed, of relatively few, very large (6 – 20 lb) sweet potatoes. The plants with 3+ nodes in the soil gave more reasonable sized potatoes. They tend to get jumbos, so they have started planting closer (10″) to tackle this – not many customers want jumbos.

In his article in Growing for Market,  Anthony Boutard pointed out that single-node cuttings do produce fewer tubers which are larger and better formed. This is a big advantage for growers in the north, but less so in the south. The Arkansas growers have found that the 2-node cuttings are even better at this tendency in their location, which is much further south than Anthony Boutard’s farm.

Beauregard sweet potatoes saved for seed stock.
Photo Nina Gentle

Other articles in this month’s Growing for Market include Managing a cash crisis
How to climb out of the hole by Julia Shanks, the author of The Farmer’s
Office. Farmers deal with a very seasonal cash flow, and may well have gone into farming with good farming skills but not good business skills. Julia writes about four rules for getting out of a financial hole.

  1. Quit digging (don’t incur any more inessential expenses).
  2. Keep the dogs at bay (communicate with your creditors about how you plan to pay, and how you plan to keep producing the goods).
  3. Climb out (increase revenue in as many ways as possible).
  4. Get your head out of the sand (don’t panic, face realities, be proactive).

She goes on to list 10 ways to protect yourself from getting in such a hole again.

Sam Hitchcock Tilton has an article about cultivating with walk-behind tractors, ie, weeding and hoeing with special attachments. There are some amazing walk-behind
weeding machines (manufactured and homemade) throughout the world. There
is an entire style of vegetable farming and scale of tools that have been forgotten, in between tractor work and hand growing – the scale of the walk-behind tractor. The author explains how commercially available tools can be adapted to work with a BCS or a carefully used antique walk-behind tractor.

Mike Appel and Emily Oakley contributed Every farm is unique, define success your own way. Money is not the only measure. Quality of life, family time, and personal well-being are up there too, as are wider community achievements. Farming is equal parts job and lifestyle, and the authors recommend having a strategic plan for yourself and the farm, which you update every couple of years to pinpoint goals and the steps you need to take to reach them.

Cossack Pineapple Ground Cherry
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Liz Martin writes about husk cherries (ground cherries) and how to improve production of them, to make a commercial crop viable. Who would have guessed that hillling the beds before planting can make harvest so much easier, because the fruits roll down the sides?

Judson Reid and Cordelia Machanoff wrotea short piece: Fertility tips and foliar testing to maximize high tunnel crops, and Gretel Adams wrote about  Scaling up the flower farm. Many of the ideas also apply to vegetable farms.

Lettuce in February, Growing for Market, open seed flats

Baby lettuce mix in our winter hoophouse.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

We still have plenty of lettuce to eat, although our first sowing of baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse has come to its bitter end, and the second sowing isn’t quite ready (I think we sowed it a bit later than intended). We are still harvesting leaves from the large lettuce we transplanted in October.  Soon we’ll have the second and third baby lettuce mix sowings to bring a welcome change. We are about ready to transplant our first outdoor lettuce, to feed us mid-late April.

Here is a month-by-month planting and harvesting narrative for our hoophouse lettuce in Zone 7, from September to April:

September: Sow cold-hardy varieties in the second and third weeks (outdoors or in your greenhouse) to transplant into the hoophouse at 4 weeks old .

October: 4 weeks after sowing, transplant those lettuces at 8” spacing to harvest leaves from mid-November to early March, rather than heads. In late October, sow the first baby lettuce mix, for up to 8 cuts from early December to late February, and sow a small patch of “filler lettuces” to replace casualties in the main plantings up until the end of December.

November: 11/9 sow more filler lettuce, to be planted out in the hoophouse during January. Transplant the first “filler lettuce” to replace casualties. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce.

December: Use the “filler lettuce #1” to replace casualties or fill other hoophouse space, for lettuce leaves in January and February, or heads in February. At the end of December, make a second sowing of baby lettuce mix, to harvest from late February to the end of March. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the first baby lettuce mix.

