Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Swiss Chard Photo Small Farm Central

Swiss Chard
Photo by Small Farm Central

You might think I wrote a typo for crop insurance, but no. There are some reliable vegetable crops that grow without much attention and quietly wait until needed. Chard is one of those. We sow chard in April, after the early spring rush. We plan for it to provide us with leafy greens in the summer, after the brassicas have bolted. We prepare a bed, unroll hay mulch over it, then make “nests” in the hay for planting. Nests are holes in the hay down to soil level, at each spot where we want to plant. After transplanting. we water and tuck the hay tight around the plants to keep the weeds at bay.

Some years there isn’t much demand for chard and we just leave it growing. If we need it, there it is with a generous supply of leaves. If we ignore it, nothing goes wrong. It’s worth having some crops like this in the garden, to help ensure there’s always something to eat.

Malabr spinach Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Malabar spinach
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

This year we grew Malabar spinach and it played a similar role: hot weather leafy cooking greens. Malabar can be used when small for salads, or when larger for cooking. It wasn’t hugely popular in either role, but it was beautiful. To be fair, I don’t think we did the best by it. Because it was new, and because it had the word “spinach” in its name, some cooks served large leaves for salad. Alone. I don’t recommend that.

Purple-podded asparagus bean Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Purple-podded asparagus bean
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Another insurance crop for us is asparagus beans, also known as yard long beans. Once trellised, the plants need no attention, other than regular picking. If not picked, the pods grow puffy and useless, so this is not a crop to ignore for too long. Asparagus beans are related to cowpeas, and are more resistant to Mexican bean beetles than regular green beans are. They do need trellising, but once you’ve done that, the same plants will feed you all season. Very little seems to trouble them.

West Indian gherkins on a trellis. Photo by Nina Gentle

West Indian gherkins on a trellis.
Photo by Nina Gentle

While we’re on the topic of crops that do need trellising, but can then produce all season, I’ll add in the West Indian gherkins. I found I did need to tuck these plants into the netting, so they weren’t work free. But the plants were disease-free and very productive. If you have trouble with regular pickling cucumbers, you might sow some of these as well, to be sure of being able to have something to pickle.

Tokyo bekana Photo by Johnnys Seeds

Tokyo bekana
Photo by Johnnys Seeds

Another insurance crop is Tokyo bekana, or its cousin Maruba Santoh in late summer as a substitute for lettuce. It can be hard to germinate lettuce in hot weather, but these tender brassicas germinate under hot conditions and produce fast-growing very tender leaves with crunchy stems. Some people don’t know they’re not eating lettuce!

And for leafy cooking greens, senposai does well in spring and fall outdoors, and in our hoophouse in the

Senposai. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Senposai.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

winter. It’s fast-growing, productive, disease-resistant, easy to cook and delicious to eat.  In spring it needs an early start in our climate, so that it has time to be productive before it bolts. In fall it’s cold-hardy down to 12F. This fall, though, we found its Achilles Heel – the senposai became an unplanned trap crop for Harlequin bugs! We did spend time every day for a while squashing the bugs on the senposai leaves, and we made a difference in the number of bugs. But we lost the senposai.

Well, I hope this has given you some thoughts about ordering seeds of some insurance crops for next year, when you plan your seed order.

Events I’ll be speaking at, error found in SMF, book update

Cucumbers and squash in our hoophouse. Photo Nina Gentle

Cucumbers and squash in our hoophouse.
Photo Nina Gentle

First of all, I’ll get my confession off my chest. A savvy reader spotted an error in my book Sustainable Market Farming: Take a red pen and correct your copy!

In Chapter 20, Sustainable Disease Management, on page 135 I said “Pathogens can infect the seed via several routes . . . Insects that feed on the plant can transfer the disease (striped cucumber beetles vector bacterial wilt, which is caused by Erwinia tracheiphila)”
It is true that striped cucumber beetles vector bacterial wilt, which is caused by Erwinia tracheiphila. It isn’t true that this disease is seed-borne. I don’t know where I got the wrong information from. I don’t yet know of an example of a disease spread by insects that can become seed-borne (that I feel confident about!).
I’ve asked my publishers, New Society, to correct that mistake next time they reprint. I wrote to the attentive reader, thanked her, and asked her for leads on where to find  information about seed-borne diseases brought in initially by insects.

Meanwhile, I can recommend two books on seed growing (that weren’t out when I wrote my book), that contain good information about which diseases are seed-borne. I reviewed the impressive The Organic Seed Grower by John Navazio a while back..

