Book Review The Winter Market Gardener, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre

 

Cover of The Winter Market Gardener

The Winter Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Year-Round Harvests, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre, New Society Publishers, October 2023. 256 pages, 7.5 x 9 inches, with color photos and drawings throughout. $39.99.

 Jean-Martin Fortier’s first book, The Market Gardener, is a well-loved international best-seller. In this new book, he has worked with Catherine Sylvestre, to focus on cold-weather growing. Catherine is the director of vegetable production and leader of the market garden team at la Ferme des Quatres-Temps, in Hemmingford, Southern Quebec, Canada. The farm includes mixed livestock, an orchard and an 8-acre market garden designed and established by Jean-Martin Fortier. FQT was initiated by a local multi-millionaire who wanted to set up an experimental farm to demonstrate what was possible and to resolve some of the challenges in developing a diversified farm using efficient regenerative methods. The farm now has a second site, in Port-au-Persil, five hours away in the northern Charlevoix region.

At FQT, the authors train cohorts of employees and try out ideas that were not possible on the more limited budget of les Jardins de la Grelinette where Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches grew food for 200 families on two and a half acres. Since 2015, Maude-Hélène has been the solo operator of la Grelinette (an hour away from FQT).

With good techniques, equipment, and varieties, and enough personal energy, year-round production can provide premium local vegetables and make a profit. This book will inspire and help. It is packed with detailed vegetable profiles, tips for winter crop planning, and successful growing and storage of fall/winter crops. There is precise information on tool selection and best use, and on selecting shelters, from rowcover to high tunnels. The book was written in the authors’ native French and ably translated by Laurie Bennett. I love the word “shelters” to include all kinds of protected growing, and I hope it comes into common use in English!

The Winter Market Gardener builds on years of research, experimentation, and collaboration, as all who have read The Market Gardener will appreciate. It is a practical guide to winter vegetable production for small farmers in northern climates, and elsewhere. Initially I thought this would be a delight to read, but not of much practical use to me in central Virginia, a very different climate. I soon found I was wrong. Questions of the value and profitability of types of greenhouse and tunnel heating are thoroughly considered, in terms of heat sources, financial and planetary costs, and benefits. There is info on some crops I have never grown, not here nor in England. The crop planning calendars have solid info in a nice accessible intuitive format. There are charts, graphs, illustrations to help you get started or smooth your path in winter growing.

Don’t think for a minute that running a farm owned by a multi-millionaire means efficiency and results are unimportant! It does permit some enviable pricey equipment, but careful trials, record-keeping, and profitable products are essential to the purpose of the project.

The concept behind Ferme des Quatre-Temps is to find the sweet spot between intensive organic production, and a biodiverse landscape. Jean-Martin and a team of permaculturists came up with the design for the farm, including the livestock. The theories and practices are taught to a group of apprentices each year, and via the online Market Gardener Institute, and its Masterclass.

Whatever your level of experience or scale of production, The Winter Market Gardener will encourage and inspire you to value high-quality local vegetables all year, and give you tools to produce them in winter. There is an appendix for people wanting to use these methods on a backyard scale. 645 ft2 (60 m2) can grow enough vegetables for 3-5 people for the whole (Québécois!) winter. And, of course, you can grow summer vegetables there when winter is over.

Don’t think growing vegetables all-year means no time off – you just need to plan to include breaks, or rotate workdays around the crew. And remember that winter has shorter days and a slower pace than summer. For those growers pursuing an honest life of hard work on stuff that matters and makes a difference, here is a guidebook.

As the number of winter growers increases, the demand for fresh food increases, and we have job security! To be sustainable, winter harvesting must be profitable, so invest in this book. It may happen that small-scale winter food production becomes not just the tastiest option and least-damaging to the planet, but our only option. During the Covid pandemic, it became plain that in the Northeast of North America, 70% of vegetables come from California, Mexico, or even further afield. It took only three days to deplete the supply of fresh vegetables in the stores.

Some countries responded to this realization by providing grants for local food growing, including high tunnels and greenhouses. Catherine and Jean-Martin propose that giving the money to fifty or 200 small-scale farms would be a better investment than giving it to a twenty-hectare tomato greenhouse, (as happened in Quebec). Production of cold-hardy vegetables in winter uses much less energy than growing tomatoes! Additionally, growing summer vegetables in winter requires artificial lighting, causing light pollution, disrupting the circadian rhythms of humans and other animals. No one yet knows how artificial lighting affects the nutritional quality of food grown that way.

Catherine Sylvestre.
Photo New Society Publishers

Jean-Martin and Catherine identify five key principles of winter growing:

  1. Lack of sunlight in winter is more limiting than lack of heat.
  2. Many vegetables can withstand freezing temperatures.
  3. Cold-hardiness in crops can sometimes be bred for.
  4. Layered shelters (rowcover, tunnels) can allow more vegetable production in winter.
  5. Installing minimal heating can make winter growing more successful, and can be profitable.

A useful chart suggests how many layers of rowcover to use at various night temperatures and daylengths. This guideline that could work wherever you grow.

There are good descriptions of making low tunnels and caterpillar tunnels. High tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels, passive solar greenhouses) are permanently located and usable year-round, although unheated. Greenhouses are permanent structures, heated, somewhat insulated, made of glass or two layers of plastic. There is a small chart showing the outdoor killing temperatures of four crops, unprotected outdoors, in a high tunnel and in a high tunnel with P19 rowcover. For example, lettuce will die at 21°F (-6°C) outdoors with no protection, at 7°F (-14°C) outdoors if protected by a high tunnel, and at 0°F (-18°C) outdoors, if under rowcover in a high tunnel. This is followed by a comparison of the various shelters in terms of cost, thermal gain and features and uses.

Don’t consider adding heating unless you have at least a double layer of plastic and in-ground perimeter insulation. At la Ferme des Quatre-Temps they have perforated polyethylene tubing that distributes hot air along the beds. The increased revenue from faster growing crops must be covered by the increased costs of heating or adding more layers of rowcover. They present a table and a bar chart comparing cost of heating, cost of labor to manage row covers, and revenue. For their situation, heating to 37°F-41°F (3-5°C) trounces no heating, and beats heating to 54°F (12°C). It also matters how much workers are willing to move rowcovers, or enjoy doing that as part of winter growing.

To reduce heating costs, check your insulation. Regularly monitor and repair broken parts of your structure. If you are buying new, remember that bigger structures hold more warmth from the daytime. Ensure your heater is an efficient one, and you have blowers to push the heated air around.

