Weed of the Month for May: Galinsoga

People in early spring weeding spinach that has been hooped and covered overwinter.
Photo Wren Vile

This is the first of my new monthly series of posts. All about weeds.

Sustainable (or Ecological) Weed Management: A Holistic Approach to Organic Weed Management

In the early days of organic farming, maximum use was made of frequent cultivation to kill weeds. Now we know that too-frequent cultivation risks causing soil erosion, and that each tilling or deep hoeing stirs air into the soil and leads to a burning-up of organic matter. The practice of sustainable weed management is about effectiveness – including removing weeds at their most vulnerable stage, or at the last minute before the seed pods explode – and ignoring weeds while they are doing little damage. Work smarter, not harder!

Start with restoring and maintaining balance in the ecosystem. Develop strategies for preventing weeds and for controlling the ones that pop up anyway. An obvious point is to avoid adding new kinds of weeds to any part of your fields. Remove the hitch-hikers from your socks out on the driveway, not when you notice them as you squat to transplant onions! We use our driveway as a convenient place to “roadkill” particularly bad weeds by letting them die in the sun. Beware of Trojan plant swaps!

Weeding in early June. Photo Lori Katz

Weeds are not a monolithic enemy, but a diverse cast of characters. Applying biological principles is not an attitude of war, but more like ju-jitsu, using the weaknesses of the weeds to contribute to their downfall. Develop an understanding of weeds and the different types: annual/perennial; stationary perennials/invasive perennials; cool weather/warm weather; quick-maturing/slow-maturing; and what Chuck Mohler referred to as “Big Bang” versus “Dribblers”. In this monthly blogpost series, we’ll meet various types of weeds, and develop a broader understanding of how and when to tackle each kind.

One factor to consider is how vulnerable the crop is to damage from that weed at that time. Weeds that germinate at the same time as a vegetable crop usually do not really affect the crop’s growth until they become large enough to begin competing for moisture and nutrients. These early weeds have the greatest potential for reducing crop yields if allowed to grow unchecked. We need to cultivate or otherwise control weeds before this 2- to 3-week grace period is over.

Weedy sweet corn. ideally, we would have cultivated two weeks and four weeks after sowing. Photo Bridget Aleshire

The critical period for weed control for the crop is the interval from the end of the initial grace period until the end of the minimum weed-free period, which is approximately the first third to one half of the crop’s life. For vigorous crops like tomato, squash and transplanted brassicas this is four to six weeks; less vigorous crops like onion or carrot need weed-free conditions for eight weeks or more. During that period it is essential to control weeds to prevent loss of yield.

Weeds that emerge later have less effect, and ones that emerge quite late in the crop cycle no longer affect the yield of that crop, although there are long-term reasons for removing weeds to improve future crops.

Know Your Weeds

Lettuce with weeds, easily hoed. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Learn to identify the major weeds on your farm, and any minor ones that suggest trouble later. Observe and research. Start a Weed Log with a page for each weed. Add information about your quarry’s likes and dislikes, habits and possible weak spots. Find out how long the seeds can remain viable under various conditions, and whether there are any dormancy requirements. Note down when it emerges, how soon it forms viable seed (if an annual), when the roots are easiest and hardest to remove from the soil (if a perennial), what time of year it predominates, which plots and which crops have the worst trouble with this weed. Monitor regularly throughout the year, each year. Look back over your records and see if anything you did or didn’t do seems to have made the problem worse or better.

Next think about any vulnerable points in the weed’s growth habit, life cycle, or responses to crops or weather that could provide opportunities for prevention or control. List some promising management options. Try them, record your results, decide what to continue or what to try next.

Most weeds respond well to nutrients, especially nitrogen. If you give corn too much nitrogen, even as compost, the corn productivity will max out and the weeds will use the remaining nutrients. Some crops, like carrots and onions never cast much shade at any point of their growth, so that sun-loving weeds like purslane are more likely to thrive there, but not be a problem for crops which rapidly form canopies that shade the ground.

Galinsoga – a fast growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil.
Photo Wren Vile

Galinsoga

This month’s Weed Character is galinsoga, a “Seed Dribbler”, that matures seed while still quite small plants, sheds some, makes some more, and can carry on for a long seed-shedding season.

Encouraging information is that a constant percentage of the seeds that are still left from one year’s shedding dies each year. This varies widely among species – for lambsquarters it’s 31% per year in cultivated soil (only 8% in uncultivated soil). The number of seeds declines rapidly at first, but a few seeds persist for a long time.

While seeds survive better deeper in the soil, they don’t germinate better down there. Larger seeds can germinate at deeper levels than small seeds. If you are trying to bury seeds deep, use inversion tillage, don’t rely on rotavating, as seeds somehow manage to stay near the surface with rotary tilling. Chuck Mohler, author of the excellent book Manage Weeds on Your Farm, has tested this out with colored plastic beads.

We have two kinds of galinsoga: narrow-leaved and hairy. Both behave the same way. They thrive in highly fertile, freshly tilled soil, just the same as you hope your vegetable seeds will. Mostly we think about how to get rid of galinsoga (prompt hoeing or other cultivation before it flowers), or stop it germinating in the first place (mulches). Its flowers attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies, and it can be eaten by humans and livestock. Young leaves can be used in a soup or in mixed dishes. It doesn’t have a strong flavor. The plants contain flavonoids and phenolic compounds, and it has been found to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Extracts from hairy galinsoga can coagulate blood. It is an alternate host for certain nematodes and over twenty insect pests. Hairy galinsoga is thought to have originated in Central and South America, and has become naturalized in North America and other temperate and tropical regions.

Galinsoga is a summer annual that belongs to the sunflower family (Asteraceae) and can invade vegetable gardens with dense infestations that crowd out crop plants. The secrets of galinsoga’s success are that its seeds germinate immediately they reach the soil (no dormancy period), it grows very fast, shading out other plants, it sets seed in as few as 30–40 days after emergence, and continues shedding seed as long as it is growing. It also has the knack of re-rooting if pulled and laid on the surface of the bed, if there is any moisture in the soil. Large plants seem able to transfer the water in their cells to their roots, helping re-rooting happen. Seed that is shed early in the year is capable of growing a mature plant very quickly. There can be multiple generations in one warm season. Fortunately, the seeds are short-lived, and have to be in the top 0.25″ (6mm) of the soil to germinate.

Hoe weeds while they are small and you’ll be rid of those with short-lived seeds in a few years. Galinsoga and Outredgeous lettuce.
Photo Pam Dawling

Galinsoga Identification

Hairy galinsoga (Galinsoga quadriradiata), has profuse hairs on stems and leaves. Narrow-leaved galinsoga ( Galinsoga parvifolia), is very similar, except it is not hairy and it has narrower leaves. Leaves are oval with serrated margins and distinct petioles. They are arranged opposite each other on the stems. The flowers have densely packed yellow disc florets and five tiny white ray florets, each with three scalloped teeth at the end. Seeds of hairy galinsoga germinate between 54°F-86°F (12°C-30°C) with an optimum temperature requirement of 68°F-75°F (20°C-24°C). Most of the seed germination occurs from May to June, after the last frost. It flowers abundantly from about late-May until late fall here in central Virginia. Fallen seeds can germinate immediately due to the absence of dormancy requirement. Take advantage of this phenomenon to eradicate hairy galinsoga from an infested field in three to four years by careful management.

Controls for Galinsoga

Prevention of Weed Germination

Hoeing or mechanical cultivation is effective if carried out repeatedly during the early stages of growth (before flowering). Mulches, such as thick (6-mil) black plastic, or straw, hay, leaves, woodchips over cardboard or newspaper, are effective to control galinsoga in small gardens if applied immediately after planting the crop and before the galinsoga germinates.  Tarping is the equivalent solution for larger areas.

Reduction of Weed Seeding

Grazing, or the mechanical equivalent, mowing, will take care of galinsoga in places you are not currently growing a crop. This weed is not usually found in lawns. It has no resistance to frost. Livestock will happily graze it.

Reduction of Viability of Seeds

Most weed emergence happens within two years of the seeds being shed. Not all seeds that are produced will ever get to germinate (I was very pleased to learn that seeds have many ways of not succeeding!) You can help reduce their chances, by mowing crops immediately after harvest, (to prevent more weed seed formation); then wait before tilling to allow time for seed predators to eat weed seeds that already produced. Seeds lying on or near the soil surface are more likely to deteriorate or become food for seed predators than buried seeds, so delaying tillage generally reduces the number of seeds added to the long-term seed bank. (Short-term, they may germinate!)

If they do not get eaten, dry out or rot, seeds on top of the soil are more likely to germinate than are most buried seeds, and small, short-lived seeds of weeds which have no dormancy period, such as galinsoga, will almost all die within a year or two if they are buried a few inches.

Putting it Together

Strategies include

  1. Inversion tillage such as moldboard plowing (seeds will die off deep in the soil within a year or so.)
  2. Mulching – the seeds will not germinate or be able to grow through the mulch, and will be dead by next year. Be sure to rotate the mulched crops around the farm, so that the benefits are not confined to one section;
  3. Grazing with small livestock, or harvesting galinsoga for human consumption, or mowing: especially mow as soon as the food crops are finished, if you cannot till right away.
  4. Tarping (mow first);
  5. No-till cover crops, with summer crops transplanted into the dying mulch;
  6. Stale seed bed techniques, including flaming;
  7. Plant flowers that attract beneficial insects, particularly seed-eating insects, and birds.
Front cover of manage Weeds on your Farm

Resources on Weeds

Cover Crops for April: before the last frost.

 

Beds of young buckwheat.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

In January I shared some resources to give the Big Picture of Cover Crops, including a compilation of slides for SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers.

In February, I described limiting winter annual weeds by sowing oats in spaces without a cover crop and no planned food crop for 6-10 weeks. Six–ten weeks (depending on your climate) is long enough in early spring to get worthwhile growth from oats before prepping for the food crop. Also see February’s post for the Stale Seedbed and Tarping Techniques.