Newer is The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving from Seed Savers Exchange and the Organic Seed Alliance. Including “advice for the home gardener and the more seasoned horticulturist alike”, this is also a book from people who work growing seeds, and know their stuff. I plan to review it one week soon (when the work pace slows a little!)
If you’re a seed grower, you might want to add one of these to your wish list. Both are beautiful books, as well as clearly written ones.
This year I am not doing quite as much seed growing as some years. For sale, we are growing Carolina Crowder cowpeas in our hoophouse. Click the link to see photos.
For ourselves, we are selecting and saving seed from our Roma tomatoes and Crimson Sweet watermelon, as well as West Indian Gherkins. We are also saving garlic and shallots for replanting.

It’s that time of year when I line up events I’ll be speaking at in the fall and winter (and to some extent, into spring). Here’s my plan so far:

2012-festival-slideshow Friday and Saturday September 11-12 2015
Heritage Harvest Festival, Monticello, Charlottesville, VA.
On Friday, 1.30-2.30pm I will be offering one of the Premium Workshops, Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops.
That’s at the Woodland Pavilion, Visitor Center.
Then I will be doing book signing at the tent called The Shop at Monticello (at the Visitor Center), 2.45-3.13pm.
On Saturday I will be offering another premium workshop, Producing Asian Greens. This one is at the Vegetable Garden Tent at the Mountaintop (where most of the Saturday events are). It’s immediately followed by another book-signing, 5.30-6.0pm. The Festival ends at 6pm. All day Saturday is packed with events, and a General Admission ticket will be all you need apart from tickets for premium Workshops.

MENFairLogoThe following weekend, September 18-20, I will be at the Mother Earth News Fair, Seven Springs, Pennsylvania. The schedule is not yet firm, but I will be presenting The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter probably on Friday September 18 4-5pm at the Mother Earth News Stage, and The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer on Saturday September 19 10-11am at the GRIT stage.

I will also be signing books at the Mother Earth News Bookstore at some point and doing some scale demonstrations of string-weaving for tomatoes at the New Society Publishers booth.


Hoophouse greens in November. Credit Ethan Hirsh

Hoophouse greens in November.
Credit Ethan Hirsh

The weekend of October 24-25 I plan to be at the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, Kansas with the two Hoophouse workshops. In February 2016, Mother Earth News is running their first fair in Belton, TexasToo soon for detailed information yet, but watch the site, if you live in Texas.


CFSA

November 6-8 I will be at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference, in Durham, North Carolina. Click here for the Conference page. I’m doing two workshops, Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables – on Saturday November7, 8.30-10am, and Succession Plantings for Continuous Harvests – on Sunday November 8, 10.45am-12.15pm. I will also do book signing at the BookSignAGanza, Saturday 5-6pm.


SSAWG

January 27-30 I will be at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. On the website you can sign up for the e-newsletter and around October 15, you can do Early Bird Registration. I hope to be a speaker, but it’s too soon to say. . .


logoFebruary 3-6, 2016 I will be at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference  at the Penn Stater Conference Center, State College, PA. Save the date.

 

Planning winter hoophouse crops

Cowpeas in our hoophouse. Photo Nina Gentle

Cowpeas in our hoophouse.
Photo Nina Gentle

This is our hoophouse today. We’ve pulled our early tomatoes and squash. We’ve got three beds of cowpeas, a seed crop of Carolina Crowder for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. All being well, they’ll appear in next year’s catalog. Pea and bean seed crops do very well in the hoophouse in summer – the pods don’t get moldy as they can do outdoors, and the crop matures faster.

The empty-looking bed to the left of the crop in the foreground is newly sown in buckwheat, hopefully ready to be cleared by September 6 or so, to make way for early spinach and other crops.

Here’s a photo of our invention, “cat’s cradle” string-weaving, which supports these tall viney plants and keeps them within the bounds of the 4ft wide bed.

"Cat's cradle" string-weaving for a bed of cowpeas. Photo Nina Gentle

“Cat’s cradle” string-weaving for a bed of cowpeas.
Photo Nina Gentle

We also still have a bed of West Indian gherkins, one of edamame for seed and a half-bed of peppers.

And while we are having a quieter time in there (as far as planting and harvesting), we are launching into planning our fall, winter and spring harvesting crops. After several years of using the hoophouse year-round, we have settled into a happy routine. We plan September-March harvesting crops in early-mid August and March-September crops in February. The September-March crop plan is by the far the more complicated, involving many different crops and several successions of many of those. And each one usually only occupies part of a bed. The late spring and summer crops, on the other hand, are mostly a single row of something per bed.