January: Use the “filler lettuce #2” to fill gaps in the lettuce beds up until January 25. After that is too late here for hoophouse lettuce planting, and we use spinach to fill all the gaps, regardless of the surrounding crop. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the first baby lettuce mix whenever it reaches the right size.

February: 2/1 sow the third baby lettuce mix, to provide up to three cuts, from mid-March to late April. In mid-February, consider a fourth sowing of baby lettuce mix, if outdoor conditions look likely to delay outdoor harvests. Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the second baby lettuce mix when it sizes up. Harvest the first baby lettuce mix, clearing it at the end of February before it gets bitter.

March: Harvest leaves from the transplanted lettuce, and cut the second baby lettuce mix whenever it reaches size. Cut the third baby lettuce mix when it sizes up.

April: In the first half of the month, harvest the last of the transplanted lettuce as heads . Continue to cut the third baby lettuce mix until it gets bitter. Cut the fourth baby lettuce mix when it sizes up. Outdoor lettuce heads are usually ready for harvest mid-April. Plan to have enough hoophouse harvests until the outdoor harvests can take over.

Lettuce transplants in soil blocks, on our custom-made cart. We don’t use soil blocks for lettuce any more (too time-consuming!) but I love this photo. Photo Pam Dawling


The February issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article How to decide which crops to grow which I previewed some of here last August. I also included some of the material in my slideshow Diversify Your Vegetable Crops. Click the link to see the slideshow. This past winter we used this kind of process to reduce the amount of garden work for 2017. I’m retiring from garden management and the new managers  want to stay sane and not be exhausted all the time. We have fewer workers this year (the past few years actually), so we needed to slim down the garden and not go crazy trying to do everything we’ve done in the past. I’ll still be working in the hoophouse, the greenhouse, and doing some outdoor work, as well as being available to answer questions and provide some training when asked.

Back to Growing for Market. There’s a great article for new small-scale growers, from Katherine Cresswell in northern Idaho, Year One Decision Making, about starting a farm with only one implement. Careful planning lead Katherine and her partner Spencer to focus on fall, winter and spring vegetables, as no-one else around them provided these, and they had experience of winter growing from working on other farms. Clearly a high tunnel (hoophouse) needed to be in the plan. It was essential that they hit the ground running and have saleable produce within six months. The expense budget was very tight. They bought a BCS 739 walk-behind tractor (which they both had experience of) and a rotary plow. A very down-to-earth article to encourage any new grower with limited means.

There are reviews of three new books by GfM writers: Compact Farms by Josh Volk, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden and The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Growers Handbook by Andrew Mefferd, the editor of GfM. Brett Grohsgal has written a valuable article about his 15 years experience with on-farm breeding of winter-hardy vegetables, both in the field and under protection of hoophouses. Informative and inspiring. Erin Benzakein has written about rudbeckias, the unsung heroes of summer bouquets, and Gretel Adams has written on new flower varieties to try in 2017.


I have a new post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, Using Open Flats (Seed Trays) to Grow Sturdy Seedlings Easily – How to make reusable wood flats (seed trays) for seedlings, and use them to grow sturdy vegetable starts to transplant into your garden. This is a way to avoid contributing to the problem of agricultural plastic trash and be self-reliant in gardening equipment. You can also grow stronger plants by giving them a larger compost volume than plug flats or cell packs provide.

Open flat of broccoli seedlings.
Photo Wren Vile

I heard that my MEN blogpost Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating was very popular in January, coming sixth in their table of most-viewed posts on all topics. This has been out there in the blog-iverse for almost 18 months, so clearly there is a lot of concern about eating healthy food and not wasting what we’ve grown.

Sorting potatoes two weeks after harvest to remove problem potatoes before rot spreads.
Photo Wren Vile


The false spring has been barreling along. Last week I reported that we’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17). Since then, we’ve seen daffodils and dandelions flowering, heard spring peppers and already the maple is flowering (2/25). These are all markers on our phenology list. The maple flowers on average 3/12, with a range (before this year) of 2/28 in 2012 to 4/2 in 2014. A 9-year record broken!

