Book Review The New Seed Starters Handbook, Nancy Bubel with Jean Nick 2018

 

The front cover of the New Seed Starters Handbook, by Nancy Bubel with Jean Nick

 

The New Seed Starters Handbook, Nancy Bubel with Jean Nick 2018, 452 pages, 6.5 x 9.1 inches approximately, with drawings and tables throughout. $19.99 Rodale Books.com. Distributed by Penguin Random House.

This 2018 edition is an updated version of the old favorite 1988 reference book by Nacy Bubel explaining how to start seeds and grow healthy seedlings of vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, trees and shrubs; how to tackle seed-starting problems, and where to find seeds and gardening supplies. It includes an encyclopedia section listing more than 200 plants, with details on how to start each kind from seed. The 1988 book has been a very trusted resource for me for over 30 years, particularly the tables, which have information I found nowhere else in the pre-internet days. The newer version is not much changed. It has a retro cover and is labelled as a Rodale Classic. Some post-1988 tools and resources are included, and the trend towards smaller households is taken into account. The delightful drawings by Frank Fetz remain. It has a few black-and-white photos, although the cold frame photo in my copy is rotated 90°! This is a book primarily for backyard gardeners, but there is valuable information for growers on much bigger scales, especially in the tables.

Jean NIck, who updated Nancy Bubel’s book

Jean Nick is a longtime organic gardener, sustainable farmer, environmentalist and freelance writer and editor. Jean keeps the voice of Nancy Bubel, so the updates blend in smoothly.

If you have the original (1978) Seed-Starter’s Handbook, you’ll have missed all the improvements Nancy Bubel made during the ten years before The New one came out. If you have the 1988 edition and have kept up a bit with gardening topics, I doubt you need to buy the 2018 edition. If you are a relatively new grower, and Nancy Bubel’s work is new to you, I recommend buying this book for its broad collection of information and clear tables, drawings and explanations. Some of the tables come from Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers, now a $90 investment.

The table of temperatures needed to kill soilborne pests is the first example of the feature of the book that I have turned to most often over the years. There is now an expanded table of when to start various seedlings and when to plant them out, referenced to your average last spring frost. The sowing checklist has been tidied into a more logical order. This book includes gems of information such as how to break seed dormancy with cold or light. Germination of onions and chives appears to be retarded by exposure to light, but lettuce and celery germination is helped by light if the temperature is higher than that at which they normally germinate best.

The chapter on light has been brought forward to a better place in the book, before seeds are sown. The science of lighting has changed since 1988, with different types of lighting available and newer information on what plants need, and do best with. Incandescent lights have gone, LED lights and high-intensity discharge lamps have arrived. Here’s a chapter where revision is really valuable, not forgetting that dusting light tubes and bulbs still makes a difference, and plants short of light still do better if the temperatures are cool.

Here’s another aspect of Nancy Bubel’s writing that I appreciate: the scientific explanations of how biological changes happen. For example, in the process of germination, starches and proteins change into simpler forms before they can dissolve in water and become available to the germinating seed. The enzymes needed to split the complex molecules into simpler ones act in response to the increasing respiration of the seed as it breaks dormancy. Reality check: Even dead seeds can absorb water: plumped-up seeds are not proof of life.

Next come my three favorite tables (copies of which are posted on our germination cabinet): Ideal Temperatures for Germination of 27 crops; the Number of Days to Germinate at Various Temperatures from freezing point to 104°F (40°C); and The Percentage of Normal Vegetable Seedlings Produced at Different Temperatures. This is where I learned that you might get spinach to germinate at 68°F-86°F (20°C-30°C), but you’ll get decreasing levels of normal seedlings, down to one third. These three tables enable growers to aim for the ideal temperature, know when to resow if nothing has come up, and the unintended consequences of sowing crops too far outside their optimal range.

Start seeds warm and grow seedlings cool. Chill tomato plants as soon as the seed leaves open, to get earlier and heavier fruiting: keep them at 52°F-56°F (11°C-13°C) for 10-21 days. The construction of the first flower cluster is determined 4-6 weeks before flowering, when the seed leaves just opened. Similarly for peppers. Many of us have accidentally achieved these results when we started those crops extra early and they emerged into a chilly greenhouse.

Nancy Bubel collected moss from her woods, tore it up and lined the base of pots and flats. Those of us who know how slowly mosses grow will not follow that advice, and Jean Nick marks it as optional. Our increased awareness of the importance of sustainability, and of the carbon-sequestering role of peat moss left me surprised to see that although there is an unflinching discussion of the issues, sphagnum moss and peat moss are still recommended. Worm castings, composted bark, coir and rice hulls are listed as alternatives, without discussion of the ecological costs of removing agricultural “waste products” across half the globe to another country.

The Growing On chapter has information about watering and fertilizing (soaking eggshells in water as a fertilizer has been dropped). The importance of air movement has been added. Next are preparations for moving your plants outdoors. This starts with knowing suitable conditions for working up the soil, and how to make life easier by using permanent beds where the soil stays loose. Jean Nick has added information on soil structure and the mycorrhizal fungi that associate with many crops, improving the soil structure. Double-digging has been back-burnered. Tilling and digging break up the mycorrhizae, so doing less tillage is advantageous, as is growing a diversity of plants in close association, and keeping live roots in the soil. Options for ways to start a new garden are explained, including sheet mulching.

The chapter on the garden diary has been moved forward, so we learn about it before we start planting outdoors, and a short paragraph about calendar apps, photo records and blogs has been added. Garden Mapping comes next, with a two-plus page table of recommended inter-plant and inter-row spacings. A paragraph about modern weather-forecasting has been added, with advice to take the time to pay attention to local weather and microclimate. This chapter includes choosing suitable weather conditions, time of day and suitable sized plants, and developing good judgement, green thumbs and good planting techniques.

The 1988 version of this book was where I learned about phenology, studying the cycles of development of living things unfolding through the year, and linking various agricultural events with particular natural developments. There is much in the encyclopedia section. Spring peepers start really early, and rather than being a sign to plant something, they can be a sign to look for soil dry enough to till. I also found value in the list of conditions that mean a frosty night is likely.

The chapter on care of young transplants includes mulching, but no longer recommends old carpets (synthetic these days, not wool), and adds in paper roll mulch, biodegradable and other plastic sheet mulches. Protection for new transplants has changed from tall bushel baskets to floating row cover. Glass cloches have been replaced by water walls (double walled containers to set round the plants and fill with water for insulation) and plastic gallon jugs with the bottoms cut out. The chapter on cold frames and hotbeds has been moved later and been combined with info on greenhouses. Most of the rearranging of chapters makes sense timewise, but this one was counter-intuitive for me.

Kelp sprays help plants resist frosty temperatures: tomato plants survive 29°F (-2°C). Celery plants sprayed at 20 days after emergence with a 1:100 solution of seaweed extract grew larger stalks than untreated plants. Snap beans sprayed with seaweed one week before bloom gave a 10% yield increase on the first picking. Weekly spraying of cucumber plants while fruiting increased the harvest by almost 42% in a 3-year study. I’m leery of spraying anything on cucurbits, as I’ve had problems that way. This book has how to make your own kelp spray from scratch. For those near the sea. Compost tea and comfrey tea have been added as fertilizers. Here’s how to make them. True compost tea is aerated while brewing. With all these concoctions, be sure you start with healthy ingredients, to avoid brewing more bad germs, which could make you ill.

The chapter on fall gardening includes a useful table on determining your last planting date for many crops, taking account of cold-hardiness, days to maturity, days to transplanting, 14 days for the “short day factor” (because daylength is shortening), and 14 days to allow for the possibility of an early frost. The combination of these factors tells you how many days to count back from your average first frost date.

