Screening compost to make our own seed compost for spring

Tipping screened compost into our greenhouse beds. Photo by Wren Vile
Tipping screened compost into our greenhouse beds.
Photo by Wren Vile

I recently posted on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog, encouraging people to make some of their own seedling compost by screening home-made compost. Here I will tell you more about ours. We have a very skilled compost maker who provides a plentiful supply of very good compost for our gardens. In the warmer months, compost piles work fast, and we build up a good stockpile. We set aside some time before cold weather, usually in early September, to screen the compost we will need for seedlings in the spring. Screening removes large particles which seedlings would struggle against. Because we use a large amount of compost, this job takes us days. It’s a job we fit in around more urgent tasks, over a period of weeks. We appreciate being self-sufficient in organic seedling and potting compost. It’s certainly nice to know what our plants are growing in, and not to have to lug bags of mix back from the store.

We store the screened compost in our greenhouse, and so we have unfrozen compost ready to use when we need it in mid-January. Our greenhouse is designed mainly for spring seedling production. In summer it’s empty down to the concrete floor – we don’t grow anything there.

For extra value, we put the screened compost into our greenhouse beds and transplant lettuce into it in October. The watering that keeps the lettuce growing also helps the compost organisms to mellow out the compost over the winter. Worm eggs hatch, the lettuce roots make air channels throughout the bin, and we harvest the lettuce before we need to sow seedlings. If you want to try this method, but you have a smaller operation, you can simply fill bins, tubs or boxes inside your greenhouse. Get them in position near the windows before you fill them.

Our greenhouse beds are built of loose-fit cinder blocks, and we set up boards across the tops of the beds, all the way to the far end of the greenhouse. It’s a challenge to summon the courage to “run the boards”, but the worst that can happen is to tip the barrow or to fall 18″ off the boards!

Making compost screens

Compost screens come in two basic styles. We make flat compost frames that fit over a wheelbarrow, and screen into the barrows. The other main approach is to use a free-standing frame and throw compost at it, so that it (more or less) screens itself. After that, you shovel the compost into a wheelbarrow. Each style has its advantages.

Shoveling compost onto a flat screen. Photo by Wren Vile
Shoveling compost onto a flat screen.
Photo by Wren Vile

To make a flat screen, cut lengths of wood to make two frames that will sit on top of a wheelbarrow. Cut some rat wire (hardware cloth), sandwich it between the two frames and bolt the layers together. Then it will be easy to switch to new mesh when the old piece wears out. For a lighter, less durable model, make one frame and staple the hardware cloth to it.

To make a free-standing compost frame, see the photos.

Freestanding compost screen. Photo by Beth LeaMond
Free-standing compost screen.
Photo by Beth LeaMond
Freestanding compost screen in use. Photo by Beth LeaMond
Free-standing compost screen in use.
Photo by Beth LeaMond

A third alternative would be a flat compost screen suspended by ropes or chains attached to the corners from a swing-set frame or a convenient horizontal tree limb. Put a tarp on the ground, or position a wheelbarrow under the frame, and shuffle the frame as archeologists do when sifting through soil looking for ancient artifacts. It is a definite advantage to arrange for the compost to land in a wheelbarrow, so it doesn’t need to be shoveled back up off the ground.

How to screen compost

We use the flat screens on wheelbarrows. We have a bucketful of special compost-screening tools, which are mostly regular hoe heads on short handles. These are easily made from broken hoes! Some people use the Korean Ho-Mi tool for this task. We also have an unusual yellow plastic ergonomic trowel designed for people with wrist problems. It’s excellent for this particular job! Any comfortable hand tool that will not destroy the wire is worth trying.

 Using a flat compost screen on a wheelbarrow. Photo by Wren Vile

Using a flat compost screen on a wheelbarrow.
Photo by Wren Vile

We shovel a modest amount of compost onto the screen at one end, and use the tool to push the compost back and forth so that small particles fall through and bigger pieces stay on the screen. Try to minimize direct contact between the tool and the wire, by keeping the tool on top of the compost on the screen. It’s important to avoid scraping the compost back and forth, as the metal tools can break up the wire mesh quite quickly.

When it seems like no more compost from that screenful will go through the screen, we deal with the leftovers. We collect rocks in buckets with holes in the bottom to let the rain drain out. Our rock buckets can sit around for months collecting rocks, and we don’t want to incubate mosquitoes every time it rains! We use our rocks to fix holes in the roads. We use different holey buckets to collect up any woody materials or undigested compost materials, to go back around the compost process once more.

Rocks are one of our biggest harvest. Photo by Kathryn Simmons
Rocks are one of our biggest harvests.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

It helps to have fairly dry compost for screening. If it’s too wet, we abandon the task for that day, leaving some to dry on top of the screen, and turn to some other task. In very hot weather, we have even erected a canopy over our screening site, to provide shade and  make the job more pleasant.