In March I wrote about some options for cover crops you might be sowing then, and alternatives like a fast-growing hardy leafy vegetable or mixed Eat-All Greens, an idea from Carol Deppe, a great idea if you have more than eight weeks before your main vegetable crop goes in the ground. This is where using transplants really helps increase your total food output. While the frost-tender transplants are growing indoors, you could be growing a “catch crop” outdoors in spaces that didn’t get a winter cover crop. I also talked in the March post about incorporating cover crops. Remember that if you incorporate fresh green cover crops into the soil, you will need to wait two or three weeks to sow, to give the cover crop time to break down in the soil before it can be available for your crop. Especially, wait three weeks after turning under winter rye before sowing, as it produces allelopathic compounds that can inhibit the germination and growth of small seeds. Transplants don’t suffer the same problem.

Potatoes, weeds and standing water. Until the soil drains, the potatoes cannot be hilled, and the weeds here are already large. The yield will be reduced by weeds out-competing the potatoes. Potatoes may be flamed at 6″–12″ (15–30 cm) tall, to kill weeds without damaging the potato plants. After that, flaming is not recommended.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Once we get to April here, it is too late to successfully grow oats (they will quickly head up after making very little growth). But in climates like ours, we can sow winter wheat or winter rye in April – they will not head up, but will “wimp out” when it gets hot. That is, they will stop growing, so you won’t get a lot of biomass, but you will have some live roots in the soil, holding it together, taking care of the soil microfauna, and discouraging weeds form germinating. One April when our spring-planted potatoes got flooded, we transplanted potato plants to the drier end of the patch and sowed winter rye in the lower end, once the floods had subsided. This kept the soil covered, scavenged the compost we had spread for the potatoes, and was easy to deal with in July when we harvested the potatoes. It was also much more hopeful to look at an area of green cover crop than an area of green weeds!

April is too soon for us to rely on frost-tender cover crops, but by mid-April, we can sow a mix of oats and buckwheat. The oats will protect the buckwheat somewhat from the cold. if the season is warmer than average, the buckwheat will survive and smother weeds, provide pollen and nectar for beneficial insects

Here’s a lovely quote from Barbara Pleasant in SW Virginia:

“It’s April and the soil is warming up and drying out. After loosening a clump of fall-sown wheat with a digging fork, you pull up a marvelous mop of fibrous roots and shake out the soil. What crumb! The soil’s structure is nothing short of amazing! These are the moments an organic gardener lives for.”

Root systems of four grass cover crops at early stages of growth (two months in a greenhouse). From left: annual ryegrass, barley, triticale (winter biennials) and sorghum-sudangrass (summer annual). Photos by Joseph Amsili. From SARE

Depending on the stage of the year where you are, you could revisit any of the earlier posts. Here are links for each of the cover crop posts in the past year.

May: Buckwheat and Other Summer Cover Crops

June: Sunn Hemp, Soybeans, Southern Peas, and Partridge Pea, Senna Ligustrina

July: Millets and Sorghum-Sudangrass (Sudex)

August: Oats, Barley and Other Winter-Killed Cover Crops

September: Winter Wheat and Crimson Clover

October: Winter Wheat and Austrian Winter Peas

November: Winter Rye (with Austrian Winter Peas early in November)

December: Planning Winter Cover Crops

January: The Big Picture, Ponder and Plan Your Cover Crop Strategies for the Coming Year

February: Oats if you have a 6–10 Week Gap

March: Sowing Options and Incorporating Cover Crops

Perennial and Native Cover Crops

I attended a workshop at the VABF-SFOP Summit on cover crops led by Cerruti R2 Hooks, Veronica Yurchak, from the Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, and Hanna Kahl of UC Davis. The UMD Eastern Shore IPM Center has lots of useful programs and publications. They focus on the most important pest problems and make science-based information available to everyone who contends with pests. This workshop discussed how cover crops influence weeds, plant diseases and insects. Cover crops can smother weeds, augment weed seed predators (lifeforms that eat weed seeds), create a weed-suppressive soil microbe community, release allelochemicals that are toxic to weed seeds, release nitrogen into the crop germination zone, boosting crop growth, cool the soil and compete with weeds for resources.

Cover crops can decrease crop diseases by increasing the diversity of soil organisms, making soil more disease-suppressive; releasing compounds unfavorable to disease organisms; trigger plant immune responses; increase the number of beneficial organisms and forma physical barrier that reduces splash-back from the oil. A nice example is that sunn hemp interplanted in squash rows can cause aphids carrying virus particles in their mouth parts to drop them in the sunn hemp where they do no harm.

Sunn hemp at Nourishing Acres Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cover crops can repel some insects and nematodes, as well as providing habitat, nutrients and protection from predators for the beneficial insects. This can help augment the population of beneficial insects. Cover crops can also act as trap crops for problem insects by being more attractive to them than the crop plants. Cover crops can also cause microclimate change within the crop, for example by acting as a windbreak.

The speaker gave examples with red clover, a short-lived perennial, sown in the previous fall between cucumber rows that were planted in spring. The population of striped cucumber beetles was lower, while populations of beneficials such as big-eyed bugs, minute pirate bugs and ladybugs were increased.

In November 2023, at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference, I went to an engaging workshop called On-Farm Cover Crops Research in the Carolinas by Justin Duncan from NCAT/ATTRA, Jason Lindsay from the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, and Steve McAllan. See his YouTube  Cover Crops for Hot & Humid Regions. At the workshop, Justin Duncan explained Push-Pull Trap Cropping, invented in Kenya, combining a companion plant that repels a pest with a trap crop nearby that attracts it, making pest control easier.

Pigeon Pea as cover crop. Photo https://conservationist.wordpress.com/2008/11/03/pigeon-pea-as-cover-crop/

He advocated for pigeon peas (Cajanus Cajan) as a cover crop for warm droughty climates, that will also keep the soil cooler. When mean temperatures rise 1 Celsius degree, soils in warm areas burn up 10% of their OM, and cool areas lose 3%. Loss of water leads to loss of OM, leading to more water loss. Hot humid areas need twice as much OM as cooler ones to maintain fertility. No-till can cut the loss of OM by half compared to conventional tillage. Other cover crops Justin Duncan recommended include Perennial Peanut, good in orchards, Chamaecrista rotundifolia (round-leaved cassia) and Scarlet Runner beans. Cover crops are a way of growing Organic Matter in place.

Patrick Johnson, RVA Permaculture. Photo https://rvapermaculture.com/about-us/

Patrick Johnson, a Virginia permaculturist, also gave a presentation on native cover crops. See his Proposal and Project Overview:  https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/fs22-345/

And read the Feb 2024 SARE report Using a Native Legume as a Cover Crop for Soil and Vegetable Production Benefits in Small Scale Vegetable Production.

No-Till Cover Crops

I have not covered these yet, and don’t have much personal experience, apart from our one-year-in-ten growing of paste tomatoes in a mow-killed rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas dying mulch. I’ll make a separate post for next week about combining cover crops and no-till methods.

Cover Crop Training Videos from SARE

See SARE for a series of ten training videos.

Weeds Next

For my next annual series of blogposts, starting at the beginning of May, I will cover Weeds of the Month.

Cover Crops for February: Oats if you have a 6–10 week gap

Oats Cover Crop, Steve Groff farm, Holtwood PA. SARE Soil Health Resources

Cover Crops for February: Oats if you have a 610 week gap

In February, you’ll hopefully have made your crop plans and maps. Perhaps you’ve discovered some beds with no winter cover crop, that you are not using for early spring crops? Those winter annual weeds, chickweed, dead nettle and henbit, will shed lots of seeds if you let them.

If food crops were harvested too late to sow any winter cover crops, in early spring you will be looking at weeds, or “spontaneous vegetation” as I’ve heard them euphemistically called. The first year I gardened in Virginia I had lots of beds in April with purple flowers (henbit, purple dead nettle, some ground ivy) and I couldn’t think what to do – I didn’t need those beds for a few more weeks, so I wasn’t ready to till them. Oh, so wrong! I had squandered an opportunity to improve the soil as well as deal with weed seeds.

Now, when we have the crop plans made, we tag any beds that won’t be used for six weeks or more, till in the weeds and sow oats. In February or March here, with a last frost date of April 30, six weeks is just enough time here to make enough growth to out-compete the weeds and add to the organic matter in the soil.

Examples of crops in our gardens that occupy beds too late for us to sow winter cover crops include late cabbages, the last lettuce, leeks and fall Asian greens. Examples of late spring crops the next year include eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, edamame and chard. In some cases, we might even have no food crop planned until August or the beginning of September.

Six–ten weeks (depending on your climate) is long enough in early spring to get worthwhile growth from oats before prepping for the food crop.

Once we get to March 31 here, it is too late in the year for oats (they will quickly head up after making very little growth) and too soon to rely on frost-tender cover crops. See the section below on Stale Seedbed Technique.

Oats Cover Crops Steve Groff farm, Holtwood PA SARE Soil Health Resources

I wrote about oats as a winter-killed cover crop in August.

Will oats work as an early spring cover crop for you?

Large oat plants will be killed by three nights at 20°F ((–7°C) or by a single plummet to 6°F ((–14°C). Oats seedlings die at 17°F (–8°C). Consider your likely nighttime low temperatures during the period in question, and how likely your seedlings are to die. Oat cover crops of a medium size die around 10°F (–12°C). If they die after growing to adolescent size, no worries – just till them in before planting your next crop.

The minimum soil temperature for germination of oats is 38°F (3°C), and the time required to grow to a worthwhile height in cool weather is 6–10 weeks.

If you are in zone 8 or warmer, oats will not winter-kill, and can be grown in winter too – they may not reliably mow-kill, but are relatively easy to incorporate.

Oat plant and seeds. SARE

Pros and cons of oats as a cover crop

Like most cover crops, oats add biomass and nutrients, increase the biological activity of the soil, smother weeds, reduce soil erosion (their fibrous roots anchor the soil) and absorb and store rainfall. Oats are easy to establish, are fast-growing and particularly good at shading out germinating weed seeds and at salvaging any nutrients (especially nitrogen) left from the previous crop and making them available to the following crop.

In early spring you won’t get as much biomass as from a fall oat cover crop, when you can get. as much as 2000–4000lbs per acre (2240–4480 kg/ha. Certainly not enough to be a no-till cover crop for your next food crop. Oats provide some allelopathic effect (producing biochemicals which inhibit the growth of other plants) although less than winter rye. Like most plants, oats form arbuscular mycorrhizal associations (fungi penetrate the plant’s cell walls and help capture nutrients from the soil) – a mutually beneficial relationship, although probably not a big feature when conditions are cold.