Here’s a counterintuitive bit that makes complete sense once you’ve thought it through: On short cloudy days, there’s little point in adding heat, because the plants won’t be able to photosynthesize more. On warm sunny days, if the temperature is still low, your plants could gain photosynthesis with a higher temperature to balance the good light.

Avoid letting the humidity remain over 90% for more than a few days at a time. Ventilate, and if necessary, heat for an hour while doing that! Be sure to ventilate if the sun is shining. One of my hoophouse mantras this winter is “More air, less water!” – good airflow is vital to keep plants healthy.

As for heating, what fuel to use? Ecology is important, environmental awareness is a guiding value. Profitability has to be in there. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Electricity produced by coal or nuclear power has no appeal. In Quebec, growers are fortunate to have hydroelectricity, from a publicly owned utility. Even with such a benign fuel source, there is still a decision to be made about the delivery system: a furnace with an electric coil or a heat pump? A short physics primer on electric heating follows. This gem of info can save you from a permanent expensive mistake! For example, surface geothermal might cost $10,000, but regular geothermal could cost $125,000! There’s a thorough table comparing pros and cons of various types of heating, and a full-page color photo of hot air distribution tubes.

The next section is on winter crop planning. To grow healthy winter crops, first grow strong seedlings with good roots, then harden them off carefully to withstand winter. Use a larger cell size than you would in simmer. Seven days before transplanting into the ground, move the seedlings into colder conditions with more outside air. Gradually increase their cold tolerance over the week.

Lack of light is more limiting than low temperatures. Careful timing is needed to get plants to the right size before daylength reduces to ten hours and growing slows right down. The key is to get plants to 70% of their final size before this happens. Further south, the dark period is shorter, the soil holds temperature until later in the year, and you have more wiggle room. In northern climates, greenhouses and tunnels become outdoor storage rooms.

There is a chart of winter days to maturity of tatsoi, spinach and turnips, and days to reach 70% full maturity. Days to maturity increase as daylength decreases. Keep records of winter days to maturity of the crops you grow, calculate 70% of that time and work back from your last day of ten hours of daylight, and find the target date to sow that crop. Keep records of sowing dates and results.

For a continuous supply of cut-and-come-again leaf crops, calculations are more complicated. Keep good notes of when you sow, cut, and can come-again. You might get three cuts, or six, depending on your location. Figure a good sowing date, and don’t delay! You could do some trials with short rows sown on different dates.

The authors provide a table of winter sowing dates for twenty-five crops sown outdoors with P19 rowcover; in a caterpillar tunnel; high tunnel; and minimally-heated greenhouse. Plants can sometimes endure an hour or two at a temperature considerably colder than they can tolerate for several days.

Crop density may need to be decreased to ensure plants get enough light and airflow. Growing plants closer in the row, but with rows further apart (growing about 70% the number of summer plants), provides better light. There’s an appendix on crop spacing.

It is helpful to know when each crop is likely to bolt after the solstice. Some bolt earlier than others. Keep records and harvest accordingly.

The crop profile section follows. There are icons indicating semi-hardy crops (32°F to 25°F/0°C to –4°C), cold-hardy ones (23°F to 14°F/–5°C to –10°C); very cold-hardy crops (14°F to 22°F/ −10°C to –30°C); minimal heating, no heating, overwintering; transplanted, and direct-sown crops. The sidebar also includes recommended varieties, spacing and seeding and transplant dates in Quebec. Each profile has a beautiful full-page watercolor image. The text includes info on first harvest, succession sowing, intercropping strategies, pest and disease challenges, and good harvest practices.

Jean-Martin Fortier with his broadfork.

Next comes the section on recommended tools: broadfork, bed prep rake, (tilther perhaps), wheel hoe, two-wheel tractor (BCS), power harrow, rotary plow, (six-row seeder perhaps), Jang seeder, Earthway seeder, four-row pinpoint seeder (I could become a convert to this handy little tool!), stirrup hoe, collinear hoe, wire weeder, Terrateck wheel hoe with bio-discs, flex-tine weeder (looks good!), harvest knives, quick-cut greens harvester. 2023 prices are in an Appendix. I liked the home-made greens bubbler, a water tank with air bubbled into it, to agitate and clean the leaves.

Next is a section on tending your winter crops. How to have an unfrozen water supply (they don’t need any irrigation in unheated shelters in December or January). Why to avoid over-fertilizing (increased salt buildup, soil diseases, thrips and aphids). How to warm the soil, increase soil microbial activity, and rate of crop growth with landscape fabric, black plastic or rowcover. How to trap mice, and deal with pest insects when it is too cold for beneficial insects.

That section is followed by one about planning fall harvests of storage crops, which combines well with winter harvest of leafy greens, for more sales. Think not only of carrots, turnips and potatoes, but also of beets, cabbages, winter squash, parsnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi, onions, leeks, celeriac. There is. as always, encouragement to keep good records.

I really like their planting charts, where each crop is shown in its special color, occupying a physical amount of space (a column for each bed), and a time (rows for the weeks). With this plan in place, quick late summer crops can be squeezed into some beds, or cover crops. Each outgoing crop is flail-mowed, and covered with a silage tarp for two or three weeks.  The soil micro-organisms break down the plant matter under the tarp, leaving the bed ready to replant without tilling. Tarping takes longer than tilling, but the method treats the soil and micro-organisms more holistically.

The general material about fall growing is followed by crop profile pages for suitable storage crops. Their method of transplanting beets gets better germination rates and uniformly filled beds. It gives me the idea of transplanting beets from thickly-emerged areas to gaps in our direct-sown beds, as we do with fall kale. There are helpful tips about carrots following garlic (we do this) because the soil will be relatively weed-free after months of garlic mulch; growing celeriac on landscape fabric, because it is in the bed for so long; storing Napa Chinese cabbage for 3 months in closed bins at high humidity; making sure not to create cracks in kohlrabi for storage; transplanting rutabagas. I’m a big fan of transplanting, but I’m learning about more crops that transplant well.

The authors advocate the same system we use for harvesting crops in the fall: determine the winter-kill temperature for each crop, list them in descending order, and work down the list, monitoring the weather forecast.

There is encouragement to build a well-insulated room with a household air-conditioner reconfigured using the CoolBot device to run at lower temperatures. If possible, make two storage rooms, one at 50°F-59°F (10°C-15°C) and one at 32°F-39°F (0°C-4°C). This is the first time I’ve seen advice to also install a heater, for occasions when outdoor temperatures are just too cold. I think we don’t need that in Virginia, but I believe Northerners do!