Growing winter greenhouse lettuce

When the greenhouse beds are full, we water the compost enough to keep it damp and alive. We transplant our greenhouse winter lettuce in early October (our first frost is mid-October), using cold-hardy leaf types or romaines. If you try this and are ready a long time before winter lettuce transplanting time, you could perhaps grow a different short-term crop in the compost first.

We harvest outer leaves from the lettuce whenever they are big enough, all winter long. Then we start to clear them when we need to use the compost for spring seedlings.

Young lettuce plants in greenhouse beds in October. Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Young lettuce plants in greenhouse beds in October. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Using home-made compost for seedlings

We start our first seedlings in mid-January, although we only sow a few things the first week (cabbage and lettuce for outdoors and tomatoes for our hoophouse), and harvesting just one or two lettuces would provide compost for those few flats. We use 100% home-made compost for sowing seeds, or for potting up transplants. We don’t mix in any other ingredients. We make great compost and it grows big strong plants. The only issue we sometimes have is aphids. Here’s what we do to deal with early spring greenhouse aphids:

  1. jet the plants with water to project the aphids into outer space (OK I’m exaggerating),
  2. gather up lady bugs, or
  3. if numbers of aphids are really high, we use a soap spray.

 

 

 

Garlic harvest, new barn plans, Mother Earth news post on sweet potatoes

Harvesting garlic by hand, Photo by Marilyn Rayne Squier
Harvesting garlic by hand,
Photo by Marilyn Rayne Squier

We have been harvesting our hardneck garlic for the past week, and the end is not in sight! Back in November, we accidentally planted more than we intended. I can’t remember now if our planting schedule had the numbers wrong, or the planters misunderstood the schedule. Anyway, we intended to increase our ratio of softneck:hardneck, but ended up planting the same amount of softneck garlic as in recent years, and more hardneck than we had grown for at least three years.Those good at math will already realize this means we decreased our ratio of softneck:hardneck!

A word to the wise – don’t plant more than you need! It leads to more weeding, more tending, more harvest than you have use for, and less time to keep up with everything else! Plus you have the heart-rending dilemma of when to cut your losses and how. We were considering tilling in the remaining hardneck garlic before it deteriorated any further, to prevent ourselves from being distracted by the siren-song it was singing, so we could get on with harvesting the softneck before it started to go downhill. Plus of course, garlic is not the only crop! Now we are looking at a mutually beneficial arrangement with some neighbor-friends who don’t have enough garlic – their mistake was not to plant enough! We are offering them a You-Dig arrangement. (Please don’t anyone else contact us hoping to dig some – we can cope with only one set of friends coming and digging!)

Garlic hanging in netting to dry and cure. Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier
Garlic hanging in netting to dry and cure.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

 

 

 

I wrote in Growing for Market magazine my checklist for harvesting, curing, snipping and sorting garlic in August 2015. Here’s the sections on harvest and hanging:

Garlic Harvest Step by Step

  1. Very hard soil can damage the bulbs, so water the night before If the soil is very dry,.
  2. Plan for an average of 15 minutes per 5 gallon bucket for digging up garlic and 15 minutes per bucket for hanging it up.
  3. Bruised bulbs won’t store well, so treat the bulbs like fragile, sun-sensitive eggs. Don’t bang them together, or throw or drop them.
  4. Use digging fork to loosen the bulbs, without stabbing them. Don’t pull on unloosened garlic, as that damages the necks, and they won’t store well.
  5. If there is a lot of soil on the roots, rake the soil out with your fingers
  6. Don’t rub or pick at the skin. To store well, bulbs need several layers of intact skin.
  7. Air above 90F can cook garlic bulbs, sun can scorch them. So don’t leave them out on the beds. Put them gently into buckets or crates angled to shade the bulbs.
  8. No matter how dirty they are, don’t wash the bulbs. They need to dry out, not get wetter. The dirt will dry and fall off later, or if bulbs are not clean enough for market, the soil can be gently brushed off.
  9. Keeping the containers shaded, load them on carts or a truck and take to your barn for drying. It’s important not to leave garlic in plastic buckets for long, because of condensation.

Drying and Curing Garlic Step by Step

  1. We like our garlic arranged in order of harvesting, to make it easier to find dry garlic  when the time comes to trim it. We hang our curing garlic in vertical netting hanging around the walls of our barn. Some growers use horizontal racks, others tie garlic in bunches with string and hang the bunches from the rafters.
  2. We start at knee height, threading one garlic plant in each hole of the netting. (The netting stretches downward with the weight of the garlic. Starting lower would lead to garlic piling up on the floor.) Take a garlic plant, fold over the top quarter or a third of the leaves, and push the leafy part through the netting. The leaves will unfold behind the netting. Leaves shouldn’t poke through to the front.
  3. We work back and forth in rows, filling a 4-6 ft wide strip per person, working upwards.
  4. We continue as high as we can reach before moving to the next section. We make walls covered with garlic, day by day until done. This sequential arrangement simplifies trimming, and makes the best use of the fans, giving the garlic the best chance of drying evenly.
  5. Damaged bulbs are “Farm Use” quality and are set on horizontal racks to dry.
  6. Arrange box fans to blow on the drying garlic. Even in an airy old tobacco barn, fans are essential in our humid climate.
  7. Wait 3-4 weeks, then test some bulbs for dryness by rolling the neck of the garlic between your finger and thumb. It should feel dry, papery, strawy. If many bulbs are slippery, gooey, or damp in any way, delay the trimming until at least 90% of the necks are dry.