Cover crops slideshow, Hoophouse style and design article

Last week I went to the annual conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, held at Hot Springs Resort, Virginia. There were about 430 attendees, a big increase from last year. I gave two presentations, Spring and Summer Hoophouses, and Cover Crops. Here’s the Cover Crops slideshow.

In case you were there and missed the handouts, here they are:

Spring and Summer Hoophouses Handout

Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers 4pg Handout 2016

Crimson clover is a beautiful and useful cover crop.
Photo Kathryn Simmons


My next two events are

Jan 25-28, 2017 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference Location: Hyatt Regency Hotel and Convention Center, 401 West High St, Lexington, KY 40507. 888 421 1442, 800 233 1234. Registration: http://www.ssawg.org/registration

I’m presenting two brand new 90 minute workshops: Diversify your Vegetable Crops (Friday 2-3.30pm) and Storage Vegetables for Off-Season Sales (Saturday 8.15-9.45 am). Workshops will be recorded. Book signing (Thursday 5pm) and sales.

Feb 1-4 2017 PASA Farming for the Future Conference 2000 people Location: Penn Stater Convention Center, State College, PA Registration: http://conference.pasafarming.org/

I’m presenting three 80 minute Workshops: Sweet Potatoes, (Friday Feb 2 12.50pm), Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops,  (Saturday 8.30am), and Succession Planting, (Sat 3.40pm). Workshops will be recorded. Book-signings and sales.

Sweet potato harvest 2014
Photo Nina Gentle


The January 2017 issue of Growing for Market is out. It includes my article on Hoophouse style and design. As well as the Gothic/Quonset
decision and that on whether to choose  roll-up, drop-down or no sidewalls, this article discusses roads, utilities, irrigation, in-ground insulation, end-wall design, inflation, airflow fans, and bed layout to match your chosen method of cultivation.

Other articles include Barbara Damrosch on flower production on a small vegetable farm (beautiful photos!), Emily Oakley on planning to  grow only what you can sell (words of wisdom), Eric and Joanna Reuter with part two of their series online weather tools for farmers, Jed Beach on how to avoid and fix common financial mistakes we farmers make, and Jane Tanner on local food hubs. Plenty of good reading!

The first issue of Growing for Market that I ever picked up (years ago) had an article about flame-weeding carrots. I realized that that one article was going to save us more than the price of a subscription. Just one good idea, clearly explained, can save so much wasted time!

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

Climate change and pest control

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I recently learned some more about online weather tools for farmers from Eric and Joanna Reuter in Growing for Market. The National Weather Center Climate Prediction Center (CPC) has a wealth of useful info. From the “WPC 7-day QPF” map above (Weather Prediction Center 7 day quantitative precipitation forecast) I see we could get up to an inch of rain over the coming week in central Virginia. Other maps on the site show we can expect above normal temperatures and rainfall for the first week of January. (I’m saying rain, because with above normal temperatures, the precipitation won’t be snow.)

There are maps with forecast conditions for the next month, the next three months and even the whole of 2018, although of course the more intervening time means more chance of things changing before we get there.There is a detailed discussion explaining “La Niña conditions are present, with a transition to ENSO-neutral favored during January-March 2017.” The report was written in November, predicting weak La Nina conditions continuing through March 2017.

Winter offers a good opportunity to explore these tools and get familiar with them (the abbreviations and technical language do take a bit of getting used to). If I were to open this site in mid-summer when already very busy, I think I would struggle to sit still long enough to absorb the information. By figuring it out at the slow time of year, I’ll be more ready to dip in and take advantage of timely info in the main growing season.

