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.

Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes

We won't starve or get scurvy! Plenty of food in the hoophouse!  Credit Twin Oaks Community

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

This morning we have about 6 inches of snow. Knowing it was coming, we stocked the kitchen with extra potatoes from the root cellar (for those who don’t know, it’s next to impossible to pull a loaded garden cart through loose snow). We also braved the begiinning of the snow yesterday afternoon to harvest some spinach outdoors. We did try digging leeks, but the ground was frozen too deep. If the weather forecast holds true, we won’t see the soil for a week, as not much thawing is predicted. But the hoophouse will feed us. One winter the outdoor crops were inaccessible due to snow, ice or freezing weather, for a whole month, and we were able to feed 100 people in salads and cooking greens from the hoophouse. That wasn’t typical central Virginia weather. But typical isn’t typical any more.

Young blueberry bush in the snow. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Young blueberry bush in the snow.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

Our hoop house is a 30 x 96 ft Clearspan Gothic Cold Frame type from Farmtek. We made ours with bows four feet apart for better strength against ice and snow build up, and the gothic arch shape helps shed snow, as does the rigidity provided by having two layers of plastic and an air bubble. A couple of years ago when we were changing the plastic we added some reinforcement props to the west wall, which was leaning in from the force of winds. On Sunday night I was very glad of that, because we had very high gusty winds, and I lay in bed trying to ignore the sound of the wind, imaging we would lose our hoophouse. Imagine my relief to wake up to see it still in place!

We did have a big pine tree come down near our dining hall, but it missed the big propane tanks and didn’t even block the road by the Tofu Factory. We didn’t lose electric power either, so we have been lucky in several ways. Now I am watching the forecast for Thursday night. At one point the forecast was for a low of -9F, which is unthinkably low! Even the Vates kale won’t survive that – unless we have snow covering, which we still might! Currently the forecast has “warmed” to -2F. We always subtract 5F from the Louisa forecast, because it is often that much colder here.


Meanwhile, here are some warming photos from Hawai’i. Following my article in Growing for Market about dealing with nematodes in the hoophouse, I heard from Gerry Ross at Kupa’a Farms on Maui, at  2000 feet above sea level. (Take a look at their beautiful website, and feel the sunshine!) Root Knot Nematodes are a warm weather problem – they are inactive if the soil is colder than 50F. We had never seen their damage until a few years ago. In warmer climates they may have to deal with them constantly. On Maui the soil temperatures never go below 59F! Their high tunnel is for insect exclusion, not warmer temperatures, so it is covered with insect mesh, not polyethylene.

Nematode-susceptible food crops. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a farms

Nematode-susceptible food crops.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a farms

Gerry wrote that he is trying a hoophouse crop rotation: “We started with cukes, tomatoes, zukes, and peppers for the hotter summer weather. We then moved to sunn hemp-Piper sudan cover crop for about 45 days, and then to a winter rotation of brassicas with peas and cukes. We will mow and disc the brassicas down in about a month when it starts to get on the warm side and harvest is over and plant directly into the debris with peppers, tomatoes and cukes/zukes. So far we are really pleased with the results…..the brassicas are really clean with no cabbage moth damage. This is just one way to manage the RKN I suspect but so far so good.”

Nematode -fighting cover crops. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a Farms

Nematode -fighting cover crops.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a Farms

Outdoors, for field crops, Gerry said:

” we usually do 2-4 month cover crop like sunn hemp and Piper sudan grass and then follow that with our most susceptible crops (potatoes, carrots, beans, beets). When those come out we follow with brassicas, lettuce, onions. We usually grow row crops for 8 months in a field and then do a cover crop. The sunn hemp we use is called “Tropic Sunn” and the USDA on Molokai has developed it and bred the alkaloids out of it. Not sure it is widely available but try http://oahurcd.org/ and see if they will mail it to you. We also use vetch as a cover but it can get whacked with RKN so we co-plant with a scaffolding nonhost like the Piper sudan or oats.”

Brassicas in nematode-fighting hoophouse crop rotation. Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa'a Farms

Brassicas in nematode-fighting hoophouse crop rotation.
Credit Gerry Ross, Kupa’a Farms

“Buried in some of the research by the sugar cane companies was a comment that molasses seems to drive down populations of RKN in the soil. We found application of local molasses to be difficult because it is so thick and viscous and hard to make spreadable BUT a local farming store did get us some dried molasses which is used as a horse supplement in the Mainland and applying that to the soil seemed to really help. That might be something you could try.