Meanwhile, we need a new barn. The one where we cure our garlic is the upstairs floor of an old dairy barn, formerly a tobacco drying barn. I’ve long looked forward to a single-story barn, with no need to haul the garlic upstairs just to haul it down again later. The old barn is seriously riddled with rot and insect chewing. We’d also like a new tool shed, as our old one leans north considerably, and is too small and dark. A small group of us has been meeting sporadically to plan the new barn, and we are divided on whether to go for one story or two. Here’s three questions for other garlic growers reading this:

  1. Do you cure your garlic upstairs in a barn or on the ground floor/first floor?
  2. Do you think one is better than the other in terms of airflow?
  3. Is any extra airflow worth the extra hauling garlic up and down stairs?

We have been drawing floor plans and making scale models, and thinking about storage of tools, seeds and supplies. Does anyone have a good solution for storage of rolls of agricultural fabrics? We roll our shadecloth, rowcover and insect mesh on 5 ft sticks. We’re thinking of slightly inclined shelves (or arms) with adjustable height settings. We want to be able to see what’s what and to keep various different types of fabric separate, rather than in a big heap as at present.

If anyone knows a good book or web resource on storing garden gear, please leave a comment. Using existing ideas beats reinventing the wheel!


My blog post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, about growing sweet potatoes is out. Our plants this year are looking good. I appreciate how much delicious and nutritious food sweet potatoes provide for so little work!

Sweet potatoes growing on biodegradable mulch. Photo Brittany Lewis
Sweet potatoes growing on biodegradable plastic mulch.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Local foodie blog, Organic Broadcaster, Climate Hub winter forecast

Radish Quick Pickles Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Radish Quick Pickles
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

For foodies who want recipes and a food blog centered in our part of the country, using seasonal produce, see sustainexistence sustainable sustenance for our existence. This blog is written by one of my fellow Twin Oakers, so you can be sure that you’ll find dishes you can make if you are growing in our bio-region. The latest post is a Pretty Salads gallery and includes Apple Rhubarb Flower Salad; Cucumber, Apple, & Pear salad; the famous Massaged Kale; Mixed Greens & Purples with Feta; Wild-Harvested Salads and more. Other posts include recipes for the under-appreciated rutabagas and turnips, what to do with eggplant, and a series on delicious soups. I can especially vouch for the soups!

This blog makes a nice companion to my blog, as you’ll never find recipes on mine! (Joys of community living #305: I never have to cook!). While I was looking for the link to Sustainexistence, I found another interesting blog with a post from Louisa, A Ride Across America | An Unlikely Hotbed of Food Activism in Small-Town Virginia. Over the course of eight weeks, Ben Towill, the co-owner of the Fat Radish, and the photographer Patrick Dougherty are biking 4,500 miles across the U.S. to talk to strangers about food. Each week, they’ll file a post about their discoveries. While in our area, they visited the Louisa County Community Cupboard, which is worth knowing about if you grow food nearby and have extra. You can take it there and help those less well-off.


Pulling plastic over the hoophouse frame. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Pulling plastic over the hoophouse frame.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

My latest post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog is

How to Put New Plastic on a Hoophouse (High Tunnel): A Step-by-Step Guide.  This is based on our recent experience of replacing just the outer layer, as well as our previous replacements of both layers on the same day.


broadcaster-picture-e1443112899347For more winter reading see the Organic Broadcaster November/December issue. There are articles on silvopasture, the benefits of organic, how to do cost assessments of various crops and markets, collective marketing, organic no-till, a review of Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture, the MOSES Conference, and the controversial practice of aquaponics. Well, it’s not the practice of aquaponics that’s controversial, but rather whether a system without soil can ever be truly organic.

Take Back Organic by Dave Chapman, is a report from the National Organic Coalition (NOC) meeting. Many hydroponic operations are gaining organic certification, even though most organic farmers disagree with the USDA decision to allow hydroponics.”Keep the Soil in Organic” has become a rallying cry. Others include “Take Back Organic,” “Soil Matters,” “Keep Organic Real For Me,” “Dirt Matters,” and “Soil Grown.”.

“On the first day of the meeting, a group of Vermont farmers gathered outside at lunchtime for a protest against the weakened organic standards. It started with a procession of marchers and tractors (and one beautiful delivery truck!). . . . As the standards get watered down to become “Certified Sort Of Organic,” we see something  precious that we have worked at for a long time being diluted.”

