Hoophouse seasonal transition to tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers

This past weekend I was at the Organic Growers School spring conference in Asheville, NC. I presented my workshop on Spring and Summer Hoophouses twice. This link will take you to a blog post where you can get the handout. An older version of the slideshow is at this SlideShare link. Later this week I will tweak the presentation a little and upload the revised version. It wasn’t very spring-like in Asheville. We got 3″ snow, but gardeners and farmers are a hardy lot, and attendance was still good. My workshops were packed (the room was quite small).


Young tomato plant in our hoophouse.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Now I’m home and we had snow in the forecast for Monday night, but got ice pellets instead. The worst of the weather passed us by. It’s still very cold though, and so we are delaying transplanting our early tomatoes in our hoophouse, which we had scheduled for 3/15 and 3/16. The photo above shows where we’re headed: sturdy transplants in the middle of the bed, with wire hoops to hold rowcover on cold nights. Here’s where we are now:

March hoophouse bed prepared for tomato planting.
Photo Wren Vile

When we make the transition from hoophouse winter crops to early spring crops, we don’t clear the whole bed. First we harvest out the greens down the middle of the bed, then measure and dig holes every two feet and put a shovelful of compost in each hole. Within a couple of weeks after transplanting the tomatoes, we harvest the greens on the south side of the bed, as they will block light from the new crop. After that we harvest the greens on the north side. This allows us to keep the greens later, which covers the time (the Hungry Gap) until the new spring plantings of outdoor greens start to produce.

Tomato transplants in March, ready to plant in our hoophouse in milder weather.
Photo Wren Vile

Meanwhile the tomato transplants are in pots in our greenhouse, where we can keep them warmer at night with rowcover. Our greenhouse stays warmer at night than our double-poly hoophouse. It has a solid north wall and double-pane glass windows (old patio doors).

We use the same method for our peppers, cucumbers and yellow squash, transplanted 4/1. In the photo below you can see the winter crop of Bulls Blood beets, which we grow for leaves for salad mixes, discarded beet stems, young squash plants and one of the wire hoops that hold rowcover on freezing nights.

Young summer squash plants in the hoophouse, surrounded by Bulls Blood beets.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

In the hoophouse we have three crop seasons:

  1. winter crops planted in the fall, harvested November to April (some spinach to May)
  2. early warm weather crops planted in March and April, harvested June and July (peppers to November)
  3. high summer crops planted in July and harvested August to October.

 

Cover crops slideshow, Hoophouse style and design article

Last week I went to the annual conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, held at Hot Springs Resort, Virginia. There were about 430 attendees, a big increase from last year. I gave two presentations, Spring and Summer Hoophouses, and Cover Crops. Here’s the Cover Crops slideshow.

In case you were there and missed the handouts, here they are:

Spring and Summer Hoophouses Handout

Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers 4pg Handout 2016

Crimson clover is a beautiful and useful cover crop.
Photo Kathryn Simmons


My next two events are

Jan 25-28, 2017 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference Location: Hyatt Regency Hotel and Convention Center, 401 West High St, Lexington, KY 40507. 888 421 1442, 800 233 1234. Registration: http://www.ssawg.org/registration

I’m presenting two brand new 90 minute workshops: Diversify your Vegetable Crops (Friday 2-3.30pm) and Storage Vegetables for Off-Season Sales (Saturday 8.15-9.45 am). Workshops will be recorded. Book signing (Thursday 5pm) and sales.

Feb 1-4 2017 PASA Farming for the Future Conference 2000 people Location: Penn Stater Convention Center, State College, PA Registration: http://conference.pasafarming.org/

I’m presenting three 80 minute Workshops: Sweet Potatoes, (Friday Feb 2 12.50pm), Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops,  (Saturday 8.30am), and Succession Planting, (Sat 3.40pm). Workshops will be recorded. Book-signings and sales.

Sweet potato harvest 2014
Photo Nina Gentle


The January 2017 issue of Growing for Market is out. It includes my article on Hoophouse style and design. As well as the Gothic/Quonset
decision and that on whether to choose  roll-up, drop-down or no sidewalls, this article discusses roads, utilities, irrigation, in-ground insulation, end-wall design, inflation, airflow fans, and bed layout to match your chosen method of cultivation.

Other articles include Barbara Damrosch on flower production on a small vegetable farm (beautiful photos!), Emily Oakley on planning to  grow only what you can sell (words of wisdom), Eric and Joanna Reuter with part two of their series online weather tools for farmers, Jed Beach on how to avoid and fix common financial mistakes we farmers make, and Jane Tanner on local food hubs. Plenty of good reading!

