Starfighter: Lettuce Variety of the Month

Star Fighter lettuce. Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

Starfighter lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

A couple of weeks ago, in May, I wrote about Sword Leaf lettuce. I think I’m embarking on a Lettuce of the Month set of blog posts. Recently I’ve been admiring and enjoying Starfighter lettuce from Johnnys Selected Seeds. This one is also new to us this year. It is very attractive, shiny and a compact upright shape. Normally I avoid any vegetables advertised as  “compact”, as it seems to be merely catalog-speak for “small”.  Small is fine (and even desirable) if you are selling lettuce to people living in small households, or people who don’t actually eat much salad. But at Twin Oaks we are growing for our cooks who are supplying meals for 100, and bigger vegetables make for faster veggie prep.

Anyway, not to worry with Starfighter, it’s no lightweight. Compact means compact – the lettuce is a medium size and the leaves are densely packed. Plenty of lettuce per plant! It’s 52 days from sowing to maturity. It claims to have good disease resistance, especially to downy mildew. It also resists the Nasonovia ribisnigri aphid. We don’t seem to have those, so I’m not speaking from experience.

So far, we sowed Starfighter twice, on February 28 (our 4th sowing) and March 26 (our 6th sowing). These were both sown in the greenhouse and later transplanted out. Both plantings were very good in appearance, yield and flavor. We’re currently harvesting our 8th sowing of lettuce. You can see our outdoor Lettuce Log here.

Starfighter has claims to be heat tolerant, which we will be testing out. Tolerant to Maine heat is not the same as tolerant to Virginia heat. I was happy to note that it receives the same “excellent” heat tolerance rating as New Red Fire, which does indeed tolerate Virginia heat. At this link Johnny’s has a comparison chart of seven full-size leaf lettuce varieties.

Starfighter has a Utility Patent granted (a time-limited right to exclude others from use of plants and plant products), which I’m not a fan of. I believe plant material should be available open-source, for anyone to work with to develop improved varieties.

A utility patent grants the “owner” the right to exclude others from:

  1. making,
  2. using,
  3. selling or offering for sale,
  4. importing

the protected invention for 20 years from the original file date.

Starfighter lettuce also has resistance to tipburn,

Tipburn on lettuce. Photo University of California

Tipburn on lettuce.
Photo University of California

a stress condition caused by insufficient calcium reaching the edges of the leaves. This doesn’t mean the soil is short of calcium, but that fast growth and a shortage of water have caused some leaves not to receive enough calcium to build good cell walls. This happens particularly to leaves inside the head, or during times of high humidity, when less evapo-transpiration is happening, and those leaves lose out in terms of pulling enough water up. The edges of the lettuce leaves turn brown, although the rest of the lettuce looks fine.

Steve Albert on Harvest to Table has a good troubleshooting guide for lettuce.

Tipburn on lettuce. Photo Salinas Valley Agriculture

Tipburn on lettuce.
Photo Salinas Valley Agriculture

 

May at Twin Oaks in central Virginia

Hoophouse tomatoes in early May Photo Bridget Aleshire

Hoophouse tomatoes in early May
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

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

Our first yellow squash in the hoophouse mid-May. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Our first yellow squash in the hoophouse mid-May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Hoophouse Snap peas 5 Winnie web

Sugar Ann snap peas in our hoophouse. Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

Twin Oaks Herb Garden Photo Bridget Aleshire

Twin Oaks Herb Garden
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

Choose from two times:

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

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

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

Adapting to a wet spring, using cold frames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our greenhouse and cold frames in spring with flats of seedlings.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

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

 

Review of The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier

Before I dive into my review of this wonderful book, newly published in English, I just want to direct people to my posting on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about the trapped skunk which I told about two weeks ago. While there, check out the other posts.


 

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageBook Review, The Market Gardener, Jean-Martin Fortier

Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, has recently been published in English by New Society Publishers. It has been available in French since 2012, and has sold over 15,000 copies. Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches run an impressively productive, tiny bio-intensive vegetable farm in Southern Quebec, Canada. They use low-tech and manual farming methods (no tractors), and have found some unusual and successful high-yielding techniques.

They grow on just 1.5 acres, arranged as 10 plots each of 16 raised beds 30” x 100’ long. The paths are 18” wide. The garden plots surround the building, which was a rabbit barn before the farmers converted half of it into their house and half into a packing and storage shed. Their planning is a wonder of considered efficiency and function. I hear it’s also beautiful.