Eliot Coleman, one of the mentors of organic farming, addressed the meeting and read the following parts of the 1980 USDA report called “Report  and Recommendations on Organic Farming”. That report listed some of the “basic tenets” of organic agriculture:
“Feed the Soil, Not the Plant — Healthy plants, animals, and humans result from balanced, biologically active soil.”  “Soil is the Source of Life — Soil quality and balance (that is, soil with proper levels of organic matter, bacterial and biological activity, trace elements, and other nutrients) are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.”

There is now a USDA Task Force on Hydroponics and Aquaponics in Organic. Unfairly, two thirds of the task force members were selected for their support of including hydroponics and aquaponics in organic certification.

Barbara Damrosch wrote about the farmers demonstration in the Washington Post
www.keepthesoilinorganic.org is a blog on the topic of keeping aquaculture and hydroponics separate from organic certification.


And lastly, for today, here’s a link to the Southeast Regional Climate Hub (SERCH).  SERCH connects the public, academic, and private sector organizations, researchers, and outreach specialists and provides technical support, tools and strategies for responding to climate change. Their goal is to help producers cope with challenges associated with drought, heat stress, excessive moisture, longer growing seasons, and changes in pest pressures.

The current El Niño is on track to be one of the largest on record (since 1950, and. has the potential to surpass the 1997/1998 event, which has been the strongest El Niño so far. Most climate models are in agreement that this episode will peak during the winter and subside to neutral conditions in the spring or summer of 2016. Above average precipitation is expected across the Southeast (see the map below).

off01_prcp

off01_tempTemperature is harder to predict. Sometimes an El Niño can cause above average temperature, sometimes below normal. Currently, December looks like being above average for both temperature and precipitation. In winter, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) plays a strong role in our temperatures. The past two winters have demonstrated this. The AO switches phases fairly unpredictably over weeks or sometimes just days. If it weakens, we can expect nasty cold temperatures again, as Arctic air zooms south to greet us.

El Niño can also cause storms to track along the southern states, if the right temperatures are in place. The SERCH Winter Season Outlook concludes: “However, I do not expect this winter to receive above normal snowfall. For most of the winter, I believe it will be above normal for temperature and precipitation.”

Heirloom tomatoes, string-weaving, seed germination temperatures

GFM-October2015-cover-300pxThe October issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about heirloom tomatoes. It’s an assessment of tomato varieties we have grown, mostly in our hoophouse, and how they’ve done in central Virginia. When we decide to try a new variety, we first grow just two plants, in our hoophouse with all the other weird and wonderful types we like, and a bed of early-maturing varieties like Stupice and Glacier. We also grow non-heirlooms, including hybrids like Sun Gold. We track whether we like the flavor, how productive they are and how disease-resistant they are.

Some of the winners for us are Amy’s Sugar Gem, Black Cherry, Five Star

Striped German tomato in all its beauty. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Striped German tomato in all its beauty.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Grape F1, Garden Peach, Jubilee, Mountain Magic F1, Reisentraube, and for simple delicious reds, Tropic. We love Cherokee Purple and Striped German, but they *appear* not to be very productive. I suspect browsers got them all!

This GfM also includes practical help with financial reports from farmer Chris Blanchard, a consideration of copper-based fungicides and their bad effect on soil health, from Meredith Melendez,an  Agricultural and Resource Management Agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension. Organic farmers need to take more mindful care when using copper compounds, even when facing Late Blight. Alexandra Amonette writes from Washington state about dealing with the extreme heat this summer, and Gretel Adams encourages flower farmers to hang in there producing hardy cuts for the last part of the year.


Detail of string-weaving tomatoes: locking the twine by crossing the second wrap over the first. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Detail of string-weaving tomatoes: locking the twine by crossing the second wrap over the first.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog has published my post on string-weaving tomatoes.

If you are considering a different support system for your long rows of tomatoes next year, give string weaving a go!


I heard my book Sustainable Market Farming got a great review in Acres USA although I haven’t seen a copy yet.


We’re in the transitional period in our hoophouse, planting the winter crops. Today is Yukina Savoy transplanting and tatsoi thinning day. As an aid for future winter hoophouse planning I’ve been working on a chart of soil temperatures for best germination of vegetables, and how many days it takes for germination of each vegetable at different temperatures. This chart is a work in progress, so if you have any gems of information to contribute, do leave a comment. For instance, if you firm up any of the uncertainties, or if your experience contradicts what’s written here, I’d love to know! Click to open the pdf.

Winter Hphs Crops days to germ

Yukina Savoy in November in our hoophouse. Photo Ethan Hirsh
Yukina Savoy in November in our hoophouse.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

And a blog I’ve just signed-up for is from the same Chris Blanchard who writes for Growing for Market. It’s the Purple Pitchfork or the Flying Rutabaga (the weekly newsletter). Packed with info on farming, based on real experience, from someone who is paying close attention.