Up next are pests, both insects and other animals. The newer edition has helpful damage-reducing advice using methods causing minimal collateral damage: using row cover, spraying fairly hard with water, homemade garlic and cayenne sprays, neem oil, insecticidal soap, and Bt for suitable insects. Those instructions are followed by specific info for particular pests.

The section on hoophouses says to build your own from metal conduit and builders’ plastic, although the following paragraph says that kind of plastic will disintegrate in 6 months (and be cloudy before that). If you’ve ever gathered up plastic shards from your garden, you won’t use builders’ plastic again! Solar greenhouses can be an attractive idea, but you can get the same space in a hoophouse (high tunnel) compared to a greenhouse, for a quarter of the cost. Because the structure of a high tunnel is less massive than a glass-covered greenhouse, more light reaches your crops in a high tunnel, and growth is faster.

The chapter on greenhouse growing covers temperature and humidity and when to start seedlings. Humidity of 45-60% works well, even 70%, but 90% is too damp, and may lead to fungal diseases and algal growth. The plant diseases section includes growing conditions less likely to promote diseases, choosing resistant cultivars, monitoring plants, practicing good sanitation, and providing airflow.

“Why seed saving and storing are important” has been moved forward in the 2018 edition, sending the wildflowers and trees back into the encyclopedia part of the book with other specific crops. Before starting to save seeds, understand how seeds form. A new sidebar explains how to avoid GMO cross-pollination. Understanding seed isolation is also useful since the arrival of Super-sweet corns, which need to be isolated from all other types of corn. Likewise, this will help in understanding squash pollination groups and brassica families.

Next is information on how to develop a crop strain suited to your locality. Here is an explanation of what a hybrid is, and why saving seeds from hybrids is challenging, produces seeds inferior to your starting material and doesn’t lead to quick improvements.

“You have more to lose than to gain from saving seeds of garden hybrids.” Nancy Bubel.

When harvesting a seed crop, it’s important they are mature. Here’s brief info on cleaning, sorting, drying and winnowing, salt-water treatment, hot water treatment and fermentation to kill seedborne diseases.

Seeds need to be very dry when put into storage and after that. No paper packets on shelves! Between 32°F and 112°F (0°C – 44°C), for every 9F (5C) that the storage temperature is lowered, the duration of viability of the seeds is doubled. Increasing the moisture content of lettuce seeds by 5-10% results in a faster loss of viability than increasing the storage temperature from 68°F (20°C) to 104°F (40°C)!  The sum of the humidity and the temperature in °F should be less than 100.

The chapter on viability of seeds includes how to test germination rates, and a money-and-time-saving table of how many years after production each kind of vegetable seeds will last. The table is from the 1980 Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers and is unchanged. This is followed by seed-saving tips for specific plants, and tips for plant breeding, such as how to hand-pollinate, save pollen for later, and how to sell your seeds or plants.

Seed banks are valuable resources for preserving genetic diversity and distributing seed genetics widely. They provide resilience in the face of disasters such as new diseases or calamities at a particular seed warehouse. Their work is valuable in keeping genetic material available to all, not just in the hands of multinational corporations.

Most of the rest of the book is an encyclopedia of plants to grow from seed. The detailed information relates to temperature and phenology, not the calendar. This is a great source, that will help you try new crops that previously might have struggled in your bioregion, especially if you only had planting dates, not conditions.

Here are some examples: Sow parsnips when the daffodils bloom; sow peas up until 2-3 weeks before the last frost (after that there is not enough cool weather left to mature a good crop); sow chard when maples bloom; edamame when apple blossom starts to fall or when the oak leaves are the size of mouse ears; sow asparagus seed in spring at the same sign as edamame, or in the fall. Sow peanuts when maple leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears; adzuki beans when the soil temperature is above 60°F (16°C); Lima beans when the soil is at least 70°F (21°C), when peonies are in full bloom; sow winter squash and pre-sprouted cucumber seeds when the late irises bloom; plant out tomatoes when you’re fairly sure your last frost has passed, about the time the barn swallows return.

To my surprise, the book recommends growing potatoes from spuds left from last year’s crop. I wouldn’t do this because of the diseases that can spread.

After the vegetable and fruit section are chapters on growing herbs, garden flowers, wildflowers, trees and shrubs from seed. This is where I learned to nick redbud seeds, pour boiling water on them and let them soak for a day to break dormancy. The newer edition has a sidebar on invasive trees and shrubs, and advocates for responsibility in what we plant and what we let grow. The updated list of sources of seeds and supplies includes websites and phone numbers. There’s a 23-page index (considerably fuller than the earlier edition).

Nancy Bubel wrote a great book, including very accessible information not found in many gardening books. If you have not got the previous edition, do buy the 2018 one. If you still have the previous one, and access to other books and the web, I would not rush to buy this edition – not so much is new.

2023-2024 Conference Tips 3 – Climate Change, less usual edible plants

Carrots under shade cloth in summer.
Photo Pam Dawling

2023-2024 Conference Tips Part 3 – Climate Change, Less Usual Edible Plants

I reported earlier on good tips I got from the CFSA Conference and the VABF-SFOP Summit.  Here I’ll continue the theme.

At the VABF-SFOP Summit, I also attended workshops on Meeting the Climate Challenge with Mark Schonbeck, and Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith. I’ll tell you more about those now, then move on to the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference.

Meeting the Climate Challenge: Sharing Stories, Co-Creating Solutions with Mark Schonbeck

Mark’s slides and handout will be available soon on the VABF website. In our region we are experiencing hotter summer nights, which are hard on plants (and livestock, I’m sure). At 95F (35C) most crops close down completely or slow their growth. For every 1.8F (1C) in warming, 3-10% of the Organic Matter is lost (burned up) and nitrous oxide emissions may increase 18-28%. Daffodils are flowering up to 5 weeks earlier, fruit trees are budding out earlier, risking losing the fruit to freezing nights. In the spring we are getting later cold snaps below 10F (-12C) in March.

We are having a longer frost-free period, with more generations of bugs. Downy mildew of cucurbits is spreading further north than previously.

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

In Virginia we are getting more intense and heavier rains, with more flooding. The erratic nature of the rains means we can experience flash floods, followed by droughts and wildfires. Heavy rainfall leads plants to grow shallower roots, which then die if a sudden drought follows.

Keeping living roots in the soil will increase climate resilience, as will other ways of building healthy soils, such as diversified rotations, and varied agricultural enterprises. Here’s Mark’s list of

6 Organic Principles of Soil Health:

  1. Keep the soil covered
  2. Maintain living roots
  3. Return organic residues to the soil
  4. Minimize soil disturbance
  5. Diversify crops
  6. Integrate livestock.
Teff cover crop.
Photo Wikipedia

Increasing the use of cover crops will help with 1, 2, 3 and 5. Teff can be considered as a summer cover crop in alleys between plastic mulched beds. Mixing with clover gives better soil coverage. I have not yet tried this myself. Oats/barley/peas/mustard sown in March will grow big by June, adding lots of biomass. Oats/radish/legume cover crop mix will winter-kill. Silage tarps and landscape fabrics can help hold the soil in place.

Installing terraces, berms and swales will help with water management. Installing drip irrigation will help manage droughts. Protected growing, in hoophouses or caterpillar tunnels, will help protect from many kinds of extreme weather. There are steps we can take to mitigate climate change, and more information is becoming available.

Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith

Chris is the author of The Whole Okra, and part of his presentation was about the many uses of okra, beyond cooking the pods. Okra leaf chips are the latest thing he has tried. The leaves are used for soup in Nigeria. The flowers can be eaten or dried for tea. The oil from okra seeds is nutty, citrusy, a bit like olive oil, although the yield is small, at 9-20%. The oil presscake can be ground for defatted flour.