This book will be an inspiration to all those hoping to start in small-scale vegetable farming but lacking land and money. If you can gather the money to buy a small amount of land (or find some to rent), this book will provide you some of the expertise to make your very small vegetable farm successful, without tractors or employees. Neither Jean-Martin nor I would claim it will be easy, but this book shows that it is possible, given hard work and smart work. So don’t believe those who say it can’t be done. The tips from this book will ease your way, once you have served an apprenticeship on another farm.

Their small farm is called Les Jardins de la Grelinette, which translates as Broadfork Gardens, giving you a clue to one of the tools they value. In many ways, Jean-Martin is in the school of Eliot Coleman, producing top-notch vegetables and books from a small piece of land with only a small workforce. Even the drawings remind me of those in Eliot’s books. Biologically intensive production can feed the world, as well as provide a decent living for farmers. Attention to detail is required, as there is little slack for things to go very wrong.

They run a 120 share CSA for a 21 week season and sell at two farmers’ markets for 20 weeks. They grow a ponderous quantity of mesclun (salad mix)! They even sell it wholesale. Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène studied the value of all the crops they grew, comparing sales with labor and other costs, including the amount of land used and the length of time that crop occupied the space. They provide a table of their results, assigning profitability as high, medium or low. A quick glance shows you why 35 beds of their 160 bed total grow mesclun – number 2 in sales rank, despite being only number 19 in revenue/bed. This is because salad mix only takes 45 days in the bed, and then another crop is grown. This book deftly illustrates the importance of farming to meet your goals and to fit your resources. My climate is very different from Quebec. I’m providing 100 people for a 52 week season. We don’t want 300 pounds of salad mix each week! We do want white potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and winter squash to feed us all winter.

And yet I find more similarities than differences. We both want high-yielding, efficient farms that take care of the planet, the soil and the workers as well as the diners. We value quality, freshness and flavor. We do season-extension to get early crops in spring. When novelty is important, we grow several varieties of a crop.

The start-up costs at La Grelinette ($39,000) include a 25’ x 100’ greenhouse, two 15’ x 100’ hoophouses, a walk-behind rototiller and several big accessories, a cold room, irrigation system, furnace (remember they are in Quebec!), a flame weeder, various carts, barrows and hand tools, electric fencing, row cover, insect netting and tarps. Jean-Martin sets out all the costs, all the revenue from each crop – valuable solid information for newbies or improvers alike.

I came away from this book with several ideas to consider further. Jean-Martin recommends a rotary harrow rather than a rototiller. It has vertical axes and horizontally spinning tines, and stirs the top layers of soil without inversion, being kinder to the soil structure. It comes with a following steel mesh roller, which helps create a good seed-bed. Earth Tools BCS in Kentucky sell Rinaldi power harrows that fit the bigger BCS walk-behind tractors. The Berta plow is another BCS accessory that Jean-Martin favors, in his case for moving soil from the paths up onto the raised beds. I think we could really use one of those too.

Broadforks and wheel-hoes are already in our tool collection, but the use of opaque impermeable tarps to cover garden beds short-term between one vegetable crop and the next is really new to me. These tarps are sold as silage/bunker/pit covers, and are 6mm black, UV-inhibited polyethylene. Weeds germinate under the plastic, where it is warm and moist, and then they die for lack of light. Earthworms are happy. The tarps can be cut to the width of one bed, and rolled after their 2-4 weeks of use. This could be a useful alternative when there is not enough time to grow a round of buckwheat cover crop (or it is too cold for buckwheat, or your tiller is in the shop). Weed pressure on following crops is also reduced. Tarps can be used to incorporate a flail-mowed cover crop as an alternative to using a tiller.

At Twin Oaks, our gardens are in many ways like a CSA with one big box for the whole community, but in other ways we are more like a self-sufficient homestead – we try to keep our bought-in inputs to a minimum, so producing our own compost and growing cover crops for increasing soil nutrients are valuable to us. They do not fit so well for a micro-farm in the cash economy. For La Grelinette, it is better to buy in compost and poultry manure and keep using all the land to grow more vegetables.