We have tried lots of compost (food-waste based as manure is not easily available here) and have created beds with loads of earthworms but the RKN persists.
We have found that some lima beans perform well even with heavy RKN infestation esp the Florida speckled butterbeans (huge purple speckled beans on wild vines that live for three years here!) and Fordhook that seem to just carry on regardless of RKN infestation. Fava beans on the other hand suffer mightily and do not produce at all. 
Thank you for the list of remedies and resistant cultivars. We have used the NemaQ and it seems to work if we run through our drip lines or water it in in diluted form in our raised beds. We might try grafted tomatoes too because one of the available rootstocks is RKN resistant. “

So, here I sit with “good garden planning weather” and fight my desire to just hibernate till it warms up!
Field manual Vabf unnamed

Sowing kale, finishing planting cabbage, more on zipper spiders

Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

This is what we’re aiming for – healthy kale plants to feed us during the winter! I reported last week that we had got one bed of kale sown. It’s up nicely under the rowcover, so we can use some of those plants as transplants to get more beds established when we do manage to get more beds tilled and prepped. Yesterday we sowed more kale – three partial beds which had held our fall broccoli and cabbage transplants.

We have at last got our final row of cabbage planted out, so the nursery seed beds are fairly emptied out. Not entirely though. Our next transplanting job is to fill gaps in the rows. We have 8 rows of broccoli and 4 of cabbage, 265 ft long. A hundred people eat a lot of food! Meanwhile, we raked around the remaining broccoli and cabbage transplants, and sowed more kale. A bit chaotic, having beds with big old plants and freshly sown ones, but manageable. all are covered with spring steel hoops and ProtekNet insect exclusion netting made by Dubois Agrinovation., which I have raved about previously. It keeps Harlequin bugs and flea beetles out.

We like Vates as it’s the most cold-hardy kale we’ve found and we can leave it outdoors without protection in our zone 7 winter and harvest from it about once a week. One year we did try covering it with floating row cover, to boost production, but it was a sad mistake! The fibers of the polypro row-cover got snagged in the frilled crinkled leaves, which made the cooks very unhappy!

Last winter we grew some Beedy’s Camden kale from Fedco

Beedy's Camden kale. Credit Fedco SeedsBeedy’s Camden kale.Credit Fedco Seeds

It was faster growing than Vates, and the leaves are wavy rather than frilled, and some people liked a change from our usual. Rated as hardy to zone 5, it wasn’t as cold-hardy as Vates in our garden. We are growing some more this winter.

We had planned to try Blue Ridge kale from Osborne Seeds, but they had sold out by the time I tried to order. It has done well for Clif Slade at his 43560 Project at Virginia State University, where the climate is a little milder.

Blue Ridge kale. Credit Osborne SeedsBlue Ridge kale. Credit Osborne Seeds

While shopping, I bought some Black Magic kale. We have tried these Lacinato kales in the past, both outdoors and in the hoophouse, without much success. We’ve had aphids building huge colonies in the curled back leaf edges. We’ve had indifferent growth. I’ve tasted great Lacinato kales at friends’ houses, outside our region. But every few years it come time to try a previous failure again, and we have some new crew members enthusiastic about this one, so we’re giving it our best!

Black magic kale. Credit Osborne Seeds

Black magic kale.
Credit Osborne Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 


Two weeks ago I asked if anyone knew if zipper spiders ate hornworms. I did some reading, and I think it’s possible they do. The Latin name for these spiders is Argiope aurantia. I found out that all the many, many zipper spiders I’ve been looking at are females. The males look quite nondescript. I also confirmed that the 3/4″ brownish sacs we had hanging all over the hoophouse all last winter were indeed egg sacs of the zipper spider. Each one held over a thousand eggs! Golly! This is better than science fiction! Wikipedia says prey can include not only insects, but also small vertebrates such as geckos, so it seems likely that hornworms could be on the menu. Does anyone have a good source of information? There’s a YouTube of a spider eating a hornworm. I haven’t got enough bandwidth to watch it. Let me know if it’s good.

Zipper spider on tomato plant.  Credit Wren Vile

Zipper spider on tomato plant.
Credit Wren Vile

 

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

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

What’s still standing?

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

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

Many of our strawberry plants look dead – very disappointing!

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

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

Red Round Turnip. Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Red Round Turnip.
Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What’s still alive after two nights at 4F?

Recently I reported on which crops were still alive after two nights at 14F (-10C) and several others in the teens. We’ve now had the Arctic Vortex, which in our part of central Virginia, meant two nights at 4F, last Monday 1/6 and Tuesday 1/7 nights. How did it go?

Before the Prelude to the Big Chill, when we got 9F, I harvested the odds and ends of small cabbages left in our main patch. Quite worthwhile, I got two 5-gallon buckets. Between the 9F and the 4F nights, I decided to gather the Deadon cabbage, which we grew with January harvests in mind. There was some freeze damage, so in future I’ll say that Deadon is good down to 10F, but not lower. I got two full net bags and two more buckets of small ones. I left one smaller and one larger cabbage as sacrificial victims in the cause of better information for next year. When we got 4F, the smaller one died and the larger survived.

Deadon cabbage Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

Deadon cabbage
Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

One of the other gardeners harvested the last of the outdoor senposai. Another couple of buckets of tasty food.

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green, Credit Kathryn Simmons

Senposai, the Thousand Wonder Green,
Credit Kathryn Simmons

I took another walk round the frozen garden after the Big Chill, to see what is still alive. We have Tyee spinach under rowcover, and Vates and Beedy’s Camden kale without rowcover. They are all still alive! There’s some freeze damage in spots on the spinach leaves, but plenty of good meals still to come!