Here’s our step-by-step process for hoophouse crop planning:

Updating the map:

  1. Make a blank map (currently we use an Excel spreadsheet, but squared paper worked well for many years).
  2. Update the map by writing in the previous crops at the top of each bed, and the dates it will be available.
  3. If using a spreadsheet, merge the rest of the cells in that bed, to give a big open space to write in.
  4. Write in the main crop type if known, bold and vertical, with start and finish dates.
  5. Print a map, make copies for the planning meeting when the details will be decided.

You can see our current maps at these links:

Hoophouse Map

Hoophouse Map Sept-Mar

Updating the schedule (a spreadsheet of tasks in date order):

  1. Copy last year’s
  2. Change the year dates. Replace this year (2015) with next year (2016). Then replace last year with this.
  3. Adjust column widths and heights to fit the data
  4. Check Harvest Start and Finish dates for new info recorded this past year. Add it to the appropriate column. (Knowing what to expect is so helpful!)
  5. Check the Notes column and add relevant info, or make changes as directed.
  6. Check Nematode Plan (we’ve been dealing with these beasties for a few years)
  7. Set the print area, fit all columns on 1 page, landscape, Repeat column headings on all sheets.
  8. Print draft copy for planning meeting
Baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Photo Twin Oaks COmmunity

Baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse – what we’re planning for!
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Planning meeting (the fun bit):

  1. List the crops to be grown. Spinach, head lettuce, baby lettuce mix, baby brassica salad mix, Chinese cabbage, pak choy, Tokyo bekana, maruba santoh, tatsoi, Yukina savoy, radishes, scallions, turnips, Russian kales, senposai, bull’s blood beet greens, mizuna and several similar mustards, maybe arugula (maybe not), chard, bare-root transplants to go outdoors in spring, maybe beets, snap peas at the beginning of February. Several crops have 2-6 succession plantings.
  2. Decide which main crops could go in each bed, considering crop rotations, Nematode Plan, edge beds being narrow and colder, dates of availability, climate change, need for rowcover.
  3. Mark the main crops on the map, including how much space they need.
  4. Mark the available space left in the bed.
  5. Make a list of questions to resolve: quantities, succession crop date tweaks, variety changes, what to do if nematodes are found elsewhere.
  6. Make decisions as you go along, and write them down clearly.
  7. Figure out the Early September bed and the Nematode bed first, then the others.
  8. Work down the schedule and find a home for each crop in a space available timewise and suitable rotation-wise. Write the location on the schedule and the crop on the map, along with how much space it needs. Watch out for changes between growing something in a 2ft edge bed or a 4ft middle bed. Twice as many rows in a middle bed, twice as much length in an edge bed.
  9. If changes are needed be sure to follow through and make those changes both on the map and on the schedule.

Making final versions:

  1. Make the changes on the computer files. Can use Search and Replace, if done carefully.
  2. Two people should proofread for sense and for compatibility with the map.
  3. Make any needed corrections. Print the final versions.
  4. Take copies to hoophouse, field manual, greenhouse, hoophouse file. Original goes in the Garden Notebook file.

I’ll be giving presentations on The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter, and The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer at the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania September 18-20.


And if you want to enter a draw to win a copy of my book, Sustainable Market Farming, read the review by Deborah Niemann on The Thrifty Homesteader and enter the draw. Just a few days left. Deborah has written several books herself, including EcoThrifty, Homegrown and Handmade, and Raising Goats Naturally. Read about them on her website.

Summer hoophouse slideshow, starting sweet potato slips, Growing for Market March issue

I’m back from the West Virginia Small Farms Conference, where I gave three presentations, including this new one, The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer:

I ran out of handouts, and I know some people want to view the slideshow again, to catch the bits they missed. Before next Tuesday, I’ll upload The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter as well. Maybe even later today, if I get my more urgent tasks done first.


Yesterday I brought our seed sweet potatoes, which we’d selected and set aside at harvest-time, up out of the basement and into the greenhouse, to start growing them.  I wrote about growing sweet potato slips previously. The first step was to see if they float or sink. We save extra seed roots so that we can discard the less promising and still have plenty to grow. Sweet potatoes that float will grow better and yield higher. We had saved 100 roots for a goal of 320 slips. After removing a few rotten roots and discarding the sinkers, next I tested for white streaks, called sweet potato chimeras. I cut a small piece off the distal end (the string root end), not the stem end. The idea is to throw out roots with white streaks bigger than a pencil lead. I only found a few. It’s a genetic mutation that can occur at any time. Because sweet potato slips are clones of the mother root, if you propagate from chimeras you get more chimeras. I succeeded in my goal of having 80 good roots from each batch of 100. I set the cut roots in shallow bins in our germinating chamber to heal the cut surfaces and warm the roots ready for sprouting. In two weeks I’ll “plant” them in flats of compost and return them to the germinating chamber to start growing the slips. They’ll look like this:

Sweet potato slips growing in our germination chamber. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Sweet potato slips growing in our germination chamber.
Credit Kathryn Simmons


Meanwhile the March issue of Growing for Market magazine arrived, and I found a fascinating article about a new method of growing sweet potato slips, from Anthony Boutard and Caroline Boutard Hunt. They write first about “discovering” sweet potatoes and then deciding to grow them, ordering 20 varieties from the Sand Hill Preservation CenterTheir propagation method involves cutting each slip into one-node pieces and growing a plant from each short length. This reduces the number of roots to set, which saves propagation space. The single-node cuttings are set in 50-cell plug flats, trimmed of their leaves and grown in the greenhouse for only two weeks before planting out in the field. This reduces the time caring for the young plants by a lot, which once again saves greenhouse space. They say “The resulting crop is better quality because all of the resulting tubers grow from a single node instead of several, concentrating the production. Better yet, there is absolutely no drawback to the technique, at least in our experience to date.” And then, this lovely sentence “Certainly no reason to keep it within the family.” I love the way small farmers share information and tips!

Amusingly, they refer to the method I have written about as “traditional sweet potato slip production”! When I was starting out propagating our own, I followed advice to use cold frames, which clearly doesn’t work in Virginia in March and April. I couldn’t figure how those methods could produce enough slips in time unless a huge number of roots were used to start them. I found out that growers were actually using electrically heated beds. I tried a soil heating cable but it was nothing like warm enough. I searched for more advice and found the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group the previous year had an Organic Farmer Network, who were exchanging tips. Someone, I think Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms, answered others’ questions about growing sweet potato slips with something like  “I just grow them in flats.” That was a lightbulb moment for me – I knew how to grow things in flats! It didn’t seem like it was the traditional method at that time, but it certainly worked, so I adopted it and spread the word.


GFM-March2015-cover-300pxFor this issue of Growing for Market, I wrote about West Indian Gherkins as a trouble-free alternative to regular pickling cucumbers. We’re growing them in our hoophouse this spring, on a trellis net.

Andrew Meffert continues his series on greenhouse nightshade crops for colder climates. This month he provides part two of his detailed work on greenhouse peppers: Pruning and training for maximum production all season.

Lynn Byczynski gives some leads on finding and enjoying farming podcasts, while we are sowing seeds, potting up or otherwise engaged in manual not-mentally-demanding work.

Gretel Adams offers information about weed control in cut flower fields, and of course, it’s equally useful for vegetable fields! Crop planning to rotate crops with different growth habits and timing; neighboring up crops that will have similar cultivation requirements; using the most suitable tractor cultivation equipment; co-ordinating spacing of crops to fit the different equipment (including hands!) to be used for sowing and cultivating. It all adds up to efficient weed control, and maximizing yields from the space.

The lead article is by Lynn Byczynski, and provides a warning about a shortage of hybrid kale seed for the second year running. This has been caused by an increased demand for kale (yay!), a widespread case of black rot disease (boo!) and the fact that the biennial nature of brassica seed production means it takes two years to ramp up seed production.

There are some great new OP kales out there. We have our eyes on Olympic kale, available from High Mowing Seeds.

Olympic kale. Credit High Mowing Seeds

Olympic kale.
Credit High Mowing Seeds

Getting ready for Kansas Mother Earth News Fair

One of our garden carts, tastefully decorated by guests Susie Anne and Jessie. Credit McCune Porter

One of our garden carts, tastefully decorated by guests Susie Anne and Jessie.
Credit McCune Porter

This week’s blog post is a cartful of odds and ends. Talking of garden carts, we like the larger kind, with the loop-shaped legs in line with the length of the cart. This makes it easier to straddle rows of crops, and also means we don’t bash our ankles while pulling them. The smaller models often have a single loop “leg” right across the cart. We used to have some of these. We called them the “Ankle-Snappers”. I recommend making sure any cart you buy is made from exterior-grade plywood, not particle-board, or other kind of pressed together scraps of wood. They have a hard life!