Book Edible Leaves of the Tropics by Franklin Martin, Ruth Ruberte and Laura S Meitzner

Chris showed us a remarkable book Edible Leaves of the Tropics, by Franklin Martin, Ruth Ruberte and Laura S Meitzner. Plants for a Future  has a database of 8000 plants, including edible plants.  The Book of Greens by Jenn Louis and Legume Species as Leafy Vegetables by Robert P Barrett (online) are also valuable resources on edible plants.

DIYseeds.org educational films on seed production

Go to https://www.diyseeds.org  then search for info on growing seeds.

Male squash flowers can sell at $1/flower for an 8-week season. Winter squash yields can increase if some of the early male flowers are removed! Wisteria, redbud and black locust flowers are edible. Kudzu offers many food options (eat it up!) Roots of dandelion, burdock, thistle, sassafras, daylily, dahlia, runner bean and chayote are all edible.

Soil Health, Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Planning, Rachel Schattman, Sara Keleman and Nic Cook

In February 2024, I participated in the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference.  The first session I attended there was Soil Health, Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Planning, with speakers from the University of Maine Climate Science department. They reported that the NE has seen a 15% increase in Growing Degree Days since 1948, and the frost-free growing season in Maine has increased by 14 days since 1895. California has seen a 40-50 day increase in that period. In Maine the temperature changes are greater in winter than in summer. Since 2012, half of the US has shifted to the next warmer winter-hardiness zone. It is helpful to watch indicator species to determine when to plant particular crops. (See my post on Phenology). Warmer temperatures mean that the air holds more water (7% more for each C degree). This means slower storms, more storms heavier rainfall. They also experience droughts, and distinguish between agricultural drought, meteorological drought, and hydrologic drought – be sure which kind your conversations are about.

Young blueberry plant in snow. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sea level rise is dramatic on the East coast because of past glaciation. The other main impacts they are seeing on agriculture include False Spring (fruit bud kill after a “warm snap”), winter soil erosion and rain ponding, and new pests, diseases and invasive species, warm season heat stress including crop quality deterioration, greater irrigation demands and needs for shade and ventilation (drought can decrease yields 30%), storm intensity including hail and high winds, longer power outages, soil compaction and nutrient runoff, increased rainfall leading to delayed planting and crop losses. These are all possibilities to prepare for. The silver lining is that there may be new crops we can grow, or longer seasons of familiar crops. NRCS, Extension and other resources are available. Climate-Smart Farming and Marketing is a program for farmers from Maine to South Carolina, offering financial support and technical help to farmers implementing climate-smart practices such as cover cropping, agroforestry, reduced tillage and prescribed grazing.

Prescribed grazing is the intentional use of ruminant animals (hoofed herbivores such as cows, sheep, and goats) on the landscape. Unlike conventional grazing, prescribed grazing utilizes a grazing plan that dictates the location and duration of graze periods. This plan is informed by the ecology of the grazing area.” (Community Environmental Council).

Garlic beds next to rowcovered broccoli beds, under a stormy sky.
Photo Wren Vile

We were helped through an 8-stage planning process:

  1. Risk Assessment (prioritizing which aspect of climate change to deal with first). Heavier rains, then high temperatures, wildfire and smoke, plant diseases.
  2. Vulnerability (looking at your system, climate, location, and seasonal time period). Consider both Exposure to the risk and your farm’s Adaptive Capacity.
  3. Option ID. Consider all of small, medium large and total transformation of your farming. Divide your options up into 4 quadrants on axes of cheap-expensive, difficult-easy; low Greenhouse Gas-high GHG, reducing risk-increasing risk; low impact-high impact, quick to install-takes a long time.
  4. Evaluate tradeoffs (financial, ecological, social). Rank your options and select one that meets as many of your priorities as possible.
  5. Try to meet several goals with one solution. Consider seeking advice or funding.
  6. Monitoring and assessment. How will you measure the improvements?
  7. Revising/tweaking. Reflect and assess. Consider success at each stage.
  8. Share what you learned. Don’t expect perfection, or that others will expect that from you.

Next followed a section on funding. Currently there is lots in Inflation Reduction Act coffers for efficiency increases, renewable energy, conservation practices. Try REAP (Rural Energy for America Program), USDA, NRCS, Rural Development Office for your state, SARE funding for experimentation and trials, state agriculture departments, advocacy organizations, regional non-profits, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Farmer Resource Network, county grants, Beginner Farmer grants, grants for historically under-served farmers, Ambrook Accounting software for American farms..

Take a buddy with you to the offices!

Farmer Resource Network

Signs of winter, signs of spring

Tokyo bekana in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

 My  Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021 has not changed much in recent years. But I’ve just got some precise information on Tokyo bekana, the Asian green that grows well in summer as a lettuce substitute; grows very well outdoors in the fall; and grows wonderfully in the winter hoophouse even in low light conditions. In my 2023 list the outdoor killing temperature is listed as 25°F (–4°C).

Ugly, but not dead yet! Tokyo bekana outdoors on January 7, 2024 after several cold nights at 11°F (-11.5°C) at the end of November, and 12°F (-11°C) at the beginning of January.
Photo Pam Dawling

I harvested the last of the outdoor Tokyo bekana in November, except for one plant that was starting to bolt. I left that one to see when it would succumb to cold weather.  It was seriously damaged but not killed at 11°F (-11.5°C) at the end of November, and 12°F (-11°C) at the beginning of January. It was killed by 8°F (-13°C) and 10°F (-12°C) in mid-January.

Now it’s really dead! Tokyo bekana after two January nights at 8F and 10F.
Photo Pam Dawling

My tendency is to move only partway towards my new information each time I get some. This allows my info to gradually center in on the sweet spot, rather than have wild pendulum swings. So for the 2024 list, I’ll cautiously say it dies at 20°F (–7°C). I’ll release my new list for 2024 in March.

I’m updating my Phenology Record with Recommendations for Planting.

Our first crocus . February 1, 2024
Photo Pam Dawling

On February 1st we saw our first crocus bloom (it averages 2/7), our first speedwell, and Hellebore/Lenten roses with big buds (the flowers opened by 2/11). Hellebore often blooms with the daffodils, but our daffodils are only half-height leaves at this point. There are many hybrid hellebores and I’ve no idea which one ours is.

Lenten Rose (Hellebore) buds on February 1,2024.
Photo Pam Dawling

Robin Migration

Robins can be found year-round almost anywhere south of Canada, as residents or short-distance migrants. Birds that breed from Canada to the north slope of Alaska leave in fall for the U.S. Some robins winter as far south as the Southwest, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast.

Robin Range Map from All About Birds.

“Our” robins arrived on February 3rd, partying in an eastern redcedar (juniper) tree, enjoying the berries. According to this All About Birds Robin Range Map, robins are migratory thrushes that can be found here in Virginia year-round. Ours definitely migrate, arriving here anywhere from January 20 (2009) to March 3 (2013). The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources notes that in mid-late February and early March they fly through headed north.

Eastern redcedar (Juniper) leaves and berries.

The DWR notes: “Robins’ seasonal movements are said to be tied to a 37-degree “isotherm.” An isotherm is a line on a map where the average temperature is the same at various points across the line.  As robins move from southern states into more northern ones, they stop and hunker down when they reach the limits of the isotherm.” They could reach the Arctic in May, if they travel that far!

Also see Journey North’s “Robin Migration Study” website. You can join and report your sightings and hearings of various signs of spring, not only robins.