The first issue of Growing for Market that I ever picked up (years ago) had an article about flame-weeding carrots. I realized that that one article was going to save us more than the price of a subscription. Just one good idea, clearly explained, can save so much wasted time!

We won’t starve or get scurvy! Plenty of food in the winter hoophouse!
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Speaking Events, Good Reading, Sustainable Agriculture Courses

Photo by Karen Lanier

Photo by Karen Lanier

I’ve got my Events Page organized now, so you can check there whenever you’re wondering where I might show up next, addressing a conference or a classroom.

In January, I will be speaking at two conferences: VABF and SSAWG.

January 10-11 (Tuesday and Wednesday) 2017, Virginia Biological Farming Conference http://vabf.org/conference/  Location: Omni Homestead Resort, 7696 Sam Snead Highway, Hot Springs, VA. 800 838 1766. Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/2017-virginia-biological-farming-conference-tickets-28261472826.

Two 90 minute workshops: Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers and Spring and Summer Hoophouses. Book signing and sales.

Jan 25-28, 2017 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference http://www.ssawg.org/january-2017-conference/ Location: Hyatt Regency Hotel and Convention Center, 401 West High St, Lexington, KY 40507. 888 421 1442, 800 233 1234. Registration: http://www.ssawg.org/registration

Two 90 minute workshops: Diversify your Vegetable Crops (Friday 2-3.30pm) and Storage Vegetables for Off-Season Sales (Saturday 8.15-9.45 am). Workshops will be recorded. Book signing (Thursday 5pm) and sales.


planning-designing-the-family-food-garden-book-cover-2-e1454884966600-768x993I recently discovered an interesting website and blog: Family Food Garden by Isis Loran. I found it because Isis recommends my book Sustainable Market Farming in her article on designing for large-scale family food production. She lives in zone 5 in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada.

Isis Loran is collecting and sharing a lot of good information, and she has written a book Planning and Designing the Family Food Garden  (which I haven’t seen yet). The E-book is $12.99 online, and you can preview 12 pages before buying.

She also sells a 23 page garden planner via Etsy, the craft retail site, for $11.05 Canadian.

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For growers more at the farmer end of the scale than the family garden end, the November/December issue of the Organic Broadcaster from MOSES is out.

There’s an article Farmers use creative mix of new technology, adapted equipment to grow row crops. Carolyn Olsen writes about  a 36 burner flame-weeder they made from a sprayer!

In Expanding market offers opportunities for herb growers to create value-added products, Jane Hawley Stevens, of Four Elements Organic Herbals, writes about growing more than 150 varieties of herbs on their 130-acre certified organic farm near Madison, Wisconsin. In SILT offers permanent solution to affordable land access in Iowa, Denise O’Brien describes the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), a new model that reduces land costs for sustainable food farmers for generations to come. SILT permanently protects land from development, for truly sustainable production of food. Retiring farmers are donating land to this worthy cause.

There are more articles, some about livestock, one about the questionable organic certification on some imported grain crops, one about farm finances, and many more.


Lastly, I’d like to hear from you if you know of a college using my book for a text for sustainable agriculture courses. I know of a few in Virginia, but I’d like to hear more. At the Carolina farm Stewardship Conference at the beginning of November, I met a student at the Central Carolina Community College. The “green-collar” workforce in the “Green Central” program learns about Sustainable Ag and according to the student I spoke with, they chose my book because it is more regionally appropriate for the Carolinas.

I’d like to make more contacts with teachers of sustainable ag courses, and look into marketing my book as a text.

Hoophouse lettuce in winter at Twin Oaks. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Hoophouse lettuce in winter at Twin Oaks.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Sweet potato harvest, new hoophouse plastic, see you in Kansas!

Our sweet potatoes curing in boxes in the basement. Photo Nina Gentle

Our sweet potatoes curing in boxes in the basement.
Photo Nina Gentle

We got our sweet potatoes all dug and safely indoors before Saturday night’s 27F and Sunday night’s 26F. Whew! Another Garden Year Milestone passed. We got about 223 boxes this year. The boxes contain about 23lbs each, so that’s 5129 lbs, plenty to feed 100 hungry people for six or seven months. Last year we had a huge harvest, and sold some for a Farm-to-School program and gave some to our local Food Bank. Our average harvest for this size patch (about 700 plants) is 4035lbs. This year we got a yield of a little over 7lbs of sweet potatoes per plant. Last year’s record crop was 11lbs per plant.


