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

Lettuce for March and all year

Bronze Arrow lettuce is a beautiful and tasty early spring variety.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We’re continuing to have enough lettuce. We have pulled the first baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse, and have started pulling some heads in there.  Of course, we want to harvest the hoophouse head lettuce before it gets too bitter, but we also don’t want to get too far ahead with the harvesting and run out! Our second baby lettuce mix is now ready for cutting, and the third sowing is not far behind.

March 9 is our goal for a transplanting date outdoors for our first 120 heads of lettuce (about one week’s worth for 100 people). We sow four varieties each time, some green, some red, different shapes and textures, different numbers of days to maturity. This way we hope to have a constant supply, and hedge our bets if something goes wrong with one variety.

In our first sowing we have Parris Island green romaine, Buttercrunch green bibb, and Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, a very red leaf lettuce, as well as Bronze Arrow, shown above. Our second sowing includes Cosmo, another green romaine, Star Fighter, which I wrote about last June, Oscarde, a red wavy leaf lettuce and one of our work-horses, Red Salad Bowl. Our third sowing has Panisse, a green wavy-leafed variety, Revolution, a red leaf lettuce, Swordleaf, which I wrote about last spring, and green Salad Bowl.

Ezrilla Tango-type one-cut multileaf type lettuce
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Buckley red oakleaf one-cut multi-leaf lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Our fourth sowing includes New Red Fire and three Eazyleaf lettuces ( Ezrilla, Hampton and Buckley) sold by High Mowing Seeds. We are simply trying these out this spring, to find out if we want to grow them next winter. In our climate these are unlikely to stand for long in the spring, and much more likely to grow well in our hoophouse in winter.

 

Hampton one-cut multi-leaf lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

These are varieties that produce lots of small leaves (no big leaves) enabling growers to get an instant salad by cutting a whole head. We are more likely to harvest them multiple times, taking some leaves each time. It’s exciting to see more lettuces of this type on the market. I wrote previously about Osborne’s Multileaf lettuces and Johnny’s Salanova varieties.

Here’s a link to our Lettuce Log, our schedule of lettuce planting and harvesting dates, that provides a succession of outdoor lettuce from April to November:

http://file:///X:/GARDEN/Planning/Lettuce%20Log%202017%20in%20Htm.htm

Gardening is not all about lettuce! We have sowed two beds of carrots outside and also a bed of turnips (Purple Top White and White Egg), with a row of radishes to pull before the turnips need the space. And we are still “recovering” from transplanting 3600 spinach plants. They are all doing well, despite my mix-up about which varieties were intended to be planted in which bed. We are comparing three varieties this spring: Tyee, Avon and Reflect.

Purple Top White Turnips.
Photo Small Farm Central

White Egg Turnips.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Summer hoophouse slideshow, starting sweet potato slips, Growing for Market March issue

I’m back from the West Virginia Small Farms Conference, where I gave three presentations, including this new one, The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer:

I ran out of handouts, and I know some people want to view the slideshow again, to catch the bits they missed. Before next Tuesday, I’ll upload The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter as well. Maybe even later today, if I get my more urgent tasks done first.


Yesterday I brought our seed sweet potatoes, which we’d selected and set aside at harvest-time, up out of the basement and into the greenhouse, to start growing them.  I wrote about growing sweet potato slips previously. The first step was to see if they float or sink. We save extra seed roots so that we can discard the less promising and still have plenty to grow. Sweet potatoes that float will grow better and yield higher. We had saved 100 roots for a goal of 320 slips. After removing a few rotten roots and discarding the sinkers, next I tested for white streaks, called sweet potato chimeras. I cut a small piece off the distal end (the string root end), not the stem end. The idea is to throw out roots with white streaks bigger than a pencil lead. I only found a few. It’s a genetic mutation that can occur at any time. Because sweet potato slips are clones of the mother root, if you propagate from chimeras you get more chimeras. I succeeded in my goal of having 80 good roots from each batch of 100. I set the cut roots in shallow bins in our germinating chamber to heal the cut surfaces and warm the roots ready for sprouting. In two weeks I’ll “plant” them in flats of compost and return them to the germinating chamber to start growing the slips. They’ll look like this:

Sweet potato slips growing in our germination chamber. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Sweet potato slips growing in our germination chamber.
Credit Kathryn Simmons


Meanwhile the March issue of Growing for Market magazine arrived, and I found a fascinating article about a new method of growing sweet potato slips, from Anthony Boutard and Caroline Boutard Hunt. They write first about “discovering” sweet potatoes and then deciding to grow them, ordering 20 varieties from the Sand Hill Preservation CenterTheir propagation method involves cutting each slip into one-node pieces and growing a plant from each short length. This reduces the number of roots to set, which saves propagation space. The single-node cuttings are set in 50-cell plug flats, trimmed of their leaves and grown in the greenhouse for only two weeks before planting out in the field. This reduces the time caring for the young plants by a lot, which once again saves greenhouse space. They say “The resulting crop is better quality because all of the resulting tubers grow from a single node instead of several, concentrating the production. Better yet, there is absolutely no drawback to the technique, at least in our experience to date.” And then, this lovely sentence “Certainly no reason to keep it within the family.” I love the way small farmers share information and tips!

Amusingly, they refer to the method I have written about as “traditional sweet potato slip production”! When I was starting out propagating our own, I followed advice to use cold frames, which clearly doesn’t work in Virginia in March and April. I couldn’t figure how those methods could produce enough slips in time unless a huge number of roots were used to start them. I found out that growers were actually using electrically heated beds. I tried a soil heating cable but it was nothing like warm enough. I searched for more advice and found the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group the previous year had an Organic Farmer Network, who were exchanging tips. Someone, I think Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms, answered others’ questions about growing sweet potato slips with something like  “I just grow them in flats.” That was a lightbulb moment for me – I knew how to grow things in flats! It didn’t seem like it was the traditional method at that time, but it certainly worked, so I adopted it and spread the word.


GFM-March2015-cover-300pxFor this issue of Growing for Market, I wrote about West Indian Gherkins as a trouble-free alternative to regular pickling cucumbers. We’re growing them in our hoophouse this spring, on a trellis net.

Andrew Meffert continues his series on greenhouse nightshade crops for colder climates. This month he provides part two of his detailed work on greenhouse peppers: Pruning and training for maximum production all season.

Lynn Byczynski gives some leads on finding and enjoying farming podcasts, while we are sowing seeds, potting up or otherwise engaged in manual not-mentally-demanding work.

Gretel Adams offers information about weed control in cut flower fields, and of course, it’s equally useful for vegetable fields! Crop planning to rotate crops with different growth habits and timing; neighboring up crops that will have similar cultivation requirements; using the most suitable tractor cultivation equipment; co-ordinating spacing of crops to fit the different equipment (including hands!) to be used for sowing and cultivating. It all adds up to efficient weed control, and maximizing yields from the space.

The lead article is by Lynn Byczynski, and provides a warning about a shortage of hybrid kale seed for the second year running. This has been caused by an increased demand for kale (yay!), a widespread case of black rot disease (boo!) and the fact that the biennial nature of brassica seed production means it takes two years to ramp up seed production.

There are some great new OP kales out there. We have our eyes on Olympic kale, available from High Mowing Seeds.

Olympic kale. Credit High Mowing Seeds

Olympic kale.
Credit High Mowing Seeds

Preparing for spring, sowing seeds, planning

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings Photo Kathryn Simmons

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Last Saturday, January 17, I made our first sowings in the greenhouse. I switched on the germinator cabinet made from a broken fridge, and the old incandescent light-bulb came back to life. Before I run out of incandescent light-bulbs, I’ll have to make a germination cabinet with a different form of heating. But I’m shelving that problem for now. On Saturday I sowed some early cabbage, the first lettuce, some scallions and some Red Marble mini-onions. I’ve been checking twice a day to make sure the light-bulb is still working and the temperature in the germination chamber is still OK. Nothing has needed watering. Today one of the cabbage varieties is emerging, so this afternoon I will clear some space for the flat in the greenhouse near the window. Ah! Signs of spring! Even if I did manufacture them, so to speak!