Oats are not as good as some other cover crops at breaking up compacted subsoil, although they do loosen the upper layers of topsoil nicely. (Just where you are going to sow.) Oats do not add nitrogen, and unlike flowering cover crops, they do not attract beneficial insects (assuming they are turned under or mowed before heading up and shedding pollen).

Common Oats. Buy Organic and avoid GMO canola seed inclusions

Buying oats, sowing rates

We used to buy “horse oats” (feed oats) locally and not worry about organically certified seed. But I noticed canola sprouting along with the oats, and I don’t want GMO canola going feral in our gardens! We plan ahead and order extra Organic spring oats in summer when making our big cover crop seed order.

Oats will grow in soils with a pH range of 4.5–7.5, and even do OK in soils without great fertility. They have some tolerance to flooding, but not much to heat or drought (although more than rye).

The sowing rate for drilled oats alone is 80–100lbs/ac (90–123 kg/ha). The broadcast rate is 110–140lbs/ac (123–155kg/ha). On a small scale, this is 4–6 oz/100 sq ft (12–20gm/sq m). Aim to cover the seed to a depth of about 1″ (2.5 cm).

Oats grow to a height of 2–4 feet (0.6–1.2 m) if not killed before then.

Stale seedbed technique and tarping

If you have less than 8 weeks until you need to plant the food crop, you are better off mowing when you can, or weed whipping, to prevent weeds seeding.

Tarping beds to kill weeds.
Photo Cornell Small Farms Unit

You could mow and tarp. I don’t yet have much experience of tarping, but there are good directions in The Lean Micro-Farm and The Market Gardener. There are also online videos. The basic idea is to mow the bed, cover it with a black plastic silage tarp, weight down the edges to get good soil contact and stop the tarp blowing away, and wait till the plant matter has disintegrated, or until you need to use the bed. This will take several weeks in cold weather, (although only a few weeks in summer). If you have a late-finishing fall crop, you could mow and tarp as soon as the crop is finished, and leave the bed tarped until spring. Weeds germinate under the tarp, but then die without light.

For a stale seedbed technique without tarps, you could mow, till several weeks before planting, water (if it doesn’t rain) to germinate weeds, and hoe off those weeds once a week. This can really help reduce the weed seedbank in the soil. It is particularly useful before sowing small seeds of slow-growing crops, such as carrots.

What not to sow in short gaps in early spring

Other quick cover crops, like buckwheat and soybeans, are not at all frost-hardy, so wait until after your last frost date to sow those.

In early spring, the air and the soil are cold, and sowing a fast-growing vegetable crop will not be successful with a gap of less than eight weeks. Crops take too long to grow at this time of year.

 Spring gaps longer than eight weeks

If you have more than eight weeks you could try those fast-growing vegetables: kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, land cress. Or try Eat-All Greens, an idea from Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

Undersowing oats in spring

Another way we have used oats in spring is between rows of peas (grown on the flat, not in beds). We sowed the oats the same day as the peas, and lightly tilled the oats in. We mowed the oats as needed during the pea training and harvest period to make access easy. This reduced the number of weeds, and we quite liked the “lawn” underfoot!

Green fallow (Full year cover crops)

If you have a bed with no crop planned for the whole season, you could grow a Green Fallow. You can plant long-term cover crops to replenish the soil. Start with oats or one of the more cold-hardy grasses, and once we get to warm weather, after the frosts, till that in (or mow if it mow-kills) and sow warm weather cover crops.

Reasons not to do no-till food crops in spring

Untilled soil in spring is colder than tilled soil, and growth of anything you plant in it will be slower, and harvests delayed. You could consider broccoli or cabbage, perhaps, but not warmth-loving crops. You may get more slugs and/or more fungal diseases with no-till. The cover crop could try to regrow, or you could get some weeds anyway.

Also, if you are planting by hand, transplanting into untilled soil is harder work than planting into loose tilled soil. Hand-sowing into untilled soil is tricky – winter snow and ice can leave quite compacted soil. If the notion of organic no-till appeals to you, experiment on a small-scale the first year. Reduced tillage is another option. Till out narrow strips in the oats for your plantings of large food crops normally grown on a wide row-spacing.

Using a push seeder for cover crops

EarthWay push seeder.
Photo from EarthWay

You can drill cover crop seeds using a push seeder. See VABF Using Manually-Operated Seeders for Precision Cover Crop Plantings on the Small Farm. Don’t worry if the seed ends up deeper than ideal. It will still germinate.

 

Cover Crop Planning

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and 9 pages of charts about particular options.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

Book Review Practical No-Till Farming: A Quick and Dirty Guide to Organic Vegetable and Flower Growing by Andrew Mefferd

Front cover of Practical No-Till Farming by Andrew Mefferd

Book Review Practical No-Till Farming: A Quick and Dirty Guide to Organic Vegetable and Flower Growing by Andrew Mefferd, New Society Publishers, November 2022, 240 pages, $34.99. 

This is a valuable quick-start guide to small-scale and medium-scale no-till farming, for which many growers will be grateful.  Get a tarp, get started and learn as you go, reading this and Andrew Mefferd’s earlier book, Organic No-Till Farming Revolution as needed. Practical No-Till Farming cuts to the chase with a decision-making matrix for choosing the best methods at each transition point, methods that are regenerative, efficient and earn you a living.

Done well, organic no-till growing can produce more for the time you put in, while improving the biodiversity in the soil. Yields can also be higher per area, while weed management is easier and to add to the benefits, you can sequester carbon in the soil at the same time.

WHAT IS NO-TILL?

The author’s definition of no-till includes any method that doesn’t invert the soil profile. There are no-till farmers who go further and avoid growing root crops, because digging them out resembles tillage. Everyone sets their own limits. Andrew encourages all to try reducing tillage, as a step to good care of the soil.

There are many no-till methods, including covering with silage tarps, mulching with cardboard, straw, or compost. And there are many opinions on the best way to get started. Practical No-Till Farming will help you choose the methods best suited to your situation. This book includes how to:

  • assess no-till options for your farm, considering soil, climate, and the crops you want to grow;
  • balance the pros and cons, and assess the materials and the relative costs of popular no-till methods;
  • use a decision-making matrix for choosing good no-till methods at each stage of your journey;
  • maximize productivity of no-till production;
  • deal with bindweed, symphylans, and other difficult weeds and pests;
  • make a task list of what to do and when, for each no-till method;
  • learn from Andrew’s experience of organic vegetable and flower no-till market farming.

WHY DO NO-TILL?

The first 70 pages of the book, approximately, are full with the Why of No-Till. The Why is followed by about 130 pages of the How of No-Till, including advantages and disadvantages of tilling and no-till, tarping, mulching, cropping strategies, transitions between crops, and good crops to focus on. You can even skip the Why section and go straight to the How section (although you’ll probably want to come back later).

It has been three years since Andrew’s first no-till book, The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution, and many kinds of no-till are underway, (some for 10,000 years): lasagna gardening, no-dig, and permanent mulch. What’s fairly new is doing this on a farm scale rather than a backyard scale. Chemical no-till farming has taken off in the US, paired with GMO crops that don’t die when sprayed with herbicides. Without tillage, there is less soil erosion, but the runoff water from chemical no-till fields has high levels of herbicides and pesticides, so the environment is far from improved. Many organic, sustainable, regenerative farmers want to use no-till methods without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, in order to take better care of the soil and the wider environment.

We take care of the soil biology so it can cycle nutrients to our plants. Soil micro-organisms release nutrients that would otherwise stay locked up in the soil. We can consciously farm these little creatures, ensuring they have conditions where they can thrive and thus make nutrients available to our crops. Tillage kills many soil micro-organisms, especially the larger ones, leaving the soil dominated by bacteria rather than fungi. No-till methods favor the symbiotic relationships in the soil, some of which were only discovered in the past 20 years.

Tillage burns up the organic matter. We then have to add more back to grow crops. Tillage dries out the soil, and we then have to irrigate. No-till is less wasteful, more regenerative and more profitable. This book explores the advantages of no-till in a reader-friendly informative way.

No-till farming is particularly valuable to new farmers as it does not require large pieces of land or large equipment (aka lots of money). One person with access (not even ownership) to one acre (0.4 hectare) of land, and hand tools and tarps can start a small farm with very little else, and make a living. No-till enables farming on land otherwise unsuitable: too steep, too small, an awkward shape. Also on land with contaminated soil – grow flowers, or grow food crops in containers on a tarp over the soil.

No-till gives you more flexibility about when fields are prepped and planted. Tarping allows beds to be “saved” for later. In an urgent situation, use tarps slow down the descent into chaos that can overcome a beginner farmer or one whose life has taken an unexpected turn.

Andrew is upfront about the disadvantages of no-till: soils are slower to warm up in spring, and slower to provide nutrients to very early crops; the first year or two may be difficult, as the weed pressure takes time to reduce. Some methods are hard to scale up (think about acres of tarps). Some pests flourish in high-residue fields. Field-scale no-till methods tend to suppress weeds but not eliminate them.  Perennial weeds can become a bigger problem as years go by, and you’ll have no mechanical way to eliminate them.

Author Andrew Mefferd

HOW TO DO NO-TILL

Some no-till methods require patience. You could tarp a piece of land in grass in the fall, and leave the tarp in place until spring, to plant annual crops. Tarping works by smothering plants and depriving them of light. If the soil is damp when tarped, weed seeds can germinate, but will then die due to lack of light. Tarping or heavy mulching do take longer to kill weeds, but passively: during that time you can do other tasks.

To succeed in feeding the soil, make sure the soil contains something to digest the weeds or crop debris – the soil microbiome. Take care of the micro-livestock, and they will convert the nutrients into forms the future crops can use.

Sometimes preparation for no-till involves tilling (one last time). “You can’t grow a carrot in a lawn.”  Tillage is a reset button for turning pasture or a lawn into arable land. Likely you will need to make a trade-off between using your ideal no-till method, and earning some money from your farming sooner than the year it could take to tarp the sod to death.

Some no-till methods are more suited to large areas. One example is the roller-crimper method of terminating cover crops with a crimping roller to form a mulch in place, into which the new crop is transplanted. There are special no-till drills that can plant seed into a fairly thick killed cover crop residue. These are large machines. Not all no-till growers can (or want to) plant large areas with large machines.