No sooner had we finished the sweet potato harvest than we put new outer roof plastic on our hoophouse (yesterday). We decided to just replace the outer layer as we thought it must have big holes, as the inflation blower wasn’t keeping the air bubble between the two layers inflated.

Pulling hoophouse plastic. Photo McCune Porter

Pulling hoophouse plastic.
Photo McCune Porter

We’ve always replaced both layers at once previously, but October is getting late in the year for this job and it’s so much easier to replace just the outer layer! We think we got some holes from a surprise hailstorm (rare here), and we knew we’d made some when we replaced the plastic a couple of years ago. We’d pulled the outer layer too tight, trimmed it, then tried to let out a bit more slack from the margins. The result was lots of holes from the wigglewire’s old positions.

But we didn’t find any huge holes in the old plastic when we got it down, and this morning the house is still not inflated, so our problem is not solved. The next suspect is the inflation blower, which has a theoretically a large enough output, but maybe it’s not working well any more. It sounds OK. Maybe some warmer days will help. . . Not sure of the science there – maybe wishful thinking.  We need a well-inflated hoophouse (high tunnel) to provide winter insulation as well as keep the house sturdy in the face of winter weather.


MENFairLogoIn a couple of days I’m off to Topeka, Kansas, for the October 24-25 Mother Earth News Fair. Here are the details repeated from last week’s post:

I will be giving Fall and Winter Hoophouses  as a keynote presentation on Saturday 10-11 am on the Mother Earth news stage and Spring and Summer Hoophouses
on Saturday at 1-2pm on the Organic Gardening Stage. I’ll be signing books at 11 am Saturday in the MEN Bookstore. I’ll be demonstrating How to String Weave Tomatoes using my sparkly-pink-tinsel and pencil model at the New Society booth 2055 on Saturday at 4pm, and Sunday at 10 am and 2 pm.

If you want the pdfs of the handouts, click these links:

Hoophouse in Fall and Winter Handout

Hoophouse in Spring and Summer Handout


I’ve been enjoying the Connection bimonthly newsletter from the USA National Phenology Network. They monitor the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals, and landscapes. “Phenology is nature’s calendar—when cherry trees bloom, when a robin builds its nest and when leaves turn color in the fall. ” They have a lively newsletter and a participatory project called Nature’s Notebook, where everyday people are encouraged to collect data in back yards, nearby parks or as part of a field study. They have a few other newsletters too, for different audiences.


Margaret Roach, author of the blog A Way to Garden, has a great post about the connections between high numbers of acorns, white-footed mice, and ticks. And acorns, chipmunks, mice and Gypsy moths. And acorns, mice and song birds.

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Patchy Frost, Sweet Potato Harvest, Upcoming Events,

Jalapeno hot pepper plant with a fruit changing from green to red via black. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Jalapeno hot pepper plant with fruit changing from green to red via black.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We had a very light touch of frost in the wee hours of Sunday October 11. The thermometer in the weather box recorded a low of 36F, but some of the pepper plants “recorded” something chillier. At this time of year we start our special frost season pepper harvesting technique. Instead of just harvesting fully colored peppers (and removing damaged ones), we harvest all peppers exposed to the sky, regardless of color or size. We’ve noticed that the first few frosts usually just nip the tops of the plants. So by harvesting exposed fruits we give the ones lower on the plant a bit longer to ripen, with the protection of the upper leaves. Next time there is a frost, another layer of leaves will get nipped and we’ll harvest another layer of peppers. This also has the advantage that we don’t have to deal with too many peppers at once. Eventually, of course, we’ll either harvest everything or give up. Often there are nice periods of mild weather in between the first few frosts. looks like next weekend will bring some more definite frosts.

Sweet potatoes and our last corn of the year. Photo from September, by Ezra Freeman

Sweet potatoes and our last corn of the year. Photo from September, by Ezra Freeman

We are on the point of harvesting our sweet potatoes. After all the rain we had recently, we were waiting for the soil to dry enough to walk on. Then we were waiting for several key crew members to come back from helping harvest sorghum for syrup at Sandhill Farm in Missouri. Sandhill, like Twin Oaks, is an egalitarian intentional community. We have a labor exchange program between our communities in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities so that each community can ask for help from the other communities when they most need it and pay it back at another time. Work for a sister community counts as work for the home community. Sandhill asks for help at sorghum harvest. naturally enough this job appeals to members who do agricultural work at home. So we been short-handed in the garden for the past ten days.