Speedwell flowering on February 1, 2024.
Photo Pam Dawling

Resilience: Survive, thrive and farm another season!

 

A willow tree behind out herb garden.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

“The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it.” Sir Walter Scott

I’m reading Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture, (review coming soon) and thinking about how growers thrive under varying situations, some of which we have no control over. To adjust to changing weather conditions, to continue after challenges and get the best possible outcome whatever happens, we need to be alert, adaptable and quick on our feet, a bit like a Ju-Jitsu practitioner.

Being ready to tackle whatever happens includes recognizing and building in many options, keeping all options open until the future is clearer, and knowing when and which way to jump. It involves being prepared with needed equipment (or at least phone numbers), and having our filing systems be accessible all year, not in a big heap!

It includes getting good at understanding current conditions and predicting the future, getting to grips with radar maps and how to use Growing Degree Days. It involves keeping records of when certain flowers bloom (phenology), and soil temperatures. This information helps us figure out when to plant according to actual conditions, rather than simply by the calendar, a method which is not useful as climate change takes hold.

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds. Fall deadnettle germination shows that conditions are cool enough to sow spinach. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Making good assessments of conditions is the first step in cultivating adaptability. The second necessary skill-set is the ability to know how to make a swift and effective decision and locate the resources to put that decision into practice. This includes information about soil temperatures and how long various crops take to emerge. Also, knowing how summer crops will respond to extra high temperatures. And how winter crops will respond to horrifying low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses on a struggling crop and till it in? I do a weekly tour of the gardens and re-prioritize tasks. Growing food is an organic process, non-linear!

These two skills are followed by a review process, so we can learn from what went wrong, as well as what went right! Usually this involves record-keeping, (dates, actions and results) to inform next season. You can list other possible responses to fine-tune your choices next time. Record-keeping can include photos, audio recording, video clips. Whatever works. You may only need to tweak your response in future, or you may want a completely different approach. One of our garden mantras is “Never repeat the same mistake two years running.”

Get Ready for Farming After Anything

Carol Deppe in The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times recommends building in slack, rather than planning to work flat out every day. When something unexpected happens, you’ll have a bit of extra time available to tackle the problem. Personal troubles like injury, health challenges, or family emergencies; or household events like financial problems can require time focused elsewhere; or disastrous weather that affects everyone around you. On her website, Carol has an interview called Food in Uncertain Times: How to Grow and Store the Five Crops You Need to Survive. She says: “The resilient garden is designed and managed so that when things go wrong, they have less impact.” Grow food requiring minimal external inputs, know how to grow staple crops and save seeds. Some years you won’t need to employ these skills, but you’ll be ready when you do.

Being Flexible About Growing Food

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

We have a Garden Shift Honchos Guide to help whoever is leading the crew. It includes general guidelines: “Try to at least get the harvesting done, whatever the weather, (unless torrential rain, tornado, ice storm, thunder and lightning).” It suggests how to choose jobs from our posted task list. My priority sequence is harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand weed. The Honchos Guide has hints for contingencies:

  • If the day is likely to be very hot, get the physically taxing tasks done first (especially anything involving shovels).
  • If the morning starts out with a heavy dew, postpone harvesting cucurbits, nightshades, strawberries and legumes until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.
  • After heavy rain: mulched perennials (fruit and asparagus) are the easiest places to work. Don’t work in sinking mud, it compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains. Standing on long boards is an option for harvesting or planting.
  • If heavy rain is expected and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. It’s a waste of time to hoe if it’s about to rain, or that crop is due for overhead irrigation. Don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain or irrigation. They’ll re-root.
  • If you feel frazzled: choose a big simple task lots of people can do, like weeding strawberries, or hoeing corn. Or choose two tasks geographically close, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everything happening.
  • Choreographing the crew can be hard. It’s handy if everyone finishes harvesting around the same time. Perhaps spread out at first for miscellaneous harvesting, and then end up together on the crop that takes a long time.

Building in Options on the Farm

Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, advocates for constructing buildings that are easy to modify later, in gradual or drastic ways to meet the changing needs of the people inside. Farms can be looked at similarly. Keep as many options as possible (for crops, cover crops, crop layout) open for as long as possible.

It can be helpful to do some scenario planning, which I learned about in The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz. Scenario Planning is a method of making flexible long-term plans, using stories (scenarios) to help us visualize different possible futures that include not only factors we don’t control, like the weather or the market’s enthusiasm for bulb fennel, but also intangibles such as our hopes and fears, beliefs and dreams. Different combinations of uncertainties and possibilities, including interactions of some major variables in plausible but uncomfortable as well as hoped-for combinations are used to create each scenario.

Sometimes the easiest way to compare scenarios is to set options out in a grid. For instance, in choosing which cover crop to sow following a spring crop that we clear in August-October in zone 7, we can say that the main variables are whether the season is dry or wet, and whether we are early or late planting. We can sow oats from mid-August to early September, to winter-kill, or winter rye once we reach September 1 (before that we risk the rye heading up before winter and self-seeding).

Dry and Early: Sow cowpeas or soybeans with oats, for a winter-killed cover crop. Dry and Late: Sow winter rye or wheat alone.
Wet and Early: Sow a clover mix in August, or hairy vetch with winter rye, 9/1-10/10 Wet and Late: Sow Austrian winter peas with winter rye

Often there are more variables, such as weediness. We might undersow our fall broccoli with a clover mix in August, intending the clovers to become a Green Fallow plot for the following season. The next summer, we assess the situation. If the weeds are bad in July, we disk in the clovers and sow sorghum-sudan hybrid mixed with soy, as a winter-killed cover crop. If all looks well in July, but the weeds are gaining the upper hand in August, we have the option of tilling it in, and sowing oats mixed with soy. If the clover is growing well, and the weeds are not bad, we over-winter the patch, and disk it in February.

Broccoli undersown with clover.
Photo Nina Gentle

Vegetable Crop Options

We have a few options recorded in our calendar:

  • If spring is cold and wet, grow transplants for the second planting of cucumbers and summer squash.
  • If the winter squash patch is too wet to disk, grow transplants, but don’t sow later-maturing varieties.
  • If the soil is to wet to hill the spring potatoes, flame weed instead.

Abundance Options

What to do if your yields are higher than planned: increase sales by giving out samples and recipes, and feature the item on your website. Find sales to new customers (restaurants), process the crop for future out-of-season sale (if you have time), or donate it to a local food bank.

Shortage Options

With a CSA you can keep a list of who gets Sun Gold tomatoes each week, until everyone has had some. This method has the advantage of keeping the time spent picking cherry tomatoes down to a reasonable level. The sharers get some as a treat a few times in the summer, but not every week.

You can mix leaves of several greens in an attractive bunch and call it braising mix, or add unusual crops to bagged salad mix, or make up stir-fry or ratatouille packages. If a crop is really poor, it is often best to till it in and plant something else. For me, this eases the soul and lets me move on. We keep a running list of crops looking for a home, so we can replace failures with fast-growing crops such as radishes, arugula, mizuna, Tokyo bekana, or salad mix. One year when our fall cabbage didn’t fill the area intended, we used senposai, a tasty, fast-growing leaf green. If rutabagas don’t come up, sow turnips – there are very fast-growing turnips, and a small turnip is a delicacy, but a small rutabaga is a sad thing.

Hakurei turnips harvested late January.
Photo Pam Dawling

It helps to have a clear and simple rotation. Our raised bed plan is ad-hoc. We make use of the flexibility: one August we were a bit late getting some tilling done, and we sowed the last cucumbers in the bed which was to have been squash. Cucumbers take a bit longer than squash to reach maturity, and I wanted to get them in the ground as soon as possible. The squash had to wait two more days. Two days can make a lot of difference when planting for fall.