On a small scale, transplanting into mow-killed or roll-killed cover crops works much better than direct seeding. Likewise, transplants are easier in the looser soil of a no-till system with raised beds, where you remove the old crop, add needed compost and amendments on top, and plant the new crop. Transplants can root in rougher soil than a seed can germinate in. If seeding, the bigger the seed, the easier the task. You might be surprised to learn that most crops can be transplanted, including sweet corn, watermelon, winter squash, peas and beans. Another advantage of using transplants is that you have living roots in the soil for a higher proportion of the time, compared with direct seeding. Another is the gain of effective growing season: you may be able to grow two or three crops in sequence, because each is in the ground for several weeks less than when you direct-sow.  Sometimes transplanting the crop will be easier than making a fluffy seedbed to drill into. Transplanting one-cut lettuce rather than sowing baby salad mix, is an example of changing techniques to fit the no-till paradigm.

Compacted soil can present a challenge in no-till systems. Test by pushing a wire flag into the oil. Use a broadfork to loosen the compacted soil without turning it. Instructions and photos are in the Getting Started chapter.

Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

To use the tarping method, first do soil tests and a test of your compost. Amend your soil as needed, let your compost mature longer if that’s what the tests indicate. Then reduce the height of whatever is growing on the land, as much as possible, by mowing or grazing. If you want the plants to rot away, be sure to run irrigation under the tarp. Dry soil will not rot plants. Cutting the plant matter into small pieces before tarping (with a weed whip or flail mower) will speed up decomposition.

Next, reduce the weed seed bank, by a process called “stale seed-bedding” where you prepare the bed ahead of time, deliberately germinate the weed seeds, then kill the weeds before the crop is planted. Tarping, (provided you leave the tarp down long enough, at least 4 weeks) can germinate and kill the newly emerging weeds.

If that doesn’t happen, you will need to manage the weeds another way. Flame-weeding of tiny weeds provides a clean seedbed. If you miss the white-thread stage of weeds, use a wire weeder, stirrup hoe (scuffle hoe), or a fine-tined weeder to kill small weeds in an existing crop, without inverting any soil. “Blind cultivation” is a method of cultivation after sowing the crop, pulling flexible fine tines shallowly (and fairly quickly) over the surface, killing white-thread-stage weeds. Blind cultivation tools were previously only available as tractor implements, but they are now also made in a manual version. You could instead, lay thick organic mulch, or a sheeting mulch over the soil. There are photos of these tools in action in the book.

Solarizing (in this case to to combat nematodes): Step on a spade to push the plastic down into a slot in the soil.
Photo Pam Dawling

Solarization in sunny weather with temperatures above 65°F (18°C), will kill existing weeds in just a couple of days. Solarization involves installing clear hoophouse plastic (UV-inhibited) in close contact with the soil, with the edges firmly held down to trap heat. There is a whole chapter on tarping (aka occultation) and solarization, with everything you need to know to start using these techniques. For small weeds, solarizing is quicker than tarping. Weed seeds and roots of perennial weeds will not die as fast as small weeds.

Mulches are inert materials put on top of the soil to keep weeds and moisture in, to keep light and weed seeds out, or both. The term includes tarps, clear plastic, landscape fabric, plastic mulch, cardboard, paper, straw, tree leaves, woodchips, thick layers of compost, and more. Organic mulches cool the soil (for better or worse), and can attract and harbor some pests (voles, slugs).

Roma paste tomatoes planted into mowed rye and hairy vetch mulch, later topped with spoiled hay. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Mulch can be grown in place, then mowed or rolled at the right stage, to kill the cover crop. Cover crops start to decompose as soon as terminated, so don’t do it ahead of time. When cover crops start to decompose, weeds start to germinate. You need to plan the timing for this system to work well: when to sow the cover crop, when to terminate, when to transplant the food crop. You need a dense cover crop planting. This system doesn’t fit with frequent plantings of small amounts of crop, but can work well for larger areas of warm-weather transplanted crops. You may have to hand-pull weeds that do come up. If your scale is too small for a tractor-mounted crimping roller, you can try the small-scale method involving two people stepping on a T-post laid across the bed. You can tarp after crimping or mowing. Keeping the cover crop dry delays decomposition.

Winter-killed cover crops provide another opportunity to transplant into mulch grown in place. This only works in early spring, and will keep the soil cooler, and the soil nutrients less available than in bare soil. Be warned – this can delay and reduce harvests of early spring crops.

There is a useful chart summarizing the turning points in a season where a decision needs to be made between one management decision or another. The beginning of season: are there few or many weeds? Time to prep beds: will you be sowing or transplanting? Time to deal with weeds: do you have mulch or not? At the end of the crop: do you have low or high crop residue? At the end of the season: will you use tarps or cover crops?

The best crops to focus on are ones that are in demand, and ones that bring a high price. If space is short, don’t grow sweet corn! One-cut lettuce, with all-small leaves can be a good no-till alternative to baby lettuce mix. Harvest and replant from plugs. You can earn more money, because of the higher yield. Harvest each new planting 30 days later (longer in midwinter). This method keeps living roots in the soil all the time. (unlike baby salad mix). One-cut lettuce has a longer shelf life and fewer brown edges than cut leaves. The seed does cost more, and you need a propagation greenhouse to grow the transplants. For many growers the disadvantages are much fewer than the advantages.

Quick crops lead to multiple crop transitions, and no-till methods make transitions quicker. Cut the old crop (and weeds) off at the soil line, add compost and amendments, and replant. Or tarp the bed, weeds and all, and replant when the residues have died. Flail mowing the residues will speed up the decomposition, whether you are tarping or not.

Andrew includes a case study growing hemp in a quarter-acre (0.1 hectare) field that had not been used for two years, and had partly returned itself to grass. He limed first, then tarped for the month of May, using a cobbled-together mix of some clear greenhouse plastic and some opaque tarps. The weather was cool and rainy (not ideal).  The tarps were removed in mid-June. Not much vegetation had survived. Andrew did a soil test, added fertilizer and 4” (10 cm) of compost, then unrolled hay on 5’ (1.5 m) centers, leaving 1’ (30 cm) unmulched in center of each bed, where the plants would go. He transplanted 4” (10 cm) seedlings, and one month later, the weeds were as tall as the crop. He spent eight hours hand-weeding, and two hours with a weed whip. The plants grew to 6-7’ (2 m) by the end of the season, and had closed the canopy, preventing any more weeds from growing. No time was saved compared to tillage method! But the weed seed bank was reduced, and the soil life was conserved, and carbon was sequestered in the soil Definitely successful!

The book finishes up with an appendix, glossary, notes, citations, bibliography, and index. A valuable resource for all of us aspiring to do less tillage, and especially for those hoping to eliminate tillage altogether.

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm, Daniel Mays

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm: How to Start and Run a Profitable Market Garden That Builds Health in Soil, Crops, and Communities 

Daniel Mays, Storey Publishers, 2020. 230 pages, color photos throughout, $24.95.

The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm is a great help to those moving towards more No-Till. This book is full of practical details, and efficient and effective no-till practices, such as how to manage large tarps. This is also a beautiful book. The photos are crisp and inspiring, the drawings clear and informative, the charts well organized and easy to use. The aerial photo shows a poster-farm! Frith Farm is a small-acreage vegetable farm using raised beds, in the style of Jean-Martin Fortier, Ben Hartman, Curtis Stone and others. “No-till human-scale farming is about so much more than avoiding tillage.” Here we can learn about healthy soil, high productivity, fewer weeds, lower costs and a more natural way of growing food.

We have had several new books on no-till in the past year or so. I have reviewed Bryan O’Hara’s No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, and Andrew Mefferd’s Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers. Any reduction in tillage is a good step: you don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere. I’m glad we’ve moved on from the early no-till days when it was considered that all tilling was always bad, but practical advice was lacking.

The book includes some hard-to-find topics, such as acquiring capital, designing and setting out drainage and irrigation systems for both drip and sprinklers, and integrating livestock in a vegetable farm. Minor grumble: the index seems a little light. Fortunately, the book, like Frith Farm, is well-organized, and topics are easy to find.

Daniel started Frith Farm in Scarborough, Maine, in 2010, in his mid-twenties, borrowing $180,000 at 3.8% interest and buying a property with five open acres and a crumbling house and barn.  He had “eighteen years of expensive education and an embarrassing lack of hard skills.” His first year, he provided for a 40-member CSA from less than one acre. The farm now supplies a 150-member CSA, four natural food stores, a farmers’ market and a farm stand. They sell about $300,000 worth of food, using 2.5 acres in cultivation and 2.5 acres of pasture. Almost all of the work is done by hand, by a crew working  a 45-hour-week for 8 months, then having four months off.

Daniel recommends consistent bed dimensions, even if compromising the land geometry. He has 16 plots of 12 beds, each 100ft long, on 5ft centers. This bed-width increases the amount of growing space compared to 30ins beds. He’s over 6ft tall, so jumping over a bed is no problem. I don’t know about the rest of the crew. There are driveable surfaces between the plots and wood chip paths between beds. Without tilling, you minimize erosion, and the conventional wisdom of keeping rows across the slope, not up and down it, isn’t so vital.

Daniel recommends soil testing and an initial supply of inputs to jump start your soil health and enable you to earn a living. You’ll probably be buying compost your first year: 54 cubic yards ($25-$50/cubic yard) will provide 3ins cover on 6,000 sq ft (one Frith Farm plot). Once biological soil health is established, few imported soil amendments will be needed. You will need lots of mulch every year, such as leaves, straw, woodchips. Frith Farm uses 130 cubic yards of leaves per acre each year.

To go from a grass field to a set of ready-to-plant beds, some no-till growers do one initial tilling and maybe subsoiling to establish beds (rent or borrow the equipment). Daniel says “Don’t let purism keep you from actually breaking ground – it is better to start farming imperfectly than never to start at all!” Frith Farm tills with a Berta rotary plow on their BCS walking tractor, one 10ins strip at a time. We use a Berta plow to remake paths in our raised beds – it is a wonderful tool for that.

A second method of killing grasses and weeds is to mow closely and smother the plants with tarps. This takes 3-52 weeks, depending on the weather and plant species. This works for beds you plan to bring into production next year. Use a 5-6 mil thick black and white silage trap, black side up. Weight and wait! Daniel’s ingenious “tarp kit” consists of a pallet with enough cinder blocks to hold down a 24×100 ft tarp, which is folded and set up on top of the blocks, safely out of the way of tractor forks. The kit is moved to the next site, then returned to the pallet when its work is done. I’ve been interested in trying tarping, but muscling huge sheets of silage tarp and enough weights to hold it down was quite off-putting. Here’s an answer!

