Cover Crops slideshow, speaking events, good reading, and spinach varieties

I’ve had a busy few weeks. On Thursday 9/29, I presented my new slideshow Cover Crops, to the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville. Here it is with a few bonus slides. Like most of my slideshows, you can find it on Slideshare. I’ll be presenting a shorter, more concise version at the Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference January 9-11 (yes, midweek) at the Omni Homestead Resort, Hot Springs, VA.

On Saturday 10/1 I gave a shared presentation with Ira Wallace on the Seed Garden, at Lynchburg College. I’ll tell you more about that next week, once I’ve got the slideshow uploaded.

I found out that the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania where I gave two workshops and some tomato string-weaving demos, had 19,000 attendees! Quite the crowd! I’m hoping to get to the 2017 Fair in Asheville, NC and at least one other next year.

October 2016 cover 300

The October issue of Growing for Market magazine is out. There’s an article by Karin Tifft on Getting Started with Biological Pest Control. She writes in a very straightforward style, pointing out many mistakes to avoid, and navigating the route into a complex subject. Phil Norris writes from experience about growing in clay, covering water management, aeration, soil amendments and erecting a movable high tunnel (hoophouse) on clay. They hadn’t sufficiently anchored the structure, which was on a windy site. It blew a foot and a half to the south, and the clay held 3 of the 4 corner posts, saving the structure! Bret Grohsgal writes about introducing unusual crops to your customers successfully – free samples, higher prices, and follow-through, not discounts! the GfM editor, Andrew Mefford, reviews Shawn Jadrnicek’s new book, The Bio-Integrated Farm and Miraculous Abundance by Perrine and Charles Herve-Gruyer. Jane Tanner writes  about building a local flower movement.FarmersOfficeCoverjpg-250x300 The cover article is by Julia Shanks, author of the new book, The Farmer’s Office which I wrote about previously. I’m looking forward to reviewing a copy. In this article, Putting the Right Price on your Product, Julia covers all the aspects of price-setting: costs of production (direct costs, labor and overheads), analyzing what others are charging, and communicating value to your customers.

Photo courtesy of Organic Broadcaster and MOSES
Photo courtesy of Organic Broadcaster and MOSES

The September/October Organic Broadcaster has also arrived. The lead article shocked me by revealing that the increased demand for organic corn and soy in the US has lead to an increase in imports. The “organic” labeling of some is in question, as imports are required to meet he standards of the exporting country, not the US. Are we being chauvinist to expect these standards to be looser than USDA certification, or gullible to assume they are at least as stringent? Either way, cheaper imports are leading to lower prices, and difficulties for US Organic farmers. If you can, buy local. Another topic covered in this issue include the law requiring GMO (bioengineered) packaged food to be labeled (good!) but the information that the labeling is in those cryptic QR codes that need a smartphone to read them. There are also articles advising on precautions when putting organic grain into a grain bin previously used for non-organic crops; informing on how the National Organic Program protects organic integrity through oversight and regulation; advising on how to use fishmeal to improve poultry performance, how to create enterprise budgets to see what’s financially worthwhile, how to access farm-to-school programs,how to farm safely with children. Lisa Kivirist writes about the Rural Women’s Project in the Midwest. They have a summer workshop series, farm tours, conference, and lots of networking with over 5000 women farmers involved. An article on farmer-veterans in the Midwest speaks about the solidarity and practical help available.

Fall spinach Photo Wren Vile
Fall spinach
Photo Wren Vile

This week in the Twin Oaks garden we have been using the “ideal transplanting weather” (that means rain!) to move spinach and kale plants from clumps that came up well and survived the grasshoppers to bare patches.  Transplants survive so much better if planted late in the day during overcast weather or light rain.

Tyee spinach. Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds
Tyee spinach.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

This fall we sowed three spinach varieties: our long-time favorite Tyee spinach which has been discontinued by the seed trade. We’re trying a couple of other savoyed or semi-savoyed varieties.

Avon spinach and purple-handed gardener. Photo Fedco Seeds
Avon spinach Fedco Seeds

Avon spinach from Fedco Seeds is a promising alternative (I just hope it doesn’t turn everyone’s hands purple as this photo suggests! ) 42 days to mature spinach. This variety starred in Fedco’s 2015 spinach trial A vigorous semi-savoy variety with large broad dark green leaves and a sweet mild ‘sprightly’ flavor. Tender leaf and stem, an upright spreading habit. Tyee had great bolt resistance but tended to yellow, slightly tough, leaves in the fall. Avon promises to hold well in heat and keep its good texture and appearance in the fall, while offering high yields early and late.

Chevelle spinach. Photo Enza Zaden
Chevelle spinach.
Photo Enza Zaden

We are also trying Chevelle spinach, which we bought from Osborne Seeds. Their website is out today, here’s their Phone: (360) 424-7333.

Our variety trials have not got off to a good start, because we are moving plants around so much to fill gaps. But we have got reliably labeled plants in our cold frames, where they will grow overwinter until we need the space for seed flats in spring.



