Sweet Corn all Summer, Curing Onions, Sowing Fall Brassicas

Buckets of tomatoes and corn I posted on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about Growing Sweet Corn for the Whole Summer. You can read it here:


If you search for the title of my post on the MEN Organic Gardening blog you’ll also find other posts on MEN about sweet corn.

If you are planning more careful succession planting of warm weather crops, see what Babara Damrosch has to say at http://www.organicgardening.com/tags/succession-planting/succession-planting-keep-it-coming

Another seasonal task here is harvesting, drying and curing onions. In the humid southeast we need to dry onions indoors with fans. Cool-climate methods of laying the pulled onions on the bed in the sun and leaving them there for days are absolutely not right for our climate! Onions bake if left in 90F sunshine. They don’t dry if the humidity is up there in the “sweat rolling off” level. They rot if they don’t dry. So we use fans and drying racks. At Twin Oaks this year we have grown only a few onions, so we are trimming ours and taking them directly to the kitchen.

If you are thinking of making onion racks, take a look at the handsome onions and natty racks in this photo from the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, Virginia


I asked Todd how to make onion racks and he replied:

“The racks are super simple to make. They are basically just 4′x8′ sheets of 1/2″ plywood cut into quarters with 6″ blocks cut from 2×4′s for legs. The neat thing about using 6″ blocks for legs is that you can use up all those scrap ends of 2×4′s that always seem to accumulate after projects.

The shelves are modular, so you can make them as short or as tall as you like. Each shelf consists of one plywood piece with four legs attached at each corner. They link together kind of like Ikea furniture. The bottom center of each leg has a shallow hole drilled into it that is the diameter of a screw head. I then partially drive screws into the top of the plywood shelf at each of the four corners, so that the head of the screw sticks up half an inch or so. The screws nest inside the hole in the bottom of each support leg, locking each piece together. They’re surprisingly sturdy. I set up a template to mark the legs and the spot where the screws go, so that each of them is the same. Therefore any of the shelves will lock together. Hope the description makes sense.”

UACC operates three gardens in Charlottesville, near people who have limited incomes and may rely on federal assistance to get food. UACC’s Food Production and Distribution program provides organically-grown, fresh fruits and vegetables for these residents, helping them get good food and providing them the chance to help grow that food.

Our other big task has been to sow our fall brassica seedlings: cabbage, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, Yukina savoy, collards. Kale comes later. I wrote about sowing fall brassicas last year, so I won’t repeat that here. Just remember that timely sowing is very important at this time of year, so don’t put it off!

Article on asparagus beans in Growing for Market

GFM-JuneJuly2014-cover-300pxThe June/July summer issue of Growing for Market is out, and with it my article about growing asparagus beans (yard-long beans). The photos in my article are from my friends at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. 

Somehow we didn’t seem to have taken any pictures of our own asparagus beans. We usually grow a purple one, either Red Noodle or Purple Pod. We like them to provide some eye-catching visual variety among the greens and pale colors of other veggies in a mix, and the “short stick” shape adds another kind of difference.

Purple Pod asparagus bean, Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

They are an easy crop to grow in warm weather. Once you have set up their required tall trellis, you can pretty much stand back and let them grow. They aren’t troubled by Mexican bean beetle or (in our experience) by diseases. They can tolerate some amount of drought. One short row can feed you all summer. We grow just about 34′ for 100 people, and get plenty. Having said that, I wouldn’t give up green beans for these – I don’t like the flavor as much as green beans, hence my suggestion to use them in mixed dishes.The mild flavor has been compared to a mix of bans, asparagus and mushrooms. Quite different from green beans.

Chop the pods into one-inch pieces for cooking. Their real strength is as part of a stir-fry or a curry. Their unique flavor is brought out best by dry-frying in a hot wok with peanut oil, garlic and soy sauce. You can also stew them with tomato sauce; or boil, drain, and season with oil and lemon juice; or simmer in oil or butter with garlic. The pale green varieties are meatier and sweeter than the dark green ones, which have a stronger flavor.  In soups, Chinese Red Noodle, with a small amount of vinegar added, produces a deep wine-red broth. Asparagus beans are a good source of vitamins A and C.

Although they are also known as Yard-long beans, you don’t actually want to let them grow that big, or they get puffy and tough. Harvest while they are still thinner than a pencil,about 10-15″ long, and before the beans develop. We pick ours three days a week, right through until the frost kills the vines.