There are instructions about humidity, about managing ethylene and CO2, and managing inventory. There is a two-page table of storage conditions, containers, and length of storage for thirteen crops.

The last section of the book is Growing and Selling Vegetables Year-Round. Plan not to stand in the freezing cold all day at market! Options include a CSA; an online store with once-a-week deliveries to a select few locations; restaurant sales with a weekly Fresh List. Being reliable and communicating clearly is key, as is coordinating the orders and making a harvest list for the crew.

The world needs more small-scale year-round growers, supplying local markets. In Quebec in 2020, there were more start-up farms than farms closing down – the first time in fifty years! We do not need vertical farms of hydroponic vegetables, using large amounts of energy, priding themselves, curiously enough, on not using soil to produce food. Or food-like products. The diversity and flavor of four-season vegetables grown in soil can’t be beat.

Farmers at la Ferme des Quatre-Temps

Workhorse Crops for April

 

Garlic beds in April. Cabbage under rowcover on the left, strawberry beds on the right. Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the last month in my 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 weather conditions.

Here are links to the other 11 months:

Spring is here. April is a busy month for sowing and transplanting! First the rest of the cool weather crops, then the first of the warm weather crops. Our average last frost (over the past 14 years) here in central Virginia is April 29. We reached 12 hours of daylight on the March 20 Equinox, and the days lengthen until the summer solstice.

Gentry yellow squash newly transplanted into our hoophouse, with a friendly wood sorrel!
Photo Pam Dawling

In our hoophouse we are transplanting squash, cucumbers, and peppers in April. Those crops will occupy the centers of the beds, before taking over the whole width. By that time, we will have harvested any remaining winter salad crops, and the spinach we transplanted in early March. Our greenhouse and coldframe are packed with transplants.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in April

Newly emerged beans (in rather dry soil).
Photo Pam Dawling

Beans

We sow our first green beans April 24, around our last frost date. We choose two reliable varieties, Provider and Bush Blue Lake. Or Contender. There are varieties that are more delectable and tender, like Jade, but those are less cold-tolerant, and so not good for the first planting. We soak the bean seed overnight before planting.

We sow 2 rows in a 4ft (1.2 m) wide bed, with the rows about 16” (40 cm) apart. Seeds about 3” (7 cm) apart, closer if they are leftover from last year. Bean seed does not germinate well if older than that.

We use inoculant to help the nitrogen-fixing bacteria get started. We probably have plenty in the soil by now, but early in the year, everyone is a bit slower to get moving!  We cover the beds with rowcover until the weather has settled warm.

We make 6 sowings of beans. Our sowing dates are 4/24, 5/8, 5/24, 6/8, 6/24 and 7/8. The intervals between plantings are 14, 16, 15, 16 and 14 days. This schedule has got a bit off-course and has a much earlier end date than necessary. A better set of dates would be 4/20, 5/11, 6/1, 6/22, 7/13 and 8/3, at intervals of 21 days. The rate of maturity of beans does not vary much with temperature.

Cabbage

We are not growing any storage cabbage this spring, due to those infamous staff shortages everyone is struggling with. If we had sown some in early February, we would be transplanting them April 1, and covering the bed with ProtekNet for as long as possible to keep the bugs off. If we used rowcover when we first transplanted them, we remove it in April to use elsewhere (broccoli). Cabbage to store for the summer can be a great way to have greens other than chard during hot weather.

A tidy bed of young carrots. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

From April we switch to sowing one bed per month until August. We sow our fifth carrots April 10, and our sixth in May. The April sowing takes about 11 days to germinate, depending in on the soil temperature. Our standard practice is to flame weed carrots before the seedlings emerge. In April we have lots of weeding and thinning of carrots sown earlier.

Chard

We sow chard (and leaf beet, the type of chard closest to spinach) on March 24, and transplant on April 22, with two rows in a bed, close together down the middle, to leave the paths free for us. Chard will be our main summer leafy green after the brassicas have all bolted. We usually do a mix of a multicolor type for beauty, Fordhook Giant for reliability and productivity, and Perennial Spinach leaf beet as insurance. The leaves are smaller, making it slower to pick, but it does taste more like spinach than any of the other chards, and it is very resilient.

Young sweet corn plants.;
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sweet Corn

We sow our first sweet corn on April 26, being sure to choose varieties such ads Bodacious, with good cold-soil emergence. We also sow some Speedling flats on the same day, and float them in a n outdoor tank, as a care-free way of having some backups to transplant as replacements for casualties if a late frost strikes. Our harvest goal with our fist sowing is July 4-18. Our 6 sowings of sweet corn are scheduled to give us an even continuous supply, with a new planting coming on-stream every 15 days. We harvest three times a week

Potatoes

Potatoes can be planted here in April, but we prefer to divide our planting in two, half in march, half in June. Click the link for more about every stage of potato growing .

A row of squash plants with ProtekNet to keep bugs off until flowering.
Photo Pam Dawling

Summer Squash/Zucchini

We transplant our first outdoor summer squash and zucchini (as well as the ones we grow earlier in the hoophouse). We start them in the greenhouse March 27, in 6×12 Speedling flats. Those cells are bigger than the Winstrip 50 cells. We like Tender Gray 42d zucchini, a light-colored Middle Eastern variety, and Zephyr 54d yellow squash with distinctive green tips. We transplant them 4/21 with rowcover or ProtekNet to keep the striped cucumber beetles away. Other squash pests (Squash bugs, Squash Borers) are not such a problem for us. From the second sowing onwards, we direct sow outdoors, as the soil has warmed up by then. We often transplant or sow nasturtiums in among the squash (or the cucumbers) to deter cucumber beetles. We also enjoy the flowers.

Greenhouse sowings for later transplanting outside, and other greenhouse work

In April in the greenhouse, we sow our watermelons, and paste tomatoes if we’re growing those, and some non-workhorse crops, of course.

Watermelon transplants in a Winstrip plug flat. Watermelons give earlier harvests from transplants, and plants in plug flats transplant easier then from open flats.
Photo Pam Dawling

Watermelon

Watermelons need warm soil. We’re not growing any this year. Our method has been to sow them in Winstrip 50-cell trays in the greenhouse April 26, and transplant them into biodegradable plastic mulch (with drop tape under it) May 11. (We use 3’ (1 m) spacing with rows 66” (1.7 m) apart. We rowcover the transplants for 3 weeks, until flowering, and then remove the covers to allow pollination to happen.)