The book includes tables of which crops go where, when to plant in the greenhouse and outdoors, pest control options, and lists of what to grow. The appendices include brief bios of 25 crops, and a short list of the crops they don’t grow and why (potatoes, sweet corn, winter squash, celery and asparagus).

Jean-Martin Fortier. Photo New Society Publishers

Jean-Martin Fortier.
Photo New Society Publishers

Jean-Martin is obviously very particular about running their farm as efficiently as possible, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he must be a grim workaholic! He is very funny with his iconoclastic sidebars. “Crop rotation is an excellent practice . . . to ignore.” (He is addressing new farmers who will likely find plans need to change to improve productivity. He doesn’t want slavish dedication to a crop rotation to prevent someone seizing on a better idea.) His paragraph on the hazards of inexperienced workers with insufficient training and oversight was so good I read it out to my crew. We have never had leeks sliced off at the surface or pea plants pulled up as harvest methods, but we have had carrot seedlings pruned to a uniform height of an inch, rather than thinned to a one inch spacing! If you get a chance to hear Jean-Martin speak, don’t pass it up. He is fully fluent in English as well as French, and does a hilarious skit of French people living in Quebec who found it hard to buy good leeks (until they discovered La Grelinette). His spoof of French-accented English has to be heard!

This book is a delight and an inspiration, well worth the cover price. 224 pages, black and white drawings, 8.5” x 8.5”, $24.95. ISBN 978-0-86571-765-7, New Society Publishers.

Chert Hollow Farm on Organic certification, More Snow, Feed the Soil presentation.

Chert Hollow Farm's photos of their farm gate before and after.

Chert Hollow Farm’s photos of their farm gate before and after.

For some time I have been following the blog of Eric and Joanna Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm near Columbia, Missouri. I admire their commitment and creativity. Recently they have posted a three-part series on why they have decided to drop their USDA Organic certification. I found it a very thought-filled and coherent piece of writing and want more people to read it and ponder the points they make.

Dropping organic certification, part I talks about some of their concerns with the USDA Organic system as a whole, and how some of the Organic rules are increasingly at odds with their “beliefs and standards for sustainable and ethical food production.” Their work creating a diverse deeply-sustainable farm with minimal bought-in inputs isn’t easily reconciled with the USDA certification process. “Trying to use our own resources in a creatively sustainable way created an unusually-shaped peg that the organic system’s round holes don’t expect. And thus there’s a lot of subtle pressure on organic farms just to buy stuff rather than be more diversified and creative in their farming approach.” According to their Organic inspectors over the years, they have been star poster-child Organic farmers for five years, and their decision to leave Organic certification will be “a major loss to the organic certification community/process in this part of the country”.

In addition to the differing philosophy and practice between Joanna and Eric’s approach and the USDA, the costs are too high and the benefits too few.

Dropping organic certification, part II  goes into some of their specific issues with the certification. Concerns include costs, including the uncertainty of whether the government will continue the cost-share program; bureaucracy (why don’t chemical farmers have to track and report their inputs and applications??); and the degree of usefulness of USDA certification for direct marketing. As a CSA farm, Eric and Joanna are no longer competing for customers with self-proclaimed “organic” farmers at the market.

Dropping organic certification, part III looks at the benefits of dropping certification, while acknowledging what they learned by being part of the certified system, specifically the value of good record-keeping, good compost-making and careful sourcing of inputs. They credit being certified (and needing to check potential herbicide use on hay and straw they brought in for feed and mulch) with helping them avoid the “killer hay” incidents which are, sadly, all too common around the country. They write about what they are looking forward to, freed from the certification restrictions. They are increasing biological diversity on their farm, getting off mailing lists (!), and communicating more with customers and CSA members, know they’ll save time on certification paperwork. Finally, they discuss some of their regrets about no longer being part of “something bigger, a known collection of farms and consumers that stood for something different from the conventional agriculture model” they oppose. They will no longer have the support of USDA if they suffer from spray drift. They will no longer have an easy label to describe their farming practices to customers. Their hope is that more direct, personal communication with CSA members and the rest of the world will take over in addressing that need.

