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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Twin Oaks Garden Task List for May

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

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

During the Month:

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

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

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

Early May:

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

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

Continue cutting sweet potato slips until we have enough.

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

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

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

Roll out driptape and bioplastic mulch for watermelons.

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

Mid-month:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bed of various varieties of onions. Credit Kathryn Simmons

A bed of various varieties of onions.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

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

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

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

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

Late May:

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

String weave 1 row around peppers, using short stakes.

Clear empty coldframe and mulch with cardboard or plant something.

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

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

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

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

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

Hanging garlic in vertical netting. Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

Hanging garlic in vertical netting.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

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

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

Plan fall and winter crops for raised beds.

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

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

Our Concord grapes in late May. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Our Concord grapes in late May.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

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

Twin Oaks Garden Task List for April

Asparagus in early April.Credit Wren Vi

Asparagus in early April.
Credit Wren Vile

All Month:

Lettuce Factory: In flats, (on greenhouse bench) sow lettuce #7, 8, 9 (romaines & small varieties to interplant with peanuts). Transplant 1/3 bed lettuce (120 plants)/week. Plant #4, 5, 6 this month.
Compost Needed for April: 6-9 tractor buckets for beds, 24-30 bkts to disk in.

Early April:

In greenhouse, sow lettuce #7;

Keep celery above 55°F, and celeriac above 45°F (don’t put in coldframe). 10 consecutive days <55°F for celery, <45°F for celeriac, causes bolting.

Spot lettuce, harden off in coldframe. Spot peppers, tomatoes, & eggplant. Protect new pepper seedlings from mice.  Keep tomatoes above 45°F at night, eggplant above 55°F.

Cut sweet potato slips at 6-12”, put in water.  Once a week, plant rooted slips in 4” flats.

Sow outdoors: carrots #5, beets (see March notes), parsnips with radishes #2, (in celery bed), sunflowers.

Weed and thin early crops. Side dress or foliar spray over-wintered spinach to boost production.

Take rowcover from turnips, senposai, cabbage #1, kohlrabi, little alliums, onions as needed for broccoli.

Transplant lettuce #4, main cabbage & broccoli under rowcover (12 pieces) within 6 weeks of sowing.

Till beds for mid-April. Compost beds for late April plantings.

Garlic bulbing is initiated on/after April 10 (13 hours daylight), and soil temperature above 60°F.

Mid April:

In greenhouse sow melons #1 in soil blocks or plug flats, replacement paste tomatoes, lettuce #8, and okra.

Sow beans #1 when lilac in full bloom, sunflowers. Sow edamame #1, corn#1, if warm, and soil >60F.

Till beds for late April (chard, cowpeas, peanuts). Compost beds for early May (okra, toms, melons, celeriac, lettuce 7,8,9, asparagus beans)

Hill up potatoes when 6” high. Cover half the vine. Repeat after 2 weeks. (Flameweed if too wet to hill.)

Take rowcover from kale, collards, early lettuce for raised bed tender crops.

Transplant broccoli #2, insectary flowers #1, bulb fennel, lettuce #5, cukes #1 w/nasturtiums, zukes #1; use spring hoops for cucurbits. Take rowcover from spinach to strawberries.

A fine bed of fava beans. Credit Kathryn Simmons

A fine bed of fava beans.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Install stakes every 8-10’ for peas and fava beans, and stringweave them to final height of that variety.

Weed garlic [or flameweed it early in the morning after a good rain. Direct flame at base of garlic plants]

Harvest lettuce as heads rather than leaves, from 15 April

#3 Spring Tractor Work (mid April) – Disk areas for sweet potatoes, winter squash, watermelons, (Romas and peppers if no-till cover crop insufficient). Bush-hog late food crop plots when rye heads up, to help clover or peas develop. Also clover patches, eg Green Fallow (All Year Cover Crops).

Late April:

in greenhouse sow lettuce #9; watermelons #1 & 2 in soil blocks or plug flats; calendula and various insectary flowers, filler corn & Romas.

Sow corn #1 (1/2-3/4” deep) in two phases, and peanuts if soil temperature is 65°F. Also cowpeas #1, and sesame.

Sow more leeks if needed in Little Alliums bed outdoors. If not, sow more mini-onions and scallions #3.