Winter Squash.

Winter squash is normally such a lovely, easy crop! Direct sow, water, thin, hoe, till between the rows until the vines run, then ignore them (apart from watering) until September. We have mostly grown Moschata types as they have the best resistance to squash bugs, and they store really well. Our favorites include Waltham butternut, Cha-cha Kabocha, Cheese Pumpkins, Jarrahdale squash and the giant Tahitian Butternut. We direct sow May 26, but if there are particular challenges with constant rain preventing us preparing the soil, we have transplanted, from cells sown in late April.

Potting Up

Pepper transplants in our greenhouse. Photo Kathryn Simmons

We pot up the peppers and eggplant for transplanting outdoors in May. Eggplant needs to be kept above 55°F (13°C), peppers above 50°F (10°C) and tomatoes above 45°F (7°C).

Sweet Potato Slips

Also, we continue cutting sweet potato slips. I covered growing sweet potato slips last week.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in the Hoophouse in April: Squash, Cucumbers, Peppers

North edge bed in our hoophouse flagged up for digging holes to plant peppers.
Photo Pam Dawling

We plant one bed each of these crops, measuring and digging holes 2’ (60 cm) apart down the center of the bed, and adding a shovelful of compost to each hole. We do not clear the winter crops from the beds before transplanting the new crops. We value the extra month of greens we can harvest this way. When the new crops are small, they don’t need the whole space, and I’ve even thought that the slight shade from the greens helps the new transplants settle in.

We grow a bush (non-vining) cucumber Spacemaster, and two early squashes, sometimes Golden Glory zucchini and Zephyr. The bell peppers are Lady Bell, Gilboa (orange) and Revolution, all fairly early, big, thick-fleshed  and tasty.

Hoophouse Tomatoes

In April we install the posts for tomatoes (hopefully we won’t need to use rowcover at nights any more, and start string-weaving. We use the Florida string-weaving (or basket-weaving) technique to support our plants. More about that task in future.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in April

Asparagus

Asparagus photo Kathryn Simmons

The asparagus harvest season usually begins for us in early April. Well prior to that date we root out early weeds.  Then we fertilize with fish meal and greensand or a complete fertilizer, or add a thick layer of rich compost (if we did not do this in the fall), spread over the whole bed.  Next, mulch to a depth of at least 4” (10 cm) for weed control, with wood chips, wood chip horse bedding, sawdust, straw or old hay (although hay may include weed seeds).

I recommend snapping asparagus spears at ground level – cutting them below the soil surface risks damaging emerging spears. Harvest in the early morning, as the spears are easier to snap before they warm up. Snapped asparagus is almost all tender and usable – the tough lower ends remain in the soil. If you expect a frosty night, harvest all spears, regardless of size, as they will otherwise freeze and be wasted. We have sometimes done a second (afternoon) harvest, if we’ve noticed a cold forecast. During the harvest season, ensure the asparagus gets 2” (5 cm) water each week.

At the beginning of the season, when the weather is cooler, spears can grow to 9-10” (22-25 cm) before ferning out, but in warmer weather, they will open out at a shorter height.  So, expect to harvest shorter spears in warmer weather. To keep life simple, we tell our crew to pick any spears 7” (17 cm) or taller. You may prefer to change the required length according to the temperature. Harvest anything of the right length, regardless of thickness. For pest management, we pick and later discard skinny, tough spears, and any that are ferning out. (Slender stems are not more tender than large ones, quite the contrary.) We harvest the entire patch every single day as a way of controlling asparagus beetles – no spears are left long enough to leaf out, and beetle eggs are removed (on the spears) and cannot hatch. The eggs are harmless, and can be washed off after harvest by spraying with water, or tub-washing.

We harvest into short buckets so that the spears will be standing on end when the bucket is upright. We add a small amount of water, to keep the spears fresh, and hurry the buckets to a cooler at 34-40°F (1-5°C).

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons

First year after the planting year

Trials now show that asparagus yields more long-term if it is lightly harvested for 2-4 weeks in the first year after the planting year, in contrast to previous directions to wait 3 or 4 years. Stop harvesting after 4 weeks at the most, as soon as the thickness of most of the spears is less than the size of a pencil.

After the first (short) harvest season, let the spears grow tall and fern out. The photosynthesis of the ferns feeds the crowns and strengthens them for next year’s growth. Established asparagus is fairly drought-tolerant, but immature plantings need 1” (2.5 cm) of water each week. By the fall ferns will be 4-5’ (1.2-1.5 m) tall. Apply compost every year in the fall or winter.

Second year culture

In late February or March, we weed, spread compost (if we didn’t do it in the fall) and mulch to a depth of at least 3” (7.5 cm). We harvest for perhaps 5 or 6 weeks in the second year after the planting year. Stop picking when the thickness of most stems is less than a pencil. By the end of this second season the asparagus ferns will likely reach a height 6-8’ (1.8-2.4 m).

Third year and future years

Weed, spread compost, mulch, harvest and irrigate, weed, mulch. Pick asparagus for perhaps 6 weeks in the third production year, stopping when the spears are thin. By the fifth year you should reach a maximum harvest season of 8-9 weeks.

Chard – our hoophouse chard is growing at a good rate. This winter we started late, and so we have only been able to harvest the chard small, for salad mixes. In April we will get leaves large enough to cook.

Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

Collards and Kale can be harvested all month (over-wintered plants) until they start bolting. The spring-planted ones outdoors are ready from mid-April.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one!

Garlic scallions are still available to harvest here. We dig the plants once the leaves have reached at least 7” (18 cm). Wash and trim, cook and enjoy! Some years we have made a big planting, and it has provided for us into May (when they will start to bulb).

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in April

Our Red and White Russian kales are now producing well. These are Siberian-type kales, that keep growing (a bit!) in cold weather. We harvest the outer leaves and stand them on end in a bucket in a little water. The wilt very easily, so we try to keep them in the shade and get them to the cooler promptly.

Workhorse Crops from Storage in April

In April we can eat cabbage carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash from storage, while they last. We do still have potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Also we have frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

Workhorse Crops Special Topic for April: Rowcover

A rowcovered bed of turnips.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Use rowcover to keep new transplants outdoors protected from cold until they are acclimated and /or the weather warms up. In the hoophouse in April we use rowcover on possible frosty nights, to protect our new tender crops.

Rowcover is lightweight, easy to use, and easy to store. Its biggest challenge is that you need to hold down the edges with bags of rocks or sand, plastic jugs of water, or metal or wooden stakes rolled in the edges, to stop it blowing open or even blowing away!