When you and the dead plants are ready, remove the tarp, spread compost thickly and plant. If the soil is compacted, use a broadfork before spreading compost. Tarping is also a valuable method for flipping beds between one crop and the next.

A third method of establishing new beds is to mow, amend the soil, cover the whole area with thick mulch, topped with compost and plant into that. To succeed, use an initial layer that lets no light through.  This method involves lots of work and mulch.

Seedling production is major at Frith Farm, as transplanting fits well with no-till. They recommend 500 sq ft of greenhouse space per acre of field production. They have some very practical “benches” which are sawhorses topped by custom pallets holding 12 standard 1020 flats. Two people can carry a full pallet, saving lots of time transferring one flat at a time.

Frith Farm uses soil blocks, mixing in a cement mixer. Winstrip trays are much quicker than making blocks, but they prefer the smaller cost and space saving of soil blocks. They use four sizes of standup blockers, but not the ¾” miniblocks, because those dry out too fast. They have tried the paperpot planter and found it unsuccessful when planting into stubble, worth considering before spending $3000.

One key to successful transplanting is appreciating the sublime experience of setting a plant in the ground with your own hands. Another is to have enough hands to get the job done! A third is watering soon after planting. They use a rolling Infinite Dibbler, a homemade oil-drum dibbler and a special 6-plant garlic dibbler For direct seeding, Daniel likes the humble Earthway seeder, even using it for cover crop seeds (the beet plate for the grasses). The Earthway is rugged, affordable, and works well in no-till beds.

Irrigation is another aspect of vegetable production that Daniel has well figured out. Here is a good clear explanation about well depth, flow, recharge rates, costs, water quality and all the facts you never needed to know if you use city water. The book includes a very clear pipe layout superimposed on the bed plan.

Daniel will help you decide between drip irrigation and sprinklers (or some of each). He recommends Senninger Xcel Wobblers with a 1gpm flow each, covering 6 beds with a line of 4 sprinklers. They run 12 sprinklers at once. This kind of detailed step-by-step calculation can be hard to find. Here’s another instance where the book pays for itself with just one piece of information! Daniel uses driptape only for long-season crops that are prone to foliar diseases, otherwise, he likes the simplicity of sprinklers. Follow Daniel’s advice and bury all main and lateral pipelines deep enough not to hit them when digging. A hose reel cart is a helpful thing to have to make hand-watering less of a tangled mess.

Daniel avoids rowcover unless a crop has two reasons simultaneously. Pests and diseases indicate imbalance, underlying issues with soil health, crop rotation, biodiversity. Work to rebalance and make improvements. Work towards being a No-Spray farm as well as No-Till.

The chapter on weeds opens with the saying “We till because we have weeds because we till . . .!” Weeds are an ecological mechanism for keeping the soil covered and full of roots. The “simple” solution of never letting weeds seed is less work in the long run, more work at first. It relies on working only the amount of land you have enough skilled hands to deal with. Two skilled fulltime workers per acre.

When is thick mulch not helpful? In early spring when you want to warm the soil. At Frith Farm, the soil is frozen from November to late March. Beds that finish too late to plant an overwinter cover crop get composted and covered in leaf mulch. They rake this leaf mulch off the beds into the paths in early spring, and spread a layer of compost on the beds, allowing some warm-up time. The dark compost absorbs the heat from the sun.

“Flipping the bed” after a crop may be simple if it was a root crop with few weeds. If the crop leaves a lot of bulky residues, mowing and tarping can restore the soil to a usable state in 5-10 days in warm weather. You may need to dig out perennial weeds, or add soil amendments, and another 7 barrows of compost per 100ft bed (2.5 cu yards/1000 sq ft), but soon you are good to go. They have a smooth compost spreading operation. A tractor driver delivers buckets of compost directly into wheelbarrows lined up at the head of the beds. People push the barrows down the paths, dumping out several shots of compost, raking the compost out to cover the whole bed surface.

Solarization with clear plastic during warm sunny weather is another way to kill weeds. If the edges of the plastic are buried, weed seeds and pathogenic fungal spores are also killed. If you want to kill weeds or crop residues without all the other life forms in the top layers of soil, using black plastic tarps is a safer way to go. The soil temperature does not get as high, but the removal of light does help kill plants. The book has a graph of days of tarping versus temperature. More than 25 days at an ambient temperature of 50F, about 9 at 65F, and only one day above 85F.

They have an ingenious foot-powered crimping tool for killing tall cover crops instead of mowing. Called the “T-post stomper”, this is a partner dance with one person at each end of a T-post lying across the bed. The T-post is tied with twine to the “inner” foot of each partner and includes a long twine loop that is hand-held.

No-till cover crop planning takes care. Plants die in three ways: they finish their lifecycle, they winterkill or they are starved of light or water. In no-till farming, the tools are the mower, winter, and tarping, or some combination of these. A sequence of photos shows beds from seeding the cover crop in September to healthy summer brassicas with no weeds in sight. A spring cover crop sequence shows peas and oats sown in April, tarped in June, direct seeded in storage radish in summer. Shorter sections on summer and fall cover crops follow.

Daniel has a chapter on integrating livestock with vegetable farming to increase diversity and net productivity of the farm. The symbiosis between soil, plants, animals can lead to creation of more soil, and increased fertility. Chickens are easy to keep, although if you want poultry that don’t scratch up the soil, get turkeys. (Daniel has a punny photo of turkey on rye.) Sheep are easier to fence than goats, and are smaller than cattle. Be wary of pigs. They can act like obsessed tillers and do lots of damage.

Harvested crops remove nutrients from the farm soil, and these nutrients can be replaced by farming for a very healthy soil biology. Healthy soil draws carbon and nitrogen from the air, and makes previously “inaccessible” stores of nutrients available to the following crops. Use compost, leaves and other organic mulches until you max out the recommended level of some nutrient. If your soil is then unbalanced, you will need to bring in missing nutrients.

The chapter on harvest sets out efficient user-friendly methods at Frith Farm. For a pleasant wash-pack space, you need a roof, a floor with good drainage (could be wood chips), mesh or slatted tables; hoses and sprayers; tanks to hold water; a salad spinner, a barrel root washer; good scales; flip-lid storage totes; walk-in coolers using CoolBot technology; and customized shelving. Think before buying a delivery truck – $1,500 worth of produce will fit in the back of a Prius! Almost no fuel costs! Daniel also recommends buying an insulated truck body to convert into a cooler. It can double as a screen for crew outdoor movie nights! Don’t forget to have fun!

We have a captive market at Twin Oaks (more politely called direct supply), so I‘m not the best reviewer of information about selling. But the section on their hiring process really grabbed me. “We are not just hiring a pair of hands to meet our labor needs; we are inviting someone into our community, our family, and our home.” Spell out and keep to high standards, provide a social experience, show care and camaraderie, train adequately, and compensate fairly. Interview well, check references, have a working interview (paid) if you can; write out your job offer. Provide guidelines with goals for pace and efficiency. Each person should be able to harvest, wash and pack about $80 worth of produce per hour. Share the joyful observations of life around you.

Daniel describes his recordkeeping, where the plan becomes the record. He recommends Holistic Management by Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield. Define your farms’ purpose, plan the season, plan the week. A plan is just a plan, sometimes plans change. Look for opportunities to record aggregate data, such as recording what you take to market and what you bring back, rather than each individual sale. At the end of the season, add up sales for each crop and divide by the number of beds to calculate the revenue per bed, and the yield of that crop. Having standard sized beds makes this simple. Add into pre-existing records and eliminate multiple versions of the same data. Make one spreadsheet of notes for next year. You can sort it by crop or by month, or by plot number.

Their Plan for the Week is an online spreadsheet accessible to all via a laptop in the barn. (Obviously they have better internet than we do!) Each week has a tab, each day has a column, and each plot has a row with tasks, times and sometimes a name. Once a week, the crew walks the farm and makes the list for each day, including any tasks carried over. Nothing is erased (it becomes a record!) When someone completes a task, they use a strike-through font and add notes. At the end of each day, remaining tasks are reprioritized for the rest of the week. This spreadsheet becomes the farm journal, and is easily searchable.

Frith Farm has a four-year rotation starting with smothering followed by transplanted cucurbits or nightshades and a winter-killed cover crop. The second year involves brassicas followed by root crops, with mulch over-winter. The third year is devoted to repetitions of salad crops, and a winterkilled cover crop. The fourth year is for alliums and an over-wintering cover crop. Consider the crop spacing you need for the new crop, and the spacing of the stubble from the previous crop. You often don’t need a clear bed, just clear rows where you intend to plant.

During the winter they create their attractive crop rotation plan where each plot has 12 rows (for the beds), with “under-rows” (for under-sowing) and 12 columns (for the months). It’s color coded for quick reference. From that rotation plan, they create a Greenhouse Plan and a Seed Order.

Next is a Harvest Plan for each harvest day, starting with walking the fields to take notes, balancing what is mature with what is needed. The evening before, the harvest manager makes a list of crops, quantities, and picking order. Each harvest day has a tab on the online spreadsheet, with a row for each crop. The sheet for that day is posted by the time the crew arrives. In this case, pickers use a pen to indicate who is picking what, when it’s done. People work down the list in order, taking the crops to the wash-pack station. That crew cleans the produce and stores it in a cooler, labeled with its destination.

There is a table of revenue data for 16 top-earning vegetables. (The other 45 crops are not shown.) In terms of revenue per bed, ginger wins at $2442, but it is in place all year (and I think it is in high tunnels). Taking bed-months into account, ginger still wins, but arugula is chasing it. Radishes don’t so well in revenue per bed-season, nor do onions and beets. Frith Farm does not record labor per crop. CSA growers need to provide variety, not just the “most profitable” crops.

Success includes sustainability, considering the people and the planet as well as the profit. Profit can be understood as ability to reinvest. Exactly where the profits end up is important, and to his credit, Daniel includes his 2018 farm revenue and where it went. Of the total $314,000, $120,000 went to the farm crew (an investment in the local community that makes the farm productive); $11,000 to family loan payments. $92,000 went back to the land (infrastructure, seeds and local biomass). $91,000 left the area, for taxes, insurance, fees, tools and equipment, and non-local inputs including the energy bill.