Transplant lettuce #6, leaf beet, chard, insectaries; finish transplanting gaps in the main broccoli & cabbage plot, plant Alyssum. Take rowcovers from broccoli & cabbage for new crops.

If mild, plant tomatoes. Harden off nightshades by restricting water.

Till beds for early May (okra, toms, melons, celeriac, lettuce 7/8/9, asparagus beans). Compost beds for mid-May (edamame, eggplant, limas).

Store spring and fall seeds (spinach, peas, beets) in the basement for the summer.

Foliar feed the potatoes, ideally the morning before hilling up, and every 2 weeks.

Roll out Driptape and Biotelos corn plastic mulch for peppers and Romas where no-till cover crop not used.

Cover crops: sow rye to wimp out. Sow buckwheat in any beds not needed for at least 5 weeks eg. leeks limas; add soy if bed not needed for 7 weeks. 

Haybine or bush-hog vetch & rye for no-till planting of Roma paste tomatoes, late in the month (or very early in May). (Mow strips; or till strips through the cover crop for the rows, with narrow-set tiller). Water the area before digging holes, if dry.

Perennials: Weed blueberries, asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, grapes as needed. Mow aisles. If asparagus weeds are getting out of hand, mow down one or more rows to keep control. Monitor asparagus beetles, spray spinosad when bees not flying, if >10 adults/100 crowns. Spinosad: Shake well, 1-4 Tbsp/gall (1fl.oz=2Tbsp=30ml.) Repeat in 6 days.

The black center of this strawberry flower show that it was hit by frost and no berry will develop.Credit Kathryn Simmons

The black center of this strawberry flower show that it was hit by frost and no berry will develop.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Cover strawberries if frost threatens – take rowcovers from spinach. (Pick flowers off any new spring  plantings.)

Visit grapes, log progress, remove flower buds from new vines. Note deaths and where replacement arms are needed.  Check and repair fruit drip irrigation, thin raspberries to 6/foot of row.

Harvest and weed: Asparagus, chard (hoophouse), collards, garlic scallions- pull at 8″, kale, leeks, lettuce, radishes, rhubarb, senposai, snap peas in hoophouse, spinach.

Twin Oaks Garden Task List for February

Greenhouse interior with early spring seedling flats.Photo Kathryn Simmons

Greenhouse interior with spring seedling flats.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

PlanningWeek 1:  Revise Crop Planting Quantities chart, Perennials worksheet, Harvest and Food Processing Calendars, Veg Finder, and Phenology Chart. Week 2:  Revise Fall Brassicas Spreadsheet, Onion Plan and Log, Sweet Potato Plan. Revise and post Paracrew Invitation. Week 3: Write Seed Saving Letter. Revise Blueberry Map and Log, Grape Map and Log. Week 4: Revise Crop Planting Specs sheet, revise Garden Planning Calendar, File notes, prune files.

Lettuce Factory: Sow lettuce #3, 4 in flats (short-day fast varieties, every 14 days).

Spread compost & till beds for spinach, beets, favas, lettuce, onions, little alliums, turnips, senposai, kohlrabi, cabbage, kale, collards when soil dry enough.  Till beds for carrots 1-3, with or without compost.

#1 Spring Tractor Work  – Compost and disk areas for broccoli and potatoes when dry enough, or till.

Early Feb: in greenhouse sow: cabbage, collards, senposai, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli #1, celery, celeriac

Sow spinach outdoors if Jan sowings fail: 4oz/bed pre-sprouted. Transplant spinach from hoophouse [or flats].

Sow fava beans (seed is in peas bucket). Plant small potato onions if not done in January.

Mid-month: in greenhouse: Sow lettuce #3, and resow hoophouse peppers as needed. Spot cabbage, lettuce#3, hoophouse peppers, kale, collards, and harden off.

February pepper seedlings in the greenhousePhoto Kathryn Simmons

February pepper seedlings in the greenhouse
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Sow carrots #1 outdoors with indicator beets. Flameweed. Finish planting spinach, (direct sow if not enough transplants).

Buy seed potatoes mid-month and set out to greensprout (chit) before planting: 65°F (19°C) and light.

[Strawberries: plant new bought plants, if applicable.]