To protect against cold, you need thick rowcover. We think polypropylene rowcover lasts longer and is tougher than polyester (Reemay). We like Dupont Xavan 5131 (aka Typar). 1.25 oz/sq yd spunbonded polypropylene, with 75% light transmission, and about 6 F (3.3 C) degrees of frost protection. It can last for 6 years or more.

Thinner types are made to protect from insects – if you already have thin rowcover You can double it up for cold weather use. Thinner types are very fragile and are easily torn by inexperienced helpers.

Double hoop system for winter rowcover.
Pam Dawling

Hoops keep rowcover from sticking to frozen leaves and reduce abrasion. For winter we made double wire hoops. 9- or 10-gauge wire inner hoops, 22 gauge outer hoops, every 6ft (2 m) down the length of the row.

See Workhorse Crops for March for info on Predicting Frost

Blueberries.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

For my next series of crops for the month, I’m planning to write about small fruits (berries and melons)

May at Twin Oaks in central Virginia

Hoophouse tomatoes in early May Photo Bridget Aleshire
Hoophouse tomatoes in early May
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Last night (May 15) we had a low temperature of 35F. This seems oh-so-late. I put rowcover over our two beds of outdoor tomatoes but forgot the two beds of beans! But the heavy rains are over for now, and we are tilling where we can and getting ready for lots of transplanting.

We are currently harvesting kale, collards, garlic scallions, garlic scapes, rhubarb, lettuce and the last of the spinach outdoors. From storage we have sweet potatoes, carrots and beets.Our spring senposai failed (probably not enough watering after transplanting). Soon we’ll have broccoli and early cabbage and radishes.

Our first yellow squash in the hoophouse mid-May. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Our first yellow squash in the hoophouse mid-May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire
Hoophouse Snap peas 5 Winnie web
Sugar Ann snap peas in our hoophouse. Photo Bridget Aleshire

From the hoophouse we have our first squash and our last spinach, as well as snap peas. I have lots more photos but this morning our internet service is being very very slow, and I’m out of time. Before closing I’ll just tell you about the Twin Oaks Herb Garden Tour and Tea:

Twin Oaks Herb Garden Photo Bridget Aleshire
Twin Oaks Herb Garden
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Join Hildegard and Ira for a Guided Tour of the Twin Oaks Herb Garden in Louisa, Virginia, on Saturday, May 21, 2016.

Choose from two times:

  • with Morning Tea (10 am to noon)
  • with Afternoon Tea (1 pm to 3 pm)

Tour our verdant herb garden and enjoy assorted sweet & savory herbal treats and teas. You’ll receive recipes and have time to chat with our herbalist. Plants from the garden will be available for purchase. 

For more information or to reserve your space email:
hild@twinoaks.org

Insect mesh, shadecloth, crimson clover, sowing corn, too much rain

May2016_cover_300pxThe May issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about protecting crops in the summer, using shadecloth and insect mesh (netting).

If you want to grow lots of summer crops in buggy places, net houses (hoophouses covered with insect mesh rather than poly) may be your answer. If the bugs are not tiny, small mesh shade cloth may be an even better choice than insect mesh, because it cools while keeping the critters out. Search for project FS13-275 at http://www.southernsare.org. The document High Tunnel Pest Exclusion System: A novel strategy for organic crop production in the south is available from a link in that report.

Shade cloth on a bed of lettuce in summer. Photo Nina Gentle
Shade cloth on a bed of lettuce in summer.
Photo Nina Gentle

I write about using shade cloth for cool weather crops like lettuce during the summer, and also about research into the improvements to yields of peppers when using shadecloth. 30% shade cloth can increase pepper yields by 100% (yes, double the yield!). See the University of Georgia paper Shading helps south Georgia pepper farmers beat the heat. For hot weather lettuce, we use 45-60% shade cloth on spring hoops 6-8 feet apart, with a plastic clothespin to attach it at each hoop.  Shadecloth lets air through better than row cover does, so it’s less likely to blow away. We don’t use any weight to hold the edges down. We keep the shade cloth on for 2-3 weeks after transplanting, then move it on to the next planting, in a single operation. 2 or 3 people pull up the hoops with the shade cloth still attached, and parade it like a Chinese dragon procession.We cover our hoophouse from mid-May to mid-September with shadecloth. Photo Kathryn Simmons

We cover our hoophouse from mid-May to mid-September with shadecloth.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Rowcover (white polypro or polyester non-woven fabric) is often used by growers in cold weather to extend the season. There are also lightweight rowcovers for insect exclusion. These can be fragile, and holey row cover doesn’t keep insects out! We switched to only buying thick rowcover and use it  for some crops even in summer. It doesn’t heat up as much as people fear. Johnnys Seeds has a helpful row cover comparison chart

ProtekNet over kale transplants in August. Photo by Bridget Aleshire
ProtekNet over kale transplants in August.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

But even better for protecting plants against bugs in summer is ProtekNet, a translucent polyamide (nylon) fabric which comes in different mesh sizes. it allows better airflow than rowcover, and better light permeability (from the plants’ perspective) – visibility from the human perspective. Dubois offers free shipping on online orders over $200. ProtekNet is also available from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland, and  Johnnys Seeds in Maine.


Also in this issue of Growing for Market Jane Tanner writes about the benefits of no-till farming, in building topsoil, encouraging soil micro-organisms and reducing weed pressure.  She writes about several farms, all following the model of small acreage, intensively farmed, mostly with manual tools. This system, advocated by Jean-Martin Fortier in The Market Gardener, includes “occultation”, the practice of covering damp soil with heavy black plastic for several weeks to kill weeds. This article includes photos of occultation and a clear explanation. Cover crops are another important feature of this system. I found this a particularly information-packed article, one I will return to.

9221576_origKarin Tifft writes about IPM tools (Integrated Pest Management) for small and organic farms, making the topic accessible to those of us with only a short amount of reading time! We can read enough now to make some actual differences to our pest levels. Later we’ll want to read more, as results pile up.

Nikki Warner writes with advice for managing a farmers market, and Ralph Thurston and Jeriann Sabin write about starting a flower farm (Excerpted  from their book Deadhead: The Bindweed Way to Grow Flowers with their permission.)


We sowed our first corn on Thursday. the soil temperature was 60F, so we were OK on that score. But then it rained and rained. The soil is saturated. I wonder if the corn seed will rot in the ground? Also the bean we sowed last week. Was I too hasty? We’ll see.


