Hoophouse winter greens, transplanting spinach, crocus flowering

Russian kale, yukina Savoy and lettuce from our winter hoophouse .
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse is bursting with winter greens. We just decided to hold back on harvesting our outdoor Vates kale and focus on the greens  which are starting to bolt in the hoophouse. That includes the last turnips (Hakurei, Red Round and White Egg), Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frill and Golden Frills mustards. Big but happily not yet bolting are the spinach, Rainbow chard and Russian kales. A row of snap peas has emerged. Time to stake and string-weave them!

The lettuce situation is changing as we are eating up more of the overwintered leaf lettuce in the hoophouse. The lettuces in the greenhouse have all gone, to make way for the flats of seedlings. Plus, we needed the compost they were growing in, to fill the flats. More about lettuce in February next week.

We have also cleared the overwintered spinach in one of our coldframes, so we can deal with the voles and get them to relocate before we put flats of vulnerable seedlings out there. The voles eat the spinach plants from below, starting with the roots. We had one terrible spring when they moved on to eat the baby seedlings when we put those out there. After trial and error a couple of years ago, we now clear all the spinach from one frame, then line the cold frame with landscape fabric (going up the walls a way too), wait two weeks, then put the seedlings out on top of the landscape fabric. The voles by then have decided nothing tasty is going to appear there, so they move on.

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo Wren Vile

Outdoors, we have just started transplanting new spinach. We have four beds to plant, a total of  3600 plants, so we have to keep moving on that! We are trialing several varieties again, as we did in the fall. We have the last Tyee, alongside Reflect and Avon this spring. Inevitably things are not going perfectly according to plan. Yesterday I forgot to follow the plan, and we started with Avon and Tyee at opposite ends of a bed we had planned to grow Reflect in! Anyway, we are labeling everything and hoping to learn which have best bolt resistance. Watch this space.

We have grown our spinach transplants (as well as kale and collards) in the soil in our hoophouse, sowing them in late January. I wrote about bare root transplants in early January this year. You can find more links and info in that post. Growing bare root transplants saves a lot of work and a lot of greenhouse space.

For those relatively new to this blog but living in a similar climate zone, I want to point you to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. It includes a link for each month’s task list. I notice from the site stats that some of you are finding your way there, but now there are so many years’ worth of posts it’s perhaps harder to find. Happy browsing!

Following on from last week’s mention of harbinger weeds of spring: chickweed, hen-bit and dead-nettle, I can now report that I’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17), another marker on our phenology list. The average date for first crocuses here is February 8, so they are later than usual. I did notice however, that the foot traffic over the patch of grass has been heavier than usual.

Anne Morrow Donley sent me a link to WunderBlog®, the blog from Wunderground, my favorite weather forecast station, to an article by Bob Henson: This is February? 80°F in Denver, 99° in Oklahoma, 66° in Iceland, 116° in Australia. It includes a map of the Daily Spring Index Leaf Anomaly, Figure 1.

Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

Figure 1. An index of the seasonal progress of leafy plants shows conditions 20 days or more ahead of schedule over large parts of the South and Southwest as of Sunday, February 12. Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

The post has lots of other interesting weather info too. Thanks Anne!

I remembered another of the items lost in the hacked post a few weeks ago: My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blogpost on Heat Tolerant Eggplant Varieties made it into their 30 Most Viewed blogposts for 2016. I’ll be writing up more about those varieties, linking the 2016 results to the weather each week (especially the temperatures) and adding what I learn in 2017.

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, by Amy Stewart,

Stewart_EarthMoved_pbk_HR-682x1024I’ve been a fan of Amy Stewart since I read her clear explanation of photoperiod in Flower Confidential, about the cut flower industry. Photoperiod is the name for the effect of daylight length on the development of some plants, for example onion plants starting to bulb rather than grow more leaves. In fact, it’s the length of the night, rather than the daylight that is critical. Until I read Amy’s explanation I was puzzled how anyone could distinguish between the length of the daylight and the length of the night. They seem inextricably connected. I was forgetting it is possible to create artificial “days” that are not 24 hours long. Now I get it.

The Earth Moved is an easy read, fascinating, amusing and informative by turn. Its cover looks like an aged Victorian pamphlet, and leads right into a brief history of Charles Darwin’s studies with earthworms, including presenting the worms with hundreds of cut paper triangles to see which end they preferred, when grasping the fake leaves to pull underground. Yes, earthworms make decisions! 80% of the triangles were pulled in by their narrowest tips.