Also in this issue of Growing for Market is an article by the editor, Lynn Byczynski, about food safety of leafy greens in summer. Triple rinsing your greens in potable water, and spinning out the water before cooking (or eating raw), will greatly reduce the likelihood that you let any nasty micro-organisms into your lunch.

Brett Groshsgal has written a good article about Lyme Disease, which we farmers risk more than the average population. He describes the symptoms (never mind looking for that elusive bulls-eye rash, which 40% of adults and a higher percentage of children never get), and urges prompt treatment with antibiotics. He says bluntly that holistic or alternative treatment methods don’t work, so waste no time getting the antibiotics. Then you can get on with your life.

Etienne Goyer writes about a growers’ convention in Quebec to build DIY raised bed shapers, cultivators and finishers. This is part of the ADABio Autoconstruction association mission to empower farmers with the skills to build their own machinery. I had looked at their website, but struggled with my high school French, so I am very happy to have this explained in English!

Lastly, Gretel Adams writes about how to set prices for cut flowers, for retail, wholesale, weddings and bouquets.

My other main news is that a variation on my blogposts about biodegradeable plastic mulches has just been published on Mother Earth News’ Organic Gardening blog.

Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog
Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog

Review of The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier

Before I dive into my review of this wonderful book, newly published in English, I just want to direct people to my posting on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about the trapped skunk which I told about two weeks ago. While there, check out the other posts.


Image-front-cover_coverbookpageBook Review, The Market Gardener, Jean-Martin Fortier

Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, has recently been published in English by New Society Publishers. It has been available in French since 2012, and has sold over 15,000 copies. Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches run an impressively productive, tiny bio-intensive vegetable farm in Southern Quebec, Canada. They use low-tech and manual farming methods (no tractors), and have found some unusual and successful high-yielding techniques.

They grow on just 1.5 acres, arranged as 10 plots each of 16 raised beds 30” x 100’ long. The paths are 18” wide. The garden plots surround the building, which was a rabbit barn before the farmers converted half of it into their house and half into a packing and storage shed. Their planning is a wonder of considered efficiency and function. I hear it’s also beautiful.

This book will be an inspiration to all those hoping to start in small-scale vegetable farming but lacking land and money. If you can gather the money to buy a small amount of land (or find some to rent), this book will provide you some of the expertise to make your very small vegetable farm successful, without tractors or employees. Neither Jean-Martin nor I would claim it will be easy, but this book shows that it is possible, given hard work and smart work. So don’t believe those who say it can’t be done. The tips from this book will ease your way, once you have served an apprenticeship on another farm.

Their small farm is called Les Jardins de la Grelinette, which translates as Broadfork Gardens, giving you a clue to one of the tools they value. In many ways, Jean-Martin is in the school of Eliot Coleman, producing top-notch vegetables and books from a small piece of land with only a small workforce. Even the drawings remind me of those in Eliot’s books. Biologically intensive production can feed the world, as well as provide a decent living for farmers. Attention to detail is required, as there is little slack for things to go very wrong.

They run a 120 share CSA for a 21 week season and sell at two farmers’ markets for 20 weeks. They grow a ponderous quantity of mesclun (salad mix)! They even sell it wholesale. Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène studied the value of all the crops they grew, comparing sales with labor and other costs, including the amount of land used and the length of time that crop occupied the space. They provide a table of their results, assigning profitability as high, medium or low. A quick glance shows you why 35 beds of their 160 bed total grow mesclun – number 2 in sales rank, despite being only number 19 in revenue/bed. This is because salad mix only takes 45 days in the bed, and then another crop is grown. This book deftly illustrates the importance of farming to meet your goals and to fit your resources. My climate is very different from Quebec. I’m providing 100 people for a 52 week season. We don’t want 300 pounds of salad mix each week! We do want white potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and winter squash to feed us all winter.

And yet I find more similarities than differences. We both want high-yielding, efficient farms that take care of the planet, the soil and the workers as well as the diners. We value quality, freshness and flavor. We do season-extension to get early crops in spring. When novelty is important, we grow several varieties of a crop.