Meanwhile, a cheery sight has been the flowering crimson clover cover crop

Crimson clover cover crop Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Crimson clover cover crop
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

This patch is where our fall broccoli was last year. We under-sowed with a mix of crimson clover, Ladino white clover and medium red clover. If you look closely you can see the white patterned leaves of the red clover and the tiny leaves of the white clover in the understory. Also the seeding chickweed, which will disappear as soon as we bush hog the patch. Our goal here is to maintain the clovers all year, adding nitrogen to the soil for next year’s food crop and swamping the weeds. We’ll mow every time it looks weedy.

Winter rye and crimson clover cover crop Photo by McCune Porter
Winter rye and crimson clover cover crop
Photo by McCune Porter

In this second picture, you can see a patch where we sowed winter rye mixed with crimson clover in late October as a winter cover crop. In most places the rye is taller than the clover, so it’s not as overwhelmingly pretty as the first patch, but it’s packing a lot of biomass to feed the soil. It will get disked in soon (when the soil dries enough!), in preparation for later sweet corn sowings.

Adapting to a wet spring, using cold frames

Our greenhouse full of seedlings in spring. Photo by Ira Wallace
Our greenhouse full of seedlings in spring.
Photo by Ira Wallace

Our greenhouse is full of flats of seedlings. Today is warm and sunny. At last! The soil is still too wet to till, but we are feeling more optimistic. The forecast still has possibilities of rain Tuesday night (only about 0.1″) and snow Friday night (less than an inch). Soon we will start moving flats from the greenhouse to our cold frames so the plants can harden off in preparation for transplanting in the raised beds. Usually we would have done this earlier, but it has been cold.

Our greenhouse construction is a masonry north wall and double-paned glass windows and insulated walls. Until last winter we didn’t use any additional heating, just the sun. But we now use an electric heater with the thermostat set so heat comes on if the temperature drops below 45F. We decided our seedlings are too precious to risk freezing them, and the weather is more extreme. We also put row cover over the seedling flats if the night temperature could fall below 18F outdoors. Once we have frost tender plants outside the plastic tent (which has a heat mat), we put row cover over those if the outdoor low temperature could be below 28F.

Our cold frames are built from loose set cinder blocks, higher on the north than the south. Following advice from Eliot Coleman in one of his older books, I think Four Season Harvest, we slope the soil in our cold frames. It’s higher at the north, by about 7 degrees, so the plants get better sun exposure.

In late summer, we dig compost into the soil in the frames, rake it up to the angle we want, and sow the spinach in mid-September.

Digging compost into our cold frames in early September. Photo by Wren Vile
Digging compost into our cold frames in early September.
Photo by Wren Vile

The spinach grows in the ground in the cold frame all winter.When it gets cold enough, we cover with row cover. During cold spells we add lids which are wood frames with fiberglass glazing. For very cold nights we cover the cold frames with quilts which are made from reject scraps of the quilted hammocks Twin Oaks sells. Because they are made for outdoor use, the fabrics are very durable.

Here’s how we look after our cold frames in spring:

  • If there is only spinach in the frames (no flats), use rowcover for temps >10F, rowcover and lids for <10F. No need to open and close every day, just remove or add lids if the weather is changing. See below about windy nights.
  • When there are flats in the frames, at night, use the rowcover for temperatures 32-40F, rowcover+lids for 15-40F, rowcover+lids+quilts for temps below 15F. If winds are forecast to be more than 20mph, weight down the lids with wood. If you’re using the quilts, weight them down for winds more than 5mph.
  • In the morning, if the temperature is over 20F, roll up the frame quilts if used.
  • If the air temperature is over 50F, or over 45F and rapidly warming, open the cold frame lids if used, and remove any rowcover over flats, until it cools down again. Seedlings need to harden off, to prepare them to survive outdoors.
  • Keep cabbage and broccoli over 40F, tomatoes, eggplant, celeriac over 45F, peppers over 50F.
  • Flats of seedlings which have been up for a couple of weeks usually need to go to the cold frames for the last two weeks before their transplant date. Good to check about this though, and don’t do it if the weather is about to turn colder. Don’t put celery, eggplant, cucumbers, squash or hoophouse starts in the coldframe at all.
  • If the soil surface is dry, run the drip irrigation for the spinach, or use the hose and sprayer for the flats. If frost is possible, disconnect the hose from the faucet and the sprayer head from the hose when finished, so that they do not freeze and burst at night. Please store the sprayer head in the blocks, don’t get sawdust or dirt in it, it’s a pain to clean. If the outdoor faucet is drained, carry water in cans from the greenhouse. Keep soil surfaces damp, not wet.
Our greenhouse and cold frames in spring with flats of seedlings. Photo by Kathryn Simmons
Our greenhouse and cold frames in spring with flats of seedlings.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

For a few years we have had trouble with voles eating the roots of the spinach. We found that if we replaced the spinach with flats of seedlings, they ate all the seedlings! So now, we leave the frames empty for a few days after clearing the spinach (any day now). Then we cover the soil with landscape fabric and put the flats on that. it saves our seedlings.

 

Peterson Pawpaws Success, more cold weather, sturdy seedlings

ffac5b6bec40f9b6194c44df0fe3126d_originalphoto-1024x768A few weeks ago I wrote about Neal Peterson’s Kickstarter campaign to raise money to pay for trademarks for the six varieties of pawpaw he has been breeding during the last 38 years. This will enable him to export the plants to nurseries in japan and Europe, which are enthusiastic to stock his varieties. The great news is that the Kickstarter Campaign has been successful, with less than 22 hours to go. He’d still accept more donations, naturally, to help defray costs. The website has lots of interesting information, including his video, an NPR video report, the history of this project, some photos of pawpaws from his varieties, press reviews, and an explanation of why trademarks are necessary and important for exports like this. Congratulations Neal! And all the best with the enterprise!


Snow Yucca. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Snow Yucca.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

Yes, more cold weather! We had been planning to have garden shifts four times a week, with up to ten people working for three hours each shift. None of this has happened since it started to snow on Monday 16 February. The garden has been inaccessible, under snow and ice. That’s 180 hours of work we haven’t done, and the prospect is for losing another 180 and even then the soil will be too wet to till.