Finding Resilient Crop Varieties

We always read the information about disease resistance when choosing varieties, because mid-Atlantic humidity is so conducive to fungal diseases. Depending on your climate you might pay more attention to the cold-tolerance, or the number of days to maturity. Every year we trial small quantities of one or two new varieties of important crops alongside our workhorses.

Workhorse Crops for February

 

White Russian kale in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

This is my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as January.

At last the daylight is getting noticeably longer, although we still have very cold weather. We reach 10 hours of daylight on January 21, and 11 hours on February 20. In our hoophouse we are clearing crops before they bolt, and planting some quick crops before the warm weather ones go in in March and April. In the greenhouse we are starting seedlings and clearing lettuce that is thinking about bolting. Our seed orders are arriving and we are finishing up our various planting schedules and crop maps.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in February

Young carrots after their first thinning.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

We sow carrots in mid-February, and again at the end of February. Yes, they take a long time to emerge when the soil is still so cold. But it’s a task we can get done now, and won’t have to do later, when we are busier. Carrots take 50 days to emerge at 41˚F (5˚C), (although of course it will have warmed up some before 50 days pass!); 17 days at 50˚F(10˚C); 10 days at 59˚F (15˚C); 7 days at 68˚F (20˚C); 6 at 77˚F (25˚C); 5 at 86˚F (30˚C) and don’t try hotter than that!

An EarthWay seeder, widely used for sowing small seeds like carrots.

We use an EarthWay seeder and the Light Carrot plate (although that still puts out lots of seed!) We can’t really justify the cost of a precision seeder like the Jang, for the amount we’d use it.

Asparagus

If you are planning to start a new asparagus patch, early spring is the best time to plant. This will give them as much time as possible that first year, to grow strong roots. The usual suggestion is to plant at least 10 crowns per diner.

Most growers purchase two-year-old crowns, although it is possible to grow your own asparagus from seed, if you can find seed of your preferred variety. The old OP varieties are still available, but newer all-male hybrids yield far more heavily, often more than twice as much. We chose Jersey Giant, a male hybrid resistant to asparagus rust and well-adapted to the mid-Atlantic. It produces big, tender, succulent spears each spring.

The best soil temperature for planting asparagus is 50°F (10°C) –  planting in cold soil encourages disease and offers no advantage. Remove shipped asparagus roots from the box as soon as they arrive, and untie the bundles. Don’t water them. If you need to store the roots longer than two weeks, spread them in trays or crates, in a cool, fairly dry place, until planting conditions are right. You can read more about growing asparagus in Sustainable Market Farming, and my recent article in Growing for Market magazine.

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons
Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In our greenhouse we have started a couple of flats of fast-maturing cabbage. We like Farao (60d) and Early Jersey Wakefield (63d). Both numbers are seed to harvest. Subtract 20 days if counting from transplanting to maturity.

Open flats of cabbage seedlings. The nearer flat is a 3″ deep seed flat with four rows of seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We have already sown our kale and collards for outdoor spring crops, in our hoophouse. Here’s the info on that: On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed. We will transplant these outdoors as bare root transplants in mid-March.

Vates kale seedlings for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

We don’t sow our chard and leaf beet until 3/24, because we want them for summer greens, after the kale, collards, broccoli and Asian greens have all bolted. But you can start them earlier, if you want earlier harvests. I’ll say more next month about chard, but if you want to get a start sooner, know that the seed will germinate from 41°F (5°C) to 95°F (35°C), and the best temperature is 86°F (30°C), when it needs only 4 days to pop up.

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in February

We do sow a few hoophouse greens successions during February, a row of snap peas, some lettuce mix, but nothing that qualifies as a Workhorse.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in February

Russian kale, yukina Savoy and lettuce from our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested outdoors here in February. About once per bed during each of the coldest months, January and February. We’ll be able to harvest those beds once a week each in March. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one! I actually prefer to get all our carrots safely harvested and stored, rather than have them still in the ground, where more things can go wrong! We have had 3 nights in January down to 10°F (-12°C), and I don’t think even Deadon cabbage would survive that many cold nights! Some of our Tadorna leeks are looking quite damaged. We don’t usually have that problem.

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in February

Bulls blood beet greens, chard, and some greens not in our Workhorse group, (turnip greens, Yukina Savoy, spinach) are still going strong. Our experimental carrots are still doing OK, although I’m not a fan of giving them hoophouse space for such a long time with no harvests. I notice I’m slipping into mentioning non-workhorses more often now the winter is biting us.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

At last we can start harvesting our Russian kales in the hoophouse. We were late getting them established last fall, and growth has been slow. Now many of the other greens (Tokyo bekana, Napa cabbage, pak choy, the first tatsoi and the first mizuna) have all been eaten, we are very ready for the kale. Russian kale wilts easily and is best harvested into buckets as if a bouquet of flowers, with a little water in the bucket.

Workhorse Crops from storage in February

From storage in February we can eat carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash. Also frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for February: Phenology

Chickweed flowers.
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/S/W-CP-SMED-FL.006.html
Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

I wrote about seed germination temperatures and phenology signs in April 2021. I have an earlier post about phenology here, and one about Harbinger Weeds of Spring.

Certain natural phenomena are related to the accumulated warmth of the season (rather than, say, the day-length), and by paying attention to nature’s calendar you will be in sync with actual conditions, which vary from year to year, and are changing over a longer time-scale.

You can learn when to plant by natural signs. For instance, we sow sweet corn when white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. I got excited one weekend (April 10) when I saw wind-driven twigs on the ground with oak leaves definitely bigger than squirrels’ ears. But they were Red Oak, not White Oak.

Keeping your own phenology record is a useful guide to when to plant certain crops, and a way to track how fast the season is progressing right where you are. Phenology involves recording when certain wild and cultivated flowers bloom, seedlings emerge, or various insects are first seen. These natural events can substitute for Growing Degree Day calculations. Your phenology record will help build resilience in the face of climate change. Ours might be interesting to you, but unless you live in central Virginia, you can’t use our dates. You do need to make your own. This can be a great home-schooling project, or a crew I-Spy competition, or a calming end-of-day walk around your gardens.

Phenology Record

Vegetable Seed Germination Temperatures and Phenology

Summer Lettuce Nursery Seedbed with Concept, De Morges Braun, New Red Fire and Loma lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire. Lettuces are impossible to germinate if the soil is too hot. We use shadecloth (folded over on the right), a soil thermometer and ice cubes.

Vegetable Seed Germination Temperatures

Here is a table of vegetable seed germination temperatures. These apply to soil temperatures when you sow directly in the ground, and to air temperatures when you sow indoors in small containers. If your indoor air temperature is not warm enough when you want to sow your chosen crop (watermelons, anyone?) you can make a small warm place, or use a professional heat mat, or, for a small scale, germinate seeds in an instant pot! If you have one of these handy cooking devices, check the lowest setting. Perhaps labeled for making yogurt, it might be 91°F (33°C). Look at my chart below and see if your seeds will germinate at that temperature. You’ll have to experiment for the seeds which germinate well at 86°F (30°C) but not at 95°F (35°C). Don’t try this with spinach or lettuce! You might be surprised to see that some cool weather crops, like broccoli and cabbage, can germinate just fine at high temperatures!

You can see my chart is a work in progress, so if you can add any info, please leave a comment on this post. Bold type indicates the best temperature for that vegetable seed. The numbers indicate how many days it takes that seed to germinate at the temperature at the head of the column. Where I don’t know the number of days, I have put “Yes” if it does germinate at that temperature, “no” if I think it doesn’t and a question mark where I plain don’t know. I would love to know, so if you can resolve the uncertainties, please speak up! I’ve also used the words “best’, “min” and “max” which I hope are self-evident.