 

Garden carts loaded with Romas tomatoes. Photo Wren Vile

Garden carts loaded with Roma tomatoes.
Photo Wren Vile

The crew working on the sweet potato harvest. Photo McCune Porter

We did tally our sweet potato harvest – about 6600 pounds! Here’s the crew at work.
Photo McCune Porter

 

West Indian gherkin. Photo Nina Gentle

West Indian gherkin. Photo Nina Gentle



Recently I wrote on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about West Indian Gherkins. I wrote about them on this blog. Here’s a new photo, which gives the impression of acres of the little things.

On Thursday I leave for Kansas for the Mother Earth News Fair there. The Program Guide is now out. I’m doing three workshops, a book signing and an interview. My workshops are Fall Vegetable Production, Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables and Crop Rotations. Hope to meet some of you there – do introduce yourself to me!

I was looking up a recent reference in the work of the Organic farming Research Foundation about organic farming storing more carbon in the soil than other types of farming. I couldn’t find the exact link but I did find that as far back as 2012, OFRF was already pointing out that cover cropping  “Enhances soil quality, reduces erosion, sequesters carbon and provides nitrogen, prevents dust (protects air quality), improves soil nutrients, contributes to productivity”

My other piece of organic vegetable growing news is that Biodegradable Biobased Mulch Now Allowed for Organic Production
“The USDA National Organic Program has amended the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances to allow the use of biodegradable biobased mulch film with restrictive annotations. This action also adds to the organic standards a new definition for biodegradable biobased mulch film that includes criteria and third-party standards for compostability, biodegradability, and biobased content. The rule is effective October 30, 2014.” It’s a lot of technical reading, but for certified organic growers it will be worthwhile. Biodegradable plastic mulch is such a saver of time, temperature and weed germination! “Bio-based” means the product is made from biological materials. See my blog post and the one after that for details on the difference.

Photo Yale Press

Photo Yale Press

I’m reading a few good books at the moment. More about them in the future. John Reader’s Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent.

Photo Barnes and Noble

Photo Barnes and Noble

and Craig LeHoullier’s Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of all Time, to be published December 2014

 

In praise of West Indian Gherkins

640px-Cucumis_anguriaThe West Indian burr gherkin. “Cucumis anguria” by Eugenio Hansen, OFS – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I just harvested 4 5-gallon buckets of gherkins (one for seed, 3 for pickling) from a 50ft row we abandoned over 5 weeks ago. We pulled out the drip tape too, so these plants have survived just on rainfall, and there hasn’t been all that much of that. Maybe 3″, but almost all of it in one week, with nothing in the past ten days.

Next year, I want this to be the only pickling cucumber we grow! Not only is it prolific and drought-tolerant, it also shows no sign of any diseases or pests, and its healthy vines cover the ground, leaving no room for weeds. It is a rambler (long vines) so maybe a trellis would be wise. I’ve also learned that it is resistant to some species of Root Knot Nematodes, so we may grow it in our hoophouse as part of our rotation of nematode resistant crops for the bed there which produced some gnarly-rooted tomatoes this year.

Because it’s open-pollinated and doesn’t cross with actual cucumbers (or watermelons, despite the look of the leaves), we are saving our own seed, and a little money in the process. I mentioned West Indian Gherkins last winter when I was ordering seeds. Before September 2012, when I saw these gherkins growing at Monticello, in Thomas Jefferson’s reconstructed garden, I had no idea of their existence. Now I’m starting to hear about them in more places.

William Woys Weaver, author of  Heirloom Vegetable Gardening wrote about them for Mother Earth News in 2008. He discovered that they originated in West Africa, rather than West Indies, and that they can be pickled, eaten raw or cooked like zucchini.Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/growing-burr-gherkins-zmaz08djzgoe.aspx#ixzz3EAMru5hv

Seed is available from Monticello, Baker Creek Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Trade Winds Fruit and Reimer Seeds. This seems like a great crop for hot, humid disease-prone gardens.


 

Meanwhile, we are replacing the plastic on the end walls of our hoophouse. Not sure when we last did that – maybe 7 years ago? We’ve worked two mornings so far (our garden shifts are in the afternoons now that fall has arrived). We’ve got the old plastic hanging, detached everywhere except around the end bows. Tomorrow we’ll get the new plastic on. I think battening the new plastic will be easier than de-battening the old plastic! I’ll probably write more about that next time, and hopefully I’ll have some photos too.

Good news – great hoeing weather! Bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse

Fall broccoli last year. Credit Ezra Freeman

Fall broccoli last year.
Credit Ezra Freeman

Last week I wrote about transplanting cabbage and sowing kale. We were having “great transplanting weather”, that is, it rained a lot! We filled all the gaps in all 12 rows of broccoli and cabbage in a single hour with four people. There weren’t many gaps, happily. That’s about 1400 broccoli plants and 700 cabbages, our usual amount to feed a hundred people.