Oh well! This gives us time to sharpen tools, repair them and cold frame lids and wooden flats. On that subject, Cindy Conner has written about using wood flats on her blog Homeplace Earth. She writes about different sizes of wood flat. Her choice would be 8 x 18¾” x 3-4″. We make two sizes: 12 x 24 x 3″ for seedlings and 12 x 24 x 4″ for spotted out seedlings, as I said in my reply to the comment by Jeff. I prefer cedar or pine, rather than oak (which we have lots of). This is mostly about the weight, but also that oak gets splintery, and I’ve had too many hand injuries while enthusiastically spotting seedlings. After we decided No More Oak Flats we made a new batch in cedar. We made them 15 x 24 x 4″ and those are now heavier than I care to lift once they are full of compost and plants. They (along with other flats) make great sweet potato storage boxes, though!

Sweet potatoes stored in off-duty wood seed flats. Credit Nina Gentle
Sweet potatoes curing in off-duty wood seed flats.
Credit Nina Gentle

All the plants in our hoophpouse and our greenhouse have survived the horrific weather (down to -12F one night!). We have been covering the plants at night with thick rowcover, which we have only needed to do on occasional super-cold nights in the past few years. We have also started using an electric heater in the greenhouse, with the thermostat set to 45F, to fend off the worst. Our efforts have been worthwhile, and we have a hoophouse full of food (very fortunate considering that we can’t get at the spinach, leeks and kale in the outdoor garden). We also have very sturdy seedlings in the greenhouse. The tomato plants (for the hoophouse in mid-March) are in the greenhouse on a heating mat under a poly tent. They look very good indeed. Here’s a picture from a previous year.

This time next week? Tomato seedlings potted up in the greenhouse.  Credit Kathryn Simmons
This time next week? Tomato seedlings potted up in the greenhouse.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Recent garden work

The heart of a Chinese Cabbage in our hoophouse. Photo Ethan Hirsh
The heart of a Chinese Cabbage in our hoophouse.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Today we have a snowstorm again. Tonight is forecast to be much colder than usual for this time of year – 0-4F. I’ve been out in the hoophouse bouncing snow off the roof with the bristle end of a broom. I did harvest a bucket of salad mix and two buckets of Chinese cabbage, which was starting to bolt. I set the buckets of produce outside for a short while and the veg started to freeze! I was busy rolling out rowcover over the beds. This is the first winter we have needed rowcover for winter crops, sigh.

Meanwhile, over in the greenhouse we have thousands of small seedlings. I covered all those with rowcover too, and put the potted-up tomatoes back in the germinator-fridge cabinet, where they can get some warmth (if the power doesn’t go out). I plugged in an electric heater set at 45F. I have never ever needed to do this before. Climate change does add stress to the farmer’s life, and more possibility of losing crops. Sigh again.

Before this snow though, we managed to make good progress outdoors. While the soil was still really wet from the last snow-melt we pruned blueberries and grapes.

Our grape rows from the north.  Photo Kathryn Simmons
Our grape rows from the north.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This photo of our grapes was taken a couple of years ago, slightly later in the year. You can see the vines are budding out, and the rhubarb is coming up. Our grapes are mostly Concord, a variety good for juice and jelly, which is disease-resistant (important on the East Coast). We use the Geneva Double Curtain training style, which lets more sunlight and air in, a distinct advantage in our humid summers.

Our older blueberry patch in the spring. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Our older blueberry patch in the spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

As soon as the soil dried out, we tilled all the beds we’d spread compost on, and started prepping them for planting. Because of the cold weather forecast, I didn’t want us to start transplanting spinach or onions, even though we are later than most years with those. We did sow two beds of carrots, so we’ve made a start! It felt good to make so much progress, even though I knew we’d have to sit indoors again today and probably tomorrow too. The only other thing we’ve planted outside this year is a small patch of shallots. But we’re on our way!

What’s still standing after two nights below 0F?

Recently I reported on which crops were still alive after two nights at 14F (-10C) and What’s still alive after two nights at 4F?  We’ve now had the Polar Vortex, which brought us two nights at 4F, on 1/6 and 1/7. Then it got even colder.We got the Big Round 0F 1/22-1/23, then a few nights at 5F or 6F, and then the big insult: -4F on the night of 1/29-30.

What’s still standing?

The Tyee spinach under thick rowcover has sustained big damage, showing as patches of beige dead cells. It will recover. Meanwhile we can eat from the more-protected spinach in the coldframes and the hoophouse.

The Vates  kale without rowcover is still alive, but badly damaged. The big leaves are crunchy and brown round the edges, and some of the inner leaves are dead. I hope it will grow back, but we won’t be able to pick that for a while. The Beedy’s Camden kale looks worse – the big leaves have died and flopped over. Not sure if it will recover.

Many of our strawberry plants look dead – very disappointing!

Our hardneck garlic and Polish White softneck tops are killed back to about one inch up from the mulch. Equally hardy, it seems. 

We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. After the 4F assault we still had life in the centers of the Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest. Now only the Winter Marvel shows any signs of life. So that variety gets the prize for cold-tolerance here!

Red Round Turnip. Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Red Round Turnip.
Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover every night it looked like dropping below 10F inside. Almost everything survived – we only got some minor stem freezing on some turnips and Asian greens. We have been eating Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana, Yukina Savoy, various turnips and their greens (Hakurei, White Egg, Oasis, Red Round), also plenty of lettuce leaves, radishes, scallions, and some spinach. We lost our second sowing of spinach in there to over watering and flooding, and we are really noticing the lack right now. We’re short on spinach. We have small amounts of mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bright Lights chard, Bulls Blood beets to add to salad mixes, and Red Russian and White Russian kale growing slowly.

In January we have taken to sowing spinach, kale and collards in a hoophouse bed to transplant outdoors in early spring. We back this up with sowing some in flats if we don’t get good emergence for some reason. This year emergence is late. Is it just late, or is there a problem? We’re holding our breath for a few more days. . .

GFM_February2014_cover_300pxWe are not the only people tracking the effects of the unusually cold weather. The February Growing for Market magazine opens with an article by Ben Hartman “Testing the Limits of Cold Tolerance”. He farms in Goshen, Indiana, using two double-layer plastic greenhouses heated to 30F (yes. I said heated!) and two unheated. They planted kale, carrots, spinach, salad greens and arugula in their greenhouses for winter harvest. Their outdoor temperatures fell to -16F on 1/6 and 1/7. I imagine they’ve had worse since. They used mid-weight rowcover over their beds. Ben reports that baby greens and young spinach survived, as did their rosemary and their 3 fig trees (all farmers deserve some thrills!). They lost baby salad greens that had already been cut previously (all those cut edges didn’t do well). Crops in the outer beds were lost. The tips of full-grown kale leaves froze, but the plants survived.