Vegetable seed germination

 

Ice cubes over newly sown lettuce seed, to help germination in hot weather. Shadecloth is folded open on the left. Photo Bell Oaks

Soil Thermometers

Soil thermometer.
Photo by Green Living/Taylor

To measure the temperature of the soil outdoors, I recommend a dial-type soil thermometer. Ignore the vague guidelines on Min/Optimal/Max and use the table above. The usual practice is to check the temperature at 9am each day, and if you are unsure, check again the next day. In some cases it is best to get 4 consecutive days of suitable temperatures, or even (in spring!) a few days of rising temperatures.

Harbinger weeds of spring and fall

Flowering Purple (or Red) Dead Nettle, with honeybee.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

The progress of emergence of different weeds in the spring shows us how quickly the soil is warming up. I wrote about that here. In that post you can see photos of flowering chickweed, purple dead nettle, and henbit.

Chickweed seedling.
Photo from UC IPM Weed Gallery

In the fall we will be waiting for the soil to cool enough to sow spinach. I have a blog post about this here, and also photos of those three weeds as seedlings, which is what we are looking for in the fall, as an indication that the soil has cooled down enough for them (and spinach!) to germinate.

Phenology

I have a post about phenology here.You can read some of the details of when to plant by natural signs. For instance, we sow sweet corn when white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. I got excited this past weekend (April 10) when I saw wind-driven twigs on the ground with oak leaves definitely bigger than squirrels’ ears. But they were Red Oak, not White Oak.

The chart in that 2013 post has now got corrupted (at least it has on my screen), so here is a pdf

Phenology Record

 

A new bean bed with sunflower landmarks. When lilac is in full bloom, plant beans, squash, corn.
Photo Pam Dawling

Phenology records are a useful guide to when to plant certain crops, and a way to track how fast the season is progressing right where you are. Phenology involves recording when certain wild and cultivated flowers bloom, seedlings emerge, or various insects are first seen. These natural events can substitute for Growing Degree Day calculations. Certain natural phenomena are related to the accumulated warmth of the season (rather than, say, the day-length), and by paying attention to nature’s timetable you will be in accord with actual conditions, which vary from year to year, and are changing over a longer time-scale.

Keeping your own phenology record will help build resilience in the face of climate change. Ours might be interesting to you, but unless you live in central Virginia, you can’t use our dates. You do need to make your own. This can be a great home-schooling project, or a crew I-Spy competition, or a calming end-of-day walk around your gardens.

Rainy day garden reading (listening and viewing)

New Format Website

After all this time, my website was due for some spring cleaning. In particular, the old format didn’t work well on smart phones, and this new one does. So I hope that makes life easier for lots of you! I’ve also moved the Categories and Recent Comments so they are easier to find. Let me know  if you have ideas for improvements.

Our Weather

It’s cold and rainy here as I write this (almost sleeting). I will need to plug in the heat mats under the pepper, eggplant, cucumber and squash seedlings, cover the tender potted tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse with rowcover, and pull rowcover over the newly transplanted beds of tomatoes and squash in the hoophouse. I’m expecting a third night with temperatures around 25F (-4C). Hence I’m in the mode of staying indoors and doing some reading. Here’s a big round up of good stuff.

Root Crops and Storage Crops

In A Way to Garden Margaret Roach interviews Daniel Yoder of Johnny’s Seeds on Mastering Root Vegetables. Read, or listen to her podcast how to grow root crops: Carrots, beets, radishes, parsnips. Lots of tips, and links to more articles/interviews

An earlier article discusses how to store garden vegetables for winter. Margaret covers the basics of temperature and humidity, along with details of some crops and ideas for preserving crops that don’t store well.

Ticks and Tasks in Virginia

The Garden Shed is a monthly online newsletter published by the Piedmont Master Gardeners.  It provides all gardeners in Charlottesville-Albemarle County area of Virginia with a science-based, reliable source of gardening information, monthly tasks and tips, and other gardening related features. Here are a couple of the most recent ones:

Managing the Tick Problem by Ralph Morini

Identifying the culprits, understanding the medical risks and tickproofing your environment

March Tasks in the Vegetable Garden by Ralph Morini

Of Wet Soil, Pests and Hope…

Note that the link in this article to VCE Publication 246-480 “Vegetables Recommended for Virginia,” does not work. It looks like the Extension has taken the publication down. Ralph Morini suggests that the next best reference is 426-331 Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates

Diversify and Profit

10 Most Profitable Specialty Crops to Grow

This post by Craig Wallin for the Profitable Plants Digest gives info on lavender, gourmet mushrooms, woody ornamentals, landscaping trees and shrubs, bonsai plants, Japanese maples, willows, garlic, bamboo and herbs. I’ll add a big caution about bamboo, as we have found many bamboo varieties very invasive and hard to control. Links on the site provide info on ginseng, microgreens and more.

Siberian garlic.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Pick High Yield Crops

Practical Farmers of Iowa offers an interactive list of Farmer to Farmer Vegetable Yield and Production Data

Get an idea of what a reasonable yield is (at least in Iowa!) of the crops you grow and compare various crops to help with your decision-making.

Control Weeds the Easy Way

Extension offers Solarization and Tarping for Weed Management on Organic Vegetable Farms in the Northeast USA which can, of course, be modified for those of us in other regions.

Reusable Black Tarps Suppress Weeds and Make Organic Reduced Tillage More Viable

A black plastic tarp laid over full-length crop beds. Photo credit: Haley Rylander.

Remediate Contaminated Soil

 


Most public universities – and many private companies – offer mail-in soil testing for a nominal cost. Photography By Humannet / shutterstock.com

Urban Gardening 101: How to Deal with Contaminated Soil It’s hard to find much information on this topic for organic gardeners, although Leah Penniman does also offer help in her book Farming While Black

 

Listen to Podcasts

Modern Farmer Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

 

Watch a Movie on Heirloom Seed Preservation

Al Jazeera, in their Witness series, has a 25 minute film The Seed Queen of Palestine
Can one woman’s mission to revive ancient heirloom seeds inspire a celebration of traditional Palestinian food? Vivien Sansour is distributing rare, ancient heirloom seeds to Palestinian farmers. Click here and search for The Seed Queen of Palestine

Track the Progress of Spring

The Nature’s Notebook phenology site

Join more than 6,000 other naturalists across the nation in taking the pulse of our planet. You’ll use scientifically-vetted observation guidelines, developed for over 900 species, to ensure data are useful to researchers and decision-makers. On their website, learn about the National Phenology Network Pest Patrol which is seeking observers to report their sightings of insect pest species that cause harm to forest and agricultural trees. Your observations as part of this campaign will help validate and improve the USA-NPN’s Pheno Forecasts, which help managers know when these species are active and susceptible to treatment.

——————

Heed the Warnings for Agriculture from the Fourth National Climate Assessment

The U.S. Global Change Research Program has released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, an examination of the effects of climate change on the United States. Chapter 10 of the Assessment is on “Agriculture and Rural Communities.” This chapter contains four key messages regarding productivity decline, resource degradation, livestock health, and rural-community capacity to respond.

Consider Water-saving Hoophouse Crops.

Texas High Tunnel Workshop

Texas high tunnel study expands

The Texas High Plains and Southern Plains continue to experience reductions in irrigation water from the Ogallala Aquifer as water levels decline, and producers need some way to improve their revenue from their farming systems. They have the potential to get a pretty good return and be able to take better advantage of the water they do have, using high tunnels to grow regular vegetable crops and also use them for seed production, cut flowers, small fruit.