This week in the garden, it’s about three weeks since we started the transplanting, so the first rows are ready to be uncovered and hoed. Happily, we now have great hoeing weather! No rain in sight for a week. Central Virginia weather is very variable, and our particular spot is drier than the surrounding area, so if the forecast says 30% chance of rain or less, we are very unlikely to get any. There’s currently a forecast with a 50% chance of rain in 6 days (Monday night). If we can get all the hoeing done, and till or wheelhoe between the rows, then I can broadcast a clover mix and welcome some rain! We like the wheel hoe if the weeds are not too big and not too grassy. The first few rows were quite grassy, so we used our BCS 732 tiller from Earth Tools.

We cultivate around the brassica plants, then broadcast a mix of clovers: 1 oz crimson clover, 1 oz large white Ladino clover and 2 oz common red clover (medium, multi-cut) per 100 square feet. Then if it doesn’t rain, we water like crazy for a few days, which is all it takes to get the clover germinated. We have drip tape for the brassicas, but we need overhead sprinklers for the clover mix. The crimson clover is the fastest growing in the fall, and the others gradually take over in the spring and summer of the next year. We like watching the progression from crimson clover to red to white as each type comes into its strength.

This method of undersowing clovers in fall brassicas works well for us. It provides cover for the soil, legumes which provide nitrogen for the crop. The clovers survive the winter, and in the spring, we mow off the dead broccoli stems and let the clover grow. If all goes well, we keep the clover mix for a whole year (our Green Fallow Year), feeding the soil and eliminating weed seeds. We mow it to prevent the crimson clover seeding (which could be a nuisance) and when ever any weeds seem to be gaining. Here’s a couple of pictures from a previous year. (That’s our Dairy Barn by the side of the driveway, and our Hay Barn in the distance.)

Broccoli in fall after the clovers grow. Twin Oaks Community

Broccoli in the late fall after the clovers grow.
Twin Oaks Community

In March, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

In March, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

I’ve written up this method as part of an article for Growing for Market magazine, for the September issue.


And now our bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse. When we pulled up our early tomatoes, the roots of four of them in one bed were gnarly with lumps. It’s the return of the Root Knot Nematodes.

Credit University of Maryland

Credit University of Maryland

In the early spring of 2011 we found spinach with lumpy roots. We sent some plants with  soil attached, to the Plant Diseases Clinic and got the diagnosis of Peanut Root-Knot Nematodes. We put that half a bed into a series of cover crops, (wheat and white lupins in the winter, French marigolds and sesame in the spring) and solarized it each summer, for two years. In the summer of 2013, we grew Mississippi Silver cowpeas there (resistant to RKN). This past winter we grew lettuce in the that affected half-bed. We benefited – no sclerotinia drop in that lettuce crop, thanks to the summer solarization!

Meanwhile in the early summer of 2013, we found some beans with lumpy roots in the other half of the bed, so we started the same treatment there. Next summer (2015) we could grow the cowpeas there.

Our first (baggy) attempt at solarization in the hoophouse. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Our first (baggy) attempt at solarization in the hoophouse.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

But now the next bed over has nematodes. Having a half-bed out of production is manageable, but one and a half is more of a blow. We are considering whether we need to be as cautious, or whether we should accept that some level of nematode infestation is likely in hoophouses in the south. We are looking at various scenarios. This research has consumed all my available time this week. Information about nematodes is sometimes too general to be useful, as there are many kinds other than root-knot ones. Plus, what’s true for Peanut RKN is not necessarily true for Southern RKN or Northern RKN. Grr!

I’ve assembled a long list of tomato varieties resistant to some kind of RKN, although I don’t yet know which of them are resistant to Peanut Root-Knot Nematode. Many, many food crops are susceptible. Most of the resistant crops are ones we don’t want to grow in the hoophouse: Jerusalem artichokes, globe artichokes, asparagus, horseradish, rhubarb, maybe sweet corn (opinions vary on its resistance/susceptibility).

Maybe we could grow West Indian gherkins one summer. We’d get soooo many pickles! It’s a very productive crop for us. One idea was to build a second hoophouse and use the old one for (resistant) strawberries for two years! We’re not really at the place to do that, though, financially or time-wise.

Currently I’m studying a list of biocontrols to see what’s available and affordable. Life goes on. Hopefully we can decide at our crew meeting on Thursday, because we can’t start to implement our fall planting schedule in the hoophouse until we decide about the nematodes.