Meanwhile, here at Twin Oaks, we’ve had More Snow. Only about 3″, following rain. But it has brought a halt to our outdoor gardening pursuits for a while. Just before the snow we managed to get some disking done – the first of the year! We had got some raised beds tilled a few days earlier, so we managed to prepare those bed and sow beets, turnips, radishes and scallions, as well as the last of the snap peas. We haven’t transplanted anything except lettuce, scallions and spinach, because it has been so cold. We got beds ready for kale, cabbage, senposai and collards, before I realized the plants were too small to go outside! All our transplants have been growing slowly. We have postponed planting our tomatoes in the hoophouse because the weather is so unsettled (which is a mild way of saying scarily cold).

On Sunday 3/16, I co-taught Feeding Ourselves Sustainably Year Round with Cindy Conner and Ira Wallace. I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago. I spoke about Feeding the Soil. Here’s my slide show from that event:

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/feed-the-soil” title=”Feed the soil. Pam Dawling” target=”_blank”>Feed the soil. Pam Dawling</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming” target=”_blank”>Pam Dawling</a></strong> </div>

Workshops, weather and slideshow tribulations

Overwintered Vates kale. Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

Overwintered Vates kale.
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

Yesterday I gave my three hour presentation “Providing for the Full Eating Season” to the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville,VA. I’d guess there were 50 people there, and 11 of them bought copies of my book!

A question came up that I don’t know the answer to, and now it has me curious. Do leave a comment if you have an answer. Some professional growers need to know how to allow for the slowing rate of crop maturity going into winter, when deciding how much of a crop to grow. Because we at Twin Oaks don’t sell our food, we can simply provide a transition from warm (or cool) weather crops to cold weather crops, without worrying exactly on the quantity of each. Those selling at farmers’ markets or CSAs could possibly do similarly. But those selling wholesale need a certain amount of a crop – either a box or no box – but not half a box. Naturally, all growers need to look at what is worthwhile.

I think in our gardens we have simply made our decisions based on experience, without a numerical base. I can say that 7 x 4 x 90ft of kale will provide 10 gallons of leaves at least three times a week in November, December, February, March. Not January maybe. I’ve never actually counted. And five outdoor beds of spinach (each 4 rows X 90ft) under thick rowcover, combined with about 700 row feet in the hoophouse will be plenty for 100 people for the winter. And we can eat more than 700 leeks per month from October to February. But’s that’s about all I know. Per person, that’s about 25 feet of kale, 20 feet of spinach and maybe 20 feet of leeks for winter in Virginia.

A bed of overwintered leeks Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

A bed of overwintered leeks
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

In my last post I said we’d had an overnight low of 10F, but in reality it only dropped to 14F. We were lucky with the last winter storm. We didn’t get snow, only got a thinnish build up of ice from freezing rain, and din’t lose power except for 15 minutes on Monday, presumably due to our supplier switching off while reconnecting those who had lost power. Now it looks like we’re in for more cold winter-storm weather.

I have in the past uploaded my slideshow presentations to SlideShare.net, but they closed down my account saying I was guilty of “violating SlideShare’s Terms of Service and/or Community Guidelines.” I can’t imagine what I can have done wrong, so I’ve appealed. The wheels of progress grind slowly. Meanwhile you can find my June 2013 presentation on Planning Fall Crops at Virginia State University; my Growing Great Garlic presentation at CFSA, uploaded by Fred Broadbent. VABF has my Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops presentation.

If anyone knows other ways I can upload slideshows, please speak up.

Growing for Market articles

GFM-November-December 2013-cover-300px

The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, and

Roma Virginia Select, grown at Twin Oaks. Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Roma Virginia Select, grown at Twin Oaks.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

with it my article on No-Till Cover Crops. We use an organic no-till winter cover crop mix of winter rye, Austrian winter peas and hairy vetch before our paste tomatoes (our home-grown Roma Virginia Select available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange). We sow the cover crops in mid-September (zone 7 here, average first frost Oct 14). In early May the vetch is starting to flower and the rye shedding pollen, and we are itching to transplant our paste tomatoes. We mow down the cover crops with our hay cutting machine, which cuts closer than a bush-hog and leaves the straw in long strands. Then we set out stakes and ropes and transplant, pushing aside the cover crop as needed. The vetch provides all the extra nutrients the tomatoes need, and the resulting mulch keeps the weeds away for 8-10 weeks. By then we have installed T-posts and started string weaving.