I was worried for a couple of days that the weather would stay cold and the sweet potatoes might rot in the cold wet soil. One year when I was fairly new to Virginia I caused us to leave the sweet potatoes in the ground till early November (hoping they would grow a bit more) and then it rained hard and we ended up with a load of sweet potatoes that either rotted directly or else went through a transition to a hard uncookable state. I learned the hard way to harvest sweet potatoes before soil drops to 55F. This week I studied the soil thermometer and the max and min thermometer and was reassured by the warm sunny days. The soil has been drying out nicely. Tomorrow we start digging. It usually takes us three afternoons. Everything looks auspicious. No rain or horribly cold weather, enough people. . .

Sweet potato harvest Photo Nina Gentle

Sweet potato harvest Photo Nina Gentle

Meanwhile we have been working around a Big Ditch, which will soon connect our new grid-linked solar array to the main service panel. Life has been difficult, and the job is lingering because the Big Ditch filled with the heavy rains we had, then we found some unexpected old phone lines (and accidentally cut them). And then the supplies didn’t arrive when they should have. And so on. Everyone is probably familiar with projects which take a lot longer to complete than intended. Soon it will all be done, we’ll be able to disk and prepare the future garlic area take carts along the path again. And we’ll be using more of the sunlight to make electricity!!

Ditch for cables to connect up solar array. Raised beds on the right. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Ditch for cables to connect up solar array. Raised beds on the right.
Photo Bridget Aleshire


 

Upcoming Events I’ll be speaking at

MENFairLogoThe weekend of October 24-25 I will be at the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, Kansas with my two Hoophouse workshops:

I will be giving Fall and Winter Hoophouses  as a keynote presentation on Saturday 10-11 am on the Mother Earth news stage and Spring and Summer Hoophouses
on Saturday at 1-2pm on the Organic Gardening Stage. I’ll be signing books at 11 am Saturday in the MEN Bookstore. I’ll be demonstrating How to String Weave Tomatoes using my sparkly-pink-tinsel and pencil model at the New Society booth 2055 on Saturday at 4pm, and Sunday at 10 am and 2 pm. If you want the pdfs of the handouts, click these links:

Hoophouse in Fall and Winter Handout

Hoophouse in Spring and Summer Handout


CFSA

November 6-8 I will be at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference, in Durham, North Carolina. Click here for the Conference page. I’m doing two workshops, Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables – on Saturday November7, 8.30-10am, and Succession Plantings for Continuous Harvests – on Sunday November 8, 10.45am-12.15pm. I will also do book signing at the BookSignAGanza, Saturday 5-6pm.


SSAWG

January 27-30 I will be at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. On the website you can sign up for the e-newsletter and around October 15, you can do Early Bird Registration. I will be doing book signing on the Thursday evening Jan 28 from 7 – 8 pm, following the 25 Years in the Field  talks by several people with a long history of contributing to the growth in sustainable and organic agriculture and local foods . I will be giving a 75 minute presentation on Intensive Vegetable Production on a Small Scale on Friday  Jan 29, 9.45 -11 am. There are about 8 conference tracks (simultaneous workshops), and the conference ends on Saturday evening with a fantastic Taste of Kentucky Banquet and live music at the bar.

MENFairLogoI hope to be at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina. Too soon to say for sure.

Mother Earth News Fair, string-weaving tomatoes, Organic Broadcaster

At teh New SOciety booth at the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair, demonstrating how to string weave tomatoes. Photo Ingrid Witvoet/New Society

At the New Society Publishers booth at the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair, demonstrating how to string weave tomatoes.
Photo Ingrid Witvoet/New Society

I got home from the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania yesterday. My two workshops went well. My Friday presentation on Fall and Winter Hoophouses was the first time I had spoken on the “main stage” – the Mother Earth News stage, with at least 600 seats. On Saturday I presented Spring and Summer Hoophouses at the GRIT Stage. Both groups had plenty of people with good questions, keeping me busy till the last minute. After the Friday presentation I signed books and chatted with people at the MEN Bookstore.

And then there were the demos. At four set times over the weekend, I got out my table-top model and showed people how to string-weave tomatoes. As you see in the photo, I had pieces of pink tinsel Christmas tree branches up-cycled into model tomato plants, with #2 pencils as stakes.

String-weaving (also known as basket-weaving and Florida string weaving) is a cheap, easy way to support lots of tomato plants, and all you need to store over the winter are the stakes. No bulky cages or heavy cattle panels or cumbersome rolls of wire mesh. True, you do need to buy twine every year, but then many of the other support methods use twine also.