Purchases like plastic mulch, fossil fuels and manufactured equipment are part of a linear process that essentially convert resources to pollution. Strong words, and why not? We need to each face the full effect of our production.

Frith Farm works to increase food access to people in the community who cannot afford the usual prices of healthy food. They accept SNAP and WIC, donations, and offer gleaning groups the chance to help food pantries. They have sliding scale pricing, barter, work trades, and ride shares, all of which they advertise widely.

On the ecological front, their no-till practices are working daily to increase carbon sequestration by increasing organic matter (less than 4% in 2011, over 10% in 2019). A one per cent increase in OM in the top 10” of an acre of soil removes about 8.5 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Daniel Mays
Photo Storey Publishers

Root Crops in July

 

 

A fine rutabaga (Swede)!
Photo Produce Market Guide

Root Crops in July

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in July

July is not a good month for sowing many root crops in Virginia – it’s hot and for most fall root crops we can do better waiting till August. Yes, it will still be hot in August, but the daylight is getting shorter and so the hot part of the day is also getting shorter. 

Carrots: if we really need more carrots, we direct sow our eighth bed of carrots in early July. We only do this if they’re really needed, because carrots grown in hot weather do not have the best flavor. They will not be sweet, they may even be bitter.  Our plan is to have grown enough between February and May to last us until late October, stored in perforated plastic bags in the walk-in cooler. But if earlier sowings weren’t all successful, or we ate unusually large amounts of carrots, we can find ourselves sowing them in July.

Use shadecloth to keep the soil damp, or water a lot. Carrot seed will germinate whenever the soil is below 95°F (35°C), provided you can keep the soil damp until the seedlings emerge. You won’t need to do daily watering for long: maybe only 4 days. We flame summer carrots on day 4 after sowing, because we have found that carrots can emerge on day 5 in summer temperatures, despite longer times given in the charts. See Root Crops in May for more about sowing and growing carrots, including pre-emergence flame weeding.

Young kohlrabi plants.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Kohlrabi: Kohlrabi transplants successfully, unlike carrots and turnips, and this has usually been our method for fall crops. We have sown kohlrabi (Early Purple Vienna and Early White Vienna) in the week beginning July 2, for transplanting 8/3-8/9. Sowing in early August is also possible, for November harvests. Kohlrabi, like other brassicas, can be grown in spring or fall in our zone 7 climate. It’s not actually a root crop, rather a swollen stem, but I’m including it as an “acting root”

Rutabagas: This year we are growing rutabagas (also known as Swedes) again, after several years when we went with more turnips instead. Rutabagas are only sown here in late summer for winter storage. They take longer to grow to a good size than turnips do, so it is necessary to start earlier: 7/15-8/4 here, (mid-August at the latest), allowing 90-100 growing days before a hard freeze. Fall root crops sown too early in the summer can get woody. See the Special Topic for July below for all the details about rutabagas.

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in July

Potatoes: From mid-June onwards, we can harvest spring-planted potatoes as delicious “new” potatoes. See Root Crops in June for more on this. For maximum yields, hold off on harvesting until two weeks after tops have died. See next week’s post for all the details.

This garden worker loves washing beets!
Photo Wren Vile

Beets: We like to clear all our spring beets by the end of June, but sometimes the job flows over into July. Trimmed beets keep well in perforated plastic bags under refrigeration. Store beets at 32°F (0°C) and 95% humidity.

Carrots: Our third carrots (sown mid-March) should be cleared in early July if not before, and our fourth carrots (sown in late March) and fifth (sown in mid-April) will also be ready to harvest in July. I usually reckon on three months from sowing to harvest for carrots, but they can be faster in warm weather. Don’t leave them in the ground too long, or they will get woody. See Root Crops in June for more on carrots.

Kohlrabi: As with beets, we plan to harvest spring kohlrabi by the end of June, at 3” (7.5 cm) in diameter (or even up to softball size). They get too fibrous if left longer, so we will prioritize getting them up. The base of the globe can be tough, so cut either the wiry root just below the soil surface, or cut higher, leaving a small disc of the globe behind, attached to the taproot.

Turnips:  If we didn’t finish harvesting our spring turnips by the end of June, we really need to get them all up in early July. If we have more than we can eat in the next week, we store them in perforated plastic bags in the walk-in cooler, eating them during the summer. Turnips keep for about 4 months at temperatures close to freezing and humidity of 90-95%. Higher humidity will make them rot (rotting turnips are pretty unpleasant!)

Harvested Purple Top Milan and White Egg turnips.
Photo Pam Dawling

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in July:

After all the spring-sown root crops are harvested, and the spring-sown greens have bolted, we prepare the emptied beds for summer or fall crops.

Preparing space for summer-planted crops

In July, we will be looking for beds to plant successions of lettuce, cucumbers, squash and beans; our fall brassica transplants, and our first transplants of fall and winter cabbage and Asian greens. In August, we’ll want beds for our last plantings of cucumbers, squash and beans, the never-ending lettuces, fall beets, turnips, winter radishes, kale, and collards. Harvesting the spring roots promptly and storing them gives us time to prepare the beds for their next crop.

Buckwheat cover crop in flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Buckwheat

If we have 4 weeks or more before the next crop, we will sow a cover crop of buckwheat in the just-emptied beds. Buckwheat keeps the weeds down and feeds the soil (and the honeybees and other pollinating insects). If there are weeds or lots of crop debris, we will till deep enough to bury that plant matter, then broadcast the buckwheat at a rate of 2–4 oz/100 ft2 (6–12 gm/m2), give another shallow tilling, then water and stand back. If there are no weeds or crop debris, there’s no need to till: you can broadcast the seed, and rake it in before watering (and standing back!). As an alternative to broadcasting you can sow rows of buckwheat with the #22 plate on an EarthWay seeder.

Prepare stale seed beds for fall carrots

If you have less than four weeks before you need to sow or transplant the next crop, you can use the time to kill weeds with the stale seedbed technique. Prepare the bed as if you were about to sow, producing an even surface with a fine tilth (surface texture). Then water as if you had sown something, keeping the surface damp by watering as needed. As soon as you see tiny weeds germinating, hoe the surface very shallowly in sunny breezy weather and let the weeds dry out. Make a last hoeing the day before sowing the next crop. This is especially useful for carrots, scallions or anything with tiny seedlings, which cannot easily compete with weeds.

Another method of germinating and killing weed seedlings when there is no crop in the ground is tarping: cover the bed with an opaque waterproof cover after watering the soil. Weeds seeds germinate, but the weeds cannot grow without light and will die.

Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

Solarizing is another approach that works well in hot weather: cover the prepared bed with clear agricultural plastic, such as scraps of a hoophouse covering. The heat of the sun bakes any weed seeds near the surface, and also any disease spores or small pests. Larger creatures such as earthworms can burrow deeper into the soil (as they do anyway in hot weather).

Rutabagas, although these ones don’t have much in the way of necks, a usual distinguishing feature.
Photo Penn State

Special Root Crop Topic for July in Central Virginia: Rutabagas

Rutabagas need to be sown in July in central Virginia. To clarify: rutabagas (known as Swedes in the UK) are Brassica napus, closely related to most other brassica crops. Botanically, rutabagas are part swollen tap roots, part swollen stem (the upper portion of the vegetable which forms the neck, the distinguishing feature of rutabagas). There are secondary roots growing in two rows down the sides of rutabagas. Rutabagas are mostly yellow-fleshed with a tan and reddish or purplish skin, although there are white-fleshed varieties. They all have blue-green waxy, non-hairy leaves. turnips are Brassica rapa, like Chinese cabbage and mustards. Turnips come in a range of colors, white or yellow flesh, with white, purple, red or golden yellow skins. The leaves are bright grass green, usually hairy, and not waxy. Turnips do not have a neck or secondary roots growing off the turnip. Rutabagas have twice the nutrients of turnips. And take longer to grow.

Rutabagas are among the hardiest of vegetables, and can be left growing (or at least not dying) until all other crops have been harvested. The flavor improves after frost. For small plantings, plan on 10’ (3 m) per person. Yields of rutabagas can be 75-180 lbs of roots/100’, (35-80 kg roots/30 m): 50% higher than turnips.

Rutabagas come in very few varieties. Laurentian (95 days OP) has a deep purple crown and cream yellow bottom. The uniform 5–6″ (13-15 cm) roots have sweet pale yellow flesh. Joan (90 days, OP), looks similar to Laurentian, with the added advantage that it is somewhat tolerant to club root. Gilfeather (85 days, OP) is sold as a turnip, but is botanically a white rutabaga. Sweeter and later to mature than turnips, it doesn’t become woody even at softball size. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange also has American Purple Top (not to be confused with the Purple Top White Globe turnip) and the Lithuanian Nadmorska a large oval 90d OP.

Fine rows of rutabagas. See the distinctive necks.
Photo Nan Chase

Keys to growing mild, sweet-tasting rutabagas include cool temperatures, sufficient irrigation, and no competition from weeds or over-crowding. The optimal germination range is 59-95°F (15-35°C). Rutabagas are a little slower to germinate. We sow four rows in 4’ (1.2 m) wide beds. Seeds need to be 0.5” (1.2 cm) deep. When flea beetles or grasshoppers are a problem, use rowcover or insect mesh.

Early thinning is especially important for shapely well-developed rutabagas. Thin to 4” (10 cm) within 10 days of emergence, or at least by 1” (2.5 cm) tall, then to 10” (25 cm) when 2-3” (5-7.5 cm) tall. If not well-thinned, they will grow in odd shapes and be small. 

Boron deficiency causes the middles of the roots to turn brown. Many common weeds are in the Brassica family, and could harbor pests and diseases that could attack the crop, so use crop rotations, stale seedbeds and clean cultivation to remove the weeds.

Aphids, flea beetles, cabbage worms, harlequin bugs, and grasshoppers can all be a problem. Rutabagas have worse trouble with aphids than turnips. Brassica flea beetles are not the same species as the nightshade flea beetles often found on eggplant. Rowcovers or insect netting and the planting of insectaries (flowers to attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs) can help avoid the problems. Bt can be used for the caterpillars, soaps for the aphids and Nolo bait for the grasshoppers (except where banned in order to preserve rare species of grasshopper).

