We’re on the brink of starting to harvest our first outdoor lettuce, switching over from the last of the baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Our goal for this transition is April 15, but naturally the exact date will depend on the weather in the spring, the coldness of the late winter, the rate at which we are eating lettuce and other factors beyond the grower’s control.
We make three sowings of baby lettuce mix: 10/24 to harvest early December to early March (after we’ve cut it several times, and it is starting to tun bitter); 12/31 to harvest from late February till the end of March Later if it doesn’t get bitter from hot weather); and 2/1 to harvest mid March to the end of April. This year the #2 sowing is still edible in mid April, so we have two patches feeding us for a little longer.
Our winter salad mixes are very popular, but we can only continue with those as long as the spinach and the salad brassicas hold up. Part of me is always sad to stop eating salad mix, but the other part welcomes the juicier, crunchier, tastier head lettuce. Baby lettuce mix is very pretty, but honestly I find it a bit short on flavor and texture! It’s the other ingredients in the salad that make it interesting for me, especially spinach.
The first outdoor lettuce were sown 1/17, planted out 3/9, to feed us 4/15 to 5/8, when the second sowing should be ready. We cover these with rowcover on hoops when we transplant, for about a month, or until the weather seems settled at a reasonable temperature.
Our raised beds outdoors are 4 ft wide, with 1 ft paths. we plant four rows of lettuce, spaced 12″ apart, and plant about 120 from each sowing. That usually fills a third of a 90 ft long bed, so we have 3 different plantings in each bed of lettuce. We continue at this pace until our last outdoor plantings around the fall equinox.
This spring we are going to continue the salad mixes a bit longer by harvesting the outdoor lettuce by the leaf. We have lots of really good looking spinach to mix in, and the last few mizuna and ferny mustards. We used to only sow these twice, 9/24 to transplant in the hoophouse, and 11/9, which feeds us until late March. We added in a third sowing of mizuna and ferny mustards 2/1 which we harvest 3/24 to 4/23 approximately. That extra month is really worth having!
We also have a short row of Sugar Ann snap peas in the hoophouse (sowed 2/1) that we like to snip into thirds and add to salad mix. This makes for a nice little surprise for everyone. We couldn’t feed a hundred on 50 ft of snap peas! These are an incentive to keep the salad mixes going while the peas are being harvested.
Well, we’ve had a lot of rain here in central Virginia: 6.3″ (16 cm) in 11 days from 4/26-5/6. The month of April landed us with 4.9″ (12.4 cm) and the first week of May with 2.6″ (6.6 cm). Last week I wrote about my worries for the beans and corn we’d sown before the big rains. The photo above is from Harvest to Table, a website for “beginner and veteran gardener alike”, with the goal of helping people “find easy solutions to common garden problems and . . . bring great food from your garden to your table.” I was happy to see our beans coming up 9 days after sowing, on Thursday! Thank goodness for raised beds! We had canals either side of the beds.
And the corn started to come up 9 days after sowing, with wan little spikes poking up out of the ground. It remains to be seen how good or otherwise the stand is. I was looking at the top (road) end of the plot, where it is driest. I couldn’t even walk far into the plot as the soil was too sodden and I didn’t want to compact the soil. We always stay off wet soil if we start to sink in – compacting the soil just starves the roots of air and leaves the soil less free-draining than before, causing worse flooding problems. Our first sweet corn sowing is always a bit of a risk. In fact we prepare for this by sowing some corn seeds in styrofoam Speedling flats, the same day we sow the first corn planting outdoors. We float these on water in a tank we built from cinder blocks lined with carpet and plastic. (The carpet extends the life of the plastic.). It is possible to transplant sweet corn until it is about 2″ tall. The link takes you to Vern Grubinger at the University of Vermont, in a region where whole fields of corn are transplanted. We only transplant to fill gaps in our first sowing, if we need to.
This floating technique comes from the tobacco growing industry. It works well for corn and onions, but it doesn’t work well for many vegetables – most can’t take continuous water and have to be drained some of the time. If early September is very hot, we use this technique for starting spinach seeds in hot weather. We float the Speedling flats in the daytime and pull them out to drain overnight.
Back to sowing corn. We sow by hand, making furrows below ropes we stretch between stakes at the right row spacing. In normal conditions, we flood the furrow with water from a hose before we plant. This gives the seed enough water to get up out of the ground and saves worrying and saves a lot of time watering the soil after planting. We put new seed at 6″ and last year’s seed at 4″. Later we thin to 8-10″. I think this shows that different people’s idea of 4″ and 6″ vary a lot! After sowing we cover the seed with soil and tamp it down. We leave the ropes, as we’ve found they keep the crows off the corn seed. 10″ seems about the right height. About two weeks later we will sow our next corn, and at that point we move those stakes and ropes to mark out the new planting.
And in case it’s raining where you are and you want to think about growing food while you can’t actually get out there and do it, here’s a video of the Succession Planting presentation I did at New Country Organics
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 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.