String weaving tomatoes (these aren't Romas). Credit Kathryn Simmons

String weaving tomatoes (these aren’t Romas).
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We mow between the rows if there is much regrowth from the cover crop, or weeds getting big, then we roll out spoiled hay to deter weeds for the rest of the season, add some more organic matter and keep the cooler temperatures and the moisture in the soil over the high summer. We plan for this and make our rows 5.5ft apart, so we can unroll the big round bales to carpet the aisles.

In my article I talk about the pros and cons of no-till, and give examples of other suitable food crops and other suitable cover crops for no-till.

Also in this issue is an article about the honeybee crisis and what we can do, such as growing pollinator habitat and encouraging or importing other pollinators. A follow-up article discusses the big problem of neonicotinoid insecticides, which are very long-lasting and may even cause more insect deaths the year following spraying. This is a major problem for organic farmers and for everyone who eats vegetables and fruits. Yes, all of us.

There is also a timely article on preparing hoophouses to deal with snow-loading,and one on growing lisianthus for splendid cut flower sales.

Chris Blanchard tackles flaws in the proposed produce safety rules, which seem in places to be based on a nonsensical idea of growing food in a sterile environment. The comment period for the Proposed Produce Rule and the Preventive Controls Rule closes on November 15. If you read this before that date, click here for information and instructions on how to comment on the rules. Chris (who has written a series of very practical recent GfM articles on food safety) also writes in this issue about water (for irrigation and for washing produce) from a food safety point of view. Those who use any surface water (ponds, creeks) have a particular responsibility to check their water supplies frequently and work to keep them sanitary.

I have been writing an article for the January issue of Growing for Market, so that I can take a break at the end of the year. I am writing about Planning Your Harvest Schedule, and I’m including links here to our Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar, which lists which vegetables we expect to have when (if all goes well!). We have the list sorted alphabetically by crop, and also by starting date.

Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Crop

Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Date

You can see what you could be eating if you lived at Twin Oaks and helped us grow it all. Actually, of course, you wouldn’t have to work in the garden yourself, to get this good food. We share all our work, and you could instead be doing some tasks I’d hate to do, like repairing cars, making tofu or tackling accounting.

November sunset Credit Ezra Freeman

November sunset
Credit Ezra Freeman

Phenology follow-up. Cicadas are coming!

Ezra's salamander

Ezra’s salamander

I wrote about phenology and shared our Twin Oaks phenology chart on 3/28. Since then I’ve read two related blogs I want to tell you about. One is my fellow Twin Oaker Ezra Freeman, whose blog ObserVa A year observing nature in Central Virginia has wonderful photos of plants and animals here at Twin Oaks and wherever he goes. Most recently a hike up Old Rag mountain in the Shenandoahs. The other is Chert Hollow Farm’s Bird list & other natural events. Eric and Joanna Reuter own and operate Chert Hollow Farm, a small, diversified farm featuring certified organic produce near Columbia, MO. They have a great website. Probably a thousand miles from Twin Oaks, so not the same as our backyard. In some ways that makes it all the more interesting. Another natural event I’m keeping tabs on is the emergence of the 17-year cicada. Debbie Roos  of the Growing Small Farms site posted a link to a news article about the coming emergence of Brood II of the 17-year periodical cicadas on her Facebook page and sent out a link to the Cooperative Extension’s Growing Small Farms website.

17 year cicada up close and personal

17 year cicada up close and personal. Credit Cicadamania.com

Cicada Mania is a great source for all cicada-related information.  The blog is amusing and packed with info. Adult cicadas begin to emerge when the soil temperatures reach 64F.  (My soil thermometer is monitoring temperature in a carrot bed I plan to flame-weed.) If you haven’t got a soil thermometer, Cicada Mania has an emergence calculator based on air temperature. http://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/cicada-emergence-formula/ Here is a map of the areas which can expect to see this cicada, for a month or so, starting in May. We’re right in there. Adult female cicadas damage young woody plants by tunneling in thin twigs to lay eggs. I didn’t plant any new fruit bushes this past winter, so don’t really think I have much to worry about. Damage to older bushes and trees is dramatic-looking, but not usually permanently harmful. b_02

Twin Oaks Garden Task List for March

New flats of lettuce seedlingsCredit Kathryn Simmons

New flats of lettuce seedlings
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Here is our task list for the Twin Oaks Garden in March. We’re zone 7, our average last frost is April 20. You’ll need to adapt this information for your climate.