Green potatoes, The Lean Farm, GMO issues

Mulched June-planted potatoes. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Mulched June-planted potatoes.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

I’ve just done a blog post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, called Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating. You can read it here. it’s an updated version of a post on this site back in December.


 

GFM_September2015_cover_300pxMeanwhile an issue of Growing for Market passed without me writing an article. There’s a thought-provoking article by Ben Hartman on how their farm implemented the Lean system to remove inefficiencies, slim down what they do, focus on the important stuff and make much more money. This has also been fun. One aspect is using pictures rather than lots of words to show what to do (eg how the workspace should look after clean-up). Also visual cues such as colored magnets, rather than printed checklists. Ben has written a book, The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and

The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green Publishers
The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green Publishers

Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work. It is reviewed by Lynn Byczynski in the September issue. Here’s what the publishers (Chelsea Green) have to say: “Using examples from his own family’s one-acre community-supported farm in Indiana, Hartman clearly instructs other small farmers in how to incorporate lean practices in each step of their production chain, from starting a farm and harvesting crops to training employees and selling goods”. – See more here. It’s about how to work smarter not harder, and avoid burnout. This is a good time of year to look forward to reading a book like this, no? We’ve all been pretty exhausted here, slogging through the heat of August with not enough workers. We did take notes on how to have the fall brassica transplanting go more smoothly and efficiently in future. We finally tilled between the rows for the second time yesterday and broadcast a clover mix. Hopefully with overhead irrigation, the clover will grow fast enough to be big enough to take the foot traffic when we  start harvesting, which will be very soon!

Other articles in Growing for Market include Fences for all types of wildlife by Joanna and Eric Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm. They discuss physical barriers, electric fences, long-term and short-term fences and all possible combinations of these, including hybrids. Oh, OK not the combination of short-term and long-term, but everything else.

There are also articles on farmer networking groups, the expanding USDA loan program, and encouragement to start now for good spring cut flower sales.


 

Anthony Flaccavento
Anthony Flaccavento

Farmer and sustainable development consultant Anthony Flaccavento has published a series of four 5-minute You-tube videos to clarify GMO issues, debunk the false arguments of labeling opponents, and support efforts to persuade Senators and the President to reject the House bill to block states rights to mandate GMO food labeling.  The DARK Act outlawed all State GMO labeling laws, including those already on the books in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut. This bill is a disaster for farmers, consumers, the environment and food sovereignty.

GMOs vs. World Hunger – Take 5 with Tony

This is the first segment, focused on the fallacy of increased yields from GMOs

Genetic Engineering – Take 5 with Tony

This is the segment taking on the myth of ‘equivalence’ in GMO breeding vs conventional

GMO Studies – Take 5 with Tony

3rd segment:  Debunks myth of GMO safety, that there is “no evidence” of health problems

Take Action – Take 5 with Tony

Final segment:  Recaps first three, uses this to undermine arguments against labeling laws;  call to action

 

Garlic harvest, Intercropping, Summer lettuce,

Well, it’s really hot here – see the AccuWeather page on the Dangerous Heat Wave. Since June 1st we’ve had 9 days of 95F or more, including two at 97F and today is forecast to be the hottest yet. Tropical Storm Bill only gave us 0.7″ –  I’m looking forward to the trough predicted for next weekend, although I should be careful about what I wish for. It might bring record low temperatures for the time of year, and such whacky yo-yos of conditions are hard on us as well as our crops.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Cured garlic being removed from the drying nets to be trimmed and sorted.                   Photo Wren Vile

Our garlic is all drying in the barn, with fans and in a few days we expect it to have dried down enough for us to start trimming and sorting. We usually do that in the afternoons, as it’s indoors and includes fans.

If you live in a cooler zone, you might be wondering when to harvest your garlic. Margaret Roach has a great article on determining garlic maturity on her blog A Way to Garden. Her harvest time is 7 or 8 weeks after ours. She has a whole set of articles on growing, harvesting and curing garlic. One sign of maturity that I don’t think Margaret mentions, that we use with our hardneck garlic is to dig a few sample bulbs, and cut them in half horizontally. If the bulbs are ready, there will be small air spaces open between the remains of the stem and the cloves.


I just posted an article about Intercropping Vegetables in Late Spring and Early Summer, aka Relay Planting on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog. Depending where you live these ideas might be very timely, or else suggestions to consider in your planning for next year. Interplanting, intercropping, or relay planting, is a version of companion planting where the second crop is planted while the first is still growing. The goal is to get maximum use of the space, double use of any crop protection such as rowcover or shadecloth, (or irrigation) and let one round of hoeing clean up two crops.

We have successfully planted peanuts in the middle of a bed of romaine and small Bibb lettuces transplanted around the same date the peanuts are sown. We have also transplanted okra in the center of a bed with two rows of early spring cabbage. As the plants grow, we remove outer leaves of the cabbage that might overshadow the okra. Soon the okra is tall and the cabbage is being harvested. Two crops in one season, with no tilling needed between the two.

