Garden Planning, Winter Harvests and Speaking Events

Garden Planning Field Manual
Photo VABF

‘Tis the season – after the relaxation of the holidays – time for garden planning. Inventory your seeds left from last year, peruse the catalogs and prepare your seed orders. The earlier you get them in, the more likely you are to get the varieties you want, before anything is sold out.

I notice that readers of my blog have been looking up the Twin Oaks Garden Calendar,  also known as The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. You can search the category Garden Task List for the Month, or you can click on the linked name of the month you want. At the end you can click on “Bookmark the Permalink” if you might want to refer to this in future. Remember, we’re in central Virginia, winter-hardiness zone 7a. Adjust for your own climate.

Meanwhile, despite the turn to cold weather, we are not huddled indoors all the time. Each day, one or two of us sally forth to harvest enough vegetables to feed the hundred people here at Twin Oaks Community. Outdoors, in the raised bed area, we have winter leeks, Vates kale, spinach and senposai. We could have had collards but we lost the seeds during the sowing period, so we have lots of senposai instead. Senposai leaves (the core of the plant may survive 10F), are hardy down to about 12F. I noticed some got a bit droopy when we had a night at 15F. Collards  are hardier – Morris Heading (the variety we grow) can survive at least one night at 10F.

Hoophouse December View
Photo Kathleen Slattery

In the hoophouse, we have many crops to choose from: lettuce, radishes, spinach, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo Bekana, turnips and turnip greens, scallions, mizuna, chard, Bull’s Blood beet greens.

Hoophouse scallions ready to harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

Pak Choy and Chinese cabbage heads are filling out, ready for harvest in January.

Tokyo Bekana, a non-heading Asian green,  has large tender leaves, which we are adding to salad mixes. It can be used as a cooking green, but only needs very light cooking. It will bolt soon, so we are harvesting that vigorously, not trying to save it for later.

The kale and senposai in the hoophouse are being saved for when their outdoor counterparts are inaccessible due to bad weather. The spinach is added to salad mixes, or harvested for cooking when outdoors is too unpleasant, or growth slows down too much.

Hoophouse winter lettuce: Green Forest and Red Salad Bowl, two of our fifteen varieties.
Photo Wren Vile


Another kind of planning I’m doing right now is scheduling my speaking events for the coming year and practicing my presentations. Last week I updated my Events page, and this week I’m adding a new event: The September 21-22 Heritage Harvest Festival.

I might pick up a couple of events in late April and early June, but that’s just speculation at this point.

Right now I need to practice for the CASA Future Harvest Conference January 11-13. Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables and a 10-minute “Lightning Session” on using graphs to plan succession plantings for continuous harvest. Click the link or my Events page for more on this.

Garden Calendar, starting seedlings, ladybugs

One of the pages in our Field Manual, which we revise each winter. Photo VABF

One of the pages in our Field Manual, which we revise each winter.
Photo Virginia Association for Biological Farming

We’re busy planning our 2016 garden, and maybe you are too. Here’s a link to our Twin Oaks Garden Calendar, which is a month-by-month list of vegetable production tasks. It’s two years old and a few things have changed, but most crops stay the same. Margaret Roach on her website A Way to Garden gave links to various regional garden calendars. She even includes two links in England! I found the one from West Virginia Extension Service particularly helpful and well-organized, and useful in central Virginia too.

On the day before Christmas we got our seed orders sent in (Later than I like, but at least we got done). This week our main planning tasks have been around the Seedlings Schedule, getting ready for our first sowings on January 17. Yes, it always seems so early! But we want early harvests of cabbage, lettuce, scallions and hoophouse tomatoes, so that’s when we’re starting!

Seed flats in the greenhouse in early spring. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Seed flats in the greenhouse in early spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This photo is from late January or early February and you can see a mix of newly emerged close-packed seedlings and spotted out young plants in open flats. Also in the middle of the picture are some big lettuce plants that we have been harvesting leaf-by-leaf during the winter.

Our greenhouse is on a concrete pad and we have built beds with loose stacked cinder blocks. In September or October we screen compost into wheelbarrows and fill the beds. It’s an “exhilarating” job, balancing the wheelbarrows on boards across the tops of the beds. Once the beds are full we transplant lettuces into the compost. These will feed us during the winter and we pull them up in the new year as we need either the compost to fill seed flats, or the space to set the flats of germinated seedlings in the light. We put sticks across the tops of the beds and set the flats on the sticks. It makes great use of the space, but it isn’t very ergonomically efficient! We have to move the flats individually several times as we take maturing starts out to the cold frames for two weeks of hardening off before transplanting in the garden. I have fantasies of rolling bench tops set over the beds, so we wouldn’t have to do so much lifting and moving. One day!

We use 100% home-made screened compost for all our starts (transplants). This gives them a good boost of fertility and helps us reduce bought-in supplies. People sometimes ask if the compost “burns” the plants or if it’s too rich. or attracts aphids. We have a very good compost-making system that provides us with great compost. It has from October to February to mellow out while growing some lettuce for us. In the past we did have some lower-quality, less well-finished compost that did kill off some lettuce transplants in the fall. But for many years we’ve had reliably good compost and no problems of that sort. Compost gives the plants lots of stamina, so that if transplanting is held up, there are still enough nutrients to keep the plants actively growing. I have seen plants in commercial potting compost run out of oomph after a while, and get stunted and useless.