Late Feb, sow carrots # 2 (flameweed);

Really finish transplanting spinach. If needed, presprout 4oz/bed spinach for 1 week before sowing.

Till and sow areas for clover cover crops (eg grapes, eggplant beds), or oats, from 2/15.                    

Transplant fall-sown onions ½-3/4” deep, when no thicker than pencils. Weed over-wintered spinach, kale, collards.

In greenhouse sow broccoli #2 (2 weeks after 2nd), (shallots), lettuce #4, hoophouse cukes.

Perennials: Finish weeding. Give compost, if not done in fall, including strawberries and grapes.  See list for January.  Transplant bushes, canes, crowns if needed. Mulch. Finish pruning blueberries, ribes. Prune grapes before 3/21 – see last year’s log notes about replacement limbs needed, etc. Summer raspberries: cut out old canes. Install irrigation. Prepare sites for new grapevines, if needed.

Vates kale over-wintered Photo Twin Oaks Community

Vates kale over-wintered
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Harvest: (Chard?), collards, kale, spinach, leeks.

Twin Oaks January Calendar – Starting a new garden season

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlingsPhoto Kathryn Simmons

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Yes, really! On January 17, I sowed flats of cabbage, lettuce and mini-onions (cipollini), and the cabbage and lettuce are already up. Onions usually take 10 days, so I’m not surprised not to see them yet. It’s fun to see new seedlings, even though my energy isn’t ready for taking on another growing season yet. I’m still enjoying hibernation!

The cabbage varieties are Early Jersey Wakefield, a quick-growing small pointy-head open-pollinated variety, and Faroa, a quick-growing fairly small round hybrid that has been very reliable for us. These are for a bed of early cabbage, to eat after our stored winter cabbage is all gone. We’ll sow our main-crop cabbage on 2/7, in much bigger quantities.

I sowed two lettuces: reliable old Salad Bowl and the unusual Cracoviensis, a pink veined sturdy leaf lettuce, that we have found is only useful for us at this first sowing. It bolts too easily once it gets even faintly warm. It tends not to get bitter even when bolting, but our diners aren’t going to believe that!

We’re also still busy with various stages of our garden planning. yesterday I updated our harvest calendar, which tells our cooks which crops they can expect when, and also our food processing calendar to tell the food processing crew when to be ready to tackle large amounts of broccoli, beans or paste tomatoes, for example. I’m part way through revising the document we call our garden calendar, which is really a month-by-month task list. If you were following this blog in the fall, you’ll remember some of those monthly garden task lists. We’ve planned which crops are going in which of the 60 permanent raised beds and identified the ones we need to spread compost on and till first. And then we twiddle our thumbs – lots of rain last week (and a bit of snow) mean it will be a couple more weeks before the soil is dry enough to till.

Here’s our short Twin Oaks Garden Task List for January:

Planning: Prune the catalogs, do the filing, consolidate notes on varieties and quantities.

Week 1: Finalize seed orders, if not done in December. Revise Seedling Schedule using seed order.

Week 2

    : Revise Outdoor Planting Schedule. Plan labor needs for the year.

Week 3

    : Revise Raised Bed Planning Chart. Plan raised beds for Feb-June.

Week 4:           Revise Garden Calendar, Lettuce List and lettuce Log.

Order Bt, spinosad and predatory beasties, coir. [sweet potato slips for shipping 5/12-5/17 if not growing our own]
Repair greenhouse and coldframes and tidy. Check germinator-fridge and heat mat. Repair flats, and make new if needed. Make stakes. Clean labels. 

Check equipment: rototiller, discs, and mower – repair or replace as needed.  Repair and sharpen tools.

Freeze out greenhouse to kill pests, or spray with soap or cinnamon oil every five days.  Import ladybugs.
Check potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash in storage.

Mid-Jan: In greenhouse sow lettuce #1, early cabbage, mini-onions, early broccoli, onions.

Late Jan: In greenhouse sow lettuce #2, scallions #1, spinach, tomatoes, peppers for hoophouse
Plant small potato onions, 4-5″ apart, ½-1” deep, in a mild spell. Remove mulch to plant, then replace it. Plant shallots & mulch.