Ordering seeds! Seed Viability and Varieties New to us

I’ve been busy putting our seed orders together. As we grow so many different crops, it’s quite a time-consuming process. And I hate to buy too little and be out in the field on planting day, looking at an almost empty packet. Equally, I hate to buy too much, which either wastes money (if we throw the extra away), or else causes us to risk sowing seed that really is too old, and won’t do well. I keep a chart of how long different types of seed last:

Seed Viability

(From Sustainable Market Farming, (c) Pam Dawling, New Society Publishers, 2013)

     

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   “Opinions vary a bit about how many years seeds of different vegetables are good for. The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. You can make your own decisions, weighing up the information supplied, your knowledge of how carefully you stored the seeds, the information on each packet about percentage germination when you bought it, and the economic importance to you of that particular crop. If you always transplant lettuce, as I do, you can risk one of your four varieties in that sowing coming up poorly, and just plant out more of the other three if it fails. Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook.

www.chelseagreenFrank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

A simplified version is as follows:

  • Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the even rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera
  • 2 years: Corn, Peas and Beans of all kinds, Onions, Chives, Okra, Dandelion, Martynia,
  • 3 years: Carrots, Leeks, Asparagus, Turnips, Rutabagas
  • 4 years: Spinach, Peppers, Chard, Pumpkins, Squash, Watermelons, Basil, Artichokes and Cardoons
  • 5 years: most Brassicas, Beets, Tomatoes, Eggplant, Cucumbers, Muskmelons, Celery, Celeriac, Lettuce, Endive, Chicory.”

Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce). Other seed contains compounds that inhibit germination. These can be flushed out by soaking in water for about an hour (beets).

Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts. Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops.

Our main seed suppliers are FedcoJohnny’s and Southern Exposure. Fedco has great prices, especially on bulk sizes, great social and political commentary in the catalog, and no glossy pages. Johnnys has some good varieties that Fedco doesn’t, and a ton of useful information tucked away on their website. Southern Exposure is best on southern crops and heat tolerant varieties which we can’t expect seed companies in Maine to specialize in. Plus, SESE are my friends and neighbors.

This year we are trying some new varieties. Generally we like to have some reliable workhorses that we know well, and trial a few new things, especially if we hear our favorite varieties are no longer available. Last year our Nadia eggplant couldn’t cope with the heat. For a while in early summer they didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit. So next year, alongside Nadia I’m trying 3 that should deal better with heat. Florida Highbush is open-pollinated, from the Seed Savers Exchange. Epic and Traviata are hybrids from Osborne Seeds.

Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Traviata eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Traviata eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Florida High Bush eggplant from Seed Savers Exchange

Florida High Bush eggplant from Seed Savers Exchange

Sugar Flash Snap Peas from Osborne Seeds

Sugar Flash Snap Peas from Osborne Seeds

I also bought some Sugar Flash snap peas from Osborne. We have been big fans of Sugar Ann, but I’ve heard Sugar Flash is even better on flavor, yield and harvest period. We’re going to find out!

For a couple of years we really liked Frontier bulb onions as a storage variety for this climate and latitude (38N). Frontier disappeared from the catalogs of our usual suppliers and we tried Gunnison and Patterson. This year – no Gunnison! And we didn’t get a good test of Patterson last year, as we failed to weed our onions enough, after an initial enthusiastic good go at it. We were looking again at Copra, one we grew some years ago (before we found Frontier). I lucked out when I decided to see if Osborne had Gunnison, while I was shopping there. they didn’t, but they had Frontier! And then when I was shopping at Johnny’s, I found they did have some Gunnison for online sales only. So I ordered those too!

We’re also trying Sparkler bicolor sweet corn from Fedco and a drying bean I won’t name, as the seed is in short supply. And this year we’re hoping Red Express cabbage will prove to be a reliable little worker. We used to like Super Red 80, but had several years of poor results. Since then, none of the other red cabbages we tried have satisfied us in terms of size, earliness, productivity and flavor.

West Indian Gherkin Seeds (Cucumis anguiria) from Monticello

West Indian Gherkin Seeds (Cucumis anguiria) from Monticello

After a few years of poor pickling cucumbers, we’re going outside the box and trying West Indian Gherkins from Monticello, where they were grown by Thomas Jefferson (and some of the enslaved people, no doubt). These are not closely related to actual cucumbers, but are used similarly. I saw them growing in the Monticello garden when I was there for the Heritage Harvest Festival in September, and they are certainly robust and productive in hot humid weather. We’ll see how the pickles turn out!