The start-up costs at La Grelinette ($39,000) include a 25’ x 100’ greenhouse, two 15’ x 100’ hoophouses, a walk-behind rototiller and several big accessories, a cold room, irrigation system, furnace (remember they are in Quebec!), a flame weeder, various carts, barrows and hand tools, electric fencing, row cover, insect netting and tarps. Jean-Martin sets out all the costs, all the revenue from each crop – valuable solid information for newbies or improvers alike.

I came away from this book with several ideas to consider further. Jean-Martin recommends a rotary harrow rather than a rototiller. It has vertical axes and horizontally spinning tines, and stirs the top layers of soil without inversion, being kinder to the soil structure. It comes with a following steel mesh roller, which helps create a good seed-bed. Earth Tools BCS in Kentucky sell Rinaldi power harrows that fit the bigger BCS walk-behind tractors. The Berta plow is another BCS accessory that Jean-Martin favors, in his case for moving soil from the paths up onto the raised beds. I think we could really use one of those too.

Broadforks and wheel-hoes are already in our tool collection, but the use of opaque impermeable tarps to cover garden beds short-term between one vegetable crop and the next is really new to me. These tarps are sold as silage/bunker/pit covers, and are 6mm black, UV-inhibited polyethylene. Weeds germinate under the plastic, where it is warm and moist, and then they die for lack of light. Earthworms are happy. The tarps can be cut to the width of one bed, and rolled after their 2-4 weeks of use. This could be a useful alternative when there is not enough time to grow a round of buckwheat cover crop (or it is too cold for buckwheat, or your tiller is in the shop). Weed pressure on following crops is also reduced. Tarps can be used to incorporate a flail-mowed cover crop as an alternative to using a tiller.

At Twin Oaks, our gardens are in many ways like a CSA with one big box for the whole community, but in other ways we are more like a self-sufficient homestead – we try to keep our bought-in inputs to a minimum, so producing our own compost and growing cover crops for increasing soil nutrients are valuable to us. They do not fit so well for a micro-farm in the cash economy. For La Grelinette, it is better to buy in compost and poultry manure and keep using all the land to grow more vegetables.

The book includes tables of which crops go where, when to plant in the greenhouse and outdoors, pest control options, and lists of what to grow. The appendices include brief bios of 25 crops, and a short list of the crops they don’t grow and why (potatoes, sweet corn, winter squash, celery and asparagus).

Jean-Martin Fortier. Photo New Society Publishers
Jean-Martin Fortier.
Photo New Society Publishers

Jean-Martin is obviously very particular about running their farm as efficiently as possible, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he must be a grim workaholic! He is very funny with his iconoclastic sidebars. “Crop rotation is an excellent practice . . . to ignore.” (He is addressing new farmers who will likely find plans need to change to improve productivity. He doesn’t want slavish dedication to a crop rotation to prevent someone seizing on a better idea.) His paragraph on the hazards of inexperienced workers with insufficient training and oversight was so good I read it out to my crew. We have never had leeks sliced off at the surface or pea plants pulled up as harvest methods, but we have had carrot seedlings pruned to a uniform height of an inch, rather than thinned to a one inch spacing! If you get a chance to hear Jean-Martin speak, don’t pass it up. He is fully fluent in English as well as French, and does a hilarious skit of French people living in Quebec who found it hard to buy good leeks (until they discovered La Grelinette). His spoof of French-accented English has to be heard!

This book is a delight and an inspiration, well worth the cover price. 224 pages, black and white drawings, 8.5” x 8.5”, $24.95. ISBN 978-0-86571-765-7, New Society Publishers.

Getting the most from conferences, plus updates on blog and events

cropped-website-header-2013-12The program for the Virginia Biofarming Conference just arrived in the mail, and I’m happily highlighting workshops I want to go to.

Meanwhile I’ve been feeling wistful that I’m not going to the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference this year. It’s January 15-18 at Mobile, Alabama. I hope it will be closer to home next year!facebook cover 2014 highres

This winter, for the first time, I’m going to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Farming for the Future February 5-82014-ART-SLIDE

“““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““`As I’m starting to think about attending conferences (as opposed to thinking about presentations I’ve agreed to make), I’m reminding myself of ways of getting the most out of time at a conference. I thought I’d pass some tips along.