The ATTRA publication Organic Tomato Production includes a comparison of different training and support methods. String-weaving comes out well in all categories. It isn’t best for high yields per plant, so people who only grow a few plants won’t choose this method. They’ll go for a more expensive and more time-consuming option. But if you have long rows, this method is ideal.

String-weaving diagram from Extension.org

String-weaving diagram from Extension.org

Our variation on string-weaving looks fairly like this drawing from the Extension Service. We have a couple of tricks to make it work even better. As in this drawing, we use a 2ft wood stick with a hole drilled at each end and the twine running through. Our first trick is to park the bale of twine in a bucket at the beginning of the row and leave it there. No need to lug it with you! (We have long rows!)  Putting the bale of twine in a bucket makes it easy to carry and provides a space to store scissors and gloves. Stand between the working end of the twine and the slack being pulled out of the bucket. That is, the spare twine will be running out behind you as you work the first side of the row. You’ll use it for the return journey. We tie the twine to the end stake, pass in front of two tomatoes and the next stake, wrap the twine around the back of the stake, pull tight, put a finger on the cross-over to hold it tight, and wrap round again, making sure that the second loop ends up below the first. This locks the twine so that if you let go, or later on a groundhog chews through your twine, the whole row doesn’t get loose.

String-weaving tomatoes. Photo Kathryn Simmons

String-weaving tomatoes.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

At the end of the row, take the tool round to the other side and work back in the same way, at the same level as the first side. You will need to flip the twine that was behind you on the first side over to your new working side as you need it. Once you reach the end, tie off the twine and cut it.

You’ll see that you never actually wrap twine around a tomato plant, so there is never any injury from tight twine. The plants are simply held between two walls of twine that you “build” by making a new round once a week as the plants grow.

At the end of the season, cut the twine and pull it out, then remove the stakes and till in the tomato plants.


broadcasterlogowebThe September/October edition of the Organic Broadcaster is out, and you can download the free pdf at the link. There are articles about cover crops, mushroom growing, tax planning, growing small grains, transitioning a dairy farm to organic, winter feeding of cattle, an update on avian flu and a review of the new book The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer by Jeff Carpenter with Melanie Carpenter.

Workshops on Crop Rotations, Hoophouses in spring, summer, fall and winter.

I had a good time at the Heritage Harvest Festival this past weekend. My Friday workshop  on Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops in the Woodland Pavilion had about 56 participants. If you missed it or want to see it again it’s here. Most of my slide shows are on SlideShare.net. Search for Pam Dawling and click on the one you want to see.

Brite Lites chard in our hoophouse. Photo credit Pam Dawling

Brite Lites chard in our winter hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

On Saturday I did my presentation on Asian Greens. And this morning I sowed Blues Chinese cabbage, Yukina savoy, Tokyo Bekana, and pak choy, as well as Brite Lites Chard and ten kinds of lettuce, to transplant into our hoophouse for winter greens.

Last winter we tried the Osborne Multileaf lettuces compared to Salanova types, and were well pleased with the Osborne ones. And so we are growing more of those this winter, along with Tango, Panisse, Oscarde, Merlot and Red Tinged Winter. Next week I’ll sow another ten lettuces (some of the same and some others), along with Russian kales and senposai, more Yukina Savoy and the first round of mizuna and fancy frilled mustards, such as Ruby Streaks.

Pam Dawling. Photo Denny Ray McElya

Pam Dawling.
Photo Denny Ray McElya

Next weekend (September 18-20) I will be speaking at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania. I”l be one of the Keynote Speakers, talking about Fall and Winter Hoophouses on Friday 4 – 5 pm on the Mother Earth News Stage. Then I will sign books in the MEN Bookstore immediatley following the workshop.

On Saturday 10 – 11 am on the GRIT Stage I will speak about Spring and Summer Hoophouses. That pair of workshops should give plenty of ideas for the whole year.

I’m also doing off-stage demos of tomato string-weaving (using a table-top model) twice a day at the New Society Publishers booth 104.

Because printing 600 handouts is out of the question (too many trees would have to die, and so on), I have made pdfs of my handouts to post here. Click on the links.

Hoophouse winter greens. Photo Kathleen Slattery

Hoophouse winter greens.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

Fall and Winter Hoophouses  Handout

Cucumbers and squash in our hoophouse. Photo Nina Gentle

Cucumbers and squash in our early summer hoophouse.
Photo Nina Gentle

Spring and Summer Hoophouses Handout