Consider our own Impact

Here are 6 personal Carbon Footprint Calculators

from Mother Earth News

Be Amazed

Bug Tracks blog
Bug Tracks logo

Bug Tracks Charley Eiseman Life in a Cubic Foot of My Lawn. This inspiring article is one of many by this expert in leaf miners as well as other insects. It’s such fascinating stuff! And his photos are exquisite. There are over 40 in this post!

Learn about Vegetable Grafting

Members of a Specialty Crops Research Initiative Grafting Project Team have organized a grafting webinar series. The webinars each cover a different topic about the science and technology of vegetable grafting. While not specifically about organic production, upcoming topics that could be of interest to organic growers include Grafting to Increase Production for Small-acreage and High Tunnel Tomato Growers, by Cary Rivard of K-State University; past topics include Making Grafting Affordable and Beneficial to US Growers by Richard Hassell of Clemson University. Past presentations in the series were recorded and archived. Find the recordings on the project YouTube channel here, and learn more about upcoming webinars here.

See Enhancing the Utility of Grafting in US Vegetable Production, by Matthew Kleinhenz of the Ohio State University, below.

If you are a gardener, you may be interested in another webinar by Cary Rivard about grafting for home gardeners: Demystifying Grafted Tomatoes: The Why & How for Gardeners, which is part of the 2019 series of Advanced Training Webinars for Master Gardeners sponsored by Oregon State University Extension. Find out more information here.

Read up on New Research

eOrganic recorded presentations on current organic research from the Organic Research Forum organized by the Organic Farming Research Foundation at Organicology. The following presentations are freely available now and more will be added to their playlist on the eOrganic YouTube channel and mentioned in upcoming newsletters. Find the program here and click here to find the recordings on a YouTube playlist.

Help Beginning Farmers in Virginia

In partnership with First Baptist Church, Tricycle Gardens in Richmond, Virginia, are developing Charlotte Acres Incubator Farm with graduates of the Urban Agriculture Fellowship & Certification program launching their businesses and farming this beautiful land. They ask for donations: Please consider a generous gift today in support of beginning farmers. 

Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship Manager Dan Dalton meets with Apprentice Jess Hermanofski at host farm Plowshare Produce, an organic CSA farm in Huntingdon County, PA

Become a Farmer Apprentice in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Registers Its First Formal Apprenticeship for Farmers

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry approved the Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship on March 14th, making it the first formal apprenticeship program for farmers in the state.

Enjoy a Garden Walk in Virginia during Historic Garden Week April 27 – May 4, 2019

Springtime begins with Historic Garden Week At Monticello, Charlottesville, Va

In addition to Monticello’s regular guided Gardens and Grounds Tours, the annual observance of Historic Garden Week in Virginia will include talks, behind-the-scenes tours, and an open house at our Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.

Insider’s Tour with the Vegetable Gardener: Discover great gardening ideas from Jefferson’s kitchen garden during this Q&A walk with Monticello vegetable gardener Pat Brodowski. Tuesday, April 30, 10-11:30am

 

Hoophouse winter greens, transplanting spinach, crocus flowering

Russian kale, yukina Savoy and lettuce from our winter hoophouse .
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse is bursting with winter greens. We just decided to hold back on harvesting our outdoor Vates kale and focus on the greens  which are starting to bolt in the hoophouse. That includes the last turnips (Hakurei, Red Round and White Egg), Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frill and Golden Frills mustards. Big but happily not yet bolting are the spinach, Rainbow chard and Russian kales. A row of snap peas has emerged. Time to stake and string-weave them!

The lettuce situation is changing as we are eating up more of the overwintered leaf lettuce in the hoophouse. The lettuces in the greenhouse have all gone, to make way for the flats of seedlings. Plus, we needed the compost they were growing in, to fill the flats. More about lettuce in February next week.

We have also cleared the overwintered spinach in one of our coldframes, so we can deal with the voles and get them to relocate before we put flats of vulnerable seedlings out there. The voles eat the spinach plants from below, starting with the roots. We had one terrible spring when they moved on to eat the baby seedlings when we put those out there. After trial and error a couple of years ago, we now clear all the spinach from one frame, then line the cold frame with landscape fabric (going up the walls a way too), wait two weeks, then put the seedlings out on top of the landscape fabric. The voles by then have decided nothing tasty is going to appear there, so they move on.

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo Wren Vile

Outdoors, we have just started transplanting new spinach. We have four beds to plant, a total of  3600 plants, so we have to keep moving on that! We are trialing several varieties again, as we did in the fall. We have the last Tyee, alongside Reflect and Avon this spring. Inevitably things are not going perfectly according to plan. Yesterday I forgot to follow the plan, and we started with Avon and Tyee at opposite ends of a bed we had planned to grow Reflect in! Anyway, we are labeling everything and hoping to learn which have best bolt resistance. Watch this space.

We have grown our spinach transplants (as well as kale and collards) in the soil in our hoophouse, sowing them in late January. I wrote about bare root transplants in early January this year. You can find more links and info in that post. Growing bare root transplants saves a lot of work and a lot of greenhouse space.

For those relatively new to this blog but living in a similar climate zone, I want to point you to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. It includes a link for each month’s task list. I notice from the site stats that some of you are finding your way there, but now there are so many years’ worth of posts it’s perhaps harder to find. Happy browsing!

Following on from last week’s mention of harbinger weeds of spring: chickweed, hen-bit and dead-nettle, I can now report that I’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17), another marker on our phenology list. The average date for first crocuses here is February 8, so they are later than usual. I did notice however, that the foot traffic over the patch of grass has been heavier than usual.

Anne Morrow Donley sent me a link to WunderBlog®, the blog from Wunderground, my favorite weather forecast station, to an article by Bob Henson: This is February? 80°F in Denver, 99° in Oklahoma, 66° in Iceland, 116° in Australia. It includes a map of the Daily Spring Index Leaf Anomaly, Figure 1.

Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

Figure 1. An index of the seasonal progress of leafy plants shows conditions 20 days or more ahead of schedule over large parts of the South and Southwest as of Sunday, February 12. Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

The post has lots of other interesting weather info too. Thanks Anne!


I remembered another of the items lost in the hacked post a few weeks ago: My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blogpost on Heat Tolerant Eggplant Varieties made it into their 30 Most Viewed blogposts for 2016. I’ll be writing up more about those varieties, linking the 2016 results to the weather each week (especially the temperatures) and adding what I learn in 2017.

Sweet potato slideshow, phenology article, Ira Wallace awarded

I’ve just got back from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham, NC. There were about 1200 people, five workshop slots, 12 tracks, lots of good, locally grown food, a whole pre-conference day of bus tours and intensive workshops, a courageous and inspiring keynote address from Clara Coleman on the joys and challenges of family and farm life. She and her two young sons are now living and working alongside Eliot Coleman (her dad) and Barbara Damrosch at Four Seasons Farm in Maine.

My sweet potato slideshow from my first workshop at CFSA is viewable above. Just click on the forward arrow. To see it full screen, click on the link below the image and then click the diagonal arrows when the new page opens. About 70 very engaged people attended that workshop. My other workshop was Sustainable Farming Practices for Vegetable Growers, which I’ll include next week.

I have also recently written a blog post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog  called Saving Sweet Potato Roots for Growing Your Own Slips.