We do get aphids, starting just after the Solstice, when it is warm enough for them, but not yet warm enough for their predators. We also get aphids in the hoophouse, where the plants are growing in regular soil. So I don’t think having the seedlings in pure compost is the cause of the aphid population boom. Either way, we often need to deal them a blow, or in actuality 3 blows. We use soap spray three times, at 4-5 day intervals. This knocks out each new generation of hatching aphids (or catches ones that survived the previous spraying). Some aphids lay eggs, others bear live young (isn’t that a scary thought?). After we’ve got the aphid numbers down to manageable levels, we collect up ladybugs wherever we can find them, and take them to our greenhouse or hoophouse, to keep the levels under biological control from then on.

Ladybugs of Maine Poster from the Lost Ladybug Project

Ladybugs of Maine
Poster from the Lost Ladybug Project

Talking of ladybugs, we are hoping to join some research into breeding and releasing native ladybug species for biological control. There are many different kinds of ladybugs and two beautiful posters. See the Lost Ladybug Project and their Ladybug Identification Tools which include their own two page guide to common ladybug species. The posters are from Maine and South Dakota.

Ladybugs of South Dakota Lost Ladybug Project

Ladybugs of South Dakota
Lost Ladybug Project

Both a long way from central Virginia, but lovely to study nonetheless.

Our other main garden pest this month has been deer. We drained and stored our motion-activated sprinkler deer deterrents as well as our solar powered electric fence unit.

We also had a groundhog above ground in December – something to be on the look-out for in unseasonably warm weather. Grrr! On the other hand, I did enjoy seeing quince blossoms, even though it seemed weird.

Public speaking, Garden Calendars, Winter-kill temperatures

GFM-January2015-cover-300pxThe January issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, along with my article about giving talks. I want to encourage more gardeners and farmers to “grasp the nettle” and offer to give a workshop on a topic you know about. I speak at about 9 or 10 events each year now, but I used to be completely terrified of public speaking. So, if I can do it, I think you can too! It’s a way of sharing useful information to help improve the quality and quantity of fresh healthy food in the world. It’s a part of a co-operative model of spreading information rather than hording it. It can be a way of “singing for your supper”, as conference speakers usually get free registration to the conference and accommodation. Sometimes traveling expenses are covered, sometimes meals, sometimes there’s an honorarium. Start small and local and offer a farm tour, perhaps after joining a local group like CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training). At Twin Oaks, we have been part of the Piedmont CRAFT group of central Virginia. Each month in the main season, there is a gathering at one of the involved farms, with a tour and a discussion topic. Todd Niemeier of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville was the starting energy for that group too.

The January Growing for Market also contains a helpful article about using hot water seed treatments to reduce seed-borne diseases (by Chris Blanchard). The idea of soaking seeds in hot water for half an hour or even more, and then drying them out to sow later can be daunting. But with this step-by-step guide and encouraging reports from different growers, it all becomes manageable.

Andrew Mefferd has branched out from his detailed series on hoophouse tomato growing, to talk about growing eggplant in hoophouses or greenhouses. Very useful for people in climates colder than ours here. And, of course, there are tips that are helpful to people who thought they had already read everything about growing eggplants!

Kyle and Frances Koehn write about the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), a federally assisted Farm to School Program suited to small-scale growers. FFVP supplies elementary schools with fresh produce as snacks (so you don’t have to grow enough to supply a whole lunch every day). For the authors, this has been a great fit with winter leafy greens grown in their NRCS funded high tunnel. Search for the FFVP program in your state. Virginia, for example, covers FFVP in their Farm to School Program Resource Guide.

Lynn Byczynski writes about growing heirloom mums, and Valley Oak Tools advertises the debut of their Electric Cub crop cultivating tractors.


Flats of seedlings in our greenhouse. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Flats of seedlings in our greenhouse.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

And, here we are with another new year, thinking about the next growing season. I recently read a post in Margaret Roach’s  A Way to Garden. She has gathered regional garden calendars. I found the one from West Virginia Extension Service particularly helpful and attractively set out. This put my in mind to give the link to our Twin Oaks Garden Calendar for all vegetable growers in the mid Atlantic. Especially as one of my local farmer friends asked me about it recently. And let’s not forget that on Saturday 1/17 we are scheduled to start some cabbage, lettuce and mini-onions!

Red marble mini-onions. Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

Red Marble mini-onions.
Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds


Part of my attention at this time of year goes to Winter-kill temperatures for different crops. We’ve had a couple of unusually-cold-for-this-early-in-winter nights already.  What did I learn?

At 14F, Cylindra beets were OK, as were Tribute and Kaitlin cabbages. The remaining broccoli shoots became rubbery.

At 10F, some of the Tribute and Kaitlin cabbage heads were damaged; Some carrot tops were killed, but the roots were OK; Senposai was damaged, but not killed; the winter radish (daikon, China Rose and Shunkyo Semi-long) were OK; the celery is over; most of the chard leaves were killed, and the medium-sized non-headed oats cover crop took quite a hit. Outredgeous lettuce is not as cold-tolerant as I thought. Olga was damaged, but Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, Pirat, Red Cross, Sylvesta and Winter marvel were fine under hoops and thick rowcover.

Before it got any colder, we harvested the last of the Melissa savoy cabbage and the bed of Deadon cabbage (we could have covered it if we’d really wanted to preserve it for longer, but we were ready for some fresh cabbage – it does make the stored cabbage look rather wan.

Lettuce bed. Credit Wren Vile

Lettuce bed. Salad Bowl and Outredgeous in early spring.
Credit Wren Vile