Cow Horn okra. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Cow Horn okra.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This year we planned to transplant the okra in a spinach bed. The spinach came to an early end, but the okra is doing very well, and we have just started harvesting it, a bit earlier than in other years.


Today, despite the heat, it’s the day for sowing lettuce. At this time of year it’s often the day for sowing lettuce! Every 5 days. Success with summer lettuce is hard-earned. From May to late September I use an outdoor nursery seedbed and do bare-root transplants of heat-tolerant varieties. The soil temperature does not vary as much as the air temperature, although it does get warm! My hot weather lettuce sowing trick is to wait till the last half-hour before sunset, Sow the lettuce seed in the nursery bed, draw the soil over to cover the seed, and tamp it down, water it with fresh drawn water (cool from the well, not siting around all day in a can). Then I put ice on the lettuce seed rows! Crushed ice is easiest, but these days I just line up ice cubes where the rows are. Then I put a piece of shade-cloth over the planting. I make sure to keep the seedbed damp, using cold water each time.

Of course, transplanting lettuce in hot weather takes care too. I do that late in the day, and water as I go. I cover the transplants with hoops and shade-cloth, and water daily until they are well established. here’s the lettuce log I am using this year.

Twin Oaks Lettuce Log
Twin Oaks Lettuce Log

 

 

Planting leeks, Growing for Market melon article, different weather

Planting leeks has been one of our main jobs this week. Two beds finished, three to go. When I wrote about this last year, I said we were trying leek seedlings in flats (rather than bare-root from an outdoor seedbed) for the second year, and doing the transplanting 2-3 weeks earlier than with our outdoor seedbed method, from the same sowing dates.

Leek planting diagram. Pam Dawling

Leek planting diagram.
Pam Dawling

This year we again used flats, and I think this will be the way of the future for us. It is easier to keep weeds at bay in flats than outdoors. We’ve cut back from 20 flats to 15, for the same number of beds, and still have plenty of plants. Next year, perhaps a further cut.

But I’m a bit unhappy with the root damage that occurs in getting the close-planted seedlings out of the flats. I know some growers trim leek roots before planting, but we never have. Extricating them from flats does produce a root-pruning of a sort. Last year’s leeks grew well, so I think I can ease back on worrying! Some growers use plug flats, but I can’t imagine having enough coldframe space for 5 beds x 4 rows x 90ft x 2 (6″ spacing) seedlings. 3600 plugs. Plus up to 10% spare to allow for non-germinating seeds, and for selecting the strongest.

A bed of overwintered leeks Photo credit Twin Oaks Community
A bed of overwintered leeks
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

In 2013, I wrote about calculating the seed-row length for outdoor seed beds, and about using flats for the first time. We sowed 20 flats 12″ x 24″ with 6 rows in each. We found we had more plants than we needed, and we didn’t need the back-up sowing in April at all. We were still transplanting on June 20 that year.

In 2012, I introduced our furrow and dibbled holes system for leeks. I notice I said we were growing five varieties: fast-growing Lincoln and King Richard for eating in October and November, King Sieg for December, and the hardy Tadorna for December to February. I count that as four, not five, so I wonder about the fifth. We were still transplanting leeks on June 28, because the March 21 sowing got over-run by weeds, and we used our back-up April 20 sowing.


 

GFM_JuneJuly2015_cover_300px

The June/July issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about growing muskmelons aka cantaloupes. I was surprised to find I had never written about growing melons for Growing for market previously. There’s a chapter in my book, of course. Melons are one of my favorite fruits, and I enjoy even looking forward to them! I wrote about the different types of melons and why the ones we call cantaloupes are actually muskmelons; how to start the seeds; transplanting and direct sowing; keeping the bugs off and harvesting. There are also lists of pests diseases you hope not to get, and some handy resources.

I wrote a complementary post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog about personal size melons, something we are trying again this year.

Kansas Melon. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Kansas Melon.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In this issue, you can also read the cover story by Emily Oakley and Mike Appel of Three Springs Farm in eastern Oklahoma, about having small children while farming. Worth learning from others’ experience before launching into that project! Periodical cicadas are the subject of Lynn Byczynski‘s editorial. They were here on our farm in 2013.

Regina Dlugokencky of Seedsower Farm in Centerport, New York writes about a new organic farming opportunity: the supply of organic mulching materials from the current proliferation of microbreweries. She has had success using Spent Brewers Grains (SBG) on Long Island. One micro-brewer can produce 220 pounds of SBG per working day. Read the complete report at www.sare.org – search for Project Number FNE12-743.

There’s also an article about two electronic record-keeping systems you can use on your smart phone, if you have one. COG Pro (use the word Guest as username and password) and FARMDATA. Next up is an article about a small flower farm in County Cork, Ireland. Gretel Adams closes with an article about flower photography to increase sales.


Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting. Credit Kati Folger
Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting.
Credit Kati Folger

And lastly, the weather. After days without rain, with forecasts including “chance of thunderstorms” that went everywhere but here, we finally are getting some rain. Hoeing is out, transplanting is in, as is setting seed potatoes to sprout for our second planting, in a couple of weeks.

For weather-entertainment from the safety of your own desk, check out LightningMaps.org. Real time lightning. Of course, if the lightning is close, you might  close down your computer and not get zapped.

 

.

Spring underway at last!

This past week has seen real forward progress in the garden. The last of the rows of snap peas got planted. As I explained in a previous post, we plant peas in the middles of beds of spinach. I wrote more about this and other examples of interplanting in my post for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog.

We also transplanted 4 beds of spinach (360 row feet each). Tilling was delayed by wet soil, so I was happy we had enough transplants to get us off to a fast start. Hot weather arrives early here, and causes the spinach to bolt, so having transplants helps us get a longer harvest season. Many of the plants were bare-root transplants which had been growing in the hoophouse since 1/25.

Speedling flats. Photo from EPS Manufacturing
Speedling flats.
Photo from EPS Manufacturing

We ended up with spare spinach which we had sown in Speedling flats in the greenhouse. Speedlings are available from many grower supplies places, or look for them (organically) used. They are expanded styrofoam, which makes them very lightweight, and in fact they float, a feature which we make use of when we sow sweet corn starts to fill gaps in rows of our first (chancy) corn planting. We have a big tank where we float 8 Speedlings of corn. They need no watering and don’t get stunted. Carefree! They are a tad fragile in novice hands, and as we like to make our plastics last as long as possible, we make sure to instruct people to pick them up when transplanting, not drag them by putting a thumb in a cell and pulling. Butter knives make great transplanting tools for the 200 cell or bigger Speedlings. Jab the knife in the soil, wiggle it from side to side, making a wedge-shaped hole. Then slide the knife down the sloping side of a cell, hold the plant gently in the other hand, pulling slightly while lifting the knife in the first hand with a scooping motion. The plug then rests on the horizontal blade of the knife. Slide the plant into the hole, firm the soil, and repeat 719 times for one bed of spinach! Or get help.

Transpalnting spinach from Speedling flats. Photo Denny Ray McElyea
Transplanting from Speedling flats.
Photo Denny Ray McElyea
A carrot bed showing the indicator beets. Credit Kathryn Simmons
A carrot bed showing the indicator beets.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We sowed 3 beds of carrots 3/23, along with some “indicator beets”, which should germinate a day before the carrots, and so tell us when to flame-weed. Typically carrots take 9-12 days at this time of year, but I think the soil is still colder than normal for the time of year. They’re not up yet (day 8). It’s time we moved the soil thermometer from the flats on the heat mat in the greenhouse out to the carrot beds. [Why not buy another soil thermometer, Pam?]

We also got two beds of beets sown, with more to do today. And we’re ready to transplant our first three sowings of lettuce. That will give us some much needed space in the coldframe. (Not to mention some much needed lettuce in a few weeks!) The delayed outdoor plantings have caused a lot of back-up congestion in the greenhouse and cold frame.

Our over-wintered Vates kale isn’t looking too good, after the extreme cold weather we had this winter. And unfortunately our spring-sown kale didn’t come up, so we’re on course for a spring kale shortage. We can plant more collards, as we have lots of those plants, and maybe some more senposai.


The number of people reading my blog grew from a lower point in September, through October, November and December to a steady 4200 per month in January, February and March. That’s 140 a day. I’m very happy with that. My blog now has 88 followers. If you want to leave a comment, look for the button at the end of the comments section, or the speech bubble at the top right of the blog.

My review of Craig LeHoullier’s wonderful book Epic Tomatoes continues to be a very popular post, and I’m embarking next on a review of another great book: The Tao of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe

9781603584876_p0_v3_s260x420

Books, blogs, conferences and seed-starting

Sustainable Market Farming on display. Credit Ken Bezilla
Sustainable Market Farming on display.
Credit Ken Bezilla

Sales of my book peaked during the holiday season (as also happened last December), so I conclude quite a few growers got a copy as a gift. I hope you are all happy with it! I also noticed that my reviews of Craig LeHoullier’s Epic Tomatoes and Jean-Martin Fortier’s Market Gardener have had a lot of visits, so many gardeners and growers will be curled up with a book, making plans for the next growing season.

I’ve also been catching up on reading, although if I had more time, I could give in to that urge even more! Last week I wrote a post for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, on Winter Vegetables in Your Hoop House and I firmed up a booking to present 3 workshops at the West Virginia Small Farms Conference February 26-28. On the Friday I’ll be presenting two new workshops back-to-back: winter hoophouse growing and summer hoophouse growing. Of course, I have mentioned these topics in other workshops I’ve presented. The winter crops feature in Cold Hardy Winter Vegetables (click the link to watch the slideshow). I won’t be presenting that workshop at Charleston (the WVSFC site) despite what I said a couple of weeks ago!