I enjoyed meeting old friends, making new friends, learning some good tips about different drip irrigation parts, how to sharpen and use a scythe, how many years half the henbit seeds are viable for (23 years!!), and picking up literature from the trade booths to digest later.

sac-16-banner-960x330Save the date: 2017’s CFSA SAC will be November 3-5 (Fri-Sun)


nov-dec-2016-gfm-cover-300The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about phenology. Phenology is the study of recurring animal and plant life cycle changes in relation to the weather. Some changes are temperature-dependent, rather than (daylength-) calendar-dependent. The opening of some buds and the emergence of some
insects from the ground are related to the accumulated warmth of that season. Observations of certain changes can be used to help growers decide when to expect outbreaks of certain insect pests and when to plant certain crops. For instance, we look to the leaves of the white oaks to decide when it is warm enough to plant sweet corn. The oak leaves should be as big as squirrel’s ears. We have plenty of squirrels! Phenology is especially useful when the weather is extremely variable, which we can expect more of as climate change gets us further in its grip.

Also in this bumper edition of Growing for Market are articles on growing heading chicories (Josh Volk), milling your own logs on your farm (Mark Lieberth), online weather tools for farmers (Eric and Joanna Reuter), image-front-cover_coverbookpagea review of The Farmers Market Cookbook by Julia Shanks and Brett Grohsgal (Andrew Mefferd), and favorite perennials for flower growers (Jane Tanner). There are also two pages of cameos of books available from GfM. A seasonal tip about gift giving, I think.

I am working on a review of Soil Sisters by Lisa Kivirist, which I will tidy up and post soon.


Ira Wallace receives SFA award
Ira Wallace receives SFA award. Photo by Sara Wood

Ira Wallace, my long time friend and one of the members of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has recently been awarded the 2016 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Sara Wood took photos at SESE and at Twin Oaks while preparing the SFA oral history interview with Ira Wallace. You can watch the video clip, read the transcript and ass the photos at the link. Well done Ira!

Planting fall crops, receiving rain

Young turnip and radish plants. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Young turnip and radish plants.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’re in cold-hardiness zone 7, and our average first frost date of October 14. This makes the first half of August our last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. In 2012 I wrote Last Chance Sowings. Depending on your climate zone, your dates might need to be earlier or later than ours. Fall vegetable growing provides fresh harvests, storage crops and possibly some crops to overwinter.

There are three categories of vegetable crops to consider planting at this time of year:

  • Warm weather crops that die with frost.
  • Cool weather crops that grow well in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in the summer.
  • Cold-hardy crops to grow over winter and get off to a fast start in early spring.

Planning and timing are crucial – if germination fails, you may not get a second chance with that vegetable. The twin challenges of fall crops are sowing in hot weather, followed by keeping the crop happy in cold weather. 

Warm weather crops

Don’t stop too soon! But don’t plant too late to have a reasonable chance of success. For crops to be harvested before killing frosts arrive, the formula to find the last sowing date for frost-tender crops is:

Number of days from outdoor planting to harvest (read the seed packet or catalog)

+ Number of days from seed to transplant if growing your own starts

+ Average number of days of harvest period

+ 14 days “Fall Factor” to allow for the slowing rate of growth as the weather cools

+ 14 days from your average first fall frost date (in case of an early frost)

______

= Days to count back from your average first fall frost date

 

For example, yellow squash takes 50 days from sowing to harvest, and our last planting is 8/5, a whole month later than we could risk without rowcover to throw over on chilly nights. Don’t worry that rowcover prevents pollination – you don’t need to get every flower pollinated, just keep the developing fruits growing. In many parts of the country, a frost or two will be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is worth the effort. (Unless you’ve reached the exhaustion point we call “Praying for a Killing Frost.”) It’s easy to get harvests for an extra month from mature plants you already have.

Cool weather spring and fall crops

Beets, carrots, chard, spinach, lettuce, scallions, peas, potatoes, Asian greens and other leafy brassicas, turnips, rutabagas and radishes all fall in this group. Fall gives you a second chance to enjoy these crops. The flavor of crops produced during warm sunny days and cool nights can be a delightful combination of sweetness and crunchy succulence.

We sowed 60% of our fall carrots last week, along with some “indicator beets,” and I ran overhead irrigation Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, on a third of the length each time. The indicator beets started to germinate on Sunday, and so yesterday (Monday) we flame-weeded the beds. Last night we got a little rain. Today there are hazy rows of green – germinated carrots! Maybe you’re wondering why we only sowed 60% of what we wanted. Well, we ran out of seed! Embarrassing and annoying, but oh well. More is on order, and it’s not too late to sow them, although they have less time to grow big. Every day counts in the fall!

Flame Weeding. Credit Brittany Lewis
Flame Weeding.
Credit Brittany Lewis

The formula for calculating last sowing dates for frost-tender crops can be modified for hardier vegetables. For example, Early White Vienna Kohlrabi takes 58 days from sowing to harvest (line 1). You can direct sow, so line 2 = 0. You can harvest it all at once and store it in your cooler, so line 3 is 1 day. Assuming you don’t want to use rowcover for this, line 4 = 14. Line 5 = 14 also. That all adds up to 87 days. Kohlrabi is hardy to maybe 15°F. The temperature is not likely to drop to 15°F before the beginning of November here, so counting back 31 days in October, plus 30 in September, plus 31 in August – that’s 92 days already, more than enough. We could sow kohlrabi in early August and get a crop at the end of October.

We have made ourselves a chart for fall harvest crops so that we don’t have to calculate each time. It helps us ensure we don’t sow too late to get a decent harvest.

Sowing dates for crops with various days to maturity

Days to   Harvest Harvest Harvest
Harvest   mid-Sept- late Sept- from  
    mid Oct mid-Oct mid-Oct
30d   27-Jul 16-Aug 31-Aug
40d   17-Jul 6-Aug 21-Aug
50d   7-Jul 27-Jul 11-Aug
60d   27-Jun 17-Jul 1-Aug
70d   17-Jun 7-Jul 22-Jul
80d   7-Jun 27-Jun 12-Jul
90d   28-May 17-Jun 2-Jul
100d   18-May 7-Jun 22-Jun
110d   8-May 28-May 12-Jun
120d   28-Apr 18-May 2-Jun
130d   18-Apr 8-May 23-May

We’ve sown two beds of beets, one of kale, some winter radish and fall radish. We’re behind on tilling and prepping beds, or we would have more. We’re experiencing the domino effect of getting late with one task, and then struggling to catch up as more and more tasks get behind-hand. We were late with our potato harvest. And therefore with our broccoli and cabbage transplanting (which uses that plot). Because we are transplanting older plants, we’re removing a couple of the older leaves from each one as we plant, to reduce transpiration losses. We’re late with tilling and bed prep, and therefore with planting. But we do still have hope. One of our mantras (learned from another farm) is “Prioritize planting during the planting season.” Here the planting season extends from early February to November outdoors.

We don’t sow spinach till September, so we’re not behind on that yet! Because spinach germinates so poorly in warm soil, we wait for temperatures to drop. This “summer” has been extremely cool, but we’re in no hurry to start spinach earlier than usual, because of all the other tasks. This year it would probably work. I saw fall dead nettle germinating on 8/4. That’s a phenology sign that the soil is cool enough for spinach.

I’ve been recording phenology data here since 2003. 8/4 is the earliest date I have for dead nettle, by a margin of 11 days! It has been as late as 9/1 (2004).

Cold-hardy crops to grow over winter

I covered this topic in detail in Growing for Market in September 2010, and in my slideshow Cold-hardy winter vegetables. The gist is “Before taking the plunge, know your climate, know your resources, know your market, know your crops, and when you don’t know, experiment on a small scale.” Useful information includes the winter-kill temperature of your desired crop. Choose hardy varieties, and be clear about whether you intend to harvest outdoors all winter (kale, spinach, leeks, parsnips, collards for us), or whether you want to have small crops going into winter so you can rest during the winter and be first out the gate in early spring, with crops waiting for you.