Perennials (see November list). Weed blueberries, raspberries, asparagus (spread compost), grapes, rhubarb, strawberries.  Add soil amendments, fertilize (not strawberries) and mulch. Prune blueberries, (take cuttings if wanted). Fall raspberries: cut all canes to the ground, remove canes from aisles. Summer raspberries: remove old fruiting canes & canes from aisles.

Harvest: (Chard?), collards, kale, (senposai?) spinach, leeks, (Yukina Savoy?).

Our freshly mulched asparagus patch.Photo Kathryn Simmons

Our freshly mulched asparagus patch.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love, by Kristin Kimball, Scribner, 2010 – Book Review

The Dirty LifeI feel drawn to autobiographies of women farmers, and Kristin Kimball’s story of growing food for a hundred people particularly appealed to me. I grow vegetables and some fruit for a hundred people at Twin Oaks Community, and our farming as a whole provides meat and dairy products too – what would be the points of similarity and of difference?

Kristin is a freelance writer from New York City. She interviews an energetic young farmer, gets pulled into joining in his work, and then moves from the city to start a new life with him. After some time looking for suitable land for free, they find the deeply run down Essex Farm. This book is the story of their first tumultuous year at Essex Farm (2003), operating a Full Diet CSA.

For farmers, this book will not be a cozy read – you’ll be on the edge of your chair! I probably got over half way through the book before I had any hope that they could succeed. Kristin and Mark’s success defies the quantity of hard work, the number of disasters and arguments, and their opposing strongly held opinions. And yet I know they succeeded, because several years have elapsed since the book was written and they are speaking at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in February 2013. But my goodness, in the early days, they seemed doomed to fail.

Their Whole Diet CSA model is revolutionary not only in the range of food provided, but also in the radical distribution method, which is simplicity itself: “Take what you need.” They provide vegetables, fruit, herbs, maple syrup, flours, dried beans, eggs, milk, beef, chicken and pork, for $2900 (in 2010), on a sliding scale. The members can show up every Friday afternoon to collect what they need from what’s available. Some members live pretty much on the food from Essex Farm, and others also buy elsewhere. There were about 100 members in 2010.

Kristin starts from being a very soft-handed non-farming townie in tight jeans and heeled boots. She has a lot to learn! How will it ever work? Especially as Mark is experienced at farming and seemingly obsessed with working long hard hours in top gear. We don’t hear so much from Mark’s perspective, but Kristin does tell us that he avoids the word “work”, preferring to say “I farmed for 14 hours today.” I like that approach. Mark is an excellent cook as well as a very good farmer. Early in their relationship he kills a deer and cooks dinner. Kristin says “I fell in love with him over a deer’s liver.”

Mark has all the farming knowledge and plenty of opinions besides. He believes he has a magic circle around him, and that good things (such as a free farm) will manifest. Naturally enough, this is exasperating for Kristin, who is accused of draining the magic with her negativity. The clash of the earnest woo-woo hippie and the middle-class lover of manicures and foreign travel doesn’t look promising. Mark tells Kristin to give away her beautiful bed rather than bring it with her to the farm, as he will build a more beautiful bed. They sleep on a mattress on the floor for a very long time. How is this all going to lead to a thriving farm and two thriving farmers?

They (led by Mark) decide to farm in ways they enjoy even if they are less efficient: working horses, hand-milking, no fussing over picayune pricing of individual products. They move to Essex farm in early winter. There are tenants in the farmhouse, so they rent a place in town and commute to milk their cow, feed their chickens and restore the outbuildings. Meanwhile they make plans. Their plans are way beyond reasonable. In one week in February they intend to plan and build a greenhouse. The next week they will cut and split the whole year’s supply of firewood. They planned to hold their wedding in October, coinciding with 50 chicks arriving. Their honeymoon week they would also be extracting honey!

Kristin Kimball

Kristin Kimball

Kristin gets library books about construction and plumbing. She realizes how wrong her prejudice was, that manual workers are stupid and lazy. She gets herself through this big change in lifestyle by pretending she’s visiting a foreign land and will one day go home. She enjoys the present, the everyday, but doesn’t consider the hard work in the dirt and cold as a long-term lifestyle. She doesn’t want the emergencies – runaway cattle, freezing pipes, work at all hours, endlessly.