Lettuce factory during March: Transplant 1/3 bed each, for sowings #1, 2, 3. Cover. Sow #5, 6 this month.

Early March:

1st March: chit seed potatoes in flats for 2-4 weeks with bright light in basement.

Check irrigation and hoses. Buy replacements as needed.

Buy twine: make up to 6 binder and 2 baler twine.

Inventory cover crop seeds, buy buckwheat, sorghum-sudan, pearl millet, clover or other summer cover crops.

Compost needed in March: 6-9 tractor buckets for beds, 8-20 to disk in.

Compost and till raised beds for April plantings – carrots #4 & 5, lettuce 4-6, beans #1.

A bed of fava beansCredit Kathryn Simmons

A bed of fava beans
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Sow radishes, (spinach), turnips, scallions #2 and cover. Last date for sowing fava beans is 3/14. Sow peas only 1/2″-3/4″ deep. Cover.

Transplant fall sown onions ½-3/4” deep, when no thicker than pencils; cabbage #1, lettuce #1.

In greenhouse sow peppers, eggplant, hoophouse squash, Alyssum, bulb fennel, broccoli #3 (1 week after #2, quick, heat tolerant varieties). Test and condition sweet potatoes for 2 to 4 weeks at 75- 85°F, 95%  humidity.

Mid-March:

Cut seed potatoes and heal for three days: two buds on each piece, one for insurance.  Ginger too.

Plant potatoes when the weather becomes suitable (when daffodils bloom.). Reduce sprouts/piece to 2. See Perfect Potato  Planting card.

In greenhouse: sow main crop tomatoes, lettuce #5 [sesame]. Protect cabbage and broccoli at 5-8 true leaves from cold stress (<40°F for a few days, or longer at 50°F).

Plant sweet potatoes in flats in glass door germinator cabinet.

Growing sweet potato slips in a germinating cabinet. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Growing sweet potato slips in a germinating cabinet. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Transplant collards, kale, kohlrabi, senposai, lettuce #2, scallions #1, mini-onions. [spring-sown onion seedlings in clumps @12″, 1/2 to 1” deep].

Till raised beds before weeds seed, and sow oats (by 31st) if not needed for 6 weeks or more, (eggplants, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, celery, later lettuce). Sow clovers until 3/15 for long-term cover; or winter rye to wimp out (it does not head up in warm weather).

Rhubarb

Divide and transplant rhubarb, if needed.

Sow carrots #3, turnips, beets. Presoak beets 1-2 hours, (not more), sow 1/2″ deep, tamp soil after covering.

#2 Spring Tractor Work  Mid-March –  Disk area for corn #1&2,

Late March[side dress garlic & onions with compost]

In greenhouse: sow Roma tomatoes, lettuce #6, nasturtiums, chard and leaf beet in soil blocks or plug flats; squash #1 & cukes #1 in blocks or plug flats (not before 3/25). Spot eggplant. Sweet Potatoes: Cut slips at 6 to 12”, put in water.  Once a week, plant rooted slips in 4” flats.  Plant ginger in flats or crates.

Buy seed potatoes for June planting, and refrigerate them. Keep at 40-50°F in the dark, until 6/1.

Sow leeks & other little alliums in seed bed, update map; carrots #4 outdoors. Sow kohlrabi if transplants fail, thin to 6” later.

Transplant scallions, mini-onions, (shallots), lettuce #3.

Compost & till beds for late April planting: cucumbers #1, edamame #1, squash #1, peanuts, celery, parsnips, chard, cowpeas #1, (sesame). Can sow oats till 3/31 in beds not needed for 6 weeks.

Work on the Perennials in March: Really finish weeding, fertilizing and mulching them! Early in the month plant new blueberries, grapevines, raspberries, strawberries if not done in fall. Divide and replant rhubarb if needed. Water if needed, especially new beds. Set up irrigation and ropes where needed. Put up ropes for raspberries, mow between grapes. Maybe till up aisle in grapes and sow clovers & grass.

Irrigation Sprinklers: 3 sprinklers, 8 hours = 5000 galls, 3 drip-zones, 2 hours = 2160 galls, well output = 15 gpm, hydrant = 7.5 gpm.