Planning winter hoophouse crops

Cowpeas in our hoophouse. Photo Nina Gentle
Cowpeas in our hoophouse.
Photo Nina Gentle

This is our hoophouse today. We’ve pulled our early tomatoes and squash. We’ve got three beds of cowpeas, a seed crop of Carolina Crowder for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. All being well, they’ll appear in next year’s catalog. Pea and bean seed crops do very well in the hoophouse in summer – the pods don’t get moldy as they can do outdoors, and the crop matures faster.

The empty-looking bed to the left of the crop in the foreground is newly sown in buckwheat, hopefully ready to be cleared by September 6 or so, to make way for early spinach and other crops.

Here’s a photo of our invention, “cat’s cradle” string-weaving, which supports these tall viney plants and keeps them within the bounds of the 4ft wide bed.

"Cat's cradle" string-weaving for a bed of cowpeas. Photo Nina Gentle
“Cat’s cradle” string-weaving for a bed of cowpeas.
Photo Nina Gentle

We also still have a bed of West Indian gherkins, one of edamame for seed and a half-bed of peppers.

And while we are having a quieter time in there (as far as planting and harvesting), we are launching into planning our fall, winter and spring harvesting crops. After several years of using the hoophouse year-round, we have settled into a happy routine. We plan September-March harvesting crops in early-mid August and March-September crops in February. The September-March crop plan is by the far the more complicated, involving many different crops and several successions of many of those. And each one usually only occupies part of a bed. The late spring and summer crops, on the other hand, are mostly a single row of something per bed.

Here’s our step-by-step process for hoophouse crop planning:

Updating the map:

  1. Make a blank map (currently we use an Excel spreadsheet, but squared paper worked well for many years).
  2. Update the map by writing in the previous crops at the top of each bed, and the dates it will be available.
  3. If using a spreadsheet, merge the rest of the cells in that bed, to give a big open space to write in.
  4. Write in the main crop type if known, bold and vertical, with start and finish dates.
  5. Print a map, make copies for the planning meeting when the details will be decided.

You can see our current maps at these links:

Hoophouse Map

Hoophouse Map Sept-Mar

Updating the schedule (a spreadsheet of tasks in date order):

  1. Copy last year’s
  2. Change the year dates. Replace this year (2015) with next year (2016). Then replace last year with this.
  3. Adjust column widths and heights to fit the data
  4. Check Harvest Start and Finish dates for new info recorded this past year. Add it to the appropriate column. (Knowing what to expect is so helpful!)
  5. Check the Notes column and add relevant info, or make changes as directed.
  6. Check Nematode Plan (we’ve been dealing with these beasties for a few years)
  7. Set the print area, fit all columns on 1 page, landscape, Repeat column headings on all sheets.
  8. Print draft copy for planning meeting
Baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Photo Twin Oaks COmmunity
Baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse – what we’re planning for!
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Planning meeting (the fun bit):

  1. List the crops to be grown. Spinach, head lettuce, baby lettuce mix, baby brassica salad mix, Chinese cabbage, pak choy, Tokyo bekana, maruba santoh, tatsoi, Yukina savoy, radishes, scallions, turnips, Russian kales, senposai, bull’s blood beet greens, mizuna and several similar mustards, maybe arugula (maybe not), chard, bare-root transplants to go outdoors in spring, maybe beets, snap peas at the beginning of February. Several crops have 2-6 succession plantings.
  2. Decide which main crops could go in each bed, considering crop rotations, Nematode Plan, edge beds being narrow and colder, dates of availability, climate change, need for rowcover.
  3. Mark the main crops on the map, including how much space they need.
  4. Mark the available space left in the bed.
  5. Make a list of questions to resolve: quantities, succession crop date tweaks, variety changes, what to do if nematodes are found elsewhere.
  6. Make decisions as you go along, and write them down clearly.
  7. Figure out the Early September bed and the Nematode bed first, then the others.
  8. Work down the schedule and find a home for each crop in a space available timewise and suitable rotation-wise. Write the location on the schedule and the crop on the map, along with how much space it needs. Watch out for changes between growing something in a 2ft edge bed or a 4ft middle bed. Twice as many rows in a middle bed, twice as much length in an edge bed.
  9. If changes are needed be sure to follow through and make those changes both on the map and on the schedule.

Making final versions:

  1. Make the changes on the computer files. Can use Search and Replace, if done carefully.
  2. Two people should proofread for sense and for compatibility with the map.
  3. Make any needed corrections. Print the final versions.
  4. Take copies to hoophouse, field manual, greenhouse, hoophouse file. Original goes in the Garden Notebook file.

I’ll be giving presentations on The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter, and The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer at the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania September 18-20.

And if you want to enter a draw to win a copy of my book, Sustainable Market Farming, read the review by Deborah Niemann on The Thrifty Homesteader and enter the draw. Just a few days left. Deborah has written several books herself, including EcoThrifty, Homegrown and Handmade, and Raising Goats Naturally. Read about them on her website.