Despite the ill omens, they survive the winter (and we’re talking a long Northern winter here). “March was a tense and slightly dangerous time, like a border crossing between two conflicting countries. It’s not the deprivations of winter that get you, or the damp of spring, but the no-man’s land between.” The unpredictable weather, the dull and depressed fields. This resonated for me. When I lived and gardened on the Yorkshire Moors, I felt like this in March. Winter seemed endless, but it didn’t help to expect spring in March, because it just was too early. Now I’m in Virginia and we have weeks of work behind us by the end of March – winter is so much shorter.

During the maple syrup run, Kristin finds her feet, a job she excels at: evaporating the sap. She begins to love the work, seeing the connection between her actions and their consequences, believing in what she’s doing. She and Mark still argue a lot, with their different styles (passive-aggressive grudge-nurturer versus dog-like shaking of the issue.) Kristin sees that their arguments come from their two different basic fears: hers of poverty, debt and being enslaved to repayments; his of ruining themselves with overwork: “the farm gaining mass and speed until it ran over the farmer and squashed him.” He worried they’d be overwhelmed and life would not be fun anymore. Both problems are certainly deserving of fear. Organic farms fail most often from burnout or divorce. Kristin comments that they were fighting so much they could reach divorce before even reaching marriage.

Which farmer will not relate to this, my favorite quote from the book: “A farm is a manipulative creature. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only things that must be done now, and things that can be done later. The threat the farm has got on you, the one that keeps you running from can until can’t, is this: do it now, or some living thing will wilt or suffer or die. It’s blackmail, really.”

They somehow continue to build up the farm and by the time the ground has thawed [I wonder when that is in the Lake Champlain area?], they have seven paid up members for their CSA, and tensions recede. They have direction, purpose and a weekly goal. Neighbors and friends rally to help. The first week of their CSA they offer milk, meat, eggs, maple syrup and lard.

Once they reach June, the peak of the farming year, they are starting work at 3.45am and not finishing till 7pm (and even then they still have to lock up the chickens). Kristin even falls asleep on the seat of the cultivator. Mark seems to have “diabolical energy” and exuberance. Kristin is happy, working alongside Mark and walking the fields in the evenings, making more plans.

Kristin realizes “the things I admired most about him [Mark] in the abstract were what drove me nuts in the specific.” His beliefs were informed by his experiences and his research. He was uncomfortable with anything where he was unable to know and measure the impact – he wanted no part of it. He tried hard to live by his beliefs of low consumption, handmade items, responsible decisions. Kristin, for her part, was a hedonist with no particular ethic. Mark’s unbending strength carries him and the farm through very hard times. Unbending strength = rigidity = inflexibility = stubbornness. Kristin accommodates to Mark’s beliefs (perhaps another example of Mark’s good luck – without a partner like Kristin, flexible, hardworking, accepting,  he would not have made it)

The CSA membership reaches 30 by late summer. They realize the house will not be all fixed up in time for the wedding. Their “To Do” list includes “Find tables and chairs. Slaughter bull for ox roast. Butcher chickens for rehearsal dinner. Write vows.”  Kristin is still unsure she wants to marry Mark: “Poverty, unmitigated hard work, and a man whom, for all his good points, no reasonable person would describe as easy to be with.” She is very candid, very open about her doubts, to a level I feel uncomfortable with – it feeds my near-certainty that they’ll never make it. She is also very perceptive: “Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat goodbye.”

In October the wedding does happen (in case you too, were wondering), despite Kristin having flu and the baker having gone AWOL. It was a reflection of their farming: “exquisite, untidy, sublime and untamed”. I don’t know if the chicks arrived the same week, as originally planned. One month later, Kristin is on a two month writing assignment in Hawai’i. She feels a need to anchor herself by doing some farming, so she visits a vegetable grower. She is taken aback by the leisurely pace of harvesting, and records that that was the moment she made the emotional commitment to her marriage. She realizes the difficulties in her chosen life are hers by choice, and she can’t wait to get home.

When she gets home, Mark has settled into his own rhythm, and they work together looking for harmony, not for conflict. But this isn’t the sugar-coated happy-ever-after ending. Their marriage remains fiery. They engage a few interns each year, and employ some of the local people. CSA membership grows to a hundred. In year 4 their daughter is born and they buy part of the farm.