More information 

GrowVeg Rutabaga Growing Guide 

Written in Vermont: Gardener’s Path:

Written in Mother Earth News by Sara Pacher:

DIY Network

The main diseases of rutabagas (and turnips) are club-root, downy mildew, powdery mildew, rhizoctonia rot, bacterial scab, and blackleg. All except scab are fungal diseases. Organic methods of prevention are crop rotations and field sanitation (plowing in residues promptly, removing weeds). Club-root fungus is able to live in the soil for up to 10 years, so is hard to eliminate. Avoid all brassica crops in an affected field for 10 years, and be vigilant about eliminating brassica family weeds. (Develop a fondness for spinach, chard and beet greens!)

Our rutabagas are ready from mid-October. Rutabagas (but not turnips except in warm climates) can be stored in the ground all winter. Mulch over them with loose straw once the temperatures descend near 20°F (-7°C). If you don’t manage to eat all the roots before spring, they will re-sprout and you can have an “early spring bite” of greens (a term more usually used for cattle fodder crops).

Rutabagas can store for as much as 6 months in perforated plastic bags under refrigeration. They do best stored above 95% humidity. Prompt washing before the soil dries on the roots will make them easier to clean later.

In the UK, rutabagas are not waxed as they are in North America. In fact, they store well without waxing, and I encourage you to try skipping the petroleum product.

Sliced rutabaga.
Photo Cornell

Modern Homesteading Interview, Things I’ve Changed My Mind On

Hoophouse squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Photo Alexis Yamashito

In April I did a pleasant phone interview with Harold Thornbro of the Modern Homesteading Podcast  about how year round gardening in a hoophouse can increase yields and the quality of vegetables and extend the growing season.

You can listen to it here:

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/modern-homesteading-podcast/e/60326060?autoplay=true

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The rest of this post is about the agricultural things I’ve changed my mind on in recent years.

Sowing Leeks
Leek seedlings growing in an outdoor nursery bed.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The first one that comes to mind is where and how to sow leeks. In Sustainable Market Farming I describe sowing leeks in outdoor nursery seedbeds. We grow leeks for eating from October to March, so even though leeks grow very slowly and need 12 weeks to transplant size, we don’t need to sow them super early in the year. Also because they are so cold-hardy, they don’t need greenhouse conditions. To save greenhouse space, and the bother of watering so many flats, we took to sowing them outdoors. To make this work, you do need weed-free beds. Leeks compete poorly with weeds. Sometimes things went wrong. One year someone decided to “seed-bomb” the fresh bed with poppy seeds. Weeding those tiny leek seedlings was torture! Another time, an overenthusiastic worker ran our new exciting wheel hoe too far onto the bed and eradicated part of a row.

Leek seedlings in flats in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

One year the leek seedling bed wasn’t ready in time to sow, and we sowed rows of seeds in a coldframe, after removing the winter spinach (or maybe we were still growing lettuce in the coldframes then.) This worked well. The next year we tried sowing the seeds in 4” (10cm) deep flats, and putting the flats into the coldframes right away (rather than germinating them in the greenhouse). Still no wasted greenhouse space! On very cold nights, we cover the coldframes, so it was a bit warmer than if we’d just sowed directly into an outdoor bed. The plants grew a bit quicker and we realized we didn’t need to start so early. They were easier to take to the field in the flats, compared to digging up the starts and carrying them in little buckets with water. We had reduced losses of seedlings, so we reduced the amount of seed sown in future years. It’s an easier system, with a more satisfying success rate.

Sunnhemp as a Cover Crop
Sunnhemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC.
Photo Pam Dawling

 Sunnhemp (Crotalaria juncea) is a warm weather leguminous cover crop that I’ve been admiring at various farms in the Southeast in recent years. I’ve been thinking it would be valuable ion our hoophouse and in our gardens. It fights root knot nematodes! I mentioned it recently at a crew meeting, only to be reminded that I previously spoke against growing it as the seed is poisonous! I’d completely forgotten my earlier opinion!

This summer cover crop can grow to 6’ (2m) in 60 days. It thrives in heat, tolerates drought, fixes nitrogen, suppresses nematodes, makes deep roots that pull nutrients from deep in the soil, and it dies with frost. It sounds fantastic, I really want to try it!  It looks a bit like small sunflowers, and according to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange  it  won’t make mature seed above 28 degrees N latitude , so won’t become a self-sowing invasive  in Virginia. Sow in rows 2’-3’ (0.6-1m) apart. If it gets too big, mow when plants reach 5’-8’ (1.5-2.5m) to prevent the stalks from becoming tough and hard to deal with. ¼ lb sows 250 sq ft. (¼ lb = 114 g, 250 sq ft = 23.2m2)

Sowing Sweet Corn
Young sweet corn with a sprinkler for overhead watering.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I mentioned earlier here, that I’ve changed my mind about the necessity to put up ropes over corn seed rows to keep the crows off. I suppose there are fewer crows these days, sigh. Not needing the ropes makes the benefits of sowing with the seeder greater than the benefits of sowing by hand, so long as we can irrigate sufficiently to get the seed germinated. When we sowed by hand we watered the furrows generously, which meant we did not need to water again until after the seedlings emerged. If we hit a serious drought, the old method could still be best. Overhead watering does germinate lots of weeds, including in the wide spaces between the corn rows, so we need to factor in the extra hoeing or tilling when we weigh up the pros and cons. So, I’m a “situational convert” on this question!

How to Kill Striped Cucumber Beetles
Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote about these beasties here. We handpick the beetles in the hoophouse squash flowers, hoping to deal with the early generation and reduce future numbers. One year we had our first outdoor squash bed very close to the hoophouse and the beetles moved there. In desperation I used Spinosad, an organically approved pesticide. It is a rather general pesticide, and harms bees, so I carefully sprayed late in the day and covered the row with netting to keep bees off. It worked brilliantly, taking a fraction of the time that daily handpicking takes. I became a convert to that method, but no one else on the crew did, so we went back to hand-picking.

Pruning Tomatoes
Hoophouse tomatoes in early May
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I used to maintain that life is too short to prune tomatoes, which grow at a rapid rate in our climate, and get fungal diseases, necessitating sowing succession crops. The past couple of years I have removed lower leaves touching the soil, and this year I reduced the sideshoots on our hoophouse tomatoes, which are grown as an early crop here.(We’re about to pull them up in early August, as the outdoor ones are now providing enough). I do think we got fewer fungal diseases, and the diseases started later compared to other years, so I am now convinced that removing the lower leaves is very worthwhile. We also got bigger fruit this year, which logically fits with reducing the foliage some amount.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Compost?
Too much compost?? A commercial compost windrow turner.
Photo by Pam Dawling

I used to think the more compost the better. Now I am more aware that compost adds to the phosphorus level in the soil. I wrote about that here. I am not as alarmist as some people about high P in our situation, but I do now think it is worth paying attention and not letting the levels build too fast. I have got more enthusiastic about growing cover crops at every opportunity, and finding legumes to include in cover crop mixtures at every time of year (see above about sunnhemp). I was already a cover crop enthusiast, but as my experience increased, I got my mind round more possibilities.

Using Plastics
Rolling biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Photo Wren Vile

In my youth I was anti-plastic, If I were growing food just to feed myself, I’d probably still find ways to avoid almost all plastics, but growing on a commercial/professional scale (and getting older) has led me to appreciate plastics. I still don’t want to do plastic mulch, except the biodegradable kind, but I’ve come to accept durable light weight plastics for their benefits. Drip tape saves do much water, reduces weed growth. Plastic pots and flats are so much easier to lift! I do still pay attention and try to make plastics last a long time, and frequently salvage plastic containers others discard. I’m awed by the possibilities of silage tarps or old advertising banners, to keep down weeds without tilling and pre-germinate weed seeds so that when the covers are removed, few weeds grow. This was called by the awkward name of “occultation”, but is now more often referred to in English as tarping.

Hornworms

Lastly, I have a post on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening about hornworms, but you read it here first!

Book Review: The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, Andrew Mefferd,

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, 

Andrew Mefferd, New Society Publishers, January 2019, $29.99

Organic No-Till has been an unachievable goal for many of us, but there’s no need to feel guilty or ashamed! We may understand the biology, and even the physics and chemistry of it, and why it’s a Good Thing. We can see how it can be done on a domestic scale, especially by those who can grow or buy lots of mulch, and especially if there’s no need to account for time and money invested.  There is equipment (roller-crimpers and no-till planters) that makes large scale organic no-till possible and efficient. But for those of us growing food in the middle scale, it’s proving harder. Giant equipment works for acres of soybeans but not for market farming. How to keep the weeds away while tending forty sowings of lettuce? The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution provides very practical information for those who want to increase the amount of no-till growing on their small-scale farm.

Andrew Mefferd says in the introduction, “No-till is as much about climate change as it is about soil health as it is about farm profitability.” Work on all three at once with this book. 50-70% of the world’s carbon in farm soils is off-gassed due to tillage (according to a Yale study). This decreases soil fertility at a time when we need to grow more resilient crops to cope with climate change. Global food production could be reduced by up to 17% by 2100 due to climate-induced crop failures. All steps in a good direction are worth taking.

Andrew is not a proselytizer and this is not a religion. You don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere to benefit from some very practical new skills, enabling you to increase the area in no-till practices. Different strategies work for different farms and different crops. Not inverting the soil layers is important. Any reduction in tillage is a good step; shallower is better than deeper; less often is better than after every crop. The tilther and power harrow on a shallow setting are used by some no-till farmers. One last tilling before setting up permanent beds is OK if that’s what you need to do! Think in terms of doing more no-till and take away any pressure to feel bad if you continue to do some tilling. One step at a time towards healing the earth, the climate; improving your soil and your crops.

The first part of the book explains the concepts and presents various methods: mulch grown in place; applied cardboard, deep straw or compost; occultation (tarping) and solarization (clear plastic). The main section consists of in-depth interviews with seventeen farmers about what works for them. After reading the first part, you can dive into the chapters with the methods that most appeal to you. The book is written so it doesn’t have to be read sequentially to make sense.