Our system is to screen compost in September, to fill the cinder-block beds in the greenhouse. Then we pop lettuce transplants at 10″ spacing into the beds. Those lettuces are big now, and we have started harvesting leaves from them for salad mixes. On Saturday, I pulled a few lettuces and scooped out some compost to fill the flats for my sowings.

As we need more space in the greenhouse, we’ll pull more of the lettuce. This system works well time-wise – lettuce is still only growing slowly, and we can benefit from this supply right now. It also works well in providing us with a large quantity of mellow screened compost for seed flats, that is indoors and not frozen. The tiny critters have had time to colonize the compost, so it is full of life. (Some of that life will be big white grubs, but I’ll kill those.)

Overwintered Vates kale. Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

Overwintered Vates kale.
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

Meanwhile, we’re spending more time planning than doing production work. We are still harvesting from the hoophouse, making new sowings there (mostly spinach, some to plant in the hoophouse, some to plant outdoors), and harvesting the remaining outdoor crops. We had to rest the kale as we were in danger of over-harvesting it. We had some very cold weather, including one night at 3F.

The planning this week has included finishing up our Outdoor Planting Schedule (Field Planting Schedule) and doing the complex assigning of crops to our permanent raised beds. We managed to find a home for everything we want to grow, partly by employing some tricks. We will transplant our okra in the middle of beds of existing crops, one spinach and one kale. The okra starts will grow up tall and we’ll finish harvesting the kale and spinach, hoe off the debris, add some more compost and mulch around the okra plants. We’re going to have to finish off one bed of kale sooner than we might like to make way for the following crop, but by then we should have had plenty of kale (three spring beds added to 7 fall-planted beds).

Next week we’ll spread compost on the future spinach, turnips and the first couple of carrot beds. Then we’ll be ready to till those beds when the soil and weather suggest it’s time.

A bed of young transplanted lettuce. Credit Wren Vile

A bed of young transplanted lettuce.
Credit Wren Vile

While writing an article for Growing for Market magazine I came across the website on Vegetable Transplant Production from the University of Florida Vegetable horticulture Program. It has a collection of great articles developed by Charles Vavrina in the late nineties. Plants still grow the same way! Check out the site for lots of useful tips about growing and using transplants. This is a good time of year to make plans to do something in a different way, to avoid repeating last year’s less successful episodes!

My reading material has included the Jan/Feb issue of the Organic Broadcaster. This issue includes exciting news about a new open pollinated bi-color sweet corn variety Who Gets Kissed which has been developed for organic growing by co-operation between farmers, breeders and researchers. It is available from High Mowing Seeds. Next year Abundant Bloomsdale spinach, a variety bred with collaboration from eight organic farms, will be released by the Organic Seed Alliance. I’m looking forward to trying that.

The Organic Broadcaster includes an article about pesticide drift by Harriet Behar, arguing for compensation for organic farmers whose land is polluted by pesticides. This topic is a hot one for Joanna and Eric Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm. They are writing a three part blog post about experiencing pesticide drift. So far, the crop testing they had done has been paid by taxpayers, and the perpetrators seem to be getting off with just a reprimand. No fine to balance the costs of testing. The injustices stack up.

Other articles in the Broadcaster include one about John Jeavons’ GrowBiointensive method, another advising offering free-choice minerals to livestock, rather than a commercial mix, as this can cause animals to over-consume the mix to try to get the one mineral they are short of, and one on wholistic poultry welfare. There’s a book review of Farming with Native Beneficial Insects from the Xerces Society. I’m adding this to my wish list. There’s more we could be doing to encourage more beneficial insects in our garden. There’s an article recommending grain farmers add small grains to their crop rotations, and there’s information from a potato variety trial on Midwest organic farms. There’s another about “cottage food laws” which allow some home-made food products to be sold to the public, and more about value-added products of different types. And there’s advice from some “second career” farmers to others choosing farming after retiring from their other jobs. And one about how good record-keeping will pay fro itself when it’s time to prepare your taxes.

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds. Credit Kathryn Simmons

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

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