Kristin leaves us with these words of wisdom: “in my experience, tranquil and simple are two things farming is not. Nor is it lucrative, stable safe or easy. Sometimes the work is enough to make you weep.” And yet “A bowl of beans, rest for tired bones. . . . these things. . .  have comforted our species for all time, and for happiness’ sake they should not slip beneath our notice. Cook things, eat them with other people. If you can tire your own bones while growing the beans, so much the better for you.”

Phew! It worked out! Who needs suspense novels for winter reading when there are farming tales as gripping as this one? to read more, go to her website.

Three cheers for Ruby Streaks!

Ruby Streaks beside green mizuna

Ruby Streaks beside green mizuna

This week I’ve been marveling at Ruby Streaks, a beautiful ferny dark red leafy salad vegetable growing in our hoophouse. It brings a smile to winter salad mixes, a refreshing change from all the earnest shades of green. It’s beautiful, fast-growing, productive, easy to grow, cold tolerant, sweet-tasting,slightly pungent, and the seed is not expensive, what more need I say?

Ruby Streaks is so much more colorful and interesting than actual purple mizuna. For the botanists of Asian Greens among us, Ruby Streaks is a Brassica juncea, not B. rapa var japonica, like actual mizuna.

It can be grown and used as a microgreen (cut at small seedling stage), or a baby green after 21 days, and full size after 40 days. You could lightly braise it if you wanted it cooked. The leaves are finely serrated at the baby size and very similar to mizuna at full size. The stems are green and the leaf color ranges from dark green with red veins in warmer weather, to dark maroon in winter. Right now the color is incredible.

We harvest full size leaves by “crew-cutting” one side of each plant with scissors, then chopping them into short lengths. The plants regrow quickly.

It germinates quickly. Fedco warns that it bolts more readily than mizuna. We only grow it in the winter, when nothing is inclined to bolt, so this hasn’t been an issue for us. If you want to sow for spring, I’d recommend starting early in flats or pots indoors, and then transplanting at 4-5 weeks of age, about a month before the last frost date. Use rowcover for a few weeks.

To start in summer for a fall outdoor crops, you could again use flats, or you can make an outdoor nursery seed bed, protected with hoops and rowcover or ProtekNet insect netting from Fedco or from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland. In hot weather it’s easier to keep outdoor beds damp compared to flats with a small amount of soil in them. We start ours 6/26 – the same dates we use for sowing fall broccoli and cabbage. The last sowing date is about 3 months before the first frost date. Transplant at 3-4 weeks of age, preferably not older. We haven’t tested out the cold-hardiness of Ruby Streaks, but I would expect it to survive at least down to 25F (-4C), the temperature mizuna is good to.

But  the hoophouse in winter is where Ruby Streaks really shines! Double layers of inflated plastic provide enough protection in our climate for Ruby Streaks to grow all winter. And I do mean make actual growth, not just rest up waiting for spring! For winter salad mixes, we sow on 9/24 in an outdoor nursery bed, then plant into the hoophouse 10/24 (4 weeks old). We harvest that 11/1-1/25, by only cutting down one side of the plant at a time. After we clear that crop, we sow radishes in the space. We sow a second round of Ruby Streaks and mizuna inside the hoophouse 11/9, thin it into the salad, and then harvest from it 1/27-3/6.

Seed is available from FedcoJohnny’s Seeds, Territorial, High Mowing, Kitazawa, and other seed suppliers. Fedco sells 1/2 oz Organically Grown seed for $5.20.

Ruby Streaks from Fedco

Ruby Streaks from Fedco

Ruby Streaks from Johnny's Seeds

Ruby Streaks from Johnny’s Seeds

There are relatives of Ruby Streaks, such as Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills, Red Splendor (Johnny’s) and Red Rain,and the beautiful Wild Garden Pungent Mix

 

Ordering seeds! Seed Viability and Varieties New to us

I’ve been busy putting our seed orders together. As we grow so many different crops, it’s quite a time-consuming process. And I hate to buy too little and be out in the field on planting day, looking at an almost empty packet. Equally, I hate to buy too much, which either wastes money (if we throw the extra away), or else causes us to risk sowing seed that really is too old, and won’t do well. I keep a chart of how long different types of seed last:

Seed Viability

(From Sustainable Market Farming, (c) Pam Dawling, New Society Publishers, 2013)

     

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   “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.

www.chelseagreenFrank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

A simplified version 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). Other seed contains compounds that inhibit germination. These can be flushed out by soaking in water for about an hour (beets).

Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts. Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops.

Our main seed suppliers are FedcoJohnny’s and Southern Exposure. Fedco has great prices, especially on bulk sizes, great social and political commentary in the catalog, and no glossy pages. Johnnys has some good varieties that Fedco doesn’t, and a ton of useful information tucked away on their website. Southern Exposure is best on southern crops and heat tolerant varieties which we can’t expect seed companies in Maine to specialize in. Plus, SESE are my friends and neighbors.

This year we are trying some new varieties. Generally we like to have some reliable workhorses that we know well, and trial a few new things, especially if we hear our favorite varieties are no longer available. Last year our Nadia eggplant couldn’t cope with the heat. For a while in early summer they didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit. So next year, alongside Nadia I’m trying 3 that should deal better with heat. Florida Highbush is open-pollinated, from the Seed Savers Exchange. Epic and Traviata are hybrids from Osborne Seeds.

Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Traviata eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Traviata eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Florida High Bush eggplant from Seed Savers Exchange

Florida High Bush eggplant from Seed Savers Exchange

Sugar Flash Snap Peas from Osborne Seeds

Sugar Flash Snap Peas from Osborne Seeds

I also bought some Sugar Flash snap peas from Osborne. We have been big fans of Sugar Ann, but I’ve heard Sugar Flash is even better on flavor, yield and harvest period. We’re going to find out!

For a couple of years we really liked Frontier bulb onions as a storage variety for this climate and latitude (38N). Frontier disappeared from the catalogs of our usual suppliers and we tried Gunnison and Patterson. This year – no Gunnison! And we didn’t get a good test of Patterson last year, as we failed to weed our onions enough, after an initial enthusiastic good go at it. We were looking again at Copra, one we grew some years ago (before we found Frontier). I lucked out when I decided to see if Osborne had Gunnison, while I was shopping there. they didn’t, but they had Frontier! And then when I was shopping at Johnny’s, I found they did have some Gunnison for online sales only. So I ordered those too!

We’re also trying Sparkler bicolor sweet corn from Fedco and a drying bean I won’t name, as the seed is in short supply. And this year we’re hoping Red Express cabbage will prove to be a reliable little worker. We used to like Super Red 80, but had several years of poor results. Since then, none of the other red cabbages we tried have satisfied us in terms of size, earliness, productivity and flavor.

West Indian Gherkin Seeds (Cucumis anguiria) from Monticello

West Indian Gherkin Seeds (Cucumis anguiria) from Monticello

After a few years of poor pickling cucumbers, we’re going outside the box and trying West Indian Gherkins from Monticello, where they were grown by Thomas Jefferson (and some of the enslaved people, no doubt). These are not closely related to actual cucumbers, but are used similarly. I saw them growing in the Monticello garden when I was there for the Heritage Harvest Festival in September, and they are certainly robust and productive in hot humid weather. We’ll see how the pickles turn out!

My only other “impulse buy” was the Salanova Lettuce new at Johnny’s. They are 6 varieties of head lettuce designed to be used for salad mix at a single cutting. Quicker than  snipping rows of baby lettuce with scissors. More fun than plain lettuce heads. They are loose heads of small leaves in various shades of green and red, and two “hairstyles”: frizzy and wavy.

Salanova Lettuce from Johnny's Seeds

Salanova Lettuce from Johnny’s Seeds

Winding down, 41 bags of carrots in!

Washing and sorting carrots at Twin Oaks

Washing and sorting carrots at Twin Oaks

Yesterday was our last garden crew shift of the year. It was a chilly day, so I was glad we had finished harvesting all our carrots while the weather was warmer. Washing carrots in cold water is tough! Our carrots totaled 41 bags, plus several buckets of culled Use First quality. I think that’s the most we’ve ever got for fall carrots. Part of our success has been the realization that we can grow 5 rows per bed rather than 4, and get more carrots from the same space. Last fall we failed to finish our initial thinning, mowed off part of the patch, and abandoned them. In spring we were surprised to find them still alive. I wrote about this in a post “Risking Zombie Carrots: weeding tiny carrots versus weeding broccoli” . This year we got through all the first thinning (to 1″), but didn’t finish the second (to 3″). We found that we got much the same tonnage from the once-thinned section as the twice-thinned. But yield is not the whole story. Our cooks prefer the bigger carrots, from the area that got properly thinned.