If the embedding has worked out right, here is a “Climograph” for Louisa County, Virginia:

<iframe frameborder=”0″ width=”470px” height=”430px” style=”overflow:hidden;” scrolling=”no” src=”http://www.usclimatedata.com/climate-graph.php?id=usva0445&system=american&title=1″></iframe>

And if it didn’t embed, here’s the link: http://www.usclimatedata.com/climate/louisa/virginia/united-states/usva0445/2015/2

december-beds-with-row-cover-wren

Outdoors in December – rowcover everywhere! Photo by Wren Vile

Hoophouse beds in December. This is why we have a hoophouse! Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse beds in December. This is why we have a hoophouse!
Photo Wren Vile


This week I also read an interesting article by Rebekah L Fraser in Growing magazine on the Push-Pull Method of pest control, which was developed in Kenya. In Kenya this method is used to protect crops from both invasive weeds and insect pests. Some plants can suppress others by selective allelopathy. Tick-trefoil not only suppresses some weeds but also repels pests, while conserving the soil in the process, and providing stock feed or green manure when cut. Plus, as a legume, the tick-trefoil fixes atmospheric nitrogen (which feeds the next crop) and reduces greenhouse gases (which helps save us all). This is the “push” half of the combination. Tick-trefoil interplanted with corn repels weeds and pests.

Push-pull pest control

Push-pull pest control

The “pull” half involves Napier grass as an attractive trap crop for corn borers. This trap crop is planted as a border around the corn patch. The female stem-borers are repelled by the tick-trefoil out of the corn to the border where they lay eggs on the Napier grass. It’s sticky exudates and sharp silica hairs kill the stem borer larvae when they hatch. Read more on www.push-pull.net .

It’s so heartening to read about organic sustainable ways farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are working to end hunger and poverty. And these principles can surely be applied to other crops in other regions.

Sweet potato slideshow, phenology article, Ira Wallace awarded

I’ve just got back from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham, NC. There were about 1200 people, five workshop slots, 12 tracks, lots of good, locally grown food, a whole pre-conference day of bus tours and intensive workshops, a courageous and inspiring keynote address from Clara Coleman on the joys and challenges of family and farm life. She and her two young sons are now living and working alongside Eliot Coleman (her dad) and Barbara Damrosch at Four Seasons Farm in Maine.

My sweet potato slideshow from my first workshop at CFSA is viewable above. Just click on the forward arrow. To see it full screen, click on the link below the image and then click the diagonal arrows when the new page opens. About 70 very engaged people attended that workshop. My other workshop was Sustainable Farming Practices for Vegetable Growers, which I’ll include next week.

I have also recently written a blog post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog  called Saving Sweet Potato Roots for Growing Your Own Slips.

I enjoyed meeting old friends, making new friends, learning some good tips about different drip irrigation parts, how to sharpen and use a scythe, how many years half the henbit seeds are viable for (23 years!!), and picking up literature from the trade booths to digest later.

sac-16-banner-960x330Save the date: 2017’s CFSA SAC will be November 3-5 (Fri-Sun)


nov-dec-2016-gfm-cover-300The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about phenology. Phenology is the study of recurring animal and plant life cycle changes in relation to the weather. Some changes are temperature-dependent, rather than (daylength-) calendar-dependent. The opening of some buds and the emergence of some
insects from the ground are related to the accumulated warmth of that season. Observations of certain changes can be used to help growers decide when to expect outbreaks of certain insect pests and when to plant certain crops. For instance, we look to the leaves of the white oaks to decide when it is warm enough to plant sweet corn. The oak leaves should be as big as squirrel’s ears. We have plenty of squirrels! Phenology is especially useful when the weather is extremely variable, which we can expect more of as climate change gets us further in its grip.

Also in this bumper edition of Growing for Market are articles on growing heading chicories (Josh Volk), milling your own logs on your farm (Mark Lieberth), online weather tools for farmers (Eric and Joanna Reuter), image-front-cover_coverbookpagea review of The Farmers Market Cookbook by Julia Shanks and Brett Grohsgal (Andrew Mefferd), and favorite perennials for flower growers (Jane Tanner). There are also two pages of cameos of books available from GfM. A seasonal tip about gift giving, I think.

I am working on a review of Soil Sisters by Lisa Kivirist, which I will tidy up and post soon.


Ira Wallace receives SFA award

Ira Wallace receives SFA award. Photo by Sara Wood

Ira Wallace, my long time friend and one of the members of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has recently been awarded the 2016 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Sara Wood took photos at SESE and at Twin Oaks while preparing the SFA oral history interview with Ira Wallace. You can watch the video clip, read the transcript and ass the photos at the link. Well done Ira!