The summer crops featured in a presentation I gave at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group ConferencePractical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms.” This year it’s January 14-17, 2015, in Mobile, Alabama. I wish I was going, but I decided it was too far away this year. I intend to go in 2016, when I hope it will be nearer Virginia. My summer hoophouse crops workshop for SSAWG was way back in 2009, before I really got to grips with slideshows! And now I have a lot more photos than I did then! And at WVSFC my Saturday workshop will be the ever-popular Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests.

A bed of overwintered leeks Photo credit Twin Oaks Community
A bed of overwintered leeks
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

Meanwhile, this week in the garden, I have been taking my turn with the other crew members to harvest for our 100 community members. It takes about 3 hours each day to haul in enough fresh veggies for the masses. Outdoors we have kale, spinach, collards, leeks, cabbage and still some senposai, and the last dregs of celery and lettuce. The chard and the scallions have given up for now. Not dead, just resting. In the hoophouse we are harvesting salad mix, which includes some combination of baby lettuce mix, spinach, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bulls Blood beets, Tokyo bekana, Bright Lights chard and arugula). Each harvester gets to customize the mix as they like, so we don’t get the same thing every day.

We are also harvesting pak choy and Napa Chinese cabbage as well as baby turnips and turnip greens, radishes, tatsoi, Yukina savoy, and spinach for cooking. We are leaving the kale and the lettuce heads for later, when we have fewer other crops available (or if we are under snow). the hoophouse is a delightful place to work!

Yukina Savoy Credit Ethan Hirsh
Yukina Savoy
Credit Ethan Hirsh

Pretty soon we will be dusting off our heat mat, plugging in the germination chambers, tipping the spiders out of the pots and flats and starting our first seedlings of 2015. We usually start with some early cabbage, lettuce, and mini-onions Red Marble in mid January, and follow up with early tomatoes (to plant in the hoophouse) the week after that. At that time we also start kale and spinach, although nowadays we start those in the ground in the hoophouse and move them out to the garden as bare-root transplants.

Getting ready for Kansas Mother Earth News Fair

One of our garden carts, tastefully decorated by guests Susie Anne and Jessie. Credit McCune Porter
One of our garden carts, tastefully decorated by guests Susie Anne and Jessie.
Credit McCune Porter

This week’s blog post is a cartful of odds and ends. Talking of garden carts, we like the larger kind, with the loop-shaped legs in line with the length of the cart. This makes it easier to straddle rows of crops, and also means we don’t bash our ankles while pulling them. The smaller models often have a single loop “leg” right across the cart. We used to have some of these. We called them the “Ankle-Snappers”. I recommend making sure any cart you buy is made from exterior-grade plywood, not particle-board, or other kind of pressed together scraps of wood. They have a hard life!

 

Garden carts loaded with Romas tomatoes. Photo Wren Vile
Garden carts loaded with Roma tomatoes.
Photo Wren Vile
The crew working on the sweet potato harvest. Photo McCune Porter
We did tally our sweet potato harvest – about 6600 pounds! Here’s the crew at work.
Photo McCune Porter

 

West Indian gherkin. Photo Nina Gentle
West Indian gherkin. Photo Nina Gentle


Recently I wrote on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about West Indian Gherkins. I wrote about them on this blog. Here’s a new photo, which gives the impression of acres of the little things.

On Thursday I leave for Kansas for the Mother Earth News Fair there. The Program Guide is now out. I’m doing three workshops, a book signing and an interview. My workshops are Fall Vegetable Production, Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables and Crop Rotations. Hope to meet some of you there – do introduce yourself to me!

I was looking up a recent reference in the work of the Organic farming Research Foundation about organic farming storing more carbon in the soil than other types of farming. I couldn’t find the exact link but I did find that as far back as 2012, OFRF was already pointing out that cover cropping  “Enhances soil quality, reduces erosion, sequesters carbon and provides nitrogen, prevents dust (protects air quality), improves soil nutrients, contributes to productivity”

My other piece of organic vegetable growing news is that Biodegradable Biobased Mulch Now Allowed for Organic Production
“The USDA National Organic Program has amended the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances to allow the use of biodegradable biobased mulch film with restrictive annotations. This action also adds to the organic standards a new definition for biodegradable biobased mulch film that includes criteria and third-party standards for compostability, biodegradability, and biobased content. The rule is effective October 30, 2014.” It’s a lot of technical reading, but for certified organic growers it will be worthwhile. Biodegradable plastic mulch is such a saver of time, temperature and weed germination! “Bio-based” means the product is made from biological materials. See my blog post and the one after that for details on the difference.

Photo Yale Press
Photo Yale Press

I’m reading a few good books at the moment. More about them in the future. John Reader’s Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent.

Photo Barnes and Noble
Photo Barnes and Noble

and Craig LeHoullier’s Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of all Time, to be published December 2014