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

So, for our last shift, we liberated some of our garlic shoots from under over-thick hay mulch. This year we planted up to week later than we usually do, and the colder weather meant the shoots hadn’t emerged in time to be liberated before we stopped having shifts with the crew. The picture above shows where we’d ideally be at before the end of shifts. Yesterday we were able to work on two of the beds, but the shoots were quite small and hard to find. The third bed was even further behind (it was planted a day or two later). We roll the hay bales out over the patch immediately after planting, and the thickness does vary. It’s important to walk through and rescue any shoots trapped under thick clods of hay, or they can smother and die. So the last part of the patch remains for those of us year-round Full Crew to tackle on our own. In the winter we have one of us each day responsible for taking care of the hoophouse, putting blown-open rowcovers back and harvesting outdoor kale, spinach, leeks, and as long as they last, lettuce, celery, senposai and Yukina Savoy. This winter we still have some broccoli and cabbage too. Fiesta has been a good late maturing broccoli for us this year.

My book is fast approaching press-time. Kathryn finished her index and sent it in. I wrote “About the author” and sent in another photo to substitute for one that wasn’t high enough resolution. I’ll probably spend this weekend reading a pdf of the whole book, before it goes to press. And then I take off for a few days with friends, to rest and celebrate.

Here’s a photo Ethan just took last week of our hoophouse and its bounty.

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Harvesting carrots, covering spinach

Hope those of you in the US had a good Thanksgiving holiday. We had a lovely meal here at Twin Oaks, and followed our tradition of going round the room giving each person a few minutes to say what they feel thankful for or appreciative of this year. Naturally, with about 90-100 people in the dining room, that takes a while! Many people appreciated the efforts of the garden crew and other food producers.

Since then, back to work! We stop having garden shifts for the year on December 6, so we are focusing on the tasks we really want to get to done by then. One big one is harvesting all our fall carrots.

One of our long carrot beds earlier in the year.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

So far we have dug 15 bags (about 50 pounds each), and are about a third of the way up the plot. We reckon we need at least 30 bags for the winter, so we are in very good shape, looking at getting maybe 45 bags, if we keep moving. The carrots have a great flavor, thanks to the cold nights we’ve been having. And they are in good shape. Not many voles in evidence this fall, or tunneling bugs.

This year we didn’t manage to finish the second thinning, so we started the harvest at the unthinned end of the plot. They are a surprisingly decent size for carrots that only got one thinning. After sowing, we flameweed the carrots before they emerge, then as soon as we can see them we hoe between the rows. It really helps to have evenly spaced parallel rows. Next we weed and thin to one inch, taking away the weeds to the compost pile. Leaving broken carrot leaves and roots can attract the carrot rust fly (root fly), and we don’t want those! After a while we hoe again, including using our Valley Oak wheel hoes in the paths. Then we weed again and thin to 3 inches, saving the bigger thinnings for salad carrots. After that we leave them to size up. It takes about 3 months from sowing to final harvest, with carrots.

Young carrots after their first thinning.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Another of our main jobs now is weeding the seven spinach beds and covering them with wire hoops and rowcover. I do like to weed first, as weeds under rowcover grow so well, hidden from sight. We use double hoops for our overwintering spinach. The inner hoop is thick wire with an eye made at each side at ground level. the rowcover goes on top of this, then the thinner wire hoops which hook into the eyes of the inner hoops. (I have a drawing in my book, but I can’t seem to copy it here.) The hoops hold the rowcover in place when it gets windy, and the rowcover can be pushed up between the hoops while we harvest. In our climate (USDA winter hardiness zone 7a), spinach not only survives the winter; it grows whenever the temperature is above about 40F, which happens quite often under the rowcover. So, provided we don’t over-pick, we can keep the plants going all winter into spring. The hoops also hold the rowcover away from the leaves, preventing abrasion damage.