Before the conference

  • If you’re short of money, look for scholarships or work-exchange opportunities at the conference you want to go to. But start early, as there will be limited offers.
  • Beforehand, be sure of the dates and times. Sometimes there are pre-conference events, either included with the price of registration, or for an extra fee. If I’m going, I want to take advantage of all the opportunities I can!
  • Book accommodation in good time to get the best deals. Some conferences match up attendees with local members with spare rooms or even floor space, or set up a way for attendees to share hotel rooms with compatible others. There’s Couchsurfing and Airbnb, if you can’t afford a hotel. Cheaper accommodation could mean you can stay an extra day and not miss anything.
  • If you are in a hotel, find out what’s included with the price of the room. Breakfast? Microwave? Mini-fridge? Kettle? You could do some self-catering and save money that way. Find out which meals are included with registration. Or are there “Heavy snacks” receptions – just as filling as a meal!
  • Contact others to car-pool. This could be friends or simply other attendees from your area (Future Friends!)
  • Having taken care of your physical needs, turn your attention to the workshop program. Highlight the ones you really want to go to. Use a different highlighter to mark your second choices (just sometimes you’ll discover your first choice isn’t such a good match as you expected. It’s OK to jump ship!)
  • Some speakers repeat a workshop in two different time-slots. This is a big help when you are finding it hard to choose between two concurrent workshops.
  • Talk to friends who are also going. Perhaps they’ll go to different workshops and you can photocopy their notes or handouts later.

At the conference

  • Make a “pocket list” with your list of activities for each day, including times and room numbers or names. Include your second choices, to make jumping ship speedy if you need to do that. Include any non-workshop events, such as if you make a date to meet someone to talk over a meal. It’s so much quicker to refer to a little note in your pocket than to drag out the whole program and page through it.
  • Keep the conference map handy, perhaps folded in your pocket, or clipped to your notebook.
  • Bring a comfortable-to-use notebook and more than one pen. Maybe a camera to snap screenshots at presentations. Some people bring laptops or tablets, some bring audio-recording devices. All ways to help you remember key points of the presentation. Studies show that the actual writing-down of things helps you remember them – it’s not a matter of reading the notes later (although if your notes are legible, you are more likely to read them later).
  • Get to the room in good time to collect any handouts and flip through to see what’s there. This will save frantic unnecessary scribbling if the chart you want is already in the handout. Sit where you can see and hear. I’ve discovered in recent years that having progressive lenses means I need to sit in the center rather than off to one side.
  • Use the margins of the handout or your notes to flag particular items to follow-up later.
  • Ask questions immediately if you don’t understand clearly. Save your questions that broaden the discussion until the speaker has finished their presentation. They should have allowed time for that, and waiting till the end avoids creating a diversion.
  • Don’t be afraid to approach the speaker after the presentation. We speakers are just human beings. We  want our presentations to be understood. We need to know if we worded something in a confusing way. We will benefit from knowing which aspects of our topic you want to know more about.
  • Be sure to fill out the conference evaluation form, and don’t be constrained by the questions that are asked! Add suggestions for future speakers or future topics. Be as specific as possible with your feedback, so it is useful to the presenters. Include suggestions to improve the visibility, audibility, memorability of each presentation. Include praise and appreciation, not just what you didn’t like!!

After the conference

  • If friends went to different workshops, talk over your respective workshops. This will have the advantage of firming up your memory on the ones you went to, as well as informing you about the ones you missed.
  • Make a collected list of all the items you want to follow up on, from all the workshops, and from the hallway conversations you had. Choose several each week to investigate. Don’t just keep the list in a safe place!
  • Check back at the conference website a week after the event. Sometimes there will be handouts or slideshows posted there.
  • Next winter, as you plan your crops, incorporate some of the best ideas you picked up, at least on a small scale.
  • Write down next year’s conference dates, so you don’t double book yourself!


Pam-blog1 jpgMy first blog post has now been posted on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog. You can read it here. It’s about reading and understanding the small print in seed catalogs. I wrote about it more fully here back in October. I plan to post there about once a month.


MENFairLogoOn the upcoming events front, I have now received confirmation from New Society Publishers and Mother Earth News that I will be a speaker at the Asheville, NC, MEN Fair, April 12-13 2014. I’ve offered several workshops – we’ll see which one they choose. I’m also working on a Saturday February 15 workshop with Cindy Conner and Ira Wallace at Lynchburg College, in SW Virginia. It will be from 10am to 3pm with a break for lunch. All three of us Virginia gardening authors will be selling our books there. When we’ve firmed up the topics I’ll let you know.