Heritage Harvest Festival presentations, Eggplant variety trials, Growing for Market

I enjoyed the weekend at the Heritage Harvest Festival. On Friday I gave my Fall Vegetable Production slideshow, which you can watch an updated version of above (again or for the first time). If you want to see it larger click here and then on the diagonal arrow icon. On Saturday I gave my Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops presentation, which you can watch below (again or for the first time). Just click on the forward pointing arrow.

To see this one larger, click here.


Epic Eggplant Photo by Nina Gentle

Epic Eggplant
Photo by Nina Gentle

We are gathering good information on our Heat-tolerant Eggplant Trials. We have been seeking a classic dark purple/black pear or tear-drop shaped eggplant that yields well in hot weather. Click the link to read last year’s report and summary of the trials in 2013 and 2104. Our plants (Nadia, Epic and Traviata this year) are all doing well. I wrote an interim report as a blog post for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. This year (unlike 2013, 2014 and 2015), we’ve actually had some very hot days.

At the end of the season I will give a full report and correlate the yields with the temperatures typical at the time. Meanwhile, I can confidently say that of the three, Epic is winning! From the first harvest on 7/18, up to the end of August, Epic had produced a staggering 287 eggplants, averaging 0.9 pounds each; Nadia  125 eggplants, averaging 0.76 pounds each; Traviata 124 averaging 0.72 pounds. The cull rate for Nadia was best (least) at 21%; Epic was close at 22%, while Traviata produced a surprisingly high proportion of culls at 29%.


September 2016 cover300

The September issue of Growing for Market magazine is out. The cover article is by Jed Beach, on matching farm production with sales demand. growing produce that nobody wants is so frustrating. Probably not quite as bad as a crop failure, but discouraging in another way. The consequence is the same though: time spent working hard for no useful result. As Jed puts it:

“will our hard work and money decompose before our eyes as sales come in lower than we’d hoped?”

If the percentage of produce that is converted into sales is 80% or more, you’re doing OK. If it’s less, then try to either increase sales or decrease production. Growers who are not selling their vegetables can think about this in terms of what gets used and what gets wasted. Jed tells how to better match production with demand.

Brad Halm writes about how to manage urban and other difficult soils.He covers soil contamination, soil amelioration, container growing (building beds on top of the existing soil), in-soil growing and growing on top of impermeable surfaces like roofs.

Louise Swartzwalder describes The Crossroads Farmers Market in Tacoma, MD, which was designed intentionally to be accessible to a low-income population. A very heart-warming and inspiring story.

Michael Kilpatrick reports on the 2016 Frozen Ground Conference, held in Vermont during August. I found the material from the last Frozen Ground Conference in 2014 which focused on Winter Growing very valuable. It seems to have involved a small group of 22 very experienced participants all sharing something in the spirit of mutual aid. The 2016 conference was a large round-table discussion (not a speaker-and-audience conference). Topics included long-term soil fertility, soil salt buildup in high tunnels (hoophouses), and new and improved gardening tools, new products like Solarwrap greenhouse film. Participants brought slideshows of their hoophouse (high tunnel) heating and insulation systems. Michael has released an ebook on his blog “10 Winter growing secrets we wish we knew when we started,” which you can find at michael-kilpatrick.com.

FarmersOfficeCoverjpg-250x300Andrew Mefferd, the editor of Growing for Market, has reviewed the book  The Farmer’s Office by Julia Shanks. The subtitle is “Tools, tips and templates to successfully manage a growing farm business”. She explains how to understand the farm records you have kept, and how to keep better (more useful) records.  It includes real-life examples of straightforward and difficult situations, along with templates of forms you might use. Andrew Mefferd says: “Curl up with The Farmer’s Office in your office this winter.”

The final article in the magazine is traditionally the one on cut flowers, maybe because the color photos on the back cover can be enjoyed more often than if they were hidden inside. This time it’s an article by the previous editor, Lynn Byczynski about the U-pick cut flower operation at Omena Cut Flowers, run by Carolyn Faught in northern Michigan. The farm looks beautiful!