Our hardneck garlic tops suffered some damage but didn’t get killed back to the mulch level. The Polish White softneck tops are considerably smaller and they too are still alive. They will grow back if they have died. 

Garlic planting in November. Credit Brittany Lewis

Garlic planting in November.
Credit Brittany Lewis

We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. A good chance to see which ones are hardiest! Here’s the scoop:

Still alive in the centers – Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest.                  No longer alive – Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, Winter Wonder, Red Tinged Winter, Merlot, Red Sails, Outredgeous, Roman Emperor, Revolution.

At nearby Acorn Community, the home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, they had some young but mature heads of cabbage outdoors. The Late Flat Dutch, Early Flat Dutch and Chieftain Savoy all survived one night at 6F. (It’s usually two degrees warmer there than at Twin Oaks on winter nights).

Meanwhile I’m tracking the Blue Ridge kale grown by Clif Slade in his 43560 project at Randolph Farm, VSU. The Blue Ridge survived. It got down to 9F there. Not as cold as Louisa County! Blue Ridge is taller than the Vates we grow, and I’d like to try it here, if it can survive our winters. Otherwise not!

In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover on Monday afternoon, and didn’t roll it up till Thursday, after the warmer weather returned. There was a tiny bit of freeze injury on some turnip greens that poked out the side of the rowcover, and some on some stems of Tokyo Bekana. I think the rowcover saved the crops! Also, a bad thing happened. it was very windy Monday night and the west window blew open. Argh! Of all the nights to have an open window. Memo: fix the latch to make it stronger.

I didn’t enjoy the really cold weather. I was anxious about the crops and the plumbing! But I can see two silver linings: I now have more information about cold-hardiness of various crops, and hopefully some pests will have died. Now we’re getting ready for another two cold nights, tomorrow and Wednesday.

When we placed our seed orders we gave up for this year on our quest for a reliable red cabbage of at least medium size and fairly speedy maturity (90 days or less). We’re having a red-cabbageless year. We’re still open to recommendations (OP or hybrid) – please leave a comment. 

What’s still alive at 14F?

Winter garden scene. Credit Ezra Freeman

Winter garden scene.
Credit Ezra Freeman

One of my ongoing topics of interest in the garden is how cold-tolerant various vegetables are. We’ve now had two nights at 14F (-10C) and several others in the teens. I took a walk round the frozen garden this morning to see what is still alive. We have Tyee spinach under rowcover, and Vates kale. The senposai is still alive, but some of the midribs have brown streaks. Sadly we don’t have any leeks this winter, as we lacked enough workers to tend them in late summer. We have a nice bed of Deadon cabbage, and I notice that some small heads of Melissa savoy that missed the bulk harvest are also alive. The Gunma cabbage stumps have some leaves and tiny heads still alive, but the Tendersweet are done in.

Our ongoing quest for a reliable red cabbage of at least medium size and fairly speedy maturity (90 days or less) yielded no success story this year. We grew Super Red 80 happily for many years, but then it stopped working for us – variable heads, slower maturity. If you have any recommendations (OP or hybrid) please leave a comment. We are working on our seed orders now, and this would be a great time to have some suggestions.

Back to today – our chard had all the leaves cut off in November, and seems to be dead. Some winters it hangs on later, if we leave some foliage to help it regenerate. We have also some years deliberately kept it alive for spring by using rowcover on it. We do that if we go into winter short of spinach beds.

The oats cover crop we sowed in August and early September look pretty much dead. All the broccoli looks dead. That’s as expected for the temperatures. Often we don’t get nights this cold till January – the cold came early this winter.

Our hardneck garlic tops look to be in good shape. The Polish White softneck tops are considerably smaller and look like they are suffering. They will grow back if they have died. Some of our Chandler strawberry plants look dead. Either that or they are extremely dormant! The deer were killing them off by eating the leaves. Too many deer!

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

The hoophouse is still bursting with great food. Plenty of salad greens: lettuce; various kinds of mizuna and ferny mustards like Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills and Bulls Blood beet leaves. And for salads or cooking we have spinach, chard, tatsoi, radishes, scallions, baby Hakurei turnips and their tasty greens, Red and White Russion kales, and more senposai. Soon we’ll start on the heading Asian greens: pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo bekana and Yukina Savoy. The first sowing of tatsoi (9/7) is starting to bolt, so we’re clearing that. The second sowing (11/15) needs thinning to an inch. The first round of baby lettuce mix (10/24) is ready for its second cut. In a few days we’ll make a second sowing of that. I love working in the hoophouse on sunny winter days. This afternoon I plan to complete the transplanting of an 11/9 sowing of spinach. We just love the sweet nuttiness of winter spinach!

The hoophouse winter crops are an important part of feeding ourselves year-round

The hoophouse winter crops are an important part of feeding ourselves year-round