In their unheated, single-skin plastic hoophouses, the soil froze down to 4″. They used two layers of mid-weight rowcover suspended over the crops. Despite this cold,  tiny salad greens less than 1″ tall survived. Spinach survived under just one layer of rowcover. The carrot tops froze and the roots may or may not be marketable. The (uncovered) fully mature kale looks dead. The mature salad with two layers of rowcover didn’t survive.

From this experience, Ben points out that salad greens and spinach less than 1″ tall are very cold-tolerant. Spinach and kale once larger, benefit from more protection than they got this time. Beware the outer beds!

My own article in this issue is about matching crop spacing with desired goals, such as maximum yield, optimum size, or convenience for cultivation.

Andrew Mefford has written some greenhouse tips for hoophouse growers, including tomato grafting, trellising. Chris Blanchard has written the second part of his piece on growing herbs – this is about harvest and maintenance. Erin Benzakain has undertaken a 59-variety trial of celosia.

 

Sowing beets, radishes and kale, transplanting cabbage.

Cylindra Beets. Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Cylindra Beets.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In line with my advice in the August issue of Growing for Market magazine, we are working on our First Chance to start again with the spring and fall crops. We sowed beets, and I found out I meant to order more seed before this point. In spring we sowed our beets with the Earthway seeder,EarthWay rather than our more usual manual sowing of lightly soaked seed. I was working on my own and rain was approaching, so I just used the seeder with dry seed. The radish plate was best for the Cylindra beets, if I remember right. Consequently I used more seed. We’ve managed to sow of the three beds we intended.

I put in a hasty online order to Fedco. After clicking Send I remembered we need more carrot seed too. Argh! Happily the people at Fedco are so helpful that they agreed to my email request to add carrot seed to the order. We love buying from Fedco. They don’t waste our money on glossy catalogs. They offer great bulk discounts. And the newsprint catalog is full of pithy comments on food politics. Fedco is one of the main three seed companies we buy from – along with Johnny’s and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

We did have enough carrot seed to complete our large fall planting (3 beds of five rows at 265′ – almost 4000ft). But we want to try a slightly later bed of carrots to overwinter. It worked well last year – the voles stayed away. Last August I blogged about fall carrot planting in my post Risking zombie carrots. The year before we ended up not managing to weed all our fall carrots, so we mowed them for weed control, then left them overwinter. We were able to harvest them in the early spring.

Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale Photo by Kathryn Simmons
Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Today we sowed winter radish and two beds of Vates kale. Next up are turnips and more kale. We sow two beds every four days until we have enough established. The rain today is perfect. I think the first two beds should have no problem germinating. The rain will also help the big carrot planting. I have been running a sprinkler overnight on them, but it takes five nights to get all the way to the bottom of the patch. And one night the well meter stopped working and it stopped the water running. So that night was a loss as far as irrigation went. We did the pre-emergence flame-weeding of the carrot beds on Saturday, thinking they might germinate Monday (and no-one wanted that flaming job on Sunday), but in fact they only started germinating this morning.

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

Our evening transplanting shifts have gone very well. If it isn’t raining too hard this evening, we should be able to finish tonight. That’s a mere ten shifts. Sometimes it takes us a lot longer. The unknown is how much time we’ll need to spend replacing casualties, but I think 3 evenings max. We have run the drip irrigation every evening while we are working there, and some more on dry days. We’ve had some rain too, which helps. I haven’t had a thorough look under the rowcovers, but there are shadowy green things in most of the right places, so I’m optimistic. The peculiarly mild temperatures have made transplanting the overgrown plants easier than it could have been. Feels like we are making up for lost time.

The past few weeks in our garden

I’m just back from vacation. It’s a very lucky farmer who gets two weeks away in the height of summer – one of the benefits of living in community. (See the Twin Oaks website for more on that). The rest of the crew took care of things, and I missed the hottest week of the year (so far). Here’s some of the jobs I missed:

A much delayed planting of the summer potatoes on 7/18 (a whole month later than usual). Our smaller tractor was out of commission for a month, and when it came back, people were lining up to use it. We bought some new furrowers In June, but I missed seeing them in action. Our previous equipment didn’t make deep enough furrows, leading to potatoes popping up above the soil and turning green. We mulch our summer potatoes immediately after hilling, which is immediately after planting, so there is no chance of hilling again later. We like to mulch (with hay) to keep the soil damper and cooler in the hot weather.

Our Cecchi and Magli potato digger
Our Cecchi and Magli potato digger
Potatoes lifted Oct 09
An October 2009 picture of our lifted potatoes.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

I also missed the harvest of the spring potatoes. We had hoped to do this earlier too, but mowing the tops was delayed and so the skins didn’t thicken up till 7/22. The potatoes are now safely in the root cellar, and I’m opening the door at night to cool them and to provide fresh air. Newly harvested potatoes are still live plants, still respiring and so still need oxygen.  I learned this the hard way years ago, when I didn’t ventilate the cellar enough. The potatoes died in the centers (the condition is called Black Heart). A very disappointing waste of good food. Later the potatoes will go dormant, and won’t need daily air exchanges.

Our root cellar. Credit McCune Porter
Our root cellar.
Credit McCune Porter

We follow the spring potatoes with the fall broccoli and cabbage, a slightly hair-raising fast turnaround. We have composted and disked the patch, set out driptape, stakes and ropes, rowcover and sticks to hold it down. Because of Harlequin bugs, we need to cover the new transplants for a few weeks until they have the strength to withstand the bugs. So we plant rows 34″ apart, under ropes on stakes. One piece of 84″ rowcover will form a square tunnel over two rows of brassicas. The rowcover is held up by the ropes.

This evening will be the first of many transplanting shifts. Because we are late, the transplants are larger than ideal. Ironically, this year the first sowings germinated very well, grew very well, and the bugs didn’t get under the ProtekNet. Fabulous transplants and they’ve had to wait and wait. Hopefully we can make up for some lost time by really putting our shoulders to the wheel and planting efficiently. having driptape really helps. We turn it on while we plant and so the plants get a drink as soon as they are in the ground. Watering is not a separate job.

While I’ve been away, the eggplants, pickling cucumbers, cantaloupes and okra have all started to produce. We are trying some West Indian Gherkins this year for the first time. I’ll let you know how the pickles turn out. They are strange things, like miniature prickly watermelons. Very prolific, disease-resistant and heat tolerant. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, though.

West Indian Gherkins
West Indian Gherkins
Credit Monticello Store