This book distinguishes the different types of worms. Darwin studied earthworms, which eat their way through the soil, produce calcium, distribute soil nutrients, and bury Roman ruins. Red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) are found in compost, in worm-bins and on fish-hooks. New species of earthworms are still being discovered. Parts of Oregon, the Palouse and Australia are homes for giant worms. The global distribution of various worm species provides evidence that continents were physically connected long ago. (Unlike birds or seeds, worms do not survive air passage). All native worms in the soil improve the organic matter and decrease erosion.

Amy explains worm anatomy, including sex and reproduction, and the truth about regeneration of heads and tails – no, you never get two worms from one cut one. I learned that earthworm cocoons usually only contain one egg, while red wiggler cocoons may contain up to six. This surprised me, because I regularly find balls of small red worms in my home-made seed compost in spring, and I thought each cocoon was hatching a whole ball of worms (more than six).

Many species of earthworm were imported to the US incidentally from Europe. Here’s the bit that is challenging for me: imported earthworm species can damage traditional farming and forests. Earthworms are not entirely angelic! Philippine rice terraces, Minnesota forest understories have been destroyed by worms in the wrong place. Worms digest the duff that understory plants need to germinate and grow. Young tree seedlings can’t get established while ferns and wildflowers are disappearing due to worm activity, and hungry deer are chewing off what remains. Preserving forests means more than sustainably managing the logging – it means encouraging new saplings to grow by keeping the deer out – as removing the earthworms is impossible. Worms can also displace frogs, toads, voles, shrews, springtails, and erosion can get worse if there are few understory plants to hold the soil. No heroes are perfect!

What should farmers do?  Emptying out worm-bins or buying earthworms doesn’t sound smart any longer. Don’t add red wigglers to woodland. Some even suggest that people with worm bins should freeze worm castings before adding them to soil.

The next section of the book dives into the use of worms to digest garbage, animal waste, human waste and to break down toxins and clean up pollution. There are large-scale “continuous flow reactors” with machinery to move everything along and maximize the efficiency of the worm workforce. But a town distributing 4000 household size worm-bins can do as good a job of turning garbage into gold. For animal waste, pre-composted waste is presented to the worms and the resulting castings can be sold to gardeners. All this raises questions about the evolution of red wigglers to be the fittest for dealing with human garbage. On the other hand, we have been domesticating worms for centuries, although less intentionally.

Worms can be used for bioremediation, helping distribute beneficial bacteria deep into compacted polluted soil. For some sites it is necessary to first improve the soil, for instance by growing cover crops, adjusting the acidity, adding some compost to make the soil more hospitable to worms. Not a quick fix, but maybe our best bet for reclaiming strip mine sites and similar. Not good for regenerating forests, as already noted, but perhaps we can increase pasture this way, eventually.

Since 1997, there has been research in Florida into using worms to help process human sewage, using red wigglers to reduce the harmful pathogens in a purely biological process. Instead of paying dumping fees for the sterile Class A solid waste from the sewage treatment plant, the solids are vermi-composted along with some grass clippings or other fresh vegetation, leaving a product that can restore well-being to the soil, rather than being a waste-disposal problem. Meanwhile the now-clean water from the original waste can flow through a regenerated wetland area. Naturally to make this system work, toxic materials need to be kept out of this waste stream, so education and access to free disposal for toxic materials is also needed.

This book may well lead you to consider keeping a worm-bin yourself, and you’ll find enough information and inspiration in this book to get started, including a handy resource section. Here’s help choosing a bin, worms, a location for your bin, starter material, food (no onions or citrus), and then information about adding shredded newspaper, removing castings and making use of them. For small-scale worm-bins, Amy suggests the widely available Can-O-Worms, Wriggly Wranch and Worm Factory, unless you plan to make your own bin. Mid-scale worm farmers might go for the Worm Wigwam or the Eliminator, (Australian, no longer available in the USA).

All gardeners and farmers will benefit from knowing and understanding worms, and this book is an engaging little foray into better acquaintance with these allies. If you want to read more Amy Stewart, go to the blog she writes for, the Garden Rant.

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, by Amy Stewart, Algonquin Books. 2004, and re-released in a new cover 2012. Book Review by Pam Dawling