Andrew worked at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Research Farm on organic no-till vegetable production, using roller-crimpers and no-till drills. The next year he moved to a 3 acre farm and temporarily forgot about no-till because the methods he’d seen were not applicable to that scale. Ten years later, in 2016, he read articles in Growing for Market magazine, and attended conference workshops by farmers who were succeeding with organic no-till on smaller farms. These growers were using various different methods, and Andrew decided to visit them and write up the interviews.

“Want to build organic matter and soil biology because of the way you grow, instead of despite it?” Andrew asks. Increasing the organic matter in the soil will help the soil hold more water, suffer less from run-off and need less applied water per year (1″ (2.5 cm) of water saved per 1% increase in OM has been quoted). Carbon is stored in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Paying attention to the soil biology and feeding the soil is the heart of organic farming. We must farm more ecologically if we want to survive. At the same time, small-scale farms must be profitable to sustain the farmers. This book has many examples of farmers that started small with limited resources, and are able to make a decent living. Avoiding the need to buy heavy machinery is a big saving.

I love this surprise quote: “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” Which outspoken radical farming group made this proclamation? The USDA-NRCS! Taking care of the soil biology reduces the urge to compensate with chemistry. The less tillage, the better-off we can be. OM levels can rise quickly when tillage is reduced. Cover-cropping, adding compost and organic mulches are all ways to achieve this. The churning of tillage burns up OM. As Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm, Connecticut, says, “Tillage is a nutrient flush from all the death you just wrought on the soil…Tillage doesn’t give nutrient balance, it gives you nutrient release.” More OM must be added every year just to maintain levels that were there before tilling.

Tarping is a rediscovered method that lets the soil digest the plant material without any tilling. This is especially useful when you have several weeks to spare after a harvest, but not enough time to grow a cover crop. The soil biology breaks down the residue, weed seeds germinate then die. The soil is left ready to replant.

After listing all the many benefits of no-till, Andrew explains the disadvantages. Weed control without cultivation is the main issue, especially perennial weeds. The slowness of mulched soil to warm in the spring is another. A third is that high OM can lead to more slugs. If you mulch with tree leaves, you might find squirrels and chipmunks rummaging for acorns. Grass creeps in from the edges. These problems are all addressed in the book.

Andrew Mefferd
Photo by Ann Mefferd

The Overview of Organic No-Till Techniques is a summary of methods, biodegradable mulches and plastic sheet materials.

Biodegradable mulch grown in place is the method we used for many years for our large planting of paste tomatoes. We sowed winter rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas in early September, following our spring broccoli and cabbage. At the beginning of May we mowed down the cover crop with our hay cutting machine and the next day dug holes and transplanted the tomatoes. We used a small shovel for our big transplants. Shawn Jadrnicek suggests using a stand-up bulb planter. The legumes provided all the nitrogen the crop needed, and the long-cut cover crop kept the weeds at bay for maybe 6 weeks. By then we had trellised the tomatoes and were able to unroll big round bales of spoiled hay between the rows. This dealt with the weeds for the rest of the season. One year in ten in our row crops rotation was no-till. We tried a few other applications of this method but generally they didn’t work as well. We were unable to direct-seed into cut mulch, for instance. Our watermelons didn’t like the cold soil, and we wanted watermelons in August, not October! To grow big enough cover crops for this to work, the food crop has to be planted no earlier than late April in central Virginia. Paste tomatoes worked well because we didn’t need an early harvest. Transplanted Halloween pumpkins and winter squash work. Fall cabbage and broccoli (on German millet and soybeans) can also work.

Bringing in biodegradable mulch (hay, straw, cardboard, paper, compost, tree leaves, wood chips, spent brewers’ grains) is the second method. The material needs to be spread thickly, usually 3″ (7.5 cm) or more and used appropriately (don’t switch plans and till in raw wood chips!). Straw can cost $750 per acre covered. A round bale covers about 200′ by 5′. We use hay bales or biodegradable plastic on annual crops, cardboard and wood chips around our fruit plantings. The existing weeds and crop residues will need to be removed first. Flaming works for small weeds, otherwise use one of the sheeting methods. Read the book to get the all-important details on how to be successful.

The non-biodegradable mulch methods are tarping (occultation) and solarizing. Tarping was introduced to most of us by Jean-Martin Fortier in The Market Gardener. For annual no-till crops, first tarp the soil using an opaque material such as silage tarps (or solarize in hot weather). After killing the weeds, uncover, spread mulch and transplant into it. Tarps will not kill docks or nut-sedge. Tarping takes from 3-6 weeks, (the shorter time in hotter weather). Allow longer if you’re bringing new land into production. Plan ahead, and tarp all winter. Silage tarps warm the soil for early spring plantings, and also prevent soil moisture from evaporating.

Solarization uses clear plastic (old hoophouse plastic is ideal). In a summer hoophouse, solarization can be as quick as 24 hours, Andrew says. When we’ve done this, one of our goals was to kill nematodes and fungal diseases, not just weeds, so we waited a few weeks. Outdoors it takes several weeks. You can see when the weeds are dead. Bryan O’Hara poked a thermometer probe through solarization plastic and found a 50F degree (28C) difference between the outside air and the soil immediately under the plastic; a 10F (6C) difference at 1″ (2.5 cm) deep and little temperature gain lower than that. Solarization does not kill all the soil life!

The growers interviewed explain which methods they use and why, helping readers weigh the pros and cons for the various crops we are growing, and our resources, climate and soils. Andrew offers some pointers on which methods are likely to work best for which situations. Several farmers tell how they transitioned into organic no-till for various crops, for instance buckwheat, compost and Weed Guard Plus paper mulch for a garlic crop, followed by two crops of lettuce. Mossy Willow Farm in Australia has a designated area for direct-seeded crops, where they use sprinklers, and the tilther if needed. The rest of their farm (transplanted) uses drip irrigation, but the soil does get too clumpy for direct seeding, and is slower to improve.

Farmers also address the things that went wrong while they were learning (thin stands of cover crops, cover crops not dying, getting the timing wrong on seeding or roll-crimping, weed seeds blowing in from elsewhere). They describe equipment they found helpful (drop-spreaders to lay down even layers of woodchips or compost, landscape fabric, the stand-up bulb planter, Tilther, Jang seeder, paperpot transplanter, broadfork). They also address timing of cover crop sowing to avoid warm-season and cool-season weeds; extending the weed suppression period of cut or crimped cover crops by adding tree leaves; pre-irrigating before digging transplant holes; and many other tips to success. A strategy for tall crabgrass is to mow it down, cover with newspaper and compost. A border of comfrey plants all-round the garden does a great job of keeping grass out. You can quickly see how this book will pay for itself many times over!

No-till beds are ready for early spring crops, even in wet regions, if the beds are mulched overwinter. Because no-till builds soil upwards, it is a good technique for land that is very rocky or with shallow topsoil. Another advantage of no-till is that you can install fairly permanent irrigation (drip or sprinklers). And you can farm intensively on small areas without needing to cater to the turning radius of large machinery. Getting high productivity from small areas is becoming an essential factor to consider.

Potatoes are a soil disruptor, and can bring up new weed seeds, so it’s worth covering the beds as soon as the potatoes are harvested. At Four Winds Farm in New York State, they plant garlic in the fall after potatoes, then mulch over the top of the garlic with a thick layer of compost. In their bigger plan, they only plant garlic in every other bed (although composting all). The following spring they plant winter squash in the empty beds, which can take over all the space after the garlic is harvested.

As I read the interviews, I started to worry: were none of these farmers having a problem using such high amounts of compost? The first problem is making or buying the sorts of quantities they are using, but the second is a build-up of phosphorus, which we have experienced on our farm. Singing Frogs Farm has studied this, testing the water run-off in the ponds at the low-point of their land. The phosphorus stays in place in their system, it does not leach. Nor does the nitrogen. The soil biology sponges up the nutrients, the 3-8 crops they grow in a year absorb them. They don’t rely on compost for fertility, but now   use pelleted feather meal, calcium and rock dusts. Their compost use is 0.5″ (< 1 cm) per year, very different from the many farmers using much more.

Daniel Mays at Frith Farm in Maine believes cover crops provide a more active kind of organic matter, which is tailored to the soil. He is seeing better results than with compost. Roots in the Ground! Hedda Brorstrom, of Full Blossom Flower Farm, Sebastopol, CA is trending in the other direction. She points out that a lot of the compost for sale is made with lots of animal manures, which does send the phosphorus levels way up. Because growing cover crops was not working for her, she researched available composts carefully. High-carbon compost is a way to avoid sending the phosphorus levels up too much. She has used 4-8″ (10-20 cm) of compost per year.

Neversink Farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains point to intensive production (“the greenhouse mentality writ large”), 5 people working on 1.5 acres of permanent (not-raised) beds, and direct sales to customers, as factors in their success. As Conor Crickmore says proudly, “Our farming practices may be radical but they have resulted in our farm being one of the highest production farms per square foot in the country.” Close to $400,000 gross on 1.5 acres!

The collected wisdom and experience in The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution can save newer no-till farmers from a lot of frustration and wasted time, money and mental and emotional energy.

Rainy day garden reading (listening and viewing)

New Format Website

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

Our Weather

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

Root Crops and Storage Crops

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

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

Ticks and Tasks in Virginia

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

Managing the Tick Problem by Ralph Morini

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

March Tasks in the Vegetable Garden by Ralph Morini

Of Wet Soil, Pests and Hope…

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

Diversify and Profit

10 Most Profitable Specialty Crops to Grow

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

Siberian garlic.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Pick High Yield Crops

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

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

Control Weeds the Easy Way

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

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

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

Remediate Contaminated Soil

 


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

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

 

Listen to Podcasts

Modern Farmer Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

 

Watch a Movie on Heirloom Seed Preservation

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

Track the Progress of Spring

The Nature’s Notebook phenology site

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

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Heed the Warnings for Agriculture from the Fourth National Climate Assessment

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

Consider Water-saving Hoophouse Crops.

Texas High Tunnel Workshop

Texas high tunnel study expands

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

Consider our own Impact

Here are 6 personal Carbon Footprint Calculators

from Mother Earth News

Be Amazed

Bug Tracks blog
Bug Tracks logo

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

Learn about Vegetable Grafting

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

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

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

Read up on New Research

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

Help Beginning Farmers in Virginia

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

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

Become a Farmer Apprentice in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Registers Its First Formal Apprenticeship for Farmers

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

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

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

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

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