Harvest in March: Chard, collards, garlic scallions, kale, leeks, radishes, (senposai), spinach.

Freckles lettuce is a cheering sight in spring.Credit Kathryn Simmons

Freckles lettuce is a cheering sight in spring.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Starting Seedlings

Seed flats in the greenhouse

Seed flats in the greenhouse

We’ve been starting seedlings since late January, and the greenhouse is filling up with flats of lettuce, cabbage, kohlrabi, spinach, scallions and broccoli. We’re eating our way through the lettuces that grew overwinter in the compost in the block-work greenhouse beds, and shoveling out the compost to fill our flats. All our seedlings are grown in 100% home-made compost. We screen compost to fill the beds in September and transplant lettuce there in October. When we need the compost for the seedlings, it has mellowed nicely and has plenty of worms. This beats buying in bags of compost, or chipping lumps off a heap of frozen compost outdoors in January! Our greenhouse has a masonry north wall and a patio-door south wall. It has no heating apart from the sun (this is Zone 7). This space is warm enough and just big enough for all our seedlings once they have emerged. For growing-on the very early tomatoes and peppers, destined for our hoophouse, we use an electric heat mat and a plastic low tunnel in one corner of the greenhouse. Many seeds benefit from some heat during germination and are then moved into slightly less warm conditions to continue growing. This means it’s possible to heat a relatively small space just to germinate the seeds in. We use two broken refrigerators as insulated cabinets, with extra shelves added. A single incandescent lightbulb in each supplies both the light and the heat (we change the wattage depending on what temperature we’re aiming for). Some people construct an insulated cabinet from scratch, with fluorescent lights suspended above the flats.

Our coldframes and greenhouse

Our coldframes and greenhouse

We use traditional coldframes for “hardening-off” our plants (helping them adjust to cooler, brighter, breezier conditions). They are rectangles of dry-stacked cinder blocks, with lids of woodframed fiberglass. Having heavy flats of plants at ground level is less than ideal for anyone over thirty-five! Shade houses and single-layer poly hoop structures with ventable sidewalls and benches for the flats are a nicer option. Some growers report that some pests are less trouble when flats are up on benches. Others say flats on the ground produce better quality plants. According to the nighttime temperatures, we cover the coldframes with rowcover for 32°F–38°F (0°–3°C), add the lids for 15°F–32°F (–9°C–0°C) and roll quilts on top if it might go below 15°F (–9°C). For brassicas, lettuce and our paste tomatoes (a big planting), we use open flats — simple wooden boxes. The transplant flat size is 12″ × 24″ × 4″ deep (30 × 60 × 10 cm). It holds 40 plants, “spotted” or pricked out in a hexagonal pattern, using a dibble board. For sowing, we use shallower 3″ (7.5 cm) flats. Usually we sow four rows lengthwise in each seedling flat. We reckon we can get about six transplant flats from each seedling flat. This allows for throwing out any wimpy seedlings, and lets us start a higher number of plants in a smaller space. Because we transplant by hand, and because we hate to throw plastic away (or spend money when we don’t need to), we use a range of plastic plant containers. For crops where we are growing only a small number of plants of each variety, we use six- or nine-packs, or a plug flat divided into smaller units.

One year we tried soil blocks for early lettuce transplants, shown here on our custom-made cart

One year we tried soil blocks for early lettuce transplants, shown here on our custom-made cart

The first crops sown are not necessarily the first ones planted out. Our spinach gets sown Jan 24 and transplanted out 4 weeks later. The early tomatoes get planted in the hoophouse at 6 weeks of age (slower-growing peppers go in at 7.5 weeks with rowcover at the ready!). Lettuce goes outdoors after 6.5 weeks, cabbage after 7.5 weeks, cipollini mini-onions after 8 weeks. These are early season timings and as the days warm up and get longer, seedlings grow more quickly. Being a few days later sowing something in early spring makes little difference, as later sowings can catch up by growing faster in the warmer weather. If the spring is cold and late, you may find your greenhouse packed to the gills with flats you don’t want to take outside. We try to put the faster-maturing crops near the doors and keep the open flats, which will need spotting-out, near the accessible north side. But let’s not complain about the bounty of so many plants! Spring is an exciting time of year, full of new growth and new potential. Working in the greenhouse with tiny plants on a sunny day when it’s cold outside is a special treat.