My only other “impulse buy” was the Salanova Lettuce new at Johnny’s. They are 6 varieties of head lettuce designed to be used for salad mix at a single cutting. Quicker than  snipping rows of baby lettuce with scissors. More fun than plain lettuce heads. They are loose heads of small leaves in various shades of green and red, and two “hairstyles”: frizzy and wavy.

Salanova Lettuce from Johnny's Seeds

Salanova Lettuce from Johnny’s Seeds

Crop review, harvesting roots

Large Smooth Prague Celeriac
Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

This week in the garden we have started fall clean-up. We packed away the rowcovers preserving the last rows of green beans, squash and cucumbers, and harvested the last of those crops. Two nights with lows of 22F made it clear it was time. We removed the okra and eggplant “trees”, and pulled up the t-posts from the tomato rows and the asparagus beans. We bundled the asparagus bean trellis netting, along with the bean vines, and tied it up in the rafters of our greenhouse. It will stay there till spring when we will dance on the bundle in the parking lot and shake out the dried bits of vine, so we can use the netting for the 2013 crop.

We discovered we can use our power-washer to clean the t-posts before storing them. This saves a lot of time, and converts the job from a tedious chore with knives and wire brushes into a “power rangers” opportunity. We like to get the posts really clean before storing them to reduce the chance of carrying over soil-borne tomato diseases to next season.

White Egg turnip
Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

We have started clearing crops which are less cold-tolerant. This week we are working on the vegetables that get killed at temperatures of 25°F and 20°F. Fall weather in our part of Virginia doesn’t usually get this cold this early, but there’s no arguing with it. We’ve got the Chinese cabbage (Napa cabbage) in and we’re going for the small bit of bulb fennel soon (both 25°F crops). We’re picking the broccoli twice a week as long as it lasts, although yields are right down now. Next we’re after the celeriac, turnips (no rutabagas this year), and winter radishes. Sadly our fall beets all failed, so we don’t need to dig those. We still have some from the spring crop in good condition in perforated plastic bags in the fridge.  Kohlrabi, cabbage, carrots and parsnips are more cold-tolerant, so they can wait to get harvested in a few weeks. We still have lettuce and celery outdoors under rowcover and hoops. And some of the greens and hardier leeks will feed us all through the winter. Twin Oaks is now in Climate Zone 7a. This means the range of the average annual minimum temperature is 0°F to 5°F.

Popping garlic cloves in preparation for planting
Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exhcange

We’re getting ready to plant garlic. The soil has certainly cooled down enough this year! We decided to cut back our total amount of garlic planted this year for two or three reasons. One is that we think we’ll still have enough if we plant 16% less, and maybe we’ll be less wasteful. Another is that we hope the time we’ll save at harvest and curing will enable us to take better care of what we have got, and less will get wasted that way. Another is that it will help our crop rotation in the raised beds, where we grow a lot of alliums – garlic and potato onions over the winter, onions in spring, shallots and scallions in the mix, and leeks from mid-summer to late winter. Sometimes doing a smaller amount well is more productive than over-extending ourselves  with a big crop.

Yesterday we started separating the garlic cloves (“popping” the cloves) at our annual Crop Review meeting. This is when the crew gathers to work through an alphabetical list of crops we grew and talk about what worked and what didn’t and what we want to do differently next year. We plan to try a small amount of West Indian gherkins as an alternative to pickling cucumbers, which seemed plagued by disease. (I saw some very robust gherkins growing at Monticello in September.) We’re looking for a heat-tolerant eggplant variety to trial alongside our well-liked Nadia, which shut down during the early summer heat. We intend to make smaller plantings of edamame next year, and harvest smaller amounts more often, so less goes to waste. We want to try Sugar Flash snap peas and another dwarf early-yielding type of snow peas. (Dwarf Grey works for us, but Oregon Giant didn’t). We’re going to try some purple bush beans to see if that helps us get harvests of nice small beans and fewer ugly giants in the buckets. We debated the harvest size of okra and asparagus too. We vowed to grow fewer different varieties of broccoli and try to find a decent red cabbage. This year we tried Integro, Ruby Perfection and Mammoth Red, but none produced a good amount of nice sized heads. We used to be happy with Super Red 80, but gave it up after two bad years. next year we’ll try Red Express. We strategised about to get red sweet peppers as early as possible.

As the tasks to do outdoors start to wind down, we’re upping the pace of our winter planning season. Our next tasks include doing an inventory of the seeds we still have and figuring out our garden plan, so that we can work towards ordering the seeds we want in sensible quantities.